He was becoming quite a beau, attending parties on occasion, where old-fashioned games—Forfeits, Ring-around-a-Rosy, Dusty Miller, and the like—were regarded as rare amusements. He was a favorite with girls of his own age. He was always good-natured, though he played jokes on them, too, and was often a severe trial. He was with Laura Hawkins more than the others, usually her escort. On Saturday afternoons in winter he carried her skates to Bear Creek and helped her to put them on. After which they skated “partners,” holding hands tightly, and were a likely pair of children, no doubt. In The Gilded Age Laura Hawkins at twelve is pictured “with her dainty hands propped into the ribbon-bordered pockets of her apron . . . a vision to warm the coldest heart and bless and cheer the saddest.” The author had the real Laura of his childhood in his mind when he wrote that, though the story itself bears no resemblance to her life.
They were never really sweethearts, those two. They were good friends and comrades. Sometimes he brought her magazines—exchanges from the printing—office—Godey’s and others. These were a treat, for such things were scarce enough. He cared little for reading, himself, beyond a few exciting tales, though the putting into type of a good deal of miscellaneous matter had beyond doubt developed in him a taste for general knowledge. It needed only to be awakened.
There came into his life just at this period one of those seemingly trifling incidents which, viewed in retrospect, assume pivotal proportions. He was on his way from the office to his home one afternoon when he saw flying along the pavement a square of paper, a leaf from a book. At an earlier time he would not have bothered with it at all, but any printed page had acquired a professional interest for him now. He caught the flying scrap and examined it. It was a leaf from some history of Joan of Arc. The “maid” was described in the cage at Rouen, in the fortress, and the two ruffian English soldiers had stolen her clothes. There was a brief description and a good deal of dialogue—her reproaches and their ribald replies.
He had never heard of the subject before. He had never read any history. When he wanted to know any fact he asked Henry, who read everything obtainable. Now, however, there arose within him a deep compassion for the gentle Maid of Orleans, a burning resentment toward her captors, a powerful and indestructible interest in her sad history. It was an interest that would grow steadily for more than half a lifetime and culminate at last in that crowning work, the Recollections, the loveliest story ever told of the martyred girl.