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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XVI. The Turning-Point
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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.
The incident meant even more than that: it meant the awakening of his
interest in all history--the world's story in its many phases--a passion
which became the largest feature of his intellectual life and remained
with him until his very last day on earth. From the moment when that
fluttering leaf was blown into his hands his career as one of the world's
mentally elect was assured. It gave him his cue--the first word of a
part in the human drama. It crystallized suddenly within him sympathy
with the oppressed, rebellion against tyranny and treachery, scorn for
the divine rights of kings. A few months before he died he wrote a paper
on "The Turning-point of My Life." For some reason he did not mention
this incident. Yet if there was a turning-point in his life, he reached
it that bleak afternoon on the streets of Hannibal when a stray leaf from
another life was blown into his hands.
He read hungrily now everything he could find relating to the French
wars, and to Joan in particular. He acquired an appetite for history in
general, the record of any nation or period; he seemed likely to become a
student. Presently he began to feel the need of languages, French and
German. There was no opportunity to acquire French, that he could
discover, but there was a German shoemaker in Hannibal who agreed to
teach his native tongue. Sam Clemens got a friend--very likely it was
John Briggs--to form a class with him, and together they arranged for
lessons. The shoemaker had little or no English. They had no German.
It would seem, however, that their teacher had some sort of a "word-
book," and when they assembled in his little cubby-hole of a retreat he
began reading aloud from it this puzzling sentence:
"De hain eet flee whoop in de hayer."
"Dere!" he said, triumphantly; "you know dose vord?"
The students looked at each other helplessly.
The teacher repeated the sentence, and again they were helpless when he
asked if they recognized it.
Then in despair he showed them the book. It was an English primer, and
the sentence was:
"The hen, it flies up in the air."
They explained to him gently that it was German they wished to learn, not
English--not under the circumstances. Later, Sam made an attempt at
Latin, and got a book for that purpose, but gave it up, saying:
"No, that language is not for me. I'll do well enough to learn English."
A boy who took it up with him became a Latin scholar.
His prejudice against oppression he put into practice. Boys who were
being imposed upon found in him a ready protector. Sometimes, watching a
game of marbles or tops, he would remark in his slow, impressive way:
"You mustn't cheat that boy." And the cheating stopped. When it didn't,
there was a combat, with consequences.