Literary Lapses/The Life of John Smith

The lives of great men occupy a large section of our literature. The great man is certainly a wonderful thing. He walks across his century and leaves the marks of his feet all over it, ripping out the dates on his goloshes as he passes. It is impossible to get up a revolution or a new religion, or a national awakening of any sort, without his turning up, putting himself at the head of it and collaring all the gate-receipts for himself. Even after his death he leaves a long trail of second-rate relations spattered over the front seats of fifty years of history.

Now the lives of great men are doubtless infinitely interesting. But at times I must confess to a sense of reaction and an idea that the ordinary common man is entitled to have his biography written too. It is to illustrate this view that I write the life of John Smith, a man neither good nor great, but just the usual, everyday homo like you and me and the rest of us.

From his earliest childhood John Smith was marked out from his comrades by nothing. The marvellous precocity of the boy did not astonish his preceptors. Books were not a passion for him from his youth, neither did any old man put his hand on Smith's head and say, mark his words, this boy would some day become a man. Nor yet was it his father's wont to gaze on him with a feeling amounting almost to awe. By no means! All his father did was to wonder whether Smith was a darn fool because he couldn't help it, or because he thought it smart. In other words, he was just like you and me and the rest of us.

In those athletic sports which were the ornament of the youth of his day, Smith did not, as great men do, excel his fellows. He couldn't ride worth a darn. He couldn't skate worth a darn. He couldn't swim worth a darn. He couldn't shoot worth a darn. He couldn't do anything worth a darn. He was just like us.

Nor did the bold cast of the boy's mind offset his physical defects, as it invariably does in the biographies. On the contrary. He was afraid of his father. He was afraid of his school-teacher. He was afraid of dogs. He was afraid of guns. He was afraid of lightning. He was afraid of hell. He was afraid of girls.

In the boy's choice of a profession there was not seen that keen longing for a life-work that we find in the celebrities. He didn't want to be a lawyer, because you have to know law. He didn't want to be a doctor, because you have to know medicine. He didn't want to be a business-man, because you have to know business; and he didn't want to be a school-teacher, because he had seen too many of them. As far as he had any choice, it lay between being Robinson Crusoe and being the Prince of Wales. His father refused him both and put him into a dry goods establishment.

Such was the childhood of Smith. At its close there was nothing in his outward appearance to mark the man of genius. The casual observer could have seen no genius concealed behind the wide face, the massive mouth, the long slanting forehead, and the tall ear that swept up to the close-cropped head. Certainly he couldn't. There wasn't any concealed there.

It was shortly after his start in business life that Smith was stricken with the first of those distressing attacks, to which he afterwards became subject. It seized him late one night as he was returning home from a delightful evening of song and praise with a few old school chums. Its symptoms were a peculiar heaving of the sidewalk, a dancing of the street lights, and a crafty shifting to and fro of the houses, requiring a very nice discrimination in selecting his own. There was a strong desire not to drink water throughout the entire attack, which showed that the thing was evidently a form of hydrophobia. From this time on, these painful attacks became chronic with Smith. They were liable to come on at any time, but especially on Saturday nights, on the first of the month, and on Thanksgiving Day. He always had a very severe attack of hydrophobia on Christmas Eve, and after elections it was fearful.

There was one incident in Smith's career which he did, perhaps, share with regret. He had scarcely reached manhood when he met the most beautiful girl in the world. She was different from all other women. She had a deeper nature than other people. Smith realized it at once. She could feel and understand things that ordinary people couldn't. She could understand him. She had a great sense of humour and an exquisite appreciation of a joke. He told her the six that he knew one night and she thought them great. Her mere presence made Smith feel as if he had swallowed a sunset: the first time that his finger brushed against hers, he felt a thrill all through him. He presently found that if he took a firm hold of her hand with his, he could get a fine thrill, and if he sat beside her on a sofa, with his head against her ear and his arm about once and a half round her, he could get what you might call a first-class, A-1 thrill. Smith became filled with the idea that he would like to have her always near him. He suggested an arrangement to her, by which she should come and live in the same house with him and take personal charge of his clothes and his meals. She was to receive in return her board and washing, about seventy-five cents a week in ready money, and Smith was to be her slave.

After Smith had been this woman's slave for some time, baby fingers stole across his life, then another set of them, and then more and more till the house was full of them. The woman's mother began to steal across his life too, and every time she came Smith had hydrophobia frightfully. Strangely enough there was no little prattler that was taken from his life and became a saddened, hallowed memory to him. Oh, no! The little Smiths were not that kind of prattler. The whole nine grew up into tall, lank boys with massive mouths and great sweeping ears like their father's, and no talent for anything.

The life of Smith never seemed to bring him to any of those great turning-points that occurred in the lives of the great. True, the passing years brought some change of fortune. He was moved up in his dry-goods establishment from the ribbon counter to the collar counter, from the collar counter to the gents' panting counter, and from the gents' panting to the gents' fancy shirting. Then, as he grew aged and inefficient, they moved him down again from the gents' fancy shirting to the gents' panting, and so on to the ribbon counter. And when he grew quite old they dismissed him and got a boy with a four-inch mouth and sandy-coloured hair, who did all Smith could do for half the money. That was John Smith's mercantile career: it won't stand comparison with Mr. Gladstone's, but it's not unlike your own.

Smith lived for five years after this. His sons kept him. They didn't want to, but they had to. In his old age the brightness of his mind and his fund of anecdote were not the delight of all who dropped in to see him. He told seven stories and he knew six jokes. The stories were long things all about himself, and the jokes were about a commercial traveller and a Methodist minister. But nobody dropped in to see him, anyway, so it didn't matter.

At sixty-five Smith was taken ill, and, receiving proper treatment, he died. There was a tombstone put up over him, with a hand pointing north-north-east.

But I doubt if he ever got there. He was too like us.