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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

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.

Stephen Leacock