I WAS lately pleased to see some nameless fellow held up to scorn on the charge of intended greatness. My case is far worse than his, in that I am expected to become great. In plain fact, I know the “ incommoditie of greatnesse,” and, like Montaigne, “ aime not that way: I love myself too well.” Yet my relatives and friends never doubt; and I am every day crushed in the fall of ambitions not my own.
Nearly all great men, I am aware, arrived late, disguised, and brought surprise to their nearest intimates. Lincoln was a backwoods politician in the natural bark; Whistler an impudent cockney who threw pots of paint in the public’s face. Whenever this knowledge recurs, it irons all the hope right out of me. I have neither the desire nor the capacity for high fortunes. Yet I have been eagerly expected since a boy, until now a white lock which no one (bless their fond hearts, anyway) will notice, hangs conspicuously over each temple.
Who knows the misery of the Expected Great? Failure is nothing to fear. Good honest failure is easy and comfortable, like sliding down-hill, like sinking into a spongy snowdrift at the base of a mountain. The Expected Great, however, is not allowed this delectable cup. The audience is seated; fans flutter; whispers pass: “ He is coming.” It is imperative that he rise from the drift; he must appear on the platform. He has no intention to deceive, but the wanly smiling people claim a right to him, and he must surrender. If he delays too long, he is implored to answer the telephone: “ Have you done it yet, are you great? ” This faithful unbelief in a man’s failure, this treacherous faith in his success, is the real ruin before which the victim stands appalled.
My fate was ordained from the beginning. I was an only child, escaped narrowly from drowning at an early age, read the Bible and Paradise Lost in my older infancy, and was educated beyond the ken of my self-made elders. These trifling accidents are invested by hope with the roseate and ample charm of prophecy. When I bide at home I am suspected, like a setting hen, of being about to hatch a flock fabulous in quality and number; when I go upon a journey, I am banqueted by the old, and handshaken by the young, and in the eyes of all there lies a misty wistfulness as if they fain would join me company to my land of heart’s desire; and when I disembark again at my own door, they greet me with suppressed smiles, in reference to the greatness which I have concealed about me, as much as to say, “ Out with it, you rogue, we know you’ve got it.” But all the while I have it not at all, I have not even the satisfaction of a self-deceived hen; for I know my eggs are addled.
The Cambridge philosopher remarks that he who would be great must give up repose. But he of whom greatness is expected must give up everything that his nature may hold dear, and cleave unto this bloodless illusion of his friends. He is dressed perpetually for the marriage; and however much his taste may revolt, and however long he may postpone the actual union, he can never wholly back out from a match so advantageous. At each delay he must invent some excuse which shall cloak his own honor and balm the wounded hope of relatives. Above all, must he forestall misrepresentation of the good faith of his lovely bride; for to let out that she will not have him, — that were scandal all round. Such worry would certainly frowze a brain of hardened steel. Good men and great live invariably to three score and ten; only count the gray-haired notables from Noah down. The Expected Great it is who usually die young. And they are blessed in the taking-off.