A WATCH-NIGHT SERVICE IN SAN FRANCISCO
How much bitter experience a man keeps to himself, let the experienced say, for they only know. For my own part I am conscious that it rarely occurs to me to mention some things which happened either in England or out of it, and that if I do, it is only to pass them over casually as mere facts that had no profound effect upon me. But the importance of any hardship cannot be estimated at once; it has either psychological or physiological sequelæ, or both. The attack of malaria passes, but in long years after it returns anew and devouring the red blood, it breaks down a man's cheerfulness; a night in a miasmic forest may make him for ever a slave in a dismal swamp of pessimism. It is so with starvation, and all things physical. It is so with things mental, with degradations, with desolation; the scars and more than scars remain: there is outward healing, it may be, but we often flinch at mere remembrance.
But time is the vehicle of philosophy; as the years pass we learn that in all our misfortunes was something not without value. And what was of worth grows more precious as our harsher memories fade. Then we may bear to speak of the days in which we were more than outcasts; when we recognised ourselves as such, and in strange calm and with a broken spirit made no claim on Society. For this is to be an outcast indeed.
I came to San Francisco in the winter of 1885 and remained in that city for some six months. What happened to me on broad lines I have written in the last chapter of The Western Avernus. But nowadays I know that in that chapter I have told nothing. It is a bare recital of events with no more than indications of deeper miseries, and some day it may chance to be rewritten in full. That I was of poor health was nothing, that I could obtain no employment was little, that I came to depend on help was more. But the mental side underlying was the worst, for the iron entered into my soul. I lost energy. I went dreaming. I was divorced from humanity.
America is a hard place, for it has been made by hard men. People who would not be crushed in the East have gone to the West. The Puritan element has little softness in it, and in some places even now gives rise to phenomena of an excessive and religious brutality which tortures without pity, without sympathy. But not only is the Puritan hard; all other elements in America are hard too. The rougher emigrant, the unconquerable rebel, the natural adventurer, the desperado seeking a lawless realm, men who were iron and men with the fierce courage which carries its vices with its virtues, have made the United States. The rude individualist of Europe who felt the slow pressure of social atoms which precedes their welding, the beginning of socialism, is the father of America. He has little pity, little tolerance, little charity. In what States in America is there any poor law? Only an emigration agent, hungry for steamship percentages, will declare there are no poor there now. The survival of the fit is the survival of the strong; every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost might replace the legend on the silver dollar and the golden eagle, without any American denying it in his heart.
But if America as a whole is the dumping ground and Eldorado combined of the harder extruded elements of Europe, the same law of selection holds good there as well. With every degree of West longitude the fibre of the American grows harder. The Dustman Destiny sifting his cinders has his biggest mesh over the Pacific States. If charity and sympathy be to seek in the East, it is at a greater discount on the Slope. The only poor-house is the House of Correction. Perhaps San Francisco is one of the hardest, if not the hardest city in the world....