"Serene, indifferent to fate,
Thou sittest at the Western Gate;
Thou seest the white seas fold their tents,
Oh, warder of two continents;
Thou drawest all things, small and great,
To thee, beside the Western Gate."
THIS is what Bret Harte has written of the great city of San
Francisco, and for the past fortnight I have been wondering what
made him do it.
There is neither serenity nor indifference to be found in these
parts; and evil would it be for the continents whose wardship
were intrusted to so reckless a guardian.
Behold me pitched neck-and-crop from twenty days of the high seas
into the whirl of California, deprived of any guidance, and left
to draw my own conclusions. Protect me from the wrath of an
outraged community if these letters be ever read by American
eyes! San Francisco is a mad city--inhabited for the most part
by perfectly insane people, whose women are of a remarkable
When the "City of Pekin" steamed through the Golden Gate, I saw
with great joy that the block-house which guarded the mouth of
the "finest harbor in the world, sir," could be silenced by two
gunboats from Hong Kong with safety, comfort, and despatch.
Also, there was not a single American vessel of war in the
This may sound bloodthirsty; but remember, I had come with a
grievance upon me--the grievance of the pirated English books.
Then a reporter leaped aboard, and ere I could gasp held me in
his toils. He pumped me exhaustively while I was getting ashore,
demanding of all things in the world news about Indian
journalism. It is an awful thing to enter a new land with a new
lie on your lips. I spoke the truth to the evil-minded Custom
House man who turned my most sacred raiment on a floor composed
of stable refuse and pine splinters; but the reporter overwhelmed
me not so much by his poignant audacity as his beautiful
ignorance. I am sorry now that I did not tell him more lies as
I passed into a city of three hundred thousand white men. Think
of it! Three hundred thousand white men and women gathered in
one spot, walking upon real pavements in front of
plate-glass-windowed shops, and talking something that at first
hearing was not very different from English. It was only when I
had tangled myself up in a hopeless maze of small wooden houses,
dust, street refuse, and children who played with empty kerosene
tins, that I discovered the difference of speech.
"You want to go to the Palace Hotel?" said an affable youth on a
dray. "What in hell are you doing here, then? This is about the
lowest ward in the city. Go six blocks north to corner of Geary
and Markey, then walk around till you strike corner of Gutter and
Sixteenth, and that brings you there."
I do not vouch for the literal accuracy of these directions,
quoting but from a disordered memory.
"Amen," I said. "But who am I that I should strike the corners
of such as you name? Peradventure they be gentlemen of repute,
and might hit back. Bring it down to dots, my son."
I thought he would have smitten me, but he didn't. He explained
that no one ever used the word "street," and that every one was
supposed to know how the streets ran, for sometimes the names
were upon the lamps and sometimes they weren't. Fortified with
these directions, I proceeded till I found a mighty street, full
of sumptuous buildings four and five stories high, but paved with
rude cobblestones, after the fashion of the year 1.
Here a tram-car, without any visible means of support, slid
stealthily behind me and nearly struck me in the back. This was
the famous cable car of San Francisco, which runs by gripping an
endless wire rope sunk in the ground, and of which I will tell
you more anon. A hundred yards further there was a slight
commotion in the street, a gathering together of three or four,
something that glittered as it moved very swiftly. A ponderous
Irish gentleman, with priest's cords in his hat and a small
nickel-plated badge on his fat bosom, emerged from the knot
supporting a Chinaman who had been stabbed in the eye and was
bleeding like a pig. The by-standers went their ways, and the
Chinaman, assisted by the policeman, his own. Of course this was
none of my business, but I rather wanted to know what had
happened to the gentleman who had dealt the stab. It said a
great deal for the excellence of the municipal arrangement of the
town that a surging crowd did not at once block the street to see
what was going forward. I was the sixth man and the last who
assisted at the performance, and my curiosity was six times the
greatest. Indeed, I felt ashamed of showing it.
There were no more incidents till I reached the Palace Hotel, a
seven-storied warren of humanity with a thousand rooms in it.
All the travel books will tell you about hotel arrangements in
this country. They should be seen to be appreciated. Understand
clearly--and this letter is written after a thousand miles of
experiences--that money will not buy you service in the West.
When the hotel clerk--the man who awards your room to you and who
is supposed to give you information--when that resplendent
individual stoops to attend to your wants he does so whistling or
humming or picking his teeth, or pauses to converse with some
one he knows. These performances, I gather, are to impress upon
you that he is a free man and your equal. From his general
appearance and the size of his diamonds he ought to be your
superior. There is no necessity for this swaggering
self-consciousness of freedom. Business is business, and the man
who is paid to attend to a man might reasonably devote his whole
attention to the job. Out of office hours he can take his coach
and four and pervade society if he pleases.
In a vast marble-paved hall, under the glare of an electric
light, sat forty or fifty men, and for their use and amusement
were provided spittoons of infinite capacity and generous gape.
Most of the men wore frock-coats and top-hats--the things that we
in India put on at a wedding-breakfast, if we possess them--but
they all spat. They spat on principle. The spittoons were on
the staircases, in each bedroom--yea, and in chambers even more
sacred than these. They chased one into retirement, but they
blossomed in chiefest splendor round the bar, and they were all
used, every reeking one of them.
Just before I began to feel deathly sick another reporter
grappled me. What he wanted to know was the precise area of
India in square miles. I referred him to Whittaker. He had
never heard of Whittaker. He wanted it from my own mouth, and I
would not tell him. Then he swerved off, just like the other
man, to details of journalism in our own country. I ventured to
suggest that the interior economy of a paper most concerned the
people who worked it.
"That's the very thing that interests us," he said. "Have you
got reporters anything like our reporters on Indian newspapers?"
"We have not," I said, and suppressed the "thank God" rising to
"Why haven't you?" said he.
"Because they would die," I said.
It was exactly like talking to a child--a very rude little child.
He would begin almost every sentence with, "Now tell me something
about India," and would turn aimlessly from one question to the
other without the least continuity. I was not angry, but keenly
interested. The man was a revelation to me. To his questions I
returned answers mendacious and evasive. After all, it really
did not matter what I said. He could not understand. I can only
hope and pray that none of the readers of the "Pioneer" will ever
see that portentous interview. The man made me out to be an
idiot several sizes more drivelling than my destiny intended, and
the rankness of his ignorance managed to distort the few poor
facts with which I supplied him into large and elaborate lies.
Then, thought I, "the matter of American journalism shall be
looked into later on. At present I will enjoy myself."
No man rose to tell me what were the lions of the place. No one
volunteered any sort of conveyance. I was absolutely alone in
this big city of white folk. By instinct I sought refreshment,
and came upon a barroom full of bad Salon pictures in which men
with hats on the backs of their heads were wolfing food from a
counter. It was the institution of the "free lunch" I had struck.
You paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. For
something less than a rupee a day a man can feed himself
sumptuously in San Francisco, even though he be a bankrupt.
Remember this if ever you are stranded in these parts.
Later I began a vast but unsystematic exploration of the streets.
I asked for no names. It was enough that the pavements were full
of white men and women, the streets clanging with traffic, and
that the restful roar of a great city rang in my ears. The cable
cars glided to all points of the compass at once. I took them
one by one till I could go no further. San Francisco has been
pitched down on the sand bunkers of the Bikaneer desert. About
one fourth of it is ground reclaimed from the sea--any old-timers
will tell you all about that. The remainder is just ragged,
unthrifty sand hills, to-day pegged down by houses.
From an English point of view there has not been the least
attempt at grading those hills, and indeed you might as well try
to grade the hillocks of Sind. The cable cars have for all
practical purposes made San Francisco a dead level. They take no
count of rise or fall, but slide equably on their appointed
courses from one end to the other of a six-mile street. They
turn corners almost at right angles, cross other lines, and for
aught I know may run up the sides of houses. There is no visible
agency of their flight, but once in awhile you shall pass a
five-storied building humming with machinery that winds up an
everlasting wire cable, and the initiated will tell you that here
is the mechanism. I gave up asking questions. If it pleases
Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground for
many miles, and if for twopence halfpenny I can ride in that car,
why shall I seek the reasons of the miracle? Rather let me look
out of the windows till the shops give place to thousands and
thousands of little houses made of wood (to imitate stone), each
house just big enough for a man and his family. Let me watch the
people in the cars and try to find out in what manner they differ
from us, their ancestors.
It grieves me now that I cursed them (in the matter of book
piracy), because I perceived that my curse is working and that
their speech is becoming a horror already. They delude
themselves into the belief that they talk English--the
English--and I have already been pitied for speaking with "an
English accent." The man who pitied me spoke, so far as I was
concerned, the language of thieves. And they all do. Where we
put the accent forward they throw it back, and vice versa where
we give the long "a" they use the short, and words so simple as
to be past mistaking they pronounce somewhere up in the dome of
their heads. How do these things happen?
Oliver Wendell Holmes says that the Yankee school-marm, the cider
and the salt codfish of the Eastern States, are responsible for
what he calls a nasal accent. I know better. They stole books
from across the water without paying for 'em, and the snort of
delight was fixed in their nostrils forever by a just Providence.
That is why they talk a foreign tongue to-day.
"Cats is dogs, and rabbits is dogs, and so's parrots. But this
'ere tortoise is an insect, so there ain't no charge," as the old
A Hindoo is a Hindoo and a brother to the man who knows his
vernacular. And a Frenchman is French because he speaks his own
language. But the American has no language. He is dialect,
slang, provincialism, accent, and so forth. Now that I have
heard their voices, all the beauty of Bret Harte is being ruined
for me, because I find myself catching through the roll of his
rhythmical prose the cadence of his peculiar fatherland. Get an
American lady to read to you "How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's
Bar," and see how much is, under her tongue, left of the beauty
of the original.
But I am sorry for Bret Harte. It happened this way. A reporter
asked me what I thought of the city, and I made answer suavely
that it was hallowed ground to me, because of Bret Harte. That
"Well," said the reporter, "Bret Harte claims California, but
California don't claim Bret Harte. He's been so long in England
that he's quite English. Have you seen our cracker factories or
the new offices of the 'Examiner'?"
He could not understand that to the outside world the city was
worth a great deal less than the man. I never intended to curse
the people with a provincialism so vast as this.
But let us return to our sheep--which means the sea-lions of the
Cliff House. They are the great show of San Francisco. You take
a train which pulls up the middle of the street (it killed two
people the day before yesterday, being unbraked and driven
absolutely regardless of consequences), and you pull up somewhere
at the back of the city on the Pacific beach. Originally the
cliffs and their approaches must have been pretty, but they have
been so carefully defiled with advertisements that they are now
one big blistered abomination. A hundred yards from the shore
stood a big rock covered with the carcasses of the sleek
sea-beasts, who roared and rolled and walloped in the spouting
surges. No bold man had painted the creatures sky-blue or
advertised newspapers on their backs, wherefore they did not
match the landscape, which was chiefly hoarding. Some day,
perhaps, whatever sort of government may obtain in this country
will make a restoration of the place and keep it clean and neat.
At present the sovereign people, of whom I have heard so much
already, are vending cherries and painting the virtues of "Little
Bile Beans" all over it.
Night fell over the Pacific, and the white sea-fog whipped
through the streets, dimming the splendors of the electric
lights. It is the use of this city, her men and women folk, to
parade between the hours of eight and ten a certain street called
Cairn Street, where the finest shops are situated. Here the
click of high heels on the pavement is loudest, here the lights
are brightest, and here the thunder of the traffic is most
overwhelming. I watched Young California, and saw that it was,
at least, expensively dressed, cheerful in manner, and
self-asserting in conversation. Also the women were very fair.
Perhaps eighteen days aboard ship had something to do with my
unreserved admiration. The maidens were of generous build,
large, well groomed, and attired in raiment that even to my
inexperienced eyes must have cost much. Cairn Street at nine
o'clock levels all distinctions of rank as impartially as the
grave. Again and again I loitered at the heels of a couple of
resplendent beings, only to overhear, when I expected the level
voice of culture, the staccato "Sez he," "Sez I" that is the mark
of the white servant-girl all the world over.
This was depressing because, in spite of all that goes to the
contrary, fine feathers ought to make fine birds. There was
wealth--unlimited wealth--in the streets, but not an accent that
would not have been dear at fifty cents. Wherefore, revolving
in my mind that these folk were barbarians, I was presently
enlightened and made aware that they also were the heirs of all
the ages, and civilized after all. There appeared before me an
affable stranger of prepossessing appearance, with a blue and an
innocent eye. Addressing me by name, he claimed to have met me
in New York, at the Windsor, and to this claim I gave a qualified
assent. I did not remember the fact, but since he was so certain
of it, why, then--I waited developments.
"And what did you think of Indiana when you came through?" was
the next question.
It revealed the mystery of previous acquaintance and one or two
other things. With reprehensible carelessness my friend of the
light-blue eye had looked up the name of his victim in the hotel
register, and read "Indiana" for India.
The provincialism with which I had cursed his people extended to
himself. He could not imagine an Englishman coming through the
States from west to east instead of by the regularly ordained
route. My fear was that in his delight in finding me so
responsive he would make remarks about New York and the Windsor
which I could not understand. And, indeed, he adventured in this
direction once or twice, asking me what I thought of such and
such streets, which from his tone I gathered to be anything but
respectable. It is trying to talk unknown New York in almost
unknown San Francisco. But my friend was merciful. He protested
that I was one after his own heart, and pressed upon me rare and
curious drinks at more than one bar. These drinks I accepted
with gratitude, as also the cigars with which his pockets were
stored. He would show me the life of the city. Having no desire
to watch a weary old play again, I evaded the offer and received
in lieu of the devil's instruction much coarse flattery.
Curiously constituted is the soul of man. Knowing how and where
this man lied, waiting idly for the finale, I was distinctly
conscious, as he bubbled compliments in my ear, of soft thrills
of gratified pride stealing from hat-rim to boot-heels. I was
wise, quoth he--anybody could see that with half an eye;
sagacious, versed in the ways of the world, an acquaintance to be
desired; one who had tasted the cup of life with discretion.
All this pleased me, and in a measure numbed the suspicion that
was thoroughly aroused. Eventually the blue-eyed one discovered,
nay, insisted, that I had a taste for cards (this was clumsily
worked in, but it was my fault, for in that I met him half-way
and allowed him no chance of good acting). Hereupon I laid my
head upon one side and simulated unholy wisdom, quoting odds and
ends of poker talk, all ludicrously misapplied. My friend kept
his countenance admirably, and well he might, for five minutes
later we arrived, always by the purest of chance, at a place
where we could play cards and also frivol with Louisiana State
Lottery tickets. Would I play?
"Nay," said I, "for to me cards have neither meaning nor
continuity; but let us assume that I am going to play. How would
you and your friends get to work? Would you play a straight
game, or make me drunk, or--well, the fact is, I'm a newspaper
man, and I'd be much obliged if you'd let me know something about
My blue-eyed friend erected himself into an obelisk of profanity.
He cursed me by his gods--the right and left bower; he even
cursed the very good cigars he had given me. But, the storm
over, he quieted down and explained. I apologized for causing
him to waste an evening, and we spent a very pleasant time
Inaccuracy, provincialism, and a too hasty rushing to
conclusions, were the rocks that he had split on, but he got his
revenge when he said:--"How would I play with you? From all the
poppycock Anglice bosh you talked about poker, I'd ha' played a
straight game, and skinned you. I wouldn't have taken the trouble
to make you drunk. You never knew anything of the game, but how
I was mistaken in going to work on you, makes me sick."
He glared at me as though I had done him an injury. To-day I
know how it is that year after year, week after week, the bunco
steerer, who is the confidence trick and the card-sharper man of
other climes, secures his prey. He clavers them over with
flattery as the snake clavers the rabbit. The incident depressed
me because it showed I had left the innocent East far behind and
was come to a country where a man must look out for himself. The
very hotels bristled with notices about keeping my door locked
and depositing my valuables in a safe. The white man in a lump
is bad. Weeping softly for O-Toyo (little I knew then that my
heart was to be torn afresh from my bosom) I fell asleep in the
Next morning I had entered upon the deferred inheritance. There
are no princes in America--at least with crowns on their
heads--but a generous-minded member of some royal family received
my letter of introduction. Ere the day closed I was a member of
the two clubs, and booked for many engagements to dinner and
party. Now, this prince, upon whose financial operations be
continual increase, had no reason, nor had the others, his
friends, to put himself out for the sake of one Briton more or
less, but he rested not till he had accomplished all in my behalf
that a mother could think of for her debutante daughter.
Do you know the Bohemian Club of San Francisco? They say its
fame extends over the world. It was created, somewhat on the
lines of the Savage, by men who wrote or drew things, and has
blossomed into most unrepublican luxury. The ruler of the place
is an owl--an owl standing upon a skull and cross-bones, showing
forth grimly the wisdom of the man of letters and the end of his
hopes for immortality. The owl stands on the staircase, a statue
four feet high; is carved in the wood-work, flutters on the
frescoed ceiling, is stamped on the note-paper, and hangs on the
walls. He is an ancient and honorable bird. Under his wing 'twas
my privilege to meet with white men whose lives were not chained
down to routine of toil, who wrote magazine articles instead of
reading them hurriedly in the pauses of office-work, who painted
pictures instead of contenting themselves with cheap etchings
picked up at another man's sale of effects. Mine were all the
rights of social intercourse, craft by craft, that India,
stony-hearted step-mother of collectors, has swindled us out of.
Treading soft carpets and breathing the incense of superior
cigars, I wandered from room to room studying the paintings in
which the members of the club had caricatured themselves, their
associates, and their aims. There was a slick French audacity
about the workmanship of these men of toil unbending that went
straight to the heart of the beholder. And yet it was not
altogether French. A dry grimness of treatment, almost Dutch,
marked the difference. The men painted as they spoke--with
certainty. The club indulges in revelries which it calls
"jinks"--high and low, at intervals--and each of these gatherings
is faithfully portrayed in oils by hands that know their
business. In this club were no amateurs spoiling canvas, because
they fancied they could handle oils without knowledge of shadows
or anatomy--no gentleman of leisure ruining the temper of
publishers and an already ruined market with attempts to write
"because everybody writes something these days."
My hosts were working, or had worked for their daily bread with
pen or paint, and their talk for the most part was of the
shop--shoppy--that is to say, delightful. They extended a large
hand of welcome, and were as brethren, and I did homage to the
owl and listened to their talk. An Indian club about
Christmas-time will yield, if properly worked, an abundant
harvest of queer tales; but at a gathering of Americans from the
uttermost ends of their own continent, the tales are larger,
thicker, more spinous, and even more azure than any Indian
variety. Tales of the war I heard told by an ex-officer of the
South over his evening drink to a colonel of the Northern army,
my introducer, who had served as a trooper in the Northern Horse,
throwing in emendations from time to time. "Tales of the Law,"
which in this country is an amazingly elastic affair, followed
from the lips of a judge. Forgive me for recording one tale that
struck me as new. It may interest the up-country Bar in India.
Once upon a time there was Samuelson, a young lawyer, who feared
not God, neither regarded the Bench. (Name, age, and town of the
man were given at great length.) To him no case had ever come as
a client, partly because he lived in a district where lynch law
prevailed, and partly because the most desperate prisoner shrunk
from intrusting himself to the mercies of a phenomenal stammerer.
But in time there happened an aggravated murder--so bad, indeed,
that by common consent the citizens decided, as a prelude to
lynching, to give the real law a chance. They could, in fact,
gambol round that murder. They met--the court in its
shirt-sleeves--and against the raw square of the Court House
window a temptingly suggestive branch of a tree fretted the sky.
No one appeared for the prisoner, and, partly in jest, the court
advised young Samuelson to take up the case.
"The prisoner is undefended, Sam," said the court. "The square
thing to do would be for you to take him aside and do the best
you can for him."
Court, jury, and witness then adjourned to the veranda, while
Samuelson led his client aside to the Court House cells. An hour
passed ere the lawyer returned alone. Mutely the audience
"May it p-p-please the c-court," said Samuel-son, "my client's
case is a b-b-b-bad one--a d-d-amn bad one. You told me to do
the b-b-best I c-could for him, judge, so I've jest given him
y-your b-b-bay gelding, an' told him to light out for healthier
c-climes, my p-p-professional opinion being he'd be hanged
quicker'n h-h-hades if he dallied here. B-by this time my
client's 'bout fifteen mile out yonder somewheres. That was the
b-b-best I could do for him, may it p-p-please the court."
The young man, escaping punishment in lieu of the prisoner, made
his fortune ere five years.
Other voices followed, with equally wondrous tales of
riata-throwing in Mexico and Arizona, of gambling at army posts
in Texas, of newspaper wars waged in godless Chicago (I could not
help being interested, but they were not pretty tricks), of
deaths sudden and violent in Montana and Dakota, of the loves of
half-breed maidens in the South, and fantastic huntings for gold
in mysterious Alaska. Above all, they told the story of the
building of old San Francisco, when the "finest collection of
humanity on God's earth, sir, started this town, and the water
came up to the foot of Market Street." Very terrible were some
of the tales, grimly humorous the others, and the men in
broadcloth and fine linen who told them had played their parts in
"And now and again when things got too bad they would toll the
city bell, and the Vigilance Committee turned out and hanged the
suspicious characters. A man didn't begin to be suspected in
those days till he had committed at least one unprovoked murder,"
said a calm-eyed, portly old gentleman.
I looked at the pictures around me, the noiseless, neat-uniformed
waiter behind me, the oak-ribbed ceiling above, the velvet carpet
beneath. It was hard to realize that even twenty years ago you
could see a man hanged with great pomp. Later on I found reason
to change my opinion. The tales gave me a headache and set me
thinking. How in the world was it possible to take in even one
thousandth of this huge, roaring, many-sided continent? In the
tobacco-scented silence of the sumptuous library lay Professor
Bryce's book on the American Republic.
"It is an omen," said I. "He has done all things in all
seriousness, and he may be purchased for half a guinea. Those
who desire information of the most undoubted, must refer to his
pages. For me is the daily round of vagabondage, the recording of
the incidents of the hour and intercourse with the
travelling-companion of the day. I will not 'do' this country at
And I forgot all about India for ten days while I went out to
dinners and watched the social customs of the people, which are
entirely different from our customs, and was introduced to men of
many millions. These persons are harmless in their earlier
stages--that is to say, a man worth three or four million dollars
may be a good talker, clever, amusing, and of the world; a man
with twice that amount is to be avoided, and a twenty million man
is--just twenty millions. Take an instance. I was speaking to a
newspaper man about seeing the proprietor of his journal, as in
my innocence I supposed newspaper men occasionally did. My
friend snorted indignantly:--"See him! Great Scott! No. If he
happens to appear in the office, I have to associate with him;
but, thank Heaven! outside of that I move in circles where he
And yet the first thing I have been taught to believe is that
money was everything in America!