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A Watch-Night Service In San Francisco
by [?]

The hall was a big square one, capable of seating some three hundred people. There was a raised platform at the end; a broad passage way all round the room had seats on both sides of it, and made a small square of seats in the centre. I sat down in the middle of this middle square, and the room was soon nearly full. The service began with a hymn. I neither sang nor rose, and I noticed numbers who did not. In peculiar isolation of mind my heart warmed to these, and I was conscious of rising hostility for the creatures of praise. There was one strong young fellow about three places from me who remained seated. Glancing behind the backs of those who were standing between us I caught his eye, which met mine casually and perhaps lightened a little. He had a rather fine face, intelligent, possibly at better times humorous. I was not so solitary.

A man singing on my left offered me a share of his hymn-book. I declined courteously. The woman on my right asked me to share hers. That I declined too. Some asked the young fellow to rise, but he refused quietly. Yet I noticed some of those who had remained seated gave in to solicitations or to the sound or to some memory, and rose. Yet many still remained. They were all men, and most of them young.

After the hymn followed prayer by the minister, who was surrounded on the dais by some dozen girls. I noticed that few were very good-looking; but in their faces was religious fervour. Yet they kept their eyes on the man. The prayer was long, intolerably and trickily eloquent and rhetorical, very self-conscious. The man posed before the throne. But I listened to every word, half absorbed though I was in myself. He was followed in prayer by ambitious and emotional people in the seats. One woman prayed for those who would not bow the knee. Once more a hymn followed, “Bringing home the sheaves.”

The air is not without merit, and has a good lilt and swing. I noted it tempted me to sing it, for I knew the tune well, and in the volume of voices was an emotional attraction. I repressed the inclination even to move my lips. But some others rose and joined in. My fellow on the left did not. The sermon followed, and I felt as if I had escaped a humiliation.

What the preacher said I cannot remember, nor is it of any importance. He was not an intellectual man, nor had he many gifts beyond his rather sleek manner and a soft manageable voice. He was obviously proud of that, and reckoned it an instrument of success. It became as monotonous to me as the slow oily swell of a tropic sea in calm. I would have preferred a Boanerges, a bitter John Knox. The intent of his sermon was the usual one at such periods; this was the end of the year, the beginning was at hand. Naturally he addressed himself to those who were not of his flock; it seemed to me, as it doubtless seemed to others, that he spoke to me directly.

The custom of mankind to divide time into years has had an effect on us, and we cannot help feeling it. Childhood does not understand how artificial the portioning of time is; the New Year affects us even when we recognise the fact. It required no florid eloquence of the preacher to convince me of past folly and weakness; but it was that weakness that made me weak now in my allowing his insistence on the New Year to affect me. I was weak, lonely, foolish. Oh, I acknowledged I wanted help! But could I get help here?

It was past eleven when they rose to sing another hymn. Many who had not sung before sang now. Some of the girls from the platform came down and offered us hymn-books. A few took them half-shamefacedly; some declined with thanks; some ignored the extended book. And after two hymns were sung and some more prayers said, it was half-past eleven. They announced five minutes for silent meditation. Looking round, I saw my friend on the left sitting with folded arms. He was obviously in no need of five minutes.