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

In the Free Library I had renewed much of my ancient scientific reading, and I used it now to control some slight emotional weakness, and to explain it to myself. Half-starved, nay more than half-starved, as I was, such weakness was likely; I was amenable to suggestion. I asked myself a dozen crucial questions, and was bitterly amused to know how the preacher would evade answering them if put to him. Such a creature could not succeed, as all great teachers have done, in subduing the intellect by the force of his own personality. But all the same the hour, the time, and the song followed by silence, and the silence by song, affected me and affected many. What had I to look forward to when I went out into the street? And if I yielded they might, nay would, help me to work. I laughed a little at myself, and was scornful of my thoughts. They were singing again.

This time the band of women left the dais and in a body went slowly round and round the aisle isolating the centre seats from the platform and the sides. From the platform the preacher called on the others to rise and join them, for it was nearly twelve o’clock, the New Year was at hand. Most of the congregation obeyed him, I counted but fifteen or twenty who refused.

The volume of the singing increased as the seats emptied, in it there was religious fervour; it appealed strongly even to me. I saw some young fellows rise and join the procession; perhaps three or four. There were now less than twelve seated. The preacher spoke to us personally; he insisted on the passing minutes of the dying year. And still the singers passed us. Some leant over and called to us. Our bitter band lessened one by one.

Then from the procession came these girl acolytes, and, dividing themselves, they appealed to us and prayed. They were not beautiful perhaps, but they were women. We outcasts of the prairie and the camp fire and the streets had been greatly divorced from feminine sweet influences, and these succeeded where speech and prayer and song had failed. As one spoke to me I saw hard resolution wither in many. What woman had spoken kindly to them in this hard land since they left their eastern homes? Why should they pain them? And as they joined the singing band of believers the girls came to those of us who still stayed, and doubled and redoubled their entreaties. That it was not what they said, but those who said it, massing influences and suggestion, showed itself when he who had been stubborn to one yielded with moist eyes to two. And three overcame him who had mutely resisted less.

They knew their strength, and spoke softly with the voice of loving women. And not a soul had spoken to me so in my far and weary songless passage from the Atlantic States to the Pacific Coast. Long-repressed emotions rose in me as the hair of one brushed my cheek, as the hand of another lay upon my shoulder and mutely bade me rise; as another called me, as another beckoned. I looked round like a half-fascinated beast, and I caught the eye again of the man on my left. He and I were the only ones left sitting there. All the rest had risen and were singing with the singers.

In his eye, I doubt not, I saw what he saw in mine. A look of encouragement, a demand for it, doubt, an emotional struggle, and deeper than all a queer bitter amusement, that said plainly, “If you fail me, I fall, but I would rather not play the hypocrite in these hard times.” We nodded rather mentally than actually, and were encouraged, I knew if I yielded I was yielding to something founded essentially on sex, and for my honesty’s sake I would not fail.

“My child, it is no use,” I said to her who spoke to me, and, struggling with myself, I put her hand from me. But still they moved past and sang, and the girls would not leave me till the first stroke of midnight sounded from the clock upon the wall. They then went one by one and joined the band. I turned again to my man, and conscious of my own hard fight, I knew what his had been. We looked at each other, and being men, were half ashamed that another should know we had acted rightly according to our code, and had won a victory over ourselves.

And now we were truly outcasts, for no one spoke to us again. The preacher prayed and we still sat there. But he cast us no word, and the urgent women were good only to their conquered. Perhaps in their souls was some sense of personal defeat; they had been rejected as women and as angels of the Lord. We two at anyrate sat beyond the reach of their graciousness; their eyes were averted or lifted up; we lay in outer darkness.

As they began to sing once more we both rose and with a friendly look at each other went out into the streets of the hostile city. It is easy to understand why we did not speak.

I never saw him again.