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San Francisco

( Originally Published 1907 )

THE weather cooled perceptibly when we left the tropics—we met the keen north wind which blows almost all the year down the Western American coast.

On April 20, we entered between the Heads into the Bay of San Francisco, and saw the smoke of the Golden City six miles in front of us. The opening is extremely striking —the bay itself is as large as Port Jackson. The hills are higher, the outlines grander. The only inferiority is in the absence of timber. There was grass everywhere, in the freshness of spring, but not a tree that we could see from the water; and we felt the bareness more strongly after New Zealand and Australia. Another difference made it-self felt, the effect of which it was impossible to resist. There had been life and energy in Melbourne and Sydney, with crowded docks and growing enterprise; but an American city—and San Francisco especially—is more than they. The very pilot's voice as he came on board had a ring of decision about it. The great liners passing in and out with the stars and stripes flying; the huge ferry-boats rushing along, deck rising above deck, and black with passengers; the lines of houses on the shore, stretching leagues beyond the actual town, all spoke of the pulsations of a great national existence, which were beating to its farthest extremity.

San Francisco, half a century ago, was a sleepy Spanish village. It is now one of the most important cities of the world, destined, if things continue as they are, to expand into dimensions to which the present size of it is nothing, for it is and must be the chief outlet into the Pacific of the trade of the American Continent.

I had already seen the Eastern States, but California was new to me. California with its gold and its cornfields, its conifers and its grizzlies, its diggers and its hidalgos, its " heathen Chinese " and its Yankee millionaires, was a land of romance, the wonders of which passed belief, and it was with a sort of youthful excitement that I found myself landed at Frisco. The prosaic asserted itself there as elsewhere. There were customs' officers and a searching of portmanteaus. This over, we had to find our quarters. We were on a long platform, roofed over like a railway station, and within the precincts the public were not admitted. At the far end was a large open door, and outside a mob of human creatures, pushing, scrambling, and howling like the beasts in a menagerie at feeding time. There they were in hundreds, waiting to plunge upon us, and (if they did not tear us in pieces in the process) to carry us off to one or other of the rival caravanserais. Never did I hear such a noise, save in an Irish fair; never was I in such a scuffle. We had to fight for our lives, for our luggage, and for our dollars, if the Philistines were not to spoil us utterly. All, however, was at last safely and reasonably accomplished. We were driven away to the Palace Hotel, where the storm turned to calm, and my acquaintance with California and its ways was practically to commence.

The Palace Hotel at San Francisco is, I believe, the largest in the world—the largest, but by no means the ugliest, as I had expected to find. It is a vast quadrilateral building, seven or eight stories high, but in fair proportions. You enter under a handsome archway, and you find yourself in a central court, as in the hotels at Paris, but completely roofed over with glass. The floor is of polished stone. Tiers of galleries run around it, tier above tier, and two lifts are in constant action, which deposit you on the floor to which you are consigned. There is no gaudiness or tinsel. The taste in California is generally superior to what you see in New York. I expected the prices of New York, or of Auckland or Sydney. Money was reported to flow in rivers there, and other things to be dear in proportion. I was agreeably disappointed. Our apartments—mine and my son's—consisted of a sitting-room au troisieme, so large that a bed in it was no inconvenience; a deep alcove with another bed, divided off by glass doors; a dressing-room and a bath-room, with all the other accompaniments. Our meals were in the great dining-room at fixed hours, but with a liberal time allowance. We could order our dinners and breakfasts from the carte, with as large a choice and quality as excellent as one could order in the Palais Royal, if one was regardless of expense. Unnumbered niggers attended in full dress—white waistcoat, white neckcloth, with the consequentially deferential manners of a duke's master of the household; and for all this sumptuosity we were charged three dollars and a half each, or about fifteen shillings. Nowhere in Europe, nowhere else in America, can one be lodged and provided for on such a scale and on such terms—and this was California.

Americans are very good to strangers, and the Californians are in this respect the best of Americans. An agreeable and accomplished Mr. G—, who had come from New Zealand with us, lived in San Francisco. He was kind enough to take me in charge, and show me, not trees and rocks, but things and people. The Chinese quarter is to Englishmen the principal object of attraction. They go there at night under a guard of police, for it is lawless and dangerous. Had I known any of the Chinese themselves, who would have shown me the better side of them, I should have been willing to go. But I did not care to go among human beings as if they were wild beasts, and stare at opium orgies and gambling-hells. Parties of us did go, and they said they were delighted. I went with Mr. G— about the streets. The first place I look for in a new city is the market. One sees the natural produce of all kinds gathered there. One sees what people buy on the spot and " consume on the premises," as distinct from what is raised for export. One learns the cost of things, and can form one's own estimate of the manner in which the country people occupy themselves, and how they are able to live. The marketplace in San Francisco told its story in a moment. Vegetables and fruits, the finest that I ever saw exposed for sale, were at half the English prices. Meat was at half the English price. I lunched on oysters, plump and delicate as the meal-fattened Colchester natives used to be, at a cent (a half-penny) a piece. Salmon were lying out on the marble slabs, caught within two hours in the Sacramento River, superb as ever came from Tay or Tweed, for three cents a pound.

From the market we went to the clubs, where the men would be found who were carrying on the business of this late-born but immense emporium—bankers, merchants, politicians. The Eastern question, the Egyptian business, etc., were discussed in the cool, incisive American manner, and the opinions expressed were not favourable to our existing methods of administration. How we had come to fall into such a state of distraction seemed to be understood with some distinctness, but less distinctly how we were to get out of it. In the Bohemian Club the tone was lighter and brighter. We do not live for politics alone, nor for business alone. The Bohemian Club was founded, I believe, by Bret Harte, and is composed of lawyers, artists, poets, musicians, men of genius, who in the sunshine and exuberant fertility of California, were brighter, quicker, and less bitterly in earnest than their severe fellow-countrymen of the Eastern States. It was the American temperament, but with a difference. Dollars, perhaps, are easily come by in that happy country, and men think less of them, and more of human life, and how it can best be spent and enjoyed. If Horace were brought to life again in the New World, he would look for a farm in California and be a leading Bohemian. The pictures in the drawing-room, painted by one or other of themselves, had all something new and original about them, reminding one of Harte's writings. In the summer weather the club takes to tents, migrates to the forest, and holds high-jinks in Dionysic fashion. There was a clever sketch of one of these festivals in the abandonment of intellectual riot. It is likely enough that some original school of American art may start up in California. Their presiding genius at the club is Pallas Athene in the shape of an owl; but, for some reason which they could not, or would not explain to me, she has one eye shut.

The city generally is like other American cities. It has grown like a mushroom, and there has been no leisure to build anything durable or beautiful. A few years ago the houses were mainly of wood. The footways in the streets are laid with boards still, but are gradually transforming themselves. The sense of beauty will come by-and-by, and they do well not to be in a hurry. The millionaires have constructed palatial residences for themselves, on the high grounds above the smoke. The country towards the ocean is taken charge of by the municipality. A fine park has been laid out, with forcing houses and gardens and carriage-drives. Near it is a cemetery, beside which ours at Brompton would look vulgar and hideous. Let me say here, that no-where in America have I met with vulgarity in its proper sense. Vulgarity lies in manners unsuited to the condition of life to which you belong. A lady is vulgar when she has the manners of a kitchen-maid, the kitchen-maid is vulgar when she affects the manners of a lady. Neither is vulgar so long as she is contented to be herself. In America there is no difference of " station," and therefore every one is satisfied with his own and has no occasion to affect any-thing. There is a dislike of makeshifts in the Californians. Greenbacks and shin-plasters have no currency among them. If you go to a bank at San Francisco, they give you, instead of dirty paper, massive gold twenty-dollar pieces, large and heavy as medals, and so handsome that one is unwilling to break them. They are never in haste, and there is a composure about them which seems to say that they belong to a great nation and that their position is assured. I observed at San Francisco, and I have observed elsewhere in America, that they have not the sporting taste so universal in England. They shoot their bears, they shoot their deer, in the way of business, as they make their pigs into bacon ; but they can see a strange bird or a strange animal without wishing immediately to kill it. Indeed, killing for its own sake, or even killing for purpose of idle ornament, does not seem to give them particular pleasure. The great harbour swarms with seals ; you see them lifting their black faces to stare at the passing steamers, as if they knew they were in no danger of being molested. There is a rock in the ocean close to the shore, seven miles from the city. The seals lie about it in hundreds, and roll and bark and take life pleasantly as the crowds who gather on holidays to look at them. No one ever shoots at these harmless creatures. Men and seals can live at peace side by side in California. I doubt if as much could be said of any British possession in the world. Perhaps killing is an aristocratic instinct, which the rest imitate, and democracy may by-and-by make a difference.

In short, California is a pleasant country, with good people in it. If one had to live one's life over again, one might do worse than make one's home there. For a poor man it is better than even Victoria and New South Wales, for not the necessaries of life only are cheap there, but the best of its luxuries. The grapes are like the clusters of Eschal. The wine, already palatable, is on the way to becoming admirable and as accessible to a light purse as it used to be in Spain. I ate there the only really good oranges which I have tasted for many years—good as those which we used to get before the orange-growers went in for average sorts and heavy bearers, and the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

When everything of every sort that one meets with, even down to the nigger waiter at the hotel, is excellent in its kind, one may feel pretty well satisfied that the morality, etc., is in good condition also. All our worst vices nowadays grow out of humbug.

This was the impression which California left on me during my brief passage through it. Had I stayed longer, I should, of course, have found much to add of a less pleasant kind, and something to correct. Life everywhere is like tapestry-work—the outside only is meant to be seen, the loose tags and ends of thread are left hanging on the inner face. I describe it as it looked to me, and I was sorry when the time came for me to be again on the move.