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At Last by Charles Kingsley

CHAPTER XV: THE RACES--A LETTER

Dear -- -, I have been to the races: not to bet, nor to see the horses run: not even to see the fair ladies on the Grand Stand, in all the newest fashions of Paris via New York: but to wander en mufti among the crowd outside, and behold the humours of men. And I must say that their humours were very good humours; far better, it seemed to me, than those of an English race-ground. Not that I have set foot on one for thirty years; but at railway stations, and elsewhere, one cannot help seeing what manner of folk, beside mere holiday folk, rich or poor, affect English races; or help pronouncing them, if physiognomy be any test of character, the most degraded beings, even some of those smart-dressed men who carry bags with their names on them, which our pseudo-civilisation has yet done itself the dishonour of producing. Now, of that class I saw absolutely none. I do not suppose that the brown fellows who hung about the horses, whether Barbadians or Trinidad men, were of very angelic morals: but they looked like heroes compared with the bloated hangdog roughs and quasi-grooms of English races. As for the sporting gentlemen, not having the honour to know them, I can only say that they looked like gentlemen, and that I wish, in all courtesy, that they had been more wisely employed.

But the Negro, or the coloured man of the lower class, was in his glory. He was smart, clean, shiny, happy, according to his light. He got up into trees, and clustered there, grinning from ear to ear. He bawled about island horses and Barbadian horses -- for the Barbadians mustered strong, and a fight was expected, which, however, never came off; he sang songs, possibly some of them extempore, like that which amused one's childhood concerning a once notable event in a certain island --

'I went to da Place
To see da horse-race,
I see Mr. Barton
A-wipin' ob his face.

'Run Allright,
Run for your life;
See Mr Barton
A comin wid a knife.

'Oh, Mr Barton,
I sarry for your loss;
If you no believe me,
I tie my head across.'

That is -- go into mourning. But no one seemed inclined to tie their heads, across that day. The Coolies seemed as merry as the Negroes, even about the face of the Chinese there flickered, at times, a feeble ray of interest.

The coloured women wandered about, in showy prints, great crinolines, and gorgeous turbans. The Coolie women sat in groups on the glass -- ah! Isle of the Blest, where people can sit on the grass in January -- like live flower beds of the most splendid and yet harmonious hues. As for jewels, of gold as well as silver, there were many there, on arms, ankles, necks, and noses, which made white ladies fresh from England break the tenth commandment.

I wandered about, looking at the live flower beds, and giving passing glances into booths, which I longed to enter, and hear what sort of human speech might be going on therein but I was deterred, first by the thought that much of the speech might not be over edifying, and next by the smells, especially by that most hideous of all smells -- new rum.

At last I came to a crowd, and in the midst of it, one of those great French merry-go-rounds turned by machinery, with pictures of languishing ladies round the central column. All the way from the Champs Elysees the huge piece of fool's tackle had lumbered and creaked hither across the sea to Martinique, and was now making the round of the islands, and a very profitable round, to judge from the number of its customers. The hobby-horses swarmed with Negresses and Hindoos of the lower order. The Negresses, I am sorry to say, forgot themselves, kicked up their legs, shouted to the bystanders, and were altogether incondite. The Hindoo women, though showing much more of their limbs than the Negresses, kept them gracefully together, drew their veils round their heads, and sat coyly, half frightened, half amused, to the delight of their papas, or husbands, who had in some cases to urge them to get up and ride, while they stood by, as on guard, with the long hardwood quarter staff in hand.

As I looked on, considered what a strange creature man is, and wondered what possible pleasure these women could derive from being whirled round till they were giddy and stupid, I saw an old gentleman seemingly absorbed in the very same reflection. He was dressed in dark blue, with a straw hat. He stood with his hands behind his back, his knees a little bent, and a sort of wise, half- sad, half-humorous smile upon his aquiline high-cheek-boned features. I took him for an old Scot; a canny, austere man -- a man, too, who had known sorrow, and profited thereby; and I drew near to him. But as he turned his head deliberately round to me, I beheld to my astonishment the unmistakable features of a Chinese. He and I looked each other full in the face, without a word; and I fancied that we understood each other about the merry-go-round, and many things besides. And then we both walked off different ways, as having seen enough, and more than enough. Was he, after all, an honest man and true? Or had he, like Ah Sin, in Mr. Bret Harte's delectable ballad, with 'the smile that was child-like and bland' --

'In his sleeves, which were large,
Twenty-four packs of cards,
And -- On his nails, which were taper,
What's common in tapers -- that's wax'?

I know not; for the Chinese visage is unfathomable. But I incline to this day to the more charitable judgment; for the man's face haunted me, and haunts me still; and I am weak enough to believe that I should know the man and like him, if I met him in another planet, a thousand years hence.

Then I walked back under the blazing sun across the Savanna, over the sensitive plants and the mole-crickets' nests, while the great locusts whirred up before me at every step; toward the archway between the bamboo-clumps, and the red sentry shining like a spark of fire beneath its deep shadow; and found on my way a dying racehorse, with a group of coloured men round him, whom I advised in vain to do the one thing needful -- put a blanket over him to keep off the sun, for the poor thing had fallen from sunstroke; so I left them to jabber and do nothing: asking myself -- Is the human race, in the matter of amusements, as civilised as it was -- say three thousand years ago? People have, certainly -- quite of late years -- given up going to see cocks fight, or heretics burnt: but that is mainly because the heretics just now make the laws -- in favour of themselves and the cocks. But are our amusements to be compared with those of the old Greeks, with the one exception of liking to hear really good music? Yet that fruit of civilisation is barely twenty years old; and we owe its introduction, be it always remembered, to the Germans. French civilisation signifies practically, certainly in the New World, little save ballet-girls, billiard-tables, and thin boots: English civilisation, little save horse-racing and cricket. The latter sport is certainly blameless; nay, in the West Indies, laudable and even heroic, when played, as on the Savanna here, under a noonday sun which feels hot enough to cook a mutton-chop. But with all respect for cricket, one cannot help looking back at the old games of Greece, and questioning whether man has advanced much in the art of amusing himself rationally and wholesomely.

I had reason to ask the same question that evening, as we sat in the cool verandah, watching the fireflies flicker about the tree-tops, and listening to the weary din of the tom-toms which came from all sides of the Savanna save our own, drowning the screeching and snoring of the toads, and even, at times, the screams of an European band, which was playing a 'combination tune,' near the Grand Stand, half a mile off.

To the music of tom-tom and chac-chac, the coloured folk would dance perpetually till ten o'clock, after which time the rites of Mylitta are silenced by the policeman, for the sake of quiet folk in bed. They are but too apt, however, to break out again with fresh din about one in the morning, under the excuse -- 'Dis am not last night, Policeman. Dis am 'nother day.'

Well: but is the nightly tom-tom dance so much more absurd than the nightly ball, which is now considered an integral element of white civilisation? A few centuries hence may not both of them be looked back on as equally sheer barbarisms?

These tom-tom dances are not easily seen. The only glance I ever had of them was from the steep slope of once beautiful Belmont. 'Sitting on a hill apart,' my host and I were discoursing, not 'of fate, free-will, free-knowledge absolute,' but of a question almost as mysterious -- the doings of the Parasol-ants who marched up and down their trackways past us, and whether these doings were guided by an intellect differing from ours, only in degree, but not in kind. A hundred yards below we espied a dance in a negro garden; a few couples, mostly of women, pousetting to each other with violent and ungainly stampings, to the music of tom-tom and chac-chac, if music it can be called. Some power over the emotions it must have; for the Negroes are said to be gradually maddened by it; and white people have told me that its very monotony, if listened to long, is strangely exciting, like the monotony of a bagpipe drone, or of a drum. What more went on at the dance we could not see; and if we had tried, we should probably not have been allowed to see. The Negro is chary of admitting white men to his amusements; and no wonder. If a London ballroom were suddenly invaded by Phoebus, Ares, and Hermes, such as Homer drew them, they would probably be unwelcome guests; at least in the eyes of the gentlemen. The latter would, I suspect, thoroughly sympathise with the Negro in the old story, intelligible enough to those who know what is the favourite food of a West Indian chicken.

'Well, John, so they gave a dignity ball on the estate last night?'

'Yes, massa, very nice ball. Plenty of pretty ladies, massa.'

'Why did you not ask me, John? I like to look at pretty ladies as well as you.'

'Ah, massa: when cockroach give a ball, him no ask da fowls.'

Great and worthy exertions are made, every London Season, for the conversion of the Negro and the Heathen, and the abolition of their barbarous customs and dances. It is to be hoped that the Negro and the Heathen will some day show their gratitude to us, by sending missionaries hither to convert the London Season itself, dances and all; and assist it to take the beam out of its own eye, in return for having taken the mote out of theirs.

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