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The British Festival
by [?]

My conceptions of English virtues are probably rudimentary; but I quite fail to discover where the “nobility” of horse-racing and racecourse picnicing appears. My notion of “nobility” belongs to a bygone time; and I was gratified by hearing of one very noble deed at the moment when the flashy howling mob were trooping forward to that great debauch which takes place around the Derby racecourse. A great steamer was flying over a Southern sea, and the sharks were showing their fins and prowling around with evil eyes. The Rimutaka spun on her way, and all the ship’s company were cheerful and careless. Suddenly a poor crazy woman sprang over the side and was drifted away by a surface-current; while the irresistible rush of the steamer could not of course be easily stayed. A good Englishman–honour for ever to his name!–jumped into the water, swam a quarter of a mile, and, by heaven’s grace, escaped the wicked sea-tigers and saved the unhappy distraught woman. That man’s name is Cavell: and I think of “nobility” in connection with him, and not in connection with the manikins who rush over Epsom Downs.

I like to give a thought to the nobility of those men who guard and rule a mighty empire; but I think very little of the creatures who merely consume food and remain at home in rascally security. What a farce to talk of encouraging “athletics”! The poor manikin who gets up on a racer is not an athlete in any rational sense of the term. He is a wiry emaciated being whose little muscles are strung like whipcord; but it is strange to dignify him as an athlete. If he once rises above nine stone in weight, his life becomes a sort of martyrdom; but, abstemious and self-contained as he is, we can hardly give him the name which means so much to all healthy Englishmen. For some time each day the wondrous specimen of manhood must stew in a Turkish bath or between blankets; he tramps for miles daily if his feet keep sound; he starts at five in the morning and perhaps rides a trial or two; then he takes his weak tea and toast, then exercise or sweating; then comes his stinted meal; and then he starves until night. To call such a famished lean fellow a follower of “noble” sport is too much. Other British men deny themselves; but then think of the circumstances! Far away among the sea of mountains on our Indian frontier a gallant Englishman remains in charge of his lonely station; his Pathans or Ghoorkas are fine fellows, and perhaps some brave old warrior will use the privilege of age and stroll in to chat respectfully to the Sahib. But it is all lonely–drearily lonely. The mountain partridge may churr at sunrise and sundown; the wily crows may play out their odd life-drama daily; the mountain winds may rush roaring through the gullies until the village women say they can hear the hoofs of the brigadier’s horse. But what are these desert sounds and sights for the laboriously-cultured officer? His nearest comrade is miles off; his spirit must dwell alone. And yet such men hang on at their dreary toil; and who can ever hear them complain, save in their semi-humorous letters to friends at home? They often carry their lives in their hands; but they can only hope to rest unknown if the chance goes against them. I call those men noble. There are no excited thousands for them to figure before; they scarcely have the honour of mention in a despatch; but they go on in grim silence, working out their own destiny and the destiny of this colossal empire. When I compare them with the bold sportsmen, I feel something like disgust. The real high-hearted heroes do not crave rewards–if they did, they would reap very little. The bold man who risked everything to save the Calliope will never earn as much in a year as a horse-riding manikin can in two months. That is the way we encourage our finest merit. And meantime at the “Isthmian games” the hordes of scoundreldom who dwell at ease can enjoy themselves to their hearts’ content in their own dreadful way; they break out in their usual riot of foulness; they degrade the shape of man; and the burly moralists look on robustly, and say that it is good.

I never think of the great British carnival without feeling that the dregs of that ugly crowd will one day make history in a fashion which will set the world shuddering. I have no pity for ruined gamblers; but I am indignant when we see the worst of human kind luxuriating in abominable idleness and luxury on the foul fringe of the hateful racecourse. No sumptuary law will ever make any inroad on the cruel evil; and my feeling is one of sombre hopelessness.

July, 1889.