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Sport and Work on the Nepaul Frontier
Chapter VIII


Our annual race meet—The arrivals—The camps—The "ordinary"— The course—"They're off"—The race—The steeple-chase—Incidents of the meet—The ball.

On; annual Race Meet is the one great occasion of the year when all the dwellers in the district meet. Our races in Chumparun generally took place some time about Christmas. Long before the date fixed on, arrangements would be made for the exercise of hearty hospitality. The residents in the "station" ask as many guests as will fill their houses, and their "compounds" are crowded with tents, each holding a number of visitors, generally bachelors. The principal managers of the factories in the district, with their assistants, form a mess for the racing week, and, not unfrequently, one or two ladies lend their refining presence to the several camps. Friends from other districts, from up-country, from Calcutta, gather together; and as the weather is bracing and cool, and everyone determined to enjoy himself, the meet is one of the pleasantest of reunions. There are always several races specially got up for assistants' horses, and long prior to the meet, the youngsters are up in the early morning, giving their favourite nag a spin across the zeraats, or seeing the groom lead him out swathed in clothing and bandages, to get him into training for the Assistants' race.

As the day draws near, great cases of tinned meats, hampers of beer and wine, and goodly supplies of all sorts are sent into the station to the various camps. Tents of snowy white canvas begin to peep out at you from among the trees. Great oblong booths of blue indigo sheeting show where the temporary stables for the horses are being erected; and at night the glittering of innumerable camp-fires betokens the presence of a whole army of grooms, grass-cutters, peons, watchmen, and other servants cooking their evening meal of rice, and discussing the chances of the horses of their respective masters in the approaching races. On the day before the first racing, the planters are up early, and in buggy, dogcart, or on horseback, singly, and by twos and threes, from all sides of the district, they find their way to the station. The Planters' Club is the general rendezvous. The first comers, having found out their waiting servants, and consigned the smoking steeds to their care, seat themselves in the verandah, and eagerly watch every fresh arrival.

Up comes a buggy. "Hullo, who's this?"

"Oh, it's 'Giblets!' How do you do, 'Giblets,' old man?"

Down jumps "Giblets," and a general handshaking ensues.

"Here comes 'Boach' and the 'Moonshee,' " yells out an observant youngster from the back verandah.

The- venerable buggy of the esteemed "Boach" approaches, and another jubilation takes place; the handshaking being so vigorous that the "Moonshee's" spectacles nearly come to grief. Now the arrivals ride and drive up fast and furious.

"Hullo, 'Anthony!"'

"Aha, Charley,' how d'ye doI"

"By Jove, 'Perdie,' where have you turned up from?"

"Has the 'Skipper' arrived?"

"Have any of you seen ' Jamie?' "

"Where's big 'Macs'' tents?"

"Have any of ye seen my 'Bearer?'"

"Has the 'Bump' come in?" and so on.

Such a scene of bustle and excitement. Friends meet that have not seen each other for a twelvemonth. Queries are exchanged as to absent friends. The chances of the meeting are discussed. Perhaps a passing allusion is made to some dear one who has left our ranks since last meet. All sorts of topics are started, and up till and daring breakfast there is a regular medley of tongues, a confused clatter of voices, dishes, and glasses, a pervading atmosphere of dense curling volumes of tobacco smoke.

To a stranger the names sound uncouth and meaningless the fact being, that we all go by nicknames. [In such a limited society every peculiarity is noted; all our antecedents are known; personal predilections and little foibles of character are marked; eccentricities are watched, and no one, let him be as uninteresting as a miller's pig, is allowed to escape observation and remark. Some little peculiarity is hit upon, and a strange but often very happily expressive nickname stamps one's individuality and photographs him with a word.]

"Giblets," "Diamond Digger," "Mangelwurzel," "Goggle-eyed Plover," "Gossein" or holy man, "Blind Bartimeus," "Old Boots," "Polly," "Bottle-nosed Whale," "Pin Mac-Coul," "Daddy," "The Exquisite," "The Mosquito," "Wee Bob," and "Napoleon," are only a very few specimens of this strange nomenclature. These soubriquets quite usurp our baptismal appellations, and I have often been called Mr. "Maori,'' by people who did not actually know my real name.

By the evening, all, barring the very late arrivals, have found out their various camps. There is a merry dinner, then each sahib, well muffled in ulster, plaid, or great coat, hies him to the club, where the "ordinary" is to be held. The nights are now cold and foggy, and a tremendous dew falls. At the "ordinary," fresh greetings ensue between those who now meet for the first time after long separation. The entries and bets are made for the morrow's races, although not much betting takes place as a rule; but the lotteries on the different races are rapidly filled, the dice circulate cheerily, and amid laughing, joking, smoking, noise and excitement, there is a good deal of mild speculation. The "horsey" ones visit the stables for the last time; and each retires to his camp bed to dream of the morrow.

Very early, the respective bearers rouse the sleepy mldbs. Table servants rush hurriedly about the mess tent, bearing huge dishes of tempting viands. Grooms, and grassers are busy leading the horses off to the course. The cold raw fog of the morning fills every tent, and dim grey figures of cowering natives, wrapped up over the eyes in blankets, with moist blue noses and chattering teeth, are barely discernible in the thick mist.

The racecourse is two miles from the club, on the other side of the lake, in the middle of a grassy plain, with a neat masonry structure at the further side, which serves as a grand stand. Already buggies, dogcarts in single harness and tandem, barouches and waggonettes are merrily rolling through the thick mist, past the frowning jail, and round the corner of the lake. Natives in gaudy coloured shawls, and blankets, are pouring on to the racecourse by hundreds.

Bullock carts, within which are black-eyed, bold beauties, profusely burdened with silver ornaments, are drawn up in lines. Ukkas—small jingling vehicles with a dome-shaped canopy and curtains at the sides—drawn by gaily caparisoned ponies, and containing fat, portly Baboos, jingle and rattle over the ruts on the side roads.

Sweetmeat sellers, with trays of horrible-looking filth, made seemingly of insects, clarified butter, and sugar, dodge through the crowd dispensing their abominable-looking but seemingly much relished wares. Tall policemen, with blue jackets, red puggries, yellow belts, and white trousers, stalk up and down with conscious dignity.

A madcap young assistant on his pony comes tearing along across country. The weighing for the first race is going on; horses are being saddled, some vicious brute occasionally lashing out, and scattering the crowd behind him. The ladies are seated round the terraced grand stand; long strings of horses are being led round and round in a circle, by the syces, vehicles of every description are lying round the building.

Suddenly a bugle sounds; the judge enters his box; the ever popular old "Bikiani," who officiates as starter, amides off on his white cob, and after him go half-a-dozen handsome young fellows, their silks rustling and flashing through the fast rising mist.

A hundred field-glasses scan the start; all is silent for a moment.

"They're off!" shout a dozen lungs.

"false start! " echo a dozen more.

The gay colours of the riders flicker confusedly in a jumble. One horse careers madly along for half the distance, is with difficulty pulled up, and is then walked slowly back.

The others left at the post fret, and fidget, and curvet about. At length they are again in line. Down goes the white flag! "Good start!" shouts an excited planter. Down goes the red flag. "Off at last!" breaks like a deep drawn sigh from the crowd, and now the six horses, all together, and at a rattling pace, tear up the hill, over the sand at the south corner, and up, till at the quarter mile post "a blanket could cover the lot."

Two or three tails are now showing signals of distress; heels and whips are going. Two horses have shot ahead, a bay and a black. "Jamie" on the bay, "Paddy" on the black.

Still as marble sit those splendid riders, the horses are neck and neck; now the bay by a nose, now again the black. The distance post is passed with a rush like a whirlwind.

"A dead heat, by Jove!"

"Paddy wins!" "Jamie has it!" "Hooray, Pat!" "Go it, Jamie!" "Well ridden!" A subdued hum runs round the excited spectators. The ardent racers are nose and nose.

One swift, sharp cut, the cruel whip hisses through the air, and the black is fairly "lifted in," a winner by a nose. The ripple of conversation breaks out afresh. The band strikes up a lively air, and the saddling for the next race goes on.

The other races are much the same; there are lots of entries: the horses are in splendid condition, and the riding is superb. What is better, everything is emphatically "on the square." No pulling and roping here, no false entries, no dodging of any kind. Fine, gallant, English gentlemen meet each other in fair and honest emulation, and enjoy the favourite national sport in perfection. The "Waler" race, for imported Australians, brings out fine, tall, strong-boned, clean-limbed horses, looking blood all over. The country breeds, with slender limbs, small heads, and glossy coats, look dainty and delicate as antelopes. The lovely, compact Arabs, the pretty-looking ponies, and the thick-necked, coarse-looking Cabools, all have their respective trials, and then comes the great event—the race of the day—the Steeplechase.

The course is marked out behind the grand stand, following a wide circle outside the flat course, which it enters at the quarter mile post, so that the finish is on the flat before the grand stand. The fences, ditches, and water leap, are all artificial, but they are regular howlers and no make-believes.

Seven horses are despatched to a straggling start, and all negotiate the first bank safely. At the next fence a regular snorter of a "post and rail"—topped with brushwood—two horses swerve, one rider being deposited on his racing seat upon mother earth, while the other sails away across country in a line for home, and is next heard of at the stables. The remaining five, three "walers" and two country-breds, race together to the water jump, where one waler deposits his rider, and races home by himself, one country-bred refuses, and is henceforth out of the race, and the other three, taking the lea]) in beautiful style, put on racing pace to the next bank, and are in the air together. A lovely sight! The country is now stiff, and the stride of the waler tells. He is leading the country-breds a."whacker," hut he stumbles and falls at the last fence hut one from home. His gallant rider, the undaunted "Holey," remounts just as the two country-breds pass him like a flash of light. "Nothing venture, nothing win," however, so in go the spurs, and off darts the waler like an arrow in pursuit. He is gaining fast, and tops the last hurdle leading to the straight just as the hoofs of the other two reach the ground.

It is now a matter of pace and good riding. It will he a close finish; the waler is first to feel the whip; there is a roar from the crowd; he is actually leading; whips and spurs are hard at work now; it is a mail, headlong rush; every muscle is strained, and the utmost effort made; the poor horses are doing their very best; amid a thunder of hoofs, clouds of dust, hats in air, waving of handkerchiefs from the grand stand, and a truly British cheer from the paddock, the "waler" shoots in half a length ahead; and so end the morning's races.

Back to camp now, to bathe and breakfast. A long line of dust marks the track from the course, for the sun is now high in the heavens, the lake is rippling in placid beauty under a gentle breeze, and the moving groups of natives, as well as vehicles of all sorts, form a quaint but picturesque sight After breakfast calls are made upon all the camps and bungalows round the station. Croquet, badminton, and other games go on until dinner-time. I could linger lovingly over, a camp dinner; the rare dishes, the sparkling conversation, the racy anecdote, and the general jollity and brotherly feeling; but we must all dress for the ball, and so about 5 p.m. the buggies are again in requisition for the ball room— the fine, large, central apartment in the Planters' Club,

The. walls are festooned with flowers, gay curtains, flags, and cloths. The floor is shining like silver, and as polished as a mirror. The band strikes up the Blue Danube waltz, and amid the usual bustle, flirtation, scandal, whispering, glancing, dancing, tripping, sipping, and hand-squeezing, the ball goes gaily on till the stewards announce supper. At this—to the wall-flowers—welcome announcement, we adjourn from the heated ball-room to the cool arbour-like supper tent, where every delicacy that can charm the eye or tempt the appetite is spread out.

Next morning early we are out with the hounds, and enjoy a rattling burst round by the racecourse, where the horses are at exercise. Perchance we have heard of a boar in the sugar-cane, and away we go with beaters to rouse the grisly monster from his lair. In the afternoon there is hockey on horseback, or volunteer drill, with our gallant adjutant putting us through our evolutions. In the evening there is the usual drive, dinner, music, and the ordinary, and so the meet goes on. A constant succession of gaieties keeps every one alive, till the time arrives for a return to our respective factories, and another year's hard work.


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