Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   MAN is essentially a dancing animal. As a savage, saltation is his chief delight. If he be a fierce, head-hunting Dyak, he has his " skull" dance and his "jawbone" dance, as well as many dances of a peaceful sort, including the great days of jigging which distinguish sowing and harvest times. If the savage be a cleft-lipped, ring-nosed Malay, he twiddles his lean shanks to the music of human marrowbones and cleavers; if a cannibal Fan of gorilla land, his wife chants a lively ditty in praise of "long pig" while he polks about the cooking-pot; if a Dahoman, he dances for blood and rum (his Majesty the King leading the ball); while, should he happen to be a greased and ochred Indian of North America-a Pawnee, or an Iroquois, or an Ojibbeway-there is nothing under the sun he will not dance for. He is at it morning, noon, and night. He has a rain dance, and a sunshine dance, and a famine dance, and a feast dance, and a dance for the sun, and for the moon, and a score or so of the stars. He dances when his baby is christened, and, should it live to be a six-foot warrior and die before its father, the old gentleman will foot it sorrowfully round and round the mound under which his offspring lies buried. He detaches the scalp from the head of an enemy and risks reprisal that he may execute a triumphant double-shuffle over the prostrate form of the victim, and he has a special dance on the occasion of his shaking hands all round with a hostile tribe and " burying the hatchet." He has -at least, his brother the Dacota has-a very nasty dance called " the dog-dance," in which boiled dog is hung to a sort of maypole, and snapped at and demolished by mouthfuls by the dancers, men and women, who join hands in a merry-go-round, the dog's-meat pole in the centre. Also, these people have a dance known as the "poor-dance," which is a highly creditable institution. It is for the benefit of the poor, and decrepit, and orphaned of the tribe, and is conducted by the most renowned belles and " swells" in the village. They choose a convenient time, and spend an entire day in roaming from place to place and exhibiting their skill as dancers, and jugglers, and singers to an admiring public, and attended by a couple of porters, one carrying the money-box, and the other ready to burden himself with any " poors-gift" of blanketing, or maize, or tobacco. Even that wretched little pigmy the Australian Bushman occasionally breaks the monotony of his existence, which, as a rule, is given to three occupations-digging up and cooking roots and earthworms, chastisinghis "gin" withhis waddy, andlying on his back smoking tobacco-by engaging in the graceful " carroberry," the soft and delightful "kuri," or the more vigorous and soul-inspiring " palyertatta," in which the performers, in a simple suit of gum-leaves, congregate about the forest bonfire, leaping over it and through it, at the same time brandishing their naked spears and uttering the most appalling yells, while the women sit in a circle a little way off, beating time with their hands, and unanimously raising their voices in imitation of the musical grunt of the red kangaroo. Civilisation is impotent to weed out this relic of barbarism. The King of Dahomey dances, so does the Emperor of the French. Mahtotoppa, the great chief of the Dacotas, danced on the eve of his great victory over the Sacs and Foxes; the Duke of Wellington danced on the eve of Waterloo. At ten p.m. any time this week or next, could the reader see from here to Old Kalabar, he would doubtless discover a select party of Egbos performing saltation at the shrine of a Fetish snake; and if, within the same hour, he took the trouble to walk as far as Bloomsbury, and looked in at "Widdles's Dancing Saloon," he would there find, with some small differences, a repetition of the same performance.
   Small differences, indeed! In what particular, pray, does the Old Kalabar heathen orgies resemble Widdles's? What similitude-even the faintest-may be traced between Widdles's patrons and the grease-anointed, face-painted, copper-bangle-wearing Kalabese ? Is the likeness of man to the gorilla less positive than the likeness of young Mr. Brussels Prout (with the eyeglass) to a grinning, goggle-eyed native of Kalabar ? Is Widdles's M.C. (a shirt-cutter by profession, and not depending for his living on two-and-sixpence per night, be it borne in mind) to be for a moment compared with a shock-headed, ring-nosed savage ? Are Mr. Peascod and the master cabinetmaker and his sister barbarians ? Is their cousin, the outfitter's daughter from Aldgate, a likely person to bow in worship to a Fetish snake ?
   Well, she is a very fine woman, and I beg ten times ten thousand pardons if it happens that I am wrong; but truly and sincerely, I do believe her to be addicted to fetish worship. There is that in her eyes, in her hair, in her general appearance and ornamentation, which betrays her. Likewise I suspect Peascod-I suspect him chiefly on account of his patent leathers and his teeth; while as for his sister, she has worshipped the serpent till her hair begins to fall off, and it has become necessary to sacrifice the prettiest of pouts and to affect with her lips an expression of severity and determination she has not at all at heart, by way of concealing the fact that her teeth are failing her. Poor little Miss Peascod ! The devotion of a lifetime-at least from maidenhood upwards-has in no way softened the nature of the insatiable fetish snake towards her; she has given it all her smiles; she has exhausted the natural bloom of her cheeks in the monster's service; she has suffered headache, heartache, and, for its sake, borne with a cheerful countenance the agony attendant on the possession of three corns (two hard and one soft) palpitating in shoes two sizes too small for her. She has expended the trifle of pin-money her brother allows her for keeping house for him in sashes, and bows, and jewels, and gigumboles, that she might not discredit the monster. This evening she has brought the devouring dragon flowers, and for his delectation she sports an embroidered handkerchief, which it is only merciful to hope she has merely borrowed for the occasion of that magnificent person her Aldgate cousin, and not purchased.
   It is merciful to hope that this is the case, because if she has bought it she has wasted her money. The cost of her flowers was waste, likewise of her bows and streamers and her elaborate head-dress; likewise-and this is worse than all-are all her past sacrifices to her fetish waste. Her headaches, her heartaches, her rosiness, her pin-money, all, all have gone for nothing! True she has had her " sport for her money," as the saying is, but it is the sport of the angler who catches no fish. Ambition is the name of Miss Peascod's fetish. She was taken to Widdles's when quite a little maid (it was not her brother that escorted her in those times), and there she found a paradise she had hitherto only dreamt of. She found glitter, and sparkle, and music, and an amount of polite attention at the hands of the white-gloved gentlemen assembled that fairlyturned her innocent head. Individuals who, judged by their waistcoats and moustaches, might have been barons at the very least, solicited her for " the next set" with a humility which, until she grew a little used to it, was really painful. Clearly she had underrated herself. William was a very nice young man, to be sure, and possibly gentlemen's bootmaking was a decentish trade; but when she thought on William's unfashionable whiskers, and his great hands breaking through the tender stitches of his unwonted white kids, and compared both - his hands and his whiskers-to some that were there; to some, the owners of which, with fairy lightness (William certainly was rather flat-footed), had accompanied her through the mazy dance, and even in one instance at least, and that not the least aristocratic, inquired if that gentleman (William) was her brother, and when this little episode in this first of her Arabian nights crossed her memory, together with the remembrance of the incredulous but eminently gentlemanly stare with which the viscount, or whatever he was, received her blushing answer that he was not her brother but a friend; when, I say, this, among other matters, reappeared to her that night as she sat at her looking-glass putting her curls in paper, there was reflected in it a face with something about it that, could honest William have seen it, would have stabbed his heart more cruelly than his keenest awl could. Her foolish little heart felt itself debased any longer to harbour so mean a lodger as a bootmaker, and from that time she became a fetish worshipper, and so she remains. Since that fatal evening her mind has, of course, been disabused of many of the delusions which then crept into it. Her viscounts have proved to be clerks, and her dukes persons in the tailoring business. Her favourite baron had the felicity of serving her with a yard of pink tarlatan behind a draper's counter in Holborn. But her faith in her fetish is not shaken, and she continues to worship at Widdles's with touching constancy and devotion. Indeed, her infatuation increases with her years; and though she can now find no more agreeable escort than her bachelor brother; though the M.C. has long ceased to bow and scrape, and greet her with a familiar nod; though she occasionally sits for half an hour with no one to speak to her or bring her negus but Mr. Peascod, she finds at Widdles's what she can find nowhere else. It is an oasis in the desert. The glitter and sparkle of music, and flaunting of sashes and rustling of silks, have become essential to her very existence-that is, to her existence as a fetish worshipper. One of these fine nights a brutal giggle, or the rude shock of a very cold shoulder, will break the spell, and she will then discover the heartless wooden idol she has all along been worshipping. I hope when that melancholy time arrives that her brother, the master cabinetmaker, will have found the reward for which he is craving-his fetish; and that Mrs. Peascod will afford her a comfortable asylum in which to terminate her everlasting maidenhood; or, her brother failing her, that her outfitting cousin from Aldgate may captivate and marry Mr. Brussels Prout. I should like to see that young gentleman daring to offer any objection to Miss Peascod taking up her abode in his house if Mrs. Prout willed otherwise.