Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
George Robins and Naboth Bird are young men for whom footracing is “their pastime, their passion, their principal absorption and topic of conversation”; although neither is a champion runner, each occasionally wins “some sort of trophy.”
On an August bank holiday, they go to a garrison town on the coast of England, where the holiday is being celebrated with a carnival of games. The crowd attending includes a medley of soldiers, sailors, most of the population of the town, and a number of blind beggars. The young men meet two girls who have come from London for the holiday; the “short snub” Naboth devotes his attentions to Minnie, the more demure of the girls, while the “cute good-looking” George offers “his gifts of gallantry” to Margery, who displays “some qualities not commonly associated with demureness.”
After George and Margery engage in some trivial flirtation, the young men enter the mile race. George wins third prize. When the men are dressing after the race, they are pursued by Jerry Chambers, a “cockney ruffian living by his wits,” who suggests that he could get the first and second place winners disqualified so that George could claim the first prize of five pounds. They reject his offer with appropriate scorn.
When the prizes are awarded by a portly countess, the only titled person the young men have ever seen, the name of W. Ballantyne is called out for the third place winner in the mile race. When no one comes forward, George quickly exchanges his tweed cap for Nab’s bowler and claims the prize as W. Ballantyne. The prize is a sovereign, a gold coin worth one pound. After the awarding of the prizes is completed, George, again wearing his tweed cap, disappears, leaving his friends wondering what he is “up to.” When he returns, he says that he has been to claim the third prize as George Robins. He reports that after some “palavering and running about” the persons awarding the prizes apologize for their mistake and give George a second sovereign.
Margery and Minnie rather fatuously admire George’s cleverness, but Nab is perturbed by this dishonesty: All may be fair, as Margery says, in love and war, but sport is something else. To Nab, George’s trick is “a bit like what Jerry Chambers might have done himself.” Margery maintains that George was “jolly smart” and that Nab was actually his confederate because he lent George his hat. George offers Nab half of the questionable sovereign, but Nab resolutely refuses it. In spite of their disagreement over the ethics of George’s claiming the same prize under two different names, the foursome remains amicable and continues to wander through the festive crowd.
In the midst of the stream of people a blind beggar is trying, without much success, to get contributions from the crowd by playing a hymn tune on a tin pipe. In spite of his ragged appearance, the beggar stands erect and maintains a sort of dignity; his feeble wife holds his arm with one hand and reaches out with the other for the few pennies that are given to them. George, Nab, and the girls are astonished to see Jerry Chambers standing in front of the pathetic couple, brazenly drawing attention to them with “excruciating gestures and noises.” Maintaining that looking at the old couple “just breaks my heart,” Jerry says that he is going to sing a comical song, dance a jig, and perform some other antics “to collect bullion for this suffering fambly.” Jerry abandons his plan of dancing a jig when he discovers that the only tune the beggar knows is the hymn “Marching to Zion,” but he aggressively passes his hat to collect money for the couple, whom he openly refers to as “those two old bits of mutton.”
While Margery is searching for a coin, George takes the “glittering questionable sovereign” and, before Margery can prevent him, drops the coin into Jerry’s hat. Then, “curiously shamefaced,” he hurries away. The girls are dazzled by the generosity of George’s contribution, and even Nab is “mute before its sublimity.”
After they leave, Jerry counts the money and loudly thanks the crowd for the “very handsome collection” of eight shillings and fourpence. Then he hurries away, murmuring “Beau-tiful beautiful Zi-on.” He keeps the golden sovereign for himself.
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