Walter Hartright’s narrative
I invited Theophilus Camlet to the Slavery Redemptionist Club’s annual oyster outing because he has a brown scar like mine around his left ankle: the mark of fetters. The shocking assassination of the American president earlier this year had galvanized the Negro resettlement initiative, and a representative from the American Colonization Society was to address the meeting about a colony of freed slaves on the western coast of Africa.
My brother-in-law’s tendency to seasickness had entirely slipped my mind, but Camlet is game as a pebble. He assured me that the motion of a chartered paddle steamship in a flat calm would not discomfit him too greatly. On the trip from London downriver Camlet sat in a corner with his eyes closed, neither moving nor speaking. But he immediately revived when we arrived in Greenwich, where we were regaled with punch, oysters, and lobster.
To men of a liberal mind the cause is of great interest now that the Civil War in the United States is won. The speaker’s American twang was somewhat challenging to the English ear, but he was energetic and informative. “As with the children of Israel in the Old Testament,” he said, “we have found that the Negro in America, having passed through the fiery trial of slavery, knows well how to survive adversity.”
A more skeptical voice in the back piped up. “Are they not childish and incapable, ruled by white masters for so many generations?”
But rising to speak in reply was the Inimitable himself, Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of our age and incidentally a friend. “The former slave,” the great man replied, “is clever, industrious and of a cooperative bent, because all those who were not fell by the wayside. With such a citizenry there is every hope that the new settlement shall flourish.” And there was a patter of applause.
When we came back again the long mild September evening was just drawing in. The Thames was teeming with river traffic, trippers enjoying the fine weather going up or down, and the sky shimmered with golden haze that reflected from the water and made London a glowing, magical place. We docked again near Waterloo Bridge and climbed the rickety wooden steps up from the water’s edge to the lane that ran uphill to the Strand.
“What a lovely night! Let us walk a while, Camlet. You look as if you could use it. Does not the evening call to you?”
He smiled for the first time since leaving Greenwich, pulling down his hat brim. “I admit I’m happier on land. How much punch did you take, brother?”
“Enough to make it worth walking it off. We’re no longer boys, you know. If you don’t take care, you’ll become portly in middle life. Come, this way.”
The crowd of our fellow passengers clogged the narrow lane that led uphill, and I led us down a narrower byway that connected to the next street over. As is often the case in London, a mere half-dozen steps sufficed to carry us from a respectable thoroughfare into a far less salubrious neighborhood. Here by the banks of the Thames the ferry wharfs and the pleasure-boat docks were cheek by jowl with narrow unimproved streets of appalling poverty. We found ourselves in a rookery, a narrow lane with a stinking gutter running down the middle of it, teeming with the scum of the city – barefoot children in rags, boys eyeing our fine clothing, ill-clad ruffians who scowled at our passage.
But the sky was still bright with the last of the daylight. The two of us, sturdy men of the professional class walking briskly together, should have had no difficulty.
Then some ragged urchins spied us and, more dangerously, Camlet’s face. Until just this year he was of the most unremarkable appearance, with steel-rimmed spectacles, light brown hair and side whiskers barbered to swoop down and then up into a mustache that made his face pleasantly square. But an accident with a carriage earlier this spring marred him with a prominent diagonal red scar that took in eyebrow and cheek. The low rays of the sun slanted under his hat brim and made it shockingly visible.
A boy whistled shrilly, and his companion hissed, “Oi! ‘tis Old Nick!”
“Ooh, handsome-bodied in the face, is what we’s got here.”
A group quickly coalesced around us. “Look at that chalk!”
“Keep going,” I murmured to him. “We’ll soon be out of this –”
“Too moose-faced for the likes of us!” A clod of horse manure went whizzing past my top hat, nearly knocking it off. I clutched the brim, ducking. My first impulse was to take to my heels.
But Camlet turned in one swift motion. “Keep your distance, gutter-slush!” He had a gold-topped walking stick in hand, a recent affectation. As he hefted it I realized the knob was weighted, possibly with lead. But it was his scowl that made them fall back. Magnified by his eyeglasses, the ugly scar lent him an inexpressibly evil air. Even I felt a chill, though I have known Camlet for years as the kindest of men. For an instant the street arabs actually shrank back in horror. We fell back warily and hurried around the corner up the steep lane to the Strand.
“Perhaps we should take a cab after all,” Camlet said quietly.
Shaken, I hailed a hansom and we climbed up, directing the driver to the northern suburb of Hampstead. When we were well away I said, “Does this happen often?”
In the dimness I could just make out his rueful smile. “Not in the districts where I’m known. But I find I must take care now in some streets.”
“This is intolerable.”
“I take a cab, or my carriage, nearly everywhere,” he assured me. “As long as I’m aware, and keep my guard up, I have no difficulty.”
“Camlet …” But I could offer no useful advice. We are acknowledged the world over as the pinnacle of human civilization. But the Englishman still has a cruel streak. I am not yet forty-five, and I can remember the bear-baiting when I was a lad. The singular or the crippled are often street targets. Even the cats of London know not to sit on doorsteps or windowsills facing the public street, and any stray dog may find itself with a pan tied to its tail. How long had Camlet felt obliged to carry a heavy stick? At last I said, “Does Marian know?”