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The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 251


Dixon amused himself while in Washington by attending
the debates in “both houses of Congress.” He was
quite a politician in his way, and nothing pleased him so
much, he said, “as to hear Southern members talk to
Northern representatives, as if they owned them.”

From some of the “M. C.'s” of the “Middle States”
he obtained much valuable information relative to the
“supply,” and from others of the extreme southwest, of
the “demand” for negroes. His address in commanding
attention from “public men” was much admired by Dixon's
confederates, and was frequently alluded to by them
as one of the many evidences of his uncommon talents.

Dixon himself felt his decided superiority in this respect,
and would sometimes amuse his friends with anecdotes,
illustrating how he used these very gentlemen for
his own purposes. He mentioned several particular cases
where he got possession of “favorite body servants” by
advancing a few hundred dollars just at the time their
masters were hard up at the gaming-table, or deprived of


Page 252
their reason, by the long-continued debauch; for he took a
sort of malicious satisfaction in getting the better in a
bargain of men, who, though at the time overreached by
him, were nevertheless receiving the echoed plaudits of
the country, for “their great speeches in the national

One night after sitting out a very “late debate,”
Dixon walked slowly out of the “Capitol” toward “his
pen,” on the suburbs of the city. It must have been
eleven o'clock, when his signal was recognized by the sleepy
attendant, who let him in.

“Has Hovey got back from Colesburg, Putty-face?”
said he, taking his seat at the rude pine table, and pulling
out a little leather-covered note-book, preparatory to looking
over its contents.

“He's come back, and has just turned in,” said the
man, snuffing the candle with his thumb and forefinger.

“Tell him I want to see him,” said Dixon, looking
over his note-book.

“Putty-face” walked across the room, opened a door,
and exposed upon a rude bench, a man with his clothes on,
and asleep.

“Wake up here!” said he, giving the man a shake.

Hovey sprang upright in bed, and although still almost
asleep, had instinctively, as it were, grasped a long
knife that was under his pillow, and opening his eyes, demanded
in most shockingly profane language, what was the

“Dixon wants you,” was the simple reply.

“I was dreaming just now,” said Hovey, putting up


Page 253
his knife, and hunting around for his shoes, “that somebody
was going to cut my throat;” and after uttering this
pleasant reminiscence, he shuffled into Dixon's presence,
and took a seat on the opposite side of the table.

For some moments the negro trader continued to examine
the hieroglyphic marks before him, when he turned
around suddenly to Hovey, and said:

`What news from Colesburg?”

`Nothing,” said Hovey, sententiously.

“You think that no more niggers can be bought in that

“I do,” responded Hovey, at the same time yawning

“And I don't,” said Dixon, with a confident tone of
voice: “you see, Hovey, when you think you have got all
the niggers out of a place, the best ones is ginerally left
behind. Niggers is like pigs,—them that ain't worth
much run ahead, and come into market before them that
will bring the most money.”

“I didn't hear of any,” sleepily drawled Hovey.

“Did you inquire about old General Blueridge's house
servants?” asked Dixon, looking attentively at his book.

“He sold all out last spring.”

“And old Governor Fenton, what's he doing?”

“I think you could get his boy now, if you went yourself.”

“And what makes you think so?” asked Dixon, quite

“'Cause he's out for office, and must treat to get 'lected.”

Dixon, when he heard this reply, laid down his book,


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and looked at his assistant for some seconds with intense
admiration, and then said:

“Hovey, you are larnin'—for if Fenton is on the
stump agin, I could lend him money on his soul, if it was
worth a mortgage; to say nothing of that yaller fellow he
calls `Cæsar, my boy!'” and Dixon made a rude note in
his book.

“And supposin' you do lend him money?” asked Hovey,
with some interest.

“Suppose I do!” replied Dixon, triumphantly, “why,
if you lend a man, about such a place as Colesburg, a
few hundred on any thing, you must close the mortgage
when it's due, to get your money back. I've seen
niggers that their masters thought as much of, as they
did of their own flesh and blood, and perhaps they had
reason to, and they wouldn't sell, oh no! too conscientious
—under too many obligations to the darkee, and his dad
and mammy before him, to let him go to Louisiana; but they
would borrow two or three hundred till next fall, and give
the `pet,' as collateral security—when I cum round agin,
and wanted the money, the men would all go into the dignified,
and the women into the hysterics, but the darkee
was mine, no fault of theirs, of course!—`my hard
heart!' `my cruel disposition' did jist all—it's a great
game, this world!” said Dixon, apparently confounded at
the magnitude of his own thoughts and reflections.

After a few moments musing, the trader started up, and
said, “I'll take the cars to-morrow morning, and go to Colesburg
myself. There's one or two light mulatto girls there,
I must have at any price. If Ragan sends around a negro


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to-morrow, with a swelled throat, and a seton in his
neck; put the sick cuss down in the cellar until I come
back, maybe he's got something catching. I bought that
old negro, Randolph, to-day, of Wilkins, and also the
buggy, and the wheelbarrows; have the buggy put under
the shed and covered up, and if old Randolph hasn't got
any bedclothes, he must rough it the best way he can. If
that widow lady, who keeps the fashionable hotel, near
the `white house,' and wants a middle-aged, respectable-looking
negro man, for a table waiter, thinks Homer is too
old, have his front teeth filed down, his hair well dyed,
and his skin greased, and keep him up until I come back
from Colesburg,—and, finally,” said Dixon, putting up his
memorandum book, “if any body wants to see me very
much, say I shall be gone a week; and now go to bed, if
you want to, and I'll turn in, myself.”

Dixon, at the conclusion of these general remarks,
without ceremony took the light, and examining the fastenings
of the front door, and walking across the room, and
putting his ear to the keyhole of the door that opened
into the cells of the negroes in “his yard;” he seemed
to be satisfied that all was right, and going into a rather
comfortable adjoining room, hastily retired, and was soon

Colesburg, although much gone to decay, was originally
one of the most pleasant and thriving towns in Virginia.
For more than thirty years, it had gradually declined in
population and importance. The people of the surrounding
country had, one after another, moved away to the south
and west, leaving large tracts of worn-out land, dotted


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over with stately, but decaying residences, altogether presenting
the most terrible pictures of desolation that could
offend the eye, or harrow up the heart.

From the vicinity of Colesburg, Dixon had for many
years, through his agents, purchased a large part of the
choicest “house-raised” negroes, which he offered for sale
in New Orleans, but never having been to the place himself,
he was on the occasion of his present visit, a perfect
stranger to the town.

In accordance with his usual manner of doing business,
he desired to have the purpose of his visit to Colesburg
unknown until he satisfied himself what were the chances
of accomplishing his wishes; for Dixon knew from sad experience,
that however anxious people might be to sell
their “property,” they visited upon him, as a negro-trader,
indignation that should have been, as he thought, “equally
shared by those who furnished the articles of traffic.”

Dixon therefore, on his arrival at Colesburg, wrote his
name in the hotel books, and under “residence,” put “Boston,
Ms.,” a bit of shrewdness that had on more than one
occasion, answered the desired purpose; and having done
this, and directed his baggage to be sent to his room, he
strolled leisurely about the streets.

The morning following Dixon's arrival at Colesburg,
was Sunday, and after breakfast he dressed with more than
usual care, combed his hair over his forehead, and walked
down stairs, preparatory to fulfilling a determination of going
to church. On the porch of the hotel, he saw a gentleman,
who seemed to have a communicative sort of expression,
and Dixon in his direct way asked him,—“If


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the large church he saw in the centre of Colesburg had a

“It has a gallery,” said the individual addressed, “but
it is principally occupied by negroes. If you will see the
sexton, Col. Graves, he will, no doubt, show you to a seat
down stairs, and among some of our `best families.'”

“I am not very particular whereabouts I worship,”
said Dixon, with an irony he could scarcely conceal.

“You Northerners don't seem to be as particular in these
matters as the Virginians are,” said the garrulous speaker.

“And how do you know I am a Northerner?” said
Dixon, turning abruptly upon the unfortunate object of his

“I reckon a man that hails from Boston can't be much
else,” said the man, evidently delighted with his own
shrewdness, “but you needn't get angry about it,” he graciously
observed, “for I never think more or less of a man
merely on account of his birth-place.”

“But I do,” returned Dixon, his face a good deal

The man looked at him a moment with evident gratification,
and went on.

“I am happy to meet with a Northern man, who has
such sentiments—I honor you for it. It's an old Virginia
weakness, sir, to be proud of one's native State. If I came
from Boston even, I should state the fact—bear the consequences—be
a Yankee.”

“But I am not such a hell of a Yankee as you take
me to be,” said Dixon, boiling internally with wrath, yet


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not forgetting the association connected with his name on
the `register.'

“I thought so myself,” returned the man, with some
vivacity, “for you see I look over the hotel books every
morning, and I can tell where people were raised by their

“How can you do that?” asked Dixon eagerly.

“Why, you see,” returned this `Mr. Pry,' that the
genuine Yankee always dots his I's and crosses his T's,
and writes his name straight along, whether the paper is
ruled or not, but the Southerner generally goes up and
down, and crosswise, and don't stop to attend to vulgar,
mechanical particulars.”

Dixon wrote his signature so that it was easily made
out, but the chirography resembled the first efforts of an
untutored child. There was a want of decision about the
letters, that had caused him much mortification, but
when he learned from `Mr. Pry' that his pot-hooks and
spider tracks had a southern air about them, he was exceedingly
delighted that he possessed this, to him heretofore
unknown evidence of sectionality, and with a smile of
unusual satisfaction, he walked into the street.

Dixon managed to arrive at the “sacred edifice” just
before the services commenced, and walking up into the
gallery of the church, he took one of the seats appropriated
for the whites—seats seldom visited except by the poorest
and humblest citizens. In fact the vicinity might have
been with propriety termed “proscribed,” for it was generally
supposed, that any one who would advertise his


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graceless condition, by occupying these “free seats,” gave
evidence of being utterly lost to all self-respect.

The assumed sanctimonious face of Dixon, his good
figure, and well arranged suit of black, caused one or two
of the elders to look up inquiringly at his perch; and at
one time, it appeared as if he would be invited to sit nearer
“the head of the table,” an act of courtesy which would
have given him pleasure, but which he would most positively
have declined.

Before him, as in an amphitheatre, were displayed the
favorite house servants of the town of Colesburg. The day
was fine, and the exhibition was unusually imposing. There
sat the negroes, characterized by every possible shade of
color, from the sooty black up to the blueish white, and
possessed of every possible variety of expression in their

Some were scarcely able to conceal their exultation, as
they surveyed their gaudily-decked persons, while others,
unmistakably alluded in no very complimentary terms to
Dixon, as a white man that had “got into the wrong

In the front row sat “Maria,” the only servant of
“Mr. Goodall,” a likely-looking, intelligent girl of eighteen
or twenty, plainly but tastefully dressed. There was an
air of contentment and intelligence about her face that indicated
the well-raised domestic. In her hand she held a
handsomely-bound volume, which she occasionally leaned
over as if desirous of learning its contents. Behind Maria
were several ascending rows of females, including every
variety of person and age, also a great number of men,


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mostly in the prime of life, all looking fat and sleek, and
vying favorably with the white congregation in the body
of the church, in the fineness of their clothing, and attention
to the observances of the day.

As Dixon sat down, he bent his body forward, as if
invoking a blessing, but he really assumed this attitude,
that he might more satisfactorily scan through his half parted
fingers, the appearance of the “property” before him.

“I think,” he soliloquized, after a long professional
gaze, regarding a venerable-looking negro, who seemed to
act in the capacity of subordinate sexton, “I think that
that woolly-headed old crow would be all the better for
having his feet in the stocks a few nights, with his shirt
off, and mosquitoes plenty.

“That `saddle-colored' nigger grinning at me, 'cause he
thinks I don't know where to get the right seat in church,
would be all the better for about `forty-five,' well laid on,
and tarpentined to make 'em stick.

“I believe that I could get about eleven hundred dollars
in New Orleans, for that young fellow pushing the window

“As for the monkey who sits near him, his shoulders
are so narrer that he ain't worth his passage to Louisiana,”
and thus he thought on, until his eyes glanced over the
lower seats occupied by the females.

“None of 'em has got the light color for real fancy
niggers,” he almost groaned, as he discovered the fact. “I
should like to have the burning off of them pink ribbons
from the head of that `cook, washer and ironer,'” he suggested


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to himself, becoming indignant at the tasteful cap
of a middle-aged negress.

“If that gal in the plaid dress can do plain sewing, she
would fetch more than if she was sold for a field hand.

“Wonder how many of 'em is free?” he asked, almost
aloud, his presence of mind being for the moment overcome
at the thought of such a dreadful supposition.

“How many is members of this 'ere church?—wonder
if Spooney in the pulpit there goes in for the Bible sanctioning
slavery? Hello, he's coming out with a hyme, and
that girl with the gilt-edged book is a huntin' for the varse
—that nigger would sell,” and for the first time, he took
a particular look at “Mr. Goodall's” Maria.

“She comes it strong,” said Dixon, after listening a
while, and plainly distinguishing her voice above the whole
congregation. “Why don't Southern churches buy singing
niggers and own their choirs?” and as the plausibility of
the thing struck his mind, he made a memorandum in
his never-to-be-forgotten book.

The services being ended, the congregation separated
into a variety of streams, and distributed itself over the
town. Although Dixon was recognized as a stranger, still
no one had suspected his vocation, and he wandered down
the principal street towards his hotel, the subject of much
innocent gossip, the popular impression being, that he was
in some way connected with a proposed railroad that a
“Northern company” had projected in the vicinity.

Dixon, from the information he already had of the
town and its people, and from his own examination at
church, had formed a very good idea of the “state of the


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market,” and determined to set at once about business,
regardless of his disguise. With this resolution in his
mind, he saw coming toward him a young man whom he
had noticed hanging about the bar of the hotel, whose care-worn
looks gave painful evidence that he was, from dissipation,
to be a victim of a premature grave.

“I think that young man might be of service to me,
and as he drinks hard, he'll not be over particular as to
what he does, to get a little money, proud as he looks,”
thought Dixon, standing still on the walk, until the person
alluded to came up.

“You'll excuse me, stranger,” said Dixon, the instant
he was within speaking distance, “you will excuse me, if I
ask you what time they dine on Sunday, at the hotel? for,
I perceive you are one of its boarders.”

“I do patronize the place,” replied the young man, in a
grandiloquent manner. “I suffer myself to go about the
premises, when I have nothing better to do.”

Dixon perceiving that the gentleman was communicative,
dropped his query about the dinner, and went on:—

“I am a stranger in Colesburg,—came here on a little
private business, and should like some information.”

“I am at leisure to answer any inquiries,” said the
young man, “but the fact is, I am so confounded dry, that
I can't speak the truth.”

“Walk back to the hotel, sir,” said Dixon, “for I have
good brandy in my room, or we can take some at the bar.”

“I will take a drink,” returned the young man, “though
I have threatened to cut the concern, particularly on account


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of the bad liquor they keep; for if there is any thing
I do know, it's good brandy.”

It is needless to say, that `Mr. Mercer' (for that was
the gentleman's name) and Dixon were soon apparently
good friends. There was a time in the young man's history,
when he was known as the proudest and most accomplished
scion of a stock, historically celebrated for virtue
and independence; but the living representative had squandered
his fortune, ruined his health, tarnished his fame;
was, in fact, a mere wreck of his former self. The opportunity
of living off of any one, even for a day, was a rare
privilege to Mercer, and he was prepared on the instant to
do any thing to render himself agreeable or useful.

At dinner, Mercer, as Dixon's guest, drank deeply, but
it was evident that drinking, with the trader, was more a
form than a reality, for he never clouded his reason when
he had any thing of importance to do.

The secret leaked out at the table, however, that Dixon
was a “negro trader,” and there was passed among the
people present indignant looks, that a person of such a business,
would presume to so publicly offend those present
with his society.

Dixon felt, the instant his business was known, that the
ban of proscription was openly put upon him, and it seemed
that he enjoyed the bitterness of spirit that this consciousness
called up, for he assumed a confident, a defiant
air, and made Mercer's follies the medium through which
he exhibited his dislike to those about him.

Dinner over, Dixon led Mercer to his room, and helping
him to a chair, sat down himself, to carry out his original


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purpose of finding out all he could of the people he had
to deal with.

“Your citizens don't like nigger-traders much,” said
he, looking over some due-bills, taken from his well-worn

“Don't like 'em at the dinner-table or in the public
streets,” said the young man, with a sneer.

“There wouldn't be any traders,” said Dixon, with
more than usual seriousness, “if there were no buyers and
sellers, and the devil don't make nice distinctions when he
ever gets his own, that's one comfort.”

“This world is a perfect infernal humbug, and about
as full of hypocrites as it is of human beings,” returned
Mercer, “for you see the very people that have sold me
the most bad liquor at the highest price make it a point
to be the most busy in denouncing what they call my intemperate

“Exactly,” said Dixon, fully comprehending Mercer's
meaning, “but about these people in Colesburg—can I buy
a few choice servants in the neighborhood, think you? will
the people sell—are they hard up, or any thing of that

“As for the servants,” replied Mercer, that's doubtful,
“for the community has been pretty well culled—as for
the `hard up,' there's plenty of that, for,” continued the
young man, laughing at his own conceit—“if there was a
nigger to represent all the money that is wanted in Colesburg,
Africa would be depopulated to supply the demand.”

“But I don't want many,” said Dixon, mechanically
eyeing his memorandum book, “only five or six, but they


Page 265
must be tip-top,—no field hands,—highest style, first family

“A year or two ago,” said Mercer, “you could have
been suited to a T; there were the remains here at that
time, of some of the very best estates, and towards the
winding up of them, some men and women got into the
markets, that were better people, according to my notion,
than the Yankees that have moved into the places their
masters occupied.”

“Better to work?” said Dixon, with a comical twinkle
of the eye.

“No, not better to work, God knows,” returned the
young man, with emphasis, “but better Virginians—why,
sir,” continued Mercer, warming up, “there's the place on
the upper road once known as Carlton, I think old Gen.
Annesley had fifty hands on it, and the estate wouldn't
pay expenses; a fellow from Connecticut bought the land,
at the sheriff's sale, divided it up into small farms, sold
out enough to get the family mansion, and all the ground
he wants, for nothing, and it is said he is getting rich.”

“What a sweet place Virginia will be,” suggested
Dixon, “when such free-silers come along and crowd out
all your best people.”

“They are doing it, though,” said Mercer, sorrowfully,
“doing it every day—the old-times spirit is gone—no more
card parties, no more races, no more cockfighting, no more
balls, no more patriotism,—every thing is dull, chivalry and
State pride have departed.”

“It's all owing to the Union,” said Dixon, emphatically.
“It's the Union, Mr. Mercer, that does the injury; and it


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will continue to do so, as long as we allow the North to
interfere with our rights; unless that's stopped, we must go
to the dogs.”

“I think I had better leave the State,” said Mercer,
after some hesitation, “and I want to ask you, Mr. Dixon,
what you think of my going down South?”

As Dixon was really interested in this young man,
he gave him his ideas elaborately, and answered every successive
question to the best of his ability. In conclusion
of his remarks, that gentleman said:

“On going down the Mississippi every thing depends
on how you start. If you can flare up, and make a figure,
you'll do—but if you just go quietly to work at some honest
business, selling niggers or dry goods, or teaching a school,
or getting up railroads, the people will set you down as
lacking spirit. The very best way is to get up a duel and
kill somebody, but if you can't do that, there's other openings
'most as good; credit—if rode fast and made a short
heat of, will carry a fellow through until he can marry
rich, or something of that sort—but every thing depends
on the way you cavort around—talk about State rights, and
Southern independence—next to hard cash, splurging will
set you ahead, and,” concluded Dixon, in a semi-paternal
manner, “what I have seen of you, Mr. Mercer, satisfies me
that you'll do.”