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The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 123


As with all wealthy planters, the most perplexing care
to Mildmay, was the management of the overseer. To this
individual, the proprietor has to delegate immense authority,
and yet the very qualities essential for an overseer, almost
necessarily suppose, that he will not, and cannot be a refined
and responsible man. Mildmay had his share of difficulties
after Fenwick left him, but he at length employed
a “Mr. Toadvine,” who could command readily in the
neighborhood a liberal salary, and was well recommended.
Mildmay, upon concluding his agreement with Toadvine,
gave him some general instructions, proscribing on his
place the use of a certain kind of whip, and incidentally
mentioning, that if Jack, one of the “field hands,” should
at any time need correction, he desired that it would not
be administered without his, Mildmay's, knowledge.

Some months after Toadvine was installed in his office,
the unexpected announcement, by Mr. Mildmay, that business
would call him away from home for two or three days,
caused a feeling of universal gratulation in the mind of the


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overseer, and the very morning on which he saw from his
station in the field, that Mildmay had departed on his journey,
he returned to his house at the head of “the quarters,”
and taking down the “proscribed lash,” he carefully and
artistically proceeded to soften its material, and by repeated
twistings, wringings, and drawing it through his tightly
grasped hand, he brought it at last to a satisfactory state
of toughness and pliability. Then rising up and going out
of doors he whirled it around his head, and taking deliberate
aim at a cypress splinter, nearly the size of his little
finger, that obtruded from the boards of the fence, he cut
it off with the end of the lash, as smoothly as if it had been
done with the edge of his bowie-knife; he then playfully
singled out fair surfaces on the side of his cabin, and impressed
upon them at each blow, various hieroglyphic characters
with his whip, and although no particular effort was
made, he buried the snapper deeply into the somewhat
time-softened wood.

“I reckon that'll do,” at last muttered the aggrieved
man, “that'll do,—I'll teach Mr. Mildmay that niggers is
niggers, and that he can't come back here from the free
States with his damn'd infernal abolition notions, and interfere
in my business. If any of his hands 'aint got thar
share of whipping 'fore night it'll be no fault of mine.”

Just at that moment, the front gate of the quarter inclosure
opened, and in rode “Col. Price,” the overseer of
the “Moreton estate.” Toadvine saluted his friend, asked
him to dismount, and they both entered the house.

“I came over,” said Price, “to ask you to let me have
the timber wheels; I think of going into the swamp this


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evening for saw-logs, and Mr. Mildmay told me 'fore he
left that I could get 'em if not in use.”

“It's a wonder,” snarled out Toadvine, “that Mr. Mildmay
did any thing of the kind. He's been in Connecticut
so infarnally long, that I didn't believe he would do a favor.”

“Why, what's turned your hair the wrong way this
morning?” inquired Col. Price, with considerable interest.

“Why, jist this,” said Toadvine,” “you see I've been
overseer here too long to be interfered with by any man,
and I won't stand it. Mister Mildmay can't teach me my
business, and he shan't tell me I whip too much or too little.
It's only yesterday he made me let Monday up, and I
had'nt cut his hide in nary place!”

“There is one thing that'll never do,” said Col. Price;
“one thing 'll never do, and that is, to let employers interfar
too much in our business. My notion is, `let me be
head or tail, or nothink.'”

“Them's the way I think,” half soliloquized Toadvine,
drawing his huge whiplash through his fingers; “them's
the way I think, and unless we do something to let these
upstarts know who's who, 'taint unlikely we may get down
to be thought as little of as a schoolmaster or a preacher.”

“Not as bad as that!” said Col. Price, in a tone of
voice that showed that he never thought that such a respectable
office as overseer could possibly be degraded by
connection with such professions; “no, no, not so bad as
that,” and rousing himself up, he drove his fist into the
table, and looking around in a great excitement, he said,


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“he would like to see a living man that would dare to mistake
him for a schoolmaster or a preacher.”

Toadvine, who had cruelty enough in his composition
to make two Col. Prices, lacked that military gentleman's
courage in the expression of his sentiments; so he deeply
regretted that he had made even the improbable comparison
that had given his friend offence, and getting up from
his seat he went to a rude sideboard, and unlocking it, he
took out a decanter of raw whiskey, and setting a broken
tumbler and a teacup upon the table, he suggested to Col.
Price the propriety of taking something to help out his

“That's very good liquor,” said Price, smacking his
lips, “whar did you come across it?”

“Well, don't you know it, easy,” suggested Toadvine,
putting the decanter up to Price's nose, “don't you know
the smell?”

“Upon my word,” said Price, drawing in his breath,
as if inhaling the perfume of a moss rose, “upon my word,
old Gen. Blatherskite's `electioneering tour,' as the central
committee called it; how did you have so much? thought
it all went at the `Clay gut precinct.'”

“Why, you see,” said Toadvine, “I sent word to the
General, that if he expected to get the vote of this neighborhood,
he had better send up a bar'l of something to drink,
and he sent word he'd do it; he said that the `South was
in danger,' and he'd do any thing but bribe, to get to Congress.
I sent after the bar'l the very morning of the day
it was wanted, by lazy Jim, and would you believe it, the


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whiskey didn't get here till night,” and Toadvine assumed
a look of innocence and regret.

“And so,” said Price, helping himself to another glass,
“you had the whole left on your hands?”

“Nuthen else,” chuckled Toadvine, and, as if unable
to restrain himself longer, and either from the effect of the
liquor, or the remembrance of the trick he played upon a
candidate for Congress, he kicked his heels in the air and
laughed until the tears came in his eyes.

“But didn't the General smell a rat?” inquired Price,
in a deprecating voice, “didn't he find out how you fixed

“Not a bit of it,” said Toadvine, “for I saw the General
coming down the road the next day, so I staked down
lazy Jim by the side of the fence, and commenced on him
just as the General rode up. The nigger hollered “Oh,
lord, Massa Toadvine, have mercy!' `Yes,' said I, not
noticing the General, `I'll have mercy, you infernal scoundrel,
for delaying on the road yesterday with that whiskey.
I'll teach you to fool away your time, when you are on Gen.
Blatherskite's business.”

“`On whose business?' said the General, reining up
his horse, and looking astonished; `are you flogging that
nigger on my account, Mr. Toadvine?'”

“`Yes, General,' said I, looking very angry, `this
nigger was sent for the whiskey, to treat your friends at
“Clay gut,” and he managed to get back after the voting
was over.'”

“`Well, never mind!' said the General, `just keep it
to drink my health with!' and he rode away; but whar was


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the difference?” said Toadvine, speculatively; “you know,
the General got the licker on tick, and he'd challenge any
man that sent him a bill.”

At this point in the conversation, a tall, likely-looking
negro was seen approaching the house, from the field; he
carried his hoe jauntily across his shoulder. In coming
into the surrounding inclosure, he was obliged to pass
through a gate, always placed near the overseer's dwelling.

“Whar you going?” said Toadvine; and springing
into the yard, and whirling his whip over his head, he
brought it down on the negro's back, simultaneous with his
question, “whar you going, you black devil? did I not
tell you to stay in the field?”

“Master James,” said the negro, with humility, mixed
with astonishment, while still writhing under the pain of
the blow; “I cum'd home because Mistress wanted I to
clar up de yard, you knows I wouldn't leave de gang,
'cept on permission.”

“I knows nothing of the kind,” sneered Toadvine, in
the negro's face; “I know nothing, except that you are a
sneaking, skulking scoundrel; but I'll catch you, my man,—
I'll catch you! and by the —, if I get a chance at
your hide, I'll peel you cleaner than you ever did a possum!
now go and clear up the yard;” and Toadvine struck
at the boy again; but with surprising agility Jack avoided
the blow, and disappeared.

“There's insurrection for you,” snarled out Toadvine,
in a perfect fit of rage, at the same time storming up and
down the yard; “there's a nigger that his master says I


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mustn't whip, and he takes advantage of it, to defy me to
my face.”

Price looked on coolly, apparently uninterested; at
any rate he expressed no surprise, but let Toadvine exhaust
himself, in giving wordy expressions to his feelings;
and then, from a wild flower growing near by, with a well
aimed mouthful of tobacco juice, he knocked a bumble-bee
on the ground, and spoke as follows:—

“Toadvine, circumvent that nigger; just teach him
you are a warmer friend to him than his master. Don't
strike him, as you did just now, in anger, and without a
cause,—have a reason, and then work at his hide, like a

“But I can't get a reason,” said Toadvine, groaning
under his impotency; “he won't give me half a chance.”

“Well, make a chance,” whined out the sapient Colonel.
“You know 'fore I come to Moreton's, I overseed for
old Captain Berks; well, you see Berks hadn't any but
old family niggers, as he called 'em,—and one, that nussed
him when he was a boy, he was particularly nice of—that
was a nigger, sure; why hog and hominy was too good for
him. `Now,' said old Berks to me, said he, “Colonel
Price, that boy I have know'd ever since I was a child; he
carried me 'bout 'fore I could walk, and saved me from
drowning at ten years old. That nigger,' continued
Berks, `cut the fust stick on this yere plantation, and he
mustn't be whipped, on no account.'

“Old Berks hadn't been to Connecticut to school,
when he gave that order,” continued Price, winking knowingly
at Toadvine; “'twarn't done for fear, neither, for


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old Berks wasn't to be sceared; but it was jest done because
old Jeff could fool his master, and I know'd it; so
things went on very well, until I couldn't sleep contented,
until I took a little concait out of Jeff; but for a reason.

“One night we was weighing cotton, and up walked Big
Bill, a thick-lipped scoundrel as there was on the place;
he put his basket on the scales, and, by the hokey, it went
over three hundred. `Well done!' said old Berks, in
ecstasy, `well done, Big Bill; and now,' said the old
man, sort of funny like, `as you have picked fifty pounds
more than usual, you can call at the store room, and get a
pair of shoes.' Big Bill laughed—old Berks laughed—
and I stuck my hand into the cotton basket, and pulled
out two water-melons, weighing 'bout thirty-nine pounds.

“At this,” continued Price, rubbing his hands in glee,
and giving the poor bumble-bee another shower of tobacco
juice, “at this, old Berks, who was a `little tight,' got
into a passion; he swore such ungenerous and outrageous
conduct, on the part of his niggers, would break his heart,
and if I didn't give Big Bill `forty,' he would dismiss
me from the place, and administer the medicine himself.

“So said I, pretending to be hurt with his severity,
said I, `Captain Berks, them's family niggers.' `I don't
care,' shouted the old man (the brandy, I think, getting the
upper hand of him); `I don't care, family or no family; a
fellow that would swindle on one side, and rob my melon
patch on the other, shall be flogged. I'd tie up Jeff thar,
much as I think of him,' said Berks, `if he'd do such a
thing.' `You would,' said I, pretending to be astonished.
`Yes, I would,' said old Berks, towering; `if you ever


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catch Jeff trying to palm off a water-melon for seed-cotton,
give him forty.'”

As Price concluded this interesting story, he deliberately
walked past Toadvine, who was standing, a perfect
monument of mystified surprise, and, mounting his horse,
appeared as if he was thus unceremoniously going to ride

“And what about Jeff?” finally asked the perplexed
and rather dull overseer.

“Oh nothing,” replied Price, carelessly, “only the
next night, thar was a water melon in Jeff's basket, and
every nigger on the place see'd it, and he was given `forty,'
and I think it tuck him six weeks to get out of the hospital.”

Toadvine, as he watched the retreating form of his
friend, Colonel Price, seemed suddenly inspired with unusual
spirits; he cracked his whip in scientific flourishes,
and going into his cabin, he stuck a loaded pistol in his
belt, took a drink of whiskey, locked up the decanter,
and remarking, “that Colonel Price is smart, and that
water-melon trick was beautiful,” he mounted his shaggy
pony, and was soon lost in the distance, as he rode towards
the slave gang, at work in the field.

As Col. Price reached the main road on his way home,
he came up with a small, sandy-faced, light-haired man,
mounted on a “creole pony,” and followed by five or six
fierce-looking hounds; a double-barrelled gun was balanced
before him, and he carried in his hand a raw-hide whip.

“How do you do, Stubbs?” said the colonel, riding


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up, and shaking hands with the man, “whar you going to-day?”

“Just nosing about,” said Stubbs, whipping off one
or two dogs, that would occasionally show their teeth at
Col. Price's nether limbs.

“Who's got any niggers out, now?” continued the
Colonel, for he took a great interest in Stubbs's occupation.

“Enough out,” replied Stubbs, “but no 'rangement
made for catching 'em. I'm done,” he continued, “a fetching
runaways home, just for jail fees; 'twont keep up my
pack, and pay expenses.”

“That's right, Stubbs!” said the Colonel, looking approvingly
on his friend; “that's right! if these rich
planters won't `antee up,' dont help 'em, that's my notion;
but who's that ahead?” asked Price, as he discovered a
young person on horseback, waiting in the road.

“That's young Finch,” said Stubbs, without showing
any surprise; “that boy,” he continued, “does take more
interest in a nigger hunt than my dogs do, and he's just
waiting thar, until I come up, in hopes that he can see a

Price and Stubbs shook hands with Finch, a youth
perhaps of fourteen, who was armed not only with a gun,
but had a bowie knife sticking ostentatiously out of his
breast. A little general conversation ensued, when Stubbs
and Finch, opening a plantation gate, bade Col. Price
“good day,” and commenced trotting through the “cotton
rows” towards the dark cypress swamps, that loomed up,
like mountains in the distance.

“And what do you think, Stubbs, will be our chance


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of starting up something this evening?” asked young
Finch, at the same time impatiently urging on his horse.

“Bad, very bad,” said Stubbs; “none is out in this
range now, but Busteed's old Phil; the fact is,” said
Stubbs, reining up his horse, “my dogs has got such a
scear on the niggers now, that they won't run away,—the
overseer has only to say, `Now boys, if I cotch any of you
leavin' you'll have Stubbs' dogs after you,' and that ends
the thing. I ought to get a big price for doing that,” suggested
Stubbs, conscious that he was the victim of unrewarded

“And how did you know, Stubbs, that old Phil was in
the brake?” inquired the young man.

“'Cause I saw him yesterday, while `still hunting;'
come right on him, turned up on his back, sound asleep.”

“And why didn't you make him go home?” asked the
lad, with some asperity.

Now Stubbs had been led into an unfortunate remark,
which he perceived the instant he had spoken, for he affected
only to use his dogs when all other means of capture
had failed; and he was afraid that Finch would get an
idea that such was not the case; so he assumed a familiar
air, and explained himself as follows:—

“You see, Charley, I was a `still-hunting,' as I said,
and looking for deer, and in wading Turtle Creek, for I was
a-foot, you mind, I got my powder wet, and what could I
do with such a fellow as Phil, if he had a mind to resist?
No, no, Charley, I'm more careful than to track runaways,
'cept I `am prepared,' so I tuck the best course I could,
marked his den, and when he hears the `barkers' after


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him, he'll run straight home, sound as a nut, and no harm
done to any body.”

“That was very considerate,” said young master Finch,
evidently much flattered by Stubbs' manner; “it was very
considerate indeed, and I think Busteed should be very
much obliged to you.”

“To be sure he should!” echoed Stubbs, “and all
the planters should; why, sir, but for me, the swamps
would be as full of niggers as they is of wild hogs. I get
badly paid for my sarvices, Mr. Finch, considerin' I have
to feed my own dogs, and take the risks I run.”

“And what risks do you run?” inquired young Finch,
carelessly patting his spirited little horse on the neck, and
giving his gun a juster balance, as it rested before him on
the pommel of the saddle.

“Why, a heap of risks,” said Stubbs, with the air of
an injured man; “do you suppose that the niggers can be
tuck, and nothing to do but say, `If you please, Mr. Darkee,
your master wants you hum?' Oh, no! I've known
shooting and slashing going on afore now, that would hurt
any man's feelins.”

“And where was that?” inquired young Finch, with
greedy interest.

“Why you see,” said Stubbs, “that two or three
years agone, old Duckeye, that's a preacher now, and Bill
Blass as was, afore he died, both kept dogs,—well, once
they were out huntin', and it seems their packs closed in
on the same nigger,—I'm told that their cry was beautiful,
when, as they say at camp-meetin', they met, and jined
their voices in harmonious song; but Blass's hounds had


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the heels; they was of the old `Ryder stock,' and they
just run over Duckeye's dogs, and left them in the rear.
I think the nigger they was arter belonged to old Gray;
he could scratch gravel, that nigger, and double, and turn,
like any fox,—the chase was beautiful. Now, as might be
supposed, Blass's pack drew the fust blood, and had the
nigger down, when Duckeye's dogs come up.

“The row was tremendous, and they would have sent
the nigger to kingdom cum, if the dogs, being strangers,
had not got to fighting among themselves. There was a
hullaboloo, sure enough; I was on the spot the next day,
and the palmetto was smoothed down for a half acre, whar
the fight was. While the dogs was going it among themselves,
and the darkee was crying and yelling, old Duckeye
and Blass got to quarrelling about who caught the nigger;
Blass contendin', as was right, that as his dogs gin the
first grab, the nigger was his. Duckeye stuck out that his
dogs was fust to find the trail, so the nigger was his,—and
so they got to swearing and scrimmaging, and tucking into
each other their bowies, and yelling and cursing, the
the dogs fell on 'em both, and such a row ensued as never
was afore.

“In this beautiful difficulty, the nigger got clean off,
and Blass got stobbed in the side, and died that 'ere
very night; and so you see, Mr. Finch, that the infernal
runaways is dangerous. I often think of Blass!” said
Stubbs, mournfully, “for you see,” wiping his eyes with his
coat sleeve, “that that 'ere dog thar, with the blood-shot
eyes, was own nephy to Blass's Cuba, raised and imported
Santy Christy, as Blass called him.”


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“Well, that was surprising,” said young Finch, looking
with admiration at the dog, that had such a distinguished
uncle; and at the same time somewhat confounded
by the conglomeration of Stubbs' story; “but how was
it,” he inquired, “that Duckeye got off from the —”
and Finch hesitated to give a name to the deed pictured
in his mind.

“— the stobbing,” said Stubbs. Finch nodded yes
to the suggestion, and Stubbs went on— “you see the
grand jury had Duckeye up, two or three times, but whar
was the witnesses; it was agin the law to use the dogs and
the niggers to swar agin a white man in court, so the matter

At this moment the two horsemen and their canine
followers entered the thick woods, and in course of the
fleeting hour, Busteed's old Phil was roused from his lair,
and there were to be heard the sharp ringing notes of the
open-mouthed pack, as they engaged in “the spirit stirring