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The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 219


On the morning following Toadvine's visit to the jail, the
citizens living in the neighborhood of Beechland, were
shocked by discovering on the very edge of the town, the
mutilated body of a dead negro, and it seemed more than
probable that a murder had been committed. The neck
of the deceased was not only broken, but the bones thereof
had evidently been torn asunder; and with such force, as
to elongate the persistent muscles. A piece of rope that
had evidently been rudely severed with a sharp knife, was
still around his neck, and upon farther examination, a deep
indentation could be traced for a considerable distance,
along the road, showing how far the body had been dragged
upon the ground.

It happened to be that day of the week, when the
planters of the vicinity, by general consent, meet in town,
not only to transact business, but also for social intercourse,
and very soon a large number of the most substantial
citizens of the surrounding country, were standing in


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excited groups in proximity to the body, and all engaged
in deep and earnest conversation about the mystery.

The “coroner” had been summoned; a jury was quickly
obtained—an inquest held—and the prompt verdict was,
that the deceased negro came to his death by violence
at the hands of some person or persons unknown.

This done, the body was taken to the court-house, and
laid out upon the porch, in hopes that some one would
identify it.

About ten o'clock, the jailer had finished his morning
work, of letting the negroes get their own breakfast, while
he fed his dogs, with such other duties as occurred, when
he thrust a cigar in his mouth, and his hands in his
pockets, and leaving his charge in the care of a deputy,
he started out to learn the news of the day, and prepared
to take an active part in a political discussion, or a game
of cards, the only two excitements he allowed himself
openly to indulge in.

And it so happened as he passed along, that he came
across a group of citizens in deep and earnest conversation
and he knew at once that something more than usual “was
in the wind.”

“There goes Orcutt the jailer,” said Gen. Bledsoe, the
most popular and influential man in the community; and
continued he, “Orcutt is well acquainted in town, and perhaps
he might give us some clew to this strange matter,”
and with the universal approval of all present, Orcutt was
called into the conference.

This notice pleased the jailer, and as he came toward
the group, he decided in his own mind that they were


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going to ask him, either if he hadn't a pleasant room in
the jail where a game of `brag' could be played, or else,
that he would go over to the Head-quarters and take a
drink, and he couldn't tell which—but he determined to be
affable, in either case.

“Orcutt,” said Gen. Bledsoe, after the salutations of
meeting were over, “we called you over here, to ask what
you think of this murder that was committed last night?”

“Haven't heard a word of it,” said Orcutt, his suspicions
however prompting him to believe that he knew all
the history.

“You haven't heard of it!” exclaimed two or three
voices at once; “why, what have you been doing this morning?”

“Nothing but looking after the `stone jug,'” said Orcutt,
with a sort of injured look, “nothing else.”

“The fact is,” continued Gen. Bledsoe, “a negro boy was
killed last night just a few hundred yards from the jail”—

“Up the old bayou road”—involuntarily suggested

“The same,” said the general, exchanging glances
of intelligence with the gentlemen in the crowd.

“Well, let me see the body,” said the jailer, who instantly
became an object of suspicious interest, and the
party walked towards the court-house.

“The body of Jack, as we have stated, had been laid
upon the court-house steps. An infirm old negro, who had,
years agone, become useless as a servant, and earned a precarious
living in the town, had, in the natural goodness of
her heart, washed off the mud from the body, and disposing


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of it in a decent manner, had covered it with a sheet, and
sat by, a sincere mourner for the memory and misfortunes
of one of her race.

“And who is it, aunty?” said Gen. Bledsoe, addressing
the old negress kindly, “do you know the face?”

“Bress you, no, master;” and turning to the corpse, she
muttered, “he's done gone to heav'n now, dat's one comfort,”
and then instinctively moved away from the immediate
presence of the white people.

Orcutt was exceedingly annoyed that, by an unguarded
expression, he had made his suspicions a matter of interest,
for he did not wish to have the responsibility of recognizing
the body, and probable arrest of the murderer,
thrown upon his shoulders. Holding his office at the
mercy of political partisans, it instantly occurred to him,
that the enmity of Toadvine and his friends, if united at
any future time against him at the polls, could secure his
removal, and he was exceedingly embarrassed at the position
in which he found himself.

Now the usually most talkative man in the community
was in the crowd, but from the time he heard of the murder,
he had been as dumb as a mouse. This gentleman
was Maj. Trimmer, “the great criminal lawyer and active
politician” of the surrounding country; he knew that he
had a client somewhere in the parish, as soon as he saw
Jack's body, and was then actually looking out for his
“retaining fee.”

He discovered Orcutt's embarrassment, and tucking
that worthy under the arm, he led him a step aside, and


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remarked, “You needn't say any thing to criminate yourself,
even if such a thing were possible.”

“I'd nothing to do with it,” said Orcutt doggedly, “but
you'll give me a letter major, in case it is ever necessary,
that what I do say is under compulsion.”

“Certainly I will,” said the major, shaking Orcutt
by the hand.

Orcutt returned to the group of inquirers, and carelessly
throwing back the old sheet from the face of the
corpse, examined the swollen and ghastly lineaments for a
moment, and said:—

“As I expected, its —” but before he could say
more, Gen. Bledsoe suddenly seized him by the shoulder,
and with great emphasis exclaimed:

“You know the negro, and you believe he was murdered?”
Orcutt was about to resist such rude treatment,
but the eyes of too many resolute men were upon him, who
evidently sympathized with the general's conduct.

“I think I know the negro, and I believe that he was
killed,” said Orcutt, looking confused.

“And why did you ask if the murder was committed
in the bayou road, when you claimed to have heard nothing
about it,” asked a very matter of fact planter, thrusting
his nose into Orcutt's face.

“Don't speak as you value life,” whispered Bledsoe,
becoming every moment more excited, “don't speak until
I tell you.”

Orcutt was then pushed aside, as it were, and he was
instantly surrounded by the most influential persons present,
among whom there was an astonishing display of


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bowie-knives and pistols; and this significant group, by a
kind of tacit consent, no one but the initiated approached.

The news spread that a clew to the murder had been
obtained, and crowds began to collect about the court-house;
men, and boys, and negroes, could be seen coming
from every direction to the common focus, all excited and
all curious. The keeper of the “Head-quarters” adjoining
the seat of justice, was in ecstasies, and this was displayed
in a professional way, for, rushing behind his bar, he commenced
cleaning his glasses, feeling assured that very soon
his “groceries” would be in even unusual demand.

“And now, Mr. Orcutt,” said Gen. Bledsoe, looking at
his compeers, and letting go his hold on the jailer, “now,
sir, we will hear your story.”

Without ceremony, Orcutt gave a very truthful account
of things connected with Jack's leaving the jail; as he
progressed with his story, many of his listeners became
livid with rage, and deep and bitter were the subdued execrations
that fell upon Toadvine's head.

Orcutt soon discovered how popular feeling was going,
and he began to artfully exaggerate things already dreadful;
he felt that Toadvine's power had gone, and therefore, to
conciliate the influence of the overseer was no longer a
matter of importance.

As soon as the full force of Toadvine's conduct was understood,
there was a universal clamor for his arrest and
prompt punishment. The feeling was more than usually
strong, from the fact, that recently two or three slave murders
had been committed, only a little less atrocious than the case
under consideration; and in truth, so great was the excitement,


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that there was evidently a strong under-current, demanding
more summary proceedings than could be had by
due course of law. Many persons whispered apart—Gen.
Bledsoe was constantly consulted; individuals would leave
the select throng, and go over to the court-house group,
and whispering to different men, of repulsive and hang-dog
appearance, lead them within the centre of the deliberative
body; men, whose long beards and dissipated faces
marked them as “the desperadoes of the community.”

Every now and then some one would, after being whispered
to by Gen. Bledsoe, leave, and presently return
with a double-barrelled fowling-piece or musket. The
sheriff also made his appearance, and was uncommonly active
to find some justice of the peace, to get out a warrant,
for he regretted that he could do nothing, “unless especially
instructed by a proper officer.”

It was soon evident that one universal feeling had settled
down upon the crowd. Some three or four who had
been active in the deliberations, were already mounted, as
if bent on a hasty journey, when one of the younger men
of the party rose in his saddle, and speaking in a loud
voice, said:

“Gentlemen, we have had to-day the painful evidence
of the reckless destruction of our property. If irresponsible
men are permitted to thus injure our interests, what
will be the result? utter ruin. It is proposed that the
violator of our rights, in consideration of his seeming defiance
of the laws, be not left to the mercy of its delays,
but have justice dealt out to him with our own indignant


Page 226

A loud and enthusiastic shout was given, and twenty
men in an instant were in their saddles. Away these
horsemen scattered through the streets, many riding hither
and thither, and almost all indulging in the free use of
liquor, either from canteens carried in their pockets, or
such as could be purchased at the “groceries.” In the
course of a half hour more, the town had assumed its
usually dull appearance, for that particular time of day.

On that eventful morning, Toadvine had risen at his
accustomed hour, and externally, as if nothing in his history
of an extraordinary character had occurred, he went
into the field with the negroes. After he returned to his
house for his breakfast, he quietly walked over to the
“residence,” and asked Mr. Mildmay for a prospective
order for the amount of money due him up to date, remarking,
“that he had created some debts, which he
wished to settle;” he then strolled out upon the gallery,
and taking up an old newspaper, seemed to be absorbed in
its contents.

Mildmay, after looking over his memorandum book,
wrote a draft on his merchant for the amount due Toadvine,
and stepping out on the gallery, handed it to the
overseer, with the question, “Did you bring home Jack,
last night, as you intended?”

“Why, the fact is,” said Toadvine, folding up the paper
and putting it in his pocket—“the fact is, that I spent
too much time, yesterday evening, at the `Head-quarters,'
and besides losing some money, I drank too much—” and
Toadvine apparently hesitated to finish his remark.

“I am sorry, for your sake, that such is the fact!”


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observed Mildmay, with perceptible emotion in his voice;
“but no matter,” he continued, evidently not desirous to
seem to assume any superiority in habits or position; “no
matter, I am going to Beechland this evening, myself, and
I will call at the jail, and send Jack home, and thus have
no further trouble about it.”

Toadvine moved away, crossed the yard, and entered
his own house, and sitting down at his deal table, and
taking a deep potation of his ever favorite whiskey, and
thrusting his hands in his pockets, he commenced soliloquizing,

“I wonder what did become of Jack? I must have
been pretty tight last night. I was so infarnally mad
about that mud-hole, that I 'most forget every thing else.
How he did pull, when he tried to get away; if it hadn't
been for breaking off the pommel of my saddle, to say
nothing of that rope across my thigh, I'd a' pulled him
home, or killed my horse.”

And giving utterance to these expressions, Toadvine,
for some ten minutes, seemed lost in a deep reverie, then
rousing himself, he put away his decanter, and looked
over the “promise to pay,” so recently received from his
employer, and after cyphering some time on the floor with
a piece of charcoal, he observed:

“Well, if Mr. Mildmay does send me off for this little
frolic, he don't owe me any thing, thank fortune!” and
with this consoling reflection, and entirely unconscious of
the real extent of his offending, he mounted his horse, and
again rode into the field.

To avoid the appearance of any thing extraordinary in


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contemplation, by Gen. Bledsoe's party, its several members
seemed to be straggling off in different directions, but,
by a preconcerted plan, they met a mile or two from Beechland,
in the thickly growing brush of an old abandoned
plantation, which was all that remained of the evidences
of a once “splendid home.”

Here in conclave it was agreed, that it was useless to
trust to the laws for the punishment of Toadvine; that the
law was a mere farce, gotten up for no other purpose than
to enable lawyers to rob the community, and escape the
consequences. It was further decided, that it would save
the parish expense, and a great deal of feeling besides, in
the minds of those interested, by seeing him summarily
hung to a limb of the nearest tree; and also teach him,
and others similarly disposed to tamper with the rights of
the planters, that it could not be done with impunity.