University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 267


The news of Dixon's business purposes spread through
Colesburg like wildfire. There was a secret pleasure, as
well as absolute pain, imparted by it to a few who were
desirous of selling; but among the negroes there was produced
a consternation, such as might be supposed to exist
in a crowded hospital of wounded men, where a bombshell
had fallen through the roof, and was, before their very
eyes, preparing to explode.

That telegraphic power of communication, so peculiar
to the negro, throbbed the fact through their humble
apartments, and their agitated hearts; that the white man
so distinguished by his lonely appearance in the church
gallery in the morning, was a negro trader; and they
trembled with consternation when they remembered, that
he eyed them with earnestness, and had already decided
which among their number he would buy.

Through Mercer's indefatigable exertions, Dixon was
early informed of a “bargain” in the neighborhood of
Colesburg; and in company with his coadjutor, Dixon


Page 268
went into the country, and found inducements sufficient to
remain away all day. In fact, it was long after dark
before he arrived at his hotel; and after eating a light
supper, he went at once to his room.

Of late Dixon had become daily more and more sensitive
about the character of his pursuits; he was accumulating,
almost to his own surprise, a great deal of wealth,
and with it came the desire to be personally respected.
He had perceived the marked difference of the people of
Colesburg toward him, when they considered him a railroad
contractor (an occupation, by the way, Dixon looked
upon with disgust) and a “negro trader;” and he felt his
business, except for its great profits, to be more and more
distasteful to him.

Disposing of himself in a comfortable manner in his
room, he threw his feet into the window-sill, and, according
to his wont, cogitated aloud:

“I've made enough to quit this business, if I choose;
and I'm tired of doing other people's dirty work for them.
If buying niggers ain't respectable, let poor folks attend
to trading; I think that I'll go home, turn planter, and
put on airs myself. I ain't going to help make money for
people who are afraid to speak to me in the streets, or to
be seen eating with me at their tables: I'll wind up, and
quit merchandising this winter coming, I reckon —”

Just at this moment a gentle tap was heard at Dixon's
door, and without turning his head around, he said,
“Come in.”

One of the servants of the hotel, who had heretofore
called Dixon to his face “Boss” and “Mister,” and


Page 269
given other signs of being contaminated, as Dixon said,
by his intercourse with “Northern society,” now stood in
the room in a humble attitude, calling attention by the
simple, but expressive term of “Master.”

So altered was the negro's manner, that Dixon did not,
by the ear, recognize the boy; and turning around to see
who it was, could not conceal his surprise, when he discovered
the familiar face of “Sandy Bill,”—for such was
the negro's name.

“And what do you want?” said Dixon, now for the
first time resuming his natural manner, and by its air
of authority, sending a chill to Sandy Bill's very marrow
and bones.

“The notes, sir,” said the negro, pointing to several
handsome envelopes on the mantel-piece, that had escaped
Dixon's attention.

“Letters to me!” murmured Dixon, as he raised them
up, one by one, and read the superscription, “J-a-m-e-s
D-i-x-o-n, E-s-q., P-r-e-s-e-n-t.”

“What does this mean, boy?” said he, giving the negro
a look, that seemed to say, “I'll thrash your hide off, if
you don't instantly explain this mystery!”

“I don't know, master,” said Sandy Bill, his knees
fairly shaking with fear. “I don't know, master; dem
thar letters cum when you was gone into the country.”

“Well, take that for your stupidity, and toddle down
stairs,” said Dixon, throwing a piece of silver at the boy's

“What does this mean?” soliloquized Dixon, breaking
one of the seals. “Who's been writing me love letters,


Page 270
I should like to know? What's this?” and he read
as follows:—

Mr. J. Dixon,

Dear Sir,—I understand you desire to purchase some
valuable house servants. I have one or two that I would
part with, if the trade could be made privately, and treated
by you as confidential. I will be at the cross roads, near
the old brick kiln, precisely at five o'clock, where we can
hold conversation unobserved.

Yours respectfully,


Dixon laid the note upon the table, and walked up
and down the room, perfectly furious. The idea of being
forced to trade thus, by stealth, made even his ears tingle
with shame, and the idea was forced upon his mind at the
very moment when he was in the least humor to bear it.

Taking up another note, he broke open the seal, with
an expression of face that implied there was something
offensive to be unloosed by the act, and read:—

Dear Sir,—I have been informed that you wish to
purchase a few first class house-servants; I have two that
I would part with, for less than their real value, if you can
manage to get them in your possession, without giving
their owners the pain of going through the separation.
They have been carefully raised, and would not be sold, if
their owners were not conscientiously impressed that their
condition would not be improved, if they were set free. I
shall be at your hotel at eleven o'clock to-day, and shall


Page 271
proceed at once to your room, to avoid the suspicion among
the neighbors, that I am contemplating selling. You will
consider our communications in honor, and trust they will
be so treated.

With great respect,

J. Dixon, Esq., of New Orleans.

“This fellow,” said Dixon, getting calm through very
indignation, “wants me to buy his live stock, and then
kidnap it into the bargain. I don't believe in kidnapping,
unless it be to catch an abolitionist, but I'll accommodate
this Mr. Yorktown, and make him pay me well for the
trouble—let's see what the next gentleman has to say.”

Mister Dixon.

Sur,—I've got an old negro woman as wants to be sold,
and go to Mobeel, in the State of Mississip'. I wouldn't
sell her, if she didn't want to go down to that South country
to see her children, as is owned by Mister Brownlaw,
who, when he tuck the children, was to buy the old ooman,
but didn't have the money, an hasn't sent for her 'cordin'
to contract. I will sel her for two hundred and fifty, and
I think Brownlaw will give you four hundred on his place,
as her son is a carpenter, and I'm told he thinks a heap
of him, as he can earn five dollars a day, making bridges
on the rale rode. Please say nothing about this, and drop
in at my house in the evening, when nobody is about, on
the Sandy-hill road, f'ur miles from Colesburg, near the


Page 272
ruins of the old church, with a sign over the door, with
my name painted on it.

John Howe.

“I remember Howe's sign, come to think of it!” said
Dixon, holding the letter between his thumb and forefinger,
as if it were a snake; “I remember his sign, `John
Howe's grocery; wholesale and retail; cash paid for tobacco
and wheat;' Mercer stopped there, last evening, to get a
drink,—and take out the barrel of whiskey, and an old
tumbler, and the shop would be empty,—bet a hundred to
one that that old woman is free, and Mr. Howe wants to
sell me! but he don't!” and Dixon took up the fourth
and last letter, and sitting down near the window, his ill-nature
having evaporated, in the multitude of his other
emotions, he read as follows:

Mr. Dixon.

Dear Sir,—I understood last evening, after church
was out, that you had come on here to obtain a few choice
servants. I have long since been forced to the conclusion,
that slavery is a moral evil, and I have rejoiced that I
have parted with the few I have owned, to humane masters,
which is a great relief to me, in my hours of serious
reflection. I have one girl that has been carefully brought
up, and we are much attached to her, but I am somewhat
advanced in years, as well as her mistress, and we cannot
tell at what time she may, in the course of Providence, be
thrown without a protector, upon the wide, wicked world.
I had determined not to sell her, but seeing you in church
the other day, I have become deeply impressed that you


Page 273
are a pious man, and as such, would deal justly with the
girl. I have also reflected, that whatever may be my
sense of duty, the excitement at the North has been so
great, that it makes it perfectly impossible for me to carry
out my original intention, of setting the girl free, as I
cannot conceive a more dreadful condition, than for a once
comfortably clothed and well taken care of negro slave, to
be thrown upon the tender mercies of the uncharitable
world, and be left, as are the poor white laborers of the
free States, to starve, and die a miserable death. It
would be difficult to get the girl's consent to be sold, and
therefore this matter must be delicately arranged; she
will no doubt, at first, be much grieved, but we must judge
what is best for her welfare, ourselves, for we know how to
provide for her real good. The girl is nearly nineteen years
of age. Address “Humanity,” through the post-office,
and say where a strictly private interview may be had. Of
course this communication will be considered confidential.
I trust I may sign myself, in the bonds of brotherly love,



“This one is coming it rather strong!” said Dixon,
taking out his memorandum book, and copying the address
and business particulars, and tearing the letters up with
infinite satisfaction, and tremendous “vim” he scattered the
pieces on the floor, and trampled them under his feet.

By the time he had become really cool, Mercer came
in, and full of excitement, informed Dixon “that he had
got on the track of a `fancy girl,' that he thought would


Page 274
suit his wishes exactly. I have heard this girl spoken of,
I presume,” continued Mercer; “if it is the one I allude
to, she is described as being so near white, that she got
into one of the village schools, for near two quarters, without
it being satisfactorily shown that she was a negro.”

“Something of that kind would really be a haul,”
said Dixon, and taking out his indispensable memorandum
book, he unfolded a page that had been turned down, as if
to mark a particular place, and asked Mercer, “how white
this girl was represented to be?”

“If it is the one I have heard spoken of, she has blue
eyes, and hair not at all like a negro's, but on the contrary,
straight, and of auburn color. She was raised by
old Jared Cumings, and his own daughters were the handsomest
girls, two years ago, at the White Sulphur Springs.”

“The eyes and hair will do,” said Dixon, looking in
the memorandum book, and again turning down the leaf;
“but one thing I am afraid of! In New Orleans the quadroons
are generally delicate, their faces are not handsome,
but their extremities are a fortune; some how another,
the same cross in Virginia, with even less negro than a
fourth in them, have big feet and hands. What's the reason
of that?”

“I can't say,” said Mercer! speculatingly, “some fault
on the mother's side, of course. I once heard old Gordy
Moncton say, that if a slave could be bred, so as to retain
the color and good points of the white, and only have
taint in the blood enough to secure ownership, that ten
times more money could be made at the business, than by
raising any blooded stock whatever.”


Page 275

“I think it's likely,” said Dixon, “though the market
isn't large for these beauties, and it might be overstocked.
—Do you know a man living in this town by the name of
Goodall?” continued Dixon, abruptly changing the subject.

“Very well indeed,” said Mercer, “that is to say, I
know there is such a man in this place, but he is of a
very common family, and I never made his acquaintance.”

“Has he got any niggers to sell? that's all I want to
know,” said Dixon pettishly, for he hated to hear any one
talk about “family.”

“One girl,” said Mercer, “named Maria; she sings in
church I'm told, but you can't buy her.”

“And why can't I buy her? Tell me that Mr. Mercer,”
said Dixon abruptly.

“Simply because her master has promised to set her
free,” said the young man, with some concealed astonishment
at the trader's imperative manner.

“I've seen her,” continued Dixon. “I looked at her well
last Sunday; she would be worth to me, in Washington,
five hundred and fifty dollars. I know a family that would
give a premium for just such a girl.”

“Pity old Goodall wouldn't sell her,” said Mercer;
“she's no use to him; but I don't see how it could be managed,
her mistress treats her about as well as she does her

“Them's the very kind of cases I like to get hold of,
there's something agreeable in taking a bad edication out
of a darkie. I bought a pet boy once, who refused to work,
and I whipped him until I got tired, and he wouldn't give


Page 276
up,—so I took him along at rigler intervals, and the more
he wouldn't give in, the more I liked him, and if he had
held out another day, he should have had his freedom; he
was the best piece of spunk I ever met with, a perfect

“And what became of him at last?” asked Mercer with
some curiosity.

“Why, I sold him to somebody that had an overseer
that didn't know how to manage him, the consequence was,
the nigger resisted—knocked the overseer down—and then
jumped into the river. It was just like throwing a thousand
dollars in gold overboard, when that darkie went down,”
and Dixon yawned, and Mercer, taking the hint, left the
trader's presence, promising to be at the “Jefferson Hotel”
with a buggy, early in the morning.

Three days after the above conversation, at the dead
hour of night, Dixon by special appointment met on the
suburbs of Colesburg two heavily armed men, sitting in a
strong country wagon, to which was attached a fleet span
of horses. Dixon handed them a bundle, which being thrown
at the bottom of the wagon, sounded as if it contained
pieces of iron. He then entered into a hurried conversation,
stated his wish to take the four o'clock morning train
for Washington, and that there was only three hours left
for their work; and as the man who held the reins was
gathering them up preparatory for departure, Dixon, as a
last suggestion, said:

“Get the niggers out of town as quietly as possible;
don't do any thing to bruise their skins, or otherwise disfigure
them, they are all house servants—if they kick up


Page 277
any fuss, gag 'em,—if they attempt to break away, use them
articles at the bottom of the wagon,—go to that old hypocrite,
Goodall's, last, and you needn't be very particular at
his house about the noise you make, as you are taking
away my property—now be quick, and earn your money.”