University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 377


On reaching home, Mildmay threw the bridle rein upon
his horse's neck, and entered the lawn; Ponce de Leon had,
as usual, watched his coming from a distance, and with one
of his vast leaps, was about fawning upon his master, when
he discovered something in Mildmay's eye, that made him
shrink back, and whine with terror—on Mildmay strode,
as if some fiend were in pursuit, and treading heavily as
he walked into the house, he placed his gun upon its accustomed
hooks, and presented himself in the breakfast

At the table sat Annie, evidently awaiting his coming,
but, as she looked up and saw Graham, she uttered an exclamation
of surprise, and then seemed petrified into a
statue of alarm.

“I thought you knew my walk!” said he, with undisguised
sarcasm, gloomily taking his seat.

Annie still stared, her face working with strange and
terrible emotion, while her eyes, to herself, seemed untrue
in their vision, and bowing her head, she sighed—


Page 378

`I do know your walk, Graham!” and then looking up
with increasing alarm, she continued, “but that was not
your step I just now heard.”

“It was I!” answered Graham, with a sneer, and then
he literally snarled through his teeth, “the ears of love
grow dull by time.”

“Graham!” exclaimed Annie, and turning deadly
pale, and rising straight up from her seat, she fell toward
him, as stiff and cold as if she had been marble.

Graham caught the insensible form of his wife, and
held it as firmly, and remorselessly as if it were really an
inanimate thing. Glaring down upon the closed eyes and
pale face of the beautiful and innocent Annie, he tried to
recollect what was his relation to the being he held in his
arms; he had, for the moment, no distinct idea of the relation
of wife; wandering, to him an age, in the undefined
regions of horrid uncertainty, he first remembered his
early associations in Malden; and by degrees, and slow
and painful progress, he traced his acquaintance with Annie,
through courtship and marriage—and carefully connecting
the incidents, the truth finally dawned upon him
who she really was; and for the relief of his breaking heart,
scalding tears ran streaming from his eyes.

His mind once enlightened, he bore Annie to a couch,
and the intense solicitude he felt lest the vital spark had
fled, was a temporary relief from the tenfold more terrible
burden that crushed his heart.

The moment that she was left to herself, the currents
of life slowly returned to their channels; she sighed and
moaned as one waking from a deep and almost fatal sleep;


Page 379
and at last, with her eyes still closed, she reached out her
hands, and ejaculated:

“Mother, where's Graham?”

“Here I am,” he answered, leaning over her prostrate

“And is this truly my Graham?” said the stricken
wife, her face still full of doubt.

“Annie,” said Mildmay, supporting her in his arms,
“since we last parted, I have passed through dangers
which you cannot comprehend; I have been tempted by
the evil one, and have fallen a victim. I have those
about me who have sought to destroy not only my life, but
my honor;” and here Mildmay became too choked for utterance.

“Passed through dangers!” murmured Annie, with
increasing strength and interest. “Tell me, what is this
fatal secret!—why this change! Do you not love me,
Graham? do you not know Annie?—have you forgotten
your wife?”

“Annie,” said Graham, his face resuming some of its
natural expression,—“Annie, a cloud has settled upon
us; the peace of our once happy home is destroyed for ever!
my life is now valueless! I have shed human blood, and
the never-dying worm of remorse is eating at my heart.”

Annie now in an instant comprehended all, still the
particulars were vague and undefined. There passed
through her mind a thousand things before unnoticed,
which, when considered together, led her to the correct
result; and throwing her arms about Mildmay's neck, she
wept and sobbed like a child.


Page 380

It was while Annie was thus pouring out her feelings
upon Mildmay's breast, that her form seemed again to
melt in unity with his own; the consciousness of the possession
of her unwavering love returned to him as a dim
star glimmering in a dark and stormy sky,—and as she
looked up in his face, he pressed one long and earnest kiss
of redemption upon her brow.

Time wore heavily on. Two persons inhabited that
once pleasant home, who appeared careworn, despondent—
prematurely old. There were times of momentary peace,
—rays of sunshine occasionally broke forth, but the clouds
would always overpower in the struggle, and leave a deeper

Neither Annie nor Graham ever alluded to the cause
of all this sorrow. The young wife redoubled her efforts
to render her husband's home cheerful, but she found in
her despair that all her efforts affected only his physical
comfort,—his mind she could not reach.

The master and mistress of Heritage Place endeavored
to resume, at least outwardly, their accustomed manner of
life. Both felt that they were now more than ever necessary
for each other's existence—the word “happiness”
they dared not utter. Occasionally a calm would come
over their household, but some unpleasant reminiscence
connected with the duel would be rudely thrust upon them,
and their bark of life would suddenly ground upon the
sands of desolate recollections.

The duel became a matter of newspaper notoriety;
“public opinion,” which would have been foremost in denouncing
Mildmay if he had obeyed the reasonings of his


Page 381
own conscience, and “refused to fight,” was now poured
out in news-paragraphical sympathy for the deceased,—
for the “fatherless children,”—for the “widowed and
afflicted mother:” and as these statements and reflections
spread, they became exaggerated, and rolled back from the
distance in a dark cloud of condemnation on duelling, and
on the head of “the monster Graham Mildmay,” who was
finally represented as “a desperado of the Southwest,
seeking by every means in his power, to imbrue his hands in
human blood.”

It was these things that continually gave activity to
the misery that rested upon the inmates of Heritage
Place, and destroyed in the minds of Graham and Annie
the little consolation that would have arisen in the thought
that their sorrows were confined to their own domestic
circle, and sanctified by the privacy of their own hearts.
Instead of this, the idea haunted their sensitive spirits
that a million eyes of the thoughtless public were staring
upon them from the surrounding world, and that they were
never again to be free from observation—never again to
be alone.

The enervating influences of a Southern climate, meanwhile,
had their effect upon Annie. At the very time of
the occurrence of the sad incidents that so severely wounded
her spirit, she was in the critical time of acclimation,
and consequently, least capable, so far as her physical
health was concerned, to bear so great a shock. Her intense
desire to soothe Graham under his misfortunes rendered
her blind to her own declining strength; and when
Graham became conscious that she was, and had been,


Page 382
perhaps, a long time sinking under her weight of sorrow, a
new cause of alarm thrilled his soul.

The subject once broached by Graham, the language
of sympathy broke Annie's silence regarding herself, and
she acknowledged that she felt that she had not long to
live; yet there was no perceptible, or defined sickness.
Graham now in turn became the sympathizing nurse, and
found absolute relief in his anxiety and attentions to Annie,
from the more terrible feelings of remorse that still
haunted his heart.

“Time,” he would say, taking Annie's attenuated hand
in his own—“Time, my Annie, will assauge these regrets;
we are young, and we will outlive the first blow of this
terrible affliction that has come upon us: we will know
how to enjoy the blessings of the future by the severe lesson
we have had of the past. You shall help me, dear
wife, to atone for my errors; if we cannot be very, very
happy, we can at least enjoy peace.”

Annie would smile,—would look full of hope, but if
Graham could have been restored to that sensitiveness of
love that possessed his heart in the “olden times,” he
would have perceived that Annie Hastings was quietly,
but sweetly passing away; she felt it—knew it: her only
consolation was, that she should breathe her last in Graham's
arms, and blessing his affection, lead the way to
Heaven. Still Annie pursued her simple occupations, and
sometimes made even Graham's saddened face light up
with a smile at her unusual interest in some trivial occupation,
which showed, that she still remembered tastes and
preferences which he had formerly expressed.


Page 383

The desolation at Mrs. Moreton's was complete. The
widowed mother had only momentary glimpses of reason,
and then relapsed into moaning, idiotic insanity. She
made the night air thick with her complaints, and demands
for her husband; and kneeling down, she would call on
Heaven to for ever crush the men, “who took Mr. Moreton
away to execution!”

Eminent physicians came up from New Orleans, in
hopes that their skill could do something to relieve Mrs.
Moreton; and the result was, the temporary removal of the
whole family to the city. As its youthful members,
arrayed in deepest mourning, in charge of Aunt Margaret,
passed through Beechland, tears were plentifully
shed by eyes heretofore unused to such weakness. There
they were, orphaned, deprived of their natural protectors,
marching in long procession, the very impersonation of
woe. Even the vivacious Toots had become a quiet child;
her little spirit was subdued, and beyond insisting that
every one should acknowledge that her younger sister (the
baby) was good, she for the while but little resembled her
former self.

One of the subordinate incidents connected with the
duel, it perhaps should be mentioned, was that Col. Lee, in
the reaction of public scntiment, came in for his share of
denunciation; but, as usual, when it was too late to accomplish
any good, in checking his vanity in arranging
“points of honor.” In the midst of what he considered
a momentary decadence of his star, authentic information
came to Beechland, that the “high-toned, chivalrous representative
of one of the first families of Virginia, Col


Page 384
Lee,” was the son of a once respectable tavern-keeper in
the vicinity of Colesburg; and that all the knowledge he
had of horses, or good society, was what he picked up as a
stable-boy, or in listening to the conversations at the table
This blow, with his other troubles, struck him
down, and amid the jeers of the people generally, he
sneaked off at night from Beechland, as Busteed remarked,
“to turn up in Texas,—do over again the `first family
humbug,' and look down upon honest people on account
of his aristocratic associations.”

Mr. Moreton was buried near the public road in the
graveyard at Beechland; it was contemplated to erect a
splendid monument over his grave, and the site alluded to
was selected by Col. Lee as the fittest place to display to
the passers-by upon the “storied urn” the many virtues
of the deceased. Soon after the funeral there came on one
of those long and continuous rains, so common in the
South, and the roads every where were almost impassable
—they were so cut up by heavy loads. The negroes,
with their jaded teams, in their usual desire to avoid the
obstacles of the prescribed highway, made a short cut
across one corner of the graveyard; and what was first
done in the spirit of necessity, soon became a matter of
course, and ox-wagons, emigrants, carriages, and foot-passengers
pursued, unconscious of profanation, the new-made

But when the sun shone out again in brightness,—
when the heretofore impassable road resumed its wonted
hard and dusty firmness,—it was found, that the resting-place


Page 385
of the once noble and generous-hearted Mr. Moreton,
was entirely obliterated from the face of the earth.

Major Dixon finally carried out his cherished intention
of retiring from active participation in his long pursued,
and, to him, most profitable business. His trip to Colesburg
was his last appearance in his professional capacity.
On his return to New Orleans he sold out his depot, and
retiring to a valuable tract of land he had long owned in
the vicinity of Beechland, he brought together a large
number of negroes that he had hired about the country,
and, as if by magic, turned into a substantial planter:
and, as was agreed by the best judges, owned the “handsomest
force” that could be found in the whole South.

As Major Dixon gradually developed himself, his
equivocal Georgian title of Major, warmed under the influence
of popular favor, burst, like a well-perfected bud,
into the full-blown luxuriance of “General;” and so quietly
had it been done, that no one could remember when the
transition took place.

“Alava”—for such was the name the General chose
for his place—was distinguished for the rich furniture of
the residence, as well as for its perfectly trained domestics.
The arrival, from time to time, at Beechland, of
costly mirrors, damask curtains, rich carpets, cushioned
chairs,—all bearing the magical mark of “D,” in their
final disposition, gave to the reception-rooms an almost
unknown splendor. Upon the walls were hung several
fine engravings, prominently among which the proprietor
of Alava placed “Mercy's Dream;” his own portrait,
half-length, had also been painted, which represented the


Page 386
General, sitting in a magnificent library, and holding a
“Virgil” in his hand.

Parson Goshawk, as he now disliked to be called, soon
after he married the widow Hartshorn, devoted the whole
of his time to agricultural pursuits. He had unfortunately
become affected by a bronchial complaint. His general
health appeared excellent; he had an unfailing appetite,
and nothing, however great the quantity, that went
down his throat, hurt him: talking about cotton, negroes,
or, my plantation, did not seem to irritate the epiglottis, but
the moment he rose in the pulpit to preach, he said that
he felt a wandering of mind,—a vacancy of thought,—a
total want of interest in the subject matter before him,—
that was truly alarming; and he was, therefore, obliged
to leave off public ministrations altogether, and thus having
leisure, he often visited, and became quite a favorite with
his neighbor, Gen. Dixon, whose hospitality soon became

Surrounded with friends, it was seldom indeed that
the General partook of the solitary meal of a bachelor
planter. The return of a birthday was made the occasion
of a social gathering. The guests filled the splendid parlors,
and in varied conversation beguiled the time preceding
the announcement that the feast is prepared. Upon
a sideboard was a rich display of cut-glass, a pitcher of
ice-water, and several decanters of costly liquors and
wines. Generally, a servant stood by to assist those who
desired to refresh themselves; if not, the gentlemen, with
and without ceremony, gratified their appetites.

On one of those pleasant sideboard gatherings, while


Page 387
the gentlemen were trying their wits about the age and
value of the costly wines and brandies before them, Mr.
Goshawk started up with animation, and said: “Are you
aware, gentlemen, that these lovely flowers, in which we
are almost embowered, are absolutely the complimentary
evidences of the esteem in which General Dixon is held by
the ladies of my congregation?”

“Pshaw, Goshawk!” said Dixon, absolutely blushing
to his eyes.

“Aha!” said Judge Burley; “this explains why that
white `lady banks' has been so very carefully disposed
of on the centre-table,—reposing luxuriantly in a vase
by itself: acknowledge the indictment, General;—that
bud is from old Governor Starbuck's conservatory, now
isn't it?” and the judge looked unusually knowing upon
the company present.

“The fact is,” stammered the General, still confused—
“the fact is, the ladies have been very kind indeed, and I
am deeply indebted to them.”

“But you find one thornless rose among the number,
that is especially worthy of an honored place,” pursued
the judge, still keeping up his mysterious expression.

“Don't be too severe on the General,” said Goshawk,
coming to his relief, “for you cannot imagine that Alava
will always be without a mistress.”

“A health to the future lady of Alava,” cried Captain
Mercer, moving towards the sideboard; “come, `gents,'
let's fill up.” A simultaneous rush was made to the point
designated, and the significant gurgling sounds of liquids
and the musical tinkling of glasses ensued.


Page 388

Preceded by a grateful rattling of silver spoons, and
other preluding noises from an adjoining room, that so
clearly indicate that the last artistic touches are being
given to the carefully set table—the folding doors were
opened, and the hospitable board, and its accessories presented
to view.

Upon a side table were piled up hundreds of pieces
of fine china, beside of which, were ascending from the
potage jullien, and bisque, the most grateful odors.

The guests, by a profusion of servants, who moved with
quietness and precision, were conducted to their assigned
places at the sumptuous board, and with a graceful preliminary,
they unfolded the fine napkins, on which rested the
prism-hued crystal, and in their new form, seemed drifted
snow, absolutely deceiving the imagination into a sense of
giving a cooling influence to the genial atmosphere.

Thus were disposed, the recipients of the hospitality
of the prosperous and honored Gen. Dixon, and with smiling
faces, and grateful expectation, they beheld adown the long
table, at stated intervals, glistening pyramids of cake, combined
under the eye of innocence and beauty, from the
charmed surfaces of which sprang, in wasteful profusion,
sugar-coated “loves,” and innocent lambkins enchained
in rosy wreaths.

Still securing the attention of the eye were the varied
preserved fruits of the Western Indies, lying in their juicy
beds, as fresh as if just robbed from their spicy homes,
while rich confections and preserves, in luxuriant wantonness,
filled up the intervening spaces.

A choice bouquet of flowers, by their enamelled smiles,


Page 389
designated the allotted place of each guest, while from
the centre of all, towered a floral pyramid, in which struggled
for glowing supremacy the choicest native and exotic
flowers, making the very air redolent with the perfumes
of the honey-suckle, the hyacinth, the orange and
citron bud,—more beautiful than Ceres or Pomona ever
offered to the Queen of Love; and amid all, there went up
the appropriate incense of a blessing, from the appointed
man of God.