Chapter 2 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

The Blackadders.

In the time preceding the extinction of slavery, there was no part of the United States where its chain was so galling as in that region lying along the lower Mississippi, known as the “Coast.” More especially was this true of the State of Mississippi itself. In the old territories, east of the Alleghany range, the “institution” was tempered with a certain touch of the patriarchal; and the same might be said of Kentucky and Tennessee. Even in parts of Louisiana the mild indolent habits of the Creole had a softening influence on the condition of the slave. But it was different on the great cotton and tobacco plantations of Mississippi, as also portions of the Louisiana coast; many of whose owners were only half the year residents, and where the management of the negro was intrusted to the overseer—an irresponsible, and, in many cases, severe taskmaster. And among the owners themselves was a large number—the majority, in fact—not born upon the soil; but colonists, from all countries, who had gone thither, often with broken fortunes, and not unfrequently characters as well.

By these men the slave was only looked upon as so much live-stock; and it was not a question either of his happiness or welfare, but the work to be got out of him.

It would be a mistake to say that Mississippian planters were all of this class; as it would be also erroneous to suppose that Southern masters in general were less humane than other men. There is no denying them a certain generosity of character; and many among them were philanthropists of the first class. It was the institution itself that cursed them; and, brought up under its influence, they thought and acted wrongly; but not worse, I fear, than you or I would have done, had we been living under the same lights.

Unfortunately, humane men were exceptions among planters of the lower Mississippi; and so bad at one time was the reputation of this section of the South, that to have threatened a Virginia negro—or even one of Kentucky or Tennessee—with sale or expulsion thither, was sufficient at any time to make him contented with his task!

The word “Coast” was the bogey of negro boyhood, and the terror of his manhood.

Planter Blackadder, originally from the State of Delaware, was among the men who had contributed to this evil reputation. He had migrated to Mississippi at an early period of his life, making a purchase of some cheap land on a tract ceded by the Choctaws (known as the “Choctaw Purchase”). A poor man at the period of his migration, he had never risen to a high rank among the planter aristocracy of the State. But just for this reason did he avail himself of what appeared, to a mind like his, the real privilege of the order—a despotic bearing toward the sable-skinned helots whose evil star had guided them into his hands. In the case of many of them, their own evil character had something to do in conducting them thither; for planter Blackadder was accustomed to buy his negroes cheap, and his “stock” was regarded as one of the worst, in the section of country in which his plantation was “located.” Despite their bad repute, however, there was work in them; and no man knew better than Squire Blackadder how to take it out. If their sense of duty was not sufficient to keep them to their tasks, there was a lash to hinder them from lagging, held ever ready in the hands of a man who had no disposition to spare it. This was Snively, the overseer, who, like the Squire himself, hailed from Delaware State.

Upon the Blackadder plantation was punishment enough, and of every kind known to the skin of the negro. At times there was even mutilation—of the milder type—extending beneath his skin. If Pomp or Scip tried to escape work by shamming a toothache, the tooth was instantly extracted, though not the slightest sign of decay might be detected in the “ivory!”

Under such rigid discipline, the Blackadder plantation should have thrived, and its owner become a wealthy man. No doubt he would have done so, but for an outlet on the other side, that, dissipating the profits, kept him comparatively poor.

The “’scape-pipe” was the Squire’s own and only son, Blount, who had grown up what is termed a wild fellow. He was not only wild, but wicked; and what, perhaps, grieved his father far more, he had of late years become ruinously expensive. He kept low company, preferring the “white trash;” fought cocks, and played “poker” with them in the woods; and, in a patronising way, attended all the “candy pullings” and “blanket trampings” for ten miles around.

The Squire could not be otherwise than indulgent to a youth of such tastes, who was his only son and heir. In boyhood’s days he had done the same himself. For this reason, his purse-strings, held tight against all others, were loosed to his hopeful son Blount, even to aiding him in his evil courses. He was less generous to his daughter Clara, a girl gifted with great beauty, as also endowed with many of those moral graces, so becoming to woman. True, it was she who had stood in the porch while Blue Dick was undergoing the punishment of the pump. And it is true, also, that she exhibited but slight sympathy with the sufferer. Still was there something to palliate this apparent hardness of heart: she was not fully aware of the terrible pain that was being inflicted; and it was her father’s fault not hers, that she was accustomed to witness such scenes weekly—almost daily. Under other tutelage Clara Blackadder might have grown up a young lady, good as she was graceful; and under other circumstances been happier than she was on the day she was seen to such disadvantage.

That, at this time, a cloud overshadowed her fate, was evident from that overshadowing her face; for, on looking upon it, no one could mistake its expression to be other than sadness.

The cause was simple, as it is not uncommon. The lover of her choice was not the choice of her father. A youth, poor in purse, but rich in almost every other quality to make man esteemed—of handsome person, and mind adorned with rare cultivation—a stranger in the land—in short, a young Irishman, who had strayed into Mississippi, nobody knew wherefore or when. Such was he who had won the friendship of Clara Blackadder, and the enmity both of her brother and father.

In heart accepted by her—though her lips dared not declare it—he was rejected by them in words scornful, almost insulting.

They were sufficient to drive him away from the State; for the girl, constrained by parental authority, had not spoken plain enough to retain him. And he went, as he had come, no one knew whither; and perhaps only Clara Blackadder cared.

As she stood in the porch, she was thinking more of him than the punishment that was being inflicted on Blue Dick; and not even on the day after, when her maid Sylvia was discovered dead under the trees, did the dread spectacle drive from her thoughts the remembrance of a man lodged there for life!

As the overseer had predicted, Squire Blackadder, on his return home, was angry at the chastisement that had been inflicted on Blue Dick, and horrified on hearing of the tragedy that succeeded it.

The sins of his own earlier life seemed rising in retribution against him!