W Publishing Group
“One thing I’m sure of: I’ll never be a nun!”
Assumpta Damita de Salvedo y Madariaga stared at herself in the mirror she kept hidden behind a wall hanging. The sisters felt that mirrors led to vanity and forbade them in the rooms of the students at the Ursuline Convent. Sister Agnes, the sternest of them all, had said at least a thousand times, “It is the beauty on the inside, not vain painting on the outside, that makes a person.”
Damita studied her features: large, well-shaped, dark eyes, a wealth of glossy, jet-black hair, a complexion like a healthy baby’s—rosy and smoother than silk. The chin showed firm determination, and full lips hinted at a willful disposition.
Damita turned around and shook her head, muttering, “A girl might as well not have a figure if she has to wear this hideous dress!” The dress was, indeed, a model of economy. The pupils at the Ursuline Convent were mostly young ladies from wealthy families, but the strict rules at the convent permitted wearing only the plainest of sober, dark dresses. Despite this, at the age of seventeen, Damita could see that the ugly dress clearly outlined her figure, and she laughed aloud. I’m going out to buy a new dress, she thought, a bright, elegant one. I’ll wear it back from the shop and give the sisters a shock.
The thought pleased her, and she pirouetted around the room, a wicked light dancing in her eyes. She had not been a model pupil at the convent, but her father had prestige enough, and had given money enough to the sisters’ work, that Damita had never been a candidate for expulsion.
Damita looked around her and thought with satisfaction, Another two weeks, and I’ll never have to look at this old room again. Indeed, graduation was coming on May fifteenth, and Damita had longed for emancipation from the place for years. Her spirit was not conducive to discipline, and her educational process had been hard both on her and on the Ursuline sisters.
The door opened, and a young woman entered, wearing the same style of dress Damita wore. She scolded Damita, “You’re going to be late for chapel. We’ve got to hurry!”
“I’m not going to chapel, Chantel, and neither are you.”
Chantel Fontaine stared at Damita. The two had been best friends for years, but Chantel had learned to be cautious about joining Damita’s schemes. “We’ve got to go to chapel!” she exclaimed. Anxiety showed in her green eyes, in a pretty face framed by auburn hair. She asked with trepidation, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going down to get a new dress.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Yes, I can, and you’re going with me. What can they do to us—throw us out? You know we’re only going through the motions anyhow. In two weeks, we’ll be out of here. Let’s go.”
Chantel began to protest, but the force of her friend overwhelmed her. Indeed, Damita Madariaga overwhelmed most people. She was domineering, and once she made up her mind, no one could stop her. Her eyes were sparkling as she grabbed her reticule with one hand and Chantel’s hand with the other. “I can’t stand another one of those boring chapels.”
Chantel, despite her protest, was caught up in Damita’s excitement. The two tiptoed out of the room and down the long corridor, and then stepped outside into the garden. They could hear the singing beginning in the convent, and Chantel made one more effort to dissuade Damita.“They’ll tell our parents. They might even expel us. You know how Sister Agnes is.”
“They can’t do anything to us. The school year is nearly over. Come on, now! It’ll be fun. You can help me pick out my new dress.”
As always, Damita grew excited as
she dragged Chantel into the city of
The sight of vessels of all sizes,
shapes, and colors, crowded in from everywhere, awed the two girls. The most
impressive were the steam packets, white and arrogant, at their landing along
The two girls passed through the stacks of tobacco, hemp, animal skins, salted meats, kegs of pork, barrels full of pickled food, rum, tar, coffee with its unmistakable rich scent, and—always—cotton. The bales, some of them spoiled, towered on the open wharves.
The city was crowded as the two girls made their way through the French Quarter. They had become accustomed to the din. Stevedores scurried with their loads, and men ran to clear the ships. Tin-roof shanties lined the passageways with stores that sold sailors’ trinkets. Grogshops were everywhere, and new arrivals from the ships waited in long lines. Damita and Chantel passed an oyster stand, where a native forked his delectable wares from their shells. A blind man played a fiddle, and children juggled for pennies. Dark-faced Spaniards sold flowers, and black women waddled by, bearing coffeepots in their baskets, ready to pour a cup for any who wished.
“There’s the shop I want. I saw that dress in the window the day before yesterday,” Damita said. “I’ve got to have it.”
Chantel had no choice but to follow, and they entered the shop. A woman stepped forward and asked, “May I help you ladies?” She was a tall woman, obviously of Creole blood, and she waited expectantly.
“I want to try on that dress in the window.”
“Oh, that is an exquisite dress! A little expensive, I’m afraid.”
Damita gave the woman an arrogant look. “I’ll try it on, and if it fits, I’ll buy it.”
At the woman’s direction, Damita and Chantel walked back to a small fitting room. When the owner brought the dress, Chantel gasped. “It’s so—it’s so bright!”
The dress was indeed bright: an emerald green sheen with sequins around the neck, the sleeves, and the hem. As the store owner assisted Damita in putting on the dress, she exclaimed to Damita, “It might have been made for you! It’s a beautiful fit!”
Damita turned around and around, admiring herself. “What do you think, Chantel?”
“It’s a lovely dress, and it does just fit you.”
Damita studied herself in a mirror. The dress had a low-cut, square neckline with an inset of a gray, shimmering material encircling the neck and the tight-fitting sleeves that ended at the wrists in a small ruffle. Its empire waist let the fabric drape loosely to the floor, where embroidered and brocaded trim formed the hem.
“I have other dresses, if you would care to try them on.”
“No, I’ll take this one, and I’ll wear it. Wrap up my other dress, if you please.”
The dressmaker stared at her. “You have not asked the price.”
“My father will pay for it. Send the bill to him.”
“And who is your father?”
“Oh, you are Seńor Madariaga’s daughter!” A pleased smile spread over the woman’s face. “You have made a wise choice. Are you certain you want to wear it now?”
“Yes, I am.”
Ten minutes later, the two girls emerged. Chantel’s face wore a worried expression. “Won’t your papa be shocked at the price of the dress?”
“He promised I could have a new dress for my birthday, and he said I could pick it out. I’m just saving him the trouble of going shopping with me. Chantel, he promised me something else too.”
“What is that?”
“He said I could have a maid of my very own.” Damita laughed at Chantel’s shocked expression. “Well, I need one. Monica can’t take care of Mother and me both, can she? So, Papa said I could have one.”
“Are you going to hire someone?”
“No, we’re going to buy one. That will be good economy in the long run. We’ll buy a young girl, one who will bring a high price when we decide to sell her.”
Chantel bit her lower lip thoughtfully, and then commented, “I never liked the idea of buying human beings.”
Damita stared at her friend. “What are you talking about?”
“It just doesn’t seem right, Damita, for one human being to own another one.”
“Of course it’s all right! They’re not like we are, Chantel. They’re inferior.”
This was, of course, the standard
position of Southerners and some Northerners, too, at the time. Some in the
country were beginning to protest. The Abolition movement was picking up steam,
At Chantel’s silence, Damita said, “Come on. Let’s go get something to eat.”
“All right, but I didn’t bring much money.”
“I’ve got plenty.”
The two girls stepped quickly up the street. Damita was well aware of the glances she drew as they made their progress along the crowded walkways. She enjoyed the women’s glares. Many of them, she knew, envied her beauty and her figure. This amused her, and she met their glances with a self-satisfied smile.
She was also aware of the men,
both young and old, who turned to watch her stroll by. Damita de Salvedo y
Madariaga was accustomed to the admiration of men. In some respects, she had
led a sheltered life, being confined in the convent classrooms, but she had
also been able to participate in the social life of
Damita suddenly stopped. “There’s the auction!”
Chantel stopped and looked at the red-brick building to her right. Men were coming and going, but she saw no women. “I’ve never been in there,” she said nervously.
“Neither have I, but I’m going now.”
“Damita, we can’t go in there! Women never go unescorted into a place like that.”
“Well, I’m going. Papa said I could have a maid, and I want to see what’s available. Come along.”
Against her better judgment, Chantel accompanied Damita up the steps and entered through the door. She murmured, “I don’t like this, Damita.”
“We won’t stay long. I just want to look over what they have for sale.”
The main room of the auction was a large, spacious area with a high ceiling. Cigar smoke created a purple haze, and a hum of talk sounded as the prospective buyers mingled. They studied the black people who were up on a slightly raised platform.
Damita ran her eyes around the
room, and for one moment, she was almost tempted to fall in with Chantel’s
mood. It was somehow a place that deadened the spirit. Despite the loud talk
and laughter of the buyers, the black men, women, and young people who lined
the platform along the wall gave her a start. She was accustomed to slaves, of
course; her father owned many who operated the family’s cotton plantation just
“Miss Madariaga, what a pleasure to see you.”
Damita turned to face Lewis Depard, a slender young man dressed in the latest fashion. Bright brown eyes shone from a friendly, olive-complected face. He bowed and said, “I don’t believe you’ve met my friend Philip Moreau. Philip, may I introduce you to Miss Damita Madariaga.”
“I am happy to know you,” Moreau said with a smile. He was a larger man than Lewis, somewhat overweight, and well-dressed.
“This is my friend, Miss Fontaine.”
“A pleasure, Miss Fontaine,” the young man greeted her.
“Have you fought any duels today, Lewis?” Damita asked, arching her eyebrows.
“Not yet, but the day is young.”
“Mr. Depard is a famous duelist, Chantel,” Damita said. “If a man wears a coat that doesn’t suit him, he challenges him.”
“Oh, come now! It’s not that bad,
Miss Madariaga.” Lewis Depard had indeed fought in two duels and had won both
of them easily. He was an expert swordsman, as well as an expert shot with
dueling pistols. Dueling was so common among the young Creole gentlemen of
“Are you here to make a purchase, Miss Madariaga?” Lewis asked curiously.
“My father promised me a maid for my graduation. I thought I’d look over the wares.”
“There doesn’t seem to be much along that line,” Depard said, shrugging. “Except for a few strong-looking young slaves, this group happens to be pretty well picked over. Look, the auctioneer is starting the action. His name is Saul Lebeaux. He’s made a fortune selling slaves.”
Damita turned and watched with the others. The auctioneer, a short, muscular man wearing a dark brown suit, had stepped up beside an elderly dark woman. He said, “Now, then, we have a fine specimen here. This is Irene. She’s a clever house servant and an excellent cook.” He winked and added, “She does have one fault: she’s always pretending to be sick. Nothing wrong with her, I assure you. She’s healthy.”
“She doesn’t look well at all, does she?” Chantel whispered.
“But the man says she’s faking.”
“I don’t think so. She looks sick to me.”
Damita watched as several prospective buyers approached. One of them put his hand under the old woman’s chin and raised her head.
“Open your mouth,” he said, then looked inside. “Not many teeth left.”
“No,” another buyer said. “Nothing but skin and bones.”
Lebeaux tried to work up some interest. “Gentlemen, who’ll bid a hundred?”
“Why, she’ll be in the ground in a week.”
“No, I tell you, she’s fooling you. Just full of humbug. You give her a touch or two of the cowhide, and you can get plenty of work out of her.” Despite all his efforts, the auctioneer could arouse no bids, and finally a voice said, “Let’s get on with some of the better stock, Saul.”
The auctioneer shrugged and moved along to a large and powerful-looking black man. “Now, here is just what you’re looking for.” He poked the man in the ribs with the stick he carried and said, “Look at those muscles. Why, he can work eighteen hours a day in the fields.”
Damita listened, and her eyes went to the face of the black man. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He was black as a human being could be, and she saw that his eyes were dull. An air of hopelessness hung about him. He sold for $450, and his purchaser led him away.
“Do we have to stay, Damita?” Chantel whispered.
Damita hesitated. At that instant, a woman holding a baby was brought forward, and the auctioneer began his pitch. “We’ve got a fine house slave here, and a picaninny. Two for the price of one.”
“I’ll bid on the woman but not the picaninny,” a voice called.
The auctioneer argued, but a burly man with a shock of coarse, black hair finally bought the woman. He stepped up to pay the fee and take possession forward. He ordered the woman, “Get rid of that baby. You won’t be needing her to pick cotton.”
Damita and Chantel watched as the woman clung to the baby and shook her head, but the auctioneer pulled the child from her arms. “Go along, now,” he said.
The woman cried out something in a language that was not French and not English. She reached for the baby, but her new owner grabbed her by the arm and said roughly, “None of that! You’ll have plenty to do without taking care of a baby.” He led the woman away crying, and the auctioneer handed the baby to one of his helpers.
“That’s awful!” Chantel whispered.
Damita had not liked the scene herself. “I don’t see why he couldn’t have let the slave take the baby.” She started to say more, but, at that moment, the auctioneer said, “I’ve got something very special for you gentlemen.” He called, “Bring that girl out, Al.”
Damita turned to see, emerging from the door, a young woman being pushed forward by a white man. The girl was apparently in her teens and looked as different from the rest of the slaves as was possible. As Al brought her to the front, a buzz of talk sounded, and Lewis exclaimed, “By heaven, there’s a different sort of property!”
Despite the plain dress she wore, the young woman was a beauty in every way. She had raven-black hair, and her skin was smooth and of a faint olive tint. She kept her eyes down, for the most part, but when she lifted them, Chantel saw they were a pale green, large, and striking.
“She’ll fetch a pretty penny,” Lewis whispered to his friend. “I wouldn’t mind owning her myself.”
The auctioneer let the audience peer at the woman for a moment, then said, “This is a prize, gentlemen. Only sixteen years old. Make a perfect house servant. She’s healthy, and she’ll dress out fine. Come, look her over.”
Damita watched as a number of men moved closer. One at a time, they squeezed the girl’s arms and looked at her teeth.
“That’s shameful,” Chantel hissed.
Damita was staring at the girl. She was an impulsive young woman, and in that instant, she made up her mind. “That’s the girl I want for my maid.”
“You can’t mean it!” Chantel exclaimed.
“She’s pretty enough. I can dress her up. And she looks strong and healthy. I’m going to bid on her.”
“You can’t do that!”
Damita loved a challenge, and when the bidding started, she did not speak until the price rose to eight hundred dollars. Then Lebeaux cried, “Come along, gentlemen! Any more bids?” He waited expectantly and said, “If there are no more bids—”
“Nine hundred dollars!”
Every man’s eyes turned to Damita. Lewis’s face showed shock. “Miss Madariaga, you can’t mean that!”
The auctioneer also was nonplussed. It was uncommon for a woman even to attend the auction. But he was there for profit. “The bid is nine hundred dollars. Do I hear another?”
A hum filled the room, and the bidding rose to twelve hundred dollars. Damita calmly raised it to thirteen.
One of the men asked, “Lebeaux, how do you know she’s got the money to pay for that girl?”
The auctioneer swallowed hard. He was in a difficult position. He needed to make the money, but indeed, no young girl like this had ever bid on a slave. “May I ask how you intend to pay for this, mademoiselle?”
“My father is Seńor Alfredo Madariaga. He will pay the money.”
The auctioneer obviously knew Damita’s father. Still he said, “Your father is not here.”
“No, but he’s buying me a maid, and that’s the one I want.”
For a moment the auctioneer wavered, then nodded. He tried to get the bid raised, but no one was willing, for it was clear that the young woman was going to pay whatever was necessary. “Mademoiselle, your bid is accepted. Come forward and take your property!”
Lewis stayed close beside Damita while she looked the slave girl over carefully. “Your father’s very generous,” he commented.
A man slid some papers over a small table to Damita.
“He always has been,” Damita said. She signed the papers, turned to the young woman, and asked, “What’s your name, girl?”
The woman stood straight as an arrow. She faced Damita and said in an even tone, “My name is Charissa Desjardin.”
“That’s some name. We’ll just call you Rissa. You belong to me now. If you do as you’re told, you’ll be well treated.” Damita waited for the girl to answer. When she only stood silently, Damita added, “If you misbehave, you’ll be whipped.”
A light blazed in the girl’s green eyes. “I’ve been whipped before!” she said defiantly.
“I believe you’ve got a rebellious servant on your hands,” Lewis said. “She may require a touch of the stick.”
“Get your things,” Damita said.
The girl said in the same tone, “I don’t have any things.”
“Come with me, then.”
“I hope she turns out well,” Lewis said.
“Thank you, I’m sure she will. Come along, Rissa.”
Damita turned and left the auction, aware that every eye was upon her. As soon as she stepped outside, she turned to Chantel and said, “I’m going to take my new maid home. Do you want to go with me?”
“No, I think I’d better go back.” Chantel had had enough adventure for one afternoon.
“All right. If the sisters ask about me, tell them I won’t be back for the rest of the day. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Chantel left hurriedly, and Damita turned to the girl, who still stood without speaking, and said, “Rissa, I won’t put up with sullen behavior.” She waited for the girl to say something. When she got no response, she said, “Answer me when I speak to you.”
The words came reluctantly. “Yes, ma’am.”
Damita looked into the eyes of the young woman and shook her head. “This is a bad beginning, but we’ll do better, I’m sure. You just have to learn some manners, and I’ll teach you. Come along.” As they walked toward the Madariaga home, she was already thinking about how to approach her father. He was lenient and had spoiled her, but she had taken a big step. She began to feel nervous. She wondered if she had done the right thing.
It will be all right, she reassured herself. I’ll smooth it over somehow.