In Old Plantation Days
It all happened so long ago that it has almost been forgotten upon the plantation, and few save the older heads know anything about it save from hearsay. It was in Parker’s younger days, but the tale was told on him for a long time, until he was so old that every little disparagement cut him like a knife. Then the young scapegraces who had the story only from their mothers’ lips spared his dotage. Even to young eyes, the respect which hedges about the form of eighty obscures many of the imperfections that are apparent at twenty-eight, and Parker was nearing eighty.
The truth of it is that Parker, armed with the authority which his master thought the due of the plantation exhorter, was wont to use his power with rather too free a rein. He was so earnest for the spiritual welfare of his fellow-servants that his watchful ministrations became a nuisance and a bore.
Even Aunt Doshy, who was famous for her devotion to all that pertained to the church, had been heard to state that “Brothah Pahkah was a moughty powahful ‘zortah, but he sholy was monstrous biggity.” This from a member of his flock old enough to be his mother, quite summed up the plantation’s estimate of this blade disciple.
There was many a time when it would have gone hard with Brother Parker among the young bucks on the Mordaunt plantation but that there was scarcely one of them but could remember a time when Parker had come to his cabin to console some sick one, help a seeker, comfort the dying or close the eyes of one already dead, and it clothed him about with a sacredness, which, however much inclined, they dared not invade.
“Ain’t it enough,” Mandy’s Jim used to say, “fu’ Brothah Pahkah to ‘tend to his business down at meetin’ widout spookin’ ‘roun’ all de cabins an’ outhouses? Seems to me dey’s enough dev’ment gwine on right undah his nose widout him gwine ‘roun’ tryin’ to smell out what’s hid.”
Every secret sinner on the place agreed with this dictum, and it came to the preacher’s ears. He smiled broadly.
“Uh, huh,” he remarked, “hit’s de stuck pig dat squeals. I reckon Jim’s up to some’p’n right now, an’ I lay I’ll fin’ out what dat some’p’n is.” Parker was a subtle philosopher and Jim had by his remark unwittingly disclosed his interest in the preacher’s doings. It then behooved his zealous disciple to find out the source of this unusual interest and opposition.
On the Sunday following his sermon was strong, fiery and convincing. His congregation gave themselves up to the joy of the occasion and lost all consciousness of time or place in their emotional ecstacy. But, although he continued to move them with his eloquence, not for one moment did Parker lose possession of himself. His. eyes roamed over the people before him and took in the absence of several who had most loudly and heartily agreed with Jim’s dictum. Jim himself was not there.
“Uh, huh,” said the minister to himself even in the midst of his exhortations. “Uh, huh, er-way on some dev’ment, I be boun'” He could hardly wait to hurry through his sermon. Then he seized his hat and almost ran away from the little table that did duty as a pulpit desk. He brushed aside with scant ceremony those who would have asked him to their cabins to share some special delicacy, and made his way swiftly to the door. There he paused and cast a wondering glance about the plantation.
“I des wondah whaih dem sconn’els is mos’ lakly to be.” Then his eye fell upon an old half-ruined smoke-house that stood between the kitchen and the negro quarters, and he murmured to himself, “Lak ez not, lak ez not.” But he did not start directly for the object of his suspicions. Oh, no, he was too deep a diplomat for that. He knew that if there were wrongdoers in that innocent-looking ruin they would be watching in his direction about the time when they expected meeting to be out; so he walked off swiftly, but carelessly, in an opposite direction, and, instead of going straight past the kitchen, began to circle around from the direction of the quarters, whence no danger would be apprehended.
As he drew nearer and nearer the place, he thought he heard the rise and fall of eager voices. He approached more cautiously. Now he was perfectly sure that he could hear smothered conversation, and he smiled grimly as he pictured to himself the surprise of his quarry when he should come up with them. He was almost upon the smoke-house now. Those within were so absorbed that the preacher was able to creep up and peer through a crack at the scene within.
There, seated upon the earthen floor, were the unregenerate of the plantation. In the very midst of them was Mandy’s Jim, and he was dealing from a pack of greasy cards.
It is a wonder that they did not hear the preacher’s gasp of horror as he stood there gazing upon the iniquitous performance. But they did not. The delight of High-Low-Jack was too absorbing for that, and they suspected nothing of Parker’s presence until he slipped around to the door, pushed it open and confronted them like an accusing angel.
Jim leaped to his feet with a strong word upon his lips.
“I reckon you done fu’got, Brothah Jim, what day dis is,” said the preacher.
“I ain’t fu’got nuffin,” was the dogged reply; “I don’t see what you doin’ roun’ hyeah nohow.”
“I’s a lookin’ aftah some strayin’ lambs,” said Parker, “an’ I done foun’ ’em. You ought to be ashamed o’ yo’se’ves, evah one o’ you, playin’ cyards on de Lawd’s day.”
There was the light of reckless deviltry in Jim’s eyes.
“Dey ain’t no h’am in a little game o’ cyards.”
“Co’se not, co’se not,” replied the preacher scornfully. “Dem’s des de sins that’s ca’ied many a man to hell wid his eyes wide open, de little no-ha’m kin’.”
“I don’t reckon you evah played cyards,” said Jim sneeringly.
“Yes, I has played, an’ I thought I was en-joyin’ myse’f ontwell I foun’ out dat it was all wickedness an’ idleness.”
“Oh, I don’t reckon you was evah ve’y much of a player. I know lots o’ men who has got u’ligion des case dey couldn’t win at cyards.”
The company greeted this sally with a laugh and then looked aghast at Jim’s audacity.
“U’ligion’s a moughty savin’ to de pocket,” Jim went on. “We kin believe what we wants to, and I say you nevah was no playah, an’ dat’s de reason you tuk up de Gospel.”
“Hit ain’t so. I ‘low dey was a time when I could ‘a’ outplayed any one o’ you sinnahs hyeah, but—”
“Prove it!” The challenge shot forth like a pistol’s report.
Parker hesitated. “What you mean?” he said.
“Beat me, beat all of us, an’ we’ll believe you didn’t quit playin’ case you allus lost. You a preachah now, an’ I daih you.”
Parker’s face turned ashen and his hands gripped together. He was young then, and the hot blood sped tumultously through his veins.
“Prove it,” said Jim; “you cain’t. We’d play you outen yo’ coat an’ back into de pulpit ag’in.”
“You would, would you?” The light of battle was in Parker’s eyes, the desire for conquest throbbing in his heart. “Look a’hyeah, Jim, Sunday er no Sunday, preachah er no preachah, I play you th’ee games fu’ de Gospel’s sake.” And the preacher sat down in the circle, his face tense with anger at his tormentor’s insinuations. He did not see the others around him. He saw only Jim, the man who had spoken against his cloth. He did not see the look of awe and surprise upon the faces of the others, nor did he note that one of the assembly slipped out of the shed just as the game began.
Jim found the preacher no mean antagonist, but it mattered little to him whether he won or not. His triumph was complete when he succeeded in getting this man, who kept the conscience of the plantation, to sin as others sinned.
“I see you ain’t fu’got yo’ cunnin’,” he remarked as the preacher dealt in turn.
“‘Tain’t no time to talk now,” said Parker fiercely.
The excitement of the onlookers grew more and more intense. They were six and six, and it was the preacher’s deal. His eyes were bright, and he was breathing quickly. Parker was a born fighter and nothing gave him more joy than the heat of the battle itself. He riffled the cards. Jim cut. He dealt and turned Jack. Jim laughed.
“You know the trick,” he said.
“Dat’s one game,” said Parker, and bent over the cards as they came to him. He did not hear a light step outside nor did he see a shadow that fell across the open doorway. He was just about to lead when a cold voice, full of contempt, broke upon his ear and made him keep the card he would have played poised in his hand.
“And so these are your after-meeting diversions, are they, Parker?” said his master’s voice.
Stuart Mordaunt was standing in the door, his face cold and stern, while his informant grinned maliciously.
Parker brushed his hand across his brow as if dazed.
“Well, Mas’ Stua’t, he do play monst’ous well fu a preachah,” said his tempter.
The preacher at these words looked steadily at Jim, and then the realization of his position burst upon him. The tiger in him came uppermost and, with flaming eyes, he took a quick step toward Jim.
“Stop,”said Mordaunt, coming between them; “don’t add anything more to what you have already done.”
“Mas’ Stua’t, I—I—” Parker broke down,and, turning away from the exultant faces, rushed headlong out of the place. His master followed more leisurely, angry and hurt at the hypocrisy of a trusted servant.
Of course the game was over for that day, but Jim and his companions hung around the smoke house for some time, rejoicing in the downfall of their enemy. Afterward, they went to their cabins for dinner. Then Jim made a mistake. With much laughter and boasting he told Mandy all about it, and then suddenly awakened to the fact that she was listening to him with a face on which only horror was written. Jim turned to his meal in silence and disgust. A woman has no sense of humor.
“Whaih you gwine?” he asked, as Mandy began putting on her bonnet and shawl with ominous precision.
“I’s gwine up to de big house, dat’s whaih I’s gwine.”
“What you gwine daih fu’?”
“I’s gwine to tell Mas’ Stua’t all erbout hit.”
“Don’t you daih.”
“Heish yo’ mouf. Don’t you talk to me, you nasty, low-life scamp. I’s gwine tell Mas’ Stua’t, an’ I hope an’ pray he’ll tek all de hide offen yo back.”
Jim sat in bewildered misery as Mandy flirted out of the cabin; he felt vaguely some of the hopelessness of defeat which comes to a man whenever he attempts to lay sacrilegious hands on a woman’s religion or what stands to her for religion.
Parker was sitting alone in his cabin with bowed head when the door opened and his master came across the floor and laid his hand gently on the negro’s shoulder.
“I didn’t know hpw it was, Parker.” he said softly.
“Oh, I’s back-slid, I’s fell from grace,” moaned Parker.
“Nonsense,” said his master, “youVe fallen from nothing. There are times when we’ve got to meet the devil on his own ground and fight him with his own weapons.”
Parker raised his head gladly. “Say dem wo’ds ag’in, Mas’ Stua’t,” he said.
His master repeated the words, but added: “But it isn’t safe to go into the devil’s camp too often, Parker.”
“I ain’t gwine into his camp no mo’. Aftah dis I’s gwine to stan’ outside an’ hollah in.” His face was beaming and his voice trembled with joy.
“I didn’t think I’d preach to-night,” he said timidly.
“Of course you will,” said Mordaunt, “and your mistress and I are coming to hear you, so do your best.”
His master went out and Parker went down on his knees.
He did preach that night and the plantation remembered the sermon.