In Old Plantation Days

The Last Fiddling of Mordaunt’s Jim

When the Spirit has striven with a man year after year without success, when he has been convicted and then gone back, when he has been converted and then backslidden, it’s about time to say of him that there is the devil’s property, with his deed signed and sealed. All of these things had happened to Jim. He became serious and bowed his head in the meeting house, a sure sign of contrition and religious intention, but the very next night he had been caught “wingin’ ” behind the smoke-house with the rest of the unregenerate. Once he had actually cried out “Amen!” but it was afterwards found out that one of his fellows had trodden upon his foot, and that the “Amen” came in lieu of a less virtuous expletive.

Had it been that Jim’s iniquities affected himself only he might have been endured, at least with greater patience; but this was not so. He was the prime mover in every bit of deviltry that set the plantation by the ears, and the most effectual destroyer of every religious influence that its master attempted to throw around it. His one fiddle had caused more backsliding, more flagrant defections from the faith than had any other invention of the devil that the plantation knew.

All of Parker’s pleas and sermons had been unavailing—even his supreme exhortation, when he threatened the wicked with eternal fiddling, when their souls should be pining for rest and silence and never find it. Jim was there, but he appeared unmoved. He laughed when Parker broke out, “Fiddle on, you sinnahs, fiddle on! But de time’ll come w’en you’ll want to hyeah praih, an’ you’ll hyeah a fiddle; w’en you’ll want to sing a hymn, an’ you’ll hyeah a fiddle; w’en you’ll be list’nin’ fu’ de soun’ of de angels’ voices erbove de noise of earf, an’ you’ll hyeah a fiddle. Fiddle on, sinnahs, but w’en you hyeah de soun’ of Jerdon a-dashin’ on de rocks, w’en you hyeah de watah leapin’ an’ a-lashin’, way up erbove dem all you’ll hyeah de devil fiddlin’ fu’ you an’ you’ll follah him on an’ into dat uttah da’kness whaih dey is wailin’ an’ gnash-in’ o’ teef. Fiddle on, sinnah, fiddle on! dance on, sinnah, dance on! laugh on, sinnah, laugh on! but I tell you de time will come w’en dat laughin’ will be tu’ned to weepin’, an’ de soun’ of de fiddle shell be as de call of de las’ trump in yo’ yeahs.” And Jim laughed. He went home that night and fiddled until nearly morning.

“‘Pears to me,” he said to his wife, “a good fiddle ‘ud be a moughty fine t’ing to hyeah ez a body was passin’ ovah Jerdon, ez oP Pahkah calls it.”

“Nemmine, Jim,” said Mandy, solemn and shocked; “nemmine, you an’ yo’ dev’ment. Brothah Pahkah right, an’ de time gwine come w’en dat fiddle gwine ter be to yo’ soul ez a millstone dat been cas’ in de middle of de sea, dat’U bring fo’th tares, some fifty an’ some a hund’ed fol’. Nemmine, all I got to say to you, you bettah listen to de Wo’d ez it is preached.”

“Mandy,” said Jim irreverently, “d’you ‘membah dat ol’ chune, ‘Hoe co’n, an’ dig per-taters?’ Don’t it go ‘long somep’n’ lak dis?”

“Lawsy, yes, honey, dat’s hit,” and before the poor deluded creature knew what she was doing she was nodding her head in time to the seductive melody, while Jim fiddled and chuckled within himself until the joke was too much for him, and he broke down and ended with a discord which brought Mandy to her sorrowing senses.

Her discretion came to her, though not before Parker’s white inquisitive head had been stuck in at the door,

“Lawd, Sis’ Mandy,” he cried in dismay, “you ain’t collogin’ wid de spe’it of de devil, too, is you? Lawd a’ mussy, ‘pon my soul, an’ you one of de faifful of de flock I My soul!”

“I ain’t been collogin’ wid de devil, Brothah Pahkah,” said Mandy contritely, “but dat rapscallion, he fool me an’ got my haid to gwine ‘fo’ I knowed whut I was ’bout.”

“Uh, uh, uh,” murmured the preacher.

Jim was convulsed. “Hit sho’ is a mighty funny ‘Iigion you preaches, Brothah Pahkah, w’en one fiddle chune kin des’ mortally lay out all o’ yo’ himes.”

Parker turned on Jim with the old battle fire in his eyes. “Go on!” he cried. “Go on, but I lay you’ll fiddle yo’se’f in hell yitl” And without more ado he stamped away. He was very old, and his temper was shorter than It used to be.

The events of the next week followed each other in quick succession and there are many tales, none fully authenticated, about what really occurred. Some say that, hurt to the quick, Parker tramped around late that night after his visit to Jim’s cabin. Others say that he was old and feeble and that his decline was inevitable. Whatever the truth about the cause of it, the old man was taken with a heavy cold which developed into fever. Here, too, chroniclers disagree, for some say that at no time was he out of his head, and that his wild ravings about fiddles and fid-dlings were the terrible curses that a righteous man may put, and often does put, on a sinner.

For days the old man’s life hung in the balance, and Jim grew contrite under the report of his sufferings and Mandy’s accusations. Indeed, he fiddled no more, and the offending “box,” as he called it, lay neglected on a shelf.

“Yes, you tryin’ to git good now, aftah you mos’ nigh killed dat ol’ man, havin’ him trompin’ erroun’ in de night aih lookin’ aftah yo’ dev’-ment.” Women are so cruel when they feel themselves in the right.

“He wan’t trompin’ erroun’ aftah me. I ain’t nevah sont fu’ him,” was always Jim’s sullen reply.

“‘Tain’t no use beatin’ erbout de bush; you knows you been causin’ dat ol’ man a heap er trouble, an’ many’s de time he mought ‘a’ been in baid takin’ a good res’ ef it hadn’t been fu’ yo’ ca’in’ on.”

Jim grinned a sickly grin and lapsed into silence. What was the use of arguing with a woman anyway, and how utterly useless it was when the argument happened to be about her preacher! It is really a remarkable thing how, when it comes to woman, the philosophy of man in the highest and lowest grades of life arrives at the same conclusion. So Jim kept his mouth shut for several days until the one on which the news came that Parker had rallied and was “on the mend;” then he opened it to guffaw. This brought Mandy down upon him once more.

“I sholy don’t know whut to mek o’ you, Jim. Instid o’ spreadin’ dat mouf o’ yo’n, you ought to be down on yo’ knees a-thankin’ de Lawd dat Brothah Pahkah ain’t passed ovah an’ lef yo’ ‘niquities on yo’ soul.”

“La, chile, heish up; I’s gwine celebrate Brothah Pahkah’s Wry.”

Jim busied himself with dusting and tuning his neglected instrument, and immediately after supper its strains resounded again through the quarters. It rose loud and long, a gladsome sound. What wonder, then, that many of the

In Old Plantation Days

young people, happy in their old pastor’s recovery, should gather before Jim’s cabin and foot it gayly there?

But in the midst of the merriment a messenger hastened into the cabin with the intelligence that Brother Parker wanted Jim at his cabin. Something in the messenger’s face, or in the tone of his voice, made Jim lay his fiddle aside and hurry to Parker’s bedside.

“Howdy, Bud’ Jim?” said Parker weakly.

“Howdy, Brothah Pahkah?” said Jim nervously; “how you come on?”

“Well, I’s clothed an’ in my right min’ at las’, bless Gawd. Been havin’ a little frolic down to yo’ cabin to-night?”

Jim twirled his piece of hat tremulously.

“Yes, suh, we was a kin’ o’ celebratin’ yo’ git-tin’ well.”

“Dat uz a moughty po’ way o’ celebratin’ fit’ me, Jim, but I ain’t gwine scol’ you now. Dey say dat w’ile I wuz outen my haid I said ha’d tings erbout you an’ yo’ fiddlin’, Jim. An’ now dat de Lawd has giv’ me my senses back ergin, I want to ax yo’ pa’don.”

“Brothah Pahkah,” Jim interrupted brokenly, “I ain’t meant no ha’m to’ds you. Hit des’ mus’ ‘a’ been natchul dev’ment in me.”

“I ain’t a-blamin’ you, Jim, I ain’t a-blamin’ you; I only wanted to baig yo’ pa’don fu’ whut-evah I said w’en my min’ wan’t mine.”

“You don’ need to baig my pa’don.”

“Run erlong now, Jim, an’ ac’ de bes’ you kin; so-long.”

“So-long, Brothah Pahkah,” and the contrite sinner went slowly out and back to the cabin, sorrow, fear, and remorse tugging at his heart.

He went back to his cabin and to bed at once, but he could not sleep for the vague feeling of waiting that held his eyes open and made him start at every sound. An hour passed with him under this nervous tension and then a tap came at the door. He sprang up to open it, and Mandy, as if moved by the same impulse, rose and began to dress hurriedly. Yes, his worst fears were realized. Parker was worse, and they sent for Mandy to nurse him in what they believed to be his last hours.

Jim dressed, too, and for a while stood in the door watching the lights and shadows moving over in the direction of the preacher’s cabin. Then an ague seemed to seize him, and with a shiver he came back into the room and closed and bolted the door.

He had sat there, it seemed, a long while, when suddenly out of the stillness of the night a faint sound struck on his ears. It was as if some one far away were fiddling, fiddling a wild, weird tune. Jim sat bolt upright, and the sweat broke out upon his face in great cold drops. He waited. The fiddling came nearer. Jim’s lips began moving in silent, but agitated, prayer. Nearer and nearer came the sound, and the face of the scapegrace alone in the cabin turned ashen with fear, then seizing his own fiddle, he smashed it into bits upon the chair, crying the while: “Lawd, Lawd, spaih me, an’ I’ll nevah fiddle erginl” He was on his knees now, but the demon of the fiddle came so relentlessly on that he sprang up and hurled himself against the door in a very ecstasy of terror while he babbled prayer on prayer for protection, for just one more trial. Then it seemed that his prayer had been answered. The music began to recede. It grew fainter and fainter and passed on into silence.

Not, however, until the last note had passed away did Jim leave the door and sink helpless on his knees beside the broken fiddle. It seemed ages before he opened the door to Mandy’s knock.

“Brothah Pahkah done daid,” she said sadly.

“I know it,” Jim replied; “I knowed it w’en he died, ‘case de devil come fu’ me, an’ tried to fiddle my soul erway to hell, an’ he Vd done it, too, ef I hadn’t a-wrassled in praih.”

“Jim, has you been visited?”

“I has,” was the solemn reply, “an’ I’ll nevah fiddle no mo’ ez long ez I live. Daih’s de fiddle.”

Mandy looked at the broken instrument, and the instinct of thrift drove out her superstition. “Jim,” she cried out angrily, “whut you wan’ ‘o go brek up dat good fiddle fu’? Why’n’t you sell it?”

“No, ma’am, no ma’am, I know whut’s in dat fiddle. I’s been showed, an’ I ain’t gwine temp’ no man wid de devil’s inst’ument.”

From that moment Jim was a pious man, and at the great funeral which they gave Brother Parker a few days later there was no more serious and devout mourner than he. The whole plantation marveled and the only man who held the key to the situation could not tell the story. He was only a belated serenader who had fiddled to keep up his spirits on a lonely road.

But Parker’s work was not without its fruition, for his death accomplished what his life had failed to do, and no more moral story was known or told on the plantation than that of the last fiddling of Mordaunt’s Jim.


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This work (In Old Plantation Days by Paul Laurence Dunbar) is free of known copyright restrictions.