In Old Plantation Days

The Trousers

It was a nasty, rainy Sunday morning. The dripping skies lowered forbiddingly and the ground about the quarters was slippery with mud and punctuated with frequent dirty puddles where the rain had collected in the low spots. Through this Brother Parker, like the good pastor that he was, was carefully picking his way toward the log meeting house on the border of the big woods, for neither storm nor rain could keep him away from his duty however careless his flock might prove. He was well on his way when he was arrested by the sound of a voice calling him from one of the cabins, and Ike, one of the hands, came running after him. His wife, Caroline, was sick, and as she could not get to church, she desired the pastor’s immediate spiritual ministrations at her own house.

The preacher turned back eagerly. His duty was always sweet to him and nothing gave him so keen a sense of pleasure as to feel that he was hurried to attend to all that needed him—that one duty crowded upon the heels of another. Moreover, he was a strong man of prayer in the sick room and some word that he should say might fall as a seed upon the uncultivated ground of Ike’s heart, or if not, that he might heap coals of fire upon his head, for he was still a sinner.

With these thoughts and speculations in his mind, he started back to the cabin. But alas, for his haste, a sneaking, insidious piece of land lay in wait for him. Upon this he stepped. In another instant, his feet were pointing straight before him and he sat down suddenly in one of the biggest of the mud puddles. The tails of his long coat spread out about him and covered him like a blanket.

“Oomph!” he exclaimed as if the impact had driven the word from his lips, and for a moment he sat looking pitifully up into Ike’s face, as if to see if there were any laughter there. But there was no mirth in the younger nlan’s countenance.

“Did you hu’t yo’se’f, Brother Pahkah?” he asked, offering his hand.

“Well, seems like hit’s shuck me up a leetle. But I reckon hit’ll des’ settle my bones mo’ natchally fu’ de grave.”

“Hit’s too bad I had to call you. Hit nevah would a’ happened if it hadn’t a been fu’ dat.”

“Heish, man. Hit’s all right. De shephud muss answeh de call o’ de lambs, don’  keer whut de weathah an’ whut de tribbilations, dat’s what he fu’.”

The old man spoke heroically, but he felt ruefully his soaking and damaged trousers even while the words were on his lips.

“Well, let’s pu’su’ ouah way.”

He took up his hurried walk again and led Ike to his own door, the cloth of his garments sticking to him and the tails of his coat flapping damply about his legs.

It has been maintained, with some degree of authority to enforce the statement, that the Americanized African is distinctly averse to cold water. If this is true, Parker was giving a glowing illustration of the warmth of his religion or the strength of his endurance, for not once did he murmur or make mention of his wet clothes even when the sick woman, all unconscious of his misfortune, started in upon a long history of her bodily ailments and spiritual experiences. He gave her sound pastoral advice, condoled with her and prayed with her. But when his ministrations were over, something like a sigh of relief broke from the old man’s breast.

He turned at once to Ike: “Brothah Ike,” he said. “I’s feared to go on to meetin’ in dese pants. I’s oV an’ dey ain’t no tellin’ but I’d tek col’. Has you got a spaih paih ’bout?”

Ike was suddenly recalled to himself, and his wife, upon hearing the matter explained, was for getting up and helping to brush and fix up the none too neat pair of trousers that her husband found for the preacher. Dissuaded from doing this, she was loud in denunciations of her innocent self for keeping brother Parker so long in his wet garments. But the old man, thankful to get out of them at last, bade her not to worry.

“I reckon it’s de oldes’ hosses aftah all dat kin stan’ de ha’des’ whacks,” he said, and with these cheery words hastened off to meeting.

As was to be expected, he was late in arriving, and his congregation were singing hymn after hymn as he came up in order to pass the time and keep themselves in the spirit. It warmed his heart as he heard the rolling notes and he was all ready to dash into his sermon as soon as he was seated before the table that did duty as a reading desk. He flung himself into the hymn with all the power that was in him, and even before his opening prayer was done, the congregation showed that it was unable to contain its holy joy.

“Ol’ Brothah Pahkah sholy is full of de spirit dis mo’nin,” Aunt Fanny whispered to Aunt Tempe, and Aunt Tempe whispered back, “I reckon he done been in his secut closet an’ had a pensacoshul showah befo’ he come.”

“He sholy been a dwellin’ on Mount Sinai. Seem lak he mus a’hyeahed de thundah.”

“Heish, honey, he’s a thunde’in hisself.”

And so like the whisper of waves on a shore, the ripple of comment ran around the meeting house, for there were none present but saw that in some way the spirit had mysteriously descended upon their pastor.

Just as the prayer ended and the congregation had swung into another spiritual hymn, Ike entered with a scared look upon his face and took a seat far back near the door. He glanced sheepishly about the church, and then furtively at Brother Parker. Once he made as if to rise, but thinking better of it, ducked his head and kept his seat.

Now, if one thing more than another was needed to fire the exhorter, it was the voluntary presence of this sinner untouched by the gospel. His eyes glowed and his old frame quivered with emotion. He would deliver a message that morning that would be pointed straight at the heart of Ike.

To the observer not absorbed by one idea, however, there was something particularly strange in the actions of this last comer. Some things that he did did not seem to argue that he had come to the house of worship seeking a means of grace. After his almost stealthy entrance and his first watchful glances about the room, he had subsided into his seat with an attitude that betokened a despair not wholly spiritual. His eyes followed every motion the preacher made as he rose and looked over the congregation and he grew visibly more uneasy. Once or twice it seemed that the door behind him opened a bit and there is no doubt that several times he turned and looked that way, on one occasion giving his head a quick shake when the door was hastily, but softly closed.

When Parker began his sermon Ike crept guiltily to his feet to slip out, but the old preacher paused with his eyes upon him, saying, “I hope none o’ de cong’egation will leave de sanctua’y be-fo’ de sehvice is ended. We is in now, an’ gettin’ up will distu’b de res.’ Hit ain’t gwine hu’t none of us to gin one day to de Lawd, spechully ef dem what is neah an’ deah unto us is layin’ erpon de bed of affliction,” and the man had sunk back miserably into his seat with the looks of all his fellows fixed on him. From then, he watched the preacher as if fascinated.

Parker was in his glory. He had before him a sinner writhing on the Gospel gridiron and how he did apply the fire.

Ike moved about and squirmed, but the old man held him with his eye while he heaped coals of fire upon the head of the sinner man. He swept the whole congregation with his gaze, but it came back and rested on Ike as he broke into the song,

“Oh, sinnah, you needn’t try to run erway,
You sho’ to be caught on de jedgment day.”

He sung the camp meeting “spiritual” with its powerful personal allusions all through, and then resumed his sermon. “Oh, I tell you de Gospel is a p’inted swo’d to de sinnah. Hit mek him squi’m, hit mek him shiwah and hit mek him shek. He sing loud in de day, but he hide his face at nigh’ on de gret day? What do de song say?

‘W’en de roc an’ de mountains shell all flee erway,
W’y a you shell have a new hidin’ place dat day.’

Oh, sinnah man, is you a huntin’ fu’ de new hid in place? Is you a fixin’ fu’ de time w’en de rocks shell be melted an’ de mountains shell run lak rivers?”

Parker had settled well down to his work. As his own people would have expressed it, “He’d done tried de watah an’ waded out.” They were shouting and crying aloud as he talked. A low minor of moans ran around the room, punctu ated by the sharp slapping of hands and stamp ing of feet. On all sides there were cries of “Truth, truth!” “Amen!” “Amen!” and “Keep in de stream, Pahkah; keep in de stream!”

This encouragement was meat to the pastor’s soul and he rose on the wings of his eloquence. The sweat was pouring down his black face. He put his hand back to his pocket to pull out his handkerchief to wipe his face. It came out with a flourish, and with it a pack of cards. They flew into the air, wavered and then fluttered down like a flock of doves. Aces, jacks, queens and tens settled all about the floor grinning wickedly face upward. Parker stopped still in the midst of a sentence and gazed speechless at the guilty things before him. The people gasped. It all flashed over them in a minute. They had heard a story of their pastor’s fondness for the devil’s picture books in his younger days and now it had come back upon him and he had fallen once more. Here was incontestable proof.

Parker, in a dazed way, put his hand again into his back pocket and brought forth the king of spades. His flock groaned.

“Come down outen dat pulpit,” cried one of the bolder ones. “Come down!”

Then Parker found his voice.

“Fo’ de lawd, folks,” he said, gazing sorrowfully at the king. “Dese ain’t my pants ner my cyards.” Then his eye fell upon Ike, who was taking advantage of the confusion to make toward the door and he thundered at him. “Come back hyeah, you rapscallion, an’ claim yo’ dev’ment! Come back hyeah.”

Ike came shamefacedly back. He came forward and commenced to pick up the cards while Parker was making his explanations to the relievcd flock. The sinner got all of the cards, except one and that one the preacher still held.

“Brothah Pahkah, Brother Pahkah,” he whispered, “You’s a hol’in’ de king.” The old man dropped it as if it had burnt him and grabbing it, the scapegrace fled.

Outside the door all things were explained. Several fellows with angry faces were waiting for Ike.

“Couldn’t he’p it, boys,” he said. “He done begun sehvice w’en I got in. I couldn’t stop him, an’ den w’en he dropped all the res’ he held on to de king.”

“Well, all I got to say,” said the fiercest of the lot, “don’ you nevah put dat deck in yo’ pocket no mo’ an’ len’ yo’ pants. Come on, de game’s been waitin’ a houah, put’ nigh.”


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