Jim’s Probation by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature

For so long a time had Jim been known as the hardest sinner on the plantation that no one had tried to reach the heart under his outward shell even in camp-meeting and revival times. Even good old Brother Parker, who was ever looking after the lost and straying sheep, gave him up as beyond recall.

“Dat Jim,” he said, “Oomph, de debbil done got his stamp on dat boy, an’ dey ain’ no use in tryin’ to scratch hit off.”

“But Parker,” said his master, “that’s the very sort of man you want to save. Don’t you know it’s your business as a man of the gospel to call sinners to repentance?”

“Lawd, Mas’ Mordaunt,” exclaimed the old man, “my v’ice done got hoa’se callin’ Jim, too long ergo to talk erbout. You jes’ got to let him go ‘long, maybe some o’ dese days he gwine slip up on de gospel an’ fall plum’ inter salvation.”

Even Mandy, Jim’s wife, had attempted to urge the old man to some more active efforts in her husband’s behalf. She was a pillar of the church herself, and was woefully disturbed about the condition of Jim’s soul. Indeed, it was said that half of the time it was Mandy’s prayers and exhortations that drove Jim into the woods with his dog and his axe, or an old gun that he had come into possession of from one of the younger Mordaunts.

Jim was unregenerate. He was a fighter, a hard drinker, fiddled on Sunday, and had been known to go out hunting on that sacred day. So it startled the whole place when Mandy announced one day to a few of her intimate friends that she believed “Jim was under conviction.” He had stolen out hunting one Sunday night and in passing through the swamp had gotten himself thoroughly wet and chilled, and this had brought on an attack of acute rheumatism, which Mandy had pointed out to him as a direct judgment of heaven. Jim scoffed at first, but Mandy grew more and more earnest, and finally, with the racking of the pain, he waxed serious and determined to look to the state of his soul as a means to the good of his body.

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“Hit do seem,” Mandy said, “dat Jim feel de weight o’ his sins mos’ powahful.”

“I reckon hit’s de rheumatics,” said Dinah.

“Don’ mek no diffunce what de inst’ument is,” Mandy replied, “hit’s de ‘sult, hit’s de ‘sult.”

When the news reached Stuart Mordaunt’s ears he became intensely interested. Anything that would convert Jim, and make a model Christian of him would be providential on that plantation. It would save the overseers many an hour’s worry; his horses, many a secret ride; and the other servants, many a broken head. So he again went down to labor with Parker in the interest of the sinner.

“Is he mou’nin’ yit?” said Parker.

“No, not yet, but I think now is a good time to sow the seeds in his mind.”

“Oomph,” said the old man, “reckon you bettah let Jim alone twell dem sins o’ his’n git him to tossin’ an’ cryin’ an’ a mou’nin’. Den’ll be time enough to strive wid him. I’s allus willin’ to do my pa’t, Mas’ Stuart, but w’en hit comes to ol’ time sinnahs lak Jim, I believe in layin’ off, an’ lettin’ de sperit do de strivin’.”

“But Parker,” said his master, “you yourself know that the Bible says that the spirit will not always strive.”

“Well, la den, mas’, you don’ spec’ I gwine outdo de sperit.”

But Stuart Mordaunt was particularly anxious that Jim’s steps might be turned in the right direction. He knew just what a strong hold over their minds the Negroes’ own emotional religion had, and he felt that could he once get Jim inside the pale of the church, and put him on guard of his salvation, it would mean the loss of fewer of his shoats and pullets. So he approached the old preacher, and said in a confidential tone.

“Now look here, Parker, I’ve got a fine lot of that good old tobacco you like so up to the big house, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you’ll just try to work on Jim, and get his feet in the right path, you can come up and take all you want.”

“Oom-oomph,” said the old man, “dat sho’ is monst’ous fine terbaccer, Mas’ Stua’t.”

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“Yes, it is, and you shall have all you want of it.”

“Well, I’ll have a little wisit wid Jim, an’ des’ see how much he ‘fected, an’ if dey any stroke to be put in fu’ de gospel ahmy, you des’ count on me ez a mighty strong wa’ior. Dat boy been layin’ heavy on my mind fu’ lo, dese many days.”

As a result of this agreement, the old man went down to Jim’s cabin on a night when that interesting sinner was suffering particularly from his rheumatic pains.

“Well, Jim,” the preacher said, “how you come on?”

“Po’ly, po’ly,” said Jim, “I des’ plum’ racked an’ ‘stracted f’om haid to foot.”

“Uh, huh, hit do seem lak to me de Bible don’ tell nuffin’ else but de trufe.”

“What de Bible been sayin’ now?” asked Jim suspiciously.

“Des’ what it been sayin’ all de res’ o’ de time. ‘Yo’ sins will fin’ you out’”

Jim groaned and turned uneasily in his chair. The old man saw that he had made a point and pursued it.

“Don’ you reckon now, Jim, ef you was a bettah man dat you wouldn’ suffah so?”

“I do’ know, I do’ know nuffin’ ’bout hit.”

“Now des’ look at me. I ben a-trompin’ erlong in dis low groun’ o’ sorrer fu’ mo’ den seventy yeahs, an’ I hain’t got a ache ner a pain. Nevah had no rheumatics in my life, an’ yere you is, a young man, in a mannah o’ speakin’, all twinged up wid rheumatics. Now what dat p’int to? Hit mean de Lawd tek keer o’ dem dat’s his’n. Now Jim, you bettah come ovah on de Lawd’s side, an’ git erway f’om yo’ ebil doin’s.”

Jim groaned again, and lifted his swollen leg with an effort just as Brother Parker said, “Let us pray.”

The prayer itself was less effective than the request was just at that time for Jim was so stiff that it made him fairly howl with pain to get down on his knees. The old man’s supplication was loud, deep, and diplomatic, and when they arose from their knees there were tears in Jim’s eyes, but whether from cramp or contrition it is not safe to say. But a day or two after, the visit bore fruit in the appearance of Jim at meeting where he sat on one of the very last benches, his shoulders hunched, and his head bowed, unmistakable signs of the convicted sinner.

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The usual term of mourning passed, and Jim was converted, much to Mandy’s joy, and Brother Parker’s delight. The old man called early on his master after the meeting, and announced the success of his labors. Stuart Mordaunt himself was no less pleased than the preacher. He shook Parker warmly by the hand, patted him on the shoulder, and called him a “sly old fox.” And then he took him to the cupboard, and gave him of his store of good tobacco, enough to last him for months. Something else, too, he must have given him, for the old man came away from the cupboard grinning broadly, and ostentatiously wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Great work you’ve done, Parker, a great work.”

“Yes, yes, Mas’,” grinned the old man, “now ef Jim can des’ stan’ out his p’obation, hit’ll be montrous fine.”

“His probation!” exclaimed the master.

“Oh yes suh, yes suh, we has all de young convu’ts stan’ a p’obation o’ six months, fo’ we teks ’em reg’lar inter de chu’ch. Now ef Jim will des’ stan’ strong in de faif–“

“Parker,” said Mordaunt, “you’re an old wretch, and I’ve got a mind to take every bit of that tobacco away from you. No. I’ll tell you what I’ll do.”

He went back to the cupboard and got as much again as he had given Parker, and handed it to him saying,

“I think it will be better for all concerned if Jim’s probation only lasts two months. Get him into the fold, Parker, get him into the fold!” And he shoved the ancient exhorter out of the door.

It grieved Jim that he could not go ‘possum hunting on Sundays any more, but shortly after he got religion, his rheumatism seemed to take a turn for the better and he felt that the result was worth the sacrifice. But as the pain decreased in his legs and arms, the longing for his old wicked pleasures became stronger and stronger upon him though Mandy thought that he was living out the period of his probation in the most exemplary manner, and inwardly rejoiced.

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It was two weeks before he was to be regularly admitted to church fellowship. His industrious spouse had decked him out in a bleached cotton shirt in which to attend divine service. In the morning Jim was there. The sermon which Brother Parker preached was powerful, but somehow it failed to reach this new convert. His gaze roved out of the window toward the dark line of the woods beyond, where the frost still glistened on the trees and where he knew the persimmons were hanging ripe. Jim was present at the afternoon service also, for it was a great day; and again, he was preoccupied. He started and clasped his hands together until the bones cracked, when a dog barked somewhere out on the hill. The sun was going down over the tops of the woodland trees, throwing the forest into gloom, as they came out of the log meeting-house. Jim paused and looked lovingly at the scene, and sighed as he turned his steps back toward the cabin.

That night Mandy went to church alone. Jim had disappeared. Nowhere around was his axe, and Spot, his dog, was gone. Mandy looked over toward the woods whose tops were feathered against the frosty sky, and away off, she heard a dog bark.

Brother Parker was feeling his way home from meeting late that night, when all of a sudden, he came upon a man creeping toward the quarters. The man had an axe and a dog, and over his shoulders hung a bag in which the outlines of a ‘possum could be seen.

“Hi, oh, Brothah Jim, at it agin?”

Jim did not reply. “Well, des’ heish up an’ go ‘long. We got to mek some ‘lowances fu’ you young convu’ts. Wen you gwine cook dat ‘possum, Brothah Jim?”

“I do’ know, Brothah Pahkah. He so po’, I ‘low I haveter keep him and fatten him fu’ awhile.”

“Uh, huh! well, so long, Jim.”

“So long, Brothah Pahkah.” Jim chuckled as he went away. “I ‘low I fool dat ol’ fox. Wanter come down an’ eat up my one little ‘possum, do he? huh, uh!”

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So that very night Jim scraped his possum, and hung it out-of-doors, and the next day, brown as the forest whence it came, it lay on a great platter on Jim’s table. It was a fat possum too. Jim had just whetted his knife, and Mandy had just finished the blessing when the latch was lifted and Brother Parker stepped in.

“Hi, oh, Brothah Jim, I’s des’ in time.”

Jim sat with his mouth open. “Draw up a cheer, Brothah Pahkah,” said Mandy. Her husband rose, and put his hand over the possum.

“Wha–wha’d you come hyeah fu’?” he asked.

“I thought I’d des’ come in an’ tek a bite wid you.”

“Ain’ gwine tek no bite wid me,” said Jim.

“Heish,” said Mandy, “wha’ kin’ o’ way is dat to talk to de preachah?”

“Preachah er no preachah, you hyeah what I say,” and he took the possum, and put it on the highest shelf.

“Wha’s de mattah wid you, Jim; dat’s one o’ de’ ‘quiahments o’ de chu’ch.”

The angry man turned to the preacher.

“Is it one o’ de ‘quiahments o’ de chu’ch dat you eat hyeah ter-night?”

“Hit sholy am usual fu’ de shepherd to sup wherevah he stop,” said Parker suavely.

“Ve’y well, ve’y well,” said Jim, “I wants you to know dat I ‘specs to stay out o’ yo’ chu’ch. I’s got two weeks mo’ p’obation. You tek hit back, an’ gin hit to de nex’ niggah you ketches wid a ‘possum.”

Mandy was horrified. The preacher looked longingly at the possum, and took up his hat to go.

There were two disappointed men on the plantation when he told his master the next day the outcome of Jim’s probation.

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