Calpurnia wore her stiffest starched apron. She carried a tray of charlotte. She backedup to the swinging door and pressed gently. I admired the ease and grace with whichshe handled heavy loads of dainty things. So did Aunt Alexandra, I guess, because shehad let Calpurnia serve today.
August was on the brink of September. Dill would be leaving for Meridian tomorrow;today he was off with Jem at Barker’s Eddy. Jem had discovered with angry amazementthat nobody had ever bothered to teach Dill how to swim, a skill Jem considerednecessary as walking. They had spent two afternoons at the creek, they said they weregoing in naked and I couldn’t come, so I divided the lonely hours between Calpurnia andMiss Maudie.
Today Aunt Alexandra and her missionary circle were fighting the good fight all overthe house. From the kitchen, I heard Mrs. Grace Merriweather giving a report in thelivingroom on the squalid lives of the Mrunas, it sounded like to me. They put the womenout in huts when their time came, whatever that was; they had no sense of family—Iknew that’d distress Aunty—they subjected children to terrible ordeals when they werethirteen; they were crawling with yaws and earworms, they chewed up and spat out thebark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.
Immediately thereafter, the ladies adjourned for refreshments.
I didn’t know whether to go into the diningroom or stay out. Aunt Alexandra told me tojoin them for refreshments; it was not necessary that I attend the business part of themeeting, she said it’d bore me. I was wearing my pink Sunday dress, shoes, and apetticoat, and reflected that if I spilled anything Calpurnia would have to wash my dressagain for tomorrow. This had been a busy day for her. I decided to stay out.
“Can I help you, Cal?” I asked, wishing to be of some service.
Calpurnia paused in the doorway. “You be still as a mouse in that corner,” she said,“an‘ you can help me load up the trays when I come back.”
The gentle hum of ladies’ voices grew louder as she opened the door: “Why,Alexandra, I never saw such charlotte… just lovely… I never can get my crust like this,never can… who’d‘ve thought of little dewberry tarts… Calpurnia?… who’da thought it…anybody tell you that the preacher’s wife’s… nooo, well she is, and that other one notwalkin’ yet…”
They became quiet, and I knew they had all been served. Calpurnia returned and putmy mother’s heavy silver pitcher on a tray. “This coffee pitcher’s a curiosity,” shemurmured, “they don’t make ‘em these days.”
“Can I carry it in?”
“If you be careful and don’t drop it. Set it down at the end of the table by MissAlexandra. Down there by the cups’n things. She’s gonna pour.”
I tried pressing my behind against the door as Calpurnia had done, but the door didn’tbudge. Grinning, she held it open for me. “Careful now, it’s heavy. Don’t look at it andyou won’t spill it.”
My journey was successful: Aunt Alexandra smiled brilliantly. “Stay with us, JeanLouise,” she said. This was a part of her campaign to teach me to be a lady.
It was customary for every circle hostess to invite her neighbors in for refreshments,be they Baptists or Presbyterians, which accounted for the presence of Miss Rachel(sober as a judge), Miss Maudie and Miss Stephanie Crawford. Rather nervous, I took aseat beside Miss Maudie and wondered why ladies put on their hats to go across thestreet. Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire tobe elsewhere, but this feeling was what Aunt Alexandra called being “spoiled.”
The ladies were cool in fragile pastel prints: most of them were heavily powdered butunrouged; the only lipstick in the room was Tangee Natural. Cutex Natural sparkled ontheir fingernails, but some of the younger ladies wore Rose. They smelled heavenly. Isat quietly, having conquered my hands by tightly gripping the arms of the chair, andwaited for someone to speak to me.
Miss Maudie’s gold bridgework twinkled. “You’re mighty dressed up, Miss JeanLouise,” she said, “Where are your britches today?”
“Under my dress.”
I hadn’t meant to be funny, but the ladies laughed. My cheeks grew hot as I realizedmy mistake, but Miss Maudie looked gravely down at me. She never laughed at meunless I meant to be funny.
In the sudden silence that followed, Miss Stephanie Crawford called from across theroom, “Whatcha going to be when you grow up, Jean Louise? A lawyer?”
“Nome, I hadn’t thought about it…” I answered, grateful that Miss Stephanie was kindenough to change the subject. Hurriedly I began choosing my vocation. Nurse? Aviator?
“Why shoot, I thought you wanted to be a lawyer, you’ve already commenced going tocourt.”
The ladies laughed again. “That Stephanie’s a card,” somebody said. Miss Stephaniewas encouraged to pursue the subject: “Don’t you want to grow up to be a lawyer?”
Miss Maudie’s hand touched mine and I answered mildly enough, “Nome, just a lady.”
Miss Stephanie eyed me suspiciously, decided that I meant no impertinence, andcontented herself with, “Well, you won’t get very far until you start wearing dresses moreoften.”
Miss Maudie’s hand closed tightly on mine, and I said nothing. Its warmth wasenough.
Mrs. Grace Merriweather sat on my left, and I felt it would be polite to talk to her. Mr.
Merriweather, a faithful Methodist under duress, apparently saw nothing personal insinging, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” It wasthe general opinion of Maycomb, however, that Mrs. Merriweather had sobered him upand made a reasonably useful citizen of him. For certainly Mrs. Merriweather was themost devout lady in Maycomb. I searched for a topic of interest to her. “What did you allstudy this afternoon?” I asked.
“Oh child, those poor Mrunas,” she said, and was off. Few other questions would benecessary.
Mrs. Merriweather’s large brown eyes always filled with tears when she consideredthe oppressed. “Living in that jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everett,” she said. “Not awhite person’ll go near ‘em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett.”
Mrs. Merriweather played her voice like an organ; every word she said received its fullmeasure: “The poverty… the darkness… the immorality—nobody but J. Grimes Everettknows. You know, when the church gave me that trip to the camp grounds J. GrimesEverett said to me—”
“Was he there, ma’am? I thought—”
“Home on leave. J. Grimes Everett said to me, he said, ‘Mrs. Merriweather, you haveno conception, no conception of what we are fighting over there.’ That’s what he said tome.”
“I said to him, ‘Mr. Everett,’ I said, ‘the ladies of the Maycomb Alabama MethodistEpiscopal Church South are behind you one hundred percent.’ That’s what I said to him.
And you know, right then and there I made a pledge in my heart. I said to myself, when Igo home I’m going to give a course on the Mrunas and bring J. Grimes Everett’smessage to Maycomb and that’s just what I’m doing.”
When Mrs. Merriweather shook her head, her black curls jiggled. “Jean Louise,” shesaid, “you are a fortunate girl. You live in a Christian home with Christian folks in aChristian town. Out there in J. Grimes Everett’s land there’s nothing but sin andsqualor.”
“Sin and squalor—what was that, Gertrude?” Mrs. Merriweather turned on her chimesfor the lady sitting beside her. “Oh that. Well, I always say forgive and forget, forgive andforget. Thing that church ought to do is help her lead a Christian life for those childrenfrom here on out. Some of the men ought to go out there and tell that preacher toencourage her.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Merriweather,” I interrupted, “are you all talking about MayellaEwell?”
“May—? No, child. That darky’s wife. Tom’s wife, Tom—”
Mrs. Merriweather turned back to her neighbor. “There’s one thing I truly believe,Gertrude,” she continued, “but some people just don’t see it my way. If we just let themknow we forgive ‘em, that we’ve forgotten it, then this whole thing’ll blow over.”
“Ah—Mrs. Merriweather,” I interrupted once more, “what’ll blow over?”
Again, she turned to me. Mrs. Merriweather was one of those childless adults who findit necessary to assume a different tone of voice when speaking to children. “Nothing,Jean Louise,” she said, in stately largo, “the cooks and field hands are just dissatisfied,but they’re settling down now—they grumbled all next day after that trial.”
Mrs. Merriweather faced Mrs. Farrow: “Gertrude, I tell you there’s nothing moredistracting than a sulky darky. Their mouths go down to here. Just ruins your day tohave one of ‘em in the kitchen. You know what I said to my Sophy, Gertrude? I said,’Sophy,‘ I said, ’you simply are not being a Christian today. Jesus Christ never wentaround grumbling and complaining,‘ and you know, it did her good. She took her eyesoff that floor and said, ’Nome, Miz Merriweather, Jesus never went around grumblin‘.’ Itell you, Gertrude, you never ought to let an opportunity go by to witness for the Lord.”
I was reminded of the ancient little organ in the chapel at Finch’s Landing. When I wasvery small, and if I had been very good during the day, Atticus would let me pump itsbellows while he picked out a tune with one finger. The last note would linger as long asthere was air to sustain it. Mrs. Merriweather had run out of air, I judged, and wasreplenishing her supply while Mrs. Farrow composed herself to speak.
Mrs. Farrow was a splendidly built woman with pale eyes and narrow feet. She had afresh permanent wave, and her hair was a mass of tight gray ringlets. She was thesecond most devout lady in Maycomb. She had a curious habit of prefacing everythingshe said with a soft sibilant sound.
“S-s-s Grace,” she said, “it’s just like I was telling Brother Hutson the other day. ‘S-s-sBrother Hutson,’ I said, ‘looks like we’re fighting a losing battle, a losing battle.’ I said, ‘S-s-s it doesn’t matter to ’em one bit. We can educate ‘em till we’re blue in the face, wecan try till we drop to make Christians out of ’em, but there’s no lady safe in her bedthese nights.‘ He said to me, ’Mrs. Farrow, I don’t know what we’re coming to downhere.‘ S-s-s I told him that was certainly a fact.”
Mrs. Merriweather nodded wisely. Her voice soared over the clink of coffee cups andthe soft bovine sounds of the ladies munching their dainties. “Gertrude,” she said, “I tellyou there are some good but misguided people in this town. Good, but misguided. Folksin this town who think they’re doing right, I mean. Now far be it from me to say who, butsome of ‘em in this town thought they were doing the right thing a while back, but allthey did was stir ’em up. That’s all they did. Might’ve looked like the right thing to do atthe time, I’m sure I don’t know, I’m not read in that field, but sulky… dissatisfied… I tellyou if my Sophy’d kept it up another day I’d have let her go. It’s never entered that woolof hers that the only reason I keep her is because this depression’s on and she needsher dollar and a quarter every week she can get it.”
“His food doesn’t stick going down, does it?”
Miss Maudie said it. Two tight lines had appeared at the corners of her mouth. Shehad been sitting silently beside me, her coffee cup balanced on one knee. I had lost thethread of conversation long ago, when they quit talking about Tom Robinson’s wife, andhad contented myself with thinking of Finch’s Landing and the river. Aunt Alexandra hadgot it backwards: the business part of the meeting was blood-curdling, the social hourwas dreary.
“Maudie, I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” said Mrs. Merriweather.
“I’m sure you do,” Miss Maudie said shortly.
She said no more. When Miss Maudie was angry her brevity was icy. Something hadmade her deeply angry, and her gray eyes were as cold as her voice. Mrs. Merriweatherreddened, glanced at me, and looked away. I could not see Mrs. Farrow.
Aunt Alexandra got up from the table and swiftly passed more refreshments, neatlyengaging Mrs. Merriweather and Mrs. Gates in brisk conversation. When she had themwell on the road with Mrs. Perkins, Aunt Alexandra stepped back. She gave MissMaudie a look of pure gratitude, and I wondered at the world of women. Miss Maudieand Aunt Alexandra had never been especially close, and here was Aunty silentlythanking her for something. For what, I knew not. I was content to learn that AuntAlexandra could be pierced sufficiently to feel gratitude for help given. There was nodoubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rockedslowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water.
But I was more at home in my father’s world. People like Mr. Heck Tate did not trapyou with innocent questions to make fun of you; even Jem was not highly critical unlessyou said something stupid. Ladies seemed to live in faint horror of men, seemedunwilling to approve wholeheartedly of them. But I liked them. There was somethingabout them, no matter how much they cussed and drank and gambled and chewed; nomatter how undelectable they were, there was something about them that I instinctivelyliked… they weren’t—“Hypocrites, Mrs. Perkins, born hypocrites,” Mrs. Merriweather was saying. “At leastwe don’t have that sin on our shoulders down here. People up there set ‘em free, butyou don’t see ’em settin‘ at the table with ’em. At least we don’t have the deceit to say to‘em yes you’re as good as we are but stay away from us. Down here we just say youlive your way and we’ll live ours. I think that woman, that Mrs. Roosevelt’s lost hermind—just plain lost her mind coming down to Birmingham and tryin’ to sit with ‘em. If Iwas the Mayor of Birmingham I’d—”
Well, neither of us was the Mayor of Birmingham, but I wished I was the Governor ofAlabama for one day: I’d let Tom Robinson go so quick the Missionary Society wouldn’thave time to catch its breath. Calpurnia was telling Miss Rachel’s cook the other dayhow bad Tom was taking things and she didn’t stop talking when I came into the kitchen.
She said there wasn’t a thing Atticus could do to make being shut up easier for him, thatthe last thing he said to Atticus before they took him down to the prison camp was,“Good-bye, Mr. Finch, there ain’t nothin‘ you can do now, so there ain’t no use tryin’.”
Calpurnia said Atticus told her that the day they took Tom to prison he just gave uphope. She said Atticus tried to explain things to him, and that he must do his best not tolose hope because Atticus was doing his best to get him free. Miss Rachel’s cook askedCalpurnia why didn’t Atticus just say yes, you’ll go free, and leave it at that—seemed likethat’d be a big comfort to Tom. Calpurnia said, “Because you ain’t familiar with the law.
First thing you learn when you’re in a lawin‘ family is that there ain’t any definite answersto anything. Mr. Finch couldn’t say somethin’s so when he doesn’t know for sure it’s so.”
The front door slammed and I heard Atticus’s footsteps in the hall. Automatically Iwondered what time it was. Not nearly time for him to be home, and on MissionarySociety days he usually stayed downtown until black dark.
He stopped in the doorway. His hat was in his hand, and his face was white.
“Excuse me, ladies,” he said. “Go right ahead with your meeting, don’t let me disturbyou. Alexandra, could you come to the kitchen a minute? I want to borrow Calpurnia fora while.”
He didn’t go through the diningroom, but went down the back hallway and entered thekitchen from the rear door. Aunt Alexandra and I met him. The diningroom door openedagain and Miss Maudie joined us. Calpurnia had half risen from her chair.
“Cal,” Atticus said, “I want you to go with me out to Helen Robinson’s house—”
“What’s the matter?” Aunt Alexandra asked, alarmed by the look on my father’s face.
Aunt Alexandra put her hands to her mouth.
“They shot him,” said Atticus. “He was running. It was during their exercise period.
They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started climbing over.
Right in front of them—”
“Didn’t they try to stop him? Didn’t they give him any warning?” Aunt Alexandra’s voiceshook.
“Oh yes, the guards called to him to stop. They fired a few shots in the air, then to kill.
They got him just as he went over the fence. They said if he’d had two good arms he’dhave made it, he was moving that fast. Seventeen bullet holes in him. They didn’t haveto shoot him that much. Cal, I want you to come out with me and help me tell Helen.”
“Yes sir,” she murmured, fumbling at her apron. Miss Maudie went to Calpurnia anduntied it.
“This is the last straw, Atticus,” Aunt Alexandra said.
“Depends on how you look at it,” he said. “What was one Negro, more or less, amongtwo hundred of ‘em? He wasn’t Tom to them, he was an escaping prisoner.”
Atticus leaned against the refrigerator, pushed up his glasses, and rubbed his eyes.
“We had such a good chance,” he said. “I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truthsay that we had more than a good chance. I guess Tom was tired of white men’schances and preferred to take his own. Ready, Cal?”
“Yessir, Mr. Finch.”
“Then let’s go.”
Aunt Alexandra sat down in Calpurnia’s chair and put her hands to her face. She satquite still; she was so quiet I wondered if she would faint. I heard Miss Maudie breathingas if she had just climbed the steps, and in the diningroom the ladies chattered happily.
I thought Aunt Alexandra was crying, but when she took her hands away from herface, she was not. She looked weary. She spoke, and her voice was flat.
“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I justwant to know when this will ever end.” Her voice rose: “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’tshow it much, but it tears him to pieces. I’ve seen him when—what else do they wantfrom him, Maudie, what else?”
“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.
“I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to dothemselves—it might lose ‘em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck hishealth doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re—”
“Be quiet, they’ll hear you,” said Miss Maudie. “Have you ever thought of it this way,Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we canpay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”
“Who?” Aunt Alexandra never knew she was echoing her twelve-year-old nephew.
“The handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not marked White Only;the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful ofpeople with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’skindness am l.” Miss Maudie’s old crispness was returning: “The handful of people inthis town with background, that’s who they are.”
Had I been attentive, I would have had another scrap to add to Jem’s definition ofbackground, but I found myself shaking and couldn’t stop. I had seen Enfield PrisonFarm, and Atticus had pointed out the exercise yard to me. It was the size of a footballfield.
“Stop that shaking,” commanded Miss Maudie, and I stopped. “Get up, Alexandra,we’ve left ‘em long enough.”
Aunt Alexandra rose and smoothed the various whalebone ridges along her hips. Shetook her handkerchief from her belt and wiped her nose. She patted her hair and said,“Do I show it?”
“Not a sign,” said Miss Maudie. “Are you together again, Jean Louise?”
“Then let’s join the ladies,” she said grimly.
Their voices swelled when Miss Maudie opened the door to the diningroom. AuntAlexandra was ahead of me, and I saw her head go up as she went through the door.
“Oh, Mrs. Perkins,” she said, “you need some more coffee. Let me get it.”
“Calpurnia’s on an errand for a few minutes, Grace,” said Miss Maudie. “Let me passyou some more of those dewberry tarts. ‘dyou hear what that cousin of mine did theother day, the one who likes to go fishing?…”
And so they went, down the row of laughing women, around the diningroom, refillingcoffee cups, dishing out goodies as though their only regret was the temporary domesticdisaster of losing Calpurnia. The gentle hum began again. “Yes sir, Mrs. Perkins, that J.
Grimes Everett is a martyred saint, he… needed to get married so they ran… to thebeauty parlor every Saturday afternoon… soon as the sun goes down. He goes to bedwith the… chickens, a crate full of sick chickens, Fred says that’s what started it all. Fredsays…”
Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray ofcookies on the table and nodded at them. I carefully picked up the tray and watchedmyself walk to Mrs. Merriweather. With my best company manners, I asked her if shewould have some.
After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.