Chapter 24

 

            It was on the brink of September and Dill would be leaving tomorrow.  He was off with Jem swimming.  They said they were going in naked and I couldn’t come, so I divided my time between Calpurnia and Miss Maudie.

            Today Aunt Alexandra was having the ladies over.  After they talked, they were going to have refreshments.  Aunt Alexandra told me to join them for refreshments.  I didn’t know if I should go into the dining room or stay out.  I was wearing my pink Sunday dress, shoes and a petticoat.  Since Aunty let Calpurnia serve them today, I thought if I spilled something on my dress Calpurnia would have to wash it out before tomorrow.  I didn’t want to give her anymore work today.

            “Can I help you, Cal?” I asked, wishing to be of some service.

            “You be still as a mouse in that corner,” she said, “an‘ you can help me load up the trays when I come back.”

            I helped Calplurnia carry in the coffee pot and did not spill a thing.  Aunt Alexandra smiled brilliantly.  “Stay with us, Jean Louise,” she said.  This was all her campaign to teach me to be a lady.  I sat next to Miss Maudie.  I tightly gripped the sides of the chair and waited for someone to speak to me.

            “You’re mighty dressed up, Miss Jean Louise,” Miss Maudie said, “Where are your britches today?”

            “Under my dress.”

            I hadn’t meant it to be funny, but the ladies laughed.  My cheeks grew hot as I realized my mistake, but Miss Maudie looked gravely down at me.  She never laughed at me unless I meant it to be funny.

            Miss Stephanie Crawford called from across the room, “Whatcha going to be when you grow up, Jean Louise?  A lawyer?”

            I said no.  But I hadn’t really thought about it.

            I asked Mrs. Merriweather who was sitting to my right about what they had been talking about before I came in.  She filled me in on how she had been out to visit a family who was living in sin and squalor.  She told me how fortunate I was to live in a good Christian family with Christian folks in a Christian town.

            The conversation then turned toward Tom Robinson’s wife.  Mrs. Merriweather continued, “there’s one thing I truly believe, Gertrude,” she continued, “but some people just don’t see it my way.  If we just let then know 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?”

            “Nothing, Jean Louise,” she said, “the cooks and field hands are just dissatisfied, but they’re settling down now – they grumbled all next day after that trial.”  She paused and turned to another woman in the group, “Gertrude, I tell you there’s nothing more distracting than a sulky darky.  Their mouths go down to here.  Just ruins your day to have one of ‘em in the kitchen.”

            Another lady said,  “Looks like we’re fightin’ a losing battle, a losing battle… it doesn’t matter to ‘em one bit.  We can educate ‘em till we’re blue in the face, we can try till we drop to make Christians out of ‘em, but there’s no lady safe in her bed these nights.”

            I had lost interest in the conversation when they quit talking about Tom Robinson’s wife.

            Mrs. Merriweather spoke up again.  “Northerners are hypocrites… at least we don’t have that sin on our shoulders down here.  People up there set ‘em free, but you 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 you live your way and we’ll live ours.  I think that woman, that Mrs. Roosevelt’s lost her mind – just plain lost her mind coming down to Birmingham and tryin’ to sit with ‘em.  If I was the Mayor of Birmingham I’d –“

            I was thinking if I was the Governor of Alabama I’d let Tom Robinson go so quick.  I heard Calpurnia talking about how bad it was going for Tom.  He said that there wasn’t a thingt Atticus could do to make being shut up easier for him.  The last thing he had said to Atticus the day before he was taken to the prison camp was, “Good-bye, Mr. Finch, there ain’t nothin’ you can do now, so there ain’t no use tryin’.”  He had just given up hope.

            Atticus came in the door and his face was white.  He apologized for the interruption and asked if he could speak with Alexandra.  He wanted to borrow Calpurnia for a while.

            “Cal,” Atticus said, “I want you to go with me out to Helen Robinson’s house—“

            “What’s the matter?” Aunt Alexandra said, alarmed by the look on my father’s face.

            “Tom’s dead.”

            Aunt Alexandra put her hand 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 Alexandtra’s voice shook.

            “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’s had two good arms he’d have made it, he was moving that fast.  Seventeen bullet holes in him.  They didn’t have to shoot him that much.  Cal I want you to come out with me and help me tell Helen.”

            “Yes sir,” she murmured, fumbling with her apron.  Miss Maudie went to Calpurnia and untied 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, among two hundred of ‘em?  He wasn’t Tom to them, he was an escaping prisoner.  We had a good chance,” he said.  “ I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance.  I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.  Ready, Cal?”

            “Yessir, Mr. Finch.”

            “Then let’s go.”

            Aunt Alexandra sat down in the chair and put her hands to her face.  I thought she was crying.  When she took her hands away she wasn’t but she looked weary.  I heard Miss Maudie breathing heavily and heard the ladies in the other room chatting happily.

            “I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want him to know when this will ever end.  It tears him to pieces.  He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces.  I’ve seen him when – what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”

            “What does who want, Alexandra?”  Miss Maudie asked.

            “I mean this town.  They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health 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 can pay a man.   We trust him to do right.  It’s that simple.”

            “Who?”

            “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 of people with enough humility to think when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I… The handful of people in this town with background, that’s who they are.”

            I was shaking and Miss Maudie told me to stop and she also told Aunt Alexandra to get up because we had left the ladies too long already.

            “Are you together again, Jean Louise?”  Miss Maudie asked.

            “Yes ma’am.”

            “Then let’s join the ladies.”

            We all went in and Aunt Alexandra refilled coffee cups and dished out goodies.  The conversation resumed with the Christian works they had done.

            Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray of cookies on the table and nodded at them.  I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs. Merriweather.  With my best company manners, I asked her if she would have some.

            After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.