«His food doesn’t stick in the throat, does it?» Miss Maudie’s voice was icy.
«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. Something had made her very angry, and her gray eyes were as cold as her voice. Mrs. Merriweather reddened, glanced at me, and looked away. I could not see Mrs. Farrow.
Aunt Alexandra got up from the table, quickly passed more refreshments, and engaged Mrs. Merriweather and Mrs. Gates in active conversation. She looked at Miss Maudie with deep gratitude, and I wondered at the world of women. Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra had never been friends, and now Aunty was silently thanking her for something. For what, I knew not. I was glad to learn that Aunt Alexandra could feel gratitude for help given. There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface sweet-smelling ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water.
But I was more at home in my father’s world, in the world of men. There was something about them that I instinctively liked… they weren’t —
«Hypocrites, Mrs. Perkins, born hypocrites,» Mrs. Merriweather was saying. «At least we don’t have that sin on our shoulders down here. People up in the North set ’em free, but they don’t sit at the table with ’em. At least we don’t 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 when she came down to Birmingham and tried to sit with ’em. If I was the Mayor of Birmingham I’d-»
I wished I was the Governor of Alabama for one day: I’d let Tom Robinson go so fast that the Missionary Society wouldn’t have time to catch its breath. Miss Rachel’s cook was in the kitchen with Calpumia the other day. Calpumia said that Atticus told her that Tom had lost hope on the day they took him to prison. She said Atticus tried to explain things to him, and that he must do his best not to lose hope because Atticus was doing his best to get him free. Miss Rachel’s cook asked Calpumia why didn’t Atticus just say yes, you’ll go free — it would be a big comfort to Tom. Calpumia 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 answers to anything. Mr. Finch cannot say something is so when he doesn’t know for sure it’s so.»
The front door slammed and I heard Atticus’s footsteps in the hall. I was surprised: on Missionary Society days, he usually came home very late.
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 disturb you. Alexandra, could you come to the kitchen a minute? I want to borrow Calpumia for a while.»
He went to the kitchen. Aunt Alexandra and I followed him. The dining room door opened again and Miss Maudie joined us. Calpumia had half risen from her chair.
Atticus asked Calpumia to go to Helen Robinson’s house with him. «Tom’s dead,» he said.
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 rushed to the fence and started climbing over. Right in front of them. The guards 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’d have made it, he was moving that fast. Seventeen bullet holes in him. They didn’t have to shoot him that much. Cal, come out with me and help me tell Helen.»
«Yes sir,» she murmured. Miss Maudie helped Calpumia untie her apron.
Atticus said, «We had such a good chance. I told him what I thought, but I couldn’t in truth say that we had more than a good chance. I think Tom was tired of white men’s chances and decided to take his own. Ready, Cal?»
When Atticus and Calpumia left, Aunt Alexandra sat down in Calpumia’s chair and put her hands to her face. She sat quite still. In the dining room, the ladies chattered happily.
Aunt Alexandra took her hands away from her face. She looked tired.
«I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want to know when this will end.» Her voice rose: «It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces… what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?»
«What does who want, Alexandra?» Miss Maudie asked.
«This town. They’re willingly letting him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves — they might lose a nickel. They’re willingly letting him ruin his health and do what they’re afraid to do, they’re-»
«Be quiet, they’ll hear you,» said Miss Maudie. «Think 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?» Aunt Alexandra asked, just like Jem.
«The group of people in this town who think that fair play is not for White Only; the group of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us.»
I was shaking and couldn’t stop. I remembered the exercise yard at the prison. It was the size of a football field.
«Stop that shaking,» commanded Miss Maudie, and I stopped. «Get up, Alexandra, we’ve left ’em long enough.» Aunt Alexandra stood up, wiped her nose with her handkerchief, 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.»
Aunt Alexandra was ahead of me, her head went up as she went through the door.
Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra went around the dining room among the laughing women, refilled coffee cups and passed cakes as if nothing had happened except temporary absence of Calpumia.
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 walked 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.