To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 72)

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 . . . no-oo, well she is, and that other one not walkin’ yet. . . .”

They became quiet, and I knew they had all been served. Calpurnia returned and put my mother’s heavy silver pitcher on a tray. “This coffee pitcher’s a curiosity,” she murmured, “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 Miss Alexandra. 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’t budge. Grinning, she held it open for me. “Careful now, it’s heavy. Don’t look at it and you won’t spill it.”

My journey was successful: Aunt Alexandra smiled brilliantly. “Stay with us, Jean Louise,” 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 a seat beside Miss Maudie and wondered why ladies put on their hats to go across the street. Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be 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 but unrouged; the only lipstick in the room was Tangee Natural. Cutex Natural sparkled on their fingernails, but some of the younger ladies wore Rose. They smelled heavenly. I sat quietly, having conquered my hands by tightly gripping the arms of the chair, and waited for someone to speak to me.

Miss Maudie’s gold bridgework twinkled. “You’re mighty dressed up, Miss Jean Louise,” 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 realized my mistake, but Miss Maudie looked gravely down at me. She never laughed at me unless I meant to be funny.

In the sudden silence that followed, Miss Stephanie Crawford called from across the room, “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 kind enough to change the subject. Hurriedly I began choosing my vocation. Nurse? Aviator? “Well . . .”

“Why shoot, I thought you wanted to be a lawyer, you’ve already commenced going to court.”

The ladies laughed again. “That Stephanie’s a card,” somebody said. Miss Stephanie was 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, and contented herself with, “Well, you won’t get very far until you start wearing dresses more often.”

Miss Maudie’s hand closed tightly on mine, and I said nothing. Its warmth was enough.

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 in singing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me . . .” It was the general opinion of Maycomb, however, that Mrs. Merriweather had sobered him up and made a reasonably useful citizen of him. For certainly Mrs. Merriweather was the most devout lady in Maycomb. I searched for a topic of interest to her. “What did you all study this afternoon?” I asked.

“Oh child, those poor Mrunas,” she said, and was off. Few other questions would be necessary.

Mrs. Merriweather’s large brown eyes always filled with tears when she considered the oppressed. “Living in that jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everett,” she said. “Not a white 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 full measure: “The poverty . . . the darkness . . . the immorality—nobody but J. Grimes Everett knows. You know, when the church gave me that trip to the camp grounds J. Grimes Everett said to me—”

“Was he there, ma’am? I thought—”

“Home on leave. J. Grimes Everett said to me, he said, ‘Mrs. Merriweather, you have no conception, no conception of what we are fighting over there.’ That’s what he said to me.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I said to him, ‘Mr. Everett,’ I said, ‘the ladies of the Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South are behind you one hundred per cent.’ 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 I go home I’m going to give a course on the Mrunas and bring J. Grimes Everett’s message to Maycomb and that’s just what I’m doing.”

“Yes ma’am.”

When Mrs. Merriweather shook her head, her black curls jiggled. “Jean Louise,” she said, “you are a fortunate girl. You live in a Christian home with Christian folks in a Christian town. Out there in J. Grimes Everett’s land there’s nothing but sin and squalor.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Sin and squalor—what was that, Gertrude?” Mrs. Merriweather turned on her chimes for the lady sitting beside her. “Oh that. Well, I always say forgive and forget, forgive and forget. Thing that church ought to do is help her lead a Christian life for those children from here on out. Some of the men ought to go out there and tell that preacher to encourage her.”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Merriweather,” I interrupted, “are you all talking about Mayella Ewell?”

“May—? No, child. That darky’s wife. Tom’s wife, Tom—”

“Robinson, ma’am.”

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 them know we forgive ’em, that we’ve forgotten it, then this whole thing’ll blow over.”

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