To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 73)
“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 find it 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 more distracting than a sulky darky. Their mouths go down to here. Just ruins your day to have 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 went around grumbling and complaining,’ and you know, it did her good. She took her eyes off that floor and said, ‘Nome, Miz Merriweather, Jesus never went around grumbling’.’ I tell 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 was very small, and if I had been very good during the day, Atticus would let me pump its bellows while he picked out a tune with one finger. The last note would linger as long as there was air to sustain it. Mrs. Merriweather had run out of air, I judged, and was replenishing her supply while Mrs. Farrow composed herself to speak.
Mrs. Farrow was a splendidly built woman with pale eyes and narrow feet. She had a fresh permanent wave, and her hair was a mass of tight gray ringlets. She was the second most devout lady in Maycomb. She had a curious habit of prefacing everything she 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-s Brother 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, we can try till we drop to make Christians out of ’em, but there’s no lady safe in her bed these nights.’ He said to me, ‘Mrs. Farrow, I don’t know what we’re coming to down here.’ S-s-s I told him that was certainly a fact.”
Mrs. Merriweather nodded wisely. Her voice soared over the clink of coffee cups and the soft bovine sounds of the ladies munching their dainties. “Gertrude,” she said, “I tell you there are some good but misguided people in this town. Good, but misguided. Folks in this town who think they’re doing right, I mean. Now far be it from me to say who, but some of ’em in this town thought they were doing the right thing a while back, but all they did was stir ’em up. That’s all they did. Might’ve looked like the right thing to do at the time, I’m sure I don’t know, I’m not read in that field, but sulky . . . dissatisfied . . . I tell you if my Sophy’d kept it up another day I’d have let her go. It’s never entered that wool of hers that the only reason I keep her is because this depression’s on and she needs her 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. She had been sitting silently beside me, her coffee cup balanced on one knee. I had lost the thread of conversation long ago, when they quit talking about Tom Robinson’s wife, and had contented myself with thinking of Finch’s Landing and the river. Aunt Alexandra had got it backwards: the business part of the meeting was blood-curdling, the social hour was 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 had made her deeply 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 and swiftly passed more refreshments, neatly engaging Mrs. Merriweather and Mrs. Gates in brisk conversation. When she had them well on the road with Mrs. Perkins, Aunt Alexandra stepped back. She gave Miss Maudie a look of pure gratitude, and I wondered at the world of women. Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra had never been especially close, and here was Aunty silently thanking her for something. For what, I knew not. I was content to learn that Aunt Alexandra could be pierced sufficiently to feel gratitude for help given. There was no doubt about it, I must soon enter this world, where on its surface fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water.
But I was more at home in my father’s world. People like Mr. Heck Tate did not trap you with innocent questions to make fun of you; even Jem was not highly critical unless you said something stupid. Ladies seemed to live in faint horror of men, seemed unwilling to approve wholeheartedly of them. But I liked them. There was something about them, no matter how much they cussed and drank and gambled and chewed; no matter how undelectable they were, 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 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—”
Well, neither of us was the Mayor of Birmingham, but I wished I was the Governor of Alabama for one day: I’d let Tom Robinson go so quick the Missionary Society wouldn’t have time to catch its breath. Calpurnia was telling Miss Rachel’s cook the other day how 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, that the 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 up hope. 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 Calpurnia why didn’t Atticus just say yes, you’ll go free, and leave it at that—seemed like that’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 answers to anything. Mr. Finch couldn’t say somethin’s so when he doesn’t know for sure it’s so.”