The front door slammed and I heard Atticus’s footsteps in the hall. Automatically I wondered what time it was. Not nearly time for him to be home, and on Missionary Society 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 disturb you. Alexandra, could you come to the kitchen a minute? I want to borrow Calpurnia for a while.”
He didn’t go through the diningroom, but went down the back hallway and entered the kitchen from the rear door. Aunt Alexandra and I met him. The diningroom door opened again 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 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’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, 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 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.”
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 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 Calpurnia’s chair and put her hands to her face. She sat quite still; she was so quiet I wondered if she would faint. I heard Miss Maudie breathing as 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 her face, 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 just want to know when this will ever end.” Her voice rose: “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 do what they’re too afraid to do themselves—it might lose ’em a nickel. 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?” 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 of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.” Miss Maudie’s old crispness was returning: “The handful of people in this town with background, that’s who they are.”
Had I been attentive, I would have had another scrap to add to Jem’s definition of background, but I found myself shaking and couldn’t stop. I had seen Enfield Prison Farm, and Atticus had pointed out the exercise yard to me. 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.”