Conscience of the Court

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 803

Laura Lee Kimble is Mrs. Celestine Beaufort Clairborne’s maid. She is in court for assaulting a white man named Clement Beasley. Although she has been in jail for three weeks awaiting trial, she is calm and respectful, even in the face of the scorn she feels as she enters the courtroom. The judge and the onlookers all have preconceived ideas about her, but she does not know this is all working against her.

After the jury is brought in to their box, a series of witnesses testify to the brutality of the beating she gave Beasley. Then Beasley himself is helped from his cot to the witness stand to give his version of events. He tells the court that he arrived at Mrs. Clairborne’s house to collect on an overdue loan he had made to her. Although Mrs. Clairborne was not home, he found her maid packing silver and became concerned about his loan. Believing that Mrs. Clairborne had left town for good and was sending for her things, he felt he had to act. The house and its furnishing had been the collateral on the loan, so he resolved to take the furniture. He claims that even though the furniture would not cover the loan, he wanted to be kind to the widow. When he arrived for the furniture, however, the maid physically attacked him. He claims she beat him terribly, as his apparent pain indicates.

Beasley’s account outrages Laura Lee, who cannot believe the lies she is hearing. The first thing that offends her is his suggestion that Mrs. Clairborne would not honor a loan and that her beautiful antiques were not worth six hundred dollars. As she reflects on her bad luck at being in this position, she thinks about Mrs. Clairborne and how she feels betrayed by her. Laura Lee sent word as soon as she was put in jail, and yet Mrs. Clairborne had neither responded nor returned to town. Her heart is so broken that she does not care what the court decides to do with her.

Laura Lee is given her chance to tell the story, and she does so without an attorney. After assuring the court that Mrs. Clairborne is an honorable woman who would never leave a loan unpaid, she proceeds with her version of the story. According to Laura Lee, she was at the house when Beasley arrived, and she told him that Mrs. Clairborne was out of town and gave him the address where she was staying. The next day, he arrived with a truck and tried to take the furniture. Laura Lee blocked him, and when he hit and kicked her, she attacked him. She beat him until he could not stand upright, so she carried him to the gate and tossed him off the property.

Laura Lee does not try to make a case for her own innocence or guilt. While she feels justified in protecting her employer’s belongings, she wonders if her husband had been right about her extreme loyalty to others. She goes on to explain her loyalty to the jury. She has known Mrs. Clairborne (then Miss Beaufort) since she was an infant and loved her so much she took care of her and mothered her for years. When her father died, Laura Lee married a man who worked for the family so she could stay with the family. She saw Miss Beaufort marry and become Mrs. Clairborne, and she was there when she lost her parents and then her husband. The widowed Mrs. Clairborne needed a fresh start and a smaller house, so...

(This entire section contains 803 words.)

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she asked Laura Lee to consider moving to Florida with her. Laura Lee could not bear the thought of being separated and convinced her very reluctant husband to move. After much negotiating, they all moved to Florida. When Laura Lee’s husband died, Mrs. Clairborne generously paid for his coffin to be returned to his hometown for burial, and she paid for Laura Lee and herself to go with it. As it so happens, this is why she had borrowed the money from Beasley.

When Beasley finally releases the promissory note to the court, the judge discovers that the due date is not for three more months. The judge chastises him for his attempted burglary and for trying to manipulate the court into helping him punish Laura Lee for protecting her employer’s property against trespassers. The judge goes on to praise Laura Lee’s loyalty to her employer.

Returning to the house, Laura Lee realizes that Mrs. Clairborne did not get her message about being in jail, and she asks God to forgive her. Inside, she polishes a silver platter to a high sheen as a symbolic act of cleansing her heart that loves Mrs. Clairborne so much.