To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 28)
Uncle Jack said yes, he remembered them. He described them to Atticus, but Atticus said, “You’re a generation off. The present ones are the same, though.”
“What are you going to do, then?”
“Before I’m through, I intend to jar the jury a bit—I think we’ll have a reasonable chance on appeal, though. I really can’t tell at this stage, Jack. You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but John Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.’ ”
“Let this cup pass from you, eh?”
“Right. But do you think I could face my children otherwise? You know what’s going to happen as well as I do, Jack, and I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout through it without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand . . . I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town. I hope they trust me enough. . . . Jean Louise?”
My scalp jumped. I stuck my head around the corner. “Sir?”
“Go to bed.”
I scurried to my room and went to bed. Uncle Jack was a prince of a fellow not to let me down. But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said.
Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. He was much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothing Jem or I could say about him when our classmates said, “My father—”
Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jem wanted to tackle him Atticus would say, “I’m too old for that, son.”
Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did not drive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in a garage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.
Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye.
He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he did not play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the livingroom and read.
With these attributes, however, he would not remain as inconspicuous as we wished him to: that year, the school buzzed with talk about him defending Tom Robinson, none of which was complimentary. After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myself to a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn’t fight any more, her daddy wouldn’t let her. This was not entirely correct: I wouldn’t fight publicly for Atticus, but the family was private ground. I would fight anyone from a third cousin upwards tooth and nail. Francis Hancock, for example, knew that.
When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
“Miss Maudie, this is an old neighborhood, ain’t it?”
“Been here longer than the town.”
“Nome, I mean the folks on our street are all old. Jem and me’s the only children around here. Mrs. Dubose is close on to a hundred and Miss Rachel’s old and so are you and Atticus.”
“I don’t call fifty very old,” said Miss Maudie tartly. “Not being wheeled around yet, am I? Neither’s your father. But I must say Providence was kind enough to burn down that old mausoleum of mine, I’m too old to keep it up—maybe you’re right, Jean Louise, this is a settled neighborhood. You’ve never been around young folks much, have you?”
“Yessum, at school.”
“I mean young grown-ups. You’re lucky, you know. You and Jem have the benefit of your father’s age. If your father was thirty you’d find life quite different.”
“I sure would. Atticus can’t do anything. . . .”
“You’d be surprised,” said Miss Maudie. “There’s life in him yet.”
“What can he do?”
“Well, he can make somebody’s will so airtight can’t anybody meddle with it.”
“Shoot . . .”
“Well, did you know he’s the best checker-player in this town? Why, down at the Landing when we were coming up, Atticus Finch could beat everybody on both sides of the river.”
“Good Lord, Miss Maudie, Jem and me beat him all the time.”
“It’s about time you found out it’s because he lets you. Did you know he can play a Jew’s Harp?”
This modest accomplishment served to make me even more ashamed of him.
“Well . . .” she said.
“Well what, Miss Maudie?”
“Well nothing. Nothing—it seems with all that you’d be proud of him. Can’t everybody play a Jew’s Harp. Now keep out of the way of the carpenters. You’d better go home, I’ll be in my azaleas and can’t watch you. Plank might hit you.”
I went to the back yard and found Jem plugging away at a tin can, which seemed stupid with all the bluejays around. I returned to the front yard and busied myself for two hours erecting a complicated breastworks at the side of the porch, consisting of a tire, an orange crate, the laundry hamper, the porch chairs, and a small U.S. flag Jem gave me from a popcorn box.
When Atticus came home to dinner he found me crouched down aiming across the street. “What are you shooting at?”
“Miss Maudie’s rear end.”
Atticus turned and saw my generous target bending over her bushes. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and crossed the street. “Maudie,” he called, “I thought I’d better warn you. You’re in considerable peril.”