To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 32)
“Aw, it’s Saturday, Mrs. Dubose,” said Jem.
“Makes no difference if it’s Saturday,” she said obscurely. “I wonder if your father knows where you are?”
“Mrs. Dubose, we’ve been goin’ to town by ourselves since we were this high.” Jem placed his hand palm down about two feet above the sidewalk.
“Don’t you lie to me!” she yelled. “Jeremy Finch, Maudie Atkinson told me you broke down her scuppernong arbor this morning. She’s going to tell your father and then you’ll wish you never saw the light of day! If you aren’t sent to the reform school before next week, my name’s not Dubose!”
Jem, who hadn’t been near Miss Maudie’s scuppernong arbor since last summer, and who knew Miss Maudie wouldn’t tell Atticus if he had, issued a general denial.
“Don’t you contradict me!” Mrs. Dubose bawled. “And you—” she pointed an arthritic finger at me—“what are you doing in those overalls? You should be in a dress and camisole, young lady! You’ll grow up waiting on tables if somebody doesn’t change your ways—a Finch waiting on tables at the O.K. Café—hah!”
I was terrified. The O.K. Café was a dim organization on the north side of the square. I grabbed Jem’s hand but he shook me loose.
“Come on, Scout,” he whispered. “Don’t pay any attention to her, just hold your head high and be a gentleman.”
But Mrs. Dubose held us: “Not only a Finch waiting on tables but one in the courthouse lawing for niggers!”
Jem stiffened. Mrs. Dubose’s shot had gone home and she knew it:
“Yes indeed, what has this world come to when a Finch goes against his raising? I’ll tell you!” She put her hand to her mouth. When she drew it away, it trailed a long silver thread of saliva. “Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for!”
Jem was scarlet. I pulled at his sleeve, and we were followed up the sidewalk by a philippic on our family’s moral degeneration, the major premise of which was that half the Finches were in the asylum anyway, but if our mother were living we would not have come to such a state.
I wasn’t sure what Jem resented most, but I took umbrage at Mrs. Dubose’s assessment of the family’s mental hygiene. I had become almost accustomed to hearing insults aimed at Atticus. But this was the first one coming from an adult. Except for her remarks about Atticus, Mrs. Dubose’s attack was only routine. There was a hint of summer in the air—in the shadows it was cool, but the sun was warm, which meant good times coming: no school and Dill.
Jem bought his steam engine and we went by Elmore’s for my baton. Jem took no pleasure in his acquisition; he jammed it in his pocket and walked silently beside me toward home. On the way home I nearly hit Mr. Link Deas, who said, “Look out now, Scout!” when I missed a toss, and when we approached Mrs. Dubose’s house my baton was grimy from having picked it up out of the dirt so many times.
She was not on the porch.
In later years, I sometimes wondered exactly what made Jem do it, what made him break the bonds of “You just be a gentleman, son,” and the phase of self-conscious rectitude he had recently entered. Jem had probably stood as much guff about Atticus lawing for niggers as had I, and I took it for granted that he kept his temper—he had a naturally tranquil disposition and a slow fuse. At the time, however, I thought the only explanation for what he did was that for a few minutes he simply went mad.
What Jem did was something I’d do as a matter of course had I not been under Atticus’s interdict, which I assumed included not fighting horrible old ladies. We had just come to her gate when Jem snatched my baton and ran flailing wildly up the steps into Mrs. Dubose’s front yard, forgetting everything Atticus had said, forgetting that she packed a pistol under her shawls, forgetting that if Mrs. Dubose missed, her girl Jessie probably wouldn’t.
He did not begin to calm down until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush Mrs. Dubose owned, until the ground was littered with green buds and leaves. He bent my baton against his knee, snapped it in two and threw it down.
By that time I was shrieking. Jem yanked my hair, said he didn’t care, he’d do it again if he got a chance, and if I didn’t shut up he’d pull every hair out of my head. I didn’t shut up and he kicked me. I lost my balance and fell on my face. Jem picked me up roughly but looked like he was sorry. There was nothing to say.
We did not choose to meet Atticus coming home that evening. We skulked around the kitchen until Calpurnia threw us out. By some voo-doo system Calpurnia seemed to know all about it. She was a less than satisfactory source of palliation, but she did give Jem a hot biscuit-and-butter which he tore in half and shared with me. It tasted like cotton.
We went to the livingroom. I picked up a football magazine, found a picture of Dixie Howell, showed it to Jem and said, “This looks like you.” That was the nicest thing I could think to say to him, but it was no help. He sat by the windows, hunched down in a rocking chair, scowling, waiting. Daylight faded.
Two geological ages later, we heard the soles of Atticus’s shoes scrape the front steps. The screen door slammed, there was a pause—Atticus was at the hat rack in the hall—and we heard him call, “Jem!” His voice was like the winter wind.
Atticus switched on the ceiling light in the livingroom and found us there, frozen still. He carried my baton in one hand; its filthy yellow tassel trailed on the rug. He held out his other hand; it contained fat camellia buds.
“Jem,” he said, “are you responsible for this?”
“Why’d you do it?”
Jem said softly, “She said you lawed for niggers and trash.”
“You did this because she said that?”
Jem’s lips moved, but his “Yes sir” was inaudible.
“Son, I have no doubt that you’ve been annoyed by your contemporaries about me lawing for niggers, as you say, but to do something like this to a sick old lady is inexcusable. I strongly advise you to go down and have a talk with Mrs. Dubose,” said Atticus. “Come straight home afterward.”
Jem did not move.
“Go on, I said.”
I followed Jem out of the livingroom. “Come back here,” Atticus said to me. I came back.
Atticus picked up The Mobile Press and sat down in the rocking chair Jem had vacated. For the life of me, I did not understand how he could sit there in cold blood and read a newspaper when his only son stood an excellent chance of being murdered with a Confederate Army relic. Of course Jem antagonized me sometimes until I could kill him, but when it came down to it he was all I had. Atticus did not seem to realize this, or if he did he didn’t care.