To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 35)
He answered it, then went to the hat rack in the hall. “I’m going down to Mrs. Dubose’s for a while,” he said. “I won’t be long.”
But Atticus stayed away until long past my bedtime. When he returned he was carrying a candy box. Atticus sat down in the living-room and put the box on the floor beside his chair.
“What’d she want?” asked Jem.
We had not seen Mrs. Dubose for over a month. She was never on the porch any more when we passed.
“She’s dead, son,” said Atticus. “She died a few minutes ago.”
“Oh,” said Jem. “Well.”
“Well is right,” said Atticus. “She’s not suffering any more. She was sick for a long time. Son, didn’t you know what her fits were?”
Jem shook his head.
“Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict,” said Atticus. “She took it as a pain-killer for years. The doctor put her on it. She’d have spent the rest of her life on it and died without so much agony, but she was too contrary—”
“Sir?” said Jem.
Atticus said, “Just before your escapade she called me to make her will. Dr. Reynolds told her she had only a few months left. Her business affairs were in perfect order but she said, ‘There’s still one thing out of order.’ ”
“What was that?” Jem was perplexed.
“She said she was going to leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody. Jem, when you’re sick as she was, it’s all right to take anything to make it easier, but it wasn’t all right for her. She said she meant to break herself of it before she died, and that’s what she did.”
Jem said, “You mean that’s what her fits were?”
“Yes, that’s what they were. Most of the time you were reading to her I doubt if she heard a word you said. Her whole mind and body were concentrated on that alarm clock. If you hadn’t fallen into her hands, I’d have made you go read to her anyway. It may have been some distraction. There was another reason—”
“Did she die free?” asked Jem.
“As the mountain air,” said Atticus. “She was conscious to the last, almost. Conscious,” he smiled, “and cantankerous. She still disapproved heartily of my doings, and said I’d probably spend the rest of my life bailing you out of jail. She had Jessie fix you this box—”
Atticus reached down and picked up the candy box. He handed it to Jem.
Jem opened the box. Inside, surrounded by wads of damp cotton, was a white, waxy, perfect camellia. It was a Snow-on-the-Mountain.
Jem’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Old hell-devil, old hell-devil!” he screamed, flinging it down. “Why can’t she leave me alone?”
In a flash Atticus was up and standing over him. Jem buried his face in Atticus’s shirt front. “Sh-h,” he said. “I think that was her way of telling you—everything’s all right now, Jem, everything’s all right. You know, she was a great lady.”
“A lady?” Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. “After all those things she said about you, a lady?”
“She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe . . . son, I told you that if you hadn’t lost your head I’d have made you go read to her. I wanted you to see something about her—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
Jem picked up the candy box and threw it in the fire. He picked up the camellia, and when I went off to bed I saw him fingering the wide petals. Atticus was reading the paper.
Jem was twelve. He was difficult to live with, inconsistent, moody. His appetite was appalling, and he told me so many times to stop pestering him I consulted Atticus: “Reckon he’s got a tapeworm?” Atticus said no, Jem was growing. I must be patient with him and disturb him as little as possible.
This change in Jem had come about in a matter of weeks. Mrs. Dubose was not cold in her grave—Jem had seemed grateful enough for my company when he went to read to her. Overnight, it seemed, Jem had acquired an alien set of values and was trying to impose them on me: several times he went so far as to tell me what to do. After one altercation when Jem hollered, “It’s time you started bein’ a girl and acting right!” I burst into tears and fled to Calpurnia.
“Don’t you fret too much over Mister Jem—” she began.
“Yeah, he’s just about Mister Jem now.”
“He ain’t that old,” I said. “All he needs is somebody to beat him up, and I ain’t big enough.”
“Baby,” said Calpurnia, “I just can’t help it if Mister Jem’s growin’ up. He’s gonna want to be off to himself a lot now, doin’ whatever boys do, so you just come right on in the kitchen when you feel lonesome. We’ll find lots of things to do in here.”
The beginning of that summer boded well: Jem could do as he pleased; Calpurnia would do until Dill came. She seemed glad to see me when I appeared in the kitchen, and by watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.
But summer came and Dill was not there. I received a letter and a snapshot from him. The letter said he had a new father whose picture was enclosed, and he would have to stay in Meridian because they planned to build a fishing boat. His father was a lawyer like Atticus, only much younger. Dill’s new father had a pleasant face, which made me glad Dill had captured him, but I was crushed. Dill concluded by saying he would love me forever and not to worry, he would come get me and marry me as soon as he got enough money together, so please write.
The fact that I had a permanent fiancé was little compensation for his absence: I had never thought about it, but summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking, the longings we sometimes felt each other feel. With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable. I stayed miserable for two days.
As if that were not enough, the state legislature was called into emergency session and Atticus left us for two weeks. The Governor was eager to scrape a few barnacles off the ship of state; there were sit-down strikes in Birmingham; bread lines in the cities grew longer, people in the country grew poorer. But these were events remote from the world of Jem and me.