Authors: Harper Lee
Tags: #Criticism, #Romance, #Race relations, #Classics, #Fathers and daughters, #Trials (Rape), #Lee; Harper - Prose & Criticism, #Girls, #Bildungsromans, #Family Life, #Legal, #General, #Literary, #Lawyers, #Coming of Age, #Literature: Classics, #Legal stories, #Literature - Classics, #Fiction, #Domestic fiction, #Southern States
Mr. Gilmer interrupted. “Objection,” he said. “Can’t see what witness’s literacy has to do with the case, irrelevant’n‘immaterial.”
Judge Taylor was about to speak but Atticus said, “Judge, if you’ll allow the question plus another one you’ll soon see.”
“All right, let’s see,” said Judge Taylor, “but make sure we see, Atticus. Overruled.”
Mr. Gilmer seemed as curious as the rest of us as to what bearing the state of Mr. Ewell’s education had on the case.
“I’ll repeat the question,” said Atticus. “Can you read and write?”
“I most positively can.”
“Will you write your name and show us?”
“I most positively will. How do you think I sign my relief checks?”
Mr. Ewell was endearing himself to his fellow citizens. The whispers and chuckles below us probably had to do with what a card he was.
I was becoming nervous. Atticus seemed to know what he was doing—but it seemed to me that he’d gone frog-sticking without a light. Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to, was a tenet I absorbed with my baby-food. Do it, and you’ll often get an answer you don’t want, an answer that might wreck your case.
Atticus was reaching into the inside pocket of his coat. He drew out an envelope, then reached into his vest pocket and unclipped his fountain pen. He moved leisurely, and had turned so that he was in full view of the jury. He unscrewed the fountain-pen cap and placed it gently on his table. He shook the pen a little, then handed it with the envelope to the witness. “Would you write your name for us?” he asked. “Clearly now, so the jury can see you do it.”
Mr. Ewell wrote on the back of the envelope and looked up complacently to see Judge Taylor staring at him as if he were some fragrant gardenia in full bloom on the witness stand, to see Mr. Gilmer half-sitting, half-standing at his table. The jury was watching him, one man was leaning forward with his hands over the railing.
“What’s so interestin‘?” he asked.
“You’re left-handed, Mr. Ewell,” said Judge Taylor. Mr. Ewell turned angrily to the judge and said he didn’t see what his being left-handed had to do with it, that he was a Christ-fearing man and Atticus Finch was taking advantage of him. Tricking lawyers like Atticus Finch took advantage of him all the time with their tricking ways. He had told them what happened, he’d say it again and again—which he did. Nothing Atticus asked him after that shook his story, that he’d looked through the window, then ran the nigger off, then ran for the sheriff. Atticus finally dismissed him.
Mr. Gilmer asked him one more question. “About your writing with your left hand, are you ambidextrous, Mr. Ewell?”
“I most positively am not, I can use one hand good as the other. One hand good as the other,” he added, glaring at the defense table.
Jem seemed to be having a quiet fit. He was pounding the balcony rail softly, and once he whispered, “We’ve got him.”
I didn’t think so: Atticus was trying to show, it seemed to me, that Mr. Ewell could have beaten up Mayella. That much I could follow. If her right eye was blacked and she was beaten mostly on the right side of the face, it would tend to show that a left-handed person did it. Sherlock Holmes and Jem Finch would agree. But Tom Robinson could easily be left-handed, too. Like Mr. Heck Tate, I imagined a person facing me, went through a swift mental pantomime, and concluded that he might have held her with his right hand and pounded her with his left. I looked down at him. His back was to us, but I could see his broad shoulders and bull-thick neck. He could easily have done it. I thought Jem was counting his chickens.
But someone was booming again.
“Mayella Violet Ewell—!”
A young girl walked to the witness stand. As she raised her hand and swore that the evidence she gave would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help her God, she seemed somehow fragile-looking, but when she sat facing us in the witness chair she became what she was, a thick-bodied girl accustomed to strenuous labor.
In Maycomb County, it was easy to tell when someone bathed regularly, as opposed to yearly lavations: Mr. Ewell had a scalded look; as if an overnight soaking had deprived him of protective layers of dirt, his skin appeared to be sensitive to the elements. Mayella looked as if she tried to keep clean, and I was reminded of the row of red geraniums in the Ewell yard.
Mr. Gilmer asked Mayella to tell the jury in her own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first of last year, just in her own words, please.
Mayella sat silently.
“Where were you at dusk on that evening?” began Mr. Gilmer patiently.
“On the porch.”
“Ain’t but one, the front porch.”
“What were you doing on the porch?”
Judge Taylor said, “Just tell us what happened. You can do that, can’t you?”
Mayella stared at him and burst into tears. She covered her mouth with her hands and sobbed. Judge Taylor let her cry for a while, then he said, “That’s enough now. Don’t be ‘fraid of anybody here, as long as you tell the truth. All this is strange to you, I know, but you’ve nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to fear. What are you scared of?”
Mayella said something behind her hands. “What was that?” asked the judge.
“Him,” she sobbed, pointing at Atticus.
She nodded vigorously, saying, “Don’t want him doin‘ me like he done Papa, tryin’ to make him out lefthanded…”
Judge Taylor scratched his thick white hair. It was plain that he had never been confronted with a problem of this kind. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Nineteen-and-a-half,” Mayella said.
Judge Taylor cleared his throat and tried unsuccessfully to speak in soothing tones. “Mr. Finch has no idea of scaring you,” he growled, “and if he did, I’m here to stop him. That’s one thing I’m sitting up here for. Now you’re a big girl, so you just sit up straight and tell the—tell us what happened to you. You can do that, can’t you?”
I whispered to Jem, “Has she got good sense?”
Jem was squinting down at the witness stand. “Can’t tell yet,” he said. “She’s got enough sense to get the judge sorry for her, but she might be just—oh, I don’t know.”
Mollified, Mayella gave Atticus a final terrified glance and said to Mr. Gilmer, “Well sir, I was on the porch and—and he came along and, you see, there was this old chiffarobe in the yard Papa’d brought in to chop up for kindlin‘—Papa told me to do it while he was off in the woods but I wadn’t feelin’ strong enough then, so he came by—”
“Who is ‘he’?”
Mayella pointed to Tom Robinson. “I’ll have to ask you to be more specific, please,” said Mr. Gilmer. “The reporter can’t put down gestures very well.”
“That’n yonder,” she said. “Robinson.”
“Then what happened?”
“I said come here, nigger, and bust up this chiffarobe for me, I gotta nickel for you. He coulda done it easy enough, he could. So he come in the yard an‘ I went in the house to get him the nickel and I turned around an ’fore I knew it he was on me. Just run up behind me, he did. He got me round the neck, cussin‘ me an’ sayin‘ dirt—I fought’n’hollered, but he had me round the neck. He hit me agin an‘ agin—”
Mr. Gilmer waited for Mayella to collect herself: she had twisted her handkerchief into a sweaty rope; when she opened it to wipe her face it was a mass of creases from her hot hands. She waited for Mr. Gilmer to ask another question, but when he didn’t, she said, “-he chunked me on the floor an‘ choked me’n took advantage of me.”
“Did you scream?” asked Mr. Gilmer. “Did you scream and fight back?”
“Reckon I did, hollered for all I was worth, kicked and hollered loud as I could.”
“Then what happened?”
“I don’t remember too good, but next thing I knew Papa was in the room a’standing over me hollerin‘ who done it, who done it? Then I sorta fainted an’ the next thing I knew Mr. Tate was pullin‘ me up offa the floor and leadin’ me to the water bucket.”
Apparently Mayella’s recital had given her confidence, but it was not her father’s brash kind: there was something stealthy about hers, like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail.
“You say you fought him off as hard as you could? Fought him tooth and nail?” asked Mr. Gilmer.
“I positively did,” Mayella echoed her father.
“You are positive that he took full advantage of you?”
Mayella’s face contorted, and I was afraid that she would cry again. Instead, she said, “He done what he was after.”
Mr. Gilmer called attention to the hot day by wiping his head with his hand. “That’s all for the time being,” he said pleasantly, “but you stay there. I expect big bad Mr. Finch has some questions to ask you.”
“State will not prejudice the witness against counsel for the defense,” murmured Judge Taylor primly, “at least not at this time.”
Atticus got up grinning but instead of walking to the witness stand, he opened his coat and hooked his thumbs in his vest, then he walked slowly across the room to the windows. He looked out, but didn’t seem especially interested in what he saw, then he turned and strolled back to the witness stand. From long years of experience, I could tell he was trying to come to a decision about something.
“Miss Mayella,” he said, smiling, “I won’t try to scare you for a while, not yet. Let’s just get acquainted. How old are you?”
“Said I was nineteen, said it to the judge yonder.” Mayella jerked her head resentfully at the bench.
“So you did, so you did, ma’am. You’ll have to bear with me, Miss Mayella, I’m getting along and can’t remember as well as I used to. I might ask you things you’ve already said before, but you’ll give me an answer, won’t you? Good.”
I could see nothing in Mayella’s expression to justify Atticus’s assumption that he had secured her wholehearted cooperation. She was looking at him furiously.
“Won’t answer a word you say long as you keep on mockin‘ me,” she said.
“Ma’am?” asked Atticus, startled.
“Long’s you keep on makin‘ fun o’me.”
Judge Taylor said, “Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What’s the matter with you?”
Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but she said to the judge: “Long’s he keeps on callin‘ me ma’am an sayin’ Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass, I ain’t called upon to take it.”
Atticus resumed his stroll to the windows and let Judge Taylor handle this one. Judge Taylor was not the kind of figure that ever evoked pity, but I did feel a pang for him as he tried to explain. “That’s just Mr. Finch’s way,” he told Mayella. “We’ve done business in this court for years and years, and Mr. Finch is always courteous to everybody. He’s not trying to mock you, he’s trying to be polite. That’s just his way.”
The judge leaned back. “Atticus, let’s get on with these proceedings, and let the record show that the witness has not been sassed, her views to the contrary.”
I wondered if anybody had ever called her “ma’am,” or “Miss Mayella” in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like? I soon found out.
“You say you’re nineteen,” Atticus resumed. “How many sisters and brothers have you?” He walked from the windows back to the stand.
“Seb’m,” she said, and I wondered if they were all like the specimen I had seen the first day I started to school.
“You the eldest? The oldest?”
“How long has your mother been dead?”
“Don’t know—long time.”
“Did you ever go to school?”
“Read’n‘write good as Papa yonder.”
Mayella sounded like a Mr. Jingle in a book I had been reading.
“How long did you go to school?”
“Two year—three year—dunno.”
Slowly but surely I began to see the pattern of Atticus’s questions: from questions that Mr. Gilmer did not deem sufficiently irrelevant or immaterial to object to, Atticus was quietly building up before the jury a picture of the Ewells’ home life. The jury learned the following things: their relief check was far from enough to feed the family, and there was strong suspicion that Papa drank it up anyway—he sometimes went off in the swamp for days and came home sick; the weather was seldom cold enough to require shoes, but when it was, you could make dandy ones from strips of old tires; the family hauled its water in buckets from a spring that ran out at one end of the dump—they kept the surrounding area clear of trash—and it was everybody for himself as far as keeping clean went: if you wanted to wash you hauled your own water; the younger children had perpetual colds and suffered from chronic ground-itch; there was a lady who came around sometimes and asked Mayella why she didn’t stay in school—she wrote down the answer; with two members of the family reading and writing, there was no need for the rest of them to learn—Papa needed them at home.
“Miss Mayella,” said Atticus, in spite of himself, “a nineteen-year-old girl like you must have friends. Who are your friends?”
The witness frowned as if puzzled. “Friends?”
“Yes, don’t you know anyone near your age, or older, or younger? Boys and girls? Just ordinary friends?”
Mayella’s hostility, which had subsided to grudging neutrality, flared again. “You makin‘ fun o’me agin, Mr. Finch?”
Atticus let her question answer his
“Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?” was his next.
“Love him, whatcha mean?”
“I mean, is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?”
“He does tollable, ‘cept when—”
Mayella looked at her father, who was sitting with his chair tipped against the railing. He sat up straight and waited for her to answer.
“Except when nothin‘,” said Mayella. “I said he does tollable.”
Mr. Ewell leaned back again.
“Except when he’s drinking?” asked Atticus so gently that Mayella nodded.
“Does he ever go after you?”
“How you mean?”
“When he’s—riled, has he ever beaten you?”
Mayella looked around, down at the court reporter, up at the judge. “Answer the question, Miss Mayella,” said Judge Taylor.