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
“I’ll be dogged,” I said. “I didn’t know no better than not to read to her, and she held me responsible—listen Atticus, I don’t have to go to school!” I was bursting with a sudden thought. “Burris Ewell, remember? He just goes to school the first day. The truant lady reckons she’s carried out the law when she gets his name on the roll.”
“You can’t do that, Scout,” Atticus said. “Sometimes it’s better to bend the law a little in special cases. In your case, the law remains rigid. So to school you must go.”
“I don’t see why I have to when he doesn’t.”
Atticus said the Ewells had been the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations. None of them had done an honest day’s work in his recollection. He said that some Christmas, when he was getting rid of the tree, he would take me with him and show me where and how they lived. They were people, but they lived like animals. “They can go to school any time they want to, when they show the faintest symptom of wanting an education,” said Atticus. “There are ways of keeping them in school by force, but it’s silly to force people like the Ewells into a new environment.”
“If I didn’t go to school tomorrow, you’d force me to.”
“Let us leave it at this,” said Atticus dryly. “You, Miss Scout Finch, are of the common folk. You must obey the law.” He said that the Ewells were members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells. In certain circumstances the common folk judiciously allowed them certain privileges by the simple method of becoming blind to some of the Ewells’ activities. They didn’t have to go to school, for one thing. Another thing, Mr. Bob Ewell, Burris’s father, was permitted to hunt and trap out of season.
“Atticus, that’s bad,” I said. In Maycomb County, hunting out of season was a misdemeanor at law, a capital felony in the eyes of the populace.
“It’s against the law, all right,” said my father, “and it’s certainly bad, but when a man spends his relief checks on green whiskey his children have a way of crying from hunger pains. I don’t know of any landowner around here who begrudges those children any game their father can hit.”
“Mr. Ewell shouldn’t do that—”
“Of course he shouldn’t, but he’ll never change his ways. Are you going to take out your disapproval on his children?”
“No sir,” I murmured, and made a final stand: “But if I keep on goin‘ to school, we can’t ever read any more…”
“That’s really bothering you, isn’t it?”
When Atticus looked down at me I saw the expression on his face that always made me expect something. “Do you know what a compromise is?” he asked.
“Bending the law?”
“No, an agreement reached by mutual concessions. It works this way,” he said. “If you’ll concede the necessity of going to school, we’ll go on reading every night just as we always have. Is it a bargain?”
“We’ll consider it sealed without the usual formality,” Atticus said, when he saw me preparing to spit.
As I opened the front screen door Atticus said, “By the way, Scout, you’d better not say anything at school about our agreement.”
“I’m afraid our activities would be received with considerable disapprobation by the more learned authorities.”
Jem and I were accustomed to our father’s last-will-and-testament diction, and we were at all times free to interrupt Atticus for a translation when it was beyond our understanding.
“I never went to school,” he said, “but I have a feeling that if you tell Miss Caroline we read every night she’ll get after me, and I wouldn’t want her after me.”
Atticus kept us in fits that evening, gravely reading columns of print about a man who sat on a flagpole for no discernible reason, which was reason enough for Jem to spend the following Saturday aloft in the treehouse. Jem sat from after breakfast until sunset and would have remained overnight had not Atticus severed his supply lines. I had spent most of the day climbing up and down, running errands for him, providing him with literature, nourishment and water, and was carrying him blankets for the night when Atticus said if I paid no attention to him, Jem would come down. Atticus was right.
The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything—at least, what one didn’t know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half-Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books. As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from
and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.
As the year passed, released from school thirty minutes before Jem, who had to stay until three o’clock, I ran by the Radley Place as fast as I could, not stopping until I reached the safety of our front porch. One afternoon as I raced by, something caught my eye and caught it in such a way that I took a deep breath, a long look around, and went back.
Two live oaks stood at the edge of the Radley lot; their roots reached out into the side-road and made it bumpy. Something about one of the trees attracted my attention.
Some tinfoil was sticking in a knot-hole just above my eye level, winking at me in the afternoon sun. I stood on tiptoe, hastily looked around once more, reached into the hole, and withdrew two pieces of chewing gum minus their outer wrappers.
My first impulse was to get it into my mouth as quickly as possible, but I remembered where I was. I ran home, and on our front porch I examined my loot. The gum looked fresh. I sniffed it and it smelled all right. I licked it and waited for a while. When I did not die I crammed it into my mouth: Wrigley’s Double-Mint.
When Jem came home he asked me where I got such a wad. I told him I found it.
“Don’t eat things you find, Scout.”
“This wasn’t on the ground, it was in a tree.”
“Well it was,” I said. “It was sticking in that tree yonder, the one comin‘ from school.”
“Spit it out right now!”
I spat it out. The tang was fading, anyway. “I’ve been chewin‘ it all afternoon and I ain’t dead yet, not even sick.”
Jem stamped his foot. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to even touch the trees over there? You’ll get killed if you do!”
“You touched the house once!”
“That was different! You go gargle—right now, you hear me?”
“Ain’t neither, it’ll take the taste outa my mouth.”
“You don’t ‘n’ I’ll tell Calpurnia on you!”
Rather than risk a tangle with Calpurnia, I did as Jem told me. For some reason, my first year of school had wrought a great change in our relationship: Calpurnia’s tyranny, unfairness, and meddling in my business had faded to gentle grumblings of general disapproval. On my part, I went to much trouble, sometimes, not to provoke her.
Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.
The authorities released us early the last day of school, and Jem and I walked home together. “Reckon old Dill’ll be coming home tomorrow,” I said.
“Probably day after,” said Jem. “Mis’sippi turns ‘em loose a day later.”
As we came to the live oaks at the Radley Place I raised my finger to point for the hundredth time to the knot-hole where I had found the chewing gum, trying to make Jem believe I had found it there, and found myself pointing at another piece of tinfoil.
“I see it, Scout! I see it—”
Jem looked around, reached up, and gingerly pocketed a tiny shiny package. We ran home, and on the front porch we looked at a small box patchworked with bits of tinfoil collected from chewing-gum wrappers. It was the kind of box wedding rings came in, purple velvet with a minute catch. Jem flicked open the tiny catch. Inside were two scrubbed and polished pennies, one on top of the other. Jem examined them.
“Indian-heads,” he said. “Nineteen-six and Scout, one of em’s nineteen-hundred. These are real old.”
“Nineteen-hundred,” I echoed. “Say—”
“Hush a minute, I’m thinkin‘.”
“Jem, you reckon that’s somebody’s hidin‘ place?”
“Naw, don’t anybody much but us pass by there, unless it’s some grown person’s—”
“Grown folks don’t have hidin‘ places. You reckon we ought to keep ’em, Jem?”
“I don’t know what we could do, Scout. Who’d we give ‘em back to? I know for a fact don’t anybody go by there—Cecil goes by the back street an’ all the way around by town to get home.”
Cecil Jacobs, who lived at the far end of our street next door to the post office, walked a total of one mile per school day to avoid the Radley Place and old Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose. Mrs. Dubose lived two doors up the street from us; neighborhood opinion was unanimous that Mrs. Dubose was the meanest old woman who ever lived. Jem wouldn’t go by her place without Atticus beside him.
“What you reckon we oughta do, Jem?”
Finders were keepers unless title was proven. Plucking an occasional camellia, getting a squirt of hot milk from Miss Maudie Atkinson’s cow on a summer day, helping ourselves to someone’s scuppernongs was part of our ethical culture, but money was different.
“Tell you what,” said Jem. “We’ll keep ‘em till school starts, then go around and ask everybody if they’re theirs. They’re some bus child’s, maybe—he was too taken up with gettin’ outa school today an‘ forgot ’em. These are somebody’s, I know that. See how they’ve been slicked up? They’ve been saved.”
“Yeah, but why should somebody wanta put away chewing gum like that? You know it doesn’t last.”
“I don’t know, Scout. But these are important to somebody…”
“How’s that, Jem…?”
“Well, Indian-heads—well, they come from the Indians. They’re real strong magic, they make you have good luck. Not like fried chicken when you’re not lookin‘ for it, but things like long life ’n‘ good health, ’n‘ passin’ six-weeks tests… these are real valuable to somebody. I’m gonna put em in my trunk.”
Before Jem went to his room, he looked for a long time at the Radley Place. He seemed to be thinking again.
Two days later Dill arrived in a blaze of glory: he had ridden the train by himself from Meridian to Maycomb Junction (a courtesy title—Maycomb Junction was in Abbott County) where he had been met by Miss Rachel in Maycomb’s one taxi; he had eaten dinner in the diner, he had seen two twins hitched together get off the train in Bay St. Louis and stuck to his story regardless of threats. He had discarded the abominable blue shorts that were buttoned to his shirts and wore real short pants with a belt; he was somewhat heavier, no taller, and said he had seen his father. Dill’s father was taller than ours, he had a black beard (pointed), and was president of the L & N Railroad.
“I helped the engineer for a while,” said Dill, yawning.
“In a pig’s ear you did, Dill. Hush,” said Jem. “What’ll we play today?”
“Tom and Sam and Dick,” said Dill. “Let’s go in the front yard.” Dill wanted the Rover Boys because there were three respectable parts. He was clearly tired of being our character man.
“I’m tired of those,” I said. I was tired of playing Tom Rover, who suddenly lost his memory in the middle of a picture show and was out of the script until the end, when he was found in Alaska.
“Make us up one, Jem,” I said.
“I’m tired of makin‘ ’em up.”
Our first days of freedom, and we were tired. I wondered what the summer would bring.
We had strolled to the front yard, where Dill stood looking down the street at the dreary face of the Radley Place. “I—smell—death,” he said. “I do, I mean it,” he said, when I told him to shut up.
“You mean when somebody’s dyin‘ you can smell it?”
“No, I mean I can smell somebody an‘ tell if they’re gonna die. An old lady taught me how.” Dill leaned over and sniffed me. “Jean—Louise—Finch, you are going to die in three days.”
“Dill if you don’t hush I’ll knock you bowlegged. I mean it, now—”
“Yawl hush,” growled Jem, “you act like you believe in Hot Steams.”
“You act like you don’t,” I said.
“What’s a Hot Steam?” asked Dill.
“Haven’t you ever walked along a lonesome road at night and passed by a hot place?” Jem asked Dill. “A Hot Steam’s somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an‘ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too, an’ you’ll go around at night suckin‘ people’s breath—”
“How can you keep from passing through one?”
“You can’t,” said Jem. “Sometimes they stretch all the way across the road, but if you hafta go through one you say, ‘Angel-bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath.’ That keeps ‘em from wrapping around you—”
“Don’t you believe a word he says, Dill,” I said. “Calpurnia says that’s nigger-talk.”
Jem scowled darkly at me, but said, “Well, are we gonna play anything or not?”
“Let’s roll in the tire,” I suggested.
Jem sighed. “You know I’m too big.”
“You c’n push.”
I ran to the back yard and pulled an old car tire from under the house. I slapped it up to the front yard. “I’m first,” I said.