Read To Kill a Mockingbird Online

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

To Kill a Mockingbird (6 page)

BOOK: To Kill a Mockingbird
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Dill said he ought to be first, he just got here.

Jem arbitrated, awarded me first push with an extra time for Dill, and I folded myself inside the tire.

Until it happened I did not realize that Jem was offended by my contradicting him on Hot Steams, and that he was patiently awaiting an opportunity to reward me. He did, by pushing the tire down the sidewalk with all the force in his body. Ground, sky and houses melted into a mad palette, my ears throbbed, I was suffocating. I could not put out my hands to stop, they were wedged between my chest and knees. I could only hope that Jem would outrun the tire and me, or that I would be stopped by a bump in the sidewalk. I heard him behind me, chasing and shouting.

The tire bumped on gravel, skeetered across the road, crashed into a barrier and popped me like a cork onto pavement. Dizzy and nauseated, I lay on the cement and shook my head still, pounded my ears to silence, and heard Jem’s voice: “Scout, get away from there, come on!”

I raised my head and stared at the Radley Place steps in front of me. I froze.

“Come on, Scout, don’t just lie there!” Jem was screaming. “Get up, can’tcha?”

I got to my feet, trembling as I thawed.

“Get the tire!” Jem hollered. “Bring it with you! Ain’t you got any sense at all?”

When I was able to navigate, I ran back to them as fast as my shaking knees would carry me.

“Why didn’t you bring it?” Jem yelled.

“Why don’t
you
get it?” I screamed.

Jem was silent.

“Go on, it ain’t far inside the gate. Why, you even touched the house once, remember?”

Jem looked at me furiously, could not decline, ran down the sidewalk, treaded water at the gate, then dashed in and retrieved the tire.

“See there?” Jem was scowling triumphantly. “Nothin‘ to it. I swear, Scout, sometimes you act so much like a girl it’s mortifyin’.”

There was more to it than he knew, but I decided not to tell him.

Calpurnia appeared in the front door and yelled, “Lemonade time! You all get in outa that hot sun ‘fore you fry alive!” Lemonade in the middle of the morning was a summertime ritual. Calpurnia set a pitcher and three glasses on the porch, then went about her business. Being out of Jem’s good graces did not worry me especially. Lemonade would restore his good humor.

Jem gulped down his second glassful and slapped his chest. “I know what we are going to play,” he announced. “Something new, something different.”

“What?” asked Dill.

“Boo Radley.”

Jem’s head at times was transparent: he had thought that up to make me understand he wasn’t afraid of Radleys in any shape or form, to contrast his own fearless heroism with my cowardice.

“Boo Radley? How?” asked Dill.

Jem said, “Scout, you can be Mrs. Radley—”

“I declare if I will. I don’t think—”

“‘Smatter?” said Dill. “Still scared?”

“He can get out at night when we’re all asleep…” I said.

Jem hissed. “Scout, how’s he gonna know what we’re doin‘? Besides, I don’t think he’s still there. He died years ago and they stuffed him up the chimney.”

Dill said, “Jem, you and me can play and Scout can watch if she’s scared.”

I was fairly sure Boo Radley was inside that house, but I couldn’t prove it, and felt it best to keep my mouth shut or I would be accused of believing in Hot Steams, phenomena I was immune to in the daytime.

Jem parceled out our roles: I was Mrs. Radley, and all I had to do was come out and sweep the porch. Dill was old Mr. Radley: he walked up and down the sidewalk and coughed when Jem spoke to him. Jem, naturally, was Boo: he went under the front steps and shrieked and howled from time to time.

As the summer progressed, so did our game. We polished and perfected it, added dialogue and plot until we had manufactured a small play upon which we rang changes every day.

Dill was a villain’s villain: he could get into any character part assigned him, and appear tall if height was part of the devilry required. He was as good as his worst performance; his worst performance was Gothic. I reluctantly played assorted ladies who entered the script. I never thought it as much fun as Tarzan, and I played that summer with more than vague anxiety despite Jem’s assurances that Boo Radley was dead and nothing would get me, with him and Calpurnia there in the daytime and Atticus home at night.

Jem was a born hero.

It was a melancholy little drama, woven from bits and scraps of gossip and neighborhood legend: Mrs. Radley had been beautiful until she married Mr. Radley and lost all her money. She also lost most of her teeth, her hair, and her right forefinger (Dill’s contribution. Boo bit it off one night when he couldn’t find any cats and squirrels to eat.); she sat in the livingroom and cried most of the time, while Boo slowly whittled away all the furniture in the house.

The three of us were the boys who got into trouble; I was the probate judge, for a change; Dill led Jem away and crammed him beneath the steps, poking him with the brushbroom. Jem would reappear as needed in the shapes of the sheriff, assorted townsfolk, and Miss Stephanie Crawford, who had more to say about the Radleys than anybody in Maycomb.

When it was time to play Boo’s big scene, Jem would sneak into the house, steal the scissors from the sewing-machine drawer when Calpurnia’s back was turned, then sit in the swing and cut up newspapers. Dill would walk by, cough at Jem, and Jem would fake a plunge into Dill’s thigh. From where I stood it looked real.

When Mr. Nathan Radley passed us on his daily trip to town, we would stand still and silent until he was out of sight, then wonder what he would do to us if he suspected. Our activities halted when any of the neighbors appeared, and once I saw Miss Maudie Atkinson staring across the street at us, her hedge clippers poised in midair.

One day we were so busily playing Chapter XXV, Book II of One Man’s Family, we did not see Atticus standing on the sidewalk looking at us, slapping a rolled magazine against his knee. The sun said twelve noon.

“What are you all playing?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Jem.

Jem’s evasion told me our game was a secret, so I kept quiet.

“What are you doing with those scissors, then? Why are you tearing up that newspaper? If it’s today’s I’ll tan you.”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing what?” said Atticus.

“Nothing, sir.”

“Give me those scissors,” Atticus said. “They’re no things to play with. Does this by any chance have anything to do with the Radleys?”

“No sir,” said Jem, reddening.

“I hope it doesn’t,” he said shortly, and went inside the house.

“Je-m…”

“Shut up! He’s gone in the livingroom, he can hear us in there.”

Safely in the yard, Dill asked Jem if we could play any more.

“I don’t know. Atticus didn’t say we couldn’t—”

“Jem,” I said, “I think Atticus knows it anyway.”

“No he don’t. If he did he’d say he did.”

I was not so sure, but Jem told me I was being a girl, that girls always imagined things, that’s why other people hated them so, and if I started behaving like one I could just go off and find some to play with.

“All right, you just keep it up then,” I said. “You’ll find out.”

Atticus’s arrival was the second reason I wanted to quit the game. The first reason happened the day I rolled into the Radley front yard. Through all the head-shaking, quelling of nausea and Jem-yelling, I had heard another sound, so low I could not have heard it from the sidewalk. Someone inside the house was laughing.

 

Chapter 5

 

My nagging got the better of Jem eventually, as I knew it would, and to my relief we slowed down the game for a while. He still maintained, however, that Atticus hadn’t said we couldn’t, therefore we could; and if Atticus ever said we couldn’t, Jem had thought of a way around it: he would simply change the names of the characters and then we couldn’t be accused of playing anything.

Dill was in hearty agreement with this plan of action. Dill was becoming something of a trial anyway, following Jem about. He had asked me earlier in the summer to marry him, then he promptly forgot about it. He staked me out, marked as his property, said I was the only girl he would ever love, then he neglected me. I beat him up twice but it did no good, he only grew closer to Jem. They spent days together in the treehouse plotting and planning, calling me only when they needed a third party. But I kept aloof from their more foolhardy schemes for a while, and on pain of being called a girl, I spent most of the remaining twilights that summer sitting with Miss Maudie Atkinson on her front porch.

Jem and I had always enjoyed the free run of Miss Maudie’s yard if we kept out of her azaleas, but our contact with her was not clearly defined. Until Jem and Dill excluded me from their plans, she was only another lady in the neighborhood, but a relatively benign presence.

Our tacit treaty with Miss Maudie was that we could play on her lawn, eat her scuppernongs if we didn’t jump on the arbor, and explore her vast back lot, terms so generous we seldom spoke to her, so careful were we to preserve the delicate balance of our relationship, but Jem and Dill drove me closer to her with their behavior.

Miss Maudie hated her house: time spent indoors was time wasted. She was a widow, a chameleon lady who worked in her flower beds in an old straw hat and men’s coveralls, but after her five o’clock bath she would appear on the porch and reign over the street in magisterial beauty.

She loved everything that grew in God’s earth, even the weeds. With one exception. If she found a blade of nut grass in her yard it was like the Second Battle of the Marne: she swooped down upon it with a tin tub and subjected it to blasts from beneath with a poisonous substance she said was so powerful it’d kill us all if we didn’t stand out of the way.

“Why can’t you just pull it up?” I asked, after witnessing a prolonged campaign against a blade not three inches high.

“Pull it up, child, pull it up?” She picked up the limp sprout and squeezed her thumb up its tiny stalk. Microscopic grains oozed out. “Why, one sprig of nut grass can ruin a whole yard. Look here. When it comes fall this dries up and the wind blows it all over Maycomb County!” Miss Maudie’s face likened such an occurrence unto an Old Testament pestilence.

Her speech was crisp for a Maycomb County inhabitant. She called us by all our names, and when she grinned she revealed two minute gold prongs clipped to her eyeteeth. When I admired them and hoped I would have some eventually, she said, “Look here.” With a click of her tongue she thrust out her bridgework, a gesture of cordiality that cemented our friendship.

Miss Maudie’s benevolence extended to Jem and Dill, whenever they paused in their pursuits: we reaped the benefits of a talent Miss Maudie had hitherto kept hidden from us. She made the best cakes in the neighborhood. When she was admitted into our confidence, every time she baked she made a big cake and three little ones, and she would call across the street: “Jem Finch, Scout Finch, Charles Baker Harris, come here!” Our promptness was always rewarded.

In summertime, twilights are long and peaceful. Often as not, Miss Maudie and I would sit silently on her porch, watching the sky go from yellow to pink as the sun went down, watching flights of martins sweep low over the neighborhood and disappear behind the schoolhouse rooftops.

“Miss Maudie,” I said one evening, “do you think Boo Radley’s still alive?”

“His name’s Arthur and he’s alive,” she said. She was rocking slowly in her big oak chair. “Do you smell my mimosa? It’s like angels’ breath this evening.”

“Yessum. How do you know?”

“Know what, child?”

“That B—Mr. Arthur’s still alive?”

“What a morbid question. But I suppose it’s a morbid subject. I know he’s alive, Jean Louise, because I haven’t seen him carried out yet.”

“Maybe he died and they stuffed him up the chimney.”

“Where did you get such a notion?”

“That’s what Jem said he thought they did.”

“S-ss-ss. He gets more like Jack Finch every day.”

Miss Maudie had known Uncle Jack Finch, Atticus’s brother, since they were children. Nearly the same age, they had grown up together at Finch’s Landing. Miss Maudie was the daughter of a neighboring landowner, Dr. Frank Buford. Dr. Buford’s profession was medicine and his obsession was anything that grew in the ground, so he stayed poor. Uncle Jack Finch confined his passion for digging to his window boxes in Nashville and stayed rich. We saw Uncle Jack every Christmas, and every Christmas he yelled across the street for Miss Maudie to come marry him. Miss Maudie would yell back, “Call a little louder, Jack Finch, and they’ll hear you at the post office, I haven’t heard you yet!” Jem and I thought this a strange way to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage, but then Uncle Jack was rather strange. He said he was trying to get Miss Maudie’s goat, that he had been trying unsuccessfully for forty years, that he was the last person in the world Miss Maudie would think about marrying but the first person she thought about teasing, and the best defense to her was spirited offense, all of which we understood clearly.

“Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all,” said Miss Maudie. “Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?”

“Yessum, but I’d wanta come out. Why doesn’t he?”

Miss Maudie’s eyes narrowed. “You know that story as well as I do.”

“I never heard why, though. Nobody ever told me why.”

Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. “You know old Mr. Radley was a foot-washing Baptist.”

“That’s what you are, ain’t it?”

“My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.”

“Don’t you all believe in foot-washing?”

“We do. At home in the bathtub.”

“But we can’t have communion with you all—”

Apparently deciding that it was easier to define primitive baptistry than closed communion, Miss Maudie said: “Foot-washers believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of ‘em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell?”

“Your flowers, too?”

BOOK: To Kill a Mockingbird
9.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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