To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 13)
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.
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 g-irl, 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 faced 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 eye-teeth. 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: “Jim 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?”