To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 48)

“Entailments are bad,” I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the entire aggregation. The men were all looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. Atticus had stopped poking at Jem: they were standing together beside Dill. Their attention amounted to fascination. Atticus’s mouth, even, was half-open, an attitude he had once described as uncouth. Our eyes met and he shut it.

“Well, Atticus, I was just sayin’ to Mr. Cunningham that entailments are bad an’ all that, but you said not to worry, it take a long time sometimes . . . that you all’d ride it out together . . .” I was slowly drying up, wondering what idiocy I had committed. Entailments seemed all right enough for livingroom talk.

I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.

“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.

They he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”

As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed, and they were gone.

I turned to Atticus, but Atticus had gone to the jail and was leaning against it with his face to the wall. I went to him and pulled his sleeve. “Can we go home now?” He nodded, produced his handkerchief, gave his face a going over and blew his nose violently.

“Mr. Finch?”

A soft husky voice came from the darkness above: “They gone?”

Atticus stepped back and looked up. “They’ve gone,” he said. “Get some sleep, Tom. They won’t bother you any more.”

From a different direction, another voice cut crisply through the night: “You’re damn tootin’ they won’t. Had you covered all the time, Atticus.”

Mr. Underwood and a double-barreled shotgun were leaning out his window above The Maycomb Tribune office.

It was long past my bedtime and I was growing quite tired; it seemed that Atticus and Mr. Underwood would talk for the rest of the night, Mr. Underwood out the window and Atticus up at him. Finally Atticus returned, switched off the light above the jail door, and picked up his chair.

“Can I carry it for you, Mr. Finch?” asked Dill. He had not said a word the whole time.

“Why, thank you, son.”

Walking toward the office, Dill and I fell into step behind Atticus and Jem. Dill was encumbered by the chair, and his pace was slower. Atticus and Jem were well ahead of us, and I assumed that Atticus was giving him hell for not going home, but I was wrong. As they passed under a streetlight, Atticus reached out and massaged Jem’s hair, his one gesture of affection.

16

Jem heard me. He thrust his head around the connecting door. As he came to my bed Atticus’s light flashed on. We stayed where we were until it went off; we heard him turn over, and we waited until he was still again.

Jem took me to his room and put me in bed beside him. “Try to go to sleep,” he said. “It’ll be all over after tomorrow, maybe.”

We had come in quietly, so as not to wake Aunty. Atticus killed the engine in the driveway and coasted to the carhouse; we went in the back door and to our rooms without a word. I was very tired, and was drifting into sleep when the memory of Atticus calmly folding his newspaper and pushing back his hat became Atticus standing in the middle of an empty waiting street, pushing up his glasses. The full meaning of the night’s events hit me and I began crying. Jem was awfully nice about it: for once he didn’t remind me that people nearly nine years old didn’t do things like that.

Everybody’s appetite was delicate this morning, except Jem’s; he ate his way through three eggs. Atticus watched in frank admiration; Aunt Alexandra sipped coffee and radiated waves of disapproval. Children who slipped out at night were a disgrace to the family. Atticus said he was right glad his disgraces had come along, but Aunty said, “Nonsense, Mr. Underwood was there all the time.”

“You know, it’s a funny thing about Braxton,” said Atticus. “He despises Negroes, won’t have one near him.”

Local opinion held Mr. Underwood to be an intense, profane little man, whose father in a fey fit of humor christened Braxton Bragg, a name Mr. Underwood had done his best to live down. Atticus said naming people after Confederate generals made slow steady drinkers.

Calpurnia was serving Aunt Alexandra more coffee, and she shook her head at what I thought was a pleading winning look. “You’re still too little,” she said. “I’ll tell you when you ain’t.” I said it might help my stomach. “All right,” she said, and got a cup from the sideboard. She poured one tablespoon of coffee into it and filled the cup to the brim with milk. I thanked her by sticking out my tongue at it, and looked up to catch Aunty’s warning frown. But she was frowning at Atticus.

She waited until Calpurnia was in the kitchen, then she said, “Don’t talk like that in front of them.”

“Talk like what in front of whom?” he asked.

“Like that in front of Calpurnia. You said Braxton Underwood despises Negroes right in front of her.”

“Well, I’m sure Cal knows it. Everybody in Maycomb knows it.”

I was beginning to notice a subtle change in my father these days, that came out when he talked with Aunt Alexandra. It was a quiet digging in, never outright irritation. There was a faint starchiness in his voice when he said, “Anything fit to say at the table’s fit to say in front of Calpurnia. She knows what she means to this family.”

“I don’t think it’s a good habit, Atticus. It encourages them. You know how they talk among themselves. Everything that happens in this town’s out to the Quarters before sundown.”

My father put down his knife. “I don’t know of any law that says they can’t talk. Maybe if we didn’t give them so much to talk about they’d be quiet. Why don’t you drink your coffee, Scout?”

I was playing in it with the spoon. “I thought Mr. Cunningham was a friend of ours. You told me a long time ago he was.”

“He still is.”

“But last night he wanted to hurt you.”

Atticus placed his fork beside his knife and pushed his plate aside. “Mr. Cunningham’s basically a good man,” he said, “he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.”

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