To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 55)
“You were in the courtroom when Mr. Heck Tate was on the stand, weren’t you? You heard everything he said, didn’t you?”
Mr. Ewell considered the matter carefully, and seemed to decide that the question was safe.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you agree with his description of Mayella’s injuries?”
Atticus looked around at Mr. Gilmer and smiled. Mr. Ewell seemed determined not to give the defense the time of day.
“Mr. Tate testified that her right eye was blackened, that she was beaten around the—”
“Oh yeah,” said the witness. “I hold with everything Tate said.”
“You do?” asked Atticus mildly. “I just want to make sure.” He went to the court reporter, said something, and the reporter entertained us for some minutes by reading Mr. Tate’s testimony as if it were stock-market quotations: “. . . which eye her left oh yes that’d make it her right it was her right eye Mr. Finch I remember now she was bunged.” He flipped the page. “Up on that side of the face Sheriff please repeat what you said it was her right eye I said—”
“Thank you, Bert,” said Atticus. “You heard it again, Mr. Ewell. Do you have anything to add to it? Do you agree with the sheriff?”
“I holds with Tate. Her eye was blacked and she was mighty beat up.”
The little man seemed to have forgotten his previous humiliation from the bench. It was becoming evident that he thought Atticus an easy match. He seemed to grow ruddy again; his chest swelled, and once more he was a red little rooster. I thought he’d burst his shirt at Atticus’s next question:
“Mr. Ewell, can you read and write?”
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.