To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 81)

“Somebody’s mashed my costume,” I wailed in dismay. Mrs. Merriweather galloped to me, reshaped the chicken wire, and thrust me inside.

“You all right in there, Scout?” asked Cecil. “You sound so far off, like you was on the other side of a hill.”

“You don’t sound any nearer,” I said.

The band played the national anthem, and we heard the audience rise. Then the bass drum sounded. Mrs. Merriweather, stationed behind her lectern beside the band, said: “Maycomb County: Ad Astra Per Aspera.” The bass drum boomed again. “That means,” said Mrs. Merriweather, translating for the rustic elements, “from the mud to the stars.” She added, unnecessarily it seemed to me, “A pageant.”

“Reckon they wouldn’t know what it was if she didn’t tell ’em,” whispered Cecil, who was immediately shushed.

“The whole town knows it,” I breathed.

“But the country folks’ve come in,” Cecil said.

“Be quiet back there,” a man’s voice ordered, and we were silent.

The bass drum went boom with every sentence Mrs. Merriweather uttered. She chanted mournfully about Maycomb County being older than the state, that it was part of the Mississippi and Alabama Territories, that the first white man to set foot in the virgin forests was the Probate Judge’s great-grandfather five times removed, who was never heard of again. Then came the fearless Colonel Maycomb, for whom the county was named.

Andrew Jackson appointed him to a position of authority and Colonel Maycomb’s misplaced self-confidence and slender sense of direction brought disaster to all who rode with him in the Creek Indian Wars. Colonel Maycomb persevered in his efforts to make the region safe for democracy, but his first campaign was his last. His orders, relayed to him by a friendly Indian runner, were to move south. After consulting a tree to ascertain from its lichen which way was south, and taking no lip from the subordinates who ventured to correct him, Colonel Maycomb set out on a purposeful journey to rout the enemy and entangled his troops so far northwest in the forest primeval that they were eventually rescued by settlers moving inland.

Mrs. Merriweather gave a thirty-minute description of Colonel Maycomb’s exploits. I discovered that if I bent my knees I could tuck them under my costume and more or less sit. I sat down, listened to Mrs. Merriweather’s drone and the bass drum’s boom and was soon fast asleep.

They said later that Mrs. Merriweather was putting her all into the grand finale, that she had crooned, “Po-ork,” with a confidence born of pine trees and butterbeans entering on cue. She waited a few seconds, then called, “Po-ork?” When nothing materialized, she yelled, “Pork!”

I must have heard her in my sleep, or the band playing Dixie woke me, but it was when Mrs. Merriweather triumphantly mounted the stage with the state flag that I chose to make my entrance. Chose is incorrect: I thought I’d better catch up with the rest of them.

They told me later that Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs. Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills.

Mrs. Merriweather seemed to have a hit, everybody was cheering so, but she caught me backstage and told me I had ruined her pageant. She made me feel awful, but when Jem came to fetch me he was sympathetic. He said he couldn’t see my costume much from where he was sitting. How he could tell I was feeling bad under my costume I don’t know, but he said I did all right, I just came in a little late, that was all. Jem was becoming almost as good as Atticus at making you feel right when things went wrong. Almost—not even Jem could make me go through that crowd, and he consented to wait backstage with me until the audience left.

“You wanta take it off, Scout?” he asked.

“Naw, I’ll just keep it on,” I said. I could hide my mortification under it.

“You all want a ride home?” someone said.

“No sir, thank you,” I heard Jem say. “It’s just a little walk.”

“Be careful of haints,” the voice said. “Better still, tell the haints to be careful of Scout.”

“There aren’t many folks left now,” Jem told me. “Let’s go.”

We went through the auditorium to the hallway, then down the steps. It was still black dark. The remaining cars were parked on the other side of the building, and their headlights were little help. “If some of ’em were goin’ in our direction we could see better,” said Jem. “Here Scout, let me hold onto your—hock. You might lose your balance.”

“I can see all right.”

“Yeah, but you might lose your balance.” I felt a slight pressure on my head, and assumed that Jem had grabbed that end of the ham. “You got me?”

“Uh huh.”

We began crossing the black schoolyard, straining to see our feet. “Jem,” I said, “I forgot my shoes, they’re back behind the stage.”

“Well let’s go get ’em.” But as we turned around, the auditorium lights went off. “You can get ’em tomorrow,” he said.

“But tomorrow’s Sunday,” I protested, as Jem turned me homeward.

“You can get the janitor to let you in . . . Scout?”

“Hm?”

“Nothing.”

Jem hadn’t started like that in a long time. I wondered what he was thinking. He’d tell me when he wanted to, probably when we got home. I felt his fingers press the top of my costume, too hard, it seemed. I shook my head. “Jem, you don’t hafta—”

“Hush a minute, Scout,” he said, pinching me.

We walked along silently. “Minute’s up,” I said. “Whatcha thinkin’ about?” I turned to look at him, but his outline was barely visible.

“Thought I heard something,” he said. “Stop a minute.”

We stopped.

“Hear anything?” he asked.

“No.”

We had not gone five paces before he made me stop again.

“Jem, are you tryin’ to scare me? You know I’m too old—”

“Be quiet,” he said, and I knew he was not joking.

The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm. We listened.

“Heard an old dog just then,” I said.

“It’s not that,” Jem answered. “I hear it when we’re walkin’ along, but when we stop I don’t hear it.”

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