We did not choose to meet Atticus coming home that evening. We skulked around the kitchen until Calpurnia threw us out. By some voo-doo system Calpurnia seemed to know all about it. She was a less than satisfactory source of palliation, but she did give Jem a hot biscuit-and-butter which he tore in half and shared with me. It tasted like cotton.
We went to the livingroom. I picked up a football magazine, found a picture of Dixie Howell, showed it to Jem and said, “This looks like you.” That was the nicest thing I could think to say to him, but it was no help. He sat by the windows, hunched down in a rocking chair, scowling, waiting. Daylight faded.
Two geological ages later, we heard the soles of Atticus’s shoes scrape the front steps. The screen door slammed, there was a pause—Atticus was at the hat rack in the hall—and we heard him call, “Jem!” His voice was like the winter wind.
Atticus switched on the ceiling light in the livingroom and found us there, frozen still. He carried my baton in one hand; its filthy yellow tassel trailed on the rug. He held out his other hand; it contained fat camellia buds.
“Jem,” he said, “are you responsible for this?”
“Why’d you do it?”
Jem said softly, “She said you lawed for niggers and trash.”
“You did this because she said that?”
Jem’s lips moved, but his “Yes sir” was inaudible.
“Son, I have no doubt that you’ve been annoyed by your contemporaries about me lawing for niggers, as you say, but to do something like this to a sick old lady is inexcusable. I strongly advise you to go down and have a talk with Mrs. Dubose,” said Atticus. “Come straight home afterward.”
Jem did not move.
“Go on, I said.”
I followed Jem out of the livingroom. “Come back here,” Atticus said to me. I came back.
Atticus picked up The Mobile Press and sat down in the rocking chair Jem had vacated. For the life of me, I did not understand how he could sit there in cold blood and read a newspaper when his only son stood an excellent chance of being murdered with a Confederate Army relic. Of course Jem antagonized me sometimes until I could kill him, but when it came down to it he was all I had. Atticus did not seem to realize this, or if he did he didn’t care.
I hated him for that, but when you are in trouble you become easily tired: soon I was hiding in his lap and his arms were around me.
“You’re mighty big to be rocked,” he said.
“You don’t care what happens to him,” I said. “You just send him on to get shot at when all he was doin’ was standin’ up for you.”
Atticus pushed my head under his chin. “It’s not time to worry yet,” he said. “I never thought Jem’d be the one to lose his head over this—thought I’d have more trouble with you.”
I said I didn’t see why we had to keep our heads anyway, that nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything.
“Scout,” said Atticus, “when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things . . . it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know that, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus, you must be wrong. . . .”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong. . . .”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
When Jem returned, he found me still in Atticus’s lap. “Well, son?” said Atticus. He set me on my feet, and I made a secret reconnaissance of Jem. He seemed to be all in one piece, but he had a queer look on his face. Perhaps she had given him a dose of calomel.
“I cleaned it up for her and said I was sorry, but I ain’t, and that I’d work on ’em ever Saturday and try to make ’em grow back out.”
“There was no point in saying you were sorry if you aren’t,” said Atticus. “Jem, she’s old and ill. You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does. Of course, I’d rather she’d have said it to me than to either of you, but we can’t always have our ’druthers.”