“Shoo,” she said, “you all go home.”
Jem hesitated at the door.
“It’s time for her medicine,” Jessie said. As the door swung shut behind us I saw Jessie walking quickly toward Mrs. Dubose’s bed.
It was only three forty-five when we got home, so Jem and I drop-kicked in the back yard until it was time to meet Atticus. Atticus had two yellow pencils for me and a football magazine for Jem, which I suppose was a silent reward for our first day’s session with Mrs. Dubose. Jem told him what happened.
“Did she frighten you?” asked Atticus.
“No sir,” said Jem, “but she’s so nasty. She has fits or somethin’. She spits a lot.”
“She can’t help that. When people are sick they don’t look nice sometimes.”
“She scared me,” I said.
Atticus looked at me over his glasses. “You don’t have to go with Jem, you know.”
The next afternoon at Mrs. Dubose’s was the same as the first, and so was the next, until gradually a pattern emerged: everything would begin normally—that is, Mrs. Dubose would hound Jem for a while on her favorite subjects, her camellias and our father’s nigger-loving propensities; she would grow increasingly silent, then go away from us. The alarm clock would ring, Jessie would shoo us out, and the rest of the day was ours.
“Atticus,” I said one evening, “what exactly is a nigger-lover?”
Atticus’s face was grave. “Has somebody been calling you that?”
“No sir, Mrs. Dubose calls you that. She warms up every afternoon calling you that. Francis called me that last Christmas, that’s where I first heard it.”
“Is that the reason you jumped on him?” asked Atticus.
“Yes sir . . .”
“Then why are you asking me what it means?”
I tried to explain to Atticus that it wasn’t so much what Francis said that had infuriated me as the way he had said it. “It was like he’d said snot-nose or somethin’.”
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody . . . I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t let Mrs. Dubose get you down. She has enough troubles of her own.”
One afternoon a month later Jem was ploughing his way through Sir Walter Scout, as Jem called him, and Mrs. Dubose was correcting him at every turn, when there was a knock on the door. “Come in!” she screamed.
Atticus came in. He went to the bed and took Mrs. Dubose’s hand. “I was coming from the office and didn’t see the children,” he said. “I thought they might still be here.”
Mrs. Dubose smiled at him. For the life of me I could not figure out how she could bring herself to speak to him when she seemed to hate him so. “Do you know what time it is, Atticus?” she said. “Exactly fourteen minutes past five. The alarm clock’s set for five-thirty. I want you to know that.”
It suddenly came to me that each day we had been staying a little longer at Mrs. Dubose’s, that the alarm clock went off a few minutes later every day, and that she was well into one of her fits by the time it sounded. Today she had antagonized Jem for nearly two hours with no intention of having a fit, and I felt hopelessly trapped. The alarm clock was the signal for our release; if one day it did not ring, what would we do?
“I have a feeling that Jem’s reading days are numbered,” said Atticus.
“Only a week longer, I think,” she said, “just to make sure . . .”
Jem rose. “But—”
Atticus put out his hand and Jem was silent. On the way home, Jem said he had to do it just for a month and the month was up and it wasn’t fair.
“Just one more week, son,” said Atticus.
“No,” said Jem.
“Yes,” said Atticus.
The following week found us back at Mrs. Dubose’s. The alarm clock had ceased sounding, but Mrs. Dubose would release us with, “That’ll do,” so late in the afternoon Atticus would be home reading the paper when we returned. Although her fits had passed off, she was in every other way her old self: when Sir Walter Scott became involved in lengthy descriptions of moats and castles, Mrs. Dubose would become bored and pick on us: