Because its primary reason for existence was government, Maycomb was spared the grubbiness that distinguished most Alabama towns its size. In the beginning its buildings were solid, its courthouse proud, its streets graciously wide. Maycomb’s proportion of professional people ran high: one went there to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted. But the ultimate wisdom of Sinkfield’s maneuver is open to question. He placed the young town too far away from the only kind of public transportation in those days—river-boat—and it took a man from the north end of the county two days to travel to Maycomb for store-bought goods. As a result the town remained the same size for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cottonfields and timberland.
Although Maycomb was ignored during the War Between the States, Reconstruction rule and economic ruin forced the town to grow. It grew inward. New people so rarely settled there, the same families married the same families until the members of the community looked faintly alike. Occasionally someone would return from Montgomery or Mobile with an outsider, but the result caused only a ripple in the quiet stream of family resemblance. Things were more or less the same during my early years.
There was indeed a caste system in Maycomb, but to my mind it worked this way: the old citizens, the present generation of people who had lived side by side for years and years, were utterly predictable to one another: they took for granted attitudes, character shadings, even gestures, as having been repeated in each generation and refined by time. Thus the dicta No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That, were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank; Miss Maudie Atkinson’s shoulder stoops because she was a Buford; if Mrs. Grace Merriweather sips gin out of Lydia E. Pinkham bottles it’s nothing unusual—her mother did the same.
Aunt Alexandra fitted into the world of Maycomb like a hand into a glove, but never into the world of Jem and me. I so often wondered how she could be Atticus’s and Uncle Jack’s sister that I revived half-remembered tales of changelings and mandrake roots that Jem had spun long ago.
These were abstract speculations for the first month of her stay, as she had little to say to Jem or me, and we saw her only at mealtimes and at night before we went to bed. It was summer and we were outdoors. Of course some afternoons when I would run inside for a drink of water, I would find the livingroom overrun with Maycomb ladies, sipping, whispering, fanning, and I would be called: “Jean Louise, come speak to these ladies.”
When I appeared in the doorway, Aunty would look as if she regretted her request; I was usually mud-splashed or covered with sand.
“Speak to your Cousin Lily,” she said one afternoon, when she had trapped me in the hall.
“Who?” I said.
“Your Cousin Lily Brooke,” said Aunt Alexandra.
“She our cousin? I didn’t know that.”
Aunt Alexandra managed to smile in a way that conveyed a gentle apology to Cousin Lily and firm disapproval of me. When Cousin Lily Brooke left I knew I was in for it.
It was a sad thing that my father had neglected to tell me about the Finch Family, or to install any pride into his children. She summoned Jem, who sat warily on the sofa beside me. She left the room and returned with a purple-covered book on which Meditations of Joshua S. St. Clair was stamped in gold.
“Your cousin wrote this,” said Aunt Alexandra. “He was a beautiful character.”
Jem examined the small volume. “Is this the Cousin Joshua who was locked up for so long?”
Aunt Alexandra said, “How did you know that?”
“Why, Atticus said he went round the bend at the University. Said he tried to shoot the president. Said Cousin Joshua said he wasn’t anything but a sewer-inspector and tried to shoot him with an old flintlock pistol, only it just blew up in his hand. Atticus said it cost the family five hundred dollars to get him out of that one—”
Aunt Alexandra was standing stiff as a stork. “That’s all,” she said. “We’ll see about this.”
Before bedtime I was in Jem’s room trying to borrow a book, when Atticus knocked and entered. He sat on the side of Jem’s bed, looked at us soberly, then he grinned.
“Er—h’rm,” he said. He was beginning to preface some things he said with a throaty noise, and I thought he must at last be getting old, but he looked the same. “I don’t exactly know how to say this,” he began.