Atticus resumed his stroll to the windows and let Judge Taylor handle this one. Judge Taylor was not the kind of figure that ever evoked pity, but I did feel a pang for him as he tried to explain. “That’s just Mr. Finch’s way,” he told Mayella. “We’ve done business in this court for years and years, and Mr. Finch is always courteous to everybody. He’s not trying to mock you, he’s trying to be polite. That’s just his way.”
The judge leaned back. “Atticus, let’s get on with these proceedings, and let the record show that the witness has not been sassed, her views to the contrary.”
I wondered if anybody had ever called her “ma’am” or “Miss Mayella” in her life; probably not, as she took offense to routine courtesy. What on earth was her life like? I soon found out.
“You say you’re nineteen,” Atticus resumed. “How many sisters and brothers have you?” He walked from the windows back to the stand.
“Seb’m,” she said, and I wondered if they were all like the specimen I had seen the first day I started to school.
“You the eldest? The oldest?”
“How long has your mother been dead?”
“Don’t know—long time.”
“Did you ever go to school?”
“Read’n’write good as Papa yonder.”
Mayella sounded like a Mr. Jingle in a book I had been reading.
“How long did you go to school?”
“Two year—three year—dunno.”
Slowly but surely I began to see the pattern of Atticus’s questions: from questions that Mr. Gilmer did not deem sufficiently irrelevant or immaterial to object to, Atticus was quietly building up before the jury a picture of the Ewells’ home life. The jury learned the following things: their relief check was far from enough to feed the family, and there was strong suspicion that Papa drank it up anyway—he sometimes went off in the swamp for days and came home sick; the weather was seldom cold enough to require shoes, but when it was, you could make dandy ones from strips of old tires; the family hauled its water in buckets from a spring that ran out at one end of the dump—they kept the surrounding area clear of trash—and it was everybody for himself as far as keeping clean went: if you wanted to wash you hauled your own water; the younger children had perpetual colds and suffered from chronic ground-itch; there was a lady who came around sometimes and asked Mayella why she didn’t stay in school—she wrote down the answer; with two members of the family reading and writing, there was no need for the rest of them to learn—Papa needed them at home.
“Miss Mayella,” said Atticus, in spite of himself, “a nineteen-year-old girl like you must have friends. Who are your friends?”
The witness frowned as if puzzled. “Friends?”
“Yes, don’t you know anyone near your age, or older, or younger? Boys and girls? Just ordinary friends?”
Mayella’s hostility, which had subsided to grudging neutrality, flared again. “You makin’ fun o’me again, Mr. Finch?”
Atticus let her question answer his.
“Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?” was his next.
“Love him, whatcha mean?”
“I mean, is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?”
“He does tollable, ’cept when—”
Mayella looked at her father, who was sitting with his chair tipped against the railing. He sat up straight and waited for her to answer.
“Except when nothin’,” said Mayella. “I said he does tollable.”
Mr. Ewell leaned back again.
“Except when he’s drinking?” asked Atticus so gently that Mayella nodded.
“Does he ever go after you?”
“How you mean?”
“When he’s—riled, has he ever beaten you?”
Mayella looked around, down at the court reporter, up at the judge. “Answer the question, Miss Mayella,” said Judge Taylor.
“My paw’s never touched a hair o’ my head in my life,” she declared firmly. “He never touched me.”
Atticus’s glasses had slipped a little, and he pushed them up on his nose. “We’ve had a good visit, Miss Mayella, and now I guess we’d better get to the case. You say you asked Tom Robinson to come chop up a—what was it?”
“A chiffarobe, a old dresser full of drawers on one side.”
“Was Tom Robinson well known to you?”