“Jem,” I said, “are those the Ewells sittin‘ down yonder?”
“Hush,” said Jem, “Mr. Heck Tate’s testifyin‘.”
Mr. Tate had dressed for the occasion. He wore an ordinary business suit, whichmade him look somehow like every other man: gone were his high boots, lumber jacket,and bullet-studded belt. From that moment he ceased to terrify me. He was sittingforward in the witness chair, his hands clasped between his knees, listening attentivelyto the circuit solicitor.
The solicitor, a Mr. Gilmer, was not well known to us. He was from Abbottsville; wesaw him only when court convened, and that rarely, for court was of no special interestto Jem and me. A balding, smooth-faced man, he could have been anywhere betweenforty and sixty. Although his back was to us, we knew he had a slight cast in one of hiseyes which he used to his advantage: he seemed to be looking at a person when hewas actually doing nothing of the kind, thus he was hell on juries and witnesses. Thejury, thinking themselves under close scrutiny, paid attention; so did the witnesses,thinking likewise.
“…in your own words, Mr. Tate,” Mr. Gilmer was saying.
“Well,” said Mr. Tate, touching his glasses and speaking to his knees, “I was called—”
“Could you say it to the jury, Mr. Tate? Thank you. Who called you?”
Mr. Tate said, “I was fetched by Bob—by Mr. Bob Ewell yonder, one night—”
“What night, sir?”
Mr. Tate said, “It was the night of November twenty-first. I was just leaving my office togo home when B—Mr. Ewell came in, very excited he was, and said get out to his housequick, some nigger’d raped his girl.”
“Did you go?”
“Certainly. Got in the car and went out as fast as I could.”
“And what did you find?”
“Found her lying on the floor in the middle of the front room, one on the right as you goin. She was pretty well beat up, but I heaved her to her feet and she washed her face ina bucket in the corner and said she was all right. I asked her who hurt her and she saidit was Tom Robinson—”
Judge Taylor, who had been concentrating on his fingernails, looked up as if he wereexpecting an objection, but Atticus was quiet.
“—asked her if he beat her like that, she said yes he had. Asked her if he tookadvantage of her and she said yes he did. So I went down to Robinson’s house andbrought him back. She identified him as the one, so I took him in. That’s all there was toit.”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Gilmer.
Judge Taylor said, “Any questions, Atticus?”
“Yes,” said my father. He was sitting behind his table; his chair was skewed to oneside, his legs were crossed and one arm was resting on the back of his chair.
“Did you call a doctor, Sheriff? Did anybody call a doctor?” asked Atticus.
“No sir,” said Mr. Tate.
“Didn’t call a doctor?”
“No sir,” repeated Mr. Tate.
“Why not?” There was an edge to Atticus’s voice.
“Well I can tell you why I didn’t. It wasn’t necessary, Mr. Finch. She was mightybanged up. Something sho‘ happened, it was obvious.”
“But you didn’t call a doctor? While you were there did anyone send for one, fetch one,carry her to one?”
Judge Taylor broke in. “He’s answered the question three times, Atticus. He didn’t calla doctor.”
Atticus said, “I just wanted to make sure, Judge,” and the judge smiled.
Jem’s hand, which was resting on the balcony rail, tightened around it. He drew in hisbreath suddenly. Glancing below, I saw no corresponding reaction, and wondered if Jemwas trying to be dramatic. Dill was watching peacefully, and so was Reverend Sykesbeside him.
“What is it?” I whispered, and got a terse, “Sh-h!”
“Sheriff,” Atticus was saying, “you say she was mighty banged up. In what way?”
“Just describe her injuries, Heck.”
“Well, she was beaten around the head. There was already bruises comin‘ on herarms, and it happened about thirty minutes before—”
“How do you know?”
Mr. Tate grinned. “Sorry, that’s what they said. Anyway, she was pretty bruised upwhen I got there, and she had a black eye comin‘.”
Mr. Tate blinked and ran his hands through his hair. “Let’s see,” he said softly, then helooked at Atticus as if he considered the question childish. “Can’t you remember?”
Mr. Tate pointed to an invisible person five inches in front of him and said, “Her left.”
“Wait a minute, Sheriff,” said Atticus. “Was it her left facing you or her left looking thesame way you were?”
Mr. Tate said, “Oh yes, that’d make it her right. It was her right eye, Mr. Finch. Iremember now, she was bunged up on that side of her face…”
Mr. Tate blinked again, as if something had suddenly been made plain to him. Thenhe turned his head and looked around at Tom Robinson. As if by instinct, Tom Robinsonraised his head.
Something had been made plain to Atticus also, and it brought him to his feet. “Sheriff,please repeat what you said.”
“It was her right eye, I said.”
“No…” Atticus walked to the court reporter’s desk and bent down to the furiouslyscribbling hand. It stopped, flipped back the shorthand pad, and the court reporter said,“‘Mr. Finch. I remember now she was bunged up on that side of the face.’”
Atticus looked up at Mr. Tate. “Which side again, Heck?”
“The right side, Mr. Finch, but she had more bruises—you wanta hear about ‘em?”
Atticus seemed to be bordering on another question, but he thought better of it andsaid, “Yes, what were her other injuries?” As Mr. Tate answered, Atticus turned andlooked at Tom Robinson as if to say this was something they hadn’t bargained for.
“…her arms were bruised, and she showed me her neck. There were definite fingermarks on her gullet—”
“All around her throat? At the back of her neck?”
“I’d say they were all around, Mr. Finch.”
“Yes sir, she had a small throat, anybody could’a reached around it with—”
“Just answer the question yes or no, please, Sheriff,” said Atticus dryly, and Mr. Tatefell silent.
Atticus sat down and nodded to the circuit solicitor, who shook his head at the judge,who nodded to Mr. Tate, who rose stiffly and stepped down from the witness stand.
Below us, heads turned, feet scraped the floor, babies were shifted to shoulders, anda few children scampered out of the courtroom. The Negroes behind us whispered softlyamong themselves; Dill was asking Reverend Sykes what it was all about, but ReverendSykes said he didn’t know. So far, things were utterly dull: nobody had thundered, therewere no arguments between opposing counsel, there was no drama; a gravedisappointment to all present, it seemed. Atticus was proceeding amiably, as if he wereinvolved in a title dispute. With his infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, he couldmake a rape case as dry as a sermon. Gone was the terror in my mind of stale whiskeyand barnyard smells, of sleepy-eyed sullen men, of a husky voice calling in the night,“Mr. Finch? They gone?” Our nightmare had gone with daylight, everything would comeout all right.
All the spectators were as relaxed as Judge Taylor, except Jem. His mouth wastwisted into a purposeful half-grin, and his eyes happy about, and he said somethingabout corroborating evidence, which made me sure he was showing off.
“…Robert E. Lee Ewell!”
In answer to the clerk’s booming voice, a little bantam cock of a man rose and struttedto the stand, the back of his neck reddening at the sound of his name. When he turnedaround to take the oath, we saw that his face was as red as his neck. We also saw noresemblance to his namesake. A shock of wispy new-washed hair stood up from hisforehead; his nose was thin, pointed, and shiny; he had no chin to speak of—it seemedto be part of his crepey neck.
“—so help me God,” he crowed.
Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economicfluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county inprosperity as well as in the depths of a depression. No truant officers could keep theirnumerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenitaldefects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.
Maycomb’s Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negrocabin. The cabin’s plank walls were supplemented with sheets of corrugated iron, itsroof shingled with tin cans hammered flat, so only its general shape suggested itsoriginal design: square, with four tiny rooms opening onto a shotgun hall, the cabinrested uneasily upon four irregular lumps of limestone. Its windows were merely openspaces in the walls, which in the summertime were covered with greasy strips ofcheesecloth to keep out the varmints that feasted on Maycomb’s refuse.
The varmints had a lean time of it, for the Ewells gave the dump a thorough gleaningevery day, and the fruits of their industry (those that were not eaten) made the plot ofground around the cabin look like the playhouse of an insane child: what passed for afence was bits of tree-limbs, broomsticks and tool shafts, all tipped with rusty hammer-heads, snaggle-toothed rake heads, shovels, axes and grubbing hoes, held on withpieces of barbed wire. Enclosed by this barricade was a dirty yard containing theremains of a Model-T Ford (on blocks), a discarded dentist’s chair, an ancient icebox,plus lesser items: old shoes, worn-out table radios, picture frames, and fruit jars, underwhich scrawny orange chickens pecked hopefully.
One corner of the yard, though, bewildered Maycomb. Against the fence, in a line,were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderlyas if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson, had Miss Maudie deigned to permit ageranium on her premises. People said they were Mayella Ewell’s.
Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place. Some people said six,others said nine; there were always several dirty-faced ones at the windows whenanyone passed by. Nobody had occasion to pass by except at Christmas, when thechurches delivered baskets, and when the mayor of Maycomb asked us to please helpthe garbage collector by dumping our own trees and trash.
Atticus took us with him last Christmas when he complied with the mayor’s request. Adirt road ran from the highway past the dump, down to a small Negro settlement somefive hundred yards beyond the Ewells‘. It was necessary either to back out to thehighway or go the full length of the road and turn around; most people turned around inthe Negroes’ front yards. In the frosty December dusk, their cabins looked neat andsnug with pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys and doorways glowing amber fromthe fires inside. There were delicious smells about: chicken, bacon frying crisp as thetwilight air. Jem and I detected squirrel cooking, but it took an old countryman likeAtticus to identify possum and rabbit, aromas that vanished when we rode back past theEwell residence.
All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearestneighbors was, that if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white.
“Mr. Robert Ewell?” asked Mr. Gilmer.
“That’s m’name, cap’n,” said the witness.
Mr. Gilmer’s back stiffened a little, and I felt sorry for him. Perhaps I’d better explainsomething now. I’ve heard that lawyers’ children, on seeing their parents in court in theheat of argument, get the wrong idea: they think opposing counsel to be the personalenemies of their parents, they suffer agonies, and are surprised to see them often goout arm-in-arm with their tormenters during the first recess. This was not true of Jemand me. We acquired no traumas from watching our father win or lose. I’m sorry that Ican’t provide any drama in this respect; if I did, it would not be true. We could tell,however, when debate became more acrimonious than professional, but this was fromwatching lawyers other than our father. I never heard Atticus raise his voice in my life,except to a deaf witness. Mr. Gilmer was doing his job, as Atticus was doing his.
Besides, Mr. Ewell was Mr. Gilmer’s witness, and he had no business being rude to himof all people.
“Are you the father of Mayella Ewell?” was the next question.
“Well, if I ain’t I can’t do nothing about it now, her ma’s dead,” was the answer.
Judge Taylor stirred. He turned slowly in his swivel chair and looked benignly at thewitness. “Are you the father of Mayella Ewell?” he asked, in a way that made thelaughter below us stop suddenly.
“Yes sir,” Mr. Ewell said meekly.
Judge Taylor went on in tones of good will: “This the first time you’ve ever been incourt? I don’t recall ever seeing you here.” At the witness’s affirmative nod he continued,“Well, let’s get something straight. There will be no more audibly obscene speculationson any subject from anybody in this courtroom as long as I’m sitting here. Do youunderstand?”
Mr. Ewell nodded, but I don’t think he did. Judge Taylor sighed and said, “All right, Mr.
“Thank you, sir. Mr. Ewell, would you tell us in your own words what happened on theevening of November twenty-first, please?”
Jem grinned and pushed his hair back. Just-in-your-own words was Mr. Gilmer’strademark. We often wondered who else’s words Mr. Gilmer was afraid his witnessmight employ.
“Well, the night of November twenty-one I was comin‘ in from the woods with a loado’kindlin’ and just as I got to the fence I heard Mayella screamin‘ like a stuck hog insidethe house—”
Here Judge Taylor glanced sharply at the witness and must have decided hisspeculations devoid of evil intent, for he subsided sleepily.
“What time was it, Mr. Ewell?”
“Just ‘fore sundown. Well, I was sayin’ Mayella was screamin‘ fit to beat Jesus—”
another glance from the bench silenced Mr. Ewell.
“Yes? She was screaming?” said Mr. Gilmer.
Mr. Ewell looked confusedly at the judge. “Well, Mayella was raisin‘ this holy racket soI dropped m’load and run as fast as I could but I run into th’ fence, but when I gotdistangled I run up to th‘ window and I seen—” Mr. Ewell’s face grew scarlet. He stoodup and pointed his finger at Tom Robinson. “—I seen that black nigger yonder ruttin’ onmy Mayella!”
So serene was Judge Taylor’s court, that he had few occasions to use his gavel, buthe hammered fully five minutes. Atticus was on his feet at the bench saying somethingto him, Mr. Heck Tate as first officer of the county stood in the middle aisle quelling thepacked courtroom. Behind us, there was an angry muffled groan from the coloredpeople.
Reverend Sykes leaned across Dill and me, pulling at Jem’s elbow. “Mr. Jem,” hesaid, “you better take Miss Jean Louise home. Mr. Jem, you hear me?”
Jem turned his head. “Scout, go home. Dill, you’n‘Scout go home.”
“You gotta make me first,” I said, remembering Atticus’s blessed dictum.
Jem scowled furiously at me, then said to Reverend Sykes, “I think it’s okay,Reverend, she doesn’t understand it.”
I was mortally offended. “I most certainly do, I c’n understand anything you can.”
“Aw hush. She doesn’t understand it, Reverend, she ain’t nine yet.”
Reverend Sykes’s black eyes were anxious. “Mr. Finch know you all are here? Thisain’t fit for Miss Jean Louise or you boys either.”
Jem shook his head. “He can’t see us this far away. It’s all right, Reverend.”
I knew Jem would win, because I knew nothing could make him leave now. Dill and Iwere safe, for a while: Atticus could see us from where he was, if he looked.
As Judge Taylor banged his gavel, Mr. Ewell was sitting smugly in the witness chair,surveying his handiwork. With one phrase he had turned happy picknickers into a sulky,tense, murmuring crowd, being slowly hypnotized by gavel taps lessening in intensityuntil the only sound in the courtroom was a dim pink-pink-pink: the judge might havebeen rapping the bench with a pencil.
In possession of his court once more, Judge Taylor leaned back in his chair. Helooked suddenly weary; his age was showing, and I thought about what Atticus hadsaid—he and Mrs. Taylor didn’t kiss much—he must have been nearly seventy.
“There has been a request,” Judge Taylor said, “that this courtroom be cleared ofspectators, or at least of women and children, a request that will be denied for the timebeing. People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for, and theyhave the right to subject their children to it, but I can assure you of one thing: you willreceive what you see and hear in silence or you will leave this courtroom, but you won’tleave it until the whole boiling of you come before me on contempt charges. Mr. Ewell,you will keep your testimony within the confines of Christian English usage, if that ispossible. Proceed, Mr. Gilmer.”
Mr. Ewell reminded me of a deaf-mute. I was sure he had never heard the wordsJudge Taylor directed at him—his mouth struggled silently with them—but their importregistered on his face. Smugness faded from it, replaced by a dogged earnestness thatfooled Judge Taylor not at all: as long as Mr. Ewell was on the stand, the judge kept hiseyes on him, as if daring him to make a false move.
Mr. Gilmer and Atticus exchanged glances. Atticus was sitting down again, his fistrested on his cheek and we could not see his face. Mr. Gilmer looked rather desperate.
A question from Judge Taylor made him relax: “Mr. Ewell, did you see the defendanthaving sexual intercourse with your daughter?”
“Yes, I did.”
The spectators were quiet, but the defendant said something. Atticus whispered tohim, and Tom Robinson was silent.
“You say you were at the window?” asked Mr. Gilmer.
“How far is it from the ground?”
“‘bout three foot.”
“Did you have a clear view of the room?”
“How did the room look?”
“Well, it was all slung about, like there was a fight.”
“What did you do when you saw the defendant?”
“Well, I run around the house to get in, but he run out the front door just ahead of me. Isawed who he was, all right. I was too distracted about Mayella to run after’im. I run inthe house and she was lyin‘ on the floor squallin’—”
“Then what did you do?”
“Why, I run for Tate quick as I could. I knowed who it was, all right, lived down yonderin that nigger-nest, passed the house every day. Jedge, I’ve asked this county for fifteenyears to clean out that nest down yonder, they’re dangerous to live around ‘sidesdevaluin’ my property—”
“Thank you, Mr. Ewell,” said Mr. Gilmer hurriedly.
The witness made a hasty descent from the stand and ran smack into Atticus, whohad risen to question him. Judge Taylor permitted the court to laugh.
“Just a minute, sir,” said Atticus genially. “Could I ask you a question or two?”
Mr. Ewell backed up into the witness chair, settled himself, and regarded Atticus withhaughty suspicion, an expression common to Maycomb County witnesses whenconfronted by opposing counsel.
“Mr. Ewell,” Atticus began, “folks were doing a lot of running that night. Let’s see, yousay you ran to the house, you ran to the window, you ran inside, you ran to Mayella, youran for Mr. Tate. Did you, during all this running, run for a doctor?”
“Wadn’t no need to. I seen what happened.”
“But there’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Atticus. “Weren’t you concerned withMayella’s condition?”
“I most positively was,” said Mr. Ewell. “I seen who done it.”
“No, I mean her physical condition. Did you not think the nature of her injurieswarranted immediate medical attention?”
“Didn’t you think she should have had a doctor, immediately?”
The witness said he never thought of it, he had never called a doctor to any of his’n inhis life, and if he had it would have cost him five dollars. “That all?” he asked.
“Not quite,” said Atticus casually. “Mr. Ewell, you heard the sheriff’s testimony, didn’tyou?”
“You were in the courtroom when Mr. Heck Tate was on the stand, weren’t you? Youheard everything he said, didn’t you?”
Mr. Ewell considered the matter carefully, and seemed to decide that the question wassafe.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you agree with his description of Mayella’s injuries?”
Atticus looked around at Mr. Gilmer and smiled. Mr. Ewell seemed determined not togive the defense the time of day.
“Mr. Tate testified that her right eye was blackened, that she was beaten around the—”
“Oh yeah,” said the witness. “I hold with everything Tate said.”
“You do?” asked Atticus mildly. “I just want to make sure.” He went to the courtreporter, said something, and the reporter entertained us for some minutes by readingMr. Tate’s testimony as if it were stock-market quotations: “…which eye her left oh yesthat’d make it her right it was her right eye Mr. Finch I remember now she was bunged.”
He flipped the page. “Up on that side of the face Sheriff please repeat what you said itwas her right eye I said—”
“Thank you, Bert,” said Atticus. “You heard it again, Mr. Ewell. Do you have anythingto add to it? Do you agree with the sheriff?”
“I holds with Tate. Her eye was blacked and she was mighty beat up.”
The little man seemed to have forgotten his previous humiliation from the bench. Itwas becoming evident that he thought Atticus an easy match. He seemed to grow ruddyagain; his chest swelled, and once more he was a red little rooster. I thought he’d bursthis shirt at Atticus’s next question:
“Mr. Ewell, can you read and write?”
Mr. Gilmer interrupted. “Objection,” he said. “Can’t see what witness’s literacy has todo with the case, irrelevant’n‘immaterial.”
Judge Taylor was about to speak but Atticus said, “Judge, if you’ll allow the questionplus another one you’ll soon see.”
“All right, let’s see,” said Judge Taylor, “but make sure we see, Atticus. Overruled.”
Mr. Gilmer seemed as curious as the rest of us as to what bearing the state of Mr.
Ewell’s education had on the case.
“I’ll repeat the question,” said Atticus. “Can you read and write?”
“I most positively can.”
“Will you write your name and show us?”
“I most positively will. How do you think I sign my relief checks?”
Mr. Ewell was endearing himself to his fellow citizens. The whispers and chucklesbelow us probably had to do with what a card he was.
I was becoming nervous. Atticus seemed to know what he was doing—but it seemedto me that he’d gone frog-sticking without a light. Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to, was a tenetI absorbed with my baby-food. Do it, and you’ll often get an answer you don’t want, ananswer that might wreck your case.
Atticus was reaching into the inside pocket of his coat. He drew out an envelope, thenreached into his vest pocket and unclipped his fountain pen. He moved leisurely, andhad turned so that he was in full view of the jury. He unscrewed the fountain-pen capand placed it gently on his table. He shook the pen a little, then handed it with theenvelope to the witness. “Would you write your name for us?” he asked. “Clearly now,so the jury can see you do it.”
Mr. Ewell wrote on the back of the envelope and looked up complacently to see JudgeTaylor staring at him as if he were some fragrant gardenia in full bloom on the witnessstand, to see Mr. Gilmer half-sitting, half-standing at his table. The jury was watchinghim, one man was leaning forward with his hands over the railing.
“What’s so interestin‘?” he asked.
“You’re left-handed, Mr. Ewell,” said Judge Taylor. Mr. Ewell turned angrily to thejudge and said he didn’t see what his being left-handed had to do with it, that he was aChrist-fearing man and Atticus Finch was taking advantage of him. Tricking lawyers likeAtticus Finch took advantage of him all the time with their tricking ways. He had toldthem what happened, he’d say it again and again—which he did. Nothing Atticus askedhim after that shook his story, that he’d looked through the window, then ran the niggeroff, then ran for the sheriff. Atticus finally dismissed him.
Mr. Gilmer asked him one more question. “About your writing with your left hand, areyou ambidextrous, Mr. Ewell?”
“I most positively am not, I can use one hand good as the other. One hand good asthe other,” he added, glaring at the defense table.
Jem seemed to be having a quiet fit. He was pounding the balcony rail softly, andonce he whispered, “We’ve got him.”
I didn’t think so: Atticus was trying to show, it seemed to me, that Mr. Ewell could havebeaten up Mayella. That much I could follow. If her right eye was blacked and she wasbeaten mostly on the right side of the face, it would tend to show that a left-handedperson did it. Sherlock Holmes and Jem Finch would agree. But Tom Robinson couldeasily be left-handed, too. Like Mr. Heck Tate, I imagined a person facing me, wentthrough a swift mental pantomime, and concluded that he might have held her with hisright hand and pounded her with his left. I looked down at him. His back was to us, but Icould see his broad shoulders and bull-thick neck. He could easily have done it. Ithought Jem was counting his chickens.