To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 43)
“Taah!” I said at Jem. He was being sent to bed at my bedtime.
“Who started it?” asked Atticus, in resignation.
“Jem did. He was tryin’ to tell me what to do. I don’t have to mind him now, do I?”
Atticus smiled. “Let’s leave it at this: you mind Jem whenever he can make you. Fair enough?”
Aunt Alexandra was present but silent, and when she went down the hall with Atticus we heard her say, “. . . just one of the things I’ve been telling you about,” a phrase that united us again.
Ours were adjoining rooms; as I shut the door between them Jem said, “Night, Scout.”
“Night,” I murmured, picking my way across the room to turn on the light. As I passed the bed I stepped on something warm, resilient, and rather smooth. It was not quite like hard rubber, and I had the sensation that it was alive. I also heard it move.
I switched on the light and looked at the floor by the bed. Whatever I had stepped on was gone. I tapped on Jem’s door.
“What,” he said.
“How does a snake feel?”
“Sort of rough. Cold. Dusty. Why?”
“I think there’s one under my bed. Can you come look?”
“Are you bein’ funny?” Jem opened the door. He was in his pajama bottoms. I noticed not without satisfaction that the mark of my knuckles was still on his mouth. When he saw I meant what I said, he said, “If you think I’m gonna put my face down to a snake you’ve got another think comin’. Hold on a minute.”
He went to the kitchen and fetched the broom. “You better get up on the bed,” he said.
“You reckon it’s really one?” I asked. This was an occasion. Our houses had no cellars; they were built on stone blocks a few feet above the ground, and the entry of reptiles was not unknown but was not commonplace. Miss Rachel Haverford’s excuse for a glass of neat whiskey every morning was that she never got over the fright of finding a rattler coiled in her bedroom closet, on her washing, when she went to hang up her negligee.
Jem made a tentative swipe under the bed. I looked over the foot to see if a snake would come out. None did. Jem made a deeper swipe.
“Do snakes grunt?”
“It ain’t a snake,” Jem said. “It’s somebody.”
Suddenly a filthy brown package shot from under the bed. Jem raised the broom and missed Dill’s head by an inch when it appeared.
“God Almighty.” Jem’s voice was reverent.
We watched Dill emerge by degrees. He was a tight fit. He stood up and eased his shoulders, turned his feet in their ankle sockets, rubbed the back of his neck. His circulation restored, he said, “Hey.”
Jem petitioned God again. I was speechless.
“I’m ’bout to perish,” said Dill. “Got anything to eat?”
In a dream, I went to the kitchen. I brought him back some milk and half a pan of corn bread left over from supper. Dill devoured it, chewing with his front teeth, as was his custom.
I finally found my voice. “How’d you get here?”
By an involved route. Refreshed by food, Dill recited this narrative: having been bound in chains and left to die in the basement (there were basements in Meridian) by his new father, who disliked him, and secretly kept alive on raw field peas by a passing farmer who heard his cries for help (the good man poked a bushel pod by pod through the ventilator), Dill worked himself free by pulling the chains from the wall. Still in wrist manacles, he wandered two miles out of Meridian where he discovered a small animal show and was immediately engaged to wash the camel. He traveled with the show all over Mississippi until his infallible sense of direction told him he was in Abbott County, Alabama, just across the river from Maycomb. He walked the rest of the way.
“How’d you get here?” asked Jem.
He had taken thirteen dollars from his mother’s purse, caught the nine o’clock from Meridian and got off at Maycomb Junction. He had walked ten or eleven of the fourteen miles to Maycomb, off the highway in the scrub bushes lest the authorities be seeking him, and had ridden the remainder of the way clinging to the backboard of a cotton wagon. He had been under the bed for two hours, he thought; he had heard us in the diningroom, and the clink of forks on plates nearly drove him crazy. He thought Jem and I would never go to bed; he had considered emerging and helping me beat Jem, as Jem had grown far taller, but he knew Mr. Finch would break it up soon, so he thought it best to stay where he was. He was worn out, dirty beyond belief, and home.
“They must now know you’re here,” said Jem. “We’d know if they were lookin’ for you. . . .”
“Think they’re still searchin’ all the picture shows in Meridian.” Dill grinned.
“You oughta let your mother know where you are,” said Jem. “You oughta let her know you’re here. . . .”
Dill’s eyes flickered at Jem, and Jem looked at the floor. Then he rose and broke the remaining code of our childhood. He went out of the room and down the hall. “Atticus,” his voice was distant, “can you come here a minute, sir?”
Beneath its sweat-streaked dirt Dill’s face went white. I felt sick. Atticus was in the doorway.
He came to the middle of the room and stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down at Dill.
I finally found my voice: “It’s okay, Dill. When he wants you to know somethin’, he tells you.”
Dill looked at me. “I mean it’s all right,” I said. “You know he wouldn’t bother you, you know you ain’t scared of Atticus.”
“I’m not scared . . .” Dill muttered.
“Just hungry, I’ll bet.” Atticus’s voice had its usual pleasant dryness. “Scout, we can do better than a pan of cold corn bread, can’t we? You fill this fellow up and when I get back we’ll see what we can see.”
“Mr. Finch, don’t tell Aunt Rachel, don’t make me go back, please sir! I’ll run off again—!”
“Whoa, son,” said Atticus. “Nobody’s about to make you go anywhere but to bed pretty soon. I’m just over to tell Miss Rachel you’re here and ask her if you could spend the night with us—you’d like that, wouldn’t you? And for goodness’ sake put some of the county back where it belongs, the soil erosion’s bad enough as it is.”
Dill stared at my father’s retreating figure.
“He’s tryin’ to be funny,” I said. “He means take a bath. See there, I told you he wouldn’t bother you.”