To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 6)
The town children did so, and she looked us over.
“Everybody who brings his lunch put it on top of his desk.”
Molasses buckets appeared from nowhere, and the ceiling danced with metallic light. Miss Caroline walked up and down the rows peering and poking into lunch containers, nodding if the contents pleased her, frowning a little at others. She stopped at Walter Cunningham’s desk. “Where’s yours?” she asked.
Walter Cunningham’s face told everybody in the first grade he had hookworms. His absence of shoes told us how he got them. People caught hookworms going barefooted in barnyards and hog wallows. If Walter had owned any shoes he would have worn them the first day of school and then discarded them until mid-winter. He did have on a clean shirt and neatly mended overalls.
“Did you forget your lunch this morning?” asked Miss Caroline.
Walter looked straight ahead. I saw a muscle jump in his skinny jaw.
“Did you forget it this morning?” asked Miss Caroline. Walter’s jaw twitched again.
“Yeb’m,” he finally mumbled.
Miss Caroline went to her desk and opened her purse. “Here’s a quarter,” she said to Walter. “Go and eat downtown today. You can pay me back tomorrow.”
Walter shook his head. “Nome thank you ma’am,” he drawled softly.
Impatience crept into Miss Caroline’s voice: “Here Walter, come get it.”
Walter shook his head again.
When Walter shook his head a third time someone whispered, “Go on and tell her, Scout.”
I turned around and saw most of the town people and the entire bus delegation looking at me. Miss Caroline and I had conferred twice already, and they were looking at me in the innocent assurance that familiarity breeds understanding.
I rose graciously on Walter’s behalf: “Ah—Miss Caroline?”
“What is it, Jean Louise?”
“Miss Caroline, he’s a Cunningham.”
I sat back down.
“What, Jean Louise?”
I thought I had made things sufficiently clear. It was clear enough to the rest of us: Walter Cunningham was sitting there lying his head off. He didn’t forget his lunch, he didn’t have any. He had none today nor would he have any tomorrow or the next day. He had probably never seen three quarters together at the same time in his life.
I tried again: “Walter’s one of the Cunninghams, Miss Caroline.”
“I beg your pardon, Jean Louise?”
“That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the country folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets, and no scrip stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.”
My special knowledge of the Cunningham tribe—one branch, that is—was gained from events of last winter. Walter’s father was one of Atticus’s clients. After a dreary conversation in our livingroom one night about his entailment, before Mr. Cunningham left he said, “Mr. Finch, I don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you.”
“Let that be the least of your worries, Walter,” Atticus said.
When I asked Jem what entailment was, and Jem described it as a condition of having your tail in a crack, I asked Atticus if Mr. Cunningham would ever pay us.
“Not in money,” Atticus said, “but before the year’s out I’ll have been paid. You watch.”
We watched. One morning Jem and I found a load of stovewood in the back yard. Later, a sack of hickory nuts appeared on the back steps. With Christmas came a crate of smilax and holly. That spring when we found a croker-sack full of turnip greens, Atticus said Mr. Cunningham had more than paid him.
“Why does he pay you like that?” I asked.
“Because that’s the only way he can pay me. He has no money.”
“Are we poor, Atticus?”
Atticus nodded. “We are indeed.”
Jem’s nose wrinkled. “Are we as poor as the Cunninghams?”
“Not exactly. The Cunninghams are country folks, farmers, and the crash hit them hardest.”
Atticus said professional people were poor because the farmers were poor. As Maycomb County was farm country, nickels and dimes were hard to come by for doctors and dentists and lawyers. Entailment was only a part of Mr. Cunningham’s vexations. The acres not entailed were mortgaged to the hilt, and the little cash he made went to interest. If he held his mouth right, Mr. Cunningham could get a WPA job, but his land would go to ruin if he left it, and he was willing to go hungry to keep his land and vote as he pleased. Mr. Cunningham, said Atticus, came from a set breed of men.
As the Cunninghams had no money to pay a lawyer, they simply paid us with what they had. “Did you know,” said Atticus, “that Dr. Reynolds works the same way? He charges some folks a bushel of potatoes for delivery of a baby. Miss Scout, if you give me your attention I’ll tell you what entailment is. Jem’s definitions are very nearly accurate sometimes.”
If I could have explained these things to Miss Caroline, I would have saved myself some inconvenience and Miss Caroline subsequent mortification, but it was beyond my ability to explain things as well as Atticus, so I said, “You’re shamin’ him, Miss Caroline. Walter hasn’t got a quarter at home to bring you, and you can’t use any stovewood.”
Miss Caroline stood stock still, then grabbed me by the collar and hauled me back to her desk. “Jean Louise, I’ve had about enough of you this morning,” she said. “You’re starting off on the wrong foot in every way, my dear. Hold out your hand.”
I thought she was going to spit in it, which was the only reason anybody in Maycomb held out his hand: it was a time-honored method of sealing oral contracts. Wondering what bargain we had made, I turned to the class for an answer, but the class looked back at me in puzzlement. Miss Caroline picked up her ruler, gave me half a dozen quick little pats, then told me to stand in the corner. A storm of laughter broke loose when it finally occurred to the class that Miss Caroline had whipped me.
When Miss Caroline threatened it with a similar fate the first grade exploded again, becoming cold sober only when the shadow of Miss Blount fell over them. Miss Blount, a native Maycombian as yet uninitiated in the mysteries of the Decimal System, appeared at the door hands on hips and announced: “If I hear another sound from this room I’ll burn up everybody in it. Miss Caroline, the sixth grade cannot concentrate on the pyramids for all this racket!”