Chapter 11

 

Chapter 11

           

            Mrs. Dubose lived two doors down from us.  She was a mean lady.  She lived alone except for a Negro girl who took care of her.   Mrs. Dubose was very old.  She spent most of her day in bed and the rest of it in a wheelchair.  There was a rumor that she kept a pistol hidden in her shawl.  

            Jem and I hated her.  Whenever we passed her house, she would glare at us and ask us questions about what we were doing.  She would say we were up to no good.  She said we wouldn’t grow up to be anything good.  Even if I tried to be nice and say, “Hey, Mrs. Dubose,” she would yell at me, “Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl!  You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!”  She called us sassy, disrespectful mutts and that it was a disgrace that Atticus let us run wild.

            When Jem complained once to Atticus about the way she treated us, he said, “Easy does it, Son.  She’s an old lady and she’s ill.  You just hold your head high and be a gentleman.  Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.”  And when Atticus passed her place, he would sweep off his hat, wave gallantly to her and say, “Good evening, Mrs. Dubose!  You look like a picture this evening.”  (I never heard Atticus say a picture of what though!!)  It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.

            One day, Jem and I were walking by her place when she asked us where we were going.  She gave us a hard time and we tried to be nice.  But then she started yelling, “Don’t you lie to me! Jeremy Finch, Maudie Atkinson told me you broke down her flowers this morning. She’s going to tell your father and then you’ll wish you were never born!  I bet he’ll send you to reform school!”  Jem knew that none of this was true and told Mrs. Dubose that he hadn’t ruined Miss Maudie’s flowers.

            “Don’t you contradict me!!”  Mrs. Dubose yelled.  “And YOU—” she pointed an arthritic finger at me…”What are you doing in those overalls??  You should be in a dress, young lady!”

            Jem pulled me along and said, “Come on, Scout.  Don’t pay any attention to her, just hold your head high and be a gentleman.”

            But Mrs. Dubose yelled, “Not only will you grow up to be nothing, but your father is defending a n****r!  Your father is no better than the n****s and trash he works for!”  Jem and I couldn’t believe that Mrs. Dubose could be so mean and so racist.

            On our way by her house later in the day, Mrs. Dubose was not on the porch.  Jem was overcome with anger for what she had said about Atticus, and broke the promise he had made to Atticus to hold his head high and be a gentleman.  He took my baton and used it to ruin Mrs. Dubose’s camellia bush.  He cut the flowers off of every bush in her yard.  He was so mad!

            We went home and waited nervously for Atticus.  We were scared of what he would do when he found out about what Jem did.  Finally Atticus showed up holding a camellia flower.  “Are you responsible for this?”

            “Yes sir,” Jem replied quietly.

            “Why’d you do it?”

            Jem said softly, “She said you lawed for n****s and trash.”  Jem was obviously feeling really bad about what he had done.  He had his head down.

            Atticus said, “I understand that people have been giving you a hard time about the fact that I’m defending Tom Robinson, but to do something like this to a sick old lady is inexcusable.  I strongly advise you to go down and have a talk with Mrs. Dubose.  Come straight home afterward.”

            Once Jem had gone, Atticus and I talked.  He said, “Scout, when summer comes you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things because that’s when Tom Robinson’s trial will be.  I know it’s not fair to you and Jem, but sometimes we have to make the best of things, and I have to defend Tom Robinson because it’s the right thing to do.  I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do the right thing.  Even though other people might think I’m wrong for defending a black man, I know that it’s right.

            When Jem came back, he told us that Mrs. Dubose wanted Jem to read out loud to her as punishment for what he had done.  He had to go every afternoon and Saturdays for one month and read out loud for two hours each time.  Atticus said that Jem would have to go.

            So I went to Mrs. Dubose’s house with Jem.  Mrs. Dubose was in bed, and for a minute I felt kind of sorry for her, until she said, “So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?”

            Jem began reading and Mrs. Dubose would correct him sometimes.  But after a while, we noticed that she wasn’t listening.  She seemed to be in a lot of pain or something and kind of unconscious.  Then the alarm clock went off, Jessie her helper came in and told us that it was time for her medicine and that we could go home.  We noticed that this same thing happened each day, except the alarm clock would go off later and later.

            One day I asked Atticus what “N****r-lover” meant because Mrs. Dubose had called him that once.  Atticus said, “Scout, n****r-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose.  It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people us it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves.  It’s an ugly work to use, and you or I should never say it.”

            We finally finished our month of reading to Mrs. Dubose.  One day a month later Atticus was called down to Mrs. Dubose’s house and he came back carrying a box.  He told us that Mrs. Dubose had died.  He said that she had been sick for a long time and that her “fits” (when she would seem to be in pain and go unconscious) were because she had been addicted to morphine, a pain killer.  She was trying to break this addiction before she died.  Most people would have just kept taking the morphine so they wouldn’t have to be in pain during the last months of their life, but she wanted to die free of an addiction.  So, when she had Jem read to her, it was meant to distract her from the pain that not taking the morphine caused.  She would take the morphine later and later every day, which is why we had to read later and later before the alarm went off.  Atticus handed Jem the box he had brought back.  In it was a beautiful camellia flower.  Jem thought she had sent it to him to be mean, but really she was trying to say that she forgave him.

            Atticus said, “You know, she was a great lady.”

            Jem asked, “How could you call her a lady after all those terrible things she said about you?!”

            “She was a lady.  She had her own view about things, a lot different from mine, maybe…son, I wanted you to read to her because I wanted you to learn something from her. I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.  Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her.  She broke her addiction to morphine, which was a very hard thing to do.  She was the bravest person I ever knew.” Jem burned the box, but he kept touching the flower petals all night.