When Jem and I ran to meet Atticus after work, we had to pass by Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s house. She was very old; she spent most of each day in bed and the rest of it in a wheelchair. They said that she kept a pistol hidden among her shawls.
Mrs. Dubose was always displeased with us. Jem and I were afraid of her and hated her. If she was on the porch when we passed, she usually said something unpleasant about our behavior and predicted that we wouldn’t come to anything good when we grew up.
We could do nothing to please her. If I said as sunnily as I could, «Hey, Mrs. Dubose,» her an answer was, «Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!»
When Jem complained to Atticus, our father usually said, «She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Don’t get mad at whatever she says to you.» When the three of us came to her house, Atticus always took off his hat, waved gallantly to her and said, «Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening.» He spoke to her a little about the courthouse news, put on his hat and raised me to his shoulders in her very presence, and we went home in the twilight. At such times, I thought that my father was the bravest man who ever lived.
Jem got some money for his twelfth birthday and we went to town in the early afternoon. Jem wanted to buy a miniature steam engine for himself and a twirling baton for me.
Mrs. Dubose was on her porch when we went by. She shouted her usual insulting words about Jem and me. Jem whispered. «Don’t pay any attention to her, Scout, just hold your head high and be a gentleman.»
But Mrs. Dubose shouted, «Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash that he works for!»
Jem went red in the face. We heard many insults about Atticus at school, but this was the first one from an adult.
In town, Jem bought his steam engine and a baton for me. On the way home, he was silent. When we approached Mrs. Dubose’s house, she was not on the porch. Suddenly Jem grabbed my baton and ran into Mrs. Dubose’s front yard. For a few minutes, he simply went mad and forgot everything Atticus had said.
He did not stop until he had cut the tops off every camellia bush in Mrs. Dubose’s front yard, until the ground was covered with green buds and leaves. He bent my baton against his knee, broke it in two and threw it down.
That evening we didn’t go to meet Atticus from work. We sat silently in the living room and waited.
The front door slammed.
«Jem!» Atticus’ voice was like the winter wind.
Atticus switched on the ceiling light in the living room and found us there. He carried my baton in one hand. Camellia buds were in his other hand.
«Jem,» he said, «are you responsible for this?»
«Why’d you do it?»
Jem said softly, «She said you worked for niggers and trash.»
Atticus said that Jem’s behavior was inexcusable. «You should go and have a talk with Mrs. Dubose,» he said. «Come straight home afterward.»
Atticus picked up the Mobile Press and sat down in the rocking chair.
«You don’t care what happens to him,» I said. «Maybe she’ll shoot him. And he was just defending you.»
Atticus said that in summer, things would get even worse, but he couldn’t go against his conscience. «I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man,» he said.
Jem looked upset when he returned from Mrs. Debose’. He had cleaned up the front yard and promised to work every Saturday and help the camellia bushes grow again, but Mrs. Debose told him to come every afternoon after school and on Saturdays for a month, and read to her aloud for two hours.
«Atticus, do I have to do it?»
The following Monday afternoon Jem and I went to Mrs. Dubose’s house.
Jessie, her Negro girl, opened the door.
«Is that you, Jem Finch?» she said. «You got your sister with you. I don’t know-»
«Let ’em both in, Jessie,» said Mrs. Dubose. «So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?» was her greeting.
Jem said quietly, «My sister ain’t dirty and I ain’t scared of you,» although I noticed that his knees were shaking.
She told Jem to begin reading.
We sat down by her bed, Jem opened Ivanhoe and began reading. She looked horrible, and I tried not to look at her. When Jem came to a word he didn’t know, he missed it out, but Mrs. Dubose stopped him and made him spell it out. Soon her corrections grew fewer and fewer, and stopped. She was not listening. I looked toward the bed.
Mrs. Debose’ head moved slowly from side to side. Her lips were wet. From time to time, she opened her mouth wide. Suddenly, the alarm clock that stood on the bedside table went off and Jessie came in.
«It’s time for her medicine,» she said. «You all go home.»
It was only three forty-five when we got home, so Jem and I played in the back yard until it was time to meet Atticus. Atticus had two yellow pencils for me and a football magazine for Jem. I think it was a silent reward for our first day’s session with Mrs. Dubose.
And so it went on: every afternoon we went to Mrs. Debose’s house; Jem read to her; she corrected him, then her fits started, then the alarm clock rang, and Jessy told us to go home.
Every day the alarm clock went off later and later, and then the day came when it didn’t ring at all. Mrs. Dubose didn’t have any fits and let us go home with the words «That’ll do.»
One afternoon, when Mrs. Dubose said, «That’ll do,» she added, «And that’s all. Good-day to you.»
It was over. We were free. It was spring. The days grew longer, and we had more time to play.
Over a month passed. Mrs. Dubose was never on the porch any more when we passed by.
One evening, Atticus was called to Mrs. Dubose’s. It was long past my bedtime when he came home.
«What’d she want?» asked Jem.
«She’s dead, son,» said Atticus. «She died a few minutes ago.»
«Oh,» said Jem. «Well.»
«Well is right,» said Atticus. «She’s not suffering any more. She was sick for a long time. Son, didn’t you know what her fits were?»
Jem shook his head.
Atticus explained that Mrs. Dubose had taken morphine as a painkiller for years and had become a morphine addict. When Dr. Reynolds told her she had only a few months to live, she asked Atticus to make her will. Her business affairs were in perfect order but she said, «There’s still one thing out of order.»
She said she was going to leave this world bound to nothing and nobody. She wanted to break herself of her addiction before she died, and she did it. While Jem was reading to her, she could listen to him at first, but when the pain grew stronger, all her will power was concentrated on that alarm clock.
Jem asked, «Did she die free?»
«As the mountain air,» said Atticus.
Atticus said that the main reason why he had made Jem go and read to Mrs. Debose was because he wanted to show him what real courage was — not 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 go to the end no matter what. You seldom win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won. According to her views, she died bound to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.»