A small boy clutching a Negro woman’s hand walked toward us. He looked all Negro to me; he was rich chocolate with flaring nostrils and beautiful teeth. Sometimes he would skip happily, and the Negro woman tugged his hand to make him stop.
Jem waited until they passed us. “That’s one of the little ones,” he said.
“How can you tell?” asked Dill. “He looked black to me.”
“You can’t sometimes, not unless you know who they are. But he’s half Raymond, all right.”
“But how can you tell?” I asked.
“I told you, Scout, you just hafta know who they are.”
“Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”
“Uncle Jack Finch says we really don’t know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin’ the Old Testament.”
“Well if we came out durin’ the Old Testament it’s too long ago to matter.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Jem, “but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black. Hey, look—”
Some invisible signal had made the lunchers on the square rise and scatter bits of newspaper, cellophane, and wrapping paper. Children came to mothers, babies were cradled on hips as men in sweat-stained hats collected their families and herded them through the courthouse doors. In the far corner of the square the Negroes and Mr. Dolphus Raymond stood up and dusted their breeches. There were few women and children among them, which seemed to dispel the holiday mood. They waited patiently at the doors behind the white families.
“Let’s go in,” said Dill.
“Naw, we better wait till they get in, Atticus might not like it if he sees us,” said Jem.
The Maycomb County courthouse was faintly reminiscent of Arlington in one respect: the concrete pillars supporting its south roof were too heavy for their light burden. The pillars were all that remained standing when the original courthouse burned in 1856. Another courthouse was built around them. It is better to say, built in spite of them. But for the south porch, the Maycomb County courthouse was early Victorian, presenting an unoffensive vista when seen from the north. From the other side, however, Greek revival columns clashed with a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.
To reach the courtroom, on the second floor, one passed sundry sunless county cubbyholes: the tax assessor, the tax collector, the county clerk, the county solicitor, the circuit clerk, the judge of probate lived in cool dim hutches that smelled of decaying record books mingled with old damp cement and stale urine. It was necessary to turn on the lights in the daytime; there was always a film of dust on the rough floorboards. The inhabitants of these offices were creatures of their environment: little gray-faced men, they seemed untouched by wind or sun.
We knew there was a crowd, but we had not bargained for the multitudes in the first-floor hallway. I got separated from Jem and Dill, but made my way toward the wall by the stairwell, knowing Jem would come for me eventually. I found myself in the middle of the Idlers’ Club and made myself as unobtrusive as possible. This was a group of white-shirted, khaki-trousered, suspendered old men who had spent their lives doing nothing and passed their twilight days doing same on pine benches under the live oaks on the square. Attentive critics of courthouse business, Atticus said they knew as much law as the Chief Justice, from long years of observation. Normally, they were the court’s only spectators, and today they seemed resentful of the interruption of their comfortable routine. When they spoke, their voices sounded casually important. The conversation was about my father.
“. . . thinks he knows what he’s doing,” one said.
“Oh-h now, I wouldn’t say that,” said another. “Atticus Finch’s a deep reader, a mighty deep reader.”
“He reads all right, that’s all he does.” The club snickered.
“Lemme tell you somethin’ now, Billy,” a third said, “you know the court appointed him to defend this nigger.”
“Yeah, but Atticus aims to defend him. That’s what I don’t like about it.”
This was news, news that put a different light on things: Atticus had to, whether he wanted to or not. I thought it odd that he hadn’t said anything to us about it—we could have used it many times in defending him and ourselves. He had to, that’s why he was doing it, equaled fewer fights and less fussing. But did that explain the town’s attitude? The court appointed Atticus to defend him. Atticus aimed to defend him. That’s what they didn’t like about it. It was confusing.