“Just a minute, sir,” said Atticus genially. “Could I ask you a question or two?”
Mr. Ewell backed up into the witness chair, settled himself, and regarded Atticus with haughty suspicion, an expression common to Maycomb County witnesses when confronted by opposing counsel.
“Mr. Ewell,” Atticus began, “folks were doing a lot of running that night. Let’s see, you say you ran into the house, you ran to the window, you ran inside, you ran to Mayella, you ran for Mr. Tate. Did you, during all this running, run for a doctor?”
“Wadn’t no need to. I seen what happened.”
“But there’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Atticus. “Weren’t you concerned with Mayella’s condition?”
“I most positively was,” said Mr. Ewell. “I seen who done it.”
“No, I mean her physical condition. Did you not think the nature of her injuries warranted immediate medical attention?”
“Didn’t you think she should have had a doctor, immediately?”
The witness said he never thought of it, he had never called a doctor to any of his’n in his life, and if he had it would have cost him five dollars. “That all?” he asked.
“Not quite,” said Atticus casually. “Mr. Ewell, you heard the sheriff’s testimony, didn’t you?”
“You were in the courtroom when Mr. Heck Tate was on the stand, weren’t you? You heard everything he said, didn’t you?”
Mr. Ewell considered the matter carefully, and seemed to decide that the question was safe.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you agree with his description of Mayella’s injuries?”
Atticus looked around at Mr. Gilmer and smiled. Mr. Ewell seemed determined not to give the defense the time of day.
“Mr. Tate testified that her right eye was blackened, that she was beaten around the—”
“Oh yeah,” said the witness. “I hold with everything Tate said.”
“You do?” asked Atticus mildly. “I just want to make sure.” He went to the court reporter, said something, and the reporter entertained us for some minutes by reading Mr. Tate’s testimony as if it were stock-market quotations: “. . . which eye her left oh yes that’d make it her right it was her right eye Mr. Finch I remember now she was bunged.” He flipped the page. “Up on that side of the face Sheriff please repeat what you said it was her right eye I said—”
“Thank you, Bert,” said Atticus. “You heard it again, Mr. Ewell. Do you have anything to add to it? Do you agree with the sheriff?”
“I holds with Tate. Her eye was blacked and she was mighty beat up.”
The little man seemed to have forgotten his previous humiliation from the bench. It was becoming evident that he thought Atticus an easy match. He seemed to grow ruddy again; his chest swelled, and once more he was a red little rooster. I thought he’d burst his shirt at Atticus’s next question:
“Mr. Ewell, can you read and write?”
Mr. Gilmer interrupted. “Objection,” he said. “Can’t see what witness’s literacy has to do with the case, irrelevant’n’immaterial.”
Judge Taylor was about to speak but Atticus said, “Judge, if you’ll allow the question plus another one you’ll soon see.”
“All right, let’s see,” said Judge Taylor, “but make sure we see, Atticus. Overruled.”
Mr. Gilmer seemed as curious as the rest of us as to what bearing the state of Mr. Ewell’s education had on the case.
“I’ll repeat the question,” said Atticus. “Can you read and write?”
“I most positively can.”
“Will you write your name and show us?”
“I most positively will. How do you think I sign my relief checks?”
Mr. Ewell was endearing himself to his fellow citizens. The whispers and chuckles below us probably had to do with what a card he was.
I was becoming nervous. Atticus seemed to know what he was doing—but it seemed to me that he’d gone frog-sticking without a light. Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to, was a tenet I absorbed with my baby-food. Do it, and you’ll often get an answer you don’t want, an answer that might wreck your case.
Atticus was reaching into the inside pocket of his coat. He drew out an envelope, then reached into his vest pocket and unclipped his fountain pen. He moved leisurely, and had turned so that he was in full view of the jury. He unscrewed the fountain-pen cap and placed it gently on his table. He shook the pen a little, then handed it with the envelope to the witness. “Would you write your name for us?” he asked. “Clearly now, so the jury can see you do it.”