Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires
She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.
Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair.
She was glad she had decided to go by train. Trains had changed since her childhood, and the novelty of the experience amused her: a fat genie of a porter materialized when she pressed a button on a wall; at her bidding a stainless steel washbasin popped out of another wall, and there was a john one could prop one’s feet on. She resolved not to be intimidated by several messages stenciled around her compartment—a roomette, they called it—but when she went to bed the night before, she succeeded in folding herself up into the wall because she had ignored an injunction to pull this lever down over brackets, a situation remedied by the porter to her embarrassment, as her habit was to sleep only in pajama tops.
Luckily, he happened to be patrolling the corridor when the trap snapped shut with her in it: “I’ll get you out, Miss,” he called in answer to her poundings from within. “No please,” she said. “Just tell me how to get out.” “I can do it with my back turned,” he said, and did.
When she awoke that morning the train was switching and chugging in the Atlanta yards, but in obedience to another sign in her compartment she stayed in bed until College Park flashed by. When she dressed, she put on her Maycomb clothes: gray slacks, a black sleeveless blouse, white socks, and loafers. Although it was four hours away, she could hear her aunt’s sniff of disapproval.
When she was starting on her fourth cup of coffee the Crescent Limited honked like a giant goose at its northbound mate and rumbled across the Chattahoochee into Alabama.
The Chattahoochee is wide, flat, and muddy. It was low today; a yellow sandbar had reduced its flow to a trickle. Perhaps it sings in the wintertime, she thought: I do not remember a line of that poem. Piping down the valleys wild? No. Did he write to a waterfowl, or was it a waterfall?
She sternly repressed a tendency to boisterousness when she reflected that Sidney Lanier must have been somewhat like her long-departed cousin, Joshua Singleton St. Clair, whose private literary preserves stretched from the Black Belt to Bayou La Batre. Jean Louise’s aunt often held up Cousin Joshua to her as a family example not lightly to be discountenanced: he was a splendid figure of a man, he was a poet, he was cut off in his prime, and Jean Louise would do well to remember that he was a credit to the family. His pictures did the family well—Cousin Joshua looked like a ratty Algernon Swinburne.
Jean Louise smiled to herself when she remembered her father telling her the rest of it. Cousin Joshua was cut off, all right, not by the hand of God but by Caesar’s hosts:
When at the University, Cousin Joshua studied too hard and thought too much; in fact, he read himself straight out of the nineteenth century. He affected an Inverness cape and wore jackboots he had a blacksmith make up from his own design. Cousin Joshua was frustrated by the authorities when he fired upon the president of the University, who in his opinion was little more than a sewage disposal expert. This was no doubt true, but an idle excuse for assault with a deadly weapon. After much passing around of money Cousin Joshua was moved across the tracks and placed in state accommodations for the irresponsible, where he remained for the rest of his days. They said he was reasonable in every respect until someone mentioned that president’s name, then his face would become distorted, he would assume a whooping crane attitude and hold it for eight hours or more, and nothing or nobody could make him lower his leg until he forgot about that man. On clear days Cousin Joshua read Greek, and he left a thin volume of verse printed privately by a firm in Tuscaloosa. The poetry was so ahead of its time no one has deciphered it yet, but Jean Louise’s aunt keeps it displayed casually and prominently on a table in the livingroom.
Jean Louise laughed aloud, then looked around to see if anyone had heard her. Her father had a way of undermining his sister’s lectures on the innate superiority of any given Finch: he always told his daughter the rest of it, quietly and solemnly, but Jean Louise sometimes thought she detected an unmistakably profane glint in Atticus Finch’s eyes, or was it merely the light hitting his glasses? She never knew.
The countryside and the train had subsided to a gentle roll, and she could see nothing but pastureland and black cows from window to horizon. She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful.
The station at Montgomery nestled in an elbow of the Alabama, and when she got off the train to stretch her legs, the returning familiar with its drabness, lights, and curious odors rose to meet her. There is something missing, she thought. Hotboxes, that’s it. A man goes along under the train with a crowbar. There is a clank and then s-sss-sss, white smoke comes up and you think you’re inside a chafing dish. These things run on oil now.
For no reason an ancient fear gnawed her. She had not been in this station for twenty years, but when she was a child and went to the capital with Atticus, she was terrified lest the swaying train plunge down the riverbank and drown them all. But when she boarded again for home, she forgot.
The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited could have swallowed it whole with room to spare. Greenville, Evergreen, Maycomb Junction.
She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke: he would rush at Maycomb Junction like a bat out of hell and stop the train a quarter of a mile past the little station, then when he bade her goodbye he would say he was sorry, he almost forgot. Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who could predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be waiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation.
Home was Maycomb County, a gerrymander some seventy miles long and spreading thirty miles at its widest point, a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements the largest of which was Maycomb, the county seat. Until comparatively recently in its history, Maycomb County was so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilections over the past ninety years, still voted Republican. No trains went there—Maycomb Junction, a courtesy title, was located in Abbott County, twenty miles away. Bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress. But few people took advantage of the roads, and why should they? If you did not want much, there was plenty.
The county and the town were named for a Colonel Mason Maycomb, a man whose misplaced self-confidence and overweening willfulness brought confusion and confoundment to all who rode with him in the Creek Indian Wars. The territory in which he operated was vaguely hilly in the north and flat in the south, on the fringes of the coastal plain. Colonel Maycomb, convinced that Indians hated to fight on flat land, scoured the northern reaches of the territory looking for them. When his general discovered that Maycomb was meandering in the hills while the Creeks were lurking in every pine thicket in the south, he dispatched a friendly Indian runner to Maycomb with the message, Move south, damn you. Maycomb was convinced this was a Creek plot to trap him (was there not a blue-eyed, red-headed devil leading them?), he made the friendly Indian runner his prisoner, and he moved farther north until his forces became hopelessly lost in the forest primeval, where they sat out the wars in considerable bewilderment.
After enough years had passed to convince Colonel Maycomb that the message might have been genuine after all, he began a purposeful march to the south, and on the way his troops encountered settlers moving inland, who told them the Indian Wars were about over. The troops and the settlers were friendly enough to become Jean Louise Finch’s ancestors, and Colonel Maycomb pressed on to what is now Mobile to make sure his exploits were given due credit. Recorded history’s version does not coincide with the truth, but these are the facts, because they were passed down by word of mouth through the years, and every Maycombian knows them.
“… get your bags, Miss,” the porter said. Jean Louise followed him from the lounge car to her compartment. She took two dollars from her billfold: one for routine, one for releasing her last night. The train, of course, rushed like a bat out of hell past the station and came to a stop 440 yards beyond it. The conductor appeared, grinning, and said he was sorry, he almost forgot. Jean Louise grinned back and waited impatiently for the porter to put the yellow step in place. He handed her down and she gave him the two bills.
Her father was not waiting for her.
She looked up the track toward the station and saw a tall man standing on the tiny platform. He jumped down and ran to meet her.