After some pleading, Dill’s mother allows him to stay. After this, things go downhill quickly. One evening, Mr. Tate knocks and asks Atticus to come outside. Scout knows that men only talk outside for death or politics and wonders who died. She and Jem try to follow, but Atticus sends them back in. They turn out the lights and put their noses to the window screens to listen to Mr. Tate, Atticus, and Mr. Link Deas talk about the trial, getting a change of venue, and whether “they” will get drunk on a Sunday.
This passage shows again how young and inexperienced Scout, Dill, and Jem are. For one, it’s inconceivable to them that there may be other reasons for Atticus to speak to people outside, not least to keep the conversation private from nosy children. The fact that they don’t understand anything they’re hearing reinforces this, though it rightly alerts them to the possibility that all is not well.
Mr. Deas tells Atticus that he has everything to lose and Atticus asks if he really thinks that. He says that Tom might go to the chair, but he has to tell the truth. The men move closer to Atticus and Jem screams that the phone is ringing. The men in the yard scatter and Scout sees that it’s her neighbors. Atticus comes inside, turns the living room light on, and picks up his paper. Jem asks if the men wanted to get Atticus, but Atticus assures him that they were friends, not a gang or the Klan. Scout walks Dill home and returns to find evidence of a fight between Aunt Alexandra and Atticus. She consults Jem, who shares that Aunt Alexandra thinks Atticus is disgracing the family. Jem admits that he’s afraid someone is going to hurt Atticus.
Jem’s fear is very real, which starts to make the case that in potentially dangerous situations like this, children suffer when they’re confused about what’s going on. Atticus is surely trying to protect the children, but what they see doesn’t give them a lot of faith that everything is going to be okay. The fact that the men who were speaking to Atticus are neighbors and friends, not faceless bad men, lets Scout know that it’s people she knows and cares about who take issue with Atticus. This makes the situation even more unsettling, since Scout trusts her neighbors.
The next day, Sunday, Atticus spends time in the yard talking with more men, including Mr. Underwood, the owner of the Maycomb Tribune who never leaves his linotype. Atticus shares with Scout that they’ve moved Tom to the Maycomb jail. At suppertime, Atticus comes in carrying an extension cord with a light bulb. He announces that he’s going out and tells them not to wait up. He takes the car, something he rarely does. Later, around 10:00 p.m., Jem tells Scout that he’s going downtown. Scout insists that she’s coming too, and they grab Dill on their way out.
Because Scout is close with her small-town neighbors, Mr. Underwood’s choice to come out signals to her that something big and important is going on. Because Jem is afraid and not sure what’s going on, there’s no way for him to know that he’s walking into a very dangerous situation by heading out after Atticus.
They expect to find Atticus in his office in the Maycomb Bank building, but he’s not there. They wonder if he’s visiting Mr. Underwood, who lives a few storefronts down on the other side of the jail. The jailhouse is an odd building; it has one cell but is built in the Gothic style. Its supporters think it makes Maycomb look respectable and like there are no black people around. Jem, Scout, and Dill notice a light outside the jail. They see Atticus sitting under it, reading. Jem stops Scout from running to Atticus as four dusty cars stop. The children hide and watch men get out of the cars. The men ask Atticus if “he” is in the jail, tell Atticus to move aside, and share that Mr. Tate is out in the woods on a phony call.
What Scout has to say about the jailhouse’s supporters shows again that racism isn’t something odd in Maycomb—it’s an intrinsic part of what the town is, even if it’s not hostile to Scout on account of her being white. The mob reinforces this, as it shows that Maycomb’s residents are willing to band together to try to take matters into their own hands and possibly go so far as to attack and kill Tom Robinson before he can even get to his trial the following day.
Atticus asks very calmly if the men think that changes anything. Knowing that this means business, Scout races to Atticus, hoping to surprise him. She falters when she sees fear in his eyes and notices that she doesn’t recognize the men, who smell of alcohol. Atticus calmly tells Jem to take Dill and Scout home, but Jem refuses. One man yanks Jem’s collar, so Scout kicks the man in the groin. The men mutter. Scout looks for a friendly face and recognizes Mr. Cunningham. She asks about his entailment and about Walter, which makes him look uncomfortable. Remembering Atticus’s advice to talk to people about what they’re interested in, Scout mentions the entailment again and realizes that everyone, including Atticus, is staring at her openmouthed. She asks what’s wrong. Mr. Cunningham squats, tells Scout he’ll say hi to Walter, and leads the men away.
Remember that to Scout, Atticus is a solid, calm, and confident presence, so seeing that he’s afraid tells her that she’s walked into something very serious and dangerous. Recognizing Mr. Cunningham and trying to strike up a conversation with him shows that Scout is internalizing Atticus’s advice, as she humanizes a member of the mob in order to steer them away from violence. The fact that she’s effective speaks to the fact that these men aren’t wholly evil—they’re still affected by the innocent kindness of a child.
Scout turns to Atticus, whose face is pressed against the jail wall. Suddenly tired, she asks if they can go home. Atticus wipes his face and blows his nose as Tom asks if the men left. Atticus assures him that the men won’t bother him now, and Mr. Underwood interjects that he was keeping watch from his upstairs window. He waves his shotgun. Atticus gathers his things. Scout watches Atticus brush Jem’s hair aside.
This was likely one of Atticus’s most terrifying experiences, though Scout, in her youth and her innocence, doesn’t seem to fully comprehend the danger they were all in. Mr. Underwood’s appearance suggests that Atticus has more allies than he may have thought, despite feeling like all of Maycomb is united against him.