Now that Scout's a grown-up second-grader, tormenting Boo Radley seems like little kid stuff. She's setting her sights beyond the neighborhood to the metropolis of downtown Maycomb.
Getting downtown, however, requires getting past the house of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose.
The old woman hurls insults at them every time they pass her house, no matter how nice they are to her.
But Atticus makes polite conversation with Mrs. Dubose, so Scout think he's incredibly brave.
The day after Jem turns twelve, he's got a load of birthday cash to spend. They head down to town for him to lighten his pockets.
On the list of purchases: a toy steam engine for Jem and a baton for Scout.
As they pass Mrs. Dubose, she accuses them of playing hooky, even though it's Saturday.
Jem and Scout can put up with that, but when she attacks their father for defending Tom Robinson, Scout has to drag Jem away.
They make their purchases and head home, passing by Mrs. Dubose's house again.
She's not on the front porch, and Jem snaps. He grabs Scout's new baton, and uses it to destroy Mrs. Dubose's camellias, finally breaking the baton over his knee.
Atticus comes home, and he's not happy.
He tells his son that no matter what she said, those poor flowers never did anyone any harm, and Jem needs to go apologize—right now.
Meanwhile, Scout finally speaks her mind. No, her dad says, it's not fair. But things are only going to get worse as the Tom Robinson case gets closer.
When they're older, they'll understand why he's doing what he's doing.
But isn't Atticus wrong, because most of the townspeople think he is?
Nope, Atticus says. Personal conscience isn't a democracy.
Finally, Jem's back. He cleaned up the yard and apologized (even though he didn't mean it), and now Mrs. Dubose wants him to come over every day except Sunday to read to her.
Atticus says he has to do it. There's no point in apologizing unless it's sincere. As a sick old lady Mrs. Dubose can't be held responsible for her actions.
Atticus is a lot more forgiving then we are.
Anyway, Jem heads over to Mrs. Dubose's house for his first round of reading. Scout goes with him.
They find her in bed, and she gets in a few sharp words before Jem starts reading.
Her face is disgusting—wrinkled, spotty, toothless, and drooling—so Scout tries to find something else to look at.
After a while, the kids notice that Mrs. Dubose's frequent corrections of his mistakes had dropped off, and she doesn't even notice when he stops mid-sentence.
Huh. She appears to be in some sort of fit. The kids ask if she's all right, but she doesn't answer.
Then an alarm clock goes off, and Mrs. Dubose's servant Jessie shoos them out of the house, saying it's time for Mrs. Dubose's medicine.
Reading to Mrs. Dubose becomes part of their daily schedule.
One evening Scout asks Atticus what exactly a "nigger-lover" (11.100) is, since that's what Mrs. Dubose frequently calls him, and it's also what Francis said.
Is that why she jumped Francis? Yes.
Atticus asks why Scout's asking for a definition if she understood it well enough to make it the reason for a fight, and Scout says that it was the way Francis said it that got on her nerves.
Atticus tells her that the term doesn't mean anything, but it's something "ignorant, trashy people use […] when they think somebody's favoring Negroes over and above themselves" (11.107), and that even higher-class people use it sometimes when they want to put someone down.
It's not actually an insult; it just shows you how "poor" (11.109) the person using it is.
One afternoon while Jem is plugging away at reading aloud to Mrs. Dubose, Atticus surprises them by coming in.
It turns out he's just left work—Mrs. Dubose has been setting the alarm clock later and later each day, so Jem and Scout have been staying longer and longer without realizing it.
Mrs. Dubose says that Jem has to come for a week longer, even though the original month is up, and Atticus says he has to do it.
Finally the last day of reading is over. Hooray! Now Jem can turn to more important things, like college football.
One evening, Mrs. Dubose dies. Atticus comes home with a box and an explanation: Mrs. Dubose was a morphine addict and wanted to kick the habit before she died as a matter of personal pride.
Her fits were caused by withdrawal, and the reading helped keep her mind off the cravings till the alarm clock went off and she could have a dose (which also explains why the reading periods got longer and longer).
By the end of the reading afternoons, she was free of the drug habit.
The box Atticus brought home is for Jem. When he opens it he finds a camellia.
Jem is angry at this needling from beyond the grave, but Atticus tells him that he thinks it's a message that everything's all right.
If Jem hadn't gone on an anti-camellia rampage, Atticus might have made his son go read to Mrs. Dubose anyway, in order "to see what real courage is" (11.153)—not using a gun, but fighting for a cause you believe in even if you know you probably won't win.