Juvenile Court Sketches: Ii. The Thief

SHE was named for England’s first false queen, Guinevere. She was nine years old, and she had long yellow curls and bright blue eyes. She sat in school with folded hands and eyes demurely lowered. The teacher passed and dropped a little purse. Guinevere’s foot shot out and drew it in. No one saw her but Billy, and Billy never told.

‘Has anyone seen my purse?’

Guinevere pushed it quickly between her singing-book and her geo graphy; then raised the guilty hand.

‘You, Guinevere?’

‘No, teacher, but I’ll help you hunt for it.’

She hunted in the hall and in the basement, bending far over in every corner. But she never looked between her singing-book and her geography.

That afternoon Guinevere visited a pastrv-shop alone and tasted the forbidden sweets of cream-puffs. As for the purse, she threw it into an alley.

That night a neighbor missed five dollars from the table. Guinevere had been there. She thought of Guinevere’s yellow curls and bright blue eyes. No, rather suspect slinky Billy, who never had anything to say, and hid behind a door when she looked at him. So Guinevere walked the earth in plenty for a week, and all her desert blossomed and put forth cream-puffs. But even to great wealth comes an end.

In school Guinevere sat near the back row, where only those sat who could be trusted. She had nothing to think of but her lessons, and time hung heavy. Her curls dropped over the desk behind her; over her own hung a brown pigtail. Guinevere grabbed it and pulled. The little girl’s head bent back with sudden pain. Guinevere pulled harder. Her victim’s hand went up.

‘If you tell. I’ll stick pins in you. I’ll stick pins in you every day.’

The hand came down.

‘Give me money,’ whispered Guinevere.

‘I ain’t got any money,’ said her victim; and her voice wailed up to criminal heights with pain.

‘Why, Alma Ludwig, you come right up here and sit on this bench. The idea of your disturbing the whole school like that! ’

‘I’ll stick pins in you, if you tell. I ’ll stick pins in you every day.’

Alma did the trembling penance of the innocent, in silence, and Guinevere sat with eyes demurely lowered. Geography had acquired a sudden deep interest for her.

Out in the snow, Guinevere caught up great handfuls and dropped them, melting from her warm little hands, down Alma’s back.

‘Give me money.’

‘ I ain’t got any money.’

‘Your mamma’s got money; give me your mamma’s money.’

Then Guinevere put her arm over Alma’s shoulder.

‘Alma, get me your mamma’s money and I’ll be your friend for life.’

It was very nice to have Guinevere’s warm little arm around her cold neck. The water still ran slowly down her back.

‘My mamma’s money’s in a jar; you can come home with me.’

Together the two little girls went to Alma’s. Her mamma washed for a living. To-day there was no work, and she rocked the baby. But when Alma came, she gave her the baby and went out.

‘Here, quick, give me the baby and you get the money.’

With the unquestioning obedience of a dozen generations, Alma handed her the baby and went to do the dark deed. Guinevere put down the baby and followed.

On the stairway, as they sped from guilt, a ten-dollar bill drawn from the purse smote Alma with sudden consternation.

‘Mein Gott, it’s the rent!’

A groat joy burned in Guinevere.

‘Give it to me; give it to me, quick, Alma, and I’ll be your friend for life.’

‘I can’t: it’s the rent. I’ve got to take it back.’

Guinevere’s hand closed tightly on Alma’s wrist.

‘Give it to me: I’ll change it for your mamma; your mamma wants two fives.’

Alma hesitated. Perhaps her mamma did need two fives. Guinevere usually knew. But caution ruled. ‘I’ll go too,’ she said.

Hand in hand, they went into the bakery. Alma was dumb and miserable with guilt, but Guinevere spoke briskly to the clerk.

‘ She’s got ten dollars. It’s her mamma’s. She wants to get it changed, and her mamma wants six cream-puffs.’

Alma’s dull eyes looked on in wonder as the cream-puffs and the change were put into her hands.

‘Give me some money,’ Guinevere whispered.

Conscience rose for its last struggle. ‘It’s the rent money; I’ve got to take it back.’

Guinevere’s soft arm went round her neck again, and she whispered in her ear. ‘Don’t take it back; don’t tell anyone. Give me five dollars, and I’ll be your friend for life.’

Alma held out her hand and Guinevere took the five-dollar bill.

Smeared with convivial cream-puff, the two little girls parted at the corner. From a block away, Guinevere ran after her companion. ‘Give me another dollar, and I won’t ever tell anyone in all the world, and I’ll be your friend for life.’

Alma gave the guilty dollar, glad to be rid of it.

When the class in calisthenics jumped and clapped their hands above their heads, a silver dollar slid from Guinevere’s pocket and rolled to the teacher’s desk. In school, when a child has a dollar, there is an investigation. For an hour, Guinevere sat in the principal’s office.

There are two roads, and only two, say the French, safe for the criminal: ‘I did not do it,’and, ‘I have forgotten.’ Guinevere chose the former.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I never took no dollar.’ She shook her golden curls, and with her clear blue eyes she looked straight into the eyes of the principal. ‘No, I never took no dollar.’

In the zest of the detective, the principal forgot the teacher. The grammar passed unheeded. She questioned again.

‘I know I never took no dollar,’ Guinevere repeated.

Her defense was unassailable. But there are coincidences of fate against which even genius is powerless. A policeman came in. He knew nothing of Guinevere: he had come for something else; but the principal hailed reinforcements. Had there been no sniveling Alma with ten cowed generations at her back, a bluecoat had been nothing in Guinevere’s life. But how is one to be sure of an accomplice?

‘Get on your things,’ said the policeman; ‘I am going to take you to jail.’

‘I took the dollar,’ said Guinevere. ‘Yes, I know I took a dollar.’

‘What else did you take?’

‘I never took nothing else; I know I never took nothing else.’

Those who dragged the slow truth from Guinevere were foiled. They sent her from the office, to lay plans. In the outer office hung the principal’s coat. With deft fingers Guinevere took out a pair of gloves and hid them in her dress. When they came to call her, she sat demurely, fingers locked in fingers.

Then they took Guinevere to the judge. The principal stood beside her.

‘Guinevere,’ said the judge, ‘I am going to ask you some questions. You don’t have to answer them, if you don want to. But if you do answer them, I want you to tell me the truth. Because it would be much better not to answer them at all than to lie. Will you do that?’

‘Yes,’ said Guinevere.

Her blue eyes looked straight into the blue eyes of the judge, and she saw nothing else.

‘What did you take?’

‘I did n’t take anything.’

‘Did n’t you take a dollar?’

‘No, I never took no dollar. I know I never took no dollar.’

The judge’s eyes looked at her, smiling kindly. Her own turned just enough to glimpse the principal, and memory came.

‘What kind of a dollar was it, then?’

‘It was a silver dollar, Guinevere.’

‘Yes, I took a silver dollar. I know I took a silver dollar, but I was going to give it back to Alma.’

‘Are you quite sure that’s all you took, Guinevere?’

The kindly eyes were still smiling at her. They made her feel uneasy. She liked the hard eyes of the policeman better.

‘Yes, I know I never took nothing else.’

‘And you’re sure you were going to give the dollar back to Alma?’

‘Yes, I’m sure I was going to give it back to Alma.’

‘Guinevere,’ said the judge; and he leaned over toward her, his hand slipping over the edge of the table.

‘Oh, please, mister, don’t send me away from home. Please don’t, mister. I got two dollars left. It’s hid in a hole under the porch. And I ’ll give it all to you.’ Her quick little hand shot out and patted his hand. ‘Please don’t.’ Her blue eyes looked straight into his, and she smiled. ‘And I’ll be your friend for life.’