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The Book of Legends by  Horace E. Scudder


 

 

THE LITTLE THIEF

[61] IN one of the beautiful cities of Italy there stood a tall marble column, and on the top of the column was a statue of bronze, which shone in the sun. It was a statue of Justice, and Justice held in one hand a pair of scales; that was to say that every deed would be weighed in the balances: and in the other hand Justice held a sword; that was to say that when a man was weighed in the balances and found wanting, Justice was ready with a sword to put him to death.

Now for many years this statue stood for the government of the city. Justice was done to every one. The law was observed by the rulers, who were fair in their dealings with men, and upright. But in course of time the rulers became evil. They no longer governed justly, and the poor did not feel that they were treated by the law as the rich were treated, and this story is meant to show it.

In one of the palaces of the city there was a poor maid-servant whom we will call Martha. [62] She went in and out about her duty, and was a faithful little thing. Although there were many jewels and pieces of money in her lady's chamber, she never took anything, and no one thought her any other than a good, honest girl.

But one day, when she came to help her lady dress for a great ball, she could not find a pearl necklace. It had been laid on the table, her lady said, and now it was not there. Martha looked everywhere, but could not find it. It was a warm night, the window was open, and she looked out. She did not think the necklace could have been blown out, but she had looked everywhere else.

No, there was no sign of it. It had not fallen upon the stone ledge below the window. Not far away was the bronze figure of Justice, and in the darkness there was a curious sight. She could not see the stone pillar, but the bronze figure stood out against the sky as if it were flying through the air. This curious sight kept her looking, and made her forget for a moment what had happened.

"Martha!" called her lady sharply, and Martha drew her head in and turned red as she thought of what she had been doing. Her lady looked at her keenly.

[63] "Martha," said she, suddenly, "you took the necklace. You are a little thief!"

Martha was frightened at these words. She had never been called by such a name before, and she was confused, and knew not what to say. So she looked down and said nothing. The lady was angry.

"I know you are a thief!" she said again, "a little thief!"

"I am not," cried Martha, but the lady had made up her mind to it, and, as the necklace could not be found, she was certain Martha had taken it.

Poor Martha! She had no friends now, and she could not prove she had not taken the necklace. She could only say she had not. To be sure, it was not in her little box, nor in any dress she had, nor anywhere in the little room where she slept. They only said she must have been very cunning to hide it away so carefully.

And now Martha was put in prison, and the evil judges were more afraid of displeasing the great lady of the palace than of doing an unjust deed. They tried Martha, they found her guilty, and they condemned her to be put to death.

It was a strange comment on the great bronze figure of Justice that the gallows on which Martha was to be hanged should be placed just [64] under the figure, at the foot of the column. Yet so it was, and the day came for Martha to be hanged. The cruel judges gave her no hope.

The day came, and it was dark and lowering. It was almost as if the heavens frowned on the city. The people gathered and Martha mounted the platform on which the gallows stood. Low mutterings were heard. The skies grew black. There was a sudden blinding light and a great crash. A bolt of lightning had plunged down. For a moment the people were stunned. Poor Martha thought she had been struck.

But she had not been struck. The lightning, however, had come so near that it had struck the arm of Justice that held the scales, and down had come the scales to the ground. The scales fell, indeed, at Martha's feet, and when she could see, oh joy! there lay the gleaming necklace of pearls! It was ttwined in the clay of a nest!

The secret was out. A magpie had stolen the necklace from the table in the palace, had flown with it out of the window to the nest he was building in the scales in the hand of Justice. Perhaps he was working it into the nest at the very moment when Martha was looking at the bronze figure.

At any rate, justice was done at last to little Martha, though men had been unjust.


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