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The Thief by Maurice Baring


To Jack Gordon

Hart Minor and Smith were behind-hand with their sums. It was Hart Minor's first term: Smith had already been one term at school. They were in the fourth division at St. James's. A certain number of sums in short division had to be finished. Hart Minor and Smith got up early to finish these sums before breakfast, which was at half-past seven. Hart Minor divided slowly, and Smith reckoned quickly. Smith finished his sums with ease. When half-past seven struck, Hart Minor had finished four of them and there was still a fifth left: 3888 had to be divided by 36; short division had to be employed. Hart Minor was busily trying to divide 3888 by 4 and by 9; he had got as far as saying, "Four's into 38 will go six times and two over; four's into twenty-eight go seven times; four's into eight go twice." He was beginning to divide 672 by 9, an impossible task, when the breakfast bell rang, and Smith said to him: "Come on!"

"I can't," said Hart Minor, "I haven't finished my sum."

Smith glanced at his page and said: "Oh that's all right, don't you see? The answer's 108."

Hart Minor wrote down 108 and put a large R next to the sum, which meant Right.

The boys went in to breakfast. After breakfast they returned to the fourth division schoolroom, where they were to be instructed in arithmetic for an hour by Mr. Whitehead. Mr. Whitehead called for the sums. He glanced through Smith's and found them correct, and then through Hart Minor's. His attention was arrested by the last division.

"What's this?" he demanded. "Four's into thirty-eight don't go six times. You've got the right answer and the wrong working. What does this mean?" And Mr. Whitehead bit his knuckles savagely. "Somebody," he said, "has been helping you."

Hart Minor owned that he had received help from Smith. Mr. Whitehead shook him violently, and said, "Do you know what this means?"

Hart Minor had no sort of idea as to the inner significance of his act, except that he had finished his sums.

"It means," said Mr. Whitehead, "that you're a cheat and a thief: you've been stealing marks. For the present you can stand on the stool of penitence and I'll see what is to be done with you later."

The stool of penitence was a high, three-cornered stool, very narrow at the top. When boys in this division misbehaved themselves they had to stand on it during the rest of the lesson in the middle of the room.

Hart Minor fetched the stool of penitence and climbed up on it. It wobbled horribly.

After the lesson, which was punctuated throughout by Mr. Whitehead with bitter comments on the enormity of theft, the boys went to chapel. Smith and Hart were in the choir: they wore white surplices which were put on in the vestry. Hart Minor, who knew that he was in for a terrific row of some kind, thought he observed something unusual in the conduct of the masters who were assembled in the vestry. They were all tittering. Mr. Whitehead seemed to be convulsed with uncontrollable laughter. The choir walked up the aisle. Hart Minor noticed that all the boys in the school, and the servants who sat behind them, and the master's wife who sat in front, and the organist who played the harmonium, were all staring at him with unwonted interest; the boys were nudging each other: he could not understand why.

When the service, which lasted twenty minutes, was over, and the boys came out of chapel, Hart Minor was the centre of a jeering crowd of boys. He asked Smith what the cause of this was, and Smith confessed to him that before going into chapel Mr. Whitehead had pinned on his back a large sheet of paper with "Cheat" written on it, and had only removed it just before the procession walked up the aisle, hence the interest aroused. But, contrary to his expectation, nothing further occurred; none of the masters alluded to his misdemeanour, and Hart Minor almost thought that the incident was closed--almost, and yet really not at all; he tried to delude himself into thinking the affair would blow over, but all the while at the bottom of his heart sat a horrible misgiving.

Every Monday there was in this school what was called "reading over." The boys all assembled in the library and the Head Master, standing in front of his tall desk, summoned each division before him in turn. The marks of the week were read out and the boys took places, moving either up or down according to their marks; so that a boy who was at the top of his division one week might find himself at the bottom the next week, and vice versa.

On the Sunday after the incident recorded, the boys of the fourth division were sitting in their schoolroom before luncheon, in order to write their weekly letter home. This was the rule of the school. Mr. Whitehead sat at his desk and talked in a friendly manner to the boys. He was writing his weekly report in the large black report book that was used for reading over. Mr. Whitehead was talking in a chaffing way as to who was his favourite boy.

"You can tell your people," he said to Hart Minor, "that my favourite is old Polly." Polly was Hart Minor's nickname, which was given to him owing to his resemblance to a parrot. Hart Minor was much pleased at this friendly attitude, and began to think that the unpleasant incident of the week had been really forgotten and that the misgiving which haunted him night and day was a foolish delusion.

"We shall soon be writing the half-term reports," said Mr. Whitehead. "You've all been doing well, especially old Polly: you can put that in your letter," he said to Hart Minor. "I'm very much pleased with you," and he chuckled.

On Monday morning at eleven o'clock was reading over. When the fourth division were called up, the Head Master paused, looked down the page, then at the boys, then at the book once more; then he frowned. There was a second pause, then he read out in icy tones:--

"I'm sorry to say that Smith and Hart Minor have been found guilty of gross dishonesty; they combined--in fact they entered into a conspiracy, to cheat, to steal marks and obtain by unfair means, a higher place and an advantage which was not due to them."

The Head Master paused. "Hart Minor and Smith," he continued, "go to the bottom of the division. Smith," he added, "I'm astounded at you. Your conduct in this affair is inexplicable. If it were not for your previous record and good conduct, I should have you severely flogged; and if Hart Minor were not a new boy, I should treat him in the same way and have him turned out of the choir. (The choir had special privileges.) As it is, you shall lose, each of you, 200 marks, and I shall report the whole matter in detail to your parents in your half- term report, and if anything of the sort ever occurs again, you shall be severely punished. You have been guilty of an act for which, were you not schoolboys, but grown up, you would be put in prison. It is this kind of thing that leads people to penal servitude."

After the reading over was finished and the lessons that followed immediately on it, and the boys went out to wash their hands for luncheon, the boys of the second division crowded round Hart Minor and asked him how he could have perpetrated such a horrible and daring crime. The matter, however, was soon forgotten by the boys, but Hart Minor had not heard the last of it. On the following Sunday in chapel, at the evening service, the Head Master preached a sermon. He chose as his text "Thou shalt not steal!" The eyes of the whole school were fixed on Smith and Hart Minor. The Head Master pointed out in his discourse that one might think at first sight that boys at a school might not have the opportunity to violate the tremendous Commandments; but, he said, this was not so. The Commandments were as much a living actuality in school life as they were in the larger world. Coming events cast their shadows before them; the child was the father of the man; what a boy was at school, such would he be in after life. Theft, the boys perhaps thought, was not a sin which immediately concerned them. But there were things which were morally the same if not worse than the actual theft of material and tangible objects--dishonesty in the matter of marks, for instance, and cheating in order to gain an undue advantage over one's fellow-schoolboys. A boy who was guilty of such an act at school would probably end by being a criminal when he went out into the larger world. The seeds of depravity were already sown; the tree whose early shoots were thus blemished would probably be found to be rotten when it grew up; and for such trees and for such noxious growths there could only be one fate--to be cut down and cast into the unquenchable fire!

In Hart Minor's half-term report, which was sent home to his parents, it was stated that he had been found guilty of the meanest and grossest dishonesty, and that should it occur again he would be first punished and finally expelled.