The Ballad of the Second Thief
Her mother dead of chancre, pox or grippe.
He picked her up to smash against a wall.
Pimps grow so tired of hearing orphans bawl
No profit in them. But a whore let slip
she'd heard the beggars and the thieves would buy
small children, feed them at their own expense.
He doubted it. She told him an old fence
who fucked her, told her. So he thought he'd try.
It was all true. Nine farthings for the brat!
He drank it all in gin. Later that night
A cardsharp gouged his eyes out in a fight
They festered, and he died, and that was that.
A milk-soaked rag to suck, and stop her noise.
A heap of straw to sleep, changed every day.
A corner of the midden heap to play.
Her and two other girls and four small boys.
The beggars fed them apples, day-old bread,
pease broth with bacon in it.As they grew.
They made them fight for food, and clean straw too,
but gave the girls clean rags, for when they bled.
The beggar-master thought he'd break her leg
and set it badly, so it would not heal.
She asked instead to be allowed to steal.
She said her stammer made it hard to beg
-the stammer she'd put on for several days
with this in mind. And though this did not fool
the ruthless men who ran the beggars' school
the thieves academy, it did amaze
that one so young had shown a ready wit.
She got to keep her leg.They trained her hand
to dipping. Taught precisely how to stand
on corners, so your shoulder has to hit
men rushing past. You curse them, cry in pain
and while they blush, try and apologize,
your thieving hand is quicker than their eyes.
She was, they found, an easy girl to train.
Too good at stealing to be made a whore.
Pretty enough, but with a vicious eye.
She cut the one man fool enough to try.
He ran a fever. Died within the week.
She'd larceny embedded in her mind.
Fingers so apt for crime that they could feel
through thick cloth all the worthwhile things to steal
even before she touched them. She would find
grandfather's watch treasured for many years,
the best man carrying the bridegroom's ring.
Sometimes she'd stand, and sometimes she would sing
old ballads that reduced grown men to tears
even before they found their money gone.
And lesser thieves grew jealous of her skill.
Envy's a deadly sin, it makes men kill.
At sixteen, she'd blonde hair bright as the sun
and eyes like sky. Could sing, or stab, or steal
better than any. So they lay in wait,
six other thieves, but that night she was late
or so they thought. It took them weeks to heal.
She guessed their plan, climbed up along the line
of roofs and listened. Watched them from above,
found some loose tiles up there, gave them a shove.
And was at home in bed at half-past nine.
The bosses smiled. She was too good a thief
for them to mind that she watched her own back
and punished enemies. They cut her slack
As for the plotters, they gave those fools grief
Their bosses made them beg out in the street
They were too sick to steal, had dues to pay.
With broken limbs, smashed faces, they all lay
groaning. And she threw pennies at their feet.
She never fell in love. He fell for her,
the boss's son. The tall one with the curl,
not used to being turned down by some girl
his father owned. Wanted to be called sir
even when fucking. She laughed in his face.
His father said to leave the girl in peace.
He grew obsessed. An agent of the police
he drank with told him it was a disgrace
His father took her side. And so he grassed
and broke his father's heart. Two Runners came.
Knew all about her. Asked for her by name
and took her up for banknotes that she'd passed
that had been marked. They said they'd hang her high.
They offered her her life if she would squeal
She smiled, refusing any sort of deal.
She'd sworn no man would ever see her cry
Though wept a little in her darkened cell.
Bosses thought of her as sacrifice
Who'd made them a huge profit on her price.
They wrote her off and took her stash as well.
The father killed his son, and sobbed aloud.
Informers die. But he still cursed her name
and felt that she was more or less to blame.
His son had lived if she had not been proud.
She'd nothing left to use except her cunt
Glad she'd reserved it for some rainy day,
smiled at a warder, asked him in to play.
Heavy, he held her down. She felt affront.
This sweaty pain's the thing men fuss about
She doesn't quicken; tried it twice again
with guard and convict. What's the use of men?
She wondered when they came and took her out
to Tyburn on a wet and windy day
And on the gallows she began her song
Thin on the cold air. She did not have long
and sang 'over the hills and far away.'
Her voice was clear. The hangman could not kill
while she was singing. Murmurs in the crowd
but still no rescue. No one shouted loud
a Royal Pardon! And she stands there still.