She stood at the bar of justice,
A creature wan and wild,
In form too small for a woman,
In features too old for a child;
For a look so worn and pathetic
Was stamped on her pale young face,
It seemed long years of suffering
Must have left that silent trace.
“Your name?” said the judge, as he eyed her
With kindly look yet keen,—
“Is Mary McGuire, if you please, sir.”
And your age?”—”I am turned fifteen.”
“Well, Mary,” and then from a paper
He slowly and gravely read,
“You are charged here—I’m sorry to say it—
With stealing three loaves of bread.
“You look not like an offender,
And I hope that you can show
The charge to be false. Now, tell me,
Are you guilty of this, or no?”
A passionate burst of weeping
Was at first her sole reply.
But she dried her eyes in a moment,
And looked in the judge’s eye.
“I will tell you just how it was, sir:
My father and mother are dead,
And my little brothers and sisters
Were hungry and asked me for bread.
At first I earned it for them
By working hard all day,
But somehow, times were bad, sir,
And the work all fell away.
“I could get no more employment.
The weather was bitter cold,
The young ones cried and shivered—
(Little Johnny’s but four years old)—
So what was I to do, sir?
I am guilty, but do not condemn.
I took—oh, was it stealing?—
The bread to give to them.”
Every man in the court-room—
Gray-beard and thoughtless youth—
Knew, as he looked upon her,
That the prisoner spake the truth;
Out from their pockets came kerchiefs,
Out from their eyes sprung tears,
And out from their old faded wallets
Treasures hoarded for years.
The judge’s face was a study,
The strangest you ever saw,
As he cleared his throat and murmured
Something about the law;
For one so learned in such matters,
So wise in dealing with men,
He seemed, on a simple question,
Sorely puzzled, just then.
But no one blamed him or wondered,
When at last these words he heard,
“The sentence of this young prisoner
Is, for the present, deferred.”
And no one blamed him or wondered
When he went to her and smiled
And tenderly led from the court-room,
Himself, the “guilty” child.