I’ve written quite a number of stories which are based on folktale or fairytale elements, but are original in storyline and concept. Several of these have been pretty popular, and published more than once, and I thought it might be interesting to revisit a few of them. This one today, The Clever Thief, which was published both in The School Magazine(Australia) and Cricket (USA)quite a number of is one of those tales centred around an underdog triumphing over a dangerous situation through sheer wits, and it seemed to really strike a chord back then with readers both young and not so young! Hope readers of this blog enjoy it just as much now.
THE CLEVER THIEF
by Sophie Masson.
There was once a boy who was captured by robbers. Now these robbers were the most feared in the whole country. They held up travellers and robbed coaches, and their cave was full of stolen gold and silver and precious stones.
It was the custom of the robbers to make all their captives steal, as well. In this way, the robbers kept adding new members to their gang, because no-one ever dared to refuse. And once you’d stolen, you were in for good, because you were marked as a member of the robber gang, and would go to prison if you were caught.
Now the boy I am telling you about was as bright as a dewdrop and twice as fast as the breeze. But in the robbers’ cave, he pretended to be dull and stupid, while he thought of a way out of his predicament.
One night, the robber chief said to him, “Boy, tonight, you will join our gang. I want you to go down to the high road and relieve all the travellers of their purses. ” And he smiled, his broken yellow teeth giving him a wolfish look. The boy, although he was very much frightened, nodded vacantly and grinned an idiot grin. The robber chief felt a little uneasy at that grin–was the boy too stupid to understand?–but he sent him out, nevertheless, and waited in his cave for the boy to return.
Now the boy went out on the high road, and he saw all the travellers passing by. As he had been told to do, he stepped out onto the road, shouting, “Your purse or your life!” He was a tall, thin, gangling boy, with eyes that shone like ice, and the travellers were frightened by his strangeness. So they stopped, pulled out their purses, heavy with gold and silver and copper coins, and gave them to him, trembling. He opened the purses, tipped out all the money into their palms, and took their purses, saying, “My chief has told me he wants your purses,” and then he’d give a grin, empty as an abandoned house. The travellers wouldn’t wait to hear more; they bolted, taking their money with them, full of his strangeness and their good fortune.
So the boy went back to the cave, loaded with silk and leather and cotton purses; some new, some old, some large, some small. And he said to the robber chief, “Master, here are the purses you wanted,” while he smiled his silly grin.
“Fool!” The robber chief called out, pale with rage. “Fool! I didn’t just want their purses, I wanted their money as well!”
“Oh,” the boy said, and his face drooped at the corners, as if he was sorry for what had happened. Inside his bright quick heart, though, a smile danced and sparkled.
The robber chief contained himself with difficulty. Then he said, “Tomorrow night, you will go out again. And this time, this time, boy, I want you to get all their change! Do you hear, all their change, boy!”
The boy nodded, eagerly, his eyes seeming as dull as dirty water. Again the robber chief felt uneasy, but he thought that surely no-one could be as stupid as that a second time.
So the next night, the boy went out again onto the high road. Again, he stepped out into the road, calling out, “Your change or your life! Your change or your life!” And his tall, thin shape, ghostly in the moonlight, made travellers uneasy and frightened, so they stopped, pulled out their purses, heavy with gold and silver and copper coins. The boy carefully tipped out the purses, counted out all the copper coins, put them in his large pockets, then, just as carefully, tipped back all the gold and silver coins into the travellers’ purses, and gave them back. Then he smiled at them with a smile that did not seem quite as dull and vacant, and told them to go on their way. Which they did, thoughtfully, this time.
Then, after a hard night’s work, he went back to the robbers’ cave, his pockets filled with copper coins. He emptied out his pockets in front of the robber chief, grinning like a pumpkin.
The robber chief couldn’t believe his eyes. “Copper?” he roared. “Where is the gold, where is the silver?”
“But you said change,” the boy whispered, as if he were afraid. “Change is copper, isn’t it?”
“Boy!” the robber chief screamed. “You will go out one more time and bring back everything. Everything, you hear! And if you don’t. . ” His broken teeth glittered, his wicked eyes flashed, his hand drew slowly across the boy’s throat.
The boy gulped a little, as if he were afraid. And indeed he was, but his bright quick mind was working like a windmill, spinning, sending ideas into his skull.
“Yes, master,” he whispered, and bent his head.
So the next night, the boy went out for the third and final time. He stepped out onto the highroad in the moonlight, his figure tall and straight, his eyes shining, and he stopped each traveller and talked to them. As he spoke, their eyes began to shine, their mouths to smile, their hands to tighten on their belts. At the end of the night, there were many travellers assembled there, with the boy in the middle of them, still talking.
As the sun began to edge over the corner of the world, they were all climbing up the hill towards the robbers’ cave, where the gang lay asleep. And working quickly, they gathered up all the robbers’ weapons, and put them into a large sack.
Wasn’t the robber chief surprised, when he opened his eyes to see the great assembly in his cave! He sprang to his feet, as did the other members of his gang, but it was too late. Every sword, every dagger, every knife and bow and arrow had gone into that huge sack which the boy held in his hand. Weaponless, helpless, the robbers and their chief looked at the boy and heard him say, “You told me to bring everything. Everything I brought, and everyone. ”
Now it was the turn of the robber chief to bend his head, as he and his men were led out of the cave, down the hill, and towards the town. Now and then, he lifted his head and looked at the boy, so thin and gangling, and felt his smile, as bright and fleeting as the dew on the grass.