The Burtons' Burglar

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The Burtons' Burglar  (1914) 
by Neith Boyce

From Harper's Weekly Jan 24, 1914. Illustrated by Herb Roth

"Her voice was strong, her eye steady and the revolver well aimed"

The Burtons' Burglar


MRS. BURTON pushed open the door and at the same moment pressed the knob beside it that lit all the electric lights in the room. She was holding her revolver pointed straight before her, and the man who whirled round blinking found it leveled at his breast. His hand dropped toward his coat-pocket. Mrs. Burton said sharply:

"Put your hands up or I'll shoot!"

Her voice was strong, her eye steady and the revolver well aimed. The man stood blinking and staring at her.

"Hands up or I'll shoot!" she repeated, and advanced a step.

The man held up his hands. Behind him on the floor was a writhing figure in pink pajamas. Mrs. Burton knew it was her husband, but she did not dare take her eyes off the intruder's.

"Theodore, are you hurt? For heaven's sake, get up if you can," she cried.

Mr. Burton struggled to his feet, and with his arm—his hands were tied together—managed to free himself from the half-fastened gag.

"By Jove!" he cried. "Edith, hold him a minute longer, if you can, till I get my hands loose!"

"Of course I'll hold him," she replied calmly. "Put your hands up higher, please!"

This was addressed to the burglar, and he obeyed. His mouth was half open, he panted uneasily.

"Theodore," said Mrs. Burton, "go to Miss Hayden's room and call her quietly and get her to untie your hands. Be careful not to wake Gwendolen."

"And leave you alone with this fellow? I can't, Edith!"

"Yes, you can. He can't move. And you can't do any good with your hands tied, can you? Hurry up. And tell Miss Hayden to ring up Michael. And bring something to tie this man with—there's some rope in the trunk-closet."

When he had run down the hall, Mrs. Burton fancied she detected a wavering in the burglar's attitude.

"Keep your hands up!" she said.

"I am keeping them up," replied the burglar sullenly. "Don't get nervous, now, lady, and shoot me."

"Nervous! I think you are much more nervous than I am," said Mrs. Burton, her knees trembling slightly.

"Well, I've got a right to be nervous," said the burglar. "How do I know that that thing won't go off by accident?"

His small watery blue eyes watched her hand and her face with alarm. Short and wiry, with a red face, a beaked nose and a small thin-lipped mouth, he reminded Mrs. Burton of some sly rodent. She dared not take her eyes from his face; but she perceived the window behind him open on the balcony, where he had doubtless entered.

She heard Miss Hayden's voice and smothered scream in the hall; then Mr. Burton came running back with his hands free and a length of rope.

"Now, then!" he cried. "How shall I tie him?"

"Tie him to a chair. Put a chair behind him. Now, you, please sit down—but don't lower your hands!" The burglar sat down. "Now, Theodore, feel in his coat-pocket—the right hand one. . . . I thought so!"

Mr. Burton had extracted a revolver from the pocket, and now he held it gingerly.

"Now. Theodore, put that down, over there on the table, and then tie his hands behind him to the back of the chair—cross your hands behind you, please—and then you'd better put a length around his ankles and tie them too."

When this process was completed to Mrs. Burton's satisfaction, she sat down herself and laid her weapon on her knee, keeping careful hold of it however.

"Well!" she said.

Her bright hazel eyes and Mr. Burton's large blue eyes stared at the burglar, who blinked in return with a crestfallen expression.

"I could have shot you easy enough through my pocket," he said suddenly to Mrs. Burton, "before you got the drop on me."

"Why didn't you, then?" she asked.

"Well—I ain't never shot anybody yet, to kill—and I didn't want to begin with a woman. . . . I guess my nerve is gone all right," he ended hopelessly, his head drooping.

"Gone? Not a bit of it," said Mr. Burton. "You've got as fine an article of nerve as I ever saw."

MEANTIME the house seemed to be waking up. Miss Hayden, the English governess, spoke agitatedly from a window. Michael the coachman pounded on the door below. There were shrieks from the top floor where the cook and waitress slept.

"Theodore," said Mrs. Burton. "Michael can't get in and they're all afraid to go downstairs. You'll have to let him in. Turn on the lights as you go down, and take that pistol with you. Look first and see if it's loaded. Mercy! don't look into the end of the barrel! I don't believe there's anyone else in the house, but be careful!"

Mr. Burton went downstairs and let in the coachman. Then they both came upstairs and looked at the burglar. Miss Hayden peeped at him from the hall, her high-colored face expressing horror.

"Now I think you ought to search the house," said Mrs. Burton. "Make sure that there's nobody in hiding."

"You needn't take the trouble," said the burglar with an air of bravado. "There's nobody but me. I always work alone."

"Ye do, do ye? And d'ye think we'll take your word for it?" inquired Michael truculently. "Come now, how did ye get in? Climbed the porch, hey?"

"None of your business, my man," said the burglar nonchalantly.

"What's Miss Hayden doing?" said Mrs. Burton sharply. "Here, she's at the telephone—stop her, Theodore!"

Miss Hayden was stopped, and explained: "I was just calling up the Elmwood police station."

"Well, when we get ready to call the police Mr. Burton will attend to it," said the mistress of the house calmly. "Now, Theodore, you and Michael just look through the house, to make sure. I think, though, that this man is telling the truth, for do one could get in downstairs without setting off the alarm."

THE search was made, then Michael was told to wait in the hall, and Mr. Burton came into his room and shut the door. He and his wife contemplated the burglar and then looked at each other.

"Well, the question is now, What shall we do with him?" said Mr. Burton.

"I suppose you'll send for the police and hand me over." said the burglar with an air of indifference.

"That would be the obvious thing to do," said Mr. Burton. "What would happen to you then?"

"Oh, I'd go back to Sing Sing."

"Back? You've been there before, then?"

"Sure. Twice. I'll get a good long bit this time."

"How long were you in before?"

"Two years the first time, and four years the second—about."

"How old are you?"


Mr. Burton's mild face plainly expressed consternation. The burglar was evidently interested in this look and in the questions. Mrs. Burton's appearance was more enigmatic. Mr. Burton looked around and found a cigarette, lit it and sat down near his wife.

"Put on your dressing gown and slippers, Theodore," she said. "And you'd better shut that window."

He obeyed.

"You see," said Mrs. Burton, finally, "we don't believe in sending people to prison. We arc Anarchists."

"Gee, is that so!" said the burglar. "You don't look it."

His watery eyes fixed themselves on Mrs. Burton with a look keen, incredulous, and hopeful.

"Don't look what?" inquired Mrs. Burton. "How can you possibly tell what political opinions a person holds by his or her looks?"

"I've seen Anarchists before, in jail," said the burglar. "They didn't look anything like you."

"Ah, they were poor people," said Mrs. Burton, "and were imprisoned not because of their opinions but because of their poverty. We are well-to-do, you see, and no one would think of putting us in jail, no matter what our ideas are."

"Hell, that's true enough," said the burglar. "But those people were jugged because they ran around in the street with red flags and wanted the President killed. You don't do that. I suppose?"

He seemed really interested. He looked now less like a rodent, and more like a human being. There was intelligence in his eyes.

"We don't exactly do that," said Mrs. Burton absently. "But we express our opinions. We don't believe in Government."

SHE frowned as the revolver lying on her knee caught her eye, and she looked at the bound hands and feet of the burglar. He was shoeless, and his hosiery was by no means above reproach. Otherwise he was fairly well dressed.

"Don't you?" be said skeptically.

"No," said Mr. Burton, taking a hand in the conversation. "We agree with your friends in jail that government ought to be abolished. We think that society is all wrong. We don't believe in capitalism or private property."

The burglar glanced round the room, which was comfortable and even luxurious. Then his eye rested on Mr. Burton's countenance, which had lost its embarrassed look and was beginning to glow.

"We don't," proceeded Mr. Burton, "blame you, for instance, for trying to acquire by force a share of what should rightfully belong to you. We bear you no grudge for breaking into our house and trying to take our watches and plate, for we realize that we are no more actually entitled to those things than you are."

The burglar stared critically.

"Of course," Mr. Burton went on, "no man likes to be waked out of a sound sleep and choked. One naturally resists that sort of thing."

"I didn't want to wake you, nor choke you neither," said the burglar with some return of his former sullen and defensive manner.

"No, I know you didn't, if you could get what you wanted without doing so. But I suppose you would have shot me. if necessary in the course of business. . . . Understand, I'm not blaming you. I consider you a poor victim of society."

"I don't think I'd have shot you. My nerve's not what it was when I was younger," said the burglar rather mournfully. "Doing time—and then the hospital—they take it out of a feller. I'm afraid I'm a dead one." His head sunk again. "Only two months out," he murmured. "And then to fall like this—a woman and a gun that probably ain't even loaded!"

"Oh, it's loaded," Mrs. Burton assured him. "And I think I would have shot you too. if you had attacked us again, or even if you had tried to get away. . . . Yet that is irrational, for we have no intention of giving you up to the police."

"You won't?" The burglar stared again. "What will you do then?"

"Well, that's just it. I don't see what we can do with you."

THE burglar looked down at his bound feet and twitched in his chair.

"Well, why am I tied up like this, then, if you don't want to give me up?" he muttered.

"That was done on the spur of the moment. We never had a burglar in our house before. It is instinct. I suppose, to protect one's life and property and secure the intruder—atavistic instinct, no doubt. In a proper state of society, of course, you would not be breaking into our house after plate, for you would have enough of your own."

"Maybe," said the burglar.

"Ah, of course you don't believe that a proper state of society is possible," said Mr. Burton. "I don't blame you. But it's sure to come."

"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather go this way, down the post," said the burglar. "I left my shoes and hat down there"

"You mean that the people that have got the goods will divvy up with them that haven't got any?" said the burglar. "Ah, g'wan!"

"They will. Many of them are willing and even anxious to do it now, and the others will be obliged to sooner or later."

The burglar smiled wearily at this.

"Don't you believe it," he said. "You're talking through your hat—or you may be a little bughouse on that question. . . . Say, do you think you could untie this rope? It hurts my wrists. I won't try to get away or anything, honest."

Mr. Burton looked at his wife.

"Yes," she said, "untie his arms, Theodore."

Mr. Burton did so, and then after a slight hesitation offered the burglar a cigarette and a match, which were accepted with thanks.

"That is, if you don't object, ma'am," said the burglar politely.

"Not in the least," Mrs. Burton replied.

"By Jove, some whiskey would taste good—I'm afraid I've caught cold," said Mr. Burton suddenly.

"Yes, do get some. Theodore," his wife anxiously advised. "You know you mustn't take a chill."

MR. BURTON went downstairs and reappeared, after an impatient colloquy with Michael and Miss Hayden in the hall, with the decanter and two glasses. He got the water jug from his stand, and handed one glass to the burglar.

"Say when," he observed, pouring the whiskey.

The burglar took a stiff drink, neat, and when he had got it down be sighed, sat up in his chair, and lifted his head almost jauntily.

"That feels good—I'm obliged to you," he said. "Now do you think you could untie my feet? They're going to sleep. I won't get up—I'll stay here as long as you want me, that is if you'll let me go before daylight, if you're going to let me go."

"You think we are going to let you go, don't you?" asked Mr. Burton.

"Well, I don't see what else you can do, if you don't send for the cops unless you want to take me to board," remarked the burglar. "I suppose you'll want me to sign some kind of a pledge first—that I'll be good and never steal no more."

"Hardly. I don't see what else you can do," said Mr. Burton. "It isn't a question of reforming you, but of reforming Society. Society, at present, would probably not permit you to stop stealing if you wanted to—except on the alternative of starving. Of course you can always starve if you like."

Mr. Burton, having finished untying the burglar, had taken a comfortable chair; and with a glass of whiskey-and-water in one hand and a cigarette in the other he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He had a great many ideas and some oratorical ambition, but he had always been too nervous to speak from a platform. Now he felt that he was expressing himself with pith and point, and that he had made a decided impression on his audience—that is to say, on the burglar. Mrs. Burton also looked interested. Unobtrusively she laid aside her revolver, and continued to observe the stranger. He looked decidedly human now, but his eye was wary as ever. It expressed suspicion, mitigated, but not lulled to sleep. He was alert, too, for the slightest noise in the house. He was on his guard. Still, the atmosphere had suddenly taken on a social tinge. A smile—though constrained and rather wry—illumined the burglar's face at Mr. Burton's last speech.

"That's about what it comes to," he said, "but I wouldn't expect you to know it."

"You think, I suppose, that intelligence is confined to people like you," said Mr. Burton, "and that I, for instance, am a fool, don't you?"

"I don't know," said the burglar, frankly. "I never saw anything like you before."

"Well, there are plenty like me—with my ideas, anyhow—plenty of people who believe that there should be no prisons, no police, and that those who produce wealth, the working people, should share in it. You think that the few reformers who are well-to-do couldn't force the ruling class to divide, but don't you see that the mass of poor people, if led by the educated few, can force the rich minority? That is what is going to happen, my friend."

"It's a fine pipe-dream, anyhow," said the burglar patronizingly. "I reckon it'll come along about the day of judgment. Why, look here now, you wouldn't whack up, would you—with me, for instance?"

"My friend, have you ever heard the story of Rothschild and the Socialists?" inquired Mr. Burton. "They suggested to him that he should 'whack up,' and he proved to them that if he did, the share of each person in his fortune would amount to five shillings. He then offered to give that amount to anyone who applied for it. Now if I should divide equitably my modest property, your share, for instance, would by no means amount to ten dollars. However, I shall take pleasure in presenting you with that sum."

MR. BURTON was as good as his word. He extracted a ten dollar bill from his vest and handed it to the burglar.

"What's this for?" asked the latter sheepishly.

"Just as an evidence of good faith. I can't divide my properly with you, because I consider that I do better to use it in propagating Anarchism. But when the day of division comes I shall be ready—and may you be there to get your share!"

"And meantime what is he going to do?" inquired Mrs. Burton crisply.

"Why, he will steal. I suppose," answered Mr. Burton. "I would offer to help him to get a so-called respectable job if I saw any use in it—or if he does. Do you?" he asked the burglar.

That person shook his head.

"I never worked," he said cautiously.

"I don't blame you," said Mr. Burton. "You're quite right not to work, in the present state of Society. Only you don't seem to me to be much of a success at stealing. You spend too much time in prison."

The burglar for the first time looked Mr. Burton in the eye and spoke spontaneously.

"You're right, I ain't a success," he said bitterly. "I made a good thing as a dip—a pickpocket—for years. I made sometimes fifty dollars a week. But I got too ambitious. I tried the second-story business, and I ain't got the nerve to make a go of it, that's the truth!"

"Well, take my advice and go back to pocketpicking," said Mr. Burton philosophically. "At least," he added. "I'll have to get you to promise one thing—that you won't try burgling again in our suburb. You see," he explained, "it's a small place, and if I let you go tonight the whole community is going to know about it. Then if any other house is robbed here they'll blame it on me."

"Sure, I'll promise," said the burglar with emphasis. "If you want me to swear it on the Bible, I will."

"No, I'll take your word. I suppose," said Mr. Burton, "that you think I'm illogical in simply barring you out of this suburb, and leaving you free to burgle anywhere else?"

The burglar had glanced at the window somewhat nervously. . . . But Mr. Burton was very reluctant to lose his audience. He felt himself just getting into trim for a true burst of eloquence. He hurried on:

"But I admit I'm illogical. With my ideas it's inconsistent for me to put burglar-alarms into my house and keep a loaded revolver. I know it. But I hope the day is coming when I sha'n't need those things. I honestly believe that with the last policeman will go the last thief. They go together——"

"They do, sometimes," said the burglar, fidgeting in his chair.

"And they are equally deplorable effects of our false social system, which has been going further and further wrong for thousands of years, building up a pyramid of tyranny, crushing the many to uplift the few, until now, sir, now, I say to you, the only thing left as is to destroy it utterly, to sweep away rulers, judges, priests, the army, capital, in one vast——"

"Theodore! I really think thus man ought to be going," interrupted Mrs. Burton. "It must be near daylight——"

The burglar fairly burst from his chair.

"Thank you, ma'am," he cried, "I think I do see light out there!"

"Light, pish, it won't be light for an hour yet," said Mr. Burton peevishly. "But come along. I'll let you out the front door."

"If it's all the same to you. I'd rather go this way, down the post," said the burglar. "I left my shoes and hat down there——"

"Well, go ahead," said Mr. Burton.

HE went over and raised the window.

The burglar hesitated a moment and just glanced at the table where his revolver lay. But, as he had said himself, he was lacking in "nerve"; he did not ask for it. He looked at Mrs. Burton and said again:

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Don't mention it," said the lady. "I hope you won't get into prison again. I went through a prison once—" she shivered slightly.

"Look here, are you hungry?" asked Mr. Burton suddenly. "If you are, I'll go down and get you some stuff before you——"

"No, no, I'm not hungry—I'll just go now. Good night, and——"

The burgle had stepped across the window-sill, and he turned and paused for an instant, listening for sounds below, but all was silent. He looked back into the room, and seemed to want to say something more, but thinking better of it, turned away and with a single quick motion was over the edge of the veranda. They heard a thud as he landed, then a rustling in the shrubbery—he was gone. . . .

Mr. Burton closed and locked his window. A knock sounded on the door. The Burtons looked at each other. Then Mrs. Burton opened the door, and they faced outraged society in the persons of the middle-class Miss Hayden and the servants.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1951, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 71 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.