Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins

v

Perhaps, by this time, you are getting tired of three such simple, homely characters as Mr and Miss Wray, and Mr ‘Julius Caesar’, the carpenter. I strongly suspect you, indeed, of being downright anxious to have a little literary stimulant provided in the shape of a villain. You shall taste this stimulant — double distilled; for I have two villains all ready for you in the present chapter.

But, take my word for it, when you know your new company, you will be only too glad to get back again to Mr Wray and his family.

About three miles from Tidbury-on-the-Marsh, there is a village called Little London; sometimes, popularly entitled, in allusion to the characters frequenting it, ‘Hell-End’. It is a dirty, ruinous-looking collection of some dozen cottages, and an ale-house. Ruffianly men, squalid women, filthy children, are its inhabitants. The chief support of this pleasant population is currently supposed to be derived from their connection with the poaching and petty larcenous interests of their native soil. In a word, Little London looks bad, smells bad, and is bad; a fouler blot of a village, in the midst of a prettier surrounding landscape, is not to be found in all England.

Our principal business is with the ale-house. The ‘Jolly Ploughboys’ is the sign; and Judith Grimes, widow, is the proprietor. The less said about Mrs Grimes’s character, the better; it is not quite adapted to bear discussion in these pages. Mrs Grimes’s mother (who is now bordering on eighty) may be also dismissed to merciful oblivion; for, at her daughter’s age, she was — if possible — rather the worse of the two. Towards her son, Mr Benjamin Grimes (as one of the rougher sex), I feel less inclined to be compassionate. When I assert that he was in every respect a complete specimen of a provincial scoundrel, I am guilty, according to a profound and reasonable maxim of our law, of uttering a great libel, because I am repeating a great truth.

You know the sort of man well. You have seen the great, hulking, heavy-browed, sallow-complexioned fellow often enough, lounging at village corners, with a straw in his mouth and a bludgeon in his hand. Perhaps you have asked your way of him; and have been answered by a growl and a petition for money; or, you have heard of him in connection with a cowardly assault on your rural policeman; or a murderous fight with your friend’s gamekeeper; or a bad case for your other friend, the magistrate, at petty sessions. Anybody who has ever been in the country, knows the man — the ineradicable plague-spot of his whole neighbourhood — as well as I do.

About eight o’clock in the evening, and on the same day which had been signalized by Mr Wray’s disclosures, Mrs Grimes, senior — or, as she was generally called, ‘Mother Grimes’— sat in her armchair in the private parlour of The Jolly Ploughboys, just making up her mind to go to bed. Her ideas on this subject rather wanted acceleration; and they got it from her dutiful son, Mr Benjamin Grimes.

‘Coom, old ‘ooman, why doesn’t thee trot up stairs?’ demanded this provincial worthy.

‘I’m a-going, Ben — gently, Judith! — I’m a-going!’ mumbled the old woman, as Mrs Grimes, junior, entered the room, and very unceremoniously led her mother off.

‘Mind thee doesn’t let nobody in here tonight,’ bawled Benjamin, as his sister went out. ‘Chummy Dick’s going to coom,’ he added, in a mysterious whisper.

Left to himself to await the arrival of Chummy Dick, Mr Grimes found time hung rather heavy on his hands. He first looked out of the window. The view commanded a few cottages and fields, with a wood beyond on the rising ground — a homely scene enough in itself; but the heavenly purity of the shining moonlight gave it, just now, a beauty not its own. This beauty was not apparently to the taste of Mr Grimes, for he quickly looked away from the window back into the room. Staring dreamily, his sunken sinister grey eyes fixed upon the opposite wall, encountering there nothing but four coloured prints, representing the career of the prodigal son. He had seen them hundreds of times before; but he looked at them again from mere habit.

In the first of the series, the prodigal son was clothed in a bright red dress coat, and was just getting on horseback (the wrong side); while his father, in a bright blue coat, helped him on with one hand, and pointed disconsolately with the other to a cheese-coloured road, leading straight from the horse’s fore-feet to a distant city in the horizon, entirely composed of towers. In the second plate, master prodigal was feasting between two genteel ladies, holding gold wine glasses in their hands; while a debauched companion sprawled on the ground by his side, in a state of cataleptic drunkenness. In the third, he lay on his back; his red coat torn, and showing his purple skin; one of his stockings off; a thunderstorm raging over his head, and two white sows standing on either side of him — one of them apparently feeding off the calf of his leg. In the fourth —

Just as Mr Grimes had got to the fourth print he heard somebody whistling a tune outside, and turned to the window. It was Chummy Dick; or, in other words, the man with the cat-skin cap, who had honoured Mr Wray with a morning call.

Chummy Dick’s conduct on entering the parlour had the merit of originality as an exhibition of manners. He took no more notice of Mr Grimes than if he had not been in the room; drew his chair to the fireplace; put one foot on each of the hobs; pulled a little card out of his greatcoat pocket; read it; and then indulged himself in a long, steady, unctuous fit of laughter, cautiously pitched in what musicians would call the ‘minor key’.

‘What dost thee laugh about like that?’ asked Grimes.

‘Git us a glass of ‘ot grog fust — two lumps o’ sugar, mind! — and then, Benjamin, you’ll know in no time!’ said Chummy Dick, maintaining an undercurrent of laughter all the while he spoke.

While Benjamin is gone for the grog, there is time enough for a word or two of explanation.

Possibly you may remember that the young assistant at Messrs Dunball and Dark’s happened to see Mr Wray carrying his cash box into No. 12. The same gust of wind which, by blowing aside old Reuben’s cloak, betrayed what he had got under it to this assistant, exposed the same thing, at the same time, to the observation of Mr Grimes, who happened to be lounging about the High Street on the occasion in question. Knowing nothing about either the mask or the mystery connected with it, it was only natural that Benjamin should consider the cash box to be a receptacle for cash; and it was, furthermore, not at all out of character that he should ardently long to be possessed of that same cash, and should communicate his desire to Chummy Dick.

And for this reason. With all the ambition to be a rascal of first-rate ability, Mr Grimes did not possess the necessary cunning and capacity, and had not received the early London education requisite to fit him for so exalted a position. Stealing poultry out of a farmyard, for instance, was quite in Benjamin’s line; but stealing a cash box out of a barred and bolted-up house, standing in the middle of a large town, was an achievement above his powers — an achievement that but one man in his circle of acquaintance was mighty enough to compass — and that man was Chummy Dick, the great London housebreaker. Certain recent passages in the life of this illustrious personage had rendered London and its neighbourhood very insecure, in his case, for purposes of residence, so he had retired to a safe distance in the provinces; and had selected Tidbury and the adjacent country as a suitable field for action, and a very pretty refuge from the Bow Street Runners into the bargain.

‘Wery good, Benjamin; and not too sveet,’ remarked Chummy Dick, tasting the grog which Grimes had brought him. He was not, by any means, one of your ferocious housebreakers, except under strong provocation. There was more of oil than of aqua fortis in the mixture of his temperament. His robberies were marvels of skill, cunning, and cool determination. In short, he stole plate or money out of dwelling houses, as cats steal cream off breakfast tables — by biding his time, and never making a noise.

‘Hast thee seen the cash box?’ asked Grimes, in an eager whisper.

‘Look at my ‘and, Benjamin,’ was the serenely triumphant answer. ‘It’s bin on the cash box! You’re all right: the swag’s ready for us.’

‘Swag! Wot be that?’

‘That’s swag!’ said Chummy Dick, pulling half-a-crown out of his pocket, and solemnly holding it up for Benjamin’s inspection. ‘I haven’t got a fi’ pun’ note, or a christenin’ mug about me; but notes and silver’s swag, too. Now, young Grimes, you knows swag; and you’ll have your swag before long, if you looks out sharp. If it ain’t quite so fine a night tomorrer — if there ain’t quite so much of that moonshine as there is now to let gratis for nothin’— why, we’ll ‘ave the cash box!’

‘Half on it for me! Thee knows’t that, Chummy Dick!’

‘Check that ’ere talky-talky tongue of your’n; and you’ll ‘ave your ‘alf. I’ve bin to see the old man; and he’s gived me his wisitin’ card, with the number of the ’ouse. Ho! ho! ho! think of his givin’ his card to me! It’s as good as inwitin’ one to break into the ’ouse — it is, every bit!’ And, with another explosion of laughter, Chummy Dick triumphantly threw Mr Wray’s card into the fire.

‘But that ain’t the pint,‘ he resumed, when he had recovered his breath. ‘We’ll stick to the pint — the pint’s the cash box.’ And, to do him justice, he did stick to the point, never straying away from it, by so much as a hair’s breadth, for a full half-hour.

The upshot of the long harangue to which he now treated Mr Benjamin Grimes, was briefly this: he had invented a plan, after reading the old man’s advertisement first, for getting into Mr Wray’s lodgings unsuspected; he had seen the cash box with his own eyes, and was satisfied, from certain indications, that there was money in it — he held the owner of this property to be a miser, whose gains were all hoarded up in his cash box, stray shillings and stray sovereigns together — he had next found out who were the inmates of the house; and had discovered that the only formidable person sleeping at No. 12 was our friend the carpenter — he had then examined the premises; and had seen that they were easily accessible by the back drawing-room window, which looked out on the wash-house roof — finally, he had ascertained that the two watchmen appointed to guard the town, performed that duty by going to bed regularly at eleven o’clock, and leaving the town to guard itself; the whole affair was perfectly easy — too easy in fact for anybody but a young beginner.

‘Now, Benjamin,’ said Chummy Dick, in conclusion —‘mind this: no wiolence! Take your swag quiet, and you takes it safe. Wiolence is sometimes as bad as knockin’ up a whole street — wiolence is the downy cracksman’s last kick-out when he’s caught in a fix. Fust and foremost, you’ve got your mask,’ (here he pulled out a shabby domino mask,) wery good; nobody can’t swear to you in that. Then, you’ve got your barker,’ (he produced a pistol,) ‘just to keep ’em quiet with the look of it, and if that won’t do, there’s your gag and bit o’ rope’ (he drew them forth,) ‘for their mouths and ‘ands. Never pull your trigger, till you see another man ready to pull his. Then you must make your row; and then you make it to some purpose. The nobs in our business — remember this, young Grimes! — always takes the swag easy; and when they can’t take it easy, they takes it as easy as they can. That’s visdom — the visdom of life!’

‘Why thee bean’t a-going, man?’ asked Benjamin in astonishment, as the philosophical housebreaker abruptly moved towards the door.

‘Me and you must’nt be seen together, tomorrer,’ said Chummy Dick, in a whisper. ‘You let me alone: I’ve got business to do tonight — never mind wot! At eleven tomorrer night, you be at the cross roads that meets on the top of the common. Look out sharp; and you’ll see me.

‘But if so be it do keep moonshiny,’ suggested Grimes.

‘On second thoughts, Benjamin,’ said the housebreaker, after a moment’s reflection, ‘we’ll risk all the moonshine as ever shone — High Street, Tidbury, ain’t Bow Street, London! — we may risk it safe. Moon, or no moon, young Grimes! tomorrer night’s our night!’

By this time he had walked out of the house. They separated at the door. The radiant moonlight falling lovely on all things, fell lovely even on them. How pure it was! how doubly pure, to shine on Benjamin Grimes and Chummy Dick, and not be soiled by the contact!

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29