Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins

vii

For some household reason not worth mentioning, they dined later that day than usual at No. 12. It was five o’clock before they sat down to table. The conversation all turned on the visitor of the morning; no terms in Mr Wray’s own vocabulary being anything like choice enough to characterize the eccentric old squire, he helped himself to Shakespeare, even more largely than usual, every time he spoke of Mr Colebatch. He managed to discover some striking resemblance to that excellent gentleman (now in one particular, and now in another), in every noble and venerable character, throughout the whole series of the plays — not forgetting either, on one or two occasions, to trace the corresponding likeness between the more disreputable and intriguing personages, and that vindictive enemy to all plays, players, and playhouses, the Reverend Daubeny Daker. Never did any professed commentator on Shakespeare (and the assertion is a bold one) wrest the poet’s mighty meaning more dexterously into harmony with his own microscopic ideas, than Mr Wray now wrested it, to furnish him with eulogies on the goodness and generosity of Mr Matthew Colebatch, of Cropley Court.

Meanwhile, the weather got worse and worse, as the evening advanced. The wind freshened almost to a gale; and dashed the fast-falling rain against the window, from time to time, with startling violence. It promised to be one of the wildest, wettest, darkest nights they had had at Tidbury since the winter began.

Shortly after the table was cleared, having pretty well exhausted himself on the subject of Mr Colebatch, for the present, old Reuben fell asleep in his chair. This was rather an unusual indulgence for him, and was probably produced by the especial lateness of the dinner. Mr Wray generally took that meal at two o’clock, and set off for his walk afterwards, reckless of all the ceremonial observances of digestion. He was a poor man, and could not afford the luxurious distinction of being dyspeptic.

The behaviour of Mr ‘Julius Caesar’, the carpenter, when he appeared from the back kitchen to take his place at dinner, was rather perplexing. He knocked down a salt-cellar; spurted some gravy over his shirt; and spilt a potato, in trying to transport it a distance of about four inches, from the dish to Annie’s plate. This, to begin with, was rather above the general average of his number of table accidents at one meal. Then, when dinner was over, he announced his intention of returning to the back kitchen for the rest of the evening, in tones of such unwonted mystery, that Annie’s curiosity was aroused, and she began to question him. Had he not done the new box yet? No! Why, he might have made such a box in an hour, surely? Yes, he might. And why had he not? ‘Wait a bit, Annie, and you’ll see!’ And having said that, he laid his large finger mysteriously against the side of his large nose, and walked out of the room forthwith.

In half-an-hour afterwards he came in again, looking very sheepish and discomposed, and trying, unsuccessfully, to hide an enormous poultice — a perfect loaf of warm bread and water — which decorated the palm of his right hand. This time, Annie insisted on an explanation.

It appeared that he had conceived the idea of ornamenting the lid of the new box with some uncouth carvings of his own, in compliment to Mr Wray and the mask of Shakespeare. Being utterly unpractised in the difficult handiwork he proposed to perform, he had run a splinter into the palm of his hand. And there the box was now in the back kitchen, waiting for lock and hinges, while the only person in the house who could put them on, was not likely to handle a hammer again for days to come. Miserable ‘Julius Caesar!’ Never was well-meant attention more fatally misdirected than this attention of yours! Of all the multifarious accidents of your essentially accidental life, this special casualty, which has hindered you from finishing the new box tonight, is the most ill-timed and the most irreparable!

When the tea came in Mr Wray woke up; and as it usually happens with people who seldom indulge in the innocent sensuality of an after-dinner nap, changed at once, from a state of extreme somnolence to a state of extreme wakefulness. By this time the night was at its blackest; the rain fell fierce and thick, and the wild wind walked abroad in the darkness, in all its might and glory. The storm began to affect Annie’s spirits a little, and she hinted as much to her grandfather, when he awoke. Old Reuben’s extraordinary vivacity immediately suggested a remedy for this. He proposed to read a play of Shakespeare’s as the surest mode of diverting attention from the weather; and, without allowing a moment for the consideration of his offer, he threw open the book, and began Macbeth.

As he not only treated his hearers to every one of the Kemble pauses, and every infinitesimal inflection of the Kemble elocution, throughout the reading; but also exhibited a serious parody of Mrs Siddons’ effects in Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene, with the aid of a white pocket-handkerchief, tied under his chin, and a japanned bedroom candlestick in his hand — and as, in addition to these special and strictly dramatic delays, he further hindered the progress of his occupation by vigilantly keeping his eye on ‘Julius Caesar’, and unmercifully waking up that ill-starred carpenter every time he went to sleep, (which, by the way, was once in every ten minutes,) nobody can be surprised to hear that Macbeth was not finished before eleven o’clock. The hour was striking from Tidbury Church, as Mr Wray solemnly declaimed the last lines of the tragedy, and shut up the book.

‘There!’ said old Reuben, ‘I think I’ve put the weather out of your head, Annie, by this time! You look sleepy, my dear; go to bed. I had a few remarks to make, about the right reading of Macbeth’s dagger-scene, but I can make them tomorrow morning, just as well. I won’t keep you up any longer. Good night, love!’

Was Mr Wray not going to bed, too? No: he never felt more awake in his life; he would sit up a little, and have a good ‘warm’ over the fire. Should Annie bear him company? By no means! he would not keep poor Annie from her bed, on any account. Should ‘Julius Caesar’? — Certainly not! he was sure to go to sleep immediately; and to hear him snore, Mr Wray said, was worse than hearing him sneeze. So the two young people wished the old man goodnight, and left him to have his ‘warm’, as he desired. This was the way in which he prepared himself to undergo that luxurious process:—

He drew his armchair in front of the fire, then put a chair on either side of it, then unlocked the cupboard, and took out the cash box that contained the mask of Shakespeare. This he deposited upon one of the side chairs; and upon the other he put his copy of the Plays, and the candle. Finally, he sat down in the middle — cosy beyond all description — and slowly inhaled a copious pinch of snuff.

‘How it blows, outside!’ said old Reuben, ‘and how snug I am, in here!’

He unlocked the cash box, and taking it on his knee, looked down on the mask that lay inside. Gradually, the pride and pleasure at first appearing in his eyes, gave place to a dreamy fixed expression. He gently closed the lid, and reclined back in his chair; but he did not shut up the cash box for the night, for he never turned the key in the lock.

Old recollections were crowding on him, revived by his conversation of the morning with Mr Colebatch; and now evoked by many a Shakespeare association of his own, always connected with the treasured, the inestimable mask. Tender remembrances spoke piteously and solemnly within him. Poor Columbine — lost, but never forgotten — moved loveliest and holiest of all those memory shadows, through the dim world of his waking visions. How little the grave can hide of us! The love that began before it, lasts after it. The sunlight to which our eyes looked, while it shone on earth, changes but to the star that guides our memories when it passes to heaven!

Hark! the church clock chimes the quarters; each stroke sounds with the ghostly wildness of all bell-tones, when heard amid the tumult of a storm, but fails to startle old Reuben now. He is far away in other scenes; living again in other times. Twelve strikes; and then, when the clock bell rings its long midnight peal, he rouses — he hears that.

The fire has died down to one, dull, red spot: he feels chilled; and sitting up in his chair, yawning, tries to summon resolution enough to rise and go upstairs to bed. His expression is just beginning to grow utterly listless and weary, when it suddenly alters. His eyes look eager again; his lips close firmly; his cheeks get pale all at once — he is listening.

He fancies that, when the wind blows in the loudest gusts, or when the rain dashes heaviest against the window, he hears a very faint, curious sound — sometimes like a scraping noise, sometimes like a tapping noise. But in what part of the house — or even whether outside or in — he cannot tell. In the calmer moments of the storm, he listens with especial attention to find this out; but it is always at that very time that he hears nothing.

It must be imagination. And yet, that imagination is so like a reality that it has made him shudder all over twice in the last minute.

Surely he hears that strange noise now! Why not get up, and go to the window, and listen if the faint tapping comes by any chance from outside, in front of the house? Something seems to keep him in his chair, perfectly motionless — something makes him afraid to turn his head, for fear of seeing a sight of horror close at his side —

Hush! it sounds again, plainer and plainer. And now it changes to a cracking noise — close by — at the shutter of the back drawing-room window.

What is that, sliding along the crack between the folding doors and the floor? — a light! — a light in that empty room which nobody uses. And now, a whisper — footsteps — the handle on the lock of the door moves —

‘Help! Help! for God’s sake! — Murder! Mur —’

Just as that cry for help passed the old man’s lips, the two robbers, masked and armed, appeared in the room; and the next instant, Chummy Dick’s gag was fast over his mouth.

He had the cash box clasped tight to his breast. Mad with terror, his eyes glared like a dead man’s, while he struggled in the powerful arms that held him.

Grimes, unused to such scenes, was so petrified by astonishment at finding the old man out of bed, and the room lit up, that he stood with his pistol extended, staring helplessly through the eyeholes of his mask. Not so with his experienced leader. Chummy Dick’s ears and eyes were as quick as his hands — the first informed him that Reuben’s cry for help (skilfully as he had stifled it with the gag) had aroused some one in the house: the second instantly detected the cash box, as Mr Wray clasped it to his breast.

‘Put up your pop-gun, you precious yokel, you!’ whispered the housebreaker fiercely. ‘Look alive; and pull it out of his arms. Damn you! do it quick! they’re awake, up stairs!’

It was not easy to ‘do it quick’. Weak as he was, Reuben actually held his treasure with the convulsive strength of despair, against the athletic ruffian who was struggling to get it away. Furious at the resistance, Grimes exerted his whole force, and tore the box so savagely from the old man’s grasp, that the mask of Shakespeare flew several feet away, through the open lid, before it fell, shattered into fragments on the floor.

For an instant, Grimes stood aghast at the sight of what the contents of the cash box really were. Then, frantic with the savage passions produced by the discovery, he rushed up to the fragments, and, with a horrible oath, stamped his heavy boot upon them, as if the very plaster could feel his vengeance. ‘I’ll kill him, if I swing for it!’ cried the villain, turning on Mr Wray the next moment, and raising his horse-pistol by the barrel over the old man’s head.

But, exactly at the same time, brave as his heroic namesake, ‘Julius Caesar’ burst into the room. In the heat of the moment, he struck at Grimes with his wounded hand. Dealt even under that disadvantage, the blow was heavy enough to hurl the fellow right across the room, till he dropped down against the opposite wall. But the triumph of the stout carpenter was a short one. Hardly a second after his adversary had fallen, he himself lay stunned on the floor by the pistol-butt of Chummy Dick.

Even the nerve of the London housebreaker deserted him, at the first discovery of the astounding self-deception of which he and his companion had been the victims. He only recovered his characteristic coolness and self-possession when the carpenter attacked Grimes. Then, true to his system of never making unnecessary noise, or wasting unnecessary powder, he hit ‘Julius Caesar’ just behind the ear, with unerring dexterity. The blow made no sound, and seemed to be inflicted by a mere turn of the wrist; but it was decisive — he had thoroughly stunned his man.

And now, the piercing screams of the landlady, from the bedroom floor poured quicker and quicker into the street, through the opened window. They were mingled with the fainter cries of Annie, whom the good woman forcibly detained from going into danger down stairs. The female servant (the only other inmate of the house) rivalled her mistress in shrieking madly and incessantly for help, from the window of the garret above.

‘The whole street will be up in a crack!’ cried Chummy Dick, swearing at every third word he uttered, and hauling the partially-recovered Grimes into an erect position again, ‘there’s no swag to be got here! step out quick, young yokel, or you’ll be nabbed!’

He pushed Grimes into the back drawing-room; hustled him over the window-sill on to the wash-house roof, leaving him to find his own way, how he could, to the ground; and then followed, with Mr Wray’s watch and purse, and a brooch of Annie’s that had been left on the chimney-piece, all gathered into his capacious greatcoat pocket in a moment. They were not worth much as spoils; but the dexterity with which they were taken instantly with one hand, while he had Grimes to hold with the other; and the strength, coolness, and skill he displayed in managing the retreat, were worthy even of the reputation of Chummy Dick. Long before the two Tidbury watchmen had begun to think of a pursuit, the housebreaker and his companion were out of reach — even though the Bow Street Runners themselves had been on the spot to give chase. How long the old man has kept in that one position! — crouching down there in the corner of the room, without stirring a limb or uttering a word. He dropped on his knees at that place, when the robbers left him; and nothing has moved him from it since.

When Annie broke away from the landlady, and ran down stairs — he never stirred. When the long wail of agony burst from her lips, as she saw the dead look of the brave man lying stunned on the floor — he never spoke. When the street door was opened; and the crowd of terrified, half-dressed neighbours all rushed together into the house, shouting and trampling about, half panic-stricken at the news they heard — he never noticed a single soul. When the doctor was sent for; and, amid an awful hush of expectation, proceeded to restore the carpenter to his senses — even at that enthralling moment, he never looked up. It was only when the room was cleared again — when his granddaughter came to his side, and, putting her arm round his neck, laid her cold cheek close to his — that he seemed to live at all. Then, he just heaved a heavy sigh; his head dropped down lower on his breast; and he shivered throughout his whole frame, as if some icy influence was freezing him to the heart.

All that long, long time he had been looking on one sight — the fragments of the mask of Shakespeare lying beneath him. And there he kept now — when they tried in their various methods to coax him away — still crouching over them; just in the same position; just with the same hard, frightful look about his face that they had seen from the first.

Annie went and fetched the cash box; and tremblingly put it down before him. The instant he saw it, his eyes began to flash. He pounced in a fury of haste upon the fragments of the mask, and huddled them all together into the box, with shaking hands, and quick panting breath. He picked up the least chip of plaster that the robber had ground under his boot; and strained his eyes to look for more, when not an atom more was left. At last, he locked the box, and caught it up tight to his breast; and then he let them raise him up, and lead him gently away from the place.

He never quitted hold of his box, while they got him into bed. Annie, and her lover, and the landlady, all sat up together in his room; and all, in different degrees, felt the same horrible foreboding about him, and shrank from communicating it to one another. Occasionally, they heard him beating his hands strangely on the lid of the box; but he never spoke; and, as far as they could discover, never slept.

The doctor had said he would be better when the daylight came. — Did the doctor really know what was the matter with him? — and had the doctor any suspicion that something precious had been badly injured that night, besides the mask of Shakespeare?

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