When ten o’clock came, the Squire came — punctual to a minute. Instead of going up stairs, he mysteriously sent for the carpenter into the back parlour.
‘Now, in the first place, how is Mr Wray?’— said the old gentleman, as anxiously as if he had not already sent three times the night before, and twice earlier in the morning, to ask that very question.
‘Lord bless you, sir!’— answered the carpenter with a grin, and a very expressive rubbing of the hands —‘He’s coming to again, after his nice sleep last night, as brave as ever. He’s dreadful weak still, to be sure; but he’s got like himself again, already. He’s been down on me twice in the last half hour, sir, about my elocution; he’s making Annie read Shakespeare to him; and he’s asking whether any new pupils are coming — all just in the old way again. Oh, sir, it is so jolly to see him like that once more — if you’ll only come up stairs —’
‘Stop, till we’ve had our talk’— said the Squire —‘sit down. By the bye! has he said anything yet about that infernal cash box?’
‘I picked the lock of the box this morning, sir, as the gentleman told me; and buried every bit of plaster out of it, deep in the kitchen garden. He saw the box afterwards, and gave a tremble, like. “Take it away,” says he, “never let me see it again: it reminds me of that dreadful dream.” And then, sir, he told us about what had happened, just as if he really had dreamt it; saying he couldn’t get the subject quite out of his head, the whole thing was so much as if it had truly taken place. Afterwards, sir, he thanked me for making the new box for the cast — he remembered my promising to do that, though it was only just before all our trouble!’
‘And of course, you humour him in everything, and let him think he’s right?’— said the Squire —‘He must never know that he hasn’t been dreaming, to his dying day.’
And he never did know it — never, in this world, had even a suspicion of what he owed to Annie! It was but little matter; they could not have loved each other better, if he had discovered everything.
‘Now, master carpenter,’ pursued the Squire, ‘you’ve answered very nicely hitherto. Just answer as nicely the next question I ask. What’s the whole history of this mysterious plaster cast? It’s no use fidgeting! I’ve seen the cast; I know it’s a portrait of Shakespeare! and I’ve made up my mind to find out all about it. Do you mean to say you think I’m not a friend fit to be trusted? Eh, you sir?’
‘I never could think so, after all your goodness, sir. But, if you please, I really did promise to keep the thing a secret,’ said the carpenter, looking very much as if he were watching his opportunity to open the door, and run out of the room; ‘I promised, sir; I did, indeed!’
‘Promised a fiddlestick!’ exclaimed the Squire, in a passion. ‘What’s the use of keeping a secret that’s half let out already? I’ll tell you what, you Mr — what’s your name? There’s some joke about calling you Julius Caesar. What’s your real name, if you really have one?’
‘Martin Blunt, sir. But don’t, pray don’t ask me to tell the secret! I don’t say you would blab it, sir; but if it did leak out, like; and get to Stratford-upon-Avon,’— here he suddenly became silent, feeling he was beginning to commit himself already.
‘Stop! I’ve got it!’ cried Mr Colebatch. ‘Hang me, if I haven’t got it at last!’
‘Don’t tell me, sir! Pray don’t tell me, if you have!’
‘Stick to your chair, Mr Martin Blunt! No shirking with me! I was a fool not to suspect the thing, the moment I saw it was a portrait of Shakespeare. I’ve seen the Stratford bust, Master Blunt! You’re afraid of Stratford, are you? — Why? I know! Some of you have been taking that cast from the Stratford bust, without leave — it’s as like it, as two peas! Now, young fellow, I’ll tell you what! if you don’t make a clean breast to me at once, I’m off to the office of the ‘Tidbury Mercury’, to put in my version of the whole thing, as a good local anecdote! Will you tell me? or will you not? — I’m asking this in Mr Wray’s interests, or I’d die before I asked you at all!’
Confused, threatened, bullied, bawled at, and out-manoeuvred, the unfortunate carpenter fairly gave way. ‘If it’s wrong in me to tell you, sir, it’s your fault what I do,’ said the simple fellow; and he forthwith retailed, in a very roundabout, stammering manner, the whole of the disclosure he had heard from old Reuben — the Squire occasionally throwing in an explosive interjection of astonishment, or admiration; but, otherwise, receiving the narrative with remarkable calmness and attention.
‘What the deuce is all this nonsense about the Stratford Town Council, and the penalties of the law?’— cried Mr Colebatch, when the carpenter had done —‘But never mind; we can come to that afterwards. Now tell me about going back to get the mould out of the cupboard, and making the new cast. I know who did it! It’s that dear, darling, incomparable little girl! — but tell me all about it — come! quick, quick! — don’t keep me waiting!’
‘Julius Caesar’ got on with his second narrative much more glibly than with the first. How Annie had suddenly remembered, one night, in her bedroom, about the mould having been left behind — how she was determined to try and restore her grandfather’s health and faculties, by going to seek it; and how he (the carpenter), had gone also, to protect her — how they got to Stratford, by the coach (outside places, in the cold, to save money)— how Annie appealed to the mercy of their former landlord; and instead of inventing some falsehood to deceive him, fairly told her whole story in all its truth — how the landlord pitied them, and promised to keep their secret — how they went up into the bed-room, and found the mould in the old canvas bag, behind the volumes of the Annual Register, just where Mr Wray had left it — how Annie, remembering what her grandfather had told her, about the process of making a cast, bought plaster, and followed out her instructions; failing in the first attempt, but admirably succeeding in the second — how they were obliged, in frightful suspense, to wait till the third day for the return coach; and how they finally got back, safe and sound, not only with the new cast, but with the mould as well. — All these particulars flowed from the carpenter’s lips, in a strain of homely eloquence, which no elocutionary aid could have furnished with one atom of additional effect, that would have done it any good whatever.
‘We’d no notion, sir,’ said ‘Julius Caesar’, in conclusion, ‘that poor Mr Wray was so bad as he really was, when we went away. It was a dreadful trial to Annie, sir, to go. She went down on her knees to the landlady — I saw her do it, half wild, like; she was in such a state — she went down on her knees, sir, to ask the woman to be as a daughter to the old man, till she came back. Well, sir, even after that, it was a toss-up whether she went away, when the morning came. But she was obliged to do it. She durstn’t trust me to go alone, for fear I should let the mould tumble down, when I got it (which I’m afraid, sir, was very likely!)— or get into some scrape, by telling what I oughtn’t, where I oughtn’t; and so be taken up, mould and all, before the Town Council, who were going to put Mr Wray in prison, only we ran off to Tidbury; and so —’
‘Nonsense! stuff! they could no more put him in prison for taking the cast than I can,’ cried the Squire. ‘Stop! I’ve got a thought! I’ve got a thought at least, that’s worth — Is the mould here? — Yes or No?’
‘Yes, sir! Bless us and save us, what’s the matter!’
‘Run!’ cried Mr Colebatch, pacing up and down the room like mad. ‘No. 15 in the street! Dabbs and Clutton, the lawyers! Fetch one of them in a second! Damn it, run! or I shall burst a blood vessel!’
The carpenter ran to No. 15; and Mr Dabbs, who happened to be in, ran from No. 15. Mr Colebatch met him at the street door, dragged him into the back parlour, pushed him on to a chair, and instantly stated the case between Mr Wray and the authorities at Stratford, in the fewest possible words and the hastiest possible tones. ‘Now,’ said the old gentleman at the end, ‘can they, or can they not, hurt him for what he’s done?’
‘It’s a very nice point,’ said Mr Dabbs, ‘a very nice point indeed, sir.’
‘Hang it, man!’ cried the Squire, ‘don’t talk to me about “nice points”, as if a point was something good to eat! Can they, or can they not, hurt him? Answer that in three words!’
‘They can’t,’ said Dabbs, answering it triumphantly in two.
‘Why?’ asked the Squire, beating him by a rejoinder in one.
‘For this reason,’ said Dabbs. ‘What does Mr Wray take with him into the church? Plaster of his own, in powder. What does he bring out with him? The same plaster, in another form. Does any right of copyright reside in a bust two hundred years old? Impossible. Has Mr Wray hurt the bust? No; or they would have found him out here, and prosecuted directly — for they know where he is. I heard of the thing from a Stratford man, yesterday, who said they knew he was at Tidbury. Under all these circumstances, where’s there a shadow of a case against Mr Wray? Nowhere!’
‘Capital, Dabbs! capital! you’ll be Lord Chancellor some day: never heard a better opinion in my life! Now, Mr Julius Caesar Blunt, do you see what my thought is? No! Look here. Take casts from that mould till your arms ache again; clap them upon slabs of black marble to show off the white face; sell them, at a guinea each, to the loads of people who would give anything to have a portrait of Shakespeare; and then open your breeches’ pockets fast enough to let the gold tumble in, if you can! Tell Mr Wray that; and you tell him he’s a rich man, or — no don’t, you’re no more fit to do it properly than I am! Tell every syllable you’ve heard here to Annie, directly; she’ll know how to break it to him; go! be off!’
‘But what are we to say about how we got the mould here, sir? We can’t tell Mr Wray the truth.’
‘Tell him a flam, of course! Say it’s been found in the cupboard, by the landlord, at Stratford, and sent on here. Dabbs will bear witness that the Stratford people know he’s at Tidbury, and know they can’t touch him: he’s sure to think that a pretty good proof that we are right. Say I bullied you out of the secret, when I saw the mould come here — say anything — but only go, and settle matters at once! I’m off to take my walk, and see about the black slabs at the stone masons. I’ll be back in an hour, and see Mr Wray.’
The next moment, the impetuous old Squire was out of the house; and before the hour was up, he was in it again, rather more impetuous than ever.
When he entered the drawing-room, the first sight that greeted him was the carpenter, hanging up a box containing the mask (with the lid taken off) boldly and publicly over the fireplace.
‘I’m glad to see that, sir,’ said Mr Colebatch, shaking hands with Mr Wray. ‘Annie has told you my good news — eh?’
‘Yes, sir,’ answered the old man; ‘the best news I’ve heard for some time: I can hang up my treasure there, now, where I can see it all day. It was rather too bad, sir, of those Stratford people to go frightening me, by threatening what they couldn’t do. The best man among them is the man who was my landlord; he’s an honest, careful fellow, to send me back my old canvas bag, and the mould (which must have seemed worthless to him), just because they were belonging to me, and left in my bedroom. I’m rather proud, sir, of making that mask. I can never repay you for your kindness in defending my character, and taking me up as you’ve done — but if you would accept a copy of the cast, now we have the mould to take it from, as Annie says —’
‘That I will, and thankfully,’ said the Squire, ‘and I order five more copies, as presents to my friends, when you begin to sell to the public.’
‘I really don’t know, sir, about that,’ said Mr Wray, rather uneasily. ‘Selling the cast is like making my great treasure very common; it’s like giving up my particular possession to everybody.’
Mr Colebatch parried this objection instantly. Could Mr Wray, he asked, seriously mean to be so selfish as to deny to other lovers of Shakespeare the privilege he prized so much himself, of possessing Shakespeare’s portrait? — to say nothing of as good as plumply refusing a pretty round sum of money at the same time. Could he be selfish enough, and inconsiderate enough to do that? No: Mr Wray, on consideration, allowed he could not. He saw the subject in a new light now; and begging Mr Colebatch’s pardon, if he had seemed selfish or unthankful, he would take the Squire’s advice.
‘That’s right!’ said the old gentleman. ‘Now I’m happy. You’ll soon be strong enough, my good friend, to take the cast yourself.’
‘I hope so,’ said Mr Wray. ‘It’s very odd that a mere dream should make me feel so weak as I do — I suppose they told you, sir, what a horrible dream it was. If I didn’t see the mask hanging up there now, as whole as ever, I should really believe it had been broken to pieces, just as I dreamt it. It must have been a dream, you know, sir of course; for I dreamt that Annie had gone away and left me; and I found her at home as usual, when I woke up. It seems, too, that I’m a week or more behindhand, in my notion about the day of the month. In short, sir, I should almost think myself bewitched,’ he added, pressing his trembling hand over his forehead, ‘if I didn’t know it was near Christmas time, and didn’t believe what sweet Will Shakespeare says in Hamlet — a passage, by-the-by, sir, which Mr Kemble always regretted to see struck out of the acting copy.’
Here he began to declaim — faintly, but still with all the old Kemble cadences — the exquisite lines to which he referred; the Squire beating time to each modulation, with his forefinger:—
‘Some say, that ever ‘gainst that season comes,
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then they say no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.’
‘There’s poetry!’ exclaimed Mr Colebatch, looking up at the mask. ‘That’s a cut above my tragedy of the Mysterious Murderess, I’m afraid. Eh, sir? And how you recite — splendid! Hang it! we havn’t had half our talk, yet, about Shakespeare and John Kemble. A chat with an old stager like you, is new life to me, in such a barbarous place as this! Ah, Mr Wray!’ (and here the Squire’s voice lowered, and grew strangely tender for such a rough old gentleman), ‘you are a happy man, to have a grandchild to keep you company at all times, but especially at Christmas time. I’m a lonely old bachelor, and must eat my Christmas dinner without wife or child to sweeten the taste to me of a single morsel!’
As little Annie heard this, she rose, and stole up to the Squire’s side. Her pale face was covered with blushes (all her pretty natural colour had not come back yet); she looked softly at Mr Colebatch, for a moment — then looked down — then said —
‘Don’t say you’re lonely sir! If you would let me be like a grandchild to you, I should be so glad. I— I always make the plum pudding, sir, on Christmas Day, for grandfather — if he would allow — and if — if you —’
‘If that little love isn’t trying to screw her courage up to ask me to taste her plum pudding, I’m a Dutchman’— cried the Squire, catching Annie in his arms, and fairly kissing her —‘Without ceremony, Mr Wray, I invite myself here, to a Christmas dinner. We would have had it at Cropley Court; but you’re not strong enough yet, to go out these cold nights. Never mind! all the dinner, except Annie’s pudding, shall be done by my cook; Mrs Buddle, the housekeeper, shall come and help; and we’ll have such a feast, please God, as no king ever sat down to! No apologies, my good friend, on either side: I’m determined to spend the happiest Christmas Day I ever did in my life; and so shall you!’
And the good Squire kept his word. It was, of course, noised abroad over the whole town, that Matthew Colebatch, Esquire, Lord of the Manor of Tidbury-on-the-Marsh, was going to dine on Christmas Day with an old player, in a lodging house. The genteel population were universally scandalized and indignant. The Squire had exhibited his levelling tendencies pretty often before, they said. He had, for instance, been seen cutting jokes in the High Street with a travelling tinker, to whom he had applied in broad daylight to put a new ferrule on his walking stick; he had been detected coolly eating bacon and greens in one of his tenant farmer’s cottages; he had been heard singing, ‘Begone, dull care,’ in a cracked tenor, to amuse another tenant farmer’s child. These actions were disreputable enough; but to go publicly, and dine with an obscure stage-player, put the climax on everything! The Reverend Daubeny Daker said the Squire’s proper sphere of action, after that, was a lunatic asylum; and the Reverend Daubeny Daker’s friends echoed the sentiment.
Perfectly reckless of this expression of genteel popular opinion, Mr Colebatch arrived to dinner at No. 12, on Christmas Day; and, what is more, wore his black tights and silk stockings, as if he had been going to a grand party. His dinner had arrived before him; and fat Mrs Buddle, in her lavender silk gown, with a cambric handkerchief pinned in front to keep splashes off, appeared auspiciously with the banquet. Never did Annie feel the responsibility of having a plum-pudding to make, so acutely as she felt it, on seeing the savoury feast which Mr Colebatch had ordered, to accompany her one little item of saccharine cookery.
They sat down to dinner, with the Squire at the top of the table (Mr Wray insisted on that); and Mrs Buddle at the bottom (he insisted on that also); old Reuben and Annie, at one side; and ‘Julius Caesar’ all by himself (they knew his habits, and gave him elbow room), at the other. Things were comparatively genteel and quiet, till Annie’s pudding came in. At sight of that, Mr Colebatch set up a cheer, as if he had been behind a pack of fox-hounds. The carpenter, thrown quite off his balance by noise and excitement, knocked down a spoon, a wine glass, and a pepperbox, one after the other, in such quick succession, that Mrs Buddle thought him mad; and Annie — for the first time, poor little thing, since all her troubles — actually began to laugh again, as prettily as ever. Mr Colebatch did ample justice, it must be added, to her pudding. Twice did his plate travel up to the dish — a third time it would have gone; but the faithful housekeeper raised her warning voice, and reminded the old gentleman that he had a stomach.
When the tables were cleared, and the glasses filled with the Squire’s rare old port, that excellent man rose slowly and solemnly from his chair, announcing that he had three toasts to propose, and one speech to make; the latter, he said, being contingent on the chance of his getting properly at his voice, through two helpings of plum-pudding; a chance which he thought rather remote, principally in consequence of Annie’s having rather overdone the proportion of suet in mixing her ingredients.
‘The first toast,’ said the old gentleman, ‘is the health of Mr Reuben Wray; and God bless him!’ When this had been drunk with immense fervour, Mr Colebatch went on at once to his second toast, without pausing to sit down — a custom which other after-dinner orators would do well to imitate.
‘The second toast,’ said he, taking Mr Wray’s hand, and looking at the mask, which hung opposite, prettily decorated with holly — ‘the second toast, is a wide circulation and a hearty welcome all through England, for the Mask of Shakespeare!’ This was duly honoured; and immediately Mr Colebatch went on like lightning to the third toast.
‘The third,’ said he, ‘is the speech toast.’ Here he endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to cough up his voice out of the plum pudding. ‘I say, ladies and gentlemen, this is the speech toast.’ He stopped again, and desired the carpenter to pour him out a small glass of brandy; having swallowed which, he went on fluently.
‘Mr Wray, sir,’ pursued the old gentleman, ‘I address you in particular, because you are particularly concerned in what I am going to say. Three days ago, I had a little talk in private with those two young people. Young people, sir, are never wholly free from some imprudent tendencies; and falling in love’s one of them.’ (At this point, Annie slunk behind her grandfather; the carpenter, having nobody to slink behind, put himself quite at his ease, by knocking down an orange.) ‘Now, sir,’ continued the Squire, ‘the private talk that I was speaking of, leads me to suppose that those two particular young people mean to marry each other. You, I understand, objected at first to their engagement; and like good and obedient children, they respected your objection. I think it’s time to reward them for that, now. Let them marry, if they will, sir, while you can live happily to see it! I say nothing about our little darling there, but this:— the vital question for her, and for all girls, is not how high, but how good, she, and they, marry. And I must confess, I don’t think she’s altogether chosen so badly.’ (The Squire hesitated a moment. He had in his mind, what he could not venture to speak — that the carpenter had saved old Reuben’s life when the burglars were in the house; and that he had shown himself well worthy of Annie’s confidence, when she asked him to accompany her, in going to recover the mould from Stratford.) ‘In short, sir,’ Mr Colebatch resumed, ‘to cut short this speechifying, I don’t think you can object to let them marry, provided they can find means of support. This, I think, they can do. First there are the profits sure to come from the mask, which you are sure to share with them, I know.’ (This prophecy about the profits was fulfilled: fifty copies of the cast were ordered by the new year; and they sold better still, after that.) ‘This will do to begin on, I think, Mr Wray. Next, I intend to get our friend there a good berth as master-carpenter for the new crescent they’re going to build on my land, at the top of the hill — and that won’t be a bad thing, I can tell you! Lastly, I mean you all to leave Tidbury, and live in a cottage of mine that’s empty now, and going to rack and ruin for want of a tenant. I’ll charge rent, mind, Mr Wray, and come for it every quarter myself, as regular as a tax-gatherer. I don’t insult an independent man by the offer of an asylum. Heaven forbid! but till you can do better, I want you to keep my cottage warm for me. I can’t give up seeing my new grandchild sometimes! and I want my chat with an old stager, about the British Drama and glorious John Kemble! To cut the thing short, sir: with such a prospect before them as this, do you object to my giving the healths of Mr and Mrs Martin Blunt that are to be!’
Conquered by the Squire’s kind looks and words, as much as by his reasons, Old Reuben murmured approval of the toast, adding tenderly, as he looked round on Annie, ‘If she’ll only promise always to let me live with her!’
‘There, there!’ cried Mr Colebatch, ‘don’t go kissing your grandfather before company like that you little jade; making other people envious of him on Christmas Day! Listen to this! Mr and Mrs Martin Blunt that are to be — married in a week!’ added the old gentleman peremptorily.
‘Lord, sir!’ said Mrs Buddle, ‘she can’t get her dresses ready in that time!’
‘She shall, ma’am, if every mantua-making wench in Tidbury stitches her fingers off for it! and there’s an end of my speech-making!’ Having said this, the Squire dropped back into his chair with a gasp of satisfaction.
‘Now we are all happy!’ he exclaimed, filling his glass; ‘and now we’ll set in to enjoy our port in earnest — eh, my good friend?’
‘Yes; all happy!’ echoed old Reuben, patting Annie’s hand, which lay in his; ‘but I think I should be still happier, though, if I could only manage not to remember that horrible dream!’
‘Not remember it!’ cried Mr Colebatch, ‘we’ll all remember it — all remember it together, from this time forth, in the same pleasant way!’
‘How? How?’ exclaimed Mr Wray, eagerly.
‘Why, my good friend!’ answered the Squire, tapping him briskly on the shoulder, ‘we’ll all remember it gaily, as nothing but a STORY FOR A CHRISTMAS FIRESIDE!’
This web edition published by:
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52