Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins


Before we go boldly into Mr Wray’s lodgings, I must first speak a word or two about him, behind his back — but by no means slanderously. I will take his advertisement, now hanging up in the shop window of Messrs Dunball and Dark, as the text of my discourse.

Mr Reuben Wray became, as he phrased it, a ‘pupil of the late celebrated John Kemble, Esquire’ in this manner. He began life by being apprenticed for three years to a statuary. Whether the occupation of taking casts and clipping stones proved of too sedentary a nature to suit his temperament, or whether an evil counsellor within him, whose name was VANITY, whispered:—‘Seek public admiration, and be certain of public applause,’— I know not; but the fact is, that, as soon as his time was out, he left his master and his native place to join a company of strolling players; or, as he himself more magniloquently expressed it, he went on the stage.

Nature had gifted him with good lungs, large eyes, and a hook nose; his success before barn audiences was consequently brilliant. His professional exertions, it must be owned, barely sufficed to feed and clothe him; but then he had a triumph on the London stage, always present in the far perspective to console him. While waiting this desirable event, he indulged himself in a little intermediate luxury, much in favour as a profitable resource for young men in extreme difficulties — he married; married at the age of nineteen, or thereabouts, the charming Columbine of the company.

And he got a good wife. Many people, I know, will refuse to believe this — it is a truth, nevertheless. The one redeeming success of the vast social failure which his whole existence was doomed to represent, was this very marriage of his with a strolling Columbine. She, poor girl, toiled as hard and as cheerfully to get her own bread after marriage, as before; trudged many a weary mile by his side from town to town, and never uttered a complaint; praised his acting; partook his hopes; patched his clothes; pardoned his ill-humour; paid court for him to his manager; made up his squabbles; — in a word, and in the best and highest sense of that word, loved him. May I be allowed to add, that she only brought him one child — a girl? And, considering the state of his pecuniary resources, am I justified in ranking this circumstance as a strong additional proof of her excellent qualities as a married woman?

After much perseverance and many disappointments, Reuben at last succeeded in attaching himself to a regular provincial company — Tate Wilkinson’s at York. He had to descend low enough from his original dramatic pedestal before he succeeded in subduing the manager. From the leading business in Tragedy and Melodrama, he sank at once, in the established provincial company, to a ‘minor utility’— words of theatrical slang signifying an actor who is put to the smaller dramatic uses which the necessities of the stage require. Still, in spite of this, he persisted in hoping for the chance that was never to come; and still poor Columbine faithfully hoped with him to the last.

Time passed — years of it; and this chance never arrived; and he and Columbine found themselves one day in London, forlorn and starving. Their life at this period would make a romance of itself, if I had time and space to write it; but I must get on, as fast as may be, to later dates; and the reader must be contented merely to know that, at the last gasp — the last of hope; almost the last of life — Reuben got employment, as an actor of the lower degree, at Drury Lane.

Behold him, then, now — still a young man, but crushed in his young man’s ambition for ever — receiving the lowest theatrical wages for the lowest theatrical work; appearing on the stage as soldier, waiter, footman, and so on; with not a line in the play to speak; just showing his poverty-shrunken carcase to the audience, clothed in the frowsiest habiliments of the old Drury Lane wardrobe, for a minute or two at a time, at something like a shilling a night — a miserable being, in a miserable world; the World behind the Scenes!

John Philip Kemble is now acting at the theatre: and his fame is rising to its climax. How the roar of applause follows him almost every time he leaves the scene! How majestically he stalks away into the Green Room, abstractedly inhaling his huge pinches of snuff as he goes! How the poor inferior brethren of the buskin, as they stand at the wing and stare upon him reverently, long for his notice; and how few of them can possibly get it! There is, nevertheless, one among this tribe of unfortunates whom he has really remarked, though he has not yet spoken to him. He has detected this man, shabby and solitary, constantly studying his acting from any vantage-ground the poor wretch could get amid the dust, dirt, draughts, and confusion behind the scenes. Mr Kemble also observes, that whenever a play of Shakespeare’s is being acted, this stranger has a tattered old book in his hands; and appears to be following the performance closely from the text, instead of huddling into warm corners over a pint of small beer, with the rest of his supernumerary brethren. Remarking these things, Mr Kemble over and over again intends to speak to the man, and find out who he is; and over and over again utterly forgets it. But, at last, a day comes when the long-deferred personal communication really takes place; and it happens thus:—

A new Tragedy is to be produced — a pre-eminently bad one, by-the-by, even in those days of pre-eminently bad Tragedy-writing. The scene is laid in Scotland; and Mr Kemble is determined to play his part in a Highland dress. The idea of acting a drama in the appropriate costume of the period which that drama illustrates, is considered so dangerous an innovation, that no one else dare follow his example; and he, of all the characters, is actually about to wear the only Highland dress in a Highland play. This does not at all daunt him. He has acted Othello, a night or two before, in the uniform of a British General Officer, and is so conscious of the enormous absurdity of the thing, that he is determined to persevere, and start the reform in stage costume, which he was afterwards destined so thoroughly to carry out.

The night comes; the play begins. Just as the stage waits for Mr Kemble, Mr Kemble discovers that his goatskin purse — one of the most striking peculiarities of the Highland dress — is not on him. There is no time to seek it — all is lost for the cause of costume! — he must go on the stage exposed to public view as only half a Highlander! No! Not yet! While everybody else hurries frantically hither and thither in vain, one man quickly straps something about Mr Kemble’s waist, just in the nick of time. It is the lost purse! and Roscius after all steps on the stage, a Highlander complete from top to toe!

On his first exit, Mr Kemble inquires for the man who found the purse. It is that very poor player whom he has already remarked. The great actor had actually been carrying the purse about in his own hands before the performance; and, in a moment of abstraction, had put it down on a chair, in a dark place behind the prompter’s box. The humble admirer, noticing everything he did, noticed this; and so found the missing goatskin in time, when nobody else could.

‘Sir, I am infinitely obliged to you,’ says Mr Kemble, courteously, to the confused, blushing man before him —‘You have saved me from appearing incomplete, and therefore ridiculous, before a Drury Lane audience. I have marked you, sir, before; reading, while waiting for your call, our divine Shakespeare — the poetic bond that unites all men, however professional distances may separate them. Accept, sir, this offered pinch — this pinch of snuff.’

When the penniless player went home that night, what wonderful news he had for his wife! And how proud and happy poor Columbine was, when she heard that Reuben Wray had been offered a pinch of snuff out of Mr Kemble’s own box!

But the kind-hearted tragedian did not stop merely at a fine speech and a social condescension. Reuben read Shakespeare, when none of his comrades would have cared to look into the book at all; and that of itself was enough to make him interesting to Mr Kemble. Besides, he was a young man; and might have capacities which only wanted encouragement.

‘I beg you to recite to me, sir,’ said the great John Philip, one night; desirous of seeing what his humble admirer really could do. The result of the recitation was unequivocal: poor Wray could do nothing that hundreds of his brethren could not have equalled. In him, the yearning to become a great actor was only the ambition without the power.

Still, Reuben gained something by the goatskin purse. A timely word from his new protector raised him two or three degrees higher in the company, and increased his salary in proportion. He got parts now with some lines to speak in them; and — condescension on condescension! — Mr Kemble actually declaimed them for his instruction at rehearsal, and solemnly showed him (oftener, I am afraid, in jest than earnest) how a patriotic Roman soldier, or a bereaved father’s faithful footman, should tread the stage.

These instructions were always received by the grateful Wray in the most perfect good faith; and it was precisely in virtue of his lessons thus derived — numbering about half-a-dozen, and lasting about two minutes each — that he afterwards advertised himself, as teacher of elocution and pupil of John Kemble. Many a great man has blazed away famously before the public eye, as pupil of some other great man, from no larger a supply of original educational fuel than belonged to Mr Reuben Wray.

Having fairly traced our friend to his connection with Mr Kemble, I may dismiss the rest of his advertisement more briefly. All, I suppose, that you now want further explained, is:— How he came to teach elocution, and how he got on by teaching it.

Well: Reuben stuck fast to Drury Lane theatre through rivalries, and quarrels, and disasters, and fluctuations in public taste, which overthrew more important interests than his own. The theatre was rebuilt, and burnt, and rebuilt again; and still Old Wray (as he now began to be called) was part and parcel of the establishment, however others might desert it. During this long lapse of monotonous years, affliction and death preyed cruelly on the poor actor’s home. First, his kind, patient Columbine died; then, after a long interval, Columbine’s only child married early; — and woe is me! — married a sad rascal, who first ill-treated and then deserted her. She soon followed her mother to the grave, leaving one girl — the little Annie of this story — to Reuben’s care. One of the first things her grandfather taught the child was to call herself Annie Wray. He never could endure hearing her dissolute father’s name pronounced by anybody; and was resolved that she should always bear his own.

Ah! what woeful times were those for the poor player! How many a night he sat in the darkest corner behind the scenes, with his tattered Shakespeare — the only thing about him he had never pawned — in his hand, and the tears rolling down his hollow, painted cheeks, as he thought on the dear lost Columbine, and Columbine’s child! How often those tears still stood thick in his eyes when he marched across the stage at the head of a mock army, or hobbled up to deliver the one eternal letter to the one eternal dandy hero of high Comedy! — Comedy, indeed! If the people before the lamps, who were roaring with laughter at the fun of the mercurial fine gentleman of the play, had only seen what was tugging at the heart of the miserable old stage footman who brought him his chocolate and newspapers, all the wit in the world would not have saved the comedy from being wept over as the most affecting tragedy that was ever written.

But the time was to come — long after this, however — when Reuben’s connection with the theatre was to cease. As if fate had ironically bound up together the stage destinies of the great actor and the small, the year of Mr Kemble’s retirement from the boards, was the year of Mr Wray’s dismissal from them.

He had been, for some time past, getting too old to be useful — then, the theatrical world in which he had been bred was altering, and he could not alter with it. A little man with fiery black eyes, whose name was Edmund Kean, had come up from the country and blazed like a comet through the thick old conventional mists of the English stage. From that time, the new school began to rise, and the old school to sink; and Reuben went down, with other insignificant atoms, in the vortex. At the end of the season, he was informed that his services were no longer required.

It was then, when he found himself once more forlorn in the world — almost as forlorn as when he had first come to London with poor Columbine — that the notion of trying elocution struck him. He had a little sum of money to begin with, subscribed for him by his richer brethren when he left the theatre. Why might he not get on as a teacher of elocution in the country, just as some of his superior fellow-players got on in the same vocation in London? Necessity whispered, Doubt not, but try. He had a grandchild to support — so he did try.

His method of teaching was exceedingly simple. He had one remedy for the deficiencies of every class whom he addressed — the Kemble remedy: he had watched Mr Kemble year by year, till he knew every inch of him; and, so to speak, had learnt him by heart. Did a pupil want to walk the stage properly? — teach him Mr Kemble’s walk. Did a rising politician want to become impressive as an orator? — teach him Mr Kemble’s gesticulations in Brutus. So again, with regard to strictly vocal necessities. Did gentleman number one, wish to learn the art of reading aloud? — let him learn the Kemble cadences. Did gentleman number two, feel weak in his pronunciation? — let him sound vowels, consonants, and crack-jaw syllables, just as Mr Kemble sounded them on the stage. And, out of what book were they to be taught? — from what manual were the clergymen and orators, the aspirants for dramatic fame, the young ladies whose delivery was ungraceful, and the young gentlemen whose diction was improper, to be all alike improved! From Shakespeare — every one of them from Shakespeare! He had no idea of anything else: literature meant Shakespeare to him. It was his great glory and triumph, that he had Shakespeare by heart. All that he knew, every tender and lovable recollection, every small honour he had gained in his own poor blank sphere, was somehow sure to be associated with William Shakespeare!

And why not? What is Shakespeare but a great sun that shines upon humanity — the large heads and the little, alike? Have not the rays of that mighty light penetrated into many poor and lowly places for good? What marvel then that they should fall, pleasant and invigorating, even upon Reuben Wray?

So — right or wrong — with Shakespeare for his textbook, and Mr Kemble for his model, our friend in his old age bravely invaded provincial England as a teacher of elocution, with all its supplementary accomplishments. And, wonderful to relate, though occasionally enduring dreadful privations, he just managed to make elocution — or what passed instead of it with his patrons — keep his grandchild and himself!

I cannot say that any orators or clergymen anxiously demanded secret improvement from him (see advertisement) at three-and-sixpence an hour; or that young ladies sought the graces of delivery, and young gentlemen the proprieties of diction (see advertisement again) from his experienced tongue. But he got on in other ways, nevertheless. Sometimes he was hired to drill the boys on a speech day at a country school. Sometimes he was engaged to prevent provincial amateur actors from murdering the dialogue outright, and incessantly jostling each other on the stage. In this last capacity, he occasionally got good employment, especially with regular amateur societies, who found his terms cheap enough, and his knowledge of theatrical discipline inestimably useful.

But chances like these were as nothing to the chances he got when he was occasionally employed to superintend all the toilsome part of the business in arranging private theatricals at country houses. Here, he met with greater generosity than he had ever dared to expect: here, the letter from Mr Kemble, vouching for his honesty and general stage-knowledge — the great actor’s legacy of kindness to him, which he carried about everywhere — was sure to produce prodigious effect. He and little Annie, and a third member of the family whom I shall hereafter introduce, lived for months together on the proceeds of such a windfall as a private theatrical party — for the young people, in the midst of their amusement, found leisure to pity the poor old ex-player, and to admire his pretty granddaughter; and liberally paid him for his services full five times as much as he would ever have ventured to ask.

Thus, wandering about from town to town, sometimes miserably unsuccessful, sometimes re-animated by a little prosperity, he had come from Stratford-upon-Avon, while the present century was some twenty-five years younger than it is now, to try his luck at elocution with the people of Tidbury-on-the-Marsh — to teach the graces of delivery at seventy years of age, with half his teeth gone! Will he succeed? I, for one, hope so. There is something in the spectacle of this poor old man, sorely battered by the world, yet still struggling for life and for the grandchild whom he loves better than life — struggling hard, himself a remnant of a bygone age, to keep up with a new age which has already got past him, and will hardly hear his feeble voice of other times, except to laugh at it — there is surely something in this which forbids all thought of ridicule, and bids fair with everybody for compassion and goodwill.

But we have had talk enough, by this time, about Mr Reuben Wray. Let us now go at once and make acquaintance with him — not forgetting his mysterious cash box — at No. 12.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52