Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins


The breakfast things are laid in the little drawing-room at Reuben’s lodgings. This drawing-room, observe, has not been hired by our friend; he never possessed such a domestic luxury in his life. The apartment, not being taken, has only been lent to him by his landlady, who is hugely impressed by the tragic suavity of her new tenant’s manner and ‘delivery’. The breakfast things, I say again, are laid. Three cups, a loaf, half-a-pound of salt butter, some moist sugar in a saucer, and a black earthenware tea-pot, with a broken spout; such are the sumptuous preparations which tempt Mr Wray and his family to come down at nine o’clock in the morning, and yet nobody appears!

Hark! there is a sound of creaking boots, descending, apparently, from some loft at the top of the house, so distant is the noise they make at first. This sound, coming heavily nearer and nearer, only stops at the drawing-room door, and heralds the entry of —

Mr Wray, of course? No! — no such luck: my belief is, that we shall never succeed in getting to Mr Wray personally. The individual in question is not even any relation of his; but he is a member of the family, for all that; and as the first to come downstairs, he certainly merits the reward of immediate notice.

He is nearly six feet high, proportionately strong and stout, and looks about thirty years of age. His gait is as awkward as it well can be; his features are large and ill-proportioned, his face is pitted with the smallpox, and what hair he has on his head — not much — seems to be growing in all sorts of contrary directions at once. I know nothing about him, personally, that I can praise, but his expression; and that is so thoroughly good-humoured, so candid, so innocent even, that it really makes amends for everything else. Honesty and kindliness look out so brightly from his eyes, as to dazzle your observation of his clumsy nose, and lumpy mouth and chin, until you hardly know whether they are ugly or not. Some men, in a certain sense, are ugly with the lineaments of the Apollo Belvedere; and others handsome, with features that might sit for a caricature. Our new acquaintance was of the latter order.

Allow me to introduce him to you:— THE GENTLE READER— JULIUS CAESAR. Stop! start not at those classic syllables; I will explain all.

The history of Mr Martin Blunt, alias ‘Julius Caesar’, is a good deal like the history of Mr Reuben Wray. Like him, Blunt began life with strolling players — not, however, as an actor, but as stage-carpenter, candle-snuffer, door-keeper, and general errand-boy. On one occasion, when the company were ambitiously bent on the horrible profanation of performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the actor who was to personate the emperor fell ill. Nobody was left to supply his place — every other available member of the company was engaged in the play; so, in despair, they resorted to Martin Blunt. He was big enough for a Roman hero; and that was all they looked to.

They first cut out as much of his part as they could, and then half crammed the rest into his reluctant brains; they clapped a white sheet about the poor lad’s body for a toga, stuck a truncheon into his hand, and a short beard on his chin; and remorselessly pushed him on the stage. His performance was received with shouts of laughter; but he went through it; was duly assassinated; and fell with a thump that shook the surrounding scenery to its centre, and got him a complete round of applause all to himself.

He never forgot this. It was his first and last appearance; and, in the innocence of his heart, he boasted of it on every occasion, as the great distinction of his life. When he found his way to London; and as a really skilful carpenter, procured employment at Drury Lane, his fellow-workmen managed to get the story of his first performance out of him directly, and made a standing joke of it. He was elected a general butt, and nicknamed ‘Julius Caesar’, by universal acclamation. Everybody conferred on him that classic title; and I only follow the general fashion in these pages. If you don’t like the name, call him any other you please: he is too good-humoured to be offended with you, do what you will.

He was thus introduced to old Wray:—

At the time when Reuben was closing his career at Drury Lane, our stout young carpenter had just begun to work there. One night, about a week before the performance of a new Pantomime, some of the heavy machinery tottered just as Wray was passing by it; and would have fallen on him, but for ‘Julius Caesar’ (I really can’t call him Blunt!), who, at the risk of his own limbs, caught the tumbling mass; and by a tremendous exertion of main strength arrested it in its fall, till the old man had hobbled out of harm’s way. This led to gratitude, friendship, intimacy. Wray and his preserver, in spite of the difference in their characters and ages, seemed to suit each other, somehow. In fine, when Reuben started to teach elocution in the country, the carpenter followed him, as protector, assistant, servant, or whatever you please.

‘Julius Caesar’ had one special motive for attaching himself to old Wray’s fortunes, which will speedily appear, when little Annie enters the drawing-room. Awkward as he might be, he was certainly no encumbrance. He made himself useful and profitable in fifty different ways. He took round handbills soliciting patronage; constructed the scenery when Mr Wray got private theatrical engagements; worked as journeyman-carpenter when other resources failed; and was, in fact, ready for anything, from dunning for a bad debt, to cleaning a pair of boots. His master might at times be as fretful as he pleased, and treat him like an infant during occasional fits of crossness — he never replied, and never looked sulky. The only things he could not be got to do, were to abstain from inadvertently knocking everything down that came in his reach, and to improve the action of his arms and legs on the principle of the late Mr Kemble.

Let us return to the drawing-room, and the breakfast-things. ‘Julius Caesar’, of the creaking boots, came into the room with a small work-box (which he had been secretly engaged in making for some time past) in one hand, and a new muslin cravat in the other. It was Annie’s birthday. The box was a present; the cravat, what the French would call, a homage to the occasion.

His first proceeding was to drop the work-box, and pick it up again in a great hurry; his second, to go to the looking glass (no such piece of furniture ornamented his loft bedroom), and try to put on the new cravat. He had only half tied it, and was hesitating, utterly helpless, over the bow, when a light step sounded on the floor-cloth outside. Annie came in.

‘Julius Caesar at the looking-glass! Oh, good gracious, what can have come to him!’ exclaimed the little girl with a merry laugh.

How fresh, and blooming, and pretty she looked, as she ran up the next moment; and telling him to stoop, tied his cravat directly — standing on tiptoe. ‘There,’ she cried, ‘now that’s done, what have you got to say to me, sir, on my birthday!’

‘I’ve got a box; and I’m so glad it’s your birthday,’ says Julius Caesar, too confused by the suddenness of the cravat-tying to know exactly what he is talking about.

‘Oh, what a splendid work-box! how kind of you, to be sure! what care I shall take of it! Come, sir, I suppose I must tell you to give me a kiss after that,’ and, standing on tiptoe again, she held up her fresh rosy cheek to be kissed, with such a pretty mixture of bashfulness, gratitude, and arch enjoyment in her look, that ‘Julius Caesar’, I regret to say, felt inclined then and there to go down upon both his knees and worship her outright.

Before the decorous reader has time to consider all this very improper, I had better, perhaps, interpose a word, and explain that Annie Wray had promised Martin Blunt, (I give his real name again here, because this is serious business,) yes; had actually promised him that one day she would be his wife. She kept all her promises; but I can tell you she was especially determined to keep this.

Impossible! exclaims the lady reader. With her good looks she might aspire many degrees above a poor carpenter; besides, how could she possibly care about a great lumpish, awkward fellow, who is ugly, say what you will about his expression?

I might reply, madam, that our little Annie had looked rather deeper than the skin in choosing her husband; and had found out certain qualities of heart and disposition about this poor carpenter, which made her love — aye, and respect and admire him too. But I prefer asking you a question, by way of answer. Did you never meet with any individuals of your own sex, lovely, romantic, magnificent young women, who have fairly stupefied the whole circle of their relatives and friends by marrying particularly short, scrubby, matter-of-fact, middle-aged men, showing, too, every symptom of fondness for them into the bargain? I fancy you must have seen such cases as I have mentioned; and, when you can explain them to my satisfaction, I shall be happy to explain the anomalous engagement of little Annie to yours.

In the meantime it may be well to relate, that this odd love affair was only once hinted at to Mr Wray. The old man flew into a frantic passion directly; and threatened dire extremities if the thing was ever thought of more. Lonely, and bereaved of all other ties, as he was, he had, in regard to his granddaughter, that jealousy of other people loving her, which is of all weaknesses, in such cases as his, the most pardonable and the most pure. If a duke had asked for Annie in marriage, I doubt very much whether Mr Wray would have let him have her, except upon the understanding that they were all to live together.

Under these circumstances, the engagement was never hinted at again. Annie told her lover they must wait, and be patient, and remain as brother and sister to one another, till better chances and better times came. And ‘Julius Caesar’ listened, and strictly obeyed. He was a good deal like a large, faithful dog to his little betrothed: he loved her, watched over her, guarded her, with his whole heart and strength; only asking in return, the privilege of fulfilling her slightest wish.

Well; this kiss, about which I have been digressing so long, was fortunately just over, when another footstep sounded outside; the door opened; and — yes! we have got him at last, in his own proper person! Enter Mr Reuben Wray!

Age has given him a stoop, which he tries to conceal, but cannot. His cheeks are hollow; his face is seamed with wrinkles, the work not only of time, but of trial, too. Still, there is vitality of mind, courage of heart about the old man, even yet. His look has not lost all its animation, nor his smile its warmth. There is the true Kemble walk, and the true Kemble carriage of the head for you, if you like! —there is the second-hand tragic grandeur and propriety, which the unfortunate ‘Julius Caesar’ daily contemplates, yet cannot even faintly copy! Look at his dress, again. Threadbare as it is (patched, I am afraid, in some places), there is not a speck of dust on it, and what little hair is left on his bald head is as carefully brushed as if he rejoiced in the love-locks of Absalom himself. No! though misfortune, and disappointment, and grief, and heavy-handed penury have all been assailing him ruthlessly enough for more than half a century, they have not got the brave old fellow down yet! At seventy years of age he is still on his legs in the prize-ring of Life; badly punished all over (as the pugilists say), but determined to win the fight to the last!

‘Many happy returns of the day, my love,’ says old Reuben, going up to Annie, and kissing her. ‘This is the twentieth birthday of yours I’ve lived to see. Thank God for that!’

‘Look at my present, grandfather,’ cries the little girl, proudly showing her work-box. ‘Can you guess who made it?’

‘You are a good fellow, Julius Caesar!’ exclaims Mr Wray, guessing directly. ‘Good morning; shake hands.’—(Then, in a lower voice to Annie)—‘Has he broken anything in particular, since he’s been up?’ ‘No!’ ‘I’m very glad to hear it. Julius Caesar, let me offer you a pinch of snuff,’ and here he pulled out his box quite in the Kemble style. He had his natural manner, and his Kemble manner. The first only appeared when anything greatly pleased or affected him — the second was for those ordinary occasions when he had time to remember that he was a teacher of elocution, and a pupil of the English Roscius.

‘Thank ye, kindly, sir,’ said the gratified carpenter, cautiously advancing his huge finger and thumb towards the offered box.

‘Stop!’ cried old Wray, suddenly withdrawing it. He always lectured to Julius Caesar on elocution when he had nobody else to teach, just to keep his hand in. ‘Stop! that won’t do. In the first place, “Thank ye, kindly, sir”, though good-humoured, is grossly inelegant. “Sir, I am obliged to you”, is the proper phrase — mind you sound the i in obliged — never say obleeged, as some people do; and remember, what I am now telling you, Mr Kemble once said to the Prince Regent! The next hint I have to give is this — never take your pinch of snuff with your right hand finger and thumb; it should be always the left. Perhaps you would like to know why?’

‘Yes, please, sir,’ says the admiring disciple, very humbly.

‘ “Yes, if you please, sir,” would have been better; but let that pass as a small error. — And now, I will tell you why, in an anecdote. Matthews was one day mimicking Mr Kemble to his face, in Penruddock— the great scene where he stops to take a pinch of snuff. “Very good, Matthews; very like me,” says Mr Kemble complacently, when Matthews had done; “but you have made one great mistake.” “What’s that?” cries Matthews sharply. “My friend, you have not represented me taking snuff like a gentleman: now, I always do. You took your pinch, in imitating my Penruddock, with your right hand: I use my left— a gentleman invariably does, because then he has his right hand always clean from tobacco to give to his friend!"— There! remember that: and now you may take your pinch.’

Mr Wray next turned round to speak to Annie; but his voice was instantly drowned in a perfect explosion of sneezes, absolutely screamed out by the unhappy ‘Julius Caesar’, whose nasal nerves were convulsed by the snuff. Mentally determining never to offer his box to his faithful follower again, old Reuben gave up making his proposed remark, until they were all quietly seated round the breakfast table: then, he returned to the charge with renewed determination.

‘Annie, my dear,’ said he, ‘you and I have read a great deal together of our divine Shakespeare, as Mr Kemble always called him. You are my regular pupil, you know, and ought to be able to quote by this time almost as much as I can. I am going to try you with something quite new — suppose I had offered you the pinch of snuff (Mr Julius Caesar shall never have another, I can promise him); what would you have said from Shakespeare applicable to that? Just think now!’

‘But, grandfather, snuff wasn’t invented in Shakespeare’s time — was it?’ said Annie.

‘That’s of no consequence,’ retorted the old man: ‘Shakespeare was for all time: you can quote him for everything in the world, as long as the world lasts. Can’t you quote him for snuff? I can. Now, listen. You say to me, “I offer you a pinch of snuff?” I answer from Cymbeline (Act iv, scene 2): “Pisanio! I’ll now taste of thy drug.” There! won’t that do? What’s snuff but a drug for the nose? It just fits — everything of the divine Shakespeare’s does, when you know him by heart, as I do — eh, little Annie? And now give me some more sugar; I wish it was lump for your sake, dear; but I’m afraid we can only afford moist. Anybody called about the advertisement? a new pupil this morning — eh?’

No! no pupils at all: not a man, woman, or child in the town, to teach elocution to yet! Mr Wray was not at all despondent about this; he had made up his mind that a pupil must come in the course of the day; and that was enough for him. His little quibbling from Shakespeare about the snuff had put him in the best of good humours. He went on making quotations, talking elocution, and eating bread and butter, as brisk and happy, as if all Tidbury had combined to form one mighty class for him, and resolved to pay ready money for every lesson.

But after breakfast, when the things were taken away, the old man seemed suddenly to recollect something which changed his manner altogether. He grew first embarrassed; then silent; then pulled out his Shakespeare, and began to read with ostentatious assiduity, as if he were especially desirous that nobody should speak to him.

At the same time, a close observer might have detected Mr ‘Julius Caesar’ making various uncouth signs and grimaces to Annie, which the little girl apparently understood, but did not know how to answer. At last, with an effort, as if she were summoning extraordinary resolution, she said:—

‘Grandfather — you have not forgotten your promise?’

No answer from Mr Wray. Probably, he was too much absorbed over Shakespeare to hear.

‘Grandfather,’ repeated Annie, in a louder tone; ‘you promised to explain a certain mystery to us, on my birthday.’

Mr Wray was obliged to hear this time. He looked up with a very perplexed face.

‘Yes, dear,’ said he; ‘I did promise; but I almost wish I had not. It’s rather a dangerous mystery to explain, little Annie, I can tell you! Why should you be so very curious to know about it?’

‘I’m sure, grandfather,’ pleaded Annie, ‘you can’t say I am over-curious, or Julius Caesar either, in wanting to know it. Just recollect — we had been only three days at Stratford-upon-Avon, when you came in, looking so dreadfully frightened, and said we must go away directly. And you made us pack up; and we all went off in a hurry, more like prisoners escaping, than honest people.’

‘We did!’ groaned old Reuben, beginning to look like a culprit already.

‘Well,’ continued Annie; ‘and you wouldn’t tell us a word of what it was all for, beg as hard as we might. And then, when we asked why you never let that old cash box (which I used to keep my odds and ends in) out of your own hands, after we left Stratford — you wouldn’t tell us that, either, and ordered us never to mention the thing again. It was only in one of your particular good humours, that I just got you to promise you would tell us all about it on my next birthday — to celebrate the day, you said. I’m sure we are to be trusted with any secrets; and I don’t think it’s being very curious to want to know this.’

‘Very well,’ said Mr Wray, rising, with a sort of desperate calmness; ‘I’ve promised, and, come what may, I’ll keep my promise. Wait here; I’ll be back directly.’ And he left the room, in a great hurry.

He returned immediately, with the cash box. A very battered, shabby affair, to make such a mystery about! thought Annie, as he put the box on the table, and solemnly laid his hands across it.

‘Now, then,’ said old Wray, in his deepest tragedy tones, and with very serious looks; ‘Promise me, on your word of honour — both of you — that you’ll never say a word of what I’m going to tell, to anybody, on any account whatever — I don’t care what happens — on any account whatever!’

Annie and her lover gave their promises directly, and very seriously. They were getting a little agitated by all these elaborate preparations for the coming disclosure.

‘Shut the door!’ said Mr Wray, in a stage whisper. ‘Now sit close and listen; I’m ready to explain the mystery.’

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