Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins


‘I suppose,’ said old Reuben, ‘you have neither of you forgotten that, on the second day of our visit to Stratford, I went out in the afternoon to dine with an intimate friend of mine, whom I’d known from a boy, and who lived at some little distance from the town —’

‘Forget that!’ cried Annie! ‘I don’t think we ever shall — I was frightened about you, all the time you were gone.’

‘Frightened about what?’ asked Mr Wray sharply. ‘Do you mean to tell me, Annie, you suspected —’

‘I don’t know what I suspected, grandfather; but I thought your going away by yourself, to sleep at your friend’s house (as you told us), and not to come back till the next morning, something very extraordinary. It was the first time we had ever slept under different roofs — only think of that!’

‘I’m ashamed to say, my dear’— rejoined Mr Wray, suddenly beginning to look and speak very uneasily —‘that I turned hypocrite, and something worse, too, on that occasion. I deceived you. I had no friend to go and dine with; and I didn’t pass that night in any house at all.’

‘Grandfather!’— cried Annie, jumping up in a fright —‘What can you mean!’

‘Beg pardon, sir,’ added ‘Julius Caesar’, turning very red, and slowly clenching both his enormous fists as he spoke —‘Beg pardon; but if you was put upon, or made fun of by any chaps that night, I wish you’d just please tell me where I could find ’em.’

‘Nobody ill-used me,’ said the old man, in steady, and even solemn tones. ‘I passed that night by the grave of William Shakespeare, in Stratford-upon-Avon Church!’

Annie sank back into her seat, and lost all her pretty complexion in a moment. The worthy carpenter gave such a start, that he broke the back rail of his chair. It was a variation on his usual performances of this sort, which were generally confined to cups, saucers, and wine-glasses.

Mr Wray took no notice of the accident. This was of itself enough to show that he was strongly agitated by something. After a momentary silence, he spoke again, completely forgetting the Kemble manner and the Kemble elocution, as he went on.

‘I say again, I passed all that night in Stratford Church; and you shall know for what. You went with me, Annie, in the morning — it was Tuesday: yes, Tuesday morning — to see Shakespeare’s bust in the church. You looked at it, like other people, just as a curiosity —I looked at it, as the greatest treasure in the world; the only true likeness of Shakespeare! It’s been done from a mask, taken from his own face, after death — I know it: I don’t care what people say, I know it. Well, when we went home, I felt as if I’d seen Shakespeare himself, risen from the dead! Strangers would laugh if I told them so; but it’s true — I did feel it. And this thought came across me, quick, like the shooting of a sudden pain:— I must make that face of Shakespeare mine; my possession, my companion, my great treasure that no money can pay for! And I’ve got it! — Here! — the only cast in the world from the Stratford bust is locked up in this old cash box!’

He paused a moment. Astonishment kept both his auditors silent.

‘You both know,’ he continued, ‘that I was bred apprentice to a statuary. Among other things, he taught me to take casts: it was part of our business — the easiest part. I knew I could take a mould off the Stratford bust, if I had the courage; and the courage came to me: on the Tuesday, it came. I went and bought some plaster, some soft soap, and a quart basin — those were my materials — and tied them up together in an old canvas bag. Water was all I wanted besides; and that I saw in the church vestry, in the morning — a jug of it, left I suppose since Sunday, where it had been put for the clergyman’s use. I could carry my bag under my cloak quite comfortably, you understand. The only thing that troubled me now was how to get into the church again, without being suspected. While I was thinking, I passed the inn door. Some people were on the steps, talking to some other people in the street: they were making an appointment to go all together, and see Shakespeare’s bust and grave that very afternoon. This was enough for me: I determined to go into the church with them.’

‘What! and stop there all night, grandfather?’

‘And stop there all night, Annie. Taking a mould, you know, is not a very long business; but I wanted to take mine unobserved; and the early morning, before anybody was up, was the only time to do that safely in the church. Besides, I wanted plenty of leisure, because I wasn’t sure I should succeed at first, after being out of practice so long in making casts. But you shall hear how I did it, when the time comes. Well, I made up the story about dining and sleeping at my friend’s, because I didn’t know what might happen, and because — because, in short, I didn’t like to tell you what I was going to do. So I went out secretly, near the church; and waited for the party coming. They were late — late in the afternoon, before they came. We all went in together; I with my bag, you know, hid under my cloak. The man who showed us over the church in the morning, luckily for me, wasn’t there: an old woman took his duty for him in the afternoon. I waited till the visitors were all congregated round Shakespeare’s grave, bothering the poor woman with foolish questions about him. I knew that was my time, and slipped off into the vestry, and opened the cupboard, and hid myself among the surplices, as quiet as a mouse. After a while, I heard one of the strangers in the church (they were very rude, boisterous people) asking the other, what had become of the ‘old fogey with the cloak?’ and the other answered that he must have gone out, like a wise man, and that they had all better go after him, for it was precious cold and dull in the church. They went away: I heard the doors shut, and knew I was locked in for the night.’

‘All night in a church! Oh, grandfather, how frightened you must have been!’

‘Well, Annie, I was a little frightened; but more at what I was going to do, than at being alone in the church. Let me get on with my story though. Being autumn weather, it grew too dark after the people went, for me to do anything then; so I screwed my courage up to wait for the morning. The first thing I did was to go and look quietly, all by myself, at the bust; and I made up my mind that I could take the mould in about three or four pieces. All I wanted was what they call a mask: that means just a forehead and face, without the head. It’s an easy thing to take a mask off a bust — I knew I could do it; but, somehow, I didn’t feel quite comfortable just then. The bust began to look very awful to me, in the fading light, all alone in the church. It was almost like looking at the ghost of Shakespeare, in that place, and at that time. If the door hadn’t been locked, I think I should have run out of the church; but I couldn’t do that; so I knelt down and kissed the grave-stone — a curious fancy coming over me as I did so, that it was like wishing Shakespeare good night — and then I groped my way back to the vestry. When I got in, and had shut the door between me and the grave, I grew bolder, I can tell you; and thought to myself — I’m doing no harm; I’m not going to hurt the bust; I only want what an Englishman and an old actor may fairly covet, a copy of Shakespeare’s face; why shouldn’t I eat my bit of supper here, and say my prayers as usual, and get my nap into the bargain, if I can? Just as I thought that — BANG went the clock, striking the hour! It almost knocked me down, bold as I felt the moment before. I was obliged to wait till it was all still again, before I could pull the bit of bread and cheese I had got with me out of my pocket. And when I did, I couldn’t eat: I was too impatient for the morning; so I sat down in the parson’s armchair; and tried, next, whether I could sleep at all.’

‘And could you, grandfather?’

‘No — I couldn’t sleep either; at least, not at first. It was quite dark now; and I began to feel cold and awe-struck again. The only thing I could think of to keep up my spirits at all, was first saying my prayers, and then quoting Shakespeare. I went at it, Annie, like a dragon; play after play — except the tragedies; I was afraid of them, in a church at night, all by myself. Well: I think I had got half through the Midsummer Night’s Dream, whispering over bit after bit of it; when I whispered myself into a doze. Then I fell into a queer sleep; and then I had such a dream! I dreamt that the church was full of moonlight — brighter moonlight than ever I saw awake. I walked out of the vestry; and there were the fairies of the Midsummer Night’s Dream— all creatures like sparks of silver light — dancing round the Shakespeare bust! The moment they caught sight of me, they all called out in their sweet nightingale voices:—‘Come along, Reuben! sly old Reuben! we know what you’re here for, and we don’t mind you a bit! You love Shakespeare, and so do we — dance, Reuben, and be happy! Shakespeare likes an old actor; he was an actor himself — nobody sees us! we’re out for the night! foot it, old Reuben — foot it away!’ And we all danced like mad: now, up in the air; now, down on the pavement; and now, all round the bust five hundred thousand times at least without stopping, till — BANG went the clock! and I woke up in the dark, in a cold perspiration.’

‘I’m in one too!’ gasped ‘Julius Caesar’, dabbing his brow vehemently with a ragged cotton pocket handkerchief.

‘Well, after that dream I fell to reciting again; and got another doze; and had another dream — a terrible one, about ghosts and witches, that I don’t recollect so well as the other. I woke up once more, cold, and in a great fright that I’d slept away all the precious morning daylight. No! all dark still! I went into the church again, and then back to the vestry, not being able to stay there. I suppose I did this a dozen times without knowing why. At last, never going to sleep again, I got somehow through the night — the night that seemed never to be done. Soon after daybreak, I began to walk up and down the church briskly, to get myself warm, keeping at it for a long time. Then, just as I saw through the windows that the sun was rising, I opened my bag at last, and got ready for work. I can tell you my hand trembled and my sight grew dim — I think the tears were in my eyes; but I don’t know why — as I first soaped the bust all over to prevent the plaster I was going to put on it from sticking. Then I mixed up the plaster and water in my quart basin, taking care to leave no lumps, and finding it come as natural to me as if I had only left the statuary’s shop yesterday; then — but it’s no use telling you, little Annie, about what you don’t understand; I’d better say shortly I made the mould, in four pieces, as I thought I should — two for the upper part of the face, and two for the lower. Then, having put on the outer plaster case to hold the mould, I pulled all off clean together, and looked, and knew that I had got a mask of Shakespeare from the Stratford bust!’

‘Oh, grandfather, how glad you must have been then!’

‘No, that was the odd part of it. At first, I felt as if I had robbed the bank, or the King’s jewels, or had set fire to a train of gunpowder to blow up all London; it seemed such a thing to have done! Such a tremendously daring, desperate thing! But, a little while after, a frantic sort of joy came over me: I could hardly prevent myself from shouting and singing at the top of my voice. Then I felt a perfect fever of impatience to cast the mould directly; and see whether the mask would come out without a flaw. The keeping down that impatience was the hardest thing I had had to do since I first got into the church.’

‘But, please, sir, whenever did you get out at last? Do pray tell us that!’ asked ‘Julius Caesar’.

‘Not till after the clock had struck twelve, and I’d eaten all my bread and cheese,’ said Mr Wray, rather piteously. ‘I was glad enough when I heard the church door open at last, from the vestry where I had popped in but a moment before. It was the same woman came in who had shown the bust in the afternoon. I waited my time; and then slipped into the church; but she turned round sharply, just as I’d got half way out, and came up to me. I never was frightened by an old woman before; but I can tell you, she frightened me. “Oh! there are you again!” says she: “Come, I say! this won’t do. You sneaked out yesterday afternoon without paying anything; and you sneak in again after me, as soon as I open the door this morning — ain’t you ashamed of being so shabby as that, at your age? — ain’t you?” I never paid money in my life, Annie, with pleasure, till I gave that old woman some to stop her mouth! And I don’t recollect either that I’d ever tried to run since leaving the stage (where we had a good deal of running, first and last, in the battle scenes); but I ran as soon as I got well away from the church, I can promise you — ran almost the whole way home.’

‘That’s what made you look so tired when you came in, grandfather,’ said Annie; ‘we couldn’t think what was the matter with you at the time.’

‘Well,’ continued the old man, ‘as soon as I could possibly get away from you, after coming back, I went and locked myself into my bedroom, pulled the mould in a great hurry out of the canvas bag, and took the cast at once — a beautiful cast! a perfect cast! I never produced a better when I was in good practice, Annie! When I sat down on the side of the bed, and looked at Shakespeare —my Shakespeare — got with so much danger, and made with my own hands — so white and pure and beautiful, just out of the mould! Old as I am, it was all I could do to keep myself from dancing for joy!’

‘And yet, grandfather,’ said Annie reproachfully, ‘you could keep all that joy to yourself: you could keep it from me!

‘It was wrong my love, wrong on my part not to trust you — I’m sorry for it now. But the joy, after all, lasted a very little while — only from the afternoon to the evening. In the evening, if you remember, I went out to the butcher’s to buy something for my own supper; something I could fancy, to make me comfortable before I went to bed (you little thought how I wanted my bed that night!). Well, when I got into the shop, several people were there; and what do you think they were all talking about? It makes me shudder even to remember it now! They were talking about a cast having been taken —feloniously taken, just fancy that, from the Stratford bust!’

Annie looked pale again instantly at this part of the story. As for ‘Julius Caesar’, though he said nothing, he was evidently suffering from a second attack of the sympathetic cold perspiration which had already troubled him. He used the cotton handkerchief more copiously than ever just at this moment.

‘The butcher was speaking when I came in,’ pursued Mr Wray. ‘ “Who’s been and took it,” says the fellow, (his grammar and elocution were awful, Annie!) “nobody don’t know yet; but the Town Council will know by to-morrow, and then he’ll be took himself.” “Ah,” says a dirty little man in black, “he’ll be cast into prison, for taking a cast — eh?” They laughed, actually laughed at this vile pun. Then another man asked how it had been found out. “Some says,” answered the butcher, “he was seen a doin’ of it, through the window, by some chap looking in accidental like: some says, nobody don’t know but the churchwardens, and they won’t tell till they’ve got him.” “Well,” says a woman, waiting with a basket to be served, “but how will they get him? —(two chops, please, when you’re quite ready)— that’s the thing: how will they get him?” “Quite easy; take my word for it;” says the man who made the bad pun. “In the first place, they’ve posted up handbills, offering a reward for him; in the second place, they’re going to examine the people who show the church; in the third place —” “Bother your places!” cried the woman, “I wish I could get my chops.” “There you are Mum,” says the butcher, cutting off the chops, “and if you want my opinion about this business, it’s this here: they’ll transport him right away, in no time.” “They can’t,” cries the dirty man, “they can only imprison him.” “For life — eh?” says the woman, going off with the chops. “Be so kind as to let me have a couple of kidneys,” said I; for my knees knocked together, and I could stand it no longer.’

‘Then you thought, grandfather, that they suspected you?’

‘I thought everything that was horrible, Annie. However, I got my kidneys, and went out unhindered, leaving them still talking about it. On my way home I saw the handbill — the handbill itself! Ten pounds reward for apprehending the man who had taken the cast! I read it twice through, in a sort of trance of terror. My mask taken away, and myself put in prison, if not transported — that was the prospect I had to give me an appetite for the kidneys. There was only one thing to be done: to get away from Stratford while I had the chance. The night-coach went that very evening, straight through to this place, which was far enough off for safety. We had some money, you know, left, after that last private-theatrical party, where they treated us so generously. In short, I made you pack up, Annie, as you said just now, and got you both off by the coach, in time, not daring to speak a word about my secret, and as miserable as I could be the whole journey. But let us say no more about that — here we are, safe and sound! and here’s my face of Shakespeare — my diamond above all price — safe and sound, too! You shall see it; you shall look at the mask, both of you, and then, I hope, you’ll acknowledge that you know as much as I do about the mystery!’

‘But the mould,’ cried Annie; ‘haven’t you got the mould with you, too?’

‘Lord bless my soul!’ exclaimed Mr Wray, slapping both hands, in desperation, on the lid of the cash box. ‘Between the fright and the hurry of getting away, I quite forgot it — it’s left at Stratford!’

‘Left at Stratford!’ echoed Annie, with a vague feeling of dismay, that she could not account for.

‘Yes: rolled up in the canvas bag, and poked behind the landlord’s volumes of the Annual Register, on the top shelf of the cupboard, in my bedroom. Between thinking of how to take care of the mask, and how to take care of myself, I quite forgot it. Don’t look so frightened, Annie! The people at the lodgings are not likely to find it; and if they did, they wouldn’t know what it was, and would throw it away. I’ve got the mask; and that’s all I want — the mould is of no consequence to me, now — it’s the mask that’s everything — everything in the world!’

‘I can’t help feeling frightened, grandfather; and I can’t help wishing you had brought away the mould, though I don’t know why.’

‘You’re frightened, Annie, about the Stratford people coming after me here — that’s what you’re frightened about. But, if you and Julius Caesar keep the secret from everybody — and I know you will — there is no fear at all. They won’t catch me back at Stratford again, or you either; and if the churchwardens themselves found the mould, that wouldn’t tell them where I was gone, would it? Look up, you silly little Annie! We’re quite safe here. Look up, and see the great sight I’m going to show you — a sight that nobody in England can show, but me; — the mask! the mask of Shakespeare!’

His cheeks flushed, his fingers trembled, as he took the key out of his pocket and put it into the lock of the old cash box. ‘Julius Caesar’, breathless with wonder and suspense, clapped both his hands behind him, to make sure of breaking nothing this time. Even Annie caught the infection of the old man’s triumph and delight, and breathed quicker than usual when she heard the click of the opening lock.

‘There!’ cried Mr Wray, throwing back the lid; ‘there is the face of William Shakespeare! there is the treasure which the greatest lord in this land doesn’t possess — a copy of the Stratford bust! Look at the forehead! Who’s got such a forehead now? Look at his eyes; look at his nose. He was not only the greatest man that ever lived, but the handsomest, too! Who says this isn’t just what his face was; his face taken after death? Who’s bold enough to say so? Just look at the mouth, dropped and open — that’s one proof? Look at the cheek, under the right eye; don’t you see a little paralytic gathering up of the muscle, not visible on the other side? — that’s another proof! Oh, Annie, Annie! there’s the very face that once looked out, alive and beaming, on this poor old world of ours! There’s the man who’s comforted me, informed me, made me what I am! There’s the “counterfeit presentment”, the precious earthly relic of that great spirit who is now with the angels in Heaven, and singing among the sweetest of them!’

His voice grew faint, and his eyes moistened. He stood looking at the mask, with a rapture and a triumph which no speech could express. At such moments as those, even through that poor, meagre face, the immortal spirit within could still shine out in the beauty which never dies! — even in that frail old earthly tenement, could still vindicate outwardly the divine destiny of all mankind!

They were yet gathered silently round the Shakespeare cast, when a loud knock sounded at the room door. Instantly, old Reuben banged down the lid of the cash box, and locked it; and as instantly, without waiting for permission to enter, a stranger walked in.

He was dressed in a long greatcoat, wore a red comforter round his neck, and carried a very old and ill-looking cat-skin cap in his hand. His face was uncommonly dirty; his eyes uncommonly inquisitive; his whiskers uncommonly plentiful; and his voice most uncommonly and determinately gruff, in spite of his efforts to dulcify it for the occasion.

‘Miss, and gentlemen both, beggin’ all your pardons,’ said this new arrival, ‘vich is Mr Wray?’ As he spoke, his eyes travelled all round the room, seeing everything and everybody in it; and then glancing sharply at the cash box.

‘I am Mr Wray, sir,’ exclaimed our old friend, considerably startled, but recovering the Kemble manner and the Kemble elocution as if by magic.

‘Wery good,’ said the stranger. ‘Then beggin’ your pardon again, sir, in pertickler, could you be so kind as to ‘blige me with a card o’ terms? It’s for a young gentleman as wants you, Mr Wray,’ he continued in a whisper, approaching the old man, and quite abstractedly leaning one hand on the cash box.

‘Take your hand off that box, sir,’ cried Mr Wray, in a very fierce manner, but with a very trembling voice. At the same moment ‘Julius Caesar’ advanced a step or two, partially doubling his fist. The man with the cat-skin cap had probably never before been so nearly knocked down in his life. Perhaps he suspected as much; for he took his hand off the box in great hurry.

‘It was inadwertent, sir,’ he remarked in explanation —‘a little inadwertency of mine, that’s all. But could you ‘blige me vith that card o’ terms? The young gentleman as wants it has heerd of your advertisement; and, bein’ d’awful shaky in his pronounciashun, as vell as ‘scruciatin’ bad at readin’ aloud, he’s ‘ard up for improvement — the sort o’ secret thing you gives, you know, to the oraytors and the clujjymen, at three-and-six an hour. You’ll heer from him in secret, Mr Wray, sir; and precious vork you’ll ‘ave to git him to rights; but do just ‘blige me ‘vith the card o’ terms and the number of the ’ouse; ‘cos I promised to git ’em for him today.’

‘There is a card, sir, and I will engage to improve his delivery be it ever so bad,’ said Mr Wray, considerably relieved at hearing the real nature of the stranger’s errand.

‘Miss, and gentlemen both, good mornin’,’ said the man, putting on his cat-skin cap, ‘you’ll heer from the young gentleman today; and wotever you do, sir, mind you keep the h’applicashun a secret — mind that!’ He winked; and went out.

‘I declare,’ muttered Mr Wray, as the door closed, ‘I thought he was a thief-taker from Stratford. Think of his being only a messenger from a new pupil! I told you we should have a pupil today. I told you so.’

‘A very strange-looking messenger, grandfather, for a young gentleman to choose!’ said Annie.

‘He can’t help his looks, my dear; and I’m sure we shan’t mind them, if he brings us money. Have you seen enough of the mask? if you hav’nt I’ll open the box again.’

‘Enough for today, I think, grandfather. But, tell me, why do you keep the mask in that old cash box?’

‘Because I’ve nothing else, Annie, that will hold it, and lock up too. I was sorry, my dear, to disturb your “odds and ends”, as you call them; but really there was nothing else to take. Stop! I’ve a thought! Julius Caesar shall make me a new box for the mask, and then you shall have your old one back again.’

‘I don’t want it, grandfather! I’d rather we none of us had it. Carrying a cash box like that about with us, might make some people think we had money in it.’

‘Money! People think I have any money! Come, come, Annie! that really won’t do! That’s much too good a joke, you sly little puss, you!’ And the old man laughed heartily, as he hurried off, to deposit the precious mask in his bedroom.

‘You’ll make that new box, Julius Caesar, won’t you?’ said Annie earnestly, as soon as her grandfather left the room.

‘I’ll get some wood, this very day,’ answered the carpenter, ‘and turn out such a box, by tomorrow, as — as —’ He was weak at comparisons; so he stopped at the second ‘as’.

‘Make it quick, dear, make it quick,’ said the little girl, anxiously; ‘and then we’ll give away the old cash box. If grandfather had only told us what he was going to do, at first, he need never have used it; for you could have made him a new box beforehand. But, never mind! make it quick, now!’

Oh, ‘Julius Caesar!’ strictly obey your little betrothed in this, as in all other injunctions! You know not how soon that new box may be needed, or how much evil it may yet prevent!

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