Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins


During the whole remainder of Annie’s birthday, Mr Wray sat at home, anxiously expecting the promised communication from the mysterious new pupil whose elocution wanted so much setting to rights. Though he never came, and never wrote, old Reuben still persisted in expecting him forthwith; and still waited for him as patiently the next morning, as he had waited the day before.

Annie sat in the room with her grandfather, occupied in making lace. She had learnt this art, so as to render herself, if possible, of some little use in contributing to the general support; and, sometimes, her manufacture actually poured a few extra shillings into the scantily filled family coffer. Her lace was not at all the sort of thing that your fine people would care to look at twice — it was just simple and pretty, like herself; and only sold (when it did sell, and that alas! was not often!) among ladies whose purses were very little better furnished than her own.

‘Julius Caesar’ was downstairs, in the back kitchen, making the all-important box — or, as the landlady irritably phrased it, ‘making a mess about the house’. She was not partial to sawdust and shavings, and almost lost her temper when the glue pot invaded the kitchen fire. But work away, honest carpenter! work away, and never mind her! Get the mask of Shakespeare out of the old box, and into the new, before night comes; and you will have done the best day’s work you ever completed in your life!

Annie and her grandfather had a great deal of talk about the Shakespeare cast, while they were sitting together in the drawing-room. If I were to report all old Reuben’s rhapsodies and quotations during that period, I might fill the whole remaining space accorded to me in this little book. It was only once that the conversation varied at all. Annie just asked, by way of changing the subject a little, how a plaster cast was taken from the mould; and Mr Wray instantly went off at a tangent, in the midst of a new quotation, to tell her. He was still describing, for the second time, how the plaster and water were to be mixed, how the mixture was to be left to ‘set’, and how the mould was to be pulled off it, when the landlady, looking very hot and important, bustled into the room, exclaiming:—

‘Mr Wray, sir! Mr Wray! Here’s Squire Colebatch, of Cropley Court, coming upstairs to see you!’ She then added, in a whisper: ‘He’s very hot-tempered and odd, sir, but the best gentleman in the world —’

‘That will do, ma’am! that will do!’ interrupted a hearty voice, outside the door. ‘I can introduce myself; an old playwriter and an old play-actor don’t want much introduction, I fancy! How are you, Mr Wray? I’ve come to make your acquaintance: how do you do, sir!’

Before the Squire came in, Mr Wray’s first idea was that the young gentleman pupil had arrived at last — but when the Squire appeared, he discovered that he was mistaken. Mr Colebatch was an old gentleman with a very rosy face, with bright black eyes that twinkled incessantly, and with perfectly white hair, growing straight up from his head in a complete forest of venerable bristles. Moreover, his elocution wanted no improvement at all; and his ‘delivery’ proclaimed itself at once, as the delivery of a gentleman — a very eccentric one, but a gentleman still.

‘Now, Mr Wray,’ said the Squire, sitting down, and throwing open his greatcoat, with the air of an old friend; ‘I’ve a habit of speaking to the point, because I hate ceremony and botheration. My name’s Matthew Colebatch; I live at Cropley Court, just outside the town; and I come to see you, because I’ve had an argument about your character with the Reverend Daubeny Daker, the Rector here!’

Astonishment bereft Mr Wray of all power of speech, while he listened to this introductory address.

‘I’ll tell you how it was, sir,’ continued the Squire. ‘In the first place, Daubeny Daker’s a canting sneak — a sort of fellow who goes into poor people’s cottages, asking what they’ve got for dinner, and when they tell him, he takes the cover off the saucepan and sniffs at it, to make sure that they’ve spoken the truth. That’s what he calls doing his duty to the poor, and what I call being a canting sneak! Well, Daubeny Daker saw your advertisement in Dunball’s shop window. I must tell you, by-the-by, that he calls theatres the devil’s houses, and actors the devil’s missionaries; I heard him say that in a sermon, and have never been into his church since! Well, sir, he read your advertisement; and when he came to that part about improving clergymen at three-and-sixpence an hour (it would be damned cheap to improve Daubeny Daker at that price!) he falls into one of his nasty, cold-blooded, sneering rages, goes into the shop, and insists on having the thing taken down, as an insult offered by a vagabond actor to the clerical character — don’t lose your temper, Mr Wray, don’t, for God’s sake — I trounced him about it handsomely, I can promise you! And now, what do you think that fat jackass Dunball did, when he heard what the parson said? Took your card down! — took it out of the window directly, as if Daubeny Daker was King of Tidbury, and it was death to disobey him!’

‘My character, sir!’ interposed Mr Wray.

‘Stop, Mr Wray! I beg your pardon; but I must tell you how I trounced him. Half an hour after the thing had been taken down, I dropped into the shop. Dunball, smiling like a fool, tells me about the business. “Put it up again, directly!” said I; “I won’t have any man’s character bowled down like that by people who don’t know him!” Dunball makes a wry face and hesitates. I pull out my watch, and say to him, “I give you a minute to decide between my custom and interest, and Daubeny Daker’s.” I happen to be what’s called a rich man, Mr Wray; so Dunball decided in about two seconds, and up went your advertisement again, just where it was before!’

‘I have no words, sir, to thank you for your kindness,’ said poor old Reuben.

‘Hear how I trounced Daubeny Daker, sir — hear that! I met him out at dinner, the same night. He was talking about you, and what he’d done — as proud as a peacock! “In fact,” says he, at the end of his speech, “I considered it my duty, as a clergyman, to have the advertisement taken down.” “And I considered it my duty, as a gentleman,” said I, “to have it put up again.” Then, we began the argument (he hates me, because I once wrote a play — I know he does). I won’t tell you what he said, because it would distress you. But it ended, after we’d been at it, hammer and tongs, for about an hour, by my saying that his conduct in setting you down as a disreputable character, without making a single enquiry about you, showed a want of Christianity, justice, and common sense. “I can bear with your infirmities of temper, Mr Colebatch,” says he, in his nasty, sneering way; “but allow me to ask, do you, who defend Mr Wray so warmly, know any more of him than I do?” He thought this was a settler; but I was at him again, quick as lightning. “No, sir; but I’ll set you a proper example, by going tomorrow morning, and judging of the man from the man himself!” That was a settler for him: and now, here I am this morning, to do what I said.’

‘I will show you, Mr Colebatch, that I have deserved the honour of being defended by you,’ said Mr Wray, with a mixture of artless dignity and manly gratitude in his manner, which became him wonderfully; ‘I have a letter, sir, from the late Mr Kemble —’

‘What, my old friend, John Philip!’ cried the Squire; ‘let’s see it instantly! He, Mr Wray, was “the noblest Roman of them all”, as Shakespeare says.’

Here was an inestimable friend indeed! He knew Mr Kemble and quoted Shakespeare. Old Reuben could actually have embraced the Squire at that moment; but he contented himself with producing the great Kemble letter.

Mr Colebatch read it, and instantly declared that, as a certificate of character, it beat all other certificates that ever were written completely out of the field; and established Mr Wray’s reputation as above the reach of all calumny. ‘It’s the most tremendous crusher for Daubeny Daker that ever was composed, sir!’ Just as the old gentleman said this, his eyes encountered little Annie, who had been sitting quietly in the corner of the room, going on with her lace. He had hardly allowed himself leisure enough to look at her, in the first heat of his introductory address, but he made up for lost time now, with characteristic celerity.

‘Who’s that pretty little girl?’ said he; and his bright eyes twinkled more than ever as he spoke.

‘My granddaughter, Annie,’ answered Mr Wray, proudly.

‘Nice little thing! how pretty and quiet she sits making her lace!’ cried Mr Colebatch, enthusiastically. ‘Don’t move, Annie; don’t go away! I like to look at you! You won’t mind a queer old bachelor, like me — will you? You’ll let me look at you — won’t you? Go on with your lace, my dear, and Mr Wray and I will go on with our chat.’

This ‘chat’ completed what the Kemble letter had begun. Encouraged by the Squire, old Reuben artlessly told the little story of his life, as if to an intimate friend; and told it with all the matchless pathos of simplicity and truth. What time Mr Colebatch could spare from looking at Annie — and that was not much — he devoted to anathematising his implacable enemy, Daubeny Daker, in a series of violent expletives; and anticipating, with immense glee, the sort of consummate ‘trouncing’ he should now be able to inflict on that reverend gentleman, the next time he met with him. Mr Wray only wanted to take one step more after this in the Squire’s estimation, to be considered the phoenix of all professors of elocution, past, present, and future: and he took it. He actually recollected the production of Mr Colebatch’s play — a tragedy all bombast and bloodshed — at Drury Lane Theatre; and, more than that, he had himself performed one of the minor characters in it!

The Squire seized his hand immediately. This play (in virtue of which he considered himself a dramatic author,) was his weak point. It had enjoyed a very interrupted ‘run’ of one night; and had never been heard of after. Mr Colebatch attributed this circumstance entirely to public misappreciation; and, in his old age, boasted of his tragedy wherever he went, utterly regardless of the reception it had met with. It has often been asserted that the parents of sickly children are the parents who love their children best. This remark is sometimes, and only sometimes, true. Transfer it, however, to the sickly children of literature, and it directly becomes a rule which the experience of the whole world is powerless to confute by a single exception!

‘My dear sir!’ cried Mr Colebatch, ‘your remembrance of my play is a new bond between us! It was entitled — of course you recollect —The Mysterious Murderess. Gad, sir, do you happen to call to mind the last four lines of the guilty Lindamira’s death scene? It ran thus, Mr Wray:—

‘Murder and midnight hail! Come all ye horrors!

My soul’s congenial darkness quite defies ye!

I’m sick with guilt! — What is to cure me? — This! (Stabs herself)

Ha! ha! I’m better now —(smiles faintly)— I’m comfortable!’ (Dies)

‘If that’s not pretty strong writing, sir, my name’s not Matthew Colebatch! and yet the besotted audience failed to appreciate it! Bless my soul!’ (pulling out his watch) ‘one o’clock, already! I ought to be at home! I must go directly. Goodbye, Mr Wray. I’m so glad to have seen you, that I could almost thank Daubeny Daker for putting me in the towering passion that sent me here. You remind me of my young days, when I used to go behind the scenes, and sup with Kemble and Matthews. Goodbye, little Annie! I’m a wicked old fellow, and I mean to kiss you some day! Not a step further, Mr Wray; not a step, by George, sir; or I’ll never come again. I mean to make the Tidbury people employ your talents; they’re the most infernal set of asses under the canopy of heaven; but they shall employ them! I engage you to read my play, if nothing else will do, at the Mechanics’ Institution. We’ll make their flesh creep, sir; and their hair stand on end, with a little tragedy of the good old school. Goodbye, till I see you again, and God bless you!’ And away the talkative old Squire went, in a mighty hurry, just as he had come in.

‘Oh, grandfather! what a nice old gentleman!’ exclaimed Annie, looking up for the first time from her lace cushion.

‘What unexampled kindness to me! What perfect taste in everything! Did you hear him quote Shakespeare?’ cried old Reuben, in an ecstasy. They went on alternately, in this way, with raptures about Mr Colebatch, for something like an hour. After that time, Annie left her work, and walked to the window.

‘It’s raining — raining fast,’ she said. ‘Oh, dear me! we can’t have our walk today!’

‘Hark! there’s the wind moaning,’ said the old man. ‘It’s getting colder, too. Annie! we are going to have a stormy night.’


Four o’clock! And the carpenter still at his work in the back kitchen. Faster, ‘Julius Caesar’; faster. Let us have that mask of Shakespeare out of Mr Wray’s cash box, and snugly ensconced in your neat wooden casket, before anybody goes to bed tonight. Faster, man! — Faster!

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