Mr Wray's Cash Box, by Wilkie Collins


By the next morning the news of the burglary had not only spread all through Tidbury, but all through the adjacent villages as well. The very first person who called at No. 12, to see how they did after the fright of the night before, was Mr Colebatch. The old gentleman’s voice was heard louder than ever, as he ascended the stairs with the landlady. He declared he would have both the Tidbury watchmen turned off, as totally unfit to take care of the town. He swore that, if it cost him a hundred pounds, he would fetch the Bow Street Runners down from London, and procure the catching, trying, convicting, and hanging of ‘those two infernal housebreakers’ before Christmas came. Invoking vengeance and retribution in this way, at every fresh stair, the Squire’s temperament was up at ‘bloodheat’, by the time he got into the drawing-room. It fell directly, however, to ‘temperate’ again, when he found nobody there; and it sank twenty degrees lower still, at the sight of little Annie’s face, when she came down to see him.

‘Cheer up, Annie!’ said the old gentleman with a last faint attempt at joviality. ‘It’s all over now, you know: how’s grandfather? Very much frightened still — eh?’

‘Oh, sir! frightened, I’m afraid out of his mind!’ and unable to control herself any longer, poor Annie fairly burst into tears.

‘Don’t cry, Annie! no crying! I can’t stand it — you mustn’t really!’ said the Squire in anything but steady tones, ‘I’ll talk him back into his mind; I will, as sure as my name’s Matthew Colebatch — Stop!’ (here he pulled out his voluminous India pocket handkerchief, and began very gently and caressingly to wipe away her tears, as if she had been a little child, and his own daughter). ‘There, now we’ve dried them up — no we haven’t! there’s one left — And now that’s gone, let’s have a little talk about this business, my dear, and see what’s to be done. In the first place, what’s all this I hear about a plaster cast being broken?’

Annie would have given the world to open her heart about the mask of Shakespeare, to Mr Colebatch; but she thought of her promise, and she thought, also, of the Town Council of Stratford, who might hear of the secret somehow, if it was once disclosed to anybody; and might pursue her grandfather with all the powers of the law, miserable and shattered though he now was, even to his hiding-place, at Tidbury-on-the-Marsh.

‘I’ve promised, sir, not to say anything about the plaster cast to anybody,’ she began, looking very embarrassed and unhappy.

‘And you’ll keep your promise,’ interposed the Squire; ‘that’s right — good, honest little girl! I like you all the better for it; we won’t say a word more about the cast; but what have they taken? what have the infernal scoundrels taken?’

‘Grandfather’s old silver watch, sir, and his purse with seventeen and sixpence in it, and my brooch — but that’s nothing.’

‘Nothing — Annie’s brooch nothing!’ cried the Squire, recovering his constitutional testiness. ‘But, never mind, I’m determined to have the rascals caught and hung, if it’s only for stealing that brooch! And now, look here, my dear; if you don’t want to put me into one of my passions, take that, and say nothing about it!’

‘Take’ what? gracious powers! ‘take’ Golconda! he had crumpled a ten pound note into her hand!

‘I say, again, you obstinate little thing, don’t put me in one of my passions!’ exclaimed the old gentleman, as poor Annie made some faint show of difficulty in taking the gift. ‘God forbid I should think of hurting your feelings, my dear, for such a paltry reason as having a few more pounds in my pocket, than you have in yours!‘ he continued, in such serious, kind tones, that Annie’s eyes began to fill again. ‘We’ll call that bank note, if you like, payment beforehand, for a large order for lace, from me. I saw you making lace, you know, yesterday; and I mean to consider you my lace manufacturer in ordinary, for the rest of your life. By George!’— he went on, resuming his odd abrupt manner — ‘it’s unknown the quantity of lace I shall want to buy! There’s my old housekeeper, Mrs Buddle — hang me, Annie, if I don’t dress her in nothing but lace, from top to toe, inside and out, all over! Only mind this, you don’t set to work at the order till I tell you! We must wait till Mrs Buddle has worn out her old stock of petticoats, before we begin — eh? There! there! there! don’t go crying again! Can I see Mr Wray? No? — Quite right! better not disturb him so soon. Give him my compliments, and say I’ll call tomorrow. Put up the note! put up the note! and don’t be low-spirited — and don’t do another thing, little Annie; don’t forget you’ve got a queer old friend, who lives at Cropley Court!’

Running on in this way, the good Squire fairly talked himself out of the room, without letting Annie get in a word edgewise. Once on the stairs, he fell foul of the housebreakers again, with undiminished fury. The last thing the landlady heard him say, as she closed the street-door after him, was, that he was off now, to ‘trounce’ the two Tidbury watchmen, for not stopping the robbery — to ‘trounce them handsomely’, as sure as his name was Matthew Colebatch!

Carefully putting away the kind old gentleman’s gift, (they were penniless before she received it), Annie returned to her grandfather’s room. He had altered a little, as the morning advanced, and was now occupied over an employment which it wrung her heart to see — he was trying to restore the mask of Shakespeare.

The first words he had spoken since the burglary, were addressed to Annie. He seemed not to know that the robbers had effected their retreat, before she got down stairs; and asked whether they had hurt her. Calmed on this point, he next beckoned the carpenter to him, and entreated, in an eager whisper, to have some glue made directly. They could not imagine, at first, what he wanted it for; but they humoured him gladly.

When the glue was brought, he opened his cash box, with a look of faint pining hope in his face, that it was very mournful to see, and began to arrange the fragments of the mask, on the bed before him. They were shattered past all mending; but still he moved them about here and there, with his trembling hands, murmuring sadly, all the while, that he knew it was very difficult, but felt sure he should succeed at last. Sometimes he selected the pieces wrongly; stuck, perhaps, two or three together with the glue; and then had to pull them apart again. Even when he chose the fragments properly, he could not find enough that would join sufficiently well to reproduce only one poor quarter of the mask in its former shape. Still he went on, turning over piece after piece of the broken plaster, down to the very smallest, patiently and laboriously, with the same false hope of success, and the same vain perseverance under the most disheartening failure, animating him for hours together. He had begun early in the morning — he had not given up, when Annie returned from her interview with Mr Colebatch. To know how utterly fruitless all his efforts must be, and still to see him so anxiously continuing them in spite of failure, was a sight to despair over, and to tremble at, indeed.

At last, Annie entreated him to put the fragments away in the box, and take a little rest. He would listen to nobody else; but he listened to her, and did what she asked; saying that his head was not clear enough for the work of repairing, today; but that he felt certain he should succeed tomorrow. When he had locked the box, and put it under his pillow, he laid back, and fell into a sleep directly.

Such was his condition! Every idea was now out of his mind, but the idea of restoring the mask of Shakespeare. Divert him from that; and he either fell asleep, or sat up vacant and speechless. It was suspension, not loss of the faculties, with him. The fibre of his mind relaxed with the breaking of the beloved possession to which it had been attached. Those still, cold, plaster features had been his thought by day, his dream by night; in them, his deep and beautiful devotion to Shakespeare — beautiful as an innate poetic faith that had lived through every poetic privation of life — had found its dearest outward manifestation. All about that mask, he had unconsciously hung fresh votive offerings of pride and pleasure, and humble happiness, almost with every fresh hour. It had been the one great achievement of his life, to get it; and the one great determination of his life, to keep it. And now it was broken! The dearest household god, next to his grandchild, that the poor actor had ever had to worship, his own eyes had seen lying shattered on the floor!

It was this — far more than the fright produced by the burglary — that had altered him, as he was altered now.

There was no rousing him. Everybody tried, and everybody failed. He went on patiently, day after day, at his miserably hopeless task of joining the fragments of the plaster; and always had some excuse for failure, always some reason for beginning the attempt anew. Annie could influence him in everything else — for his heart, which was all hers, had escaped the blow that had stunned his mind — but, on any subject connected with the mask, her interference was powerless.

The good Squire came to try what he could do — came every day; and joked, entreated, lectured, and advised, in his own hearty, eccentric manner; but the old man only smiled faintly; and forgot what had been said to him, as soon as the words were out of the sayer’s mouth. Mr Colebatch, reduced to his last resources, hit on what he considered a first-rate stratagem. He privately informed Annie, that he would insist on his whole establishment of servants, with Mrs Buddle, the housekeeper, at their head, learning elocution; so as to employ Mr Wray again, in a duty he was used to perform. ‘None of those infernal Tidbury people will learn,’ said the kind old Squire; ‘so my servants shall make a class for him, with Mrs Buddle at the top, to keep them in order. Set him teaching in his own way; and he must come round — he must from force of habit!’ But he did not. They told him a class of new pupils was waiting for him; he just answered he was very glad to hear it; and forgot all about the matter the moment afterwards.

The doctor endeavoured to help them. He tried stimulants, and tried sedatives; he tried keeping his patient in bed, and tried keeping him up; he tried blistering, and tried cupping; and then he gave over; saying that Mr Wray must certainly have something on his mind, and that physic and regimen were of no use. One word of comfort, however, the doctor still had to speak. The physical strength of the old man had failed him very little, as yet. He was always ready to be got out of bed, and dressed; and seemed glad when he was seated in his chair. This was a good sign; but there was no telling how long it might last.

It had lasted a whole week — a long, blank melancholy winter’s week! And now, Christmas Day was fast coming; coming for the first time as a day of mourning, to the little family who, in spite of poverty and all poverty’s hardening disasters, had hitherto enjoyed it happily and lovingly together, as the blessed holiday of the whole year! Ah! how doubly heavy-hearted poor Annie felt, as she entered her bedroom for the night, and remembered that that day fortnight would be Christmas Day!

She was beginning to look wan and thin already. It is not joy only, that shows soonest and plainest in the young: grief — alas that it should be so — shares, in this world, the same privilege: and Annie now looked, as she felt, sick at heart. That day had brought no change: she had left the old man for the night, and left him no better. He had passed hours again, in trying to restore the mask; still instinctively exhibiting from time to time some fondness and attention towards his grandchild — but just as hopelessly vacant to every other influence as ever.

Annie listlessly sat down on the one chair in her small bedroom, thinking (it was her only thought now,) of what new plan could be adopted to rouse her grandfather on the morrow; and still mourning over the broken mask, as the one fatal obstacle to every effort she could try. Thus she sat for some minutes, languid and dreamy — when, suddenly, a startling and a wonderful change came over her, worked from within. She bounded up from her chair, as dead-pale and as dead-still as if she had been struck to stone. Then, a moment after, her face flushed crimson, she clasped her hands violently together, and drew her breath quick. And then, the paleness came once more — she trembled all over — and knelt down by the bedside, hiding her face in her hands.

When she rose again, the tears were rolling fast over her cheeks. She poured out some water, and washed them away. A strange expression of firmness — a glow of enthusiasm, beautiful in its brightness and purity — overspread her face, as she took up her candle, and left the room.

She went to the very top of the house, where the carpenter slept; and knocked at his door.

‘Are you not gone to bed yet, Martin?’— she whispered —(the old joke of calling him ‘Julius Caesar’ was all over now!)

He opened the door in astonishment, saying he had only that moment got upstairs.

‘Come down to the drawing-room, Martin,’ she said; looking brightly at him — almost wildly, as he thought. ‘Come quick! I must speak to you at once.’

He followed her downstairs. When they got into the drawing-room, she carefully closed the door; and then said:—

‘A thought has come to me, Martin, that I must tell you. It came to me just now, when I was alone in my room; and I believe God sent it!’

She beckoned to him to sit by her side; and then began to whisper in his ear — quickly, eagerly, without pause.

His face began to turn pale at first, as hers had done, while he listened. Then it flushed, then grew firm like hers, but in a far stronger degree. When she had finished speaking, he only said, it was a terrible risk every way — repeating ‘every way‘ with strong emphasis; but that she wished it; and therefore it should be done.

As they rose to separate, she said tenderly and gravely:—

‘You have always been very good to me, Martin: be good, and be a brother to me more than ever now — for now I am trusting you with all I have to trust.’

Years afterwards when they were married, and when their children were growing up around them, he remembered Annie’s last look, and Annie’s last words, as they parted that night.

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