The next morning, when the old man was ready to get out of bed and be dressed, it was not the honest carpenter who came to help him as usual, but a stranger — the landlady’s brother. He never noticed this change. What thoughts he had left, were all preoccupied. The evening before, from an affectionate wish to humour him in the caprice which had become the one leading idea of his life, Annie had bought for him a bottle of cement. And now, he went on murmuring to himself, all the while he was being dressed, about the certainty of his succeeding at last in piecing together the broken fragments of the mask, with the aid of this cement. It was only the glue, he said, that had made him fail hitherto; with cement to aid him, he was quite certain of success.
The landlady and her brother helped him down into the drawing-room. Nobody was there; but on the table, where the breakfast things were laid, was placed a small note. He looked round inquisitively when he first saw that the apartment was empty. Then, the only voice within him that was not silenced — the voice of his heart — spoke, and told him that Annie ought to have been in the room to meet him as usual.
‘Where is she?’ he asked eagerly.
‘Don’t leave me alone with him, James,’ whispered the landlady to her brother, ‘there’s bad news to tell him.’
‘Where is she?’ he reiterated; and his eye got a wild look, as he asked the question for the second time.
‘Pray, compose yourself, sir; and read that letter,’ said the landlady, in soothing tones; ‘Miss Annie’s quite safe, and wants you to read this.’ She handed him the letter.
He struck it away; so fiercely that she started back in terror. Then he cried out violently for the third time:
‘Where is she?’
‘Tell him,’ whispered the landlady’s brother, ‘tell him at once, or you’ll make him worse.’
‘Gone, sir,’ said the woman —‘gone away; but only for three days. The last words she said were, tell my grandfather I shall be back in three days; and give him that letter with my dearest love. Oh, don’t look so, sir — don’t look so! She’s sure to be back.’
He was muttering ‘gone’ several times to himself, with a fearful expression of vacancy in his eyes. Suddenly, he signed to have the letter picked up from the ground; tore it open the moment it was given to him; and began to try to read the contents.
The letter was short, and written in very blotted unsteady characters. It ran thus:—
‘Dearest Grandfather — I never left you before in my life; and I only go now to try and serve you, and do you good. In three days, or sooner, if God pleases, I will come back, bringing something with me that will gladden your heart, and make you love me even better than ever. I dare not tell you where I am going, or what I am going for — you would be so frightened, and would perhaps send after me to fetch me back; but believe there is no danger! And oh, dear dear grandfather, don’t doubt your little Annie; and don’t doubt I will be back as I say, bringing something to make you forgive me for going away without your leave. We shall be so happy again, if you will only wait the three days! He — you know who — goes with me, to take care of me. Think, dear grandfather, of the blessed Christmas time that will bring us all together again, happier than ever! I can’t write any more, but that I pray God to bless and keep you, till we meet again! — ANNIE WRAY.’
He had not read the letter more than half through, when he dropped it, uttering the one word, ‘gone’, in a shrill scream, that it made them shudder to hear. Then, it seemed as if a shadow, an awful, indescribable shadow, were stealing over his face. His fingers worked and fidgeted with an end of the tablecloth close by him; and he began to speak in faint whispering tones.
‘I’m afraid I’m going mad; I’m afraid something’s frightened me out of my wits,’ he murmured, under his breath. ‘Stop! let me try if I know anything. There now! there! That’s the breakfast table: I know that. There’s her cup and saucer; and there’s mine. Yes! and that third place, on the other side, whose is that? — whose, whose, whose? Ah! my God! my God! I am mad! I’ve forgotten that third place!’ He stopped, shivering all over. Then, the moment after, he shrieked out —‘Gone! who says she’s gone? It’s a lie; no, no, it’s a cruel joke put upon me. Annie! I won’t be joked with. Come down, Annie! Call her, some of you! Annie! they’ve broken it all to pieces — the plaster won’t stick together again! You can’t leave me, now they’ve broken it all to pieces! Annie! Annie! come and mend it! Annie! little Annie!’
He called on her name for the last time, in tones of entreaty unutterably plaintive; then sank down on a chair, moaning; then became silent — doggedly silent — and fiercely suspicious of everything. In that mood he remained, till his strength began to fail him; and then he let them lead him to the sofa. When he lay down, he fell off quickly into a heavy, feverish slumber.
Ah, Annie! Annie! carefully as you watched him, you knew but little of his illness; you never foreboded such a result of your absence as this; or, brave and loving as your purpose was in leaving him, you would have shrunk from the fatal necessity of quitting his bedside for three days together!
Mr Colebatch came in shortly after the old man had fallen asleep, accompanied by a new doctor — a medical man of great renown, who had stolen a little time from his London practice, partly to visit some relations who lived at Tidbury, and partly to recruit his own health, which had suffered in repairing other people’s. The good Squire, the moment he heard that such assistance as this was accidentally available in the town, secured it for poor old Reuben, without a moment’s delay.
‘Oh, sir!’ said the landlady, meeting them down stairs; ‘he’s been going on in such a dreadful way! What we are to do, I really don’t know.’
‘It’s lucky somebody else does,’ interrupted the Squire, peevishly.
‘But you don’t know, sir, that Miss Annie’s gone — gone without saying where!’
‘Yes, I happen to know that too!’ said Mr Colebatch; ‘I’ve got a letter from her, asking me to take care of her grandfather, while she’s away; and here I am to do what she tells me. First of all, ma’am, let us get into some room, where this gentleman and I can have five minutes’ talk in private.’
‘Now, sir’— said the Squire, when he and the doctor were closeted together in the back parlour —‘the long and the short of the case is this:— A week ago, two infernal housebreakers broke into this house, and found old Mr Wray sitting up alone in the drawing-room. Of course, they frightened him out of his wits; and they stole some trifles too — but that’s nothing. They managed somehow to break a plaster cast of his. There’s a mystery about this cast, that the family won’t explain, and that nobody can find out; but the fact appears to be, that the old man was as fond of his cast as if it was one of his children — a queer thing, you’ll say; but true, sir; true as my name’s Colebatch! Well: ever since, he’s been weak in his mind; always striving to mend this wretched cast, and taking no notice of anything else. This sort of thing has lasted for six or seven days. — And now, another mystery! I get a letter from his granddaughter — the kindest, dearest little thing! — begging me to look after him — you never saw such a lovely, tender-hearted letter! — to look after him, I say, while she’s gone for three days, to come back with a surprise for him that she says will work miracles. She don’t say what surprise — or, where she’s going — but she promises to come back in three days; and she’ll do it! I’d stake my existence on little Annie sticking to her word! Now the question is — till we see her again, and all this precious mystery’s cleared up — what are we to do for the poor old man? — what? — eh?’
‘Perhaps’— said the doctor, smiling at the conclusion of this characteristic harangue —‘perhaps, I had better see the patient, before we say any more.’
‘By George! what a fool I am!’— cried the Squire —‘Of course! — see him directly — this way, doctor: this way!’
They went into the drawing-room. The sufferer was still on the sofa, moving and talking in his sleep. The doctor signed to Mr Colebatch to keep silence; and they sat down and listened.
The old man’s dreams seemed to be connected with some of the later scenes in his life, which had been passed at country towns, in teaching country actors. He was laughing just at this moment.
‘Ho! Ho! young gentlemen’— they heard him say —‘do you call that acting? Ah, dear! dear! we professional people don’t bump against each other on the stage, in that way — it’s lucky you called me in, before your friends came to see you! — Stop, sir! that won’t do! you mustn’t die in that way — fall on your knee first; then sink down — then — Oh, dear! how hard it is to get people to have a proper delivery, and not go dropping their voices, at the end of every sentence. I shall never — never —’
Here the wild words stopped; then altered, and grew sad.
‘Hush! Hush!’— he murmured, in husky, wandering tones —‘Silence there, behind the scenes! Don’t you hear Mr Kemble speaking now? listen, and get a lesson, as I do. Ah! laugh away, fools, who don’t know good acting when you see it! — Let me alone! What are you pushing me for? I’m doing you no harm! I’m only looking at Mr Kemble — Don’t touch that book! — it’s my Shakespeare — yes! mine. I suppose I may read Shakespeare if I like, though I am only an actor at a shilling a night! — A shilling a night; — starving wages — Ha! Ha! Ha! — starving wages!’
Again the sad strain altered to a still wilder and more plaintive key.
‘Ah!’ he cried now, ‘don’t be hard with me! Don’t for God’s sake! My wife, my poor dear wife, died only a week ago! Oh, I’m cold! starved with cold here, in this draughty place. I can’t help crying, sir; she was so good to me! But I’ll take care and go on the stage when I’m called to go, if you’ll please not take any notice of me now; and not let them laugh at me. Oh, Mary! Mary! Why has God taken you from me? Ah! why! why! why!’
Here, the murmurs died away; then began again, but more confusedly. Sometimes his wandering speech was all about Annie; sometimes it changed to lamentations over the broken mask; sometimes it went back again to the old days behind the scenes at Drury Lane.
‘Oh, Annie! Annie!’ cried the Squire, with his eyes full of tears; ‘why did you ever go away?’
‘I am not sure,’ said the doctor, ‘that her going may not do good in the end. It has evidently brought matters to a climax with him; I can see that. Her coming back will be a shock to his mind — it’s a risk, sir; but that shock may act in the right way. When a man’s faculties struggle to recover themselves, as his are doing, those faculties are not altogether gone. The young lady will come back, you say, the day after tomorrow?’
‘Yes, yes!’ answered the Squire, ‘with a “surprise”, she says. What surprise? Good Heavens! why couldn’t she say what!’
‘We need not mind that,’ rejoined the other. ‘Any surprise will do, if his physical strength will bear it. We’ll keep him quiet — as much sleep as possible — till she comes back. I’ve seen some very curious cases of this kind, Mr Colebatch; cases that were cured by the merest accidents, in the most unaccountable manner. I shall watch this particular case with interest.’
‘Cure it, doctor! cure it; and, by Jupiter! I’ll —’
‘Hush! you’ll wake him. We had better go now. I shall come back in an hour, and will tell the landlady where she can let me know, if anything happens before that.’
They went out softly; and left him as they had found him, muttering and murmuring in his sleep.
On the third day, late in the afternoon, Mr Colebatch and the doctor were again in the drawing-room at No. 12; and again intently occupied in studying the condition of poor old Reuben Wray.
This time, he was wide awake; and was restlessly and feebly moving up and down the room, talking to himself, now mournfully about the broken mask, now fiercely and angrily about Annie’s absence. Nothing attracted his notice in the smallest degree; he seemed to be perfectly unaware that anybody was in the room with him.
‘Why can’t you keep him quiet?’ whispered the Squire; ‘why don’t you give him an opiate, or whatever you call it, as you did yesterday?’
‘His grandchild comes back today,’ answered the doctor. ‘Today must be left to the great physician — Nature. At this crisis, it is not for me to meddle, but to watch and learn.’
They waited again in silence. Lights were brought in; for it grew dark while they kept their anxious watch. Still no arrival!
Five o’clock struck; and, about ten minutes after, a knock sounded on the street door.
‘She has come back!’ exclaimed the doctor.
‘How do you know that already?’ asked Mr Colebatch, eagerly.
‘Look there, sir!’ and the doctor pointed to Mr Wray.
He had been moving about with increased restlessness, and talking with increased vehemence, just before the knock. The moment it sounded he stopped; and there he stood now, perfectly speechless and perfectly still. There was no expression on his face. His very breathing seemed suspended. What secret influences were moving within him now? What dread command went forth over the dark waters in which his spirit toiled, saying to them, ‘Peace! be still!’ That, no man — not even the man of science — could tell.
As the door opened, and the landlady’s joyful exclamation of recognition, sounded cheerily from below, the doctor rose from his seat, and gently placed himself close behind the old man.
Footsteps hurried up the stairs. Then, Annie’s voice was heard, breathless and eager, before she came in. ‘Grandfather, I’ve got the mould! Grandfather, I’ve brought a new cast! The mask — thank God! — the mask of Shakespeare!’
She flew into his arms, without even a look at anybody else in the room. When her head was on his bosom, the spirit of the brave little girl deserted her for the first time since her absence, and she burst into an hysterical passion of weeping before she could utter another word.
He gave a great cry the moment she touched him — an inarticulate voice of recognition from the spirit within. Then his arms closed tight over her; so tight, that the doctor advanced a step or two towards them, showing in his face the first look of alarm it had yet betrayed.
But, at that instant, the old man’s arms dropped again, powerless and heavy, by his side. What does he see now, in that open box in the carpenter’s hand? The Mask! —his Mask, whole as ever! white, and smooth, and beautiful, as when he first drew it from the mould, in his own bedroom at Stratford!
The struggle of the vital principle at that sight — the straining and writhing of every nerve — was awful to look on. His eyes rolled, distended, in their orbits; a dark red flush of blood heaved up and overspread his face; he drew his breath in heavy, hoarse gasps of agony. This lasted for a moment — one dread moment; then he fell forward, to all appearance death-struck, in the doctor’s arms.
He was borne to the sofa, amid the silence of that suspense which is too terrible for words. The doctor laid his finger on his wrist, waited an instant, then looked up, and slightly nodded his head. The pulse was feebly beating again, already!
Long and delicate was the process of restoring him to animation. It was like aiding the faint new life to develop itself in a child just born. But the doctor was as patient as he was skilful; and they heard the old man draw his breath again, gently and naturally, at last.
His weakness was so great, that his eyelids closed at his first effort to look round him. When they opened again, his eyes seemed strangely liquid and soft — almost like the eyes of a young girl. Perhaps this was partly because they turned on Annie the moment they could see.
Soon, his lips moved; but his voice was so faint, that the doctor was obliged to listen close at his mouth to hear him. He said, in fluttering accents, that he had had a dreadful dream, which had made him very ill, he was afraid; but that it was all over, and he was better now, though not quite strong enough to receive so many visitors yet. Here his strength for speaking failed, and he looked round on Annie again in silence. In a minute more he whispered to her. She went to the table and fetched the new mask; and, kneeling down, held it before him to look at.
The doctor beckoned Mr Colebatch, the landlady, and the carpenter, to follow him into the back-room.
‘Now,’ said he, ‘I’ve one, and only one, important direction to give you all; and you must communicate it to Miss Wray when she is a little less agitated. On no account let the patient imagine he’s wrong in thinking that all his troubles have been the troubles of a dream. That will be the weak point in his intellectual consciousness for the rest of his life. When he gets stronger, he is sure to question you curiously about his dream; keep him in his self-deceit, as you value his sanity! He’s only got his reason back by getting it out of the very jaws of death, I can tell you — give it full time to strengthen! You know, I dare say, that a joint which is dislocated by a jerk, is also replaced by a jerk. Consider his mind, in the same way, to have been dislocated by one shock, and now replaced by another; and treat his intellect as you would treat a limb that had only just been slipped back into its proper place — treat it tenderly. By the bye,’ added the doctor, after a moment’s consideration, ‘if you can’t get the key of his box, without suspicion, pick the lock; and throw away the fragments of the old cast (which he was always talking about in his delirium)— destroy them altogether. If he ever sees them again, they may do him dreadful mischief. He must always imagine what he imagines at present, that the new cast is the same cast that he has had all along. It’s a very remarkable case, Mr Colebatch, very remarkable: I really feel indebted to you for enabling me to study it. Compose yourself, sir, you’re a little shaken and startled by this, I see; but there’s no danger for him now. Look there: that man, except on one point, is as sane as ever he was in his life!’
They looked, as the doctor spoke. Mr Wray was still on the sofa, gazing at the mask of Shakespeare, which Annie supported before him, as she knelt by his side. His arm was round her neck; and, from time to time, he whispered to her, smiling faintly, but very happily, as she replied in whispers also. The sight was simple enough; but the landlady, thinking on all that had passed, began to weep as she beheld it. The honest carpenter looked very ready to follow her example; and Mr Colebatch probably shared the same weakness at that moment, though he was less candid in betraying it. ‘Come,’ said the Squire, very huskily and hastily, ‘we are only in the way here; let us leave them together!’
‘Quite right, sir,’ observed the doctor; ‘that pretty little girl is the only medical attendant fit to be with him now! I wait for you, Mr Colebatch!’
‘I say, young fellow,’ said the Squire to the carpenter, as they went down stairs, ‘be in the way tomorrow morning: I’ve a good deal to ask you in private when I’m not all over in a twitter, as I am at present. Now our good old friend’s getting round, my curiosity’s getting round too. Be in the way tomorrow, at ten, when I come here. Quite ready, doctor! No! after you, if you please. Ah, thank God! we came into this house mourners, and we go out of it to rejoice. It will be a happy Christmas, doctor, and a merry New Year, after all!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52