"Mr. Wray's Cash Box: or The Mask and the Mystery: A Christmas Sketch" by Wilkie Collins (first published in book form by Richard Bentley, London, in 1851 [although dated 1852]; reprinted in 1852 by the same publisher, but now subtitled "A Modern Story"; first U.S. publication in 1862 as The Stolen Mask: or The Mysterious Cash Box [publisher unknown]; reprinted (finally!) in Richard Dalby's anthology Crime for Christmas, 1991)
The question is why did a story by Wiklie Collins remain unreprinted for 129 years when almost all of his short stories have been reprinted a number of times? Perhaps because of its length, 176 pages in the original edition; 70 pages in the Dalby)? Nah, that really doesn't hold water. Or, perhaps because of its sentimentality? its mawkishness reminiscent of some of his good friend Charles Dickens's writing? Perhaps because it was Collins's only attempt at a Christmas story? I have not any good answer.
The first few paragraphs give the flavor of the story, if not the plot:
"I should be insulting the intelligence of readers generally, if I thought it at all necessary to describe to them the widely-celebrated town, Tidbury-on-the-Marsh. As a genteel provincial residence, who is unacquainted with it? The magnificent new hotel that has grown on to the side of the old inn; the extensive library, to which, not satisfied with only adding new books, they are now adding a new entrance as well; the projected crescent of palatial abodes in the Grecian style, on the top of the hill, to rival the completed crescent of castellated abodes, in the Gothic style, at the bottom of the hill -- are not such local objects as these perfectly well known to any intelligent Englishman! Of course they are! The question is superfluous. Let us get on at once, without wasting more time, from Tidbury in general and High Street in particular, and to our present destination there -- the commercial establishment of Messrs Dunball and Dark.
Looking merely at the coloured liquids, the miniature statue of a horse, the corn pasters, the oil-skin bags, the pots of cosmetics, and the cut-glass saucers full of lozenges in the shop window, you might at first imagine that Dunball and Dark were only chemists. Looking carefully through the entrance, towards an inner apartment, an inscription; a large, upright, mahogany recepticle, or box, with a hole in it; brass rails protecting the hole; a green curtain ready to draw over the hole; and a man with a copper money shovel in his hand, partially visible behind the hole; would be sufficient to inform you that Dunball and Dark were not chemists only, but 'Branch Bankers' as well."
All of this rambling and personal interlocations have little to with the plot, nor do Messrs. Dunball and Dark. Several paragraphs later, young Alice Wray enters the shop and asks permission to post an advertisement for her grandfather's elocution business in their window; this very indirectly leads to a friendship between the local squire and Alice's grandfather, Reuben Wray.
Reuben Wray had spent his lifetime working in, and enamored of, the theater. Sadly he had little talent to match his enthusiasm, spending his entire career doing scut jobs behind the curtain and ocassional walk-on roles as an extra. This did however give him an opportunity to closely observe the speech, cadence, and mannerisms of the great actor John Kemble -- at least Kemble was great as an old-style actor; his method of acting became passe with the appearance of Edmund Kean, the current great Shakespearean actor. Wray has had three great obsessions in his life: John Kemble, William Shakespeare, and his beloved granddaughter Alice. When Kemble left the stage, Wray found himself unemployed and in dire straights. He reinvented himself as an elocution teacher whose one asset was a knowledge of how Kemble worked and an encyclopediac knowledge of the works of Shakespeare. It was a precarious living but Wray, Alice, and a large, clumsy handyman nicknamed "Julius Caesar" manage to eke out a substandard living.
Wray's obsession with Shakespeare was overwhelming. While staying in Stratford, he visited a local church which had on display Shakespeare's death mask. Sneaking into the church one night, he made his own mold of the death mask. The next day he heard that the town was outraged that someone had commited a felony on the mask and the town counsel was offering a reward for this person's capture. Frightened, Wray fled Stratford with Alice and Caesar, eventually landing in Tidbury. Wray's copy of the death mask was kept in a cash box which he often would carry with him under his cloak. The object took a religious-like mania with him, providing him comfort a shelter in this world that held scant scant comfort and security.
Tidbury, despite being a beautiful and well-to-do community, had some dark spots to it. Two of those dark spots were Benjamin Grimes and Chummy Dick, neer-do-wells from the word go. One day, Grimes spotted the cash box that Wray carried with him and reasoned that where there is a cash box, there must be cash in it. Grimes enlisted Chummy Dick, who was hiding in Tidbury to avoid the London police, and the two broke into the rooming house where Wray and his small party were staying. The thugs expected everyone to be asleep, but found Wray sitting and clutching the cash box. They tried to wrestle the cash box away but the old man held tightly to it. With one final burst of power, they succeeded and Wray went down in one direction and the cash box in another. The impact knocked open the box and the mask fell out and shattered. The episode caused a loud outburst and the two thugs escaped before the night watch could catch them.
With his beloved mask destroyed, Wray fell into a fugue state. Listlessly, he responded only to Alice, the only thing he loved more than the mask. He spent days in the hopeless task of obsessively trying to glue the mask together. This mania continued for days and the best medical advice brought in my the squire could do nothing. He weakened and began to shrink into himself until brave Alice comes up with a plan to save him.
Pure melodrama and entertaining as only melodrama could be.
One side story is Alice's love for Julius Caesar, which they cannot openly acknowledge because of the effect it might have on her grandfather. I won't tell you how true love prevails, nor how Wray's tiny family was lifted from utter poverty. For that, you'd have to read the story yourself. Described as both "heartening" and "sweet" and as "melodramic as only a Victorian Novel can" be, this one is a fun read. Be warned however, that this Chrstmas tale has little to do with Christmas.
The author needs little introduction, Collins (1824-1889) was the author of many popular novels, including The Moonstone, which many consider to be the first true English detective novel, and The Woman in White, which I consider to be a far superior book (is there any character more slimy than count Fosco?), as well as a number of classic short stories, the best known probably being "The Terribly Strange Bed." Born to a strictly religious family, Collins disappointed his painter father by neither becoming an artist or a clergyman; his father then insisted that he study law in order to have a stedy income. He was called to the bar in 1851 bit never practiced, instead using his law training in his fiction. Also in 1851, he first met his lifelong friend and sometime collaborator Charles Dickens, of whom he said, "We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be." Dickens was his literary mentor and Collins often took roles in Dickens's acting company. (Collins's younger brother Charles married Dickens's daughter Kate.) Many of Collins's works were first published in Dickens's magazines Household Words and All the Year Round.
Collins published his first novel, Antonina, in 1850. He joined the staff of Household Words in 1856, remaing there until 1862, when his writing became more successful. During the decade of the 1860s Collins produced his most lasting work -- The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name, and The Moonstone. In 1853, he had his first attack of gout, which would plague him for the rest of his life. By 1856 he was beginning his addiction to laudanum, which he was taking for the pain from the gout. His health declined in the 1880s to the point that he was often unable to leave his home and had difficulty writing. His eyesight also became increasingly poor.
Collins disliked the idea of marriage, although from 1858 until his death, with one two-year intermission, he lived with the widowed Caroline Graves and her daughter, treating the daughter as his own. In 1868 he began a liason with 19-year-old Martha Rudd, with whom he had three children. For the last twenty years of his life Collins divided his time between the two women. He died on September 23, 1889, of a paralytic stroke.
"Mrs. Wray's Cash Box" is available to read on the internet, although the audio version on Libravox may be the preferred way to enjoy the story.