Mr Wray's Cash Box

Wilkie Collins

Mr Wray's Cash Box Page 03

The one redeeming success of the vast social failure which his whole existence was doomed to represent, was this very marriage of his with a strolling Columbine. She, poor girl, toiled as hard and as cheerfully to get her own bread after marriage, as before; trudged many a weary mile by his side from town to town, and never uttered a complaint; praised his acting; partook his hopes; patched his clothes; pardoned his ill-humour; paid court for him to his manager; made up his squabbles;--in a word, and in the best and highest sense of that word, loved him. May I be allowed to add, that she only brought him one child--a girl? And, considering the state of his pecuniary resources, am I justified in ranking this circumstance as a strong additional proof of her excellent qualities as a married woman?

After much perseverance and many disappointments, Reuben at last succeeded in attaching himself to a regular provincial company--Tate Wilkinson's at York. He had to descend low enough from his original dramatic pedestal before he succeeded in subduing the manager. From the leading business in Tragedy and Melodrama, he sank at once, in the established provincial company, to a 'minor utility'--words of theatrical slang signifying an actor who is put to the smaller dramatic uses which the necessities of the stage require. Still, in spite of this, he persisted in hoping for the chance that was never to come; and still poor Columbine faithfully hoped with him to the last.

Time passed--years of it; and this chance never arrived; and he and Columbine found themselves one day in London, forlorn and starving. Their life at this period would make a romance of itself, if I had time and space to write it; but I must get on, as fast as may be, to later dates; and the reader must be contented merely to know that, at the last gasp--the last of hope; almost the last of life--Reuben got employment, as an actor of the lower degree, at Drury Lane.

Behold him, then, now--still a young man, but crushed in his young man's ambition for ever--receiving the lowest theatrical wages for the lowest theatrical work; appearing on the stage as soldier, waiter, footman, and so on; with not a line in the play to speak; just showing his poverty-shrunken carcase to the audience, clothed in the frowsiest habiliments of the old Drury Lane wardrobe, for a minute or two at a time, at something like a shilling a night--a miserable being, in a miserable world; the World behind the Scenes!

John Philip Kemble is now acting at the theatre: and his fame is rising to its climax. How the roar of applause follows him almost every time he leaves the scene! How majestically he stalks away into the Green Room, abstractedly inhaling his huge pinches of snuff as he goes! How the poor inferior brethren of the buskin, as they stand at the wing and stare upon him reverently, long for his notice; and how few of them can possibly get it! There is, nevertheless, one among this tribe of unfortunates whom he has really remarked, though he has not yet spoken to him. He has detected this man, shabby and solitary, constantly studying his acting from any vantage-ground the poor wretch could get amid the dust, dirt, draughts, and confusion behind the scenes. Mr Kemble also observes, that whenever a play of Shakespeare's is being acted, this stranger has a tattered old book in his hands; and appears to be following the performance closely from the text, instead of huddling into warm corners over a pint of small beer, with the rest of his supernumerary brethren. Remarking these things, Mr Kemble over and over again intends to speak to the man, and find out who he is; and over and over again utterly forgets it. But, at last, a day comes when the long-deferred personal communication really takes place; and it happens thus:--

A new Tragedy is to be produced--a pre-eminently bad one, by-the-by, even in those days of pre-eminently bad Tragedy-writing. The scene is laid in Scotland; and Mr Kemble is determined to play his part in a Highland dress. The idea of acting a drama in the appropriate costume of the period which that drama illustrates, is considered so dangerous an innovation, that no one else dare follow his example; and he, of all the characters, is actually about to wear the only Highland dress in a Highland play. This does not at all daunt him. He has acted Othello, a night or two before, in the uniform of a British General Officer, and is so conscious of the enormous absurdity of the thing, that he is determined to persevere, and start the reform in stage costume, which he was afterwards destined so thoroughly to carry out.

The night comes; the play begins. Just as the stage waits for Mr Kemble, Mr Kemble discovers that his goatskin purse--one of the most striking peculiarities of the Highland dress--is not on him. There is no time to seek it--all is lost for the cause of costume!--he must go on the stage exposed to public view as only half a Highlander! No! Not yet! While everybody else hurries frantically hither and thither in vain, one man quickly straps something about Mr Kemble's waist, just in the nick of time. It is the lost purse! and Roscius after all steps on the stage, a Highlander complete from top to toe!

On his first exit, Mr Kemble inquires for the man who found the purse. It is that very poor player whom he has already remarked. The great actor had actually been carrying the purse about in his own hands before the performance; and, in a moment of abstraction, had put it down on a chair, in a dark place behind the prompter's box. The humble admirer, noticing everything he did, noticed this; and so found the missing goatskin in time, when nobody else could.

'Sir, I am infinitely obliged to you,' says Mr Kemble, courteously, to the confused, blushing man before him--'You have saved me from appearing incomplete, and therefore ridiculous, before a Drury Lane audience. I have marked you, sir, before; reading, while waiting for your call, our divine Shakespeare--the poetic bond that unites all men, however professional distances may separate them. Accept, sir, this offered pinch--this pinch of snuff.'

When the penniless player went home that night, what wonderful news he had for his wife! And how proud and happy poor Columbine was, when she heard that Reuben Wray had been offered a pinch of snuff out of Mr Kemble's own box!

But the kind-hearted tragedian did not stop merely at a fine speech and a social condescension. Reuben read Shakespeare, when none of his comrades would have cared to look into the book at all; and that of itself was enough to make him interesting to Mr Kemble. Besides, he was a young man; and might have capacities which only wanted encouragement.

'I beg you to recite to me, sir,' said the great John Philip, one night; desirous of seeing what his humble admirer really could do. The result of the recitation was unequivocal: poor Wray could do nothing that hundreds of his brethren could not have equalled. In him, the yearning to become a great actor was only the ambition without the power.

Still, Reuben gained something by the goatskin purse.

Wilkie Collins

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