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A Fireside Christmas Story from Documenting the American South

During the last winter of the Civil War, a Columbia, South Carolina press published Wilkie Collins' "The Stolen Mask, or The Mysterious Cash-Box. A Story for a Christmas Fireside" in 1864. The short story is a revised version of Collins' novel Mr. Wray's Cash-Box; or, the Mask and the Mystery: A Christmas Sketch, which—inspired by the success of works such as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol—Collins published in Britain in December 1851 to meet readers' demands for Christmas stories. A British writer, Collins is best remembered for his collaboration with Dickens and his novel The Moonstone, which featured one of the first detectives in English fiction. Collins was also extremely popular throughout the United States, and his works were in high demand even in the impoverished Confederacy.

"The Stolen Mask" follows retired actor Ruben Wray, his granddaughter Annie, and his friend—and Annie's admirer—Martin Blount. Ruben is fanatical in his devotion to the study and performance of Shakespeare, and when the story opens, he and his companions have just finished a brief stay in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Arriving at a new home in Tidbury-on-the-Marsh, Ruben attracts the attention of some of the locals—including a budding thief—with the sizable cash box that he keeps strapped under his cloak. The townspeople assume that Wray and his family are wealthy; however, it is soon revealed that Raymond's "treasure" is "the stolen mask," a plaster replica of the bust of Shakespeare that is housed in the church at Stratford-Upon-Avon. In explaining to his companions why they fled so hastily from the town, Wray describes how he sneaked into the church, made a mold of the bust, and then created a replica. Ruben soon discovers that someone saw him making the copy and that the authorities seek to punish him. In his haste to leave town, however, he forgets the mold hidden in his previous lodgings.

Meanwhile, the thief who spied the cash box secures an accomplice, and the pair break into Wray's room. In the ensuing confusion, the copy of Shakespeare's bust is broken, and Wray, devastated, sinks into a deep depression. Remembering the hidden mold as well as the casting process Ruben described in his confession, Annie and Martin travel to Stratford-Upon-Avon, secure to mold, and make a new copy. Ruben wakes to find the new statue and thinks his misfortune all a dream. A wealthy neighbor and fellow actor who has befriended Ruben soon learns the details of the copying, and upon inquiring with his counsel, discovers that Ruben has nothing to fear from the law, since he didn't actually steal anything. He then encourages Ruben to share Shakespeare with the public and in turn make a sizable profit. The story comes to close as the group discusses their bright future over Christmas dinner.

Collins' story is part of DocSouth's "The Southern Homefront" Collection, which, in addition to presenting government publications, also presents the literature published in the South during the war years. As Professor William L. Barney notes in his introduction to the collection, the Confederacy was able to publish these texts, "Despite nearly crippling shortages of ink, paper, and printing presses" as "they strove to create a cultural equivalent to Southern political independence."

Jennifer L. Larson