The glass key a modern f.., p.1
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       The Glass Key: A Modern Folktale, p.1

           Benjamin Parsons
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The Glass Key: A Modern Folktale
The Glass Key: a modern folktale

  by Benjamin Parsons

  Copyright 2012 Benjamin Parsons

  * * *

  What is the strangest story you ever heard? I was told a very curious one once, by a man who had it himself from the source— so he claimed— though whether the tale was actually his own invention, I never found out. It certainly concerned him through and through. His name was Samuel Hastings (Sam to everyone), and when I knew him, he was a quietish, retiring sort of fellow; hardly old, but nevertheless imbued with an air of settled disappointment, as if the lights of his mind and heart had dimmed, and barely had the strength to illuminate his eyes anymore. This was because the brighter days of his youth had suffered an eclipse, from which he had never completely recovered.

  In his early twenties he was engaged to be married to a beautiful and charming woman called Araminta, who was funny without being satirical, lively without being frenetic, and wise without being too clever— all of which suited him so perfectly that he adored her, delighted in her company, and maintained that he would happily spend his whole life with her. And for her part, she confessed to similar sentiments about him: he wasn’t especially funny, but always ripe to laugh; not lively, but keen and able; and certainly not wise, but endearingly dopey— Sam was a doing person instead, and was handy in every practical matter. In short, they made a handsome couple.

  But in the midst of their happiness— the date fixed, the friends invited, the cake ordered— the stars crossed them, and blighted their hopes— well, his hopes, at any rate.

  Sam’s best man was a hot, impetuous fellow, as faithful as a dog and as quick to bark at enemies. One night he came running to the bridegroom with dried blood on his knuckles.

  ‘What’s the matter— have you been in a fight?’ Sam asked, surprised.

  ‘Too right I have!’ came the reply, ‘but I may as well have saved my strength— I can’t make this good with my fists.’

  ‘Make what good? Who were you fighting?’

  ‘Sit down, Sam— no, sit down, or I’ll say nothing. There’s bad news— as bad as can be.’

  The pugilist forced him to take a chair before he would continue, thereby increasing Sam’s anxiety no end; and, after two or three deep breaths, related how he had come straight from the pub, where several of their mutual friends were idling away the evening. Some were rather drunk, and in their merriment the conversation turned to Sam and his bride-to-be Araminta. She was generally admired, as usual; but one of their number, who had until then remained silent, suddenly implied that he was more familiar with her charms than the others were.

  ‘You’re all too quick to jump, calling her “Mrs. Hastings”,’ said this person.

  The groomsmen became defensive at once, and demanded: ‘What do you mean by that?’

  ‘Just don’t hold your breath on the wedding day, that’s all,’ he answered— to which the best man’s response was to grasp this dissenter’s collar-front, and drag him to his feet.

  ‘You tell me what you’re getting at right now, or I’ll beat it out of you.’ —And that is how the brawl started.

  ‘I did get it out of him in the end,’ he continued to tell Sam, ‘though he wasn’t going to talk.’

  ‘He should have kept quiet all along, then, to save you bullying him, John,’ Sam replied, smiling. ‘So, what was it he had to say?’

  ‘Sam, I don’t know how to tell you— I just don’t. There’s no easy way. I was almost as fond of Araminta as you are.’

  ‘You were fond of her— what does that mean? Has something happened to her?’

  ‘No, no,’ he shook his head. ‘I expect she’s well enough— though I can’t imagine she’s happy. If she is, she’s worse still.’

  ‘Worse than what? John, I don’t like this— tell me straight what you mean.’

  So, with great difficulty, poor John was obliged to unfold the whole truth, as confessed by this faithless compatriot, whose face had fared the worse for his words. Araminta had been deceiving her fiancé— she had another, secret lover, who fully intended to untangle her affections from Sam entirely, and have her for his own.

  ‘I don’t believe it,’ was Sam’s first response, though he leapt to his feet in anger and distress. ‘Why did you come here with such rubbish, John? I won’t listen to any more!’

  ‘Sam, Sam, you know me— you know I’m no tale-teller,’ his friend replied earnestly. ‘I would have been glad to paste him and say no more about it, if I hadn’t doubted—.’

  ‘Doubted! Doubted Araminta?’

  ‘Oh, Sam, believe me, I wasn’t going to let him off— I meant to make him eat every lie of it— but the more he said, the more little circumstances he mentioned, the more it sounded—’

  ‘True? Are you mad? John, you’ll drive me mad if you keep this up!’

  ‘I know fellas like him, Sam,’ John asserted. ‘Ask me to read a woman, and I’m illiterate; but ask me to read a man, and I know what’s right and not. And trust me, he’s not clever enough to have spun the whole yarn out of his own head.’

  ‘But the point is, John, you’ve taken his word for it— you’ve heard him slander my fiancée and believed it!’

  Now John looked down, and wrung his hands together. ‘I didn’t,’ he muttered.

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘I didn’t take his word— and I haven’t come here from the pub. I went to see her first. I wanted to hear her side of the story.’

  Sam flew at him, outraged. ‘It’s none of your business! It’s for me to speak to her!’

  His friend stood, however, and clamped the distraught man’s arms firmly in his hands before he continued. ‘Whether I was wrong or not, that’s what I did. She wasn’t at home, but I met her in the lane, and let her know— pretty bluntly, I suppose— what had been said. I didn’t accuse her, Sam— but it was for her to defend herself.’

  ‘Well?’ He shrugged roughly free.

  ‘Well— she didn’t say anything. She sort of went white, and stared at me. And— well— I didn’t know what to say, so I said—’

  ‘You should have bitten your tongue!’

  ‘I never could do that, Sam. I just mentioned that if it were true— if, mind you— then I’d deal with him, and she may as well vanish, because you’d have nothing more to do with her.’

  This was all that Sam could endure. However dogged John might be in fidelity to his friends, his attitude was dogged too— savagely, rabidly so, and undid his good intentions altogether. The exasperated bridegroom rushed from the house, and sped instantly to his beloved’s abode, desperate to make amends for every insult and offence that had been offered; but on arrival, the door was barred, the windows dark. He raced from place to place, wherever she might possibly have escaped— but no-one knew, or would tell, her whereabouts.

  Exhausted, he returned to his own rooms, hopeful that she might have gone there in his absence; but the wretched John alone held vigil for him. Sam could not abide any more of his talk, however, nor even to stay indoors, and turned onto the pavement again. The night was cold and clear, and a great knot of bright-blazing stars hung over him; but he was as hopeless of finding Araminta, as of reaching the nearest-seeming point in the sky, though it dipped to the very horizon.

  And the upshot was, to make a short tale of it, that Sam did not see his Araminta again— not the next day, the next week, nor even the next month, though their carefully plotted wedding date came and went in that time. No, she was gone, and he could only wonder at her loss. Others, though, found nothing whatever to wonder about. This disappearance was no more than a confirmation of her guilt. As soon as she was exposed, she fled— and what was more damning still, the spiteful cre
ature who had betrayed her treachery sidled off too, so the natural conclusion was that Sam’s rival was none other than the slanderer himself, and now the guilty pair had crept away together to pursue their clandestine romance elsewhere.

  John took no pleasure in being proved correct. For sure, he was glad to have exposed the affair before the marriage took place, but the consequence for his dear friend was nevertheless dreadful to see, and difficult to comfort. Sam was quite broken, and after the first bout of despair, settled into a dreadful kind of dullness, a leaden apathy that nothing would pierce or melt. His heart was broken beyond repair, and having lost that, he set no value upon anything else.

  As the years passed, he became, little by little, more reclusive. His friends missed him at first; but on remembering what scant pleasure his companionship now afforded, began to forget to miss him, and resign themselves to the fact that he had become a mere dullard. His absences were not altogether welcomed, but not absolutely regretted, either— and it was during this latter phase that I came to know him.

  Now then, to get on with the story: some ten years after that harrowing night, Sam did a strange and sentimental thing. The house where Araminta had lived, and from which she disappeared, came on the market for sale. The landlord no longer found it profitable to rent the place out piecemeal, and was open to offers. Sam went to view it— and having gone so far, bought it too.

  This decision was not wholly motivated by nostalgia— it was a pretty cottage, surrounded by woodland, on the edge of a breezy heath, and much improved over the decade— but there were many such properties in the area, and nostalgia certainly played its part, without doubt. Nevertheless, he had no mawkish intention of communing with the brick-and-slate traces of his departed love. Rather, having been unable to completely shake her memory, he chose to conquer it instead, by moving in on it, stamping his mark on it, and renovating it into extinction. And that is exactly what he did: in a dramatic effort of interior and exterior design, he pulled down walls, opened up windows, exposed beams, abolished doors, discovered original features and installed conveniences, until his new home was almost unrecognisable as the erstwhile residence of his erstwhile fiancée.

  Six months into this project, and exhausted by his labours, he treated himself to a quiet night off. The wind was heaving the branches of the trees on every side of the property as it rushed off the sward of the heath; dense rainclouds, borne along in the stream, were pelting hail and rain against the windows. A grim night, fit for a cosy fire; and since Sam had only recently opened up the chimney and restored the grate and surround, he was pleased with the weather for offering such an opportunity. The kindling and coal were soon set and catching, and within an hour he was basking contentedly in a magnificent, beaming warmth— while the cold night worried and howled outside.

  This was the scene as Sam described it to me— fit enough for the strange account to follow. The clock on the mantle ticked away, the fire declined into glimmers, the weather shook its fury, and the shadows in the room grew thick— when suddenly, there was a small, unexpected noise amid the tumult. A key turned in a lock— the lock of the front door, which gave directly into his fire-lit chamber— and in a moment, the door opened, a blast whirled through the room, cowering and stoking the flames by turns, and a figure darted through, before
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