One of the smallest keys in Halden's collection was one bought for him by his father. It was the key to a small safe-deposit box. It came from an auction of personal effects of one of the country's biggest publishing houses. It was only years later that together, we discovered the story behind this insignificant little key.
And I make one final bequest to my grandson, James.
To him I bequeath the key to a safe-deposit box
together with all its contents.
James never forgot these final words of his grandfather's will. It was the last thing he had expected. Indeed, he'd been quite taken aback at Mr. Dumont's insistence that he should attend the reading of the will, but he had not suspected anything like this. What did it mean?
His uncle and father were just as surprised as he. As far as they were aware, there was no secret treasure horde stashed away anywhere. Their father was a self-made man, working hard and earning himself a the few promotions he was given not so much through business skill and flare but through diligence and loyalty. Like most people of his generation he had spent frugally and saved furiously. Both boys had gone through college at the expense of any extra comforts their parents might have given themselves. Fortunately, they had both obtained business grants enabling them to further their education in post-graduate studies. This had enabled them to soften the later years of the father's life, especially after the death of their mother some 7 years since. But now, they were both curious and surprised as to the mysterious bequest.
James needed money. They all knew that. He had graduated from Oxford university with a first class honours degree in Classics and Literature. This was his passion in life and he wanted to share it with others. Already, he had organised several seminars at the library in their small, nondescript village. Nothing ever happened there, so they proved to be quite an event and James' abilities were widely proclaimed.
That's what had persuaded him to go into teaching. He was going to bring literature to the children of his classroom, he was going to teach them to read, to write and to enjoy both. His enthusiasm was boundless, his fall startling. It's not that he was a bad teacher, far from it. But what James didn't understand was that young people had other interests than Shakespeare and Molière. They didn't share his passion and he couldn't understand them.
James went back to live in Villanon his tail between his legs. He helped out occasionally with the writing group which had sprung up following one of his seminars, and wrote occasional book reviews for the local newspaper. He was even co-opted to the committee to appoint the new librarian to replace Mrs. Willis who after 45 years in the job was finally making way for some fresh blood.
Interestingly enough, he had not spoken in favour of Sarah Keyes. He had no doubt as to her professional capabilities and her references were excellent, but he wondered whether a small village library was really the right job for her. Life in Villanon could be stifling, and unless you came to terms with the unresponsiveness of its population, trouble lay ahead. Yet, she had proved him wrong, not only endearing herself to all she met, but also capturing James' heart with her simply unassuming way. James and Sarah were engaged within six months, and suddenly James found a new lease of life.
Following his failure as a teacher he had done nothing of real value. The book he had promised himself to write remained firmly locked up in the farthest recesses of his mind. Within weeks of his asking Sarah to marry him, he was putting the finishing touches to the first draught and sending it out to a number of London publishers, of which only one replied.
Several meetings took place, yet James never mentioned a word to any of us. When we asked about his book , he said he doubted it would ever be published. He did, however, spend more and more times walking through the hills with Sarah. It was obvious he had something on his mind and she had become his one and only confidante. It wasn't until a few months later that he came to see me at the bank. He needed money, somewhere in the region of £ 100 000. His publisher friend wanted to expand. He was on the point of making a great breakthrough and he needed a partner. James was that partner. As he sat there explaining this to me, I realised this was a different James than the one I had previously known. He was just as enthusiastic, but also more reflective, deliberate. He was determined, yet less headstrong. This was not the James that would fall at the first obstacle. This was the James that Sarah was forging.
Yet, there was nothing I could do for him. Our bank was going through a rough patch and a credit squeeze was on. There was no way I could justify a loan of one hundred thousand pounds £ 100 000 on the small security he could offer. It was not a pleasant task to tell him so, especially as we had been friends since for years. I recommended one or two other banks whom I thought might be interested. To be quite honest, it was me who was fighting back the tears. When he saw this, he took out an envelope and told me the story of his grandfather's strange bequest.
“This was all the deposit-box contained,” he said warmly, gesturing me to open it. I did so. It contained a small coin and the following letter from his grandfather.
When I first came to this country after the war, I had nothing but the clothes on my back. In order to earn some money I went into a small tailor's shop and offered to clean the windows. He paid me with this penny. I went back the next day. I don't know what I expected. There were certainly no more windows to clean. The tailor was missing one of his trustiest workers. He never returned from the concentration camps. He offered me the job. It was a hard life, but I made it. I never spent that penny but always kept it to remind myself of what I had achieved. I bequeath it to you now, as a sign of my trust in your ability to master your world.