Weekend Fiction: The Final Resting Place of Jonathan Stoakes

The body rested just outside Warwickshire. The ground was consecrated by no less than seven Catholic priests who, by performing the act, agreed that Jonathan Stoakes was not only honourable, decent and noble but also, at least by the manner of his deeds, divine. His gravestone attested to this notion and along with the date of his birth and his death it bore the line: ‘Should we in our modesty ever know again the goodness of Mr Stoakes then rejoice, for we shall live in the kingdom of Heaven.’

The walk to this grave is not an easy one and by the time Mr Prince, Viccary and Holland arrived at the site their feet were blistered and sore. Holland’s boots were only by the grace of tightly tied pieces of string able to remain on his feet.

“What sort of person gets themselves buried all the way out here?” asked Holland, breathing heavily.

“It is meant to be the final resting place of Mr Jonathan Stoakes,” replied Mr Prince.

Viccary was the last of three to catch his breath. “I suppose it will do for us in the meantime,” he said, letting the spades he was carrying fall to the ground.

From within the confines of his stained jacket, Holland produced a large bottle of ale. It was meant to be his lunch but his throat sang for it early. Mr Prince looked around the sparse graveyard for a suitable tombstone to rest upon. When he failed to find one he settled himself on small a mound that overlooked Stoakes’ grave.

“Go on then,” said Hollard, coming up for air, “who was he?”

“He was a priest. He said that the only knowledge of goodness that one could find in the world came from the Bible,” said Mr Prince, “as oppose to the vanity of mankind.”

Mr Prince had grown tired of Holland. The two of them had been assigned to him by Lord Seton, who had been passed down the orders to attend to Stoakes’ body. They both smelt bad and seemed completely ignorant of civility, but Holland was able to differentiate himself from his companion by the gift of his voice, which seemed to Mr Prince to have been crafted with the sole purpose of being able annoy his ears regardless of the words uttered. Mr Prince’s only defence was his understanding that his education, which he used as often as he could, both fascinated and offended Holland, in much the same way as Holland’s greed would draw from him both lust and resentment towards Prince had he carried around his neck a large and beautiful jewel.

“He died three days before I was born,” said Viccary.

“What did he do?” asked Holland, putting away his bottle.

“He and the priests who followed him advised that holy men, rather than sitting in a cathedral in Rome, should share the labours of the common man. That preaching was not unlike toiling the land and that they should live as the poor live so that they could better understand the plight of the meek and feeble,” said Mr Prince. “They said that it was not only their duty to follow the words of the Lord, but his deeds also. He and his men wore old robes, travelled the land and lived only in the shelters provided to them by the kindness of their flock.”

“No, no, what did he do? Why are we here?”

“None of your concern,” said Mr Prince, suddenly feeling even more annoyed with Holland than he was a moment before. “Get started, I want to be back before nightfall.”

The two men pulled themselves with groans to their feet. Viccary took a spade and handed it to Holland who stuck it into the grave. The ground was hard with ice from the night before and it took a long time for Viccary and Hollard to break the top layer of soil. The pain of the work quickly found its way to the two men’s shoulders and soon, as they weakened, their backs began to suffer also. The morning had chased away the frost but it was still too cold to sweat and Hollard had turned red with the strain. Mr Prince did not notice the exhaustion in the two men, despite their moans. He was busy drawing from his mind the memories of his mother telling him about Jonathan Stoakes when he was a child. She would tell him of the legend of a man who when he saw a hungry beggar on the street, did not rest until that man had food and a warm place to sleep. When she found him crying in the night, she would tell him that he was not to fear, that while all in Heaven were under the protection of Christ, all those on Earth were under the care of Jonathan Stoakes. “He was a hero to the poor,” said Prince, unable to contain himself.

The two men, hungry for an excuse to distract themselves from the tough work, turned to look at Prince. “The only hero I ever had growing up,” said Holland, “was the landlord of The Four Winds. The old sod couldn’t count. You could fit an extra ale or two into a three pence.”

“Tell me, Holland,” said Prince. “Are you a man of God?”

“Of course I am.”

“Then show a bit of humility. Considering what we are doing, it would be the very least.”

Holland shrugged and returned to work. The breath of his digging hung alone in the air until it was joined by Viccary’s voice.

“I am not, Mr Prince. A man of God, I mean.”

Viccary, after announcing this, had picked up his spade and joined Holland in the digging. Holland, who took a few moments to comprehend what Viccary had said, stopped soon after. “What do you mean?” He said.

Viccary looked up innocently, wiping the feeling of sweat from his face. “Our mother did not believe. She used to tell us that if she invited God to dinner she would expect him to show up.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You should keep that sort of talk to yourself, Mr Viccary,” said Mr Prince. “Or you’ll find yourself in a not dissimilar situation to Mr Stoakes here.”

Viccary took heed and concentrated on his digging. The mud was softer now that they had removed the top soil and although it was no easier, he was able to move more of it. Holland did not join in but held tight to his spade. “You know,” he said, “I should take the sharp end of this spade and use it to take your head off.” Holland picked up his spade but as Viccary did not seem to hear the threat, instead of using it to detach the man’s head from his shoulders, he plunged it into the ground and returned to his digging. He satisfied himself by muttering the word ‘heathen’ under his breath.

The work moved quickly as the noon approached and by lunch Viccary and Holland had all but disappeared into the grave. As their two heads bobbed above the ground, Mr Prince watched with some amusement. This passed quickly, however, as he realised that their descent into the grave meant that they would soon be coming back up with the remains of Jonathan Stoakes. Time and the creatures of the earth would not have been kind to Stoakes’ body, he was sure, but that was not why he wished not to see it. It was what they were about to do with it that troubled him.

*  *  *

It was not uncommon for Lord Seton to want to speak with Mr Prince. They had talked on many occasions and Mr Prince had even let himself believe that the kind Lord might see him as somewhat of a confidant. They discussed matters of the estate but often times Mr Prince would be called to Lord Seton to discuss the state of England or his opinions on the King. However, when he was advised two mornings previous to his expedition to Jonathan Stoakes’ graveside that Lord Seton wished for Matthew Prince to attend to him at once, he felt an unusual amount of trepidation.  

“Sarah is well, my Lord.” Lord Seton always made a point of inquiring as to the well-being of Prince’s family before he got to the point. He prided himself too on remembering the details of these conversations and asked if Mr Prince’s niece (he had no children of his own) had recovered her convalesce from her most recent illness. “She is still in her sickbed but the doctor insists she will be well soon.” He noted his pleasure at hearing this, assured Mr Prince that sometimes things had to get worse before they could get better and started on the reason as to why he had summoned him in the first place.

As Lord Seton explained it to Mr Prince, the priests who accompanied Jonathan Stoakes on his trips into the failing farmland and the plague-riddled cities did so with the same tenacious determination for charity as the man who led them. They did not only wear robes of absolute modesty but should they encounter a man on the side of the road in cloth less adorned than their own, they would insist with this poor man that they should trade garments. They shared the same cold nights in the outhouses of the charitable as Stoakes and assisted him with the carrying of food which they gave to the hands of the needy as they passed. It was called sacrilege to describe these men as apostles of Stoakes for reasons of good Christian taste but some believed it was an inadequate description because they were not simply the followers of Stoakes and his good works but vessels of it too. They were, in many senses of their word, Saints in their own right and after Stoakes’ death they did not only do him the right of consecrating the ground but went on to continue his legacy.  

But the tale of these priests did not stop there. The same priests who had commemorated Stoakes in their youth changed their minds with age. The good faith the people had in these men moved them swiftly into positions of Catholic authority with two of these seven priests finding themselves within the same cathedrals of Rome that they had fervently rebelled against with Stoakes. Soon their robes were ornate, the fabric comfortable with expense and their contact with the poor ceremonial. As time passed, their connection with Stoakes changed also. Those who still followed the belief that the church should be lowly and inseparable from the common man criticised these priests. As one time believers of Stoakes’ teachings they were criticised more harshly than those who had never worked for the pain of a blister and they were labelled as traitors instead of mere villains. This charge of hypocrisy did not sit well with them and they soon found themselves arguing that the rite of sainthood previously set aside for Jonathan Stoakes when the time was right should be abandoned. This was well-heard by the other Cardinals of Rome who had struggled with the demand for more subservient preaching during the height of Stoakes’ fame but when these same priests not long after moved for the body of Jonathan Stoakes to be exhumed and burnt at the stake for heresy, it was a more difficult proposition for the Catholic body     

Their argument, it seemed, rested on the blasphemy of the deceased Stoakes. They said that it was not the acts of Jonathan Stoakes that should remove him from the good grace of the Church but his justification, his words, which should be the cause. He had spoken against the Church and Rome because he believed that while the word of the Lord was holy any additional words laid down by mortal hands could not be considered so by mere association. Therefore, any church action that did not coincide with instructions explicitly passed down by God through the Bible could not be considered as part of the criteria for a Christian to be allowed everlasting happiness in paradise. This included not only respect of the hierarchy of the Vatican but also, as Stoakes called it, any mistranslations of the word. Matthew 19.24 says that it is easier for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God and while it is customary now to assume this to mean the rich man in question must leave his wealth behind when he reaches the heavenly gates; that unlike on Earth, we shall all be equal only in the embrace of the Lord, Jonathan Stoakes argued that, given the context of the statement, Jesus Christ is actually telling his disciples to be wary of the burden of wealth and the inherent evils of money. Stoakes believed that it was only from outside influence that these words could be taken to mean anything other than goodly and inexhaustible charity on the part of the rich man would disallow him access to the heavenly promise and that any support the church shows the rich, or any way in which they might interfere with the transfer of money from the rich to the poor, by either storage or investment, could be considered nothing else but sacrilege. The cathedrals in which the seven priests informed their fellow members of the cloth of Stoakes words would be, they said, under this Stoakesian law, considered examples of such blasphemy. After all, they called, in mock credulity, if these great and stupendous testaments to our devotion of the Lord had not been built, then the money given for their construction from the many devout patrons of the church could have been given to the poor.

It had taken many years of work but the Pope finally granted the priests their wish and the order for the unearthing of Jonathan Stoakes’ body and the burning of its remains at the stake worked its way down from Rome until it reached Lord Seton who told Mr Prince that he needed someone trustworthy to accompany his gravediggers to Warwickshire.

*  *  *

“You know, if I had a pick axe, a good sharp one, I could probably take your eye out with it,” said Holland.

“It is not like I was not brought up with Christian values, I don’t steal or murder,” said Viccary, savouring his stale bread. “Mother used to say that if Mr Christ showed up at her door she would bow.”

“Your mother don’t half talk some rubbish.”

The two men had rested for lunch. Holland had all but finished his ale and left the final mouthful to dance in the bottom of the bottle as he argued with Viccary. Their experience with the dead had long ago eroded their aversion to the sight of a corpse and as they ate they left the final remnants of the soil atop the remains. From where Mr Prince sat he thought he could almost see the outline of the body, barely concealed by the earth. It was almost as though Stoakes was leaning against the divide between this life and the next. He had been given a poor man’s burial.

“Enough,” called Mr Prince. “Viccary you can finish up with the grave. Holland, raise the stake.”

Holland threw the bottle to his mouth, finished what was inside of it and left. As Viccary picked up Mr Stoakes’ bones, Mr Prince excused himself to ask the groundskeeper for some kindling. He walked through the graveyard until he reached the outline of a small shack that he had been keeping an eye on all morning. He had not made himself known to the groundskeeper and wondered if the man would know of Lord Seton’s intentions or if any word had been sent ahead. It turned out not to matter. The shack was empty. Mr Prince helped himself to the small collection of logs that sat outside the door leaving just enough for the groundkeeper to start himself a small fire should he have the need to warm himself when he returned.

As he walked back with the kindling in his arms he prepared himself for the sight of the body and the burning they were about to participate in. He had asked Sarah that morning if she had ever seen a body and after chastising him for such talk at the table she admitted to only ever seeing her mother’s. Mr Prince had seen a body on the street. It was of a pauper, a child, no older than his niece. He was unsure when he saw it if somebody needed to be called and was doubly unsure as to whom it was one called in such a situation. He was late on that occasion for a meeting with Lord Seton and so hurried himself along, but he could still see the image of the boy’s face when he called for it in his recollection. It was starved and pale, imbued with every moment of suffering the boy had been dealt before his untimely end. He pushed it aside as he moved towards the stake.   

“Where is he?” asked Mr Prince. The stake and the larger logs for the fire were in place but there was no sign of a body tied to it. It concerned Mr Prince because without a body he could not help but see the stake as an unfinished sign of the Lord’s cross.

“I believe that is for the church to decide,” said Viccary.

Holland huffed. “We tried to tie what was left to of the man to the stake, Mr Prince, but he kept sliding out. He’s with the logs now.” Holland bent down and pulled what looked to be a bone of the arm or a short leg. It was the same colour as the mud. Mr Prince felt a reminder of his breakfast swirl in his stomach.

“So be it,” said Mr Prince. Together the men started the fire and watched as the slow flames devoured the empty stake. It was not until they reached the road and encountered an old man struggling with the unkempt path that they saw anyone at all. Mr Prince was right in thinking that the silence the three of them shared until this point was a result of this isolation.

“What was all that for then?” asked Holland.

He had directed the question at Mr Prince but it was Viccary who responded: “It was just in case,” he said.

Mark Daniel Taylor

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