A Killing Resolve
"No thief has part," said the bailiff, "in the kingdom of God--or in the kingdom of England. Moreover, so that men's hearts are not fully set in them to do evil, we justly pronounce speedy sentence against the evil of this evil man. His crime? Thievery. His sentence? Slow hanging from the neck until dead."
I had witnessed public hangings in my life, several of them, and I had seen men die in battle. But something about the wide baleful eyes of this poor condemned man, casting about like a stag brought to bay by a pack of hounds, the tremulous lips, the teary rivulets streaking down his soiled and blanching cheeks arrested my attention.
By the coarse sacking that served for his tunic, his threadbare trousers, and the absence of shoes of any kind on his wide stubby feet, I knew him to be a peasant of the lowest rank. The bailiff was not using hyperbole when he referred to a speedy sentence. Appearing from nowhere, the black-hooded executioner stepped forward, roughly seizing the trembling peasant by the arm. After my initial inspection, I diverted my eyes, loathe to look too closely upon a man who would in moments be gasping his last breath at the noose. But something about the man compelled me to look more closely. The man was no stoic, and perhaps it was the genuine humanness of his terror at the prospect of dying that compelled me. I watched his features, his flaring nostrils, his mouth opening and closing as he gulped for air, his desperate casting about for the wanted resolution to endure his fate.
Wordlessly, the hangman encircled the condemned man's neck with the bulky noose and cinched it snug. For an instant, I wondered what compelled a man to become a hangman, to don the ominous black hood, to be the last human touch a condemned man knew before his abrupt departure from this life.
Next, a gray-robed friar lumbered up to the thief. Instantly, I knew the man. It was the fat friar of the tournament, the one who had nearly killed Willard by his deception. The condemned man looked hopefully at the cleric. "You have sinned," said Hubert the friar in a blunt monotone.
"I-I am a s-sinner," stammered the man, his voice raspy. "But I’m no th-thief--"
With a dismissive wave of his thick hand, Hubert cut him off. "Indeed, you are a great sinner," he said.
"Father, absolve me of my sins before I die," begged the peasant, seizing Hubert by the sleeves of his habit.
"Unhand me, knave!" cried Hubert. "Absolve you, say you? But do you so lightly value the holy absolution of God that you presume to seek it free of charge, gratis?"
Hubert's meaning was obvious; he had no intention of absolving the dying man without payment. Blinking rapidly as he tried to comprehend what the friar meant, the condemned man at last found his voice and stammered, "Look at me, friar. I 'ave nothing, no silver. I'm about to die. More than anything in all the world, I value absolution of my sins. But there's nothing I can pay."
In sympathetic and ominous expectancy, I felt a constricting in my throat. I was nearly frantic and wished that Wycliffe was there with me, but he was at our labors back at the scriptorium. It would be too late if I ran to fetch him. Yet, I thought I knew what he would tell the condemned man. I felt still more certain I knew what words he would have for Hubert.
"Who's the real thief, here!" called a voice from the crowd. Dozens had gathered, eager to watch the public spectacle. Shouldering his way through the crowd, another peasant stormed forward. His face was red with rage, and people pressed back, eager to get out of his way. The constricting in my throat grew tighter. It was Willard.
Hubert turned. As recognition dawned, his face too became the color of red hot coals in a brazier, and his mouth curled in hatred.
"You, cursed friar, you are the robber," said Willard, halting before the tonsured cleric. "It's your fat neck that belongs in that noose. Yours and all your kind," he growled.
Just when I thought the two were about to take each other, throat in hand, and the hanging would be interrupted by a public brawl, the condemned man spoke.
"Willard, they'll do what they're going to do to me." His voice was more of a sob. "Give me comfort, my friend, before I die."
His words triggered something inside Willard, something human and tender. After one last look of defiance at Hubert, he turned to his friend. The hangman looked like he was about to bar Willard's way, but stepped hastily aside under the withering fierceness of his bulk.
Brow pressing brow, the two peasants embraced. I overheard snatches of their parting words. I heard Willard refer to the man as Garth and as cousin. And I heard Garth calm his friend as Willard began to storm and threaten revenge at the injustice that would end his friend and cousin's life.
I lack clarity on what transpired next. Alfred admitted later that he attempted to stop me but to no avail. Without my concerted intention, and without knowing precisely what I was doing or what I was going to say, I found myself standing by the condemned man and his cousin. There was recognition in his eyes as Willard scanned me from head to toe, but there was withering hostility as well, as if I had trespassed on a sacred moment and was unwelcome in the intimacy of their final conversation together. Why his reaction did not prompt me to turn and resume my place in the crowd, I will never fully know. It would have been by far the easier course. Yet I felt somehow compelled to offer to the dying man what Hubert had so cruelly denied him.
“There is absolution to be had,” I began haltingly.
“Aye, for a price,” growled Willard. “Always for a price. Don’t torment my cousin with your bloody nonsense! Go your way! He has nothing.”
I swallowed the hard lump that had formed in my throat, nearly choking me. But I felt I had to press on. “There is a price, but it’s not payable in silver or gold to the likes of this friar. Prelates deceive men by feigned indulgences and pardons, and rob them cursedly of their money. No amount of money given to fraudulent friars can purchase absolution from our many sins." The more I spoke the more easily the words flowed. "Men be great fools who buy these pardons so dear.”
They were not really my own words, that much I well knew. When I paused for breath, Willard stared hard and unblinkingly at me, but he did not tell me to go away. Garth grabbed me by the sleeve as if clutching at his last hope of deliverance.
And then words from our translation of John’s Gospel sprang to my memory. I felt I must offer them to the peasant in the language he spoke at his plow. It would do him no good otherwise. "Forsothe God so louede the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in to him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lyf."
I did my best to explain that the price of our sins was too great for any of us to pay, that no amount of gold or silver, or good works or vigils, or pilgrimages, or acts of self-improvement or self-sacrifice could secure absolution. But Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, was given to pay the price, the full price for perishing sinners like Garth, and in love to give us himself as a free gift, to be had without money and without price, and by his atoning work and his righteousness, to give us life everlasting.
Garth wept at my words and begged me to pray for his soul. “The dying thief, dear man, had nothing, could do nothing to save his soul. Nevertheless, Jesus, while dying on the cross, promised the condemned thief paradise. Believe, Garth, believe Jesus, and you’ll have no need of prayers, or candles, or indulgences. Like that long-ago thief, you too will be in paradise with the sweet Lord Jesus.”
I wasn’t fully prepared for what happened next. How does one prepare for such a thing? The hangman had had enough of my talk. With a great heave he hoisted Garth by the neck. Clutching at the noose, growing ever tighter about his neck, Garth kicked frantically, his mouth agape like a codfish, his eyes wide and growing wider. I felt hot tears coursing down my face and dripping from my nose and chin. There was nothing I could do for the man.
Then, roaring like a charging bear, Willard threw the full weight of his body onto his cousin and clung to him. My first thought was that it was a last gesture of familial love, a farewell embrace. It was all of that, but more than I at first comprehended. With that embrace there was sickening crack as the full weight of Willard’s body pulled down on Garth’s neck, and the condemned man’s head lolled to one side. His limbs gave off a final convulsion. Meanwhile, a hush fell over the crowd. Willard released his grip and stood stony-faced, gazing up at the still form of his cousin, the rope creaking as the dead man swayed slowly in the light breeze.
Numbly, I surveyed the scene that had just unfolded before me, my attention arrested by Willard's grief-stricken face. His hollow eyes, the plowed furrows of misery on his brow, the hurt, the loneliness, all mingled with teeth-clenching resolve stirred in me some long-forgotten memory. I felt again I had seen this man before, many, many years long past.
“Release him!” It was Willard’s voice, booming with command in the stillness, yet strained with emotion. Without a directive from the bailiff, the hangman lowered the rope. Willard cradled his cousin’s body in his arms as the hangman loosened the noose and lifted it over the lifeless face and head.
The crowd parted silently, almost reverently, as Willard passed through them. His jaw was set; and though his cheeks were streaked with tears, his face was hard. There was rage, rage like that of maddened bull, and there was unstinting resolve straining every muscle in his powerful body. I watched as his woman fell in behind her man, her head bowed, her wavy locks covering her face, her shoulders convulsing with sobs. In a moment they disappeared with their friend and cousin—and their grief.