Father Ignatius Stamage was Hopeless, Maine’s latest arrival. He had not been on the island for more than half a day when he felt compelled to offer his services to Reverend Davies, who was desperately seeking help in finding a replacement teacher at the Pallid Rock Orphanage, following the recent demise of Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor.
Although Reverend Davies was at first worried that the Catholic priest and he might have a few irreconcilable theological differences of opinion, he suddenly remembered that he did not really hold any theological opinions that were worth falling out over. With all thoughts of ecumenical harmony safely restored, he happily welcomed Father Stamage into the classroom, with the indifferent air of a herpetoculturist casually dropping a live mouse into a vivarium.
It was generally agreed among the orphans that the best thing about their classroom was the elderly blackboard, perched upon a rickety old easel, that had dominated the room for years. A blackboard without chalk is, of course, of little use, but luckily the orphanage enjoyed a seemingly endless supply of the stuff, following the mysterious arrival of a deserted French merchant ship, some years earlier. The ship’s hold had been full of chalk, and nothing else, much to the dismay of those undertaking the salvaging. Not unreasonably, they assumed that a French merchant ship might be carrying brandy, perfume or even risqué underwear, but not boring old chalk. Why would they have thought otherwise? The fact of France being Europe’s premier chalk exporting country had never featured greatly in the talk bandied around the bar of The Squid and Teapot.
But, I digress…
The combination of blackboard, plus chalk provided endless opportunities for the orphans to express a breadth of creativity barely suspected by the adults. Caricatures of Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby were a regular feature, along with a variety of unflattering anatomical diagrams and accompanying verses that would have made a matelot blush. These were all executed with the perpetrator safe in the knowledge that the damning evidence could be quickly and permanently erased with the wipe of a duster, should anyone in authority suddenly draw near.
Today, however, the class sat in angelic silence as the slight, but commanding figure of Father Stamage strode into the room. Without a word, and in the time-honoured tradition of new teachers introducing themselves, he wrote his name in large capitals on the blackboard.
“Good morning children, I am Father Stamage…” he began.
“Is that like Father Christmas?” asked a small, piping voice.
Stamage laughed mirthlessly.
“Ha ha.. no I am a priest, father of my flock… of you, so to speak.”
“Well, you’re not my dad. My dad was eaten by something nasty.”
“Mine was too. I think it had tentacles.”
A chorus of agreement that Father Stamage was certainly not one of their dead parents filled the classroom.
Stamage held up his hands, as if in surrender.
“No, you don’t understand. Father is my title. I am a priest.”
“Like Reverend Davies?” one girl asked.
“Well… sort of,” Stamage conceded.
“So why aren’t you a Reverend too?”
Father Stamage knew that any explanation was going to involve a lengthy and time-consuming history lesson. That would have to be something for another day.
“It is complicated,” he said simply. “Let’s get to know each other first… so tell me your names.”
This seemed like safer territory. One by one the children recited their names.
When they had finished he said,
“Well, now I know your names, I’ll tell you mine. It is Ignatius.”
He wrote the name on the blackboard.
“That’s a funny name, sir.”
“It is unusual, I grant you,” agreed the priest, adding brightly, “I was named after Saint Ignatius, one of the co-founders of my religious order, the Jesuits.”
For an instant the room fell quiet, as if shocked into a silence, broken only when someone said,
“Miss Toadsmoor told us that the Jesuits were responsible for something nasty called The Inquisition, that they tortured and burned people…”
“Well, that’s not strictly fair… “ began Stamage defensively.
“Have you ever tortured and burned anyone, sir?”
“Can we watch when you do it again?”
“Ooh, yes sir. Say you’ll let us watch.”
“Please, sir. Please.”
“Will there be a party after?”
“I have never…” protested the priest, his voice noticeably sliding up an octave.
“I’ll bet it smells awful when you burn people, sir … though maybe it smells just like cooking. Does it smell like cooking, sir?”
“That’s enough, enough,” said Stamage, fighting to regain control. “We’ll talk no more about it. Now… who can recite their catechism?”
He knew it was a pointless question.
Father Stamage was slumped, exhausted, in a chair in Reverend Davies’ office.
“Who is this Miss Toadsmoor the children keeping speaking of?” he asked brusquely. “She sounds like a dangerous influence to me.”
“Marjorie Toadsmoor?” asked Reverend Davies, at once wary as to what might have been said. “I would never have called her dangerous, though she was a single-minded young lady, to be sure. Sadly she is no longer with us.”
“Hmm! A good thing too,” said Stamage, grumpily.
It always comes as something of a shock to newcomers to Hopeless that the place is riddled with all manner of ghosts, wraiths, apparitions, ghouls and poltergeists. Reverend Davies rightly assumed that Father Stamage would have to be introduced to this supernatural element of island society somewhat gently. As a result, Marjorie Toadsmoor, who had been happy to resume her duties despite having been killed some weeks earlier, had been advised to stay out of the way for a while. Not wishing to be the cause of any difficulty, she had retreated to the small granite monolith that Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, had kindly deposited in the orphanage grounds for her to haunt. Similarly, the orphanage’s other ghost, Miss Calder, was keeping a low profile in her small, gloomy office, where she reminded herself regularly not to let her face go skeletal, should Father Stamage stop by. At The Squid and Teapot the flushing privy was always strangely out of order whenever the priest visited. It had been hundreds of years since its resident ghost, Lady Margaret D’Avening, had been to confession. At the first sight of a priest she would be certain to manifest and ask for absolution, and that could be disastrous, until such times as he had been fully integrated into island life. With these measures in place, all seemed to run smoothly for a while. Unfortunately, no one had told Drury…
(Image of Pallid Rock orphanage from the comics)