William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY-SIX: What is Past is Prologue
How long the gunfight lasted, I cannot say for sure. It must have been either late that night or just before dawn the next day when the silence overhead made me feel safe enough to climb the ladder of my priest hole to the cellar, and mount the stairs from there to the wreckage above.
It appeared nobody had been in the cellar after me. I lifted the trapdoor just high enough to be able to see the legs of anyone who might be walking nearby. But there were no legs, moving or not, to be seen anywhere. I was greeted instead by the hiss-and-sigh of dying embers. Holbeche House had been reduced to a few smoldering pillars, which stood like oversize pieces on a demonic chessboard.
I pulled the trapdoor down tight, and bolted it. There was enough food and drink in the cellar of the mansion for me to live on for weeks. But I must have remained hidden for only another day or two before stealing away under cover of darkness.
When I arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon, my family was in mourning. They were mourning my demise.
Rather than stay in London and deliver supplies to Gilbert while he was on guard duty, as I requested, Edmund had asked Mistress Pym to take over that duty. He himself rode with the troop which was sent to capture us following the arrest of Guy Fawkes. After the gunfight, he returned to London and informed Gilbert that he hadn’t seen me come out of Holbeche House. They concluded that I had died in the blaze, and Edmund wasted no time in bringing the news to the rest of the family.
The evening I arrived in Stratford, he was sitting on the front porch of New Place. I collapsed in his arms.
Out came Mistress Pym. She had accompanied Edmund on his journey home. Upon seeing me, she gasped, and all but choked on the words “Angels of Heaven protect us!” The two of them helped me settle into a chair before she regained enough composure to inquire: “Are you substantial?”
“We all thought you dead.” She picked up the blanket Edmund had dropped on the floor and wrapped it around me. “Thank God your brother impersonated you so well. And he chose one of the busiest spots in London to do his acting in: the principal entrance to Whitehall Palace.”
I asked for a cup of water.
Handing me his own, Edmund said: “You’re home free. The militia have no reason to search for someone who stood guard in plain view of the king himself the entire time that the Midlanders were being rounded up.”
“Have you told anyone else about my being dead?”
“Other than Mistress Pym? No. Only the family knows.”
“Knew.” The old lady nudged Edmund and winked at me.
As we settled down for supper a short while later, I asked her: “Would you mind returning to London tomorrow? With all due speed? To inform Gilbert that I am alive and well.”
“I can set out this very night,” she replied. And so she did.
Edmund couldn’t undertake the journey. He had contracted an illness on the night of the gunfight. A couple of years later, he would succumb to it.
As this memoir and my own life draw to a close, Edmund is not the only relative I miss. All except one of my other four brothers and sisters who lived beyond infancy have departed this life. In 1608, Mater followed Pater to the grave. Also out of my life is Anne, my ex-wife. I hear about her only from our daughter Judith, who lives with me and visits her in Shottery from time to time. And Judith’s elder sister Susanna is married and living in Old Stratford with her husband and young daughter.
Thus it fell upon Mistress Pym to bring me news, first, of the arrests and executions which followed hard on the heels of the Holbeche House armed confrontation; and, later, of other developments in the metropolis.
One after in the autumn of 1606, I asked her: “Did anyone else escape punishment, besides me?” We were pottering around in my vegetable garden here at New Place. She placed a bud on the ground and, after a long while, replied: “Only Father John Gerard, as far as I know.”
Mistress Pym went on to tell me how, while Londoners focused their collective attention on the mass executions of the previous December, she and Ellen had packed the old priest in a crate and finally shipped him off to France. They addressed their cargo to Friar Paul, who had retired a year earlier, and was living in Saint Omer.
I myself revisited London only twice after Operation Corisco was savagely brought to a halt.
In the summer of 1613, the whole city was astir when I joined in the celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of King James’s accession to the throne of England. Not wanting to give any offence or arouse suspicions, I let a young actor put me in the livery of the King’s Men for a few last times. I was wearing it, and sitting in the audience, when someone started the fire which burned the Globe to the ground, leaving me wondering if my invitation had been a wicked ruse to have me present when the theatre, which had once been home to me, was set ablaze.
Though melancholy in more ways than one, my second and final visit was at the same time a far more joyous occasion. It too was to celebrate an anniversary of sorts.
Around mid-October two years after the Globe was destroyed, Judith and I were having dinner one afternoon when Mistress Pym arrived to inform me that a young priest from the Kingdom of Malabo was in London collecting funds to pay for the reconstruction and expansion of All Saint’s College in Corisco. The priest was staying with Lady Kadiatu, now a widow. He wished I could go and spend a day or two with them.
The following Tuesday, Mistress Pym and I travelled to London together. She said nothing more about the Malabese priest. And when we arrived at Chateau Tunkara two days later, the first thing Lady Kadiatu told us was that he had gone to the Embassy of Mali.
“He’s preparing my son Stephen and his betrothed for their marriage.” Stephen Tunkara had been appointed the Ambassador of Mali to England some three years earlier. His mother continued: “The nuptials will be solemnized in the chapel of the embassy on All Saints’ Day.”
“Who is Stephen’s bride-to-be? – if I may ask.”
“You may ask.” Lady Kadiatu took my hand and walked me to her dining hall. Pushing the door open, she said: “Here’s her maid of honour to tell you.”
“William. Sweet William!”
Her Royal Highness had been folding a dress when we walked in on her. She pushed it aside and took a step towards me. I bowed and kissed her hand.
“Sir Francis saved my neck,” she said in answer to the question she read in my eyes.
Princess Emanga had been exonerated of any involvement in her uncle Doctor Lopez’s alleged attempt to poison Queen Elizabeth in 1594. After the wedding, she was going to return to the land of her birth, accompanied by Felicia, the woman who played her wife over the years that she passed herself off as Mali’s Ambassador Oumarou Coulibaly.
“Lidia Noelle and Stephen are also coming with us. They want their child to be born in Corisco.” The princess stepped back in shock as Mistress Pym and Lady Kadiatu grabbed me before I slumped on my knees. “Didn’t they tell you?”
“That my daughter is getting married? Or that she’s with child? Neither!”
“Nor does he know – yet – who the celebrant is going to be,” said Mistress Pym.
Princess Emanga opened the door for Lady Kadiatu and, as the two of them walked away, she said: “He’s back from the embassy. He and Felicia are in the library.”
I sat down. Mistress Pym leaned over me and whispered: “All’s well that ends well.” Then she too walked out without saying another word. A long five minutes or so later, the door of the dining hall creaked open and in dashed my daughter Lidia – followed by her brother. John Shakspere the Younger was in a cassock. He had been ordained a priest and, shortly thereafter, appointed the second Rector of All Saints’ College, Corisco.
Copyright: Raphael Soné