William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY-FIVE: Delays Have Dangerous Ends
What with one unforeseen drawback after another, we, the leadership of the Midlanders, didn’t meet again until the following September. And then it was only to be informed that the most crucial part of our plan had to be cancelled.
“Parliament sits in little more than a month, and the tunnel isn’t ready!” As he made the revelation, Fawkes slammed his cup of ale on the table so hard that the drink flew up and splashed everywhere except back in his cup.
We were seated at the larger of two tables in the kitchen of Catesby’s house in Lambeth: Fawkes, Percy, Catesby himself, Father John Gerard and I.
“Too late! It appears my volunteers all think the work of digging the tunnel is being done by others. So far, not one of them has shown up at the site. The tunnel won’t be completed now before the fifth of November.”
“Thirty-eight barrels of our gunpowder are here. Can’t they be ferried across the river to where you need them?” asked Catesby, handing Fawkes a fresh cup of ale.
“That’s what I’d have to do, isn’t it? We have no other choice.”
Father John intervened by delivering what he must have thought would be a welcomed digression. “Master Catesby and I have been up north several times since our last meeting,” he said, “informing the clergy and lay authorities alike of our plan, and requesting that they spread the word about the approaching transition from Protestant back to Catholic rule in England.”
“Sir Everard was wrong in suggesting that you make those journeys,” said Percy. He bowed politely to Catesby and then to Father John.
“What makes you think so?” asked the priest.
“I’m afraid we have told too many people about Operation Corisco – far too many for any one of them not to have let the cat out of the bag.”
Catesby stood up, towering over Percy, and asked him: “Do you suspect anybody in particular?”
“Suspect? Not anyone in our immediate circle. But Sir Francis Bacon has met with the Secretary of State every night – for hours at a time – since the beginning of this month. And whenever I’ve run into the pair of them during the day, they’ve stopped talking to each other until I went past.”
“If we’re found out,” said Fawkes, pushing his cup aside, “we’d have to scatter in different directions in order to make it hard, if not impossible…”
“We won’t scatter like frightened mice,” Catesby cut in. He was still standing. “Why scatter? Father and I have located a mansion in Staffordshire…”
“Holbeche House,” said Father John. “In the event that we fail to accomplish our mission again this time, let everyone know that that’s where we will assemble to plan our next move.”
I was about to suggest that not “everyone” needed to be informed about our next meeting place when we heard somebody pound on the front door. The four of us dashed out through the back one, leaving Catesby to answer his visitor or visitors.
Late one night four or five weeks later, I was staring at the barrels of gunpowder in the garret of Casa Corisco, wondering what I would do with the incriminating lot if Guy Fawkes didn’t come for them, when a thud downstairs startled me out of my rumination. I put out the candle that had been burning on the floor, and crawled to the front door in pitch darkness.
Somebody had delivered a bulky package at the house. Too tired even to unwrap it, I waited until daybreak to examine the contents.
There were three portraits in the package. The first was labelled ROME; the second LONDON; and the third CORISCO.
The one labelled ROME was a painting of an unbuttoned boy standing under a balcony and gazing dreamily at a crescent moon. A red rose stood out by his side where the knuckle-guard of his rapier should have been showing. The weapon itself lay unsheathed on the ground behind him. Romeo in The Montagues and the Capulets (later Romeo and Juliet).
The London portrait was, in all appearances, that of a rather stiff gentleman who stood out and was the centre of attention in a hall full of other people. On his right stood two other men, one of whom wore a gaberdine. With a scroll in one hand and a pair of scales in the other, the steely figure was addressing a personage who looked like an Italian duke. Portia in her lawyer’s robe before a spellbound court in The Merchant of Venice.
Painting number three was of a youthly woman sitting upright on a throne under a canopy, her legs crossed and hands clasped over one knee. I wondered: Is she a light-skinned African or a well-tanned European? Her flower-covered skirt, blouse and head-scarf; the embroidered piece of material slung over her shoulders; her broad, intricately designed necklace and earrings; the sparkling diamonds on her fingers; and the rows of golden bracelets on her long, slender arms all combined to give the enigmatic lady an air of regal elegance. So I took her to be Princess Nyaburu in Gonzago’s Bride, a comedy Amina had told me Emmanuel wrote while in Corisco, and which she said the drama society of All Saints’ College had produced shortly after I left the island city for Lisbon.
Gonzago’s Bride was the story of a Sicilian prince who fell in love with and married his cook, after which he discovered that she was a Nubian princess who had been shipwrecked on the shores of Sicilia. I recalled Amina telling me that Emmanuel had played Princess Nyaburu in the seminary performances, and that she had painted a portrait of him costumed as the princess.
Attached to the back of the third painting was an unfolded letter behind which I found two other documents: a list of plays yet to be written and one copy of a plea addressed to King James.
The letter, which I have before me as I write, came from Sir Francis Bacon. He wrote as follows:
Respected and dear sir,
You are hereby advised that Princess Emanga of Malabo is being held in the Tower for questioning as regards her knowledge of and participation in her uncle Doctor Rodrigo Lopez’s plot to murder Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of beloved memory, eleven years ago. You are further advised that for the duration of her detention Princess Emanga shall be permitted no visitors. But you may write to Her Royal Highness – as per her express desire – on the understanding that until she is released, if she is released, all her correspondence shall be examined by the Lieutenant of the Tower.
At Her Royal Highness’s request, the bearer of this notice has been charged with delivering to you three portraits which our office intercepted in the course of investigating her antecedents. They are yours to keep.
Also enclosed herewith are a copy of my plea to King James on Princess Emanga’s behalf and a list of the plays Her Royal Highness either has finished writing or plans to write while she is detained. Should the princess be executed before she has finished any of the dramas, she recommends that you approach one of the following authors for assistance in completing them: Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, Henry Chettle, Robert Wilson or George Chapman.
It is Princess Emanga’s wish as well that you be assured of her safety and comfort. She is lodged in an apartment at the Tower as His Majesty’s guest, and will continue to be accorded amenities and privileges as if she were indeed Ambassador Oumarou Coulibaly of the Kingdom of Mali. Unless a negative verdict is reached in her trial for high treason, she will lose none of her entitlements as a foreign diplomat.
I re-examined each of the three portraits closely. Even though they had been painted years apart, and the subject appeared to be considerably older in the London portrait of HER as Portia than in the other two, nobody would have doubted that the same player had sat for them. The face, to which I hadn’t paid much attention earlier, now looked as familiar to me as my own in a mirror.
Tossing aside my friend’s list of future plays, I peered through a veil of tears at a few of the paragraphs Sir Francis had written to the king. I went up and down the text without regard to order.
“Christopher Marlowe’s initial suspicions… Professor Manuel Lopez’s tender hands… “his” conspicuous resemblance to Doctor Rodrigo Lopez…”
“This deposition is therefore in defence of Her Royal Highness Princess Emanga of Malabo in re the attempted…”
“The suspect was christened Emanga Maarika López MwanaKongo in Corisco on the first day of April in 1562. She is the sole offspring of Princess Francisca Biloa López, the third daughter of the last king of Malabo. Her father, Cristiano Heitor López, was a Portuguese diplomat. When she was born, he was Portugal’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Malabo…”
“Doctor Fukayna Qureyshi, the renowned Egyptian genealogist, used three disparate portraits to verify Her Royal Highness’s identity… She and a team of experts from six other disciplines have attested that the princess… erudite polyglot… most excellent rhetorician ever nurtured by England… is the true author of SIR THOMAS MORE (an unfished drama now in my possession), a collection of sonnets which are all initialed EI, and the score of plays Master William Shakspere is hawking as his…”
“One week after giving birth, Princess Francisca died from internal bleeding that was discovered too late for her life to be saved. Dom Cristiano survived her by five years. Before returning to Lisbon, where he was killed in a skirmish, he made a brief stop in England…”
“The Portuguese diplomat and Thomas Jenkins, then-schoolmaster of Stratford-upon-Avon, were old friends. They had attended Oxford together…”
“Dom Cristiano left his four-year-old daughter in the care of her Malabese nurse and Master Jenkins, requesting that they give her the best education possible. That happened at a time when Queen Elizabeth vehemently objected to the presence of ladies in university premises. So, in order to fulfil his friend’s wish, the schoolmaster disguised his daughter as a boy and changed her name. He got her to accept that she was to be Emmanuel Jenkins until she completed her formal education… which she eventually did at the University of Salamanca.”
“The gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon… It can therefore be presumed that he knows about his collaborator’s subterfuge.”
My hands trembled as I took one more close look at the Corisco painting. After a good while, I kissed princess Emanga’s forehead, staggered to the door, opened it, and walked out before I had decided where to go.
Hours later, I found myself in Saint Bride’s, shivering in front of GS & Co. Gilbert took what felt like an eternity to answer my knocks.
“Where’s your cloak?” he asked when he finally opened the door and pulled me into the house.
“Casa Corisco. I’m afraid I left the door unlocked.”
“I’ll go and lock it.” Gilbert dashed upstairs and returned with a blanket. Unfolding it, he asked: “What happened to you?”
As I was relating to my brother what I had just learned, a creaking sound from the attic made me stop and stare at him.
“Percy,” he said, pointing upward. “Thomas Percy. He has come about a letter. Many heads will roll because of it.”
Thomas was in hiding. Two nights earlier he had chanced upon an unsigned letter among the documents in one of Robert Cecil’s drawers. As he himself told me over supper not long afterwards, the letter hadn’t been addressed to the Secretary of State, but to the Honourable William Parker, Fourth Baron Monteagle. The writer entreated Lord Monteagle not to attend the next opening of Parliament if he didn’t want to be killed along with everyone else in attendance.
“We’re undone again,” Thomas said, pushing aside the bowl of lentil soup he had barely touched. “A list of all our names – in the Secretary of State’s own handwriting – was attached to the letter. Except four. Francis Tresham. Yours and Edmund’s. Father John Gerard.”
“What devil could have done such a thing?”
“How about Francis? He’s Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law.”
“Not Tresham.” I slid my plate on the floor to Gilbert’s bulldog and clutched my stomach. Starving though I was, a crippling pain in my upper body put all thought of food out of my mind.
“It was he who knocked on Catesby’s door the night a month or so ago that we fled from Lambeth. He had come to tell Catesby that he no longer wished to be a Midlander.”
“After everything he has done for the movement? Have you informed Guy about the letter?”
“I couldn’t find him. He’s busy transferring gunpowder from Lambeth to our cellar. The last time we spoke, he told me he’d already moved up to thirty-four of the barrels.”
“Catesby?” asked Edmund from the other side of the kitchen door. He opened it with one hand and dusted snowflakes off his chest with the other. Then, walking towards Percy, he said: “I found only Robert’s man at home. He himself could be at Blackfriars. Bates told me he had said he was going to visit Father John.”
“Sorry to have to send you out again in this weather.” Gilbert picked up the gloves Edmund had just taken off and handed them to him. “But before you settle down for the evening, could you please have another gallop? This time to Casa Corisco. William isn’t sure he locked his door before coming here. Kindly fetch his cloak and secure the house.”
As Edmund pulled the door closed behind him, Thomas asked: “Would you mind dropping in at Blackfriars?”
“Not at all,” I replied.
Having slept little that night, I was far from being completely in my faculties when, as the sun hid its face behind a dark cloud the next morning, I slumped on Thomas Percy’s horse and headed for Blackfriars.
Upon arriving there, I looked in on my tenants. John had gone to church, but Ellen was home. She told me Catesby and Father John were in the refectory having breakfast with a man she described as wearing a hood.
The man Ellen had seen in a hood was Guy Fawkes. He had been looking for Percy. Unable to locate his “employer”, he had come to Father John to update him on his progress and inquire about the next steps in our operation.
“The thirty-six barrels are more than enough to do the job,” he was saying to Catesby as I walked in.
They each welcomed me with an embrace. Robert pulled back the chair beside him and pointed me to it. After I sat down, he dropped a small sheet of paper on my lap. There were six names on it. As I placed it on the table, he said: “In the unlikely event that our enterprise is foiled, you are to find all the men on that list and invite them to meet in Staffordshire. Holbeche House.”
“In the likely, not the unlikely, event,” I said to Robert. Father John glanced at me. Before him lay a piece of paper similar to mine. He picked his up and turned it around for me to see his six names.
I cleared my throat and told the three men about Percy’s discovery. For fear of starting divisive speculations, I refrained from mentioning the four names not on the list Percy had found attached to Lord Monteagle’s letter.
“Proceed as agreed,” Robert said to Guy. He picked up his coat and slung it on one arm. Then, squeezing his hat into a jagged ball, he added: “Let’s hope they don’t change the date again. If Parliament doesn’t open on the fifth or if, between now and then, you get the slightest inkling that you’re being watched, return posthaste to Amsterdam. I will send for you again when we stand in need of your expertise. God give you good speed, gentlemen.”
Robert patted Guy and me on the back, bowed to Father John – who patted him on the head – and ran out of the dining hall.
I hid at Blackfriars until the night of the fourth of November. At twelve noon on the fifth, I was saying the Angelus in my room when Father John pushed the door slowly. He opened it only wide enough to stick his head in and whisper: “Percy and Catesby are outside on their horses about to head for Staffordshire. Master at Arms Sir Thomas Knyvett has arrested Guy Fawkes.”
Ellen and John Fortescue kept three horses at Blackfriars. Within an hour of my prayer being interrupted, I was on one of them galloping to Saint Bride’s.
I arrived at GS & Co to find the front door ajar. Edmund had apparently just returned from running an errand. He was busy helping Gilbert into my militia outfit right beside the door.
“Have you heard…?” Gilbert stopped as Edmund yanked his arm up in the air.
“Yes. Station yourself in one of the most prominent locations. And don’t leave your post before you’ve heard from me. Edmund, take him food and whatever else he needs from here as frequently as you can.”
Pressing the list Robert had given me into Edmund’s hand, I said: “Please track down every one of those men and tell them to go immediately to Holbeche House in Staffordshire. But first, when you finish disguising Gilbert, come up and help me too.”
I had bent my left leg while sleeping the previous night. It was still numb as I dragged it behind me up to the attic. That’s where I was, preparing for the worst, when I resolved to take my next action.
Edmund came and helped me as I had requested. By the time he and I went back downstairs, Gilbert had left. I waited until nightfall and then, in full armour and with a musket strapped to my back, set out for Casa Corisco. On my way there, I reflected on what Guy had said to do in a situation such as we were then confronted with.
I arrived at the house before recalling that Edmund had my key. I broke one of the back windows open, climbed in and proceeded to move my supply of gunpowder from garret to cellar. That task completed, I laid Princess Emanga’s portraits on top of the ten barrels and prepared a fuse.
I held Sir Francis Bacon’s letter and plea in my hands for a while and was tempted to burn them with everything else, but decided otherwise. I pocketed the documents, lit my fuse and ran out of the house.
When the blast came, I was already more than half a mile on my way to Staffordshire. I took a swift glance back and saw the blaze light up the sky. My horse galloped apace as if he knew our lives were in danger.
Two days later, I arrived in Staffordshire under the rays of a full moon which hung still in the horizon like an ominous gong. There was no sign of life inside or around Holbeche House. I circled the mansion twice before seeing a man by one of the upper windows. His back was turned to me. I picked up a stone and threw it at the window. The figure disappeared. I went to the front door.
“Over here, William,” came Catesby’s voice from the back of the house. As he let me in a minute or two later, he said: “Welcome. We’re all here now, except for Father John.”
“Where’s everybody?” I asked.
“In their rooms. Thomas just gave us a fright.”
When I saw Catesby’s back, he was in his room reprimanding Thomas Bates. About an hour before my arrival, Thomas had caused an explosion by trying to dry his wet gunpowder by an open fire.
“Your room’s upstairs,” Catesby said, tapping on my musket. “Opposite mine. The best spot in Holbeche House for the best musketman this side of Mongolia.”
I slept like a log that night and for most of the following day. As a matter of fact, it was already close to supper time when, upon remembering the date, I sat upright on my bed. The eighth day of November it was – twenty years to the day since the first Midlanders signed their pledge of allegiance to King Philip in Corisco.
My mind raced back to 1585.
I rolled my blanket off and sat on the edge of the bed. Cupping my hands, I buried my face in them and drifted into fond memories of Corisco and of Amina Sefuwa. But not for long.
Something like a clap of thunder shook the house and made me jump up. In less than no time, I was shivering, half-naked, in the passage which separated my room from Catesby’s. His door was hanging on its middle hinge, suspended flat in the air like a flying carpet. I dropped on the floor and crawled on my stomach under it into his room, from where the blast had come.
Catesby and Percy had apparently been saying the rosary one standing behind the other. They had turned their backs to Catesby’s window in order to face a crucifix hanging on the opposite wall. And a single musket ball had shattered the window and blown their chests open before hitting the door. They were both dead.
I couldn’t prise Catesby’s rosary from his grip. Percy’s lay in his blood beside him. I picked it up, clasped it in my hand, and crawled back to my room. As I finished dressing, I listened for more of the commotion which had followed the gunshot. But not a sound came from anywhere inside the house.
My musket was in the cellar. I lay supine, and then slid on my back, down the stairs, to the ground floor. Just as I landed on my feet, someone whispered in the antechamber in front of me: “We must be surrounded.” As he was saying “Take your positions,” I hit him with the door. It was Sir Everard Digby speaking to five other men.
Francis Tresham had joined us after all. He raised his hand to ask a question. But a crashing sound made us all drop on the floor before he could speak. The sound was instantly followed by a louder one. And another, still louder.
“Those must be burning torches,” Sir Everard said. The words were hardly out of his mouth when we were shaken by an explosion. It threw the door of the antechamber open. I rushed out and bounded down the stairs to go and load my musket in the cellar.
When I re-emerged, weapon at the ready, smoke was belching out of the antechamber we had occupied only minutes earlier. Gunshots were blasting on all sides of the mansion, in which the temperature had suddenly reached an infernal level. It seemed my comrades had all gone outside. I would have had to run through flames to join them.
“You’d better not,” I murmured to myself. “What use will you be to anyone after bumping through a massive ball of fire?” I scuttled back down to the cellar and, beneath it, to the safety of a priest hole.
Copyright: Raphael Soné