William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY-ONE: There is Flattery in Friendship
Richard had been under the weather on the day of the Order of the Garter ceremony. When I went to his house and told him about the royal outburst a week later, he said: “Consider Richard the Second taken off our list of plays. As for Her Majesty’s present, I’d say you’re worrying for nothing.”
“She entrapped me, Richard. Or perhaps Sir Francis did. They made me give them proof, in the presence of dozens of witnesses, that I am no stranger to eastern fashion. There had to be a sinister motive behind all that drama and largesse.”
“The queen has fallen head-over-heels in love with your writing. There’s no doubt about that. If anybody wants to see your turbaned head on a platter, it would be Sir Francis.”
“I’m afraid he knows more about me than he should.” We were in Richard’s parlour. I rose and paced the floor as I told him about my Malabese family and second religion; and how I acquired them. When I came to the end, he sank into his chair and laughed heartily.
“And I thought all this time that your friend Tunkara was the sole Muhammadan Catholic walking the face of the earth. So, what does that make you? Sheikh William? Lord Suleiman? The Sultan of Stratford?”
Richard stood up and poured me a drink. As he resumed his seat, I said: “Queen Elizabeth must know about my Muhammadan connection. Her exotic gifts are not for William Shakspere. They are for Waalim Sefuwa.”
“Now, tell me, Man of Many Secrets.” Richard refilled his cup. “When were you planning to introduce me to your Corisco family? At my funeral?”
“How about this Saturday? Or Sunday?” I gave him directions to Casa Corisco.
Upon his arrival at the house the following Sunday afternoon, I was about to introduce him to Amina, when she put on an uncanny mimicry of the queen.
“We know you by your ill repute.” She looked down her nose and twitched it exactly like Her Royal Majesty. “What means this intrusion? On a Sabbath day – of all the days of the week!”
Richard jerked one shoulder and tilted the other forward. Assuming the tone and manner of Robert Devereux (the Earl of Essex), he said: “Bess, I’ve come to inquire how you liked my last performance.”
‘Your last performance? Public or private?”
“How did you like me as Sir John Falstaff in Henry the Fourth?”
A soft knock interrupted the parody. John, who had been standing by his mother, rushed to the door. He opened it, turned around, and announced: “Lady Kadiatu Tunkara!”
Lady Kadiatu had come to invite Amina and the children to a party her family was throwing in a couple of weeks to celebrate the end of Ramadan and to welcome Mali’s first ambassador to England. Her ladyship hadn’t expected to find me at Casa Corisco. After giving Amina details about the party she said to me: “You may join us – if it won’t hurt to make yourself visible for an hour or two. If you do come, please bring Master Burbage along.”
Later that evening, Amina and John were entertaining us with madrigals when Lady Kadiatu handed Lidia to Richard and asked him: “Would it be possible for the Chamberlain’s Men to stage The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco at our home in sixteen days?”
“It would, my lady.” Richard turned to me and asked: “Wouldn’t it?”
“We shall all be there,” I said to Lady Kadiatu. “Every one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”
“That being the case…” She rubbed her hands, stretched her arms out wide, and engulfed Richard and the baby in an embrace. “…kindly send me a script of the play tomorrow. And whenever you can, please come and prepare my husband for his role. That day, I want him to be the Prince of Morocco.”
Holding the door open for her, I asked Lady Kadiatu to give my regards to Sir Michael and said what a pleasure it was going to be to see him for the first time as a knight of the Order of the Garter.
“Not nearly as much pleasure as you will derive from meeting our guests of honour. Talking of which, please feel free to invite a few labourers – as long as you let me know by the end of this week how many to expect. I’d like to give them some work clothes to commemorate the day.”
“Who are your…?”
Lady Kadiatu pressed a forefinger on my lips, smiled, and dashed off into her waiting carriage – leaving me to explain to Richard that “labourers” (“in the vineyard”) were priests and that “work clothes” were their vestments. He gave Lidia to me and said he too was going home. Then he asked: “The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco? I don’t think I’ve heard that title before. Would it be one of your old plays?”
“Yes and no. It’s the original title of the comedy you once knew as Portia, Heiress of Belmont, and which we now call The Merchant of Venice.”
“The Merchant is excellent. Why don’t we stage it for the Tunkaras? The two dramas can’t be much different?
“They are much different. In the original version, which is set here in London, Lady Janet Summerside (Portia in The Merchant of Venice) marries Morocco. Not Lord Pemberton – the Bassanio of The Merchant.”
Richard scratched his head. Then, slapping my forearm with one hand, he waved at Amina with the other and said: “I see!”
I tapped him on the back and asked: “Would you mind playing Lord Pemberton? I’m sure Sir Michael will be honoured to appear on stage with you.”
“The honour would be mine. Can you join me for dinner tomorrow?”
“At the Boar’s Head.”
On the day of the party, Morocco and Lady Janet didn’t command as much of their audience’s attention as they deserved. That was because our eyes were riveted on the backs of Queen Elizabeth and a colourfully dressed African couple seated, one on each side of her, not up to ten feet away from the stage: Sir Michael and Lady Kadiatu’s guests of honour.
Fortunately for me, Richard had insisted that I attend the event strictly as a guest. He and two of my other fellow players, George Bryan and Henry Condell, took care of the day’s entertainment. I was also lucky in that the celebrations began with The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco. Had the Tunkaras introduced their guests of honour to us before the performance, I would probably not have seen the play that heady afternoon.
It turned out that Michael had been awarded a knighthood, not for his business acumen, but because he had made a ground-breaking foray into diplomacy. Ever since he returned from Bamako ten years earlier, he had been working relentlessly with the Secretary of State and Mali’s foreign ministry to establish diplomatic ties between his country of birth and the land of his ancestors. On top of his negotiating between England and Mali, he had covered, out of his own pocket, the full cost of building a residence in London for the Malian ambassador.
Lady Kadiatu revealed those facts to me while her husband was making theatrical history before us. That summer day, Sir Michael became England’s first knight to appear on stage as an actor and the first Moore to play a leading role in an English drama.
The audience consisted mostly of Africans resident in London. Although they must have guessed from its title how the comedy was going to end, they were nevertheless exuberant over the wedding. Close to an hour after the make-believe couple took their final bow, nearly all of the spectators were still on their feet applauding and ululating; singing and dancing. Sir Michael must have said “Thank you” and called for silence a dozen times before they stopped the jubilation, and resumed their seats.
“Your Royal Majesty,” he began at last. “My lords and ladies. Distinguished guests, all. Never before have I felt as proud as I do today.”
“Vive le Prince de Maroc!” someone yelled from the back of the hall.
“Vive le Royaume de Mali!” responded the host, still costumed as the Prince of Morocco. He was wearing a sabre. He unsheathed it and swung the glistening blade twice over his head – clockwise and counterclockwise. Then, pointing the weapon at Her Royal Majesty, he rent the air with three words: “Long live England!”
Queen Elizabeth rose and acknowledged the salutation with a nod. Had we been at a wake, the applause which followed could have revived the deceased. When it died down, a visibly shaken Sir Michael cleared his throat.
“If pride does indeed go before a fall,” he continued, “no fall, however low, will ever prevent me from holding my chin up in future when I think of this moment. And if I were to die knowing that the writer of my epitaph will describe me as a friend of our guests of honour, I would consider that inscription the highest compliment ever paid me. With the hope that you too will all come to find them as oblidging as I have over the years, I humbly ask you to rise and please join me in welcoming the two pioneers who will head Mali’s first diplomatic mission to this sceptred isle: Madame Felicia Coulibaly and His Excellency, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Alhadji Doctor Oumarou Coulibaly.”
The ambassador and his wife mounted the stage, turned around and faced us. He patted himself three times with one hand, then three times with the other, and I nearly swooned – not from the dazzle of the couple’s exotic outfits, nor from the entrancing ululations with which the African women made the hall vibrate.
I had been sitting between Amina and Lady Kadiatu. When we stood up, Amina pressed her head on my shoulder and said: “You’re shaking, Will. Come outside for a breath of fresh air.”
She took my hand. I leaned on her all the way to the front porch of Chateau Tunkara, and continued to do so after she helped me sit beside her on a damp bench – it had rained earlier that day. Too shocked to be able to utter more than a word or two, I mumbled: “The ambassador.”
“The alhadji doctor?” Amina asked, laughing.
“Those pats he gave himself on the back were meant for me. They represent the six letters in Manuel. That’s Emmanuel come back from the Orient.”
“I know. He returned a month ago. He and Felicia are staying here while finishing touches are being put on their residence. Lady Kadiatu enjoined me not to let you in on the secret until today.”
“How does he come to be an emissary of the Kingdom of Mali?”
“One of Lady Kadiatu’s brothers, a Timbuktu lawyer by the name of Oumarou Coulibaly, died last year – three weeks after she got him to be appointed Mali’s ambassador to England. Upon receiving the news, Lady Kadiatu wrote to Felicia, the lawyer’s London-born widow, requesting that she turn all of her late husband’s personal and official documents over to Emmanuel and accompany him back to London as his wife.”
“And she did! What about Monifa?”
“She loved Jerusalem so much, she didn’t go on the second pilgrimage: the one to Mecca. And Emmanuel hasn’t heard from her since they parted company.”
“I’m going home, Amina.”
“Not now. Not while Ambassador Coulibaly is making a speech.”
“Right now, when no one can see me leave. It’s promising to be a long party, and I may not be able to refrain from jumping into the arms of Doctor Alhadji at some point.”
“Alhadji Doctor.” Amina laughed again. “Oumarou Coulibaly.”
“That one is his best alias yet. Please tell the Coulibalys and the Tunkaras that I have returned home with a fever. I’m sure they will understand.”
“They will.” Amina pinched my nape and ran back to the hall – just in time to escape the deafening echoes of the celebratory gunshots someone began to fire from the back yard of Chateau Tunkara.
Copyright: Raphael Soné