William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TEN: Titles and Lineaments
I needed to reflect on what I had just committed myself to. So I took a circuitous route back to the English college – in spite of a light shower spitting on me all the way there.
Guy gave me a fright upon my arrival at the hospice. He had borrowed a chair from somewhere and was slumped in it in front of my room, looking lifeless. As I bent down to feel his pulse, he leapt up and said: “I’ve come to bid you Godspeed”. He rubbed one eye with the back of his hand and yawned. “I leave afore the day breaks tomorrow.”
When I told him that Spain was preparing to launch a massive naval attack on England and that I had accepted a commission as a lieutenant of the Spanish armed forces, he came fully back to life, thrust his fists in the air and exclaimed: “Viva España!”
“Doesn’t it worry you?”
“Not in the least. Put me down as your first recruit. I will apprise your brother of my whereabouts at all times. Please be sure to send for me as far in advance of the big day as possible. I must be there when it happens.”
“And you be sure to give my love to my family – if you return to England before I do.”
“There may not be an England for us to return to.” Pounding my chest with his fists, Guy added: “England is doomed to annihilation!” Then he ran off as if he were already answering the call to arms.
Itching to depart, I started packing immediately – even though Ambassador de Guzmán had said it would take a couple of days for my travel documents to be ready.
When I entered the embassy the following Friday morning, his excellency was playing chess with an unkempt, large-headed boy he called Caravaggio, and whom he described as a genius. The thirteen-year-old urchin himself told me his first name was Merisi. Or was it Meriso?
“I want you to sit for a portrait,” said the ambassador. “A memento for me. Something I can look at whenever I think of my English varón. Caravaggio ‘ere, ‘e can paint you in one sitting.”
The genius did paint me in one sitting – a full day of work for him and of mandatory idleness for me.
It was not, therefore, until after another protracted breakfast the next morning that Don Enrique presented me with my Spanish birth certificate, an army passport and a degree from the Escuela Naval Militar de las Palmas. From that day on, if circumstances so required, I could claim to be Viscount Guillermo de Guzmán, son of the Count of Olivarez and his English-born first wife, Countess Gwendolyn Winterbottom (deceased).
I had already received earlier that morning my first pay for my future services to the King of Spain. All that remained was for me to be introduced to my attendant.
The ambassador had insisted that I be accompanied on the trip to Corisco by someone who would help me practise my Spanish and answer any questions I might have about my new family and adoptive fatherland. And the best choice for that office, he decided, was none other than his own First Counsellor, the Duke of Saragossa, Admiral of the Ocean Sea Federico Emiliano Salinas de Navarro.
The duke, an older diplomat than Ambassador de Guzmán, told me to call him Fred. He spoke English like a native; but was otherwise the embodiment of España. His chin was adorned with a pointed, crimson beard, which could have belonged nowhere else but on the noble visage of a Spanish admiral of the ocean sea. Over his upper lip stretched a well-tended, if incommodiously long, bar of hair, the ends of which he twirled, not infrequently, with the steady fingers of an authority accustomed to inactivity. And what most distinguished him as a Spaniard was his badge from the Battle of Saint-Quentin: a scar embossed from the bridge of his nose down- and upward, forming a crescent under his left eye.
Fred, who, as a young man, had been shipwrecked on one of the many uninhabited islands of Malabo, was consumed by a single passion: mapping the earth. Crammed from floor to ceiling with parchments, scrolls and papers of all sizes, the chamber he called his office would more properly have been designated the embassy’s map library. Throughout my entire first conversation with him, I stood stiffly erect for fear of toppling over any of the unsafely arranged tools of his trade. He himself sat on a bundle of charts in his chair.
After going over our itinerary, he took me to the back of the embassy, where a carriage was waiting for us. As I raised one foot to climb in, he snapped to attention and bellowed like a drill officer: “Teniente de Guzmán!” I had barely finished turning around to face him when he intensified the shock of calling me de Guzmán by asking in Spanish: “Where are you from?”
“Madrid.” I put on my sternest military aspect and forestalled what would have been his next logical question by explaining in English: “But my mother took me to England at an early age. I was raised in London.”
Having thus put me on my toes, Fred took me to the hospice. We loaded my belongings in the carriage and drove to his residence.
On the morning, three days later, that we took leave of his family, the sun spread its rays in a semi-circle over the distant, wavy rooftops of Rome – as when a peacock displays his brilliant tail feathers in a courtship ritual. The weather couldn’t have been more propitious when we set out for the Kingdom of Malabo.
Fred and I rode inland as far as Naples. From there we took a wherry to Cagliari on the island of Sardinia, where we rested for six days before boarding a Spanish galleon bound for Valencia.
Just off the coast of Spain, our ship was set upon by a band of Sicilian pirates. They had started pulling her timber apart when a Tunisian man-of-war chanced on them, rescued us and hauled our wreck to its destination.
We stayed in Valencia for twenty days, preparing for my maiden voyage out of the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. On every one of the first nine of those days, I visited the Silk Exchange (Lonja de la Seda) hoping to see one familiar face: that of the Earl of Oxford. All in vain. However, on day ten I ran into another Londoner I was glad to see: Emmanuel’s uncle, Doctor Rodrigo Lopez. He too was Corisco-bound.
Upon receiving Bishop Watson’s invitation, Doctor Lopez had taken a year off from his regular duties to go and deliver a series of lectures in anatomy at his alma mater, the University of Coimbra in Portugal. And he had spent a full month doing just that before crossing the border into Spain.
“A total waste of my time, that was,” he said as we each took a stool in the Central Hall of the exchange. “Travelling all the way to Salamanca only to learn that Manuel was not at the university.” The recollection flushed the doctor’s cheeks from olive to hazel to chestnut. He was a wiry Marrano. Eternally fastidious about his appearance, he paid particular attention to the oversize, black moustache behind which he concealed his puny nose.
“How long has it been since you last heard from him?”
“Over two years!” The doctor’s skin colours flushed in reverse. The tremor in his voice further betrayed his rage. “He hasn’t answered any of my letters since the Easter of ‘eighty-three, when he wrote to inform me that he was about to leave Italy for Spain.”
“Perhaps he and the earl are travelling together,” I suggested, hoping to quell Doctor Lopez’s anger by making him look forward rather than behind.
“They aren’t. Oxford’s attendant was here in Valencia until yesterday, when he left for London with messages from the earl to his family and Her Majesty. They too had been to Salamanca and hadn’t seen Manuel. No one any of us talked with at the university who knows him can say where he’s disappeared to.”
“He could have gone to Corisco ahead of us.”
“Not likely. I am the person assigned to deliver Bishop Watson’s invitation to him. He won’t get it now. Let’s hope he’s safe. Wherever he is!”
Doctor Lopez had gone on a pilgrimage while in the north. In another attempt to take the unpleasantness out of our conversation, I asked: “How was your pilgrimage, Doctor?”
“Uplifting. But the best part of my journey so far has been what came after the pilgrimage. I had an audience with the king.”
“Oh, yes.” Doctor Lopez wrinkled his nose, apparently unsure, as I was myself, whether I had questioned or affirmed the fact.
“What kind of man is King Philip?” As I spoke, the deep sound of a gong echoed through the exchange. Trading was over for the day.
We strolled out into the Plaza del Mercado. On our way to the hospice of Los Santos Juanes, where Fred and I were lodging, the old man soared into a vivacious retrospect of his early days as a medical practitioner: “I can’t believe it’s been thirty-five years already. That’s how long I’ve known King Philip. I served his family for three years when he was a young prince.”
The doctor bobbed his head, slapped me on the back and quickened his pace. Stroking the mound of hair on his upper lip, he continued: “In Portugal, entire Jewish families, thousands of them, were forced to convert to Christianity in the fifteen-fifties. Mine was among the first. But we still fled our homeland later to escape the scaffolds and bonfires of the inquisitors, who persecuted coverts to Christianity with no less zeal than they did practising Jews. That’s how I ended up in Madrid.”
In 1559 Doctor Lopez emigrated to England from Spain. Twenty-two years later, after tending upon such lesser mortals as the Earl of Leicester and Her Majesty’s Spymaster General, he was appointed the Queen’s Physician-in-Chief.
Two days after we ran into each other in Valencia, the queen’s doctor and I were sitting on the steps of the Torres de Serranos when Fred, who had been lagging behind on our walk from the Cathedral of the Holy Chalice, caught up with us.
“I see no need in coming with you to Corisco now.” He fanned himself with his open palms and wheezed. “You have a more seasoned traveller for company. A man who has been to Malabo more than once before. A far better teacher than I.”
Doctor Lopez snorted his disapproval of the plaudits, stretched to his full height, and faced the Duke of Saragossa moustache to moustache. “In that case,” quoth he, “would you be so kind as to make a trip to England before returning to Italy?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“I have messages from the king.” Doctor Lopez shrugged. “None of them in writing. Three to be delivered to Antonia Garrick, and two to Alexander de Hoghton. All by the beginning of the new year. I didn’t give them to Oxford’s man because he’s going to the Low Countries first, and may not be back in England before next spring.”
From the towers, the three of us rambled on as far as the Cabaña del Morisco, a tavern roughly half a mile to the north of the Silk Exchange. There we dined together for the last time. And while we strolled back to Los Santos Juanes afterwards, the doctor gave Fred his instructions.
The next morning, he returned to our lodgings in a carriage to convey Fred to the port.
I had bought a headscarf for Anne at the exchange. I enfolded one of my Alpha buttons in it for Hamnet, and gave them to Fred to deliver to Gilbert together with one ivory hair-clip each for Susanna and Judith.
“Let’s hope your twins and their sister grow up to be as strong in their faith as Percy and Queen Mary,” the doctor said after I told him about the gifts.
“Or stronger,” I concurred. And then it dawned on me that the faith my children grow strong in may not be the same as mine. Since receiving news of the birth of Judith and Hamnet I had been wondering if they and Susanna were going to make a Catholic of their mother or if she was turning them into covert Protestants right under their grandparents’ roof.
Fred halted my trend of thought. “Who is Percy?” he asked. “A relative of Queen Mary’s?”
“Relative by religion, you could say,” replied Doctor Lopez. He explained: “Henry Percy was the Earl of Northumberland. Someone shot him dead in the Tower just before I left London – for presuming to counsel the queen, it would seem. He had written to Her Majesty from his prison cell requesting that she release her cousin Mary and be more tolerant of Catholics. Instead of being released, the Scottish queen is now confined in Chartley, a heavily fortified manor house. Queen Elizabeth has also ordered that she’s not to communicate with anybody except her gaolers.”
“Just like her. Ambassador de Guzmán says your queen is more powerful than her father ever was.”
“Not so powerful that she can’t be supplanted,” I said, glancing at Doctor Lopez. He coughed and averted his eyes from me to gaze at the exquisite turban resting like a crown on the head of a merchant passing by behind a file of porters.
Thinking of Guy Fawkes, and his parting words to me (“England is doomed to annihilation!”), I turned to Fred, shook him by the hand and whispered: “She will be dethroned.”
Copyright Raphael Soné