William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
NINE: By Indirections Find Directions Out
Upon trotting into Saint Bride’s Parish in London two days later, I was pleasantly surprised in more ways than one.
Gilbert had established himself in business with a measurable degree of success. In addition to the usual haberdashery items, he stocked a large variety of dresses and other articles of women’s clothing.
On the warm Friday afternoon that I arrived, his merchandise was displayed indoors and out. Women of widely varying ages and dimensions milled about in front of the house. While I was looking around for him, one of them, a darkish beauty about my height, slapped an open fan on my chest and said: “You must be a Shakspere”. She stood so close, her skirt brushed against my breeches.
“I am,” I admitted and stepped back to take the measure of my accoster.
“I can see the resemblance – even behind that beard.” She again reduced the distance between us with a forward leap. “Whom did you get your broad foreheads from?”
“From our father. And you? Who passed the square chin on to you?”
“My father’s mother.”
The foreign damsel, for such I took her from her speech, abruptly turned to her left and beckoned a stout boy who had been staring at us from little more than a dozen feet away. She asked him to attend to my horse and belongings. And then, with embarrassing familiarity, she grabbed my hand and led me to the kitchen.
“You’re just on time. Stay here and keep that door closed. Martin will take your luggage to your room and the horse back to Stratford.” The enigma mystified, frightened and delighted me all at once. “Gilbert has gone to make a delivery…” She paused and crossed herself before finishing in a lower tone “…to the Spanish embassy.” Obviously assuming that we both already knew about each other, she dashed back outside.
There was a pitcher of ale on the well-provisioned table in the centre of the kitchen. Tired and dumfounded, I took my cloak off and threw it on one of the six chairs flanking the table, poured myself a cupful of the ale and plopped down on the chair opposite my cloak.
Not up to five minutes after quaffing a swallow of the drink, I folded my arms over the table, laid a cheek on them and dozed off.
I had no sooner fallen asleep than somebody fired a pistol outside. That’s what I think I heard when I leapt on the chair, planted one foot on the table, unsheathed my dagger and faced the door, ready to strike or parry.
The door flew open. Gilbert marched in, followed by the enigma. As if picking up the thread of a conversation from where we had left off, he said: “You received Antonia’s letter in time. Thank God!”
“What letter?” I sheathed my dagger and sat back down. Remembering what Father had said a couple of days earlier about my state of mind, I pictured myself for a second being dragged off to a sanctuary for the insane. Gilbert couldn’t be mistaking me for someone else. Or could he?
As I gaped at the pair of them, he shut the door with his heel, came a step closer and confided: “The Spanish ambassador has been ordered to leave the country.”
“Forthwith!” Those two syllables exploded out of the enigma’s jaws like crackers.
I shook my head. She nodded hers. Gilbert continued: “The ambassador found out we’re related and sent his commercial envoy to tell me that he would like to see you before his departure. How does he know you?”
“Don Bernardino de Mendoza?” The enigma nodded again. “He attended a retreat at Hoghton Tower when I worked in Lancashire.”
Gilbert took a sip from my cup of ale and stood beside me while the mysterious lady told the rest of the story.
It turned out that she was living with him – ostensibly as his merchandise appraiser. Her name was Antonia Garibaldi.
Born in Swansea to an Italian piano teacher and a Portuguese songstress, Antonia sang her way across the Continent for a decade from the age of eighteen. She spent a year in Lisbon, three in Genoa, two in Paris and her last four in Madrid as a servant of the royal family.
While in Spain, she reduced her last name to Garrick and joined the Society of Jesus as a messenger under the code name Melody.
Shortly before the latest row erupted between King Philip and Queen Elizabeth, Antonia arrived in London with mail and unwritten messages for Ambassador de Mendoza. A week after they met, he created a new post at the embassy, that of commercial envoy, and offered it to her.
Antonia accepted the post. But at the end of her second day of employment, Don Bernardino showed her a royal order he had received that morning expelling the Spanish mission from England.
The commercial envoy had not yet been introduced to Londoners as Spain’s newest diplomat in their city – meaning that somebody, anybody else, could easily pretend to be her. The ambassador decided to take advantage of the situation. He wanted one person to be seen leaving the country in his retinue as Antonia Garibaldi while Antonia Garrick stayed behind as – I am quoting my brother here – “King Philip’s eyes and ears in England.”
That was why the embassy had enlisted Gilbert’s help. He provided Antonia with a room in his house. Immediately after moving in with him, she wrote me to inquire if I would be interested in travelling to Spain as her other self.
While Gilbert and his lodger recounted all that, my mind raced through the lively streets of faraway Rome. I had, as it were, been transported on two wings: the cheering power of Gilbert’s achievements and the excitement at realizing that I could accomplish my mission sooner than I had anticipated – with most, if not all, of my travelling expenses covered by the Spanish crown to boot.
I went to bed that night feeling tipsy. It could have been merely from the malmsey Antonia had pressed on me after supper. But I doubt it.
First thing the next morning, I shaved smooth my legs and arms; face and head. Shortly afterwards, while putting away the last bit of custard Antonia had made for breakfast, I thanked her and said: “I must go and see the ambassador this afternoon.”
“Gilbert!” she called. “Mistress Garibaldi here needs your help.” Clasping both hands on my pate, she chuckled and said: “We won’t open the shop until you’re looking exactly like me – or as nearly as possible.”
By dinner time, she and Gilbert had me looking like her indeed. To further prepare myself for the role I was about to take on, I tried to recite the opening lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseydeusing a Spanish accent.
“You’re not a Spaniard,” Antonia reminded me. “You’re of Italian-Portuguese descent – which is much safer for you in the present climate?”
“English officers are guarding the entrances to every piece of property owned by Spain, and they’re recording and checking and crosschecking the names of everyone going in or out of the buildings.”
“What do I tell them about myself? Besides my name and ancestry.”
“That you’re the embassy’s newly-appointed commercial envoy. The consular officer has your passport. He’ll also give you a marriage certificate. You’re supposed to have been married.”
“Supposed?” I buckled my high-heels and signalled Antonia to walk before me, so I could practise her strut. As we circled the dining table, I asked: “Whom did I marry? Supposedly. When and where?”
We completed two full turns around the table before Antonia replied over her shoulder: “Alejandro González Muñoz, a Spanish naval captain. Two years ago. In Madrid.” She stopped, turned around and faced me. “A month before our wedding, Alejandro was killed in one of Francis Bloody Drake’s unprovoked assaults on Spanish vessels. He married me by proxy, with the fellow officer who brought me the news standing in for him. My certificate was backdated to twenty-eight days before his death.”
Antonia wiped her eyes with the tips of her thumbs and walked to the kitchen window, sniffling. I followed her. Laying my hands gently on her shoulders, I said: “My condolences.”
After an intensely quiet moment, I stepped between her and the window. She enfolded me in her arms and sobbed: “Don’t bring my documents back. Give them to the king’s secretary – if you go to Madrid. If not, you may hand them over to the Spanish embassy in Rome or destroy them yourself any time before returning home. I already have an English passport as Antonia Garrick.”
“Made in Spain?”
“Made in Spain.” She smiled, took a couple of paces backward, dried her tears again and walked me to the door.
Later that afternoon, I waited for nearly an hour in the antechamber of the ambassador’s office while Sir Francis Walsingham, who was said to be exasperatingly tight-lipped, harangued him on the manner in which he and his “gang of spies” were to evacuate their premises. When the Spymaster General finally stormed out, I glided in as noiselessly as a penitent entering a confessional.
Don Bernardino said “Buenas tardes, Antonia” and proceeded to give me instructions which he punctuated with volleys of epithets in flaming Spanish.
I took three or four jaunty steps sideways to his left. Having made sure that a curtain shielded me from the view of anybody who might be peeping in from outside, I stroked my wig, dipped a curtsy and said: “Shakspere at your service”.
“Madre de Dios!” The ambassador’s jowls dropped. I took the seat in front of him. Sinking deep into his own, he spread an open palm on his desk and pinned his elfin chin on the back of his hand.
“William Shakspere?” He peered at me as if a dense fog were rising between us. “What a come down! The last time I saw you, why, you were that fabulously rich heiress who had to marry the suitor who elected the right casket out of three.”
“Lady Janet Summerside in The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco.”
“Now look at you.” Don Bernardino stood up and covered his face with a napkin as he tried hard to suppress a fit of laughter. “Look at you,” he managed to repeat, “a hapless widow who has to work for a living.” Pushing his chair back, he bent down, pulled a drawer open, retrieved an envelope and slid it on the desk to me.
“Muchas gracias, Excellency.” I uncrossed my legs and laid the envelope on my lap.
“Diplomatic passport. Civilian laissez-passer. Marriage licence. Some dinero.” The ambassador moved closer to me as he named each item in my possession. “They’re watching us from every angle. If you’re able to return safely to Saint Bride’s, don’t come back here. Walsingham’s agents are desperately searching for you – they’ve been for the last ten months.”
“Why, my lord? What wrong have I done?”
“None. It’s not for having done a wrong; but for doing something wrongly. To be precise, the man they want is Peter two Saints.”
“Pedro dos Santos? I am very, very sorry, Excellency. A couple of years ago, I came down here…”
“Impersonating Doctor Beaverbrook. Bishop Watson has told me what happened.”
“When we were arrested, the booking officer wouldn’t stop asking us questions about our lives. I thought it wise to dissociate myself from Winchester’s Men. So I told him I was from Spain.”
“Next time, say you’re Egyptian. Or Aztec. Anything but Spanish. And don’t give anyone a bloody nose in a staged fight.”
“I said I’d never met the troupe before. I came to London to learn English. I was out walking when I saw the players fighting. I tried to stop the fray. But one of the brawlers mocked my English and called me dirty Diego. That’s why I punched him.”
“Well, the officer was afraid you might be an intelligencer. He duly informed the Lieutenant of the Tower, who duly notified the Spymaster General, who duly apprised Her Majesty, the Queen. None of them believes me when I say there’s no Spaniard anywhere in England called Pedro dos Santos.”
Don Bernardino tiptoed to the door of his antechamber and peeped through its keyhole. Then he came and stood as close to me as he possibly could without traversing the boundaries of decorum. “Next Monday morning,” he whispered, “report at my residence before sunrise, departure-ready.”
We heard someone enter the antechamber and sit down. I stood up, walked close to the door and asked loudly: “Will you require anything else before we leave, my lord?”
The ambassador responded in kind: “Nothing that I can think of right now.” He opened the door for me. As I swept past him, he said: “Remember to bake some churros for the journey.”
I stopped, turned around, flashed a smile at Ambassador de Mendoza and told him: “I’ve already started doing so, Excellency.”
A burly, barrel-chested, uniformed officer rose to his feet and bowed in my direction. As he strode into the ambassador’s office, I bounced away.
Four days later, I bade a cordial farewell to SHAKE-SPEARE HABERDASHERY (Gilbert’s spelling of our family name was different from mine). At daybreak, impeccably accoutred and fully provisioned as Antonia Garibaldi, I set sail with Don Bernardino de Mendoza and his retinue. First thing aboard ship, as the fog-covered shores of England receded from view, I drank a solitary, belated toast to Susanna’s first birthday.
The Spanish mission took me as far as Bordeaux before I reassumed my true identity. From there, I rode to Marseille by way of Toulouse. After spending one week in Marseille regaining my strength, I boarded a French merchant ship to Livorno, whence I completed my journey to Rome by land.
It was a glorious afternoon in the spring of 1585 when I entered the Eternal City as Arthurus Stratfordus Wigorniensis. That was the name in the Italian passport which the de Hoghtons had obtained for me in case I needed to visit any of the Low Countries where the English were not welcome.
My Latin name was intended to describe me to Catholic authorities as “(a traveller from the land of King) Arthur (born in) Stratford (in the diocese of) Worcester”. Arthur, incidentally, was my nom de guerre. I say nom de guerre, rather than Jesuit code name, because from about the time I finished training as a messenger, I thought of myself as a warrior for the Church of Rome. And later, the Arden-Somerville incident made me feel duty-bound to avenge the state-sanctioned butchery of my mother’s cousin.
Having been to Rome twice before, I didn’t need to ask for directions to the via di Monserrato, where stands what should have been the final stop in my journey, the Collegium Anglicum. Within an hour of my arrival, I was registered at the Pilgrims’ Hospice – an integral part of the English college.
No sooner did I book in, however, than I was informed that Emmanuel had already left for Salamanca.
“Nearly eleven months now,” said Giacomo di Grassi, a fencing master and Knight Hospitaller I had met on my second trip. He had just finished giving lessons to a class of seminarians when we ran into each other at the hospice.
“And your other countryman, the Oxford one, was here. But he too left last week. For Valencia.”
The Earl of Oxford dabbled in the silk trade when abroad – a pursuit which occasionally took him to Spain, where he bought merchandise for a Venetian trader who paid him shares out of his retail profits.
“But another one came recently,” continued the fencing master. “Calls himself Guido. Are you expecting him?”
“No, never heard the name before.”
“Funny name, Guido. For an English, I mean. Anyhow, he’s asking for you all over. Your brother in London told him what you look like.”
In spite of our lodging only five doors apart, three whole days went by before Guido and I met – on the morning of Easter Sunday. I had been awakened by the chiming of church bells. When I finished dressing, it was already brighter outside than at high noon on a summer’s day in England, and far hotter. On a morning such as that, I would ordinarily have taken to the hills of the Italian countryside in search of peace in surroundings conducive to contemplation.
But, after agonizing in solitude for a couple of days about what to do next, I craved companionship. And that’s what I hoped to find when I attended Mass that morning in the college chapel. Yet, while my body sweltered in an animated congregation, my heart was in Stratford; my sight on Salamanca. And I could afford neither to return home nor proceed to Spain.
That last observation was an understatement. My purse had been cut on Good Friday – apparently when I stopped to watch a street brawl on my way to attending the stations of the cross at Saint Peter’s. The cutpurse relieved me of ninety-six ducats, all the money I had left in the world.
To mourn my loss, I walked to the fountain of Santa Maria del Popolo and lay on the ground, listening to water babble late into the night.
When I returned to the hospice in the small hours of Holy Saturday, it was to discover that my room had been ransacked. Antonia’s Spanish passport and my English one were nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, I had had the Italian one on my person.
As I was reliving those and other mishaps which clouded every one of the sunny days I wasted in Rome that spring, a fellow worshipper whispered an invitation in my ear before preceding me into the aisle to go and receive holy communion. On our way back from the altar, the stranger didn’t resume his place beside me in the pew. He walked straight out of the chapel.
The puzzling invitation took my mind off my headaches for a good while. “Look for me in the refectory this evening,” the youth had said. He had appeared to be considerably younger than me. I wouldn’t have imagined for one moment that he had travelled from England unaccompanied.
But travel from England, he had. And all by himself.
I caught another glimpse of him at that evening’s Benediction. After the blessing, he followed me to the refectory and, as we sat down, introduced himself as Guy Fawkes. His Jesuit code name was Fuego.
Guy was on his way to Flanders, where he hoped to celebrate his sixteenth birthday by enrolling in the Spanish army. Like me roughly five years earlier, he had recently left France sans cérémonieafter Christopher Marlowe fingered him too as an English seminarian studying in Rheims under a false name. Also like me, he had arrived in Rome just in time for Holy Week – having first gone to Madrid, where he obtained a birth certificate and passport as Guido Fawkes; and thence to London to deliver several messages that other agents would forward to church authorities and underground units across the country.
A veritable store of information, the venturous youngster handed me a folded sheet and said: “Letter for you. From your brother. You also have an invitation from Bishop Watson.”
In an instant a pang of anxiety quashed what little appetite I had. While the bearer devoured his cavatappi and arancini, I read my letter.
Gilbert wrote to inform me that Anne had been delivered of twins in February: a boy and a girl. They were named after their godparents: Hamnet and Judith Sadler. The babies and their mother were all in good health.
Forgetting for a second that I wasn’t alone, I murmured: “Agnes and Grace could foresee the future after all.”
“Agnes and who?”
“Grace. Friends of mine. They had visions of what my brother reports here.” I passed Guy the letter and replaced his empty plate with my insalata di mare.
Embarking on his second course, he said “Your invitation,” smacked his lips and pointed to a list on top of which were inscribed the words MEET ME IN MALABO. The list contained twelve names – Bishop Watson’s invitees, to every one of whom Guy told me he had sent his message by word of mouth.
Nine of the names (aliases, to be exact) were those of well-known recusants back home in England. I was listed as W. Shakeshafte (Rome). Also listed as currently out of the country were the Earl of Oxford as “Ed XVII” (Venice) and Manuel Lopez (Salamanca). Emmanuel used his Portuguese name when abroad.
The Bishop of Winchester wanted all of us to meet him in Corisco, the capital of the Kingdom of Malabo, on or before the first day of November. That was All Saints’ Day in 1585. We were to sail through the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco or Mauritania, from either of which countries we could board Malabese vessels to Corisco. If any two or more of us happened to be residing in the same city or neighbouring cities when we received his message, he suggested that the neighbours arrange to travel together.
On All Saints’ Day, the first ordination to the priesthood of a native Malabese was going to take place in Corisco. Later that day, the first “English college” outside Europe was going to be officially opened in the island city. Both firsts were thanks in no small part to the financial support of some of the invitees and the cautious superintendence of Mother Isola of Corisco and Thomas Jenkins, Emeritus Master of the King’s New School, Stratford-upon-Avon.
The following Sunday, the new priest would be installed as the first rector of All Saints’ College of Corisco.
His lordship had been invited to preside over the ceremonies. He hoped we would all be able to attend them as representatives of England.
“Can you guess where Malabo is?” Guy asked after finally ending his message, which I had interrupted several times with questions of my own.
“Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.” I could hear Emmanuel’s voice in the back of my mind as I hunched over the table to engage Guy’s attention. “Until this moment, I didn’t believe the kingdom existed. Emmanuel told me about it a dozen years ago. When he did, I thought it was an invention of his over-heated imagination.”
How could I have believed my friend when he started by saying he and Master Jenkins had been to a country where it never snowed, where it was summer from year’s end to year’s end. The only credible thing I recalled him saying in connection with the kingdom was that his real father had worked there for six years.
Standing up, Guy said: “The kingdom isn’t on any map I’ve seen. Bishop Watson told me that’s because it’s not a single land mass, but a confederation, or something like that, of hundreds of islands.” He picked up our trays and took them back to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, he returned with three blank sheets of paper, a quill pen and a pot of ink. “These are from the pantry. For you.”
As the courier sat down and kicked the bottom of our table, nearly spilling my ink, his fidgets began to make me uneasy.
I had noticed that he was in a perpetual state of nervousness, which manifested itself in a variety of spontaneous bodily movements – putting me in mind of a mole searching for a burrow to scamper into. While not exactly stammering, he shut his eyes when he opened his mouth to begin speaking, and then slewed them around in all directions as he spoke. His lips twitched every five minutes or so. And whenever he emphasized a point he would grab both of his knees and lean forward as if about to leap.
He had gone to the Spanish embassy three days earlier and told the ambassador about Bishop Watson’s list and about my name being on it. The embassy was going to defray all the expenses of my journey to Corisco.
For the rest of our evening together, he did most of the talking while I jotted down the gist of the latest intelligence from home that I was to deliver to English Catholics in Valencia on my way to Corisco. I remember my final jottings reading something like “Fierce fighting in the Netherlands between English and Spanish forces. Dutch Protestants allying themselves with England. Messengers travelling to the Low Countries must be particularly circumspect.”
By the time we returned to our rooms, all of our fellow pilgrims were already asleep. I envied them their peace of mind. The cloud of privation which hung over me until that morning had dissipated. Granted. But contemplating the journey I was about to embark on proved more agitating than the fear of destitution.
Easter Monday came and went much too slowly for me. I needed to be occupied. But the Spanish embassy, where they could have kept me busy preparing for my trip, was closed.
I killed an entire day dreaming of foreign parts. And long before its doors opened the next morning, I was sitting on the steps of the embassy, which was a short walk from my hospice. But it would be mid-morning before the ambassador’s clerk introduced me to him.
“This thing, they ‘appen,” said his excellency after I finished relating my Holy Week misfortunes. “Money come, money go. Pasaporte come, pasaporte go. Just like everything else.”
Enrique de Guzmán, the Count of Olivarez, whose stature dwarfed all those around him, was in the twilight of his days and hampered by a stiff knee. Yet, he exhibited a level of inborn alacrity which would have befitted the landlord of a tavern. I was deeply touched to see a man of his degree go out of his way to put at ease the mind of a helpless foreigner, a total stranger.
He hadn’t taken breakfast at home. Upon my saying that I too hadn’t eaten yet, he ordered four trays of food and drinks to be delivered to his office. About half an hour later, he told his clerk, who brought us our viands, that we were not to be disturbed for the rest of the day. And, to make sure we were not, he bolted his door.
Pointing at the row of trays, Don Enrique said: “That should be good for a full day. There’s a jordan be’ind the door to your right – should you need to use one.” Then he sat down, folded his elongated arms over his chest, leaned back, and asked: “’Ow much you will charge me for to adopt you?”
I had just put a hard-boiled egg in my mouth. It slipped, whole, down my throat, leaving me speechless for the longest minute of my life. “What do you mean, Excellency? I’m not an orphan. Besides, I turned twenty-one last spring.”
“King Felipe, ‘e needs a man like you in London. Don Bernardino and ‘is friend, the Obispo of Chester-something…”
“Winchester. The Bishop of Winchester.”
“They write very ‘ighly about you. Permit me to adopt you without formalities, por favor. ‘Twill be for me a especial honour if you return to England as a citissen of Espain, the son of Enrique de Guzmán, and a teniente in the service of King Felipe.”
“Excellency, I don’t think…”
“Suffer me to terminate. This embassy, it has its own mili tarry bood… How you say, bood-get?
“I shall personally see to it that your pay is dispatchèd estraight from here, not from Madrid, to that house where you usèd to teach. Every junio and every diciembre. For all of your life.”
“What will be my duties as an officer in the king’s army?”
“Recruiting and training. After Malabo, you go back to England. You recruit two-to-three ‘undred men, brave Catholics, and you wait for orders from Madrid. My country is planning a attack which will make Isabel wish she ‘ad married Felipe and abolishèd her father’s church. Before our armada she arrive, you post your men in estrategical places. They will ‘elp our marineros to enter in London and to cumplish their misión.”
The ambassador’s knees creaked as he leaned forward and got to his feet. He hadn’t touched any of his food thus far, whereas I was already half-way through my first tray. Cracking his knuckles, left and right, and left again, he said: “My favourate esnack. You ‘ave eaten a banana before?”
“No, my lord. What’s it like?”
Without answering me, Don Enrique picked up a long, curved, yellowish fruit and stripped off its skin – amazingly nimbly, given the size of his fingers. He broke the naked fruit in the middle and, inserting one half in his mouth, handed me the other. The snack resembled a truncated member. I put it on my plate. Covering the plate, I said: “Excellency, to reunite England to the Church of Rome, I would dare unseat Queen Elizabeth single-handedly. But what you propose is beyond my scope. You require a seasoned warrior for this role.”
“Señor Alex…the ‘Og…de ‘Oghton, ‘e will advise and ‘elp you. ‘E and Don Bernardino, they are in communication. They already ‘ave ‘undreds of Jesuits estationèd in London. Your job is not complicated. You choose the right men. You tell them what to do when the time comes. Nothing more.”
Ambassador de Guzmán had already drafted the terms of a military service contract between me (his son) and the Spanish army. He and I went over them together, word by word to the last syllable. When we eventually emerged from his office, it was so late not another soul remained in the entire edifice of the Spanish embassy.
Copyright: Raphael Soné