The Corisco Conspiracy
FOUR: The Fall of a Sparrow
Returning to 1574, Emmanuel spent the Christmas of that year in Lancashire, where Master Jenkins had influential connections in the Catholic underground. We didn’t see each other again until the small hours of one Sunday the following January. He came home with Father and me after Mass.
I passed the entire day basking in his company, hearing him tell of the palatial households he and Master Jenkins visited and of the distinguished recusants he had met in person. Then, at one point after supper, he asked hesitantly: “If I were to tell you a secret, would you swear never to divulge it?”
“Why would I have to swear? You know I’m no telltale.”
“I’m a messenger. They made me one at Christmas.”
He was sitting on Gilbert’s bed while I sat on mine opposite him. Craning my neck until it hurt, I bombarded him with questions: “A messenger? Like an angel? For a company? Or for a family?”
“For the Society of Jesus.” I could have sworn he spoke without parting his lips. “I’m a Jesuit messenger. My secret service code name is Daniel. Look.” With his right index and middle fingers he pinched a little black handkerchief out of his left stocking, spread it open on my knee and pointed at the tiny, white Greek letter embroidered in its centre. Then he explained: “As of this day, if you hear a man or boy say his father likes or used to like hunting, take a close look at what he’s wearing. Chances are that you’ll see an alpha inscribed somewhere on his clothing or foot- or head-wear. That’s how we identify ourselves to one another.”
I was tempted to ask another question; but dared not. Although he was soft-spoken and rarely made his presence felt anywhere, Emmanuel disliked nothing more than being interrupted. He continued: “A girl or woman who says her mother enjoys or enjoyed gardening could also be saying that she’s a Jesuit messenger. If she’s one she’d likely be wearing an omega.”
Both Greek letters have since been replaced with other symbols.
My friend paused, and stretched. I took advantage of the brief lull and interjected: “What do messengers do?”
“Jesuit,” he emphasized. “Jesuit messengers deliver highly sensitive communication by word of mouth, strictly by word of mouth, to Church authorities and underground groups.”
Emmanuel had told me a year or so earlier that his name meant “God is with us” in Hebrew or some other ancient language. It was all I could do at that moment not to kneel down and worship him. Stretching the handkerchief enviously on my thigh, I pleaded: “Can I become one?”
“You’re already on the path to becoming one. But you didn’t hear it from me.”
“How do you mean?” I threw the handkerchief in the air. He caught it and slid it back into his stocking.
“On the morning we left for Lancashire, the padre told Master Jenkins and your father that you won’t need to be baptized a second time; you can be formally welcomed into the Catholic faith with a simple blessing. That was after your father asked him what has to be done before you begin your training.”
“Father Cuthbert has already given me the blessing. And I start receiving Holy Communion next Easter.”
Lowering his already low voice even further, he asked: “Do you hear footsteps?”
I didn’t have to answer. We both rose as Gilbert strolled into the room, a piece of bacon in each hand.
Emmanuel feigned a yawn and snapped: “Let’s go for a walk.”
A little more than half an hour later, I was circling Holy Trinity Church pretending to look for insects, of which I was an avid collector. Emmanuel had invited me to go to the church with him. He had his foster father’s key to the sacristy and was already inside. Having made sure there was no one nearby to see me, I too went in.
“What the blazes are you doing?” There was a lit candle on the floor of a closet full of vestments, the door almost completely closed. “Are we here to burn the church down?”
As I crouched to take the candle out, Emmanuel pulled my arm back.
“Did you see any light before entering the sacristy?”
“No, I didn’t!”
“Well, there’s your answer,” he said, as composed as a monk at prayer. “We can see without being seen.” He spun around and climbed on a stool. Opening a cupboard, he hefted down a large bottle of wine and squinted at it. He turned it round and round several times: upside down; and right side up.
I half-guessed what he was up to, but inquired all the same: “What are you doing?”
“Checking for scratches.”
“Marks on the bottle indicating the level of the juice in it.”
Having assured himself that there was no traitorous marking on the bottle, he uncorked it, pushed it towards me, raised a cruet with both hands and whispered: “Just a few drops.”
As I lifted the bottle, images of Hell’s fire flashed before me. My hands quivered. Hoping to stop the trembling by not looking at the sin we were about to commit, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, Emmanuel was frowning. I had ejected, not a few drops of the elixir, but something like a tumbler. And I had missed the cruet by more than a span.
Our heads must have bumped half a dozen times as we cleaned the top of the counter dry with our tongues. After we were done licking up the spill, Emmanuel coughed and said: “Give it a few minutes – you’re going to feel warm all over.”
“Don’t you mean frantic all over. My gullet is on fire.”
“That could be the Holy Spirit coming down on you.”
“Or Lucifer burning his way out,” I countered. He giggled. I grinned.
Emmanuel put the communion wine back in the cupboard, lit a second candle and gave it to me. With each of us carrying a candle, the light diligently shielded in our cupped hands, I followed him to the baptismal font, under which was the entrance to the tunnel. We took a walk to Saint Peter’s before returning home.
I woke up the next morning in a daze and remained in that state for weeks running. How to tell Father that I was dying to become a Jesuit messenger? How to do so without betraying Emmanuel’s confidence? When would be the best time? Would an opportune moment ever come?
After what seemed like an eternity, I was returning home from delivering a pair of gloves to one of our neighbours on Holy Saturday, the eve of my first communion, when I saw Father sitting on his horse in front of the house. He beckoned. I ran to him. He bent down, said in my ear “Look under your pillow” and rode off.
Under my pillow lay a dog-eared little book with the barely legible title Codes and Symbols of the Society of Jesus. That was all it contained: a numbered list of one hundred and eleven codes and symbols. No key. No notes. No explanations.
Father Cuthbert started training me the following day.
For the next two years, Emmanuel didn’t spend his Saturdays and Sundays at our house. Because his foster father taught us languages and oversaw our education in general, at the end of the school day on Fridays I went straight to their home – close to the school on Church Street – and stayed with them until Sunday evening.
They assured me I was going to be operative by the end of my second formative year. But I could tell from the very beginning that I had committed myself to a life-long learning process.
Backed by devout families (rich and poor) right across the land, the Society of Jesus pays for its agents to study every art and science for which they have the aptitude. From acting to diplomacy. From basic first aid to survival at sea. From horseback riding to warfare.
I was introduced to acting, impersonation, fencing, mimicry, boxing and other survival skills before I was twelve. On my twelfth birthday the highlight of the event was my interpreting for Reverend Cuthbert Mayne every one of the five score and eleven symbols and codes in Codes and Symbols of the Society of Jesus– forward and backward, from Acolyte to Zealot.
While my training was in progress, Emmanuel and I didn’t forego the pleasure of an occasional sip of communion wine. After that night of the spill, we returned to the sacristy of Holy Trinity Church once or twice a month – bringing with us some aqua pura with which to raise the wine back to its original level after helping ourselves.
But our drinking escapades didn’t last as long as we would have liked. They were brought to an abrupt end late one Sunday evening in the spring of 1577.
Three or four weeks earlier, Master Jenkins had had a copy made of his church key without telling Emmanuel.
On the evening in question, Emmanuel had gone ahead of me as usual. When I arrived, the sacristy looked brightly lit. Instead of regarding the light shining through the windows as an ill omen, and not proceeding, I plucked up my courage and pulled the door open.
Not one or two or three, but four candles in a row were burning steadily in full view. And there, on his one leg, stood Master Jenkins, his pillowy abdomen securely anchored on the edge of the counter; his smooth-shaven, ruddy face glowing in the light. He moved not a muscle. I would have mistaken him for a statue had a tear drop not fallen from his eye into a chalice standing on a bundle in front of him. Staring down at the chalice so intently that I feared it might contain hemlock, he croaked: “Come in, William.”
The floor spun under my feet. More questions reeled through my mind in a single minute than anyone could have answered in sixty. Had the schoolmaster been hiding here to catch us in the act? How long has he known? Is that why he’s crying? Where on earth is…?
Before I could ask Master Jenkins if he had seen my co-miscreant, he cleared his throat and tilted his shock of grey hair slightly to the left – that is to say to the opposite end of the counter from where I was standing. Without taking his eyes away from the articles before him, he whispered in a voice which remained stubbornly hoarse: “Bring these home for me, will you.”
Emmanuel had been kneeling in his shadow right beside him. He rose and answered: “Yes, sir.”
The schoolmaster lifted his crutch with a shivering hand, inserted it under his armpit and gave each of us a nod. Eyes down-cast, he hopped out of the sacristy seeming not to look where he was going. I held the door open and followed his back with my eyes until it disappeared in the darkness.
Then a flash of lightning shot across the sky like an angry, luminous serpent. In the one or two seconds that it flickered, I saw Master Jenkins fall on his face. And boom! Thunder shredded our blanket of disquieting silence and transformed the darkness before me into a roaring, fearsome monster.
“Lord, let him arrive home before it starts pouring,” I prayed, still looking outside.
Emmanuel elbowed me and I took a step back into the sacristy. He shut the door; assumed the spot where his foster father had been standing; and, like him, stared briefly at the articles on the counter. Lifting the chalice and wiping off Master Jenkins’s tear drop, he began to shed tears of his own.
“There’s a messenger in our house,” he sobbed, the heels of his hands clapped to his eyes.
“Where from?” I too began to choke without knowing why.
“Launceton, a town in East Cornwall.”
Oblivious to my presence, Emmanuel carried on as if performing a ritual. He blew out the candle nearest him; unfolded the black cassock in which were wrapped a biretta and stole, two cinctures and a pair of sandals; laid the chalice between the sandals and extinguished the next candle. Rewrapping the chalice and other items in the cassock, he put out candle number three before looking at me and saying: “Father Cuthbert has been caught celebrating Mass. He’s under arrest. The messenger says there’s no hope that he’ll be set free. So we’re sending him his personal belongings.”
It was I who extinguished the last candle.
On his way outside, Emmanuel elbowed me again; this time as a mute request to lock the door; which I did. He was, as a rule, more aloof than a royal personage. But when he reached the foot of the stairs outside that dark, foreboding night, he put his bundle down and very nearly smothered me with a hug before we began walking, each to his own home, under the weight of an oppressive silence.
A week after his fifteenth birthday the following August, my friend left for the English college in Douai. When I bade him goodbye, it was as one proud Jesuit messenger to another.
Little did we imagine that a mere three months later I would be writing Emmanuel to inform him that the stalwart of the old religion who initiated my training as a courier for the Society of Jesus had been taken from us. The first seminary priest to fall victim to Queen Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic crusade, Father Cuthbert Mayne was hanged in Launceton on the twenty-ninth of November, 1577.
Copyright: Raphael Soné