The Corisco Conspiracy
THREE: Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies
An owl hooted from a tree across the street. I hopped on Father’s back. He carried me to the rear of the house. There he pushed the door quietly open without knocking. Having closed it behind him, he bowed and confessed: “This is where I was when our house was raided last Sunday.”
He need not have shown me around, had that been his intention. The halls and passages of the old mansion were as familiar to me as our own modest house. Or so I thought at that point.
There, directly in front of me, was the corridor leading to the congelation chamber, as Madame Vandroogenbroek’s pupils called her chilly classroom behind her back.
I peered down the passage and stared with a tinge of hitherto unexpressed relief at the hall where I had spent Lord knows how many dreary hours reciting prayers, manipulating numbers, memorizing the Catechism and practising the delicate art of Comportment. My jaws tightened and I froze solid. The thought had just crossed my mind that I could easily have been one of the five out of the thirteen boys in my class who didn’t survive the fires and the on-again off-again plague epidemics of our ABC days.
Having replaced his boots with a pair of slippers which fitted him as if they were his, Father stood erect, his back to the door.
Before bending down to take my boots off, I asked him: “Do you and your friends attend funerals every Saturday night?”
“We’re not here…” He stopped and beamed a smile over my head.
The undertaker had apparently heard us enter and was coming to greet us – which he did without speaking. Offering me one hand to shake, he tousled my hair with the other. Then he simultaneously bowed to Father and pointed us the way to the funeral parlour.
I walked backwards behind them to see how far I could get without bumping into an object. As a Vandroogenbroeck pupil, I had walked thus countless times on a dare.
The funeral parlour was off limits to Madame’s boys. That night Father took me to meet “some” of his “friends” was therefore the first time I set foot in the mournful wing of the Taylor residence.
Going by its size and the extent to which it was outfitted for its purposes, the hall where Master Taylor attended the deceased was four or five times more important than the classroom next door. On the walls hung coffins of various dimensions and a fortune in funeral paraphernalia. A mighty oak table stood in the centre of the hall. Since the dozen or so matching chairs within sight were lined up along the walls, I deduced with a shudder that the table served to prepare the dead for burial.
Under the table lay an ornate coffin which would have been oversize even for Hercules.
“That one is special.” The undertaker had caught me gaping in bewilderment at the huge receptacle. He was standing on one side of the table while Father and I stood on the other. He bowed to me and added: “Watch and learn.” After nearly blasting me off my feet with a nasal explosion, he excused himself; and then repeated more solemnly: “Watch and learn.”
Father stooped down and opened the coffin. Without taking his slippers off, he climbed into it and lay flat on his back.
“Master Taylor will show you what to do after I’m gone,” he said, waving at me and pulling the lid down. Shut.
Our host took four or five wooden strides over to my side of the table. Laying his broad, heavy hands on my shoulders, he mumbled: “You will follow the Justice of the Peace shortly, my son.”
“I’m only ten, sir!” Pulling myself away, I made for the door as fast as my feet could carry me.
“No. Oh no! You misknow my meaning.”
The undertaker caught up with me before I could realize my exitus. Frightened to death, I slid on my stomach between his legs, jumped up behind him and ran back to the blood-curdling theatre. Just as he was about to grab me, the monumental coffin popped open. It was empty.
“Where is he?” I burst into tears.
“Downstairs. In the chapel. Didn’t your father tell you why you’re here?”
“Yes – that he was going to introduce me to some friends of his.”
“Well, the friends are downstairs. Look. Come here.”
I took three reluctant steps forward and stood beside Master Taylor, the combined sweat from fear and exertion overflowing from my temples. Out of his pocket he whipped the kerchief in which he had just blown his nose, dropped it on my head, and then rolled down the lining on one side of the Grim Reaper’s container. Above the lowered lining glowed a silver handle.
“There!” Looking relieved and obviously believing that with that exclamation he had set my mind at ease, the undertaker paused for a brief moment to allow a wry smile to crinkle his grave aspect. “Step inside, William,” he ordered. “Lie flat like your father did. And pull this lever down after I close the lid.”
Lot’s petrified wife came to my mind as I gazed at Master Taylor, unable to move either leg. He lifted me and laid me in the coffin, saying: “You’ll be in Heaven – in the chapel, I mean – before your heart stops pounding.”
The lid came down. I took a deep breath, arched my back a little, reached for the handle and pulled. Gingerly.
As the bottom dropped off the eerie apparatus and I was lowered, corpse-like, into Father’s waiting arms, I heard my godfather, Undertaker Jeremiah William Taylor, do something he never before did to my hearing in the seven years that I had known him. He laughed.
I too came as close to laughing as I possibly could under the circumstances. My heart was indeed still pounding, and Father was indeed standing in the back of a chapel, when I completed my descent. His “friends” were an entire congregation. Barely visible in a dense cloud of candle fumes, they had turned to watch me disembark. They greeted me with muted tapping on their pews.
“You’re in a Catholic church,” Father said. Squeezing me tight on his breast, he strutted to the altar steps. “This one was built nearly forty years ago,” he continued, “by an abbot from the north – brother of the present sexton, Master Taylor. According to the abbot’s will, the funeral chamber above shall always be inherited by a Roman Catholic…”
When we reached the altar, Father presented me to a priest, who marked the sign of the cross with his thumb on my forehead, on my chest, and on each shoulder. Following which, the congregation again clapped quietly on their pews.
The priest looked familiar. I very nearly swooned as he took me into his arms and said: “Welcome to the faith of our fathers.”
There was no mistaking that voice. The vicar who presided over the three Church of England services Mother had so far taken me to attend at Holy Trinity Church and this man were one and the same person.
“Do you pray…?” I was about to ask him if he also worshipped in the other church, when he put me down, turned his back on us, crossed himself and intoned in his foreign-sounding baritone: “In nomine Patris…”
Father and I took our places in one of the front pews, and the reverend proceeded to conduct a service from start to finish entirely in Latin. Perhaps I was wrong after all. I couldn’t recall hearing the pastor of Holy Trinity say anything in Latin.
Throughout the service, I was bewitched by myriads of stony eyes peeping at me in the semi-darkness of the chapel. This was a church like I had never seen before – not even in pictures. It was decorated with all kinds of ornaments. Crucifixes, large and small. Portraits and statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Dozens of other holy men and women. Angels above and below. Stations of the Cross. Everything Mother told me had been banned by King Henry the Eighth and was now banned by his daughter Elizabeth.
“How did you like your first Holy Mass?” Father asked me after the service was over.
“Very much,” I replied just as the celebrant cleared his throat and half-shouted: “Excuse me!”
We stopped murmuring. All eyes turned to him. “Please remember,” he announced, “that, as usual, the women and all children under twelve, except boys accompanied by adult males, are to leave by the tunnel.”
I had been wondering how long it would take the Lazarus bed to lift every one of us back to the funeral parlour. Excited and bedazzled, I tugged Father’s hand and inquired: “Tunnel?” He bowed to our right. Thinking he was showing me where the tunnel was located, I turned.
Emmanuel Jenkins! In his Sunday best.
Father dragged me back by the collar and reminded me where I was before I could scream into Emmanuel’s arms. My lips twitched and all I could say was: “Isn’t this place awful!”
“More awful than awful,” Emmanuel assented, pulling me aside. “It’s known as Saint Peter’s. I call it Saint Peter of the Catacombs.”
“You’ve been here before! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was made to swear never to tell anybody who isn’t Catholic.” Emmanuel pulled me farther away from the rest of the congregation before adding: “I’ve been attending Mass here since I was seven. Father Cuthbert says Catholics all over the country know about this chapel. But not a single Anglican. You can’t say anything about it to non-Catholics – not even to close relatives. Your own mother doesn’t know that your father comes here.”
“Did you say Father Cuthbert? Cuthbert Mayne?”
“The Reverend Cuthbert Mayne. Yes.” Emmanuel pulled me farther away. “Outside of this chapel he’s the vicar of Holy Trinity Church. Nothing else. You have to remember that. All the time.”
My friend pointed to somebody or some object in a distance. I couldn’t tell which. We sneaked away; and, before I knew it, we were standing in front of a life-size statue.
“Sanctus Petrus.” Emmanuel bowed to the saint and introduced me: “I’d like you to meet my friend William.”
Saint Peter’s right arm was raised, as if in salutation. In his left hand were two keys, which he clutched against his chest.
Emmanuel said: “Pull his arm down.” I did. And lo and behold, a door opened.
We both giggled as he guided me on to the landing of a flight of stairs. From there we groped our way down a few steps and stopped when we couldn’t see any farther.
“Here’s the tunnel I’m sure you’re dying to walk through. I can get a lantern one day next week and bring you back for a tour.”
“I would like that!” My loud voice sounded cavernous and made my hair stand on end.
“Master Jenkins has a key to Holy Trinity.”
“He does?” I asked, dumfounded. “Why?”
My friend paused for a long moment as he led me back out of the darkness. We went and stood at the very end of the men’s line, so we could converse for a while longer before being hoisted to the funeral chamber and separated.
While we waited, he explained to me the link between our chapel and the church above ground. Saint Peter’s tunnel led to the sacristy of Holy Trinity. Two men, Jenkins and Taylor, had keys to the sacristy. They were waiting there to help the women and children get out; and to ensure that they left the church unseen.
To Protestant residents of Stratford, Undertaker Jeremiah Taylor and Schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins were pillars of the Church of England. And so was their pastor, the Reverend Cuthbert Mayne. But the reality was that all three pillars were as Catholic as the Bishop of Rome. The tunnel had been their idea. And they dug it themselves.
“Father Cuthbert doesn’t talk like us. Do you have any idea where he’s from?” I asked.
“Devon. His relatives down there don’t know he’s a Catholic priest, though. Master Jenkins told me he comes from a strict Protestant family.”
“How can anyone keep something like that a secret?”
“It’s easy for him.” Emmanuel bowed as Father Cuthbert walked past. I too bowed and we responded to his wave in unison: “Good night, Father.”
“Let’s move to the end of the line again.” The priest shook his head at us as I pushed my friend backwards.
Emmanuel continued: “He attended Anglican colleges and had already been ordained in the Church of England before he converted and later joined the Society of Jesus. That’s how he’s able to work for Protestants during the day without any of them suspecting that his real mission is to minister to Catholics at night.”
I listened in awe as Emmanuel Jenkins, who was only about twenty months older than me, spoke at length like an adult about things I wouldn’t begin to understand fully for another two or three years. From that night on, I looked up to him probably more than I would have looked up to an older brother. We spent many a carefree day together, mostly roaming the Stratford countryside and, upon occasion, engaging in harmless pranks.
But it wasn’t until fairly recently that I found out who my lifelong friend had really been. Accept for now, dear reader, as I did for most of my life, that he was the foster son of Thomas Jenkins, Master of the King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1575 to ’79 – because it was as such that he proved over the years to be an invaluable mentor and the most loyal of comrades.
The only child of a deceased couple who had evidently been affluent, Emmanuel received in the home of his Oxford-educated foster father more than twice the amount of learning expected of a grammar-school boy. Not only did he best all of us, his schoolmates, in Latin, he could translate Greek and Hebrew before he was fourteen. By the time he left England in 1577 to continue his studies in France, he was speaking French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese as fluently as he spoke English. On top of it all, his nurse taught him Arabic and her native Bube (boo bay), one of the little-known languages spoken in the Kingdom of Malabo, about which you will read more in due course.
It was therefore inevitable that I would come to depend heavily on my friend in matters of the intellect. Without his reinforcements, so to speak, I would no doubt have beaten an early retreat before the army of Roman authors inflicted on English youth. For about three years before he left for France, we dedicated the best part of our Saturdays and Sundays to working on my assignments, which, fortunately, were almost always identical to the ones he had breezed through the previous year or two.
Copyright: Raphael Soné