The Corisco Conspiracy
TWO: The Winter of Our Discontent
To begin at the beginning, Father’s diary further revealed that the midwife who delivered me, Mistress Nancy Hathaway, had allowed one of her nieces in the delivery room. The niece in question was called Anne Hathaway.
My earliest recollections of Anne are of a bubbly, eleven- or twelve-year-old redhead who wouldn’t stop telling everyone who cared to listen how she had assisted her aunt in dislodging me from my mother’s womb.
From the night she helped bring me into this world, Anne Hathaway minded me nearly every day until my first morning of petty school. Perhaps because she taught me to say “mother” and was excellent at playing one herself – right down to pretending to breastfeed me – I took her for my mother until I was old enough to understand otherwise.
It was therefore only natural, although I didn’t think so at the time, that, having lost two baby girls before I came along, Mother treated Anne much like her older child. Between the ages of three and five I laboured under the illusion that they had formed an alliance against me; and spent many a sleepless night feeling shunned and tyrannized.
Hence when it came time for me to start petty school, I rejoiced at the prospect of being free of them from sunrise to sunset for six out of every seven days.
But Anne ruined my first morning of freedom.
After breakfast she insisted on walking me to my longed-for haven: a petty school run by Mistress Drika Taylor, the Flemish wife of my godfather, Jeremiah Taylor.
To her pupils, Mistress Taylor was known by a name more suggestive of her physical magnitude and intellectual prowess: Madame Vandroogenbroeck.
Anne and I were roughly halfway to Madame Vandroogenbroeck’s when she slapped my ears until they almost bled, pulled me by the hair back to our house and thrust me before Mother like an arrest officer delivering a felon to a higher authority. She slammed her buttocks on my stool, picked up a spoon and plunged it into the cold porridge I had earlier refused to eat. After downing two or three mouthfuls, she barked into the bowl: “Something must be horribly wrong with that boy. I hope the schoolmistress cures him of it.”
Without taking her eyes off whatever book of the Bible she was reading, Mother asked: “And what might that be, my dear?”
“Ask him! Ask him why he won’t let me hold his hand. I offered to carry his satchel. He won’t so much as let me touch it. Can you believe that?”
“William,” Mother called, sounding as if she were about to pronounce a blessing rather than administer a punishment. “Are you being recalcitrant?”
“Carl? Sitrant? Who is Carl Sitrant?”
“Re! Recalcitrant”. Anne both corrected my pronunciation and told me what the word meant.
Ignoring the arrest officer, I addressed myself directly to the judge: “Father has taken me several times to Madame…” I paused before spitting the name out one distinct syllable after the other to ensure that I didn’t get corrected a second time. “Van droo gen bro eck’s. I can get to her house without somebody holding my hand.”
I mustered up all the courage in me, got off my knees and stood on my toes. With my height thus considerably augmented, I tried to put on my most powerful masculine voice; but only heard myself whimpering: “I am not a baby. Why must Anne take me to school?”
Mother raised her eyes from the Bible just long enough to point me to the door. I seized my satchel and waved it triumphantly at Anne.
Feeling as light as a butterfly, I ran all the way to Madame Vandroogenbroeck’s.
The school door was ajar. Excited and panting, I kicked it wide open.
“Good morning!” I shouted into what at first blush looked like an arras. Mais non! It moved. The schoolmistress had bent down to examine her ailing cat. What I stuck my face into was the posterior of her voluminous garments rising from the floor to the top of the wall that was her rump.
Madame Vandroogenbroeck rose slowly; and slowly turned around. Cradling her cat in one hand, she lifted me by the arm with the other to verify that I could reach the cock-headed gold knocker on the door I had nearly slammed into her backside. I could.
“Henceforth,” she ejaculated, phlegm and fury contending for dominance in her demeanour, “djou shall knock. And tzen djou shall vait to be let in.”
That was my first lesson in Comportment and the beginning of my parlous journey to the Catholic revolt which culminated in the Holbeche House conflagration.
The Jesuit Treason, as the 1605 uprising has come to be known, was dubbed by the plotters themselves as Operation Corisco.
Looking back in hindsight, I dare say that chance and the Society of Jesus began preparing me for Operation Corisco from a tender age. I was only ten when the society took me, body and soul, under its wing.
Oddly enough, it was on one of the calmest, most peaceful of winter nights that I was scorched for the first time by the flames of the denominational wars which pitted Catholic against Protestant my entire lifetime.
Late one night in mid-December 1574 I had to answer the call of nature. Mother and Father would be fast asleep; and we children didn’t go to the shed at night unless accompanied by an adult. So I went down to the kitchen, where a spare chamber pot was available for our use after dark.
I was sitting on the pot and thinking about what to buy my sister Joan for Christmas when four rapid, ear-splitting bangs on the kitchen window pane startled a steaming pile of sediment out of me. The light from my candle must have attracted the attention of an intruder. I put it out and opened the window.
A full moon was shining its brightest from a cloudless sky. In its light I saw a Hercules of a man some forty yards away tapping a truncheon against his right leg. A second man, apparently the one who had knocked, waded through the snow in his direction. He looked small in size only because of his partner’s Herculean stature. A rapier dangled on one side of him while he swung a cudgel back and forth on the other.
With the moon’s rays streaming through the window as my only source of light, I grabbed a handful of hay and gave myself a quick wipe.
Then I took another look outside. The men were trudging towards me. I groped my way back to the room I shared with Gilbert, one of my two younger brothers, and shook him awake. Without opening his eyes, he asked: “Labio? Time for breakfast already?”
Labio was the nickname by which everyone knew me at the King’s New School. One of my schoolmates, George Cawdrey, gave me the name. It was an unflattering reference to my protruding lower lip.
Shaking Gilbert a little harder, I whispered: “There are two armed men outside.” He rolled over to face the wall; mumbled “God bless ye, merry gentlemen” and went back to sleep.
While trying to close our door quietly so I could sneak back downstairs and see what the prowlers were up to, the one behind me squeaked open. I turned around to face Mother’s majestic figure, lit candle in hand, her loose hair hanging over her shoulders like a golden veil.
“Was that you?”
“No. It was Gilbert,” I replied, shaking.
“Outside? Banging on windows?” Mother bent down and peered into my eyes as if to make sure I wasn’t sleepwalking.
“Oh, you mean the noise. Two men. They’re coming this way – I think.”
I was about to describe them when the house reverberated. Because Mother was still bending over me, our heads bumped as we were jolted by a loud pounding on the front door below. I grabbed my ribs, fearing my heart had exploded.
My sisters, Joan and Anne, also shared one room. Their door opened slowly. Joan, the older of the two, stuck her head out. Upon seeing us, she hopped on her toes to where we were standing, clasped her arms around my waist and asked: “What is it, Will?”
It was Mother who answered: “What else, but another blasted raid!” Muttering something under her breath about insane Catholics, she headed downstairs. Joan took my hand and we followed close behind.
Mother unlatched the door and opened it a crack. One of the men shot a question through the crack: “Is the Justice of the Peace home?”
“Who needs justice this late in the night?” Mother opened the door a little wider.
“It’s actually early in the morning, ma’am.”
“What do you want this early?”
“We’ve been sent to make inquiries. Not to be interrogated. By your leave.”
Hercules lowered his head an inch or two below the lintel, pushed the door completely open and walked in uninvited. His companion kicked the snow off his boots and joined us. He closed the door behind him; and then leaned his back against it.
Joan and I took cover from the cold air which blew in. We nestled ourselves in the ample folds of Mother’s night-gown: she on her left; and I on her right.
“What is it this time?” Mother’s angry breath nearly blew out the candle. I snatched the light from her icy hand and moved a couple of paces behind her.
Hercules took an intimidating step forward and said: “You haven’t answered my question, Mistress Spear.”
“Where is your husband?”
Sonorous, awe-inspiring, the giant’s voice thundered above our heads like that of the Almighty in a mystery play. Mother’s whole body was trembling as she replied: “In Snitterfield. Now, would you be so kind as to answer mine? What do you want this time?”
“Something has come to light about your family, ma’am,” the second man said, tapping his cudgel menacingly in the palm of his left hand. With a glance and a nod, he signalled his partner to lay the charge.
“One of your daughters was christened Roman Catholic.”
“That was sixteen years ago. And she’s dead! Did the Church of England learn about her baptism only this night?”
The interrogation which followed lasted two hours, give or take a few minutes. Hercules conducted it without any help from the man I concluded was his assistant. He questioned Mother as he would have done a hardened criminal. He demanded and she gave him proof that her latest-born had been christened in the Anglican faith.
Both men then searched our house from top to bottom. In the process, they woke everyone else up and put the fear of God in us all.
When the inspection ended, Mother’s cheeks glistened with tears as my baby brother Richard cried in her arms. Three-year-old Anne, who had been hiding in the girls’ room, came out and also began to weep. For a good while, they and Gilbert and my friend Emmanuel, who had spent the Saturday night with us, stood in our parents’ bedroom saying nothing.
After seeing off the investigators and locking the front door, I joined them. Mother gave each of us a pat on the head and told us to go back to sleep. By then our neighbourhood larks were already chirping their praises of a new dawn.
Frozen from hair to toe-nails, I crawled back under my blanket asking myself one puzzling question after another. Father was home when we went to bed. Why did he say nothing about his trip to Snitterfield? When did he leave? How? Why? Had he really gone to Snitterfield? Or had Mother fibbed to Hercules?
I was counting on my fingers the reasons why Mother would keep Father’s whereabouts a secret when my eyes closed of their own volition. To this day, I cannot for the life of me say for sure what happened next. Was it a dream? Or did I, while less than half awake, actually overhear my parents exchange the following heated words?
“Justice of the peace. Some justice of the peace you are. A justice of the peace who can’t have any peace under his own roof. Another such intrusion and I am moving back to Wilmcote.”
“Where in Wilmcote can you hide and not be found?”
“I won’t need to hide, John. The Ardens are not stubborn Catholics. Everyone who knows them knows they attend Church of England services regularly.”
“Unlike us. You. Me. The children. None of us sleeps well because we’re forever worrying about truncheon-wielding bumpkins terrorizing us in the middle of the night!”
“You return to Wilmcote, and I will move to Italy.”
“Just like that? And leave me and the children here?”
“I will not go back to being your father’s tenant farmer, Mary Arden. If that’s what you’re hoping for…”
“Typical. Typical. Very typical!”
One thing is for certain. I was fully awake when I heard Father’s heavy feet grind their way downstairs – presumably to the kitchen. It was he who served all of us breakfast later that Sunday morning forty odd years ago.
The following Saturday, he took what he used to call a holy bath. He was a wool merchant and glove-maker. So a holy bath meant that he spent hours cleansing himself of the leather and wool odors which had clung on him at work the previous five or six months.
For the first time that I can recall, he gave me a thorough bath as well that evening.
We were alone in the kitchen. Before drying my hair, he closed the door and said: “We’re going out tonight.”
“Just you and me?”
“Just you and I – to meet some friends of mine.”
When he later took me to his and Mother’s room to get dressed; and then presented me with a new suit of clothes – another first – I would have screamed for joy had he not clasped his hand over my mouth.
With all my clothes on, I slept for a while on their bed. When he woke me up a little past midnight, Mother was the only other person still awake. About an hour after she bolted the door behind us, we were on Bancroft Side, standing in front of the mansion which housed Madame Vandroogenbroeck’s petty school and the Taylor Funeral Chamber.
Evidently, it wasn’t the schoolmistress we were about to visit. While I fixed my eyes on his barely visible back, Father had glanced over his shoulder every ten paces or so most of our way to the spot where we now stood. And, even though it was dark and we were both dressed in black, he looked all around him – like a dog about to squat – before bending down and whispering: “Follow me.”
Copyright: Raphael Soné