Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chapter 1: Urraca's Death

The Saga of Fray Paco
Book 2: Don Cesar - The Tycoon
Chapter 1 – Urraca’s Death (part 1)

"Sweet and dear Jesus, help me, I’m going to die," Urraca prayed softly.

She had experienced these virulent attacks of malaria before, but she had always come out of them. Now some inner voice was telling her that her end was near.

I think I may have done something harebrained. I don’t know what possessed me to sign over so much money to the Dominican Friars. Most of my wealth is due to Cesar. Oh I’m so confused. I must tell Cesar before I die.

Unmarried women of grand families did not have their own homes. It was unheard of in 1903. Following custom and tradition, Urraca Ortigas Nieto, lived with her older brother Don Cesar, known as the Tycoon.

She lived in splendor at Villa Luz. Seven rooms were at her disposal. She hosted mahjong games with her female friends and enjoyed whist with her male homosexual friends. Most of them possessed wives and concubines who always seemed to be heavy with child. That was how they dissimilated their lusts. All had male lovers of varying colors, white, brown, crème caramel and yellow. Urraca knew this to be true because they confided in her. Who else could they trust with their dark secrets?

She had once been as breathtaking a beauty as Don Cesar was handsome in his Byronesque way. She had flaxen hair that rained down to her knees. Cerulean eyes just like Cesar. She was almost as tall as her brothers, who were all over six feet.

Urraca was called the Virgin Spinster, which she found amusing because she was all of twenty-seven years old. In Philippine High Society a girl was expected to choose a suitable husband after her debut into Society when she turned eighteen. Some girls did not bother with the folderol of a debut and opted instead for the expensive trappings of a wedding even at age fifteen or sixteen with their parents consent if the prospective husband was healthy, wealthy and wise.

“I can’t seem to find the perfect Ernest to marry," she said, alluding to Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest where the three heroines vow to marry only a young man named Ernest because he was the best husband material around.

The truth was that Urraca carried a torch for an attractive and dashing suitor who was equally besotted with her. They had known each other since early adolescence and had never wavered in their secret passion towards each other.

Wedding bells never rang. Something mysterious and dark occurred between Urraca and Don Cristobel. Neither one ever spoke about their sudden breakup, which Urraca had initiated. Indeed, she never spoke to Don Cristobal again.

She suffered from frequent bouts of malaria and dengue fever for many years. Now that she was dying, the Dominican friars were spending an inordinate amount of time with her.

“Dona Urraca has never known the lust of the flesh,” declared her Dominican Confessor.
“Who gave this detestable and debased priest the right to comment on my sister’s state of virginity or lack thereof?” asked a furious Don Cesar.

“Cesar, don’t even think such things of our sister. She has never had lovers. You know it is impossible to hide anything in Manila. Everybody talks, the servants, the best friends, the confidantes and even the stones of Intramuros cannot keep a secret,” his two brothers chided him gently.

“As far as I am concerned, Urraca is free to have lovers, discreetly of course. She would have it no other way. She is not married nor engaged to tie the knot with any man so far as we know. Ergo, Urraca La Guapa (the beautiful) which is how many in Philippine society referred to her; can do what she likes with men,” Don Cesar had stated with conviction.

It seemed to Don Cesar that over these past few weeks the Dominican friars were closeted with his sister Urraca almost as much as the doctors or the Sisters of Charity who were excellent nurses and were paid by Don Cesar to attend to his sister Urraca’s medical needs around the clock.

“Our sister is not a Mary Magdalene or that other woman in the Bible who was possessed by sexual demons whom Christ exorcised,” Don Cesar emphasized to brothers Mamerto and Torquato.

“I’d like to know and I’m sure so would the two of you, why are these Dominican Friars spending so much more time with her than our family Priest, Padre Franco? Why are they in her suite for such a long time? Urraca has led a life of charity and pleasure in equal measure. I would not define it an uneventful life, but one that would not come close to Mary Magdalene and that other harlot.”

“What are you trying to say, Cesar?” asked a bewildered Torquato. He hoped he was not about to hear what he did not wish to hear.

“Jesus told Mary Magdalene, “Go and sin no more.” Are you with me so far?” Both nodded their heads in assent.

“We know the pattern of our dear sister’s life. If she wasn’t here looking after me, on the few occasions she was strong and well, she was spending weeks at your house, Mamerto, with your lively son Alcibiade, or at yours, Torquato, with your troublesome sons Augusto and Tomas. What awful sins could Urraca have committed which would warrant hours of prayers every day for nearly a month?”

“I don’t like it,” replied Don Mamerto who was at heart an Anarchist.

“Nor I,” reiterated Don Torquato, a devoted and pious Catholic.

“What’s even more alarming is that the Sisters are told to stay in the anteroom of Urraca’s bedroom or sometimes sent out of the room altogether,” Don Cesar told his brothers.
“What can we do?” Don Torquato ventured.

“Nothing.” Don Cesar pronounced. “Urraca is strong willed like all of us and is obviously very ill. If she feels this priest gives her consolation with his prayers. So be it!”

“I fear there is very little of the rosary being recited in there,” Don Mamerto declared.

“I agree with that,” Don Cesar affirmed.

“I’m not so sure either,” Don Torquato said.

“In the meantime, I’m going to ask the Sisters to come in the room with me; that confessor has been there long enough for today,” Don Cesar decided, jumping to his feet.
“We’ll all go,” his brothers stood up quickly and followed the Tycoon.

Don Cesar approached Sor Pilar, the most senior nurse who was preparing a linen wrap soaked in balsamic vinegar made from red wine specially imported from Modena, Italy by Don Cesar, not only as table vinegar but for his sister Urraca’s temporary relief from the high fevers which afflicted her.

“Please come with me, Sor Pilar. We’re all going to spend time with my sister,” said Don Cesar.
He thought he saw relief in her face. Don Cesar opened the door without knocking, bounded through the anteroom and into his sister’s bedroom. Her confessor, Padre Aldo, heard the foot falls on the exquisite and rare 17th century Peking rug in the anteroom and the narra mahogany parquet floor creak and stood up quickly. Don Cesar noticed the chair was exceedingly close to his sister Urraca’s head. He hoped his brothers had seen it too.

Me cage. Me parece que le esta lavando el cerebro, he thought in anger. I shit on all this. It appears that he is washing her cerebrum.

“Sor Pilar has to replace the balsamic vinegar pack… or would you like some cool water instead?” Don Cesar whispered as he bent his head and took Urraca’s hand, which was cold and clammy. It took all his self-discipline to hold his sister’s hand and not let her see how pained he was for her. Thank God! Urraca was conscious.

“Both,” she murmured weakly.

Sor Pilar removed the linen cloth soaked with red wine vinegar from a small porcelain tray and placed it onto Dona Urraca’s head.

Don Cesar took the crystal goblet and poured cool soothing water for Dona Urraca to drink, then he placed his right hand tenderly underneath his sister’s head, supporting it as she took sips slowly from the goblet. Even that movement tired her. She was panting from the effort. He felt a strange heat emanating from her.

“Por Dios, Her fever will surely shatter the mercury thermometer,” he exclaimed in alarm.
“She needs more quinine,” Sor Pilar said, hurrying to the anteroom to fetch it.

Don Cesar was overcome with sadness and anger. A deadly mosquito, the predator anopheles, carried the malaria and injected it into its victims’ blood. There was nothing more effective than quinine or, as it was known in China, “the medicine of the Jesuits” to provide respite. It was only temporary for after six months or so, Urraca would once again be attacked and racked with chills and pain.

Before its discovery, almost all those stricken with malaria died. The odds had improved greatly since quinine was used. On some, like Urraca, however, the attacks came frequently and she needed increasing doses of the quinine.

The doctor had told Don Cesar, who passed it on to his brothers, that Dona Urraca had another deadly fever known as dengue, one in which the medicines, sulfa drugs, were only 50% effective. He had withheld this piece of information from his sister at Don Cesar’s request.
Another predator mosquito carried the dengue bacteria. It was even more lethal than the anopheles. It sucked the blood of its victims at any time of the day or night; unlike the anopheles, which only struck vampire like at night. An attack of dengue usually meant a death sentence for its victim.

“Mamerto and Torquato are here as well. You know, dear Urraca, they visit everyday even if you’re not always alert because of the fever. Here is Mamerto,” Don Cesar handed his brother the small crystal goblet. Don Mamerto followed his eldest brother’s example and slid his hand under the nape of Dona Urraca’s head. He grimaced because the fever was so high he felt his hand burning.

Don Cesar hurried over to Padre Aldo who was standing by the door leading to the anteroom. “That’s all for today, Padre Aldo. God helps those who help themselves. Let the doctors and the nurses take over now. Good night. Lito, my majordomo will see you out.”

Padre Aldo started to protest but Don Cesar’s iron grip on his arm was firm.
“I said Good Night, Padre Aldo. It’s time for you to make your exit.”

“Adios, Don Cesar,” Padre Aldo said smoothly, rather than fight Don Cesar’s tight hold on his arm. I would surely lose in a physical confrontation with Don Cesar. Besides, he is the Master of this house, he correctly surmised.

Don Cesar pretended not to notice. “Adios, Padre Aldo. Hasta…la vista.” He was about to say “Hasta nunca (until never).”

By the time Don Cesar entered his sister’s sick room, she was shivering and convulsing so wildly her bed was shaking noisily. His brothers looked stricken.

“Everything will be fine carino (dear one), the Doctor will be here soon,” Don Cesar comforted his sister. He enveloped her, blankets and all into his strong arms to stop her paroxysms and seizures.

“Ces … Ces …,” Dona Urraca attempted to speak through her rattling teeth.

“Hush, Carino! Don’t speak, just get well.”

“Oh Cesar, I won’t get well this time. Can’t you see I am dying?" But the words would not come out of Urraca’s lips because her throat was inundated with blood.

Her spasms were so strong against Don Cesar’s chest he had to employ considerable strength not to fall over backwards. He felt he might faint at the sight and sounds of his sister’s suffering. What was wrong with her? He tenderly held his sister’s head against his left shoulder.
“Hold on Urraca. See, Mamerto and Torquato are here too.”

The brothers were roused from their paralysis and quickly stood behind Don Cesar who sat on his sister’s bed, still clasping her onto his chest.

Thin slivers of blood had started to flow from Urraca’s nose, ears, and lips, Don Mamerto and Don Torquato saw to their horror.

Dona Urraca threw her head back suddenly, revealing crimson eyes to Don Cesar, who saw only a sea of blood on his sister’s face.

“Sor Pilar, Por el amor de Cristo!” yelled Don Cesar.

No need, the sister was slowly cleaning Dona Uracca’s face. Don Cesar gently laid his sister’s head back on her pillow and let go of her.

“Where the demonio was that damn doctor? What am I overpaying him for?” thundered Don Cesar.

"Dr. Kessler was here an hour ago. You know he comes four or five times a day to look in on Urraca,” Don Torquato explained in a strained voice.

“Send for the doctor!” Don Cesar said firmly to one of the other Sisters. “Pinong will take you in my calesa. He is about five minutes away from us.”

The doctor, a German from Berlin, Dr. Franz Kessler, came running up the stairs clutching his black bag. He was out of breath. His eyes swept the room; he started to open his mouth.
“We’re staying,” declared Don Cesar in no uncertain terms. “If you need to go home,” he told his brothers, “I’ll send for you if there are any changes.”

"Perhaps Pinong could go to my house and inform them that I'll be here all night," suggested Don Torquato.

"Alcibiade's at school in Stonyhurst, Lancashire. I‘ll be here with you for the night,” Don Mamerto reminded his brother.

Dr. Kessler felt Dona Urraca's pulse, and listened to her chest with his stethoscope but she was flailing her arms and coughing up blood. He placed his fingers on her neck to feel her heart beat through her carotid artery. Her convulsions prevented him from doing it properly.

The doctor filled a long glass syringe with laudanum to put Dona Urraca to sleep in order to enable him to listen to her heart and her lungs.

"Sisters!" Doctor Kessler called out.

Sor Pilar and the two younger Sisters approached Dona Urraca and almost effortlessly pinned back her arms at the level of the elbows and shoulders. Doctor Kessler pushed the syringe into her arm.

"It's an intramuscular injection of laudanum,” Dr. Kessler told them.

The three brothers, Cesar, Mamerto and Torquato, sat on a yellow silk sofa set against the wall on the opposite side of Dona Urraca's bed, too shocked to talk. Doctor Kessler went over to them. He looked ashen. He couldn't manage an expressionless face; the Sisters looked shaken.

"There's very little hope left," he told them. "She may not recover consciousness for several hours or she may lapse into a coma."

Don Cesar questioned Dr. Kessler. "Why is she coughing up blood?"

“That’s the dengue; it’s a hemorrhagic fever. Her lungs are slowly filling up with blood.”

“I see. Our sister is drowning in her own blood and liquid,” declared Don Cesar in a quivering voice.

Don Torquato gagged and tears welled up in his throat. Don Mamerto was crying quietly. Don Cesar’s voice shook as he stood up and told his brothers, “I’ll have Pinong bring Padre Manuel from Ateneo de Manila for the Last Rites.”

Padre Manuel was a Jesuit from the Society of Jesus. He was Dean of Philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila, a university run by the Jesuits.

On his way out, Don Cesar informed Sor Pilar of the Sisters of Charity that Padre Manuel Franco would recite and pray the Last Rites for their sister Dona Urraca. He thought he detected a weight lifting from Sor Pilar’s eyes as he left the room to give instructions to Pinong, his calesa driver and to his majordomo Lito.

“Pinong, dash to Ateneo de Manila and bring back Father Manuel Franco for the Last Rites to Dona Urraca! Lito, please bring us Bourbon and hot chai for four, English style (with milk only) for the three Sisters. Thank you both,” he said, his voice cracking.

“Do something for me, if you would, Lito, pour me a shot of Jack Daniels.”

When Don Cesar was in Dona Urraca’s anterooms, he could hear her rattling as she breathed; it was painfully loud in her room. He walked over to his sister’s bed and brought several pillows from the foot of her bed to her head, raising her shoulders in the vain hope of alleviating her breathing, but there was no change. The death rattle continued its crescendo.

Lito came with the servant Gabi carrying the trays containing crystal whiskey glasses, the bottle of Jack Daniels, a teapot of Darjeeling tea from India with blue porcelain cups and saucers from Dresden.

Doctor Kessler was grateful. "I truly thank you for this." It was going to be a long night.

"Would you prefer aquavit?" Don Cesar asked. Germans usually enjoyed aquavit made from malt and potatoes rather than American whiskey, which was made from corn.

Dr. Kessler shook his head. "No, thank you."

Sor Pilar and the Sisters were thankful for the tea. Lito had pulled out a small circular table underneath a larger one just at the foot of Dona Urraca's bed, where the Sisters could sip their tea. Don Cesar and his brothers brought in four chairs from the anteroom for the three Sisters of Charity and for the doctor.

Don Cesar looked at his brothers Mamerto and Torquato.

"Queridos, here's to our only sister, our beautiful sister inside and out whom we love. She had a good, but not so exciting life. In any case she led the life she wanted. So who’s to say? Let's drink to that."

They clinked glasses as tears fell down their cheeks.

Heavy thumps were heard. That’s Padre Manuel taking the steps two at a time. He burst into the room where Dona Urraca lay dying.

"Manolo! Thank God you've come!" Don Cesar cried out embracing the priest. "Mamerto and Torquato are here as well."

"I see them, Cesar. Que tal, carino (how are you, my dear)? This is not an easy time for Urraca, for you or your brothers," Father Manuel said.

Father Manuel embraced both brothers.

"Shall we leave the room?" asked Don Cesar.

"Is she conscious?" Father Manuel knew she was in the agony of death from the unceasing rattle emanating from her throat.

"No, she is not," answered Dr. Kessler. "Good evening, Father," he added.

So, only the Last Rites.

"She had the Eucharist this morning," Sor Pilar informed Father Manuel.

"As for confession, I don't see what mortal sin a bedridden woman of virtue could commit between 7:00 this morning and ... Whatever time it is now,” retorted Don Cesar not caring to hide his vexation.

Father Manuel ignored Don Cesar's sharp comments; it wasn't directed at him or at any one in the room.

"If you want to, you can all stay - no matter how many there are of us in the room, this is a journey Urraca is going to have to do alone."

"Until she leaves us, we'll all be here," Don Cesar affirmed.

Father Manuel began his prayers in Latin, the three brothers went back to the sofa, and with Torquato holding the rosary made of ivory, they recited the holy rosary. "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Hail Mary full of Grace," sadly intoned Don Torquato.

If Urraca had been conscious, Don Cesar would have sent for her confessor, Padre Aldo, in spite of his personal distrust and intense dislike of the man, out of respect for his sister. She was almost comatose so Don Cesar believed Father Manuel, one of his closest friends, whom Don Cesar affectionately called Manolo was not only eminently qualified as a true friend of his but, more importantly, his sister Urraca deserved a man of steel (for his integrity) and of crystal (for his clarity and transparency) to prepare her for her afterlife, her journey into the Light.

They had finished reciting the rosary. Don Cesar noted the death rattle had perceptibly decreased in its loudness but it seemed to increase in frequency.

"Is she in pain?" he asked Dr. Kessler.

"Mercifully no," came the reply.

"Thank God for that," the brothers reflected. Don Cesar took Mamerto's hand with his right and clasped Torquato's hand with his left hand. It seemed as if time stood still. The brothers were children again, watching their mother slip away from tuberculosis.

The death rattle became strident suddenly, and then it abruptly stopped like a forte crescendo without a descendo.

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