Friday, April 25, 2008
Chapter 2: Jacta Alea Est (part 1)
The Saga of Fray Paco
Book 2: Don Cesar - The Tycoon
Chapter 2: Jacta Alea Est (Part 1)
Chapter 2 – Jacta Alea Est
The tycoon, Don Cesar Ortigas Vargas Nieto, had made his decision. He was going to sue the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the Dominican Friars of Santo Tomas in the Philippines. Many had tried and failed – but he had to win in order to keep control of the Banco Hispano Filipino.
It was not a decision made lightly. Don Cesar was Jesuit educated and his family had been devout Catholics for centuries. But this wasn’t about religion this was about Money - pure and simple. He was determined and undeterred.
A resolute Don Cesar studied his face in the 7-foot carved gilt mirror hanging in his airy and spacious dressing room. An intricately made ceiling fan of solid mahogany blew refreshing air over his head. His strong jaws seemed to look more formidable than usual and his intense cerulean blue eyes had turned to an icy blue. “So be it!” he thought as he ran a silver comb through his wavy, dark blonde hair.
He looked at the whole picture. Fine white linen suit, monogrammed shirt, Italian silk tie, handmade soft white leather shoes from Spain, white silk socks, topped off with one of his favorite Borselino hats. He checked to make sure his Patek Philippe pocket watch was securely attached.
If he had been wearing a purple Toga, he could have passed for Julius Caesar himself. Cesar was more than just a name – it was a goal, ever since he had studied in Latin the writings of Julius Caesar in school, he was inspired and influenced to think and be like him. His brutal death at the hands of his friends was the only thing about Caesar he wanted to avoid.
Just as Julius Caesar, who was the first to utter “Jacta alea est” (let the dice fly) when he crossed the river Rubicon with his army and marched to Rome to fight the Senate and his enemy Pompey, there would be no turning back for Don Cesar. Caesar commanded the world’s greatest army. What did Don Cesar have? Brains, powerful allies, a great deal of money (with a metallic clink) and sense that the timing was right to go after those greedy priests in the American courts of law.
He gazed at himself again and repeated slowly, “Jacta alea est.”
The tycoon shook a few drops of Worth cologne into his hands and rubbed them together vigorously. He entered his large master bedroom. Lito, the majordomo, was waiting for the Tycoon and handed him a light brown baby crocodile attaché case. Don Cesar did not need to make sure all the documents and notes he had written were inside. He had no doubts at all.
“Thank you, Lito,” stated Don Cesar as he carried the rare baby crocodile case out of his bedroom, down a hallway of solid varnished mahogany planks wide 30 cm. (12 inches). He slowly went down a wide mahogany staircase with white marble banisters, crossed the foyer quickly.
“Not so long ago, the mortuary bearers had descended those same steps with Urraca’s body encased in flowers,” he recalled with a stab.
The majordomo opened the door and the Tycoon repeated, “Thank you, Lito.”
He walked across a stunning tropical garden, not even looking at the exotic flowers and plants today. Pinong, the calesa driver, was waiting for him with the horses.
“Good morning, Don Cesar.”
“It is going to be a very good morning,” replied the Tycoon.
“To the law offices of Don Juan Pardo de Tavera on Vergara Street,” Don Cesar instructed. Inside the calesa, Don Cesar opened the elegant crocodile case, took out the handwritten memorandum he had prepared for El Abogado Don Juan Pardo de Tavera and perused it for the 10th time, steeling his resolve yet again.
As the horses clipped clopped down the road, Don Cesar looked over Manila and Manila Bay, just as Caesar must have looked over Rome. And like Caesar before him, he liked what he saw.
Don Cesar looked up from the memorandum and gazed about him. The waters of Manila Bay went from sapphire blue to ultramarine, then a deep turquoise, to calamansi green (a tiny citron of the Philippines noted for its color and sweet taste), to aquamarine. Filipinos who had studied Greek and Latin referred to the sun over Manila Bay as “Helios”, the Greek sun god. In Spanish, the word was “sol” which was Latin for the god of the sun. At this time of morning the light was almost too intense. Don Cesar pulled the rim of his Borselino hat lower over his eyes.
He preferred the dark brooding and intense sunsets to the bright yellow sun of early morning. He enjoyed the scarlets, magentas, oranges and golds as they played on the ever changing pattern of clouds. Sol seemed to rest over Manila Bay and just stay there.
He missed the sight of men, women and children cavorting in the bay. The water in the Pacific Ocean was perfect for swimming as it ranged from 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the outbreak of the Philippine American War on February 19th, 1899 the United States Navy had not allowed civilian swimming in that part of the Corniche – remembering their own use of “frogmen” in the Spanish American war, no doubt.
He made a mental note to ask General Arthur MacArthur about the prospect of allowing the people of Manila to swim and fish again the next time he played poker at the Malacanang Palace, especially since the Philippine American War had been declared over by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a year ago.
He found himself relaxing somewhat as he watched hundreds of palm trees sashaying in the breezes; coconut trees soared to 70 feet, below them the flame trees were exploding. Their deep and bright orange buds looked like Cardinals robes, the Princes of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Some of the members of the Roman Curia possessed hands perpetually drenched in blood.”
United States Navy patrol boats crisscrossed Manila Bay 24 hours a day. They were the not so benevolent colonial masters now, having ousted the equally cruel Spanish. No one could enter or leave Manila Bay without the permission of the United States Navy.
In the distance he saw a tramp steamer or two anchored. Pristine sailboats, barges stacked with fruits, Moro vintas (Muslim sailboats) in indigo blue, mauve, emerald, ruby and saffron colored sails bobbed in the waves. Several Chinese junks with gaily-colored awnings were ever present.
Don Cesar returned his eyes to the memorandum but looked up again after a while. When he did so he was not focusing on anything in particular. All the sights and sounds of Manila that had enraptured him a few moments ago had now become insignificant blurbs. He looked again at the memorandum; he knew it backwards and forwards.
Pinong began to maneuver the horses towards the left. The animals neighed as they backed into the pavement on the opposite side of the street and slowly strided straight ahead and passed through the big wooden portals of a majestic house with a striking wrought iron balcony on the first floor. Two strong men stood at each side of the gate to make sure the heavy doors would not swing and strike the horses. Pinong tsked! tsked! the horses to a full stop.
Don Cesar lifted the thick white flap, which hid him from public view. He looked around the sagwan (a fully covered ground floor) and stood up in the calesa. He was always astonished at the size of the ground floor. The lawyer could have six carriages with twelve horses in all, and still have room to spare. There was a skylight, which gave it natural light during the day. After 4:00 p.m. lanterns were lit, which could not be seen from the street as the skylight jutted into the roof of another house which was owned by Don Juan Pardo de Tavera's brother Jaime. Don Cesar took his crocodile briefcase and descended from the carriage while Pinong kept a tight rein on the horses.
He observed there was another calesa in the ground floor, but no sign of any horses. It was evident that Don Juan the lawyer was not receiving any clients until Don Cesar had left; in fact, this would not be a brief encounter. One of the lawyer's assistants, a young man in his twenties, was waiting for Don Cesar at the foot of a splendid stone staircase of seven steps, wide about a meter, which led to a landing. This was designed with the horses in mind. In case of floods, when the Pasig River overflowed during and after a typhoon, the horses could canter up to higher ground into their temporary stables, to the right of the landing.
"Don Juan is waiting for you," the assistant announced. He stepped aside and gestured for Don Cesar to precede him up the wide mahogany stairs which were on the left-hand side of the landing.
"May I carry your briefcase, Don Cesar," he asked.
"Thank you, chico, but I'm not handicapped," Don Cesar replied. In fact, the Tycoon always carried his own briefcases and attaché cases. He considered it an affront to the dignity of any man for a subaltern to act as a porter on such a small matter. No one should expect their employees or servants to carry packages, cases or anything for them - unless they were old, infirm, had rheumatism and had broken both of their arms.
The Tycoon glanced up. There stood El Abogado, the most respected attorney in the Philippine archipelago, at the head of the stairs with a welcoming smile and welcoming arms.
Don Juan Pardo de Tavera had a dark olive complexion, which was closer to brown, a beautifully sculpted nose, piercing black eyes, small ears pressed against his occipital bones (to some observers this gave him a Mephistophelean appearance). He was of medium height, slim and erect, with a strong bass voice, which was framed by an immaculately groomed black and grey beard. When Don Juan spoke, people listened, even if they strongly disagreed with his positions.
"Allow me to say once more how sorry I am about your sister Urraca's death. I have asked Father Manuel Roxas S.J. and others at Ateneo de Manila to recite masses for the repose of her soul. They will keep my name out of it."
"Thank you, Juan."
"As soon as I received your letter from Pinong, I perceived it must be of the utmost urgency so I have all the morning at your disposal.”
"Would you like some coffee? Chocolate?" he offered.
"Chocolate," the Tycoon had a sweet tooth, "with a teaspoon of molasses."
The lawyer rang a silver bell, and a majordomo in red livery appeared. He repeated the request and added "plus a big pitcher of cool Manila water." At that time, Manila was also famous for the purity and tastiness of its water.
They passed into a stupendous study/studio which could be accurately described as wall to wall books, all bound in brown cordovan leather, inscribed in gold letters, which ran the length of the floor to the ceiling - a good thirty feet. There was a dais on which were masses of gold linen cushions, embroidered in Arabic "Salaam aleikum” (Peace be to you) and in Hebrew “Shalom alechem” (peace be to you).
"Take off your shoes; we'll recline on the cushions, drink our chocolate and ... I'll listen," suggested Don Juan.
Don Cesar took off his shoes and his socks since Don Juan was wearing sandals and a white caftan with his briefcase in tow. He walked up the dais that was covered in fine rugs from Tabriz and reclined on two enormous silk cushions embellished in gold thread.
"You must have heard by now the rumor that my sister Urraca has left her share of our family holdings completely and fully to the Dominican Friars of Santo Tomas," began Don Cesar.
"That sort of news flies," asserted Don Juan.
"It happens to be true."
Very deliberately Don Cesar went on. “The Father Superior informed me the day after Urraca died that ‘your dear sister Urraca has left all of her earthly possessions to the Dominican Order. We…that is, the Order are her universal heirs.' Imagine, she had been brought back home from the embalmers at the mortuary just an hour earlier. The friars were unaware she had died during the night, or so they said. Padre Aldo, her confessor, with a heavyset Father Superior and their Economo (the priest in charge of their accounting) arrived at 7:00 a.m. to get Urraca to appoint the Father Superior to be executor of Uracca’s new will, 'for the sake of propriety' or so they said.”
"How can I be of assistance?" queried the lawyer, with sincerity and affection in his voice.
“I have decided to sue the Dominican Friars – the Roman Catholic Church, in order to overturn the will they coerced my sister into signing. I want the will she wrote when she was clear headed to be the one that is honored, which by the way did include generous gifts to the Church. I don’t want to mince words,” he declared with cold determination.
There was a heavy silence in the room.
Neither the lawyer nor the Tycoon spoke. They both looked into each other’s eyes, trying to catch a glimmer of the other one’s soul.
The lawyer broke the silence. “I would hope that it isn’t greed or cupidity which led you to this decision.”
“You would not be wrong. As you know, beyond any doubts, I am very wealthy. If I was motivated by greed I wouldn’t have shared it so readily with Urraca and my brothers,” declared Don Cesar. “No, this isn’t about greed – at least not greed on my part or my brothers. But - it is about money.”
“Have you seen this new will, Cesar?” asked Don Juan.
“No. But as her executor and legal guardian I am intimately familiar with her original will, which I have brought to show you. I know in great detail all of her possessions and holdings,” Don Cesar said clearly. “I was able to postpone the reading of the will for two weeks until after the funeral. Now there are only 10 days left.”
The shuffling of silk pointed-toed babouches was heard. The majordomo brought the chocolate for them on a silver tray inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory.
The chocolate was in a Limoge chocolatiere. On its cover protruded a slim wooden handle; the part inside the chocolatiere was made of rubber so that the secret of thick chocolate which was also light to drink lay in rubbing with both hands the wooden handle.
“I am drinking my chocolate with a touch of cardamom, which emits this heady scent. Would you like to try it?” Don Juan asked his guest and client. “That’s the usual way of preparing chocolate or coffee in Morocco. Please come back in an hour with the Moroccan Mint Tea,” he told the majordomo.
He nodded and said, “Yes, Sir,” and shuffled lightly out of the room, closing the door behind him.
"To the successful fruition of all our ventures," the lawyer proposed, clinking his Limoges green porcelain cup against the Tycoon's.
The Tycoon took a sip of the chocolate with the cardamom and a dollop of molasses. He ran his tongue through his lips, set the cup and saucer beside him on the Tabriz carpeted dais, took his crocodile attaché case, placed it on his lap, and opened its 18-carat gold locks with a loud snap. He removed a thick sheaf of heavy linen paper with his handwritten observations and narration on all the events, which had transpired since the night of Urraca's death.
"You haven't asked me any questions and you haven't tried to dissuade me," affirmed Don Cesar.
"It is very easy to deceive a man or a woman in matters of religion and very hard to undeceive him," replied Don Juan. "Your sister's case is not the first time priests have unduly influenced or exerted pressure or manipulated an enfeebled individual to grant a notable donation to the church in order to save their soul. They are usually pious women, by the way. I represented several farmers and cooperatives who had lost everything - their land, their crops, and their homes due to the skullduggery of some priests some years ago."
"How far did you get?" Don Cesar wanted to know.
"I lost each time, I'm afraid. The cases were not even heard. They were thrown out of the Court of First Instance."
"But -" Don Cesar wanted to make a point "that was then, during Spanish colonial rule; now we are being administered by a secular group of enlightened American governor generals."
"That is an important point, hombre. The keyword here is secular. The Americans have brought to the Philippines the concept of separation of Church and State – something that doesn’t exist in Spain," emphasized Don Juan. "Lest you forget, most American judges are Protestant and probably Free Masons."
"There is a lot at stake here, millions of dollars, in fact. Besides her personal possessions, clothes, jewelry and such Urraca owned several important pieces of property in the provinces. More importantly she owned a 20% share in both the Banco Hispano Filipino and the OVN Shipping Lines.”
Don Cesar continued, “The Banco Hispano Filipino, as you know, was founded in the 1830’s by our grandfather, Don Valerio, a Catalan merchant. Our father spent most of his life building it up to its current position as one of the leading banks of Manila. When our father died in 1888, I as the eldest son, assumed control. By pouncing on opportunities, working hard and good timing, we have increased the profits of the Banco Hispano Filipino at least tenfold.”
“The OVN Shipping lines are also very profitable, especially as a result of declaring ourselves on the side of the Americans in the ill-fated Philippine American war and making our ships available to them to ferry men and equipment between the islands. All our business ventures at home and abroad are booming."
"I can see why your sister Urraca was an irresistible target for the Friars," agreed the lawyer. "You made her independently wealthy. You paid all her expenses, she had no overheads, her handmade clothes, shoes, handbags, jewelry were all taken care of by you. She wanted for nothing."
"Juan," emphasized Don Cesar again, "I was her legal guardian and advisor with power of attorney. She never revoked the power of attorney nor did she ever reveal in any way, shape, or form that she intended to nominate anyone else, least of all priests who couldn't run a calamansi stand (sweet and delicious tiny Philippine limes), let alone her vast holdings. Tell me if I'm out of line, Juan, but did not Jesus Christ take a whip and lash out at the money changers, black marketers, smugglers engaging in their sleazy business in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem a few days before His crucifixion?"
"Yes, of course. Jesus acted in righteous anger. If Jesus Christ were to come today, he would not be crucified. He would be jailed as an anarchist, a revolutionary or even excommunicated by the Church as a heretic. He surely would be locked up in a snake pit of an insane asylum for delusions of grandeur," Don Juan commented dryly.
The Tycoon handed the original version of Uracca’s will and the complete story of her illness, death and subsequent events to Don Juan.
"I have not left out any detail, however small, including the night dear Urraca died. Even intimate feelings and actions on the part of my brothers and myself are described in this memorandum to give you a clear and unequivocal panorama of the entire anguished situation."
"Have you thought of the social implications for you if we file the lawsuit?" asked Don Juan.
"I've considered it very carefully. I know how public opinion is. Tongues will wag furiously for a few weeks, then things will calm down from their fever pitch into indifference until the next unexpected and sensational action from me or from others."
"The matrons will put pressure on their husbands to strike you off their guest lists," continued Don Juan, "especially Las Damas Catolicas (the Catholic Ladies League)."
"I don't really give a damn. Money talks. Their men will come to see me at the Banco Hispano Filipino or at the Elks Club, the Army Navy Club and the Casino Espanol," retorted Don Cesar, "and" he stressed the and - "I am the principal creditor of many of their businesses. Let the damas ostracize me from their parties; most of these occasions have been mortally boring."
"Are you prepared for probable attacks by the Church on you and your family? Are you prepared for a long fight in the courts, accusations and counter accusations? Let's face it, it will be a very scandalous affair," Don Juan admonished and advised Don Cesar.
"I am sure they will come at me with everything they have – including long delaying tactics - but I’m counting on the Americans Judges to see the truth of our case, and my belief that the Dominican Friars have skeletons in their own closet that they might not want aired. They have by their actions shown greed and rashness. I think we shall prevail in the long run," affirmed Don Cesar.
"It should be noted ... how easily men are corrupted and in nature become transformed, however good they may be and however well taught, Machiavelli said that in the 16th century. Has anything changed today? Will man improve in the future? Even priests? I don't know, do you?"
"I can't answer that either," Don Cesar said with regret.
"I have a suggestion. Let me read and evaluate Uracca’s Will and your memorandum while you're here. Look around this room. Take a tour of the world's greatest works. You might like to re-read Machiavelli - you must be rusty. What I said came from his discourses. There is a French edition of Sun Zi or Sun Tzu, written by a French Jesuit, an orientalist. It's one of the first books ever published on Sun Tzu in the 18th century. Or read Emile Zola, the novelist and journalist, especially his "J'accuse" (I Accuse), the title of an open letter he wrote to the President of the French Republic in connection with the Dreyfuss Affair, a case of anti-Semitism. The open letter was published in the newspaper L'Aurore (meaning Dawn in French) in 1898 while we were involved in our own fight for independence right here in the Philippines, first against Spain and then against a formidable America.”
Don Cesar descended from the dais gracefully. He liked the feeling, the vitality, of wood against his bare feet. It was almost a sensuous pleasure.
So many books? Where shall I start? He realized that if he had been given a choice by God right at that moment to choose between all of the world’s greatest books and all of the world’s most beautiful women – he would not have hesitated – Give me the world’s greatest books!!!
Knowledge was power and wisdom! Those were never ending passions! These were the true orgasms, the ones which satisfied your mind, excited your imagination and made you think – and made you doubt. What could compare with that? Perhaps, only the ecstasy of the mystics.
The other kind of orgasm, the one of the flesh, was all too brief, sometimes disappointing, a physical release full of panting and raving, oftentimes signifying very little.
As if the lawyer had read the Tycoon’s mind, Don Juan chuckled, “This is my harem.”
“I understand exactly what you mean,” Don Cesar agreed. “I too have begun a library, though not as extensive and as superb as yours.”
“You are also twenty years younger. Give yourself time,” the lawyer observed. He was concentrating on Don Cesar’s lengthy memorandum.
Almost facing the Tycoon was a treatise on “Saint Dominic and the Albigensian Heresy.” Ah! Know exactly what you’re up against! The founder of the Dominican Order had used persuasion and spiritual renewal from within the Church rather than violence and repression to fight the Albigensians.
Don Cesar continued reading. The Albigensians were an important heretical movement in the 11th and 12th century A.D. They were especially hostile to the temporal power of the Church, her ever growing political interference, and the vast wealth the Church had accumulated. The movement had begun in the rich northern Italian city of Milan, spread to the Provence and Aquitaine regions of France. Saint Dominic of Calaruega had understood that the struggle against the Albigensians (also known as the Cathars, from the classical Greek word for pure – katharos) would not be won unless the Church renewed herself from within. He founded the Dominican Order, or the Order of Preachers hence the OFP after their names for Ordine Frati Predicatori. They became persuaders from pulpits instead of persecutors with swords. Dominic demanded vows of absolute poverty (the Order could not own farmlands, vineyards, estates or businesses of any kind) and total dedication to their religious life. The Order was recognized immediately by the Pope, who backed Dominic’s zeal for reform. At the time of Dominic’s death, there were 60 convents in France, Italy and Spain. In a few years these convents had multiplied into several hundred. Their targets were the large cities and the universities.
Here we are, 800 years later. Saint Dominic would have been anguished at some of his priests and their nefarious schemes in the Philippines, especially in and around Manila,” pondered Don Cesar. We need another Saint Dominic. There did not seem to be another one like him – but the Norteamericanos (or the Americanos as they came to be called) had a visceral distrust for powerful organized religious organizations.
The founding fathers of the United States, enlightened intellectuals all, had seen to that. There was rigorous separation of Church and State. True, the President swore his oath of office on a Bible and the U.S. dollar bill had “In God We Trust” emblazoned on it, thanks to Mr. Thomas Page, but Caesar and God ran on two separate tracks and hardly (if ever) did they meet.
Don Cesar took the book on Saint Dominic and walked to the next row of books. He couldn’t decipher at first how the books were arranged; it wasn’t alphabetical. Then it quickly came to him as he glanced at the rows; they were by subject.
The Tycoon glanced at the Lawyer. He had changed his position and was now reclining against the gold cushions almost horizontally, fully absorbed in reading the Tycoon’s memorandum, sometimes pausing to write observations along the margins.