Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chapter 1: Urraca's Death (part 2)

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

“Urraca La Guapa and Urraca our sister was dead. Vila Luz would never be the same again. We will forever more keep an empty spot in our hearts for her. Our lives will change. We shall all adapt of course, but there will always be this raw wound because she was and is irreplaceable,” grieved Don Cesar.

Don Cesar clasped both his brothers in a tight embrace. His brothers threw themselves into his strong arms. "Let's go to our sister," he urged his brothers.

Don Cesar sat on his sister's bed and took her hand; Mamerto sat on the opposite side of Dona Urraca's bed and stroked her hair, as Don Torquato placed the rosary over his sister's fingers and wrist.

Don Cesar looked up. "Please leave us. We want to say goodbye to our sister."

Everyone - Father Manuel Franco Franco S.J., Dr. Kessler, and Sor Pilar with the two Sisters of Charity - filed out of the room. The brothers held her hand, lightly brushed her cheeks with their hands and prayed the Pater Noster (the Our Father).

“Ah Urraca querida, Urraca La Guapa, Urraca La Buena”, they told her in trembling voices. Cuanto has sufrido. Cuanto te hemos querido y cuidado. Ahora descansa por siempre. Beloved Urraca. Beautiful Urraca. Good Urraca. How you suffered. How we loved and cherished you. Now rest peacefully forever.

Don Cesar called Doctor Kessler back in. "All right, Doctor, do what's necessary for the certification. My brothers and I will be in the study with Father Manuel."

For the first time in many hours, Don Cesar lit his Cohiba Havana cigar, sucking and inhaling vigorously. He offered three more to Don Mamerto, Don Torquato and Father Manuel.

"How about a drink, Manolo? Mamerto? Torquato?"

"And some prayers?" suggested Father Manuel, "then I'd like a strong drink." Father Manuel recited the Psalms which Don Cesar and his brothers found uplifting but of little comfort.

Don Cesar poured a small amount of Napoleon Brandy in snifters. "Let's drink to life, to Urraca, our only sister!"

Father Manuel recited from the Psalms:

“The days of man are but as grass, for he flourishes as a flower of a field. For as soon as the wind goeth over, it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.”

“The word is a lantern unto my feet; and a light unto my paths.”

“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth; yea, saith the Spirit, that they mayest from their labour; and their works do follow them.”

"A loving, virtuous woman," Don Mamerto added.

"She'll be in our hearts forever," Don Torquato tearfully said.

"Your sister had a very hard life with those frequent attacks of malaria. It weakened her body and mind considerably," Father Manuel declared. "She has ceased to suffer, we hope and pray.”

Doctor Kessler came in. "I have just signed the death certificate."

"Thank you, Doctor. A brandy?"

"Yes, indeed. I'll drink to Dona Urraca and her journey to God."

"With a detour in purgatory, as Manolo here would say," Don Cesar said.

"I'm not a Christian, but I respect your beliefs. I'm Jewish," Doctor Kessler revealed.

"Well, Doctor, we are all children of God; we just follow different paths to Him," the Jesuit Manuel Franco pointed out.

"I'll drink to that."

Sor Pilar walked in; the door of the study was open. "I'm at your disposal, Don Cesar."

Don Cesar petitioned a favor. "We would be very grateful, Sor Pilar, if you and the Sisters would accompany my sister Urraca to the funeral parlor to bathe her and anoint her. I don’t want any man to look at her or touch her. Even when the embalmers are draining her blood and replacing it with the embalming fluid, she shouldn't be naked. I hope you will remain with her until the end when Urraca is brought back to Villa Luz.

Don Torquato was weeping silently; so was Don Mamerto.

I'll have time to cry when I'm alone, but not right now, considered Don Cesar.

Dr. Kessler offered to stop by the funeral home and advise them to come. The doctor was sure the director of the funeral home would come himself and pronto. The only sister of the tycoon Don Cesar Ortigas Vargas Nieto did not die every day.

Pinong would take Doctor Kessler first to the funeral home, and then to his home on Dewey Boulevard facing Manila Bay. Father Manuel decided to spend more time with his friend Cesar and his brothers.

"Let's go back to Urraca's suite and keep your her company until the funeral director arrives," Father Manuel urged them.

"Manolo, you are going through an open door," Don Cesar said. "I was about to suggest the same thing."

"Doctor Kessler, there is so much I would like to say but can't at the moment. Thank you for everything. You were a great comfort to my sister."

"I'll stop by noon tomorrow, in case I'm needed. Where will Dona Urraca lie in state?" Dr. Kessler asked.

"At home for two days then the funeral rites will be at Saint Augustine's in Intramuros. My sister was so close to dying so many times that my brothers and I have had these contingency plans set in place for some time."

"Good night, Don Cesar." Dr. Kessler grasped his hand; he then shook hands with Don Mamerto and Don Torquato. "Please accept my heartfelt condolences. And good night to you, Father Franco.”

"Good night, Dr. Kessler."

“While we wait for the mortuary director, let us go back to Urraca’s room. Sor Pilar, sisters, please,” gestured Don Cesar to the Sisters of Charity.

“Turn on all the lights; light all the candles on all our chandeliers, candelabra, the lanterns, the torches in the house and throughout the gardens. All forty rooms in Villa Luz, without exception must be flooded with light,” ordered Don Cesar.

He hoped that in surrounding himself with light, this would in some way cover up the darkness and the void in his heart. He walked heavily and climbed the wide elegant stairs. Father Manuel noticed, but made no comment. Don Mamerto and Don Torquato walked silently arm in arm into Dona Urraca’s bedroom.

Don Cesar took a carved, vermeil candelabra with nine candles, which was on Dona Urraca’s ebony dresser, lit three of them and said, “Mamerto? Torquato?” The brothers followed suit. As soon as all nine candles were lit, Don Cesar placed them on the night table beside Dona Urraca’s bed, on her left.

“Let the light shine above her heart,” he uttered softly and sat down next to his dead sister. He felt her brow. The fever had left her; she seemed to be serenely sleeping. There had been no need to close her eyes.

“Nothing happens to anybody, which he is not fitted by nature to bear. Every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity. All things are petty, easily changed, vanishing away,” uttered Father Manuel as he stood at the foot of Dona Urraca’s bed.

“Who said such sublime things?” wondered Don Cesar and his brothers as they gathered close to their sister’s headboard.

“The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius who wrote twelve magnificent volumes called ‘The Meditations’,” replied the Jesuit, Father Manuel.

Don Mamerto ran a comb through his sister’s fine hair with a silver comb they each had received from their parents when they were children. Don Torquato then brushed Dona Urraca’s hair with the silver brush from the set.

Don Cesar bid Sor Pilar to accompany him into his sister’s dressing room. “Please help me choose her burial dress,” he urged.

Sor Pilar had two dark blue capes and six white threadbare aprons, which were washed again and again. Sor Ines spent most of the day darning and patching their aprons at the convent. Sor Pilar had never seen so many clothes, parasols, shoes, hats and intimate apparel. The linen fabrics alone could keep their convent properly attired for years.

“Before I forget, Sor Pilar, please take all the white linen fabrics you and the sisters need. Take anything the convent might need.”

“Oh, bless you, Don Cesar,” she replied in relief. “We could use all the linen fabrics.”

Don Cesar felt he was somehow violating his sister’s intimate territory by looking at her wardrobe. He had never even ventured into his late wife’s dressing room. He rather liked the mystery of Love, letting one’s imagination run wild. Duty took precedence over timidity.

Sor Pilar picked out a white embroidered silk velvet ball gown with pearls.

“Dona Urraca would look lovely in this,” she said.

Don Cesar perceived the nun’s motive in choosing white. Dona Urraca after all had been a virgin; she had chosen not to marry. Yet Don Cesar wished his sister buried in her favorite gown, one in which she had been presented at her debut into society when she celebrated her 18th birthday. He smiled a little, remembering the event. Urraca had bypassed the traditional white ball gown in favor of a dazzling blue fabric Cesar had brought back from the House of Worth in Paris.

At her three brothers’ bewildered “Why not?” Urraca had retorted almost flippantly, “Blue is the color of heaven, and of Manila Bay.”

Don Cesar removed the ball gown from its heavy hanger made of camphor wood. The armoire and the baules (chest) were made of camphor, which was rare, costly and preserved fabrics, cloths and textiles, protecting them from moths, termites, cockroaches and beetles.

“This was the gown my sister loved the most. This will be her burial dress if my brothers concur.”

Don Cesar held it up for the nun, Sor Pilar, to see. She took in her breath. So that was what the rich Donas wore - like queens of fabled kingdoms. The hand loomed silk gown must have used about ten meters of fabric yet it was as light as a feather. There were thousands of natural seed pearls sewn over the gown that had been dyed the identical blue heaven of the fabric.

Don Cesar handed the ballgown to Sor Pilar to carry and show to Don Mamerto and Don Torquato for their assent and approval. He was certain they would recall their sister’s debutante ball fondly.

Dona Urraca was still clasping the silver rosary Don Torquato had placed in her hands. He gently pried them open. She would have her rosary back when she returned from the embalmers at the mortuary.

Lito, Don Cesar’s majordomo, and Pinong, his driver, entered the room to announce the funeral director had arrived with the hearse. Since their mother’s death, the brothers had called it the mourning carriage.

“Keep them out of this room until I say so,” he informed them. Don Cesar stroked his sister’s cheeks and kissed her on the forehead, on her shut eyelids, and on her hand.

“Till we meet again.” Don Cesar could think of nothing more eloquent than the German “Auf wiedersehn” to say in a choking voice.

Don Mamerto and Don Torquato followed their oldest brother’s example in every way.

Father Manuel made the sign of the cross on Dona Urraca’s forehead, upon her eyes, her lips, and ears and upon the base of her neck.

He recited in Latin “De profundis clamori ad Te; Domine, Domine, exaudi vocem meam (Up from the depths I have cried to Thee; Lord, Lord, hear my voice)” from the 129th Psalm of the Old Testament.

Don Cesar whispered to Pinong, “Let them come in.”

The four men came in with a stretcher covered in a white linen sheet.

“No, Urraca must lie in a bed of flowers for her voyage to the embalmers. Let the servants gather all the waling-waling orchids, phaelenopsis. Frangipanis, jasmine and ylang-ylang from our trees and bushes,” he instructed.

“What are your names”? It seems fitting that I know the names of the men who are going to carry my sister’s corpse to the mortuary,” said Don Cesar.

“My name is Jovito Fuentes, I am the son of the owner of the funeral parlor,” replied a tall and muscular youth.

“Hermanos, the name is familiar to us because we met Don Jove Fuentes some months ago in case…” murmured Mamerto who was unable to finish his sentence.

“Torquato and I remember. Would you men like to drink some tea from India or perhaps some whiskey or rum in the salon while our staff brings in the flowers?” asked Don Cesar.

Young Fuentes hesitated. He could not recall a time when the Padrones-Masters such as Don Cesar had ever offered him or his men water to drink much less tea and liquor.

"It will be a privilege to accept your hospitality Don Cesar. Tea for me thank you, as I am driving the carriage hearse. I think that my men will enjoy a sweet Port. I must decline your kind offer of whiskey and rum. It is too strong and they are not used to it.”

The women in Don Cesar’s domestic staff entered Urraca’s bedroom suite in their bare feet. They carried masses of flowers and garlands but their expressive faces of sorrow betrayed their emotions that this was not a joyous occasion.

The Brothers Ortigas together with their staff made a bed of ylang-ylang for Urraca on the stretcher. And then Don Cesar surrounded her for with all the jasmine and frangipani. They entwined frangipani in her hair.

Father Manuel Franco S.J. continued the rituals in Latin as the nuns and the men gently placed and adjusted her corpse on the stretcher. He sprinkled her face with holy water. Don Cesar used his fine silk handkerchief to wipe the blood of his sister’s face and throat. Don Mamerto and Don Torquato cleansed her hands of the caked blood.

“Asperges me hissopo, et mundabar; lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabar (You will sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean; You will wash me and I shall be made whiter then snow)” from the 51st Psalm.

They made their way slowly down the splendid mahogany staircase. Dona Urraca’s face was uncovered, the brothers had insisted. She appeared serene and pale. But she had always been endowed with translucent skin.

The flowers covered her gown soiled with blood. Sor Pilar carried the electrifying sky blue gown. The other Sisters of Charity followed behind. After them came Don Cesar, Don Mamerto and Don Torquato linked together arm in arm. At the foot of the stairs, the household waited with lighted candles. Their lips were moving and tears were rolling down their faces.

“Stop!” the Cesar ordered. “Hold the stretcher underneath the chandelier in the foyer.”

The bearers did as they were told. “Those who want to greet Dona Urraca for the last time can do so,” Don Cesar informed them.

It was the centuries old Castilian-Filipino tradition of showing respect, which consisted of lowering their foreheads towards Dona Urraca’s hand. Everyone humbly honored her.

“Magnificat anima mea dominum; et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo (My soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit hath rejoiced in God, my Savior) from the gospel of Saint Luke,” continued Father Manuel.

Her bearers were now in the spectacularly lit garden. The oil torches gave off heat, yet no one noticed, even though it was the dry season. Don Cesar and his brothers would see their sister into the opulent hearse. The director of the mortuary had pulled out all the stops.

“Nunc dimitis Urraca servum tuum Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace (Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant Urraca depart in peace, according to Thy word”) also from Saint Luke’s gospel.

Father Manuel pronounced the words, and then quickly bent down to kiss her forehead. He had known Urraca since she was a child. Sor Pilar and the sisters would follow in Don Cesar’s calesa (carriage).

The bearers had taken Dona Urraca’s sumptuous gown from Sor Pilar and placed it over her body. Don Cesar and his brothers nodded in agreement.

The horses rode away in the night; their hooves padded with black cotton cloth Pinong had provided them with these felts following instructions from Don Cesar. Father Manuel embraced all three brothers at once. They remained locked into each other’s arms for a while.

“Would you like me to stay?” he asked simply.

“Yes,” came the reply from all three.

As they walked in the garden with its flaming torches, Don Cesar explained, “We are all born in darkness. Most of us at least descend into this black birth canal after living in darkness for nine months, then there’s the light but we can’t see very well or else we might be blinded. I thought Urraca should leave in the splendor of light.”

“It was a very lovely and sensitive gesture,” agreed Don Mamerto.

“You know, Cesar, you have always had this wonderful sense of timing,” piped in Don Torquato.

“And of drama and destiny,” added Father Manuel.

“I think we could all use another drink,” suggested Don Cesar.

“Talk a little, drink a little, and then try to sleep a little,” proposed the priest.

“First things first. Let’s help the servants snuff out all the candles in the rooms. We’ll leave the electric lights on,” Don Cesar said gravely. He was sure the servants would leave the candles lit in their rooms all night, out of respect and out of a belief that a dead person’s soul or anima did not vanish from its surroundings. It took time for it was attached to its earthly life and loves. How long, no one knew.

Father Manuel commented that Urraca had an expression of peace on her face. “The embalmers will not see a need to fix a relaxed expression on her face before rigor mortis sets in.”

“For that we are grateful as well,” declared Don Mamerto.

“I’ve been thinking. Should we allow our sister to be viewed by all those attending her funeral at San Agustin Church?” queried Don Cesar as he swallowed a big quantity of Bourbon.

“I have considered it as well,” answered Don Torquato.

“I think everyone she cared about has seen her tonight,” declared Don Mamerto.

“What is your opinion, Manolo?” they wanted to know.

“Well, you’re her next of kin. She was an unmarried woman; it’s up to you. What would Urraca have wished?”

“In the last years of her life she only visited close members of our family - Mamerto and his son, Alcibiade; Torquato and his sons Augusto and Tomas. She was very attached to our uncle Augusto von Berger, who married our father’s youngest sister Eufemia. He’s in Japan at the moment and I fear that he won’t be able to get back in time,” Don Cesar explained.

“Aunt Eufemia is expecting a baby within a month. A blessing from heaven, she says, as she is about Urraca’s age,” Don Mamerto clarified further.

Don Torquato had to voice his lucid thoughts as well. Aunt Eufemia came to visit Urraca a few weeks ago. Cesar carried Urraca downstairs to spend some time with their aunt. He wanted to avoid her struggling up the stairs as she was heavy with child.”

Don Torquato continued. “Urraca told her when they parted, If it’s a girl, name her Esperanza.”

“But darling Urraca, you’ll be the godmother, whatever it is," Aunt Eufemia had exclaimed.

“Solo Dios sabe (Only God knows)” Urraca had replied sadly. As Cesar carried her up the stairs, she repeated the name Esperanza to an apprehensive Aunt Eufemia.” Don Torquato cleared his throat and took a gulp of Bourbon.

“So, queridos, Urraca would have wished, it appears, to have her coffin closed and unexposed to the curious,” Father Manuel announced.

“Are we all in agreement?” Don Cesar looked at his brothers.

Four crystal whiskey glasses clinked and the toast of “Viva Urraca!” was heard solemnly.

It was 4:30 in the morning. The air was heavy with the smell of stale cigar smoke. None of the four men had slept. They had reminisced about their childhood; Urraca’s mysterious refusal to wed Don Cristobal De La Rama; the few choices women had in life: a wife, a nun, a whore or…perhaps what?

“A woman has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics - Doctor Marie Curie,” Father Manuel informed them.

“The founder of our society, Saint Inigo (Ignatius Loyola) had the most profound and remarkable relationship with many intelligent, strong and brilliant women of the Italian Renaissance. Much of their correspondence with Inigo survives to this day in our Jesuit Curia in Rome and in the Vatican library, of course.”

“Why are we so slow to recognize the talents and gifts of women then?” asked Don Cesar, who had looked up to his late young wife Magda’s brains and good sense and admired the sharp, smart and devoted Urraca.

“The women may be responsible as well for this situation,” declared the Jesuit. “Times are constantly mutating. In some periods of history, some women have been very powerful indeed.”

“When it becomes intolerable, the women will rise up in arms,” said Don Mamerto, who had a somewhat anarchic view of the world.

“I must be going, queridos. I’m saying mass in Chinatown at 5:30. I’ll walk. It’s cool this time of the morning,” Father Manuel said.

“How can we ever thank you?” Don Cesar inquired.

Father Manuel gazed at all three brothers fixedly.

“It’s my duty as a priest and as a friend.”

They embraced and hugged. “I shall remember Urraca in all my masses henceforth. Hasta pronto (Till very soon). I hold you all, including Urraca, close to my heart.”

"I speak for my brothers I'm sure. We would like special Holy Masses recited for Urraca every day for a year. It's not for her as much as it is for me... and us," murmured Don Cesar.

""Consider it done Cesar.I know the three of you are in your bank by 7:30 o'clock in the morning. Would you prefer an evening Mass then?"

“You know, Manolo, one of your best qualities is that you never talk or preach to us, you just love us. Are you this way with everybody?” Don Torquato was curious to know as they hugged.

“Rich and poor, pretty much,” Father Manuel grinned.

By 5:00 in the morning, the coffin containing Dona Urraca’s body had been brought back to Villa Luz.

Don Cesar and his brothers thanked Sor Pilar and the two other Sisters of Charity. They looked hollow-eyed from their all-night vigil at the mortuary.

“We never left Dona Urraca’s side. We washed her, anointed her, and watched over her as the embalmers injected the fluid. We saw to it she was always modestly attired. We dressed her ourselves in the blue gown.”

Don Cesar had previously written to the Mother Superior complimenting Sor Pilar and the sisters’ affectionate and passionate dedication to their mission. In the letter he had enclosed a check for an amount, which would enable the Sisters of Charity to add twenty more beds to their hospice. Don Cesar had also requested that his name and that of his brothers not be mentioned. The donation was to be considered an anonymous one.

The coffin of Dona Urraca had been placed on a dais in Don Cesar’s great hall or Sala. Two tall golden candelabra blazed over her head. One shone at her feet. Four candles was the tradition from Spain. Cesar had close ties with the Free Masons and for them the triangle was an important symbol. He rather liked that idea. The brothers had agreed. None of the members of their clan should send wreaths or flowers. Urraca's favorite flower was the Waling-Waling, the spectacular Philippine orchid also known as Vanda Sanderiana. Urraca had a spellbinding effect on them. This particular Waling-Waing had eighty clusters , something quite unbelievable.

"That will be the only flowers displayed prominently on a small carved Tonkinese table. placed diagonally on the left side of her coffin," said Don Cesar.

"Beside her heart," countered Don Mamerto.

"We can each give her a yellow long stemmed rose from our greenhouse. Yellow stands for hope. Eufemia ( their youngest sister ) is about to birth a child in Tokyo and Urraca expressed a wish shortly before she died that if the child was a girl, Esperanza (Hope) should be her baptismal name. It's sentimental but so what, Urraca was our only sister and we loved and doted on her," declared Don Torquato.

Oftentimes, contests ensued as to who could outspend and outshine the other in floral wreaths a and God forbid the wreath should not be prominently displayed, which meant only there next to their sister’s coffin They wished to avoid all that.

They suggested instead contributions to the Sisters of Charity and/or the Sisters of Good Hope.

“Let them outdo each other in charity,” the brothers had said. This would set a precedent in Manila; somebody had to do it, it might as well be the Ortigas Nieto brothers.

Don Mamerto and some of the employees at the Banco Hispano Filipino were planning to pay a visit to all the newspaper offices in Manila as soon as they opened at 7:00 a.m. to give them a press release, an obituary, and five full pages dedicated to the memory of Dona Urraca.

“Hombres, it’s political. We either give everything to everybody or nothing to anybody,” expressed Don Cesar. The principal shareholders of the newspapers would surely show up in full force at Dona Urraca’s funeral.

So five pages it was. One on behalf of the Banco Hispano Filipino, its directors and staff; the second page would feature Urraca’s tenants and farmers; page three was from Don Cesar, Don Mamerto, and Don Torquato; page number four would be for the entire clan and relatives by blood or marriage; page five on behalf of Uncle Augusto, Aunt Eufemia and their children. Aunt Eufemia was their father’s last surviving daughter.

Their many associates and acquaintances would take out prime newspaper space to express their grief and to try and impress them (it wouldn’t work but Don Cesar would still thank each and everyone in handwritten notes). Don Cesar was certain their American friends were going to participate in their loss.

In times like this, Americans were warm, kind and generous. They were used to grand balls and events for charity in America; his friends would understand and appreciate it if he requested no floral wreaths.

“Please send a contribution to our sister Urraca’s favorite charity instead and say a prayer for her.”

Don Torquato and Don Cesar were coordinating the refreshments, light food. In the Philippines this meant a buffet of rice, shrimp, chicken, oysters, clams, Chinese noodles with calamansi juice, Manila water, whiskey, rum, port, sherry, and brandy. Oh yes, fruits were de rigeur - mangoes, bananas, pomelos, lichee nuts and Mandarin oranges.

“You know what, Torquato?” Don Cesar told his brother in the middle of this hurly burly, “Once in a great while, as right now, I think life would have been simpler if we had all been born poor, orphaned and ignorant.”

“Don Cesar,” Lito, the majordomo mentioned softly, “Padre Aldo is in the study with his Father Superior and another priest. They have just arrived.”

Don Cesar looked annoyed. “You see, Torquato? Thank you, Lito.”

“Yes, Cesar, I see,” he sighed deeply.

“Let’s talk to them. We might as well start with the bereaved Dominicans,” proposed Don Cesar with a bite to his voice.

“But, Cesar, how could they have known so soon of Urraca’s death?”

Don Torquato had a point. “Umm! This calls for caution. Thank you, dear Torquato. We’ll hear what they have to say first.”

The three Dominican priests were standing in Don Cesar’s study, looking flustered but trying to act nonchalant. They were wearing spotless white cotton cassocks. Unlike the Franciscan friars who worked in the slums, mixed with riffraff, had a rough life and looked it, Don Cesar could not remember ever seeing a Dominican friar look out of order by even one hair out of place. Something was wrong. All of Cesar’s antennae were in place. Don Torquato sensed it and tried to look relaxed while his insides were in turmoil.

“Good morning, Reverend Father and Padre Aldo,” Don Cesar greeted them pleasantly in his low, husky voice. Don Torquato repeated after him.

“Good morning, Don Cesar and Don Torquato,” the Father Superior addressed them in the dulcet tones proficiently used by the Pharisees. The Dominicans were preachers after all. “They were, perforce, wonderful actors,” thought Don Cesar without any malice. He had heard the Father Superior say something about their Economo (the money dealing priest) doing an inventory about Dona Urraca’s property?

Don Cesar said nothing. This conversation was getting stranger by the minute.

“You see, dear hijito (little son),” the Father Superior said, dropping a horrendous cannon shot, “your dear sister Urraca has left all of her earthly possessions to the Dominican Order. We…that is, the Order are her universal heirs.”

For an instant, but only for an instant, Don Cesar was stunned. His expression did not change; he kept his smile pasted on his face. “Reverend Father, please continue.” Don Cesar used his matter-of-fact banker’s voice.

“Father Aldo told us last night that Dona Urraca was quite unwell so we thought, out of duty, of course, (meaning legally, we are not required to inform you until after her death. In fact he was right but…only up to a point for Don Cesar was her executor and his sister had not informed him of any changes). “Out of duty you see?”

“Yes, Reverend Father, I see,” Don Cesar answered. Don Torquato did not know what to say. He was a devout Catholic, gave generously and frequently without asking questions. In addition to his regular contributions to the Pope, known as Saint Peter’s Pence or Offering, Don Torquato went to mass everyday. His calesa driver handed money in an envelope to the altar boy when the mass ended for the priest, never excluding coins for the boy.

Calmly and serenely, - “Perhaps too calmly,” reflected Don Torquato – Don Cesar inquired, “Which of you is the executor of my sister’s will? I presume you, Reverend Father?”

The Father Superior’s voice suddenly became hoarse. “Well…aah…that’s why we’re here. You see Dona Urraca was going to sign the document this morning authorizing the …I mean, me, as the Head of the Order in the Philippine Archipelago, to oversee her earthly possessions, coordinating everything in harmony with you, Don Cesar, naturally.”

They were unaware Urraca had died last night! By not losing command of his emotions, Cesar had skillfully led them into a trap of their own making. Don Torquato was full of admiration and awe for his eldest brother. Neither he nor Mamerto could have pulled this off. Cesar was a leader who knew how to listen not only to what was said but also, more importantly, to what was unsaid.

“How can I help you, Father? I’m totally at your disposal,” Don Cesar reassured him in a honeyed voice.

“When do you think the Economo and I could come by today to see Dona Urraca? Padre Aldo would like to give her communion as soon as she is ready this morning.”

“Checkmate!” Don Torquato could not help saying to himself. He could not believe priests would be so mercenary, even if it were unlikely that they did not intend to spend the money on themselves.

Don Cesar, with genuine anguish in his voice, imparted to them the news that “we lost our beloved sister last night. My brothers and I were with her to the last and so was Sor Pilar.”

There was a look of consternation on young Padre Aldo’s face. The economo’s body language was tense and stiff. The Father Superior’s unflappability was commendable. Don Cesar and Don Torquato had noticed a slight twitching of the muscles over his left eye; they pretended they hadn’t seen it.

Don Torquato stepped in. “There wasn’t time to send for Padre Aldo, so far away in Santo Tomas. We were very distraught …”

“Gracias a Dios (Thanks be to God) that our friend and yours, Manuel Franco of Ateneo was in the neighborhood. He performed the Last Rites. Thanks to you, Padre Aldo, our sister Urraca had already received the Eucharist in the morning,” Don Cesar sadly told them. The Ateneo was about 15 minutes away by calesa from Villa Luz (that was Don Cesar’s explanation for “in the neighborhood”).

The Father Superior, in a less cordial voice, said, “So you are the executor of Dona Urraca’s Last Will and Testament?”

“I suppose so,” replied Don Cesar in the same honeyed pitch. “Would you recite some prayers over her coffin, Reverend Father and Padre Aldo? Our sister is in the Sala (Great Hall). We’ll lead the way.”

The Dominican Priests simply could not refuse, not that they would have considered it. They may be venal and too interested in mammon; but they were still priests. As a religious order, the Dominicans had done their best to take in as many poor bright and talented boys as they could into their schools, relying on the contributions of the rich.

Don Cesar and Don Torquato left them in the Sala and excused themselves. Once they were outside the Sala with the door closed, in the middle of the activities and preparations for Urraca’s camera ardente (mourning salon), Don Cesar whispered, “They haven’t even given us their condolences, que diablos (what the devil)! Can you doubt this is more about money then genuine concern? Anyway, we’ll discuss it in detail as soon as Mamerto returns. Let’s go back to the Sala and stall for time until we know what to do.”

“Reverend Father, please give me at least two weeks. We are in shock. It’s true our sister was ill for sometime, but we did not expect her to go so quickly. I can’t think; none of my brothers can.”

Don Cesar seemed to be pleading.

“Cesar is a magnificent actor,” pondered Don Torquato.

“We just want to concentrate on her funeral arrangements at San Agustin Church, her lying in state, here in the camera ardente,” Don Torquato took up the argument.

“After two weeks have passed, in harmony with you, Father Superior, and the economo, we’ll go over everything regarding our sister Urraca.”

Don Cesar was being deliberately ambiguous.

“Did you bring a copy of Urraca’s Last Will and Testament?” Don Cesar inquired in an innocent tone.

“I left it in the convent, Don Cesar. Our original plan was to being it back to you once we had made the appointment with you today,” the Father Superior could not have been clearer.

“It’s not important, Reverend Father.” The Tycoon used a reverent tone. “It can wait. Thank you and Padre Aldo for your spiritual comfort to Urraca. Please have masses recited for the repose of her soul. We’ll attend the novenas at the Church of the Holy Rosary.”

Only then did the Father Superior express his condolences, as did Padre Aldo and the Economo.

Don Cesar and Don Torquato pretended not to notice and shook hands with them warmly. “Please remember, my house is your house during these two days in which our sister Urraca will be lying in state here.”

“Well, perhaps we shall come for a visit but we don’t wish to intrude in this moment of profound bereavement,” the Father Superior reassured them.

“As you wish. I don’t think you’ve met most of the members of our clan. We all studied with the Jesuits, but they would be pleased to meet you all.”

Don Cesar and Don Torquato accompanied the priests to the door of Villa Luz. They shook hands cordially but not at all warmly.

“Thank you for all your attention and graciousness, Reverend Father, Padre Aldo and Padre?” Don Cesar had forgotten the word in the shock of the moment.

“It’s Padre Economo.”

Padre Economo vete al diablo. Go to hell. I am not falling for that phony piety. The word Economo was his title not his name. Every religious order was blessed or cursed with an Economo- the Money man and a financial expert. In some cases the Economo made Shylock look like a rank amateur. In many instances he was more powerful than the Father Superior but few of the Faithful are aware of that. I however know this to be true, reflected Don Cesar.

“Ah, yes. Padre Economo,"repeated Don Cesar feigning ignorance.

“Si Dios quiere (If God wills it), very soon.”

Don Torquato recited the same niceties to all three priests, thinking, “This can’t be happening.”

They said goodbye and shut the door. Don Cesar and Don Torquato eyed each other. The effort of maintaining control had drained them and unnerved them, especially Don Cesar.

“I’m staggered, Torquato.”

“So am I, Cesar.”

“We need time to digest this shocking piece of news. I propose we discuss this with Mamerto at the first opportune moment. In the meantime, I shall entrust Pinong with a letter sealed in wax to deliver to my lawyer and mentor Don Juan Pardo de Tavera. We have a few hours before the hordes of relatives will come offering their condolences. I am going to take a cool shower and try to sleep.”

“It’s an excellent idea. I am going home to do exactly the same thing, Cesar.”

“You prevaricated tonight,” Don Cesar scolded himself. “Without prevarication, lies and equivocations, humanity would perish in chaos, despair and boredom.”

“Je plie et ne rompe pas, I bend and I break not,” Don Cesar said out loud and then splashed his face with cold water.

Hah! Don Cesar ran the water over his neck and chest. The expressions and mannerisms of the Father Superior of the Dominicans and in particular the less I say the better stance of the Economo prompted him to remember the story of Jean De La Fontaine. “A certain fox, one day decided to become a wolf. Ah! Who can say why no wolf has ever craved for the life of a sheep?”

He dried himself, almost too roughly, threw himself naked on the 7 foot by 7 foot carved narra- mahogany bed, quivered a little, entered his linen sheets, and thought briefly of his beloved Magda who had also died too soon. “One is never as gloomy as one thinks, nor as blissful as one hopes,"he contemplated, and then he fell into a languid somnolence.


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