Tuesday, May 6, 2008
The Saga of Fray Paco
Book 4: The Formidable Dona Esperanza
Chapter 1: Matthias
The dirty and skeletal urchins with black sunken eyes and rotting toothless mouths assaulted Dona Esperanza as she descended the ramp of their ship. Their bluish-black nails and shriveled and disjointed hands tugged at the fine cashmere sleeves of her couture jacket.
“Wasser, Wasser,” they croaked.
“Scraps of food.”
“Alms for the love of Jesus.”
“Anything. Give us anything.”
‘Some of us are still strong. Give us work.”
The “Nemesis”, flagship of the De La Rama shipping lines, now owned by Uncle Cesar Ortigas Nieto, Don Cesar as he was affectionately known, had landed in Hamburg.
World War I had ended a few months ago on paper. An Armistice of some kind was about to be signed.
“The aftermath of a War lasts for generations. Uncle Cesar said untold millions died. I can’t imagine millions of corpses. I don’t want to. These little children tugging at my sleeves are really touching my heart. What can I do?” asked a grieving Esperanza turning to her husband.
She gave all the coins and paper money she had in her purse. Still they came. Don Daniele her husband had already exhausted his supply of coins. The officers of the “Nemesis” had seen this display and dashed madly down the ramp to drive the urchins away.
“Good Lord, just look at that sight. One of the shareholders of our shipping lines is being attacked down there,” said the First Officer.
“Herr Gott!” bellowed the Captain in German. “What will our Master, the Tycoon, do when he finds out? Get that crowd out of there now!”
“Why can’t we feed these poor children?” Dona Esperanza asked desperately.
Her husband Don Daniele replied, removing the onerous from the embarrassed officers. “There are thousands upon thousands of them, my darling. When the ‘Nemesis’ leaves next week, what will these wretched children do then?”
“At least they would have had one week of decent food,” retorted Dona Esperanza in protest.
“Dona Esperanza, that’s not the way things work. The ‘Nemesis’ is not equipped to handle these masses of people,” the First Officer explained, leading them towards the Benz car with the uniformed driver who was waiting for them by the side of the car. He was also shooing away the urchins. The driver clicked his heels, saluted Dona Esperanza and Don Daniele and said, “Guten Morgen.”
Dona Esperanza was too discomposed to reply. The military officer Count Daniele de Montebello answered for both of them. He took his wife’s elbow and assisted her up the steps leading to the high Benz car. She seemed lost in her own thoughts. Don Daniele thanked First Officer Kolleck and entered the car.
“I think that we are not behaving charitably. Don’t ever forget that Uncle Cesar had that 'unsinkable' ship in mind, the Titanic, when he named our flagship The Nemesis. It will remind us always not to be uncaring and unkind. Most of all Hubris must never possess us lest we meet our Nemesis,” said a distressed Dona Esperanza.
Her husband Don Daniele was struck by her lucid comment and took her gloved hand into his in silence.
The Nemesis had an inscription on its bridge and in the main Dining Room. It was a prayer, which every child in the Ortigas clan learnt at the knees of their parents the instant they could speak.
“Oh God. We are in your hands. Thy sea is so vast and powerful and my ship is so small and weak.”
Dona Esperanza reflected on the inevitable retribution of the fates. So far she had seen the innocent pay the price of their Leaders hubris. The Leaders came away unscathed.
I am afraid that Justice is not just at all.
First Officer Kolleck was grateful that he had a job and that his employer was a Filipino tycoon whose country was a colony of the United States. The ‘Nemesis’ and all the ships of the colossal De La Rama Shipping Lines flew the flag of the United States of America. His wife reminded their two children everyday to be thankful to Don Cesar. But for Herr Cesar, they would be begging for scraps of bread and peelings from apples like so many of their friends, homeless and devastated. First Officer Kolleck did not believe in God. He and his wife had begun to be interested in the socialist teachings of Lenin in Russia. As he waved to Herr Graf (the Count) and the Benz passed him by, he looked up at the sky. “Whoever you are, whatever you are, Danke Schoen.”
The golden treasures of Heinrich Schliemann, the famed scholar and magnate who had discovered Troy, had entranced Dona Esperanza. Yet in every in every priceless object she gazed at she saw the reflections of the dying children.
“I must stop this. These events are beyond me. I am a 15year old bride on her honeymoon. I must make an effort to concentrate on these marvels. The Schliemann Museum surely needs money and man does not live by bread alone, she paused to reflect on the words of Jesus.
“To think that artisans and craftsmen created this 5,000 years ago!” she exclaimed gleefully though her heart was crying.
Her husband and the Director of the Hamburg Museum, Dr. Reitmann shared a profound sadness for their remembrance of things gone awry. Yet the young girl’s wonder at the beautiful creations of Man was infectious and they allowed themselves to be swept into her cauldron of Magic.
“Oh Graffen Esperanza, we are talking about more than 5,000 years. Dr. Schliemann calculated the Trojan War may have taken place 7,000 years ago,” Dr. Reitmann explained enthusiastically.
“Feast your eyes on this pectoral, Esperanza,” Don Daniele called out. Everything around them was in pure gold. The pectoral was so light, “Why! I could even wear it to sleep,” she declared.
There were helmets carved out of gold, masks, diadems, crowns, combs, wide belts with ivy designs carved deeply into them, earrings of roses which fell to one’s shoulders, necklaces representing sea anemones, coral reefs, sea shells, roses, laurel leaves, spiders, and scorpions. There were endless rings, some massive ones which covered half of one’s forefinger, seals, rings, signet rings, love and explicitly sexual rings and the power rings – all distinct and unique.
Dr. Reitmann pointed out the rings in the shape of sea monsters all connected to one another through fine gold mesh. There were five in each set. “These are toe rings, Frau Graffen,” he told her.
“How can you tell?” she gasped.
Dr. Reitmann was pleased to show the young and full-of-life Graffen (Countess) how they had been executed.
“You see this set I am holding is for the hand.” It consisted of five dragon’s heads set on each finger with the thinnest gold mesh covering the entire upper part of the hand reaching up to one’s wrist. “Would you like to try it on?” queried Dr. Reitmann, Curator and Director of the Schliemann Collection.
Dona Esperanza stretched out her long tapered hands. Dr. Reitmann handed the meshed gold rings to Don Daniele and said, “Bitte.” Don Daniele very deliberately and surely placed the rings over his wife’s fingers, and then he stretched and elongated the gold mesh over her hands. Dona Esperanza moved her hands sideways and tapped her fingers in the air. She saw that the gold filaments below her forefingers until her thumbs had been crafted in such a way as to allow the greatest of movement.
“Ah! Now I understand how you could tell the finger rings from the toe rings.”
Don Daniele was interested in the gold armor plates, the shields, spears, lances and daggers. All the hundreds of pieces on display were intricately carved. Dona Esperanza had admired them too.
“Since the war begun in 1914, we have been closed on orders of the War Ministry. We have still not opened to the public. When I received the telegram from Manila, you cannot have imagined my joy. May I ask how you came to know about the Schliemann Collection?” Dr. Reitmann was curious.
“My wife’s the culprit. She read the Homeric poem ‘Iliad’ in an English translation and then the account of the discovery of Troy by Schliemann, which he published. My wife’s uncle is a bibliophile. He has an important first edition of Heinrich Schliemann’s archaeological digs,” Don Daniele expounded.
Dona Esperanza had observed the thick dust, which had collected on top of some of the glass cabinets and on the masses of papers on desks. The trim of her purple skirt must be a dirty grey by now. How could she have the heart to even mention this? Dr. Reitmann was wearing a rather faded jacket with frayed cuffs. Her heart went out to him. What could she and her husband do? She promised herself she’d think of something if Daniele became too involved in his work. When they left the Museum, Don Daniele handed a thick Manila envelope containing German marks to Doctor Reitmann and stated quickly, “It’s for your time and trouble, Herr Doktor. Curators of museums have to eat too.”
The curator thanked them with great dignity. “These are tragic times. You have seen?” They nodded and walked down the wide corridors doing their utmost not to stir up great clouds of dust beneath their feet.
“Where is the good doctor Reitmann? Is he behind us?” Dona Esperanza inquired nervously.
“Why do you ask?” Don Daniele wished to know.
Dona Esperanza removed a handkerchief from the inside pocket of her jacket and covered her nose and mouth. She spoke through the linen. “I am going to sneeze. I can’t breathe.” Don Daniele did the same with his handkerchief. By the time they were in the courtyard, both were wheezing and sneezing. “Oh! For a little bit of Manila air.”
“Let’s hurry,” urged Don Daniele. “I am going to start coughing any minute.”
Dona Esperanza could no longer hold the taut muscles in her throat. She blasted out a series of coughs. They were contagious. Don Daniele was sputtering and gagging.
When they were in the car Dona Esperanza affirmed, “Querido, I don’t know about you but the visit to the Schliemann Collection was worth every cough and sneeze,” as she coughed and sneezed.
“Let’s do it again soon,” Don Daniele replied in between a coughing attack.
There were so many men without arms and legs on the streets, it was sheer happiness to see whole men appear out of nowhere, although on closer inspection you could see they were pale, skeletal, and walked with difficulty. Don Daniele looked distressed. Indeed Dona Esperanza was gaily chattering away in vain to distract her husband.
His grandfather and his father had both been Field Marshals for the Austrian Hapsburg Emperor. Now everything was in tatters.
“No one, not even its leaders, especially its leaders,” emphasized Don Daniele, “knew why this horrifying destruction came about. These people have been left with nothing but their eyes for weeping.”
“I am afraid they have no more tears left,” murmured his wife.
The next day and the day after that, Dona Esperanza stayed on board the ‘Nemesis,’ reading and doing needlepoint in their cabin, which was known as the ship owner’s suite. Chita and Jing, her two maids, had both been seasick for most of the crossing. They elected to stay in their cabins the first day. After Dona Esperanza’s descriptions of the exquisite Schliemann Collection, they were sorry they hadn’t made the effort; when Dona Esperanza told them of all the casualties of the Great War - the crippled, the mutilated, the orphans, the widows, the homeless and the prostitutes – they opted to keep her company on board.
So Don Daniele who was, after all, an officer of a renowned military academy for bluebloods and was “used to such things” thought Dona Esperanza (she was wrong, he was not) took on a few sights and went shopping for her. His wealthy mother, Dona Cosima, had given them a great deal of money as a wedding present. Don Daniele could not resist giving his wife the magnificent sable cloak and ensemble which fit her beautifully, an ermine lined cloak, and various seal lined capes with matching brimmed hats and muffs in heavy red, blue and black wool.
In her sumptuous bridal suite on board the Nemesis, Dona Esperanza relived the moment when her attractive husband looking flushed and animated brought the sable ensemble covered in a linen blanket wrapped over his arms to their suite.
“Close your eyes, vita mia. I have a surprise for you.”
Dona Esperanza truly loved surprises, unlike some people. “One should always be happy with any gift, no matter how humble and give thanks,” she would tell others throughout her life.
As she gazed at herself in the full length gilded 17th century Venetian mirror, clad entirely in sable, the images of the starving and emaciated women and children stared back at her from the mirror.
“It does not feel right that I should be in such extravagant luxury while so much of humanity have nothing to eat or clean water to drink. Selling my sable coat will only be a temporary solution. But I think my prayers to the Infant Jesus of Prague have enlightened me.”
“I would like to send a telegraph to my Uncle Cesar proposing we obtain the exclusive right to copy the necklaces, earrings and pectorals in the Schliemann Collection. We’ll use 22 carat gold because our gold is plentiful in the islands and we own a couple of mines.”
“Cara mia, the Americans own your family’s gold mines. The Ortigas Nieto is a minority partner. In addition, they receive a handsome royalty for the right to be exploited by a foreign power - their Colonizers,” interrupted Don Daniele.
“We have to work with what we have Querido, however disagreeable,” she replied. Allow me to continue Daniele. For an upfront fee and certain royalties that will form part of the kiao-kiao, our craftsmen in the Philippines, China and Vietnam can copy the most dazzling creations, which Schliemann unearthed. We’ll create a label, perhaps ESPE. Why ever not? There’s ERTE, BAKST and BENOIT using only one name. The proceeds of the sale of all the jewelry can be used to feed the hungry and the needy in Germany and Austria. I’m sure Uncle Cesar will agree.”
Daniele de Montebello was in awe of this proposal by his young spouse. He wondered if he had gotten more than he bargained for when he had married her in a lavish ceremony at the Cathedral of Manila.
The ‘Nemesis’ had a schedule to follow. As the ship pulled away Officer Kolleck thought he heard a faint cry like the mewling of a kitten or a young cat.
“At least it is not a rat. I shouldn’t think there are hardly any left. People must be eating them to put off dying of starvation. Sadly there may not be many domestic animals left either. What has the world come to? I’m needed at the bridge with the Captain. I’ll deal with the cat later. That is one lucky cat.”
A full hour had elapsed when Dona Esperanza ventured out on deck. Don Daniele was on the bridge following the maneuvers of the Nemesis.
I like being alone. The silver waters of the Baltic Sea are striking the ship in a slow syncopated rhythm. It’s comforting to know that the Sea was and will always be on earth. Ah! What is a cat doing on board? I can hear it meowing. But how did it get here? They can be resourceful creatures.”
The cries continued, although they seemed to be diminishing in volume and frequency.
Poor little thing, it must be in an even worse condition than the children and the men and women I witnessed on the streets and at the pier.”
Like Officer Kolleck, she too was puzzled as to how a kitten could have survived in these dark days of hunger and hopelessness.
Now that I think about it, I never saw a horse, donkey or a dog roaming the streets. I can’t blame the people. I would kill any and all domestic animals to feed my family and myself if God forbid I should ever find myself in such a predicament.
Dona Esperanza followed the direction of the cries. Her heart pounded against her chest and her neck. They grew weaker and fainter.
Oh! If only I could save even just a kitten, I will have been of some use today, here in Hamburg. I will give thanks to the Christ Child Jesus who is my dearest traveling companion, she prayed.
She espied a bundle behind the steel steps that led towards the bridge. All the steps on the Nemesis had been painted white which gave the ship a look of Light.
The cries increased as she neared the bundle, which she now realized was enveloped in a dark blue woolen blanket
“I am terrified. I suspect that this is not a cat at all,” she whispered to herself.
As soon as she touched the object squirming in the blanket she knew what the creature was.
“It’s an infant. What a wondrous thing. An infant.”
She parted the folds of the blanket slowly and delicately. The baby stopped squirming and gazed at her with its round eyes the color of blue marine.
“Oh! You beautiful baby doll,” she cried out scooping the infant into her arms.
“Where did you come from? I know eagles devour babies. Our Philippine eagle has that reputation but neither eagles nor storks deliver babies that is a certainty. Well, you are here. Let’s get you out of the chilly air and into a warm cabin. Then we shall decide what to do about you.”
“Jing! Chita! Open the door,” she said loudly.
“Look what I found,” she cried out, holding the baby aloft for them to see.
They screamed and made the sign of the Cross.
“Dona Esperanza what does it mean? Was the baby on the ship,” asked Jing.
“Silly Jing, where else could the Dona have found the baby? Let’s examine the baby. Usually the mother leaves a note,” replied an older and more experienced Chita.
How did Chita come to know about these things? Never mind. I’ll ask her at a more opportune time.
The baby was clinging to her arms. She could feel its little heart beating so fast against her breast.
“Chita, please take a good look at its blanket. Jing, search gently among its clothes while I clasp it tightly. Be careful as you remove the clothes, the mother or father might have inserted a medal or a letter in between the undershirt and the jacket,” said Dona Esperanza.
A piece of paper fluttered to the Persian carpet. The baby was now nude and it begun to whimper at being exposed
Jing, please bring me one of my cashmere shawls to wrap around the baby.”
She opened a cupboard overflowing with shawls and scarves and ran to hand it to Dona Esperanza.
“Now, you darling baby first things first. Let’s take a good look at you. Am I talking to a boy or a girl?”
Dona Esperanza lifted the babe and told them” It’s a beautiful boy. He’s painfully thin. How old could he be?”
“Not more than a month or two at the most,” said Chita.
“Ah! I forgot about the letter. Chita please take a look. Is it in any language you are familiar with?
She bent to pick up the paper and perused it. “Dona Esperanza I don’t recognize the language written on the paper. I’m sorry,” she apologized.
“Never mind. Don Daniele is fluent in German. We’ll find out soon enough. Just place the letter on the desk,” she said.
“Jing, please take one of my linen pillowcases inside the camphor chest, cut it half and bring it to me. He needs nappies.
“My God Esperanza, what is the meaning of this?” gasped a stunned Don Daniele.”
“Daniele, don’t you see? It is a beautiful baby boy.”
“Of course I see it Esperanza. It’s a baby probably not older than thirty days. How did you come by this creature?
“I found it darling. It was behind the steps, which lead directly to the bridge. I mistook it for a cat at first. I am happy beyond belief.”
“Senor Conde, there is a letter which came with the boy. Dona Esperanza said it is in German,” explained a breathless Chita.
Daniele de Montebello strode over to the desk made of carved narra wood and began to read the letter in silence. The tension was palpable.
“I am going to read the letter slowly again and translate it into Castilian,” he declared in a tone, which betrayed no emotion one way or the other.
“Matthias is his baptismal name. His mother died a week after he was born. His father was an Officer in the German Artillery and died in France. I am his aunt and sole survivor. I cannot look after him because I have become a prostitute in order to eat. There is no one left alive in our family. Both his maternal and paternal grandparents died during the influenza epidemic, as did my sisters and brothers and their children. I saw you dear blessed Lady together with your spouse give money to all those who asked for it. You are his only hope. May God bless you and may he forgive me.”
For a few minutes everyone in the room was mute except for the baby who begun whimpering.
It is hunger gnawing at his little insides. We need to get him a wet nurse immediately. Failing that a goat who has just birthed her kids. I pray she has enough milk for her kids as well as for Matthias. In the meantime what am I going to do?
Dona Esperanza turned to her husband, “Perhaps the Captain and the Officers might have ideas which can help us look after Matthias.”
The maids Chita and Jing had unobtrusively left the cabin. They did not wish to intrude in a discussion, which was about to take place regarding the foundling.
“I hope Dona Esperanza keeps the baby,” said Jing.
“Dona Esperanza will prevail. She always does. I haven’t the slightest doubt,” declared Chita.
Daniele gazed at his wife. There was no diplomatic way to soften what he was about to say.
"Tesoro, after Hamburg our next stop is Genoa. We can place the child with the Sisters of Saint Ursula. There are several good Orphanages there. We’ll send money every month for his upkeep and education.”
There is no such thing as a good Orphanage. I think we should keep Matthias. He will be our first-born son. The Ortigas Nieto never turns away any living creature that is given to them by the Gods.
Many years ago, Uncle Alcibiade found Fray Paco chained to a branch of an ylang-ylang tree during the most terrifying typhoon, which wreaked so much death and destruction in Manila. He brought it to Great-Uncle Cesar and he has been a part of our family ever since.
“But Esperanza, we are newly weds. How are we going to explain a foundling?
“You are right. We must not say he is a foundling. It would break Matthias’s heart if he ever found out. He will be the subject of derision and humiliation.”
“What do you suggest then?” asked a resigned Daniele.
Well, we need your Mother’s complicity in this series of actions. We can say I was with child when we married. You will be even more of a heroic figure than you already are with your background in the military Academy at the Escorial.”
“What about Don Cesar and the rest of your clan?”
“The only ones I truly care about are your Mother and Uncle Cesar and my parents.”
“No one will think anything of it even if they will surely gossip about it for months and maybe years. Many marriages are nothing but reparatory ones in case you did not know.”
“I do know that. I am only thinking of you and your welfare. Are you absolutely sure that you can bear the slurs and innuendos as well as the judgment of a gossip soaked Manila?”
“I don’t care about the opinions of others. If I had been born poor or even middle class it would have had a serious repercussion on my life. As I am a rich heiress it will not matter one iota,” she replied with conviction.
The baby was now bawling and showing off its strong lungs.
“Officer Kolleck is still on the bridge. I shall go to the kitchen and talk with the Chef. We must have taken in fresh cow’s milk today from the German countryside. The Lord will provide Esperanza. Isn’t that what we are told?”
“Daniele, Daniele,” she murmured lifting her face so that they could kiss on the lips and they kissed ardently.
“I love you. Thank you for your kind and noble heart my beloved husband.”
“Esperanza, I always knew your enthralling beauty was as beautiful on the outside as it was o the inside. Until this day I had no idea just how radiant your spirit is. I am so happy you are my wife,” he said clasping both Esperanza and Matthias to his heart.
The Chinese chef Chu Li had cow and goat milk. One of the young sailors was a Norwegian whose digestive apparatus could not tolerate cow’s milk. So on the orders of Don Cesar they always had goat milk even if it cost more. “I will not tolerate skimping on food for my officers and sailors. It costs money to train them properly. I do not like turnovers. It is a sign of bad management.”
A small bottle was found in the pantry, which Chu Li set to boiling immediately.
“What shall we use for a nipple? He asked silently.
“I know Officer Fisher used to be a medic and a surgeon on the battlefield. He also doubles as our Doctor. This is a small challenge for him. He must have dozens of sterile rubber gloves. He must be able to sew one of the fingers into a presentable nipple, at least until we dock in Genoa,” he told Don Daniele.