Chapter 1: Don Juan
I am a happily married woman. I have done what I was told. I live in the light.
My luck has turned, our trials are overcome. Raoul wanted us married as soon as the fiasco was over, so we were. Since then, it’s as if the fiasco never happened at all. It isn’t spoken of. He isn’t spoken of. The nightmares that still wake me and bring Raoul to my room in worry means that the phantom is off topic.
That is how it’s been ever since we wed two months ago – that is, until this evening, when we sit down to dine. The Parisian papers must have been dry for a story this afternoon, my husband tells me, for men with those new cameras had accosted him as he exited his carriage in town.
“Such impertinent questions,” Raoul observes across the lavishly set dining table. “Determined to upset the calm. Calm doesn’t sell papers,” he adds, his brow pinched as he chews.
“What questions?” I ask, forking my food. I haven’t much of an appetite these days.
He hesitates. “Oh... nothing worth mentioning.”
But he has mentioned it. I smile, and draw one from him in return. “Come, Raoul. You vowed to share all things with me.”
He laughs and loosens up a little at my apparent good mood. “Well, let's see. The same old questions; same old stories. They started out innocently: asked when the new opera house will be finished, where we’d taken our honeymoon, etc.. They then tried to catch me out, asking what they really wanted to know, about that - about your... final performance.” He blinks and grinds to a halt, mouth still half-full of mackerel.
The smile sticks to my face. My cheeks burn. Don Juan.
Raoul eyes me carefully. “They asked whether we’d known – if you’d known... that the actor who played the lead that night...”
I look at the table.
“I put their questions to rest,” he hurries on. ““Of course we didn’t know; who could have? Of course we never thought he would act on his feelings in such an ungentlemanly manner.””
My heart thumps faster than a timpani drum. “You lied?”
“Well, to protect you.”
I look up at him. “Protect me?”
Raoul gazes at me with that same vulnerable look he wore when I was forced to choose between them. “Your performance,” he continues softly. “Your… duet.”
My hand begins to shake. He sees it and, stricken, abandons his dinner to reach across the table and cover my hand with his own. “Forgive me. I ought not to have reminded you,” he implores. “I don’t mean to bring it all back, but... who can blame them for thinking…? A performer as magnificent as you,” he smiles, rubbing my knuckles with his thumb. The haunted look in his eyes softens into concern.
I keep my breathing slow. “Thank you,” I murmur, “for protecting me.” Extracting my hand, I push back my chair with a scrape and stand. “Please excuse me, darling,” I say without a tremor. “But I feel rather tired. I would like to retire.”
I turn from the table. Raoul's face creases into guilt as he stands to take my leave. “Of course. Goodnight, Christine.”
I go to my room and shut the door, lean back against it, and close my eyes. Protect my reputation? Rather, he’s protected his own. It wasn’t me who wanted to set the trap that night, nor set myself up as bait! But when I recall the pain on Raoul's face at the table, I feel ashamed for my bitter thoughts.
I take a deep breath and open my eyes. My room is perfectly clean again. No matter how I leave it, it looks just like this whenever I return - like a museum rather than a room. An enormous bed for just one person; vases of fresh flowers scenting ever corner; the gentle tick tock of a mahogany wood and gold-plated clock.
And then there’s the mirror. The only mirror I ever see, now. My temporary practice rooms, little as I visit them, are always devoid of glasses, my husband has seen to that. My new opera house will be as well, he promises. I have nothing to fear now, he promises.
But I was afraid at the dining table - just not for the reasons he suspects.
I walk towards my full length mirror, its frame glittering in the soft light. Passing the mantle piece, I blow out half of the candles, throwing the room into shadow. Taking a deep breath, I watch as my reflection enter the frame.
This dress is Raoul’s favourite. I take it off.
In my chemise, I recall our lessons on posture, and stand straighter. My eyes roam over my hips, waist and throat: all the places where the ghosts still live. Gloved fingers, open palms. Pressing hands. Breath.
I lower my chemise from my shoulders, baring where he touched me that night, for all of Paris to see. Him, crossing the bridge towards me. Straight backed. Proud. The glint of perspiration on his chest peaking through his low-cut shirt. His gaze unwavering. On me.
I press my fingers against my throat and lean back into the memory of his hold.
Yes, I am a happily married woman.
My skin hums with feelings I don’t feel from the living.
Yes, I live in the light.
The man I see holding me in the mirror is not my husband. Our faces are both half in shadow.
Yes, I was frightened tonight. Frightened of discovery.
Chapter 2: "such a woman."
As if a bolt of lightning courses through my limbs I find myself upright in bed, drenched in sweat.
The door flings open and Raoul is already beside me, one hand grasping a candle and the other grasping mine to his chest. “Another nightmare?”
I must’ve cried out. “Yes.” I drop back to the bed, clenching my thighs and facing the other away, bringing myself under control.
He touches my hand to his cheek, kissing it. “My darling.”
His voice is full of regret. He blames himself, our dinner conservation. Calmer, I turn back towards him. “I’m alright. Really.”
He exhales. “You’re hot,” he says, touching my face.
He’s too near. I close my eyes.
When I open them again, he is still looking at me, but no longer at my face. I imagine how I must appear – breathless, perspiring – cheeks red and duvet flung aside.
After the fiasco, I woke often in the night with a cry. I learned quite quickly that Raoul desires me at such times, as if my fear is alluring – that protecting me is exciting. Perhaps waking from my nightmares are the only times I’m vulnerable with him, and he sees an opening. But most likely, I think, Raoul is attracted to me at such times because of his insistence on seeing him as a rival: my fear of the phantom is proof of Raoul’s victory.
Usually when this happens, I turn away and feign sleep, but tonight... I hadn't dreamed of unwanted things.
“Raoul,” I whisper. Squeezing his hand, I lower it from his chest and rest it on mine.
I don’t often ask. His eyes glaze over and he wears that expression that, moments before, I saw in another’s face.
My husband leans down, kisses me gently on the mouth.
I tell him to blow out the candle.
Meg visits and we go to a coffee parlour. As a Vicomtesse, going out is a bore – the dresses are too large, the hats too wide; everyone watches, in scorn or awe. The streets are no longer to be disappeared down. I don’t mind their dirt that covers my hems, or the wind that threatens my curls. Seeing beggars in alleyways behind architectural triumphs does not disillusion me. Paris is a city of both light and shadow; it is a relief after the perpetual summertime of my own home.
Hosting Meg there today is not an option.
“Are you well, Christine?” she asks as we sit on a divan in the coffee parlour, concern in her brow. Must everyone look at me this way?
“I am,” I say slowly, bringing my cup to my lips without taking a sip. “Only, I – I should like some advice.”
Meg smiles, inviting my confidence. She’s the only one who has all of it.
I clear my throat. “I am happily married,” I assert.
“Yes,” she agrees.
“Raoul takes good care of me.”
“I love him very much and know he loves me too. He respects my wishes, let’s me have my way. He understands.” I meet her eyes.
She nods. “It takes time to heal.”
I place the cup back neatly into the saucer and take a breath. “After the opera house fiasco was over – after Raoul and I wed – I thought about what happened a great deal.”
“How could you not?”
“The pain has stayed with me,” I murmur. “I am still afraid, Meg.”
She touches my knee, grief on her face.
“The Phantom... he killed people. I cannot help but feel responsible –”
“You are not!”
I look at her with wet eyes. “When he took me first to his lair, he was still my teacher.” I laugh at myself. “He was mad, I know that now. But I trusted him, then. And when - when I removed his mask….” My eyes widen at the memory, the coffee cup in my hand rattling in its saucer. “He wanted to hurt me, I think. But he didn’t. I managed to calm him, manipulate him with kindness to protect myself. It worked. If I had stayed with him, then...”
“Then you wouldn’t be free now,” Meg interrupts.
“No-one would have died.”
“You would’ve died! Your spirit! Why should you have sacrificed yourself in such a way, Christine?”
I breathe deeply and hear it shake. I can’t tell her that I am still not free, that my spirit is lost. I can’t tell her that I haven’t sung once since my teacher perished. That without him – his raging, his genius – all I am, and fear I ever will be, is a happily married woman.
“I hate him,” I whisper, hands clenched on the table. “I hate him. I am still his prisoner.”
“It has still only just passed,” Meg soothes.
“You don’t understand!"
“What don’t I understand?”
I look into my coffee cup, heart thumping. “I am a happily married woman,” I say again, “but there are some things Raoul and I... struggle with. What we sometimes want is… different.”
She blinks, takes my hand and leans in close. “Many married women feel this way. It is not unusual. Perhaps it is only that you are a woman who prefers not to... I am sure that Raoul would never... he is a gentleman.”
“He is,” I say faintly. I don’t say his gentlemanly ways bore me to tears. “I do not think I am such a woman.” I look at my hands, feeling that same glow in my cheeks. “I can feel moved,” I whisper. “But with Raoul… I don’t know what to do.”
Meg doesn’t either. But she thinks hard, and I feel a well of gratitude and affection for her. “Perhaps...” she says eventually, frowning in thought. “Could you teach him?”
I blink at her. This time I lean in closer. “To do as I – as I think I would like?”
“Perhaps there are preferences you have – things you can share together.”
A thrill shudders through me. I grasp her hand, knocking the coffee cup. “Thank you, Meg. I will.”
Chapter 3: A proper wife
Dayum, Christine. She's going for it.
Dinner with Raoul was quiet this evening. The candles are lit in the lounge, the servants are finished with their duties and, thinking I want time alone, my husband, the gentleman, stands to retire.
With a small bow, he passes by my sofa on his way upstairs. I take hold of his sleeve. He looks down, surprised; I look up. In his face I see the memories of last night: tender, open and affectionate.
It won’t do at all.
I stand, too. “Raoul. Are you to bed?”
His eyes hood. Looping a careful arm around my waist, he waits a moment, giving me the opportunity to squirm away. I don’t. He pulls me in closer. “Are you, my Christine?”
“If you will take me.”
He makes a small noise in his throat and we’re away, swirling up the stairs and giggling.
I lead him to his own room. He takes my hands and we sit on the bed. There’s a burning hope in his eyes and I think he thinks a page has been turned, that I am healed at last: ready to be a proper wife. I wonder if I am.
He is terribly handsome, I think, smiling. He smiles back, holds my face between his warm hands and kisses me.
It is perfectly pleasant. Soft, gentle. I press my mouth harder, lean my body into his and open my lips. After a moment of hesitation, he opens his, too, and for an enjoyable while we kiss with more energy than ever before. His breath quickens and I pull away.
He is all dazed, lips red and full, and low in my belly, something stirs for the first time with him since our marriage began. I take his hands and rise to my feet, bringing him with me. Confusion is in his eyes but I smile encouragingly and he relaxes, smiles back to show willing.
I pull him in close, wrap his arms around me and turn around, my back to him. He waits, his soft breath in my hair. I take his hands and place them on my waist, my hips. I press them hard over my dress, guiding them over my contours. It’s heaven and all I can do is drop my head against his shoulder and sigh.
Still, he doesn’t move. I press myself back into him, feeling his body there, firm and strong. I lift his hands to my throat… my hair…
He inhales. “Christine...?” Like a gasp, prayer and question rolled into one. Humming a melody, I roll back against him once more.
He clamps his hands to my shoulders and spins me around to face him. His eyes are full of agony, and something harder. Something worse.
I stand there blinking like a fool.
“And yesterday?” His fingers dig hard into my skin and I wince. “Were you –” he swallows, looking sick. “Were you thinking of him then, too?”
Panic bubbles up in my throat. “Who, Raoul? What are you saying?”
“You think I don’t remember?” he explodes, and for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of him. “I saw it all! Every touch he laid on you that night. Box five, police at the ready – and your face… lost in lust!”
He shakes me when I don’t answer, and then suddenly sags. Letting me go, he slumps on the bed. “Since we spoke of Don Juan, you’ve been so different. Before – you never wanted…” He trails off, looking at the carpet. “Your performance that night was exemplary. So believable, that I doubted you. Again – when he made you choose, in the lagoon – I didn’t know where your heart lied. I scolded myself for it, after we wed... and now this.” His eyes are cold. “You liked it, didn’t you?” he asks quietly. “That monster’s hands on you.”
I grasp at any denial I can muster. “No, Raoul.”
He stands. “This isn’t a damn play, Christine. Tell me the truth.”
My heart drums against my chest. “I wanted – I wanted to show you… something I wanted to try,” I swallow, tears building up. “Something to b-bring us closer together!”
“Something you learned from him,” he cries, full of disbelief. “Christine! How could that possibly bring us closer together?”
Shame and humiliation fills me so much that I think I’m going to be sick. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, and run from the room.
Flying down the corridor to my own safe haven, I don’t know if I’m fleeing from him or myself. I throw my shoes across the floor – go to the mirror to turn it away once and for all: that reflection of darkness that tempted me to do something so stupid – but as I reach the glass, I catch my reflection once more.
“ Look at your face in the mirror…”
“You are there,” I whisper. I lower myself to the bed, trembling. What have I done? How can I possibly fix this?
Why can’t the past just die?
Chapter 4: A reckoning
Finally, Christine. That's right.
“He won’t talk. He won’t listen.”
Meg sips her coffee, expression sympathetic.
“I don’t know how to repair it.”
Today we’re sat in one of the parlour’s private rooms. Goodness knows, we don’t want the Parisian papers getting a lead on my collapsing marriage. Raoul’s tentative touches I have endured these past two months; his treating me like a fragile doll, has stopped. I don’t miss any of it, but I do miss the hope – the opportunity I had once, to turn his gentle desire into something deeper. Bigger. But now I have spoiled it all. For the sake of a ghost’s touch, I have ruined my marriage.
Three days have passed since our argument. Three days of me starting conversations that finish as soon as my sentences do. In front of the servants, Raoul is perfectly amiable, and so long as we’re only discussing the weather or the news, he can bring himself to talk to me. But that’s where it ends.
I haven’t tried to explain myself. His accusations were right, but he is wrong in one regard: I hate it more than he possibly can, this haunting. He is not the injured party. Somewhere deep down beneath the trauma of what I have been through - in the place where I was sure my pure love for Raoul lives - I had hoped that if my fantasies ever came to light, Raoul would be strong enough to help me scrounge them out of our lives for good. Aren’t they just another part of the ghost’s power that shackles me? Why is desire any different to violence, when I asked for none of it?
But they did come to light; I showed them to Raoul openly, hoping to share them. But he put his injured feelings first, and I am left to fight my ghost alone.
I look at Meg sipping her coffee. Perhaps I’m not quite alone.
“Meg,” I exhale. “I need to expel him from me.”
She frowns in thought. Eventually, she puts down her cup and says: “You need a reckoning.”
“A reckoning? How?”
“Go to see him, of course. Tell him what he’s done.”
“You mean… visit his grave. Does he have a grave?”
She crinkles her eyes at me. “No, silly. Visit him in person! - oh!”
My cup smashes onto the table, coffee splashing everywhere.
Meg jumps up to escape the flood and a maid comes running into the room with a mop. I damn her to hell as she takes forever to clean up, Meg apologising, watching, waiting for privacy again.
Eventually the woman leaves and I grab Meg’s arm, pulling her back into her seat.
“Christine, I’m so sorry – I thought you knew! What a cruel shock...” she grabs my arm right back and squeezes it. “The mob never reached him; he escaped.”
I sit there, a statue, my very blood frozen still.
“Go and see him. Face your ghost. Expel it. I’ll come with you –”
“No,” I breathe, as the cafe begins to spin. I need to get out. “Where?”
“He’s still there,” she replies in a small voice. “Beneath The Palais Garnier.”
I rush through the dirty streets, feet sloshing in puddles, and drink down the outside air like it’s water in a desert. How could she tell me this now? I could have prevented my marriage from being destroyed if I had known before!
His violence, his callousness... Carlotta’s fall… Joseph’s legs, jerking in the air. It rushes back to me in a wave of horror. But so, too, come softer memories. The warmth of his voice, his patient teaching. His wanting to share it all with me. His passion, his genius. His hands… I gasp, grasp at my hat and hurry on, not knowing what will come, or what I want to come from this reckoning.
I reach the Palais Garnier. It’s all still there: the sweeping steps, statues, lamps. Only the black scorch marks scoring the frames of windows, and the wilting, colour-drained posters of performances gone by attest to how it came to its end. Derelict and bordered off, the gutted building waits to be torn down for Raoul’s shiny new opera house. One without booby-traps or madmen hiding in its shadows, he expects. One that was meant as a wedding gift to me. A waste.
I enter the cold catacombs from that same low window. Racing through familiar webbed corridors, I turn where I know to turn, my shoes pounding over the stone. But when I come to a crossing and lose my place, I pause, breathing heavily – and as my breath quietens, I hear it: his piano.
It’s so beautiful. So painful. I begin to shake. The corridors feel like they’ll close around me and I have the most terrible urge to run back, but I know that if his music can still bring me to such grief and joy, such horror and happiness, then I am still not free of him.
I stumble after the sound, his sonorous voice taking shape into words:
… Wishing you were somehow near
Sometimes it seemed,
if I just dreamed
Somehow you would be here....
My song. My song to my father.
... Wishing I could hear your voice again
Knowing that I never would
Dreaming of you won't help me to do
All that you dreamed I could ...
I half-run towards my childhood, the teacher I trusted, knowing them both to be lost. Tears roll down my cheeks as the words echo over the stone. He has made them more beautiful than anything I have ever heard.
“No more memories, no more silent tears...”
Please. I turn a corner, and the ground slopes down to the waters of his lagoon.
“No more gazing across the wasted years...”
Already soaked from the rain, I wade in, my dress floating around me, and stop with a bolt to the heart.
There he is. Sat at the piano as always, his straight back to me. I step forwards before I can stop myself.
“Help me say goodbye...”
His hair is slicked back, but it’s no longer black. He wears his formal attire, but not a mask.
There are more candles and no mirrors. No mirrors at all.
“Help me say goodbye.”
He finishes on a soaring C, the piano keys tinkling like wings of birds overhead, carrying away the grievances of the dead.
Here is my ghost. Alive.
Chapter 5: Alive
Adrenaline thrums in my ears. Of all the conflicting emotions, fury wins out first. I take a rattling breath and clench my hands. I can do this.
He turns on the piano stool so fast he almost falls. Even from here, I note his thinner face. Heart thumping like a timpani drum, I lift my chin as he takes me in, staring.
He looks on dumbly until, finally, his scarred face crumples. He raises his arm and sobs once into the crook of his elbow like a child. I wait, fending off sympathy with anger. When he lowers his arm again, he does not look at me. He takes a very long time to look at me. Eventually, he expels a shaky breath and stands.
Still so tall. Shirt open and rag-tailed, chest glimmering in the candlelight, it seems as if he’s been sat at the piano for days. He holds himself upright and proud, as he did on stage – only now, he wears his scars openly.
Feet away, he steps once towards me. I flinch back. He closes his eyes. “Please,” he says carefully. “Come out of the water. It is cold.”
I stay where I am.
He looks at me again. “I will not touch you.”
I rise as tall as I can. “I know. I won’t let you.”
We watch one another, waiting. When I finally begin to approach him, his shoulders slump in release. “Please,” he says again, gesturing to the stool, “sit down. Christine,” he adds my name, curling wonder and disbelief around it.
I climb step by step out of the water. Beneath my skin is a force field I don't know how to contain. My soaked dress clutches at my legs with its weight, showing my shape, but he’s only looking at my face. Brimming with joy and confusion, his eyes are too honest and I turn away before I can take him in, and stand stiffly beside the piano, putting my hand on it for support.
“This building is to be torn down,” I say, relieved not to hear my voice shake. “Why do you stay here?”
“It may no longer be a prison, but it is a home. Of sorts.” His voice is low.
“You will have to move,” I say, “Raoul is –”
“Won’t you look at me?”
I steel myself and face him. He is damaged and distorted – worse in the flesh than in memories – and for a horrid instant, fear and revulsion thrill through me. I’m ashamed, but soon the feeling passes. He becomes familiar again. When he meets my gaze square on, a host of different physical feelings charge through my body. I shudder, overwhelmed.
Erik hardens, turns aside. He half-raises a hand to his face before stopping, and squeezing it into a fist. “I had not expected guests. If they upset you…”
“It’s not your scars that make it hard for me to look at you.”
Not trusting myself to speak again just yet, I glance around the cavern, eyes falling on his little boat bobbing in the water. In it, I see a 16-year-old girl, singing eagerly at his command: a naive, stupid girl who gave her mind blindly. A girl who felt the pain of others like a knife wound. As far away as a stranger - as a lost friend from long ago, she’s over now: that girl of the light.
“Everything,” I whisper. “You have stained everything.” I clutch my stomach with my arms to contain the waves of emotion but they won’t stay in. Lowering to the ground, I begin to cry for that lost girl and for myself, cry out the anger and fear I’ve carried alone for so long.
True to his word, when Erik kneels down, he does not touch me.
I don’t know how long I stay there for, holding myself. When I open my eyes, he is still there beside me, solemn.
“I’m sorry,” he says in a ragged voice.
“You can’t know what f-for.”
“I cannot detest myself more than I already do. I must live with my actions for the rest of my life.”
I hiccup and glare upwards, eyes narrowing. “As must I. Your hate cannot compare to mine.” Still on my knees, I face him properly. “You have made and ruined me, Erik. My soul has hardened. I feel no sympathy for you now –”
He looks as if I've slapped him. “It was only ever pity you felt –”
“– Music brings me no pleasure; you have stolen it from me.”
His lip curls. Eyes alight with his old, familiar rage, Erik staggers to his feet. “I gave you my music! It was you who did not want it.” He hisses through his teeth. “You think it can be the same for me, now? I cannot write, cannot create – only play what has been.” The look in his eyes shifts, and he leans in closer. That old churning of fear pirouettes in my stomach. “How you purred and sang to my song, when you first came to me," he murmurs. "At my beck and call.”
I tremble, unable to speak.
He rises back up to his full height, face twisting. "How soon I disgusted you, once you saw my abhorrent face. A pretty man preferred, for all he knows of our craft! Do not bring this accusation to my door: you rejected music when you rejected my love!”
“Love?” I cry, scrambling to my feet. I'm soaked from the water but hot with hate. “Murder, abduction, threats? You call that love?”
“I let you go!” he roars, smacking the cavern’s wall with a fist. “I gave you both your freedom!”
“Well we are not free of you!” It comes out before I can stop it. I try not to gasp or cover my mouth, but it can't be helped - I cannot act with him. My cheeks burn, mortification plain. We heave with breath in the empty cavern. His expression flits from confusion to doubt, and from doubt to understanding. As the true meaning of my shout becomes plain, his eyes blaze. I want to slap his face until it disappears, but all I can manage is not to cry.
“What’s this?” he asks mockingly. “After all the Comte’s talk of summertime… does he not give you all you asked of him, sweet Christine? Is this why your pride has allowed you to return to me... so the dream can really descend?”
I can hear in his voice that he doesn’t believe what he says – but his last question numbs me with panic. I have done as Meg told me. This has been a reckoning, of sorts. My anger and hurt have been released by being put into words. But hearing Erik now, I fear very much that he is right.
When I don't deny it, his eyes widen in disbelief. I turn my back to him. “I came here to kill a ghost,” I say, closing my eyes.
"You still can," he whispers, still not touching me. "Leave. Leave, then."
He waits, the air silent and tense around us. But I don't. I don't.
“My dear..." He steps closer.
I feel his warmth behind me. "...Erik."
When he touches my neck, my control crumples. I fall back into his hold and let my darker side give in.
Chapter 6: Stand and watch it burn
God give me courage. How have I gotten here?
Would I ever have sought the sort this kind of intimacy, if I'd never known him? A young girl of propriety never has a chance to know her own desires, before suitors enforce theirs.
I don’t know if I am tainted with Erik’s darkness, or if the darkness is my own. Right now, I struggle to care. His chest is at my back. His hands are touching me. This is the point of no return.
“In my mind I've already imagined our bodies entwining, defenceless and silent...” I sing for the first time since we parted.
Erik inhales. His fingers on my neck tighten.
“The ghost that haunts you,” he breathes, “will not vanish by feeding it.” With his other hand he strokes my hair, curling coils between his fingers and my head grows limp, falls back upon his shoulder. “Sing for me.”
The order goes straight through me. “...now I am here with you…”
He traces his fingers over my waist.
“...no second thoughts...”
Pulls me close against him. “And have you? Decided?
“What raging fire shall flood the soul?”
“What rich desire unlocks its door?”
“What sweet seduction lies before us?...”
When Erik sings,our memory comes to life: the cavern bursts with orchestral song, floods with roaring melodies that surge through our blood. Music is back; Erik is back and we are back on the bridge, surrounded by fire and the passion that is irremovable from his genius. He traces my hips, my waist and throat, caressing me roughly over my sodden skirts as we sing our strange duet.
I pull my dress from my shoulders, baring my skin. He doesn’t hesitate and takes my throat.
“The bridge is crossed so stand and watch it burn...”
I am limp in his hold. Surrendered.
“We've passed the point of no return...”
He lowers his mouth to my ear: “Make your choice.”
I turn in his arms, open my mouth and close it with his. He meets me hungrily, messy and wet and fierce. It is utterly ungentlemanly. It undoes me.
I groan into him, a sound I’ve never made before. He lets me go and slams shut the piano lid, picks me up and sits me upon it, gazing at my panting face with wonder and open adoration.
“You won’t cry this time, will you?” I ask shakily, trying to slow my heartbeat.
He laughs. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him laugh before. It’s as melodic as his music, and lights up his face.
“You won’t leave this time, will you?” he returns, kicking aside the piano stool and moving between my legs. I take hold of his shirt and pull him down. He inhales, arms encircling me. “Christine…My angel… can this be real?"
I am plunged back into my dreams of him holding me, like this, my teacher, my angel. “Erik,” I whisper, and he moans, breathing against my ear.
“My dear, your skirts are sopping.”
He takes the hem in his hands, awaiting my permission.
I nod once, and he tears them clean open, lets the tattered fabric fall.
So ungentlemanly. So incredibly arousing.
He steps again between my thighs, pushing them gently apart. “You must tell me, my Christine, how you wish me to please you.”
Still catching my breath, I flounder. With Raoul, it has always been in the dark, hushed. Polite. Nothing like the songs or the plays. I don’t know what I want – I just don’t want that.
“We can learn together,” Erik says softly, taking my hand and pressing it to his chest. He presses his other between my legs. I gasp. Never in my life, even when alone and dreaming, has it ever felt like this.
“Please… do that again,” I manage.
He leans in, observing my face closely and complies.
“God,” I groan, throwing my head back.
He wedges himself behind his hand there. “Push against me,” he breathes.
I lift my hips and my body sings. His face changes in an instant and I know his body is singing, too. I lift and push harder, winning a moan from his lips that I want to hear again. I take hold of his shoulders; he takes my hips; we meet over and over, both new and unpractised in the strength of our all-encompassing want. He takes his hand away and I feel his hardness. It lights something deep within me.
He cradles me, lifts me off the piano and drapes me across his bed. Stretching himself along my side, he strokes my body like satin, awestruck.
“You are sopping here, too,” he murmurs, touching me over my bloomers. My hips buck and he watches, not missing a moment, as he slips his fingers inside. His touch on my bare skin makes me cry out and he explores, stroking here, petting there, and when he finds a certain place, my back bends and all the air in my lungs escapes me.
He presses harder. I whimper.
Suddenly, my bloomers are off and he disappears between my thighs, holds them down and guzzles at that magical place with his teeth, tongue and lips, chuckling over my skin as I buck and mewl.
I want to hit him. I want – I want...
“Wait,” I breathe. He looks up from between my legs, breathless, bedraggled and glowing. My cheeks flush. “Should we not perhaps try... the joys of the flesh?”
Chapter 7: The joys of the flesh
Dedicated to Mazen, for their patience!
He crawls above me to find my mouth. We kiss deeply, the strange tint on his tongue my own.
“I want you,” he rasps. “Teach me how.”
Gazing up at his scarred face, I wrap my legs around his hips and pull him over to my side. We lie upon the bed, facing one another. His eyes are very blue. “Let me touch you.”
His throat moves as he swallows. I climb upon his hips and remove his shirt and my shift. He exhales, eyes wide with astonishment; his fingers brush my nipple and I am overtaken. I slap his hands aside, dip down and wrap my lips around the hollow curve between his neck and chest. God, for how long have I wanted to do this!
He arcs into me, groaning and I pull back, half-crazed with the power I have in making him squirm and wriggle beneath me. I grasp his hair and hold him down to the pillow, exposing his neck and wait – wait for him to jerk with want – before drawing my tongue along his neck.
He grabs the bed sheets and bucks, breathing through his teeth, and I smile into his skin.
“Vixen,” he moans. “I feel your satisfaction.”
My smile widens. I take the nub of his ear into my mouth – wait again for his anticipation – and suck.
Both of his hands rise together and slap my buttocks so hard I release him in shock. Stiff above him, I flounder in the burst of pleasure that resonates from the burn.
It’s a window. He takes it.
Grabbing me around my waist he flips me over, pushing his body between my legs. A hand strokes my thigh, hip and stomach, tickling to the point of frenzy.
I wiggle and squirm, wanton. Alive.
“Sing for me.”
I take his hardness in hand and place him at my entrance. He fixes his lips to my neck. I wrap my legs around him once more, and pull him in.
“God,” he gasps, motionless inside of me. “God!”
My body adjusts to the welcome intrusion and I squeeze my thighs, bringing him in further.
“You’re silk,” he breathes into my ear, before pulling out, pushing back in.
“God,” I echo, already feeling the rise of it, the coming to; the deep-seated throb we're chasing together.
I clasp his buttocks and guide his movements, pushing as I pull, pulling as I push. We meet with our hips and lips, teeth clashing and sucking as he picks up speed.
The thud of his strokes pushes me into the mattress and I hang on tight to his loins, his back, his buttocks, anywhere I can grasp as he pummels me, lifts me, gives me wings. He alone can make my body take flight, I know in that moment, and clutch him tighter.
He shoves hard. We freeze together in the air, weightless, bodiless, enraptured – and collapse together in the tangle of sheets, back to the earth that has changed forever.
He rolls to my side and clasps me to him, breathless and groggy. I curl into the crook of his arm, our faces half in candlelight, half in the shadows.
"I was wrong, my dear," he mumbles after a short while.
"This is not darkness within you. It is light. It is summertime."
I feel tears rise, and let them fall. Freely.
From the deepest, soundest slumber, I wake. Eyes still closed, I revel in the contented ache in my bones, the heavy drape of lingering sleep. For the first time since I was a child, my mind and body are in the same place: the same peace. Flat on my stomach, I tighten my arms around the pillow I lounge against, and sigh with a smile.
Candlelight flickers behind my eyelids. It must still be night – or I forgot to blow out the candle...? I crack open an eye.
My heartbeat falters.
I’m back in my nightmare.
I scramble upright and look around, heart pounding. You’re asleep, Christine. His lasso around Raoul’s neck... Wake up, Christine! Joseph’s legs, jerking… Wake up!
I’m about to call for Raoul when the lightest whisper of air touches my chest. I look down.
I’ve never slept naked in my life.
And all at once, a confused churning of pleasure and panic floods me as my terrible understanding shows itself. With a sinking stomach, half-knowing and not daring to believe, I turn to look beside me.
I stifle my groan.
Erik. Satin half-strewn across his glorious chest. Eyes closed. Hands open beside me. His long eyelashes.
I raise my fingers to my lips, trying to stop myself from shaking in fear that he’ll wake.
What have I done?
Chapter 8: Scrambling for the light
There’s no telling how long I’ve been down here: no windows, no clocks. Only the candles. They burn low. If I can get back before daybreak…
With trembling hands, I remove the sheets. Softly, gently, I creep out of the bed, trying to breathe quietly. I must find my clothing, I instruct myself. Where in God’s name are my…?
My skirts, still sodden. In tatters on the ground. Naked and shivering, I bend down to take up the strips of cloth. Their edges are so frayed that there’s no sewing them back together.
– on the piano; his beautiful hands, tearing –
The memory makes me clench my legs.
God help me.
I swallow, take a breath. Stand upright. No skirts. What else?
I explore the cavern, opening chests and drawers, but nothing remotely feminine leaps up at me. Always a bachelor.
God, give me courage!
His shirts are too large, his trousers are too… trousers. Tears come to my eyes as I rifle, then rip through his belongings. I’m a Vicomtesse! I shout silently at myself. How will I get home in this?
Unless… I glance at the curtain. The first time he showed me what was behind it, I fainted into his arms. The wedding dress won’t be there any longer, I know that much – I wore it the night we escaped. But maybe, in its place...
I walk towards the curtain and throw it aside. As I hoped and feared, there it is: my costume from Don Juan, complete with pretend rose in the mannequin’s wig. How reliably obsessive he is.
Aren’t you, too, Christine?
I’m a happily –
You’re not a happily married woman, Christine.
Trembling, I yank off the petticoat and shift, tie the corset loosely to my torso, leave the rose and tiptoe past the bed.
My bloomers are strewn across a pile of his books. Cheeks flaming, I turn away from the bed to put them on.
I do not look in its direction.
I do not cry.
Instead, I walk to the water’s edge of the lagoon and glance at the boat. This dress would get wet if I...
My body stutters to a halt. I take a deep breath, and turn around.
He’s naked but for his black trousers. They’re loose and open, trailing off his hips. Sculpted like a statue, he stands beside the bed. Only his half-face of scars is where the sculptor slipped and chipped by mistake.
The rest of the damage came after.
As he gazes at me I feel his fingers under my very skin – his mouth suckling at my neck – I can’t breathe and I throw my hands out in front of me. “Stay back!”
He smiles, more amused than confused and approaches me. Like a lover. I swallow, nausea rising in my throat. I see the tenderness in his eyes and I can’t bear it.
“No,” I manage, as he comes close.
He frowns, pausing. “What is it?”
“A mistake,” I gasp, trying to get the air in. “I’m so… sorry. It’s all... a mistake.”
Brow furrowed, he again reaches out and again I step back, shaking my head. “No.”
His face grows alarmed. I can barely watch as understanding dawns on it – like it did last night, only this time, it’s happening in reverse: he isn’t being resurrected by hope, now. He is being crushed.
“Christine?” he begins. He doesn’t finish. Like a wounded creature beneath my foot. An insect dangled above a flame. A kicked kitten.
But I know him.
I know his nature well enough for me to still see it in my nightmares.
And here it comes, I think, as his wet eyes turn hard. His old self. His transformation.
The gentle hands that held me last night now turn into fists. His jaw clenches. He rises, straightens his back. The sneer returns. “What’s this, my angel?” he grabs my wrist and pulls me towards him, baring his teeth. “Have you already had your fill of me?”
“Please,” I whisper, “You must... let me... leave.” I dare to look up and meet his gaze. Hatred is there, so strong it’s startling. Hatred… and something worse. Guilt and shame swamps me – this is Raoul all over again, only, with Erik I feel his wrath in my very bones. Wrath and wanting.
I cannot block him out.
He smells of us. His fingertips are hot and soft and I’m afraid his slightest movement, the slightest stroke, will end me. It takes all my self-control to keep looking at him. “Would you keep me here against my will? You, who did not before?”
His eyes grow round and I honestly think he might strike me. But the moment of danger passes. He stares at the ground, chest rising and falling as I wait in the deafening silence that’s saturated with his pain.
Finally, he prises his hand from my wrist. I almost faint. The light in his eyes dims. He says calmly, as assuredly as someone commenting on the time of day: “you will return to me.”
“I will not,” I say to the earth beneath me. “I shall not.”
“You already have.”
I turn and throw myself into the water, ignoring the dress and wading as fast as the lagoon will allow. I leave him as I did before: with both of our faces wet.
What have I achieved in coming here?
Our bond even stronger; my ghost alive.
" You cannot vanquish a ghost by feeding it.”
What am I running towards? Redemption, or a broken marriage? Whatever world will have me beyond this darkness, deep as hell.
“You will come again,” he calls over the sloshing water, “and when you do, I will rip your skirts from you once more!”
Grasping my soaking skirts above my ankles, I hurdle back through the labyrinth of stone, wet feet slapping the ground that numbs my toes with cold. I wish it would numb me everywhere; numb me forever! Every breath of air and spot of dust seems to stroke me; everything I touch delves beyond my skin to become one with me. My flesh is no longer solid – he has gauged me open and the breadth of this new, sensuous world is terrifying.
What fresh hell of feelings have I let loose upon myself?
Let there be air and light beyond this tunnel, I pray as I run – even if only the light of the stars!
I falter. What if it is day already? What if I am seen? I reach back and loosen my hair across my shoulders. A Vicomtesse is barely glimpsed beneath her wide hat and stupid skirts… the Parisian public won’t know me like this. Here, in these scraps of peasant-girl cloth and loose curls, I can be invisible.
Like I used to be.
My heart calms a little. Coming to the low window, I see with relief it is not yet the dawn. Stars twinkle above and I reach up to push the glass.
I pull myself out into the open warmth of the night.
I am free.
Chapter 9: The fire that burns
The gentle clock chimes six times as I enter the house. So early, it is still dark. Back in the realm of day and night, of time and status, I stand shivering in the servants quarters, keeping to the shadows until…
“Lille!” I call softly in the darkness.
“My Lady!” My chambermaid grasps her heart in shock. “What are you doing here, My Lady? Can I help..?”
She trails off into silence. “My Lady,” she whispers, looking me up and down: wet dress and dirty shift, bare and bloody feet blue with cold… she probably assumes the worst.
I let her.
She wraps a towel around my shoulders and hurries me out into the hallway and up the stairs, glancing above to her master’s room as we tiptoe together, light-footed past his door, before falling into the haven of my bedroom.
“He is lucky he sleeps,” Lille says, one hand still on the doorknob. “What a fright to see you so, Mistress.” She comes to me, taking both hands as I sit on the bed. “My Lady, what can I do?”
I almost cry from the kindness I do not deserve, but must use. “We must not tell the Viscomte – it will destroy him.”
As would seeing me in this particular outfit, given what he said to me four days ago. The last time he really said anything to me at all. The thought of my husband almost makes me keel over.
Don’t I deserve so much worse than his angry silence, now.
“Oui, Madame,” she whispers, wide-eyed and crossing herself. “Should I call the doctor? If you have been...”
“No, Lille,” I say firmly. “I am alright. Truly. I just need rest. Please, help me out of this thing.”
I stand and turn around.
“But how did this happen?” Lille asks, untying my laces. “Mademoiselle Megan sent her boy here with a note, but the weather was too bad for a picnic, non? Did she lose you in the gardens, My Lady?”
Oh, generous Meg. Always protecting me. I feel sick. “I said I would f-fetch my own c-carriage home."
“And then?” Lille asks, brows creased with sympathy. I look away.
“One grove was particularly beautiful,” I murmur, ashamed as I lie. More ashamed than I was with my husband. “I went to l-look.”
“And…" she pauses, places a gentle hand on my shoulder. "...there was a - a bad man there...?”
A floorboard creaks beyond the door. We freeze, eyeing one another in alarm.
“Quick!” I beg her, and she shoves down my wet shift. I put my arms in the air as Lille covers me with a warm, dry nightie for bed.
“Meg could not have known,” I murmur again, this time, telling the truth. What on earth will I tell her, when she asks?
“Here you are, My Lady,” Lille says, holding the duvet for me to get into bed. I clamber into the sheets I have dreamt of him between, in horror and in lust.
I have brought that all to life. My own doing.
Lille tucks me in so tight I can hardly move, and leaves for a hot water bottle. It’s useless, I know, crossing my arms across my chest beneath the down feathers and cotton. I’ll never be warm again.
My husband does not disturb me the following day. I do not leave my bed. I thank Lille in my prayers for her protection, but dare not pray for anything else.
I don’t deserve anything else.
And the next day comes. It passes slowly, seemingly backwards, sometimes. The light in the room changes as the sun moves behind the clouds. The autumn rain splatters against the glass of my window and thrums in my veins.
I sleep; I waken.
I waken; I sleep.
Both states are hell.
Neither relent, and still, I shiver.
there’s a fire
It burns me
all of me
“Douse it with ice!”
“My Lady, you must eat...”
A soul I know. Raoul?
“Forgive me.” He is at my side, his forehead in my hand upon the bed. “If you can. Christine, stay with me. Do not leave us!”
The silly man. Where does he think I’ll go?
I wake like a body being pulled from a lake. Heavy, numb and reluctant, I take a deep breath.
The mahogany clock ticks. Then tocks.
I open my eyes. A pale dawn sun peeps through the window. A shape shifts in the chair beside me.
Perhaps I say his name aloud; perhaps he is attuned to my every movement, for he wakes, too. Blearily-eyed and gaunt, his face is colourless. But when he blinks and sees me awake, he raises his head to the heavens. “Thank God,” he rasps with his full being before dropping to the sheets, and weeps.
Chapter 10: Promises
“A fever,” Lille explains, tucking in my sheets again. I’m on my third cup of tea and for the first time in over a week, I feel warm.
“My Lord asked over and over,” Lille continued, not meeting my eye. “I didn’t say what happened, but… he suspects.”
I nearly drop my teacup. “The dress?”
“No no, My Lady! Be easy! I have hidden it, as you requested. Please, do not exhaust yourself.”
I drop back against my pillow, finding that I am exhausted. I try to relax. Of course, she was referring to the lie. She does not know the truth. “What did the doctor say?” I ask for something to say.
“He examined you,” she says carefully. “He is happy to see your improvement.”
I nod, suddenly drowsy, and hand her the cup. “Thank you, Lille,” I murmur, and mean it deeply.
That afternoon, Raoul pokes his head around the door. “My I come in?”
My chest feels warm. “Of course,” I say.
He lowers into his chair by my bedside, and leans in. Putting out his closed hand in front of me mid-air, he eyes me. “Well. Go on.”
I smile, turn over his hand and open his fingers. A single chocolate wrapped in beautiful red foil. I smile faintly. “Is this allowed?”
“I’ve called on the doctor to double check,” he replies, pretending to look very serious indeed. “He told me at some length not to over indulge you; but one chocolate ought to do no harm. Just one, mind.”
I sigh, copying his tone. “I’m not sure I’m well enough. The sugar will make me giddy, after living so long on gruel.”
“Gruel, she says!” he laughs. “I’ll tell Daniel what you think of his soup.” With shining eyes, he wiggles his hand, still mid-air in offering. I bite my lip, and take it.
He watches as I unwrap the treat slowly, and place it on my tongue. “How is it?”
“Delicious,” I reply. “And very sweet!”
“You’re quite right.” He shakes his head. “Too much so, for one as sweet as she.” And he meets my eyes properly. Our smiles fade as we take one another in for the first time in weeks.
“I meant it,” he interrupts gently, placing his now-empty hand on mine. “Can you forgive me, Christine?”
“I was beastly to you. Don’t protect me; I know I was.” He squeezes my hand. “I don’t want to see that sad face ever again." Taking a curl, he tucks it behind my ear.
“I deserved it,” I say, but he won’t hear me.
“It doesn’t matter, what happened between us that night. None of it does. When I thought I was going to lose you… Divine punishment, this week certainly has been!” He shifts closer in his seat. “This danger has taught me what really matters. Let me show you that I've learned.”
I can’t look at him.
“As for your… desires…” – I peek at his red face – “I can try. Please,” he whispers. “Let me try.”
What I would give to have heard those words a week ago. But now… there’s no saving us. There can’t be. If only he knew what I have done… a hole, torn in my marriage, and all of my own doing. How can I fix it?
I don’t know. But I will, I swear to myself. I will.
I will earn you back. I will deserve you again.
“Yes,” I say to him.
Watery-eyed, he smiles; at that moment, he’s utterly at peace.
How I envy him.
For the second time in as many days, Lille delivers flowers to my room.
“Paris misses you,” she smiles, putting a vase of peonies on my bedside table.
Bored as anything and delighted for the distraction, I smell them. “How lovely. Who are they from, Lille?”
“The women from the church. And Madame Meg called again. She wonders when you might be well enough for guests.”
“Soon, I am sure.” I feign distraction with the flowers. My stomach squirms at the mention of her. I am being a coward, I know it. she’s called three times, twice while I’ve been conscious. But things are only just back to being how they ought to be. To upset them again…
My husband knocks and enters. His face is like the sun. He waves some playing cards in the air. “Écarté?”
“Of course,” I smile archly. “I love winning.”
“Ha! Don’t think that’s happening again.” He fetches the small table to put between us, and scoots up to it with his chair. He offers the pack. “You cut.”
I do. I win. Lille laughs, and we all look up when another knock comes to the door.
Raoul smiles as his manservant enters. “What is it, Gabriel?”
“A man to see you about the horses, sir. And,” he says to Lille, “someone with a get well gift for My Lady.”
Lille smiles and says again: “How Paris misses her.”
All three of them leave. Only Lille returns, this time clutching a vase of red roses.
“No note,” she says. “Don’t they smell divine?”
They do. She places them beside the peonies and continues to fold my clothing. I stick my head into the bunch, breathing them in. The most divine scent… I stop and pull back, heart racing.
At the centre of the bunch is a red rose identical to the others, except for its black, velvet bow. I wait until Lille turns away and go after it, unravelling the bow and stuffing it into my fist to stow away under my pillow, just in time for my husband to return.
“A beggar,” he says, “a clever one.” He sits back in his chair before jerking up when he sees me. “You’re ill?”
Lille looks up, worried. They both stare at me.
“N-no,” I say. “Just tired.”
He stands at once. “Then we will leave you to rest.”
“No!” I say again as they turn to the door. Suddenly, I'm terrified. “Please,” I beg, “stay with me.”
His eyebrows flicker upwards a moment. Lille leaves discreetly behind him, courtseying at the door.
Raoul's face is soft with tenderness. “Of course.” He comes to the bed, sitting too close. “Are you well, my love?”
His cravat is tied informally, now he’s home for the afternoon. The smallest glimpse of neck peeks out, making me feel shy. I look away.
“Don’t,” he says, hand softly moving over mine. “I like it when – when you look at me.”
Now it’s my turn to look surprised. He’s never once said what he does and doesn’t like… not in that way. “Do you like to – to look at me?”
His nostrils flare. “You know I do. So much that it feels...”
He looks down, shy too. I take his hand and press it to my lips. “I am your wife, Raoul,” I say. “Yours.”
He makes a small noise in his throat and leans in to kiss me, gently.
He promised to try.
I lean into his small, light kisses and press them all together with my mouth, pressing into him, and he opens to me. I feel myself unravelling already and wonder at the strength of it, of this wanting, and throw open my duvet. “Come here."
He stands to blow out the candle.
“Leave it,” I order.
His mouth quirks. “As my wife commands.” He comes towards me.
“No, stay there. Undress for me.”
This time, he looks utterly astonished. A grin grows on my face and he starts to smile, too. He undoes his cravat. He unbuttons his shirt and my gaze roams greedily over his form. Thin, I think to myself. Thinner than... and just like that, the world is out from underneath me. I’m on a precipice looking down into the murk, tilting on the edge.
I clutch the bedside table.
He rushes to me. “You are ill, I knew it,” he says. “Christine, forgive me for pushing you.”
Goddamn it. The fool. It’s not that at all. It never is.
He covers himself up again, removing his true self and rejecting mine along with it. I am a doll to him. A fragile doll. Finishing his cravat, he pecks me on the cheek, strokes my hair. “I’ll read to you, if you like. So you can rest your eyes.”
I accept the offer without words. Automatically lie down. Cover myself with the duvet.
I have no words here.
I feel the black velvet beneath my pillow, and squeeze it into a fist.
Chapter 11: Smoke and mirrors
Weak resolve, Christine.
“He was terrible, a right loon. I don’t know what Mama was thinking,” Meg says, blowing cigarette smoke out on my bedroom balcony. She offers me the cigarette and I shake my head. She knows I must say no to such unladylike things.
She laughs. “Christine, what else are balconies for, if not for being free while out in the open, and out of sight?”
I smile and shake my head again. Today is the first day it feels like spring: the sun is shining and green is returning to our garden. My balcony faces away from the city and its eyes, and now it's warm enough to venture out, I feel escape and time to myself is a possibility once more.
Today is also the first time Meg and I have met one another since I left that cafe more than a fortnight ago. I’m glad she’s here. Raoul has insisted on taking me for lunch with the Almonts this afternoon to get me out of the house: a terrible fate I’m unable to face without some sane company first. I wrote to Meg last night with an apology and invitation to breakfast while Raoul is running errands. She knows something has happened, I can tell: she keeps glancing at me from the corner of her eye.
“Did you agree to meet him again?” I ask, delaying.
But she’s looking down. “What’s that, Christine?”
I blink. “What’s what?”
“That, around your wrist.”
The black velvet. I must have been playing with it. She leans in close and I pull my arms off the balcony railing. “It’s nothing.”
She doesn’t push me. “No,” she replies eventually, “Mama has let me off. Even she couldn’t bear to hear him talk any longer.”
I attempt to laugh.
“Are you still ill?” she asks me softly, though I know she knows that isn’t it.
“I am... still troubled.”
She pulls back from the railings, too, taking another breath of smoke. “I guessed as much; you’ve been silent for a while now. Do you wish to talk about it?”
I swallow, look down into the garden for any staff below. “I did as you advised, Meg,” I murmur, seeing the coast is clear. “I purged myself of my sorrows on the floor of that cavern, but in doing so, I... I have made more.”
She frowns, waiting.
“Oh Meg,” I almost cry. “It’s the most terrible mess.”
“He didn’t hurt you, did he? I know I shouldn’t have let you go alone –”
“No,” I say, closing my eyes. “If only! That would be far more simple... no. He is innocent in this. It was me who did it, me. Meg, I… we…” We look at one another, but I cannot say it out loud, not in my own home.
“Goodness, Christine, what is it?”
I want the balcony to collapse and take me with it. “We... passed the point of no… return.”
She stares at me, not understanding. Then she does understand: the duet; her mother’s realisation of who was playing Don Juan that night; Carlotta’s wail as she found Piangi’s body. Meg carries on staring at me until ash falls from her cigarette and burns her hand. Hissing, she brings it to her mouth and sucks the burn, saying around it: “I didn’t realise.” She stubs out the cigarette on the stone wall behind us, not looking at me. “I thought you couldn’t be moved –”
“I can – I could, but… only by imagining him. More than the pain and anger, that was the ghost that haunted me.” I cover my face with my hands. “I didn’t mean to keep you in the dark, but how could I tell you something I couldn’t tell myself?”
“You’re allowed to have secrets,” she says gently.
“There was no danger in thinking of a dead man that way, but once I heard –”
“I shouldn’t have said a word –”
“It’s not your fault! I was so foolish to go! I didn’t think, I just ran –”
“Christine.” She puts her hand over my new bracelet. “Did it work? Did you expel him once and for all?”
I lower my hands, and finally meet her eyes. They hold no judgement, only concern. And here it is: the truth of it. “He’s in my bones, Meg. Something has changed in me; I cannot close myself again. I can’t be bothered to act any more – I don’t want to act any more.” I close my eyes. “That night, he was cruel at times; as hateful as ever. But loving, too.” I swallow, not looking at her. “We screamed and raged, aiming to hurt. But when I spoke, he heard. When I asked, he gave … When he looks at me,” I whisper, opening my eyes, “he sees me.”
“And Raoul?” she asks lowly, almost hopefully, as if the recovery of my martial sex life could render my affair forgivable.
I exhale. “He only sees a wife. He’s kind, loving, generous, caring… all any sensible woman could ask for. I tried to make it work, once my fever passed, but … the ghost won’t leave me. Now I cannot bear Raoul’s touch.”
Meg looks down at the railing. She takes a deep breath. “I’m so sorry Christine. Please take no more advice from me. What do I know of marriage?” she huffs a laugh. “I’m on the third year of meeting suitor after suitor. None will do.”
“Because you refuse to marry without love.”
“Love?” she snorts. “I settle only for freedom.”
We both jump when Lille’s knock calls behind us. When she comes into my bedroom, holding dress after dress, Meg smiles and turns to leave, putting the packet of cigarettes on my bedside table. “Enjoy your lunch, Christine. Let us have another talk soon.”
She touches my arm, and then she is gone.
“Which shoes,” I murmur in the hallway, delaying our departure.
“The blue?” Lille suggests.
“No, they’ll clash with the red.”
“Come now,” says Raoul, tapping his umbrella against his leg by the door. “What’s the trouble? Any will do.”
We both look at him, and he sighs. “I surrender. Then why no the grey pair? They do so look good on you.”
His eyes shine with timid hope that his compliment will do us good after what has been an awkward week, while I picture the grey shoes exactly where I left them: strewn on the floor at the foot of Erik’s bed, his naked body lounging upon the sheets.
“I haven’t seen them for weeks,” I say truthfully. “The blue,” I decide, and Lille puts them on for me, and I pretend I can’t see Raoul’s disappointed face.
We go out. The Almonts rave about my recovery (“thought she was quite done for!”) and compliment me once again on choosing to leave the opera (“not quite the occupation for a Vicomtesse”) and by the time we leave, I want to throttle someone. In the carriage riding home, Raoul sits in silence; much like he does at dinner, when I announce I want to sing again. Revelling in the tension, I retire to my room.
Kicking off my shoes, I grab Meg’s packet of cigarettes, light one from a candle before blowing them out and open the balcony doors. Stepping into the starlit night in my chemise, I wrap my dressing gown around me and lean against the railings. I take a long inhale from the cigarette, cough and look out on the world.
From here, the shadows and sounds of my enormous garden are comforting in their vagueness; leaves whisper to one another as invisible creatures scurry through the undergrowth. It looks like a painting more than a place, and I feel like an observer, alone and detached from its goings on.
The tree next to me rustles. Terrified of being caught, I put out the cigarette at once, wrap my dressing gown tighter around me and peek over the edge.
“God!” I whisper, stumbling back as Erik swings himself over the railings and onto the balcony. In his cloak and mask, he truly is my ghost. Tall and broad, he catches his breath, eyes bright. I try to stay standing. “Why are you here? I told you – it was a mis–”
“You wear my token.”
I hide my wrist before I can stop myself, inwardly cursing.
“And you’re smoking,” he says sternly. Suddenly, it’s my childhood teacher stepping towards me. That tone floods me with delight and the familiar old fear of his disapproval. It also recalls his betrayal.
“I do as I wish,” I say, straightening my back.
He laughs once, without humour. “You do indeed. You’ll destroy your voice.”
“That’s no concern of yours.”
“You want to sing again.”
My mouth falls open. “How long have you been here?”
“I’m always here,” he says, coming closer, and I draw back against the wall, but he follows: ““In your bones," non?” He pulls my wrist towards his mouth and before I can pull back, he kisses the black velvet bow over my skin. I feel my eyes droop.
He was listening. Listening all that time. My face flames as I remember all that I said to Meg, while the strange image of Erik, walking through our peaceful garden in broad daylight, baffles me. “You sent those flowers to torture me. What if he had seen?”
“I made sure he would not.”
“Then you meant to frighten me.”
“Frighten you? You have come to my bed. You cannot convince me I frighten you any longer.”
Ignoring the stab of desire I feel at those words, I raise my chin. “Then why?”
He falters. “I heard that you were dying. Paris talks.”
I pull back my wrist. He lets me. “Yes. It does. So go – please. Raoul...”
“… does not see you.”
Curse myself and curse Meg, and curse every damn thing in the world. He smells like the garden. “Would you take me against my will?”
He huffs out another laugh. “This is not the first time you’ve asked me that question.” He wraps an arm around my waist and pulls me in close. “You think that would do for me, now? Now that I’ve had you squirming beneath me,” his breath is warm on my face, “crying my name; clawing my back? God.” He shakes his head. “I’ll have you all, or not at all.” Inhaling slowly, he meets my gaze.
For all his bravado, fear glimmers in his eyes and in that moment, I know he’ll respect my choice: if I say no, he will leave. I see freedom. I see the truth.
Without breaking our gaze, I stumble backwards into my room; he traces my steps, treading on the remains of my rebellious cigarette; we half-waltz inside, not quite touching; attuned to one another’s every movement like a mirror, even in the darkness.
Always a mirror.
I let him go, and he stills. In the darkness I hear the ‘swoosh’ of his cloak; the ‘pat’ of each glove as they land on the rug. Turning from him, I hurry to the door, reaching out to lock it and when it clicks he’s already there, pressed against my back, pinning me to the door. I exhale into the varnished wood as he kisses the back of my neck, parting my curls and pushing down my dressing gown.
His teeth come around my ear and I gasp in shock. The door is cold and I turn into his warmth, taking his bare face in my hands and kissing him fully. He groans, lifting my leg to wrap around his hip. I pull his hardness against me and we pant into one another’s mouths.
I whimper some sort of noise and he smiles around it open-mouthed, pushes my arm above my head against the door, and everything is on fire, everything is him, and there’s no controlling it any more.
I don’t want to control it any more.
“Erik,” I demand, pushing back his hair and taking hold of his head. He stills, waiting. “Take me.”
He lets out the most maddening, yearning moan, gathers my legs around his waist and carries me, feet clinging tightly, to the rug. He lays me down beneath him, panting softly. In the dim light from the moon filtering into the room, his form takes shape. I clamber up to bring him down closer still, my mouth finding every inch of bare skin it can.
His greedy fingers are at my thighs, yanking up my chemise. He cups me between my legs. “Christ in heaven,” he rasps, before grappling with his trousers.
Taking hold of himself, he thrusts in right to the hilt. My back arcs; there’s no breath to cry out, no feeling like this – like being filled.
I’ve been empty ever since he took me.
I shudder out a long breath as he gets up onto his hands, holding himself high above me. He gently pulls out, meets my eyes, and rams back in. I utter a sharp cry and we stop – listen – but when he stuffs my chemise into my mouth, laughing, his laugh takes hold of me too, and I’m giggling on the floor when he cuts me off, hitting me deep again, and then again.
“Erik,” I groan, my body rocking as he finds his rhythm, gathering momentum. “Harder!”
“Christ!” He slaps the floor with an open palm and grabs my leg, throwing it over his shoulder. Holding me down by the hips, he jabs into me, over and over. The delicious swell rises to its crescent – I bite down hard on my chemise – try not to wail as he jerks, gasps, and releases himself with a growl, pushing me there with him before collapsing onto my chest.
I cradle his head between my breasts. The rug has rubbed hard against my skin and I wiggle my shoulders, feeling the sting merge with the afterglow of lovemaking. I look up at my shadowed, ornate ceiling from the floor as if from the roots of the very earth, and feel my body sink into contented oblivion.
Chapter 12: See me!
Naked and warm, I wake in the dark, still entwined in his arms on the rug. The mahogany wood clock chimes one o'clock. I relax about discovery; this is still our time.
Resting in the crutch of his shoulder, I touch his chest, curling the hairs I find there. After the fierceness of our lovemaking, he holds me in his sleep like a treasured one.
He is gentle.
Would he have always been so, had his childhood been peaceful and happy? I picture the small child, loved and cared for, clean and warm; tears prick my eyes. Then a boy, head covered with a bag as he stabs the man who brought him so much despair.
The first time I went to his lair, he was gentle too.
How quickly that changed.
Meg's face when I told her. I haven't forgotten his crimes – I can't. But something small and imperfect has begun to shift in him. A seed in the shadows, germinating toward the light. Though he still hides from humanity, he has shown some modicum of self control – with me, at least.
His cavern was empty of mirrors when I ventured down to expel him; he sat mask-less at the piano. I wonder if he has always worn that mask, even when alone. All those years of living through us, among us, apart from us... masquerading as the Angel or the opera ghost... Had he been hiding his truth from himself, too? Until I unmasked him on stage in front of Paris, had he ever just been Erik?
I reprimand myself in the darkness. Who am I to talk about self honesty.
We're both learning. So long as neither of us are killing anyone, that's fine.
I strain to hear Raoul, asleep only across the hall.
As if sensing my alertness, Erik wakes, shifting limbs under the covers. eyes still closed, he tugs me closer to his side.
"No crying this time," he murmurs, voice thick with sleep, "and no running away."
I hum, inching my hand closer to his face. I stroke his scars before he can stop me, feeling the bumps and grizzly lines. He flinches and pulls away. "No, my angel."
"You needn't pretend."
He hesitates. "I do not need you to desire all of me. That you desire me at all, is..." he sighs. "Even when I almost forced your hand, I never imagined we would ever – that you would ever... want me."
I prop myself up on my elbow, turning my body towards him. I kiss his scars, slowly and firmly, but again he shifts out of reach.
"You give me enough," he mutters. "I mean never to force you, never again – anything."
"Erik," I almost laugh – for isn't it obvious? "You don't. Not any more."
"Nor do I need your pretence," he adds, and I hear his head turn towards me, hair rustling on the rug. He gently pulls my hand away from his face. "Games of make believe. They end now."
I said it myself on the balcony only this morning, that I don't want to act any longer. With Erik, here in the dark, I will tell the truth. "It is hard to look at, sometimes," I admit, "but it does not repulse me. I notice it less every day. It is a part of you."
He makes a hmph sound and after a moment, pulls me close again, tucking my head beneath his jaw.
“Was it coming to me that made you ill?" he asks.
I take a breath. "I don't know. Perhaps. Meeting my ghost face to face, after all that pain... it took a lot of strength from me. And then, to have come together as we did... I never thought I would be that person.” Now that the truth is asked of me, it tumbles out, unstoppable. “Perhaps the fever was borne from the strain of my transformation; my finding out my truth. Or perhaps - perhaps from my guilt." I gaze in the direction of my bedroom door. Raoul's face will be my new ghost, I suspect. "I'm a girl no longer, but as a woman, I still don't know myself."
He listens, stroking my waist to show he's still there. "I feared – I wondered if it might have been regret."
Lowering back down to the bed, I sigh. "It is too soon to know yet, if I regret it."
He tenses beneath me and I hurry to make myself understood. "I only mean that... It is much harder to be a woman than a girl."
We lie together in an easier silence. After a while, he asks: "Did you destroy the dress?"
I jolt in his arms. "No. I hid it."
He chuckles and I scowl, though he can't see me. "I will not lie to you either," he says, "though it will be harder than anything I have sworn before. I will try very hard - I will do my best not to lie to you." Beneath my ear I hear his heart thumping wildly, and know that as much as he wants this, wants me, changing will be hard for him.
It is well understood between us that we are both still trapped. This is a different kind of trap to those we have shared before – nothing is now enforced against the other’s will – but a trap it remains: we are still one another's prisoners, unable to escape. Our keys to one another's cells only lead us deeper into the labyrinth of this strange, wild connection.
I think of Raoul, and lament the hurt I'm doing him. Childhood sweethearts, adults in love: that’s the fairy tale, the opera story. But no opera or fairy tale tells you what happens after the happy ending. They are only concerned with ‘should’ and ‘natural’ and ‘true love.’ Have I expected too much from our marriage? That promise of happy ever after?
No, I think to myself in the arms of my lover. What Erik and I share here is more real than the meaninglessness of titles and luncheons, of being a wife and a woman of leisure, that’s true. But... in what reality can this truth exist? A murderer hiding from the world beneath a dilapidated building; a runaway bride known to all, abandoning her promises and everything society holds ‘true’ and ‘good’... What world could possibly have a place for us?
"And to others?" I ask him. "Will you still lie to them? Force them to do your bidding, as you have before?"
"Others?" Erik sounds surprised. "What do I care for others?"
"You aren't quite the monster I once knew you to be," I whisper, "Oh, Erik... Nothing is how I knew it to be any more! The world has changed..."
He nods, and touches my cheek.
"... But it still exists beyond our bed.”
"So it may," he murmurs, and he comes in close, kisses me on the nose. "Let it. I have no business with it, nor it with me." His hands snake beneath the covers and take hold of my rump, fondling. "I fled it's cruelty," he whispers, pushing me gently onto my back, "and when there was you," he parts my thighs, "that world ceased to be."
I swallow a cry as he enters me, folds me tight into his chest, and gasp little "o"s against him as he rocks me like a lullaby.
Though his words are not comforting, I cannot refute them. His presence engulfs me as I, too, forget what lies beyond the bedroom door and beyond our skin.
In the dawn’s early light, I wake to find myself in bed and Erik gone. On the other pillow lies the pretend rose from my Don Juan costume and, in his beautiful handwriting, a short note: "wear it."
I glance at the clock. 5.30am. The servants will be awake, but Raoul will not. Heart sinking with shame, my hand slips down, lifting my chemise from between my legs. Slick from a night of ravishment, my folds part easily and I sigh, head back.
Don Juan is singing to me.
We climb the stairs to the bridge. Everyone is watching. The music is pounding through the theatre, in our blood. In the front row sit the Almonts, and I relish their disapproval.
Watch me, I dare them, fingers moving faster. See me.
We reach the bridge, turn to face one another.
“Past the point of no return… no going back now...”
“The bridge is crossed so stand and watch it burn...”
He swirls me in his arms and pulls me against him. I feel his hardness at my rear, his hands in my hair, across my throat.
The audience gasp as he lowers them to my breasts, kneading, pushing and pulling them beneath my blouse, my nipples stroked by the roughness of his gloves.
“We’ve passed the point of no… return...”
As the music quietens, his fingers walk down my leg, hitch up my skirt. A woman somewhere in the crowd cries out in outrage and it makes us giddy. He bares my knees. He bares my thighs.
The audience are shocked into silence. I wear no bloomers. My phantom’s hand slides down my belly. His fingers sink inside.
I rub myself faster; my fingers are his fingers, my bedroom is the stage. Undone by his touch, my knees collapse – he catches my waist as I fall, moves down to the bridge with me, still pressing, tugging, pinching.
Slack as a doll against his firm body, he lays me down upon the wood. The audience watch as he lowers himself on top of me.
“Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime...” he pushes gently inside of me. Yes.
“Lead me, save me from my solitude...”
He watches my face, moving so carefully, rocking in me so slowly.
“Say you want me with you here, beside you...”
The swell begins..! the rolling within..!
He rears up onto his hands. I gasp, pull the bed sheets into a fist.
“Anywhere you go let me go, too! Christine, that’s all I ask of you!”
At the crescendo I arc off from the bed, mouth and eyes shooting open at the force of my release; I see myself ripping off his mask; our tongues jousting in a messy, wet battle of wills, bodies fighting to get ever closer as we roll too and fro across the wood. And the audience scream, the audience gasp! The chandelier floats in the air, showering our lovemaking, our mating, with light. They see us, they see our truth!
We are free. We are above them all, floating towards heaven.
I collapse against the bed, fist abandoning the crumpled sheets. My body aches with the strength of my satisfaction, still thrumming with that he gave me last night.
My breath and heartbeat slow. I blink up at the ceiling, clutching his note in my hand.
I did not look at Box Five.
"Darling," I say over a breakfast of poached eggs. "I should like to start training again."
Raoul glances up from his newspaper, putting down his cup of tea. "I'm delighted to hear it," he says, and means it. "After all, what else would I do with a new opera house, were you forever turned against your art!"
I smile back. "I'm glad," I say, "after the Almonts' luncheon..."
"They are an old, noble family, Christine," he shakes his hand, flicking away their opinions. "They see things differently to the rest of us. No, your song is too heavenly to lock away any longer. Paris clamours to hear it once more." His eyes crease, he’s smiling so widely. Then he pats his mouth with a napkin, and clears his throat. "May I ask – after so many months – what's led to this transformation?"
"My fever," I reply quite honestly. "It taught me what matters, too."
We gaze at one another. "I am glad as well," he says quietly, "to see you recovered."
He does not only mean the fever. Quite moved, his eyes blink rapidly as he raises his teacup. "A new chapter then," he announces. "Christine, voice of an angel, returns to the stage." He toasts me. I feel disgusted with myself.
"… so I had better hurry and build it!" he adds, swallowing the last of his tea and standing up. He bows, takes my hand from across the table and kisses it. "My dearest Christine. I promise you, it will be a triumph."
He walks with purpose down our enormous hallway, calling to Gabriel for his horse. I am left looking at my half-eaten eggs, realising too late that his triumph of architecture will mean the destruction of what is already there.
Chapter 13: Enough
For Mazen, who rightly expressed trepidation, and for Psychotic_Jedi, who waited!
The front door behind my husband closes, and I am left with the servants for the morning. I wander from room to room aimlessly, finding no occupation and not really wanting to. The last Raoul said, he was still settling permissions from the Palais Garnier’s owners as to when and how he can bring it down.
There is no immediate danger.
But what can be done about it, whenever the danger strikes? In the living room, I lower mechanically into a chair and pick up my sewing. Even if Raoul doesn’t succeed in bringing down the Palais Garnier for another year – another ten! – what is the likelihood that Erik’s prospects will have changed?
With a thrill I remember his whispered words last night; his refusal to see the world beyond us. I recall the thoughts that floated through my mind in the darkness, so easy and safe in the warmth of lovemaking. Now, in the garish light of day, how foolish they seem. A world in which we can both exist? He isn’t part of any world but his own!
The glow from my fantasies fade. I will have to remind him about the building work – tell him… tell him what, I don’t know.
I sit there for so long that the clock chimes midday. The back door of the kitchen swings open, and I hear my husband greet my chambermaid cheerfully in the next room.
“Good morning, Sir!” she replies.
His heavy boots move across the kitchen floor as Lille’s lighter shoes step from time to time.
“Have you had a pleasant morning, Lille?” Raoul asks through something he eats.
“I have, Sir,” she replies, a smile in her voice. “Isn’t it...”
“Isn’t it what?”
“Well, pardon me for speaking out of turn, Sir.”
My husband laughs. It’s as warm as the sun. “Please, speak.”
“Only, I was thinking how wonderful it is, Sir, when the whole household is so happy.”
There’s a pause and a sigh, and from a mouth newly free of food, my husband says earnestly: “it is, Lille. It is.”
“I do worry, sometimes, for my Mistress,” she continues, and I cock my head up, listening closely. “She has had such a sad time.”
“She has,” he murmurs, and I close my eyes, ashamed.
“It is a sound comfort to know she is cared for,” Lille continues, “by a loving man as yourself, Sir; going to her side when she needs you, as you did last night.”
I freeze in my chair.
Silence fills the kitchen.
Lille clearly thinks she has overstepped a boundary. “Sir, forgive me for speaking so freely – I don't mean to say I was listening at the door, nothing of the like, Sir, only passing by with bed linen –”
"Last night,” he repeats slowly. “What is it you heard, Lille?"
"N-nothing but conversation, truly," she stutters. I inhale, cursing. Even I can hear the lie in her voice. "Your privacy at night is your own, Sir, I ought not to have -"
"Do not fret," he murmurs. There is a long silence. "That will be all, Lille."
Trying to listen over the pounding in my ears, I hear her light footsteps move away.
"A moment." He calls her back.
"Not a word of this to your mistress, understood? She is very... shy in these matters."
"Of course, Sir."
“I will be back shortly.”
The kitchen door slams and my husband’s boots crunch out into the garden as Lille’s light feet patter out of the room.
I stand, too. Trying to walk slowly until I’m alone, I make it to my room and pull out the velvet, the note and the Don Juan rose. I eventually decide on beneath my mattress. Even Lille wouldn’t venture further beneath there than necessary.
Relieved at the evidence having been removed, I wipe my hands down my skirts and glance to the ceiling, muttering a prayer. I no longer care about what I do or don’t deserve. Taking a deep breath, I leave the room that has betrayed us with its thin door, and walk assuredly back downstairs.
Sitting once again in the living room, I once again take up my sewing. My hands shake terribly, and I clasp them together.
The kitchen door opens and closes.
His boots grow louder.
He enters the living room behind my chair.
I extol every nerve in my frame to act, act, act to the best of my ability. I raise my head from my sewing, and put on a radiant smile as he walks into view. "Raoul."
He doesn’t look at me. His body is stiff; formal; he's breathless. Has he been stomping around the garden? He inclines his head in a small bow. "Forgive my employment tonight," he says, "I cannot join your afternoon of leisure. I only come to say – your training..."
"- I will employ a teacher for you.”
I lower my sewing things to my lap. "A teacher?" I ask. "I had thought to train alone -"
"Do not fear. I shall find you the best there is. This very moment.” He nods again before I can respond, and turns to leave.
Then, he stops. I wait like a rabbit looking down the barrel of a farmer's gun.
He turns half-towards me. "The night you did not come home – the day of your picnic with Meg in the gardens."
He meets my eyes, looking at me with such anguish that sympathy overrides my self-preservation. "I have respected your privacy on the matter; Lille told me you did not wish for me to know..."
My heart is in my throat.
"...But I must ask: is that where you lost your grey shoes?" His eyes are desperate. He's asking something else entirely.
I swallow, and nod. He looks down to the floor, and suddenly releases a burst of air. "What can I do?"
I blink, surprised. I want to honestly say that there is nothing he can do, but that would be undoing the lie. Instead, I act. Act, act, act. "You needn’t do anything. I am well."
Clearly he wishes to ask more, and part of me hopes he will: this fear is unbearable. But he doesn't. He nods again, flattening his lips. “This morning I thought you were, too.” And without another glance, he takes his leave.
I breathe again. Having sworn to never act any more, I am relieved at having done so so well. But somewhere in my heart I know that it can't be done forever. Somewhere, in the hazy, distant future, I see the shape of an end point beginning to form.
When will it come for us?
How will it feel when it does?
Another reckoning is to be had; another point of no return. I look at my hands. Soft, white, young. All the things they should be.
They don't look like mine.
I throw the sewing back to the table and stand.
Yet again, Raoul left the house – but this time, on a horse. He will be some time, this means, and I head to the stables too, throwing my cloak around me.
Gabriel looks up from a horse shoe, surprised. “Ma’am?”
“I need a carriage,” I say, “please ready one for me.”
He doesn’t stand up. Instead, he lowers his tools and sighs, rubbing his neck. “I’m sorry to go against you, Mistress; but I can’t.”
I frown. “Can’t? Why ever not?”
He goes faintly red, and reties the neckerchief. “The master says that from now on, you’re only ever to leave the house with a servant ma’am, for your safety, see? And Lille is at market.”
I stare at him. “Pardon?”
“I’m so sorry, ma’am, but... if you can wait for her return, I shall drive you gladly to wherever you desire.”
I stand gaping for a moment, before remembering myself, and automatically bob back. “Of course,” I murmur, and fly back out to the house. I must reach Erik somehow, but with Lille, I cannot. Cursing, I run back up the stairs, no longer caring what servant sees my urgency, and fly into my room, going to my writing desk.
Do not return, I write quickly, it is dangerous. I will come to you.
I imagine Erik in the same conversation I have just had with my husband. If Erik suspected what I have allowed Raoul and Lille to, that I was violated in a park, he would roar down his cavern, hurl furniture; clasp me to him, weep for me - and likely murder the man who had done the imagined crime.
Would that be better? Hardly. But it would be honest. And I would be able to tell him all, for he would listen - wouldn't be satisfied until he knew what was the matter. And even if at first I resisted, sharing the load with someone who loves me would release me a little from the memory.
Even when I betrayed him, ripping off his mask to the world - in all his despair, still Erik had asked me: "why? Why?"
In all our short marriage, Raoul has never once asked me outright what happened, or how it felt, under Erik's terrible power. Nor after it, while I lived with his ghost. Just like today, when he thinks I have been violated; have had someone in my room; still, he doesn't ask. Raoul somehow always knows best. He has no need to get close to the molten core.
That would never be enough for Erik.
I fold the note, scramble beneath my mattress for the flattened Don Juan rose, and wait, wait, wait, for Lille to return.
Chapter 14: Masks
Smoking is bad for you.
An hour later, Lille is silent beside me in the carriage. She doesn’t know what I heard her say in the kitchen to my husband; she only knows that she has made Raoul upset, and thus thinks she has done me harm. Of course, the fault is all my own, but I cannot say so. So I smile at her warmly, but it only seems to make her feel worse. I apologise to her in my mind, and the inevitability of mine and Raoul’s reckoning rears its head once more.
Cannot this carriage move any faster?
Finally, I see Meg’s house out of the window. We pull up to the door, and I force myself not to run to it.
I ring twice, and wait. Something within catches my eye and I look through the great bay window to see a man, Meg and her mother, Madame Giry, sitting together on sofas and enjoying afternoon tea.
The sight of my childhood guardian fills me with a strange rage. Meg is obviously suffering another suitor – from her disinterested face, he’s likely a fool – and there her mother sits, ensuring the best match for her daughter… while having once allowed a little girl to be prey to a madman.
He still could be a madman, I remind myself, looking at the note and rose in my hand.
The door opens, and Meg’s servant boy is there with the butler. “Good day, Madame de Chagny.” The butler looks surprised to find a lady on his doorstep, rather than a lady’s servant.
“Good afternoon. Is Mademoiselle Megan available, please?”
“She is currently engaged with company, Ma’am.”
“Ah, a shame.” I force a smile, and then look to her servant boy. “Would you be so good as to pass this message onto your mistress? It is only a little urgent, so pray, do not disturb their engagement. Please tell her...” I rack my mind for something suitable to say. “Tell her…. to send this message on to our mutual friend, when she has a moment.”
The boy nods earnestly, taking the note and the rose. I courtesy, ready to leave, when I catch someone’s eye through the window: Madame Giry. Her expression eludes me, and I don’t have time to prepare my own mask – she sees the worry and anger in me, I am sure – and the faintest smile flickers over her face. It’s a loving, warm, smile. She inclines her head a fraction, and then the warmth is gone. Returning her attention to the room, she sits silently, observing her daughter’s suitor once more. I flee from the doorstep, amazed as always as to what Madame Giry seems to know of hearts.
I climb back into the carriage, smiling at my chambermaid who can’t manage one in return. We sit together, both ashamed of ourselves, as we are taken home.
I find Raoul in the study, jacket slung over the back of his chair and papers covering his desk.
“Darling,” he greets me, not looking up. “Where have you been?”
“To Meg’s,” I reply, “though she was with company, so we returned.”
“Still chasing marriage?” he says. There’s a new tone in his voice. “Yes,” I say, “… why not?”
“A dancing girl,” he replies, “turning away suitors others would clamber for. If it weren’t for the reputation of her mother… well,” he sighs, writing something on some sort of document, “she wouldn’t be able to turn down men of aristocracy each day of the week. Those she denies could give her a different life. A better life.”
I blink at him. “She knows what she wants from marriage.”
“It is clear she does.” Again, his voice is strange and I frown a moment, trying to understand. “… Shouldn’t she?”
He is engrossed in whatever he reads, making me wait. Finally, he murmurs: “No. A woman of her station. … No.”
My stomach turns to ice. Never before has he expressed... “Her station is the same as my own.”
He ruffles some papers, trying to appear calm, but I see him swallow. As I neither leave the room nor fill the silence, he runs out of things to do. Finally, he looks up at me. There is such a mix of emotions on his face that not one stands out. But they are strong, fierce; decided. And there’s something else – something I’ve never seen in him before that I can’t work out.
He doesn’t respond.
“Perhaps that seems foolish to you,” I manage, “that “a woman of her station” expects… to be able to… choose.” My throat feels tight.
Again, he says nothing.
I feel sick. I turn away. “Goodnight, Raoul.”
“Christine.” He finally speaks, and I glance back. He has reassembled his mask, his face back under control. “I have engaged you a teacher. You begin tomorrow at 10 O’clock. Lille will escort you to your lessons.”
“… Thank you.”
“... She will escort you everywhere outside of this house, from now on.”
He eyes me, face passive. “To keep you safe, of course.”
Of course. For the first time in a very long time, Raoul is far too busy to dine with me, and we eat separately. Afterwards, I go to my balcony, smoke one of Meg’s cigarettes. They’re running low.
There is a marked change in my husband; one that isn’t undeserved. But it makes me shake. Always to be followed by servants? Is it really to keep me safe?
The ridiculousness of my situation doesn’t escape me. I’ve chased freedom with the man who once sought to imprison me, and in doing so,have built myself a new prison with the man who once sought to free me. Perhaps God has judged me for my behaviour. Perhaps our society’s ideas about womanhood, and married womanhood, aren’t wrong after all.
Perhaps I just don’t want them.
Still, I look out into the trees, hoping that Meg has been delayed in my requested delivery – hoping to see him emerge from the wilderness like the creature of the night he is. The creature of honesty; unbounded emotion; the creature of the dreams I dare to have, whatever station of woman I am.
But he doesn’t come.
He respects my request, and for once, I curse it.
“Stand... straighter! Married women do… not… slouch!” Madame Elise demands again, coughing into a handkerchief.
“And singers, Madame?” I respond, trying very hard not to show my frustration. She’s said the same thing five times, though my posture is fine.
She looks at me archly. “Women of the aristocracy do not use sarcasm.”
I take a slow, deep breath, and stand straighter.
“Good!” she ruptures, before coughing into her handkerchief again.
We’re supposed to be having a singing lesson, but so far my new teacher seems to be more concerned with my feminine ways than my voice. Finally, having completed our warm-ups, she looks me over and barks: “Have you ever sung Faust’s Marguerite?”
With a thudding heart, I nod.
She passes me the sheet music and goes to the piano. I don’t need to look at the notes; I know them better than my own name.
I wait for the piano introduction to finish, half-terrified, half-desperate to reach the lines I once treasured in a different singing classroom. As the music builds to the aria finale, my whole body rises with it and the song bursts from me like a flooded dam:
"Angel! Shining Angel!
Bear my soul to heaven's bosom!
Just God, I surrender myself to Thee!... ”
My voice dances over the rises and falls, crescendos and diminuendos, effortlessly flying up and down the range and shapes he taught me, around the breaths he showed me and through the posture he demanded of me. I close my eyes, transported to another time; another world. A simpler time. The time when I was a young girl, and but a student...
“….King God, I am Thine! Forgive me!
Angel unsullied, shining angel!”
By the end of the haunting melody, I am breathless. My cheeks are wet. Blinking back into myself, and back into the present, I recall that that time is over, now; I hear no “brava, brava, bravissimi,” now.
I have another teacher, now.
Madame Elise is looking at me with such wonder that I flush, glancing down. In the silence, she blinks back into herself, too. Wiping her cheek with her handkerchief, she lightly slaps my hand like I’m a child to chastise. “Married women do not feel so much! You must execute self control when on stage, Madame.”
After another hour, I am released. I am not surprised to find Madame Elise watching me as I leave, my walk as well as everything else under her scrutiny.
Lille awaits me in the carriage. “How was the lesson, Mistress?”
I place a hand on my heart, cradling the precious memories returned to me. “A joy... Like... I have found myself again.”
She smiles warmly, and I share it.
“Your husband will be happy to hear so.”
Of that, I can’t be sure. This morning certainly was a lesson, though likely not the lesson Raoul wanted me to learn. “Ride on, please,” I call, and we make our way home.
I find my husband, yet again, lost among his papers. “Roaul!”
He looks up, shocked by my curt voice. “Darling?”
“Where on earth did you find Madame Elise, the local preparatory school for girls?”
A flush covers his cheeks. “She’s highly regarded –”
“In some circles, I don’t doubt,” I interrupt. “If I must have a teacher, let it be another. I do not require schooling in anything but singing!”
We gaze at one another, our jaws clenched and souls stubborn. He leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. I hear the accusation in his silence plain as day.
“Alright,” he finally sighs. “I shall commission another.”
I nod once, dropping my hands from my hips. “Thank you.”
He nods curtly, too, meeting my truce. “And singing again,” he asks quietly, “how was that?”
My eyes shoot back up, meeting his. “… It was heaven.”
His face softens. “I am glad.”
“Thank you,” I say again, and I mean it. A small smile lights his face.
“Are you working late?”
He glances at his desk and moves an arm over the documents. His face changes once more, like a dream has ended. His mask is back. “Yes, and likely through dinner. Please, go ahead and eat without me.”
I do. I fork my duck around the gold-leafed plate. It looks like a poor imitation of the sun, it’s glimmer faded. The sun is not in this gold-leafed plate; it is not in the nice vases and dresses and carriages. It’s not even in lovemaking, I realise as I stare into nothingness.
It is in singing. It is in my soul. It is in what he has given me, whether he resides in the darkness or not.
It is in what Raoul has tried to give me back.
I go upstairs and take the cigarette box from my bedside table. In defiance of my husband’s tightening control over my movements and in defiance of Erik’s last words about my voice, I have continued to smoke them – so much so, that only three remain. I stand there, looking at the small box in my hand. I will decide for myself, I think, squeezing it.
I will decide for myself.
I crumple up the remaining cigarettes and throw them, broken, into the draw.
"Brava, brava, bravisimi," I sing to myself.
It is time to tell the truth.
Chapter 15: Sunlight
This one's for Aiahime!
Morning comes far too soon. I rise, swallow, push my fingers into my eyelids. It is a new day.
I wear Raoul’s favourite dress.
I take each stair slowly.
The house is quiet; the hall bright in the strong, spring sun.
At the bottom of the stairs I turn the corner and there he is: sitting at the breakfast table.
“Good morning,” I say, entering the dining room.
He looks up. “Good morning.”
The table is laid for two; though he has finished eating, he has remained seated, reading the newspaper… waiting for me. My heart breaks a little at the gesture.
“Your new singing teacher will meet you at 10 O’clock today, if you can make it?”
I swallow. “Yes, yes – thank you.”
He smiles and turns back to the newspaper. I sit, taking a deep breath. “Raoul.”
He takes a small breath before meeting my eyes. I can tell from his face that my voice sounds as serious as I feel. He’s hopeful and terrified all at once, as if waiting for a diagnosis from the doctor.
“There’s... something I need to tell you.”
His nostrils flare. “Yes?”
“Sir!” Gabriel comes running into the room, a note in his hand.
The tension between us snaps – we return to the room, confused at the interruption.
“What is it, Gabriel?” my husband asks sharply.
“It’s the opera house, Sir! There’s been an accident!”
Raoul immediately gets to his feet, his chair scraping as he grabs the letter.
“The opera house?” I whisper.
“We have men there, taking measurements,” Raoul mutters, scanning the letter’s contents. “A collapse..?”
My breath hitches.
“Prepare my horse!” he demands.
“Raoul!” I say, standing up. “Let me come, too!”
He frowns at me, not having time for a silly request from his wife. “Whatever for?”
“In case anyone is hurt – I should like to help!”
“You will not be of help, Christine. Go to your singing lesson – Lille will go with you. Lille!” he calls.
“Yes, Sir?” my chambermaid calls, running into the room.
“You will escort your mistress to her singing lesson for 10 O’clock, do you hear?”
And with that, he leaves the house, throws himself onto his horse and rides away. I stare after him, hands planted on the table, heart thudding like an iron-smith’s hammer. He would not go to the catacombs to see whether anyone is hurt there, would he? And what if he doesn’t? What if…?
I collapse back into my chair, gripping the armrests with white fingers.
“Mistress, are you ill?”
I cannot go to the opera house; Raoul will recognise the carriage, and besides, Lille will not disobey him – I may be her mistress, but I am no master of the house. All I have in my power is acting. “I fear I am, Lille. I shall not attend my lesson today.”
“Shall I call a doctor?”
“No, no – I suspect it is only worry for the poor souls at the opera house. I shall take some air in the garden.”
I burst out of the kitchen door, wanting to scream. How can I stay here, not knowing if he is hurt; if he will be discovered! Were I a man, no-one could stop me, no-one!
I march through the garden, turning at trees and flowerbeds to march back. Going in circles at the pace of a well-trained soldier, eventually, I tire, and slow my steps.
“Gracious,” I breathe to the skies, sitting on a bench in the glade of Raoul’s miniature forest. Here, I can almost pretend I’m out in the real wilderness; the house is barely visible through the trees, and the city is far enough away to hear the birds.
“Gracious indeed,” says a voice. A hand takes my arm and tugs me into the trees.
His mask glimmers in the dappled sun and it is so strange, so bewildering to see him in daylight and among nature that I am frightened for a moment he really is a ghost – that he did perish in the collapse.
I touch his face. It’s real. “You’re alright,” I rasp, and pull him close to me.
He murmurs into my hair, “sweet Christine.”
“The opera house – the accident –”
“Shhh,” he comforts me. “There was no major disaster.”
The memories of yesterday’s singing lesson and my fear for his life spurs a desire in me so strong that I push him against a tree. He turns us around and pulls me with him onto the cushion of his cape and the grass.
He sits and catches me in his lap. My legs wrap around his middle, my dress hitched up past the knee. I tear off his mask and kiss him hard, forcing his mouth open and thrusting my tongue inside. He groans. Saliva runs down our faces as we gorge ourselves on one another. Grasping my buttocks, he kneads them, grinds me down on his hardness. He sucks his fingers, nudges away my skirts and thrusts them inside me. Softening my sharp cry, he pushes my face into his shoulder and pumps his hand in deep.
A gibbering mess, I abandon all defences and wilt against his solidness. He hisses in triumph. “Stay,” he orders, tugging at his trousers. I make a frustrated mewl as his fingers disappear and he tuts, pretending to reprimand me as he used to in our lessons. “Patience, my Christine.”
Grasping my hair and hip, he holds me in place and pushes in, stretching me open. I bite his shoulder, face still pressed into his shirt and gurgle around him, wetting his fine clothes.
“That’s right,” he coos, stroking my hair as he takes me. “Let Erik give this to you.” He chuckles as I mewl, my hips bucking on their own accord. His hands grow firm, forcing them to stay still. When he slows his movement, I growl against his chest. He chuckles again, pulls my face towards his and bites my lip. “Do you desire me?”
I try to focus, dazed and lost in the rapture of him. “Yes.”
“Do you think of me?”
His eyes are so damn blue. “Yes.”
“Do you touch yourself for me?”
Flashes of my fantasies roll through my mind and I arch back, unable to contain myself. “God, yes!” I cry, and he watches me hungrily, renewing his thrusts.
“Then show me, my sweet Christine. Show me!”
I spasm against him, my legs jerking in the leaves as the wave of pleasure hits. My face is wet with his spit, my thighs wet with his attentions and I collapse, letting him pin me to his body and wetten me through as he utters a cry, emptying himself.
We sit, clutched together, gasping into the midday air. He strokes my hair, gentle now, and lies slowly backwards into the undergrowth, pulling me on top of him like a blanket. He whispers sweet nothings as my heart thuds tremulously over his.
“I thought you were hurt,” I murmur, drowsy with satiation. “Discovered.”
“Never,” he whispers, still stroking my hair.
“I told you not to come.”
“Surely, the garden...”
“I’ve wanted to come to you –”
“I know.” His voice turns to steel. “He doesn’t let you.”
“I wanted to come this morning.” I feel the lump rise in my throat. “I was so worried…. Thank god you weren’t there when it happened.”
“Yes,” he says, as if starting to say something. But he doesn’t continue.
I prop myself up and gaze on his face. “Where were you? Why are you here now? You never go out in the day.”
He doesn’t meet my eyes. “I must learn to, some time.”
A suspicion comes to my mind, and I don’t want it to be true. “Erik,” I whisper, and he turns to look at me. “You said. You said you’d try your hardest not to lie.”
He sighs heavily. “It was a distraction, only.”
I sit up, pulling away from his warmth. The sun has gone in behind a cloud and I shiver, the undergrowth damp. “Why?”
“To lead that fool of a Vicomte away!”
“But people were hurt!”
“No,” he barks, sitting up too. “I made sure.”
“They are! Raoul’s letter said so!”
“Then they were meddling where they ought not to have been!” he says, voice rising into a shout.
“Oh God,” I groan, and get to my feet, moving away from him as leaves and soil falls from my dress. “You haven’t changed.”
“I’m a fool.” Tears build. To think I’d thought of us existing in the same world; living as one.
He jumps up and takes me roughly by the arm, forcing me to look at him. “I tell you: I meant no harm. The collapse was below, in my domain. It only meant to shake them; scare them! Drive the Vicomte from your side for one damned day. That is all!”
We stare at one another, breathing heavily. His eyes are hard as steel now, but I don’t see a lie in them. For a liar such as me to expect the truth from others seems trite. But from Erik, I do. And from me, he does, too. I blink away my tears. “I’m sorry. For doubting your word.”
He exhales, and loosens his grip. “I cannot blame you for finding it difficult. I have been a monster… to you, most of all.”
I sniff. “You are far from that, now. You are a man. And when you make love to me,” I add, blushing, but determined, “you are an angel, taking me to heaven.”
His face transforms. The anger and self-loathing recedes.
“I have begun to sing again,” I tell him. “Faust.”
His lips part. I sing for him as Marguerite: "Angel! Shining Angel! Bear my soul to heaven's bosom!”
We move toward one another, entranced. We take one another’s arms and he sings back to me as Faust: “Daylight already floods the sky! Come along, come! It is I who order you to!”
“Mistress?” Lille calls from afar.
Our eyes widen. I kiss him on the cheek and turn to go, but he pulls me back. “Return to the house,” he says, voice strained. “Wash. And when you retire for bed, touch yourself here.” He lays his palm lightly over my core, still hot and wet. I close my eyes. “I will be there beside you, in all but flesh. And when you can… return to me.”
Chapter 16: "I want him."
Can you tell that I know nothing about building construction in 18th-century Paris?
I return to the house. The challenge of not looking back to catch him watching me is delicious, and when I reach the kitchen door, I find myself smiling furiously into my hand.
“Mistress? Pardon my calling you: two letters have come; I thought you’d want to know.”
“Thank you, Lille,” I say.
I take them from her. She asks how I’m feeling. “Well, I thank you,” I murmur again, reading the folded paper. Raoul’s hurried handwriting. I tear it open.
I hope your lesson was pleasant.
Every man is well enough here. I wish I could say the same for the building. We did not find the cause of the commotion, but believe it safe enough to resume working after some careful checks. I will be staying this afternoon to carry these out.
Thank you for your desire to help this morning – your sympathy and compassion for others has always done you credit. Hearing of what you said, Jacques put his hand to his heart and demands I pass on my thanks for your concern.
See you this evening for dinner,
I should feel terrible at reading this, but I almost brim over with delight. To have proof of Erik’s word lights a strange and fierce pride in my chest.
The other letter is from Meg.
Have you any time this afternoon for your good friend? I have some news that I should like your opinion on. Meet me at the Palais square for ice cream at two O’clock if you can.
My affections as always, etc.
“You appear much better, Ma’am,” Lille says, seeing my glow.
“I feel it! Let us brave town, at Meg’s invitation,” I suggest, knowing that neither of us have any choice in her coming along.
“Of course,” she bobs.
“We shall all have an ice cream,” I announce, and she laughs. “First though, I should like to take a bath.”
“Of course,” she bobs again. “I – oh, mistress! What have you done here!” She bats lightly at my dress. Crushed grass stems flutter to the kitchen floor.
I watch them fall, and the glow in my chest tugs. “I laid in the garden a while,” I say, gazing at the memory, “and caught a glimpse of Heaven.”
She doesn’t quite understand, but smiles and goes to run my bath… so that I may wash.
“It is decided,” Meg says, holding her waffle cone and dainty spoon like trophies as we walk through the cobbled square. “Marriage be damned!”
She giggles, and I can’t help but join in with her. Lille walks behind us shyly, holding her own waffle cone and looking unsure what to do with it.
“But your mother!” I ask, remembering Madame Giry’s face yesterday.
“Mother agrees,” she replies, surprise in her voice. “After three years of us both meeting fools, yesterday was the last straw. Once he was gone, I said as much. She only seemed relieved!”
We sit on a bench in the middle of the square. Lille insists on standing a little away to give us some privacy.
“She took my hand and said: “Meg, now you know what sort of men exist in this world. Until you find someone better, do not give in!””
I stare at my friend, eyebrows at my hairline. “Goodness.”
“I know! It’s as if she planned it all. Like some sort of lesson.” She shakes her head, smiling tenderly.
We eat our ice creams and I wonder what it would be like to have such a mother; how it would be if Raoul had. I clear my throat. “Lille.”
She turns from stroking a passing poodle. “Yes, Mistress?”
“Would you be so good as to enquire in the coffee parlour for a table for three?”
She flushes. “Three, Ma’am?”
“Of course! There are three of us, are there not?”
She bobs, cheeks pink, and heads to the parlour. I immediately turn to my friend. “I have also been taking lessons.”
She touches my arm, face alight. “You’re singing again?” Her eyes glow with the understanding of another artist. “How wonderful!”
“Yes,” I say emphatically, “though, they are lessons of a... different sort,” I begin. “Meg – I, too, am breaking with convention. … I am – I am breaking with Raoul.”
She wasn’t expecting that. “Oh Christine!”
“He has done so much for me; loved me in the only way he knows, but...” I search her face for understanding, “it is not the type of love I need, nor that I can return.”
“But Christine,” Meg says lowly, “to break with him is to break with everything you have. Are you sure this is what you truly want?”
I check my endless pot of shame and guilt that bubbles away beneath. “I am hurting a good man,” I whisper. “That is my one regret, and I shall carry it with me forever. Yes… breaking with him will mean I lose some things… but regain those things that are more precious - that I have lost.”
“You mean Erik?”
“I mean myself.” Abandoning my waffle cone, I squeeze her hand. “A self that Erik honours.” I take a deep breath, feeling a weight lift from my shoulders. “I may need your friendship more than ever, soon: I tell Raoul tonight.”
“You have it,” she replies, squeezing back. “Whatever happens.”
“And when Paris calls you an old maid,” I grin, “you will have mine.”
She laughs. “What a pair we are!”
“Though you have a good mother at your side.”
“You may have her, too, sister of mine,” she says, “but be warned: society will soon not think so well of her, as you do.”
I clasp her hands fully and lift them to our chests, announcing: “Society be damned.”
She raises them even higher, laughing now, and shakes them in the air. Like a pair of trophies.
Raoul comes home later than expected; it is already dark and dinner is spoiling in the stove. I’ve tried to dress smart, and have given the servants an evening off to ensure our privacy.
He walks into the hall, weary and grubby with brick dust.
"Raoul!" I stand from the dining table. "What on earth..?"
"Complications,” he mutters, rubbing his hands over his face. “The building's foundations.” He doesn’t stop, but passes the door and makes for the staircase.
“What does that mean?” I follow him out.
“They appear perfectly secure, but the surveyors are recommending fixtures, nonetheless. I must ride to Le Mans tonight."
"To Le Mans!"It's almost a day's ride! "Whatever for?"
He rubs his face harder. "We need the materials I’ve ordered earlier than planned, and I – I want to get it sorted as soon as possible.”
"Can Jacques not go instead?"
"They’ll need my signature; waiting for the paperwork in the post will take days.”
He looks bone weary and I know it is not the right time, but there will never be a good time for this conversation. "Will you not join me for dinner first?"
He glances behind me and blinks at the table. I have laid it for two. "Thank you, but no," he says, regret in his voice. "I must wash and leave this moment. It is a long ride."
"Then I shall pack some food to take with you."
"That would be most kind," he murmurs, and slopes for the staircase.
"Raoul ... when you return..."
He doesn’t turn around. "I should be back by Sunday. If you – if you still must speak with me by then... I shall listen.”
I bid him farewell as he goes to wash, take to my room and open my clothing chest.
My Don Juan dress looks back at me. Imagining his gloved fingers tracing my body through this dress once more makes me shiver.
I take it out and immediately pull back, wincing. A damp smell issues from its folds; having gone unwashed at my command, it’s still grubby from when I last wore it, wet and dirty from his lagoon and the night-time streets of Paris. I was too afraid it would be spotted amongst the laundry.
I let it droop to the floor, crestfallen. But then I remember what he called out to me when I ran that night.
I go to my closet and find the longest skirts I can.
Hearing the door close behind my husband, I head to the balcony, taking a deep breath. If Erik can do it, so can you Christine. “Oh, Christine,” I sigh at myself, before stepping into the arms of my enormous tree.
The streets are quiet; I keep my hood low and stay in the shadows, away from lamp-lighters' prying eyes and finally reach his low window. I push it open, realising that this will be the second time I’ll see him in one day - and suddenly I freeze, drenched with horror.
What if he doesn’t wish to see me again so soon? What if – what if this is less exciting for him, without the risk of discovery?
I try to calm my heart with a hand over my chest, and soon the clouds of confusion clear with a simple realisation: I want him.
I will go to him, for I want him.
He destroyed a part of his domain just to see me again. Cannot I push myself and find my courage in return?
I step inside. The labyrinth is the same, though parts of it seem altered from the collapse, and though I now know the way, I pause at those same crossroads, waiting… and hear what I hoped for.
He plays and sings the same melody over and over and then stops – there’s a pause – before the piano begins again.
He’s writing. Writing!
Hitching up my skirts and kicking off my shoes I begin to run, diving around each corner and relishing the burn in my legs and lungs as my whole body fights to see him again, to see him now.
I reach the lagoon and know where I will find him. There he is, as he was last time: sitting at the piano with his back to me.
Silently, I wade into the water and watch his hand hover over the same chord of keys; lightly stroke them in the same pattern, before taking up his quill and scratching on some parchment.
The melody is beautiful. After hearing a few renditions, altered and tinkered as his ideas form, I think I know its shape. I lift my head and sing an arc of notes that would fit it just right. His chosen tone is perfect, his pitch is perfect: he has written a melody exactly suited to my voice. My song reaches up to the heavens; it echoes and showers down through the cavern like shooting stars.
And beneath those stars, his back straightens. His head falls back, as if in ecstasy. The purest joy flows from my throat towards him and ends in the purest, joyous laughter. What a world we share in these sounds! – These spaces between them!
He turns around on the stool, hands on his knees, and looks straight at me.
His shirt is open wide, trousers clutched to his body precisely.
My breath shallows. I can’t look away.
He stands. The warmest affection is on his face.
He steps into the water. Smiles blossom between us as we watch one another, already talking, holding, touching with our eyes.
When he reaches me, his arms come slowly around my waist. “So you’ve returned.”
“I wrote that I would.”
“You said you would not, not so long ago.”
His eyes and teeth are shining and I laugh again, wrap my arms around his neck and bring his beautiful, scarred face down to mine, and kiss him.
Chapter 17: Stars
For Mertens; Daasvedanya; Ensorcels; Catcorsair; Miserunt, and VillainessCrush81, for following, commenting and being all-round swell supporters. Thank you!
Erik has a piano forte, because I decided. Kthnx.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
We pull apart. His eyes are wet and there’s such a look on his face - it's indecipherable.
"What’s wrong?” I whisper.
His eyebrows crease. “What on God’s earth – could possibly...” He shakes his head. I’ve only ever heard him use God’s name in bed before; it’s strange to hear him say it in earnest.
We say more with our eyes than we manage with words. “What were you writing just then?” I murmur.
“Nothing,” he murmurs back, “just tinkering.”
“It was wonderful.”
“I like very much that you think so.” Still around my waist, his arms squeeze the merest fraction. “How were you able to come?”
“Raoul is away until tomorrow night, but the servants cannot miss me... I must be back before daybreak.”
He smiles. There's a faint tremble in his lip and a lump rises in my throat. I’m moved without knowing why; my mind has not yet caught up with whatever my body already knows.
“Then come,” he says, and takes my hand, “come out of the water. It is cold.”
"Wait," I start, hesitant. I'm breathless with anticipation, somehow shy; his eyes hood, lowering to my mouth. "It's not too cold," I finish.
I close the gap between us, the water swirling around my thighs. "Anywhere."
He traces my bottom lip with his thumb. "How... How..."
But I don't find out what he wants to know. He ducks down and takes the wet hem of my skirts. Ever so slowly, he rises, ripping them apart as he goes. He releases a satisfied hum at the sound of my clothes tearing, and lays a single kiss over my revealed bloomers before bringing me down to the water and into his arms, where it is cold no longer.
“Like a cat caught in a bag,” he drawls some time later, and I giggle without meaning to.
“No,” he barks, but he’s smirking. Shirtless and sock-less, he’s back at the piano, pressing the pedals with his bare toes. “Carlotta should never have been made lead, but you – you were not yet ready.” He shifts uncomfortably on the stool. Neither of us have yet spoken about our lessons together; the memory of that time must be what unsettles him. "Had they heard you before the first casting,” he continues wistfully, “Hannibal would have been a roaring success.”
“It was a roaring success,” I retort, rolled up in his satin sheets, drying off on the bed. “Every night was a full house!”
But he won’t have it. I watch him fiddle with those same few chords and softly invert it, singing the counterpart to his running scale. He turns around and watches me, calculating. “Yes,” he mutters, as if coming to some decision.
He stands with purpose and strides towards the bed, bending over me to deliver a lingering kiss. “Come,” he demands.
“Where – oh!”
He gathers me up, cocooned in his sheets like a caterpillar, and carries me to the piano. Unceremoniously dropping me on top of the lid, he laughs at my mock outrage and plays the same scale again. “Sing,” he commands.
A lesson like no other, I humph with indignity. But still I sing the counterpart and he frowns, sits up straighter, closes his eyes, suddenly lost in his writing world. “Yes! Again!"
It isn’t a lesson, I soon realise, limbering up and down, surprising us both with octave jumps and playful syncopation – it’s a collaboration. His hands hammer the keys with gusto and the vibrations travel straight through the sheets to my limbs. I gasp, and then giggle; he’s oblivious to what his hands are doing to me.
I sing louder. He hammers harder. The tempo pulsates faster and suddenly the four beats become three – we’re waltzing, swaying from note to note and zigzagging through the swirling worlds of rhythm and flow. I lie flat against the piano and let the ripples have their effect, glancing at his broad, bare shoulders, his fine arms as they tense and release after each push of the keys.
I feel the finale approach and sing with more power than I have since first journeying down to his cavern. Pleasure comes at the memory of his music of the night; from the notes that vibrate my skin, and suddenly he opens his eyes to meet me for the final note - we lock onto one another – he sees my face, surely wanton – and his eyes blaze as we hit the climax of our final modulation.
He lets the last notes fade, staring at me – barely breathing.
I lie there, heaving with breath, on the cusp.
Slowly, he leaves the stool and walks to my side, leans over and carefully, delicately, unfolds my sheets. I lie naked on his piano forte as he circles the instrument and stops at my feet. He sighs, takes one in each palm, and pulls them slowly apart.
“Oh, Christine,” he breathes. “What have we here?”
I’m so wet that I’ve dripped onto his sheets. His arousal heightens my own and I don't look away.
“Music does this to you?”
He lets out a long breath. “Sometimes,” he says, looking dazed, “it is very difficult to believe what has passed. Are you real, Christine? Or has this all just been a figment of madness?”
“Perhaps it is both - though it doesn’t feel mad when I’m with you.”
“... And when you’re not with me?”
I gaze at the cavern roof. Now that the shooting stars of our music have fallen to earth, it’s become a piece of bedrock again; a dungeon. It always was a dungeon, I remind myself. Erik's. Heart thudding, I prop myself up on my elbows and ask gently: "What do you want, Erik?”
His fingers hesitate for only a moment. Dropping my feet, he reaches for me, pulls me up and wraps me in the blanket once more. He sits back on the piano stool and I slide off the instrument into his lap.
“I once yearned for heaven and dreamed of beauty," he begins, placing his arms carefully around my waist. "I need do neither, any longer."
I barely smile, and his own fades. He, too, looks to the cavern’s ceiling. He looks at it for a very long time. I wonder what he sees there.
“I haven’t forgotten," he murmurs.
“"The world that exists beyond our bed.”"
He turns silent again, face changing subtly, his eyes glazing over in thought. Tilting our bodies from side to side, he is still moved by our earlier music. Happy to think with me there beside him, he doesn't say his thoughts out loud but doesn't hide them either, and I realise how easy it is to trust his heart, his mind, when he doesn't wear a mask.
Any kind of mask.
A glow lights in my chest as I watch him, resisting the temptation to touch his face.
Eventually, he blinks, stroking me through the satin with a thumb. "I would like for my music to be performed again," he says finally, "to write with purpose. As a composer.” Not as a ghost, I finish silently. “And you? What do you want?”
I swallow. "To be free. To own no-one, and yet love; to belong to no-one, and yet be loved. I think - surely - surely that must be the best way."
He tenses. The topic is moving close to something dangerous. Now would be the perfect moment to tell him of my mounting feelings; to admit my intention to leave Raoul, but something holds me back. Saying such things might change them before we’re ready.
Before I’m ready.
"And, I want to sing again," I add, "with a purpose. As a lead."
“These things will come to you.” He seems very far away again. I want to tell him that what he yearns for will come, too, but looking around us, I'm not sure I believe it. “The candles are low," he observes, "it will soon be dawn.”
We steel ourselves, allowing a moment of reverence for our proximity before sighing, and standing. I gather my clothes and he brushes my bare arm in passing; I’m nearly a puddle again, so easily distracted from the simple act of dressing. How would we get anything done, were we always in one another’s company? We likely wouldn't, I allow myself a secret smile.
“What will you do with these?” he asks, shirt half-done and un-tucked. He's holding up my newly tattered scraps of old skirt.
"We must do something, or soon I'll be out of skirts entirely."
He doesn't laugh. “Come," he says, "I will accompany you.”
We walk through the labyrinth side by side, fingers often touching. The longer his company lasts, the stranger it feels. Have we ever done something so simple as walk together?
Eventually, we reach the window. We both look up. "Well... Goodnight,” I say, turning towards him, expectant.
But still he stares at the window. After a moment, he pushes open the glass and before I know it he’s hauling himself out.
Astonished, I hurry after him.
Heaving with breath, bare-faced and barefoot, my lover stands in the open night air. He throws his arms open wide to the cobbled street and stars, to the gas lamps and murky puddles and invites their gaze, for them to see him, his own face: Erik! The man of scarred flesh and blood.
Surprise and tenderness roots me to the earth.
And then he turns to find me. His face is like a child’s: brimming with pride and joy, seeking recognition from the one who understands him... the one who loves him.
“Erik..!” Neither of us fear being seen as we say goodnight, mouths and arms hungry, beneath the real stars of a moonlit sky.
When he pulls away, he's wet-eyed like after our first kiss. He takes my face between his large hands and holds me still, tracing my face over and over with his eyes. "Sleep well, my dear," he whispers. "... my angel. I must let you go now."
And after one more melting kiss, I wish him farewell, promise to come again soon and run into the night, joyous as a school girl.
The picture of him outdoors and mask-less is a candle in the darkness as I return. I see it again as I sneak into my garden; again, as I climb my tree and land awkwardly onto my balcony. But as I open the door to my bedroom, I see someone else: Raoul, waiting in the very chair he slept in while I fought my fever, my Don Juan dress clutched in his hand.
This was a tough cookie to write. We're coming to a-head!
The next few chapters are also going to be tough - if you're happy to, please help me out by letting me know if you enjoyed it; your kudos are great for gusto!
As ever, thanks for reading *insert thumbs up*
Chapter 18: Prisoners
Phew, I need a drink.
Dedicated to anyone who's still here!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The fine clothes and hats he’s bought me are spewed across the room, hanging off the furniture and trailing across the floor. A number of Lille’s vases are smashed into pieces, their jagged edges scattered.
It’s so unlike my husband to do such a thing, that I'm afraid to enter the room.
Raoul sits in the chair, rigid and still. His hands are fists. I glance at the gold mahogany clock: it’s 4.30am. How long has he been waiting? I ready myself. No more acting; no more lies. Our reckoning has come.
“Raoul.” I step inside.
He blinks at my sudden apparition. His red eyes are like daggers. “Where have you been?”
I take a deep breath. “At the Opera House.”
"Yes," I whisper.
He doesn't move a muscle. "Why?"
I clench my hands together to stop them from trembling. “To... to visit him.”
"Him." Raoul looks baffled. “You’ve been at his graveside all night?"
“No. Raoul –”
“And this.” He lifts up the dress. “Keeping it, all through our marriage. Wasn't trying to recreate your little duet enough for you?”
“No, I – I didn't keep it, I - I retrieved it –”
He expels a hollow laugh. “So you’ve been back there before. What a revelation tonight is turning out to be." He stands up, clenched fingers turning white. "The place must be so... special to you.” He walks a little away from me, dragging the dress along the floor. I watch his back, hating the silence until, finally, he turns around to face me. “The very pit of hell, Christine... What could possibly make you want to go back there? Explain this to me, please, because I’m struggling very much to understand.”
I take a shaking breath, trying to steady my voice. I must be honest. I owe him that much, at least. “It’s not his lagoon that is precious to me.”
He glares, waiting. There’s no use in trying to excuse or explain things away, I know. I lift my chin, trying to exude the confidence I don't feel. “Raoul. He’s alive.”
“The An- The Phantom.”
“”Erik?”” He's looking at me like I’m a madwoman. “He’s alive?”
Raoul covers his mouth with his hand. Drops it again. Moves further away from me.
The silence is deafening.
“So. He has a name after all. And you’ve come to use it." He looks at the floor. "How could you want to see him again, after all he’s done?”
The last month plays out before my eyes like a picture book, the pages turning back all the way to the beginning: the fury and fear from what feels like a lifetime ago. “I needed to face my ghost," I begin, not sure how to put so much into words. "To stop the nightmares. To find some freedom from it all.”
“Freedom...” Raoul suddenly stills. His eyes shoot up at me as he finally processes what I said before. “”Precious to you?””
I take a deep breath. “Tonight is not the first time I've visited him. He has come to me, too. W-we… we know one another in that way. We are lovers.”
My husband stares at me from across the room as if I'm suddenly speaking a language he doesn't understand. When I don't explain any further, he closes his eyes. His nostrils flare. He swallows, chest heaving and, open-eyed once more, looks around himself, the room, anywhere but me. Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he suddenly begins to laugh.
I watch, dumbfounded, as he laughs and laughs as if he can’t stop – is desperate not to – and we both wait for it to end, waiting with dread for the moment when we must face the most loathsome music of our lives.
Eventually, his mirth fades. My stomach is hollow. “No,” he whispers, looking towards the ceiling with a shake of his head. “Tell me it’s not that. Please. Deny it."
His voice is like a wounded animal and although it is all my fault, my soul tears at his pain. I stay silent. He takes a shuddering breath and looks at me. My face must say it all.
“My God,” Raoul gasps, trembling. “My God, Christine!”
And I’m rooted to the spot as I watch my husband’s heart break.
Slowly, gently, he falls against the mantle piece, head in his hands. “How long?”
“Before your fever?”
“The night you didn’t come home... the park...”
I bow my head, utterly ashamed. “Yes.”
There’s a moment of silence before – “Argh!” Raoul picks up the mahogany clock and smashes it into my full length mirror. The crash is deafening – I scream as everything shatters, the shards of glass and wood exploding against the wall like a firework.
“The torment you’ve put us through!” Raoul shouts, “the remorse! The pity!” I see the memories flitting across his face, his reanalysis of everything he thought and felt as he absorbs this new knowledge. “All of it, a lie - and for such a man!” He strides over to me, clasps both of my hands in his. “Why, Christine? Why?”
He has finally asked me the question that matters: the hardest one of all. “I know," I whisper. "I know how I’ve behaved. How I’ve h-hurt you.” I shudder, feeling the tears rise and fighting them down. “But please believe me – it hasn’t been a lie. I have loved you –”
"Ha!" He throws my hands away in disgust. “We’ve only been wed for three months!”
“Yes," I acknowledge, wiping my eye quickly. "We have. But I love someone else.”
His sorrowful eyes turn on me. “Then... why did you marry me?”
Tears roll freely down my cheeks now. “Because I have loved you, too. I didn’t love him, then… at least, not in this way –”
“And if you had, you’d have fucked him all the sooner." The dagger in his eyes stabs me. “I’d have been cuckolded all the longer.” He covers his face with his hands, his breath shallow and fast between them.
"I hated him, truly,” I stutter. “Truly, I hated him! But then –”
“You took him to your bed.”
“Yes!" I say again, desperately aware of how pathetic all of this sounds, how inexcusable it must all seem to him. "And I know it makes no sense, none at all! But with Erik...” Raoul shudders. "...I have found my freedom."
He lowers his hands. “I thought I gave you your freedom. I fought so hard to free you – almost gave my life…! And for what? You were free, Christine, and now you’ve chosen to go back!”
“I wasn’t,” I say quietly. “I tried to be, but... Oh Raoul, didn't you see it? Couldn't you tell?" My body suddenly feels weak, drained off all the tension it's held since I entered the room. Suddenly I'm just Christine, just myself. Honest, bare. Without a mask. "All this time," I begin, "I have only been surviving, not living. All this time we've been married... I've been living a life that was never meant for me. I wanted to be free, so desperately, with you. But I wasn’t. You couldn't have given it to me, no-one could have. I had to get it for myself.”
Raoul opens his mouth to speak but I continue on, determined.
“I didn't go to Erik with the intention of lovemaking," I sat as Raoul groans, "but the person I found in that lair was no longer my ghost. He was a man, Raoul, just a man! A changed one. And I wouldn’t have let my falling in love with him change anything between us, if it weren’t for what I learned of myself - what I need - who I am. I know I haven't been right, or fair to you, and I couldn't be any more ashamed of how I have broken the trust and respect you’ve given me... I never thought I could be this sort of person. But apparently I can." I take a deep breath. Raoul has his eyes shut tight, as if trying to block out every word. “I don’t expect you to understand," I whisper. "I still don’t. He’s been there for so long. Since I was a child. He’s a part of me.”
“Don’t.” Raoul looks like he’ll vomit. “Don’t.” He collapses back into the chair, face full of despair. “How little I truly know you,” he says in disbelief. “You disgust me.”
I close my eyes. I disgust myself.
The room is deathly quiet after our row; without the ticking of my clock. After a while, he mutters something so low, I barely catch it: “Philippe was right.”
I blink. “What has your brother got to do with this?”
“He warned me against marrying a woman like you; an opera girl. “She will ruin our good name,” he said. And he was right.” Little by little, that seed of thought grows within him, blossoming into anger. “You’ve taken everything I could give: my name, my money – everything. And now, how you’ve repaid me… Denied me. Betrayed me.”
“Maybe it is my station that makes me behave this way," I begin, "and if it is… well then, I am grateful for it!”
He glares at me in surprise.
“I will hate that I have hurt you for the rest of my life, Raoul, but I cannot regret what has happened. I know who I am now. And I have been seen – loved – just as I am."
And suddenly all I see is Erik. The acceptance on his face as we speak and listen, scream and sing: whatever is said, whatever is heard. He has given me that gift: to know that I am worthy of love. “I cannot make you happy,” I continue, “nor you, I. When we part, you’ll see it was for the best.”
Raoul stares at me, bewildered. “Part? Christine, there will be no parting. Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?”
His words are a twist of the blade. I scramble for words. “I wanted to talk with you before tonight… you know I did. Raoul, I love someone else. Surely you must see, we cannot be together any longer!”
“Love is irrelevant,” he says, slowly standing. “Evidently so, in our marriage. You’ll bring no further dishonour to my name.”
Bile rises in my throat. “So - so you will keep me here against my will, damning us both to misery?”
“You don’t deserve a will of your own! Look where it’s got you!”
“”Don’t deserve…?” And you call him a monster!”
He lunges for me. “Don’t you – dare!”
“Get off me!”
He clamps my arms to my sides as I struggle uselessly against him. “How can you say that to me!" he roars. "After all you’ve done! Where do you plan to go instead, Wife? Underground? Live forever in the cold and the dark as he croons to you his lullabies?”
“It’s no longer your concern what I do!”
“A laughing stock! I’ll be a laughing stock!”
“And that’s all you care for! Your damned reputation! Get yourself another wife then, let her hang off your arm –”
“Argh!” He throws me from him. “I did it all for you! And all for nothing!”
I come back down to earth, heaving with anger and hurt. My arms burn from his tight grip. “I know,” I whisper, “and I’ve trodden on it all. But it changes nothing: Raoul, I don’t want to be your wife any longer.”
My words hang in the air as we stand gasping in the silent room, in the silent house. God knows who has heard our words tonight; the broken furniture; our smashed hearts.
Slowly, he shakes his head.
“So you will keep me here.”
“Until tomorrow,” he says between breaths. “After that…”
He meets my eyes. “When I bring down the opera house.” There’s no satisfaction on his face as he watches mine. “It’s not to be saved; Jacques found me at the crossroads on the way to Le Mans; the owners have ordered it to be torn down for the sake of cost, and I will do as instructed. This very morning.”
I clamber up to my feet again, reaching out for his shirt sleeve. “You must let me warn him –“
He pulls back. “I will not.”
I falter, a different kind of panic building up in my chest. “You must! Or do it yourself then, if not me – your men won’t know he’s down there – Raoul!”
He turns towards the bedroom door, pulling out a collection of keys from his pocket. “Then so be it.”
“But – but he’ll die!”
“He was already dead, before tonight,” he replies calmly, stopping with his hand on the door handle. “And I should’ve killed him long before that, at your father’s grave... How you can bear to face his spirit now is beyond me." He opens the door.
Tears now streaming down my face, I rise to my tallest stance. “You’ll let a man die for the sake of your jealousy? Doesn’t that remind you of someone? Once, you were willing to give your life to free me; now, you trap me. I know I deserve nothing from you, but please! If you love me, please let me go. If not forever, then just this one night!”
I chose to sacrifice my future for the sake of a man I loved, once. I can do it again. I can stay here, Raoul’s imprisoned wife, forever – but I cannot let Erik die. Not when he's only just begun to live.
He clinks the keys in his hand. “I will patrol beneath your balcony until morning,” he says quietly. “Don’t even attempt it.”
He leaves the room. The door shuts. I hear the key turn in the lock. Among the smashed mirror glass and crockery – the fragments of the lives I have lived – I crumple to the rug where I remain, alone and un-free.
Sunrise comes. The room is lightening.
This won’t do!
I pace around my prison cell, growing desperate; anger is my sole companion and it’s welcome: it beats down the panic.
Raoul wasn’t bluffing: he’s in the garden, pacing beneath my tree like he’s preparing for battle on the eve of war.
Without a clock I can’t tell the time, but soon, footsteps ring along the corridor outside of my door. The servants. It must be 6.00am. I run to it.
“Lille!” I cry softly, and the footsteps stop.
I’ve already lied to her; I will not disrespect her further by asking her to act unknowingly against her master. “Lille, I am locked in my room, and need to get out. It is urgent, though Raoul does not permit me. Please, have you a key?”
She’s silent for so long that I have to bite my lip to not cry out in frustration.
“I’m sorry, mistress,”she says, and sounds it. “I cannot go against Master’s wishes – he has ordered me –”
“Don’t worry,” I say quickly, praying to the heavens behind the door. “Go back to your duties.”
I try to think... what would the masters of traps do? With all of his secrets and tricks… if only that side of him could return to me now! I glance around my trashed room, searching for ideas, tools, clues… anything I can use to free myself.
And then I see it – my dresser.
I run to grab a handful of hairpins and return again to the bedroom door, listening over the thumping of my heart for footsteps.
The corridor is empty.
Swirling one of the pins into the lock as fast as I can, I attempt once – twice – cursed pins! – three times, before I hear the gentle click.
I am free. Almost.
Back at the mantle piece, I take the one remaining vase out to the balcony and throw it so hard that it lands and crashes in the garden, far from the house. I see Raoul’s silhouette jump and spin around, and in his moment of distraction I run from my prison.
Flying down the staircase and flinging open the front door, I race to the stables, falling in the grass with a thud and a curse. Damned skirts! I scramble back to my feet and hear others pounding behind me.
“Christine!” my husband bellows.
But I’m already with the horses, throwing aside the carriage and swinging myself bareback onto my pony. By the time he reaches the stable door I’m flying through them towards the cobbled streets.
Far too soon, the cobbles ring out with the sound of another horse; Raoul is by far the superior rider and I will my pony with all the strength in my soul to stay ahead, to keep on, keep low – she feels my desperation as I lean forward, pleading in her ears to hurry, hurry!
The Palais Garnier glows pink in the early morning sun. I reach the window, jump down to the pavement and into puddles to open it.
“No!” Raoul cries, reaching me, but it’s too late: I plunge down into the catacombs.
I turn corners, darting left and right in the darkness. Raoul’s footsteps are sometimes loud, sometimes quiet – he doesn’t know this maze as I do, but he’s faster and stronger; I almost pray for those booby-traps to strike once more – for Erik to play with his mirrors and trapdoors.
And the thought comes to me, that surely Erik can see us? Hear us?
“Erik!” I scream.
But Erik doesn’t reply. He who has ears everywhere in this labyrinth, the catacombs of his own making, doesn’t seem to hear my cries.
Finally, only steps ahead of my husband, I burst into the cavern of his lagoon and stumble to a halt.
It is empty.
No satin. No drawings, or curtains. Not even his bed; just low-burned candles, and his piano.
“Christine!” Raoul roars, stumbling right to the water’s edge and grinding to a halt beside me. Together we stare at the emptiness, not understanding.
Did he know?
How could he have?
I try to keep down the bubbling panic, the desperate, rising terror that tells me something is wrong.
Seeking clues, I see a small piece of parchment on the piano stave: a letter.
Raoul doesn’t even try stopping me as I wade into the water, sloshing through the waves I create in my hurry. Clambering out on the other side, I rush to the beautiful, lonely instrument and snatch up what’s addressed to me. Tearing open the seal I force my eyes to slow, so I can understand the scratchy, red-inked words I find there.
Forgive this unforgivably cowardly letter. I feared that if I tried to tell you its contents in person, I wouldn’t have had the courage.
Why do I write this? Because when you are not at my side, and I must rely on my imagination to see your face, I picture you happy; outdoors; free – singing with abandon, laughing with abandon – traipsing the streets of your city with friends, or proudly on the arm of your lover.
I cannot give you that life.
Nor will I condemn you to live underground with a ghost.
Yet, how can I bear to leave you? It would be easier, did you not care for me (how is it that you care for me?). You are still my prison master and I do not go lightly, but in wonder: cannot our mutual imprisonment be transformed? Cannot it be made pure?
It cannot, as things are – as I am. So I leave France, go to whatever place The Opera Ghost is not known. I abandon your heavenly side at the risk of never being welcomed back to it, but this is a risk I must take, if I’m to become a man that deserves you.
I do not know how long Fate will stay determined to change Her course in my life. I don’t know how you have borne returning, again and again, to one who is neither the false angel you loved, nor yet a man you could love.
But somehow you have. I do not attempt to understand it. Instead I honour you, and the life you have given back to me, by freeing you once more. I make no assumption that you will wait, but – perhaps absurdly, unfairly – ask that you promise me one thing: that you will let yourself be happy. Let yourself be free, my Christine, as much as you can with that fool Vicomte, who is by far the better man and one I am apparently doomed to envy for all eternity.
And of course… Sing for me. Always.
Your non-deserving and overly-verbose lover, betrayer, slave, fool... take your pick, for I have been them all.
PS Please find the opera I have written for you in accompaniment to this letter.
The ground is cold against my skin. All goes dark.
... sorry about that! I, uh, hope you'll stick out the rest with me.
Don't worry: it's all going to be OK. The ending already exists - I got you!
But someone gotta get Christine some smelling salts.
Chapter 19: Snow
Dedicated to anyone who has ever had to face these sorts of days, and survived.
I wake with a gasp, heart pounding.
It’s like I never slept.
I close my eyes. I open them again.
Those marks on the ceiling are still there. Perhaps they’re a spider’s web. It’s hard to tell from so far below.
Oh. It’s Meg.
I look back to the spider’s web.
“Will you not join us for breakfast?”
A spider appears. It crawls slowly, slowly, above me. There it stops: frozen.
Where was it even going?
The door shuts.
I close my eyes, and wish for night.
“… Come in.”
Meg enters the room. I’m propped up on a pillow. She looks delighted at the progress this signifies.
“Mother wonders whether you would like to come down. They have the next novel in your series at Guilder’s Books today. Little Paul saw it in the window. Jon can send him to collect it for you, should you like to read it by the fire with us?”
I look at my empty hands, un-moving on the duvet. What have I even been reading?
“Well… it’s there when you want it. Just call me, should you need anything.”
She smiles gently, and closes the door.
Some time later, she brings in a cup of tea.
Steam has stopped rising from the cup. The sun has started to lower. I can tell by the patterns and colour of light on the wall. The different calls of the birds.
My heartbeat quickens. I’ve waited since I woke for the day to hurry; to end. But the space between consciousness and sleep is a gaping crevice that’s terrifying to cross.
I close my eyes, and wish for morning.
“Good morning, Christine.”
“Good morning, Meg.”
I accept the tea.
“How did you sleep?”
I don’t know. I’m not sure I did. “Well enough, thank you.”
“Good.” She smiles and puts a book beside me.
“What day is it?”
She touches my cheek. “It is Wednesday.”
“How long has it been?”
“How did I get here?”
She hesitates. “Raoul carried you out. Then rode you to us. You were unconscious.”
Carried me out... The candlelight, the emptiness. The parchment in my hands – his words – falling to the ground. The world lurching beneath my feet.
I turn away from my friend, and close my eyes.
Meg takes away the tea.
I squeeze my cup as Meg reads on the sofa by the window. “Where is Raoul?”
Meg blinks and looks up from her book. She rises, pads softly over the rug, and takes a seat on my bed. “He is at home, wishing you well. Is there – anything else you want to ask me?”
“Why did he bring me to you?”
“He wished to let you recover a little while; to give you some space. He said – he said there had been a bad shock.”
I stare at the wall. “Erik’s gone.” The words come out of my mouth, but sound like someone else’s.
I don’t feel anything at all.
“I know,” she whispers, touching my hand. After a moment, she adds: “Raoul brought this...” She opens the draw of my bedside cabinet and pulls out a black leather binder. It’s loosely tied and stuffed with parchment. Gold letters glint in the daylight: The Beggar Bird: an opera in four acts. “Do you want to see it?”
My breath quickens – the bed sheets are so bright! “I can’t!”
“OK,” Meg soothes, discreetly closing the drawer. “But... you’ll join us for dinner again tonight?”
I nod, swallow, and wait for her to leave.
I do not look at the drawer.
Two days have passed (I’m beginning to count them.) I’m sitting on the Giry’s sofa, book in hand.
Their house has tall ceilings and few rugs, but every room has a fire, and every passing face has a smile to warm me.
It is a haven.
Meg has suggested going outside more than once; I have not accepted her offer. The large dining room windows can’t hide that the small patches of nature in Paris are blooming. Budding life is everywhere, and the days are growing longer.
It is unbearable to me.
I read the same sentence again.
The clock chimes above the fireplace.
It’s 4.00pm: a golden time. Most of the day has passed, but night is a while off yet. But still, it is impossible to escape the present. I feel each horrid second pass, vast and slow. They all feel the same: binding; taunting. Watching.
I cannot escape myself. This feeling. My grief.
Meg says it will get better. I wonder what Meg knows about it.
I read the same sentence again.
The front door rings. Jon answers. “Vicomte de Chagny. Welcome, Sir; you are expected. I shall call my Mistress.”
I cannot move.
“In here, please, Monsieur,” calls Madame Giry with authority.
Their footsteps go to the far side of the hall, and a door closes. I hear nothing further, until Jon wishes my husband well. A horse rides off down the street.
With the book shaking in my hands, I read the same sentence again.
“We thought we could go away for a while. A holiday somewhere! Somewhere different.”
“I’d be terrible company,” I say automatically, looking at my plate. I feel Madame Giry at the other side of the dining table watching on in silence as I do not eat.
Meg tries again: “Don’t worry about that. Isn’t there anywhere you would like to go?”
They both look at me.
They have been so wonderful – so wonderful – but their kindness doesn’t touch me beyond a vague sense of gratitude. I know I ought to be more grateful, but I’m unable to. I can’t feel anything at all; nothing seems to go deeper than my surface layer, aside from my constant companions of dread and fear.
My insides are empty.
I don’t want them to be, any more. “I would like – if it’s not too much trouble… to go to Sweden.”
Madame Giry smiles.
The change in landscape alone is a balm. Here, winter still rules: the snow-clad pines are hushed, gentle in their solitude. Our carriage rolls over the empty Swedish roads and outside of the window, all is peaceful, glittering and soft. I lower the window a moment, taking my first deep breath in days. The air is cold and cutting, lights an icy furnace on my cheeks, and I remember what it is to feel alive.
My two companions shift in their seats and I close the window once more, not wishing to give them a chill. Madame Giry looks out of the other side and murmurs: “we are here.”
In front of a small, dilapidated inn, we come to a stop and disembark. Meg takes my arm, our breath misting in the air around us.
Our rooms in the eaves are shabby and small, but warm and brightened by the fire. Heavy bed sheets save our toes from frostbite in the night and for breakfast, there is the freshest fish, pickled root vegetables and hot nettle tea. It is a feast.
“What will you do today, Christine?” Meg asks me over the teapot.
I watch out of the window as fresh snow melts and drips from the roof. “I think I will take a walk,” I reply.
Our inn is secluded from everyone and every place. It sits alone in a clearing of a large pine forest, surrounded by creatures and wilderness. Tempting as it is to abandon all traces of civilisation, I take the wide forest path, not foolish enough to go off-piste. I have never walked somewhere so large while alone. I do not think I have walked anywhere so large at all.
Father once took me for a picnic in a land not unlike this, on the outskirts of our home town. We never had money and we never needed it, for we had this majesty on our doorstep. We had music, stories and a home. He told me of talking birds, mermaids and wolves, and of course… the Angel.
My feet stop.
Was I a fool to have trusted him?
I don’t know.
What I thought I did know, changes. Though it hurt me so much when I discovered it, Erik’s initial deception no longer feels wholly untrue. Now that I have known him, known the beauty, wonder, and rightness of what we shared so briefly together, the differences between angels and men are hard to decipher.
But that’s over now.
“"Sleep well, my dear... my angel. I must let you go now."”
I let myself fall back onto a log, hems in the snow. Ivy and pine needles whisper around me and birds, singing the most beautiful birdsong, lament with me.
I hate them all. The music of my night, the music of my day... I want none of it! I burst into tears, the sobs racking my body, strangling all sound.
I never want to sing again.
Exhausted, I wipe away my tears, struggling to my feet. I begin the long walk back, no longer wanting the wilderness that a few hours ago seemed to offer my escape.
There is none. Not from this prison. I should know that by now.
“Christine,” Madame Giry greets me in the lounge from the fire. I remove my hat and gloves. She is alone.
“She, too, has gone exploring. Won’t you sit down?” She gestures to the sofa opposite. Although I have been in her company for more than a week, suddenly I feel shy with my old guardian; out of my depth.
“How was your walk?”
“Cold,” I reply.
“And your spirit?”
I meet her eyes. The lump rises in my throat. “Colder still.”
“Your anger is understandable,” she says mildly, looking into the fire. “I hope you’ll forgive me for my part in your pain.”
I blink. The question has haunted me ever since he first took me behind his mirror. “Why did you ever allow it?”
“It seemed the right thing to do,” she says simply, rubbing a thumb into her palm. “Two unbearably lonely souls, lost. Music was the only solace either of you had. You were well matched to understand one another; to heal one another. At first, that was all it was: a companionship born from your mutual love for music. I watched your lessons while away your hours and your pain soften. You both gained a purpose; a pleasure from life I had not seen in either of you. I could not take that away.”
“But his pretence. You knew of it. I told you who I thought trained me, overjoyed… ecstatic! How you must have laughed at my foolishness.”
“No,” she shakes her head a fraction, her earrings a-tremor. “I advised him to tell the truth. But it wasn’t easy for him to do. You know why he hid. I do not excuse his behaviour, nor my own; I was wrong not to push him. Had I, Joseph might still be alive. Erik’s possessiveness over you might not have reached such heights. Alas,” she sighs, “we shall never know.”
His possessiveness. A possessiveness that has long gone, I think, uncomfortable at the stab of nostalgia I feel. How twisted is our prison, for me to feel this way? But were he still that man – that monster – I would not love him as I do. No, he’s no monster any more; perhaps he isn’t an angel either. He is just a man. “Instead of wanting to own me, he now chooses to leave me. He’s a coward,” I whisper.
“Without a doubt, he is not,” Madame Giry says with such authority that I finally raise my head and look at her. “It would be far easier to stay at your side. He has chosen the harder path – and for the sake of another, rather than himself.”
“For who’s sake?” I ask, feeling my chest tighten. “After all we had, he wrote me a letter! He ran away!”
“He was weak not to face you,” she allows. “Who of us aren’t, at times? But he is trying to be strong.”
“Strong!” I stand up. Suddenly fuelled with my own fire, I pace in front of the room’s. “I had no notion of going to him, once I left Raoul.” I face her, daring her to be shocked, but she’s devoid of emotion or judgement. “I didn’t leave Raoul for Erik – I left him for myself. There was no rush,” I continue, pacing once more. “I expected it to take time for Erik to join the world – to even want to. I had hoped to stay with you and Meg a while; start singing properly again, perhaps teach – make money for myself under my own name... find my own home; audition to sing on stage once more. That’s all I expected.
Yes, I wanted him. With all his flaws and demons, I wanted him more than I have wanted anything in my life. I would have waited!” I’m shouting now, the room suddenly too small for the overwhelming size of my feelings. “He didn’t have to leave me to do anything! If he had to escape Paris, then he should have taken me, too!”
Madame Giry only sits there, thinking. Her calmness infuriates me and I have to turn away. “I believe,” she finally starts, “he is only reaching for what you yourself have been reaching for: freedom from his ghosts. To do so alone, as you intended to, after leaving your husband. So he can be free to love you, non?”
It’s so tempting to believe her.
“What do you know of it?” I rasp, the heat of the fire burning my face.
“I have read his opera.”
I stare at her. “What? Why?”
She stands up, lightly brushing at the creases in her skirts before joining her hands gently together. “I recommend you do, too.”
Can I? Am I strong enough?
But I’m already climbing the staircase to the attic, already rifling through my suitcase. I take hold of the cold leather, heart hammering.
Sinking to the floorboards, I trace the gold glinted letters beneath my fingers. “The Beggar Bird,” I mouth silently. What a strange name.
I open the binding.
Pages of staves and notes and scribbles of ink in various colours surround the basic melody I find written there. Humming, I follow the notes and, recognising the shape, choke myself off.
It’s the melody he played to me on the night he left. My own sung additions are scribbled above the staves in fresher ink. I see myself on the piano, wrapped in his sheets. His hands on my feet, pulling them apart. His blazing eyes; the crook of his smile when he laughed... I squeeze my eyes shut, breathe slowly, and open them again.
A folded piece of parchment peeks out from behind the overture. I open it and scan it over. It’s crammed with cramped, spidery writing, and titled: ‘Synopsis.’
Leaning against the bed, I pull the blanket down and wrap myself in its safety and comfort, hoping for it to protect from whatever emotional trial I am about to face.
I begin to read.
Chapter 20 is almost done, but bear with me - I had to invent an opera, which still needs some tweaking! But it won't be long.
Thank you as ever for reading!
Chapter 20: Beggars
Guys, we're back on the up-turn. Thank you for sticking by me!
The Beggar Bird
Setting: A farmhouse in the countryside beside a dark forest, far from any village.
A mangy crow sits on the farm’s tall garden wall. He has no family, and has never seen his own reflection. He doesn’t know what bird he is: he has copied the magpie and learned to steal; he has copied the cuckoo and learned to kill; he has copied the blackbirds and learned to sing, but none of these birds want him. He thinks he must be horrid to be thus banished, and lives alone deep in the forest, finding comfort in his solitude (Tenor’s aria: ‘Learn to be Lonely’).
One day, he sees a girl in the farm house leaning out on an upstairs window sill. She looks out on the world, sad and alone. The girl’s mother enters her room; the girl makes a gesture of leaving the house – she is mute – but the mother refuses: the forest is dangerous (instrumental: ‘No-One Would Listen’).
The crow sees her sadness, and understands her. For the first time in his life, he wishes to make someone happy. Still ashamed of his horribleness, he waits until nightfall to hop beneath her windowsill. Invisible in the darkness, he offers the only thing he can: he sings to her (‘Lovers Theme’).
She stares out into the night, not knowing from where his song comes. She imitates his melody, and finds she can make sound from her throat: a beautiful sound. Her face alights with joy (‘Night-bird Theme’).
He sings again. Again, she sings back; they call and respond, like birds of paradise . He has found a companion and she has found her voice ( Soprano’s aria: ‘Heard at Last’ ).
The next day, the crow brings her some seeds. The girl drops the seeds beneath her window, wondering what sweet-smelling flowers might grow there. In return, she leaves him breadcrumbs on her window sill. Each night they sing to one another (Lovers Theme).
Years pass in this way. The farm girl grows into a woman, and the crow lives to see and hear her. The seeds beneath her window have begun to grow into a tree.
She is wed. That night, for the first time, she doesn’t come to the window. The crow cries in despair and realises that he loves her (Tenor’s aria: ‘No-One Would Listen’).
When she does come again, she sings mournfully of her husband who cannot understand her gestures, who does not let her leave the house; it is only the crow who hears her. The crow, melancholy itself, does not sing back (Lovers Theme minor variation and Night-bird Theme minor variation medley).
She sings again: why has he forsaken her? (Heard at Last minor variation). He is moved to tears, but wonders how she can care for him, if she does not know him? How can she know him, if he does not know himself? Breaking his own heart, he leaves the garden (Learn to be Lonely instrumental).
Years pass. The tree has grown almost as high as the window. It is an apple tree, and fruit has begun to sprout. The woman laments that the ripe fruit remains uneaten (Soprano’s aria: ‘Wasted Fruit’). Still she puts out her breadcrumbs, but they, too, go uneaten; still she sings to the crow, but he does not come.
The crow wonders through cities and countries, over oceans and deserts to the world’s darkest, deepest forest. He finds a place at the centre of the world called Mirror Lake, and gazes deep. He sees his true reflection: he is not a blackbird, cuckoo or magpie; he is not even a crow. He is no bird at all, but a mangy, ugly creature with arms instead of wings and legs instead of feet. He is a man ( Night-bird Theme minor variation ).
Ashamed of his deception but too weak to resist, he knows he must return to her. If she sang true all those years ago, will she still care for him, when she sees who he really is?
He reaches the farm from a hill. The house windows shine in the daylight. He approaches, and sees the fresh breadcrumbs on her window sill. He is moved to tears: she has remembered him.
The apple tree is now fully grown and reaches her window. He hears her singing and is breath-taken at the sound of his love. She appears at the window and he is breath-taken by the sight of his love.
Thinking herself alone, she reaches out and climbs down the apple tree into the garden. She disappears from sight: the garden wall is too high and he can no longer fly. He comes close to the wall, and sings softly of his love (Lovers Theme).
He hears the surprise in her voice as she sings, returning his love. Their voices rise together. At their duet’s finale, the garden wall crumbles away. Afraid his horribleness will detest her, he hides in the forest.
Free at last, she crosses the garden boundary, seeking him.
Singing, he heads deep into the trees.
Singing, she follows.
She reaches a clearing. There is a large apple tree: his nesting tree, from where he first plucked her her seeds. She asks where he has gone (Night-bird Theme). Emboldened by her claims of love, and desperate to believe she can accept him, he steps out from behind his tree and reveals himself as a man.
She sees him for who he is: he hears her for who she is. They kiss (Lovers Theme).
They promise to fly away together to new lands, and they do.
Tears stream down my face. I dare not believe – I dare not hope.
The score is covered in arc after arc of the most heartbreaking, beautiful phrases; of swirling waves and lyrical turns; of the strongest, melancholic, sweetest feelings.
The soprano’s role is written to fit my voice exactly. He has written it for me to sing. For me to understand him.
At the back of the binding I find his letter. Raoul must have packed it away. With trembling fingers, I open it once more.
“…. I abandon your heavenly side at the risk of never being welcomed back … I make no assumption that you will wait…”
The crow returned to the farm girl. And yet...
“… I do not know how you have born returning, again and again, to one who is neither the false angel you once loved, nor yet a man you could love...”
How long does it take a self-loathing man to believe he is worthy? How long will he be gone? I don’t know. But I do know from this opera that Erik has felt the pain I’m feeling now. He let me go once, let me choose another man for the sake of my happiness... and without any hope that I’d return.
Cannot I manage it? Am I not as strong as he?
Cannot I trust that he will come back, as I did?
I close the leather binding, my body numb against the hard floor but warm beneath my blankets.
I don’t know yet. I don’t know.
Two restorative weeks in Sweden and one timid brush with hope later, we are back in Paris. My melancholy still rears its ugly head, but for the most part, I am human again.
I walk through town, wearing only a simple dress that Meg has lent me. These familiar streets are the same, but different. It’s as if a film coats them, like everything is seen through a lens as I cross the market square, half afraid, half yearning to see Lille on her shop, or Gabriel attending his master’s horse.
Yesterday I returned to the temporary practice rooms Raoul secured for me when we wed. I have not dared to read the words of Erik’s arias – humming their melodies alone has brought me to tears – but I have managed to become familiar with the movement of the notes, and the spaces between them.
They are incandescent.
But today, I am avoiding a different kind of music. The sun has turned the grey, wintry Paris into bricks that burn gold. Having feared it so much before, I am at last beginning to welcome the spring.
Taking a breath, I steel myself, and turn a corner.
I look up at the Palais Garnier.
A gaping hole of sky now stands where once my world did. Raoul must have torn it down.
I rush through the crumbling gates, along the circular avenue that once held the carriages of every aristocratic family in Paris. Up the grand staircase that took slipper- and silk-clad feet to the great double doors, that now leads me to the open air; a fall from a cliff. I squeeze my fingers into my palms, peering down.
Only the enormous outline of the building's walls and rooms remain. Concrete and earth still hides most of the labyrinth below, but here or there, to the knowing eye, relics of his domain peak out like the tips of icebergs: the smooth surface of a stone nose from his fountain faces, half-submerged; the watermarks from the channels he built as canals.
I retrace my steps and circle the remains. The low window is gone; enormous planks of wood cover the entrance to the corridor it led to.
Turning from the void, my breath hitches in my throat. I pick up my skirts and run to a heap of rubble and dust. Scraping my fingertips to bleeding, I throw aside bricks and rubble and groan as I uncover Erik’s piano.
I trace my damaged fingers over the chord pattern I watched him play again and again that night, its shape burned into my memory. Mixing blood and brick dust, I stroke the keys, pressing gently. The strings are out of tune – the melody, sadder.
That night wasn’t just a visit I made him; it was a confession; my unspoken declaration. He told me I’d return, and I did.
It just took a little time.
I swallow, touch the piano lid and close it.
Where is he now? What makes up his day? What time does he wake in the morning; does he eat breakfast? As I stand here, is he sat at another piano forte, just like this one, composing? Is he playing the very same chord as I?
Is he thinking of me? How often? For how long? Does he touch himself, when he imagines me at night? Does he imagine me trying too hard to put him from my mind? Or does he think, as his letter suggests, that I could remain with Raoul?
Weariness seeps into my bones. It seems to at the slightest inclination, these days. I press my bloodied fingertips to my lips and back to the piano keys, before turning towards the sun disappearing behind a cloud.
It is time to face the music.
I find him, thank goodness, in the garden. I cannot bear to meet Lille just yet… to see the disappointment on her face.
He spins around, shirt open in the cooling afternoon and sword aloft, practising his fencing with no-one. “Christine!”
“Will you join me for a walk?”
He looks shaken, scatter-brained as he searches for his face towel. “Of course,” he murmurs, wiping away his sweat. When he lowers it, his face is back under control. “The garden?”
“What about the park?”
His mouth twists. “I should rather keep our privacy.”
I nod my consent and he holds out his arm, gesturing me to go ahead.
“Thank you,” I say, clearing my throat as we stroll side by side over the perfectly-mowed lawn, “for taking me to the Giry’s.”
He looks startled. “You are still my wife.”
“...You didn’t throw them away,” I continue, voice strained. “His letter. The opera. You could have done.”
“Well.” He gazes into the trees. “So. You’re recovered.”
“More or less. Well… no,” I amend, coming to a halt. “I feel like my soul has been gouged out with a ladle.”
His eyebrows rise at my honesty. We start to walk again.
“What will you do now?” he asks.
“I will continue on at the Giry’s,” I begin. His cheeks flush red. “They’ve said they will have me as long as I like.”
Raoul stops in front of the daffodil patch, swiping at them with his fencing sword. “He’s gone, Christine.” A daffodil head drops off. “He left you. Why do you keep away?”
I curse to myself. “Raoul, I told you. I said –”
“I know what you said.”
“Then… why would I want to stay?” Dampened and distracted by the decimation of my heart, my anger finally rekindles. It’s a welcome change from the numbness. “Need I remind you that you locked me in a room and swore to kill the man I professed to love?”
“Hmph.” Another daffodil head falls. “Given your preferences, I thought such behaviour would only endear me more to you.”
Good grief. I’m sick of saying it. “I’m not leaving you for him.” Cannot a woman be on her own? “But I am leaving you.” I look back at our house, my old bedroom balcony, empty; the tree I used to climb down. I almost seek a crow. “I’ve told you,” I mutter, “he’s no longer that man.”
Raoul sighs heavily, and throws the sword into the flowerbed. “I know. I read his opera.”
I gape at him. Evidently there was little other entertainment to occupy everyone while I kept to my room!
“I couldn’t believe it,” he mutters with his hands on his hips. “That you’d choose such a man, willingly! I hadn’t forgotten his crimes. But reading the opera….” his hands drop to his sides, “with you at least, he seems… changed. It is clear he loves you as a man should.”
I don’t reply.
“Oh, let’s not argue.” He faces me, his expression strange. “Won’t you sit down?”
We’re beside the bench in the clearing of his miniature forest. We take a seat. I try not to look at the clump of trees where I learned for the first time what joys the wilderness could offer.
“Do you intend to do it? To sing it?”
“I will sing it, though I don’t know where.”
He looks at the ground. “I knew you were falling out of love with me long before the dress, Christine. Lille heard something going on in your room, and though I refused to believe quite what that was, I could sense the change in you. Your way with me was different. Distant. I couldn’t help but wonder...”
Hearing him confess his true feelings is so surprising that I don’t find any words to respond with. The walls around my heart soften slightly.
“So I threw myself into finishing the opera house. I thought if I could give that to you, a stage for you to sing on, then perhaps you would… I don’t know. But I realised when I read it – that is, I didn’t understood the music, but the words were clear enough – I realised that music is his gift to give you. It always was and always will be, regardless of my efforts.”
I don’t know what to say to that, either.
He clears his throat, and raises his head. “I have a proposition for you.”
I narrow my eyes. “… Yes?”
“I will continue to build the opera house. I will financially support your career. And in exchange, you will live as my wife. Outwardly, things are to go on as they were. You do so love to act with me, after all.”
Heaven help us! “Oh Raoul, why? What for? You don’t want me, and I don’t want you.” I’d come here for a reconciliation, but not of this kind!
“No,” he says steely, “I don’t want you; I don’t know you. But I have other things to consider. Through some hastiness on my part, I have made a detrimental choice of bride. You were right: we aren’t suited at all.”
I throw my hands up in the air, impatient. “So...?”
“So, I have erred! Proved my brother right. In my selfishness, I have risked a name and reputation that are not mine to destroy. For our marriage to fail in four months… I can’t admit that defeat. So help me. Play the part. And I will give you a stage, both for your voice and his opera. Think on it: no auditions, no having to climb back up the ladder from the bottom. And no question of which opera we put on.”
I grit my teeth. I have sworn to myself that everything I achieve from now on will be done by my own hand and coin. Freely, as I planned! … But then a thought comes to me – a light shining down from the heavens. And as the thought develops, I realise that I have the power, now. Raoul can no longer lock me in a room, cannot force me to do as he asks. I could go the papers tomorrow and announce our separation, embarrass him monstrously by telling them of my illicit affair. For once, I am holding the cards.
He misinterprets my silence. “Please, Christine. After all that’s happened… Won’t you grant me this favour?” His eyes are beseeching. Begging. It’s that same vulnerable look he gave in the lagoon when I had to choose – the same he made at the dinner table, speaking of Don Juan all that time ago; the same when I tried to make him touch me in Erik’s way.
I want to both stroke his head in comfort and tug his hair in frustration. Yes, I hold the cards… but for my idea to work, it’s a stage I need. A stage he can give me. Heart in my throat, I say: “I could consider the offer. But I would have my own conditions.”
His eyes flash with hope. He leans back and folds his arms. “Go on.”
“Were I to agree… I would want to live primarily at the opera house. When we have guests, or must make public appearances, I will play the role and reside with you... but otherwise, I will have my own domain.”
He purses his lips. “Anything else?”
“I will keep your name, and treat it with respect. I give you my word. But when I perform, I will sing as Christine Daaé. That was my name when my career began and it always will be, for as long as I sing.”
“Is that everything?”
“Give Lille some time off on Sunday afternoons. You’ll not need her so much, with me often away. She can see her family; visit me, if she’d ever want to. She works hard. And –”
I meet his eyes. “Even if I meet this proposition... I must tell you that a day will come when I leave you for good. There will come a time when calling off our marriage will cut your pride less deeply… a time when I will take my liberty back. I will go."
He stands up, stiff and formal. “We will see.”
I watch his back coolly, but my heart thumps so loud I wonder if he can hear it. Surely, this is the best way – surely it will work.
Finally, his shoulders lower. “I agree to your terms.”
I fight very hard to keep the stab of joy from my face. “Good. Then… so do I.”
A moment of easier silence passes between us. We share a sheepish smile, before he makes a small bow at me. “I shall call for you soon. At the Giry’s.” He turns to leave and without knowing I’m doing it, I suddenly stand up, too. “Raoul!”
He turns, retrieving the sword from the flowerbed.
“Would you have let him die?”
He looks at me for a long time. “No,” he says finally, sheathing his pretend weapon. “His crime was to love you. Defile you, most certainly… but by some demonic influence I’ll never comprehend, you were willing enough to oblige him. Is that enough of a crime to condemn myself to murder? No.” His nostrils flare. “I said it only to hurt you, as you hurt me. I wouldn’t have done it – but I would have gladly let you think I had.”
Shock jolts me. We look at one another, strangers. Finally, after months of turmoil and trying, his mask is finally off: his face is bare. I see him as himself for the first time. “You said you did it all for me and all for nothing,” I say, voice shaking, “but you didn’t. You did it for yourself.”
He doesn’t respond; only bows once more and heads back to the house.
I lower back to the bench, exhausted. That was not been the goodbye I’d envisaged at all. Instead, I’ve willingly re-entered the prison I tried so hard to leave. Though dread tingles in my gut over what my immediate future might hold, the warmth of hope blossoms in my chest and fingertips.
Yes, I will play the role of Christine de Chagny here in Paris.
But on stage, I will be Christine Daaé once more.
With his opera, Erik has given me what I wanted: to perform again, as a leading soprano. By delaying my liberty just a little longer, I can give him what he said he wanted, too: for his compositions to be performed again. But far, far sweeter than that is the opportunity, the possibility, of what this deal with Raoul presents. The man who has eyes and ears wherever he cares to; the man who is perhaps writing for stage somewhere this very moment, will surely know what’s afoot at the new opera house in Paris. He will surely hear that Christine Daaé, not de Chagny, is the lead in a new opera called The Beggar Bird. That Christine Daaé has chosen to sing our story: the story of our love.
What better way to tell him how I feel?
But it must make the papers. It must become a world-renowned production and performance, if news of it is to reach him.
I will perform to the best of my ability. Recall all that he has taught me. I will engage the press, simper to their questions whatever they ask and bow to Parisian applause. I will make sure he hears me.
I will bring him back!
Chapter 21: Opera scenes
A long one, for the long wait!
I took a lot of liberties with ALW's existing canon and deleted scenes from the 2004 film, while entwining my own words and lyrics into The Beggar Bird. I hope you enjoy, and as ever, thank you for reading <3
Eight months later
“Where is Robert?” cries Monsieur Bellay for the second time.
Robert, head to toe in dirty rags and black feathers, jogs onstage from the eaves, hands out in apologetic surrender and flashing a grin. “Maestro, Maestro! Pardon! Forgive me!”
Monsieur Bellay sighs. “From the top then, if you please, Madame de Cha- Madame Daaé.”
Up on my raised platform, I lean once more out of my wooden window as Robert leaps onto the platform opposite, tripping on the ivy that’s clad to his wooden garden wall. Monsieur Bellay taps his stand, and the orchestra clatter and rattle their instruments in preparation for our scene.
I meet Robert’s eyes, flick my gaze downwards, and raise my eyebrows. He looks at his un-tucked shirt in horror and, turning away from Monsieur Bellay, rectifies his costume. He has his usual wink ready for me when he turns back, and I laugh.
“Tenors,” Monsieur Bellay mutters, arms aloft. “Ready!”
Laughter leaves my face as Erik’s wonderful, woeful oboe begins. I pace behind the window, raise my head to the ceiling and visibly sigh. Baritone Signor Orsini, playing the role of my mother and dressed ridiculously in skirts, hat and apron, enters. “Daughter, dear; are you here?”
I turn to meet her, mouth closed, and gesture to beyond the window.
“Daughter, dear; I thought it clear! No more of this talk. The night is dark and the forest deep; you must stay safe and sweet, until a worthy man you meet.”
I slump my shoulders, nodding. She departs. I turn back to the window and lean out once more, head bent. Behind me, the wooden sun rotates down, the wooden moon rising in its place. The stage light moves to Robert, who stands on his garden wall facing the audience. No longer in sight of whoever watches our rehearsal, I take a deep breath.
This will be the first time I’ve heard one of the crow’s arias.
The music ripples, shimmers through the atmosphere. The auditorium, only moments ago full of murmured chatter, suddenly hushes as Robert’s sweet voice warms us all.
“Child of the wilderness
Born into emptiness
Learn to be lonely
Learn to find your way in darkness...”
My body shudders against the wood.
“Who will be there for me?
Comfort and care for me?
Learn to be lonely
Learn to be my own companion...”
I clasp my hands tight together, fingers pained. My God, Erik…
“Never dreamed out in the world
There are arms to hold me
I’ve always known
My heart was on its own...”
I shut my eyes. Robert’s voice pales in my mind and morphs into another: the rich timbre of the man I love. The real child of loneliness who’s heart and deepest fears now flood this building.
I told him once that he’d made and ruined me. That I felt sympathy for him no longer. Since that time I have loved him; made love with him; warmed with his laughter; shared in his wonderment of music, life and sex, and learned that with the right person, those things are often the same – but for the first time since I left that lagoon with my fiancée long ago, Erik's stark vulnerability in this moment releases the full wave of my old compassion. It crashes down on me with force, swamping me, knocking the air out of my lungs.
“So I’ll laugh in my loneliness
Child of the wilderness
Learn to be lonely
Learn how to love life that is lived alone.”
Robert’s voice changes direction; he turns to face me for his final verse. The crow is about to see the farm girl for the first time, and the stage light will shine on me once more. Head still bent, I imagine a younger Erik hearing me sob in that chapel as a girl.
“See the tears on her cheeks,” Robert sings, “she know such sorrow as mine. She listens when her mother speaks, but only her hands reply. What can I do for such grief, but what I do for my own?
Must we be lonely?
Can life be lived…?
Will we be loved… ?
Must we stay alone?”
I shall give her all I can: my song.”
The oboe’s final note rings out like a question mark, before fading away.
The auditorium is silent.
Then the flute comes in, light and sprightly. Flickering between octaves high and low, it imitates the call of a bird perfectly, and wakes me from my reverie.
“Aaaaaaa-ah-ah-ah-aaaaaaah,”” Robert sings, imitating the flute and call of a blackbird.
I perk my head up, staring out into the night.
“Aaaaaaa-ah-ah-ah-aaaaaaah,” he sings again.
I lift my chin, open my mouth and return the bird call. I widen my eyes, gasp! Throw my hands over my mouth, clasp at my throat! I have a voice!
Robert sings and I sing again, and together with the flute I sing once more, clutching the window and leaning far out. “Who are you, night bird? You who makes my voice stir?”
Afraid of being seen, the crow looks stricken and jumps down from the garden wall.
I begin my aria, the silence in the auditorium even louder than before.
Over these past eight months of planning and preparations – of moving my scant possessions to my new dressing room, once the opera house was completed – I’ve sung this aria so many times. But here with the swirling score, so gentle and textured, I feel like I’m no longer singing it alone. The flute’s call and response is him hearing me, answering me, as he used to.The flutter of the oboe is his fingertips around my waist, holding me in comfort; the cello, his satisfied hum when he holds me flush against him.
But the aria ends, and I return to the real world.
The flute, oboe and cello are only instruments.
The garden wall is empty.
The stage light and music fades as I gaze at that empty wall, my weariness not acting at all.
“Wonderful!” Monsieur Bellay cries, nodding vigorously and startling me. “Wonderful, Madame Daaé! And Monsieur Laval,” he turns to my counter partner, who freezes half-way across the stage under his maestro’s gaze. “On time, this afternoon, if you’d be so good.”
Robert smiles, bows deeply and grins as staff in the hall laugh. He runs backstage, eager to get away. And no wonder: Robert is handsome and easy in manner; the ballet girls giggle and slap one another’s hands as he passes with a wink. No doubt someone waits for him in his dressing room –someone left his shirt un-tucked, after all.
Erik would hate the man, I think, and faintly smile.
And suddenly I imagine myself on my knees in my dressing room, bunching up Erik’s shirt with my head between his hands – him leaning against my dresser, his own head thrown back as he grapples at my hair – and I gasp with sudden, furious desire.
“Christine,” Raoul calls from the bottom of my ladder.
It’s been nine months since he left. Nine! This is ridiculous.
By the time I’ve climbed down from the platform, I’m entirely composed.
“That was very moving,” says Raoul, taking my hand and kissing it. “A superb performance. Your father would have been proud.”
I can only smile, and gently take back my hand.
“I must leave for the afternoon,” he says in his business voice. “There’s the last of the décor still to purchase. I trust Madame Giry will have everything under control while I’m gone. Is there anything you need?”
“No, thank you,” I sigh. We smile to one another as he departs and Klaus, one of our backstage hands, nods in my direction, seemingly touched by our show of affection. “Ma’am,” he bows, and walks on with his cart.
Of course, Raoul knows why my performance was particularly moving, and I doubt he approves: but he’s playing his role. We have fooled everyone, since our pact. I find myself on an endless stage, even after having sworn never to act again: as Viscomtesse, a prima donna, and even as the woman who survived the Opera Ghost. But while I once acted to hide my true self, I now act to ensure my self survives. Now that we are free from the pretence of a real marriage, my husband and I are getting along much better.
Heading to my room to rest, I run into an unfamiliar gentleman at a stairwell. A camera dangles from his neck. My heart beats faster.
“Oh! Madame de Chagny!” He bows profusely, revealing his balding head in an attempt to hide the flush in his cheeks.
I do my best to look haughty. “And you are, Monsieur...?”
“Monsieur Farage, Madame,” he replies, bowing once more. “Paris News. I am here to –”
He looks shocked for a moment. “Non, non, Madame! Only to ask – if you have the time – some questions for the sake of the Parisian public? They so long to hear more of your long-awaited return to the stage.”
I sigh, tap my foot.
“Only a minute of your time, prima donna; but a minute!”
I consider, cocking my head… and then consent graciously. “A minute for you then, Monsieur.”
He beams, and scrambles for some parchment. “How has your first rehearsal been, Madame? Can we anticipate seeing this curious new opera soon?”
“We have been preparing for many months,” I reply airily, “and expect the opening to be in March, in-keeping with the traditional spring season.”
“Bien, bien!” he gushes, fountain pen flying. “And the Viscomte de Chagny: he is as happy with his opera house, as he is with his wife’s magnificent singing?”
“I think you must agree that this opera house is a triumph,” I respond, smiling to show my teeth. “Though we welcome this new stage for Paris, we do still mourn the Palais Garnier, to which we are all indebted, and which saw so many magnificent performances over the years. It will always be a treasured place.”
His eyebrows rise. “Is this so, Madame! And you, with so many… memories there?”
I hear the hint. “It is where I learned to sing,” I say, “and where I met once more my true love. It will forever be special.”
He takes every word I say to paper, and I keep the triumph from my face.
“The composer himself must be delighted with the way you have interpreted his score,” he continues, and I arch an eyebrow. Good try, Monsieur.
“Our production will be the world premiere of The Beggar Bird, that we can guarantee. We expect the best of society from across Europe to attend, which will of course be a spectacle in of itself. But our costumes, sets and design are not to be believed until seen with one’s own eyes. Specialists from all over France have worked tirelessly on this production; truly, I am astonished by what we have achieved!”
“… and the composer?” He’s a dog with a bone.
“If only we knew who it was, Monsieur Farage,” I sigh loudly. “They are a mystery to us.”
“They?” he asks, eyebrows up. “Surely… it is ‘he’, Madame?”
“We do not know for sure that it is a man,” I whisper, leaning in. “Anonymous composers, as with poets and writers, are often women in disguise, after all.”
He looks astonished. Excellent.
“But whoever they may be, we do know they are a genius,” I continue loudly. “They are a person of great feeling who sees the truth of the heart – a person who knows what it is to love... and be loved.”
He scribbles down all I say, like someone thirsting in a desert. “And your maiden name is to remain your stage name, we hear. May one ask..?”
I incline my head gracefully. “I was blessed in my early career to have the support of some fine individuals, who knew me as Christine Daaé. It is in debt to them that Christine Daaé returns now,” I say softly. “I hope that in memory of those times, they may return to see our fine production of this magnificent opera –that we may look forward to the future of Parisian opera together.Perhaps even, to a collaboration between our mysterious composer and our cast. Nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
I have rehearsed this speech many times, and am proud to pull it off. Meanwhile, Farage glances down the stairwell for the second time. Realising what he must hope is down there, I grasp the opportunity with both hands: following his gaze, I let out a great shudder, throw my hand to my heart and plaster fear over my face. Farage blinks at my act,his mouth falling open and I pretend to notice,straighten my skirts and amend my hair.
“And… there is no sign of… the Opera Ghost?” he whispers, glancing over his papers at my face. “The mysterious presence who so haunted the Palais Garnier?”
Farage knows very well of my ‘final performance’ with the Phantom: all of Paris does, as Raoul reminded me from across our dining table a year ago. I feign a slow recovery to buy myself some time. A very delicate balance is needed, if my reply is to have its desired effect.
“The Opera Ghost perished with the previous establishment,” I say. “He is no more, and never will be. For that, I am very grateful, as your readers may well imagine.” Farage scribbles furiously and I take a peek: ‘deceased?? but not forgotten – visibly distressed.’
Excellent. “We hope that with this new opera, an angel will grace us with his presence instead.”
“Poetic, poetic,” he murmurs, scribbling ‘phantom to angel.’ “Most kind of you…We wish you all the best for what will surely be the finest performance ever to grace Paris,” he simpers, bowing low.
I courtesy in reply. “With such an opera, how can it not be? This love story touches me deeply. It is an honour to perform it.”
He throws a regretful glance down the staircase, before making his leave. As he goes to the ridiculously large double doors of Raoul’s entrance way, I hope that I have said enough to inspire our city’s gossiping aristocrats to attend our premiere… and to reach someone else, entirely.
Three months later: the Spring Season Finale
I sit in front of my dresser, heart a-flutter.
In a matter of moments, they’ll make the call for positions.
Our finale approaches.
My chest rises and falls in the candlelight; I watch my nervous body in the mirror, ripe with anticipation. At least I know I look well: my plain attire of a farm girl is somehow more flattering than any of the bejewelled nonsense Carlotta strutted about in. I dab my cheeks once again with powder, feeling like a virgin bride about to walk down the aisle towards her delicious fate, already thinking of the night ahead.
It must be tonight. Surely, it’s tonight he’ll come.
My hard work and Erik’s genius has paid off: his opera has been a resounding success. It’s hard to tell if the audience have come for the music, or for the hope of seeing the woman who survived the clutches of the Phantom – or even, the ghoul himself – but that matters not: it has been enough to get us smothered across the national press.
The papers have accosted us at every possible moment. Crooning their praises for the production, journalists meanwhile beg to hear more about these new strange occurrences happening in this new Box Five.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Raoul has laughed. “We’ve been selling tickets for Box Five every night without mishap.” (Silent and sulky at first, Raoul quickly learned to welcome the rumours: as two other opera managers once said, “gossip’s worth its weight in gold.”)
Almost all our staff and performers have heard the old ghost stories, I remind myself as I pin my hair, and old fears die hard... but nonetheless, I revisit the same persist thoughts over and over, wearing them thin while still allowing myself hope. What if he has been watching us from Box Five? I clench my thighs, and let out a shuddering breath. It’s hard to know what to be afraid of more: that he’s once again masquerading as a ghost – coming to listen in secrecy, and never coming to see me... or that the gossip I worked so hard to stir has set imaginations aflame, and our superstitious audience are seeing things that aren’t there – that Erik hasn’t come at all.
He must. Tonight, he must.
It’s the last chance. While I am, in truth, eager to rest from revisiting Erik’s and my own pain night after night, this night is what I’ve worked so hard for. It will have all been worth it, if he returns as the man he wanted to become.
“Stage!” comes Klaus’ roar from the corridor. I lower my powder brush to the dresser, meet my eyes in the mirror, and nod.
“My love… will you consent to be my wife?”
I hold out my hand for my betrothed, accepting his ring. I face the audience, gazing at the ring from afar and let joy flood my features, before clutching my hand to my heart. I take the opportunity to scan the stalls, but there’s no familiar lurch, no blossom of warmth in my chest.
He’s not here.
He hasn’t come.
My betrothed grabs my hand and yanks me out of view. Safely behind the wooden wall of my farm house, he gives me a frown before climbing down the latter, leaving me alone in dread of the emotional onslaught this particular aria brings.
“I gave you my music, made your song take wing… and how, how I’ve adored you, admired and all but lost you…. I was bound to love you, when I heard you sing...”
Robert cuts off with a sob, and my heart breaks as it does every damned night. The piano comes in with a new melody and, as always, Robert’s voice morphs into his.
“No one would listen
No one but her
Heard as the outcast hears.
Shamed into solitude
Shunned by the multitude
I learned to listen
In my dark, my heart heard music.
I longed to teach the world
Rise up and reach the world
No one would listen
I alone could hear the music
Then at last, a voice in the gloom
Seemed to cry "I hear you;
I hear your fears,
Your torment and your tears."”
Doesn’t he know? Doesn’t he know how he has been that person for me, too?
“She saw my loneliness
Shared in my emptiness
No one would listen
No one but her
Heard as the outcast hears.”
How couldn’t he come?
Angry tears leak from my eyes as Robert has the audacity to sing what Erik had the audacity to write.
“...If she should ever return to that window, then I shall know I am missed. My heart holds no hope, but I cannot desist. I shall be silent, if attend me she does – see if she mourns the loss of her ugly dove.”
The audience bursts into applause as Robert hops from the garden wall. Again, the wooden sun rises,again is replaced by the moon. The stage light shines at my window and I lean out, scanning the garden restlessly. I cannot look at the audience – cannot even glance.
“Where is my night bird? The one who makes my voice heard?” I sing.
There’s no response.
“Where are you, night bird? You who makes my heart stir?”
Still there’s no response, and I look at the ring on my finger, holding it out for the audience to see as my tears roll.
“Unheard and misunderstood
By the one who claimed my hand
My voice, my soul, my feelings
He doesn’t understand….”
The oboe comes back in, wrenching at my guts as it does.
“Ashamed in my solitude,
Shunned by the friend I lose...
He always listened
In the dark, our hearts were music...”
Lowering the ring, I once again lean out of the window.
“Now no one listens
No one at all
Hears as I voicelessly cry...”
The light dims for the interval.
I don’t know what makes me do it.
But all on my own, without the orchestra’s backing, I burst once more into song:
“Still your voice fills my spirit with a strange, sweet sound,
every night there’s still music in my mind!
And your music still makes my spirit soar!
I still hear as I never heard before…
… Was it after all… a dream… and nothing more?”
The audience are none the wiser. While they applaud me, Monsieur Bellay looks furious. The lights fade anew and I am left on that platform, heart racing, then falling, to see no-one gazing down from Box Five.
“Never again,” Monsieur Bellay whispers in my dressing room at the interval. I sit and look meekly at his quivering moustache. “Never, Madame! Yes, you sang well – beautifully! But it is not in the script. Please adhere, and do not go off piste!”
I nod, apologetic, as Raoul comes barging in. The two men bow as Bellay departs. We are suddenly left alone, for once without an audience to perform our marriage to. We don’t know how to behave.
“What happened?” Raoul finally asks, still standing by the door.
I close my eyes. “Don’t lecture me, please – I can’t bear it.”
There’s a moment of silence. “Christine… Are you well? Can you sing the second half?”
"Yes." I must. There’s still time, isn’t there? There’s still time. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
He doesn’t seem convinced. “So long as you’re well,” he murmurs, voice softer. “Do you need anything?”
“No, I’ll – I’ll see you after the performance.”
“Very well,” he says, and I hear his bow. “Good luck, my dear.”
The door closes. I open my eyes, and try not to sob.
We return to the stage for Act Four. I’m trembling on the platform, waiting for the curtain to rise. To the audience’s applause, I climb down the apple tree.
I waltz between wooden trees and paper plants, singing the bird call from Act One. Robert approaches from the other side of the stage, the tall wooden wall between us.
Having left me for so long, he finally joins in my song; I look startled, and rush to the wall. He rushes to it, too, and we place our hands against it on either side, mirroring one another, unable to touch.
We sing powerfully of our love, and at the orchestra’s swell and rise, the wooden wall breaks in half, splitting down the middle and pulling apart. Panicked, Robert ducks beneath a tree, hiding: “How can she love such a creature?…. The truth of his self at last clear… how can he dare to face her? Trapped by so much fear?”
I follow as he leads us across the stage, unable to catch a glimpse of him. Our voices intertwine as we hurry over and under props and hillocks, our moon rising in the sky and trees coming in to crowd the stage.
We reach a clearing with a single apple tree at its centre, and I sing again: “Where are you, night bird? You who has made my heart hurt?”
He sings softly “I am no night bird… forgive me for your heart's hurt….”
And then, finally, Robert steps out from behind his tree.
It’s impossible not to feel the gravity of my disappointment. My face crumples. This is not my ending.
He steps closer, as I do, and I choke down my sobs to sing. “B-beautiful creatures of sadness, what kind of l-lives have we known? God give us courage to promise… not to stay alone!”
And with tears streaming down my cheeks, I take his face between my hands, and kiss him.
The orchestra sings in our place as we kiss and Robert falls to his knees, wrapping his arms around my waist.
“Forgive me for leaving you!” we sing to one another.
I take the ring from my finger, and place it in my pocket. He stands and takes my hands.
We duet: “Fly with me somewhere new; let’s at last be heard; let me love you.”
We kiss again as the curtains close.
Still in Robert’s arms, I hear the meaningless cheers and applause. Robert grins down at me, delighted. “You were astonishing tonight, Madame!”
I squeeze his arms in thanks, free myself from his hold and run, stumbling, to my room.
Collapsing on my divan, I heave with a sadness so deep that I don’t know how it’ll ever leave me. It’s been there all this time, hiding beneath the purpose and task I gave myself: to bring him back. I was so sure…
But I have failed. I have nothing.
My dam has burst.
The door swings open. Outside, the applause roars on. Raoul enters, his hands full of parchment. “You’ll miss the curtain call!”
“Let them wait.” I don’t bother to wipe my cheeks.
He crouches beside me. “What is this to do with, Christine.”
“I thought… he’d come!” I hiccough, no longer having anything to hide. “But he hasn’t. What if – what if h-he’s n-never going to?” I put my face in my hands and cry with abandon like a child.
After a while, Raoul clears his throat. “Christine.”
I manage to look up, vision blurred with make up and tears. “I’m sorry,” I gasp, “I don’t mean t-to be cruel...”
“I’m no fool,” he says with a half-smile. “I know you’ve been singing for him all year. And I’m not bitter. I would have shown you these sooner...” and he places a pile of letters in my lap.
I blink at them stupidly. They’re all addressed to me. “W-what are they?”
He does that half smile again. “I don’t doubt what you’ll choose to do. And I know you’ll want to do it alone. I…”
I look at him properly.
“I give you my blessing,” he says finally, and with a pat of my knee, he stands, looking down at me with fondness. “Little Lotte,” he says, “of what are you fonder? What do you love best?” And with that, he smiles, bows and leaves.
At the gentle click of the closed door, I dry my eyes inelegantly with the back of my hand and open the first letter.
“To Madame Daaé,
We would be most honoured if you should bring your wonderful voice and production of The Beggar Bird to Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House in London this summer, for a two-week visiting show...”
I furrow my brow, hardly understanding. The next letter is addressed to me in a much more cursive style.
“Viscomte de Chagny and Madame Daaé,
The most excellent wishes for your health. We have heard much of the beauty of your recent production of The Beggar Bird, and invite you to Milan to perform at Teatro alla Scala for a weekend this month...”
My eyes glaze over. A tour? We’re going on tour?
Three further letters invite us to Venice, St. Petersburg and Sweden. It’s wonderful, a delight – an honour! I race through each one and reach the last in the pile.
The sound in the room disappears.
In red, spidery handwriting, there sits my name: “Miss Christine Daaé.”
Cursing my fingers as they threaten to rip the parchment, I uncurl the sheets, laying them flat out on my lap.
Felicitations on your most deserved success as leading soprano this season.
I never doubted it.
If you and your husband would consider gifting Vienna with your wonderful interpretation of my opera at the Wiener Staatsoper this May, we would be most honoured.
No doubt you have a flurry of similar invitations to fill your time... I know it is much to ask of you.
With much hope and admiration,
From the depths of Mirror Lake"
"You and your husband?" It's such a composed letter, compared to the one he left me nine months ago. It is impossible to know with what feelings he has written it. But still, my heart swells; my fingertips tingle.
He has heard of our production.
He was listening.
He has heard me.
I jump to my feet, the papers falling to the carpet. Flying from the room and back to the stage I run towards our standing ovation. Cheeks flushed and eyes bright, I take Robert’s hand in mine and bow. We have triumphed! We have worked so hard, so hard.
We have achieved our dreams at last.
With a carousel of emotions in my gut - alight with delight, hope, confusion and nerves - I know there's no question: we will take this opera to Europe and Russia.
We will take it to Vienna.
We will take it to Erik... and it will take us to Mirror Lake.
I pin up my curls, place the hat just so on my head.
It’ll do, I think to myself with a brilliant, nervous smile.
Hailing a carriage, I go to the park.
“Christine,” calls my husband beside the duck pond. “You’re all packed?”
I approach him, eyes narrowing in the sunlight. “I am,” I reply. “Thank you for meeting me.”
“We needn’t have, you know. I gave you my blessing.” He throws a chunk of his bread roll into the water.
“You’re releasing me from our pact?” I ask, eyebrows raised. I’d expected some resistance, it having only been a year since we made it.
“It won’t be difficult for Paris to believe you’re endlessly invited on tours. They won’t miss you immediately.” All out of bread, he leans on the railing. “I’m to find a new soprano.”
It isn’t a question. “I honestly don’t know,” I sigh, leaning on them, too. “I’ve no idea what will happen.”
Raoul looks at me incredulously. “You doubt your feelings?”
I turn red. “Not in the slightest.”
“Then you doubt him?” His eyes widen further. “Christine, have you had cotton in your ears? Have you not heard the opera he has written you?”
“Well… his letter...”
“God good! Please tell me of a time when he has he not been in love with you. You’ve nothing to fear – only your own foolishness getting in the way.”
He says it all without malice or sarcasm, and my heart floods with warmth for the man I once loved. “This wouldn’t be happening, if you hadn’t built the opera house. You’re a kind man.”
He turns red, too. “And one day, some beautiful, unwed woman out there will think so, too.” He looks at me. “When you want to change your name officially… I’ll send for the papers. It’ll happen quietly, without fuss. You have my word.”
“Why?” I swallow. “Why are you releasing me after so short a time?”
He looks back at the ducks. “You were right,” he says finally. “I was becoming the man I once swore to kill for the sake of your happiness.” He sighs. “He has broken you more than once, Christine. I don’t trust him. I doubt I ever will... but you’re happier now, more yourself than I have ever seen you. If we are to believe the story of his opera, then he intends to return to you. I don’t think I’m feeding you to the lions. And it would likely be pointless trying to stop you. Besides,” he adds, “he did let you go – twice – for your own sake. If he’s managed to do such a thing, then so must I. I can hardly be outdone by such a man.”
I allow myself a small smirk. Again, Raoul’s choices boil down to his ideas about himself. But today it works in my favour – and soon, they will be my problem no longer. I kiss him on the cheek. “Goodbye Raoul.”
“Good luck, my dear.” He kisses my hand.
When I return to the opera house, I find my luggage packed neatly onto a carriage and Madame Giry waiting beside it.
“Madame,” I greet her. “Thank you for everything. And… for your guidance.”
She smiles a fraction. “Meg will be out in a just a moment.”
And she is, clad in her ballerina dress like the first day I saw her. “Meg!” I grasp her closely to me.
“It’s only for a little while,” she laughs, stroking my back.
“I don’t know for how long,” I say, squeezing her shoulders.
“However long doesn’t matter. You know I’ll always be there. Write your address to me as soon as you arrive?”
“Of course. And thank you,” I whisper. “You, above all….”
“Promise to look after yourself?”
“If you promise to remain faithful to yourself. No husbands!” I step back, returning her teary-eyed, tender smile, before waving farewell as she returns to rehearsals.
Madame Giry’s clear gaze falls on me once more. “Please pass on my greetings.”
“And tell him... he has done well.”
She nods, and places a hand on my arm. “As have you, my dear. It has not been easy for you – since the beginning. But now your own page is turning, just like his is. You will both be happy, but it will take hard work. Do not regret anything, without grafting first. You will always be welcome at New Square Place.”
I press her hand firmly, touched. She would welcome Erik even into her home.
That’s if, of course, he has summoned me to be with me. His letter wasn’t too clear on anything at all.
More than a year has passed since he left – more than a year since I cursed the coming of the spring. Now, that winter is a forgotten land from long ago, but still I don’t know how long this summertime will last. “You and your husband...”
I enter the carriage. “The docks, please.” I watch Raoul’s opera house slide from view as we clatter down the cobbles. “Goodbye, Paris,” I murmur to the sights and sounds of the Saturday market – and then I shout suddenly, and the driver comes to an abrupt halt.
I throw open the carriage door, not waiting for his assistance in helping me down, and run towards the fish stall. “Lille!”
She turns, dropping her prawns with an open mouth. “My Lady!”
I retrieve her prawns for her, finding her wide-eyed. “I’m so sorry Lille, for it all. I don’t deserve your forgiveness, so do not speak on it,” I interrupt her head shake, and take her hands in mine. “You were my light, in that house. Thank you for all you did for me.”
She swallows and nods. She sees the carriage. “My Lady... Are you leaving for a trip?”
“I am,” I say. “And I – I don’t know when I’ll be back. I wish you all the best,” I say sincerely, squeezing her hand.
She curtsies. “And you, My Lady.”
I arrive in London with a host of carriages filled to breaking point with musicians, performers and costume girls: our opera on tour. The crooked streets of Covent Garden are alive with flower sellers and the calls of market men, and opera fans crowd around the entrance to the Royal Opera House to meet us.
Our only performance in England is tomorrow afternoon, and we are given some time to rest from our journey. The evening is my own, and I enter my temporary dressing room.
Pink curtains and carpets… the endless sea of flowers.
A full length mirror.
It is exactly like my old dressing room at the Palais Garnier.
I see the white brocaded dresser, and my fantasy from months ago returns to mind: Erik, leaning back. Me, on my knees. My head between his hands as I bunch up his shirt. I imagine taking him between my lips, into my mouth, and a shot of wetness heats my bloomers.
I gaze over at that full length mirror and picture his mask appearing once again in its gloom.
His rich, furious voice filling the room.
The touch of his glove on my open palm as I give myself to him – walked willingly into his lair, half-dressed, utterly unafraid.
At the memory of that night, I sit on the sofa, lean back and lift my skirts.
Not all ghosts are unwelcome.
What would I do, if it happened all over again, I wonder, rubbing myself furiously. If he came for me now, as he had then?
I trace the skin of my collarbone, drop to the neckline of my fine, fine dress, and run my fingernails lightly over my breasts.
I would let him take me from this world of finery. Follow him into the darkness once again.
Traipse down his corridors to the centre of the earth.
Where he sings to me, his deep, low voice whispering across my body like velvet. “Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in...”
He pulls my back flush against him, crooning in my ear, his gloved hand splayed across my abdomen and sinking lower.
“Erik,” I’d coo, and he’d chuckle, relishing my want. My surrender.
And that thought shoots straight to my core.
Surrender. My fingers move faster as my fantasy changes course all on its own.
He grasps me tightly by the hair, pulling my head back and revealing my neck. “Surrender to me,” he growls against my throat.
I cry out as he pushes me down by the head, bending me at the hips.
He wraps a hand around my throat, squeezing, and I can’t struggle against his power over me, can’t breathe, and he laughs as I try, laughs as I writhe against him, before thrusting inside of me with a cry: “mine!”
I cum with a throaty cry, back arched and eyes open.
The dressing room is just as it was, silent and well-lit. A clock chimes on the mantle-piece.
I tremble, frozen where I lie. My fingers are soaked.
To think of him like that… to have enjoyed it…
Dazed and flustered, I sit up and straighten my skirts. I cannot stay here this evening, I decide, glancing around myself.
I leave, desperate to soak up the sights and sounds of London, and drown out those that leave me panting.
Despite that blot against my sanity and towards my depravity, the London performance goes wonderfully. Soon, I’m back in a carriage with our crew on our tour across Europe. Again, I count the dates on my hands.
Four more performances before Vienna.
I wonder for the hundredth time who Erik is to the Wiener Staatsoper. On what authority has he invited us? Does he work there? I imagine him in a regular suit and tails, networking among Viennese high society, and almost giggle. Is he perhaps, the opera house manager? I snort, remembering his disdain for Andre and Fermin – how they simpered to Carlotta and eyed up the ballet dancers.
I smile indulgently; doing either would be alien to Erik.
Does he compose? Conduct? Sing?How will he meet us? Come out in the daylight to the carriage and show us in? Or come to my dressing room in the darkness?
I shudder, and do not meet anyone’s eyes. Less of that here, Christine.
What will we even say to one another, I wonder.Since I was a little girl, we’ve never been apart for longer than two months, until now.
What do I want to say? Yes, I know why he left: I’ve heard his reasons every evening again and again, as Robert sings Erik’s sorrow. But what of my sorrow?
“You and your husband...”
It’s impossible to know how I will feel. So I determine not to worry. Out of the carriage window, blooming flowers become snowflakes which become flowers again, as Europe becomes Russia and then Europe again; hours become days, and then weeks – and somehow suddenly, while taking forever to come,the day arrives when the street signs change into German.
We are in Austria.
The Wiener Staatsoper bares down on us like a great ship permanently moored in the middle of the city. It’s beautiful – enormous. The place where Mozart conducted his own operas. The capital city of music, they say.
Our carriages pull up to its grand entrance in the early afternoon, the summer sun beating down and stagnating the air. A stable man comes to assist with the horses. I gaze eagerly at the steps that lead to the double doors, and curtsy with hidden disappointment to the excitable, short man who comes running out, tailcoat fluttering in his haste.
“Madame Daae,” he bows deeply, kissing me on the hand with a bristling moustache. “Stephan Von Neumann, at your service.” His eyes are alive with a familiarity I don’t expect from a stranger, and his warmth turns to humour as my face betrays my confusion.Delighted, he gestures for me to enter and waves over some lobby boys to help with the instruments. I make my farewells before following him in.
I scan every corner and crevice as he guides me slowly through the theatre. Out of habit, I look to the shadows and hiding places, and then wonder if I ought to be looking in the offices and manager rooms instead.
Who is he now? How does he dress? What does he call himself?
But there’s no familiar shape wherever my eyes land.
Though… that old, familiar feeling of being watched…
“Here is your dressing room, Madame,” Herr Neumann bows with a genuine smile. “You will not be called for costume until 4pm. May I get you any refreshment, or should you like to rest a while?”
Pulling off my travel hat, I catch a small note of parchment on the dresser. It’s written with red ink. “Some time alone, if you will,” I respond, not taking my eyes from it.
He bows again. “I shall return in an hour, Madame. Please, make yourself comfortable. Thank you for gracing us with your presence this night. We are ecstatic to see you perform!”
I don’t hear him close the door. I’m already at the dresser, that same stirring low in my belly at seeing my name in his handwriting. Third time’s a charm, I breathlessly pray as I open the parchment.
It’s briefer than ever.
Welcome to the Wiener Staatsoper. I hope you find your room comfortable?
Forgive me for not attending you until after tonight’s performance. There is, as ever, much to do.
Though I know you do not need it, I wish you luck.
The paper turns limp in my hands. It’s not exactly a love poem.Where is his excitement? His anticipation, his nerves?
Is it only me who feels this way?
Fighting down the lurch of doubt churning in my stomach, I return the paper to my dressing table, and go out to find Robert so we may rehearse.
The rehearsal goes poorly. I am distracted and it makes Robert uneasy.
“Come, Madame!” he throws his arms out dramatically, a grin on his face to hide his worry. “This is the last evening of our magnificent tour – you must rally!”
I smile tiredly. “Don’t fret, Monsieur. I’m merely a little weary from the journey. I will be right again on stage.”
And somehow, I’m right: Act One and Two go smoothly. To avenge Erik’s lack of greeting and even more lacking letter, I don’t once glance around the auditorium to seek him as we perform… but that feeling of being watched bears down on me once more; I try to shrug it off, to lose myself in our masqueraded story... but as the music flows on and the narrative drives ever forward, I start to struggle.
Knowing that Erik is close makes the opera feel close.
Act Three hurts.
As Robert flies away and I lament the wasted fruit on my growing apple tree, flashes of my own grief return to me. Singing in front of Vienna, I feel again the horror of staring up at that aimless, frozen spider; of that time when time itself stopped. As Erik’s stupid, beautiful, make-believe fairytale parrots the exact pain he put me through – what he made me struggle with alone – I’m suddenly angry again.
No. I’m furious.
My beast of doubt wakes from its slumber, and I am heartbroken to be here at his invitation, on the eve of our reunion which ought to be so special, and for him not to have visited me at the first possible opportunity – to have not fallen to his feet and apologise – to have not offered me comfort. I am choked with the farm girl’s questions myself: her not-knowing is my own.
Somehow finishing my aria without error, I duck behind my pretend house wall, chest heaving and relieved to be out of sight. Robert meanwhile sings of his journey through ice, deserts, jungles and bedrock, across oceans and plains.
When he reaches Mirror Lake, the orchestra swells. “Who is this shape in the shadows? Whose is this face in the mask?”
The audience gasps loudly and I remember from rehearsal how Robert unveils himself: stripping off the feathers; pulling off the silken wings from his arms; crying for his ugliness, before singing of his intention to return to me, regardless.
His stage light fades. I wait for my apple tree to finish growing, the little metal wheels inside its trunk whirring and clunking, and at the glow of my stage light I throw myself back to the window. “Another day without music; but a day of freedom,” I sing, and reach out to touch the apple tree. “No one will see me!”
I climb down and wander behind the tall garden wall that now runs down the width of the stage.
The night-bird theme begins. I picture Robert on the other side of the wall, de-feathered and hidden, ready to sing our powerful love duet.
I don’t know if I can do this, I think behind my serene facial expression, heart pounding. I don’t know if I can live this again. I don’t know, after all that’s happened, if I am strong enough.
“Brava, brava, bravissimi.”
My heart stops. The audience gasps.
… A sound sweeter than angels...
I dare not move – dare'n’t even breathe.
“Stranger than she dreamt it,
Can she even dare to hear, or bear to think of me?
This selfish gargoyle
Who burned in hell but openly yearns for heaven
His voice comes closer and closer to the wall.
I cannot move.
“Can hurt turn to love?
Can she forgive the man who once was her monster?
This repulsive coward
Who’s been a beast but still dreams of beauty,
I face the wall, tears streaming. With shaking arms, I press my hands against it.
I hear him do the same.
My mirror image.
I barely manage my verses.
“Child of the wilderness,
dying in loneliness.
I can hear you,
I can feel your every fear.
I never dreamed out in this wood, there was someone who loved me.
I've always known, my heart wasn't alone.
I've shared in your emptiness, and your loneliness.
My lonesome night-bird:
You still remain a lover in my heart.”
The wall begins to shudder, begins to move. I’m not ready! I beg it to stop as much as I beg it to hurry – to reveal him to me and hide me from him.
But of course, it moves – and of course he isn’t there: he’s the one hiding.
“How can she love such a creature?…. The truth of his self at last clear… how can he dare to face her? Trapped by so much fear?”
And he runs. I catch only a glimpse of his back, but it strikes me to the heart like lightening. It's all I need to fly after him, chase him furiously through the hillocks and props, across the stage again and again as he stays endlessly, infuriatingly out of sight. Curse the damned choreographer of our damned production! Damn it all to hell and damn him for running!
See me, dammit!
And then at last I come, breathlessly, to the clearing.
His apple tree.
The audience are absolutely silent.
“Where are you?” I choke out, damning the singing along with everything else. No more acting.
And as the music swells and drops away again, we are left in a tense, beating silence... until out steps Erik, featherless, cape-less and mask-less: entirely himself.
I know, I know, I need to get better at estimating my chapter lengths!
So yes, this is clearly not the last chapter. Apologies for the entirely-purposeful cliffhanger, too. But it won't be a long one, I promise!
Thanks for reading! x
Chapter 23: Mirror Lake, Part I
Well, here we are at last!
I had no idea where this story was going before it began, other than to Erik's lagoon. Your support and enjoyment has made this a truly fun story to write, so thank you so much for joining on the journey.
And so without further ado... as the wait's wearing thin, let the audience in, let the finale begin!
Erik’s eyes – Erik’s eyes are on me.
Everything else pales into nothingness.
We stare at one another, taking one another in. He’s almost straight-backed – almost proud: bold and yet unsure; fierce, yet nervous; beautiful, yet scarred. Only I’m close enough to see the tremor of his mouth – the question in his eyes.
As if the world hasn’t just turned on its head, the orchestra plays on and before my heart is ready, Erik starts to sing. His beautiful, booming voice plucks at the strings of my body: “I am no night bird… forgive me for your heart’s hurt….”
Before I know it, I’m running towards him – his face lights with a fervent, joyous fire – and the thwack of my open palm against his cheek echoes around the hall.
His head snaps back; the audience gasp.
Silent and panting, I wait for him, dare him to face me. He’s still turned aside, hidden in the shadows; it’s impossible to know how he’ll react to what I’ve just done.
What have I just done?
With a hand to his cheek, Erik slowly twists back towards me. There’s no ire in his expression, only – strangely – satisfaction.
He doesn’t fall to his knees like Robert, but ever so, ever so lightly, Erik brings his hand up to my face, and cradles my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, “for leaving you.”
My bottom lip wobbles. I cannot look away. The orchestra takes Erik’s line as a cue, but they don’t play the exposition to our closing aria.
They play something else.
My eyes widen. Erik’s nerves now show themselves plainly as he tries to smile, his hand against my face shaking. He takes a breath.
“...Say you'll share with me one love, one lifetime
Lead me save me from my solitude
Say you need me with you here, beside you...”
Behind his shaking hand, I’m trembling, too, recalling the last time he sang these words to me onstage. It is the same plea made with the same desperation,only this time there’s no mask for me to rip away: here Erik stands in front of Vienna, his face and heart on show with nothing to hide.
He gathers my hands into his.
“...Anywhere you go let, me go too!
Love me, that's all I ask of you.
... Christine, I love you.”
I gaze into his honest eyes, and then to Monsieur Bellay. I nod, and our maestro brings in the orchestra for our usual closing aria, and softly, I sing:
“Beautiful creatures of sadness,
what kind of lives have we known?
God give us courage to promise…
not to stay alone!”
And as Erik’s music carries us like a wave to the heights of sublime emotion, I take his face in my hands, and kiss him.
Oh, his smell. His taste.
I kiss him again.
We pull apart. The curtains close. I collapse into his arms, undone.
Distantly, I hear the audience roar and stomp. I come to and realise where I am, and disentangle myself from his suffocating hold, squeezing shut my eyes – because in a moment, his will meet mine and my anger, my righteous, rightful anger will melt away into the yearning, the never-ending yearning I have held for him all this time.
Damn the curtain call.
“Wait – Christine!”
I run and run without knowing where I’m headed, ducking and dancing through the unfamiliar backstage and throwing myself up every staircase I find.
I don’t slow as Erik calls my name, as I feel him silently on my tail, and after countless steps and stairwells, I throw open a door and burst out onto the Wiener Staatsoper’s roof, burst into the warm, night air and drink in its freshness and its silence, gasping for breath at the brilliant stars above.
All too soon, the door slams against the wall behind me. He’s coming at me fast. “What are you doing?”
The rage is hot in my veins and I turn on him. “What are you doing, Erik?”
The venom in my voice stops him in his tracks. With pleasure I watch his open expression twist into confusion.
“Is Robert alive?”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Is he alive?” I demand again, knowing how cruel I’m being, but unable to stop. “Or is he just another Piangi to rid the world of, so you can take the limelight?”
He clenches his jaw. “Of course he’s alive. It was prearranged: Robert, the score; all of it.”
“So that’s what kept you so busy this afternoon,” I lash out, “tricks and games! And that’s how you choose to greet me after a year! Petrifying me – embarrassing me on stage for a second time.”
“I thought it would be...” He grits his teeth. I can almost hear the anger throbbing in his veins, but frustratingly, he keeps it in check. “Then what should I have done, Madame?”
“”Should?” When has “should” ever mattered to you? Enlighten me: if you had all the freedom in the world, what would you have done?”
The question surprises him. Now angry, his eyes nevertheless fall to my lips. “Something… I’m not sure you want, any more.” He swallows and looks away.
He still wants me.
“You doubt me?” I cry, furious tears pricking my eyes. “I wasn’t the one who ran away, leaving only a letter –” My voice breaks, and his confused expression only provokes more of my fury. “All without a word… not one word of when you were coming back.”
Like a goldfish, he bobs his mouth without making a sound. “Do you mean to say…?” but he loses his nerve, sighing with frustration.
I turn my back to him, walk to the edge of the roof and look down on the distant, silent, night-time Vienna.
Behind me, his voice is far away, but loud and clear: he’s keeping his distance. “Fourteen months to the day have passed, Christine.”
“Much has changed in my life. Perhaps it has for you, too. I didn’t know if an invitation would be welcome. Your husband –”
“My husband?” I shoot over my shoulder, hands on my hips. “What did you think about my husband? You feared he’d assume from your cold, short invitation that you and I must be lovers? He already knows, Erik! He’s known all year!”
There’s a long silence, and now it’s me who’s losing their nerve. I cannot look at him. If I feel anything other than anger, I will be lost; I will be swept away on this building wave that threatens to break my defences.
This time when he speaks, his voice is very, very quiet. “You have told him?”
“The night you went away... I left him. I went to you. B-but you were gone.”
He’s somehow already at my side, grasping my shoulders and twisting me to look at him. He encases my soaked cheeks in both hands, forcing my face upwards as his hungry eyes rove over it, seeking the truth. “You’re free?”
A fraction of a nod is all it takes for him to gather me up fiercely into his arms. “Oh, my brave, brave song bird,” he rasps into my hair.
The endearment breaks me. Tears burst out and down my cheeks, unstoppable, my breath hitching in my throat as a child’s would.
“Forgive me,” he begs, voice breaking as he pulls back and wipes away my tears. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
Of course he didn’t know. How could he have? But that doesn’t dim the pain. Sniffing, I shrug out of his hold. “A damned letter,” I whisper. “You broke my heart, Erik.”
His arms fall to his sides. He takes a great shuddering breath. “So you did. You loved me.”
My expression says it all. And this time he does fall to his knees: at my feet, Erik bends his face to the ground and racks with silent sobs.
I don’t move. He stays there for a long while, and in light of his fresh turmoil I realise that until this moment, he’s had no idea what he put me through; has had no idea how I’ve felt all year.
He hasn’t once thought it possible that I could love him.
Seeing him like this, I remember our first reckoning. How I sobbed on the ground in the dark; how he knelt beside me, awkward and unsure, but trying to offer me comfort. Not since I first heard his crow’s aria have I look beyond my own emotions and considered how Erik might be feeling.
I lower to my knees and lift his chin.
He blinks at me like I’m a ghost.
“We are a mirror, you and I,” I tell him. “We sought to free ourselves at the very same moment. And we succeeded.” I stroke his scars. “Was this your first day without a mask?”
He looks back to the ground, and shakes his head. “I live without one, now.”
My heart begins to race. “They’re kinder, in Vienna?”
“...When I play music, at least, the sins of my face are forgiven. They hear me as a man. As you do.” He finally meets my eyes, and takes my hands between his own. “You sang wondrously tonight. Oh, Christine,” he exhales, “how I have missed you!”
I blink, tenderness fluttering in my chest, and lower to sit on the roof, still warm from the afternoon’s sun. I gently tug him down beside me and we sit closely together, still shy, our hands tentatively touching. Even when sat cross-legged, Erik still somehow looks poised and graceful.
“Why didn’t you take me with you?”
He blinks. “The thought of you wanting to come honestly never entered my mind. I’ve – I’ve lived alone all my life; it is very hard to know anything else.”
“Then,” I say in a small voice, “as we’re somewhere new…shall we be heard? Will you let me love you, Erik?” And I take his face in hand, and show him with my mouth just how much I’ve missed him, too.
Slow, gentle lips. Reaffirming, greeting, apologising.
He’s motionless until, suddenly, he opens to me, grasping my head and kissing me thoroughly, deeply. He’s more controlled than he once was, but I can feel it like a current beneath the surface: his wanton wanting, barely restrained.
Knowing it’s there, just for me, melts my bones; I wilt against him, leaning fully into his kiss – he hums in his throat, and tugs me closer.
We slowly break apart, dazed and full-lipped.
“I’ve missed you, too,” I murmur, pressing my forehead against his. “I’ve wanted you, so often. Oh, Erik. Erik..!”
His breathing changes. He clasps me tighter. “Would you prefer indoors?” he asks roughly.
I shake my head. “… The stars...”
He’s already throwing my farm girl shawl to the concrete and leaning me down upon it. I pull him with me, wrapping him tightly between my legs.
There’s no words needed, no time to lose – he must claim me and I must be made his. I hitch up my skirts as he yanks down his trousers and in one fluid motion, he’s inside of me, hot and hard and stretching.
We gasp; grapple for one another’s bodies without restraint, as Erik holds me by the shoulders and thrusts once, twice, thrice into me.
The stars spiral above – the world comes undone – one more thrust, and I am lost.
“Erik!” I cry, my hips buck, buck, bucking on their own accord. I clench around him from my heavenly plain and drag out his final throes.
“Christine!” He collapses upon me, mouth gasping at my neck; his heavy weight delicious and warm in the cooling air. We lay intertwined, connected once more by body and breathlessness.
“Angel?” I pant, feeling his head stir.
“You were right. About my feelings. You were right.”
He doesn’t say anything, but after a pause, my neck grows wet. Without looking at me, he wraps my body tight against his. “I love you. I love you, Christine.”
We stare up at the stars beneath the cover of our costumes.
“They’ll be wondering where you are,” my angel murmurs.
“Hmmm… let them.”
He chuckles, tucking my head into the crook of his neck and kissing my crown.
“Where do you live?”
“Why, in the basement of course.”
I don’t know what I expected, but my heart sinks.
“It is cheaper by far than anywhere else in this city,” he reasons, breath warm in my hair. “And Stephan – Herr Neumann, whom met you today – he is a good man. He respects my domain. Not quite to the extreme of spreading ghostly rumours, I must add.”
“Oh,” I manage, swallowing. “Well – if I were to… stay a while,” I begin. He jolts beside me. “...would we reside there?”
“Stay?” Suddenly he’s up on his side, staring down at me. “For how long?”
I shrug shyly, heart beating fast at his eagerness.
He strokes my arm. “Christine, in honesty I’m – I’m not residing in the basement. I have an apartment not far from here.”
“Erik! Were you making a joke?”
“I know I swore never to lie to you,” he says, a smile fighting to hide.
I burst into giggles. “For someone quite new to humour, that was very good. Is there nothing you can’t do?”
“Oh,” he murmurs, smile flattening. “Plenty, my dear.”
“Your apartment, then,” I say, clearing my throat, “is there room enough for a guest, do you think?”
His eyes don’t leave mine. They’re like ice and summer skies at the same time, I think, gazing into them.
“That would depend, my dear.” His fingers still stroke my arm, but somehow the touch is different.
“On what?” I ask breathlessly.
“On whether you mind sharing my bed. There is only one.”
I nod, looking very serious indeed. “I see. That is a grave choice. I shall have to consider it –” And though I’m joking, he grips me. “Consider it,” he says. “Stay with me.”
Heart racing, I manage to maintain a shred of flirtatious ambiguity. “I’ll have to see if it’s to my liking, first.”
And with that he gets to his feet and pulls me to mine; wraps my farmer girl shawl around my shoulders, takes my hand and leads me back down to the Opera House.
Before leaving the establishment, Erik sought out Herr Neumann. We found him, and Erik did not take his hand from mine – and Herr Neumann did not look shocked. “Goodnight to you both,” he bowed with that same smile he greeted me with earlier today.
“Goodnight, Stephan,” Erik replied. His use of his colleague’s first name surprised me, but Erik only gestured towards the door, acknowledging my curiosity with a tiny nod: he would tell me later.
There is so much still for us to share, I muse, looking at my lover. We walk hand in hand through the quiet streets of Vienna. The stars are still bright, and soon we find the moon that floods the cobbles and shines in every window. It shines off his thin hair, and darkens the red of his full lips. “Moonlight becomes you,” I tell him softly.
He snaps his head around to stare at me, and grasps my hand tighter. “Everything becomes you,” he returns.
Ludicrous amount of fluff, sexiness and Erik's side of the story in Part II!
His apartment is in the eaves of a five-storey home peopled by two families of relative consequence. Like children avoiding their parents to keep their playtime world alive, we creak secretively past their entrances and up the narrow, wooden staircase.
Behind us, Erik closes the door and leans against it.
Our magical world is safe.
I remove my coat, glancing at him secretively as he removes his own. He’s so graceful, I admire, watching the shirt ripple across his broad back. Erik’s being in a room with me –any room – suddenly makes anything seems possible: the world is now open doors and desire paths; reachable horizons and brilliant, sunlit days that linger in the evenings, coating our shared life with gold.
He takes my bag and hangs my coat for me, humming when it’s done.
Our eyes meet.
I look around. His apartment is bare and simple, and though remnants of his old wealth feature here or there (his red satin sheets are on the bed, I note), it is furnished with only the necessary items. Living above ground hasn’t lessened the number of candles he uses, and their small buds of fire make the wooden walls glow like copper.
There are no silly vases; no endless number of dresses and shoes; no cold tidiness. It is warm. It is lived in. It is real.
Erik still stands by the door, watching me. “How odd it is, to see you here,” he observes. “I have thought of it, many times.”
“You have?” I raise an eyebrow. “You’re lucky. I didn’t know what room to imagine you in.”
Besides your dressing room, Christine.
He walks further into the room, arms aloft. “Will it do for a prima donna, do you think?”
“It’s perfect,” I tell him honestly. I drift towards a small desk, an open newspaper and used tea cup upon it. I turn the page; stroke the handle; touch all the things he has. “How long have you lived here?”
“Since my first day at the opera house. Stephan found it for me.”
“He has helped you a great deal, I think.”
Erik hums in agreement as he watches me wander around the room, touching his things.
“What do you do at the opera house?”
“I am composer and conductor.” He folds his arms, and leans against his well-stocked bookcase.
“A well-deserved position,” I comment, reaching his small piano. “And do you write as yourself?”
“I go by my own name.”
Goodness. Things have changed, I think. Scattered sheets of blank manuscript paper lie all around the instrument, empty bars and staves still waiting to be filled with his genius. I put my fingertips to my lips, kiss them, and lower them to the keys – this time in greeting, instead of goodbye. “It is a lovely home.”
When I raise my head to look at him, his eyes are boring into me.
“I am glad you think so.”
We stand in silence, unable to look away.
He suddenly shakes his head. “Have you eaten?”
“Are you hungry?”
… I don’t know how to answer that.
“… I will fetch us dinner.”
We have spiced sausages and sweet white wine, crunchy-crusted bread and cheese with holes in. Viennese food is quite good, I’m surprised to find, and smile to myself when he isn’t looking.
We make light conversation, avoiding any talk of emotions. Instead, Erik tells me of Stephan’s help in engineering our production’s tour, using his reputation to write to the major opera houses across Europe and ask them to invite us. Stephan, having lost a son who also hid from the world, seems to have become a father of sorts to Erik. Family.
I glow with the knowledge that, even when so unsure of my feelings, Erik found a way to bring me to him. As his stories continue, I grow more astonished of what he has achieved here with every humble sentence, until eventually, after some fresh coffee, a shy silence descends.
Our eyes meet again.
We smile again.
Finally, he sighs: “I fear your staying with me might be a terrible idea after all, my dear.”
I nearly drop my fork. “Why?”
“Ah, I only mean – I cannot imagine getting anything done.”
I bite my lip, and his eyes drop to it.
“To have you here,” he murmurs, fingers stroking the neck of his wine glass, “how can I bare to look upon anything else?” He says it so quietly that I wonder if it’s a real question, rather than flattery.
He takes one last gulp of wine, stands, and holds out his hand. I take it. He begins to lead me into the lounge, but instead, I make my way further into the apartment, and sit on the edge of his bed.
He watches me do it. He shifts his weight between his feet, as if making some sort of decision, before coming closer and stopping at the wardrobe, arms folded again.
I take a breath. “Your meaning escapes me, Sir.”
His eyes hood. “I mean,” he begins, “that if I am to write, Madame, and you are to sing, then we cannot have you sitting on my bed like that.”
“Is it not our bed, while I stay with you?”
He groans quietly, rubbing his top lip with the back of his hand, but I hear it.
“In what manner do I sit, for you to be troubled, so?”
He comes closer, and steps between my legs, resting his hands on my shoulders, their light pressure delicious. “In any manner at all, you vixen.”
It’s my turn to let out a small noise of gratification. I slowly reach out in front of me, take hold of his shirt and bunch it up in my fist.
His breath stops all together – I watch his stomach muscles tense.
“Hold my head between your hands, Erik.”
His eyes widen but he doesn’t question it. He does as I instruct.
“A little harder,” I moan, voice strained as I untie his trousers.
He complies. His fingertips dig a little into my skin, half-covering my ears and tugging at my hair. It’s a delicious, soft pain that makes my hands work faster.
Eventually, I have his trousers open. He is already hard, standing firmly out towards me, and I blink at it in greeting. “Hello,” I murmur, before kissing its tip.
“Oh,” my lover utters in surprise, hands clenching.
My lips come away a little wet, and I dab out my tongue to lick it away. It’s salty and a little thick.
I peak up at him. His eyes are wildfire; his breath coming hard from his deformed nose. He watches, fascinated, as I open my mouth and take him in.
He is large, and I don’t quite know what I’m doing, but soon Erik is hissing between his teeth, head thrown back in pleasure. I recall the whispered words and giggles of chorus girls in love, and try to emulate their stories by making a sucking motion with my cheeks. He gasps loudly and squeezes my head hard before releasing me entirely, flinging out a hand to his bedpost and leaning on it for support.
“Hmmm,” I hum around him, thinking that sucking must feel pleasurable – and when he slaps the bedpost again, I think humming must, too.
I bob my head faster, alternating between sucking and humming, and his hips join in at the rhythm I have set. Experimenting with a lick of my tongue, I seem to click a switch in him: he grasps my head once more, stilling me completely, and thrusts into my mouth with abandon.
Groaning at the lewdness of it, my breath cut short, I spur him on and he thrusts hard, making me gag. He groans out an apology and pulls back a little, resuming his movement only when I nod, and slap him lightly on the rump.
As I would a horse, I vaguely think. Get back on when you fall off.
I close my eyes to concentrate, and bring both hands to his buttocks, thrilling at the movement, the pressure, the sound. He’s riding me faster, holding my head harder as he reaches higher for the release he gallops towards – and suddenly he pulls out with a pop and leans on my shoulders once more, gasping hard at the floor.
“Darling?” I ask, timidly putting a hand on top of his. “Did I hurt you?”
He lets out a shaky laugh. “Oh, my angel...” he manages. “No. No, you did not.”
And he takes my hands, lifts me to standing. His wet hardness juts out against my legs.
“Turn around,” he whispers.
I do as bid. He begins to untie my laces.
“I can just –” I start, lifting my hem.
“No,” Erik rasps. “You and I are alone, beneath a roof with a bed, and without fear. I want to see all of you; taste all of you… at my leisure.”
The words make my legs tremble.
My skirts drop with a ‘whoosh’. He pulls my chemise over my head as I turn back to him, standing only in my bloomers. He steps back and takes me in so slowly that I almost grow shy. “Goddess,” he murmurs, and reaches for my bloomers.
Holding my gaze, he pulls them down to the floor. “Out you come,” he whispers, kissing my calf.
I step out and he kicks them away, straightens and pulls me in tight to his body, aligning every part of us that could possible touch. His hardness grazes my naked core and I have to resist wrapping my legs around him and taking him right there.
He waltzes us backwards until I feel the bed against my legs.
“That’s it,” he murmurs as I pull myself further back onto the mattress, climbing slowly on with me, his mouth hovering over mine. “Lie back.”
I do, my head against the pillow.
He stays on his knees near my feet, roaming over my body with his eyes. So desperate for his touch, I feel as if the air itself caresses me. “Erik,” I mumble.
“Open your legs.”
I comply, feeling my breath quicken.
He whistles out air. “God, look at you. Like ripe fruit for plucking.”
I murmur some blasphemous words as he presses a single finger lightly to my folds. Running it up between my legs he separates them, and gently pushes in, eyes firmly on my face.
“Hmmm,” he breathes as my back arcs into his touch. He pulls out, and licks his finger.
I groan out loud at the sight of it. How is it possible to desire someone so much? For all of this feeling to be contained in one body? He’s only just had me, I think, the roof was merely an hour or two ago; and yet here we are, doing it all again.
Doing it better.
“Do you desire me?” I breathe.
His eyebrows rise. His small smirk betrays his own memory of our garden rendezvous. “Yes,” he replies huskily, voice like dark honey.
I hold his gaze, running my fingernails lightly across my breasts. “Do you think of me?”
He follows my fingers with his eyes. “Constantly.”
“Do you touch yourself for me?”
He wraps his hand hard around his cock, and I have to bite my lip. “I’d rather touch you,” he growls.
“Well, then,” I whisper the invitation.
He exhales through his nose, and lifts his other hand to my breast. He traces my nipple in small circles, as light as a bird’s feather. I hum, my hips squirming among the covers.
Erik lowers, kisses the valley between my breasts and trails his hand down, down, down to stroke between my legs. I hear my wetness and shiver. “You are the work of artists divine,” he murmurs into my skin, fluttering kisses across my chest and moving down. “An unbelievable phenomenon. How did you fall to earth, Christine? What foolish angel let you go?”
“My angel is here,” I gasp as his mouth skims my folds. “Taking me to Heaven.”
“That’s right,” he answers roughly. “I will.” And he aligns himself above me, lowers his mouth to mine and pushes gently in. Curling his fingers into my hair, he begins our delicious dance, rocking his hips.
We gaze into the other’s eyes – try and comprehend how, after so much loneliness and loss, we have found one another again. And when I approach Heaven, he watches my face, spellbound, as it creases with amassed, mounting pleasure. “Yes,” he whispers above me, not quickening his hips, but moving steadily. “Yes, my angel. Cum for me.”
And I hear my whine pouring from my mouth like the cry of a wild animal, unrestrained by decorum or propriety, shame or embarrassment – hear it flood the room without care of who listens or wakens.
“Oh, Christine!” he moans loudly. “Fly!”
And the strength of this wave is too much for sound or whimpers. My body rises from the bed, every muscle contracting with pleasure – and only when I collapse, buzzing and tingling to the mattress, does Erik push his last push, and gasps quietly into my hair. “Mine.”
It is just after dawn. The birds wake with us, our fingers interlaced on the pillow as the room fills with morning light.
There is only peace and warmth and contentment in this new world. It feels as if winter never happened at all.
“Weren’t you tempted?” I ask, “to see us perform in Paris?”
“I read of your success in the papers,” he replies, idly stroking my arm. “I wanted to come.”
He sighs. “They also wrote quite endlessly of your blissful partnership and marriage. I thought that… perhaps you were happier, what with the opera house.”
“Oh, Erik,” I lament. “It was all an act! He wanted to protect his reputation, and I agreed so that I could sing, to reach you. After our fight we made a pact. I moved into the opera house. We lived apart.”
“Oh.” I turn red. “Yes, he… he smashed my mirror, and I called him a monster, though really it was me being a monster – and when he threatened to bring down the Palais Garnier with you still inside of it, I tried to warn you, and he… he locked me in my room.”
There’s a deathly silence. I dare to meet his eyes, and see the fire of fury in them.
“I know I have no right to disapprove,” he mutters darkly, “but I would kill him!”
I think he is joking. It’s still hard to tell. I pat his arm. “It’s alright,” I say lightly, “I escaped.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “How?”
“A hairpin in the lock and a vase out of the window.”
He bursts out laughing in his rich, melodic laugh, and the fury fire is gone. “How proud I am of you, my brave song bird. And what then?”
I hesitate, smile fading. I don’t want to spoil it. “I found your letter, and… went on holiday with the Giry’s.”
He hears what isn’t spoken, and gazes at me, waiting.
“We went to Sweden,” I add awkwardly.
“… your father.”
His voice is gentle. “Why did you go to Sweden, Christine?”
“For a change of –” I start, but he interrupts with a growled command: “Tell me.”
I huff, and then, the world starts to slow. In the quietness, my pain from that time reveals itself like ruins in a desert when the wind blows away the sand. It hasn’t vanished, then. “… It was after you left,” I begin, voice trembling. “I – I...” But I shake my head, unable to put something so vast and painful into useless words.
But he understands. He understands me. Erik pulls me close, and folds me tightly into his arms. “I’m sorry, my dove,” he whispers. After a pause, he adds: “It was the same for me.”
“A day didn’t go by when I didn’t regret leaving you... or regret throwing my masks into the river.”
I pull back, eyes wide as dinner plates. “All of them?”
“Most of them,” he concedes. “Some are quite valuable, you know. But once I left Paris, and the warmth of your arms... there were many days that made me want to crawl back underground. I was reminded quite quickly that with a face like mine, the world of light isn’t without its darkness.”
I hum, squeezing his torso. “So what did you do?”
“I went to the graves of the men I killed,” he says. “And I made penance.” He doesn’t look at me.
“Did it help?” But he stays silent, and it’s my turn to growl in command.
“Take care not to think too well of your Erik. It was all done selfishly.”
“I thought that by making amends, I might... be rewarded. With you.” He looks only at the ceiling.
I blink. "You already had me."
"I "had" you almost a dozen, glorious times, Christine, but that is not what I mean."
"Then.." I watch him take a deep breath. Exhale again. His body trembles. Something is coming. I wait.
“When I let you go – after Don Juan,” he begins, uncomfortable and slow, “I thought the little light that existed in my world would go out. But it didn’t. For the first time in my life, I had done something good – something selfless. And you,” he swallows, squeezing my waist, “you would be happy, because of something I had done. That was my one candle in the darkness.”
The apartment around us is quiet, as if it listens, too.
“I never presumed I’d see you again; I would exist alone, as I always had. But then,” his voice breaks a little, “you did come. You came back. And it was impossible not to think it! That the good I had done you was being rewarded.”
I recall his face – his sobbing into his elbow when I arrived at his lagoon two months after my marriage, unannounced.
“You were married, but broken,” he rasps. “A miserable Viscomtesse. The little good I’d done you hadn’t erased the harm. You hated me; I hated myself. And pathetically I threw that hatred at you, clinging to the belief of my ‘goodness.’ It - it was all I had.”
I swallow, remembering the cruelty with which he spoke to me that night.
“Yet – unbelievably – you felt something else for me, too. To discover that...” he trails off, blinking with wonderment at the ceiling. “It was unbelievable. I still cannot believe it!” He turns to look at my shyly. “Making love with you that night was sweeter than everything I had ever lived for. Sweeter than music itself.”
Tears prick my eyes and after a moment of revelling in the memory, his body hardens; I press my fingers into his chest harder, knowing what happened next.
“That morning – when you realised what we had done...” he closes his eyes, “your face... I was a fool: your return wasn’t a reward for my goodness! It was divine punishment, righteous punishment, for all the wrongs I had done! What is it they say?” he asks hoarsely. “‘Ignorance is bliss?’ Having only been haunted by your voice and piteous kisses, I now had the carnal knowledge of what it is to nestle between your willing thighs – of the sound you make when I take you. How you whimper my name and struggle against me, struggling to get closer… Such ghosts would haunt me far more than your singing Don Juan.”
I barely breathe, scared to break the silence, to stop him from speaking. Never before has Erik revealed himself to me so much in words; only in anger, music, or lust.
“When you left me then,” he says with finality, “my one light went out. I do not remember those days even passing. I believe I turned truly mad.”
I cup his face, and he accepts my comfort with eyes still closed. Having being unconscious during that aftermath was a blessing, I realise. My fever had protected me from facing a truth I wasn’t ready for; from admitting what I had done, and what I wanted to do again. It tried, and failed, to cleanse me: to undo my discovery of the lies that social propriety and marriage lean on.
Thank goodness it failed.
But then... Sweden. I know what he is speaking of. “I would have been, too,” I interject softly.
“You were busy dying, my dear,” he corrects me, “and the horror of living in a world that didn’t have you in it brought me back to my senses. At least, enough for me to stalk your garden,” he scoffs. “But I did not want to sin again. I did not threaten your staff or throttle your damnable husband, however much I needed to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“That if only you lived, I would be there,” he says simply. “That if you lived, whatever you said, whatever you did, I would wait. You could leave me again and again – tread on me, use me – and still I would wait… endlessly, pathetically... for you to look at me.”
“But you didn’t,” I interrupt, voice harder than I mean it to be. “You left.”
“Did I?” he demands, and he sits up to meet my eyes. “Did I leave you, Christine?”
And I recall every moment of every day – the thought of him, somehow always there. “It was so cruel of you,” I whisper, “to be there without being there at all.” Just as he had been as the Angel of Music; as the Phantom of the Opera; as my ghost ever after: always there.
“You’ve never left me, either,” he returns softly. “Even when you did.”
Prisoners. I sigh, and he reclines again, shifting his head back to my neck. “It became quite evident, however, that with the number of people you had in that house, roses would have to do.”
We both half-smile, laying together for a while in silence.
“And then you came to my balcony,” I say softly. “And the world changed forever.”
“It did,” he mutters, “and I waited for the punishment to come, but it didn’t. Somehow, you wanted me, too. So you see… I was being rewarded for my good behaviour. And until you were naked on my piano, asking me what I wanted – seeing a future that had me in it – it never occurred to me that I could have anything more than your nocturnal visitations.” He shakes his head. “The thought was too delicious, too impossible... that perhaps you believed yourself starting to care for me. I dared to dream for more.
So you see... when I left Paris to atone for my sins – to become a better man – it was only so I could have you. All of you.”
I try to breathe calmly, the mounting feeling in my body threatening to over spill. “That is a better kind of selfishness than others,” I try to tease him, but my lip wobbles from the strength of feeling in his eyes. “What awful timing it was,” I whisper, “to lose you, as soon as I was free. To give myself to you, just as you left to find me. Perhaps that was my punishment," I stroke his hair back from his face, “for the wrongs I have done, too.”
“Perhaps,” he murmurs back. “But you did right.”
“Wanting and having a man I was not married to?” I ask, incredulous. “Was that right? Soon, we will say how we are only good people who do bad things.”
“Hmph.” He tugs me closer. “That is still an improvement, on my part.”
The church bells from the city square chime softly along our street and through the window. It is growing late, but we do not move.
“You did do right, Christine. I would have gladly lived on the scraps of your unfulfilled lust until the last, coming to you in secret and distracting your husband with petty games, if that was all I would be granted. You were better than that. You told him.”
“I didn’t have a choice. I was drowning.”
He looks at me, and strokes my face. “Why didn’t you tell me you planned to leave him?”
“Would you still have left, if I had?”
He exhales and slowly, nods. “I would have done it better, but... yes. Still living underground, still disgusted by my own reflection – how could I even think that anything I could offer you would be enough? If your husband and all his riches weren’t, how could a cavern underground, or a man afraid of the day?”
“I wanted none of that,” I argue.
“No,” he says softly. “I know you didn’t. But I would’ve destroyed you, Christine. Look at the way I live now! Can you not see?”
I swallow. I nod.
"It was your words that made me dare to try," he whispers, swallowing. "Your compassion. You freed me."
His stepping bare-faced into the world, face like a joyous child’s… it is one of my most precious memories.
“Your reaction...” He swallows, a silent tear leaving tracks on his cheek. “You did care. Perhaps – perhaps I could deserve you. Perhaps I could change.”
“And you did,” I whisper, wiping away his tears. “You brave man; my brave night bird. You did!”
He snaps his eyes to me, wide and wet.
“You wrote a beautiful opera that is adored by thousands across the world. You allow yourself to live as a man. You let them see you. I’m so proud of you, Erik,” I say, and kiss him on the forehead. "Just trust me next time," I demand. "Talk to me. Don't ever do that to me again."
His eyes widen further. He slowly lifts a hand to where I have kissed him, touching it as if to press it into his very skin, and closes his eyes. With a shaking breath, he says: “I won't. I couldn't. I love you.”
“And I love you.”
“... Will you let me?”
“... Are you asking me to stay?”
He keeps his eyes closed, his hand on his forehead, and I am reduced to lowering his arm and forcing him to look at me. “If you write me another opera to sing with you,” I say with a smile, “then yes, I will stay. I will let you love me. And I will let you finally take your well-deserved curtain call.”
In his tears, still he laughs, and I am engulfed in his limbs and skin, surrounded in a world of Erik. “Together we will write every opera you’ve ever dreamed of,” he growls in my hair, spanking me fondly on the rump. I squeal, and he chuckles warmly, his voice like the sunlit daylight that streams into our room. “My Christine,” he whispers, hands stroking, raking up my back. “My love.”
“Never leave me again,” I command, my eyes closed.
“Nor you, me," he whispers, before rolling me onto my back, and kissing me.
Together imprisoned; together free.
We have no more need for ghosts.
And there we have it. So strange to reach the end.
If you enjoyed Ghosts, then you might like its sequel, Silhouettes. Hope to see you there!
Thanks, everyone, it's been super fun xx