Christine had not been the Viscountess for long. The five short months as Raoul's wife had been full of happiness and sorrow. Running the large household had been difficult and confusing at first, but she was getting the hang of it. She was happy at the large country estate but she missed Paris terribly. She missed the city and especially her family at the opera.
Raoul had left early that morning for a business trip to London, then he would be visiting a cousin where they would be hunting on the cousin's estate. He had asked Christine to accompany him of course, but she did not feel ready. She did not feel comfortable around the high bred ladies she would have to spend the days with while her husband was otherwise occupied. She knew that she would have to try, but she was not ready yet. So Raoul had agreed to leave her at home, but his aunt would be coming to stay with her. Christine new that she would be getting lessons on how a Viscountess should behave from the stodgy old woman, and she was not looking forward to it.
But she had one free day before the lady arrived tomorrow, so Christine made her way to the stable, planning on staying away from the house as much as possible. Raoul had taken her all over the estate on horseback so she felt comfortable being out alone. The groom protested, but she insisted. The cook had packed a lunch for her so she could be out as long as she liked.
Christine felt that she had had scarce any time alone to process all that happened at the Opera house six months ago. Raoul had wanted her to forget it all, but how could she? She missed being on stage, she missed Meg and the other girls, and she even missed her lessons. Her Angel, her teacher, had been a part of her life for so long, and even though he had hurt her terribly, she even missed him too and longed to know more about who he was. Who was the man he had hidden himself from her for so long?
Christine thought about him often, wondering who he was. At her insistent questions, Raoul had taken Christine back to Paris for a day and she had met with Madame Giry. The two women had cried together over the boy who had been tortured and the man who was now missing. Raoul had thought that answering Christine's curiosity would put a stop to her wondering about her teacher, but it hadn't. Christine had learned to hide it from him.
As she rode out away from the great house, the promise of a warm afternoon was chasing away the morning mist. Christine found joy in running the horse along the established trails through the woods, the trees sheltering her in blur. Her mind cleared as she rode and she soon found herself singing arias in her head. After about an hour, she stopped in a clearing to let her horse drink from a small stream.
She was singing softly to the horse, an aria from the Marriage of Figaro, when a familiar voice joined with hers. Christine spun around quickly, her voice faltering. He was standing at the edge of the clearing, her teacher, her Angel. The man lifted his hand, indicating for Christine to continue. Christine dropped her eyes, knowing she shouldn't. But she had missed this. Missed singing for an audience, missed trying her best to please her teacher. So she straightened her back, lifted her chin and sang out to him.
At the sound of her full voice, the man closed his eyes. Christine saw him sway slightly and grasp a nearby tree. As she sang, she took in his appearance. He was wearing what seemed to be a sharp day suit in tones of muted browns, a thick cloak, and his mask. It was the same shape as the white one she remembered, but it was a rich brown, quite like the saddle she could see on his horse. Christine's voice held the last note and then her voice faded away and left the clearing in silence. She watched him cautiously. She was not afraid of him, she told herself, but her insides were in knots all the same.
The man held his position for a long moment, then opened his eyes. He took the horse's lead in his hand and took two steps toward her then stopped. Christine understood that he was waiting for her permission and she beckoned him forward.
When he had the horse settled, he did not turn around toward her. He stood with his head bowed and his voice was low but clear when he spoke. “I knew that you would not want to see me, but I needed to speak with you. I need to apologize for my... behavior. I am leaving France soon, sailing to America. Before I left the continent for good, I needed you to know that I deeply regret the pain I caused you.”
“You're leaving?” Christine blurted out, her eyes wide. He nodded, and turned slightly, but still did not look at her. But Christine needed to know things, needed to know him. She stepped closer to him. “You are wrong, My Angel. I did want to see you, I wanted to speak with you.”
The man shook his head. “I'm no angel, Christine. You know that now. I am simply a man. A tainted broken one, but a man just like any other.”
“Then what shall I call you?” she asked, moving closer to him again.
The man sighed and straightened. He turned his head more toward her. “My surname is lost to me and I have gone by many. But I would very much like it if you would call me Erik. My name is Erik.”
Christine lifted her hand toward him. “I'm pleased to meet you, Erik.”
Erik chanced looking at her. Christine was still obviously surprised, but he saw no fear in her eyes. Seeing that, he turned toward her fully, taking her hand and bowing low over it. He lifted her gloved fingers to his lips and softly kissed them.
“Why didn't you introduce yourself to me in such a civilized manner the first time? If you had, things might have turned out much differently,” Christine said, pulling him toward some large rocks where they could sit.
“Oh Christine,” she heard Erik sigh behind her. “I have so many regrets.” They sat down on the rocks. “I have been traveling, and being out in the world makes me realize.. “ he dropped off, looking away from her. “I believe that I let myself get carried away by the drama and theater of the opera house.” Erik looked ashamed. “I thought you deserved a grand production instead of a broken old man, and so that is what I gave you.”
“It worked,” Christine said, smiling sadly. “I was certainly swept away. But I would have rather have known you as you really are.” When Erik didn't say anything, she put her hand on his arm. “You were a large part of my life, my teacher, my mentor. I was naive to believe you an angel, I know. But you were apparently happy to play the part. Why?”
Erik gestured to the mask on his face. “My face would have frightened a child. And by the time you were old enough to explain to, your mind was set to me being an angel. I did not know how to introduce myself without breaking your belief in yourself and in me. Then I found myself hopelessly in love with you and...”
“So you put on a show,” she finished for him when his voice failed him. He nodded. “You do me a disservice, Erik. I do not believe I am so shallow as you believe me to be.”
“Believed at the time,” he corrected her. “I know now how wrong I was. I did do you a disservice, not realizing what a strong woman you are. You are magnificent,” he said, reaching out to touch her face, but pulling back his hand before doing so. “I am so sorry, Christine. For everything. I just needed you to know that before I go. It appears as if the Viscount is taking good care of you, so now I feel I can go in peace.”
Erik stood and started to move toward the horses when Christine grabbed his hand and said “Wait.” She looked around the clearing, as if searching for something. “Why don't you share my lunch with me? I have more than enough.”
Erik looked back at her. “You wish me to stay?” Christine nodded in response. Erik looked at her in astonishment. He had been expecting vitriol, anger, or hate from her. She had surprised him again. “Then yes, I will share your lunch with you.”
They spread a blanket on the ground in the shade and sat out the food. Christine asked Erik to tell her about his travels and he did so as they ate. She watched him carefully, trying to take in every detail. She had seen of course what was under his mask, but she looked around the edges, noticing how the small pulls and areas of swelling just hinted at what was behind. The wig he wore was very fine and hid a great deal of the destruction she knew was beneath. His suit was well made, but a bit worn around the edges. With her theater trained eye, she could tell that the wear and tear on the suit was deliberate. His mask was obviously made with saddle leather and was a bit rougher than the white one she had met him in. She realized as he spoke that he had been trying to fit in. The fine white mask and expensive clothes would have been just as alarming to most normal folk as his bare face.
“No matter where you go, you will always find small minded people,” Erik was saying. “But on the whole, I'm finding that humans are a bit more accepting than I thought they were.”
“Madame Giry told me of your childhood, Erik,” Christine said. “You deserve to find some kindness in the world.”
“As an adult, one must be kind in order to deserve kindness,” he said. “I did not know how to be kind at all, and when I left the opera house, things did not always go well,” Erik said with pain in his eyes. “But eventually I found myself in Alsace where I met an old couple who had a room for rent. I stayed with them for a time and I learned a great deal from them. They, along with my memories of you, taught me how one should behave with others. I learned patience, and kindness, and many things I had never experienced before.”
“I am grateful to them,” Christine said with sincerity. “I can see that there is a change in you.” Christine paused. She did not want to anger him, but she had to know. “Erik, you did unforgivable things...”
“Yes I did,” he said flatly and turning his eyes away from her. “You must know I would never hurt you, but you are correct. I am, and will always be, a monster.”
“I know that you would never hurt me,” Christine answered, “But I also know you are more than the monster you believe you are.” Erik shook his head, but did not argue with her and she continued. “I think I need to hear more, I need to understand.” She looked at the sky. They had been sitting there for quite a while. “I must be going now, they will be wondering where I am.” She saw sadness in his eyes and she gently laid her hand on his. “But I ask you to join me for dinner tonight. I suspect you can find your way into the house,” Christine said, with a confident air. At Erik's puzzled look she said, “Do not think me so naive that I would believe you just showed up on the same day my husband left on a long trip by happenstance.” Erik did not speak so she continued. “I will ask for dinner in my suite tonight. I will explain that I do not want to come down to the dining room and eat in that large room all alone. I suspect the servants will be happy to not have to serve a formal dinner. The cook always makes too much food so there will be enough for two. My rooms are in the Southwest corner of the house, on the second floor. Come at Seven.”
“Are you certain, Christine?” Erik asked, standing, and looking down into her eyes.
“Yes.” she said simply and lifted her hand to him so he could help her to her feet. Erik nodded once and bowed deeply again. He helped Christine pack up the meal and when he helped her onto her horse, his hands lingered on hers. She squeezed gently and then he watched her ride away.