And so it begins…
The second day of rehearsals was pure hell on the crew. Buquet had been caught drinking between the curtains after lunch and the managers had reprimanded him for being drunk on duty. In addition to the humiliation of a public dressing-down, they docked his pay for that entire day and informed him that if caught again, he’d be out on his ear without a reference. Being the spiteful man that he was, he took out his displeasure on the rest of the crew the next morning. Sneering into Chris’ face, he assigned five of the boy’s staunchest supporters to the fly tower, knowing he could replace only one. The tormented look on the lad’s face was all Buquet needed as a reward and, laughing, dismissed the crew to their positions as he wandered off to find a new hiding place in which to drink. Not wanting to make a choice and upset the other four, Chris made the offer to the group as a whole and accepted the first who came to him. After much debate, old Larry once again was the man he replaced and, with a heavy heart, the boy slowly climbed the tower once more.
Rehearsal went pretty much the same as the day before. Carlotta threw several tantrums until the managers stroked her ego enough for her to actually get some rehearsing accomplished. The ballet corps was excellent even though one or two were off step. At the loud bang from Madame Giry’s walking stick, Chris winced and felt sorry for the girls; the ballet mistress was a stickler for perfection. The biggest difference, however, was the absence of the Opera Ghost. As the orchestra played through the aria once more, the boy cringed and wished the ghost would put in an appearance if only to save that poor bassoon from being further tortured by its unworthy owner.
“Dreadful, is he not?” The soft, amused voice sounded just behind him, startling Chris so badly he nearly fell from the catwalk. The gloved hands that pulled him back from the edge were strong, with long fingers that wrapped completely around the boy’s upper arms. “My apologies, child, I didn't mean to startle you so.”
Chris waved away his apology, embarrassed to have been caught so off guard that he had slipped. Glancing back down at the orchestra pit, the boy braved a look at the infamous Opera Ghost. “Please tell me you plan to rescue that poor instrument, Monsieur Le Fantôme.” The man was exceedingly tall, well over six feet, and carried about him an aura that was both ominous and intimidating. If Chris hadn't felt the strength in the ghost’s fingers, he’d swear the man was frail due to how very thin he looked. His black hair was slicked back from his head, which brought into prominence the stark white porcelain half-mask that covered the right side of his face. The ghost’s eyes were what caught his attention, however; an unusual golden amber color, they reflected his every emotion from mirth to sadness to anger.
“What do you expect me to do, Monsieur Chris?” What could have passed for a grin flitted across the ghost’s deformed lips at the boy’s surprise. “Of course I know your name, child, this is my opera house.”
“I never expected the resident poltergeist to waste his time with the boys in the flies, Monsieur Le Fantôme, that’s all.” Chris bristled at the mocking tone even as he wondered if the impertinence of his reply would prove detrimental to his health.
“You’ve got a bit of spirit, boy. I find I like you for some reason, which is why you’re not descending from the flies in the quickest way possible.” Satisfied when Chris’ face drained of all color, the ghost nodded towards the offensive bassoon player. “I had planned to speak to the new managers about the appalling state the orchestra is in, but I fear they are even more foolish than LeFevre.”
“Could you not bring your displeasure with the quality of the musicians to the conductor, Monsieur?” Dragging his eyes from the volatile yet fascinating ghost, Chris watched as Reyer attempted to organize the players after yet another of Carlotta’s tantrums. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, it’s like herding cats.” He hadn't been aware he’d spoken aloud until he heard the most beautiful sound; the laughter of a ghost.
“Quite an accurate assessment, Monsieur Chris. As you say, perhaps I shall take my concerns to the conductor, but only if the managers continue to prove themselves uncooperative.” The flash of anger in those golden eyes unnerved the boy and he felt a momentary twinge of pity for the new management. That is, until those same eyes shifted to bore into his. The boy suddenly knew what it felt like to be a bug under a microscope. “You are an enigma, monsieur. You dress like a street beggar yet talk like a noble; appear to be the youngest and frailest of all the stage crew and yet you stand here conversing with the infamous Opera Ghost without fear.”
“Why would I not speak to you, Monsieur Le Fantôme?” Chris shrugged and chose to ignore the first bit of information his towering companion pointed out. “I have yet to see you hurt anyone that didn't deserve it in some way. I don’t believe I've angered you, Monsieur, therefore I am most pleased to make your acquaintance.” He was proud that his voice didn't waver, as the man was unnerving and, at the disbelieving arch of the only visible brow, decided on honesty and hoped he survived the decision. “And yet, I would be a fool, Monsieur, to deny that you are a most imposing and dangerous man. And perhaps I am foolish to trust that you will not harm me; only time will tell.”
Silence fell between them then as both became lost in their thoughts. Chris returned his attention to the rehearsal and didn't notice when the masked man faded into the shadows like the ghost he pretended to be. It was many hours later when a letter, written in a distinctive red ink and sealed with a red wax death’s head, fluttered onto the stage. Seeing it, the ballet rats ran shrieking and huddling close to Madame Giry, who handed it to the managers. Monsieur Andre took it like it would bite him and the boy grinned. Maybe they were learning after all? Reading the letter once to himself he then read it aloud. The ghost was not as kind as in the first letter; pointing out the pitiful excuse for a first bassoon as well as some of the chorus members. He ended it with a reminder that his salary was overdue and he wouldn't be responsible for any accidents that might occur until it was paid.
As the night fell on the upper world, Erik once more sat at the organ while pondering his conversation with the strange boy. Chris had been at the opera house long enough to be aware of what he could do and still the boy calmly spoke to him as if he were normal, as if he were not a monster. As the notes poured from the large bronze pipes, it occurred to the ghost that he had skillfully avoided the issue of his language contrasting greatly with his garb and position. He was both annoyed and impressed with the child; it wasn't many who outsmarted the Phantom of the Opera. Perhaps it was time to pay a visit on an old friend who might know a bit more? Glancing at the clock, Erik estimated he had just enough time to ask Madame Giry about the boy before joining his new pupil in the chapel. Grabbing his violin, he entered the tunnels once more.
The ballet mistress was sitting at her desk when the mirror silently slid open to reveal the imposing presence of the opera ghost. Angelique Giry looked up and then shook her head disapprovingly. “If you’re going to make an entrance, Erik, at least impress me with flash and smoke; otherwise, use the door like a normal person.”
“I take it the newest gaggle of silly geese are trying even your extensive patience, Angelique?” Unaffected by her sarcasm, the ghost stepped through the mirror and draped himself elegantly over the only other chair in the room, which served as both bedroom and office.
“You have no idea,” she replied dryly. Rubbing her temples, she watched the man who sent most of her girls, and many of the men in the crew, scurrying for cover. “It’s a bit late for a social visit, Erik.”
“You wound me, Madame,” the hint of a smile twitched at the corners of his lips before he proceeded to the reason for his visit. “I was hoping you might be able to find out everything about one of the stage crew. The only name I could discover is Chris.” He ignored her surprise and described the boy thoroughly, including the dichotomy between his clothing and method of speech. Once she’d assured him she’d discover what she could, he rose and slipped back through the mirror, leaving the ballet mistress to wonder what he wanted with a boy who worked the flies.
As Erik silently made his way through the hidden passageways towards the chapel, he knew Madame Giry would grill him as to why he wanted information on the boy. He considered asking her to leave the information in Box Five as she did his salary but knew that only postponed her questions and would earn him a tongue-lashing as well. He cringed at the thought of being on the receiving end of her ire and wondered how her little rats survived her training to become graceful ballerinas. Chuckling to himself, he also wondered what they would think if they knew she managed to intimidate even the infamous Opera Ghost. Arriving at the chapel with a mere fifteen minutes to spare, he was surprised to see his pupil already waiting. Impatiently, if he had to make a guess.
“Patience is a virtue, angel.” He couldn't help but goad the girl. Like the boy, she was another puzzle he was determined to decipher.
“So it is, Monsieur. Shall we begin?” The cheeky little chit!
“We will start with the scales.” Taking up position in the tunnel hidden by an intricate grate and the stone angel, he watched his pupil straighten into somewhat of a proper singing position. Placing his violin beneath his chin, Erik played the short lead and then waited for her to join him. When she missed her cue, he frowned, annoyed. “Did you wish to learn or not, Mademoiselle? I am a busy man.” The words came out harsher than he’d intended but he shrugged.
“Forgive me,” the child sounded like she had started crying once more and he wondered what set her off this time. “If you start again, I’ll not miss my cue.” Standing straight, the girl, who was once more fully concealed by her cloak and hood, joined the music on cue and they ran through the scales with only minor adjustments.
“You will need to work on breath control if you hope to hold a note for more than a few seconds. Hold your head up higher as well; it will help your projection unless you plan to sing only to the floor. I now have an idea of your range and will bring music for you tomorrow. You can read sheet music, yes?” At her nod, he continued. “For this week, we’ll work strictly on your scales to improve range and breathing. Next week, we’ll move to the music I’ll bring you, so I’ll want you to have it memorized by then. Any questions?”
“Why are you doing this, Monsieur?” Her question was nearly inaudible. “If I am unwilling to show my face or reveal my name to you, a disembodied voice, what makes you think I have any desire to be on a stage?”
“The stage means less to me than seeing your voice reach its full potential. Not every artist hangs his paintings in a gallery, but that makes him no less dedicated to his art. I ask only that you show me that same dedication.” Erik placed the violin in its case as he spoke. Hesitating only slightly, he posed a question of his own. “Would you prefer a different instrument to accompany you, Mademoiselle? The violin seemed to upset you.”
“It’s fine.” The words were flat, emotionless. “Au revoir, Monsieur, jusqu'à demain.”
He stared in confusion as she quickly left the chapel with what sounded suspiciously like another sob. Waiting a few minutes to ensure it remained empty, Erik eased open the grate and stepped into the empty room. The faint scent of roses hung in the air and he felt they suited his unusual pupil, prickly with the potential for beauty. As he turned to leave, the small miniature on the altar caught his eye. Reaching for it, Erik remembered her kneeling before this very painting the night before while crying for her papa. He studied the picture and instantly understood her earlier distress. The man was seated on a small stool wearing evening clothes; beneath his chin he held a violin as he played. Etched into the frame were the words ‘Gustav Daaé’.