Sunday, October 23, 2011

Chapter 11

Chapter Eleven:
Le Fantôme Unmasked

          The house on the lake had fallen silent when Erik escorted Madame Giry back up to her room. Christine, worried about her strange reactions to her friend, had retreated to her room to mend her boy’s outfit and think. When Erik stood in the doorway looking like some kind of avenging angel, she had felt warm all over, like she’d caught a fever. On top of that, she’d blushed when he looked at her. She hadn't blushed in years! Snipping off the thread, Christine told herself that it was simply because this was the first time she’d told anyone even part of her story. Embarrassment and shame can both cause a person to blush. That had to be it; what else could it possibly be? At least she had prevented Madame Giry from learning of her shameful background.
          Her mending finished, Christine held up the garment and viewed it with distaste. How she hated masquerading as a boy! She had little choice, though, if she wanted to eat without resorting to even more unsavory careers. She shuddered at the memory of the first job she’d been offered before taking on the guise of a boy. The lady had seemed so kind and helpful when she’d stepped from the train in Paris by offering a place to stay and a meal in exchange for a few chores. Naively, she’d agreed and left with the ’lady’; and then she saw the establishment and knew the chores weren't cooking and cleaning like she’d suspected. Nearly panicking, Christine entered the house but was left alone long enough for her to slip out a window and disappear into the streets. Once she noticed the unwanted stares and lewd offers, she took a set of boy’s clothing that was hanging from a line. That was the first time she’d stolen anything, but not the last. It was also when Chris was created. Life on the streets had been a little safer after that. And now, after everything she’d done to escape her past, he had returned.
          Christine thought of Erik’s eyes when he’d stated he was going to kill Gachot. They’d been cold, predatory, like the big cat she associated him with. If he’d said that about anyone else and in that tone of voice, she’d feel sorry for them. Now, however, she wondered if he’d let her watch…or even help. She knew she’d never rest easy until that man was dead and, though she knew it was wrong, hoped it would be by her hand. She sent a prayer to her father out of habit as she knew it was a sin to feel this way, to hate someone so much. There was little real penance in her prayer, however, as she couldn't find it in her to care much about a God who’d allow such atrocities to occur. Her introspective musings were brought to an abrupt halt when she heard someone knocking at the door.
          Quietly, she stepped into the foyer and looked around for something to use as a weapon. Spying the fireplace poker, she eased it from the rack; she’d not be caught unarmed. The knocking grew louder, echoing throughout the underground home, and was joined by an irritated voice speaking in an unknown language. Christine heard Erik’s name once or twice and was about to ask who it was when the door started to open slowly. Feeling cornered, panic set in and she swung the poker at the first person to walk through the door.


          The trip to return the ballet mistress had taken longer than normal since he stayed to request a few more gowns for his guest as well as outerwear and all the underthings a lady should need. He had just reached the underground lake when the chime of the alarms sounded. Erik stepped away from the faint light of the lantern at the prow of the gondola and blended into the shadows to hunt for the unfortunate soul who’d invaded his domain. Keeping his lasso at the ready, he silently circled the lake to use the small bridge that crossed the main tributary that fed into the lake. He was just about to loop the catgut around the intruder’s neck when the man began pounding on the hidden door to his home. When he followed the racket with several colorful Persian curses, Erik realized who had come a-calling.
          Daroga, you should know better than to come to my home uninvited,” stepping forward until only his golden eyes could be seen glowing in the darkness, the Opera Ghost threw his voice so that the door appeared to be talking. “It isn't…healthy.”
          “Uninvited? I was told you wanted to see me, old friend.”
          “Regardless,” Erik made a gesture and the lantern above the door flared to life, illuminating his guest. Although he’d been in Paris for many years, the Persian gentleman still dressed in his traditional clothing and hat of his homeland. The deep, earthy colors complimented the man’s swarthy complexion and dark, mysterious eyes, though the hat did little to hide the streaks of grey that had begun to take over his black hair. “I suppose I should let you in since you've braved the trip to get here.” Stepping forward with a sigh, Erik unlocked the door and stepped in…right into the bruising impact of the fireplace poker.
          “Oh my God!” Christine dropped the poker, covering her mouth in horror. “Erik! I’m sorry; I didn't know it was you. There was someone banging on the door and then it stopped and then…who are you?!” She shrieked at the sight of the strangely dressed man in the doorway and reached for the poker again.
          With a roar of pain and anger, Erik quickly disarmed his house guest and pinned her against the wall, the poker at her throat. His golden eyes glittered dangerously with a mix of fury and madness as he watched his prey struggle futilely. Just a few minutes more and the struggles would cease and the rats would have a banquet fit for royalty. But in her struggles to push away the iron pole, Christine’s hand connected with his face and knocked the mask to the floor. Recoiling, Erik relaxed the poker just enough for her to slip beneath it and stumble away from the enraged ghost. Slowly turning to face her, he advanced slowly on her cringing form, the poker still clenched in his fist.
          “So, you wanted to see, did you? You wanted to see the monster?” His eyes betrayed no hint of recognition and his voice was the deadly beauty of a cobra’s hypnotic dance. Christine backed away until she was pinned against the sofa. “What do you think? Is Erik not a handsome fellow?”
          “Erik,” the oddly dressed man stepped in front of his friend, “don’t do something you’ll regret later.” Without even acknowledging that he heard, Erik roughly pushed the man aside and continued his advance.
          “Well?” He stopped mere inches from Christine, looming over her like a dark, tormented wraith. “What’s wrong my dear? Do you have nothing to say to your Erik?”
          Mustering every ounce of courage she had, she ignored the fury and tried to comfort his anguish. Raising a hand that shook only slightly, she laid it against his ravaged cheek and caressed it gently. “Does it…does it hurt, Erik?”
          The poker fell from his numbed fingers at the first contact of her fingers on his horrible mess of a face. Cringing away from her, Erik fell to his knees to cover his face with his hands while a moan of pure pain rose from his throat. His thoughts were jumbled and tormented. Dear God, she touched it! She touched my hideous face and didn't scream or faint or get ill. Surely she is an angel and I, I am the monster who has hurt her once again. He didn't notice that she’d knelt beside him until her fingers wrapped around his wrists to urge his hands from his face. Warily, he watched her and waited for the screams, the beatings, the cries of monster and demon. But she did none of these. Christine, his angel, once more let her hands explore his mangled cheek, her touch feather light. Unable to comprehend what was happening and control the overwhelming emotions her light touch inspired, Erik crumpled to the floor and sobbed. Christine’s small arms wrapped around his shoulders and pulled his head tenderly onto her lap, caressing his hair while he cried.
          Nearly an hour later found the three sitting by the fire, two pots of tea – one English, one Russian – set out between them, and an awkward silence that refused to dissipate. Erik, mask in place once more, could think of nothing beyond Christine’s unusual reaction to his face. Perhaps she didn't get a good look? But no, that couldn't be it as he’d faced her with the light from the lamps shining upon him. Even more baffling was the fact that she touched it; not once, but twice! Never before had he been touched on his grotesque face with such tenderness and kindness. Her fingers had been soft and warm and oh so gentle that even now he could still feel their touch with a sense of wonder. It was then that he knew he’d do anything for his compassionate angel. He’d kill for her if that was what kept her safe, and he’d die for her as well. The world had monsters enough but far too few angels.
          “Erik?” The Persian’s heavily accented voice interrupted his brooding and Erik fixed him with a frown. “I was told you wanted to see me?”
          “Yes. I was wondering if you still had contacts within the gendarmes who’d be willing to provide information for a reasonable fee?” At the Persian’s nod, the masked man stole a glance at his unusually quiet guest before giving the names of those he needed information on. Leaving out some key details, he said only that Beauvais and Gachot were suspected of assaulting a young singer on the streets of Le Havre and that one sustained potentially fatal injuries. He also wanted quiet inquiries as to the location of the grave site of one Gustav Daaé, the Swedish violinist, in or around the port town. Reaching into an inner pocket of his jacket, Erik pulled out several hundred francs and tossed the bundled into his friend’s lap. “Let me know if you need more, Daroga.”
          “Very well, anything else?” The Persian glanced curiously at Christine but knew Erik would reveal only what he wished and no more. When the masked man didn't respond and was, instead, staring at the young lady with something akin to wonder, he repeated his question. To ensure he captured his attention, the Persian rose from his seat to stand between his friend and the lady.
          “No, no, I think that’s all.” Erik barely acknowledged his friend’s leaving the house.


          Once they were alone, Christine rose from her chair and began to gather the tea things. Everything she could think of to say seemed so inappropriate considering she’d nearly broken her host’s ribs with a fireplace poker. In the kitchen, she washed up the cups and pots and set them out to dry still frantically thinking of some way to apologize. As she turned to escape to her room, she ran into Erik’s slim but muscular chest. Their hands automatically grabbed the other to steady themselves and her every thought fled at the feel of his firm body beneath her fingers. Warmth flooded her body and her hands slid down his chest of their own accord to wrap around his waist. When his arms hesitantly wrapped around her, Christine felt safe and secure, like she’d come home at last.
          “Christine.” Erik breathed her name as a reverent prayer, knowing he’d done nothing to deserve holding such an angel with his murderous hands. He gently ran his fingers through her curls and dared to plant the lightest of kisses on the crown of her head.
           “Erik?” Her voice was muffled against his chest but she made no effort to move. “I’m sorry I hit you with the poker.”
           “What had frightened you so, mon ange?” His voice remained as soft and gentle as the fingers in her hair.
           “That man…he was banging on the door and yelling something I couldn't understand.” Her arms tightened around him. “And then the door opened and I didn't see anyone and you weren't here and I thought… I thought…” She’d started to hyperventilate as she remembered that panicked, cornered feeling and Erik scooped her up and carried her back into the parlor. He sat on the sofa with her in his lap as he cradled her against his chest.
           “Hush now, mon ange, it’s over now. All is well.”
           “But it’s not! I hit you with a poker, Erik, and…”
          “And I very nearly strangled you with it.” He silenced her with a finger across her lips. “Neither of us was at our best, my dear. I have a horrible temper, which has kept me alive as often as it has gotten me into trouble. But that wasn't what I wished to speak with you about.”
           “No?” Christine knew she should make an effort to move off his lap but she hadn't felt so safe, so cherished since before her papa died.
           “I…well…” Surprised, she risked a glance at his face; Erik was never less than perfectly eloquent. “I wished to know why you touched…” His voice trailed off as he raised a hand to the mask with a shudder.
           “Why wouldn't I, Erik?” Christine pulled back in surprised confusion that swiftly turned to concern. “Oh! Did I hurt you?”
          “Why wouldn't ?” His golden eyes were full of shock. “Christine, no one has ever touched my hideous face! My mother couldn't stand to look at it, covering my face before wrapping my newborn body in a blanket. Hurt me? My dear, you simply cannot imagine how your fingers felt upon my grotesque skin.”
          “Erik…” Tears filled her eyes as she stared up at him in horror. Before he could comprehend what she was about to do, Christine slipped the mask from his face and placed a gentle kiss against the ruined skin of his cheek. “You are not hideous or grotesque, Monsieur le Fantôme. You are simply…Erik.” 

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