Meg arrived at the Conservatory in time to see a doctor hurrying up the steps. Little knots of people stood around nearby, whispering and staring at the building. She caught a few of the whispers as she passed by. "...shot him in cold blood... claims he was defending his wife... called him a monster... the woman was hysterical... swore he was going to kidnap her... so much blood..." Her heart sinking, she made her way inside, only to be intercepted by one of the Conservatory's servants.
"Miz Benoit?" the maid said, "Please come to Matron's office, ma'am. Doctah be lookin' aftah Mist' Benoit now. He'll send word when Mist' Benoit's fit to be seen."
Numbly, Meg followed. Her worst fears were confirmed when she entered the Matron's office to see Christine, her face white and streaked with tears, sitting in one of the easy chairs.
The singer struggled to her feet on seeing her old friend. “Meg, oh, Meg… thank goodness you are safe… he is here in New Orleans! I am sure he has been following me all along, planning to make me his captive once again. He… he must have cast some spell over the people here… would you believe they are tending to him? And they took Raoul away because he attempted to put that beast down like the rabid animal he is!” From her expression, Christine clearly expected Meg to commiserate with her at the very least, and hoped that perhaps the ballerina might know someone with the needed influence to get Raoul released at best.
She was doomed to disappointment. “I can’t believe you,” Meg exploded. “Oh, I know you were always one of the more imaginative girls in the ballet. But to think that he would come after you once he’d conceded you to his rival, mon Dieu, Christine! Are you truly so paranoid? Or do you simply have such a high opinion of yourself that you assume no man would ever get over you?”
“How can you be so cruel, Meg?” Christine cried. “You don’t know what he is…”
“I know far more than you,” Meg cut her off. “I was there when he told you to leave with Raoul. That alone told me that he wasn’t as much of a monster as you believed. But you never even tried to get to know the man behind the mask, did you? You merely accepted the training you got from your ‘Angel of Music’ and then turned in revulsion from the scars once you discovered them.”
Christine had the grace to blush uncomfortably at that accusation. “But…”
Meg interrupted once more. “Did you know he spent years in a cage as a child, displayed by gypsies as a freak because of his scars? My mother is the one who helped him escape from them, and she helped him hide in the catacombs beneath the opera house, back when she was just starting out in the ballet herself. He dwelled alone down there for longer than either of us has been alive, Christine, and before that he was treated like a wild animal. It’s a wonder he didn’t go completely mad!”
“How can you possibly defend a murderer, Meg?” Christine retorted. “Or have you forgotten poor Joseph Buquet? Ubaldo Piangi may have been an accident when the chandelier fell, but we both know that he killed Joseph Buquet! What kind of spell has he put you people here under, that you keep defending him even though he followed me here to kidnap me once more?”
Meg took a deep breath, willing herself to remain calm. “He struck out at Joseph Buquet like an animal defending its territory, this is true. But when did he learn to do otherwise? Again I point out to you, he lived alone down in the catacombs for more than twenty years, and spent at least five years before that in a cage and treated as a wild animal. I assume you will defend Raoul’s actions in shooting him, yes? Despite the fact that Raoul presumably had a proper upbringing, and was taught that killing is wrong. What’s more, his presence here has nothing to do with you.”
Christine shook her head distractedly. “I don’t believe that and neither should you. Why else would he have come here?” She took a deep breath of her own. “I shall go find out where Raoul has been taken, and what I need to do to free him. Farewell, Meg, I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet your husband. Perhaps when this nightmare is over…” She left the room without waiting for a reply.
Meg sank into a chair, reminding herself once more to try to be calm for the sake of the babe growing within her. She shook her head sadly. “Oh, Christine, if only you knew. If only you listened.”
A few minutes later, the maid popped into the office. “Miz Benoit, Doctah say you come now.”
A worried Meg followed the maid into the dormitory wing of the Conservatory. The doctor emerged from one of the rooms, giving her a reassuring smile. “Your husband will live, Mrs. Benoit,” he said first thing. “He’s lost a lot of blood and we’ll have to guard against infection, but he was lucky. The bullet hit the bone, but it was a clean break and should heal well in time. I don’t expect that he’ll have any loss of use of the arm.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. “May I go in to him?” she asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “He’s quite groggy from the medicine… I had to knock him out to remove the bullet without causing more damage… but he is more or less awake and asking for you.”
Meg hurried into the small room, obviously one of the many that housed the Conservatory students, and dropped into the chair beside the bed. She lifted Erik’s uninjured hand and kissed it, then pressed it to her cheek. “I am here, mon couer,” she murmured. “I am here, and I am told you will be fine in time.”
“Cherie Meg,” he whispered. “Je t’aime. Christine… she is here. Her vicomte… did this.”
“I know,” Meg sighed. “I had a letter from Mother just today, warning me they were coming to New Orleans and that Christine was looking for me. I was on my way here to tell you, but I got here too late. I arrived in time to see the doctor get here and to hear all the whispers. I’m so sorry, mon mari, that I did not get here sooner.”
He squeezed her hand lightly. “Not… your fault. But this… will be trouble.”
She leaned over and gave him a tender kiss. “Whatever trouble comes, we’ll see it through together. Sleep now, Erik, and I’ll ask how soon I can have you brought home.”
“Sing for me?” he asked softly.
She smiled. “Whenever you wish, beloved.” Straightening up in order to draw a deep breath despite her corset, she began to sing. “Au clair de la lune…” When he was sleeping once more, she slipped out of the room in search of the doctor. On being informed that it would probably be safe to move Erik either the next day or the day after, she hurried back home to start the preparations for his care.
“Lizzie,” she called for the maid as she entered the house. “Mr. Benoit has been hurt,” she told the young woman. “The doctor says we can probably bring him home tomorrow. I’ll need you to change the bedding as soon as I’m up in the morning, please, and also tell Cookie that he’ll need light and easily digested meals for the next several days.”
“Yas’m,” the housemaid replied. “Telegram come while you was out, ma’am.” Lizzie pulled the message from her apron pocket, holding it out to Meg.
The young dancer took the paper, scanning it with trepidation that quickly turned to a combination of relief and concern. Lost everything in fire =stop= Sedgwicks traveling =stop= Need help =stop= David and Josie Tanner, the message read. Meg thought for a moment, then told Lizzie, “Please prepare rooms for guests… one, possibly two married couples. I’m not quite sure how soon they’ll be here, but I expect them to stay for some time.” The maid nodded and vanished upstairs. Meg hurried back out the door, hailing a cab to the telegraph office, where she wired the Tanners back with an invitation to come stay as long as needed and extending that invitation to Josie’s sister Isabelle and her brother in law Alex as well, and sending enough money to cover the train fare. Afterwards, she returned to the Conservatory intending to tell Erik that they would be having guests.
She was stopped before she could get inside, though, by one of the city’s policemen. “Mrs. Benoit? I need to speak with you for a moment, please,” he requested with a polite tip of his hat. “It’s about your husband, and the fellow who shot him.”
Meg sighed. Of course Christine and Raoul would both be protesting Raoul’s innocence, or at least that he had only fired to defend her from ‘that monster’, she thought. “Very well, officer,” she replied. “Shall we go inside? I would very much like to check on Erik… and I suspect his room will be as quiet a place as any, as he should still be sleeping off the medicine he was given.”
“Of course, ma’am,” he nodded, letting her lead the way to the room where Erik slept restlessly and giving her a moment to check him over before speaking again. “Both the Vicomte de Chagny and his wife insist that this is a case of defense, that Mr. Benoit attempted to kidnap the lady back in Paris and that he was making another attempt earlier today.”
“It is true that at one time, Erik held Christine in some esteem,” Meg said, choosing her words carefully. “She and I both danced in the ballet chorus of L’Opera Populaire in Paris then. Unknown to the rest of us, Erik was giving Christine private singing lessons, while keeping himself hidden due to his scarring. You see, as a baby, he’d been put on display as a freak in a carnival because of the scars. While he is a musical prodigy, he spent his early years treated as no better than an animal, and many years following his rescue hiding in isolation, fearing to be seen lest he be returned to his cage in the freak show. Christine… has always been rather imaginative. She came to the opera and the custody of my mother after her father’s death when she was about eight, and she often told us that her father would send her an Angel of Music from Heaven, to look after her and teach her. Since she seemed to find comfort in the thought, no one ever tried to tell her such a thing was impossible. I can only guess that when the young Christine accidentally heard Erik singing or playing, she decided he must be the Angel of Music. And he was lonely enough to encourage the contact, teaching her and as she grew up, coming to care for her.” She paused for breath, then continued, “About the time the opera changed hands, the new managers announced a new patron, the Vicomte de Chagny. Christine had known the vicomte as a child; they had spent summers at the seashore together when her father was still alive. Raoul saw her onstage and remembered her and declared his interest in her at just about the same time Erik chose to reveal to her that he was indeed a man who had feelings for her as well. Erik kept himself masked at the time, fearing to be scorned for his looks. From Christine, at least, he was right to fear so. She unmasked him, then wished nothing more to do with him. He did attempt to take her prisoner, thinking that if she was forced to be in his company for a time, she would learn to see past the scars, and he did threaten Raoul when he came seeking Christine. But in the end, he let them both go, unwilling to force her to remain with him when she so obviously loved Raoul. Please understand, I’m not trying to completely excuse what he did then, but at the same time, he never… never learned to… to deal with people. Not the way children learn when brought up properly. When he was with the carnival, he was caged, considered no better than an animal, and only knew to fight for whatever scraps came his way… that if he wanted something, he had to take it and hide it away so his keepers wouldn’t take it away from him. So in a sense, he didn’t see how wrong it was to try to keep Christine with him, until he saw just how unhappy he was making her.”
The officer nodded. Meg’s account, while much less wild, was actually not so far off from the de Chagnys’ tale. “They say he followed her here, and planned to kidnap her again.”
Meg shook her head. “That is completely untrue. He and I have been here since April. Just this morning I received a letter from my mother, telling us that Christine and Raoul planned to come here on their honeymoon. I was on my way to warn Erik to keep out of sight, to prevent any incidents from happening. But I arrived a little too late.”
The officer nodded once more. “The lady admits she screamed and fainted when she saw your husband. A couple of the students here have corroborated this, and say he merely caught her as she dropped and brought her to a settee in the reception room. And that is when and where the husband shot him, once he’d put her down. Again, there are witnesses to confirm this. Given that there is a… troubled history… between the involved people, Mrs. Benoit, I have to admit that it’s likely the vicomte will go free as he thought he was acting in defense of his wife. There will have to be a hearing before a judge once your husband is fit to testify.” He paused, and then added softly, “As you are immigrants, any sort of legal trouble could result in your deportation if the judge believes him to be an undesirable. You didn’t hear this from me, but I suggest you gather as much evidence as possible to prove how long you’ve been in the United States and New Orleans. The receipts from your passage, for example, and the deed to your home since that will also be dated and witnessed. Anything to show you’ve established yourselves here some time ago, and didn’t arrive on the heels of the vicomte and his wife.” Clearing his throat and looking a little embarrassed, he shrugged and looked away. “My widowed mother adores your husband’s compositions that the Symphony has added to its repertoire.”
Meg hid a smile as she nodded. “Thank you, Officer,” she said softly.
She saw him to the door as he took his leave, and turned to see Erik looking at her with an awed expression. “And how long have you been awake, mon mari?” she asked with a smile.
“Long enough,” he murmured. “The police officer… is helping us? But why?”
“For the pleasure your music gives his elderly mother,” Meg smiled. “Oh, he won’t break the law, or really even the rules to help us. But it is not against the rules for him to give us a bit of advice that will help our cause when the hearing happens. Besides, we will likely have more help than I’d expected. Tell me, did you hear the newsboys crying the headlines at all before this happened?”
Erik looked puzzled, obviously wondering what the newspaper headlines might have to do with establishing their arrival and residency. “No. At least, not that I paid attention. Why?”
“Chicago, or at least a very large part of it, is in flames,” Meg told him, having bought a paper at the telegraph office. “When I went home to start the preparations for your convalescence, I got a telegram from Josie Tanner. They’ve been burned out. I invited her and David, as well as her sister and brother in law, to come stay for as long as they need to. We have plenty of space, and it gives us the chance to repay the many favors they did for us when we all first arrived here.” She grins. “And what’s more, that’s two witnesses who can place us on board the Oceanic back in April.”
“That’s my clever Meg,” Erik murmured with a smile. “And the Conservatory board will have the proof of the scholarships I endowed, yes? And our solicitor and banker… what if they bring up Joseph Buquet’s death? That is what worries me the most.”
She nodded slowly. “That, I am not sure. Perhaps you should speak with the solicitor? Given your… your circumstances at the time, it might be considered that you killed him in fear of your own life? He was hunting you after all, and who knows what his intentions might have been.”
“True enough,” he agreed, his eyes slipping closed once more.
She smiled softly, leaning in to kiss him. “I must go for the night, mon coeur, there is no place for me to sleep here also,” she murmured. “But I will be back, and hopefully in the morning, you can be brought back home. Sleep well, my Erik.”
“You as well, Meg,” his tired voice quavered just a little. “I don’t want you fretting over me to the point that it hurts the baby.”
“I won’t,” she promised, laying his hand over her stomach for a moment before she slipped out and returned home.
Morning arrived, along with another telegram from the Tanners, accepting Meg’s invitation for the two of them and giving the time of their scheduled arrival for the following afternoon. She made a note of the time and checked on the preparations for both the expected guests and Erik’s convalescence. Satisfied, she set out for the Conservatory. To her dismay, the newsboys were crying the tale of the shooting at the Conservatory alongside that of the Chicago fire. She bought a paper, somewhat relieved to see that neither Erik nor Raoul were being vilified in the press, at least so far. Obviously, it was too much to hope that the papers would not print the story. But if they were lucky, perhaps it would remain low-key and not cause further problems.
The doctor greeted her arrival with a smile. “He’s doing much better, Mrs. Benoit. I would be happy to escort the two of you home today. You’ll hire a carriage for the trip, of course, walking is out of the question.”
“How soon can we leave?” Erik asked from behind them.
Meg laughed, moving past the doctor to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. “As soon as I can call for a cab,” she promised.
“I’ll take care of that,” the doctor offered. “You get him to finish his breakfast.” He pointed to a half-empty bowl of porridge.
Meg laughed again as Erik wrinkled his nose, knowing he hated the stuff. “Courage, mon mari, and I’ll talk him into allowing eggs tomorrow. With sweet words and a few kisses, she gently coaxed him into eating the rest of the dish.
The doctor returned and with the help of one of the young men students, brought Erik out to the cab and settled comfortably for the ride home, and Erik’s valet aided the man in getting him settled once they’d arrived. The physician checked the bandages on Erik’s shoulder, gave orders for his care to the valet and for his diet to the cook, then took his leave, promising to look in again the next day.
“Send to my solicitor,” Erik asked softly. “See if he’s free to come by this afternoon. Better to speak with him as soon as possible, and find out what he thinks of the situation.”
The solicitor, when consulted, agreed with Meg’s opinion that should Raoul and Christine try to use Joseph Buquet’s death against Erik, he should claim self-defense. It would be their word against his, and they were strangers while he was an established resident if a recent one. “Besides which,” the man said, “given the war, there’s not likely a man over the age of twenty-one left in this city who hasn’t got at least one death on his conscience. If there had been a dramatic increase in crime since you arrived, there might be a problem, but nothing like that has happened. You’ve settled in and made yourself productive and well liked. Rest up and we’ll get the hearing over with as soon as the physician says you’re able.” He took his leave with a tip of his hat and a bow to Meg.
Once again Erik was left stunned by the acceptance he’d found since allowing Meg to coax him out of the darkness of the catacombs and into the daylight.