The following morning, the doctor declared that Erik would be fit to attend the hearing within two days. That afternoon brought the arrival of the Tanners. The tale of their narrow escape from the fire was a harrowing one. There had been several smaller fires over several days prior to the one that left them homeless, and the Chicago fire brigade had already been pushed to its limits. Due to some confusion when the fire was initially reported… some firefighters had in fact thought it was the smoldering remains of one they’d already extinguished… the fire had gotten out of control right from the beginning. The combination of the out of control fire and the hot, dry wind created a firestorm powerful enough to cross what everyone assumed would be a natural firebreak: the Chicago River. Many people barely escaped the blaze with their lives and the clothes on their backs. Even those who’d managed to pack their belongings into wagons didn’t always make it out of the city with those wagons intact, as burning embers from the fire destroyed more than one such conveyance. David and Josie managed to escape with a carpetbag each, containing a change of clothing, Josie’s jewelry, and David’s financial papers.
“Thanks to those, I’ll still have my income,” David said gratefully. “Alex wants to rebuild right there, but we honestly didn’t like Chicago all that well. You may end up with us as neighbors. And it seems you have a story to tell as well… how did you get hurt?”
Erik nodded, giving a silent prayer that the Tanners would take his history well, and launched into the same carefully phrased tale that Meg told the police officer the day he’d been shot. He needn’t have worried.
“Why that little hussy,” Josie exclaimed. “And then she had the gall to look for sympathy from you, Meg?”
Meg smiled. “To be fair, she still doesn’t realize that Erik is my husband. She never knew his surname. And considering that I… well, I rather shamelessly pursued Erik once it was clear she did not want him, you could call me a hussy as well, yes?”
Josie giggled. “Well… maybe a little. But good for you all the same! You saw the treasure she spurned, and hurried to take it before someone else saw it, that’s all.”
David remained serious. “Is this going to create a problem for you?” he asked Erik.
“We hope not,” Erik replied. “My solicitor thinks, as this is their word against ours, any trouble will be small. Especially once we prove how long we have been in New Orleans, and United States. We can prove I did not follow Christine here, and so if I say I am willing to forgive Raoul for shooting me when he thought she was in danger, he will go free and they will leave and we hope all will be well.”
“Seems logical,” David nodded. “Josie and I can vouch for meeting you aboard Oceanic back in April, if that will help any.”
“It should, yes, and thank you.”
“Pshaw. It’s little enough, when you’ve taken us in. I’ll be frank, Alex and I didn’t get along nearly as well as Josie and Isabelle hoped we would, so Josie and I were going to leave Chicago soon in any case. We’d originally thought to foist ourselves off on Bertie and Sylvia, but they’re away, and the fire made it necessary for us to find a place to stay quickly. Right now, people with nowhere else to go are living in boxcars at the railyard. I’m grateful you offered to host us, as Josie is expecting and I want her comfortable, not crammed in squalor with thousands of other displaced people,” David said.
Meg squealed, “You’re having a baby? Me too! I wrote you about it yesterday, the letter probably just arrived in Chicago this afternoon.” The two young women giggled as they hugged each other.
Erik rolled his eyes and gave David a long-suffering glance. “We’re in trouble,” he grinned.
David nodded. “I think you’re right,” he agreed as Meg and Josie vanished into another room for a private discussion. The two men chuckled in perfect understanding, and turned the conversation to financial goals and achievements.
* * * * * * *
The following day, Meg took Josie out shopping, to begin replacing her wardrobe and David’s as well. The day after that, the doctor arrived to escort them to the hearing, feeling that his presence would not only reassure the expectant Mrs. Benoit, but would also subtly play up Mr. Benoit as the victim to the judge.
The Benoits, Tanners, and the doctor entered the judge’s chambers to find Erik’s solicitor already present. A few minutes later, Raoul and Christine de Chagny entered along with a police escort. Christine gave a little gasp and grew pale on seeing Erik. “How can this be?” she cried. “How can this monster be sitting freely, when my husband must be accompanied by le gendarme wherever he goes?”
“Who is the monster?” David Tanner said, loudly enough to hear. “The man with scars? Or the man who shoots another, unarmed man?”
Raoul de Chagny blinked at that. I was so sure the Phantom had reappeared to kidnap my Christine once again. And yet… he’d merely placed her on the settee when she’d fainted, hadn’t he? He didn’t remove her unconscious body from the building or try to hide her in any way. Could I have been wrong? But then, why would the man have been in New Orleans, if he hadn’t followed them from Paris? He didn’t know what to think anymore.
The low murmurs filling the room died away as the judge entered accompanied by a court reporter. He looked at the two groups and gave a nod. “This hearing is to determine what charges, if any, shall be brought by the state of Louisiana against the Vicomte de Chagny, with regards to the shooting of one Erik Benoit of New Orleans on 9 October 1871. Vicomte, there are any number of witnesses to your deed. However, you claim that there are extenuating circumstances, that you fired in defense of your wife, is this correct?” he asked.
Raoul stood, giving a small bow. “Oui, your Honor. Given our previous encounters with the man you call Erik Benoit, I believed myself justified, and believed he sought to kidnap my wife.”
“And what do you say to this belief, Mr. Benoit?”
Erik rose to his feet, a little shaky still. “I say that while I understand how he could believe what he did, that kidnapping his wife was not my intention. Seeing the lady again was as great a shock to me as it was to her. I left Paris perhaps a month after the night in which I had tried to force her to stay with me, thinking that if she could just get to know me and stop seeing my scars, she might perhaps come to care for me. But when I realized she loved the Vicomte, I could not keep her with me.” He paused, then added, “I am not excusing my actions of the past exactly. But, your Honor, please understand, in many ways, I was in my mind like a small child or an animal. Because of my scars, I was taken by gypsies and displayed in a cage for years. Treated as a mere beast. Instead of learning to interact with kindness, I only knew to grab that which I wanted and hide it lest it be taken from me. Even after escaping them, I lived for many more years in isolation, hiding for fear of being returned to the cage. And so at the time it truly did not seem wrong to me, to keep the lady with me.”
Raoul’s gaze grew thoughtful as he listened to this. If this story is true, he thought, then I have done the man a grave injustice. Perhaps he is less a cold-blooded killer as I originally thought, and more a man driven mad through circumstance. Blast that Giry woman for hiding him and then ignoring him all those years, he thought, belatedly remembering the ballet mistress’ tale.
The judge kept a grave countenance. “And did you, Mr. Benoit, follow the Vicomte de Chagny and his bride to New Orleans?”
“No, sir,” Erik replied. “On the same night I sent Christine off with the Vicomte, I injured myself. Meg, who had witnessed the incident, found me and cared for me while I recovered. We grew to care for each other, and we married and left Paris at the beginning of April. We took the ferry to England and booked passage aboard the Oceanic, which left Liverpool on the sixth of April, arriving in New York on the seventeenth. Mr. and Mrs. David Tanner,” he indicated the couple, “were among those sailing with us. We shared a table in the ship’s dining room. Mr. Tanner helped me make investments, with Standard Oil and other companies, after we arrived in America. Afterwards, we traveled together as far as Louisville, Kentucky, where they kept to the train to go to Chicago while Meg and I took the riverboat to come here to New Orleans. We bought a house here, and I continue to make investments, as well as composing music for the Symphony. Also, I established scholarships, for poor students to be able to attend the Conservatory. I had no thought in my mind, that I would ever see the Vicomte or his wife ever again.”
Christine felt frozen. This couldn’t be happening, she thought. Meg… married… him? How could she stand to be so close to that horrible visage? How could she possibly be happy with such a creature? And why would so many people accept him as an equal? No wonder Mme. Giry hadn’t said who Meg had eloped with! She bit her lip, fearing the worst.
The judge nodded. “Given that the Vicomte de Chagny fired unprovoked and before witnesses, it’s fair to say that charges should be pressed. However…”
“Please, your Honor,” Erik interrupted, “is it possible to dismiss the charges?”
The judge tilted his head. “It is, but why? Don’t you want justice?”
Erik shook his head. “I do, but… not in this way. No, I wronged them in the past, but I believe no lasting harm came of it.” He gave Raoul a look. The other man nodded back as if in agreement. “I was wronged when I was shot, but no lasting harm will come of it, at least according to the doctor. The scales, I think, are balanced. Let them return to France and live out their lives in peace, and allow Meg and I to live our lives here in peace as well. I have no animosity towards either of them; in fact, I wish them all the happiness in the world. I merely want this… difficulty… over and done with.” He looked around the room. David and Josie looked supportive, Raoul surprised and grateful, Christine shocked and stunned. Meg’s eyes shone with pride and love for him.
“Very well,” the judge agreed. “It will save the state time and money. However, I do suggest that the Vicomte and Vicomtesse not linger in New Orleans. Case dismissed!” He rose and exited the room, followed by the court reporter.
Erik slowly made his way over to Raoul, offering his hand. “I really do wish you both the best,” he said quietly.
Raoul nodded, shaking the offered hand. “Thank you,” he replied. “I hope you and your wife will also be happy.”
“We are,” Erik said with a soft smile.
Across the room, Christine approached Meg. “You really love him?” she asked.
“I do,” Meg replied. “As you might have, had you troubled to look beyond the obvious. But since it brought me happiness in the end, I’ll say no more. Be well, Christine.”
“And you, Meg.” Christine turned and sought Raoul, who moved to meet her halfway to the door. They slipped out silently.
Erik drew Meg into his arms. “Je t’amie,” he murmured in her ear. “I love you so much. Thank you for being my strength and my inspiration.”
She blushed. “If I showed you where to find your strength, I am glad,” she whispered. “But never doubt, my Erik, it was always there inside of you.”
“Aww,” Josie Tanner cooed. “You two are so romantic! Come on… the fire ended a chapter in mine and David’s life, and this situation ended a chapter in yours. Let’s go celebrate new beginnings all around!”
“To new beginnings,” Erik nodded. “New beginnings.”