In the morning, they both took advantage of the private washroom to bathe. Meg applied Erik’s makeup, understanding of his reluctance to show his scars publicly just yet. They decided to venture to the hotel dining room for breakfast, where they pleased their server by not being overly demanding and further impressed the hotel manager with their genteel manners.
After their leisurely meal, they crossed the lobby to the desk, to ask directions to the shops. Erik specified that he wished to purchase his wife a new dress in the latest English fashion, to commemorate their visit, and asked if the manager could recommend any particular shop. Indeed, the manager could, now thoroughly pleased with the couple. They were quiet, mannerly, and generous; and he would be getting a commission from the shop to which he would send them.
The man personally hailed them a cab, giving Erik his card with instructions to show it to Madame Claire at Chenard and Taylor, Dressmakers. He also gave the driver explicit instructions to bring the couple to the shop and wait to bring them either back to the hotel, or wherever they might wish to go until such time as they were ready to return. The driver nodded; he liked getting such fares from the upscale hotels, as they tended to be easy if dull work, involving more waiting outside the shops than actual driving.
At Chenard and Taylor, Erik showed the card to Madame Claire, who promptly marshaled two of the shop assistants and devoted herself to selecting garments suited to Meg’s coloring. He was especially pleased to see that the selection included a light green evening gown. Such alterations as would be required would be done overnight, and the dresses which needed work would be delivered to the hotel no later than the following afternoon. Erik paid in full for the garments they would be taking with them, plus half for the ones being altered with the balance to be paid upon delivery. As the weather was beginning to threaten rain, Erik and Meg decided to go back to the hotel with only a pause to mail the postal card to Mme. Giry.
They spent the next day almost entirely in the hotel, only taking brief constitutionals after breakfast and luncheon. The rest of Meg’s new wardrobe arrived and was paid for. The following morning, the maid arrived after breakfast to help them pack for their voyage. They checked out and accepted the personal good wishes for a pleasant journey from the hotel manager, who added that he’d be quite happy to be their host again, should they ever travel back to England. The man detailed a bellhop to take their expanded amount of luggage and hail them a cab for the ride to the docks.
Meg couldn’t help but stare at her first glimpse of the Oceanic. The newest vessel in the White Star fleet, she was sleek and trim and much bigger than the young ballerina had imagined. As the cabbie found a luggage handler from the ship and saw to the unloading of their bags from the cab, she took Erik’s hand in hers. “We really are starting a new life,” she murmured. “I knew it before, but it’s only now hitting me.”
Erik tilted his head, looking at her in some concern. “Are you having second thoughts, Meg? If you wish to remain behind, I won’t stop you. You could still return to your mother and L’Opera Populaire.”
“No, no,” she shook her head. “I’m looking forward to seeing New York and then exploring the United States as we go on to New Orleans. It’s just a little intimidating, that’s all.”
He chuckled warmly, giving her hand a squeeze. “You, Meg, intimidated? Impossible! You’re the girl with the nerve to scold the fearsome Phantom and make him do your bidding. You can’t possibly be intimidated by a ship, no matter how big it is.” As he hoped, his words made her laugh and lift her chin, ready to take on the world once more. He paid the cabbie, tipping the man generously. Taking Meg’s hand once more, he guided her towards the first class gangway where he produced their tickets for perusal by the boarding officer. A steward stepped forward at the officer’s signal, escorting them to their suite.
The steward informed them that the ship’s doctor would be with them shortly to perform the required physical examination before departure, turned, and left. Erik looked frightened. “I didn’t know there would be doctors looking at us,” he whispered. “What do I do?”
“Wash your face and remove your wig,” Meg said matter-of-factly. “If you try to hide the scars, you’ll make them suspicious. They’re looking for people who are diseased. You’re not diseased. You were with your photographer mother as a small child, in her darkroom as she developed her plates. There was an accident and you were burned by the chemicals.”
He took a deep breath. “Right. Chemical burns from an accident in my mother’s photography darkroom when I was a small child.” He took off his wig, tucking it into his overcoat pocket, and washed his face using the washstand in the bedroom. Just as he was drying his face, there was a knock at the door.
Meg opened it to admit the ship’s doctor, his nurse, and an officer with a clipboard in hand. Erik took a deep breath and entered the sitting room, only to redden and turn away in distress when the nurse gasped audibly at the sight of him. Meg gave the woman a glare and moved to slide her arm around him in a gesture of reassurance and comfort. That seemed to galvanize the doctor into action and he stepped forward. He gave Meg a cursory once-over, peering into her eyes and looking carefully at her hands. He did the same to Erik before examining the scarred portion of his face carefully. “What happened here?” he asked.
Erik replied in his halting English. “Accident, when I was small. Maman… was photographer. Took me in darkroom while she worked. She fell, spilled something that burned like fire.”
The nurse winced in sympathy as the doctor nodded. “Chemical burns from photographic developing solutions. Yes, I’ve seen similar scarring before, only on the subject’s hands. They pass.”
The officer made a notation on his clipboard, then went through his questions in a perfunctory manner. “I need your names, profession, and ultimate destination, please.”
“Erik and Marguerite Benoit, I am pianist and composer, and my wife is ballerina. We plan to settle in New Orleans, in state of Louisiana.”
The officer noted all of this on his clipboard, and bowed. “Thank you. Enjoy the voyage.” The trio departed, and Erik let out a sigh of relief.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Meg asked.
“I suppose not. But it was uncomfortable. Even so… perhaps this is when I should do as you say I eventually must, and go out without the makeup? There are but fifty first class passengers at most, so perhaps this is the time to… to try to accustom myself to how I look and how people will see me, when the numbers are limited. What do you think?”
She smiled. “I think you should do just that, mon coeur. And I’ll be at your side every moment, I promise.”
At that point, another knock on the door heralded the delivery of their luggage, and Meg set about hanging her dresses and his suits in the spacious wardrobe provided, to prevent wrinkles. The ship’s whistle sounded as she finished this chore and he offered her his arm. “Shall we go on deck to watch the departure?” he asked.
“Why not?” she answered. “After all, who knows when we might see England again.” She pinned her hat firmly into place, and took his arm for the stroll to the promenade deck. Along with dozens of other first class travelers, they watched in awe as the slender ship slowly pulled away from the docks and out into the Irish Sea.
From where they stood, they could also see the crowded aft deck where the steerage passengers milled about as they also watched the ship’s departure. Erik slid his arm around Meg’s waist and tilted his head in that direction. “You see why I insisted on first class? For myself, as well as for you. I wanted the comfort for you, yes, but I also wanted the privacy for myself,” he admitted. “After being alone for so many years, some company is wonderful, but I understand the quarters there sleep six to a room smaller than the bedroom of our suite.”
Meg looked and nodded. “I shouldn’t have argued with you. And I do thank you for being so insistent.”
“Arguing was fine,” he smiled. “You thought we had much less money than we do, and so you were trying to be practical. That’s not such a bad thing, you know.”
“Even when I’m being bossy?” she teased.
He grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. “Even then. You’re adorable when you’re bossing me around. I love it.”
She blushed, dropping her gaze so he wouldn’t see the sudden hope in her eyes. “Flatterer,” she laughed.
“Truth,” he insisted. But he noticed her starting to shiver in the chill breeze on the water, and escorted her back inside.
As the dinner hour approached, Erik grew more and more nervous. Meg finally pushed him into a chair and sat on his lap. “What is the absolute worst thing that can happen?” she demanded. “Logically speaking, Erik, not from fear.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again, feeling somewhat foolish. Of course he wasn’t going to be murdered as a monster, not when he was a paying first-class passenger on board ship. It would create too much of a scandal for the White Star Line, which was just emerging from insolvency. “People will turn away in revulsion,” he finally mumbled.
“Some might,” Meg agreed. “But so what? They are the fools who will lose out, if they choose not to get to know you because of how you look.” She reached up to caress his cheek. “And really, if you wear a wig, your face truly doesn’t look as bad as you think it does. So pick out a wig for your public appearances and we’ll go face the rest of our fellow passengers together. I’ll let you choose which dress you want to see me in tonight,” she coaxed him with a smile.
“That lovely green one,” Erik said. “When you first suggested leaving France, I pictured you in my mind, standing at the rail of a ship wearing a green dress and looking absolutely breathtaking.”
She blushed. “Then I will wear the green one for you, mon coeur,” she murmured.
He sighed and leaned his cheek on the top of her head. “I wish…”
“You wish what?”
“Oh… many things,” he replied vaguely, unwilling to put voice to his thoughts just yet. I wish you meant that, he thought. I wish we were truly married. I wish you could love me the way I’m coming to love you. I know now that what I felt for Christine was an obsession for an ideal, an illusion. I wanted to keep her to myself and worship her. You, Meg… I want you, never doubt it… yet I want you free to come and go as you please. I wish I knew how to tell you how I feel without making you feel trapped. He gently tipped her off his lap. “Let’s both get dressed, and then you can help me decide which wig to wear.”
She stole a furtive glance at him as she settled the many-layered skirts of her gown evenly over her bustle and fastened the snug bodice. The pale green silk with its dark green and gold trim really did suit her coloring admirably. “You have a good eye for color and such,” she commented. “I suppose you learned it from watching the costumers all those years?”
“Yes. My education might not be traditional, but I did learn quite a few things by watching everyone over the years,” he said as he adjusted his bow tie. “I learned to write music and lyrics, costuming, set construction and the creation of special effects. But I didn’t learn how to behave around others.”
“You be yourself,” she told him, as she reached up to straighten his collar. “You did fine in the hotel dining room. The only difference here is that you and I will not be the only people at the table. My mother sent me to lessons at a finishing school two years ago, if you recall, in hopes that I might someday attract a wealthy mate, and so she wished me to have the same sort of lessons taught to the daughters of the aristocracy that I not lose such a man through embarrassing him with my table manners or anything. Just watch me if you are unsure which fork to use,” she smiled.
Erik chuckled despite his nervousness. “I can do that,” he nodded. “Now, which color hair do you prefer on me? The black or the dark brown or the lighter brown?”
“The light brown,” Meg replied decisively. “It’s the closest to your natural hair color, and I think it suits you best.”
He blushed as he settled it onto his head. “Is it straight?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. Eventually, she thought, I will manage to get him over his nearly phobic aversion to mirrors. But he was worried enough at the thought of his first public appearance without either a mask or stage cosmetics hiding his scars that she didn’t want to push just yet. “Ready?”
He took a deep breath. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” he said, offering her his arm.
She took it, walking beside him with her head held high and her hand gripping his arm in a manner intended to show pride of possession. As they descended the staircase, she could feel his increasing tension as other couples turned to look at them. Several of the women gasped softly or looked away so she tightened her grasp slightly. “Courage, mon coeur,” she whispered, giving him a brilliant smile before letting her gaze slide dismissively over anyone who looked away. She could understand the gasps… the scars were quite bad after all, and presumably the upper classes had better access to doctors and so fewer chances of being scarred in such a way… but as far as she was concerned, those who couldn’t overcome their shock at the scars to at least attempt to see the person beneath, were not worth the time of day.
He forced himself to keep walking forward, to face the stares without flinching. I have to do it for Meg’s sake, he told himself, so that I won’t shame her before these wealthy society people. She might not have been born among their ranks, but her mother had raised her to hopefully take her place there one day. The acquaintances they made aboard this ship could make the difference between acceptance and ostracism for Meg once they reached America, especially if any of them were from New Orleans, and he would not ruin her chances by retreating into the darkness in which he’d lived before.
At the bottom of the staircase, a steward met them and took their names, escorting them to their assigned table. Two of the women already seated, a mother and daughter by their appearance, turned to the gentleman with them and started whispering urgently, but much to Erik’s surprise two other couples gave them nods of greeting and polite smiles. He seated Meg and took his place beside her. He remained quiet through the first course, surreptitiously watching the young dancer to be sure he was using the correct utensils.
But during the second course, one of the men who’d nodded as they came to the table decided to draw him into the conversation. “Are you visiting the States, or will you be settling there?” he asked in a cultured English accent. “Josie and I are joining her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago, while Albert and Sylvia are hoping to purchase a farm in Virginia or thereabouts. Excellent horse country, you know, and his elder brother has quite the stables. Bertie’s hoping to pick up a good property on the cheap and breed up a steeplechaser that will give his brother’s beasts a run for their money.”
It took Erik a moment to comprehend all that, but he gave a nod. “We go to live in New Orleans,” he said carefully, hoping his English would be up to an actual conversation. “We could not… remain… in Paris. Meg’s mother… hoped for… husband with title for her. But Meg… chose me.” That was all true enough, he thought. Antoinette had hoped that Meg would manage to catch a husband with a title, and I, at least, couldn’t stay in Paris after the debacle at L’Opera Populaire. If this fellow traveler assumes we left Paris to escape the wrath of Meg’s family, so much the better.
And the chatty fellow did just that. “Quite the romantic tale, friend,” he chuckled. “Quite worthy of a Frenchman. I’m David, by the way, David Tanner. My wife, Josephine,” he indicated the lady beside him, “And Lord Albert Sedgwick and Lady Sylvia his wife. And that’s Patrick Sullivan and his wife Kathleen and daughter Eileen.” He ignored the horrified looks the Sullivans gave him; the boorish Irish-Americans were displaying an appalling lack of manners towards the scarred chap anyway.
“I am Erik Benoit,” Erik said. “This is my wife Meg.”
Albert joined in the conversation then. “What do you plan on doing in New Orleans? I’ve heard it’s a bit of a wild city, what with all the French people there. Can’t see any use in going there myself. Ow!” he exclaimed with a glare in the direction of his wife. “Why’d you kick me?”
“M’sieur Benoit is French,” Sylvia replied dryly. “M’sieur, I do hope you will forgive Bertie’s lack of thought and want of manners.”
“It is… forgive,” Erik said. “My English is… not good yet. That is why, when we decide to come to America, we choose New Orleans. A place we can… speak to others and be… understood… as we get… more good in English.”
“Your English is much better than my French, or Bertie’s either,” David laughed. “Neither one of us can say more than a few words. So for what it’s worth, you have my admiration, in that you can carry on a conversation in a language other than your native tongue.”
Erik reddened slightly. “Thank you, sir,” he answered.
Both Englishmen smiled. “No need for such formality, when we’ll be sitting together two or three times a day for the duration of the crossing,” Albert said. “He’s David and I’m Bertie.”
“Then I am Erik,” he replied with a nod. “Tell me, what do you think of ship?”
“Quite impressive,” David said. “People thought Ismay was mad when he took over the White Star line, but with ships like this, he’ll be giving Cunard some serious competition before long.”
The conversation continued throughout dinner, and afterward Erik accepted David’s invitation to join him and Bertie in the saloon for a brandy while Meg accompanied Josie and Sylvia to the grand salon where they played cards until the men rejoined them. All three couples danced to the music provided by a string quartet for a while before retiring for the night.
“They didn’t mind my face,” Erik said in wonder as he and Meg got ready for bed. “The Tanners and the Sedgwicks didn’t mind my face at all.”
Meg smiled. “You see what I’ve been saying all along? That many people can overlook your scars to see you. Oh, they were curious… Josie asked me about it. But curiosity is natural enough, and once I explained about the darkroom accident, neither she nor Sylvia mentioned it again.”
He nodded. “Perhaps you’re right. Although that other family at our table didn’t seem to feel the same way.”
“Pfft.” She waved her hand in dismissal of the Sullivan family. “According to Sylvia, they are what she calls the absolute dregs of the newly rich. She and Bertie are minor nobility; his brother is an earl and she’s the youngest daughter of a marquis. According to her, the new rich come in two basic sorts. There’s the sort like us or the Tanners, who might not be born to the manor, but who have what she calls an inborn gentility and enough culture to avoid embarrassing ourselves. And then there’s the sort like the Sullivans, who retain the coarse manners of the common laborers they were before they tumbled into wealth as much through luck and shady dealing as through honest endeavor.”
Erik had to chuckle at that. “Interesting. I suppose it’s true enough that we count as new rich, but what led them to that conclusion?”
“You, silly,” Meg laughed. “When you told them Mother hoped to wed me to a man with a title. Apparently that’s becoming almost common in England. Many of the titled are slowly slipping into genteel poverty, so there are always men with titles looking to wed the daughters of the newly wealthy. The girl gets raised into the ranks of the nobility, and her husband receives a cash settlement from her father so he can repair the ancestral home and invest the rest to use for the future support of the family. Since we supposedly wed against my family’s wishes, but we’re here in first class anyway, you obviously have money of your own.”
He nodded as he slid into bed. “I see. I hope you’re all right with what I told them?”
She smiled. “Why wouldn’t I be? I did choose you, after all.” She climbed into bed beside him.
He blushed and drew her close for a kiss. “So you did.” He hesitantly ran his hand over her side, still not entirely sure that she’d welcome his advances. But once again she melted into his arms.