Chapter 9 – Conversation
The next day, when Nadir returned home from the office in the early afternoon, he made a little detour around cottage number twelve, in the hope of finding out more about the new tenants. He thought that he might be able to determine if they really were Mme. Giry with Meg and Christine, if only he could spot them from afar. He had never met either of the three women, but he knew of them. He was fairly certain he would recognize the diva, but Erik had also pointed out Meg to him once when he had shared box five with him for a particularly interesting gala performance. What he should do, though, if the family at number twelve really was them, he had no idea.
If the new neighbors were perfect strangers, he would tell Erik to keep his distance and not to scare the young lady in question, but what if… in that case, another question was bothering Nadir: if it was indeed Christine, where was the Vicomte? He and Christine had gotten married soon after the fire, when Erik had still been recovering from his injuries. Was de Chagny busy elsewhere and had sent his wife along with the Girys so that she would not be so alone during his absence?
Of one thing Nadir was absolutely certain, though. If the young lady in number twelve was Erik's lost love, it would be difficult to convince her that the rose had not come from Erik, that the Phantom, who had caused her so much discomfort in the past, was indeed dead. But it would be vital to convince her of her teacher's death. The last thing Erik needed, was a furious Vicomte crossing the Channel to make sure his defeated rival would not bother his wife anymore, possibly trying to kill him or arrest him for misdeeds that Erik could not even remember.
When Nadir approached the backside of cottage number twelve, though, his thoughts were interrupted when he heard heavy sobbing. He looked around, and saw a young woman sitting on the little bench under the hawthorn bush along the path that lead from their community to the nearby fields. She was crying as if all joy had departed from her life forever, heartbreaking sobs escaped her lips, tears were streaming down her face, and her hands were holding a red rose with a black ribbon tied around its stem.
Without thinking Nadir approached her. "Please forgive my intrusion, Miss," he said, offering her a clean handkerchief. "But you seem to be distressed and in need of assistance."
The young woman looked up at him, her eyes red and swollen from crying and Nadir knew that his worst fears had come true. The sobbing mess in front of him was indeed the former Christine Daaé, now Vicomtesse de Chagny.
Christine shook her head. "Thank you, Monsieur… Sir," she said, "I am fine." Nadir looked her in the eyes. "You are clearly anything but fine," he said. "I assume that you belong to cottage number twelve, we have noticed that a new family has moved in there. Maybe I should alert your relatives and inform them that you require assistance if you are uncomfortable with me, a stranger?"
Christine blushed with embarrassment. The gentleman in front of her had offered her his help and she had obviously given him the impression that his offer was not welcome. "I must apologize if I seemed rude," she said. "But they are not home right now. I thought this path was deserted and I would be alone here…."
Tears started once again to run down her pale face, and her fingers caressed the rose almost lovingly. Nadir was intrigued. If she was crying out of fear, because the rose made her believe that Erik was alive and probably nearby, why was she caressing the flower like that? He definitely needed to find out what was distressing her so much.
"You should not be alone when you are so agitated, Miss," he said, concern clearly showing in his eyes. "Allow me to stay with you till you have calmed down a bit." Christine nodded and moved aside to make room for Nadir to sit down as well. She could not tell why, but she trusted the stranger. His concern seemed genuine and comforted her somehow.
"You only moved here recently, have you not?" Nadir began a conversation. "I have been living here for a while. It is a quiet neighborhood, very relaxing. I am sure you and your family will like it here."
Christine's shoulders were still shaking, but she managed to reply, "yes, we are new here. In fact, Mada… my foster mother just went into town to discuss a few details with our landlord, and Meg has an audition for a job this afternoon, otherwise I would not be alone right now, especially not…" Her fingers again caressed the rose, while her eyes took on a sad, dreamy expression.
Nadir looked down at her hands. "A beautiful rose you have there, Miss," he said casually. "I assume you like flowers?" Christine's tears started running again.
"Now, now, why would you cry about a rose," Nadir said in a fatherly manner. "And such a beautiful red one, too! No reason to cry if you are being given a red rose…"
Christine stared at him. "How do you know..? I mean, why do you assume that somebody gave this rose to me?"
Nadir smiled. "That was not hard to guess," he said. "Unless you are cultivating roses yourself, which is unlikely, since you only just arrived here and are probably still moving in, you could either have bought it or been given it. But lovely young ladies normally don't buy themselves red roses. They receive them as tokens of affection from their suitors. The ribbon also points towards a gift," Nadir added, "it looks like some kind of gift-wrapping."
Christine almost smiled. A red rose, the flower of love. Back at the Opéra Populaire her angel had used the flower to confess his feelings to her, even before she knew that he was a mortal man. He had not dared tell her, just like he had been reluctant to tell her the truth about himself.
"I wish I knew who gave me this rose," she murmured, absentmindedly. "If only…"
"So you do not know who your admirer is?" Nadir asked lightly. "How unusual, but certainly not a reason to cry?"
Christine shook her head. She blushed again. What must this friendly neighbor think of her? She was sitting on a public bench, crying over a rose, without even knowing where the flower had come from.
"It reminds me of someone," she explained. "He used to give me roses tied with a black ribbon like that. But I thought he had died three years ago. Then I found that rose on my window-sill last night, and now I keep wondering…"
Nadir nodded in understanding. "How disconcerting to be reminded like this of a dear departed one," he said.
Christine sighed. "I can't believe it's a coincidence," she retorted. "The way the ribbon is tied, the length of the ribbon, the length of the stem, it is all exactly like I remember. I cannot imagine who else could have given me that rose, but Meg assures me she saw him die, and Mada... my foster mother is convinced that he would have gotten in touch if he had survived."
"Well, I certainly do not have an answer to this puzzle," Nadir said. "But since this flower troubles you so, I assume you did not care too much about this dead suitor of yours?" he added in an attempt to find out why Christine had been crying.
To his immense surprise, she shook her head. "Oh no, no, Sir," she said, "quite the contrary." A dreamy smile crossed her haggard features. "I am shaken, yes, because I miss him so much and when I found that rose, for a moment I hoped that he… that it was him… that my an… Erik might still be alive!"
Nadir feigned being at a loss. "Sorry, I do not quite follow you," he uttered. "This Erik obviously loved you, since he used to offer you red roses. You say, you cared for him, too. So if this was a mutual thing, and he were not dead, why would he have made you believe for all those years that he was dead?"
Christine sighed. "He never knew," she confessed. "I treated him so poorly. He had been the most important person in my life for so many years, had taken me under his wings when my dear Papa died, and later he gave me music lessons and he must have been in love with me already. He was older than I am," she explained, "and once I was old enough to begin to understand what his feelings for me had developed into over the years, a childhood friend re-entered my life."
She looked stricken. "Then something happened, something bad, and my ang… Erik was involved. I thought the worst of him, I did not give him a chance to justify his actions, I condemned him. I think I was furious at him for having destroyed my rosy dreams of happiness with him. So I abandoned Erik and accepted my childhood friend's proposal. And then Erik died, and now I can never tell him…"
Nadir gasped. She could not possibly have meant what she had just said. "You would want this Erik to be still alive, even though he was involved in something so bad that you broke off with him?" he asked.
"It was bad," she admitted, "and he should never have… but he was not as guilty as I thought," she added. "I know more about the circumstances now, and I have forgiven him. But he cannot forgive me for my lack of trust and my betrayal anymore. If only…" Another sob shook her frail shoulders.
Nadir put his arm around her. "Don't start crying again," he said soothingly, "I am sure your dead friend understands everything now, and has forgiven you long ago. He is probably watching you from above now, and if he sees your distress, it might sadden him."
A faint smile crossed Christine's features. "An angel," she whispered, "you think he is a real angel now?"
Nadir felt a bit uncomfortable. Erik a real angel? As much as his friend had changed over the past few years, he would not exactly call him that. "Well.. I mean…" he stuttered. "But maybe it's all for the best," he continued. "Since you are honor-bound to somebody else.."
To his utter surprise the young woman protested. "I am not," she said. "I am free again. That's why I hoped so much that Erik was still alive when I saw the rose. We could still have a future now, if only... But of course that was stupid. He cannot come back from the dead."
Nadir stared at her hand and noticed the conspicuous absence of a wedding ring. What was going on here? Was she widowed or divorced? Was that why she now thought she was in love with Erik? Because her relationship with the Vicomte had somehow gone wrong?
"So your relationship with that other man did not work out?" he asked. "And now you seem to think that maybe you should have chosen this Erik instead? Is that it? Is that why you now forgive him whatever he has done that drove you away from him? Is that why you now think you love him?"
Christine hesitated. Why was she telling this stranger all of this? "I have asked myself the same thing," she confessed, "but I am sure about my feelings. I should never have left Erik. He is the one I was meant to be with. He made my soul sing. But why do you ask?" she suddenly stared at the friendly man next to her. "What does it matter, if I truly do love Erik or just imagine myself being in love with him? It does not matter now, or does it, since he is dead. Unless, of course…"
Christine's eyes were shining bright, full of hope. "Unless he is alive," she whispered. "What do you know about Erik? Monsieur, why does it matter if my feelings are genuine?"
Nadir felt trapped. He was not prepared to tell her about Erik just yet. "I thought that maybe…" he began hesitatingly, "you are glorifying things, that because your other relationship does not seem to have worked out, you are now clinging to the idea of being in love with a dead man, or maybe the romantic aspect of the thought appeals to you, and that you are getting all worked up because of an imagined affection for a dead person.. I was trying to help you get over this pointless love."
Christine gazed into the far distance. "I do not imagine this," she said softly. "Erik was my true love, and there will never be anybody else."
Nadir was not convinced. "What if he were alive and got involved in bad things again, like the one you mentioned?" he insisted. "What if you found out about more similar events in his past? Would you not turn away from him again?"
Christine shuddered at the thought of Piangi. "I do know of more," she admitted, "and you are right, these things are hard to swallow, but despite all the factors that have negatively influenced his life, have made him do bad things, deep down he was kind and compassionate."
She smiled. "He cared for me, the orphaned girl, when I was only seven years old. He must have sensed that I needed somebody, and oh, how he showered me with love and understanding! And even in the end, the last time I saw him…" her voice trailed. "I had hurt him so badly, yet, when I kissed him, he released me. He let me go with my fiancé, thinking that that was what I really wanted and what was best for me…" Christine's eyes took on that dreamy look again, thinking of the kisses she had shared with Erik that last night in his lair.
Nadir stared at her incredulously. "You kissed Erik?" he asked, sounding way more agitated than he had intended. He had had no idea. Of course, if this had happened the night of the fire, then Erik could not have told him. He would not remember anymore.
"Yes, I…" Christine stopped herself. "Why does that surprise you so?" she sounded almost hysteric now. "There is something you are not telling me, is there not? What do you know about Erik?" she screamed. "Who are you? Did you put the rose in my window or what is going on here?"
Nadir inhaled deeply. By Allah, that little vixen had guessed more than he had expected her to do. He could not deny his involvement anymore, at least not completely. Maybe it was best to give her a few facts.
"Calm down," he said soothingly. "You are right in a way. I do know who you are talking about, I am not sure if he ever mentioned me to you, but Erik and I were friends. My name is Nadir Khan. And I do know your real name, Madame la Vicomtesse."
Christine paled. "You are wrong," she whispered. "I am not a Vicomtesse anymore. It is Christine Daaé again, or rather Christine Daaé-Giry, since Mme. Giry is in the process of legally adopting me. To give me a new name," she added. "For when I will be ready to return to the stage. The Daaé-name might be connected too much to the fire at the Opera Populaire, and people might think twice about hiring me, but as Christine Giry…"
Nadir gasped. "What about the Vicomte?" He needed to know everything now. Christine looked down. "He repudiated me," she whispered. "A divorce, we are not married anymore…"
Nadir was shocked. "How could he?" then realization dawned on him. "Because of Erik?" he asked, "was he still jealous of a dead man?"
Christine thought about it for a moment. "I guess so," she finally admitted. "He forbade me to sing, said it would remind people of my ignominious past, but I guess he probably just wanted me to forget about music and the one who had taught me to sing. The reason he gave me for wanting the divorce, though, was because I could not…" she blushed a deep shade of crimson. "I did not get pregnant."
Then she remembered what the stranger had just told her. "You knew Erik?" she asked hesitantly. "Did you recognize me last night and put the rose on my window-sill? Or was it...? You know, with you here in the area, I refuse to believe that it was a coincidence. There must be a connection to my dear angel somewhere. Is he really...?"
She did not finish the sentence. Then a shadow crossed her features that had just been animated by hope. "It can't be him," she sighed. "He wouldn't know about my failed marriage. He would not have interfered like that. He might have watched me from afar, eager to see me again, but he would not have given me the rose which would only make me think he was still alive. There must be another explanation for the rose. I must get used to accept his death."
She looked so utterly miserable at those words that Nadir could not doubt the sincerity of her feelings any longer. "Dry your tears, Miss Christine," he said softly. "If it is true that you love Erik, there is no need for you to cry. Erik is alive."