Chapter 14 – Conspiracy
Erik closed his eyes and conjured up the fleeting memory of the ballet mistress he had had the day before when Nadir had told him about Christine. A rather stern-looking woman with a long braid. He had not made the connection until Nadir had mentioned it, but now he realized that she was indeed the same person as the girl who had saved him so many years ago.
"That's right," he finally whispered, "Antoinette worked at the Opéra Populaire as well." He frowned at Christine. "She knew?" he asked slowly. "That it was I who spoke to you through walls and taught you how to sing? She knew that you thought I was the Angel of Music?"
Christine nodded. "She always knew," she confirmed. "She obviously approved of our friendship. She did not have a problem with you passing yourself off as the angel sent by my father or me believing you to be such an otherworldly character. I think she understood that I needed your comfort and that you were better able to give it to me that way, that I would trust you more easily if I thought my father had sent you to me."
Erik was puzzled. How could Antoinette have allowed that charade? Maybe at first the orphaned girl had needed him, but later on? Had Antoinette not realized how lovely, how utterly desirable her young charge had become? Had she not realized, that despite his hideous face he was a man with the same longings and desires – the same needs – as other men? Had she really thought it wise to allow continued close contact between him and her foster daughter once Christine had turned into a woman?
"She probably does not think of you as a man," he thought. "Antoinette apparently thinks you are this genderless being, because your face is not that of a man. She therefore must have thought Christine to be safe with you." While this thought saddened him, Erik knew deep down that Antoinette's trust had not been misplaced after all. No matter how much he desired Christine, how much his whole body screamed for her, he would never ever, under no circumstances whatsoever force her in any way, shape or form. He would never ask anything of her that she would not be able to give willingly.
Then Erik remembered that Christine had asked him to help her retrain her voice. He wanted very much to do so, but he was also aware that he would need Antoinette's approval, since Christine was in her care. He needed to make Antoinette understand that even under the changed circumstances Christine was still safe with him, that he still could be trusted to treat her with the respect a gentleman owed a lady. He therefore needed to see her and talk to her – and he realized that he also wanted to see her again.
"I think I will be able to see Antoinette," Erik finally mumbled. "Please tell her to expect an invitation once we have our piano." Then he turned to Christine. "Good-bye," he said, trying to sound calm. "We can start with your voice lessons, once my piano will have been delivered."
Christine looked at him. "Good-bye," she whispered softly, furtively glancing up at Erik's face – or, rather, at the visible part of it. His voice had sounded so calm. Almost distant, cool. As if he did not care for her anymore after all. But when she caught the adoring look for her that quickly passed over his features, she inwardly sighed with relief. She knew now that her angel still loved her. That it was just his unease with their current situation that caused him to keep his distance, that there still was a chance that she might be able to put things right again.
Once on the way, Christine addressed Nadir. "I understand why you did not tell him the truth," she stated. "I only reached the night of my debut in my recounting of our past history together, and yet, I already left out so much. I did not tell him that he was the Opera Ghost and I did not tell him that he had introduced himself to me as the Angel of Music. I let him believe that he was an employee of the Opera and that I had assumed he was the angel and he just did not contradict me. I have no idea how I will be able to tell him the rest. He seems so vulnerable now, I fear it will be a big shock to him when he learns about Buquet." She shuddered at the memory of the stagehand's corps dropping from the rafters onto the stage during an ill-fated performance of "Il Muto".
"Carlotta croaking, the chandelier, Piangi, Raoul…" Christine continued to list events, which she thought might cause Erik a lot of discomfort to remember. "How do you tell him about such things?"
Nadir nodded. "I have been thinking the exact same thing," he confessed. "Namely, that Erik will be taking those facts very hard, no matter how he learns about them, whether it is us telling him or him remembering." He sighed. "And there is a lot more that you probably are not aware of, which will haunt him till the day he dies, should he ever remember. There are things in his past, that for his sake, I hope he will never remember, though I guess he eventually will. Now that he has shown first signs of improvement, it is likely that with time, he will regain his full memory, and only Allah in his Paradise knows, how Erik will react then, how he will deal with the horrors of his past."
Christine fought back tears. How much her poor angel must have been through in his life, what terrible experiences he must have made that had lead him to commit the atrocities Nadir had hinted at, and on top of all those horrors Nadir just had mentioned she had hurt Erik so badly. How utterly miserable Erik's life must have been so far!
Suddenly it was as if a cold hand grabbed Christine's heart and squeezed it tightly. A terrible thought had just crossed her mind. "Do you think..," she began hesitantly. "I mean, is it possible that he.. that Erik will…. that he might hurt himself, once he realizes who he has been?" Nadir stiffened. He knew exactly what she was hinting at, and he had to admit that the same fear had troubled him as well.
"I hope not," he finally uttered. "I like to think that he will be strong enough to accept his past. Also, now, with you and Mme. Giry here, if we all join forces and show him our love and support, things might be a bit easier for him. My friendship alone might not have been enough, but with the two of you to assist me, we may be able to get him over the worst. We just have to stick together and give him our love, friendship, acceptance, to be there for him, when the time comes and he remembers everything, to form some kind of safety net that will catch him, when he falls, when his past becomes too overwhelming for him."
Christine sighed. "I wish I could spare him this," she said, "but I know that our relationship only stands a chance if it is built upon truth and honesty. Erik needs to remember his own past and my betrayal, before the healing process can begin."
Nadir squeezed her hand. "That is the right attitude," he told her. "I know that you will be able to help him through the worst if you feel that way. There will always remain some lingering regret, for he won't be able to undo his past, but by showing him our acceptance, we may be able to help him accept himself."
A faint smile crossed Christine's features. "Erik has done a lot of bad things," she mumbled, "but I do not think that he is a bad person. He has always been so kind to me, so caring and supportive, when I was a child. Of course he was strict during my voice lessons, but then, that's what made him such a good teacher. I never would have learned half as much had he been more relenting."
Nadir agreed. "He has a kind, caring heart," he said. "Without his deformity he would probably have been a very nice and loving person. But he was confronted with rejection and abuse at a very early age, he never knew kindness or love. He has a very low opinion of himself because of this birth defect and as a consequence he would have needed more love rather than less right from the start, but unfortunately his mother failed him completely in that regard. Then his experiences with the gypsies…" Nadir shook his head. "It is no wonder that he retaliated to the world and its cruelties the only way he knew – with violence, cruelty and anger. He fought back in order to survive."
Nadir remained silent for a few moments before he continued. "But when he regained consciousness for the first time after his accident, when he did not even remember his deformity, it was like a new beginning for him. This time he did not have to deal with rejection and abuse, I gave him my friendship and showed him acceptance, and my servant Darius supported me in this. So when Erik finally learned about his handicap, he already knew that he was loved. Thus he could become the valuable member of society that he is today, but he is still very reclusive. I am fairly certain he has not talked to anybody other than me and Darius and now you, since he recovered from his injuries. Apparently he fears contact with other people. His subconscious seems to remember all the hatred and rejection he has suffered. I do not know if he will ever gain the confidence to interact with others, and things might get harder for him once he remembers everything."
Christine listened attentively. What Nadir said made sense to her. "If only Erik can learn to trust me again, once he remembers," she whispered. "I know that he needs all the love in the world to make it up to him for what he has suffered and I so wish that I can make him feel loved and wanted."
Nadir smiled at her. "I am sure that if you really want this, you will be able to teach Erik happiness," he said softly.
In the meantime they had reached cottage number twelve and Nadir took leave of Christine, promising that he would keep her informed on the progress of the planned acquisition of a piano. "Erik is probably preparing a list of things right now that I need to pay attention to when choosing a suitable instrument," he said smiling, "so that I will know what to look for, what questions to ask etc. once I go to the music shop tomorrow." Then he turned more serious. "I know that you want to see Erik again soon, and he is just as anxious to meet you again. You will also both want to start your singing lessons. I will therefore do my best to hurry things up and see to it that Erik gets his piano as soon as possible."
Christine nodded. "Erik needs his music," she stated, "I am sure that a piano will be of great help to him. He will be able to express himself and deal with his emotions through music." She held her hand out to Nadir who raised it to his lips and gently kissed it. "Good-bye, Miss Christine," he said softly, making her feel as if they were conspirators. Conspirators with the main goal of helping Erik to accept himself, his deformity and his past, but also to fulfill his true potential and to live the normal life he had always dreamed of.
Mme. Giry had spent the afternoon in a rather nervous mood. Meg had been called back to the Opera for a second audition as ballerina, and Christine was meeting with Erik, who did not remember anything of their shared past. Mme. Giry hoped that everything would go well, that Meg would get hired, that Christine and Erik would finally end up together. But there were so many variables, so many things that could go wrong. Meg was an accomplished dancer, but what if for some reason or other the people in charge were looking for somebody taller or shorter – or with dark hair? Or for somebody with more of a comic talent?
And as to Christine and Erik – the possibilities of failure were endless. Erik's low self-esteem, Christine's feeling of guilt, Erik's memory loss, Christine's divorce, all these were reasons why their reunion could lead to disaster despite their love.
When Mme. Giry finally heard the front door, she ran out to meet whichever of her girls was coming home and get her news. The moment the front door had closed behind her, Christine lost her composure. She threw herself in her foster mother's open arms, crying and laughing at the same time.
"I love him so much," Christine sobbed, clinging to Mme. Giry. "Oh, you cannot imagine…"
The former ballet mistress hugged her close, rubbing her back, trying to comfort her. After a while Christine recovered enough that she could give a report of her meeting with Erik. She let Mme. Giry lead her into the parlor, sat down and began to tell her about her reunion with her Angel of Music.
"Erik is strong and healthy," she began. "But he did not let me see his face." Her voice was heavy with disappointment. "He is so … so insecure now," she explained. "He hid behind a wide-brimmed hat the whole time. I would have wanted so badly to prove to him that his face does not matter to me, but he did not let me. In fact, at first he was so ill at ease, he seemed at a total loss how to deal with me."
Mme. Giry looked concerned. That did not sound at all like the Erik she knew. Could he really be all right if he was so subdued now?
"It's because of his memory loss," Christine explained. "It must be extremely awkward having to talk to a person you have known for years but can't remember. To know that this person may know things about you that you don't remember yourself. But once I mentioned how lonely I had felt after my father's death, his empathy took over. He understood just as he had understood all those years ago. Except when I told him that he had been my Angel of Music, he got angry." Christine giggled at the memory. "It was like in the old times, he was lashing out and I calmed him down."
Christine looked at Mme. Giry. "He thought I had made an extremely poor joke calling him an angel," she explained. "He thought I was having fun at his expense. Because of his face."
She cringed. "Why does it always have to come down to his face?" she asked exacerbated. "Erik is such a talented person, he can be so caring and understanding, why does he think that because of his face he is a lesser man? Why does he not get it that appearances are not everything?" For a fleeting moment Christine thought of her former husband. Raoul was certainly an attractive man, but he had not treated her too kindly. He had forced her to give up music, to forget about her friends, and when she had not been able to give him an heir he had cast her out.
Mme. Giry patted Christine's shoulder. "Erik has suffered a lot because of his face," she said calmly. "It is only natural that all the rejection and abuse he has encountered will have left scars on his psyche. It will not be easy to convince him that you do love him."
Christine sighed. "I know," she sobbed, "especially once he knows the truth about my betrayal." She looked up. "Erik is beginning to remember," she announced. "That is the good news. He drew a picture of me this morning, of my debut as Elyssa, and at that point he did not even know yet that I had been a singer. He drew it from memory. And he remembered you saving him from the gypsies. By the way, he has agreed to see you. We will be asked over to tea once Erik will have a piano," Christine explained. "He did not even know he was a musician, imagine, our Erik has gone without music for three years!"
Mme. Giry gasped. Erik without music? That idea was hard to grasp. "M. Khan thought it might remind Erik of me and my betrayal," Christine continued. "He therefore never mentioned music. He wanted to protect Erik. And he agrees with me that Erik will be shocked once he finds out about all the horrible things he has done." Her voice faltered and it took her a few moments before she could continue. "Buquet, the chandelier, Piangi, the Opera Ghost…"
Mme. Giry nodded. "He will need us then. He will need to see that we accept him and love him despite everything. It may not be easy for us to convince him of our friendship and love, but we will have to be there for him then, all of us, M. Khan as well."
Christine beamed. "That's exactly what M. Khan just told me on our way home," she said, "that the three of us will have to join forces and give Erik all our love, that together we will hopefully be able to get him through the worst."
Mme. Giry smiled. "We will most certainly do that. We should in fact have done that long ago, but I fear I failed Erik in that regard just as badly as you did. We can learn from our past mistakes, though, and this time we will do it right and be of real help to Erik."