Chapter 15 – Piano
A few days later, Nadir stopped by at the Giry cottage on his way home from the office. "Our piano will be delivered this very afternoon," he announced excitedly, "which means that the singing lessons can start tomorrow afternoon." He turned to Mme. Giry. "As Miss Christine has probably already informed you, Erik is asking you to accompany her."
Mme. Giry nodded. "Of course. I am looking forward very much to seeing Erik again, and it is certainly more appropriate if I am with Christine when she makes a visit in an all-male household."
Nadir smiled. "You know, I think Erik is looking forward to seeing you again as well. It will do him a lot of good to realize just how many people he has that care for him despite his deformity. In fact, I think that Miss Christine's recent visit has already boosted his self-esteem a bit. You wouldn't believe it, but he actually accompanied me into town last night to give his final approval on the piano I had chosen for him." He chuckled at the memory. "Now imagine the shop owner's surprise when Erik came in wearing this ridiculous hat of his, which he did not take off for the entire time we were there! I bet this merchant had the shock of his life. Or maybe not. There are a lot of rather eccentric people around in the upper class, so he may have had some unusual customers before. But the moment Erik started to play the first few notes he was in awe. Me too, to tell the truth. Erik may not have played the piano in three years, but he did not sound out of practice at all. It was wonderful. Brilliant technique and heart-felt interpretation."
Nadir sighed. "Maybe it was not right to keep him away from music for so long. I only wanted to protect him, but I may have been wrong."
Christine smiled at Nadir encouragingly. "I think Erik understands that you had his best interest in mind, and the important thing is that he has his music now. In a few hours he will have his piano and he will be able to play as long as he wants to."
Now it was Nadir's turn to smile. "Oh, I bet he has been playing all day," he said. "He bought a violin last night as well, which he took home immediately. When I left the house this morning, Erik was already playing on his new instrument." He gave Christine a meaningful look. "I think he was improvising, and the melody he played was full of longing…"
Christine blushed deeply. In order to give her time to compose herself again, Nadir turned to Mme. Giry. "It is agreed then, that the two of you will have tea with us tomorrow and that Miss Christine will have a singing lesson with Erik?"
Both ladies told him that they were happy to accept this kind invitation and asked him to give Erik their love, which Nadir promised to do.
The next afternoon, Mme. Giry and Christine went to their tea appointment with Erik and Nadir. This time, Erik answered the door and let them in. He was again wearing his hat and still a bit ill at ease, but his self-confidence had definitely improved since Christine's first visit.
Erik looked at his two female visitors. "Christine," he whispered, in awe that she had indeed come back for a second visit, then he turned to her companion. "Antoinette."
Mme. Giry was overwhelmed. To know that Erik was alive was one thing, but to actually see him and hear him speak was something else entirely. She suddenly realized how much she had missed him.
"Erik," she finally managed to say, "it is good to see you." Erik gazed at her. He did not remember much about this woman, but he knew that she had rescued him once, when they had been children, and that she was like a mother to Christine and had approved of their friendship. That she was so obviously touched to see him alive and well, impressed him. Was it possible that she, too, actually cared about him? For such a long time he had thought that Nadir and Darius were the only people that could stand his presence, and now it seemed as if he had a small group of friends.
"It… it is good to see you, too," Erik finally stammered, then, before he could think about it, a few more words escaped him. "You used to carry my letters," he stated, then stared. He had not remembered this fact before, but the moment he had said those words he knew he had spoken the truth.
Mme. Giry smiled. "Yes, I used to help you stay in touch with the world," she said vaguely, at the same time happy to see Erik remember yet another detail of his past and scared at the thought of how he would take it if he remembered what kind of messages she had delivered on his behalf.
At that moment Nadir appeared. He greeted the ladies, then suggested to proceed to the little terrace where Darius would be serving tea. "And then Erik and Miss Christine can try out the new piano with a voice lesson," he suggested. Erik and Christine looked at each other. They both thought that tea was a total waste of time, when a new piano was waiting for them and there were still so many things between them that needed to be clarified.
Neither Erik nor Christine talked much during tea, but a lot of furtive glances back and forth and Christine's frequent blushes made it quite clear to Nadir and Mme. Giry that they were in the way. Therefore, as soon as they had finished tea, Nadir offered to show Mme. Giry the garden.
"Miss Christine has seen that already during her previous visit," he explained. "Why do the two of you not go ahead and start the singing lesson?" he suggested to Erik. "We will join you later, once Mme. Giry has had time to admire our beautiful flowers and trees."
Erik gave Christine a nervous glance. Would she come with him? Would she want to be alone with him? To his relief, Christine beamed at him. "Please, Erik," she said, "show me the piano, and maybe we can sing a bit. I have missed music, too," she confessed, then, blushing deeply, she added, "and my Angel of Music."
Erik did not quite know how to reply, so he gave her a brief nod and told her to follow him to the parlor, which now doubled as a music room, since the new piano had been put there.
"We will have to do some warm-up first," Erik announced, sitting down in front of the piano, and he immediately began to play scales. Christine obliged and started to sing along. After only a few notes, Erik interrupted her. "Your posture is all wrong," he complained. He walked over to her and put his hands on her waist and shoulders, in order to show her how she should stand. The moment he had touched her, he retracted his hands, though, as if he had been burned.
"I am sorry," Erik stammered. "I did not mean… it was inappropriate of me to touch you in this way…"
He looked so contrite, that Christine had to laugh. "Oh Angel," she said. "How am I supposed to do it right if you don't show me? There is nothing inappropriate about it. So, please, tell me what I should do?"
Erik looked at her doubtfully. Was it possible that she truly was not offended that he had touched her? Had she just given him permission to touch her if he wanted to correct her posture? The only thing he knew for sure was that he had enjoyed the brief contact of his hands with her body, that touching her had reminded him once again what an utterly lovely, desirable woman she was, and that he loved her with all his heart.
"Well," he finally mumbled, "maybe I can show you. Watch me." Then he stood next to Christine, showing her exactly how she should carry herself while singing. Christine tried to imitate him as best she could. "Like that?" she asked. Erik nodded. "Much better," he concurred. "Now just raise your head a bit more, then we can try again."
This time they got through the scales. Erik started at a fairly low key, but kept going up and after a while Christine found herself hitting stratospheric high notes again. Erik was pleased. "Your voice has not suffered at all," he stated, "your technique has become sloppy, but I should be able to help you with that. In a few weeks you will be back at your previous level of excellence." Then he swallowed hard. He had said that automatically. Nobody had told him just how excellent a singer this young woman had been, but somehow he just knew that she had been magnificent.
Christine gave him one of her beautiful smiles. "I promise I will practice," she said, "and I will try to follow all your instructions. I know you will be able to bring me up to speed in no time."
Erik hesitated for a moment. Then he turned to Christine, encouraged by her enthusiasm to ask her a question. "Will you come back for a lesson tomorrow?" He looked at her uneasily. What if she considered him to be too bold to ask for another meeting so soon? "Antoinette as well, of course," Erik added quickly, to make sure she understood that his intentions were honorable.
Christine beamed. "Of course, Erik," she said. "If you can spare the time for my lessons, and…" she looked down. "And there are some things we need to discuss," she added in a whisper. "I need to tell you a lot more about.. before…"
Erik nodded. "You wanted to tell me, how you finally found out I was not an angel," he stated flatly. "Would you mind…?"
Christine thought about it for a moment, then sat down next to him on the piano bench. There was not really enough room for two, but Christine had a feeling that Erik would need the comfort of her presence for what he was about to hear.
Erik stiffened, when he felt Christine's body so close to his, their shoulders touching, but Christine's voice made him relax again.
"I told you about my debut," Christine started cautiously, "and that I had begged my angel to show himself to me. My performance was such a huge success, and when I finally returned to my dressing room, Mme. Giry was waiting for me. There were tons of flowers all around," she continued, "but I was most interested in one single red rose that had a black satin ribbon tied around its stem."
Erik's eyes widened. So that was why he had felt the urge to bring her a rose tied with such a ribbon when he had first spotted her in her garden. "From me," he stated flatly.
Christine giggled. "Of course from you! Mme. Giry gave it to me on your behalf, telling me that 'he' was pleased." Christine looked at Erik pointedly. "She delivered more than just your letters."
Erik was at a loss what to say. He had dared sending this lovely girl a red rose, the flower of love, and she did not seem to mind. What was even stranger was the fact that he had used the girl's foster mother to present her with this gift and that woman had obviously not minded either that he was attempting to court her young charge.
"I was just thinking that it was odd that angels could send flowers," Christine continued, "when I was interrupted. A childhood friend whom I had not seen in years had seen me at the performance and recognized me and he wanted to rekindle our friendship."
Erik felt a jealous rage build within him. He had known it! Christine was way too lovely to go unnoticed. It was inevitable that sooner or later a young, attractive man would come along and take her away from him.
Christine felt how Erik tensed next to her at her mention of Raoul. "I turned him down," she quickly explained. "He wanted to take me to dinner, but I declined." Erik exhaled deeply, relieved.
"I was hoping for my angel to contact me," Christine confessed, blushing. "That strange angel that sent me a flower. I was more convinced than ever that he had to be an actual person. And then," she smiled at Erik, remembering that long-ago evening, "you came to me. Through the mirror."
Erik frowned. There was something about a mirror, a huge, wall-length mirror in her dressing-room, he was certain about that, but he did not quite remember the importance of it. "Through the mirror?" he repeated questioningly.
Christine nodded. "Yes, it was actually a secret door," she explained. "You came to me through the mirror and escorted me to your home." She glanced at Erik, anxious to see if he would remember anything about his subterranean home.
Erik's thoughts were going in a totally different direction, though. "You went with me?" he asked incredulously. "You were not afraid?"
Christine shook her head. "Of course not. Why would I have been afraid of my angel? I knew it was you, I recognized my angel's voice, why should I have been afraid?"
Erik hesitated. "I was a man," he said, "and you a young woman. Did you not think that I might… take advantage of you, if you came to my home with me?"
Christine smiled. "Don't be silly," she chastised him. "I knew my angel would never do such a thing. I had known you for almost ten years by then, I knew I could trust you and that I would be safe with you."
She leaned against his shoulder. "I still know that, Erik," she said. "I do trust you, and I know that I will always be safe with you. Always."
Erik nodded. What she had just said made sense. Of course she trusted her angel, but… "What about my face?" he asked. "Weren't you frightened, disgusted, when you finally saw me?"
Christine shook her head. She swallowed hard before her next words, fearing that they might trigger a memory. "You were wearing a mask," she finally said.
Erik stared ahead. His mind's eye showed him a white half-mask that would cover the marred right side of his face quite well. Of course such a garment would make him stick out just as much as his deformity, only in a different way. "A mask," he whispered, "I used to wear a mask…"
"Yes," Christine confirmed, "but M. Khan has not told you about that on purpose. He thinks that a mask would be bad for your new scar, that the chafing could reopen that wound or cause an infection. Please promise me that you will not risk that!"
There was so much genuine concern for his wellbeing in her voice and eyes that it was impossible for Erik to ignore it and he began to dream again. Then his mind returned to reality. "Don't get your hopes up," he reminded himself. "She does care for you, that much is obvious, but don't expect her to return your feelings."
"I will not wear a mask again, if you don't want me to," he promised Christine and was rewarded by a relieved smile. "But if I was wearing a mask," Erik continued, "how come you finally… I mean, you said you have seen my face."
Christine hung her head in shame. "I behaved disgracefully," she confessed. "I guess you can say I was curious, that the mask made me want to know what was underneath it…" her voice trailed. She had skipped so many details, like that he had wooed her with the most beautiful song and that he had shown her a mannequin which was a life-like replica of herself wearing a wedding-gown, thus making his intentions clear to her. She had also left out the fact that she had spent the night in his home and that this home was situated in a cavern on the shores of a subterranean lake deep underneath the opera house. But somehow she felt that these details were not necessary at the moment. All that mattered to Erik right now was to find out how she had seen his face and how she had reacted to it.
"Erik should accept our love and friendship first," Christine told herself, "before we remind him of the really bad things in his past, so that he can rely on us then, when the terrible memories start to haunt him." That thought gave her the strength to continue. "I approached you," she confessed, "and when you least expected it, I took off your mask."
Erik stared at her in shock. She had done what? Removed the garment behind which he had been hiding his inhuman face? Exposed his shame, been confronted without warning with the hideous ugliness that was his face?
"You must have been scared and disgusted," he murmured distressedly.
Christine reached for Erik's hand. "More by your temper, than anything," she whispered.
Erik's eyes widened. "I got angry?" he asked miserably, "yelled at you?"
Christine squeezed his hand. "Yes," she admitted, "and you had every right to be angry, what I had done was totally uncalled for. It was more instinctive, though," she added. "The moment I ripped off your mask, you lashed out, then your hand immediately flew up to your face to cover yourself."
Erik was in shock. "I hit you?" he asked dejectedly.
"Not on purpose," Christine tried to convince him. "It was all my fault, I should never have ripped off your mask, and once I realized how much you suffered because of your face, how low your self-esteem was," she rested her head on Erik's shoulder, thus showing him her acceptance, "my heart went out to you. Angel, your face was no issue for me then anymore. For all I cared, you would not have had to put your mask back on again, but I sensed that you wanted it back, that you felt naked, exposed without it, that wearing a mask meant to you that you could preserve your dignity that way, so I gave it back to you."
Christine smiled at Erik. "I still feel that way," she whispered. "My angel does not need to hide behind a mask or a hat or a hood or whatever other garment you might come up with to cover your face. Not in my presence at least." She made a pause for emphasis, then asked shyly, "will you take off your hat for me, Erik? Will you allow me to see my angel's face again?"