Chapter 17 – Angst
The wall clock suddenly began to strike and Christine looked up. "Six o'clock already," she murmured, glad for the chance to change the topic. "I should find Mme. Giry, so that we can go home."
Erik gazed at her, his eyes imploring her to give in to his pleas and accept his proposal. "Will you…," he began uncertainly, "will you still come back tomorrow?" God, he hoped he had not offended her by trying to kiss her, before she was his bride, and that whatever she thought was standing between them would not make it impossible for her to see him now.
The doubt in his voice combined with the adoration in his eyes gave Christine goose bumps. She realized how precarious an emotional state he was in and that he was in desperate need of a sign of her affection. Thus she gave Erik a warm smile and squeezed his hand reassuringly. "Of course, Erik," she told him, "I would love to come back tomorrow, so we can sing together again and I can tell you a few more things. Now that you have confessed your love to me, there is a lot you need to know."
Erik nodded, and holding on to her hand he lead her out to the terrace where they found Nadir and Mme. Giry.
When they heard the approaching footsteps of their two charges, Nadir and Antoinette turned towards the house to meet the couple. The first thing they noticed were the red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained faces, a certain awkwardness between them, Christine's subdued mood and Erik's eyes shining with hope, as well as their interlaced fingers. It was very obvious that something important had happened between the two, but that not all problems had yet been resolved.
Then Mme. Giry realized that Erik was not wearing his hat anymore. She was not sure if he had only forgotten to put it on again after he had obviously removed it for Christine earlier or if he was consciously allowing her to see his deformed face, but she was glad the hat was gone. That gave her a chance to prove to Erik that she, too, accepted him the way he was, and loved him like the big sister she should have been to him all those years ago, while at the same time she would be able to somewhat defuse the slight tension and uneasiness between him and Christine.
"Oh Erik," she smiled at him, "I am so glad you have decided to show us your face." Erik's eyes took on a haunted look and he began to fidget nervously. He had completely forgotten about the hat and now that he was being reminded of the absence of his protective garment, he felt exposed, naked. His right hand was about to cover his deformity, when Mme. Giry gently caught it in her own hand.
"No Erik," she said softly, "you do not need to hide. We are neither frightened nor disgusted by your face. Your looks do not change the way we feel about you. I am certain, M. Khan here has told you so repeatedly, and I can assure you, that Christine and I feel the same way about it. All of us know you and we appreciate you for the talents and qualities you have. And neither of us is superficial enough to shun you because of your face."
Erik seemed unconvinced and looked at her uneasily. Mme. Giry suddenly felt guilty. She should have told him that years ago. She should have shown him her sisterly love when they were still children. It never had occurred to her that the boy she had saved from the gypsies might need more than a place to sleep, some food and clean clothes. "I neglected him almost as badly as his mother," she thought to herself, "and then I expected Christine to pick up the pieces and undo the damage we all had done to this man's psyche."
On an impulse to make it up to him for her neglect all those years ago, she pulled Erik into a tight embrace. "I know I failed you when we were children," she confessed. "I should have shown you my acceptance more openly. After all, when I saved you from the gypsies, I took on a responsibility. I guess my only excuse is my youth and immaturity at that time, I did not understand that what you needed most was a family. I should have been a sister to you, not just a provider of nourishment and other essentials…"
Erik stiffened. "The gypsies," he murmured. He suddenly knew what it was that he had been running from, when Antoinette had shown him to a save place. At her words his mind had released another set of memories, highly unpleasant ones. Erik saw himself as a small boy in the gypsy camp, abused, mistreated, beaten, ridiculed, forced to reveal his disgrace of a face to paying audiences, to endure their verbal abuse, their disgust. He remembered falling asleep hungry almost every night, living in a cage like an animal, not ever having any privacy, having rotten fruit and vegetables thrown at his ugliness and people spit at him. It had been too much to bear, at one point Erik had not been able to endure this abuse any longer. One day…
Erik's eyes widened in sudden shock. He freed himself from Mme. Giry's arms and started pacing the terrace. "I killed him," he whispered, terrified. "I killed my gypsy master and escaped." He shuddered. "I killed a man! There is blood on my hands!"
Mme. Giry sighed. She had not meant to cause these unpleasant memories to surface and agitate him like this. "It was most certainly self-defense," she said resolutely. "You needed to get away from that monster or he would have slowly killed you with his abuse. You were already malnourished and the delicate skin of your face as well as some of the injuries he had caused you were getting infected. You would not have lasted much longer, and till this day I cannot think of any other way how you could have gotten away. He would never have let you go, not for all the money in the world."
She stopped the pacing man and laid a calming hand on Erik's shoulder. "I saw how he treated you, Erik," she said softly. "You were only a little boy, an innocent child. You should never have been abused like this. He should have hanged for his crimes against you. He deserved to die." She looked Erik in the eye. "I would not have helped you if I did not feel that way. None of us here is holding this against you, Erik." She paused for a moment. "I could have killed that beast myself," she finally confessed. "I was so furious at him when I saw what he did to you, I wanted him dead."
Erik's eyes were searching Christine's. "Do you feel the same way?" he asked her hesitantly. "This is not the reason why you did not…?"
Christine shook her head. "No, Erik," she comforted him. "That has nothing to do with us. I realize that you had no other choice if you wanted to survive." She shuddered as she remembered what her foster mother had told her about that particular incident, how thin and filthy and covered with bruises and festering wounds the boy she had saved from the gypsies had been.
"I am glad you were able to escape from those brutes," she told Erik. "I do not know what would have become of me, if I had not had my Angel of Music." She smiled at him. "You would not have been able to comfort me after my father's death if you had allowed that monster of a man to slowly slaughter you."
Erik nodded. He understood her point of view. Christine and Antoinette apparently had forgiven him long ago for killing that gypsy for the reasons they had stated, and in a way he agreed with them. This was just all so new for him, until a few moments ago he had not known about this incident, he had not had time to come to terms with his past crime yet.
A terrible thought suddenly assaulted him. If it was not this murder on his hands, what else could it be that kept him and Christine apart? If she had rejected him because he had killed a man, he could have understood, but she said that this was not the case. There must be something else, and now that a rather dreadful episode of his past had been revealed to him, Erik began to fear that there might be more horrors lurking in the depths of his mind, waiting for him to remember. He was suddenly convinced that Christine's reluctance to become his bride was not unjustified and he worried that the obstacles between them that he had been so willing to abolish, might prove to be insurmountable after all.
Christine was silent on the way home, but Mme. Giry noticed a certain tension. It was obvious to her that the young woman was just as agitated as Erik had been when he remembered his time with the gypsies. Once they had reached their house she therefore put a comforting hand on her foster daughter's shoulder and asked softly, "is everything fine between you and Erik?"
Christine was not able to hold back her tears any longer. "Oh Mme. Giry," she sobbed, "my poor Angel! How will he be able to deal with the truth if this one killing in self-defense has affected him so badly? How on earth will he react once he finds out about all the other things he has done? He barely seemed to accept that his own survival was at stake, that there was no way around killing that child-abusing misfit if he wanted to live on. I am so afraid," she cried.
Mme. Giry understood. That same thought had crossed her mind when she had witnessed Erik's shock at the realization that he had killed. But she hoped to God that their fears might be unfounded, that Erik would be strong enough to accept his past, all of it.
"He is not alone," she tried to comfort Christine. "He has us. He has a family now that loves him. Once he remembers everything, he will also realize that we have known all along and have not shied away from him, that we have accepted him with all his shortcomings."
Christine nodded, unconvinced. "He thought it was because of this killing that I had told him I could not become his bride right away," she sobbed. "Erik suspected I have rejected his proposal because of this! How can I make him understand that I know about all his crimes and still do not condemn him, especially when I abandoned him after Buquet…"
Mme. Giry stared at her. "What did you just say?" she asked surprised. "Erik proposed to you? So soon? You have barely had time to get reacquainted!"
Christine smiled. "Yes," she confessed happily. "My angel told me he loves me, has always loved me and asked me to give him a chance, to at least consider…" She looked dreamily into the far distance. "I think the way I reacted to his face prompted this declaration, and I so wish I could have said yes and become his fiancée, but I could not. I would be betraying him all over again if I tried to bind him to me now when he does not know all the details. So I told him that he had to wait, that there was so much he did not remember or had never known of, and that only once he'd had all the facts, he should decide whether or not he wanted me. And if he asked me then, my answer would be yes."
Mme. Giry hugged her. "I am confident that all will go well this time, that the two of you will be able to sort out everything. He does love you, after all, and since he loves you, he will be able to forgive you, just like you have forgiven all his past actions because you love him."
Christine sighed. "It's not just my betrayal," she whispered. "I am a used woman, I will not be able anymore to give him my virginity, and I cannot get pregnant…"
Mme. Giry interrupted her. "Nonsense," she said, "there is no proof that you cannot have children. In fact, have not these doctors that Raoul consulted told you so as well?"
Christine blushed at the memory of her deepest humiliation and Mme. Giry pulled her close. "If anything, Erik will love you more, once he learns how the Vicomte has treated you, and as to your previous marriage… while a man likes to be the first one with his wife, I am confident that Erik will value your love higher than your virginity. Most men do," she added confidently, "or no widow would ever find a second husband. And you have not done anything inappropriate, trust me, Erik will get over this."
A few hundred meters up the street, Nadir was trying to comfort a similarly agitated Erik. "Yes, I knew about the gypsy," Nadir repeated exasperatedly. "I feel about it the same way as the two ladies, you had no choice. I do not think less about you because of it, I love you just the same, and in case you must know, Darius knows as well, and as you are quite aware of, the man is rather fond of you. We do not care, Erik. We love you the way you are, despite your shortcomings, as we hope that you love us despite ours."
Erik stared at him. "Why did you not tell me?" he asked. "I am a criminal and never knew it! Is that why you brought me here? Were the authorities looking for me?"
Nadir bit his lip. If he answered this question truthfully he would have to say yes, but Erik was in no condition to deal with the rest of his criminal actions right now. "I tried to get you away from you past," Nadir finally said, "and from Miss Christine. I knew you were in love with her, but I had no reason to believe she was returning your feelings. But I was wrong on that, was I not?"
Nadir was proud of himself. He had not technically told a lie and had at the same time managed to change the topic.
Erik's face lit up. "She said she loves me, and that the gypsy does not change that fact, but she would not allow me to call her my bride. She said there was a lot more that I needed to know before she could accept my proposal. She seems to think that some things she may have done in the past or I may have done in the past might make me turn away from her, as if I ever…"
Nadir smiled. "I know, you love her unconditionally. But she was right not to accept your proposal now. There is more in your past that you do not remember than just that gypsy. Things that happened between the two of you, and I think she might also have thought about a few things that happened over the past three years. I am confident, though, that you are right, that nothing you will learn from her in the near future or remember as you remembered the gypsy today, will be able to kill your love for her."
He chuckled. "In any case, I am already getting used to the idea of becoming your best man once the time will be right."
Erik looked at his friend, full of hope. "You think she will eventually agree to marry me?"
Nadir patted the younger man's shoulder. "Yes. I am sure she will. It all depends on you. She did not say she could not marry you, am I right?" Erik nodded and Nadir continued, "that's proof enough that she has already decided. Unlike you, she knows everything, remembers everything. Unlike you, she has had time to consider all the facts and think about it. She has decided that she would like to marry you, but you have not had the chance yet to evaluate all the facts, and while I am sure that your love will be strong enough to overcome whatever problems there may be, and Miss Christine hopes the same, she would not allow you to become honor-bound to her before you have had that chance." He paused for a moment, then added, "she is a good woman, your Christine."
Erik nodded in agreement, then looked at Nadir. "You know what she was talking about," he stated. "You know what she thinks may keep us apart. Why do you not tell me? Why do you keep me in the dark?"
Nadir hesitated for a moment. "I do know some of it," he admitted, "though only from hear-say. I was not present when these things happened. But there are things I do not know."
He briefly remembered that Christine had told him that she had kissed Erik, and that he still could not imagine when and how this might have happened. "I also believe that Miss Christine will want to tell you these things herself. After all, this is between the two of you, no third party should get involved."
Erik sighed. "You could at least give me a hint or two," he begged. "It must be really bad, since you are so reluctant to talk about it. Is it worse than murdering that gypsy?"
Nadir was beginning to feel nervous. He did not want to reveal any more of Erik's past to his friend. In his opinion, Erik had had enough to deal with for one day. So he only smiled enigmatically and told Erik that it was best to ask Christine about this when she would be coming back for tea the next day. "But I assure you that it is nothing that love will not be able to overcome," he added reassuringly.