Chapter 18 – Il Muto
Mme. Giry and Christine returned for tea the next afternoon. This time, Erik and Christine asked to be excused from tea-time and proceeded straight to the parlor. Christine suggested that they might start with a singing lesson, so that they could relax a bit, before she would tell Erik more about their shared past. They worked hard on Christine's voice for about an hour, and both were very content with the progress she made. Her breathing technique was almost back to its previous level of excellence and Erik thought that they might soon be able to start studying arias.
When they had finished their lesson, Erik asked Christine to tell him more about their relationship after their first encounter. What had happened after she had returned the mask to him? How had the revelation that he was just a man influenced her view of her "Angel"?
Christine sighed. This was starting to get uncomfortable. She was getting close to the Buquet-incident now. How would Erik take this revelation?
"At first nothing much happened," she began cautiously. "You brought me home and we resumed our music lessons the following day. The Opéra Populaire was getting ready for a new production, a piece called "Il Muto", and you helped me study the principal soprano role of the Countess."
Erik nodded. "You were cast in that role after your success in Hannibal?" he asked.
Christine hesitated for a moment. She did not want to tell him that he had threatened the managers to make them give that prestigious role to her. "We hoped I would be allowed to sing it," she finally explained, "but the managers had other plans. I was once again only the understudy."
Erik groaned. "They must have been brainless," he said, "your voice is breathtakingly beautiful, you would have been a huge success as the Countess."
Christine smiled at him. "Is it possible that you are not completely unbiased in that regard?" she asked teasingly.
Erik smiled as well. "Of course our relationship and the fact that I had taught you, may have influenced my opinion," he admitted. Then he hesitated. "What was our relationship like after we finally met? Was it the same it had been before, when you had still considered me to be your Angel of Music?"
Christine looked away. "It was not quite the same," she confessed. "There was a certain awkwardness between us. I do not know what had caused it. But I suspect it had something to do with the fact that it began to dawn on me that I was not a child anymore, and that my angel was a man. And you... I guess, you had got it into your head that once I knew about your face, there was no chance you could ever win my heart." She looked at Erik affectionately. "Your self-esteem and your ability to judge your friends' feelings for you have always been somewhat lacking."
Erik nodded. Yes, he could imagine himself feeling attracted to his student but too unsure of himself to dare courting her. "Would you have wanted me to …?" he asked.
Christine smiled. "I already loved my Angel, and when I saw your face, I was overcome with compassion for you. I wanted so much to make it up to you for all the abuse you had suffered. It would not have taken much to win me over back then, but you..." She shook her head. "You seemed to think that I could only barely tolerate you. You were quite withdrawn at times and seemed to avoid looking at me or touching me."
Erik knew only too well how he might have felt back then, he, the loathsome gargoyle, close to madness with love and longing for this beautiful woman, but unable to voice his feelings. He was fairly certain that the situation must have been hell for him and that it must have cost him all his energy to show so much composure in her presence.
"What happened then?" he asked curiously. Christine bit her lip. "Then the opening night of "Il Muto" was marked by a tragedy," she whispered. "And as a consequence I lost my trust in you and betrayed you."
Erik stared at her. "What do you mean, a tragedy?" he asked. "What happened that night?"
Christine wrung her hands. "Somebody died," she finally said. "A stagehand."
"An accident?" Erik muttered, afraid of her answer.
Christine looked down. "I don't know," she admitted. "I still don't know what happened, but when Buquet dropped on that stage, with the noose around his neck..."
Erik's eyes widened. "Buquet," he repeated, "a noose... hanged... did I... ?" His voice trailed. Christine nodded, unable to speak or to look at him.
"Oh my God," Erik collapsed onto the piano bench. "A murderer... I am a murderer... the gypsy was not the only one..."
His desperation broke Christine's heart. "It was most likely self-defense," she said slowly. "Mme. Giry told me that this Buquet-person had been stalking you, telling people details about your face, endangering you in various ways, and that she had warned him to leave you alone, repeatedly. I think the two of you ran into each other during the performance, and that he and you had a show-down in the rafters and you won."
Erik stared at her. "You think," he said, "but you do not know for certain. What if I just coldbloodedly killed him, because I felt like killing somebody?"
Christine started to sob. "That's what I assumed that day. I thought you were in a furious mood because I was not allowed to sing the principal role, and that you had looked for release of your anger... I never even asked you about it, I never bothered. I condemned you without knowing what really happened."
Erik was as pale as the wall. "It is only natural that you felt that way. After all, I had killed before..."
There was so much desperation and self-loathing in his eyes, that Christine reached for him. Her tiny hand cupped his deformed cheek. "I did not know about the gypsy at that time," she confessed. "Mme. Giry told me about that much later. But I had known you for close to ten years, and I should have known better than to blame you without knowing all the facts. I should have asked you what happened, I should have given you a chance to defend yourself, or to at least justify, explain your actions to me."
"Why?" Erik's laugh sounded almost insane. "Why should you have bothered with a killer? If it was clear that I had been the cause of this man's death..."
Christine took his face in both her hands. "He did die, and you were involved in some way, but for all I know it could even have been an accident. I should never ever have condemned you the way I did. I should have given you a chance to explain the situation to me. I owed you that much, but I didn't have the decency to let you defend yourself. As I said, I never bothered to ask you, I was just so shocked, and I felt … betrayed."
Erik frowned. "Betrayed?" he asked, "how so?"
Christine averted her eyes, blushing. "Because I thought that my trust and my admiration for my angel had been misplaced. Because I felt like I had given my heart to somebody undeserving."
Erik nodded. He could not blame her. After all, her teacher, father-figure, mentor, whatever she had seen in him, a person she had respected, looked up to, and maybe even liked, had killed somebody. How was she supposed to react? Of course she would have been agitated and prone to condemn him.
"I was so angry at you," Christine sobbed, "I screamed around that you would be killing again and again, and said all sorts of vicious things about you." She took another deep breath, before adding, "and I said all those things to my childhood-friend, the one who had recognized me in Hannibal."
Erik shivered. "You turned to him for comfort," he whispered.
Christine nodded. "I needed somebody I could vent to, and he was the only one that came to mind, Mme. Giry not being entirely unbiased when it comes to you. He had been hanging around the theater for weeks, trying to win my affection, but I had not been too interested. After all, where had he been all these years, after my father died, when I would have needed a friend? But that night..." Christine looked down, ashamed of herself.
Erik's tears were running freely now. "I drove you away," he sobbed. "I do not remember why or how I killed this man, but obviously that's what drove you away."
Christine nodded. "Yes," she said. "I lost my trust in my Angel, that night, and Raoul did his best to charm me. I guess he finally saw his chance and tried very hard to win me, realizing that I was terribly disappointed in whoever else had held my interest until then."
"Raoul?" A surge of jealous anger cursed through Erik at the mention of that name. "A boy, isn't he?" he whispered. "Handsome face, longish hair, rich, nobility, a Vicomte or something like that."
Christine hung her head. "Yes," she murmured. "Raoul de Chagny. He used my confused state of mind to his advantage, promised me the moon and the stars, and to keep me safe from that murderous bastard that had somehow had me under his spell for such a long time, so that I had been immune to my dear childhood sweetheart's advances. But now, that I had come to my senses, he would do all in his power to protect me and make sure that you would never again threaten me..."
Erik's anger flared again. "He said that?" he roared. "How dare he say such things! Whatever else I may have done, I am absolutely certain that I never put you under a spell of any sort and never threatened you. I would never hurt you."
Christine smiled. "I know, Erik. And I should have known then. After all, I had known you for ten years. But I was so confused and angry, that I did not think clearly, and Raoul was trying his best to charm me, he said he would always be there to guard me and to guide me..."
She closed her eyes. "I fell for it," she said, ashamed of herself. "I let him influence me, I allowed him to make me think that you were a terrible monster out to destroy me and maybe the whole Opéra Populaire and God knows what else. That you were a threat to humanity, or at the very least to all of Paris and its music scene."
Erik laughed. It was a hard, bitter sound. "Let me guess, he told you he loved you and you ran into his arms, and I was forgotten."
Christine shifted uncomfortably. "Yes and no," she admitted. "I did listen to his declaration of love, and I promised to share my love and lifetime with him, but …." She was not quite certain how to put it. "You were not forgotten, Angel, I just did not see you for months. You stayed away from me, and as I have mentioned before, I never bothered to seek you out, to ask you about the death of Buquet. But Raoul was there..."
"Raoul,..." Erik repeated slowly. "Your fiancé, is he not? He kissed you on the rooftop of the Opéra Populaire, and touched you, and I..." Tears welled in his eyes again.
Christine stared at him in shock. "You were there," she whispered, realization finally hitting her. "You saw us on the rooftop. And of course you thought it was his handsome face what had drawn me to him."
She looked down. Why had she never before considered the possibility that Erik might have overheard her conversation with Raoul that night? She should have known the moment he used almost the exact same words they had said to each other that night during the performance of Don Juan, just before she had ripped off his mask. He must have heard those words somewhere. The only logical explanation was that he had been on the roof with them.
Erik stared in the far distance, reliving the moment when he had felt his heart break. "I gave you my music," he whispered, "made your song take wing, and now how you've repaid me, denied me and betrayed me..."
He remembered the scene clearly now. He had knelt down where she had dropped the rose, the precious, perfect rose he had given her as a token of his undying love, and which she had dropped carelessly into the snow when that boy had begun to charm her. Erik felt his heart break all over again. He sounded so utterly forlorn and miserable, and tears were running freely down his face that Christine threw herself into his arms, sobbing desperately.
"That's all my fault," she cried. "I hurt you so badly. I should have trusted you. I should not have listened to Raoul. If I had gone to you the next day and asked you about Buquet, we could have sorted it all out then and there, we could have been happy together."
Erik looked at her incredulously. "You would have forgiven me, even though I had killed another man?"
Christine nodded. "Yes," she confirmed. "I have forgiven you in the meantime. I still do not know if it was absolutely necessary to kill that man, and I admit that I'd prefer if you stopped doing such things, but yes, Buquet is behind us. I can accept now that you had your reasons for killing him." She did not say it, but thought by herself that Erik most certainly would not have been able to go to the police for help against the stalker, and considering where the confrontation between him and the lecher Buquet had taken place, she knew that Erik's life must have been in danger as well, and she most definitely preferred Buquet being the one whose body had dropped onto the stage.
Erik looked at her hopefully. "So that's not the reason either, why you would not accept my proposal?" he asked in wonder. "You would still want to marry me, even though I have killed a second man?"
Christine fidgeted nervously. "The question is rather, do you still want me, now that you know how weak my trust and friendship were," she said quietly. "Now that you know, how easily I could turn away from you and take refuge in another man 's arms, now that you have relived the pain I caused you that night."
Erik thought about it for a moment. It was true, he had been in excruciating pain that night. Watching Christine in the Vicomte's arms had hurt him so badly, it had almost killed him. And yet... he could understand why she had gone to her old childhood friend for comfort. After all, her betrayal had only been the reaction to his action of murdering a man. For whatever excuses the ladies had come up with, Erik suspected that he had derived a certain satisfaction from killing Buquet. He now remembered the lecherous drunk quite well. Buquet had always been spying on the ballet girls when they had been changing, he might even have seen his Christine in her underwear once or twice, and probably Antoinette's daughter as well. Erik was sure that the world was a better place without Buquet, and yet... he also knew that it had been wrong to kill that man.
"Since I myself caused your lack in trust," Erik finally uttered, "by committing the despicable act of murder, I must forgive you what you did in reaction to my crime." His heart still ached though, when he thought about her betrayal. Even though he knew that he had hurt Christine as well, he could not get over his pain quite that easily. Erik paused. "But that Vicomte, Raoul, ..." his voice trailed. "It was not right of him to use your emotional distress to his advantage."
Christine nodded. She had come to that same conclusion. Somehow she had realized over the past three years that of the three of them, Raoul must have been the most experienced with human relationships. She had been so young and lived such a sheltered life, and Erik had had next to no interaction with other humans. It was therefore no surprise that they had made such obvious mistakes and hurt each other so badly, but Raoul should have known. Raoul lived at the center of society, he had friends and relatives, he should have known a lot more about the human heart than either her or Erik. He should have realized that her fear and anger were telltale signs of her deep feelings for the one who had killed Buquet.
"This Raoul," Erik hesitated. He hated this man with a vengeance, for he had tried to take his Christine away from him. "Do you... are you..."
He was unable to finish his question. Christine understood him anyway. "Do I still see him?" she asked, "am I still in contact with him?"
Erik nodded. "Yes," he whispered, "are you?"
"No," Christine's voice was strong and convincing. "No, I am not in contact with him anymore. He has absolutely no rights about me anymore."
Erik sighed. "Good," he commented, relieved. "For I think, otherwise I would have to kill him."
Christine smiled. "Leave him alone," she told Erik, "you do not want to kill anymore anyway, and he is not worth the effort in the first place."
Erik looked at her. Was she still defending this boy? He had just relived the moment when seeing Christine in the Vicomte's arms had broken his heart. His pain and his jealousy were still fresh. But looking at Christine and seeing the love in her eyes made him realize the absurdity of his suspicion. She was here, with him, was she not? And the Vicomte was nowhere to be seen. She was willing to forgive him that he had killed not one, but two men, so was it really too much to ask that he forgave her this brief interlude with a rival that most obviously was not a threat to him anymore?