Chapter 22 – Ghost
"She was a cruel, heartless person," Christine commented. "She should have been proud of you, loved you and nurtured your many talents as well as given you the strength to deal with your handicap and face the world, instead she made you believe that you are somehow a lesser being because of your face."
Erik sighed. "How could she have been proud of me?" he asked bitterly, pointing to his face. "In case you have forgotten, I am not a pretty sight!"
Christine got furious. "So you would not win any beauty contest," she said. "But then, how many people do? But you would easily win contests for best composer, for best violinist, pianist, opera singer, voice coach or architect, and I hear you are a decent magician as well. How many mothers have children that excel in so many areas?" She composed herself, before adding softly, "and you have a heart. You felt compassion for me, when I was so lonely after my father died, you cared for me and helped me deal with my loss. Your face is only one facet of who you are, it does not define you as a human being."
Erik beamed at her. "Oh Christine, you remind me of those princesses in the fairy-tales, whose love breaks the spell that lies on the prince. I read a story once, about a beast that forced a beautiful young woman to stay with him. She was afraid of the beast at first, but then noticed some good about him, and in the end, she learned to love him, and the spell was broken, the beast turned into a man. She must have been just like you, able – and willing - to see something good even in the most hideous monster."
Christine smiled at Erik. "If I hear the word monster one more time, I think I'll scream," she teased him.
Erik looked at her lovingly. Who cared about how his mother had felt about him? His Christine thought he was a man, a wonderful, warm-hearted one with many talents. That's what counted. He would try to focus on that.
"But how did I end up with the gypsies?" Erik finally asked. "Did they abduct me, when they caught a glimpse of me and realized that they could use me in their freak show?"
Nadir shook his head. "As far as I know, you ran away. I think your mother had decided to institutionalize you, or her new lover wanted to lock you safely away in an asylum of sorts, but you got wind of their plans and left. You were of course far too young to live on your own and thus fell easy prey to the gypsies."
Erik's face hardened. "She is dead now, isn't she?"
Nadir nodded. "Yes. A couple years ago you made inquiries in your hometown and learned that she had died a lonely death."
"Serves her right," Erik stated flatly, fighting hard to keep both, his anger at his mother for having treated him so poorly, and the pain her neglect had caused him, under control. "Good riddance."
Mme. Giry put a comforting hand on Erik's shoulder. "She could have been so happy, with a son like you, but she was not able to appreciate you. She was too preoccupied with appearances to understand how very special you are. We do understand. At least, I understand now, for Erik, when I helped you escape from the gypsies, I was too young to fully grasp the extent of your ordeal, and I was most certainly unable to realize how emotionally starved you were back then. I thought a roof above your head, food, water, clean clothes etc. was all you needed, when what you would have needed most would have been a family to love you. I did love you, Erik, I always thought of you as my brother, but I am afraid, I did not act much like a sister. I did not show you my love enough, and I did not even realize how ingrained in your mind the idea was that you are a monster."
Erik seemed embarrassed. He was not used to so much love being lavished on him from all sides. "We were children then, Antoinette," he mumbled. "You did all you could, you saw to it that I had everything I needed."
He frowned, as one of his lost memories surfaced. "What was that place you brought me to?" he asked. "It was like a cellar or an underground cavern. I remember a dark, damp place, strong stone walls and water nearby, a river or … a lake?"
Mme. Giry paled. Was Erik ready for the answer to that question? "The…" she hesitated, before continuing, "the Opéra Populaire."
Erik stared. "The Opéra Populaire," he muttered. "I lived below the opera building. I hid from the authorities?"
Mme. Giry nodded. "I lived in the dormitories there, I was training to become a ballerina. Of course I could not have brought you to my dormitory with me, and I was not certain if the police would be looking for you, because of that gypsy…" Her voice trailed.
Erik sighed. "A wanted criminal – and a child," he stated flatly.
Mme. Giry did not quite dare to meet Erik's eyes. "I did not blame you for what you had done," she said resolutely, "but I had no idea what the law was, if you could be held responsible. It never occurred to me to try and find out, so, since I wanted you to be safe, you had to hide, and of course this enforced your opinion that you were somewhat of a lesser being – and that the reason for it was your face."
Erik barely listened. "I lived in the cellars of the Opéra," he whispered, as realization hit him. "I did not have a room there. Never. I always hid." He stared at Christine. "You told me I brought you to my home once, did I not? I actually had the gall to drag you down into that damp, chilly cellar? And you were not frightened? A man wearing a mask dragging a girl to the cellars, where nobody would hear her scream if he…" Erik stopped, embarrassed.
"Your home was beautiful," Christine's hand reached for Erik's while she smiled at him. "There was a vast, underground lake, you had a gorgeous boat there to cross the lake, for your home was on the other side, safely protected by a portcullis, and there were candles all around, it was not dark or frightening in the least, rather fairy-tale-like and extremely romantic." She blushed, as she remembered the mannequin, that looked exactly like her and was wearing a wedding dress.
"You had a pipe organ down there," she continued, "and everything looked regal. The colors of red and gold were dominant, with some black. There was a huge, bird-shaped bed…"
Erik stared at her. "I was a ghost," he whispered. "I was not an employee. I lived on the fringes of the opera community, I hid in the cellars, and I…" he gasped. "I forced the managers to do as I pleased. I told them who to hire and which plays to perform, and I extorted a salary…"
Mme. Giry went over to where Erik was sitting and shook him to get his attention. "Don't get all worked up about that now, Erik. First, your intervention vastly improved the quality of our ensemble and the performances. They did get their money's worth from you. I know enough about music and theater to be able to judge that, and I had already been there before you started to give directions. I know what difference your influence made. And second, if I had been against what you did, I would not have helped you."
Erik stared at her. "You helped me…" he whispered, then realization hit him. "The letters," he stammered, "my notes to the managers, you delivered them."
Mme. Giry smiled. "Yes, among other things. I also did most of your grocery shopping for you and ran similar errands." She smiled. "I am like your sister, remember?"
Then she turned more serious. "I will admit that what we did was a bit unorthodox, but you were so convinced that your face would keep you from earning your living any other way, that I could not think of an alternative and went along with your plan. It did not seem wrong to me, after all, you were acting as some kind of artistic advisor and got paid for that."
"But I frightened people," Erik remembered with a shudder.
"Nothing really bad," Mme. Giry assured him. "What you did was more like pranks. Any serious accidents would have disrupted the smooth operation of the theater way too much. You only did little things to keep the managers in line and ensure that they would follow your orders. Really, Erik," she said teasingly. "Lefevre was not so bad, but Firmin and André were clueless how to run a theater. Not that I could blame them," she added. "After all, they had made a fortune in the junk business. Why on earth they thought that would mean they were qualified to manage a prestigious opera house is beyond me. They most definitely needed your guidance."
Erik smiled. He had a vague memory of the various managers now. "One of them was rather passionate about music," he remembered. "The shorter one."
Both Christine and Mme. Giry smiled at each other. They both had noticed just how enthralled M. André had been by Christine's debut performance.
"That was André," Mme. Giry explained, "his knowledge about management was even more fragmentary than Firmin's, but you certainly can't say that he lacked enthusiasm."
A frown crossed Erik's forehead and he looked at Christine, unease written all over his features. "Your debut," he whispered. "The lead soprano was not indisposed, I scared her off, made her quit, so that you could sing."
Christine nodded. She had always wondered if without Erik's intervention she would have ever been allowed to sing a main role. "Yes, but,…" she began hesitantly.
"Our ears thanked you for that, Erik," Mme. Giry jumped in. "La Carlotta may have been a great singer once, but that time had long passed. The constant screaming during her frequent temper tantrums did not help either. Her voice was beginning to sound like screeching. It was high time she got replaced as first soprano and relegated to the background."
Erik shook his head. "No, I should not have done that," he mumbled miserably. "I threw a piece of scenery at her. She could have been seriously injured…"
Mme. Giry put her hand on Erik's shoulder. "You knew exactly what you were doing, Erik," she said calmly. "You knew that she was in no danger whatsoever. You had planned the trajectory of that backdrop. You never hurt anybody, at worst they got a scare or a prank played on them."
"Until Buquet…" Erik's face had turned white. "That's why I killed him. He tried to hunt me down and make the interference stop…"
Mme. Giry sighed. "He wanted to play the hero, to single-handedly arrest the so-called "Phantom". I guess he hoped that then the girls would be easier lured into his bed. Yes, he was that kind of a person," her voice was heavy with contempt for the dead stagehand.
Then she composed herself and turned to Erik again. "It was a difficult situation," she explained. "If Buquet did something that would make it impossible for you to continue, your livelihood would have been threatened, since we could not think of another way for you to earn your living. Because of your own precarious status you could not go to the authorities and ask for help against the stalker. True, you could have left the Opera for a while, but where would you have gone? You were not ready to live aboveground, you were so convinced that people would abuse, fear, mistreat you because of your face. And then, you would not have wanted to leave Christine, when she finally had had her major breakthrough and needed your continued guidance in order to maintain her newfound star status."
She squeezed Erik's shoulder. "It was not your fault," she said softly. "There was nothing you could have done. I tried to warn him off, but he did not listen. I knew that sooner or later it would come to a confrontation between the two of you, and I was worried. Erik, you have no idea, how every time you had not been in touch for more than two days, I was wondering if he had gotten to you at last …" She smiled encouragingly at Erik. "I do not approve of killing," she said softly, "but till this day I do not know what we could have done differently."
Erik sighed. "It still was wrong to kill him," he stated. "I should have found another solution." He looked at Mme. Giry. "But thank you, Antoinette, for both, your support then and your attempt now to excuse my crimes and make my actions sound more harmless than they really were."
Christine leaned her head against his shoulder. "We know that you take it hard, Erik," she said, "which is exactly why we are convinced that you are a decent person despite Buquet and everything."
An uneasy smiled passed across Erik's grotesque features. "I will never understand how you can love me despite my crimes," he whispered, "but I am grateful that you do." He looked deep into her eyes and Christine blushed under his adoring gaze.
Then Erik remembered once again that he had forced Carlotta to step aside so that Christine could have her debut. "Do you mind,.." he began hesitantly. "I mean, I helped you get your chance at singing a major role. Did you ever feel like you had your debut only because I pushed for it, not because you had earned it? Have you ever wondered about that? For I assure you, if anybody ever deserved such an opportunity, it is you. Your voice is truly exceptional, your timbre as well as the ease with which you reach the highest notes, or your expressive versatility."
Christine blushed. "When it happened, I mean, when that piece of scenery dropped on Carlotta, I did not know yet that my Angel of Music and the famous Opera Ghost were one and the same person. I was only nervous when I was suddenly given the responsibility to sing that important role, which is of such central importance to the story of 'Hannibal', and at a gala performance, to boost. But once I was on stage and started singing, nothing else mattered anymore, I became Elyssa. I knew I was where I belonged. And the applause told me that the audience felt the same way."
She smiled lovingly at Erik. "And then, even if I had known that it had been you who had provided me with that opportunity, I would not have doubted that I had earned it. My Angel was a wonderful teacher, but he was always striving for perfection. He would never have allowed me to sing in public if he had not been a hundred percent certain that I would excel."
Erik nodded. "But what about now?" he asked. "Surely, there will have been talk about how you got your first singing job? Does the fact that I pushed you affect you negatively?"
Christine gazed at Mme. Giry. "I do not know for sure," she told Erik. "I have not sung in three years, which is why I asked you to bring me up to speed again, but there certainly is that possibility, which is, why, once I will audition at the London Opera, I will do so under my new name. I have the right to call myself Christine Giry, since I am now officially Mme. Giry's daughter, through adoption." She smiled at Erik teasingly. "Of course, if they hire me now, some might think it is because I am the sister of their new second ballerina Meg Giry."
Erik looked up at Mme. Giry. "Meg is second ballerina at the Opera? Why didn't you tell us before, Antoinette? You must be so proud of your daughter! Both your daughters," he added as an afterthought, "for Christine is almost ready to return to the stage, soon they will be performing together again." He paused, then added softly, "thank you for giving Christine your name so that she will not be harmed by my influence on her career."
Mme. Giry smiled at Erik, then beamed with pride. "Yes, Meg has been cast as Myrtha, Queen of the Willis in the upcoming production of 'Gisèle'. In fact," she looked at Erik and Nadir, "opening night is in three days, and as a courtesy to Meg at her introductory performance, she has been offered a box so that her family and friends can watch her first triumph at the London Opera. Christine and I are definitely going, but I am sure Meg would be thrilled if you could come as well."
Erik looked away. "If Nadir wants to accompany you and Christine, so that the two of you will not have to be without male protection, … but I cannot."
Christine rested her head on Erik's shoulder and wrapped an arm around his waist. "And why not, Erik?" she asked softly. "You do not have to socialize or even meet people. We go all together, you may wear your hat if you prefer, we arrive very close to the beginning of the performance, so we just rush to the box, the corridors of a theater are not all too well lit, and during the performance the auditorium is in the dark anyway, nobody will see you, especially if you sit behind maman and me."
Christine glanced at her new mother, before continuing to plead with Erik. "We stay in our box during the intermission and afterwards we wait till most other people have left, then quietly make our exit. Nadir hails us a carriage, and we go all home together. It is possible, Erik, and it would be great. Meg would love having us all there, and think about it, we could be in a theater again, like in the old days. And," she blushed before admitting, "it would mean so much to me to have you there with me, to share that experience with you…"
Erik was about to tell her that this plan was downright madness, when he noticed the loving, pleading expression of her eyes. He shrugged, in defeat. How was he supposed to resist her, when she looked at him like that? "I will consider it," he finally muttered, both thrilled at the prospect of being in a theater again and scared at the thought that he would have to leave the safety of his home.