Chapter 23 – Opera
As soon as the ladies had left, Erik started ranting. He was in a particularly bad mood, for he felt kind of trapped. He either could stay home at opening night and disappoint Christine as well as Antoinette, or he had to go with them and risk being exposed as a freak by London society, considered a beast and treated accordingly.
"Why did you not come to my aid?" he seethed at Nadir. "Why could you not make them understand how impossible that idea of theirs was? Surely you know that I cannot do what they ask of me?"
Nadir smiled at Erik. "And why not, mon ami?" he asked lightly. "Mademoiselle Christine's plan sounds good to me. If we go as a group you can hide in our midst. It is high-time for you anyway to overcome this fear of people."
Erik sneered. "They would have a field-day hunting me down and locking the monster away, if they caught only a glimpse of my so-called face…"
Nadir shook his head. "No, Erik," he uttered, "don't do that to you. Do not always expect the worst. While I admit that your looks might be a shock to most, at least at first, I do know that many people are able to realize that that's not your fault and to respect you for whatever else you have to offer. Remember, I have tried repeatedly to encourage you to leave the house during day-time. But maybe an evening event is the best way to test the waters. After all, you cannot stay home all the time once you and Mademoiselle Christine get married, or don't you think it will look strange if she wears a wedding ring and mentions a husband and nobody ever sees him?"
Erik did not know what to say. He had not thought about that yet. After a while Nadir continued. "You know, I don't think it will be that bad, even if you wear that stupid hat of yours. For even if some may wonder why you are wearing this impossible garment, nobody will really care, if he sees you in the company of the two ladies. A strangely-dressed man alone might seem suspicious and attract unwanted attention and stares , but if he is seen with two lovely ladies, that are as smitten with him as Mme. Giry and Mademoiselle Christine are with you, people will just think that you are eccentric."
Erik sighed. "I do not understand what these women see in me," he mumbled confused. "Either of them. Antoinette took me completely by surprise today. I know that she downplayed my time at the Opéra Populaire, and I do not think she did it to ease her own conscience for helping me. No," he frowned. "I had the feeling that she wanted to make it easy for me to accept that part of my past."
Nadir nodded. "I think you are right on that," he agreed with Erik, "though I guess, what you did there was not really too bad. Definitely not within the law, but… she was right. You did work for your money and your advice was always sound. The threats and pranks of course are something else entirely and would have gotten you into trouble if caught. But,…" he looked his friend straight into the eyes. "I knew about what you were doing as well, and I didn't stop you any more than she did. If you want to feel guilty about that period of your life, make sure to put some blame on us as well for condoning your actions."
Erik nodded. He was not quite convinced, but he was deeply moved by his friends' attempts to help him deal with his past.
Nadir smiled at him encouragingly. "So, have you decided on the ballet? Will you come with us and help us cheer for Mademoiselle Meg?"
Erik stared ahead. The thought of going to such a crowded place as a theater frightened him, but something Nadir had said had hit a nerve. "You think that once Christine finally agrees to marry me, I will have to go out and meet people?" he asked nervously.
Nadir chuckled. "Of course. She cannot be married to an invisible husband. If nobody ever meets him, people might even think she is only pretending to be married, which would lead to gossip. You do not want to get her into such an undesirable position, right?"
Erik shook his head. "No, Nadir, of course not, but…"
Nadir put a comforting hand on Erik's shoulder. "You will be fine, Erik," he assured his friend. "Believe me, nobody will pay much attention, they will only see that you are part of a group with two lovely ladies."
The evening of Meg's first performance finally arrived. Nadir had ordered a carriage, and he and Erik got in without the driver noticing anything strange about Erik's face. They stopped again at the Giry-cottage to pick up Mme. Giry and Christine. Both ladies had dressed up for the occasion and Erik had never found Christine more beautiful than when he first spotted her in her pale green robe the color of which seemed to bring out the deep dark brown of her eyes even more and make them sparkle like two stars.
"You look absolutely fabulous," he stammered, overwhelmed by the sheer perfection that was sitting next to him.
Christine blushed. She thought that Erik looked rather dashing as well in his elegant evening clothes. "I wanted to look beautiful for you tonight," she admitted shyly. "I know what a huge effort it took for you to come with us, and I wanted to somehow thank you for doing this."
Erik beamed. Even though so far everything had gone exactly as planned, he was still nervous about this adventure, but he was beginning to think that maybe accompanying the ladies had not been such a bad idea after all. It definitely did have its perks.
They had scheduled their arrival at the Opera so that they would just barely have time to reach their box before the performance began. Therefore they only met very few other late-comers in the corridors of the theater, who were all too busy rushing to their own seats to pay any attention to Erik, who nevertheless sighed with relief once they had safely arrived at their assigned box.
Christine and Mme. Giry sat in the front row, thus providing enough cover for Erik, who hid behind Christine's elaborate hairdo. Nadir sat at Erik's right side. Even before Erik could take off his hat – which he was reluctant to do anyway – the theater went dark and the conductor entered.
Christine half-turned to face Erik. "I am so excited to be in a theater again," she said. "I was not even aware how much I had missed this until now. Do you feel the same way?"
Erik smiled at her enthusiasm, but he had to agree that his heart, too, was beating faster with the thrill of attending a live performance once again. "It feels like home," he admitted, to which Christine nodded happily.
Home. Despite all the problems they had faced at the Opéra Populaire three years ago, despite the emotional turmoil they both had gone through there, that theater had been their home. They were used to the constant buzz, the music, the sets, the colorful costumes – this was their world and they both felt the rush of adrenaline when the music began to play and the curtain rose.
Even though Meg would only appear in the second part, after the interval, all four sets of eyes were glued to the scene. Both, Mme. Giry and Christine were extremely interested in the London ballet ensemble's level of quality. Meg had already told them that the young ballerinas were working extremely hard, and that the ballet mistress, a Russian lady, had danced in St. Petersburg for the choreographer Marius Petipa, who was about to make a name for himself.
Both ladies had to admit that the corps de ballet was indeed excellent. Whenever there was a group dance, the movements were synchronous and fluid, while every single solo dance was executed to perfection. The prima ballerina's technique was flawless, her dancing inspired. Mme. Giry and Christine looked at each other, impressed. The London ballet ensemble was every bit as talented as the one at the Opéra Populaire had been. To think that their Meg had been considered good enough to earn a solo part, when every single one of the ballerinas was above average, was indeed a huge achievement.
"Do you enjoy the performance?" Christine asked Erik at the interval.
He nodded. "The orchestra is quite capable," Erik explained. "Adolphe Adam may not have been the most inspired composer, but they are able to imbue his music with passion and feelings. I am looking forward to the second part with its more spooky scenes involving the supernatural. I think they will be able to convey a ghostly atmosphere when the Willis appear." He smiled at Christine, then continued. "I am not too impressed with the set designer, though," he added. "The first act scenery should be lush and green, very vivid, to provide a stark contrast to the pale, moonlit nocturnal scenes of the second act."
Christine smiled. "It seems like this theater could do with your advice as well," she said, looking adoringly at Erik. She was proud of him, of his many talents, his expertise in so many areas, and of his courage to face his own demons and accompany her and Mme. Giry tonight.
The second act began and Meg finally made her appearance. Mme. Giry and Christine gasped. They almost would not have recognized her. Neither of them had seen Meg dance since they had moved to London, and apparently she had improved tremendously over these past few weeks. She did not only look the part of Myrta, she also conveyed it perfectly through every movement. Her hair swept up in a chignon, a glittering crown on her head, her face and arms painted pale, her short dress a ghostly white, this Queen of the Willis commanded the scene from the moment she first appeared.
Meg's movements were regal and elegant, while at the same time conveying the unearthly, supernatural element of her character. Mme. Giry held her breath. She had always known that her daughter was incredibly talented, but not in her wildest dreams had she expected her to do that well. "She truly is prima ballerina material," the proud mother thought to herself. "Sooner or later she will dance the lead role."
As soon as the curtain fell, the audience started to applaud. The new production was a huge success, especially the two ballerinas, Meg and the girl who had danced the title role, were greeted with roaring applause when they took their bows. Mme. Giry had tears in her eyes, so moved was she by her daughter's achievement. Christine was smiling happily, but there was also a bit of envy in her. She knew how it felt to stand on a stage and bring a character to life, and how gratifying it was to feel the audience's enthusiastic reaction afterwards.
Erik seemed to understand her. "Soon," he murmured into her ear. "I promise you that you will soon be ready to audition and then you will be able to return to the stage as well."
Christine smiled at him. "I hope that then you will come and listen to my performance as well, my Angel," she said.
Erik looked deep into her eyes. "I will," he said. And he meant it. Coming to the theater had not been as terrible as he had feared. While he still did not plan on leaving the house on a regular basis, Erik began to think that it would be possible to organize similar events in the future.
Once the applause died down and the audience started to leave, Nadir faced his three companions. "I suppose, Erik, that you will want to go home now," he asked, "and that you do not want to meet Mademoiselle Meg at her dressing room and join the opening night party."
Erik shuddered. Attending the performance was one thing, but mingling with the crowd – no, he definitely was not ready for that.
"I think we shall all go home," Mme. Giry suggested. "I doubt Meg will have time for us tonight anyway, she will have to meet lots of people, maybe even give an interview, or two, for the newspapers will want to report on her tomorrow after this fabulous debut."
Christine agreed with her. She would not have left Erik's side until he was home and thus not in danger anymore of being treated poorly because of his face. She did feel responsible for his safety, since he had come along to please her.
"Then let's head out," Nadir suggested, offering his arm to Mme. Giry. He looked at Erik and Christine. "Of course it would be more appropriate for the two of you to walk in front of us, so that Mme. Giry could act as Christine's chaperone and watch the two of you," he said jokingly, "but we trust you, and I have a feeling as if you would want to hide behind us, Erik, even though you already have an enormous hat to hide behind."
All four laughed and left the box to make their way towards the theater's exit. They had almost reached the front door, when someone called Nadir's name.
"Mr. Khan! I did not know you were a theater enthusiast as well!" A well-dressed elderly gentleman stood in front of them and seemed delighted to meet Nadir.
"Lord Castleborough," Nadir immediately recognized the wealthy customer, for whom Erik had drafted a beautiful design only this week. He hesitated for a moment, not quite sure, how to react. He could not ignore the Lord, for that would not be good for business. Their little office needed happy, satisfied customers if they wanted to get more orders. But he could almost sense Erik's growing uneasiness.
"Erik will never forgive me for this," he thought, "he will probably throw a tantrum at home, but there really is only one course of action, if I want to stay on friendly terms with the Lord."
Nadir smiled engagingly at Lord Castleborough. "It is a pleasure meeting you, Mylord," he said. "May I present my companions to you?"
The Lord nodded and Nadir went on. "This is Mme. Antoinette Giry, whose daughter Marguerite has been dancing the part of Myrta," he explained, noticing that the Lord was obviously impressed by the fact that Nadir knew the new ballerina's mother. Then Nadir turned towards Christine and Erik and continued, "Mademoiselle Christine Giry, the ballerina's sister, and my good friend and business partner, Monsieur Erik Lavoisier."
Nadir noticed that Erik had turned a deathly shade of pale, and that he was highly nervous. He looked as if he wanted to sink into the earth, or run away as fast as he could, but unable to decide which of the two he should try first. Christine was clinging to Erik's arm as if by doing so she could somehow protect him against the whole world. She forced a smile on her face and slightly bowed her head at the Lord.
Whatever Erik or any of his three companions had feared, though, none of them could say later. But neither of them had expected to see Lord Castleborough stare at Nadir, wide-eyed, and ask, "Lavoisier? Did you say Lavoisier? You mean the architect? The genius who designed the new wing for my house?"
Nadir felt relief wash through him. The Lord had not made any comment about Erik's rather impolite attitude of keeping his hat on. He did not seem to notice either, that Erik was not facing him directly but had turned slightly so that the Lord would only see his left profile.
Nadir smiled broadly. "Yes, Mylord, this gentleman here is the architect who delivered the designs for you," he explained, pointing in Erik's direction.
"Oh Mr. Lavoisier," the Lord turned to Erik now, extending his hand. "It is an honor meeting you at last. Allow me to shake your hand and to personally thank you for the absolutely delightful sketches you have done for me. You truly have a great gift. I have wanted to meet you for so long. Every time I came to the office, I hoped that maybe this time you would be there with Mr. Khan."
Erik gingerly took the Lord's hand and shook it. He was very ill at ease and did not trust the nobleman despite his friendly demeanor. "Pleased to meet you, Mylord," he said stiffly, fighting the impulse to run and hide somewhere - anywhere.
Christine patted Erik's arm encouragingly. She already liked the Lord for the kind words he had spoken to her Angel.
The Lord seemed to notice Erik's unease, for he turned to Mme. Giry and Christine. "Madam, Miss," he said, "let me congratulate you on having such a highly talented daughter and sister. Miss Marguerite Giry impressed everybody tonight. She is most certainly on the same level as Miss Gainsworth, the prima ballerina, and only had to accept the position of second since she is the newcomer. In one of the next productions she will dance the lead, I am sure."
Mme. Giry smiled. "Thank you for your kind words, Mylord," she said. "We are indeed very proud of Meg."
The Lord then addressed the whole group. "Mr. Lavoisier, Ladies, it was a pleasure making your acquaintance. Mr. Khan, thank you so much for introducing me. I would be delighted to invite you all to take tea with me one of these days, and of course Miss Marguerite as well. Please let me know which day would be convenient for all of you, I suggest sometime next week, maybe Thursday or Friday?"
Nadir looked uneasily at Erik, then at the two ladies. "Thank you very much for your kind invitation," he finally said. "We will of course have to consult with Mademoiselle Marguerite to find a suitable date. We will get back to you."
The Lord accepted this rather vague answer and took his leave while the other four turned towards the exit. Nadir hailed a carriage. Once they were inside, Erik sneered. "No," he said. "Absolutely no. This is my final answer. It was a mistake coming here. I knew something terrible would happen. If you want to go see the Lord, fine. Tell him I am indisposed, sick, whatever you want. But don't expect me to come along."