Chapter 24 – The Lord
Nadir smiled. "I do not think that the Lord would have invited us if it were not for you," he reminded Erik. "He did seem quite impressed with meeting you."
Erik glared at him furiously. "Why on earth did you have to introduce me? If you wanted to make small-talk with the Lord, you could have left me alone," he seethed.
Christine, who was sitting next to Erik, patted his arm affectionately. "Your friend did not really have a choice," she explained. "Lord Castleborough saw that Monsieur Khan was not alone, it would therefore have been extremely impolite not to introduce us all."
Erik sighed. "If he absolutely had to, he should have introduced Antoinette only. We were walking behind them and could have pretended not to be with them."
Nadir chuckled. "And how exactly were you planning to do that?" he teased Erik. "I did not have the impression as if you were about to leave the protective screen of our backs."
Erik groaned. He knew he had lost this particular argument. Nadir was right. He would not have walked away like that, not even with his hat on.
"It was not that bad," Christine tried to sooth him. "I am certain Lord Castleborough did not notice anything unusual about your face, and he did say some nice words about your work. Were you not pleased that he is so impressed with the sketches you did for him?"
Erik squirmed. He felt betrayed by all his friends. Did they not understand how utterly dangerous it was for him to be seen in public with a face like his? Did they not know how much he had suffered already because of that sorry excuse of a face? Memories of his loveless childhood, of the abuse he had suffered at the hands of the gypsies, of the pain he had felt when he had seen Christine and that Vicomte of hers together on the roof of the Populaire assaulted him. No, he knew how the world would treat somebody like him if they realized what he was. As long as nobody had ever seen the architect Lavoisier, he could hope for a normal life, or at least for a life that was close enough to normal, but once they knew... he shuddered.
"Erik, don't think that we do not understand your point," Antoinette smiled at him. "We do love you, I hope you know that. But there really was not much Mr. Khan could have done, once this customer of yours recognized him. And as Christine has just mentioned, there is no harm done. He did not see your face. As to the invitation he kindly extended to all of us, you do not have to decide right now. We said we would have to check with Meg. We won't be able to talk to her before tomorrow morning, then maybe she has to check with somebody at the theater, which of the suggested days she could get off easier, so we might not even know for sure before tomorrow night, and therefore the earliest we can talk to Lord Castleborough about this is the day after tomorrow. We are not forcing you to come along. If you prefer, we will excuse you. But I want you to at least give it a thought. It is not healthy for you to live such an isolated life, especially if you do want to marry Christine. She will need a husband that accompanies her on occasion."
Erik groaned. "Nadir has mentioned that already," he admitted. "I understand what you mean, but..."
"I know how hard this is for you," Christine chimed in, smiling at Erik. "And I am therefore not going to push you. Take your time. That you came with us tonight was a step in the right direction, but only the first one. Many such steps will be necessary over time. I will leave it up to you, though, when you will be ready to take the next one." She squeezed Erik's hand to show her support.
Erik looked at her. He knew he was nowhere near ready to face Lord Castleborough again any time soon, but Christine's eyes were like silent pleas, and he did not think he could resist her if she looked at him like that.
"I will get myself used to the idea that I will have to go out and face strangers for your sake, my love," Erik finally stammered. "I... I am just not sure I will be ready next week."
Christine nodded. "That's fine with me," she assured him. "As long as you at least think about it."
Nadir did not bring up that sensitive issue again that night, nor the next morning. The ladies would be coming for tea and a singing lesson in the afternoon, by then they would probably know which day would work best for Meg and Erik would have had almost an entire day to think about the Lord's invitation. Nadir was therefore planning to discuss their visit to the Lord's house then.
He had barely reached the office, though, when to his surprise Lord Castleborough showed up. Nadir was confused. What was the Lord doing here? Erik had delivered all the sketches the Lord had ordered and they had received payment for them. Did the Lord maybe want to have some adjustments made, or maybe even place another order?
"Good morning, Mylord," Nadir greeted politely, offering his customer a seat. "How may I serve you today?"
Lord Castleborough sat down. He looked at Nadir nervously, about to speak, then hesitated. "What I am about to do is completely inappropriate," he finally mumbled. "I am about to break several rules of acceptable behavior by telling you what I am about to tell you."
Nadir shook his head. "I have no idea what this is about, Mylord," he said, "but rest assured that I am convinced that nothing you do will ever be improper. If you ignore certain established rules, you probably have a very good reason for doing so and have been unable to find another way how to deal with a certain situation."
The Lord nodded. "It occurred to me last night, that neither you nor Mr. Lavoisier are British," he began again. "So you probably do not know..."
Nadir still did not quite understand. "We do not know what...?" he asked, feeling utterly clueless.
"I should have mentioned it last night," Lord Castleborough continued. "But I did not quite understand the meaning of it all. Mr. Lavoisier, he was so nervous, almost scared to meet me, and you and the two ladies, forgive me for mentioning this, it is really very poor behavior to intrude upon your privacy like that, but you were nervous as well, and kind of … protective of him."
Nadir was not quite sure how to react. He did not quite understand yet, why the Lord was mentioning all that. One thing was obvious, though, Lord Castleborough was a good observer. "You are very perceptive," Nadir admitted.
"I am relieved that you take my words like that," the Lord continued. "For an Englishman, at least one of higher education such as you, would not have reacted so kindly. You must know, and please also inform Mr. Lavoisier accordingly, that we value privacy very much. If somebody wants to keep certain things from us we will not ask about them. If we notice that somebody is uncomfortable with.." he coughed nervously, before mumbling, almost apologetically, "their appearance..."
Nadir sat up straight. He was beginning to see where this was leading. "You got the feeling that Erik... Monsieur Lavoisier.. falls into the latter category," he stated flatly.
Lord Castleborough nodded. "Yes," he admitted. "Of course, it would be correct behavior to either not have noticed or to pretend not having noticed anything unusual, but..." He paused, embarrassed. "Mr. Lavoisier seemed almost scared when I extended my invitation. I therefore deduced that he does not know about this rule of conduct and feared I might make a comment about his looks, should he choose to accept my invitation, or even worse, despise him because of his appearance."
Nadir looked up in surprise. "What makes you think that there is something wrong with my friend's looks?" he asked. Had the Lord glimpsed Erik's face after all? Nadir felt uncomfortable. If so, Erik would surely kill him.
The Lord was not feeling too comfortable either. "The hat," he finally admitted. "The hat did not match his attire. He was wearing elegant evening clothes, of good quality, the whole ensemble showed extremely good taste. Mr. Lavoisier certainly knows how to dress, which is no surprise, really, considering his artistic profession, where a sense for aesthetics is indispensable. But the hat he was wearing was awful, and it sat on his head in such a strange angle, that it was obvious that he was trying to hide something, most likely a scar of some sort."
Lord Castleborough looked away. "Forgive me for bringing up all that," he uttered. "It is none of my business at all, and I have no right whatsoever talking about this. Mr. Lavoisier did not want me to notice, so I should not have done so. But when I thought about this, I realized that Mr. Lavoisier might not want to accept my invitation, because of whatever the problem with his face is, since he does not know that it is extremely poor taste to notice such things or talk about them. Maybe in his home country of France things are different, maybe there he would be exposed to ridicule or even cruelties, because of this deficiency, but here..."
Nadir stared at the Lord. "Are you trying to tell me, that no matter how horrible my friend's face may or may not look, nobody would comment on it, and people would even pretend not to notice it if he appeared in a public place?"
"Not in the higher classes," the Lord explained. "The commoners do not have that strict codex of correct conduct. I cannot guarantee what would happen, if he went, say, to the weekly farmers' market or another place where people of the lower classes meet. But if he were to visit the house of a nobleman or upper class citizen, he should not face any problems."
The Lord cleared his throat. "I have served in the colonies," he stated. "I have seen many men that were crippled in battle or seriously disfigured. I have also seen many pretty faces ravaged by exotic diseases like the Aleppo boil. One of my best friends, Sir Toddlingham, has an ugly scar over most of his face. It was caused by a saber. He almost lost his left eye when he was injured, and his earlobe is badly lacerated. Nobody thinks less of him for that. The younger son of the Duke of Darington has pockmarks all over his face. Despite these deficiencies both are well respected members of the London society and nobody treats them as less than equal because of their appearance. Nobody mentions their problem in their presence and nobody talks about it behind their backs." He squirmed, realizing that he was doing just that right now.
Nadir nodded. "I understand," he said, "and I am grateful you told me. I am aware that it took a great deal of effort to provide me with this information, and I will most definitely relay it to Monsieur Lavoisier." He smiled at the Lord. "I cannot promise, though, that he will believe me. He has suffered a lot because of his face," Nadir admitted.
Lord Castleborrough shook his head. "You do not have to tell me," he assured Nadir. "I really have no business knowing about it. I do not even ask you what exactly Mr. Lavoisier's problem is, or how bad it really is. I do not want to pry. Just rest assured that nobody would bother him with questions or comment on his appearance, should he decide to accept my invitation. Mr. Lavoisier is a very talented architect, a genius, that is what counts, not what he looks like."
Nadir sighed. He had a feeling that Erik would not be easily convinced to believe any of this. "Erik... Monsieur Lavoisier, is very reluctant to show people his face," he finally uttered, "especially people he barely knows..."
The Lord faced Nadir. "I understand," he said. "Therefore, it might be best, if for a first visit he kept his hat on, and I will make sure that he is seated in a way that it would be almost impossible for me to get a glimpse of whatever he is hiding. As I said before, no questions asked. If he wants his privacy, I will grant him that. That's the least I can do for such a talented man."
Nadir was beginning to think that maybe this could work after all. If Erik could keep his hat on and did not have to deal with any questions or comments about his face, he might be convinced to accompany them, especially if Christine asked him to do so.
"What about your servants?" Nadir finally asked. "Do they adhere to your behavioral codex as well, or would they bother him with stares, laugh at him behind his back or inconvenience him in any other way?"
"Of course not!" Lord Castleborough was shocked at that insinuation. "My personnel is well trained. They know better than to upset one of my honored guests, or, worse, make fun of them or gossip about them. Of course, I cannot force Mr. Lavoisier to accept my invitation, but he would make me very proud if he did so, and I can assure him that his privacy will be respected in my house."
Nadir smiled. "I will make sure Erik understands that," he promised, "but the final decision is up to him. I will not pretend that convincing him will be easy. Last night he was dead set against accepting your invitation." Nadir chuckled at the memory of Erik's angry outburst after the meeting with the Lord the previous night. "That he will be allowed to keep his hat on, may make him rethink his position, but then, it may not. It took some persuading to make him come to the opera with us, and he loves music."
Lord Castleborough nodded. "It is a pity that somebody as talented as Mr. Lavoisier has apparently had to go through such terrible experiences that he is now reluctant to meet new people," he said. "I can only repeat that I would be honored if he could be convinced to accompany you and the ladies, for I hope at least the four of you will accept my invitation?"
Nadir quickly confirmed that he himself as well as Mme. Giry and her daughters would be delighted to have tea with Lord Castleborough next week. "Meg... Mademoiselle Marguerite, that is, is just now checking with the opera, on which of the proposed days she would be able to leave rehearsals a bit early, so that she can accompany us," he explained. "I suspect, that if Monsieur Lavoisier has to decline, we have to offer you at least the young ballerina as a somewhat comparable substitute guest of honor," he chuckled.
Lord Castleborough laughed. "I am not sure Miss Giry would like the way how you just declared her to be a substitute for Mr. Lavoisier," he commented. "You will let me know then, which day is most convenient for you, and if Mr. Lavoisier wants more time to decide, he does not have to do so right now. You can send me word of whether or not he will be attending at any time, up to one hour before the agreed time. He will be welcome, no matter what."
Nadir assured the Lord that his consideration was very much appreciated and that he would do his best to convince Erik that there would be no risk involved if he decided to accompany him and the three ladies.
Nadir's conversation with the Lord was the main topic that afternoon, when Mme. Giry and Christine came by for tea and the usual singing lesson.
"He did sound sincere," Nadir repeated for the hundredth time. "I do believe him. Erik, he said there would be no other guests, just him and us. He is willing to accept whatever eccentricity you are going to display, you may even keep your hat on and neither the Lord nor his servants will bat an eye because of it. It would be a perfect opportunity for you to do some socializing on a small scale. Just one new person, who, by the way, is totally impressed with your work and predisposed to like you, no matter what. Who feels like he has committed some serious social faux-pas for even having noticed that there is something wrong with your face."
"He does not know what he is getting himself into," Erik groaned. "If he knew what I really am, what kind of monster he has invited to his house..."
Christine took put a hand on his shoulder. "You are not a monster," she whispered, "do not always put yourself down like that. You have worked for him and he appreciates you because of your talent. He does not care what you look like any more than he cares about the looks of these other two people he mentioned, that Sir, who is a good friend of his, and the Duke's son."
Erik stared at her. "I do not think that either of them has killed," he mumbled.
"We do not know that for sure," Christine reminded him. "Lord Castleborough himself may have killed people in battle. After all, he mentioned having spent some time in the colonies. I bet that means he was in the military and has been involved in a few skirmishes. And what about his friend with the saber-wound? He must have gotten injured either in battle, or a duel. I know that the memories of Buquet and the gypsy trouble you, but you know how we feel about these matters, and there is no reason to assume that Lord Castleborough would feel differently if he knew about them."
Christine smiled lovingly at Erik, while she silently prayed that he would accept this invitation and start socializing, before he remembered the rest of his past – the chandelier-accident, the fire, his attempt to kill Raoul, and especially his time in Persia. "Once he remembers all that," she thought to herself, "we'll never get him to open up and go out more. He needs to start doing so now, before he remembers everything or he'll never be able to lead a normal life."