Chapter 25 – Socializing
The next day Nadir confirmed the tea appointment with Lord Castleborough for the following Thursday. He informed the Lord that Erik had not yet agreed to accompany them, but that they had not yet given up hope that they would be able to convince him to do so.
Nobody said anything to Erik, though. They all felt that he would be more willing to come with them if they left him alone and gave him the feeling that it was truly his choice whether to go with them or stay behind. They all knew that making it too obvious that they wanted him to come along would put Erik under pressure and thus make him uncomfortable and less likely to join them for their meeting with the Lord.
On Wednesday afternoon, when Mme. Giry and Christine came for the usual singing lesson, Nadir finally brought up their appointment with the Lord again, pretending that he needed to make arrangements with the ladies, as to when he would meet them, where they would pick up Meg at what time and similar details.
Erik felt pretty much left out, since this topic did not concern him in the least. He felt a bit hurt, that they all seemed to be in such great mood, looking forward to meeting the Lord the next day, while he would be sitting at home, alone, unable to see his beloved Christine. He was getting so used to seeing her daily for her lesson, and now was he not only not going to see her the next day, but she did not pay him much attention today either, concentrating on Nadir's suggestions how to get to the Lord's residence the next afternoon.
Erik was getting angry. How could his three friends chat so happily about their plans for tomorrow, when they knew he would be staying home alone, sulking?
He pushed his teacup aside and stood. "I don't think I am needed here," he mumbled and left the table.
"Angel!" Christine's sweet voice made Erik turn around, and Christine, who had followed him, threw herself at him, burying her face in his chest. "Don't you ever say that again," Christine begged. "Don't even think it. You know that we do not want to leave you out. We would love to have you come with us, but we respect your decision not to go see the Lord with us. Of course it was rude and inconsiderate of us to discuss our plans for tomorrow in front of you, when we all knew very well that this topic does not interest or concern you in the least. But maman and I have no other possibility to arrange things with Monsieur Khan, we had to do so while we are here. We did not mean to anger you."
Erik sighed. How could he resist her, when she talked to him like that, clung to him like that? He wrapped his arms around Christine and laid his disfigured cheek on top of her head. "Oh Christine," he whispered. "Would you really want me there? I either can take off my hat and risk being stared at and despised, or wear my hat indoors and be considered an uneducated beast with no manners. You would be embarrassed by my presence."
Christine looked up at Erik and smiled at him. "The only emotion I would be feeling with you at my side, would be one of pride," she said, "because the well-known and well-respected architect Erik Lavoisier, who also happens to be the enigmatic Angel of Music, would take me to tea with one of his customers." She blushed deeply. "It would be like going on a date with you."
Erik stared at her, unbelievingly. "You would not mind going out with a freak who does not follow the common courtesy of taking off his hat when he enters somebody else's house?" he asked incredulously.
Christine shook her head. "I might," she admitted, "if the man in question were anybody but you, and if the Lord had not informed us through Monsieur Khan that it would be perfectly acceptable for you to keep your hat on."
Erik sighed. "You almost make me want to accompany you," he uttered. "But I really do not think I can bear being with a stranger for so long. I am sure I will get very uncomfortable very soon."
Christine smiled at Erik lovingly. "Why don't you give it a try?" she suggested. "If it really becomes unbearable for you, you could give me a sign and then I can pretend that I have a headache and ask you to take me home."
"You would do that for me?" Erik stared at her in wonder. How was it possible that this beautiful angel cared so much for him, the ugly monster, that she was willing to leave an entertaining tea party just to keep him comfortable?
Christine nodded. "If you come with us despite your misgivings about doing so, that's the least I can do for you in return," she said firmly.
Erik put his arm around her shoulder. "Then let's go back and tell Nadir and Antoinette that I will be joining you tomorrow," he said.
The next afternoon, Nadir hired a carriage. He and Erik first picked up Mme. Giry and Christine, then stopped by at the Opera to meet Meg, and once they were all together, they proceeded to Lord Castleborough's townhouse.
The Lord had informed his servants that he was having guests for tea, and that he had offered to one of them to keep his hat on all the time. "This gentleman is to be treated with the same respect as any of my other guests," he had said sharply. "If he is wearing a hat it is not because he has no manners. He has valid reasons for his behavior that I have accepted."
When the party of five arrived, Lord Castleborough met them in the entrance hall and greeted them warmly. "I am so glad, you could make it, Mr. Lavoisier," he beamed at Erik, pretending that Erik's busy schedule had been the reason for the latter's last-minute-decision to join his friends.
Erik fidgeted nervously. "I must apologize for my poor manners," he finally stammered, "for keeping my hat on..." He was expecting a change in the Lord's attitude towards him, the moment he made it clear that he would not take off his ridiculous hat, but the Lord just gave him another warm smile.
"Oh, don't think about it, Mr. Lavoisier," Lord Castleborough reassured Erik. "I told you it would be perfectly fine for you to wear your hat if you so chose."
The Lord then lead the way into a beautiful room with huge French windows that looked out onto a small garden. A round table near one of the windows was set for six. The Lord had given some thought to the seating arrangements to make Erik as comfortable as possible. Lord Castleborough himself was sitting between Meg and Mme. Giry. Erik sat next to Meg, with Christine on his right side, while Nadir took the seat between Christine and Mme. Giry. Thus, Erik's normal, left profile was facing the Lord, while his deformity was turned towards Christine. In addition, the Lord had also made sure that Erik would get the seat that was least exposed to the daylight coming in through the window.
When Erik noticed these arrangements, he relaxed slightly. That way, his only problem was the fact that his enormous hat somewhat obscured his view of Christine.
Lord Castleborough did his best to make his guests comfortable. He started a light conversation, talking about the wonderful ballet production, congratulating Meg on her success, then he mentioned the wonderful designs Erik had drawn for him and the two men talked about architecture for a while. To Erik's surprise the Lord was quite knowledgeable in that area.
"You must believe me that I am truly impressed with your work, my dear Lavoisier," he said to Erik. "I understand enough of the matter to be able to judge it, and I know that your talent is exceptional."
Erik blushed in embarrassment, and the Lord quickly changed the topic, asking how the Girys had met Erik and Nadir. "I assume that since you are living in the same neighborhood and Mr. Lavoisier is a fellow Frenchman you got to know each other?" he asked politely.
Mme. Giry shook her head. "Actually, Erik and I have known each other as children," she explained. "We grew up together. We had gotten out of touch when he left France a few years ago. It was mere coincidence, that we found him to be our neighbor, when I moved here with my two girls as well a few weeks ago."
The conversation returned to the Opera, the quality of the orchestra, the corps de ballet, and Meg's performance as Myrta. Now it was Meg's turn to blush. "It is really not such a big deal," she said, embarrassed. "If you know how to do it. Of course one needs to practice a lot, ballet is not for the lazy, but once you have got the knack of it, it really comes quite naturally."
Mme. Giry smiled at her proudly. "To someone who has not been dancing all their life as you have, it will seem amazing, though," she told Meg.
Lord Castleborough was surprised. "All your life? Really?" he asked. "At what age does one have to start to dance in order to become a ballerina?"
Mme. Giry took it upon herself to answer. "The sooner, the better," she explained. "It does not hurt to learn some basics as soon as you are old enough to walk, to start with stretchings etc. at a very young age, so that when you are old enough to pursue it seriously, your muscles are ready for dancing."
The Lord was suitably impressed. He had not been aware that a successful ballet career had to be started that early. "But what made you think that Miss Marguerite would succeed in such a demanding profession?" He asked.
Mme. Giry smiled. "My girls grew up in a theater," she told the Lord. "My husband died early and I had to work for a living. Since I had danced myself as a girl, I found a job as ballet mistress with one of the larger theaters in Paris, so it was only natural that my daughters started to dance as well."
The Lord addressed Christine. "So you are a dancer too, Miss Christine?" he asked politely.
Christine laughed. "Oh no, Mylord," she replied, amused. "I did try, though, but I am nowhere near as talented as my sister, so I gave up on dancing a while ago."
Meg gave her a quick look. "You may not be as good a dancer as I am, though you are still fairly decent," she said, "but you far surpass me when it comes to singing." Christine blushed, unsure what to say, while Meg chattered on. "Christine is about to audition at the Opera for a solo part," she informed the Lord. "She is just perfecting her voice now, but she is almost ready, is she not, Erik?"
Erik nodded, and Meg went on. "My sister has the most exceptional voice. I am convinced she will blow them all away. She certainly is much better than Miss Crawson, who is currently singing most of the leading roles."
Lord Castleborough smiled at Christine. "Miss Christine, I had no idea, that you are training to be a singer. What a blessing, Madame," he turned to Mme. Giry again, "to have two such talented daughters."
Mme. Giry nodded. "I am truly blessed with these two young ladies," she said. "Both my daughters make me very proud." She knew she was telling the truth. Christine might not be her natural daughter, but she could not have loved her more if she were truly hers, and she was equally proud of her and Meg.
"If I had known that you are a singer, I might have asked you to do me the favor of gracing this afternoon with a song or two," Lord Castleborough said to Christine. "Of course we would have had to select one or two pieces in advance, so that I could have practiced the accompaniment on the piano, I am not good enough to sight-read music."
Christine and Erik looked at each other, checking how the other one felt about it. "Do you want to sing?" Erik's eyes asked. Christine nodded, her eyes telling him that she would be willing to sing if he as her teacher had no objections.
"If you want to hear Mademoiselle Christine sing, she is willing to do so," Erik finally told the Lord. "I can accompany her."
Lord Castleborough gasped. "You can play the piano as well?" he shook is head in amazement. "I guess I should not be surprised. And I would of course be pleased to listen to Miss Christine."
The Lord showed them into a large ballroom where a beautiful old piano was standing in one corner. Erik sat down in front of it and stretched his fingers. "Your audition song," he said curtly. Christine nodded. They had practiced Violetta's long scene at the end of the first act of "La Traviata" for quite a while, since Erik thought that the combination of lyrical passages and stupendous coloratura was best suited to show off Christine's unique talent. She knew the words and the music by heart, as did Erik.
"È strano," Christine began the scene and continued it all the way through. At the point when Alfredo's tenor voice is supposed to be heard from outside, Erik joined in. Christine's eyes widened. They had never done it that way before. So far, Erik had always played Alfredo's melody on the piano, as would be the case at her audition. But then she smiled. They were singing together, as they had always been meant to do. Her voice sounded even more brilliant and powerful as she let lose the sparkling coloratura fireworks of the second part of the scene, ending on a perfect high E flat.
Lord Castleborough was speechless. "Brilliant," he mumbled. "That was simply brilliant. Both of you. Miss Christine, I would be very surprised if the Opera did not offer you a leading part in the next production once you have had your audition. I have never heard such a pure, sweet soprano voice, making coloratura sound as if it were effortless. And you, Lavoisier, if you were not such an accomplished architect, you could most certainly make a very decent living as a musician as well."
Erik fidgeted nervously. He had been so immersed in the music that he had forgotten where he was, and had sung Alfredo's part almost automatically, without giving it much thought. Was his situation not similar to that of Alfredo in this particular scene? Was he not as anxiously waiting for Christine's final answer to his proposal as Alfredo was to hear what Violetta would tell him once he returned the next day with the wilted flower?
The sound of somebody discreetly clearing his throat interrupted the scene. Lord Castleborough's butler stood at the door. "Mylord, I am sorry to interrupt," he addressed his master, "but Sir Toddlingham would like to see you for a moment."
Lord Castleborough quickly glanced at Erik. He had promised that there would be no other guests, but then, maybe seeing how well-respected his scar-faced friend was, was just what Erik needed.
"I kindly ask Sir Toddlingham to join us in the main ballroom," Lord Castleborough instructed his employee, then turned to Erik. "I am sure you will enjoy meeting my dear friend Reginald," he said encouragingly.
Erik wished he could disappear. Sink into the ground, dissolve into thin air, something, anything, in order to avoid having to face yet another stranger. Even though the meeting with the Lord had gone better than he suspected and he even had somewhat enjoyed their conversation, Erik felt in no way ready to meet this Sir Toddlingham.
Christine reached for his hand, entwining her fingers with his, showing him her support. Nadir smiled at her encouragingly. He had recognized the name. Sir Toddlingham – that was the Lord's friend with the disfiguring sabre-scar across his face. Seeing how this man moved around without problems would certainly do Erik some good.
"What is this Soames just told me, you are in the ballroom?" A tall man of about Lord Castleborough's age burst into the room. He stopped in mid-stride when he noticed that the Lord was not alone. "Pardon, ladies, gentlemen," he bowed to the Giry-family and Nadir and Erik, adding apologetically, "I was not aware that you had visitors, Percy."
Lord Castleborough smiled. "Reg, good to see you. May I present to you Madame Antoinette Giry, her daughters Marguerite, who is the new ballerina at the Opera, and Christine, who will most certainly soon become the new primadonna, Mister Nadir Khan and Mister Erik Lavoisier, of Lavoisier and Khan. Ladies, gentlemen, my good friend Sir Reginald Toddlingham."
Sir Toddlingham turned towards the group, and they finally got a good view of his scarred face. Before the incident he might have passed for handsome, but the thick, red scar that ran all the way across his face made his features look bloated and swollen. His left eye lay deep in its socket, the scar passing by so close that it almost seemed swollen shut, and his left earlobe was nothing but a slip of angry red flesh.
Erik gasped. This man looked almost as ugly as he did, yet he saw no reason to cover up his disfigurement. The Lord smiled at him warmly, and the butler who had shown him in, looked at him with nothing but respect.
Sir Toddlingham was far too agitated to notice Erik's state of mind. "Percy!" he screamed at the Lord, delighted. "How on earth did you meet all these people? Miss Giry only just debuted and you already are acquainted with her and her family, and as to Mister Lavoisier,..."
He turned to Erik, smiling broadly, which made his scarred face look even more grotesque. "It is an honor meeting you, Sir, I am a great admirer of your work. Most of my friends already have done business with you, and I would have sought you out within the next days anyway, since my daughter Gwendolyn is getting married, and her groom's house needs some renovation before the young couple can move in..."
None of the Sir's words registered with Erik. He suddenly felt dizzy. The man talking to him had a monster's face, yet he was apparently well-liked. This Sir was not abused, shunned, mistreated despite his face. Was this due to his social rank as a member of the lower nobility? But the Lord had not winced when Sir Toddlingham had entered. That ugly, scarred face did not seem to bother him. Was it possible that he had finally found people that would be able to accept him as well?
"I am sorry," Erik whispered. "I have been a fool. An impolite fool. You, Sir Toddlingham, have graciously shown me your face, and I..." Erik's frame shook with sobbing. "My behavior is inexcusable," tears were streaming down Erik's face and Christine laid a hand on his arm again.
"Calm down, Erik," she tried to sooth him, "it is fine."
Erik shook his head. "Nothing is fine," he sobbed, "but I will make it right." Then he summoned all his courage and tore off his hat.