Chapter 26 – Jealousy
For a moment everybody seemed to be paralyzed, then Castelborough and Toddlingham looked at each other, smiled and went towards Erik.
"Mr. Lavoisier, I meant what I said," the Lord assured Erik, "I am honored to know you. And I am incredibly proud that you deemed me worthy to see your face. I offer you my friendship and hope that you will accept it."
Sir Toddlingham patted Erik on the shoulder and commented jovially, "of all people here in this room, I am probably the one that can understand best how much courage it took for you to get rid of this concealing garment. When this...," he pointed to the scar that marred his face, "happened, it took me months to get used to my new... well, to what passes for my face now, and even longer to summon the courage to go out and confront the world again. And it was my own fault that my face was destroyed." He looked away, as if to shake off sad memories.
"It was not easy at first," the Sir admitted, "I felt ugly, hideous, unable to fit in with the crowd of normal people, but thanks to helpful and understanding people I found my way back into a more or less normal life."
Erik was speechless. He had not quite expected the two noblemen to react in such a friendly way. At best he had hoped for them to not be disgusted by his face. He looked around. Christine was beaming with joy, Antoinette was fighting back tears and Nadir sighed with relief. Meg was the only one that stood a bit to the side and did not dare facing him directly. She had only seen his face once before, when Christine had unmasked Erik on stage during the performance of "Don Juan Triumphant", and she was not sure she was quite ready to look at it again.
Erik's eyes fell on Sir Toddlingham's scarred face. Something the Sir had said had made him think. "You, … you did this to yourself?" he whispered. "You were not born that way?"
Erik tried to imagine what it must be like to have been born with a perfectly normal, even somewhat attractive face and then one day have your looks destroyed by a weapon. He could sympathize with the shock the Sir must have felt at his sudden disfigurement. Was it easier to have been hideous all your life and being used to getting shunned? Was it easier to accept one's fate as a monster-faced freak if one had never known what it was like to be normal? Or... had the Sir at least known a mother's love and friendship with other children in growing up, before his face had gotten injured? Erik realized that the Sir's life could not have been easy either, once he had gotten his scar.
"No," Sir Toddlingham replied, "I have not always been that ugly." He looked into the far distance again. "I brought this upon myself. I have nobody to blame but myself for what happened that day so many years ago. You, on the other hand," he took a closer look at Erik's face, "there is a scar on your right side, so you have been injured as well, but that's not what caused your disfigurement. You were born that way, were you not?" When Erik silently nodded, the Sir continued, "I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for a child to have a face such as we do. Children can be so cruel, I bet the other boys used you as their punching ball."
Erik looked away. "Adults can be cruel as well," he murmured, thinking of his mother, who had never given him the love he would have needed as a child.
Sir Toddlingham nodded. He understood perfectly and he was grateful for his wonderful childhood, for the years full of love and friendship, before …
"People can be very cruel," he agreed, sounding bitter, when he added, "and while an ugly face may be a perfect reason for some to heap abuse and insults on the likes of us, a handsome face is no guarantee that you will be safe from their malicious dealings."
Lord Castleborough apparently knew what his friend was talking about. He put a comforting hand on the Sir's shoulder and squeezed it tightly. "Don't think about it anymore, Reg," he said. "It is in the past. And if … well, if things had been different, you might now be stuck with that viper..."
Sir Toddlingham shook his head. "On the contrary, Percy," he said with sudden conviction. "I think today is the perfect day to remember these old stories, if for no other reason than to help Mr. Lavoisier understand that while his fate may have been terrible and caused him a lot of pain and heartache, there is no guarantee things would have been all smiles and roses if he had been born with a normal face like I once had."
Sir Toddlingham smiled at Erik. "I am aware that you have been through a lot, and I can imagine that you may have wished quite often to look like other human beings, but...," he looked away again. "Looks are not everything. And even though the day I lost my face and the events leading up to it will forever be the darkest period of my life, in the end it resulted in the greatest joy of my existence."
Lord Castleborough cleared his throat. "Reg, if you are planning on telling the story how you got injured, I suggest we head back into my parlor and sit down comfortably," he said, leading the way. Everybody followed him.
Once they were all comfortably seated near one of the beautiful French windows of the parlor, Sir Toddlingham began his story.
"I was a young man of twenty-three," he said, "and I had everything: a loving family, a beautiful home, money, a good education, manners, looks – and a girl. My family lived in the countryside," the Sir explained, "in Sussex, I was the only son and heir of my parents, and one of the most eligible bachelors in the area. The only other family that could compete were the Moorleys, but their wealth had dwindled somewhat over the past few generations, and the fact that Sir Moorley had had to give an appropriate dowry to each of his four sisters had made things even worse. His oldest son, George, was a year older than me, and despite the differences in our economic situation we had been friends since we were old enough to talk."
Sir Toddlingham looked at Erik. "I know you do not see any relevance to my story yet," he said, "but you will soon understand, and I hope I will be able to make you realize that a face is not all that matters."
After sipping on the brandy that Lord Castleborough had poured for all the men, Sir Toddlingham continued. "As I mentioned before, I was twenty-three years old, when our old pastor retired and Pastor Landing became our new parish priest. He was married and had eight or nine children. His oldest daughter, Josephine, was the prettiest thing in this world," the Sir explained. "At least that's how I felt about her. Her skin was like porcelain and had the hue of a barely opened wild rose, her eyes were as blue as the cornflowers in our meadows and her hair had the color of ripe wheat. She was tall and slender like a young birch-tree and her voice sounded like the song of a larch. The moment I first saw Josephine I fell in love with her. I started to court her and to my joy after a while she seemed to return my feelings. My parents were not too happy with my choice, because of her family's rather poor financial situation, but even they admitted that a pastor's daughter was socially acceptable. After a few weeks we were engaged, and I felt in Heaven."
Sir Toddlingham took another sip of his brandy, to steel himself for what he had to say next. "Since we were both so young, our parents decided that we should wait about a year before we would get married," he continued. "That period of waiting was almost over and we were beginning to plan the wedding, when one day I had to go to a nearby town where a cattle market was being held. I was not planning to come home that night, since I would most likely have to organize transportation for whatever animals I might buy there. For some reason the market that day was disappointing. The only milk-cows of any value were heavily overpriced and the bulls were not breeding material. So I did not make any purchases and decided to head home after all, even though I would arrive at dark."
"I was already near our village, when I had to pass through a small glen near the Moorleys' house. That's when I saw them." Sir Toddlingham was very agitated now, he clearly was reliving the events of that evening, and whatever had happened then still shook him to his core.
"That is, I heard them first," the Sir whispered. "My Josephine and my best friend George. They were laughing and giggling and..." he paused to get his emotions under control. "They were kissing. Josephine's blouse was open, her breasts bare, and George fondled them lovingly. And then..."
Erik winced. He felt like he was standing on that rooftop again watching Christine and de Chagny kiss. While he was perfectly able to understand the Sir's feelings at the moment he had caught his bride and his friend together, he had no clue why this Josephine would have betrayed the Sir so cruelly. That Christine had preferred the handsome Vicomte was somewhat conceivable, but Sir Toddlingham had been attractive then. There had been no reason for the girl to betray him.
"She said to George that she had to remain a virgin till after the wedding, but then... they could do more. George begged her to break off the engagement and marry him, but she said they would starve, since he didn't have any more money than she did, and that therefore she had to marry me, but her heart would be his and he would have access to her body whenever he wanted."
Erik jumped to his feet, agitated. "That whore!" he shouted. "How could she do that to you?" Christine's eyes were wide with fear and followed his every move. She knew only too well what Erik was thinking right now, how well he could empathize with the Sir's feelings at that terrible moment and she was frightened at the thought that this story might make him remember a lot more about his past and her relationship with Raoul, when here and now was definitely not the right place nor time to deal with these particular memories of his.
"I broke into hysterical laughter," Sir Toddlingham whispered, "and they stopped whatever they had been doing. I said that I was glad I had found out in time, that I could somewhat understand Josephine for wanting to marry the richer suitor when she preferred the poor one, but that I could never forgive George for his betrayal."
Sir Toddlingham looked into the far distance. "Two days later, it was all over. There was a duel, I chose saber since I was a skilled fencer. I could not think clearly, my blood was boiling, I wanted nothing more than to kill George, my former friend, who had destroyed my dreams of love."
Erik got more and more agitated. This all sounded so familiar. His head was spinning. Long-forgotten memories surfaced from the bottom of his subconscious mind. Rage, jealousy, madness, the desire to throttle the luckier rival, a noose around the Vicomte's neck, Christine telling him that the true distortion was in his soul, calling him her fallen idol and false friend...
"Did you.." he asked anxiously. "Did you... kill him?" How strange it was to think that unrequited love and betrayal were not only the fate of ugly freaks like him, that a pretty face , a title and money had not saved the Sir from a similar experience. Was it possible that he had been wrong all along? That a pretty face would not have solved all his problems? While he was pondering these questions, he remembered more and more details about the night of the fire at the opera, but he tried to suppress these for the moment and deal with them later, for now he was too anxious to learn how the Sir had handled a similar situation.
"Yes," Sir Toddlingham's voice sounded tired and broken. "He did not stand a chance. I just attacked and ran him through in my blood-red haze of jealous fury. When I saw him fall, I laughed, then went to see if he was truly mortally wounded. He was dying, but there was still some life in him. When I leaned over him to make sure his wound would finish him off, he raised his right arm and slashed his saber across my face."
Lord Castleborough squeezed his friend's shoulder. "None of this would have happened if George Moorley had had the decency of staying away from your fiancée, Reg," he said. "Or if she had taken her engagement seriously. You only defended your honor by challenging your bride's lover. It was their fault every bit as much as yours."
Sir Toddlingham nodded. "Still, I should not have killed him," he said weakly. He noticed that everybody's eyes were hanging on his lips, waiting to hear the rest of the story.
"When I came to again weeks later, George had been buried, my face was destroyed and my soul had been scarred forever with the knowledge that I had killed my former friend."
Erik breathed heavily. He understood only too well, even though he had not killed his rival. Not him, anyway, but he had killed nevertheless. Images of his gypsy master, of Joseph Buquet – and Ubaldo Piangi assaulted him. He groaned, when realization hit him that there was a third man whose life he had taken. His mind might have been in a similar state when he killed Piangi as the Sir's when the latter had killed his former friend, but that did not justify what he had done.
Nadir and the three ladies watched Erik nervously. They were well aware of the similarities between Sir Toddlingham's story and Erik's own past and feared that the Sir's narration would trigger Erik's memories and that he might reveal more of his own experiences than was advisable in their current company.
"What happened to Miss Josephine?" Christine asked shyly. Even though she herself had not been half as guilty as the Sir's fiancée, she felt bad. Only now did she completely understand how much she had hurt Erik when she had left him for Raoul.
"She had to leave the village," Sir Toddlingham explained. "Everybody blamed her for what had happened, the young Moorley dead and me in critical condition for weeks, and even once I was out of danger it was clear that I would be marked for life. She had no chances of ever getting married after that incident. She had to work for a living, and not in a suitable job as a paid companion or nurse. She ended up in a factory." He shrugged. "My love for her had died the moment I surprised her with George."
He turned to Erik. "So you see, a pretty face cannot keep you safe from unpleasant, heart-breaking experiences any more than money or a title can. And a pretty face does not necessarily mean that you are a good person. When I still had my face, I gave in to my jealous rage and killed a man. Now, I have learned to control my temper, thanks to my dear Eliza, the woman that looked past my face and past the fact that I had ended a man's life and loved me regardless." He glanced meaningfully from Erik to Christine. The Sir had picked up on the feelings for each other that these two were wearing on their sleeves.
Erik's eyes met those of Toddlingham. "Thank you," he murmured. "Your story has given me much to think about, and it hit closer to home than you realize. I... I know how it feels to see the woman you love in another man's arms." Erik's voice betrayed the pain he had experienced that night on the rooftop of the Opéra Populaire, when he had observed Christine with de Chagny. "And as to jealous fury..." he paused, "that madness that makes you unable to think rationally.. I know that, too." Erik winced at the memory of Piangi, "Don Juan Triumphant", the chandelier and his threats to kill the Vicomte.
Sir Toddlingham nodded. "It took me months to get over all that. Once I realized that I had killed George and that Josephine's life was destroyed, too, my anger over their betrayal evaporated. All I could think of was that I had taken a fellow human being's life and that my face had been marked, to broadcast my crime to the world. It was not easy to find my way back, but believe me, there are worse things than a hideous face. George's death will haunt me till the end of my days."
Erik nodded. He understood what the Sir was trying to tell him, even though he was unable to confess that just like Toddlingham, he was carrying his guilt that was even worse than the ugliness of his face.
"When I was overwhelmed by my guilt, knowing that I would never be able to forgive myself, an angel entered my life," the Sir continued. "I was sent to my aunt's home in Scotland for a while to rest and to wait for this unfortunate affair to be somewhat forgotten. The doctor who checked on me every now and then had a young daughter. Eliza was moved by my sad love-story at first, then by the pain that my guilt caused me. She saw some good in me after all, realizing that only a decent person would take it so hard that he had killed a man. Her love helped me through that difficult time, she gave me the strength to start anew and to face society despite my face and despite my crime."
He looked at the three ladies, his gaze lingering on Christine. "I am sure, she would love to meet you all," he said.