Chapter 31 – Engagement
It was not really their first kiss, yet in a way it was. All those years ago, the night of the fire, they had both been so confused, and recently, after Sir Toddlingham's story, Erik had not remembered everything yet nor had he known about Christine's previous marriage. Now they both finally knew everything about the other, had forgiven each other, and had realized that their love had not only survived despite everything, but had grown even stronger, and when their lips met, they both knew that they were sealing a bond that not even death could sever.
When they finally broke apart, trying to catch some air, Erik smiled at Christine. "I love you so much," he whispered, looking deep into her dark eyes.
Christine smiled back, her left hand gently caressing Erik's deformed cheek. "I love you, too, my Angel," she confessed. "And I think I would have died if you had not wanted me anymore, because of..."
"Shh," Erik comforted her, pulling her close. "You are the only one I ever wanted, and to me you will always be the brightest, purest light in my life."
Christine buried her face in his shoulder. "I knew pretty soon that I had chosen the wrong man," she admitted. "Raoul never allowed me to be myself. He did not want me to stay in contact with maman and Meg, he did not want me to sing. All he cared about was a pretty wife and an heir." She looked up. "I did not understand anymore how I could have ever left you for him. I was regretting my marriage long before it was over. But when I finally realized that I had left my heart with you, beneath the Opéra Populaire, I thought it was too late anyway, that you were dead. In a way the divorce was a relief. I did not have to pretend anymore, I could be myself again, I got my mother and sister back, and my music, and, most importantly, I found you again."
She suddenly sat up straight, remembering something important. "Erik!" she exclaimed miserably. "Do you remember why Raoul divorced me? I might not be able to give you children, I mean... I never conceived in three years... would that bother you?"
Erik shook his head. "Not at all. Maybe it's even a good thing if we do not have children," he explained to Christine. "I would not want a child to inherit this..." And he pointed to his deformity.
Christine wrapped her arms around him. "I understand," she murmured. "But still... I would love to have children." Erik realized that this was something that weighed heavily on Christine.
"We do not know for sure that you cannot... I mean..." Erik blushed. "Didn't those doctors say there was nothing wrong with you? And if it is true that you..." He gently brushed a few of her curls out of her face. "Maybe we can take in an orphan, a little boy or girl as lonely as you were when your father died..."
Christine beamed. Raoul would never have allowed her to adopt a child. He wanted one of his own. "That's why I love you," she whispered to Erik and their lips found each other again.
"Um." Nadir cleared his throat to make his presence known to the couple. Christine and Erik quickly let go of each other, both blushing violently. Nadir grinned.
"It seems I have arrived just in time for congratulations," he stated jovially. "It seems the two of you have finally resolved all your problems."
Erik nodded. "Christine has agreed to become my wife," he informed his friend, reaching for Christine's hand. Christine slowly stood up from where she had been kneeling next to Erik's bed. She felt a bit embarrassed. How long had Nadir been standing at the door? How much of their conversation had he overheard, how much had he seen...?
Nadir smiled at both of them. "Finally!" he breathed a sigh of relief. "It's about time! My very best wishes to both of you." He looked first at his friend, then at the latter's bride. "Erik, Madame Christine..."
"Mademoiselle," Erik interrupted his friend. "My fiancée is the purest and kindest person I can imagine."
Christine took a deep breath. "Why not just Christine?" she asked Nadir. "You are my Erik's best friend, I don't think such formalities will be needed between us."
Nadir gave Erik a questioning look, making sure he approved of Christine's offer. When the latter nodded, he turned to Christine. "In that case you will have to call me Nadir as well, just like Erik does," he stated.
Then Nadir remembered why he had come up to Erik's room. "Erik, you promised you'd eat a bit and then go to sleep again," he reminded his friend. "You have been through a lot today, and you do need to rest now, if you want to be able to talk to your future mother-in-law tomorrow and officially ask her for Christine's hand in marriage."
Erik stared at Nadir uncomprehendingly, then he burst into laughter. "Antoinette is going to be my mother-in-law!" he managed to utter between laughs. "I had not even thought about that yet!"
Nadir and Christine both joined in the laugh. It was such a rare occasion to see Erik so relaxed. Then Nadir gently shooed Christine out of the room, asking her to send up Darius with a light meal for Erik and promising her that he would see to it, that her fiancé would eat and then rest.
Christine ran down the stairs, her heart about to burst with happiness. She had not dared hoping anymore that Erik would ever be able to get over the fact that she had been married before, and now... she smiled happily at the memory of the kisses they had shared.
She quickly passed Nadir's message on to Darius, then went to find her adoptive mother in the parlor. "Maman," she exclaimed, throwing herself into Mme. Giry's arms. "Erik loves me after all. He has asked me to marry him!"
Mme. Giry tried hard to suppress a grin. Instead, she gave Christine a stern look and asked disapprovingly, "and you said yes? Just like that? One day he insults you and a few days later all is forgotten and you want to marry him?"
Christine anxiously looked up at her adoptive mother. "Maman," she begged, "please, do not be angry with him. Tomorrow, when Erik asks you for my hand in marriage, please give us your blessing!"
Mme. Giry smiled. "If I see that he is suitably contrite about the way he treated you..." she teased Christine, then hugged her adoptive daughter. "I am happy for you," she said. "Both of you. It took you both a long time to find the way to each other, but I am glad you did."
The next day, Christine spent a long time in front of her mirror, making sure she would look her absolute best for her official engagement. She put on a white summer dress and tied her curls with a matching white ribbon. At the usual hour she and Mme. Giry walked the short distance to the cottage where Erik and Nadir lived.
Darius let them in and informed them that the masters were waiting for them in the parlor. The moment the two ladies entered the room, Erik went to meet Christine. He knelt down in front of her, took her hands in his and once again asked her to marry him. "Are you absolutely sure?" he asked, and when Christine smiled happily, he produced a small box seemingly out of thin air and held it out to her.
Christine gingerly opened it and gasped. "Oh Erik, this is beautiful," she smiled at him, while Erik slipped the ring on her finger. It was only a simple gold band, but it held a diamond in its center that seemed to have a life of its own.
Christine smiled. How different this ring was from the gaudy thing Raoul had bought her so long ago. Simple, yet warming in its brilliance, like the love that she shared with Erik.
Erik rose to his feet and was about to put his arm around his fiancée, when he remembered Mme. Giry. He lead Christine to her adoptive mother and looked at his old friend. "Antoinette," he said hesitantly, "Christine and I love each other. I therefore ask you, as her mother by adoption, to grant me her hand in marriage and to give us your blessing."
Mme. Giry frowned. "Have you grovelled at her feet?" she asked Erik. "For you treated her abysmally a few days ago and I therefore will only give you my blessing if I am convinced that you are truly sorry and that you won't treat her like that ever again."
"Maman!" Christine's eyes begged her mother to go easy on her Angel. But Erik sank to his knees again and buried his face in Christine's belly.
"I know I do not deserve her, Antoinette," he sobbed, "Christine stands so high above me in every single regard, and I have called her terrible things and hurt her badly. It is my own fault that she left me those three and a half years ago, but she has found it in her heart to forgive me. Please, Antoinette, she is the light that will be able to chase the darkness in which I have lived so far, she is my life."
Mme. Giry smiled. "Stand up, Erik," she said, "and kiss your bride. I give you my blessing. I know that you two belong together and I am happy for both of you."
Erik jumped to his feet and pulled Christine close. He looked her deep into the eyes, then slowly lowered his lips to hers. Christine wrapped her arms around him and deepened the kiss. Nadir and Mme. Giry smiled at each other as the couple forgot everything around them in their embrace. They were both relieved that their two charges were finally happy together.
A while later, Meg joined the group. She had gotten off from rehearsal a bit earlier and therefore was able to join her sister's engagement party.
After congratulating both, Christine and Erik, on their engagement, she turned to Christine. "Are you still planning to return to the stage?" she asked.
Christine and Erik looked at each other, then Christine said. "If you do not object, Erik, I would love to. You will be occupied during the day with your work, and I will need something to do as well. I do miss the busy schedule of the Opéra Populaire, and if I could attend rehearsals with Meg..."
Erik smiled. He had hoped that Christine would still want to pursue her career, since in his opinion it would be a terrible waste of talent if she decided only to sing at home. But he had decided to leave it up to her.
"Wonderful!" Meg exclaimed enthusiastically. "I would love to have you there at rehearsals again. And guess what? They are holding auditions in two weeks. I know that they are mostly trying to fill a few vacant positions in the choir, but they are always looking for new talent as well. Erik, do you think she is ready? Can she audition then?"
After giving it some thought, Erik and Christine agreed that Christine would audition in two weeks. "But promise to marry me before your debut," Erik begged. "So that your audience will know right from the start that you are mine and so that they won't have to get used to your new name after our wedding."
Christine laughed. She was fairly confident that she would be hired once she'd had a chance to audition, but she also knew from Meg that the next two new productions were already cast and that she therefore could only hope to get a part in early fall at best. "I am sure I will be Madame Lavoisier long before my debut," she promised.
It was decided that after their wedding, Christine would move in with Erik. Nadir would still stay with them as well, which was convenient since he and Erik always had a lot of business-related issues to discuss. Nadir would have his own living room, though, so that he could give the couple some privacy. Erik and Christine would have the whole first floor to themselves, and all three would use the parlor, dining room and living room downstairs. Darius would still take care of the household.
"In a month, two at the most, we can have it all arranged," Erik promised, "then we can get married." Christine beamed at him, and their fingers interlaced under the table, where the others could not see it.
Three days later they all met at Sir Toddlingham's house. As promised, Lord Castleborough was also there. Eliza Toddlingham welcomed them all to her home. Her husband introduced his new friends to her, and she quickly glanced from Christine to Erik, then smiled. "I think my intervention is not necessary anymore, Reg," she said to her husband, then turned to the fiancés. "My Reginald told me how he met you all at Lord Castleborough's the other day," she explained. "He is a very wise and sensitive man, you must know. He said to me, Eliza, this poor man Lavoisier, whose face is in no way better than mine, he adores that young lady, the ballerina's sister, and she returns his feelings, but something is keeping them apart. I hope it's not his face, but if so, maybe you can help them..."
She smiled at Christine. "But the two of you have figured it out on your own, have you not? You do not need any help anymore..."
Erik proudly told them, that Christine had agreed to marry him. The Toddlinghams and Lord Castleborough congratulated the couple and Erik promised to send them invitations to the wedding.
Christine and Eliza immediately liked each other. They both had learned to look beyond the surface and to appreciate the beauty in the hearts of their respective men. "My Reginald is a wonderful man," Eliza confided in Christine, "and I love him dearly. I only just met your Erik, but the way he looks at you... I am sure the two of you will be as happy as me and Reg. It's not always easy, though. From time to time Reg will get depressed because of his face, and consider himself less of a human being because of it..."
Christine nodded. "Just like Erik," she agreed. "Of course this is nonsense. He has so many wonderful qualities that are so much more important than a handsome face, but because of his face, he thinks of himself as somewhat inferior..."
"When Reg starts like that, I usually do my best to make him understand how much I love and need him," Eliza explained. "Sometimes it takes a day or two, but in the end he always comes around and realizes that it is not all that important, since he won my heart despite his scars, and who knows if we ever would have met had he not been injured."
Christine smiled. She wondered if she would ever have met Erik if he had not lived underneath the Opéra Populaire when she had been sent there after her father's death. "I will remember that approach," she promised Eliza.
Two weeks later, Christine auditioned at the Opera house. When she announced that she was going to sing Violetta's long scene from the end of Act I of "La Traviata", the conductor and the manager exchanged a curious look, but said nothing.
Christine took up her position next to the piano and concentrated. She used to sing the first part of the scene a tiny bit more slowly than the pianist played it, but she adjusted well to his tempo. She poured all her love into the lyrical part of the aria, and when she reached the fast coloratura part, she sounded joyful and exuberant, determined not to let anything or anybody make her change her ways.
When she was finished, everybody remained silent for a moment, then the manager looked at the conductor and both smiled. The manager then turned to Christine and said, "Miss Giry, when you told us you had chosen this particular aria for your audition, we thought that maybe somehow your sister had found out that we are planning to stage this beautiful opera in September and that you were trying to show us that you can do the part of Violetta. But after hearing you, all we can say is, it does not matter if you knew or not, we have found our leading lady for that particular production. We have never heard this challenging scene sung so perfectly."
Meg, who had been allowed to attend her sister's audition, jumped up and hugged Christine. The manager smiled. "I think it would be a good idea to let Miss Marguerite dance the solo part in the ball scene, the gypsy girl. It will be sensational: Two sisters excelling at two totally different arts, appearing in the same production!"
Christine and Meg hugged each other again and said that they would love that very much, then Christine remembered something. "You will not be able to advertise me as Christine Giry, though," she confessed. "By then, I will be Madame Lavoisier. I am engaged to be married in about a month."
"Lavoisier?" the manager asked. "You do not by chance mean that fashionable architect that all of London is talking about? That genius that nobody has met in person?"
Christine smiled. "That is indeed my fiancé," she admitted. "But it is not true, that nobody has met him in person. In fact, he is well acquainted with Lord Castleborough and especially with Sir Toddlingham."
"We will still be able to advertise the two of you as sisters," the conductor chimed in. "After all, it is normal, that sisters don't share the same last name anymore, once one of them gets married. It will be spectacular. Miss Marguerite has already established herself with her role as Myrta, and when we tell the audience now that her sister will be singing Violetta, because she is every bit as fantastic a singer as Miss Marguerite is a dancer, we will be sold out within days of making that announcement. We probably would be able to sell twice as many tickets as we have seats. You will of course get the box again, for your mother, and for Monsieur Lavoisier."
Christine went to see Erik immediately after her audition to tell him of her success and of the strange coincidence that they were planning to do "La Traviata" anyway, and had been so impressed with her that she had been offered the lead – and Meg would be dancing in the ball scene.
"And I'll get the box for you and maman, and Nadir can come as well, and maybe the Toddlinghams and Lord Castleborough?" she told Erik excitedly.
Erik pulled her into his arms and kissed her, then he gazed at her lovingly and said, "we will all be there to celebrate your debut, my love. By then you will be my wife. I got everything planned. The house will be ready in early August, if we figure in some unforeseeable delay, it should still be ready by mid-August. Shall we set a date, Christine? Will you marry me on August 15?"