Above the trap-doors
The next day, he saw her at the Opera. She was still wearing the plain gold ring. She was gentle and kind to him. She talked to him of the plans which he was forming, of his future, of his career.
He told her that the date of the Polar expedition had been put forward and that he would leave France in three weeks, or a month at latest. She suggested, almost gaily, that he must look upon the voyage with delight, as a stage toward his coming fame. And when he replied that fame without love was no attraction in his eyes, she treated him as a child whose sorrows were only short-lived.
"How can you speak so lightly of such serious things?" he asked. "Perhaps we shall never see each other again! I may die during that expedition."
"Or I," she said simply.
She no longer smiled or jested. She seemed to be thinking of some new thing that had entered her mind for the first time. Her eyes were all aglow with it.
"What are you thinking of, Christine?"
"I am thinking that we shall not see each other again … "
"And does that make you so radiant?"
"And that, in a month, we shall have to say good-by for ever!"
"Unless, Christine, we pledge our faith and wait for each other for ever."
She put her hand on his mouth.
"Hush, Raoul! … You know there is no question of that … And we shall never be married: that is understood!"
She seemed suddenly almost unable to contain an overpowering gaiety. She clapped her hands with childish glee. Raoul stared at her in amazement.
"But … but," she continued, holding out her two hands to Raoul, or rather giving them to him, as though she had suddenly resolved to make him a present of them, "but if we can not be married, we can … we can be engaged! Nobody will know but ourselves, Raoul. There have been plenty of secret marriages: why not a secret engagement? … We are engaged, dear, for a month! In a month, you will go away, and I can be happy at the thought of that month all my life long!"
She was enchanted with her inspiration. Then she became serious again.
"This," she said, "IS A HAPPINESS THAT WILL HARM NO ONE."
Raoul jumped at the idea. He bowed to Christine and said:
"Mademoiselle, I have the honor to ask for your hand."
"Why, you have both of them already, my dear betrothed! … Oh, Raoul, how happy we shall be! … We must play at being engaged all day long."
It was the prettiest game in the world and they enjoyed it like the children that they were. Oh, the wonderful speeches they made to each other and the eternal vows they exchanged! They played at hearts as other children might play at ball; only, as it was really their two hearts that they flung to and fro, they had to be very, very handy to catch them, each time, without hurting them.
One day, about a week after the game began, Raoul's heart was badly hurt and he stopped playing and uttered these wild words:
"I shan't go to the North Pole!"
Christine, who, in her innocence, had not dreamed of such a possibility, suddenly discovered the danger of the game and reproached herself bitterly. She did not say a word in reply to Raoul's remark and went straight home.
This happened in the afternoon, in the singer's dressing-room, where they met every day and where they amused themselves by dining on three biscuits, two glasses of port and a bunch of violets. In the evening, she did not sing; and he did not receive his usual letter, though they had arranged to write to each other daily during that month. The next morning, he ran off to Mamma Valerius, who told him that Christine had gone away for two days. She had left at five o'clock the day before.
Raoul was distracted. He hated Mamma Valerius for giving him such news as that with such stupefying calmness. He tried to sound her, but the old lady obviously knew nothing.
Christine returned on the following day. She returned in triumph. She renewed her extraordinary success of the gala performance. Since the adventure of the "toad," Carlotta had not been able to appear on the stage. The terror of a fresh "co-ack" filled her heart and deprived her of all her power of singing; and the theater that had witnessed her incomprehensible disgrace had become odious to her. She contrived to cancel her contract. Daae was offered the vacant place for the time. She received thunders of applause in the Juive.
The viscount, who, of course, was present, was the only one to suffer on hearing the thousand echoes of this fresh triumph; for Christine still wore her plain gold ring. A distant voice whispered in the young man's ear:
"She is wearing the ring again to-night; and you did not give it to her. She gave her soul again tonight and did not give it to you… If she will not tell you what she has been doing the past two days … you must go and ask Erik!"
He ran behind the scenes and placed himself in her way. She saw him for her eyes were looking for him. She said:
"Quick! Quick! … Come!"
And she dragged him to her dressing-room.
Raoul at once threw himself on his knees before her. He swore to her that he would go and he entreated her never again to withhold a single hour of the ideal happiness which she had promised him. She let her tears flow. They kissed like a despairing brother and sister who have been smitten with a common loss and who meet to mourn a dead parent.
Suddenly, she snatched herself from the young man's soft and timid embrace, seemed to listen to something, and, with a quick gesture, pointed to the door. When he was on the threshold, she said, in so low a voice that the viscount guessed rather than heard her words:
"To-morrow, my dear betrothed! And be happy, Raoul: I sang for you to-night!"
He returned the next day. But those two days of absence had broken the charm of their delightful make-believe. They looked at each other, in the dressing-room, with their sad eyes, without exchanging a word. Raoul had to restrain himself not to cry out:
"I am jealous! I am jealous! I am jealous!"
But she heard him all the same. Then she said:
"Come for a walk, dear. The air will do you good."
Raoul thought that she would propose a stroll in the country, far from that building which he detested as a prison whose jailer he could feel walking within the walls … the jailer Erik … But she took him to the stage and made him sit on the wooden curb of a well, in the doubtful peace and coolness of a first scene set for the evening's performance.
On another day, she wandered with him, hand in, hand, along the deserted paths of a garden whose creepers had been cut out by a decorator's skilful hands. It was as though the real sky, the real flowers, the real earth were forbidden her for all time and she condemned to breathe no other air than that of the theater. An occasional fireman passed, watching over their melancholy idyll from afar. And she would drag him up above the clouds, in the magnificent disorder of the grid, where she loved to make him giddy by running in front of him along the frail bridges, among the thousands of ropes fastened to the pulleys, the windlasses, the rollers, in the midst of a regular forest of yards and masts. If he hesitated, she said, with an adorable pout of her lips:
"You, a sailor!"
And then they returned to terra firma, that is to say, to some passage that led them to the little girls' dancing-school, where brats between six and ten were practising their steps, in the hope of becoming great dancers one day, "covered with diamonds … " Meanwhile, Christine gave them sweets instead.
She took him to the wardrobe and property-rooms, took him all over her empire, which was artificial, but immense, covering seventeen stories from the ground-floor to the roof and inhabited by an army of subjects. She moved among them like a popular queen, encouraging them in their labors, sitting down in the workshops, giving words of advice to the workmen whose hands hesitated to cut into the rich stuffs that were to clothe heroes. There were inhabitants of that country who practised every trade. There were cobblers, there were goldsmiths. All had learned to know her and to love her, for she always interested herself in all their troubles and all their little hobbies.
She knew unsuspected corners that were secretly occupied by little old couples. She knocked at their door and introduced Raoul to them as a Prince Charming who had asked for her hand; and the two of them, sitting on some worm-eaten "property," would listen to the legends of the Opera, even as, in their childhood, they had listened to the old Breton tales. Those old people remembered nothing outside the Opera. They had lived there for years without number. Past managements had forgotten them; palace revolutions had taken no notice of them; the history of France had run its course unknown to them; and nobody recollected their existence.
The precious days sped in this way; and Raoul and Christine, by affecting excessive interest in outside matters, strove awkwardly to hide from each other the one thought of their hearts. One fact was certain, that Christine, who until then had shown herself the stronger of the two, became suddenly inexpressibly nervous. When on their expeditions, she would start running without reason or else suddenly stop; and her hand, turning ice-cold in a moment, would hold the young man back. Sometimes her eyes seemed to pursue imaginary shadows. She cried, "This way," and "This way," and "This way," laughing a breathless laugh that often ended in tears. Then Raoul tried to speak, to question her, in spite of his promises. But, even before he had worded his question, she answered feverishly:
"Nothing … I swear it is nothing."
Once, when they were passing before an open trapdoor on the stage, Raoul stopped over the dark cavity.
"You have shown me over the upper part of your empire, Christine, but there are strange stories told of the lower part. Shall we go down?"
She caught him in her arms, as though she feared to see him disappear down the black hole, and, in a trembling voice, whispered:
"Never! … I will not have you go there! … Besides, it's not mine … EVERYTHING THAT IS UNDERGROUND BELONGS TO HIM!"
Raoul looked her in the eyes and said roughly:
"So he lives down there, does he?"
"I never said so … Who told you a thing like that? Come away! I sometimes wonder if you are quite sane, Raoul … You always take things in such an impossible way … Come along! Come!"
And she literally dragged him away, for he was obstinate and wanted to remain by the trap-door; that hole attracted him.
Suddenly, the trap-door was closed and so quickly that they did not even see the hand that worked it; and they remained quite dazed.
"Perhaps HE was there," Raoul said, at last.
She shrugged her shoulders, but did not seem easy.
"No, no, it was the 'trap-door-shutters.' They must do something, you know … They open and shut the trap-doors without any particular reason … It's like the 'door-shutters:' they must spend their time somehow."
"But suppose it were HE, Christine?"
"No, no! He has shut himself up, he is working."
"Oh, really! He's working, is he?"
"Yes, he can't open and shut the trap-doors and work at the same time." She shivered.
"What is he working at?"
"Oh, something terrible! … But it's all the better for us… When he's working at that, he sees nothing; he does not eat, drink, or breathe for days and nights at a time … he becomes a living dead man and has no time to amuse himself with the trap-doors." She shivered again. She was still holding him in her arms. Then she sighed and said, in her turn:
"Suppose it were HE!"
"Are you afraid of him?"
"No, no, of course not," she said.
For all that, on the next day and the following days, Christine was careful to avoid the trap-doors. Her agitation only increased as the hours passed. At last, one afternoon, she arrived very late, with her face so desperately pale and her eyes so desperately red, that Raoul resolved to go to all lengths, including that which he foreshadowed when he blurted out that he would not go on the North Pole expedition unless she first told him the secret of the man's voice.
"Hush! Hush, in Heaven's name! Suppose HE heard you, you unfortunate Raoul!"
And Christine's eyes stared wildly at everything around her.
"I will remove you from his power, Christine, I swear it. And you shall not think of him any more."
"Is it possible?"
She allowed herself this doubt, which was an encouragernent, while dragging the young man up to the topmost floor of the theater, far, very far from the trap-doors.
"I shall hide you in some unknown corner of the world, where HE can not come to look for you. You will be safe; and then I shall go away … as you have sworn never to marry."
Christine seized Raoul's hands and squeezed them with incredible rapture. But, suddenly becoming alarmed again, she turned away her head.
"Higher!" was all she said. "Higher still!"
And she dragged him up toward the summit.
He had a difficulty in following her. They were soon under the very roof, in the maze of timber-work. They slipped through the buttresses, the rafters, the joists; they ran from beam to beam as they might have run from tree to tree in a forest.
And, despite the care which she took to look behind her at every moment, she failed to see a shadow which followed her like her own shadow, which stopped when she stopped, which started again when she did and which made no more noise than a well-conducted shadow should. As for Raoul, he saw nothing either; for, when he had Christine in front of him, nothing interested him that happened behind.