by Moira Brennan
Disclaimer and Author's Notes: This story takes place during one of Erik's early winters at the Opera House. And yes, that does mean that Christine, Raoul, Mme. Giry, or Meg will not be in this phic. Erik belongs to Gaston Leroux, blah blah blah. I am not making any money off of this thing either. This is also NOT "another woman" story.
The Christmas season was in full bloom in Paris. The night before snow had fallen and the City of Lights had awakened to a pure sparkling white blanket that covered every surface. Holiday shoppers hurried along on the streets with mysterious wrapped bundles in their arms and twinkles in their eyes as they thought of the loved ones who would receive the gifts. Children, laughing as they played in the cold, fresh snow, tucked back visions of Peré Noël giving sweets to good little boys and girls. Everywhere there was a sense of joy, the eagerness of presents to be given and received, the carolers singing at the street corners with red cheeks and happy smiles, and the strangers who passed each other on the street wishing everyone a cheerful Joyeux Noël.
Unfortunate was the man or woman whom the gaiety of the season failed to touch...
Erik huddled deeper into his velvet lined black cloak in an alley near, oh so near!, to his secret entrance to l'Opéra cursing the blinding whiteness of the snow which glared up at him, seemingly mocking the black cape he wore which stood out like a bright red poinsettia against the white. Perhaps I should take to wearing all white during the winter... he mused bitterly, shrinking back once again as a gaily dressed couple laughed their way across his hiding place. He wouldn't have gone out at all but Erik had wanted to make sure he had all the necessary supplies for spending a long winter at the Palais Garnier, his home.
Erik perked up when the flow of pedestrians seemed to ebb and hurried out from his hiding spot, thankful at least for the brisk weather that permitted him to wear a muffler wound up around most of his masked face. The bulky packages in his arms also provided a measure of protection and he quickly averted his face, pretending to read a non-existent shopping list as a group of carolers walked by, singing "Adeste Fideles." Repressing the urge to throttle the alto who was so terribly off-key that he winced, Erik hurried along remembering that the Opera Populaire's annual Christmas soireé was to start soon. Messieurs Debienne and Poligny were going to ring in the holiday season with their new tenor, Ubaldo Piangi, singing Gounod's "Ave Maria" for some of l'Opéra's wealthier patrons. Erik still didn't have quite enough influence over "his" managers to decide about principle singers, but he was getting close to his goal.
Christmas... a time of joy and laughter... for everyone but him. Erik winced again. Christmas was nothing more than just another lonely night to him. It always had been, even as a child Peré Noël had never visited him and Christmas dinner was nothing special except for a few straggly sprigs of holly set around the candle in the middle of the table. Christmas wasn't for monsters...
His mind buried in these thoughts and his face buried in his packages, Erik nearly ran over a petite dark-haired young woman who was holding a large flat package wrapped in brown paper. "My apologies, mademoiselle..." he murmured quickly, not looking at her. To his surprise, the young woman didn't seem to notice what had happened and merely walked on with a troubled expression that wrinkled her fair white brow. Staring after her a moment, Erik shrugged and hurried the rest of the way to his door without incident.
Danielle Cartier barely heard the apology of the man she almost ran into as she hurried past the gilded Opera House. Her gloved fingers clutched the edges of the portrait as a voice from the past came unbidden to her mind.
My Danielle will have her paintings up beside the Mona Lisa someday. Isn't that right dearest?
"I'm trying Papa," she whispered, feeling her eyes flood and, annoyingly, fogging up her spectacles. As she stopped get a handkerchief out of her pocket, she felt a warm gloved hand on her arm. Looking up, the blurry but handsome smiling face of her friend (suitor?) frowned, seeing her tears.
"Danielle? What's wrong?" asked the young man with chestnut colored hair, unruly from the breeze. Then he saw the package. "Oh no, another rejection?" She nodded, some tears slipping past her closed eyelids. "They're all fools," the young man declared vehemently.
Danielle wiped her eyes and pushed her eye-glasses further up on her nose. "Merci, Claude..." she managed. Claude looked at her, standing a bit awkwardly to the side, wanting to comfort her but not knowing how far propriety deemed he could go.
"There's something else, isn't there?" She looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. "I didn't see you at Mass yesterday, Danielle, are you not... feeling well?" As soon as the question left his mouth, Claude mentally slapped himself. Of course she's not feeling well you twit! Say something else, genius, and impress her with your astounding stupidity!
Danielle looked down, and Claude felt his heart drop, feeling that he had just ended any chance he might have had with her. "I was there..." she finally whispered. "I was near the back... I was feeling somewhat ill, if I were to get sick... I thought I should be near the door... and today..." More tears slipped down her ivory cheeks. "Today is the one year anniversary of my father's death."
Claude wanted to hold her, wipe away her tears with his fingers and gently kiss her forehead. But instead he touched her arm, sadness in his friendly blue eyes. "I-I'm sorry, Danielle... but," he hesitated. "Shouldn't you be at peace? Your father's soul is in the eternal Paradise..."
Danielle shook her head sadly. "How do I know with absolute certainty that he is happy? Unless Heaven gives me a sign... I will continue to grieve." Claude bit his lip and noticed for the first time that she was shivering. "Why don't we go over to that little café over there?" he asked gently, gesturing towards a small shop across the street. "We should warm up with some hot tea... my treat?"
For the first time, Danielle looked frightened and shook her head, causing a few dark strands to come out of their place. "No, I-I mustn't... I--" Tears spilled over but this time she turned and ran, heedless of the snowy pavement.
"Danielle!" Claude called after her, startled, worried, and more than a little hurt.
A few hours later, Danielle thanked and tipped the driver of the coach as she gathered up her drawing supplies in front of l'Opéra. One of her friends was in the ballet and had let Danielle know that Messieurs Debienne and Poligny were looking for an artist that didn't cost much to come and sketch a few of the principles during the Christmas soireé for advertisement in an upcoming program. Thanks to her friend's quick insight, Danielle had gotten the job.
The brisk winter wind nipping at her heels, Danielle ascended the steps and gave a smile of thanks to the doorman who did not smile back until she had given him her invitation. A dapper young man took her wraps and she resisted the urge to sketch the opulent Grand Staircase as a waiter directed her to the ballroom.
Danielle drank in the graceful dancers, the lavish decorations, and the string quartet with enthusiasm, artistic mind already at work and fingers itching to draw. Quickly, she found a chair on the side, got out her pencils, and flipping her sketchbook open to a clean white page, let her fingers and imagination take over.
Later, when the tenor was getting ready to sing "Ave Maria," she moved a bit to get a clearer sketch of the large man. Then he began to sing. Danielle was no musician but it seemed to her that the large tenor was using far too much volume for such a small crowd. Danielle finished her few sketches of "Signore Piangi" while said Signore was still singing and was going to close her sketchbook when it accidentally fell open to an unfinished portrait of her father.
Choking back an unexpected sob, Danielle hurried out of the ballroom to avoid embarrassing herself. There was no one around when she entered a hallway that had a few open doors. Out of curiosity, she stepped inside one and realized that it was a box seat for the huge amphitheater. They must be cleaning, she mused and sank down in one of the soft seats. The amphitheater itself was so dark that she couldn't even see the stage, even so, it was peaceful and soon without meaning to, Danielle drifted off to sleep.
Erik muttered a few select words as he left the listening post in the ballroom after the party was beginning to break up. How dare they? He fumed in a black rage. The Italian masters of La Scala would be beyond ashamed of that fat, pompous, buffoon! His vibrato sounds like a turkey, his piano is non-existent... he railed in his mind. Joyeux Noël l'Opéra de Paris, indeed! If I only dared to show them what true music is... Erik paused for a moment, an idea slowly emerging.
Once standing in the middle of the pitch-black stage, Erik took a deep breath and began to sing. Here is my Christmas present...
Danielle was having a wonderful dream. She didn't know where she was but a voice more beautiful than anything she had ever heard was singing "Ave Maria" but much, much better than Signore Piangi had performed it. The song ended and Danielle awoke, tears falling down her face once again. But this time, they were tears of joy, she had received her sign. She crossed herself as she exited the box, looking heavenward she whispered: "Thank you."
The next day Danielle entered the café that Claude had pointed out to her yesterday. She spied his melancholy form by a table, hunched over a no-longer steaming cup. Smiling, she walked over and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and blinked with surprise at seeing her there. "Is that cup of tea still available?" she asked softly.
Claude smiled lopsidedly as he pulled out a chair for her. "Why, yes... of course it is..."
Joyeux Noël everyone!
© 2000 Moira Brennan