There had come a time when Erik would take Christine for pleasant walks along the shore of his lake or out for a row about the waters with no intention of taking her anywhere other than back around again to his home. It was good to get out of doors, he said, healthy to take some fresh air. And she had never quite been sure if he had been taking himself seriously or trying to amuse her with that morbid sense of humor that she could never fully appreciate.
At first, Christine eagerly accepted these outing invitations as an escape from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the strange underground house that had no windows and no doors. However, soon it came that she was able to sincerely enjoy the brief exercises for the time they allowed her to spend with him. On this artificial bank where the organ did not sound and where stave after stave of music did not follow, Erik was no longer her stern teacher or the ominous supreme being he had always been in her mind. He was simply a man, walking by her side or pulling the oars and speaking to her of exotic lands or enticing adventures. Together, with only the soft lapping of water playing in their ears, the winter air in the vault was filled with their voices as they spoke as any ordinary couple might speak, exhaling puffs of steam on the bank of any ordinary lake.
But today the air was silent and Christine walked alone. Erik had taken the boat that morning and Christine had long since become lonely. When she had found the usually invisible door left open for her, it indicated better than any note of apology that Erik meant her not to miss their regular outing on occasion that he would not be back in time. And so she had gone without him. She might use the time to think. Her thoughts had not been her own lately. Each time she came back down to dwell with Erik, he took over her mind with his instructions of music and pressure for growth. After lessons and study, she was often so exhausted that, when she did not go straight to bed, she allowed him to then take complete control for his own motives and fill her head with more music, more magic, more mysteries of the darkness. There was no more room for the Christine of old until he had to leave her alone to go about some business as he had done today. And now, left alone in the abyss, Christine came pouring back into Christine, and it was at times like this that the stubborn assertion of her female independence pushed her to take action that was never completely wise.
There was nothing dangerous about walking on the banks of the Phantom's lake alone in the dark. At least not for Christine. But although Erik had suggested it, he would have been nervous to know that she had actually ventured out. After all it was winter, and although the bitter weather did not penetrate below ground, sometimes the stones did become icy. But Christine was lonely and in truth, she missed him, and perhaps as she strolled slowly along the water's edge, she might all the sooner hear the distant sound of telltale oars.
The lakeside scenery in the mysterious blue light of the catacombs was nothing more than grey stone blighted here and there by black moss. This edge of the water was uncurving and, gradually becoming distressed in her loneliness by the desolate surroundings, Christine continued her walk with her eyes adverted to the ground directly before her. Every now and then she would look up and hope to see something different or interesting or alive, but here five stories below ground, she could not expect to be surprised by anything more than blue and black and grey. It was not until she had already begun her reluctant return to the invisible door that, upon looking up, she was startled to a stop by the sight of something marring the seamless edge of the water. Something white…Something pink and white.
She stared at it in confusion for perhaps a couple minutes before common sense and curiosity bade her move closer. But after only two steps of tentative approach, she broke into a run, dashing to it, and fell on her knees where the water met the ledge. It was a little girl! Such a little girl, half submerged and bobbing gently up against the ledge. The natural rippling wavelets of the lake washed back and forth across a button nose and a round cheek, fresh and rosy with youth. A dress of lace and petal pink clung to ivory limbs and billowed about her child's body like cherub's wings.
Tears managed to cross Christine's cheeks before she had even pulled the girl from the water and into her own lap.
"Wake up." Her voice was a choked whisper as she gently patted the girl's cheek.
She was so cold! Tiny perfect ice crystals coated the long golden lashes of the closed eyelids that gave the impression of peaceful slumber, and her hands were clutched into little fists against the chill. But how her pursed bow lips were tinted with the red of berries that could never grow in such frozen air… Such a sweetness should never be so cold!
"Please wake up! Please…" Christine anxiously smoothed back the drenched hair from the tiny forehead, trying as tenderly as she could to rouse her from unconsciousness. The child could not have been more than five years old.
"Wake up, please! Wake up…Wake up… I'll take you inside. I'll make a fire for you. I will boil you something warm to drink. Please, please wake up!" Christine's hand continued to stroke and pat the numbed face while her other frantically twisted and squeezed icy water from the little pink dress for but a few unrequited moments more before she collected the child in her arms and rose to continue back to the door. But she did not make it far in her panicked state, stumbling on her own skirts, heavy with absorbed water, as she rose, and she fell again to her knees. Christine moaned at the throb, but the child still made no sound.
"Please!" Hysterical tears clotted in her throat. She clutched the girl her to her breast, rocking on her knees amid sobbing pleas that could not be controlled.
And it was in this state that Erik found her. When his hand fell on her shoulder, Christine started, looking up enough to allow Erik a clear understanding of the circumstances. He lowered himself by Christine's side and gently separated her from the child. Christine watched him closely as he put a hand to the girl's neck for only a moment.
"Christine, she is dead."
"No!" Christine pulled the girl back to herself, resuming her efforts to awaken her. "She can't be dead! Look at her face! Look at her. She is so young. So full of life…"
Erik once again carefully removed the girl from Christine's clutching arms. "She is quite dead, my dear." He lifted the child and stood.
"But…No… How?" Christine remained on the ground, wiping pathetically at tears in her eyes.
"I suspect she drowned." In respectful silence, Erik watched Christine battle fresh tears of mourning for several very long minutes before he spoke again. "Please come along, my dear. I cannot carry the both of you. And if you stay out here, wet as you are, you too shall freeze."
Christine nodded and brushed back the hair that had fallen into her face. She picked up her skirts carefully this time and slowly followed Erik back to his door.
Inside, he laid the wet girl on the wine-colored divan and then knelt beside it to examine her slowly, turning her face, lifting each of her arms, looking closely at her hands.
Christine stood directly behind him with her arms wrapped around herself as she watched with both concern and curiosity while sniffling intermittently.
Erik suddenly turned around to face her. "Go change," he ordered.
She took a step back, startled, and then nodded in assent, but did not immediately go. "What is it you are looking for…?"
She was certain she heard him sigh then as he placed one of his long white hands across the girl's little brow.
"Signs of struggle."
Christine could not contain a gasp. "Do you think she might have been—"
"There are none," Erik cut her off. He stood and moved to a cupboard in the hall where he found a towel to dry his hands.
Christine followed him, shivering and hoping for more words of explanation. But Erik only turned to her with another stern look.
Her eyes locked with his for a moment, but then she nodded again and this time went directly to her room.
She undressed quickly and hung her wet and stained clothes in the bath to dry. Naked, she shivered and longed for the warmth of her bed or a fire. But it was the middle of the afternoon and her mind was quickly filling with questions of How's and Why's that would not soon let her rest. Who was this girl? Where did she come by Erik's lake? Had she been dead already then? Or was it Erik's lake where she had drowned? How did she drown? Why was she not wearing a coat or hat or gloves in March? And why was she all alone? Christine dressed again, easily becoming impatient with buttons and clasps, but as soon as she had finished, she went back out to the parlor.
The child was gone.
"Erik!" Christine cried in alarm. "Erik, what have you done with her?" Somewhere down the hall, she heard a door close. "Erik!" She followed the sound and almost ran right into him in the hallway.
He studied her face with concern. "Why don't you sit down, my dear. Would you like something to drink? Some hot broth perhaps?"
Christine clenched her hands at her sides. "Where is she? I need to see her."
"No, my dear, you need to sit down." He took her lightly by the shoulders, barely touching her as he always did, and led her back into the parlor. "There is nothing you can do. And I do not want you to become fixated with death."
The bluntness of his words had a sobering effect on Christine and she obediently took a seat on the black leather couch. He had been careful not to seat her on the divan where the child had been. With a shudder, she sank against the cushions and kept her eyes adverted from the wet marks that marred that wine colored velvet across the room.
"Where is she?" she asked again, her tone much less demanding.
"She's still here, Christine. She's safe."
Christine nodded, satisfied for now and closed her eyes.
He lingered for a moment of misgiving, hesitant to leave her alone, but when she did not move and did not open her eyes, he went toward the kitchen, telling her softly, "I will bring you something."
He was quick about it and returned to find Christine in the same position. "Take this." His tone had become much more sympathetic and he was comforted when she sat up and gratefully took the cup of broth from him.
"Thank you." She clutched the cup between her hands and stared down into the steaming liquid for a long time in silent thought. "I just wish…"
He had been watching her, waiting for her to speak. "What?"
She sighed as she breathed in the scent of the steam. "I just wish I knew who she was. I just wish I knew her name."
Erik's melodious voice became reverently soft. "Elainie."
Her eyes snapped up to meet his, the broth immediately forgotten. "How do you know?"
At first he did not respond for moment of concerned consideration, but then he came and sat next to her on the couch, his weight causing her to sink closer to him. Slowly, he took the cup from her hands and replaced it with something small. As he turned away to set the cup on the table, Christine stared down at her palms in hushed fascination. He had given her a thin silver necklace, far too small to be worn by anyone with a throat larger than a child's. On the chain was a single pendant, a heart molded out of silver, hollow and light as a feather. For a moment Christine thought it could be a locket, but she felt no clasp to open it.
Erik turned back to Christine and watched her with a strange sense of sorrow as her fingers traced on one side of the heart, the engraved word "Songbird," and on the other, the simple name, "Elainie."