Author's Note: By this point, I should think it is obvious who here is mine and who isn't…I do however hope that you enjoy this ending!
How Hungry Would a Woman Have to Be? – Chapter Four
The streets of Paris were cold and silent as a chilling wind swept between the crumbling buildings of the St. Denis district. Blowing through the cracks in the window, the wind entered a tiny apartment and circled two people who remained as motionless as granite statues. One stood towering over the other, his golden eyes blazing with hatred and anger. A mangled corpse lay at his feet where a small, delicate woman rested on her knees. Her dark eyes were wide with horror as she stared up at his face.
"Good God..." came a gasp from the woman's red lips and she involuntarily inched away from him, backing herself against the wall. Her hand had flown to her throat and she cowered on the floor in his dark shadow. "You killed him..." she whispered disbelievingly.
"I'm sorry, Marceline…he meant to hurt you...you're safe now..." Erik whispered as he stretched his hand out toward her to help her off the floor. She firmly pressed her back against the wall and shook her head wildly, repeating over and over "You killed him...you killed him..."
Erik stepped over to her and took her by the shoulders and gently shook her to bring her back to sanity. She looked at him again and, as he had done countless times in the prior months, he gently stroked the smooth skin of her cheek which had already started to bruise from Jacques forceful blow. To his horror, she recoiled and pushed herself out of his grasp as she buried her face in her hands. She began to sob then, her entire body shaking with the deep rattling gasps and Erik stood silently before her, unable to understand the reason for her withdrawal.
He turned back to the body of her employer and moved to cover the distorted face when he caught sight of something sparkling in the dim lamplight. Looking down, he saw the remnants of his porcelain mask lying in a shattered heap near the body of his victim. He froze with horror as he realized the true reason for Marceline's strange actions. Cautiously, disbelievingly, he raised his hand to his face, praying to all deities that it wasn't true, that his mask was still fastened. His gloved fingers brushed against the bare rough skin of his cheek and he gave a low cry of dismay; he was uncovered and she had seen him.
She had seen...she had seen it and now she hated him.
He buried his face in his hands and tried desperately to control the waves of shame and self-loathing that crashed through him like a hurricane hitting the seaside. All he wanted to do was to run; he yearned to run away from the horror and disgust that he would undoubtedly see reflected in her lovely eyes where compassion and trust had once shown. He wished that the uneven floorboards would swallow him up so that he did not have to face her. He lacked the courage to face her.
A movement near his feet startled him and he took his hands away from his face to find Marceline examining the body. Tears ran in streams down her face and her breathing was still uneven and strained as she ran her hands over the discolored face of Jacques and closed his wide, dead eyes. She took a handkerchief from her pockets and covered his face. Not looking at Erik, she whispered "What do we do now with him? The gendarmes won't give a damn 'bout self-defense an' they'll kill me for this, baby or not..."
Keeping his face averted, he answered in the lowest and calmest tone he could manage under the circumstances. "You've no need to worry; I will arrange everything. You will never be troubled by me again."
Silently he crossed the room and donned his coat and muffler, taking extra pains to conceal his face now that his mask was destroyed. He returned to where Marceline still knelt by the corpse and, averting his face, moved to pick up the dead man in his arms. He was stopped mid-movement by a tentative hand placed on his forearm. He turned toward her instinctively and saw her visibly force herself to regain her composure in the view of his dead face.
"Love...I'm sorry...I didn'a think, I didn'a know what to expect..."
"Do not trouble yourself." He said stiffly. "It is none of your concern. Attend to your cheek and get some rest; you must not harm yourself. I will handle all that needs to be dealt with here."
He moved again to take the corpse but she placed both of her hands on his arm and peered at him closely in the dim lighting. He averted his face from her gaze, undone by the close scrutiny to his greatest shame and shrugged off her touch. However, she put a firm hand on the one cheek of his distorted visage and turned him so that she could see him clearly.
"You've been hurt, love. Let me see to that..."
Her gentle touch burned his skin which was completely unused to any contact other than the cool caress of white porcelain. He stood in absolute shock as she undid his muffler and stared at him without any trace of horror or disgust in her eyes. She turned away to get her wash basin and some cloths to clean the gashes from the broken glass.
Taking advantage of his shocked state as she had months before, she pushed him down into a seated position on her bed and rushed over to lock the door. After securing the bolts, she flung open her trunk and retrieved the bottle of brandy. Pouring him a glass and forcing it in his shocked hands, she began to wash the blood from his mangled face.
Tending to him with the deft hands of a surgeon, she cleaned and disinfected the cuts before she began to wind bandages around his face. Only when she touched the hairline of his wig did she stop and begin to speak.
"Dearie, is this...this ain't your hair..."
He looked to her questioning face and searched for the familiar signs of repulsion and disgust; he didn't find them.
"Dearie, do you want me to drape the bandages across the wig? I might crush it and the bandages will stay longer if they're over your real hair..."
He swallowed his shame at having her soft hands touching his face and turned away from her, not willing to have her see more of his hideousness.
"I am fine" he answered stiffly. "And I can attend to these wounds myself, madame. You need not exert yourself for my sake."
Moving to rise from the bed, he found himself impeded by her two hands which felt like iron pressing down on his shoulder blades. She leaned forward, so close that her nose would've brushed against his had he been blessed with one, and hissed in an angry tone.
"Marceline. My name is Marceline. You are to call me Marceline, just as you have for the last months. This doesn't change anything; I don't care what you look like. You just surprised me, that's all. And I'd think that you should be a little more understanding about that after all. You shouldn't have hidden this from me for this long; it isn't anything to be ashamed about. From the looks of things, it is hardly as if you could help it; just as I could not help becoming what I am in order to survive. This life is not fair, but not everybody in this world is hateful. Not everybody is ugly. You have beauty in your soul, whether you want to admit it or not and I'll be damned if I let you be ashamed and afraid in front of me for something as stupid as your face. Now, I am going to remove this wig of yours so that I can wind the bandages around something that will stay still and you for one are going to let me do it. Am I understood?"
Her voice had changed in the course of this speech and reminded Erik more of his mother than of a lowly prostitute. He hung his head as tears of shame flooded his eyes and he felt her lift the artificial covering from his head. The expected gasp of disgust did not come and she continued to wind the bandages around his head, heedless of the malformations that she encountered.
Fastening the last of the cotton strips, Marceline's hands hesitated before coming to rest in his thin hair. The soft, gentle touch finally undid him and the tears fell from his eyes, his shoulders shaking in an effort to keep his sobs under control. She knelt down in front of him and took him in her arms. She held him tighter than she had ever had before and this time, she whispered gentle words of comfort into his ear as she stroked the thinning hair on the back of his head. With his poor head in her hands, she laid her forehead lightly against his and felt rather than heard the low moan that escaped from his lips.
Neither was aware of the time passing as they held this pose and it was not until a drunken reveler's song sounded from the street below that either of them stirred from their embrace. Erik lifted his head sharply and pulled himself quickly from Marceline's grasp as she struggled to stand, brushing the wrinkles from her skirt. The two looked at each other, Erik's golden eyes still wide with disbelief from her open acceptance of his deformity.
She may have been a whore, but at least she cared. She was moved enough by her heart to comfort him. She was the only person in his life who had ever tried to do so…
Reluctantly, they broke their gaze and turned to examine the cold corpse that still lay on the floor. Wordlessly, Marceline moved to fetch Erik's muffler and wig. Laying the artificial covering over the bandages, she then took the thick muffler and wrapped it gently about his face. He moved to take the body but she reached out to him and asked softly "I will never see you again, will I, dearie?"
He turned his head toward her and fixed her with a gaze that said it all without words. There was no need to question; they both knew that he would never be back. He bent down, took Jacques in his arms, and headed toward the door. Again he felt her touch on his arm and he looked to her one last time, locking her image in his mind forever.
"Dearie, please remember what I said. I meant it, surely I did. I don't even know your name but I know your soul and it is beautiful even if your face isn't. My door will always be open to you – just come and you will always be welcome. Remember that, love…"
Tears came unbidden to his golden eyes yet he walked through the door that she held open for him. He stopped suddenly at the top step of the staircase and without looking at her, whispered in his melodious voice "Be sure to take great care of yourself and the little one…thank you, Marceline…thank you…" He descended the staircase without another word and disappeared into the night.
The next day, Marceline tentatively opened the door to her flat, fully expecting armed gendarmes to be waiting on the other side of the battered wood. To her surprise, she found a small, mousy gentleman dressed in a cheap suit. He was startled when she opened the door and, after removing his cap blustered through a brief introduction and explanation. Refusing to answer any of her questions, he handed her a thick white envelope and with a sad smile turned to leave. She detained him.
"For God's sake – at least tell me his name!" she shouted, her voice echoing down the staircase and disturbing all occupants in the building. He looked back to her and seemed to study her for a moment before responding.
"Erik. His name is Erik, mademoiselle." At this, he descended the stairs and walked into the street, leaving Marceline gripping the banister for support as she held the envelope, filled with thousand franc notes, in her nerveless hand.
The streets of Paris were cold and silent as a masked figure made his way from the home of Nadir Khan. After spending the evening being insulted and reprimanded for his current activities as the Opera Ghost, Erik longed for the sweet kiss of his morphine that would allow him to escape briefly from his guilt. However, he was reluctant to allow himself to embrace that familiar drugged haze just yet; he needed to walk off his frustrations first before retreating to his home. He walked aimlessly through the streets and alleys and remembered a time, not very long ago, when he had met one kindred spirit in these shadows. His meanderings took him from the respectable estates on the Rue de Rivoli to the slums in St. Denis and then to the Bastille neighborhood. Walking through the darkened streets, he was surprised to hear a child's voice exclaiming from the shadows "Papa? Papa, is that you?"
He looked down to the small face and was grateful that his own was hidden by his muffler and whispered "No, dear one. I am not your father." He retreated to the shadows and watched this child, wanting to see if the father would indeed return for the poor thing. In the slums, abandoned orphans were not uncommon, but in this district it was a rather strange occurrence. Then, from one of the lighted homes on the rue, a woman's voice yelled into the street. "What on earth are you doing out there?"
A door flew open and the street was partially illuminated by the lights inside as a woman ran out into the street and stood before the child. "For heaven's sake, what are you doin' out here? I've had enough of your disappearing acts! You had me worried sick, dearie."
At that term of endearment, Erik whipped around to stare at her in the darkness. It was the same voice, the same tone, the same inflection that he had heard before. He unconsciously walked several steps in her direction before another voice at the other end of the street startled him back into the shadows.
"Ah, what a treat! Me Marceline an' Erik awaitin' my arrival! Dinna tell me that the other little ones 'ave forgotten me?"
Erik watched in complete shock as the three people embraced each other and as the sounds of their joyous reuniting echoed down the empty street. Standing only a few feet from where he stood in the shadows was Marceline, the only woman who had ever found it within herself to look beyond the mask to see the man inside. Even if money had been her primary goal at the time, she had at least treated him well and had not run screaming from the sight of his dead face. Instead she had comforted him and he now found himself longing for those warm, soft arms more than ever.
Her last words to him echoed in his mind. "My door will always be open to you…remember that, love…" Eight years later and he still remembered, he remembered so well and could barely restrain himself from running out to her in the street and throwing himself at her skirts so that once again he might be held in her welcoming embrace. Instead, his iron mantle of control held him in the shadows until he saw her reenter her home while, to his surprise, the man and boy stayed outside and sat on the doorstep. The man began to whisper to the boy and Erik moved closer to them so that he might hear their conversation.
"Well, Erik, you know that tomorrow you're off to school and I wanted to talk to you without your mother or sisters listening in. I had hoped that our ship would come to port in time for me to talk with you and I was lucky that we had fair sailing on the passage from England."
"What did you need to talk to me about, Papa?"
"About your schoolin'. You know that we haven't much money in our family, but you are going off to the military academy in order to secure your career. It's one of the finest institutions and it costs a great deal for such an education. I wanted you to know that so that you had an 'preciation for this privilege so that you'd respect and mind your professors. You're the first boy in me family ever to attend the academy an' it ain't due to me a'tall."
"But, Papa…what on earth do you mean?"
"I might make enough as a sailor to keep bread on the table, but there's no way I could've paid the cost. But your mama an' I want you to have the best education an' so we did our best to provide it. You're a lucky boy to have your mama, Erik." The man put his arm around the boy's thin shoulders and leaned in to whisper in an even lower voice.
"You remember that I'm not your real papa but that doesn't mean that I don't love you as me own. Before I married her, your mama had to work very hard to support the two o' you but even though her life was hard, she loved you all the more. An' she made some money by the by and laid it away. It's that money you'll be usin' to pay the academy and that your sisters will get for their educations too. It's all thanks to your mama, so don't you go forgetting that fact. I might support our family now, but your mama is the reason why we get by; she's a great woman even if she had to do some lowly things in the past. Keep that in mind, boy. She loves you dearly an' you wouldn'a had a chance at the academy if it hadn't been for her teachin' you. I canna read worth a lick, but your mama's an educated lady even if she be poor. So when you're a great soldier and I'm gone, remember your mama an' take care of her like she done for you."
"I'll always love Mama, sir. I promise I'll be a good student at the academy and the best soldier you've ever seen, to make you and mama proud."
"I'm already proud, boy. I love you as my own son and I'm as pleased as pie that you have such a career ahead of you. You were made for great things…"
The door opened again and two little girls in nightgowns ran out into the street and threw themselves at their father, their thick brown hair obscuring his laughing face from Erik's view.
"I see these two haven't slept yet! Still full o' energy even this late…" He laughed as he stood and carried the two toddlers into the house, the boy following. Before the door closed again, Erik heard the warm sound of Marceline's laughter flow into the street. He moved slowly to the lighted window of their home and looked inside the ice covered glass to see the happy family gathered around the hearth. He ached with longing as he watched them move about inside, content in their lives and blissfully unaware of the tortured soul outside. He watched as Marceline moved between her husband and children and studied her. She had aged, it had been eight years after all since he had seen her last, but her face seemed more radiant now. It was as if something inside her had been lit so that she glowed with a warmth and brilliance that brightened up the lives of those around her.
Erik studied the family from afar, a specter lost in the cold, frozen night. He saw the loving glances passed from husband to wife as they watched over their three children and a tear made its way from his eye to the surface of his porcelain mask as he mourned a peace and happiness that he could never possess. His loneliness threatened to consume him and he restrained himself from crying out in the night. Instead, he looked back toward Marceline as she gently scolded her son for teasing his younger sister.
"Oh now, Erik, you must learn to mind yourself if you're to be an officer…"
Erik watched her lips as she said this and a sudden realization shocked him into disbelief. She had named her son Erik…
He vaguely remembered Jules' mention of their meeting when he delivered the sum of three months salary to her in fine parchment envelope and knew that Jules, in a moment of weakness, had capitulated and told her his name. Realization dawned on him and he looked back to the happy family and studied them from a new point of view. She had named her son after himself, he concluded, and had later married the hardworking sailor who was willing to raise the boy as his own. Then two lovely daughters had followed and formed the content family that moved before him.
The knowledge that Marceline had cared enough to name her child for him was very significant. It seemed to turn something inside him so that for a moment, he forgot about his disfigurement and the bounds that it placed on his life. By naming her son after himself, Marceline had ascertained that Erik would not be forgotten. And he saw now that his gift to her, the paltry gift of sixty thousand francs, had given her a chance to live a new life. Her children were provided for; she never needed to sell herself again. She was able to win a loving husband who cared for her despite her tainted past and through hard work and effort, had managed to create a life for herself out of the mess that she had been given.
Warmed by these thoughts, Erik turned away from the happy family scene inside and walked down the street in the direction of the Opera. Somehow, the night did not seem as cold and unforgiving as before and the guilt that he carried with him seemed lighter. The rest of the world may not have known, but at least Erik had learned that his life had served some purpose. He had made a difference, had changed someone's life for the better and this knowledge made his sorrows somewhat easier to bear.
He never did take his morphine that evening, but rather played some of his favorite compositions until he was weary enough to fall into a sleep undisturbed by nightmares.
The streets of Paris were cold and silent as the moon bathed the city with its serene light.
A/N: Well, that is the end to my best received piece that I've posted so far. It is also my first completed phic, the Visitor doesn't count since it was a one shot written in a vodka-induced haze... :-D
I hope that for all of you who who have waited so patiently for this ending are satisfied. God knows, this had one hell of a time trying to be posted. I had half of it written when I last posted in October and had finished it by Halloween, but my computer crashed and I lost it. So, I rewrote it and saved it onto my FTP account...no luck with that move since I made a major mistake with that and deleted the file unintentionally. Needless to say, I got to do it all over again and so I hope that I remembered everything that I wanted to add.
Thanks to all who have reviewed, I greatly appreciate your feedback. A Happy Belated New Year's and MLK Holiday (for Americans only, I believe...) to you all!