A Tragedy in Three Acts
Ah... She was weeping. She was weeping brokenly, with her pretty, glass-clear tears rolling down her cheeks and leaving behind shining trails (like a snail, said a part of his mind; like a dark creature that wants dark and damp; like a him). When she wept, she wept softly, and it was difficult to make out that she was praying under her breath.
He stood to the side and watched her weep, though perhaps, the part of his mind said, she would stop weeping if he were to stop watching her. Ah, it whispered gently, because his eyes were fixed on her beautiful sloping shoulders and the line of her face as she bent forward to place her soft hands against it, ah, ah, she was beautiful, yes, and beauty does not like ugliness. There are a thousand faerie stories about ugly goblins and hideous demons which devoured beauty and attacked it and overwhelmed it and crushed it because of their faces like gargoyles on Notre-Dame and their misshapen hands like fear.
But, he protested, there were also faerie stories about beauty learning to love ugliness, of gentle women or fair boys who believed the soul was handsomer than the face, the love stronger than the deformity, and changed the ugliness into beauty. Was not there Beauty, with her red rose, who made la Bête into a prince? In opera, even, hadn't Papagena made herself beautiful for Papageno, though he was horrid and ungrateful and didn't want her when she was ugly? Besides, he, himself, had the black mask to wear, to hide some of his dreadful face away where she couldn't see it.
When she couldn't see it, she would be happy. She would be content to live with him if he wore his mask all the time and never took it off and never frightened her.
Ah, whispered the part of his mind, the little voice, poor Erik! you smell of death! She is not afraid of your mask, but she is afraid of you!
She is not, he cried, for even seeing her weep--beautiful and sad, like a pietà--did not stop him from becoming angry when the part of his mind told him he smelled of death. No, no, he loved her too dearly; he treasured her too greatly. Love was not death--and he was made all of love now, all of love, in every part of his body except in his face, which only needed her love to be perfect, which needed to be kissed by her before it would heal; but apart from his face, he was made of his love, and love had nothing in common with death. Even the most painful of loves only served to heighten the senses and make a man more unhappily alive. No, he loved her too much to have anything to do with death. She would never fear him for that. All she feared was his face, the bad part of him, and all she need do was kiss him, love him, and by her love heal him--then everything would be perfect, truly. She would assuredly love a man who was worthy of her, who could make her famous and make the world love her. When she had healed his face, they wouldn't need to live beneath the Opera; they could live in a house like a man and a woman.
He had thought before that they could do this no matter what the circumstances were, but he quickly understood that it was impossible. One just could not pretend. It was easy to change what he wanted, though, and it would be more likely to make her happy. He would surprise her with it when she had resigned herself to living alone just to be with him. He would one day come to her and tell her, O, Christine, I have bought you a house above the ground! I have bought you a house where we may live, a house which looks out onto the street and the cathedral!
Then she would cry out with joy and he would embrace her, and they would be happy.
It was so easy. Everything could be theirs, as soon as she learnt to love him and healed him with her love. That was all it would take.
He even went so far as to smile behind the black mask, to touch his cheek with his gloved fingertips. It was strange how hollow his cheeks always felt beneath mask. They were not really quite that way--it was just the way the nasty thing made them feel, made them seem much worse than they were.
Suddenly he looked up--though very slowly, for he did not mean to frighten her--because she was speaking to him.
"Erik," she said softly, wiping at her tears with the back of her hand and ruining the perfect silver mark they made down along her cheeks. "You do not hear me."
"No, no, my child, I hear you. What do you want? Ask for anything."
It hurt him terribly that his voice was perfect. He was worthy of her love in every particular but his face, and apart from that...! It seemed like such a trifle, such a tiny detail when he reflected that he had a perfect voice, with which he would teach her to sing better than anyone who ever lived, and that he loved her dearly, and that his body was not hideous. It was just his face that was terrible! That was all! Ah, how unfair it was that he should be so close to be everything she might ever want!
"I am afraid. It's cold."
He pulled off his opera cape and held it to her, but she recoiled, making a small grimace with her pretty lips.
"What's wrong?" he asked with as much concern as he had.
"Oh! It smells like--"
"Like what?" His voice had abruptly become terrifying, and she put her face in her little white hands and cried out,--
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say anything! Let me have it; I will take it! I'm sorry!"
In a split second, he repented; he went down on his knee, he took her hand carefully, he looked aside so that his dreadful masked face was not turned towards her. "No, you need not take it. Don't be afraid, Christine--I'm sorry. I should not have shouted. Why won't you take it?"
She seemed soothed. Quietly, she ventured, "It smells of dead things. I was afraid. I'm so sorry."
"No, no, you shall not be sorry. Hush. I'll buy you a cloak from a shop up there. It will be beautiful and warm--it'll be made of fleece and it will be red, to match your lips. Don't be afraid of me. You need never be afraid of me--you understand that? I'll buy you a cloak to keep you warm, and I'll make sure my hands never touch it. I'll go now."
"You are not angry with me?"
"Of course not. I shall never be angry with you," and he even dared to touch her cheekbone with the tips of his fingers. She shuddered slightly, but didn't draw back, and he felt hope rising within him, even then, that she might indeed love him and heal him someday soon, that he might be perfect for her. "Don't be afraid."
"I'm not," she said, so quietly he could hardly hear. "I am never afraid of you."
A strand of her hair had fallen loose, and he tucked it back in place. He even smiled. With her eyes wide and her lips parted, she was the most beautiful creature in the world, the most beautiful creature ever to be imagined. One could feel the warmth of her breath when one was so close; could see her hair in its loose curls and make out that the loops were tangled within themselves, because they had been disturbed and she had not had time to brush them. Oh, there was nothing imperfect about her. She was beautiful enough for them both. She was beautiful enough for the whole world, enough to restore it or bring about the breaking of its heart with just one of her tears.
"Good. Then I will go, and be back presently. You should sleep, my child. Your face is pale."
"Pale? Oh! I might be." She put her hands to her cheeks. "Perhaps you are right..."
"Perhaps. You won't have to be cold long. Good-bye!" When he looked behind him, before he shut the door, he saw her beginning to lie down on the bed, and burying her face in the pillow. He turned forward sharply, and made sure the false nose which he kept in his pocket fit correctly and stayed on, and then he started off. Even with the two new managers refusing to grant him his full allowance and making fools of themselves, he had more than enough money to buy her a cloak. As though he might not!
When he returned, with the paper-wrapped package under his arm, she was sleeping. He didn't dare wake her, so he simply left the package beside her and passed his hand over her long hair once--only once, hardly enough to disturb her--and frowned when she stirred and shivered. Perhaps it would be better to unwrap the package at that moment, and spread the red cloak over her--but he didn't dare wake her. Instead, he looked lovingly at her face for a moment, then turned to leave.
Immediately he was back at her side, kneeling on the floor next to the bed. "What is it?"
"You are not going to harm Raoul, are you? He's just a silly boy. He thinks he loves me, but I don't love him. You are not going to hurt him?"
"Ah, no, not unless he comes looking for me. I am not the only one down here who can harm him, you know, and if he comes down there is nothing I can do to prevent an accident."
"But don't worry, don't worry. I shall not go up after him. I will stay with you down here, and make sure you are well. I will keep you safe."
"Thank you," she said devoutly, and for a moment he was not sure whether it was in answer to his first promise or his second; but he chose to believe that it was both together. Surely she could see how much he loved her. Surely it made some impression on her!
"Certainly. I have brought you the cloak I promised, my child, so that you need not be cold. I am going now, for I have things which I must do; but you will be warm, and I will be just as close as calling for me. You will be all right?"
"Yes, I will be all right."
"Very well." He rose, smiled, thought again--for he never grew tired of thinking it--how beautiful she was!, and then he left the room.
He often went to look at her, and sometimes to sit beside her and ask her to talk to him, which she did. She was with him for three days, three beautiful days when he thought only of how near she was and how lovely her voice sounded when she spoke and how clever she was in her talking. He believed surely that soon, she would love him, and he was almost content when he thought of it.
On the third day, he took off his mask without thinking, in order to concentrate better on something he was playing for her, and when he looked around again, he saw that it was gone.
"Christine, my child!" he called softly.
"What has happened to my mask?" Without it, he felt greatly unclothed. It was strange, for he did take it off sometimes, but he had always known where it was. He wanted to hide his face from her, because he knew she was afraid of it; indeed, she had every right to be afraid of it; but he must ask her where it was, and he couldn't help looking over at her a little, trying to shield himself with his arm.
"I took it to burn it."
"I have burnt it. I am not afraid of you--I told you that. I shall never be afraid of you, poor Erik. See! I can look at you! You do not need it any longer."
When she said this, he turned around entirely and looked at her fully--and she did not flinch. She did not turn away. She just gazed directly at him (her beautiful eyes on his hideous face; ah, he felt ashamed that she was seeing it, but he couldn't turn back when she was watching), wearing an expression that was both gentle and firm. There was no love in it, but there was pity. That she should pity him! He let his hand fall on the piano keys, and beneath his silk-covered fingertips he felt the smooth colour of ivory, the cold hard sound of music, the power of just one note, just one note, right under his hand, where he could touch it. This miracle of the piano overwhelmed him, along with her pitying, unafraid eyes, and he turned away quickly, putting one of his hands across his face. Instantly, he felt her little fingers pulling it away.
"No, no, don't hide your face. I am not afraid! You must not worry of frightening me! I am going to come back, you know. I would not leave you for-ever. I would always come back. Poor Erik!" she said, "Poor Erik! No, don't hide from me. It will all be all right."
He was astonished.
She had never comforted him before, never. He had sung for her, he had threatened her when he was angry, he had praised her for her lovely voice, he had promised to love her, he had even dared to stroke her hair and tell her how good she was and how safe she would always be with him--but in all these cases, he had been the one who was comforting or terrifying. She was always the supplicant, he the benefactor. It had never happened before that he needed reassurance or that she gave it to him if he did. Nevertheless, she knelt before him now, holding his hand before her, telling him that she would never fear him, that she would always come back, that it would be all right. She told him that she would sing for him, and, without waiting for him, she began to sing, Michaela's song, Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante.
Then he could think of nothing else. Ah, she had a beautiful voice! He knew could make it even more beautiful, but without him, without an orchestra, a little faltering but still clear; ah, it was still so close to perfect, perhaps even surpassing itself from the times when it had music behind it. He clasped her hand and told her that no one could match her.
"Only because you've taught me," she whispered, breaking off. He gestured for her to go on.
"Don't stop! Sing for me!"
"Ah! je dis, que rien ne m'épouvante, protégez-moi, ô Seigneur!" she sang, then. "Protégez-moi, Seigneur!"
"Ah, Christine, Christine, there is no one with a voice like yours. How they shall speak of you all over the world! They will all know you! You are beautiful, my child. Do you know how beautiful you are, how sweetly you sing?"
"Oh!" she said, hiding her face a little, "Oh, I must know, for you say it so often!"
"That is because it's the truth. You need not look at me if you don't want to, but raise your head a little. I'll play the piano, and you must sing along with me. Will you sing?"
"Yes, I will sing." She lifted her head quickly and got to her feet, brushing against him by accident, so that he trembled and wanted, terribly, to have his mask by him, that he might put it on and hide his face, because surely she could not stand to be so close to it when it was uncovered! Surely it frightened her! How could she not be frightened? He twitched, wanting to hide his face, but she stood tall and asked him calmly, "What will you play? What do you want me to sing?"
"I will play the Card Song from Carmen, and you will sing along." He smiled at her. He didn't know what it was like to see himself smile, but he imagined it to be terrible, and he was proud of her, glad of her, in love with her, so full of joy, when he saw her smile back. It was a pale little smile, but she was smiling for him, at him. She dared to.
"That is En vain pour éviter les réponses amères, Erik?"
So he began to play, and she to sing. He felt that they were making a secret world covered in a wrapping of the music. Music was the only perfect thing in the world besides her, and the two of them together, surrounding him, was excellence that he couldn't find words for. It was everything, everything in the world. Everything.
When she had been with him for twelve days, throughout which he had never hidden his face and she had never hidden her eyes, he was suddenly seized with sympathy. Surely, he sincerely believed, she had learnt to love him by now. She was not afraid of him! She sang for him! He sang for her, and taught her, and loved her; he brought her anything she wanted, anything at all. Then surely she loved him, and it was not at all fair to keep her shut away down here for so many days. She had promised she would come back.
He had taken her walking along the side of the lake, but it was not the same thing. The side of the lake was dreary to her, compared to the world above the ground, and she could not bear to be down here for so many days. It was unkind of him to keep her. Even the rides in the brougham, when they went out, were not the same, for she could speak to no one and it was always night.
Then he made up his mind to give her a gift. He would let her go. She would only have to come back to him if she wanted--he would not keep her (he knew, surely, that she would come back; he could offer the choice safely, because she would come back). It was a wonderful gift which he could give entirely to her, and though it was not as good as music, still it would please her greatly.
In the morning, when she had risen and sat down in the drawing-room, was plaiting her hair with her little white fingers as she sang one part of a love-song from Rigoletto to herself, he came in and sat down beside her on the divan.
"Christine, my child," he said, smiling (he dared to smile, now, often, because she did not mind). "I have a surprise for you."
"Oh! What is it?" she asked playfully, dropping her hands.
"There is to be a masquerade ball at my Opera House in two days. I am going to take you. You will have a beautiful white dress and a silk mask and you may speak to as many people as you like; you may touch hands with everyone there if that is what you want."
She immediately clapped her hands, and her beautiful eyes sparkled. "Oh!"
"But...?" she asked. Her voice seemed to anticipate a great disappointment.
"Afterwards, Christine, you are free. I shall not keep you here any longer. But...! You must promise to come back sometimes. You will, won't you?"
"I will come back all the time! I will come back and sing for you, yes! Oh, you will let me have plenty of time to see Maman Valerius and Raoul, though, won't you? Then I will come back!"
"Yes, of course," he said, although he disliked the name Raoul. Still, she had promised to come back, and he knew she would, and there was no need to worry about the foolish boy. "You may take as much time as you like."
"What I shall do--I shall come back on the very night, to say good-bye to you after the ball, and then I will go away and see Maman Valerius, because it has been so long and I expect she misses me. Is that all right?" She seemed as though she hardly dared believe it would be.
"Yes, yes, it's all right!" He laughed. "Take as long as you like."
Then she smiled over her whole face, in her eyes and with her mouth, with every part of her; a great smile that overtook her entire body; a great joy that shone from her. In the light this joy shed on her, however, he suddenly realised that her face was tired and her eyes had dark circles beneath them and, though they were beautiful, were bloodshot and sorrowful beneath the smiling. He suddenly realised that she was happy because she was leaving. He suddenly realised that she was weary because of living down here.
A great rage swept over him. Was she, then, not pleased to be with him? Did she not love him after all? And he had believed so devoutly that she was happy, that she loved him! "Christine!" he cried, taking her arm sharply. "You will come back to me soon!"
"I will!" she answered, all the joy gone, trembling and cowering beneath his hand. "I will! Oh, I will!"
He started up and stood above her, in a rage, and he thought of locking her in her room, chaining her by the piano, imprisoning her with him for-ever--
"Oh, God, oh, Holy Mother--" she half-wailed, half-sobbed, and threw herself down as far from him as she could when he held her.
As instantly as he had become angry, he was sorry. Why did he always shout at her? Of course she was afraid! Who would not be afraid of him, creature that he was, with his horrible face and his angry voice and his jealous raving? Ah! He would only frighten her like that! She would certainly love him if he only, for a moment, treated her as she ought to be treated.
He let her go and took her hands. "Forgive me, forgive me, my child. You see--I treasure you so greatly that I worry you will leave me for-ever. Please forgive me. I should not have frightened you."
"You didn't frighten me," she said, but she was weeping.
"I frightened you! but I did not mean to! Don't cry. Don't cry because of me." He brushed awkwardly at her tears with his gloved fingertips, and watched the dark stain spreading on the black silk. It was queer that black could always get blacker. "Hush, don't cry. You may stay up there as long as you like, only sometimes you must sing something and think of me, and I shall hear it and be glad. You will do that for me, won't you?"
"Yes, I will," she wept.
"Don't be afraid! Soon you will go up there. You will be among people again. That will make you happy, won't it?"
"It will make me very happy."
"Good. I'm pleased."
Gently, carefully, he began to stroke her hair, although she shivered and continued to weep. As he touched her, however, she slowly allowed him to hold her close. He could feel her trembling still. His hands, he knew, could be as horrible as his face; so he wore gloves; but she need not fear his hands, because they were hidden from her and he would never take his gloves off to let them vanish as his mask had. She would always be safe from that.
Time passed, and she sighed deeply.
"Are you angry with me?"
"No," he told her.
"What will I be for the masquerade?"
"You will be a swan; you shall wear white, and I shall get you a mask with white feathers around it."
"Oh! Will I sing?"
"Only if you want to sing, my child. I will be there too, but I will be dressed up and you needn't see me, and I shan't ask you to sing."
"That will be nice. Sometimes I am so tired...!"
"Of everything! I will be glad just to go up. I do like the sun, you know. It's such a pretty thing."
"I'm certain it is, but it hurts my eyes." He laughed softly. "The sun and I are not friends."
"I will still see it," she said, a little dreamily. "I will touch it."
"Ah, no, but you'll burn yourself."
"No! I will smile at it."
"Will you be happy?" he asked again. It was very important. He loved her so dearly, and she must be happy, she must always be happy. It was not proper for her beautiful little face to have tearstains on it or to be wrinkled up in a frown.
"I will be very happy."
"Christine, Christine..." He stroked her hair again. "I love you. Tell me--do you love me? I am not an angel, I fear, and I am terrible to look at--but I will be like la Bete in the faerie story. I will be handsome if you love me. Then I will be perfect, and we will live above the earth always. You may be like any man's wife, and I will make you happy always. I will make you the happiest woman in the world. Do you love me?"
"You would be angry if I said no, and I don't want you to be angry, so if I wasn't in love with you, I wouldn't dare tell you, and you don't want me to lie to you?"
"No, no, but if you love me you have nothing to fear."
"But you would never know..."
"I shouldn't be angry. Do you love me?"
"I would make you the happiest woman in the world! You would have beautiful clothes and beautiful music and--and we would have children, Christine; little children that would be yours and mine--but they would all look like you, because even if my face were healed like other men's, I would not be as handsome as you are lovely. We would live above the ground, in an ordinary house! You would go to the opera! You would always be happy!"
"Oh, Erik," she sighed. "I would not make you happy."
"There is no way in which you could not make me happy, my child. If you kissed me once, I would have enough joy to last me for-ever."
"Is that all you want? A kiss?"
"That would be enough," he said, pressing her hand. He believed it sincerely.
Suddenly she sat up, and, with a little shudder that passed quickly, she kissed him, kissed him once, his hideous face, his dying face, his ugly face; just one kiss, one touch of her lips, touching him--he froze and waited for the transformation. He waited for the faerie story magic of which he had told her, for the moment when he changed, became whole again; for the moment when it all became clear and he could have every means in the world of making her happy immediately before him--and nothing happened.
He sat, looking straight ahead, while she lay back and trembled, while he could not move, until she finally whispered,--
--and he startled. He looked down at her in horror.
"Am I the same? Has nothing changed?"
"Nothing has changed," she said, and he could hardly make out her voice.
Then he screamed, because there was nothing else in the world which he could do to show his anger, his pure fury; and she fell back to the other side of the divan, staring at him wretchedly.
"You did not love me!"
"Oh, no, no," she cried. "I did love you then! At that moment, I loved you! Oh, Dieu! I am sorry, Erik!"
He glared at her coldly. "I am going to put my mask on again. You shall not see my face."
"No, no, Erik! No, don't! I am sorry!"
"I'm going out now. I shall buy your dress and your mask for the ball. Good-bye, Christine."
As he swept out of the room, he could hear her weeping again. She flung herself down on the divan and wept, wept, and he thought that angels might have had their hearts broken. He thought that his own heart might break. But his heart--poor heart!--was all rotted and hideous, just like his face, his irrevocable face, his face which would never, ever change; and it could not break, not even when he put on his mask again and realised that it did not feel strange.
It felt right.
His heart could not break.