Author's Note: As usual, those characters you recognize are not mine (Susan Kay gets a lot of credit in this one). Characters who are new to you are mine.
The Benefactor – 1860: Colette
Haussmann's Slums - 1860
"It was here among the poor that I found lodgings..." Erik, Phantom by Susan Kay
A small girl and her mother rushed through the streets of Paris, both laden with baguettes and vegetables.
"Allons-y, Colette! We must hurry or we will be unable to get lunch ready in time for the boarders."
The girl struggled to keep up with her mother, her long black braid swinging against her back as she ran through the crowds in pursuit of the stained skirt that belonged to her mother. The two finally reached their destination; a shabby, run-down building that was deep in the mire of the Parisian slums. Rushing inside, they first went up three stories to their home and began to cook for their renters who lived in the rooms above them. A watery soup was prepared using the wilting vegetables purchased 'fresh' from the market and dry, stale baguettes were broken apart and laid on greasy trays that the mother carried to the boarders on the upper floors. For this sumptuous meal and those of breakfast and dinner which consisted of similar fare, a fee of 5 francs was added to the rent of 15 francs per week. Laundry was, of course, extra. The rent was quite cheap considering the fees of the other local landlords, yet the owners preferred to keep the boarders who had lived there for several years and who could not afford an increase in rent. To accommodate the rising costs of living, it was much simpler just to charge the newest reclusive boarder more.
The new resident lived alone in a single room on the top floor and never left during the daylight. Only the the owner, Jean, had ever seen him and had only been willing to rent him a room at an incredibly inflated rate of 45 francs per week. According to Jean, the man was easily able to afford this and endured no undue hardships as a result of these extortionate prices. Besides, it was not as if the man could find lodgings elsewhere given the high demand for rooms and his unique circumstances. For the amount of work that went into heating bathing water for the recluse and carrying it up to the top floor every bloody day, Jean thought it best to milk the man for all he was worth.
Colette was ten years old at the time and was the third child of the Durogy family. Her two older brothers were fifteen and thirteen and the four children after her ranged from one to six years of age. Thanks to her mother who had briefly been educated as a child herself, she was able to read, write, and do simple mathematics. From her maternal grandfather came the antique violin, the most valuable possession in the family, on which she had been taught to play as one of his last wishes. Her talents were simple, commonplace when compared with those of other children her age, but never was there a girl that approached her studies with more passion or vigor. Sadly, she lacked the time to devote to her studies given the need for her to help her mother in her landlady duties as well as the care of the younger siblings.
It was during this August that a heat wave swept through Paris and forced hundreds of the infirm to fall victim to heatstroke. Colette's mother, seven months into another pregnancy, took ill and was forced to retire to her bed. Colette took the brunt of her chores and spent hours slaving away in the sweltering kitchen preparing meals for her family as well as the boarders and for the first time in her life, would have to take the trays to those who preferred to take their meals in their own rooms. Her older brothers, both of whom were lazy and indulged by their father, did their only part and prepared the list for her of which rooms she needed to visit and she lugged the heavy tureen to the upper floors. One day, the last room on the list was that of the recluse.
Knocking timidly at the door, she waited with the tureen balanced on her small hip and did her best to mask her shock at the masked man who opened the door and glared down at her. Dressed in his shirtsleeves due to the heat, he eyed her venomously as he silently reproached her for disturbing him.
"Bonjour, monsieur. I have brought your breakfast for you." she said in a quiet voice.
"I do not take breakfast. Nor have I taken any food from you since I moved here." he replied coldly.
"Mais, monsieur, n'est pas possible. Your room is on the list..." she broke off as she heard the laughter of her two brothers on the floors below who were listening to this exchange. Erik heard it as well and looked back to the girl whose exhausted eyes had filled with tears.
"I am sorry to bother you, monsieur. They...It was a joke..." she whispered and turned to leave. Watching her bravely hide her tears and knowing full well the punishment she'd receive for wasting food, Erik was moved with pity for the girl and called to her.
"Mademoiselle, I may not have intended to be on the list but perhaps I could purchase the meal anyway. How much do you charge for breakfast?"
The girl turned toward him and with a thin smile answered "I don't know about one meal, sir, but the board is five francs per week." Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a two franc piece and offered it to her. "Surely then, this will cover my fare."
Her eyes widened and she backed away from his outstretched hand. "Monsieur! That is too much! That would cover your meals for half of the week!"
"It is the smallest piece that I have."
"Sir, which meals would you like then? I cannot accept this if I cannot bring up meals to you. It isn't right."
"Just bring me dinner, mademoiselle. That will be enough; it is too hot out to eat anyway." as soon as the words passed his twisted lips, he was remorseful. The thin child before him looked as though she would never been too uncomfortable by any situation to refuse food. Regardless of the comment, she smiled and handing him his tray and the tureen, curtsied and turned to leave.
"I shall see you at dinner time then, monsieur."
For the remainder of the week, she brought him the dinners which she had prepared and each night carried up his hot bathing water in the stead of her mother. On Saturday night, she had just carried up the hot water when she heard him playing his violin in his room. She sat and listened for several minutes as the music surrounded her with its healing balm and made her feel as though she were in heaven. She completely forgot about her exhausted state and sat on the stair outside of his room until the door swung open and he stood before her.
"How long were you intending to stay here?" he asked her coldly. She stood up suddenly and spilled some of the water which she had carried. "Oh, I am sorry monsieur! It was just...you play so well...it's so beautiful..."
His eyes softened as he contemplated her and he held out his hand and took the pail of water. "Have you ever studied music?" he asked, fully believing that she never would have had the opportunity to do so. To his surprise, her gaunt face lit up with excitement and she babbled enthusiastically "Oh yes, monsieur! I play too, but not nearly as well as you. My granpapa, he left me a violin and my mother taught me how to play a bit on it. She taught me lots of stuff but I don't always have time to study it and I don't ever get to practice now that Mother is ill."
"How is your mother?" he asked her in a gentle voice. "She is feeling better. She said she'll improve when it gets cooler out."
"That is good. Take care of yourself, ma petite. It won't do your mother any good to have to tend an ailing daughter as well as herself. Thank you for the meals and water."
When the next week began, she no longer brought up dinner to him at the normal time but continued to leave smaller portions next to the pails of hot water every night. He questioned her the second night that she did this and she answered that it was merely leftovers and that somebody should eat them. He was moved by her thoughtfulness yet was unable to think up a way to show his gratitude. August came to an end and by the middle of September, Colette's mother had given birth prematurely to an ailing infant that cried incessantly.
Colette continued to tend to her mother's duties but her small, malnourished body was not strong enough yet to do the work of a woman. The first week of October, she collapsed on the stairs to Erik's apartment and laid there until he had opened his door to wonder why she had never come with his water. He had rushed her down to her apartment and handed her to her mother, ignoring the stares, jests, and insults thrown to him by her father, brothers, and other residents. A doctor was called and Erik paid for his services without hesitation.
Colette had fallen victim to a severe illness which would weaken her for years to come. After time being bedridden, she developed pneumonia which took its toll on her lungs and a fever which took its toll on her heart. Jean refused to pay for further doctor visits, stating that it was money wasted on a hopeless cause. In response to this, Erik 'arranged' with her mother to have his laundry done and his meals brought to him and took care to pay her extra so that the money could be used for Colette's medical care. Thanks to his money and the doctor's care, Colette was safe from danger by November, yet was terribly weak and confined to her bed.
The walls bored her to tears as she lay in her bed, unable to leave to even walk to the window. Her mother had long since gone to bed and there was no one who cared about the young girl who lay lonely and frightened in her solitary, dark bedroom. She vaguely remembered being moved here so as to not infect the other children and she spent her days completely alone except for those moments when her mother would come in with food or medicine. She had already read all of her books in her mother's small library and had even taught herself how to knit, yet she still was bored and yearned for more.
The faint sounds of a violin sounded from outside her window and she listened intently, completely enraptured by the beautiful music. She knew that it was the reclusive man playing without even looking and listened to him as he poured his soul in to the sound. She secretly wished that she could play even half as well as he.
The next day, she asked her mother for her violin.
Erik soon became aware of the strained sounds that came from the room adjacent to his. While not precise in their pitches, he could easily make out a struggled attempt to recreate the song which he had played the night before. Astonished at this, he knocked briefly on the door and entered. It was easy for him to see in the dim light, however it took him several glances to locate the small figure buried in the large bed against the wall.
"Monsieur? I'm sorry, have I disturbed you? I didn't mean to make too much noise."
"Mademoiselle, you are too weak to play. For heaven's sake, rest and try to regain your strength."
"But monsieur, I will not have the chance to play once I am well. Besides, it isn't too hard to lift it."
"You should focus on your reading studies. They will undoubtedly be more useful to you and they will not tax your energy." He stated rationally.
"I have read all of my books, monsieur. There are only so many times that one can read a primer. I'm sorry to have disturbed you though. Are there any times that would be better for me to play?"
Without comment, he turned and swept from the room. Crestfallen, Colette hung her head as she clutched her violin to her chest. She would never be a good musician, not without help.
As if Heaven had heard her prayers, Erik returned with a thick book in one hand and a few sheets of music in the other. He stood at the foot of her bed and held up the leather bound book. "If you promise to take care of this, I believe you will find some of the stories inside to be suitably entertaining. And if you insist on playing, perhaps you will find it easier to play something that is written down rather than from memory."
"Oh, monsieur! Monsieur, thank you! Thank you so very much!" The eyes in the sunken face lit up with excitement and happiness.
"Think nothing of it. But I'd rather you not speak to anyone of this..."
Colette kept her promises to remain silent as to her developing relationship with the reclusive boarder. Each week, he came to bring her a new novel and one or two new pieces scribbled down on music parchment. She practiced to the point of exhaustion and would spend the rest of the day reading whatever book he had lent her or working on her needlepoint or knitting. At Christmas, Erik opened his door to find that her mother had left him a well-cooked Christmas dinner on a tray and a small wrapped package that contained a hand-made scarf in which musical notes were woven. It was the third gift that he had ever received in his life and when he struggled to thank Colette for her offering, she merely laughed her childish laugh and wished him a Merry Christmas from her bed.
January and February passed uneventfully as Colette regained some of her strength. She was still unable to leave her bed for long periods of time but in her pale, gaunt face, her eyes shone happiness and renewed vitality. Although Erik barely spent ten minutes in her company per week, she still greeted him with enthusiasm and excitedly devoured all that he could offer her. Sadly, this simple life could not last.
In March, Colette's oldest brother, still unemployed but constantly indulged, entered her room to find her reading from one of Erik's texts. Knowing that the beautiful leather bound novel could not possibly belong to his sister, he accused her of stealing despite the fact that she had been confined to the upper room for nearly six months. When she was forced to break the silence about her benefactor, her father presumed the worst and ordered Erik to vacate the apartment. Not wishing to provoke anyone, Erik complied and within a day had all of his belongings packed and ready for travel.
Awaiting Jules' wagon, Erik sat in his empty flat with his masked face in his hands. It always ends like this... he bitterly mused. There was a soft knock on his door and he opened it, expecting to see Jules' hunched form on the other side. Instead stood Colette, wrapped in her mother's shawl and shivering in the cold air of the stairway.
"Mother says that you are leaving, monsieur. I wanted to give you this back..." and she held out the book as well as a large stack of music that she had collected from him over the months.
Swallowing uncomfortably, Erik looked past the girl to see her mother watching from a doorway below. She caught his gaze and for the first time in Erik's life, a woman's smile was directed at him and him alone. He looked back to the young girl and saw that again, tears had filled her eyes. He found this quite depressing; the girl had met him crying and would leave him crying. Was he never to have another image of her? Looking back to the mother, he took the book from Colette but pushed the music back into her arms.
"If your mother will allow it, I'd prefer for you to keep it. Heaven knows I've got all of my music packed and it would be such a bother to try to fit it in. Besides, I wrote many of the exercises anyway, I'm sure I remember how they go."
The mother smiled approvingly and Erik looked back to the young girl who stood clutching the sheets to her chest. Sudden inspiration struck him and he stepped back into his room. Going over to a pile of paper which could not fit in any of the boxes, he searched a bit and found what he had been seeking, a thick leather music folder filled with well thumbed copies of several of the latest violin pieces. He walked back to where Colette stood in the doorway and offered her the packet, checking to see if her mother would also approve of this gift.
"I did not have room for this in any of my boxes, but I think that you might find this more useful than I. The pieces in here will be for when you improve and have more experience."
"Monsieur..." Colette was speechless as she took the folder into her arms. She looked up with eyes shining with gratitude and admiration and before Erik realized what was happening, she had thrown her small arms around him and held him tight. The tears began to fall from her brown eyes and she slowly walked back to where her mother stood.
Jules then made his way up the seven stories to Erik's door, pausing briefly to glance at the woman and child that stood staring at Erik. He proceeded to carry out the remaining boxes and called to Erik when he was ready. In a second, Erik had draped himself in his cloak and hat and walked down the rickety staircase for the last time, taking great care not to look at the thin pinched face that was wet with tears. He had almost crossed over the threshold for the last time when the young girl called out to him.
"Monsieur! Wait...please, what is your name?"
He thought regretfully of the young woman down the hall who had just begun to learn about life. He would have liked to have done more for such a beautiful soul, but the situation had been taken out of his hands now. He turned to her and watched her briefly through the mask before whispering his reply.
"Erik. My name is Erik..."
He put one hand to his fedora and stepped into the darkness and out of her life forever.
A/N: Okay, so this is the first installment of the Benefactor series...As many of you can already tell, this will have heavy Susan Kay influences, so purists are forewarned. As I stated in the last chapter, I am well aware of the lack of character development in this chapter; I'm trying something different here and figure that it will be easier to have this piece broken into parts (a pattern of 'story'/reflection chapters). It's a new flavor that I'm trying, so please let me know what you think.
Many thanks to the few who reviewed the last time for this piece;I don't believe thatany of my storieshave ever garnered such a high percentage of constructive reviews! There may have only been 6 reviews, but they had more important points than I have received with several of my other phics. Thanks for all of your support!