The Curious Circumstance of the Man in the Half-Mask
It was fully eighteen years, two months and fourteen days after the notice had been posted in the Epoque that Erik was dead. The Persian, always a quiet man, had grown quieter and still more reclusive. He stayed in his flat with his servant, and took little pleasure in things, even in the warm fire which Darius kept always burning because his master, in growing old, had grown cold.
But that morning he was restless. He got up from the armchair by the fire and stumbled around the room, looking out the window, leaning heavily against the walls and furniture, his throw discarded on the floor where it had fallen when he rose. When Darius came in to bring him his lunch, he was standing by the bookshelf, out of breath and pale.
"Oh... there you are..." said the Persian weakly, frowning a little and twisting his sleeves.
Darius set down the lunch tray and gently assisted the Persian back to his armchair. At last he was settled in again, the throw tucked about his thin waist, the tray set on a little table before him. He ate slowly, with the slight awkwardness of the old, and once spilt his soup upon himself, at which he gave a soft, angry sound of frustration and turned away from the food for a moment before Darius could coax him back to it.
When he was finished, he still seemed ill at ease. He twisted himself in his chair and finally, finally, beckoned Darius to come close.
"I want," he said, in a voice that was firm if it wasn't strong, "I want to go back to the Opera... Again. I want... to see His house again."
For a moment, Darius gazed at him evenly, apparently undecided as to whether he would refuse the Persian's request or submit to it. Then he nodded, and left to find an overcoat for the Persian.
They went down to the Opera-house in an old brougham, which produced an effect on the Persian: he pressed his face to the window-glass and stared out hungrily at the streets, his magnificent eyes flicking from building to street to face, as Darius watched him quietly, tucking the overcoat closer when it seemed it was slipping. As they travelled, the Persian occasionally made a remark on the condition of some building he'd used to frequent, or some shop that no longer existed, or a fashion that he had never before seen, but apart from that it was a silent trip. They arrived at the Opera-house quickly enough, and Darius gave the driver instructions to wait.
The inside of the Opera-house seemed to produce even more of an effect. The Persian stared around at the staircases, the balustrades, the statues, in apparent wonder. Once he whispered that it had changed since he was last there. He searched for his old secret passage-ways, but Darius could see quite plainly the astonishing fact: that they all seemed to have moved, that there were other secret passages, that there were new doors across the halls from the old doors, which had vanished.
When they finally found one that had remained the same, it proved to be that which led them through the mirror in Christine Daaé's old dressing-room; but instead of leading them through a tangle of old scenery and ultimately into the Torture Chamber, it took them to the lake; and the Persian looked around at Darius with eyes that were unhappy and bewildered.
"It has changed," he whispered again.
The lake was not a lake any longer, but a waterway, surrounded by stone walls and drifting into dark passages. But there was Erik's boat, and Darius poled the Persian along in accordance with the wheezing, sharp instructions he received.
At last they reached Erik's house.
It, too, had changed.
It opened onto the lake, with no doors or walls; just a semicircle of furniture and candelabra; a piano, a bed, wooden dolls, and three broken mirrors. The Persian twisted his sleeves again and pulled himself up, stumbled through the water with Darius close beside him, and stepped up upon the shore. It was then that they both realised that there was a man at the piano.
He turned around at the noise they made, and the Persian saw that a small portion of his face was covered by a white half-mask; but he had a handsome face and eyes, and magnificent hair; and his clothes were of the best cut. This man looked at them for a moment in complete confusion.
Then the Persian said doubtfully, "Erik?"
"You are not Erik? No, of course you aren't. No. But who are you? Why are you in his house?"
"This is where I live, since Madame Giry brought me from the freak show." The man pursed his lips irritably. "Since the Opera-house was gutted by fire I have been attempting to pick it up again and make it habitable. As Christine has forsaken me, I see no point in doing otherwise, and I have no other place to go."
"Madame Giry the box-keeper?"
"Madame Giry the ballet mistress."
The Persian looked quickly at Darius. "Has Meg Giry grown up and become--?"
Darius shook his head.
"I am afraid I don't know who it is you speak of, Monsieur. But you are not Erik, you truly are not--I am certain you know this, but you must forgive an old man who is not certain of his mind--for you have no smell of death about you, nor is your face disfigured--"
"My face not disfigured? Why do you think I remain here?" The man got to his feet. "Outcast by the world? I am the angel who lives in hell, who wishes to be a man! And I do not care for intruders!"
"Monsieur, if you have never seen Erik, you do not know what disfiguration is," replied the Persian softly. "But now I begin to doubt whether this is indeed Erik's house, for the siren is gone, the lake has shrunk, and his house has been destroyed in part--and he is not here. I expected at least to find-- I had-- Well, perhaps I had hoped to find his Don Juan Triumphant, and see whether his madness was truly genius."
The man coughed. "His Don Juan Triumphant?"
"The one thing he devoted himself to besides teaching Christine Daaé to sing, and then besides making her his wife."
"Have you come here to laugh at me, to play tricks with me? I loved Christine Daaé, and I taught her to sing, and I wrote the score to Don Juan Triumphant! It was my great work! I do not appreciate this, old man, this taunting in my domain. I am the only one who knows my way around this place, and I don't like your finding your way. I can kill you as easily as I did Piangi or that scene-shifter."
"With a Punjab lasso?" asked the Persian in a flat voice.
"--I beg your pardon?"
"With a Punjab lasso?"
"With a lasso."
"But you have not been in Persia."
"I came from a repulsive freak show and have lived all my life in this cruel, cramped Opera-house."
"Then you are not Erik."
"I don't know who this Erik is, but I am the Phantom of the Opera."
"Then you are not Erik," the Persian repeated, smiling slightly in a worn, but satisfied, manner. "He was the Opera Ghost."
"So was I."
"For the love of all things, Monsieur, tell me who you are."
The man in the half-mask looked at the Persian for a moment, curiously, and finally beckoned him to sit, drawing him to the piano bench and pulling it out for him. Darius sat cross-legged on the ground beside the Persian, as though he were guarding his master.
"I shall tell you. I have no name." He paused, and then suddenly began to sing, lowly, "This face, which earned a mother's fear and loathing... a mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing..."
"Stop, stop, Monsieur! I doubt nothing. You are not Erik." The Persian's hands twisted in his sleeve once more, and Darius laid a hand on his knee in a reassuring manner until he stopped. "No, you are not Erik. But then--who can you be?"
"I am just the Phantom of the Opera. I did teach Christine Daaé to sing, even when she had forsaken me, and I completed Don Juan Triumphant." He stopped, and, propping his chin in one hand, looked over the considerably shrunken lake disconsolately. "They pretended to play it to toy with me, but what they did put on did some justice to my score, even with their pathetic opera company." Here he glanced sharply at the Persian. "Of course, it was all a ploy to capture me, but they're hardly competent enough for that. And Christine was to marry me. I took her in the middle of the performance and brought her here, and she was to marry me." "Of course! But Monsieur the Vicomte and I came and were trapped in the Torture Chamber." "Untrue." An expression of surprise crossed the man's face. "The Vicomte made his stumbling little way here and I caught him easily. And Christine pleaded--"
"Yes, she did that. Then the Vicomte and I escaped from the Chamber and you brought us to your house, and drugged me--" Suddenly, the Persian realised that he had unthinkingly said 'you' instead of 'Erik'. He stopped himself quickly and went back, seeming at once so distraught that Darius placed both hands upon his shoulders to calm him. "No, no, I mean to say Erik brought us, that is what I mean..."
The man in the half-mask also placed a hand upon the Persian's shoulder, and held it there. "You have mistaken us again. Why do we sit relating history? Who is this man who pretends to be me? And yet he cannot be, because the things you recall are not things that happened here. It seems to me that you have entered the wrong Opera-house, but that is quite impossible."
The Persian shook his head. He was quite old now, and he was not even entirely sure he had not made a mistake. Perhaps he had come to the wrong Opera-house. His magnificent eyes were dimming these days, and his mind grew confused--he shook his head again, in evident distress, and finally looked hard at the man. "Well, where is Christine Daaé now?"
"She is living in Paris with her husband, the Vicomte," said the man decidedly.
"No, the Vicomte took her far away and no one knows where they are."
"I let her go," the man offered. He suddenly seemed to be trying to please the Persian, to offer him something familiar.
"Yes, Erik did that. She kissed him...!"
"No one had ever kissed him before. She kissed his forehead, and he took off his mask when he told me, but he would not let me look, no. He kept telling me--he was weeping--he was telling me over and over that I must not look."
The man laughed abruptly, bitterly. "She did not kiss my forehead."
"No. But she did kiss me, and I let her go."
"Yes, and they married, they left, because poor Monsieur the Comte was dead!"
"Philippe de Chagny. He was killed by the siren in Erik's lake."
The man shook his head. "I never heard of him."
"That is just as well. Erik told me that the siren had killed him, but I think that it was Erik himself, truly... He was a strange thing, poor creature, poor wretched creature! He was a murderer, and he was the most pitiable lover I have ever met. He did love Christine, his poor living wife, but--"
Both Darius and the man started forward as the Persian, who recalled perfectly, above all things, the last time he had seen Erik, weeping on the floor before him with his mask taken off, speaking broken and quick about his living wife, about Christine when she kissed him; as the Persian, who could remember it even when he forgot other things, broke off and stared straight ahead, with wetness in his wonderful eyes, misery and confusion and pity on his dark face. At last he looked up at the man in the half-mask.
"I wonder, Monsieur, if you would do something for me--"
"If you would show your face to me?"
The man frowned, and drew back, without answering.
"But the mask hardly covers your face to begin with, Monsieur. Surely it is not so great a disfiguration as all that," the Persian objected, but kindly, extending a hand towards the man.
"If you see, you cannot ever leave this place. I am a hideous, deformed creature. I have been exhibited and spurned and hated, and you presume to think I would trust a man I have never met to look upon me? I will not show myself to you."
"No," said the Persian. "No man could be more deformed than Erik. I have looked upon Erik many times before, and I know his face. He was a man who smelled of death, I tell you, a man who was not quite a man, and I promise you that I do not believe any man could have been more scarred if vitriol had been spilt on his face."
"I do not intend to let you see my face."
"Monsieur, it is nothing to you. I am an old man who will die soon. Simply show me. As though I would desire to exhibit you. As though I would gain anything from it. As a favour to a man you do not even know, Monsieur."
The man glared at him. "The shock will kill you."
The Persian straightened his back and sat, very dignified and very upright, and looked coldly about the place, until he fixed on a small papîer-maché monkey sitting on a table. He made a hesitation, as though he were about to speak, but at that moment the man stepped forward again.
"Very well. But you have been warned." And he removed his mask.
The Persian sighed, gently, and stretched out his hand. He touched the man's face with his old, wrinkled fingers. "Ah, Monsieur, no. It does not frighten me at all. It is not so big as I had expected at first," he added, sounding satisfied. "You see, just a little scarring around the eye, and upon the cheek--"
"Please do not touch me," said the man coldly.
"If it concerns you so."
"If you are quite satisfied?"
The man replaced his mask. "What happened to your Erik? Did you come here looking for him?"
"No. Erik is dead."
"I suggest you go."
"Yes. I meant to do so. I have seen all I wish to, and I can see that I have intruded upon your solitude. I thank you for the extent to which you have gone to indulge me. Erik did not like to show his face, either."
The man in the half-mask bowed slightly. Then, with a bit of a dismissiveness, he turned to the papîer-maché monkey, which the Persian had realised was part of a music box, and placed his hand upon its head. For a moment he waited there, and then he waved his other hand, clearly a true dismissal. "I shall rewrite Don Juan Triumphant. It burned along with the Opera-house."
He narrowed his eyes.
"I shall go back through the mirror."
"Not because of me. Stay here if you wish. I think you are almost exactly like Erik, but I can see how you are not. I--well, good-bye, Monsieur. Thank you."
And with that, the Persian turned away, and with Darius his servant climbed stiffly back into the little boat. He seemed much wearied now that his interview with the man in the half-mask was over. As they poled away, he whispered tiredly to Darius,--
"My curiosity is satisfied. Let us never go back there."
The man turned to the mirror and sang, in a soft voice, "It's over now, the music of the night..." before sitting again at the piano.
"Never," the Persian repeated firmly.