Une Belle Chose


His precious girl was singing children's songs.

He sat at the piano with his arms folded neatly on the keys, and his black mask covering his face as it always did, and his black gloves making his fingers smooth and slippery against the polished wood and ivory. It was a beautiful piano, one thing in his house which did not belong to his mother, one thing in his house which he had cobbled together himself, for he could build things, after all. Especially he could build music, with his hands and his voice, with his fingertips and his throat; and the piano was easy. It was all long strings and ivory-topped keys and black wood, with smooth grooves and rounded parts, sharp corners and hard surfaces-and sounds. It made soft and loud, shrill and resonating, deep and round or high and clipped, sounds. All manner of sounds. They had all come from his hands, all of them; the body and the keys and the sounds; and he was very pleased with his piano.

This, however, he only thought of for a moment. His beautiful girl, the beautiful girl, was sitting curled up on the day-bed in her room and singing children's songs, the things the children sang as they danced in circles hand in hand, or those which their mothers sang to them to help them fall asleep in the dark.

It was only one tiny little realisation, one little thought, but it brought up a-hundred things he hated, like children, hands, mothers; all cruel things. His own hands clenched around the cover of the keys on the piano, and he almost drew it down on his fingers. There were a great deal of things he hated because they were cruel.

But the girl he did not. He loved her despite her cruelty. He loved her because he taught her, because she had talent. He could build her as he had the piano, out of boards and nails and scraps of ivory. He could make something out of her, and she would have as many sounds in her little, sweet white throat, as were in the big black belly of the piano.

She was his second piano, but she would be far more magnificent than the first.

It was simply a curious thing that he should love her though she sang things which he hated. He sat up as straightly as he was able, unclenched his hands, and tried to think of her. He could go into the bedroom and stop her, draw her off the daybed and demand she come into the Louis-Philippe room and learn her notes more precisely. He had heard little Meg Giry saying that the girl sang hideously, and he fully understood that it was true-once. He did not delude himself there. But she was learning. She was learning.

All thing that had to do with music learnt themselves under his hands.

Poor hands, he thought peacefully. Poor, cruel hands, coloured like death, like skeletons of hands beneath the black gloves. Why otherwise should he wear gloves? They were smooth and slid on the keys; but rough, dead hands did not slide: they caught, and they left the white keys smelling faintly queer, slightly wrong, as though something not quite alive and not quite dead had touched them. So! it was better to wear the gloves. To slide a bit was better than to leave his nasty smell behind.

And nevertheless it was those hands, black-gloved, stinking, clever, that charmed music out of any instrument. He could teach the piano to play better than it knew how; and he taught the girl's untrained white throat how it was meant to sound. It was meant to make music, and he showed it how, how, far better than it could ever have taught itself or learnt from any other master.

Clever hands.

He straightened himself up again and listened to her voice, clear, cutting through the silence of his house. How lonely it perhaps was down here, after the noise and movement of the Opera. How quiet perhaps! Did she notice?

He was not quite able to tell whether she noticed, in truth. She seemed enchanted now, though a few days ago she had been frightened and weeping, and once or twice shouted cruel things at him. Rage always sounded so helpless against him! It quite astonished him, and to some extent it pleased him, though he felt slightly apologetic in her case. At any rate, now, she moved like a sleepwalker, and sang such children's songs to herself when he wasn't teaching her.

He was not entirely sure yet as to whether he liked the songs when she sang them or disliked her; in truth, he had not yet decided. He paused over the piano and looked down at it, and at his hands, spread wide on the keys now that he had let go of the cover. Ought he stop her?

It was a beautiful voice now, though he could always make it better! A beautiful voice! It did not surprise him to be aware that he loved it, however fiercely, darkly. He was growing older, but he had always loved music, always loved beautiful things. He had often wanted beautiful things when he served the little Sultana, because he was not beautiful, and he wanted to look at things that made an ordinary man's heart swell with longing, made a sweet, docile girl turn into an angry seductress. Beautiful things made ordinary humans cruel, but before he had been unable to understand entirely why. Now he understood. They wanted beautiful things, and, unlike he when he served the little Sultana, they had no one to give them such things. They were unable to reach the beauty. Thus they turned cruel and killed and lied and betrayed, and he stood back under a shadow and watched them with his empty eyes full of misunderstanding.

Now he had no little Sultana to serve, of whom to demand his beauty-voiced girl, and he understood why ordinary men, live men, killed for their beautiful things. Now he must have his beautiful thing, and he, too, would become cruel and killing for it.

He did not stand back any longer, though perhaps there was still a shadow. He was not surprised that he loved the girl and her voice, for he had always loved to look at beautiful things; but he was surprised to want this thing so deeply, and to have stepped forward for her.

For all that fierceness, though, he was not brave. He would not tell her that he loved her, and he would not hurt her for being afraid of him (though of course sometimes he shouted, yes, but he could not help that...) and he was sorry that he was not an angel. He would still weep at her feet, he would still kiss her hands if she only let him. He would still lie in her path and allow her to tread upon him without complaint.

He was trying to make her happy, to make her pleased to be down beneath the Opera, in his house, with him and with the wooden piano. Perhaps he was not succeeding, but he was trying. He had not yet had a cause to be angry, so he was not sure what he could do when he was angry.

He did not believe it could be much. He loved her, and he wanted only to make her beautiful voice still more beautiful, to have her music as he brought it up from inside of her, and then to have her, the beautiful thing, always near him; but this was not much. This was all. She could not refuse this. So, she would not make him angry and if he ever, by any strange chance, were, it would not be much. It could not be much.

At least, not much where she was concerned.

But to another man, to a man who tried to take the beautiful thing from him-there he could be cruel and killing, just as ordinary men were. For that reason, he hated her silly fool suitor, the vacant-eyed, passionate boy, who made fool promises and tried to clasp her hand. That boy could not have her when she was here, where she was protected, but if he ever accidentally let her go, the boy might try...!

He meant to keep her here.

He could be cruel and killing, and he knew well enough that it would be quite stupid to kill the boy. Buquet was permissible because no one outside the Opera yet believed in its ghost. Thus far, he had only been under his shadow, and Madame Giry was fond of and kind to him, and the corps de ballet deliciously frightened of him; and the previous managers quiet. He was a whispered rumour, a hint, a suspicion, amusing and terrifying at the same time, a conversation starter, a superstition. He was like a flicker of fire and a breath of wind. He was real and false, he was cold to touch and ran through the fingers like smoke, and at the same time one could not feel or see him but knew he was there. He was a ghost and a spirit, an omen and a blessing, a haunt and a patron creature. The Opera appreciated, tolerated, and feared him. At that time, he was perfect. Joseph Buquet might even now make a ripple in his perfection, might begin to unsettle the Opera towards its ghost; but they would keep quiet.

The boy, though, would ruin everything. To let him live would be to invite him to take away the girl, but to kill him would dash to pieces the delicate balance of his own position. He was a phantom, not a rough, dirty, blood-stained murderer with a ragged knife in his hands. He dressed in opera-clothes for a reason. He was reserved and discreet in his ghostliness. He was a gentleman spectre; to kill the boy would turn him into a common criminal or everyday murdering madman.

It must not happen, then.

The girl would stay far from the boy, and he would love her as he remained himself. He would not be changed, in his position or his spirit, but-but, perhaps, if the girl were to love him also, he might change a little, for her. He might be gentler, for her. It was her choice; if she loved him; but it was possible. For her-

He shifted on the piano bench, and felt the hard wood press through his fine trousers to his thin skin and his angled bones. It was difficult to be so ruined in body, for the piano bench which any other man might call remarkably fine and not too hard on the bones, indeed, pained him greatly. He considered rising, with the same indecisiveness with which he had considering quieting the girl, and finally chose to stay a moment longer.

At present, he did not know whether his beautiful girl and her beautiful voice were happy or not. Because she seemed so dreamlike, he couldn't be quite sure-was she plunged into despair, or just a little stunned still by the last few days, by finally seeing his face? He couldn't be quite sure.

But she had such beautiful eyes... At times, when he was thinking alone, when he was not teaching her, he mistakenly came across her in the little halls of his house, and her eyes grew rather wide and she paused where she was, her dress swayed around her ankles.

Erik, she would whisper.

Are you all right, my child? he might ask her.

Then she would nod slightly, swallow, and go on, sometimes with her hands pressed to the walls and sometimes walking in the middle of the hall, like a child half-asleep. He could never be sure whether she was tired, or frightened, or dreaming.

Pale girl.

And he loved her deeply. He loved her as strongly as the sun in Persia, as hard as the stone from which he had built the palace for the little Sultana. The beautiful girl with her beautiful voice were the beautiful thing that he wanted most, that he would have begged the little Sultana for, that he would have debased himself to have, that he would have thrown away his composure and pleaded to be given, were it possible. But there was no one to give her to him. He must find a way to keep her by himself, and thus he meant to keep her in his house, where he might teach her. He could teach her.

And then her voice, like the piano he had built with his own gloved hands, nailed together with his dark, smooth fingers, put music into with his stinking, rough fingertips and his one great thing, his voice, would exceed anything of its sort which the Opera had ever before heard. He would make her magnificent like the piano.

He would bring the sound from her, and he would love her fiercely, and if ever she also loved him, he would become gentler for her.

This was all.

At last, he rose from the piano and went into her room, with silent footsteps, like a phantom or an angel.

"Christine, my child," he said.

"Oh!" said the girl, starting up and ceasing at once to sing.

"Do come with me. We must practise your music. We shall be singing from Tristan and Isolde to-day."

"Yes, Erik. All right," and she slid off the bed, put her little feet on the floor, and stood like a sleepwalker. "I'm coming," she said, and followed him from the room.