Category: Book, Phantom of the Opera
Summary: This one shot is based on The Sorcerer of Rouen. Erik left Paris and moved on to Rouen to establish a business, becoming Monsieur De La Shaumette. This story is from the experiences of Agnes Bardou, who works as his servant with her husband Etienne.
Disclaimer: The characters with the exception of Erik are mine. I borrow Erik with the humble hope of giving him the life he deserves.
Taking off her apron, Agnes Bardou clucked her tongue. Noon was approaching and with Etienne gone to run an errand for their employer, she deliberated on what to serve Monsieur De La Shaumette for lunch. Setting the kettle off to the side of the stove, she smoothed a hand over her skirt to be sure no crumbs from the pastry got carried out of the kitchen and proceeded up the stairs.
Knocking at the study door, she heard him reply, and opened the door. He stood bent over an object perched on a small table he had pulled over to his desk. It looked to be composed of two wheels of a clear material with little metallic bumps on them. A combination of leather, wood, and some oddly arched pieces of wire that terminated in rounded balls floated near the wheels.
"I wanted to know if you wanted some lunch, Monsieur. There is some quiche from yesterday, or I have fresh ham and cheese, I could make you a Croque Monsieur."
"That will be fine," he replied.
She asked, "The ham or the quiche?"
"The ham quiche is fine." He reached towards the two arched wires, and moved them closer together.
She paused a moment, deciding, "I'll bring you the ham."
She left the door open and went to the kitchen. He was as excited as a child with a new toy, and probably wouldn't pay any attention to her banging on the door a second time. She returned with a cold drink and a plate with the Croque Monsieur on it. Placing it on the desk, she looked up as something bright caught her eye.
He was standing back with his hands on his hips. The wheel on the little machine was spinning, and from between the two orbs a spark nearly as long as her finger danced. He moved around the desk, "It's an electro-static producing machine. The spark will be captured in these two Leyden jars," he told her, pointing to two ceramic cylinders with wires poking out of the tops.
She walked to the door, and pulled it quietly closed. Who else but her employer would be capable of capturing lightning in a jar?
She and Etienne had sat in George Dugast's office nearly a year ago after hearing from a mutual acquaintance that Dugast was looking for domestic help. During their interview with him they discovered it was for the man who had formed the burgeoning company that Dugast worked for, De La Shaumette Enterprises. A man no one had seen in person, a man who never left his home.
When they received word back from M. Dugast a week later, they were cautiously optimistic about their meeting with their prospective employer. They were picked up in a cab and delivered to the front door of a three story home of stone and timber medieval architecture. There were already lace curtains in the windows.
As Etienne knocked at the door, she examined the carving in the timbers. Many of the old houses were decorated with carvings depicting the livelihood of the owners: shovels for grave diggers, animals for butchers, a needle for a tailor. The dark wood of this house was carved with skulls and bones. It could only mean that this house had been built during the great plague. Local stories tell that some of the older houses actually have stairways leading down into the Ossuaries, the vaults where the bones of the dead were placed during the Black Death. People who lived side by side in life, lay side by side in eternity below the city streets.
The sturdy carved door swung open quietly on large black iron hinges to an empty hallway. "Please come in." A masculine voice greeted them. After a quick glance at Etienne, she proceeded into the hallway. Turning, towards the open door for the parlor, she stepped inside the room. As they turned, the door closed behind them.
He stood in the dim light of the hallway. He seemed made of darkness: dark hair, dark clothing, and his eyes two dark spots. Even his voice had a sort of melancholy darkness to it.
Etienne removed his hat and nodded respectfully, "Monsieur De La Shaumette?" he asked.
The man remained in the dim light, "I am De La Shaumette," he replied.
"I am Etienne Bardou, and this is my wife Agnes. Monsieur Dugast interviewed us about the domestic positions you have."
He took a step forward, and gestured towards the sofa, "Would you please be seated."
As she and Etienne sat down, he moved slowly into the brighter light of the parlor. Dressed in an impeccable frock coat and a grey striped satin vest he could be any of Rouen's businessmen. But as he turned slightly towards them, she saw something on his face. It was light colored and covered him from his hairline to his lips.
She remembered how uncomfortable the man seemed. His voice projected in rich masculine tones, but he spoke with his head turned slightly away from them, as if by doing so he would reduce the impact of that unusual white mask. His light colored eyes held an impersonal look.
"I work strictly from my home, in my study on the second floor. Your duties will be to arrive by nine-thirty and see to accepting deliveries, dropping off correspondence, and running my errands as I request during the day. I also require the basic cleaning and shopping to be done at the market for supplies and food."
"And laundry, Monsieur?" she asked.
"No, I send things out to a service which picks up during the week before noon," he replied. "Do you have any further questions?"
Etienne glanced at her; she had always been the more practical of the two of them, and also the sharpest for details. She asked, "What of your meals, Monsieur?"
He seemed to consider the question, "Dinner at six o'clock."
She realized that this man had never had servants before. Employers did not leave the details to the domestics. He had not mentioned the sort of meals that would please his palette. Without stipulations, his meals would be at her choosing.
"There is one thing I am absolutely adamant about," he added, "my privacy. I will not accept visitors to the house unless you have been informed by me previously. At present there is only one man who will be allowed into the house, my assistant, Javier Fernandez. Anyone else is to be turned away."
There was another silence; the man seemed to be done with the interview such as it was. Agnes presumed it meant they were hired, and glanced at Etienne. "When do we start?"
Arriving to assume their duties, Etienne had gone up to the study to find their employer. Agnes went on into the kitchen, looking through the pantry to plan shopping, and finding various pans and dinnerware in the cabinets.
Days ran into weeks as they performed their duties, settling into the routine of his strangely quiet residence. Etienne kept busy with errands, and the numerous deliveries of rugs and furnishings. With each new piece a bit more of the cheerless sterility of the house vanished, giving way to the soul that a home should have. It bloomed with the colors of the textiles; it breathed the scents of the lemon wood polish, the aroma of coffee, and the pastries in the oven. The furnishings sat poised, waiting to welcome them with cheerful comfort.
At first she'd only see him when it was time to dust the study. He would continue his work, or sometimes leave the room so that she could finish polishing up the desk. Little changes painted a more complete picture of their employer: books on science and art on his shelves, a small Chinese statue and a ceramic match holder with America's Ben Franklin on it were added to the fireplace mantel.
One item that she would not have believed he would posses sat regally on his bedroom dresser. It was a black lacquered Chinese style box inlaid with mother of pearl flowers. It looked like something a woman would have chosen. Perhaps it had been a gift from a lady.
The Chinese box was the only hint of intimacy to be found. No family items or pictures were displayed, not even in his bedroom. He must be used to living alone. Other than perfunctory remarks or instructions, he barely talked to Etienne. She knew there were no visitors. According to Etienne, most of his correspondence was from other businesses.
Looking at his home, and the man himself, Agnes wondered why he refused to leave. He was young enough to have a family. Surely there must be women, perhaps after they left in the evenings he went out? Cleaning his bedroom, she was certain he did not bring women into his home. Not that it was her business. It just seemed wrong to be so alone.
No one ever mentioned the mask. She and Etienne relied upon their jobs, and although Monsieur Fernandez seemed to know their employer on a more personal level, his life before they were hired was a closed book.
When they arrived in the mornings, he had taken to leaving a note on the kitchen table with the items he required from the market. On rare days, he would actually come downstairs, foraging for lemon juice, or oil, or more ink, or a tool that was kept under the stairs.
She would find the cleaned up remains of his breakfast and coffee cups, but never had he come down for lunches. Agnes started prompting Etienne to take up a plate of fruit and cheese around the lunch hour.
She experimented with his dinners. During the bitterly cold days of winter she would send up thick stews with slices of bread, or quiches with vegetables and meat. She'd add a bit of dessert twice a week, a pudding, or slice of cake. As their first summer together came, she simplified the meals with a cold entrée's and a glass of Calvados or Kir. No matter what she sent up, Etienne would carry down the cleaned plate later.
When Christmas approached, she made La Bûche de Noël, the rolled sponge cake to be decorated like the Yule Log. She found him in the kitchen as she came back from retrieving a serving plate from the sideboard in the dining room. Before him sat the bowl of icing she was preparing for a cake, and he had quickly taken his finger out of his mouth. She could feel her eyebrows climbing quizzically. With his hands at his sides he said, "It looks a bit thick doesn't it?"
She gestured toward the containers of food coloring nearby, "It will get diluted down a bit once the different colors are added."
He nodded briskly, as if he had just come to some momentous decision, "Very well, don't let me disturb you." He turned and left. She had to grin; her mysterious employer had just been caught like a child stealing sweets from the kitchen.
Monsieur Fernandez would come by daily. If she was busy in the kitchen, he'd pop in and see what she was making. He loved her little lemon tarts, and was forever trying to steal one of them. She'd taken to making a few extra and giving him his own plate. The mischievous Spaniard was always a highlight in their day. He always wanted to know what gossip they had heard while out of the house.
It was during the summer that the piano arrived. He had sent messages to a firm in town that had come and removed a section of the front study wall and two windows. Arriving at the house, they saw a machine setting in the street poised to hoist the grand piano up to the second floor. Its one long arm was interlaced with cables that wrapped around the blanket covered instrument. De La Shaumette had had Etienne upstairs to relay instructions to the workers outside. After the instrument was at rest, the builders went to work on replacing the wall.
For two days she and Etienne had worked to get the last of the saw dust, nails, and paint drips cleaned up from the study. Their employer had hovered nearby, looking the part of a shamefaced boy who had made a mess, apologizing for the state of the study. He took off his coat and joined Etienne in rolling the carpet back into place, and placing his chair back before the fireplace.
After that, she had worked to the accompaniment of the piano. She changed sheets to Berlioz, dusted to Liszt, and stirred bowls of batter to Borodin. As she and Etienne pulled the door closed at night, she would catch pieces of music she had never heard before from the study.
One evening while she waited for Etienne to return from a late errand, she had walked to the parlor to glance out the window when she heard her employer's voice. Moving to the foot of the stairs quietly, she had sat on a step and listened. She wasn't sure of the tune or the language, but his voice told a heartbreaking story of such loss that it brought tears to her eyes.
It was also because of the piano, that a new member of the household appeared. A few days after the builders were finished; Etienne took a bill upstairs that had come from M. Dugast. He came back down shortly with a note and retrieved his hat. "Sorry, Cherie, but we might leave late tonight," Etienne told her as he headed for the door.
Monsieur Fernandez came back with Etienne. Whisking the bottle of Brandy out of the sideboard along with two glasses, he winked at her and headed up stairs. Etienne indicated a chair, "You might as well sit down, unless you want to leave early."
"No, I haven't finished his dinner yet," she told her husband.
There was a loud noise from the study, followed by their employer's voice rising in a fearsome, indignant crescendo. M. Fernandez came down once again. "You better go on home," he told them. "He's in one of his black moods."
Agnes wondered how bad these moods were.
The next day there was a note to M. Fernandez on the table and a smashed glass in the sink. Shortly before noon, Etienne came downstairs, "We are going to have a visitor, a Monsieur Robillard to see the Monsieur.
The young man arrived on time and was shown up to the study. Agnes resisted the temptation to step out of the kitchen and watch him go up. Etienne did not come back, so she presumed he waited outside the study.
As there was no slamming, banging, or thundering voice, the meeting must have gone well. Etienne showed the young man to the door later, looking tired. "He says we can go early, do you want to get dinner at the café tonight?" She put his dinner beside the oven, and left.
After that, Phillipe Robillard became one of his assistants. The young man was obviously educated and had worked for an accounting firm. He was a bit overwhelmed at first, but settled in nicely. M. Fernandez introduced him to her lemon tarts.
One afternoon she took her cleaning rags upstairs to start polishing the wood of the paneled walls. She knocked lightly and heard her employer respond. Stepping in she asked, "Is it alright if I clean, Monsieur?"
He stood facing the window, on his desk was an opened paper. "No, Agnes. Leave it for tomorrow," he said softly.
"Very good, Monsieur," she replied turning to leave.
"Agnes," his voice stopped her, "have you ever lost a child?"
"No, Monsieur. God has blessed us with two sons." She crossed herself, "We also have grandchildren now." He wasn't looking down at the street; he was looking out, out into someplace that only he could see. She asked, "Someone you know?"
She saw him nod. He might be so upset that he didn't trust his voice. Men always wanted to appear so strong. The agonies of the spirit didn't need words, or tears; when they came, they settled dark wings around the body radiating misery that spoke for them.
"Life is like your machine, Monsieur. God makes the spark and it is up to him to keep it in its vessel." She added, "Etienne and I have donated money to the Orphanage at St. Ouen when someone we knew lost a child. That way what is lost to one, may be found by another."
She backed out of the room, the door closing with a soft click. She wished she could have touched him; let him know that everyone feels the loss of another. But he was never one to touch people.
The next morning she had Etienne retrieve the paper from the study. The article said that the Count de Chagny and his wife had lost their newborn second child to a fever. In the hallway was an envelope for the Orphanage at St Ouen. He was touching people the only way he knew how.