A Lady Called Death
(A tip of the chapeau to German fantasist E.T.A. Hoffmann for his story "Don Juan." Thanks to GlovedHand for introducing me to it, and for those who voted it "Best Written" for the Fourth Morbidity "Valentine's Day" contest.)
Erik slid into his hollow pillar in Box Five just as Don Giovanni slew "the old fool." Carlotta, as the fool's daughter Donna Anna, pursued Don Giovanni with stout heart and even more aggressive bosom. From inside his stuffy, dusty vantage point, Erik yawned.
Overtures bored him. He needed no introduction to the dramatis personae. Normally he would have occupied himself elsewhere, sneaking into his box at his usual time halfway through the first act. However, this trimmed-down Don Giovanni was a tidbit offered up to tease the appetites of opera patrons before the proper onset of "the season," and shorter than the normal three- or four-act pickings. At best, Erik had no patience with its ham-handed moralizing. At worst, he strongly considered threatening manager Poligny with strangulation if he ever staged it again.
So much else I could be doing, he thought, such as taking a carriage ride through the more brambly sections of the Bois de Boulogne. I might spend the evening fine-tuning the clockworks on my automaton made in Poligny's perfect likeness. Wound up and set in motion through the first and second cellars, the manager's fat approaching form caused trysting lovers or malingering stagehands to scatter, a source of endless amusement. Erik meant to engineer the bulky contraption to climb stairs, as hauling it up and down steps was becoming tedious. Also tempting was a crackling fire, a bottle of sauternes, and the latest translation of Swinburne's poetry, anodyne for another evening alone.
Tonight, however, on a crisp September evening washed with light rain that gave the streets of Paris a mirrored shine, Erik came to watch with new purpose. A soprano had recently signed on, too light and fresh to be a lyric, too sensuous for a soubrette. He had first spied her two weeks ago, as he hid behind the rehearsal hall mirror. She sang the wanton Zerlina, and she could even dance, as the peasants spun out the threads of their wild wedding.
Tonight he trembled, anticipating her debut. He had finally drawn from the well of dreams the courage to speak to her, and in his dreams, she was not afraid of him. In that strange intermediate zone between sleep and waking, he touched her hair, caressed her cheek. Even so, wedged twixt horn and ivory, he dared not kiss her. But speak to her he would, tonight after the performance. She changed alone in her dressing room; there was no maid to help her. It would be then.
There was the whole interminable length of Mozart to endure in the meantime. At least haunting the managers' box provided some amusement. Erik dropped down into the crawlspace between his box and the one directly beneath, but to his surprise found that box empty. Usually Poligny and Debienne's sarcastic dissections of the performance grew more animated as their champagne bottles emptied. Tonight, however, the two managers were nowhere to be seen.
Through narrow tunnels he had hollowed out inside the walls, he crept to the dancers' salon. Glad for the one-way mirror he had just installed, Erik slipped behind it and waited. A few dancers tripped in, either in peasant dress or Chinese silk robes. Elegant men in black poured them champagne, kissed their cheeks, held their wooden-toed shoes for them.
"Our Zerlina won't be here tonight," one of the girls cried.
"Monsieur Debienne has gone to search for her himself. Her costume hasn't been touched, and her dressing room is empty."
"They're looking for the understudy now."
"It's dreadful," a stout man in a swallowtail coat two seasons too tight remarked. "Fresh from the Conservatory, so grateful for the opportunity it seemed, and now to prove herself so unreliable."
"I'm sure you tested her gratitude thoroughly," another man laughed, and Erik's face grew hot with anger.
Behind his mirrored prison, desolation flooded him. In the course of the opera, Donna Elvira had most likely just ambushed her wayward seducer and was railing at him, for the first of many times. Were I Don Giovanni, he thought, I would silence her with a single blow. The evening stretched before him, glacially lonely. Returning to his cold, damp rooms five cellars down held no appeal. He climbed back to his perch in Box Five, and a long, dusty, and dispiriting trip it was. Settling in his pillar, Erik wondered what had happened to the lovely singer who played Zerlina.
God put no greater torment of boredom on this earth than Mozart, and especially Mozart's Don Giovanni. Erik closed his eyes and drifted, and when he peered into the box through his pillar's little spy hole, at first he thought himself lost in dream. From the stage below floated notes from the crystalline soprano who taunted her groom, who flaunted her beauty at her wedding as she called "All the girls who love to flirt" to the dance. But how could that be?
For there she sat quietly in the velvet chair remotest from the rail, an uncanny vision of soft immobility. The Opera Garnier's newest soprano, who took Erik's breath away whenever he gazed upon her, was here in his very box, motionless as wax. The mill wheels of time stopped grinding. Then, with tiny delicate movements, she pushed back her black locks and pulled a light India silk scarf a little tighter around her round shoulders.
Maria Contelli, of Milan. Not on the stage, but here, scarcely a meter from him.
This is madness, he thought. Who is that singing, then? On the stage stood a small bright figure glowing all silver-white, even her blonde hair white under the harsh lights. The understudy, of course, for no woman could sit here soft as a Persian cat, and whirl on stage at the same time. Seized by a compulsion he could not ignore, Erik pulled his mask from his jacket pocket and adjusted it, shaking with nerves. With violently trembling fingers, he fumbled with the latch of a little door concealed by a curtain, which opened into the box itself.
Erik calculated. Now I wage all. If she screams and flails at the sight of me, thus ends this tedious morality play, and another endorsement is won for the reputation of the Opera Ghost. And she might not scream ... He clutched his chest, breathing hard, fearing she should hear it, hoping she would.
He slipped from behind the curtain and stood next to her in the shadows. "Maria," he breathed. "Maria, why aren't you onstage?"
She turned, and her scarf fell back. It remained wrapped tightly around her throat, but left her shoulders and arms bare. Marble was white like that, with the same blue tracery and silken sheen, but no marble promised to yield so pliably under the hand. Instead of answering him, she drew her supple fingers across her throat and shook her head sadly.
"Your voice," Erik said, trying not to stammer. How close she was. How difficult not to touch her. "You've lost your voice."
She nodded, and then patted the seat next to her. Pulling the chair further into the shadow behind the curtain, he sat down, almost sick with trembling, convinced he dreamt but certain he did not. Then she offered him her hand, and he took it.
Erik knew his flesh was cold, that his extremities frightened anyone whom he touched. It used to fill him with pleasure to lay his hands across the throat of someone slated for strangulation with the Punjabi catgut, not to deliver the killing blow with hand instead of noose, but simply to drink the fear and horror from his victim's eyes when his icy grip clutched the throat. He liked to squeeze just a little, enough to make the hapless one's world go black, as if to say, you think these hands are cold – wait until you feel the grip of the grave.
Her hand rested in his, his fingers in comparison hot as bronze pulled from the furnace. Erik thought he would stick to her icy coldness. Not ice, though, for ice never had such melting, pliant tenderness. The third finger of her left hand had a little red mark around it, as if a tight ring had been just recently removed, and he caressed that tiny mar on the otherwise unmarked flesh.
Maria's understudy took to the stage and Zerlina betrayed her husband, but Erik had no desire to look. The girl sounded well enough, with good potential and the requisite sweetness. A competent but cold voice, and one to which under other circumstances he might have even paid more regard. Then the music faded and Erik heard no more, because Maria held out her bare arms to him.
He feared to come closer to her, afraid that as so often before, the lightest touch of his flesh would chill and repel. Nevertheless, as her hand felt so much icier than his, a strange intoxicating hope filled him and he whispered, "Am I warm? Do I feel warm?" She nodded slowly, yes, and held out her round arms, gently insistent.
The gold-trimmed velvet of Box Five swam red before his eyes, deep blood laced with black specks. Her full arms remained outstretched. Glorious arms they were, promising even greater delights than her tender hand, and when Erik moved forward, she drew his silk-masked visage down onto her bosom.
Through the thin fabric of his mask, Erik's face rested in a snowbank. Tannhauser searched between the twin hills for Venusberg, and from one snow-capped peak to another, Erik explored as well. She stroked the back of his neck and he feared that his rattling heart could be heard all through the auditorium. Cold and desire warred all through his quaking frame, and he thought that if this be madness, it was a fine one, and that he should choose to stay mad forever. To be locked in a cell in the men's asylum, to be a monster on display in the cage of bedlam could perhaps be sweet, if these were the visions imparted.
Cold makes a man sleepy and wins out even over desire. Enfolded in snow, his eyes closed. The sound of wild applause roused him. Lifting his head from those chilly satin pillows, he wanted to make some gallant offering as a gentleman might. "I am going to bring you something," he told her, still shivering. "Will you wait here during the intermission?" and she nodded, smiling.
Fortunately, Erik had brought his false nose and moustache, and so could visit the vendors on the Plaza outside. Champagne, the moment required champagne, and flowers.
The throngs had already raided the few stalls not driven away by the rain. No champagne was to be had, and only a small wristlet of tiny tea roses. He raced back up to Box Five through the mostly-empty corridor, for the theatergoers had retired to the great foyer, or the various salons and lounges. Someone had discarded a newspaper and program near his box door. In annoyance, he picked them up and stuffed them under his arm, carrying the wrist corsage as if it were a full bouquet, wishing that it were.
He put his hand on the handle of the box door, and trembled. Warmed by his exertions, the madness of desire roared back like a fire under the bellows. With it came fear and its cousin anxiety, that she would want to see his face, demand that he lift the mask, force him into all the devastating consequences.
Slowly, tentatively Erik opened the box door. It was empty, the entire box was empty. She was gone. A great anguish welled up inside him as he cursed himself silently, how he should have stayed and never let her out of his arms, never raised his face from those twin snowy hills again. Heedless of being seen by any across the auditorium, he moved the chairs, flung back the curtains, and even looked into the pillar through the hidden passage, thinking with horror that perhaps she had gone inside. But she was nowhere to be found.
Bitter disappointment now turned to wrath. He tossed the nosegay across the box, where it lay abandoned under one of the far chairs. When I see Maria Contelli again, he raged inside, I will take my pleasure with her, the pleasure of feeling her voluptuous neck under my hands. Not for her the swift dispatch of the catgut, but rather slow strangulation, just enough to almost become unconscious. Then I will let her breathe. When awareness creeps back, I will cut off a little more of her air, and then release her breath again. A glimpse or two of my uncovered face will salt the horror even more, and then mercifully, once and for all, I will bury her terror in the black.
The bells rang; the orchestra tuned, and Erik sat silent and brooding, slumped over the chair just filled by the newest soprano. There was no need to search for her; no one could escape him within these walls when he sought them. She would show up eventually, and then she would be his.
Maria's understudy caught his attention, then his admiration, despite the decorative obscenity of Zerlina's only aria in Act Two. "Such medicine," indeed, "feel it," "touch me here." She goes from Don Giovanni back to the beaten and bruised Masetto, her lust not slaked, instead aroused even more by the sight of that helpless, hapless husband. Like so many women, he thought.
The mocking smut was purified by the slight woman's light yet powerful voice. She could use more depth in her chest range, he noted, that is certain. But there could be more, as the potential is there. What is her name? he wondered. She sounds familiar, so why do I not recall the parts I've heard her sing? She's new, too, here just a month or so longer than Maria. Where's that program? Ah, inside the newspaper.
As he opened the folded paper, the program slid to the carpet. Reaching for it, his hand and heart stopped at the same time. "Singer found murdered in Rue de St. Paul love nest," the evening edition's headline announced. Police had in custody her husband. The cuckold had surprised his wife and her lover after tracking them to the apartment that afternoon, where she had trysted instead of showing up for her rehearsal of Don Giovanni. The adulterous scoundrel (a tenor at the Lyric Opera, no surprise there) escaped through the courtyard window. Monsieur Contelli was more intent on administering peasant justice to his wife than pursuing her swain. He finally slashed her throat from ear to ear, after attempts to strangle her with an India silk scarf had failed.
The husband had apparently clutched the breast of the arresting detective and cried out his whole sad story like a child. "She'll never sing again," he said as he confessed. "One man, then another. Always men. I loved her so much. If she would just have left the men alone."
Cold passed over Erik like a sick wave. I should leave tonight, he thought, and he felt the clutch of choking fingers at his own throat. Within these jeweled walls he had encountered something even stranger and more malevolent than himself. I could go back to Turkey. The old sultan is dead, and his retainers purged. I could go to St. Petersburg, anywhere, anywhere but here.
Pounding, terrified hearts eventually slow down, and his did the same. There still hung the scent of perfume in the air. With a shudder, he touched the nearby seat cushion again, and then stroked it gently. It bore no imprint but still felt chilly. Then he knew he could have lain with her there in the box, even if it would have frozen him to the root. Would a death under that white avalanche of limb and breast have been worth it? Would it have been worse than this half-life, this peeping through mirrors, this creeping in shadows, this dark existence laced with torments writhing between wake and sleep, with never a dawn?
At least I won't have to kill her, he reflected. That job's been done for me already. He had the right idea, too. A dead woman will never betray one again, never jeer, never laugh, never demand that you stand naked and revealed before her. And how ironic, the scathing irony of my entire existence as God's ape, as God's mockery, that the only woman who ever lifted her arms to me without the coercion of coin should have been a dead one.
At the memory of that silk scarf twisting around Maria's throat, he again felt his body flush with blood. Picking up his program, cursing the flesh that urged him to look again upon the white-blonde beauty that sang Zerlina, he crept back into the pillar.
Hidden behind marble, deep in shadow, huddling behind black silk, he heard the sweet high outpouring of silver tones that arced up to the very curve of the domed roof itself. Beautiful, he sighed as he watched the little woman full of sublime sound. And a fair face, too. They must not have fit her with Zerlina's wig, that must be her own hair, thick and curly, so blonde as to be almost white, but a warm white. Snowy, but it would be warm snow that might bring life to even my dead hand. What is her name?
There, in the program. Straining to read in the near-blackness, Erik wrapped his tongue around the peculiar pronunciation. It sounded Danish, or Norwegian perhaps.