Well, we've finally reached it -- the end of this story. A big thank you to everyone who has read this, and an extra thanks to those of you who took the time to review. It's always fun checking my email and finding review waiting! Of course, the email alerts aren't going out lately. Oh well...!
And yes, there will be more stories down the road...
Variations on a Theme of Leroux
It was just past noon, and Erik and Christine were having lunch. It was a warm June day, and they had the house to themselves for a few hours, as Mamma was paying a visit to Alan. It seemed that she and M Kerjean had become quite friendly of late.
"I went down to the post office earlier this morning, and look what was waiting for us." She handed him an unopened envelope.
He looked at it, and saw Justine Sorelli's return address in the corner. He returned it to Christine. "Go ahead. Open it," he urged her. "She is, after all, your friend."
"But, it's addressed to M. & Mme duBois." She gave him a smug look. "You, as the man of the house, are properly in charge of such important things as mail."
Erik snorted a laugh. "Oh! So you trust me to open a letter, but not to go to market alone."
"That's because you don't know how to shop for the bargains. You always pay too much for things."
Erik opened the envelope and read the enclosed letter. He smirked, deliberately saying nothing to Christine as he folded the letter back up and stuck it in his pocket. The impish look still on his face, he picked up his newspaper and resumed his reading.
"Well?" Christine demanded. "What does it say? You know I'm dying with curiosity!"
Erik looked up, peering over the top of the newspaper. "I'm sorry. Did you say something?"
"Silly man, of course I said something. What did the letter say?"
"Letter? What letter? Oh…that letter. Ouch!" he yelped when Christine kicked him in the shin. He pulled the letter out and handed it back to her.
"Oh, did you see this?" she cried out excitedly.
"Of course I saw it," he muttered under his breath.
"You're just trying to irritate me, Erik."
"That's because you're so…inviting when you're irritated," he replied suggestively.
"Promise?" He waggled his eyebrows at her.
She pretended to ignore his remark. "It's an invitation! Reynard and Justine are getting married next month! Oh, Erik, this is wonderful. After they marry, they plan to retire to the village of Louveciennes."
"Yes, I know," Erik said drolly.
"Yes, I know you know," she mimicked. "You read the letter and weren't going to tell me what it said." She scanned it again. "Where is Louveciennes?"
"It's one of the western suburbs of Paris. It's favored by many of the Impressionist School of painters," Erik replied.
Christine started thinking about a wedding gift and added, "I do hope that Anatole and Carlotta will be there."
"Must we include Carlotta?"
"She's a changed woman, you know. Anatole says so."
"If you say so." Erik set the newspaper aside. "Now, about that promise…"
"In the middle of the afternoon?"
"Mamma will be gone for a while, and the dishes can wait."
"That's true. And you know as well as I do that she would be thrilled to know we're…"
"Shh! Don't say it! I don't want her to know I'm defiling her little girl. At least, not while I'm defiling her."
"I was about to say, before I was rudely interrupted, that she would be thrilled to know that we're working on her first grandchild."
"Is that what we're doing?"
She got up from the table and held her hand out to him. As they walked up to the bedroom, she leaned over and kissed him tenderly. "You're going to be a wonderful father."
"Are you trying to tell me something?"
It was a week before the wedding. Anatole and Carlotta had come to Perros to visit with Erik and Christine before the four of them would head to Paris for the nuptials. Anatole in particular wanted to thank Erik for the wonderful present of the tickets to Seville as well as the completely unexpected extra gift in the envelope – a brilliant diamond of the first water.
The two singers chose once gain to stay at the Inn of the Setting Sun because it had such enjoyable memories for the two of them. That evening they were awaiting the arrival of Erik and Christine. As they were early, they went down to the public room for a bite to eat and something to drink. After a few drinks of the local vintage, Anatole began regaling Carlotta with the story of how he fought off Fournier, Gaultier, and a horde of other villains.
"I was completely surrounded!" he said, spreading his arms wide for emphasis. "There were four, no wait, make that five! Yes, that was it, there were six ruffians crawling all over me. There was much gnashing of teeth and flying of fists!" He shadowboxed to demonstrate his form. "I won't lie to you. I thought I had breathed my last."
"Oh, Anatole!" cooed Carlotta, running her hands through his hair and across his broad, solid shoulders. "You're so brave!" She leaned over and kissed him. "How ever did you manage to free yourself?"
"Why, I…," he started to say.
"Yes," another voice joined in. Anatole looked and saw Erik suddenly reveal that he had been sitting in the corner all the while. "Tell us all about it."
"Ah...um...Erik! Fancy seeing you here! Where's that pretty little wife of yours?" Anatole sputtered as his face turned a brilliant shade of scarlet.
"Over here, Anatole," Christine replied coolly. "Waiting for you…with Mamma and M. Kerjean."
Alan leaned forward slightly, tipping his head.
"Are you sure it was only six?" Dr. Bret added, rising so that Anatole could see him as well.
Reynard and Justine were married in the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris. When asked how he managed to pull such a feat off, Reynard simply shrugged his shoulders like a true Parisian and explained that he still had friends who could pull a few strings.
The reception was held at the Le Café Anglais, which Reynard and Justine rented for the evening. An extensive feast was ordered – soufflés with creamed chicken à la reine, Venetian fillets of sole, escalloped turbot, chicken à la portugaise cooked with tomatoes, onions, and garlic, lobster à la parisienne ducklings à la rouennaise ortolans on toast, and an assortment of different wines.
During the reception, the latest Paris gossip was discussed. These days, the topic of conversation was the exposé being run in one of the local papers, detailing the deplorable conditions among the institutions that were supposed to be helping the ill. One place was singled out as being particularly vile, the sanitarium of a man named Delacroix. According to the reporter, a young man by the name of Leroux, there was evidence that some of the inmates had been kept in small cells, chained and beaten like wild animals. The government, in turn, was looking into the matter, as well as the unhappy families of those poor, unfortunate patients. Charges were expected to be laid against Delacroix, and soon.
"That story is a scathing indictment of the treatment the poor, underprivileged people receive at such places," remarked one of the dinner guests. "Just because one is mentally deficient does not mean one should be treated so despicably."
"Erik," Christine said quietly as she daintily picked at her escalloped turbot, "do you hear what they are talking about?" She knew he did; she could tell by the look on his face and the stiffness of his posture. At last, though, he smiled, and Christine was relieved to see him relax.
"It sounds as though Reynard's reporter friend has done his job," he said, "exposing Delacroix and his cronies for the scoundrels that they are." He picked up his wine glass and took a sip.
"Well, good riddance, I say," Christine responded, likewise picking up her glass and clinking it against Erik's.
"Yes," he nodded. "Good riddance."
Although he continued to feel awkward among strangers, and there were still those who made covert glances at his masked face, Erik managed to tolerate the situation with his usual grace and aplomb. After all, he told himself, it wasn't as if everyone was an unfamiliar person. Reynard and the beautiful Justine were there, of course, as well as Anatole and Carlotta. And, naturally, Christine. Who cared what he looked like when there was Christine to hold their attention?
"It's wonderful of you to put up with all these people, Husband," she whispered in his ear later, when they were dancing.
"I think I am handling it all quite well, Wife." He beamed at her. He still could not believe the feelings of intense joy that came over him every time she called him "husband."
"Yes, you are, and for that you shall be properly rewarded."
"In that case, may we leave now and get an early start?"
She winked at him. "When I get you home, Erik…I promise it will be worth the wait."
The party was in full swing when the door opened. Thinking it a late-arriving guest, Reynard and Justine looked up to see Comte Philippe enter the room. He smiled pleasantly and tipped his hat. "I happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I should stop by to offer my felicitations to the happy couple." He bowed to them. The air grew thick with tension, but it dissipated somewhat when Philippe offered his hand to Reynard and said, "Justine could do worse than to marry you."
"Thank you," the former detective replied rather stiffly. Reynard d'Aubert would much rather have been giving the obnoxious Comte the boot instead of shaking his hand.
"Yes, thank you, Philippe," Justine said more warmly, and offered her hand.
Philippe, regardless of whatever his feelings might have been at that moment, took her hand and kissed it gently, the picture of graceful manners. "I've no wish to wear out my welcome," he added jollily, suggesting that he was about to leave, when he turned around and saw Christine. They had never actually met before, but he knew her from her appearances on stage, and the fact that his halfwit of a brother had been utterly besotted with her.
"You…know her?" Justine asked tentatively.
"Know her? But of course! Doesn't everyone know 'The New Marguerite'? Might I intrude upon you to introduce us?"
Justine took Philippe to be introduced to Christine and Erik, with Reynard trailing closely behind. She explained that the two were only recently married and that Christine had, for that reason, retired from the stage. At least for now.
"My felicitations to the two of you as well, Madame, Monsieur, on your recent marriage," Philippe said formally.
"Thank you, M. le Comte," they both replied, equally formal. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as Christine had no idea what Philippe was up to. The fact that this was Raoul's brother did nothing to calm her. She reached for Erik's hand and was comforted when he squeezed it reassuringly. Unable to hold back her curiosity, she asked, "Will your brother be…er, joining us?"
Erik stood solemnly at her side, saying nothing but every bit as curious to hear what the Comte had to say as was his wife.
"Oh, you needn't worry about Raoul. He's long at sea." Philippe chuckled. "Perhaps another tour of duty will finally make a man out of him…but I doubt it." He turned to Erik and for a moment stared at the mask, an expression of curious boredom on his face. "Have we met before?" he finally asked.
"No," Erik replied curtly.
"A pity. I suspect you are a man of great acumen. You didn't, by any chance, visit my scapegrace brother one night the week before he shipped out, did you?"
Erik looked Philippe straight in the eye, and without batting a lash, simply said, "What reason might I have had do so?"
"Quite. I didn't think so. He had been getting these strange notions in his head of late, kept rambling on about being haunted by a ghost or something. Poppycock, I told him," he added. "Pure balderdash. Good thing you weren't there; in the frame of mind he'd been in, he'd have probably shot your head off."
Erik remained taciturn. "Yes. Good thing."
"Well then, I shall wish the bride and groom a good evening, and a long and fruitful marriage. Bon soir." And, with a nod to the crowd, left the room.
"What do you suppose that was about?" Christine asked.
Justine could only shake her head in disbelief. "If I didn't know better, I would say he was sincere, that he wanted to let you know that Raoul would be troubling you no more," she said, trying to be polite about the whole affair.
Erik sighed. "One can only hope."
"If you ask me, he's nothing more than a boorish party crasher," Reynard said, his dissatisfaction with Philippe's actions extremely evident. Justine took his hand in hers, trying to calm her husband.
"It's obvious that he merely wanted to insult you." Erik suggested, nodding in agreement with Reynard. "He used the ruse of extending his good wishes to gloss over that fact. You were admirably restrained, for the sake of your lovely bride." He nodded and smiled at Justine, who returned the gesture.
"Well, whatever his reason, my Reynard was the model of decorum," Justine said, linking her arm through her husband's and leaning lovingly against his shoulder. "If ever I had a doubt that I'd made the right choice, you proved me correct tonight. You were the perfect gentleman." Then she leaned closer and whispered into his ear, "I can hardly wait to get you home and corrupt you."
The gaiety resumed immediately following the Comte's exiting the room, and the chamber orchestra struck up a waltz.
"May I have this dance, Mme duBois?" Erik asked, a smile once again upon his face.
"I would be delighted, M. duBois," Christine replied, taking Erik's hand.
As they twirled around the floor, Erik leaned scandalously close to his wife and whispered into her ear, "Now about that reward…"
-- Finis --
My final notes, historical and otherwise:
According to the official site, there are over 120 paintings by Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and Monet depicting Louveciennes.
Here's a little note about Paris in the 1860s and the Café Anglais: "At its most dazzling, the tone of the city's social life was set by the court of the Second Empire. The repressive - though gradually liberalizing - regime of Napoleon III practiced a politics of festivity which masked the realities of power beneath a seemingly endless whirl of pleasures, all fully reported in the newspapers and illustrated press for vicarious consumption. The tout-Paris of the age took its cue from the court and pursued, on the surface at least, a hedonistic lifestyle. It paraded its wealth in afternoon carriage rides in the Bois de Boulogne, evenings at the opera or theater, and lavish dinners at the Café Anglais."
The dinner served at Reynard & Justine's reception is, in fact, the famed Three Emperors Dinner. "In 1867, Paris hosted a Universal Exposition – partly to show the British they too could do it – and the royals and important dignitaries of the world were invited, so that in the end, "Paris was bloated with Majesties and Highnesses". Three of the important majesties attended a dinner on this day at the Café Anglais (which sadly no longer exists): Tsar Alexander II, the Tsarevich (the future Alexander III), and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia (accompanied by Prince Otto von Bismarck). The dinner was prepared by the famous Adolphe Dugléré, who had himself been a pupil of the legendary Carême, and the menu he prepared for 'The Dinner of the Three Emperors' demonstrates what can be done when the guests must be impressed, the country's honour is at stake, and no expense need be spared."
Hey! If it's good enough for three emperors, it's certainly good enough for my characters!