Don't Speak of the Night
(Ne Parlez Pas de la Nuit)
Chapter 11: Secrets and Confessions
Erik stared at Alain, half-dazed.
"I'm… sorry…" he sputtered. "I did not mean to wake you."
"Come in, come in," urged Alain until Erik felt compelled to step into the austere bedroom. He had never seen Alain's quarters before and now had an opportunity for a good look. The room contained only a few pieces of small furniture—a bed, a desk, a bookcase and a dresser. The rest of his belongings consisted of only clothing, books and papers. Clearly he loved to read. Erik gingerly took a seat on the small bed.
"Would you like some brandy?" Alain offered as he snatched a bottle from his bookcase.
"Merci," replied Erik with gratitude. He did not know quite what to say. How could he explain the shadow that had nearly engulfed his soul? He downed the glass of wine in one long gulp and wished for more. He wished he could drown out his misery with that one glass.
"So, what have you to confess?" asked Alain pointedly.
"Confess?" replied Erik, bewildered. "What makes you think that I have anything to confess?"
A wry grin spread across Alain's face. "I suppose my assumption comes from the instincts I acquired during my service in the priesthood. I could always tell when a parishioner needed my confidence."
"You? A priest? But you don't look like…" Erik bit his tongue as he struggled to imagine Alain as a priest.
"At present I look nothing like one, I suppose," remarked Alain ruefully. "And yet, there was a time…"
He looked misty-eyed and nostalgic, as if something in his past tugged at him and would not let go. "But you did not come to hear about me. Please, I am at your service."
Erik studied his adopted uncle as he contemplated his reply. Alain seemed sincere and straightforward enough. After some time Erik's shoulders dropped a little.
"Have you ever been tempted to… to… kill a man?"
Alain's calm reaction did not match Erik's expectations. The studious former cleric adjusted his spectacles.
"Oui," he replied. Then he waited, as if he knew Erik had more to say.
"I feel as if I have the chance to gain the entire world, and yet I am uneasy… especially now that it seems I have gained a conscience," Erik hissed the word.
"It is inevitable that your old self would be in bitter opposition to your new self. The two cannot tolerate each other. But who is this person that you wish to murder?"
"I cannot divulge his name. Suffice it to say, he has been most kind and generous to me, and yet, just now I felt a great urge to render his wife a widow."
"You do not, perchance, speak of Monsieur de Chagny?"
The shock on Erik's face only confirmed Alain's suspicions.
"No need to be alarmed. I promise that I will hold our conversation in the strictest confidence. But I am curious… why him?"
"He has something that I want," replied Erik hoarsely.
"Or perhaps, someone?"
Erik could not bring himself to answer. Instead, he turned the tables on his questioner.
"And why are you no longer a priest? Why did such a learned man become a fisherman?"
"Saint Peter was a fisherman."
"You know very well what I meant."
Alain sighed as he arose and went to his dresser, where one of Adèle's pink ribbons lay on top. She had made a dozen a week ago and had given them to her friends and family.
"Something to remember me by," she had told Erik sweetly.
Alain gently picked up the ribbon as if it were his most cherished possession.
"I was head priest at the Ancienne cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, in Vaison-la-Romaine. The townspeople revered me and my maman and my papa were so proud… Later I was asked to become a missionary and take over a parish in Algiers. At first I was reluctant to go, as it was so far away from everything I had known. But gradually I became convinced of my duty. I bid my dearest ones adieu and I went, not knowing what would await me."
"What happened then?" asked Erik impatiently.
"Simple… I fell in love."
Erik watched as the former priest twisted Adèle's ribbon between his fingers.
"Elle est votre fille, n'est pas? She's your daughter, isn't she?"
"Oui. But it is not what you think."
"I have no need for explanations."
"But you must, since you know this much already, and for Adèle's sake. You see, her maman was the daughter of the church caretaker. At first I did not think of her at all. Her father had begged me to put her in the parish girls' school as a favor, so I did. After three years, she blossomed into a beautiful young lady…"
"I know the feeling," Erik interrupted. "It is like watching a butterfly emerging from its cocoon."
"Exactly. Soon I was asking the Vatican to accept my resignation—I wanted to marry her. Nothing else would do. I asked her father for permission and he denied me at first. Eventually he relented, but Rome would not. I resigned from the parish and we were married by a Protestant minister. We lived in the desert and we were so happy…"
Erik waited during Alain's long pause. Strange, he thought, how I am drawn to his story…
"Unfortunately our happiness was to be short-lived. One night, she told me she was leaving me. I did not understand at the time, and I could not let her go. But she left with her father and her tribe, and I was shattered. I did not know she was pregnant at the time."
"Then Rome came… they tried all methods to persuade me to return, but I refused and I enraged them, so they destroyed my reputation… Made up all sorts of lurid stories about me… But I did not care. I looked everywhere for her… I wandered in the desert, but I never found them. Not until five years ago did I know about Adèle from one of her relatives."
"What happened to her mama? And her grandpapa?"
"They were… murdered during an ambush in the desert. Some say it was a mercenary caravan, but no one knows for sure. Her relatives finally allowed me to take her with me a year ago."
"But why all the secrecy?" asked Erik. "Why not tell her who you are?"
"A little girl needs a mother, and I know I will never marry again…"
A gentle knock at the door abruptly ended their conversation. Honoré opened the door and stepped in.
"Alain? Rene? Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? Can't sleep?"
"Oui, oui," they mumbled in unison. Erik rose and went to the door, but Honoré stopped him.
"Rene, I have something to say to you."
Erik winced as he wondered what he did wrong this time. Honoré had been a very demanding boss to work for. But the old man smiled as he gripped Erik's shoulder.
"Your maman and I are very proud of you."
The younger man felt as if he had had the wind knocked out of him. He could not speak, so overwhelmed was he by feelings of shock, unworthiness, guilt, and now, joy and elation. When he was a boy he had always wanted his maman or papa to say those words to him.
"You have worked extremely hard, and for that, we are grateful. Merci, Rene, merci."
Erik shook his head as tears flooded his eyes.
"I do not deserve such praise. If only you knew…"
But Honoré's smile was like the sun's warmth shining on a frostbitten soul.
"No one is perfect, my son. But we must all strive for the highest good."
"I don't know… if I am capable…"
"You don't expect to do it alone, do you? That is what we are here for," he said as he gathered Alain by his side. "We are the men of the Bonhomme family. We must be strong. We must overcome."
Erik nodded. "You are right," he said. He was sure that the shadow on his soul had retreated for now.
"I nearly forgot," said Honoré, "Madame de Chagny is going to pay you a visit tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" exclaimed Erik. "But I thought she was coming next week!"
"It seems that she has some comments about the last painting you did. I am sure they are nothing to worry about."
Erik nodded. "I hope so," he said, despite his misgivings. Christine had asked him to paint a scene from the old lair, which he had purposely rendered in such a fashion as if he had never seen the place before. He wanted to elude her curiosity, which had only increased every time they met.
I hope she likes it anyway. It is my best painting to date. When he finally lay down in bed and shut his eyes, he dreamt of her wearing that red dress from Don Juan Triumphant.
Erik listened as Adèle played a simple tune on the piano. She had improved, for sure, and he was quite proud of her achievements. He wondered if she would ever know the truth about her dear Uncle Alain.
"Monsieur Rene," he heard an angelic voice call to him.
"Madame de Chagny!" cried Adèle. "Did you hear me play?"
Erik stepped away from the piano as Christine gingerly stepped into the study, her porcelain cheeks flushed. Merde, he thought. Why did she always have to be so early? And so beautiful?
"Je suis désolé," she said, as her coachman brought in Erik's painting, draped by a white sheet. "Did I interrupt?"
He detected an edge to her voice he had rarely heard before.
"Not at all," Erik replied with a bow. He watched as she glided her silky-smooth hand over the piano.
"I did not know that you played, Adèle. Who is your teacher?"
"Rene, of course," replied Adèle proudly, much to her brother's chagrin. Christine's fiery gaze made him inwardly cringe.
"I did not know that you were so talented, monsieur. Perhaps you could play for us?"
He wondered what game she might be playing. Why did she look like she could throw daggers at him at any moment?
"Oui, oui!" said Adèle enthusiastically, even as Erik gave her the evil eye. He cleared his throat loudly.
"I… do not play so well, madame. I only know the basics," he replied.
"Tsk, tsk, monsieur is too modest, I'm sure," said Christine. "Please, it's been so long."
He started at the suddenly suppliant tone of her voice. It was as if she were a little girl again, begging him to sing and play for her, hungry for his touch.
"Since I've heard good piano music."
"Very well, I will try," said Erik reluctantly. He carefully sat down on the piano bench and wondered what to play.
"Play her the duck song!" suggested Adèle. "I'm sure she'll like it."
Erik breathed a little sigh of relief. Christine had never heard his silly duck song, "les Canards dans l'étang" before. He had made it up for Adèle one afternoon after they visited Borély Park. Now he played the tune to its full silliness, and even tolerated Adèle's accompanying little dance. Christine thoroughly enjoyed it and clapped afterwards as if he had played a sonata.
"And now you must excuse us, Adèle. Madame de Chagny and I have some business to discuss."
"No need to hurry, monsieur Rene," replied Christine warmly. "I'm sure Adèle wouldn't mind another song."
Adèle's smile brightened until she saw her brother's grim visage. Taking the hint, she gave Christine her usual little bow and curtsey, and then a hug and a kiss.
"I leave now. But I will see you again soon. Au revoir!" she said before she pranced out of the room.
A brief awkward silence ensued. Christine seemed pensive, while Erik made every effort to avoid her gaze. Finally he spoke, endeavoring to be as professional as possible.
"I understand that you had some comments on my last painting?"
What was she waiting for? Erik was rapidly losing patience.
"I don't know if… if …"
Her lip quivered as she stared at him with her large, round doll eyes. He could hardly tolerate looking back.
"I will do whatever madame asks," he replied tersely.
She surprised him by rushing to the piano.
"Then play for me, I beg of you. Play the Music of the Night," she implored passionately.
Erik went numb as everything swirled around him.
"Music… of the night….? I… I don't understand…" he stuttered.
She pressed closer to him, her eyes piercing his soul. He tried to back away, but to no avail.
"You don't have to pretend with me. I don't know how you came here, but I know who you are…"
He barely managed to sidestep her.
"I am just an artist, madame," he insisted. He cleared his throat and paced the room, his heart threatening to explode out of his chest.
"Just an artist? Just an artist?" she cried, her voice climbing an octave with every syllable. She marched over to the painting and swiftly pulled off the sheet that covered it. Erik blinked when he saw the painting. It was good—he had used the finest technique, but it was all wrong. The scene was too bright, too light, too happy.
"This, monsieur, is not what I asked for!"
"I told madame before that you might be disappointed. I am but a simple country artist. I have no great skill…"
She cut him off. "Don't you dare tell me you have no great skill! Your work is très beau, monsieur!" she declared, as if to convince him.
"Then what more do you want?"
"You misunderstand. I said your work is beautiful, but it is not what I asked for!"
Erik did his best to suppress his anger.
"My apologies, perhaps I misunderstood, madame," he replied icily. "Would you please describe that scene for me again?"
"I will," she replied before she proceeded to describe a scene they were all too familiar with, that first night when he took her down into his lair. When she finished, he could see the intensity of emotion that the memories had invoked within her. The color in her cheeks deepened, her voice grew soft and her chest heaved as she took quick, shallow breaths.
"What a strange scene. I suppose that the curious girl might have been brave enough to tear off that monster's mask and see what he really looked like."
Christine's smile froze at the mention of that word.
"He was not a monster," she whispered, her words barely audible.
"I said, he was not a monster!" she declared with conviction.
Erik was stunned. To hear her say it affected him more than he anticipated. It was all he could do to muster the strength to speak. He cleared his throat and shook his head.
"I am afraid… madame… that such a scene would be too difficult for me to paint. Such a sad character… such darkness… such despair…"
She gave him the same sympathetic gaze he had seen so many times before. In the past it had infuriated him, but now it only made her more angelic, more beautiful in his eyes. It made his spine tingle.
"You're right. I shouldn't have imposed it upon you… Je suis très désolé…" Her eyes started to water. Why should she bring up the past again? If this was her erstwhile angel, it would only bring him pain.
"Let us paint happier things, shall we?" she said with a tight-lipped smile. "Perhaps a scene at the beach?"
He was grateful for her change of subject.
"I will do my best, madame," he said with a stiff bow, trying assiduously to avoid her dewy eyes. "And now, if you don't mind, I have to prepare for my work at the gallery."
"Oui, I should go," she replied. He saw her disappointment and longing, but he could not yield, even if he wanted to—there was too much at stake. He carried his painting to her carriage and helped her in.
"Au revoir, monsieur Bonhomme," she replied softly before she got into her transport.
"Au revoir, madame de Chagny."
He felt her gloved hand one last time before seeing her off.
"Ma chère Christine…" he muttered before he went back inside.
What had he done? He could have taken advantage of her. Why didn't he?
He remembered the angel's warning. You must reacquaint yourself with her, never revealing your past. If she finds out who you are, it cannot be your doing.
"Are you all right, Rene?"
He was glad to hear Sylvie's pleasant voice.
"Maman," he said as he turned around and gave her a gentle squeeze. She was pleased and surprised by it.
"Grandmaman and I want to sew your costume for Madame de Chagny's ball. Adèle thought you might make a good pirate," she said as she held up an eye patch.
Erik took the eye patch and wore it over his right eye.
"Oui, I am the dread pirate… what is my name?"
"I can't wait—it's been a long time since I've gone to a ball."
"A long time? I would not have thought that an artist like you would be interested in balls."
"Oh, but I used to love them when I was a young girl…" chattered Sylvie happily. "My papa and maman would take me…" Her voice dropped off and her eyes clouded at the mention of her parents.
"They were wealthy at one time, then?" asked Erik. Sylvie had added only more fuel to his speculations about her background.
"Oui," she said with an unusual reticence. "Anyway, would a pirate's costume do? Or would you prefer a different character?"
He grinned and gave her his best pose as a swashbuckling buccaneer.
"I shall be a pirate, of course. No one has more fun than pirates."
"Good. Oh, this is going to be such a wonderful event!" said Sylvie as Grandmaman rushed into the house.
"Rene! Good news!" she declared as she hurried towards him. He grimaced when she pinched his cheeks.
"You are lucky! I found at least five young women who would make you a good wife."
"Five wives?" replied Erik with a chuckle. "Don't you think that's a bit much?"
The slap to his shoulder was a little harder than he had anticipated.
"Grandmaman!" he cried in surprise.
"C'est bien fait pour toi! That's what you get for jesting with Grandmaman. Now, time to get serious about your future, Rene. I want to hold your infants in my arms next year!"
Infants? Erik glanced at Sylvie, who seemed to approve. He looked back at Grandmaman and saw the excitement in her eyes, and could not refuse.
Maybe she is right…
"Fine. I'll meet them next week."
Next week? What am I saying? No one could possibly match my angel…
Grandmaman clasped his hands excitedly. "Oh, Rene!" she said as she began to cry tears of joy. "I will contact them at once!" she proclaimed after dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.
It's probably for the best. If I can just make it through that upcoming ball... His head started to hurt as he thought of it all.
Angel, what am I doing? I had always wanted a wife, but she had to be Christine… Had to be…
"Trust in the Lord, and lean not on your own understanding," he heard in reply.
Erik glanced sideways and saw Alain. How did he know? The fisherman turned and went out of the house towards the harbor. Through the window Erik could see bits of the blue ocean looming in the distance, calling to him.
"Guide me, Lord, as I sail into uncharted territory," he prayed. "Keep me safe and help me to be brave."