Disclaimer: I do not own Phantom of the Opera
Artenay, France, 1846
The shadows of the two boys were visible across the uneven ground as they walked back to the cottage where the older boy lived. The younger boy, Erik Dessain, swung his arms carelessly in the warm summer night, thinking that for the most part, nothing was more pretty than the purple sky overhead. They had been down near the lake since dusk, and would have stayed longer if Derrik's little sister hadn't come from the darkness, demanding that they return so Derrik could read a story to her before she went to bed.
She was being carried quite ungracefully on her brother's back, her blond head pressed between his shoulder blades in contentment.
"What are you going to read me, Derrik?" she asked wistfully. "The story of the evil witch?"
"No Suzie," Derrik said dryly. "You'll be awake half the night."
Susanna Allard lifted her head and glared at the back of her brother's head for a moment. Then she turned to Erik, "You would read me a scary story, wouldn't you, Erik?"
"I would," he promised solemnly. "I'd read you one so scary, you wouldn't sleep for a week."
"Oh," she whispered. "I want you to read me a story then."
Erik smiled, but gave her a gentle let-down.
"You know my mother wants me home before dark. I've already made her anxious enough. I need to return."
She grumbled, and complained, but did not ask again. One thing that had kept her in the boys' favor for as long as she had been, was that she didn't whine like other children. And with Derrik at the advanced age of twelve, and Erik at eleven, they both considered themselves very kind indeed to let an eight year old girl tag along behind them.
Not that she could all the time, with the tree climbing, and swimming in the lake, and riding their horses around the countryside north of Orleans, just sixty miles from Paris. But whenever they stayed close to town, and did their lessons together after the schoolmaster, Monsieur Allard, released them for the day, they would let her linger around and sometimes tag along, provided she didn't tattle on them for getting into mischief.
The cottage eventually came into view, but Erik veered off to the right, going to his own home, where his mother was undoubtedly frantic.
"I'll see you at school in the morning," he called over his shoulder, and set off toward the house where he and his mother lived alone at the very end of the road.
When he entered the modest two story home, his mother descended on him at once.
"Erik," she said worriedly, "I told you to be home before dark."
She wrapped her arms around him, smoothing his hair back from his youthful face, then pushed him into the dining room.
"Now eat," she said firmly. "You have to go to school tomorrow, and you have piano lessons afterwards. You know that Monsieur Talbot is only interested in serious students."
"But Maman," he sighed in exasperation. "Monsieur Talbot said he didn't need to teach me anymore. He says I've surpassed the need for instruction."
"Really, Erik," she frowned, her dark brown eyes showing her irritation, "you should be grateful he teaches you anything at all. None of the other children in this village have ever been taught by Monsieur Talbot. Or any children in this world, for that matter. Now eat!"
Scowling at his plate for a moment, he dug in, eager to finish the dinner portion, so he could see what she had made for dessert. He hoped that Monsieur Talbot would be home tomorrow for his lesson. Sometimes when Erik rode his horse all the way to the village, he would be from home. No note, no explanation to describe why he had missed their appointed afternoon meetings. He was merely absent minded and tended to wander off into the woods near his house to see the wonder of nature. His home was full of art and music, and endless sketches of the beauty of God's paintbrush.
Derrik often teased him for taking piano lessons. He was the schoolmaster's son, and preferred the more masculine subject of mathematics. Erik liked the architecture lessons Monsieur Allard gave them, because it seemed to be something he genuinely enjoyed. Derrik said that his father used to be an architect, and had aspired to run his own business, but that an accident at a building site had stolen the use of his left hand. He had given up his dream reluctantly after Susanna was born, and decided on the less extravagant job of schoolmaster.
Madame Allard had not wanted to move to the country, and would have preferred living in Orleans, at the very least, if not Paris, but Monsieur Allard had grown up in the nearby village of Artenay.
"Are you finished, Erik?" Madame Dessain asked, taking his plate without waiting for an answer. She set three cookies in front of him, smiling as he stared at them a moment before nearly inhaling two of them.
"Slow down, son," she scolded gently. "That's all you get for tonight."
"That's all," she said firmly, raising her brow.
Erik contented himself with the final cookie, chewing it slowly and painstakingly thoroughly to prolong the taste. And the inevitable. His bath. Then bed.
When his mother forced him up from his chair to help her carry water to the copper tub she sat in the kitchen floor, he tried to persuade her to let him go without.
"I swam tonight, Maman. That's surely good enough," he protested, knowing it was no use.
"Get in," she said firmly, handing him a bar of white soap. "Wash everything," she ordered, "including your toes."
"Yes, Maman," he sighed, stripping down and stepping into the heated water.
Madame Francine Dessain smiled as she left her son in the kitchen, and nearly laughed as she heard him immediately begin splashing water everywhere. She knew he did it to annoy her, but he knew that he would have to clean it up, so he never made too much of a mess. She sighed in contentment as she settled back down near the window to begin working on the quilt she had started earlier in the day.
Erik had lessons tomorrow, as he did three times a week with Monsieur Talbot. She smiled, thinking of the young, attractive piano teacher. He really wasn't a piano teacher at all. Or hadn't set out to be. He was really Colin Talbot, a composer from London, but he had settled here a couple of years ago when he had first heard Erik tinkering at the piano at church.
He had declared the boy a musical genius, and for the last two summers he returned to France to teach Erik everything he knew about music. From theory to composition, Erik absorbed every word with the eagerness of a young Mozart.
And he had never charged them anything, although the people in town firmly believed that Madame Dessain paid Monsieur Talbot a great sum to stay and teach her son to play music. It was a secret known by only three living people in the world. Perhaps four, if Monsieur Allard had ever told his wife. But Guinevere had never said anything about the strange relationship she had with Monsieur Talbot, so she assumed that the secret would remain forever.
Francine lived alone with her son...but she was married.
Monsieur Talbot was Erik's father...but not her husband.
And with her husband safely locked up in a tropical prison, somewhere near America, Francine often wondered why she didn't simply tell Erik the truth. The townspeople could go to the devil. She loved Colin. She always had, although his unfaltering propriety and constant forgetfulness aggravated her to no end.
After the brief affair she had with him...that had started twelve years ago, and had ended, ironically the day she had told him of her pregnancy...Colin had left for England, sending money twice a year for Erik, and for whatever she wanted to buy for herself. She had written to him three years ago, begging that he come meet Erik, on the premise of renewing his acquaintance with Monsieur Allard. He had written back, sternly refusing, and telling her quite cruelly he had taken a wife.
Francine's heart had been broken, but she had written again, offering the only thing she could...the promise of his son's musical talent.
Colin had arrived not six months later, leaving his new wife in England on the assurance that he would return soon. He had, in fact, stayed for three months of the summer, indulging in Erik's whims...teaching him things that no other child in the world had ever, or would ever learn from him. If he had never heard him playing in the church, he would not have believed with his own ears what potential the boy had.
He avoided Francine at all costs...and only spoke of music with the son he could not acknowledge. If anyone thought it odd that the two resembled ever so slightly, they did not comment. If anyone thought it strange that her husband, who was...or had been a soldier, never returned home on leave, they did not say anything. Certainly in the last year Erik had stopped his incessant questions about the man he perceived to be his father.
She was only grateful that her husband was not Erik's father. A wicked thing to say...considering he had been born in sin, and was a bastard...illegitimate...unacknowledged by his real father. And to the man he thought of as his real father, Adam Dessain, he was unknown entirely.
Erik thought of him as some hero, defending France with his very life, conquering worlds in the name of his country, of his emperor. Erik thought the three letters he had written his father reached him in some distant jungle, or a vast and empty desert. In fact, they had only reached Colin last year, when he had first appeared in Erik's life, on the ruse of being a music teacher.
Adam Dessain was no hero. He had been a soldier, yes, a high ranking officer, in fact. But he had committed treason against his country, by selling secrets to the Germans. So for the last fifteen years he had been safely locked away inside a military prison on an island in the Caribbean. Why they didn't just kill him was beyond her comprehension.
A terrible thing, yes, to wish for the death of your husband. How many nights had she cried, hoping to become a widow...especially when Colin had come along? Not once in fifteen years had she been beaten.
With him in prison, she had settled into what she hoped was a peaceful, uneventful life. Then Colin had visited his friend and former university friend, Henri Allard. And Francine had been enamored with the dark, brooding Englishman. So enamored, that she had pursued him recklessly...and not told him once about her forced marriage to Adam Dessain. Not until it was too late.
Colin had been furious with her...he never wanted to compromise any woman...and to find out she was already married, it had devastated him. He had left without looking back...until she had written to him, begging him to meet his son. Erik wanted to know about his father, but she couldn't tolerate telling him anything about Adam Dessain. It was bad enough that they both had to use his name. She could not spout nonsense about a man she hated, even if Erik would never meet him. Even if he was locked away in prison for the rest of his life, and Erik continued to believe he was abroad, defending France...when France was not currently involved in any war.
As of yet, those problems had not arisen. As of yet.
Each day brought a new challenge, and already he had begun learning geography, his hands moving over maps in fascination, learning where Adam's regiment was supposedly stationed. It would break his heart to know the truth...that he was illegitimate...that the man he thought of his father was an evil, cruel man.
That the man who was his father probably wasn't capable of love, because he was so deeply involved with music, he was probably incapable of such an emotion. An affair between a hot blooded Frenchwoman, and a mild mannered Englishman had not turned out quite the way she had expected. Colin was everything she wanted, handsome, intelligent, gentle. Irritatingly distracted.
But those attributes did not make up for what she really wanted, and had wanted shamelessly for the last eleven years.
A man in her bed...who was not her husband...and, she was beginning to think...did not even have to be Colin Talbot.