Chapter 8

"Un rare trésor"

Her eyes were closed from crying; she sensed him approach the little stone bench and stand directly in front of her. Her chin was on her chest, so she opened her teary, swollen eyes to find herself looking at two polished, black shoes, protruding from what appeared to be the bottom of a very long, elegant, black cape.

Slowly she raised her head, taking in his entire form a little bit at a time all the way up past his slightly bowed head, until she met his now-familiar eyes of sea green. They were awash with emotion as he looked down upon her, and she was not sure if they reflected pity, remorse, sorrow, love, or some strange mixture of all of them.

"I was crying because I thought you were not coming. I was afraid I'd never see you again," she said, breaking the stillness in the quiet, little room.

"I was afraid that you would not want to," he told her dolefully, bending his head downward until he looked at the floor.

She stared up at him, studying the features that had been hidden to her the entire evening. She recognized the chin and lips and, of course, his eyes, but everything else appeared new and changed her physical perception of him slightly. What stood out the most was the stark, white half-mask that covered the right side of his face ending just above his lips. It contrasted boldly against his dark hair and cloak in the dimly illuminated room.

She shifted over and asked, "Won't you please sit with me?"

He looked at her from under his eyelashes and gracefully seated himself beside her, though he made certain that no part of him or his cloak touched her. He looked down at the floor again.

She could study him in profile, his left side nearest her. She decided that she had never seen a more handsome or noble-looking man; the strong, well-defined chin with its subtle cleft; the classic line of his aquiline nose; his strong cheekbone—he was reminiscent of an ancient marble bust that she had once admired in the Louvre. If this man were the Phantom of the Opera, Christine thought, the stories of his frightening appearance had been exaggerated to the point of ludicrousness. The white mask perplexed her though, and since she had gone there for answers, she could not help but ask about it. She wanted to know as much as he was willing to tell her. She longed to hear his explanation…she hoped to understand…she needed to forgive.

"Erik, may I ask you some questions to which you seem only to have the answers?" she asked quietly.

He did not look at her but replied, "Christine, I will answer anything that you ask, if I am able."

She began, "Where do you live?"

"Below the opera house, in the fifth cellar, across the underground lake," he stated concisely, looking at the opposite wall.

"How long have you lived there?"

He thought for a moment, as if calculating. "Twenty-five years, with the exception of the time I spent abroad."

"How old are you?"

"Thirty-five or so…I think."

"You think? You do not know?" Astonishment rang through her voice.

"No," he answered as if it were the most common thing in the world not to know one's own age.

She considered his responses for a moment. "That means you were about ten when you came to live here. What were the circumstances?"

He had told himself as he walked up from the cellars that he would not lie to her any longer. As he heard her ask this question, he bit back hard on the urge to tell a falsehood or, at the very least, gloss over the brutal truth. No, a lie gained nothing; he was a man condemned, and as such, he no longer had anything to lose. Therefore, he answered, "I needed a place to hide."

"Hide from whom?" she inquired innocently.

"The gendarmes…I killed a man."

Those four words pounded squarely into Christine's chest, her stomach flipped, and she could feel the blood rush from her head. For an instant, she thought she might faint. She sat there benumbed. Had she looked down, she would have noticed that Erik's knuckles and fingers had suddenly become more pronounced under the tightly fisted fabric of his cloak.

Still, he did not look at her.

It took her several long, silent minutes to process what he had said. She needed to give herself enough time to steady her nerves and formulate her next questions. She convinced herself before going to the chapel that no matter what he told her, she would not judge him too harshly. Of course, she never imagined he would confess something of that magnitude in his litany of sins.

She gulped. "You were only ten-years old. Why?"

Erik was deliberate in his explanation; he wanted it all to be over as quickly as possible. "He beat me…abused me in every other way imaginable…caged me…took away what little dignity I had. And he had the gall to call me an animal. If I could have escaped from him and the hell that he inflicted upon me any other way, I would have done so…he gave me no choice."

Christine's heart was racing. "So, you ran away after you…after you…after you…"

"…murdered him," he finished for her pointedly.

"Yes," she replied.

He said nothing more but continued to stare out across the room.

"Why did you come to the opera house?" She went on with her questioning.

"I was brought here," he responded.

"By whom?" she queried.

"By your foster mother."

"Madame Giry?" she asked incredulously. "Madame Giry brought you here?"

"Yes, though she was not 'Madame Giry' at the time. She wasn't much older than I was."

"I don't understand."

He tensed. "She came to see the oddities…the freak show."

Christine's brow crinkled, understanding slowly beginning to dawn.

He continued, "She was the first person who ever looked at me in that cage and had not either screamed in horror and turned away or laughed and jeered. Even if I had not escaped that night, I would have always remembered, until my dying day, the little girl with the white ribbon in her hair and the sadness etched upon her face. Maybe it was because of what I saw in her eyes as she looked at me…I do not know…but I decided then that I would make my escape or die trying. It was her compassion, which bound our lives together that night; she came back to the tent afterwards to see if she could do anything for me. Little did she know she would witness a murder…that her fate would be inextricably linked to mine from that point on." He stopped for a moment, fully immersed in his recollection. "After I strangled my keeper through the bars, she unlocked the cage. I do not remember much immediately after—only the feel of her hand, gripping mine for dear life, as we ran through the streets of Paris." His chest fell with the tremendous breath that he had been holding. "She brought me here."

"What of your family?" Christine was shocked, yet the questions kept coming to her mind.

"The only family of which I was ever aware was my mother." He recalled, "My dear mother couldn't stand the sight of me, and so I did us both a favor and ran away. The Gypsies found me, and I spent the next year or so traveling around Europe as an exhibit in a sideshow tent."

Christine's eyes were downcast. She shook her head slowly. "How could anyone do that? You were just a little boy."

"The world is full of cruelty, Christine. It is an especially harsh place for those who are perceived as being different." He clenched his jaw, and still he did not look at her.

She hesitated for a moment. "Your face…is that why…under the mask." She reached up and turned his face slightly towards her with her hand beneath his chin.

The sensation of her bare fingers on his skin robbed him of his breath. He closed his eyes for a moment to savor the feeling, before looking down on her with shame and regret.

"Are you asking about this?" He turned his head all the way to the side, tilting it down to indicate the mask. However, he did not look away this time. He needed to see her reaction, as painful and damning as it might be.

She nodded and glanced from his eyes back to the mask.

"What is it the sceneshifters say? I have no face…yellow parchment for my skin. Well…they are half right."

"Would you let me look?" she asked ruefully.

"No."

"You don't trust me…even now?"

"It is not a matter of trust, Christine. I do not want you to see. You are too lovely and good to have to look upon something so grotesque." His voice shuddered as he spoke to her, "And despite my affliction, I am a very vain man."

She looked up into his face. "Is that why you left the ball early? You couldn't take your mask off?"

"Yes."

"Madame said you went to the ball because of me…to watch over me."

"Yes."

"It wasn't the only reason. Was it, Erik?"

"No." He looked down at her hands resting comfortably in her lap, and he longed for one of them to reach up and touch his chin once more and to feel the softness of her fingertips. "It was my chance to be normal for one evening. To walk amongst a crowd of people and have no one look askance. It was my chance, Christine, to come to you as a man—neither an angel nor a ghost…just Erik."

She said nothing, sitting silently, absorbing all she had just been told.

"Please, in time, try to forgive me, Christine. I did not mean to hurt you. That I have caused you pain because of my selfish actions is unforgivable. I had no right to lead you to believe I was anything other than what I am." He was trying to remain composed, but he knew if he stayed much longer, he could not control his emotions. He did not want her to see him blubbering like a fool, and so he stood, ready to leave once he said all he needed to say. "I deserve an eternity in hell for causing you to suffer, for lying to you and deceiving you. Of all the myriad of sins of which I am guilty, these for hurting you are the ones for which I deserve the harshest penalty." He turned back towards the open panel and began to walk away.

"Angel?" her voice echoed against the stone walls.

He froze. Not able to step forward, he could not look back.

"Why? Why me?" she called out to him.

He kept his back to her, afraid to move. "What…?" he whispered tremulously.

"Why did you choose me?" Paths of tears ran like streams along her cheeks, into and over her mouth, and down onto her neck. "What did you see in me…that every night for the past eight years you gave me your knowledge…your passion for music…when you could have better spent your time with more important things?" She felt as if she were hanging on to him by the thinnest of silk strands; she was afraid to pull too hard, yet she could not let go.

"Oh, Christine…," he said with solemn supplication, "there was never anything more important to me than the lessons that we shared in this room."

She cast her hands into the air. "I am so confused…I cannot grasp any of this? With all that I now know, the reasons seem no clearer." Still crying, she attempted to take in air. "I do not see the spiteful opera ghost before me who I have heard tell of, but, apparently, I have been his gullible victim for years now." Erik noticeably flinched and looked back to her. "And yet, I do not feel tricked or mistreated. I feel…cared for and loved," she finished calmly.

He simply stood there staring at her, suddenly appearing as confused as she was.

"Please…tell me why," she pleaded softly.

"I do not think that I can give you an adequate explanation, Christine," he answered sincerely.

"Please, try." She straightened her shoulders, as if bracing herself against whatever he might say.

He reflected for a moment, and when he spoke, the words came out unfeigned from his heart. "Even before I knew the glories of your voice, I was drawn to you. It would have not mattered whether you could sing or not. Sitting here on this hard, cold floor, you were so tiny…so helpless. What could I do?" He looked at her as if the answer were the most obvious in the world. "What kind of monster would I truly have been had I simply walked away? I had no choice…you gave me no choice!"

His eyes were wide, begging and pleading with her to understand. He continued, turning slightly to avert his gaze from her, "I was once scared and lonely, huddled in this very same room…I knew…I understood…I heard." He paused for a moment and went on, "And you, Christine…you…listened…"

"Oh, Angel," she sobbed.

With tears visible on his cheek, he turned back to her sharply with fury in his eyes. "I am no angel, Christine," he yelled harshly.

She did not flinch nor did she cower. "You will…always…be my…angel," she uttered with mild defiance. How she managed to push the words out in the midst of so many tears, Erik could not fathom. Her face was so wet with them that he thought she might drown.

Her utter despair caused Erik's heart to constrict until he thought he might fall over; it felt like a knife had been driven through his chest. He desperately wanted to go to her, but his heavy guilt held him rooted to the floor.

"You are the angel, Christine…I am not fit to stand in your presence." He turned again towards the open panel, his mind telling him to flee.

"Please…don't leave me," she begged in despair, believing that if he walked away from her then, she would lose him forever. He stopped and stood stiffly, listening. "You may not think yourself an angel. No, you have neither wings nor a halo, but you have served in the function of my angel all these years. Whether God or my father or any other spirit of heaven sent you directly to me, you came to me when I needed you, and you have never failed me since…please, don't leave now."

Her eloquent plea left him speechless. He looked back towards her, but he could only stare in wonder as she went on, "To me, you are not only my devoted teacher…you are my friend. All the deceptions and the lies that have been told are insignificant to the good you've brought to my life…" She stopped to sniffle and catch her breath. She stood to face him. She looked like she might collapse. "Oh, Erik…please, don't go…I could not bear it," she finished in a whisper.

His mind and his logic be damned. In one huge stride, he reached her, wrapping her in his arms and pulling her to his chest. Christine grasped onto him, her arms encircling his waist, gripping him fiercely.

"Christine, Christine, Christine…," he murmured into her hair, over and over.

After several minutes, once her breathing was steady, she pulled back to look up into his face. "Erik, why did you wait so long? All those years, did you not know how I yearned to see my angel…to hold him? It was all I ever wanted."

"Christine…I convinced myself you would reject me once you knew the truth…once you saw the mask."

"Oh, Erik! I could never reject you. The mask does not matter."

"The mask hides only the outward imperfections, Christine. In many ways…I am as distorted inside…more so." He glanced away, not wanting to meet her eyes. "I can no longer hide under the guise of an angel when, in reality, I am the farthest thing from one." He paused, letting out a heavy sigh. "I am not a good man, Christine…my soul is corrupted. That is why I hid myself from you. I am unworthy…I will taint you if I stay too close."

"Erik, I know only how you have been with me. In spite of how you see yourself, I have seen the good in you…the kindness…the compassion…the love. Your heart is not as black as you would have yourself believe…I know it. A man like the one who you describe would not have concerned himself with the sorrows of a sad, lonely little girl. He would have scoffed and walked away. He certainly would not have comforted and nurtured her all these years."

"Christine, you give me far too much credit." He turned his head away.

She reached up and turned it back to her.

"No, Erik, I give you all the credit you deserve. You said yourself…you heard."

They stood staring at one another. She silently pardoned him for his endless sins with the love in her eyes; and he marveled at the miracle who was Christine Daaé.

In no way did Erik truly believe that he deserved this absolution. However, stranger things were known to happen between heaven and hell and, with this angel so soft, warm, and real within his grasp, it was not the time to question it.

He pulled her to him again, placing his hand behind her head, cradling it to his chest. She had worked her arms under his coat, still gripping his waist. As they stood, Christine's curious hands began to roam up his back and down again. The muscles, obvious beneath his vest and shirt, signaled the raw physical power within him. She had not embraced a man, since her father when she was just a little girl. Since being a young woman, besides the male dancers of the ballet corps, she had never really touched one. She was amazed at the solidness and took a quick survey around his front and up his chest, finally winding her hands behind his rather long neck.

"So, you will continue as my teacher? Nothing has changed?" she asked as he removed a handkerchief and began wiping her face and nose.

"Everything has changed, Christine…but, yes, I will continue as your teacher." He paused, his eyebrow raising slightly as a favorable thought occurred to him. "Though now, it will be much easier for me to give you proper lessons. We will no longer be limited to this room with a violin as your only accompaniment. I can take you to my home. There we will have access to a piano and the pipe organ. It will be…"

"You have an organ in your home?" she cut him off.

"Yes, I assembled it myself," he answered, somewhat proudly.

"Oh, Erik, take me to your home…tonight. I want to see it," she begged.

He smiled down at her and her enthusiasm. "Not tonight, my dear. It is very late…but soon."

"Oh, Erik, tonight…please," she added with a coy smile followed by a very lovely pout.

Weary of all the barriers between them, he quickly tugged off his gloves and let them fall to the floor. Then free to feel her with his hands, he moved them up to either of side of her head and began to play with the curls around her face and shoulders. He was tempted by her idea, but he sighed and said, "No, Christine, not tonight. It has been a most trying day, to say the least. You need your rest, and I…need to clean."

"Clean?" she asked bemusedly.

"Yes, my dear, the place is a mess. If you were to see it as it sits right now, you would undoubtedly go running in terror. It is, without question, the abode of a hopeless bachelor." He smiled.

"Not so very hopeless, I think," she murmured softly to herself.

"What, my dear, I could not hear?" he inquired.

"All right, but soon…you promise?" she spoke more loudly.

"Yes, Christine…soon, I promise." He continued to stroke her hair, enjoying the feel of it through his fingers.

She looked up at him, something obviously crossing her mind. Her mouth curled up into a mischievous smile. "You know, Erik…I never did get my New Year's kiss."

He looked mildly perplexed for a moment until a grin appeared, and a wicked twinkle shone in his eyes. "Why, Christine! After all your diligent attempts to garner a kiss this evening, at the stroke of midnight as tradition dictates, you came up empty?"

She nodded her head.

"Why, it is not only a shame but a grievous crime that your lovely lips could be ignored at such a time." He had moved his hands to either side of her face, caressing her cheeks lovingly with his thumbs.

She looked up at him expectantly.

"Though, I must say it will be a chore for me, I feel, as a gentleman, it is my duty to correct such a grave oversight and offer myself for this significant task."

He dipped his head slowly. Christine raised herself up on her toes to meet him. Their lips came together, softly at first, the pressure increasing gradually. They pulled apart and looked into one another's eyes. Erik's heart was pounding, and all he could feel was the sensation of her lips on his just seconds before.

Christine tugged lightly at the back of his neck to indicate that she wanted his mouth once more, and he obliged willingly. Again, they met softly at first, until a deeper urge took over, and their mouths began a fervent dance against one another. Momentarily lost in the mounting passion, Erik was astonished by the sudden intrusion of a tiny, slick tongue past his slightly parted lips.

He pulled back and looked at her from under heavy lids. "Christine," his voice softly rumbled, "however did you know to attempt that little trick?" he asked roguishly.

"I told you, Erik, I grew up in an opera house." She smiled up at him demurely. She was now hanging from his neck more than standing under her own power.

He straightened up slightly, cocking his eyebrow. "You have learned far more than the arts during your stay here." He pretended to scold her, "You are a very naughty girl."

She ignored his comment and settled comfortably back into his hold. They relaxed against one another's embrace, finally at peace after an emotional storm that, at times, seemed as if it would wash away their past, present, and future all at once.

She suddenly squeezed him tighter, and he heard a tiny, muffled giggle at his chest. She lifted her head up and declared, "I cannot believe that my dreams have come true…I am standing here in my angel's arms." She let out a satisfied sigh.

He gazed down at her nestled there. "What of Monsieur Dambray? Have you forgotten him so easily?" He seemed affronted.

She looked up, appearing astonished. Her mouth was open in disbelief.

"You silly man…you're jealous of yourself?" Christine tittered. She knew he was teasing her.

"Do I have reason to be, my love?" He continued the jest.

"No, my dearest, you are the only man for me." She patted and rubbed his chest tenderly then grasped the lapels of his vest. "You cannot know my absolute joy at discovering that the charming," she reached up to place a delicate peck on his lips, "elegant," she placed another, "man," and another, "with whom I spent my evening and my dearest angel were the same person.

"Though, deep down, I think I must have known from the moment I saw you," she reflected seriously. "I know my heart knew, if not my head." Christine gazed lovingly at him.

She set her head back down against his chest, and he laid his chin affectionately atop her head. There they stood, delighting in the feel of the other, when they heard a gentle cough in the direction of the hallway entrance. They both glanced that way, but neither of them made the slightest effort to break apart.

Madame Giry stood appraising the scene before her, a slight sparkle appearing faintly in her tired eyes.

"Christine, though we have no rehearsals tomorrow, it has been a long night and is very late. You should think about going to bed, dear."

"Please, Madame, just a little while longer." Christine looked to her hopefully.

"All right," she said with a small, satisfied smile, "I will leave you then."

"I'm in good hands," Christine assured her, smiling up at Erik.

"I know," she affirmed as she turned to leave.

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Madame Giry made her way back to her rooms through the silent and darkened halls of the opera house and reflected on the night and its gratifying end. As she secretly hoped they would, her two lost and lonely little lambs, as she thought of them, had finally found one another. It was a long, roundabout, and, oftentimes, exasperating route they had traveled to arrive in each other's arms. However, for the first time in what seemed like forever, all was right.

Madame sighed contentedly as she reached her door, though she knew better than anyone the struggles that lay ahead of them. Erik had many of his own personal dragons to slay before he could become the prince of whom Christine dreamed. For her part, Christine would have to call upon all the patience and tenacity that her tender, young heart could elicit to help Erik become the man he longed to be and whom she deserved.

She had known the darker aspects of the world from an early age, forcing her to grow up more quickly than she would have liked. Her experiences had transformed her into a reluctant pessimist—she was never truly bitter, though idealistic, romantic notions and the people who harbored them had always seemed somewhat silly to her. Nevertheless, after witnessing what transpired that evening, Madame Giry could only smile and believe, given time and a little love, fairytales, indeed, could come true.

LE FIN

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Another Moral

From Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper

By Charles Perrault

Godmothers are useful things
Even when without the wings.
Wisdom may be yours and wit,
Courage, industry, and grit,
What's the use of these at all,
If you lack a friend at call?

I would like to thank all of you who read my little story. I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thank you.

Christine (Busanda)