DISCLAIMER: I am not Gaston Leroux and never will be.
It has been a fortnight, or perhaps a few days more, since we left that dreadful place. For several days after we took shelter in my sister's home, I felt like a ghost of myself. I left something in the catacombs of his domain, something I cannot name, or define, or imagine; not really, at least. I was once so certain of everything, but that world changed me; her world, and her love, and her anguish. And his eyes, yellow, no, golden, with emerald specks and hatred for me scintillating in his orbs. Yet, when he looked at her, the horrible pools were one immense sorrow, and melancholy, and hope, and inspiration. Now, I notice, hers look the same and this terrifies me.
Understanding the shock she had been through, the shock we both had undergone, I suggested we postpone the day of our marriage, but with frantic gestures, she begged me not to do so. She gripped my elbows, she buried her golden curls into my shoulder and she wept. I understood her tears, even if with greatest reluctance. I knew that the one she left behind was not only the object of her dread, but was also her past inspiration and she would even call him her lost, fallen, wretched friend on the night she allowed her tears to mingle with his, on the night her lips bestowed the gentlest caress on his unearthly, ugly brow. I knew – still know – that what she left behind was complicated. He freed her and she was happy to be with me, I know, but she was still haunted. Then, I did not know why.
I loved her so much, just as I love her now. Her desire to be with me, as my wife, as soon as was possible, touched me more than anything else could. I suggested that I could procure a special licence that would allow us to marry the very next day. Her eyes glowed with happiness as I spoke the words. She embraced me fiercely, kissed my lips hurriedly and let out a squeal of sheer delight. She took my hands into hers and we danced the waltz around the morning salon of my sister, my beloved's angelic voice humming a melody to keep our feet, and hearts, entertained. When we were exhausted from the waltz, she embraced me again and prompted me to go and get us the licence I promised to procure for us. Needless to say, I obliged her.
When I returned, the special licence in my hands, twilight descending upon the house, she was changed. She was sitting in the salon, by the warm fire, her ivory fingers intertwined and trembling visibly. She was still, a twilight vision in yellow, her beautiful golden locks loose, but her eyes were darting to and fro and she was murmuring something to herself, like a chant. I was about to call her name worridely when, suddenly, she jumped to her feet and ran to my side, embracing me fiercely.
''Oh, my love, oh,'' she sobbed, ''I cannot marry you tomorrow. Not yet, not yet!''
My heart was ready to subdue itself to a lover's agony, but I believed I could speak to her, solve her troubles. I could feel how troubled she was. ''Why not?'' I asked.
Instead of answering me with words, she looked at me with her expressive blue eyes and lifted her left hand to the level of my eyes. Bedazzled, I noticed a gold ring on her fourth finger, sparkling viciously, as if sneering at me. I was left speechless and I felt betrayed. My heart began to crumble.
''You married him…'' I breathed, accusing her.
She shook her head frantically, her curls whirling around her face. ''No, no,'' she spoke fast, nervously, with a high-pitched voice, ''but I am as good as married to him.''
I sighed miserably. ''I do not understand…''
She embraced me again, fervently. She was shivering in my arms, frightened. ''I made a promise. I am his…under his wings…until he…and then, we can marry. I promise...It was a solemn promise, it came from my heart. My farewell gift…''
''What did you promise?'' I pleaded with her, but she would not answer. I repeated the question, but she simply covered her ears with her palms and shut her eyes tightly, only allowing the tears to flow from under the lids.
''You must not ask me questions,'' she said in a wretched manner and left me alone in the room, alone to my thoughts and my doubts about her, about her love for me.
That night, I spent in the guest room of my sister's home, feeling the need to stay under the same roof with my poor love to protect her from his far-reaching grasp. I began to wonder if that night was the last night I saw him. I began to feel his presence again, just as I was sure she felt it. It was a formidable experience and I could not sleep at all that night. I fell asleep in the morning, for an hour, or two. I wish I had not fallen asleep. My mind was haunted by a dream, the image of him and her weeping together, her lips touching his marred flesh, his unearthly wailing piercing my skin. I was on the other side of the lake, unable to reach her, unable to save her.
As I came down to eat breakfast, she was not there.
''Where is the newspaper?'' I asked my sister, a very lame start of a conversation, when I ought to have asked, ''Where is she?''
''She took it as soon as it came, as she always does,'' my sister replied calmly, not caring to look me in the eyes. My sister was never a warm person, and it would be too much to expect her to be a caring woman. Wickedly, I wondered if she mourned the tragic death of our brother, as my other sister did, or I. Did she even care for her husband?
''What do you mean?'' I asked, trying to keep the conversation going, instead of dying out like a weak flame.
My sister sighed. ''She takes the newspaper to her room every morning. She's quite fidgety about it.'' It was criticism. As always. ''Usually, she returns it soon after. I am quite annoyed now as today, she has not come down with it yet. You might want to make her eat more. She looked so pale and unhealthy. Not very attractive.''
Something stirred inside me. I remembered my conversation with her last night, her words about being as good as married to him, and today, her absence at the breakfast table. For the first time in my life, I was blessed to hear the voice of the sixth sense and I jumped from the table, my escape followed by my sister's angry words. I did not care. I did not care in the least. I reached my beloved's room, knocked once, twice, three times, but no reply came. That prompted me to open the door, only to find her room empty. I let out a worried sigh, calling her name, as if my voice were able to summon her to my side, but she did not materialize before my eyes. However, I saw the newspaper on the bed, its edges crumpled, and on top of it was a sheet of paper. I snatched it from the top of the newspaper quickly and read, Do not worry for me. I shall come back tomorrow.
Breathing heavily, I reached for the newspaper. I knew that the answer to her disappearance, to her strange, forlorn behaviour, was to be found in the newspaper. I read every title, every article, looked at every picture. There was nothing I could find. I started to read again. When I came to the last page, reserved for obituaries, I finally noticed it was stained with tears, her tears. There it was, at the bottom of the page, printed in small letters, three words, like an unimportant, forgotten line.
Erik is dead.
I felt numb, almost not surprised. Suddenly, a horizon opened before my eyes and I understood everything. I closed my eyes calmly, trying to pierce the dark shadows of that night when he almost killed me. After I was released from his intricately designed torture chamber, I remained unconscious until the Persian brought me to the doorstep of my home, she in tow, holding my hand worriedly. I was partly aware of myself, but I was not strong enough to open my eyes and show them, the foreigner and her, that I was coming to. In her room, with my eyes closed, I remembered their words.
''Will you keep the promise, mademoiselle?'' he spoke, his French coloured with the accent of his mother tongue.
''You know that I will. He deserves what I promised.'' She sounded incredibly calm, considering the situation.
''Then, read the newspaper he chose, every day. On the day you read that line, meet me at the opera house. We shall give him a proper burial.''
''Are you certain he will…die?''
A moment of silence. I suspected he must have nodded, for she said, ''I almost wish he was not dying…and because of me...''
Then, my will left me and I lost myself in the darkness of unconsciousness again.
Now, I opened my eyes. I was not ignorant anymore. I knew and I believe I even understood. I expected to feel angry that she put me aside, that she did not confide in me, but I was not angry. As I have said, I was a changed man. Not much, but changed enough. I only hoped that she was not burying her heart together with Erik's wretched body. That was my greatest fear. I knew she loved me, but Erik had been too great a presence in her life to be so easily ignored. I know he meant something to her. I could not say what he meant to her, but I would be a fool if I dared claim she felt nothing for him, not even friendship. He was, after all, the man who inspired her voice.
I did not tell my sister about my love's absence. She would not have noticed anyway. She did not approve of my love for an opera singer. She hardly knew her name.
I waited for her in her room the entire day and half on the night, until I fell asleep on her bed, tormented by her absence, tormented by my knowledge about where she was and why. Then, a cold hand touched my cheeks and I opened my eyes slowly. It was still night outside, but I was not alone anymore. She returned! On an impulse, I pulled her into my arms and cradled her against my chest, like a child. She was cold. Her hands were cold, her locks, her gown. Frightened, I looked into her eyes. Her face was white and worn, her features exhausted, but she was present in her body, life glowing in her eyes. Their glow was warm; melancholy, but warm, and I knew she came back to stay. I noticed she was dressed in the wedding gown that Erik made her wear on that horrible night. I frowned, quite shocked, and started to speak, but she pressed a finger on my lips and shook her head gently.
''He would have wanted it,'' she spoke simply. Then, she broke into tears and I held her as she wept and called his name, breaking my heart every time his name was pronounced with reverence and affection. With the coming of dawn, she calmed down. Her eyes were dry and her fingers were not trembling anymore. The shadow that seemed to follow her in the past was gone. She was dressed as a bride, but she was a widow, as strange as that may seem. She made a promise and she fulfilled it. It was done. It was over. We could live now.
''Will you still love me?'' she asked me, surprising me.
''I have never stopped loving you. I shall always love you,'' I answered, once again certain of myself, of our love.
She smiled. ''You have been so patient with me.''
Because I love you, I wanted to say, but she knew. We were married three days later, in the Church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, across the opera house. I know that was where he would have taken his bride, my bride. I questioned her decision, but I knew, yet again, that she simply wanted to be near the place that meant so much to her, for better and for worse.
I do not mind. I love her.
Tomorrow, we are leaving France for some time. I believe it may be years before we return to Paris again. Sweden is our destination, where there are no phantoms, and no strange promises to keep. It is where she was born and only pleasant memories of her life dwell there. And if not...I am willing to endure anything in life, as long as I am with her.
I am a patient man.
Because I love her.