CHRISTINE IN A QUANDARY

"I don't know what to do, Meg," Christine confided some time later, as they sat sharing a cup of tea in her dressing room. "How can I tell him? How can I not?"

The rehearsal of her aria, Ruhe Sanft from Mozart's Zaïde, had not gone particularly well. Distracted by her encounter with the strange woman in black, she was unable to concentrate and made several elementary mistakes, infuriating and embarrassing Erik when she hit a note that she should have been able to reach without effort completely off-key and so sharp some of the watching chorus actually winced. They tried again, Christine flushing bright red at the giggles from the ballerinas, but things were little better, the words of the second stanza completely escaping her; in exasperation Erik was forced to jog her memory, singing the lines perfectly himself and demonstrating the extent of his formidable vocal range. In the end, frustrated by her lacklustre performance and inattention, he had dismissed her, reminding her of those first lessons, handing the stage over to Madame Giry. Glumly, Christine knew that further rehearsal would be coming when they got home, and she was not entirely looking forward to it, well aware that the problems plaguing her would not simply disappear in a few hours.

"I can't believe you actually saw her," Meg mused. After a moment's thought she turned an eager gaze towards her friend. "What was she like?"

"She was an old woman. I couldn't see much of her face; maybe she was a beauty once, but... Oh, Meg, she had Erik's eyes!" Christine exclaimed, a shiver running through her at the memory. "I'd know those eyes anywhere; I cannot doubt her identity, it has to be her."

Meg looked thoughtful. "Would it really be so bad if you were to meet her? She obviously wants to meet you, and she is your mother-in-law, after all."

"You have no idea. Oh, I'm sorry," Christine said quickly when Meg gave her a slightly affronted pout, "but you haven't seen how angry Erik becomes whenever she is mentioned. When I promised never to raise the subject again I thought he might cry he was so relieved. How can I allow someone who has caused him so much pain back into his life?"

Silence fell between them. The little carriage clock on the dressing table ticked away, and Christine sipped at her tea, unable to taste it even though Meg had generously stirred in three sugars 'for the shock'. The letter, unopened, was burning a hole in her pocket.

"I don't know what to tell you, Christine," Meg sighed eventually. "You could throw that letter on the fire and forget any of this ever happened, but I know you won't."

"How can I do that? She knows where we live; I think she sent the anonymous telegram we received after the wedding. And she was - "

The little ballerina frowned. "She was what?"

"She was at the church." Christine looked at the floor, which needed sweeping; dust was collecting in the corners of the room. "Sitting in the very last pew, by the door."

"At the church?" Meg's voice emerged as a squeak. She clapped a hand over her mouth, removing it after a moment to whisper, "She must be so distinctive; why didn't I spot her?"

"She doesn't have two heads, Meg! She's a perfectly ordinary woman, as far as I can tell, and she hid herself so completely even Erik didn't recognise her. I'd forgotten all about her until today, and I hope that he has too," Christine said. She rested her head on one hand, remembering how perturbed he had been by the telegram, though he had tried to hide it from her. Had he already guessed?

"Well," said Meg, "You have two choices: you either burn the letter and try to avoid any more contact, or you open it and read what she has to say. Surely there can be no harm in giving her a chance to explain?"

"You really think that is a good idea?"

Meg shrugged. "You can always burn the letter afterwards."

Fingers trembling, Christine withdrew the envelope, staring at her name written across the front in neat, sloping handwriting that gave barely a hint of its owner's age: Madame Christine Daae Claudin. Carefully she withdrew two sheets of thick, heavy cream notepaper, and, trying to ignore the curious way Meg was watching her while pretending to drink her tea, she began to read.

My dear Christine,

Please forgive me for addressing you so familiarly when we have never been introduced; it is impulsive of me but you see I always dreamed of having a daughter. God did not see fit to so bless me but he did give me a son, who in my ignorance and wickedness I drove from me many years ago. He was a remarkable boy, and, if the stories I have heard are true, he has grown into a remarkable man. I suppose you would know that better than me.

You may imagine the shock I received when I opened a newspaper a few months ago to see the lurid tales of a deformed man at the Opera House. Despite the evidence that he was using the name we had bestowed upon him I did not really believe this so-called monster might actually be my lost child, but I followed the story nonetheless, and then came the interview in La Monde and its photograph of you and your fiancé; my heart almost stopped for there at your side, though half his features were hidden, was my late husband! Erik is very like his father, at least in the parts that were not touched by the indiscriminate hand of nature. Charles was a handsome gentleman and our son has become one too; even after so long I would have known him anywhere.

It has been nearly forty years since the night Erik broke out of the house and disappeared over the garden wall. I will freely admit that his was a difficult childhood, if one can even call it such; I was young and foolish, unable to deal with his precocity as well as his face. In my selfishness I did not even try to understand him, instead reacting in the only way I knew how by withdrawing from him completely. It was the wrong thing to do, but there was no one to guide me; his father was not a strong man and I am ashamed to admit that we were both frightened by the creature we had somehow between us given life. He was brilliant, a genius, and he baffled and terrified us in turn. It was only when I lost him that I realised the blessing I had been given, but by then it was too late. Charles tried to find him but he had vanished like a phantom into the darkness. We never heard of him again.

I am sorry, my dear, to ramble on like this; you must forgive the fancies of an old woman. I would so dearly like to meet you and speak with you properly. I do not seek to excuse my actions, but I feel that I must explain myself. If Erik has spoken of me at all, you doubtless have some idea of that which passed between us, and if he has not... I hope that this has not come as an unpleasant surprise to you. I would not blame him if he had decided to cut me entirely from his life; I am undeserving of the title of 'mother'.

I know that I can never expect forgiveness for my crimes, but I am not long for this world and I wish to make my peace with the past before I must accept the divine judgement that comes to us all in time. You have probably already guessed that I reside within the grounds of the Carmelite Convent at St Cloud; the sisters have been very kind to me over the years.

If you choose to accept my invitation, I do not expect Erik to accompany you, but I assure you that if you are able to convince him to see me I will be in your debt for the short time that is left to me.

Sincerely,

Angelique Aubusson Claudin.

Meg was trying desperately not to look interested but failed miserably; without a word Christine passed her the letter. The little ballerina's eyes almost seemed to pop out of her head by the time she reached the end.

"Goodness!" she said. "Will you go?"


Christine turned the words of the letter over and over in her head for the rest of the evening.

Madame Giry noticed her distraction when she knocked on the ballet mistress's door to tell her about Hortense; much as she would have liked to unburden herself, Christine knew that Madame would have quite enough to concern her with the unfortunate ballerina and so she forced herself to remain silent upon the subject of her preoccupation, putting it down to fatigue and worry about the gala. Though she looked unconvinced by the lie, Madame nodded and sighed, shaking her head at the thought of another of her dancers in trouble.

"Thank you for telling me," she said wearily. "I will speak with Hortense. I wish the silly girl had come to me in the first place!"

Relieved that at least one problem would be dealt with, Christine met Erik at the stage door for the journey home. During the cab ride he was quiet, staring out of the window, the visible side of his forehead rumpled in a frown. Christine sank back against the squabs, feeling completely drained. She closed her eyes and must have heaved a deep sigh for after a few moments she felt a gentle hand on her arm and lifted her heavy lids to see her husband peering at her anxiously.

"You have been so listless all afternoon," he murmured, feeling her brow with one cool hand. "I hope you are not sickening for something."

She took his hand in hers and lowered it, holding it in her lap. "I'm fine," she assured him, and forced herself to smile. "Just tired."

"I'm pushing you too hard, am I not?" Erik asked, and shook his head when she began to protest. "I'm a fool; in trying to disprove any accusations of favouritism I'm obviously being unrealistic in my expectations of you. Please forgive me, mon ange."

"I always forgive you, and you are being no tougher with me than you were before." Christine leaned against him; he slipped his arm around her waist, holding her close. "I'm sorry my performance has been so poor today; I'll try to be better when we get home."

"You will be resting when we get home," he told her firmly. "I will not force you to sing when you when you are so obviously exhausted. You will go straight to bed and I will take care of dinner."

"Erik, I am not ill!" she protested. "I just feel a little... out of sorts, that's all. It will pass."

He looked at her for a long moment, mismatched gaze searching her face, and said hesitantly, "You don't... you don't think that perhaps there could be another reason for..?"

"Oh, you mean am I..?" Christine shook her head. "No, it's not that."

"You're certain? Antoinette did say - "

"I'm absolutely certain, I promise," she said, and he exhaled slowly, leaning back. She glanced up at him to see a tiny smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. "Are you disappointed or relieved?"

Erik chuckled and tightened his arm around her, kissing the top of her head. "A little of both, I suppose."

They spent the rest of the journey in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. When they arrived home Erik helped her down from the cab with infinite care, as though he thought she might break. True to his word he insisted she go upstairs and lie down; Christine climbed the steps slowly with a heavy tread, once again feeling treacherous for keeping the letter in her pocket a secret from him. In a sudden flurry of anger she wanted to take both the letter and the music box and throw them into the Seine but she knew in her heart of hearts that such an action would solve nothing. She lay staring up at the ceiling, her mind going round and round in circles, until Erik appeared with a tray, upon which was a light meal of chicken and vegetables and a single glass of wine.

"Are you not eating?" Christine asked as he shook out her napkin with a flourish and laid the tray across her lap.

"I have too much to do. The piece still needs practise - " he began, but she cut him off impatiently. It was unusual for her to interrupt so sharply and his eyes widened briefly in surprise.

"Erik, you know that piece inside out; you could play it standing on your head with one arm tied behind your back!" she exclaimed.

"I think that might be a little difficult, my dear, even for me," Erik objected, amused, but Christine waved an annoyed hand.

"You know what is missing from your performance," she told him. "It is that self-same passion you were telling Marius to find earlier. Your playing is technically brilliant but there is no heart, Erik. I've never heard you play without it; what has happened?"

"Eat your dinner; it will get cold," he instructed, but sat down on the edge of the bed anyway. He sighed. "I suppose... I suppose it is because I am no longer playing for you alone. The thought of the audience does not move me in quite the same way."

"Well, I am glad about that," Christine said, and he smiled slightly. "You told Marius to use his imagination to find the emotion in the music; can you not do the same?"

Erik's shoulders hunched and he looked down at his long fingers, twisting them together. "I have tried, but strangely enough the same technique does not work when one is playing the Dance of Death."

"Then play a different piece. Surely it makes little difference what you play?"

"It has been specifically requested by the Marquis; despite the fact that it is an unpopular choice the Danse Macabre is apparently a favourite of his." Hands clenching into fists he rose, turning towards the door with his jaw set. "I have no choice; I must get this right."

"Erik, it is right, I swear to you." Christine caught hold of his hand, tugging on it. "Please, come and eat something."

"Maybe later." Bending over her he kissed her forehead and gently pulled away, brushing a curl behind her ear. He gave her a sad smile before leaving her alone with her dinner. She waited, counting under her breath, and barely three minutes later the sound of his violin came from downstairs, wailing mournfully. Christine felt like hurling her plate at the wall.


She must have fallen asleep, and for some time; it seemed that she had barely blinked and the dwindling evening light had departed completely, leaving her in darkness. Pushing the tray with its now cold contents to one side she felt the sheets beside her only to find them smooth and empty; it was late but Erik had not yet come to bed. Stiff from the position in which she had slept, listing at an awkward angle against the pillows, Christine dragged herself from the bed and fumbled for the candle and matches on the nightstand. The flickering glow of the flame revealed that she was indeed alone; pulling a shawl about her shoulders she hurried down the stairs to the music room. There was no sound from within but a light was burning and throwing a bar of yellow under the door that seemed almost brilliant in the darkened house.

Quietly she turned the handle and pushed the door open. The red velvet curtains were pulled, shutting out the night, and the violin had been discarded on the piano lid; sheet music littered every available surface, even the floor. Erik was slumped in an armchair in the corner, his tie loose and waistcoat undone; his mask was askew and Christine lifted it from his face, setting it down on the table at his elbow beside an empty brandy glass. She perched on the arm of the chair and just looked at him; after a long moment he realised she was there and she wasn't sure whether to be concerned by his lethargy or glad that the touch of her fingers on his mask no longer made him tense and startle.

"Did I wake you?" he asked, his voice low and hoarse.

She shook her head. "I woke up and you weren't there. Are things still no better?"

"It just won't come together. Ironic, isn't it, that the Living Corpse finds himself incapable of breathing life into the Dance of the Dead?"

"Is that what's stopping you?" Christine had never really considered that he might be finding the subject matter of the piece a little too close for comfort; after all, the tale of Death leading his minions in a dance at Halloween was just that: a story. "Did you... was it a piece you played at the fair?"

"No, thankfully Saint Saëns didn't write it until long after I left the carnival. It's just..." Erik ran a distracted hand through his hair. "I suppose thinking about it and what it represents brings back painful memories, that's all. Foolish of me."

"I don't think so." She took his hand in hers, kissing his knuckles. "Would it help if I were on stage with you, so that you do not feel quite so alone?"

"Ah, Christine. I thank you for your offer, but what could you do? You would make a rather unconvincing skeleton," he said, evidently amused by the thought for which she was grateful. His eyebrow flicked upwards. "Perhaps I should let one of the violinists take over the music and dance myself."

"I don't think that would solve the problem," Christine said, returning his smile. "If you want some company, why not have one of the other musicians on the stage? The harpist perhaps? Or a couple of the ballerinas suitably made up to add some movement to the music? Meg is performing the Ugly Duckling but I'm sure she would be happy to help with the choreography."

Erik stared at her, eyes wide and mouth half open; for a horrible moment she thought he was about to have a fit, but then he grabbed her by the shoulders, a huge smile lifting his twisted lips, and he kissed her with an enthusiasm she would not have expected a few moments earlier. "Christine, that is a wonderful idea! Why didn't I think of that?"

She tried to shrug nonchalantly. "I suppose even a genius can have off days."

He laughed, standing and crossing to the piano. "It's perfect; I can see it all now," he declared and drawing a sheet of paper towards him he began to sketch something out, face creased with concentration. Christine watched him for a while; the clock struck one but he paid it no heed.

"Erik," she said, and after a brief pause he glanced up at her, his expression slightly bewildered. She held out a hand. "Work on it in the morning."


That night was a long one.

His relief at finally having found a way to calm his fears over the gala palpable, Erik fell into a deep sleep, more relaxed than he had been for weeks. Christine had been awakened many times by his restlessness as he turned back and forth beside her or got out of bed to pace the floor of the music room until dawn broke, but now he lay quietly, his breath peaceful and steady. She wished she could be afforded the same luxury; every time she closed her eyes she could see Angelique's veiled face, piercing blue eyes staring out from behind the thick net. The woman's voice rang in her ears, its compelling quality still evident even in memory.

Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime of trying to clear her mind enough to sleep, Christine slipped from the bed and pulled on her wrap. Erik did not even stir as the mattress shifted and she withdrew her warmth from his side, lost too far in the realm of dreams. With a sigh she went to the window, drawing back the curtain a little to see the moonlit garden. Sitting down in the wicker chair she settled amongst its brightly-coloured cushions, her head resting on one hand.

She was still there several hours later when the sun came up.