Good grief, it's chapter 60! I had no idea when I started this fic that it would become this long and involved!
Thank you to everyone who has supported and stuck with me this far; I really do appreciate all your comments and reviews.
"You... you made it?" Christine repeated. "When?"
"Before I ran away from home. I took the monkey music box apart to see how it worked; my father was furious until I proved to him that I could piece it back together, that I remembered the position of ever wheel and cog." Erik's fingers ghosted over the ornament he had created so long ago, as though suddenly he was afraid to touch it. "He was so impressed that he bought me tools and books about clockwork, probably hoping I would be able to occupy myself and not cause him trouble. Back then he was intrigued rather than repelled by my precocity. My mother disapproved and tried to take my new playthings away, but for possibly the only time in his life Father overruled her."
Christine found herself unable to move from her position by the door, entranced by the apparent languidness of his posture. It was an illusion, of course; he was an expert at hiding the truth but even he could not disguise the veins that pulsed in his temple and throat, or the whiteness of his knuckles as he gripped the edge of the table. She had read about the volcanoes of Italy, of how innocuous they could seem until moments before an eruption, the smoke that began to rise into the air the only clue of what was to come. It was as though she were watching an accident, knowing what was about to happen but unable to look away or do a single thing to prevent it. "How old were you?" she asked, her voice small and heavy in the tension-thick air.
He shrugged elegantly. "Seven or eight, perhaps. I can't recall with any clarity; dates and calendars were denied me, you see, in case I became aware of the years that were passing and wondered about the inadequacies of my situation. Children expect to have companions, light and laughter, not the shadows of an attic with a lock on the door." Abruptly he straightened, his unsettling gaze finding her once more. He pointed to the musical box. "You have not told me where you got this."
"I found it," she said truthfully, "or rather Meg did. The night someone tried to break in. It was left on the doormat."
Erik's face darkened, anger suffusing his visible features, and he took slow, deliberate steps towards her. Instinctively she backed away, in a moment trapped once again in the fifth cellar, his mask in her hands and his enraged shouts echoing in her ears as he chased her, snarling and spitting like a wild animal. Her back hit the door, pushing it shut, and she scrabbled desperately for the handle; before she could reach it he was on her, his face inches from hers, eyes flashing furiously.
"Do you really expect me to believe that?" he demanded, strong fingers reaching for her shoulders; she backed away, convinced that he was about to grab hold of her and shake her like a doll, or possibly do something even worse. "Please do me the honour of telling a more convincing lie!"
"It is the truth, I swear it!" Christine screamed, nausea welling up in her throat and the tears that she had been holding back for the last few days pouring down her cheeks. "I would never lie to you! Erik, please – please don't hurt me!"
Her words had a quite stunning effect upon him: with a sharp intake of breath he withdrew his hands before he could touch her and she slumped against the door, her chest heaving with great wracking sobs. Her curls tumbled from their pins and fell around her face, her breath came in huge gasps and she feared that if she moved so much as an inch she would fall to the floor. Erik reached for her again but she pulled back, whimpering and squeezing herself into the corner to put as much space as possible between them. With a wail of distress he collapsed, his head in his hands, tearing at his hair.
"Oh, God, forgive me, please forgive me," he begged, on the verge of tears himself. "I am a beast, a loathsome beast! What have I done to make you think so badly of me? Erik is sorry, Christine, so very, very sorry! He will believe you if only you will explain!"
She felt her dress move and raising her head slightly, vision distorted by loose curls and watery eyes, she realised he was on his knees before her, the hem of her skirt in his hands. His eyes were wide, his mouth twisted in despair, and as she watched he brought the mud-stained fabric to his lips, kissing it fervently as he had done when she sought him out after the New Year masquerade. Her strength deserting her, she sank onto the carpet beside him and without a word she pulled Angelique's letter from its hiding place in her bodice and held it out to him. Carefully he took it, his expression confused; he deliberately did not allow his fingers to brush hers and Christine didn't know whether to feel relieved or devastated that he did not dare to touch her. He moved a few paces away, leaning against the wall as though he was as spent as she, and she heard the crackle of the paper as he withdrew it from the envelope.
Time almost seemed to stand still as he read; she could not bring herself to look, to watch his reaction. Eventually he spoke, and asked in a voice as dry as dust, "How did you get this? Who gave it to you?"
"She did. Your mother," she replied, and he shook his head.
"Do not call her that, I beg you."
"But that is what she is!" Christine cried. "You cannot deny her existence, not now!"
"I can and I will! Have I not done so all these years?" Erik snarled. "Why should I change just because she has decided to intrude upon my life once more? She means nothing to me, do you hear me? Nothing!" Breathing heavily he dashed a fist against the wall, his tone dropping an octave. "How have you answered her?"
"I have not. I did not know what to do," she told him honestly.
He fell silent again, staring off into the middle distance as though gazing at something only he could see. His fingers clenched around the letter, crushing it, and a great shudder ran through him. "What did she say to you?" he asked, and despite himself he sounded faintly curious.
"Very little; she allowed the letter to speak for her. We were face to face for barely a moment, but I could see that you have her eyes." Christine smiled sadly.
Erik snorted. "One of them, perhaps. I had hoped that I inherited none of her traits, but I suppose that was unlikely. It is my sincere wish that age has thoroughly withered her."
"Erik, that is cruel," she admonished him, unable to stop herself. "She is your mother when all is said and done. I never had a mother; how can you throw yours away, your own, your only flesh and blood, like this?"
"Because she was never a mother to me!" he roared, surging to his feet and snatching the music box from the table. Shoving it and the letter into the pocket of his coat he stalked past her, pausing for a moment to thrust his face into hers once more; Christine cowered, struck dumb by the black hatred in his eyes, an emotion so deadly she hoped never to feel it for another person. "Perhaps if you suffered years of physical and mental torture at the hands of the person meant to cosset and protect you you would understand," Erik hissed, before turning and striding from the room, slamming the door behind him.
It was a long time before Christine found the will to move.
On shaky legs and with one hand on the wall for support she rose, staggering from the room and up the stairs, almost blind in the dark. Erik had not turned on any lights on the landing and she could not summon up the energy to find the gas bracket; stumbling into the bedroom she all but collapsed upon the eiderdown, curling into a ball and letting the tears take her. By the time the sobs no longer shook her body she felt utterly worn, a dry husk virtually incapable of further emotion. Silently she cursed Angelique Claudin for coming into their lives and snatching away their chance at happiness; how could they possibly recover the former bliss of their union after this?
There was a scratching at the door and she dragged herself reluctantly from the bed to find Bruno sitting there, whining piteously. In desperate need of comfort Christine gathered him up and hugged him to her, carrying him back to her refuge amidst the pillows. The spaniel twisted in her arms and licked her face as she buried it in his coat. From downstairs came thunderous chords, their pitch as black as night, their fury seeming to shake the very foundations of the house. It was obvious that Erik had thrown himself into the one thing guaranteed not to betray him: his music. As Christine sat there in the darkness she listened to anger, agony, desperation made real, pouring over her in a torrent of hurt and confusion; she could almost feel, almost touch the pain, see it given flesh before her. She realised that this was what he meant when he described to her the music of the night, the music created by the darkness in the souls of men. Frightened, Bruno huddled against her, and they sat there together in the shadows, listening to the man they both loved bear his tormented soul.
Eventually the music stopped.
Cold and stiff from sitting in one position for what felt like hours, Christine forced herself to rise. Fumbling with the hooks on her bodice and almost bursting into tears again when they stubbornly refused to open, she unsteadily made it to the bathroom and allowed the dress to pool around her feet, releasing herself from her corset and throwing that to the floor as well. She leant over the wash basin, splashing cold water on her face and received a shock when she glanced in the mirror: her face was white, her eyes swollen and puffy, her nose red like that of a little lost waif. Her hair hung in an untidy tangle and she reached for a brush, tugging at the knots in vain for a few moments before tossing it aside, defeated.
Pulling her wrap around her she knew that though food was the last thing she wanted she would have to eat something and Bruno would need to be fed. Quietly, her feet barely making a sound, she flew through the house like a ghost, the spaniel in her arms. While Bruno enthusiastically attacked the chopped liver she tipped into his bowl she nibbled at a piece of fruit, her thoughts drifting constantly to the music room and its now silent occupant. What was he doing in there? Did he feel as terrible as she did? Was he wishing that the last few hours had never happened, that they could turn the clock back and be happy and content once more? Despite everything she missed him and wanted to be with him; this enforced separation within their home cut her to the quick. Before she even realised what she was doing she had made a sandwich and put it on a tray with a glass of cider and was carrying it up the stairs.
Softly Christine knocked on the door. "Erik? Erik, are you all right?" There was no answer, not even the sound of someone stirring within. "I've made you a sandwich. I understand that you probably don't want to speak to me at the moment, but please eat it; you've had nothing all day and I don't want you to become ill."
Still nothing. The silence seemed to ring in the air with the clarity of a bell. With a sigh, feeling her eyes prickle again, she set the tray down on the floor.
"I'll leave it here in case you want it later." There was no response, and she turned away, her heart feeling as though it was contracting in her chest. "I never wanted this to happen," she said, her voice catching in her throat. "I love you and I never wanted to hurt you. I hope to God that you can believe me."
Without waiting to hear if the door opened behind her or not, she fled back up to the bedroom, wrapping herself in the eiderdown and fervently wishing that when dawn came this horrible evening would all have been nothing more than a bad dream.
At some point she fell into a restless slumber.
It was some considerable time later that she was woken by the hall clock striking three and the faint creak of the bedroom door as it swung open. She had failed to pull the curtains and the moonlight streamed into the room; sitting up slightly, Christine could see the tall, lean figure of her husband standing on the threshold. He was dishevelled, shoulders slumped and posture stooped as though the cares of the world were weighing him down; he was not wearing his mask and the silvery glow of the moon threw his distorted features into a pattern of deep shadows.
"You are still here," he said, and though his voice was barely more than a whisper she heard it, as she always had. "I thought you would have gone. I would not blame you if you had."
Standing on her knees and drawing the covers around herself Christine swallowed, her mouth dry. "I don't want to leave," she told him hoarsely. "This is my home. Our home."
His head tilted slightly, quizzically. "You still wish to share it with the pitiful excuse for a spouse that stands before you?"
"I would want to share it with no one else." She reached out a trembling hand to him, but he did not move. "Please, Erik. Don't let this stupid mistake come between us. I never meant to cause you pain; all I wanted was to protect you - "
"I know." A harsh laugh escaped him, the sound seeping away into an anguished moan. Alarmed, Christine started forwards, one foot on the floor and the other tangled in the bedclothes, as he fell onto the rug like a puppet whose strings had been cut, his head bowed in defeat as he knelt before her like a penitent at a shrine. She caught hold of his bony arm, to drag him back to his feet but he resisted, trying to pull away. "Erik has been a monster, a demon, to make you frightened of him so. Christine was always a good girl; he should have believed her from the start. He should not have pretty things; he always breaks them!"
"I am not broken, Erik, just bruised," she said, pressing herself against him, suddenly desperate for his embrace. With a cry he jerked in her grasp, attempting to struggle free, but she held on tight, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her hot cheek to the cool, smooth fabric of his shirt, listening to the frantic thumping of his heart. After a few moments he stopped fighting and with a shuddering sigh he hugged her back, drawing her so close that she was practically sitting on his lap. "I will heal," Christine mumbled into his chest. "We both will."
"How?" he rasped, sounding hopeless and confused, like a frightened little boy. "How can we now that she is in our lives?"
Christine did not have an answer, for she had been wondering exactly the same thing for days.
"The telegram..." Christine murmured when the dawn was beginning to break over the rooftops and they were lying wakeful, curled against one another. Neither had been able to close their eyes, listening to the unsteady song of their breathing until the birds in the garden began to accompany their duet. "You were worried by it, I could tell. Did you think it might be from your mother?"
Erik grimaced. "I had my suspicions, but I did not want to believe that they might be true. Over the last few weeks I thought I'd managed to convince myself that it was nothing more than an insane fancy, but..."
He trailed off and they lay there in silence for some time, Christine's head on his chest. It was not the softest of pillows, for his ribs and collarbone were sharp, but she could not imagine a more comfortable place to be. His hand rested on her hip, and she might have dozed off again had he not been almost unconsciously stroking the sensitive skin there. Even after everything that had happened in the past few hours his touch could awaken a delicious longing in her, but this was not the time for indulging base desires and she felt ashamed that her mind had turned to such things.
"I want to show you something," Erik said eventually. "I suppose I should have let you see it a long time ago."
Christine could not help but be curious as he withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket; when he passed it to her she realised it was a very old, torn and dirty photograph of a couple on their wedding day. The bride sat, splendid in her gown of expensive Brussels lace and flowing veil, her coronet of spring roses and lily of the valley to compliment the bouquet she held in her lap, while her dapper groom stood protectively behind the chair, one hand on her shoulder. Both looked serious, severe even in the case of the woman, her thin lips pressed primly together, but Christine recognised them both. The bride she had met outside the Opera Populaire not three days ago, and the man... his very image was sitting beside her now amid the crumpled sheets of their own marital bed.
"These are your parents," she breathed, tracing the features of Charles Claudin with her finger. "Your mother was right: he was a handsome man, and you are very like him."
Erik offered her a lop-sided smile. "I will have to take your word for that, as I cannot see it myself."
"It is true." Christine lifted a hand to touch his undamaged cheek, her thumb brushing his jaw. "You have his bone structure, the nobility of his brow, his fine head of dark hair - "
"Like the distorted reflection in a fairground mirror," he said uncomfortably, catching her hand in his and guiding it away from his face. He took the photograph from her, regarding it sadly. "He was a good man, a kind man. Had he the strength of character required to deal with my mother and I things might have been different but he allowed her to rule him and she treated him with contempt, mocking his failings and sneering at his attempts to please her. Another man might have fought back, subjugated such a scold, but the poor fool was in love with her and so, like a dog who is kicked when it offers affection to its master, the worse she treated him the more he kept coming back. Eventually she drove him to the bottle; it was the only way he could cope."
"It must have been such an unhappy house. The thought of you there all alone, with no one to turn to for comfort..." Tears spiked in Christine's eyes once more, and she tried to brush them away; Erik tightened his arm around her.
"I had my books, thankfully. My companions within the pages offered me some solace, but when my father decided to deny me access to the library..." He shook his head. "Unable to directly attack my mother he began to vent his frustration upon me. During those last few months barely a day went by when I didn't feel the strap across my back for some transgression or another; just leaving my room without my mask earned me a beating for my mother had commanded me never to remove it, even though it chafed my flesh terribly, leaving it sore and bleeding."
"Did you see no other person in those years? Nothing of the outside world?"
"There was a woman from the village bribed to suckle me; it is only thanks to her and some shred of compassion that I survived those first few months, for my mother would never touch me. After that I was the responsibility of the maids, who were usually foreign and did not stay for long; if they spoke little French so much the better as they could tell no one what they saw. I grew to be rather wild, something that harpy was anxious to beat out of me even though it was such treatment that caused my behaviour in the first place. Eventually my father took pity on me, and I heard him arguing with her, shouting that I must be educated, that the continual questions I asked proved I possessed a quick mind. He did not realise quite how quick until he took my education upon himself," Erik said. "He regretted it I'm sure but I came to treasure those hours spent in his study, when he was teaching me to read and write. I was late to my letters but I learned fast, absorbing knowledge like a sponge. Sometimes I like to think he might have entertained the idea that I might follow in his footsteps."
"What was his profession?" Christine asked quietly, resting her head on his shoulder. She looked again at the photograph in her hand; Angelique stared up at her, pale eyes cold and piercing, and she tried to suppress a shiver.
"He was an architect, and a very good one. He encouraged me to copy his plans and designs and after that I drew buildings obsessively, imagining the biggest and most elaborate palaces that I could. I suppose those childish fantasies came in useful when I received my commissions in the far and near East." He sighed, leaning back against the pillows. "Later I was lucky enough to find work with a mason in Italy and learned even more about construction, but my father's early lessons ignited a passion in me almost as great as that which I have for music."
"But where did the music come from? In my childhood music was always a source of joy, and I can see no joy in your story," Christine said. "I cannot imagine that your mother sang to you, as my father did to me."
"One of the maids who stayed for more than a few weeks liked to sing; she taught me folk tunes and ballads, which brightened some of my days in the attic, and I discovered that I enjoyed singing too. I had been hearing music in my head all my short life but had no idea what to do with it; Jacinta bought me a penny whistle and I mastered it in a few hours, composing my own little pieces which I played to her, much to her delight. Unfortunately, my mother found out and took the whistle away; she stamped on it, grinding the metal flat beneath her heel, and Jacinta was instantly dismissed." Erik's expression was grim, and his eyes glistened but he did not cry. "I lost the only friend I'd ever had."
Images floated in her mind's eye, of the lonely, neglected child shut away from the world and dependent upon the occasional visits of servants for company; somehow she could see him, huddled on the bed in the shadows, his stick-like limbs curled inwards and his back bloodied and sore from repeated lashings. His pointed chin rested on a painfully thin chest, a mask covering his entire face, secured by knots too complicated and thick for a child's fingers to release. He was small, undernourished, the clothes he wore too big for him as though they had been handed down by someone considerably older. No one would ever think he was the only child of a well-to-do couple, a successful architect and his wife. Even the youngest offspring of the poorest family might have had a better life.
"Oh, my poor, unhappy Erik," she murmured.
His fingers moved through her hair, rhythmically combing through the curls as though the action soothed him. "Do not pity me, Christine. Pity does no good, and the child I was is dead. Your compassion cannot help him now."
"I don't think he is dead," Christine countered, and he glanced at her in surprise as she laid a hand over his heart. "He is still in here, somewhere, and he still cries out to be loved, even after all this time."
Erik's lip was trembling and he caught it between his teeth, drawing in a shaky breath. "What did I ever do to make her hate me so?" he asked plaintively, and his voice cracked as the dam finally broke. A gulping sob escaped him and Christine pulled him close, holding and rocking him as his tears welled over and trickled down the cracks and crevices of his distorted flesh, falling onto her neck like summer rain. Before long she realised she was crying, too, both of them weeping for the motherly love they had never known and the destruction of a small boy's innocence.
Exhausted, they fell asleep in one another's arms.
When Christine woke again the sun was high in the sky and she was alone. The bed beside her was still warm which told her that wherever Erik was he had not been up for long. She was immeasurably grateful that it was Sunday and they had no rehearsal; she knew that she could not bear to face anyone after what had happened last night. Gathering her dressing gown around her and feeling as though she had aged a thousand years in a few short hours, she stepped onto the landing, looking for any sign of her husband. Her nostrils twitched at the faint smell of smoke that drifted up the stairs and she wondered why Erik had started a fire; the weather was still mild and as the house was not cold they had so far only needed to use the fireplace on damp evenings.
Not even bothering to check the parlour, she made immediately for the music room, and there he was, sitting on the hearthrug and starting at the glowing coals in the grate. For a moment Christine wondered what had entranced him so before she caught sight of the paper that crackled and blackened as the greedy flames consumed it; before the letter finally crumpled and disappeared, she could just make out Angelique's distinctive signature. Almost instinctively she started forwards, hand outstretched to try and save it but Erik caught hold of her sleeve and drew her gently back.
"Leave it," he said quietly. "It is best that it burns; that is all the answer we shall give."
There was something else amongst the red-hot coals, she realised, another piece of the past about to be destroyed. With a sigh of relief, glad to be relieved of her dilemma, Christine curled up on the rug beside him and watched as, metal twisting and glowing white, the snake charmer melted into an unrecognisable lump of tin, gone forever.
She didn't ask what had become of the photograph, and it was not until a long time later that she remembered the ticket for the gala that Meg had sent to St Cloud.