THE WIDOW CLAUDIN

"Oh, dear God, she's there. She's actually sitting out there," Christine murmured, staring through the gap Meg was holding open between the curtains. Angelique had obviously decided to remain in her seat for the interval, the haughty expression on her face momentarily relaxing as she nodded and accepted the apologies of a couple who had to squeeze past her to reach the end of the row. Christine wasn't entirely sure what she had been expecting after their initial encounter and Erik's descriptions of his mother; it was obvious that the years had damaged her original cold beauty for her face was heavily lined, especially around a mouth that seemed unused to smiling. Her hair, either white now or so fair as to be practically so, was swept up into a severe bun which was secured with jet combs to match the necklace around her wrinkled throat, jewellery that unconsciously echoed the beading on her son's cloak; her dress was hopelessly out of fashion with its hooped skirts and wide fringed neckline though the fabric was in better condition than the gown she had been wearing during their brief meeting in the street which led Christine to think it had not seen much use since its creation. Angelique sat with her hands, in black lace gloves, folded over the fan that lay in her lap; occasionally she glanced about at the other patrons, but her gaze was focussed on the empty stage; the thought that her mother-in-law might be able to see her made Christine draw away and motion for Meg to close the drapes.

"Why are you so surprised?" the little ballerina asked, peering at her friend in confusion. "There's no reason why she would turn down the invitation. I know I wouldn't have done."

"I'd forgotten all about it," Christine whispered, one hand trembling in front of her mouth, the other pressed to her stomach as she felt her butterflies return in earnest. She looked around for her husband and saw him some distance away, talking to James and Teddy. "The ticket you sent; so much has been happening that I forgot it. I didn't tell Erik... when he finds out, when he sees her there... oh, God, I don't know what he'll do!"

"Christine." Frowning, Meg put her hands on her hips. "I know that Erik's relationship with his mother is a delicate matter but you cannot spend your entire married life living in fear of his temper! Sooner or later he is going to have to deal with the fact that his mother is still alive and wants to see him, even if all he does is tell her to her face to leave him alone. You can't keep trying to protect him; he's a grown man and he must fight his own battles."

"You don't understand, Meg – " Christine began, but her friend shook her head, lifting one hand to wag a finger under her nose.

"No," she said, "Don't keep making excuses for him. I've heard enough about his childhood to know that it was terrible and I would never wish it upon anyone but it was a long time ago. He's not the same person he was then – for goodness's sake, he's not the same person he was a year ago! - and I doubt if his mother is either. People change, Christine, and as fond as I am of Erik, the sooner he appreciates that the better. He can't keep piling all his problems on you; it's not fair."

"He doesn't," Christine protested, feeling as though she wanted to wail that none of this was her fault. "It's just a very difficult and complicated situation and... and I have no idea how to handle it! I'm doing my best, but it's so hard..!"

"Oh, Christine." Meg wrapped an arm around her shoulders and cooed reassuringly; Christine glanced around the chaotic backstage area again and found that Erik had disappeared. Teddy was gone too, while Jimmy sauntered towards the corridor that led back into the Grand Salon. She guessed that the interval was almost over. "You're doing your best, I know, but no one expects you to deal with all of this on your own. If you would let me tell Maman about it she could speak to Erik, make him see sense."

Christine shook her head. "I don't want to involve anyone else. I didn't tell him that I discussed it with you; he might be even angrier if he knew. He feels ashamed and humiliated about his past; he doesn't like discussing it."

"I understand that, but does he have any idea what all of this is doing to you? You're like a frightened rabbit, Christine, jumping at the slightest sound. I don't want the worry to make you ill and I know Erik wouldn't either. Surely the more of us there are to help him through this the better?"

"You're right, I know you're right, it's just that..." Christine sighed. "I never thought being married to Erik would be easy given everything that happened before, but we were so happy for a few weeks and now it seems as though everything is going wrong and I don't know how to put it right and..." Her voice cracked and she desperately swallowed back tears, gulping against the lump that was forming in her throat. She wanted nothing more than to return to those halcyon days just after her wedding, when it seemed as though all their troubles were finally over. Why did life have to be so cruel?

"Christine, Christine..." Meg pulled a face, considering something, and then swore under her breath as she saw Chantal pushing her way through the backstage throng. "Look, it's my fault Erik's mother is here; tell him that, I don't care how much he shouts at me. You need to go and get changed for the second act, so I promise you that I will keep an eye on Madame Claudin senior for you. Please don't get yourself worked up over her; she's not worth it, really she's not."

"Madame, I must dress you now," Chantal said, reaching them at last. Christine lifted her head, blinking, eyes quickly scanning the faces surrounding her in the hope that Erik might have returned but there was no sign of him. Slightly worried now, she asked Chantal the time. "We have a little more than ten minutes before the second act begins," the dresser replied, and was about to say more when a small figure in a black cloak almost crashed into them.

With a hurried apology the apparition pushed the hood back from its face with clumsy hands, revealing Giselle beneath, her face painted with a worryingly lifelike approximation of a skull. "Sorry, sorry!" she gasped again. "It's this hood; I can't see where I'm going and I must find Monsieur Sauvage!"

"He's over there," Meg told her, pointing towards the wings to where the stage manager was standing talking to Monsieur Reyer, scratching his head and looking at the folder that rested on one bent forearm. "What's the matter, Giselle? Is the building on fire?"

"Is it?" The other ballerina looked startled for a moment before she realised Meg had asked her a question rather than stated a fact. "Oh! Oh, no, nothing like that! I just need to speak to Monsieur Sauvage; I have a message for him from Monsieur Claudin."

"Erik?" Christine asked in surprise. "Why? Where is he?"

"He went to look for Hortense; I was worried that she hadn't come back after she went to meet her visitor and Monsieur Claudin said he'd try to find her. Have any of you seen her?" Giselle enquired, wide-eyed.

"I've not seen her all afternoon," Meg said, looking perplexed. "Giselle, what in the world is going on? You're all meant to be opening the second act in a few minutes!"

Giselle shot her a glance that seemed to say 'I know that, I'm not stupid!' "Yes, and that's why I need to tell Monsieur Sauvage!" she announced, and, darting round them, careered off towards the wings, her hood falling over her eyes again. There were a few annoyed shouts from the people she bumped into en route but she ducked her head and kept running. Monsieur Sauvage did not appear to be pleased when she breathlessly relayed Erik's message, whatever it was.

Christine's brain had belatedly begun to work upon the information and as the implications of Hortense suddenly vanishing after meeting someone started to crystallise she only just managed to muffle the squeak of alarm that broke from her by clapping a hand over her mouth. Meg gave her a sidelong suspicious look but before she could say anything Chantal was tugging on Christine's sleeve, her expression anxious.

"Please, Madame, I must begin to get you ready," she said, and Christine nodded, reluctantly allowing herself to be drawn away. As she left with her dresser she saw Meg approach the little group in the wings with the evident intention of discovering exactly what was happening.


"Oh, Madame, we are running so late," Chantal fussed as she started to unhook Christine's dress, apparently not even noticing that her mistress stood like a tailor's dummy, twisting her hands together as she wondered exactly where her husband was and whether he was all right. Of course, there might be other people, friends of Hortense's that would come to the stage door to see her, but the ballerina had been so pleased and grateful to be offered the part in the Danse Macabre that Christine couldn't believe she would just disappear on a whim and let down everyone else involved. A little feeling of dread began to form in the pit of her stomach. "If we were using the proper auditorium it would not be a problem; everyone knows their place and the patrons are not admitted backstage. But out there in the salon... ha! Guests mingling with the performers and getting in the way. The managers should never have allowed it."

Under ordinary circumstances Christine might have been amused that her usually reticent dresser had become so vocal upon the subject, but now she just nodded absently. "I suppose they think it will encourage more business," she said, trying not to continually glance towards the door in the hope that Erik might pop his head around it before he went on stage.

Chantal made a disapproving noise. "That sort of patronage we can do without," she muttered darkly. "Forgive me, Madame, but that's probably what Mademoiselle Lavigne is doing; no doubt one of those smooth-talking young men convinced her to take a walk with him and she lost all track of time."

Christine forced a smile, even though she knew that in Hortense's condition such an occurrence was unlikely. "Yes," she heard herself say, "That is probably the case."

Silence fell between them as Chantal assisted her out of her own dress and into the Papagena gown, which was an awkward affair as it was an ostentatiously fashionable design involving a bustle, a train and a very tightly-laced corset. Christine knew that Erik would have a fit if he saw how small the dress made her waist appear and she was initially unsure that with such restrictions she could take a deep enough breath to sing; even the greatest divas had been known to faint from the effects of tight lacing, and she had once seen La Carlotta's maid standing with her foot in the small of her mistress's back in an attempt to contain the Prima Donna's considerable girth. Thankfully Chantal drew the laces only as tight as she deemed necessary, and during the final fitting Madame Michon had been persuaded to let the bodice out a fraction. It was still rather uncomfortable, however, and no matter how beautiful the green, red and blue feathers were she was glad she did not have to wear it for long. Elbow-length green satin gloves completed the ensemble and by the time Chantal had arranged more feathers in Christine's hair the dresser was looking rather pleased with herself.

"I think that the wardrobe department have really excelled themselves this time, don't you, Madame?" she asked, tweaking the underskirt into place and smoothing down the fabric.

"It's a little extravagant for me, Chantal," Christine admitted, regarding her reflection in the wall mirror and feeling rather like a child dressing up in someone else's clothes.

"Oh, but it makes you look beautiful!" the dresser declared with such enthusiasm that Christine wondered if she had been imbibing something alcoholic during the interval.

Manoeuvring awkwardly so that she could sit down on the sofa to wait until her call came Christine glanced at the clock; she could hear the sound of the entr'acte drifting faintly down the corridor, reminding her that it would take twice as long to get to the wings, particularly in such a heavy dress. Wondering if Erik had returned in time and what Meg had found out she wearily climbed to her feet again, deciding to make her way back to the stage to see for herself. Before she could move more than two paces, however, there was a knock on the door; realising that it must be either her husband or friend she eagerly motioned for Chantal to answer it and froze when it opened to reveal instead her mother-in-law on the threshold.

Angelique Claudin regarded her wordlessly for a few moments and Christine did not dare to move. She was barely even able to breathe, the corset hampering her lungs; she had not expected to meet this formidable woman again without Erik by her side and her legs seemed to turn to jelly beneath that piercing blue stare. After what seemed like hours, Angelique smiled slightly, the action doing little to relieve her severe demeanour, and said,

"I apologise for intruding, but that pleasant Monsieur... Fontaine, was it? He told me that a visit to your dressing room would not be frowned upon. I wished to congratulate you on your performance and thank you for sending the ticket. It was a most thoughtful gesture."

Unable to form a response, Christine nodded. Chantal cast her an enquiring glance. "Is everything all right, Madame?" she asked, her tone concerned.

Swallowing, Christine managed to find her voice. "Yes, thank you, Chantal. You can leave us now."

Obediently, the dresser went, though not without a suspicious look at Angelique as she passed. Doubtless she was wondering who the visitor was; Christine's lack of family was common knowledge throughout the Opera. When the door closed behind Chantal, Angelique took two steps further into the room, taking in her surroundings with interest. Though the managers had taken Erik's suggestion and had the little dressing room painted and the furniture replaced, it was still a far cry from those usually allocated to principal artistes and Christine felt herself blushing, ashamed of her mundane surroundings.

"Well," Angelique remarked at last, "I did not think I would ever find myself in a dressing room at the Opera Populaire! I take it that Erik is not here?" She glanced around as she spoke, perhaps imagining that her son might be hiding in the wardrobe.

"He will be getting ready to go on stage himself," Christine replied, trying to control the wobble in her voice. "He is playing the violin; a piece by Saint Saëns."

"He plays the violin and the piano?" Her mother-in-law raised a pale eyebrow, which in turn had the effect of raising Christine's hackles.

"Erik plays many instruments. He sings like an angel and anything he does not know about music it is not worth knowing. He gave me my voice," she said, discovering that defending her husband had the miraculous effect of bolstering her confidence. "The only other musician of comparable talent that it has been my privilege to know was my father, and he was a virtuoso. His skill is still spoken of in awe and will continue to be for many years to come, I am sure."

Angelique looked quite shocked. "I had no idea," she murmured.

"That's not really surprising," Christine replied, astounded at her own boldness.

The gimlet stare she recognised from the old photograph Erik had shown her appeared in the other woman's eyes. "Erik has told you about me, then?"

"The little he could bear to. He - " Christine opened her mouth to continue quickly before her nerve failed her but as she started to speak the door opened once more and Meg rushed in without knocking, as was her wont.

"Christine, I saw her talking to Monsieur Fontaine; I don't know what he said to her but she looked pleased and next thing I knew her seat was empty – oh, hello," the little ballerina said, pulling up short on the threshold when she saw Christine's visitor. She began to turn back into the corridor. "Sorry, I'll leave you alone."

"No, please stay, Meg." Moving as swiftly as her dress would allow, Christine reached out and grabbed her friend's arm. She wasn't going to allow Meg to get away scot free after being the architect of this uncomfortable encounter. "Madame Claudin, may I introduce Mademoiselle Marguerite Giry, one of the most talented dancers in the corps de ballet? Meg, this is Erik's mother."

A rather pale imitation of her usual sunny smile plastered itself onto Meg's face. "It's... very nice to meet you," she said weakly, holding out a hand.

Much to Christine's surprise, Angelique took Meg's hand and shook it briskly. "I was most impressed with your performance, Mademoiselle. It seems that La Sorelli will soon have some competition."

"Thank you, Madame." Meg blushed. "It's very kind of you to say so."

Angelique smiled tightly. "I dreamt of being a ballerina in my youth, but my father was quick to drum such aspirations out of me. It would seem that yours was rather more accommodating."

"Oh, it was my mother, Madame; she is the ballet mistress here so I was always going to be a dancer one way or another. The only way to escape would have been if I were as clumsy as Christine!" Meg declared with a high-pitched giggle that sounded slightly hysterical.

Erik's mother glanced at her with interest, so Christine did her best to deflect it by asking Meg, "Has Erik returned?" and hoping against hope that he had.

Little Giry shook her head. "No one's seen hide nor hair of him since he went outside; Monsieur Sauvage is tearing his hair out because he's had to send the chorus on first and juggle the rest of the running order. I ran into Monsieur Patterson-Smythe and he said he'd go and look for Erik. Hortense hasn't come back, either."

Angelique frowned when the situation was quickly explained to her. "Is it usual for you to lose two members of the cast during a performance?" she enquired.

"Hortense hasn't been well recently," Christine said, earning her a curious glance from Meg which she ignored. "I expect Erik wanted to make sure she was all right; she is one of the dancers in his recital piece."

For a moment it seemed that Angelique's sharp gaze misted over. "Just as his father would have done," she murmured. Her eyes alighted on Erik's hat and cloak, neatly folded across the back of the sofa; she drifted over to them as the two girls watched, running a hand lightly over the inky black cashmere. "Are these his?" Not sure what she should say, Christine nodded, and her mother-in-law looked sad. "Charles always dressed well. Even before he started earning a lot of money, when he was courting me, he was always smart, simple and elegant. He was a handsome man; a very handsome man."

"Erik is very like him," Christine told her, unable to help herself.

Angelique glanced at her in surprise. "Yes; yes, he is," she agreed, doubtless wondering how this girl, whose existence she had only discovered in the past few weeks, could possibly know what her late husband looked like. She made no comment, much to Christine's relief, instead picking up the black fedora, turning it over in her hands and remarking, "This is an unusual style. I don't believe I have seen many gentlemen wearing hats like this."

This time Meg answered, before Christine could open her mouth. "I've never seen Erik in anything else. He likes it because he can pull the brim down to hide his..." Evidently thinking she might have said too much she trailed off, waving her hand vaguely towards the right side of her face. Angelique stared at her for a moment, and put the hat down carefully, her fingers hovering above it for a moment as if she wanted to stroke the felt but didn't dare. Swiftly she moved away from the sofa, hands clasped tightly in front of her.

"Of course," she said, and Christine thought that for a moment she could glimpse guilt in her mother-in-law's expression.

There was a heavy pause, during which neither Meg nor Christine knew quite what to say and Angelique just stood gazing off into the middle distance at something only she could see, discreetly withdrawing a handkerchief from her bag and dabbing at her eyes with it. The five minute call that came from the corridor was welcome relief, even though by now Christine definitely no longer felt like singing. Over the past few minutes she had all but forgotten about Papagena.

"You'd better go," Meg said, "Before Monsieur Sauvage has a heart attack." She turned to Angelique. "I'm not dancing again; I'll escort you back to your seat if you like."

The older woman looked a little overcome, as though she had not expected such consideration. She nodded. "Thank you, Mademoiselle; that is very kind of you."

"We'll have to sneak in quietly, and you've missed the first couple of pieces, but Erik's not been on yet," Meg told her with a smile, which Angelique returned with what appeared to be a small genuine smile of her own. "I'm sure you won't want to miss it."

"I hope there's nothing wrong with Hortense," Christine said, reaching for the door handle.

As she opened it, however, she gave a cry of alarm as she was knocked aside by a blur of black and white that her temporarily fuddled mind only after several seconds resolved into her husband, carrying the limp form of the missing ballerina and hugging her close to him as if she were a delicate package in danger of falling. He strode swiftly into the room, ignoring the three women entirely, and laid his burden down gently upon the sofa, taking a moment to brush Hortense's tangled hair back from a face that was horribly pale beneath its creative make-up. As Erik carefully drew back the cloak in which the barely conscious dancer was wrapped, Christine gasped to see the blood that stained the tutu she was wearing beneath.

"Oh, my goodness!" she exclaimed. "Is she all right?"

"Did you know she was carrying a child?" Erik asked, and reluctantly she nodded but was saved further questioning as James Patterson-Smythe, obviously puffing from the exertion of chasing his friend down the passage, entered the room. His attention snapping from his wife to Jimmy, Erik told him to fetch Doctor Lambert. "Antoinette knows where he lives; he has dealt with cases like this before. And hurry, man; I don't know how much blood she may have lost."

With barely time to regain his breath Jimmy lifted a hand in a salute and hurried off again. Meg was already at Erik's side and Christine joined her, appalled at the condition of their colleague. Hortense was muttering, her head turning from side to side and her fingers gripping the fabric of Erik's jacket as though she was frightened to let go in case he left her alone. She moaned, her face scrunching up in pain, and Meg said,

"What happened to her?"

"She was attacked," Erik replied grimly, "by the baby's father. I didn't realise she was bleeding until some time afterwards." He dashed a fist into the back of the sofa and swore softly. "We can only hope that the doctor gets here soon; I have no experience of this kind of thing."

Christine and Meg looked at each other, knowing that they would not be of much use either. Pregnancies in the corps de ballet were always dealt with in secrecy and mentioned in hushed tones; Madame Giry's advice was usually on the theme of abstinence rather than what to do should things go wrong. Meg got to her feet. "I'll fetch Maman; she'll know what to do."

Before she could take more than two steps towards the door Angelique spoke up, startling Christine who for a moment had forgotten she was there. "I have a little experience," she said quietly. "In my time at the convent I have tended to many poor souls in such a situation."

At the sound of her voice Erik tensed, the stiffening of his spine visible even through the heavy wool of his suit jacket. All the colour seemed to drain from his face and he slowly, so incredibly slowly, turned his head towards the voice's owner. For what seemed like years he and Angelique just stared at each other; time seemed to stop still and Christine hardly dared to breathe.

Angelique walked few paces forwards, stopping three feet from him with a hopeful half smile. "Good evening, Erik."

He looked her up and down, lip curling in a sneer, and replied in a tone made of pure ice, "Good evening... mother."