Chapter title this week comes from Anne Robinson's autobiography.
CONFESSIONS OF AN UNFIT MOTHER
No one spoke as Erik moved aside to allow Angelique access to the sofa, gently removing Hortense's fingers from his jacket and patting her hand before he stood, putting as much space between himself and his mother as possible. Meg and Christine watched the older woman crouch to make a cursory examination, hearing her tut in frustration as it became clear that the ballerina's clothing made it difficult to tell exactly what was wrong. She felt Hortense's forehead with one gnarled, long-fingered hand; Hortense gave another moan and curled into herself, clutching her stomach. Angelique glanced up.
"I am not certain, but she may be miscarrying the child. The sooner the doctor arrives, the better," she said. "Do you know how far her pregnancy has advanced?"
Christine found it hard to advert her eyes from the blood, feeling her own stomach roll. "She thinks three months; her... encounter with the father was back in June." Erik gave her a startled look at the mention of the date, an obvious question in his eyes; she could do no more than nod in reply, even though she was desperate to ask him what had happened and where Grigore was now.
"It is late for a miscarriage like this, I believe, but if she has been struck or manhandled that would account for it." Angelique sighed. "I have seen too many woman mistreated by husbands and so-called 'gentlemen'."
"The man who did this was no gentleman," Erik told her, his tone level but hard. "I will admit to being rather surprised that you take an interest in those less fortunate than yourself; it was certainly not always the case."
She looked at him and two pairs of eerily similar eyes met. "People can change considerably in forty years."
He said nothing in reply, simply folding his arms and looking away. Thankfully, a moment later the door burst open again to admit Madame Giry, cane in hand, who immediately hurried over to her stricken dancer. There were now six people in the room, which meant that space was becoming tight and Christine's dress was taking up a fair amount of what was left. She shuffled into the corner, and Meg, realising what the problem was, tried to help her gather up her trailing skirts. As Madame Giry bent over Hortense, speaking with Angelique in a low voice (if she was aware of the identity of the stranger, she typically did not comment upon it), Monsieur Fontaine, red in the face and more than a little flustered, appeared in the doorway. He stood there, taking in the little tableau, and pulled out a large spotted handkerchief to mop his brow.
"I am sorry to intrude, but Mademoiselle Da- Madame Claudin, you are required on stage," he said apologetically, turning to Erik and adding, "Monsieur Sauvage would be extremely grateful if you would return as well, Claudin. The marquis has been particularly looking forward to the Saint Saëns piece."
"You will have to disappoint him, I am afraid," Erik replied. "Please offer him my apologies, but as you can see we have something of an emergency; I am not willing to leave Mademoiselle Lavigne until I am sure she is in no danger."
It seemed that Fontaine had not noticed the blood, as Hortense was obscured for modesty's sake by the widow and the ballet mistress, but as he peered around them and caught a glimpse of the damage he paled visibly. "Good Lord, I had no idea... has a doctor been summoned?"
"One is on his way, Monsieur," Madame Giry told him and the manager nodded.
"I can only assume that you have the situation under control, ladies," he said. "If you need anything do not hesitate to let me know. In the meantime, Madame Claudin, we are in need of you..."
"Go, Christine," Erik said softly when she shook her head, more reluctant now than ever to return to the stage this evening. "There is nothing you can do here."
"No," she whispered. "No, really, I would rather not. Is there no one else who can take my place?"
Fontaine regarded her indulgently, but he did not back down. "I am afraid it is rather too late to find another understudy now."
"I'll come with you, Christine," Meg offered. "If you need me to, I'll stand in the wings cheering you on."
"No, I can't," Christine insisted, wishing she could tear off the satin and feathers because just at this moment, surrounded by so many people in such a small space, she thought she was about to burn up from within. Her face and neck felt so hot, and her stomach heaved again... she tried to speak but bile rather than words rose in her throat and, desperately clapping a gloved hand over her mouth, she pushed past her husband and manager and fled into the relative cool of the corridor, trying not to trip over her ridiculous dress as she ran towards the nearest water closet.
Erik found her there a few minutes later. He knocked lightly on the door, saying her name with such love and concern that she thought she might burst into tears. Wiping clumsily at her mouth she managed to get to her feet, legs trembling, and pushing the feathered skirts (with which she was by now thoroughly fed up) out of the way looked out into the passage to see him standing a foot from the door, the visible side of his face drawn and worried. Without a word she flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around his waist; he embraced her automatically, stroking her hair and murmuring reassurances in that soothing, almost hypnotic tone which had always calmed her.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly when she had stopped shaking.
She nodded against his chest. "How is Hortense?"
"Not well. I think my... I think she may lose the child."
"It was Grigore, wasn't it? He wanted her to get rid of the baby; paid her to visit one of those dreadful back street women who do such horrible things. Hortense wouldn't go," Christine said. "Did you... did you see him?"
"Yes. Don't worry, my darling, he won't be bothering anyone here any longer," Erik assured her.
She stared up at him, wild-eyed, and felt the trembling begin again. "You didn't – please, Erik, please tell me you didn't - !"
"Hush, Christine." His fingers carded through her curls, dropping slightly to caress her cheek. "He still lives, but he knows that should he approach this place again I will not be so merciful."
"You're not – you're not hurt, are you?" she asked anxiously.
He chuckled and shook his head. "Barely scratched. Unlike his father, without his cohorts he is little use in a fight; I expect Meg could best him quite easily."
"Don't tell her that; she might go out there looking for him," Christine said with a giggle that turned into more of a hiccup.
Erik gently put her away from him, peering into her eyes. "Are you absolutely sure that you're all right? You've gone rather green."
"I do feel a little queer," she admitted. "It must have been the sight of all that blood."
"Right, that's it." His mouth set in a firm line. "I don't care about this ridiculous show any longer. We're going to get you out of that ludicrous costume and then I'm taking you home. The lacing on that corset is so tight I'm quite frankly surprised you haven't passed out by now; I shall be having words with Madame Michon, and Chantal." He slipped an arm around her waist and turned, half carrying her, to retrace their steps down the corridor.
"What about Hortense?" Christine knew that she couldn't very well barge her way back into her dressing room to divest herself of Papagena's feathers while the ballerina was in agony on the sofa. "We must wait for the doctor, at least - "
"He is here," Angelique said from behind them, making them both jump. It seemed that Erik had inherited his ability to walk almost silently from her as neither of them had heard her approach. "Thankfully he was attending another patient nearby. He is with her now, and it is likely that he will wish to transfer her to the hospital as soon as possible."
"You seem to know rather a lot about such situations, Madame," Erik remarked, his eyes narrowing. "It is a shame you found yourself incapable of caring for the welfare of your own offspring."
"Erik - " she began, but he cut her off brusquely.
"I am taking Christine home; she is overtired and has been upset quite enough for one evening," he said, turning away. "I am sure Madame Giry will inform us of the final prognosis. I bid you good night, Madame; I doubt if we will meet again."
Angelique stepped quickly forwards, blocking his path in the narrow passage. He glared at her. "Erik, don't do this," she begged, the distress on her face making the lines seem deeper so that she looked even older than she was. "At least let me explain. God has brought us together again for a reason and I do not want to waste the second chance I have been given. Hear me out, please, and then you can do whatever you wish."
Erik's whole frame was tense, the muscles in his arm like rock, and for a long moment Christine thought that he might actually push his mother aside and continue on his way. Reaching up, she lightly touched his good cheek, turning his head so that he was facing her. Two emotions, anger and fear, were competing for dominance in his mismatched eyes. "Would it matter so very much?" she asked him softly.
He swallowed, and when he spoke his voice was hoarse. "You know what hell my life was back then. Must I really return?"
"God teaches us to forgive those who trespass against us. If not for me, do it for him."
"I confess that I would rather do it for you," he whispered. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before fixing Angelique with a gimlet stare not so very unlike her own. "Very well. I will listen, but I promise nothing more."
Relief flooded over her face and she reached out for him; he drew back reflexively and Christine thought her mother-in-law might fall to her knees there in the corridor. "That is all I ask," Angelique said, and Erik answered with a terse nod.
He led them back through the labyrinthine backstage area to his office, pointedly closing the door and making sure Christine was settled in the moderately comfortable chair behind the desk. Almost offhandedly he waved his mother towards the other seat in the room and took up a looming position by the tiny fireplace, leaning on the mantelpiece.
"Speak," he said, and it was a command rather than a request.
Angelique looked down at her hands in their net gloves, twisted together in her lap. "When you ran away," she murmured, eventually raising her head to meet his hostile stare, "Where did you go?"
"I joined the circus," Erik replied, and raised an eyebrow when her mouth opened in surprise. "What's the matter? You always insinuated I would be better off there."
"Your father looked everywhere for you. He'd decided without my knowledge that you needed formal education and had found a school that had apparently agreed to take you on, but when he went to the attic to tell you the window was open and you were gone. I wondered what on earth had happened; he came flying back down the stairs shouting incoherently and ran out into the rain," Angelique said. "Later he told me that he found your footprints in the flowerbed and guessed that you had climbed the wall. We reported you missing, but even though the local constable made a search we never found any trace."
"I would have thought my absence a matter for rejoicing. Was it not awkward to report a child whose existence you always tried to deny as a missing person?" he enquired. He was sounding just like he used to when taunting Carlotta and the old managers and Christine wished he would stop; she had come to hate the voice of the Phantom for it was not that of her husband. He was not that person any longer.
"It was not until you vanished that I finally realised what I had done. Your father made it abundantly clear that it was my behaviour that had driven you away; after that there was never any love between us." Angelique bowed her head once more, catching her trembling lower lip between her teeth. Her fingers kneaded the faded black silk of her dress. "He left me a few weeks later, blaming me entirely for what had happened. I never saw him again."
Erik folded his arms defensively across his chest, his eyes bright and sharp. "Do not try to gain sympathy from me, Madame. You brought the tragedy upon yourself. You hated me from the moment of my birth, that much was obvious. Do you have any idea what it is like to grow up in a home without love, without the merest regard for your existence?"
"We did not know how to deal with you," she protested. "You were quite impossible; your moods, your outbursts - "
"I was a child!" Erik yelled, his voice seeming to come from all corners of the room at once and making Christine cringe in her chair. "I did not know any better! Did you ever stop to think that one kind word, one kiss, one hint of affection from you would have made things different? All I wanted was your approval, and yet you pushed me away at every turn because you could not bring yourself to look upon my face!"
Angelique flinched under the onslaught but held her ground. "I was young, and vain, and foolish," she said. "I freely admit that. I would have found it difficult to cope with a normal child, let alone - "
"Let alone one touched by the Devil," he muttered bitterly. "Do not think I have forgotten what you did, the indignities you heaped upon me."
"Oh, dear Lord." Her hand stole to her mouth and her voice dropped to a whisper. "You... you remember that?"
"How could I forget?" Erik hissed, crossing the room in two long strides and leaning over her, his masked face inches from her own. "I was five years old, if you recall, terrified and shaking in my shoes as that man, that so-called priest beat and scourged and doused me in holy water. How could you do such a thing to your own flesh and blood? How could you?"
"Because I was scared!" she screamed. "I was little more than a child myself! May God forgive me, I wanted to put things back the way they should have been, to have a normal child, a normal family! I did what I thought was right!"
"That brute could have killed me. Did you think about that? Or did you secretly hope that he would, and take care of the problem once and for all?" Erik asked. "Did you, mother?"
"Erik, stop!" Christine exclaimed, unable to bear any more as Angelique covered her face with her hands, sobbing. She climbed to her feet and went to her mother-in-law's side, holding out a hand to Erik and motioning for him to give up his handkerchief. He did so with bad grace, and she passed it to Angelique, who took it with a nod of thanks. "There is nothing to be gained by torturing yourself with the past."
Furiously he flung himself away from the broken shell of the woman he had spent nearly four decades detesting and stood with his back to them, his fingers clenching and unclenching reflexively. Angelique cried over and over, "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..!" Whatever she had done, however unspeakable and unconscionable her actions, she was nothing more than an old woman, friendless and alone; just at that moment she looked haggard and so dreadfully weary that instinctively Christine put an arm around her shoulders. Surprised by the kindly action, the older woman glanced up at her, and after a moment laid a grateful hand over Christine's.
"I didn't tell Charles," she said quietly. "How could I? He was always insisting that Erik should be educated, that we should start deciding what he would do with his life but I couldn't; I couldn't make myself think beyond the fact that that perfect little boy I dreamed about when I was expecting him had turned out to be a...a..."
"A monster," Erik supplied, his keen hearing picking up on her words. "You may as well say it. I know it is what you thought; you called me such a name more times than I can count."
"I make no excuses," his mother told him, straightening, the silk handkerchief crumpled into a ball in her hand. "What I did was wrong and I have been punished for it all these years. God saw fit to bless me with a divine gift but I could not see it, not until you were gone from me and there was no hope of getting you back. After you vanished your father showed me your schoolbooks, the work you had done together; you were precocious, alarmingly so, but I had no idea you were so quick, so talented. He wanted you to go to university, to follow in his footsteps, but it was too late for any of that. I was too blind to understand you, and you were taken from me. I lost my son and my husband in one night."
"He still cared, even though he tried to beat me into submission for every little transgression?" he asked. "I always thought that I had displeased him in some way."
Angelique shook her head. "He was frightened himself, and angry with me. It was terrible of him but lashing out at you was easier than trying to influence me, I suppose. Had it not been for my stupid pride you would have had a close relationship, I am sure. Unfortunately Charles was not the strongest of men and if I demanded something he would always try to keep me happy, even if I was wrong." She sighed. "I did love him, but it was hard to respect him at times. I became too used to getting my own way; my own father was very strict, and I became somewhat headstrong once I freed myself from his influence. I was determined not to be dictated to any more, but in the end I became too like him for comfort. He was an autocrat, and I know now that I was little better." Erik glanced at her over his shoulder, and she sat forwards in her chair, her pale eyes pleading with him. "I am not asking for your forgiveness, Erik; I know I do not deserve it. But I am asking you to understand. There was no one to guide me; my family cut me off when I married your father and his parents died when he was young. We had few friends. I fell pregnant almost immediately after our marriage and my education in such matters was severely lacking. I know now after many years of bitter recrimination that I should never have treated you as I did, but you must believe me when I tell you that were I given the chance to make all of this right I would do so in a heartbeat. Every unkind word, every unforgivable action, I take them all back and would that they had never occurred. I would give anything to wipe the past away and begin afresh but I know that such a thing is impossible. I can only pray that when I come to meet my maker he will be merciful to a poor, ignorant sinner."
Erik stood in the corner, perfectly still. Christine watched him, alert for any sign of further anger; but he said nothing. Confused by his silence Angelique turned her distressed gaze towards her daughter-in-law but Christine could only shake her head; his actions were always hard to predict, and none of them had even been in such a situation before. Eventually he spoke.
"Had I been perfect, would things have been different?" he asked. "Would you have loved me and cared for me?"
"Some women are not able to bond with their children," Angelique said honestly. "I may be one of them; I just don't know. A mother should love her child no matter what, but..."
"Could you stand to look upon my face now?"
"Oh, my son," she murmured, tears moistening her eyes again, "Your face has never left my thoughts since that night, so long ago."
For a long time Erik did not move; anyone entering the room might have thought him to be petrified, turned to stone, and Christine found herself holding her breath. When he raised a hand to his face the gesture was so abrupt that she almost jumped before she realised that he was untying the cord that kept his mask in place. Slowly, he turned, holding the porcelain to his skin with one hand as he carefully approached his mother, dropping to one knee before her.
"If you can truly look at me and show no fear, I will believe you," he said, "I will believe that you really wish to make amends for what has gone before."
Nervously she nodded, but Christine felt her mother-in-law's shoulder tense beneath her own; she tightened her grip reassuringly, resting a hand on the other woman's arm. "It will be all right, I promise," she whispered.
Erik bent his head, letting the mask fall into his waiting hand. He paused, staring down at the ground for a long moment as though gathering his courage, and then gradually straightened, revealing his true face to the woman who had forced his first mask upon him so that she did not have to look at the horror with which he had been cursed. Their eyes met; Angelique's widened in surprise and perhaps a little shock and she gave a sharp intake of breath as she regarded her son's mangled features for the first time in decades. Christine wondered whether her memory had dimmed or exaggerated the deformity. Her gaze roamed across the lumps and crevices, the twisted flesh and visible muscle, all of which had become so familiar and so dear to Christine that she could barely believe she had ever been disgusted by the face they completed. The seconds passed but felt more like hours as Angelique raised a trembling hand, her thin fingers stopping just shy of Erik's distorted cheek; he closed his eyes, obviously steeling himself for the touch that had never come to him as a child, as she hesitantly stroked the uneven surface.
"Does it... does it hurt?" she asked, and he shook his head.
"Only in here," he said, laying a hand over his heart.
Angelique's gaunt features softened. "Oh, my boy, my poor boy," she whispered and Christine heard Erik's breath hitch in his chest as his mother leaned forwards, taking his face gently, almost reverently, between her hands and pressing her lips against his forehead as the tears rolled down her sunken cheeks. "I should have done this so many years ago."
Erik's eyes were wet as they opened to stare in wonder at her for freely offering the first kiss she had ever given him, and it was not until a tear splashed onto the green satin of her dress that Christine realised she was crying too.