There was a lump in Christine's throat as she watched Angelique gently pull away to look Erik in the eyes.
For a moment she thought the two might embrace, but it seemed that either reticence on Angelique's part or confusion on Erik's won through, that the damage wrought nearly four decades before would not be undone by a single gesture. An unspoken understanding must have been reached, however, as he caught his trembling lower lip between his teeth and nodded, his fingers clutching his mask so tightly that Christine feared it might break under the pressure, and his mother smiled, cupping his unmarred cheek with one hand for a moment before releasing him. She appeared to be about to say something but before she could do more than open her mouth there was a discreet knock at the door and Meg's voice called softly,
"Erik, it's me. Are you in there?"
A brief frustrated grimace twisted Erik's face for a moment, but he replaced his mask and stood on unsteady legs to let the little ballerina into the office. Meg had been leaning on the door and almost tumbled into the room when it was opened; seeing Angelique she looked between Erik and his mother for a few seconds and flushed in embarrassment, realising the implications of her presence.
"Oh, goodness, I'm sorry!" she said, beginning to back away but finding her path blocked by the Phantom. "Am I interrupting something? I'll go away - "
"What is the matter, Meg?" Erik asked, finding another handkerchief in his pocket and using it to surreptitiously wipe at the tear stains that had dried in salty tracks on his cheek. If Meg noticed she was wise enough not to mention it. "I presume whatever news you have is urgent."
"Oh, it's not about Hortense, is it?" Christine realised that they had not considered the poor girl since Angelique found them in the corridor; she might have lost the baby by now. "She's not - "
"An ambulance arrived a couple of minutes ago to take her to the hospital; Maman said that she will go with her. I don't think Hortense has any family," Meg said sadly. "Doctor Lambert said that the bleeding has stopped but there is still a chance the baby might not survive. No, I came to tell you that the managers are heading your way and Monsieur Marigny doesn't look happy; he's hopping mad that you've backed out of performing, Erik."
"Let him be; it will be quite entertaining to watch," Erik replied, and Christine shook her head.
"He is your employer, Erik," she told him. "Perhaps you should go on after all; I will be quite all right for a little while."
"No, I promised to take you home and I will do so," he said, crossing to her side and dropping a kiss on the top of her head. "I don't like to see you looking so pale, mon ange; all of this fuss and bother has worn you down and I won't let it continue."
"I'm not sure you'll have much choice in the matter," Meg announced, glancing over her shoulder and scuttling further into the room in an attempt to hide behind Christine's chair as the managers, Marigny in the lead, his bald pate wrinkled with the force of the frown that was crumpling the rest of his face, entered. With so many people squeezed into its tiny floor space the office was soon as cramped as Christine's dressing room. Feeling rather unwell again she reached for Erik's hand and held onto it tightly.
"Oh, there you are, Claudin," Marigny said in an irritated tone. "I don't appreciate being given the run-around, even if there is an emergency. The beginning of the second act was an absolute shambles; God alone knows what the marquis thought of it! He told me he'd been looking forward to the Danse Macabre for weeks, and it's damned inconsiderate of you to disappoint him – the man is our biggest and most influential patron!"
"My apologies, Monsieur, next time I shall ask Mademoiselle Lavigne if she would allow herself to be attacked out of working hours," Erik said dryly, earning himself a glare.
"You're being rather hard, Claude," Fontaine muttered to his partner. "The poor girl is in a very bad way, and it's hardly her fault that some blackguard decided to do her harm."
"There are plenty of others attending to Mademoiselle Lavigne, and the ballerinas are Madame Giry's responsibility. We put you in charge of the gala for a reason, Claudin, and I am grieved that you seem not to take your responsibilities seriously," Marigny snapped. "You knew how important this evening was to the Opera, and by extension to everyone who works here, and you have let all of us down."
Erik bristled. "The gala has proceeded according to plan in all other respects," he replied stiffly. "I am sorry that you think I am shirking my responsibilities but I was hired to direct the chorus, not to perform in my own right. If I recall correctly I agreed to do so because you begged me after hearing me play to accompany Christine; you chose the piece in deference to the marquis's preferences. I was not happy or comfortable with it but I agreed because I was persuaded that I would not be the sole focus of the evening; it would appear that your stance upon the subject has changed somewhat since then."
"You must perform," the manager said, his face turning a worrying shade of puce. "Everyone is waiting, and we have nothing with which to end the show!"
Erik's annoyance briefly flirted with bewilderment. "Mademoiselle Merriman is meant to be closing act two."
"She has had to take over the Papagena duet for Madame Claudin," Fontaine explained. "Thankfully she is familiar enough with the piece, though it is a great shame that no one will see the wonderful gown that was created for the performance. It becomes you very well, Madame," he added, offering Christine a smile. "Madame Michon has excelled herself this time."
"Yes, well, we will say nothing about the cost incurred as you are obviously not well, Madame Claudin," Marigny said gruffly, and Christine wondered worriedly exactly how ill she looked. "But I must insist that you gather your dancers and prepare to take the stage, Monsieur. You will be able to take your wife home soon enough after the curtain comes down."
"I am sorry, Monsieur, but it will not be possible - " Erik began, but Christine squeezed his hand to gain his attention and shook her head.
"It's all right," she told him. "Go and play; I will be fine for half an hour more."
"Are you sure?" he asked, doubtful. "You're looking very wan."
"I will take care of her," Angelique said, resting a hand lightly on Christine's shoulder. "And Mademoiselle Giry will help me. We will make sure that Christine is all right, won't we?" she asked, and Meg jumped, belatedly realising she was being addressed.
"Oh! Oh, yes, of course," she agreed.
Marigny's eyes narrowed; apparently he had not noticed that there were other people in the room. "Thank you for your assistance, Madame...?"
"Angelique Claudin," the widow replied, and Fontaine stared for a moment, his gaze jumping between her and Erik as though searching for a resemblance. Erik looked uncomfortable, and it was evident that he was trying not to cringe away when the manager exclaimed delightedly,
"Ah! Then you must be - "
"Erik's mother, yes," Angelique replied, and Fontaine's smile grew into a great grin of enthusiasm that had Marigny groaning.
"Good Lord, I had no idea!" Fontaine leapt forwards to shake her hand. "Mademoiselle Giry mentioned a family member when she requested the ticket but she did not lead me to suspect such a close relationship! You might have asked me yourself, Claudin; I would have done more to welcome this lady when she arrived."
Erik smiled thinly. "We have been estranged for some time; my..." He hesitated, still having difficult voicing the term he had invested with such loathing for so long. "My... mother's presence was as much of a surprise to me as it is to you."
"But presumably the surprise was a most welcome one?" Fontaine enquired with a wink, and added without waiting for a reply, "A most ingenious idea of Mademoiselle Giry's; I congratulate you, my dear."
Meg smiled weakly, casting a slightly nervous glance at Erik. "Thank you, Monsieur."
Marigny checked his watch. "We've been standing around gossiping long enough. Claudin, I need you ready to take the stage as soon as Mademoiselle Merriman and Monsieur Renard are done; you had better make your way to the wings now."
With a sigh, Erik lifted his violin case from the desk. "I presume someone has informed Monsieur Allard that we will still be requiring his services?" When the managers looked at each other and began to hum and haw he rolled his eyes. "Never mind, I will find him. Meg, before you go with Christine would you mind hunting out Giselle and Laure from wherever they might be hiding and sending them to me? I hope that they have not had time to remove their make-up yet; two freshly-scrubbed ballerinas will look rather out of place in a graveyard."
"If they have, I'll improvise something," Meg said, and assuring Christine that she would be back soon she raced off, golden curls streaming behind her.
With an appropriately theatrical bow Olivier Fontaine gestured towards the door. "If I may escort you, ladies? I know of an excellent and secluded vantage point from which you may watch the finale in comfort."
"That is very kind of you, Monsieur, but I really must change first," Christine told him apologetically, raising a handful of green satin and feathers. "This dress is beautiful but rather impractical; I would take up a row of seats on my own!"
"I will help you," Angelique said, adding a little hesitantly, "That is, if you wish it..?"
Christine smiled. "Thank you. Oh, but I can hardly get changed when poor Hortense is still in my dressing room! I must see how she is first." Fontaine stood aside as she hurried from the room after Erik, who was reluctantly following Monsieur Marigny down the passage. He stopped when he saw her and quickly drew her into an embrace, ignoring the manager's uncomfortable clearing of his throat.
"Will you be all right with... with her?" he asked softly, with a pointed nod in the direction of his mother.
Christine reached up and kissed him quickly. "I've already told you, I will be fine. Go and get ready. I think Monsieur Marigny may have steam escaping from his ears if you keep him waiting any longer; he looks rather like a kettle that's about to boil."
The image she conjured thankfully made him laugh. "Very well, if I must," he said, and then he sobered, gazing right into her eyes. "Please take care of yourself, Christine."
"Of course I will!" She straightened the lapels of his jacket, fussing with the cloth and brushing away imaginary fluff. "You needn't worry so much, Erik. We'll only be separated for half an hour at the most."
"I know, but... perhaps when all of this tomfoolery is done I can take you on that proper honeymoon we talked about. A warm climate and a slower pace of life would do you good." Erik glanced over his shoulder, grimacing as he saw Monsieur Marigny tapping his watch.
"Go on," Christine said, gently pushing him away. "Good luck!"
He waved absently before apparently steeling himself for the forthcoming performance and striding off down the passage, overtaking Marigny and forcing the smaller man to almost run in order to keep up. Christine hid her smile behind her hand. She heard a footstep behind her and glanced around to see Angelique standing there, watching Erik depart with an almost wistful expression on her face.
"I expected him to turn his back," the older woman said. "I would not have blamed him if he had."
"A few months ago he probably would have done." Christine kept her eyes on her husband until he vanished around the corner in a swirl of coat tails. "He has changed a lot, even in the time I have known him."
Angelique looked down at her, and the piercing, steely gaze was soft, much in the same way that Erik's became at times. It was so very strange to see those mannerisms and attributes with which she had become so familiar echoed in another person, fascinating and peculiar at the same time. "He obviously loves you very much."
Christine nodded. "And I love him," she said simply.
"I'm glad. After all that happened between us, the horrible mess I made of his childhood, it means more than I can say to see him happy and cherished." Angelique sighed. "If he will let me, I will do everything in my power to make it up to him."
"Give him time," Christine suggested. "This has all been rather a shock, and he does so hate circumstances being beyond his control."
Her mother-in-law smiled. "You're a very kind girl, Christine. Erik is so lucky to have found you."
Before Christine could even open her mouth to thank her, she heard a weak voice calling her name and turned to see two blue-uniformed men carrying a stretcher down the corridor; on the stretcher was a mound of blankets and beneath them she could just make out a very wan Hortense, her dark eyes like bruises in her pale face, reaching out to her. Quickly she hurried to the ballerina's side and Hortense caught hold of her hand, squeezing her fingers as tightly as she could. The poor girl was obviously still in considerable pain but she made the effort to smile even though it went wrong around the edges.
"How are you, Hortense?" Christine asked as Madame Giry, clad in her hat and coat, joined them, Doctor Lambert at her heels. She glanced at the ballet mistress, who shook her head.
"I... I haven't lost the baby yet," Hortense whispered. "Will you... will you thank Monsieur Claudin for me? I wanted to... to tell him myself but I can't see him anywhere."
Christine squeezed those cold little fingers back and smiled. "Of course, but you can tell him yourself when you're better."
"I just wanted him to know how... how grateful I am that he found me. I was so silly; I should never have gone with Grigore..." There were tears gathering in Hortense's eyes and she tried feebly to brush them away. "Will you just tell him I said thank you? Please?"
"I will. And when Madame Giry says you're able to have visitors we'll come and see you," Christine promised. "I'll bring you some flowers; what would you like?"
The ballerina brightened a little. "Lilacs," she murmured. "They're so pretty and they smell so wonderfully."
"Then that's what we'll bring."
"We must go now, Christine," Madame Giry said softly, touching her shoulder. She glanced towards Angelique. "Is everything all right..?"
It came as no surprise to know that the ballet mistress had divined the stranger's identity; nothing ever got past Madame. "Everything is fine, thank you," Christine assured her and, with a swift tip of the hat towards her from the doctor, they hurried Hortense away.
From somewhere in the depths of the theatre the sound of applause could be heard, loud in the sudden silence despite the distance it had to travel. It almost made her jump; after all the effort they had put in over the last few weeks, the gala didn't seem remotely important any more. Christine found herself wondering whether the aristocrats who took such effort dressing up in their finest to see and be seen at the Opera had any idea of the very human dramas that went on behind the scenes, and then, thinking of the Countess de Châteauroux, decided that they probably didn't care.
"Christine?" Angelique said gently, breaking into her thoughts. "If you still want me to help you change we should hurry, or we will miss Erik's performance."
Christine mentally shook herself. "Yes. Yes, of course. We mustn't keep Monsieur Fontaine waiting."
Being alone once more with her mother-in-law was awkward.
Christine felt much better once released from the constricting Papagena gown, but silence had fallen while Angelique assisted her with hooks and fastenings and she wasn't sure quite how to start a suitable conversation. Meg had not yet returned, and Christine found herself wishing that her friend was there to fill the gap with her usual bright and inconsequential chatter. All the questions she wanted to ask, about Erik and what he had really been like as a child, she felt uncomfortable voicing and realised that any answers were unlikely to be unbiased and objective given the lack of maternal feelings Angelique had admitted towards her son. Though the older woman was considerably less intimidating than she had appeared to begin with and she certainly seemed to like this doubtless unexpected addition to her family for which Christine was grateful, it was impossible to relax in her company. Those butterflies in her stomach were fluttering again and she wondered if she would ever be rid of them.
Angelique finished buttoning Christine's dress, a plain blue-striped silk that she had bought just after her wedding which was far more comfortable than an extravagant evening gown, just as there was a knock on the door and a discreet cough announcing Olivier Fontaine's return.
"If you are quite ready, ladies..?" he enquired hopefully.
Evidently happy to have a female on either arm, he gallantly led them to a curtained-off alcove to the side of the stage which seemed to be serving as the managers' box for the evening; Madame Marigny was there and greeted Christine cheerily, extending the same bonhomie to Angelique once the two ladies were introduced. Angelique smiled in return but her acknowledgement was less than effusive, the haughtiness that had been apparent in her manner earlier returning; it seemed that while she had unbent considerably in the unpretentious backstage world in more august company she felt the need to draw away, whether from nerves or the desire to keep her distance in case people wished to pry. Madame Marigny looked rather confused when her friendly overtures were almost rebuffed, and Christine had to quietly and hurriedly apologise. When Angelique took a seat beside her she noticed that her mother-in-law's hands, clasped tightly in her lap, were trembling, and her thin face was almost white, the pallor accentuated by her black garb and the silvery sheen of her hair. She fixed her gaze upon the stage and the closed curtains, her breath quickening for a moment as she bit down on her lower lip, her eyes closing briefly as though she were in pain, before she recovered herself, straightening in her chair and holding her head high. All of a sudden Christine remembered what Angelique had written in her letter, which she had echoed when speaking to Erik, suggesting that she was not long for this world.
Sensing her scrutiny Angelique turned to look at her, an eyebrow raised quizzically in eerie imitation of her son, but Christine was saved having to explain by Monsieur Marigny striding onto the stage, puffed up with importance. She barely heard what he said, Eleanor Marigny on her other side sighing and murmuring, "I will be so relieved when this evening is over. Claude has been impossible ever since he came up with idea! I applaud you all for putting up with him; last week I went to stay with my mother for three days just to escape. If it had gone on any longer I was seriously considering filing for divorce!"
Christine wasn't sure what she should say to that, and was grateful when Marigny, a huge, slightly desperate smile plastered onto a face that was much happier when crumpled into a frown, withdrew to the wings and the curtains slowly opened to reveal the darkened stage, a spotlight shining on a huge, crooked ivy-choked cross. The harp sounded twelve sonorous notes, the peal of a bell, a clock that indicated the witching hour as three figures emerged from behind the cross, gliding hand in hand towards the footlights. Gracefully they began to dance, and as the opening refrain of the tritone rang out another spotlight illuminated the tall figure of Erik, violin beneath his chin, standing as far back as he possibly could without leaving the stage altogether. He turned, so that his good side was towards the audience, and his eyes were closed, brow creased slightly in concentration, as his bow flew over the strings, his nimble fingers moving like lightning.
The ballerinas circled the cross, led by a figure wearing a skull mask instead of make-up that from a flash of blonde curls beneath her hood could only be Meg taking Hortense's place at the last minute. She leapt and jigged and pirouetted in the routine she had devised, her steps light and elegant and proving to everyone that she would be a worthy successor to La Sorelli when the Prima eventually retired. As the orchestra took up the refrain Meg, Giselle and Laure came together, circling round once more and tripping in a line across the stage, their black cloaks floating behind them. The piece came to an end, and one by one they disappeared behind the leaning cross once more, leaving the final notes hanging in the air.
There was silence for several seconds, seconds which felt more like years. Christine held her breath, anxiously awaiting the reaction of the audience. The piece was not particularly popular and some journalists had been scathing upon its first performance; even though it had been specifically requested she knew that those who disliked it might still express their disapproval. She need not have worried, however, as someone began to applaud; it sounded rather loud and she realised belatedly that it was coming from the seat next to her. Angelique was clapping her shaky hands, tears in her eyes, and there was barely a pause before others joined her; Christine could see the Marquis de Borges in the makeshift box opposite theirs getting to his feet and ignoring the sour-faced Comte and Comtesse de Châteauroux at his side.
Daintily the ballerinas made their way back onto the stage as the applause grew in volume; Meg pushed the mask onto her head, revealing a flushed but smiling face as she curtsied with her colleagues. Behind them came the shy, shambling figure of Monsieur Allard the harpist, looking most embarrassed at such an effusive reception as though he would much rather be hiding amongst the other musicians in the pit. They all withdrew to the side, waiting for Erik, who appeared with reluctance that might not have been spotted by the audience but was obvious to his wife, by now also on her feet and clapping as hard as she could. He came slowly downstage, elegant and graceful as always, and took his bow with a nod of thanks. As he straightened his gaze found Christine almost immediately and as their eyes met a warm smile lifted the visible corner of his mouth. He bowed once more and withdrew, reappearing a few moments later with the rest of the cast for the curtain call, this time taking advantage of the safety in numbers and losing himself in their midst, though his imposing figure could never be completely invisible.
Christine was waiting for him in the wings, insisting that Angelique accompany her; the older woman had wanted to withdraw and leave them to celebrate their triumphs with the rest of the company but Christine persuaded her that it would mean more to Erik to hear her appreciation from her own lips. As he approached he said nothing, simply sweeping Christine into his arms and hugging her tightly, burying his face in her curls.
"Thank God that's over," he murmured into her neck and she shivered as his breath made the tiny hairs there stand on end.
"Christine was not exaggerating your talent," Angelique said when Erik had released his hold upon his wife. "My experience of music is not vast but I have never heard anyone play as you do. You have a rare gift."
"Thank you." He paused, and Christine wondered whether he would bring up the incident of the tin whistle and the stifling of his musical aspirations before they had even begun; she was grateful when he did not. The silence dragged on, however, until it became awkward. She willed him to speak, unsure of what to say herself.
Eventually Angelique smiled slightly. "It is getting very late; I should go. The sisters will have locked the gates by now."
"You are not a member of the order, are you?" Christine asked, even though she was quite sure that a nun would not be travelling into Paris to visit the Opera.
"No, I rent a cottage in their grounds. They have been very good to me over the years." Angelique took a deep breath and turned to her son, holding out a hand. "It has been so wonderful to see you after so long, Erik. I know that I have Christine to thank for your forbearance but I am grateful that you felt able to listen to me. Clearing the air will I hope bring some sort of peace to us both and put some of the demons of the past to rest. I wish you both every happiness for the future and I hope that you will not think too badly of me."
For a long moment Erik just looked at her hand, but then, just as Christine thought he would refuse it and Angelique's face began to crumple he took it lightly in his own. "Too much has happened for me to be able to wipe the past away in one evening," he said carefully. "Those early years set the tone for much of my life and I cannot just forget them. But recently, thanks to the incredible woman who was willing to take me on when no one else would that life has finally begun to change for the better. I am endeavouring to learn from her example, and because of that I am willing to give you a second chance."
Christine's heart leapt at his words and the tears returned to Angelique's eyes. "Oh, Erik..." she breathed, her free hand creeping towards lips that trembled with emotion.
"There is still much that we need to discuss. If you would like it, you are welcome to join Christine and I for dinner tomorrow." Erik almost took a step back in surprise when his mother tightly clasped his hand, moving forwards as though she meant to kiss him again. She did not, perhaps divining that to do so might be too much for him in one evening, and settled for touching his unmasked cheek.
"I would like that very much," she told him, her smile for the first time warm and genuine.
Erik glanced at Christine, seeking her approval, and she smiled as well, mouthing two words: "Thank you."