BOLT FROM THE BLUE
Erik started out of his chair as she stopped, her eyes widening in panic, and hastily covered her mouth with her hand. She swayed, her gaze misting over, and just managed to force his name past her fingers before she was falling, clutching desperately at the table in a futile attempt to save herself. Glad that his reflexes had not dulled over the past few months, he caught her just as she lost consciousness and before her delicate head could hit the floorboards. Christine was horribly pale, her lashes stark half-moons against the chalk white hue of her perfect skin; she looked just like a wax doll, and felt cold when he lifted a hand to gently tap her cheek. When she gave no reaction he anxiously took up her wrist, feeling for a pulse; in his haste his heart leapt into his mouth for he could detect nothing at all and a wail of despair soon followed it. Common sense should have kicked in there and then to tell him that she was still breathing so could not possibly be dead, but rationality had never been a close companion when it came to the love of his life and his sanity had been teetering upon the edge of a dreadfully familiar precipice for days now. The sight of her like this, lying motionless in his arms, was more than he could bear.
"Oh, Christine..." he murmured brokenly, hugging her little body close to him and rocking it as one would do a child. His gaze searched her face for some indication that she would wake but she was still and silent, far away from him. "Christine, please... no..."
Thankfully reality returned in the unexpected form of his mother, who fell awkwardly to her knees beside him and was mimicking his own actions of moments earlier before he had completely registered her presence. In his shock and horror as he watched Christine collapse he had all but forgotten she was in the room. His eyes followed her movements in almost complete detachment, Christine's head pressed to his chest, as Angelique ran a shaky hand over his wife's forehead, two fingers finding the pulse at her throat. Selfish impulses screamed at him to push her away, to allow no one else to touch his Christine, but he could not find the strength. His beautiful songbird was sprawled against him in almost graceful disarray, like a suicidal maiden in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, her magnificent hair falling in glorious waves over his arm and one tiny foot peeping out from beneath her skirts. If this was to be the end then he would let no one else pollute that moment.
"It's all right, Erik," Angelique said, breaking in upon his morbid reflections and looking startled when he stared at her blankly. "She has just fainted. Erik?" She shook his arm and he wanted to brush her off, almost did but just then he could hear Christine's voice in his head, telling him that she was only trying to help. "We need to take her upstairs, make her comfortable, and then you can fetch the doctor. Are you listening to me?"
He just gaped, recognising the words but unable to grasp their meaning. "I... I don't..."
His mother's mouth became a thin line and she sighed impatiently. "You are not and never were stupid, Erik," she told him sharply. "Listen to what I am saying to you. Christine has merely fainted; she will be all right. Do you understand? Erik!"
That tone, the mere memory of which could once cut through the decades and reduce him to a snivelling child again, had the effect of jolting him back to himself as if he had been slapped across the face. He glared at its owner, in that moment wishing death upon her for daring to speak to him so, but she just smiled in satisfaction.
"Good," she said. "You will be no use to her if you go to pieces."
"You are treading on dangerous ground, Madame," Erik growled, his voice quivering with rage, but it seemed the shadow of the Phantom had little effect on the one who had borne him. "Just because I have allowed you into my house it does not give you the right to - "
"Oh, stuff and nonsense," his mother replied, and she fixed him with a challenging stare of her own. "Do you want to help Christine or not?"
He looked down at the unconscious figure of his wife and all desire to harm the woman next to him seemed to drain away. "Yes," he said quietly. "Of course; how can you even ask such a question?"
"Good boy," she said, patting him on the shoulder and getting stiffly to her feet, leaving Erik feeling rather like a dog that had just fetched its first stick.
Though he would never admit it to her he was grateful for Angelique's knowledge and no-nonsense attitude when it came to dealing with illness and infirmity.
Having lived alone for so much of his life Erik was naturally hesitant when it came to such things; he had learned something of medicine through necessity and become used to treating himself when circumstances called for it, but he knew that he lacked the experience to make a proper diagnosis of more than just the odd bump or strain or episode of sickness. Knowing well the likelihood that anyone he tried to help would recoil from his touch had also made him reluctant to offer it, the months he had spent with Christine giving few moments in which to change such ingrained behaviour.
He laid Christine gently down upon their bed; she had not stirred when he carried her up the stairs and his heart clenched as he recalled the last time he had done so, on their wedding night. Then she had been all smiles and laughter and flirtatious suggestiveness and he found himself blushing slightly at the memory. As he straightened he dropped a kiss on her forehead and was elated when she scrunched up her nose, her lips lifting for a moment; he reached for her hand, capturing it between his own and willing her to open her eyes but she did not and he hung his head in disappointment.
His mother, her confidence obviously increasing now that she knew she was in command of the situation, emerged from the bathroom with a damp flannel, which she folded and laid across Christine's brow. "Have you any smelling salts?" she asked, and he shook his head, earning him a scolding tut that reminded him of Antoinette. "I do not think it is likely to be anything serious, but we should summon the doctor just in case. Is Christine prone to fainting?"
Erik recalled the two occasions when he had seen her swoon before, both ultimately his fault, and said carefully, "Only when she has received a shock."
"And that happens often?" Angelique raised an eyebrow. "Never mind. I will sit with her while you go for the doctor; she will probably come round soon on her own anyway."
"The only physician I trust lives in the middle of Paris; it will take time to find him and bring him back here. I don't want to leave her that long, especially..." he trailed off, not quite sure where the impulse that stopped him voicing the words that were on the tip of his tongue came from.
"You don't want to leave her here with me." She sighed. "Well, I suppose that is understandable. Is your doctor the man who came to the Opera last night?" When he nodded she held out a hand. "Furnish me with his address and I will fetch him."
However he felt about her, one thing Erik was clear upon was that he would not allow an elderly woman of good breeding and in precarious health herself to racket about Montmartre in a hackney cab, especially when she had already admitted that she was hesitant of being out alone after dark. "No," he said firmly, rising from his seat on the edge of the mattress. "I will go. The area in which Lambert lives is not entirely safe at night and Christine would not be happy with me if I let you put yourself into any kind of danger on her account."
Angelique opened her mouth to argue, but before she could speak there was a tap at the door and Chloe's nervous face appeared around it. "Is everything all right, Monsieur?" she asked. "I came upstairs to check if there was anything else you needed and everyone had disappeared – oh! Poor Madame; is she - ?"
Erik had forgotten all about the maid in his concern for Christine, but her presence solved a problem for him; he would far rather leave his wife in Chloe's care than his mother's, however adept Angelique was proving to be. After everything that had happened between them it was too soon for him to even consider trusting her again. "We do not know at present," he told Chloe, "But if you would join Madame Claudin senior in sitting with her while I - "
"...Erik..?" Christine's voice cut him off, and he flew to her side as she lifted her head, reaching out for him. He slid an arm behind her back for support and she blinked, her lashes fluttering as she tried to open her eyes. Apparently relieved to feel his familiar embrace she leaned into it with a sigh. "...I thought you'd gone."
He kissed the top of her head, savouring the silky sensation of the curls against his unmasked cheek. "I would never leave you, you know that."
"What... what happened?"
"I was hoping you might be able to tell me," he said seriously and she frowned.
"I don't know. One minute I was all right and the next I felt sick and everything seemed to be whirling around. It was as though I was trapped in a spinning top that was being whipped up too fast," Christine murmured. She glanced up at him, enormous dark eyes full of worry. Her little fingers clutched at his waistcoat. "Am I really ill, do you think?"
"That is what the doctor will tell us. I was just going to - "
"No! Erik, don't go, please," she begged, clinging to him. "I'm frightened, I don't want to be on my own."
"I don't want to go, my love, but you need to see a physician. It would kill me if you suffered because I could have summoned help and did not," Erik told her honestly. She nodded, but her face was a picture of misery and there were tears starting in her eyes. He felt like a wretch for even suggesting that he move from her side but forced himself to gently pull away, setting her back down on the pillows. "I promise you that I will be as quick as I can."
"Excuse me, Monsieur," Chloe said, jumping slightly when he turned to look at her. "I can go for the doctor. That is... I know where Doctor Lambert lives if it is he you wish to have fetched."
Erik felt his brow and its pathetic twin lift in surprise. "It is indeed. How do you know his address?"
The maid smiled slightly. "I was sent to fetch him on more than one occasion while you were staying at Mademoiselle Merriman's, Monsieur. He treated little Henri when he was knocked over in the street; that was why we called him when you were brought to the house. Will you permit me to hail a cab, sir?"
"Of course, girl; do you think I meant to take the train?" Erik snapped in exasperation. He dug into his pocket and withdrew a roll of bills, which he handed to the flustered Chloe. "I don't care how much it costs; tell the man to kill his horse if it means the doctor gets here quicker. And be careful," he added in a softer tone. Chloe nodded, bobbed a quick curtsy and vanished onto the landing. A few moments later they heard Bruno barking as the front door banged shut behind her.
The wait for Chloe to return seemed interminable to Erik.
It was also awkward, as his mother seemed oblivious to any of his pointed suggestions that she should leave. He even offered to call her a cab, but as Christine whimpered every time he tried to untangle himself from her fierce embrace he was not even able to make the short walk to the stand and physically put Angelique inside the vehicle. Where she had had every intention of returning home before Christine's collapse, now she was apparently determined to stay and hear the doctor's diagnosis. Erik was grateful for her help, but he wanted nothing more now than to be alone with his wife, to speak with her privately and make an examination of his own if need be, just to have some idea of what might be wrong. That was not something he was about to undertake with his mother still in the house.
"I can see bits of you in her," Christine remarked quietly. She glanced up at him and smiled mischievously as he stared in horror. "It's true; she can be just as regal and commanding as you, and I think she likes to have her own way."
"If you are trying to compliment me, Christine, you are going entirely the wrong way about it," he whispered in her ear. After a pause, during which he carefully considered her words, he asked, "Can you really see similarities?"
"Well, I think you must take after your father in some ways, but yes, I can see a likeness in the way you both move, the way you speak sometimes. And your eyes, of course," she added. "They flash when you're angry. I thought I might have to separate the pair of you when you wouldn't let her put that pillow under my feet."
"If anyone is going to put a cushion under my wife's feet it will be me," Erik muttered grumpily.
Christine giggled, and though the sound was tired he was glad to hear it. "Oh, Erik! She is your mother; there is no need to be jealous. And she was right; I should keep my feet elevated."
"She is taking over entirely too much; you only met her properly last night."
She stroked the side of his face. "And what would you have done if she had not been here? When I - "
"I don't know." He took her hand away and brought it to his lips, kissing her fingers. "I don't even want to think about it."
"Then be nice to her. Please? She is trying her best."
Erik sighed heavily. "Very well. I am loath to admit it, but she does seem to have changed," he said. "I will, however, withhold judgement until I am certain the change is permanent."
The bedroom door opened before Christine could respond, to reveal Angelique carrying a tray. Erik growled something rude about his mother's inability to knock and Christine slapped his arm; the lack of strength in the blow was worrying. Angelique put the tray down on the nightstand and passed Christine a cup of fragrant tea; Erik's misshapen nose twitched and he recognised the scent of alcohol.
"It is only a splash of brandy," his mother explained, evidently having noticed his disapproving expression. "A little nip will do her no harm; she has suffered a shock."
Christine thanked her and took a sip, steadying the cup a moment later with a cry of surprise when Bruno leapt onto the bed. Erik realised he had not even noticed the spaniel enter the room; he lifted the little dog, stopping Bruno's attempts to climb onto Christine's lap, and set him at her side, where he curled up quite happily, his head resting on her leg. Her tired face lit up at the sight of him, and Erik did not have the heart to evict the spaniel, knowing from first-hand experience how quickly Bruno's presence could lift the spirits.
"I gave him some of the left-over chicken; I hope you don't mind," Angelique said. "The poor thing was pawing at the kitchen door and looking quite distressed; I think Chloe was in such a hurry she forgot he was down there and shut him in."
"Thank you for letting him out," Christine said, rubbing Bruno behind the ears. "And for feeding him; he does get forgotten about sometimes."
"That animal will eat us out of house and home," Erik grumbled half-heartedly.
Angelique looked wistful. "I sometimes wish we had had a dog, but my father disliked them. Having something to love unconditionally might have prepared me better for motherhood."
Erik and Christine exchanged a glance, neither knowing quite how to respond. It was with a silent prayer of thanks that Erik rose a few minutes later to answer the front door and admit Chloe and a rather frazzled-looking Doctor Lambert.
If the waiting for the doctor arrive had been difficult, having to pace up and down outside his own bedroom while the man examined Christine was intolerable. Bruno whined and scratched at the door and Erik knew exactly how he felt.
"Calm down," his mother said. "You will do Christine no good by working yourself into a state."
"Do you honestly think she will be all right?" he asked despite himself. He was at a loss; another woman would be more likely to be familiar with a woman's ailments. "She has not been herself for the last couple of weeks."
Angelique pursed her lips, and he had the strangest feeling she was keeping something from him. "It could be a number of things. I would not like to speculate; the doctor will tell us soon enough."
"You know, don't you?" Erik narrowed his eyes and stopped beside her chair, looming over her in the most intimidating manner he could muster. Irritatingly, she did not bat an eyelid; it was apparent that despite her new humility and remorse the trials of the last four decades had not entirely managed to destroy her steely core. "Tell me!"
"I have my suspicions, but I am not a doctor. Only he can confirm them," she told him. "I am not going to raise your hopes only to be proved wrong."
"Raise my... whatever are you talking about?" he demanded, and whirled around when the bedroom door opened and Doctor Lambert called his name. Erik hurried towards the man, who gave him a tired smile. "Christine! Is she - "
"Your wife is perfectly well, Monsieur Claudin," Lambert said, standing aside to let him enter the room. Though she still looked exhausted, Christine was sitting up in bed, her cheeks flushed and a big smile on her face. "She suggested you sit down before I tell you the news."
Erik frowned, feeling as though his brain was full of cotton wool. "News? I don't understand. The fainting, the sickness... surely there must be something wrong?"
Christine held out a hand to him. "Erik, come and sit down, please."
"The nausea will pass, and as long as Madame Claudin rests she will be absolutely fine," the doctor told Erik. "She has been overdoing things lately, letting herself become overwrought. Extreme swings of mood, sudden tears and anger, are quite natural under the circumstances."
"But, she is obviously ill!" Erik protested, refusing to allow Christine to pull him towards the bed. "Can you do nothing for her?"
Desperately, Christine tugged on his hand, and Lambert regarded him as though he were mad. "Monsieur, your wife is not ill at all," he said. "She is with child. You are going to be a father."