Skipping ahead a few months here.
Eponnia: You're quite safe; I promise this child will definitely not be called Gustave!
TIME PASSES BY
Looking back, Christine could not honestly have said if asked that the months in which she expected her first child were uneventful.
Very little of the fuss and bother was due to the baby, thankfully; when the uncomfortable and embarrassing bout of morning sickness had finally passed she settled down into what Doctor Lambert was glad to call an almost textbook pregnancy and Christine was not the only one who was relieved. Though he had promised not to try and cosset her too much, she knew that Erik was watching with a constantly anxious eye in case anything untoward should happen; he solicited the views and experiences of all the mothers he knew, and even quizzed Teddy about the various trials her sisters had gone through which was difficult for the Prima Donna as she had not been nearby for most of them, relying on vague letters for updates. In their own way, both his mother and Madame Giry did their best to reassure him and keep him calm but created more problems, eyeing each other as they did with a frosty gaze, circling around him like two lionesses with a single cub. At first their rivalry had been amusing, but when faced with them both across the table for Christmas dinner, having to try and keep them civil whenever references to Erik's childhood came up, Christine began to find it rather wearisome and said so to her husband. With a sigh, Erik assured her that he would deal with it; she never knew what was said but was glad when the ice apparently began to thaw, and conversation became a much easier task when one did not have to tiptoe around awkward topics. She sympathised with the ballet mistress; ever since he rescued her that horrible night from Joseph Buquet and his cronies Madame had taken Erik under her wing as much as he would allow and it must have been difficult to be suddenly faced with the woman who in her eyes had done him nothing but harm. Madame was fierce in her protection of those she regarded as her responsibility and no matter how much it irked him in her eyes Erik came into that category as much as the tiniest ballerina in the corps.
If she feared losing him to his mother, however, there was little to worry about on that score. Though he tolerated Angelique, it was becoming clear that Erik was unlikely ever to truly warm to her; he had softened considerably since their reunion, permitting her to visit the house every few weeks and even taking her to see some of the semi-regular concerts that Monsieur Marigny had introduced to the new season at the Populaire, but their relationship would never be a close one and he seemed content to leave it that way. Christine suspected that Angelique might have wished for something more, but her mother-in-law was an intelligent woman and could see that her past actions had destroyed any chance of a normal bond with her son so she accepted what contact he was prepared to allow, perhaps hoping that if she was granted more time circumstances might eventually change.
And they nearly did, though perhaps not in the way she might have wished. In February Christine became determined to give Erik the first proper birthday of his life, organising a romantic meal for them both on the fourteenth and giving Chloe the night off so that they might celebrate both his birth and St Valentine's Day in a more intimate fashion, or as close as they could get given her current state; her stomach was beginning to become awkward and her emotions were all over the place, especially when the baby started to move about. Erik's expression when he felt their child really kick for the first time, right in the middle of a tender embrace, was a picture Christine wished she could have frozen and had hung upon the wall; she had never seen such wonder and amazement in his eyes.
"My God... did you feel that?" he asked in a hushed whisper, his face inches from hers. She smiled, and took hold of his hand, laying it across her bump; he moved to lie beside her and his mouth fell open as the baby kicked again, his voice erupting in delighted laughter, the sound of which was possibly the most beautiful thing Christine thought she had ever heard at that moment. "It's incredible... quite incredible. Our child... it's really there!"
"Did you doubt it?" she enquired with a mischievous pout. "I haven't been padding myself out and pretending to complain about my aches and pains, you know."
Erik kissed her, his mismatched gaze alight with love as he pulled away. "I would never doubt you for a moment, mon ange, but now I can finally join you in this journey instead of just watching and wondering what is happening to you." His fingers caressed her stomach and she shivered. The baby within her shifted again, as though responding to its father's touch in a very different way. "Quite suddenly, it all seems terrifyingly real."
"Are you scared of being a father?"
He leaned down, pushing her hair aside with his nose and nibbling lightly on the shell of her ear. "I am absolutely petrified," he confided.
"Then that makes two of us," Christine told him, barely restraining the moan that blossomed in her throat as he moved his lips down to her neck. "I'm not entirely sure it's safe for us to be doing this."
"I'll be careful," he promised, and was about to shift his attention lower when they were both startled by the doorbell. Erik swore, reaching for his dressing gown while Christine turned on the lamp. "I sincerely hope that isn't Chloe."
"I made sure she had a key before she left. Keep the chain on when you answer it," she called as he stalked out onto the landing, receiving a brief wave in reply. Sitting up and pulling on her own wrap she listened intently but could only make out the vague rumble of two male voices, Erik's and another she didn't recognise. After a few minutes he returned, a yellow slip she realised was a telegram crumpled in one hand, and immediately opened the wardrobe door, throwing shirt and trousers onto the bed. "What's the matter? What's happened?"
He gave her the telegram and turned his attention to getting dressed. Christine squinted at the type; it was short, just a few words, and had come from the convent at St Cloud: Come at once. Madame Claudin fading. Not expected to last night. As the implication of the message dawned, she gasped and hurried from the bed herself, stumbling as her inflated stomach shifted her centre of gravity. "We must go straight away!" she cried, searching through her dresses for one that fitted; she had been letting them out gradually as her weight began to increase but was reluctant to ruin them all.
"I will go," Erik said, taking the gown from her hands and replacing it in the wardrobe. "You need your rest."
"You expect me to stay here while your mother is dying? Don't be so ridiculous; I'm coming with you!"
"Christine - "
"I am not staying in this house on my own while you go to St Cloud," she declared, grabbing the hanger again. "Either you take me with you or I hail the next cab and follow on my own. Whatever it takes, I am not staying here."
Erik closed his eyes for a moment with a growl of frustration before shaking his head. "You are a stubborn woman!"
"No more than you are a stubborn man!" Christine countered, and she began pulling her nightgown over her head. Evidently admitting defeat, however reluctantly, he helped her into the dress, even kneeling down to roll her stockings over her feet so that she would not have to waste time trying to manage alone; bending was becoming increasingly difficult. Miraculously, barely ten minutes after the telegram arrived they were in a four-wheeler, bowling down the deserted street in the direction of St Cloud, having left Bruno with a bone and a note to explain their absence to Chloe.
Upon reaching the convent it was obvious they were expected; though the rest of the building was dark there was a light in the lodge, and a sister emerged as they alighted from the cab, a middle-aged lady with a kindly face wearing the black habit and white cloak of the order. "The doctor is with her," she explained as she led them unerringly through the cloisters with the aid of only a small lantern. "We thought it best to inform you; Angelique has been so happy these last few months, talking of you all the time. I have never seen her so cheerful; she has spent most of her time here as though some great sorrow was weighing her down."
"The doctor, is he experienced in such matters?" Erik asked. They were walking so fast that Christine had trouble keeping up despite his hand under elbow. Belatedly realising he stopped to allow her to catch her breath.
"Doctor Bisset has been physician to our sisters for some years now; it was he who initially examined Angelique and made a diagnosis," the nun replied. "Unfortunately he believes there is little to be done; the condition is incurable. We pray for her daily."
"A lot of good that will do," he muttered; Christine caught his eye and silently shook her head. After a beat he gestured for their guide to continue and the rest of the short journey to Angelique's little cottage was passed with few words exchanged between them. Erik breathed a curse that would definitely not have been approved of had anyone but Christine heard it as they entered the little building and he saw the kind of life his mother had been living for so long.
The cottage was indeed tiny: no more than two rooms on the ground floor and two above, and so sparsely furnished it gave minimal comfort. The lintel was low and Erik almost remembered too late to duck his head; the room beyond could have been no more than ten feet square, with a stone fireplace, two shabby armchairs and a bright rag-rug which covered the floorboards in a pathetic attempt to inject some cheer into the bleak space. There were books, lots of them, with a large bible placed prominently on a table, lined up on shelves that filled most of one wall; on another were line drawings of a young woman that Christine guessed might have been sketched by Charles Claudin, for the style was similar to that of the pictures of Erik as a child which were carefully tucked away in her own bureau. A shawl lay over the back of one of the armchairs, and two pairs of sturdy black walking shoes were lined up beside the front door. On the mantelpiece, tucked behind a carriage clock that seemed to be running five minutes slow, was the copy of Le Monde that featured Didier Tolbert's interview, folded so that the photograph of Erik was clearly visible. Everything was old, worn and threadbare, the occupant's lack of money painfully obvious.
"Oh, Erik," Christine murmured, reaching for his hand. His face was set, expression unreadable.
"Angelique is upstairs," the nun said, moving towards the open staircase in the corner of the room. "We put her to bed after she collapsed in the chapel."
Wordlessly he followed, stepping aside for a moment to let Christine carefully climb the stairs before him. The landing was dark but light spilled from what must be the bedroom and they had barely reached the top of the stairs when a stooped gentleman with neatly combed white hair and a pair of gold pince-nez balanced on the end of his formidable nose emerged, blinking in the glow from the nun's oil lamp. He looked Erik up and down with some surprise, and Christine realised that the intimidating aspect her husband often radiated was magnified in such a small space; his tall figure, wrapped in his black cloak and with his face obscured by fedora and mask, filled the landing and must have seemed like a diabolical vision. The doctor actually took a step back.
"You are Madame Claudin's son?" he asked querulously, as though he was actually hoping the answer would be no.
Erik removed his hat and moved into the light. "How is she?"
"She had a fall earlier this evening, doubtless brought on by her worsening condition. I take it that you are aware she has a cancer of the breast?" the doctor enquired when Erik said nothing. "Sadly it is well advanced and there is little anyone can do; all that is possible now is to keep her comfortable until the end comes."
"And that is likely to be soon?" Christine tightened her grip on Erik's fingers, memories of her father's death surfacing. The cold fear that had closed around her heart then began to creep its way through her veins.
In reply Doctor Bisset stood aside and allowed them to enter the bedroom. It was just as plain as the room downstairs, little more than a nun's cell with an iron bedstead, a nightstand holding a basin and ewer and a small cupboard in one corner. A crucifix was prominent on the wall above the bed and Christine's free hand almost automatically made the sign of the cross at the sight of it. Angelique looked small and frail beneath the starched white sheets and a crocheted blanket; her hand lay above the covers and Christine moved forwards to take it, relieved that the dry, papery skin was warm to the touch. Her mother-in-law did not react; though she appeared to be breathing steadily her face was slack, the pale hair, released from its usual bun, that fell around it giving her an incongruously girlish aspect.
"She does not look as though she is in pain," Erik remarked, coming to stand on the other side of the bed. "Is that normal?"
"Perfectly normal. I doubt if she is aware of what is happening to her," the doctor replied. "She has not regained consciousness since she collapsed. It is quite probable that she will just slip away without waking up again."
Christine frowned. Her father had not died easily, it was true; he had been in considerable discomfort, continually restless and drifting in and out of consciousness for several hours, but she could recall the details as though it had all happened yesterday and Angelique did not have the appearance of someone dying from a malignant cancer. She looked entirely too peaceful, as if she were merely sleeping; Christine wondered if she had been drugged. "Erik," she said quietly, and he quickly came to her side. When she spoke again she was careful to pitch her voice low enough that Doctor Bisset would not be able to hear her. "This doesn't look right to me."
As she explained her confusion and experience of such matters his eyebrow drew sharply downwards and the corner of his mouth mirrored it. Straightening, he moved to the head of the bed, and after looking thoughtfully down at his mother for a moment he dropped into a crouch, sliding an arm beneath her shoulders and lifting her away from the pillows. The doctor watched him in consternation as Erik gently felt the back of Angelique's head, his long fingers moving like a surgeon's across the base of her skull and up towards her temple. Christine heard him give a hiss of satisfaction, and drew back slightly as he stood, looming over the elderly doctor in the tiny room.
"You believe my mother is dying, hmm?"he asked, and Bisset nodded. "Have you, by any chance, examined her properly tonight?"
"There was no need, Monsieur, I am her physician and I know her medical history. I have been expecting such a crisis for some months," the doctor babbled, his eyes wide with alarm at being faced with such an apparition. The nun who had brought them to the cottage backed away onto the landing, one hand fumbling for the cross she wore around her neck.
"Really, Monsieur? I am no doctor, but it appears to me that this lady is unconscious from a blow to the head, not because she is reaching the end of her life. If you look for yourself you will the find the bump where her skull struck something hard, probably the chapel floor!" Erik snapped, thrusting out a hand in the direction of the bed; almost automatically Bisset hurried over to his patient as if encouraged by some force beyond his control. As he made his own examination his mouth fell open in shock.
"Good Lord, sir, you are right! How did I miss such a thing?"
"You may consider that question on your way home," Erik told him coldly. "I would like you to leave, and you are never to attend Madame Claudin again. I will engage a physician who is rather more capable of making an accurate diagnosis!"
"But Monsieur - " the old man began to protest but Erik just glared at him. Before her husband had a chance to grab the doctor by the collar and physically remove him Christine decided to step in.
"I think you had better go, Monsieur," she told him. "Your services are no longer required."
Bisset gaped at them both for a long moment before turning and departing as fast as his legs could carry him, nearly knocking the nun aside as he grabbed his hat and Gladstone bag. She in turn stared at Erik, whose face was black with anger, and crossed herself with a shaking hand as though she expected him to reach out and drag her down into the fires of hell.
"Thank you, Sister," he said, his voice smooth and calm in marked contrast to his expression. "We will look after Madame Claudin from here. Your assistance is appreciated."
Wordlessly she nodded and hurried off after the doctor, repeatedly muttering a Hail Mary under her breath. Christine waited until the front door shut behind her before saying, "What should we do now?"
Erik had opened the drawer in the nightstand and was rummaging through the contents. "We take her home with us, of course. I'm not leaving her here if that is the kind of medical expertise they offer." He found a small green bottle and held it up to the light, peering at the label. "The cab driver should be waiting; I paid him enough for his pains. Tomorrow we'll call Lambert in and ask his opinion; I don't trust anything that old fool said. If she's dying, I'm a Dutchman."
"She's not well, that much is obvious," Christine mused.
"And yet she is still living months if not years after the original diagnosis." He unstoppered the bottle and she smelt the familiar sharp scent of ammonia; carefully he held it under his mother's nose and within a few moments Angelique's eyelids began to flutter. "I have lived in a cellar too long not to be able to smell a rat."
And he was right.
Despite an obvious concussion Angelique recovered enough to protest when Erik insisted upon taking her back to Neuilly with him, but she did not object to seeing Doctor Lambert; though he could not entirely disprove Bisset's diagnosis he thought a cancer to be unlikely given the length of time she had been experiencing her symptoms, suggesting that they might in fact be the product of a digestive disorder or even connected to the nervous trouble she admitted to suffering since before Erik was born. As soon as she was able she declared her intention of returning to her cottage at the convent, insisting it was where she felt most comfortable even when Erik offered to find her a house nearby so that they would be able to reach her easily should there be a recurrence of that night's events; she thanked him but refused, claiming that she was too old to change her living arrangements now. There was no question of her remaining with them; the month she stayed as a guest was strain enough on everyone's nerves and it had quickly become obvious that two such forceful personalities as her and Erik under the same roof just would not work, especially with Christine's emotions in such a tumult as her pregnancy advanced.
"You do care, don't you?" she asked Erik as they waved Angelique off on her way back to St Cloud in the middle of March. After an argument he did manage to persuade her to accept his suggestion that he pay for the cottage to be modernised, promising as well a monetary gift to the convent as they had allowed her to live on a peppercorn rent for so long; though she protested vociferously Christine did not miss the relief in her mother-in-law's eyes when Erik spoke of indoor plumbing and gas lamps. Hauling water from a well and carrying it across the garden, not to mention up the stairs, must have been a herculean task for a woman of her age in precarious health.
"What makes you say that?" he said gruffly, shutting the door.
"Because if you didn't you would have allowed that doctor to carry on as before and damn the outcome."
He raised an eyebrow. "Christine Claudin, I don't believe I have ever heard you curse before."
"I must be picking up bad habits. I wonder who from?" She smiled and wrapped her arms around his waist, preventing him from just walking away from the question. "Admit it. You don't want her to die, do you?"
"I might have done once, but... she is my only living relative and while I don't think I will ever love her I don't..." He sighed. "I don't hate her any more."
"That's good," Christine told him, pressing her cheek to his chest; after a moment he began to stroke her hair. The baby seemed aware of the heightened emotion in the hall and decided at that moment to kick so hard it made her gasp. Erik looked down at her in alarm and she laughed. "I want Angelique to meet her grandchild, but I don't know if she will approve of the career that seems in store for them: if it's a boy he's going to make an excellent football player!"
"No son of mine will be doing anything of the kind," he said, shuddering. "Thankfully the ability to kick a ball around on a lawn will never be a legitimate way of earning a living."
"Spoilsport." She gave him a pout and it was his turn to laugh. "Since your mind is on higher matters, are you ever going to let me hear that aria you haven't been composing for the last two weeks? I assume it's going to form part of your magnum opus."
"I hardly think I can call it that just yet; it took me ten years to write Don Juan Triumphant and this is going to be even better. But," Erik added, disentangling himself from her embrace and taking her arm through his, leading her towards the music room, "I believe I may allow you to hear a very special preview..."
"So, have you decided on names yet?"Meg enquired, folding another set of baby clothes and laying them carefully in the chest of drawers. The room that Christine originally picked out as a nursery had been painted in a sunny shade of yellow and was awaiting its new occupant; a gleaming cradle, carved from oak with a pattern of leaves and fruit trailing across the sides and over the headboard had been made up with embroidered white linen while an ingenious mobile of stars and angels that Erik had made hung from the ceiling, ready to entertain and entrance. Throwing himself into the preparations, when he wasn't writing lullabies he spent hours in the workshop he had put together in the cellar, creating all kinds of mechanical marvels; Christine's contribution so far was one knitted elephant, and even he was a little rough around the edges, one ear accidentally sewn on back-to-front.
She sat in the rocking chair, reluctant to move far now that she couldn't see her own feet and feeling ugly and bloated despite Erik's constant assurances that she was still beautiful; for the last few days she had been experiencing occasional phantom contractions which were not helping her mood, causing her snap at everyone and feel horribly guilty afterwards. Missing the Opera and her friends she was glad that now the season was over Meg had come to keep her company; Erik, having guessed that she needed female reassurance had issued the invitation and Meg's presence had the added benefit of allowing him to retreat into his music without feeling that he was neglecting his wife.
"I have a few ideas but nothing definite," she said now in answer to Meg's question. "If it's a girl I do want her to have my mother's name; I think Papa would like that."
"What does Erik think?"
"He says he will be happy with whatever I choose but I'd rather he have some input." Christine sighed. "As long as he doesn't want to call her Adalgisa or Amneris I don't really mind."
Meg snorted. "Or Desdemona."
"Aspasia!" Meg proclaimed; jumping to her feet she covered her heart with one hand and flung out an arm in melodramatic fashion. She strode back and forth across the room, her chest thrown out in imitation of La Carlotta. "Desdemona Esmerelda Papagena Aspasia Claudin!"
"Oh, Meg, you are dreadful!" Christine exclaimed, wiping at the tears of laughter that were running down her face. "As if anyone would wish such a terrible name upon an innocent child!"
Spotting the elephant on the dresser Meg snatched it up and held it aloft. "If it's a boy you could always call it Hannibal." She broke into song, this time recreating some of the movements from the slave girls' ballet. "The trumpeting elephants sound – hear, Romans, now and tremble! Hark to their step on the ground - "
"I'm hoping I won't be so cruel to my own offspring," Christine said firmly.
They sat in companionable silence for a while, continuing to sort through the boxes of baby things. Madame Giry, as usual, had sent so much clothing that it seemed she had spent her every waking moment since learning that Christine was expecting in making tiny nightgowns and caps; there were enough knitted bootees to keep half the children in Paris warm. In contrast, Angelique contented herself with several blankets made of crocheted squares, the two women seemingly having made a pact not to tread on one another's toes.
"Where is Erik, anyway?" Meg asked when they were finished and she had helped Christine back down the stairs to the parlour. "He can't be here; there's no music."
Christine was concentrating on not missing the next step; she tensed as the by-now-familiar pain of another false contraction struck her. "He went into Paris this morning; the managers wanted to discuss the plans for the new season and then he and Jimmy were seeing his music publisher. I made him promise to bring Teddy back with them for dinner; I haven't seen her in weeks and I need to hear some gossip."
"Shame on you, Christine; you always used to be above such things!"
"I know, but Teddy always makes me laugh." Desperate to relieve her swollen ankles Christine sank into an armchair; she grimaced when her friend pushed a tapestry stool under her feet. "Oh, I do so hate having to rely on other people all the time," she groaned. "My back aches, none of my clothes fit so I have to wear sacks that make me feel like a galleon in full sail and I don't walk any more, I waddle. How can Erik still find me attractive?"
"You of all people should know that true attraction sees beyond superficial appearance," Meg chided. "Do you honestly believe Erik loves you any less because you've temporarily lost your figure?"
"Well, no, but..."
"No buts, Christine Daae Claudin! Stop feeling sorry for yourself; the baby will be here in no time and all this will be just an unpleasant memory."
Christine laid her head back against the cushions and groaned again. "There speaks a woman who has never been pregnant! Meg, you are really not helping."
Meg just laughed. "I'll go and make some tea. Does Chloe know we're expecting guests?"
"Yes, but do tell her not to go to any trouble. It's just an informal dinner with friends," Christine insisted as the little ballerina made her way to the door. "Whatever she was intending to make will stretch, I'm sure."
"I'll tell her," Meg promised, adding thoughtfully, "You know, even a year ago if you'd told me Erik would have friends, real friends, like anyone else, I don't think I would have believed you."
"I don't think I would have believed me, either," Christine told Bruno, who was dozing on the rug. Though he still avoided large gatherings, understandably uncomfortable with public scrutiny, it was obvious that Erik enjoyed the company of James and Teddy; both were plain-speaking people, Jimmy's flattery always deliberately laid on with a trowel and easy to see through, and Christine guessed that their lack of artifice was what attracted him. The fact that they had seen him without his mask and still accepted him almost without a second thought also counted highly in their favour; besides the Girys they were the only people in his life who had ever done so, doubtless making their friendship even more precious in Erik's eyes.
She was looking forward to seeing Theodora again; though she worked until her fatigue and expanding figure had made continuing with even the smallest role impossible it was still over a month since she had last been able to chat with the garrulous Prima Donna. Christine was also desperate to hear how Hortense and her baby were faring; the ballerina had written her a hurried note just after the birth, but due to her own circumstances Christine had not been able to visit and was eager to see the little boy that Hortense had humbly asked if she might call Erik. When he saw the letter, Erik himself had barely managed to hide his shock; his voice, when he told Christine to thank Hortense and tell her he would be very proud to have a namesake, was thick with emotion.
Tired of just sitting around and waiting she decided to get up and attempt to walk about the room a little. Carefully she took her feet from the stool and manoeuvred herself into an upright position with the aid of the chair back; Bruno watched her curiously from one eye, head resting on his paws. Christine shuffled her way across to the window, one hand resting in the small of her back for support and wishing that Erik had not gone out. Doctor Lambert only the day before had assured them both that the baby was not likely to put in appearance for a few days yet, which was the only reason Erik allowed James and Messieurs Marigny and Fontaine to talk him into attending the meetings; he had wanted to remain at home to be on hand should Christine need him, unusual for a husband but typical of the man.
She gasped as the annoying pain came again, stronger this time, and belatedly realised that they were coming more frequently; the last one had been barely thirty minutes ago rather than the hours that had separated them up till now. Feeling panic begin to rise, for the midwife lived five miles away and there was no sign of Erik returning, Christine called out for Meg. Startled, Bruno sat up and began to paw at her skirts, whining in confusion as she screamed her friend's name again. As Meg's worried face appeared around the door Christine felt something trickling down her legs and soaking her petticoats; the little ballerina caught hold of her outstretched hands as she gasped,
"It's coming! The baby's coming!"