The final chapter title comes from Chris Rea's greatest hits album. It seemed appropriate.
EPILOGUE: NEW LIGHT THROUGH OLD WINDOWS
"It was a lovely service, Christine," Meg said as the two ladies strolled in the garden, enjoying the late summer warmth. "Allegra behaved herself beautifully, and Erik looked so proud..!"
Christine smiled, remembering her husband's reluctance to hand their daughter over to Father Jérôme for the baptism. "He is; terribly proud. And it's his voice Allegra responds to; she's going to be her Papa's girl, I can tell. The moment he's near she has eyes for no one else. Well, except when he's wearing his mask," she added, pulling a face. "We had a little tantrum before we left for the church, until Erik managed to persuade her that it really was him and not a white-faced stranger come to cuddle her."
"I will admit I was quite astonished when you told me he had agreed not to wear the mask in the house any more." Meg glanced across the lawn to the little group sitting on a blanket in the shade; Erik, his face bare, had the white bundle that was Allegra in his arms and even from this distance her babbling laughter could be heard as he bounced her gently up and down. Teddy was kneeling to coo at the baby over his shoulder, waving her fingers at her little goddaughter; Allegra's godfather, James Patterson-Smythe, was stretched out on the rug with his hands folded on his waistcoat, his snores lifting the newspaper spread over his face in a strange, compelling kind of rhythm. Beside him Bruno lay with his head resting on his paws, tail beating a languid tattoo. "Everything has changed so much."
"I know." Christine sighed. "I can hardly believe that two years ago I was engaged to Raoul and shaking with terror every time Erik's name was mentioned. It seems like something that happened in another world, another lifetime."
"You don't miss it, though, do you? You don't sometimes wish you became a Vicomtess?" Meg enquired, giving her a sidelong glance.
Christine stared at her, scandalised. "Of course not! How can you even ask such a question, Meg?"
"Just checking," her friend said with a mischievous grin, and Christine lightly slapped her arm.
"I do miss Raoul occasionally, though," she confessed. "I'm glad he could come today." They passed the open windows that led to the music room on their perambulations and Christine lifted her parasol to smile at the Vicomte de Chagny, who sat there in Erik's leather armchair, listening politely to the reminiscences of the two black-clad women who flanked him on either side. The widows Giry and Claudin were anxious to keep out of the sun and as Angelique was quite in awe of the distinguished guest Raoul, as was his wont, had graciously offered to keep them company, even if it meant he had been able to spend little time with the child he generously agreed to sponsor.
Raoul's visit two months' earlier had been as much of a surprise to her as Christine's new status as a mother was a shock to him. Back from the sea, he turned up on the doorstep one afternoon bearing flowers and a disconcerted expression at the loud wailing that reverberated through the house; that he had been stunned to hear Chloe's explanation was an understatement, and Christine descended to the parlour once Allegra was settled to find him white-faced with a large brandy in one hand. Though Raoul and Erik agreed to bury the hatchet over dinner after giving their joint interview to Didier Tolbert, it was quite obvious that the idea his former rival might actually manage to father a child was one the Vicomte had never considered. Once he saw Allegra, however, Raoul's heart melted much as had done those of everyone else with whom she came into contact, and he was soon smitten, so much so that Christine impulsively asked if he would like to become the little girl's godfather; when he stared at her in surprise she thought he might cry, but instead a beaming smile took possession of his features and he nodded proudly. A few hours later Christine wondered whether she had done the right thing and was dreading telling Erik; she was consequently not best pleased when he returned home and it transpired that he had asked Jimmy to perform the same office. After a standoff, during which neither was willing to back down and it looked as though storming off to separate rooms and slamming the doors was the likely conclusion, Chloe, busy polishing the dining table, timidly suggested that perhaps they might have two sets of godparents, just as her brother had done. Christine was so relieved she could have kissed the embarrassed maid.
The christening was an entirely more private affair than their wedding had been, the guests limited to close friends and family. Meg and Teddy were the obvious choice for Allegra's two godmothers, Angelique and Madame already bearing the connection of grandmother and honorary grandmother respectively, Christine regarding the ballet mistress as such in the absence of her own mother. Hortense, though invited, was unable to attend due to baby Erik's worrying ill-health; Christine last saw the little boy a few weeks before and his apparent slow development and lack of response to outside stimulus had concerned her so much that she insisted he see a physician. Though Doctor Lambert was far from an expert in such matters, he believed that the baby might well suffer from a defect to either his sight or hearing, probably caused by trauma whilst in the womb; he suggested a specialist but poor Hortense was beside herself, sobbing that she would never be able to afford the fees and wondering aloud what was to become of her child. Christine could not bear to see her in such a state, and the thought that such a sweet natured little boy, who though it took time always smiled when she picked him up, might be permanently damaged was so horrible she could hardly entertain it; she was almost in tears herself when she told Erik what had become of his tiny namesake. He said nothing, but it was obvious that he had been affected by the poor child's likely fate, and though he never spoke of it to anyone before long baby Erik was being treated by the leading specialist in the field. If Hortense had been grateful to him before, now it was apparent that she virtually worshipped the ground upon which he walked; it was hard to believe she had ever sneered at and scorned his very presence in the Opera.
"Do you miss the other side of it?" Meg asked now. "The mystery, the darkness, the house by the lake?"
"If you are asking whether I miss the Phantom, in truth, no, I don't," Christine said, sitting down on the stone balustrade that ran along the edge of the little terrace. From here she could watch the little group on the lawn, see her daughter's pudgy fists waving in the air as Erik sang softly to her. "I'm glad that side of Erik has been laid to rest. But as for the house... I asked him to take me down there, just one last time, on our anniversary. He didn't want to but I nagged him for a while and eventually he gave in. That was why we asked you and Madame to look after Allegra for us."
"You don't have to keep calling her 'Madame', you know, Christine," Meg told her as she settled at her friend's side. "It's so formal, and I know Maman sees you as the sister I never had."
Christine smiled ruefully. "To be perfectly honest, it would feel strange calling her anything else. She has always been Madame to me."
"Well, she doesn't expect Erik to call her that, and you're his wife so there's no reason why you should."
"Even if she did want him to call her Madame, I have no doubt that he would refuse, if only to annoy her," Christine said with a giggle.
Meg laughed too. "Yes, that's true enough. So, what happened when you returned to the cellars? Or are the details too scandalous for my delicate ears?"
Christine felt herself blush. "Meg!" she exclaimed, and then sighed. "I was so looking forward to seeing it all again: the boat, the candles, the house... but it just wasn't the same. The magic seemed to have left when Erik did, and now all that remains is a still, black lake and almost empty rooms inhabited by spiders and dust motes. It looked so forlorn that I just couldn't bear to stay. Being there again just brought it home to me that we can never go back."
"Do you want to go back?"
After a pause, Christine shook her head. "Not really. However beautiful it seemed it was an illusion, just smoke and mirrors designed to dazzle me and distract Erik from what he believed would be his ultimate fate. How could I even consider asking him to return to that dark prison now that he has finally found acceptance? I loved the house by the lake, but I loved it because it was an extension of Erik; without his presence it is nothing more than a shell, a magic trick waiting to be brought back to life with some incredible sleight of hand. I don't need it when I have the magician by my side."
Meg nodded appreciatively. "Good answer."
"I thought I was attracted by the darkness, that it resonated somewhere inside me, but now I know the attraction was Erik himself. I will be happy wherever he is." Christine smiled as her husband stood, rocking Allegra gently and turning to meet Raoul who had excused himself in order to pay some attention to his goddaughter. Watching the two men carefully Christine could see the hesitance and caution on Erik's face, his expression for once clear in the glorious dappled sunlight as he released his most precious possession into the arms of his ex-rival; to his credit, Raoul barely flinched at the sight of Erik's distortion and Christine silently thanked him for his discretion and self-control. It seemed that they had all grown up over the last year, no matter what their age; none of them had remained untouched by their experiences at the Opera.
Getting to her feet she approached them, hearing Meg follow; by the time she reached Erik's side Allegra was waving her pudgy little fingers towards the pin in Raoul's cravat, her jackdaw eye caught by the emerald as it usually was by anything even remotely shiny. When it became clear she was not going to be allowed to have it she began to wail, her face screwing up and quickly turning red with the effort; the change in her mood was so sudden that Raoul nearly dropped her, and handed her back to her father with rather unseemly haste. Erik gave him an evil grin.
"Perhaps you should have made that pin your christening gift instead of the silver porringer," he said, and Raoul shot him a glare, self-consciously straightening his waistcoat.
"Had the two of you produced triplets, I might have been inclined to do so," the Vicomte replied. "The value of the gift would naturally increase along with the number of children and the effort involved."
"I think someone is hungry," Christine observed, carefully taking her daughter from Erik and cooing in an attempt to placate the distressed baby. She gathered up the christening shawl that Angelique had painstakingly crocheted and turned to carry Allegra into the house. "If you will excuse us, gentlemen? Come on, my darling, we'll leave Papa and Uncle Raoul to tease each other in peace."
"Christine is blooming," she heard Raoul remark as she walked away. "Motherhood obviously suits her. Will she ever return to the stage?"
"Of course, when she is ready," Erik said. "After spending so long training such a fine instrument it would be careless, practically criminal, of me to allow Christine's voice to be silenced. Music is in her blood as much as it is in mine, and I am sure she will be unable to resist its call for long."
There was a pause, and then, just as Christine had sat down in a secluded corner of the room and unbuttoned her dress, Raoul enquired lightly, "So, tell me: when is Allegra's audition for the Populaire? I'm sure you started her education as soon as possible; have we a future Elissa in our midst, or is it too early to tell?"
Christine was gratified to hear the sound of Erik's laughter drifting on the afternoon breeze. When she returned to the terrace Raoul was waiting for her, watching Erik as he took a turn about the garden with Teddy, the Prima Donna dwarfed by his tall frame at her side. Once they might have appeared to some like the spider and the fly, but not now. Teddy tucked her arm through Erik's companionably, her other hand waving enthusiastically in the air; Christine wondered if she was once more extolling the virtues of a trip to London, still trying to persuade him that the directors of the Royal Opera House could do wonders for his career.
"He's changed," Raoul said before Christine could speak. "I never thought I'd say it, but he has. He's not the man who tormented us at the Opera, not any more. I've never seen him so relaxed, so..."
"Content?" she asked, and he nodded.
"It's you," he told her. "Your influence can do so much good; that is plain for all to see. You've tamed him, made him human."
"I can't take all the credit." Christine shifted the sleepy Allegra on her hip. "It would never have happened if he had been beyond redemption. I just helped him to become the man he always wanted to be; the man he never imagined he could be. The potential was there inside him, but he didn't know how to reach it. Erik isn't perfect; none of us is. But he tries his best, and that's all anyone can do."
"I think he might even be putting some weight on," Raoul said with a grin. "Who would have thought it?"
She laughed. "That is down to Chloe, not me. Even I have never been able to convince Erik to eat, but she seems to have a way of coaxing him into trying food that verges on witchcraft."
"You're happy, Little Lotte," he said, looking at her fondly. "Anyone with half an eye can see that."
"I am. I love and am loved in return. I cannot ask for more than that," Christine replied honestly. Allegra began to grizzle again so she shushed her gently, softly singing one of the lullabies Erik had written and laying her daughter down in the bassinet that stood beside the piano. In the dining room she could hear Angelique and Madame Giry fussing about with plates and cutlery and guessed they were bringing out the cake over which Chloe had been labouring for most of the previous day. She was glad that the two women had managed to find some common ground at last, united in their mutual adoration of the newest member of the family. For a while she had worried that Allegra's presence might only serve to reignite their jealousy of one another but thankfully the opposite seemed to have happened, much to the relief of everyone. Their only rivalry appeared to be in seeing who could spoil the little girl the most; Christine knew she would have to keep a close eye on them or face trouble with her daughter in the future.
Raoul somehow divined the direction her thoughts had taken as he watched her tuck Allegra in. "You could have knocked me down with a feather when you introduced me to Madame Claudin," he said. "I got the impression that the Girys were the only family Erik had."
"I think they are more like a family to him than his own could ever be. His mother's presence has not changed that."
"What is his father like?" Raoul frowned, as if trying to conjure the man in his mind's eye. "I can't imagine."
"Like Erik, I believe, in appearance at least. I would have liked to meet him but unfortunately that is impossible now," Christine said, remembering the journey the three of them, with Allegra in her perambulator, had made to the bleak little cemetery on the outskirts of Rouen to pay their respects to Charles Claudin. The sun beating down on the weathered graves had not cheered the place, instead withering the flowers that a few faithful mourners had left to remember their loved ones, drying the grass and crumbling the mortar supporting the leaning headstones. Erik's father's grave was overgrown, weeds almost obscuring the inscription on the plain marble slab; it was clear that no one had been there in some time. Angelique, full of remorse at having neglected the place for so long, fell to her knees and began pulling at the plants that were choking the plot, only stopping when Erik went to speak to the grave-diggers in their hut and returned with a spade; wordlessly he produced a pen-knife from his pocket and handed it to her and Christine watched as between them they cleared the grave, revealing a memorial that was barely more effusive than that of her own father, bearing the name of Charles Etienne Claudin, his profession and the date of his death. Knowing that Angelique had been estranged from her husband when he died, Christine could not help wondering who had arranged the funeral and the stone but she did not ask the question. They all returned to Paris in a sombre mood that day.
Though he did not speak of it, she could tell that over the past few weeks Erik had found a peace, of sorts. It seemed that the visit to Rouen and his reunion with Angelique, as equals instead of cold-hearted mother and desperate-to-be-loved child, had finally laid a few ghosts to rest for him; he no longer had to wonder what he had done wrong, what his life might have been under different circumstances. Christine, dusting the music room one day, came across pages of drawings, designs for a grand mausoleum with the names Claudin and Daae inscribed side by side upon its doors; she had never seen any of his architectural work before, and found herself fascinated by the lines and curves and scribbled annotations regarding construction and materials in Erik's fluid hand. To one side he had jotted down the dates of birth and death of his father and hers, presumably so that they might be carved upon a memorial tablet within the tomb. It was beautiful and imposing, fantastical and grandiose; an impossibility, for there was nowhere to build such a monument, but Christine smiled, her heart warmed by the knowledge that a wish for their families to be joined in such a way, that the lives of their respective fathers deserved a more fitting memorial, was in his heart as well as hers. Carefully she tucked the plans back where she had found them, beneath scattered pages of manuscript paper covered with staves and notes that seemed to have flown straight from Erik's mind with barely the time to render them passably in ink, and carried on with her housework, humming softly to herself.
"Here comes the cake," Raoul remarked, returning her to the present, and she turned to see Madame Giry emerging onto the terrace with a tray, upon which sat a wonderful creation decorated with marzipan and white icing, sugar flowers that looked almost real scattered across the top. "Your cook seems to have excelled herself."
"Chloe is more than just a cook, and I think she may have missed her vocation," Christine said, rushing to take the tray from the ballet mistress, who shooed her away, setting the cake down on the wrought-iron table that stood by the French windows, beside the wine glasses that were already there. Angelique followed bearing plates, cutlery and napkins, and behind her came a blushing Chloe in the midst of removing her apron, evidently having been run to ground in the kitchen and persuaded to join in the celebration. Hearing Raoul's praise she turned an even deeper shade of red and bobbed an unsteady curtsy.
"I think that's everything," Madame announced, looking around. "What did we do with that champagne?"
"Allow me, Madame," Raoul said with a smile, heading back inside to fetch the bottle James had brought as a gift for Erik and Christine, having decided with his own unique logic that they deserved a present as much as Allegra.
The ballet mistress thanked him, turning her attention to the missing members of the party. "Will someone please wake Monsieur Patterson-Smythe?" she asked wearily, spotting the American stretched out on the lawn.
"Just tip some water over him," Theodora suggested as she and Erik approached and Meg jumped up to do her mother's bidding. The Prima Donna beamed, and turned to Christine, declaring, "I think I may have finally persuaded your husband to come to London for the winter season next year! You'll love it, I promise; I'll take you to all the fabulous places I know. We'll have such fun!"
"I thought the whole point of the jaunt was to work?" Jimmy enquired, arriving as Erik rolled his eyes heavenward. "If it's a holiday you want we can go next week; I've got nothing important planned."
"And cross the Channel with a three month old baby?" Christine said, amused.
"Allegra will love it too," Teddy insisted. "There's this wonderful toyshop - "
"I think we'd better wait until she's old enough to do more than watch other people playing with her toys," Erik replied firmly. "She might become jealous. And besides," he added when Theodora pouted, "If you wish me to write you an aria with which to dazzle London audiences you will have to wait a little. Such things take time, and I am already engaged upon a major work."
"Your elusive second opera?" asked Raoul, struggling with the champagne cork.
Jimmy frowned. "'Second opera'? What became of the first?"
"It died upon its first performance," Erik said before Christine, reaching quickly for his hand, could even open her mouth. "It was perhaps a little ahead of its time. I do not intend history to repeat itself."
The champagne came open with a loud 'pop' and an exuberant spray of fizz that soaked Raoul's cuff, much to his annoyance, and trickled onto the flagstones. Angelique passed him a glass and he filled it with a flourish, presenting it to Christine. "And will this opera have a role in it for our own Swedish Nightingale?"
"Of course. " Erik slipped an arm around Christine's waist, drawing her close and accepting his own glass of champagne. "Christine's return to the stage will be the triumph of the century, the like of which Paris will have never seen. The whole of Europe will clamour to hear her."
"I'll drink to that," Jimmy said, taking a sip and nodding appreciatively at his own good taste.
Christine shook her head. "I don't need to be a star," she said. "I never wanted to push myself forwards, or be alone in the limelight. I enjoyed my time there, of course, but there is more to life than being the darling of the critics."
"Well said, sweetheart," Teddy told her. "But you know you belong on that stage, don't you? I never saw anyone look so natural; if you're not Prima Donna sometime soon I'll eat my hat, and I'm fond of this one so don't make me do it." She winked and Christine couldn't help but laugh.
"Maybe in the future," she conceded. "Just at the moment I have everything I need. I can wait for my husband to write me the perfect role, even if it takes twenty years."
Erik pretended to look affronted. "Even the last opera didn't take that long."
"Well, perhaps if you actually decided on a subject..."
"I have to consider it carefully, my dear," he told her. "Everything must be perfect; I have no desire to have to discard six months' hard work again."
"I think we need a toast," Angelique announced before they could begin again the good-natured bickering in which they had occasionally indulged since Erik announced his intention of beginning what he hoped would be his magnum opus, a piece to cast Don Juan Triumphant completely into shadow. "Does anyone have any suggestions as to what it should be?"
"Allegra, naturally," said Madame Giry firmly. "She is the reason we are all gathered here today."
"It's a shame she's not awake to appreciate it," Meg remarked, bending over the bassinet with a fond smile.
Christine pulled a face. "Yes. If she's sleeping now that means she'll keep me up half the night again."
"Well, then, by all means let's drink to my goddaughter," Raoul said, lifting his champagne flute. "To Allegra Christina Antoinette Claudin; may she have a happy, healthy life full of music and song."
"Allegra!" everyone chorused, with much clinking of glasses. Christine glanced towards her daughter, holding her breath in case she was woken by the sudden noise, but Allegra slumbered happily on, completely unaware of the good wishes surrounding her. It might have been fanciful, but for a moment it felt as though the warmth of those wishes, and of the affection which prompted them, almost seemed to have settled around Christine's shoulders like a comfortable old blanket, or a protective cocoon. They had been through a lot over the past eighteen months, Raoul and the Girys included, more than some would scarcely credit, and had suffered horror and heartache that none of them would wish to recall. Now, however, surrounded by the people she cared about most in the world, Christine could forget all of that, happy to bask in their love and knowing that the dark days were finally behind them.
Small talk had broken out amongst her guests, and Raoul was busy refilling glasses as Madame Giry handed the knife to Erik so that he might cut the christening cake on Allegra's behalf. On the other side of the table Angelique was smiling broadly, as she had been almost ever since the birth of her granddaughter, the shadow of Erik's childhood at last beginning to fade with the advent of a new generation. As Christine watched she said something to him and he bent his head to listen, an answering smile touching his lips as he nodded, resting his hand on hers for the briefest of moments; between anyone else it would have been a commonplace exchange but as Erik made a comment under his breath and his mother laughed Christine felt her heart swell with pride, knowing how much courage and generosity of spirit starting the relationship anew had taken him. It would have been easy to turn away, refuse all further contact, and such a reaction would have been understandable, expected even given what had occurred between them; that Erik had not, that he had been willing to give his mother a second chance, even if it had not been ultimately done for her, was something for which Christine would forever be grateful. It was perhaps the biggest, the final step that proved he really did wish to lay the past to rest.
"I would like to propose another toast," she said loudly, and everyone stopped to look at her in surprise, including her husband. She held out her hand to him and he took it, returning the knife to Madame and allowing himself to be drawn to Christine's side. "If you will all indulge me for a moment," she continued, smiling up at him, "We are standing here in the daylight, that wonderful daylight that blesses and nurtures us all, but it might not have been this way. Some have had cause to shy away from the light, believing erroneously that they were unworthy of its touch, and to them I would just like to say: no more talk of darkness. It is behind us, and we have no more need to hide."
"Hear, hear," Jimmy automatically agreed, though he looked a little bemused; he could not help but misunderstand her implications but there were others present who knew exactly what she was talking about. Madame Giry nodded, Meg smiled and even Raoul raised his glass slightly in acknowledgement. Christine looked up at Erik, whose expression was veering between startled and slightly bewildered. How wonderful it was to see those beloved features clearly in the rosy glow of the afternoon sun!
"I want us to drink to the future," she told him. "Our future, whatever and wherever it may be."
There was a pause. No one spoke, as though they did not wish to break the spell, as Christine gazed deep into her husband's mismatched eyes. After a beat he nodded, and she flung her arms around him, feeling through his jacket and waistcoat that Chloe was working wonders for his ribs did not seem to be as prominent as they had been a few months before. He embraced her tightly in return, almost dropping the champagne flute he still held in one hand, laying his twisted cheek against the top of her head.
"I suppose the garish light of day holds no horror for me now," he murmured into her hair. "Nothing could, as long as you are there."
"I shall always be there," she promised, and jumped at the sound of a round of applause from somewhere behind her. Reluctantly untangling herself from Erik she turned to see Teddy clapping her hands with a big grin on her face, a beaming Meg at her side.
"If you two get any more adorable, I swear I'll cry," the Prima Donna said, and held out her empty glass towards Raoul. "You'd better give me some more of that champagne, Vicomte, before I become a blubbering mess and make a complete fool of myself."
"We certainly can't have that, Mademoiselle," Raoul replied gallantly, topping up her drink from the dwindling bottle.
"As we're in the mood for such things, I would like to make a toast of my own," Teddy announced, drawing an audible groan from James. She smiled warmly at Christine and Erik, and lifted her champagne to them. "It's simple enough, and I hope you'll all join me in raising a glass to our hosts, who I must say have become two of the best friends I have ever had. I didn't quite know what to expect when I agreed to join the Opera Populaire, but it has been both a treat and a privilege to work with two so consummately talented performers, and to know the personalities behind the mask, as it were. No offence intended, Maestro."
"None taken, my diva," Erik said, arching his eyebrow.
"Are you going to get to the point, Teddy?" Jimmy enquired.
She shot him a glare but that grin was never very far from her lips. "Oh, all right. To Erik and Christine; may there always be calm seas and smooth sailing for them and their little family. Preferably across the Channel to Dover," she added with a wink.
"Erik and Christine!" Meg cried, gulping her drink and having to be thumped on the back by her mother, who echoed the toast with a fond smile.
"Erik and Christine." Angelique nodded to her son and daughter-in-law, blinking furiously.
"Erik and Christine," Raoul repeated, giving his 'Little Lotte' a smile full of long-held affection and a respectful bow to the former Phantom.
"Erik and Christine," said Jimmy with a hiccup.
"To us, I suppose," Erik said, gently clinking his glass against Christine's.
"Yes, to us," she agreed, happy to be enfolded in his arms once more and resting her head on his chest. "That's all we ever need."
Author's Second Note:
And there you have it!
Thank you to each and every one of you who has reviewed over the last year and a bit; I really am grateful to you, especially those who have stuck with me right through this somewhat epic fic. As you can see, the door has been left open for another sequel, and I do hope to continue Erik and Christine's story when I can decide where fate is likely to take them and their family next. In the meantime, I have a couple of ideas for one-shots and there are points of back story I'd like to expand, so keep your eyes peeled!
Thank you all once again; I'm so glad you've enjoyed the ride.