Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 31 of 37

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Stay By My Side

"Here, Christine," said Meg, passing her the paper bag of chestnuts. "It's your turn." It had been a Christmas Eve tradition for them since Christine had arrived at the opera house, eight years before. She and the Girys spent the evening together in Madame Giry's rooms, roasting chestnuts and, when they were younger, putting their shoes in front of the fireplace. They attended midnight Mass, with those of the corps de ballet who did not go to their families for the holiday – those girls whose family lived outside Paris, generally, for the opera closed only for Christmas Day, far too short a time for anyone to travel far.

Christine hadn't been sure she would partake of the tradition this year, now that she was married. But Erik had suggested she go to the Girys before she had spoken to him about it, had told her he knew how she treasured her Christmas Eve and the midnight church service. He would not attend, of course, but he had told her quite firmly that she should not forgo it just because he lacked belief, or the inclination to socialise even with Meg and Madame Giry.

But she was glad she had come; both the Girys had been pleased to see her, and it was comforting to know that some things would not change, when so much of her life had altered over the past few months.

She carefully pierced the skin of a handful of chestnuts, put them on the shovel and held it over the fire.

"Watch your skirt," said Madame Giry, not glancing up from her knitting. She was sitting on the couch, her hands busy, and seemed to be paying little attention to the girls. But appearances were deceptive with Madame Giry, Christine knew – she had a knack of seeing things that the girls would rather she did not.

"Yes, Madame," she said, and tucked her skirt tighter around her knees, watched the chestnuts as they slowly roasted.

"I am glad you came," Meg confided, leaning closer to her. "I hardly see you outside rehearsal now."

"I'm glad I came too," said Christine, smiling at her friend. "But anyway, we've had rehearsal all day long, this week." The premiere of Faust would take place in two days, on the day after Christmas, and Monsieur Reyer had become a fierce taskmaster over the past week, determined that everyone would know their role flawlessly.

Christine herself felt ready, and she knew Erik was satisfied with her. Their lessons had been fewer over the past week as rehearsals had intensified, and he had focused on his own opera – a work she felt she was slowly beginning to master. But she knew he attended rehearsals sometimes, hidden from sight but able to hear and see, and he had told her she would remind people why she was meant to be a prima donna.

"Yes, I know," said Meg, with a comical expression. True to her word, Madame Giry had given Meg a short solo performance in the ballet, and Meg was working hard to prove herself capable. Her complaints, Christine knew, had no foundation.

"At least Madame isn't making you practice after rehearsals," she pointed out, sent a smile to Madame Giry and caught that lady's amused expression. "I go home and often have a lesson."

"Isn't it strange, learning from him now…well, now you're married?" Meg asked, and she reached out to the chestnuts, prodded one with a practiced finger, moving it across the shovel with her nail to avoid being burned.

"Not really," said Christine. The chestnuts started hissing, indicating they would be ready in a moment. "He knows so much more about music than I do, and I don't think either of us would dream of allowing our…our relationship to interfere with the lessons. I have so much to learn still."

She gazed into the fire for a moment, thought of the difference between Erik her teacher and Erik her husband. As her husband, Erik was patient and kind, explained things to her when she didn't understand, delighted in her every expression, almost basked in her gestures of love. He was still patient as her teacher, unless he felt she wasn't trying hard enough, but he was stern, focused solely on drawing from her the sounds he knew she was capable of producing.

And yet she did not find it strange, the difference in the way he spoke and acted in their lessons and their life together.

"Have you got your costume for the masquerade ball?" Meg asked then, changing the subject.

"I'm not sure I'm going," said Christine, dragging her thoughts away from Erik to focus on the roasted chestnuts. "I'd like to spend the evening with Erik."

"You'll be expected to be there," said Madame Giry, looking up from her knitting now, frowning at Christine. "And at the party after the premiere, as well. You're the star of the opera now, Christine. That involves more than performing."

Christine's mouth twisted in a scowl, but she kept her gaze on the fire, hoped Madame Giry wouldn't see her displeasure. Madame Giry was right, of course. It would be expected that Christine would attend the ball, to talk and dance with people who were important for the opera's continued success.

It wasn't that she didn't like the ball; she had attended with Meg, chaperoned by Madame Giry, for two years now. It was a merry evening, and she had in the past enjoyed the dancing, the taste of alcohol Madame Giry had allowed them, the buoyant mood of the performers as they mingled with the rich audience members.

And yet she didn't want to dance with anyone except Erik, and she could not picture Erik at the masquerade ball, even though he would not look out of place there.

She shrugged, picked up a chestnut and started to peel it. "I'll talk to him," she said. "I know you're right, Madame, but I wish you weren't."

Meg glanced at her sidelong, took a chestnut for herself. "Well, since she is, what are you going to wear?" she asked. "I've got a lovely costume, I went to see Zoé – you know, in the costumes department?" Christine nodded. "They've found me a lovely frock coat, and I'll wear trousers – oh, don't look at me like that, Christine, as if you haven't played breeches parts! And there's such a pretty top hat, with a veil, and Zoé found me the loveliest boots."

Christine laughed at Meg's enthusiasm, threw her chestnut skins into the fire. "I said I'll talk to him," she said. "I'll attend for a few hours, I suppose. I hardly need something elaborate for that." Meg began to object, and Christine shook her head. "I'll go to the costume department," she said. "I'm sure they can find something for me."

"But Maman is right, you're a star now," said Meg coaxingly, taking another few chestnuts. "You have to look simply splendid."

Christine couldn't help laughing again, shook her head at the thought of dressing to draw attention. She had always been modest in her dress, trying not to attract anyone's particular gaze – although of course when she was on stage she was stared at, watched by hundreds. But that was different somehow; when she was performing she was no longer simply Christine, she was acting a part.

She pursed her lips, wondered if she could act a part in front of all the people at the masquerade. La Daaé was a part, as much as anything she did onstage. And Madame Giry was right, she would have to attend, and at least make an appearance at the party after the premiere of Faust.

Erik would not like that. He had always forbidden her from such after-show events, when she had still been simply his student, had declared that she was too young to stay up so late and then, when that excuse became less valid, had reminded her that she had promised to think only of her music.

The masquerade ball was different. Two years before she had asked her Angel if she might attend, and he had been silent for long enough to discourage her before finally agreeing, as long as she kept close to Madame Giry.

But she had just been a ballet dancer before. Now she was the starring soprano, a leading role in Faust, and the managers would expect – no, they would demand that she attend the festivities after the premiere.

"What is it, Christine?" Madame Giry asked. She set aside her knitting, looked at Christine with a piercing gaze, and Christine could not even think of holding back an answer from her foster-mother.

"Erik will not like me attending the party," she said honestly. "The masquerade is different, of course…but you know he has always forbidden me from attending parties on an opening night."

Madame Giry nodded, but she raised one eyebrow slightly, a little amused. "That is true," she said. "But you are no longer a child." She looked at Christine for a moment longer, as if waiting to see if Christine would understand.

Slowly, Christine nodded. She was no longer a child, and although she had promised, at her wedding, to obey Erik…she must talk to him about it. She must try to explain that she had to begin building a reputation as something other than a mystery. The people who were coming to the ball were powerful, and she must be careful of being too aloof.

The opposite was also true, of course – she thought, with a grimace, of Raoul. Since her wedding, two weeks ago, she had managed to avoid him altogether. She rather thought he had been avoiding her too, because he had only once come to the opera house, for a meeting with the managers. But she could not avoid him at the masquerade, at least. As the main patron for the opera, he would certainly be in attendance.

"Finish your chestnuts, girls," Madame Giry directed then. "It's nearly time for Mass. I'll go and make sure the others are ready." She rose, left the room, and Meg quickly peeled her remaining chestnut.

"What are you going to do about getting back to the lake?" she asked as Christine stood up, brushed her skirt free of ash. "You can't go through your dressing room, the girls will wonder why you're coming back to the opera house with us."

"Erik said he'd meet me outside the church," said Christine, and she took her cloak from the hook behind the door, wrapped her scarf around her neck and found her gloves. "There's a door on the Rue Scribe." She turned suddenly, reached out to help Meg up and clutched at her hand. "Don't tell anyone that," she said, almost stumbled over her words in her speed to rectify her mistake. Meg knew about the doorway in her dressing room, knew that the mirror hid a passage down to the house across the lake, but Christine knew that the less Meg knew, the safer Erik would be. "Please, Meg, I shouldn't have told you."

"Of course I won't tell anyone," said Meg, lifting her eyebrows in a manner eerily reminiscent of her mother. "Who would I tell, anyway? Everyone thinks you're living in some apartment nearby with your mysterious husband."

Christine nodded, bit her lip. "That's true," she said reluctantly. "But still, not everyonedoes believe that. There's Raoul."

"Oh, well, I'm hardly likely to tell him," said Meg, rolling her eyes as she pulled away from Christine, went to put on her cloak. Christine sighed, pulled her gloves on.

"Just…be careful," she requested. "Erik's so good at guarding his secrets, and I…well, I suppose I still have to learn."

Madame Giry returned then, held the door open for them to join her in the corridor. "Come along, girls," she said snappishly, as if her patience had been stretched to its limits in collecting the others who would attend the service. "Christine, blow out the candles as you come, please."

Christine hurried to obey, and then she followed Meg out into the corridor, joined the huddled throng of dancers. One or two of the younger ones looked sleepy still, and she knew Madame Giry had probably had to wake them.

She linked her arm through Meg's, returned the cheerful greetings of her friends, and followed Madame Giry down through the opera house and out into the cold night.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 31 of 37

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