Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 8 of 37

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Stay By My Side

Rehearsals were just as bad as Christine had been dreading. In fact they were worse, as most of her scenes as the mute pageboy involved Carlotta, who made no attempt to conceal her utter loathing of Christine. She snapped, she snarled, she denigrated Christine's abilities and she took every opportunity to make Christine's life more difficult.

Monsieur Reyer did his best, as Christine had hoped he would. He allowed Christine to leave whenever she wasn't strictly needed, attempted to keep Carlotta from being too vicious. But nobody could control Carlotta, and Christine was growing more and more weary as she rehearsed daily with such venom directed at her, and then had to perform each evening.

That, at least, was still going well; the audiences seemed pleased, and she knew Erik was satisfied with her. But still by the end of the day she often found herself sitting in her dressing room, head in her hands, half-wishing Erik would follow through on his promise of creating mischief for Carlotta and half-dreading the inevitable occurrence. He'd said nothing more about it during their lessons, but she knew he must be aware of the diva's behaviour.

Today was one of the worst days since the company had begun rehearsing Il Muto, and it was, Christine reflected ruefully, only lunchtime. She hadn't gone to the canteen with the others, had instead hidden herself down in the orchestra pit with her copy of the score. She almost knew it all, after three weeks of rehearsals, but she also had two sets of blocking to learn, and it gave her an excuse to hide away.

"Mademoiselle Daaé? May I join you?"

Christine looked up, startled. Henri Lambert, one of the baritones, had joined her in the pit. He smiled at her, friendly and open.

"I saw you disappear down here," he said. "Are you working, or do you mind if I join you?"

"Of course," she said politely. She hadn't spoken much to Henri. They shared scenes in Hannibal, and would share some in Il Muto, but Christine had become more and more withdrawn over the past fortnight, as Carlotta's attacks grew ever more fierce. It was as much an attempt to protect her cast mates from the diva's temper as a way to protect herself – Carlotta had begun attacking those Christine spoke to, even the dancers, those she would normally consider beneath her notice.

"I saw you didn't go to lunch," Henri said, and he held out a roll, some fruit. "I took the liberty. I hope you don't mind." It was a friendly gesture, and Christine took the food, nodded thankfully.

"I couldn't face it," she admitted. "Carlotta's gone out, of course, but…"

"But her retinue remain," said Henri, grinning at her. "I don't blame you, Mademoiselle."

"Please, call me Christine," she said. She smiled then, weary. "Aren't you afraid to be seen with me? Carlotta seems to have spies everywhere."

Henri shrugged eloquently, took a seat, looked up at the stage. "Not really," he said. "I probably should be, shouldn't I? But I have a thick skin." Christine nodded; it was essential when working in such a hive of gossip as the Opera Populaire.

"I fear mine has become quite thin," she confessed, pushed her hair behind her shoulders and tore the roll in half. "I don't think I've ever see Carlotta be this…spiteful."

"She's bitter," said Henri, shrugging again. "You've been such a success, and she hates to see anyone succeed."

Christine looked at him thoughtfully, tried to recall what she knew of him. He was, she remembered, stepping out with Heléne, one of the dancers, and Heléne spoke of him as being gentlemanly, not expecting things of her that many men expected of the dancers. He'd been one of the first to congratulate Christine on gaining the role in Hannibal, and now that he sat across from her, she could recall that he hadn't done so with a sly expression as so many had done.

He wasn't a gossip-monger, Christine suspected, and the thought made her relax. She nibbled on the roll, brushed crumbs from her skirt.

"I didn't set out with the intention of taking the role from her," she said, kept her voice low. They were alone in the orchestra pit, but the opera house was busy and anyone might overhear. She didn't want anything to get back to Carlotta. "Anyway," she added, "she could have stayed in the theatre. She chose to leave."

Henri smirked. "After the way the managers brushed aside the accident?" he said, shook his head. "You know the Ghost has been playing many tricks on her lately."

Christine said nothing, thought of Erik, thought of what he must surely be planning now. She shivered, applied herself to the lunch Henri had brought her.

"Whoever he is, he knows how to make Carlotta run scared," Henri continued. "I dare say you'd like to know how he does it."

"I certainly don't want to hurt anyone," she said sharply, sharper than she needed, and he leaned back on his stool, raised his eyebrows. "I – I'm sorry, I'm just…" Christine sighed, covered her face with her hands. "I'm sorry, Monsieur," she said again. "I'm – oh, I'm just so tired of her pettiness! I didn't ask for the role and I likely won't get another. Isn't that enough for her?"

Henri was silent, and Christine felt ashamed of her outburst. She took several deep, calming breaths, lowered her hands.

Awareness prickled down her spine; Erik was watching them. She was certain of it, and she wondered how much he had heard. He knew, of course, that she was reaching the end of her endurance, that with every day of rehearsals Carlotta beat down at her defences – but he had said he would not hurt her, had all but promised her, and Christine would hold him to it. If he chose to act, she must believe that it would be more of the mischief that he had perpetuated for several years, on Carlotta and others.

"Thick skin, Mademoiselle Daaé," said Henri softly, and Christine summoned a smile, nodded at him.

"Thank you," she said. "But please…you must call me Christine. It's silly to be so formal."

Henri smiled, inclined his head. "As you wish, Christine. Then it must be Henri." He glanced up at the stage; the cast were slowly returning for the afternoon's rehearsals. "Back to work," he said with a moue of distaste. "You won't be needed all afternoon, will you?"

"I hope not!" said Christine fervently. She rose, collected her score and followed Henri back to the stage. Carlotta had not returned yet – she was often late after lunch – but Monsieur Reyer didn't allow that to stop rehearsals, managed to work around it as always.

"I would ideally like to rehearse you with the cast," he said to Christine, taking her aside briefly as the rest of the cast found their places. "But I'm not sure I dare run the risk of Carlotta finding you."

Christine was grateful, took her place as the mute with no argument. If she were an official understudy, or if Carlotta were not Carlotta, it would be different. She knew she could not be as good, could not reach her potential as an actress, without working with others. Erik taught her well, and Reyer had, as he had promised, found time to rehearse her alone – but it could not make up for rehearsing the scenes with others.

But she would not be the Countess, she reminded herself. She would play the mute, and was grateful for it.

Carlotta arrived nearly an hour late, enough to drive Reyer to be quite short with her, and she responded in the only way she seemed able to lately.

"I do not need these silly rehearsals," she snapped. "We have done this production a hundred times!"

"Nevertheless, Signora," said Monsieur Reyer, staring her down, "please attempt to be punctual."

"Punctual, pah," said the diva. "These rehearsals are a waste of my time."

Laughter echoed around the stage, around the whole auditorium, and Christine started, glanced up as if she would be able to see him – to see Erik, who was clearly watching proceedings and feeling inclined to mock Carlotta.

Meg came to her side, clutched her hand and said nothing. Other cast members huddled together, muttering to themselves; Carlotta looked around, fearful. Only Reyer seemed unaffected. He clapped his hands together, looked around with a scowl.

"Come, come," he said. "Waste of your time or not, Signora, if you would be good enough to take your starting position for act four? Mademoiselle Daaé, your position please."

Christine squeezed Meg's hand and then hurried forwards to join Carlotta at stage left. The diva was pale, and Christine felt a certain sense of satisfaction at seeing her shaken. But it didn't last long – as soon as Carlotta set eyes on her, she sneered a familiar sneer.

"You. Why don't you just run back to Norway or wherever it is you came from? Nobody wants you here," she said.

"I'm from Sweden," said Christine, counted to ten in her head and then backwards in an attempt to keep her temper. Thick skin, she reminded herself. "And anyway," she went on, surprising herself with her boldness, "I think you'll find I am wanted here. At least the audiences seem pleased to see someone who can actually act."

Carlotta's mouth opened, she gaped, and Christine could hear gasps and startled murmurs all around. Nobody had spoken to Carlotta like that in years, she was certain, and she didn't know how she'd found the strength to do it now. Perhaps it was Henri's supportive comments, perhaps it was the knowledge that Erik was watching.

Regardless, she had said it, and she waited for Carlotta's response, lifted her chin and stared at the diva, refusing to be intimidated.

"You – you – how dare you!" Carlotta seethed at last. "I will not stand here and listen to this – this insolence, from someone like you!"

"Signora," said Monsieur Reyer, interjecting himself between them, "I must insist on your attention."

"No!" she declared, dramatically, and Christine stifled a sigh, waited for whatever Carlotta was about to throw at her. "I will not work with this – this – this little whore!"

Christine gasped, took a step backwards. Meg joined her, indignant and unafraid of Carlotta, added her protests to those of Monsieur Reyer, but Christine heard nothing for several moments together, so shocked by the slur.

And then she heard a voice, that oh-so-familiar voice, speaking as if from thin air.

"I should be careful who you insult, Signora," whispered the Ghost. "It would be such a shame if you had to be…replaced."

Christine's breath caught in her throat; it was not a threat, not quite, but it was close enough to scare her, close enough to send a shiver down her spine. She glanced at Meg, saw her friend's white face, looked at Carlotta and found her just as pale. Perhaps, she thought wildly, Carlotta had hoped the Opera Ghost had disappeared, had accepted the managers' decision to put her in the lead once more.

But even Carlotta could not be that foolish.

Meg took her hand, squeezed it, and Christine looked at her once again, tried to work out what she was thinking but Meg's expression was carefully blank.

"If you have no more objections, we will begin," said Monsieur Reyer at last, and he seemed to be the only one of them unshaken, the only one to take the Ghost's voice as a matter of course. "Act four, Signora. Mademoiselle, if you are ready?" He saw Meg, looked down his nose at her. "Mademoiselle Giry, you are not needed for this scene," he told her. "Please clear the stage."

"Sorry, Monsieur," Meg murmured, went to wait in the wings for her cue. Christine looked at Carlotta, waited for her to begin, and tried not to think of what Erik might be planning.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 8 of 37

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