To both Erik and Raoul’s frustration Carlotta seemed to have no intention of stopping the attack on her audience’s eardrums, her poor duet partner catching the brunt of it.
With an annoyed groan Raoul sat himself in one of the chairs in the more visible part of the box, allowing Erik to sit in one of the more secluded ones. The moment Erik sank down he could feel all the aches and pains he’d briefly forgotten about returning accompanied by all his other physical malaise. Overcome by the sudden onslaught he uttered a heavy sigh of pain.
“Everything al-right Erik?” Raoul asked with worry in his voice, sensing a sigh like that wasn’t a good thing.
“It’s nothing, my body just reminded me of a few things.” Erik tried to brush it off rather badly.
“It’ll be fine old fellow.” Raoul tried to lighten the mood. “Soon Christine will be singing and you’ll be feeling right as rain, you’ll see.”
A breathy chuckle escaped Erik’s throat in answer to that. Sadly just then Carlotta burst into the most bombastic version of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries ever sang and both men stared at each other in dull horror.
“If only Carlotta would stop screeching ...” Erik sighed. “It’s bad enough on good days … but … this … today.”
Oh, on any other day Erik knew he would have done something to stop this offence against his ears: he would have caused a scene to end this torture. But now he was powerless, not just because he was too ill; he might have tried something anyway if he were alone, little as he cared about his well-being except his musical ear. But he could not ruin Christine’s night and he could not put Raoul in jeopardy either.
“Don’t worry.” He heard the voice of the Viscount cut of his train of thought. “She can’t keep stretching this song it must be over soon, then there will be a break and … well after Christine has sung we’ll just leave. There is no reason to stay after that.”
But there was a reason, Erik knew. Leave before the final applause? That would not do, not for Christine!!
“Christine deserves our applause at the end. I won’t allow Carlotta’s cheers to be bigger than hers!!” Erik exclaimed which so much horror that it made Raoul laugh.
“Wasn’t it you who told me that the finale after Christine’s recital exists of at-least four more songs by Carlotta?” Raoul retorted smugly, his arms crossed across his chest.
That was an important thing to consider, Erik thought, and he nodded at the Vicomte. He would see how he felt when the time came. For now there was the brief relieve of the conductor forcefully ending the song much to Carlotta's indignation. Then there was blessed silence. Or … maybe not so blessed: the one thing Carlotta’s penetrating screeching had done was keep him awake. The silence felt like a soft blanket, willing him back to the darkness of sleep. Why was this day so horrifically long? It seemed like a year since he’d left his home to present that dress to Christine.
“Erik?” He heard the Vicomte, from far away. Had he blacked out for a second?
“Did you take that coffee with you?” Erik asked as he tried to regain himself with difficulty. Not that he was looking forward to drinking more of it, the liquid having left him feeling rather nauseous earlier on, but he could feel the effects evaporating quickly. In fact he was starting to feel slightly delirious.
Biting his lip Raoul gazed at Erik, the man really didn’t look well at all. The Viscount didn’t even know how it was humanly possible for him to look even more ill than he’d done earlier that night, but his face seemed to go whiter with every second.
“Erik, if you feel really unwell … I could take you to Christine’s home now. She wouldn’t want you to suffer for her sake. She’ll never forgive me if something happened to you!”
Slowly Erik lifted his head to look at Raoul and shook his head.
“Vicomte, I can’t quit now,” he whispered, “not when ... Please, just give me some coffee.”
With a sigh Raoul obeyed Erik against his better judgement, taking the flask and poring a cup, which he handed to the weakened man.
Swiftly Erik tried to take a sip, but his body immediately revolted at taking more of the thick, dark bitter liquid and he gagged, bile swirling in the pit of his stomach.
“I … don’t think you should have any more dear fellow.” Raoul stuttered, as he looked at Erik’s gasping and retching with dull horror.
“But … I have to see Christine ...” Erik panted, his voice desperate. He swung to Raoul and grabbed his arm, his long shaking fingers twisting into the fabric of his coat jacket. “Please Vicomte, please keep me awake till my little Christine sings.”
Two weary yellow eyes stared at Raoul pleadingly, eyes that sparkled but with tears or fever, Raoul couldn’t tell.
“She looks so beautiful in her dress Viscount, my little Christine. Oh, she does. ..”
Raoul nodded his agreement with rising apprehension: Erik’s voice sounded off, as if he were rambling in a fever dream.
“I made her that dress Viscount ...”
“Raoul … please call me Raoul!” Raoul pleaded weakly, the constant usage of his title to address him was disconcerting and far too formal for the bond they had started to share.
“Raoul ...” Erik muttered softly as if trying the word out. “I made her that dress Raoul … A dress for my little Christine … every stitch every rhinestone a testament of my love for her. Ah, to think she chose it … over … When your dress was so beautiful and professionally made. I do not understand how … how she could prefer … to … to ...”
Noticing how Erik’s voice slowed down and his eyelids started fluttering Raoul shook him a little. Erik’s eyes snapped open again.
“Surely it won’t be long now …?” Erik sighed. “Please talk to me Raoul.”
Instead of the coffee and hoping it would take the taste away for him, Raoul pored Erik a glass of water from the carafe which had been placed there at his request. Erik took it gratefully.
To Raoul’s relief Erik seemed a little more coherent again after that and he searched his brain for something to talk about. His eye fell on the programme.
“Meg is dancing soon,” he tried. “You like Meg, don’t you? I heard you are helping her and her mother.”
At that Erik sat up and nodded in agreement, the subject seemingly interesting him enough to rouse him momentarily.
“Meg Giry is the best dancer in this entire Opera company, it is true ...” Erik said thoughtfully. “But she is often overlooked because she is focussed on her profession while others are dedicated to finding the best patron, thus gaining favours. That is why I sometimes use my influence to get her to the position and roles she deserves. I often try this for talented performers that are overlooked for whatever reason. Because … you see, Vicomte … Raoul … the person who becomes a star isn’t always the person who is the most talented or deserving. More often than not it is the one with privilege: beauty, high placed friends, favouritism, a wealthy influential family.” Suddenly Erik stopped and worry crossed his face. “I … am sorry. I hope I have not offended you.”
Noticing Erik looked almost anguished at that thought Raoul quickly shot him a smile.
“No, not at all. I understand what you mean …” he said jovially. “It is not something I ever thought about and that worries me. As a patron I must look into this because it is not a system I condone. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. It should be about talent, nothing more. Everyone deserves a chance, no matter who they are or where they came from.”
A rare smile crept over Erik’s lips at this answer, his expression a strange mixture of happy combined with surprised, as if it was rare for him to have someone agreeing with him. And perhaps it was, Raoul pondered, reminding himself that besides Christine Erik rarely had any normal conversations at all. How amazing to find that this man, who had been shunned for most of his life would be the one who cared for the people of this company the most.
“I am glad to hear you talk this way Raoul,” Erik murmured a few seconds later, sounding deep in thought. “The rumours about you do not do you credit. You have a good head on those young shoulders. I am glad to see Christine has a friend of good character.” He gave him such an approving look that it almost made Raoul blush.
“I can say the same about you, Erik,” Raoul chuckled feeling slightly abashed, “though the Opera ghost has always been praised for his keen intelligence and knowledge.”
The way Erik’s eyes lit up for a second made it clear that he wasn’t used to receiving compliments. But all too soon his eyes turned dark, as a thought hit him.
“Oh … Oh, no ...” Erik then sighed dejectedly. “But … But I’m so tired ...” For some reason he now looked as if he were about to cry.
“Is something wrong Erik?” Raoul asked, sad at having lost their moment of camaraderie.
“My job …” Erik said in a crestfallen voice, then he looked at Raoul. “Raoul … you know about the Opera Ghost’s job?”
Of course he did, who in the Opera wouldn’t know about that?! “Indeed I do … Erik … what is wrong?”
For a second it looked as if Erik was not going to tell him, as he remained silent while looking utterly hopeless. But suddenly he continued, his voice dark.
“There will be work to be done tonight. The managers willl be expecting notes for their meeting tomorrow. I have been neglectful in my duties. I guess there simply will be no rest for me.”
Work to do? Raoul couldn’t believe what he was hearing: was Erik fully intending to work, the state he was in? Not if he had any say in it. And thank goodness: he had!!
Turning to Erik, Raoul put his hand on Erik’s knee to look him in the eyes.
“No, Erik, listen to me. You are not going to work, you need rest. As I said, I am the patron here, the highest paying one, I might add. Let me use my influence for you this once, after all you have done for the others round here. You will go home with Christine tonight, rest, recover and only go to work once you feel up to it, understood?”
Raoul was not prepared for the emotion those words stirred in Erik. For a second the man stared at him in disbelieve, then awe, then something Raoul could not place. “You … would do that … for me?” Erik asked him in a hoarse, shaking voice.
It was all just as Christine had told him, Raoul understood: Erik had rarely received any help or kindness in his life. Raoul couldn’t bear to think what Erik’s life must have been like if something so mundane as this would overwhelm him as much as this.
“Of course!” Raoul insisted gently. “You really think I’d want you to run the Opera like this? You’re barely conscious!!”
When Raoul smiled at Erik the man muttered a quick “Thank you.” Then he lowered his head and looked away, fixing his gaze onto his hands. Pretending he did not see Erik surreptitiously wipe his eyes before he started to fidget with his hands nervously, Raoul looked out into the auditorium. The interval was over and people where returning to their seats. Not long until all this was over, he thought with relief.
“You must have expected more of meeting the Opera Ghost.” He suddenly heard Erik’s mournful voice behind him. Raoul sighed: did that man ever give himself a break?
“I’m sure I might get to meet the true Phantom under better circumstances.” Raoul said as he turned round to look at Erik again. The reply obviously pleased him as Erik seemed to perk up immediately.
“Absolutely. I will give you the full performance and guided tour and that is a promise.” Erik replied firmly and Raoul found he was actually looking forward to it: Erik was engaging company, even in this state, so he couldn’t wait to socialise with him once he was in full health.
Then the second half begun, opened by a delightful baritone Raoul could have sworn he had never seen or heard before.
“Erik? Who’s that?” Raoul whispered during a piano sequence.
“It’s Faberman he has been with the Opera for years but … Carlotta doesn’t like him ...” Erik replied, but instead of whispering Raoul had the odd sensation of having Erik’s voice actually transported inside his head without the Phantom moving his lips. It was one of the things Christine had mentioned about him, for which he was glad as it would have been rather disconcerting otherwise. Still, it was an amazing trick once you experienced it, Raoul found, as he told Erik. At the same time making a mental note to make sure Faberman would land a lead in the near future.
The evening went on, Meg danced a solo, the Petit Rats had a fun introductory dance. Singers, dancers, pianists, violinists and harpists came and went, all talented, all wonderful and most of then on the list at Erik’s insistence. A spotlight for the neglected, all of them bringing the house down. But, to Raoul’s worry, the man himself grew more and more quiet and pale. It was clearly getting too much for him, but Erik never complained, only uttering a quiet sigh once in a while.
Then, at last, Christine stepped onto the stage and Raoul heard a gasp coming from Erik. The man seemed immediately as if lost in a trance, his eyes fixed on the girl who’s translucent tones begun to fill the auditorium. As she sang, swayed and danced, the dress he had made her sparkling in the light, tears begun streaming down the Phantoms hollow cheeks.
“My little Christine ...” He whispered at the elfin like figure on the stage, his shaking hands clasped as if in prayer. Watching him Raoul felt overcome with emotion: this was not simply love, infatuation or admiration: Erik utterly worshipped Christine.
Song after song came from Christine lips and throat, her voice filling the auditorium but for the two men in the box it was as if these notes where theirs and theirs alone.
The dress was a hit, the audience murmuring their approval at how it was almost a part of her performance the way it caught the light just right and sparkled around her, thus complimenting her movements. This combined with her engaging personality, exquisite vocals and dancing firmly cemented Christine as the highlight of the evening. Once again it was clear that she was destined to be a star. The toast of Paris and perhaps one day … the world.
Then the Soprano on the stage began her last song, a climactic “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma.
For a moment Raoul listened and soaked up the hypnotic melody, then he startled as Erik rose from his seat and staggered closer to the edge of the box as if drawn by an invisible force. It was clear that Erik was lost in a world of his own his hands conducting the melody, his lips mouthing the words.
Quickly Raoul looked out from the box into the auditorium, worried someone might see. But to his relief all eyes were firmly directed to the stage, hypnotised by the wonder of Christine’s voice that rose into a soaring climax.
The moment Christine reached the end of her song Erik froze. A gasping sigh escaped him at her final note, followed by a sob. Then, suddenly, he collapsed to the floor limply as a marionette who’s strings had unexpectedly been cut, landing at Raoul’s feet with a dull thud.