HOSPICE OF THE SISTERS OF CHARITY OF THE ORDER OF ST.-VINCENT-DE-PAUL, PARIS, SEPTEMBER 1906
There is a crack in the plaster of the ceiling far above my head and close to it a spider is creating a web. Strange to think this spider will outlive me, be here when I am gone, a few hours from now. Good luck, little spider, making a web to catch a fly to feed your babies.
How did it come to this? That I, Antoinette Giry, at the age of fifty-eight, am lying on my back in a hospice for the people of Paris, run by the good sisters, waiting to meet myMaker? I do not think I have been a very good person, not good like these sisters who clean up the endless mess, bound by their oath of poverty, chastity, humility and obedience. I could never have managed that. They have faith, you see. I was never able to have that faith. Is it time I learned it now? Probably. For I shall be gone before the night sky fills that small high window over there at the edge of my vision.
I am here, I suppose, because I simply ran out of money. Well, almost. There is a little bag under my pillow which no one knows about. But that is for a special purpose. Forty years ago I was a ballerina, so slim and young and beautiful then. So they told me, the young men who came to the stage door. And handsome they were too, those clean, sweet-smelling hard young bodies that could give and take so much pleasure.
And the most beautiful was Lucien. All the chorus called him Lucien le Bel, with a face to make a girl's heart hammer like a tambour. He took me out one sunny Sunday to the Bois de Boulogne and proposed, on one knee as it should be done, and I accepted him. One year later he was killed by the Prussian guns at Sedan.Then I wanted no more of marriage for a long time, nearly five years while I danced at the ballet.
I was twenty-eight when it ended, the dancing career. For one thing I had met Jules and we married and I became heavy with little Meg. More to the point, I was losing my litheness. Senior dancer of the corps fighting every day to stay slim and supple. But the Director was very good to me, a kind man. The Mistress of the Chorus was retiring; he said I had the experience and he did not wish to look outside the Opera for her successor. He appointed me. Maîtresse du corps de ballet. As soon as Meg was born and put with a wet nurse I took up my duties. It was 1876, one year after the opening of Garnier's new and magnificent opera house. At last we were out of those cramped shoe boxes in the rue le Peletier, the war was well over, the damage to my beloved Paris repaired and life was good.
I did not even mind when Jules met his fat Belgian and ran off to the Ardennes. Good riddance. At least I had a job, which was more than he could ever say. Enough to keep my small apartment, raise Meg and nightly watch my girls delighting every crowned head in Europe.I wonder what happened to Jules? Too late to start enquiring now. And Meg? A ballet dancer and chorus girl like her mama--I could at least do that for her--until the awful fall ten years ago which left the right knee stiff forever. Even then she was lucky, with a bit of help from me. Dresser and personal maid to the greatest diva in Europe, Christine de Chagny. Well, if you discount that uncouth Australian Melba, which I do. I wonder where Meg is now? Milan, Rome, Madrid perhaps. Where the diva is singing. And to think I once used to shout at the Vicomtesse de Chagny to pay attention and stay in line!
So what am I doing here, waiting for a too-early grave? Well, there was retirement eight years ago, on my fiftieth birthday. They were very nice about it. The usual platitudes. And a generous bonus for my twenty-two years as mistress. Enough to live on. Plus a little private coaching for the incredibly clumsy daughters of the rich. Not much but enough, and a little put by. Until last spring.
That was when the pains began, not many at first but sharp and sudden, deep in the lower stomach. They gave me bismuth for indigestion and charged a small fortune. I didnot know then that the steel crab was in me, driving his great claws into me and always growing as he fed. Not until July. Then it was too late. So I lie here, trying not to scream with the pain, waiting for the next spoonful of the white goddess, the powder that comes from the poppies of the East.
Not long to wait now for the final sleep. I am not even afraid anymore. Perhaps He will be merciful? I hope so, but surely He will take away the pain. I try to concentrate on something else. I look back and think of all the girls I trained, and my pretty young Meg with her stiff knee waiting to find her man--I hope she finds a good one. And of course I think of my boys, my two lovely tragic boys. I think of them most of all.
"Madame, Monsieur l'Abbé is here."
"Thank you, Sister. I cannot see too well. Where is he?"
"I am here, my child, Father Sebastien. By your side. Do you feel my hand on your arm?"
"You should make your peace with God, ma fille. I am ready to take your confession."
"It is time. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
"Tell me, my child. Keep nothing back."
"There was a time, long ago, in the year 1882, when I did something that changed many lives. I did not know then what would happen. I acted on impulse and for motives I thought to be good. I was thirty-four, the mistress of the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera. I was married but my husband had deserted me and run off with another woman."
"You must forgive them, my child. Forgiveness is a part of penitence."
"Oh, I do, Father. Long since. But I had a daughter, Meg, then six years old. There was a fair out at Neuilly and I took her one Sunday. There were calliopes and carousels, steam engines and performing monkeys who collected centimes for the hurdy-gurdy man. Meg had never seen a circus before. But there was also a show of freaks. A line of tents with notices advertising the world's strongest man, the acrobat dwarves, a man so covered in tattoos that one could not see his skin, a black man with a bone through his nose and pointed teeth, a lady with a beard.
"At the end of the line was a sort of cage on wheels, with bars spaced almost a foot apart, and filthy reeking straw on the floor. Itwas bright in the sun but dark in the cage so I peered in to see what animal it contained. I heard the clank of chains and saw something lying huddled in the straw. Just then a man came up.
"He was big and beefy, with a red, crude face. He carried a tray on a sash round his neck. It contained lumps of horse manure collected from where the ponies were tethered, and pieces of rotten fruit. 'Have a go, lady,' he said, 'see if you can pelt the monster. One centime a throw.' Then he turned to the cage and shouted, 'Come on, come near the front or you know what you'll get.' The chains clanked again, and something more animal than human shuffled into the light, nearer to the bars.
"I could see that it was indeed human, though hardly so. A male in rags, crusted with filth, gnawing on an old piece of apple. Apparently he had to live on what people threw over him. Ordure and feces clung to his thin body. There were manacles on his wrists and ankles and the steel had bitten into the flesh to leave open wounds where maggots writhed. But it was the face and head that caused Meg to burst into tears.
"The skull and face were hideously deformed,the former displaying only a few tufts of filthy hair. The face was distorted down one side as if struck long ago by a monstrous hammer and the flesh of this visage was raw and shapeless like molten candle wax. The eyes were deep set in sockets puckered and misshapen. Only half of the mouth and a section of jaw on one side had escaped the deformation and looked like a normal human face.
"Meg was holding a toffee apple. I do not know why, but I took it from her, walked to the bars and held it out. The beefy man went into a rage, screaming and shouting that I was depriving him of his living. I ignored him and pushed the toffee apple into the filthy hands behind the bars. And I looked into the eyes of this deformed monster.
"Father, thirty-five years ago when the ballet was suspended during the Franco-Prussian War, I was among those who tended the young wounded coming back from the front. I have seen men in agony, I have heard them scream. But I have never seen pain like I saw in those eyes."
"Pain is part of the human condition, my child. But what you did that day with the toffee apple was not a sin but an act of compassion.I must hear your sins if I am to give absolution."
"But I went back that night and I stole him."
"You did what?"
"I went to the old shuttered opera house, took a heavy pair of bolt cutters from the carpentry shop and a large cowled cloak from wardrobe, hired a hansom cab and returned to Neuilly. The fairgrounds was deserted in the moonlight, the performers asleep in their caravans. There were curs who started to bark, but I threw them scraps of meat. I found the cage trailer, withdrew the iron bar that held it closed, opened the door and called softly inside.
"The creature was chained to one wall. I cut the chains on wrists and feet and urged him to come out. He seemed terrified, but when he saw me in the moonlight, he shuffled out and dropped to the ground. I covered him in the cloak, pulled the cowl over that dreadful head and led him away to the coach. The driver grumbled at the awful smell, but I paid him extra and he drove us back to my flat behind the rue le Peletier. Was taking him away a sin?"
"Certainly it was an offense in law, mychild. He belonged to the fair owner, brutal though the man may have been. As to an offense before God ... I do not know. I think not."
"There is more, Father. Have you the time?"
"You are facing eternity. I think I can spare a few minutes, but recall there may be others dying here who will also need me."
"I hid him in my small flat for a month, Father. He took a bath, the first in his life, then another and many more. I disinfected the open wounds and bandaged them so that they slowly healed. I gave him clothes from my husband's chest and food so that he recovered his health. He also for the first time in his life slept in a real bed with sheets--I moved Meg in with me, which was a good thing to do because she was terrified of him. I found that he was himself petrified with fear if anyone came to the door and would scuttle away to hide under the stairs. I also found that he could talk, in French but with an Alsatian accent, and slowly over that month he told me his story.
"He was born Erik Muhlheim, just forty years ago. In Alsace which was then French but soon to be annexed by Germany. He wasthe only son of a circus family, living in a caravan, constantly moving from town to town.
"He told me that he had learned in early childhood the circumstances of his birth. The midwife had screamed when she saw the tiny child emerging into the world, for he was even then horribly disfigured. She handed the squealing bundle to the mother and ran away, yelling (foolish cow) that she had delivered the devil himself.
"So poor Erik arrived, destined from birth to be hated and rejected by people who believe that ugliness is the outward show of sinfulness.
"His father was the circus carpenter, engineer and handyman. It was watching him at work that Erik first developed his talent for anything that could be constructed with tools and hands. It was in the sideshows that he saw the techniques of illusion, with mirrors, trapdoors and secret passages that would later play such a part in his life in Paris.
"But his father was a drunken brute who whipped the boy constantly for the most minor offenses or none at all; his mother a useless besom who just sat in the corner and wailed. Spending most of his young life inpain and in tears, he tried to avoid the caravan and slept in the straw with the circus animals and especially the horses. He was seven, sleeping in the stables, when the big top caught fire.
"The fire ruined the circus, which went bankrupt. The staff and the artistes scattered to join other enterprises. Erik's father, without a job, drank himself to death. His mother ran away to become a servant in nearby Strasbourg. Running out of money for booze, his father sold him to the master of a passing freak show. He spent nine years in the wheeled cage, daily pelted with filth and ordure for the amusement of cruel crowds. He was sixteen when I found him."
"A pitiable tale, my child, but what has this to do with your mortal sins?"
"Patience, Father. Hear me out, you will understand, for no creature on the planet has ever heard the truth before. I kept Erik in my apartment for a month but it could not go on. There were neighbors, callers at the door. One night I took him to my place of work, the Opera, and he had found his new home.
"Here he had sanctuary at last, a place to hide where the world would never find him. Despite his terror of naked flame, he took atorch and went down into the lowest cellars where the darkness would hide his terrible face. With timber and tools from the carpenters' shop he built his home by the lake's edge. He furnished it with pieces from the props department, fabric from the wardrobe mistress. In the wee small hours when all was abandoned he could raid the staff canteen for food and even pilfer the directors' pantry for delicacies. And he read.
"He made a key to the Opera library and spent years giving himself that education he had never had; night after night by candlelight he devoured the library, which is enormous. Of course most of the works were of music and opera. He came to know every single opera ever written and every note of every aria. With his manual skills he created a maze of secret passages known only to himself and having practiced long ago with the tightrope walkers he could run along the highest and narrowest gantries without fear. For eleven years he lived there, and became a man underground.
"But of course before long rumors started and grew. Food, clothing, candles, tools went missing in the night. A credulous staff beganto talk of a phantom in the cellars until finally every tiny accident--and backstage many tasks are dangerous--came to be blamed on the mysterious phantom. Thus the legend started and grew."
"Mon Dieu, but I have heard of this. Ten years ... no, it must be more ... I was summoned to give the last rites to some poor wretch who was found hanged. Someone told me then that the Phantom had done it."
"The man's name was Buquet, Father. But it was not Erik. Joseph Buquet was given to periods of great depression and certainly took his own life. At first I welcomed the rumors for I thought they would keep my poor boy--for thus I thought of him--safe in his small kingdom in the darkness below the Opera and perhaps they would have done, until that dreadful autumn of '93. He did something very foolish, Father. He fell in love.
"Then she was called Christine Daae. You probably know her today as Madame la Vicomtesse de Chagny."
"But this is impossible. Not ..."
"Yes, the same one, then a chorus girl in my charge. Not much of a dancer, but a clear, pure voice. But untrained. Erik had listened nightafter night to the greatest voices in the world; he had studied the texts, he knew how she should be coached. When he had finished, she took over the leading role one night and by morning had become a star.
"My poor, ugly, outcast Erik thought she might love him in return but of course it was impossible. For she had her own young love. Driven by despair Erik abducted her one night, from the very center of the stage, in the middle of his own opera, Don Juan Triumphant ."
"But all Paris heard of this scandal, even a humble priest like me. A man was killed."
"Yes, Father. The tenor Piangi. Erik did not mean to kill him; just to keep him quiet. But the Italian choked and died. Of course it was the end. By chance the Commissioner of Police was in the audience that night. He summoned a hundred gendarmes; they took blazing torches and with a mob of vengeance-seekers descended into the cellars, right to the level of the lake itself.
"They found the secret stairs, the passages, the house by the lake, and they found Christine shocked and swooning. She was with her suitor the young Vicomte de Chagny, dear,sweet Raoul. He took her away and comforted her as only a man can, with strong arms and gentle caresses.
"Two months later she was found with child. So he married her, gave her his name, his title, his love and the necessary wedding band. The son was born in the summer of '94 and they have brought him up together. And she went on these past twelve years to become the greatest diva in all Europe."
"But they never found Erik, my child? No trace of the Phantom, I seem to recall."
"No, Father, they never found him. But I did. I returned desolate to my small office behind the chorus room. When I drew aside the curtain of my wardrobe niche, there he was, the mask he always wore, even alone, clutched in his hand, crouching in the dark as he used to beneath the stairs at my apartment eleven years before."
"And of course you told the police ... ."
"No, Father, I did not. He was still my boy, one of my two boys. I could not hand him over to the mob again. So I took a woman's hat and heavy veil, a long cloak ... . We walked side by side down the staff staircase and turned out into the street, just two women fleeing into thenight. There were hundreds of others. No one took any notice.
"I kept him for three months at my apartment half a mile away, but the 'wanted' notices were everywhere. And a price on his head. He had to leave Paris, leave France entirely."
"You helped him to escape, my child. That was a crime and a sin."
"Then I will pay for it, Father. Soon now. That winter was bitter cold and hard. To take a train was out of the question. I hired a diligence, four horses and a closed carriage. To Le Havre. There I left him hidden in cheap lodgings while I scoured the docks and their seedy bars. Finally I found a sea captain, master of a small freighter bound for New York and one to take a bribe and ask no questions. So one night in mid-January 1894, I stood on the end of the longest quay and watched the stern lights of the tramp steamer disappear into the darkness, bound for the New World. Tell me, Father, is there someone else with us? I cannot see but I feel someone here."
"Indeed, there is a man who has just entered."
"I am Armand Dufour, madame. A novicecame to my chambers and said that I was needed here."
"And you are a notary and commissioner for oaths?"
"Indeed I am, madame."
"Monsieur Dufour, I wish you to reach beneath my pillow. I would do so myself but I am become too weak. Thank you. What do you find?"
"Why, a letter of some sort, enclosed in a fine manila envelope. And a small bag of chamois leather."
"Precisely. I wish you to take pen and ink and sign across the sealed flap that this letter has been delivered into your charge this day, and has not been opened by you or anyone else."
"My child, I beg you hurry. We have not finished our business."
"Patience, Father. I know my time is short but after so many years of silence I must now struggle to complete the course. Are you done, Monsieur le Notaire?"
"It has been written just as you requested, madame."
"And on the front of the envelope?"
"I see, written in what must surely be yourown hand, the words: M. Erik Muhlheim, New York City."
"And the small leather bag?"
"I have it in my hand."
"Open it if you please."
"Nom d'un chien! Gold Napoleons. I have not seen these since ..."
"But they are still valid tender?"
"Certainly, and most valuable."
"Then I wish you to take them all, and the letter, and take it to New York City and deliver it. Personally."
"Personally? In New York? But madame, I do not usually ... I have never been ..."
"Please, Monsieur le Notaire. There is enough gold? For five weeks away from the office?"
"More than enough, but--"
"My child, you cannot know this man is still alive."
"Oh, he will have survived, Father. He will always survive."
"But I have no address for him. Where to find him?"
"Ask, Monsieur Dufour. Search the immigration records. The name is rare enough. Hewill be there somewhere. A man who wears a mask to hide his face."
"Very well, madame. I will try. I will go there and I will try. But I cannot guarantee success."
"Thank you. Tell me, Father, has one of the sisters administered to me a spoonful of tincture of a white powder?"
"Not in the hour that I have been here, ma fille. Why?"
"It is strange but the pain has gone. Such beautiful, sweet relief. I cannot see to either side but I can see a sort of tunnel and an arch. My body was in such pain but now it hurts no more. It was so cold but now there is warmth everywhere."
"Do not delay, Monsieur l'Abbé. She is leaving us."
"Thank you, Sister. I hope I may know my duty."
"I am walking towards the arch, there is light at the end. Such sweet light. Oh, Lucien, are you there? I am coming, my love."
"In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti . . ."
"Ego te absolvo ab omnibus peccatis tuis."
"Thank you, Father."
Copyright © 1999 by Frederick Forsyth.