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Volume Six ~ Unmasked Hearts ~ Profound Regret

Volume Six ~ Unmasked Hearts ~ Profound Regret

Background

Erik has encountered Christine down by the lake, has almost made love to her, has nearly killed her, and is now experiencing another episode of profound regret.

Chapter Three

Profound Regret
____________________

All eight of my fingers pressed against her spine, and my thumbs pushed up under her chin, locking her teeth together. The only sound she could make was through closed teeth. She did try to shake her head though, but I continued my cold threats without acknowledging her wishes.
   “I’m finished listening to you, Christine, and so is that young lover of yours. No one will listen to you anymore—you little tease. We’re tired of you fluttering back and forth between us at your whim; like a butterfly between flowers not caring what pollen it gathers.
   “I almost died for you last night—did you know that? But maybe it’s you who should die for me, and then all this indecision will be over for good. Yes, that’s right. You see how easy it is? It will be quiet, painless, and peaceful; I’ll make sure of that. I’m very good at this form of art, you know, and it is an art. Not like those who lack finesse and carelessly end a life with the use a knife or a gun; those without finesse—like your vicomte.
   “You do remember why I use the lasso, don’t you? I explained it all to you before when you tested me beyond my limits. Remember? Well, just in case you’ve forgotten, let me refresh your memory. The Opera Ghost has never used a weapon that spills blood. They’re very ugly and very messy. It’s impossible to keep from getting blood all over your hands and clothes, and it never comes out. Never! Did you know that, Christine? It’s always there as a silent reminder of an ugly death. That’s why I prefer my Punjab lasso or my hands. They’re silent and clean. In fact, if I use my hands properly, they won’t even leave a mark, and you can rest assured that I always use them properly.
   “Like this hold I have on you now. Unless you struggle too much, there won’t even be a bruise. So if you want to appear in your coffin for all eternity without ugly marks on your beautiful body, I suggest you not struggle. That way, it’ll appear you died of natural causes. Yes, quite natural. I’ll make sure your death is not ugly—not messy, my beautiful angel.
   “You can count on me. There have been those who’ve counted on my expertise in the past, and I never disappointed them. Well, almost never. You know, Christine, I usually get paid handsomely for this form of art, but this one will be pro bono. Consider it a going away gift, my sweet.”
   While I taunted her, I increased the pressure on her neck just to watch for her fear—but, curiously, it never came.
   “Can you feel that? Yes, feel how easy it would be for me. Just one quick shove on that bone right there and it’ll be over.”
   With a force that turned her fingers white, she grabbed my wrist, trying to pull my hands away. But the sight of the ring on her finger only intensified my anger.
   “Oh, you silly child! Don’t waste your strength. You’re no match for me. Now, on a full-grown man I would never attempt this particular move. You see, he could have a hidden weapon, and my heart is in a vulnerable position right now. But I know you don’t carry any such weapon, do you, Christine? You don’t need to because you carry another type of weapon; a more lethal one. Oh, it can be slower acting, but just as deadly and more painful. Your deception can tear a heart to pieces in a split second—as it just did mine.”
   I released my right hand, and with one finger I followed the tears that were starting to trickle down her cheek.
   “Yes, these eyes, lips, throat, and, oh, yes, we can’t forget that voice; that angel’s voice that can captivate hearts; that voice that made me love you; that voice that caused young Chagny to fall in love with you. And to think I gave you that voice and made it soar like a beautiful dove—only to have that sweet-sounding bird turn into a viscous raptor and tear my heart out.”
   With her eyes wide and pleading, she made a feeble attempt to shake her head, but then, wearily, she closed her eyes.
   “Well, you know what, Christine? I’m going to clip those wings so they’ll fly no more. They’ll never be able to break another heart. Not mine and not your young husband’s. By the way, where is your young, handsome husband? Not in your wedding bed is he; all alone, wondering where his little, innocent bride might be. Strange, I almost feel sorry for him.”
   I replaced my hand on her throat and increased the pressure, listening to her moans.
   “To think I showed you my heart, making myself vulnerable—for what? I gave you everything I had; my heart, my soul, and my music. I gave you my music, Christine. Oh, Christine—Christine, why? Why?”
   While her eyes pleaded with me, her tears ran down her cheeks and over my hands, and she began beating on my chest with her small fists. I was still ranting at her when she brought her hands up in front of my face, removed the gem from her finger, and threw it over my shoulder. I heard it cling as it hit the wall, and then there was silence—icy silence. She spread her left hand out between our faces, and I saw my band of gold still on her finger—right where I’d placed it.
   Trying to understand, I searched her tear-filled eyes and felt a frown grow on my brow. My heart was beating like a frightened bird’s, and my breathing became difficult. She blinked the tears from her eyes and tried to get me to listen to her pitiful, muffled pleas, struggling to escape from the power of my anger.
   “Erik, please. Please! Listen to me!”
   My mind swam in a fog of inconceivable thoughts. Was this just another one of my many nightmares? What was happening? I looked back at the wall I was just at and fully expected to see myself still standing there—holding on for dear life. But it was bare, confirming the reality that I didn’t want to believe. I looked in the other direction where she’d thrown the ring, and there it was; again confirming my fears.
   To the cold earth those gems represented nothing more than another piece of rock. To the men of the world it represented a fortune. To my tortured soul it represented the truth and another source of agony.
   I closed my eyes tightly again and shook my head. I looked back at Christine, with her eyes opening and closing in weary processions. Then I began to feel nauseated, my head started to reel, my vision blurred, and my knees began to weaken. I closed my eyes and shook my head, trying to gain mastery over my muddled psyche.
   While struggling for breath, the muscles in my jaw and neck tightened and then cramped. I gazed at my ugly hands and released my grip on that precious neck. Staring at my empty palms, I stumbled backwards until I hit the stone wall, and then I watched helplessly as Christine crumbled to the ground.
   The air around the lake was peaceful and quiet, but I still heard the sound of my horrible voice reverberating between my ears. Sweat dripped from my brow and chin as I dropped to my knees. After ripping my mask off, I pushed my hot cheeks against the cool stone wall, closed my eyes, and tried to slow my breathing and my heart before it burst.
   It was all happening again. I did it again! What was wrong with me? I looked at Christine just as she turned and looked in my direction. So frightened and ashamed of what I’d done, I also crumpled to the ground. With my back to the wall, I pulled me knees to my chest and pressed my face against them, then I folded my arms over my head and rocked and cried. I felt so ashamed and desperately wanted to vanish into the silent mist. I could no longer look at the woman I loved and almost killed—again! Oh, will someone just shoot me, I pleaded. Just shoot me now. How I wished I’d let the morphine remove me from this ghastly earthly scene. If only I could turn back the time—if only.
   I remained sitting against that wall, wishing it would fall over me and end it all. I didn’t even try to regain control of my emotions. To understand my actions was impossible, so I squeezed my arms tighter around head and cried.
   Gradually, I could no longer hear my heart beating in my ears, or my labored breathing, or my sobs, or my raging voice echoing in my head. There was silence once more. No sound except for the scratching of rat’s claws as they scrambled up the stairs, fleeing the horrifying scene. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, and the minutes ticked away endlessly. It was Christine’s voice that broke the silence and dared to enter my frightening world.
   “Erik?”
   I could hear the movement of her skirt beside me, and I wanted desperately to crawl into a hole and die. When I didn’t respond, I felt her kneel right next to me, and I couldn’t understand why she was even trying to help me, but she did. One of her arms wrapped around my back and the other one around my knees, and then she gently started rocking me.
   “Oh, Erik,” I heard her whisper against my arms; arms that I was still trying to hide beneath.
   I managed to whisper, “Go. Go back to Raoul and try to forget about all of this. I’m no good for you, Christine. Please, find your ring and leave me.”
   She started kissing the back of my hand, which was clawing at the back of my neck.
   “No, Erik. I’ll never leave you.”
   I tried unsuccessfully two more times to get her to leave me, but each time she softly told me no.
   “Please, Erik, can we go to your home so we can talk? We have so much to discuss.”
   I shook my head in disbelief. “How can you suggest such a thing? I don’t trust myself, so how can you?”
   “Because, I know you,” she said softly.
   “I thought I did too. I thought my rages were gone. I thought I was free of them after that fateful night in my home, but I can see now that they’re far from over. I feel so disgusted with myself and ashamed—so ashamed. It wouldn’t matter what you’d done, you don’t deserve what I just put you through. That’s why you have to leave me now before I do you more harm.”
   She slid her hand between my arms and tried to lift my face out of its hiding place, but I resisted, still unable to face her. When her gentle hand touched my face, I remembered I was without my mask, so I turned my face even further from her gaze.
   “Where’s my mask?” I barely whispered.
   She laced her fingers between mine and responded softly, “Erik, it doesn’t matter. I love you with or without your mask. I love you, Erik—you. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m not married to Raoul. We’re not even engaged. I love you. Please, believe me, and please take me to your home so we can talk.”
   I dared to raise one eye above my arm and looked intently at her face, so tired and tear streaked. I pictured that beautiful face just minutes before with my hands around her neck, and I felt so sick that I had to bury my eye beneath my arms again.
   “Christine. Oh, Christine. I almost killed you, again,” I whimpered in my hiding place. “What’s wrong with me? You must leave me while you still can. Go to Raoul and marry him. He can give you the one thing I’ll never be able to give you—a sane husband. Please, go, Christine.”
   She placed a few kisses on the back of my hand, and with a sigh she questioned me.
   “Remember that day in your dining room when I was so confused, and you told me I needed to follow what was in my heart? You told me to stop trying to please so many people and just listen to my heart and then everything would work out for the best in the end. Do you remember those words, Erik?”
   I barely nodded, and, with another kiss to the back of my hand, she went on. “That’s what I’m trying to do—follow my heart’s path, and it led me to you, Erik. Please, let’s go to your home so I can explain.”
   I shook my buried head. “Christine, I don’t trust myself and neither should you. I’m terribly ashamed of my actions, so much so that I can’t even bring myself to ask for your forgiveness. I don’t deserve your forgiveness. I don’t deserve you or your love. You deserve and have every right to do whatever you want with your life. You were right to accept Raoul’s proposal and not wait for the ludicrous wishes of a demented old man. Raoul is at least sane. You need to leave me and take care of yourself; forget about me and the nightmares I’ve brought into your life.”
   With almost an irritated huff she came back. “Erik, you’re not listening to me. I don’t want to marry Raoul. I don’t want to marry anyone except you—only you, Erik. Do you understand me? Only you!”
   I felt tears begin to form in my eyes, and I shook my head yet another time. “No, you can’t. Not now—not after what I’ve done. You can’t! Go, Christine. You must go. It’s not safe here with me. I’m not to be trusted. Please go!”
   She was silent for a few moments, and then, with a sigh, she got to her feet. I listened as she moved away until I could no longer hear her steps. I honestly don’t know how long I stayed in that position, so afraid to move or do anything at all. At that time, I felt like a small child, hiding under his blankets and fearing the monster in his closet. I believed that the slightest movement on my part would only open the door to the monster’s closet and bring another calamity of some sort. So I stayed hidden.
   The minutes ticked away slowly, until I took two very long and deep breaths and raised my eyes from behind my arms long enough to look for my mask. When I spotted it, I untangled my body, stretched out on the ground, and reached for it. After replacing it, I got to my feet, and took a few more deep breaths.
   As I headed for my cloak, which was right where Christine had fallen, I felt drained, remorseful, dejected, ashamed, empty, frightened, and so much more. I put my cloak over my arm and turned toward my boat, but what I saw in it stunned me. It was Christine, and I shook my head, trying to think rationally. I looked toward the stairs and considered hiding and leaving her there alone. But, I knew she would probably stay right there until she got what she wanted. So, with my head and countenance low, I started walking toward the wharf.
   Once I reached it, but without looking at her, I asked, “Christine, what are you doing?”
   “I’ll do as you wish and leave you, but only after you hear me out. Now, I’m very cold. Will you please take me to your home where it’s warmer?”
   I glanced quickly at her, sitting in the dim light among layers and layers of mint green fabric. She was so beautiful, and I loved her so much, but I also feared for her life. Therefore, I tried again to reason with her.
   “Christine, you can’t do this. Don’t you understand? You’re not safe here with me?”
   She looked out over the mist, took a deep breath, and then looked up at me. “Do you remember when you told me you could do anything if I was by your side?” I nodded. “Well, I believe controlling your temper is one of those things that you can accomplish if I’m by your side. Let me help you. You’ve taught me so much, and I’m not referring only to my voice. Let me teach you—let me help you gain mastery over your anger.” She held one outstretched hand toward me. “Please, Erik.”
   I felt I could melt right between the planks in the wharf, but, despite my fears, I surrendered to her wishes. I stepped into the boat and placed my cloak around her trembling shoulders, and then, in silence, I took her through the labyrinth to my home. I couldn’t look her in the eyes during the entire trip, or when I helped her out of the boat, or when we entered my home, not even when I talked to her. I was much too ashamed.
   When I stood behind her and took my cloak off her shoulders, I saw the back of her gown smeared with mud, but, what was worse, there were remains of old bruising in the pattern of fingers on the back of her arms. I had to close my eyes and jaws tightly, knowing they were my fingerprints; the results of my madness that fateful night. Then I was more than ashamed—I was repulsed.
   “I’ll get the brandy,” I said softly. “You might want to change out of that dress. The back is covered in mud and so is your hair, for which I deeply apologize.”
   Without waiting for a response, I turned and headed for the kitchen. Once there, I grasped the counter and lowered my head. She shouldn’t be here with me. I can’t be trusted. I began berating, accusing, and cursing my very existence. If it weren’t for her repeated request to talk to me, I don’t know what I would have done at that moment. Her words helped to keep me focused.
   After I’d crumbled at the wall by the lake, my thoughts kept returning to that bottle of morphine that still had the potential to end it all. But I owed Christine whatever she asked for, and I believe that was the only reason why I was still breathing.
   Eventually, I had two brandy glasses in my hands and was walking through the dining room. Christine was in her usual spot in the corner of the divan, wearing the powder blue dress that I loved her to wear. She’d brushed out her hair, and it was falling gracefully over her shoulders. Despite what she’d just gone through, she was still a stunning vision.
   I handed her one glass, got her a blanket, placed it around her shoulders, and tucked it in. She pulled her feet up and under the blanket as she always did and thanked me, while I sat at the other end of the divan. Her expressions of appreciation cut me to the core. I deserved nothing from her. To avoid the dreaded eye contact, I kept my elbows on my knees and my sight on the brandy glass in my hands.
   After a few moments of intense silence, I apologized softly, “I’m sorry, Christine. You’re probably tired of hearing me say that, but it’s true. I can’t express my remorse enough.”
   “I know, Erik,” was all she said, and then there was more silence.
   I wanted to question her about her need to speak with me, but I felt I had no right to ask anything from her, so I waited. I couldn’t even give her a hand gesture or a look to encourage her, so I waited in painful silence. I felt so horrible, so guilty, and I was still a bit nauseated.
   Christine’s eyes and nose had a rosy hue as evidence of the torture she’d just gone through. How could she sit there with me? How could she bear to be in the same room with me after what I’d done to her? I sat quietly, and yet anxiously, for her to start her explanation, but I didn’t have the heart, or the right, to push her to talk if she wasn’t ready.
   Finally, after taking a sip of her brandy, and with a heavy sigh, she began.
   “I could have lived a happy and contented life with Raoul, but you’ve changed that. You showed me how to live a life full of reality and passion and not one of make believe. With Raoul, I could live my childhood dream. I could be on the stage in front of the lights and performing as a chorus girl, and I would have my childhood sweetheart waiting for me in the wings. In my innocence, I couldn’t have asked for more.
   “But you and your voice changed all that. The first conversation we had in my dressing room changed me, and something started to stir in me that I didn’t understand, and it frightened me. However, now that I understanding it, it no longer frightens me. Now it gives me a real reason to live.”
   With the sound in her voice and the words she used, I lost focus on the glass in my hands and closed my eyes with a sigh. I loved that woman in ways I couldn’t understand, and I wanted to scream and hold her tightly in my arms—but I couldn’t and I didn’t, so I continued to listen to her explanation of the strange situation we’d found ourselves in.
   “You gave my music passion as I’d never known before, and, now that I feel it inside me, I can’t go back to being a mere chorus girl and expect to be happy and content. It’s the same with Raoul. Now that I’ve experienced what true and deep love is like, I can’t go back to him and expect to live a happy and contented life. You’ve changed everything, Erik. I know now the real passion for love and life that I never knew existed, and I can’t go back to the way it was—not until I’m forced to.
   “You told me during our first conversation in your home that I needed to trust you, and that you’d give me something I couldn’t comprehend right then. You said it would make my wildest dreams seem like a child’s fantasy. You were so right—that’s exactly what happened.
   “Erik, I don’t know how long our Lord will permit me to stay with you, but I’m asking you to trust me now, and maybe I’ll be able to exceed your wildest dreams and make you feel what I’m feeling. Nothing can keep me from you now—nothing but death. Can you believe what I’m saying? Can you give me a chance to prove it to you?”
   With my head still down and my eyes still closed, I answered in hushed tones, “Christine, I love you so much. Your words warm my soul and give me hope. I’ll do anything you ask, but I still fear for your safety. I still don’t understand what’s happening.
   “I know you love Raoul, and I don’t understand you being here like this. All of this frightens me. I fear for you, and I fear for me. I don’t know what I’ll do if you swing back again with your favor focused on Raoul. I’m not to be trusted.”
   “I won’t lie to you, Erik. I do love Raoul. I truly love him. When I see him, I want to run to him and laugh and throw my arms around his neck and have him lift me in the air and laugh with me. I giggle like a schoolgirl when I think about going to dinner with him in a noisy restaurant where the music is loud and gay. When I think about Raoul, I think about laughing and having fun.”
   While listening to that description, I had to lower my head more and force my fingers to relax their stranglehold on my glass before it broke under the pressure. But then she touched my arm.
   “Erik, look at me.”
   I didn’t move until she said please, and, when I glanced at her, she continued, “But I also love you, Erik. I love you deeply. When I think about you, I think about soft music and warm firelight. When I see you, I don’t want to run or hurry into anything. I want to walk slowly and savor every minute I’m in your presence.
   “I want to move close to you and feel the warmth of your body close to mine. I want more than anything else to have our bodies as well as our lives join and never separate. I want to be in your arms and never leave them. I want to lie by your side, Erik, and listen to you breathe. I want to live with the sound of your voice surrounding me, the feel of your breath on my neck, and the strength of your arms around me.
   “Yes, I love Raoul, and a part of me always will, but what I feel for you is so much deeper than what that one word can convey. I feel as if I’m a part of you and you’re a part of me, and that without you I’m incomplete and can live only partially.”
   Reality, nightmares, and dreams were at times hard for me to distinguish between, and, at that moment, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or awake. We’d just managed to live through another traumatic experience by the lake, and that conversation on the divan was in such contrast that it didn’t seem possible for it to be real.
   Therefore, I just stared at her, not knowing how to respond. So much had happened since I woke from the morphine, and I felt confused and unsure of myself or my ability to rationalize properly. I think my expression must have told her as much, because she didn’t ask me any questions, but she did continue to explain.
   “I know my emotions have swung back and forth too many times, and I know what I’m saying right now might be confusing to you, so please let me explain further. I was familiar with the feelings of love, everyone is from an early age, so when I met and spent time with Raoul, a love began to grow between us. I never questioned it; it was just there, and he was comfortable to be around—like an old pair of shoes.
   “But then when I started spending time with your voice behind the mirror, what I felt was strange to me. You made me feel safe in so many ways, and yet I feared you and your powers, as well as the power of what I was feeling.
   “From the first time you spoke my name on that stage, how I felt about you was different and powerful. I’m even ashamed to admit that it was lustful, especially once you started tutoring me. I was so ashamed of my feelings that I couldn’t even write them in my diary, and I normally wrote everything in it.
   “Long before I knew you were human, I had dreams about you being a man and making love to you. Oh,” she whispered as she pressed her hands against her face. “I feel so embarrassed now, but, at the time, I was ashamed. In fact, when you were late for my lessons, I thought you’d read my mind and therefore had found me unworthy of your angelic instruction.”
   She raised her face above her hands and looked me right in the eyes. “And when the chandelier fell, the reason I feared for your life was because you were a man in my fantasies. And in the trauma of the moment, I even had myself convinced you could be hurt.
   “Then, once you brought me down here and I realized you were a man of flesh and blood, I became even more fearful. When you stood there in front of me and I heard you speak, something surged through me, and it frightened me even more. I was afraid of your temper, but I feared what I was feeling even more.
   “It was strange and confusing for me, and I really didn’t have anyone I could talk to about you; someone who could help me understand what I was feeling. I certainly couldn’t talk to Raoul for obvious reasons. Meg wasn’t any help either, especially after she became so jealous of my relationship with you, and I couldn’t talk to Mummy.
   “All Mummy ever told me was that you were my good angel, and I needed to do whatever you asked of me. She said you held my interest in your hands, and that you would give me the best life. When I tried to tell her you really weren’t an angel but a man, she always said, ‘Certainly he’s a man, because any good angel becomes whatever someone needs them to be.’
   “I felt so trapped, and the only time I received any relief was when I was down here with you. At those times, everything seemed so normal, and I just wanted to stay here forever. You made me feel special. You made me feel…”
   She stopped mid-sentence and scrunched her face, obviously trying to find her words. When she did, I felt surprised and yet honored.
   “You made me feel like an adult. During our dinners, I no longer felt like a chorus girl. You made me feel like a woman, and I loved it. I never wanted our evenings together to end. I think that’s the real reason why I wanted you to play your music when I went to bed. It made me feel close to you in the only way I felt I could.
   “But then the air between us became intense, and you started questioning me so often about my feelings for you. Each time you did, all my secret feelings surfaced, and I simply couldn’t tell you the truth. I was too embarrassed. The feelings I had for you were so strong, but I couldn’t recognize it as the beginnings of true love, because it was so foreign to me—that kind of love. At times, I thought there was something truly wrong with me for the way I felt about you. There was one time when I thought I had my feelings all figured out, but then they got all muddled again. Remember the day you gave me the onyx combs?”
   I nodded and almost smiled as I lowered my eyes from hers, remembering my own lustful feelings for her that day. Abruptly, she appeared to get uncomfortable. She set her glass down and got up, moving across the room and twisting the bow on her dress.
   “What is it, Christine? After all you’ve just shared with me, there shouldn’t be anything you can’t say to me, no matter what it is.”
   She stopped at the fireplace where she turned and looked at me. “I’m so sorry, Erik. If I’d told you how I felt that day, it could have prevented…”
   “Christine, don’t!” I said quickly as I got to my feet and joined her at the fireplace. “There can’t be any what ifs. It won’t change anything—believe me—I know.”
   She looked at me for a moment, lifted my hand and kissed my fingers. “I love you, Erik.”
   I sighed and held her close. Then realizing the dangerous situation we could be in, I took her by the shoulders and moved her away from me, looking directly in her eyes.
   “You need to be sure about what your heart is saying to you. I can’t…you can’t…you have to make a stand on one side of your emotions or the other. Within this last week, I’ve nearly ended your life twice, and it’s truly a miracle that I didn’t succeed. I love you with a power that…it frightens me, Christine, it truly frightens me.
   “I have to leave this place as soon as possible, and, if you decide to go with me, you need to be certain it’s what you want. Neither of us can afford another encounter such as the one we just experienced, and I can’t trust myself to respond any differently if you should change your mind again. It’s driving away what little sanity I have left.”
   She frowned and blinked a few times, and then looked deeply into my eyes. “You still plan to leave here?”
   I nodded. “Yes. I have to for everyone’s sakes.”
   “I’m confused, Erik. Where would you go and when?”
   “Probably to Venice where I could build a beautiful home above ground for you, if you’re with me, and, if not, then a simple home with a large music room just for me.”
   She seriously frowned at me, turned away, and then turned back quickly. “But, Erik, how can that be? You’re dying! How can you plan that far into the future? I thought you had only a few days to live!”
   I stood there, with my hands spread out from my sides, completely unprepared for that question. How do I answer her? Do I admit to my stupidity and my attempted suicide, or do I find another lie to cover this one?