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After Erik has listened to the last of Christine’s explanations, she decides that she needs to explain her decision to Raoul. Erik is fearful of what might happen if she does so but agrees and takes her back across the lake. It is at that time that they are surprised by the sudden appearance of Raoul.

Chapter Seven

An Encounter Turns Deadly
Raoul’s voice thundered across the water, and we both jumped and turned to face him. While he moved out from behind a pillar, I was struck with disbelief. How could I be caught off guard? How could I not hear him?
   “I knew it,” he growled loudly. “I knew that letter from the Persian meant you had another deceitful scheme planned to interfere with Christine’s life. You freakish demon. What do you hope to gain by calling her down here again?” Then turning his attention to Christine, he demanded, “Come, Christine! Come with me! Can you see now what a charlatan he is? He’s been lying all along. Dying! And to think I felt sorry for him. I knew it was too good to be true.”
   “Raoul, wait,” Christine beseeched.
   Paying her no mind, he glared at me and started toward her, but I stepped in between them and shook my head at him. He momentarily stopped and glared up at me again.
   “You bastard! You’re the worst kind of loathsome creature in the world. Let her go!”
   I then saw the revolver in his hand and whispered over my shoulder, “Stay here, Christine.”
   I moved cautiously toward Raoul, with my left hand already around a coil at my side. I didn’t have to act to put a threatening tone in my voice; that time it came all too natural.
   “Didn’t your mother teach you that children shouldn’t play with guns? Put that away, you silly child, before you get seriously injured.”
   He took a step toward me, and I followed his move, only I didn’t stop with one step. I moved close enough for my lasso to be within striking distance.
   With more arrogance than he’d ever shown me before, he replied, “Don’t think you can intimidate me; it won’t work.” Then, looking at Christine, he continued, “Come! He won’t hurt you ever again.”
   Much to my disappointment, she’d followed me and was nearly beside me. So I spread out my arm and stepped in front of her again. Then, once more, Raoul’s voice traveled across the water.
   “I demand you! Let her go! You monstrous freak; let her go!”
   His emotions were out of control, so I knew I had the upper hand—as long as I didn’t lose mine. But his finger was still on that trigger, and, with Christine so close to me, I feared for her safety. The light from my boat was too dim and he was too far away for me to tell if the pistol was cocked or not, so I had to buy myself time until I could tell for sure. Continuing to take slow steps in his direction, I responded to his insolence.
   “Demand, you say? Am I now to roll over and play dead like a good monster? You should know me better than that by now—you arrogant fool. This monster doesn’t take too well to demands. You should know that, as well.”
   Christine grabbed my arm, and again moved out from behind me, trying to thwart what she thought would surely end in disaster.
   “No, Raoul! Listen to me!”
   His eyes left mine for a split second, and, cocked pistol or no cocked pistol, that was all I needed. The lasso left my hand and met its mark around his neck, and I was on him before he had a chance to blink. I wrapped my hand around the pistol and his hand, and, as a bullet ricocheted across the stone wall, I got my answer—it was cocked. I moved around behind him, taking his arm and the pistol with me. With my left hand holding the lasso tightly around his neck, and my right hand holding his arm tightly between his shoulder blades, he was powerless.
   My teeth pressed together, and I began hissing in his ear. “I told you once before not to underestimate this old man. In fact, I believe we were just about in this same spot, were we not? But it seems you’re not a quick learner, now are you? I gave you a second chance that day.” I growled as I gave a quick jerk on the lasso. “Do you expect me to give you a third? I don’t think so. I may look like a fool to you, but that doesn’t mean I am one.”
   I was fighting the desire to hear his neck snap when Christine’s face appeared before me, screaming my name. Right then, his knees buckled, and I released him. I immediately went down with him to release the noose, and so did Christine.
   “Oh, Erik, is he? Is he?” she questioned in tears.
   “No, my dear. I had no intention of killing him. I only wanted to disarm him,” I responded as I ripped the pistol from his fingers, got to my feet, and sent that disgusting piece of metal into the lake.
   She was kneeling beside him, stroking his cheek and speaking his name while I coiled the lasso and slid it back into my pocket. The sight of her there with him was too reminiscent of the last time all three of us were together in my home, and I had to turn away in order to think straight.
   He started to move and groan, at which time I picked her up by the shoulders and moved us back a few paces, putting her partially behind me again. He watched us as he got to his feet, all the while rubbing his neck. I kept one eye on him while I looked for the ring he’d given Christine. Once I spotted it, glistening in the dim lantern light, I moved toward it. Without taking my eyes off him, I grabbed it and held it up between us so it caught the light. When he saw it between my fingers, his eyes widened and showed his confusion.
   “What’s wrong?” I taunted. “Is your finite mind finding the truth hard to accept?” Then I tossed the ring toward him. “I believe this is yours. Next time give it to someone who wants it.”
   “Erik! Please, stop this foolishness now!” Christine rebuked.
   Raoul stiffened and took a step in my direction, and I returned the gesture with a deep breath and a step in his direction. Then Christine stepped between us so quickly that her cloak fell like a lifeless bird to the ground, but her voice took on a life full of strength and power.
   “Stop this now! I’m not a piece of meat that can be fought over by a couple of barnyard dogs. I have a mind, and I’m capable of making my own decisions, just in case you two boys have forgotten. I can choose on my own who I want to be with, and, right now, I don’t want to be with either of you. You’re grown men. Now respect my decision if you want my respect.”
   While I felt complete pride for Christine and her stand, Raoul and I were still at a standoff, with nothing but glares and labored breathing passing between us. Christine stepped toward me and placed her hand on my arm, but I didn’t dare take my attention away from that impudent boy long enough to give her the attention she deserved.
   “Erik, please, let me do this,” she said softly.
   I then looked down at her, and everything in me said no. He can’t be trusted. Don’t let her. But her pleading eyes, along with her excellent argument, made me respond favorably to her wishes. I took a step back and gestured toward Raoul. As she walked up to him, my heart was pounding violently. So, like a wily animal, I waited for an excuse to pounce on him again.
   Christine took his hand in hers. “Raoul, I do love you, and I think I have from the first day we met on that beach. I haven’t lied to you about that, and I haven’t lied to you about my feelings for Erik either. I was afraid of him, and, in some ways, I still am. But what I feel for him goes beyond love. It transcends every notion of love. There aren’t any words to describe just how I feel about him. I don’t want to hurt you by what I’m saying, but you deserve to know the truth. You have to know that this is what I want. I’m not being coerced.
   “Look at me Raoul! Really look at me! I came down here on my own. Erik didn’t bring me down here. I’m not in a trance of any sort. He has no hold on me, except for his hold on my heart. I would be doing all of us a great injustice if I were to go away with you and deny what Erik and I feel for each other. You have to believe me.
   “There’ll always be a place for you in my heart. You’ve helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life, and I’ll always be thankful for that; but you would never have my complete heart and devotion no matter how hard I might try to give it.
   “You were with me these past days, and you saw how miserable I was. If I were to leave here with you right now and deny what’s between Erik and me, then I would again be miserable. Is that what you wish for me?—I hope not.
   “You must believe me when I say I do this of my own accord. You saw me run out of the restaurant. That was of my own accord. Erik is a good man, Raoul. No, he’s a wonderful man, and I know as long as we’re together that our future will be one full of happiness.
   “Do you want me to be happy, Raoul? Erik was willing to die last night so I could have peace with you. Can’t you want the same happiness for me? If you really love me, you’ll want that for me, and not blame Erik or fight with him any longer about this.”
   Her speech was eloquent, and I stared in wonder at the strength of conviction she was displaying. And the words she chose made me love her even more. I almost forgot I had a dangerous opponent standing before me. How could he refuse her?
   As I watched Raoul’s jaws clench and actual tears form in his eyes, I almost felt sorry for him. He pleaded with her, but along with being kind she was also straightforward and never wavered. He kissed her hand and she kissed his cheek.
   I was just beginning to feel better about the situation when Raoul glanced beyond me and then nodded slightly, causing another player to enter in among us. It was Raoul’s driver, Claude, who stepped out from behind the same pillar that had concealed Raoul just minutes earlier. Raoul motioned with his head toward the wharf, which was behind me, and Claude started moving in that direction, while Raoul started backing toward the stairs.
   As I took Christine by the arm and moved her back with me, I shook my head and scowled at Raoul. How could he think he had a chance to compete against me on any scale, much less win? The imbecile thought he had our exits blocked. He obviously hadn’t learned anything during our previous encounters. Perhaps he needed another lesson.
   Even with Claude behind me, and Raoul in front of me, it was still a simple situation for me to handle with ease, that is, if I was alone. But, with Christine by my side, my strategy would need a slight alteration.
   My left hand was already around a coil, and since Raoul’s weapon was in the lake, I wasn’t too threatened. As long as I kept him far enough away from us, then he couldn’t reach us faster than my coil could reach him. Therefore, I put him on my right side and Claude on my left side with Christine and the lake behind me. I had Christine’s wrist in my right hand as I moved us sideways toward the wharf. I kept moving us slowly, glancing back and forth between the two men, until we were about halfway between them. Then I instructed her quietly.
   “Christine, listen to me, and please don’t be stubborn. I know what I’m doing. If you want this to end amiably, go to the boat—now!”
   I released her wrist, and she began walking toward the wharf, while I put another lasso in my right hand. Claude was also on the wharf by then, but I really didn’t perceive him as a serious threat, since he was only there to assist Raoul. He had no personal interest in the ultimate outcome of that evening; however, I still glanced back and forth at them as I made my way toward the wharf.
   Once Christine reached the wharf, and Raoul was far enough away from me, I turned my back on him and moved quickly toward Christine. I still kept a sharp ear out for Raoul’s movements though, just in case he wanted to prove further how much of an idiot he was. Armed or not, I couldn’t trust him, but I could hope he’d learned something from the preceding minutes. Not wanting a physical battle to ensue with Christine present, my one thought was to get her back in the boat and back to my home before anything could happen.
   By the time I reached the wharf, Claude was standing by my boat and Christine was between us. I felt that Claude would allow us to pass him without much difficulty, so I started to explain the situation to him.
   “Claude, this is Christine’s decision. It will be best for everyone if you leave us now and allow us to be on our way in peace.”
   I was about a meter away from Christine when I heard the unmistakable sound of a pistol cock behind me. He had a second gun was my immediate realization. I flung around instantly, while shouting at Christine to get down. Then I instantaneously realized I was too far away from the fool to use my lasso accurately. In that same instant, I heard the cock of another pistol behind me. I swung my arm out to release a lasso toward Claude, but Christine was in the way and I couldn’t make a clear toss.
   I’d barely turned back toward Raoul when I heard the blast from the exploding bullet ring out across the lake. In the shadows, the flair from the barrel of his handgun blazed. At the same time, I heard Christine shriek my name from behind me, but my anger blazed just as brightly as that blast had, and I stormed toward Raoul. Growling, I unleashed the full weight of my body against him, embedding both my fists between us and under his ribs. My slam was so hard it pinned him to the wall and forced the gun to release from his hand and hit the adjoining wall.
   Another cry from Christine fractured my roar. “Erik!”
   I looked over my shoulder in time to see her with her back to me, falling to the ground. Within a second, there was nothing left of her but a heap of powder blue fabric slowly descending to the wharf. A lifetime of pain and fear passed before me, and with my name still echoing across the water, I added hers as I screamed it. Completely forgetting about Raoul, I instantly ran to my love, dropped to my knees beside her, and grabbed her and her bloodstained gown up in my shaking arms.
   Her name charged past my lips as my heart fractured into a million pieces under the pressure of unspeakable agony.
   “Erik,” she whimpered against my shoulder. “Why?”
   Tears stung my closed eyes, and my jaws and chest ached in fear of what was to come.
   “Erik,” she whimpered again. “Help him.”
   I buried my frown and my tears that escaped their barriers in her soft curls, unable to tell her I would help the man who’d just shot my love. I shook my head and thought about her request. Only my Christine would ask me to help him—with what could be her dying breath.
   I ran my fingers through her hair, pulled her head from my shoulder, and looked down at her beautiful face, streaked with tears once more. In so doing, my sight fell to her hand at her blood-soaked bodice—my life-long hated blood. My heart and mind struggled. Do I hold her close? Do I rush her to a doctor? Do I kill Raoul?
   I reached under her, preparing to lift her up in my arms, when my sight fell just beyond her to the shadows where Claude was stretched out motionless, with crimson soaking through the jacket of his gray uniform. My mind staggered as it analyzed the last few seconds for a logical explanation. I looked at the woman in my arms, and then at the driver, and then back at her face.
   “Christine! Are you hurt?” By that time she was crying hysterically and wouldn’t respond, so I repeated sternly while shaking her shoulders. “Christine! Christine, are you hurt?”
   She managed to shake her head no, allowing me to release the breath I’d been holding and hold her close for a moment more. Then I moved away from her and reached for Claude’s throat. I felt several times for a pulse, but there was none, so I again checked with Christine.
   “Are you certain you’re not hurt?”
   “Yes, Erik. I’m unhurt, but…” She looked down at her bloodied hands and shook her head. “Poor Claude. Help him, Erik.”
   I searched her distressed and sorrowful face, her red splattered bodice, and her red hand still clutched at her chest, and I was unable to tell her that it was too late for him. So I held her close, thankful that I still could, and looked once more at Claude, with the ever-increasing circle of red on his chest. Then the red found its way within me, taking me over completely, and that was all I could see—the hated crimson of blood.
   “Raoul,” I growled as I released Christine from my embrace and turned toward him.
   He meant that bullet for me, and he was going to shoot me in the back—again. I flew to my feet and closed the space between us within seconds, once again ramming the dumfounded and confused fool against the stone wall, only, that time my intention wasn’t to disarm him—it was to kill him.
   To anyone watching, it would appear I was out of control, but I was in complete control. I wanted him dead. My fingers wrapped around his neck, waiting for the sound of his spine to crack, but waiting only long enough to first see the fear in his eyes that rightly should have been there all along. It was there all right, and I was relishing in it as I smiled and growled low.
   “Choices. We all make choices. Some good, some bad. Some wise, some unwise. You’ve made yours, and now I make mine.”
   He was gasping and clawing at my wrist, while my jaws clenched and my fingers tightened around his arrogant neck. My eyes narrowed, and a smirk formed on my lips as I watched his strength leave him. But then I also felt Christine’s entire weight pulling against my arm and her frantic voice pleading.
   “Erik, no! No more! No more! Erik, please, no more!”
   I looked over my arm at her, but I was unmoved by her pleas until she backed away and began pulling at the sides of her hair, crying frantically.
   “I can’t take any more of this! I just can’t!”
   She was screaming and turning in circles, causing her to almost fall into the lake, and causing me to release Raoul. He fell to the ground, with Christine by his side and speaking his name within an instant.
     My chest was heaving as I picked up the pistol and flung it far across the lake, along with a long deep bellow. When the cellar finally fell to silence, I moved next to Christine and took her by the shoulders, trying to lift her to her feet; but she turned on me in a rage of her own, slamming her fist across my thigh.
   “Leave me alone!” she screamed.
   I backed away from her and watched as she ran her fingers across Raoul’s forehead. But then he also made a mistake and defended himself.
   “See, I was right! He’s a monster!”
   Then she turned on him, screaming at him. “Never speak to me again, Raoul!”
   She jumped to her feet and stormed toward the lake, making me think she was going to deliberately jump in, but she stopped just short of the water’s edge. Raoul was on his feet and standing by the wall watching her, while I was out in the open and watching both of them. Then he started it again as he took a step toward me and released his arrogant tone in the semi-darkness.
   “This is all your fault! You demented freak!”
   I glared at him and took two strides in his direction, causing him to start a retreat toward the stairs.
   I laughed aloud. “What’s this? Not so brave without the feel of metal against your palm? Not so brave when my back isn’t turned toward you? Here, let me turn my back and hide my face and see if that helps you find your courage.”
   I turned my back, waiting for his steps to approach, giving me another opportunity to turn on him, but the air was shattered with Christine’s scream. We both turned and looked at her, standing at the water’s edge with her arms wrapped around her head and screaming one long, high-pitched, ear-splitting scream. It was so loud and shrill that it caused pain in my ears. I held my hands over my ears and waited for her breath to give out. Once it did, and once it stopped reverberating off the walls, she released her arms from over her head and glared at both of us with only one deafening word.
   Huffing, she turned and finished her trip to the wharf where she began pacing. I waited a few minutes, and when all three players in our bizarre tragedy didn’t change positions, I whispered to Raoul, hoping Christine wouldn’t hear me.
   “Raoul, right now Christine made a choice, if you’re observant enough to recognize it. She could have run to the stairs and away from us both, but she didn’t. She ran to the wharf—my wharf and my boat. I’ve also made a choice. I plan to leave her alone and stay right in this spot until she either comes to me or leaves me completely. I’ll respect her decision, whatever it is.
   “Now you need to make a choice. I hope you’re man enough and you love her enough to also respect her decision. I know you don’t like to lose at anything, Raoul, and neither do I, but I think Christine has just told us that she’s at her wit’s end. If either of us wants her to keep a measure of sanity, we need to leave her alone and quit this battle that has been raging between us. It’s already caused one death this night—that’s enough.
   “We need to do this for her sake, Raoul. I love Christine, and I want what’s best for her, and I believe it’s only Christine who can make that decision. Do you also love her enough to allow her that dignity?”
   He didn’t answer me as he watched our beautiful Christine on that wharf, still pacing. After a few minutes, he leaned back against the wall and rested his head on it, occasionally looking at me and then Christine. She eventually stopped pacing and knelt down with her hands in the water, I’m sure to wash the blood off them.
   I had to sigh as I thought about my poor Christine left all alone to handle her fears, while the two strong men in her life, which were supposedly in love with her, fought a battle over foolish pride. Once on her feet again, she looked out over the water, while I stayed still in the same spot, only moving enough to take a much-needed deep breath on occasion.
   I was anxious as I waited for Christine and listened for any strange footsteps on the stairs, but I couldn’t interfere with whatever was going to help her in her thought process. I honestly didn’t know what I’d do if someone came for me when she was in that state. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting her through any more fighting or turmoil, but then I couldn’t lie down and give up the control of my life to another man either. So I waited, hoping she wouldn’t take too much longer to work her way through the nightmare we’d put her in.
   I wouldn’t blame her in the least if she decided to leave and never speak to me again, although I was hoping that wouldn’t be her decision. I deserved nothing from her, and I would ask nothing from her, so I stayed in that position while placing my future in her delicate hands and compassionate heart. It was nearly an hour before she turned and started back toward the two stupid souls, clinging precariously to the damaged threads of her love.
   She stopped a few paces from us and asked a single question, but not a simple one. “Is there to be peace?”
   I instantly nodded yes, but unwilling to take my eyes off her face, I didn’t see Raoul’s reaction. She turned her back to us, and we waited once more. When she turned again to face us, she first looked at me and then Raoul, who she started to walk toward. She held out her hand to him, and I closed my eyes while feeling that familiar pain in my chest. When I opened my eyes, she was standing close to him and gazing at his face. She took his hand and held it in both of hers against her chest.
   He looked down at their hands and gasped. “His ring! It’s gone!” He looked quickly at me, and then with a large smile he looked into her eyes. “Does this mean you’re finally free from his control?”
   She replied with a soft smile. “No, Raoul, just the contrary. I’m in his complete control. Our bonds are stronger than ever.”
   “But that doesn’t make any sense, Christine. You’re talking in riddles—like him.”
   “Thank you,” she responded softly. “I consider that a compliment.”
   “Christine! You’re confusing me.”
   “I’m sorry.” She looked briefly at their hands and then looked back at his bewildered face. “Raoul, I love you,” she began, softly yet strongly. “I want to see you happy almost more than anything else in my life, but I can no longer pay the price to see that happen. I love Erik, and I also want to see him happy, and I’m willing to pay the price to see that it happens. Please, try to understand, and, if you can, please forgive me for the hurt I’ve caused you. I never meant for any of this to happen—it just did.
   “Will you please leave me now—leave us now like the gentleman the Chagny family would be proud of? Can you leave now and send someone to help poor Claude?”
   I was breathless as I watched my Christine take control of the dangerous situation with such feminine power and graciousness. I loved her so, and if Raoul had half a brain he would leave with Christine still his friend. But I fear his aristocratic pride was too injured to release her that easily, and he proved my suspicions with his next words.
   “I can’t believe this, Christine. I can’t believe you’d choose this monster over me.”
   I watched, holding my breath and biting my tongue to try to stay out of their closing scene. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, lowered her head, and backed away from him a few paces. Her shoulders went back, she stood up straight, and raised her chin as though she was a royal queen addressing her loyal subjects.
   “Goodbye, Raoul.”
   “Christine?” he asked in disbelief.
   “Goodbye, Raoul,” she repeated without one waver in her voice or demeanor.
   He tried unsuccessfully one more time, and one more time she repeated herself. It wasn’t until she walked over to me, wrapped her arm around mine, and told him goodbye again that he finally huffed and stormed up the stairs.
   We waited a moment in silence, watching the darkened stairway before I heard her sigh, and, when I looked down at her, she nearly fainted in my arms. She was exhausted after that perfect performance, and that’s exactly what it was. It was so perfect that I, her teacher, didn’t even recognize it as being an act, but, once it was finished, it was obvious how much of an act it was.
   She buried her face in my chest and began to sob, and I held her closely, apologizing for my part in her dismay. She nodded slightly, while her entire body trembled. I held her for as long as I felt safe in that position. With the way Raoul left, I felt certain he’d be back with reinforcements, so, with my arm still around her shoulders, I began walking us back to the boat.
   “I know you’re tired, but we need to leave quickly.”
   We made it as far as Claude’s body, and then she crumbled to her knees beside him.
   “Erik, we can’t leave him here like this. It isn’t right.”
   My heart was breaking for her, with her tears rolling down her flushed cheeks and her eyes fixed on his lifeless and bloody body. She pressed one hand over her mouth and the other one across her ribs, sobbing, but I had to reason with her, so I spoke softly yet firmly.
   “Christine, there’s nothing we can do for him now. Raoul will send someone soon, I’m sure of it. They’ll see to it that he has a proper burial. We must go now, Christine, or there won’t be a we.”
   She was too distraught to understand my meaning, and it was just as well. I felt certain Raoul would do one of two things, either leave the territory and the responsibility for the accidental shooting of his driver, or he’d be back with the police and try to place the blame on me. I didn’t want Christine to think about either of those prospects. I just wanted to get her out of Paris as quickly as I could. But as I watched her there, sobbing, I had to make certain she was thinking clearly enough to know what we were doing.
   She was still in tears and looking down at Claude, so, taking her by the shoulders, I shook her gently. “Christine, look at me. Do you still want to leave Paris with me?”
   She nodded without looking at me. “Yes, Erik. Yes,” she repeated in between sniffles.
   I helped her into the boat, and, while taking her quickly back across the lake, I organized my plans. As soon as we entered the parlor door, she headed straight for her spot on the divan, and I sighed. I knew she was tired, but somehow I needed to push her and help her to see that we didn’t have time to rest. So I sat down next to her, and she rolled over against my side and took a deep breath.
   “Am I awake, Erik, or has this all been just a horrible nightmare?”
   With closed eyes, I placed a kiss on top of her head. “This is all very real, my dear, and I’m afraid this has been my lot in life for some unknown reason—just one form of tragedy after another, having to sneak out of one town after another in continual repetitions. I was hoping with you in my life that things would change; be different somehow. But it appears that all I’ve succeeded in doing is add another innocent victim into the horrors called my life.
   “I know you’re very tired, Christine, and perhaps not in a proper frame of mind to make any weighty decisions right now, but I need you to try.” She sighed again and snuggled deeper against my side. “Christine, are you listening to me?”
   “Yes, Erik,” she responded breathlessly. “Weighty decisions.”
   “You’ve just witnessed what can happen if you keep company with me for very long, and, as much as I hate to say this, you might want to rethink your decision to leave with me. I want you to leave with me more than I want life, but if, after the events of this last week, you want to reconsider, I’ll try to understand. I’ll try to be the gentleman you asked Raoul to be.”
   She was quiet, and I was just about ready to ask if she was awake when she wrapped her arm around my chest. Then she lifted her face and looked into my eyes.
   “I’d rather lose my life while being with you than to try to live it without you.” Then, with a hint of exasperation, she added, “Now, don’t ever ask me that again.”