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At Last

At Last

Background

Christine and Erik have made it successfully to Joubert with the prospects of having him administer their wedding vows. But much more will happen before that can take place.  
 
Chapter Eleven

At Last
____________________
When the rider moved out from the shadows and into the moonlight, I saw him clearly, and I couldn’t hold back my exuberance.
   “Oded!”
   “Erik! Where are you?”
   I handed Christine my reins and stepped out from behind the trees.
   “I’m here, and so are you. But why, Oded? Why did you track us?”
   He dismounted, walked up to me, and wagged his lowered head. “You’re forever forgetting who I am, aren’t you, Erik? I’ve always been able to find you, and I thank Allah for that privilege.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “After all we’ve been through, I couldn’t miss this most blessed occasion, and I could think of only one man of cloth that you would trust enough to do this, so here I am.” He looked around. “But where’s Christine?”
   I acknowledged his comment and began walking with him to where she was hiding. “I am glad you’re here, but please don’t track us any farther. It could cause irreversible damage to our future together.”
   “No need to track you farther. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for—for a very long time.”
   He looked at my bride-to-be. “I can rest in peace, knowing you have someone such as Christine to care for you.”
   Christine smiled broadly, wrapped her arm around mine, and rested her head against my shoulder, making me smile.
   “I look forward to her care, my friend, but that can only happen if we get out of Paris before sunrise.”
   I motioned toward Joubert’s home, and we started walking there. On the way, I explained what had happened to it. We were almost there when I saw a figure walking toward us. I only had a moment of apprehension before I recognized the walk as Dominick’s.
   “Erik! Oded! Is everyone all right?”
   He looked cautiously at the small dark figure beside me, prompting me to put my arm around Christine’s shoulder and instruct her, “You can take the mask off now.”
   “Thank you,” she responded with a sigh. “This thing is hard to wear.”
   “Oh! It’s you, Christine. Great disguise. I didn’t recognize you at all.”
   “Good. Then it worked. You weren’t supposed to recognize me.”
   Turning his attention to me, Dominick questioned, “What is this all about? What are you doing here at this hour?”
   Blissfully, I answered, “We’re here to have Joubert oversee our marriage vows.”
   He gasped with a large smile. “Really? How wonderful! When I heard a horse on the road, I feared something was amiss, but this is great news. Let me go get Alaina.”
   Before I could tell him it had to be a secret, he’d turned and was running back up the street. I shook my head and looked down at Christine.
   “Keeping this a secret is going to be harder than what I’d originally thought.”
   Oded put his hand on my shoulder. “Enjoy the moment, Erik. I have your back.”
   I turned and looked at him. “Yes, you always have, my friend. But, this morning, I’d rather you stand beside me. Will you?”
   “It will be my honor, Erik.”
   About that time, Joubert returned and gestured for us to sit at his table. Christine and I sat and he opened a ledger, flipping through a few pages. Then he began questioning us.
   “Christine, I need your full name and birth date.”
   “Wait!” I blurted out. “Do you have to write all this down? I really don’t want a record of any of this.”
   “Are you asking me to do something dishonest, Erik?” he questioned sternly. “It’s the law that I record all births, baptisms, deaths, and marriages to the best of my ability.”
   I just looked at him. I’d completely forgotten about that little legal matter and who I was talking to. I looked at Christine, not knowing what to say or do.
   She took my hand. “I think you’re being overly cautious, Erik. What are the chances that someone will come to this out-of-the-way place and want to see Joubert’s ledger?”
   “Christine!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “If you’ve forgotten that hatred and determination in Raoul’s eyes when he left us, I haven’t. Maybe we should leave, right now, and wait to get married when we’re in a safer place.”
   “I don’t want to wait, Erik. Think for a minute. Even if Raoul, or anyone for that matter, found out we were married, they wouldn’t have any idea where we were. I don’t even know where we’re going. What are the chances that anyone else would happen upon us?
   “You once told me that we never know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring to us, Erik. Something could happen, and we may never make it to a safer place. I could die or you could die, and I’d never know you as my husband. I love you so much, Erik, and I want to be your wife; right here and right now under the last of the morning stars. Please, Erik. Let’s not wait. The sun is almost rising.”
   I was moved by her words but still fearful, so Joubert added what I needed to hear.
   “How about this, Erik?” he asked as he flipped to the back of the ledger. “I’ll record your information way back here. Then, even if someone should look at my records, they won’t see your names until the rest of the book is filled out. And, since we’re such a small community, that will take quite a while.”
   “Very well,” I sighed in defeat. “You’re probably right. Go ahead, Christine, answer his questions.”
   As if she feared something else was going to interfere with our big day, she answered quickly, “My full name is Christine Elizabeth Daaé, and I was born on 11 February, 1861.”
   While he wrote it down, I looked at her. “You were given your mother’s name. Together, they roll off the tongue nicely. Christine Elizabeth Daaé.”
   While he asked her where she was born, her parent’s names, and where they were born, I looked up the street and saw Lapierre, Geanne, Louis their son, his wife, and two of their children coming toward us. I did want to see Lapierre and Geanne before we left, but this was becoming a large crowd out in the open, and that made my uneasiness quadruple.
   Joubert brought me out of my troubled thoughts when he questioned me.
   “And you, Erik? What’s your full name and birth date?”
   “Erik Bradley Jourdan. 1 January, 1836.” I replied quietly, not wanting anyone else to hear.
   Christine chuckled softly and squeezed my hand. “Finally, I know your last name. I knew you were French—I just knew it. And to think it took a law to get you to give it to me.”
   “And I am giving it to you, my love. That is, if you want to take it. You don’t have to, you know. Just because Napoleon decreed that a woman should take her husband’s last name doesn’t mean you have to take mine. I believe our choices in life shouldn’t be governed by any man’s words.”
   “You truly are crazy if you think I wouldn’t want to carry it—like a badge of honor I’ll carry your name.”
   With our hands entwined, I answered the rest of Joubert’s questions.
   “I only need to post one more entry. Who will be the witnesses to your marriage?”
   Christine and I looked at each other just as a commotion rose up behind us. We both turned and looked. I don’t know what Christine was thinking, but I was expecting to see the entire Paris police force preparing to arrest me. Thankfully, it wasn’t. It was the rest of Lapierre’s family—all 31 of them, and all of them carrying smiles on their faces. Out from among them, Oded stepped forward.
   “I’ll be standing as Erik’s witness.”
   While Joubert was talking his information, I looked at Christine.
   “Who do you want to stand with you?”
   She shrugged her shoulders just as Geanne spoke up.
   “I’d consider it an honor if you’ll let me be your witness, Christine.”
   “Oh, that would be perfect,” she almost squealed.
   She jumped up and hugged her. About then, one of Geanne’s daughters, Estee, came running down the street with a bouquet of multicolored roses in her hands.
   “Will these do, Christine? They were the best I could fine.”
   Christine took the flowers and held them to her face. “These will do perfectly. You’re all making me feel so special.”
   I got to my feet, put my arm around her, and said softly, “That’s because you are.” Then I whispered to Oded, “How is this going to be kept a secret? None of this was supposed to happen.”
   Again Oded put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, my friend. Enjoy this day. It only comes once in a lifetime. When you’re gone, I’ll let everyone know the importance of not telling others about what’s happened. Don’t worry.”
   “That’s easy for you to say. You won’t have to watch my back and Christine’s from here on out. I can’t let anything happen to her, Oded.” I looked in his eyes, and shook my head. “I have to protect her from my curse.”
   “Erik! Stop saying that! You don’t have a curse. Now straighten up; if you don’t, you’re going to spoil this day for her.”
   I looked back at Christine, smiling and talking to Geanne, her daughters, and daughters-in-law, and I knew he was right; at least the part about spoiling it. But I still felt she needed to be protected from my curse.
   “Come, Christine,” I finally said. “We’re running out of time.” Then I took her hand and looked at Joubert. “Let’s get this started before someone else shows up.”
   “Just one more thing. The four of you need to sign my ledger—right here under today’s date.”
   Christine signed in her immaculate hand, and I added my illegible name, while taking notice of the date—14 July, 1881—a date that would always mean more to me than any other.
   Joubert moved away from the table and motioned for us to follow him, which we did, and then we stood before him.
   “Oh, Erik, I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Christine said breathlessly. She grabbed my hand harder and looked up at me. “And to think, I almost lost you. It makes me shiver to think of how close we came to missing this moment.”
   I raised our hands and kissed her fingers, with the fragrance of roses surrounding them. “This moment,” I parroted, “I visualized us in a much different place.” I kissed her fingers again and looked down at her clothing, or should I say my clothing. “This isn’t at all what I had pictured for you on this day. I pictured us standing before a priest instead of this simple man of cloth. I envisioned us under a magnificent gold ceiling with a multitude of candles surrounding us; instead of this dark sky with nothing but a moon and a few stars over our heads.
   “I truly am sorry there isn’t organ music playing in the background instead of the noises of horses, toads, and crickets. And, Christine, I really wish you were in a gorgeous white wedding gown; instead of my oversized black clothing. Also, I wanted you to have a ring with a thousand diamonds; instead of this simply gold band.”
   I looked up at Joubert’s burnt home and then back at her. “I’m sorry we had to sneak out of Paris like thieves in the dark; instead of me parading you through the streets on a bright sunny day, proclaiming—look at my beautiful bride—at last, my bride.
   “I love you more than I can say, Christine, and you’ll have my protection and my heart forever. I’ll see to it that you never want for anything. Your wishes will be my pleasure to fulfill. Someday, I’ll make this up to you, and you’ll get the wedding you’ve probably dreamed about your entire life; like all girls.”
   “Oh, Erik, you don’t have to apologize. You’ve given me more than I ever wanted or wished for. I would have taken you by the lake; without a priest or even this simply ceremony. I would have taken you any way I could, because that’s all that matters to me—just to be yours forever. You’re what I want, not a formal ceremony.
   “You’ve guided and protected me from harm all these months. You’ve been such a gentleman and respected me and always made me feel like a lady. You’ve given me a love that can’t be matched. Out of all the women you’ve come across in your life, you chose me—little, insignificant me—and I count that an honor beyond compare.
   “I only hope I can prove myself worthy. I swear, I’ll give you everything in my heart; all my love and devotion for all time. I love you, Erik, with a love that I never thought possible—a love that will never die.”
   She touched the band on my finger. “This simple band of gold has a life of its own. It’s worth more to me than all the diamonds in the universe. I hope that soon I can place one on your finger. I want the world to know you’re mine—all mine.”
   “Ah, Christine, you’ve made me the proudest man alive. I feel as if I’m going to burst open with gladness. This is, without a doubt, the happiest day of my life.” I took a deep breath and looked at the horizon. “I see great things for our future, with you being laden with silk and jewels.”
   She stroked my cheek. “There’s nothing jewels or silk can do that will make me any happier than I am right now. I want you, Erik; I want you forever. I give myself to you, now and always. I want to be your wife, to be by your side, to give you children, and to share in every aspect of your life—no matter where you might lead me. Nothing is going to change that, and nothing will make me happier than the look in your eyes right now.”
   I kissed her fingers once more and shook my head slowly. “To say I love you is such a gross understatement. I owe everything I am to you. You mean more to me than life itself, and I would gladly give mine for you.” Once more I kissed her fingers. “I vow my love and my life to you, Christine. I promise to guard and protect you, and to love you all the days of my life.”
   Then I held her precious face in my palms and kissed her tenderly, but our intimate moment was interrupted when Joubert cleared his throat.
   “Excuse me. If I’m not mistaken, the kiss comes after the ceremony.”
   “I apologize. Sometimes I can’t resist this face.”
   “You two seem to have said it all. There’s nothing more for me to say except to ask you those very important questions. Are you ready?” We both nodded, and he began. “Do you, Erik Bradley Jourdan, take, Christine Elizabeth Daaé, to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
   I believe I said I did, and I believe I heard her agree as well, but I can’t be certain. As I looked down into the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen, I let the world fade away. My heart was beating rapidly, my throat was parched, my tongue felt as if it was tied in knots, and the voices around me resembled the faint rustle of leaves. My senses only came back to me when Joubert spoke my name several times.
   “Erik!—Erik!—Erik!”
   “What? Yes, I do. I do a thousand times,” I stammered, causing chuckles from those around us.
   “I said, I now pronounce you man and wife. Now, Erik, you may kiss your bride.”
   With a large smile, I respond, “Merci.
   I kissed her softly and then just looked into her smiling eyes. I still couldn’t believe this was real. I expected to wake alone in my home, but I didn’t. So I started shaking my head, at first slowly and then faster until I let out a loud growl, grabbed her up in my arms, and twirled her in circles, laughing. Then I raised my face and voice toward the heavens and shouted.
   “Here’s my bride! My Christine—my beautiful bride! Look at her—my angel, by wife! My Christine Elizabeth Jourdan!”
   Christine was also laughing. “Erik, sh. You’ll wake the entire town.”
   “No! I don’t care who hears me! I want the world to know I’m finally complete. I have you, my love—forever and ever.”
   We laughed and kissed again, and then I heard Joubert and others laughing along with us.
   As I stood her down, I whispered, “So much for keeping this a secret.”
   Just as soon as we parted, we were both surrounded. All the ladies flocked to Christine, hugging her and congratulating her. I would have enjoyed the sight longer but I was also pressed upon. Oded grabbed me and kissed both my cheeks; then he looked deeply into my eyes, as he so often did.
   “Take special care of Christine. Women like her are rare.”
   I looked over at Christine, laughing and talking to all the ladies. “You can rest assured that I will. I know her worth, and I value it more than my own life.” Then I looked at him. “You also, Oded. I’m hard pressed to find any words that will express the depth of my appreciation for your friendship. This is the most important day of my life; a day I wouldn’t be having if it weren’t for you. It’s been your friendship and loyalty to me that’s brought me this far. It was your caring words to wait that four days for the valuable jewel in your eyes that gave me this chance at happiness with the valuable jewel in my eyes. You’ve always been there for me—regardless of the cost, and there aren’t words to express what your friendship has meant to me.”
   Fortunately, Dominick appeared and rescued us from what could have been an embarrassing, tear-filled, moment. He took my hand and shook it so hard I thought it would break off, while everyone else around us started congratulating me.
   Gradually, I was able to get Dominick alone and started my request. “If at all possible, I need to keep this day contained to this town, for at least a little while. And then…”
   “It didn’t sound as if you needed to keep it hushed, Erik.”
   “I know. I lost control. I couldn’t help it.”
   “I understand, and I’m so happy for you. You deserve a good wife. There’s nothing more a man can ask for. I wish you and Christine all the best that life has to offer.”
   “Thank you,” I said as I looked over at Christine.
   “Erik, Alaina and I would like you to stay the day with us. We’d like to prepare a nice meal and have everyone over to celebrate this wonderful day. Do you think Christine would like that?”
    “I’m sure she would, but we have to leave this area quickly. I believe I’m being pursued by the police as we speak.”
   “But why? Did you kidnap her? She doesn’t look as if she’s been kidnapped.”
   “No, it’s nothing of that sort. You remember how the Opera Ghost always got blamed for everything that went wrong at the opera house? Well, Dominick, I am, or was, that Opera Ghost, and I’m…”
   “What?” he interrupted. “You’re the Opera Ghost? I never suspected it was you. I actually thought it was all conjured up for publicity.”
   “No, I’m that mysterious creature that so many feared. But, as I was saying, I’m still being blamed for everything. Right now, I believe at least two deaths are being blamed on me.”
   “That’s absurd.”
   “I know, but that’s the way it is; so I have to leave quickly before we’re found.”
   “Very well, but that’s so ridiculous. If there was ever anyone who went out of his way to prevent deaths, it’s been you. I remember the years when you wouldn’t even fight to protect yourself. How can they think this?”
   “Because, they really don’t know me. In addition, there’s one person in particular who has a distorted view of me. Comte Raoul de Chagny is also in love with Christine, and he hates me for obvious reasons. He wants my head, and he has enough political power to have it if we’re found.”
   “Well, if it should ever come to a trial, you know I’ll be the first one in line to testify for your character.” He looked behind him, and continued, “And I know of dozens more who would do the same.”
   “Again, thank you, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. If they catch us, I fear I’d never make it to a trial. The judicial system in France isn’t the fairest.”
   “Then you’d better get going. I’d hate to see anything like that happen to you.”
   “Yes, we need to leave quickly, but first I have a request.”
   “Anything you want, Erik.”
   “The Comte has enough bitter hatred for me that he could do others harm in his pursuit of me. The one person I’m the most concerned about is an elderly lady by the name of Madame Valerius; she’s been Christine’s guardian for many years. Now that Christine will be with me, she can move away where it’s safer. I’d like you to help her move.
   “She should be out of her home within the next few hours; before Raoul has a chance to cause her harm. I know you can’t arrange for a big move that quickly, but I was hoping you had someplace here in your little commune where she could stay until the permanent move can take place. I’ll pay for everything.”
   “Without question, Erik. We’ll take care of her.”
   “Again, thank you.”
   “No, we thank you. Without your guidance and financing, this town wouldn’t be what it is today. Oh, by the way, thank you for our paved road.” Before I could play innocent, he finished. “No need to deny it, Erik; we all know where the money came from. While I’m on that subject, did you notice the street signs when you came into town?”
   I shook my head and looked around while he explained. “Well, all the streets have been named after the characters in operas, in your and Christine’s honor. No one, me in particular, will ever be able to walk down this street without thinking about you and the role you’ve played in our lives.” He took my hand and shook it again. “You’re a good man, Erik, and I’m proud to call you a friend.”
   I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know what to say.”
   “You can say you and your lovely bride are leaving now.”
   “Yes, I think that’s overdue.”
   While on my way to get Christine, I stopped to tell Oded what my plans were for Madame Valerius and asked him if he would mind overseeing the project.
   “In about a week, we should be in a town with a telegraph. I’ll send you a cryptic message, asking if all went well. We’ll wait there for your response. I hate to leave a trail that might give away our location, but I know how much it will mean to Christine if she knows her generous benefactor is in a safe place.”
   “Don’t worry, Erik. We’ll take good care of her. All you have to do is take care of your new bride.”
   “And how I’m looking forward to doing just that.” I started to turn away but then turned back. “Thank you, Oded, for all your concern, help, badgering, stalking, encouraging, driving me crazy, and watching my back all these years. You’ve been a truly good friend, even though I rarely admitted that to you.”
   “Well, don’t sound so final, Erik. We’ll see each other again.”
   “In all honesty, I can say I look forward to that day.”
   I thanked him again and headed for Christine. I took her by the hand, but, before I could get us to the horses, Joubert stopped us.
   “Oh, Joubert, I’m sorry. I almost forgot to thank you for doing this for us.”
   I reached into my pocket and took out a roll of francs to pay him, but he shoved my hand away.
   “I don’t want your money, Erik. I count it an honor to have officiated at your wedding. It’s my gift to you. I believe marriage is a sacred union and a magnificent gift from our loving God. You two are blessed to have found each other.”
   Christine and I looked at each other and said in unison, “I know.”
   I looked back at Joubert. “Now my lonely days have ended. I finally have the love of my life by my side.”            Joubert smiled and nodded, prompting me to ask, “I know you’re a man of the cloth, but does that mean you don’t have any desires to marry?”
   “Oh, the desire to marry is alive and strong in me,” he responded dramatically. “That’s one of the issues I argued about with the leaders of the church, and a reason why I’m here and not still with the church. While Jesus never married, he chose some of his apostles from men who were married. To me, that says a lot. There’s even a scripture that states an older man in the congregation should have only one wife; not that he should never have one.
   “We’ve talked about a loving God on many occasions, Erik, and I can’t rationalize a loving God creating these feminine beauties,” he said, as he gestured toward Christine, “and then giving us men the desire to have them as wives and not let us marry. That surely wouldn’t be a loving act.”
   “I have to agree, and I hope that someday you’ll find a feminine beauty for yourself.”
   “I believe I already have. She’s a widow to the war and such a wonderful woman. She’s worked diligently on these reconstruction projects, and I’ve been seeing her for several months now. I’m hoping, when the time is right, she’ll accept my proposal.”
   “I hope so too,” I replied sincerely.
   Christine squeezed my hand and looked up at me. “But don’t forget, you two, we, as women, also consider the man we love as a valuable prize, and we’re also thankful for the gift of marriage.”
   We both smiled at her, and I kissed her forehead. “We really need to be going. That horizon is getting lighter as we speak.” When we started for the horses, I saw Geanne and Lapierre smiling at us. “Christine, we can’t leave without talking to them. I’ll make it quick.”
   “Lapierre, Geanne, I want to thank you for everything you taught me.”
   He frowned. “What did we teach you?”
   “You taught me something valuable; how to be a good parent. I’ll always remember your sterling example. I hope I can be half as good as you are. Thank you both.”
   “Thank you, Erik, and, please, come back to see us sometime.”
   Christine hugged Geanne, and I shook Lapierre’s hand while saying, “We’ll try.”
   “Thank you for always making me feel welcome,” Christine added.
   There were a few more hugs and well wishes before I was able to help my bride onto the saddle.
   As I was mounting, I heard Dominick shout out. “If you’re ever anywhere close, come visit with us.”
   I nodded to him, and replied, “It’s been a pleasure knowing all of you, so don’t be surprised if one day you see us standing at your front door. Until then, please keep this day to yourselves. If you have question as to why, just ask Dominick.”
   Then, with smiles and waves, but hardly any darkness to conceal us, we said goodbye, turned east, and started our journey toward our life together as husband and wife—at last.