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Background

Erik and Christine have finally gotten married and are preparing to leave Paris.

Chapter Twelve

Unmasked Hearts
____________________
 
With the sound of our leather tack moving and the last of the morning stars fading, I took her hand.
   “I still feel as if I’m going to wake and this will all have been a dream. Is this really happening, Christine? Are you truly my wife?”
   She nodded with moisture in her eyes. “I feel the same. It hurts to think of how close I came to losing you. I love you so much, Erik.”
   “And I love you, my feminine beauty.” She chuckled, and I handed her the mask. “I hate to ask you to do this again, but you need to put this back on. It won’t be much longer, and you can take it off for good.”
   She put it on without complaint, and we rode on in silence for a minute or so before I gestured toward a street sign.
   She pulled her nose out of her roses, looked at the sign, and said with surprise, “Juliette!” Then she looked at me with a large smile. “What a nice name for a street.”
   I explained what Dominick had said about the street signs, and we were still discussing it when we began a slight assent.
   “I realize you’re probably extremely tired by now, but I think we need to walk and let the horses have a break from our weight. They’re not used to being ridden this much and I don’t want to harm them. We have a long way to go, and we need them to stay healthy.”
   “I’m fine, Erik. In fact, I’m full of energy.”
   So, just as the sun began to peek over the distant trees, we dismounted. I removed the mares’ stage boots, and we lost ourselves in a long kiss before continuing.
   As we walked, she began questioning me. “Erik, can you tell me now where we’re going?”
   “I’m sorry, my sweet. Not just yet.”
   “But why? Don’t you trust me?”
   “I trust you with my life, but I don’t trust human nature. It’s so easy to be in the middle of a conversation and let just one word slip. That’s all it takes. I’ve done it myself often.”
   “Well, how long before you’ll tell me?”
   “Once I purchase our train tickets it will no longer be a secret. Then you’ll know.”
   “A train? How long before we get to a train?”
   “If everything goes as planned, probably less than two weeks.”
   “Two weeks on horseback! Where in the world are you taking me?”
   I chuckled. “You’ll always be my inquisitive angel, won’t you?”
   About 30 minutes later, we were nearing the knoll that overlooked Paris; the same one I always stopped at to look down on the city. It was about that time when Christine, with labored breaths, made a confession.
   “Now I understand why you wanted me to wear these clothes. This climb would have been harder with a dress and corset.”
   I would have used that statement to tease her, but the sound in her voice changed my thoughts, so I turned and looked at her.
   “Oh, my sweet angel, you really don’t sound well.”
   “I don’t feel well either. My head is throbbing, Can we stop soon?”
   We’re almost there. I just want to go over to that rock and look back on the trail. From there, I should be able to see if anyone is following us. I’ll feel much better about our safety once I do that.”
   She nodded. “Be careful, and please hurry.”
   I gave her a soft kiss and sat her down on a fallen log where she could wait for me. Once by the rock, I listened carefully to what I hoped would be silence and, thankfully, it was. Only the sound of our horses breathing and the sound of the leather tack moving gave evidence that we were there. I then felt somewhat confident that we weren’t being followed; at least not at that time.
   I turned a little more and caught sight of Paris for what could be the last time. In the far distance, I could see the opera house with its domed rooftop. I thought about the life I’d lived there for almost 16 years. I thought about all the music I’d written there, including my unfinished opera that I left behind in its everlasting resting place.
   I remembered with a smile all the pranks I’d played on the managers and wondered how long it would take them to forget about me; probably not long. They were sure to forget all about their Opera Ghost, especially with me no longer exhorting money for my monthly wages, or demanding Box Five for my use, or disturbing the performances with my diabolical laughter when my needs weren’t met. In retrospect I realized how much executing those pranks helped me to keep relatively sane while my heart waited for Christine to save it.
   In a way, I was uneasy leaving my shrouded castle across the lake, where I always felt safe in knowing I couldn’t be found. Sixteen years of my life spent in concealed loneliness; like a prisoner in my own home. Perhaps it was a prison sentence for all the wrong I’d committed in my life.
   My sight traveled across the skyline, and I thought about the 20 years I’d lived in my home country, which was the longest period I’d spent anywhere in my entire life, and it felt peculiar to leave her. I was going to miss my native tongue, but if I had to live in a country with a different language, I was comforted with the thought of it being my second favorite—Italian.
   I glanced over at Christine, sitting quietly and watching me. I took a long breath and one last look at the Paris I’d known, and suddenly I felt free; perhaps like a prisoner walking out of his barred cell as a freed man.
   That thought made me wonder what was happening at the opera house at that time. The managers probably had been told about their missing horses by then, but I wasn’t certain about Claude’s body. In either case, I’m sure the police were involved, so we needed to keep moving.
   While walking back to Christine, my smile became broader, thinking she was finally mind, and we were away from any interference from anyone; no managers, no Oded, and no Raoul. My heart was happy when I stood in front of her and removed her hood, allowing her golden curls to reflect the early morning sun.
   “You can remove the mask now, my sweet.”
   When she handed it to me, I could see tears glistening in her eyes, and my freed heart quickly sank.
   “I’m sorry, Christine,” I said remorsefully. “I’m so sorry we have to leave like this. You’re leaving everything you love behind for me and are probably frightened and sad, for which I’m truly sorry” I took a deep breath in preparation for what I was going to suggest. “You know how I feel about our need to be out of the city, but, if it means this much to you, I’ll take you back, and we can find a way to live in Paris.”
   She started shaking her head and got to her feet, with her tears trickling down her cheeks. I ground my teeth as my self-hatred began to surface. I was so tired of my actions being the cause of her tears and pain. I was rebuking myself severely when her soft words began to comfort me.
   “No, Erik. I’m not sad to leave Paris. I do that willingly, and the thing I love the most is right here in front of me.” She wiped her tears and went on. “Leaving this way, in silence, racing the sunrise, shrouded in black, and wearing the mask for just this short period…”
   She again took a quivering breath and wiped more tears. “This has given me a small taste of what your life has been like. And watching you over there; all alone, just looking down at Paris that way, I couldn’t help but wonder how many times you’ve had to leave a city alone and in darkness.
   “No, Erik. My tears aren’t for me, they’re for you and the life you’ve been forced to live. I’m the one who’s sorry; truly sorry for taking so long to realize that such a wonderful, special,, loving man was before me; sorry for putting you through needless suffering. I’m sorry, Erik. I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy and making sure you’re never alone again. I never want you to leave a city alone. I never want you to spend another night alone. I want to be by your side every step you take for the rest of your life. I want to erase all your sadness with happiness.”
   I held both of her hands in mine. “You’ve already made me happier than I ever dreamed possible, Christine. You’ve given me a reason to live and saved my life in ways you can’t even imagine.”
   I watched the breeze brushing the curls around her flawless face for a few moments, while she wiped more tears. She was surely the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen—physically and spiritually.
   I was brought back to the reason for being there when our horses began moving nervously.
   “We must go now before the sun gets any brighter.”
   “Where are we going, Erik? I’m so tired.
   I looked back at the trail we’d been on and then toward Paris. “There isn’t sufficient covering for us here. There’s a place about a 20 minute walk from here that will give us everything we need, and then we can rest for the remainder of the day, I promise.”
   “I’m sorry, Erik. I know I’m being a burden to you, but my head really hurts, and I’m so tired.”
   “No, Christine, I’m the one who’s sorry. You’re not a burden and you never could be. Please forgive me. My old paranoia sometimes gets the better of my judgment. If you ride Clio the rest of the way, do you think you can make it that far?”
   She bravely agreed, I helped her onto the saddle, and we began the second leg of our escape. In less than the 20 minutes we were at the location I had in mind. It had many trees and a clear stream that was perfect for our needs. It was far enough away from any path that might be traveled; however, I doubted anyone traveled that way much. It was a rather deserted strip of land, but I didn’t want to take any chances. If Raoul loved her half as much as I did, I wouldn’t put it past him to show up anywhere or any time.
   I first cleared away fallen branches and twigs before I spread out a blanket under a tree and on top of the tall grass. Then I helped Christine down from Clio, and she quickly availed herself of the makeshift bed, falling fast asleep. I took the roses from between her arms, removed her shoes, and wrapped her cloak snuggly around her, along with another blanket.
   I knelt beside her and pushed her curls away from her sleeping face, and then I ran my finger down her check. I shoved aside the thoughts going through my head and heart and got back to my feet, telling myself that I had to let her rest. So I took her bouquet down to the stream where I put the stems in the water, wedging them between two rocks.
   While she slept, I took care of our horses’ needs. I removed their tack, took them down to the water and back up again, gave them grain, and rubbed them down. I fixed two tether lines between three trees and tied each mare to their own line. Then I checked their legs for any swelling and their hooves for rocks or packed dirt. When I was finished, I went to each of their heads and praised them for their unfaltering performance. They’d done just as well on the trail as they had on the stage.
   When I looked in Urania’s eyes, my thoughts turned to Molly, since she reminded me so much of her. During all the years she’d been at the opera house. I’d stayed away from her and her sister Clio for that reason. Sometimes, it was too painful to remember Molly, but, that early morning while I waited for my bride to wake, I allowed myself a few cherished memories.
   I put my forehead against Urania’s and remembered riding Molly across green plateaus in Persia, which brought memories of working on the palace. That edifice was a testimony to my ability to create something beautiful and would forever be etched in my memories. And when my thoughts moved to the time I worked on Sari’s kitchen. I saw her smile, and Vashti’s smile as she progressed in her voice lessons. At first, I also smiled, but then I heard Vashti’s last painful words before she died.
   I clenched my teeth, trying to change the direction my mind was taking me. I had my wonderful Christine with me, and I wasn’t going to allow my past to spoil my present. So I went to the stream and splashed water on my face, hoping it would wash away my tortured thoughts.
   I stood up and started back to Christine, but then I stopped when my father’s burnt face appeared I my mind’s eye, and the smell of his burnt flesh replaced the pleasant aroma of the early morning mist. I looked around and felt panicky, questioning why I always let myself go to that place of painful memories. I couldn’t understand my feelings, especially considering who my current traveling companion was, but the memory of those last seconds with my father took over my clear vision. At times, I hated my strange mind that often took me places I didn’t want to go.
   I raised my face to the heavens and questioned; why was I still alive when so many good people had died because of me and my hideous face? Why? It simply wasn’t fair. I should have been the one to die. Why does something bad always happen to the ones I love?
   That last thought brought me back to the present, and I looked toward the cluster of trees and Christine. I instantly ran to where I’d left her, picturing the horrible things that could have happened to her. Thankfully, I found her right where I’d left her under the blankets.
   I stood over her with my heart pounding. Logic told me everything was as it should be, but when I became so guilt-ridden over my past, logic was never my state of mind. I fell to my knees beside her and cautiously pulled the blankets back. At the first sight of her lovely face, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to breathe normally again.
   “Thank you. Thank you,” I whispered.
   I nestled beside her and wrapped my arm around her, burying my face in her hair. The thought of anything happening to her was like sending a dagger through my heart and twisting it. I started second-guessing my decision to take her away and putting her in danger. Everyone always was in danger when they were in my company.
   Was I deceiving myself to think my life could be any different just because she loved me? I loved her more than life, and I wanted her with me—I needed her with me. But was that a good enough reason to put her life in peril? Do I take her back where she can live a normal life in safety?
   “I love you, Christine,” I whispered rhetorically.
   Her barely audible voice responded from beneath the folds of the blanket, “I love you too, Erik.”
   I buried my face even further in her hair and neck and squeezed her tighter, savoring the moment. She sighed and stretched, so I moved back and rested on my elbow. Silently, I watched her eyes flutter open and a soft smile appear on her perfect lips.
   My gut was saying to take her back where she’d be safe, but my heart was selfishly speaking louder to keep her close to me. I brushed a few tendrils away from her face and watched her respond to my touch.
   “You look deep in thought, my husband. What’s weighing on you mind?”
   I looked beyond her to the stream, and sighed, “Nothing.”
   “That nothing sounded like something. What are you thinking about?”
   I looked back at her. “How is your head? Better, I hope.”
   “It is better, but you didn’t answer my question. What were you thinking about?”
   I looked back in her eyes. “Only this,” I answered, while leaning down and kissing her.
   Her fingers moved through my hair, and she started to release my mask. My automatic reaction was to pull away and grab her wrist, stopping her, but she had different ideas.
   “I want the feel of your cheek on my cheek—your skin on my skin—not your mask.”
   I released her wrist, and she continued to untie my mask, allowing it to fall from view. Then she started kissing my face, my naked and gruesome face, all over with her soft sensual lips until they settled on mine for a very long time.
   During the next few breathtaking moments, filled with our repeated kisses and whispered expressions of love, she started unbuttoning my shirt. While I tried to keep breathing, she ran her fingers down my chest. Moments later, I had the shirt she was wearing opened, uncovering the soft curves of her breasts and allowing my lips the pleasure of their warmth. Then, when I moved my kisses up to her neck my bare chest also experienced the new pleasure of her skin moving against mine.
   When I felt her breaths and kisses on my neck, with occasional teasing bites in between, my eyes closed, and my quickening breaths tried to keep pace with the fast beat of my eager heart. While I kissed her tender shoulders and décolletage, she moved her hands slowly up my chest, pausing momentarily before running the down my arms, taking my shirt with them. Then I experienced sensations I never dreamt possible with the seduction of her touch—the touch of her lips moving over my chest and shoulders.
   We continued with the slow unveiling of ourselves and savoring every exquisite moment. My lips caressed every morsel of her perfect face, neck, shoulders, and beyond, while she sighed and melted in my arms. My hands savored their journey of exploration that only my eyes’ imagination had dared to travel before.
   Her fingertips ran down my spine and touched me in ways that made it nearly impossible to think or breathe. Then, between slow and devouring kisses, we began to remove the last barriers to the ultimate expression of our love. With our clothing no longer separating our bodies, my eyes and fingertips feasted on a body more beautiful than even my creative dreams could have conjured up in a thousand lifetimes.
   Every extraordinary moment was locked in time, and it was then that I completely understood the power of that language of the eyes. Other than a whispered expression of love from time to time, our eyes communicated our deepest desires flawlessly, without any verbal declaration whatsoever.
   Soon the moment arrived when there was nothing left to remove—nothing left to explore—nothing left to experience. We were at that point when our souls would become one. Still being uncertain of myself, I searched her eyes one last time. Then I heard her breathless whisper in my ear for the first time in many minutes.
   “I give you my heart completely, and I no longer want to play the part of your living wife. I want to be your real wife. Make me your real wife, Erik.” Then, with her lips still against my ear, she repeated, “Make me your real wife.”
   Her breath on my ear made chills travel down my spine, and I needed no further encouragement to do what she’d asked. Then, within moments, our bodies melted into each other’s in a perfect and matchless union designed by a loving God, and with that union—Christine became mine—completely.
   The breeze moved through the leaves above us, and their shadows moved across our bodies until our desires were fulfilled and our passion was contented. There we stayed, breathless and silent in each other’s embrace, allowing our tears of unbelievable happiness to merge as one and turn into warm pools of soothing oil, releasing us completely from the horrors of the previous days.
   Together we watched the golden hues of a new day—a new day and a new life with my Christine as my real wife.
   If I ever had any doubts about the extent of her relationship with Raoul, they were completely gone. I knew she’d given her virginity to me—just as I’d given mine to her. That knowledge made my love for her grow stronger in those minutes than it had all the months of my pursuit of her. We were finally joined in a way that pulled me closer to her than I ever could have imagined; closer than any other man had hoped to be; a place that only I possessed. I felt that even death would be powerless to halt the depth of my love for her.
   She snuggled against my side and rested her head on my shoulder, sighing several times, and I squeezed her and kissed her forehead.
   “Christine,” I whispered. “Did I hurt you? Are you all right?”
   She turned her head to look at me, and then, with a coy smile, she placed a finger on my lips. “You could never hurt me, Erik. I’m fine. With you as my husband, how could I not be fine?”
   She put her head back on my shoulder, her arm on my chest, and then slowly moved her fingertips through the hair she found there. We exchanged several whispered words of love, as if we couldn’t think of anything else to say. What else could we say? Our bodies had said it all and in a way that words would never be able to express.
   That was a strange time for my thoughts to turn to my father, but they did. Within the last few days, I wouldn’t have given a single franc for my life, and yet, as the sun rose on that day, I was filled with more hope and desire to live than at any other time in my life. My father was so right: we never know what tomorrow will bring. With Christine in my arms, I understood his instruction in a deeper way along with the importance of never giving up.
   From our unusual nuptial chamber, I watched the sky through the leaves above us, while my thoughts settled on my lifelong argument over the existence of God. At that moment, I believed there had to be a loving God or the wonderful declaration of our love we’d just experienced wouldn’t have happened. Men and women could procreate without that exquisite and matchless expression, and I silently said a thank you for such a gift.
   Christine sighed, and I smiled as I pressed my lips on her forehead again. “Christine tell me, are we awake? Is this real? If this is nothing more than a dream, to wake from it would be the cruelest of all nightmares.”
   She sighed again with an affirmative answer, and again I had to apologize.
   “I’m sorry our bridal suite is a cluster of trees and our wedding bed soil, grass, and leaves.”
   “Is it?” she replied. “I hadn’t noticed.”
   With a smile on my lips, I pulled her closer to me until she fell asleep; quiet and serene like an exquisite princess. But I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want the feeling within me to stop; the feeling of full satisfaction; of love overflowing. I was so happy I thought my heart was going to rupture. Is was filled with so much love for that wonderful woman who had completely and freely given herself to me.
   Quite naturally, the love I was feeling began to express itself in my mind as music, twisting and swirling around. I didn’t want to leave Christine, but the music wouldn’t stop, and I knew it wouldn’t until it found its final release in a completed retrain. So I began to hum the melody softly, but soon that wasn’t enough, and it threatened to burst out of me like a frightened deer out of a thicket.
   Therefore, I slipped out from under the blankets and tucked them in snuggly around Christine’s precious body. I quietly put on my trousers and shirt, and then, out of pure habit, I picked up my mask from where Christine had dropped it and put it on. I was trying not to wake her as I picked up my violin and made my way down to the stream.
   I sat on a log in the sun, enjoying its warmth. I removed my mask, held up my head, and closed my eyes, thinking about the turn my life had taken. When satisfied, I started to replace my mask, but then I stopped and ran my fingers over the smooth molded contours of the supple leather
   That mask was what I pictured my face would look like if I were normal. I turned it over a few times in my hands and thought about the long journey I’d traveled with a mask. Besides my music, a mask had been the one constant in my life. With that thought, I wasn’t sure if I should love it or hate it; if I needed it or feared it; if it had helped me get to where I was right then or if it had prevented me from getting where I should have been all along. I finally realized the morning was too beautiful for such philosophical thoughts, so I put it on the log beside me.
   As I did, I noticed something I’d never noticed before. It had my father’s face. I smiled, thinking, naturally it would. As a child. I always wanted my father’s face, and the mask was the only way I could come close to achieving that goal.
   I think I was still smiling as I took my violin out of its case and put it under my chin. After making sure it was in tune. I closed my eyes, brought the bow up, and then released the first sweet melodious sounds of my new inspiration. The notes flowed from my thoughts to the strings; first like a light mist and then cascading in a thunderous roar with all the power of an unstoppable waterfall.
   I don’t know how long I was there, improvising and adding, but it was sufficient to satisfy my hunger. While waiting for the last notes to subside, I sensed someone’s presence. I automatically reached for my mask, only to have my wife rebuke me.
   “Erik, you have to stop doing that. You don’t need your mask when around me.”
   When I turned, I saw her standing not far from me; bare foot and with a blanket wrapped around her naked body. One shoulder was bare, except for a few curls cascading over it.
   “Very well. I’ll try,” I replied while reaching for her hand instead of my mask. “I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
   “Don’t ever apologize for waking me in such a way. I’ve never minded being woken by your music.” Then stepping toward me and putting her hand on my shoulder, she continued. “I’ve never heard that piece before. It’s very…it drew me, like…”
   She stopped in mid-thought, obviously trying to find the right words, so I helped her.
   “Like a wave to a shore?”
   “Yes, exactly,” she agreed.
   “I know, me too. That’s why you find me here like this. I thought about you, and, before long, this is what happened. As you know, I can become a slave to it when it drives me from within my mind or heart. Especially with such an inspiration before me as you, it’s hard not to create.
   She smiled shyly and took a few steps back away from me. The sun was at the right position that made her appear as an angel surrounded by a golden glow, just like the first time I saw her on that stage. I was staring at her delicate beauty and the glimmer of the morning sun on her golden curls when she sighed.
   I can understand that feeling, I guess. I’ve also been a slave to your music and your voice. It still frightens me a bit to think of how much power you have over me.”
   “I never mean to frighten you, Christine.”
   Then she smiled that smile I recognized well. “It’s a good trade,” she teased. “A little fear for your love. Now tell me about this new piece. Does it have a name yet?”
   I nodded and, somewhat embarrassed, replied, “It’s called, Christine My Sensual Love.”
   Then it was her turn to show signs of embarrassment. She coyly looked at the ground and then back at me.
   “Does it have lyrics?” Again I nodded, and naturally she had to request, “Sing it for me.”
   I looked at her, not knowing if I had the courage to sing my passions out loud and in the light of day.
   “Please, Erik, sing it for me,” she begged.
   Trying to put off the inevitable, I responded, “The lyrics aren’t finished yet. I have only part of the first verse. Why don’t we wait until it’s finished?”
   She pleaded like a spoiled child on her birthday. “Please, please. I can’t wait, Erik. Please.”
   As I looked up into those deep blue eyes, I knew I’d never be able to refuse her anything, regardless of what it might be. So I smiled, replaced the violin under my chin, but never took my eyes off of her. I let the music come first from the instrument in my hands, and then I added my voice to its seduction.
My longing eyes peer through the sapphire pools to her soul,
   My eager fingers linger in her golden rays.
My thirsty lips taste the sweet wine of her angelic voice,
   They travel her ivory path through wide open gates.
My gentle hands embrace the warm dunes of her femininity,
   Moving and molding beneath my spread fingers.
My hungry body moves and rolls over all her soft shores,
   Like a powerful surf on a defenseless coast,
Like a gentle wave on the moist sand.
   Our famished spirits merge, and we are one.
Christine my love, Christine my wife, Christine my life,
   Christine my sensual love—my sensual love.
   I let my violin finish the rest of the piece, concluding in a powerful crescendo. Then I watched her once childlike pouting face turn into one of a passionate woman. She took the few steps toward me, dropped to her knees between mine, and put her hands behind my neck, allowing the blanket to fall to the ground in soft folds, unveiling her flawless body in all its splendor. Once more, she pulled my face toward hers until our lips met for a soft kiss.
   With my arms wrapped around her, she pressed her body against mine and whispered in my ear, “I love you, Erik. I’m so thankful that destiny brought us together.”
   “Oh, Christine, I still can’t believe this is happening. You’re my wife. My exquisite angel is, at last, my wife.”
   Another kiss and another embrace and we were again lost I our love. Soon there was nothing left by the log except my mask, violin, and blanket that once wrapped her beautiful body. I’d picked her up and carried her back to our nuptial bed under the trees. Once there, we again shared our love. Then contented under a blanket and in each other’s arms we stayed; Christine with her beautiful face and me with my grotesques face—but both of us with unmasked hearts.