"Meg Giry, you little prat," snapped La Sorelli from where she sat at her dressing table puffing chalky powder onto her face, "if you knew what was good for you, you would shut your mouth this instant!"
From the opposite side of the dressing room, the little waif of a girl pursed her full lips and tossed a thick shock of long ebony hair over her shoulder.
"I wouldn't talk that way if I were you, Sorelli," Meg sneered pompously, narrowing her slate gray eyes, "The ghost could be lurking somewhere near."
The crowd of lanky ballerinas huddled around Meg let out a collective gasp, snapping their necks around fearfully to check for apparitions.
Sorelli's rouged lips pursed and she placed her hands on her hips.
"Your head is stuffed with fluff, do you know that?" she shook her head, "Does your mother know that you are spreading such stories?"
I watched Meg draw herself to her full height (which was not at all an impressive feat) and prepare for battle.
"As a matter of fact, Sorelli, Maman knows all about the opera ghost: she is his personal assistant! She delivers his salary notes and occasionally takes tea with him after hours in the manager's office!"
I nearly snickered out loud at this bold pronouncement. I could certainly give Megan Giry points for trying, but her mother was a bubble-headed idiot. The only reason I was in contact with the woman at all was due to her naivety and urge to assert herself as someone important. She received and delivered my hospitable notes, and that was all. As for taking tea, I doubt Madame Giry would fancy something other than her usual gin.
The ballet rats, however, hung onto every word little Giry said.
"Does she really, Meg?"
"Your mother knows the opera ghost?"
"If he's a ghost, how can he drink tea?"
"You say she dines with him?"
"Well, now, not very often," Meg corrected nervously, "Just when he gets bored. Mother says he is very lonely, and especially desperate for female companionship."
Was I, now? Her stories were growing more interesting by the day. I placed my head in my hands, squirmed into a more comfortable position behind the mirror, and waited for more.
"I'd imagine so," said another rat, whom I believed was called Jammes, "After all, he's probably been dead for years. No wonder he wants a damsel in distress!"
A nervous giggle spread through the crowd.
"Now really," sighed Sorelli as she pinned her hair into a tight knot, "Be reasonable. If there really is a ghost, which of course, there isn't—"
Of course not.
"—then why would he waste his time wooing some poor girl? I'd think that he'd have better things to do, like moan and rattle chains in the hallways."
Meg waved a bony hand dismissively.
"Oh, Sorelli, you are so thickheaded sometimes. He certainly does wander the hallways like any respectable haunt, but did you ever stop to think why he is so terribly lonely in the first place? Did you ever wonder why his romantic life is nonexistent?"
"Because he's dead," said Jammes matter-of-factly, "Dead people are always lonesome, aren't they? I imagine it is no fun being dead."
"Well, beside the fact that he is a ghost, I've heard tell that there is quite a different reason for his eternal solitude," Meg whispered dramatically.
"Whatever do you mean, Meg Giry?" demanded Sorelli, though she sounded apprehensive.
Meg's pale lips twisted upwards into a sinister smile. Story time was about to begin. I was only grateful to have acquired such a good seat.
"Now, Mother does take tea with him, and deliver his notes and such, but never once has she seen him. She only hears his voice: a powerful, triumphant tenor that, in her own words, 'makes your heart swell and your hair stand on end.' The ghost's voice gives her orders from his private box—box five—and she follows them. They have quite the hospitable relationship. Surely such great friends would make physical contact, but she has never seen the ghost! No one ever has.
"But why should the opera ghost hide? All ghosts, at some point or another, show themselves. Our phantom remains more shadow than spirit! He makes an awfully great effort to stay hidden. Mother says he is quite tactful in his methods of disguise.
But no one, not even O.G., is perfect."
A low murmur ran through the gaggle of ballerinas. Sorelli appeared outwardly composed, but her eyes darted nervously around the room, and she occasionally flinched as if someone had struck her. Meg basked in the glow of her admirers, all of whom leaned in closer, silently urging for more.
"Does everyone know Joseph Buquet?" she inqured.
"Yes!" gasped Jammes, "We do! He's that smelly member of the stage crew, isn't he? The one with the hip flask and the stringy hair?"
"He's constantly taking swigs from that flask, mind you-" supplied Sorelli.
"He's got a reason for his drinking," Meg interrupted, "I'm sure he drinks to forget. After all, I'd drain several bottles of wine if I saw the opera ghost."
The girls gasped and shrieked as their hands rose to cover their mouths.
"You jest," breathed Sorelli. Her tone suggested, however, that she believed every word Meg said.
"Wish I was," Meg said mournfully, "But no, Joseph Buquet says that he saw the ghost one day backstage, as plain as I see all of you standing here."
I did not like where this was going. I'd foolishly trusted Buquet to get drunk enough and entirely forget our encounter. It was just my luck that Buquet decided to sober up now.
"Joseph Buquet was working late, tidying up the set for the premiere of Faust . When the managers asked him, he said that he hadn't had a single drop of alcohol all day, and was quite in his right mind. Although I doubt even a strong drink could fabricate what the poor man saw…"
Meg paused, wisely allowing suspense to build. Quickly, it all became too much and several girls shouted in unison, "What did he see?!"
"He thought he heard rustling behind him, like silk brushing against something, He turned around and standing before him was a devilish apparition. It was a man, dressed head to toe in elegant dress clothes of the darkest black. An opera cloak that draped about his shoulders billowed to the floor. The thing was skeletal; nothing but yellow skin stretched tight over jutting bones. And he was tall—unusually tall.
"In one wasted hand, the ghost clutched what appeared to be a black mask. I'm sure Buquet wondered what the mask was for, but he soon found out."
I was biting my lower lip with such pressure that I began to taste blood. One of my hands was digging into the glass of the mirror furiously. This story was no longer amusing. I knew all too well what came next. Joseph Buquet had better purchase a rifle, and quickly. He'd just made an enemy.
That little wretch. She wouldn't dare…
"Perched where the head should be was something that belonged on a corpse: The ghost had a death's head!"
"A death's head?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that the ghost's face was hardly a face at all! According to Joseph Buquet, it looked as if nothing had ever grown over the skull. It had a thin, wide mouth and glowing yellow eyes that were sunken into their dark sockets. Worse still, the ghost had absolutely no nose to speak of!"
"No nose at all?"
"Do you suppose Buquet could see all the way into the creature's head?"
"Oh, yes," continued Meg, "there is nothing there but a hollow hole! The thing's hair was as black as his cloak, and hung down to his shoulders. Poor Joseph was beside himself with fright, and he asked the thing who it was. The ghost turned its death's head and stared. Then, in the blink of an eye, it vanished!"
"Into thin air?" Jammes asked in wonder.
"He is a ghost, after all," said a girl with short red hair.
"And a terrible one at that," breathed Sorelli from the corner, where she was clutching her crucifix.
"Indeed," said Meg, and she herself was beginning to look worried, "Joseph actually passed out after the encounter. The managers found him lying by the scene from Act Three, white as a sheet and shaking like a wet dog!"
The room grew silent then, save for several quiet sympathetic noises. I hadn't moved an inch, and my back ached in protest, but I was frozen in place. I was lost in a torrent of fury and humiliation. The secret was out, and I felt feeble, vulnerable. This was no one's fault but my own. I'd never once slipped, never failed to go anywhere without the mask. Then, in a moment of ignorance, I roamed the corridors of my opera and for once, felt the cool air upon my face. It was spectacular, for every employee had retired for the night. I was free. I was safe.
I was a fool.
Surely the right to inspect those sets and stroll through the stage was mine? Surely I deserved some peace. Buquet was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was terribly unfortunate that I stumbled upon the biggest blabbermouth in the entire building. And now, the entire opera was buzzing with talk of the ghost, Satan's right hand man, the monster.
Buquet would pay dearly for his mistake. I would make sure of that.
A quiet voice interrupted my musings, and I reluctantly turned my attention to the ballerinas beyond the mirror.
"You don't suppose…the ghost is listening right now, do you?" asked Jammes suddenly, her eyes widening in panic.
The women blanched.
"He very well could be," whispered Meg, hugging herself, "He sees everything. I only hope we never see him."
"Let me tell you, if I ever caught a glimpse of that face, I'd probably kill myself. We can only hope he's not around," La Sorelli said, wringing her hands.
"He isn't," Meg assured her frightened companions, "I just know it."
"You're right," Jammes replied, "he's probably floating around in the cellars."
"Or kissing some poor soul of a woman!" laughed another.
"Or rattling chains in the hallway," supplied Sorelli, the muscles in her face relaxing.
"No," sighed Meg in relief, "I'm sure he isn't here. He's probably too terribly upset to do anything." Her swarthy face broke into a huge smile just then, and she began to snicker.
"What is it, Meg?" asked the red-haired ballerina.
"Well, I just thought…he's a ghost, isn't he? Ghosts like to frighten people. I wonder if they frighten themselves for fun? I mean…he's got nothing else to do."
The group giggled.
"Imagine the opera ghost sitting at his vanity and wishing for a thrill," said one.
"But he cannot do a thing, because no matter where he goes, that face of his frightens people!" snorted another.
"So he takes off his mask and looks in the mirror—"
"And shrieks like a little girl!"
They were in peals of laughter now, clutching their sides and gasping for air. My fingers were bleeding from leaving gouge marks in the wall adjacent to the mirror.
"And his ugly face frightens him so badly that he soils his trousers!" howled Meg.
"But," chortled the red-haired ballerina, "he looks at his reflection over and over again, because he has nothing else to do! And he keeps screaming—"
Suddenly, an inhuman wail sounded, echoing eerily throughout the room. The gaiety ceased immediately.
"What was that?" Sorelli asked, rapidly turning a sickly shade of green.
"N-nothing," said Meg, "Probably the wind. Or a chorus girl practicing—"
"It was the ghost!" cried Jammes.
"N-no. It couldn't be," Meg stuttered, "He's in the cellars, remember? He's in the c-cellars scaring himself senseless with that repulsive fa—"
I moaned again, throwing my voice to the far corner of the room, where Sorelli stood. She screeched and lurched herself over to where the others huddled in a tight bunch.
"It's the ghost!" she wailed, "Heaven help us, it's the opera—"
"Silence!" I bellowed, fighting to control the hilarity that was rising up in my throat.
They didn't make a peep.
"Do you know what happens to people who dare to deflate the Phantom's healthy reputation? " I asked with deadly calm.
"N-no, Monsieur Opera Ghost…sire…" Jammes stammered. She looked about to faint. I would have to take care not to carry on for much longer. The poor thing quite obviously had a weak stomach.
"They are strung upside-down by their toenails in the third floor cellar, their hands and feet bound" I informed them gravely, "And left there for several hours before an assistant of mine arrives; the victim will then be subjected to the most horrific tickling they shall ever have the misfortune to experience."
The ballerinas shuddered and several removed their pointes to assure that their toenails were, indeed, still firmly in place. Meg Giry began to mutter the "Our Father" under her breath as if her life depended on it. It would be cruel, I decided, to let this go on any further. My departure would have to be brief, yet assertive…
And with that single syllable, the ballet rats shrieked like banshees and fled for the door like wild animals.
I reclined against the glass pane and shut my eyes contentedly. It was all in a day's work.