This will be the final chapter, but it's a long one so hopefully you will enjoy it. Just a suggestion - Chapter 17 could also be read as the last chapter - this is just an attempt to tie up some loose ends (it kind of grew, as you'll see...) so it isn't completely necessary to read this chapter. And sorry for taking so long with it - I must have changed my mind about the plot about 100 times! Thank you to all who made suggestions and thank you to everyone who has reviewed and read this story. In particular, I have to thank judybear for her corrections and help!
Philippe trailed behind the other two, watching them strolling arm in arm across the parkland, talking in low voices and occasionally looking around to encourage him to catch up with them. But he was in no mood to listen to their reminiscences of the man they called Erik, who still remained a baffling mystery to him. In fairness, they were trying to include him in their conversations and share their memories of this so-called phantom but the more he learned about him the stronger his guilt became at his own part in this man's demise.
It was a month since that near-fatal confrontation on the Opera House roof and Gerard was visiting them to make sure that Christine had recovered from her ordeal. She did not cry as much as she had at first, but she was looking so pale and melancholic now, and there seemed to be nothing Philippe could do to comfort her. He did not enjoy feeling helpless like this.
And then there was Mother. She had returned from Monte Carlo to find the routine of the chateau in disarray and a former kitchen maid ensconced in a guest bedroom in a state of shock. She remembered the little blonde haired girl of long ago and had initially been welcoming and almost motherly, but now that she knew the truth of her son's relationship with her, things were becoming decidedly frosty.
One thing was for sure; he was not the man he used to be, nor would he ever be again. He loved Christine and wanted more than anything to spend the rest of his life with her. As a child, he had treasured his friendship with Christine and had never cared about her social status. Now that he was older, he realised how unfair her father's dismissal was and felt a gnawing sense of guilt at the life the two of them had been reduced to as a result, even though he couldn't have prevented it at the time. Deep down, throughout all his silly, casual dalliances he had been searching for Christine without ever finding her, and now that she was with him again he knew he could not lose her a second time. He would atone for all his past mistakes, if it took forever.
As they turned to cross the parkland to the chateau, Gerard and Christine looked back to see that Philippe was in conversation with one of the gardeners and decided to leave him alone for a while. Gerard knew that Christine was not happy about his part in the events of that night and they had disagreed over it several times. But he also knew that the young man was desperately trying to make up for what he had done. He had apologised over and over to Gerard, explaining that he had only meant to frighten Erik with the sword, that he had no idea that the phantom was his son, and so on. Perhaps one day they could restore their old friendship. Perhaps one day Philippe would prove himself worthy of Christine and persuade his conservative family that a former member of their staff could sit at their dining room table as mistress of the house. Perhaps.
"It sounds like Erik was a very curious child," Christine remarked as they made their way to the front entrance.
"He certainly was. Always full of questions. Once I had taught him to read there was no stopping him."
He strolled over to a bench and sat down, Christine following him. For a moment he did not say anything, but simply sat and rubbed the back of his neck.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I'm just wondering if you've managed to think about the future yet?"
"Yes, your future to be precise. I get the distinct impression you haven't been comfortable here recently."
She looked at the ground. "I do like it here, but I don't think Madame de Chagny is happy with me still being here. I try to keep out of her way but, well, I was only supposed to stay here for a few days. And…"
"And?" Gerard inquired gently.
"And I'm not really sure of my feelings towards Philippe. He's trying very hard to look after me and be kind to me but… oh, I don't know, he's changed so much since we were children and I just need more time to think about it. He hasn't proposed or anything like that, but after all that happened that night…"
Gerard put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I understand, dear. But there is one thing you can be sure of; you're not going back to live in that store room again."
"I hope Jean Claude didn't get into trouble for allowing me to sleep there."
He chuckled. "Jean Claude and I are old friends, don't you worry about him. He meant well. Oh, and he sends his regards."
"He is very kind."
"There is.. something else on my mind, and you must forgive me if I seem a little presumptuous, my dear."
Christine noticed the worried expression on his face.
"What is it?"
"If Erik had… if he had lived, you could have been my daughter in law." He trembled a little and Christine took his hand in hers.
"I would have been very proud if that had happened, you know. And therefore… I was wondering… You have not come of age yet and I was wondering if you would consider… "
He paused a little before continuing. "Christine, would you allow me to be your guardian until you turn twenty one? You would have a home with me until then, well, for as long as you want, of course. It would be a great privilege for me and I would feel that I was honouring Erik's memory by taking care of you. Of course, I realise that you have not known me very long and if you would prefer-"
"Oh, thank you, M Carriere! I would love for you to be my guardian, of course I would!" She flung her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "You shouldn't have been so nervous about asking me, you know," she teased him. As he returned her embrace he pressed a kiss to the crown of her head and silently promised his son that he would keep her safe for as long as there was breath in his body.
Several days later, while Christine was spending her last night under the de Chagny's roof, he visited Jean Claude and Mathilde, his wife, for dinner at their home. That was where he found out that the Choletti's had quit as managers and were in the process of packing up to leave their accommodation at the Opera House. Some of the cast were seriously discussing having a party at the bistro to celebrate.
"Carlotta is furious of course," Jean Claude said as he poured out three glasses of wine, "Her husband has promised to buy her a new outfit, but I don't think that will pacify her, somehow or other. She nearly had a fit when she found out he got himself drunk that night; they could probably hear her three streets away."
"Where will they go? They've been living on the premises."
"Oh, I suspect they will go to Villaroma, their other home. It's nearly out in the country but I think they need to lay low for a while. They'll be leaving tomorrow apparently."
"Are you going to take up your old job again?" Mathilde asked him.
"I've already accepted that my era is at an end, "Gerard replied, "I think some new blood is needed in that place in order to get it back to what it once was."
There was already a small crowd of various company members gathered outside the Opera House to watch the Choletti's depart but the carriage driver had enough sense to pull up around the back, away from them. Carlotta was indignant that she would have to exit through the same entrance as the tradesmen and her husband was trying to stay out of her way, as was everyone else. With a glance in the mirror to ensure that not even a strand of hair was out of place, she turned to leave the private suite for the last time.
She opened the door only to find Gerard Carriere waiting for her, with the most annoying smirk on his face.
"Good morning, Madame Choletti. Allow me to escort you to your carriage. My goodness, what a pretty dress. I must say, you have chosen a beautiful day to leave. A perfect day for travelling, is it not?"
Carlotta was neither taken in nor amused.
"What do you want?" she hissed, smiling vacuously at some amused charladies as she was escorted arm in arm down the stairs and along a corridor.
Gerard stooped a little to whisper into her ear as they walked. "Oh, this... what was it again, oh yes, this "pathetic, feeble old man" is simply trying to make sure you leave these premises and never return. For if you do, I may have to do some investigations of my own – into your husband's business affairs and perhaps some of yours too, for I know you are the true power behind the throne. How exactly did your husband bribe his way into my job, for example? That would be an interesting exercise."
Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth to reply with some clever riposte, but could think of nothing. Still in shock, she allowed him to lead her outside where he opened the door of the carriage for her, gesturing elaborately for her to get inside where her husband was already waiting.
"You both deserve each other. But Choletti, let me tell you something before you leave here for good. I have finally grown a backbone. I suggest you do the same," he said, nodding towards Carlotta.
"Alain, do something!" she wailed. But Choletti simply looked at her, as though seeing her properly for the first time in their marriage, and turned his face away. It was Gerard who helped her up, that smirk never leaving his face.
"Well, good day to you both," he announced cheerfully, tipping his hat, "Oh and Madame…" She turned to him warily.
"Look out for those rats," he muttered.
"What did you say?"
"I said, that's a very nice hat."
With that, he shut the door, raised his hat again and stood back as the carriage departed. Gerard could only imagine the frosty atmosphere in that enclosed space and smiled to himself at Choletti's indifference. Perhaps he actually would grow a backbone in time?
Carlotta's glare was still burning into him as the carriage turned a corner.
Belleville looked exactly the same as he remembered it. Some of the houses were painted a different colour and a few of the shops were under new ownership but apart from that he would know it anywhere, despite the intervening gap of almost forty years. The square was the same as ever, with elderly men standing around talking, children hurrying home from school and the colourful, enticing display of cakes in the bakery window. Women with parcels under their arms were making their way over to the public coach that he and Christine had just vacated and there was a brisk, busy feeling in the air.
"That's the hotel over there," he told Christine, his heart racing. It looked just the same and had recently had a new coat of paint which made it look more inviting than he remembered. The sign over the door read Hotel St Laurent, which was not familiar to him, but perhaps the owner had simply changed the name?
But a new family was in charge, just as Gerard had feared and they had never heard of Elise Dubois, or Gerard Carriere for that matter. Nonetheless, they checked themselves in and after resting for a while they made their way to Gerard's old home.
Just like the hotel, the little cottage was now occupied by strangers. The family had been living there for over ten years, ever since the previous tenants emigrated. Only the mother was at home and although she was polite and sympathetic she did not know anything about Elise or her whereabouts. And once the children arrived home from school she was too frazzled with their little dramas and arguments to concern herself with Gerard's plight anyway. Christine could tell that her guardian did not wish to linger in a place he had never had any emotional attachment to and led him away, the two of them somewhat disheartened.
He sought out some of the older inhabitants, none of whom seemed to remember him from his brief time here. It was a little unnerving to return to his old drinking den, which unlike the hotel was looking the worse for wear these days. He wondered what would have become of him if he had stayed here or in one of the other similar towns he had lived in; would he be like these old men, drinking his sorrows away in this dark, grimy place?
Soon, though, the wheels of memory were turning and they seemed to forget about Gerard as they reminisced.
"Elise Dubois? Oh, she left years ago. Think she moved to Rouen, apparently she had a cousin there who was a hairdresser or something. "
"Elise? Oh yes, the dark haired girl that used to serve behind the counter. Yes, I remember her now."
"Poor thing. Suppose she couldn't bear to stay here, not after her child and all that."
At this point, Gerard interrupted the speaker, a plump, red faced man with a deep voice.
"Excuse me, did you mention a child?"
"Yes, she had a child, a daughter by the name of Lisette. She was a lovely little thing with dark hair like herself. My sister was the midwife's assistant at the time and remembered it well as it was a complicated birth." The man suddenly slapped his hand on the table. "Gerard! It is you! I didn't think you would ever come back here… My goodness, look how old we've all become."
It turned out to be his old acquaintance Francois, who had clearly spent most of the intervening years in a tavern of some description. After some exuberant greetings and inquiries, and long digressions about everyone's lives Gerard began hoping that none of them read the Paris newspapers for if they did he would never get the conversation back on track.
"Pardon me, but can you tell me a little more about the baby?" he interjected discreetly.
"Oh, yes, the baby…" Francois replied, removing his pipe from his mouth.
"It must have been nearly Christmas when she was born, I suppose?" Gerard remarked sadly, thinking of his first Parisian Christmas which must have been so different to the one his wife had experienced. He had enjoyed a lively party at the Opera House and a trip to the Bistro, while his wife was enduring a complicated labour.
"No it wouldn't have been Christmas. She was born not long after you left, about three months, in fact," his old drinking companion replied.
"Three months?" Gerard put his glass down with a soft thud. Something was niggling at him. He did some mental calculations, thinking back to the last time he ever saw Elise, standing in the doorway with her swelling stomach. Her swelling stomach…
"Yes, I remember it quite well. You see, you left on my birthday and the child was born on my mother's birthday and those days are exactly three months apart."
Three months…He lived with her for less than a month, but what about before that? He'd been living here for three months when they got married, maybe a little more, but not much…
"The child, was she… I mean…" he blushed a little. "She lived? She was full term?"
His companions were not as self- conscious about the matter as he was.
"Well, as far as I know…It's not like the midwife told me all about it or anything!" He chuckled before sipping on his beer once more.
Gerard's mind was racing. If the child had been his, it would not have lived, not as far as he knew anyway. He was certainly not an expert in such matters but going by the tragic experiences of others, it did not seem likely. It was not his, at least he could be almost sure of that. He had been right, all those years ago…
And yet he could not simply let things rest, not like this. But very soon he wished he had stayed silent.
"You say she moved to Rouen?" he persisted.
Francois fidgeted uncomfortably and sighed. After a few moments he met Gerard's gaze once more.
"The little girl died, you see. She had the measles when she was three years old, and died, poor little thing. Elise couldn't bear to stay here any longer, and nobody could blame her. She went off to make a new life for herself and hasn't been seen around here since."
A respectful silence fell upon the little group as they drifted apart into their own thoughts. After waiting a little while he managed to tactfully remove himself from the tavern and make his way back to the hotel where Christine was waiting for him.
Gerard's thoughts were flying randomly around his brain as he sat in the hotel lounge that night with Christine. He did not have another child. His only child was dead. His stepdaughter was dead also. He had been eyeing up Belladora while his wife buried her young daughter.
He did not know what he had been expecting and even Christine was dubious as to the need for this trip but had stood by him nonetheless. Had he expected a dramatic reunion? Did he think they could have fallen in love after all this time? Or that he could replace the son he lost with someone else, a grown adult that could, hypothetically, have been a parent themselves by now? But he knew one thing. He had expected one great moment of healing where all of his past mistakes could be atoned for. And perhaps that was asking a little too much. But he could not give up, not yet. Here was a chance for Philippe to make himself useful, as he was trying to do.
He looked over at Christine who was reading a romantic novel she had purchased in the stationery shop. He smiled at her and, as though she could read his thoughts, looked up and returned his smile, and that was his moment of realisation. He did not need to track down some stranger in order to earn a spurious second chance at fatherhood. His true second chance was right here in front of him. There would always be a corner of his heart where she reminded him of Belladora but first and foremost he knew she needed a father, and that was what he would be for her.
I expect you are wondering why you are hearing from me after such a long time. I don't know if you read the Paris newspapers but some very difficult things have happened to me in the last year and I have been going back into my past, trying put some things right.
A few weeks ago I returned to Belleville to try and find you. Since then I have been seeking the help of a well-known family of my acquaintance who, as it turned out, have some friends in the Rouen area. Although it has taken me some time to find your current address, I am so glad that I am now able to contact you and attempt to apologise for my past behaviour. Most importantly I am so sorry about your daughter, Lisette. It is a most terrible thing for a parent to lose a child, and I speak from experience, although my son was an adult when I lost him. I cannot imagine the grief that you went through and it pains me to think that you were alone during that distressing time. I realise that it was a long time ago but please accept my belated condolences.
I have wondered if we should meet in person but perhaps that would not be for the best. For now, I am content to correspond with you by letter in order to apologise for my selfish behaviour towards you when we met. Please believe me when I say that I had a good upbringing and cannot blame my parents or anyone else for how I turned out. I only thought of my own physical needs at the time and never gave any thought towards the consequences. Indeed, I blamed you for our predicament when we were forced into our ill-advised marriage and it was only later that I learned to take responsibility for my actions. It is strange to think how little we knew of each other when we entered that church.
I hope with all my heart that you have managed to find some kind of happiness in your life and that you were able to make a fresh start in a new town. I have no right to ask for anything from you, only that you will accept my sincerest apologies as well as my best wishes for the future.
Gerard re-read the letter and sealed it in an envelope, then sat back in his chair with a sigh. He could not undo the past nor could he spend the rest of his remaining years wallowing in his mistakes. He thought about the two women who had changed his life, Elise and Belladora, and how, over many years, they had become more like clichés than human beings. In the rusty narrative that served as his memory he had cast them as the harlot and the angel; both clichés very different, almost polar opposites in fact, but neither of them recognisably human. Well, enough of that. Enough of bestowing simplistic roles upon them. Both were fallible, both were capable of goodness, just as he was himself.
His heart felt strangely lifted as he walked to the letterbox. A soft drizzle was falling and the sky was a sickly grey colour, but nothing could dampen his spirits. A neighbour greeted him, a dog barked at a distance and in a nearby house someone was practising the piano. He hummed The Jewel Song to himself and a shiver ran down his spine.
"Erik" he whispered. And he knew his son was around somewhere, watching over him and smiling.