Enough frantic typing-up for the moment, I think... just enough to get the characters safely put away for a while, so I can get that pesky Epilogue down on the page...
In Chapter 1, we had Christine's side of the marriage: in Chapter 2, we get Raoul's, as perceived by the least relenting judge of all :-(
Chapter 2: “In Hell, I imagine”
The sounds of the ship were a little more intrusive here; for all the panelling, faint metallic notes carried along the passages from the Persephone’s far-distant engines or from the working of her plates as she shouldered aside the oncoming seas. An indistinct voice drifted down from out on deck: somewhere further aft, there was a hint of music being played, and the buzz of a gathering. Behind a cabin door close by, someone laughed.
Christine glanced swiftly up and down, but the corridor was mercifully empty. Feeling ridiculously exposed, she let the door close softly behind her and took the few steps needed to knock for admission to her husband’s cabin next door. After tonight’s dinner, she could guess only too well at the mood he would be in; but to hesitate out here was to invite humiliation, caught out in apparent intrigue. The raised brows of passing strangers were more than, at this moment, she was ready to face.
She tapped again on the stateroom door, more urgently, and this time got an indistinct snarl in response that might have included the words “come in”. Taking this, correctly, to mean that the cabin was not locked, Christine let herself quickly in and closed the door behind her, backing up against the panelling as she came under Raoul’s glare.
“You — I thought it was the steward.” It was a less than gracious welcome, even by his recent standards. With a sinking feeling, she saw that there was a half-empty glass at his elbow and an all-too-familiar glazed look behind the frown. He had taken off his coat and collar, and removed the links from his shirt-sleeves, but otherwise he had made no visible gesture towards preparing for bed since she had left him almost an hour previously. She wondered, sometimes, if he slept at all.
“So to what do I owe this pleasure?” There was no trace of slurring in his voice; but then, these days, there never was. “Not a sudden craving for my company, I take it. Or would that not, after all, be too much to hope for?”
“Please, Raoul —” Faced with his heavy irony, she had no answer, as ever. “Please let’s not fight. I just need some clothes... for Gustave...”
The cabin was not a match for her own, but smaller, with no inner room for dependents or child. One trunk stood in the corner, still corded up, and the other had been upended and opened in almost the same chaos as she had left her own. A pair of razors lay on the washstand and several shirts had been flung across the foot of the bed, but otherwise Raoul had made no attempt to unpack. By all appearances he’d made little enough attempt at any sort of packing in the first place: finding them Célestine Bribot had been the valet’s last generous gesture upon leaving in lieu of unpaid wages. Christine thought it entirely probable that her husband, thrown back abruptly onto his own devices, had simply tossed the spare shirts she had laid out for Gustave into the trunk along with his own.
But Raoul was sprawled there in his chair, long legs jutting across her path, and she shrank from pushing past. “Please —”
A brisk, professional rap at the door behind her sent her scurrying abruptly across the cabin, grasping the back of the other chair with both hands in a shrinking defensive move. The steward, smartly uniformed, entered in response to Raoul’s impatient reply, crossed swiftly to the table to pick up the empty glass as Raoul drained it, and set down the fresh drink from the tray that he carried. A moment later and he was gone, in well-trained, deferential silence.
Her husband made no move. “Well? You had better come and fix the problem, had you not — whatever it is. The perfect wife and mother, as always. And no doubt the fault was mine.”
His voice had thickened, and Christine winced. “Darling, no —”
She caught his hand as he reached for the glass again, and felt his fingers grip her wrist almost painfully, clinging like those of a child.
“In vino veritas,” Raoul de Chagny said softly, bitterness twisting inward like a blade in his voice. “For the fault is mine, and we both know it —”
His grip compelled her down, and she pulled free in unthinking panic. Saw, too late, the lost look in his eyes.
“I disgust you, don’t I.” It wasn’t a question. Lost: lost and drowning... One hand clenched, nails biting into his palm. “God knows I disgust myself...”
He thrust himself to his feet suddenly, violently, sending the little table and its glass crashing unheeded together to the floor. “Christine —”
But the reek of spilled liquor was sharp between them, and when he reached for her she froze; and after a moment his outstretched arms fell back, slowly, as if to touch her was too much to bear.
“I knew I was losing you — I’ve been losing you for such a long time... But I never dreamed the day would come when you would be afraid of me.” The words were very quiet, and Christine cried out.
“Raoul, no — we —”
“We?” Her husband had turned away; had dropped to one knee beside the fallen table, and was setting it upright, carefully and methodically. His eyes were on his task. “Christine — is there even a ‘we’ for us?”
It was not the words; not just the words. It was the dreadful dragging finality of it that caught at her heart — life and hope and everything that might have been, draining away through their fingers. And the Raoul she’d loved was lost, so lost, trapped even as she was in this strange stilted nightmare —
“There was a summer once, in Paris beneath the trees.” Raoul’s gaze at last sought out her own as he rose, and it was she who could not bear to meet it. “There was a summer once... when I would have sworn to tear out my own heart sooner than let anything hurt you. A summer, and a winter, and a long golden spring. And yet now hurt is all I ever bring you.”
One hand flung up against her protest: let’s not pretend...
“Do you think I’m proud of it? Do you think I can’t see —” His voice rose, cracked: began again on the low ebb of a breath. “Do you think this —” a gesture to his own state — “is because I can live with myself?”
He backed away a quick step as she tried to speak, as if to ward her off; stumbled back against the side of the bed and stood there breathing hard, with half the cabin between them, and the hectic glitter of drink like unshed tears in his eyes.
“I’ve been losing you for so long — to the child, to the world, to my own blind folly — for the more I feared to lose you, the more I drove you away —” The back of one hand wiped across his mouth as if unconsciously. “All those months of illness after Gustave was born; and then the years since, with the child, always the child. The child in your room tonight, while I —”
He caught himself up, on a laugh that was no laugh at all. “Oh, you’ve no need to look like that, I’ve no intention of pressing marital relations on you. The doctors made that clear enough. ‘No more children or no more wife; it is for the husband to make sure, monsieur’... and we’ve made sure, haven’t we, very sure...”
She could have wept: for the hurt in him, for the waste of it — all these years and you let me think —
And now her husband stood there, swaying slightly, and there was no comfort for either of them.
“Then the dinners — the galas, once you were well enough to sing. Everywhere, the sensation: the return of Christine Daaé. Crowds outside the carriage — cards, flowers, admirers — every would-be young composer with an aria in your name, on your doorstep. On our doorstep, Christine, but it was no longer ours, we — you — belonged to all the world, and Paris was no longer our haven. Toscanini — Puccini — La Scala — Venice: you must be so proud, signor, of your wife. Evening after evening in hotels, in card-rooms, every night of the tour, as music swept you away from me, as we — you — were lionized by the ignorant and the vain: and what kind of man was I, some petty-bourgeois shopkeeper, to resent my own wife’s success? What did that make me? The Vicomte de Chagny should have been proud of you — so proud —” The words were torn from him on a groan, and she found her voice at last.
“Raoul, you were proud of me on that tour, you told me so often — you hated it, I knew, that’s why we came home, but you made me feel so needed, so much wanted, among all those strangers — I could never have borne it alone —”
“Alone —” A bitter echo. “As we were alone in the Jardin des Tuileries that summer, when your kiss was forestalled by three star-struck young men with notebooks. As we were alone at Chagny, with Gustave clinging round your skirts and a gaggle of maids enchanted by his every step. As we were alone at the salon of Madame de Vireville, with every journalist and scribbler in town clustered around your chair for the honour of handing you a glass of negus... And only the bottom of my own glass could blur that distance, with an ugly snarl to amend the folly of my pride — and when you held out your hand to draw me back, I let it fall and turned aside. Three years wed, of that lifetime we’d dreamed of spending together... and what did I have left to give you? Neither my body for shelter nor my soul to soar beside you in a world that was whirling you away; and everything else we might have had was curdled in the dregs of our happiness until I could scarcely bear to see myself with sober eyes. What little you asked of me I threw back in your face — and your love, your pity — oh God, your pity —”
He sank down abruptly on the edge of the bed with a thud of springs, and dropped his face between shaking hands.
“Raoul, darling —” She let the wrapper slip from her shoulders, catching up her skirts, but her husband’s muffled words froze her in mid-movement.
“Don’t. Just — don’t.”
A dreadful silence, harsh with gulping breath, as she fought to keep the tears from her own eyes. Deep below, the Persephone’s engines thrummed out their churning beat.
“Your music —” Raoul dragged the crook of his sleeve across his face and looked up. He had his voice, at least, under control. The words were sad and infinitely far away.
“Christine, your music... you were the most beautiful thing I ever heard. I could never...” Almost a laugh. “I could never... find the same thrill, no matter what the stakes. No matter how high the loss... It doesn’t matter, you know, after a while: win or lose. You put your life on the line, double, redouble — anything to feel alive again, to feel that rush. And when you wake... to see what you have become... you plunge deeper each night to forget. And then one day you can’t escape the whispers — the contempt. The demands...”
One hand passed across his eyes, briefly, as if to wipe clean a momentary spasm.
“So then you take your wife to America. For money. To sell the last thing left to you — her art. Her name.”
It was a steady, dispassionate recital that frightened her more than despair; pitiless clarity that left no room for purgatory or repentance. Against that judgment love would offer no appeal.
“If I had any courage,” Raoul said quietly, “I should have left you years ago. Set you free from these hopeless bonds to find another man who could be the husband and father you dreamed you could find in me. If I’d had the courage — to watch you happy at last in his arms — blossoming under his kiss —”
The monotone broke off on a gasp; resumed its steady verdict.
“But to let you go was more than I could bear. So I clung on, though that clasp dragged you down. Though you were made of stuff so fine that our marriage fouled it past enduring... but there’s a simple solution, after all. So easy for both of us. A slip of the foot, high up on deck... a few minutes’ struggle, far from land... and we can both be free of this tainted shell that stains everything it touches.” He smiled, eyes lost at last, gone beyond all fear or feeling. “This mask... that was once Raoul de Chagny.”
Verdict; judgment; sentence.
For an instant, hysterical laughter threatened to choke her. I disgust you, don’t I... God knows I disgust myself... and love — love, that could not save them — had brought them now to this...
“How dare you?” She flung it at him like a slap in the face: something — anything — to rock him out of that horrible composed resolve. Hysteria spilled over into scalding tears, but she ignored them. “How dare you put me on a pedestal, Monsieur le Vicomte — how dare you set me in the heavens and drag yourself through the gutter, when our child, our very child —”
Gustave, how can I? But better to lose a father... that way... than the other; better to lose Raoul through the wrong she had done him than through an imagined perfection she had never deserved.
“Raoul — Gustave isn’t even your son. I’ve known for years; you must have guessed. To bring another man’s child to our marriage — does that mark me out of a stuff too fine to touch? Is that the wife whose own husband’s hold can defile her? Is that the plaster saint you’ve set up to be shattered?”
She went to him at last; crossed the cramped cabin with its heavy panelling and sank down beside him on the high-built bed, throwing an embrace tightly around his shoulders and burying unheeded tears in his shirt-front. The sour sweat of drink stood out on his skin, mingling with stale linen and the faint tobacco-reek of the card-room, but she tightened her grip, feeling the warm solidity of bone and muscle within her arms, the lifting rhythm of his breath, the heartbeat lurching beneath her cheek — warm, real, living — hers — oh Raoul, how could you ever think to leave me all alone?
She shifted her grip momentarily as if to shake him and raised her face to his, lifting one hand to brush back the thick disarray of fair hair from his brow. With the other hand she possessed herself of his fingers, curling her own tightly round an unresponsive grasp. His gaze still looked blank; but it was the more familiar glazed look of mingled alcohol and strain.
“Gustave... I don’t believe it.” Instinctive denial, with a shake of the head; Raoul winced and freed his hands, raising them to his temples. “The boy... it’s not true...”
He read the answer in her eyes and dropped his head back into his hands with a groan. “So that’s why... I knew — I knew there was something wrong. The child — I could never...”
She could see him struggling with the implications, through the fogging haze that was finally, mercifully, starting to overcome him, the fuddled mind clinging on to the justification as if to ward off the rest. If only he could remember it that way when he woke — forgive himself at last for the son he’d never truly been able to love, and, freed of that mantle of unnatural parenthood, learn to know the little boy who looked up to him with such longing as all the father he’d ever known.
If only he could forgive her for betraying him out of an heir...
“I suppose —” Raoul’s mind had clearly reached that same point in its series of glacial jerks — “there’s no need to ask... who?”
She’d told herself over the years she would not be ashamed. Told herself never to regret what she had done... Raoul had been there; he alone, perhaps, in the world of his birth, could understand. But the hot blood dyed her face and she found herself looking away, unable to answer; and when she had braced herself to the response, turning, it was to a husband whose eyes had abruptly drifted shut. Christine was just in time to get an arm around him as he swayed and guide him back to a safely prone position collapsed upon the bed.
She managed to get him into stocking-feet and ease him into a more comfortable sprawl before the hazy gaze flickered open again in search of her own. The answer must have been clear to read in her ebbing colour. The corners of his mouth twitched slightly, into what might have been a rueful smile.
“No need... to ask...” the Vicomte de Chagny murmured, heavy lids closing once more. But one hand stirred for the first time within hers, into a tentative clasp.
For a moment she thought he might stir again; but it was not until long after it had become plain that her husband was truly and deeply asleep that she finally slipped her fingers free from his. With the bitter lines of their waking hours wiped free, he seemed suddenly very young. Christine stooped briefly and brushed a kiss across his forehead, as she had done for Gustave. Then she rang the bell for the steward.
It was not until she had to face Célestine’s accusatory gaze, fifteen minutes later, that she remembered that she had left her wrapper in Raoul’s cabin along with her son’s shirts. And by that time it was all she could manage to undress herself in turn and sink into bed.