Igenlode Wordsmith (igenlode) wrote,
Igenlode Wordsmith

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The Choices of Raoul de Chagny: Ch.3

And at this point I go from material I'm reasonably comfortable with (people who love each other and make each other unhappy) to material that starts to get outside my experience and my competence... in other words, despite having written it weeks ago and stared at it until my eyes go funny, and having picked up some obvious problems (i.e. over-use of specific words), I'm not at all confident about it. I'm not talented at 'fluff', and it's all too easy to produce risible results; unfortunately I actually care about the characters and don't want to make fun of them.

(Ironically, this is also more or less the point at which I got back to my original plot summary, after having frantically winged it over the previous chapter (now Chs 1 & 2) due to spotting a major plot hole...)

In structural terms, we move on from "Why Does She Love Me?" in Chapters 1 & 2 to "Things Have Gone Astray" in Chapters 3 & 4 (not yet typed), although of course there are echoes from various other points of the musical to be heard; I couldn't resist a "Beneath a Moonless Sky" reference (sorry!)

Chapter 3. ’Til I Hear You Sing

There was a salt tang on the sea breeze, high on the Persephone’s decks, and the early morning sun made the long billows in her wake almost too bright to bear. Even the white paint of her promenade deck glistened brilliantly in the last of the overnight damp, and Christine de Chagny, shading her eyes, found herself very glad of the gauzy scarf she had knotted to hold her hat against the breeze. Far below, the waves surged against the sides with a steady hiss as the great ship cleaved through them, steady as a rock. Above her the four wide funnels streamed their constant plume, torn away to windward in shreds of smoke where it began to fade. Here in mid-ocean, there were no gulls, no long mournful horns of tugs or dockside whistles. She might have been alone in a world reborn clear and bright and new, save for the sound of the wind above. Somewhere distant, bells rang, orders were given and watches kept; all the steady, diligent work of the ship went on. But sunlight streamed through the wide windows of the promenade and beyond across the open deck, and Christine leaned both hands upon the rail and turned her face up to the vast blue wash of sky as if she were the only one to witness it in a thousand years.

“Excuse me, madame—”

Christine jumped, as if she had not anticipated the meeting. Her heart was inexplicably racing in her throat. She swung round and met Raoul’s eyes with shared constraint.

“I believe you left this behind.” Her husband held out the silky bundle of her evening wrapper with irony, as if it had in truth been an illicit liaison that had taken place between them.

Seeking refuge in the same formality, she took it from him with a murmur of thanks, and as if by mutual agreement they fell into step, beginning to stroll forward together beyond the promenade. An observer might have thought it a chance meeting between casual acquaintances.

Christine stole a sidelong glance at his profile, caught him doing the same, and looked away hastily, flushing like a convent schoolgirl. Despite the evident care with which he’d dressed, he seemed pale and somewhat bedraggled, and in anyone else she might have suspected an attack of mal-de-mer; but in Raoul, who had always been an excellent sailor, it was much more likely to be a case of the self-inflicted misery of the morning after the night before. Her heart sank, remembering other unwelcome occasions.

But the involuntary wince with which he finally halted, a moment later, was outweighed by the look of absurd indignation that had prompted it. For a moment they were children again. “Did you tell that steward to throw water over me?”

She’d imagined all kinds of strained awkwardness in their meeting, after last night; but never this.

“Oh darling—” She’d tipped the man heavily to ensure that Monsieur de Chagny would be out on deck to meet her; evidently extreme measures had been required. And Raoul was distinctly damp... She couldn’t help laughing. “Oh darling — come here—”

All formality forgotten — he looked so very boyish and outraged — she reached up without a second thought to pull his head down towards her, rough-towelling the wet tendrils of hair with the ends of her scarf, as she had done when they were young. “Here — let me...”

There was a long bench in the sunlight along the side-decks. She drew him down onto it beside her; gathered the tousled head into her lap. After a moment Raoul yielded against her with a sigh, stretching out along the seat and closing his eyes. “Christine....”

“Hush...” She stroked fingers through his hair like tiny caresses, easing out tangles, brushing the crisp waves aside. One hand cradled briefly along his cheek, and she felt a long breath leave him as he settled closer. “Oh hush...”

She remembered the Jardin des Tuileries again; not as Raoul had recalled it, but with the sweetness of laughter, Paris beneath the trees. And if there were autograph-hunters aboard the Persephone, they had yet to find her out...

She leaned forward. Raoul opened his eyes.

“There were... a lot of foolish things said last night.” Stilted words. “I think.... I must have been very drunk.”

Don’t think of it now — darling, it doesn’t matter — all their old rituals of comfort and remorse. But it did matter...

“Not more so than usual,” Christine told him instead with painful honesty, and felt him wince and accept the hit. “Only this time... most of what was said was true.”

Raoul rolled over abruptly and sat up, groaning.

“I’d hoped—” He was looking increasingly ill, remembering back, and every habit — every instinct — urged her to placate and reassure him before it could go too far. But what had been said could not be unsaid: and too much of it needed to be faced.


“I don’t see how much longer we can go on,” Raoul said quietly, without bitterness or drama, and this time she did shake him, flaring up.

“Never — Raoul de Chagny, never frighten me again the way you did last night! Never, do you hear me? We’ll manage somehow — pay back the debt — another child — a desert island, a hot air balloon — I’ll give up music—”

Between sobbing breaths she scarcely knew any longer what she was saying, and it was Raoul who stilled her beating hands between his own, frowning. “Hush... no more foolishness, Little Lotte... you were born for music; born to soar high...”

One hand tilted her face gently upward and Christine closed her eyes, waiting. But he stilled abruptly, as if taken aback. She felt him take a breath, then hesitate.

She reopened her eyes to find him gazing down at her gravely, a little uncertain frown between his brows. “Born for music... Christine, sing for me.”

For a moment, frozen in her turn, she wasn’t even sure she’d understood him. But the words made no other sense when she ran through them again.

“Sing — here — now?” She pulled free and sat upright. “But you—”

Last time I sang in public, Raoul, you arrived ten minutes before the interval. And you made sure to be drunk before you came. She almost said it; but the flinch in his eyes was enough.

“I’m not proud of much that I said last night,” Raoul said steadily. “But you are still the most beautiful thing I ever heard... The press-men, the impresarios, the managers, attention-seekers, gossip and limelight — well, I’ve been an arrogant fool in more ways than that. But you’ve sung for them all: sung for audiences, dear, sung for Gustave in his bath...”

A moment’s silence; the sea-breeze plucked at her hat and threatened to send her forgotten wrapper billowing down the deck. Raoul caught it in reflex, folding it over and over between his hands. He thrust it into his pocket, finally; looked up.

“Will you sing... for me?” His voice shook a little, and Christine bit her lip.

“Darling — I can’t, not just like that. I’ve no accompanist, I’m not warmed up...”

“There speaks La Diva.” And it was a very long time since she’d heard that teasing note creep into her husband’s voice... the whole thing was ridiculous, Christine knew, but she also knew she was going to do it.

“You do your breathing exercises every morning,” Raoul was continuing, “as I should very well know—” And that was a definite glint in his eye.

What was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. “And your head?” Christine enquired sweetly.

“My — what?”

He had the grace to look slightly shamefaced as the memory of a hundred ill-tempered mornings dawned. A flush. “I’ll take the risk...”

Their eyes met, his with an unexpected note of appeal: it meant more to him than she’d realised. “Christine — will you?”

A deep breath. She stood up. “I’ll try.”

Her head was a whirl, selecting arias, encores — the rhymes and lullabies she’d sung to Gustave; no, a little too close to the bone — what had she rehearsed, this last year? For a moment, in panic, she felt her mind go entirely blank, as if she were once again that stage-struck ingenue waiting in the wings for her first entrance.

She crossed the deck to the rail and stood gazing out and gripping on with both hands, forcing herself to breathe. Throat open, relaxed... a column of air from the deep muscles... now temper it, shape it... don’t clutch...

A great circle of sea spread all around them, deep wrinkles of steel-blue beneath the bright haze of the sky. In the distance, rising on the horizon, there was a single thread of smoke: another ship, too far to see. Beneath her the rhythm of the engines, the long imperceptible swing of the sea. Waiting... And the words slid smoothly into her mind with the memory of the applause: the encore she’d sung last spring, from the number that La Vespina had made so famous.

The notes were ragged at first. She let the wind take them, gathering the power of her voice to cover the long phrases — casting the high notes down, down towards the waves—

“Un bel dí—”

She was used to the resonance of the rehearsal room — the vast anticipatory hush of the stage, ready to receive and give back every sound. Unconsciously she’d shrunk from the image of her voice serenading the whole ship, streaming back like the smoke from the funnels above; but the open air took it and swallowed it. The two of them might as well have been alone. She turned at last, hands clasped at her breast, and let the music pour out down the wind to her audience of one — to Raoul, for Raoul — as the sound of the orchestra swelled in her mind.

“Un bel dí vedremo
levarsi un fil di fumo
sul l’estremo confin del mare—”

It was an approximation. It couldn’t help but be an approximation, and she knew well enough the dismissal she would have got from the jackals of the Press that Raoul hated so: unprepared, under-rehearsed, she would have deserved it all. But she put everything she could into it — the utter, childlike hope against hope of the little geisha — and knew from his face that she had chosen right: the face of the boy in the opera-box, with the single red rose.

She sang the last notes directly to him, borne away on the rush of the music, and saw her ‘audience’ break into a cascade of applause. Christine swept down into a curtsey of acknowledgement, catching the mimed bouquet. Then she ran for her husband’s outstretched arms, and found herself swept up and whirled around, laughing.

“Brava — brava — bravissima!”

Raoul set her down and kissed her hand with a mock-Italian flourish. But beneath the laughter she could see that the yearning in the song had moved them both. “That was glorious—” as she shook her head and tried to demur — “no, truly. What was it?”

Little wisps of hair were blowing loose around her face. Christine stepped back a little to busy herself with tucking them in, feeling the intensity of performance begin to ebb and leave her, as always, a little shaky.

Un bel dí... I learned it as an encore piece for Madame de Vangçon’s salon, when every soprano in Paris was singing it after Vespina’s stage success...”

Until that moment she had been half-abstracted; now, suddenly, her throat thickened with realisation. What could have possessed her... to pick that lyric? But she had betrayed herself already: first scarlet, then white...

Un bel dí... It means one fine day,” Christine de Chagny said, very low. “One fine day... my husband will return to me... but I—”

Raoul’s exclamation was a savage one, made at his own expense. He caught her just in time, without ceremony, as her head began to swim.

Of the next few moments, drained at last, she was never quite certain. But it was Raoul who had somehow eased her back onto the bench and gathered her against him, murmuring; who had untied scarf and hat with clumsy care and pulled her close, cradling her head into its old home in the hollow of his throat. His mouth brushed against her hair with little, meaningless words, and his arms tightened around her.

“Christine, Christine—” And a stream of little endearments from above, signifying nothing and yet everything: days of her girlhood, when his arms about her had sought only to shield her from the world... She freed herself enough to slip a small hand around his waist in response, and felt his hold slacken and then tighten around her in answer to the embrace.

So long — it had been too long—

She turned her face up to his this time almost greedily, and felt his mouth find hers at last without reserve or hesitation, in an eagerness that left them both gasping. She had forgotten — and he... did her own face wear that dazed look? She thought, in a brief lucid moment, that it did... and then she had an arm up around his neck and was pulling him closer, closer, clinging so tight against him she could scarcely breathe, scarcely take a moment from being kissed again, and again and again—

She lay back at last in his arms to catch her breath, aware of his eyes — the flush in his cheeks — the almost incredulous curve of the smile that answered her — and his heart beating somewhere within her breast, or maybe hers within his in perfect duet: she could not tell the racing pulse from her own. Another kiss, as the twinned beats slowed; she read the intention in his face and leaned up to meet it, letting his mouth take hers more gently now as driving need ebbed to exploration and remembered delight... and built again until the blood was drumming in her ears with the urgency of it, hands becoming shameless, and she had to pull away for very decency’s sake.

Her hair was not so much down in wisps now as in billows, half the pins gone; buttons were tangled, and her mouth swollen with embraces — altogether a very abandoned picture, she told herself severely and without the slightest regret. And her hat—

“Overboard, I think,” Raoul noted with an equal lack of repentance. “Ridiculous wisp that it was—”

“It was very chic.” Christine jumped to her feet to look hopefully down the deck; but there was no sign of the unfortunate creation. “And decidedly expensive...” She did feel a pang of guilt over that; her milliner was owed enough money as it was.

“It got in the way,” her husband observed with undeniable truth, displaying every indication of demonstrating the accuracy of the accusation once again. But she held him off.

“Raoul, no — we need to think. I need—”

“You need so much that I haven’t given you, I know.” The years between, momentarily forgotten, had dropped back over him like a mantle, all their reckless flags forgotten. It hurt even to witness it; but the two of them were no longer the naïve children they’d been, and love alone was not enough. “I’ve asked so much, dear, and returned so little: and it’s you who have paid the price for all the hopes we once had and all the promises I made you. I would have given you the world — and when I fell short of that, I gave you nothing at all...”

“We both—”

“I’ve been a fool, and I know it, and an arrogant fool, and we both know it; and the worst fool of all to take it out on you. But I swear—” A helpless gesture. “What vow can I ever make you that hasn’t been taken and broken already by a thousand drunken bankrupts? But I swear, Christine, that I want it as much as you do — I want our marriage back; I want to give you the husband you’ve lost, the man for your sake I thought I could be. Just ask, and I swear—”

Love me: that was all she’d asked, once. Tell me you need me: let me go with you... But they had never stopped loving each other; and in the end that had only made the hurt worse.

“Truly, Raoul? Do you mean it?”

So much drunken penitence over the years, easy maudlin promises that vanished before the sun went down, sooner than face the truth... She’d tried so hard not to make that same mistake again. This was different. Everything told her it was different. But how dared she trust anything she wanted so desperately to believe?

“For both our sakes,” Raoul said quietly. “And... the child.”

Gustave. Her stomach turned over.

Did he... remember? One glance told her that he had.

“Maybe there are some pieces of news best heard in one’s cups.” A twist of his mouth. “I should be... outraged, I suppose. Should be asking when, and where — though I can well enough guess — no, don’t tell me. That’s... an honesty I think we can do without.”

The words seemed to echo between them; his face softened and he came to her. “Christine, don’t cry...”

Gentle silk against her eyes, from his coat pocket. The roughness of his lapel on her cheek.

“All I can feel... is that it explains so much. So much about the boy—” A sound that was almost a laugh. “Before he was born, I promised myself I would be the father I’d never had: I thought I would be so proud — and then I felt... nothing...”

This time there was a trace of real, bitter humour. “And now his son as the heir to Chagny — what an irony, in the end. What a cosmic joke on us both — on us all three...”

And it was only after a moment, with a jolt that she had thought long since dead, that Christine understood that the third in his mind had not been Gustave.

“Raoul, Gustave doesn’t know. He’s followed you everywhere since he could walk — he’d have worshipped you if—” If you had ever let him. She swallowed that, past the lump in her throat. “He’s so like you, sometimes, that it hurts... he might so easily be yours, and he would be if only he could. He’s never harmed anyone: he isn’t his—”

But if Raoul de Chagny, orphaned into a house full of women, had known little enough of fatherhood, how could she ever use the word of... that other? Creature of darkness — and of loneliness...

She’d thought she was free of the memories. She’d thought them escaped at last. And now Raoul, too, must carry that burden again; it was not fair.

“He’s only a little boy. And — he loves you.”

“I know.” Raoul bent to kiss her, gently. “I know. And so, for both our sakes... and for his... we’ll try.”

It was more than she’d dared to hope for; more than her superstition told her she deserved. She leaned back against her husband’s warmth and stood quietly within his embrace, allowing herself at last to dream.

Multimedia reference: this is more or less what Christine is hearing mentally as she sings YouTube: Maria Callas, Un bel di... although under the circumstances, it probably comes out a bit more like this: a capella rendition

I actually got quite a shock myself, after picking that particular aria as suitable in mood and style for her to sing unaccompanied (and being delighted to find that it fitted the period even more perfectly than my subconscious had suggested -- the Paris premiere of "Madam Butterfly" was 1906), on checking the English translation of the lyrics and discovering just what the song could be taken to say. Christine honestly wasn't trying to make a point... and neither (consciously) was the author!

Tags: c-r-c, christine, fiction, love never dies, raoul de chagny
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