Chapter 4 I'm a little less insecure about, for some reason.
Still a high fluff quotient -- as there will be from now on -- but I'm guessing that there's enough conflict in it to keep me happy, and to feel that the chapter justifies its existence in the plot. (There is a plot, even if it only consists of 'find a way to keep the characters from meeting up'!)
Chapter 4. One Thing More
The sun was perceptibly higher now. Within the cabins behind them on the promenade deck valets and maids would be stirring, toilettes would be being made and morning tea sipped, and out here she and Raoul could not be certain much longer of being alone. Any minute now, that red-faced Englishman might even appear for his ‘morning constitutional’...
Raoul had tensed, his arms tightening around her. “Christine—”
“Mmm?” Catching, belatedly, the strain in his tone, she turned to look up at him. “Dear, what is it?”
“Christine, I have no right to ask this — but if you love me—”
“—You know I do.”
“Then...” But he hesitated.
“Anything, darling.” Christine laughed, guessing at what it might be; blushing a little.
“I have no right to ask, but... Christine, break this contract.”
“Do what?” She twisted out of his hold altogether, staring. She wasn’t even sure she understood.
“For my sake... break this American contract. Don’t go to New York. Don’t sing this concert. Don’t — sell yourself to save me.”
“But—” Far astern, the screws churned white water. And every revolution, every stroke of the pistons carried them closer to NewYork. “I can’t. You know I can’t. A contract—”
She’d signed. Set her reputation on the line; signed away her voice and her art for that stupendous, crippling sum of money.
“We both know you’ve had to break contracts on my behalf before.” He could not quite keep the bitterness from his voice. “Last year, in Vienna — that ‘accident’—”
He’d been in no state to ride home that night, let alone take on that wager in the Prater. She’d wondered, when they’d brought him back to the hotel — then and afterwards — if he’d had it at the back of his mind to break his neck and be done with it.
As it was, he’d been unconscious for the night and half the day, and too sick and giddy to be moved for the best part of a week: and there had been no question of her performing on that day or any other. It was only two days later that she’d learned how it had happened, from a deputation of young Uhlans who had paid a visit to tender their most profound sympathies to the wife of the Herr Vicomte and their regrets at not having fully appreciated his situation that night, having themselves been some trifle intoxicated on proposing the race... all most upright and correct, with their flat-crested helmets held stiffly across the breast and their heels at the salute. She had received them in the cramped little hotel parlour — half-distracted the whole while with Raoul in the next room, lying ashen-grey beneath the great bandage across his brow — and had looked up at their anxious, pink young faces, remembering that reckless sweet-tempered boy to whom she’d given her hand, and for his sake tried hard to smile at them and to be kind...
She didn’t even want to think about that time in Vienna. There was still that little scar, under his hair — she’d run her fingers over it this morning — but by the grace of God, nothing more. Unless the headaches... No. Christine banished that thought firmly, trying for a lighter tone.
“Raoul, America’s different: I’ve never sung there before, the management don’t know me. If I pull out now, at the last minute, I’ll go down as just another capricious foreign act — unreliable, flighty...”
“Who cares what America thinks? Let them gossip — let them find some new gimcrack sensation—” His mouth had tightened in distaste: and there went twenty generations of unconscious hauteur in one sublime dismissal, Christine thought ruefully. Twenty generations who’d had the privilege of putting a point of honour above the price of the next meal...
He heard the echo of it himself and flushed a little. “It’s not— Listen, there’s something wrong about this American contract: there has been from the start. It’s too much money; you said it yourself — no one pays that sort of price for a single solo performance. It’s gaudy and crude: it makes the dollar-billing the star, not the singer, never mind the voice... Christine, it’s a circus act — can’t you see it? All those dollars aren’t bidding for the soloist: they’re buying Christine Daaé. The scandal, the celebrity, the story — the Vicomtesse on a public stage. They’re making us an offer we can’t refuse... so they can show us off as freaks.”
Christine bit her lip, meeting his gaze with her own appalled dismay. It seemed all too likely. Yet she’d known all along, when that unbelievable offer had come through like the answer to a prayer — to all their prayers — that there must be some kind of price to be paid.
“I... have to do this. We have to get through it — somehow. Just the one performance, dear. Just one night... to pay everything back. Then we’ll go — leave New York behind. Then we’ll start again. But... we have to go through with it first, Raoul. We have to get free. I... need to.”
“You don’t.” The focus of his face was frightening her in its intensity. “You don’t have to do this — sell yourself to the unscrupulous to cover my debts, my folly—”
And she too wished, oh how she wished she could afford to refuse — but the last few months had been desperate, and then they’d spent everything they had left on this last venture, this one throw of the dice. Turn back now, and nothing would hold the debtors off any longer. Foreclosure, bankruptcy... perhaps prison. And it would not be for one night, and it would not be thousands of miles away. It would be in their home, in Paris, in the full view of everyone they had ever known. And those twenty generations of ancestors would end their line in shame and disgrace.
There was an etiquette for that, among Raoul’s kind. It led to a locked door, and a loaded revolver. It wasn’t a road on which she ever wanted to see her husband embark.
And there was no way to say it without making it an accusation. “Darling, I have to. We — we need the money.”
“You think I don’t know exactly how much money we need? You think I haven’t sat there, with the figures, night after night—” He bowed his head abruptly over hands that locked and twisted, the knuckles white, as if clinging in their last desperate moments to the bars of the condemned cell. For a moment, she thought she glimpsed an indecision in his face — then he looked up.
“There’s another way.” He smiled at her, held out a hand. Only the nail-prints in the palm that touched her own told of the effort that gesture had cost him.
He drew her close, enfolding her hands in his. “Christine—” a moment’s hesitation — “I mean to sell Chagny.”
“You can’t!” The shock of repudiation was instinctive; she had sprung back without a thought. “You — you can’t sell—”
To her it was a memory of refuge, of happiness; to them both, the old chateau had been a married home; but to Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, the house and lands meant far more than that, she knew.
It was the legacy and trust of five hundred years. It was the heritage of those generations so lightly worn. “Raoul, it’s your family — your name!”
“Listen.” Raoul took her hand again; touched it a moment to his lips, and retained it in his own. “Gustave cares nothing for the running of the estate: he would be as happy — happier — tinkering all day in a workshop or hammering on that endless piano of his. And I... I care too much: too much, these last years, to see my father’s tenants beggared annually to pay for my mistakes, to see the land starved of the money it needs to put it into good heart, while every franc is wrung out of the place to service the bankers in Paris... I’ve seen Chagny dying, slowly — dying on my account. It’s like the Opéra of our day... it needs investment. A new owner.” A faint tinge of teasing as his fingers tightened on hers. “Maybe... a scrap-metal merchant?”
She choked. “Raoul, how can you—”
“I’m serious. Laurent de Beaupré sold Chamillon to the nouveaux riches this year — an iron-founder and his wife from Lille. If we can find someone to take Chagny at the same sort of price — then get rid of the town-house, it brings in nothing and costs a mint to keep up — invest the proceeds in the Funds at five per cent—”
He was pale, but very calm.
“It will be enough to clear everything we owe, and bring in a little income. A modest competence; enough to live quietly in a small way, and cover school fees... perhaps. For anything else—” he managed a smile, stroking her hand lightly— “for anything else... then it’s time to face the truth, Christine: your earnings have been supporting both of us for years in any case.”
“The Vicomtesse... buys her own furs?” Christine’s return smile was a shaky thing. Those nights spent locked away from her, alone with the drink and his debts — it had been this, then, this laceration of his pride that he had been facing.
“The Vicomtesse... pays for her husband’s coachman, if he keeps one,” Raoul said quietly. “Or the hire of his fiacre, if he does not.”
This was no spur-of-the-moment whim, then. “You’ve really thought about it...”
It was a whisper, but he nodded. “It’s been coming for a long time. The rents from Chagny were never quite enough, even before — before I began to lose the capital. These days, the title supports the lands, not the lands the title... Well, I brought it down upon myself, that was all. I could see it coming, but it was easier to shut my eyes and keep going — keep waiting for that one big win, the miracle... But Chagny itself was the only thing we had left big enough to cover the debts. So this American contract seemed that miracle come true... the gambler’s miracle that could allow me to continue as a coward in the face of what had to be done: when I thought I’d lost you, I shut my eyes to everything else.”
He caught her other hand, dropping suddenly to one knee on the deck. It should have looked affected — absurd, in a man ten years married. But the utter unselfconscious urgency of it made the boyish gesture all too real.
“Christine, I beg of you — break this contract. You’ve given up so much for me without a word, sacrificed so much of your happiness... let me do this for you. Please, let me give up this one thing for you to make a new start. Let me protect you from this grotesquerie and take my share of the cost. Let me—”
It was the terrace at Chagny all over again: that bittersweet memory turned to joy, now with another pang. Chagny — how could she?
“Let you tear out your own heart to save me a moment’s pain? Darling, that was the bargain I couldn’t bear when we were young... The price isn’t worth it — I can stand a freak-show—”
“Please.” He had pressed her hands against his breast, face turned up to hers with a painful intensity. Behind him, far down the promenade deck, a fluttering parasol and a snatch of voices brought a rush of anticipated crimson to her face; they were no longer alone. Her husband spared not a moment’s glance. “Please. I have a — a presentiment over this: something is terribly wrong.”
“I — can’t.” Please, Raoul, get up: in a moment they will be coming this way. “I can’t. Not just like that. Not overnight. Not something as big as this.”
To her relief, he did get up — not with quite the same grace as the boy of twenty, but with the same unthinking movement.
“And it’s not mine to ask — I know.”
He led her to the rail and paused there a moment before they began to pace slowly onwards together along the deck. Christine put a hand up to her back hair and found it hopelessly dishevelled. And her hat was gone... She tried to push the waves up blindly; exclaimed in annoyance as another pin came loose under her fingers.
“Raoul — could you—?” She turned a little, presenting the nape of her neck, and felt him rather gingerly begin to rescue the remaining pins and attempt to truss the soft mass into submission with their aid; the process felt — and, she suspected, looked — more like some agricultural operation than the skilled attentions of a lady’s-maid, but it was secure. And the unspoken intimacy of it served to make amends to that other unspoken acknowledgement between them: that she could not, dared not trust all their futures to a rapprochement a bare few hours old. However much it meant to her; however much she wanted to be sure.
Raoul’s impromptu repairs had come to an end. She felt him hesitate a moment, his breath warm against the back of her neck, then brush the tiniest of kisses there. Her heart ached within her. “Raoul—”
But he had turned, and was drawing a twist of something from around his wrist. “Here, this might help...”
A familiar gauzy scrap; she caught a glimpse as he knotted it around her against the wind. and began to laugh. “Mine! How did you—”
“Ah — well, it’s harder than you’d think to get out of old habits.” Raoul tucked the ends in at her throat and stepped back to admire the overall effect of his handiwork, a certain mischief wakening in his eyes. “I lost track of the hat, but I did manage to save your scarf...”
The temptation was overwhelming. It was pert little Christine Daaé who put out her tongue at her childhood companion, defying him, as ever, to reciprocate; Raoul managed only a moment’s dignified reproach. Both of them laughing now, he caught and held her as she came back into his arms.
She could feel Raoul’s chuckle against her, deep in his throat. “I believe we may be making something of a scandal, dear. You didn’t see the expression on Mrs. Vanderbilt’s maid...”
“Oh dear—” But it wasn’t the probability of gossip in the first-class saloon that she had suddenly recalled, but the existence of a certain small boy, undoubtedly awake by now and endowed with limitless energy. “Gustave... Célestine can never handle him in the mornings — I’m afraid he’ll be running riot... I must get back.”
“Evidently heredity will out.” It was said with a smile as she disentangled herself from him, but Raoul’s voice had tightened.
He had never got on well with Gustave in the mornings, Christine told herself, flinching. And he had every right to resentment; but... if this was to be the rest of their lives...
“Darling, we have so little left of his childhood. Once he goes away to school—” It had to happen, she knew, but boys grew up so fast. She remembered Raoul coming back to Perros: her summer’s playmate grown so stiff and bashful, yet proud. And Gustave... would he have that same shy constraint with his mother’s kisses, with fairytales and peasant songs and all the passing embraces of their life together? “Let him be a baby just a little while longer... time enough later to be stern and strict.”
“Raoul... I know you think I spoil him, but all he wants is a little attention. If you don’t have to be a father to him—” she bit her lip — “can’t you... be the brother he needs so much? He’s so often left alone in a gaggle of women, with only his music... He doesn’t have to steal me from you all the time — he’s old enough now to be good company, at least for a while.”
“The prospect of Gustave before breakfast makes my head hurt.” Raoul’s tone was rather dry. “And speaking of breakfast—”
He winced a little, perhaps remembering last night. “Actually, possibly not breakfast...”
Glancing around, Christine was afraid they might well have missed breakfast in any case. After the morning’s turmoil, she wasn’t sure she cared.
“But speaking of Gustave—” She ignored her husband’s resigned look. “Dear, I’m sure those clean shirts of his must be packed in with yours, and I really can’t face Célestine again without them.”
“Fine.” Raoul threw up his hands and turned to leave. “I’ll go and turn out my cabin... I can’t imagine what you ever saw in that Célestine woman in the first place.”
She was all we could afford, and you know it. Christine sighed. Well, they would have to do without her altogether once they reached New York. Four more days...
Four days — to whatever America held lying in wait. For a moment she felt the cold touch of Raoul’s presentiment. There was something wrong about the whole affair — the anonymous backer, the dazzling... bribe, it could be called nothing else — and if the two of them had not been so numbed in their separate miseries they must surely have seen it. But what difference could that have made? They’d had no choice.
But now there was a choice. Raoul had given her a choice: offered her a way out. Offered her a future, and offered her back the past... And would she truly plunge into penury at his side, if it would set his heart at ease? Of course she would: she knew it without a doubt. She would have tramped the lanes of Brittany again and slept on straw to bring him back, if he had only asked. She would have paid costs she reckoned far less lightly than that, these last few years, to lay the demons that were driving them apart.
And he had not made a condition of it — had not begged her to appease his pride in return for a promise. What vow can I ever make you?— Yet he had made it, had bound himself... and only then made the appeal. Because he was afraid for them both. For her.
She wanted so much to give him her trust; to lay down the mantle of the anxious, conciliating wife and share their lives together as before. Four days, before she must be certain...
She watched her husband begin to thread his way back down an increasingly crowded deck, pausing to exchange a nod here and there as a few heads turned. There went young von Enck, who’d paid her all those laborious compliments — dear God, was it only last night? — at the captain’s table: she wondered if he’d actually recognised the Vicomte.
Even from behind — even with his hackles still prickled in annoyance — she could see the difference now in the way he carried himself, in every movement. So much that she had lost for so long. If only— Please, Raoul, don’t... drink any more...
For a frozen moment, as he halted and swung round, Christine thought she’d let that plea slip out into earshot, appalled. Hasty memory told her she had not; but Raoul was coming back.
“Excuse me, madame—” he made a beautiful formal bow to her in front of a passing gaggle of American matrons, every one of whom was clearly agog — “but I believe you inadvertently left in my care... this...” And in full view of the rest of the deck, he proceeded for the second time that morning to draw from his pocket a silky intimate bundle and present it, doing his utmost to maintain a straight face, to his wife.
“Raoul, you—” Scarlet to the ears, Christine struggled against the odds to school her own features into a respectable blank, caught his eye and collapsed into a fit of entirely undignified giggles.
And Mrs. Mannheimer, Mrs. Elwood T. Burton and Mrs. Van Heusen were enabled to report to the rest of their circle with the utmost enjoyment, later that morning, how the attractive young Vicomtesse de Chagny had not only slapped her husband’s face in public but had proceeded to indulge in the most indiscreet of embraces as an immediate sequel; conduct, as the ladies all agreed, which entirely confirmed everything one had always heard about the French... and which, as Mamie Burton confided privately to her friend Clementine Van Heusen, had inspired in the onlookers a distinctly pleasurable envy.