Or arguably chapter 5b...
This has been unconscionably delayed due to the arrival of a fifth Raoul-plot into my life (requiring significant research if it is to be tackled at all), and to beginning the writing of the third last week -- which, given my concurrent French translation exercise http://www.fanfiction.net/s/9617539/1/Pl
(† But then Gustave picked up a piece of old newspaper blowing across a dusty street, and I did want to know what happened next... so the story still has a lengthy sequel-cum-epilogue to come ;-D)
An interesting factoid is that this chapter title was originally scheduled to be used for Chapter 4, and has thus been displaced twice already as additional action intervened...
Chapter 6. Back Here Beside You
Gustave lay curled with one hand beneath his cheek, looking up at them gravely. “Is Father going to sing as well?”
Caught unawares, Christine found herself blushing a little, laughing. He was a bright child, and he’d been watching them together, these past few days; he had to have been drawing conclusions.
Raoul had laughed as well. “I don’t think that would send you to sleep, Gustave — I’m not quite in your mother’s league.”
“But didn’t you ever sing — when you were little?”
“Of course he did. And he used to play tunes with my Papa.” Christine looked up at her husband, catching his hand between both of hers. “Raoul, why don’t we try? No, listen... do you remember Au Petit Estaminet? We sang it for your aunt, once, that time she came to see Papa; we used to do it as a round...”
She hummed the line softly, pressing his hand.
Au petit estaminet
là où on se trouve—
And on the second repeat, as she gave the sign, his voice came in to join her, awkward and oddly husky in her ears after memory’s childhood treble. He coughed and broke off ruefully, clearing his throat. “I can’t—”
“You can.” Christine was adamant. She bent her head to touch her lips to the hand she held, in reassurance. “Come on — together: au petit estaminet...”
Her father’s eyes had been bright in the twilight, his fiddle set aside on his knee for the moment as the children sang: three times round, call and repeat, and then his deep voice would come in under theirs in the long nonsense phrases, tra la la te da tra la te ée... and round and round the little song would wind, she and Raoul intent upon Papa’s dancing eyes, waiting for the moment when he would try to catch them out and... Stop! But they had always been too quick: and the three voices would break off in the same instant, laughing, and Papa would sweep them both into a great hug—
She felt Raoul’s arm tighten around her in the same memory, and heard him begin again, voice hoarse from disuse: a beat later she came in behind him in unison, their voices blending in the simple melody as Gustave’s face lit up in eagerness. And if she knew her son... She glanced up at Raoul for a moment, warning him, and he nodded, falling briefly silent before launching gallantly on cue into the second part.
The duet faltered under the challenge; wavered, as she dropped hastily down to an undervoice, and slowly regained confidence as Raoul’s contribution steadied into the remembered pattern. Call and response... his part two phrases behind hers. Beyond the delight in Gustave’s wide eyes she could see understanding unwinding, saw the child sit up on an inward breath as the music chased itself...
Christine gave smiling assent to that eager look; saw him listen an instant longer, intently. And then Gustave’s clear treble came in, pitch-perfect, on the third part — two phrases behind Raoul’s — and the round was once again complete.
Two phrases ahead, two phrases behind: soprano and treble twined around each other with the man’s deeper voice steady below. Oh Papa... Raoul’s hand, too, had trembled a little in her own; she pressed it close against her breast where the ache of her heart beat, and drew strength from the warmth of his body.
Au petit estaminet... tra la la te da... She could feel tension and a hint of laughter in her husband, and knew they shared the same thought: the phrase swung round to its triumphant conclusion, and... stopped, both of them together on the same instant, with Gustave left to trail off alone and indignant in surprise.
“I’m sorry, darling...” Christine laughed, and got up to give him a good-night kiss. “It’s an old game we used to play with my Papa — we’ll do it again properly some other time. You’re a very clever boy, and you sing beautifully... but now you really must lie down and go to sleep.”
Gustave subsided back into the pillows, glancing up impudently through half-closed lashes. “Will Father tell me a story?”
“Gustave, no.” Raoul’s hasty repudiation held considerable emphasis, and Christine hurried to mediate.
“Maybe one day he’ll tell you some real fairy stories, about the korrigan or the ankou... but not at bedtime,” she added firmly with a little shiver, remembering a terrified night in her father’s arms when she’d thought she’d heard the ankou’s wagon outside. “...Raoul, I need to talk to you.”
Closing the stateroom door quietly behind them, she tucked her hand into her husband’s arm and smiled up in reassurance, savouring her news.
Raoul gave her a quizzical look in return, rather ruefully surveying his own half-dressed state. “There’s about half an hour left to dress for dinner... Is it urgent? You’d better come in.” He was leading the way to his own cabin, and she followed.
The room was considerably tidier than when she had seen it last, on that night — that night of a ruinous past which she was finally beginning to believe they had put behind them. The bed was turned down for the night and the two chairs ranged neatly against the rather spindly table; the remainder of Raoul’s evening clothes were draped across the top of the trunk that stood ajar, where he had clearly been interrupted in dressing. At the moment, having gone straight to the washstand, he was feeling around on the top for a collar-stud, glancing back at her.
“What is it, Christine? Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Yes — no...” She broke off, feeling foolish, as if the decision still hung over her and only the act of telling him in itself would make it final.
Raoul had halted in mid-movement, catching her concern. She went to him, setting her arms about his waist in mute request, and felt the unquestioning comfort of his embrace in answer.
Held within that shelter, she took a breath. He had begged this of her, and now... A sudden sinking terror had hold of her in place of the anticipation: if he had not meant it, then— Oh, what had she done?
“Raoul, I — broke the contract.”
The leap in his eyes repaid everything she had ever feared; utter, vaulting faith and joy. His arms tightened around her almost convulsively until the breath caught in her throat — let her go, only to wrap her close as she clung to him in her turn.
But her mouth was on his and they were drowning in awareness of each other, her senses giddy with the wakening flood: the hint of soap beneath the warm scent of him, the wild pulse at the angle of his throat, the long muscles that moved beneath her touch on shoulders and back and thighs... A little biting pain at her breast was the pin of her brooch crushed between them; she held him off, briefly, to guide his fingers down to unfasten it, and to soothe the tiny wound at his caress. Her heart was leaping so hard against his hands that she thought he must see it, and memory drew that touch down faster, more urgently, every remembered line of his body moving upon hers—
A small sound. She thrust against him. “Raoul...”
But she could not bring out the words at the last, as the heat rushed into her face; could only offer herself mutely, flagrantly, as her own body quickened in desire — demanded, through the sudden roaring in her ears. “Raoul, please—”
She could feel the shock of understanding run through him, and pressed closer with a gasp. Comprehension, and his own aching need.
“We can’t.” It was jerked out as if from an immense distance. “The doctors — your—”
She found that she could laugh, suddenly, with a great tenderness. “Darling, do you think La Sorelli — Vespina, with a half-dozen acknowledged lovers — that any woman on the stage can afford to find herself carrying again? If you had spent ten years as I have, with dressing-room gossip...” If you had told me — if you had only asked—!
But she was kissing him again and they were stumbling across the cabin, his breath as hot as her own.
“It will be all right.” She pulled him down beside her onto the sheets, half-dizzy with renewed knowledge of his presence. Their movements, long-forgotten, were very sure. “It will be all right. We’ll be very careful...”
Drifting upwards through deep water.
Christine stirred a little in her husband’s arms without regret, surfacing slowly, through relived memories of desire, to the sound of his quiet breathing and an assortment of not unpleasurable aches. There were some respects, clearly, in which they had not been careful at all... She laughed a little, remembering, and got an amused interrogative from Raoul.
“The other night, when I came in here to find you — I came creeping along that corridor as if I were carrying out an illicit affair. And yet here I am now, in flagrante with my own husband... and I feel I could shout it to the whole world.”
“Oh, I’ve no objection.” Raoul chuckled, and reached over to retrieve his watch from a waistcoat pocket, surveying it sleepily. “You could still make it down to dinner, dear — if you wanted to make a start with the passengers of the Persephone, that is?”
“Idiot.” Christine tweaked him in mock-reproof and curled closer, nestling into the curve of his shoulder. “Can’t you see I’d rather stay here, with you...?”
His breathing was deep and slow beneath her, like the calm of the sea. One hand idly traced the curves of her waist, an exploration without urgency and without intent, and she stretched catlike, sated, under his touch, with a soft sound of contentment.
He tightened his hold a little in response. “Better make the most of what privacy we have... We’ll be sharing third-class on the way back—”
“There’s nothing for us now in New York: no reason to stay. If we’re lucky we can dodge the crowd — Célestine will talk, but let her, maybe they’ll miss you along the way...” He had begun absently twining his fingers in the ends of her hair, as he had done in those first days of their marriage, and for a moment she lost track of what he was saying. “...exchange for third-class tickets will repay some of what we owe, the backers will have to wait for the rest...”
“Can we do it?” Too late in any case, but she couldn’t help but ask. She pulled herself up on her elbow to face him. “Raoul, can we clear the debt?”
“I think so.” Steady reassurance; a hint of apology. “But we need to get back to Paris as soon as possible, start negotiations... you won’t mind another ocean voyage so soon?”
“Mind?” Christine let him draw her down again beside him into the warmth of their tumbled bed, held safe within the panelled walls of the cabin that had witnessed reunion from despair. The long sway of the Persephone’s shouldering hull rocked them almost imperceptibly, and the world beyond the waves ebbed and sank away, washed clean of all power to hurt or to harm. “These last few days... oh Raoul, sometimes I wish we could spend the rest of our lives like this — out at sea, suspended between places and between times, without demands or claims or greed. It’s foolishness, I know—”
“No, not foolish. Never foolish, Little Lotte.” His mouth was muffled in her hair, with little soft kisses pressed across her temple and behind her ear, and she shut her eyes, yielding to that murmuring comfort. “There are other ships — other ways—”
His sudden intake of breath ran through both of them, excitement in his voice. “Why not? It could be managed: no luxuries, no liners. When all this is over — when we’re free — a few weeks, a few months — we’ll take a slow boat to the South, just the three of us. Some tramp steamer with rust-streaked scuppers and salt-caked smokestacks, carrying cargo for the banana trade from port to port and down through the tropics... and everywhere we touch shore, you’ll sing. No great galas or glittering opera houses, just an audience and a hall, and the music. And once we leave... we’ll be Monsieur and Madame Nobody again, without pressmen or photographers. Raoul and Christine Chagnet and their son can travel light, with few possessions and fewer cares—”
“—just a cramped cabin and a strip of sun-baked deck?” The idea was half-appalling, half-enchanting. And utterly crazy, she told herself: reality for them would be some little house in the banlieue in six months’ time, not running away to sea... “But what on earth would we find to do, out on the ocean day after day?”
“Watch the sea go by... forget ourselves.” Raoul stretched and lay back, slipping one hand beneath his head. She caught a sleepy teasing gleam in the glance that met hers. “I’ll try to remember enough from my cadet days to make myself a little useful on deck... we’ll get out my old fiddle for Gustave. The grandson of the great Daaé should be able to pick up enough to play a hornpipe or two.”
Christine laughed, entering into the spirit of the game. “And what of me?”
“Why, you’ll sing the mermaids out of the water and the birds from the tropic shores.” The drowsy note of nonsense caught at her heart, unexpectedly sweet. “You’ll outshine the bird of morning and put the sunset to shame; you’ll be the girl on the prow...”
Fresh-washed and not yet slicked down, his hair curled a little under his cheek, spilling over the pillow as silky-fair and unmanageable as Gustave’s own. Christine reached across and brushed it aside, dropping a kiss on the little curve at the corner of his mouth.
“Oh Raoul, you infant...” They’d dreamed together in the dusk so long ago, in the days when she’d seen fairies on the heath and ships had sailed to adventure in the flickering embers at Papa’s feet; they’d grown and changed and met again, and dared to dream of sunlight and summertime. And then somehow they’d lost each other... and lost how to dream.
Today she had thrown away a fortune in fees and cast their future to the winds — ruin was certain and recovery insecure. And yet... for all the unknowns that lay ahead of them, she could not regret one minute of it. New joys and new dreams awaited them hand in hand, twinned faces of the same trust, and the long dread was lifted at last.
Oh, they would argue and misunderstand one another, she knew that, and Raoul would snap at Gustave when his head ached, and she would hold her tongue to keep from quarrelling and then blame him in silence for not guessing what she had not said... faults of ten years’ standing were not so easily changed. And none of them were saints, Gustave least of all: but it was so hard not to spoil him just a little...
Smiling, Christine settled back against her husband’s sleepy warmth. The love that had laid her open to the greatest pain was once again her shielding rock, and the last shadow was lifted; and with her head nestled on his shoulder, she knew herself for the first time in years to be utterly and completely at peace.