Igenlode Wordsmith (igenlode) wrote,
Igenlode Wordsmith

Christmas as it ought not to be (ch4)

In fact this chapter turns out to be shorter than the previous one, despite occupying considerably more pages in the book -- a combination of heavy crossing-out and shorter paragraphs, I think, but mainly the former!

And since I've been doing the alternating trick to help keep my concentration -- ten minutes typing up one manuscript followed by ten minutes typing up from another, so that I actually welcome the opportunity to find out what happens next when I get to return to the first one so arbitrarily interrupted by the alarm -- I've managed to get another chapter of the infinitely-delayed "Blue Remembered Hills" onto the computer as well, which means I'm now up to fifteen unpublished chapters. With hindsight it might have been more immediately useful to have worked on "The Daaé Case" instead, but since it's actually in the same notebook as this one it would have meant an awful lot of page-flipping and finding my place again :-p

I'm pleased with how popular this story seems to have been on fanfiction.net, though the third chapter seems to have been a little less so than the others; I don't know if that is because people are too busy with Christmas to waste time on the Internet checking for story updates, or because reviewing a story every day starts to feel like too much hard work, or whether (as I strongly suspect) any explicitly R/C material tramples over people's Erik-allegiances although they're happy enough to read about Raoul in isolation so long as he poses no threat to their preferred 'pairing'... not much I can do about that, since the events in question are canon!

This final chapter, of course, isn't canon, although to be honest it's based on about as much detail from Leroux as most of its predecessors, which extrapolate from a mere sentence or two of backstory in the novel; Leroux simply says that Raoul and Christine eloped to enjoy their happiness in peace, and doesn't say anything about what happened next, save that 'the lonely wilds of the North echo with singing'. One feels that after what they'd been through, there must have been a bit of angst involved.

(The Astrid's accident happened to a vintage pond yacht of my own, albeit when sailing on Boxing Day rather than Christmas Day...)

Chapter 4: The boat on the lake

In Sweden the winter had come early this year, and cold, and the deep pool above their house had been frozen over since the start of December, with the stream that flowed down through it silenced in its bright chatter over the stones outside the back door. But two days ago Raoul had been woken in the night by the first faint tinkle of the thaw beneath the eaves, and sensed a change in what he had come to know as the hard tang of frost in the air.

He had slipped cautiously from beneath the quilts, avoiding the cradle, and gone to kneel by the tiny window, listening for the murmur of moving water. He heard nothing, and Christine turned over in sleepy complaint as her husband slid back to share the warmth of their bed, shivering; but in the morning when she went out to rinse the pans the stream had begun to chuckle quietly again between ice-fringed banks, and when Raoul ventured out cautiously onto the tarn it was no longer safe for skating.

Now, on Christmas Day, the ice-sheet up there was all but melted, with only a stubborn promontory jutting out from the far bank beneath the trees. Remnants of snow still clung to the tussocks of the rough grass, and on the distant mountains an unbroken blanket of white gave promise of the colder weather yet to come. A brisk young wind from the east — in the days of the windjammers, the old hands would have called it little more than a breeze to which every scrap of canvas must be set — had chased away the clouds, and the midday sun was making its brief unseasonal appearance, gilding the ripples that chased across the water. A sharp haze of wood-smoke drifted up from the chimney of the little house whose roof was just visible below, snatches of reassuring scent that signified hot soup and warm dry stockings awaiting them by the fire.

But the Christmas-noontide revellers were at present far from ready to return. Raoul scrambled breathlessly from slope to slope around the steep banks of the tarn, laughing, while small Alain on his shoulders squealed in breathless excitement and waved his stick. And out on the bright water the brand-new boat heeled to a gust, steadied, and came racing back towards the shallows of the stream-mouth with all the stubbornness of the beautiful self-willed lady that she was.

Alain had been struck speechless by the splendour of the gift, and even Christine, who had been in on the secret, had gasped when the string was finally untied, the paper pulled away, and the little Astrid revealed in all her neat-painted glory. Raoul remembered with a certain tinge of guilt his wife’s murmured enquiry as to which of her two boys it had truly been intended for; well, it could be shared jointly between himself and Alain until the child was big enough to sail it on his own, Raoul resolved now firmly, and splashed hastily into the shallows, guided by his son’s frantic urgings, to rescue the craft from certain wreck.

“Turn her — turn her, Alain! Use your stick... that’s right, quick, push the bows round...”

Aided by the improvised turning pole, the Astrid hesitated, pointed up into the wind, and began to gather speed on the other tack, out into the safety of deep water.

“Dada, Dada, she’s going to hit the ice!”

A stronger gust of wind had laid the toy yacht over on her beam ends and threatened to send her yawing round into a fresh peril; Alain’s arms around his neck tightened in a death-grip of panic, and Raoul, whose boots were beginning to leak, stumbled and almost sent the two of them flying. He tried to calm the boy.

“I think she’ll be all right, Alain. Look.”

The Astrid was not as grand as the boats in his childhood picture-books, model yachts whose masts were as tall as their lucky owners and whose decks were wide enough to seat a whole crew of lifelike sailor-dolls, dressed by loving sisters and threatened in illustrations by the inky jaws of implausibly large pike. But Young Sigge the fowler’s son had carved her for him over painstaking months while Raoul himself laboured over the sewing of her suits of sails, as clumsy as any child with her first sampler. And he and Sigge had melted down Old Sigge’s swanshot to weight her rudder according to the plans he’d found in a tattered Swedish magazine. He waited now with bated breath.

The heavy rudder, swinging as the boat heeled, held her for a moment true to her course, and Raoul let out a whoop of triumph to rival that of his son. Then, with all the perversity of the inanimate, Astrid swung up into the wind, lurched for a moment with flapping sails, spun neatly on her heel and headed directly for the obstacle of the half-rotten ice. In a moment or two she lay helplessly pinned and rocking against the edge, the motion of her bows sawing out a notch that held her ever more inexorably embayed.

A very few minutes sufficed to demonstrate, despite Alain’s pleas, that not even the longest stick Raoul could find, deployed at the farthest extent of his arm and from either bank, could possibly reach the child’s new toy in a rescue operation. Looking back and forth between that hopeless ugly chafing against the ice and the manfully dry eyes of the small son trailing at his heels, Raoul cursed under his breath and began to remove his coat.

“Raoul de Chagny, don’t you even think of anything so foolish!”

Christine had come up, unseen, from the house to find them, and had taken in the scene at a glance. The baby in her arms was wrapped up so warmly that only a little button nose was visible.

It had been a long time since Raoul had seen her as angry with him as she was now; there was a certain shamefaced nostalgia in it that took him back to the days of their courtship and the clumsy jealous boy he’d been. It had taken her three months of increasing fear for his life and her future before she’d been able to trust him enough to confide in him, and disaster had followed close upon the heels of that confession. Small wonder that in the early months of their marriage — exiled and adrift in a land she had known only in childhood and he from her father’s tales, and with old Madame Valerius rambling in her mind — they had clung together with a timid fragility as if one harsh word between them might shatter their world once more. When his pale and shrinking wife had found the courage to snap at him out of sheer exhaustion, that first Christmas, he did not know which of them it had shocked the most.

He couldn’t even remember the reason for the quarrel; in his awkwardness and his inexperience at their new life, he had given her more than cause enough. Perhaps he had knocked over the milk-can, or let the fire go out, or allowed himself to be cheated at the market by tightfisted farm-wives with nothing but scorn for a foreigner. But when Christine had flown out at him for his folly just as she had once done when he sought to meddle in her affairs, it had hurt all the more for being not only deserved but unexpected. He’d been stung into defensive bluster; and from there they had rapidly descended into childish insults and wild accusations. He’d laid at her door everything from his struggles in learning Swedish to his own guilt over Philippe, of whose murder he had not even known until weeks after that terrible night. He’d learned only by chance, in the news from Paris — in the paper that brought a reluctant duty of burial — that the brother with whom he had quarrelled was dead, with Raoul himself as the chief suspect, and the shadow of the knowledge had lain dark over their first year.

Philippe, who had been the one beloved constant in his life for so long, was gone, if not dead by his hand then by his doing, and they would never be reconciled. His brother had died believing the woman Raoul loved to be a shallow, scheming minx, and had done all he could to split them apart. The implacable enemy who had all but taken Raoul’s own life had on that same evening with those same murderous hands set him free from the Comte’s opposition... and the cost of that unasked freedom had been more, sometimes, than Raoul could bear.

He’d flung his brother’s death in Christine’s face, and she in turn had laid bare every damning trace of his own culpability which silent self-accusation had already presented to him. He’d wept and stormed like the half-grown boy he’d still been, and ended by slamming out of the house. Hours later he’d come back, ashamed, to find her curled face-down on their bed and drained with sobbing; they’d found comfort in one another’s arms and made unspoken amends.

But the world had not ended, and Christine had begun to take on her old colour and courage again. By the time Alain was born, at summer’s end that year, they’d learned to argue without quarrelling and to quarrel without rancour; with that reassurance, laughter had begun slowly to come back into their lives. And watching his first-born son grow year by year from unformed infancy into a stubborn, fair-haired, unmistakable de Chagny, Raoul had felt the tight grip of guilt at Philippe’s fate begin at last to fade.

Christine’s eyes were blazing now in uncomplicated anger, though, her face flushed and indignant at an idiotic husband. “Raoul, what on earth are you thinking? This isn’t summertime at Perros — that water comes straight down from the snowline. If you plunge in after that boat of yours, you’ll freeze through to the bone before I can get you back in front of the fire. And you a sailor! Haven’t you any sense at all?”

She interposed herself physically between him and the ice, baby and all, barring his path like a small fierce Valkyrie, and began to push him away. Laughing, Raoul wrapped his arms about his wife and daughter, holding them tight. He felt the warm brush of Christine’s furs as she laid her head against him.

The baby made a sleepy protesting noise and unfurled small fingers from within her nest of shawls. Raoul captured the waving hand in the depths of one glove and let it grasp onto a finger of his own, marvelling all over again at the determined grip. It was hard to remember that Alain had ever been this small.

“We’ll get the Astrid back for you,” he promised his son, who was still gazing disconsolately out at the little yacht in her vain attempts to proceed. “If she doesn’t come in of her own accord, I’ll get Old Sigge to bring his punt up to the tarn this evening.”

“You swear?”

“I swear,” Raoul told Alain gravely, and got a beaming look of relief in response. He could feel Christine’s chuckle against his breast.

“We should get him out of those wet mittens and warmed up indoors,” she murmured, but made no move from within the circle of his arms. After a moment or two she turned her face up to his, pulling back a little when he took this for an invitation to an embrace. She held him off, searching his gaze with the ghost of old anxieties in her own.

“Are you happy here, Raoul? Truly?”

Below them the steep-pitched roof of their little house could be glimpsed over the corner of the path, each new shingle on its patchwork of moss a tiny personal triumph where he had clung on to hammer them home in the autumn. The slopes of the valley stretched away, fringed in dark and in hazy silver by hardy pine and birch; beyond was the cluster of buildings that marked their nearest neighbours in the village, calm, good-natured folk who laughed off his halting Swedish and had asked no questions. Somewhere close by the spire of the little Lutheran church lay the grave of Madame Valerius, who had found rest at last in the native soil which she had yearned after for so long. The banks of the tarn were golden in the afternoon light. And overhead the Northern sky was wide and ice-blue, shading into clear depths of beauty that the chimneys of Paris would never know.

In the summer it had rung with music like the arch of a great cathedral, as Christine sang full-throated for pure joy and the face of the waters gave back each shining note. It seemed to him now, as she soothed the child in her arms, crooning quietly, that even that softest of tunes awoke an answering shimmer above.

“I was never happier anywhere but here, or on any Christmas but this,” he told her quietly as a pledge between them, and felt the absolute truth of it strike through him for an instant to the core. He trembled, and knew the quiver that ran through her for a response.

“Dada, look!” Alain tugged at the skirts of his father’s coat, oblivious, and Raoul came ruefully down to earth and a reality of a different sort. “Dada—”

It was a sight worth seeing, for all that. A fluke of wind from the trees had caught the Astrid’s bows, out on the water, and sent her drifting clear far enough to turn her.

And now she came gliding back across the tarn towards them, tangled and battered but whole. Raoul felt his eyes fill unaccountably as he waded out one last time, reaching down to gather that weight into his arms and welcome her home.

“Here, Alain. Careful now — mind how you go.” He knelt to pass the burden. “We’ll set her right for you this evening.”

“While it’s still Christmas?” Alain looked up a little anxiously at the sun, already perceptibly lower in the sky.

Raoul nodded. “While it’s still Christmas. The best of all Christmases.”

“Best ever,” Alain assured him with the unquestioning confidence of the young. He began to carry the boat back to the house unasked.

“Good boy,” Christine called after him, tucking the shawls back around the sleeping baby and preparing to descend the steep path in her turn. Raoul slipped an arm about her to offer support, and held her close.

“Never happier on any Christmas but this,” he told her again, kissing the soft hair at her temple. “Or with anyone, anywhere, but you.”

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Tags: c-n-t-b, christine, fiction, phantom of the opera, raoul de chagny
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