One thing I hadn't anticipated when I started writing this was that I was going to pick up a genuine French-speaking reader on fanfiction.net! I did do my best on the 'back-translation' for the French-tinged English here, but I hope the outcome isn't going to be too embarrassing...
The language problem is, of course, something that gets brushed under the carpet by Lloyd Webber for the sake of simplicity -- one can assume that Christine, Raoul and Gustave naturally speak French in their scenes together, and that Christine and the Phantom conduct their relations by default in their shared native language, but the reporters at the dockside can't possibly be speaking French when they shout questions at the little boy, and when Christine accosts Meg without recognising her she has no reason to suppose that this showgirl understands anything other than English either — nor Raoul in his rant to the barman. So apparently everybody is effortlessly bilingual.
Since my viewpoint character is obstinately monoglot, I, however, had to address the issue.
Chapter 2: Why Does She Love Me?
The husband. Which made him the one who signed the cheques. Connections began to come together with an almost audible mental click.
Jos had been steadily coming to the conclusion that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to whisk Christine Daaé out of Oscar Hammerstein’s reach — someone with influence on both sides of the law. But this husband of hers was another matter altogether. Hard to imagine anyone covering up for the likes of him... but when it came to enforcing contracts, he might turn out to be just the leverage the Manhattan Opera company needed.
Assuming he stayed upright long enough, that was. Out on the street, lights were flaring to life and the sky was getting dark, but the guy in the creased linen had clearly been in here a whiles already and looked set for the night. The lamps on the end of the bar had heavy glass shades and it was hard to make out much — guess the patrons round this place mostly liked it that way — but Jos knew a drunk when he saw one. The amount of effort this guy was putting into just staying in his seat, he’d had more than a glass or two already. Or four, or five.
Which meant, if luck held, he wasn’t likely to be in any state to be holding out about the whereabouts of his wife. If Jos was any judge, the trouble was more apt to be getting him to stop talking. Good news for enquiries; bad news for the marriage.
Jos found himself looking across at the dim figure’s averted face with distaste. So the Daaé had married a lush, had she? Not that it was any of his business, but... he’d seen pictures of her, in the Illustrated Post and on publicity material, and even allowing for the artist’s flattery or dated photos she’d looked young and fresh. Innocent, almost, for all that she had a kid old enough for grade school. It kind of hurt to think of her making one of those European aristocratic marriages to some red-nosed old soak, with a list of titles about as long as the check at his wine-merchant.
Turning sentimental, Perlman? He could hear the ghost of McWhirter’s snort. Trouble with you, laddie, is you’re starting to get old...
Jos sighed, thrust sentiment back down, and went to tap the other man on the shoulder. “The name’s Perlman, sir, Jos Perlman, and I’m looking for a lady by the name of Christine Daaé. Now, I’m guessing you might be her husband?”
The face that looked up at him was young, and ravaged, and for a moment Jos was thrown off balance. Either he’d gotten the wrong guy, or the Daaé hadn’t married into middle-aged money after all. Ten years ago, this one couldn’t have been much more than a kid; even now, beneath the blur of drink, he still had the ruin of his youth. And of his looks.
Then the hazy eyes struggled back into focus, with a flash of bitterness that added another ten years.
“The husband, yes: Mister Christine Daaé — that is how you say it, I think?”
His English was good, but he was French as they come, and even after René it took Jos a moment to get his head round the accent. And if ever he’d heard a chip on the shoulder, he was hearing one now.
He could work that to his advantage, maybe. Jos signalled to the barkeep for another drink and sat down uninvited, keeping his face a pleasant blank. Just a friendly conversation over a couple of glasses. That was the way to play it.
“I work for Hammerstein, sir. We’ve been getting a mite concerned — we were expecting you yesterday.”
“Hammerstein.” Another bitter twist. “That would be Hammerstein who does not arrive? First with the ship, then with the note at the hotel last night—”
“Wait.” Jos frowned; took an unthinking gulp at his drink. “The docks — that was an honest mix-up, and we’ll do our best to make it right. But Mr. Hammerstein sent no note last night. How could he, when we didn’t know where to lay hands on you? Now I don’t know what’s been going on, but—”
“I will tell you what has been going on,” the other man broke in swiftly. “Mr. Y has been going on. You wish Christine to sing for Hammerstein? Then you are too late. Everything is too late. He makes puppets of us all... and she sings for him now.”
And a stream of self-accusation to follow, tumbling out unhappy and impassioned... but Jos scarcely heard the rest. He’d caught his breath. Mr. Y. Of course. Everything — the sense of groping through smoke, of unseen forces behind mirrors — made sense. Who else could slip a soprano away through the streets of New York and silence all whisper of her passage?
The man was notorious in certain circles, both inside Coney Island and out; the one-time circus freak who’d built a business empire in ten short years, living the immigrant dream. Like Hammerstein himself, who’d sold his violin to come to America, and worked his way up from the factory floor until his patents and inventions brought him a fortune with which to fund the true love that he had never forgotten: music. Above all, opera.
The difference was, Hammerstein fought fair — by all Jos had heard, he could be a quixotic old cuss. No-one could ever say that of Mr. Y.
No-one knew his real name. No-one, now, saw his true face... though the story went that in the old days in the freak-show tent he’d been billed as “Half-Man, Half-Monster”. That was whispered behind closed doors, though. If you wanted to do business with Mr. Y, then you didn’t mention the mask. Jos had seen him in person, once, the frozen blank of the white shield that hid half his face no more cold and ruthless than the look on the living half. His reputation, though — that was all over the city. Maybe no-one knew the man behind the pseudonym, but they sure knew the way he did deals.
Mr. Y got what he wanted. He got it on terms no-one else could get. Jos Perlman’s line of work had sent him up against that kind of so-called negotiation before; it wasn’t pretty.
And now it looked like the man had broadened his sights from vaudeville into opera. Jos scowled. What use could Phantasma have for the Daaé on that novelty stage? What kind of nickel-and-dime crowd would show up to hear her? Mr. Y was running some deep game — he’d pulled out all the stops to keep her for himself — but it made no sense.
He tucked the problem back to chew over at leisure, and turned half an ear to the rambling miseries of the husband. Who, by his own account, was little more than bag and baggage that dangled in her wake and hurt her soft heart every time he turned around. Jos didn’t know how many glasses the guy had had, but he was wide open and clearly well on his way down the bottle.
Jos made all the right noises — he’d been there himself when Sal sent back his ring — but he had a notion it was a brand of booze-fueled honesty the other man was apt to regret in the morning... especially if there was a chance they could do business. Best calm him down. He reached out a hand — just what in tarnation was her husband’s name again? — and laid on his best René-accent. “Listen, Mon-sewer dee Shag-ney...”
He got a reaction, if not quite the one he’d been aiming for: blank disbelief like a slap in the face, and a dawning fit of drunken laughter that wavered on the edge of a sob. “De Chagny. Our name is de Chagny. Is that so difficult in America to understand?”
“It’s a mite difficult in America to pronounce,” Jos said with an honesty he hadn’t intended, and got an incredulous look.
“And ‘Jos’? What kind of an appellation is that?”
“My old man was a Bible-thumper. It’s short for Jehoshaphat.” It wasn’t something he was in the habit of owning to, but he had the satisfaction of seeing the other struck momentarily speechless. He could feel a flush spreading across his lean cheeks, and coughed. “But I’d be obliged, sir, if you don’t spread that about.”
Their eyes met. And then somehow the whole crazy frustrated impossibility of the day got the better of him, and they were both laughing helplessly. His head went down on the table amid the empty glasses and the marks of the barkeep’s cloth, and the tears came to his eyes... and in the end it was the younger man who held out the wavering grip that got him back upright and in control of himself again.
“Your secret is safe with me, Jé-ho-sé-phat.” He made a fair stab at it, for a first attempt by a Frenchman. “As for me, I am Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny — but perhaps it would be kinder to us both to say simply ‘Mr. Rowl’.”
Jos raised an eyebrow and the other shrugged in an oddly fluent foreign gesture. “The English servant — steward — on the ship. It was the best he could say, and less... painful to the ear.”
“Mr. Rowl.” Jos tried it over, none too certain what McWhirter would think. But somewhere in those last few moments the two of them had crossed an unspoken line into alliance. A shrug of his own. “Sure. Okay.”
They shook hands, gravely.
Jos looked at him and took a breath. “Listen... you want your wife out of Mr. Y’s clutches, and so do we. Hammerstein needs her back on stage for tomorrow night and signed to the Manhattan Opera. We brought her over here, finalised the deal — surely there’s got to be some way to fix this. Where is she now?”
“In the hotel where they brought us. In Phantasma.” Laughter had drained abruptly from her husband’s face as memory returned. “Where she wishes to be... and so there is nothing to, as you say, fix. She knew. Since last night, maybe before. She knew of his plan, and said nothing.”
His mouth twisted. “‘Things have changed, Raoul’ — in effect, they have changed! Since our wedding day—”
But that too was cut off with a groan. A nod to the barkeep brought another drink to take the place of the empty at his elbow, though by the sour look he got in return it was a tab that hadn’t been settled in a while.
He threw back half the glass in a gulp that spoke of a deal too much practice, and set the rest down on the table with a hand that was not quite steady, staring down into its depths.
“But then, since our wedding day”—his voice shook—“I have failed her in every way conceivable, and in all that I do. Including this.” A jerk of his head towards their surroundings. He did not look up.
“If you would appeal to my wife as an artiste, my friend, then it is not my assistance that will help you. And if it is of loyalty that you would speak... then mine is but a poor example.”
“Maybe so. Save I’m guessing you still care for her,” Jos said softly, watching the averted face and remembering words of his own, years back. “Else it wouldn’t hurt so much.”
“I would die for her.” It was jerked from the Vicomte — from Mr. Rowl — in a low, savage undertone that seemingly caught both of them by surprise. His head came up. The eyes were bleak. “I meant to do so once. In Paris, when we were young, at the Opera. And it is that which has destroyed us since.”
Jos, waiting, said nothing — he’d found long since that the best way to get answers was to leave a space for them to fill — and after a moment the other went on, words spilling out as if from an open wound.
“I went to save her. To fling my life between Christine and the monster who held her by deceit and by threats: that same monster of murder and madness who holds us now in his grasp. In America you think your Mr. Y harmless perhaps, a rich eccentric of light entertainment? Believe me, he is not!”
Jos, for one, could have assured him of that. But he kept his peace.
“He was the Opera Ghost, the evil genius that haunted every step she took. I fought to free her, and I failed. And at the end, foolish and heroic as I saw myself, I offered up my life for her liberty... and he slipped the rope about my neck and mocked at us both, vowing instead that I would find my grave if she would not be his. I would rather — a hundred times rather — have died in that moment than have seen her trade her life away to rescue mine.”
“But you made it out alive, and married the girl,” Jos cut in quickly; he’d never had the taste for melodrama. Leastways, not in front of the stage curtain. “So I’m guessing the cavalry turned up in the nick of time?”
The utter blank look told him maybe that metaphor hadn’t made it over to Paris, France along with Annie Oakley and the rest. “In a manner of speaking. A rescue party.”
“There was no rescue party.” Mr. Rowl took a breath. “Only Christine. I hung there like a pawn in his game, and she... she overcame my folly and saved us both. When he released me, I could barely stand, and it was she who must be my strength and hasten to my side.”
He laughed a little, at his own expense, and held up his glass for a moment in salute before downing what remained as if it was water. “My friend, it is a hard thing to be rescued by a maiden in distress. I loved her. I was grateful. But... I needed to prove myself, to be a man for her, and all too often in our marriage I could not. She understood. She forgave — and it is ugly to admit, but her forgiveness was the hardest of all to bear. The more boorish I became, the less of a man I knew myself to be and the more often as a husband I failed her.
“I began to take risks, to put my life to the hazard, and to play at cards for stakes we could not afford. At least in that world I could hope to win and be strong, to bring home the victory and throw it, as you say, in the face of my unhappy wife. And when my losses grew too great... there at last was something she could not brush away with a forgiving smile; if I could strip that sainthood from her, then I could drag her down to meet me in my hate.”
He turned the empty glass between his palms, setting it back on the table with exaggerated care.
“I would have died for her. But in the end, I tried to destroy all that I loved. And now — now to her I am a burden, a second child in her care, and of the most petulant. In effect, one has to laugh. We are fools, are we not?” But his voice broke on that last word in something a long way from amusement.This entry was originally posted at http://igenlode.dreamwidth.org/91903.html, where there are comments.