I've spent about a month mulling this over (and writing it!) for the Writers Anonymous Alternate Format challenge; unlike with the Halloween Challenge, I did actually put some effort into fulfilling the challenge requirements this time (and a lot less, i.e. none, into dutifully reviewing the other entrants, I'm afraid!)
I originally had ideas about taking up the 'epic poem' option and writing a ballad about the Daroga's rediscovery of Erik in Paris (which must have come as something of a shock) with a refrain about the bulls of Mazendaran. However, this foundered on my inability to come up with a plot idea for how on earth the Daroga did discover where Erik was living (EMK81 suggested that the obvious way was for Erik himself boastfully to let it slip, but I didn't really like that one) -- never mind the strain of actually writing a poem to a minimum of a thousand words!
In the middle of this I finally got round to rewatching the 2004 filmed version of "Phantom of the Opera" so that I could get a clear idea of what the 'canon' for a movie-based fan-fiction that I was reviewing was, and was rather surprised to find that, despite the fact that fan-fiction inspired by this film depicts the stage-hand Joseph Buquet as a villain purged from the world by the righteous hand of the Phantom, the film actually shows a man trying to do his duty and being hunted down in a horror-filled sequence. And when I was thinking as a result about doing a Buquet-centred fan-fiction to go with my Piangi-centred story, it occurred to me in a blinding flash that the unexpected narrator challenge would very nicely solve the problem of writing a man's death from his own point of view!
(I had the same issue in "Blue Remembered Hills" when trying to write a passage where the only person in the room throughout the whole scene from start to finish is the dead man -- in the end I had to write it from the point of view of two characters watching on CCTV.)
I still don't have a decent summary on this one for fanfiction.net purposes, though I've got four or five discarded attempts, but I did have a brainwave over the title on Wednesday. And at the last minute it occurred to me that the 'sun-allergy' theory (which I thought was rather neat) didn't explain why the Phantom only feels the need to wear a protective mask on one side of his face, so I decided I'd better remove the 'protective' element, though it was a pity :-P
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Joseph Buquet was no saint, that’s for sure. But for all his curses he took good care in his work, and I think he was fond of me. I trusted him. One has no choice, of course, but I’d have trusted him anyway.
And I never forgot the way he ended.
Who was Joseph Buquet, you ask? And well you might, for he was no-one. No-one who mattered at all to Paris beyond these walls; no-one they ever saw, save for those indelible jerking moments on that one night. He died a long time ago, when I showed a bright new face to the world, gilded and full of hope... but he was with me from the first. It’s something one doesn’t forget.
For I was young then, still fresh and raw beneath my elegant trappings and the paint so artfully applied, and he took me in hand: those calloused big hands of his, strapped in worn leather and hardened by rope. He learnt my ways, and I came to know his. And we went through our intricate dance of cues and curtain calls and backdrops night after night, until the last tremors of the roar at the climax had ebbed away at the last, and he was grouchy and sleepy and wanted only to slip away home. Sometimes, if he’d taken enough drink to be sentimental, he’d leave with a parting pat or a passing caress as he went. He’d learned his trade elsewhere — mastered it before ever he came to me — but I counted him as mine all the same. And no man set a hand out of place when he was around, not where I was concerned. Not where it mattered.
I am old and tired now, dusty and grey and cobwebbed, and I’ve long since shut my doors to the world, but I still remember Buquet, if only because there is no-one else who will. There were others after him, of course — there had to be — but he was there at the start, in those glory days when all of Paris came to see and be seen. We made magic together when the lights went down, and in that enchanted circle when the limelight flared. And when the trapdoors opened and the gauzes flew, and illusion onstage was conjured by sweating, cursing muscle behind the scenes, Buquet was always there.
He knew too much, and he knew it too well. He was a threat in that alone, as no-one else could be: not the preening managers, coiffed en bouffant, not the indignant young Vicomte with his family’s purse, not the dressers and the scene-shifters who gossiped in the wings. When spirits walked on stage or sorcerers vanished in a puff of flame, it was Buquet the chief stage-hand who knew the timing of the traps and oversaw the ropework and the mirrors from the flies. Oh, he believed in ghosts in his own rough way. In the world of the theatre, lives and emotions ran high and left behind sad shadows of what had been, and a man would be a fool to deny it. But all the same he knew the signs of stagecraft and he had begun to suspect. There were manifestations from beyond and there was merely human meddling, and Buquet more than anyone knew the difference.
He wanted to protect me from the shadow that struck with malice and fled — the shadow that should not have been there. But that was a secret I had nursed through all our years together, kept from all the scurrying souls up above — and even from him.
Yes, I had sheltered that shadow: a shadow that was once only a boy, beaten and bloody-handed and afraid. I hid him in deep halls until the world forgot him, and he had all but forgotten what it was to be part of the world — if ever he had truly had a chance to know. I gave him a home and a meaning and the dancing gift of music that poured through me daily, and as he grew in years and talent and arrogance I gave him a name.
He made himself prince of his dark domain, and haunted the bright lights above like a ghost that nobody saw. Accidents were not hard to contrive, and it amused him to lay down gadfly stings on those whose talents he deemed below the mark. I shielded him still; I had, after all no choice. And the whispers that began to run abroad spoke of the Phantom of the Opera.
Buquet told the stories with as much zest as any, and more invention than most. Did I not say that he was no saint? He had an eye for the girls, and they in turn loved to shriek in pleasurable terror, or giggle at horrors in the shelter of those brawny arms. A pinch or a pat were easy to get, and with the aid of a swig of wine or two, even the generous rump of La Carlotta’s dresser was not above his touch.
He had a wife once, when first he came to me. Or perhaps she was no wife, but she cooked his meals and warmed his bed, and bore him four daughters of whom he was fond, and they called her Madame Buquet. Priest or no priest, it was all the same.
She was worn out, poor woman, her face lined and her hands split and red from scrubbing a living at a few sous a day, and when she came for him to the stage door in that second winter her eyes were swollen with weeping. It was the youngest girl who took the fever first, little Lisette of whom he would talk sometimes in his cups with maudlin pride. They paid for a doctor — who knows how? — but she died all the same, and the next week it was the oldest girl at the door and their mother tossing blindly in her bed, burning up with fire that nothing could quench. Fever took them all then, one, two, three, with only the one daughter left to keep house as best she could. Charred food and an ill-made fire were a poor welcome for a tired man at midnight; the girl was apprenticed out and her father found ways to fend for himself. There were willing beds enough, for a man in brawny middle age and not ill-paid.
I didn’t begrudge him the women. Such things were no concern of mine, and his work never suffered for it. But for Buquet, tales of the Phantom meant only that: the chance of a few joyous squeals backstage... or else the eternal excuse for mistakes unexplained, and carelessness that could not be accounted for.
It was an excuse he wasn’t above using himself, on occasion, when some temperamental Spaniard or puffed-up Austrian tenor came storming across the stage, shouting up at the crew above to know why the curtains had cut short his final applause, or a scenery flat had begun to waver mid-aria as if in a violent gale, sending ripples of laughter around a bored audience. The backstage staff had means of their own of exacting payback from those whose demands became too great... and was it not well-known that the Phantom disliked performers who threw their weight around in the theatre he counted as his own?
The dark shadow was merely amused at such antics, for they served in his absence to bolster a reputation for omnipotence that suited him very well. The rumours about his face, however, grew wilder with each telling, and it was not a subject he would ever be able to hear with equanimity.
Why, I wonder, do men set such store by good looks? The flush of youth lasts only the blink of an eye; to one such as I, it counts for little or nothing at all. But ugliness and evil have somehow become entwined in the view of the world, and the Devil must perforce be hideous — when he is not a handsome deceiver.
Someone, somewhere, must have glimpsed the mask. Even I do not know how the secret I had shielded for so long somehow slipped out. He grew careless, perhaps... or arrogant, for in the years of his manhood, as he came to know the full measure of his talents and all that he was denied, he grew in bitterness and arrogance alike.
But the rumours began, as such things do, in corners, and spread as fast as they could be embroidered. The shade that haunted the Opera was deformed. A spirit, yes, but one foul to look upon, whose face could strike women senseless and make strong men blench. It was man-shaped yet monstrous, a loathsome carcase that dwelt in the depths and shrank from honest light. The only thing on which no-one could agree was the precise nature of this deformity.
If one listened to Buquet — whose imagination waxed in vigour according to how deep he was in wine — the ghost might one week be a noseless corpse, with mummified featured and burning flames in the empty sockets of his eyes, and the next week it might wear a shattered skull, with brains bulging grotesquely from its head. The truth of the Phantom who was no ghost was both more and less pitiful.
Age, and long years spent shut away from daylight, had all but healed the flaking, pustulating mass that had once marred a small boy’s features where skin had peeled, swelled and grown inflamed beneath the merciless rays of the sun. By the time he was seven, infection and the child’s own dirty nails had wreaked enough harm to make him a side-show freak; he bore the marks of that time still in reddened, thickened flesh, but time and manhood’s changes had hardened him until he need fear only the midday glare.
Still he knew himself to be hideous. That lesson had been learnt too early and all too well. He kept mirrors about him to remind him, gazing obsessively for any change — but when again and again he lifted the veil to look, his mind showed him only the horror of the Devil’s Child, and not the scarred but rugged face of the man who had long since looked back at him from that glass. He was comely enough, in his way. But he would never be able to believe it.
He kept his face masked; masked to hide from the world the foulness that he knew was there. He slipped in and out of my secret places like a dagger in its sheath, and I knew the touch of his hands as well as I knew and trusted those of Buquet. He was utterly at home with me as few others were, and between these walls he took liberties that none other dared; nowhere was private from him when he chose, and no recess could remain unexplored.
But his long, skilful fingers roamed too often where they ought not. I knew him — I protected him — but I could not trust him.
On that night of Il Muto, so many years ago, things were already out of control. Little things, but enough to set me on edge. Buquet was uneasy, turning constantly at his post to scan the wings above and below for some sign of trouble — there had been too much meddling backstage of late, with nothing supernatural about it. Box number five was occupied, and not by its usual quiet presence; the Vicomte sat there now, laughing at Carlotta’s antics instead of showing cold disdain, and leaning forwards eagerly at every glimpse of the pageboy. He had no notion of how to mask his emotions, and they spilled from him in a constant rippling stream. Compared to what I was used to, it was all most unsettling.
And that other, no longer quiet, stalked abroad like a thundercloud, angry and thwarted and ready to strike. Behind the curtain, Carlotta’s throat spray stood ready on its tray where her dresser had set it, a soothing ritual for the diva’s overdriven nerves. A black-gloved hand slipped out, and in an instant had set another, identical, flask in its place.
Buquet must have seen it too. I heard his intake of breath, and his grip tightened on the gantry rail; he had no love for Carlotta and her temperament, but still less for intruders. The act was well under way, the scenery set, there were fifteen minutes at least to run before the next backdrop need be flown, and this time he was going to get to the bottom of it. The decision in him was as clear as if it had been my own. This time, he was going to lay hands on the offender himself.
He turned, with purpose, to make his way around the wall. And even as he turned there came a swift-moving flicker of movement behind him.
On the boards down below, the performance went on in a painted drama of suspicion quite oblivious to the tensions overhead. Carlotta as the Countess sent out a cascade of high notes; pretty Christine in the pageboy rôle disclosed slender limbs in tight-cut breeches, to the Vicomte’s evident delight. The footlights flared and, far above, the great chandelier quivered infinitesimally in that rising current of air, as it did at every performance. Behind the plasterwork of the dome the hulking mass of the windlass squatted in reassuring solidity, holding the cables in check until the time should come for the chandelier, extinguished, to descend once more to the waiting stage and the care of its attendants.
I was aware of it all on a level almost beyond conscious attention: the pleasant buzz of a full house, the audience enjoying an old classic, the routine of the Opera flowing through my veins as so often before. But there should not have been a presence up in the windlass chamber. And the door to the encircling gallery within the dome should not have opened for a shape to pass through.
“Did I not instruct that Box Five was to be kept empty?”
The thunder of that voice, falling seemingly bodiless from on high, smote across the spun-sugar fantasy on stage and shattered it. Carlotta in her high-dressed hair and her panniered gown ceased to be the saucy, flirtatious Countess and became once more an angry Italian in crude stage-paint, her features drawn sharp with resentment. The orchestra sputtered to a halt as Reyer’s stick froze in mid-beat, and in Box Five the young Vicomte stiffened, staring upwards.
By the wall backstage Buquet was better placed than any of them to gauge the speaker’s all-too-earthly location. From his place in the flies he had looked up instinctively, like the rest. The shimmering crystals of the chandelier lay directly between him and the gallery, but he had glimpsed nonetheless a figure that should not have been there.
As chaos unfolded on stage — as Carlotta’s pride was dragged through the dust — Joseph Buquet, his face set, was pounding upwards in grim pursuit. Cast-iron staircases, boarded steps, deserted passages... big lungs heaving, he slammed open the final door and burst out into that dizzying height, an incongruous shape in his working clothes and worn leather against the delicate tints of the vault.
The far side of the gallery was already empty. Of course. He cursed, more out of habit than any real surprise, trying to judge just where the intruder had been. Dark lines in the plasterwork opposite betrayed the existence of the door to the windlass-room... and was it his imagination, or was it still slightly ajar? Fists clenched, he took to his heels again, checking his headlong course for a moment to ease open the door as if he might somehow be able to take his quarry unawares.
But the room beyond was empty. Stairs wound yet further upwards, and after no more than an instant’s hesitation Buquet resumed his ascent.
It was the wrong way. If only I’d been able to tell him what I knew, I could have warned him that his opponent had fled by the downward route from the far door and was already at large in the vast recesses backstage, in hatchways and passages he knew far better than any other alive. I could at least have warned Buquet, bewildered and cooling now in his righteous fury, that the hunter had become the hunted; that as he returned to his post he was being stalked from vantage points of which he knew nothing, by a dark attention that did not forgive... But I was helpless as ever to do anything at all.
Down below a quick change was under way as pageboy Christine was tugged offstage to be hastily prodded and laced into the Countess costume in place of a weeping Carlotta; the Phantom’s demands in the matter were being met now with grovelling haste. Yet there was no triumph in the coiled silent movements of that shape that slipped through the shadows, but only a predator’s focus. He had been challenged. He had been threatened in the moment of his power, when all should have bowed low — and it was a mere stage mechanic, one who mocked at the Phantom for his own gross ends, who had dared. I could read the intention in his step — I, who had sheltered him so long — as clearly as if he had spoken aloud.
Buquet was to pay for this. Oh yes, he would pay.
The orchestra had launched hurriedly into the third-act ballet in order to cover the confusion, and scene-shifters struggled to wheel on the new set behind the girls as they danced, while Buquet up above was trying to disentangle the confusion in the flies. The great glass screens that slotted before the spotlights had to be changed to a pastoral green, and there was a swing to be lowered that was still made fast out on the centre catwalk; the backstage sequence ran to a script every bit as rigid as any trilling and preening behind the footlights, and the sudden cut left men scrambling with curses and everything out of place.
Buquet ran out onto the catwalk himself to unhitch the swing, crossing the swaying planks with the ease of long practice. It descended downwards under supervision in a series of jerks, to be caught by a watchful ballerina below as the sheep were hustled onstage from the stables for their part in the scene, and Buquet straightened with a grunt of satisfaction; then froze. There had been another threatening flicker of movement somewhere almost out of sight.
He was being played with like a fish on a line — or like a cat's luckless prey. Clumsy and bewildered, he blundered from corner to curtain, from catwalk to crevice in pursuit of a shadow that was never there and an ominous presence that was always somehow behind him. Fear had begun to creep in, here in the heart of his own domain, where the ropes in their spider’s-web all around were no longer old friends but an encircling threat, and the heavy drapes could hide an unseen foe.
He halted; turned, breathing hard, and sprang back with a cry. A masked shape loomed at his very shoulder in silent mockery and threat.
There was murder in those eyes. Sweat turned to ice, and heaving lungs to panic; Joseph Buquet fled, plunging across catwalks heedless of the height to fling himself at the rigging on the far side, swarming up to the fleeting refuge of the flies. And fleet-footed and deadly, his enemy did the same.
Backwards and forwards, high above the stage, while the pretty poses of the ballet played out in ignorance below. Buquet darted in search of escape, and the cloaked shadow matched his every movement. He was trapped, trapped amid the catwalks like a man in the throes of nightmare...
His foot slipped. With a gasp, he fell forwards, clawing for balance, as the gulf came up to meet him in a dizzying rush— and then the catwalk hit him, hard, knocking the wind from his ribs where he lay sprawled and dangling across the abyss. In that moment he could not have moved, even if he had dared. And the Phantom dropped lightly onto the planks ahead, straddled him, and slipped the noose around his neck with choking force.
It was not quick, or easy. Buquet was a strong man made desperate by terror; he jerked and struggled, clawing frantically for the rope. But he had no chance. Black-gloved hands tightened their grip without remorse, and a cold smile watched from beneath the mask as the spasms weakened and ebbed.
The body was still jerking when it plummeted down to set the audience aghast, distorted features in a soundless scream as it dangled grotesquely mid-stage. But when the noose came snaking down a few minutes later, its burden let fall in a contemptuous heap, there was nothing left of Buquet as I had known him; only a thing of horror from which the ballerinas fled. And in the smiling killer on the catwalk there was nothing left, either, of the boy who had come to me.
He’d tightened the rope once about another man’s neck when the lash of the whip grew too great, and fled to me with death still fresh on his hands, shaking from what he had done. I’d kept him safe. I’d kept him close. And in the dark silence down below, shut away from human touch, I’d bred a desperate child into a creature who knew nothing of mankind beyond his own desires, who feared and scorned his fellows in equal measure. I’d made him in truth into the monster he’d always believed himself to be... and now that monster had been unleashed upon one of my own.
If I were a woman, I would have wept that night. But that too is beyond me, now, then and always.
I shall not last much longer, I think. They are clearing out the cellars now; dragging out the last remnants of those days so long ago, souvenirs of productions long since gone to dust. The velvet of the seats in the Grand Circle is grey and split, and the stage furred with dust and disuse. The War is over, the war to end all wars, and so is my time. I am old and out of fashion, decayed far beyond what paint and a false bright face can conceal.
But while I stand I will remember. I am the Opera House of Paris, the Opera Populaire, and in the days of my youth it was Joseph Buquet who made me what I am. He was no saint, but he was mine.
And that other... he was mine, too. My grief; my Phantom. My fault.This entry was originally posted at http://igenlode.dreamwidth.org/92148.html, where there are comments.