Author's Disclaimer: Characters mentioned belong to Gaston Leroux. Some ideas came from "The Phantom of Manhatten" by Frederick Forsyth. The song Erik sang belongs to me.
I can remember the day I first met young Erik. Oh it is as though it was only just yesterday. I must first explain that I am Madame Antoinette Giry, Maitresse du Corps de Ballet and it was I who was in charge of Erik’s private Box, Box Number Five.
On Sunday in 1882, I took my six year-old daughter, Meg, for the first time to the Fair at Neuilly. There were performing monkeys, clowns, acrobats’ fortune-tellers, and rides. Meg had never seen a funfair before, and oh, I can remember the smile on her little face. She glowed that day.
There was also a Freak Show at this circus. It was set away from the main fair, and the tent was a long plain blue tent, advertising the smallest, the tallest, a man with a bone through his nose and a bearded lady. To this day, I do not know what possessed me to go into that tent, I am thankful in a way now that I did.
Meg walked with me, clutching my hand tightly, stopping occasionally to stare at the poor creatures on display, I hesitate when calling them creatures, for they were human, as human as you or I, but they were cruel freaks of nature.
At the very end of the tent was a cage, a dark cage, and the bars were roughly a foot wide. I stared into this cage to try to see what creature it held. I heard a sharp intake of breath, a clank of chains and I could just make out a small quivering shape lying huddled up on the dank foul smelling straw. As I peered at the bundle a tall, ruddy-faced man appeared he carried on a sash around his neck a tray full of horse manure and pieces of rotten fruit.
"Have a go," he pressed a piece of rotting fruit into my hand, "see if you can pelt the monster, one centime a throw!" I looked at the fruit in my hand and then back a little Meg, she was staring into the cage.
"Mamma, what is in there?"
"A monster!" the man cried, laughing at the same time. "With staring eyes and deaths head," he turned to the cage, "come on! Come closer to the front or you’ll know what you will get!" a clank of chains, a cough and a creature, more animal than human moved into the light.
I allowed myself a sharp breath. It was a male, no older than eighteen years, dressed in rags and covered in filth and grime. He was gnawing on an old rotting apple core; he had to live on what was thrown at him. His hands and wrists were manacled to a chain, the manacles had bitten into his poor flesh, and maggots were feasting on the open wounds. I heard Meg scream and burst into floods of tears. For the man did indeed have deaths head. His skull and face were hideously deformed, but only one side. His face appeared as though someone had struck it long ago with a hideously jagged hammer. This flesh was raw and shapeless like candle wax. Only the left side of his face had escaped the deformity, although there was partial deformity around his eye and chin.
Meg was holding a toffee apple, it was her first and she had been ecstatic when I had bought her this sweet gift. I do no know what made me do it, but I took the apple from Meg and pressed it into the hands of the man. He looked at me. During the Franco-Prussian War the ballet at the Opera was suspended, I helped treat the injured young men and I can tell you now, I had never see pain as what I saw in the monsters eyes. I have seen men scream, in agony and cry, but I had never seen pain as much as this.
His owner shouted at me that I was losing him money and turned both Meg and I away, but not before the monster muttered, "Merci, God Bless." I took Meg back to our flat behind the rue le Peletier. I could not get that pain filled eyes out of my mind and I shall never even if I live forever, they will always be there, in my mind.
That night, while all of Paris was sleeping I took a cloak and bolt cutters from the Opera House where I worked. I took a handsome cab back to the Fair at Neuilly. The fair was silent and the workers were all asleep in their caravans. I crept silently into the tent that held the Freaks. I stole the monster. I had never committed a sin in my life up until that moment, and I hope that God forgives me for what I did. I broke the lock with the bolt cutters and then called softly to the man. He must have remembered me for my kindness because he came to the entrance. I cut his chains, threw the cloak over him, and led him away.
The hansom cab drove us back to my flat and I took the man inside. He appeared amazed by what he saw inside.
"Madame, I thank you," he said in a strained voice. He spoke French but with a thick, Alsace accent.
"Come sit here," I invited him to sit in the kitchen chair. He looked at me as though thinking that I was going to trick or possibly hurt him. "Please, monsieur," he looked at me with his human face, before sitting down. I began to prepare a salt solution, to clean his wounds. He sat in silence looking the bare wooden table. "I am going to bathe your wounds, this will hurt," before I could place the cotton wool on his wounds he moved his left arm inside his thin jacket and brought out a grey mask, I watched as he slipped it on over his monstrous side.
"I do not wish to frighten you," he said, seeing my bewildered look.
"It is all right, please hold still," he shuddered in pain as I applied the salt solution to his open wounds. "I said that it would hurt," he did not cry out when I began to remove the maggots with a pair of tweezers. They were awkward little creatures, wiggling and squirming as I removed them. Thankfully, his wounds were not deep, and I was able to remove all of the maggots. I spent over two hours cleaning his wounds and not once did he cry out or speak. "What is your name?" I asked him.
"Erik," he replied.
"Do you have a surname?"
"Oui, Muhlheim." I knew the name. The Muhlheim’s were a rich Alsatian family; they were in fact the only powerful Jewish family in all of France and Germany. I began to wonder if Erik knew of his family’s heritage and power, but I thought better of it than to speak about them. "I wish they were all dead." He spat the words out angrily.
"M. Muhlheim, come with me," I rose from the table and beckoned him follow.
"Please call me Erik." He rose as well and followed me. I led him to the bathroom.
"Remove your shirt please," he stared at me for a moment. "I wish to clean you of that dirt and muck, and to offer you new clothes." He awkwardly began to remove his shirt whilst I prepared the bath for him. His chest was covered in scares and marks, which could have only come from a whip. He had a small tattoo of a music note on his right forearm. "You enjoy music?"
"Oui, greatly." He answered simply.
"Erik, please remove your trousers." He hesitated before beginning to unfasten his trousers; he was clearly embarrassed about removing his clothes. I turned my back on him to check the temperature of the water. Turning back, "Your undershorts as well please," he blushed a deep red colour and did not move. "I can understand that you are embarrassed," I thought for a moment. "I shall close my eyes and not open them again until you are in the bath, that will save you from too much embarrassment."
He pondered my words. "You must turn and face the wall as well,"
I laughed, "very well," I did as he requested and did not turn until I heard the soft sound of water. He allowed me to wash away the dirt, but did not let me remove the mask from his face. His skin was the colour of parchment, and his hands were as cold as ice. I cleaned the few strands of his fifthly hair and discovered that despite his youth his hair was pure white. Also, by pure accident, I discovered that his mask was originally snow white and not grubby grey.
I left Erik alone to get out of the bath and dry himself whilst I went to my husbands chest and took out some clothes for Erik. He and my husband had been roughly the same size, and my husband had no need for these clothes, he had his rich Belgian.
I found Erik standing the bathroom, with a towel round his waist. "There are my husbands clothes, you can have them, he does not need them any longer."
"Thank you," Erik accidentally let go of his towel and I could only laugh as he scrabbled to save his dignity. "Apologises," he mumbled turning red.
"It’s okay, I’ll leave you to get dressed." I turned to leave, still chuckling.
* * *
I sat in my small living room. I could not believe what I had done that night, I had saved a man from a life of hell, but I was risking myself as well. Looking at the clock, I saw that it was before one o’clock in the morning. I began to panic, what was I going to do when Meg was brought back by her wet nurse in the morning? What was I going to do when they awoke at the Fair and discovered that Erik was missing. "Oh what have I done?" I put my head in my hands and I sobbed.
"Madame please do not cry," Erik was sitting next to me, his hand resting softly on my shoulder. I looked at him and saw how handsome he was in my husbands’ clothes, if I did not know what was behind that mask I would have loved him deeply. His voice was soft and gentle; he had the soft way of speaking that many of the leading male singers did at the Opera House.
"I’m sorry," I sobbed, "but what I did to-night was wrong,"
"No, Madame, you save my life and for that I am grateful, you have shown my kindness which I have never experience before, please do not be sad." I looked at Erik and saw something different in his eyes, the pain was still there, but I now saw gratefulness. He began to sing softly to me in a language that I did not know. His voice was graceful, and he sang wonderfully. He had the majestic tones of a tenor and the beauty of a bass-baritone. His voice took away my fears and replaced them with a calm feeling. He stopped singing.
"Oh Erik, please do not stop," I turned to look at him, only to find that he was fast asleep. I smiled and fetched a blanket, placing it over him. I thought about removing his mask but I did not wish to hurt him. I kissed his forehead and retired to my own room.
* * *
I awoke late the next morning, in fact the clock said that it was just past mid-day. I was thankful that I did not have to work today. Otherwise, I would have surely lost my job for being so late. A wonderful smell filled my flat and I rose, dressed, and went to see who was cooking. I got a shock when I saw the man I rescued, Erik, in the kitchen cooking a wonderful breakfast for me.
"I was going to rouse you, Madame." He said upon seeing me. He had cleaned his mask, and it was now the pure white of snow.
"You did not have to cook," I said, I was shocked.
"I owe for what you did for my yesterday." There was a sharp knock on the front door and like a startled doe, Erik shot from the kitchen and hid in the dark shadows of the broom-cupboard. I nearly laughed but remembering that he was just as scared a people as I was of mice and rats.
I carefully answered the door, it was the Post Man. "Thank you, monsieur," I said taking the letters from him.
"Afternoon, Mme Jules," the postman touched his cap and turned. My husbands’ name was Jules and many people still called me "Madame Jules" despite my husbands’ desertion. Meg had been six years old when my beloved Jules had run off with a Belgian Opera Singer. I had forgiven him for this, it was his decision to leave, and I had to respect that.
"Erik?" I opened the cupboard. He was crouched in the darkness holding his hand to his face; he was trembling all over. "It is okay, you have nothing to fear," I held out my hand, and he took it. I nearly gasped for his hands were colder than ice. He seemed to sense that I was uncomfortable holding his hand because he let go.
"I’m sorry," he muttered, he evidently felt foolish for his actions.
* * *
We spent an enjoyable afternoon together. Erik accepted my request for him to sing for me, and he sang until he grew weary of singing. He was still very weak from living in the cage and so I did not wish to over stretch him. I provided him with the first proper meal he had probably had in a long time.
I watched as he ate slowly. I knew from Meg had been little that if one went without proper nourishment for a long time, the nutrients provided for them in their next meal could make you vomit. This was in such the case for Erik. He apologised continuous for bringing the meal I had provided for him and each time I told him it did not matter.
That evening Meg was going to be brought back to the house after spending the night with her wet nurse. I knew that it would be good for both Erik and Meg to be living under the same roof.
* * *
Each time someone arrived at the door Erik would hide in the cupboard, as was the such case when Meg came back.
"Meg, I want you to meet someone," I introduced her to Erik, and she screamed, startling him and he again fled to the cupboard. I took me a while to talk Erik into coming out of the cupboard and an equally long time to explain to Meg that he was here as our guest and that we were saving his life.
I introduced them.
"Hello," Meg said shyly.
"Bonjour," he replied softy. He carefully approached Meg, and I watched in amazement as he produced an egg from her left ear, "for you, mademoiselle," he held it out to her, and she giggled.
"How did you do that?" she asked, forgetting her fears.
"It is a secret." Erik replied. "You have a gift in your pocket," Meg looked puzzled. "Take a look,"
Meg put her tiny hand into the pocket of her dress and produced a franc. I stared at Erik in utter amazement.
"Erik, how did you do that?" I was as puzzled as young Meg. Erik placed his hand to the side of his masked nose.
"Do not ask a conjurer to reveal his secrets."
I spent a pleasurable evening watching Erik keep Meg amused with his magical tricks. By eight o’clock, he had produced four eggs, eight francs, and a small mouse from various places on Meg. I nearly screamed when he produced a second mouse from behind my ear. I confessed to him my grave fear of mice.
"I apologise, I did not realise," and both mice vanished.
"Where did they go?!"
"Do not worry, they are not here." He smiled. I still, to this day, swear I saw his pocket moving as though he had placed the mice there.
It was growing late and both Meg and Erik were becoming tired.
"Do show me another trick," Meg begged.
"Not to-night," Erik replied, stifling a yawn, "I am tired." Meg went over and sat next to him, and soon they were both fast asleep, Meg’s tiny head resting on Erik’s chest and his head resting on Meg’s. I smiled at this scene, I wanted to leave them sleeping, but I had to get Meg into her bed.
"Erik," I whispered into his ear and shook his shoulders gently. He woke and turned to me. "Help me take Meg to her room," Without a sound he lifted Meg with ease and followed me to Meg’s tiny room. Like a true gentleman, he left to allow me to get Meg into her night gown.
* * *
For three months, Erik remained with Meg and I. He continued to keep Meg amused during the day and I no longer required the services of the wet nurse. I learnt a little about my masked friend, save for what he had told me. He was nineteen, and alone in the world. He could read, and would often read a bedtime story to Meg and often I noticed, he would tell her stories the travellers* had told him. They were always full of magic, princesses, and far off lands. I would listen behind the door, Erik had the gift of storytelling, and Meg would soon be asleep dreaming.
It was such on one evening. "Erik," I began as he sat down on the couch after telling Meg her bedtime story. "Can you read?" I had been wondering for many a night now, I had seen that he had told the story from the book without actually reading it.
"Oui," he smiled, "I know you have been listening behind the door, I know the stories very well indeed, I do not need to read them to know the story."
"You like music," I handed him a small book of poetry, "I thought that you might like poetry."
He smiled at me. "Thank you." He took the book and began to read the poems aloud. I closed my eyes and concentrated on nothing but Erik’s soft voice.
"Mamma," Meg was awake. I rose to see to her, but Erik motioned me to be seated. I heard him a moment later, singing softly to Meg.
"Rest your head, it’s time for bed, allow the angels to take you.
Let music fill your head, and my voice take you on a distant journey,
Rest your head, it’s time for bed, allow the angels to take you."
He stopped singing and I heard the soft click of the door. "She is sleeping,"
* * *
The next morning I woke to find Erik sitting at the kitchen table making something out of wood. "Erik, what are you making?" I must have startled him for his jumped, and the knife he held in his left hand slipped, cutting the middle finger on his right.
"Ow…" He cursed under his breath.
"Oh Erik, I’m sorry," I took a bandage from the first aid box and proceeded to bandage the wound.
"It doesn’t matter,"
"Do you like Opera?"
"Very much Madame."
"I work at the Paris Opera House, if you know anything about…."
"I know much about the building," he held out a newspaper clipping.
"Well, then you know that a man can live his life out there and never be found," I had an idea, "if you come with me to-night you can live there in the labyrinth." Erik smiled at my suggestion.
"That sounds most divine," he looked down at what he had been constructing and I saw it to be a wooden box. "It is for Meg, I must finish it though Madame."
I watched Erik work. He worked for three hours non-stop. I was glad that Meg was a heavy sleeper and would not wake before her gift was completed. He made the most beautiful box I had ever seen. It had many little compartments, and a secret draw too. "In Persia, I was know as the ‘trap-door lover’" he mused, "I created a hall of mirrors, for the emperor." He continued to work as he spoke, "my first love was always music and I would sing, compose and play music whenever I could,"
"What do you play?"
"Anything I can learn." He finished the box by carving the initials ‘M.G’ into the top of the box.
"You are left handed?" I asked.
"Oui, that makes me more of a freak," he muttered angrily.
* * *
That night I took Erik as promised to the Opera House. That is the last time I saw him again, from then on I would only hear his voice and I commanded his wishes. He never forgot the kindness I had shown to him and would often leave presents of money, or gifts for Meg and I. I kept a promise to him, never to reveal that I knew who he really was.
"And this story I have kept in my heart since that day." I found my strength was failing me again and I coughed.
"Why have to only spoken out now?" Christine de Chagny asked, clutching my hand tight.
"Because you needed to know the truth," I sighed. "Erik is not dead."
* * *
With that last word, a great look of piece swept over the old woman and her hand slipped from Christine's grasp.
Return to Writings and Essays