Tears of Crimson Velvet

Written by Alex Butcher

Madame Lise Giry unlaced her shabby black boots and stretched her aching feet on a threadbare footstool. The last Opera of the season was always the most exhausting. Everyone had far too much wine, already delicate tempers were frayed even more and usually someone ended up in somebody else's bed. She decided she was getting to old to clear up after flighty corps de ballet and petulant divas. Along with the annual bottle of moderately expensive wine and bouquet of flowers left by the management she had food a small crimson velvet bag on to a sealed letter.

She added the bottle of wine to the others in her cupboard, poured herself a cup of lemon tea and carefully opened the small red bag. As she gazed into its dark depths something glinted. She carefully tipped the contents onto her hand and gasped. Two rubies of exquisite quality glinted in the lamplight. A small stone the colour of midnight tumbled out into her trembling palm. She closed her fingers over the gems and gingerly sat down attempting to catch her breath. Before she even tore open the letter she new from whom it came.

The tears fell from her coal -black eyes onto the paper as she twisted a lock of greying hair around her finger. She opened the hand cradling the stones. The gems before her were probably worth more than she had earned in 20 years. She closed her eyes to hold back the tears and remembered when she had first seen him, Erik, 30 years before.

Lise Giry nee Goudin had been married for less than a year to captain Jules Giry. She was barely 18 and the somewhat feisty daughter of Auguste Goudin. Madame Goudin had died when Lise was a small child and her elder brother Gerardo was serving abroad in the army. Lise adored her father, their modest house and helping her father with the horses in their village.

Captain Giry was an acquaintance of her brother's and had boarded with them for a few weeks. He was 45 years of age, a widower with 3 grown up children. He was charming, well educated and swept the young Lise off her feet in a few short weeks.

He claimed he fell in love as soon as he saw her. He had proposed to her by letter. Although she had some misgivings about marrying someone twice her age, she new that he was a kind and gentle man and that she would not find a better husband, her father persuaded her that this man was an ideal husband. A couple of months later they were married. Jules then returned to his regiment and Madame Giry found herself alone and bewildered in a strange house and a strange region. She began to feel very alone.

Jules' children did not approve of what they referred to as 'daddy's whim'. The servants were courteous, nothing more and Lise begin to wander around the house, feeling increasingly isolated. She new she should be happy with her situation but somehow it wasn't enough.

In the autumn after her marriage a travelling fair arrived in the town and she found herself wandering its colourful stalls. That is where she first saw him. At the edge of the fair a sizeable crowd had gathered, she saw over the top bars of a cage. Some poor creature denied its freedom, forced to perform. She strained for a look. What she saw on that autumn afternoon would haunt her for many years to come.

In the cage was a slender young man, his face concealed by a bone white mask. She could see how gaunt his strangely catlike body looked. He was performing conjuring tricks and sleight of hand the likes of which she had never seen. Then he began to sing, the sound she heard seemed to come from heaven itself. A voice so perfect it was unnatural, almost sinister, yet at the same time was the most hauntingly beautiful thing she had ever heard. She was compelled to listen. As the song ended she saw a shadowy figure e prod the young man through the bars. The man paused and the slowly removed the mask from his face. What lay beneath that mask was a terrible sight. A black hole where the nose should be, lips twisted and deformed, the skin was deathly pallid. The crowd fell into a horrified silence, someone screamed.

Lise remembered, to her credit, she hadn't screamed or fainted, she stared perhaps a fraction too long the tore herself away. She wandered around listlessly, turmoil of emotions. This man had a strange magnetism, which gave her a fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach. That voice which pierced her soul and mad her want to laugh and cry simultaneously. She was fascinated and afraid. What lay behind the mask was both fascinating and terrifying, but less so than the utter hatred in those deep grey eyes. She hate never seem such complete loathing, as that which burned in those strangely beautiful eyes. She wandered around aimlessly for a while then surreptitiously crept past the huddled figure in the cage, gazing out into the darkening sky. She tried to attract his attention but that haunted, haunting gaze stared past her. She watched him for a while then as the darkness finally won its battle for supremacy she slowly returned home.

She sat thoughtfully at dinner- what was he? Who was he? What sort of men would keep someone locked in a cage, what sort of crime had he committed?

Lise Giry was young and naive, but even she knew that which was right and that which was wrong… and this she felt to the core of her soul was unequivocally wrong. She sat alone and her pages caressed the pages of the small bible her father had given her, she sought slice and answers in its sacred pages… she found neither. Her mind kept returning to that man in the mask, in the cage. That voice which had lifted her soul into heaven and plunged her heart into the depths of Hades, that terrible face with its fascinating, smouldering eyes. No one had ever affected her this way before. She was fond of her husband, he was kind and generous and adored her, but somehow she knew she did not love him, as a wife should. She was content as his wife, but nothing more, she did not feel the fire when she was with him with which the man in the mask had filled her.

Lise spent a restless night fighting with her conscience. She was not an evil woman, and did not like to think of herself as an unfaithful, inconstant wife, but she could not forget him. His song echoed in her head and she saw his eyes in the darkness.

The next morning she received a letter announcing Jules' return, she replied to his letter affectionately, mentioning the travelling fair and regrets that it would have left by the time he arrived. She did not mention him. She returned to the fair and watched his whole performance mesmerised. This time when he sang she let the sound infiltrate every fibre in her being, soaring in ecstasy and burning in hell. Again when the performance was over she tore herself away and returned home, much disturbed, fall into a fitful and troubled sleep.

The next afternoon produced a terrible storm and she was unable to venture further than the stables. She gazed wistfully out at an angry purple sky, illumined by the bolts of Zeus. She felt the oppressive air closing in and heard the horses frightened in the stable. She saw a lull in the torrential down pour and throwing a cloak over her shoulders rain into the stable to comfort her mare, Athene. As she approached she saw the door had been torn from its hinges by the storm and Athene and her companion Elias trembling in the shadows. She decided that she would rather be with the horses than in the cold stark house that lay behind her and settling down on the straw tried to comfort the frightened creatures. As she settled down she saw a movement in the shadows, something white in the darkness. She decided bravely, or foolishly, to cry "Come out of the shadows or I will call the servants and have you whipped, my husband is just in the house".

After a slight pause the figure stepped into the half-light, and was illuminated by a convenient bolt of lightning. It was the man in the mask. "Wh..what are you doing here? Stealing our horses no doubt?" She tried to sound far more assertive than she felt. Lise hoped that the burning crimson in her cheeks was not visible in the semidarkness.

She saw then man before her was drenched to the skin, and his shirt was soaked with blood. He looked barely able to stand. Suddenly pity overwhelmed her fear. "My goodness, you're soaked, poor thing. How long have you been out there?"

The man gazed back at her with eyes that looked so deep, so dead that a chill ran down her spine. "I will not return there. I would rather die first."

She looked at him sadly and replied "I will not make you return, stay her I will fetch you some dry clothes and a blanket."

He looked at her perplexed as she fled to the house, returning shortly with some clothes. He was too weak to argue and half sat half fell onto the straw. Somehow he had known he could trust her. Grabbing the bundle she scurried back to the stable and held the bundle out before her. "The shirt will be too large, my husband is larger than you."

As he removed his bloodstained shirt she saw the deep welts across his back, "Who has done this?" she asked him, touching the wounds gently.

He turned those silver eyes to hers and said in his hauntingly musically voice. "I refused to perform this morning so Javare beat me."

She saw how thin he looked and again returned to the house to get food. Lise saw the kitchen light and crept around to the pantry, managing to avoid the cook. "Stealing my own bread in my own house! Whatever next!" she though as she managed to grab a few thing and stuff the hurriedly beneath her cloak.

Returning to the barn she called out softly "Are you decent monsieur?"

To which a reply came "That, Madame, is a matter of opinion, but I am dressed."

She giggled and re entered the barn, saw the tall gaunt frame standing in her husband's over sized clothes.

"I have bread and cheese. I am Madame Lise Giry."

"I saw you at the fair…I trust you enjoyed the show, with the rest of the gawking psychopaths?"

He took the bread and breaking half handed her back the second piece and began to eat his half slowly.

Lise chatted to him nervously; he sat and watched her while she talked.

She saw how nervous he was and seemed almost as taut as a bowstring, ready to flee quickly. After some time she finally discovered his name was Erik, any more he was not willing to impart.

As night fell outside she rose to her feet and said "You can sleep here tonight but you must leave tomorrow at first light. If the groom Pierre finds you her he will raise the alarm. There is a disused mill 5 miles south of here. You can hide out there until you are stronger. I can bring you food each day."

He looked at her confused and slightly afraid " I don't understand Madame."

She suddenly realised that this creature had known no kindness in his life; he was not equipped to deal with it. She saw the knife in his belt and understood that not all the blood on his shirt had belonged to him. Strangely she was not shocked. She also saw in his eyes that he would not hurt her. She sat down next to him and began gently to stoke his hair, and began to sing to him.

Shocked she saw tears in his eyes and he rolled way from her, weeping. Overcome she fled to the house and to her room, miraculously unobserved by the servants. She returned just before first light with a bundle of food and a blanket and found Erik preparing to leave. "I must go. While I am she you are in danger, Thank you for your kindness, Madame. I shall not forget it."

For a moment he studied her face with those grey eyes and then left, at the door he turned a said quietly "Monsieur Giry is an extraordinarily fortunate man, I hope he will not abuse that luck."

Erik disappeared into the darkness of predawn. Lise fought the urge to run after him, however she know that was not what he wanted, it was not to be.

She returned to her house and her marriage, knowing she would never forget those few stormy hours in the barn.

Lise Giry cradled the small crimson bag in her hands, tears falling onto the letter on her lap. Erik had repaid her kindness a thousand times over. When Jules had dies she had been left with barely enough to support herself and her only surviving child, Meg. Jules' children had claimed the rest, leaving her with almost nothing.

She thought of her children, Augusta, a son dying in infancy, Anna, a stillborn daughter, Pierre who died a few months after Meg's birth, Jules had passed away the following winter, she had been alone for 19 years. She had moved to Paris, tried to find work, forget her dead children, her loneliness, the songs she heard in the darkness. In the lonely nights she thought of Erik, then heard of a magician who built a palace of glass for the Prince of Persia, somehow she knew it was he, the same, as she knew it was Erik behind the mysterious Opera ghost, haunting the Paris Opera. She saw him in the shadows, when she became a seamstress, then unexpectedly box keeper.

Sometimes they would meet and talk, awkward conversations. He fell in love with a singer, she could see how it would end. Christine was only slightly younger than Lise Herself had been so many years before. It tore Lise apart to see him so unhappy., making such a fool of himself. Even Lise was surprised at the tragedy which unfolded, the deaths that occurred, the deep sadness in his eyes. She knew that time had not been kind to her, but it had been less kind to him.

The morning after the velvet bag arrived she saw an announcement in the Herald:

"Erik is dead"

She knew that his heart had been broken too many times, she replaced the stones gently into the small velvet bag and gazed into profound darkness, in the knowledge that she understood the tragedy of his life- The thought that he believed that he could never be loved for himself; as sleep finally played over her eyes she suddenly realised the tragedy of her own life- the knowledge that he never realised that he was.