Fiction - Page 1 of 1

  
Black and Deep Desires
A Story Inspired by The Phantom of the Opera
– by Audrey Liebross © 2015
 
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
   

  
Erik's life had been wretched for 34 years – no interaction with any children other than his four younger siblings, a cold, distant father, his mother's death from pneumonia when he was twelve, a hateful stepmother, his escape to a gypsy camp, where he was imprisoned for a year by a sadistic master whom the other gypsies feared.... The only thing that kept him going was his mother's letter to him, written on her deathbed and sealed with pink wax with the imprint of a fleur de lis. The envelope still contained remnants of the scent she always wore.
 
"My beloved son, you mean everything to me. You are beautiful in my eyes. I always tried to protect you from the world, but now you must protect yourself. Always wear your mask. Never look in a mirror even to shave. Keep your hair short and wear a wig. I will see you some day in heaven."
 
Actually, Erik only imagined that this was what his mother had written, because he had never dared to open the carefully sealed envelope. Suppose instead of the content he pictured, she had shredded his illusions about her love? "Dear Erik, I've always hated you because you're so ugly. I was good at pretending, but I want to tell you the truth – you are merde." Better that he should spend his life believing that someone had once loved him – even if it was a lie – than to break the seal and find out that his mother had reacted to his deformity the same way as everyone else.
 
Erik often asked himself why he didn't just throw the letter into the potbellied stove he had stolen from one of the rehearsal rooms, but he knew the answer: This letter was his one connection to his maman, carefully secreted during his time in gypsy captivity, during his years working in traveling fairs, during his time building palaces first for the Shah of Persia and later for the Ottoman Empire's Sultan, and now, in his lonely subterranean home in the fifth cellar of the Paris Opera House. She had sent nothing to his father or his other siblings. If he, alone, had a letter saying good-bye, his maman must have loved him best.
 
As improbable as it seemed, twenty-two years after Maman had gone to Heaven, Erik had found another love, his student, Christine Daae. Her voice was the pure soprano of the heavenly host, surpassing that of her countrywoman, Jenny Lind. He liked to believe that he was immune to a female's beauty, but his response to her liquid brown eyes; dark, curly hair; smooth, soft skin; and slim form proved otherwise.
 
Erik had begun teaching Christine at the request of one of the opera's ballet school instructors. When he had listened to the young beauty's voice, he knew she belonged on the opera's stage as a prima donna, and not living anonymously as a rehearsal accompanist for the dancers. For two years, they worked on developing her voice, while he remained a disembodied presence in the corridor behind her mirror; never once had she seen him in the flesh, although she had tried mightily to coax him to appear before her.
 
Could he make the woman that fate had deposited on his doorstep fall in love with Erik the man, as she had fallen in love with his baritone voice? She had dubbed him her angel of music, but she would deem him the spawn of Hell if she saw his uncovered face. Maybe, if he could convince her first to love Erik, the flawed man, instead of the angelic product of her fertile imagination, she wouldn't mind so much when the inevitable occurred and she gazed upon his repulsive visage.
 
Erik had persuaded – all right, bullied – a former manager into hiring Christine for the singing chorus, and then for secondary singing parts, while he awaited the right time to maneuver her into a lead role. That time had come last night, after Carlotta, the opera's prima donna, had suddenly become ill – too ill to sing at the gala performance celebrating the departure of the old managers and the entry of the new pair. At least his time with the gypsy caravan had taught him some valuable tricks, not the least of which was how to prepare a variety of potions.
An hour after Christine's triumph of the evening before, she had walked through the revolving mirror in her dressing room at his invitation. He had taken her hand, led her to his boat, and rowed her across the subterranean lake in the Paris Opera House to the cave-like lair in which he had lived since escaping from the Levant five years before.
 
Today, Christine was undoubtedly the toast of Paris. Neither he, nor she, knew for sure, because she had been sleeping – alone – in his extra bedroom while he worked on composing his masterpiece, Don Juan Triumphant. Perhaps one day, she would star in his opera.
 
Erik was so intent on his work that he did not notice her approach. "Good morning, Master," she said. He looked up, startled, and jerked his arm away when Christine touched it.
 
"My name is Erik. You have earned the right to call me by my name.'"
 
She pouted, as only a young woman not yet twenty could. "Does that mean you won't teach me anymore?"
"Of course I will. But now that you have performed so beautifully, you are entitled to speak my name, as an equal."
 
She sat down next to him on the organ bench, and he instinctively shrank back -- he had never before experienced such closeness from a woman, except his sainted mother, of course.
 
"May I ask you something, Erik?"
 
Merde! She was again touching his arm lightly with her fingers, sending indescribable feelings through his body. "You may ask, but I may not answer." He had a sinking feeling that he knew what her question would be. "And do not sit on my bench. It is not seemly."
 
She smoothed the lace peignoir that she had donned in her dressing room, and stood slowly. "Erik, why do you cover the top half of your face with a mask?"
 
"Because the bottom half does not need to be covered. You can see that it is a bit darker than most people's skin, as is the rest of my body, but it is not noticeably abnormal."
 
She laughed, which was not the reaction he expected. "You're so witty," she said. "Perhaps I should be more literal. Is there something wrong with the covered portion of your face – a sensitivity to light, perhaps, or an oozing rash, filled with pus, that dribbles down your nose?"
 
Erik had served as an executioner during his time working for the Shah of Persia and had just poisoned Carlotta with a non-fatal brew likely to have her clutching the commode but the images Christine's words evoked caused him to swallow hard to keep the bile down. How could this little sprite lightly discuss such stomach-turning concepts without flinching?
 
"Neither," he said. "That part of my face and much of my scalp are deformed. I am so ugly that even the brave become ill upon gazing at me, or so my mother told me." There. He had said it.
 
"Deformed? How?" Christine asked.
 
Erik gritted his teeth as he felt his anger rise. "My maman told me that my face is so badly mottled with purple blotches that it almost looks as if I were tattooed. If that were not enough, my skin has brown and white patches. If there are actually two people on earth who are not repulsed by my ugliness, they will nonetheless avoid me because they will be sure that I have a disease that they will catch." He glared at her through the mask, willing her to drop the matter.
 
Christine paused for a moment, then continued tentatively, as if she realized that Erik was running out of patience, but couldn't resist speaking about the taboo subject. "If you haven't looked in a mirror for many years, you may be pleasantly surprised. The blotches may have faded." She shrugged. "It's worth a try."
 
"Enough!" he said, more sharply than he had intended. "I will neither look at my face, nor allow anyone else to do so."
 
"I'm not just anyone." Her lower lip was out. She was pouting again. What was it about young women? He had seen that same expression in his travels, except, of course, in countries where women covered their faces for modesty's sake.
 
"Especially not you! I am resuming my composing. I strongly advise you to sit quietly in that chair." He nodded toward a comfortable armchair next to the sofa.
 
"And if I don't?" she challenged.
 
Erik looked up, startled. She was flirting with him. Merde! As much as he wanted her to fall in love with him, teasing him was just ... wrong. It aroused feelings in him that he had sworn never to experience, and his body was reacting accordingly. He took a deep breath and slowly turned back to the music he was revising without answering. He picked up his pen, dipped it in ink, and changed two chords.
 
She had apparently not obeyed his instructions to sit quietly, because he suddenly noticed her lurking behind him. His usual catlike reflexes failed at a most inopportune moment; within a second, Christine had grabbed his mask and peered into his face when he turned sharply. She immediately backed up, screaming, holding the mask as if it burned her fingers.
 
He jumped off the organ bench, snarling curses, attempting to shield his face with his hands. She maneuvered around the sofa and tried to run. Erik grabbed her arm, reaching for the mask, his head turned away, but she protected the mask with her body and fell sobbing to the floor. Unless he responded with violence – which he had always refused to employ against women or children – he could not retrieve the mask.
 
He was going to have to manipulate Christine into giving it back. He leaned over her, his face less than a meter from hers. "Look!" he cried. "You want to see! See! Feast your eyes on my ugliness! You wanted to know what I look like! Well, are you satisfied? I'm a very good-looking fellow, am I not?"
 
"You are," she choked out, between sobs.
 
"Do not mock me," he roared, his right hand balling into a fist, despite his vow of a few moments before.
 
Christine shrank back, as fresh tears welled in her eyes. She handed him the mask, which he snatched away and donned, as quickly as he could get it on. He turned his back and almost blindly stumbled toward the organ bench, wondering what he should say or do. Erik felt sick, both because Christine had seen his face and because he had come frighteningly close to striking her.
 
"I mean it," she said, in a barely audible voice as she sat up from the carpet-covered stone floor, and he all but collapsed on the bench. "There is nothing wrong with your face."
 
"If you like purple splotches, and dotted, mottled skin, with tan mixing with white as if I were a speckled pig." His voice was filled with bitterness, but, at least he had stopped shouting. He needed to regain control. How could he possibly stand to be alone with her for the time he'd need to row her across the lake and guide her to the corridor outside her dressing room – undoubtedly the last time he'd make the trip?
 
"Erik, for God's sake," she said. "Uncover your damned mirrors and look!"
 
Had Christine really sworn at him? What kind of creature was she, trying to force him to see himself as others saw him – as a monster whose face reflected his wicked soul? Each day, he risked a fatal razor slice by shaving without gazing into a mirror, and now she wanted him to do what he'd avoided for thirty-four years. He heard her only dimly as her voice rose – something about his being a perfectly normal Negro man. Did she really add, "And a handsome man?"
 
He rushed toward the mirror and placed his hands on its black drape, before Christine could reach it. Did he dare pull the black cloth away and risk a glimpse? A Negro? A black man? A normal black man? It was impossible, unless.... Oh, Maman, why? Why?
 
Erik hung his head. "Nooooo," he moaned.
 
Christine misunderstood his anguish. "It's not so bad to be Negro. No one will run away in terror at the sight of your face ... but they may kill you if they see you with a white mademoiselle."
 
The world lurched a second time, as he contemplated losing her not because of his loathsome appearance, but because their love would have to remain secret. Dared he hope that France would be more liberal than America and the rest of Europe?
 
"I am moaning because of my mother's apparent perfidy and because I must let you go to save your career and reputation."
 
Christine laughed, but it was a bitter snort rather than her usual cheerful, almost musical peals. "Let's not discuss that now. Just look in the mirror."
 
Erik needed to think, but it was difficult to do with her long fingers dancing on his upper arm and her incessant chattering. He twisted away and tried to ignore her quivering chin. His whole life was a lie perpetuated by his beloved Maman. How could she subject him to years of thinking that his face terrified and disgusted people? Could she have honestly believed that his dark skin was, in fact, some kind of deformity? Could she have been telling the truth, but the splotches had faded with time?
 
Erik took a deep breath and slowly approached the looking glass. Christine yanked off the black cloth that covered it. Fearing that she would again remove his mask and still unwilling to face his face, he shut his eyes.
 
"Open your eyes, Erik. Look at your real face – not the one you always thought you had."
 
Erik finally complied. Mon Dieu! Christine was right. He was very obviously of African descent, but a regal-looking, handsome man. Dear God, perhaps he was the product of a rape, and that's why his father resented him. The time had finally come to read Maman's deathbed letter. Thank goodness he had not thrown it into the fire!
 
Christine, who was still yammering in the background, interrupted his reverie. "Mas–, I mean Erik, did you hear what I just said?"
 
"I heard you," Erik lied, but he sounded unconvincing even to himself.
 
She grabbed his arm. "Erik, I'm trying to tell you I love you, and you're ignoring me. Please, please, say you love me, or at least that you'll give me a chance to make you love me."
 
The world lurched a third time. Mon Dieu! Could this miracle be true?
 
"Erik, please do something for me. Please tell me you love me. If you don't love me, I'll want to die. I'll die, Erik, if you don't love me."
 
He finally found his voice and forced himself to be droll. "My dear, you can have your pick of younger men, like the one mooning over you last night."
 
"Raoul? He's like a big brother, but nothing more. We were playmates by the sea when he was fourteen and I was twelve. Raoul is handsome and rich, and can have his pick of girls. Besides, there is something about me that he doesn't know. When he finds out, he'll drop me fast enough. Erik, I don't care if you're older – at least if you're younger than my father. He would have been fifty-seven. You're not over fifty, are you?"
 
Erik laughed, despite himself. "I am only thirty-four. I have a way to go until fifty."
 
"Erik, please. You do love me, don't you?"
 
Why couldn't the silly girl stop nattering long enough for him to regain his bearings? "Christine, before I say another word, I must read the letter my mother wrote me."
 
"Can't you tell me you love me, first?"
 
Erik had to know his mother's secret before he spoke of love, even though any other time, he would have gathered Christine in his arms. She yanked at his Chinese robe. "Erik, please, talk to me. I can't bear being shut out."
 
He felt his temper rise again. Why could she not understand that he was an emotional wreck thanks to her insistence on yanking off his mask? "Sit," he roared. She obeyed him and sat, but her tears flowed. Merde!
"Ma chérie," he said gently, hoping to repair the damage he had just caused by raising his voice, "We will talk into the night if you like, once I have read the letter. I need answers about why my mother insisted I wear a mask." He took out his handkerchief and wiped Christine's tears, resisting his urge to kiss them away.
 
Christine stopped crying, Dieu merci. Once he had taken care of that problem, Erik strode to the makeshift safe he had constructed below a mundane-looking end table. He unlocked the safe with a key he wore around his neck, removed the letter, and broke the pink seal. This was his last chance to throw the missive into the stove, but if he did that, he would never know the truth.
 
"Erik, please sit next to me on the sofa so we can read the letter together," Christine implored, indicating a spot to her right. Would she always be this demanding?
 
He sighed and gave in. "Yes you may, my dear." He sat down on the sofa, keeping space between them, but she wriggled next to him, placing her head on his shoulder.
 
"Mon chere Erik," he read. He finished the first few paragraphs, then skimmed through the rest, stopping to peruse the most important parts.
 
"If you have disobeyed my instructions not to look in any mirrors, you already know that you are not deformed, and you may have realized that you are Negro. Your real father was a wealthy Algerian student, studying here in Paris.
 
"I fell head over heels in love, and I was sure the handsome African loved me, too. I knew that he was a member of the Mohammedan faith, but I was young and naive and believed that he would marry me and never take another wife. When I told him that I was in a family way, he offered to marry me in Africa. I begged him to remain in Paris instead, but he said he could not because he already had two wives and five children at home. As a last resort, I asked him to marry me in Paris to spare you illegitimacy and then to return home, but he said that he could not risk either bigamy or your making a claim on his estate someday. He remained adamant that, if I wanted to marry him, I'd have to go to Africa with him and join his harem. Naturally, I refused.
 
"Michel, who became your father, married me when I was four months into my confinement. I told him the truth about your origin. He agreed to marry me, on two conditions: to pretend the child was his, and if, God forbid, the child was clearly of Negro origin, we hide it from the world by engaging tutors and by inventing a story about deformities.
 
"We blackmailed the midwife and used cosmetics that could whiten skin, and patches that could be applied to the face for your baptism. We were sure that there would be no danger from the lead in the cosmetics if we quickly washed you after the ceremony.
 
"Before we let anyone see you, we switched to a full-head hood, and later to a wig over your shaved head, with a mask covering your forehead, upper cheeks, and nose. People who saw you simply assumed that your dark skin was part of your abnormality.
 
"Now that I am about to depart this world, and will make my last confession to the priest, I want you to feel free to assume your identity as a Negro, if you care to do so. I caution that, if you make that choice, you must leave Michel's house, but I have left a legacy for you if you depart, which will go to Michel if you decide to keep your secret and remain. As a young man of twelve, it is time you know the truth and decide upon your own future."
 
Erik's voice cracked as he read the last line aloud: "Your loving maman." He felt tears flow down his naked face for the first time he could remember. Angrily, he yanked his wig off, and tentatively fingered his scalp. He felt the tight, brittle curls that he now knew to be perfectly normal.
 
He had all but forgotten Christine until she let out a wail. She threw her arms around his neck and sobbed into his shirt. "My poor Erik. All these years you thought you had a mother who loved you despite your monstrous appearance. Instead, she herself was the monster."
 
"Christine, you must NEVER speak ill of my mother. She did not know that I would wait twenty-two years to read her letter." His tone was harsh. Why was he defending his mother and hurting the sweet mademoiselle that he loved?
 
Christine folded her arms and once more stuck out her lower lip. "I don't care," she said, still pouting. "My parents loved me – not like your mother. Daddy Daae didn't care that I look different from the other Swedes. No matter what, I was his little angel."
 
"As you are mine," Erik said, finally giving in to the urge to envelop her in his arms, while he patted her brown curls. They sat in contentment for a few seconds, after which Christine spoke. "Erik," she said, her voice muffled by his shoulder.
 
"What is it, ma cherie?"
 
"Aren't you going to kiss me?"
 
He didn't answer, and took her face in his hands. Merde! He had seen people do this countless times. He had studied the Kama Sutra, and practiced all its moves fully clothed with one of his automata – a major advantage of having designed the human-like machines for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. How could a former executioner, a man comfortable with refusing "requests" from the Ottoman Sultan and the Shah of Persia, be frightened into near paralysis by a 1.6-meter girl of nineteen, who weighed no more than 42 kilograms?
 
While he was agonizing over whether to accede to her request, Christine made the matter moot. She kissed him, at first tentatively, but then with more conviction. They broke off, smiled at each other, and kissed again, with Erik taking the lead this time. Suddenly, she was all over him, pushing him down on the sofa, and undoing the buttons on his Oriental robe.
 
He grabbed her wrists and pushed her upright. "No," he said forcefully. The pout reappeared.
 
"Why not?" she asked.
 
"You know perfectly well why not."
 
"If we're going to be married, that means we're engaged, and if we're engaged, no one will object even if they find out. For goodness sake, Erik, it's almost the 20th century, and this is Paris."
 
"I don't care if it's Paris or New York or Sparta, I do not wish to have a child conceived outside the bonds of matrimony, as my mother apparently did."
 
"So when will be married, Erik?"
 
"Christine, there is a problem with that. Because you are under twenty-five, under French law, you must prove the death of your parents and grandparents to be allowed to marry without their consent."
 
Her face fell. "I can certainly prove my parents' death, but not my grandparents'. My mother's parents were American, and, for all I know, they could still be alive."
 
"That will complicate things considerably."
 
She stamped her foot. "Erik, I think you're trying to discourage me."
 
"My dear, I am merely telling you what the problems are here in France. However, if you are indeed willing to marry me, there is a place in Scotland, called Gretna Green--"
 
"I know all about that!" Christine interrupted enthusiastically. "That's where my parents got married. My mother translated the English into French for my father. She didn't speak Swedish."
 
"Does that mean you want to go to Gretna Green?"
 
She nodded, a huge grin on her face.
 
"It would be unwise to depart without letting those foolish managers know that you're leaving. You may be a prima donna, but you don't want to act like La Carlotta and destroy your reputation."
 
After some mild protests, Christine agreed to ask the managers for a week off, making the excuse that she had caught a chill after the gala. Although Erik could have eavesdropped on their conversation through one of his secret listening tubes, he did not, instead hiding not more than five meters from the door, where he had a view of the corridor outside. When Christine emerged from Monsieur Firmin Richard's office with a wide smile on her face, he knew that the man had acquiesced.
 
Before Erik had a chance to leave his hiding place, that foppish boy with the intelligence of an oyster, who, despite Christine's denials had surely been pursuing her, ran up to her. Erik couldn't hear their quiet, but animated conversation. Why was Christine speaking so softly? Had she figured out that Erik was trying to listen, and wanted to thwart him? How could she profess to love him but still carry on a secret conversation with her romantic pursuer, the Vicomte de Chagny?
 
The young fop tried to kiss Christine, right there in the public hallway, where anyone could have seen them. Christine rebuffed Raoul, but whispered something into his ear. She must be arranging an assignation! Faithless woman! Blind fury built in the pit of Erik's stomach. He was about to jump out of his hiding place to confront Christine, but stopped short when Raoul yelled, "My parents would never accept you. You should have told me before I wasted my time on you."
 
Raoul stormed off and the tears streamed down Christine's face. She ran off in the direction of her dressing room.
 
Erik made his way through the back passageway, entered the dressing room through the mirror, and found her inside, drying her tears. "What did you tell the weasel?" Erik asked.
 
"Who, Monsieur Firmin?"
 
"Of course not. The young viscount."
 
"Erik," Christine remonstrated gently. "You really need to stop eavesdropping on me now that we're to be married."
 
"Au contraire, my dear. All the more reason. What did you say to the viscount?"
 
She shook her head. "Now is not the time. I will tell you after we are wed."
 
Erik opened his mouth to say something cutting, but closed it again. Perhaps it was time to trust.
 
***
Two nights later, after their informal wedding, Christine and Erik lay together unclothed in their hotel room in Gretna Green, Scotland, their arms wrapped around each other. The act that Erik had both longed for and feared since he was fourteen had proven rewarding for both of them.
 
Christine lifted herself on one elbow. "I'm embarrassed about ... you know."
 
"Christine, we are French – not British." To underscore his point, he kissed her stomach. How differently he felt from two days before!
 
"Not that. Only that I made some very embarrassing sounds toward the end." She giggled nervously.
 
"You sounded like Carlotta practicing a cadenza. No wonder you're embarrassed."
 
She laughed, as he had hoped she would. "I have a request for you," she said.
 
He raised an eyebrow.
 
"Please, no more violence or stealing. No more dirty tricks, like getting Carlotta sick. I know you did those things, but I know you have a conscience."
 
Erik was silent for a moment. He had always lived by cunning. Was he willing to give that up and become ordinary?
 
"Erik, please. I'm begging."
 
Erik sighed. "I promise no killing or stealing or dirty tricks. But in exchange you must satisfy me that you did not betray me in any manner by the secret you told that fool of a viscount."
 
Christine gasped. "I merely revealed something about my mother that I knew would horrify him and his parents. I knew he'd realize that he couldn't marry me."
 
Erik glowered at his bride. "You told the viscount something deeply personal that you couldn't tell me?"
 
Christine nodded solemnly, her long curls framing her face.
 
"You're not pregnant with his child, are you?"
 
Christine sat up, naked, her legs crossed. "Erik, I promised you that I would never lie to you and I meant it. I told you I was a virgin. You must learn to trust me or our marriage won't survive!" Her eyes flashed, and she dissolved into tears, yet again.
 
How could he have made such a terrible mistake – accusing Christine of deceiving him? Should he apologize – it would be the first time in his life that he ever uttered an apology to anyone – or should he play his hand through, and force her to apologize to him for keeping secrets? He sat grimly in bed while he ruminated, the sheet covering him from the waist down, while Christine donned her robe and flounced into the bathroom to use the water closet.
 
He walked over to the bathroom, and tapped on the door. "Christine, I am indeed sorry I mistrusted you. You are still my angel of music, but I must learn that I am no longer your master."
 
Christine opened the door a crack. "Do you mean it?" she asked.
 
"Of course," Erik answered, hoping he was being truthful.
 
She smiled her special smile, the one reserved for him. Fifteen minutes later, settled comfortably in the large bathtub with his bride, bubbles covering much of their bodies as a nod to their lingering shyness – especially his – he again brought up the troubling subject of Christine's hiding information that he, as her husband, had the right to know. "Are you willing to tell me your secret now?"
 
"Of course, my love, because you asked nicely and because it is the right time. What I told Raoul, and what made him realize that he could never marry me, is that my mother was an American mulatto woman who had been a slave – the child of her Negro mother and her mother's white master. Her new master took her to Paris right before the start of the American war in 1861 to sing and make money for him. My father played in the orchestra and they fell in love. She was automatically entitled to her freedom under French law, and my father helped her obtain it."
 
"So your mother was like me? Two races, I mean?"
 
"Yes, she was, but more important, it makes me like you. Most people, especially in America, would consider me to be Negro because I have one-quarter Negro ancestry."
 
"That's your secret? That you and I share the same race? Why would you not tell me?" Erik tried to keep the sting out of his voice.
 
Christine looked ashamed. "I certainly wasn't going to say anything when you were just my teacher. Then, when I discovered your parentage, I thought about telling you, but I...."
 
"Go on," Erik prompted.
 
"I decided to wait. I had to know you loved me and wanted me for myself – not because you thought my race made me a suitable match. I told Raoul because I knew he would walk away without looking back."
 
He hugged her impulsively.
 
"Can you answer one question for me?" she asked.
 
"I'll try," he answered cautiously.
 
"What is your real surname? You hesitated before you told the marriage clerk 'Smith.'"
 
She was far more intelligent than he had previously assumed. "By real surname, you mean Michel's name – my stepfather's?"
 
"If that's the one you use. I suppose I'm Madame Smith officially now, but I'd love to know what my name would have been if you had told the clerk the truth."
 
He hesitated a moment, embarrassed. "Chatnoir," he said softly.
 
"What? I didn't hear you."
 
"Chatnoir," he said more loudly.
 
She burst out laughing, and he finally joined in, realizing the humorous coincidence.
 
"So you've always been a black cat?"
 
"Yes, I have, but I suppose I'm Smith now."
 
"Erik, I'd rather have a French name. Would you pick one?"
 
He thought a moment, and came up with something not too far off from his original surname. "How about 'Chansonnuit'?"
 
"It is certainly unusual," Christine said, "but I love it."
 
"It will remind us of our own song of the night," he said, and wiped some bubbles from her dark curls.
 
Her face grew serious. "Erik, I want us to travel the world together, and sing in concerts as Monsieur and Madame Chansonnuit. I want everyone to hear your voice – not just mine."
 
"That sounds like a plan to which I can agree," Erik said, "depending on the ship schedules, of course."
 
"And one more thing I'd like..."
 
"Why am I not surprised?" Erik asked, but he was indeed surprised when she said what was on her mind.
 
"Let's wash each other and get back to bed. I really want to try – you know, it – again."
 
Erik smiled. He was perfectly willing to go along with her request. A man who has his first experience with a woman at the age of thirty-four has a great deal of lost time to make up.
 
 
 
Afterword: This story is dedicated to former Broadway Phantom Norm Lewis and to President Barack Obama, each of whom broke his own color barrier, and each of whom has given humanity hope that we will indeed reach a state of equality, if we all work together to make it happen.
 
Note that I used the term "Negro" in this story, instead of a modern term. This would have been the polite word at the time, at least in U.S. English. The term "black" was at that time derogatory, "colored" came and went later, and "African-American" would have gotten someone quizzical stares. I also used the term "race" instead of ethnicity because that was the term used in the late 19th century. I have attempted to use only respectful language, but if I'm using improper terminology, please forgive me -- and please let me know what is correct, so I can change it.
 
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