All was deathly still. I’d never seen the Opera House so quiet and still. It was eerie enough to send a shiver through me, as though it existed in a world separate from the rest of Paris. A couple of carriages stood outside the Grand Entrance, their drivers and horses dozing in the sun, so someone must be inside. Inspectors, perhaps? Maybe Messieurs Moncharmin and Richard, if they’d survived. I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard much at all actually. The denizens of the Palais Garnier had been flung as far as the ashes still drifting idly down from the rooftops with any stray breeze. I’d seen a very few of the other seamstresses I’d known. I knew Carlotta had sadly perished from the smoke. But I hadn’t thought to ask about the Opera’s owners. I was glad to hear that my costume mistress, Mde. Odelle, had gotten out. She had ever been kind to me, though my stitches were not a good as they should be, I knew, and it was a joy to see my friends alive and well. But the one name I wanted to hear about, the one fate I so desperately needed to know, was still unanswered. No one seemed to know the fate of the Opera Ghost. It had been a month. I could no longer stand the unknowing.
And so I found myself huddled here by the wall, watching, trying to plan which entrance I would use, knowing I needed to be circumspect. I would not be allowed in if anyone saw me. No one of us had been allowed in, not to try to collect any belongings that may have survived the fire, not to look for the missing, not for any purpose.
But not everyone knew the Opera House the way I did. I had taken to wandering the halls and passages almost the day I’d arrived, at age 13, and had never stopped. The face the Opera House put on was not the only one it possessed. There were passages behind most of the rooms. I supposed they were originally intended for servants and night refuse men to pass unseen and avoid insulting the refined noses of the Prima Donnas and Patrons and other dignitaries staying as guests. But they had been long abandoned, and I don’t know that very many even knew they existed any longer. These were just one of the secrets belonging to this great building. I flatter myself to think I knew of most of them by the year I turned 15.
This day, as I waited by the wall for my chance, I was glad of my knowledge of my Palais Secret. It would get me into the building, I knew, and to where I needed to go without being seen. The question was which way in should I choose? Would it be the door under the front steps? No, too public. I couldn’t make it in through the kitchen again, I knew that. No…just there…the left side of the building. There was an opening into a passage behind the stage. It was for easy access to the stage during performances. It was partly hidden anyway from the view of the drive, and now it was hidden entirely behind stacks of refuse, but still accessible. And there was another smaller door just down the corridor once inside that would get me back behind the main rooms and walls. I could explore from there. That would be it then.
Trying to appear as just another curious passerby I idled my way around the side of the building towards the entrance I’d chosen. No one gave me even the slightest notice. Looking around me, I made the fast dart from the street, turned the handle-thankfully it had not been locked-and opening the door only as far as needful, I slipped inside.
What I did not know then was that I had indeed been seen and that that mistake would change everything.
Pressing my skirts as close to the wall as possible, though why I thought that might hide me if someone was to be in the Hall I really couldn’t say, I checked up and down the corridor. No one. The air was still vaguely hazy and the smell of roasted fabric, wood and flesh was strong. I gagged, swallowing bile, realizing that some of the smell most likely was all that was left of people I had known. Tears stung my eyes, but I pinched my nose and resolutely took the few steps to the panel in the wall that I knew would open and allow me into the back halls of the Opera House.
When the panel clicked closed behind me I turned and got my bearings. Yes, I knew where I was in reference to the other hidden passages. To go to the right would lead me under the stage and from there to other parts of the main theatre building. To go to the left, however, would eventually take me round and then down to where the cellars lay. That was where I must go. The walls were black with soot that came off onto my hands when I touched them, and there were portions where the walls were collapsed and the inner passages were partly revealed, but those were few and quickly passed. As I moved further and further away from the main rooms where the fire had started, the damage grew less and less and in a few turns the hidden corridors became hidden once again. There were spiders here and rats, but I’d long grown accustomed to them and was not afraid. I was surprised to see them so soon after the fire, I’d have thought they’d have long fled, but here they still were. Perhaps they had simply returned. Opportunists that they were, I am sure they found much to benefit from in this ruined shell. I moved, ducking under the trailing vines of long abandoned webs and stepping over piles of ancient play bills left in heaps and other refuse of a long gone age of the theatre.
The heavy metal grilled gate that sealed the cellars off from the main floors of the theatre was rusty and it took several seconds of my pushing against it to get it to move, but once it did I did not find it difficult going to get it open wide enough for me to squeeze in sideways. I pulled it back shut behind me. If someone were to happen to come down here I did not want them wondering at an open gate. I followed the dark stone steps down, down and further down till they opened into a more lighted rotunda hung with dusty and faded tapestries that led yet further down. I held the bannister and went down slowly, suspecting there were traps and tricks on the steps here that could easily trick me into an early grave. At the bottom of the rotunda there was a choice before me…the cobbled corridor that led to the underground lake? Or the carved stone tunnel that led somewhere I had not explored yet? I had no way to cross the lake or travel the canals and to get wet wading them would lead to questions once I was back above ground that I could not answer. My decision made, I veered right and followed the low tunnels. They were very, very dark and the basques of lions and beasts were silent company as I made my way through them. I turned and double backed and retraced my steps a dozen times trying to get somewhere. What little light came in was just enough to allow me to see the turns and memorize my way back out. But the floor was steady and smooth, and the height consistent. I did not feel afraid. Not of my route. I was more worried about what I would find-or not find- at the end of my journey.
I found out a moment later. The corridor widened abruptly and opened into a windowless chamber built into the stone and set in a series of small rooms open to one another. To the left were the edges of the underground lake, and in front of me was a chamber filled with the most incredible items and all in a state of supreme chaos! I don’t know quite what I was expecting but this was not it. There was a carved bed shaped like a coffin with hangings of the most glorious and finest black lace! These were mostly tossed to the ground and torn. There was an organ, covered in dust, tables of papers with diagrams and drawings and sketches, half of them strewed about the floor and covered with footprints or torn or both. Crumpled pages of musical scores, mirrors cracked and shattered glass everywhere. Candles that had burned to nothing, their wax pooled on the rock below and caking the red velvet curtains that were half pulled down. There was a dress form with a life like wax head attached overturned and lying at the very edge of the lake. It was damp and the hair of the mannikin was trailing in the water, floating like river weed. It was not a little spooky. I turned away from it and moved throughout the chamber.
I had found what I was looking for. This then, was where he had lived. Could he live here still? It seemed deserted, for no one had done anything to right the chaos and destruction. Did this mean he no longer lived? Or that he had merely fled and not returned? Or was there another answer altogether? I stood a chair upright and sat upon it, pondering what to do next. I really had not thought what I’d do once I’d achieved my destination. So now what? I picked up a loose sketch from the floor and turned it over and over in my hands. It was of course of her, Christine Daae. His obsession with her had quite destroyed everything. I stared at the sketch, flattening the crumpled edges smooth against my thighs. A deep breath and I’d decided I was not ready to leave here. I’d do what any woman in this place with nothing else planned would do…I’d tidy up.
I stood, tucked my skirts up into my belt a bit and looked around. Where to start? Well, right here I supposed, and I stooped to start gathering papers off the floor. I went about, gathering up papers, stacking them neatly on tables and desks, flattening the crumpled ones first, and setting heavy books down on the stacks to keep them in place and help to smooth the wrinkles out as well. I righted candelabras, and made a small pile of trash in a corner near the passage I’d entered the room from. I’d take what I could today and come back for the rest another time.
I was on my knees in front of a partly shattered full length mirror carefully brushing shards into a pile when I felt the hairs on the back of my next stand straight up and an ice cold sensation as of a 1000 insect legs traveled up my spine. My legs instantly turned to jelly and I lifted my head to the mirror. There was my reflection, gone ghostly pale, and behind it was The Phantom, no more than an arm’s length from me.
I gasped and spun and shrank back against the mirror utterly unable to speak. My heart raced and spots danced before my eyes. I don’t think I breathed. We stared at each other. Or rather, I stared, he glowered. It might have been a minute but it, of course, felt like forever that we remained there, frozen. It was long enough for my heart to slow and my breathing to resume and for me to regain some of my composure.
“Who are you?” he finally demanded. His voice was low and quiet, so very quiet. He hadn’t moved.
“I—“ my voice broke. I cleared it and tried again, “my name is Sophie.”
Still he just stood there. I shifted, my knees were starting to hurt and I could feel the pressure of the broken mirror frame behind my hip.
“I was part of the–, “ I started in an attempt to fill the awful silence when he abruptly leapt forward and reached down, grabbing my arm roughly and hauling me to my feet.
I made a startled squeak of protest and then he leaned right down inches from my face and snarled, “What are you doing here, you trespassing little vermin?!” I could feel his breath against my cheeks, see the planes of his face on the side uncovered, the stubble of a beard not newly shaved, see the smoothness of the mask he wore, smell his scent of wax and sweat and wine and ink and something undeniably, overpoweringly male. My senses were completely alert, and a flush was spreading from my belly down my legs and up across my face. I was utterly aware of how vulnerable I was…and how female. But I was also, to my incredibly detached surprise, absolutely unafraid. He’d startled me, but I was not frightened.
And this absurd realization is what enabled me to do what I did next.
I leaned right back at him, steeled my voice and said firmly, “Stop that.”
It was his turn to be startled. He dropped my arm and stepped back a bit. We stood there staring at one another again for another minute. Then I said, “I am not afraid of you.”
He said simply, “Then you are a fool.”
I didn’t answer and we continued to stand there until I broke his gaze, knelt back down and resumed gingerly brushing the shards of broken glass again into the pile I’d begun. Half of them had been disturbed and knocked aside when he’d grabbed me. He just stood watching me. My nerves were becoming agitated and I started to babble.
“I’ll just tidy this up a little. Really, it’s shameful, the mess. I can’t stay much longer. I’ll come back tomorrow or the next day with a broom perhaps. Allright then, well, I’d best be going, they’ll be missing me…” And I gathered a small armful of debris I’d stacked by the entrance to the passages and turned abruptly and left him.
I managed to get most of the way back through the stone corridors to the rotunda before my legs gave way and I slid against the wall to the cold dirty floor. I sat in a collapsed heap, with tears leaking from my eyes and sliding down my cheeks, my heart racing, my muscles as weak as newborn chicks. The fear that he was right behind me and would come upon me at any moment was strong and bitter in my stomach. I felt I might vomit from it and turned my head aside just in time not to splatter my shoes and skirts. Just under all this was an enormous sense of triumph and pride. He was alive, alive! And I had faced him. The exhilaration singing in my breast, I gathered myself, stood, took up my small burden of trash once more and retraced my steps back out of the Opera House.