Set against the backdrop of 1880s Paris and the stunning Opera Garnier, The Guardian of the Opera: Nocturne brings you the familiar tale from a different direction. Meg Giry met the Phantom of the Opera once when she was twelve years old, a new ballet dancer lost in the Opera’s maze. Years later, when an Angel of Music offers singing lessons to her best friend Christine Daaé, Meg is sure she knows what’s actually happening. But as strange events unfold and the pieces stop adding up, Meg has to wonder if she truly understands the Phantom–or Christine.
Erik is a man of many talents and many masks, and the one covering his face may be the least concealing. The opera house is his kingdom and his refuge, where he stalks through the shadows as the Phantom of the Opera, watching over all that occurs. He never intended to fall in love; when he does, it launches him into a new symphony he’s certain can only end in heartbreak.
Sometimes I believe the course of my life was set because I got lost one day when I was twelve years old. I got lost often that year, but only once that mattered.
I had first come to the Opera Garnier only three days before, and I defy anyone to learn that labyrinth of rooms and passages so quickly. It didn’t help being a girl from a small village, come to Paris with my mother just a week earlier. The city was bewildering, unimaginably bigger than my little village of Leclair. And the Opera was the heart and center of Paris, stranger and wilder and even more confusing.
I was supposed to be on my way to ballet practice. I was a petit rat, the lowest tier of society among the Opera’s performers. Madame Thibault the ballet mistress presided over us, and she did not tolerate tardiness. I didn’t want to be late. I desperately wanted to be at ballet practice—but I was lost.
Some wrong turn mixed me up somewhere, and from there I could only fly through the maze like a small ghost, unable to find the way back to my intended path. The Opera held too many similar corridors, with their polished marble floors, gilt paneled walls, and long arrays of mirrors. No space in the Opera was plain or generic, until the dizzying amount of detail, the carvings and the gold designs and the patterned grates overwhelmed me, so that I couldn’t pick out one familiar note in the crashing, thundering symphony of it all.
It felt equally impossible to ask for directions from anyone I passed, the looming scenechangers with gap-toothed grins or the elegant sopranos with their noses in the air. By the time I might have built up enough reckless courage to speak to someone, no one was left. I had got below ground level, probably not very far, but low enough for the halls to be deserted, low enough for it to feel cool despite the summer warmth above. I’d left behind the human smells of the upper corridors, the grease paint, perfume and cigar smoke. Down here the air smelled damp, reminding me of the fabled lake said to be even farther down. In stark and jarring contrast, these walls were plain, white-washed stone, unevenly lit by flickering gas lamps.
When I came to a bleak and empty dead-end, I gave up. I slid down to sit against the cold stone wall, one arm around my ankles and forehead against my knees. With my other hand I held tightly onto my small gold necklace, the barest of comforts in the desolation. My hair fell forward like a golden curtain around my face, blocking out the dismal, silent, baffling corridor. I half-believed that I would never get out, that I would die lost in the depths of the Opera.
Part of me found that the preferable option. To stumble in late to ballet practice would mean facing the ballet mistress’ mocking disapproval. She would hate me, the other girls would laugh at me, and my entire life, not to mention dancing career, would be over forever. I’d never earn any money to help Mother afford to stay in Paris, and we’d have to go back to Leclair where nothing would ever happen to me ever again.
So I sat in that dead-end corridor and cried.
“It can’t be as bad as all that.”
The voice that broke the silence was the most beautiful I had ever heard. Perhaps that was a strange adjective for a male voice, but it was a true one. It was a melodic voice, every syllable flowing smoothly into the next while the pronunciation stayed crisply clear. And it was a kind voice as well, sympathetic with a bracing amount of levity. It was a voice I would have had the courage to ask directions from, just a little earlier.
By now, the situation felt too far gone to be salvaged. Ballet practice would start within minutes; I couldn’t imagine getting there in time now even if I knew the way. So I just sobbed out, “I can’t find my way to practice and the ballet mistress is going to kill me.”
Only then did I lift my head to push my hair back, wipe my eyes and look at the man who had spoken. And then—sob catching in my suddenly tightening throat—then I got scared.
The other ballet girls had already taken great delight in telling me about Le Fantôme, the Phantom of the Opera, the specter who stalked the corridors, harbinger of death and disaster. I froze, staring at this strange figure so tall above me.
He was wearing the formal, all-black evening clothes the stories had promised. The legend also mentioned hands covered in blood, which his weren’t. His eyes weren’t the glowing yellow of the tales, but he did wear a molded white mask over the right side of his face in a more mysterious touch, while a broad-brimmed hat cast another layer of shadow.
A mask and evening clothes in the morning were unusual, but we were in an opera house. My instinct that he was the Phantom came from clues harder to define than a mask: a shroud of mystery surrounded him, from the swirling black cloak to the inexplicable way he seemed as much shadow as man, indistinct in the dim light, as though he was so used to blending in that he forgot to stop.
Somehow I thought of the Phantom at once, before he even had time to say, “In that case, I understand why you’re upset. There are many people I would rather cross than the ballet mistress.”
It was a sympathetic remark, made in that perfect voice, with a faint smile as well. However, my mother had warned me often enough not to trust strange men just because they smiled, and this one was stranger than most. “Who are you?” I gasped out, though I felt horribly sure that I already knew.
He fingered the brim of his hat, and I read thoughtfulness in his stance. “I am a sort of…guardian of the Opera,” he said at last, which only confirmed my worst fears. “You seem unfamiliar. Are you new?”
I could think of no answer that felt safe, so I chose the truth and said, “Yes.” In a way, everyone was new. The Opera Garnier had opened in January, and this was only June; I couldn’t imagine learning every face in six years, let alone a mere six months.
“I see. Old hands have no business getting lost, but when new it is difficult to avoid. I will help you.” And he extended one black-gloved hand.
My heart pounded in my chest so loudly he must have heard it, and my fingers tightened, wrapped around my legs. I stared at his hand, unmoving, for so long that he took it back again and said, “Not too new, I see, to have heard of the Phantom.”
So it was true, and only more terrifying that he admitted it. I looked up at his green eyes, at that mask, and squeaked, “Are you going to kill me?”
He crouched down, bringing his face nearly to my level, black cloak pooling around him. Closer now, I could see his eyes through the shadows, greener than anyone’s I had ever seen. “I will tell you a secret, but you mustn’t tell anyone else because it would ruin my reputation. I do not eat girls’ hearts. I have never drenched any walls in blood, at least not in this country. I cannot read minds or send nightmares, and—brace yourself, this one will be shocking—I am not actually a skeleton with glowing yellow eyes.”
He said it with such perfect solemnity that a giggle escaped me in spite of myself. It may have been slightly hysterical.
He nodded once. “I swear on Mozart, Beethoven, and Stradivari that if you come with me, you will reach ballet practice unharmed.”
When he extended his hand again, I took it. Even though I knew it was probably just a trick of voice, I was obscurely reassured by the vow—and I was also acutely conscious that he could kill me whether I went voluntarily or not.
His fingers closed around mine and he rose to his feet, drawing me up. For a supposed ghost, he had a warm and solid hand.
“One story that is true—I walk through walls.” He reached out to the wall behind me, and I turned my head in time to see a panel pivot out, revealing a dark space behind it. How many doors like that existed in the Opera, if one had happened to be right next to me all along?
He waved his hand through the air, a candle appearing between his thumb and forefinger. He lifted the candle and blew lightly over it. I was still noticing that he was a ghost who could breathe when the candle crackled to life with flame.
“How did you do that?” I asked, eyes widening.
His half-smile broadened. “Magic.” He stepped through the opening, candle illuminating a narrow tunnel of bare stones and wooden cross beams, more a space between walls than a proper passage.
Following him was either the bravest or most foolish thing I had ever done.
The Phantom guided me through endless turns and up a multitude of tight curved steps, the candle seeming to cast as much shadow as light. At first I walked stiffly, spine tingling with terrors, but slowly my breathing began to steady and my heartbeat to settle down, as we kept walking and he kept up a pleasant, if mostly one-sided, conversation.
He told me that the ballet mistress, though fearsome, had never actually murdered anyone. He advised me to stay away from the cellars, and if I got lost in the future I should keep going upstairs, never down. Some time when I wasn’t lost, I should go up to the roof to see the excellent view. He also told me I was not to worry if the ballet girls weren’t friendly at first, and I was never to feel that their opinion defined who I was, a statement that at the time seemed absurd and yet became remarkably comforting in later days.
I peeked at him when I dared, though with the shadows around us, the shadows cast by his hat, it was hard to see even his unmasked features. I thought he maintained a friendly expression throughout, rarely looking at me, focusing instead on the path ahead. I couldn’t hazard much of a guess at his age. No gray hair or stooped shoulders, definitely not an old man—but also definitely belonging to the foreign realm of mature adults that any people at least ten years older than me seemed to inhabit.
I had little time to contemplate. That dark walk didn’t last more than five minutes, though I would spend far more time remembering it. That day, he was soon reaching out to another wall. A movement of his fingers and a panel slid to the left. Beyond it, I could see a brightly-lit hallway, empty of people, full of the Opera’s characteristic decorations.
“Turn left, go right at the first intersection, and you should be just in time for ballet practice,” he said, handing me over the threshold.
I stepped out into the light, flexing my newly-released fingers. For feeling so reluctant to follow, I now felt strangely adrift to be sent back on my own. I hesitated, looked back at him in the shadows. “Thank you.” It felt inadequate.
He touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgement, stepped back a pace and vanished into the darkness. The wall slid shut, looking no different from every other panel in the corridor, as if it had never existed. As if he had never existed.
I tentatively reached out and touched the wall, patterned in pale blue with generous gold molding. Nothing moved, and I couldn’t even see a seam amidst the intricate design. I drew my hand back and shook my head, fuzzy, as though I’d just woken out of a remarkably vivid and extraordinary dream.
Here in the waking world, I still had to get to ballet practice, with no minutes to spare. At that thought I dashed off down the hall, spun right at the intersection, and arrived breathless at the mirrored practice room just ahead of my time.
The ballet mistress looked down her narrow nose at me as I came in the door. “Do save some breath for dancing, Mademoiselle Giry.”
But that was nothing; that was harmless. I was on time to take my position at the barre and she wasn’t angry with me, and besides—I had met the Phantom of the Opera and lived to tell the tale. In the afterglow of that, even Madame Thibault didn’t seem so terrifying.
He waited until the rapid beat of her footsteps faded around the corner, then turned to make his way through the narrow passage towards the nearest descending staircase.
He didn’t often intervene so directly. It wasn’t safe. But he found it hard to consider a crying little girl dangerous. She was small and alone. Before she lifted her head, he had thought she was even younger than she was. Helping her had seemed harmless enough—even amusing, to show off that candle trick. Mere sleight-of-hand, but enough to impress a Persian Sultana, and certainly good enough for a little ballet girl.
Nothing was ever unmixed though, and for all he had found the encounter pleasant, it hadn’t been without a pang. He hadn’t liked hearing the fear in her voice. Surprising, when it was exactly what he wanted, what he had spent these past months carefully composing.
He needed the fear. He needed the Opera Company to think that he was the dangerous one, so it wouldn’t occur to them that they, with their numbers and their confidence and their ability to cooperate, were the true dangers, the ones capable of hounding and harrying and hunting down the outcast in their midst.
He ran his fingertips along the rough wall of the passage, mere inches from the busy life on the other side.
Any attack would be more complicated than a raging mob with pikes; France was a civilized country, outside of her sporadic revolutions. But the result would be the same. The guillotine, or even worse—a cage. He was guilty of the crime of being different, the world had convicted him at birth, and he had ample precedent to suggest how they would sentence him.
But not while he possessed the Opera Garnier. Not while he was the Phantom of the Opera, stalking as ruler through its hidden passages, shadowed vaults and lofty catwalks. They would never catch him. They would never cage him.
He would do whatever was necessary to ensure that. For all their melodramatic complaints, the Opera Company was happy enough to be occupying a haunted theatre—a high-quality ghost lent a certain prestige—and if Monsieur Poligny the manager was not so happy about paying a salary to a ghost, well…the man should have chosen more wisely than to marry a woman with his wife’s background. The Opera Ghost had recently obtained some very interesting information, and a little judicious blackmail should resolve any further issues with the management.
As for the little blonde girl, likely it would turn out for the best with her in the end. The ballet dancers and chorus girls loved telling tales about the Ghost, and they much preferred blood-curdling horror stories to ones about a helpful specter. She would be absorbed back into the anonymous crowd of little dancers, all much alike. It had been merely an educated guess that she was new—he didn’t really know every face, at least not yet. By the time she was telling the adventure to a dozen giggling friends, it would be about how the terrifying Phantom had nearly abducted her and she’d barely escaped with her life. He wouldn’t waste his time watching that conversation. He knew that was how it would go.
And it was better that way.
She has been blogging since 2010 at Tales of the Marvelous. Her weekly Writing Wednesday posts provide updates about her current writing, including excerpts. She also posts regularly with book and movie reviews, and reflections on reading. She has been a member of Stonehenge Writers since 2012, and has completed NaNoWriMo seven times.
Cheryl has looked for faeries in Kensington Gardens in London and for the Phantom at the Opera Garnier in Paris. She considers Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet to be life-changing and Terry Pratchett books to be the best cure for gloomy days.
One Reply to “Spotlight: The Guardian of the Opera: Nocturne + Excerpt”
This looks like a sweet little read. Thanks for sharing.