Master of Illusion — Book One

By Anne Rouen

Historical fiction, Romance, Literary fiction

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679
12 mins

Prologue

1 December 1929

‘Who is making that infernal racket? And at such an ungodly hour, too.’ The publisher pulled the pillow over his head, but the hideous cacophony on the doorknocker finally galvanised him into action. ‘If it's an author with a manuscript, I'll ram it down his throat,’ he swore, bounding down the stairs in his dressing-gown to stare at the brown envelope slowly working its way under the door―in sudden, jarring silence. He snatched at the bolts, dragging it open, running out to glance up and down the street―empty—the street lamps glowing eerily in the mist. He shivered, turning back to pick up the anonymous delivery. Some people had just no thought for others ...

Angrily re-bolting, he grabbed a paper knife from his desk, retreating to the warmth of his bedchamber. Before the fire, he slit open the envelope, gasping in astonishment as he drew out a yellowed newspaper clipping.

A little frisson chilled his spine. He recognised the title of an article his late father had written on the tenth anniversary of a certain tragedy for his ‘Historical Recollections’ series. With an exclamation, he picked up the piece written almost thirty years ago, about an old mystery that still kept readers fascinated. Intrigued himself, he began to read:

Historical Recollection: The Unsolved Mystery of the Opéra Français

On the twenty-fourth of August 1891, the news of the previous night's great catastrophe was trumpeted all over Paris. ‘Return of the Phantom?’ blared the headlines. ‘Dark Angel: A Copycat Crime?’, ‘Opéra Français Destroyed in Blaze: Crime or Accident?’, ‘Angel: Murderer or Hero?’.

These headlines were the talk of Paris that fateful day, and everyone had an opinion, particularly on the question posed in the above last. It was a nine-days wonder—and so scandalous some of the claims and stories that many were inclined to shrug their shoulders and disbelieve it completely. Especially since two of the main subjects of this salacious gossip were seen to be enjoying the sponsorship in society of the comtesse de la Roche-Carillac: one affianced to her nephew, the other as chaperone.

But what really happened at the Opéra Français that fateful night? And afterwards, too? Was there, as some suggested, a dark spectre, driven by a mad lust for power to destroy his world, the theatre, in one final, terrible act of vengeance?

Or again, some whispered a story of an eccentric genius who, supposedly modelling his life on the frightening despot of the Opéra Paris of some twenty-one years earlier, had, like his hero, held a great opera house to ransom.

There were certain similarities; it is true. But, it must be stated, there were also important differences: the chief of which being the essence of his character. For buried deeply beneath the dark exterior, the dreadful scarring of mind and body, there was a power and gentleness waiting to emerge, to add a piquant dimension to the personality of this extraordinary man.

Like his hero, driven by dark demons and uncontrollable passions, he fell in love with a beautiful music student: hardly surprising for a young man growing up in an opera house, would not one think?

Like his hero, a facial disfigurement led him to hide himself in darkness, away from the cruel ridicule of his fellows.

But, unlike his hero, through the agency of one who truly loved him, he was given a second chance at life.

What would he do with that life? Was there any formula he would follow now? And, more importantly, where was he?

Speculation was rife at first, careering wildly between the ridiculous and the fantastic. But then, over time, much was forgotten. However, all agreed on one thing: that his voice, having once been heard, could never be forgotten. Its compelling power and exciting timbre relived over and over with ecstasy—especially his final performance.

And here was another point of conjecture: had he really murdered the tenor, as was popularly supposed, in order to sing in his place? ‘Rubbish’, declared the sceptics. Dolenti, grossly overweight, had succumbed to a heart attack at the most inconvenient of moments. This man, Angel, had stepped in at the last second in order to save the day, there being no understudy. Could he be blamed if, through the appalling negligence of a corrupt management, the theatre was so badly maintained that a shocking accident had occurred?

Later, there were some libellous claims (doubtless by the same management) that he had arranged it all in order to kidnap the beautiful diva. ‘No, no, not so!’, shouted his supporters. ‘No, he saved her. He used his great genius and strength to save her from certain, horrifying death. If he had kidnapped her, how can she be here now, stunning society with her beauty and demure charm?’

Now, ten years on, unearthed from obscurity in a dusty archive, this question, along with the others, remains unanswered: a mystery, living on in legend. And as with any such mystery, time dims its intensity but not its appeal. We have to wonder: will it ever be resolved?

Copycat crime? The publisher tugged at his lip. Le Fantôme de l‘Opéra—Gaston Leroux had sworn it to be a true story, citing this piece by his father as corroborating evidence. He'd been the rankest copy boy when this monumental scandal had erupted. Although, heir to the distinguished publishing house of Delaine, he had been made to start at the bottom, working for a newspaper, to gain the vital experience that stood him in good stead now. He'd been about eleven at the time, but he still remembered those headlines quoted in his father's article and the excitement and speculation on the streets that day. He also remembered that the man, Angel, whilst having some serious detractors in the persons of the young comte de Villefontaine and the Police Chief, Captain Moreau, had a formidable ally in that outspoken old tartar, the marquise du Melande and another in the retired prima ballerina, Madame Aranova.

He looked again at the last question posed by his father. Not so long ago, he would have said, ‘Not a chance’. But now it looked as though there may be a breakthrough, after all. Just the other day, he'd heard the tantalising rumour that the diaries of Madame Dupont, the Artistic Director of the Opéra Français at the time in question, had been discovered in an abandoned wing of the Hospital du Bois—a hospice for wounded soldiers from the Great War. There was also another rumour currently doing the rounds—that a previously uncrackable safe had been opened, at last, and found to contain certain revealing documents, including the secret files of the Master himself—or so he had been told ... But, above all, there loomed the question: ‘Who had sent him this clipping? And, more importantly, why?’

At opening time, still with the question, ‘Why?’ in the back of his mind, he was hailed by a courier.

‘Special delivery, Monsieur. Urgent, so they said. They said to be sure to tell you that.’

‘They?’

‘It was a group of performers from the Opéra Magique acting on behalf of the author, they said.’

‘You did not ask the name of this author?’

‘I did, Monsieur, and do you know, I think they were making game of me. They each said it was the other ...’

‘Indeed?’ The publisher did not smile. ‘There is no accounting for some people ...’

‘Will you sign for it?’ asked the courier, holding out a package.

‘But certainly, Monsieur. Un moment, s'il vous plaît, while I snib this door ... there. Put it on the shelf while I get my pen.’

‘Oh, and there's one more. I'm sorry, I almost forgot.’ Thrusting the package on the shelf, he went to rummage in the basket on his bicycle, returning with a second, which he placed with its fellow. ‘They said this one's not urgent, Monsieur. They said you will know when it's time to open it.’

‘Really?’ The publisher gave him a narrow look.

‘Vraiment, Monsieur. But you know what authors are.’

‘I should, by now.’

‘Indeed. Some of them are a little outré, non?’ The courier chuckled. ‘Sign here, Monsieur.’

‘Many a true word ...’ murmured the publisher, flourishing his pen.

At the end of a long and arduous day, the publisher closed the doors to the public, stoked up the fire and unwrapped the package. He took up the covering letter. ‘The accompanying manuscript,’ he read, ‘is a faithful rendition of the diaries of Madame Dupont (with reference, where necessary, to other relevant sources), containing original excerpts (where appropriate) and set out in the form of a novel for the sake of continuity. Oh, yes? We will see ...’

But, as he acknowledged, there was yet another mystery—the letter had not been signed; the unknown author making an astonishing claim ...

‘Mais, what is this?’ He pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. ‘Obsessive love and jealousy at the bottom of a forty-year-old mystery? Scandalous secrets exposed? A respected member of the haut monde a Master of Illusion?’

The publisher began to appreciate the writer's need for anonymity. Brows raised, he put his hand to the manuscript, flipped it open and settled down to read.

Part 1 - Elise and Angel - Chapter 1

Quatorze Juillet 1864

On Special Days we dance in the square.

The carriage driven by the squat Russian slackened speed on reaching the village, entering at a smart trot. Fingers of bright afternoon sunshine played over the rippling muscles of the Akhal-teké horses, touching to gold their pewter coats; the lively tempo of their hoof-beats mingling delightfully with sounds of carnival music, children's voices and the evocative scents of curing hay.

One of the leaders propped at a solitary hen pecking amongst the cobblestones, and the coachman, with an admonitory growl, slowed his team to a sedate walk. The voices and music, growing louder as they neared the village square, prompted the opening of a window, and Madame Aranova leaned out—the better to watch the happy throng of dancing children.

‘Yuri,’ she gasped, clutching her companion's hand. ‘Look at that child! Did you ever ...?’

‘No, my dear, indeed not.’ Yuri Aranov pulled the check cord. ‘Let us out here, Pyotor, then go on to the inn and stable the horses. We shall stay in this village tonight.’

He helped his wife to descend and strolled arm in arm with her to the square.

‘How many times have we come through this village and not seen more than a hen? I did not know there were so many people living here.’

Madame Aranova seemed distracted. ‘No? Well—it is Bastille Day.’

‘Ah, Bastille Day—of course. I had forgotten about this typically French institution. And what a day to celebrate! The French, they are so bloodthirsty, are they not?’ He laughed good-humouredly. But then, receiving no response, turned his attention to the scene that so engrossed his wife.

The village children danced happily. One, a tiny child, more delicate than the others, appeared to defy gravity as she leapt and twirled, plaits flying, skirt billowing out from her slender legs like a tutu, her Madonna-like little face reflecting her joy in her dance.

‘Belle, belle—she is beautiful,’ declared Madame Aranova. ‘I must—must take her with me, Yuri.’

‘Yes, my Love, I think you must. I have never seen such grace and lightness in an untrained dancer, let alone a little child. In fact, I do not remember seeing such exquisite dancing in many a trained ballerina—except for you, of course. Indeed,’ he added, his eyes on the child, ‘a very special little girl.’

‘Yes, you understand, my dear, bless you. Do you mind going away now? This is something I had better do alone.’ Her sweetness of expression robbed her words of offence.

He looked at her quizzically. ‘You are afraid I will frighten her, the little one?’

‘Oh, Yuri ...’

Lovingly, he kissed the hand she placed upon his. ‘I am sorry, my darling. Of course, it shall be as you wish. I will take a stroll through the village and await you at the inn.’

Yuri Aranov, enjoying his walk beside the tranquil stream that meandered through the village, felt himself to be a lucky man. Many years older than his wife and physically very ugly, he had been afraid to approach any eligible young lady, especially since he admitted to himself there was not one who made his heart beat hard enough to overcome his fear of rejection.

Forgetting marriage, he had set about making his fortune, quietly, thoroughly, methodically; keeping mistresses as did many others of his time, regularly visiting the theatre and other entertainment venues, for his appetite for all of life's pleasures was hearty, and he was a genuine admirer of the arts.

He had fallen in love with Natasha Oleva when he had first seen her on the stage in St Petersburg; her fragile beauty attracting him as fatally as any moth to a flame. In the same way that he had become a successful businessman, he set about wooing the prima ballerina so that she looked to him for everything. He had then suggested two things to the lovely creature he worshipped: one, that she marry him; and two, that they move to his estate just a few hours out of Paris so that she could dance in that glittering city in the Opéra Français—a theatre he part-owned.

He knew society disapproved of their union, calling them ‘Beauty and the Beast’, but he cared nothing, aware that it was prompted by jealousy and comforted that his wife saw through his ugliness to the generous soul beneath.

Ironically, he still kept his mistresses, able to enjoy their bodies and his own pleasures in ways that he would never dream of with his wife. Whenever she allowed him physical intimacy, he reverenced it, treating her like fine porcelain, afraid to abandon himself to the moment in case he hurt her, overwhelmed with humility that such a beautiful woman wanted to be a part of him. Yet, despite this restraint and its inevitable consequences, not one of his ‘convenients’ had ever touched that sacred place in his heart where he kept his love for her.

A great success, she made him proud in every way, dancing for years until strained ligaments in her knee and ankle forced her to retire. But she did not give up, training to world renown the students of the corps de ballet. His only sadness—there were no children. Curious how the little girl in the square had torn at his heartstrings.

Hands in pockets, he made his way back to the inn. He did not know whether or not his wife would be successful in her quest, but he hoped with all his heart she would be. If I had a daughter, he thought, I would want her to be like that.

§

The little girl's eyes grew rounder and rounder. A ray of sunshine spread across her face with her wide, beaming smile. ‘Madame Aranova!’ she cried ecstatically, curtsying deeply.

‘You know who I am, Child? But, how amazing!’

‘Yes, Madame. You danced here once.’

‘Did I? I don't remember. How old were you, Child?’

‘I was nearly four, Madame.’

‘And how old are you now?’

‘Six.’

‘Oh, it must have been when I did the regional promotion for the Ballet. Did you like it, Child?’

‘Oh, Madame.’ The little girl clasped her hands. ‘Yes, above all things, and I have been practising ever since, because ...’ she took a deep breath, ‘I want to be a ballerina just like you.’

‘But, how fortunate,’ murmured Madame Aranova, taking her hand. ‘And what is your name, Child?’

§

‘Oh, Yuri,’ she said later at the inn, pressing her temples. ‘Her family is not at all willing to let her go with me. I will try again tomorrow.’

‘I can understand that her parents would not wish to part with her,’ he replied, massaging her neck and shoulders.

‘But that's it―she has no parents. She is being reared by her elder sister with her own children. In a hovel, Yuri. Oh, it does not bear thinking about. They are so poor―yet so proud.’

‘Come, my dear, relax. You are becoming overwrought. Such tension in this beautiful neck.’

She turned her head to look at him. ‘I am not leaving without her.’

15 July 1864

Madame Aranova did not like my Home one little bit.

Madame Aranova sat in the dreary kitchen, ill lit by one small window. She looked about her at clean wooden benches, the scrubbed stone floor, dingy walls and babies' apparel drying over chair backs before the fire. Wretchedly poor but scrupulously clean, it spoke to her of hard work and poverty. Her eyes went to the flustered young woman, pregnant, holding one infant, and twins—scarcely older, crawling about the floor.

She gestured comprehensively. ‘You want this kind of life for Elise?’

The young woman thrust out her jaw. ‘She knows no other, Madame.’

‘But she could, Mariette,’ said Madame Aranova. ‘And so could you.’ She came over to her, placing one graceful hand on the baby and the other on the girl's arm. ‘Perhaps you do not know how very special your sister is? What a crime it would be not to allow her this opportunity?’

The young woman said nothing, eyeing the diamonds flashing on the delicate fingers. What a contrast to her own chapped, work-roughened hands. Just one of those rings would change my life completely, she thought resentfully. But I will not break up this family.

‘My dear,’ said Madame Aranova, ‘I have been through many squares in many villages, and I have seen many children dance. But Elise is the only one I have ever stopped for. What will make you change your mind?’

She shrugged. ‘We are peasants, Madame. Farm workers—not dancers.’

‘You speak for yourself, of course. But you may take it from me—Elise is a dancer—a born dancer. Where is your husband?’

‘Away, trying to get work,’ she replied, swallowing a sob.

‘You are here on your own with all these infants—and Elise?’ Madame Aranova threw up her hands in horror.

‘Yes, Madame.’

‘Then, that is it! Yes, I tell you, it is final. You cannot any longer remain here in poverty. It makes no sense. I will take Elise with me now and hire a good village girl to help you. You will send word to your husband that he has a job on my estate, and I will despatch a carrier to remove you.’

Mariette shook her head as she opened her purse. ‘No, Madame. I will not take charity. We may be poor but we stand on our own two feet.’

Until you fall down for lack of food, you silly girl. But Madame Aranova paid homage to her pride. ‘A loan,’ she said gently, putting some coins on the bench. ‘Your husband can pay it back out of his salary. Now, where is Elise?’

17 July 1864

Today I came to Paris to become a Ballerina.

Elise sat in the carriage, a solemn little girl, clutching a shabby notebook. ‘Madame, will you write in my diary what has happened today?’ she asked. ‘So that I can remember to tell Mariette.’

‘Yes, dear child,’ she promised, ‘I will write a full account, for today is a very important day in your life. It is a new beginning—the beginning of la belle Elise, Ballerina.’ Madame Aranova smiled at her, hiding the tears that had so unaccountably risen at the memory of the child's parting with her sister:

‘Elise, you must tell me,’ had said Mariette, kneeling down and holding both her hands, ‘do you really want to go?’

‘Oh, I do, I really do. Please, please, Mariette, I want to go with all my heart. Oh, but I will miss you.’

‘And I, you.’ They clung together, until Mariette put her gently away to reach up on a high shelf. ‘Wait. I have something for you. It was Maman's, but she never wrote in it. It is your diary. Every night, you will write what you did that day so that when you come home you can tell me all about your life. How about that?’

‘Oh, yes.’ She held the little leather-bound book with its attached pencil to her chest. ‘I will write in it every night.’ Then her face fell. ‘Oh, but I cannot yet write.’

‘Someone will help you until you can,’ promised Madame Aranova. ‘And Mariette will not be so far away that you will not see her often. Come, Petite, we must not keep the horses standing. They become impatient, like children.’ She smiled at Mariette. ‘You have made the right decision, my dear. You will see.’

19 July 1864

It is all so Big and Strange. I was afraid until I met Monsieur Dupont.

Elise entered the Opéra Français holding tightly to Madame Aranova's hand. She felt overawed and dwarfed by her opulent surroundings: the royal blue curtains with their silver fringing and silk rope ties; the baroque furnishings. Then her attention was taken by a gentleman with wavy white hair and the kindest eyes she had ever seen. Hers were drawn to his shoes. Never had she seen such shoes, she could see her reflection in the polished surfaces, a far cry from the farm workboots she was used to. Fascinated, she continued to stare at them until the gentleman spoke in courteous tones.

‘Madame, you have returned. And how was your trip?’

‘Excellent, Monsieur. Most enjoyable.’

‘Good, good. Yuri is not with you?’

‘No, he had some urgent business to attend to. He sends his compliments.’

‘Of course, my dear. How very kind of him.’ He was sensitive to the fact that Yuri Aranov felt at a disadvantage when confronted with his polished address. ‘And who is this you have brought to us, Madame?’

‘This is Elise Gordonnier, Monsieur. She wants to be a ballerina.’

‘A praiseworthy ambition, dear child.’ Monsieur Dupont smiled at her. ‘But, Madame, is she not a little young to leave her family?’

‘A little, Monsieur.’ She turned to Elise. ‘My dear, this is important. Will you show Monsieur Dupont how you can dance? He is the one who will say whether or not you may stay.’

Elise looked at her. For a fraction of a second, her big eyes showed uncertainty. Would she not be allowed to become a ballerina, after all? But then her brow cleared. She had only to dance her best to make everyone happy. Ever since she had been able to walk, she had found dancing to be the panacea for every ill—brightening even the longest face of those around her.

Monsieur Dupont crouched down to her level. ‘I will play a happy little tune for you on the piano, and you will listen to the music and imagine that you are a happy child dancing. Can you do that?’

She nodded vigorously. ‘But, yes.’ She had no need to imagine being a happy child dancing. Whenever she danced she was happy.

‘Good. Come over here into the salle de danse.’ He began to play a carnival tune and Elise, completely absorbed, began her dance, leaping, twirling, defying gravity, unconsciously following the directions of the music as it, too, leapt and twirled.

Monsieur Dupont stopped playing. He looked at Madame Aranova. ‘My God,’ he said. ‘Where did you find her?’

‘I thought you would be pleased with her.’

‘Where?’

‘In a village. I forget the name. Near Amiens.’

‘Come here, Petite.’ He cupped his hands around the sweet little face. ‘You are a very special little girl, do you know that? And if you work hard, you will grow up to be a great ballerina. This is what you want?’

‘Yes, Monsieur.’ She looked him in the eye. ‘I promise I will work hard.’

‘Then, you may stay, my dear.’ To Madame Aranova he mouthed just one word: ‘Exquisite.’



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