Master of Illusion — Book Two

By Anne Rouen

Historical fiction, Romance, Literary fiction

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393
7 mins

Prologue

3 December 1929

‘Book two,’ read the publisher, taking down the manuscript. He kicked the fire into some semblance of life, recharged his coffee cup from the pot on the hob and retired to his favourite armchair. ‘Continuing the tale of the Master of Illusion from the diaries of Madame Dupont and other illuminating sources, including the secret files of the Master himself. And now, the promised revelations ...’

Part One - The Opéra Magique - Chapter One - ...

Almost midnight, 21 April 1892

Our greatest Triumph! The culmination of all that we have worked for: a Zenith beyond our dreams. Yet, it is my Nadir.

He was laughing at her, she knew, something he had always done. Once it had been with affection, but now the malice was overt, tangible. From the day they had met as children they had been close. He, the younger, had always depended on her, listened to her counsel and, in male fashion, protected her; their lives irrevocably intertwined. Until Katarina's wedding day. From then on, Elise's life had, literally, been in the balance, as he struggled with his fury towards her. And now, it was hard, all too hard. Katarina would be back soon. And what then?
She began to feel ill. Would he never forgive her? Was she to be punished forever? Without another word, she got up and left their little party, stumbling over to the door, fumbling the handle, pausing for a moment in the outer dressing-room to take herself in hand.
‘Madame?’ called Sprite. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Leave her,’ said the Master. ‘Madame is exhausted by her evening and must needs retire. Perhaps the champagne has gone to her head?’
She gave a little sob. Oh, the —— How dare he? I have taken the veriest sip!
‘Speaking of which,’ he added, ‘you are being very clutch-fisted with it, Maestro. Recharge, s'il vous plaît.’
‘I am sorry, Monsieur.’ Monsieur Merignac hastened to repair his omission. ‘I was thinking ...’
‘Well, see that you do not do it. It does not suit you.’ The glasses clinked. ‘Salut.’
Heedless of the tears, Madame Dupont ran down the backstairs littered with drunken bodies, averting her eyes from abandoned embraces, unable to maintain sufficient sangfroid to return to the more civilised party in the foyer.
Crossing the square to her house, she thought about the story of the angel and the apostle John, about the little book that tasted like honey in the mouth but made the belly bitter. She knew just how he must have felt. Their Opéra Magique—its Grand Opening, the sweetness of their triumph, the magnificent after party—all turned to bitterness at his treatment of her. Yet, she had not been subjected to rudeness or violence, only a subtle undercurrent of anger. Debilitating, corrosive, relentless ...

Five am, 22 April 1892

The Reviews. Dare I open them? Will they be filled with Praise or Ridicule? Or worse—Danger and Death?

‘Good morning, Madame. I have brought to you the newspapers and the mail, the minute they arrived, as you requested.’
‘Oh, thank you, Marie.’ She did not look up from her stretching exercise at the barre. ‘Put them down there and tell Berthe to send a tray of coffee to the Master's dressing-room. Merci.’
Deliberately, she made herself finish her morning routine before she went to the side table to pick up a paper. Turning to the entertainment section, she gasped, closing it quickly.
Forgetting her distress at their previous encounter, she gathered up the bundle and ran to Angel's apartment, throwing them onto the tray with the coffee and, mindful of the hour, tapped lightly on his door.
‘Monsieur? Monsieur?’ She spoke quietly, so as not to disturb him if he had not yet risen from his bed. ‘Are you awake?’
The door swung open of itself, as before, but this time she entered, looking about for him.
‘What is it, Madame? You are up very early for someone who was celebrating to all hours.’
‘And you, Monsieur. I thought I may have woken you.’
‘No, no, I was working. Early morning is the best time for composing, before the world violates my doorstep.’ He rose from behind a small instrument to take the tray from her. ‘I see you come bearing gifts.’
‘Oui. But you have bought another clavichord.’ She seemed uncertain. ‘I did not get you one, because I was not sure ... that is, I did not want to ... to remind you if ——’
‘Very thoughtful of you, Madame. It is the first glimmer of sensitivity I have seen in you for quite some time.’
‘Please ...’
‘Ah, I see. You have brought to me the newspapers. Come, sit down. Let us see what the critics have had to say about our debut. But I expect you know, already. Tell me, is it good news or bad? It has to have been one or the other to have brought you here at this hour.’
‘I have had the veriest peek at a headline, but I would not read it without you, my dear. However, I think we do have something to celebrate.’
‘Du vrai? Eh bien, pour the coffee, Madame, while I read out to you the salient points.’
He opened the first paper, beginning to laugh. ‘Oh, listen to this one: “The Promethean Fountain, showering fire that does not burn, just one of the wonders we witnessed at the Grand Opening of the Opéra Magique with that peerless magician”—peerless magician, indeed. I wonder who writes this rubbish?—“the Master of Illusion”. And so it goes on. Oh, here is another piece: “Madame Dupont is femme formidable”—oho, they got that right!—“in her assessment of the mood of the public. Her mix of entertainment was exactly right, épatant”. Whose assessment of the public? Madame Dupont, indeed.’ He took a sip of coffee, shuffling through another newspaper. ‘I shall get a big head if I keep reading these reviews, Madame. What do you think of this one? “A voice that is Perfection”―with a capital, mark you—“itself. Unknown sorcerer puts spell over opening night of Opéra Magique. Brave Madame Dupont did not miss her tip when she selected an Unknown”—also with a capital—“as the star of her opera house”. Brave Madame Dupont?’
‘I think I am, Monsieur. Very brave.’
‘Foolhardy, you mean.’ The menace was back in his eyes as he lowered them to the article.
For a short time, there was only the rustling of paper while they searched through the remainder of the reviews.
At last, Madame Dupont looked up, refilling their coffee cups. ‘Have you noticed something, Monsieur?’
‘What? Apart from each of us having to buy a new hat at least two sizes larger? Or do you mean, not one negative comment? Or that my ideas for our mix of entertainment have been attributed to you?’
She smiled. ‘None of those, Monsieur. No, it is something I have been very much dreading. In fact, it kept me awake for the better part of the night. But there has not been one mention of the similarity of your voice to a tenor from the past, despite some rather significant comments from at least two of the critics. I think we are safe, my dear.’
‘Eh bien, so it would seem.’
‘It must be because your voice has developed and matured. It was something the marquise du Melande said to me after your aria. I was so afraid that she would recognise you. Because, you know, if anyone could, it would be her.’
‘And did she?’
‘No, well ... She said straight out that your voice reminded her of Angel, but it could not be, because yours has so much more depth and colour than his.’
‘Hmm. Monsieur Merignac said something similar about my music.’
‘Eh bien, you see? Did I not tell you?’
‘Indeed, you did, but I shan't let you crow.’ His eye fell to the tray. ‘Is that the post?’ he said, rifling through it to snatch up a pink envelope, its heavy scent wafting upwards.
She wrinkled her nose. ‘Faugh! How can you stand that perfume? Stench, rather!’
‘I like it. Do not you?’
‘No.’
‘Why not?’
She shrugged, wondering if he had, after all, found himself a chère amie. Someone from the demimonde, judging by the cloying strength of the scent. Perhaps that was why he was so secretive about these communications that arrived with clockwork regularity every week, because he knew she would not approve. ‘It is heavy ... smells too much of musk.’
He sat back, a gleam in his eye. ‘It reminds me of les femmes in the full bloom of womanhood.’
This was too much. ‘Yes, and I know which ones! Such femmes use it in the false belief that it will cover the malodour of their unwashed persons.’
‘Is that so? The stench of unwashed humanity is particularly pungent. Not at all like this. I can see that you, Madame, have never lived on the street.’
‘And now, you are going to say that I should be thankful for it.’
‘No, but knowing the kind of person you are, I am sure that you do regularly render up such thanks.’
‘One should count one's blessings, Monsieur.’
‘Undoubtedly.’ His fingers closed briefly on her wrist, to the point of agony. ‘One does not then have to face the reality of one's disappointments.’
‘Oh, my dear ...’ Such bitterness! She did not know how to answer this, rallying to change the subject: ‘So ... are you going to let us meet her?’
‘Her?’
‘Your perfume-loving correspondent.’
‘Why should I?’
‘Well ... she writes so regularly.’
‘She? How do you know it is a woman?’
Pink envelope? Overpowering scent? ‘I, er ... I assumed.’
‘And did you also assume that the return address is, perhaps, a bordello?’
‘Of course not! I ——’
‘It can be dangerous, sometimes, to make assumptions, Madame. You will do well to remember it. And now, if you do not mind, I must get back to my work.’
‘But wait, Monsieur. Un moment, if you please?’
‘What is it?’
‘You have not forgotten that we have been invited to the soiree of the comtesse de la Roche-Carillac?’
‘Oh.’ He waved a hand. ‘I cannot go. I have some music to compose. It has been teasing my brain for weeks, and now our Grand Opening is out of the way, I must get it down.’
‘But it is not until Tuesday, and the marquise du Melande is her special guest. Last night, she asked me specifically for your attendance, because she is determined to make your acquaintance. You will have finished your composition by then, will you not?’
‘Mais non! It is complex. You go. Say all that is proper to the comtesse and present my most profound apologies to the marquise.’
‘One day the marquise is going to see right through you, mon cher, without doubt. This is the second time that I have had to present your apologies.’
‘Do you think she will not, already? There is only one thing she cares about. As long as I continue to deliver my music to the expected standard, she will forgive me.’
‘Such conceit! You are spoilt and deserve nothing of the kind.’ But she knew he was right. And perhaps he was wise. Madame la marquise had been Angel's greatest supporter. Just because she thought the Master so much better than Angel did not preclude her from ever working out who he was.

26 April 1892

Is it not Angel all over to do this? I am always having to Make Shift for him.

‘Madame Dupont!’
She smiled, waiting for the duchesse de Belvoir who was gliding towards her: svelte and elegant. ‘How do you do, Madame?’
‘Delightfully, Madame, now that I meet with you, at last. My felicitations on the stunning success of your Grand Opening. I looked for you at your afterparty but could not find you. Such a press!’ Her light eyes were warm and friendly, full of laughter. ‘We, the duc and I, enjoyed your show very much.’
‘I am honoured and enchanted to hear it, Madame. Your approval means very much to me. Thank you.’
‘Your talent does not wane, bien sûr! Now, tell me ...’ The duchesse, tucking Madame Dupont's hand in her arm, moved away with her to a quiet corner.
‘Well!’ said the comtesse de la Roche-Carillac, bearing down upon them with the marquise du Melande. ‘That will be the end of any questions anyone else wants to ask Madame Dupont, until the duchesse sees fit to release her. She has taken a great fancy to her. Literally pounces on her, my dear. I believe they met at her wedding. Madame Dupont organised it for her. Well, for the duc, really, and ever since then, from what I have heard and seen for myself, the duchesse goes out of her way to speak with her.’
‘Indeed?’ said the marquise, fanning herself. ‘Taken a fancy to her, has she? It must run in the family, then.’
‘What? You do not mean the duc? Oh, I do not think so, Madame. He hardly gives her the time of day.’ She looked at the other's inscrutable face and smiled. ‘Oh, your little jokes ... so delightful, Madame.’
‘Merci. But what makes you think I was joking?’
The comtesse gave her tinkle of laughter. ‘I know you, Madame. You and your wicked, wicked sense of humour. Ah, here we are now. If I distract the duchesse, you will be able to have your word with Madame Dupont.’
‘No.’ The marquise shut her fan with a snap. ‘It amuses me much more to watch the machinations of the duchesse.’ She shook her head. ‘The lengths to which she will go in order to please that husband of hers. Myself, I would rather slap him in the face with a wet mackerel.’ Her eyes twinkled at the shocked mien of the comtesse. ‘To bring his head out of the clouds, so that he sees what's under his nose,’ she explained, then shrugged. ‘As you say, my deplorable sense of humour. Come.’ She took the arm of her hostess. ‘You may lead me to your supper table. I have suddenly discovered an appetite.’
The comtesse, staring at her aghast, was obedient to the tug on her arm. She murmured an appropriate answer, wondering, all the while, whether others of the le beau monde were aware that the marquise du Melande was showing the first signs of senility.



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