I’ve always adored the circus. I remember the first time that I went as a little girl. I had begged my father all week for permission to attend with him, barely managing not the choke on the heavy fumes of cigar smoke and liquor as I’d pleaded my case. I could tell that he wasn’t pleased, after all, I had been reminded numerous times that the circus was no place for a young lady from a good family but after some of the gentlemen that he did business with joined me in my mission, he soon acquiesced.
No matter how many times I manage to attend, some aspects never change. The heady excitement in the air, the dust of sand and dirt spraying up over the crowd as elephants are paraded around, their masters so easily in control of the fantastical creatures that surround them. I find my own breath taken away with the gasps of the crowd as lions roar and men, impossibly graceful, swing on trapezes in the sky.
I had managed to convince my father to allow me to attend another such circus with him, with the devote promise to continue with Mrs Buxton in my piano lessons. No matter how much I despised them and the force in which she would whip the cane across my knuckles whenever I would make a mistake, the mystical wonders of the circus would always supply my mind with a place to flee to.
I watched as the ring master returned to the centre of the tent, his large stomach causing his suspenders to strain and his bright red coat taut across his sides. The dim lighting seemed to capture the buckles, the metal shining in the glow of the torches. His cheeks were bright, his eyes wide and alive with the sizzling joy in the air. I could almost feel the buzz of the audience sink into my skin, warming me from the inside.
In a moment, too quick for me to capture in the blissful moment that I soaked up the enthusiasm of those around me, the show was declared over. I could feel myself deflate.
I fought the urge to grimace in a most unladylike manner at the temptation to readjust the tight restriction my collar. Now that the adrenaline of the show had begun to recede, I suddenly felt too warm, the heat of being crammed in with others causing a dew to settle over my skin.
My father was already stood, his sharp eyes fixed to my face as he clasped a hand to the bottom of his waistcoat. His other large hand was rested on the top of a large cane, the brass head held tightly in his grip. “Come, Anna.”
I allowed my eyes to sweep around the tent once more, uncomfortable but unwilling to leave the magic behind. The ringmaster was stood to one side, his arms thrown about as he spoke animatedly to a young man with dark hair who was shuffling, what appeared to be, playing cards. What must it be like to be so carefree- to not have to concern oneself with what was deemed proper?
The young man looked up. His eyes met mine. I paused, my heartbeat seemed to quicken a step before I felt heat infuse my cheeks and I dropped my attention to my shoes. Who was he? Unable to resist my curiosity, I lifted my chin. He was still looking, the corner of his mouth upturned as though he might be amused. The ring master had seemed to have paused, his eyes wandering back over his shoulder.
Flustered, I lowered my gaze to the floor once more and made my way towards him. “Yes, Father.”
Carefully, I stepped past the other bystanders and made my way to my Father’s side. His stare was scorching against my cheek as I approached, making sure to keep my eyes downcast. Once I had finally managed to overtake others who were loitering, I reached his side and waited. He lingered, his overwhelming presence hovering like a crow waiting for a man at the gallows before I heard the swish of his trousers as he turned and the tap of his cane against the ground. Releasing a shaky breath, I found myself quick to follow him, being especially careful not to look up and find myself overcome with grief at leaving the wondrous place.
Despite diverting my gaze, I was still overcome with the hum of chatter along with the rich smells of perfume and smoke. I could hear boots brushing through dirt and the heavy tread of animals nearby as the dust from the performance ring tickled the back of my throat. My heart gave another uncomfortable clench. What must it be like, indeed…
As I made sure to follow the path marked out by my Father, I soon found myself nearing the exit. The soft summer breeze brushed my cheeks as people slipped past us into the warm night. The ever-present murmur of the gentlemen and their wives still lingered yet was offset by the slight rustle of grass nearby. If I had been allowed to be fanciful I might have imagined that I could hear the sounds of crickets or beetles calling out to each other yet as I risked my gaze upwards, I found my Father watching me closely and decided that it was better not to give into the notion.
I folded my hands together and pushed my shoulders back as I arched my chin to the correct angle that I had been taught by Mrs Buxton during one of her many lessons. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my Father give a nod of approval before drifting over to a nearby group of gentlemen huddled by the tent and engaging in their conversation. I tried to ignore the ache of my neck.
No one approached me. I cannot say that I was surprised, after all, it wasn’t considered appropriate for a young man to approach a lady without having her chaperone nearby and, from what little I could see of the audience that surrounded me, most gentlemen were attached.
A loose curl by the side of my face dabbed at my cheekbone and I resisted the urge to fix it back into place at the risk of being unable to resume my stance. Fixing my eyes to a point in the distance, I began to recite Mrs Buxton’s lines on ladylike decorum.
A lady must always be polite and courteous when speaking to others.
A lady must always be respectful of her father, brothers and husband.
A lady should never put herself in a position which may disgrace her family, her father or her husband.
A sudden strong gust swept over my skirt and drew my hat from my head causing it to tumble to the ground. Startled, I fell to the floor to snatch the brim before my cheeks flooded with colour with the realisation that I had broken my pose. As I tried to decide in which way I should stand to save myself any further embarrassment and to appear most graceful, my eyes found themselves wandering over to the entrance of the gazebo.
My heart felt unbearably tight as I watched the joy and laughter within and a great sorrow seemed to overtake me as unfathomable longing to join them settled inside my chest.
Barely managing to conceal a sigh, I readjusted my feet so that I might stand when I saw the young man from earlier stood to the right of the entrance, his light blue eyes locked with my own as nimble fingers swept over the cards.
As I came to the rather sudden conclusion that I was staring, I quickly straightened, making sure to preoccupy my eyes and my traitorous thoughts to the task of clearing traces of invisible dirt from the still material of my cloche. Carefully replacing my hat onto my scalp, I diverted my eyes to the side. My cheek felt too warm, as though they might be hot to the touch.
A movement out of the corner of my eyes caught my attention. He was approaching me.
Uncertain of how to proceed, I threaded my fingers together, as nerves flitted about my stomach. I found my gaze searching for my father nearby, yet he seemed to be engrossed in his conversation.
I swallowed, grimacing slightly as my throat grazed the stiff cotton around my neck. Perhaps it would be best if I went elsewhere. I could use the pretence that something required my attention or that I was deeply riveted by a conversation…
I barely contained my flinch as my eyes found the card shuffler’s face. “Hello.”
Out of habit, I found my hand outstretched, the back of my pale glove on offer. He grasped it gently, long tanned fingers wrapping around my fingers as he brought it to his lips and pressed a kiss against the cotton. Flustered, I pulled my hand back and try to ignore the humour clearly written across his face.
“Did you enjoy the show?”
My hand was half hidden in the material of my skirt as I tried to calm the flush I knew would be creeping up my neck. “Oh yes, I have always been an avid fan of the circus.”
“I am glad to hear it. May I ask for your name?”
I looked at the man carefully. He seemed fairly young, a vibrant youthfulness seemed to light up his pale eyes in a way that had become so rare in men after the war. The bottom of his dark hair curled against the collar of his white shirt and a long black coat brushed against his legs. A bow tie was loose around his neck. I lifted my chin and forced myself to meet his eyes levelly. “My name is Anna.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you Anna. My name is Samuel.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Samuel. I must admit that I did not see you in the show.”
A smile came across his face, the gesture seeming overly familiar and easy as he beamed at her. “I must confess that I was practicing elsewhere.” His smile softened slightly and an unnameable expression replaced it. “Yet if I had known that you were to be in the audience, I may have decided to take part.”
How was it possible to blush so profusely? Overwhelmed by his flirtatious behaviour, I found my eyes fixating on the ground. “You flatter me, Samuel.”
He smiled once more. “So, did you attend with anyone?”
“Yes, I attended with-”
I felt myself shrink slightly as the sharp tone of my Father rang out over the field. Subdued, I slowly turned on my heel to watch him near, his limp more pronounced as he came closer. His brow was furrowed, his mouth pulled into a thin line. “It is time to leave.”
“Yes, Father.” I gave a small nod to the man at my side. “I must go, I enjoyed meeting you, Samuel.”
“Likewise.” He inclined his head before, with a flurry of motion he presented a red rose. My mouth went dry as he passed it to me before giving a shallow bow. “I hope that we have the chance to meet again soon.”
“Anna, we must leave now.”
Unsure of how to respond, I felt my lips curve in a small, uncertain smile before walking forward to meet my Father.
As he turned to leave, I could see the faint tremor of his hand on his cane and the slight sheen on his forehead. He grimaced as he took a step forward.
Concerned, I looped my arm through his and slowed my pace. The scowl on his face eased. After a few moments of peaceful silence, he spoke. “I do not want you talking to such people again, do you hear me, Anna?”
For one of a handful of times in my life, I felt the need to protest but as I saw the emptiness of his eye and the tight grip of his cane, I forced myself to relent. “Of course, Father.”
We began to make our way home. I only glanced over my shoulder the once as we walked, the warm glow and happiness of the circus turning into nothing more than a wistful dream, the rose clasped tightly between my fingertips.