Samuel escorted me back to the house once the excitement of the others had died down and we could finally take our leave. I felt as though I was electrified, the warmth of the reaction from the others causing a wide smile of my own to break out and my step to become impossibly light, almost as though my earlier desire to fly with the trapeze twins were being granted.
Samuel laughed lightly at my antics as I fluttered around him on the way back, the material of my skirt twirling around me. “You will make yourself dizzy.”
“I will not,” I lifted my chin before pivoting on the spot once more. “When I was young child, my mother would teach me ballet. She was in training to become a professional ballerina before she met my Father.”
An eyebrow rose. “Is that so?”
“Yes, she used to always practice in the dining room whenever my Father was not around.” My step slowed as I thought of her. Despite the two years that had passed since her death, I could always remember her with startling clarity. Sometimes I would catch myself thinking of her smile or the soft smell of perfume that would surround me whenever she would wrap me in her arms. The soft humming that had once been ever-present made the house feel even emptier and more unwelcome since she had gone.
Bringing myself out of my thoughts, I found that I had stopped. Samuel was several paces in front of me, his expression seemingly concerned as he looked back over his shoulder.
“I am quite well,” A self-depreciating smile came across my lips. “I merely became distracted.”
Reaching his side once more, I could sense him watch me silently. It was several moments before conversation resumed. “What was she like, your mother?”
My attention fixed on a distant tree as I tried to form the words to capture the essence of the woman I had once known. “She was incredibly kind- when we went to the village, people would find themselves drawn to her. She would often take the time to speak to them, no matter if we were in a hurry to be somewhere or if my Father were waiting. She was always singing and dancing,” Another grin flickered into existence. “My Mother was smart too, she could quite happily put a gentlemen in his place should she wish to… oh, and she had the greatest laugh, completely unapologetic and loud- I do believe that you could hear her from the other side of the house.”
As I spoke of her, a sharp spike of longing caught my breath and I blinked quickly, my vision becoming suspiciously cloudy. The soft twittering of birds and call of crickets were the only sound for a long time as I walked half-blind by Samuel’s side. The air was still humid, the wind faint as I carefully placed each step before the other, my earlier good mood now disturbed by morose thought.
“You miss her.”
Despite the statement needing no answer, I replied. “Yes, I do.”
We were near the house, the dim outline of the building visible over the small hill. “I would love to have the privilege to have met her.”
I thought of my Mother’s face and her reaction to meeting Samuel as well as the rest of the circus group. Seeing her pure jubilation in my mind, a more genuine smile graced my features. “I am quite sure that she would have liked you.”
“I will take that as a great compliment.” Grasping my hand, he bent low to place a kiss on the back of it before giving the limb a small squeeze. “I shall see you tomorrow.”
“I shall see you then…” Harbouring a sudden urge to be mischievous, I waited a moment until a flicker of confusion seemed to come across his face. “I assume that there are no roses this time?”
He chuckled before, with a flick of his wrist, one appeared. I reached for it when he held it back. Confused by his actions, I watched as he tapped his cheek. Realising what he was asking, I found myself in equal parts amused and nervous. Glancing back towards the direction of the house, I considered my options for a moment and swallowed heavily before, with my stomach fluttering, I placed a quick kiss to his cheek.
He grinned, his face appearing smug as he handed the flower over. Unbidden, a faint laugh escaped me. “Good night, Samuel.”
“Good night, Annie.”
With one last parting look, I made my way to the house.
The next day had passed quickly, making way, once more, for a humid night. The earlier clear blue sky had darkened, appearing as nothing more than a smudge of ink littered with stars as they blinked back into existence.
I crept down the stairs, each step more tentative than the last as I made my way into the main hallway. The moonlight streamed through the large panel windows, casting spotlights on the dark wooden flooring. I was partly aware that I was holding my breath as though the slightest disturbance of the air might alert someone of my actions. After all, young ladies did not sneak off in the middle of the night to meet gentlemen, even if the intention was far from disreputable.
My stomach was fluttering, mouth unbelievably dry as my boots lightly clipped against the floor, each footstep seeming impossibly loud in the bare corridor. I found myself taking a shaky breath. I was almost there…
“Where are you going, Anna?”
My legs locked causing my unsteady knees to knock together. My breath become caught in my throat as I swivelled around to meet the owner of the familiar deep voice, the soles of my shoes squeaking as I turned. My Father was stood by the staircase, his trusted cane clasped in his right hand, a large glass of whiskey in the other. His weight seemed to be resting heavily against the pole, his grip shaky as the contents of his tumbler sloshed against the insides of the beaker. “I asked where you were going, girl.”
I swallowed heavily, my tongue darting over my too-dry bottom lip. “I was heading towards the kitchens, the night is very warm and I thought that I would,”
“Do not lie to me.” His voice was gruff, his eyes narrowed as he hobbled closer. My chest tightened with each fumbling step he took until he was stood before me. When he stopped, he grimaced and shifted his balance from one leg to the other- a tell-tale sign that his old injury was bothering him. “You were leaving to meet that boy weren’t you?”
“Father, I do know what-”
“Do not lie to me!” The glass shattered near the wall as he launched it away from himself, a wave of alcohol spraying around my feet as spittle flew towards my face. I flinched, my heart galloping in my chest and my eyes fixed wide. He was panting, an angry looking vein throbbing at his temple. He appeared wild, his eyes fixed so that I could almost see a clear ring of white around his irises.
For the first time, I was truly afraid of what he might do.
Becoming aware of the tremours that had taken over, I buried my hands in the materiel of my skirt. I thought that I could perhaps smell the alcohol on his breath and forced myself to remember that it was the foul result of drink that was stood before me now, rather than the proud Colonel that I had once been eager to greet when I was a child. “Father, you are clearly not well, perhaps it would be best if-”
A large finger was suddenly before my eyes, wavering as its owner struggled to keep steady. “I will not have a daughter of mine associating with that scum, do you hear me, girl?”
“Do you hear me?”
Panic was making my eyes water, blurring the memories of the man I used to know and the broken shadow of my Father together with a churning clarity. I had to be cautious. “Father, I understand that you are upset yet, please believe me when I say that they are good people,”
“Anna,” He shifted his balance once more against the cane and I took a step back. “Anna, I tried to be patient. I forced myself to allow your interest so that you might overcome your foolishness but no more. They have done nothing for this country, they are disease ridden creatures that are not better than rats.”
“They are not-”
“What did they do in the war? Where were they when good men died? Are you so eager to disgrace this family with your nonsense?”
Despite my fear at his rage, I could not help but think of the ringmaster and Samuel’s family as well as the kindness they had shown me. My voice was hardly a whisper. “They are not scum.”
He responded with a hiss. “What?”
Gathering my nerve, I straightened my spine. “I said, Father, they are not scum. They are good people- you just cannot see it.” The strength of my convictions caused my words to become louder. “They have been nothing but polite and friendly towards me, Father. They have made me feel more welcome than I have ever felt in my life. You may call them what you wish, for I know that they would not care, but do not even begin to entertain the idea that they are any less human then you or I.”
He lifted his hand, and for a moment I strongly believed that he would hit me, before he grasped my shoulder and forced me behind him so that he was stood between the stairs and the way out of the house. He seemed to be quivering as though he were a tightly wound spring on the verge of snapping. “Go to your room, now.”
“S’truth, now, Anna!”
Startled by his curse, I hurried up the stairs, almost tripping in my haste. As I made it to the top, I was just able to hear his parting words. “I have already lost your mother, I will not allow myself to lose you too.”
I cannot quite find the words to describe the misery of the next day. I had been completely unable to sleep, my mind wrapped up in worry over Samuel and the bitter knowledge that he and his family would have been waiting for me.
My Father hardly spoke as I settled across from him at the breakfast table, merely informing me that he was heading into the village to settle some more matters with his lawyer and that I was to accompany him. I could not bring myself to look at his face, my eyes staying resolutely fixed on the food on my plate as I picked at it with my fork. I found myself unable eat any of it, the thought of how Samuel must have feel about me causing a lead weight to nestle in my stomach.
My Father seemed unwilling to let me leave his line of sight for long before pulling me along with him as we made our way towards the village, his forceful, yet still suffering, stride causing my own legs to ache in an attempt to keep up with him and to avoid falling. His grip was once more bruising on my arm.
As we came to the public eye, his grip loosened slightly so that the sharp sensation of pins and needles took place of where his fingers had once dug into my skin. I found myself struggling not to fight off the rest of his hold.
We had almost reached the building where his solicitor conducted his business, the white structure nearing with each lengthened stride, when something caught my attention and caused me to glance back.
Samuel was walking down the other side of road. Instinctively, I found myself leaning towards him in a desperate need to explain my actions.
My Father still held my arm in his grip.
Frantic, I looked around, trying to find a solution. As my gaze whisked about, my eyes found those of the Baker’s wife, who was noisily flapping her apron in a hopeless attempt to rid it of flour. My heart leapt. “Mrs Miller!”
The woman appeared surprised at the address, her thick, coarse eyebrows lifting at the greeting before she waddled over. My Father seemed to hear my outcry as his hand tightened on my bicep. “What are you doing?”
I ignored him as the large woman approached, her grin from ear to ear. “Miss Draper, Colonel Draper. I don’ believe that I’ve seen you for a while…”
“Yes, well,” His hold on me slowly withdrew as the woman shuffled closer. I tried to keep my expression neutral despite the flurry of relief that coursed through me. “We have been rather been busy.”
“I can imagine that, sir, I can imagine that…”
I folded my hands in my lap, taking a slight step to the side. Samuel had almost slipped out of view. “Please excuse me, Mrs Miller, I do believe that I have just seen a friend of mine.”
Before the woman could even offer a response, I had hurried away, the hot angry glare of my Father searing the back of my head.
My skirt flittered around me as I almost ran to Samuel’s side much to the scandal of various ladies who I passed. As soon as I reached him, I grasped his arm, my breathing unsteady. “Samuel…”
For a moment I saw shock flicker across his face before his brow furrowed and he began to move away. “Annie.”
The clipping of my boots was rapid as I fought to keep up. “Samuel, I am so sorry. Please forgive me and believe me when I say that I did try to meet you. My Father found out and stopped me from leaving- I had no way of reaching you.”
His frown grew. With a burst of energy, I came to a stop before him. “Samuel, please. Please. I swear that I did not intend to hurt you or your family.” When he went to step around me, I found one of my hands resting against his waistcoat. “Please.”
He huffed loudly, his eyes diverting to the shops next to us before slowly drifting to my face. I met his gaze evenly, trying desperately to convey all that I was feeling.
After a few minutes, his shoulders sagged. I felt my own lower in relief. He cleared his throat. “What happened?”
“My Father, he had been drinking- he was in one of his rages.”
“Did he hurt you?” I opened my mouth to respond when my newly released arm gave a twinge. His jaw visibly clenched, and he tensed beneath my palm. “I swear that I will kill him.”
I placed my other hand on his shoulder in a desperate bid to calm him. My eyes flickered to where my Father was still caught in conversation with Mrs Miller to find that he was staring at Samuel and I. Fighting off the unease at his glower, I redirected my attention to the man before me. “It was not intentional, I am sure of it. You must calm yourself.”
Samuel exhaled noisily, his hand reaching up to capture the one that I had placed against his chest. I gave his fingers a small squeeze in comfort.
“Do you forgive me?”
“Of course.” It was his turn to squeeze my hand. His forehead creased as his eyes looked at our linked palms. “Annie, there is something you must know: it is our last day in this town. We will be leaving tonight.”
The lead, which I had been cradling in my stomach all morning, seemed to sink further with dismay. My chest felt too tight. “What?”
I could barely make his voice out through the fog of my mind. “We are moving on.”
“You are leaving?”
I was partially aware of the growing murmurs around us as he took a step closer towards me, our hands lifting up higher onto his chest so that it was near his collarbone. “Please believe me when I say that I do not wish to.”
“Then why are you? Why can you not stay here? I am sure that you could find work in the village,”
“It is my life, it is all I know.” Beneath the collar of his shirt, I could see his throat bob. “Annie… come with us.”
“That is lunacy, I hardly know you- or any of your family!”
“I have seen how much you love the circus,” His expression briefly darkened. “And how miserable you are when you are away from it. You could be truly happy with us- I know that you can.”
The haze that had once taken over my mind had been replaced with vivid images of what could be, the rich sounds and bright shimmers of confetti cascading over my thoughts. “But my Father…”
“You need to think of yourself in this. You need to live your life, Annie, not the one which he has designed for you.”
“Samuel, this is too sudden, I cannot possibly-”
“Do what is right for you, not what is right for your Father, my family or I,” A small flicker of a smile came across his face. “Know that I do not ask this selfishly or for myself, I will accept whatever happens between us, may it be good or bad, all I ask is that you make the decision which is right for you.” His brow creased. “If you decide that you wish to come with us, I will meet you here tonight… yet, just in case you should decide that you do not, I will say my goodbyes now.”
My breath stuttered as he reached up and placed a lingering kiss against my forehead before withdrawing his hands from mine. “No matter what, Annie, I wish you well.”
With one last smile, that did not seem to reach his eyes and caused a hollowness in my heart, he walked past me, my vision once more blurring as I was left with nothing but the pavement and the heavy glare of my Father as he made his way towards me.