My father did not tell me we were going. He let me hope, every day as the time drew nearer, that he would take me. But he never said he would, out loud. Still, I knew we had an unspoken agreement.
The travelling puppet show, a mirage of colour and song and far off places, was coming to town. My young heart had never really ached for anything before, but upon hearing of this foreign spectacle, I longed to go. On the morning the show was due to be in town, I rose with a hopeful disposition. My father noticed this.
"Why Clara, you are in good spirits this morning. What may I ask, is the occasion?"
"Today," I informed him, "we are going to the theatre."
I had said what we both knew without hesitation, but as the silence lingered I felt increasingly apprehensive. His face was unchanged, until, without warning, a wide grin spread.
"Of course! How could I have forgotten such an important date? We should get going, or we will be late."
I had never been more excited.
The city was a carriage ride and a short walk away; the trip never taking more than a half hour. That day, however, the entire journey seemed longer than ever. I squirmed in my seat, not quite the young lady my attire would suggest. I was wearing my Sunday best, despite the day being Tuesday, of an eggshell-blue petticoat with a matching cream coat and gloves. The bonnet, which father insisted I wore but only caused a great amount of irritation, I had abandoned to my bedroom floor. The carriage slowed.
"Here we are," father said, "You wait there while I get the door."
He was too late; I had already stepped out of the carriage and was pacing along the cobbled streets of London. The grey façades of building looked to me like a great wall, weaving up and down streets, craggy and impenetrable. The city was an endless maze and our cottage, just outside it, a bare plain.
I sighted the theatre through a narrow alleyway, and turned to call to my lagging guardian.
"Hurry, or we'll miss the beginning!" I ordered.
"Clarissa, we are quite on time, no need to rush," he reassured.
However, his words went unheeded, for I was already running for the door.
The journey home had never passed more quickly. I devoted it entirely to the retelling of every story the show had depicted, from the tale of the Sphinx and its riddle, to the legend of Aladdin and the hidden treasure trove. Father was unusually quiet, but this did not deter me; I was adamant more grand stories would lift his spirits. When we came through the door, Elinor, our housemaid, greeted us.
"Miss Clarissa, how did you find the theatre?"
I opened my mouth in preparation for a lengthy account but, finding no suitable words, only let out a short sigh. Elinor smiled warmly. Her attention then turned to my father. The warmth in her face faded, to be replaced by a sincere expression of concern.
"Sir, you do not look well. Are you feeling ill?"
It was just as I had done before him. He opened his mouth to reply, only to give a kind of rasp instead. He blinked hard and pressed his hand onto the side table for support.
"I will call for the doctor at once."
I turned to look at Elinor, for answers, for comfort. The panic that stained her voice unsettled me.
I had never been more frightened.