The Night Circus

Page 18


“We must invite her to dinner whenever the circus is in town, so we might get to know her better,” Chandresh says pointedly, emphasizing the statement with a satisfied grin.
“Yes, sir,” Marco says, struggling to keep his expression impassive. “Will that be all for tonight?”
Chandresh laughs as he waves him away.
Before he retires to his own rooms, a suite three times the size of his flat, Marco quietly returns to the library.
He stands for some time in the spot where he found Celia hours before, scrutinizing the familiar bookshelves and the wall of stained glass.
He cannot guess what she might have been doing.
And he does not notice the eyes staring at him from the shadows.
Herr Friedrick Thiessen receives the card in the mail, a plain envelope amongst his invoices and business correspondence. The envelope holds no letter or note, simply a card that is black on one side and white on the other. “Le Cirque des Rêves” is printed on the front in silver ink. On the back, handwritten in black ink on white, it reads:
Twenty-nine September
Just outside Dresden, Saxony
Herr Thiessen can barely contain his glee. He makes arrangements with his clients, finishes his clocks in progress in record time, and secures a short-term flat rental in Dresden.
He arrives in Dresden on September 28, and spends the day wandering the outskirts of the city, wondering where the circus might set up. There is no indication of its impending arrival, only a slight electricity in the air, though Herr Thiessen is unsure if anyone, save himself, can sense it. He feels honored at having been given advance notice.
On September 29, he sleeps in, anticipating the late night ahead. When he leaves his flat in the early afternoon to find something to eat, the streets are already buzzing with the news: a strange circus has appeared overnight, just west of the city. A gargantuan thing, with striped tents, they are saying when he reaches the pub. Never seen anything like it. Herr Thiessen stays silent on the matter, enjoying the excitement and curiosity around him.
Shortly before sunset Herr Thiessen heads west, finding the circus easily as there is a large crowd assembled outside already. While he waits with the crowd, he wonders how the circus manages to set up so quickly. He is certain that the field it sits in now, as though it has always been there, had been empty the day before when he walked around the city. The circus has simply materialized. Like magic, he overhears someone remark, and Herr Thiessen has to agree.
When the gates open at last, Herr Friedrick Thiessen feels as though he is returning home after an extended absence.
He spends almost every night there, and during the day he sits in his rented flat or at the pub with a glass of wine and a journal and he writes about it. Pages and pages of observations, recounting his experiences, mostly so he will not forget them but also to capture something of the circus on paper, something he can hold on to.
He occasionally converses about the circus with his fellow pub dwellers. One of these is a man who edits the city paper, and after some persuading and several glasses of wine, he manages to get Friedrick to show him the journal. After a shot or two of bourbon, he convinces Friedrick to allow excerpts of it to be published in the newspaper.
The circus departs Dresden in late October, but the newspaper editor keeps his word.
The article is well received, and followed by another, and then another.
Herr Thiessen continues to write, and over the following months some of the articles are reprinted in other German papers, and eventually they are translated and printed in Sweden and Denmark and France. One article finds its way into a London paper, printed under the title “Nights at the Circus.”
It is these articles that make Herr Friedrick Thiessen the unofficial leader, the figurehead, of those most ardent followers of the circus.
Some are introduced to Le Cirque des Rêves through his writing, while others feel an instant connection with him as they read his words, an affinity for this man who experiences the circus as they do, as something wondrous and inimitable.
Some seek him out, and the meetings and dinners that follow herald the formation of a kind of club, a society of lovers of the circus.
The title of rêveurs begins as a joke, but it sticks, secure in its appropriateness.
Herr Thiessen enjoys this immensely, being surrounded by kindred spirits from all over Europe, and occasionally even farther, who will discuss the circus endlessly. He transcribes the stories of other rêveurs to include in his writings. He constructs small keepsake clocks for them depicting their favorite acts or performances. (One of these is a marvel of tiny flying acrobats on ribbons, made for a young woman who spends most of her hours at the circus in that massive tent, staring upward.)
He even, somewhat unintentionally, starts a fashion trend amongst the rêveurs. He comments at a dinner in Munich—where many of the dinners are held near his home, though they are also held in London and Paris and countless other cities as well—that when he attends the circus he prefers to wear a black coat, to better blend in with his surroundings and feel a part of the circus. But with it, he wears a scarf in a brilliant scarlet, to distinguish himself from it as well, as a reminder that he is at heart a spectator, an observer.
Word spreads quickly in such select circles, and so begins a tradition of rêveurs attending Le Cirque des Rêves decked in black or white or grey with a single shock of red: a scarf or hat, or, if the weather is warm, a red rose tucked into a lapel or behind an ear. It is also quite helpful for spotting other rêveurs, a simple signal for those in the know.
There are those who have the means, and even some who do not but creatively manage anyway, to follow the circus from location to location. There is no set itinerary that is public knowledge. The circus moves from place to place every few weeks, with the occasional extended break, and no one truly knows where it might appear until the tents are already erected in a field in a city or the countryside, or somewhere in between.
But there are those few people, select rêveurs who are familiar with the circus and its ways, who have made polite acquaintance of the proper individuals and are notified of impending locations, and they in turn notify others, in other countries, in other cities.
The most common method is subtle, and works both in person and by post.
They send cards. Small, rectangular cards, much like postcards, that vary but are always black on one side and white on the other. Some use actual postcards, others choose to make their own. The cards state simply:
The circus is coming. …
and list a location. Sometimes there is a date, but not always. The circus functions in approximations more than exacting details. But the notification and location is often enough.
Most rêveurs have a home base and prefer not to travel terribly far. Rêveurs who call Canada home may be hesitant to travel to Russia but easily make extended visits to Boston or Chicago, while those in Morocco may travel to many destinations in Europe but perhaps not all the way to China or Japan.
Some, though, follow the circus wherever it may lead, through money or luck or extensive favors from other rêveurs. But they are all rêveurs, each in their own way, even those who only have the means to visit the circus when it comes to them, rather than the other way around. They smile when they spot each other. They meet up at local pubs to have drinks and chat while they wait impatiently for the sun to set.
It is these aficionados, these rêveurs, who see the details in the bigger picture of the circus. They see the nuance of the costumes, the intricacy of the signs. They buy sugar flowers and do not eat them, wrapping them in paper instead and carefully bringing them home. They are enthusiasts, devotees. Addicts. Something about the circus stirs their souls, and they ache for it when it is absent.
They seek each other out, these people of such specific like mind. They tell of how they found the circus, how those first few steps were like magic. Like stepping into a fairy tale under a curtain of stars. They pontificate upon the fluffiness of the popcorn, the sweetness of the chocolate. They spend hours discussing the quality of the light, the heat of the bonfire. They sit over their drinks smiling like children and they relish being surrounded by kindred spirits, if only for an evening. When they depart, they shake hands and embrace like old friends, even if they have only just met, and as they go their separate ways they feel less alone than they had before.
The circus knows of them, and appreciates them. Often someone approaching the ticket booth in a black coat with a red scarf will be waved in without paying admission, or given a mug of cider or bag of popcorn gratis. Performers spotting them in the audience will bring out their best tricks. Some of the rêveurs wander the circus continuously, methodically visiting every tent, watching each performance. Others have their favorite spots which they rarely leave, choosing to pass the entire night in the Menagerie or the Hall of Mirrors. They are the ones who stay the latest, through the small hours when most visitors have gone to seek their beds.
Often, just before dawn, there is no color to be seen in Le Cirque des Rêves save for their small splashes of scarlet.
HERR THIESSEN RECEIVES DOZENS OF LETTERS from other rêveurs, and he responds to each. While some remain single letters, content with their onetime replies, others evolve into longer exchanges, collections of ongoing conversations.
Today he is replying to a letter he finds particularly intriguing. The author writes about the circus with stunning specificity. And the letter is more personal than most, delving into thoughts on his own writings, observations about his Wunschtraum clock containing a level of detail that would require observing it for hours on end. He reads the letter three times before he sits at his desk to compose his reply.
The postmark is from New York, but he does not recognize the signature as belonging to any of the rêveurs he has met in passing in that or any other city.
Dear Miss Bowen, he begins.
He hopes that he will receive another letter in turn.
Marco arrives at Mr. Barris’s London office only a few minutes before his scheduled appointment, surprised to find the normally well-ordered space in near bedlam, full of half-packed crates and stacks of boxes. The desk is nowhere to be seen, buried beneath the chaos.
“Is it that late already?” Mr. Barris asks when Marco knocks on the open door, unable to step inside due to a lack of available floor. “I should have left the clock out, it’s in one of those crates.” He waves at a line of large wooden crates along the wall, though if one of them is ticking it is impossible to tell. “And I meant to clear a path, as well,” he adds, pushing boxes aside and picking up piles of rolled blueprints.
“Sorry to intrude,” Marco says. “I wanted to speak with you before you left the city. I would have waited until you were settled again, but I thought it best to discuss the matter in person.”
“Of course,” Mr. Barris says. “I wanted to give you the spare copies of the circus plans. They are around here somewhere.” He sifts through the pile of blueprints, checking labels and dates.
The office door closes quietly, untouched.
“May I ask you a question, Mr. Barris?” Marco inquires.
“Certainly,” Mr. Barris says, still sorting through rolls of paper.
“How much do you know?”
Mr. Barris puts down the blueprint in his hand and turns, pushing his spectacles up on the bridge of his nose to better regard Marco’s expression.
“How much do I know about what?” he asks after the pause has gone on too long.
“How much has Miss Bowen told you?” Marco asks in response.
Mr. Barris looks at him curiously for a moment before he speaks.
“You’re her opponent,” he says, a smile spreading across his face when Marco nods. “I never would have guessed.”
“She told you about the competition,” Marco says.
“Only in the most basic of terms,” Mr. Barris says. “She came to me several years ago and asked what I might say if she were to tell me that everything she does is real. I told her that I would have to take her at her word or think her a liar, and I would never dream such a lovely lady to be a liar. And then she asked what I might design if I did not have such constraints as gravity to concern myself with. That was the beginning of the Carousel, but I imagine you knew that already.”
“I assumed as much,” Marco says. “Though I was not certain to what degree you were knowingly involved.”
“I am in the position to be quite useful, as I see it. I believe stage magicians employ engineers to make their tricks appear to be something they are not. In this case, I provide the opposite service, helping actual magic appear to be clever construction. Miss Bowen refers to it as grounding, making the unbelievable believable.”
“Did she have anything to do with the Stargazer?” Marco asks.
“No, the Stargazer is purely mechanical,” Mr. Barris says. “I can show you the structural plans if I can locate them in this mess. It was inspired by a trip to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago earlier this year. Miss Bowen insisted there was no way to improve it, though I think she may have something to do with keeping it running properly.”
“Then you are a magician in your own right, sir,” Marco says.
“Perhaps we simply do similar things in different ways,” Mr. Barris says. “I had thought, knowing Miss Bowen had an opponent lurking somewhere, that whomever you might be, you were not in need of any assistance. The paper animals are astonishing, for example.”
“Thank you,” Marco says. “I have improvised quite a bit trying to come up with tents that did not require blueprints.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Mr. Barris asks. “For something of the blueprint variety?”