Dinner at Eight
No matter how strong
I'm going to take you down with one little stone
I'm going to break you down and see what you're worth
What you're really worth to me
“You’re sure you won’t come with me?”
Anne laughed, deftly straightening the tie at his throat.
“I wasn’t invited,” she answered tartly, cocking her head at him, “and I’m decidedly underdressed, wouldn’t you agree?”
The pale silk robe she was wrapped in hid the satin purple costume underneath. It was just under two hours before the show, and Anne was still in the midst of getting ready.
“—are infuriating, I know.” she finished the words that were stuck in his throat.
Anne’s slender hand rested comfortingly against his heart, and Phillip covered it with his own. The delicate gold ring on her finger was warm to the touch, and matched the engraved signet ring on his smallest finger.
“I imagine I’ll be back early enough,” Phillip sighed, only pulling away to shrug into his overcoat.
“I’ll be here,” she smiled. The lamplight on her dressing table cast warm shadows around them, and Phillip was tempted to throw off his coat and ease her into his arms, but stifled the urge.
Instead, he kissed her, once, then twice, and pulled away before he could be truly persuaded.
“Be safe,” she said, and kissed him that third time.
The carriage ride to his parent’s estate was a lengthy one. The estate was in an elite neighborhood of competing homes, an obvious long distance from the circus encampment near the docks.
A year and a half ago, Phillip would have never imagined himself ringleader at a thriving circus, living in a city of tents, and with the absolute love of his life.
Three days ago, he would have never imagined receiving a supper invitation from his estranged parents, the family that cut him off after Barnum passed on the mantel of ringmaster.
He had been firm in cutting all communication with them, not just for Anne’s sake, but his own. When the letter arrived written on Carlyle stationary, it was Anne’s deft fingers that had plucked it from the fire.
The night the letter came, he drank himself into a stupor, washing away all of his progress in temperance. Anne was frosty to him in response, spending most of the following day in the rafters with her brother.
His father would urge him to drink tonight, he was sure of it.
By the time Phillip’s carriage had slowed to a halt in his old familial neighborhood, he had worked himself into a bout of nerves and anxieties that little could cure. As he scaled the imposing steps to the front door, he pictured Anne in his mind, Anne with her warm smile and glittering eyes and her hand always outstretched to him.
An unfamiliar housemaid opened the door, startling him, and ushered him inside with little fanfare. She led him to the parlor as if he were a stranger, and promptly left, leaving him alone and vulnerable.
Phillip stood mute in front of his immediate family, whatever words of cordiality and politeness seemingly trapped behind his teeth. His father frowned.
“Phillip,” his mother finally breached, rising from her chaise, “We are pleased that you are come to see us.”
“I’m not,” sulked his younger and only brother, Henry.
Their father hissed at Henry to keep silent, while their mother continued her strained greeting. It was almost surreal how little had changed in this house, compared to how different Phillip’s own life had become.
Another maid broke the tension by announcing that dinner was served, and the entire room breathed in relief.
Phillip had yet to open his mouth.
The circus continued to thrive, as did his relationship with Anne. Each waking moment that wasn’t spent in the ring was spent together. They enjoyed both of the excitement and the quiet of each other’s days. Anne would sit with him as he worked on another commissioned script, always begging him to read out loud, or Phillip would watch as she carefully applied her stage makeup, showering her with compliments until she had no use for rouge.
They were in love.
They had seen each other through all the bitter and the sweet that life had sent their way, through fire and failure, through successes and sunny days.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” she mumbled into his chest one evening as they lazed on her cot. “So stop worryin’.”
It was late, moon high in the sky, all the candles snuffed. Phillip’s heart swelled beneath his ribs, no doubt thrumming desperately in her ear.
“Can’t help the worrying,” he chuckled softly, “I come by it naturally.”
But Anne was not convinced, and sat up to look searchingly into his eyes. It was a naked, honest gaze, but Phillip did not shrink away.
“What will persuade you, honey?”
“It’s not you that I’m worried about, it’s everyone else.” He threaded his fingers with her hand resting against his heart. “I don’t care what others say… I care what they do.”
Even months later, they both still had nightmares about the fire.
“We’re safe here,” she reminded gently, sagely, as she settled back down, her voice shaded with drowsiness, “Nothin’ is going to happen.”
Quiet ensued, and there was nothing but the sound of soft breathing and beating hearts between them.
The words hung in the air like incense smoke, sweet and cloudy, wrapping Anne in a fog. She shot up straight, her warm brown eyes round with astonishment.
Phillip followed suit and sat up as well, and repeated himself. “I asked if you’ll marry me, Anne.”
Her hands shook in her lap, and she lowered her gaze.
“Nobody will let us get married, you know that.”
“We’ll find someone. Will you marry me?”
“Your parents… they’ll never speak to you again—” She protested.
“Then that will be of their own doing. Will you marry me?”
“P-People will talk…”
“Let them wag their tongues, I don’t care,” Phillip said firmly, ardently. “I love you, Anne Wheeler, my guiding star, will you—”
“Yes, yes, I will!” She threw herself at him, covering his face with the sweetest kisses, until they found their mark against his growing smile.
The only words that followed were those of the dearest of lovers.
“—llip. Phillip! Stop daydreaming, your father is speaking to you,” his mother scolded, dragging him out of his memories.
Startled, he nearly jostled the soup ladle on the maid’s tray as the first course was placed on the table.
“Steady there, Phil,” his brother mocked, “We know you’re used to eating out of a trough at that drifter’s camp of yours, but let’s not damage the silver.”
Henry, vicious as he spoke, was easy enough for Phillip to chalk up to background noise. His younger brother had always nursed the chip on his shoulder, only happy when he was unhappy. Phillip was like that once as well, before the circus, before Anne.
“I suppose I should repeat myself,” John Carlyle cut in sourly, “As I mentioned a moment ago, I’ve heard that despite your… temporary sabbatical, you’re still writing plays?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve had a few theatre companies commission me to write for them. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the time for writing anymore.”
“You’d have more time for writing if you left that circus camp of yours,” His mother, Mary offered up, as though it were a solution to the real problem.
"I have plenty of time to accomplish all that I have set my mind on," Phillip volleyed easily, and fought to keep his expression pleasant.
Naturally, no one was pleased by this answer, and silence blanketed the table with its frost. The shallow soup bowls were swiftly replaced with gilded dinner plates. Phillip sipped cautiously from his water goblet, while his family quietly ate.
The stillness was cut by the clatter of cutlery, all eyes turning to the head of the table.
"We called you home, Phillip, for a reason," John began, reaching for his own goblet.
Oh, how he wished his water were whiskey.
"Your mother and I have found an young woman to be your bride," the older man continued. "It is a good match."
Phillip, stunned, fisted the napkin in his lap, ready to rip it to ribbons.
"Her name is Louisa Crewe. Her family is… somewhat successful. There were not too many girls who were… interested," Mary added cautiously, "What with your dalliances with that girl, the mulatto—"
"Enough," Phillip cut in, voice rough and unforgiving as stone. Even his brother flinched. "Say whatever you will about me, but you will not say another word about Anne."
"And I will not be marrying whoever this poor girl is."
"See reason, now," growled John, "You've had your fun, with your circus, and your... and it is time to settle down. You have an obligation to your family!"
"I have no obligation to you, sir, and have not for quite some time."
"Dear, you must..."
"No. I will not, and I cannot marry this girl." Three furious faces stared at him, and he steadied himself with a deep breath. "I am already married."
Anne had cornered him on three different occasions to try make peace with his family. She was, of course, only looking out for him, and he loved her for it, but she didn't understand. Disconnecting from his family was the easiest decision he had ever made, once he was brave enough to make it. Anne was his entire world, his sun and stars, and there was no room in their lives for people who would only stifle and separate them. He would miss them, in different ways, but he would not mourn their abscence.
Anne was sensitive of the disconnection, having lost her mother at a young age, and never knowing the white man who had left her mother in such a state. Privately, W.D. had told him that Mae had loved the man, and his own reaction explained W.D.'s past issues with Phillip. But Phillip continued to eagerly prove himself, putting Anne first in all things. Love had not made him foolish, it made him determined, decisive in ways he had never been before.
Still, he would not seek out his family, and soon, Anne stopped asking.
His mind was preoccupied with far pleasanter things.
He had found a ring for her, an engraved gold band, with a sparkling amethyst at its center, two smaller white diamonds on each side. She cried for many reasons when he slipped it onto her finger, and he held and kissed her until her smile returned.
As Phillip anticipated, finding someone who would marry a white man to a black woman was a difficult task, but he remained confident. The entirety of the circus was helping, searching for any and all leads. Most were dead ends, men coming to mock and only silenced with money. It was hard to keep his dismay from his future bride, but they kept their faith.
It was Charles who knew someone who knew someone who knew a village minister in a small, wooded town in Connecticut, who offered to do the service. They could make their vows to God, and to each other, though the marriage could not be registered legally.
They knew there was no way to truly sidestep the law, but this... this was a chance.
"We can wait, sweetheart, we can wait and see if things... maybe we'll be allowed to register a year from now, two years from now, or--"
"I don't want to wait," she smiled, easing her arms around his waist, "I want to be married to you. And being married in the eyes and sight of God, that's good enough for me."
Phillip rested his forehead against hers, disappointed and thrilled, the bitter and sweet that always seemed to follow them.
"I want the world for you, Anne."
"You're all I need," she assured, and rested her head against his shoulder. "Let's get married."
"What do you mean, you're married?"
"W-When did this happen?"
"It was probably that trapeze artist of yours, hmm?"
Sharp, angered voices resonated in his ears. His father even jumped to his feet, throwing his napkin onto his plate.
"Phillip, explain yourself. Now," demanded John.
Inhaling a steadying breath, Phillip did his utmost to keep his composure. "Anne and I were married two months ago now, in Connecticut." He said plainly.
"H-How is that possible?" Mary stuttered.
"We have laws for a reason, Phillip," Henry laughed, spinning his knife against the table cloth, "There is no way you and your trapeze artist are bound in the eyes of the law."
Both their parents seemed somewhat appeased by this realization, and John took his seat once more.
"It's true, we are not on the register. But we are man and wife in the eyes of God, and each other."
"Then what is done can be undone,” his father chuckled. "You can legally marry Louisa Crewe."
"I can't imagine my wife will appreciate that." His words were careful and cold.
"Do... do not call her that. She is a step backwards for you, Phillip! You must see this! There is no future for you if you are to... debase yourself in such a way."
Anger truly enflamed, Phillip shot to his feet.
"I will not stand for another word of this," he seethed, stalking out of the dining room to find his overcoat. A maid raced to hand it to him, followed by his father.
"Phillip Carlyle, if you leave this house right now, you will never see me, or you mother again. I swear this to you."
In the following silence, Phillip looked at his father, truly looked. John was aging poorly, all of his facial wrinkles from scowling. His eyes were the same pale blue as his own, but hard, cold. Henry appeared at his side, ready to pick up the fallen gauntlet as heir apparent.
"Live well," said Phillip simply, and opened the door. "Goodbye."
Anne, he had learned, had been a seamstress in Philadelphia before she and her brother had left to try their luck in New York City. She had turned up her nose at the idea of shopping for an already-made wedding dress. Phillip could and would always defend her where their visibility was an issue, but Anne had other ideas.
W.D. was sworn to secrecy, but had a little sympathy for his future brother in law.
"Our Mama sketched the wedding dress she wore when she married my father, for Anne when she was a little girl. There's only scraps left of the fabric, but I reckon she's doing something with that sketch."
Phillip was of course curious, but content to wait until the day.
The hardest part of planning this affair was finding a way to take the time off from the circus to make the journey to Connecticut. A letter sent to Barnum as a last resort was the answer to that problem, the man eager to temporarily resume his role as ringleader. In fact, Barnum solved two problems. He and his family decided to stay in the city for two weeks, away from their estate, Waldemere, which gave Phillip and Anne a place for their honeymoon.
"It won't be much of a wedding tour," Barnum chuckled, handing Phillip a thick envelope, "But it'll be better than a city of tents. And don't open that yet, it's a wedding gift."
"How can we possibly thank you, Phin?" Phillip sighed, shaking his head.
"Shave that moustache, and we'll call it even."
"Anne doesn't like it either," he complained.
His mentor’s following laughter was surely missed.
Three days later, Phillip gathered up his bride, along with W.D., Lettie, and Constantine, and they boarded the train to Bridgeport. A fine, Barnum sponsored carriage took them to Waldemere, where Lettie stole away Anne before either of them could admire the place. They would take two carriages to the village, W.D. with him and Constantine escorting the ladies. Charles had been kind enough to keep correspondence with the Minister, who would be ready for them early that evening.
As soon as Lettie urged Anne into their own carriage, Constantine not far behind, a flutter of nerves erupted in Phillip's stomach. He wasn't worried about stumbled vows or, heaven forbid, being jilted, but he was preoccupied with the kind of husband he wanted to be. He hadn't been able to kick drinking altogether, and each misstep was like a blow to the head. He was still a prideful man, and learning not to be. And Anne’s worries about his family had still been left unsettled.
But the worst thought of all... what if Anne felt pressured by him to take his hand?
The thought made his stomach churn.
W.D. gripped his shoulder firmly, forcing his gaze.
"That girl there, she loves you with every inch of her heart," he said, and Phillip made himself focus on the words of his almost brother and not the words in his head. "I know you love Anne just as much, and we all know that none of this is goin' to be easy. You're going to want a break at some point, for things to get easier and for people to stop staring. Sometimes it'll be a fight to stay on the same page together, and sometimes it'll be harder for you. Sometimes it'll be harder for her. But that girl has been fighting her whole life, and she'll never quit. So don't you quit either."
Clasping the hand on his shoulder tightly, Phillip nodded emphatically.
"I won't quit. I promise, I won't quit."
It was a very long walk back to the circus camp.
It crossed Phillip’s mind briefly to find a carriage home, but the walk would clear his head.
Leaving was the right thing to do, he had no qualms about that. His family would be well enough without him, they always had been. And now, he was free to live his life, and to be with the woman he loved. Maybe the world would never allow him and Anne to be together in the eyes of the law, but they had each other, and would always have each other.
His parents had known the man that he was, melancholy and prideful, but they did not know the man he had become, and man who would set aside that pride and everything he knew, for the perfect, impossible chance at a life of happiness.
Phillip had leapt, and Anne had caught him.
He would never look back.
There was no music, or rows and rows of familiar faces, but there was candlelight and his friends and Anne.
The sight of her made him quake.
Slippery satin and tight boning and lace at her cuffs, her hair was braided loosely, flowers tucked lovingly into the plait. She walked softly towards him, and held out her hand. Phillip took it, and they looked nowhere but at each other.
They all cried, and the minister smiled and blessed them, and God himself lit their path with moonlight all the way back to Waldemere. Their friends and their brother returned to New York, and left them to their unfamiliar estate and unfamiliar servants and the very familiar feeling of happiness. Phillip took his wife upstairs and told her every single way that he would make her happy, murmured words against the inside of her elbow and the slope of her neck and the cleft of her thighs.
They had their whole lives in front of them.
Anne was still awake by the time he returned to their tent, weary from walking but light of heart. With the show over, she was out of her costume and in her nightgown instead. She rose to greet him, kissing him sweet and slow. Phillip let himself be held for a few heavy moments.
"You're back early," she pressed gently, taking a seat on the edge of their bed. Shoes still on, Phillip lay tiredly next to her, and hummed when she smoothed her fingers through his hair.
"Very early, yes," he sighed, closing his eyes. When Anne tugged a little at the roots of his hair, he cracked one eye open.
"No secrets," chided Anne. “Out with it.”
"They picked out a wife for me," he confessed, and was relieved when his wife laughed.
"How thoughtful of them! Though, I imagine in the end, they were disappointed."
"Yes, apparently so," he chuckled, though the sound faded away quite fast. "I fear we are not welcome back, my star." Looking up at her, Phillip could see the worry in her eyes, though she played it off as best she could.
"We were never welcome in the first place," reasoned Anne. "Though I know that does not make it sting any less. Are you alright, Phillip?"
Taking her hand from his hair, he kissed her wrist and let her fingers rest against his heart, "I am very well, please don't worry."
"The worryin' comes naturally, I'm afraid." She smiled brightly down at him, and soon his expression matched her own.
"I need only one thing in this life, in this world, and it's you. I am happy to be free of them if it means I am free to be with you. And I would make this choice a thousand times if need be, in any life."
He reached his thumb up and smoothed her furrowed brow until she complained of tickling. It was the easiest thing in the world then to drag her over and into his lap, where instead he rubbed his thumb against her hip. Her stomach was even more ticklish, which he knew, and he only stopped once she gifted him with a kiss. Or two. Or three.
Anne eventually pulled back, her lips swollen, tucking her loose hair behind her ears. Looking up at her, at her loving smile and warm eyes, Phillip knew that this was all worth it. The fighting, his family, their own tumultuous beginnings... it was all worth it, because it meant that he could look at her, as a husband looks at his wife, as a man looks at a woman who holds the very stars in her eyes.
She leaned in playfully, bumping their noses, and they both laughed.
"I love you only," she vowed against his smile, "and I love you always."
"I love you only and I love you always," he echoed earnestly, pulling her close, and never letting her go.