Clara came awake in an instant. She sat up in bed, tingling with
the knowledge that it was her birthday. On this very day, the
puppet master Grisini would perform at her birthday party. If all
went well, she would have tea with Grisini's children.
The room was dim. The curtains were drawn tight against
the November chill. Clara gazed at them intently. If it was very
foggy, Professor Grisini might not come. Everything would be
ruined; her twelfth birthday would be like all the others, with a
trip to Kensal Green in the morning and presents in the afternoon.
Clara loved presents, but she dreaded the ceremony of
opening them. It was ill- bred to show too much excitement,
but if she wasn't grateful enough, she ran the risk of hurting her
mother's feelings. Clara thrust the thought aside. This year she
would do everything exactly right.
She flung back the coverlet and tiptoed across the nursery
floor, noiseless as a thief. If anyone came in, she would be scolded
for walking barefoot.
She reached the window and slipped her hand between the
curtains. There were two sets between herself and the outside
world: claret-colored velvet on top, frilled muslin next to the
glass. The muslin was sooty from the London fogs; though the
windows fit tightly, the fog always found its way in. Clara leaned
forward and peered through the peephole she had made. Her
face lit up.
The view that greeted her was dismal enough. The trees in
the square had shed their leaves, and the city was dark with
grime. But the sky was white, not gray; there was even a wisp
of blue sky between two clouds. It was a rare clear day. Professor
Grisini would surely come.
Clara let the curtains fall back together and turned her back
to the window. She padded past her sisters' dollhouse and her
brother's rocking horse, which she was not supposed to touch.
Close to the toy cupboard hung her birthday dress. It was covered
with an old sheet so that it would stay clean, but she could
see the shape of it, with its puffed sleeves and billowing skirt.
It was a beautiful dress, but childish; next year, when she was
thirteen, she would wear longer skirts and a whalebone corset.
Clara wasn't looking forward to that. Her present clothes were
Footsteps were coming up the back stair. It was Agnes, the
housemaid. In an instant Clara was back in bed. She hoisted
the blankets to her shoulder and shut her eyes.
The door opened. Agnes set a pitcher of hot water on the
washstand and went to stir the fire. "Wake up, Miss Clara."
Clara sat up, blinking. She could not have said why she felt
she needed to hide the fact that she was awake. Her secrecy was
chronic and instinctive. She put her hand over her mouth as if to
stifle a yawn. "Good morning, Agnes."
"Good morning, miss."
"Agnes, I'm twelve." The words came out in a joyful rush. "I'm
twelve years old today."
Agnes knew it. No one in the Wintermute household had
been allowed to forget that November the sixth was Clara's birthday.
The servants had cleaned the house from top to bottom and
decorated the dining room with white ribbons and evergreen
boughs. Seventeen children had been invited to Clara's party, and
their mothers would come with them. There was to be a lavish
tea: sandwiches and ices and a four-layer cake.
"Many happy returns, miss." Agnes twitched the corner of
the counterpane. "Now, get up. None of this lying about in bed."
Clara had no intention of lying about. She wanted the day
to begin. She drew back the covers as Agnes knelt by the bed
and held out her slippers. Clara slid her feet into them and lifted
her arms so that Agnes could put on her dressing gown. As the
maid started to make the bed, Clara went to the washstand. She
washed her face carefully, brushed her teeth, and checked her
fingernails to make sure they hadn't turned grimy overnight. "Is
it fine today, Agnes?"
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