Clara was fascinated. She wondered what it would be like
to spend her days in the streets and parks of London, instead of
learning lessons in a schoolroom.
She watched until the show came to an end. The audience
applauded. The red-haired girl picked up a brightly painted box
and went to collect the coins from the crowd. Clara fumbled in
her purse until she found a half crown. She wished it were a
sovereign. The red-haired girl accepted it with a little curtsy. She
met Clara's eyes and smiled.
It was an extraordinarily friendly smile. Clara was struck
to the heart. Improbable as it might seem, this girl who was
graceful and clever and older than she liked her. Of the seventeen
children who were coming to her birthday party, there was
not one, Clara felt, who really liked her. They were the children of
her parents' friends, who lived in Chester Square. Clara thought
them dull, and she suspected that they pitied her and thought
her queer. But the red- haired girl liked her. Of that Clara was
sure. She had scarcely had time to tell the girl how much she had
enjoyed the show before the puppet master sidled over. He bowed
before Clara, a florid showman's bow: knee bent, wrists cocked,
toe flexed. A dirty handbill materialized between his fingertips.
He stayed frozen in his jester's position until Clara ventured
forward and took the handbill. There was something unnerving
about the fixed grin on his face. Clara felt that in drawing near to
him, she was being a little bit brave.
That night, she gave the handbill to her father and begged to
have the puppets at her birthday party.
Dr. Wintermute refused. Professor Grisini was a foreigner;
foreigners were invariably dirty and often ill. Clara pleaded. Dr.
Wintermute said that the whole thing was out of the question.
Clara, accepting defeat, did not argue, but she wept. That settled
matters. Spoiled or not, Clara did not cry often. When she did,
she generally got her way.
Thinking about the children coming made Clara forget to be
as steady as a rock. She twitched, shifting her weight to the balls
of her feet.
"Hold still, Miss Clara!" snapped Agnes.
Clara stiffened. She lowered her lashes and raised the corners
of her mouth, so that she didn't look sullen. Neither Agnes nor
her governess had any patience with sulking. Clara had, in fact,
practiced her present expression in the mirror. It was a neutral
expression, a coy mask of a smile. Over the years, it had served
"Your mother wants you dressed and ready to go by
nine o'clock," Agnes said after completing another ringlet. "She
said you should wear the blue cashmere and your sealskins. It'll
be cold at Kensal Green."
" Thank you, Agnes," said Clara. The expression on her face
was sweetly placid. No one must ever guess how much she hated
going to Kensal Green.
"Cook's been busy all morning, decorating your birthday
cake" Agnes brushed another ringlet around her finger "and
your mother had so many presents to wrap, she asked the maids
to help her. I don't know what a little girl can want with so many
Clara hesitated. " Agnes, do you know ?"
The words hung fire. Agnes gave one shoulder a shove. "Out
"If she bought presents for the Others?"
Agnes took in her breath and let it out again. "If you mean
your brothers and sisters, yes, she did, Miss Clara, and there's no
point in you staring down at the floor and pouting."
"I'm not pouting," Clara protested softly. She lifted her chin
and resumed her doll-like smile. Her cheeks burned. She didn't
want the Others to be part of her birthday. She was ashamed, but
she couldn't help herself.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...