Agnes left the bed to draw the curtains. "Fine enough to have your party. Your Mr. What's-his-name'll come with his puppets." "Grisini," Clara said obligingly. "The Phenomenal Professor Grisini and His Venetian Fantoccini." She had memorized his handbill three weeks ago, the day she first saw him.
Agnes made a noise like mffmp. She had once been nursery maid to the Wintermute children, and she felt it gave her certain privileges among them, the right to make noises when she felt Clara was being spoiled.
"I don't see what you want with foreign puppets, Miss Clara. English Punch and Judy is good enough for most children."
Clara looked meek, but she objected. "The fantoccini are different from Punch and Judy, Agnes. You'll see when Professor Grisini gives the show. They work with strings only you don't see the strings. They're like fairies."
Agnes gave the curtains a final twitch. Clara held out her comb, appealing for help. Clara's hair was as wild as Clara was sedate, and only Agnes could subdue it. Armed with skill and patience, Agnes could turn Clara's thatch of dark curls into twenty ringlets, ten on either side of a center part.
Agnes accepted the comb and went to work. Clara took her prayer book from the dressing table and opened to the section for morning prayers. She locked her knees and held her head still as Agnes dragged at the knots in her hair. Clara had once heard her mother's maid say, " There's many a grown-up lady that doesn't hold still like Miss Clara. Miss Clara's as steady as a rock."
Clara liked that. Most of the time when she eavesdropped, she heard about how spoiled she was. She supposed it was true. She made extra work for the servants, and her parents cosseted her, worrying endlessly about her health. Her father inspected the nursery weekly, using his pocket handkerchief to check for drafts, and the nursery fire was kept burning even in summer. Clara's birthday frock had been made by the finest dressmaker in London, and she knew her presents would be many and expensive.
What she hadn't expected was that her father would allow Professor Grisini to perform at the party. Since the moment Clara first saw the puppet caravan and the children who worked the puppets she had thought of little else. She had come upon the puppet stage in Hyde Park. It was a tedious afternoon, gray and chill, with patches of heavy fog. Her governess, Miss Cameron, had stopped to talk to a nursemaid from the other side of the square. The two women gossiped for half an hour. Their conversation was so dull that Clara gave up trying to follow it. She waited stoically, trying not to fidget. Then she glimpsed the caravan, shining scarlet though the fog.
She asked Miss Cameron if she could watch the puppet show, and gained permission. She hurried down to the miniature stage, only to realize that she was watching the show from the wrong side.
It was even more interesting than watching from the front.
She was seeing what no one was meant to see. She noted the two racks set up behind the stage, each hung with puppets, and the black curtain that covered the puppet workers' heads. At intervals, the puppet master would reach back with out looking and nip a new puppet off the rack. The master's apprentice was so small that he stood on a wooden box. He was skinny and his trousers were ragged, but he was as deft as his master. Even from the wrong side of the stage, Clara could sense how skillful he was. The third member of the party was a girl in her early teens.
She was the only member of the company whose face Clara could see, and it was an interesting face: pale, pointed, and wistful. The girl had long red hair and carried herself with the grace of a dancer. She provided the music for the show, switching back and forth between a flute, a tambourine, and a small violin. From time to time she glided up to the backdrop and handled one of the manikins. The three puppet workers worked together seamlessly.
Excerpted from Splendors and Glooms by Laura A Schlitz. Copyright © 2012 by Laura A Schlitz. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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