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 her well.
"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 presents."
Clara hesitated. " Agnes, do you know ?"
The words hung fire. Agnes gave one shoulder a shove. "Out with it."
"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.
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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