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 constrictive enough.
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?"
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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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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