Clara is entranced by the puppetry of Grisini when she sees a street show in 1860, so she asks if he can entertain at her birthday party. She is also interested in his "children", who are really orphans who work for him, and would like to have them to tea before the party. Lizzie Rose's father was an actor, and she is fairly well brought up, but Parsefall is entrenched in being a street urchin and can only think about what he can steal from Clara's house. Clara is glad to talk to the children because her mother has never recovered from the death, from cholera, of four of Clara's siblings. Every birthday and holiday is spent visiting their tomb and looking at pictures. After Grisini leaves Clara's, Clara disappears. It is thought that she has run away, but when a new puppet shows up looking suspiciously like Clara, Lizzie Rose thinks something more sinister has occurred. Shortly after being questioned by the police, Grisini leaves the house and does not return. Thinking he is injured and not in his right mind, his wards fear for their survival, but are kindly taken care of by their landlady, Mrs. Pinchbeck. After a while of trying to continue the shows to earn a small amount of money, Lizzie Rose finds a letter to Grisini in Parsefalls pocket, and the two set out to the estate of the sender, a Cassandra Sargredo who lives at Strachan's Ghyll. Cassandra worked with Grisini years ago and needs his help, but doesn't want to ask for it. There is more evil at work than the fact that Clara is a puppet, and if Lizzie Rose and Parsefall aren't careful, they will fall under the curse of the fire store amulet that has enslaved Cassandra for so many years. Can they manage to elude this magic and return Clara to her grieving family?
This was an enthralling book-- like watching a really good Masterpiece Theater. Schlitz does an excellent job at depicting this time period (or a bit later-- think A Drowned Maiden's Hair), and the wealth of details really made the plight of all the children that much more harrowing.