London, June 1884
The sight of a child teetering on the window ledge of room 510 turned Sara’s world upside down.
After several years toiling as a maid and working her way up the ranks, she’d been awarded the position of head housekeeper at London’s Langham Hotel a month prior. One of her largest tasks was keeping the maids inline, all young girls with hardly a shred of common sense among them. When they should have been straightening the rooms, she’d more often than not find them giggling in the hallways or flirting with the boys delivering tea trays or flowers.
That morning, she’d been called into the manager’s office and reprimanded for not being harsh enough on her charges.
“You’re soft. We’re starting to wonder if you’re simply too young for the position,” said Mr. Birmingham from behind his walnut desk, which, despite its elegant spindle legs, was roughly the size of a small boat.
Having recently turned thirty, Sara didn’t feel young in the least, not that she’d ever acted that way. When she’d first arrived at the Langham, she’d skipped the giddy overtures of friendship from other maids herage, knowing that she had to stand out if she wanted to move up quickly. Her coolness had paid off, and her higher salary more than made up for the lack of companionship.
But for Mr. Birmingham, who found pleasure in making the younger maids cry, Sara’s self-imposed isolation wasn’t enough.
He directed her to take a seat, but once she had settled herself, the perspective in the room suddenly felt off, as if something in the furniture’s configuration had changed since Mr. Birmingham last summoned her to this spot—or else she was so annoyed by his request for an interview during the busiest hours of the day that she’d worked herself into a kind of nervous imbalance. Sara’s employer was short and had the poor luck to have a torso shaped like a chicken egg with a double yolk. She towered over the man by several inches. Yet somehow Mr. Birmingham was peering down at her from his throne-like seat. She stole a glance at the floor. The bottom five inches of his chair legs were stained a different color than the rest. He’d had them lengthened.
When she looked back up, he puffed up like a songbird, clearly peeved that she’d noticed.
She shifted in her seat. “I’m sorry, Mr. Birmingham, I will be tougher on the girls.”
“If they’re difficult, give them a slap. Better yet, send them down here and I’ll do it for you.” He licked his lips.
Right. She imagined he’d enjoy it immensely. “Is there anything more?”
“No, Mrs. Smythe. Off you go.”
She was still getting used to being called Mrs. Strange how a single promotion afforded not only a living wage but also a new moniker that had nothing to do with her marital status, or lack thereof. No head housekeeper could be called a Miss. Wasn’t proper. The girls were still getting used to addressing her by her full name, and she had to be firmer with that as well. It wouldn’t do for Mr. Birmingham to overhear them calling her Sara. It might be the last straw on what was a very unstable haystack.
That hot June afternoon, after patrolling the halls and basement to break up any assignations, she retreated to her office on the sixth floor to double-check the laundry bills. She needed a rest from shooting dour looks at the girls; her face was tired from scowling. The one window in the room was open as wide as possible in order to catch some semblance of a breeze, but the weather refused to cooperate. All day, the air had been still and humid, making the hotel feel—and smell—a little like the greenhouses at Kew Gardens. A movement from the curtain drew her up from her desk in the hope that an afternoon thunderstorm was brewing.
To her disappointment, the sky was a hazy blue. She looked across the courtyard and there, one floor below, a flash of flesh caughther eye, a chubby arm with fingers that grasped the edge of the sill. Then another arm flailed out and did the same, followed by a head covered in golden curls. The girl sported a velvet bow on the back of her head at a skewed angle. Sara’s breath caught in her chest. Surely a minder would appear at any moment and guide the child back into the room.
With some effort, the child eased her chest up onto the windowsill and stayed motionless for a second, surveying the ground below, arms dangling downward. Sara willed the child away from danger. If she called out, there was a chance she would frighten the child into pitching farther forward. But still no one came. To her horror, a foot swung up and over the sill—three limbs in all. The child was climbing up, possibly drawn to the cooler air and away from the stifling room.
There was no time to waste. Sara sprang out of her office and down the corridor, one hand clutching the heavy chatelaine of keys that dangled from her waist. She lifted her skirts far higher than was decent and dashed down the stairs, her eyes riveted on the few feet in front of her so she wouldn’t lose her footing on the slippery marble. At the fifth floor a couple of guests stepped off the lift and she swooped by them, muttering a quick apology, without losing a beat. Then a turn left and what seemed like an eternal race to the door of room 510. No banging, it might startle the child, and at this point it didn’t matter if she was barging in on anyone. Even if doing so was against hotel policy.
The key turned smoothly in the lock and she opened the door. The girl, wearing a peach-colored dress, now stood upright on the sill facing out, one hand clutching the casing. She had to be around three years old. What was she doing alone?
Walter, one of the porters, and Mabel, the floor’s chambermaid, appeared by Sara’s side, breathing heavily. They must have sprinted after her, knowing something was terribly wrong.
Sara put out her arms to stop Mabel and Walter from moving any farther into the room. “Shh. We don’t want to send her off balance.”
“Where’s her minder?” whispered Mabel. “Is anyone in the bedchamber?”
“I don’t know.” Sara took a step into the room, walking as if the floor might give out at any point. The plush rugs softened her footfall.
As she grew closer, she realized the child was singing to herself. A lullaby about being on a treetop.
The child turned her head and stared at Sara. Her rosy lips parted and her eyes grew round.
Sara held out one hand, palm up, and began humming the same tune softly. In response, the child laughed, but then, with the changeability of her age, her eyes suddenly filled with tears.
“Mama!” the girl demanded, then shook her head. Sara didn’t dare move any farther and her muscles tensed with the effort of doing nothing, staying frozen. A breeze blew in and ruffled the girl’s curls, pushing her slightly off balance. If she fell backward, into the room, Sara might be able to reach her in time to break her fall.
But instead, the little girl overcorrected, and her hand began slipping off the window frame. Such tiny fingernails, tiny fingers.
Sara lunged forward. Her hand grazed the voluminous skirt of the child’s dress and she gripped as much of the material as she could, yanking hard. The girl, shrieking, flew off the ledge, inside, to safety. They hit the ground together in an awkward tangle of limbs and petticoats, the girl practically sitting on Sara’s lap.
The girl twisted around and looked at Sara, blinking in astonishment. Sara was sure she’d cry out, but instead the girl resumed her babbling song while reaching up with one hand to stroke Sara’s chin.
“Well done, just in time,” said Walter as he and Mabel gathered on either side of her.
“Do you think she hurt herself?” asked Sara.
“No, not a whit. You broke the fall. Are you all right?” Mabel scooped up the child while Sara let Walter help her to her feet. She was straightening her skirts and rubbing her hip, which no doubt would sport a large bruise by tomorrow, when a tall, thin woman appeared in the doorway.
“What on earth is going on in here?” the woman demanded, clutching the hand of a little girl a few years older than the one held by Mabel.
The name popped into Sara’s head from the guest book: The Hon. Mrs. Theodore Camden. Traveling with three children, a husband, and a small coterie of servants. Mr. Birmingham had instructed Sara that all of the Camdens’ needs be anticipated, as the wife was the daughter of a baron.
Sara stepped forward. “The child was standing in the window and we brought her inside.”
“More like saved her life,” said Walter. “Mrs. Smythe here leaped in and dragged her back inside in just the nick of time.”
The child, as if realizing the heightened emotions of the grown-ups around her, began to wail. The woman dashed forward and scooped her out of Mabel’s arms, holding the girl close. When her cries subsided, Mrs. Camden looked up, as if seeing them all for the first time.
“I thank you for your assistance, but where is her nanny?”
As if on cue, a plain-looking girl stepped into the room.
“Ma’am?” she inquired, her face scrunched up in confusion.
“Miss Morgan, where have you been? Lula almost fell to her death due to your absence.”
“I’m sorry?” The girl gazed around at everyone in the room. “I popped out for only a minute, to drop off a postcard at the front desk. I thought Mr. Camden was here.” Her voice trailed off and she looked about, as if trying to summon him out of thin air.
“You were supposed to be here minding the children.”
The child buried her head in her mother’s shoulder, weeping again.
“Where is Luther?” Mrs. Camden rushed into the adjoining room and they all followed. Another child—a boy who seemed to be around the same age as Lula—lay on the enormous bed, fast asleep, his curls damp around his head.
Sara, standing beside Mrs. Camden, could practically feel the woman’s fear and relief emanating from her body, like aftershocks of an earthquake. The nanny took Lula from her arms and set about calming the girl down, avoiding her employer’s eyes.
How awful if something had happened. Two little children left alone with a wide-open window; the thought was unimaginable. Sara turned to Mrs. Camden. The woman’s profile was precise, her coloring fair other than thick black lashes that framed hazel eyes. Sara had encountered innumerable members of the peerage at the Langham and they all shared a common way of moving in the world, a confidence that their every desire would be met. It was rare to see one in crisis.
She sensed Walter and Mabel hovering behind them, and became protective of the woman’s dignity. “Is there anything else we can do, Mrs. Camden?” asked Sara.
“No, that is all.” The woman’s face softened. “Thank you for saving her.”
“Of course, ma’am.” Sara nodded to Walter and Mabel and led the way out of the room. Once the door was closed behind them, Sara exhaled with relief.
“That was a close call.” Walter rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand.
“You were spectacular, Sara. I mean, Mrs. Smythe,” said Mabel.
Sara wanted more than anything to crumple onto the floor, but she couldn’t allow her staff to see that.
“That’s more than enough excitement for one day. Back to work. And, Mabel, please remember to address me properly.”
“Of course, Mrs. Smythe.”
Sara turned away and strode down the hallway, grateful her quaking knees were hidden under multiple layers of petticoats and skirts.
The rest of the day, whenever Sara’s mind returned to the events in room 510, her heart thumped wildly in her rib cage. What if she hadn’t grabbed the child in time? What if she’d had to peer over the edge andsee the lifeless body splayed on the hard ground of the courtyard below? Sleep tonight, in the damp heat of her Bayswater bedsit, would be impossible.
But there was enough to keep her busy until then. She finished updating the ledgers, and was about to head out to inspect the turndown of the guests’ rooms when a man rapped on her office door. She knew it was a man from its hard, hollow sound. Maids’ knuckles were barely audible, already apologizing for disturbing her, but the men, whether Mr. Birmingham or the janitor, had no such qualms.
She stood and opened the door, expecting Mr. Birmingham to have made a special trip upstairs to upbraid her for causing a scene with the guests. Instead, a stranger’s face peered down at her. As if he sensed her discomfort, he stepped back a pace. “Mrs. Smythe?”
“Yes. May I help you, sir?” He was clearly a hotel guest, dressed in a fitted, bespoke suit with a Broadway silk hat tucked under one arm.
“I apologize for intruding.” He wiped his brow with an enormous hand. “How do you manage up here, with this insufferable heat?”
“It’s a rare occurrence, luckily.”
“I believe you saved my daughter Lula today. I wanted to thank you in person. My name is Mr. Theodore Camden.” His accent was American, his voice a warm tenor.
Sara gestured to a chair opposite her desk, offering him a seat. He moved with an unexpected grace, given his large build. Nothing about him was handsome, by standard measures. His head was small in contrast to his broad shoulders, his eyes close-set to an irregular nose. But when put alltogether, he was magnetic. She looked down and closed the ledger in order to stop herself from staring.
“I’m glad she’s safe. She is all right, isn’t she?” The image of the wailing girl came to mind.
“Yes. We offered her a slice of Battenberg cake and she’s completely forgotten the incident.” He chuckled before a brief look of pain crossed his face. “I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t gotten there in time. The twins, Lula and Luther, are constantly getting into trouble.”
“Best not to think of it."
Sara was unsure how to proceed. She’d never had a hotelguest in her small office, and he was so tall he took up much of the space.
“How did you know what was happening?” Mr. Camden leaned back in his chair, his hat in his lap. He didn’t seem to realize how indecorous it was to be sitting together like this, even if the door was open, so nothing could be construed as irregular. It was almost as if he enjoyed it, while most guests wouldn’t dream of mingling with the staff.
“I can see your hotel room from my window. I stood to get some air and saw her climb up.”
“The girl was supposed to be watching the twins while Mrs. Camden was out. Needless to say, she was fired immediately.”
“Well, luckily all turned out well.” Other than for the nanny, of course.“
"What is the ratio of staff to guests here?”
Such an odd question. “We have three hundred rooms and a staff of approximately four hundred.”
“How long have you been head housekeeper?”
“This is my first month.” He hadn’t come up here just to say than kyou, she was sure. Something else was driving his line of inquiry. She squared her shoulders and leaned slightly forward, as if into a wind, curious to figure him out. “But I’ve been working here in some capacity for the past eleven years.”
“You know the place well.”
“Mr. Birmingham says you’re highly efficient.”
Mr. Camden had inquired after her. “That’s kind of him to say.”
“It’s a grand building, the Langham. Beautifully built.”
“Yes.” Americans were very strange indeed. He didn’t seem to be in any rush to get back to his family. What if Mr. Birmingham had sent him up here as some kind of a test? “I’m happy to be employed here.”
“This hotel featured the first hydraulic lifts in England. Did you know that?”
Perhaps he was the type of man who collected facts and loved to show off how much he knew. She nodded.
Mr. Camden smiled. “I’m going on and on, sorry about that. I simply want to figure out a way to thank you.”
“There is no need. The hotel staff does everything it can for its guests.”
“You did more than that. I hope you didn’t injure yourself in the process.”
“Not at all.”
One of the laundry girls popped her head into the room and then jumped back, startled when she caught sight of Mr. Camden.
"Sorry, Mrs. Smythe. I’ll come back later.”
“That’s fine, Edwina.”
“Edwina, my mother’s name.” Mr. Camden swiveled around and gave the girl a smile. His face beamed with delight. “Edwina, may we trouble you for some tea?”
He was here to stay. But what for, she couldn’t guess. Edwina turned to Sara. Her eyes held the same faint alarm Sara’s must have, but Sara checked herself. “Yes, please, Edwina.”
The girl shuffled off and Mr. Camden turned back to Sara. “If I’m not keeping you from anything, of course.”
“Not at all. But there is no need for further mention of the incident. All’s well, as they say.”
“May I ask about your background?”
“I’m not sure if that’s necessary, Mr. Camden.”
He blushed. She hadn’t meant to embarrass him, just wanted to redirect the conversation. But how easily he’d gone all pink, like a schoolboy. Caught off guard, he tilted his head and stammered. “In a professional capacity, of course. I’m quite interested in how a big place like this keeps running along day after day, crisis after crisis.”
“I assure you we seldom have crises like the one today. Most of the time it’s a well-oiled machine.” One of Mr. Birmingham’s favorite expressions. She’d never liked it, as it turned the flesh-and-bloodstaff into cogs in an engine, but she was uncertain how to keep the conversation with Mr. Camden flowing.
“Of course not. What would you say is the biggest problem the staff encounters?”
She considered the question. “We are a first-class hotel, Mr. Camden. We make sure that every guest’s whim is answered. Sometimes that can be a juggling act, as the turnover is quite high.”
“Do many of the guests bring their own servants?”
“Of course. But they still need rooms cleaned and freshened. Ladies’ maids and butlers have their own roles to play, separate from the hotel’s amenities.”
“Before this, did you work in service?”
“I did not; however, my mother was housekeeper to an earl. Before this I was a dressmaker’s apprentice.”
“Yet you still ended up in service?” She should never have offered so much of her own history. But something about the man’s manner made her speak more than was proper. And now she’d stumbled into uncomfortable territory.
The tea arrived and Sara welcomed the interruption. Enough with Mr. Camden’s incessant questions. She would turn the tables, regain the upper hand. As she poured the tea, she inquired after his work. Americans seemed to enjoy chattering on at great length about their accomplishments.
He rose to the occasion. “I’m assisting the construction of an apartment house in New York City.”
“You’re an architect?”
He beamed. “Yes. I work for the great Henry Hardenbergh.”
Sara shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m not acquainted with his name.”
“He’s taking New York City by storm. He’s designed a place where the best families can live with elegance and privacy, sharing amenities like laundry and housekeeping. Why, we’re even keeping a tailor and baker on staff. As you can see, I’m fascinated with the inner workings of places like the Langham. Who keeps it humming, and how.”
That explained everything. Her shoulders dropped and she offered a warm smile, relieved that Mr. Birmingham wasn’t behind the interrogation. “It sounds like a large project.”
“The Dakota, it’s called, and it will change the way the upper class of the city live. At the moment, the elite of New York reside in brownstones, equivalent to your terrace houses, with one family per abode. The idea of sharing common space and amenities with others, as the French do, is considered gauche.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s too similar to a working-class tenement, where dozens of families live together in poverty and squalor.”
He continued on about the new building, barely stopping for breath, and she drank down her tea quickly, grateful for the liquid on her parched throat. Finally, he pulled out his watch. “I must go. We leave very soon, heading back to New York. I say, you wouldn’t want to work at the Dakota, would you?”
Her cup clattered against the saucer. She’d looked up when he’d spoken and missed the center.
He laughed. “I see I caught you unawares. We’re in need of a head housekeeper and you are obviously well qualified. New York City is an exciting place, I promise. I could mention your name to Mr. Douglas, the building’s agent.”
His words came tumbling out, as if he’d only just thought of the idea. Perhaps he had. Typical American boldness. It was a ridiculous suggestion, going to another country when she had a perfectly good job here, even if Mr. Birmingham was never pleased.
“I’m quite happy where I am, Mr. Camden. But thank you for the offer.”
“I’m serious.” His voice and visage grew animated as he worked through the details. “I’m going to send you a formal letter when I get back, as well as fare to come over. The opening is set for the end of October. Consider the idea. It’s the least I could do, after what you did for my family today. Will you consider it?”
She shook her head. He was caught up in the moment, an impulsive American like many others she’d encountered at the Langham. Too loud, too close, no sense of propriety.
“No, Mr. Camden. But thank you. Please let me know if there’s anything else you need during your stay. Good day.”
After he’d left, she shut the door behind him and went to the window. The one to room 510 was firmly shut, curtains drawn. Good. She’d had more than enough excitement for one day.