London, Spring 1815
My heartfelt congratulations to you! It is a great honor that the University of Cambridge has offered you a position as lecturer at your young age and after only two years at university. And yes, I fully approve of your decision to seize this opportunity.
You may wonder why, since I have a reputation of adhering strictly to society’s rules. Allowing a Russian prince to teach at Cambridge—albeit under a false name and identity—is outrageous. But never mind propriety, Sasha. I was unable to change the horrors of your upbringing. However, I can now give you time to live your dreams. Promise me to enjoy each hour to the fullest. We both know that your destiny cannot be ignored forever.
As for your inquiry about my health, I am well as always, although no longer as young as I would prefer to be. Looking at the inventions and developments of our age, I would not mind living for another sixty-odd years. It is my firm conviction that we will soon have heard the last of Napoleon and that an era of outstanding and peaceful development will follow.
Just a few days ago, I was invited to the opening festivities of The Noble, London’s first luxury hotel. I wish you could have been there. As one critic put it: Honorius Noble, the architect and proprietor, looked into the soul of beauty and brought it to life. And truly, the hotel is most pleasing to the eye with its eggnog walls, snowy columns, gorgeous white stucco, and highlights of crystal and gold.
Imagine a large hall of impressive height crowned by a magnificent domed skylight of colored glass. From the front entrance, your way leads you down a wide aisle formed by two rows of evenly-spaced columns which divide the available space into three parts. The wings left and right are about half as wide as the central aisle, each lit by a large window next to the front door. They contain seating areas for women and men respectively. From the coffee tables and plump armchairs, hidden by lovingly tended plants, guests can spy on whomever they please.
As you walk along the aisle, this will be you because each of your steps causes a tiny sound. The floor beneath your feet is made of white-veined orange marble, polished to glowing perfection. As you pass the merrily splashing central fountain, guarded by an antique faun, your gaze is drawn to the snow-white staircase sweeping to the left and hugging a reception desk of darkest precious wood.
After a tour of the premises led by Honorius Noble himself, I found Thornside Mansion awfully inadequate and stuffy and even considered, if only for a moment, to become a permanent resident of this hotel.
I only fear that this fine gentleman has paid too high a price for his vision. His eyes show the haunted expression of those who have been stretched to the limit of their endurance, and, knowing some of the obstacles his project faced, I am not surprised. I certainly hope that I am wrong, for he is planning a second, similarly outstanding hotel, and has the loveliest wife more than forty years his junior who adores him and to whom he is deeply devoted in return.
But enough of me and my musings! My dear Russian grandson, I again urge you to enjoy your Cambridge time to the fullest and look forward to hearing of your academic achievements.
Your loving grandmother,
Emily, Duchess of Thornside
On a bright, slightly nippy day in the early autumn of 1825 and after more than a decade in the hotel business, Sophia Noble finally meets the most obnoxious guest—a specimen that comes to all hotelkeepers at least once in their career. His name is Sasha.
Some guests were just not worth the trouble, Sophia raged inwardly, glaring down at the unconscious man lying on the floor. Having one’s day ruined was not an uncommon occurrence for a hotelkeeper who made her living by housing a crowd of overbearing aristocrats and arrogant nouveau riches, but this particular…gentleman’s…performance was beyond anything she had ever experienced.
But then again she should have expected something like this, considering her deceptively quiet start into the day. After a restful night’s sleep, she had risen from her bed in her private apartment refreshed and glad that the previous day’s headache brought about by that odious Mrs. Cancker—aptly nicknamed “Mrs. Nag” by her staff—was gone. The pale green dress she selected from her wardrobe, the one that perfectly matched her eyes, still fit despite her recent overindulgence in candies and chocolates, and her long locks of unruly auburn hair allowed themselves to be arranged in a tidy and respectable style.
She descended the sweeping staircase into The Noble’s extravagant entrance hall at peace with the world. As always at this time of day, it was deserted because the merchants had departed early, and the lazy aristocrats and artists were still in bed.
Chocolat, her daytime concierge, smiled a greeting from his desk, flashing perfect white teeth offset by café-au-lait skin. Sophia returned the smile and automatically checked his appearance for flaws—the vocational disease of every luxury hotelkeeper. As always, the young man was dressed impeccably in The Noble’s black uniform, completed by a pristinely white cotton shirt, a white silk cravat and a golden name-tag on his left lapel.
In the dining room, its door visible to the left, her maître d’ Maurice Hentsch was singing like he did when he was in excellent spirits and all but the permanent residents had left. His pleasant voice filled the lobby with happiness. Keeping him company and enjoying the world’s great delicacies would be Mr. Appleby, an elderly widower, while Mrs. Craig, The Noble’s resident artist, probably stared dreamily into the street from her usual table near the window, endlessly turning her teacup in her hands.
“Good morning, madam,” Chocolat greeted her when she joined him behind the reception desk. It stood at a gentle angle to the rest of the lobby so that guests would feel welcome and not as if walking up to a judge.
“Good morning, Chocolat. Who are today’s arrivals?”
He opened his book, a large leather-bound volume embossed with flourishing golden letters spelling The Noble. Page after page was covered with his easily readable, yet beautiful handwriting. Many years hence, it would be a pleasure to leaf through this volume and remember all the people who had passed through her house. The current page was bookmarked with a strip of vellum bearing The Noble’s emblem.
“First there is the Honorable Miss Hadfield with one maid,” Chocolat began the report. “In our ongoing correspondence, we were able to bring to her attention that a room in the men’s wing would not satisfy her expectations. She now prefers one of the pink rooms. I have put her in 423.”
The most removed room in the female wing of the hotel. Sophia kept her face carefully blank.
“Then Mr. Austin is scheduled to arrive today. I have ordered that his bed be turned so that its foot points towards the door.”
As if he expected to die in his sleep and wanted to be ready for his funeral, Sophia completed the sentence in her head.
Somebody was walking through the first-floor corridor. After a glance at the reception’s clock, Sophia almost groaned. It was 10:33 a.m.
“Then we have an American family arriving, the Chapmans. A couple and their two daughters aged five and seven, with three servants. They have requested a suite on the lower floors. I have put them in the Amber Suite in the family wing.”
Sophia nodded her approval. The Chapmans were staying for the first time. Therefore, they were given one of the simpler suites until their ilk was known.
Above her, the creaking of stays and the swishing of fabric became audible. Like a schooner under full sail, Mrs. Nag swept down the stairs, closely followed by her sullen son.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cancker. Mr. Cancker,” Sophia greeted them with a smile, while Chocolat respectfully inclined his head.
They walked by with barely a nod. Sophia gritted her teeth beneath her smile and imagined her porters tossing them headfirst out into the street after a heavy rain. Only thus was she able to deal with the thoroughly unpleasant pair day after day. Honorius, who had been stuffy in his dealings with guests, would hardly have approved, but then again, Sophia did not have his angelic patience.
Through the glazed entrance doors, they watched the Canckers board their rented carriage. Chocolat’s attention returned to the reservations book. “Our most important arrival today is a prince.”
Or at least he claims to be, Sophia again completed the sentence in her mind. Of all guests, she liked Americans best. They were sometimes a bit loud and had rather rough manners, but they were also honest and usually paid their fees instantly and without making a fuss. Aristocrats, on the other hand, whined and stalled about payments long overdue, and the higher the title, the worse.
“His name is Prince Aleksey Mikhailovich Oldenburg-Romanov. He is traveling in the company of the Honorable Morgan Stevens and the Honorable Gordon Hunt. I have put the company in the Ivory Suite in the men’s wing. They claim to be accompanied by no servants.”
“Their credit?” Sophia used the shorthand for credit standing.
“Excellent. They were referred to us by the Dowager Duchess of Thornside. Evidently, His Highness is her grandson.”
A commotion at the front entrance attracted Sophia’s attention. James, their head porter, seemed to be arguing with a tall blond man in rumpled but expensive clothes. As she watched, the man threw back his head and lifted his left hand in a grand gesture, knocking off James’s uniform cap.
Strangely enough, James opened the door for him. Always correct to perfection, he did so before diving for his cap.
“Who is he?” Sophia asked.
“I have no idea, but James did not ring the porters’ bell.”
That could only mean trouble. Guests without luggage were always suspect. In addition, he wore no hat.
He was also the most stunning man Sophia had ever seen, and she instinctively held her breath while she watched his progress through the lobby with morbid fascination. He had one of those hard, narrow faces with high cheekbones that looked as if carved from stone. Out of it flashed a seemingly huge pair of eyes, rimmed with dark lashes and accentuated by arched brows. By contrast, his hair was almost white-blond, wavy and gleaming like finest silk. Another man might have looked like an angel under these circumstances. He just spelled trouble.
He was also way beyond drunk and weaved his way from one side of the lobby to the other, almost hugging a column there, nearly falling into a potted plant there, and narrowly missing the dainty central fountain. His right hand held a half-empty bottle of expensive champagne.
In front of the reception he stopped and stared at them dumbly. His eyes were cobalt-blue, Sophia noticed, and resembled bottomless pits. Despite his obvious inebriation, she got the feeling that an entirely sober man was looking out of a plastered body.
“’lo, my fair lady. I did not realize that this is the kind of establishment that offers its broads right at the entrance,” he said with a distinct slur in his voice.
Chocolat at Sophia’s side tensed.
Sophia gave the man a stare of long practice. It typically froze wayward guests or staff members right in their tracks.
“Good day, sir,” she said with a deceptively friendly smile. “My name is Sophia Noble. I am the owner of this hotel. What can we do for you?”
Her words stopped him for a moment, and he stood, gently swaying. “I have come to stay at your hotel,” he finally declared with an exaggerated stance. Beneath his drunken babble lay an accent clipped and English to the core.
“Do you have a reservation?”
The usual answer would be negative, and then he would be politely informed that, unfortunately, the hotel was fully booked at the moment, but that they would arrange for a hackney for him and good riddance!
He was to disappoint her.
His face scrunched. “I must have.”
The luck she had! Sophia looked down at the reservations book and put her hand beneath the list of the expected arrivals. “And your name is, sir?”
Her crisp, businesslike manner no longer held his attention. He looked around the lobby. His wandering gaze went to the skylight, to the fountain, and to the large classical paintings on the walls framed by elegant stucco and gold.
When his eyes came back to her, they had a glassy sheen.
“You the remainder of the evening’s entertainment?” he slurred and stumbled against the reception. The wrist buttons of his expensive coat scratched across the precious wood with a noise that set Sophia’s teeth on edge.
Chocolat at her side clenched his fists. She touched him furtively, asking him to stay calm.
The self-declared guest wilting over their desk meanwhile looked her over in an insulting fashion. “Naw, you’re too fat for a successful courtesan. But who cares? Here’s to you!”
With surprising speed, he brought up the champagne bottle in the parody of a toast, almost braining Sophia in the process.
She avoided the blow by sheer reflex and saw Chocolat lunge for the man, but his defensive move proved unnecessary. The momentum of the man’s sweep brought him upright and caused him to stagger away from the desk while he stared at them with uncomprehending eyes. For a moment, he seemed to catch himself and stood uncertainly, then gave a disgusting belch. His eyes rolled back, and he crashed onto his back. The champagne bottle broke in an explosion of shards.
All at once, the lobby was full of people. James flung open the entrance doors and came running. Hentsch hurried over from the dining room, closely followed by hobbling Mr. Appleby, and Mrs. Craig, who held a spoon as if she were intent on stabbing somebody with it. From their room beneath the stairs, The Noble’s three daytime porters shot into the lobby.
“What eez ’appening?” Maurice said, his French accent more pronounced than usual.
“He almost hit Sophia with a bottle!” Chocolat exclaimed, too shaken to remember that he had to call Sophia by her family name in front of guests.
Mr. Appleby brandished his cane. Under normal circumstances, he was the sweetest of men. Right now, he was almost spitting with rage and seemed ready to put a stake through the prostrate fellow’s heart. “I say we throw him out into the street.”
“No, call the guards and have them carry him off to Newgate!” stated Mrs. Craig.
Their unanimous support calmed Sophia in her fury, but she could not help a certain feeling of apprehension when she noticed the signet ring on the man’s left hand. “Does anybody know who he is?” she asked.
Heads were shaken. The man on the floor began to snore.
“Sasha!” they suddenly heard an anxious exclamation. A young, unnoticeable man rushed up to them. On his arm, he carried a small girl perhaps four years old. In their wake followed a barely grown Adonis who had “good-for-nothing” written all over him.
Only now, Sophia noticed the elegant carriage that had drawn up in front of The Noble. Its coachman was holding open the glazed entrance door, gawking at the scene.
“God damn it, Sasha, what have you done this time!” the man with the child raged. His worried glance swept over the spectators, and it was clear that he was entirely aware of the perplexed, slightly hostile mood. Eventually, his eyes focused on Sophia behind the reception, and she saw him make the logical deductions.
“Please accept our apologies. My name is Morgan Stevens. This is Gordon Hunt, and this is my daughter Désirée, called Siri. Please allow me to introduce you to His Imperial Highness, Prince Aleksey Mikhailovich Oldenburg-Romanov.” With a long-suffering sweep of his arm, he indicated the man he had called Sasha. “Get him to his feet, Hunt, will you?”
Hunt, who had the build of a classic hero, reached down and unceremoniously stood Sasha on his feet with what had to be an often-practiced move. Unless Sophia was mistaken, some private parts of the prince’s anatomy were going to hurt pretty soon.
“I understand you have a suite for us,” Stevens continued. As pressure went, it was applied politely, but she knew that her chance to turn the strange group away had vanished.
“Indeed.” Sophia produced The Noble’s reservations form, printed on costly cream-white paper and already filled in by Chocolat. “Would you please check that we entered your group’s information correctly and sign here in confirmation, Mr. Stevens. Unless you have other instructions, our porters will meanwhile take care of your luggage.”
“Thank you.” Stevens gave Sophia a genuine, slightly harassed smile and turned to James, whose function he must have recognized. “Regarding our luggage, I would only ask you to bring in the white coffer first and put it into my room.”
Because this request sounded somewhat presumptuous given the status of his companion, he turned back to Sophia and explained. “It contains Désirée’s bed. We had a rough passage, and she needs to sleep.” He gently stroked the child’s silken hair. She made a sound like a kitten.
“Of course, sir.” James collected his porters with a glance, and they went outside where they busied themselves with unloading the carriage.
Stevens signed the reservations form in neat clerk-like writing. Sophia noticed that his hand was shaking slightly. She also realized a potential problem. “We gave you the Ivory Suite in the men’s wing because we did not know that you are traveling with a child. Does Miss Désirée have a governess?”
Stevens seemed to understand at once. “No, I take care of her. I gather that the divisions are fixed?”
“Yes. For the well-being of all our guests, we have to be strict. Visitors of the opposite sex may be welcomed in private reception rooms, usually available at short notice, in the presence of a chaperone. Unchaperoned meetings may take place in the lobby. Monsieur Chocolat, our concierge, will now take you to your suite.”
Sophia watched as the group made their way up the sweeping staircase, the prince’s expensive boots dragging on the pristine white marble steps. Her stomach was seething with anger. The less she saw of these guests, the better.
For Sophia, the day drags on, sluggish like molasses, although an important banquet is scheduled to take place in the ballroom that evening, and staff activity reaches a frenetic level by early afternoon. In the kitchen, Monsieur Georges Masire, The Noble’s chef, is throwing his usual tantrums. The second or third involves Maurice Hentsch, who as maître d’ is in charge of the waiters.
When the yelling got so loud that Sophia understood individual words in her office on the ground floor, she knew that it was high time to interfere because the sounds would soon carry to public areas such as the dining room and the reception.
She hurried along the narrow corridor and opened the door to a staff staircase, lit by windows too narrow for a child to slip through. Immediately, a wave of humid heat hit her face, funneling past her and pulling at her dress. The shouting was now so clear that she understood every not so polite word.
Sophia’s slippers made no sound as she descended the tricky stone steps and long experience caused her to grip the handrail hard. A yellowish light flickered through the door at the bottom of the stairs, which opened to the quieter areas of The Noble’s kitchen. In her mind, she called the huge vaulted room her own private hell because it was always filled with clouds of steam rising from a myriad of pots and pans, no matter how many of the basement windows stood open. Fire blazed everywhere: beneath hearths, in ovens, and in the two fireplaces with their gigantic spits, each sturdy enough to carry an entire cow. The flames cast strange, harsh shadows on faces and caused eyes to gleam with eerie highlights. Temperatures were insufferable in summer, tropical in winter and everybody was always drenched with sweat.
Masire, a middle-aged, somewhat portly Frenchman, claimed that he lost several pounds during work each day. He certainly drank more tea than anybody she had ever met, sometimes up to ten pots in a single afternoon. If he kept up his infernal yelling, he was also likely to be hoarse for at least a week.
Sophia braced herself and stepped up to the quarreling pair. Masire was waving his arms about, cursing the maître d’ in less-than-polite Parisian. Hentsch, who had been in England longer, switched back and forth between English, French, and his native Alsatian dialect—a Germanic language spoken with a melodious French inflection. Everybody else stood watching from a safe distance so as not to have his or her eye poked out by the chef, who was wielding a scoop like a knife.
When the shouting contest threatened to move into personal realms better left unmentioned, Sophia intervened. “What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?” she said in her softest voice.
Her question was rewarded with immediate silence as if somebody had cut the noise with scissors. The only remaining sounds were the bubbling and sizzling of pots and the gentle whisper of bread rising in the oven’s heat.
“’e will not serve what I cook!” Masire complained with a dismissive snort in the maître d’s direction and demonstratively folded his muscled arms, turning the scoop he still held into a dangerous missile when it hit his biceps and flew from his hand.
Everybody ducked with the ease of long habit. The scoop struck a wall and fell behind a row of amphorae containing vegetable oils. One of the apprentices went to retrieve it, displaying almost artistic skills.
“I only said that his salade is not up to our hotel’s standards,” Hentsch sniffed. As always when he was spitting mad, he took great care—and succeed—to pronounce every h in his sentences. “Look at it!” A wave of his hand indicated the offensive item. “It looks like rabbit’s food!”
Sophia contemplated the dish of dispute on the worn worktable. It contained a beautifully arranged choice of raw vegetables, garnished with a carrot cut to look like a lily.
Dark red blotches appeared on Masire’s cheeks until his usually handsome face resembled an overcooked beet. “Our banquet eez ’osted by the Friends of Animals Society. They requested a vegetarian meal! And as our paying guests, they are entitled to have their wishes fulfilled to the best of our ability.”
Sophia agreed with him, but also saw her maître d’s point. “It looks a little bland, Georges. Could the presentation be improved by a sprinkling of herbs and a sauce containing special vinegars, for instance, the strawberry one we purchased some weeks ago?”
“Difficile, madam,” Masire said. “The group ’as requested our ’ouses special lemon-mint dressing.”
“Like every time. How stupid of me to forget,” Sophia sighed. Today was simply not her day. “My second suggestion would be a sprinkling of flowers. Which ones can be eaten, Monsieur Masire?”
“There are countless: les roses, jasmine, violets, lavender…” Suddenly, the chef’s face lit up. “I see what you mean.” He looked expectantly at Hentsch.
The maître d’ checked his pocket-watch and pursed his lips, which made him look all the more dashing. “The booths at Covent Garden will already be closing, their best items long gone. But we could send somebody to Mr. Mason’s nursery near Tyburn.”
“Not to the nursery. To the Henson farmstead!” Masire rubbed his hands with a special gleam in his eyes. “You, John, come ’ere. I will give you a list of what I need. And take care that you only accept the very best quality!”
The chef bustled off, a slightly pale kitchen help in tow.
Hentsch looked at Sophia, grinned and shrugged in a typical French gesture. They left the kitchen by the up-stairs to the utility room wedged between the dining room and the ballroom. In the evening, runners would climb these stairs to carry up exquisitely garnished dishes such as pies, roasts, and desserts and hand them on to the liveried waiters who would do the actual service.
Once their hands were empty, the runners picked up a load of used dishes from the special dump in the utility room and descended again by the down-stairs. The one-way traffic prevented accidents and made for speedy service so that meals arrived scalding hot in front of the guests. There were also two shafts with boxes suspended from winches for heavy items such as soup tureens and large cakes, or to haul the heaps of tableware the hotel needed.
“What are your feelings about this evening’s guests, Maurice?” Sophia inquired. When they emerged into the empty dining room, she saw that he looked tired as if some of his polish were gone.
“Nothing special, Mrs. Noble. They feed well, but ‘soaking’ them is always a bit of a disappointment.” A melancholic smile accompanied his insider joke. “They drink mainly water, and their choice of wine is dreadful, but then so is the choice of most British.” Without the need to show off, Maurice’s subtle French accent returned.
Sophia touched his hand. “You have a lifetime to educate us.”
He flashed one of his wonderful smiles at her. Because of his preoccupation, it did not entirely reach his eyes. Sophia guessed at lover’s trouble.
“Mais, Marie! What are you doing?” Hentsch suddenly exclaimed. The young maid preparing the tables for dinner jumped in fright. He went to show her once more how The Noble’s tables were to be set and decorated.
Sophia progressed to the reception where Chocolat was closing the accounts of today’s departed guests. “All settled,” he stated with a happy smile.
Sophia nodded and continued on her round through the lobby. At this time of the afternoon, it was fairly busy. The separate male and female seating areas were well frequented by people having tea, coffee or a quiet glass of port. Mr. Appleby and Mrs. Craig were sharing a pot of tea in the “neutral” zone close to the reception, where they enjoyed an excellent view of all the comings and goings.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Appleby, Mrs. Craig,” Sophia greeted them. “Did you have a pleasant day so far?”
Mrs. Craig, who sported a wild mop of strawberry blond hair and generally looked at if she hadn’t got a clue which century she lived in, gave her a dreamy smile. Sophia was secretly relieved that this month’s choice of clothes did no longer tend towards the Cretan style. Just some weeks ago they had barely managed to stop Mrs. Craig before she entered the breakfast room in a gauzy dress starting beneath her bare breasts. Because of the young woman’s extreme skinniness, it was not a sight one cared to remember.
Mr. Appleby smirked at Sophia, his pale eyes twinkling. “So far, I have detected four women who would rather change their modiste, especially for their unmentionables, and three gentlemen whose linen showed most unfashionably beneath their clothes because they chose inferior quality.”
Before his retirement, Mr. Appleby had been one of London’s linen merchants, not the largest but the best, and The Noble had bought all its supplies of tablecloths, towels, and sundries from him. He knew everything about linen and underwear and a great deal about fashion. Sophia genuinely liked him.
“You look drawn, Mrs. Noble. Would you care to share a cup of our tea?” he offered, indicating the pot.
“Thank you for your kind offer, Mr. Appleby, but unfortunately I haven’t got the time today. As you certainly know, we have a big banquet tonight.”
“Oh yes, those nice old ladies who do not eat meat.” Mrs. Craig surprised them with her statement. She had a dreamy, husky voice, androgynous and strangely uninflected. Sophia was never sure if a sentence was finished or if more was to come.
“I noticed that almost none of them have gout,” Mrs. Craig continued apropos of nothing. “I wonder if I should change my regimen. Life without gout is a nice objective, don’t you think?”
Sophia thought that although Mrs. Craig was an extraordinary artist—she had painted all of The Noble’s murals and trompe l’oeils—she was also several cups short in her tea-service, but that was not something one voiced to a guest or resident.
“Certainly, Mrs. Craig, but I fear that I love our chef’s creations too much to deprive myself of his wonderful roasts and sausages.”
“Yesterday’s was particularly succulent and tasty,” Mr. Appleby sighed. He looked up at Sophia and noticed her nervousness. “But we are keeping you, Mrs. Noble. Run along and do not mind us. If we see anything untoward, we will report instantly.”
Sophia departed with a smile. It was time to check on the other preparations for the banquet. The entrance to the ballroom was situated to the right of the sweeping stairway. Mahogany double doors set into a Roman portal gave access to a vast room of peach, gold, and white. Two magnificent Venetian chandeliers hung from an arched ceiling delightfully painted by Mrs. Craig’s light hand. Matching sconces flanked the large murals on the wall. The dark parquet floor was polished to a perfect shine and reflected the light of every single candle like a quiet lake the midnight stars.
Sophia closed her eyes for a moment. She inhaled the smell of beeswax and linseed oil from the wood polish and listened to the clatter of tableware. For a moment she believed herself at home in her parents’ little country mansion. They had been happy. Only in later years Sophia had learned to appreciate how very much. In her childhood, she had taken the joyous, loving atmosphere for granted, her only care that Honorius could not be there all the time.
Sorrow choked her and she opened her eyes. All that was gone. Only her mother’s recipe for wood polish remained.
Sophia focused on the tables carried in by handymen through a usually hidden utility door. Tonight’s setup would be U-shaped: one head table with two parallel rows leading away from it. As always the head waiters—also called the Apostles because their names were Peter, Paul, James, and Matthew—supervised this process with quiet efficiency.
Peter, a blond man with a youthful look, came over to Sophia. “Everything is under control, Mrs. Noble,” he reported cheerfully. “Don’t you worry a moment. Our guests will be happy and entertained as always.”
At dusk, Sophia realizes that the day has taken its toll. In the early days of her widowhood, she sometimes tried to perform beyond her personal strength, each time with disastrous results. These occasions have taught her to let go. Perfection might be The Noble’s objective, but in the end, it is created by humans, who have their limitations.
With a sigh of relief, Sophia closed the door to her fifth-floor apartment behind her. Shivering, she slipped out of her dress, washed carefully in her bathroom, and put on Honorius’ old padded dressing gown. His book-lined study which had always doubled as their sitting room—later also his sick room—was illuminated by starlight falling through the large bay window onto the comfortable couch, and by a fire crackling merrily in its screened fireplace. A pair of armchairs stood in front of it, one of them occupied by two tightly curled furry balls.
Sophia lifted both animals, sat down in the armchair and placed them on her lap. Inquisitive azure eyes focused on her. Backs were arched, limbs rearranged more comfortably. The Siamese purred.
Sophia’s tears started to fall. Her hand found the glazed frame with Honorius’ portrait on the table. She hugged it to her breast, weeping profusely.
Time passed. One cat—Li, the girl—climbed Sophia’s shoulder and curled there. Ming, the tom, moved up until she felt his purring directly in her heart.
Gradually, Sophia quieted and allowed the warmth of the flames to dry her tears. After Honorius’ death, every single night had been like this. In public, she played the brave, self-sufficient widow, while once alone she cried out her eyes.
After a while, the first only miserable evenings occurred. Then, about three years after that fatal Christmas Eve of 1819, Sophia realized that she had spent an entire sleepless night over a book, feeling nothing much at all. Nowadays, her weeks went by as if in a dream, as if she were only half alive. But she preferred this dream to cold reality.
A knock sounded at the door.
“Enter,” Sophia said.
As expected, it was Severine Brown, The Noble’s head of staff. In this capacity, the middle-aged strict-looking woman was head of housekeeping, having originally served as Sophia’s governess and later housekeeper to the family.
She placed a salver with a pot of tea, cups, and a small dish of chocolates on the table, then sat down in the second armchair. With a weary sigh, she rested her feet on a footstool. “How are you keeping up, dear?”
“Not so good.” Sophia stared into the flames while the tears flowed anew.
“That Russian prince?” Severine asked in the shorthand they had developed over more than two decades.
“I guess.” Sophia put her feet on her own footstool and placed Honorius’ portrait on her thighs so that she could look at his beloved face and trace its features with her index finger.
“Why was he able to hurt you? After all these years of dealing with drunken aristocrats, I would have expected you to be immune.”
Sophia finally looked her friend in the eye. “Have you seen him, Severine?”
“The prince? No. His Highness is evidently still lying comatose in bed or nursing a hopefully splitting headache. But I saw his secretary when he returned from flying kites with his little girl. He seems quite nice.”
“Mr. Stevens is quite nice.” Sophia hugged Honorius close again.
“And the prince?”
“The prince is the most handsome man I have ever seen. He looks so much like an angel that I was hardly able to keep from staring when he barged through the lobby.”
“And then he spoke, and the illusion was gone.”
“Something like that. I was disappointed. Heaven knows why I should be interested in the man.”