SIX LITTLE SUNFLOWERS
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
February 28, 1908
The Carey Hotel
Southwest corner of St. Francis and Douglas
Fires are the results of accidents, of spontaneous combustion, and of design. It is hard to tell a housekeeper
what to do or what not to do in case of a fire. No two hotels are alike, and no two fires occur the same way.
—GUIDE TO HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING
The Carey Palace Hotel
Southwest corner of St. Francis and Douglas
“HE’S THE DANDIEST MAN,” came Pearl’s love-struck voice the moment the service elevator doors closed.
Félicie Richmond looked heavenward then pushed the button to the third floor. If she said nothing, the swooning session would end by the time they started cleaning . . . she hoped.
“So beautiful,” Pearl murmured as the elevator jolted into motion. “He truly is.”
Félicie turned and looked from Pearl to Alta (and her upside-down smile) then back to Pearl who wore the same dreamy mien whenever she talked about her current obsession—the dashing fire captain of Central Station. Or at least Félicie presumed the hotel’s newest chambermaid was referring to Carpenter Yeary, the very man Félicie had never exchanged a word with despite the fact that they’d attended the same church for the last year.
When Captain Yeary finally decided to marry, a chambermaid would not be his choice. Even one as blond and buxom as Pearl Bailey.
No, he would marry someone more—
Félicie frowned. She had no idea what type of woman he would marry. Neither had she any idea if he was currently courting anyone. Nor did she care. She had never given the captain a moment of thought until now, but still, common sense said he was not desperate. Non-desperate men evaded marriage until they found a woman they could not live without.
Of course, she could be wrong about Carpenter Yeary. Either way, it mattered not. What he did with his life was his business. In fact, Pearl needed a good dose of—
No, say nothing. This was not Félicie’s business.
Pearl brushed the feather duster along the bodice of her white apron. “Did you see how he smiled at me when we passed by?”
“Just now?” Félicie blurted out before she could stop herself.
Pearl paused. She looked to Alta, who shrugged.
Félicie again glanced back and forth between the pair. What was that supposed to mean? Shrugs, due to their ambiguous meanings, were an abysmal form of communication. She hated shrugs.
“Yes, downstairs,” Pearl finally said to Félicie. “He was talking to Mr. Eaton beside the front desk. Didn’t you see him?”
Pearl gave her an irritated look. “He practically shone with the glory of an archangel. How could you not see him?”
Because Félicie never scanned the lobby for men with archangelic glory shining about them like Pearl tended to do. Not that a man needed any halos or shining light for Pearl to notice him. Being male was enough to draw Pearl’s attention.
“Are you sure it was you he smiled at?” Félicie asked.
“Of course.” Her lips pursed tight. “He was looking right at me.”
“How do you know he—”
But Pearl was not finished. “Our eyes met and . . . and I heard music. Actual music.” She sighed. “He’s so beautiful.”
Félicie looked to Alta, who shrugged again. What Pearl had heard was Mr. Van Sickel playing the piano in the lobby bar, but Félicie refrained from correcting the presumption. Captain Yeary—if it had truly been him downstairs—more likely had been responding to someone else, and Pearl only assumed his smile was directed at her.
The elevator, which felt like it was moving slower than its usual snail’s pace, stopped with a jolt. Doors opened to reveal an empty first floor. Félicie growled under her breath then pushed the third-floor button to hurry the doors closed. Why the service elevator had to stop on every floor was beyond her. It made no practical sense. Fortunately, starting Monday she would never have to use the service elevator again.
Soon Félicie Richmond, housekeeper’s assistant, would die and rise again like a phoenix as a better version of herself. No longer would she be viewed as the help.
Félicie Richmond, calligrapher, Hotel Carey.
She could take her meals in the main dining room, instead of the helps’ hall, and eat at her leisure instead of eating quickly so she could get back to work.
Tomorrow she would move from the small apartment in the helps’ hall to a nicer and larger one on the second floor. Tomorrow she could officially begin handing out her new business cards. On Sunday she would wear one of her new I-am-a-business-woman dresses, custom tailored for her by the exclusive Madame Laurent. Her costume would show she was a lady, a status acquired through education, determination, sacrifice, and perseverance.
“Pearl isn’t making this up,” Alta said, breaking the silence.
Félicie responded with a smile she hoped looked agreeable yet not one that said, “Please do tell me more.” Starting Monday she would never again have to listen to quixotic prattling about an implausible smittenness. She believed in having hopes and dreams. She was also practical enough to choose conceivable hopes and dreams.
A heroic fireman in love with a chambermaid?
Something in her expression must have conveyed her skepticism because Alta continued with, “Carp literally stopped talking mid-sentence, Félicie—really, he did. I saw his mouth gape open for a second. Pearl waved and he smiled at her. He’s smitten.”
Félicie stared at the chambermaid she had been training all month to replace her as the assistant to the housekeeper. Alta looked completely serious. “Carp? When did he become Carp to you?”
“I attended high school with him.”
“Fifteen years ago. Have you talked to him since?”
“Everyone calls him that,” Alta replied patronizingly. What wasn’t spoken was her Félicie, if you did something besides work and hide inside your room when you weren’t working, you would know this. The implication was clear.
“Everyone,” Pearl echoed. She punctuated her words with a “hmmph” and the plop of the feather duster back on the cart.
Félicie gave her head a little shake. That he told everyone to call him Carp didn’t mean she would. Carp was a fish, not a man’s name.
The elevator stopped.
Doors squeaked opened to reveal an empty second floor.
Félicie groaned. Button pushed, she rested against the elevator’s wood-paneled wall. “I seem to recall yesterday you both referred to him as Captain Yeary. What changed in a day?”
Alta and Pearl exchanged glances.
“We didn’t talk about him yesterday,” Pearl said, while Alta appeared to be thinking.
“Yes, you did. You were discussing Saturday’s Leap Year Day festival.” When their expressions remained blank, Félicie clarified, “How you could not decide what to wear to the ball at the Occidental. You wanted to purchase a new dress—yellow calico with cream lace trim. Alta suggested you wear the Christmas party dress, the red one with the lovely black gauze overskirt and black piping, but you confessed you had borrowed it from your aunt and you hated the corset you had to wear under it. You insisted corsets were manifestations of the devil.”
Pearl’s mouth gaped for a moment. “You remember all that?”
“During the discussion,” Félicie continued, undaunted by Pearl’s response, “you both called him Captain Yeary, not Carp.”
Pearl continued to stare, horrified. “Do you remember everything you hear?”
“Of course, she does,” Alta answered when Félicie said nothing. “It’s why Mrs. Jenkins overlooked the must-be-thirty rule and hired Félicie to be a chambermaid when she was only twenty-one. No one can solve a Spot the Difference puzzle faster than she can.”
Félicie’s cheeks warmed. “The point is,” she said to direct the conversation away from her and onto the topic at hand, “you both know quite well a smile does not equate smittenness.”
“Said the one who’s never been smitten,” Pearl said, rather smugly.
“I have too been smit—”
The elevator squeaked to a stop. Doors opened. Félicie pushed the button to keep the doors from closing then motioned to Alta and Pearl to exit.
Alta stood firm. “She’s right. You are twenty-eight years old and have never been smitten.” She gave Félicie a maternal, you-cannot-lie-to-me look as she pushed the brass-and-linen housekeeping cart out of the elevator and onto the paisley-patterned carpet. “Love doesn’t fit into your schedule.”
Félicie coughed a breath to cover the awkwardness of the moment and the fact that she had no response. There was no benefit to arguing. She knew too many girls who did little more than pin their hopes and dreams on a man rescuing them from their life of drudgery. Love would save them. Love would solve their woes. Or so they believed, hoped, and dreamed. Someday they would learn life was no more a fairytale waiting to come true than Prince Charming a real person.
Besides . . . her lack of experience with being smitten—she had been once—was irrelevant. They had a shift to finish. Even though Alta and Pearl were in the over-thirty-thus-more-sensible-than-girls-in-their-twenties age range the hotel deemed best for chambermaids, by the amount of time they spent prattling about men, especially the bachelors employed by the Wichita Fire Department, how did they ever manage to finish their work before their shifts ended?
Simple answer—because Félicie ensured they did. As she ensured all the chambermaids, scrub girls, linen girls, and laundresses did their duties.
She nodded toward the foyer.
This time Pearl and Alta obeyed. Félicie followed the two older chambermaids out of the elevator. They walked in silence, passing unoccupied rooms.
“You should propose to Carp this Saturday.” Alta stopped the cart where the U-shaped hallway divided the hotel rooms from the apartment suites. “Pearl, don’t look at me like that. You can’t let a Leap Year Day go to waste. It’ll be four years before you get another chance.”
Pearl grimaced. “I suppose. But what if he thinks I’m only doing it for a new dress?”
“Of course, he will,” Félicie cut in. She glanced down the vanilla-scented hallway. The scrub girls must have finished cleaning the apartment wing early. “And when he does, you should not take it as a personal slight,” she said to Pearl. “Leap Year Day is a boon for dressmakers. Like every other bachelor in Wichita, Captain Yeary would be a fool to think an out-of-the-blue proposal from a girl he barely knows is anything but an attempt to procure a dress. It is a rather silly tradition, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask,” muttered Pearl.
“Félicie!” Alta exclaimed, glaring in Félicie’s direction.
“What? You know I am right.”
“Why do you assume he wouldn’t think the girl actually wants to marry him?”
Félicie rolled that over in her mind. The logical reason—
Alta gave her no time to answer. “There’s a reason that sculptress asked him to pose with nary fur or fig leaf. Every unmarried lady in Wichita, save you, dreams of being married to a man as beautiful and brave and gentlemanly as Carpenter Yeary.”
Félicie took a hard look at Alta, who she considered highly sensible, despite her proclivity toward gossip. Yet never in the ten years since Félicie had started working at the hotel laundry with Alta had she ever, ever, ever heard a bit of gossip as tawdry as this. Pose in the nude? Firstly, she refused to believe it. Secondly, she refused to question Alta about where, when, and from whom she heard what could not possibly be true. Captain Yeary attended church. Every Sunday!
Good heavens, he played the French horn in the orchestra.
“I suppose,” Félicie said, “if he was smitten with the female proposing marriage, then it is possible he would not think . . .” She allowed the rest of her sentence to die. If Captain Yeary favored Pearl—and she supposed stranger things have happened—then whatever developed between them was none of her concern. “We need to get to work.” And stop prattling. Félicie grabbed the clipboard off the side of the housekeeping cart. Save for Mr. Hays, in the corner suite, the third floor was empty of residents and guests. She glanced at her wristwatch—twelve-twenty-four—then offered Alta the clipboard. “I have finished training you what to do. For the rest of the day Pearl and I are your help. Where will you have us begin?”
Alta grimaced. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Mrs. Jenkins and Mr. Eaton would not have hired you”—Félicie released the clipboard as Alta accepted it—“if they did not believe you are qualified and skilled to do the job. I believe you are.”
Pearl stood by Alta, nodding.
“I don’t know why I’m nervous,” Alta chuckled. “It’s not as if you’re leaving Wichita. You’re not even leaving the hotel.” She paused, her brow wrinkling. “If I have a question, I can find you and ask, right?”
Félicie nodded. “Absolutely. Hotel housekeeping is a science. It is an artistic achievement in which everything is in its right place and is of the proper grade, shade, quality, and cleanliness, harmonizing in every way. If you cannot remember the details, check the clipboard or the housekeeping books. Mrs. Jenkins keeps diligent notes. You are now one step away from being the housekeeper of the prestigious Hotel Carey. Alta Vandenberg, you can do this.”
Alta looked down at the clipboard. “You two clean Mr. Hays’s suite. I want the floors washed and polished this week.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Pearl said.
Félicie smiled and nodded.
Leaving Alta to study the clipboard, she followed Pearl down the hall. The cart’s left wheel squeaked. Before she finished her shift, she would take the cart to maintenance—no, this was Alta’s responsibility now. From her pitfalls and mistakes she would learn lessons that would enable her to avoid making the same mistake in the future. As Félicie had learned.
She was a mere five hours away from a new life.
A wonderful perfectly-planned life.