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China Cups and Top Hats

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Nobody who had known Kurt Alfred Hummel at sixteen would have supposed him to be destined to be the hero of a story; let alone of one that would later be remembered by the English aristocracy as the Great Scandal of 1852.

At the age of sixteen, there was nothing that seemed remarkable about him. He grew up in Chawton, where Chawton Manor, the stately home of Lord Shaftesbury, was located. His father had spent his whole life at Chawton, serving as a footman in the household of Lord Shaftesbury for almost twenty years. He was a quiet man, very religious, diligent, and respected and valued by the other servants as well as by Lord Shaftesbury himself.

Kurt’s mother, Elisabeth Earnshaw, came to Chawton Manor at the age of twenty-one, to serve as one of the two governesses whose task it was to instruct the three daughters of Lord and Lady Shaftesbury in painting, literature, playing the piano, French, German and dancing. Elisabeth’s family had belonged to the upper-middle-class circle of Norfolk, where she grew up as the single child to a loving, if overbearing mother, and a good-tempered father. Unfortunately, shortly after Elisabeth’s twentieth birthday, her father, misguided by a friend’s advice, had invested large parts of the family’s wealth in a speculation overseas. When the three ships he invested in had sunk shortly before reaching the coast of the Cape of Good Hope, her family had lost almost everything. Her father, blaming himself for the catastrophe, had never recovered his good spirits. His body was found a few weeks after they received the bad news, crushed at the bottom of a slope. Though the family declared it an accident, speculations and rumours about him intentionally ending his life made their way through the higher circles of Norfolk. This scandal was the last straw to finally break the spirit of Mrs. Earnshaw, and she died soon after her husband’s funeral of what Elisabeth would always refer to as “a broken heart”. Left alone without relations or much money, Elisabeth was now forced to earn her own living, and through the recommendation of a friend of the family, she took on the post of a governess at Chawton Manor, where she met Kurt’s father. He was not young when he met Elisabeth, but his honesty and faithfulness (both in his religion and in the people around him) were enough for her to accept his proposal six months after she arrived at Chawton.

The couple left the household of Lord Shaftesbury, and settled in the nearby village, where Kurt’s father opened a small tobacco shop. Kurt was born in the summer of 1833, on the same day the parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act.

Kurt would always think of the years of his early childhood as the happiest time of his life. He grew up to be a lively boy, curious, intelligent and deeply attached to his mother. Elisabeth Hummel had what Lady Shaftesbury always referred to as “frightfully progressive views on life”: she believed that a good education was the best and surest way to succeed in life, no matter where you came from. Therefore, she took great care to instruct her son in literature and languages, leaving nothing but the lessons in Latin to his father’s care. She read to him the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth, of Byron and Blake, and though Kurt most often did not understand the words, or did not catch the meaning behind them, he loved the sound of the phrases, the rhythm in his mother’s voice as she read sonnets and ballads – always smiling to herself, because there was nothing she loved more than poetry.

When Kurt was ten years old, typhoid fever spread in the country. It was one of the worst epidemics of the decade, and soon found its way to Chawton. Within in a week, twenty people in the village were dead – one of them Elisabeth Hummel. It was the most horrible thing to happen in Kurt’s young life, and he cried for days, clutching to her favourite volume of Wordsworth poems. Between the sheets of paper, he could still make out the faint smell of the lotion she used on her hands in the winter months, and he clung to that book, desperate to keep her in his life as long as possible. His father dealt with her death quite the opposite way: unable to cope with the pain of her loss, he sold everything that would remind him of her, everything but her books. Not wanting to stay at the house which had served them as a home for more than ten years, he closed down the shop and returned to the household of Lord Shaftesbury, who had always taken an interest in the young family’s well-being, and was more than willing to take him and Kurt into his service. Henceforth, Kurt now grew up under the care of the housemaids and other footmen; and the butler, Mr. Gardiner, who was particularly fond of the young boy, took on the responsibility to teach him all he had to know to one day become a footman himself. As Kurt grew up, he gradually took on the duties of a servant, and undoubtedly would have spent his entire life at Chawton without ever coming near to experiencing the story he was born to be the hero of.

But more often than not we are not the masters of our own fate, and in the spring of 1849, an event occurred at Chawton Manor that would change the young boy’s life forever: another epidemic broke out, taking with it not only Lord Shaftesbury and an even greater number of villagers than ever before, but also Kurt’s father. This loss left Kurt devastated: losing the last person he felt deeply attached to was almost too much to bear, and whenever he found the time he spent hours at the graveyard, looking at the fresh grave next to the one of his mother, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. The only thing that consoled him was the concern and sympathy of the other servants, which reminded him that maybe, possibly, even without a family, he was not alone after all.

This spring, things changed at Chawton Manor. The son of the late Lord Shaftesbury had recently married a Baroness from the northern parts of England. The bride, the only heiress of a very wealthy family, would bring a number of her own servants with her to Chawton Manor, to replace some of the present ones, and Kurt couldn’t delude himself: he knew he would be among the servants who would have to take their leave. Almost sixteen years old and with several years experience, he would have been fit for the position of a footman technically, had it not been for his looks. Kurt was no fool; he knew that he was neither tall nor handsome enough to serve in the household of the new Lord. He knew that the old Lord would have kept him out of attachment to his father, but his son did not share this sentiment. And while the old Lord had enjoyed his secluded life at the country estate, seldom visiting other families or receiving visitors himself, his son was known for possessing a large number of friends and acquaintances, to which he would want to make an impression by throwing only the most fashionable parties – with only the most fashionable footmen to serve.

With his light brown hair, his still slightly chubby cheeks and his moderate height, Kurt knew he stood no chance in continuing to serve at Chawton, and as much as the thought of leaving hurt him, he knew he had to seek employment elsewhere. It was Mrs. Norris, the housekeeper, who made inquiries among her relations, and soon a cousin answered her, writing that Lord Smythe of Bailey Hall was hiring new servants for the family seat in Wiltshire, and that she passed on Kurt’s references to the housekeeper. Soon, Kurt received a letter signed by a Mrs. Seymour, in which he was asked to come to Bailey Hall as soon as possible to report to his new position as footman.

On the 13th October of 1849, Kurt Alfred Hummel left his home to start what would become the journey of an unusual hero.




 1849, Somerset, England.

Kurt looks out of the carriage window, taking in the dark clouds on the horizon. It’s unseasonably cold for this time of the year, and Kurt is thankful that it hasn’t started raining yet. Rain would make his journey much more uncomfortable, since the road they’re currently driving on already seems to consist mainly of mud.

Turning his head, Kurt briefly glances at the other people in the carriage. Next to him sits a man in his late-fifties, his bowler askew on his head, who has been reading a letter for the past half hour, his eyes squinted to decipher the words in the twilight of the carriage. Across from him are two young girls, sisters presumably, and a woman who seems to be their governess. The girls, who can’t be much older than Kurt himself, smile shyly at him from time to time, but whenever Kurt attempts to smile back he meets the poisonous stare of the governess, so he resigns to look out of the window. They’re just passing an old and forsaken vicarage when the carriage comes to an abrupt halt, causing Kurt and the other travellers to hold on to the wooden handles to keep themselves seated. The door flies open, and the grumpy voice of the driver announces, “Bailey Hall.”

Kurt blinks for a second, and then tips his hat and smiles briefly at the ladies before he climbs out of the carriage. He looks around, breathing in the air of the English countryside. On his left he sees a few trees, and he believes to spot a village at the distant horizon. Other than that, there is nothing around him but green fields.

“I beg your pardon,” he says, turning to the carriage where the driver is busy removing his suitcase from underneath what seems to be a lady’s hatbox, “But where exactly are we?”

“Bailey Hall,” he man repeats, shoving impatiently at the pieces of luggage. Kurt takes a deep breath to keep himself from uttering the harsh reply that’s already waiting on the tip of his tongue, and says, his voice still polite, “Well, I can’t seem to spot it.”

The man finally succeeds in freeing the suitcase, and drops it down next to Kurt’s feet in the mud. A few splashes land on Kurt’s trousers and Kurt feels his eyebrow twitch. If there is something he hates, it’s people who have simply no respect for other people’s clothes – or their own, for that matter.

“You need to follow that road down there,” the man says, already climbing the driver’s seat again. “You can’t see it from here, but the house is just behind that hill.” He clicks his tongue and in a second, the carriage is rolling down the road again.

Kurt just stands there for a moment, watching the vehicle grow smaller and smaller, until he takes a deep breath and grabs his suitcase, turns around and makes his way down the road that hopefully leads him to his new home.