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China Cups and Top Hats

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The clouds in the late afternoon sky cast gloomy shadows on the grey stones of the old Palladian bridge. Kurt looks down to the dark waters of the river, and decides that all this would probably look rather romantic in the sunlight. But right now, in the twilight of the October afternoon, Kurt can’t help the shiver that is creeping down his spine, can’t shake the tingling feeling deep down in his stomach. Shaking his head as the moment passes; he determinedly grips the handle of his suitcase tighter and makes his way up on the bridge. It will take more than just a few clouds to intimidate Kurt Alfred Hummel, who has been told many times by his father: “Never get scared, Kurt. Get determined.”

When he lifts his head again, he is standing at the end of the bridge, facing what must be his new home, Bailey Hall. The driver was right – it had taken Kurt just twenty minutes to walk around the hill and to spot the large building. It’s an old house, older than Chawton Manor by some decades at least; and much larger too. The light grey stones give the building a severe outlook, but the little rectangular towers on each side make it look almost a bit playful, like somebody obsessed with medieval castles and romantic tales of chivalric knights and damsels in distress had seen the house and decided to add his own touch to it. Nevertheless, the building is massive, and Kurt is almost glad that he is still standing in the shadow of the bridge, which makes him feel less small then standing right in front of the house would.

Sighing deeply, he makes his way down the stairs and onto the road again, directing his steps to the back of the building, where he expects to find the service entrance. As he circles the building, he can’t help but think about the questions he successfully managed to banish from his mind during his journey. It’s the first time he has left his hometown, and the first time he has to start somewhere new, without being able to call upon neighbours or friends in case he needs help, people who have known him his entire life and gladly would have helped him. He also heard stories from the other servants who had served in several houses before they came to Chawton: stories about hard working conditions and mean employers, about choleric footmen and spiteful maids. He has tried his best to avoid doubt cloud his expectations so far, but now, standing in front of the house that will be his new home, he wonders what will await him inside.

Finally, he reaches a doorway that leads him into the courtyard. He spots a few men tending to a horse on the other side, and a housemaid, standing on the stairs to a small door, busily cleaning a pair of muddy boots. Slowly, Kurt approaches her, calling out, “Excuse me?”

She looks up. Her expression is guarded, but not unfriendly, as she answers, “Can I be of assistance?”

Kurt comes to stand in front of her, taking in her spotless black dress and pinned-up black curls, before answering, “My name is Kurt Hummel. I’m the new footman.” It comes out more a question than a statement. The girl’s eyes, however, light up, and a smile spreads across her face, “Of course, I heard that you were supposed to arrive today.”

She stands up, and reaches for Kurt’s hand, giving it a short but firm squeeze. “My name is Jane, Jane Woodhouse. I’m the head housemaid.” Kurt returns the smile, while she already bents down to collect her boots and the brush she used to clean them. “Come on in,” she says, climbing the stairs, “I’ll bring you to Mrs. Seymor, the housekeeper.” Kurt follows her up the stairs into a narrow doorway, past a flight of stairs and into another doorway, while she asks, “Did you have a good journey?”

“Oh, yes,” Kurt replies, smiling briefly to a kitchen maid as they pass her. “It was alright.”

“You’re from Hampshire, right?” Jane asks, turning to the left. “How long did you travel?”

“Almost eight hours,” Kurt answers, “I took the earliest carriage this morning.”

Jane doesn’t reply, instead, she comes to a stop in front of a door, and knocks briefly before opening it. “Mrs. Seymour?” she calls out, stepping into the room and holding the door open for Kurt to enter. “Our new footman has arrived.”

Kurt steps into the room, and finds himself face to face with a small, stout woman, who is eyeing him scrutinisingly. She is presumably in her mid-forties: her dark hair spots a few grey strands, but her posture is decidedly upright and her gaze is intent and discerningly. “Mr. Hummel, I suppose?” she asks, rising from her chair and approaching him. Kurt sets down his suitcase and offers her his hand, which she takes after a split second of hesitation, and answers with a nervous smile, “Yes, Kurt Hummel. How do you do?”

She ignores him, and instead nods to the maid who is still standing behind him, “Thank you Jane, that’ll be all.” Jane nods and hurries to leave, flashing Kurt one last smile before she gently closes the door behind her.

“So, Mr. Hummel,” Mrs. Seymour says, eying Kurt from head to toe. “I understand that you formerly served in the household of Lord Shaftesbury?” Kurt nods, trying his best not to fidget under her scrutinising stare, “Indeed I did.”

“Your references were very good, which is why I decided to give you the post. However...” She looks him directly into the eyes, and Kurt feels a self-conscious blush rising on his cheeks, “... as you are certainly also very well aware of, you are still very young.”

The way her lips form the word ‘young’ make it very clear that she regards youth as a disadvantage on principal.  

“Bailey Hall has a very long tradition of providing only the best of service to keep the family’s honour and dignity, and we take care to uphold this tradition. I’m only saying this to inform you that your lack of experience will most certainly be noticed, and you will have to prove to us that you are worth the post we entrusted on to you.”

Kurt feels himself stiffen. Like she pointed out, of course he is aware that, being a sixteen-year-old servant in a new household, naturally he will have to learn. But he has served for more than six years, and he knows that he is bloody well good at what he does. Plus, he thinks it rather offending to be greeted by a warning that tells him that everybody is expecting him to fail anyways.

So he meets her gaze and replies, “Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Seymour. But isn’t that just the beauty of time – one can’t really help but gradually gain experience in any case, don’t you agree?”

He meets her gaze, and for a split second, he could have sworn to detect a glimmer of respect in her eyes. Then it’s gone, and Mrs. Seymour reaches for the keys on her desk. “We will see about that, Mr. Hummel,” she says. “I don’t judge people before I have seen their work, but I thought it best to inform you that we do expect the best of you.”

She brushes past him, opening the door while Kurt, who senses that this first interview is over, reaches for his suitcase. “I’ll take to your room now, Mr. Hummel, so you can unpack, and I’ll send Nicholas to you.”  She hurries down the corridor with fast, efficient steps, and Kurt has to hurry to keep up with her. They start climbing a narrow staircase, then another one, and all the time Mrs. Seymour keeps talking to Kurt without slowing her pace one bit, “Nicholas is our first footman; he will show you around and explain everything to you. Normally this would be the task of our butler, Mr. Moore, but he’s visiting his sister, who has been taken ill last week. But he will be back the day after tomorrow, and since Lord Smythe isn’t expected to return to Bailey Hall for at least another week, Nicholas and Mr. Moore will have enough time to instruct you.”

She makes a sharp turn to the right into another corridor. Kurt, who still feels a bit dizzy after climbing the stairs at such a pace, stumbles after her.

“These are the men’s quarters. The women are located one floor above.”

She turns around to direct a very stern glance at Kurt, “If I ever catch you up there, Mr. Hummel, excuse or not, you will have to pack your bags immediately.”

Kurt feels a blush rising at the back of his neck, slowly spreading onto his cheeks. He opens his mouth to assure Mrs. Seymour that he would never, but Mrs. Seymour is already approaching a door on the right end of the corridor. “You’ll be sharing a room with our other newcomer, Jeffrey Crawford. He arrived two weeks ago... ah, Nicholas, you’re already here.”

She has opened the door and steps into the room, with Kurt on her heels. Inside, two men are rising from their seated positions to acknowledge Mrs. Seymour’s entrance. She doesn’t seem surprised to see either of them, and addresses the man to Kurt’s right while pointing at Kurt, “Nicholas, this is Mr. Kurt Hummel, the last one of our new additions. Will you take care to show him around and introduce him to his duties?”

“Certainly, Mrs. Seymour,” the man answers. Kurt is vaguely aware of the intense gaze he receives from him, but Mrs. Seymour is addressing him again now, nodding shortly and saying, “Well, Mr. Hummel, I’ll leave your to the care of these two. I’ll hope you will prove to be a worthy addition to our household.”

Before Kurt has the chance to answer anything else than “Thank you, Mrs. Seymour –”, she is already out the door again, the sound of her quick footsteps echoing down the corridor before fading away. Kurt becomes aware that he is staring after her, his mouth just slightly open, and he quickly shuts it again. He can’t help but think that this woman probably gets more things done within a day than Kurt would manage to tackle in a whole year.

“I was told I’ll get used to her,” a cheerful voice behind him remarks. “But after almost two weeks of being here, I can assure you that’s a lie.”

Kurt, who has been too occupied with being irritated by Mrs. Seymour, turns around to face the man who has previously been sitting at a table, apparently writing a letter before Mrs. Seymour and Kurt entered the room. Kurt has to fight against taking a sharp inhale of breath as his eyes take in the other man’s – boy’s really, he can’t be much older than Kurt is – appearance, because dear Lord – he is beautiful. Tall, slender, with an air of nonchalance about him that Kurt can only admire, and – Kurt actually has to look up for this, because that boy really is tall – light blond hair, warm hazel eyes and a cheerful smile on his face, offering his hand to Kurt.

“I’m Jeff, your roommate.” Kurt reaches out and receives a firm, dry handshake from Jeff, and while he still tries to determine whether he should be in awe or merely jealous of Jeff’s looks, he answers, “How do you do?”

“I’m Nicholas Weston,” a voice behind says, and Kurt turns around to examine the other person in the room. Nicholas seems to be a few years older than him and Jeff, in his mid-twenties at least. He is attractive, but in a more guarded, complicated way than Jeff is: he’s only a bit taller than Kurt, his dark eyes are observing him closely, and while not looking unfriendly, he does not smile. “I’m the first footman, and I will be introducing you to your tasks here at Bailey Hall.”

Again, Kurt accepts the hand offered to him, and if Nicholas squeeze is a bit more firm than it would have to be, Kurt makes sure to squeeze back just as firmly.

“I’m glad you’re here now,” Jeff says, resuming his seat at the table. “I figure if they have two of us to boss around, it will be easier to endure.”

“Nobody is bossing you around, Jeff,” Nicholas says, and the expression on his face softens when he looks at the other boy, though this tone remains firm. “We gently reprimand you when you make a mistake, that is all.”

“Of course,” Jeff replies, rolls his eyes and winks at Kurt, who can’t help but smile back. “So Kurt,” Jeff says, picking up his quilt again, though he doesn’t start to write, “Where are you from?”

“Hampshire,” Kurt answers. He realises that he is in his own room now, and shrugs out of his winter coat. “I served at Crawford Hall for the last six years.”

“Why did you leave?” Nicholas inquires, stepping out of the way and leaning against the wall as Kurt moves to hang up his coat. He crosses his arms, and Kurt can’t determine whether the question is meant to sound polite or whether there’s a hidden note of hostility about it. But then again, maybe he is merely being a bit paranoid.

“They were restocking the household,” Kurt answers, eying the wardrobe, “I’m sorry Jeff, but which one...”

“The two drawers at the bottom are yours, and there’s plenty of room to hang up your coats,” Jeff says, rising again to stand next to Kurt, who has opened his suitcase and begins to take out his meticulously folded shirts, thankful that he packed them carefully enough so that they survived the journey. “Do you need help unpacking?”

Kurt smiles at the offer, but replies, “Thank you, but I’d rather do it myself.”

“And here’s another one who won’t trust you with clothes, Jeff,” Nicholas says, raising his eyebrows at the other boy, a smile showing in the corner of his mouth. It is small, but it makes him look so much friendlier that Kurt feels some of his doubts fade away. “Must be an instinct or something.”

Jeff throws his arms in the air in a exasperated gesture, replying, “Nick, for the umpteenth time, it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t do it on purpose, Mrs. Smithson managed to get rid of all the stains, white is a horrible colour to begin with...”

“Of course,” Nicholas interrupts him, moving to the door and opening it. “Kurt, my room is the one across from yours. When you’re done unpacking, knock and I’ll show you around the house.”

He’s out of the door before Kurt can reply, leaving a mumbling Jeff behind. “He will never let me live that down,” he sighs, dropping down on his bed, carefully moving his feet out of Kurt’s way.

“Care to tell me what happened that apparently made you a persona-non-grata around white fabric?” Kurt asks. He feels more at ease with Nicholas out of the room, because he really can’t tell whether he likes the first footman or not – and he has a feeling that this sentiment is mutual. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel drawn to the friendly, smiling Jeff, and he is incredibly grateful for the fate that granted him his roommate.

“I’m not sure I want to relive that moment,” the blond boy answers, scrunching his nose at the unpleasant thought. Then he grins, “But maybe it’ll help you when you drop your first stack of freshly pressed linen into the mud.  So I guess I can make an exception.”

Kurt rolls his eyes, and spends the next minutes elaborating on why he will never be associated with clothes in any sort of negative way, until an unnerved Jeff begins to quiz him about his family, and makes a mental note to avoid the topic of fashion from now on.

 


By the time they reach the library, Kurt, for the first time in his young life, has fully grasped all the layers of the meaning of ‘awe’. While Chawton Manor was by no means a small estate, it neither in size nor in decoration equals what Bailey Hall has to offer. Nicholas showed him the entrance hall, the West wing where the guest rooms are located and right now, they’re walking through the corridor of the Northern wing, where the family rooms are. It is obvious that the servants are still in the process of preparing the house for the lords and ladies – in some rooms, the furniture is still hidden under white sheets, carefully draped over mirrors, chairs and tables. Other rooms, like the dining hall and the bedrooms, have already been cleaned and prepared, so Kurt can admire the dark wood of the mahogany tables, and the carefully crafted ornaments on the bedposts. Every room has its own charm, its own appeal, and Kurt is almost touched by with what care the house is being tended to. So when Nicholas opens the double door to the library, Kurt already is fairly excited to see what this room has to offer, and he is not disappointed.

The room is huge, larger than the dining hall, and surprisingly bright, even in the late October afternoon. The walls are covered with bookshelves, and more shelves divide the room into smaller units. Under the windows, chairs and tables have been set up for people to sit and read or write, and a large fireplace occupies the middle of the room, with a handful of old armchairs almost carelessly arranged around it. Closing his eyes, Kurt draws in a deep breath, taking in the smell of the books around him: dry, old, but mostly reassuring. When he opens his eyes again he sees Nicholas watching him with an expression that borders on being amused, “I take it you like the library?”

Kurt nods, and approaches one of the shelves. “I love it,” he admits shyly, brushing his fingers over the covers of the books. There’s Plato’s Symposium, right next to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethic, both works that Kurt’s father had given him to read years ago. On the shelf above Kurt spots Cicero’s De Re Publica and De Legibus, next to the thick volumes of Tacitus’s Histories and Annals. He walks past the bookshelf and approaches another one, where religious works – sermons, prayer books, bibles – are stacked.

Not really interested in them, Kurt turns to the shelf opposite from that one, and he can’t help but smile when he reads the titles of the volumes there. Some he recognizes immediately: there’s Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Walpole’s Castle of Ortranto. And there are books he’s heard of, but never been able to get his hands on: Daniel Defoe’s scandalous Moll Flanders and Cleland’s outrageous Fanny Hill (Kurt is almost certain that the possession of these books is quite illegal), Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. And then there are the books that seem almost like old friends to him: Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Byron’s Vision of Judgment, Keats’s Poems. Unaware of his surroundings, Kurt reaches out and brushes his fingers lovingly along the spine of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

“We are allowed to borrow books from the library, you know?”

Having forgotten for a moment that he’s not alone in the room, Kurt flinches before he looks up. Nicholas leans against the bookshelf, his expression now definitely amused.

“We are?” Kurt asks, frowning in disbelief, because he can’t quite imagine why a Lord should allow his servants to borrow books from his library, especially since he is fairly certain that these books are worth a small fortune.

“You have to tell Mr. Moore which ones you’d like to borrow, and he’ll note it down,” Nicholas replies. “We mostly don’t have the time anyways, not when his lordship resides here. Too much work.”

“And Lord Smythe doesn’t mind?” Kurt asks, still a bit dubious. The other man just shrugs and moves to the window. “He’s not that much of a reader, as far as I heard. He probably thinks when he lets his footmen use the library, at least his father didn’t collect all these volumes for nothing.” He tilts his head, “Do you want to look around?”

“Could I? Just for a few minutes?”

Nicholas shrugs and drops down to the windowsill, turning his head towards the grey evening outside. “The light will be gone in a few minutes anyways, and you probably won’t have time to expect the library again once Mr. Moore gets hold of you. So take your time.”

Kurt takes him up on his offer, and now starts to examine the shelves in earnest. Sometimes he picks up a volume, turning the pages and smiling down at familiar words. One novel he actually holds to his nose and inhales the smell of the pages, taking comfort in the fact that they smell just like the books he had to leave behind.

While moving around the library, he has been so focused on the books that when he glances at one of the portraits next to the fireplace, he is startled to find a very intense gaze directed at him. Carefully he sets down the novel he had been examining and moves in front of the painting, gazing up to a very interesting face.

“Who is that?” he hears himself ask, his gaze still fixed on the portrait.

“Ah, I see you met our employer,” Nicholas says, rising from his seat and stepping up next to Kurt. “This is Lord Sebastian Edward Smythe the second.”

Kurt can’t draw his eyes away from the portrait. The man in it can only be a few years older than Kurt, and not yet as old as Nicholas is. He is dressed for hunting – white trousers and a red riding coat that enhances his slim waist. For a split second the thought ‘I would kill for the opportunity to wear this coat just once’ crosses Kurt’s mind, but he shakes it off – there’s no use in desiring what you can never have – and resumes examining the portrait. The young man’s head is tilted towards the viewer, his expression under his light-brown hair – just a bit too short to live up to what is currently considered the height of London fashion, Kurt notices – seems challenging. The light smirk of his mouth is confident, his slightly raised left eyebrow almost arrogant; but there is a certain softness in the way the corners of his eyes crinkle just the tiniest bit, a hint of vulnerability around his mouth, an almost desperate determination in his features that leave Kurt puzzled.

“He looks very young,” Kurt says, finally tearing his eyes away from the portrait and looking at Nicholas again. “For a Lord, I mean.”

“He is,” the other man answers, “The portrait is a few years old, of course, but he’s not twenty-five yet. It was a shock to all of us when his father and brother died two years ago.”

Kurt feels his heart clench at the words, and he looks at the portrait again, feeling the irritating urge to console a person he has never met before, “What happened?”

“Their house in London burned down,” Nicholas replies, shaking his head. “Two servants, his Lordship, and the older son Frederick didn’t make it out of the building in time. Most of the street burned down until the fire could be stopped, but there were only no other victims. The other households were warned and left their homes in time, thank god.”

A shiver runs down Kurt’s spine, and he feels goosebumps rising on his skin. Suddenly, the room doesn’t feel so welcoming and comforting any longer, and Kurt is glad that Nicholas keeps talking, so that the gloomy atmosphere doesn’t settle around them. “Lord Sebastian was devastated. He had spent the night at a friend’s house, and arrived when they were carrying their bodies out of the building.” Nicholas shakes his head. “I never saw somebody so devastated my entire life.”

Kurt turns his head quickly to look at him, “You were there?”

Nicholas looks surprised at the question, “Surely. Most of us move to the city when the family goes there for the season. Didn’t Lord Shaftesbury do that?”

Kurt shakes his head, “He never went to London in the summer. He said he couldn’t stand the heat and the smell. The only times he went were when he had business to attend to, and he only took two servants with him.”

“So you’ve never been to the city?”

“No, never,” Kurt replies, and he can’t help the hint of longing in his voice. Because he has always dreamed about travelling: visiting London, Paris, Rom, seeing other people, meeting new friends, strolling through parks, hearing concerts, visiting galleries, conversing with writers and painters and musicians and intellectuals and philosophers, seeing the way people dress there, the men with their clean-cut waistcoats and the women with their summer dresses and parasols...

“Well, don’t get your hopes up,” Nicholas interrupts his daydreams. From the look he gives Kurt, Kurt realises that his thoughts must have been somewhat obvious, because Nicholas continues, “It’s very unlikely that you’ll get to accompany Lord Smythe next year. The year after that, maybe, if you’re lucky and still with us.”

Kurt suppresses the urge to roll his eyes – the discouraging words of Nicholas and Mrs. Seymour don’t have the intended effect on him. If anything, their reassurance that his work will be watched closely makes him even more determined to prove himself to them. But he decides to remain silent, and turns to the painting again, “So he suddenly became the heir?”

“Most people would be happy to get rid of the burden that comes with being the second son,” Nicholas answers, but Kurt notices that he doesn’t explain whether Lord Sebastian was happy about it or not. He can’t image how anybody could possibly be happy about seeing the corpses of his brother and his father lying before him. It is strange how he feels connected to a person he has never met before, but something about this painting and the story Nicholas just told him touches something inside of him.

“Is he nice?” he asks quietly. He is so focused on the portrait that he realises only after a second how Nicholas hesitates to give an answer. When Kurt turns to him, Nicholas is staring at the portrait too, his brow furrowed, an unreadable expression on his face. Realising that Kurt is looking at him, his features quickly settle into the indifferent, guarded expression Kurt has already gotten used to.

“You’ll see that for yourself, I guess,” he replies, jerking his head towards the window. “It’s getting late; I’ll show you the rest of the estate tomorrow. You’re probably hungry, aren’t you?”

At the mention of food, Kurt’s stomach gives an indignant growl. He has only had a few bites of a hasty lunch in between changing carriages in Winchester, but, being too busy with feeling nervous and overwhelmed and new, he hasn’t realised how hungry he is until now. Hearing Kurt’s stomach agree to his suggestion, Nicholas grins, genuinely amused, and Kurt is surprised how much younger the footman looks when he loses his guarded expression for a second.

“Come on, nestling,” he says, grabbing Kurt’s shoulders and leading him out of the room. “Let’s see whether we can find you something to eat.”

Kurt frowns and hopes sincerely  that this nickname doesn’t stick.