Work Header

China Cups and Top Hats

Chapter Text

The next few days pass in a blur, and Kurt finds himself entirely too busy to pause and reflect on his new life, let alone miss his old one.

The day after his arrival, the butler, Mr Moore, returns to Bailey Hall a day earlier than everyone expected, and immediately introduces himself to Kurt. Thaddeus Robert Moore is a small man in his late thirties, who holds himself bold upright (“Like he swallowed a broomstick,” Jeff whispers in Kurt’s ear when he is standing before them for the first time) and seems to view the world and particularly the other servants from somewhere above. Kurt isn’t entirely sure whether he will grow to like him, but he soon realises that Mr Moore rules the entire household (with the exception of Mrs Seymour, perhaps) with an iron fist.

After holding a rather pompous speech about the traditions at Bailey Hall, the family’s honour and the dignity a footman at this estate has to maintain at all costs, Mr Moore sets Jeff and Kurt to work.

Though familiar with the set of tasks themselves, Kurt soon realises that he entirely underestimated the effort it takes to run a household as large as the one at Bailey Hall.

Mr Moore, who serves not only as a butler, but also as a valet to Lord Smythe, first shows them the rooms of the family in the Northern and the guestrooms in the West Wing of the house. While Kurt has already visited them with Nicholas, this tour is an entirely different one, mainly in being much more practical. Mr Moore doesn’t tell them stories about the family, instead, he opens all the wardrobes and drawers to inspect the white shirts, the condition of the light grey or pitch black waistcoats and vests, explains where everything can be found and, should they ever be required to do so, how to assist the Masters in dressing themselves. He orders Jeff and Kurt to polish the silver, to brush out the clothes. He teaches them to inspect the furniture and lamps for any dust the housemaids might have overlooked (a task Kurt hates wholeheartedly, because he abhors the idea of controlling the work of somebody else – especially when these people are doing a fine job as far as he can see). And even though he has a two weeks advantage on Kurt, Jeff struggles as much with his new tasks as Kurt does – something that Kurt finds oddly reassuring.

They have to practice laying out the cloth for the breakfast table (something Jeff and Kurt practice for half an hour before Mr Moore is convinced they manage without wrinkling the cloth), serving at the dinner table and announcing visitors (a three-hour instruction in which Kurt learns much about the country gentry in Wiltshire). Every night and every morning during the first week, Mr Moore controls not only their clothes, but their drawers and wardrobe as well, and he inspects their shoes for the tiniest specks of dirt. Luckily, he not once finds an opportunity to criticise Kurt – he cares far too much for his clothes to allow them to be dirty or wrinkled in the first place. Jeff, however, is having a hard time keeping his clothes tidy enough to pass Mr Moore’s inspection, and after seeing him getting scolded three evenings in a row, Kurt makes sure to check Jeff’s clothes as carefully as his own, gently reminding him of brushing his shoes and pointing out a wrinkled shirt or a ripped seam. Jeff thanks him by teaching Kurt tricks at card games, something Kurt learns to find very entertaining when he beats Nicholas for the first time and sees the other footman bite his bottom lip in frustration.

During this first week, Kurt also gets to know the other members of the household. Next to Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore, Nicholas and Jeff, there’s Mrs Bertram, the cook. She is full of endless chatter and good advice, and her pies are the most delicious thing Kurt ever tasted. She pinches his cheek whenever he walks past her, which makes Kurt feel young and uncomfortable, but other than that they get along splendidly. And then there are Beth and Maud, the kitchen maids, both a year younger than Kurt, and both very silly. When Mrs Bertram isn’t ordering them around, they’re giggling and whispering with each other. Kurt notices the looks they’re giving Jeff and Nicholas, and sometimes even him. He has an idea of what these looks imply, but he is entirely unsure what he feels about them, and therefore brushes them off as a silly-girl-thing.

Then there are the housemaids, Jane, Emma, and Harriet. Kurt gets along with them rather well, especially with Jane, who genuinely seems to like him. Kurt admires her effortless posture and the confidence she displays with a carelessness that seems to be fit for a Lady, not a housemaid. When he shyly makes a remark about it, she just laughs and replies, “To know you’re worth something isn’t reserved to any class, silly. I know what I can do and what not, so what’s there to fuss about?” Kurt is pretty sure that this is one of the best advice he has been given, and he tries to remind himself of it whenever Mr Moore reprimands him about the silver not being shiny enough.

He meets other people who are part of the daily life of Bailey Hall: August, the postman, who brings the newspapers and the daily correspondence, John, the stable boy, Maggie, the milk maid. Soon, he learns to find his way among these people, and learns to adapt to his tasks.

Nevertheless, the most time he spends with Jeff and Nicholas. Jeff is almost too easy to like: open-minded, carefree and always cheerful; even early in the morning when Kurt wants nothing more than to bury himself under his pillow and sleep for just another five minutes. He tells Kurt open-heartedly about his family the first night they lie next to each other in the darkness of their room: about his father who came down from Ireland to find work, and his mother who used to be the ladies’ maid in one of the big households in Bath. About his two sisters and five brothers: about Megan who is working as a seamstress, Max who has found work in a very big household in London, and Richard who is working to become a carpenter. Jeff gets a lot of letters, from home or one of his various siblings, and sometimes, when Kurt sees Mr Moore handing Jeff yet another envelope over the breakfast table, he can’t help feeling a slight pang in his chest.

Nicholas, however, is an entirely different matter. It is not that he is unfriendly to Kurt, but he is just so reserved and guarded that Kurt has trouble determining whether Nicholas likes him, or merely endures his company because of Jeff. He’s quiet too, never gives his opinion unless he’s asked for it, but when he does, it usually hits the mark. Which makes Kurt even more aware of the fact that behind that calm expression, Nicholas is probably judging him. Sometimes, when he’s telling a story about his life at Chawton, or chats with Jane about books or the latest London fashion, he can feel Nicholas’ eyes on him, but when he turns to meet the gaze of the other man, he never manages to read any verdict in Nicholas’ calm expression – only an attentiveness that sometimes makes Kurt want to scream in frustration.

His only consolation is that Nicholas is not behaving differently towards any other member of the household – with the exception of Jeff. Nicholas never manages to maintain his guarded exterior when he’s around the other boy: Jeff makes him smile and chuckle and sometimes even laugh, just by telling a silly story about the cat of his family back home. The way the two of them get along makes it hard for Kurt to believe that Jeff has known Nicholas really only two weeks longer than Kurt, but then again – maybe it is friendship on first sight?

When they’re not busy learning how to attend to the Smythe family, they’re helping the housemaids to prepare the estate for his Lordships return (an event that hasn’t received a specific date yet, though Mr Moore announces that the notice of his return might come every day and that they “need to be prepared like the excellent, reliable household we are”). Cleaning the rooms gives Kurt an opportunity to familiarise himself with the estate even more, and soon he feels quite at home in the large hall, the comfortable dining and drawing rooms and the exquisite library.

With all this, Kurt doesn’t have the time to think about anything really. When he falls into bed at night he almost immediately drifts off into asleep, and when he’s awake Mr Moore makes sure to keep him busy. When he has time think, however, he thinks back to his old life at Chawton, wonders how everybody is getting along, and if anybody ever goes to visit the grave of his parents. He has received two letters from Mrs Norris, inquiring about life at Bailey Hall, and he has answered her with long letters about the people and the house and the countryside.

Still, his thoughts don’t wander to the people at Chawton as much as he would have expected – they are also quite often concerned with the people at Bailey Hall.

When he listens to Jeff’s gentle snoring from the other bed, he wonders about Nicholas’ distance, about Mr Moore’s tradition issues, and sometimes, he thinks about his employer. Lord Sebastian Edward Smythe, though being absent, is such a presence in this house that Kurt can’t help but wonder what he is like. He has heard nothing really negative about him yet: Jane assured him that Lord Smythe is an easy-going, social and well-educated person, occasionally a bit short-tempered, sometimes a bit childish, but never too long, and never too lasting. He is very modern in some of his views (probably because, as she tells Kurt in a hushed voice, he has recieved a good part of his education in France), and never gets annoyed about something like a broken dish or dust on a mantelpiece, no matter how much Mr Moore is convinced of the opposite. He usually spends the season in London and comes home in the late autumn months with a few friends for the hunting season. The rest of the year he comes and goes, sometimes visiting friends in the neighbourhood, sometimes taking trips to Scotland or Europe, sometimes staying at Bailey Hall for a couple of weeks.

But Kurt notices that Nicholas, who has spent all his life at Bailey Hall and probably knows Lord Smythe better than anyone else at Bailey Hall (with the exception of Mr Moore, perhaps), refuses to talk about him, and how his expression clouds when he overhears Maud and Beth gabbling about whether Lord Smythe will finally bring home a fiancée after this season. When Kurt asks him questions he gives vague answers, if he bothers to answer them at all, and finally he snaps, “He is just your employer, Kurt, nothing more, and you’ll get to meet him in a few weeks anyways. Now will you please leave me alone?” As puzzling as this is, it merely adds to the lager puzzle which is Nicholas, so Kurt isn’t too hurt about his behaviour.

Nevertheless, there are a few instances when Kurt wonders about his new life. One afternoon, Mrs Seymour asks Jeff, Nicholas and Kurt to start adjusting the furniture in the music room, so that Jane and Emma can start cleaning it later. When they set to work and Kurt pulls away a white sheet from a large piece of furniture, he reveals a black piano beneath it. Carefully, he runs his fingers over the shiny surface, marvelling at the feeling of polished wood underneath his fingertips. The gesture doesn’t go unnoticed by Jeff, who is helping Nicholas folding one of the sheets.

“Do you play, Kurt?” he asks. Kurt nods, grabbing the fabric and pulling it now completely away from the piano, “A little. My mother taught me on our neighbours piano when I was little, and I continued practising from time to time with Charlotte, the housekeeper’s daughter at Chawton.”

He carries the sheet over to Jeff, who grabs two ends and starts folding it, and asks the blond boy, “Do you?”

Jeff shakes his head, a regretful expression on his face, “I never learned how. My family was very keen on singing though, and one of my sisters would accompany us on the piano while my brothers and I belted out the offensive songs they learned at work.”

He grins, and then looks over to Nicholas, who is busy pushing a small gambling table from the wall, “You play Nick, don’t you?”

“I do,” Nick replies calmly, not looking up from his work, “But not on the piano of Lady Smythe.”

Kurt is surprised to see a mischievous grin on Jeff’s face as the other boy replies, “I heard something different from Jane. She told me that Lord Smythe even asked you to play for his guests one time, when they wanted some entertainment.”

The look on Nicholas’ face turns from surprised to upset, and his brows furrow as he pushes harder at the innocent gambling table, his voice distant, “Only during one winter, when we were snowed in. Everybody was in need of some entertainment.”

“Yes, but did you...” Jeff starts to ask, but Nicholas interrupts him, his voice harsh and more distressed than Kurt has ever hurt before, “I played one time, and most of my audience was already drunk at that point. End of story, Jeff. Kurt, would you help me with the couch?”

He swiftly walks over to the other end of the room, and Jeff shoots Kurt a quizzical look, one that Kurt answers with a shrug. He never understands what is going on in Nicholas’ mind anyways, and it’s not the first time he heard him giving a sharp reply, but it is the first time he witnessed him being anything but nice to Jeff. Sensing some buried hurt or discomfort in that memory Jeff had inquired about; Kurt goes to help Nicholas with the couch, pretending not to notice how Nicholas is avoiding his or Jeff’s gaze. For a few minutes, all of them work in silence, but Jeff, who is never downcast for long, finally bumps his shoulder playfully against Nicholas’ and asks, “So, any chance you’ll give us a taste of your talent?”

“Definitely not, Jeff,” Nicholas replies, looking at him incredulously, “Do you have any idea what happens when Mrs Seymour or Mr Moore catch us?”

“Oh please, they’re both down at the kitchen, talking to Mrs Bertram about the store cupboard and what to stock before his Lordship returns,” Jeff answers, “There’s no way they’ll hear us.”

 “When I say no, Jeffrey, I usually mean no,” Nicholas replies, but his voice has lost the harsh note from before. Jeff clucks his tongue disappointedly, and then turns to look at Kurt, “What about you, Kurt?”

“I won’t amuse you either, Jeff,” Kurt answers, rolling his eyes and walking over to the windows, “Because I’ll be busy helping Nicholas taking down those curtains, while you start with that wardrobe over there.”

Jeff pouts and complains about the wardrobe being too heavy, but Kurt just huffs and ignores him. When Nicholas joins him and climbs up a stool to reach the curtains, he gives Kurt a small but genuine smile, and these are just so rare that Kurt happily smiles back, and he doesn’t even mind that terribly much when a minute later Nicholas accidently drops one of the curtains, which neatly folds itself over Kurt, sprinkling a fine layer of dust on his clothes and leaving him coughing and sneezing.

He still minds, mainly because of the clothes. But just a bit.

Kurt has just stopped coughing when Emma bursts into the room, her face red from running.

“Here you are,” she exclaims, a little breathlessly. “You all are to come down immediately.”

“Why?” Nicholas inquires, frowning at the housemaid, “Did something happen?”

“Mr Moore just received the letter. His Lordship returns tomorrow.”


Everything after Emma’s announcement meshes into a big blur of furniture needing polish, flowers being arranged in windowsills, boots being cleaned and curtains being drawn. Kurt practically flies up and down the stairs. Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore are bossing everyone around, yelling orders, hissing at everyone who is doing anything wrong, and generally ordering them to hurry. Apparently they are used to Lord Smythe giving only short notice before his arrival, and they managed to already prepare a lot over the last weeks, but there is still so much to do.

It is well past midnight when Kurt collapses on his bed, feeling more exhausted than he can remember to have ever felt before. Jeff just groans and only just manages to kick off his boots and slip out of his clothes before he crawls under his sheets and within minutes gently starts snoring.

Kurt takes care to fold his clothes neatly despite his exhaustion, but when he finally lies in the dark, snuggled against his pillow, he finds himself unable to fall asleep. Tomorrow he will know what his life at Bailey Hall will really be like, not just in the months of Lord Smythe’s absence, but during the time when there are actually people inhabiting the house, Lords and Ladies and maybe other servants.

And then there is Lord Smythe. Kurt rolls over onto his stomach and buries his face into his pillow. Ever since Nicholas has told him that story about Sebastian’s family in the library, Kurt can’t help but wonder about how Lord Smythe is coping with this. Having experienced loss so often and so recently, Kurt feels sympathy for the other man, though he has never met him. And then Nicholas reluctance to talk about him, and Jane’s inability to give a complete account on his character...

It’s not just about meeting his employer, Kurt realises as he slowly starts to drift off to sleep. He is genuinely curious to who Sebastian Edward Smythe is.

So when he finds himself standing in front of the gate with the other servants the next morning, lined up in two rows facing each other and awaiting the arrival of their master, most of his lingering sleepiness is replaced by his curiosity, which increases rapidly when a carriage finally pulls around the last trees of the driveway.

The driver pulls the carriage up right in front of the house. Kurt can feel how Jeff next to him stands a little straighter, then a door clangs and he hears laughter and voices, though his eyes remain on a spot far on the horizon.

“Welcome back, my Lord,” Kurt hears Mr Moore say. He can’t help it, he turns his head only the tiniest bit to steal a quick glance at them out of the corner of his eye. Mr Moore is bowing while Mrs Seymour has sunken into a deep curtsey. Standing in front of them is Kurt’s employer, and another man Kurt has never seen before. Lord Smythe looks older than his portrait, Kurt decides, and he is taller than Kurt would have expected him to be, but that is really all Kurt can determine before he hastily adjusts his eyes, staring into the distance again.

“I hope your journey was satisfactory?” Mr Moore speaks up again.

“It was alright, thank you Moore,” a voice answers, a voice that is deep and firm and sounds a bit hoarse, and is altogether very different from what Kurt has been imagining. “I take it the guest rooms have been prepared?”

“Naturally, my Lord,” Mr Moore says, and Kurt almost has to grin sarcastically when he thinks about how much work lies behind this simple “naturally”. He can hear from the footsteps scrunching on the gravel that they are now approaching Kurt and the rest of the servants. “Might I ask when the other guests will arrive?”

“Sometime tomorrow, I presume,” the voice of Lord Smythe answers, his tone careless, “Reginald and I grew tired of their company and decided to travel ahead.”

“To have one evening in peace,” another voice says, and Kurt doesn’t like this voice at all. It sounds artificial, dismissive and presumptuous, and Kurt has the feeling that the words have another meaning to them, a meaning he can’t quite seem to grasp. Across from him, he can see Nicholas’s expression, and for a brief moment a shadow passes over the face of the first footman when he hears the words of Lord Smythe’s friend. Then it’s gone, and Kurt is shaken out of his contemplation by a dry voice next him, which inquires, “And what do we have here?”

Mr Moore replies instantly, “These would be your new footmen, my Lord, Mr Jeffrey Crawford and Mr Kurt Hummel.”

Kurt and Jeff manage to bow in perfect sync – Kurt feels a bit proud – and when they look up again, Kurt finds himself for the first time face to face with his new employer.

The first thing he notices is that Lord Smythe is dressed impeccably: the ashy grey waistcoat emphasises his tall, slim frame, and his black riding boots – only the slightest bit muddy after what must have been a long journey – must be the newest fashion in London. The expression on his face is relaxed and nonchalant, and as much as Kurt tries to find signs for the grief the man has experienced in his life, tries to find hints for how much the loss of his family and the burden of his position affect him, he looks in vain. Still, Lord Smythe is very attractive, though not beautiful, not in the classic sense of the word. He lacks a general amiability, but he carries himself with so much careless confidence, so much ease that Kurt can’t help but feel drawn to him – if only because Lord Smythe continues to be a puzzle for him.

Right now, the eyes of Lord Smythe are raking over Jeff, taking in the other boy’s pretty face and handsome body, and if the slight raise of his left eyebrow is anything to go by, he approves of this new footman.

Then, he turns to face Kurt.

Kurt catches only a very short glimpse into piercing green eyes before he adjusts his gaze and looks at Nicholas again, carefully avoiding to meet Lord Smythe’s eyes directly again. Lord Smythe looks at him for a split second before his lips pull into a lopsided grin, a grin that will become oh so familiar to Kurt during the next months.

“Mrs Seymour,” he says, grinningly turning to his housekeeper, “I believe you have made a mistake.”

Mrs Seymour pales at his words. Clearly she doesn’t hear that often, and clearly she is mortified, “A mistake, my Lord?”

Lord Smythe nods gravely, “I am afraid so. Don’t you know that parliament passed an Act limiting child-labour severely just a few years ago?” He looks at Kurt again, the grin on his face nothing but mean, “We could get into serious trouble for giving a full-time occupation to a twelve-year-old.”

Kurt feels his cheeks heat up at the humiliating words, and his hands involuntarily clench into fist. The friend of Lord Smythe actually starts laughing, while Lord Smythe keeps grinning at Kurt like he is the most hilarious person since Chaucer. Kurt bites the inside of his cheek, careful not to show how humiliated he feels. Mrs Seymour starts blabbering, but Lord Smythe waves her off, still looking at Kurt, “How old are you, boy?”

“Sixteen, my Lord,” Kurt manages to get out between his gritted teeth. Lord Smythe raises both eyebrows, and fake surprise colours his words when he says, “Sixteen? Dear Lord, you’re certainly hiding it well.” He turns to Mrs Seymour again, “Mrs Seymour, make sure to give him drink an extra glass of milk every day. Maybe he’ll surprise us and grows into an adult.”

Without another glance at Kurt or any other servant, he starts to make his way to the house, accompanied by his still laughing friend – oh seriously, even if it hadn’t been on Kurt’s expense, it wasn’t even funny – and Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore who hurry after him.

When they’re inside, Kurt finally turns his head to stare after them. Only faintly does he hear Jane’s words of sympathy, hears Jeff’s jokes that try to console him, or feels Nicholas’ hand on his shoulder.

How wrong he has been about Lord Smythe being a nice or even a likable person. Sebastian Edward Smythe, Kurt decides as he stares after that grey waistcoat, is the most ill-mannered and arrogant person Kurt has ever met.