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China Cups and Top Hats

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“I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it,” Jeff says, readjusting his collar for what must be the fifteenth time since he can’t seem to stop fiddling around with it.

Kurt, who is combing his hair in front of their small mirror, snorts angrily, “Even if he didn’t mean anything by it, that doesn’t make him any less of an arrogant, conceited, insolent creep!”

Ever since his encounter with Lord Smythe this morning Kurt has been inwardly boiling with anger. When he helped to bring the luggage of Sir Reginald and Lord Smythe up to their respective rooms, during tea, even while dressing for what will be his first official dinner at Bailey Hall, he finds himself unable to calm down.

Though he has heard a fair share of stories about employers treating their servants or workers unkindly, cruelly, or even abusing them; until this very moment, he has never personally experienced a social superior exploiting his position as hurtfully as Lord Smythe did a few hours ago, and he is doubtful that anything could have prepared him for it.

Still, even though he would like to deny it, Kurt has to admit, if only to himself, that a very small, really rather tiny part of this anger is his own fault. Over the last days, Kurt had constructed an image of Lord Smythe in his head, an image that despite all its unfilled holes had been bound to be crushed by reality. Of course Lord Smythe is not a nice young man mourning the loss of his family; of course he isn’t an amiable employer with whom Kurt could have been able to exchange a few nice words when serving at dinner.

But despite Kurt’s unrealistic hopes, nothing excuses the mortifying words of Lord Smythe this morning. And though he appreciates Jeff’s attempts to cheer him up, deep in his heart Kurt knows that Lord Smythe was very well aware of the effect his words would have on Kurt, and that achieving this effect was very deliberately intended.

He tugs impatiently on his bangs that just won’t settle down the way Kurt wants them to. “He knew very well what he was doing,” he insists, “That mean, supercilious...”

“You really shouldn’t get so worked up about it,” Jeff says, bumping his shoulder playfully against Kurt’s. “You know you don’t look like you’re twelve.” He grins, “Thirteen, at least.”

Despite Jeff’s playful joking, Kurt can’t bring himself to smile. As much as he hates to admit it, the insult has struck a nerve. Kurt is very aware that he is still small for his age, that his voice still misses any sign of developing the deep baritone of his father, that his cheeks are still a little bit chubby (which is probably why Mrs Bertram loves to pinch them so much).

He is unsure enough of his looks as it is, something which most of the time he succeeds to conceal behind impeccable clothing and a healthy confidence in his abilities. But having his deepest insecurities dragged out into the open and being laughed at in front of the whole household is more than he is able to overcome in a few hours.

“Let’s just go down,” Kurt eventually says, deciding that his hair looks as good as it gets. “Mr Moore will be here to summon us any second, and they’ll be starting dinner soon.”

The worst thing about it, Kurt thinks as they walk down the stairs and right into a kitchen abuzz with energy, is that he can’t really talk about it, let alone complain about it. Sure, he can say something to Jeff, and considering the look Jane throws him as she hurries past him and briefly gives his arm a comforting squeeze, she also suspects what is going on inside his mind. But never could he say something about in the presence of Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour.

As a paid employee, as a servant, he has no choice but to silently take whatever insults Lord Smythe decides to throw at him.

“Kurt.”

No matter how hurtful.

“Kurt.”

Or demeaning.

Kurt.”

Startled, Kurt looks up to find Nicholas frowning at him.

“What are you doing?” the other man inquires, and Kurt looks down to find that he is holding a plate with meat in his hands that is only half-full, let alone been decorated yet. Hastily, he sets it down again and murmurs, “Nothing,” and turns to find something that is ready to be taken to the dining room.

Nicholas continues to frown at him for a second, before he says, “May I have a word with you in private, Kurt?”

Before Kurt has the chance to reply, Nicholas has already grabbed him by the shoulders and is gently shoving him out of the kitchen and into a quiet alcove in the middle of the corridor.

“Nicholas, the soup is almost ready, I don’t think we should...” Kurt objects, expecting every moment to be discovered and yelled at by either Mrs Seymour or Mr Moore. Nicholas ignores his objections, instead, he frowns at Kurt and interrupts him, “I know you’re upset about what happened, but you need to get over this. Now.”

Instead of responding, Kurt finds himself gaping at the other man for a second, unable to grasp where this request comes from, “What?”

“You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself,” Nicholas says, looking Kurt straight into the eyes. “I know you think that you have been treated unfairly...”

“I have been treated unfairly,” Kurt insists. His objection is met with an indifferent shrug by Nicholas, “Even if you have, you can’t let any of it show tonight. So I highly advise you to stop your sulking and do you work.”

Kurt can’t help it, he snorts in a very ungentlemanly fashion before he whispers furiously, “Your employer, who has never seen me before and doesn’t know the first thing about me, called me a child in front of everybody.”

“I know what he called you, Kurt,” Nicholas answers, “I was present when he did, and as you may have noticed, I’m not trying to excuse his behaviour. But the facts are: you are about to serve at the dinner of Lord Smythe, and you can’t do that while looking like there’s nothing you’d like more than to pour the soup down his trousers.”

That picture has a certain temptation to it, and if there’s a short glimmer of wickedness in Kurt’s eyes, it doesn’t go unnoticed by Nicholas.

“It won’t do, Kurt,” he says, his tone having a certain finality to it. “If you are to serve, you will do your best to look like the faithful servant you are paid to be. Trust me when I say that Mr Moore will accept nothing less.” His gaze sweeps over Kurt’s face one last time before he adds, “I won’t accept anything less.”

Without another look at Kurt, Nicholas turns around and walks back into the kitchen. Kurt stares after him for a moment, before he groans and lets his head fall back against the cold white wall.

For a minute, he concentrates on breathing, on the sound of his own, quick heartbeat in his ears. He wants to be angry at Nicholas, and he knows that he has a right to be angry at him, but he has been upset the whole day and it is starting to get tiresome. The worst thing is that Nicholas actually has a point, as much as Kurt hates to admit it. In less than half an hour he is going to face Lord Smythe, and as tempting as an accident with the soup bowl certainly would be, he can’t let show how much Lord Smythe’s words have affected him – if only to not grant him the satisfaction of seeing Kurt upset.

Suddenly, Kurt feels very tired. This whole day turned out to be much more complicated than he would have expected, and it is far from being over yet. With a sigh, he pulls away from the wall and takes in a deep breath, remembering Jane’s words before lifting his chin up and walking back into the kitchen,

“To know you’re worth something isn’t reserved to any class, Kurt.”

He has a feeling that he will need to remind himself of that a few times this evening.

 


Kurt can’t help but think about how ridiculous it is to have three footmen and the butler waiting on a dinner for only two people. But since Mr Moore hit Jeff on the head with a towel after the other boy made a similar remark, and promptly started one of his many monologues on tradition and dignity, Kurt knows better than to voice his doubts.

The dinner itself (the first full dinner he has seen Mrs Bertram put together) is marvellous: Julienne soup, broiled salmon, veal escalopes with mushrooms, multiple dishes filled with oysters, a large fruit plate, and a giant lemon cake with some sort of white and green icing that looks positively delicious. Kurt is just balancing the plate with the cake very carefully over to the side table, where the rest of the food is already waiting to be served, when he almost bumps into Lord Smythe, who chooses this very moment to enter the dining room.

“Excuse me, my Lord,” Kurt apologizes quickly and quietly, his eyes carefully fixed on the cake which wobbles slightly as Kurt steadies the plate in his hands. He is determined to walk on, to ignore his Lordship the best he can, but the dry voice of Lord Smythe stops him, “Never mind... Kurt, was it?”

Kurt nods, his eyes still on the cake, “Yes, your Lordship.”

Lord Smythe is quiet for a second and eventually, Kurt just has to peer up from underneath his eyelashes to determine why Lord Smythe hasn’t walked away yet. He finds that the other man is staring at him in way that is making him very uncomfortable, his gaze slowly moving over Kurt’s shoulders, down his chest and his legs, and then going up again to meet Kurt’s eyes. He grins, completely unashamed, and asks, “Have you had your glass of milk yet, boy?”

Kurt feels his cheeks heat up again, whether due to the reminder of that humiliating encounter earlier or being addressed as “boy”, he is not sure. As for the question, in fact, he stared at the milk pot for a whole minute this afternoon before deciding that he would take his tea without it – possibly for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, he thinks it’s safer to lie through gritted teeth, “Yes, my Lord.”

Lord Smythe continues to grin at him (and Kurt finds himself itching for the soup bowl again), his gaze again moving down Kurt’s body as he replies, “Well, I can’t say it’s showing any effect just yet. But don’t worry, boy, I’m sure we’ll have you having to shave rather soon.”

Kurt feels his fingers clench around the plate he is carrying, his face feeling flushed and hot and his teeth biting down on the inside of his cheek so hard that it hurts. He doesn’t know what to reply, because the only acceptable answers would be “Yes my Lord.” or even “Thank you my Lord.” And he can’t bring himself to say anything like that, because he refuses to acknowledge any submission to the insults of his employer.

So all he can do is to stare at Lord Smythe, who just grins as if he knows exactly what kind of battle is going on in Kurt’s mind.

Luckily, he is spared the answer, because suddenly Nicholas is standing next to him, inquiring in his calm voice, “Is there a problem, my Lord?” His expression is carefully blank, but Kurt has the feeling that Nicholas has been sensing what is going on, and has come to Kurt’s rescue.

Lord Smythe apparently also detects as much, because he rolls his eyes and replies, “No problem, thank you, Nicholas. I was just... admiring...” his eyes glint wickedly as they quickly dart over Kurt’s body one more time, “... Mrs Bertram’s lemon cake. I really missed her cooking in London.”

“I’m sure you have, my Lord,” Nicholas replies, “It is hard to find a cook that equals her skills.”

He looks at Kurt and tilts his head slightly to the right, and Kurt gladly takes the opportunity to murmur, “If you would excuse me, my Lord” and hurries past them to set down the cake on the food table, not a moment too late, because now Sir Reginald, Lord Smythe’s friend, enters the room.

It is the first time Kurt has the opportunity to look at him closely, and he is not too fond of what he sees. Sir Reginald is a man in his late twenties, rather small, with an athletic body and a fair complexion. His clothes are fashionable, and though he doesn’t wear them with the effortless nonchalance that Lord Smythe manages to display, he must be considered good-looking. Nevertheless, Kurt doesn’t like the look in his eyes or the hypocritical expression on his face as he greets Lord Smythe, his voice just the tiniest bit too smooth and too amiable. Overall, Kurt is sure that Sir Reginald is a rather unpleasant man – which, admittedly, makes him the perfect companion for Lord Smythe.

But now the two men are sitting down, and Kurt doesn’t have any more time to nurse his apprehension to Lord Smythe or his friend, because he is busy remembering everything Mr Moore has told him and Jeff about serving at dinner. It is only after they managed the first three courses without any mistake that Kurt starts to relax. Admittedly, Jeff once almost forgot to take the serving fork with the plate of roasted pork, but Nicholas noticed before he had reached the table and fetched the fork, which means that so far, they’re doing well.

Nevertheless, despite concentrating on his task, Kurt isn’t as distracted as that he would not eavesdrop on the conversation of the two men enjoying their dinner.

Generally, he knows that servants are expected to ignore what they are bound to overhear, but practically, that is a task impossible to accomplish: if one tunes out the conversation, he is most likely to miss a question or a request directed at him, and that is something no footman can ever afford. So, Kurt does his best to look completely indifferent while listening intently to the conversation – and not just because he is very interested in hearing news from London.

As he soon determines, Sir Reginald is quite tiresome as a conversation partner. Whenever he finds a topic that Lord Smythe seems interested in, or a joke that the other man finds amusing, he clings to it, repeating and paraphrasing it so for long that Kurt gets bored just by listening to it from a distance. Lord Smythe merely continues to wear a slightly amused smile, though Kurt can’t shake the feeling that this smile is not directed at the intentionally funny things Sir Reginald comes up with, but rather at his efforts to keep Lord Smythe entertained.

Though he tries his best to appear unfazed by the obnoxious boredom that is Sir Reginald, something must be showing on his face, because as he bends down to offer Lord Smythe the fruit plate, the other man catches his eye, and his smile widens before he winks briefly at Kurt.

Kurt walks swiftly back to the side table, feeling his skin tickle with irritation. He can’t make sense of Lord Smythe’s behaviour – one minute he insults him to his face, the other he acts like he and Kurt are confidents who share a private joke. The other man continues to puzzle him, but Kurt takes care from now on to school his expression into indifference even more carefully than before, because he can only imagine how Sir Reginald would react should he notice Lord Smythe making fun of him in the presence of a servant.

Eventually, the conversation turns to London, and Lord Smythe seems much more willing to join in at that topic. They talk about new acquaintances they met, balls and whist games they attended, but to Kurt’s regret, neither of them seems to be very interested in talking about fashion or art or the places he would so love to visit. Nevertheless, he soaks up every word, and thinks about a time when he will be able to explore London all by himself.

Sir Reginald is right in the middle of retelling, for the second time, an amusing encounter with a young lady at a concert (though why any young lady would seek the company of Sir Reginald is beyond Kurt’s imagination), when Lord Smythe suddenly stands up and pushes back his chair, setting his napkin down on the table.

“Well Reginald, that was a very enjoyable evening. Good night.”

Sir Reginald, looking quite dumbfounded, stares at Lord Smythe and repeats, “Good night?”

“Well, I am feeling a little tired after our journey, and the others will arrive early tomorrow,” Lord Smythe says, “So, I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“But...”, Sir Reginald stammers, “But Sebastian, I thought...”

“I know what you thought, Reginald,” Lord Smythe says, “But honestly, thinking isn’t really what you do best, is it?”

He nods over to where Nicholas is standing, “Nicholas, if you’d be so kind to come up with me, I have some things that still need to be unpacked. Mr Moore, I don’t need you tonight, Nick can help me while he’s there anyways.”

Nicholas bows in silent agreement, holding the door open when Lord Smythe, without any last look at Sir Reginald, leaves the room.

“Goodnight my Lord,” Mr Moore says, catching Kurt’s gaze and nodding over to where Sir Reginald sits, his expression still one of irritation and barely concealed annoyance. Kurt, getting the hint, walks over to Sir Reginald, and gently inquires, “Would you like me to show you to your room, Sir?”

When Sir Reginald looks up, Kurt realises that this has been exactly the wrong thing to say. His anger is now no longer suppressed, and his face has shifted into an ugly grimace of wrath. Before Kurt has a chance to react, Sir Reginald raises his hand and in one swift motion knocks over his crystal wine glass, which shatters into thousand tiny pieces on the floor and splatters wine all over Kurt’s trousers and shoes before he hastily takes a step back.

“Look what you did, you clumsy fool,” Sir Reginald says viciously, “Mr Moore, I demand that you report this incident to Lord Smythe and punish the boy for his clumsiness.” He rises from his seat and nods to Jeff, “You there, show me to my room.”

Jeff, who was staring just as shocked at the mess on the carpet as Kurt still is, nods hastily and walks towards the door, and, with a last, apologetic look at Kurt, closes it behind Sir Reginald.

Kurt is still standing next to the table, feeling the wine seeping through his trousers and hearing the splinters of glass crunching under his shoes. Finally, he feels a hand on his shoulder, and looks up to find Mr Moore standing next to him.

“Come now, Kurt,” he says, “We need to clean this up and bring the plates down to the kitchen.”

“Mr Moore,” Kurt says, desperate to mend whatever can be mended, “Please, I didn’t...”

“I know it wasn’t your fault,” Mr Moore says, and his voice is gentler than Kurt has ever heard it. “But I still have to tell Lord Smythe about the incident.”

Kurt closes his eyes. This can’t get any worse, can it?

 


Kurt feels unable to face anybody.

He doesn’t want to meet Jeff’s sympathetic gaze, he doesn’t want to feel Jane’s pitying glance on him, he doesn’t even want to hear Nicholas’s calm inquiries. All he wants is to get away from it all and away from what must be one of the most awful days in his life.

So after he has brought the last plate down to Mrs Bertram, he quietly slips out of the kitchen and up the staircase, tiptoes down an empty corridor and finally enters a room which he knows will be deserted, now that his Lordship and Sir Reginald have retired for the night.

The library is dark, but a small ray of moonlight illuminates it enough for Kurt to make out the bookshelves and the chairs. Carefully, he steps into the room until he reaches one of the large armchairs. He kicks off his shoes and curls up into the large chair, bringing his knees close to his chest and resting his face upon them.

Mr Moore will probably be telling Lord Smythe about what happened right now, and given that his Lordship already seems to dislike him, Kurt can’t fool himself about what will follow. Maybe Lord Smythe will ask him to leave, maybe just lecture him in front of everybody else and cut down his wages. Whatever it will be, it certainly won’t be pleasant.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there in the dark, too exhausted to get angry or cry or do anything other than feel defeated. Suddenly he hears the door creak, and the light of a single candle illuminates a silhouette in the doorframe, a silhouette that quietly whispers, “Kurt?”

Kurt closes his eyes and snuggles deeper into the armchair, wishing he could just melt into the soft fabric and become part of the chair. He doesn’t want to talk to Nicholas, who has probably witnessed Mr Moore telling Lord Smythe all about the incident and is here to deliver the verdict. 

Nicholas, however, seems to sense his presence, because he steps further into the room until the glow of the candle lands on Kurt’s still frame.

“What are you doing here?” Nicholas asks quietly, setting the candle down on one of the tables and kneeling down in front of Kurt’s armchair. “Everybody down in the kitchen is worried because they can’t find you.”

Kurt lifts his head and looks down at Nicholas, unsure what to reply to that. Nicholas raises his hand and hesitates for a second before he lets it rest on Kurt’s ankle, right where his still wine-stained trousers end. “I heard what happened after we left,” he says.

And suddenly, Kurt feels the anger that must have been there the whole time rising up again, and he bursts out, “That horrible man is just as awful as Lord Smythe! I merely asked him whether he wanted to go to his room, and he looked at me like I mortally offended him, and then he just smashed that glass...”

“Kurt,” Nicholas interrupts him, “I know that.”

Kurt stops ranting to blink at the other man in confusion, “You do?”

“Of course I do,” Nicholas snorts, “Sir Reginald is one of the vainest and most pompous men I have ever encountered, and he was horribly upset that Se– that Lord Smythe ignored him.”

Kurt pretends not to notice the small slip in Nicholas speech, but he makes sure to remember it to ask him about it on another occasion.

“He just let his anger out on you because you, unfortunately, were available,” Nicholas adds. He squeezes Kurt’s ankle, which should feel weird, but for the most part is just feeling reassuring.

 “These things happen, Kurt. We’re dependent, and that makes us targets. But not everyone is like that. You just have to learn to deal with the foul ones and keep close to the ones that won’t treat you like that. And don’t worry, nobody will hold you responsible for what happened.”

 “But didn’t Mr Moore tell Lord Smythe what happened?” Kurt asks, finally voicing what he wanted to know ever since Nicholas entered the library.

“Oh, he did,” Nicholas answers. “He came up and told Lord Smythe that there had been a minor accident after he left, and that one of the glasses had been broken, and that Sir Reginald demanded you to be punished for it.”

“And what did Lord Smythe say?” Kurt asks, already dreading the answer.

“He started laughing,” Nicholas replies, and Kurt is sure he detects a slight hint of disapproval in his voice. “He laughed and said that it was no big deal since he never liked those particular glasses anyway, and that nobody should be punished for anything.”

His hand again squeezes Kurt’s leg gently, “It is alright Kurt. Like I said, nobody holds you responsible for what happened.”

But that is not entirely true. Because in this moment Kurt realises that nothing that happened at dinner was ever about him. Lord Smythe had laughed at hearing the story of the smashed glass because it was exactly what he had indented – to annoy Sir Reginald. And to hear that Kurt was the one on whom he took his anger out must have been the icing on the cake, Kurt realises.

And in this moment, Kurt holds Lord Smythe very, very responsible for everything awful that happened that day.

“We should go down,” Nicholas says, already reaching for the candle, “Jeff was really worried about you and insisted that you would do something stupid like running away.”

Kurt slides out of the chair and back into his shoes, before shaking his head. Because in this moment, he makes a decision. The decision not to be beaten at whatever game Lord Smythe is playing with the people around him, and to not back down from whatever challenge the other man throws at him. And he has the definite feeling that there are more challenges to come.

“I would never run away,” he says, “If I did, who would help Jeff to take care of his clothes?”

That makes Nicholas grin fondly, and Kurt turns around to head for the door. But before he has taken two steps, Nicholas voice stops him, “Kurt?”

When Kurt turns around, Nicholas goes on, “About what I said to you before dinner.” He hesitates for second, before adding, “I didn’t want to hurt you, or to tell you that you had no right to be angry about what happened this morning, because you do. I just wanted you to pull yourself together for the dinner.”

Kurt nods. He understands that now. And he also starts to understand that of all the people at Bailey Hall, Nicholas is somebody he can trust – if only because he seems to tell him the truth even when it’s hurtful. Not the whole truth, maybe, but enough to save Kurt from getting into trouble. Because strange as it is, Nicholas actually seems to care about him.

“Yes, I know,” he says, smiling for what feels to be the first time in ages. “Thank you, Nicholas.”

“Nick.”

“What?”

“It’s Nick. None of my friends call me Nicholas, they all say Nick.” He looks at Kurt for a moment, before he adds, “I figured it’s time you do the same.”

Now Kurt smiles, a real, honest smile that lights up his formerly downcast expression, “Alright then, Nick,” he says, as if testing the sound of it on his tongue. “Let’s go find out whether Jeff has organised a search party for us, shall we?”