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China Cups and Top Hats

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The first thing Kurt notices in his sleepy, only half awake state is that somebody is shaking his shoulder, gently at first, but when Kurt just groans and buries his face deeper into his pillow, the hand on his shoulder gets impatient. It takes Kurt a few more seconds to realise that there are also words, and that these words are directed at him.

“... used to Jeff being this unresponsive in the morning, but you are just as bad.” Somebody cruelly rips the blanket away from Kurt, and immediately the cool morning air starts to mercilessly creep up Kurt’s unprotected feet. Kurt yelps and sits up with a start, ready to fling his pillow at whoever has decided to torture him in the middle of the night. Sitting, he finds Nick frowning at him, already in his trousers and with his shirt buttoned up, but his hair still sleep-mussed.

“Finally,” he says, and throws Kurt’s blanket back in his lap, stands up and walks over to Jeff’s bed, where a few blond bangs are peeking out from between the white sheets.

“What time is it?” Kurt asks, yawning. He finds it weird to apparently have overslept, because he is usually awake long before dawn – quite the contrast to Jeff, who, if not woken up by somebody else, would easily sleep until noon.

“Four,” Nick says and starts to shake Jeff’s shoulder – or elbow, possibly. It isn’t very easy to determine which part of Jeff is curled up where under the thick blanket.

 “Four?” Kurt repeats incredulously. Normally, they are not expected to be up until half past five, and from what Kurt has seen of Sir Reginald and Lord Smythe so far, he finds it hard to believe that they would demand to have their breakfast served at six in the morning. “Why on earth would you wake me up in the middle of the night?” Kurt asks, pulling the blanket around his shoulders, tempted to just lie down again, ignore Nick and go back to sleep.

“Because Lord and Lady Huntington arrive today, and they always travel terribly early,” Nick answers. “The others won’t be here until late morning, but everything needs to be ready for the Huntingtons.”

“I thought we prepared all of the guest-rooms two days ago,” Kurt yawns, crossing his arms over his knees and letting his cheek rest against the soft fabric of his nightshirt.

“We did, but they will expect to have some breakfast when they get here – especially since there is no way that either Lord Smythe or Sir Reginald will already be up to greet them when they arrive.”

Kurt sighs and snuggles into his blanket, enjoying the warmth of it for almost another minute before he pulls himself out of his sleepy daze and stands up, tossing the blanket back onto his bed.

Ow!”

Kurt blinks at Nick’s pain filled cry, not awake enough to be really startled, “What now?”

Nick is staring at Jeff, holding his hand an arm-length away from his body and staring at it, a disbelieving expression on his face. “He bit me,” he exclaims.

“Yes, sometimes he does that in the morning,” Kurt yawns, and taps over to the wardrobe to get a pair of socks to protect his feet against the chilly morning air. “I probably should have warned you, but honestly – you deserved that.”

Since he is still cross with Nick for ruining what, had Nick tried to wake him more gently, could have been a relaxed way to start the day, he refuses to help him to wake Jeff; and he is already on his way down to the kitchen when Nick finally loses his patience and dumps the content of the washbowl over Jeff.

 


It turns out that Nick is right.

Lord and Lady Huntington arrive shortly after sunrise, and Kurt, Nick and Jeff have barely the time to hastily gulp down a buttered slice of toast and a cup of tea before Mr Moore ushers them into the breakfast room, carrying with them plates and bowls filled with bread, rolls, toast, boiled eggs, fruits, scrambled eggs, bacon, salmon, haddock and pots with steaming hot tea and coffee. While hurrying up and down the stairs, Nick tells Jeff and Kurt about what he has learnt about the Huntingtons when staying in London with Lord Smythe in the summer.

Lord Smythe met Lord Arthur Huntington and Lady Isabella, back then still Lady Isabella Dashwood, three years ago in London, when they were acquaintances of his older brother. Lord Huntington apparently grew up a castle in the North of England, and has inherited a large fortune both from his mother’s and his father’s side of the family. Lady Isabella, who back then was in London for her second season, was one of the richest heiresses that the English gentry had ever seen, and apparently, Lord Huntington didn’t so much pick her as she picked Huntington.

When Kurt sees them sitting on the breakfast table, carefully sipping their tea, he muses over how unfair it is for a couple who not only has a title, but also a castle and probably more money than Kurt would ever know how to spend, to also look like a prince and a princess from the illustrations of a fairytale book Kurt’s mother once showed to him.

Both are still quite young, with her being in her early twenties while he is probably a few years older than Lord Smythe, but not yet in his thirties. Lord Arthur is almost unfairly attractive: tall, muscular, with smoky black hair cropped short in the back and left longer in the front, dark eyes, and clear cut, regular features. Lady Isabella is petite and graceful, and her dark auburn hair has been braided and pinned up in a daring French fashion. Her carefully embroidered, green travelling dress emphasises her large green eyes, and her jewellery is tastefully showing of its value while still making an effort to appear discreet.

It is only halfway through breakfast that Kurt notices that while they may look like a fairytale couple, their behaviour towards each other lacks any sign of them living “happily ever after”. For the most part of the meal, they remain silent, both concentrating on buttering their toast. If one of them makes a remark about the weather or asks a question (Lord Huntington wonders at least three times when Lord Smythe will join them), the other will give a short and often flippant answer, before resuming their chilly silence.

Kurt catches Jeff’s gaze over the side table and grins when the blond boy shrugs and briefly slides his index finger over his throat. Yes, clearly this is a marriage that has been decided on for financial consideration, not for affection.

The Huntingtons have to wait for almost an hour before somebody joins them on the breakfast table, and when the door opens, it is Sir Reginald who enters, not Lord Smythe. The greeting of Lady Isabella is very friendly, while her husband merely nods in acknowledgment before he turns to his scrambled eggs again. During the rest of the meal, Lady Isabella chats very amiably with Sir Reginald, who seems to have recovered his good spirits over the night, while Lord Huntington watches them vigilantly. Kurt notices that the air between the two men is reserved and rather cool, like two rivals meeting before a duel, and when he sees Lady Isabella casually placing her hand on Sir Reginald’s arm, he wonders just how faithful the marriage of the Huntingtons is.

Sir Reginald has just finished his second slice of toast when Nicholas enters the room and announces that the rest of the guests have arrived. Lady Isabella and Sir Reginald immediately hurry outside to greet them, while Lord Huntington falls behind to quietly inquire, “Nicholas, do you know whether Lord Smythe is already awake?”

“I don’t believe he is, my Lord,” Nicholas replies, “He has not yet rung for Mr Moore, and he gave us the instruction not to disturb him in the morning.”

Lord Huntington nods and walks outside without another word, and Nicholas follows him after gesturing for Jeff and Kurt to stay inside the room and wait until the others come in again. The moment the door closes behind the dark-haired servant, Jeff and Kurt exchange a quick glance and then hurry to the window to watch the other guests arrive. Outside, two large carriages pull up in front of the estate, and five people climb out: Kurt counts two women and three men. Lord and Lady Huntington as well as Sir Reginald immediately hurry forward to greet them.

Oh, I didn’t know Lady Islington was coming too,” says a voice next to Kurt’s elbow, and when he turns his head he sees that Jane and Harriet have snuck into the room to also catch a first look at their guests.

“Do you know who is who out there?” Jeff asks, and Jane nods, “I do. The girl in the navy blue dress is Lady Emily Crawshaw, and the two men next to her are her older brothers, Lord Henry and Lord Edmund Crawshaw.”

Kurt looks over to the carriage to see Lady Isabella carefully embrace a blonde woman in a blue dress, so that neither of their large hats disturbs the other. Behind them, two very men in matching navy blue waistcoats and with sandy curls underneath their top hats, who look frighteningly alike, shake hands with Sir Reginald.

“They’re twins, and terribly annoying,” Jane continues. “In London, they were drunk almost every evening. I can’t tell you who is worse though, because I really cannot tell them apart.” She points at the third woman, a rather tall figure in a rose-coloured dress, a colour which seems very unfit for travelling to Kurt. “That is Lady Catherine Islington. She is a good friend of Lady Isabella, but Lord Smythe can’t stand her.” She grins, “He called her a gormless, silly, flippant goose.”

“To her face?” Kurt asks, because he really wouldn’t put anything past Lord Smythe at this point.

“Good gracious no,” Jane answers, before she grins and adds, “Not yet, at least.” She nods towards the remaining gentleman who, clad in a grey waistcoat and matching top hat, is currently talking with Lord Huntington, who seems to be far more social now that he isn’t in the presence of just Sir Reginald and his wife.

“And that is Sir Robert Stevenson. He’s a bit quiet, doesn’t say much, drinks very little, and plays cards very reluctantly. I believe he’s Scottish. I don’t know why, but Lord Smythe is terribly fond of him.”

Kurt finds it hard to imagine Lord Smythe treating other people like he is fond of them, but then again, he has known his employer for only twenty-four hours, and the only other member of the upper class he has seen him interact with is Sir Reginald, who really is not the type of man one could be fond of. Therefore, he says nothing, and for a few seconds the four of them are watching the people outside in mutual silence.

“Oh well, it certainly won’t become boring here for the next weeks,” Harriet finally remarks, straightening her dress and checking her hair in the blurred reflection of the window.

“Not with the twins and Lady Isabella it won’t,” Jane agrees, “I reckon we have a quite turbulent time to look forward to.” She grins at Kurt and Jeff before she and Harriet hurry out of the room through a small side door, and not a moment to late – Kurt and Jeff have barely managed to take their posts by the food table when the door opens and the ladies and gentlemen enter the room, and now Kurt gets to experience what he will later consider his first real challenge as a footman: He hurries around the table, fills and refills cups with tea and coffee, offers toast and bread, fruit and eggs, and replaces used plates with fresh ones. He is entirely too busy to listen to the conversations around the dinner table, or to form an opinion on any of the newcomers. He is so busy that he even doesn’t realise when Mr Moore, who has come in with the new guests, leaves the room after half an hour. Kurt only realises what his absence meant when the butler opens the door and announces that Lord Smythe will now join them.

Never has Kurt witnessed a person becoming the centre of attention as quickly as Lord Smythe manages to do. The moment he enters – undeservingly good-looking in a light blue frock coat with matching vest, white trousers and black boots, and the seemingly ever-present smirk on his face – every head turns around, an almost half of the party scrambles to their feet to greet him. Lord Huntington is almost unrecognisable – the same man who sat gloomily sulking next to his wife just an hour ago is now smiling and talking rapidly, keeping one of his hands firmly locked onto Lord Smythe’s shoulder, like he has just met a friend he hasn’t seen for ages. Sir Reginald seems to have overcome his anger from yesterday, and his voice is more mellifluous than ever when he ushers Lord Smythe to sit down next to him. Lady Isabella and Lady Emily giggle and coquettishly flutter their eyelashes when Lord Smythe greets them, though Kurt can see his expression turning slightly sour when he bends down to kiss the hand of Lady Catherine. Sir Robert is the only one who does not participate in the general mayhem, but Kurt notices that the firm handshake between him and Lord Smythe lasts quite long, and the affection in Lord Smythe’s face seems almost genuine.

But overall, the object of desire takes all this quite indifferently, and when he sits down between Lord Huntington and Sir Reginald and takes some toast from the plate Nicholas offers him, Kurt wonders what it is exactly that these people find attractive or even amiable about Lord Smythe.

The rest of the meal goes by rather quickly, because Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to be very keen on breakfast: he merely nibbles at pieces of toast and rolls and sips his tea, while he chats with Lord Huntington about the son of a Duke they’re acquainted with, who apparently has run off with a French opera singer – a story that amuses both of them greatly.

Soon, the ladies rise and announce that they will now go upstairs and change out of their travelling dresses, and the gentlemen head for the park in order to discuss where they will be hunting during the next weeks.

“Well, that was fun,” Jeff remarks dryly and eyes the plate of one of the Lord Crawshaws, from where honey and butter have been smeared neatly into the previously white table cloth, forming something that looks like the sunflower-drawing Lord Shaftesbury’s five-year-old granddaughter Rose once gave to Kurt as a present.  “For our first time, I mean.”

“Yes,” Kurt answers, counting six pieces of bread on Lord Smythe’s plate, all of them not even half-eaten . “And to think that we get to that three times a day now.”

“Oh, the joy,” Jeff sighs, and winces when Mr Moore hits him on the back of his head with one of the napkins. Kurt hastily collects a few plates and makes sure to be halfway down to the kitchen before Mr Moore can walk around the table, because he firmly believes in the old saying: Better safe than sorry.

 


It is late in the afternoon, and the October sun gathers up all of her left-over energy and beams brightly down from the sky, cheerful and yet not completely able to banish the chilly harbingers of winter any longer.

The lords and ladies have decided to spend the afternoon in the garden and enjoy what probably will be the last warm day of the year. The three ladies have taken care to hide their alabaster skin underneath pastel-coloured parasols, and are walking up and down the flower beds, admiring the late autumn bloom of the roses. The gentlemen have located themselves at the tea table, where Jeff and Nicholas are busy handing out cucumber sandwiches and freshly brewed Assam tea. Some of them are reading, some are watching the ladies (who are very well aware of that fact) and from time to time, somebody even gets up to join them for a quick stroll.

Kurt, who has helped Jane unpack the luggage of Lord Huntington, has watched them from the windows of the upper rooms, thankful that he can stay indoors and is spared what seems to be a pretty boring afternoon – at least judging from the way Jeff has to stifle a yawn every three minutes.

Now, after having finished unpacking, he is just skipping down the stairs in the servant’s quarters, taking two steps at a time, when he almost runs into Mr Moore. Hastily, he steps backwards, but not fast enough to avoid the critical rise of the butler’s left eyebrow, “Kurt, what is it that most expresses the dignity of a footman?”

“Posture, Mr Moore,” Kurt replies, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes.

“And is hopping down staircases a fitting posture at the noble estate of Bailey Hall?” Mr Moore inquires, and answers the question himself before Kurt feels obliged to do so, “I think not.”

He shakes his head, adding, “But since I run into you anyways, please bring these books up to the library, will you?”

He hands him three books, two slim volumes of what seems to be sermons and a thick novel named The Old Curiosity Shop. “Make sure to put them into the right shelves,” he adds, and then nods at Kurt one more time before turning around and walking down the stairs in the slow, dignified pace he deems appropriate for a footman.

Kurt actually doesn’t mind the task, because he has two books to return to the library himself. He briefly stops by his own room to fetch them and then, smiling, because he has a few minutes to himself and he loves spending time in the library, climbs up the stairs, humming under his breath. He’s still humming when he’s crossing the corridor and reaches the library, and when he gently closes the door behind him, he starts again with a new melody.

The room is alight with the late autumn sunshine, and not as chilly as usual since a small fire is burning in the fireplace. Nobody had seen the need to light one while the house was uninhibited, but now that the lords and ladies might spend some time there, Mrs Seymour has made sure that there is a fire in every room of the house.

Kurt quickly sorts four of the books back, though he has to stand on his toes to reach the upper shelf where the sermon books are. He is about to return the last one, but then pauses in front of the novels, carefully examining the titles until he finds one that sound promising. His fingers are just brushing over the spine when a dry voice behind him says, “I can’t recommend that one. Too much descriptions, and the dialogue is simply atrocious. I’m not sure a narrative is successful when you actually want the protagonist to drown herself.”

Kurt flinches and drops the book he is holding, which lands on the carpet with a soft thump. He turns around so quickly that he almost twists his neck at the movement. Behind him, in one of the windowsills, sits Lord Smythe, a book resting on his knee and his body illuminated by the soft autumn sunlight. For a split second Kurt can’t help but admire the way the light plays on Lord Smythe’s cheekbones and casts flickers of gold into his hair, before regretfully thinking that it would be so much easier to marvel at Lord Smythe’s beauty if he actually were a likeable human being.   

“I’m sorry, my Lord,” Kurt says, kneeling down to pick up the thick volume of poetry. “I didn’t know... that is, I didn’t see...”

“Yes, I realised as much,” Lord Smythe interrupts him, waving him off with a hint of amused laughter in his voice. “Relax, boy. You did nothing wrong.”

Kurt bites down on his lower lip to keep himself from laughing at the irony of that statement, especially since it’s coming from Lord Smythe, who so far had managed to catch Kurt off-guard twice with well-aimed insults.

Nevertheless, Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to be in his usual spiteful mood today: his posture is relaxed, the amusement on his face seems more genuine and less patronisingly than usually – overall, he looks more at ease than Kurt has ever seen him so far.

His eyes are darting over Kurt’s face and come to rest on the cover of the volume of poetry Kurt is still holding, and his right hand reaches out in a silent request. Kurt takes two steps forward and hands him the book, carefully avoiding touching Lord Smythe’s fingers while doing so.  

The other man weights the book in his hands before he starts browsing through the first few pages, raising his left eyebrow in mild surprise.

“Wordsworth, ha?” He says, looking up at Kurt again. “You enjoy the Romantics? Wordsworth, Byron... all these men writing about nature and platonic love?”

“Yes, my Lord,” Kurt answers without a moment’s hesitation. He immediately regrets it, knowing that the grin which reappears on Lord Smythe’s face means nothing good. Lord Smythe starts flicking through the pages again, briefly pausing to look at one poem or another before closing the book and handing it back to Kurt.

“I could never make sense of them,” he says, when Kurt grabs the book hastily, as if to protect the words inside from whatever mean thing Lord Smythe is about to voice. “I mean, they believe that what they can find in poetry is better than what they would find in bed with their wives.”

“I think it’s brilliant,” Kurt blurts out before he can stop himself. “I think searching for the fulfilment of love in poetry grants them far more satisfaction than any human relationship ever could.”

He bites his lip, almost sure that he has said too much. Lord Smythe’s gaze drifts over Kurt’s face again, before he grins in that very special way that makes Kurt skin itch with irritation.

“Hold on to that thought, Kurt,” he says and smiles brightly, “With a face like yours, that attitude is going to save you some disappointment.”

Kurt feels his cheeks heat up. By now, he knows the character of Lord Smythe well enough to expect an answer like this, but while expecting it lessens the impact, it doesn’t take away the sting. It’s not only that Lord Smythe again is making fun of Kurt’s looks, but now he is also dragging something Kurt loves along in the dirt. And Kurt is not sure how long he is going to be able to take this treatment silently.

Desperate to change topics, he blurts out, “Why aren’t you outside in the garden with the others?” Only when it’s out, he becomes aware that it is not really his position to ask questions like this, and hastily he adds, at least for the sake of formality, “Your Lordship?”

Fortunately, Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to mind the question. He just turns his head and looks out of the window into the garden, where Kurt can see the bright colours of Lady Isabella’s and Lady Emily’s dresses as the women walk down a small path between the rose beds.

“I’ll see enough of them during the next days as it is,” Lord Smythe finally answers, and shrugs, as if he himself is not really sure as to why he is hiding in the library. “And entertaining them can be quite... challenging.”

His grin is back in place, and this time it has a suggestive note to it, which makes Kurt starts to feel very uneasy when Lord Smythe looks at him with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and adds, “Especially Arthur and Reginald can be... quite demanding at times.”

Kurt is sure there is another meaning to Lord Smythe’s words, a meaning he can’t quite grasp yet, but he feels like he should understand, and, looking at the observant expression of the other man, is expected to have a certain reaction to it. But really, he doesn’t have a clue as to what Lord Smythe is talking about.

Suddenly, he is feeling very uncomfortable. All his joy about the sunny afternoon, and all his hopes about using the library as a sanctuary for a few minutes have evaporated, and all he wants to do is leave.

“Would that be all, your Lordship?” he asks, desperate to get away from the other man. Lord Smythe tilts his head to the side and grins, but then, much to Kurt’s relief, nods, and turns his attention back to the book which is still resting on his knee.

“I’ll see you at dinner, Kurt,” he says, without looking up, and Kurt is on the brink of blurting out, ‘I can’t wait, you stupid ass.’ Instead, he quickly and quietly crosses the room. He is already at the door when the voice of Lord Smythe once more calls, “Kurt?”

When Kurt looks back, he knows that nothing in this world will ever stop him to hate the patronising grin on Lord Smythe’s face.

“If you decide to join your Romantics in the quest of “finding fulfilment in poetry”, make sure to let me read yours one day. I’m sure it’s going to be quite lovely.” He pauses, “And full of dreams about not having to write it.”

It takes all of Kurt’s self-restraint to close the door quietly behind him.