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China Cups and Top Hats

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When Kurt in later years tries to remember the weeks that follow the arrival of Lord Smythe and his guests, he regrets not having kept a journal. Because even though he remembers incidents and episodes that occurred during these weeks, overall, they blur into each other in a tangled memory of rainy, cold November days.

What Kurt remembers most distinctly are the changes that affect not only him, but the other members of the household as well, because with the guests, other servants arrive. Granted, Kurt doesn’t have much to do with most of them, since their tasks are caring for the horses or the hounds, mending and examining the equipment; or consulting with the locals who, together with Mr Moore, plan the hunting parties.

Nevertheless, there are additions to their part of the household as well. The Huntingtons bring one of their own footmen with them: Frank, a nice, shy man in his mid-thirties, who shares a room with Nicholas. Lady Isabella and Lady Catherine also bring their lady’s maids along: two tall, thin women, whose first action it is to frown at the other housemaids and start ordering them around. From the beginning onwards they make it very clear that they expect to deal with inept people who, since Bailey Hall is missing the institution of a Lady Smythe, don’t have the first idea on how to care for three gentlewomen. This particularly irks Jane, and one morning she asks Kurt whether it would be too nasty of her to search for a mouse in the stables and put it into the lady’s maid’s chamber. Kurt insists that would be too cruel to frighten the poor little thing like that. After all, it’s not the mouse’s fault.

But overall, the additions to the household are small. The changes in their routine, however, are not.

When the days before were filled with cleaning, careful preparations and, in Jeff’s and Kurt’s case, lessons, which all merged into a regular and organised daily pattern; now Kurt sometimes feels like he barely has the time to breathe in between his tasks. He has to get up very early to help preparing and serving breakfast, which has to be ready at eight in the morning, even though some days none of the guests appears in the breakfast room before ten. Nicholas, Frank and Kurt are also responsible for preparing the hunting outfits of the gentlemen: they have to brush out jackets, clean boots, lay out trousers and polish cufflinks. Kurt is glad that he has been assigned to attend to Sir Robert and Lord Henry Crawshaw – both are easy to deal with and seem satisfied with his service. He doesn’t want to begin to imagine how he would have gotten along with Sir Reginald, or, worst of all, Lord Smythe himself.

What shapes their daily routines the most are the hunting parties.

While it would have been impossible for Kurt, who grew up in the country-side and served at a country estate for many years, to remain ignorant about hunting customs, they never had much impact on his life before. Back at Chawton, hunting wasn’t much of a popular sport. The old Lord Shaftesbury had never shown any interest in it and left the task largely to his game keepers. When his sons wanted to participate in fox-hunting parties, they had to spend the season at the estates of some friends – very much like what Lord Smythe’s guest were doing during these November weeks.

When he was still very young, Kurt had thought the idea of mercilessly prosecuting and slowly killing animals, whether they were foxes or deer, very cruel and appalling, until his father had explained to him that hunting per se wasn’t a sport, but rather a necessary task. People didn’t shoot these animals because they took delight in killing them, but to control the number of game in the forests, and to keep the animal population from becoming too large. And especially the number of foxes, which were thought to be a nuisance and could cause a lot of damage, had to be restricted.

Kurt remembers this conversation with his father, but when he looks at the hunting party assembling in front of Bailey Hall every morning, he can’t help but think that this activity has moved very far away from being a ‘necessary task’.

Yes, from a purely aesthetical point of view, he has to admit that there is something extremely appealing about all these men in their red and grey hunting suits, the carefully groomed horses and the masses of terriers waiting impatiently for the hunt to start. Especially Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington seem to have been born to wear hunting jackets; but as beautiful as they are, Kurt can’t help but feel sorry for the fox that has to die in such an artificial and pointless way.

When he looks at Lord Smythe, up on horseback and idly chatting with Sir Robert, not a bit excited or even moved at the prospect of spending the next hours chasing down an animal, he realises that this picture is presumably the best one to summarise Lord Smythe: beautiful, unpredictable, and mercilessly going for the kill. 

Kurt is surprised that more often than not, the ladies join the gentlemen on their horses. Especially Lady Catherine seems to be a very good and passionate hunter, Jane remarks to him one day, and adds with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “Possibly another reason why Lord Smythe can’t stand her. He doesn’t like to be usurped at something he’s good at.”

Nevertheless, Lord Smythe still manages to surprise not only Kurt, but also his guests, by continuing to be unpredictable. Some days, he is leading the charge, on others; Nicholas has to inform the other members of the party literally in the last minute that Lord Smythe won’t be joining them today. On these days, Lord Huntington or Sir Robert fill in and lead the party, and Kurt takes care to avoid the library, because he is almost sure that this is where Lord Smythe is hiding. But to be on the safe side, he also avoids the music-room, the drawing room, and the part of the house where the personal chambers of Lord Smythe are located.

But since he does not participate in any of the chores related to hunting, the most time Kurt spends with the lords and ladies is when he’s serving at meals or waiting on them in the evening in the drawing room. It’s in these hours that Kurt has enough time to form an opinion of Lord Smythe’s friends, and he is not surprised to find that he can’t stand most of them.

Sir Reginald has already vividly proven that he is arrogant and cruel, and Lord Huntington, while admittedly being one of the most attractive men Kurt ever laid eyes on, seems to equal him in arrogance and insolence. What puzzles Kurt about them is their odd behaviour towards each other, and most prominently when Lord Smythe is around. With him, both are almost frighteningly amiable – they try to amuse him, to flatter him, to do everything to secure his attention. But as amiable as they behave towards Lord Smythe – who seems to take all their flatteries with a calm and barely concealed amusement – the nasty looks they shoot at each other indicate that they are rivals, and both very well aware of that.

Kurt and Jeff speculate about their reasons: Kurt believes that they are probably bankrupt and hope for Lord Smythe to lend them some money, while Jeff argues that maybe they just don’t want to spend Christmas at home with their mother or, in Lord Huntington’s case, wife, and therefore try to get Lord Smythe to invite them for the holidays. Nicholas never participates in these discussions; he merely frowns and walks away, clearly not willing to speculate about the motives of Lord Smythe’s guests – or Lord Smythe, for that matter.

Kurt also isn’t particularly fond of the twins: Lord Edmund and Lord Henry are primarily interested in their own amusement, and during the hunt they display a very cruel attitude towards animals, foxes, hounds and horses alike. They also drink more wine than all of the others together, and almost every evening Kurt and Nicholas have to help them back to their chambers. Their sister, Lady Emily is, on the whole, bearable, even though her most intelligent contribution to discussions about politics is, “But our Prime minister really is too ugly, isn’t he? Poor Lord Russell, having that handsome Lord Stanley as his opponent. No wonder his government collapses – nobody wants to be ruled by an ugly beast.”

If Lady Isabella is smarter then she seems to be at first glance, she hides it effectively behind a very annoying way of talking: if she deems something as ‘lovely’, it is either “absolutely” lovely, or “positively” lovely, or “completely” lovely, or “utterly” lovely. Jeff, who gets particularly irritated by her way of talking, once rolls his eyes at Kurt and whispers while reaching for the soup bowl, “Can’t she let anything just be?”

The most entertaining, if not likeable one, is Lady Catherine. The dislike between her and Lord Smythe is mutual, and neither of them takes care to conceal that dislike. Between all the others who are trying almost desperately to secure Lord Smythe’s affections, Kurt finds Lady Catherine to be a rather refreshing exception: she uses every opportunity to remind him that she is his equal not only on horseback, but in terms of wealth and status as well. Lord Smythe answers with cutting remarks about her age and the fact that she hasn’t been able to find a husband yet, and when Kurt listens to the biting sarcasm, he sometimes is glad that he hasn’t been born a woman. Because being female seems to serve as an inexhaustible source for hurtful, humiliating remarks, even more than being a servant does.

The only one Kurt truly likes is Sir Robert. Most of the time, he is quiet, watching the others and only joining the conversation when somebody asks for his opinion. But his answers are always smart and well thought out, and he never treats any of the servants in a hostile or even condescending way.

Overall, Kurt is spared another personal encounter with Lord Smythe, and he is thankful for that. Granted, he cannot escape one or two insulting remarks when they pass each other in the corridor or during meals (once during a late dinner, when Kurt hands him the fruit bowl, Lord Smythe inquires whether it isn’t well past Kurt’s bedtime; another time he remarks to Lord Huntington that it is so much easier to find mature-looking servants in London, and then grins at Kurt in a way that makes Kurt bite the inside of his cheek), but on the whole, Kurt manages to avoid another encounter with his employer.

He is glad about this, not only because he likes to be spared another tirade of insults, but also because he is unsure how long he is able to endure this kind of treatment in silence. And he doesn’t want to lose his employment just by telling Lord Smythe what a conceited, arrogant arse he really is, because in fact, he quite likes his life at Bailey Hall. The only cloud on his otherwise bright horizon is Lord Smythe, and from what Kurt has heard about his plans, he will be away quite often in the months to follow.

But even though Lord Smythe seems to be content with ignoring Kurt’s existence for the main part, unfortunately, Sir Reginald is not.

Kurt is not sure when Sir Reginald has realised that Lord Smythe likes to make fun of Kurt, but in his unoriginal way to please him, he catches on to that. While Lord Smythe is ignoring Kurt, Sir Reginald leaves no opportunity unexploited to insult Kurt’s clothes, his appearance, or ascribes him a clumsiness Kurt definitely does not possess. And as much as Kurt tries not to let it get to him, some evenings he has to leave the dining room for a few minutes to take a deep breath and fight back tears.

Thankfully, Lord Smythe seems to find Sir Reginald’s attempts far more tiresome than entertaining, and, to Kurt’s relief, puts an end to them rather quickly.

One evening, when Sir Reginald is making remarks about Kurt’s shoes (which are very fashionable and clean, thank you very much), Lord Smythe finally rolls his eyes and interrupts him, “Yes Reginald, Kurt is small and chubby and will not become a regular Perseus in the nearer future, if ever. We all agree. Can we please move on to a more fulfilling topic?”

Sir Reginald says no more about Kurt’s appearance.

One the one hand, Kurt is glad that he is finally spared the insults, and that his existence now seems to be truly forgotten. But when he catches Lord Smythe’s eye, and sees a critically raised eyebrow and that smirk that never fails to send an unpleasant shiver down his spine, he realises that while Lord Smythe might be bored with Sir Reginald attempts to insult Kurt, that does by no means mean that he is. In fact, Kurt suspects him to just have reprimanded Sir Reginald to keep the privilege of annoying Kurt all to himself.

And he can’t shake the feeling that all this is merely the calm before the storm.

 


The morning after the incident with Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald rises damp and chilly, like most of these mornings. It’s a Sunday, which means that all of the servants have a few hours off that day, a period of free time of which a large portion is spend on walking to the village in order to attend church service.

The village called Wilton lies snuggled in a valley between two hills, and usually, Kurt enjoys the walk to the village, even if it takes almost an hour to get there by foot. But due to the heavy rain the streets are very muddy, and all of their boots and trousers are dirty before they arrive at the village.

The church is old and quite large, built out of grey stone and always a bit damp, which also means that it’s usually quite cold in there, and when Kurt squeezes into the bench between Nick and Jeff, he is thankful for the warmth radiating off his friends.

The service takes longer than usual, because the curate is ill, and his sermon is often interrupted by coughing fits. Kurt likes the curate – he is still young, and while his sermons are always a little unsure, a little clumsy, they seem heartfelt and open-minded, something which, at least in Kurt’s experience, is rare to find among clergymen. He doesn’t mind attending the service every Sunday – he likes to have the opportunity to sing with other people, and many of the songs as well as the weekly attendance remind him of his parents.

But when Kurt looks around, and takes in the lowered heads of Nicholas and Jeff next to him, their folded hands and their closed eyes while they are lost deeply in their own thoughts, alone in their own conversation with their creator, he can’t help to feel out of place.

It’s not that he doubts the existence of God, or the message of the church in general. It’s just that after the death of his mother, and after seeing so many families in the village loosing relatives to disease and hunger, he slowly, gradually, lost that trust in religion that he had before. He tried to talk to his father about this, and his father listened, but no advice of his could really help Kurt regain that blind, innocent faith that all the people around him seemed to be able to hold on to. After the death of his father, Kurt asked himself more and more often whether God really had an interest in all that was happening, and if he did and really could control their lives, what the purpose of all this pain, of all this heartbreak was.

He knows that Jeff (if he’s not too tired and falls asleep right away) prays every night, and he is sure that Nicholas does the same. He used to do this with his mother when he was small, but when he tries to pray now, lying in his bed and trying to articulate wishes or thanks or even his doubts, he is just not sure whether there really is someone who listens.

He keeps these doubts to himself, and he accompanies the other servants to church every Sunday, and really, he doesn’t mind it, usually. But this time it is different. Whether it is due to the difficult situation at Bailey Hall or not, Kurt feels uncomfortable throughout the service. When he looks at the relaxed expressions of the people around him, he feels an odd mixture of envy, relief, despair and happiness, and he is glad when Nicholas insists that they don’t stay to chat with the villagers after the service like they usually do, but return home immediately to avoid the next inevitable downpour.

The first minutes Kurt walks alone, lost in his own thoughts and occasionally listening to the laughter of Jane, Harriet and Frank behind him. When he finally looks up, he has to smile almost immediately. In front of him are Nicholas and Jeff, walking next to one another. Jeff is obviously telling Nick something funny: he is gesturing, a huge smile on his face while he imitates the voices of the different persons involved in his story. Nick is quiet as usual, but he keeps his gaze fixed on Jeff’s face, intently watching each of his movements, each passing expression. He’s not saying much, but he has this genuine smile on his face, a smile that makes him look as young as he really is, a smile that he shows by far not often enough, Kurt thinks.

Suddenly, a soft arm winds through Kurt’s, and a bright voice inquires, “A penny for your thoughts?”

Kurt turns his head to see Jane’s cheerful face beaming up to him. He smiles and tugs her close to his side, pointing at the figures walking in front of them, “Sometimes I can’t believe that they haven’t spend all of their lives together.”

Jane chuckles, “I know.” She leans closer and lowers her voice, “It’s friendship on first sight. It’s an extremely rare phenomenon.” She sighs and pats Kurt’s arm, “We can be lucky that we are able to witness this, Kurt, and keep on dreaming about experience something similar just once.”

Kurt grins at her theatrics and asks, “I thought your dream was to get married to a wealthy shop-owner who owns a house in London?”

“That’s not a dream,” Jane corrects him sternly, “That’s the plan. Dreams are fickle things, but my plans are bound to become reality.”

Kurt grins, and for a moment they walk together in companionable silence before Kurt speaks up again, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Always,” Jane replies, looking at him expectantly.

“It’s about Lord Smythe,” Kurt hesitates, and when Jane merely nods, he asks, “Why does he hate me?”

Jane looks at him, her expression thoughtful. While she hasn’t personally witnessed any of Kurt’s humiliations so far, she has heard a good deal about them: partly from Kurt himself, partly from Jeff.

“I do not think that he hates you, Kurt,” she says slowly, “But I thought about that too... his dislike is a bit strong, even for him. You don’t have offended him in any way, have you?”

“Jane, he insulted me for the first time the moment he laid eyes on me,” Kurt replies. “All I did was to breath and blink. In a non-offensive way.”

Jane shrugs, “I have been here for almost three years now, and I have never been able to understand Lord Smythe. His whims change as quickly as the weather.” She smiles at him, “Who knows – one day you might become his favourite footman in the whole world.”

Kurt snorts, “Very unlikely.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Jane replies, but her expression becomes serious again. “I think you should talk to Nicholas about this, Kurt. He has spent his whole life with the Smythes. He basically grew up with Lord Sebastian. If somebody can explain his behaviour towards you, it’s Nick.”

“I know,” Kurt agrees, “It’s just that... he doesn’t seem to like to talk about Lord Smythe.”

“He doesn’t,” Jane agrees. “But that is precisely because he knows Lord Smythe so well. He doesn’t want to stand between the servants and the master, which is why he is so reluctant to reveal anything about Lord Smythe. He just wants to be like all the other servants, without any special treatment or knowledge.”

She tilts her head to the side and looks at the dark-haired man walking in front of them, “But you really should ask him, Kurt. He’ll give you some advice, I’m sure. After all, he likes you.”

“He does?” Kurt asks doubtingly. He knows that Jeff likes him; he knows that Jane does too, and he knows that Mrs. Bertram adores him at least as much as Lord Smythe dislikes him. But Nick’s behaviour is so ambivalent sometimes that Kurt hasn’t yet dared to count him as a friend rather than a cherished acquaintance.

“Of course he does,” Jane answers. “But by far not as much as he likes Jeff,” she adds, sighing heavily. Kurt grins, and they spend the rest of the walk discussing the possibility of whether Jane’ wealthy though still imaginary future husband will be rich enough to employ Nick, Jeff and Kurt at the same time, so that they all can stay together in case Lord Smythe continues to behave like ass towards Kurt – something which Kurt is confident won’t change anytime soon.

 


When they get home, it quickly becomes clear that there won’t be any time for more conversations for the rest of the day.

From what Kurt gathers, it was Lady Isabella who, still used to the merits and amusements of London, complained that Bailey Hall was “starting to become dreadfully boring”.

Granted, the weather during these last days had been horrible – constant, heavy rain showers have forced all inhabitants of Bailey Hall to remain indoors. Hunting was impossible, and even crossing the short distance of the courtyard had left Kurt and Jeff soaked to the skin.

The lords and ladies, it seems, have started to get on to each other’s nerves, and Kurt noticed that Lord Smythe has escaped to the silence and solitude of the library far more often during these days, only to stay up very late into the night playing cards and drinking wine with Sir Reginald, Lord Huntington and the twins. Sir Robert always retreats to his rooms after midnight, and though the others continue to tease him about it, he never falters in his habits.

To Kurt, this means that he has gotten very little sleep these last days: though only three footmen are required to stay up and wait on the gentlemen (and more often than not help them to get back to their rooms when they’re too drunk to walk alone), and even though he, Jeff, Nick and Frank take turns in filling the two spots next to Mr Moore, who is always present during these evenings, it means every second night Kurt has to be content with very few hours of sleep.

So, when Lady Isabella suggests that they could have a small ball in the evening, Kurt is far from being thrilled.

“What does she mean by “let us dance well into the night”, anyways?” he asks Nick, who is busy fixing Jeff’s collar. For this very special occasion, Mr Moore has demanded all footmen to be present – something which Kurt finds very unnecessary and inconvenient, especially since he would have been able to catch some sleep otherwise. “It’s not like they could invite guests.”

“Well, it’s basically the same thing they’ve done every evening so far,” Nick replies, tugging the fabric a bit more forceful than necessary because Jeff won’t stop fidgeting, “Only there will be three more courses to serve. Everybody will be in their best evening attire, and they will force one poor soul to play the piano while they hop around and show off their dancing skills.”

“But there are not enough ladies for a ball,” Kurt objects. “I mean, they’re three women and six men.”

“And you think that any of the ladies will view that as a disadvantage?” Nick asks, shaking his head. “You still have a lot to learn, Kurt!”

“And what do you mean by “best evening attire”?” Kurt continues to inquire while searching for his right shoe, which seems to have disappeared underneath his bed. “Don’t tell me the purple dress which showed off practically everything Lady Isabella has in her cleavage doesn’t belong to her “best evening attire”.”

“You underestimate the female fashion, Kurt,” Nick says, tugging at Jeff’s collar for one last time before he nods, satisfied. “I assure you – all three of them will make sure to look divine tonight.”

They do, Kurt agrees when he watches the three ladies enter the room later that evening. Clad in expensive evening gowns in light peach, embroidered turquoise and deep emerald, with their hair pinned up to elaborate styles, and sparkling jewellery adorning their necks and ears, he can’t help but feel excited at the thought of catching a glimpse of what London society must look like.

When the gentlemen enter the room, Kurt’s eyes are involuntarily drawn to Lord Smythe, clad in a crisp white dress shirt, white waistcoat and smooth black tail coat. He looks dashing, and is so awfully well aware of it that Kurt almost gives into the urge to roll his eyes.

Almost.

Later, when he observes the ladies and gentlemen devouring the delicious food selections – Kurt had been allowed to taste them and therefore knows they’re divine – he decides that while he finds most of them disagreeable regarding their character, Lord Smythe certainly has a knack for selecting good-looking people as his friends. The ladies are beauties, all three of them, and Lord Huntington is really very handsom with his smooth black curls forming a beautiful contrast the white of his shirt. Even the twins look charming, sitting next to one another, telling the amused audience an entertaining tale about how they used to torture their governess until the poor thing, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, handed in her notice.

It’s amazing, Kurt thinks when he refills the glass of Sir Robert, how little the appearance of somebody tells you about the character of this person.

The dinner is passed with idle chatter as usual, and soon Lady Isabella rises from her seat and demands to dance. Kurt’s gaze flickers to Nicholas, wondering whether the footman will once more assume the task of playing the piano, but the ladies already start pestering Sir Robert, who seems more than willing to play if it spares him the duty of dancing. Kurt isn’t entirely sure, but he thinks he sees Nicholas sigh in relief. Sir Robert turns out to be a talented piano player, and soon three pairs of dancers are swirling around the room.

The ladies are always in motion, tireless almost, with a stamina they must have acquired during the months spent in London. Their partners change with every song: during an energetic                              contredanse, Lord Smythe is spinning Lady Isabella around, while Lord Huntington dances with Lady Emily and Lord Henry has his arm around the waist of Lady Catherine.

Watching them dance is quite enjoyable, Kurt thinks, partly because he has nothing more to do than to hand drinks to the pausing gentlemen, partly because if he squints his eyes and imagines a larger room, a more festive setting and a greater number of people, he thinks he can see what it must be like to be in one of London’s ballrooms.

The dancing goes on for an astonishing period of time, until the ladies finally show signs of fatigue.

“Oh dear, I am positively exhausted,” Lady Isabella exclaims, flopping down on one of the armchairs, spreading her skirts prettily around her while fanning her flushed face. Kurt quickly glances to his right to catch Jeff rolling his eyes at her, and he can’t suppress a quick smile.

“Now Isabella, don’t tell me we tired you out already,” Lord Henry teases. “You were the one who demanded to dance all night long, if I remember correctly.”

“It’s easy for you to tease, Lord Henry,” Lady Isabella retorts, “You’ve been sitting half night long, while we ladies have been dancing without so much as one moment of rest.”

Lord Smythe, his cheeks lightly flushed from the wine as much as from the exercise on the dance floor, looks at Lady Isabella and Lady Catherine, who really do seem quite exhausted, and Lady Emily, who still looks like she has some, if not much energy left, and then to Sir Robert, who has interrupted his play and is looking inquiringly at the party, as if to determine whether he should continue playing or not.

A mischievous expression on his face, Lord Smythe rises, swaying only the tiniest bit; but his voice is steady when he says, “Well ladies, if you are truly this exhausted, we will have to amuse ourselves with what is left, don’t we?”

He nods to Sir Robert, who takes the hint and starts playing a quick waltz, and then turns to Lord Huntington, bowing mockingly before grabbing his hand and pulling him up to his feet and to the free space in the room. Lord Huntington, who had far more wine than Lord Smythe, looks startled at first, but then starts grinning and takes his hands, swaying to the music almost blindly, though not really catching on to the rhythm.

Lady Isabella laughs delightedly and claps her hands, while the Lords Crawshaw are quick to catch on: Lord Edmund grabs Sir Reginald, who is shooting sour looks at Lord Huntington and Lord Smythe, and Lord Henry, in lack of a male dancing partner, tags his sister along to the dance floor.

Kurt knows that they are drunk, and he knows that it should be something comical to look at – at least judging by the way Lady Isabella continues to laugh – to see two men dancing together. But when he looks at Lord Huntington, who has his arm around Lord Smythe’s slim waist, at Lord Smythe’s long fingers which curl around Lord Huntington’s wrist briefly before he spins him around, he can’t bring himself to laugh at them. Somehow, seeing these two men dance together feels... natural, the same way it feels to see a man and a woman dancing. And yet, there is another, more exciting feeling to it. Maybe it is because Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington both are such attractive men; maybe it is because they don’t seem to think what they’re doing to be neither serious nor overly frivolous, but in a strange way, seeing them dance to together just kind of... makes sense.

Quickly, Kurt glances around the room, to see whether he is the only one with these mixed feelings regarding the homogenous couples. Lady Isabella is still grinning, tapping her foot to the music and laughing delightedly when Sir Reginald stumbles over his own feet at the attempt to get the steps right. Jeff and Frank seem a bit amused, and Mr Moore has the same stoic expression he always displays around the gentlemen – or other people in general.

Lady Catherine is not smiling, and neither is Nicholas. Lady Catherine is staring at the dancers, a judgemental expression on her face as she keeps gnawing on her bottom lip. Nicholas is scowling at Lord Smythe, his hands clenched behind his back as his gaze lingers on Lord Huntington’s hand which rests on Lord Smythe’s hip.

Kurt has the feeling that neither of the two approves of two men dancing together, but still – it’s not like anyone means anything by it, right? They’re merely drunk and having a good time together.

When the music ends, Lord Smythe again bows down to Lord Huntington and then turns to Lady Isabella, who apparently has forgotten about her exhaustion and again demands be receive some attention.

The dancing goes on for a bit before Sir Robert puts down the sheet music and exclaims that he is tired and wishes to retreat to his room. Though Lady Isabella tries to persuade him, he firmly bids them goodnight, and his leaving marks the start of a series of exclamations like “Well, it is late.”, “I have to say, I do feel exhausted” and “Edmund, put that glass down. You had more than enough.”. So, one after the other, they start to say goodnight and retire to their chambers.

Lady Catherine and Lady Isabella are the first to leave, shortly followed by a giggling Lady Emily and a still sour looking Sir Reginald, who asks Mr Moore to bring him one last glass of wine to his chamber. (Though Kurt is thinking that whatever is troubling Sir Reginald will hardly be solved by more wine. An exorcism might help.)

The next one to leave is Lord Edmund, who is supported by a displeased looking Frank and a reluctant Jeff, who cling to his shoulders in order to keep him upright between them. Kurt sighs, knowing that he will be the one who has to help Lord Henry up to his room, and turns around to approach the man, who has sunk down on one of the armchairs, when he stops dead in his tracks.

In the middle of the room, next to the Persian green settee, are Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington. Lord Huntington has his arm around Lord Smythe’s waist, and his head is resting on the other man’s shoulder while he is whispering something into his ear that makes Lord Smythe smirk. The Lord of Bailey Hall is still holding his wine glass in one hand, but his other hand rests on the Lord Huntington’s back, slowly moving up and down along the smooth dark fabric of his waistcoat.

All of a sudden, he looks up, meeting Kurt’s gaze across the room. He raises his left eyebrow, his green eyes piercing into Kurt’s while the hand on the back of Lord Huntington travels lower and lower every second, and the right corner of Lord Smythe’s mouth slowly turns into a grin that is familiar and strange at the same time.

Kurt doesn’t know why, but he feels like he is intruding on something extremely fragile and intimate, and he knows by the way Lord Smythe looks at him that he feels this too, and that he challenges this intrusion. But as much as he wants to, Kurt can’t bring himself to look away.

Suddenly, somebody next to him clears his throat, “Lord Crawshaw?”

Nicholas, without so much as a look at Lord Smythe or Lord Huntington, brushes past Kurt and walks over to the armchair where Lord Henry has started to snore gently. He taps the man on the shoulder, “My Lord, wake up please. We will accompany you to your room now.”

He looks at Kurt, a blank expression on his face, and says, “Can you help me, please?”

Kurt nods, carefully avoiding to look at Lord Smythe again, and together with Nicholas he manages to drag Lord Henry, who eventually is at least awake enough to be able to sing, if not walk, over to the door. Kurt doesn’t glance back, but the thought of Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington doesn’t leave his mind while they steer Lord Henry to his room and leave him on his bed, where he continues to belt out nursery songs that are occasionally interrupted by hiccups.

But he is almost sure that there was more to this hug than the simple search for comfort drunkenness sometimes induces. Something much more meaningful.

And he is almost sure that Nicholas must have seen it too.