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China Cups and Top Hats

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December 1849 – February 1850

Kurt has never spent Christmas at a house without a master in it. Unsurprisingly, it feels awkward to walk through the quiet corridors and deserted rooms of Bailey Hall, empty and cold without a fire to warm them.

Back at Chawton, Christmas was the busiest time of the year. Every member of the Shaftesbury family came to Chawton Manor over the holidays, regardless of the distance they had to travel. The servants spent days and nights decorating the halls with holly and mistletoe, hundreds of candles were lit, and the dishes Kurt brought up to the dining room were the most exquisite ones he’d seen in his life. Lord Shaftesbury always made sure that the servants did not only get to eat what was left from the master’s dinner, but every year advised the cook to prepare a special meal just for the servants and the villagers, who came to eat at Chawton Manor two days after Christmas. It is one of the most cherished memories Kurt has of his former home: sitting next to the warm oven with a bowl of pudding on his knees, listening to the merry voices of the kitchen maids singing songs while Claus accompanied them on his flute.

Christmas time at Bailey Hall is quite different. As much as Kurt enjoys the absence of his employer, the days after his departure aren’t easy ones. His defiance of Lord Smythe’s authority doesn’t go unnoticed by Mr Moore. Kurt isn’t sure who told the butler about it, but since he knows Nick wouldn’t give him away and Lord Smythe didn’t look like he needed a third party to interfere, Kurt can only suspect that Lord Huntington said something to Mr Moore before he got into the carriage. But however he came to know about it: when the carriages of the lords and ladies have disappeared behind the leafless trees, Mr Moore quickly orders Kurt to accompany him to his room, where Kurt receives the worst scolding of his life. The butler makes it very clear that after merely two months at Bailey Hall, Kurt’s position is not a secure one, that there are dozens of boys out there who would give their right arm to have his work, and that any further act of disobedience or cheekiness towards his employer will without a doubt result in him taking his notice – even if Lord Smythe was generous enough to let it pass this time. Kurt returns to his room with tears in his eyes, feeling humiliated and misunderstood.

And yet, he can’t bring himself to regret finally having stood up to Lord Smythe. In fact, Mr Moore’s scolding makes him feel very much like the tragic hero of a novel, unappreciated by the people surrounding him and destined for a better, more exciting life somewhere far far away. Sadly, he only has a few hours to sulk and revel in his self-pity, because early in the evening, Nick comes into their room to tell Jeff that Mr Moore is looking for him. The moment Jeff closes the door behind him, Nick turns to Kurt, a silent question in his gaze, and Kurt knows he will have to explain himself to Nick now.

“Are you here to yell at me too?” Kurt asks from where he is sitting on his bed. “Because I can assure you, Mr Moore already took care of that.”

To his surprise, Nick sighs and gently pushes Kurt’s knees aside so he can sit down next to him. “Oh Kurt,” he says, and shakes his head, “What am I going to do with you?”

This is not quite the reaction Kurt expected, but just to clarify he inquires, “So, you are not here to scold?”

Nick shakes his head again and looks at Kurt with an almost resigned smile, “I can’t say I don’t understand why you said what you said. It’s the natural urge to give as good as you get.” He rolls his eyes and adds, “Heaven knows I have been there with him.” His expression turns serious again, “Nevertheless Kurt, it doesn’t matter how justified you think your actions are, or how much of an ass Sebastian’s being – you just can’t do something like this in public.”

It strikes Kurt as odd to hear Nick address his employer by his first name, though it doesn’t really surprise him – it only adds to his observation that there is more to the relationship between Lord Smythe and Nick that meets the eye. However, he decides not to call him out on it this time, but instead he voices the question that has been bothering him ever since that morning, “Do you think Lord Smythe will have forgotten about it by the time he returns?”

“Never,” Nick answers without a moment of hesitation, “But you have to understand, Kurt – Sebastian isn’t even the issue here.” He shifts on the bed, his expression thoughtful as he contemplates his next words, “The way he has been provoking you these last weeks, this sort of reaction is most likely what he hoped for. But you see – it’s not going to bother him. At least, not like it would bother most other masters.”

He bites his bottom lip thoughtfully, “He likes when someone gives him a little challenge. He enjoys it, and he’ll play along – for some time. But in the long run, he won’t let his authority be damaged by letting you defy him. And his reaction to it isn’t even the biggest problem here.”

“It isn’t?” Kurt asks, puzzled as to what Nick is hinting at.

“No,” Nick replies, “Like I said, Sebastian will play along, for some time at least. But can you image how the others, how Jeff, how Jane, or Mr Moore, or Mrs Seymour will react?”

This is something Kurt hasn’t thought about yet. “Having a special relationship with your employer, even if it’s a special way of despising each other, always gets you in trouble with the other servants,” Nick continues, “If you defy Sebastian’s authority, and he’s letting you, people will start to ask themselves why he is treating you differently. They’ll grow suspicious; they’ll ask whether he favours you to other servants and why, they’ll suspect you might tell him things he’s not supposed to know about. They’ll stop talking when you’re around, they’ll start calling you names, and they’ll make life hard for you. And that’s not worth it.”

Kurt looks at him for a long moment, before he slowly says, “It sounds like you speak from experience.”

Nick’s gaze meets Kurt’s only for a moment before he looks away again, “The world we live in is very different from the world of our employers, Kurt. The line between these worlds is clear, and whenever you try to cross that line, you will only end up getting hurt.”

“Have you ever tried to cross it?” Kurt asks.

Before Nick can answer, the door opens and Jeff enters the room, muttering something about “nobody manages to keep their shoes clean in this dreadful weather why are they picking on me all the time” under his breath. Nick’s gaze meets Kurt’s in silent understanding that their conversation is over for the moment.

“The dragon lady wants to see you, Nick,” Jeff says, and flops down on his bed. Nick raises his left eyebrow at the blond boy, “I suppose that by “dragon lady” you are referring to our beloved Mrs Seymour, Jeffrey?”

“Who else?” Jeff retorts, flipping onto his back. “Mr Moore isn’t a dragon. He’s more...” He muses about this for a second, staring at the ceiling before he concludes, “... more like a slightly overweight and very nervous beaver.”

Kurt snorts with laughter and even Nick grins mischievously before he stands up, “Don’t ever let either of these two catch you saying things like this.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Jeff replies, winking at the other footman. “I like being here, and I plan on staying long enough to see Kurt pouring tea on Lord Smythe’s trousers. Preferably while he’s wearing them.”

Kurt sighs, “Not funny, Jeff.” Nick hesitates for a moment before he opens the door and says, “Just... think about what I said, Kurt. Please?”

The door closes quietly behind him and leaves Kurt to the teasing of Jeff and an evening of contemplating his conversation with Nicholas.

 


Winter at Bailey Hall is not how Kurt imagined it. Certainly, the weather does nothing to avoid the general expectation – three days after the departure of Lord Smythe and his friends, Kurt wakes up wondering where the brightness between the curtains is coming from. When he draws the curtains, he is greeted by the sight of snowflakes dancing in the cold air, adding new layers to the thick blanket of snow that already covers the fields and the trees. Pressing his nose against the freezing glass of the window, Kurt watches the quiet landscape outside for a while, before he sneezes loud enough to startle Jeff, who groans something about rice pudding before pulling the blanket over his head.

It continues to snow for two days, and Kurt learns that the people at Bailey Hall do not perceive the weather as a Christmas blessing, but as a threat. Back at Chawton, nobody worried about the snow – villagers and servants alike worked to keep the streets free of snow, and with the village being not even a five-minute walk away, nobody was really concerned.

Being snowed in at Bailey Hall, which is a one-hour-walk away from the residence of another human being, is not exactly funny. Of course everyone is prepared for it: the cellars are stocked with food, the firewood in the shed is enough to get them through two winters at least, and piles and piles of hay provide enough food for the animals. Mr Moore makes sure the footmen help the stable boys clear the snow away from the courtyard, so that all necessary buildings can be reached, and Mrs Seymour personally controls the fires, making sure that no servant has to be cold at night. But still, the snow keeps falling in intervals, confining everyone to the house and, as Jeff puts it once, “to complete and utter boredom”.

Consequently, Christmas is also a quiet affair. Since they have no masters to attend to, Mr Moore gives them the day off, and Mrs Bertram does her best to put together a truly magnificent Christmas dinner. The snow falls all day, and nobody is crazy enough to try to face the weather outside to attend the Christmas mass at Wilton. Instead, everybody assembles in the hall where Mr Moore says a few prayers, reads from the bible and asks them to sing a few songs.

The singing continues in the kitchen, after the pompous meal Mrs Bertram serves them. When everyone has assured her that even though it was truly delicious, he can’t possibly eat another crump, the leisurely part of the evening begins. People start handing out presents, Tom, the stable boy, challenges Mr Moore to a game of chess, and Mrs Seymour starts reading a Christmas tale to the kitchen maids. While planning and plotting Christmas presents for his friends at Chawton was what Kurt liked best about the season, this year he hasn’t even thought about presents until he receives two carefully wrapped packages from Jane and Nick. Speechless, he unwraps a beautifully knitted scarf from Jane and a small book containing poems by Lord Byron from the other footman. Guiltily, he starts apologising for not having any presents he could hand out in return, but Jeff, also wearing a new scarf he received from Harriet, immediately claps his hand over Kurt’s mouth.

“Be quiet and thankful,” he instructs, while Kurt struggles to be released. “Nothing is worse than people complaining and apologizing for getting presents. If you have to, pay them back by giving them something extraordinarily amazing next year, but right now just be happy about having friends like them.”

“I didn’t expect to ever say this, but I think Jeffrey is right,” Mr Moore says, looking up from the chess piece he is holding in his hand. Jeff grins at him, releasing Kurt from his iron grip, “Mr Moore, I truly believe that is the most beautiful Christmas present I ever received.”

“Don’t let it get to your head, Jeffrey,” Mr Moore retorts dryly, placing the small figure on one of the squares. “I have the strong feeling me agreeing with you will remain the exception to the rule.”

Long after midnight, Kurt falls asleep in his bed: cuddled under the soft blanket, his head pillowed on his arm, he watches Nick and Jeff sitting on the bed opposite of his, debating whether the butcher at Wilton was once a secret admirer of Mrs Bertram, and the last thing he hears before he finally drifts to sleep with a content smile on his face is their cheerful laughter.

 


It’s during an afternoon in the early weeks of January when Mr Moore decides that the library needs a thorough going-over, and asks Kurt to spend the next days sorting the shelves and returning the books that are scattered around the house. Kurt is more than happy with this task, and while Nick and Jeff fight their way through the thick snow to get to the village in order to run some errands for Mrs Bertram, he runs around the house, bringing piles and piles of books to the library and restocking the shelves one by one. He doesn’t have much time to idle about – Mr Moore checks in on him a few times every hour, to see how he’s getting along and to make sure Kurt doesn’t get lost in one of the books and forgets his duties.

The biggest piles he returns to the library are the ones he finds on the desk and next to the bed of Lord Smythe. And despite Mr Moore’s control-visits, he has enough time to study the literary taste of his employer. Interestingly enough, Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to have any fixed taste on literature: Kurt finds travelling journals on top of gothic novels on top of philosophic essays on top of contemporary poetry on top of a biography of a German painter on top of a Greek drama. It seems that Lord Smythe picks the books at random, but devours all of them with interest: Kurt finds sheets covered with notes hidden in some of them, and small slices of paper mark the pages Lord Smythe found most interesting, or maybe most outraging, or maybe most touching.

As Kurt browses through these books, he realises more and more that he has no clue how the mind of his employer works. It would be so easy to just to peg him as a shallow, heartless human being, but Kurt knows it wouldn’t do his character justice. He looks at some of the notes Lord Smythe took, and he is puzzled by their insightfulness and emotional depth. It’s almost like there are two Lord Smythes: one who randomly invites his friends to his bedchamber and insults Kurt to his face, and another one who jokes with Nick and reads challenging literature. The question that Kurt keeps asking himself during these quiet afternoons is: which one is the real Lord Smythe?

Among the books from Lord Smythe’s study Kurt also discovers the book he and Lady Catherine were arguing about that evening before Kurt overheard Sir Reginald in Lord Smythe’s bedroom, and out of curiosity, he takes the novel to his room to read it. It doesn’t give the name of the author, only references to two other novels, so it was most likely written by a woman who didn’t want to her name publically attached to her occupation as a writer – like most women do. Kurt can’t recall to have ever heard of her other novels: neither Pride and Prejudice nor Sense and Sensibility ring a bell. Sceptically as to what to expect from an author who gives her novels these cheesy sounding names, he starts to read.

He can’t say that it’s the best read of his life: the characters are dull, the descriptions endless and the plot does nothing to interest him in the fate of the characters. Finally though, he reaches the end of the book and the scene that caused such a controversial discussion in the dining room: the discovery and the banishment of the wicked lover and the reconciliation between the family members (with the marriage of the protagonist to her cousin briefly mentioned in the two-page epilogue). When Kurt carries the book back to the library, he contemplates why on earth people like Lady Catherine are so invested in such a boring story.

For him, the question isn’t whether the protagonist should have chosen her mischievous suitor over her dull cousin. The question that occupied his mind while reading was why a person like the protagonist should get a happy ending in the first place, when she spent nearly three hundred pages of being pushed around and letting everybody walk over her. Kurt has no patience with characters like her: if one didn’t manage to stand up for herself, how could one expect to get what one wanted? Fairytale endings were all very good, but Kurt liked them better when people actually worked for them.

Still, all the time while he is reading that book, the voice of Lord Smythe haunts him, and he keeps hearing the question he had asked Lady Catherine that evening, “ So, Lady Catherine, you do not believe that a human being can change? That we can turn good or evil any minute, depending on our own decisions as much as on what other people do to us?”

 


It’s in the first week of February when Mrs. Bertram looks at Kurt through squinted eyes and asks, “Kurt, have you grown taller?”

Kurt blinks at her in surprise, “I don’t know...”

“I think Mrs Bertram is right,” Jeff says, looking up the table where he is writing a letter. “Ever since he stood up to Lord Smythe, he does seem a bit taller.”

Nick interrupts his conversation with Harriet to smack Jeff on the back of his head. While Jeff starts whining, Nick directs his scrutinizing gaze at Kurt. “Well, it’s hard to tell while you’re sitting down,” he says, surrounding the table with quick steps. “Stand up, will you?”

“I haven’t grown at all for a whole year now,” Kurt replies, but nevertheless obeying Nick’s request. “I’m almost certain that I won’t be growing anymore.”

“These things are so unpredictable,” Mrs Bertram says, “A nephew of mine, August, he was always small for his age, and nobody thought that that would ever change, and then, when he turned eighteen, he suddenly started growing and growing and would not stop until he was two inches taller than his father, and trust me, my brother was never a short man to begin with.”

In the meantime, Nick has studied Kurt with a concentrated expression, until his drifting gaze stops at the hem of Kurt’s trousers. “I thought the uniform I gave you fitted well.”

“It does,” Kurt replies, looking down at his shoes and trying to figure out what about this hem irritated Nick.

“It doesn’t,” Nick disagrees, kneeling down next to Kurt and tugging at the seam. “I think these trousers are getting a bit short for you.”

Irritated, Kurt watches him, musing whether a pair of ill-fitted trousers could really have escaped his attention. It seems unlikely, but then, Kurt has really parted with the idea of growing, accepting that he will spend his life as a footman of moderate height.

“Well, we will have to keep track from now on, won’t we?” Mrs Bertram says, rummaging in the drawer of one of the cupboards. “Come here Kurt, will you?”

She steps to the doorframe, beckoning Kurt to follow. He leans against the cold stone, resisting the urge to shift his weight ever so slightly onto his toes, while Mrs Bertram carefully marks his height with a piece of chalk, meticulously writing down his name and the date next to the line indicating his height.

Stepping back and turning around, Kurt realises that so far he has never paid special attention to that particular doorframe. His line is not the first to be drawn there: dozens of marks, some of them so faded that they’re hardly legible anymore embellish the doorframe. Stepping closer, Kurt deciphers a few names – he recognises the names Jane and Emma, as well as a Frank, though Kurt doubts that this Frank is the same man that is now the footman of Lord Huntington.

What strikes him most, however, is Nick’s name.

Starting at a spot barely as high as Kurt’s hipbone, Nick’s name appears time and time again, documenting the growth of a boy who spent all his life running around the kitchen Kurt is standing in.

Seeing his own name among those of the people who give life to the estate of Bailey Hall, Kurt feels an unexpected warmth spreading through his body. It feels like a rite of passage, like some proof that despite the attitude of his employer, Kurt really belongs here.

“You look like a lost puppy,” Nick says, stepping behind him. “Stop staring and come with me, we’ll get you a new pair of trousers.”

 


Late February sees an improvement in the weather: some of the snow begins to melt away, and while it’s not getting much warmer, Kurt feels relieved that the way to the village is clear again.

It happens on a quiet afternoon, when Kurt is sitting on his bed, his feet under the warm blanket and a book on his knees. His attention is divided between the reading of The Castle of Otranto and the other bed, where Jeff and Nick sit. Jeff has his feet pushed up against Nick’s thighs in the small space and is loudly contemplating whether he really needs to fix the tear on his jacket immediately, or whether it could wait until tomorrow. Nick has a book on his knees too, but unlike Kurt, he has long given up trying to focus on the pages, and is instead grinning at Jeff, citing excerpts from Mr Moore’s speeches on the duties of footmen.

Just when Jeff has flung his pillow at Nick in a vain attempt to shut him up, the door flies open, and Mr Moore walks into the room. Kurt, Nick and Jeff scramble onto their feet while Mr Moore lifts a disapproving eyebrow at the lazy state they were obviously in.

“Well, it is a relief to see that you three aren’t occupied with anything important,” he says, “Because you are to report in the kitchen immediately.”

Kurt only notices now that he is holding a folded piece of paper in his right hand. Nick asks, “Did something happen, Mr Moore?”

“Nothing happened, Nicholas,” Mr Moore replies, “That is, not yet.” He lifts the piece of paper and now Kurt can see that it’s a letter, written by a hectic and rather messy hand.

“I just received a letter from Lord Smythe,” Mr Moore adds, “He will return the day after tomorrow, and again bring some of his friends along.” He looks at the three boys standing in front of him, “I don’t think I need to explain to you what this means now, do I?”

Nick, Jeff and Kurt shake their heads – they know that the next hours will be spend with dusting, cleaning, lighting fires, arranging furniture, checking wardrobes, cleaning shoes, and organising desks. Jeff is the only one who can’t suppress an irritated groan.

With a satisfied smile, Mr Moore waves them off, “Hurry up boys, the holidays are over.”

And when Kurt’s gaze stops again at the messy crawl of Lord Smythe, he feels certain that Mr Moore is right about that.