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China Cups and Top Hats

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February 1850

Maybe someday he will get used to this, Kurt muses when he takes his place in line, standing between Jeff and Nick. He still thinks that the line-up for the arrival of Lord Smythe and his guests is a vastly exaggerated display of servitude, especially since it’s still freezingly cold outside. Everyone tries their best to hide their shivering, but the ten minutes until the large carriage finally comes into view seem like an eternity. Only when the vehicle comes to a halt in front of the large estate does Kurt notice that it is not followed by a second carriage.

Confused, he wonders whether the other carriage is delayed, or whether they had an accident during their journey, but then Mr Moore steps forward to open the door, and Sir Robert climbs out of the carriage, followed shortly by Lord Smythe. They look tired, Kurt notices: Lord Smythe’s complexion is considerably paler than usual and he has dark circles under his eyes. Sir Robert doesn’t look as tired as Lord Smythe, but both men have the same look on their faces as they glance at Bailey Hall: relieved, happy, and oddly peaceful, like two refugees arriving in a safe haven after a long and hard journey.

But then Mr Moore closes the carriage door and Kurt realises that Sir Robert and Lord Smythe are the only people who climbed out of it, and he wonders where Lord Huntington and his wife, the Crawshaw siblings and Sir Reginald are. Out of the corner of his eyes he tries to get a look at Nick, and when he does, he sees that the confused frown on the footman’s face matches the one of Mr Moore, who clears his throat politely.

“Welcome back, your lordship,” Mr Moore says. Lord Smythe smiles at the butler, “Happy new year, Moore. I trust you had a nice Christmas time?”

“Yes, my lord,” Mr Moore replies, and he hesitates only for a brief moment before he asks, “I understood that all of your friends would return to us, my lord?”

“Not if I can help it,” Lord Smythe mutters, and his tone is so exasperated that Kurt has to bite back a grin. He would give anything to know what happened at Longleat House to put Lord Smythe in such a bad mood. Sir Robert gives his friend a reprimanding glance and says, “The Huntingtons and the Crawshaws will join us in two weeks, Moore, but for now, it’s just me and Lord Smythe.”

“Very good Sir,” Mr Moore replies, and follows the two gentlemen as they turn to the house. Kurt’s breath catches briefly when he sees Lord Smythe walking towards them, and suddenly, he remembers the last time Lord Smythe has greeted him in front of Bailey Hall. He half expects Lord Smythe to stop in front of him, to a raise a critical eyebrow at Kurt and to open his mouth for one of his cutting remarks – and then the moment is over and Lord Smythe has walked past him without so much as glancing in Kurt’s direction.

When they disappear into the house, Kurt realises that he feels relieved and disappointed at the same time. Relieved because he wasn’t looking forward to having a nasty encounter with his employer, especially not in front of everybody else; disappointed because he spent all this time worrying about it in vain.

“Wake up, dreaming beauty,” Jeff says, nudging his shoulder. “I’m not inclined to bring that entire luggage up to the first floor all by myself!”

“Of course you aren’t,” Kurt replies, and shakes his head to clear it of every last thought of his employer. “You wouldn’t know where everything belongs, and store Sir Robert’s underwear in Lord Smythe’s drawer. Even Nick would have difficulties explaining this.”

Nick grins at him while Jeff complains that this only happened one time and he noticed in time and nobody was harmed and that he refuses to be mocked about this anymore, and together they start unloading the carriage.

 


Having a master in the house again surprisingly doesn’t affect Kurt’s routine as much as he had thought it would, at least not during this first day. Mr Moore assigns him his old post – helping Sir Robert – but as before, Sir Robert doesn’t need much looking after. When Kurt helps him out of his travelling clothes and into a slightly more comfortable outfit, he makes kind inquires about whether Kurt had a good Christmas (“Yes, Sir”), whether he received some nice presents (“Indeed I did, Sir”), and whether the weather at Bailey Hall was as dreadful as it was at Longleat (“Only if you do not fancy snow and thunderstorms, Sir”). When Kurt politely and with barely concealed curiosity asks about Sir Robert’s holidays, the smile of the other man starts to look strained around the edges.

“Very exhausting,” he replies hesitantly but truthfully. “Of course, Lady Isabella always takes great care to keep her guests entertained, but this year, we had a little more... drama than usually.”

Kurt wishes he’d know how to carefully pry for more information because the word drama sounds awfully intriguing – especially in connection to Lord Smythe and Lady Isabella.

“But nothing bad, I hope?” he says, adjusting the waistcoat. Sir Robert shakes his head and smiles warmly at Kurt. “Nothing too bad, no. Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to a few quiet days here.”

Sir Robert leaves Kurt to unpack the rest of his luggage and retreats to the library, where he remains all afternoon. When Kurt brings him a cup of tea and some biscuits, he sees that Sir Robert is not reading, but instead is busy writing letters. “These matters always get neglected during the holidays,” he says when Kurt places the plate with biscuits next to him. “Will you let me know when it’s time to change for dinner?” Kurt promises he will and leaves Sir Robert to his paperwork.

Lord Smythe also doesn’t bother any of the servants all day long, and while that’s a relief, it’s also unusual. Kurt wonders about where he has vanished to, and when he finally asks Nick what their master is doing, the other footman wrinkles his nose in irritation and replies that Lord Smythe has retreated to his bedroom immediately after his arrival, and that the last time Nick checked on him he was still peacefully snoring between the sheets.

And indeed, Kurt only sees Lord Smythe again when he enters the dining room, almost a quarter of an hour after Sir Robert has sat down to eat. (But then again, Kurt thinks to himself, like King Louis XVIII put it once, "L’exactitude est la politesse des rois", and Lord Smythe is not exactly a reminder of royal virtues.) Clad in a slate-gray waistcoat Kurt has not seen him wearing before, he makes Kurt wonder whether he went to London to buy new pieces for his wardrobe during these past weeks, or whether he simply owns so many articles of clothing that Kurt has truly not managed to catalogue them all yet.

Sir Robert looks up from his soup when Lord Smythe sits down opposite from him, and smiles friendly, “Did you sleep well, Sebastian?”

“Better than I did these last weeks,” Lord Smythe replies, and when Mr Moore places a bowl of soup in front of him, he starts eating with an appetite that surprises Kurt. “Thank God we escaped this hell-hole.”

Sir Robert looks at him with a disapproving frown, “You know, Isabella merely did her best to ensure everybody was having a joyful holiday.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Robert,” Lord Smythe replies between two spoonful of soup. “She did her best to play perfect host, but only to remind everybody that she has more money than the rest of us.”

“For a start, that isn’t even true,” Sir Robert answers. “She’s not wealthier than you are.”

“But she sure would like to be,” Lord Smythe replies. He swallows the last spoonful before he elaborates, “In fact, I’m certain she would like to usurp Queen Victoria.” He shakes his head, “Just think of the way she kept bossing around poor Lady Sophia.”

“I thought you didn’t like Lady Sophia.”

“Oh, I don’t,” Lord Smythe retorts. “I think she’s silly and superficial and stupid. But then again, she’s seventeen.” He sighs, “People are usually intolerable at the age of seventeen.”

With his seventeenth birthday only months away, Kurt feels a small pang at these words. He takes the empty bowl from his employer while Lord Smythe adds, “But I highly doubt that with the way Lady Isabella and Catherine keep patronising her she will manage to grow into a sensible person.”

“I’m highly surprised that you have so much pity for her,” Sir Robert replies. “Especially since you treated her sister incredibly awfully.”

“I can’t imagine what you mean by that,” Lord Smythe says, a carefully innocent expression in his face. “I was the picture of politeness.”

“Really?” Sir Robert asks, his left eyebrow raised in silent disbelief. “Even when you told Lady Louisa that her pink dress made her look fat?”

 “I was only being honest,” Lord Smythe replies, raising his glass to his lips.

“You were being rude,” Sir Robert retorts without looking up from his last spoonful of soup, “And it was not the fault of that poor girl that Isabella decided to play matchmaker.”

“No, it was not,” Lord Smythe agrees. “Her fault was being completely thrilled at the idea of marrying me, asking me never-ending questions about my money and the estate, how much my yearly income is, who I’m related to and how big my house in London is.” His brow furrows, “I mean, is it too much to ask these gold-diggers to at least have the decency to be subtle about their interests?”

“I believe that you decided to dislike the sisters when you first saw them,” Sir Robert replies. “You never gave them a chance to change your opinion.”

Lord Smythe doesn’t reply to this assessment. Instead, he directs his gaze at Jeff, who has just placed a plate filled with salmon in caper vinaigrette in front of him.

“Have you ever spent an awful long time with people you can’t stand, Jeffrey?” Lord Smythe asks. Jeff looks very uncomfortable at being directly addressed by Lord Smythe who so far has never paid much attention to him. He shifts nervously and shoots an uncertain glance at Nick, before he replies, “I can’t say that I have, my Lord.”

“Good for you, boy,” Lord Smythe says, studying his fork for a second before he starts to eat. “Take my advice and try to keep it that way.”

“You are being downright horrible,” Sir Robert scolds. “You act like Lady Sophia or Lady Louisa tried to harm you in any way.”

“I’m convinced one of them would have tried eventually.”

Sir Robert looks at him, “Well, not even the prospect of getting a hold of your money could convince them to stay after...”

He pauses and shoots a sceptical glance at Nick and Jeff, who are approaching the table with wine jugs in their hands. “... after you-know-what.”

Lord Smythe follows Sir Robert’s glance, and a humourless grin appears on his face, “I don’t get why you’re afraid to talk about it in front of the servants, Robert. I mean, plenty of footmen were present when it happened, even Frank. They most likely heard about it long before we arrived.”

He looks at Nick, who has just bent down to pour wine into his almost empty glass. Nick refuses to meet the gaze of his employer, but he obeys the silent question and replies, “Heard about what, my Lord?”

“The big scandal at Longleat, of course,” Lord Smythe answers. “I’m pretty sure the household there is still talking about nothing else.”

“I’m afraid I have no idea what your Lordship is referring to,” Nick says, his voice carefully neutral.

“Are you being tactful or honest?” Lord Smythe squints at the footman, “I really can’t tell with you sometimes.”

“The latter, your Lordship.”

“Sebastian,” Sir Robert pleads, looking truly uncomfortable. “This matter is unpleasant enough as it is. Can’t you just let it be?”

“Very well,” Lord Smythe says and sighs. He turns his head to look at Mr Moore, “Though I guess I should inform you that Sir Reginald won’t be joining us anymore.”

“You mean in two weeks time, my Lord?” Mr Moore asks.

“I mean ever,” Lord Smythe says firmly. Kurt exchanges a look with Jeff, who raises his eyebrows in silent agreement that yes, this while conversation is weird. But then Sir Robert changes the subject and is now talking about the managing of his estate. Lord Smythe joins in on the topic and the rest of the dinner passes to a discussion of investment, farming and refurnishing.

When both men have retreated to their rooms and Kurt has helped Sir Robert into his nightshirt, he joins the discussion downstairs. Jeff has already told the other servants about the cryptic conversation between Lord Smythe and Sir Robert, and everybody is busy contemplating what could have happened at Longleat to put Sir Reginald out of Lord Smythe’s favour. Kurt wonders about that too, but unfortunately he can’t share his best guess (that it’s a lover’s quarrel) with the other servants. The discussion ends when Mr Moore enters the room, rebukes them for engaging in gossip about their master and sends the footmen and the housemaids to bed.

But of course, he knows that in every one of these rooms the whispering continues – and Jeff and Kurt are no exception to this.

 


The beginning of the next day feels rather similar to the ending of the day before. The kitchen is still full of speculations about what the big scandal at Longleat was, and Kurt is certain that either Mr Moore or Nick (or maybe even both) have by now written to Frank to make inquiries about what happened at Longleat.

Harry, the carriage driver, joins the other servants in the kitchen for breakfast, but he can offer little new information on the subject, even though he did accompany Lord Smythe and Sir Robert to Longleat.

“I understood there was something like a quarrel,” he says between two mouthfuls of porridge, “And I know that after that evening everyone left in a hurry. It felt like they were fleeing from the plague.”

He scratches his chin, “I know that Sir Reginald left that same evening, and that he borrowed Lord Huntington’s carriage for the journey. Or more likely Lord Huntington sent him home to never set eyes upon him again. But since all of us drivers stayed at the village and I only got orders to bring the carriage to Longleat House two days after it happened, I didn’t catch much of the drama.”

This of course does nothing to calm the curious minds of the people assembled around the kitchen table: they come up with the wildest theories as to why Sir Reginald might have quarrelled with Lord Huntington, only quieting down occasionally when Mr Moore walks in and out of the kitchen. Even though Kurt just like everybody else is dying to find out what happened, it isn’t his primary concern at the moment.

Over the course of the day, he grows more and more irritated at the decided lack of attention Lord Smythe is paying him. At first, he reasons with himself that Lord Smythe was too tired yesterday to come up with the usual teasing, and that his mind needed a good night’s rest to come up with new, creative insults.

But when Lord Smythe doesn’t acknowledge his presence neither at the breakfast table nor during lunch, Kurt sees his suspicions confirmed: Lord Smythe is indeed ignoring him on purpose.

Normally, that wouldn’t bother Kurt in the least: since their encounters have so far all been unpleasant, he would not mind if they could continue to live alongside each other like this and simply pretend that the other doesn’t exist. The problem is: he is sure that it won’t continue like this, and that the worst is yet to come.

The moment he dreaded finally arrives in the early evening, when Kurt walks down the corridor to fetch Sir Robert for dinner. When he looks up, he finds Lord Smythe is approaching, apparently coming from the library, at least judging from the books he holds in his hands.

“My Lord,” Kurt murmurs as a greeting when he walks past the other man. He is about to hurry towards the steps of the great staircase when the dry voice of Lord Smythe sounds behind him, “Oh? Suddenly I’m being Lord Smythe again?”

Kurt stops dead in his tracks and slowly turns around, only to be met by a false surprised expression on Lord Smythe’s face. “Our last meeting gave me the impression that we were past these formalities, Kurt,” he says, and it’s impossible to tell whether he is angry or hiding his amusement very well. Nevertheless, Kurt decides to react in the safest way he can.

“I want to apologize for what I said before you left, Lord Smythe,” Kurt says. It’s hard to bring himself to say it, mainly because it’s nothing but a giant lie. But ever since Nick talked to him about this matter, he has been contemplating what to do. And as much as it pains him, he knows that apologizing is most likely for the best. “I know that it was very rude and disrespectful of me, and I beg your pardon for this. It won’t happen again.”

Lord Smythe’s expression remains unreadable, and the moment in which he merely stares at Kurt’s face seems impossibly long. Slowly though, the corners of his mouth start to form a cheeky grin, and he says, “You don’t mean a single word of what you just said, do you Kurt?”

Hastily, Kurt answers, “I am truly sorry, your Lord-“

“That is nonsense if I ever heard it,” Lord Smythe says, and folds his arms in front of his chest. “You’re not sorry, Kurt, not one bit.”

Kurt feels his cheeks heating up. Why does this man always have to make things complicated? Growing more furious by the second, he retorts, maybe a bit louder than necessary, “I said I am sorry, Sir, and I mean it.”

Only when Lord Smythe starts laughing does Kurt realise what he said – again. He closes his eyes, feels his cheeks burning and wishes for a great giant hole to open beneath his feet and swallow him. Lord Smythe calms down eventually, though he never stops grinning. He steps closer, and Kurt has to resist the urge to take a step back and restore the original distance between them.

“I don’t mind it,” Lord Smythe says, his eyes meeting Kurt’s, and for the first time, Kurt thinks he detects something akin to respect in them, “Heaven knows I have been called worse things than Sir.”

Kurt knows what he means – after all, he is aware of all the things he has called Lord Smythe in his mind. The other man shrugs, letting his arms fall to his sides, “As long as you do your work, don’t disturb me in the mornings and keep your nose out of my business, you can call me whatever you like.” As an afterthought, he adds, “As long as it’s not ‘my boy’.” He wrinkles his nose in distaste, which oddly enough makes him look years younger, and adds, “That’s how my grandmother likes to call me.”

“I wouldn’t dare-,“ Kurt begins, but he is interrupted again. “Oh, I think you would,” Lord Smythe replies. “Which is why I don’t mind it.”

He smiles at the younger boy one last time before he turns around, calls over his shoulder, “I’ll see you at dinner, Kurt.” and swiftly walks down the corridor, his nose already in one of the books again.

When Kurt stares at his retreating figure, he is struck by how well Nick anticipated this exact situation. Unfortunately, the warnings of the other footman didn’t help to prevent it, and now Kurt is at loss as to what he can do. If he continues to address Lord Smythe as ‘Lord’, he acknowledges a respect that he doesn’t have, something Lord Smythe is most likely also very aware by now. If he starts calling him ‘Sir’, it will most certainly get him into a lot of trouble.

‘Being ignored really would have been the better option’, Kurt thinks as he takes two steps at a time down the staircase. Because now he feels that he has the attention of Lord Smythe, and this thought is far more uncomfortable than the feeling of being overlooked.

 


The next two days pass quietly. While the topic of the fight at Longleat is still being speculated on, people eventually find something else to talk about: the latest political scandal, the weather and the unexpected pregnancy of Nancy Brown, the butcher’s daughter. No letter from Frank has arrived yet, but since it has started snowing again, it will probably take long for the correspondence to reach him, and even longer for the answer to reach Bailey Hall.

Kurt pretty soon finds himself in a new routine: in the morning he dresses Sir Robert (who never needs to be woken and always waits for him, sitting in an armchair with a book or a letter on his knees), serves at the breakfast table, and checks Sir Robert’s wardrobe.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert don’t eat lunch; they usually have some sandwiches and tea in the early afternoon which are served by Nick and Kurt at either the library or the study of Lord Smythe, where the two men are busy organising their affairs and planning the running of their estates. They eat in the evening, and after dinner usually retreat to the drawing room where they play chess, read or talk until late in the night.

This is such a difference to the evenings in autumn, where there were parties and balls and games and entertainment, that Kurt can’t help but be puzzled at how much both men seem to enjoy the quietude and piece of each other’s company. Especially Lord Smythe seems very different from before – while still sarcastic, mocking and occasionally mean, he is much more amiable these days, and Kurt wonders whether Lord Smythe’s behaviour always bends to the one of the people surrounding him, and whether it is Sir Robert that brings out this marginally softer side.

Kurt hasn’t quite reached a decision regarding the issue of addressing his employer, but when Lord Smythe came down to dinner only hours after their conservation, his eyes found Kurt’s immediately, and he greeted him with a casual, “Evening, Kurt.” Kurt, hearing the challenge in Lord Smythe’s voice and refusing to back down, answered (though softly enough for Mr Moore not to catch it), “Good evening, Sir.” Kurt thought that the grin on Lord Smythe’s face when he sat down was at least the tiniest bit respectful.

He continues to address Lord Smythe as ‘Sir’ when he feels safe to do so – in the presence of Mr Moore, he quickly starts avoiding any form of direct address. When Sir Robert hears him using the new address, he looks confused, but since he doesn’t say anything to Kurt, Kurt assumes that he has either asked Lord Smythe for clarification or made up his own explanation. Kurt doesn’t get as lucky with his fellow footmen – both Nick and Jeff demand an explanation when they hear Kurt offering Lord Smythe a plate by saying, “Would you care for a cucumber sandwich, Sir?”

When he has told them about his conversation with Lord Smythe, Jeff only grins at him with an expression on his face that is half proud, half dubious, and says, “Why do I feel like my baby brother is growing up?” Nick’s face looks concerned, but he only shakes his head and says, “I don’t think anything good will come out of it, Kurt. But since you refuse to back down, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

It’s late in the afternoon on the third day of Lord Smythe’s stay when Mr Moore summons Kurt and sends him to ask Lord Smythe about the number of guests he is expecting in the weeks to follow. When Kurt reaches the first floor, he is surprised to find Sir Robert alone in the library. “Sebastian is in the music room,” Sir Robert says, smiling at Kurt while his ink-stained fingers are already reaching for the quill again. “He said he needed a break from his financial matters.”

Kurt thanks him and walks down the corridor, more hesitantly now than before. An encounter with Lord Smythe alone has so far never been something good, and Kurt doubts that this time will turn out to be the exception to the rule. But however slow his steps are, eventually he is standing outside the music room. He takes a deep breath before he knocks against the door, his knuckles tapping against the wood twice in a firm manner.

“Come in,” he hears the dry voice of Lord Smythe, and Kurt gently opens the door and makes sure to close it as gently behind him before he turns around and looks around the music room. Lord Smythe is sitting on the piano bench, sheets and sheets of music carelessly piled on top of the piano and next to him on the bench. He’s flipping through an old volume of music, obviously looking for something, but pausing when he sees Kurt. The all-too-familiar, teasing grin appears in the right corner of his mouth.

“Kurt,” he drawls, setting down the volume on the keys of the piano, which gives a disharmonious sound that doesn’t seem to bother him, but that makes Kurt flinch ever so slightly, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Kurt tries to ignore the urge to role his eyes at the mockingly polite tone of Lord Smythe’s voice, and replies “Mr. Moore wants to prepare the bedrooms for your guests, and he asked me to inquire whether we are to expect anyone new, or whether anyone of your former guest will not return to Bailey Hall.” He pauses for a second before adding, “Apart from Sir Reginald, of course.”

Lord Smythe looks out of the window, his brow furrowed in thought, his teasing momentarily forgotten. He seems to contemplate his answer for a moment, before he replies, “I am sure that the Huntingtons and the Crawshaws will come, but I doubt that Lady Catherine will be joining us.” He looks at Kurt, “You can tell that to Mr Moore, but I guess I will only know for certain at the beginning of next week, when Lady Isabella knows whether she’ll take another companion with her.”

Kurt nods, and already reaches for the doorknob again when Lord Smythe adds, “Oh, and Kurt?”

“Sir?”

“Could you ask Moore to prepare Sir Reginald’s old room for Lord Huntington?”

Well, this answers the question who will share Lord Smythe’s bed during the weeks to come, Kurt thinks and answers, “Certainly, Sir.” Thinking he is dismissed, he turns towards the door, but just as he’s reaching for the doorknob, the voice of Lord Smythe calls, “Kurt, would you come here for a second?”

Kurt freezes, before he turns around again very slowly, “Me, Sir?”

He should know better by now than to give Lord Smythe an opening like this, because naturally the other man rolls his eyes and replies, “I don’t see any other Kurt in this room, do you?”

Feeling silly and fighting a blush, Kurt approaches the piano wearily, wondering what on earth Lord Smythe could want from him now. Lord Smythe looks at the piano, lifting up the volume he has placed on the keys before, and asks, “Do you play, Kurt?”

“A little, Sir,” Kurt answers, and now it is his turn to frown. Does Lord Smythe require musical advice from him of all people?

Meanwhile, Lord Smythe unceremoniously scoops up the pile of music sheets sitting next to him and drops it on the piano, where it forms a rather dangerous looking pile on top of the sheets already there, and orders, “Sit down.”

All Kurt can do is stare at him in bewilderment, because – what? Lord Smythe rolls his eyes at Kurt’s obvious confusion, and pats the space next to him once before he orders, “Sit, I say.”

It’s the commanding tone more than anything else that causes Kurt to obey and sit down on the bench, though reluctantly. He makes sure to keep his distance from Lord Smythe, but he can’t help but fidget uncomfortably. This man next to him is not only his employer and social superior, he is also – as far as Kurt is concerned – a pain in the ass. Most of the time Kurt is pretty sure he can’t stand his employer, and even more often he’s sure that this feeling is mutual, so he can’t for the love of God figure out what Lord Smythe wants from him here. But even though he doesn’t know, given Lord Smythe’s previous behaviour, he is fairly certain that it will end in embarrassment on his side.

Lord Smythe however seems neither to share Kurt’s concerns, nor does he acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. He’s looking at Kurt with an unreadable expression and requests, “Play something.”

Kurt turns his head to look at his employer, pretty sure he must have heard wrong, “I beg your pardon, Sir?”

“Play something,” Lord Smythe repeats, leaning back a little to make himself comfortable, “When people say that they play ‘a little’ it’s usually either false modesty, or it means that they can’t play at all. I’d like to see which one you are.”

The dreaded grin is back in place, and Kurt turns towards the piano, determined to prove to Lord Smythe that he falls into neither of these categories, “Do you want me to play anything specific, Sir?”

“Just something you’re comfortable with,” Lord Smythe answers, and Kurt almost laughs out loud at that, because if there’s anything he’s not being right now it is comfortable. Nevertheless, he lets his fingers settle on the piano keys, contemplating for a second what to play, before tentatively pressing down the first key, taking in the clear sound of the piano that is so much better than the one he learned to play on. He starts to play a melody his mother taught him, a French song he has practised over and over when he was small. As the melody unfolds around him, he forgets where he is, forgets the presence of his employer next to him. He doesn’t even notice that he has started to hum along to the tune until the dry voice of Lord Smythe interrupts his thoughts, “I think that will do.”

Startled, Kurt breaks the song off with a disharmonious clang as his fingers settle on the wrong keys. His head snaps around, his gaze meeting the one of Lord Smythe, who is looking at him with an unreadable expression again, “I think that’s enough Kurt.”

Kurt doesn’t know whether he is supposed to stand up, supposed to leave, but he remembers Lord Smythe’s words and he can’t help but ask, “So, what’s the verdict, Sir?” He figures if he is forced to display his talents to be mocked, he might as well get it over with.

Surprisingly, Lord Smythe contemplates his answer for a moment before he replies, “You’re not bad. Not excellent either, but I don’t get a headache from listening to you, which is more than I can say of most people I’m forced to listen to.” He grins that one-sided grin, “I guess you we’re right. You do play ‘a little’.”

Kurt is entirely unsure what to make of this. On the one hand he feels as if his pride has been seriously damaged, on the other he isn’t sure whether there was a hidden compliment in that first sentence. Suddenly, he realises how intimate their position is: sitting next to each other on the small space the bench offers, like they’re not only equals, but also friends. Hastily, he slides off the bench and onto his feet again, clearing his throat to distract Lord Smythe’s amused gaze from his reddening cheeks, “Will that be all, Sir?”

“That will be all, Kurt,” Lord Smythe says, picking up the volume he was previously browsing through. “Tell Nick to fetch me half an hour before dinner, will you?”

Kurt murmurs a “Yes, Sir” and finally closes the door behind him. For a moment, he leans against it, wondering what on earth that was about, and whether Lord Smythe was aiming to be friendly or insulting, because in some weird, twisted way, he managed to be both at the same time.  

To him, Lord Smythe remains an enigma. And Kurt is not sure whether he is ready to solve it.