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China Cups and Top Hats

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March 1850

If somebody had asked Kurt in autumn of the previous year if he could ever feel relaxed and at ease while Lord Smythe resided at Bailey Hall, he would have started laughing, a strained, forced laugh. Therefore, nobody is more surprised than Kurt himself when these early days of March show him that having Lord Smythe and Sir Robert at Bailey Hall isn’t as much of a nuisance as he would have anticipated it to be, on the contrary – in some moments, he catches himself actually enjoying the presence of both men.

Granted, Lord Smythe isn’t at home all the time – despite the lasting cold and wet weather, he has started travelling around his estate, mounting his horse in the early morning to visit the gamekeepers, the farmers and the villagers. He makes inquires about last year’s harvest, much needed reparations and new instruments. Sir Robert accompanies him from time to time, but mostly he stays in the library, reading and answering the stacks of letters that arrive for him every single day. The evenings remain what they were: quiet, peaceful hours in which the two men eat, chat, read or play games, and most of all, enjoy each other’s company.

Perhaps it is the serenity in the house, or the soothing, unspoiled influence of Sir Robert’s presence, but Lord Smythe’s behaviour around his servants (and around Kurt in particular) remains surprisingly civil. Not that he stops teasing them, but now, the teasing feels more friendly, more genuine, because the meanness, the intention to hurt are not as visible as they were before, and sometimes Kurt asks himself whether he could actually grow to like this new master. But despite the change in Lord Smythe’s behaviour, Kurt finds that he is reluctant to trust this development, because he suspects that it might just as easily change back to what it was during his first months at Bailey Hall. Sometimes Kurt can’t decide whether he is being unforgiving or merely careful, but the hurt, inflicted by so many of Lord Smythe’s cruel words, is too deep for him to simply forget about it. So while he finds it easier to be around his master, he remains vigilant and doesn’t allow himself to trust the change of his master’s attitude just yet.

The first tiny interruption of the peace at Bailey Hall occurs during a rainy evening. Lord Smythe, who was out to visit the farms near the River Wylye, came back when it started to get dark, and now the kitchen is busy preparing the dinner. Since Mrs Seymour has decided that the lords have eaten from the same dishes for far too long, she has ordered Jeff and Kurt to fetch the red and gold china from the second dining room, so that the kitchen maids have enough time to clean it before they arrange to food on it.

Kurt has just balanced a pile of cups down the stairs and placed them on the kitchen table when a cacophonous clang sounds behind him, causing everybody in the kitchen to flinch. When Kurt turns around, he sees Jeff standing in the shards of the soup tureen he was carrying, a thoroughly horrified expression on his face. For a moment, everyone merely stares at the scene in frozen terror.

The first one to move is Nick, throwing down the towel with which he was polishing the silver and kneeling down.

“Don’t step on the shards,” he warns when Jeff starts to move. Jane kneels down next to him, carefully collecting the biggest shards into her apron.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Jeff says, his voice miserable and scared at the same time.

“Of course you didn’t,” Mrs Bertram says, patting his shoulder. “It was an accident, and it’s nobody’s fault. Everybody here saw that. Didn’t you?” she adds, her tone unusually sharp.

The kitchen maids nod instantly, and Kurt does too. He knows that breaking something as valuable as this soup tureen will, in a best case scenario, cost Jeff at least a year’s salary, but even more likely his job.

To make matters worse, Mr Moore chooses this precise moment to enter the kitchen, holding a stack of towels in his hands. When he spots the mess on the floor, his face immediately changes colours: at first, it becomes an almost deadly pale, then, slowly, it changes into a very ugly red.

“What happened here?” he asks, with barely restrained anger in his voice. Jeff opens his mouth to admit to the crime, but quickly, Mrs Bertram moves forward, her gaze challenging the one of Mr Moore.

“It was an accident, Mr Moore,” she repeats.

Mr Moore stares at the woman standing bravely between him and the culprit, “I want to know who is responsible for this, Mrs Bertram.” His eyes flicker to Jeff, whose guilty expression has to give him away immediately.

The cook merely lifts her chin a bit higher, “Like I said, Mr Moore, it was an accident. Nobody is responsible for this.” Looking down at the shards at her feet, she adds, “And you know, as far as I know, Lord Smythe never fancied this particular set of china anyways.”

Mr Moore takes a deep breath, as if to calm himself, and then says without taking his gaze from Mrs Bertram, “Kurt, take these towels up to Lord Smythe’s bathroom.”

Kurt hesitates, reluctant to leave Jeff alone in such a precarious situation. Mr Moore however seems to be in no mood for more disobedience – when Kurt doesn’t react immediately, he snaps, “Now!” and pushes the stack of towels into his arms. When Kurt looks at Jeff, he sees that Nick and Jane are also standing in front of him, ready to defend him. Even though he doesn’t feel good about it, he figures that he can leave Jeff to the protection of these three, and when he sees Nick nodding at him, he quickly slides out of the room.

When he starts to climb the stairs up to the second floor, he can hear the deep, boisterous voice of Mr Moore behind him, the shrill pitch of Mrs Bertram and Nick’s calm voice mediating between them, and he hopes that Jeff can stand his ground. Technically he believes that Mrs Bertram take Mr Moore on any day, he just hopes that Mrs Seymour doesn’t join in on the fight, because then, the forces would be even.

Having quickly moved down the corridor, he opens the door to Lord Smythe’s bedroom and enters quietly. He has only been in here once or twice – since the duties of Lord Smythe’s valet fall into Nick’s responsibility, and Mr Moore tends to all other tasks, nobody but them has a regular reason to enter this room. Kurt looks around curiously, his eyes drifting over the books and papers on the messy desk, but since he really wants to get back to Jeff, he crosses the room rather quickly and opens the door to the adjoining bathroom. He takes two steps into the room before he stops dead in his tracks, his eyes fixed on the scene before him. What Mr Moor forgot to mention in his growing anger was why the towels are needed in the bathroom: because Lord Smythe is currently taking a bath.

A large fire cracks in the chimney and the whole room feels slightly overheated. Lord Smythe sits in a rather larger bathtub in front of the fire, and his head rests against the rim of the bathtub, exposing the long line of his throat. Kurt’s gaze travels down to the collarbone and further down to his chest, down to where the smooth-looking skin meets the gently steaming water. His usually pale skin looks darker in the light of the candles and the fire, Kurt notices, and it glistens where single drops of bathwater still cling to it.

Kurt feels his cheeks heating up, and he knows that it’s not merely due to the temperature in the room. Maybe it’s because he is so used to see people in layers and layers of clothing, of cotton and wool and silk, that the sight of naked skin is making him really uncomfortable. Because there is really nothing wrong with layers, Kurt thinks. Quite the contrary: layers are good. Layers are safe. Seeing his master like this – naked, relaxed, vulnerable – has something horribly intimate to it, and Kurt doesn’t want any kind of intimacy with a person he’s not even sure he likes or trusts.

Quietly, he tiptoes to the other end of the room, placing the towels on the small, plain table where Lord Smythe has dropped his clothes, still wet from the rain, onto. A part of him hopes that he can just sneak out of the room unnoticed, but when he turns around, he meets the gaze of Lord Smythe, who has turned his head and is looking at Kurt with an amused expression in his eyes.

“My Lord,” Kurt murmurs, hastily averting his eyes and concentrating on the pattern in the wooden floor. It’s a nice pattern, he notices, and whatever ancestor of Lord Smythe built Bailey Hall must have paid quite a large sum of money for it.

 “Kurt,” Lord Smythe answers, and Kurt hears the water splashing against the bathtub when Lord Smythe moves. “What an unexpected surprise.”

Kurt’s head snaps up, his eyes searching in the expression of Lord Smythe whether he has trespassed in any way by entering the bathroom. When Lord Smythe catches Kurt’s uncertain gaze, he smiles and clarifies, “Usually it’s Nick who attends to me, but I don’t mind the change.”

Kurt lets out a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding in, and explains, “We had a minor accident in the kitchen.” Lord Smythe raises his left eyebrow, “Nothing bad, I hope?”

“No, Sir,” Kurt replies, not wanting to be the one to inform Lord Smythe that the red set of china has become pretty useless without its soup tureen. Lord Smythe nods and closes his eyes again, letting his head fall back against the rim of the bathtub. Kurt remains next to the stack of towels, unsure what is expected of him now. He would really like to just leave, but since now he is expected to “attend” to Lord Smythe, that is unfortunately out of the question. Still, he only has a very vague idea about what to do now, since both Sir Robert and Lord Henry preferred to be left alone when bathing, and apart from these two Kurt has little experience with caring for his masters in the bathroom.  

After a minute of silence that is neither relaxed nor really tense, Lord Smythe moves again. He sits up, his neck cracking when he turns it first to the right, then to right, lifting his chin to relieve the tension in his back. Kurt can see his muscles moving when he rolls his shoulders, and for a moment his eyes are so fixed on the movement beneath the smooth skin, that he only realises after a second that Lord Smythe is holding out a sponge in a silent request for Kurt to take it. Tentatively, Kurt steps forward and takes the soft sponge out of Lord Smythe’s hand, and when the other man leans forward and exposes his back, Kurt dips the sponge into the warm water, squeezing it to let the water run over Lord Smythe’s shoulders. It feels weird at first, being this close to a person he still hasn’t quite figured out, but Lord Smythe doesn’t seem to acknowledge his individual existence – to him, Kurt is just another servant who assists him, like Nick presumably has done countless times before. And while Kurt usually isn’t fond of being reduced to his occupation – this time, it helps.

“When you see Mr Moore later, can you tell him that my guests will arrive the day after tomorrow?” Lord Smythe asks, splashing water on his face.

“Certainly, Sir,” Kurt says. He notices that Lord Smythe’s hair looks almost black when it’s wet, and that is has become quite long during these last weeks. “Can you tell me how many guests you invited? Mr Moore will want to know.”

Lord Smythe runs a hand through his hair, and a few drops of water hit Kurt in the face.  “Isabella and Arthur will come, Henry, Lady Emily, and Isabella announced that she will bring two of her friends with her.” He turns his head to look at Kurt, blinking when a drop of water runs down to his left eye, “I think we will need six bedrooms.”

“Very well, Sir,” Kurt says, and even though he doesn’t stop slowly rubbing the sponge over Lord Smythe’s back, he can’t help the small pang he feels at the idea of Lord Huntington and his friends returning to Bailey Hall.

Those last days have been surprisingly peaceful and almost enjoyable, but Kurt is almost certain that once Lord Smythe is reunited with Lord Huntington and his friends, he will once again lose his politeness and restraint and become the horrible human being Kurt learned to hate during his first weeks at Bailey Hall. Lord Smythe cranes his neck and looks up at Kurt, a curious expression in his eyes, “You don’t seem very happy about that, Kurt?”

“I hardly believe it’s my position to be unhappy about your guests, Sir,” Kurt replies, rolling up a sleeve that has started to become wet.

“True,” Lord Smythe says. “But you quite often do things that are not in your position.”

Kurt’s fingers brush against the skin of Lord Smythe when he raises the sponge to his shoulders once more, “If I remember correctly, you personally assured me that you don’t mind that.”

“I don’t,” Lord Smythe retorts, “I’m merely curious to hear what your honest opinion about my guests is.”

Kurt hesitates, aware that he could never voice his “honest opinion” about the other lords and ladies in the presence of Lord Smythe, but at the same time unwilling to lie. Eventually, he settles for saying, “I’m glad that Sir Reginald isn’t coming back to Bailey Hall.”

“While that doesn’t answer my original question,” Lord Smythe says, “So am I.”

He reaches up to his shoulders, and his fingers brush against Kurt’s when he takes the sponge out of his hand. “Fetch me a towel, will you?” he says, tossing the sponge carelessly aside. He grabs the rims of the bathtub to pull himself out of the water. Kurt is once again happy about the dim light and the fact that his flushed cheeks can easily be blamed on the heat in the room, and with his eyes steadily fixed on a rather ugly painting on the wall, he hands Lord Smythe a large towel to cover himself, and a smaller one to dry his hair.

When he dares to look at Lord Smythe again (now with a towel clad around his waist and rubbing his hair with the other one) he thinks that he can understand a little bit better why Lord Huntington and Sir Reginald are so taken with his employer: even when his body is not hidden beneath one of his impeccably fashionable waistcoats, he is an unfairly good-looking man. Kurt’s gaze drifts over the strong legs and the flat stomach when suddenly, he realises that there is no new set of clothes lying on the dressing table. He silently curses Mr Moore for assigning him this task unprepared, and he wonders how he is supposed to put a decent evening attire together when he has no clue what is stored in which wardrobe. “I’m sorry, my Lord,” he says, “I’m going to... I mean, I will right away fetch s-“

“Nick,” Lord Smythe interrupts him. He grins at the perplexed expression on Kurt’s face, “You’ve done enough Kurt, and it’s not your job to look after my evening attire. Fetch Nick, he’s had long enough a break.”

“I will, Sir,” Kurt says, happy to finally be able to escape this awkward situation. But suddenly, he remembers Jeff and the fight downstairs. He looks at his master, who is combing through his dishevelled hair with one hand and rubbing his face with the other, and he decides just this once to trust him.

“Lord Smythe?”

“Yes, Kurt?”

“Do you have a deep emotional connection to the china with the red and gold pattern?”

Lord Smythe looks surprised at the question, and he lifts his right eyebrow in confusion, “I don’t believe I have an emotional connection to any of the tableware in this house. Why are you asking?”

“Well, it might be that the soup tureen is not exactly in a healty condition.”

“I see,” Lord Smythe says slowly, a grin tugging on the corner of his mouth, “And I guess since you’re here and Nick usually isn’t a very clumsy person, either poor Jeff or one of the housemaids is really scared that Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour discover what happened?”

“Jeff is,” Kurt admits, and adds, “And Mr Moore sort of already discovered it.”

“And now he is throwing a fit downstairs?” When Kurt nods, Lord Smythe sighs and runs his fingers through his wet bangs, “Could you ask him to come up and see me? I’ll tell him that a dish is no reason to fire Jeff. And tell Nick to come upstairs too.”

“I will,” Kurt says, and he can’t help but smile at Lord Smythe, glad that it was the right decision to trust him, “Thank you, Sir.”

Lord Smythe returns his smile, and Kurt is glad to see that rare, genuine expression instead of the more common leering grin, “You’re welcome.”

Kurt nods, and turns to leave, but his fingers have only brushed against the cold metal of the doorknob when the voice of Lord Smythe holds him back, “Oh, and Kurt?”

Kurt pauses, looking over his shoulder at his employer, who is still smiling, “Tell me if you made up your mind about whether you will call me “Lord Smythe” or “Sir”, because I am getting confused at the inconsistency.”

“I can’t help it, Sir,” Kurt replies before he has time to properly think about his answer. “It all depends on whether I decide that I like you or not.”

Lord Smythe looks taken aback for second at the honest answer, but within seconds, the grin is back in place, even wider than before.

“And how much longer do you think it will take for you to establish an opinion on my person?”

“I don’t know, Sir,” Kurt replies, wondering what it is about this moment that makes it much easier to tell the truth, “You make it awfully difficult to like you sometimes.”

Lord Smythe smiles again, but this time, it’s not a happy one. “I know,” he says. For a moment he holds Kurt’s gaze, and there is more in his eyes than Kurt feels comfortable to decipher just yet. Then, Lord Smythe sighs and turns away, “Run along and rescue Jeff, Kurt,” he says. “Once Mr Moore starts shouting, it’s hard to stop him.”

Feeling that he is dismissed, Kurt slides out of the bathroom. He feels his heart pounding in his chest when he hurries down the corridor, and he wonders why. After all, he just insulted his employer to his face after seeing him naked and rubbing his back with a sponge. He shakes his head as if to get rid of the image, and quickly runs down the stairs, down to the kitchen from which he still hears upset voices. After all, there are more important things that need to be dealt with right now.

 


The next day is as busy as expected. Mr Moore wants a last check and a thorough dusting of all of the guest rooms, and Mrs Bertram orders Jeff and Kurt to walk to the village to get some last missing ingredients for the dinners she has planned. The hours pass in a busy blur, and it’s only after dinner, when Sir Robert has retired to his bedroom, that Kurt has time for a break, sitting down next to Jeff at the kitchen table to eat his own dinner. Only after he has eaten three spoonfuls of soup, Kurt notices that Nick, who just a minute ago had helped him bring down the meat plate, has vanished, leaving his soup untouched.

“Did Nick say where he ran off to?” he asks Jeff, who shakes his head, unable to answer the question since his cheeks are stuffed with bread. “Maybe he is not feeling well,” Mrs Bertram says, “He was awfully pale throughout the evening.” She eyes the disregarded bowl of soup with concern in her round face. “Kurt, could you go and check on him?”

Kurt nods and stands up, gently pushing Jeff, who has also risen and is now looking worried, down into his chair again, “I’ll be back in just a minute.”

Quickly, he climbs the steps to Nick’s room. He knocks against the door, calling “Nick?”, and when there is no reply, he carefully opens the door. Tentatively, he steps into the empty room, feeling oddly out of place. He has rarely been in Nick’s room, because whenever they have a moment to themselves, they usually spend their time in Jeff’s and his room.

At first glance, there is not much difference: it’s a small room with two beds, one of them unused, one wardrobe and a small table. Nevertheless, it feels much more like a permanent home than Jeff’s and Kurt’s room does: Nick’s personal belongings are neatly arranged on the table: little snippets of paper stick to the wall above the desk, stacks of letters, neatly tied together, lie on top of books and papers.

When Kurt steps closer, something rustles under his foot. Startled, he bends down to pick up the piece of paper he stepped on, which is covered in neat, small handwriting. He turns the letter, which has so carelessly been cast away, and seems out of place in the otherwise so tidy room. He knows that it’s wrong to read the personal correspondence of Nick, but maybe it is the only way to find out where he vanished to, and what happened to make the usually so collected footman throw this letter away in what must have been a very emotional moment. Slowly, he sits down on the edge of Nick’s bed, already reading the first lines of the letter.

My dear Nicholas,

I am astonished to receive your letter alongside one written by Mr Moore, both inquiring as to what event took place in this house that caused Lord Smythe’s and Sir Robert’s hasty departure. I will confine in you what I myself witnessed that evening, but before I proceed to do so, please note that I am telling you this in strictest confidence. I did write a letter to Mr Moore, but I tried to keep the account as neutral as possible, and I am also trying to keep my emotions from inflicting with this letter. Nevertheless, I shall give you the true account on what happened, and I hope that some of the details, especially those of a delicate nature, can remain between the two of us.

The whole affair took place during one of Lady Isabella’s evening party. Apart from the guests that were already staying at Bailey Hall, Lady Isabella also invited some acquaintances of hers: Lady Sophie and Louisa Bradford, our neighbours Lord and Lady Russell as well as the two Lord Elliots. They had a small ball for which they hired musicians, and at the beginning everybody seemed to have a rather cheerful time. Unfortunately, as the evening advanced, some of the gentlemen consumed a little more wine than it was good for them, though I do feel that I should emphasise that both Lord Smythe and Sir Robert remained sober throughout the entire night. Late in the evening, Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington began to quarrel. I was not close enough to witness the exact cause of their disagreement, but Thomas, my fellow footman, told me that they were talking about Lord Smythe when the quarrel got out of control, and soon Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington were shouting openly at one another, drawing the attention of every last person in the room towards them.

While I can’t remember every word they were saying, I do remember that they insulted each other quite heavily. Sir Reginald accused Lord Huntington of arrogance and – dare I say it – adultery, while Lord Huntington called him a liar, an imposter and a beggar. Lord Smythe and Sir Robert tried in vain to calm them down, and eventually they let their insults be followed by actions, and Sir Reginald (who was the first one to throw a punch) injured Lord Huntington quite severely: his nose started to bleed, and even now as I am writing these words, he still cannot see out of his right eye. Nevertheless, it took Lord Smythe, Sir Robert, the Crawshaws, myself and Thomas to separate the two fighters. While the ladies tended to Lord Huntington’s injuries (at least those of the ladies who had not fainted at the sight of blood and themselves needed to be cared for), Lord Smythe and I brought Sir Reginald, who still refused to calm himself, out into the courtyard.

What he said to Lord Smythe in his blind rage I cannot bring myself to repeat word by word, but among other things he accused him of committing acts of gross indecency. But whatever he said, let me assure you that it was the drunken rambling of a madman, and that none of these things can possibly hold the smallest amount of truth. I am only telling you about this because I know that Lord Smythe trusts you, but I will never repeat what I am writing now to another person as long as I live.

However, while Sir Reginald kept shouting insults at him, Lord Smythe became very calm, and told Sir Reginald that from this moment onwards he will not be welcomed at Longleat House or Bailey Hall, or any other noble estate in the surrounding counties. He went inside, and Thomas and I kept Sir Reginald out in the cold for almost an hour, forcing him to drink water until he was relatively sober again.

When he realised what he had done, he seemed very shocked by his own actions, and demanded to be brought to Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington so that he could apologise to both of them. Alas, both of them naturally refused to listen to his apologies. We were ordered to pack his luggage, and in the hours of the early morning, he was sent on his way in the carriage of Lord Huntington himself.

This is what happened during that night, Nicholas, and I suppose now you see why this matter best not be stirred into common gossip: especially in the interest of your master. Be assured that none of the guests, though they did not witness the worst part of the evening, wanted to stay after this unpleasant event, and that carriage after carriage departed in the course of the day. Your master and Sir Robert decided to stay for one more day to make sure that Lord Huntington was recovering from his injuries, and then also departed.

I hope this letter answers most of your questions. Be assured that I told Mr Moore only about the necessary facts, and not about the content of Sir Reginald’s drunken ramblings. I hope this letter finds you in good health, and please tell Jeff and Kurt that I miss them!

Yours sincerely

Frank

For a moment, Kurt stares at the letter in his hands, turning the paper as if to search for more lines, for all the things that Frank does not name in his account of the evening. Though Kurt knows enough about the nature of Lord Smythe’s and Sir Reginald’s relationship to let his imagination fill the deliberate gaps in Frank’s account, he is not yet able to grasp what this means for Lord Smythe. If it was truly only him and Frank who witnessed Sir Reginald’s accusations, and Frank really keeps quiet about it, there will most likely not be much harm done.

However, Kurt knows that even the slightest rumour can grow large enough to seriously damage a man’s reputation. Kurt’s fingers twitch with the want to burn this letter, to leave no proof of what truly happened at Longleat. But that would of course alert Nick to the fact that someone else has read this letter, and so, Kurt crumples it again and shoves it under the bed, so that it is hidden from whoever might enter this room, but still easy enough for Nick to find it again.

Suddenly, Kurt has a very clear idea where Nick has vanished to. He leaves the room and climbs the stairs until he reaches the corridor leading to Lord Smythe’s chambers. When he approaches the door to his bedroom, he hears angry voices shouting at one another.

For a moment, he pauses in front of the door, telling himself that this is very wrong, that he should be ashamed for even thinking about spying on Nick and Lord Smythe, and if anybody catches him, he’s going to be in serious trouble. Having told himself that, he takes a deep breath, and then bends forward and presses his ear against the door.

“- are you out of your mind?”

“I still don’t see how on earth this is my fault?”

“Oh, come on, Sebastian. We both know Reginald is no fool, heaven only knows what you did to him during these days at Longleat that made him this frustrated.”

“I did absolutely nothing to him.”

The next words come out as a loud whisper, and Kurt is relieved to hear that Nick is not too upset to remember to lower his voice, “So you’re telling me that you did not invite Arthur to visit you every night while you purposefully ignored Reginald?”

This at least answers the question of how much Nick knows about Lord Smythe’s nightly activities, Kurt thinks to himself, when Lord Smythe retorts, “I already told you, he was getting on my nerves.”

Of course he was getting on your nerves,” Nick hisses, “Reginald has always been an absolutely horrible, conceited, abhorrent, vile, despicable ass. How long did you think your little game with him could have lasted?”

“I didn’t think he was going to crack,” Lord Smythe defends himself; “I just wanted to teach him a lesson because he was being so damn clingy.”

“Maybe it strikes you as a weird idea, but sometimes, people actually develop feelings when they do what you did frequently with Arthur and Reginald.”

Lord Smythe laughs at that, and Kurt has never heard anyone this bitter when he says, “Oh please Nick. Reginald was not in love with me. I insulted his pride and his vanity, not his feelings.”

Nick still refuses to be consoled by this, “You could at least have told me about it, and not lied to my face when I asked you what happened!”

“God riddance, Nick you’re not my mother.”

“No, that I’m not. But I’m your best friend, and heaven knows I have done a lot to cover up your escapades.”

Kurt almost loses his balance at this, grabbing the doorframe for support. While he had always suspected some kind of intimate relationship between Nick and Lord Smythe, it still surprises him to hear his suspicions confirmed.

“What exactly is your problem here, Nick?” Lord Smythe asks, and his voice becomes more and more exasperated.

“I don’t get why you bring all these horrible creatures to your house to randomly fuck them. This is bound to end in a total disaster.”

“Then what do you want me to do Nick?” Lord Smythe shouts, “Fall in love? Find me a nice, respectable, sensible gentleman, introduce him to all of my friends, ask him to move in with me and stay together until the end of our lives? Dance with him at the Christmas ball at Longleat, kiss him in front of my friends?”

Though the anger has not left his voice, Nick sounds calmer when he replies, “Being cynical is not going to help, Bas.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Nick, cynicism is one of the few things the public doesn’t object to.”

“You don’t have to tell me how hard this is for you, Bas. I can see that. I have, for many years. I merely thought that by now, you have learned from experience how dangerous this can become. I mean, we’ve been there before.”

Kurt’s eyes grow wider at this piece of information, and he bends closer to the door, eager not to miss Lord Smythe’s answer. Sadly, he doesn’t respond to Nick’s plea, but instead says, “Nick, I can’t do this. I can’t spend my life pretending to be somebody I’m not. I can’t just go after a pretty, mindless girl, marry her, father a bunch of children and deny what I really want, just because it’s safe.”

“I understand that. But why do you chose people like Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, people that at the bottom of your heart, you don’t even like?”

Both Nick and Lord Smythe seem to have calmed down now, and their voices become harder for Kurt to understand. Nevertheless, he hears the sad tone in Lord Smythe’s voice when he says, “What would be the alternative? Be alone?”

“Why don’t you find somebody you can stand? I’m not talking about love, but why can’t you chose somebody you genuinely like? Somebody you trust.”

There’s some rustling behind the door, and Kurt suspects that Lord Smythe has sat down on his bed, “I can’t do that, Nick. I can’t get emotionally invested, get attached to somebody, to start a relationship that is bound to end.”

“Maybe it doesn’t have to end.”

Lord Smythe laughs again, the same bitter laugh as before, “That’s what I thought the last time.”

For a moment, the room is silent. Then there’s that rustling sound again, and Nick says, “Do you really think nobody else heard what Reginald said?”

“Only me and Frank,” Lord Smythe replies, “And if you say that he will keep quiet...”

“He will,” Nick says, “He promised to.” He sighs, and adds, “Bas, we have to talk about things like this. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I knew you would start shouting at me,” Lord Smythe replies.

“I only shout when you’re being an idiot,” Nick says, and Kurt is sure that somewhere behind this door, Nick and Lord Smythe are smiling at one other.

Careful to not make a sound, Kurt backs away from the door, because he has heard enough, and because down in the kitchen, they are most likely wondering what on earth is taking him so long. He will just say that he looked everywhere, but simply couldn’t find Nick, he decides when he tiptoes down the corridor – and so he does. Later, when Nick returns to the kitchen and is met by the concerned inquiries from Mrs Bertram, Jeff and Jane, he claims that he has been in the courtyard, since he wasn’t feeling very well and the cold air was helping his headache. Kurt just nods and says, “I forgot to look there.” Everybody is satisfied, and Mrs Bertram reheats the soup for Nick.

Late at night, when Jeff is peacefully snoring in his bed, Kurt is still awake, again and again replaying the conversation he heard. So many things start to make more sense now, and yet, there are still so many questions unansweredm. At least now he knows where Lord Smythe and Nick stand in this whole mess, Kurt thinks as he snuggles deeper into his pillow.

However, the question that remains is: where does he stand?