March – April 1850
Sometimes, Kurt is certain that no matter how much time he spends at Bailey Hall, there will always be nights when he lies awake in this bed, listens to the blissfully innocent, slow and steady breathing of Jeff, and wonders when his life has become this tangled mess of secrets and lies.
The night after he overheard the conversation between Nick and Lord Smythe is one of these nights.
It’s not that anything he heard truly came as a big surprise to him. When he thinks about it now, staring into the darkness that’s only illuminated by the faint light of the moon peering through the curtains, what actually surprised him most was hearing Nick state that he is not only Lord Smythe’s friend (because Kurt was already pretty certain about that), but even his “best friend”. So far, Kurt has always assumed that Sir Robert was closest to his employer, but by now, he is almost used to reconsidering his views on people in the Bailey Hall household. After all, he does get a lot of practice.
Strangely enough, the knowledge of the unusual friendship makes it harder to decide how much Kurt can trust Nick. Even though it is a relief to finally have his suspicions confirmed and to know that Nick will indeed keep Lord Smythe’s secrets, Kurt is now even less confident that he could talk to Nick about how much he has found out by now. He is almost sure that neither Nick nor Lord Smythe would be thrilled with the idea of him knowing exactly what is going on, and he is convinced that if it came to the worst, Nick’s loyalty would lie with Lord Smythe, not with Kurt.
Nevertheless, what keeps echoing in his mind, not just in the darkness of his room, but even days later when he watches his employer eat dinner or write his correspondence, is Lord Smythe’s voice, saying, “ I can’t spend my life pretending to be somebody I’m not.”
Kurt can only speculate what past event has made the other man so bitter, but for the first time, he finds himself truly trying to understand what it would feel like to be Lord Smythe: not being able to show his love for somebody, trying to live up to what his family and friends expect of him, constantly hiding who he is, and forever unable to find happiness in love. For some reason Kurt doesn’t quite understand, the thought makes him feel really miserable, and almost like he is in a strange way sharing Lord Smythe’s hardship.
Sometimes, when he enters a room and sees Nick talking to his employer, quickly drawing back when he spots Kurt, or sees Sir Reginald’s signature on an old letter Lord Smythe has left in the library, Kurt envies Jeff. Jeff, who is completely unaware of what is really going on at Bailey Hall; Jeff, who has no idea as to how much everybody is hiding; Jeff, who willingly accepts all the lies that make Kurt’s life so complicated. Sometimes Kurt wishes he could be that boy at the other side of the table, airily laughing with Jane and Harriet and not feeling a twist in his stomach when Mr Moore announces the approaching arrival of Lord Huntington.
Now he understands why Nick appears so serious sometimes, so contemplative – if Kurt is finding it hard to be silent about everything, Nick’s life must be a constant struggle to keep the balance between all the lies he made up to make sure all the secrets of Bailey Hall remain concealed.
Therefore, the arrival of Lord Huntington, Lady Isabella and the other lords and ladies actually feels strangely like a welcome distraction (though sadly, Frank isn’t accompanying his master this time). Not that Kurt is in any way looking forward to waiting on them again, quite the contrary – he is still dreading the moment where Lord Smythe turns into the heartless creature Kurt got to know during his first months at Bailey Hall.
Very soon though, Kurt realises that he finds Lord Smythe’s guests altogether more agreeable than during their previous visit in autumn. When trying to find a reason for that unexpected development, he soon blames it on the general change of atmosphere. Back in autumn, everybody had just returned from what seemed to have been an exciting season in London, and country life was dull and monotonous in comparison – something which especially Lady Isabella couldn’t have emphasised more often. But now that the dark season seems to lie behind them, and the weather is steadily improving, everybody is in unusually high spirits.
Lady Isabella and her friends are planning their first visits to the dressmakers to order their spring wardrobe. They consult fashion manuals and advertisements in newspapers, reading aloud to each other what the royal ladies and especially her majesty wore to the opera or the reception of the German ambassador.
Kurt tries his best not to appear like he is eavesdropping, but the evenings are long and the fashion discussions of the ladies are by far more interesting than the men’s conversations about politics at the other end of the room.
It’s not that Kurt isn’t interested in politics as such, but Lord Huntington and Lord Henry both are far more interested in hearing themselves talk than presenting a profound or even logical argument. Usually, the main discussion is between the two of them, and consists of heated reasoning, lots of gestures and very little content, and often it merely takes one objection by Sir Robert to expose their whole discussion as absolutely pointless. Lord Smythe generally settles on remaining silent and sometimes rolling his eyes, or, if he gets truly bored, standing up and leaving the room to seek shelter in the library – which, in Kurt’s opinion, is as rude as it is understandable.
Nevertheless, the overall enthusiasm regarding the upcoming season in London is contagious, and Kurt feels himself getting excited at the possible prospect of spending the summer in the city, though he is careful not to let himself become too enthusiastic at the idea. After all, he doesn’t know which of the servants Lord Smythe will actually take with him to London, and he doesn’t want to get his hopes up if, in the end, he will only be disappointed again.
“Of course you’re coming with us,” Jane says reassuringly when Kurt shares his concerns at the breakfast table. “Lord Smythe always takes all of the servants with him. It’s either because he wants to show off or because he doesn’t want to be bothered with searching for new ones in London.”
“Maybe it’s a bit of both,” Jeff muses, “But anyway Kurt, I think he has overcome whatever issues he had with you. I mean, he has stopped insulting you, and you weren’t assigned to take care of Lord Henry again.” His nose wrinkles in vexation, and Kurt smiles in sympathy, because if there is one thing he doesn’t miss it is trying to wake Lord Henry – an honour that has now been passed on to Jeff.
“I mean, that has to mean something,” the blond boy adds, blowing on his tea.
“Yes,” Jane agrees. “Maybe he has really grown to like you.”
Kurt looks up to search for Nick’s gaze, but the other footman has his eyes fixed on the novel resting on his lap, and only the slight crease of his brow indicates that he is listening to their conversation at all.
“I was going to suggest that he just grew to hate me more than you,” Jeff says, skilfully avoiding the playful slap Jane aims at his shoulder. “But I guess your theory works too.”
Finally, Kurt gives in to Jane’s and Jeff’s enthusiasm. He listens to Jane’s stories about life in the city and takes care to remember her recommendations on where to go to shop, what to visit and which theatres offer cheap prices. Instead of lying awake brooding over recent events, Kurt now stares into the darkness picturing what his days in London could be like. But while he imagines where he will go, who he could meet, and what he should see, he still can’t completely shake a small feeling of apprehension. And he knows that he’s only truly going to believe in visiting London once he is in the carriage heading to the great city.
Another thing that surprises Kurt is that Lord Smythe actually doesn’t spend that much time with his guests. While the lords and ladies are out when the weather allows it, riding, taking a stroll through the park or visiting some sights in the neighbourhood, more often than not he and Sir Robert retreat to the library or Lord Smythe’s study. And while they’re actually not that busy organising the running of their estates anymore, they still enjoy some quiet time in each other’s company, talking, reading, or playing chess. Kurt even notes that Lord Smythe is getting better at the game, but Sir Robert still beats him two out of three times, and Lord Smythe isn’t much of a good loser. Now that he is paying attention to it, he can see Nick trying very hard not to roll his eyes at Lord Smythe’s pouting when Sir Robert announces his win, and silently he agrees with the other footman – a grown man sulking like a little child is a rather pathetic sight.
It’s one of these afternoons, and just as usual, Kurt and Nick bring cucumber sandwiches and tea up to the library, where they find Sir Robert alone, brooding over some complicated looking papers.
He only looks up when Nick hands him his teacup, and his eyes seek out Kurt’s, “Kurt, could you be so kind and fetch me the Commentaries on the Laws of England ?”
“Of course, Sir,” Kurt replies, looking at the shelves, “Where is...?”
“It’s not in here,” Sir Robert answers the unfinished question. “It should be somewhere on Lord Smythe’s desk, he borrowed it from me yesterday. Could you go up to his study and try to find it?”
“Certainly, Sir,” Kurt says, and he sets down the sandwich plate, deciding to take the great staircase up to the next floor. When he opens the door to Lord Smythe’s study, spring sunshine illuminates the room, and Kurt is surprised to see that the room is empty. Reluctantly, he closes the door behind him and walks to the large desk at the other end of the room, which is covered with piles of books and stacks of paper that look rather unstable, half-written letters and unfinished notes, inkwells and used quills that leave dark spots on pieces of paper.
Kurt sighs, reluctant to rummage through the personal correspondence of Lord Smythe, but since Sir Robert explicitly asked him to search for this book, he sets to work. He moves a few letters to the side, and reaches for the nearest pile of books. On top of it is Shakespeare’s As you like it, its cover worn from being opened many times. Underneath is a rather new-looking volume with the unfamiliar title of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the pages still bright and the spine not yet cracked. Kurt puts it away, and takes the next book in his hands. It’s not so much a book as a thick booklet, and the title page declares it to be the Yokel’s Preceptor. Claiming to be “a book for every greenhorn”, it furthermore explains that it is “intended as a Warning to the Inexperienced – Teaching them how to Secure their Lives and Property during an Excursion through London”. Curious about what the unusual title means, he puts down the pile of books on the desk and starts browsing through the pages.
At first glance, it seems to be a guide to London, naming streets and places, shops and pubs. Confused as to why Lord Smythe, who has presumably spent a couple of months in the city every year since he was old enough to accompany his father and his older brother, should be in need of such a book, Kurt starts to read, and after a few minutes, he can feel the heat rising in his cheeks. What he is holding in his hands is a thinly veiled guide to all kinds of establishments in London that offer either a safe place for men to meet other men, or a place where men offer their bodies for whatever their customers are willing to pay for. Under the pretence of “warning” the innocent and naive people coming from the countryside to the big city, it meticulously lists all kinds of establishments, and all kinds of activities one can engage in there.
Equally confused and fascinated, Kurt keeps reading, not noticing that his fingers have started shaking. It feels like opening Pandora’s Box, like catching a glimpse at something that was always there, always within reach, but for the first time feels real. Hearing about Mrs Wilbourne ’s nephew in London, overhearing Lord Smythe and Sir Reginald made Kurt think about this matter, but strangely enough, he has so far never considered it as anything more than individual fates, something that would not touch him personally.
This manual, however, shows him that this is not just about some lost boys in the big city, not just about some bored aristocrats – out there, there is a whole secret society of men who try to find love in spite of the laws and jurisdiction – and they seem organised.
Kurt keeps reading, and as he turns page after page, he forgets about time, he forgets about his errand, he forgets where he is and what he is supposed to be doing. He feels himself being sucked into the manual, into a world of hidden pleasures, and what he reads sometimes appals, sometimes thrills, but most of the time fascinates him.
He is so engrossed in his reading that he doesn’t hear the door being opened. Neither does he hear it being closed, only when someone is clearing his throat pointedly, his head snaps up to meet the amused gaze of his employer.
“Lord Smythe,” Kurt says, hastily pushing the Yokel’s Preceptor back into the pile of books he had previously been holding. This is worse than being caught by Mrs Bertram with a spoon in the pudding bowl. He knows that he is blushing violently, and the more he tries to suppress it, the more heated his cheeks feel.
“Kurt,” Lord Smythe says, crossing his arms in front of his chest and looking expectantly at the boy in front of him.
Kurt tries desperately to come up with a witty reply, a sharp and clever explanation as to why he is standing in Lord Smythe’s room and going through the books on his desk, but all he hears himself answer is, “Your Lordship.”
Lord Smythe’s lips twitch, as if he is trying to suppress a grin, and he tilts his head to the right before he drawls, “Well, now that we have established who we are, may I move on to inquire what you’re doing in here?”
Kurt knows his blush is only getting worse, and once more he curses the fate that decided that he is not even able to blush prettily, like Lady Emily or Lady Isabella. What looks charming on them looks only guilty and ridiculous on him and, for some reason, he is more aware of that than usual – which doesn’t help at all.
“Sir Robert asked me to find the Commentaries on the Laws of England , and he assumed that it would be on your desk,” Kurt stammers. “I’m sorry if I was overstepping, my Lord, I didn’t mean to...”
“Ah, the Commentaries ,” Lord Smythe muses, ignoring Kurt’s stammered apologies. “Is it not among those?”
He reaches out, and Kurt has no choice but to hand him the stack of books. Quickly, Lord Smythe sorts through the pile. When he comes to the Yokel’s Preceptor, he pauses only for the briefest of moments, his gaze flickering over Kurt’s face before he puts it at the bottom of the pile.
“I thought I left there,” he says, putting the pile down. Eyeing the messy stacks of paper on his desk, he laughs awkwardly and asks, “I should really clean up this mess, shouldn’t I?” He taps his index finger thoughtfully against his nose, before he walks to the windowsill, picking up another pile of books Kurt hasn’t even noticed until now.
“So, are you looking forward to visit London, Kurt?” Lord Smythe inquires, his tone light and conversational while he is tossing one book after the other back on the windowsill.
“Yes, Sir, very much,” Kurt replies, feeling a bit wary about the question after having been caught with his nose in a rather dubious manual. “You see, I’ve never been to London before.”
Lord Smythe pauses in his sorting, and his head turns around to direct a surprised gaze at Kurt, “Never?”
“Never, Sir,” Kurt replies. Lord Smythe eyes him with an unreadable expression, before he turns to his books again.
“Well, in my experience, London is one of these all-or-nothing affairs,” he says, “People either tend to hate it, or never want to leave at all.” He turns around, crosses the small distance between them and holds a book out to Kurt: the Commentaries on the Laws of England . “I guess we’ll have to wait and see which type you are.”
Kurt takes the book, but instead of thanking him like he ought to, he looks up to the green eyes of Lord Smythe and asks, “Which type are you, Sir?”
The other man looks taken aback for a second, but then smiles, though a little too wistfully for Kurt to feel comfortable, “I’m afraid I’m neither. I am one of these rare creatures that enjoy city life, but are also glad when they can retreat to the country during the winter months.”
“I would have thought country life bores you,” Kurt replies.
“It has its advantages – and I don’t mind some quiet and peace for a change. One can only stand so much excitement.”
Kurt knows he should stop asking, but there is one question that has been bothering him for quite some time, “And Bailey Hall is your home, right, Sir?”
Lord Smythe looks around the room, as if he’s seeing it for the very first time. Running his fingers through his hair in a gesture that Kurt by now can identity as being a sign of discomfort, he answers, “Well, I grew up here. So I guess yes, you could say that.”
Kurt’s fingers close around the solid spine of the Commentaries , and he decides that it’s time for him to leave, “Thank you for helping me find the book, Sir.”
Lord Smythe nods, the expression in his eyes unreadable again, “You’re welcome, Kurt.”
Looking back at his desk, he sighs and says, “Can you tell Robert that I’ll be joining him in an hour? And please find Nick and send him to me – I’m going to need some help with this mess.”
“Of course, Sir.”
Kurt carefully closes the door behind him, and heads to back to library, to deliver the book and inform Nick about Lord Smythe’s order. By now, it’s easy for him to perform his duties while his mind is occupied with other things, but later, when he is helping Sir Robert dress for the evening or offers wine to the ladies, the descriptions in the manual still haunt him.
Looking at the calm face of Lord Smythe at the other end of the room, he wonders what else he is going to discover in London.
As the days pass, Kurt feels more relaxed and more excited at the same time. Excited because the prospect of departing for London tiptoes nearer and nearer, and Kurt has already started to sort his clothing according to what he will take with him, and what he is going to leave behind. Relaxed because his anticipation of Lord Smythe again turning into the deceitful creature he was at the beginning of their relationship was apparently redundant.
If Lord Huntington’s edginess and his increasingly irritated mood is any indication, Lord Smythe hasn’t revived his sexual encounters with the other man. Kurt suspects that this is mostly due to the rumours about his fight with Sir Reginald, which are decreasing rather slowly. It’s a smart step, and probably the necessary consequence, but Kurt catches himself hoping that it might also be a sign of Lord Smythe taking Nick’s words to heart, and distancing himself from people like Lord Huntington, who are, as Kurt has had many opportunities to witness, truly despicable human beings.
Nevertheless, Kurt feels relieved when the guests announce after almost three weeks that they will be leaving to prepare their move to London. At the insistent request of Lady Isabella and Sir Henry, Lord Smythe agrees that he will follow them within a week. Sir Robert agrees to depart on the same day, though instead of going to London, he will first travel back to his estate at the Scottish border, and only join them later.
That night, after the lords and ladies have gone to bed, Kurt sits on the floor in front of the wardrobe, folding his clothes, sorting out everything that needs to be washed before they leave, and scolds Jeff who just lies on his bed, his feet against the wall, his big toe visible through a giant hole in the left sock.
“I swear, I am not helping you pack,” Kurt says, letting the fabric of a shirt run through his fingers, testing how worn it is.
“Lighten up, Kurt,” Jeff says, wiggling his toes. “It’s still a whole week. There’s plenty of time.”
Kurt pauses in his inspection, narrowing his eyes at the other boy, “You’re just going to throw everything into your bag at the very last minute, aren’t you?”
Jeff tilts his head to the side, grinning at Kurt, “Most definitely.”
“You are the messiest person I was ever unlucky enough to encounter,” Kurt sighs, but Jeff merely snorts, “Oh Kurt, come on. Even if you could, you wouldn’t change a thing about me.”
Kurt hides his smile behind a jacket, because Jeff is right. He wouldn’t.
And then, suddenly and without warning, everything falls apart.
It’s a few days after the lords and ladies have departed for London, and it’s late after dinner, when Jeff and Kurt have already retreated to their room. Jeff is successfully trying to distract himself from writing a letter to his family by teasing Kurt about the book he is reading (Camilla, and it is not as tacky as everybody claims it to be), and Kurt alternates between reading and throwing his pillow at Jeff to shut him up, when Nick opens the door and peers into the room.
“Kurt, Mr Moore wants to see you,” he says, and Kurt automatically feels alarmed. Being summoned by Mr Moore is never a good thing, and Kurt can’t figure out what he possibly could have done wrong. Nevertheless, he loses no time to follow the request, and hurries down the stairs and into Mr Moore’s room, where the butler is busy scribbling down the amount of wine bottles into his housekeeping book.
“Ah Kurt,” he says, and points at the chair in front of his desk with his quill, “Sit down, will you? I just need to finish the calculations.”
Kurt obeys, and quietly watches Mr Moore fill out the margins in his book with tiny figures and numbers. He tries to appear calm and collected, and the only thing that gives away his nervousness are his fingers, which are fiddling with the hem of his jacket. After a few more minutes, Mr Moore finally dries his quill and carefully puts the book away to let the ink dry.
“Now Kurt,” Mr Moore says, facing the young boy in front of him. “Today, I consulted Lord Smythe about the move to London, which as you know is scheduled in three days.”
“Yes, Sir,” Kurt replies, unsure as to where this is going. Is there some unpleasant task he wants to assign to Kurt?
“We were discussing the number of servants needed. I am sorry Kurt, because I know that you were looking forward to see London, but Lord Smythe and I agreed that it would be best if you remained at Bailey Hall this summer.”
For a second, Kurt is not able to process Mr Moore’s words. Oh yes, he has heard them, but he has trouble understanding what they mean. So he merely blinks at the man in front of him, and when his expression doesn’t alter, when he does not smile and admit that he just made a joke, Kurt manages to say, “I can’t go to London?”
Either Mr Moore doesn’t notice that Kurt’s voice sounds almost an octave higher than usual (which is an achievement in itself), or he chooses to ignore it.
“No, Kurt,” he says, “Lord Smythe told me that there is no need to have three footmen and one butler at his house in London, especially given the fact that we also have a few servants there. So we thought it best that you remained at Bailey Hall.”
When he looks into Kurt’s face, his expression softens only the tiniest bit, and Kurt is certain that his expression gives away his disappointment, “Now boy, I know you were looking forward to it, but don’t look so crestfallen. You did well these last months, and I’m sure Lord Smythe will take you with him next year.”
“But why?” Kurt asks, and his voice sounds desperate.
“Because we really don’t need three footmen in London,” Mr Moore explains again, and his voice is starting to sound a little bit impatient. “I’m sure Nick and Jeff can handle everything on their own, and there is also not that much space in the servant’s quarters...”
“So Nick and Jeff are going?” Kurt asks, the words tasting bitter in his mouth, “Everybody is going but me?”
“Well, not everyone,” Mr Moore objects. “We won’t need three housemaids, so we’re taking only Jane and Harriet. Emma will return to her family in Limerick, they need her anyway. And Mrs Seymour will of course remain at Bailey Hall, as will Mrs Bertram and the whole kitchen staff.”
“So I’m staying behind with the women,” Kurt says, and this really shouldn’t hurt as much, but it does. Mr Moore frowns, “Stop being so melodramatic Kurt. It’s like I’ve always said, reading those novels makes you young people overreact too much.”
“But why me?” Kurt presses, “Why not Jeff, or Ni-... why not Jeff?”
“Because he is older than you, and he has been a footman for several years, though not in this household,” Mr Moore answers, “And like Lord Smythe pointed out, you might be just a little too young and inexperienced for serving in London.”
If Kurt didn’t feel hurt before, now he surely does. “Did he say that?” he asks, and when he looks down, he sees that this fingers are clenched into fists, trembling with hurt and fury, “Did he say that I’m too inexperienced to go to London?”
Images flash before his eyes, everything he had to endure since he arrived at Bailey Hall: the insults, the disrespect, the secrets, the tension, the strain, the uncertainty, the growing trust that once again is being shattered. He is too inexperienced?
“He did, and frankly, now that I see your reaction, I have to agree with him,” Mr Moore says, frowning at Kurt. “At first, I tried to persuade him to take you with him, but I have to say he was very right with his concerns.”
“What concerns?” Kurt asks immediately, but Mr Moore merely shakes his head, “Enough now, Kurt. You will stay at Bailey Hall, and you will get paid your salary. Let me point out that this is very generous of Lord Smythe, because you know as well as I that he could have just given you your notice and hired a new footman in autumn.”
Kurt wants to laugh at this, wants to scream “I don’t want his damn money, I want him to start treating me like a human being”, but all he does is to stare at Mr Moore in silent disbelief. Mr Moore takes his quill again – for him, the conversation is over.
“Go to sleep now, Kurt, it’s getting late,” he says, his eyes already on the pages again, “And I hope that tomorrow you will have gotten over your disappointment, so that you can help us pack everything without looking so sour.”
Kurt doesn’t go to sleep. He doesn’t even go up to his room, instead, he hurries out into the courtyard, without bothering to put a jacket on. He feels like he has just been punched into the stomach, and the cold air makes it easier to breathe.
Leaning against the cold stone wall and looking up into the dark, cloudy sky, he feels bitter like he never has before. Just when he has started to trust Lord Smythe, when for the first time he actually started to understand and to like him, his employer once again has managed to show him that Kurt has just been fooling himself all along. Lord Smythe will never change, and he will certainly never treat Kurt respectfully. Out in the darkness, the epiphany feels startling and very, very hurtful.
He doesn’t know how long he stays out in the courtyard, but he only goes back in when his teeth start clattering from the cold. When he tiptoes back into his room, Nick has already left, and Jeff is almost half-asleep, mumbling the question what has taken Kurt so long. Kurt comes up with an excuse about talking to Jane in the corridor, but before he has finished, he hears Jeff’s breathing become light and slow, and he is thankful that he doesn’t have to explain what happened. At least, not yet.
If it was up to Kurt, he would have taken his time before he told the other servants that he was not coming to London with them. He would have allowed himself a few more hours to wallow in his misery and pity himself before he let the others join in.
But, like so many other things in his life, it is not up to him. Mr Moore tells the other servants during breakfast who’s coming to London and who is staying behind, and the decision is met with unanimous confusion and disbelief.
“Why shouldn’t Kurt come with us?” Jane asks, her brows knit in irritation. “It’s not like having one footman more or less will make a difference, and we can always use the help.”
“This is not fair, Mr Moore,” Jeff protests, “Kurt has worked so hard these last months, he deserves to go.”
Kurt looks at Nick, who is frowning at Mr Moore, his expression shocked and irritated. When he catches Kurt looking at him, he looks at him questioningly, but Kurt only reaches for his cup. If Nick wants details, why doesn’t he just ask Lord Smythe?
“That’s enough now,” Mr Moore says, and his tone indicates that he is not inclined to listen to any further protest, “It’s a shame that Kurt cannot accompany us, but it is Lord Smythe’s decision, and we will respect it. Now hurry up, we have a lot to do today.”
Kurt is rather certain that Sir Robert notices his downcast mood when he wakes him and helps him get dressed, and the fact that he doesn’t ask him about it, but instead pretends that Kurt answering him only with “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” isn’t anything unusual, confirms Kurt’s suspicions that he knows exactly what has happened. The fact that not even Sir Robert seems to be on his side, not even enough to find a few comforting words, hurts, and Kurt wishes to just crawl back into his bed, pull the blanket over his head and remain there until everybody has left.
But of course, that is not possible, and Mr Moore seems determined to keep him busy during the day, ordering him and Jeff to pack whatever will be needed in London. However, as the evening approaches, Kurt feels his anger rising again at the prospect of meeting Lord Smythe, who has avoided crossing paths with him all day. He is not sure what he expects when he sees Lord Smythe walk into the dining room and take his place opposite of Sir Robert. Maybe he expects a special glance, a word of apology, of explanation. Or maybe he expects him to completely ignore Kurt, to avoid his gaze with a contrite expression on his face and thus revealing his guilty conscience.
Kurt is sure he could deal with either, and find a way to let Lord Smythe know what exactly he thinks of him. What he isn’t prepared for, however, is Lord Smythe acting like nothing has happened. Somehow, he is able to ignore the conflict that can almost be tasted in the heavy atmosphere of the room: in Mr Moore’s stoic loyalty, Jeff’s confusion, Nick’s frustration, Sir Robert’s quick glances between Lord Smythe and the servants, and most of all, Kurt’s simmering anger. Lord Smythe appears to notice nothing; instead, he converses lightly with Sir Robert, gives his orders to Mr Moore and even makes a teasing remark to Jeff when the blond boy forgets to put the fork on the meat plate. And if the responses and reactions are more guarded, more tense than usual, it largely seems to escape Lord Smythe’s notice.
By the time they serve the desserts, Kurt’s fingers are shaking with suppressed fury, and it takes all the restraint he can muster not to “accidentally” trip and hail the pudding at any part of Lord Smythe he can reach, when the conversation turns to the approaching departure.
“Are you sure you already want to leave the day after tomorrow?” Sir Robert asks, and Kurt almost wants to laugh at the way he is lowering his tone. After all, this is a regular sized dining room, not the dining hall at Buckingham palace, and with only two people talking there is no way Kurt could not overhear the conversation.
“Why not?” Lord Smythe replies, and reaches for his glass, “Arthur and Isabella are already there, the Crawshaws will arrive at the end of the week, and I look forward to see Thom and William again.”
“I just thought, with all the work left here,” Sir Robert begins, but Lord Smythe interrupts him, “All the important things have been discussed, and I can leave the rest in Mr Barry’s capable hands. Really Robert, I can see no reason to delay our departure.”
He drains his glass, and Kurt moves to refill it, focusing only on the task of not spilling any of the wine. “Besides,” he hears Lord Smythe add, “It’s not like London is that far away, Robert, and letters travel quickly enough. It’s not like we’re leaving the continent.”
“I suppose,” Sir Robert answers, and Kurt feels his gaze on him as he steps away from the table. “I guess you’re right.”
Later, Kurt isn’t entirely sure how he made it through the evening. He remembers bringing down the leftovers dishes to the kitchen, he remembers standing in a corner of the salon, he even remembers pouring wine and water into glasses, and the faces of Lord Smythe and Sir Robert as they converse. But overall, the evening blurs into a few hours of Kurt taking deep breaths to calm himself, fingers tightly clenched and his teeth biting into the side of his cheek whenever he feels like he can’t take it anymore, until the moment when Sir Robert stands up and says, “Well, goodnight, Sebastian.” Lord Smythe stretches leisurely before he stands up and also leaves the room.
It’s not even a conscious decision, not something he has planned all evening. All Kurt knows is that he has to be quick, because soon Nick will go up to Lord Smythe’s room, and Sir Robert will wonder where Kurt is.
So he quickly follows Lord Smythe up to his bedroom, slipping through the half ajar door and closing it behind him. Lord Smythe has carelessly thrown his waistcoat on the floor, and is loosening his tie when he turns around and gives a startled noise as he spots Kurt leaning against the door frame. His collected expression crumbles for the first time during the evening: he looks surprised and rather apprehensive.
“Kurt, what are you... is there something...?” he begins, but Kurt cuts him off – he isn’t here to explain himself. He is here to demand an explanation, “Why did you lie to me?”
Lord Smythe raises both eyebrows, looking like he cannot believe what he has just heard, “I beg your pardon?”
“Why did you lie to me?” Kurt repeats and his voice sounds firmer than he actually feels, “Why did you make me believe that I would accompany you to London, if you never had any intention of taking me with you?”
Lord Smythe actually laughs at that, “I never said anything of like that.”
“But you implied it,” Kurt shouts, “What else was that whole “We’ll find out what type you are”- nonsense about?”
“I changed my mind.”
“Yes, and you didn’t even have the guts to tell me this yourself. You let Mr Moore do it.”
Lord Smythe’s eyes narrow, “Because it is Mr. Moore’s job to deal with the servants, not mine. You’re largely overestimating your own relevance if you believe you’re important enough to be told directly.”
It feels like a slap to Kurt’s face. For months, this man has made him feel worthless and pathetic, ugly and insignificant, and this is the last straw. Kurt isn’t thinking anymore, because if he were, he’d be aware that the next words will undoubtedly get him into a lot of trouble.
“Since you first spoke to me, you have treated me like not just your inferior, but like I am a complete waste of space,” Kurt says, slowly taking a step towards Lord Smythe. “And I won’t accept it any longer.” He clenches his fists, his gaze holding the one of his employer, “Do you think just because I’m a servant, that I don’t feel anything when you insult me? Do you think I’m an automaton without feelings? Do you think just because I am not as wealthy as you, or as good looking, or because I don’t dine with royalty, that I’m immune to how you and your horrible friends treat me?”
If Kurt would have paused for just a second, he might have noticed how Lord Smythe’s face changes from being taken aback to distraught, until a wall of anger settles over any trace of concern. But he doesn’t pause. He can’t. All the hurt, all the resentment has been building itself up for so long now, and Kurt is unable to stop now that he has started.
“I have been loyal to you despite everything, and I never did anything that could harm you, I never thought about getting revenge, not even when-“ Kurt interrupts himself mid-sentence, because no. He is not going there. Lord Smythe’s love affairs or his sexual preferences are not the issue here – Lord Smythe is.
“You have showed me time and time again that you think me inferior to you. Let me tell you this, I have just as much heart and soul as you, actually, I have a great deal more of it, because I don’t go around insulting people just to feel like I am worth anything. You are a hypocrite, you are mean, you are heartless. And...,” Kurt says, his eye catching the discarded jacket on the floor, “You treat people like you treat your clothes, and I refuse to silently endure this any longer.”
Kurt hasn’t realised how close he has moved to Lord Smythe, but now he is standing right front of him, his chest heaving like he has just done intensive exercise. As he tries to catch his breath, he notices that Mrs Bertram really had been right – he has grown. Just two months ago, it would have been much harder to look up into the eyes of Lord Smythe. Though when he sees the angrily blazing green depths, the clenched jaw and the lips tightly pressed together, he would have preferred to see it from far away.
“Get out.” Lord Smythe’s voice is dangerously calm, but his gaze is furious. If Kurt weren’t so angry, he would surely shrink away, but all he does is to return the gaze of Lord Smythe. They stare at each other for a second, and then Lord Smythe repeats, “Get out. Now.”
And suddenly, Kurt realises what he has done. He realises that he has just screamed at his employer, he realises that he is going to lose his job, that he will have to leave Bailey Hall immediately. He realises that if Lord Smythe tells his friends and relations about what happened, Kurt will never be able to get a respectable position ever again.
He stumbles backwards, suddenly wanting nothing more than to get away. When he reaches the door he turns around and starts to run down the corridor. He collides with something, and he hears Nick’s voice calling after him, “Kurt?”.
But all he does is to keep running.
Finally, Nick finds him on the last windowsill on the servant’s staircase, just below the roof.
“So, when do I have to leave?” Kurt asks, his hands clenched in the fabric of his trousers.
“He didn’t say anything about you leaving.”
That does surprise Kurt for a second, but he just laughs bitterly and says, “Yet.”
Nick merely keeps looking at him silently, and finally, Kurt looks up to meet his gaze. Nick looks a little shaken, but mostly sad, and his expression is one of pure concern and sympathy.
Kurt tries to swallow, but his throat feels unusually tight, “I’m not taking any of it back, Nick.”
“I know,” Nick says, and suddenly, two strong arms hug Kurt tight, tugging him close to Nick’s chest. It’s just when he feels Nick’s calm heartbeat against his cheek Kurt realises that he is shaking, and that his cheeks are damp with tears.
Nick doesn’t say anything, just holds Kurt while the younger boy is weeping against his shoulder, finally releasing all the anger, the frustration and the tension that he has kept inside over the last months. Kurt is thankful that Nick isn’t trying to comfort him with empty words and promises he knows won’t hold, and he lets himself cry until he finally feels like he is able to breathe again, and the giant lump in his throat feels just a bit smaller.
When he raises his head from Nick’s shoulder where the fabric of his jacket is wet with Kurt’s tears, Nick releases his hold on him. He doesn’t step back however, instead, he circles Kurt and sits down on the windowsill next to him, his shoulder pressing against Kurt’s.
“Better?” he asks, reaching into a pocket to pull out a handkerchief and hand it to Kurt, who gratefully blows his nose.
“A bit,” he says, clearing his throat when he hears his own raspy voice.
“Good,” Nick answers. Kurt looks at the white fabric in his hands when he asks, “When do you think I should leave?”
“Like I said,” Nick repeats, “He didn’t say anything about you leaving.”
Kurt looks up and asks, “Then what did he say to you?”
“He told me what you said to him,” Nick replies, and his right hand comes to rest on top of Kurt’s, squeezing it gently. “I’m so sorry Kurt.”
Kurt blinks, not sure whether he can make sense of that, “What are you sorry for?”
“I should have stepped in sooner,” Nick says and shakes his head. “I know Sebastian was treating you unfairly. We all knew, and nobody really did something about it. I mean, I tried talking to him about it, but...”
“It’s not your fault, Nick,” Kurt says. Nick smiles, but it is not a happy smile, “Yes, it is. And the worst thing about it is that none of this actually has anything to do with you. You’re just... I don’t know, in the middle of some horrible misunderstandings.”
He squeezes Kurt’s fingers again, “You are a good person Kurt. You are smart, you are kind, you are a good footman. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise.”
Kurt stares at the wall, where a dark, wet spot indicates that the roof needs some mending. He knows that he should ask Nick what he means by ‘misunderstanding’, but he feels so tired, and what is the point of knowing when he is just leaving anyway? “What should I do now?”
Nick is silent for a moment, before he says, “You should think very carefully about what you want to do. Sebastian is not going to throw you out, I promise you. What happened is his own damned fault, and he won’t make you pay for it. But I also understand if you want to leave.”
He sighs, and lets his head fall back against the cold glass of the window, “I would suggest that you at least stay here for the summer. We will be gone in two days, and then you have plenty of time to figure out what you want to do. If you decide to leave, you will get a good recommendation from Mr Moore, and I can also look for a new post for you while I’m in London. If you decide to stay,” he looks at Kurt with an almost pleading expression in his eyes, “I will make sure Sebastian will not treat you like he did before.”
Kurt knows that Nick probably has the influence to force Lord Smythe to behave decently, but he shakes his head, “He doesn’t have to like me, Nick. All I want is some fairness and respect. And if he can’t bring himself to treat me fairly...”
He doesn’t finish the sentence, and he doesn’t have to. For a while, nobody says anything, and the two sit together in a silence that is not comfortable, but at least comforting.
“I just want you to know that if you leave, you will break Jeff’s heart. And Jane’s,” Nick finally says, his voice not as steady as usual. “I understand why you consider it, but I just want you to know that you mean a lot to us.”
Kurt smiles, and it feels like the first genuine smile in days. He lets his hand come to rest upon Nick’s, and squeezes his fingers, “Thank you.” And this time, he really means it.
When Kurt thinks back to the two days between his confrontation with Lord Smythe and the departure, he is not quite sure how he survived them. What he remembers is feeling numb when he sees Jeff throwing his clothes messily into a suitcase, while Kurt takes item after item out of his bag and puts the meticulously folded shirts and trousers back into the drawers. He remembers how Lord Smythe avoids his gaze during dinner, he remembers Mrs Bertram trying to comfort him by cooking all of his favourite meals, but his first clear memory is the morning of the departure, where he stands in the courtyard in the cold air, saying goodbye to Jane, Jeff and Nick.
“We will miss you so much,” Jane says, her eyes wet when she embraces Kurt tightly.
“We will send you tons of stuff,” Jeff promises, and almost lifts Kurt from the ground when he pulls him into a bone-crashing hug. “Letters every day, and magazines, and pictures, books – you’re not going to know where to put all that stuff.”
Kurt can only nod, afraid that when he tries to speak the numbness will fade and he will start to cry. Finally, he is standing in front of Nick. The other footman smiles and reaches out to ruffle Kurt’s hair, before he steps closer to hug him.
“Whatever you decide,” he whispers, only loud enough for Kurt to catch the words. “Remember that you are a part of our family now, and that we all are looking forward to coming back to you.” Kurt buries his face in the fabric of Nick’s jacket, taking deep breaths to keep himself from crying. Eventually, he has to let go, and when the three start to climb the carriage, he waves at them before he takes his place in line next to Mrs Seymour. Lord Smythe is smiling at Mrs Bertram, telling her that he will miss her cooking, but his laugh seems forced, and when he says goodbye to Mrs Seymour, he seems even more discomforted than before. Finally, his eyes flicker to Kurt.
They haven’t even so much as looked at one another since the fight, and Kurt is surprised to see something different in Lord Smythe’s expression than he had anticipated. He expected to be met with anger, with annoyance or resentment. Instead, Lord Smythe looks conflicted, his expression equally guilty and compunctious. And suddenly, Kurt is certain that in some way, Lord Smythe actually feels sorry. Though about what exactly, Kurt isn’t quite sure.
Lord Smythe opens his mouth as if to say something, but whatever he is reading on Kurt’s face makes him hesitate, and finally, he closes his mouth again, lifts his chin and walks past Kurt without so much as a goodbye.
Kurt stares after him as he climbs into the carriage after Sir Robert, and as he watches the carriages pull out of the courtyard, one after the other, he asks himself what this meant. And even more importantly, he wonders what it means for him and the decision he has to make.
But after all, he has all summer to figure it out.