April 1850 – September 1850
Sometimes, things acquire their meaning by comparison. Sixteen, well, almost seventeen years of a lifetime do not seem much compared to the life of some old and wise men or women, and especially insignificant compared to people who achieved a great deal: politicians like Sir John Locke, poets like Wordsworth, leaders like Queen Elizabeth, idealists like Prince Albert, artists like Turner, or writers like Shakespeare.
Nevertheless, when he looks back, Kurt always feels that he has already experienced quite a lot in his life. When he thinks about these almost-seventeen years, he has to admit that some periods in his life can only be described as having been downright horrible. Losing first his mother and then his father are undoubtedly the worst events to have occurred, and that is perhaps the most awful thing about it: that Kurt can’t remember his parents without being reminded of the loss, the pain and the long periods of mourning following their death.
While naturally paling in comparison to those months, the days after the departure of the majority of the Bailey Hall household nevertheless feel rather horrible as well, and if Kurt had to catalogue special periods in his life, he would add this one to the “awful”-list.
Among the people remaining at Bailey Hall, the reason for Kurt’s sour mood is generally thought to be the disappointment of not accompanying the rest of the household to London, and Kurt is glad for that. It’s a reasonable explanation, and this way, he doesn’t have to explain to anyone that his downcast mood isn’t just to blame on being left behind, but also on being once again taught about Lord Smythe’s fickle and cruel nature, a lesson he should have learned by now.
In addition to that, the fight between them still leaves a twisted feeling in Kurt’s stomach. On the one hand, he is still expecting a letter from Lord Smythe to arrive at Bailey Hall every minute, telling Mrs Seymour an edited version of what happened and that Kurt is to leave immediately, without a recommendation or his last wages. On the other hand, Kurt is still contemplating leaving himself. The last months feel like climbing a jagged mountain, with no safe path and dangerous gorges and crevices appearing every other minute, always in danger, and in constant fear of falling. Kurt is unsure whether he wants to feel like this for another year or even longer, but as tempting as the thought of leaving seems during these days, the reasonable part of his mind lists even more reasons for staying.
It’s true that Lord Smythe is an insufferable ass, but he’s not even home that much. Kurt’s position seems secure (because if his employer isn’t throwing him out after this fight, Kurt doesn’t know what he will have to do to get his leave), the wages are good, the tasks are bearable, and the rest of the household has well accepted him as a part of the family. Plus, he would have to leave Nick, Jane and Jeff, and this thought hurts more than Kurt would have anticipated.
Not being able to make up his mind one way or the other, Kurt spends the days after the party to London has departed deep in thought, musing over what happened and what kind of decision he is supposed to make now. He also suspects that Mrs Seymour and Mrs Bertram have talked about his low spirits, and came to the conclusion that the best way to distract him from brooding is to keep him busy.
While the daily routine is always more relaxed with the master absent from the estate, Mrs Seymour wastes no time to start tackling the tasks that have to be neglected while the lords are present.
The first thing she orders Kurt to do is to sort through every piece of silverware in the house, and clean it thoroughly. Kurt spends his days in the kitchen, polishing plate after bowl after spoon, and when he finally puts the last fork back into a drawer, he is certain he will never be able to look at a single piece of silverware without hatred boiling in his stomach.
But just when he has finally managed to get the polish out from underneath his fingernails, Mrs Seymour summons him for the next task. Together, they sort through old napkins, polish the wood of doorframes and surfaces of furniture before they hide it again under clean linen, and, together with Maud and Beth, clean every window in the house. Kurt tries to count them out of curiosity, but after pressing a wet cloth to number thirty-seven, he gives up.
When his time is not occupied with assisting Mrs Seymour, he spends it reading, and, surprisingly often, writing, because these days he receives quite an unusual amount of letters. Instead of the two or three he gets every month from his old friends at Chawton Manor, who complain about the way the new lord runs the estate, he now receives letters every third or second day, from Jane, Jeff and Nick, and sometimes even from Frank, who is also in London. Secretly, he wonders whether they have set up some sort of schedule of who is to write to him, because their letters never arrive on the same day. But no matter whose name is scribbled down at the bottom of the sheet, whenever the postman Stephen hands him a stack of letters, points at the one on top and winks, Kurt’s day improves immensely.
Jane’s handwriting is always small and neat, and she writes Kurt lengthy accounts on the latest fashion worn in London, shares juicy gossip about who is involved in the latest scandal, and assures that they all miss him very much. Jeff’s letters are rare compared to Jane’s and Nick’s, and considerably shorter, but since Kurt knows how lazy Jeff is when it comes to writing letters, he’s happy and content whenever he spots the messy scrawl of his roommate.
Nick’s letters are written carefully and precisely, never giving information or details he finds unnecessary. He tells Kurt about the political debates he attends sometimes, about the routine that settles at the house in London, about books he’s read and plays he has seen. Kurt notices very soon how Nick carefully avoids to make London sound too interesting, and Kurt feels grateful for Nick’s attempt to make Kurt feel less miserable about being stuck in the country. He comments in great length on everything Kurt writes to him about life at Bailey Hall, even though Kurt finds his own stories rather boring in comparison, and if he mentions Lord Smythe at all, it is always in a way that makes the name seem dismissive and unimportant. He never tells Kurt how his employer is or what exactly he is up to in London. If his name appears at all, it’s always merely setting the context for a different tale, the rhythm to the life of the servants: “Last night, when Lord S. wanted to visit the theatre, we saw...” or, “Yesterday, while Lord S. was out dining with the Crawshaws, we decided to...”, or something similar.
At first, Kurt feels relieved not to be confronted with Lord Smythe’s name too often, but when Nick’s writing style doesn’t change after a few weeks, he feels his irritation growing every time he is supposed to simply read over the familiar name. Since neither Jane nor Jeff mention Lord Smythe either (Jane presumably out of reasons similar to Nick, Jeff because he simply has no interest in what his employer is doing whatsoever), Kurt starts to feel like he is looking at a map with a lot of blank spaces between familiar oceans and countries. And if there is something he doesn’t like, it’s not knowing what is going on.
Those weeks in April also confirm the suspicions Mrs Bertram already voiced back in February – Kurt has indeed been growing. Every second week, the cook measures him against the doorframe, and the chalk marks continue to move higher and higher. And the higher they move, the bigger the small bubble of confidence in Kurt’s chest grows.
But as much as Kurt welcomes the thought of growing (a hope he had almost parted with), it isn’t altogether an experience that’s merely pleasant. His legs hurt sometimes, his knees throb with an unfamiliar pain, his spine feels strained, and some times, Kurt feels almost separated from this alien thing that is his body, which keeps doing things that are beyond Kurt’s control. The pain keeps him awake some nights, and since movement strangely enough seems to help, Kurt spends much time pacing in his room, a book in his hands, eyelids almost dropping from exhaustion.
However, Kurt is thankful for the changes and new routine at Bailey Hall, because they make it easier to deal with the recent events. Of course, even though his employer is not physically present, Kurt can’t spend a day without being reminded of Lord Smythe: every trip to the library, every walk past his bedroom door brings back memories, and every letter from Nick reminds him that there is still an unresolved issue in his life. Nevertheless, Kurt is reluctant about making a decision. And as the days pass, he thinks less and less about the fight, or leaving, because the summer at Bailey Hall turns out to be much more eventful than he anticipated.
The first fresh breeze of summer arrives one late afternoon in the first week of May, when a loud knock on the door interrupts the discussion between Kurt and Mrs Bertram on whether Howard, the stable boy, is nursing a crush on the kitchen maid Maud.
“Answer the door, will you, Kurt?” Mrs Bertram asks, her hands deep in a pastry and her face flushed from the exercise. “It’s probably Stephen with the mail.”
“Of course,” Kurt replies, taking the last piece of toast from his plate. Still chewing, he makes his way down the narrow corridor and opens the door, a cheerful greeting for Stephen already on his lips. The words die on his tongue, however, when he is not greeted by the smile of the other man. In front of him stands a tall woman, looking distanced, though not unfriendly at the boy in front of her. “Good morning,” she says, tilting her head to the side ever so slightly. She is clad in a black dress beneath a gray coat, and a suitcase sits next to her feet. Her clothes are plain, but with her upright posture and her carefully pinned up hair, she effortlessly manages to appear elegant in a way that Kurt immediately feels envious of, “I would like to see Mrs Seymour. She is expecting me.”
Her voice seems used to sound authoritative. Perhaps it is due to dealing with Lord Smythe, but Kurt has become rather sceptical of authority over these last months. So he asks, perhaps a bit too cheeky, “Who might I tell Mrs Seymour is here to see her?”
The woman smiles, and the corners of her eyes crinkle in amusement, “Miss Julia Seymour. I’m her daughter.”
This is how Miss Julia comes into Kurt’s life. Kurt learns at the kitchen table, while Miss Julia sips her tea, that she is Mrs Seymour’s only child. Years ago, when Mr Seymour passed away well before his time, the two women had to support themselves: Mrs Seymour returned to the household of the former Lord Smythe, and her daughter started working as a governess. Barely nineteen back then, she looked after the children of an aristocratic family, who dismissed the young girl after merely a year of service, claiming that she was unable to restrict the children.
Miss Julia had been with various families since then, until four years ago when she started her position with the Johnson family. The children – two girls – had fallen in love with her immediately, and the family had decided to take Miss Julia with them when they left England. Due to Mr Johnson’s position as an ambassador, the family travelled to Italy, Austria and France. Kurt barely manages to conceal his excitement when he hears that Miss Julia has lived in Paris for two years, and keeps planning what questions he will ask her while Mrs Seymour finishes the story. The oldest Johnson daughter married a young Earl only a month ago, and her younger sister is soon to be engaged to an Italian gentleman. With her services no longer needed, the family parted with Miss Julia, though reluctantly, promising her that as soon as the first grandchildren were old enough, they would send for her again.
“So, what are your plans now?” Mrs Bertram asks, when Miss Julia sets down her empty cup.
“My mother made some inquiries,” she says, smiling at Mrs Seymour. “Mrs White, the schoolteacher at Wilton, has married recently, and I’m taking over her position for a few weeks, until they have found a new teacher and I have found a new position as governess.”
“So you don’t want to be a teacher permanently?” Kurt asks. Miss Julia shakes her head, “The work is of course similar, but the payment as governess is better, and I much rather look after a few children properly than only superficially after many of them.”
“And you are confident that you will find a new position within these few weeks?” Mrs Bertram inquires.
“Well, Mrs Johnson promised to ask among her acquaintances,” Miss Julia answers. “And she knows a lot of people. And if she doesn’t find anything, I can always advertise.”
“You will most certainly not advertise,” Mrs Seymour interrupts, with great emphasis on her words. “No fine lady would ever take on a governess who degraded herself by advertising. No, I’m sure Mrs Johnson will find something for you, and I have also written to the housekeepers I know. We’ll have you settled with a new family in no time.”
Miss Julia smiles, but Kurt thinks that underneath her calm confidence and collected appearance, Miss Julia is not as relaxed as she wants to appear. Being a governess is always hard, because so many educated women are seeking employment at the moment to support themselves. For a moment, Kurt is grateful for the work he has. Because even though it is far from being perfect, at least it makes him feel safe.
But no matter what kind of insecurities she might be hiding, Mrs Seymour’s daughter makes sure to never publically acknowledge any weaknesses. She settles into the schoolhouse, and ignores the talk of the villagers, who, in the true spirit of small-town people, are always suspicious of new-comers. Adapting a strict authority in the classroom and a friendly, sociable attitude towards the people she meets on the street, she manages to get accepted into the community within two weeks, and Kurt even overhears some woman on the street exclaiming, “What a relief that our children are taught by such an accomplished and polite young woman.”
Every Wednesday and Saturday, Miss Julia pays a visit to Bailey Hall, to drink a cup of tea in the kitchen and have a conversation with her mother. Mrs Bertram, Kurt and the kitchen maids join them most times, all of them keen to listen to the stories Miss Julia has to tell about balls in Paris, shops in Vienna and sightseeing in Rome.
After four weeks, when Mrs Seymour’s daughter has become a much welcomes guest in the kitchen, Kurt finally gathers up enough courage to ask, “Miss Julia?”
“Yes Kurt?” the woman replies, setting down her cup and looking at him expectantly.
“Would you help me exercise my French?” he asks, the words tumbling out of his mouth, “My mother taught me the language, but I haven’t properly spoken it in years, and I thought, since you lived in Paris, maybe you would...”
He trails off, feeling very awkward and rather silly. Slowly he raises his gaze, and is surprised to see Miss Julia smile warmly at him. “I’d love to,” she replies.
So a new routine is added to Kurt’s life – twice a week, he visits Miss Julia in the schoolroom after the children have gone home, drinking a cup of tea and chatting in French. At first, it feels weird to use a language he has almost forgotten, but soon, the rhythm of the beautiful words feels familiar on his tongue again.
He notices the small piano in the corner of the schoolroom the first time he visits, but it is only after a few of their meetings that Miss Julia finally asks whether he likes to play. Not five minutes later Kurt’s fingers touch the keys of the piano.
From this evening onwards, their French lessons are combined with music lessons. Miss Julia successfully merges the two by teaching Kurt to play the latest, most fashionable chansons, and Kurt starts to regard their evenings together as the highlights of his week.
He even almost manages to convince himself that his newly discovered urge to practice both his French and his piano skills has nothing to do with the verdict Lord Smythe ascribed to his playing some weeks ago.
And he almost convinces himself that the phrase “you do play ‘a little’” that sometimes crosses his mind when his fingers turn the pages of the music sheets, is in no way connected to that puzzling encounter with his much detested employer.
With more than half of the household gone, Kurt is also obliged to take over tasks that previously were the chief responsibilities of other people. Being one of the few male servants left, he is the one Mrs Bertram asks to visit the village, to place her orders of supplies and buy everything she needs for the kitchen.
With the weather improving daily, Kurt enjoys these walks. He visits the post office to mail his letters to London, and sometimes stops at the small school to greet Miss Julia and the children, who are usually too focused on scribbling wobbly letters on chalk plates to notice his presence. And of course, he visits the shop of Mr Brown, who supplies the whole village (and naturally, Bailey Hall) with food. He especially enjoys his talks with Mr Brown, who runs the shop alone since his wife died a few years ago. The funny little man with the grey beard and the blue eyes is always happy to have some company, and whenever Kurt enters the shop, he is greeted with an anecdote or an amusing tale about the pastor, the butcher, the baker’s daughter or another of the villagers. Kurt learns quite a lot about the residents of Wilton in the half hour he spends with Mr Brown, and sometimes a little bit more than he would have cared to know.
Change occurs on a sunny day in the middle of May, when Kurt once more walks down to the village, feeling tired because the pain in his knees has been keeping him awake during the night. When he enters the shop, a comment about how the shop windows really needs a good cleaning already on his lips, he stops dead in his tracks, right in the middle of the room. Instead of the deep, low voice of Mr Brown cracking a joke about Kurt’s appearance, he is greeted by an unfamiliar, warm smile, and a pair of brown eyes twinkling at him.
The boy behind the counter cheerfully asks Kurt how he can help him, and Kurt somehow finds his voice again, quickly enough to not appear too awkward. Trying to ignore the strange feeling in his chest, he hands him the shopping list Mrs Bertram gave to him. While he is contemplating how to ask who that boy is without being impolite – after all, Wilton is not that large a village, and Kurt is sure that he knows all boys and girls who are the same age he is – Mr Brown limps into the room, leaning heavily on a wooden stick.
“Ah, Kurt,” he says, grabbing the doorframe to support himself. “I see you have met my nephew.”
As Kurt helps him over to a chair in the corner of the room, Mr Brown relates the recent events. A few days ago, he slipped and tumbled down a flight of stairs, twisting his leg quite badly. The doctor assured him that nothing is broken, but that he needs to rest for at least a few weeks. Unable to run the shop like this, Mr Brown had written to his brother, and his brother sent his oldest son to Wilton to help Mr Brown.
“He’s going to change schools in autumn anyway,” Mr Brown says, smiling at his nephew who is sorting through the cupboards, trying to find the honey and cinnamon Kurt has asked for. “And he’s a smart lad, so missing lessons for a few weeks won’t hurt him.”
Kurt listens to Mr Brown only half-heartedly when he tells him about his brother’s family, and how well the younger children are doing. While he nods and smiles, from the corner of his eye he observes the other boy moving around the shop, trying to familiarise himself with the system of storage. There is an energy about this boy that feels captivating. He has dark, messy curls, brown eyes, and a friendly, shy smile that appears on his lips whenever he catches Kurt’s gaze.
Kurt continues to watch him as he wraps the groceries in brown paper, taking far longer for the unfamiliar task than Mr Brown would have. The paper rustles under his fingers, and the edges of the packages turn out a little crumpled. He looks up from underneath long dark eyelashes to shoot an apologetic smile at Kurt, and Kurt’s stomach twists again.
He doesn’t mind staying with his uncle, he tells Kurt while he counts the change. He’s looking forward to start school again, but a little change is always good, and he hasn’t spent much time at Wilton since he was a little boy. His fingers brush against Kurt’s when he hands him the change, and Kurt’s fingers continue to tingle all the way back to Bailey Hall.
During dinner, Mrs Bertram asks, “How are your legs, Kurt?”
“Better,” he replies, meeting her sympathetic glance, and struck by an idea, he adds, “The walk to the village helped a great deal, though.”
From this moment onwards, Mrs Bertram insists that all errands in the village need to be done by Kurt, since a walk every now and then will certainly do him good. And even though the exercise does not much to help with the occasional pain, Kurt is mostly glad to have a plausible explanation to visit the shop every second day.
It’s the first time Kurt has ever been in love, and it feels at the same time wonderful and truly frightening.
The thought of being in love with another boy doesn’t come quite as shocking to him as Kurt would have anticipated it to, had he ever considered the possibility before. It feels like more of a quiet epiphany, like finally noticing something that was always there, somewhere in the back of his mind. The presence of Mr Brown’s nephew, and the tingling feeling in Kurt’s stomach whenever he enters the shop only make it seem real for the first time.
Of course, falling in love like this brings a whole new bunch of questions Kurt doesn’t feel prepared for. Has he been in love with men before? Certainly not the way he feels about the shop boy, but now that he needs to revaluate some incidents in his life, he remembers times when he appreciated the beauty, the appearance or the personality of other men in a way that, in hindsight, might truly have been a little bit more… dreamy than it is generally thought to be acceptable.
If he has been attracted to men, has he ever been in love with, or attracted to, a woman? Kurt can’t remember ever being drawn to a woman the way he is now drawn towards Mr Brown’s nephew, but then again – sexuality and attraction have never been an important issue in his life before. And the biggest problem of this musing is that all of his former attractions – if they were attractions in the first place – become insignificant compared to what he feels now for the other boy.
However, the worst thing (and also one of the very few bad things) about being in love with another boy is that Kurt can’t talk to anyone about his feelings. He certainly can’t mention them to Mrs Bertram and Mrs Seymour, and he just as well can’t write about it to Jeff or Nick. Not because he doesn’t trust them, but because he knows better than to admit something like his affection for another boy on paper, where everyone could read it.
Involuntarily, this new development also makes Kurt remember Lord Smythe, somebody that he previously avoided to think about if he could. Granted, his mind is mostly occupied by thinking about a pair of brown eyes twinkling in the sunlight, but a certain face, with one eyebrow raised sceptically and a lopsided grin, appears more often than it used to, and no longer in way that is purely upsetting. Accepting what is happening to him is making Kurt feel oddly connected to Lord Smythe – something he isn’t very comfortable with, but at the same time can’t change. Sometimes, he even feels a wave of sympathy, because now he is experiencing what it feels like to have to hide an essential part of yourself. And while he has only been doing that for a few days, he doesn’t even want to imagine what it feels like to keep silent about his desires for years, let alone a lifetime. But then he remembers that Lord Smythe has never been truly alone, that he always had someone to talk to, because he has never been without Nick. At least that’s what Kurt assumes, and the sudden wave of sympathy towards his employer decreases again.
Kurt doesn’t like to think of himself as vain, but it doesn’t hurt that the other boy is also really good-looking. He’s muscular, a bit shorter than Kurt, and tries to tame his curly hair by wearing it close-cropped. Kurt likes to think that he would look quite dapper in formal evening attire, but the loose fitting shirts he wears have the advantage of revealing a bit of collarbone, which Kurt doesn’t mind in the least. When working at the shop, Mr Brown’s nephew is constantly humming or singing while he sorts through boxes and cupboards. He tells Kurt that he likes to read, and even though he doesn’t spend as much time leaning over the pages of a novel as Kurt does, he has read some of Kurt’s favourites, which provides much material for conversations.
One day, when he has just dropped in to greet Mr Brown and his nephew on his way to Miss Julia, he asks out of an impulse whether the other boy would like to accompany him. Miss Julia doesn’t mind his company, she merely pours two cups of tea instead of one and claims to be “delighted to meet one of Kurt’s friends.” When said friend points out that they already met when she came to his uncle’s shop, she merely smiles and replies, “There is a great difference between meeting an assistant in a shop and meeting a friend’s friend.” Kurt tries not to smile too openly at that.
The other boy doesn’t understand a single word of French, but he insists that he likes to listen to their conversation. They keep it short though, and when Kurt sits down at the piano, the other boy sits down next to him on the small piano bench, his knee pressing against Kurt’s thigh. They play a few songs together, and Kurt notices that their voices complement each other. And if their fingers brush against each other more and more often when pressing the keys on the piano, this can hardly be considered Kurt’s fault.
After all, he is the more advanced player.
Kurt wakes up on the 27th of June because the sunshine is creeping through the curtains and tickles the tip of his nose. When he sits up, he is greeted by the sight of a number of packages in brown paper sitting on the end of his bed, and he realises that he has turned seventeen without so much as noticing it.
He scoots out from underneath the blanket and grabs the first package. He has never received presents like this since his parents died; back at Chawton, he usually got a volume of morally supportive sermons, and sometimes a special cake from the cook.
For the first time, he has friends who sent him packages from London (he suspects that they sent them to Mrs Seymour or Mrs Bertram, who must have placed them on his mattress this morning), and when he rips the paper open, he realises that as much as he misses them, it definitely has its advantages to have friends in a big city, surrounded by all kinds of amazing shops. The first package is from Jane, and contains a birthday card with some beautiful flowers painted on the front, and a carefully embroidered bookmark, “to mark the pages of all the novels we will bring back from London for you”, as a small note attached to it reads. The feeling of gratitude increases when he opens Jeff’s package and sees a pair of gloves made out of black leather. Kurt runs his fingers over the smooth material, feeling touched that Jeff, who doesn’t care for clothing in the least, would remember him mentioning that he would like to own a decent pair of gloves.
Last is Nick’s present. Kurt presses the package for a few seconds, trying to guess what is in there. It turns out to be a scarf, one of the fashionable ones he saw in one of the magazines Jane sent to him. “It’s weird to give you something like this in the middle of June,” Nick’s note reads, “But it was cheap, and I guess that by the time we return to Bailey, you will need something like this.”
Puzzled, Kurt looks down at his blanket, where one more package is still waiting to be opened. He turns it in his hands, searching for a name or an address that could indicate who this is from. When he can’t find anything, he loosens the cord and unwraps the present. What falls out of the brown paper and into his lap leaves him breathless for a second. Beneath the plain paper is a leather bound copy of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. There are tiny golden leaves imprinted on the cover, and Kurt feels the texture of the surface before he dares to take it out of the wrapping paper. There is no note, no card, no letter, not even a signature on the front page to reveal who could have possibly sent it to Kurt. All he knows is that it couldn’t have been Jeff, Jane or Nick. Neither of them has enough money to buy such a valuable book, and neither would have posted it without a return address and risked that it could get lost. And of course, why should they send this to him anonymously, when they had included notes in all other packages?
So the question remains: Who sent this to him?
Tossing the empty wrapping paper to the side, Kurt tries to think logically about this question, and concludes that there are two determining aspects: Who does he know to have enough money to buy it, and also a reason to send it to him?
There are only two possible answers to that question, Kurt decides: Sir Robert and Lord Smythe. He muses about both possibilities while his fingers caress the spine of the book. Sir Robert likes him, surely, and perhaps he would do something like this on a whim. But then again, Kurt doubts that Sir Robert even knows what kind of literature he likes, let alone when his birthday is. He is also fairly certain that Sir Robert wouldn’t spend that much money on a servant, no matter how charming a person Kurt certainly is.
The other option, however, seems much more unlikely. Sure, Lord Smythe knows about Kurt’s love for Wordsworth, and he could always ask Nick about his birthday. Or maybe Nick mentioned something about it in one of their private conversations they seem to have so often. But given the terms on which they parted, Kurt is completely certain that Lord Smythe would never send him a present. Before he refused to take Kurt to London, before the fight, maybe, just maybe, Kurt could have imagined him being the unknown benefactor. But every word he said that night is still fresh in Kurt’s mind, and he is certain that Lord Smythe isn’t one to forgive or forget easily.
No, it must have been Sir Robert who sent it, Kurt decides. There simply is no other possible explanation.
And still, the mysterious present leaves a weird, uncomfortable feeling in Kurt’s stomach, and he is unable to turn the pages of the book without feeling a strange sense of discomfort. He really doesn’t like mysteries.
One evening, Mrs Seymour remarks that she hasn’t seen Kurt smiling as much in all his time at Bailey Hall as he did during these past weeks. Kurt looks up from his soup warily, but the expression on her face is merely genuine and unsuspecting. After a moment of hesitation, he replies, “Well, it’s summer, Mrs Seymour.”
“It’s summer, the master is away and the boy has some time to himself,” Mrs Bertram says, passing the bread over to Beth. “No wonder he’s happier than when his Lordship was picking on him.”
“Mrs Bertram,” Mrs Seymour chides, the smile on her face disappearing within a split second.
“Oh please Mrs Seymour,” the cook says. “You know I mean no disrespect to his Lordship, but we all saw how he unfairly treated Kurt. As far as I know the boy never so much as stepped on his toes, so I won’t blame him for being happier when the master is gone.”
Kurt feels all eyes on him, and he shifts uncomfortably on his chair. This is the first time the matter has been openly addressed among the other servants, and he doesn’t like being at the centre of everyone’s attention. Yes, it feels good to know that Mrs Bertram is on his side, but his relationship with Lord Smythe is far too complicated and touches far too many secrets to be discussed in the kitchen.
“Do you have something to add to that, Kurt?” Mrs Seymour asks, her tone no longer the one of a kind woman, but that of a strict housekeeper. Kurt meets her eyes for a moment, before he looks down at his soup again and asks, “Can I have some more bread?”
And with that, the tension in the room slowly fades away. Mrs Seymour looks at him for another minute before she turns to her meal again. People relax, Beth hands him the bread, and Howard and Jonathan start to talk about one of the horses that has some kind of eczema – which is a rather lovely topic to discuss during dinner.
“You know, I can think of another reason why Kurt has been so happy lately,” Maud says, and Kurt glares at the kitchen maid who is too oblivious to know when it’s time to let go of a topic. “I know I would be happy if I had such a good looking fellow to spend time with.”
Beth chuckles and says, “You should bring him along more often Kurt. It isn’t fair that you are keeping him all to yourself.”
She looks at Maud and both girls start to giggle. Kurt’s glare intensifies. It’s true that the other boy has accompanied him home from time to time, especially when Kurt had problems carrying the packages on his own. Mrs Bertram, sceptical at first, has grown rather fond of the boy in no time, and Beth and Maud are both nursing crushes on the dark-haired boy. Kurt has never seen him being more than superficially friendly towards either of the girls, but their comments and giggles nevertheless bother him. Especially since a small part of him wants to join, wants to comment and gush and giggle too. But he can’t, and he never will.
“Well, if you two have time enough to wonder about what Kurt’s friends are doing, then this has to mean that you don’t have more useful things to do,” Mrs Bertram says, her tone cold, and Mrs Seymour nods in agreement, her stern gaze fixed on the two kitchen maids. “Starting tomorrow, you are going to scrub the oven and the pots, thoroughly, and if I find so much as a single speck of dirt you will do it all over again.”
The smiles of the two girls falter, and hurriedly they continue to eat their soup in silence. Kurt feels almost sorry for them – after all, they’re growing up, and it’s not like he is unaware of the other boy’s good looks. Quite the contrary – he is very aware of them. He just likes to have them to himself.
Nevertheless, during the following days Kurt asks himself what the two them might look like to others when they’re spending time together. Miss Julia never says anything, just smiles at the two boys at the piano, but Kurt can’t help but feel a little more wary, a little more hesitant to show physical affection when they’re in public – and they’re always in public.
He believes to notice a sad flicker in the other boy’s eyes when he drops the arm around his shoulders once somebody is entering the shop, or puts a little more distance between them when they are walking down the street together. But then, it might also just be wishful thinking on Kurt’s part, for it is far more likely that the other boy doesn’t notice the change at all.
One of these days, it happens that he accompanies Kurt home. It happens that he stays for a glass of lemonade and chats with Mrs Bertram. It happens that Kurt accompanies him a part of the way back, as far as to the Palladium Bridge in front of the estate. It happens that they stay at the bridge for hours until the sun begins to set over the trees, sitting on the warm stone, watching the water of the river run merrily over glistening rocks, talking and laughing. It happens that their hands touch, hesitantly and under the pretence of being “accidental” at first, but more and more confident and reassured when they realise that the other seeks out the contact just as much, until neither of them wants to let go again. It happens that Kurt discovers that the other boy’s eyes have golden flecks in their brown depths, and that the sun-kissed skin is smooth under Kurt’s fingertips.
When they kiss, Kurt believes that he can taste the warm summer sunshine on the other boy’s lips.
Sometimes, Kurt thinks this summer is some sort of beautiful dream, a dream he is going to have to wake up from. Some mornings, before he opens his eyes, he believes that he can hear Jeff breathing on the other bed, and that every minute Nick is going to knock on the door, telling them to get up because Sir Robert or another one of Lord Smythe’s friends needs him. But when he opens his eyes, he finds Jeff’s bed empty in the warm morning sunshine, and he knows that in a few hours, he might be walking down to the village again.
He is almost glad that Mrs Seymour does her best to keep him busy, because without his work, he has way too much time to think, and way too much time to doubt what is happening. And he much rather just wants to enjoy these days.
One sunny afternoon, Mrs Seymour finds Kurt in the kitchen, drinking a glass of water and trying to ignore Maud’s and Beth’s giggling behind him.
“Kurt, would you come with me?” she asks. “I need to go up to the attic.”
“The attic?” Kurt asks. Neither he nor Jeff have ever been up there, because the door to the attic is locked, and no servant is allowed to go up there without the explicit permission of either Mrs Seymour or Mr Moore. Of course, the prohibition only makes Kurt’s imagination run wild, and whenever he imagines what the attic looks like, he invents boxes filled with secret letters betraying some sort of secret affairs, or a chest with long lost family jewels, or perhaps some other sort of secret that nobody dares to speak of. After all, he has learned that Bailey Hall holds a lot of secrets.
“I sorted through the napkins, and we simply cannot keep on using the embroidered ones anymore,” Mrs Seymour says, tying an apron around her waist. “But there must be another set of napkins up there, left from Lady Smythe’s dowry.” She looks at Kurt expectantly, “I need you to help me find the right box.”
Kurt nods in agreement, and together they climb the many stairs up to the highest floor. When Mrs Seymour turns the key in the lock, he feels a small rush of excitement, of expectation, and he can’t help but feel disappointed when the door opens to reveal a large room that is dusty, but apart from that, looks very much like the rooms downstairs do at the moment.
It’s crammed with furniture: wardrobes and dressing tables line up on the walls, chairs and tables are piled up on top of one another, large boxes and chests stand next to each other on the ground, and large portraits in elaborate frames lean against the furniture. And of course, everything is hidden under dusty linen.
“I haven’t been up here for ages,” Mrs Seymour says, closing the door and frowning at the piles of furniture. “I really can’t remember where we put it exactly, but it has to be in one of the chests over there.”
She points at the far end of the room before she starts to make her way over, stepping over piece after piece, the seam of her dress gathering dust as she moves. Careful not to upset too much dust, they start to pull linen away from chest after chest, opening and closing them again. There are no hidden treasure, no jewellery, no letters – all Kurt finds are old accounting books, clothes and used silverware (which he puts away as quickly as possible with a shudder, for the memory of days spent polishing silver are still fresh in his mind).
Kurt is just stepping over another box when he loses his balance, and grabs a wardrobe nearby to steady himself. Unfortunately, he can’t help but knock against two paintings, and the cloth, only loosely draped over them, slides down to reveal the face of a woman.
“Be careful, Kurt,” Mrs Seymour chides, but when she turns around and her gaze falls on the painting, the expression in her eyes softens. “I had almost forgotten about this,” she says, stepping closer.
“Who is…” Kurt begins, but when he looks at the painting more closely, he realises that there is no need to voice the question. The resemblance to her son almost immediately gives away Lady Smythe’s identity. Her face is long, with delicate features and high cheekbones. She wears her hazelnut hair pinned up elegantly, though the style is of course a little outdated. Her lips are thin, but the smile on her face is friendly, and the light colour of her dress enhances her green eyes. The only thing that Lady Smythe didn’t seem to posses is her son’s attitude: her face is gentle where his is guarded, her smile kind where his is cocky.
“She came into this house when she was merely seventeen years old,” Mrs Seymour says. “The former Lord Smythe worshipped her, and not without reason. She was a real beauty.”
“Was it a marriage out of love?” Kurt inquires. “Partly, I think,” Mrs Seymour replies, “Lord Smythe could have chosen richer girls, but Lady Constance’s dowry wasn’t small either. I doubt he would have married her if she didn’t bring a title, an estate and a large amount of money into the marriage. But yes, in his way, he loved her very much.”
“What was she like?” Kurt asks, looking at the pale face and the large eyes. Feeling amazed at how much Lord Smythe resembles his mother – from the colour of her hair to the curve of the nose – he raises his hand to touch the frame of the painting, as if to make sure that it is indeed real.
“She was a kind soul,” Mrs Seymour replies, moving a dusty vase out of her way. “Very delicate, very fragile. She never truly recovered from an illness she had as a child, and she never was in good health again. It’s a miracle she survived giving birth to two sons.”
She looks at the painting, “But I never heard her complain, not once. She wasn’t like these capricious young ladies nowadays.” She sighs, “Her husband, however...”
Kurt turns his head to look at her, eager to learn more. Mrs Seymour hesitates, before she concludes, “Well, I guess we should not speak ill of the dead.”
Kurt has no interest in criticising those who have passed away. But he has the feeling that knowing more about them might help him to understand the living.
“Was she very young when she died?” he asks.
“Well, she wasn’t twenty, if that’s what you mean,” Mrs Seymour says, “But Lord Sebastian was only thirteen when his mother passed away. I guess it was easier for his brother – Master Frederick was of age by then, and he was with his mother when she died. Master Sebastian was at school, and when they sent for him to come home, it was almost too late. He only managed to come back in time for the funeral.”
She sighs, “When she died, Lord Smythe was devastated. We had to clear out her rooms, her possessions, every painting of her. He couldn’t stand being reminded of her.”
She shakes her head and pulls another cloth away from one of the boxes, “Master Sebastian fought hard to keep the library as it was, for it was her favourite room. And to keep her piano in the music room. Eventually, his father let him have his way, but he never set a foot in either of the rooms as long as he lived.”
“Losing someone dear to you is always hard,” Kurt says, his voice soft. “Especially when you’re very young.”
“The boys were devastated, surely,” the housekeeper answers, “But they could bear it better than their father.” She hesitates, before adding, “The death of his wife left him a little… bitter, I would say. It didn’t help the relationship with his sons, and the brothers never got along anyways.”
“Lord Smythe didn’t like his brother?”, Kurt asks.
“I wouldn’t put it quite so drastically,” Mrs Seymour objects. “They were brothers after all, and you know what they say – blood is thicker than water. But they were like fire and ice, these two. They just didn’t have anything in common.”
She shakes her head, and says firmly, “Enough with the tragic stories, Kurt. Put the cloth back over the painting, will you?”
Kurt does as he is told, and when he turns around, he spots a satisfied smile on Mrs Seymour’s face. “Ah, here it is,” she says finally, opening a large chest to reveal folded stacks of creamy coloured linen. “Take these, will you?”
It takes Kurt eight times to climb up and down the stairs to bring all napkins down to the laundry. He barely notices though, because his mind is still occupied with what he has just learned about the Smythe family.
Mrs Bertram once remarks that this is an unusual summer. Granted, she is talking about the weather when she makes the remark only to point out that is has been an unusually warm summer, with little periods of rain and lots of sunshine. Nevertheless, Kurt wholeheartedly agrees with her assessment – for him, the summer feels extraordinary.
Something of that certainly has to do with the fact that he never had quite as much time to himself. Mrs Seymour does her best to keep the servants busy, but there is only so much silverware to polish and things to clean or to sort through, and as the weeks go by, Kurt has more and more time to himself. A large portion of that time is spent on letter writing – his three friends in London are consistent in sending him letters every second or third day, and Kurt replies with anecdotes from the kitchen, stories about the villagers or comments on the books he has been reading.
Kurt’s favourite letter so far has been an unusually lengthy account from Jeff, which he sent at the end of July. Kurt is intrigued to find that the letter contains a detailed description of Jeff’s and Nick’s visit to the London Zoo, to have a look at the latest new-comer: the hippopotamus Obaysch.
“I have never seen anything like it before,” Jeff writes. “It’s weird to think that it travelled all these miles from Egypt, just to be stared at by Englishmen, but it didn’t seem to mind it much. In fact, it didn’t acknowledge any of the visitors at all – and there were thousands of them, Kurt. Nick and I had to wait for two hours before we could even get a glimpse at Obaysch, and Jane keeps saying that she doesn’t see the point in waiting, so she’s not going. But it was fascinating to see him – and he seems like a nice fellow. He only yawned and moved his ears in all directions, but granted, it was a hot day, and I really didn’t feel like moving myself.”
Kurt makes sure to tease Jeff in his reply about his understanding of the hippopotamus’ nature, but truly he loves hearing all these stories from the great city. When at the beginning of the summer he still felt sad about not being there with the other three, he now feels content and in fact, relived that he stayed behind. Because if he had left, he would never have met the person that now seems to occupy his mind every second of the day.
Kurt has stopped visiting the shop too often, mainly because he doesn’t want people to grow suspicious. However, he has not stopped his visits to Miss Julia, and usually, there is another figure already sitting on the piano stool when he enters the living-room of the governess. The shop boy has even learned a bit of French while listening to the conversations between Kurt and Miss Julia, or so he claims. When they leave Miss Julia, the other boy insists on accompanying Kurt home every time. This usually ends with them staying at the bridge or beneath some of the old oak trees until it gets dark, and they both have to hurry home.
Some days, when Mrs Seymour can’t think of anything to keep him busy, or when he has visited Miss Julia just the day before, he slips out of the house with a book or Nick’s latest letter to read, and spends the day in the shade of the Palladium bridge, or beneath the trees in the park. Sometimes, when it’s late and Mr Brown’s shop has closed, and Kurt is still lying in the grass and listens to the wind in the leaves and the water of the river, he hears soft footsteps approaching, and when he feels somebody sitting down next to him, cupping his cheek and leaning down to press a kiss against his lips, he smiles blissfully.
The pains in his legs start to ease, though his body doesn’t stop changing. Sometimes, Kurt steals into the guest room that had belonged to Lady Isabella while she was staying at Bailey Hall, to look at himself in the big mirror on the dressing table. He notices that, little by little, his cheeks, previously still a bit chubby, slim down. His face is starting to look longer, his cheekbones more defined, his features more regular, and perhaps it is to blame on the exercise he gets from his many walks to the village, but the soft skin on his arms and legs is slowly replaced by muscles.
Kurt changes his hairstyle too, wearing it shorter to enhance his forehead and his eyes. Mrs Bertram is not to keen on the change and laments that he looked “much more adorable” with the old hair. But for the first time, Kurt is starting to feel like he doesn’t have to hide behind his bangs any longer, and he likes to celebrate his feeling.
And as is body changes, his confidence, little by little, improves. This is partly because of the change he can see for himself, but even more because of what he sees in the eyes of his lover when they are together. There is something about the way the other boy touches his body, watches the movement of his muscles and trails his eyes over Kurt’s face that makes him feel less and less self-conscious about his looks. “You are beautiful,” he hears time and time again, whispered into his ear or from lips pressed against his skin. And slowly, Kurt starts to believe it.
It occurs to him one evening, when he is just slipping out of his shirt, that during these last weeks, he didn’t think about leaving for a single second.
Now that he is not only in love, but learning little by little that his feelings are being reciprocated, Kurt more than ever wishes he had someone to talk to. He starts to miss his parents again. He doubts that he could talk to either of them about what is happening to him, but he remembers his mother’s calm presence, never asking, never judging, only watching and understanding, and his father’s silent protest against the ignorance and gossip during the scandal of Mrs Wilbourne’s nephew’s arrest.
More than ever though, he wishes Nick was here. Nick would listen, just listen, and not judge. He would try to help him, give some advice in his calm, dry way. Kurt thinks it would be easier if he could just voice what is going on with him, and many times the tip of his quill hovers over the paper, yearning to scribble down what Kurt really wants to write, but time and time again he hesitates too long, before he settles to write about the weather or his lessons with Miss Julia.
He misses Jeff too – his cheerful nature his effortless optimism is something Kurt wouldn’t mind having around.
Sometimes, he catches himself wishing for Lord Smythe’s company. He has started to feel a strange sense of kinship, and involuntarily, he begins to question some of his former judgements. Now that he experiences what it feels like to be left alone with something you can’t change, don’t want to change, but also can’t talk about to anybody, he asks himself whether Lord Smythe doesn’t have the right to be a little bitter sometimes. But every time his thoughts arrive at that point, he shakes his head and mutters, “No”. Because even if he is allowed to be bitter, nothing gives him the right to treat people like he treated Kurt. And even if he feels more understanding towards his employer, forgiving or justifying his actions is not part of his sentiment just yet.
Nevertheless, the longing for advice, for guidance, for understanding never diminishes. Being in love is thrilling, is exciting, and leaves him breathless and giddily smiling most of the time. But it is at the same time terrifying, and it gets even more terrifying because for the first time, Kurt’s body expresses its physical desires.
Already feeling at war with his own body due to the growth spurt, desire, while naturally not unfamiliar to Kurt, has never taken form in this intensity. Every kiss, shared in the sanctuary under the safe pillars of the Palladium Bridge, leaves him longing for more. And dreams of his lips against tanned sun-kissed skin leave him waking up feeling sticky and weirdly guilty in the mornings.
Finally, Kurt searches for guidance in the only place that has never disappointed with helping him through hard times – the library. Spending time there is nothing unusual for him, and Kurt is glad for the fact that nobody will suspect him of searching for anything else than a good novel.
The first book he finds is also the only one Kurt has heard of before, and he chooses it chiefly because of its reputation: Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Kurt knows that the publication has been banned, but unsurprisingly, Lord Smythe doesn’t care about technical details like restrictions. And honestly – what does a Lord like him have to worry about? It’s not likely that somebody will ever search through his library for indecent publications. Well, anyone else but Kurt.
He doesn’t dare to take the novel to his room, so he stays in the library, hidden in one of the large armchairs while he turns page after page. But very soon after he has started reading, he already feels strangely irritated by the content of the story. Granted, maybe a book written about the sexual adventures of a woman isn’t the right thing to help him in the first place, but Kurt’s biggest problem isn’t the difference between the sexes, it is that he absolutely hates the protagonist. Awfully passive, surprisingly unfeeling and never reflecting on the consequences of her actions, Fanny Hill is a character Kurt doesn’t feel the slightest empathy towards.
He turns page after page, scanning the text to find out how the book ends. When he reaches the final pages, where Fanny Hill is married to the man of her dreams, has a bunch of children, and socialises in the highest circles of society, Kurt has to resist the urge to throw the book into the empty fireplace.
The notion that a woman could sleep around like that and still get a happy ending, while a man gets condemned just for looking at another man, feels upsettingly unfair. Plus, he is pretty sure that this is not what any woman would do, but what a male author would fantasise about during his lonely hours. Feeling irritated and not a bit more educated than before, Kurt puts the novel back on its shelf, and then begins to really search for other publications that touch on the topic of sexual intimacy. After all, this is the library of Lord Smythe – there must be something more suited to their shared interest somewhere around here.
The first thing he finds are four paperbound, small volumes, crammed between two large encyclopaedias at the end of a shelf, entitled The Romance of Lust. Curious, Kurt takes the first volume out of the shelf, and lets his eyes linger on the promising title before he opens the first page and starts to read.
Three minutes later, he slams the book shut, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. This now is a whole new level of graphic detail, not at all like the tentative descriptions in Fanny Hill, which came up with the most colourful symbols and metaphors for a man’s intimate parts.
This books is downright pornographic, and Kurt finds himself rather appalled and disgusted by the descriptions than reassured. Why would people want to do that?, he asks himself, while he browses through the pages. He feels downright sick when he reads about the protagonist having relations with close relatives, and even when sex between men is described, he can’t bring himself to focus on the technicalities of the descriptions. He tries the second and the third volume, but it just gets more horrifying and unrealistic, and after cramming them back into the shelf, Kurt practically flees from the library, vowing never to try to read anything like this ever again.
It’s a week later, and this time, Kurt returns to the library only to search for a new novel to read. He has just taken Vanity Fair and The Castle of Ortrant down, when he notices that another book is hidden behind them at the back of the shelf. Curious as to what somebody has wanted to hide, he removes volume after volume until he can reach the book. He hopes it’s not something private, like a diary or letters, because dear Lord, if they belong to Lord Smythe, he’s not ready for this. Opening the blank cover, he reads Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal. Frowning at the unfamiliar title, he starts to browse through the pages. It seems to be the story of a man remembering his life, a strange mixture of dialogue and descriptions of parties and decorations, but suddenly, the words “for I could never love a woman” catch his eye. Sitting down in one of the armchairs, he goes back to the beginning, and starts to read.
An hour later, he is still in the same chair, and has not been able to tear his eyes away from the pages of the book for a single second. The narrator tells the story of how he once met a young man, Teleny, how they fell in love and started a relationship. The love scenes between the two are detailed, and yet don’t feel anything like the ones Kurt has tried to read before. Where the other ones felt dirty, and uncomfortable, and unrealistic, these feel genuine, and honest, and about something more than just the search for passion and satisfaction.
It also depicts the apparently common occurrence of not finding satisfaction in physical intimacy, or trying things that feel actually unpleasant or even painful to the inexperienced, and as much as the idea frightens him, it also feels like a relief. The other books made it seem like every single one of the characters was a natural champion at things that still very much frighten and intimidate him. But this story makes it seem natural, in a way that Kurt hasn’t considered or believed in before.
He doesn’t know how long he stays at the library, but he reads the whole books until the last pages, where Teleny, the lover of the protagonist, has stabbed himself, and dies in the arms of his beloved. When he turns the last page, he realises that his fingers have started shaking. He feels deeply moved by what he just read, and at the same time, he is very aware that the possession of such a book, if ever discovered, is going to bring a great scandal over its owner.
The possession of pornographic novels is one thing. It’s illegal, certainly, but this? A novel depicting a tragic love story between two young men, and not condemning them for it, but instead celebrating their intimacy? This is a completely different story.
Without thinking, Kurt crams the book between two other innocent volumes of poetry, and takes the whole stack to his room, careful not to run into somebody on the staircase. When he arrives in his room, he quietly locks the door before he quickly moves over to the windowsill. He has just recently discovered that one of the boards has become loose, and that there’s a small room underneath it – just enough space to fit the small volume in there. Only when the board is back in place, and he has placed some heavy books on top of it, does Kurt sit down on his bed, taking a deep breath.
What was Lord Smythe thinking, leaving the book so poorly hidden? Kurt has no doubt that his employer is the owner of the book, for Kurt was the one to clean the shelves in February, and he knows that the book was not there when he did. He feels furious, and strangely worried. Lord Smythe knows that the servants borrow books from the library, and yes, even if Kurt is the one who visits the room most often, he is not the only one.
What if Maud had discovered the book? Or Jeff? Or Harriet? Or Jonathan? Or – worst of all – Mrs Seymour?
Kurt wishes to have his employer in front of him, because he very much feels like yelling at the other man for his stupidity. He is even more angry because by hiding the book in his room, he has now made it his responsibility. He knows how unlikely it is for somebody to find it, but still – he would very much like not to be burdened with Lord Smythe’s secrets. Again.
When the house has gone quiet at night, Kurt takes the book out of his hiding place, reading and rereading his favourite scenes. For the first time, he feels a strange thrill at the idea of intimacy, because if it is only a bit like this book describes it, it’s worth it.
As dangerous as the possession of this book might be, the education it provides helps him gain confidence in his relationship. Because now he doesn’t feel as insecure anymore when kisses get a little more heated, and fingers start to search for skin under the hem of loose shirts. And though things between him and the other boy never become as heated as they do in these stories, it feels good to be prepared, to know what might be following once they’re ready to cross the line.
However, the book remains under the windowsill, even when the first leaves start to change their colour.
Kurt doesn’t want the summer to end. He has never felt more happy than when he is lying in the field near to the park of Bailey Hall, listening to a deep voice humming a song or reading to him, while the sun warms his skin and makes him feel drowsy. If he could, he would stay there forever. Alas, he can’t. As the days become shorter and the nights colder, Kurt has the impending feeling that this beautiful time will soon come to an end.
The first sign of change is Miss Julia’s departure. Thanks to the careful inquiries of Lady Johnson, she was able to secure the former governess of her daughters a position with an aristocratic family in Ireland. Kurt feels devastated to see her go, but he knows it’s for the best. Hoping that her new family will respect her and treat her well, he smiles despite his sadness when she visits Bailey Hall for the last time, to say farewell to her mother and the other servants.
Everybody pretends to be terribly busy in the kitchen to give Mrs Seymour time and privacy enough to say farewell to her daughter. Mrs Bertram gives Kurt a lecture on how to stir pudding, and hits his arm with a wooden spoon when she catches him looking over his shoulder at mother and daughter, locked in a tight embrace.
Eventually, Miss Julia empties her last cup of tea, thanks Mrs Bertram warmly for all the times she felt welcome in her kitchen, and finally turns to Kurt. She takes his hand in hers, shaking it firmly.
“Goodbye, Kurt,” she says, smiling in her own, reserved way. “You were one of the most brilliant students I ever had the pleasure to teach.”
She reaches for her suitcase, “I have something for you.” She searches for a moment, before she pulls out a thin booklet and hands it to Kurt. It’s a collection of music sheets, of French chansons.
“I thought you might like something to remember these last weeks,” she says.
For a moment Kurt stares at the book in his hands. Suddenly, he is certain that Miss Julia knows exactly what connected the two boys sitting at her piano, and in a strange way, this book feels like an approval, like a reassurance that she doesn’t mind their relationship, and never has. When he looks up, a question on his lips he can’t voice in front of all the others, she adds, “Write to me, will you? I would like to know how you are from time to time.”
Kurt nods, his fingers closing tightly around the booklet. “I will,” he says, “Thank you, Miss Julia.
He accompanies her to the door, and stands next to Mrs Seymour on the doorsteps, waving goodbye to her daughter until she has disappeared behind the trees. The housekeeper sighs, and when Kurt looks at her, he spots a strangle twinkle in the eyes of the usually so collected woman.
“I presume every good time must end eventually,” she says, and Kurt can’t help a strange chill running down his spine. Because she is right. All good things must come to an end.
When a few days later Stephen does not only hand him some letters in the morning, but also a note, Kurt’s surprise only lasts a moment. The familiar handwriting reads “Meet me at the bridge this evening”. It’s not signed, but there is only one person in the village who would send him a note like this. And still, it is the first time they have ever needed some correspondence to schedule their meetings.
Strangely enough, Kurt doesn’t feel nervous, or excited. He also doesn’t stop thinking about it for the entire day, but when he sits on the cold stone of the bridge, feeling the evening sunshine getting weaker every passing minute, and waiting for the familiar head of dark curls to appear at the other end of the bridge, he feels calm. He is aware he also feels a little too detached, a little too calm about it, but he doesn’t fight the numbness. It will help with what is to come.
He knows what the other boy will tell him when he arrives. He is not surprised when the shop boy keeps a distance, not greeting him with a kiss or a hug, even though they are completely alone. Mr Brown’s leg has healed, he says, and during the last days he has been able to stand behind the counter again, joking with his customers. He can’t move as fast as he could before yet, especially when he has to climb the ladder to reach the upper shelves, but he manages very well. School is starting in two weeks, and Mr Brown’s brother has written to his son to ask him to come back. He will leave tomorrow, taking the earliest carriage, for he has a long way to travel. Kurt nods and smiles, because he has been expecting this for some time now.
It’s only when he sees the tears in the other boy’s eyes that something inside his chest clenches, and not in a pleasant way. He embraces his lover, and for a long moment they just stay like this, trying to hold on to a moment both already feel slipping away. Neither of them suggests that they stay in touch, and Kurt is grateful for it. He doesn’t want promises, he doesn’t want waiting. He is also not ready to let go – for now, he just wants to process the thought of losing something that has become so dear to him.
Finally, the other boy clears his throat, and steps out of Kurt’s arms. He should go now, he says, it’s getting late and his uncle will wonder where he wandered off too. Kurt nods, unable to reply anything. His lover hesitates for a brief moment before he once again moves closer, pressing his lips against Kurt’s. It’s a soft kiss, more gentle and at the same time more intense than any of the kisses they shared before, but Kurt has barely the time to close his eyes before the touch disappears again.
He looks up to see the other boy smiling at him for another moment, before he turns around and starts running down the path to the village, slowly at first, then faster and faster. He doesn’t turn to look back.
Kurt isn’t sure how long he remains at the bridge, looking after the other boy when he has long disappeared. After some time he realises that tears are rolling down his cheeks, and much, much later, when the sun has started to set behind the trees of the park, the numbness starts to fade, and he begins to feel the hurt.
He has finally woken up from this dream.
Being heartbroken is as unfamiliar as being in love was, but Kurt finds he is not brilliant at dealing with either of the two. While being in love confronted him with a whole new range of emotions, with thrills and excitements he felt unprepared for; during these days in September the world seems dull, and strangely colourless now that he is once more, on his own.
He tries not to let the other servants see how much the departure of Mr Brown’s nephew affects him. When he cries (and he does), he does so in the sanctuary of his room; when he needs to be alone, he visits the library or the garden, for he can’t bring himself to visit the village, the park or the bridge again.
Of course the other servants notice that something is wrong, and Mrs Bertram becomes quite concerned because of Kurt’s utter lack of appetite. He manages to pull himself together, at least enough to eat a little, and remain in their company when he has to. “He has low spirits,” he overhears Mrs Bertram say to Mrs Seymour. “Of course, with another two of his friends leaving… and he was so fond of your daughter.” “He forms attachments a little too easily, and a little too intensely,” Mrs Seymour answers. “That will cause him much hardship in his life, believe me.” The worst, Kurt thinks when he tiptoes away to cry a little more, is that in a strange way, they’re right.
As the days go by, Kurt realises that it becomes easier to deal with the pain. It doesn’t vanish completely, but he feels more like searching the company of the other servants again, and not like hiding in the library all day long. It also helps that Howard and Jonathan have apparently made a bet on who succeeds at cheering Kurt up, and even Kurt cannot help but smile or laugh at the funny stories the two tell him. He sometimes visits them in the stables, though he keeps his distance to the horses – in his experience, it is downright foolish to trust these beasts.
One morning in September, Kurt wakes up shortly before dawn. He dresses quietly, grabs a coat against the morning air, which is growing chilly, and slips out of the house. In the dim twilight he walks through the misty fields to the Palladium Bridge. He slips onto the cold stone, pulls the coat closer around his shoulders, and rests his head against the rough surface of the pillar behind him.
While he watches the sun slowly rise above the old trees of the park, he thinks about everything that happened in the past months.
He has grown, he realises, and not just physically. Even though his reflection in the mirror has become much more enjoyable to look at, it is not the main thing that has changed over the course of this summer. Kurt has, if only in the respect that he feels far more comfortable with being himself than he did in spring, or even in winter. He has realised that he is talented: his numerous lessons with Miss Julia have confirmed that his French and his piano skills are worth noticing. For the first time, he has grown to like his appearance, because even if he will never be as effortlessly handsome as people like Lord Smythe or Jeff are, he feels comfortable now with the realisation that he is worth looking at. And – even if the thought still hurts a little – he has learned that there are people who can love him for who he is, and who think of him as “beautiful”. And this, perhaps, is the most important lesson he learned this summer.
However, life has become a bit too quiet, and Kurt finds himself longing for the return of Nick, Jeff and Jane. Unsettling as it is, he also finds himself longing for the return of Lord Smythe – even if his presence won’t make his life more enjoyable, it will certainly make it more interesting. And he could do with a distraction from the dark thoughts that sometimes still haunt him.
Perhaps it is time to move on, Kurt thinks when he jumps down from his stony seat. He doesn’t yet know how to do that, but he is confident that over time, he will find out. There is just one thing he is sure about – that moving on begins with a large breakfast and convincing Mrs Bertram to make some pudding for dinner.
“Ah, there you are Kurt.” Mrs Bertram says when he enters the kitchen. “Stephen was just here, there’s another letter for you.” She hands him the envelope, and Kurt frowns in confusion when he recognises Nick’s handwriting, for he has only received a letter from Nick two days ago. Normally, it should be Jane’s turn to write to him.
But when he unfolds the small piece of paper which has very little text on it, he smiles more genuinely than he did over the past weeks when he reads the words, “We’re coming back.”