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China Cups and Top Hats

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It is amazing how quickly people can adapt to changes, how easy it is to get used to something, especially if one has experienced it before. Maybe it is because the life of a footman consists mainly of patterns, of routines and fixed schedules. Or maybe it is because after five months, peace and quiet can become too peaceful, and too quiet. But whatever the reason: when he dresses himself for the evening, Kurt feels glad that life at Bailey Hall is finally becoming more eventful.

Even though he at first dreaded the moment in which he would see Lord Smythe again, now he actually feels grateful that he had the opportunity to talk to his employer in the early afternoon. Admittedly, if somebody asked him about it, he wouldn’t know how to describe to an outsider at what stage his difficult relationship to Lord Smythe has arrived. But it feels like they reached some sort of truce, and that is something Kurt can live with for the moment.

Serving at dinner that evening also gives Kurt an opportunity to meet Lady Isabella’s older sister, Lady Claudine. His first impression of her is that she is much more quiet than her sibling – though that might be to blame on the fact that even the most eloquent talker pales in comparison to Lady Isabella, who spends the first half hour of the meal telling everyone who may or may not wish to know how immensely she enjoyed the season, how awfully much she misses London already and how horribly dull the winter is going to be.

Lady Claudine is just as pretty as her sister, Kurt observes: she has the same auburn hair, the same petite figure, and the same way of batting her eyelashes at her conversation partner. Nevertheless, there is something weirdly fake about her that confuses Kurt. Her dress is far too elaborate for the occasion – all the lace and embroidery would look marvellous in a grand ballroom, but seem rather out of place in the small dining room at Bailey Hall. Her dark curls are carefully braided and pinned up into a complicated hairstyle, just like her sister’s, but Lady Claudine for some reason felt it necessary to additionally adorn it with feathers and pearls – which once again doesn’t fit into the countryside. And maybe it’s just Kurt’s personal taste, but he thinks that she would look a lot prettier with less lipstick on her lips and rouge on her cheekbones.

Soon though, Kurt notices that the apparent quietness of Lady Claudine isn’t to blame on the fact that she isn’t saying anything – it is to blame on the fact that she is solely focused on captivating the attention of her dinner partner. He can’t tell whether Lord Smythe actually notices the attention he is given, but even if he does, his employer seems to be much more interested in his meal than in the remarks of his neighbour.

Kurt almost feels pity when he sees her sitting on the edge of her chair, making a great display of listening attentively to each and every one of Lord Smythe’s scarce words and laughing just a tiny bit too loudly at every ironic remark that leaves his lips. It is painfully obvious, if not to her, at least to him, that her charm is lost on Lord Smythe.

His pity for her lessens somewhat when she and Lady Isabella start to talk about their acquaintances in London, or, to be more precise, start to gossip viciously about the debutants they met during various balls. Kurt isn’t quite sure what these girls have done to deserve this much dislike from the two ladies, other than being young and inexperienced at social gatherings, but whatever it was they did wrong, it gives the sisters something to talk about during the rest of the dinner. He tries his best to keep himself from grinning when Lady Claudine begins to speak of her performances, and out of the corner of his eye he sees a carefully blank expression settling over Lord Smythe’s features while he nods and drains his glass of wine.

Kurt doesn’t have to wait long before he gets a chance to witness how great Lady Claudine’s talent truly is. After dinner, when the lords and ladies have both retreated to the drawing room, and Jeff and Kurt are busy with filling and refilling glasses and passing around sweets, Lady Isabella sits down at the piano, demands everybody’s attention, and starts to accompany her sister’s performance. Lady Claudine really does have talent, Kurt thinks, and undoubtedly was blessed with an instructor and many lessons to train her voice. But she is trying much too hard to push her voice over its limits, to give her performance an operatic touch. If she had been content to sing just one or two lighter songs, her recital might have been enjoyable, but with her voice ruthlessly tackling higher and higher notes, it becomes strained and distorted.

Lord Huntington (who apparently was blessed with no ear for music) is the only one who claps enthusiastically once his wife rises from the piano and curtsies together with her sister. Kurt carefully avoids meeting the gaze of Lord Smythe, who looks like he has just bitten into a slice of lemon, but tries very hard to smile around the sour expression on his face.

Fortunately, the sisters are tired after their journey, and they are not the only ones. When the clock strikes eleven, Sir Robert rises and makes his usual excuses, and this time, neither Lord Smythe nor Lord Huntington object to his early departure, on the contrary – they agree on retiring to their rooms as well.

While the lords say goodnight to one another, Kurt walks over to the chimney to collect the half-empty wine glass Lord Huntington left on the mantelpiece. Suddenly, a hand appears in front of him, setting down a second glass on the tray Kurt is carrying. He turns around to find himself chest to chest with Lord Smythe, whose smile would be smug if it weren’t for the exhausted touch around its edges.

“Did I promise too much?” he asks, his voice low enough to only be heard by Kurt. The young man thinks about it for a split second before he answers, “I expected it to be worse.”

“Of course you did, after I warned you,” Lord Smythe replies, and finally lets go of his glass and drops his arm down to his side. “Maybe I’ll force Nick to sing tomorrow,” he muses, while Kurt rearranges the glasses on his tray, “Just for a change.”

“I doubt Lady Claudine would like to be usurped by one of your footmen,” Kurt objects, but Lord Smythe just grins, “In that case, I’ll sneak in here after midnight and do enough damage to the piano that it sounds like it has never been tuned. And then tell Lady Claudine that unfortunately, no one within a sixty mile radius is able to fix it.”

“You are being an awful human being tonight,” Kurt observes, because he figures nobody has told Lord Smythe yet, and decides that someone should inform him about it.

“I suppose that it is true,” Lord Smythe sighs, “But you would start to be awful too if you already had been enduring concerts like this for the last three weeks.”

Unable to argue this point, Kurt lifts his tray from the mantelpiece and asks, “Is there something else, your lordship?”

“There isn’t,” Lord Smythe replies. He looks at the boy in front of him for a moment longer, before he smiles and merely says, “Goodnight, Kurt.”

Kurt allows himself to return the smile, and when he looks after the retreating figure of Lord Smythe, walking swiftly out of the room, Kurt wonders briefly why it is so much easier to talk to his employer now.

The next day is a quiet one. Everybody is still settling in, and Kurt notices that Lord Smythe spends two hours in the library, and when he looks at the empty spaces in the shelves later, he is sure that his employer must at least have taken two very high stacks of novels to his bedroom. Lady Claudine and Lady Isabella spend the morning in the drawing room at the piano (which causes the lords and the servants alike to avoid the room for a few hours), and in the afternoon, they take a stroll through the park, marvelling at the beauty of the rose beds in their autumn bloom.

The gentlemen have retreated to the drawing room, from where they also have a wonderful view on the sunny park outside, and Kurt joins them to bring the tea tray in while Nick is still waiting for Maud to finish the cucumber sandwiches. He has just set down the tray on the empty table and started to pour the first cup, when Lord Huntington looks at him, frowns and asks, “Sebastian, did you hire a new footman?”

Lord Smythe’s eyes meet Kurt’s and he grins, “This is Kurt, Arthur. He joined us last autumn, don’t you remember?”

“What, the little one?” Lord Huntington asks, staring at Kurt disbelievingly. “Really?”

“He’s grown a little over the summer,” Sir Robert says, smiling and mouthing a silent “thank you” when Kurt hands him a cup of tea.

“That he did,” Lord Smythe agrees, and Kurt can feel the gaze of his employer on him as he bends down to pour another cup of tea. He has just taken the full cup into his hands when Lord Smythe adds, “He’s growing into a regular Antinous, don’t you think, Arthur?”

Kurt has no idea what Lord Smythe means by that, or who or what Antinous is, or was. But the mood in the room changes immediately. Lord Huntington throws a confused and almost irritated glance at Lord Smythe, before he turns his head to frown at Kurt. Sir Robert’s gaze moves back and forth between his two friends, his expression wary. And even though Kurt doesn’t understand the meaning of Lord Smythe’s statement, he immediately realises that it carries a lot of weight.

Trying to appear like he can’t hear anything the other men are saying about him, he hands Lord Huntington his cup, and tries to remain unaffected by the hostile expression on Lord Huntington’s face when he studies him, ignoring the cup in his hands.

“I can’t say I agree with you, Sebastian,” he says eventually, “I find him taller, but apart from that, utterly unremarkable and plain.”

Kurt knows that this is the moment when his face crumbles a little bit. He is aware that probably nothing about this conversation has actually to do with him, and once more revolves entirely around whatever kind of twisted relationship is still going on between Lord Smythe and Lord Huntington, but nevertheless, it hurts. Not much, not like it would have before the summer, but he is fed up with being in the middle of a conflict that doesn’t concern him in the least.

He wants nothing more than to retort something, to point out that it is far better to be “unremarkable” and “plain” than the hypocritical, false, despicable person he knows Lord Huntington to be, but he knows better. Even if he is on better terms with his employer now, Mr Moore would never allow for him to insult a person of a higher social rank. And Lord Huntington is definitely not worth leaving Bailey Hall for. Therefore, he keeps quiet and takes the third cup to hand it to Lord Smythe. When he looks at his employer, he finds him glaring at Lord Huntington, with an expression on his face that borders on being aggressive.

“Sir?” he mutters, quiet enough so that none of the other men hears the informal address, but Lord Smythe’s head snaps around, his green eyes meet Kurt’s, and his expression visibly relaxes once he sees whatever he reads on Kurt’s face.

“Thank you,” he replies, and his fingers brush against Kurt’s for the briefest of moments when he takes the cup from his hands.

“The ladies seem to enjoy the weather, don’t they?” Sir Robert inquires. He has walked up to the window and is looking out into the garden while sipping his tea. Kurt is thankful for the change of topic, especially when Lord Huntington seems eager to join in.

“They do,” he says, walking up next to the other man, “Who knows how long the sunshine will last.” He looks at Lord Smythe, “So what do you think about Claudine, Sebastian?”

“I don’t know what makes you think that I will give you a different answer now than the last eight times you asked me that question,” Lord Smythe retorts, “I told you before, I’m not interested.”

“I don’t understand what your problem is,” Lord Huntington remarks, his expression puzzled, “She’s wealthy, from a respectable family, and more than willing to…”

“Arthur, I’m trying to be polite here,” Lord Smythe interrupts, “Believe me, ‘not interested’ is the nicest thing you will hear me say about your sister-in-law.”

“Come on, Bastian,” Lord Huntington says and, for some reason unknown to himself, Kurt has to grit his teeth at the nickname that sounds so familiar, and somehow oh-so-wrong from the other man’s lips, “At least you have got to admit that she’s a beauty.”

Lord Smythe merely sighs and turns to the window again. He stares outside for a second, before he asks, “What do you think, Kurt? Do you think she’s attractive?”

Kurt glances down at the women in the garden, at Lady Claudine’s auburn ringlets peeking out from underneath an elaborately embroidered hat. At this moment, he sees her glance at the window, and suddenly, he realises that the ladies are very aware of the men watching them, and that all of their actions, the supposedly careless laughter, the walking along the rose bushes to show off their figures, are just a show, and before he can stop himself he blurts out, “No, Sir.”

Lord Smythe throws his head back and starts laughing, while Lord Huntington shoots a murderous glare in Kurt’s direction.

“I mean,” Kurt tries to mitigate his words, “I mean, I’m sure there are many men who would appreciate…”

“I don’t see how a footman could know anything about beauty,” Lord Huntington hisses, and the expression in his eyes tells Kurt that he has just made an enemy.

“Well, we are all men,” Sir Robert tries to mediate, setting his cup down on the table. “And therefore, we should all be able to appreciate female beauty. Even though our individual tastes may differ.”

His gaze meets the one of Lord Smythe for a split second, and Kurt decides that this is the perfect moment for him to leave the drawing room. Hastily taking the tea tray into his hands, he swiftly walks over to the door, just when Nick enters with the cucumber sandwiches. He holds the door open for Kurt, and Kurt smiles gratefully at his friend before he hurries out of the room.

And while he walks down the stairs to the kitchen, carefully balancing the tray, he vows to avoid Lord Huntington during the next days. Just in case.

 


“Nick, can I ask you a question?” Kurt inquires. It’s late in the afternoon, and Mr Moore has ordered him and Nick to polish the silver they need for the dinner, ignoring Kurt’s protest that he has just cleaned everything during the summer. Slamming the door shut behind him, the butler has left the two footmen in his room, and now they are sitting knee to knee and polish the silver with a decided lack of enthusiasm. 

“I believe you just did,” Nick retorts, not looking up from his task. Kurt rolls his eyes at his friend, and hesitates only the briefest of moments before he asks, “Do you know who somebody called ‘Antinous’ is?”

Nick’s hands stop polishing the plate he is holding, and his gaze, wary and suspicious, lands questioningly on Kurt, “Why are you asking?”

When Kurt guessed before that there was some hidden meaning to the reference he didn’t understand, Nick’s reaction proves his suspicions even more. Nevertheless, Kurt takes care to have an indifferent expression on his face and to not look up from the bowl he is polishing when he replies, “I came across a reference in a novel, and I couldn’t make sense of it. Somebody was compared to somebody called Antinous, and I couldn’t figure out whether that means something good or bad. I just thought maybe you’d know what it means.”

Nick relaxes visibly, then frowns as he likewise continues his polishing, “Antinous was the companion of the Roman emperor Hadrian for many years. Then he died. I think he drowned himself in the Nile, because some ancient belief said that a sacrifice like this would grant the emperor a long and prosperous reign.”

Now Kurt feels really confused, because he doesn’t understand how the suicide of some Roman or Egyptian boy, who lived some centuries ago, could relate to him in any way. However, he can sense that there is more behind Nick’s dry and rational account of the story, so he inquires, “He must have been a close friend to Hadrian if he would give his life for him.”

“I guess,” Nick says, swiftly polishing the plate in his hands.

“Was he… an officer in Hadrian’s army?” Kurt asks. “Were they like, comrades-in-arms? Did they fight together?”

“Not exactly,” Nick replies, not taking his eyes from the plate in his hands. “As far as I know, he was just a boy Hadrian met in the countryside and took with him to his court. He was supposed to be rather good-looking.”

“And Hadrian needed a good-looking boy at his court because…?” Kurt asks, not catching up on what Nick is not saying.

“Christ, Kurt, do I really have to spell it out for you?” Nick snaps, slapping his cloth against the plate impatiently, “They were lovers, alright? Antinous committed suicide because he believed that his sacrifice would grant Hadrian a long reign, and in return Hadrian declared his dead lover to be a god.”

Blinking, Kurt stares at the man next to him. Of course, now the conversation between Lord Huntington and Lord Smythe finally begins to make sense. The remark about Antinous referred to a relationship between two men, to somebody worth being noticed by other men because of his looks. And Lord Huntington would naturally disapprove of Kurt being referred to in that way. Well, actually Kurt doesn’t know whether he should disapprove of it too. Of course, the underlying ascription is true, but on one hand, Lord Smythe cannot possibly know about Kurt’s sexual preferences, and on the other hand, even if he truly knew, Kurt definitely feels uncomfortable being included in the twisted relationship between Lord Smythe and his lovers. But even if he just assumes that Lord Smythe referred to him in that way only to annoy Lord Huntington, he doesn’t feel good about it. Because he has had enough of that during the winter, and he no longer feels inclined to serve a toy to Lord Smythe’s whims.

But of course, he can’t say any of this to Nick, so he chooses to reply, “Hadrian declared him to be a god?”

“Normally, that was what they did with the emperors after their death,” Nick explains, his tone a bit calmer when Kurt doesn’t dwell on the relationship-aspect of the story. “They declared them to be gods to ensure their divinity. Hadrian broke the rules by doing this for Antinous, but I guess he just wanted to give something back to the man who sacrificed his life for him.”

He puts the plate to the side and grabs one of the few bowls that are left, all the while not meeting Kurt’s gaze, “Does that answer your question?”

“It does,” Kurt nods, because yes, it certainly did. And this sad love story should give him something to think about during the next days. “Thank you, Nick.”

The other footman looks up, smiling a tight-lipped smile. He opens his mouth to add something, but before he can even start the sentence, he is interrupted by Jeff walking into the room.

“Is there some unwritten rule I don’t know about?” the blond boy asks, sinking down on the chair next to Nick, a displeased expression on his face. “Like a secret law that turns every spinster older than twenty-three into a nasty witch?”

It’s unusual to see Jeff frown in the first place, and to see him looking as pissed off as he is now causes Nick and Kurt to ask simultaneously, “What’s wrong?”

“He ran into Lady Claudine, poor thing,” Jane says, following Jeff into the room and bringing a new stack of polishing cloth with her. “One of the maids has misplaced her perfume, and she needed someone to unleash her anger on.”

“She called me a peasant,” Jeff snorts, “And a twat.”

“She’s probably just frustrated because Lord Smythe isn’t taken by her,” Kurt says, rubbing a new cloth against the shiny surface of the next bowl.

“I wonder why that is,” Jeff grumbles, “If she treats him as charmingly as she treats everybody else.”

“Oh, she is charming when he is around,” Nick objects. “Didn’t you watch her last night during dinner?”

“You’re referring to when she was practically sitting on his lap?” Kurt asks.

“Well, at least she’s subtle about her intentions,” Nick replies, biting back a grin, while Kurt admits, “I almost felt sorry for her.”

“I almost felt sorry for Lord Smythe,” Jeff says, looking like he is surprised by his own assessment, “He looked really uncomfortable. Not that I can blame him.”

Nick grins, and Kurt has just opened his mouth to add something when Jane, who has been quiet so far, interrupts him.

“Stop it at once, you three,” she says. Her tone isn’t teasing anymore, and when Kurt looks up, he sees the serious expression on her face, “You’re being unnecessary cruel, and you should be ashamed of yourself for saying that. All of you.”

“But you don’t like Lady Claudine either,” Jeff objects, obviously not sensing when it is better to remain quiet.

“Not particularly,” Jane agrees, “But that doesn’t give me the right to make fun of her.”

When Jeff and Kurt merely keep staring at her, she shakes her head, “Don’t you understand how hard this must be for her? Her little sister is already married, and she is still at home, presumably listening to her parents complaining that she is not getting any younger. And Lord Huntington is very wealthy, so now she needs to find a man who is at least as wealthy as her brother-in-law is.”

Kurt stares at her. He has to admit that he never thought about what it was like to be Lady Isabella or Lady Claudine. He had always assumed that they had everything they wanted, and if they behaved nastily, it was because they could afford to do so. So far, he has never considered that either of them, or any of the other ladies in Lord Smythe’s company, could be unhappy.

“But that doesn’t give her the right to treat other people the way she does,” Jeff objects.

“Of course it doesn’t,” Jane admits. “But honestly, none of you knows how it feels like when your value as a person is measured by how wealthy a husband you can find.” She sighs, “I think Lady Claudine is desperate, yes. And now Lord Huntington seems to have given her some hope that Lord Smythe might be interested in her, even though all of us can see that he would rather marry Sir Robert than Lady Claudine. And no, nothing about that gives her the right to take her anger and frustration out on you, Jeff. But nevertheless, you shouldn’t make fun of her.” She pauses, “Not for trying to do what everyone wants her to do.”

For a moment, everyone is silent. Nick and Kurt have stopped their polishing, and Jeff looks really guilty. The silence is finally disturbed by a bell ringing from somewhere below, and Jane rises from her seat.

“Time for tea,” she says, “Come on, boys.”

Kurt hastily puts the cloth and the plate he was holding down on the table and hurries after the housemaid. When he catches up with her at the staircase, he says, “I’m sorry, Jane. I didn’t mean it like that.”

Jane looks at him, and the expression on her face softens. “I know, Kurt,” she replies, and her hand squeezes his arm reassuringly. “I know you didn’t. But sometimes, you forget what it is like for us women.” She smiles wistfully, “Something I never can.”

She sighs and pulls Kurt to her side, takes his arm, and they begin to walk down the staircase together, closely followed by Nick and Jeff. Sensing that the serious part of their conversation is over, Kurt asks, only partly joking, “When will you marry, Jane?”

Jane grins wickedly and, just loud enough for the two men behind them to hear, replies, “I’m waiting for Nick to ask me, of course.”

“You what?” Nick asks, and when Kurt turns his head, he sees that the expression on the other footman’s face is something between surprise and sheer panic. Jane laughs airily before she says, “I was joking. Don’t worry.”

“And you don’t have to look so shocked,” Kurt says, “Anyone could consider himself lucky to marry our Jane.”

He smiles when Jane presses a kiss to his cheek and turns around to the other footmen to remark, “And this, you two, is why Kurt is more of a gentleman than you will ever be.”

Ignoring the noisy protest behind her, she pulls a grinning Kurt into the kitchen.

 


The next day brings a change in the weather. The sunshine disappears behind dark clouds, and shortly after breakfast, thick raindrops start tapping against the windows, leaving the lords and ladies no choice but to stay indoors and pass the time by playing cards, talking or reading.

Apart from the thunderstorm that follows in the early evening (a clear sign that the summer is over and autumn has finally arrived), it would have been a rather uneventful day, were it not for the fact that this day is also Mr Moore’s fiftieth birthday. Even though he takes great care to emphasise that he doesn’t want to celebrate, Mrs Bertram makes sure to prepare her most delicious pudding, and in the evening, the servants clear the furniture out of the kitchen, so that there is enough space for them to dance. Howard, Jonathan and Peter bring their flutes and their violin, and soon, the first couples are spinning each other around on the improvised dance floor.

Kurt is clapping and laughing along with the others. Mr Moore is dancing with Mrs Bertram, Howard has handed his flute over to Adrian and cheekily asked Mrs Seymour to dance, Stephen has his arm around Jane and Jeff twirls Harriet around. Kurt is surprised to see how good a dancer Jeff is – he moves with the effortless grace that comes from not caring about other people’s opinions, something Kurt will never manage to pull off, at least not like him.

When he looks to his right, he sees that Nick is standing in the shadow of the doorway, his gaze focused on the dancers in the middle of the room. It takes him a moment to notice that Nick isn’t watching all of the dancers, instead, his eyes are fixed on the tall figure of a certain blond footman, who spins around without ever letting go of Harriet’s hands. The longer Kurt observes Nick, the more certain he becomes that Nick’s eyes never leave Jeff. And when he looks back and forth between Nick and the dancers, slowly, he starts to see what Nick is seeing. And why his gaze never leaves Jeff’s features.

And suddenly, Kurt realises how blind he has been the entire time. He doesn’t need to see the soft and tender expression on Nick’s features, the fondness in his eyes, to finally understand what he has been missing the entire time. It’s incredibly stupid now that he thinks about it. Of course he always noticed how close the other men were, the chemistry between them, and the silent understanding that only seems to have increased since their time in London. He can’t believe that he, of all people, has missed that.

But the longer he watches Nick watching Jeff, he realises that this is not the look of a man observing his long time lover. This is a man watching something that he yearns for, more than anything else in the world, something that he knows he can’t, and probably never will have. Kurt turns his gaze to the dance floor, where Jeff has just bend down to whisper something into Harriet’s ear, and he sees the girl laughing and beaming at her partner. And he understands why there is an edge of bitterness to Nick’s smile.

He remains where he is for a little while longer, until finally, he gets up and walks over to where Nick is standing, and tries to avoid running into any dancers by pressing himself up against the wall. He is sure Nick notices him when he steps up next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge Kurt’s presence, and he doesn’t take his eyes off of Jeff. Both of them watch the dancers in silence, until Kurt speaks up.

“How long?” he inquires, hoping that Nick understands what he is asking.

For the longest time, the other footman doesn’t react to that question, doesn’t even acknowledge that he heard what Kurt said. Finally though, Nick turns his head, and his gaze meets Kurt’s. They look at each other for a very long moment, and a strange and silent communication passes between them. Kurt knows that Nick understands what he is asking, and why Kurt is able to ask such a question without so much as doubt or judgement clouding his eyes.

After what feels like an eternity, Nick turns his head again, his gaze once more fixed on Jeff, who is clapping along with the others and laughing merrily.

“Ever since he shook my hand for the first time and said, ‘Nice to meet you, Nick. I’m Jeff.’”, he replies, and it’s the matter-of-factness in his voice, void of any hope or regret or denial that pierces Kurt’s soul. He suddenly understands that while he was lucky enough to have an actual relationship during the summer, Nick has been in love all this time, and all this time he had to keep silent about it, without any hope of his feelings ever being reciprocated.

When the musicians start a new song and Jeff pulls Jane towards him, Nick eventually looks at Kurt again, and rests a heavy hand on his shoulder.

“We should talk.”