If Kurt had to evaluate the level of proficiency the servants at Bailey Hall display, he would admit that he can’t imagine a more organised, well-structured service. It’s needless to add that preparing the house for a visitor is not a task that challenges the household in any way. Due to Lord Smythe’s usual inability to inform them about his arrival on time, they are also very well accustomed to visits which are a bit of a short notice. Therefore, having four days to brace themselves for a single guest (who even brings two maids with her), should not be any problem at all.
What nobody is used to, however, is the presence of a slightly flustered Lord Smythe in their midst, who seems reluctant to trust Mrs Seymour’s judgement on how clean a room needs to be.
The announcement of his grandmother’s visit seems to have thrown their employer into a state of barely restrained, unorganised activity. He appears in the kitchen to ask Mrs Bertram, who is clearly tongue-tied by the presence of her employer, about the menus for various dinners, and he makes sure to remind Mrs Seymour to prepare the best rooms for her ladyship (an order that wasn’t necessary in the first place, and doesn’t become more significant when he repeats it four times over the next days). When he isn’t bothering Mr Moore or Mrs Seymour, he retreats to his study, and Kurt is speechless when he walks in with a tray of sandwiches and sees that Lord Smythe is actually trying to clean up his desk.
It’s the first time Kurt has seen Lord Smythe this nervous, and he uses the first opportunity he gets to pull Nick aside and ask him about Lord Smythe’s grandmother.
“I’m sure I already told you about her,” Nick replies when they climb up the stairs to the second floor, stacks with clean shirts for Lord Smythe’s and Sir Robert’s wardrobes in their arms.
“You told me she was the only relative Sebastian has, and you told me that she lives at the other family estate in Shropshire,” Kurt replies. “That doesn’t explain why he was so horrified when he learned about her coming here.”
“Presumably because he has a rather difficult relationship with her ladyship,” Nick replies, holding the door to Lord Smythe’s room open for Kurt with his shoulder. “Which might have something to do with the fact that she is the only person who doesn’t let him get away with anything,”
“I always thought that person was you,” Kurt says dryly.
Nick thinks about that for a moment, before he grins and corrects himself, “She is one of the two people who don’t let him get away with everything.” He sighs, “No, but seriously – Lady Smythe has very strong views on how an Earl should present himself in public. And I don’t think I have to point out that Sebastian shares only very few of these views.”
Kurt nods, because yes, he can see why Lord Smythe’s blunt attitude, his reluctance to appear polite, can be problematic in the higher circles of society – even though Kurt has learned to find them refreshing sometimes. When another thought crosses his mind, he asks, “Does she know about, you know…”
When Nick looks at him expectantly, he raises his eyebrows and looks pointedly at the white linen on Lord Smythe’s bed.
“God, no!” Nick exclaims, looking horrified at the very notion of this thought. “And I hope for Sebastian’s sake that she never finds out about it.”
“Oh,” Kurt says, taken aback at Nick’s strong reaction. For a little while, being in the warm shelter of Nick’s, and in a way even Lord Smythe’s, presence has pushed the thought of how the world would react to their true colours back into a corner of his mind. Not that he could ever truly forget about it, but the unquestioning acceptance from Nick has made the thought seem more bearable.
At least until now.
“The main reason Sebastian is so nervous about her visit is that over the summer, he has neglected a few of the people she thinks important to socialise with,” Nick’s voice interrupts his thoughts. The brown-haired footman takes a few shirts from the stack in Kurt’s arms, “And I don’t think he’s looking forward to hear her opinion on that.”
“But why this obsession to clean the house?” Kurt asks, when Nick closes the door to the wardrobe. “I mean, Mrs Seymour will never allow it to look anything but spotless, even when there are no guests to expect.”
“I think he wants to give her as little openings for criticism as possible,” Nick replies, “And I can’t blame him for that. She will have enough to say on the matter of him not visiting her friends regularly.”
“I get that,” Kurt says, “But her ladyship is hardly going to comment on the state of the curtains, is she?”
“Oh, trust me,” Nick says, “Her ladyship has an opinion on everything.” He grins when he opens the door for Kurt, and the grin is just the tiniest bit gleeful when he adds, “And I’m not going to deny it – just from time to time, it’s hilarious to watch.”
Even though Kurt has to wait for a little bit longer to see for himself whether this assessment is true, he closely watches Lord Smythe over the next days – and if his behaviour is any indication, Nick is very right claiming that their employer wants the house to be as neat as possible.
On the day before the much anticipated arrival of her ladyship, Lord Smythe walks into the drawing room where Kurt has just placed a large vase with beautiful violet asters and white roses in front of the window. He lingers in the doorway, his gaze drifting over the furniture, the curtains, the carpet, until they finally come to rest on Kurt and the flowers in the warm light of the afternoon sun.
“Did Mrs Seymour select those for the whole house, or just for the drawing room?” he asks, stepping up next to Kurt.
“Every room down here has asters and roses,” Kurt replies, “The bedrooms and the library will have clematis and dahlias.” He looks at the bright flowers in front of him and smiles, “I think she’s simply picking the ones that didn’t drown during the thunderstorms last week.”
Lord Smythe doesn’t answer immediately. He reaches out to run his index finger over the petals of a rose, starting with the outer ones and moving in circles until his finger has reached the centre, where the petals are still so tightly clasped together that they don’t react to the pressure of his finger at all.
“Those were my mother’s favourites,” he says, and Kurt is surprised at how soft his voice sounds. “We always had roses in the drawing room when she was still alive.”
His finger lingers on the petals for a moment longer, before he lets his arm drop down to his side again. He laughs uncomfortably, like he has just shared something with Kurt he didn’t intend to, and says, “It’s just strange to see them again, I guess.”
“Didn’t you have roses in the house after she died?” Kurt inquires gently.
“We had some at her funeral,” Lord Smythe says, “But never after that, no.”
He stares at the flower with a frown on his face. Kurt tilts his head to the side to watch his employer for a moment, before he asks, “Do you miss her very much?”
Lord Smythe’s head snaps around, and his gaze meets Kurt’s. He looks at the footman for a long moment, before something in his expression softens, and he replies, “I do.” He raises his hand to adjust his sleeve, avoiding Kurt’s eyes, “Nick told me your parents aren’t alive anymore?”
“No,” Kurt says, and he feels the old, familiar pain in his chest – like a wound that has healed, but left a scar nonetheless. He looks at the flowers, “My mother passed away when I was a little boy, and my father died last year, a few months before I came here.”
For a moment, a heavy silence settles between them, both men occupied with thoughts about the loved ones they’ve lost. Kurt is shaken out of these thoughts when a hand settles on his, and he looks up into the sympathetic eyes of Lord Smythe.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he says, and the genuine concern in his voice touches Kurt just as much as his hand gently squeezing Kurt’s fingers does. “I know that losing your family is hard.”
“It is,” Kurt agrees, “And I will always miss them. But…” He contemplates the rest of his answer for a second, feeling a little surprised at what he is about to say, before he concludes, “But I think I’ve been lucky enough to find a new family here.”
Lord Smythe’s left eyebrow rises at this assessment, and the smile that follows the surprise isn’t his usual cocky grin, or an arrogant smirk – it looks happy, and maybe even a little bit flattered. “Well, I’m glad to hear that,” he says, before he draws his hand back. “Though from what Nick tells me, I imagine that it can be a bit of a madness downstairs.”
“Not as much of a madness as I have seen in your company,” Kurt retorts, smiling in relief because the gloomy atmosphere is leaving them. Lord Smythe clears his throat, and the hand that just a moment before has touched Kurt’s, wanders to his neck.
“I should go, I’m keeping you from your work,” he says. “I’m sure you still have a lot to do.”
“Don’t worry, Sir,” Kurt replies, and his voice is just a little bit patronising when he adds, “I believe we’re ready for her ladyship.”
Lord Smythe grins, and for the first time in days, he seems a little more relaxed when he answers, “Well, I’m glad at least you feel that way.”
After these four rather busy days, Kurt would lie if he claimed that the general excitement and nervousness have no affect on him at all.
On Monday morning, he takes his usual position in the line-up of the servants standing in the courtyard and waiting for her ladyship to arrive – a routine he hasn’t particularly missed, chiefly because it brings back unpleasant memories. He glances down the line, to the spot where Lord Smythe is standing, fiddling with his collar and glancing nervously at the trees of the alley.
For a moment, Kurt wonders whether it’s really been a year since he heard the footsteps of Lord Smythe on the white gravel, and looked into his employer’s eyes for the very first time. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem that long ago, on the other hand, so much has changed since then that Kurt can hardly believe that it has been merely one year.
He is pulled out of his thoughts when a large and pompous carriage comes to a halt before the line of servants, and Mr Moore hurries towards the door to help the head of the Smythe family out of the carriage.
Lady Smythe is tall, almost as tall as her grandson, and her lean figure is clad in a black dress that fits her well, but Kurt isn’t sure whether there has ever been a time in which that dress would have been called fashionable. Her hair is steel-gray and pined up under a large hat with black feathers, and her eyes, still a clear and piercing blue, attentively observe her surroundings.
Lord Smythe walks towards her, and bends down to kiss his grandmother’s cheek, “Welcome, grandmother,” he says, “I hope you had a pleasant journey?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it pleasant,” her ladyship replies, her expression unmoved, “I can hardly call three hours in a shaking and clattering carriage pleasant, but since this seems to be the only way to ever see my grandson, what choice do I have?”
Lord Smythe seems speechless, and before he has time enough to come up with a reply, Lady Smythe has already sailed past him and towards Sir Roberts, who is trying very hard to hide his grin.
“Sir Robert,” Lady Smythe says, when Sir Robert reaches for her hand and bends down to kiss it. “Such a pleasure to see you again.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Sir Robert says, “I’m glad you decided to pay us a visit, your ladyship.”
“Well, I am relieved that at least you seem to think that,” her ladyship retorts, her gaze drifting once more to her grandson. Lord Smythe squirms uncomfortably, but asks, “Would you care for some breakfast, grandmother?”
“Of course I would care for some breakfast,” Lady Smythe says, taking the arm Sir Robert is offering her. “Were you not listening when I told you about having spent three uncomfortable hours in a carriage? When did you think I had time to eat?”
She walks inside with swift steps, swift at least for her seventy-four years. Lord Smythe rolls his eyes, but follows her inside. Kurt looks down the line of the servants to see that most of them no longer try to hide their amusement, and when he catches Nick’s gaze, he has to grin himself. It’s not a mean sort of amusement, however – the sympathy for their employer is evident in the whispered conversations that start when the footmen hurry after Mr Moore and her ladyship to the breakfast room.
In spite of her former complaints, Lady Smythe eats sparsely, cutting her toast into small pieces and leaving most of it on her plate. When seeing this, Kurt has a sudden revelation about where Lord Smythe’s eating habits come from, and looking at the way his employer keeps stirring his porridge without eating even one spoonful, he feels his suspicions confirmed.
They don’t have to wait long before Lady Smythe brings up the issue Nick has claimed to be her reason for coming. “I have dined with Lord and Lady Milford a few weeks ago,” she says, sipping her tea.
Lord Smythe’s apprehensive expression tells Kurt that he is aware where this conversation is going, and he replies, “Have you? How are they?”
“Well Sebastian, you would know how they were if you had accepted at least one of their invitations to their many dinners in London,” Lady Smythe remarks, directing her piercing gaze at her grandson. “To my horror and embarrassment, I have heard that you neither visited them, nor the Campbells, nor the Griffiths once in all the time you spent in London.”
Lord Smythe pushes the porridge bowl away, and reaches for a slice of bread to crumble on his plate. “Well, we were rather busy in London,” he says, chewing on a tiny piece of bread, “And I didn’t feel well for some weeks, so we couldn’t attend as many…”
“Sebastian,” her ladyship interrupts, her expression horrified while she stares at her grandson, “I can’t believe you still haven’t lost the habit of speaking with your mouth full.”
Lord Smythe looks like child caught with his fingers in the biscuit jar, and he swallows hastily while his grandmother continues, “As for the issue regarding your lack of sociability – I don’t think I have to point out how absolutely dishonourable such a behaviour on your part is. You refusing to socialise with some of my oldest friends, not to mention some of the most respectable families in the country, is an absolute-“
She doesn’t get to finish her sentence, because a polite and quiet voice interrupts her by asking, “Your ladyship?”
Startled, Lady Smythe looks at Nick, who has stepped up next to her and is holding the fruit plate in front of her, his gaze politely cast down, pretending not to notice how his interruption has startled her ladyship.
“Well, we do not have to discuss this in front of the servants,” she says, and with a hostile glare at the brunette footman that surprises Kurt, she waves the plate away. “We have plenty of time for that later.”
On the one hand, Kurt would lie if he claimed that he isn’t enjoying, just a little bit, to see Lord Smythe not in control of a situation for the very first time. As the conversation continues however, the feeling of pity and sympathy towards his employer increases, and he feels relieved when Lady Smythe waves for Mr Moore to help her rise from her seat, thus declaring the meal to be over.
Her ladyship has just taken Sir Robert’s arm and walked the first steps into the direction of the drawing room, when Kurt looks up and spots Jane, standing in the door leading to the servants’ entrance, right next to the food table, and frantically whispering something into Nick’s ear.
Kurt frowns. The housemaids are not allowed in the dining room when the masters are present, and even when they have left, it’s the task of the footmen to take care of the dishes and the leftovers. Mrs Seymour once put it like this: “A good housemaid gets praise for her work. A perfect housemaid is one whose existence isn’t even remembered.” And while Kurt personally has a lot of problems with this statement, it seems to be the general rule of behaviour for all female employees in great households – which makes it even more odd to see Jane in the breakfast room. She looks very worried: her face is paler than usual, her brow is furrowed, and her fingers fiddle with her apron in a nervous way that is rather atypical for the usually so confident and collected young maid.
When she stops her whispering Nick nods, his expression now likewise concerned, and Kurt’s stomach twists uncomfortably. Jane vanishes into the adjoining room again, and Nick quickly walks over to Lord Smythe. He catches his elbow just as his friend starts to walk over to where his grandmother and Sir Robert are waiting for him, and whispers a few words into his ear. Lord Smythe’s brows knit in confusion, but he nods and looks at his grandmother. “Please go ahead,” he says, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Whatever is the matter?” her ladyship inquires, but Lord Smythe merely shakes his head, “Just a small issue concerning one of the servants. It won’t take long.”
“I should hope not,” Lady Smythe remarks, frowning at her grandson. “No gentleman keeps a lady waiting. I hope you are aware of that, Sebastian?”
“Yes, grandmother, I am,” Lord Smythe replies, and Kurt has the feeling that the other man is trying very hard to keep his voice polite. Lady Smythe keeps her stern gaze on him for a moment, before she turns to Sir Robert once more, asks, “Why don’t you tell me about your investments overseas in the meantime, Sir Robert?”, and finally walks out of the room with him.
Kurt notices that Mr Moore is looking expectantly at their employer, obviously waiting for the “small issue concerning one of the servants” to be discussed with him. Lord Smythe, however, merely nods at him briefly as he walks past him, “Carry on, Moore,” and vanishes behind the door through which Jane has disappeared mere seconds before.
Kurt knows it’s not the most polite thing to do, but, well – since Nick and Jeff are already busy collecting the dishes from the table, isn’t it the smartest thing for him to walk over to the food table and start stacking the leftovers – even if the table is located directly next to the half-ajar door to the other room? Kurt realises that his reluctance to eavesdrop on people has decreased significantly over the last months, but so far, it has never done him any harm. He is careful not to clatter the dishes too loudly, so that he can still hear the conversation taking place in the adjoining room.
“… didn’t interrupt anything,” he can hear Lord Smythe say. “Stop apologising already and tell me why you wanted to talk to me.”
There is a short pause, before Jane’s hesitant voice starts to explain, “I received a letter this morning, your lordship. From my mother.” She is silent for another moment before she continues, “Apparently, my father had an accident at work. He wasn’t injured as badly as other workers, but he hit his head very hard, and they haven’t been able to wake him yet.” Another pause, “Mother writes the doctor doesn’t know whether he will wake up at all.”
The plate Kurt is holding clacks loudly when he sets it down on the table with more force than necessary. These are really bad news. As horrible as the notion of losing her father is on his own, Kurt also knows what it would mean for Jane’s family. Her mother has work as a seamstress, but Jane has three younger siblings, and only one of them is old enough to work. Kurt doesn’t even want to imagine what the death of Mr Woodhouse would mean to the family – both emotionally and financially.
“I know the timing is very bad, with your grandmother visiting and everything,” Jane’s voice interrupts Kurt’s thoughts. “But still, I wanted to ask whether I could visit my family, just for a few days.”
Her voice doesn’t sound very hopeful, but Lord Smythe doesn’t need so much as a split second to answer, “Of course you must go.” Before Jane has the opportunity to reply anything, he continues, “If you hurry with changing out of your uniform and packing, you can catch the coach at noon in Wilton. Tell Howard to take you there in the carriage, and then you can easily make it.”
“But your lordship…” Jane starts to protest, only to be cut off by her employer, “No objections Jane, please. They only take a lot of time and I’m going to get my way in the end anyways. You can tell Mrs Seymour that I forced you to take the carriage, and I’ll deal with her disapproval.”
Kurt can’t see whether Jane is smiling or not, but he can hear the relief in her voice when she answers, “Thank you, your lordship.”
“Do you have enough money for the journey?” Lord Smythe asks, ignoring her gratefulness just like her objections. Kurt knows the answer to that question as well as Jane does. Servants like Jane or Jeff, who support their families, always send the largest portion of their wages home, and only keep what is necessary.
“I’ll ask Nick to lend me some money,” Jane says, “That won’t be a problem.”
Kurt hears the faint sound of fabric rustling, and then Jane’s loud protest, “Your lordship…”
“I’m not giving it to you,” Lord Smythe interrupts, “Those are three wages in advance. You still need to come back and work for them.”
“It’s too much, your lordship,” Jane objects, “One is more than enough.”
“Take two,” Lord Smythe says, “Please. Your family might need the money now.”
It’s an unfair argument, especially because it’s true. With having to pay the doctor, and with Mr Woodhouse not being able to work for god knows how long, Jane’s family will need every penny they can get. Kurt hears the housemaid sigh in defeat, and her voice is soft when she says, “Thank you, your lordship.”
“Don’t mention it,” Lord Smythe says, “Seriously, don’t. I can’t have that ruin my reputation.”
“I understand,” Jane replies, and Kurt can almost hear the smile in her voice, “We can’t have anyone know that you are actually a kind-hearted person, can we?”
“Hurry now, Jane,” Lord Smythe replies, and Kurt is almost certain that he is grinning too. “You don’t want to miss your carriage.” Kurt hears footsteps approaching, “I’ll tell Mr Moore and the boys that you’re leaving. Give my regards to your family.”
“God bless you, your lordship,” Jane says, and Kurt hears the rustling of her dress as she hurries away. A moment later, Lord Smythe appears in the doorway, his expression still a bit worried. He almost walks right into Kurt, who is still pretending to be terribly busy at the food table.
Lord Smythe’s expression changes from concerned to startled, and then, when his eyes have travelled over Kurt’s features down to what he is doing, into an impertinent grin. Kurt follows his gaze to his hands, and he can just barely suppress a curse when he realises that instead of scraping the leftover porridge from Lord Smythe’s plate into the bowl with the leftovers, he has neatly scraped it onto the previously white table cloth.
He doesn’t need to look at the grin on Lord Smythe’s face to know that he’s screwed, and he even less needs Lord Smythe bending down to whisper into his ear, “I think you missed a spot there, Kurt.”
He is glad that Lord Smythe doesn’t stay long enough to witness the embarrassed blush on his cheeks blossom into full bloom, instead, his employer straightens immediately, walks over to where Mr Moore is supervising Nick and Jeff’s work, and calmly informs him about Jane’s departure. The butler doesn’t look too pleased when he hears about Lord Smythe giving her two wages in advance, but he allows the footmen to hurry down to the kitchen to say goodbye to their friend.
Jane seems calm and collected again when she arrives in the kitchen, a small suitcase in her hand and a warm coat over her grey dress, though her face is still very pale. The boys and the other maids hug the petite girl, and Jane promises to write as soon as she has news – whether they are good news or bad news.
The three footmen accompany her outside and wave after the carriage when it pulls out of the courtyard. Together, they watch Jane’s figure grow smaller and smaller.
“Poor Jane,” Jeff says and sighs, “I hope she has good news soon.”
Kurt and Nick nod in agreement. “Maybe we don’t have to worry too much,” Nick says, “Mrs Woodhouse is very easily alarmed from what Jane has told me, so perhaps her father’s condition isn’t as critical.”
“Let’s hope it isn’t,” Kurt says. They spend another moment in comfortable silence, before Nick sighs and says, “Well, let’s get her ladyship something to drink, shall we?”
“Which reminds me – Lady Smythe doesn’t seem to like you very much, does she?” Kurt asks when the footmen walk back into the house.
“Not particularly, no,” Nick replies. “I don’t fit very well into her views on the distance a servant should keep to his master.”
“Well, sometimes you do seem a little too familiar with Lord Smythe,” Jeff says carelessly, and once more Kurt doesn’t know whether he finds his obliviousness endearing or worrying. “I mean, I get that’s because you’ve known him for a long time, but sometimes you two seem like friends, almost. Maybe you should try not to do that while she’s here.”
Kurt catches the amused twinkle in Nick’s eyes, but the brunette footman manages to keep a straight face and nods solemnly when Jeff turns to look at him.
“I will do that,” he says, “Given the mood her ladyship is in, she really doesn’t need any further provocation.”
“I almost feel bad for Lord Smythe,” Jeff admits, and Kurt nods in agreement.
“Oh well, he is used to her,” Nick says, “And in my experience, the best way to endure Lady Smythe is a large dose of patience and humour.”
But while that is true, it doesn’t take long for Kurt to realise that neither humour nor patience are enough to endure the true reason for Lady Smythe’s visit.
The rest of the day passes quickly. Lady Smythe retreats to her room to rest for a while, and Lord Smythe and Sir Robert make themselves comfortable in the library, while the servants downstairs get to know the two maids of the Dowager Countess: Miss Jenkinson, a grave lady in her late forties, and Frances, a young maid in her twenties, who smiles shyly and doesn’t dare to say a single word in the presence of Miss Jenkinson.
Since Kurt’s duty is to help in the kitchen while Nick and Jeff serve the gentlemen during the rest of the day, he only sees Lord Smythe again when the other man enters the dining room in the evening, his grandmother on his arm and a slightly apprehensive expression on his face.
Apparently, the rest has restored Lady Smythe’s energy: She takes to the conversation again with full force. During dinner she further talks about the acquaintances Kurt’s employer has neglected over the summer, and, to the apparent horror of Lord Smythe, she not only has plans to pay a few visits together with her grandson, but seems set on the idea to invite them for social gatherings and small parties to Bailey Hall.
“Everybody’s just returning from the season at London,” she says, cutting her meat with a strange, determined energy. “And nobody wants to spend all these months until Christmas at home. We can invite the gentlemen for hunting parties, and have music and a few balls for the ladies.”
She raises her fork to her mouth and starts to chew firmly, not catching the desperate look Lord Smythe is sending Sir Robert.
The conversation takes another unexpected turn later in the evening, when the gentlemen and Lady Smythe are seated on the soft pillows in the armchairs of the drawing room. At a sign of Mr Moore, Nick has gone back to the kitchen (presumably because Lady Smythe keeps glaring at him), and Kurt and Jeff are standing by the window, waiting for an opportunity to refill cups or glasses.
Lord Smythe and Sir Robert have just started a discussion about politics when her ladyship suddenly interrupts them by saying, “I heard that Lady Isabella’s sister Claudine has stayed here over the last few weeks?”
Lord Smythe head snaps up, his expression startled at the unexpected question, “Uhm, yes?”
“May I ask why Lady Claudine chose to accompany her sister and spent some time at your estate?” Lady Smythe says, raising her cup to her lips.
Lord Smythe groans, and his hand moves up to his hair immediately, his fingers threading through the brown strands, “Not you too, grandmother.”
“What do you mean, ‘not me too’?” Lady Smythe says, the corners of her mouth pulling down noticeably.
“I spent days fighting off Isabella and Arthur urging me to propose to Claudine,” Lord Smythe says, and Kurt notices how Lady Smythe’s eyebrows pull together in silent disapproval when he uses the informal address for his acquaintances. “Please don’t tell me you’re not hinting at that too.”
“I am astonished by your reaction,” Lady Smythe retorts, and sets down her cup. “Lady Claudine is a very accomplished young lady from a respected and old family. Well granted, her father isn’t the wealthiest man, that much is true, but luckily, you don’t need to look for money in your future bride, and her title and her family are highly recommend-“
“Grandmother, I’m twenty-three,” Lord Smythe interrupts her. His glass still in his hand, he stands up and starts pacing around the couch. “I’m not going to marry anybody, at least not yet. And I am definitely not marrying Claudine.”
“Twenty-three is no unreasonable age for a young man to find a wife,” Lady Smythe retorts, “And there are many very respectful young ladies among my acquaintances. If Lady Claudine doesn’t strike your fancy, I’m certain one of them will.”
“Why are you so keen on me getting married all of a sudden?” Lord Smythe asks, his tone getting more upset every minute. “I still remember how you said to Frederick that every man who marries before he is at least thirty-five has not understood the joy of…”
“Yes,” Lady Smythe interrupts him, her voice suddenly sounding strict and harsh, “That’s what I said to Frederick, when I thought that your brother had his whole life before him.”
And just like that, the atmosphere in the room changes. The amused smile drops from Sir Robert’s face, and instantly, he directs his concerned gaze at Lord Smythe, who is staring at his grandmother in shock. In all his time at Bailey Hall, Kurt has never heard anybody mention Lord Smythe’s brother, at least not in his presence, and if the hurt and upset expression on his face has anything to with that, he is glad that so far no one did.
Her ladyship appears not to notice the charged atmosphere, for she continues, “We have all hoped that the title and the estate would pass on to Frederick, when my son died at a very old age. There was no need for Frederick to marry. But sadly, neither my son nor Frederick were granted as much time here on earth as we anticipated.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, your ladyship,” Sir Robert’s calm and quiet voice interferes. “You have my whole sympathy. And I believe Sebastian is very aware of the responsibilities resting on his shoulders. But I’m sure there is no need for him to consider marriage just yet.”
“I have great respect for you as a person, Sir Robert,” Lady Smythe replies, directing her gaze now at the friend of her grandson, “But your family has only reached the ranks of nobility very recently, and your father was infamous for his rather… modern views on the world. Please do not take offence at me saying this, but maybe you don’t understand the responsibilities a family like ours has to consider in their decisions.”
Sir Robert smiles, but his smile is strained around the edges, and Kurt feels a sudden wave of hatred towards this woman, who has just insulted the most kind-hearted and patient person Kurt has ever met in his entire life. He is glad Nick is not present, for he is unsure how the footman would have reacted when seeing Lord Smythe’s and Sir Robert’s expressions.
Lady Smythe wastes no time caring about the feelings of either man, instead, she turns to her grandson once more, “Sebastian, I will now tell you the reason for this visit. I suggest, no, I demand that you will start to seriously consider marriage to a sensible young lady.”
“But I don’t want to marry…” Lord Smythe starts again, only to be cut off by his grandmother once more, “I understood that this is not what you want. But it is your responsibility as the last member of the Smythe family to make sure that our line of heritage will not die with you.”
She hasn’t raised her voice one bit during the whole conversation, and yet, Kurt can feel each of her words piercing the air, “It is your duty to make sure our family line is carried on, and to be perfectly honest, I am astonished and disappointed at your attitude. I highly doubt Frederick would have ever behaved in the same childish and irresponsible way that you seem to have adopted these days.”
The silence that follows her words could be cut with a knife. Sir Robert is still looking at Lord Smythe, pity and concern in his eyes, his own humiliation long forgotten. Mr Moore and Jeff have matching expressions of confusion on their faces, like they aren’t quite sure how they are expected to behave now. But Kurt’s eyes are fixed on Lord Smythe, who looks like someone just punched him in his stomach.
Kurt looks down and is surprised to see that his hands are clenched into tight fists, and tremble with silent emotions. Slowly, he forces himself to relax, just when Lady Smythe sighs deeply.
“Well, I suppose there is no use in continuing this conversation tonight, when you are clearly unwilling to see my reasons,” Lady Smythe says, and rises from her seat, though not without difficulty. “We shall discuss this tomorrow. I will retire to my room now. Mr Moore, would you be so kind and fetch Frances?”
Mr Moore nods to Jeff, who hurries out of the room to get the maid, while Mr Moore and Sir Robert both assist Lady Smythe, who seems a little unsteady on her feet, and clings to Sir Robert’s arm.
“That is very kind of you, Sir Robert,” she says, “If you could just help me up these stairs…”
“Of course, your ladyship,” Sir Robert replies, and Kurt can’t believe that the same man who was just so rudely insulted is now once more smiling at her ladyship. Sir Robert doesn’t help her immediately though, instead, he turns his head to look back at Lord Smythe, who is still standing by the sofa, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Sebastian.”
Kurt only notices now that Lord Smythe hasn’t moved one inch since the last remark of Lady Smythe. He isn’t looking at her or Sir Robert anymore though, instead, his gaze is fixed on the darkness outside the windows.
“There’s no need for that, Robert,” he says, his voice carefully neutral. “I think we should call it a night. Go to bed, I’ll just finish this drink.” His voice still void of emotion, he finally adds, “Goodnight, grandmother.”
“Goodnight, Sebastian,” his grandmother replies, not looking back at him once before she walks out of the room, carefully supported by Mr Moore and Sir Robert. The door closes behind them, leaving Kurt and Lord Smythe alone in the drawing room.
For a moment longer, Lord Smythe remains in the exact posture as before – rigid, stiff, almost defensive. Finally, he lets out a huge sigh, and with the sigh, the tension seems to leave his body. His legs bend when he leans back against the sofa behind him, like they can’t seem to bear the weight of his body any longer. His shoulders drop in a defeated motion, and his head falls back into his neck. His eyes are closed, Kurt notices, but not in a relaxed way: they are tightly pressed together, like he is trying very hard to suppress a thought or a memory from entering his mind. He opens them after a moment, and raises his glass to his lips, draining the rest of his wine in one sip.
Kurt watches the movement of his throat when he swallows, the motion of his hands when they carelessly set down the empty glass on one of the tables nearby. He watches his fingers as they travel over his face up to his hair, and he observes his lips when they form a toneless, and undoubtedly offensive curse.
A year ago, seeing his employer this distraught, this hurt, wouldn’t have affected Kurt in the same way it affects him now. Maybe he would have felt a small notion of pity, but maybe, just maybe, a tiny part of him would even have liked to see this man as helpless as Kurt had felt most of the time.
One year ago.
Kurt isn’t sure what exactly has changed. All he knows is that the man standing in front of him is the one that, though clumsily and tentatively, reached out to Kurt after their fight. It’s the same man that treated Lady Claudine with more respect than Kurt would have thought him capable of. It’s the same man that almost shrinks in front of his grandmother, the man who is Nick’s best friend, the man who didn’t hesitate for one second before he gave Jane enough money for her journey back home. It’s the man who, for some reason, fascinates Kurt enough to care about him, and a man that maybe he is starting to form some kind of friendship to.
A year ago, Kurt would have quietly slipped out of the room. Now, he sets down the tray he was holding and slowly walks over to his employer. He isn’t thinking about what he is doing, all that he knows is that it hurts him to see Lord Smythe – no, to see Sebastian like this, and that he somehow wants to comfort him. It’s more out of an impulse than a distinct decision that his fingers curl around Sebastian’s elbow.
Sebastian jumps slightly, and Kurt realises that the other man thought he was alone in the room, that Kurt wasn’t meant to witness what he saw. But it’s too late to retreat now, so Kurt leaves his hand where it is and asks, “Are you alright?”
Sebastian stares at Kurt’s hand on his elbow, and for a moment, Kurt isn’t sure whether he has even understood the question. Before he can repeat it, however, Lord Smythe quietly says, “No.”
He inhales deeply and looks up to meet Kurt’s gaze, “No, I’m definitely not alright.”
Kurt doesn’t know how to respond, or what he is even allowed to do in a situation like this. On the other hand, he would like to keep his hand where it is, just because the physical contact might be the easiest way to comfort Sebastian. On the other hand, he is crossing so many of the boundaries between them already that he thinks it’s safer to let his hand drop from his arm.
He doesn’t know whether it would be wise to ask one of the many questions he wants to voice, but he feels that he has to say something, so he asks, “Is there anything I can do?”
“I don’t think so,” Sebastian says. His gaze isn’t directed at Kurt any longer, instead, he stares into the darkness outside the window, past the flowers Kurt has put on the table just a day ago. For a moment, both of them are silent, and Kurt contemplates whether it would be the smartest thing to say something else, or just leave Sebastian alone. Finally, and without taking his gaze off the window, Sebastian says, “I’m sorry.”
Kurt isn’t sure what the other man is apologising for (he isn’t even sure whether the apology was meant for him), but he tilts his head and replies, “I don’t think you have anything to be sorry for, Sir.”
Sebastian laughs, and it’s not a joyful sound, “I have many things that I need to be sorry for, Kurt.” He turns his head, and his gaze meets Kurt’s, “You of all people should know that.”
It’s the first time that the past is openly addressed between them, and also the first time Sebastian admits to be sorry for what has happened. Kurt has imagined his reaction to this situation in very different scenarios: how he could tell Sebastian exactly how horrible the first time at Bailey Hall has been for him, or how he has kept his secrets all this time. But now, that he sees Sebastian in front of him, fighting some inner demons that clearly go beyond his previous conflict with Kurt, he no longer feels any urge to get satisfaction for what has happened.
“We all make mistakes,” he finally answers, “As long as we realise they were mistakes, and try not to repeat them in the future, I don’t think there are a lot of things that people can’t forgive eventually.”
His gaze never leaves Sebastian’s, and he notices how the expression on the other man’s face changes during his answer. There’s a hopeful twinkle in his eyes, and, maybe to reassure Sebastian that he meant what he just said, Kurt pulls the right corner of his mouth up into a light smile. It takes a moment for Sebastian to return the smile, but when he does, his face lights up in the way Kurt has hoped for the entire time.
“It’s late,” Kurt remarks, looking at the clock on the far end of the room. “You should go to bed too. I’m sure your grandmother takes her breakfast pretty early?”
“She does,” Sebastian groans, rolling his eyes and running his fingers over his face. Kurt is relieved to hear that the other man’s voice sounds as confident as usual when he adds, “You’re right. I should probably go to sleep. I need enough energy to face the old dragon in the morning.” Kurt grins and turns around to collect the glass Sebastian has left on the table. Before he can bend down, however, he suddenly feels warm skin on his own as fingers softly wrap themselves around his hand. He turns around and sees that Sebastian has reached out to hold Kurt back, his eyes searching for Kurt’s gaze one last time.
“Thank you, Kurt,” he says, and the sincereness in his voice, for some reason, causes Kurt’s heartbeat to quicken. Even more distracting than his words are Sebastian’s fingers, still loosely wrapped around Kurt’s wrist. His thumb is slowly moving up and down on the back of Kurt’s hand, as if it is trying to memorise the texture of Kurt’s skin. And as much as Kurt would like to deny that this simple touch is causing goosebumps on his arms, he can’t. He is thankful that at least his voice sounds completely unaffected when he replies, “You’re very welcome.”
With a last nod, Sebastian finally lets go of his wrist, and Kurt bends down to collect the glass Sebastian has left on the table. There’s a little bit of an awkward moment when Sebastian stumbles against Kurt shoulder as he tries to walk past him, but finally, both of them have reached the door to the corridor.
“Well…” Kurt begins, not entirely sure what he wants to say. This whole day has been strange, and suddenly, he wants nothing more than to curl up in his bed and forget about everything that feels somehow complicated – Jane’s father, Lady Smythe, Sebastian – for a couple of hours.
“Goodnight, Sir,” he says eventually, smiling at little, because even though whatever this is feels complicated, it also feels strangely good. Sebastian merely looks at him, his gaze darting over Kurt’s face, down to his hands holding his glass, and up to his face again. He opens his mouth to say something, hesitates for a second, and then closes it again. Finally, he returns Kurt’s smile and replies, “Sweet dreams, Kurt.”
His eyes linger on Kurt’s face for a second longer before he turns around to leave. Kurt’s gaze follows him as he tries to process why their conversation leaves a strange and foreign sensation in his chest.
He isn’t sure what exactly has just happened between them. But when he looks at Sebastian’s back as the other man walks towards the staircase, he has the distinct feeling that it is significant.