January – February 1851
Kurt stares at the butler in disbelief for a long moment, before he slowly repeats, his voice sounding strangely distant to his own ears, “Lord Smythe has left Bailey Hall?”
“He departed in the carriage,” Mr Moore emphasises, looking at Kurt with a puzzled expression on his face that indicates very clearly that he doesn’t understand why his youngest footman has suddenly become this slow on the uptake, “He said he planned to travel to London first, and then to Edinburgh, to see how Sir Robert is recovering.”
“Did something happen?” Kurt asks, suddenly feeling perturbed. “Something with Sir Robert…?”
“No no,” Mr Moore interrupts quickly when he sees Kurt’s concern, “No, his lordship assured me that Sir Robert is doing quite well, there is no reason to feel alarmed. Lord Smythe said he merely wishes to inquire about Sir Robert’s condition personally, and stay with him for a while after leaving him alone on Christmas and New Year. He also indicated that he wishes to visit his solicitor in London, but I assume he won’t…”
Kurt keeps staring at the butler, nodding mechanically even though he is no longer listening to a word of what the other man is saying. All of a sudden, he feels strangely detached from his surroundings, and only vaguely realises that he is following Mr Moore down the corridor. He isn’t quite sure what to make of what the butler has just told him. He doesn’t doubt that it is true, but he can’t make sense of it at first, can’t find an answer as to why Sebastian would leave this abruptly.
It seems strange that Sebastian took off in such a hurry (especially since Nick’s condition is still a little critical), and without saying goodbye, without talking to Kurt first, telling that footman that he had to leave, and explaining why he had to leave.
There must be a reason, Kurt manages to assure himself, even if he can’t understand it right now. Perhaps – even though Kurt wishes deeply this not to be the reason – Sir Robert’s condition is worse than Sebastian let himself admit to Mr Moore. Perhaps there is truly some urgent, private business at London regarding his finances, or maybe even politics, that Sebastian can’t share with the servants. Perhaps something happened with his grandmother. Or perhaps one of his friends (or, as Kurt has chosen to think of them lately, his acquaintances) has gotten himself into some trouble, and has called on Sebastian for help.
But even though he is able to come up with a number of possible justifications for Sebastian’s departure, what remains is a nagging doubt somewhere at the back of Kurt’s mind, a doubt that derives from the fact that Kurt cannot find a reason for why Sebastian would leave without an explanation. What could be this urgent that he couldn’t wait for half an hour until Kurt returned, then snatch him away under the pretence of ordering the footman to pack his suitcase, and explain everything to him in private?
It’s this question, along with a growing self-consciousness about the fact that Sebastian and he didn’t have any opportunity to talk about what happened between them, which leaves a queasy feeling in Kurt’s stomach.
But perhaps, Kurt realises suddenly, he is jumping to conclusions. Maybe Sebastian has left something for him – a note, a letter, something to explain his sudden departure.
Beside him, Mr Moore has resumed his original lecture on how to pack his lordship’s suitcase – as if Kurt hasn’t helped Nick half a dozen times packing Sebastian’s clothes over these last months. Impatiently, Kurt waits for an opportunity to interrupt the butler, and when Mr Moore pauses briefly, he quickly interjects, “I will take care of it immediately, Mr Moore. I would just like to quickly check on Nick before I fetch the suitcase.”
Mr Moore’s brows furrow, though Kurt cannot determine whether in annoyance at the footman interrupting him or at Kurt expressing his wish to delay his duties, and replies, “I believe Nick is still asleep. He hasn’t woken since you left with Doctor Bell.”
While that eliminates the possibility of Nick being able to explain Sebastian’s sudden departure, it doesn’t rule out the possibility that Sebastian has left some note with him – addressed either to Nick, or Kurt, or both of them. “I shan’t disturb him,” Kurt assures the butler. “And I’ll start with the packing right away, I promise.”
Mr Moore sighs deeply before waving dismissively, muttering something about youth and duties and gratitude under his breath as he continues to walk down the corridor. Kurt only waits until the butler has vanished behind the next corner before he makes his way up the stairs as quickly and quietly as possible, taking two steps at a time. He slows only when he approaches Nick’s door, tiptoeing down the last part of the corridor before gently turning the doorknob.
Nick is alone, which in itself is a testament to his recovery, illustrating that none of the servants feel the anxiety to keep close watch over him every minute of the day any longer. He has burrowed deep beneath his blankets, and Kurt can only make out the curve of his cheek and his hair, dark against the white pillow.
Despite his nervousness, Kurt can’t help the smile that crosses his features at seeing Nick this peaceful. He makes sure to move quietly around the room while he searches for a note, a letter, anything that Sebastian could have left in an inconspicuous corner. He checks the windowsill, the books on Nick’s desk, he lifts the white porcelain bowl from the washstand, he looks under the bed, he even climbs on a chair to peer onto the dusty top of the old wardrobe – but there is no letter, no note in sight.
When he has looked in every corner, every place he can possibly think of, Kurt sits down on the chair next to Nick’s bed – a sinking feeling in his stomach, but still thinking hard. Perhaps he is merely looking in the wrong places. Would Sebastian really have left something here, in a room that Jeff and Mr Moore and Doctor Bell and Mrs Seymour will continue to enter regularly over the next couple of days, exposing any note to a constant danger of being discovered?
He sits there for a few moments longer, listening to Nick’s deep breaths which turn into light snores every time he inhales. Despite his earlier promise to Mr Moore, Kurt decides that it won’t hurt to postpone the packing for just a couple of minutes longer, and he slips out of the room as noiselessly as he entered it.
The first room he searches is his own, and he examines it as thoroughly as he checked Nick’s. When he has looked in all the obvious hiding spots, he even slides a hand under his pillow, hoping that his fingertips will brush against a piece of paper – but all they meet is stiff and cold fabric. He moves on to examine Jeff’s pillow in the same way, because it occurs to him that Sebastian, who has probably never been in this room before, couldn’t have known which bed belongs to Kurt. Only when his fingers brush once more against nothing more than cool linen does he realise his own stupidity. Hiding something beneath Kurt or Jeff’s pillows would in no way be safer than hiding something in Nick’s room – quite the contrary.
Before he can allow himself to start feeling foolish and humiliated, Kurt quickly leaves the room, deciding that the servant’s quarters are out of the question. He takes the stairs up to the second floor, thinking that he should have started to search Sebastian’s own rooms right away. Thankful that none of the maids have come up yet to clean the chambers after Sebastian’s departure, he starts with the study, where he checks the messily scattered letters and half-finished notes on the desk (none of them addressed to Kurt or Nick) and between the books on shelves that, after Sebastian’s stay of almost two weeks, are beginning to gather dust again. When his search continues to prove fruitless, he moves onto search Sebastian’s bedroom: the bed, the wardrobe, the washstand – but all in vain.
Finally, Kurt finds himself once again in the library, taking every book out of the shelves that he can remember talking about with Sebastian and browsing through their pages. The stacks on the tables and chairs are piling higher and higher, and yet all Kurt finds are two old bookmarks and a pressed flower, the faded bloom of a clematis which must have been hidden between the pages of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida for some years already.
Eventually, he stands in the middle of the room, slowly turning and scrutinizing the shelves for any volume he might have overlooked. As he turns, his gaze falls on a painting, a painting that he hasn’t paid much attention to over these last months, mainly because its subject was at the centre of Kurt’s attention.
He takes a step towards the wall, his eyes fixed on Sebastian’s features smiling down at him from above the fireplace. Kurt remembers how he saw this painting for the first time, on his very first day at Bailey Hall, when Nick showed him around the estate. He recalls wondering what his employer would be like, and how he tried to read in Sebastian’s features what kind of person the young earl would turn out to be. Now, more than a year later, Kurt feels like he simultaneously knows so much more, and yet, not nearly enough about the other man. But looking at the portrait brings back some unpleasant memories of their early encounters, memories that stir the nagging voice inside his head, the one which keeps asking:
What if Sebastian hasn’t left him, or Nick, or anyone an explanation for his sudden departure?
What if he had not so much as spared a thought for Kurt before he left?
Gnawing on his bottom lip, Kurt leaves the library, not bothering to clean up the chaos. He can always do that later, he decides, and, in case someone complains, claim that it was Sebastian who has left the library in this state – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time.
He keeps thinking as he fetches the suitcase from the storeroom, and brings it up to Sebastian’s bedroom, leaving it on the mattress before he opens the doors of the wardrobe. He doesn’t pay much attention to what he is doing, because after countless times of packing and unpacking suitcases, Kurt doesn’t need to stop his contemplation while he throws socks and undergarments, shirts and trousers and waistcoats into the brown trunk.
He has to accept the fact that apparently, Sebastian not only refrained from waiting and explaining his departure to Kurt, but he also didn’t bother to leave an explanation behind. Kurt briefly considers the possibility that Sebastian might send a letter from London, like he did during the time he stayed at Brighton with Sir Robert. But as much as Kurt desperately wants to justify Sebastian’s actions, he slowly begins to accept that there is really nothing that truly explains why Sebastian has left his home without so much as a glance back when his best friend is just recovering from a serious illness.
And even less, why he did it without giving Kurt an opportunity to talk to him about what happened that morning in Nick’s room.
It takes Kurt a moment to comprehend that he has been standing in front of Sebastian’s open suitcase, staring at the piece of clothing in his hands for what must have already been a couple of minutes. His thumb moves over the smooth fabric, tracing its delicate pattern and the neat seams. It’s one of Sebastian’s favourite waistcoats, a light blue one with brass buttons. Kurt remembers holding it in his hands before, passing it to Nick when they were packing for Sebastian’s trip to Bath. It feels like a long time ago. And suddenly, he remembers that they also packed a scarf in a matching shade of blue – a scarf that, currently, rests under a loose board beneath the window of Kurt’s room.
Kurt doesn’t know how long he stands in front of Sebastian’s bed, staring at the waistcoat while that fateful afternoon in the forest plays over and over inside his mind.
He remembers the way Sebastian’s fingers brushed against his skin when he was tying the scarf around Kurt’s neck in an unexpected gesture of affection. He recalls other incidents: the afternoon in Sebastian’s bathroom, and his wet skin smooth beneath Kurt’s fingertips. Christmas morning, and their mutual reluctance to let go of each other’s hands. And finally, that morning by Nick’s bed, climaxing in an impulsive kiss tasting of longing, reassurance and the excitement of newly discovered feelings.
But as Kurt reflects on these incidents, he begins to remember other things as well: Sebastian’s reluctance to speak to Kurt, his repeated withdrawal from what could have become intimate situations, his hesitance to indulge in the flirtation with Kurt. He recalls how Sebastian was the one to pull away that afternoon in the bathroom, when Kurt was ready to cross the invisible line between them. He muses about the look on Sebastian’s face after their first kiss: a tentative happiness mixing with relief and wanting, but also a certain doubt and hesitance clouding his gaze. He remembers what seemed like attempts to speak to Kurt, yet shying away from the confrontation – and Kurt, too caught up in his own happiness to notice the signs, not pressing for a conversation, believing that they had all the time in the world to talk about what would become of them now.
What if – and Kurt suddenly realises that this is the question that has been at the back of his mind since the moment Mr Moore had told him about the sudden departure – what if the kiss, and everything that has happened between them over the last couple of days, weeks, is the reason why Sebastian has left?
In the winter after Kurt turned nine years old, some boys from the village tried to skate on the frozen surface of a small pond behind Chawton Manor. Kurt was among them, and it was out of sheer misfortune that he was the one to first reach the middle of the pond, where the ice wasn’t yet thick enough to bear the weight of a young boy. It cracked under his feet, and Kurt toppled down into the icy water.
It wasn’t truly dangerous – the pond wasn’t deep enough for Kurt to sink completely underwater, and the other boys pulled him out immediately. While Mrs Norris, the housekeeper, ran down to the village to fetch his mother, the maids in the kitchen fussed over Kurt – they freed the shaking boy from his soaked clothes, wrapped him in blankets in front of the fireplace and rubbed his arms and legs until Kurt stopped shaking, and his skin was glowing pink with warmth again.
While it wasn’t a particularly traumatising event, neither has it become a pleasant childhood memory. It takes Kurt a moment to understand why he remembers the incident now, standing in Sebastian’s bedroom and clutching an innocent piece of clothing so tightly that the fabric starts to wrinkle. When he tumbled down into the icy water as a boy, there was a split second of complete numbness, of not feeling anything, a few almost blissful moments before the shock of the icy reality around him set in.
There is no other reason for Sebastian’s departure, Kurt realises with startling clarity, the numbness in his chest giving way to something much more awful, no other reason than Sebastian deciding to run away from Bailey Hall, from Kurt, from what happened between them. While Kurt was too busy revelling in his own happiness, Sebastian decided to avoid the inevitable confrontation by leaving under the pretence of checking on Sir Robert and settling something in London.
He could have seen the signs, Kurt realises. He should have seen the signs, should have paid attention to what was actually going on around him, instead of dreaming about what could be. Until mere seconds ago, he had clung onto the idea that Sebastian’s feelings for him were of the same nature as Kurt’s: unsure and hesitant, and yet starting to evolve into something deeper, something that was worth crossing the boundaries between them. But in this moment of clarity, Kurt realises that Sebastian’s actions show that Kurt clearly had the wrong idea about what was truly happening between them.
And yet – letting go of this idea hurts more than Kurt ever would have anticipated.
Suddenly, there is a gentle touch on his elbow, and when he turns his head, he sees Jane standing next to him, a concerned expression on her face. “Are you alright, Kurt?” she asks.
Only when her fingertips touch his cheek, and Kurt feels the dampness on his own skin, he realises that he has started to cry. He looks at Jane, unable to form words, to come up with an explanation of why he has never been so far from being ‘alright’. Even in this state, he is aware that he needs to come up with a plausible explanation why he is standing in front of Sebastian’s opened suitcase, clutching the other man’s vest in his hands and weeping – but he can’t think of anything to say. Instead, he just stares at the girl in front of him, hoping that she will understand, and at the same time praying that she won’t understand anything at all.
Jane doesn’t pay any attention to the waistcoat or the opened suitcase. Instead, her gaze lingers on Kurt’s features while her fingertips brush over his cheek, trying to wipe the tears away. She doesn’t ask anything, but her touch is soothing, and her gaze concerned while she patiently waits for Kurt to speak.
“I...” Kurt finally tries, but his voice breaks at the first sound, and he has to clear his throat before he can try again, “I’m sorry...”
“This is nothing you need to feel sorry for,” Jane interrupts him gently. She takes the waistcoat out of his fingers, lays the wrinkled fabric aside, and hands him her handkerchief, “To be honest, I was almost expecting this.”
Kurt takes the white piece of cloth to dab on his cheeks and the tip of his nose, blinking at the maid in confusion, unsure as to what she is referring to.
“It’s been a bit much,” Jane says, resting her hand on Kurt’s shoulder and gently pulling the younger boy against her delicate frame, giving Kurt every opportunity to pull away if the affectionate gesture should be unwelcome. When Kurt merely rests his cheek against her shoulder, she continues, “All those weeks with this dreadful epidemic, and the fussing over New Year’s, and then Nick’s illness... and you have born it so well.”
She sighs, her gaze fixed on something in the distance, “It’s strange, because when times are really hard, everyone seems to simply… work. They function. It’s only when the worst is over that people tend to break.”
She leans back and smiles at Kurt, her hand resting on his arm in silent comfort, “When my father was so ill in September, I couldn’t even pause for a moment to think about what it would have been like had he really passed away. There was just so much to do, and since my mother couldn’t leave him alone, I had to take care of everything: cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for the little ones… And in all that time, I didn’t cry, not even once. It was only two days after the doctor assured us that my father would make a full recovery, I found myself standing in the kitchen one morning, stirring the porridge and sobbing uncontrollably.”
“That isn’t...” Kurt begins, wanting to point out that he is not breaking down because of exhaustion or nerves, that he is not overworked, that it is simply the disappointment that comes from having to face the fact that he has once again trusted the wrong person that hurts so unbelievably much – but instead, he closes his mouth again. Because how on earth could he ever explain to Jane what he is really crying about?
“It’s nothing you need to feel ashamed of,” Jane says, smiling reassuringly, “We all have our limitations, Kurt. And I saw how hard you worked over these last weeks. You took care of everyone, especially of Nick – and I think that now it is time we take care of you.”
She looks at Kurt with so much honest concern and understanding in her hazel eyes that Kurt can’t help but lean forward and rest his face against the soft fabric covering her shoulder once more, thinking that if he ever wished for a sister, he would have wanted someone like Jane.
“Now,” Jane says, letting Kurt rest against her shoulder for a moment before she gently grips his shoulders and pushes him up, just enough to be able to meet his gaze, “I want you to go to bed, lie down, and sleep as long as you want to. I’ll talk to Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore about letting you rest for a day or two.”
Kurt blows his nose noisily before he shakes his head, saying, “I need to finish packing first.”
“I can do that,” Jane objects, steering him gently but firmly towards the door. “I’ll have the suitcase ready in a few minutes, don’t worry.”
“But I...” Kurt tries again, but Jane interrupts him, “Kurt, we’ll manage without you this evening. Jeff can take care of Nick, I can see to the packing, don’t worry. What you really need to do is get some rest.”
For a second, Kurt thinks he should object to this, should insist that he is fine – but then, he really isn’t. He feels awful, and the prospect of getting away from everything, of getting to rest for a few hours, alone, to be able to sort his thoughts, or even just to wallow in self-pity, sounds too good to refuse.
“Thank you,” he says, squeezing Jane’s hand gratefully. The head housemaid merely smiles and ushers him out of the room, “Don’t mention it. Now off with you, before I change my mind.”
Without any further objection, Kurt makes his way down the corridor and the flight of stairs, retreating to his room without meeting anyone. He undresses quickly and folds his clothes neatly on one of the chairs before he slips under the covers, pulling the blankets close around his body and resting his heated cheek against the cool linen of his pillow.
He doesn’t know what Jane tells Mr Moore, but soon he can hear their voices from below, raised in what appears to be a heated argument. The voices eventually subside into the usual clattering and bustling coming from the kitchen, and half an hour later, soft footsteps approach his door, hesitating briefly before someone turns the doorknob. Kurt hears Jeff whisper his name, but he remains where he is, his eyes shut tightly, and pretends to be asleep. Jeff remains in the doorframe for a few moments, listening to what Kurt hopes appear to be deep and regular intakes of breath, before he shuts the door quietly behind him. Kurt can hear his footsteps moving to the door opposite their room, and the faint sound of voices a moment later tells him that Nick is awake now. Jeff will probably tell him that Sebastian has left Bailey Hall, Kurt realises suddenly, and that Kurt has retreated to his room to get some rest. For a moment, he feels bad for making everyone, including Nick, worry about him – and for another moment, he wished to be the one to tell the other footman about Sebastian’s departure. It wouldn’t have been too hard to catch Nick alone for a little while, to inform him not only about the fact that Sebastian had left Bailey Hall, but also why he did. Because if Kurt is sure of anything, it is that Nick would be able to offer some helpful advice.
But the fact that he can’t even think about it, can’t remember the moment Sebastian and he shared at Nick’s bedside without fresh tears clouding his vision, tells him that he should calm down a little before he tries to talk to Nick – not only to be able to relate what happened without bursting into tears, but also to give the other footman some time to recover from his illness before being faced with new problems.
And since apart from Nick, there is no one at Bailey who Kurt can confide in, he has to accept that this time, he has to deal with his heartbreak on his own.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, Kurt thinks bitterly. He pulls the covers over his head, as if they could help him to shut out the world around him. After all, it hasn’t even been a whole year since Kurt spent another night crying over misplaced trust in someone who, despite Kurt’s belief regarding a change in their relationship, had sorely disappointed him. He almost has to laugh when he realises the cyclical turn of events – how he is crying, once again, because Sebastian has left for London without him. The chief difference, however, is that this time, Kurt is not let down by an employer who had started to behave more amiably towards him – he is disappointed by a friend, a friend who Kurt believed would soon become so much more.
The longer he lies in his bed, clutching the edge of his blanket and staring at the ceiling, the more the disappointment and hurt give way to other feelings – humiliation, mostly, and later, when the afternoon has long faded into a grey twilight, and Kurt can hear the other servants rushing down to the kitchen for dinner, anger. He doesn’t know whether he feels more angry at Sebastian for leaving him, or at himself, for once more being so stupid and naive and trusting, when he had observed how Sebastian approached relationships for more than a year, and should know better than everybody else – except for Nick, maybe – that Sebastian could never have given Kurt the relationship he dreamed about.
Long after Jeff has tiptoed into the room, changed quietly into his nightshirt and blown out the candle, careful not to disturb his roommate, Kurt still finds himself unable to fall asleep. It must be around midnight when he finally starts to cry again, muffling his sobs against his pillow. What hurts most is not the shock, not the anger – it’s the fact that apparently, Kurt is not important enough, is not worth enough for Sebastian to stay and fight whatever doubts he has about them.
It’s only in the earliest hours of the morning when the exhaustion of the last days, and particularly the last hours take over and Kurt finally drifts off into a deep slumber. If he dreams about anything that night, he cannot recall it when he wakes the next morning.
When Kurt appears at the breakfast table with dark circles under his eyes and pale cheeks, his eyes barely open due to the dull pain throbbing behind his right temple, Mr Moore takes one long look at him before he sends the boy back to bed, claiming that he won’t have another person falling ill if he can prevent it.
While Kurt welcomes the opportunity to sleep for a few more hours, he finds that being alone brings too many unpleasant thoughts and memories, things he can’t bring himself to face right now – at least, not alone. So, despite Mr Moore’s strict instructions, he tiptoes over to Nick’s room in the early afternoon. He is relieved to see that Nick is looking much better, and they spend the afternoon talking and playing cards until Jeff comes up to bring them their dinner. The blond footman stays half an hour to complain that they get to enjoy themselves (Nick’s objection that this is only because Kurt is exhausted while he himself was on the brink of dying is brushed aside with a shrug) while he is left alone with Mr Moore, who makes sure to keep his last remaining footman as busy as possible. Jeff leaves the room half an hour later, taking the empty trays with him down to the kitchen to get his own dinner.
A few times over the course of the afternoon, Kurt opens his mouth, desperate to tell Nick about everything that happened, but every time he looks at the other man and sees the slowly fading paleness of his cheeks, and the way he still tires quickly when talking for too long, he can’t bring himself to address the issue. Partly because he is not sure whether Nick has the energy to deal with what Kurt is going to reveal, and partly because Kurt is not sure how Nick will react to his confession in the first place. He is uncertain whether Nick will reprimand him for being too naïve, and remind him that he has started to dream of something, to hope for something that he cannot get from Sebastian – a fact he should have been aware of from the start. And while Kurt is slowly reaching that realisation himself, he is not sure whether he feels ready to hear Nick voice it.
Naturally, the topic of Sebastian’s departure does come up in their conversation, right at the beginning, when Nick asks him whether Sebastian said anything to Kurt before he left. Somehow, Kurt manages to keep a largely indifferent expression when he replies that he spent too much time at the village that afternoon, and was therefore unable to see Sebastian before he left.
“I’m worried about Sir Robert,” he remarks, not only because it is true, but also because he wants to distract Nick from the original topic of their conversation, “He has seen so many doctors now, but it doesn’t seem like his condition is improving.”
“I was hoping that it wouldn’t turn into something chronic,” Nick agrees, “But I’m afraid that is what’s happening.” His expression becomes a little puzzled when he adds, “I understand that Sebastian wants to check on him. He probably wants to see whether there is anything he can do to help. I just find it strange that he took off in such a hurry.”
Kurt would be lying if he claimed that he is not immensely proud of himself when he maintains his unaffected expression, shrugs and replies, “Perhaps there is some other urgent matter in London. I’m sure he will send a letter soon – if only to see how you are doing.”
Nick looks at him for a long moment, his gaze sceptical, like there is something about Kurt’s response he finds strange – but then he merely asks Kurt whether Jane has heard anything from her family. And it’s with a bitter taste in his mouth that Kurt wonders whether he has finally become as convincing at acting as Nick and Sebastian have been all the time he has known them.
Sometimes during these days, Kurt feels like he has so many secrets and lies bottled up inside him that he fears at some point, he won’t be able to keep silent any longer and will do something stupid, like announcing at the breakfast table, “By the way, his lordship kissed me. Twice. Harriet, could you pass me the butter, please?”
But of course, he doesn’t. Under Jane and Mr Moore’s watchful gazes, he stays in bed for a day longer, and then he is ordered to take it easy for a while. Much to Jeff’s chagrin, Mr Moore keeps the blond footman busy while Kurt is chiefly assigned one task: taking care of Nick. The third footman’s recovery goes slowly, but smoothly, and every time Doctor Bell visits his patient, he leaves with a more satisfied expression. After three days, Nick is allowed to leave his bed for the first time, and Kurt and Jeff help him down to the kitchen where he spends an hour chatting with the other servants, before Mrs Bertram, still afraid that he might overexert himself, gently but sternly tells him to retreat to his room.
Every day now, Nick is able to spend longer periods in the kitchen or in the library, reading or playing cards with the other footmen. Once, he asks Kurt to bring over the chessboard, and an unpleasant feeling spreads through Kurt’s chest when he gazes at the innocent game when the memory of a firm shoulder pressing against his, a low chuckle in his ear when he mistakenly moves the wrong figure crosses his mind. He is not entirely certain whether he manages to keep his expression indifferent, but he knows that his voice quivers ever so lightly when he claims not to be in the right mood for chess. He can feel Nick’s piercing gaze on him for the rest of the afternoon, but the other man doesn’t inquire any further, and Kurt feels relieved about that.
He is certain that by now, Nick must have grown suspicious, not only because of Sebastian’s hasty departure and Kurt’s thinly veiled reluctance to talk about the other man, but also because even after five days, not a single letter from Sebastian has reached Bailey Hall.
Kurt already feels angry at Sebastian for a vast number of reasons, but that the other man doesn’t even care to inquire after Nick, when his best friend’s condition had been really serious, is something that Kurt begrudges him even more than his sudden departure.
“Has his lordship written when we can expect his return, Mr Moore?” Kurt finally blurts out one afternoon, when he is helping the butler to collect the large wine jugs and bring them down to the kitchen, where Nick and Jeff give them a thorough going-over. He doesn’t expect the butler to give a positive response – he merely wants to make certain that no letter from Sebastian has escaped his attention at the breakfast table.
“He has not written anything,” Mr Moore replies, and thus confirms Kurt’s suspicions, “But he told me not to expect any correspondence from him when he departed.”
“He did?” Kurt asks, confused at this new piece of information.
“He did,” Mr Moore confirms, “Given the fact that he is busy travelling, I didn’t expect him to write in any case. He merely asked me to write him immediately should there be any change in Nicholas’s condition.”
Kurt is just about to lift one of the larger jugs, but now he stops dead in his tracks to stare at the butler and ask, “What?”
“He gave me explicit orders to keep him informed about Nicholas’s recovery,” Mr Moore says, running his finger over the rim of a crystal glass, testing whether there is even a tiny crack in the surface. “I have posted three of four letters, to assure him that Nicholas is doing fine, and that he doesn’t need to worry.”
He looks at Kurt, and when he sees the footman still staring at him, his left eyebrow rises in mild rebuke and he says, “That jug isn’t going to carry itself, Kurt.”
The revelation that Sebastian did not simply leave without forgetting about his best friend should be reassuring – and yet, some awful, bitter part inside of Kurt would have liked to just be able to stay mad at Sebastian. It is almost grudgingly that Kurt admits to himself that he has misjudged the other man – at least in this regard.
It’s on the eighth day after Sebastian’s departure when Kurt finally finds an opportunity to talk to Nick about what has happened.
The day is unseasonably warm, and the sunshine grows even stronger around noon, melting the last remnants of snow away. Since Doctor Bell mentioned when he visited his patient the day before that a little bit of fresh air would do Nick good, Kurt and Jeff bring out a chair into the rose garden, and wrap Nick up in every blanket they can find before they bring him outside.
“I feel like one of them,” Nick laughs, freeing his arm from beneath the countless blankets and points towards the rose bushes. In autumn, Howard and Jonathan helped the gardener to protect the delicate flowers from the first frost by wrapping old jute sacks around their stems, and there really is a certain likeness between the plants and the muffled up footman.
“Don’t complain,” Kurt says. He sits down next to Jeff on the low wall surrounding the rose garden, pulling a blanket around his own shoulders to protect himself against the chilly air. “You know that Doctor Bell said you need air and sunshine.”
“And since we can’t afford to send you to the seaside, that leaves the garden,” Jeff concludes, pulling his legs closer to his body and resting his chin on his knees.
Kurt knows Jeff hasn’t thought about the casual remark, but the mention of the seaside, and the accompanying image of the bright beach of Brighton he saw once on a postcard, nevertheless causes an unpleasant feeling to spread through his chest. He hates how everything around him – the books in the library, the boots in the corridor, the flowers in the drawing room – reminds him of Sebastian, and he hates himself for not being able to push the memories these reminders bring aside, no matter how hard he tries.
He is glad when Jeff hands him a book to read from, not because it’s one of his favourite Dickens’ stories, but because it gives him something to distract him from his thoughts. He reads quietly, only loud enough for the other two boys to hear. Nick seems to doze off after the first couple of pages, his face still turned towards the sunshine, a relaxed smile on his lips, and when Kurt’s gaze meets Jeff, they smile at the calm expression on Nick’s face.
After approximately half an hour, Kurt’s looks up from the pages when he spots a movement from the corner of his eye. He sees Harriet standing in the doorway, gesturing, and it takes Kurt a few seconds to understand that her silent request is not directed at him, but at Jeff. The blond footman grins and nods, and quietly hops down from the wall, careful not to disturb Nick. When he catches Kurt’s questioning gaze, he merely shrugs and winks at the other boy before hurrying after Harriet, who has disappeared in the door again.
Kurt stares after them, not sure whether he should be feeling surprised or worried. He can’t claim that he hasn’t noticed how close the maid and the other footman have grown over the last weeks – and yet, he didn’t think that there was anything truly serious going on between them. He quickly casts a look at Nick, but the other footman is blissfully oblivious as to where the blond boy he is in love with has just vanished to, and Kurt feels thankful for it.
He doesn’t continue reading. He remains on the wall, and watches the last bits of ice slowly melting into puddles of muddy water on the gravel. There are birds chirping in the trees of the park, not many, but the remaining ones are warbling so loudly that one might believe that spring has already arrived. And yet, Kurt can’t find anything soothing about the sound – the chirps seem harsh, demanding, like they are pressing him to do what he should have done days ago.
He manages to keep silent for a few minutes longer, before he finally blurts out, “Nick?”
The other footman gives no answer at first, and Kurt has to repeat his address to extract a far-off, “Hmm?” from Nick. He doesn’t open his eyes or turn his face, but for Kurt, this acknowledgement is enough to finally blurt out, “I kissed Sebastian.”
The confession is enough to startle Nick out of his drowsiness: he turns his head and blinks at Kurt before he slowly asks, “You what?”
“I kissed Sebastian,” Kurt repeats, but then he remembers the way the other man leaned in, the eager way his lips moved against Kurt’s, and he hastily corrects himself, “He was… I mean, we kissed. When you were ill. Or, not when you were ill, when you were better. Perhaps because you were better, I mean… and… well…” Kurt trails off, glancing at Nick uncertainly. When the other footman merely keeps looking at him with a blank expression on his face, Kurt begs, “Say something, please.”
Kurt isn’t entirely sure what he expected from Nick, but he feels oddly relieved when Nick merely sighs deeply and closes his eyes, nodding a few times before he says, “I was afraid something like this might happen sooner or later.” He opens his eyes again and looks at Kurt, his expression even but his gaze inquiring when he asks, “So, you two kissed?”
Kurt nods, his gaze fixed on the muddy puddle next to his right boot, and says, “I wouldn’t have thought that it would happen at all. I mean, I thought about it for a long time, and I really wanted to kiss him, and there was that afternoon, a little while back, when we already almost kissed, and I…” He trails off when he realises that Nick can’t possibly follow his flustered account, but when he looks up, he can spot a faint but understanding smile in the crinkling corners of Nick’s mouth.
“Maybe you should start at the beginning,” the other man suggests gently. Kurt takes a deep breath, nods, and begins to tell Nick everything. He tells him about the first changes in their relationship: Sebastian’s apology after his return from London, their first private encounters, the first, tentative touches. He knows that Nick has witnessed some of these, of course, but he feels like it’s important to include them in his account before he moves on to the things Nick is still unaware of. He tells him about the increasing level of intimacy between them, of the flirtations, the signs of affection. He mentions the afternoon in the forest, talks about Teleny and the scarf that is still hidden in his room. He talks about the evening in Sebastian’s bathroom, and about how willing he was in that particular moment to cross all boundaries between them. He tells Nick about Sebastian’s Christmas present, about the hours they spend together at Nick’s bedside – and eventually, he tells him about the kiss.
Nick listens to his tale silently and patiently, not interrupting Kurt once. When Kurt reaches the end of his account – the afternoon he found out that Sebastian had left Bailey Hall, and how he hasn’t heard from him since – Nick is silent for a few seconds longer. And when he finally speaks, all he says is, “I see.”
“Do you?” Kurt asks. He is not surprised when he hears his voice quivering – now that he has once more revisited all the moments he shared with Sebastian over the previous months, brought back the memories he more or less successfully managed to repress over the last days, the pain in his chest, dulled for some time, has become sharp again. “Because I don’t see it, Nick. I don’t see it at all.”
He flinches when he feels an unexpected, gentle touch on his skin, and looks down to see Nick’s long fingers closed around his right hand, prying it away from where his fingers have started to fiddle with the hem of his coat. Nick, who has reached out without rising from his seat, envelops Kurt’s fingers with his, holding them firmly against his dry and cool skin. Kurt closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, squeezing Nick’s fingers. Even though one or two tears escape and roll down his cheeks, he doesn’t start crying, not really. Not like he did that evening eight days ago. He concentrates on taking deep breaths for a few minutes, and on the steadying feeling of Nick’s fingers around his own. When his breathing has calmed again, he opens his eyes and sees Nick looking at him with a concerned, but completely unsurprised expression.
“You knew all this time that something had happened,” Kurt accuses him, wiping at his already drying cheeks with the hem of his sleeve.
“I guessed,” Nick confirms, “You behaved very strangely these last days. Not to mention that it’s odd that Sebastian hasn’t sent a single letter since he left. Or that you two seemed really close before I caught that cold, and now you avoid talking about him like the plague. So yes, I thought something happened. But I figured I could wait until you were ready to talk about it.” He sighs, “I thought you two might have quarrelled again. And apparently, I was right and terribly wrong at the same time.”
Kurt lets go of Nick’s hand to rummage around in his pocket, pulls out his handkerchief and blows his nose noisily. Nick takes in his flushed cheeks, the circles under his eyes, and slowly, a sad smile starts to spread across the other man’s features.
“You’re in love with him,” he says. It’s not a question, it’s not an accusation – it’s a statement, as matter-of-fact as if he was remarking that the sky is unusually blue today, or that the porridge this morning was a little bit too salty.
Kurt’s first impulse is to deny the assessment, and he has already opened his mouth when his gaze meets Nick’s. He would have expected to spot pity, or perhaps even a little bit of condescension at the idea that he has fallen for someone like Sebastian, who, as he has been made aware time and time again, is not the appropriate material for a love-story – or at least, not for an easy one. But all he sees in Nick’s eyes is honest concern, perhaps a little tiredness, and a small portion of anger and disappointment – though the latter do not seem to be directed at Kurt. Therefore, Kurt merely replies, his voice much calmer now, “I’m not sure I want to be.”
“He has really hurt you this time, hasn’t he?” Nick asks quietly, and Kurt looks down at his feet again, swallowing before he answers. “It’s just… I thought that this might be the start of… something,” Kurt says, and the words sound terribly naïve, even to his own ears. “Of a… relationship.”
“Is that what you want?” Nick asks, “To be in a relationship with Sebastian?”
“Well, it’s quite obviously not what Sebastian wants,” Kurt laughs, his voice bitter, but Nick shakes his head, “Let’s leave Sebastian out of this for a moment, Kurt. This is about you. You’re in love with him, I understand that. But what is it that you want from him?”
“Why are you asking me this?” Kurt inquires, puzzled and not quite able to follow Nick’s train of thoughts.
“Because I think whatever you pictured your future with Seb to look like might not be able to live up to reality,” Nick says, his voice even and firm.
“You mean, because of whatever issues Sebastian has, that you still refuse to-“ Kurt begins, but Nick interrupts him, “I told you, leave Sebastian and his issues out of this for a second.” He tilts his head to the right, “I want to know whether you are aware of what you’re getting into when you say you want to start a relationship with Sebastian.”
“Nick, what are you talking about?” Kurt asks, because there is so much he has wanted to ask Nick for so long now, and this conversation is wasting time, time he could spend getting some clarification about Sebastian’s reasons for leaving.
Nick looks at him, his left eyebrow raised in silent criticism at Kurt’s question, as if it should have been obvious what he has been referring to all along, “I’m talking about the fact that you are a footman, and Sebastian is your aristocratic employer. I’m talking about the fact that you belong to different worlds, Kurt, and have different social standings.”
Kurt stares at the other man in disbelief for a few seconds, before he feels incredulous laughter bubbling up at the back of his throat. With everything that happened, everything that he still doesn’t know, everything that is hurting him and making him question what he believed to know about Sebastian, this really seems to be the last thing on Kurt’s mind right now.
“Different social standings?” he repeats, and his voice betrays his incredulousness. “Nick, I honestly don’t think either of us cares about that.”
“That’s the problem,” Nick retorts, “Because frankly, both of you should.”
Kurt opens his mouth to reply something, to object to this, but Nick is faster. “You think your relationship with Sebastian will be like the one you had in summer, with that boy you told me about,” the other footman continues. “It won’t be. With that boy, you were able to meet whenever you wanted to, spend time with him how you chose to – and as long as you weren’t behaving too obviously, no one would have ever suspected anything.”
He shakes his head, “That’s not what it’ll be like with Sebastian, Kurt. Have you considered this?” When Kurt hesitates with his reply, he adds, “Think about it. You wouldn’t be able to see each other over long periods of time. And even if you are together, you wouldn’t be able to act as friends, not even as acquaintances in public. I admit, it’s easier at Bailey – you will find opportunities to spend time together, like you did over these last months.”
His gaze meets Kurt’s, and his expression softens a little when he continues, “But Sebastian spends at least four, sometimes six months in London. And you weren’t with us there last year Kurt, you don’t know what it’s like in the city.”
Some part of Kurt wants to disagree, wants to tell Nick that of course he has thought about this, and that even though naturally they couldn’t be together all the time, surely there would always be opportunities to share a few moments. But another part of him – the rational part, perhaps – knows that Nick not only has a point, but that he is speaking from experience. Therefore, after a moment, Kurt looks up to meet Nick’s gaze and ask, “What is it like in the city?”
“It’s awful,” Nick admits straightforwardly. “Everything is smaller and more narrow, there isn’t much space, and there are always other people around. It’s like you’re being observed every minute of the day. And Sebastian is always with his friends, attending parties and games, driving out, taking walks through the park, going to the theatre or the opera…” He shakes his head, “Even though we live in the same house, sometimes days go by without a single opportunity to talk properly to him. I admit, it was better last year, because Sebastian was feeling anti-social, and I was promoted as his valet, which gives us more private time together.”
He looks at Kurt again, “But it’s hard Kurt. And if it’s hard for me and Sebastian, I imagine it’s going to be even worse for you. All I’m asking you is to think about this: how will you feel when you’re unable to speak to the man you love in front of others? When he constantly treats you like he doesn’t care about you, doesn’t even acknowledge you exist most of the time? Because I can tell you – even though you know that it’s all just an act, after a while, it starts to get to you. It always does.”
Kurt is quiet for a few seconds, letting Nick’s words sink in before he says, “But you two have been friends all your life. Even though it’s hard, you manage.”
“Yes, and this is precisely why I know what I’m talking about,” Nick retorts. “I’ve been through all this, Kurt. I know what I can expect from him, how I have to act around him. I know that the time we can spend together is severely limited, that we have to pretend all the time to not care about each other more than it would be appropriate. But I also know from experience that our relationship can endure it.” He looks at Kurt, his left eyebrow still raised quizzically, “My question is: could yours?”
Kurt blinks, staring at his friend while thoughts are racing through his mind. Over these past days, he has been busy with being angry and disappointed, guessing at Sebastian’s reasons, asking himself what he did wrong, which of Sebastian’s actions he overvalued, and which ones he completely overlooked. For the first time, he tries to leave all that aside for a moment, and only concentrate on the notion of Sebastian and himself in a relationship.
Whenever he imagined them together, it had been in the sanctuary of Bailey Hall, without any of Sebastian’s friends or relations bothering them. Of course he considered the company of Nick as their confident, and thought about Jeff, and Jane, and the rest of the servants, who, over the last year, have become a second family for him. He has to admit though that he has never thought about what happened if one of them did not remain blissfully ignorant to the true nature of Sebastian’s and his relationship. Not once has he considered what would happen if Mr Moore, or Howard, or Jane grew suspicious of them – he only realises now that he had assumed that since they haven’t noticed anything so far, they probably wouldn’t in the future.
Of course he knew that they would have to be careful in public, that Kurt could never allow himself to show the affection he felt for Sebastian, and vice versa. But he believed that there would always be opportunities to steal intimate moments, even if they had to be cautious. Not once had he considered the months in London, or the longer periods in which Sebastian would be busy entertaining guests, or paying visits himself. In his vision of their future, he merely assumed that everything would go on like it did during the weeks in autumn and winter – and it is only now, after Nick’s sober speech, that he realises that it could not simply continue like that.
For the first time, Kurt remembers Sebastian’s restlessness, his attempts to seek out some company, some distraction. He remembers the lonely hours on Christmas, recalls how out of place his employer had looked down in the kitchen. Kurt slowly understands that Sebastian is not the kind of man who will be happy in a country estate, with the sole company of his servants and a lover. While it’s partly something he could never afford to do due to his position, it’s also not the kind of life that would suit his character. Sebastian is the kind of person who needs to be active, to see new places, meet people, the kind that becomes bored too easily to sit around for too long. The kind of life that Sebastian wants, that he needs, isn’t one that takes place in the countryside – it happens amidst people, in the bustling activity of the big cities. And while Kurt feels the same way, while he has always longed to travel, to explore, and wouldn’t mind doing that at Sebastian’s side – he isn’t quite sure whether this is the kind of life that can offer a place for him at all. And even less, a place that Kurt would want to have.
Perhaps his thoughts are visible on his features, because after a moment, Nick says gently, “I don’t know what you are thinking about, but I’m almost certain you’re exaggerating.”
Kurt shakes his head, as if to clear it of its thoughts, and replies, “No, you were right. That is something I haven’t thought about yet.”
“I’m not saying it’s impossible for you to start a relationship,” Nick says, his gaze kind, “But it would be difficult, for more than one reason. And I just want you to be prepared, to be aware of what you agree to if you and Sebastian become a couple.”
“Do you still think we could?” Kurt asks, because with all the hurt and anger still inside him, with the new complications brought along by Nick’s recent remarks, and with whatever issues Sebastian has, in this moment, he honestly has no idea how they could ever overcome all this.
“Because,” he says, meeting Nick’s gaze, “Even though I haven’t thought about everything, I know that I don’t want to become the next Sir Reginald, or the new Arthur Huntington.”
Nick snorts, “I’ve never seen Sebastian leave the county because he lost control for a second and kissed Sir Reginald or Lord Huntington. Though I saw him kicking them out quite frequently.” He smiles, a faint smile that nevertheless look sincere around the edges, “So I think it’s safe to say you’re not like them.”
“But why did he leave then, Nick?” Kurt asks, and his voice portrays all the anger and disappointment and frustration that he bottled up inside him over the last days. “Why did he run away without even trying to talk to me first? What is he so scared of?”
Nick looks at him for a very long moment, contemplating his answer, before he finally says, “I don’t know why he left. But I have a pretty good idea why he is scared of the idea of being in love with you.”
Kurt’s head jerks up at that, his gaze meeting Nick’s, who looks amused at Kurt’s incredulous expression. “He cares about you Kurt. From what I saw in those weeks before Christmas…” he trails off, thinking about this for a moment, and then shakes his head, “No, actually, from what I saw already in London, the way your fight affected him, left him sulking for weeks – he cares about what you think of him. He wants you to think well of him. And Sebastian seldom cares about other people’s opinions.” The other footman smiles wistfully, and pulls the blankets closer around his shoulders, “Therefore, I don’t think the fact that he left like this is a sign that he doesn’t care about you. Quite the contrary, actually.”
“But why wouldn’t he talk to me about this?” Kurt inquires.
“Because he’s a god damned coward who would rather run away than face his problems,” Nick states matter-of-factly.
“But what is his problem?” Kurt presses. “I understand that it wouldn’t be easy. I understand being scared. But I don’t understand why he behaves like this when he, like you said, cares about me, and wants to be with me.” He pauses for a long moment, before he adds, his gaze scrutinizingly fixed on Nick’s features, “And I think there is more to this. There is something neither he nor you are telling me.”
It’s the way Nick avoids Kurt’s eye, the way he squirms uncomfortably that tells Kurt he has hit the nail on the head. “I’d really rather have Sebastian tell you about that himself,” Nick finally answers.
“To be perfectly frank, Nick, I’m tired of waiting for Sebastian to explain things to me,” Kurt replies. “Because in case you didn’t notice – he never does. And I’m not going to sit here and wait for him to make up his mind. Because whatever happens between us is my decision too.”
“I think he knows that,” Nick says calmly, “I’m afraid he might even hope that you’ll make this decision for him.”
“I don’t want to make a decision for him,” Kurt retorts, feeling exasperated, “I want to know what’s truly going on here, and I want him to talk to me instead of running away like a child.”
“I want to tell you,” Nick says, and for a moment, Kurt can see his inner conflict in the torn expression that crosses his features. “Because you’re right – you deserve to know. But Sebastian is my best friend, Kurt, and I can’t act behind his back like this. It wouldn’t be fair.”
When he sees the turmoil in Nick’s eyes, Kurt can’t help a guilty feeling rising in his chest. He knows that he is putting Nick in a difficult position by asking him these questions, and he doesn’t like to see his friend this conflicted. And yet –there is a part of him that feels tired of being considerate, of stepping back, of being the bigger person while Sebastian does as he pleases, not caring if he hurts the people who care about him. A part of him – and it’s not a small part – wants to insist that Nick finally tells him everything that is truly going on, to demand an explanation, especially since he can’t seem to get one from Sebastian.
He doesn’t know whether any of his thoughts are visible in the expression on his face, but Nick looks at him for a long moment, contemplating, before he says, “Let me write to him. Let me write to Sebastian, and give him one chance to come back and explain himself to you. And if he lets this opportunity pass, I promise you I will give you a full explanation of everything that happened, of every reason – or at least what I suspect to be the reasons – for the way he acted. And then, you can decide for yourself what you want to do now.”
Kurt hesitates for a moment, before he slowly starts to nod – partly because he would actually prefer Sebastian to explain himself, and partly because he really, truly doesn’t want to force Nick to decide with whom of this two friends he wants to side.
He opens his mouth to ask Nick about when he plans to send the letter, and what exactly he wants to write to Sebastian, when suddenly, a movement at the other end of the garden catches his attention. He looks up and spots Jane, who steps out of the garden door and lifts her face towards the warm sunshine for a second. When she turns, she catches Kurt’s gaze, smiles, and tiptoes down the path, moving quite noiselessly by avoiding the gravel and instead treading on the wet, brown grass. She quickly steps up behind Nick’s chair, covers his eyes with her small palms and leans forward to whisper in his ear, “Who am I?”
“The ghost of Christmas Past, who has come to tell us that Mr Moore wants us to tidy something that has been forgotten over the holidays?” Nick retorts, his voice dry.
Jane grins and pulls her hands back. She takes a few steps around Nick so that she is able to face both him and Kurt when she answers, “Quite the opposite, actually.” She sits down next to Kurt, taking up the discarded novel and turning it in her hands to examine the title before she adds, “I came to advise you to stay out here a little bit longer, until everyone in the kitchen has calmed down.”
“Did something happen?” Kurt inquires.
“Maud put too much salt in the soup,” Jane sighs, “And of course Mrs Bertram started berating her, but Maud is in a terrible mood today, and got cheeky. Now they’re both screaming at each other, Beth is crying, and Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore are trying to mediate.”
“And you thought it best to slip away?” Nick inquires. Jane shrugs, “Let them yell if they have to. In half an hour, they’ll be hugging each other and apologising for being so harsh.”
Kurt can’t help the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, because he knows that Jane is probably right – while Mrs Bertram’s temper can be terrible, it never lasts too long.
“I actually wanted to see where Harriet has run off to,” Jane continues, “But I couldn’t find her anywhere.”
Kurt quickly looks up, checking whether Nick’s expression gives any hint of him having noticed Jeff slipping away with the maid. If he did, nothing in his features gives it away, and Kurt feels grateful for this – because he is not sure whether he could bear another heartbreak, and especially one that’s not his own. Therefore, he merely smiles when the housemaid next to him exclaims brightly, “Well, but I found you two instead.” She looks down at the novel in her lap, and asks, “Do you want me to read to you for a bit?”
Kurt has no opportunity to ask Nick about his letter to Sebastian during the day. They spend another quarter of an hour with Jane outside, and when Kurt accompanies Nick back to his room, Jeff suddenly appears by his side again. His hair looks suspiciously dishevelled, and Kurt has to bite his bottom lip to keep himself from making a comment about it, and so neither he, nor Nick or Jeff himself address the issue of Jeff’s temporary disappearance. Instead, the three of them play cards until Mrs Seymour summons them for dinner, and during the rest of the evening, Mr Moore keeps them busy by ordering them to clean his lordship’s boots over the kitchen sink until Nick starts yawning.
The next morning, however, Kurt notices how Nick slips a thick envelope into Stephen’s hand after the postman has handed the usual stack of letters to Mr Moore at breakfast, whispering a few words into the other man’s ear before he sits down next to Jeff and reaches for his cup of tea. Kurt sees Stephen raising his eyebrows in surprise, his gaze lingering for a moment on Nick’s neat handwriting before he slips the envelope quickly into his back pocket and bids Mr Moore a good day.
Kurt tries to catch Nick’s gaze throughout breakfast, and when the other footman finally looks at him, he responds to Kurt’s inquiring gaze with a single, curt nod.
Kurt doesn’t ask him about what he wrote to Sebastian. They don’t talk about the letter at all: in fact, they seem to have reached a silent but mutual understanding that the topic is postponed until the long-awaited letter from Sebastian arrives. Instead, they help Mrs Seymour to clean out the attic, repair one of the carriages together with Howard and Jonathan, and teach Jeff how to play chess. Life at Bailey Hall becomes almost like it used to be – if it wasn’t for the fact that every morning, two of the footmen look at Stephen with anxious expressions as soon as he enters the kitchen.
They wait for almost two weeks during which Kurt grows steadily more impatient and frustrated. He almost wishes he could blame this on Sebastian, and curse him for taking so long to reply – but he knows that the reason for this delay is the weather. While January has been relatively mild at first, the last days seem determined to make up for any lack of winter feeling. It starts with a drop of temperature that results in three days of snow falling softly, but without stopping. It becomes warmer on the first days of February, though not pleasanter – a series of thunderstorms follow, which cause the snow to melt away, but also reduce Mrs Bertram and Howard, who both are deadly afraid of thunder and lightning, to two pale bundles of nerves, jumping at every loud crash coming from outside.
Only when the skies clear up again, and the rain first gives way to a thick fog, and then, slowly, a faint, but visible sunshine, does Stephen enter the kitchen one morning and slip Nick a small envelope before he hands a considerably larger stack to Mr Moore. Kurt’s stomach gives an unpleasant turn at the sight, but he is able to suppress his nervousness until he is able to corner Nick alone.
“And?” Kurt inquires. He doesn’t know what he is hoping to hear in that moment, but he feels so tired of waiting, of not being able to do anything, that he is relieved to see a sober smile on Nick’s features.
“Well, he has been with Sir Robert these last weeks,” Nick tells him, pulling the letter out of his pocket and unfolding it. “He writes that Sir Robert’s condition didn’t improve much in Edinburgh. The doctor says that the only thing he can prescribe him now is a change of place, a longer stay in a warmer climate. Therefore, Sir Robert will travel to Italy over the next few weeks, and maybe extend his stay or travel further to Greece, depending on the weather and the effect on his lungs.”
“And Sebastian wants to accompany him?” Kurt asks, feeling a strange sensation above his stomach, very similar to the feeling he gets when he misses a step on the stairs, and for a split second expects to tumble down the rest of the staircase before he can restore his balance.
“He writes that he thought about it, but that Sir Robert refuses to take him with him,” Nick replies, and there is something in his gaze that makes Kurt squirm inside when he adds, “And he also writes that,” he lifts the letter and reads, his voice quiet while he quotes, “’I know I made a mistake, and I need to come home as soon as possible.’”
Kurt knows that Nick watches him, but this once, he refuses to give into the temptation to get his hopes up. He is done with being satisfied with hints and suggestions, and while he knows he should be happy about Sebastian at least admitting his mistake, it’s just not enough. This time, he needs the complete and honest truth before he can bring himself to consider forgiving Sebastian.
“So he is coming back to Bailey?” he inquires.
“Yes, but not immediately,” Nick replies, starting to fold the letter again, all the while still watching Kurt’s expression, “He writes that Sir Robert wants to take the boat to France from Dover, and he wants to accompany him to the city. He’ll probably stay with him and help him organise his journey, and then come home afterwards.”
Kurt can’t help it – his expression softens the tiniest bit at Nick’s words. He might have gladly taken any other reason as an opportunity to scorn Sebastian for making him wait even longer, but he cannot resent that Sebastian is taking care of his friend – especially not since he is really fond of Sir Robert.
“How long do you think will that take?” he asks finally.
“A week, at least,” Nick estimates, before he walks over to the fireplace and tosses the paper into the crackling flames, like he does with every one of Sebastian’s letters. “Perhaps ten days, depending on how long Sir Robert needs to settle everything – and on how quickly Sebastian can muster up the courage to face you again.”
Kurt doesn’t reply. Instead, he watches the edges of the paper, slowly turning black and curling inwards while the flames devour Sebastian’s messy handwriting.
He has to wait for seven days. On the morning of the eighth day – a misty Tuesday – Kurt has gone up to his room to fetch his coat, planning to walk down to the village with Jane and Jonathan to visit Mr Brown. Just when he opens his wardrobe, he hears the clattering sound of wheels, of hooves meeting the white gravel in the courtyard. He hears the sound of surprised voices from beneath his window, and clattering sounds down at the kitchen when everybody discards their breakfast to hurry outside.
Kurt doesn’t join them. He knows that he most likely will receive a scolding from Mr Moore for neglecting his duties, but at this moment, he can’t bring himself to care. Instead, he slowly shrugs out of his coat again and puts it back into the wardrobe. He doesn’t look out of the window – he merely sits down on the edge of his bed. He feels calm, and his mind feels strangely empty while he listens to the sounds coming from outside. Soon enough, he hears a voice answering Mr Moore’s questions, a voice that as much as he tried these past weeks, he has never managed to quite get out of his head. When he looks down at his hands, he notices that his fingers have tangled themselves in his blanket, and he slowly lifts them to fold in his lap instead.
There’s the sound of footsteps coming from below. A door slams, and Kurt hears the clacking sound of hooves once again when Jonathan and Howard unhitch the horses from the carriage and bring them to the stables. Another door slams in the distance, and the sound of more footsteps down in the corridor announces that the servants return to the kitchen to quickly finish their breakfast before they tackle their daily tasks.
Kurt doesn’t know how long he waits. It cannot be too long though, because he can still hear the typical sounds of breakfast from down in the kitchen when a knock on the door announces his visitor. Kurt looks up to see Nick opening the door, lingering in the doorway as he takes in Kurt’s pale, but collected and calm appearance.
Their eyes meet, and Nick pushes the door open a little wider before he leans against the doorframe and says, “He’s waiting for you in the library.”