The joyous pealing of the distant church bells could be clearly heard from the nursery as the cousins were dressed in their Sunday best. Yet the sound failed to cheer Amelia. For one thing, the corsets had arrived from Mademoiselle Isobel's on the previous day, and Betsy was lacing her into the stays with a relish matched only by the nursery-maid's considerable strength.That's all for today, I'm afraid. You will have to wait until next week for the birchings. But waiting makes the experience all the more exhilirating.
"Ooof...ahh...please, Betsy, it's like a vice already...Oooh." Amelia hung onto the bedstead for dear life, as the maid hauled at the laces with all her might.
Clara, already laced into her own white waspie, stood watching, looking startled and breathing carefully, to one side. All she wore was the corset and and the usual silk stockings, this time supported by the new suspender drops with which the stays had come equipped. Thus, the white lace trim of the corset, the suspender straps and the silk stocking-tops provided the most delightful frame for the blonde girl's bottom.
Unfortunately, Amelia had no leisure to enjoy this prospect. Betsy placed a plump knee in the small of her back, to get even more purchase, and both girls grunted as the laces were forced tighter, and then tighter still.
When, a little later, they joined the rest of the Hope Hall household in the courtyard, Amelia felt no happier about the day. The collected maids all gloried in their full uniforms for once, hoisting long skirts out of the mire under Mrs Pritchard's disdainful gaze. They did not even have to undergo the humiliation of wearing collars. In contrast, once again, Amelia and Clara had been given the absurd smocks to wear.
All of which would have been sufficient to explain her distracted expression during the hymns, and the way she stared stonily at the back of Mrs Justice Ormorund in the pew in front of her during the service. But there was worse.
The Reverend Dawes had chosen a favourite line from Proverbs as the inspiration for his sermon.
"There is a rod in pickle for the arrogant, and stripes prepared for the backs of fools," he snarled, with barely disguised relish. It was not an especially cheerful text and, glancing furtively around the church, Amelia noticed that a few female cheeks had paled, and she observed several slender hands tremble on their hymnals as the rector of Hatherby expounded on the theme. "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool's back!" the rector exhorted from the pulpit, cracking his hand against the oaken structure as he did so, producing retorts that echoed around the church and provoked visible flinching among certain of the more comely members of the congregation.
"Arrogance, disobedience, wilfulness, all are forms of foolishness, and all may be mitigated by the application of a firm corrective rod!" he boomed as Amelia hung her head, horribly aware that half the church was now following the preacher's lead and staring at her.
"There is a rod in pickle for the arrogant," the Reverend repeated in stentorian tones, once the commotion had ceased, "and I think we may safely predict that it will not be steeping there for much longer!"
A knowing chuckle rippled around the church. Amelia stared miserably at her silk-sheathed knees and tried not to think about what he meant.
* * *
The walk back from the church was no more cheering. Amelia and Clara, together with all the Hope Hall maids, walked back solemn-faced and subdued. Lord and Lady Alex, Jamie and Mrs Pritchard, on the other hand, were positively animated and jolly. They swapped witticisms and pleasantries, and affected puzzlement when Amelia did not join in the general jollity.
She was dreading the famous Sunday Service. All Amelia's recent experience had not inured her to public humiliation, and she knew that many of the Whippery seats were bound to be filled that afternoon. Also, she was truly frightened of the birch. She had only had it once before, and that had been a light switching at school. Light or not, she remembered the experience with terror. The thought of a more severe birching made her feel faint.
"What - what is the birch like, Amelia?" Clara asked with frightened eyes, as they waited in the nursery parlour to be summoned.
The cousins had been left with the nursery-maid after a cheerless luncheon of bread and water shared with a subdued and ashen-faced Betsy. Jamie had left the girls to their crust repast and gone down to the dining room for cold pheasant and claret.
"What's it like?" Betsy looked as if she was about to cry. "Two words for a proper birching, girl. Just two words: red hell." She put a knuckle in her mouth and started chewing it.
"What are you worried about anyway?" Amelia demanded of her cousin, crossly. "You did not even get one black mark in the book!"
"Jamie - Master Jamie, said he would mark me down so that I got a dozen anyway." Clara's voice had died almost to a whisper. "On general pr-pr-principle. He said that I ought to know..."
"A lot that little swine knows about principles," Amelia hissed. Both Betsy and Clara stiffened as she spoke and she suddenly felt afraid. What if these sycophantic creatures reported what she had said? Could she trust them to keep quiet? No, of course not. Betsy disliked her and loved nothing more than to see her betters thrashed. And Clara? She seemed to think Jamie was some sort of demi-god!
So Amelia held her tongue and tried not to listen as Betsy expounded on the terrors of the birch.
"Next to the tawse, I think the birch is the worst. A heavy cane, see, after a dozen or so hard strokes, it dulls the nerves a little. The birch, though, that is a surface-scourer. It doesn't bruise, you see. There is no weight to it and the nerves never get stunned or numbed. But, oh Lord, how it scours your skin! There does not seem to be a peak of pain after the first dozen , or the second. It just -" her voice had become very quiet, no more than a hoarse little whisper, "- it just gets worse and worse and worse."
The glum trio was interrupted at that point by the arrival of Mrs Pritchard. The housekeeper regarded the three of them with smug satisfaction.
"Right, Amelia and Clara, come with me. Betsy, time to put on your flogging smock. Then you can join us in the Rod Room. Quick as you can. Come along, you two, there is a little job for you to do."
Soon, Amelia and Clara found themselves following Mrs Pritchard down the long corridor, now familiar to them. Amelia felt the churning knot in her stomach grow tighter with every step. Her legs seemed to have grown inordinately heavy. It was almost as if there was a force, some malevolent radiation, pushing her back. She was compelled to walk forward to her fate, but a growing sense of dread made it ever more difficult to progress along that doleful passage. Mrs Pritchard seemed to have no such problems, however. She fairly skipped along.
"Not like the old days, but with you two and the new kitchen-maid it will be a decent Sunday Service for a change. The last few weeks, there has barely been a brace of bottoms to be blistered." The woman's lips curled contemptuously; she clearly felt that the very idea of such thin pickings was an insult to the traditions of the house. "Some may call me old-fashioned, but I say there should always be a line of girls ready, all nice and shivery, for the rod!"
Amelia had assumed that they would march right up to the Whippery, but Mrs Pritchard paused halfway down the frieze-lined corridor. Selecting a key from her collection, she unlocked a dark oaken door and threw it open.
Amelia felt her knees weaken. So this was where Betsy had brought the birches they had cut on their retirn to Hope Hall. There was the pile of twigs, their leaves curled and shrivelled now, stacked up to one side. It was not that so much that made her heart hammer in her breast, however.
The Rod Room was big, no mean ante-chamber but a long hall lit by a row of windows set in the far wall. First Amelia's attention was drawn to the canes. There were dozens of them, arranged on racks hanging from the walls. No, she realised as she noticed the half barrels stuffed with rods and the coils of uncut rattan hanging from hooks, more like hundreds. The room smelt odd, of linseed mixed with green wood and something that might have been the tang of vinegar. Something told Amelia that, from that moment on, this pungent mixture would always represent the true smell of fear.
"Now, girls, this should have been done already, so you had better get busy. Take those branches - " Mrs Pritchard indicated the pile of recently cut birch " - and start stripping off the leaves. If you have not done sufficient on my return, you may rest assured that you will have another black mark entered in the big book." The housekeeper favoured them with a cold smile. "Yes, there is still time, just!" She indicated some small three-legged stools. "Sit down there and get on with your task." She looked around the grim chamber with evident satisfaction, then took a deep breath, as if drinking in the gloomy atmosphere, and turned on her heel.
Amelia did not want any more marks in the black book. She had been sent to inscribe the black cross by her name on the previous day. The journey, alone down the long corridor, had seemed even worse than Mrs Pritchard's irksome company. Somehow, she had done as she had been told, pausing at the entries, looking at the marks inscribed by the various maids. It had been some small crumb of comfort to see that other girls, and Betsy in particular, had black crosses stalking their names. Some comfort but, alas, not enough.
The Honourable Amelia Colinbrooke was thoroughly frightened now. The whole day might have been designed to force her to dwell on her impending fate. How much would it hurt? She tried to remember the birching at school as she stripped the leaves away. Then she tried not to remember; to think about something else, a task nigh on impossible in this place.
"What an awful lot of canes," Clara said in a small voice. "What do you think are in all those barrels, Amelia?"
"How should I know?" Amelia snapped. "Nothing good in this damn place, I'll warrant." She had wondered about the rows of big barrels herself. If it was wine or beer, the vinegary smell did not bode well for the palatibility of the contents. She shrugged and picked up another leafy bough to strip.
The cousins had not finished their work when Amelia heard a commotion at the door, for they had cut a good load of birch branches on that sunny afternoon. She looked down anxiously at the prepared twigs which lay denuded at her feet, and wondered if it would be adjudged enough. Fortunately, Mrs Pritchard seemed satisfied, more concerned with issuing fresh orders than inspecting the cousins' work. For the maids had arrived with her and Mrs Pritchard lost no time in issuing them their instructions.
"Kitty, Lucy, Betsy, you will show these new girls how to prepare their rods before braiding your own. Emma, as you have not yet been to the groves, you will take some of the young ladies switches. I am sure they will not begrudge you a few twigs! Make haste, girls, for I shall be back in half an hour to take you through."
Amelia looked up from her withe in time to see the housekeeper's black receding back as she swept out of the room. She turned her attention to the new arrivals and her eyes widened in surprise. In place of their usual uniforms, the maids were wearing short white smocks, similar to her own.
"What are those garments?" she asked, without disguising her astonishment.
"What a question, coming from such a fashionable young lady!" Kitty, the blonde maid, retorted sharply.
"She only asked." The brunette girl, Lucy, seemed less hostile. "These," she fingered the hem of her little gown, the hint of a blush on her pretty cheek, "these are our flogging frocks. Have you never seen them before?"
Amelia shook her head and Lucy smiled wanly in reply.
"Emma," she instructed, "come over here."
The small girl blushed much more obviously, but did as she was bid. Amelia stared. The smock was clearly fine cotton, rather than silk, and it was a little longer than the cousins' garments, falling to about halfway down the girl's slender thighs. She also wore black silk stockings, gartered just above the knee, and a band of bare flesh was thus left visible, despite the longer hemline. If the other maids were used to this degree of exposure, Emma clearly was not, and she hung her head and fingered the hem of the garment distractedly.
"They are very practical, you see," Lucy favoured Amelia with a bleak little smile. "Turn around, Emma."
The kitchen-maid did as she was told and Amelia watched intently. The flogging frock opened at the back and was secured by three pink ribbons, one at the neckline, one in the middle, and one along the hem. Each of these had been secured with pretty bows. Lucy pulled the bottom ribbon and undid the bow, then did the same to the middle tie.
"Bend over, girl," she ordered. Emma glanced around anxiously, but obeyed, and Amelia understood how clever the little frocks were. Secured at the back now only by the top ribbon, the garment fell away to either side as the girl bent over.
Emma wore no drawers. The welts had gone from her chubby little bottom, and it was proffered invitingly by her posture. Despite her situation, Amelia could not help but smile at so inviting a sight. As the flogging smock had fallen away, it had revealed a tight little waspie of black satin and lace. Lucy patted the straining laces of the stays ruefully.
"And this is a flogging corset. Short, you see." She indicated the expanse of bare flesh which the girl's clothes and posture had exposed, from the small of her back to just above the knee. "So as to allow the greatest target area." She gave Emma's bottom a sharp slap, and the girl squeaked in response. "All right, we had better get you done up, and get on with the task in hand."
Preparing a birch rod, Amelia had thought, was a simple matter. One lashes the bases of several limbs together with cord to form a handle, and then, if necessary, secures the twigs in the middle of the rod to prevent too much splaying. At least, that was how Amelia had been taught at finishing school.
"No-no - that won't do. You must make a neater job than that, or you will get another dozen, if not two!"
Lucy sighed in exasperation. Kitty had deigned to instruct Clara and Betsy had taken little Emma in hand, but it was Amelia who was posing the biggest headaches.
"For heaven's sake, what does it matter?" she snapped. "It won't hurt a jot more or less if the handle is braided prettily or not!"
Lucy untied the pale blue ribbon from the handle of the rod.
"The procedure is traditional," she said patiently, as if explaining to an obstinate child. "It is the Hope Hall way."
"Oh, let her do it her own way!" put in Kitty sourly. "I'd like to see the stuck-up little madam catch an extra couple of dozen for poor rod preparation. Then she'll be singing a different song, all right!! Teach her some respect for tradition. It really is not that difficult, Amelia. Your cousin seems to have picked it up easily enough."
Amelia shot the pair a furious glance, thinking how much she detested blondes, before trying to braid the ribbon in the prescribed manner once again.
"We had better get our own rods out," Betsy mumbled. The nursery-maid had been very quiet since entering the room - very quiet and distinctly pale. Amelia watched as Betsy, Kitty and Lucy walked over to the rows of barrels. Removing the tops of the casks, the maids each removed half a dozen dripping birch rods, laying them in long white enamel trays. These they brought back to the little ring of stools. Using cloths to dry the ends, they set busily to work, braiding ribbons about the handles.
Amelia watched, aghast. There was something worse about these damp, dark withies, that had been steeping silently for who knew how long, in their barrels of vinegar and brine. Something appallingly incongruous about the pretty ribbons in their bright colours against the dark forbidding red of the birch twigs. The maids' fingers worked nimbly, braiding and plaiting with such skill that could have come only from much doleful practice in that oppressive chamber. The very thought of it made Amelia shiver. She bit her lip and tried to braid her own handle once again.
Thankful Thursday: The Last Library I Visited
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