"Six?" Amelia was aghast. "Surely they won't need six?"
"Don't worry," Lucy said, though the apprehension on her face was plain now. "I've never seen six used on one girl. They like to have plenty of spare rods made up and to hand...just in case."
Amelia was not entirely reassured, but there was little option but to take the six freshly prepared rods and place them in the tray that Lucy had brought over to her. To her horror, she read her own name enscribed in the white enamel.
"When - when did this come?" she asked. The name 'Amelia' had been written in fine, copperplate handwriting, in black against the white of the enamel. Something about it sent a shiver down her spine, perhaps because it seemed a terribly permanent sort of object.
"Oh," Kitty said brightly, as she watched Clara put her own rods in a similar tray bearing the blonde girl's name. They came last month. They have to order them weeks in advance. Emma will have to make do with a plain one, for the time being."
Amelia felt her ears burn with indignation. Proof positive that her humiliation had been long-planned. Why this should upset her so, she did not know, but she felt a renewed sense of outrage burning in her breast. The pretty ribbons around the handles of the birch rods, the delicate nosegays decorating the switches, her name on the enamel tray; all these details seemed especially terrible to her.
"I hope you are all ready."
Mrs Pritchard's voice startled her; she had been so bound up in her furious contemplation of the rods that she had not heard the woman enter.
"Now girls, in your places - Amelia, then Clara and Emma at the end. Pick up your trays now and follow me."
No funeral procession was ever more solemn than the file of girls who followed Mrs Pritchard along the corridor to their appointment with pain. The big enamel tray weighed heavily in Amelia's hands, but not so heavy as the feeling in the pit of her stomach. Footsteps from seven pairs of high heels clacked crisply on the parquet, echoing mournfully around the cheerless corridor.
The big book and its lectern were gone from the end of the corridor. Amelia noted its absence with a little pang of terror. Then she turned, took a deep breath, and followed the housekeeper into the Whippery.
Lord Alex, Lady Alicia, Jamie, the grooms, and several people whom Amelia did not know were seated on the benched facing the stage. The buzz of conversation ceased abruptly as the girls made their entrance. The worthies, who were gathered to witness justice being done, turned towards the miscreants and stared.
Mrs Pritchard indicated to Amelia where to place her tray. She put it at one end of the stage,with her name facing the audience. The housekeeper indicated the wooden stage-side seat known as the Miscreants Bench, and Amelia went and sat in her place. Clara placed her tray of rods next to her cousin's, and joined Amelia, beside her on the bench. Kitty followed suit, then Lucy, then Betsy. Blinking nervously, little Emma brought up the rear.
Amelia stared at the floor. She did not want to look at the equipment on the stage, nor the stock of waiting birch rods, and she dared not raise her eyes to the audience. The conversation had begun again, however, and she could not close her ears.
"My, don't they look glum!" Lady Alicia's voice brimmed with merriment. "Six such solemn little souls, all awaiting their desserts."
"A damned pretty little parade, though, what!" Lord Alex put in. "Six on the bench is a bit more like a Sunday Service than we have had of late."
"The Reverend Dawes expressed an interest in bringing over his little class, once it begins in September," Jamie drawled. The very enunciation of that name sent a cold shiver down Amelia's spine.
"Did he now? Capital idea. Half a dozen is it?" Lord Alex demanded.
"Yes I believe so."
"My God, a round dozen lovely bums in need of a birching. What would you say to that, Mrs Pritchard? Just like the old days, eh?"
"It would certainly be a pleasure to see more of these facilities put to use, sir," the housekeeper replied.
"Well I expect we better get on with the job."
Amelia felt her heart lurch at these words, for while she wished fervently for the ordeal to be over, that did not mean she felt ready for it to begin. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to raise her head and look up.
The lectern had been set up in front of the centre of the seats, facing the stage, and the big book had been set up on this. Lord Alex stood in front of it, waiting for silence, his usually languid expression serious and grave.
"It has long been the tradition," he began in sepulchral tones, "for the sins of the wicked to be paid off on the Sabbath day, in this place." He swept a hand towards the girls waiting on the bench. "The miscreants await their fate in the appointed place." He gestured towards the stage. "The instruments of their correction and instruction have been prepared according to established custom." He turned to the book before him. "It is time to deal with their several offences. Emma Swift."
He turned from the book to stare at the little kitchen-maid. Although she was at the other end of the bench, Amelia heard a frightened little gasp. The tension in the air was terrible now. It almost felt as if the air was too thick with fear to breathe. Lord Alex turned back solemnly to the big book. He rubbed his chin and then turned to the other members of the audience.
"Betsy Billings has three black marks against her name. Mrs Pritchard, we have newcomers to Sunday Service today. What does tradition demand by way of reparation?"
The housekeeper drew herself up to her full height, her chest swelling proudly. She seemed to Amelia like some great black looming crow. "Hope Hall tradition demands a minimum of one dozen strokes of the birch for every cross. The imposition of further penalties is customary, though not mandatory, after two marks have been received."
"Well, well," Lord Alex turned his gaze on Betsy. "Betsy Billings, stand out here, girl."
The nursery-maid stood, and walked to stand facing Lord Alex and the company. Between her judge and the little stage, a sort of portable dock had been placed consisting of a small platform and rail. Betsy stepped onto this and gripped the rail until her knuckles whitened. Her usually ruddy complexion had turned pale.
"Customary but not mandatory. Well, Betsy, what do you say to that? Will three dozen suffice, do you think, or should we make it four?"
There was an awful heart stopping silence. For a few moments, Amelia wondered if Betsy had completely lost the power of speech.
"Please, sir," the maid's voice was a desperate supplicatory whisper. "Have mercy. Please have mercy on me, sir..."
"Dammit, Alex, give her four dozen. That fat arse of hers can take it easily!" Lady Alicia piped up, helpfully.
"It is true, sir. The girl can take a good count. She's sturdy and can take a good thrashing without harm," Mrs Pritchard interjected.
"No I think that three dozen will do it," Lord Alex said at last. Amelia observed Betsy's shoulders to sag with relief. "But three marks is a damn poor show, my girl." The shoulders tensed again as he continued. "Pick out three rods, Betsy, and go up to the block."
The nursery-maid obeyed. She picked three birch-rods from her enamel tray and mounted the stage, taking up position before the ominous apparatus at the centre of the platform.
"Do we have a volunteer to administer the sentence?"
There was a silence so profound that, for a long moment, one might have heard a feather fall. Amelia watched Betsy as she bit her bottom lip and stared hopelessly at the floor.
"Aye, I'll whip the chit!" A male voice broke the spell at last, and Mr Blackstock lumbered up onto the stage.
There was a kind of ledge on one side of the block and, in obedience to a gesture from the groom, Betsy placed the three rods there. Clearly she was used to this procedure, for she clambered onto the block without further instruction.
Fashioned of some ancient black wood, the birching block consisted of a sort of triangle in section, with a ridge positioned at the top. Her thighs were braced against one side of the triangle which was close to vertical. Her upper body followed the gentler slope which descended on the far side of the ridge. There was a shelf for Betsy's knees, and a handle the far side for her hands. There were also straps, heavy leather straps that Amelia thought looked worn with use and age.
Mr Blackstock first undid the lower two bows of Betsy's flogging-frock. The garment instantly fell back on either side, exposing her naked buttocks and thighs. A broad leather strap was buckled about her corseted waist, securing it to the gradual back-slope of the block. Wrist-straps followed, then thigh bands, just above the knee. It was clear to Amelia that Betsy could not now move the target area more than an inch or two. The convulsive clenching and quivering of the nursery-maid's bottom, suggested that Betsy knew only too well what she was in for.
Although the day had clouded over, the windows and glass cupola of the Whippery lit the scene on the stage extremely well. The audience watched in reverential silence as Mr Blackstock picked up the first birch rod.
"Lay on, Mr Blackstock," Lord Alex exhorted. "She can take it, I assure you!" He took his seat next to Lady Alicia and gestured for the groom to begin.
The description of the birching that follows is quite graphic. If you are squeamish, avert your eyes or stop reading now.
The birch rod that Betsy had prepared was still wet from its steeping, and the big groom tapped it against the side of the block a few times, scattering droplets of the pickling fluid on the floor. The whispery sound of twigs impacting on the wood sent a frisson of fear coursing through Amelia's belly. She bit her lip hard, to provide a distraction, and concentrated on the compelling little drama being played out on the stage.
Mr Blackstock rolled up his shirt sleeve, revealing a forearm almost as big as Clara's thigh, but a great deal hairier and tanned a deep brown. His biceps were still covered by his sleeve, but the bulge in this material looked ominous for Betsy. For all her own fear, Amelia could not help a smile of sheer, vindictive pleasure coming to her lips. The groom looked the man to put the nursery-maid in her place all right, she thought excitedly.
"Are you ready to receive correction, madam?"
The groom's respectful address was not sarcastic, and Amelia concluded that it must be part of the ceremony, another archaic ritual of the hall.
There was a pause.
"Y-Yes sir." Betsy sobbed at last and, almost before she finished speaking, the birch rod came down and lashed across her bottom-cheeks.
Amelia's stomach clenched in sympathy again. The twigs made a nasty, diffuse sound, halfway between a hiss and a crackle, as they kissed the nursery-maid's bare bottom. Betsy remained silent; the only sign that the birch had achieved its purpose was an increase in the clenching of those great white mounds.
Mr Blackstock took half a step back, adjusting his stance now that he had found the range of the rod. He raised his powerful arm again.
The birch twigs whistled as they cut through the air and hissed into the girl's bare behind again. This time the sound of impact was a little louder, harsher, fiercer. Betsy gave a low strangulated moan in response.
"She felt that one I suspect."
Amelia glanced over at the speaker. Lady Alicia was leaning forward intently, her dark eyes so bright that they seemed to be glistening.
Another sickening whistle brought Amelia's attention back to the birching-block. By the time she had turned, the stroke had been delivered, but Betsy's magnificent bottom-cheeks were still quivering from the impact. The creamy flesh of her buttocks was laced with an angry tracery of welts now, and the nursery-maid was groaning with pain and tossing her head from side to side. She had taken off her shoes before mounting the block, and Amelia watched with horrified fascination as her stockinged toes curled and uncurled convulsively. Amelia could only see one of the maid's hands, where she gripped the bar on the far side of the block but she could see that Betsy grasped this so hard that her knuckles were white.
The fourth stroke was delivered with gusto, hissing into the helpless maid's thighs. She howled now. The fortitude that Betsy had displayed for the first strokes had seemingly evaporated. She could move but little in her bonds, but that little she did. The leather straps creaked in protest as she struggled vainly against their grip.
Mr Blackstock unleashed another blistering stroke. He whipped her thighs again, provoking another howl. There was a disapproving murmur from the audience.
"For heaven's sake, be quiet, Betsy," Jamie said sharply. "One would think you had never embraced the block before."
"It's just a lot of silly girlish nonsense," opined Lord Alex. "The chit has hardly even been tickled, as of yet - eh, Blackstock?"
The groom turned to face the audience, a wide grin on his face. He gripped the handle of the birch rod in one hand and felt the middle of the twigs.
"Quite right, my lord. This rod has hardly splintered yet." He turned back to his victim and patted her bottom roughly, provoking a new gasp of pain. "Mind, I mean to tickle this fat trollop all right, before I'm through."
This comment provoked some merriment amongst the audience, and Amelia found herself suppressing a smile. There was no doubt that the thoroughness and severity of the whipping boded ill for her, and this filled her with dread. On the other hand, it did delight her ill-used pride to see the insolent nursery-maid so thoroughly reminded of her place.
The birch rod sang through the air again, this time in a slightly higher note, as if the twigs hissed a little faster to meet their trembling target. Betsy's whole body froze for an instant, as if she were completely paralysed with pain. Then she shrieked in agony.
Another stroke was delivered, and then another was unleashed. Little broken bits of twig were flying now, as the birch rod was gradually shattered against soft flesh, stroke by stroke. Betsy shrieked and struggled futilely against the straps.
"The first dozen is complete!" Lord Alex called the tally as the twelfth stroke cracked across Betsy's bottom, sending most of the remaining twigs flying off in all directions.
"Oooh, it h-hurts!" the nursery-maid howled.
Amelia blinked at the girl's bottom. Her buttocks and thighs glowed an angry red. The tracery of individual weals from the birch twigs was still visible around the edges of the punished area. More centrally, the hundreds of tiny stripes had merged into one great furious red glow. Amelia could not help biting her knuckle anxiously. The maid had only gone a dozen and already it looked as if her bottom were ablaze!
Mr Blackstock tossed the shattered remains of the rod to the floor and took up the second birch. He waited for a few moments, allowing Betsy to regain some semblance of self-control. The girl stopped howling at last, although a ragged sobbing was still audible.
"Carry on, Mr Blackstock, whenever you are ready."
The groom bowed towards Lord Alex. Amelia caught a half-smile on the man's lips before he turned and brought the birch hissing down again.
The birching continued with a slow, unhurried rhythm. Betsy shrieked anew with every stroke, but no one seemed to take the least notice of her cries. Amelia watched in horrified fascination. The tingling in her loins was unbearable now. She bit her lip again, trying to think about something else. Half turning in increasing distraction, she found herself looking towards her Aunt Alicia.
There was another sickening hiss as another stroke was unleashed. Amelia, still staring into her aunt's eyes, felt a pang of terror in her heart as Lady Alicia broke into a broad and wicked smile.
Betsy howled in agony once again.
Amelia watched in awe. Betsy had the biggest, firmest, most protuberant set of buttocks she had ever seen yet, even so, she had no idea how the girl's bottom had withstood the onslaught of Mr Blackstock's merciless birch. The second rod had gone down the splintered road of the first, and there were precious few twigs surviving on the third to shatter against Betsy's sore behind as the final stroke whistled down.
The nursery-maid still shrieked with pain at every fresh atrocious stroke, but now her yells were hoarse and much less loud. Clearly, she was well on the way to losing that voice which had given such sterling testimony to her sufferings. The glowing redness of her rear had grown ever more furiously deep , yet somehow the skin had withstood the blistering kiss of the birch twigs without blood being drawn. Amelia found this astonishing. However, she reasoned, that as the young woman's hide received such healthful treatments on so regular a basis, the slut's skin must have become tougher than it looked.
It was clear that the maid had felt her correction, nonetheless, because when her bonds were finally released she jumped up like a startled rabbit, grasping her bottom and jumping from foot to foot. Betsy's breasts were free beneath the thin cotton of her flogging-frock, and the sight of her huge titties jiggling about as she danced her little jig of pain provoked much merriment among the company.
The nursery-maid was allowed a few minutes to compose herself. Now that her face was in view, Amelia saw it was almost as scarlet as her well-scourged bottom, and her cheeks were slick with the tracks of so many tears. The sight gave Amelia a deep sense of satisfaction. The next time that the low-born bitch was pert to her, Amelia thought, she would remember this little scene!
Betsy's ordeal, it seemed, was yet far from over. Once she had recovered a measure of composure she was made to kneel, still sobbing and gasping for breath as fresh tears coursed down her cheeks, and gather up the shattered stumps of the three broken birch rods. Then she handed them to Mr Blackstock, who held them before him. A hush descended in the Whippery.
"Has the miscreant anything she wishes to say?" Lord Alex's stentorian tones echoed around the chamber's glass dome.
"Uh...aaahhh...oooo...uuuh...haaooww." Betsy clenched her fists and took a deep determined breath. "Uh....th-thank you....ooooooo...th-thank you ...ooooooo...for correcting my..my..f-f-faults, s-s-s-sir," she sobbed.
"Kiss the means of your chastisement, girl," the groom growled. Betsy leant forward and pressed her quivering lips to the three broken birch rods, one after the other.
I did warn you. It's a very Victorian scene that could have been taken from The Pearl.