Lord Alex is standing at the lectern and reads aloud the name of the next girl.
"Emma Swift."No need to describe the last six. I think that's quite enough birching for one day! You will be relieved to know that I removed some very nasty business involving Betsy and nettles. Enough said!
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. Then his eyes widened in astonishment. He rubbed his chin in puzzlement and then turned to the other members of the audience with a rueful grin.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Something remarkable seems to have occurred. Our new kitchen-maid, Emma Swift, arrived earlier this week, yet it seems that no black marks have been entered against her name."
There was a rumble of astonishment amongst the audience. Mrs Pritchard glared at the girl and gave a disappointed hiss. Lady Alicia clapped her hands together delightedly and laughed aloud at this absurdity.
"But, my dear Alex," she said brightly, "if a girl has no marks in the big book, she must surely have been either good, or already punished for her sins. Surely, she must be released from the bench?"
"No new girl is that good!" Mrs Pritchard was furious. "It must be an oversight. Simply a mistake! Just look at the little trollop. If ever there was a girl who needed a thrashing -"
"Yes, yes quite, but," Lord Alex said with a smile as he regarded the seething housekeeper with evident amusement, "you must admit, Mrs Pritchard, that the oversight is ours and not the maid's. Now, everyone knows you are a stickler for the rules and for tradition. If there are no marks in the black book, what does custom dictate?"
Mrs Pritchard's mouth set in a grim line. She looked at Emma and then back at Lord Alex and gave a defeated sigh.
"The girl must be released," she said.
"My dear!" Lady Alicia beckoned Emma and patted the upholstered bench beside her. "Come over here and sit next to me. You can watch the show."
Uncertainly, Emma left her place on the Miscreants Bench and trotted over to sit beside her mistress. Lady Alicia immediately put one arm around her shoulders and, with her other hand, patted the girl's knee.
"You will get a good view from here, my pretty little darling," Lady Alicia said. "You will get a close up view of that which will certainly be coming your way next week!"
The observation seemed to calm Mrs Pritchard for she finally stopped glowering at the girl, like a grizzled cat regarding escaped prey.
Lord Alex, who had seemed hugely amused by the whole unprecedented incident, turned back to the book with a wry smile. "Well, after that, one wonders if this outbreak of obedience will prove catching. Perhaps our treasured nursery-maid has been behaving herself, too?"
The laughter that Emma's escape had provoked had lightened the oppressive atmosphere in the chamber for a moment. Amelia felt the ambience curdle again as miscreants and audience awaited in tense, anticipatory silence.
"Alas, no." Lord Alex heaved a sigh of palpably hypocritical regret. "Now then, stand out here, Lucy Frampton," the Marquis said as he turned to the big book once more. His voice was serious, even sombre, but there was a distinct twinkle in his eyes.
"Two black marks, Lucy. It will have to be two dozen, I am afraid."
The maid stood in front of the Marquis of Hatherby, her brown ringlets bobbing slightly as she bowed her head.
"Have we anyone here prepared to thrash some discipline into this wicked girl?" Lord Alex asked. Once again there was a pause, broken in the end by Lady Alicia's rich voice.
"I suppose one has to do one's duty."
Amelia looked over at her aunt. Lady Alicia was beaming at the trembling figure of Lucy, who seemed awfully isolated before the lectern, in the little dock.
"Yes," Lady Alicia went on. "I will essay to beat some better manners into the minx!"
* * *
If only it were her, Amelia thought bitterly, if only it were her there, instead of Uncle Alex, raising his birch rod for one final blistering stroke. Clara had only been sentenced to one dozen but Lord Alexander had certainly made them count. Clara's pert little bottom was now a furious red and the girl was crying out in pain most plaintively. Jealousy and fear of her own fast-approaching fate vied in her breast for supremacy. Amelia had a wonderful view from her place on the bench. She was almost three-quarters on from Clara's lovely bottom, ideally placed to watch the whipping proceed. Opposite her was the low wooden Penitent's Bench on the far side of the stage. Lucy and Kitty knelt on these, facing the wall. The well-whipped bottoms of the penitents were stuck out in a truly doleful display.
Lord Alex made his last stroke count, lashing Clara hard across the upper thighs. The blonde girl let out a heart-rending squeal. Lord Alex ignored her cries of pain and regarded the broken birch rod. Clara's bottom had not wreaked the destruction on it that Betsy's big behind had visited on the rods in Mr Blackstock's hand, but, nonetheless, it was obvious that the birch had been well used.
There was a pounding in Amelia's temples as she watched her uncle unstrap her cousin. She watched the sobbing Clara get down on her knees and kiss the proffered birch, as Lord Alex looked down fondly at his well-whipped ward.
"Go over to the bench now, Clara," he said, patting the golden locks of her bowed head fondly, "then present that pretty little bum of yours to the audience."
Wincing, and still sniffling a good deal, Clara made haste to obey her uncle's instruction and hobbled to the Penitent's Bench. Clara took her position, kneeling on the bench an facing the wall next to Kitty. Three thoroughly birched bottoms were now presented, most fetchingly, on display. It was a sight that Amelia would have paid good money to see, on any other day.
Lord Alex made his way back to the lectern. "The Honourable Miss Amelia Colinbrooke," he announced, his voice taking on a sterner and much more serious tone. Everyone in the room stared at her. She rose reluctantly and made her way to the little dock, there to stand absolutely still. Amelia was frightened, it was true, yet a surge of anger coursed through her veins. The nursery was bad enough; the canings and all the rest. But this was intolerable. There were grooms here, grinning at her - and stable boys. The lowest of the low. Amelia's whole body throbbed with indignation. Somehow, however, gripping the rail of the dock determinedly, she managed to hold her peace.
"Two marks," Lord Alex said in a voice dripping with mock sorrow. He looked up at Amelia and frowned. "Two dozen strokes, Amelia, to which I will add a further six for your general impertinence. Stand out here! It is time to atone!"
For a second or two, Amelia very nearly balked. Thirty strokes? How would she ever endure such a count? She looked around wildly, seeking some avenue of escape. Instead she saw Mr Blackstock and the remaining stable-lad. They stood by the doors, clearly positioned there to forestall any such attempt. The expression on their faces, part eager, part amused, left Amelia in no doubt that they would relish a struggle with their semi-naked female better.
Amelia took a deep breath, realising she was trapped. She silently swore that, come the day she assumed her rightful inheritance, she would wreak a bloody revenge on all her tormentors.
On trembling legs she walked to the stage and approached the awful block. So many birches had been broken that bits of twig were strewn all around, and these crunched sickeningly beneath her soles.
"Take your boots off!" instructed Mrs Pritchard, still stationed at the edge of the stage.
"Do we have anyone prepared to administer correction to this naughty girl?" Lord Alex's voice rang out. The pounding in Amelia's ears increased. Jamie had flogged Kitty, Lady Alicia had taken the birch to Lucy's lovely bottom. Who would step forward to administer her own thrashing? Desperately she prayed it would not be the powerfully armed Mr Blackstock again.
"I would be delighted to offer my services," the Reverend Dawes said dryly, giving Amelia a polite bow before turning to Lord Alex. "There is, I see, as I remarked earlier today, a rod in pickle for the wicked, and it would be a veritable pleasure to employ it on this impudent little chit!"
"So glad you could make it, Reverend! Your timing is exquisite." Lord Alex exclaimed jovially.
"I had some business with those maids of mine, after church was over. "Spare the rod and spoil the maid!" the Reverend said, shaking his head regretfully. "Those girls need plenty of stick, and laid on with a will."
Amelia had been left with only one hope after the unexpected arrival of the Reverend Dawes; that she might at least get her ordeal over quickly. Even that impoverished aspiration, however, was soon to be dashed.
Having taken off her boots, she stood waiting disconsolately by the block. The Reverend Dawes vaulted, surprisingly athletically, onto the stage and was at her side in an instant. Amelia tried not to quail as his hand reached for the hem of her smock, but could not prevent herself from flinching in fear.
"Stand still, girl, and keep your legs apart!" Mrs Pritchard snapped from her position at the side of the stage.
Amelia felt her cheeks burn fiercely as the Reverend Dawes slowly pulled up the hem of her garment, until her bloomers were fully revealed for all to see. She kept her eyes fixed on the twig-strewn floor and did her very best to fight back the tears that threatened to burst forth.
"Time to peel them off, Amelia!"
Biting her bottom lip hard to stop it quivering, Amelia put her hands in the waistband of the bloomers and began to pull the wretched things down.
"Come along, Amelia. Don't dawdle, girl! Hurry and get those knickers off!" her aunt cat-called as she struggled with them, desperately trying to ignore the fact that she was exposing herself completely to stable-boys and grooms.
She knew what she had to do, and put her knees on the ledge of the block, as the other girls had done before her. Feeling the ridge of the block's solid upturned wedge below her belly, she reached forward with a sigh and grasped the bar. She felt her smock pushed back until the soft silk fell about her shoulders. Now her bottom was completely bare. Amelia gave a grunt as the Reverend secured the belt, tight around her waist, affixing her firmly to the block. The little waspie was already very tight and her position made her all the more aware of it, yet he put so much pressure on the strap that she felt her belly constricted even further by the grip. Wrist and thigh straps followed, and soon she was helpless. It felt as if she were embracing the odious, heavy wooden block, almost as if she were melded to the thing.
Her legs had been strapped wide apart and she knew her sex must be exposed to everyone in the room. Amelia closed her eyes, her cheeks burning furiously, and prayed that her ordeal might soon begin thus bringing its conclusion ever closer in consequence.
Amelia's blushing cheeks burned with a new intensity as she felt the Reverend Dawes pat her naked bottom, but there was nothing she could say.
She was strapped down facing the side of the Whippery that housed the Penitents Bench; thus she faced the row of three previously birched bottoms as Lucy, Kitty and Clara knelt, sobbing quietly, on display.
Lord Alex caught Amelia in his wolfish gaze, and winked. "Do carry on, Reverend," he said with a smile.
Something cold and slithery entered Amelia's soul. It was happening to her. From the corner of her eye she saw him take the birch rod from its place on the side of the block. In front of her were the well-birched bottoms, each one quivering. They might as well not have existed. All Amelia cared about was the dreadful presence behind. She tried to swallow, but had run out of spittle. She set her teeth and closed her eyes.
The sound of it, the whispering hiss as the birch cut through the air, reached her ears just as the rod arrived at her bottom. Her stomach had just started its involuntary lurch when the pain cut in. Amelia imagined fireworks. A hundred pinpricks of scalding white light. She had sworn to herself that she would not cry out, and she kept her teeth clenched tight and somehow managed it. It was hard, though. So very hard. It was like no pain she had ever felt before.
The blaze in her bottom reached a peak, levelled into something like a plateau, then started to recede. The whispering hiss froze her soul again.
She would not cry out! She would not scream! She would not give him that satisfaction! Amelia clenched her fists harder, digging her nails deep into her palms. She shook her head until her auburn curls danced about her ears. It was so hard not to scream. The birch just hurt so much. It was true that the impact was much lighter than the tawse or cane bit it stung so terribly.
As Lucy had warned her, the pain grew worse and worse with every passing stroke. No numbing of the nerves compensated for ever more sore and welted bottom-flesh. She felt as if she had been scalded, as if the punishing birch was a torch of scourging fire.
At five a hiss escaped her gritted teeth. At six, a wicked cut across her tender thighs, she yelped.
When the seventh searing stroke seemed to skin her underbum, Amelia shrieked.
From then on, she was lost in a red mist of agony. The strokes were hardly distinguishable as discrete lashes any more. They were the crests of waves in a scalding sea of pain. Someone was screaming, a girl, perhaps, somewhere. Someone was fighting, uselessly, against tough leather restraints. All Amelia knew was that she was lost, engulfed completely by insanely, impossibly intense pain.
She was aware, in a way, of the first rod being cast aside. Some vestigial fragment of functioning intelligence noted that the Reverend had taken up the second birch, and told her that this was something to be feared. Most of her mind was too overloaded by the stinging of her bottom and thighs, to even know what fear was any more.
The second dozen was administered pitilessly. Amelia was hoarse but still shrieked as the strokes lashed down again and again. Her wrists were rubbed raw as she fought the bonds, but this was a discomfort too small to register in a mind completely overloaded and overwhelmed with pain. Slowly, the agony began to ebb. Little by little she became aware of who and where she was. Her bottom still throbbed atrociously, but at least the pain had subsided to the point where she could register other things. It must have stopped. The red waves had stopped crashing on the shore. There was just a long, slow searing blaze of heat.
Amelia stopped screaming. She was gasping now, desperate for air. Her disoriented mind tried to make sense of it. The Reverend Dawes tossed the second shattered birch to the floor.
"Two dozen," the man behind her called.
Sense was returning to her mind in fragments. It must be over; somehow she had survived. Oh thank God! The blaze in her behind continued to subside. The decrease in intensity had slowed though, and she still could not seem to catch her breath. Amelia let her head drop with exhaustion. The Reverend Dawes was beside her now; she sensed his presence and it made her tense. He must be coming to undo her wrist straps, she hoped desperately. No...oh God...he was picking something up.
What? Amelia thought wildly. It looked through her tearful eyes like another rod. But why? She's had her two dozen strokes had she not? Somehow she had survived them. But now her bottom was as tender as -
Something told her it was just his hand, and that it was no more than a gentle pat. Her bottom-cheeks were so sore that it felt more like a blow-torch had just passed across it.
"Are you ready, Amelia?" The Reverend was watching her wide disbelieving eyes, his voice teasing, mocking, belittling her once again. "Surely you haven't forgotten that Lord Alex awarded you an extra six, my dear?"
Before she could scream in horror, the wicked whispering hiss cut through the air once again.