A Small Town Girl
22 minutes ago
Ruth followed Amanda and Victoria out of the main hall and made for the stairs. Stephen was behind them, but turned away at the top of the stairs, heading for the room on the far side of the gallery. Vicky put a comforting arm around Amanda's waist as the trio made their way to the three adjacent rooms they had been allocated. "Don't worry, pet," she comforted the taller girl, "It'll feel better after a good night's sleep"Oh goody! A demonstration is imminent, but I'm afraid we and Vicky must wait a week for it.
"The Reverend certainly knows how to swish a mean cane!" Ruth observed.
"Wait until the morning," Vicky replied with a grimace. "I don't think we know that half of it yet, but I hope this Moon Balm stuff he mentioned does the business."
Ruth guessed that the other two girls were as nervous as she was. Their forced jocularity totally failed to reassure Amanda, who started to sob, wringing her hands as she did so. Ruth stared at her scornfully. What a wimp! After all it was the same for all of us, she thought. Her hands were throbbing furiously. She was hard put to know which had hurt most, the cane or the tawse. Not that she cared much. It was enough that both hands felt as if they were swollen to boxing-glove proportions.
Thankfully, she reached the door of her room. She was not in the mood for further conversation and quickly said goodnight, leaving Vicky to deal with the still-snivelling Amanda. Entering her room, she saw that the stewards had obeyed the Reverend's instruction. A small glass jar had been placed on the bedside table. She lifted the lid and saw that it contained a greenish-yellow waxy looking substance. Sniffing it cautiously, she decided that the smell, at least, was not unpleasant, perhaps hinting of lavender. Oh well, she thought, it can't make the pain any worse - let's give it a try. She dipped a finger into the balm, scooped out a generous blob, and massaged it into her throbbing palms. The effect was amazing. Within a few seconds, the fierce stinging had begun to subside and she was able to think rationally again about what had transpired that evening, without being distracted by the discomfort in her hands.
The experience of seeing the others go up to the Reverend, one by one, knowing it would be her turn in a matter of moments, had set her pulses racing. Her instincts had told her to get up, leave the room, and never come back. At first, only the sure knowledge that if she did not see this through she would lose her job and, with it, her career, had kept her rooted to her seat. Then, as first Vicky and then Amanda had taken their punishments, apparently willingly, Ruth had become curious, even excited. When Stephen stood up to take Amanda's place, face to face with the Reverend Mould, the knowledge that it was her turn next made her feel weak at the knees.
After all, this wasn't the familiar warmth of her own home, nor was Tony's passionate embrace promising her, in the same breath, both a spanking and a loving. This was a stranger handing down a sentence that she be punished, and that punishment was to be given in front of other strangers.
The thought stayed with her as she got ready for bed, churning it over and over in her mind. She clambered into bed and tried to settle down but her brain would not switch off. Carefully, she set her alarm clock for 7a.m. The Moon Balm had taken away all the pain in her hands , but her fingers were clumsy and she fumbled the setting for a few seconds before getting it right.
She could still feel the six individual strokes, three each from the cane and the tawse, as a sort of afterglow across her palms. The sensation was not unpleasant, but her mind kept racing back, over and over, recalling the scene vividly. I haven't felt like that since I was a little girl, she thought. Ashamed, perhaps. A little frightened, certainly. Knowing that she was to be punished, but not yet knowing how much the punishment would hurt. Then that first slashing cane stroke had answered the question. It had been sharp, almost a knife-cut. The pain had begun on the surface, but sank deeply into her over a period of some seconds. Just as it reached a peak, the second stroke had sent a further wave of sensation chasing the first.
Ruth rolled over onto her stomach, her eyes closed, as she pictured herself with her hand held out, waiting for the third stroke. Reverend Mould had spoken of anticipation adding to the efficacy of the punishment, and he knew what he was talking about, she thought. All that had happened this evening was that they had had their hands slapped. Tomorrow was going to be worse, a whole lot worse. It was obvious that the insistence on wearing athletics kit was simply a ruse to minimise the protection of any clothing when the punishment was addressed to a more traditional target.
Ruth ground her pubis down onto the mattress as she thought about the tawse and how it had stung as it slapped across her hand. A heavier, more bruising sensation, altogether more widespread than the cane. Without realising what she was doing, her hands had slipped to the waistband of the plain, almost boyish, pyjamas she was wearing and slipped them down. An image of herself, bent across the table at the front of the room, her bottom raised, formed in her mind. Amanda, Vicky and Stephen were looking on - looking at her. Reverend Mould, implacably ignoring her pleas, applied the stiff leather of the Lochgelly tawse to the tightly stretched and oh-so-flimsy gym shorts. She could feel the sting across her bottom, hear the sharp report as the fingers of hard leather impacted on her lightly covered, flimsily protected, rear. Breathing heavily, Ruth rolled onto her back and tossed the bedclothes aside. Her right hand sought and found the sweet spot between her legs.
Writhing in the grip of the fierce climax which her imagination had brought on, Ruth did not hear the door of the room next to hers open, nor soft footsteps as Vicky tiptoed past her door. The door of Amanda's room, to Ruth's right, opened quietly but closed with an audible click. Ruth, in her frenzy, was oblivious to the sound. It was only several minutes later, as she gradually brought her pounding heart under control, that she became aware of soft voices, muffled, but still audible, through the thin partition wall.
For a moment, Ruth was puzzled. Then realisation dawned on her. Amanda and Vicky had evidently wasted no time in discovering that they shared a mutual desire! She smiled to herself. I thought Stephen was a fast worker, but he had nothing on these two! The thought that others had found their own form of stimulation in the bizarre situation in which they found themselves was strangely comforting. Perhaps she might be kinder to Stephen tomorrow! Still smiling, her sexual tensions relieved, Ruth attempted to straighten the crumpled sheets and settled down. Sleep did not come easily and, when it did, it was broken by a series of vivid dreams...
...She had no idea how she had got there, but she found herself in the lecture room. She was completely naked and suspended from a hook in the high vaulted ceiling. Her arms were high above her head and pulled taut so that she was only just able to get her feet to the ground. She was aware of an agonising pain in her back, all the way from her shoulders to her knees. The Reverend Mould was standing in front of her, giving instructions to someone behind her. With a whistle and a crack of thongs on flesh, her back exploded into fresh fires. Ruth's body twisted slowly, as she swung helplessly, knocked off her feet by the force of the blow...
The door of the next bedroom clicked, the sound unnaturally loud in the still of the night. Ruth was awake instantly. Momentarily, she was disoriented, still half in her dream world as her back quivered from the impact of the lash. Blearily, she scrabbled for the battery alarm clock she had placed alongside the bed before retiring. It was 3.45 a.m. The door of Vicky's bedroom closed quietly but audibly and the bed creaked as its occupant climbed in. Ruth, reassured, smiled to herself and settled back. Evidently, her two colleagues had enjoyed a pleasant and, she assumed, satisfying, night. She was pretty sure their morning would not be so enjoyable.
With that thought and all its connotations still on her mind, Ruth was asleep again in minutes. Her subconscious, still very active, quickly returned her to the main hall. She found that she was still suspended from the ceiling. She shuddered again as the lash curled round her ribcage, the tips of the thongs snatching at her breasts. Her feet scrabbled for grip, her toes barely touching the floor, and she twisted helplessly. As she rotated, she saw that her tormentor was Stephen, who was laughing hysterically at her plight. Her body spun back round and the Reverend Mould had been transformed into Tony...
Ruth awoke with a start. The sun was streaming in through the window and she knew it must be quite late. Checking her clock, she found that it was almost eight o' clock! Oh shit! I set it for 7 p.m. not a.m.! She scrambled out of bed, quickly washed and started to dress. She had just wriggled into bra and panties when she remembered: Oh God! We have to wear that stupid athletics kit!
Frantically, she scrabbled in her suitcase and pulled out the shorts and vest which she had not worn since her college days. The frilly panties she had on would not do at all; they would show under the material of her thin shorts. Off they came, to be replaced with a rather lurid, red G-string which had been a rash purchase of her student days. She squirmed uncomfortably at the unaccustomed feel of the thin cord lodged in the crack of her bottom. The bra would be OK. It was a fairly plain, white number, quite supportive, and it wouldn't show under her vest. Not too much, anyway. She pulled on the shorts. Hell, they were tighter than she'd remembered. She didn't think she'd put on much weight in the last few years but obviously she would have to watch things a bit more carefully.
Her outfit completed by a pair of white plimsolls, Ruth took a last look round the room and made for the dining room. As she descended the stairs, her final dream came back to her. The strange thing about it was that, although she had felt her back turning raw under the lash of the multi-thonged whip that Stephen had been using, she knew that she had wanted the punishment to continue. She had wanted to feel the cruel thongs wrap around her, the tips caressing her ribcage and curling up under her breasts. As the flogging continued, she had relished the sting of the leather thongs lacing across her lower back and buttocks. The final stroke, she could remember, had been placed right across the centre of her bottom, causing her body to arc forward in Tony's direction. She knew that, had she not woken at that point, she had relished the certainty that he would have grabbed her body and taken her, there and then, with Stephen looking on.
Good grief, she thought, as she pushed the dining room door open, what is happening to my imagination? Blushing at where her dreams might have taken her next, she entered the room to find that the others were already there. Amanda and Vicky were seated at the table. Amanda was picking morosely at a bowl of muesli, but the remnants of a large plate of scrambled eggs were still in evidence in front of Vicky, who was now tucking into toast and marmalade. Stephen and the Reverend Mould were standing at a side table laden with coffee cups, fruit juices, and cereals. They appeared to be chatting in friendly fashion and the whole scene looked incredibly normal, just like the breakfast bar of any hotel in the country. Ruth's first thought was that she had imagined everything and that she was emerging from a particularly vivid nightmare. Then the cold douche of reality struck. It was not a dream; it was all too vividly true. This was no regular hotel, for where, in any normal scenario, would the guests all be wearing athletics kit?
The Reverend Mould turned to greet Ruth. "Good morning. I was almost beginning to wonder if you had taken my observations regarding lateness on board."
"No way, how could I forget?" She smiled at Stephen, to let him know that she had not forgotten that he had suffered a whacking for precisely that offence.
"I am pleased to hear it," the Reverend said dryly, "although doubtless there will be other lessons you will learn during the course of the day. You might want to make haste with your breakfast or you may yet find yourself late for the start of my lecture - and I wouldn't recommend that!"
Ruth never did eat a very large breakfast so it was no hardship for her to make do with just a cup of coffee and a round of toast. She passed the time of day with Vicky and Amanda, but neither seemed to be in the mood for small talk, and Ruth did not let on that she was aware they had spent a large part of the night together. Promptly at nine o' clock, Reverend Mould clapped his hands together to gain the attention of the four students.
Obeying his instructions, the hesitant little group made its way into the big hall. Behind them, Madam Karabengse and her brothers started to clear away the breakfast things. As always, they were quite inscrutable, and Ruth wondered just what they really thought of the Reverend Mould and his eccentric scheme. Even more so, what did they think of the students who submitted themselves, apparently willingly, to their master's demands?
The Reverend Mould waited until they were all seated before him in the little classroom at the end of the hall. "I am pleased to see that you have all remembered the instructions regarding dress code." He surveyed his pupils, his eyes cold and expressionless. "I do hope that you do not find my choice of clothing for you too uncomfortable." Remembering the manner in which breach of the dress code had been dealt with the night before, Ruth was not about to raise any objections, and her fellow students were obviously of the same mind.
"I am so pleased. Now, a little matter of administration. During the course of the day, you will be required, from time to time, to work in pairs. In view of the disparity in points which your respective sponsors have seen fit to award you, I suggest that the most compatible pairings will be Miss Plum with Miss Price and Miss Jamieson with Mr. Langton. I assume there are no objections?"
Ruth looked at Stephen suspiciously. I don't like the sound of this, she thought. I know I can't trust the Reverend Mould and I don't think I can trust you either, Stephen Langton. Stephen, as if reading her mind, grinned at her, his face like a Cheshire cat. He obviously saw the arrangement from a totally different perspective and was clearly delighted. Vicky and Amanda also seemed to be happy about things and had moved noticeably closer together.
"Good. That's settled then." The opportunity to argue about arrangements had gone and, in any case, thought Ruth, who else would I rather pair with out of this lot?
The Reverend continued. "To begin with, this morning, we are going to discuss the milder forms of corporal punishment, and the equipment required to dispense such punishment effectively." He rested his hands on the table and paused to look up at his audience. "The simplest and mildest form of corporal punishment is, of course, a hand spanking. It should not be thought, however, that a spanking is to be despised or that it is necessarily ineffective, just because of its simplicity."
Ruth shifted in her seat, recalling, vividly, just how effective the tanning that she had received from Tony had been.
"To be effective, a spanking should always be given with as much force as the spanker can muster. This is not to say that only muscular males can administer effective spankings. It is simply a matter of psychology, which we touched on last night. Because of the necessarily close physical contact between the two participants, the receiver, or spankee, will always be able to sense if the spanker is holding back and, if that is the case, much of the value of the punishment is lost."
He paused and looked around the group. "Miss Price! What is the value of a punishment?" The question was rapped out with such ferocity that all four students shot up straight in their chairs. Amanda, obviously suffering from her late-night tryst, was caught off-guard.
"Not a very original answer, Miss Price. I shall demand more creative contributions than that from you before the morning is out." Ruth pitied the thin girl. There was no doubt in her mind what form Amanda's creative contribution would take.
Amanda must have had the same thought and rallied bravely. "To deter. Yes, that's it - to make sure the offender doesn't do it again."
"That's better, Miss Price. You see, you can do it if you try! Miss Plum?" He turned sharply to Vicky, who was stifling a yawn. She looked exhausted. "You must pay more attention, Miss Plum. Very well, a recap on our discussion of last night. How do you ensure that a punishment is memorable, and therefore effective, without using undue force?"
Vicky was stumped, completely at a loss for words, and it showed. After a moment of heavy silence, the Reverend Mould sighed in resignation and stepped round to the front of the table. In a voice that suggested infinite patience, he said, "By means of the ritual manner of its execution, Miss Plum. As you commented last night, being punished in front of your peers should add considerably to the psychological effect of a good spanking." He picked up a spare chair from the pile stacked to one side of his table. He placed it in the centre of the space in front of the table, thus it was the focal point for the viewing audience, and beckoned Vicky to step forward.
"Miss Plum. Step to the front of the class. Immediately, please!"
Dear Ms. ______:Now we do our shopping at Target.
Over the past six months, your husband has caused quite a commotion in our store. We cannot tolerate this behavior and have been forced to ban both of you from the store. Our complaints against your husband, Mr. ______, are listed below and are documented by our video surveillance cameras:
1. June 15: He took 24 boxes of condoms and randomly put them in other people's carts when they weren't looking.
2. July 2: Set all the alarm clocks in Housewares to go off at 5-minute intervals.
3. July 7: He made a trail of tomato juice on the floor leading to the women's restroom.
4. July 19: Walked up to an employee and told her in an official voice: "Code 3 in House wares. Get on it right away".
This caused the employee to leave her assigned station and receive a reprimand from her supervisor that in turn resulted with a union grievance, causing management to lose time and costing the company money. We don't have a Code 3.
5. August 4: Went to the Service Desk and tried to put a bag of M&Ms on layaway.
6. August 14: Moved a, 'CAUTION - WET FLOOR' sign to a carpeted area.
7. August 15: Set up a tent in the camping department and told the children shoppers he'd invite them in if they would bring pillows and blankets from the bedding department to which twenty children obliged.
8. August 23: When a clerk asked if they could help him he began crying and screamed, "Why can't you people just leave me alone?" EMTs were called.
9. September 4: Looked right into the security camera and used it as a mirror while he picked his nose.
10. September 10: While handling guns in the hunting department, he asked the clerk where the antidepressants were.
11. October 3: Darted around the store suspiciously while loudly humming the Mission Impossible theme.
12. October 6: In the auto department, he practiced his 'Madonna Look' using different sizes of funnels.
13. October 18: Hid in a clothing rack and when people browsed through, yelled "PICK ME! PICK ME!"
14. October 22: When an announcement came over the loud speaker, he assumed a fetal position and screamed, "OH NO! IT'S THOSE VOICES AGAIN!"
15. Took a box of condoms to the checkout clerk and asked, "Where is the fitting room?"
16. October 23: Went into a fitting room, shut the door, waited awhile; then yelled very loudly, "Hey! There's no toilet paper in here." One of the clerks passed out.
The Reverend Mould stared at Amanda and nodded his head.I can't wait for tomorrow! It should be very interesting.
"In the context of administering corporal punishment, and teaching you the responsibilities and techniques that go with it, yes. During the course, each one of you will both give and receive corporal punishment. The whole point of the exercise is to show you that discipline is essential, but it must be placed in a context which is itself disciplined and controlled."
Stephen's mind raced. He really had no choice but to go along with all this if he wanted to keep his promotion prospects alive. Superintendent Matthews would crucify him if Stephen gave him an excuse for a bad report on his annual review. In any case, he supposed, the Reverend surely could not get too serious, not with three girls on the course. He grinned to himself. It did offer some interesting possibilities. Every cloud was supposed to have a silver lining.
"Kim will now distribute the forms I need you to sign, before we go any further."
As the slips of paper were passed around the table, Stephen observed the faces of the others in the room. The Reverend Mould was quite impassive; it was impossible to tell what he was thinking. Vicky Plum wasted no time in thought and simply dashed off a scrawly signature at the foot of the page she was offered. Evidently she had no worries. Ruth Jamieson looked a little more troubled, but after a pause also signed her form. Amanda Price seemed to hesitate and Stephen thought she was on the point of walking out. While he watched the slim girl deliberate, Kim silently appeared beside him and placed Stephen's own form on the table in front of him.
The single sheet of paper was headed with the name 'Damocles Priory' and simply stated that the signatory was there in the full knowledge that their attendance might place them at risk of discomfort and indignity, of a temporary nature, and that this was accepted by the signatory. Furthermore, the signatory agreed to keep confidential all the activities which took place on the course they were attending. As Amanda Price sighed deeply, then signed her form, Stephen picked up the pen he was offered and did the same.
"Excellent." The Reverend Mould seemed quite pleased. "Now we will begin the course properly. I do emphasise that, from this point on, I consider you all to be subject to a disciplined regime. You should all act accordingly. Now, if you would all come with me, I have a little tour of some of the more interesting assets of the Priory to show you." He stood up and made for the door through which Stephen had first entered the room.
The three girls followed, with Stephen bringing up the rear, and the little procession made its way into what Stephen immediately realised was the long wing of the building, which he had previously observed from the outside. They found themselves in a large hall, which might once have been a chapel. The high ceiling was supported by some elegant timber arches, and the light was provided by a series of chandeliers hung by massive chains from the roof timbers. All the windows were very tall and thin, divided by heavy stone columns. Stephen noted that the lowest part of the glazing came well above his eye-line. Evidently these windows had been designed to only receive light, not for the purpose of looking into or out of.
Whatever purpose this hall might once have served, Stephen was sure that it was very different from the use it had now. The far end of the room was set out like an old-fashioned schoolroom. In the centre of this area stood a sturdy oak table, in front of which a number of straight-backed chairs had been arranged in a neat square. Behind the large table stood an antiquated blackboard and easel.
It was towards this area that the Reverend Mould was leading his little party. But, in order to get there, they had to pass down a central aisle between the most astonishing set of exhibits Stephen had ever seen. The place was clearly a museum, but dedicated to one subject alone. To Stephen's right, an astonishingly life-like waxwork schoolboy was bent over a tall stool, about to receive a caning from the equally life-like schoolmaster who stood beside him. To his left, a burly convict was spread-eagled, tied to a stout timber triangle, naked to the waist, his back already bleeding from the stripes of a cat o' nine tails. Behind these life-like tableaux, partially hidden in the shadows at the sides of the hall, stood several pieces of apparatus; some of them recognisable to Stephen; some of them with uses he could only guess at. He identified a stout wooden pillory; two sturdy uprights linked by a timber crossbar with holes cut for the victim's neck and wrists. Alongside the pillory there was an elaborate bench consisting of two low planks with a raised, padded section in the centre. It was beautifully crafted in dark-coloured wood and deeply polished. Stephen judged from its appearance that it was probably a valuable antique. On the walls of the room, below the windows, hung a series of glass-fronted display cases, each containing implements of punishment; canes, tawses, whips in all shapes and sizes. It was a menacing display which made his hair curl.
Stephen heard one of the girls draw in her breath as she looked at the waxwork schoolboy and, as they moved further down the aisle, there were several gasps of surprise. They passed various items of furniture obviously intended to support victims under punishment. There were trestles, benches and stools of all kinds, mostly with leather restraint straps fixed to strategic points. Vicky seemed particularly interested in the third and last waxwork tableau. A lady in Victorian dress sat on a wooden chair not unlike those arranged at the end of the room. A teenage girl in similar costume was draped across her knee. The girl's skirts were bundled up above her waist to reveal a pair of voluminous bloomers which the older woman was attacking with the back of a wooden hairbrush. The girl's legs were raised, kicking out behind her. Behind the chair stood a stern-looking man in frock coat and top hat - the girl's father perhaps? He held a riding crop in one hand while his other hand rested on the chair back. The clear implication was that the hairbrush punishment in progress was merely a preliminary to a far more severe chastisement.
After allowing his charges a few moments to digest the scene, the Reverend Mould gestured to the chairs and tables at the end of the room. "Won't you all please sit down." Stephen picked up a chair and passed it to Ruth before taking one himself. In a matter of moments the four students were arranged in a semi-circle in front of the Reverend.
"I do hope that you do not find my little museum too disturbing," the Reverend said. Could he really be a vicar? Stephen wondered. Whatever denomination he might profess, he was clearly as mad as a hatter. Unfortunately, however, it was too late to back out now. "As you see, I have focused on the main subject of our course." Mould continued. He indicated the end of the room where they sat. "This area will be our classroom. It will be convenient when we need to refer to any of the exhibits or use pieces of the apparatus for the purposes of demonstration."
There was a distinct rustle as each of the four students shuffled uncomfortably on the hard chairs. Stephen assumed that the three girls were conjuring up the same kind of disturbing images that he was.
"The course will take the following form. After we break up this evening, you are free to examine the museum, although I suggest that an early night might be a good idea. We will reconvene here after breakfast - at nine o' clock sharp. There will be a mid-morning break and a lunch break. We will resume for one session in the afternoon finishing at three. The rest of the day will be devoted to private study in your own rooms, during which time you will each produce an essay summarising what you have learnt from the course. These essays will be reviewed the following morning before you all depart for your respective homes. As an incentive, there will be a small trophy for the writer of the best essay and also a small token to mark the least satisfactory work submitted. Any questions?"
There were none and Stephen began to relax a little. At least this crazy vicar seemed to have an organised agenda which bore some relation to the subject in hand.
"Good. Now, by way of introduction, I will say a few words about corporal punishment in our modern context. Of course, you realise that the days when an offender could be flogged senseless, like that poor chap, are long gone." He pointed at the effigy of the convict strapped to the triangle. "Now we recognise that the purpose of corporal punishment, or CP as we have come to refer to it, is to give a short, sharp shock, if you will forgive the cliche. As such, the primary objective is a psychological one. We wish to have at least as much impact on the offender's mind as on the body. To achieve this, we do not need to cause lasting physical damage, provided we administer the punishment correctly. In fact, in most cases, the actual physical effects need only be quite mild; merely a key to unlock the mind of the recipient. Once the required stimulus is generated, the real punishment is all in the mind."
His beady eyes flickered over his audience to make sure that they were attentive. Amanda Price was sitting nearest to him on his right, Ruth Jamieson to his left. Vicky Plum sat next to Amanda with Stephen on the far left. Stephen watched as the vicar selected his prey, like a hawk hovering over an unsuspecting field-mouse.
"Miss Price, have you any ideas on how we might achieve this psychological effect?"
Amanda looked startled at being chosen, but recovered quickly. "I suppose that the way in which the punishment is given is important," she began, " I mean, there has to be a certain ritual. It has to be controlled, measured, to be a punishment; otherwise its just a spontaneous beating given out of temper."
"Very good, Miss Price. Mr. Langton, have you anything to add?"
Stephen had been thinking as hard as he could since the question was first asked, and was able to give a prompt reply.
"Anticipation. It is important that the victim knows in advance what is going to happen. That way he, or she, can anticipate the punishment and that will increase the effect."
"Very good. Miss Plum?"
"Well I suppose if you make the offender ashamed at the time of the punishment, I mean they will remember it more later. The shame, I mean."
"Yes, and how might we do that, do you think, Miss Jamieson?"
Ruth coloured up and Stephen sensed that discussing the subject so openly somehow embarrassed her more than it did the others. "I suppose it would have to be the way in which CP is given," she said. "If the victim loses dignity, say by being punished in front of their friends or classmates, that would do it. But, of course," she added quickly, "you would have to ensure that you didn't bring about the opposite effect and create a martyr. You would have to embarrass the victim to show that they weren't a hero."
"That is really most perceptive of you all. I really am most impressed."
As he spoke the Reverend Mould opened a drawer at the back of the large table. He rummaged inside, continuing as he did so, "Now, it is time for a little introduction to the Active Learning technique which I mentioned earlier." He found what he was searching for and extracted from the drawer a short leather strap. He slapped it down on to the table with a sharp crack.
"Although you have only been at Damocles Priory for a short time, you have each managed to find two opportunities to disobey clear instructions. I now propose to deliver token punishments to each of you."
He was still rummaging in the drawer and now produced a length of dark-yellow cane, about two feet long, which was also slapped down on the table next to the strap.
"These punishments will serve a duel purpose. They will introduce you to the concept that this is a disciplined learning experience." The word 'discipline' carried a particularly sharp emphasis. "Furthermore, since you can all be assured that this evening's experience will be a mild one compared to what I have planned for tomorrow, you may experience something of that anticipation which Mr. Langton so astutely commented on a few moments ago."
Stephen opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it.
"During dinner, I particularly asked for a full and frank exchange of information, because I felt that it would help you all to understand each other's background. Not one of you complied with my wishes: you all held back. So I will say to you all collectively, each one of you is here to learn, but the need to learn has been assessed by your respective employers because you have each, in some way, broken the rules in your own particular working environment. You were all given a code number before being sent here. Mr. Langton?"
"Yes, I was code eight."
"Code six - but I don't know what it means."
"It will become clear as we move on. Miss Plum?"
"And last, but not least, Miss Jamieson?"
"Oh very definitely not least! I will explain. The number you have been given expresses the level of disappointment felt by your employers, relating to recent in post performance."
Stephen was watching Ruth closely and saw her wince as the truth was revealed. She was clearly unhappy that the rest of the group should find out that she had, in some way, upset her bosses. Very clever, he thought. Mould was obviously doing exactly what he had just been lecturing about; making his victims embarrassed, lose their dignity, as well anticipate what was to come.
"So you see," Mould continued, "each of you could have been rather more open during the conversation we had to introduce ourselves. For that lack of candour and clear breach of my instruction, I think three strokes with the light cane will suffice. Miss Price, will you come first please and stand here beside me?"
There was a deathly hush. Would she do it? Stephen wondered. The man was clearly mad, the situation bizarre. Amanda's chair scraped on the floor as she slowly rose and took the few steps needed to reach the indicated spot.
"Hold out your right hand."
White as a sheet, Amanda extended her right arm at full stretch and looked away. The cane swished down and impacted with the girl's upturned palm with a sharp crack. Stephen saw Amanda's face screw up with pain, but she did not move. Again the cane swished down, and this time the tall girl flinched and withdrew her hand with a small cry, nestling it under her left armpit.
"One more to come, Miss Price. Put out your hand, please." His voice was neutral. He might have been directing her to the railway station for all the passion it contained. Amanda put out her arm again and Stephen could see that she was blinking back tears. Mould grasped the girl's wrist, holding her steady, as he swiftly brought the cane down again. Amanda made no sound, but her mouth was held so tightly shut that her lips had turned white.
"You next, Miss Plum."
As Vicky Plum made her way to the front of the room, she passed Amanda returning to her seat, her injured hand clutched tight to her body. The shorter girl gave her colleague a squeeze of encouragement, then boldly stuck out her hand in front of the waiting Reverend Mould. She took all three strokes bravely, but the third one did make her suck in her breath noisily between her teeth. The punishment was quickly over, and Stephen stood up next, without being asked. He could hardly allow himself to be shown up in front of three women; his pride would not allow it.
As he passed Vicky returning to her seat, she gave him a brief, rather watery, smile. Standing in front of the Reverend, Stephen gritted his teeth and stuck out his hand. he almost jerked his hand back in shock as the first stroke seemed to cut his hand in two. The pain was worse than he had anticipated; sharp, immediate and rapidly followed by two more cuts, superimposed one on the other. Somehow he managed to restrain himself from shouting out, and then it was his turn to give a wan smile at Ruth as she took his place.
He returned to his chair and ruefully examined the palm of his hand. He did not really pay much attention as three sharp reports, punctuated by a hiss of air, drawn between tightly clenched teeth, signified that Ruth had been dealt with. Stephen's hand bore a broad red mark across the palm, exactly covering the main crease as he clenched his fist. The initial sting died quickly to a fierce throbbing as he rubbed his palm on his thigh to try and gain some relief. Ruth was just regaining her seat when the Reverend Mould spoke again.
"I believe that is sufficient to make two points. One, my discipline is not to be taken lightly and, two, even this light cane is more than sufficient to impress even the most hardened miscreant if used properly. We will return to that topic later. Now, I mentioned that each of you had broken two rules already. Mr. Langton's transgression is obvious and needs no further explanation. He has no one but himself to blame for his lateness at dinner, and will pay the appropriate penalty. You ladies may require more explanation of your fault. Each of you was given a dress code to comply with, yet none of you has chosen to comply with it. Yes, Miss Plum, you have a comment?"
Vicky Plum had put up her uninjured hand, just as she'd been taught long ago in play-school, to attract teacher's attention.
"I didn't think we started the course properly until tomorrow and, anyway, I don't have any athletics kit to wear."
"As to when we start, you now know differently. Regarding the kit situation, had you informed me, suitable arrangements could have been made. Does this rather disappointing excuse apply to anyone else?" His steely eyes scanned the room and Amanda Price put up her hand.
"Very well.I will arrange with Kim to supply you with some kit on loan after this session. I may as well explain, the reason for the dress code is to ensure equality between male and female students. I have already told you that this course involves some role-playing and while it might be feasible to have the ladies dressed as schoolgirls, it would be rather ridiculous to have a man of Mr. Langton's size dressed in shorts. Athletics kit is effectively without gender connotation so every participant feels a little more comfortable."
And equally embarrassed too, thought Stephen; you have to hand it to this nut case - he has all the answers thought out.
"To return to the main point," the Reverend regained Stephen's attention. "Your second transgression has earned each of you a further three strokes, but this time with my little tawse. You might wish to consider its effectiveness compared with the cane, as part of your closing essay at the end of the course."
He picked up the strap from the table. It was about eighteen inches long and perhaps a little over two inches wide. For about one third of its length it was divided into two tails, separated by a narrow V- shaped slit. Stephen noted that the leather was very stiff and when Mould picked up the strap it did not droop at all.
"For your information, this is a traditional Scottish tawse, sometimes called a Lochgelly tawse after the village where it was invented and manufactured. We will discuss the design and usage of tawses in more detail tomorrow. For the moment, suffice it to say that this particular implement is designed for application to the hands rather than any other part of the anatomy. Miss Price, will you come up here again please?"
Amanda looked as if she was about to faint, but with an obvious act of willpower she got up and went to the front of the room.
"Your left hand this time, if you please."
Gingerly, Amanda's left arm extended. Mould raised the tawse, bending his arm at the elbow so that the wicked leather strap flicked back over his shoulder. Amanda's eyes were tight shut and, at the very last minute, just as Stephen detected a movement of the Reverend's arm as the implement began its downward swing, she squealed "No!" at the top of her voice and jerked her hand away.
"That really won't do, Miss Price." the Reverend Mould's voice was mild. "You have one last chance. Extend your arm now, or I will ask Kim to come and hold you, and that will involve a doubling of your punishment."
"But I can't. The cane hurt so much. I'm just too frightened."
"Frightened you may be, but how scared will you be if it comes to a double the punishment?"
Very slowly, very reluctantly, Amanda extended her left arm. Mould grasped her wrist firmly with one free hand. "I will concede you just this one bit of assistance." He smiled at her with all the sincerity of a tiger smiling at its prey.
The strap made a much louder sound than the cane as it struck home, and Amanda's yell of agony was correspondingly augmented. Mould lost no time in dishing out three strokes, each time raising the tawse over his shoulder and bringing it down in a wide, sweeping arc. Amanda was crying openly by the time the Reverend released her wrist. Mould allowed her to stand for a moment nursing her hand, before directing her to sit down and calling for Vicky to step forward.
Stephen felt his excitement level beginning to rise. His right hand hurt like hell and he didn't relish being walloped with the the tawse, but he was a grown man and sturdy with it. It would do him no lasting harm. And here he was sitting with three beautiful girls, all in the same boat. And for them it must surely be a different matter. They would not be as hard and tough as he was and it was obvious, from what had been said about the dress code, that tomorrow was going to be a different kind of a day. The Reverend Mould was clearly not going to stop at smacking their hands. How would these lovely young women react to having their bottoms smacked? They probably hadn't worked out yet that such a fate was in store for them, but it would be worth a hell of a lot of discomfort to witness that! Quite exciting really. Stephen felt his penis harden as the tawse whacked down across Vicky's open palm.
Vicky made a valiant attempt to hold her position, but the thought of the second swipe of the tawse was just too much for her and she jerked her hand away just as the strap descended. The tails of the tawse caught the ends of her fingers, but Reverend Mould was implacable. He grabbed her hand and held it in position. "That stroke will not count, and will be repeated. And you will get one extra for moving!"
Vicky's face crumpled as she realised what that meant. Three times more the leather slashed across her palm before she joined Amanda, sobbing, back at her seat. Stephen got up and took his place in front of the Reverend. He had just time to take a deep breath before the tawse struck home. The impact was much heavier than that of the cane. Where the rattan had threatened to cut off his fingers, the tawse made him feel as if his hand was being crushed under a red-hot hammer. He gritted his teeth and held his position as the second swipe struck home. His hand was so numb now that surely nothing could hurt it any more! Wrong again! He gasped as the third swipe left his hand feeling as if it had been thrust in the fire, but he breathed a sigh of relief that he had maintained some dignity in front of the girls.
"You may sit down, Mr. Langton. Miss Jamieson, if you please?"
Stephen watched as Ruth made the lonely walk to the front of the room. God, but his hands hurt! He hoped she would be able to take her tawsing bravely. He had already decided that, of his three companions, Ruth was the one he would most willingly die for. She had a certain strength of character, style, he could not quite describe it, but she had certainly got it.
Ruth gasped. She had taken her first stroke and it had hurt. She stood her ground, however, her hand rigidly outstretched as she waited for the next impact, which was not long delayed. Her second cry tugged at his heart strings. She had obviously worked out that letting the tension out with a good yell made the pain easier to bear. She shrieked. That was it; she had taken her three. There was a tear or two at the corners of her eyes as she returned to her seat, but she had shown the other two up by holding her position throughout, without having to be forced.
"That concludes our session for today." Reverend Mould was still icy cool. "However there is one last piece of information you will find helpful. When you return to your rooms, you will find that Madam Karabengse has placed there a small jar of a somewhat pungent cream. This is called Moon Balm. It is prepared here, at the Priory, from a blend of natural herbs and shrubs, to an old recipe left here by one of the former occupants of this place when it was the home of a religious order. You will find that it has quite remarkable restorative powers if massaged into areas of bruising or abrasion. I commend it to you. Class dismissed."
Stephen stood up and went across to Ruth. She rose to meet him, her face very red, and holding her arms across her body, both hands tucked under her armpits.
"That was very brave of you," he said admiringly," Can I help you back to your room?"
She looked at him and smiled weakly, but with a hint of mischief. "Why, thank you, kind sir, but I'm sure I can manage. I was smacked on the hands, you know, not anywhere else. I can still walk!"
Stephen accepted the gentle put-down with good grace. In truth, his own hands hurt like hell, enough to dampen his ardour at least temporarily. Ruth's attempts at irony at least told him she had worked out the implications of what tomorrow held. He wondered if she would stay the course, or perhaps just steal away? No, she couldn't do that; she'd arrived by taxi and would have to order another to leave. His mind raced. Perhaps tomorrow would have its compensations after all!
Exactly a week after her interview with Lilian Greeves, Ruth found herself in a rather decrepit taxi, making its way slowly up a winding country lane on the edge of Exmoor, and wondering just what she was doing here. She had decided not to bring her own car, not relishing the long journey into unfamiliar territory, and had taken a train to Taunton. After some little difficulty, she had found a taxi prepared to take her the thirty or so miles to Damocles Priory. She sadly acknowledged to herself that, in the words of Laurel and Hardy, this was another fine mess she'd got herself into and that she would have done better to drive down. The taxi was anything but rapid, and its taciturn driver a far cry from the talkative city cabbies she was used to. Resignedly, she sat back in the seat and did her best to enjoy the ride, thankful that after a week's recovery her bottom was no longer marked with the print of Tony's chastisement and she could at least sit comfortably.Oh, I do hope so, don't you?
Things had moved quickly over the last week. The interview with Lillian had shattered her euphoric mood and Tony's best endeavours had failed to restore her optimism. She had explained to him what had happened and shown him the detailed written instructions which Coral Browne had produced for her, but he had not been able to give her much comfort. She wondered what was meant by the phrase 'Active Learning'. Lillian had used it, and it was repeated in the course introductory notes that she had been given.
Those notes had been singularly uninformative. They told her where to find Damocles Priory and at what time to arrive but very little else. Increasing her curiosity, the notes had contained a paragraph headed 'Dress Code' which had contained an instruction to bring 'track and field athletics kit'. The closing paragraph had also mentioned that all attendees were requested to remember the 'activity-level-code' which their sponsoring employers would allocate to them. In Lillian Greeves immaculate handwriting had been a single sentence, 'Your code is ten.'
Ruth's appreciation of the beauty of the deeply wooded countryside through which they were driving was rudely shattered by the harsh rasp of a motor-cycle engine. The taxi driver cursed and swerved slightly to the left. A dark-suited, helmeted figure on a powerful machine rocketed by, cutting across a blind bend.
"I reckon that mad Harry must be going where we are." The driver broke silence for the first time since the start of the journey. "To tell you the truth, miss, there ain't much else out in these wilds...not for miles and miles..."
* * *
Inspector Stephen Langton, the 'mad Harry' on the motor-bike was, in truth, lost and didn't know where he was going, much less that he shared a destination with the occupant of the taxi he had just rather recklessly passed. The fact of the matter was that he did not want to be where he was, wherever that was, and was only trying to find this damned Damocles Priory because his boss, Superintendent Matthews, had given him no choice.
Matthews was a policeman of the old school, who resented Stephen's rapid promotion through the ranks. Stephen, for his part, bore his chief no great animosity, but found it difficult to respect him professionally and regarded him as a plodder. One of the things on which they disagreed was the new attitudes which seemed to be revolutionising the way people dealt with many of the social problems of the early 21st century.
The treatment of young offenders, in particular, had been heavily re-thought. Instead of locking youngsters up, or giving them equally ineffective 'counselling' for minor offences, it was now legal for magistrates to sentence minor miscreants to the 'short, sharp shock' which had been so effective a century earlier. Superintendent Matthews thought this was a wonderful development and constantly lectured Stephen about the 'good old days'. Stephen, for his part, could see some merit but was far from certain that corporal punishment was a universal panacea.
Things had come to a head when the two officers had been arguing in the canteen after a court hearing. They had been discussing the treatment of a particular young offender who Stephen had apprehended for a minor theft. The Superintendent had then assumed responsibility for making the necessary character report to the magistrate before sentence was passed, and had not done the youth in question any favours.
"I thought you were a bit harsh, sir," Stephen had protested, after the boy had been sentenced to twelve strokes of the cane as well as three months detention. "The lad came from a pretty deprived background and no amount of thrashing will knock that out of him."
"Nonsense, best thing in the world for the likes of him," had been Matthews's curt reply.
"I can't agree, sir. It will just harden him. Now you take someone from a good home, like young WPC Jeavons over there." Stephen had been trying to lighten the conversation, make a joke of things. "If, hypothetically speaking of course, someone like her needed a bit of correction, then I'd be all for it!" He smiled at the pretty brunette WPC across the room, thankful that she could not hear the conversation. "Gorgeous little bottom, very spankable indeed. No doubt do her the world of good. Now I'm all for that kind of discipline!"
Matthews turned puce and Stephen instantly regretted his levity. Too late he remembered that the lovely little constable was Matthews's niece and the apple of his eye!
"That settles it!" Superintendent Matthews roar caused Sally Jeavons to glance across the room. She wondered what it was that her uncle and Stephen Langton were arguing about this time. She liked Stephen a lot, but if he didn't watch his attitude, her chances of ever getting together with him in the back seat of a patrol car one night shift were going to be pretty slim.
"I've thought for some time that I should be sending you on a course to find out just what corporal punishment is really all about, and I know just the place for you, my lad. It's Damocles Priory and, when you get there, tell them your code is eight. I hope they will teach you some sense!"
* * *
Stephen throttled the engine back and the heavy bike slowed to a more pedestrian pace. He had heard some rumours about Damocles Priory and didn't much like what he'd heard. Neither was he reassured when, once it had become public knowledge that he was being seconded for a few days, members of his squad started to make jokes and whisper as he came into the room. However, his sense of duty and discipline overcame his misgivings and, armed with the minimum of clothes and washing kit in the pannier of his bike, here he was. But just where was here?
He pulled into a lay-by and stopped in front of a gateway leading to a long gravel drive. As he extracted the map from his pocket on the tank of the bike, the taxi he had passed a few moments before drew up alongside.
"Lost your way, sir?" The taxi driver gave an insolent grin as he leant across to the open window.
"Well...er...not exactly," Stephen began, then realised he was going to look even more foolish if he didn't come clean. "Well, yes, actually I am a bit uncertain. I'm looking for Damocles Priory. Do you know where that is?"
"Oh yes, I know that all right, sir."
"Well, where, please?" Stephen tried not to let his irritation show, having spotted that the pretty dark-haired girl in the back of the taxi had taken a sudden interest when he had mentioned his destination.
"Why, right there, sir." The driver gave another grin and pointed at the gravel driveway behind Stephen. "You're here, sir, but now you are blocking our way...if you don't mind, sir."
Stephen coloured up. The taxi driver's profusion of 'sirs' had not been in the least bit respectful, quite the reverse in fact. He clicked into gear and gunned the engine, dragging the bike round in a tight circle to enter the gateway first, but he was not quick enough. As soon as the bike began its turn, the taxi slid forward into the gap and Stephen, fuming, was forced to follow it at walking pace for almost half a mile up the narrow drive before the tree-lined path suddenly widened into a crescent and he found himself facing an imposing stone-faced building.
Stephen dismounted and kicked the prop stand of his bike into place. He was stiff and tired after his long ride and not in the best of humour. Even so, he had to admit that the view which confronted him was impressive. The priory was built from a reddish brown sandstone and consisted of two parts: a three-storey section directly in front of him, and a long lower wing stretching off to one side. The three-storey section was virtually a cube and covered in ivy, which ran right up to the mock battlements that his the main roof from view. The lower section of the building seemed to be a single storey, with very tall windows and a steeply sloping slate roof, also with a profusion of ivy. Stephen guessed that it might once have been some sort of refectory or meeting hall, assuming this place ever had housed any kind of religious order.
His inspection of the building was cut short as the taxi door opened and a long and very shapely female leg appeared. He made a performance of removing his crash helmet, while surreptitiously inspecting the owner of the leg as she emerged from the taxi and bent forward at the front window of the car to pay off the driver. She was a tall girl. He judged her to be about his own age and beautifully built. She was wearing a loose bolero jacket over a white satin blouse and a flared miniskirt. Her figure was well proportioned and, although not by any means Junoesque, she was certainly equipped with curves in all the right places.
The girl completed her transaction with the taxi driver, who wasted no time in starting his engine and executing a rather cumbersome three-point turn, forcing the girl to bend down rapidly and grab at the small case which seemed to be her only luggage, to prevent the taxi running over it. The sudden movement revealed a considerable amount of thigh, and Stephen hurriedly attended to the catches on his bike's panniers, hoping to disguise his admiring stare.
"I hope you like what you see?" she observed, and obviously he had not been quick enough. He coloured up, fumbling for a reply.
"Yes indeed, it's an impressive building, isn't it?" was the best he could manage on the spur of the moment. He found himself staring into a pair of deep-brown eyes sparkling with laughter, and was forced to grin sheepishly.
"Victorian, I should say, wouldn't you?" Her voice betrayed amusement at his embarrassment, but she was decent enough to go along with his pathetic attempt at covering up. Stephen wondered if this girl could possibly be something to do with the same course he was destined for. If so, then life was definitely looking up. She had the most striking black hair, cut quite short, in an almost boyish style. With her high cheekbones, firm jaw-line and lightly tanned complexion, Stephen wondered if she had a Mediterranean ancestor somewhere in her family. Her tone and bearing somehow conveyed an impression of quiet authority, and a quality he couldn't quite put words to. Certainly she was no bimbo! He wondered if she was already attached to some lucky man. No engagement or wedding ring in evidence - his trained eye had already noticed that - but that didn't mean much these days.
"Er...um...I'm Stephen Langton," He still felt a little tongue-tied.
She held out a hand. "Ruth Jamieson. I guess you are here for the course - the one run by Reverend Mould?"
"Yes, that's right." He was about to say more, to try to find out more about his attractive course colleague, when the solid oak door of the main building swung open in front of them.
The person who emerged was clearly not the Reverend Mould. Short, very slim, and dressed in a black jacket and skirt, she was obviously of Asian origin, from Korea or Cambodia, Stephen guessed.
"You are here for the punishment course?" The question was was directed to Stephen and phrased in clear but heavily accented English.
"Yes, that's right. Run by the Reverend Mould?"
"He will come later. I am Madam Karabengse. These are my brothers." A stubby finger gesticulated to two Asian men who had emerged from the dark hallway behind the front door. "You would not be able to pronounce their full names." She stared at Stephen with ill-disguised contempt, "So you may call them Kim and Luc. You are to go with them." Again the finger extended in the direction of the men. "The lady will come with me."
The girl he now knew to be Ruth made a poor attempt to hide her mirth at Stephen's discomfiture. Angrily, Stephen detached the pannier's from his bike and followed his guides, leaving Ruth alone with Madam Karabengse. Mentally, he cursed himself for behaving like an adolescent fool and hoped he could recover some ground with the pretty young lady later.
He followed the men up a wide staircase which curved around the central well forming the core of the building. On gaining the gallery which formed the second floor he was shown into a room which could have been part of a good-class hotel just about anywhere. It had all the usual fittings, except a phone or TV, but that wouldn't be a hardship, Stephen decided. After all, he was only expecting to be there for a couple of nights. The furnishing in the room consisted of a bed, a writing desk, two small armchairs and a wardrobe. As with most hotel rooms, a shower and toilet were en-suite.
The two men waited impassively while Stephen completed his brief inspection of the room. Then the man called Kim, clearly the senior of the two, raised one spiky eyebrow. "Room is OK?" His brother, Luc, made no indication that he could either speak or understand a word of English.
Stephen didn't know whether a tip was appropriate, but he wasn't carrying any money in his motor-cycle leathers anyway, so he just nodded and said, "Fine, thank you."
"Reverend Mould say please to join him and other people, of course, for dinner. Six o'clock sharp in dining room. It is at foot of main stair, turn left, down corridor, then turn right, OK?" Stephen confirmed his understanding and the enigmatic brothers immediately turned as one and left the room without further comment.
It only took him a few moments to unpack his personal belongings from the motor-cycle pannier, so he had plenty of time to shower and relax after his long ride. Travelling as light as he did, Stephen already had cause to bless the brief joining instructions, which had given him the same curt dress code that Ruth had received. He donned a tracksuit over his running shorts, settled into one of the armchairs and began to speculate on how many other people would be joining him and the delightful Miss Jamieson on the course.
It did not take long before the warmth of the room and the fatigue of the journey began to make him drowsy. Feeling himself nodding off, he checked his watch and found that he still had an hour to kill. He set the tiny in-built alarm for fifty minutes later and settled deeper into the chair.
* * *
The insistent buzz of the miniature alarm penetrated Stephen's fuzzy brain and he struggled to straighten himself from his slumped position in the chair. It seemed as if he dozed off for only a matter of seconds. Checking his watch he discovered to his annoyance that he must have slept through the first alarm. He had only awakened when his watch had repeated its wake-up call, ten minutes after the first, almost inaudible, chime had sounded. Damn! Not a great start. He was going to be late for the first meeting of the course. Quickly he splashed some water on his face to wash the sleep away, dabbed himself dry, and hastily made for the staircase.
By the time he had located the dining-room, it was fully seven minutes past six. Approaching the door, he could hear a buzz of conversation. Preparing his apologies, Stephen opened the door and went in. He was confronted by a long dining table, already laid for dinner, with an impressive display of silverware. Standing facing him at the far end of the table was a man of about forty years of age. Of medium height and build, he wore a clergyman's dog collar over a plain white shirt and pale-grey pinstripe trousers. On one side of the table sat two young ladies. One had long dark hair hanging straight to her shoulders, framing a rather thin face. The other was plumper, with a figure which Stephen could only think of as 'chunky'. Her blonde hair was plaited into a single tail and, as her eyes met Stephen's gaze, they shone with a sparkle which Stephen instantly interpreted as holding both a promise and a challenge. On the other side of the table sat the attractive dark-haired girl Stephen already knew to be Ruth. All three women were dressed casually, in the sense that they were not wearing evening gowns, but Stephen guessed that each had chosen a dress calculated to make an impression. He had no problems with that - his initial impression was very favourable indeed, and this course looked as if it could be quite fun, after all.
The conversation, which had clearly been in full swing, died instantly as Stephen entered the room. "I'm terribly sorry I'm a little late," he began, feeling somewhat embarrassed as four pairs of eyes swivelled towards him.
"You must be Mr. Langton." The clergyman spoke with a clear and rather pleasant voice, educated, certainly, but with no particular accent that Stephen could determine.
"Yes, but please call me Stephen."
"I am John Mould. Reverend Mould for the duration of your stay here, if you please." He made a sweeping gesture at the women seated round the table. "These ladies are -" He pointed first at the thin-faced, dark haired girl.
"Amanda Price. Pleased to meet you." Her voice did not sound terribly pleased.
"Victoria Plum." The chunky girl spoke next, then laughed infectiously. "It's a dreadful pun, I know, but Mummy and Daddy thought it was sweet at the time." She giggled again and Stephen could not suppress a smile. "Just call me Vicky, everyone does."
The Reverend Mould gestured at his final guest.
"Ruth Jamieson, which you already know, of course, as we met at the door." She had a delightful smile, Stephen thought.
"Please take a seat, Mr. Langton." The Reverend Mould was determined to be formal and Steohen sensed that his late arrival was not appreciated. "I had just begun to outline to these ladies a little of the history of Damocles Priory but, as time is moving on, I would like to use the next hour or so for us all to become more acquainted. The effectiveness of the rest of the course does depend so much on an atmosphere of frankness, so we all learn from each other. I think perhaps we should have dinner served now and talk as we eat. After dinner, I intend that we should begin the preliminary session of the course."
Without waiting for comment from the students, he clapped his hands loudly. Instantly, a door at the back of the room swung open and Kim entered, closely followed by Luc. Each was dressed as a waiter and clearly this was the function they were going to perform; although Stephen sensed that the role was very much out of character for both of them. They looked more like bouncers from a sleazy nightclub, he decided.
Whatever his misgivings about the suitability of the waiters, Stephen had to admit that Damocles Priory served a very good dinner. He guessed that they had Madam Karabengse to thank for that. The food would have done credit to a top London restaurant and was all the more enjoyable for the delightful conversation. The Reverend Mould did not say a great deal, allowing his guests to make their own introductions. The good meal and pleasant company made it easy for Stephen to relax and he soon forgot the feeling of awkwardness that his late arrival...and in a tracksuit...had caused. He learnt that each of the girls had a connection, of sorts, with the other. Vicky was a schoolteacher, like Ruth. Amanda was the personal assistant to a senior official in the Department of Education who was responsible for administering the schools at which both Ruth and Vicky taught.
It didn't trouble him in the least that he was the odd man out. He found all three ladies very attractive in their different ways. Amanda, whom he had at first thought rather plain, turned out to be very intelligent and witty, and her deep-blue eyes had an intensity that he began to find very sexy. It was impossible not to form an instant attachment to Vicky; she was so bubbly and full of life. Stephen was quick to notice that what he had, at first, thought of as 'chunkiness' was in fact a perfect figure. It was just that she was small in stature - he guessed not much over five feet tall - and one sort of expected the body of a young girl, whereas Vicky was most decidedly developed in all the places that mattered.
Although there was plenty of idle chatter throughout the meal, Stephen noticed that none of those seated at the table, himself included, said much about why they were attending this somewhat unusual course. He guessed that each of them had some reason for not wanting to go into details. In his own case, he was not especially proud of the fact that he was there because his job depended on it. He was curious to know if the same applied to the others, but his police training did not help him to find any answers. This was neither the time or place for interrogation techniques to be applied!
As the meal drew to a close, Luc - or was it Kim, as Stephen could hardly tell one from the other - began to serve coffee. The Reverend Mould waited until everyone had been served and had helped themselves to cream and sugar before he stood up and rapped his spoon gently on the side of his cup to gain attention.
"I hope you all enjoyed your meal." There was a general chorus of assent, swiftly stilled as he held up his hand for silence. "Now it is time for us to address the real purpose of your being here. As you know, the purpose of this course is to teach you about corporal punishment, something which is relevant to all of you in your professional lives, for one reason or another." He paused and looked closely at his audience. When he appeared satisfied that he had their undivided attention, he continued.
"I am a great believer in a technique that I describe as Action Learning. This means learning from a close involvement with a situation. Role-playing, if you prefer. As you must realise, to apply this technique to the subject of our little course, it may be necessary for those involved to endure a little personal discomfort, and embarrassment, for a short period of time, although I do assure you that this is a temporary state of affairs and is essential if the course is to succeed in its objectives."
Stephen wondered if he had heard correctly. The man could only mean that the attendees on the course were actually going to receive punishment themselves. Surely he couldn't mean that! He saw from the varying degrees of horror on the faces of the other students that they had put the same interpretation on the speech. His imagination began to run away with him, a series of lurid fantasies flitting across his mind in swift succession.
"Now, of course, I do realise that this concept may be unacceptable to some of you," the Reverend Mould continued, " and for that reason, I am giving you the opportunity to opt out of the course at this point. If you choose to do so, you are welcome to stay the night here and return home in the morning. Those of you who elect to remain will be asked to sign a little document which I have prepared - nothing elaborate, just a little waiver to confirm that you are here of your own free will and accept the consequences of your presence here. Once you have signed the waiver, I shall consider that we have entered a binding Master-pupil relationship and the course will continue with no further concessions. Do you all understand? Are there any questions?"
There was a stunned silence for some considerable time, broken eventually by Amanda who asked, with a gasp;
"Do you actually mean that that you are going to...well, I mean...beat us?"