Monday, 9 April 2012
‘Come in.’ Mrs. Wilson it was who always opened that door. The first and almost the only thing I could see in that long, stately chamber was the table, and the birches beside it, at the far end, on a small bare dais. For me they were all the furniture it contained. Lord and Lady Usher and my tutor would have taken up comfortable poses in low chairs in front of that dais, to which my trembling steps took me, accompanied by the tartary housekeeper. Good positions to watch the correction of a sinful girlchild. Once facing them on the dais I would see Lord Usher open the Great Book. He would read out my fault, together with its date, and occasioning.
‘Commission of Insubordination’, he would conclude. ‘Have you anything to say?’ ‘No, sir.’ ‘Do you wish to make appeal?’ ‘No sir.’ I did not in fact know quite what this constituted, but had been assured that a ‘failed’ appeal carried an aggravation of the dose. So never tried it.
‘Fourteen strokes of the birch against the naked buttocks’, he would continue easily. ‘Tardiness, late for. . . .’ Etcetera. Finally, there would be a long and, to my modest mind, unnecessary lecture on my errors – ‘I am sorry to see you in the bill again so soon, young lady, but I am certain you will already agree that the most efficacious method of extirpating mistakes is to make one dread their consequence. Which we shall regretfully proceed to do. These fourteen stripes will sit in your memory next week, and perhaps help you to avoid their repetition by error. ‘Miss Pelham’, he would say, with a foolish grin, ‘do we have anyone here to birch a girl?’
‘I think so’, would come the reply. ‘Present’, said Lord Usher to me. And I had to draw a rod from its bucket and ‘present’ it with a curtsey to my beautiful governess, saying, ‘I humbly request correction, Ma'am, for my great faults of Insubordination and twice Tardiness.’
Then I would stand before the block until she had doffed her jacket and rolled up her sleeves sufficiently, and pronounced the dread order, ‘Strip and go over!’ – at which I would doff my camisole and Mrs. Wilson would delightedly secure me. It was a beastly position for punishment. The table which Miss Pelham had so thoughtfully brought with her that first day was white, bolted to the floor in some manner. I set my knees on its ledge and bent right over, my hands on the sofa behind. The upper body then found itself lying fully forward, the shoulders veritably on a level with the knees, so strongly did the forward (or backward) slope yield down. There was a belt at the waist, forcing one over, two slender but effective straps that went under the armpits. Needless to remark, all modesty must perforce be lost to the sufferer, who found herself fully on view; the twin hemispheres of her girlish bottom were nicely separated, bottom hole entirely on display, and set up for their whip. The whole scene was illuminated by lights set over the punishment table.
The victim was in no mood to indulge such picturesque semantical luxuries. Already the longest birch had been picked out, dripping, having been replaced there after its ‘presentation.’ Recognizable were the limber limbs one had culled the day before, and seen slashed leather-hard into a tree-trunk for testing and checking. Already the tutor was drawing back, and instinctively oneself was drawing in, and turning back a trembling face, and
For each of us it is different, and to me the birch was the most ‘profound’ of my punishments. Even when all pain, or most, was strictly over, it left me shuddering and trembling like a leaf with sheer emotion in front of my mirror, terrified at my terror. These would be the times Lady Julia would burst impetuously in, her stride outlining her thighs against the robin’s-egg velvet of her gown, her high-heeled slippers clicking, while her own piled hair, combined with the false, seemed almost as tall as her bust was broad. Alas, it was one of her ‘comfortings’ later that cost me one of my smartest ‘swishings’ of that winter. For the birch-rod was not merely reserved for Fridays. It could be called for at need, and was. I was even ‘allowed’ the tormenting decision between nine with the cane and fifteen with the birch. I was birched a brilliant red for soiling my clothes outdoors. I showed blue wheals from the buds and a blubb’ry face for failing to rise when Lady M. came in.