A New Introduction to ‘Claire’s Tale’
This story, as originally published In Tales of the Veils, was written by me many years ago – in fact between 1997 and 1999 – at the behest of my then Master, TB. As far as I remembered it was first published in two now-defunct sites before being taken up by the sadly demised Leviticus for his site. After his death, the new site owners apparently removed it and it would have disappeared had not Tales of the Vei ls taken the brave decision to give it space here. I saw ‘brave’ as it is rather off-topic, but I am told it has been popular over the subsequent years.
That would have been the end of the story except that, out of the blue, I was told by a friend that my writings were the subject of a discussion on a Yahoo group – Confining Clothing. This, coming as it did years after I had thought most my stories had been lost without trace, was an enormous surprise that led to my looking on my old hard disc where, amongst other things, I found further unpublished chapters of “Claire’s Tale”.
In fact what now appears here is almost twice as long as the original and has many of the earlier typos and plot errors rectified, so that I hope it will be a better read all round. In this I am extremely grateful to an American-domiciled friend of mine, Rob, who did an amazing amount of work in preparing the story for publication.
The one thing I do regret is that Claire’s history is still incomplete, and I have said that, having moved on in recent years, it is unlikely that it ever will be completed. However…………………….. Maybe I should repeat the film title and murmur to myself, “Never say never again!”
Anyway I hope you enjoy this new version of “Claire’s Tale” and my sincere thanks to Dave Potter and Bo_Emp for keeping the story alive when, otherwise, it might well have faded away forever.
(appearing in original novel and on TOTV from November 2005)
Fantasies, in my opinion, are best rooted in reality. So this tale is not just the product of unrestrained imagination. St Sybils, from which our ‘heroine’ emerges at the start of the story, is actually based on the notorious L’Instituit Academique De Bresse which flourished in the 1860s and 1870s. The means used to ensure its pupils behaved themselves are accurately reflected in this tale.
In Chapter Two and beyond, the training methods used on poor Claire are also drawn from factual accounts, including Henri Portalles’ infamous ‘Livre D’Images’. They are also based on the writer’s own experiences as the (willing) victim of very similar methods of control, restraint and discipline. I would not wish my heroine to go through anything that I have not myself experienced…………….. ‘D’.
Northern England. 1873
The journey home was sheer purgatory. The discipline governess at St Sybils had celebrated my forthcoming departure by strapping me down to the whipping block and birching me until I fainted. Then she had me revived with smelling salts and continued with her terrible work until she knew that I was incapable of taking any more pain. To be pinned face down on my bed after such a flogging was bad enough but, instead of being given time to recover, four hours later I was in the Principal’s office.
Fully dressed but barely able to stand, I was informed that the school’s closed carriage would be taking me home in half an hour’s time. For such were the ways of St Sybil’s Academic Institution for Young Ladies; any inmate, prior to being sent home for any reason, was whipped so as to remind her never to let down the school’s excellent reputation. For all Sybiliennes were supposed to be eternally chaste, silent, obedient and meek, ideal wives for the most demanding of husbands. Thus it was that I spent the journey howling into my gag as each jolt of the carriage sent fresh arrows of pain searing through my body. I think that I must have been barely conscious for most of the trip, arriving at home in such a state that I had to be almost carried up to the Nursery.
Thankfully Miss Leys saw that I was in a sorry state, so I was not given a ‘Welcome Home’ flogging. Instead my torn backside was bathed and I was then put to bed, strapped down on my front, my wrists fastened to either side of the bed head, ankles similarly secured to the bed’s base while a broad strap ran across the small of my back, pinning me down and making it impossible for me to indulge in ‘unnatural vices’. I wept unnoticed as I was brutally tied down, knowing that the long night stays I wore together with their reinforced crutch-piece would stop me exploring forbidden places, even had I the courage or any inclination to do so.
I slept little that night, not knowing what was going to happen to me. For, immediately after I had been informed of Papa’s death six months before, the code of silence meant that I could not ask what was to become of me. As no one volunteered any information, I slipped back into the old familiar but still horrifying Sybilienne routine, totally unaware of my fate now that Papa was gone. When Mama had died years earlier I had been a junior pupil at St Sybils, I was brusquely informed of her demise by a governess, as though it was as unimportant an event as changing my underclothes.
I had wept bitter tears after Mama’s death but, when Papa had gone to join his maker, I felt little and merely concentrated on surviving the awful life of a Sybilienne. However, once back home, I started to wonder what was going to happen to me. Naturally Miss Leys was in no rush to inform me and I, as always under the Rule of Silence, could not ask her of my fate. The only information that she did volunteer was the fact that the school’s carriage had not returned empty. When it had rumbled down the driveway, locked within its confines was my younger sister, Constance. At the age of thirteen she was leaving Miss Leys’ control and was going to spend the next four or five years learning what it truly meant to be a Sybilienne.
It was only after I had been at home for two days that Miss Leys spoke to me. As always, she had been carefully watching over me, making sure that I had no opportunity to misbehave. Not that I had much opportunity to do so, as I was made to kneel or stand absolutely motionless almost all day long, my silence guaranteed by the vast gag she always kept locked into my mouth. That morning, after the maid had got me up and had laced me into my cripplingly tight stays, the governess had come in as always to check that I was properly corseted and to supervise the rest of my dressing, and to make sure I ate my breakfast. This done, having taken me into the schoolroom, she did not leave me there for the following three or four hours. Instead she made me kneel before her so she might, in her own words, “Explain what was to happen”.
But, knowing Miss Leys as well as I did, I was not hopeful that she would be in any rush to inform me about what was to occur in the house and how this might effect my existence. For the governess always took her time over things – whether it be deciding what punishment should be meted out to me for some trifling mistake on my part, or in leaving me strapped down to the whipping block for half an hour or an hour prior to actually flogging me for the same inconsequential error. I sunk down onto my knees and tried to ignore the pain that seemed to flare out across my backside and down the back of my thighs where my flesh had been flayed by the discipline governess at St Sybils. As I knelt, upright from my knees, straight backed and utterly motionless, I hoped and prayed that Miss Leys would not make me kneel for too long. For I knew that the manner in which I had been treated at St Sybils had severely weakened me and made it unlikely that I could remain totally still in that most tiring of postures for long.
To add to my distress, I was still clad in my full Sybilienne uniform and, as always, the schoolroom was suffocatingly airless and hot. It always amazed me that Miss Leys could put up with such a close and stifling atmosphere as filled that room for six or seven months each year. Not possessing any direct ventilation – the windows had been bricked up when I was a child, apparently for my safety – and with its thick walls facing South so that, as Spring became Summer, the stone work gradually heated up never to cool off until late Autumn each and every year, the room was suffocatingly airless and hot for months on end. Walking in through its door way being like stepping into an oven, or so I would imagine.
Yet Miss Leys never seemed to notice the appalling heat nor the stifling atmosphere. It was true that she dressed in light clothing from April to October, her cool blouses and skirts being in contrast to the monstrously heavy apparel that it was my fate to wear all the time. So, as she sat at her desk, she did not seem to be in the very slightest incommoded by the heat. Whereas, interred within my hideously heavy Sybilienne uniform, I felt my body being slowly roasted as my poor lungs sought to find air that was breathable in that awful room.
I suppose that, after all my years as a pupil at St Sybils and having to remain under Sybilienne rules and restraints for years afterwards, I should have been able to cope with such minor inconveniences. But, so strictly corseted and dressed in the school murderously heavy attire, my over-heated body being finally interred within the massively thick walls of my close-buttoned cape and my head tightly coifed, I found the heat and stifling atmosphere almost beyond bearing. But, as was always the case, I would have to bear it, that much – unless I wanted to be flogged yet again.
Yes, I was fully aware of how much my recent stay at my old school had taken out of me. When I had been a pupil there, the privations and hardships imposed on every pupil had, after a while, become unremarkable. I learnt to survive and, when a year or two of my incarceration within its walls had dragged slowly past, I had reached the stage where it seemed quite natural to be kept half-starved, brutally corseted and physically restrained by hobbles and harnesses, and to have my body always being roasted under the crippling layers of clothing, capes or cloaks which went to make up our uniform attire. Even the vicious and all too often undeserved punishments and inflexible rules, the cruel manner in which we were abused and cowed, came to seem almost acceptable. For it was the only way of life that was open to me. Thus it was a case of living with it, as collapsing under the eternal strain and misery of being a pupil at St Sybils was not an option.
The endless years I remained locked away within that terrible institution hardened me to the life led by all Sybiliennes but, once I was put on what they called ‘Grown Girls Regime’ or G.G.R., I was to learn that life could be made far worse for me. This, as it name suggested, was the manner in which older pupils who had finished their educations were kept. It was even harder and more brutal than the lives they had led prior to reaching the age of seventeen. Kneeling demurely before Miss Leys desk, I looked back at the time I had recently spent at St Sybils and I could not prevent myself from shuddering.
On G.G.R., I had been locked away in a tiny room for most of my time there. All it contained was a truckle bed that had to be tipped up on its side when not in use, a wash stand and chamber pot, and a locked cupboard. Windowless, the stone-floored and walled room was lit by a gas mantle that was turned down until it gave out only a tiny glow during daytime, this being extinguished completely at night. Inside that room during the day I might stand or kneel as I wished but, as long as I was locked away in that almost lightless room, I must remain utterly silent. If there was even the vaguest suspicion that I had made a sound, I would find myself gagged, my mouth remaining plugged up all the time with the vast silencing stopper only being removed briefly at mealtimes.
To be found either moving or not in one of the two ‘acceptable poses’ meant that the offender would be strapped in a crude strait jacket, a tube of canvas that laced up behind her from throat to ankles. Well gagged, she would then be hung by the lacing cords from a hook on the wall. Her feet well of the floor so that her own weight drew the canvas even tighter about her, she would be left there until she had ‘learnt her lesson well’. As I knew to my cost, to be left like that for even a few minutes was an appalling experience. Once hung up, if I made even the tiniest of movements, the already crushing canvas grew tighter, pulverising my body, and making breathing seem impossible. Half an hour and even the strongest of girls would be howling silently into her gag as cramps struck and wracked her immobilised body, her chest seemingly crushed, her lungs squashed into uselessness. After an hour, convinced she could not breath any more, slowly suffocating, her body pulverised by the canvas’ murderous pressure, the offender would be wishing that she could die to escape the pain and terror. Yet I never heard of a girl being ‘strung up’ for such a short period of time.
Once, when I had been unjustly been accused of adopting an unauthorised pose, the discipline governess had laughed as she and her assistant had hung me on the wall, the canvas jerking tighter about my crushed body as my weight tugged at the lacing cords.
“So our clever-boots Claire has got herself into trouble at last,” the woman had said as she stepped back to watch tears run down my face and over my gag’s deep strapping. “Well, my dear, let’s see how you enjoy being hung-up for a while. But how long will it take for you to learn your lesson? One hour? Two? No, not that short a time; after all, you are a grown girl now. Three hours at least. Maybe a lot more. We’ll see this afternoon. And, if I was you, girl, I would pray that I am in a good mood then, or I may choose to leave you hanging there for the rest of the day.”
With a grunting laugh, she turned and left the room, while her assistant turned off the gas lamp. The door slammed shut behind them leaving me in total darkness. In the black silence, I howled into my gag as blind terror and pain totally overcame all my self control.
Most days I remained locked inside that tiny room for twenty two and a half hours a day. Only for ten minutes at mealtimes, and when I was taken to the exercise corridor for an hour’s walking each afternoon, was I allowed out of my minuscule prison. Even then I never saw another inmate, for I would be blindfolded and guided to the refectory or to the exercise corridor. As I ate in silence I would be seated facing the wall, a six foot high wooden partition on either side of me so that I could not see other girls. I might hear them eating or, occasionally, sobbing, but I never saw another inmate. Even when walking to and fro up and down the long subterranean corridor during my walks, I would be masked and my hood pulled right down so all I could see was the white line which I had to follow, painted on the floor, at the hem of my exercise cloak.. If I had been stupid enough to look up, all I would have seen would have been other grey cloaked and hooded shapes shuffling along that corridor as they too were put through their daily exercise period. So I never saw any of my contemporaries during my awful time living under the Grown Girls Regime.
Even the governesses who dealt with me so severely and contemptuously were only seen from knee level downwards, as I must always lower my eyes whenever one came into my room. I might never look up but had to stand motionless and silent in front the governess, only allowed to see the woman’s lower skirt, knowing that if I looked any higher, I would be viciously flogged for my pains. My years as a pupil, and then my time under G.G.R., had taught me how to behave in an ‘acceptable’ manner.
So, as I knelt before Miss Leys, I knew I might be able to live up to her standards, providing my poor abused body did not let me down. Whatever the future held, it could not be as bad as my time as a Sybilienne; of that I was sure. For all the privations of the previous years, I knew I had grown into a tall and slender young woman. The coif-framed face that peered back at me when I had so occasionally glimpsed myself in a mirror, revealed green blue eyes, a short nose, a mouth too wide for really beauty, and a firm rounded chin.
“Pay attention, girl!” Miss Leys harsh tones brought me back to reality with a start. “You’re not here to daydream. In fact you are going back to school.”
‘At 18?’ I asked myself in silence, my eyes demurely focussed down to the floor in front of me. ‘That’s impossible.’
“The reason why you have been brought back from St Sybils,” Miss Leys continued, “is so you can be trained – prepared- for marriage.”
“The man who has chosen you for his future wife is a gentleman of breeding, taste and who holds a very high place in society. And he is a man who desires…… No, he is a man who DEMANDS…. He demands certain standards from his wife. Those standards might well be beyond the average young woman but you, with your Sybilienne training, might well be ideal.”
She paused for long moments to let her startling news sink in.
“Your training will start from today. And, girl, you are most fortunate as your future husband wishes to ensure that you do work hard. He will, from time to time, be visiting us to monitor your progress and even to help in your training. Yes, Claire, you are a very fortunate young lady indeed!”
“Your training will start from today. And, girl, you are most fortunate as your future husband wishes to ensure that you do work hard. He will, from time to time, be visiting us to monitor your progress and even to help in your training. Yes, Claire, you are a very fortunate young lady indeed!”
Miss Leys totally unexpected words echoed round my brain as I desperately sought to remain still, to keep my gaze lowered, and to allow no hint of my inner confusion to show.
‘Future husband’? Who? When?
“Get up, girl!” The governess’s sharp command bit into the maelstrom of my thoughts. Without thinking and with the ease that years of practice had giving to the movement, I swayed slightly back and then rose to my feet, ankles together, body levering against the compression of my corsets. I stood up, my heavy cape, buttoned shut about me, draping its mass about me, to eradicate all within its thick walls as it hid my shape from chin to floor. My hands, tight gloved as always, hung limp and useless by my sides, my arms unbounded yet pinned down by the weight of my all enveloping cape.
“Charming…..” Miss Leys must have moved towards me as she spoke for, although I kept my gaze lowered, I could hear the soft swish of her skirts as she came down from the low podium on which her teacher’s desk stood. “You have grown up well, Claire. Remarkably well.”
Her dark skirts floated into my field of vision, until she came to a halt in front of me. A slender fingered hand appeared and I felt my chin being gripped between the governess’s index finger and thumb. She tilted my head slightly back, as far as the high collar of my cape would permit, and I could sense her eyes looking at me.
“Pale….” I heard her murmur to herself as she inspected my features. Then the grip on my chin loosened and I felt a finger-tip brush against the side of my nose. “Pretty flared nostrils. Pretty nose.”
Abruptly the hand was gone and the woman moved behind me. Then came the familiar loosening of the strings that drew my outer coif tight about my head. Its fabric was eased and then, reaching under it, Miss Leys unbuckled the strap that held the gag plug so deep in my distended mouth. The pressure about my lower face eased, forcing me to suppressed a shudder of relief as she came round to stand before me again.
I did as I was told, feeling my teeth come out of the slots near where the gagging plug joined the leather half mask which held it in place. There was a sharp tug and the hideous invader was out, my mouth at last free of its choking presence. I gasped, swallowed the flood of saliva that rushed into my dried-out mouth, holding back a sigh of relief as I did so.
“Nasty things. Gags, I mean,” Miss Leys said as she stood back a foot or so from me. “Nasty but useful.”
I heard a dull thud as she must have dropped the gag onto the table behind her. Then she was closer again, reaching round behind my head to close up the coif once more. When its was taut about my head, leaving only the front of my face exposed, she dropped one had away, the other resting on my shoulder for a second or two before she lifted it towards my face. This time her finger tip caressed my lower lip, gently massaging it with a circular movement, as though to dispel the inner bruising caused by long hours of being crushed under my gag’s retaining strap.
“Open, girl,” she said softly.
Automatically I obeyed and felt her finger slip over my lip, its nail tapping my teeth.
I tried to wind my tongue about the finger, my lips closing around it at the level of the second knuckle. It tasted vaguely of soap and of female flesh. Softly and carefully I sucked at the finger, now letting my tongue lick its underside. I desperately wanted to look up, to see Miss Leys’ expression. But I did not dare. Instead I concentrated on the feel and taste of the finger in my closed mouth, my heart pounding, my breath gasping from my nostrils as some sort of inexperienced emotion began to course through my body.
The finger pulled away and, for a fraction of a second, I felt a strange emptiness. It was strange feeling, unique in my experience. But………..
“Look up, girl”
Instinctively I did as I was told, seeing Miss Leys standing on the podium before me, tall and quietly elegant, her dark hair drawn back into a tight chignon behind her head, her features neutral and composed. In her hands she had a heavy mass of grey woollen material.
“Recognise this?” She shook out the material and I saw that it was a long gown, high necked and long sleeved, identical to the one I wore under my cape. It was just another Sybilienne day dress, heavy and hot and standard wear for every inmate confined within the walls of that awful place.
“Notice anything strange about this dress?” Miss Leys asked before I could answer her first question.
“No, ma’am,” I whispered in reply, my voice hoarse and low through disuse.
I did as I was told. Suddenly I saw how the dress the governess held out in front of her was different from the one I wore. My startled expression must have been only too evident, for Miss Leys smiled at me.
“Yes, little goose. This dress has no sleeves. No arm openings at all. And why’s that? I will tell you, my girl. It is because your husband-to-be thinks that his wife should not need to use her hands and arms. She must learn to rely on others for everything. That way she will become truly dependent on her husband’s goodwill. Imagine how easy it would be for him to tell her maid not to bother to take her to the bathroom as normal. Or not to feed her. Or not to allow her to drink. Yes, Claire, an armless wife is truly a dependent wife, and one who soon learns to behave perfectly and to try with all her ability to please her husband.”
My expression must have turned to one of horror, for the governess laughed to herself before continuing.
“That is what we are going to start your training with, my dear. Getting you used to living without the use of hands or arms. Of course just wearing a dress without sleeves is only part of the story. There are other restraints you will need to get accustomed to as well. You may not find them pleasant initially; in fact I am sure you will find them most unpleasant. But, in time, you will learn to live with certain ‘handicaps’; ones that your husband thinks will make you ever more tractable and obedient to his every whim. Now, the time for talking is over. The time for action has arrived.”
The acrid sting of smelling salts brought me back to consciousness. I coughed and tried to ease the awful strain on my shoulders as I hung, toes barely brushing the floor, from the raised lacing bar, wrists strapped to it eighteen inches apart.
“Ah she is conscious again” I heard the governess say. “Right, Marston, let’s get these laces tighter. Miss Claire’s fiancé is going to want her with a tiny waist and we have many inches to go before we achieve that. Now, PULL!”
I felt air being driven from my lungs and my insides crushed further as the maid – Marston – and Miss Leys dragged as my corset’s laces. The room spun about me and, suddenly, a deep black blanket seemed to descend round me, enveloping me in darkness once more.
“I think that is enough for now,” I vaguely heard the governess say as smelling salts brought me back to consciousness yet again. “We can’t expect perfection in one day.”
I felt the bar being lowered and my heels touched the ground once more, the strain on my shoulders easing at last. But that blessing was washed away by the realisation that the corsets into which I had just been laced were beyond the limits of my experience. Not only were they laced about my body with murderous ferocity, but they reached from my shoulders down to just about my knees. It felt as though seventy five per cent of my body was enclosed in a giant vice that was doing it best to crush the life out of me. My head whirled again but I fought off the onset of unconsciousness as my wrists were freed from the now fully lowered bar.
“I trust you like your new stays,” Miss Leys said as the maid held me upright in case I fainted again. “But you have not seen their most novel aspect. Hands and arms to your sides, Claire, and I will show you why they will serve so well in training you to your new life.”
Ten minutes later, choking back my tears, I stood in the centre of the room, only too bitterly aware of my stays ‘novel aspects’. For now my arms and hands were strapped to my sides, trapped inside heavy canvas flaps running from shoulders to thighs, each laced up along its length as though each arm was itself corseted. For the lacings that held the flaps down had been tightened by the maid with great diligence, almost as much as had been shown in compressing my body within the fiendish grasp of my stays.
“Excellent, excellent!” Miss Leys stood back to inspect me, a quiet smile playing on her lips. “No more arms, no more hands, for you, my girl. And that is how it is going to be for you from now on. Even at night. Only when it is necessary to bath you will we ease your corset or free your arms. Otherwise, we will just slowly tighten your lacings on a daily basis. But I am forgetting one thing.”
She turned and picked up and open box. From it she extracted a small brass padlock.
“There are five of these, my dear. One to go at the corset’s upper edge, one at your waist, one at the bottom of the corset. And one for each of the arm pockets. When they have been put in place and snapped shut, it will be impossible for anyone – even me – to ease the lacings. Tighten them, yes. Ease them, no. And their keys? Not here. Your fiancé has then and he will only release them to me – for a few hours – when I think you need a bath. Now, let’s get you locked in, so no one can ease this first little control on your actions. Yes, it’s just the first of many. You see, your husband-to-be is an amazingly inventive gentleman and he wants to make certain that you are truly the docile and ever obedient wife he wishes for himself. Now, times to padlock you into your beautiful new corset.”
She stepped forward, a smile playing on her lips as she started to fasten all five padlocks in their appointed places.
Miss Leys looked at me as I stood before her, allowing a brief smile to flicker across her lips.
“You always were a docile child, Claire. But I am sure that you will now become even more tractable. After all, think how easy it would be for me to punish you if you were stupid enough to show any sign of rebellion. No Mama, No Papa, no one to appeal to. Except for your guardian. And he is the gentleman who has instructed me to keep you like this. He is the one who wishes me to be so strict and unwavering with you.”
My guardian? Uncle Charles? No; it could not be him. Papa had not spoken to his reprobate brother for years. Mr Tancred, the lawyer? Perhaps, but he was such a mousey little man – not at all the sort of man who would wish for a wife such as me. Then who?
Miss Leys laughed. “You don’t know who your guardian is, do you, girl?”
“No, ma’am,” I replied in a whisper.
“Oh, this is droll!” The governess turned to the maid, her broad smile fading as she spoke to her underling. “Leave us, Marston. I’ll complete Miss Claire’s dressing.”
The maid bobbed a little curtsey and fled the room. Watching her hurried departure, it was plain that Miss Leys still retained her superior position in the house. In the old days before I was sent to St Sybils, even the cook, the housekeeper and the butler called her either Ma’am or Miss Leys. And now six years later, if the maid’s reaction to her command was anything to go by, the governess was still a very powerful figure within the walls of Stensfield Manor.
For the next twenty minutes or so, I was an armless mannequin as the governess dressed me. As she did so, she let it be known that my guardian and the man who was to wed me was a certain Captain Shard. It emerged that the noble Captain was indeed slightly noble, although of very inferior rank. The younger son of a baronet, he had not inherited any title, and was unlikely to do so as his elder brother was hale and hearty and living quietly with his brood of sons and daughters on the Continent. Like so many younger sons, the junior of the Shard brothers had gone into the Army. A commission had been purchased in a fairly nondescript Regiment of Foot: the 19th, Miss Leys recalled. But, in twelve years he had only progressed from Second Lieutenant to the barely less elevated rank of Lieutenant. So at the age of thirty four, he retired from the Army with the honorary rank of Captain and would doubtless have faded away in genteel poverty, or drunk himself to death in half the time, had it not been for a single stroke of fortune.
At this juncture, the governess’s story was temporarily forgotten as she led me into the grim atmosphere of the schoolroom. But, once there as I stood before her, she continued with her tale. Now she explained what had happened to the ‘Gallant Captain’.
One day, out hunting, his horse had been jostled by that of another rider. His mount had reared up and he had fallen from the saddle, breaking his leg. The gentleman whose horse had caused the trouble was deeply apologetic and had insisted that the younger man be carried to his house and there be treated by his own doctor. That less than proficient rider had been my Papa, and it was to Stensfield Manor that the Captain was carried, there to stay while his leg slowly mended.
According to Miss Leys, it was during those slow months of healing that my Papa and the Captain formed a strange friendship. For no apparent reason, my Papa – extremely wealthy, yet withdrawn and highly moralistic – had become extremely attached to the impoverished and hard-drinking officer. It was as if he saw in Captain Shard the son which he had always wished for, but which my Mama never gave him.
The following winter, Papa’s miserly habits made him ride to church one freezing Sunday instead of taking the coach; never a good horseman, he had fallen from his horse on a rutted and muddy track, and had become soaked. Next day he had a cold, two days later influenza, a day later pneumonia and, before the week was up, he was dead.
His funeral had been attended by a suitable array of tenants and lawyers, servants and labourers, by Miss Leys and my sister Constance. And by Captain Shard. Afterwards, at the reading of the will, there was considerable consternation when it was learnt that Papa had appointed the Captain as his sole Executor, as Guardian to my sister and I, and Trustee of our estates. For better or for worse, until we reached the age of thirty five, Constance and I were under the all-encompassing control of Captain Shard.
“Of course,” Miss Leys said as she adjusted my cape about my armless body, “Anyone could see what was in his mind. As Trustee and Guardian, he knew that all he had to do to ensure his ease and wealth was to marry you, young Claire. And that is exactly what is going to happen. And, as he is your Guardian, he decides who you wed, even if that man is himself.”
She smiled and ran her hands down the cape’s surface, smoothing it about me.
“And there is no need to ask the obvious question,” she continued. “Because you cannot really object to becoming the gallant Captain’s bride. Not if you have any commonsense. Just think of how miserable he could make your life if you decided to stand against him and to refuse to become his wife. And, my dear, don’t think of turning to me for help. For I have an excellent arrangement with your future husband. He has been most generous to me, both in terms of salary and terms of employment. No one could be more pleasantly placed than I am now, my girl.”
She made final adjustment to my attire and stepped back to admire her handiwork. I stood before her, rigid, breathing in small rapid gasps as the viciously laced-up corset crushed my chest, making normal breathing impossible. Motionless under the governess’s inspection, I realised how helpless I was. Already my pinioned arms seemed to be swelling under the pressure of the laced-up canvas. My hands, flattened against my thighs, were numb and I could not even move a finger tip. Yet the misery of being made armless seemed immaterial compared with two other factors.
The first and most obvious was the vice-like pressure of the murderously tight corset that crushed my body from shoulders to knees. It reminded me of the pain I had known when wearing a shoe that was a size too small and which had been laced up far too tightly. The difference was that, with a shoe, only your foot hurt and, in due course, became impossibly painful. With that terrible corset pulverising my body, I was in pain from chest to thighs, knowing only too well that there would be no relief from the appallingly misery of being so tightly laced into my stays.
Less overtly painful, the second factor was the manner in which I was swathed from head to toe in such weighty attire; weighty SLEEVELESS attire. Already my flannel underclothing was drenched in perspiration, my inner coif as damp as the hair it constrained beneath its tight confines. I had only just been dressed, yet I could feel the debilitating heat trapped under the multiple layers of my clothing mounting inexorable as I stood waiting to find what else dire Fate had in store for me.
Suddenly I was aware that the governess made moved close to me and that her right hand was up by my face. Instinctively I slightly opened my mouth, unwittingly hopeful that she would place her sweet tasting finger in my mouth again. But to my disappointment, she traced a nail along the flesh where it met the edge of my outer coif. Across my forehead just above my eye brows, down the centre of my left cheek, round the point of my chin and up the right hand side of my sweat-dewed face.
“Pretty child,” she murmured. “Such a shame you are to be married. Or we could have had fun together.”
Fun? I thought. What can she mean? No governess and her charge ever had ‘fun’ together. Only the reverse was true. Unless the governess enjoyed terrorising the young woman in her charge. But that would barely be fun for the victim of her warped excesses – excesses that I had witnessed during my days as a Sybilienne.
“You have a lovely mouth,” Miss Leys murmured, her fingers now drawing the outline of my lips. “Let me see your tongue.”
Puzzled but ever obedient, I put the tip of my tongue out between half-closed lips.
I pushed my tongue further out, my mouth opening wider.
I did as I was told but closed my eyes as I felt the governess slip something over my extended tongue. It felt hard and cold as it tightened till my tongue was clamped. Tears came from my eyes as something sharp dug into the soft flesh. I drew my tongue in again instinctively, tasting metal in my mouth and aware of something dragging over my lower teeth; something that seemed like a fine chain.
“One of your fiancé’s ideas,” I heard Miss Leys say. “It could be useful but we will see how later. For now you will not try to remove the clamp from your tongue. It is self tightening so, unless you want its jaws to cause you quite a lot of pain, you will accept its presence in your mouth, and carry on as though it was not there.”
I blinked back my tears, feeling her fingers caressing what little of my left cheek was not covered by my coif. I did not know why, but that gentle action sent a shiver through my brutalised body.
“Such a shame you must remain so heavily covered-up,” Miss Leys murmured. “But I suppose I must enjoy what little I can see now because, before too long, you will be completely covered up. Made totally chaste, as the captain describes it.”
She stroked my upper lip with a careful finger, making me moan inwardly, not understanding why such a trivial action should produce such feelings within me.
“It seems such a shame that no one will see your beauty. Such a shame…………”
Suddenly her voice changed, its wistful tone replaced by a new lighter note entering into its soft cadences.
“I really AM becoming forgetful,” she announced. She turned and went the table to pick up something I had not previously noticed. I should have done so, as the item was only too commonplace at St Sybils. Two cuffs equipped with steel swivel bolts that were joined by a steel rod. Hobbles – not for animals but for young women.
“Not absolutely necessary,” the governess announced as she sunk to her knees in front of me prior to lifting the weighted hems of my shirts. “There is no way you could leave here and, anyhow, the way your lovely corset is locked about your legs virtually at knee height will stop you walking normally. But the Captain says you are to be hobbled as well.”
I felt the leather cuffs being fastened round my ankles over my short boots, and heard the click of padlocks securing them in place.
“Oh, by the way,” Miss Leys said conversationally as she rose to her feet. “I think you will find these hobble just a trifle difficult to walk in. The one’s you wore as a Sybilienne allowed you to take nine or ten inch steps. These, in accordance with your husband-to-be’s instructions, have a much shorter bar joining the cuffs. So each step you make from now on will only measure four inches or so. That should make walking even a short distance a rather time-consuming and tiring business.”
She pointed across the room. “You can experiment with them now. Walk across to the back-board. Now!”
I turned to obey her instructions and nearly fell. For not only were my thighs and upper legs crushed together so that any minimal walking motion had to come from below my knees, but the hobble was even more restrictive that I had imagine. Four inch steps? That seemed to be an optimistic estimate, I thought as I started to shuffle towards the wall-mounted back-board.
The back board was an old acquaintance, even if it had apparently been modified since I had last seen it, years previously. Above a small ‘fold-down’ step was a solid oak board measuring some five and a half foot by three. Down its centre was a rounded wooden projection that stood out from the board by three inches or so. Only some three foot long, its base was fitted into a brass-railed slot so that it could be moved up or down the back board. Finally, on either side of the projection were wide leather straps equipped with heavy buckles.
As I made my way over towards the device with close hobbled steps, the governess moved past me and began to adjust the sliding rod that ran up the centre of the board.
“You must be six inches taller than your sister,” she commented, as she unscrewed a retaining nut and slid the projection rod upwards by that distance. Then she looked at me, and back at the board before smiling slightly. “Yes, that should be about right for you, my dear.”
When with a final shuffling motion I reached the board, she made me turn round. Then, with surprising ease, given the bulk of my clothing, she lifted me onto the low step, an action made necessary as the severity of my hobbling would have made it impossible for me to mount it on my own.
She had guessed right about my height for, as I shuffled slightly backwards until my spine came into contact with the vertical rod, it was correctly positioned, reaching down from the base of my skull to below my posterior.
“Excellent,” Miss Leys said as she began to pass the straps about my body with practised ease, tightening them until I was forced hard back against the projecting rod. I winced from the added bindings and their inexorable pressure. But the governess paid no attention to my soft moans as she fastened cross straps about my upper body so that my shoulders were brutally pinned back to tough the board on either side of the upright.
“A familiar device, dear Claire?” She smiled at me, tugging on another strap to make it yet tighter. “Not pleasant for you but SO good for your posture, my child.”
She reached up and passed a strap round my head, buckling it hard down so that I was incapable of moving it at all. Finally she dropped down on her knees and secured further straps about my cape at knee and calf levels before raising my skirts to remove the hobble bar and to replace it with double straps. I was now more firmly fixed in place than any butterfly on a setting board, incapable of the tiniest of movements.
Before she rose, she flipped down the step on which I had been standing, and passed straps about my in-steps, buckling my feet together and robbing me of any chance of even moving them. Then she rose and smiled at me.
“Not very comfortable, I would imagine, my dear. But there is no need for those tears. Several hours each day on your lovely back-board are going to be a routine part of your daily life, my child. Now open you mouth.”
A moment later a leather gag had been forced into my mouth to be held there by straps brought across my face from the back-board at either side of my head. With the metal clamp biting down on my tongue, the simple silencer was effective enough as far as Miss Leys was concerned.
“Of course you can make a certain amount of noise,” she commented as she started retightening every strap that held me so brutally in place. “But that won’t matter. No one will be in this room to hear you. As soon as I have covered you up, I’ll leave you alone, Claire. You see, part of my agreement with the gallant Captain is that I may have the afternoons off if you are properly secured. So, although it’s only about half past ten now, I think it is a good time to take a rest from my labours. After all, you won’t be leaving here, will you?”
She laughed to herself as she shook out a heavy canvas cover. I watched as she lifted it up in front of me, reaching up to hook it in place at the top of the back-board above my head. Then she let it fall about me. Like a heavy grey shroud, it draped itself about me, cutting out all light and, as I was soon to realise, grossly hampering the circulation of air under its weighty folds.
Tears welling from my eyes, I tried to beg the governess not to leave me alone. But, from the other side of my canvas shroud, I heard a low laugh and then the fading sounds of footsteps. A moment later the door closed, and I was left alone in darkness and silence to contemplate my fate during the hours to come.
A week had passed since I had been brought home from St Sybils. A slow painful week. One that, at times, almost made me wish that I was back within the walls of that awful Institution, returned to the unrelenting discipline and heavy silence of that prison-like place. I almost yearned to be lost again amongst the ranks of the junior pupils, to be surrounded with the soft shuffling of young feet as the grey-swathed girls went about their tasks, eyes lowered, bodies encased in their closed-up cape that swept the floor as they made their hobbled way about those fear-filled building.
But, at home, there was no anonymity for me I was the centre of attention in the old nursery wing, spending my days in the dimly lit schoolroom, eternally under the vigilant gaze of the governess or of her helper, the maid. Not that Miss Leys directly punished me or was cruel with me beyond the parameters of her employment. But being kept armless and corseted 24 hours a day, and spending so much time pinned to the backboard provided me with misery the like of which I had not previously experienced. Each day was identical to the one before and the one after; each meal was the same, each action taken by me or performed on me was merely a repetition of other such actions, as I strove to prevent myself falling into the dark pit of despair.
Then, one morning, the maid had briefly smiled a knowing smile as she got me up as usual. After letting me use the toilet and after she had wash my face, she re-tightened my stays, forcing new tears from my eyes as she remorseless crushed my pulverised body more cruelly than ever. Then the heavy layers of my armless clothing was draped about me, to be buttoned in place until I was covered from head to floor, only the front of my face exposed. I groaned inwardly as the maid fastened the final button of my all concealing cape and then stood back to admire her handiwork.
I was ready for the coming day and that prospect appalled me.
But this day was to be different. When I shuffled into the schoolroom, close-hobbled as always, I was not led across to the brutal backboard but, instead, was made to kneel in front of the little platform on which stood my one-time teacher’s desk. School days were long past me, but Miss Leys’ power over me was stronger than ever, a fact of which I was bitterly aware as I tried to control my fear as I waited for her arrival.
For once I did not have to wait long in the silence of that airless room. I heard the door open and then close behind her, and listened to the swish off her skirts across the bare boards of the floor until she mounted the podium in front of which I knelt, motionless and rigid from knees upwards. My eyes dutifully focussed on the floor in front of me, I only caught a glimpse of the hem of her dark skirt and a flash of white petticoats as she settled herself behind her desk, her chair grating across the platform’s as she adjusted its position.
For long moments the room was quiet, the sound of my shallow rapid breathing seemingly deafening as my corset-crushed lungs sought for life-sustaining air. I knew that the sound was barely audible, but that did not prevent icy shafts of fear lancing through me in case the governess thought I was making ‘unnecessary noise’.
“My dear Claire,” the governess’s quiet words cracked like a whip across my consciousness, “you have been home for over a week now. And it is about time you and I had another little talk.”
I shuddered at the thought of a ‘little talk’. But I did my best to remain impassive, to maintain my unwavering pose, and to hold my tongue. For this type of talk was liable to be extremely one-sided. In fact, if called upon to do so, I could respond. For the vicious clamp had never been replaced after my first day wearing it on my tongue and, for some reason which would doubtless become apparent, I was not yet silenced in any way. I was utterly helpless but at least I could speak.
“When we spoke last, I explained about your husband-to-be,” the governess continued in her usual soft tones. “Now that you are settled back here, I think it is time to tell you more about what he wishes me to do with you, and how he hopes you will emerge from your ‘training period’. His demands are really quite simple but they will involve you learning new behaviour, new reactions, even new emotions. You see, the captain wants to you come to love the way in which you are kept. He is a kind man and does not want you to be unhappy. Rather, he would like you to welcome being made so helpless all the time, and for you to see that the highly restrictive and ultra-strict manner in which you are to be kept as being almost a delight. He even wishes you to attain enough insight so you can ask to be punished or corrected, and so you will want no other life than the one he offers you.”
The gently spoken words flowed round me as I knelt before Miss Ley’s desk. I knew what each one meant, I could understand the sentences they formed, but the true meaning of what the governess was saying to me seemed beyond my grasp. Only when she spoke again did the full realisation sweep over me like a noxious flood, drowning my mind in its terrifying implications.
“The Captain wishes you, dear Claire, to come to accept, to even love, pain and suffering. And to offer them up to him as symbols of your devotion to your new husband and to your marriage.”
Kneeling on swollen knees in front of the governess, I suddenly remembered a girl at St Sybils. Her name was Heathcote (none of us were ever honoured by the use of our Christian names; only our family names were used.) She had arrived in my class when I was nearly seventeen, though I judged her to be older than the rest of us. Tall and straight-backed, she never made any attempt to make friends with other girls, her eyes always dropping to focus on the floor when you looked at her. But, as we were not allowed to talk to one another, except in the presence of a governess, and making friends was frowned upon (if it had been possible), her behaviour did not seem too extraordinary. Apart from one aspect. When, at the end of the day, Punishment Roll was read out, her normally composed features would become alive. Her eyes would sparkle as she waited for her name to be read out. If it was not, it was possible to see her shoulders droop, and her eyes to glaze over as though with disappointment. For the rest of us, our reactions were the opposite to Heathcote’s as, to hear our names read out, meant a wave of cold terror coursing through our bodies and turning our stomachs to water as fear gripped us.
Whereas we dreaded punishment, Heathcote positively seemed to welcome it. To the degree that it appeared she would often commit careless little mistakes, almost as though she was trying to get herself brutally punished. And it was not as though she was any less cruelly treated than the rest of us. She could be seen limping out of the Punishment Room, tears running down her cheeks like any girl after correction. But, next day, she would seem to be driven by some terrible urge to have herself punished again.
She did not last long at St Sybils. In under six months she had left us as mysteriously as she had arrived, a young woman with some dreadful secret that remain hidden from her fellow pupils. Only after she had departed did a single hint come our way. One morning, when another girl had got into trouble, our form governess had stood the offender up before the class.
“Jamieson,” she had growled at the trembling pupil, “if you carry on like this you could even find yourself so frequently punished that you will become like our ex-pupil, Heathcote. Someone so used to pain that, later in life, she actually misses being kept under harsh discipline. Perhaps, when you are twenty three, you will gain a taste for correction………”
At the time the governess’s words did not mean anything much to me. We knew that she liked to mentally torment us, so her words were largely ignored when she was trying to frighten one of her pupils. But later I asked myself if Heathcote had been twenty three. It was certain she looked older than the rest of us. But why? Why come back to school at such an age? In the end I had stopped hunting for an answer to that conundrum.
But, when Miss Leys spoke of my asking to be punished, the memories of the secretive Heathcote came flooding back to me. Had that young woman been subjected to something like the future that my husband-to-be was promising me? Had she too be taught to welcome pain?
My confused thoughts were distracted by the sound of Miss Leys’ chair being pushed back, its legs squealing against the wooden floor of her podium. Again I saw a flutter of crisp white petticoats and the swishing fall of her black serge skirt. Delicately she stepped from the platform, skirts raised momentarily to reveal shiny buttoned boots enclosing her delicate feet. Then she was in front of me, towering about me as, with eyes downcast, I knelt at her feet.
“You are doubtless puzzled, my dear,” she said with something approaching humour in her voice. “I do not imagine the good ladies at St Sybils ever discussed people who actually come to like being disciplined. After all, that sort of pupil would be a problem to them, I imagine. But NOT to me. You see, Claire, I have the benefit of discussing this idea, not only with your fiancé but also with a governess that has a girl in her charge who she is training to love correction. It really is such an interesting problem, my dear. And I think I am going to enjoy my part in your training. Now get up, girl; I want to have a good look at you.”
Fighting the stiffness in my legs I swayed upright to stand before the governess. As I have said before, I am tall but Miss Leys, slender in her tailored blouse and heavy skirt, stood an inch or two taller than I. With my eye demurely lowered, I sensed rather than saw her reach out towards me. A neat hand came into my field of vision, followed by a crisp linen cuff tidily buttoned about her wrist as she moved to touch the harsh fabric of my cape. Her fingers grazed the grey cloth at the base of my cape’s appallingly tight collar that clamped my head into immobility.
“Such an ugly garment,” she murmured, almost to herself. “Whoever designed the Sybilienne uniform knew what she was doing. I have never seen an attire so unflattering, so all concealing as yours, my dear.”
Slowly she walked her fingers up the boned collar and onto the matching material of the coif that tightly covered my head, before allowing them to stroll upwards until her hand was level with my eyes. Gently she slid it sideways until her index finger touched the corner of my left eye. I blinked, choking back some unknown moan that came from deep within me. An empty feeling seemed to fill my corset-crushed stomach as I felt the very tip of her finger brush my eye lashes before falling away to leave me bereft and lonely.
“Such an ugly uniform and such a pretty girl. Such a pretty and HELPLESS girl……….” There was laughter in the governess’s words. Laughter – such an unknown commodity in my life for so many years.
“Tell me, sweet Claire, do you realise you look pretty?”
“Speak up, girl. I want to hear what you are saying, believe it or not.”
“No, ma’am.” I repeated, my voice sounding husky through disuse, and breathless thanks to my corseting.
“Come, girl; no false modesty, please. You MUST know that you are more than pretty.”
Suddenly my chin was clamped in the governess’s firm grasp. She tilted it up a fraction as far as my collar would allow.
“Look at me, girl.”
Hesitantly, but unable to disobey her order, I raised my eyes and looked into Miss Leys’ face. As I did so I realised that I had not looked at her properly since returning home. Sybilienne discipline had made me keep my eyes lowered in her presence. Now as I looked at her, I saw her with new eyes; not those of the young pre-St Sybils child who thought her ‘old’. But as a grown young woman looking at a fellow female who was in truth not that nearly as old as I had thought.
Perhaps in her mid thirties, she possessed clear grey eyes, a firm chin, generous mouth and a smoothly contoured nose. A man would doubtless have judged her to be ‘handsome’ rather than ‘pretty’, but there was something about her face that mesmerised me as I looked at it for the first time for years. Her hair, brown flecked with auburn, was pulled back into an almost statutory governess’s bun behind her head but, for all the severity of its styling, it looked soft and fine.
“Look at ME!” Miss Leys snapped out the words as I dropped my gaze from her questing eyes. I obeyed, frightened but also thrilled in some strange and novel way.
“NEVER disobey me, child,” she said softly, her eyes boring into mine. “I would like to be your ally, your friend. But I am still your governess. I will and can punish you until you wish you had never been born. You understand that, Claire?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered, knowing that hers were no idle threats.
“Well, child, remember that I can be cruel as well as kind. Very cruel indeed if need be.” Her fingers tightened, even my coif’s dense fabric unable to protect my flesh from their harsh pressure. I winced but did not look down.
“Before we go to work in shaping you into the sort of young woman who will meet the Captain’s needs, there are various things that I must tell you. Firstly, are you afraid of me?”
“Afraid, ma’am?” I stammered, feeling trapped by her question.
“Yes, AFRAID! Surely even you know the meaning of that word. Are you afraid of me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I moaned.
“Good. Excellent.” A smile played on her lips. “Because that is just as it should be. You see, girl, I know the wonderful affect of fear on young women. I know it very well. Because I have experienced it. I have first hand knowledge of how effective it can be in shaping a young woman’s character.”
Abruptly she released my chin and turned away, gesturing to me to kneel again. I sunk to my knees as she climbed back onto the platform and took her place behind the desk.
“You see, Claire, I have a past too. Well before I came here some eight years ago as a junior governess, later taking over from Mrs Sykes, I was a pupil at a school not unlike St Sybils. My father was a clergyman, a far from wealthy one, I am afraid. So he was grateful when he was put in touch with a school that offered free tuition to ‘daughters of the lesser clergy’. The only condition as that, after our schooling was over, we had to stay on as unpaid junior teachers for a minimum period of five years. It was an excellent arrangement – for the school. It educated a few docile clergyman’s daughters and then had the use of their services unpaid for many years afterwards.”
She paused and I, motionless, eyes focussed on the floor boards in front of me, wondered what this history had to do with me.
“As at St Sybils, the discipline was fierce at that school. It might amuse you to know, my dear, that if I was ever invited to a ball, I would not be able to wear one of the now fashionable off-the-shoulder gowns. Such gowns were unknown when I was at school, so the Discipline Governess was happy to birch us across our shoulders and back. And mine to this day bear graphic evidence of the zeal with which that woman punished her victims. So it is fortunate that a humble governess such as myself will never be invited to a ball, or else how would I explain away the network of scars across my upper back!”
She laughed softly at her own rhetorical question, though I shuddered at the thought of her long-ago suffering.
“Of course, my dear Claire, you will never know that sort of pain as the Captain has made it plain that you are not to be marked anywhere ‘normally visible’.” Miss Leys laughed softly to herself. “But there are many other ways of ensuring your good behaviour. The birch is a crude instrument and you are to be the wife of a wealthy gentleman, so nothing crude will be used on you.”
Suddenly there was the sound of Miss Leys rising again from her seat. A moment later she had dragged me to my feet. Again she grasped me by the chin and forced me to look into her eyes, our bodies close together. With barely inches separating our faces, I could see how the governess nostrils flared as she breathed rapidly in and out. Her lower lip was curled inward and I could see the way she bit down on it, her white upper teeth visible. Her eyes, calm when she had looked at me before, now seemed flecked with gold. They were bright and captivating.
Abruptly she opened her mouth slightly and took a deep breath. Then she slowly breathed out and I could smell the sweetness of her breath, its warmth and distant hint of moisture as it fanned across my mouth and nose. I breathed in her breath and felt my legs turning weak beneath me.
I wanted something. I wanted it desperately. But I had no idea what it was.
“Do you trust me?” Miss Leys asked, altering her grip so that she held my head in both hands, hers bright eyes looking deep into mine.
“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered.
“Excellent. IF it is true. Well, my dear, let’s see just how much you trust me. To the point of pain? To the point of death? Beyond? You are willing to let me discover how much you trust me? To find out how devoted you are to me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The words oozed out from my mouth. They crept towards the governess and, reaching her, made her smile.
“Good, my child. Now go and sit down on the punishment seat and I will test you.” With a contented sigh, Miss Leys dropped her hands to her sides and stood back.
I turned and started to make my hobbled way to the cast-iron seat at the back of the School Room. It looked simple enough, a replica of a plain armless chair except that its legs were bolted to the floor and, rising behind its back, was a steel upright. It was not a welcoming sight.
“Hurry, my girl,” I heard Miss Keys say behind me, her tone light and casual. “We must see just how committed you are, mustn’t we?”
My heart was pounding as I moved towards the heavy iron chair. It had been many years since I had been seated there, but memories of the times the governess had strapped me in place on it flooded back as I approached its wrought-iron frame. My perennially lowered eyes caught sight of the seat and I knew that the immediate future was going to be unpleasant for me. For the chair had been designed to ensure the person seated on it knew that she was being punished.
Instead of having the usual flat area on which to sit, this chair allowed those placed on it the less than welcome privilege of being perched on three narrow bars, each triangular with a pointed edge facing upwards. No comfortable seat to sit on; just three cruelly-placed bars on which I would be perched and then secured in place. And those bars were far enough apart and sharp-edged enough to ensure that not even a plethora of petticoats, skirts, and my cape would protect my poor backside from their ghastly pressure as I sat on them.
“Stop!” The governess said almost brusquely as I neared the seat. I instantly obeyed her, knowing what would happen if I took even half a step more. “Just wait there a moment.”
I heard her move towards me, her long skirts swishing across the stone-flagged floor. Moving without any rush she came past me and went towards the cupboard to my left. I did not dare look to see what she removed from it but, when she came back to me, I saw she held a heavy clothe bag in her hand.
“A few preparations are necessary,” she announced almost conversationally. “For instance, those lovely corsets of yours don’t allow you to sit down, do they? Well, that is no great problem as they are designed to be altered fairly simply. Now stand still.”
The governess moved behind me and I felt her raise my cape, then my skirt and petticoats, easing even the ties of my long flannel pantaloons so she could lower them in order to reach the lower part of my stays. It was not a procedure unknown to me, as the maid was forced to do the same when I was permitted at set times to use the bathroom. At last came a feeling of indescribable relief as the lower parts of my corsets, that which crushed my legs from about the knees to the lower edge of my posterior, was loosened. I fought back a sigh of near pleasure as my upper legs and thighs escaped from the crushing pressure under which they were normally confined. Unseen behind me, I could feel the lacing being adjusted and, to my initial surprise, the lower lacing as removed and the stays pulled apart at the back, this latitude seemed unnecessary just so that it would be possible for me to sit down. My thighs and lower posterior no longer compressed by my terrible stays, but all above that region as crushing as ever, Miss Leys pulled up my pantaloons, dropped my petticoats and skirts and adjusted my cape so that no onlooker would have been able to tell that my manner of the restrained had been altered one iota.
Standing motionless, I next felt the governess loosen my outer coif, and I knew that my last opportunity to speak would shortly be upon me.
“Open your charming little mouth, my dear.” Miss Leys’ voice came from behind me and, instinctively, I obeyed her soft-spoken command. A moment later I was gagging as she forced the grim mass of the silencing plug into my mouth, forcing it deep until my wide stretch mouth. With its bulk in place I was able to close my lips slightly, my teeth dropping into the shaped slots at its base. Then, with practised hands, behind my head the governess laced up the leather mask that held the plug in place, until it brutally compressed all my face from just below my nostril to the base of my chin, forcing my mouth to close even more tightly over the gag.
“So good for you to be kept so nicely silent, dear Claire. Your husband to be is very keen on your being ‘Seen, but NEVER heard’. I suppose he is a trifle worried that, now you are grown-up and about to be wed, you might become a chatterbox, or start making demands on him. As he is very anxious that does NOT happen, he wants you to know that you will not only be under The Rule of Silence after your are married, but you will be also have your silence guaranteed by devices such as this excellent gag. It may not be comfortable, but it does its job well, doesn’t it, my sweet?”
“Turn round, my dear.” Miss Leys voice was a non-committal as ever. But I hurried to obey her. “Now shuffle back, child, until you feel the chair against the back of your legs.”
I did as I was ordered, stopping my backward movement as my legs met the chair. I stood still, waiting for the order to sit down but, to my surprise, it did not come immediately. Instead Miss Leys seemed in a talkative mood for she left me standing in front of the iron seat while she stood before me. Although I kept my gaze lowered, I could sense her looking at me with her calm blue eyes that never gave away any hint of what she was thinking.
“Your fiancé is a lucky man,” she said eventually, her voice low and gentle. “A very lucky man indeed to have found such a truly charming young woman as a wife. And such a well trained one too. Umm, not ‘well trained’ quite yet. But you will be by the time I have finished with you, sweet Claire. The gallant Captain will wonder how any girl could possibly be as well behaved as you, my sweet girl. Because you will have learnt by then that being well behaved is the only option open to you.”
The governess laughed softly to herself and moved closer to me. Her sweet breath brushed my face and, even though I look to the floor at my feet, I saw her face inches from mine.
“Charming. So very pretty,” I heard her murmur under her breath. Then she abruptly stepped back.
“Sit!” Her tone had altered totally. Now she was the severe governess. I obeyed and lowered myself down onto the chair.
With the corset open behind my posterior, not even my welter of petticoats, skirts and my cape could prevent me from being aware of the fact that I was sitting on three bars. Initially it did not feel too uncomfortable but I was only too aware that would soon be an illusion. But, for the time-being, I had other things to worry about as the governess passed a wide leather strap about my cape-shrouded chest. As she started to tighten it, I was dragged back against the metal upright behind me, the iron straightening my spine as effectively as the central bar on my back-board. Further tightening and I felt a though my rib cage would be crushed under the strain. Breathing in tiny rapid breaths through dilated nostrils, I sought to drag in enough air for survival, my head spinning. Crushing corsets and now the steely band across my chest were going to ensure that I had problems breathing for as long as I sat on that seat.
Next Miss Leys fastened a further broad belt across my lap, drawing my posterior back to the bar behind me, so I was pressed hard up against it from head to the base of my spine. Then she dropped to her knees and bound my legs immobile with further straps so that only my head was free, although my high collars with their whalebone reinforcement made sure I could not move it more than an insignificant trifle.
Tears blinded me as I sensed rather than saw my governess get to her feet.
“Nice and comfortable, my dear?” she enquired with honey-sweet tones. “I hope so because you are going to remain seated there for quite some time to come. Oh, you are crying, and that distresses me. You know how I do not like to see you unhappy.”
She leant over me and, with feather light lips, kissed my eyes before I felt something brush against my cheeks. It was warm and flesh, for Miss Leys was carefully licking the tears from my face.
“There, my sweet, is that better?” She asked as she straightened out. “I hope so, but I do not wish to see your tears in future. Perhaps this will solve that problem.”
Suddenly everything went black and I felt pressure on my eyes. I knew well enough what was happening; the governess was fastening down thick pads over my eyes that would be sewn inside a leather band. In a moment she would secure it in place and sight would depart out of my life until it was removed. I felt her reach behind my, tightening the securing strap and then bucking it in place. All was inky dark under those thick pads; they were no amateur devices and I knew no light would come to me until they were removed.
“That’s so much better,” I heard the governess say. “No one can see you tears now, And, with that lovely gag locked in place, no one can hear your moans…. or worse. Just as your fiancé wants you to be. So chaste, so quiet and so still.”
My stomach knotted with terror, yet somehow the woman’s voice calmed me. I knew she was going to hurt me in some way, but I almost felt that it was right that I should suffer at her hands. Why I did not know and, in that moment of rising fear, I was unable to analyse my feelings. Tears soaked the thick pads so tightly fastened down over my eyes, yet I was no longs crying through dread of pain or suffering but because some greater emotion was swelling up within me, an emotion new to me.
But that unfathomable moment soon past, Miss Leys voice cutting through my wild dreams.
“I asked if you trusted me, didn’t I?” Of course the question was purely rhetorical, for there was no way I could answer her with my mouth so brutally stopped up. “You said that you did. Well, here is your chance to prove yourself, my sweet little Claire. And all you have to do is to sit nice and still and just not struggle or do anything silly like that. Just a moment, my sweet one, and we’ll see how much your trust me>”
I vaguely heard the governess move away and, in darkness and silence, struggling for breath, my heart pounding in my crushed chest, I sat on the chair awaiting my fate.
“All ready, my dear?” Miss Leys voice was close to me again. “Right, let’s see how much you trust me.”
I sensed and then felt something being pulled down over my coifed head. Material razed my nose which, with the area between gag strap and blindfold was the only exposed skin on all my body. At last I realised that the woman must have dragged some sort of cover down over my head and face. A moment later as it tightened, I knew it must be some sort of hood. Seconds later, as I sensed it billowing in and out as I breathed, I realised to my horror that it must be a closed hood or something similar, hermetically sealed down over my head and face.
Panic rose like bile in my throat. I moaned silent, now away that it was getting warm under the hood as well as finding my breath, never fluid or less than minimal when fully corseted, was starting to speed up as my lungs sought fresh air. But, with a manacle amount trapped under the sealed hood, no fresh air was available. I was suffocating and I was helpless to do anything about that fact.
My head started to spin as my lungs seemed to fill with fire. I struggled against my bonds, desperate to free myself and to rip the murderous covering from off my head. I screamed into my gag, terror engulfing me. The fire in my lungs grew in intensity searing through body and mind until……………………….
The sharp jolt of smelling salts held under my nose brought hideous consciousness back to me. I was sucking air greedily through flared nostrils, still gagged and still blindfolded and strapped to that awful chair. My lungs still burnt but the murderous embers inside them were dying away as I dragged fresh cool air into them. But, as that pain eased, I could feel how my backside hurt where my struggles must have caused the sharp edges of the bars upon which I sat to dig into the soft flesh.
“Oh, Claire, you do disappoint me!” The governess’s voice pierced my misery with its chiding tones. “I thought you trusted me. Yet you thrashed around, thinking yourself cruelly kept short of air; perhaps unto death. But you should know I would NEVER allow anything terrible to happen to you, my sweet girl. I am fond of you and my job is such a pleasant one. Do you really think I would risk losing you. Now, my dear, let’s see if you understand that.”
I howled mindlessly into my gag as I felt the hood being again dragged down over my head and face, its walls being drawn close in as it was sealed in place. I screamed and silently begged for mercy. But none was forthcoming.
I cannot recall how many times Miss Leys ‘testing’ me that morning. All I recall now is the terror and the certain knowledge that I was dying as my lungs seemed to fill with molten lead as each ‘hooding’ deprived me of air to breath or to survive on. But I do recall her words as she informed me that she was suspending my testing.
“I am so very disappointed in you, my child. But do not think I will be beaten this easily. We will repeat today’s little test again and again until you DO trust me, until you struggle no more.”
‘Until I die?’ The question echoed round my mind, but she kept me gagged and the words remain remained imprisoned within my head, fuelling my terror.
At long last, still silenced and blindfolded, I was released from that seat of pain and my corset were re-laced behind me, my horribly bruised posterior now crushed by the stays’ vicious tightening which again reached down below my buttocks, almost to knee level. This done, my clothing straightened again, I was lead shuffling across the room to the backboard. But at least I was free of that terrible chair and even being strapped to the backboard seemed might paradise. I might be kept motionless, my body compressed back against the spine-straightening rod, but I could breath and the terror was slowly subsiding. Fear might be my constant companion but no longer was I sure I was dying. Suffering, yes, but alive.
Pinned like a butterfly to that cruel board, I spent the rest of the day motionless and silent, thirst building up within me until is became the focus of all my attention. When I was taken down and, my awful gag removed, to be given water to drink, it tasted so wonderful, so cool and reviving. Behind my blindfold pads I wept in gratitude to the maid who poured that liquid into my parched and gag-bruised mouth, allowing it to flow down the arid passage on my throat. Drinking it, I was actually happy, content to allow the joy of being given a drink to outweigh my bodily sufferings and the nightmare memories of the passing day.
I heard Miss Leys’ voice cut through my pleasure. The cup from which I had drunk was taken from my lips.
“Have you really earned that water, Claire, my child? Have you showed the trust in me that you promised?”
I could only moan softly at the governess’s words, knowing that anything I said would only go to show how weak and worthless I was. Living in the black world forced on my by my blindfolds, I groped around for the right words but could find none.
“You’ve nothing to say? Ah well, I should have expected that. But I suppose I should be grateful that you have not sought to excuse yourself. You accept your lack of backbone, don’t you, Claire?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I managed to reply in a husky whisper that brought a chuckle from the governess. Standing immobile before her, I tried to recapture her face in my mind, seeing her as smiling in a manner that would go with her chuckle. But I could not see that expression. I must have moaned my frustration for she now laughed softly to herself.
“Open your mouth, my girl.”
Instinctively I obeyed, silently terrified at the prospect of having a hard gagging plug rammed back between my teeth to make me dumb once more. But, instead of the vile tasting bulk of the silencer being inserted into my mouth, I felt a soft fingertip playing across my lower lip.
“So sweet and soft and pretty,” I heard Miss Leys murmur, her breath brushing my exposed flesh. “And what a shame you are to be silenced forever.”
“Forever?” The single word question slipped from me before I could stop it. I was appalled, for I was forbidden to speak unless answering a direct question or if I had been given specific permission so to do.
“Bad Claire,” the governess said, as though reading my horror at finding myself speaking without permission. But I thought I could sense something approaching amusement in her tone. However, that was soon swept aside as she continued to speak. “Yes, bad little Claire. Forever. You see, your fiancé really does like the idea of a having a silent wife. He is looking for a young woman like you who will be eternally obedient, completely chaste and forever silent.”
The finger resting lightly on my flesh was joined by another and together they sneaked over my lip and past my teeth, into the mouth itself. A nail softly scraped against my tongue and I moaned again. Not with pain but with some other, incomprehensible, emotion. Unable to control myself, I closed my lips softly over the two invaders and sucked gently on them, like a baby sucking a dummy. They tasted sweet as they explored the insides of my mouth. I sighed, losing myself in strange and novel feelings that half horrified me and half filled me with joy.
Abruptly the fingers jerked from my mouth, leaving me feeling bereft and empty. Somehow I suppressed a cry but, unseen beneath the dense pads covering them, my eyes shed fresh tears.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Miss Leys spoke again, breaking the silence that seemed to surround me like a shroud. “If I must inspect your body, inside or out, you will not react, dear Claire. It is NOT ladylike to act in such a way. In fact, I think you are becoming too excited, for some strange reason. Well, I see I will have to give you time to calm down.”
I heard her move and call to the maid. Moments later I was being led towards my night room, my close hobbled legs making me shuffle along like someone ten times my own age. When at last I reached our destination, the maid halted me and I stood still, blind and silent, wondering what lay in store for me.
At last I heard someone entering the room behind me. From there, the governess ordered the maid to remove my blindfold.
“And turn her round too,” she continued. “I want Claire to see what I have selected for her. It will amuse her, I’m sure.”
The maid unbuckled the strap that held the blindfold pads in place and then pulled them from my eyes. So long kept in total darkness, I blinked at the flickering light of a single candle, its luminescence almost blinding me. The maid, having placed the blindfold down on a nearby table, gripped my shoulders and turned me round till I was facing the door. I saw by the candle’s light the tall figure of my governess. Strangely she was smiling, but her expression was of little consequence to me. For I saw what she held and my blood ran cold. I felt my stomach knot with fear as bile rose in my throat. I wanted to howl and beg for mercy. But no sound came between my gritted teeth. For I was too terrified even to speak.
“Not pleased with my little present?” Miss Leys smiled softly at me as she took a step nearer, the candle’s light illuminating the heavy material she had draped over her arm. “I would have thought you would have been pleased to see this. After all, it must have been familiar to you at St Sybils.”
I shuddered, an icy chill spreading through me from my terror knotted stomach. For the governess carried a garment feared throughout the pupil population of my old school. It looked innocuous enough, but……………….
Girls over the age of sixteen who had done something to bring down on the hapless heads the wrath of their mistresses might be punished in several ways. The rod, the birch, isolation, starvation rations. Oh, there seemed to be a hundred ways in which recalcitrant girls might be brought to heel. Some were merely unpleasant, some agonising, but the one which every senior girl dreaded was the strait-cape. Not that the control garment itself was all that terrifying; it was what accompanied it that had even the most headstrong girl quivering with fear at the thought of it.
The governess walked across the room and spread out the white canvas garment on my bed. With fear welling up inside me, I watched her as she straightened up the lacings and straps that would, I knew, all too soon be fastened it about my helpless body.
“I thought that after all the excitement of the past few days, that a time in solitude might be for good for you, sweet little Claire.” The governess sent a honey-sweet smile in my direction. “After all, your fiancé seems to think it a good idea that you are kept safe and undisturbed when you’re married. He knows how bad for your women it is to allow them to become agitated or excited. So I thought I’d give you a taste of what it will be like when you are his wife. Just for a day or so, to allow you to see what fate has in store for you.”
‘Time in solitude’. ‘Safe and undisturbed’. ‘Agitated or excited’. The words themselves were harmless enough, but as a Sybilienne I knew the implied horror that lay behind each one of them. Transfixed with fear, I stood motionless as Miss Leys walked towards me, still smiling and, as always, unhurried.
She stretched out a soft hand and ran the nail of its index finger down my nose, gently scraping the flesh from bridge to tip. I shuddered, electric pulses running through my body. I swallowed back a moan, and fought against my overwhelming desire to take that finger in my mouth and to taste her sweet flesh.
“Don’t bite you lip, child,” the governess murmured, the tip of her finger now outlining my mouth my with tender caress. “It’s unladylike and make you less charming when you do that.”
The finger tapped my lower lip and I released it from between my clenched teeth. I opened my mouth slightly, hoping she would insert her finger into it. But, instead, she turned on her heel and signalled to the nursery maid.
“Prepare her,” she ordered the other woman.
Five minutes later I stood in the centre of the room, my monstrous corset still clamping my into immobility, my arms crushed to my sides, my torso pulverised by the ferocious tightness of the stays’ lacing. Breathing shallow and fast, I felt my head spinning and wondered if I was about to faint. But the moment passed and I was aware of Miss Leys looking at me with those calm eyes of hers. Then she looked across at her assistant.
“Thank you, but I will deal with Miss Claire from now on,” she said quietly to the maid. “You may go. And I will not need you until tomorrow morning.”
The nursery maid bobbed a little curtsey and left the room, no doubt delighted at the prospect of some free time. As soon as the door closed behind her. Miss Leys came to where I stood, looking into my eyes, her gaze so candid that I lowered my eyes and looked down at the half yard of floor between us.
“Shy little Claire,” she laughed. “So demure, so modest. Well maybe it is time for you to grow up a trifle. Maybe it is time to show you what it means to be married.”
Suddenly she moved, walking across to the bed. She picked up the dreaded straitcape and carried it across the tiny chamber to drape it over the solitary chair, its heavy mass flopping over the seat’s back like an elongated, long dead whale. Then she returned to me with a smile, moving behind me, her skirts swishing softly across the hard floor. To my surprise, I felt her tugging at the lacing at the bottom edge of my extraordinarily long corset. With skilled fingers she eased the lacing so that, from hip bones downwards, the garments terrible pressure was eased and then released totally. I might still be horribly compressed from waist upwards, but lower there I was free for once from my corsets’ terrible embrace.
“Go to the bed and lie down. Face down, child.” I did as I was told, feeling the extraordinary free, of no longer having my thighs crushed together by my stays. For once, maybe for the first time for years, I could walk freely, my stride unfettered, my legs free. But that pleasure lasted for only three paces. Then I was by the side of my low hard bed, looking down at the grey blankets that covered the wafer thin mattress.
Firm hands took my shoulders and, my arms pinned to my sides and helpless, I allowed the governess to lower me onto the bed so that I lay along its hard length. I felt like moaning or even begging for mercy. But long years had taught me to remain silent, even when I desperately wished to plead for forgiveness or mercy, to be spared from some awful fate that awaited me. Like all Sybiliennes, I had learnt only too well that ‘Silence is Golden’ and that to beg for mercy invariably made things far worse for the young woman seeking amelioration from the fate that awaited her. So I bit my tongue and remained mute, expecting my corsets to be laced up again, probably even tighter than normal, for I would not be walking anywhere for some time; of that I was certain.
But the laces were left along. Instead Miss Leys adjusted my position slightly.
“Face the wall, and keep your eyes closed.”
I struggled to turn my head until all I saw was the dull off-white of the wall’s mottled paintwork, before I obeyed the final part of the governess’s order, closing my eyes to await my fate. Behind me, I heard again the soft swish of long skirts moving across the floor’s surface. Miss Leys must have gone across the room to the locked cupboard behind the door. Because the next sound I heard was a key being inserted in a lock. For a minute or maybe two there were indistinct sounds. Some loud, some soft, until once more I heard the sound of Miss Leys’ skirts as she returned to where I lay. There she stopped to the accompaniment of other sounds, one of which I recognised as the gentle creak of her own well-laced stays, perhaps as she bent down. Then the bed moved slightly before it was dragged from the wall. I suppressed a frightened moan, for the movement was unexpected, even shocking. For, although the bed was relatively light, and I certainly was, it seemed hardly possible that a women a slightly built as Miss Leys could pull us both sideways a foot or so.
Again there were more indistinguishable sounds until I felt my right ankle being pushed to the side and something being secured round it. It felt like a hobble cuff as it was ruthless tightened about my thickly stockinged flesh. Then my other ankles was pulled outwards, my legs now wide spread in a shockingly lewd manner, before it too was girdled by a tightly fitted cuff. At last the hand that had held my lower leg released its grip and it was then, to my speechless horror, I realised that something was holding my ankles and legs apart.
“It’s called a ‘leg-spreader’, my dear,” I heard Miss Leys say in a voice that seemed to hold a note of light amusement in its tone. “Newly married girls who may find their husband’s attention less than pleasant soon before acquainted to such devices. Well, dearest Claire, there is no husband of yours here now, but I am acting in his place. It is my duty to introduce you to aspects of married life which – I sincerely hope – are unknown to you.”
Terrified, I heard the governess move across the room again, and then return to the bedside.
“You will remain totally silent, my lovely Claire. If I am forced to gag you, you will certainly live to regret your foolishness. Remember, not a sound, be it of pleasure or pain.”
‘Pleasure or pain’? Pain, yes I could understand that. But pleasure? How? How when the strait cape awaited me and my legs were so horribly spread apart in such a disgusting manner? All I felt was shame, and most certainly not pleasure.
A hand, warm and soft, suddenly touched my left inner thigh. I bit back a moan perhaps of fear. Perhaps of yearning. For my flesh tingled as finger tips brushed across my skin, rising slowly upwards towards…………………
Instinctively, I tried to close my legs, to prevent those insidious fingers from coming nearer to my most secret of places. Like all girls of my age and upbringing, I had been taught about the dangers that lurked within the crannies of my body, of how they were sources of evil, and how I must never touch myself there, and never allow anyone to touch that forbidden zone. And now my own governess, the woman sent to train and correct me, was invading that vile territory in a way that sent icy shivers coursing through my whole body.
I bit my tongue, choking back a cry as the fingers reached to the secret entrance to my body. A nail ran across the lips that sealed the entrance; lips I had secretly touched but which I had never dared look at. I knew their elongated shape, their soft heat and the way they protected further folds of petalled flesh.
The nail was joined by a finger and, to my delighted horror, it began to burrow in between the lips, seeking to pierce my innermost secrets. I shivered again, for once glad that my arms were pinned to my sides, my hands made helpless. For, had I been free, I would have grasped that hand between my legs and guided its questing fingers deeper inside my shaking body.
A moan rose in my throat, soft arrows of velvet pleasure spreading through my body. The finger, now joined by another intruder, was past the initial barrier of rose lips and together they wiggled deeper into my body. Now I felt sweat on my brows, warmth between my legs and then the moan I had been choking back forced its way out between my clamped lips. The fingers stopped their inward progress, freezing inside my opening.
“Bad bad Claire,” the governess breathed. “But so good too. So wet, so responsive. One day………………”
Her voice trailed away and I felt her move. Clothing swirled about her as she shifted her position. Facing the wall, eyes screwed shut, I could not see where Miss Leys was but I could feel her weight across my upper legs as though ………..
I screamed, sound erupting from me as the fingers moved up between my lower lips and then pinched hard a part of my body so small yet so tender. Flashes of light seemed to dance before my closed eyes, every nerve in my body seemed to spring to life, sending pulses radiating out from between my legs.
“I could nip it off,” I heard the governess say. “Maybe I should. A razor and … ziiiipppp…. It is gone. Just a tiny hooded bud of flesh. Unimportant to anyone but you, sweet child. Did you know that some husbands prefer their future wives to lose that ‘flower of evil’? To have it excised with one swift cut of a razor. They believe that young women treated that way become more docile, less demanding.”
She pinched the bud again and I screamed; not in pain but from the intense pleasure that arrowed though my body. This time my governess responded to my cry with a soft chuckle.
“Oh, sweet girl, you would really be deprived of SO much pleasure if your fiancé was to order me to cut out your little bud. So much delight.”
I moaned again; this time in despair as Miss Leys withdraw her fingers. Suddenly I felt so alone, so empty.
The governess had moved and I was aware of her leaning over me, an arm across my back, its hand before my face. I opened my eyes to see her finger near my mouth as, at the same time, I smelt a strange aroma, sweet yet pungent.
“Lick, child, Taste yourself.”
I put out my tongue and licked the two fingers in front of my mouth. They were damp, slick with some weird fluid that seemed to have an intensity out of keeping with its tiny volume. My tongue caressed the preferred fingers and, for the first time, I sampled the bitter-sweet musky dew from within my body.
“Some people call it ‘Satan’s Balm,” Miss Leys murmured as my eager tongue sought every last vestige of the profane fluid on her fingers. “Or ‘The Tears of Eve’. But in your case, dear Claire, it is just ‘Sluts Juice’. Now let us see how easy it is to milk you of it.”
I do not know how long she played with me, causing me to moan and beg and cry out as her eager fingers explored the depths of my body, and tormented by pulsing bud until she was forced to pin me down with one hand while the other played monstrous tunes on my body. That she gagged me after a while seemed inevitable and that action at least allowed to me to howl my longing to the skies in silence. Twice I was washed away in a tidal wave of feeling that dragged me to the black gates of wondrous hell. My ears filled with sound, my ragged breathing ceased, my heart pounded and my body was filled with glowing fires that burnt every nerve ending. Both times I collapsed feeling death breathing upon me, only to be woken again by the governess’s questing fingers and pinching nails. When I was borne away to near unconsciousness for the second time, she stood up and laughed. I barely heard the sound at the time but later I was to remember its cruel note.
For cruel she was. Before I knew what was happening, she had laced my corset up again so my thighs were crushed together. Five minutes later my body was shut away within the cruel walls of the straitcape, it’s harsh canvas holding me immobile, the outer strapping crushing me even more cruelly than did my corset. The attached hood was dragged up over my head and face to be laced closed behind my head, padlocks were clicked shut and I was rolled over onto my back.
“Sleep well, my child,” I vaguely heard Miss Lets say. “Concentrate on the evil between your legs. Concentrate hard and long. For I will leave you here, alone with your feelings, for a good long time, my dear. Yes. A very very long time. For girls, like you, dear Claire, have to learn that in the wake of pleasure always comes suffering. As sure as night follows day.”
I was aware of further straps securing me down on the bed. But unable to see, hooded and gagged, I could do nothing for myself except to accept whatever treatment Miss Leys had selected for me.
“Do you still feel pleasure, my girl?” She asked me when I was fastened immobile at last, all my body crushed in the straitcape’s murderous embrace. “Well, if you do, you can rest assured that it will soon fade away. And then? Oh, Claire, my dear, you are a Sybilienne and you know what happens to girls left in a straitcape for a goodly length of time, don’t you? Yes, my dear, pain follows pleasure. But who knows, one day you may even come to see pain AS a type of pleasure. Some girls do. Very special girls. The type of girl your fiancé would love to marry.”
Laughing to herself, she must have moved away for, a few moments later, I dimly heard the sound of the door being closed. Lying on the bed, swathed in the viciously tightened straitcape from head to toe, I knew what the future had in store for me. Have you ever worn a shoes that was too tightly laced? You recall how the pain from that pressure started at the bridge of the foot and began to radiate outwards until you were forced to loosen the lacing? Well, imagine that pain magnified a thousand times because the lacing is not just too tight over the arch of your foot, but because it is too tight over your whole body from head to toe. And imagine you can’t ease that lacing’s tightness. Imagine the pain growing second by second until………………………….
That was what awaited me as I lay helpless and motionless on the bed, feeling the pain starting to build throughout my body. That was why girls quailed at the very mention of the Sybilienne straitcape. And why I howling into my gag even before I had fully tasted it deadly flavour.
I knew when I was beaten, when my last vestiges of defiance and self-will had been driven out of me. When all I wanted to do was to obey and not think about anything other than avoiding the……………………
I could not even bring myself to think of the device by name. I had seen it used to quell headstrong young women at St Sybils, and rarely had any of them – even the most spirited and brave – withstood its effects for long. A day, a week, two weeks. And then they were automata with terror-filled eyes who would do anything to avoid another second of ……..
I shuddered again as I lay on my bed, as always strapped into place so I could not ‘disgrace myself’ during the long dark hours of night. At least I was alone and free of the terrible device which I feared so much. At least I could breath as freely as the hood locked down over my head and face allowed, and at least I was free from the device’s crushing embrace. Yet, exhausted though I was, I could not sleep. For Miss Leys words still coursed through my mind, each syllable etched into my memory as though seared in place by a white hot branding iron.
“Your fiancé has visited you every day of late,” Miss Leys said as she was unlacing my crushed and paralysed body from that terrible device after an eternity of sufferings. “He finds it interesting to see you made so helpless, and so totally covered-up. He seems to think that it is how his wife should be kept all the time after you two have been wed. And that, my dear Claire, could be sooner than you might think.”
‘Sooner than you think’. The words echoed round my brain and I did not know whether to welcome them or to be afraid of what they might imply. All I knew was that, after days – perhaps weeks; I did not keep trace of time any longer – of being strapped and laced inside that awful …. Sybilienne strait cape (there, I have managed to say the words), I was in a state where I would welcome anything, no matter how awful, so as to escape from its terrible effects for just one day.
But perhaps marriage would give me false hope. Did not Miss Leys indicate that my husband-to-be approved of that dreadful garment? “He seems to think that it is how his wife should be kept all the time after you two have been wed.” Were not those her words?
Somehow I managed to fall asleep but, when I was woken by Miss Leys and her assistant, it seemed as though my eyes had only just closed, so exhausted and beaten did I feel. As always they unfastened me and I was led away to perform my ablutions, stumbling the few yards down the corridor to the icy bathroom where I was watched over by the maid. As soon as I was done, I was dragged back to my room and, as had happened so many days in my life, I was dressed up in my full Sybilienne attire. But, as this was happening, I noticed something different to the way in which I was usually dressed. For this time the clothing into which I was forced was seemingly new. Knowing only too well the punishment for speaking uninvited, I kept my peace while being dressed, but my brain was still racing as the maid finished buttoning me into my floor length cape. She stood back before reaching out to remove a tiny length of cotton from the garment’s carapace. Then, content that I was decently attired, gestured for me to leave the room. Tightly hobbled, I shuffled my way down the corridor and into the schoolroom, my stomach turned to water with fear at the prospect of another endless day of unrelieved suffering, laced into that appalling straitcape.
Although Miss Leys stood tall and smiling in her usual position by her desk, I was startled to see no sign of the straitcape. Instead, lying where it should have been, was my outdoor cloak. Next to it was something I had not seen for sometime; my old Sybilienne outdoor mask. It was familiar enough to me, for all girls at that awful school had to have their heads and faces buried under one of those stifling masks whenever they stepped outside for exercise or even when they were due to return home. Was I to be taken somewhere? Now? But where? Questions tumbled about inside my mind, only to be driven into dark corners by my governess as she looked down at me with her usual soft smile.
“Wondering why you are not going to be strait caped, my dear Claire?” She asked softly. “Wondering why your lovely routine has been altered today? Well, my dear, we have a surprise for you. A real surprise and a real treat.”
She stepped down from her podium and came to where I stood, silent and terrified. Her hands brushed across my new cape and then skilled fingers adjusted its tight collar. Then, as seemed almost natural for her to do, her fingers rose slightly to play around my unsmiling lips. Their delicate tips danced over the bruised areas at the corner of my mouth where the hard leather of my gags’ straps had abraded the flesh. It was an area that was eternally sore but the butterfly touch of her fingers soothed the pain for a few seconds before they were off again, this time running up my cheek, feeling the harsh edge of my coif before crossing to the bridge of my nose.
“Sweet little Claire,” she murmured. “I just hope you enjoy your surprise, and that it really is a treat.”
Five minutes later I stood before her desk, now with my arms brutally harness behind my back, cloaked but no yet hooded nor masked. However my mouth was packed once more, the vast gag inside it ensuring my silence as I stood meekly still while my governess returned to her seat to sit down and open her book. Time ticked slowly by, broken only by the sound of Miss Leys periodically turning over a page and maybe looking at me to make certain I did not move. But I, abject and afraid, kept my gaze lowered, demurely looking at the polished wood of the floor as I waited for something to happen. Long years had taught me patience and my recent training by that terrible straitcape had ensured that I would do nothing unordered. If not instructed to move, perhaps I would have stayed there until I collapsed. No, here the word ‘perhaps’ is used incorrectly. I WOULD have stayed there until I collapsed.
Minutes, perhaps up to an hour’s worth, ticked slowly past as Miss Leys sat at her desk, calmly reading her book while I stood before her, legs starting to ache and back showing the first signs of the pain which always accompanied standing motionless for too long. Weighed down by my burden of clothing, and by my appalling cloak, I knew it would not be too long before silent tears squeezed their way past closed eye lids as pain etched itself on my consciousness. But things never got that far for, as I looked down at the floor between myself and the governess’s podium, I heard the snap of a book being closed and then the soft hiss of skirts and petticoats as Miss Leys got to her feet. Without realising it, I held my breath, frightened of what might happen now.
“My dear, we are going for a little walk together. We are going all the way from here, down to the ground floor and then along to your husband-to-be’s study. And we had better move soon, as he is expecting us in half an hour’s time.”
‘Half an hour?’ I thought. ‘Surely it would only take a few minutes to go that far?’
It was then my befuddled brain seized on the words ‘husband to be’ and ‘he is expecting us’. My heart accelerated in my chest, as fear and trepidation took over as my ruling emotions. I wanted to Yell, “Why? WHY does is he expecting us?” But I was too well trained and I stood in demure silence as the words cannoned round inside my head.
My unspoken questions were not answered before I saw my governess move to stand in front on me. Then she raised a hand and in it was an only too familiar grey object. It was my Sybilienne mask that I had recently seen lying on her desk. Every girl at that establishment soon became used to wearing those stifling coverings. Made of material that matched our capes and cloaks, it opened up at the back so it could be pulled down over its wearer’s head and face, before being laced closed and, if necessary, locked in place. Once that had been done the girl inside her hood had only two contacts with the outside world; two tiny slits placed opposite her eyes through which she must see and breath. Needless to say, these miserly openings were too small for adequate sight or adequate air. But that never worried the guardians at St Sybils as they masked the girls in their charge.
I stood still as my governess dragged the mask down over my head and face. As she tightened the back laces there was the usual feeling of claustrophobia, the normal desire to rip the suffocating material away from my face. But, as always, I made no move. Bound and gagged, there was no way I could have done anything. I meekly stood where I was as I felt Miss Leys tighten the strap at throat level and then lock it with a small padlock.
She moved back in front of me and I saw her through the minuscule slits, holding the shiny key to the padlock in her open hand.
“I wonder whether I need take this with me?” she mused aloud to herself. “I doubt if the girl’s fiancé will want to see her face. But……………..”
I vaguely saw her put the key in her skirt pocket before she stepped towards me. I use the words’ vaguely saw’ as I really had only a quarter of the vision that the slits should have granted me, a meagre view at best. But this time, as so often happened, the mask had been dragged slightly as the governess had tightened up its laces, and now I had only one slit in front of my eyes, and even that was askew, further cutting down my tiny field of vision.
“Time to finish you off, girl,” Miss Leys said as she reached out and dragged my massive hood up and forward, adjusting it carefully until I was forced to look down its black tunnel just to get a glimpse of the floor at the cloak’s hem. For, as usual with Sybilienne cloaks, that hood was designed to be dragged down in front of the wearer’s masked face, allowing her only to see the ground, and preventing her from looking around or even seeing what lay a yard or so ahead of her. No set of blinkers could ever have been so effective or as cruel as a Sybilienne cloak’s hood.
The next few minutes were to show me that Miss Leys had not over-estimated the time it would take us to get to my husband-to-be’s study. Close hobbled, weighed down by my clothing, unable to see where I was going, the journey was a slow endless nightmare for me. But Miss Leys seem almost to be enjoying the trip. She kept up a running commentary on the rooms we were passing, the staircases we were slowly descending and even commented on the carvings on the walls, carving I could not see. Even without my blinkering hood drawn down, I would not have been able to see the skills of the wood carver’s art, for sweat had run into my eyes and part blinded me as I shuffled along, half suffocated, totally afraid.
The governess’s order somehow sunk through into my befuddled brain and I stuttered to a halt, dilated nostrils flaring inside my cruel mask as I sucked in the air trapped and befouled under inside its heavy enclosure. Distantly I heard a tapping sound, doubtless Miss Leys knocking for admission to my fiancé’s study. I could not hear his reply with so many layers of dense material secured down over my head, so that the first I knew of his command for us to enter was Miss Leys hissing at me to move forward.
Blinking back sweat, through my single functioning eye slit I saw the stone flags beneath my feet change to a luxuriant scarlet and blue carpet. Its pile was so deep that my dragging feet seemed harder to move as I entered what must be his study. Some short paces inside the room, Miss Leys ordered me to stop and I obey her instantly, only too happy to cease moving and to allow my burning lungs to replenish their air supply before it was frittered away with further movement.
“Can she heard me? Or is she ear-plugged?”
With horror and shock I realised that the speaker was a man. His voice seemed almost light but its tone was peremptory and the words curt. It was the voice of a man used to being obeyed. But it was also the voice of a man younger than I had thought my fiancé to be.
“I am afraid she can hear you, Sir,” Miss Leys reply sounded deferential, even slightly cowed.
“Well, Miss Governess, make sure she is ear plugged in future whenever she leaves her quarters.” The man’s tone was now harsh, teetering on the very edge of genuine anger. “I do not want her strolling around the house, listening to everyone’s private conversations. You should know what these silly young girls are like – all they want to do is gossip or listen to gossip. Well, that will NOT do for the one who is to become my wife. You understand?”
“Yes, Sir, I fully understand.” Miss Leys tones were so submissive, that I might well have been listening to myself speaking. “It will not occur again.”
“I would hope not too!” The man snapped back.
Silence fell on the room, yet somehow I was sure there was activity in it which I could not see and could not hear thanks to my coifs, and hoods, and also thanks to the soft carpet underfoot. Tense, barely daring to breath, I remain still, petrified as a rabbit before a stoat, my unseen fiancé probably circling me. When he did speak, my supposition was proved correct for I could tell that he was far closer to me than before, and stood slightly to my right.
“So, my dear girl, we meet formally for the first time.” Captain Shard’s voice held a slightly softer note than when he had last spoken. But the words were still clipped and could not be described as warm. “Of course, I have had the pleasure of seeing you in the schoolroom, but you were ‘engaged’ each time. Close hood or strait caped. Always invisible, always silent. Just as my wife should be.”
He suddenly laughed, a harsh braying laugh that made me shudder.
“My wife….. That sounds strange, does it not? Stranger still that I should be marrying the daughter of this house; such a proper young lady, so strictly brought-up, so meek and quiet. And, if I may say so, so rich. Yes, you and I have been fortunate enough to share most of your late father’s extensive lands and wealth. And because of his generosity, I will start our relationship by giving you a present; one most young women would die for.”
He paused for a moment, doubtless to let his words sink in.
“You see, my dear,” he continued after a suitable passage of time, “the day you marry me you will become Lady Shard. Yes, LADY Shard. Is that not wonderful news? And how did I arrange that wondrous elevation in rank for you? Simple, my own Miss Stensfield. I have invested some of your money in making a generous donation to the Tory party. And they, grateful for such largesse, have arranged for my name to appear on the next Birthday Honours List from Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. I will be listed as Sir Charles Shard, Baronet. Which means that you, my sweet child, will become Lady Shard when we are wed. Is that not delightful news?”
Suddenly I saw a shadow fall across the so pathetically small field of vision. Two highly polished boots appeared and then my shoulders were grasped. It was not the small-handed grip with which Miss Leys often held me, but that of a strong man with large hands.
“I am sure you would thank me, my dear. But I have ordered you kept demurely silent. Just nod if you are pleased.”
I was stunned rather than pleased. But somehow I moved my head, an action that brought a guffaw from the man who held me in his grasp.
“See that, Miss Leys? Your charge is pleased. Delighted no doubt. And what young woman would not be delighted at the prospect of becoming Lady Shard in a few weeks time?”
“I am sure she is delighted, Sir. You are too kind to her, Sir. And as you say, what girl would not be over-joyed at such generosity on your part, Sir.”
Insincerity oozed from every syllable of my governess’s little speech. But it seemed to please Captain Shard, for he laughed yet again before releasing his painful grip of my shoulders, and moving away, his gleaming boots disappearing from my range of sight. When he spoke again it was from his original position, wherever that might have been.
“The girl is masked, I presume, Miss Leys.”
“Indeed, Sir, In accordance with your orders, Sir.”
“And silenced naturally?”
“And under that excellent cloak?”
“Her arms are tight harnessed and she is hobbled, Sir.”
“She is helpless?”
“Errrr….. Yes, Sir.”
“You hesitated in your answer Miss Leys. Kindly explain why?”
I heard the governess nervously clear her throat. It was only too plain that she was in awe of Captain Shard. But that might be natural; after all, he was the governess’s employer. Only through his patronage would she remain in her post, and both he and she knew his powers. With half a dozen curt words, he could dismiss her without a reference, something to a woman as well brought-up as Miss Leys that would be almost a death sentence. At the very least that would mean total humiliation and disgrace. At the worst, a life of prostitution and even death, as a governess without references would be unemployable.
“Miss Claire is well bound, Sir. She could not escape, but………………..”
“Why should she want to escape?” The Captain barked, cutting across Miss Leys’ explanation. “Is she not about to become Lady Shard?”
“Yes, Sir, of course, But it is…………………….”
“BE QUIET, Miss Governess,” the man snapped. “Go back to your quarters; I have had enough of your chatter. I’ll send for you when it is time to take my charming bride-to-be back up to the schoolroom.”
I sensed rather than saw or even heard Miss Leys leave the room. What I did see however was the polished shoes appear again.
“At last, my dear Claire, we are alone together. Just as Sir Charles and Lady Shard will always be. Just as YOU always be. Yes, I like you silenced and still, and hidden from lecherous eyes of other men. Oh yes, there will be enough lecherous men seeking you out, my dear. But they will never find you, my charming bride. For my Lady Shard will be kept incommunicado, hidden safely away from the wretches who would sully our purity and charming modesty. Yes, I am going to protect you so well, my dear. So very very well.”
Gagged and terrified, I howled silently into the monstrous packing that filled my mouth. For the Captain’s voice now held an almost loving tone, a softness of speech that was so very different from the way he had previously spoken. And one questions seared across my mind.
Did he really care for me, or was he totally mad?
I stood still, weighed down by my crushing burden of clothes and coverings, my mind in a turmoil as The Captain’s words echoed round my brains.
“For my Lady Shard will be kept incommunicado, hidden safely away from the wretches who would sully your purity and charming modesty. Yes, I am going to protect you so well, my dear. So very very well.”
What did he mean? Incommunicado? Oh, I knew the meaning of the word – life as a Sybilienne was a never-ending round of brutally protracted lessons as the mistresses drove learning into their pupils’ reeling heads. But what did my fiancé mean by keeping me deprived of contact with other people? I had never been allowed to associate with anyone outside my immediate family or their employees, so how would this be altered? He could not very well leave me in solitary confinement as sometimes happen with very wicked girls at St Sybils. Or could he? But why? Why?
“My dear Claire, now we have got rid of your tedious governess, let us talk.” The man’s words broke in across my confused thoughts. The harshness had gone from his voice and he seemed to be talking to me almost as to an equal.
“I know that your life here must have seemed hard, my dear. But that could not be avoided. Had I been able to, I would have allowed you to run free, to have roamed the house at will, to have gone walking or riding. But…………………..”
His voice trailed away into silence. For protracted moment, I was left alone with my thoughts before a shadow passed across my field of vision and I felt my hood being dragged back. Quickly the motion ceased as the tapes, knotted under my chin and running up past my masked cheeks to the back of the hood, grew taut and prevented the hood being pulled back any further.
I heard the man mutter something and then, to my astonishment, he laughed.
“Hood strings!” he said with amusement in his tone. “I should have remembered from my sister’s cloaks and hoods.”
As I took in the information that The Captain had a sister, I felt his hands plunging into the tunnel of my hood and strong fingers searched about inside it until they located where the ties were fastened. With quiet competence, the knots were undone and my hood pushed back. Light dazzled me for a second, but it did not take long for my eyes to adjust as I squinted out through the tiny slits in my mask. It was though those openings that I caught my first glimpse of my husband-to-be.
He had stepped back to get a better look at me, although he could have seen little, just my billowing cloak, its pushed-back hood draped across my shoulders and down my back, the tightly masked and anonymous head that projected out about the enveloping garment. But his action certainly enabled me to get a good view of Captain Charles Shard.
I do not know why, but I had expected him to be small and dapper, sharp faced and precise in his movements. I suppose that picture had been drawn by my mind because the only man I had ever known even adequately – my father – had looked like that. My experience of the opposite sex was in fact minuscule, so it was barely surprising I would imagine my fiancé to look like Papa. In truth, he was nothing like him at all.
Captain Shard stood fractionally over 6 foot in height, square shouldered, square chinned yet possessing an almost languid easy of movement. The hands that he now had folded across his deep chest were large and competent, his eyes appeared to be grey and unwavering as he gazed at me. Embarrassed, even frightened, I dropped by gaze but not before I noted other aspects of the man before me. His suit, the hand-woven tweed of a country gentleman, was well cut and revealed that he must be muscular and fit under its cover. The hair which he had brushed lazily away was perhaps a trifle too long for fashion, its mid brown locks hinting a natural curl that he must have to comb out each morning. Finally his upper lip was adorned with a neat moustache; neither small nor excessive, it suited the man and gave him an air of authority.
Suddenly he moved, almost lunging towards me. I silenced screamed and bit down on my gag in terror. But in a second he was past me and I was conscious of him stopping, even though he was no out of my limited range of vision. Then again I choked back a scream as hard fingers played around with the back of my mask. I heard again the muffled curses as I felt him pull on the padlock that sealed the dense mask down over my head and face and made it impossible for anyone to even loosen its back-lacing, never mind removed that stifling covering.
A moment later he was back in sight, this time striding across the room and grabbing the bell pull by the fireplace. Three times he jerked on the tasselled brocade before wheeling round to face me. But I could see that his eyes were not focussed on me, but on the door behind me. For a moment or two silence filled the room until there was a knock on the door. The captain barked “Enter!”, his command to be followed by the sound of the door opening.
“Where’s Miss Leys?” The Captain demanded.
“I believe she has returned to the nursery wing, Sir.” I heard indistinctly the hesitant voice of the woman who must be standing in the doorway behind me.
“Damnation!” The explosion of fury contained in that single word shocked me. But the curse was soon forgotten. “Alright, Tierney. No need to fetch her; I can wait for another time.”
The Captain waved his hand in a dismissive gesture but, even before the door closed behind me, he had barked out a further order.
“And get Marie here. Now!”
With this, he turned away again and strolled lazily across to the desk opposite which I stood. He sat down behind it and, ignoring my presence, started to read what looked like letter.
At least these actions gave me time to look round the room in which I stood. It only took a moment or two to realise that it was my father’s old study. But it had been radically altered since I had last been in that room, so many years before. The walls were still oak panelled but my father’s book shelves had gone to be replaced by paintings. To my right were double windows that gave out into the gardens and would have given me a view of the sweeping lawns. But I did not dare look there for the mask blinkered my sight and, to have looked properly out of the windows, I would have had to turn my head – an action made difficult by the manner in which my brutally high and tight cape-collar compressed my throat.
Instead of standing on cold stone flags as would once have been the case, a thick carpet lay beneath my feet and, to my left, a goodly fire blazed in the grate. The room, that had once been cold and cheerless, now showed signs of being expensively and tastefully decorated. Perhaps, I thought, my husband-to-be was a man of culture and breed, someone who would pander to his wife’s demands and would ensure her continued comfort. For the first time since I had been informed that I was engaged to Captain Shard, I feel a chink of genuine hope invade my mind. Perhaps things might not be so bad after all.
My thoughts were interrupted as, mask-muffled, I heard a knock on the door behind me. The man behind the desk did not look up as he bid the person to enter. In fact he only looked up when a female figure had entered the room, walked past where I stood and had curtseyed low in front of the desk. Peering through the mean eye-slits of my mask, I could not make up if my husband-to-be was pleased to see the new arrival or whether her presence offended him. For it was a woman who stood before him, her back to me as The Captain eyed her carefully before glancing across to where I stood, mute and still, silent as ever.
“My dear, this is the young woman who will act as your maid in future,” The Captain said as he rose from his chair. “Her name is Marie and she has been in my service for a while.”
The female standing before the desk wheeling gracefully round and dipped into what seemed a very perfunctory curtsey. When she rose again I was able to see her fully and, for one wild moment, I felt actually happy.
For Marie must have been about my age and, as her eyes looked at my muffled shape, I saw nothing harsh or threatening in them. But physically we were so different. I am tall and scrawny; brutal corseting and inadequate diet always ensured that Sybiliennes never grow to be anything other than bean-pole thin. In contrast to my sexually unattractive shape, the young woman who stood a few feet away from me was shaped like a female in every way. She wore a quiet grey dress whose unservant-like cut emphasised her the gentle swell of her hips and the proud fullness of her breasts. Perhaps three or four inches shorter than myself, her bright blue eyes looked up at my masked face as the tip of her tongue ran like a frightened mouse across her sensually bowed lower lip. Her nose might be a trifle too short for true classical beauty but her jaw was gently curved, her cheek bones high set in her somewhat rounded face while her eye brows were straight but questioning as she looked at me with a candour that was a fraction unnerving.
However, for all her facial charm and (as I was to learn later) its sensuality, and her sweetly shaped body, charmingly displayed by the simplicity of her dress, the feature that captured my attention above all else was the young woman’s hair. Brushed back from her sweet face, its tumbling fall of gold cascaded down her back like a sun-lit waterfall. Oh, how I envied her its colour, its sheen and its billowing mass.
My admiration was abruptly terminated as the Captain came over to me and smiled wolf-like as he gestured back at the young woman who was to be my maid.
“Marie’s indentured,” he informed me with evident glee. “No better than a slave really. Her parents sold her to me a few years ago, and she’s mine for as long as the indentures hold good. And she doesn’t even know how long that is.”
The Captain wheeled and, laughing, gestured to the young woman whose eyes were now lid-veiled as she stared down at the carpet at her feet.
“That right, Marie? You don’t know how long you’re mine, do you? Not that you’re too worried about that. True, girl? Come on, admit it, you still fancy your chances to make me marry you. Right?” The man threw back his head and laughed again This time there was a harshness in that sound that made me shiver and instantly forget my previous optimism.
As the cold laughter died away, he wheeled round to look at me.
“She’s deluded,” he informed me. “Got ambitions way above her station. Look at her hair! Dear god, I should have had it hacked off and her head shaved years ago. Might have shown her not to think herself better than the slave she is.”
He turned slightly to stare at the young woman, and he smiled.
“Of course I am far too soft. I know how it would distress her to have those locks cut off. But I have another treat in store for her instead.”
He walked away from me towards a fine inlaid escritoire that stood to the left of his far more functional desk. He pulled open a deep drawer and extracted something that he carried across to the desk. As he did so I saw that it was a weighty fabric bag. Nonchalantly he shook out the bag’s contents onto his desk before turning to look at the maid servant, his body blocking off my view of the bag’s contents. But it was evident that Maria could see those items, for her eyes widened as she looked at them.
“Not expecting this, were you, girl? Thought you would have fun lording it over your new mistress, my wife to be. Well, girl, I am a believer in equality. That means I don’t see why you should flaunt your good looks while my fiancé’s are hidden away. So Marie, you’ll mask yourself all the time in future. Starting NOW!”
I read horror in the young woman’s eyes as the Captain gestured towards the desk. For a long moment she hesitated, seemingly rooted to the spot and incapable of movement.
“Marie, do you want to be whipped?” The words came out in a low growl. “Because you will be unless you mask yourself….. NOW!”
Metaphorically whipped into action by the final monosyllabic command, the young woman lurched forward, reaching out for the things on the desk. Peering through the tiny slit on my own mask, I watched as the maid first tucked her glorious fall of golden hair away inside a tight fitting coif, almost identical to the one I wore. This done, she looked at with a mixture of question and pleading in her expressive eyes. For, in her hand, he held a viciously large looking gag, its leather plug seeming far too large for her generously lipped mouth.
“You know what to do,” the words growled out from the Captain.
The young woman dropped her eyes, defeated, and started to gag herself.
I could not bring myself to watch her struggling to ram that enormous plug into her gaping mouth. I looked away, unwilling to see her suffering. Instead I sought to find any signs that the room in which I stood had once been my Papa’s study. There were none.
When I had completed my survey I glanced back toward the maid. Now she must have silenced herself to my fiancé’s satisfaction for she was dragging on a heavy black mask, almost the twin to the one that covered my head and face. Her hands were groping up behind her head as she sought to draw in the lacing that would tighten the mask in place. But she was making little progress, a fact apparent to my future husband. For, with a muffled curse, she came round the desk and moved behind the girl, pushing her hands out of the way prior to jerking the laces tight. With competent fingers, he tied off the tapes and then reached down towards the desk. From it he picked up the final thing in the bag, a shiny brass padlock identical to the one that locked my mask in place. He snapped it closed, joining the two rings at the base of the lacing so that the mask was fastened closed about the maid’s head and face. She was now as anonymous and I was, and equally effectively made mute by her choking gag.
The Captain checked his work and then walked back round the desk. I saw him pause and then reach down for something I had not seen before. It was a small shiny brass key.
“I’ll keep this, I think,” he said with a smile before dropping the key into his waistcoat pocket. “No one other myself is going to decide when your mask comes off, girl. Or when you can next speak or eat or drink. So, Marie, you’d better hope and pray that I am feeling kindly disposed towards you, or you could find yourself very hungry and thirsty.”
With a harsh laugh he turned slightly to look in my direction. For a moment I wished the floor would open up so that I might escape is questioning gaze. But then he smiled slightly and I felt myself relax briefly as he moved a pace or two towards me.
“I am sorry I cannot find you a better maid, my dear,” he said calmly enough. “But I have to keep an eye on Marie. She can get above herself, I am afraid. She thinks herself a cut above the other servants when, in fact, she is just another meaningless creature who has a misplaced infatuation for her Master. Well, she will find Miss Leys someone who will keep a close eye on her behaviour. And someone who will report her misdemeanours to me.”
Suddenly he wheeled to face the masked maid and grabbed her by the shoulders, his fingers sinking hard into the fabric of her dress.
“Yes, Marie, she will report you to me and I will deal with you in whatever way I see fit. And I think that past experiences should be sufficient to keep you from wanting that to happened. As you know, I wield the rod with far more venom and force than does the housekeeper. So, my sweet little Marie, I hope you behave when looking after my bride to be.”
I shivered in sympathy for the young woman who stood paralysed in the Captain’s grasp. I could not help wondering what had passed between them before that moment. For it was plain that he was more aware of her faults than was normal for a Master of the house dealing with a servant girl. I wished I knew more of what had happened in the past between them. But as brutally gagged as the maid, I had no way of expressing my curiosity, even had my years of Sybilienne training permitted me to ask such a question.
But then my questions were partly answered as the Captain relaxed his grasp of the maid and once more turned to face me.
“My dearest Claire, I am sorry you should have to witness all this. It must be distressing for you. But there is a good reason why it should be necessary for you to see how I treat this girl. And it is also necessary for you to know a bit more about her.”
He smiled briefly at this juncture before returning to his seat behind the desk. That he should sit and I stand motionless and mute before him seemed obviously the correct state of affairs in his eyes.
“Marie, as you saw, is a very attractive girl. Sensual and a strumpet who knows how she attracts men. So I suppose that it is not surprising that, soon after she entered my service, she should try to seduce me. How far she succeeded is of little interest any more and, anyway, I would not defile your sweet self with such details. Let it just be said that she neither quite succeeded nor completely failed in her efforts. Whatever happened, she should have been sent away, placed in the workhouse, or handed over to the constable as a common whore. But I do not bear grudges, and anyway she is rather charming in her naivety. So I thought she could be your maid. In that job she will be overseen closely all the time by your governess and, as we both know, Miss Leys is a formidable disciplinarian. With her keeping an eye on Marie, I can rest happy that she will not cause further trouble.”
He paused again and looked from my to the masked young woman and then back at me again.
“And there is another reason for giving Marie this task. She resents you, my dear Claire. She sees you as the person standing between her and her ultimate ambition. That of becoming my wife. Of course she is totally deluded in that. But she still harbours such thoughts, stupid though they may be. So, my dear, by appointing Marie to be your body servant, I know that she will never take your side, she will never become your ally and confidante. In fact the reverse will probably be the case. I can see her being vindictive towards you, I am afraid. Well, Miss Leys will curb any excesses she might wish to indulge in. But you will not have a maid who is your friend or maybe even loves you. In fact the reverse will be true. Which, of course, is just what I want.”
He smiled in my direction, a slow satisfied smile that chilled me to the heart.
“I do not want any plotting behind my back,” she continued calmly. “And I know that the only plotting little Marie will do in future, is an effort to bring about your downfall. Naturally, she will not succeed. For you ARE to be my wife. Not her. And that, my sweet Claire, is going to mean that there will always be festering resentment on her part towards you. I fear that this could mean that she may occasionally take advantage of your helplessness. But that cannot be helped and I am sure Miss Leys will not allow things to go too far. Even so, it will be amusing to see how far she dares go in trying to make your life just that little bit less pleasant. Very amusing in fact.”
With a soft chuckle, he rose and walked towards me.
“Yes, my lovely Claire, I think seeing how you two get on together is going to provide me with a great deal of amusement. Seeing how far little Marie dares goes in tormenting you. And watching to see how you manage to cope with her petty tortures. Oh, my dear, it will be SO amusing………….”
Peering out through the narrow vision slits set in my suffocating mask, I looked at the now anonymous figure of the maid. As seemed to happen so often, my brain did not seem able to fully comprehend my husband-to-be’s words. Appointing a maid to help me dress and to look after my clothes seemed sensible enough. But one who would be permitted to ‘torment’ me? That seemed more than extraordinary. Especially as the young woman in question looked to be harmless. I had seen too many hard-faced governess and teachers and, even when one, like my own Miss Leys, did not possess dragon-like features, there was a look even in the best looking governess’s eyes that told a girl to be careful in her presence. But I had seen no such expression in the maid’s china blue eyes. And, anyway, how could a maid torment her erstwhile mistress? How could she be anything but a servant to me?
My confused thought were interrupted by my fiancé stepping in front of me. He smiled softly as he raised a firm hand up towards my head. I controlled my desire to flinch away and was rewarded by being partially aware of his fingers stroking the dense material of the sealed mask that interred my head and face.
“So suitable!” I heard him murmur. “So right for a young woman who is to be protected like a precious jewel. One day I must make a perfectly secure jewel box in which to keep my own diamond, my little Claire.”
Still smiling he dropped his hand and walked back towards the desk. But, instead of going behind it and sitting down, he wheeled to face me.
“There is one thing that I was going to keep as a surprise for you, my dearest Claire. I had hoped that it would have been something to brighten our wedding day, and to please you. But I am no good with secrets and petty pleasures. I prefer to share them. To be open and to honest. So, my dear, I have to tell you that you are going to have a companion here. An equal; a young lady as well born and well connected as your sweet self. And, to add sugar icing to the cake, I can also tell you that your companion is a Sybilienne, just like you, the future Lady Shard.”
A companion? Another Sybilienne? My heart raced in my chest and I felt relief and pleasure coursing through my body and mind. And a ‘young lady’ too. Of my age?
As though reading my thoughts, The Captain continued with his monologue.
“I had better explain in more detail, my dearest. When I was in the army, I had one particular friend, a man of my own age, The Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms. We were subalterns in the same regiment and spent much time together. The difference was that Hubert was the younger son of the Lord Gilmartin, a man of great wealth and standing, while I was reliant on my pay and on a small allowance from my family. So, when I left the army, we drifted apart. But then, after Lady Luck has blessed me and brought me to meet your Papa, I contacted him. He was in India on regimental duties then but, by the time he returned to England, your poor father was dead, I had inherited his estate and had become a wealthy man. At last I was equal to my old friend in all things but title. And, as you know, that embarrassment will shortly be rectified.”
He paused and looked at me, a slight smile playing on his lips. Even peering through the narrow slits of my mask, I could see the way his lips curled at the ends in a look of vulpine satisfaction. It was clear that my husband-to-be enjoyed the idea of obtaining a title, and of being on an equal footing with his old regimental friend.
“I read of Hubert’s return and wrote to him, suggesting we met. That took place last month. We exchanged news, including the fact that we were both engaged to be married. And, to our pleasant surprise, both to young ladies who had been educated at St Sybils. It is true that his fiancé is a year or two older than you, my darling. But it seemed both she and you would like it if you made each other’s acquaintance again. Although I gather that the Sybilienne rules would have made it difficult for you and she to have become close friends.”
He was right in that statement. For my old school believed that close friendships between young ladies could lead to unspeakable perversions and an undermining of the establishment’s fearsome discipline. So inter-pupil communication was kept to an absolute minimum. Unsupervised speech between pupils was banned on pain of grim punishment, and we were not even allowed to look up at each other’s faces, our eyes to be always kept decorous focussed on the floor in front of us unless ordered to look up by a mistress. In my years shut away in that grim institution I only got to know the girls who were in my class, and then only slightly, my knowledge of my classmates being limited to what the teachers had to say about them. As for the older girls, I knew nothing of them, unless one was subject to public punishment for some appalling breach of the rules. In which case I would have to witness her correction in front of the whole school, an event that always filled me with horror and dread.
“It is rather a sweet story how Hubert came to be engaged to his fiancé,” The Captain continued, breaking across my less than fond memories of my school days. “It seems that their marriage was arranged long long ago. Their respective father’s estates abut onto each other and, as her father had no male heir, it seemed sensible to unite their estates together in wedlock. So, when Hubert was about 17, he became unofficially engaged to young Louise who was only 8 at the time. So as to make sure she grew up to become the sort of young woman who would be a suitable wife for my friend, she was sent to St Sybils just as your Papa sent you there.”
Louise? I racked my memory for a girl of that name at St Sybils who was older than me. But I knew so few of them that it meant nothing to me. Even so, if the steely discipline that surrounded me was eased just a trifle, her presence in the house would make my life so much more pleasant. To have a companion, a friend………………….. The idea was almost too good to be true.
“Hubert and I had an amusing time when we met,” my fiancé carried on with his monologue. “It was pleasant to find that both our future wives were Sybiliennes, and that we shared similar views on how they should be kept both before and after marriage. Of course, we have different detailed ideas but in general we agree perfectly. Especially that our wives should be kept under Sybilienne discipline all the time after they become our wives, as well as before their weddings. TOTAL Sybilienne discipline, but imposed more rigorously than could possibly have been the case while you were at school. After all, both Hubert and I wish our wives to be without reproach, to be as perfect as mere weak female flesh can make them. So, my dear, when Hubert arrives here, and his Louise joins you, you may expect no easement in your circumstances. In fact the reverse will be true. After all, two pretty but foolish young women present twice the danger of one. And so twice the intensity of precautions must be taken to ensure your good behaviour.”
The momentary delight I had felt on hearing that ‘Louise’ would be joining me was swept away in a torrent of fear as my husband-to-be spoke of Sybilienne discipline being imposed on me more rigorously than before. I did not see how that could be possible.
Less than twenty hours later, as my governess, assisted by my new maid, prepared me for the day ahead, I discovered just how it was possible. Not only were my arms now fastened agonisingly behind my back, confined in a tightly laced-up ‘single sleeve’ that compressed them together from hands to above my touching elbows, but my spine was held rigid by a steel rod locked at throat and waist that made my brutal corseting seem almost lax compared with its paralysing effect.
Behind me I heard the click of a padlock being closed and then Miss Leys moved round to stand in front of me.
“Stop being such a child,” she hissed at me. “You are a grown up young woman, so tears are NOT necessary. Surely you wore a single sleeve at school?”
Oh yes, I had worn one, as she knew full well. But even at St Sybils those instruments of torture were only worn for a limited period of time. To have one’s arms confined together behind one’s back in a long leather ‘sleeve’, and for it to be laced tight was something we all dreaded. Yet it was considered to be an excellent aid in ensuring that pupils had perfect posture. Similarly with the ‘back bar’, another much feared posture training device. But even the teachers at St Sybils were aware of how distressing it was to have ones arms confined in such a brutal manner, and how the pain from them and from the wearer’s shoulders grew worse and worse as each minute ticked by during her posture training session. After two hours, even the most stoical of girls would be ready to beg for release; three hours and most would be silently weeping. Yet many were left for longer than that, hopelessly trying to fight off the mounting pain as the single sleeve did its work. However even the harsh regime of that institution would only allow girls to undergo a maximum of five hours in this form of purgatory.
Yet Miss Leys had laced my arms hideously tightly into a now locked single sleeve as I was dressed to face the new day. As she had done so, she had made it plain that I would not have the sleeve eased or my arms freed until bed time. Ahead of me lay an unprecedented fifteen hours or so with my arms agonisingly held together behind my back. It was little wonder that I wept silently as Miss Leys stared impassively at me.
By her side, still and silent, her face hidden away under the same mask as she had worn previously, stood my new maid. She has assisted the governess in lacing my arms together, and I had a feeling that she had hauled on the laces with special venom, crushing my elbows together in such a cruel manner. But it would not surprising if the eyes which must be looking at me through the tiny slits in the maid’s stifling mask had been ice cold. For the previous evening she had learnt certain facts about what it meant to help look after me.
It was Miss Leys who had informed us of one or two ‘facts’. We had both been made to stand in the School Room, apparently maid and mistress, but both of us prisoners and subject to the governess’s iron rule.
“I have certain things to make clear to both of you,” Miss Leys had started as she sat on her elevated dais. “At the Captain’s suggestion, we are going to link you two creatures together; not physically but in other ways. Marie, have you ever heard of the expression ‘a whipping boy’?”
The masked and gagged figure by my side seemed to shake her head slightly; it was all that she could do to reply to the governess’s question.
“Well, up until quite recently when a prince or young noble was being educated, he would have another boy of the same age but of humbler birth who would share his daily life. Of course, if a prince commits some indiscretion that requires punishment, it would be difficult for her tutor to flog him as might be normal with any other pupil. So, rather than assault the royal boy, his companion, the whipping boy, would be punished instead. That way, the imperial child’s flesh would remain untouched, but punishment for his fault would have been fully administered. The idea was that the prince would see his companion suffer and would be remorseful at his causing such misery through his careless or wilful actions. In consequence he would be more careful or less wilful in future. Such was the theory.”
The governess’s clam face did not alter its expression as she spoke. But she allowed her explanation to sink into with her audience before she carried on.
“Marie, it has been decided by the Captain that you will be Miss Claire’s whipping boy; or ‘whipping girl’ to be more accurate. But there will be one difference to the old method. Miss Claire may be the captain’s fiancé, but she is no princess. Therefore there is no need to save her flesh from the delicate kiss of the birch or cane. So, although you Marie will be punished when she commits some fault, she will be punished too. Just as she would have been if you were not here. That way, she will not only have to suffer severe punishment herself, but will be forced to watch it being inflicted upon someone innocent of any crime – you, Marie.”
Miss Leys rose from her seat and stepped down off the dais. I shrieked soundless into my gag as I saw she held a long rod in her hand; her ‘best rod’ saved for special punishments.
Walking past me, she stopped in front of the maid and held up the black rod for her to see.
“You may think this is all rather unfair, Marie. Perhaps it is, in absolute terms. But your employer – your owner – thinks you have got above yourself. That you have exploited your looks and your status as his favourite. So he wants you brought to earth and, for once, to earn your crust in this household. Not only will you launder and keep Miss Claire’s clothes, repairing them when necessary, and helping me dress and undress her, but you will be subject to the same degree of discipline as your new mistress. Your face will remain buried under that mask, and your voice will be hushed all the time by a very effective silencer, so that you cannot use your good looks and charm to avoid your duties here. And, as I explained, you will be Miss Claire’s whipping girl. You will suffer as she does, and you will be punished for her petty faults, as well as major ones. I have a feeling that, after a few months under my control, you are going to alter your unsavoury character and emerge from here a better, more chaste, more silent and far more diligent young woman. That is, IF you ever do emerge from here.”
With that final threat echoing round the room’s oppressive confines, Miss Leys moved on past us. As she did so, she barked at us to turn round. I obeyed, in time to watch the governess stop by the whipping block that stood against the classroom’s back wall. Looking at it heavy dark wood, as always I shuddered, fear coursing through my veins, a fear made yet more terrible by the sight of the rod in her hands.
“Marie, you may be aware that some schools – far sighted schools – greet new pupils with an ‘welcome whipping’. Well, it has been decided that you should receive such a welcome to the nursery wing. It will just be a taste of things to come. And, so that she will not feel lonely or left out of things, Miss Claire will receive one too. After all, in future you will be punished together.”
The governess suddenly smiled and hurriedly lifted her hand to conceal her lips.
“Oh, I forgot to mention. If you, Marie, do anything that requires punishment, Miss Claire will be equally punished as well. After all, we must be fair to both of you, mustn’t we?”
The floggings that we had both received the previous day would have been more than enough to make the new maid to over-tighten my single sleeve. Yet the act seemed vindictive, even cruel. True, Miss Leys had urged her to tighten the lacing fully, but I had a suspicion that she had been over-zealous, so that she could, in some way, get her own back for the murderous whipping she had received as her introduction to life in the nursery wing. If Marie was going to continue to act in such a way, my husband-to-be’s almost joking words about her might well prove to be horribly accurate.
“She resents you, my dear Claire. She sees you as the person standing between her and her ultimate ambition,” he had said before adding, “So, my dear, by appointing Marie to be your body servant, I know that she will never take your side, she will never become your ally and confidante. In fact the reverse will probably be the case. I can see her being vindictive towards you, I am afraid.”
It was already plain that his forecast had been grimly accurate and, if the over-tightening of the crippling single-sleeve had been anything to go by, Marie would not miss any opportunity to make my life as miserable as possible.
Moments later, when she was putting my bootees on me, she had confirmed my fears as she had laced them up hideously tightly too, ensuring that walking would be a penance all day long, and that my feet would throb in their confines of the boots that, thanks to the maid’s ‘diligence’, crushed them. Even when she buttoned my floor-length cape around my helpless body, she had gone to lengths to button the collar in such a way that it seemed tighter than ever.
At last, fully dressed, I was no longer open to her petty vindictiveness; the maid being left to tidy my room and to perform the menial chores that needed to be done in the nursery wing. In the meantime I was shepherded into the schoolroom by Miss Leys, who left me standing in front of her desk while she sat behind it reading a book, having given me no indication of what the day held in store for me. As I stood before the dais on which she relaxed, my arms and shoulders slowly grew more painful, a progression which I knew would continue all day long, until they were flaming with pain from being held immobile in such a stringent posture for so long.
Only much later in the morning, after I had been fed my frugal breakfast by the maid, did anything happen. Quite unexpectedly, the governess put down her book and stepped down from her elevated position. Ignoring me, she left the room, but when she returned she was carrying my cloak and outdoor mask. I shuddered at the sight of the coverings, knowing the cloak’s vast weight and the suffocating thickness of the matching mask. But I could do nothing as she dressed me in them, freshly gagging me with a yet more formidable silencer before my head and face were locked away within the dense walls of the mask. Three minutes later, cloaked and hooded, I stood in the schoolroom, sweat seeming to spring afresh from my pores and weighed down by the cloak’s crushing weight. With the hood dragged forward I could only see the floor boards at my feet, but I could just hear Miss Leys’ voice as she explained what was about to happen.
“Your new companion, Miss Louise, will be arriving this morning with her fiancé. Your own fiancé wishes you to be downstairs to greet them. A silent greeting, I am afraid. But he wants you present when they arrive. Even if you remain hidden under your coverings. So, my girl, you had better be on your very best behaviour. As I am certain that the captain will be most displeased if you let him down in front of his friend.”
Crushed by my cloak, hobbled and half blind, it took a seeming age for us to make our way downstairs but, at long last, we reached the great hall. Legs shaking and near collapse, seemingly on the verge of suffocation thanks to my outdoor mask’s great thickness, I stood where I was left, shrouded from head to toe and doubtless utterly anonymous to any onlooker. But then, unexpectedly, I hear my fiancé’s voice.
“Take her outside, please, Miss Leys. It is a fine sunny day and I want her on show when my friend’s carriage arrives. Oh yes; when it does come up the drive, you may push back her hood a fraction. I want my friend to see that my wife-to-be is kept decently masked outside the nursery wing, just like any good little Sybilienne should be hidden from the eyes of lecherous men or envious women.”
“Of course, sir.” I heard Miss Leys answered. “I will ensure she behaves in a typically Sybilienne manner, so your friend may see what a well behaved young woman you are to wed, sir.”
I heard firm footsteps crossing the marble floor and then a shadow fell across the floor at my feet, all I could see as I peered down my hood’s dark tunnel.
“Behave well, my dear, and I will be pleased with you,” I heard my fiancé say from close by. “Let me down and I will devote my life to making you feel the true depth of my anger.”
Abruptly the shadow pulled out of my limited field of vision and heavy footsteps moved away from where I stood. I shivered, suddenly chilled to the bone with fear, regardless of the oven-like cocoon of burdensome clothes had enclosed me so thoroughly. For I did not doubt the words my fiancé had just spoken, nor the seriousness of his warning. For the first time, but not for the last, I was to witness his darker side, the one that would cause me so much suffering in the days and months to come.
Peering down the tunnel of my hood, screwing up my eyes to see better through the tiny veiled slits in the mask that engulfed head and face in its stifling envelope, I waited for the governess’s order to move forward, my course across the hall and out of the house to be guided by her harsh words of command.
In the short moments I waited there, I tried to recall what the outside of my own home looked like. It had been so many years since I had seen it, and now my childhood memory was hazy, the long years at St Sybils having eroded my ability to recall how it looked. Even when I had been returned from school, I had been hustled indoors from the closed carriage that had brought me home, my head lowered, hood dragged down to prevent me seeing anything but the ground and stopping anyone seeing me. However I could remember the park land that surrounded the house and the sweep of the gravelled drive as it climbed up to the portico’d front entrance to the Queen Anne era building that had been and now again was my home. It was also true that I recalled the black and white marble floor of the hall on which I now stood. As a child I had thought of it as a giant’s chess board; now it was not so romantic; just a diligently polished floor to form part of a suitably grand entrance to the house.
Abruptly the governess’s voice cut across my reverie, ordering me to move. Hurriedly and automatically I shuffled forward, my pace cut down to tiny steps that were rigorously limited both by the way my inner petticoat held my knees and thighs pinned together, and also by the short hobble chain joining my ankles. To walk at all was tiring and slow but it was expected of me. Indeed, I was always aware of Miss Leys comments whenever I had to move about.
“Claire, remember that a decent young lady does not run, nor does she take great manly strides. So, to make certain you always walk in a lady-like manner, you will be strictly hobbled all the time you are in my care. No running around for you, my girl. Just nice little paces and a decorous slow progress whenever you need to move about.”
White, then black. White, then black. The wide marble tiles slid slowly in and out of my field of vision as I walked forward, each tiny stride checked by the hobble chain after a few inches of each foot’s forward travel. White, then black. White, then black.
I stopped and stood still, a white tile now being all I could see as I looked down through my eye slits, panting through flared nostrils after even such a short walk. Oh for a brief moment without my mouth being filled by a choking silencer, my head and face being locked inside such a suffocatingly heavy mask and having my deeply-covered head and face concealed within the depth of my great hood. Just to be able to breathe freely for a few seconds, to be able to look around, to see my old home and even, dream of dreams, to smile and speak to whoever would listen – that would truly be heaven.
But no one wanted to see me smile, nor to hear my voice. No one bothered about my needs or wishes, and no one could know how I longed for a moment of normality or freedom in my so restricted life. Instead Miss Leys voiced a warning that I was about to come to steps. Steps that led down in a broad arc from the front door to the immaculately raked gravel of the driveway.
I dreaded steps and stairs as they were sources of terror for me. Unhobbled I could manage but, unable to raise the heavy mass of my skirts, each time I moved up a step or descended down one, I was terrified of tripping. If my arms had not been always harnessed and my hands made useless, it would have been so much simpler. Just being able to lift my skirts at the front would have meant that, with a modicum of care, I could negotiate most stairways safely. But that was never the case now. I might have my hobbles undone to go up or down stairs, but that was all, leaving me to face the nightmare of a myriad of heavy and entrammelling skirts that threatened to trip me up each time I moved. So when I was ordered to walk forward again, I did so with great care, peering down the tunnel of my hood to try and see the steps that would be such a challenge. Fortunately the ones outside the front door were very shallow, so that I could just about negotiate them without Miss Leys having to unfasten my ankle fetters. However, that I did descend those five broad marble steps says more for my training than for my powers of concentration – Sybiliennes did NOT fall over their skirts, whether they had use of their hands or not. That was a rule that I had learnt so painfully many years before.
Suddenly I sensed, rather than felt, gravel beneath my feet. I realised that I must be standing on the neatly raked swathe of driveway outside the house, and so I was actually outside the walls of the house for the first time since my return from St Sybils. A strange elation swept over me and, for a fleeting second, I felt almost free. Then the harsh reality of my predicament swept back over me as the governess’s sharp voice ordered me to halt and stand still. As always, I instantly obeyed her command, deflated by the knowledge that I was as much a prisoner outside my home as I had been inside it.
Weighed down and seemingly drowning under the masses of my coverings, time passed with snail-like slowness. Breathing fettered by the vicious compression of my corsets, I sought to drag in oft-used air through my nostrils, my head spinning as I fought to remain both upright and immobile. Then, after an eternity of peering through the so narrow slits in my mask and gazing down my hood’s dim tunnel at what must be the gravel at my feet, I was dimly aware of a faint rumbling sound. Then my befuddled brain was aware that the sound, the rumble now joined by indistinct rattling and crushing sounds, was vaguely familiar – familiar enough for me to then recognise it as the noise of a heavy carriage making its way across the drive’s gravel towards where I stood. As I almost identified the sound, I also became aware that someone – I assumed it must have been Miss Leys, pulled back my monstrous hood, settling it further back so that now I could see more than just a foot ahead of my cloak’s hem. Instead of a field of vision amounting to the ground inches ahead of my own skirts, I could now see perhaps a dozen yards ahead of where I stood.
In front of me the gravel was as smooth and well kept as I remembered it from childhood and, to my left and slightly ahead of me was a pair of legs, clad in immaculately tailored trousers, the tails of the wearer’s jacket falling behind them. Highly polished boots were visible as the man stood motionless, legs slightly apart. I had no concrete evidence of who might be wearing those trousers and boots, but I guessed it was my husband-to-be. Also to my right and a yard or two closer I could see the neutrally grey material of a lady’s skirts, skirts that I recognised as belonging to Miss Leys.
As I was coming to terms with the wonderful vista now available for me to see, the sound of the carriage increased in volume and first four sets of horses’ hooves swept past me, followed by the front wheels of the formidable conveyance which slowed and halted before me. Someone, a servant I assumed, jumped down and lowered steps beneath the carriage’s wide door which he then must have opened. For, as he stood aside, a man descended from the conveyance. With my hood still partially drawn down in front of my face, I could not see all of the newcomer, but I was able to note his stoutish frame clothed in what I took to be the height of fashion. Sadly, slowly being parboiled as I stood in the bright sunlight outside the house, sweat trickled down inside my mask and dribbled into my eyes, making my already limited vision even less effective in seeing the newcomer.
But I was able to make out the figure to my left step forward and hold out a hand to the gentleman who had descended from the carriage. Then, regardless of the numerous layers of dense material covering my ears, I was aware of my fiancé’s voice as he greeted the newcomer. There was indistinct laughter and they stood talking together in front of me, evidently both at their ease and pleased to be reunited. But as they were talking, there were happenings behind them of greater interest to me.
First a footman (as I assumed him to be) went back to the carriage door, and reached inside to help a cloak-swathed figure to alight, her progress assisted by another female whose skirts reminded me……………….. Of those worn by Miss Leys? Perhaps. But the be-cloaked shape was of far more interest to me as I recognised her outer covering. Oh yes, I recognised it well enough. Because I was wearing a garment identical to hers. Only a Sybilienne cloak was made along those lines, so heavy, so all-concealing and such misery to wear. My heart was in my throat as I watched what I could see of the cloaked female being helped from the carriage, the way that she was lifted down indicating that she, like me, was hobbled with such severity that she could not negotiate on her own the three steep steps from the carriage’s interior to the ground. At last she stood opposite me, her shape visible to me as high as her chest so that I could just see the edge of her hood, dragged deeply down in front of her so that, as had been the case for me up until a few minutes earlier, she was brutally blinkered and only able to see the ground at the hem of her billowing cloak.
“And this charmingly chaste young lady is my fiancé, Claire.”
The sound of the Captain’s voice abruptly brought me back to earth, my heart pounding with terror at being singled out for the gentlemen’s attention. He must have turned towards me as his words reached me plainly, although muffled and softened by the coverings that impeded my hearing so much.
Startled, I did the only thing that occurred to me as being correct, I essayed a curtsey, that special one known as a Sybilienne Révérence, a hideously difficult form of curtsey that is the only way allowed in St Sybils for showing your humble respects to some being far superior to oneself. For, hobbled and wearing a brutally tight petticoat, a normal curtsey is out of the question. So someone had invented the Sybilienne Révérence which is incredibly hard to do and fraught with danger as it is so easy to lose one’s balance and to topple over. My heart was pounding with sheer terror as I tried it and, for once, Fate was on my side as I didn’t over-balance as I made my obeisance to the new-comer who I took to be the gentleman who my fiancé had mentioned previously.
With sweat half blinding me, and my hood having fallen forward as I did my Révérence, I lost sight of the new arrivals. After rising to a normal standing position, I stood still and tense, desperately trying to control my breathing and attempting to hear what was being said. But the men must have turned away, for their voices were indistinct and indecipherable. For what seemed an age I just stood there, hearing the presumably now-empty carriage move away before I became aware of Miss Leys telling me to turn round and to walk back to the house. Not that I could see my objective as I shuffled slowly forward until the bottom-most of the five shallow steps came into view. I halted only to be told to continue. From then on I was lost in the struggle to make my way back into the house and then to be guided back to the wing which had become my prison. There I was relieved of the crushing burden of my cloak but I was left masked and the brutal rod strapped behind me stayed in place as did the by now agonising single-sleeve into which my arms were so tightly laced.
Thereafter the day passed as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I remained in the old School Room, standing in front of my governess’s desk as the solid rod strapped to my spine and which held me so rigidly upright made it impossible for me to be seated. I was indeed fortunate that my endless years within the walls of St Sybils had taught me how to stand immobile for hours on end, as I was left doing nothing for endless hour upon endless hour. The only change to my so-boring routine was that, instead of Miss Leys being in charge of me, the maid, Marie, kept a watchful eye over me as the minutes ticked by on leaden heels. Not that I could see her eyes as they were concealed behind the veiled slits of her own dense mask. But she sat on the dais, silent and still in Miss Leys’ chair, facing me and undoubtedly looking for some excuse to report me to the governess.
My legs ached fiendishly, and my back seemed to be on fire by the time I was aware of a sound to my right. At the same time I saw the maid spring from her seat to stand motionless on the dais before me. Then, to the side, I saw three figures move into my field of vision, having entered the schoolroom by the door a few feet from where I stood.
Leading the way was the familiar sight of Miss Leys, immaculate and slender, her handsome features composed and as neutral as ever. Following her was another lady who looked to be a few years older than my governess but who was dressed in a not dissimilar manner to Miss Leys, her floor sweeping grey skirts topped by a demure lighter grey blouse, its long sleeves primly buttoned tight at the wrists and its collar neatly starched but was not so high or so tight as to be uncomfortable. In one hand she carried a pair a dark gloves and in the other a travelling shawl that I had to assume she had been wearing earlier. It undoubtedly was the lady who I had seen alighting from the coach earlier.
Her face was neither handsome nor ugly. Thin lips and a too straight nose made her features seem somehow pinched but her eyes were deep blue, while her hair, drawn back in a neat bun, was fair and would have been attractive if allowed to fall free. Looking at her, something stirred within me and then, like a hammer blow to my midriff, I realised I knew who she was. Miss Nairn who had been my form governess at St Sybils when I was about 14 or 15. I moaned silently into my gag, remembering those calm blue eyes searching to my soul as she informed me that I had not lived up to her or the school’s expectations, and that I would have to suffer for my failings. Not that I had been alone in being on the receiving end of her rigid disciplinary code. For she had, at the least, been even-handed with doling out punishments as all of us in her class had suffered often and hideously at her instigation.
But not even the chilling sight of Miss Nairn could distract me for long as the final figure in the trio entered my field of vision. I gasped as I saw a female shape only too well known to me. For it was that of a Sybilienne wearing her normal day attire except………………… Except I knew she was my mirror image, her figure blotted out by the dense-walled drapery of her closed cape and her head and face buried deep under a matching mask whose only openings were two minuscule visions slits which were themselves veiled by dark material sewn into their tiny apertures so that the newcomer would, like me, only be able to see the world as a darkened and shadowy place.
As the Sybilienne was ordered to halt and face towards me, I thought I saw her start as she saw me – HER mirror-image. For, like me, she was seeing herself standing in front of her, although the rational part of her mind would be telling her that she was seeing another figure merely dressed and concealed as she was.
“Ah, Claire, my child”, Miss Leys voice arrowed into my consciousness, “I think it’s time for you to meet your new companion. Her name is Louise Mather and she, as I believe your own fiancé informed you, is engaged to be married to the Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms. Just as you will, in due course, become Lady Shard, so this young lady will, upon the death of her future father-in-law, become Lady Gilmartin.”
She paused for a moment, a light smile playing on her soft lips. But it soon faded and, when she spoke again, the soft teasing tone of her voice had disappeared to be replaced by harsh menace.
“But, my girl, regardless of the future and of titles and eminence to come, as far as I and my friend and colleague, Miss Nairn, are concerned, you and Louise are merely ordinary Sybiliennes, potential malcontents and trouble-makers. Believe me, girl, with the two of you under the same roof, we will redouble our diligence in watching you both for faults. And, if you err, you will learn just how strict and severe your governesses can be when driven to take dire steps to correct your faults.”
She paused yet again and, as I peered at her through the covered slits of my suffocating mask, I saw her gesture to the lady who stood by her side.
“You may remember Miss Nairn, your new companion’s governess. Even if you do not recall being her pupil at St Sybils, she certainly remembers you. And, I am afraid to say, not with any great affection. She has already informed me how you were a less than exemplary pupil when in her charge. Well, girl, I hope you have improved greatly or else you will painfully learn that she has the same rights of correction over you as I do, and I am sure she will want to ‘bring you up to scratch’ even now. Is that not so, Miss Nairn?”
Miss Leys turned to the lady standing by her side, the familiar smile back on her lips. Miss Nairn’s much thinner lips smiled back.
“Oh yes, Miss Leys, I will take much pleasure in helping you bring Miss Stensfield to heel. Better late than never, eh?”
I stood almost paralysed with fear as Miss Nairn’s icy laugh sent shivers down my spine. I saw her cold blue eyes focussing on me with something like pleasure mirrored in their stare. With a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I could see only too plainly that Miss Nairn was looking forward to once more having control over me. For I was still ‘in education’ when I had been in her class at St Sybils – up to the age of sixteen or so we were granted some minimal form of education; a little sewing, a smattering of French, reading and writing as well as deportment and similar ‘lady-like’ forms of education. In consequence our teachers had more to do than merely shape our characters and brow-beat us into submission. That came later when a Sybilienne would cease attending normal classes and her governesses tasks would be solely to inculcate silent modesty, and instant and abject obedience into their terrified charges.
Now that I was many years past being ‘in education’ Miss Nairn could, given the chance, have the pleasure of helping to shape my character in whatever manner she or Miss Leys saw fit. And that, as I knew from my time as her pupil, would be extremely unpleasant for me. For compassion and forgiveness were not words to be found in her vocabulary.
As the horror of this truth sunk home into my terrified mind, the two governesses turned slightly away from me and lowered their voices so I could no longer hear what they were saying. But their conversation did not last long, as Miss Nairn turned again and walked the three or four paces across the bare floor to where the newcomer, the caped and masked Miss Louise Mather, stood so still and silent.
Placing her gloves and wrap on the table, she reached into a pocket and extracted a small bunch of keys. Having found the one she was looking for, she reached out and tilted back her charge’s masked head, using the small brass key to unlock a tiny catch at the top of Miss Mather’s collar, before undoing the six buttons that held the collar so tightly closed about the girl’s neck. Selecting another key, she walked round behind the caped figure and reached up again, this time to undo the small padlock that held the mask closed, ensuring that it could not be eased or removed by anyone other than the key-holder. This done she loosened the lacing at the back before pulling the dense mask up and away from its wearer’s head and face, its deep neck emerging from under the cape’s previously opened collar.
As she dropped the heavy mask onto the table I caught sight of my new companion’s face, or at least a small part of it. As I had been expecting, she was silenced but the leather face-piece of her gag reached up to just beneath her eyes, whereas mine, a normal Sybilienne silencer, only came up to just below my nostrils. So, as she was coifed like any Sybilienne, all that I could see of Miss Mather were her downcast eyes, concealed by heavy lids as she demurely focussed her gaze on the floor at her feet, and the bridge of her nose. All else was either hidden under the thick material of her coif or buried beneath the thick leather of the gagging mask that reached up so high over her face.
I peered through the slits of my mask, appalled and yet fascinated by the silencing device worn by the new arrival. Its leather was shaped to permit space for her nose but it was clearly tightly sealed down elsewhere, as evidenced by the fact that it had microscopic holes piercing the leather under her nostrils through which she must plainly have to get the air she needed for survival. It looked both functional and cruel, as I was certain that Miss Mather had her mouth comprehensively stopped up by some gagging plug attached to the inside wall of the face cover. My own silencer was severe and distressing enough to be unremitting purgatory for me to wear, but I felt that Miss Mather’s silencing arrangements were even more harsh, although perhaps even more effective than mine.
“Ah, I see you make your girl wear a three-quarter mask,” Miss Leys said with a laugh. “I have been meaning to get one for Claire, but……………”
“No need,” Miss Nairn smiled back. “I have a spare which I am sure dear Louise won’t mind lending to Miss Stensfield. Would you like me to fetch if now?”
“Oh no, it can wait. We have more pressing duties to perform.” As she spoke Miss Leys looked at the new arrival with a half smile playing on her lips. “We must welcome your charge to this house, Miss Nairn. And welcome her well.”
The other governess’s eyes narrowed as she too looked at Louise. She smiled wolfishly as she murmured, “Indeed we must!”
“I think we’ll use the whipping block in the punishment room next door. It is more adaptable than the simple one we have here,” Miss Leys said with a hint of laughter in her voice. “And, although I may not have a three-quarter gag-mask here, in the punishment room I do have a fine selection of rods and birches. I am sure we will find something amongst them with which to thoroughly welcome Miss Mather to this household. Such a delightful tradition, I think, and so good for our girls to receive a welcoming flogging to make them know that they may be in a new house but that the old rules still remain in force.”
She gestured towards the door.
“Would you care to step next door, Miss Nairn, so we can make a selection of implements and decide just how we should welcome dear Miss Mather.”
“With pleasure, Miss Leys. With great pleasure…………….”
Squinting through the tiny veiled slits in the mask that imprisoned my head and face, I watched as the two governesses left the room, both clearly enjoying the moment. Opposite me my new companion stood motionless, her eyes still demurely focussed on the bare boards at her feet, for all the world unaffected by what she must have just heard.
Must have heard? I wondered for a moment if that was the truth, as the use of earplugs was common enough with ‘grown-up’ Sybiliennes. But then I remembered how she had been ordered to halt after entering the room, so clearly she could hear, which meant that she must be aware of her monstrous fate. But then, would have I reacted if the news had been aimed at me? I knew that, although I might have been screaming with fear inside, I would have fought to give no indication whatsoever of my terror to anyone watching me. For Sybiliennes learn only too painfully that any display of emotion, any reaction to outside influences, any show of her feelings, would invariably lead to immediate and severe correction for ‘gross lack of self-control’ and ’self-centred behaviour’.
Poor Louise knew only too well what awaited her, but she was holding back her terror and presenting the world with an unemotional exterior. At that moment ‘the world’ was represented by the masked figure of my maid who stood on the dais looking down at both of us, ready to find fault and only too eager to report either or both of us for the slightest infraction of the rules, written or implied, that controlled our lives. And also in her world would be the caped and masked figure of another girl, standing as upright and motionless as she was. A figure that she must have guessed belonged to an ex-Sybilienne – if she had dared take a peek upwards or if she had been told of my presence in the house which was to be her home for a period of time. Looking at Louise through the tiny slits in my mask, I doubted if she had looked up but, even with her eyes focussed correctly on the floor, she would have been able to have seen the hem of my cape and that, I felt sure, she would have recognised as being distinctively Sybilienne.
At this stage in my reasoning my reverie was abruptly halted as Miss Leys came into the room again. She looked pleased with herself, a slight smile flirting with the corners of her mouth. But her lips soon drew into their more normal, disapproving, line as she looked up at the maid who had remained standing after she had risen rapidly to her feet when the two governesses had originally entered the schoolroom.
“Marie, I have received a message from The Master,” Miss Leys held up a neatly folded sheet of expensive paper. “He says you are to go down and report to Mrs Bales. Do that immediately.”
The girl needed no further prompting and hurried out of the room, her paces clearly hobbled although not to the degree of severity that was the case with my restraints. Watching her leave I guessed that she was given such relative freedom as she was permitted, under orders, to move about the house and thus must negotiate stairs by herself, a task for which she would need greater freedom of movement than was ever permitted me.
As soon as the maid had left, Miss Leys looked at me, frowning slightly, before swinging to face Louise.
“Now, my dear child,” she said in a light tone, the hint of a smile again playing on her lips, “it is time for you to see how hospitable we can be here. Your governess has had much enjoyment selecting just the right instruments to welcome you into this house, and I also will have the pleasure of greeting you to your new abode. I sincerely trust that my efforts do not go unrewarded and that you will always remember today’s little ceremony.”
She smiled again before turning towards me, her face now severe and minatory.
“You, Claire, will remain here. Yes, on your own. But the door will be locked on you, so do not imagine that this will be an opportunity for mischief on your part. For, my girl, you will remain where you are now and you will NOT move a muscle until I return. If I even have the most tiny suspicion you have even shifted your little toe by a tenth of an inch, you will find yourself strapped down to the whipping block and the recipient of a flogging you will surely never forget. I hope you understand, my girl.”
Oh, I understood Miss Leys well enough. She was not someone given to idle threats and I knew she would flog me beyond my wildest imaginings if I shifted even a tiniest amount. Thus I stood motionless and terrified as she turned back again to Louise.
“And now it is time to welcome you to this house, my dear Miss Mather. If you would be so kind as to leave this room and then turn right. You will find your governess eagerly awaiting you next door. I will not keep you waiting long, my child, but I must just ensure little Claire here is kept safe and sound in my absence.”
I watched as the girl in front of me turned to move towards the door, what little could be seen of her face drained of blood as fear coursed through her whole being. She must have been hideously aware of what awaited her in the next room as she moved with tiny hobbled paces towards the door. My own governess, confident that the new arrival would obey her instructions, strode across the School Room and extinguished the two wall mounted oil-lamps before moving to the dais to shut off the light that burnt behind her desk. These three small lamps gave the room its barely adequate lighting, and when they had been extinguished, the schoolroom was plunged into semi-darkness alleviated only by the light that came in through the open door. It was when Miss Leys had reached there that she stopped and looked back at me. This time she said nothing before she moved from the room, closing the heavy door behind her. A moment later I heard the muffled sound of the iron bolts on the other side of the door being shot home. I was alone and shut away in the now pitch-black schoolroom. I could have moved then but, instead, I stood rigidly immobile, as still as I would have been had Miss Leys’ steady gaze been focussed upon me.
The darkness and the silence in that room seemed to overwhelm me. I could just remember when it was such a sunny place, overlooking the Manor’s lawns and the deer park with the vista of distant hills green and grey on the horizon. But, as I grew older, the view was eradicated on the excuse that it distracted from my lessons. The window glass had been whitewashed on the inside, making it opaque and even cutting down on the amount of light that could enter the room. Then, just before I was sent to St Sybils, the windows had been boarded-up after I had been discovered scraping at the whitewash with an inquisitive fingernail. In fact every window in the nursery wing had been dealt with in the same way, making the whole area one of twilight and dark corners, frightening and oppressive to my young mind.
But now there was no sign that any of the rooms ever had windows set in their immensely thick walls. During my seemingly endless years in St Sybils every one had been bricked up most carefully in order to make sure that it was impossible to even see where they had originally been, so that, inside the confines of the Nursery Wing, you could not tell whether you were in a deep cellar or up high in a tower. For not one chink of light, not one whisper of sound penetrated those rooms from the outside. What had once been a light and pleasant part of the house had been altered into an oppressive prison from which there seemed no chance of escape or release.
My gloomy thoughts as I peered sightlessly into the darkness around me were suddenly assaulted by a heart-rending wail. Even though the sound was muffled by my coifs and the dense walls surrounding me, it was possible to identify exactly what it was, a recognition reinforced when, perhaps half a minute later, another wail came to me. I shuddered, knowing I was hearing the sound of Louise’s reaction to her ‘Welcome’ in the next room to where I stood. And I also knew why I was hearing that awful sound.
In St Sybils there was a tradition, one so horrific that even to remember it makes my flesh crawl. If more than one girl had to be punished for some jointly committed offence, one offender would be taken into the punishment room, her gag was then removed so that her fellow delinquent or delinquents, standing outside the door, could hear her suffer, the first girl’s screams telling the second and subsequent offenders exactly what they were about to experience. Now, as one-time governesses at St Sybils, Miss Leys and Miss Nairn were using Sybilienne tactics to ensure that I was terrified, even though I was not about to follow Louise and be fastened down across the whipping block.
I moaned into my silencer as the evidence of her suffering grew louder and longer until one scream melded into the next, only the crescendo and gradual diminuendo of sound telling me when the blows fell across Louise naked flesh. I desperately tried not to listen to the appalling noise, and willed myself not to count the blows. But I knew that just listening to her being ‘welcomed’ to my home would keep me docile and obedient for a long time to come. For such chilling memories do not fade quickly.
I did not see my new companion again that day, and I can but assume that she was so badly effected by her ‘welcome’ to my home that Miss Nairn had dispatched her straight to bed after that appalling whipping. For me the remaining hours before my supper and bedtime were spent in the School Room, once more overseen by Marie who had reappeared after Louise’s dreadful cries had subsided away to silence.
So it was that the day drew to its end, leaving me to wonder what the future might bring now that Louise and Miss Nairn, not to mention the Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms, had taken up residence in Stensfield Manor. Beset by worry, I had slept fitfully that night, and I was still tense when, after being dressed and given my frugal breakfast, I was escorted into the School Room. There, somewhat to my horror, I heard the voice of my governess joined by that of Miss Nairn. Through lowered lashes, my eyes demurely focussed on the floor just in front of me, I watched as the hems of two skirts stopped in front of me, one black, one grey, both neat and unobtrusive, both typically ‘governess skirts’.
“She’s silenced, but I think it best we hood her as well,” I heard Miss Leys say before the person wearing the grey skirt moved out of my field of vision. Moments later she was back, this time standing very close to me. And then the world went black, sight removed from me as Miss Leys, for I judged it was she who stood before me, dragged a hood down over my head, adjusting it at the front so that the two minuscule vision slits were opposite my eyes. A few moments later it was laced up and padlocked. I moaned silently into my gag for I loathed being shut away within a hood’s airless oven but, at the same time, my eyes now hidden behind the dark-veiled vision slits, I could raise my gaze so that I could see, albeit somewhat indistinctly, that which was happening around me.
That luxury did not last long, for I was made to stand in the far corner of the room, facing the wall, while behind me the governesses must have ensconced themselves in the two comfortable chairs that stood on the dais at the other end of the School Room. Surprisingly, they made no effort to prevent me hearing what they were saying, so that their conversation provided me with plenty to think over as Miss Leys described how the house worked, how I was kept, and various other matters that might be of interest to another governess. She even dealt with non-school room matters, such as how to ensure that the cook had the governesses’ food delivered on time and while it was still piping hot, and how the butler was a mite too fond of his drink but was amenable enough. Only the new housekeeper, who I learnt was called Mrs Freeman, came in for criticism from Miss Leys.
“I believe that she is a distant relative of the new Master’s,” Miss Leys explained. “Doubtless she married beneath her and must now work for her crust. But she has high flown ideas above her station, and needs watching. Fortunately she has little interest in what goes on here, but, Miss Nairn, I would go carefully with her. Smile, be polite, but do not trust her.”
I heard Miss Nairn’s thin laughter greet this warning before she said, “I know the type. And I handle them with great care.” Then, with a lighter tone to her voice, she asked, “And your new Master? The gallant Captain. What is he like to work for?”
“A perfect paragon,” replied my governess with a chuckle. “The ideal employer. He sends his instructions to me, neatly written out on paper, always to the point and always clear in what he wants. But, for most of the time, he leaves me in sole charge here, asking only that I keep little Claire as securely as possible and that I continue to guide her away from the Three ‘Rs’.”
“I assume you are NOT referring to Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.”
“Indeed not,” answered Miss Leys with a laugh. “I refer to the Three Rs that Captain Shard has ordered me to eliminate in his fiancée – Rebellion, Resistance and Reticence. The very slightest sign of any of those grave sins and I am instructed to come down hard on Miss Claire. Very hard. He has given me carte blanche to ensure that, by the time Claire is elevated to the position of Lady Shard, her husband can guarantee her obedience and meek submission to his will. He requires only that I make her even more tractable than she was on her return from St Sybils, and that she will remain mute and obedient at all times and in the face of any instruction.”
“The boiling water test, maybe?” Miss Nairn spoke quietly and I could imagine her smiling as she asked that question.
“Not yet. But you never know; perhaps the good Captain has heard of it.”
“And if he has not heard of it? Will you make sure he does get to know of it?” Miss Nairn asked.
“Perhaps. But perhaps not. If she fails, my employer will not look kindly upon me for permitting such a thing to happen, as I am sure you will understand.”
“I understand. But I am sure you can push Stensfield to that extent. Don’t forget, Miss Leys, I have seen you at work when we were both employed at St Sybils and I know how good you are at ‘persuading’ even the most headstrong girl to bow to your wishes. If you could break that Symons girl, I am sure you can break this child you have here.”
“Ah yes, I had forgotten about Symons,” Miss Leys said with a note of nostalgia in her voice. “What happened to her after I stopped working at St Sybils?”
“She completed her last year and went home to her parents a totally altered young woman. Thanks to all your hard work. She was soon married off to a friend of her father’s, I gather. A man a great deal older than herself. It was a marriage of convenience and I believe that, as soon as the formalities were over, she was shipped off abroad to somewhere ‘safe’, while her husband remains in London, enjoying the High Life. I hear he is VERY pleased with the arrangement.”
I heard the two woman laugh, but I was not really concentrating on their gossip. Instead I wondered what the boiling water test was. It was new to me and my over-active mind came up with some horrifying answers to my self inquiry as to its nature.
But my mind soon refocused on the talk taking place literally behind my back. For I heard them discuss my fellow ex-Sybilienne, Louise.
“Such a pretty girl,” her governess was saying to mine. “And very intelligent. Not that being intelligent is going to help her in future; the reverse is probably the case. After all, dull unimaginative young women are the easiest to train and make the best wives for men like our employers. They just accept everything and don’t ask questions.”
“You permit Louise to ask questions?” Miss Leys voice held a note of easily discernible horror.
“Oh gracious No,” laughed Miss Nairn. “I was speaking metaphorically. I have her under The Rule of Silence all the time unless I want her to say something, and then she will almost certainly be answering a question from me, not asking one. But it’s easy enough to guess what she’s thinking. And, of course, I stamp on those thoughts at an early stage and then keep on suppressing them. Incidentally, I have a little novelty that I use on her to make sure she keeps her mind on beneficial subjects and not on dreaming of freedom and ease.”
“Oh, a new idea? What is that, may I ask?”
“When I discovered that Louise was daydreaming too much, I just made her life that bit more unpleasant; as you know that is easy to do. But this brought out little pockets of resistance that I attacked one by one. One was the way she felt SHE could decide what of the food given to her she ate and how,” Miss Nairn replied. “So I instituted a more controlled eating regimen for Louise. With all my years of experience I should have seen it earlier, even though she thought her resistance well-concealed. Not well enough concealed, as it turned out.”
There was a brief pause; why, I am not sure, as I was facing the wall and unable to tell what the governesses might be doing behind my back. But, after a few seconds Miss Nairn continued.
“I instituted a long-term eating regimen to directly attack that particular area of resistance. At every meal she is now required to chew each mouthful in a particular manner and for a set number of times. Particular because they must be perfectly performed and the movements each identical. No chews smaller than another. No chews greater than another. And one hundred chews, no more, no less. At the end of each mouthful Louise must be prepared to demonstrate that she has not swallowed anything, and then, upon command, she is required to swallow her mouthful in a single motion. Her maid has become quite adept at supervising her eating periods and still often detects acts of rebellion – a larger jaw movement, a missing chew, a refusal to swallow in one motion. I hope that continuance of this regimen will not be an inconvenience during our stay and, as my nursery maid has been left at home, perhaps yours might take over this chore. From what little I have seen of Marie, and from what you tell me about her, she would seem to be well equipped for such a task.”
“Although she is not strictly the nursery maid, I would be only too pleased to lend you Marie at mealtimes; she will find the task of overseeing Louise’s meals to be boring and probably humiliating which is all to the good. For that will ensure that Marie does not let Louise skip a single chew or skimp on the amount she swallows each time. And I think that Claire might benefit for such training as well. Yes, my dear Miss Nairn, I think yours is an excellent idea, and I can clearly see that we are both going to benefit by your visit, as I am sure I have one or two little modes of control or means of humbling my charge that you might find novel and interesting.”
Sadly, or perhaps worryingly, this was all that I was to hear. For Miss Leys suddenly seemed to become aware that I might be listening to their conversation. I heard someone step down from one of the chairs on the dais and march across the room towards where I stood. I was abruptly swung round, nearly tripping over my own feet – an easy enough error given how closely hobbled I was kept. Peering out through the veiled slits of my mask and blinking my eyes to try to remove droplets of sweat still half blinding me, I saw Miss Leys standing before me, cool and trim in her immaculately ironed blouse and well cut skirt. She reached up and, to my momentary delight, reached behind my head to undo the lock that held my mask so firmly in place. Soon I was assailed by what seemed the dazzling light in the School Room as I hungrily sucked in clean limitless air through flared nostrils, a feeling of sheer luxury after so long having to breathe and rebreathe air made fetid and half useless by being trapped within the walls of my mask, in and out of which it could only filter slowly though the vision slits.
“I hope you haven’t been eavesdropping, my sweet Claire. Because that is a VERY bad habit that has to be punished most severely. But this once I am going to assume that you have been behaving yourself. But, just to make sure that state of affairs continues, I think I’ll ear-plug you. That way we can all rest easy that you are not eavesdropping.”
Two minutes later I was back under the stifling hood, again in the corner, facing the wall, But now I was assailed with acute boredom as there was nothing to feed my imagination or to encourage me towards inquiry or to grant me any mental stimulation in any form whatsoever. As a child I had been perennially inquisitive, eager to learn, wanting to read every book I could lay my hands on. My first real governess had christened me ‘Miss Why’ because I was always asking questions. But now I was left alone in silence, a stone wall ten inches from my masked face all I could see and, for stimulus, I was left solely with my bodily misery as I sought to remain motionless, afraid that my eagle-eyed governess would be watching me.
As soon as I was plunged into my soundless world, I became aware of how my legs ached, my spine seems to burn with pain, and how my feet throbbed within the confines of my too tightly laced-up boots. My arms, brutally confined behind my back in a rigorously tightened single-sleeve were thankfully numb but my shoulders, cruelly dragged back by the harness of the sleeve and by my stays’ shoulder straps, were aflame with pain. Even my hands, double gloved, were sources of constant misery. And now that I could no longer hear the governesses talking together, I had nothing for my brain to focus on except for the endless bodily torments that were so much a part of my everyday existence. Seconds lasted minutes, minutes seem to stretch out until each one lasted an hour and…………… I felt like weeping as the dreadful ennui, brought on by the prospect of spending the rest of the day gazing at the wall, swept over me, drowning rational thought and dragging me down into a pit of misery.
And yet, as I told myself, I was better off standing there doing nothing than I would be if one or both of the governesses decided to ‘take an interest’ in me. For then the slow grinding pains that seemed to eat away at my strength and courage could well be replaced by something more immediate and far less acceptable. I bit down on my gag and told myself to be strong and not to let something as innocuous as doing nothing grind me down and make me into one of those poor girls who had been broken by their governesses. I had a future and, although it might seem a dark one, perhaps I might be able to influence it and eventually to make my lot less dull, less painful and less oppressive.
For all my resolve the day passed by on leaden feet, its passage made even more drawn-out by the strange fact that I was not given any lunch. That meal was always the main one of my day so, when it became clear that I was not going to be fed soon after what I estimated to be noon time, I grew concerned. However I had other and more immediate things to worry about as, for an endless period of time, nothing changed except for the gradual increase in the intensity of my bodily misery. But I was a Sybilienne, trained over long years into stoic acceptance of such things. I might silently sob, be blinded by tears instead of sweat as I was attacked by dull aches that grew progressively, but I knew how to stand still and how not to let any onlooker guess at my distress.
Occasionally I thought I heard some sounds filtering past the dense layers of my coifs and the plugs inserted into my ears. Sometimes I thought I felt the floor tremble as someone approached me. Once or twice I imagined I caught a glimpse of a shadow flitting across the small area of wall that I could see. But nothing happened. No sound, no footsteps, no movement.
That evening I was given my supper by Marie, her face blank-masked, her voice harsh as she spat out orders to me at the behest of Miss Nairn who stood somewhere behind me and who oversaw my meal. That night I had my first experience of Miss Nairn’s ‘controlled eating regime’ and I soon realized that it was going to bring a whole new dimension into my daily routine, and a very unwelcome one at that.
Up to that evening mealtimes had, in the main, been welcome breaks from the crushing boredom and discomfort of my days. I at least knew that, when I was to be fed, if I was masked, I would have that stifling covering unlocked, unlaced and removed so as to allow me access to fresh air. Then I would have my gag similarly removed, permitting me to ease my aching jaw and move my crushed tongue freely inside my mouth. Naturally, being under The Rule of Silence, I would not make a sound, never mind speak at such times. But just to be free of my gag was a pleasure that never ceased to bring light into the darkness of my day. After years of eating the tasteless gruel and often stale bread served up at St Sybils, what I ate mattered little to me. But at least for a brief while I could pretend to be free, even if I was being fed by a maid and I was caped and coifed and so strictly restrained that feeding myself was totally impossible.
The whole business should have been deeply humiliating – to have some bored servant spoon food into my mouth almost before I had time to swallow the previous mouthful could have been humiliating. But, as the passage of time had taught me, there are various degrees of humiliation, some of which are possible to ignore. As a mere example, if you are a girl who is called ‘stupid’ by your governess, it might be deeply wounding if you are on your own. But in a class with ten other Sybiliennes all of whom are regularly tarred with the same epithet, being called stupid means little or nothing. So it was with mealtimes – regular events whose bitter humiliation had long ago faded into nothingness. In truth they had become for me times of relative relaxation which were looked forward to. Not for the pleasure of eating, as there was no pleasure to be gained from the food I was permitted but from the breaks they allowed away from the grinding routines of my daily life.
That was until Miss Nairn arrived and her ‘excellent idea’ for subduing her own charge was used on me for the first time. Then whatever relief mealtime provided me under Miss Leys’ control evaporated as I was forced to comply with the awful task of chewing every single mouthful one hundred times, each mastication being identical to every other one. And then, when all one hundred bites had been completed, having to wait with my mouth full of mush until Marie, her voice at first betraying her pleasure at tormenting me, ordered me to display or swallow.
Needless to say, that first meal was full of mistakes on my part. I failed to chew several mouthfuls exactly one hundred times before swallowing. Some I swallowed before permission had been granted by Marie. And four times I had choked, coughing out the saliva-mixed food from my mouth which brought shrieks from Marie and growls from behind me as Miss Nairn let me know how she felt I was a wicked girl who couldn’t do something as simple as eating decently. Tears flowed down my face, but they were not seen because I was covered by a new bib, if you can call the all encompassing coverall which had been dragged down over me once I had been sat down on a stool in preparation for my supper, a bib.
The bib appeared to be made of heavy cotton or light canvas and covered me from head to toe, an oval hole near the top allowing Marie access to my mouth and through which my mouth and chin projected, the whole heavy drapery being held in place by tapes that seemed to be tied behind my head, dragging the ‘bib’ back against my face so that only the parts that needed to be exposed for my feeding were visible. Not that I could see anything as the material reached down over my eyes and nose, not even allowing me to see when the spoon neared my mouth. But I had no need of sight, as Marie’s orders were explicit enough; telling me to open my mouth, spooning in the food, ordering me to close my mouth before instructing me to start chewing and then, very slowly and in such a soft voice that I could not hear her words, counting off each chew.
Initially she had enjoyed humiliating me in this way, that much was only too evident from the jubilant note in her voice. But, as my feeding progressed, she must have become bored at the endless repetition of one hundred chews with each mouthful. For her tone became more shrill, she voice more angry and on several occasions she rattled the spoon against my teeth while inserting it into my mouth. With the fabric of the bib dragged back so that just my mouth and chin were visible, hers must have been a tedious task and the fact that she became so cross with feeding me that way for just one meal made me dread how she would react when she had to do the same three times a day for the foreseeable future.
Three times a day? I suddenly remembered that the new arrival would also be fed in that manner and that Marie had been selected to feed her. So the girl would have to go through that endless ritual six times a day from now on, a thought that must have appalled her nearly as much as it terrified me.
When at last the food was all gone, and I had been given a cup of plain tea which, by then, was stone cold, and as Marie set about removing the now soiled ‘bib’, Miss Nairn stepped round in front of me, harshly wiping my face with a damp cloth. She handed it to Marie and reached out to pick up my gag, actions I more guessed at than saw with my gaze demurely lowered, before she broke her silence.
“You have not improved with age, have you, Stensfield? If anything you are more careless, less tractable, and more prone to disobedience than you were when I had you in my class at St Sybils. I have little doubt that you have been trying to fool your governess with your efforts to appear humble and pliable. But I know you of old, and I am only too aware of how devious you are, and of how you use your pretty looks and quiet charm to influence your betters into thinking you a sweet sin-less girl. Well, Stensfield, you do not fool me and you never have. And I am going to make it my duty while I am here to expose you for the fraud you really are.”
As she spoke she silenced me before standing back, ignoring the hot tears that ran down my face and over the gagging plug’s face-cover that concealed all beneath my nostrils. She jerked it ever tighter before I heard the distinctive clicks as she padlocked it in place.
She stepped back and I could sense her gazing down at me as I remained seated. When she spoke again, her tone was calm and reasonable. It had that distinctive ‘More In Sorrow Than In Anger’ tone to it that I heard so often while she had been in charge of me at St Sybils.
“So you do not think me harsh, or that I have anything against you, Stensfield, I will not recommend you be punished for your appalling behaviour during your supper. It is a new experience for you, and I will allow you some leeway on this occasion. But do not expect me to be so kind to you in future. Because, my girl, I will not be. From tomorrow on you will eat according to how you have been taught. And, if you do not……………….”
She allowed her voice to die away, her threat hanging in the air. She had me terrified of her yet again, just as I had been terrified by her at St Sybils, and that was something I could sense her enjoying. Sitting on my hard based feeding stool, I knew it was an enjoyment she would hang on to and which she would try to intensify for as long as she could.
I slept little that night and when I did doze off, nightmares assailed me, hideous dreams where Miss Nairn stood over me, her ice cold eyes laughing at me as she suggested new ways of making my life ever more unbearable. I could not hear her exact words but I knew what she said, as her mouth grew and grew until it seemed to suck my very being into its maw.
I woke screaming silently, jerking at the bonds which ensures I behaved myself at night, my body drenched in sweat. Time and again I woke and then fell into a fitful shallow sleep again only for the governess to come roaring back into my mind and terrify me into fear-filled wakefulness yet again.
To my surprise, when the morning did come and I was released from my bed, little seemed to have changed. It was true that my frugal breakfast was eaten under the same humiliating conditions as the previous night’s supper. But this time it was Miss Leys who oversaw the meal and, in front of her, Marie was far more subdued, her vicious nature carefully held check in front of the governess who she must have known despised her as well as not trusting her. But, if the meal was less traumatic than I had feared, it was still bitterly humiliating to be fed in that manner and to have to chew my porridge which, in truth, needed no chewing whatsoever. But I tried to summon up true Sybilienne acceptance of the cruelty of bitter Fate, attempting to ignore how shaming the whole business was for me. However subsequent events were less easy to ignore.
After Marie had been dispatched to assist in the feeding of the new arrival, Tierney, the ordinary nursery maid, appeared bearing in her arms a bundle of clothes that I recognised with sick anticipation welling up within me. For she was carrying the corset with the heavy vertical extensions that laced my arms down its sides, so rendering me armless. And, instead of my normal day clothes, she brought in the underpinnings and the dress that had be made to be worn by a young woman who possessed no arms. I bit my lip as she went through the long process of dressing me for the day, crushing me first within my stays’ vicious embrace before fastening my arms to my sides and then lacing them inside the long canvas extensions from shoulders to finger tips. As with my torso, they were brutally crushed by the maid’s vigorous tightening of the lacing so that I knew that, as the day edged slowly past, my arms would become more and more painful until eventually the agony would fade and they would become lifeless and numb.
The maid was dragging my heavy armless dress down over me as Miss Leys entered the room. With my eyes downcast, I could only surmise that, as she walked round me, she was inspecting me to see how well I looked in that awful dress. I felt her adjust it and then adjust my outer coif before telling the maid to continue with her work, standing back as the dress was closed about me, its high collar tight as a garrotte around my throat, holding my head rigidly in its vicelike grip so that it was impossible to move my head in any direction once the maid had finished fastening it.
“You look charming like that,” Miss Leys said in a friendly tone, gesturing the maid out of the way so she could make some final adjustments to my attire. “It almost seems a shame that your dress will be hidden by your cape. But your fiancé insists that, at the very minimum, you spend your days dressed as a Sybilienne, coifs, cape and all. So the full glory of your new dress must remain hidden. Such a shame.”
She paused as the maid gathered up my night attire and left the room. Then she stepped forward and I sensed, rather than saw, her smiling. A slender hand slid into my field of vision as I looked at the bare boards between us and then I felt her gossamer finger tips caress my cheeks.
“Not even Sybilienne uniform can suppress your charm, my dear. Of course you are far too pretty for your own good, but I am sure you won’t try to take advantage of the blessings Mother Nature has so generously bestowed upon you.” Miss Leys chuckled to herself and dropped her hand, my moment of happiness over as her fingers left my flesh. “I very much hope that you will be on your best behaviour today, and that you will be modest, obedient and chaste as we are going downstairs again to see your fiancé and also to meet his friend. Of course Miss Mather will be coming with us as I am informed that her fiancé, the Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms, wishes to see her at the same time as meeting you properly.”
As she finished speaking, the door opened and the maid re-entered the room.
“Earplugs and silencer today, Miss?” she asked.
“Not the earplugs today,” Miss Leys replied. “Just her usual silencer. Oh, and also the short hobbles. We can use the new ‘lift’ now.”
As I was being fitted with a set of hobbles than would cut my strides down to mere inches, I mulled over the what exactly was ‘the new lift’. It was a phrase not known to me within the context in which it was being used. Also puzzling me was the fact that my governess had ordered that I be most strictly hobbled when we were due to go downstairs, as she knew full well that it would be impossible for me to descend the staircases wearing such severe restraints. However such concerns were soon forgotten as the maid undid my collar, removed my outer coif and proceeded to render me silent with the gag that had become so much a part of my life since returning home. Once its hideous plug was filling my mouth, the maid secured the inner strapped that held the plug in place before padlocking it tightly behind my head. Then its cover which concealed my lower face from nostrils downwards was laced up most rigorously at the back, before it too was locked shut. Only then did Tierney replace my outer coif and again fasten my dress’s murderously high collar.
Once more Miss Leys inspected me in detail and, when she was satisfied with all she saw, she stood back so that the maid could drape my weighty cape across my shoulders and commence to seal it up about my already over-warmly dressed body. While all this was going on, I stood motionless in my place, eyes focussed on the floor a few inches in front of me, doing my best to keep my expression neutral and to act as though what was being done to me did not even impinge upon my sluggish thinking. As Miss Nairn had recently pointed out, many people viewed a stupid, unimaginative young woman who sought only to mindless obey her elders and betters as being the very flower of womanhood. While it was the ones with a modicum of intelligence and self-awareness who the same people saw as threats to the status quo, and as the females who would make the least trustworthy and most ‘dangerous’ wives. Living in a society where individualism in young woman as seen as something to be harshly expunged, and where youthful intelligence was deemed to be almost a sin and certainly a deviant trait, I had learnt to do my best to appear almost bovine in my meek acceptance of my fate and to hide away my emotions as thoroughly as I concealed my likes and dislikes, my longings and needs. Tears might be permitted me but the eyes awash with them must always remain either lid-veiled or expressionless. All those long years of bitter training at St Sybils had made me at least appear to be a mindless automaton, even if this was a charade and, sadly, one which was either seen through by governesses like Miss Nairn or else suspected as being false as by people such as Miss Leys.
The morning that followed proved to be as boring and dull as many that had gone before it since I had returned to Stensfield Manor. The nursery maid shoo’ed me into the School Room and there I stood, alone initially and then in the company of Louise, as slow minutes ticked by. Not that Louise’s arrival brightened up my day. For she was brought into the School Room perhaps thirty minutes after my own arrival, and made to stand behind me, so that I could see nothing of her and all she could see of me was my grey-swathed back. I heard Miss Nairn harshly telling her not to move or look up as, if she did, the maid would see her and she would be reported. What would happen thereafter was left unsaid, but I had little doubt of the hideous consequences for her if she did find herself being reported.
So it was that the morning lumbered slowly by until the silence of the room was broken by the door being thrown open and someone marching towards the dais. It was then I heard Miss Nairn’s voice, hard and abrupt.
“Marie, you can go and get your lunch.”
There was the swishing sound of the girl’s skirts as she hurried out of the School Room, closing the door quietly behind her. When she had gone, I sensed Miss Nairn looking down at us for long moments before she spoke.
“You will have no luncheon today as Miss Leys and I have been requested to hold you both in readiness to go downstairs to meet your fiancés. We do not want to be caught out by such a summons arriving whilst you are being fed. So you will go without luncheon today. I hope for your sakes that you are called downstairs before your supper time or, otherwise, you will both also go to bed hungry.”
The governess chuckled quietly to herself before I heard her step down from the dais and approach me. Soon I saw her skirt hem at enter into the small area of floor upon which my gaze was focussed until, just as Miss Leys had done earlier, she stood close to me and reached out with a hand. This time there were no caressing finger tips. Instead she dragged at my coif, pulling it down a fraction to further conceal my eyebrows before she reached round behind my and tightened it to the degree that I knew I would soon be afflicted by a headache that would be caused by the coif’s remorseless pressure. I winced internally, but fought to keep my expression bland and emotionless.
“I really do not know how you manage to look untidy even after you have been so carefully dressed. If I did not know you are kept without the use of your arms, I would think that you had deliberately loosened your coif.” Disgust was only too evident in the governess’ voice. “It is a shame, Stensfield, that Mather can not tell you something of the way in which I laboured so hard to make her attire, her looks, and her behaviour respectable and acceptable. And I also regret that I was not given the task of bringing you to heel. But what I will do, and you may be sure of this, is to assist your governess in her work on you. I will encourage her to be less easy with you, girl. I will advise her of how best to deal with ingrates such as you. Yes, Stensfield, by the time I leave here, you will wish I had never come back into your miserable life.”
With a snort, she turned away, leaving me trembling with fear at her words. But, before I had assimilated them completely, Miss Leys came into the room.
“The gentlemen have sent for the girls,” she informed Miss Nairn. “Come; let us see if the Master’s new ‘lift’ actually works.”
At Miss Nairn’s orders, Louise and I filed out of the School Room, but instead of turning right towards the exit from my quarters, we were made to turn left, moving with tiny but rapid paces down the corridor in a direction normally forbidden to me. For it led to a formidable door behind which I knew lay the rooms where my food was prepared and my clothing kept. As we moved down the corridor as speedily was possible which, given the severity of our hobbles, meant at a snail’s pace, Miss Leys overtook us and I heard her unlock the door that lay ahead. She must have pushed it open for we passed through the doorway. Unable to look up, I could not see if things were different beyond it but, when we had shuffled on for maybe a further ten or twelve feet, Miss Nairn ordered us to halt.
“Claire,” Miss Leys spoke from behind me, “you may look up and see what the Master has done so as to make it easier for you to go downstairs.”
I raised my eyes and saw opposite me what appeared to be a small closet set in the grey stone wall. It seemed to be doorless and was about the size of a person. Perhaps six foot high, three foot deep and the same measurement in breadth. But………….. There was something wrong, as the alcove was wooden walled and the walls seemed to stand away on their own as though?
“You probably do not remember, Claire. But there used to be a dumb waiter here; a lifting device that brought food up from the kitchen. In fact it brought food up to the old dining room as well. What your fiancé has so thoughtfully done is to make the food container stronger and taller so that now, as well as being still capable of bringing things up from the kitchen, it can also transport people up and down too. So, in future, you will not have to use the stairs. Instead you can be placed in that container, that ‘lift’, and you will be transported up and down as we want. Of course you will never go all the way down to the kitchen, but instead the lift will be stopped when you have reached the ground floor. You will then be extracted from it and you will be able to walk, still demurely hobbled, to any place on that floor where you are needed.”
My first descent in that device was utterly terrifying. I was placed in the container, facing its back wall, abroad strap passed about me at waist level so as to keep me in place. Then there was a hideous jerk and the floor beneath my feet seem to fall away. I screamed into my gag as the awful device fell before coming to an abrupt halt for a second prior to jerking its way down the dumb waiter shaft. Every second I was inside it, I was sure that it would crash downwards to smash me and itself to pieces at the bottom of the shaft. But, after what seemed an eternity, its downwards progress stopped and someone unbuckled the strap holding me upright. I think I would have collapsed had not I known what such an action would have meant for me in terms of retribution. But I was shaking from head to toe as I heard Miss Nairn’s harsh voice telling me to step backwards out of the device. I was indeed only too happy to obey her order, shuffling hurriedly backwards, anxious to be standing on a firm floor once again.
I never did learn how this awful contraption worked nor how it was made to stop and start at the right places. But it did function and I was to use it many times in future, although never without that dreadful fear that I was about to plummet to my death at the bottom of that appalling shaft. As I was to learn, my fiancé prided himself on his ingenuity and engineering skills, the new ‘lift’ being the first of his inventions that I was to come across. Later I was to get to know other, more hideous, examples of his diabolical work as he set his fertile brain to dreaming up ways of ensuring that his fiancée and later wife was ‘kept secure’ and ‘was trained using the most modern of methods’.
That day I was made to wait facing the wall to the left of the dumb waiter while Louise made the same perilous journey. Rather to my surprise, she too arrived safely but I have no doubt that she was as terrified as I had been.
“A great deal quicker than bringing them down the stairs,” a somewhat breathless Miss Leys announced when she appeared shortly after Louise’s arrival. “And so much more secure; no chance of a girl bolting if she is brought down in the new lift. But I confess that I have no wish to try it for myself; the stairs will do me.”
Miss Nairn laughed thinly at her fellow governess’ little joke before ordering Louise and I to make our way across the room and into the wide corridor beyond. With tiny steps I made my way across the deep pile carpet, and out into the marble floored corridor, before being ordered to turn right. One more right-angled turn, two minutes of frantic shuffling forward with tiny tight-hobbled paces, and we were instructed to stop. Miss Leys moved past us and knocked on the door which we now faced and whose lower reaches I could recognize without looking up. It was the entrance to what once had been my Papa’s study and which now, as I knew from my previous visit, was now Captain Shard’s sanctum.
There was a moment’s pause and then I heard a newly familiar voice bidding us to enter. The door was thrown open and we were shepherded in. At Miss Leys’ instructions I shuffled forward until told to stop, the floor beneath my feet being highly polished wood, the edge of a rich rug being just visible at the periphery of my vision.
“Ah, my sweet little fiancée, and our delightful guest, Miss Mather. How very nice to see you both, and looking so well.”
Well trained, I knew exactly what to do at that moment. I dropped into a Sybilienne révérence, holding my breath and praying fervently that I would not wobble or even over-balance. Slowly I counted to fifty as we had been so painfully been taught to do as, with my head as bowed as my strangling collars would allow, I sneaked a sideways glance to my right, guessing where Louise would be. To my relief she was there and, from what little I could see of her, I also observed that she too had demurely dropped into a révérence. I just hoped that she was also counting to fifty.
“What a charming sight. Eh what, Hubert?”
“Absolutely, old boy. Absolutely.”
The voice that answered my fiancé’s comment was new to me but I knew that it must be the Captain’s guest, the Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms. But I tried to ignore the men’s talk as I was engrossed on counting to 50 at exactly the right speed, in the hope that, when I rose, Louise would do so too.
“Forty seven, forty eight, forty nine, FIFTY.”
I slowly rose as elegantly as hobble petticoat and the monstrous burden of my attire would allow. As I did so I peered sideways from under lowered lashes, and a feeling of enormous relief swept through me as the figure by my side also rose. Yes, at St Sybils the girls were well trained in such little niceties as the correct way to perform a révérence, and to automatically synchronise one’s révérence with those of the girls around you.
“Now, my dear Hubert, you must officially meet my sweet little fiancée, Miss Claire Stensfield.” The Captain’s voice was full of amusement and yet I could somehow sense that he despised his guest. I was not sure why I should think such a thing but there was something in his tone of voice that hinted at such a feeling.
“And, Claire, you may look up so as to meet your friend’s fiancé.” As I obeyed the Captain continued. “Claire, this is my guest and my very good friend, soon to be your friend’s husband, Hubert Montague-Symms.”
The Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms was perhaps three inches shorter than my own fiancé, and was considerably more portly. Florid cheeks and a broad lips, allied with a coarse skin, made him appear somewhat gross. But he was dressed in what I took to be the height of fashion, and his fair hair was carefully groomed. He might look unprepossessing but at least he made the most of what he had by dressing himself up as sharply as he could.
“Miss Stensfield; it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he said, bowing almost insolently to me. I, ever the well-tutored Sybilienne, dropped into yet another révérence, this time for a mere count of thirty five as I had been taught to do for second abasement in front of the same person in one meeting. As I held that deep curtsey, I heard him speak to the Captain. “I have no doubt that she is a stunner, Shard. A real little galloper. Shame I can’t see all of her face, don’t ya’ know.”
“That can be rectified in a moment, “ laughed the Captain. “Miss Leys, kindly remove my fiancé’s gag so Mr Montague-Symms can see all of her face.”
Fortunately, by the time Miss Leys reached my side, I had counted to 35 and was rising to my feet, just in time for her to go through the whole long winded procedure of removing my silencer. As this was being done, the two men discussed whether it was necessary to keep young woman without their use of their tongues.
“Essential,” was the Captain’s view.
“Sadly necessary,” was how Mr Montague-Symms summed up his opinion on the matter.
It was then that my fiancé’s guest moved nearer, looking closely at me in a manner I would expect no well-bred gentleman to look at a member of the opposite sex. His breath smelt of tobacco and something else more pungent, while his hair was dressed with some heavy pomade whose perfume seemed sickly and inappropriate.
“Gad, old boy; you’re right. She’s a stunner!” He stated in an awed tone, as at last he stepped back.
Mr Montague-Symms assessment of my looks came as something of a shock to me. For everyone I had come into contact with in the previous few years had, if they had bothered to pass an opinion on my looks, had told me that I was scrawny, or too tall, or a bean pole, or plain or even ugly. That was until Miss Leys had murmured flattering words in my ear and had made me ask myself whether I was not quite such a gargoyle as I had once thought myself to be.
“Don’t say that in her hearing, Hubert,” laughed the Captain. “You’ll have her believing your rubbish and then she’ll get all full of herself and I’ll have to have her whipped to drive the insolence and pride out of her.”
“Whip her anyway, old boy,” his friend replied with a guffaw. “Do her good, I am sure. I have the good Miss Nairn here do that to my Louise regularly. Just in case, don’t ya know.”
I shuddered inwardly at the casual way the gentleman was advocating that I be made to suffer the agonies of Hell. As I dropped my gaze and veiled my eyes with their lids once more, I prayed that the two gentlemen would change the subject before some awful decision was reached.
For once my prayers were answered for Louise’s fiancé ordered Miss Nairn to remove her gag so that the Captain might see his fiancée, just as he had seen me. Although the governess said nothing, I somehow sensed her disapproval, but she remained mute and did as she was instructed. I could not see what was happening without risking being seen to raise my eyes, but I knew that Louise must be freed from her silencer when The Captain let out a long whistle.
“I hate to say this in front of the girl, Hubert, but I must admit that you have done well for yourself. “
“So right, old boy,” Mr Montague-Symms replied with a braying laugh. “Luck was on my side. As ya’ know, she was selected for me when we were both children and she could have turned out to have been ugly as sin. Or worse. In fact, the last time I saw her was when I was at Eton and way before she was sent to that school. Then she was a sight. Shocking unattractive, don’t ya’ know.”
“Ah, that school…………………” My fiancé sounded almost wistful as he spoke. “Amazing place. Seems to perform miracles with its pupils. And it produces the best governesses money can obtain. Isn’t that right, Miss Leys?”
“I hope so, sir,” my governess answered in subdued tones. “We, the teachers there, are as well trained as the pupils. And, sir, I hope we go on learning from each other after we gain governess posts, just as I am learning much from Miss Nairn while she stays here.”
“Ah yes, Miss Nairn.” From the different timbre in my fiancé’s voice, I estimated that he must have wheeled slightly to face the other governess. “I have heard nothing but glowing reports about you. I sincerely trust that you will consider helping in making my sweet Claire into a utterly amenable and obedient wife.”
“I would be honoured to do so, sir,” murmured Miss Nairn in far less strident tones than she normally employed. “I am sure Miss Leys and I can bring your fiancée to heel once and for all. I knew her many years ago as a pupil at St Sybils, and she was a devious creature then. I fear that she has not improved much since that time.”
“Really? Pray tell me more. I would know everything about Claire. Good or bad.”
There was a momentary pause before Miss Nairn continued. “I do not wish to seem presumptuous, sir, but I wonder if it might not be better to discuss Miss Claire when she is not able to listen to our conversation. I would not wish for her to know exactly what elements of her character we seek to correct in her, nor how we intend to itemise her failings. I fear that, if she was to know such things, she might adapt her behaviour so as to try to fool us into believing she was less flawed than we know her to be.”
“Ah, a sensible approach, Miss Nairn. I applaud your caution, and now I see why my good friend here speaks so highly of you and of the work you have done on his fiancée.”
“Thank you, sir. I do but try to do my best for my employers and for the girls I have under my charge.”
“However, Miss Nairn, I’d like to ask you a generalised question. Would you agree that bad behaviour is often caused by over-stimulation and that a girl who is kept in a peaceful environment will always turn out better than one granted more to interest and amuse her?”
“Oh, indeed yes, sir.” Miss Nairn’s voice at last seemed animated, enthusiasm tingeing her tone. “Much of the improvement in Miss Louise’s behaviour has been brought about by making sure she was kept tranquil and undisturbed for long periods of time. And, when she was permitted a slight vestige of stimulation, that she was kept on a strict rein which ensured she was not allowed to become over-excited.”
“Excellent, excellent.” The Captain’s tone voice was as full of enthusiasm as was the governess’s. “Miss Nairn, perhaps you would be kind enough to speak to Miss Leys and to see whether it will be possible to employ the same techniques on Claire as you did with your current charge. I believe that she would benefit from being quietened down, and I am sure that you and Miss Leys can come up with a form of training which will suit young Claire.”
“Sir, nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
There are times when keeping one’s expression calm and neutral seems to be almost impossible and when Miss Nairn so enthusiastically responded to my fiancé’s proposal was one such occasion. To keep my feelings of shock, despair and horror off my face was a battle which, momentarily, I did not think I could win. But somehow I managed to keep control of my features as I felt sure that the people who had control over my destiny were watching me, just waiting to see how I reacted to the governess’s words.
I looked down at the floor in front of me, obeying The Rule of Decorum which, at St Sybils, demanded that all pupils once they attained the age of sixteen must never elevate their gaze unless ordered to do so by a governess. It was a rule that was cruelly enforced, and which was designed to make every pupil seemingly live their lives isolated from their contemporaries. It cut them off from the girls who had once been their friends as now all they could see of them were the hems of their capes, each girl’s outer carapace being virtually identical to all the others around her, this theoretically making it impossible to identify one from another. It was true that friendships were actively discouraged at St Sybils, but if you spend long harsh years living alongside a small number of other girls, it is impossible not to become ‘acquainted’ with them and ultimately to form friendships with those whom you admired or liked. Even if, as was the case for all of us over the age of fifteen, free association with other girls was not allowed.
But adolescent girls are adaptable creatures and I, for one, had two special friends who I held dear to me even if I was not officially allowed to speak to after my fifteenth birthday and who, a year later, I was supposed only to see from knee-level downwards. However I ‘knew’ them then from the way they stood, or from the positioning of their feet that they normally adopted, or perhaps from a slight mark on the hem of their cape. The Rule of Decorum might seek to isolate us from our friends but, in a school where the pupils well outnumbered the governesses set to rule over us, there was always means of bypassing such regulations, providing one was prepared to run the risk of being caught and of then being brutally punished for the ‘unforgivable’ offence of wanting and needing contact with creatures of one’s own age.
But now that I was at home and watched closely all the time, the Rule was impossible to evade. However, for the long moments when I sensed that the ‘adults’ in the room were all looking at me, I was indeed glad of it, relieved that my lid-veiled eyes could not be seen by them, and that they could not read the fear written within them as I heard Miss Nairn’s words.
“I am delighted you’re so willing about helping us improve my fiancé.” The Captain did not bother to conceal his pleasure as he broke the lengthening silence in the room. “Although I know you would prefer not to speak in front of my sweet little Claire and before Miss Mather, I would like to hear how you suggest we might commence this reshaping of my fiancé’s character.”
“I think when you used the words, ‘hear’, you read my mind, sir.” Miss Nairn’s tone was light but I could read the satisfaction in her voice as she started to ‘suggest’ things to The Captain. “I am of the opinion that we should deprive Miss Claire of any chance to overhear our conversations all the time. I know that my colleague, Miss Leys, keeps her earplugged occasionally for, maybe, a portion of the girl’s day. But I would suggest that we extend that so that she is deprived of hearing ALL the time. Day and Night, sir.”
“But how will you instruct her, Miss Nairn?” My fiancé asked. “How will you give her orders? How will you explain to her why she is being punished or ensure that she knows the gravity of the offences she may have committed?”
“May I explain that, sir?” Miss Leys voice entered the conversation, her tone anxious, as it was clear that she must feel she was being pushed to one side by Miss Nairn and that this newcomer was manoeuvring herself into the de facto position of senior governess, thus demoting her from her current status.
“Yes, of course, Miss Leys.”
“At St Sybils the older girls learn a code if signals so that, if they are deprived of hearing or sight, they can still be ordered what to do. In fact the canes carried by all governesses there are sometimes called ‘order rods’, as they are used to convey orders to the girls when speech is undesirable or when the child cannot hear her governess. For instance, sir, a tap on the left shoulder with a cane means the girl must turn left when still, or wheel to the left if she is moving. A similar light blow to the top of her head will tell the girl to sit down if she is stationary, or to stop if she is moving. There is a signal for just about every command likely to be given to a Sybilienne, sir.”
“And my Claire knows these signals?”
“Indeed yes, sir.”
“But if she has committed an offence or needs to be punished, what then?”
This time it was Miss Nairn who answered quickly, before my governess could deal with The Captain’s question.
“Miss Stensfield has reached and age, sir, when she is fully aware of her misdemeanour when she does something wrong, sir. She knows all the rules under which she lives, sir; all Sybiliennes over the age of sixteen or so know them, sir. So there is no need for us to endlessly explain her faults to her as she must be only too aware of them when she breaks the rules. So it is that we may freely bring her to heel when she errs without having to explain anything, as she will know only too well what she has done. Or, if she is not aware of why, she most certainly should be. The punishments she receives will serve to remind her NOT to act so wickedly again and, if she is confused as to why she is being punished, she can search her conscience. There, I am sure, she will find ample reason why she should be thankful that we have her interests at heart and that she is being corrected for her own good.”
“And Louise can do the same?” Mr Montague-Symms asked, breaking into the discussion at last.
“Indeed yes, sir. Back home at Larington Court she spends much time deprived of hearing, and regretfully I have often been forced o punish her without telling her why. But she will know exactly why she is being corrected so painfully, sir.”
“You do the same with Claire, Miss Leys?” The Captain asked.
“From time to time, sir,” my governess replied hurriedly. “But so far she does not seem to have done anything that warrants keeping her deprived of hearing all the time.”
My heart, previously weighed down with despair, leapt at my governess’s almost kind words. But, as the conversation continued, gloom enveloped my spirit once more.
“But Miss Nairn advocates depriving her of hearing. Perhaps, Miss Leys, if you will forgive the pun, we should listen to her wise words.”
“Perhaps, sir,” murmured the younger governess, seemingly abrogating her senior position with those two words of surrender.
“Very well.” The Captain spoke briskly and in a business-like tone. “Miss Nairn, we will go along with your suggestion forthwith. Until it is decided differently, we will keep Claire deprived of hearing.”
He paused for a second or so, and I could see him in my mind’s eye, turning to his friend.
“Hubert, old boy, as Claire’s going to be made permanently deaf, do you want the same to happen with your girl?”
“Might as well, I suppose,” Mr Montague-Symms replied laconically. “Can’t do the girl any harm and, from what her governess tells us, she’s already kept that way a lot of time anyway.”
“Very well. That is decided. Miss Nairn, Miss Leys; when we have finished with the girls perhaps you would be kind enough to take them back to their quarters and then take whatever steps are necessary to rob their of their power of hearing. There is some simple but effective way of doing that, I assume.”
“Indeed there is, sir,” Miss Nairn answered with considerable relish. “As this is going to be a long term decision, we can use wax. Simply put, sir, we pour warm wax into the girls’ ears and just leave it there to form a solid plug.”
“Isn’t that difficult to remove?” My ever-practical fiancé asked.
“I would be if we did not first carefully insert into ear a short length of sewing cotton with a knot at its inner end, and other end hanging free of the ear passage. When the wax is inserted it solidifies around the cotton which does not alter its effectiveness at all. Then, when the girl is ultimately allowed to hear again, the cotton is pulled out of her ear, dragging a large portion of the wax with it. The rest can then be removed by washing out the ear with warm oil.”
“Seems sensible,” The Captain commented. “But so far we have just one quite minor alteration in the girls’ lives. Is that enough?”
‘One quite minor alteration’………………….. Hearing my fiancé’s words, I felt like screaming. Did he realise what it was like to be deprived of hearing? Did he know how awful it was to live in total silence all the time? Or what it was like to be randomly punished for no apparent reason, knowing you could or would never find out why? Or how frightening it was to receive ‘orders’ from the touch of a cane when it was so easy to misinterpret its instructions? For, unlike what the Captain had been told, there were a whole mass of orders in the Sybilienne code, some of which could be contradictory or confusing. And some of which you might not even feel if you were, for example, wearing a heavy cloak on top of one’s cape and other layers of uniform clothing.
For one terrible second I was tempted to tell The Captain the real truth about being deprived of hearing as a Sybilienne. But my abject terror of what would happen to me if I spoke without being so ordered overcame even my fear of being made deaf. So I stood motionless and mute as Miss Leys answered my fiancé’s latest query.
“Perhaps, sir, we should keep the girls masked all the time. Even the best trained young woman is tempted to look about her and we can eradicate that unseemly habit using their masks on them all day long.”
“How? I would have thought that, with their eyes hidden behind those little slits, they could look around freely. Certainly more so than when they are bare-faced and have someone keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t look up.”
“Again, sir, there is a simple means of making sure a young woman obeys The Rule of Decorum when she is masked,” Miss Leys answered quietly. “All that need to be done is to adjust her mask so that the vision opening is situated lower than normal. To see straight ahead, she needs the slits in their correct place, opposite her eyes. But if the slits are slightly lower, she must look down to see out of them, her line of sight also forced down so all she can see is the floor and the front of her cape or cloak. By just adjusting her mask and lowering its vision slits, we can ensure that the wearer can NOT look up because, if she does, she can see nothing whatsoever. Thus The Rule of Decorum is forced upon her all the time. Of course, it is not pleasant for them to remain masked all the time, but I don’t think we should let that very minor point deter us, sir.”
“No, indeed, Miss Leys. We should not,” my fiancé laughed. “A little unpleasantness never hurt a young woman. Eh, Hubert?”
“Right, ole boy. Too right.” The Honourable Hubert Montague-Symms giggled.
“Then it is settled. Plug up their ears and keep them masked all the time. And, dear ladies, be stern with them too. Don’t let them evade their responsibilities, and come down on them hard if they try to do so. That right, Hubert?”
“Yes, very right, ole boy. Come down hard. VERY hard.”
“Good, then it’s settled.” I sensed rather than saw The Captain shift towards his friend. “And Hubert, I said I’d show you those books in the library; the interesting ones……………….. Why don’t we go look at them while Miss Nairn and Miss Leys remove the girls. We can see how things are going for them later.”
A couple of minutes later, after we had sunk low in a full Sybilienne reverence and had been holding that most stressful of poses while our fiancés left the room, Louise and I were being shepherded back towards the small dining room, and the awful ‘lift’.
“I hope you both paid full attention to the gentlemen’s words,” Miss Nairn said in acidic tones as Louise and I stood in front of the schoolroom dais. “Because Miss Leys and I intend to obey their instructions both to the letter and in spirit as well. Yes, my girls the days of ease and relaxation are over for you because we are going to remember The Captain’s words well. He said, ‘Don’t let them evade their responsibilities, and come down on them hard if they try to do so’. And that, my dears, is exactly what we are going to do.”
Regardless of the fact that my body was over-heated by the inescapable thickness of my uniform attire, I shivered at her words, chilled to the bone by them. But, even if my gag had not been replaced earlier, I still would not have dared comment on Miss Nairn’s cruel little monologue. For my years within the grim walls of St Sybils had taught me that answering back was a sin deemed to be only slightly less heinous than murder. My gaze fixed on the floor in front of me, I tried to remain still, my face expressionless, giving the governesses no indication of the fear and despair coursing through my whole being.
“Now we must get down to business,” Miss Nairn continued. “There’s has been enough talk and now it’s time…………….”
She stopped as the sound of someone knocking on the door, interrupted her words.
“Come in,” she barked.
I heard the door open and a skirt swish across the floor, the new arrival obviously stopping in front of the dais. Although I could not see the individual, I thought it must be the nursery maid, and I imagined her bobbing a curtsey to the governesses, before Tierney’s frightened voice proved that I had been right in my estimate of who had just joined us.
“Please, ma’am, I have a message from The Master.”
“Give it to me, girl. And then go; we won’t be needing you again until it’s time for supper.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the nursery maid mumbled, obviously handing over the message to Miss Nairn before fleeing the room.
“What do you make of that?” Miss Nairn asked, her question clearly aimed at my governess. I vaguely heard a rustle of paper and there was another pause before Miss Leys answered her.
“It seems plain enough,” she said with a sigh. “Plain but annoying.”
“It’s ‘why’ that I would like to know,” snorted Miss Nairn. “The Captain was very clear in his instructions just now. And yet, half an hour later, he changes his mind. Does he often do that.”
“Never,” Miss Leys assured her. “But he has only countermanded his order about making Claire and Louise permanently deaf.”
“And that was just about the only thing he told us to do which would really affect these stupid girls.” Miss Nairn’s frustration was only too evident in her tone. “Ah well, we’ll just have to prevent them listening to what we are saying using other means.”
“But he has told us not to deprive them of hearing,” Miss Leys protested.
“What he has said is “my friend and I do not wish for our fiancées to be permanently deprived of hearing at the present time”. He uses the word ‘permanently’ while, at the same time, doesn’t say anything about their not being made, shall we say, hard of hearing.”
The was a silence for a few seconds before Miss Leys agreed that the instructions they had received did only mentioned permanent earplugging and perhaps they could ensure that we weren’t, at the very least, allowed to hear much about us.
“I have coifs that have internal pads which I use in conjunction with ordinary earplugs,” she said. “They should ensure the girls’ hearing is severely curtailed.”
“That silly little nursery maid; can you get her back?” Miss Nairn asked, ignoring Miss Leys’ suggestion.
“Yes. She should be ironing or doing some mending in the work room on the other side of the service door.”
“Would you mind fetching her. Oh, and ask her to bring both girls’ cloaks here, if you please.”
“Cloaks? Surely it is too late to exercise them today.”
“They are not for exercise, my dear. I have an idea and I need their cloaks here to see if it is a good one.”
I listened to my governess leave the room before being aware of Miss Nairn moving from her place on the dais and approaching Louise and myself.
“I am sure you two nasty little eavesdroppers heard all that. Well, you have escaped having your ears properly plugged up, at least for the time-being. But I intend to satisfy myself that you two can’t communicate or even see one another. I know just how resourceful hideous little Sybiliennes like you two can be, and I intend to make sure that, for once, you have no opportunity to break the rules here. You may not be deprived of hearing in as comprehensive a manner as I would like to see happening to you, but I mean to make sure you’re nicely isolated, one from another.”
She stepped away just as the door opened again.
“The girl is on the way now,” Miss Leys said as she moved across the room. “And she is bringing in the girls cloaks. Now, exactly what do you have in mind?”
“Ah, my dear Miss Leys, I have many things in mind. All of which these girls will not like but which, I feel sure, you will approve of. But first I assume you would not object too much if your charge went to bed with an empty stomach. A few hours fasting never hurt a girl of her age. In fact I find it is an excellent way of keeping Louise in check. And, of course, it is excellent for the figure.”
“I have no objection to that. But perhaps we should allow them some water.”
“And I, in return, would have no objection to their being given some water. But I think that, while one of them has her gag removed so as to be watered, the other should be elsewhere. I think we might as well get them used to having NO opportunity to communicate at all. Even the knowledge that they might be able to do so – if they were that stupid, which I doubt – could give them comfort. So we should separate them whenever one or other is ungagged in future.”
“That would be perfectly acceptable,” Miss Leys said. “One can be in here and the other next door in the punishment chamber.”
“Excellent, excellent. So let’s us water the little beasts and then we can prepare them in what I hope will be an acceptable manner. Acceptable to their somewhat undemanding fiancés and, more importantly, also acceptable to us, my dear Miss Leys.”
Perhaps fifteen minutes after Miss Nairn’s chilling remark to my governess, I found myself back in the school room, standing motionless, eyes demurely lowered and with my stomach churning with fear. The fear was understandable considered what had just happened.
I had been taken into the punishment room and given a long drink by my governess. For once she allowed me to time gulp down the contents of the tall jug which she raised to my lips, permitting me to enjoy the coolness of the water. Only when it was empty did she put it down on the table and, having removed my outer coif, picked up a gag. This she inserted and secured in place with her usual brisk efficiency but, as she was standing behind me, refitting my outer coif that would hide away the straps and buckles securing my gag and lower face-cover in place, she whispered to me, her voice husky and lacking its normal dispassionate timbre.
“Be careful of Miss Nairn,” she said as she laced the coif closed behind my head. “I don’t know why, but it seems she has something against you. She appears to want to lower you in the sight of The Captain. So do your very very best not to give her any reason to report you to him. I’ll try to protect you, but I can’t guarantee anything. Just remember, she is a very real danger to you.”
With my mouth filled to overflowing by my silencer, I could not thank her for the warning, even if I had summoned up the courage to speak in the first place. Instead I stood mute and motionless until she told me to go back to the schoolroom where, I presume, Miss Nairn had been watering Louise. However, as I walked back slowly to my place in front of the governess’s dais, even with my eyes lowered in obedience to The Rule of Decorum, I realised that poor Miss Mather had been cloaked in my absence. The brief glimpse I had of her lower attire enabled me to see that her ankles and feet were now hidden away beneath a heavier and more widely circumferenced article of clothing that the cape by which they had been concealed when I had left the room.
With tiny paces I manoeuvred myself to stand alongside the new arrival, trying to glance sideways to make certain that I was right about her now being cloaked. I needn’t have bothered as Miss Nairn’s sharp voice soon had all my attention as she confirmed that my original surmise had been correct.
“I trust you enjoyed your drink, Stensfield. And I hope you realise how lucky you were to have had even a drop of water to drink. Because you could have been like Mather here. She was given none as I felt that the time you were in the next room would be better spent in attiring her properly, rather than in allowing her a drink. That is why she is now, masked, cloaked and hooded, just as she will be for the rest of the day.”
The woman paused, and I imagined her smiling wolfishly down at me before she spoke again.
“Another thing, Stensfield. As you appeared to dislike the way in which you are now fed, I thought we could give you a special treat, and that we would let you off being fed in that humiliating way today.”
This time when she paused again, I felt a swell of elation within me. For it seemed that good news had come my way so rarely of late. But my joy was soon turned to dust as the governess continued.
“Of course the reason why you are escaping being fed in such a meaningful manner is because you will not be fed again today. No supper for you, my girl, nor for Mather…………………………”
I moaned silently into my gag for I was bitterly hungry already, having only been given a frugal breakfast so many hours earlier. Now there was no prospect of further food until the morning which, although entailing a fast lasting twenty four hours, was not as bad as my routine Friday fasting which lasted from after supper on Thursday until breakfast on Saturday. However Friday fasting had been part of my life since my sixteenth birthday, a time when Sybiliennes were deemed old enough to make this “small penitential offering” for the sake of their religious beliefs. Being routine, it seemed unexceptionable, another unpleasant aspect of a life filled with petty unpleasantnesses as well as more major ones too. So I accepted being deprived of food in the way that I accepted being made virtually armless by my closely buttoned-up cape and also being tight-hobbled for much of the time; it was another fact of life which I had no way of avoiding. But to be suddenly told that I must miss food for an expected twenty four hours seemed cruel and unnecessary, specially as there was clearly time to feed Louise and myself before it was our bedtime.
But the unpleasant surprises were not at an end, for Miss Nairn, clearly enjoying herself, made sure that I not only went to bed hungry but that I also slept poorly as I worried about how I would cope with the latest tribulations that she proposed heaping on me. The first of these came immediately after she had told me that my unexpected fast was not yet over.
“So, Stensfield, as you aren’t going to have to concern yourself about eating again today, we can get you nicely dressed for the evening. And, as you have nothing much to occupy you during that time, I see no reason why you should be allowed to gaze idly about you. So you will be masked beneath your cloak’s excellent hood; that covering, along with the hood itself, should prevent you from hearing much as well.”
As seemed to be how she liked to talk at her charges, Miss Nairn paused for a moment or two to allow her words to sink in before she continued.
“Of course your new friend, Mather, won’t be much enjoying how she is clothed nor how I have altered her posture. She will be hot and doubtless wishing she had more air to breath but those factors won’t be foremost in her sluggish mind. No, my dear Stensfield, she has other things to concern herself with at the moment. Now, girl, you will turn to your left and look up to as to see what I mean.”
I did as I was told and raised my eyes to see that, as I had guessed, Louise was now interred within the weighty folds of a Sybilienne cloak. However one aspect was unusual. Very unusual.
A Sybilienne cloak, designed to be worn over a girl’s normal cape, is a generously cut garment, made of extremely heavy fabric and lined throughout. Reaching to the ground, it differs from a uniform cape in that it is heavier, far heavier, and has a massive hood. This is cut in such a way as to protrude out in front of the wearers face by several inches, thereby very efficiently blinkering her. However the material jutting out in front of the wearer’s face is not properly supported so that its own weight causes the top part to flop down in a manner that would cover the hood’s front opening if the wearer did not bend her head forward, looking down the hood’s tunnel as it is angled down from the top of her head. Of course this meant that the wearer could not see out at the sides as might be expected, but the way in which she was forced to bow her head and the manner in which the hood fell down in front meant that all she could see was a very limited amount of the floor or ground at her feet. If she was lucky, she might be able to see for two or even three feet in front of the hem of her cloak, but normally the wearer would only be able to catch sight of what lay perhaps eighteen inches in front of her. Anything further away would be invisible thanks to the dense material of the hood draped down before her bowed head.
This was purgatory for the inexperienced wearer of such a garment as she would find herself virtually choking as she bent her head forward, this act pressing her already over-tight collars into the soft flesh at the junction of chin and throat. If a girl lowered her head a fraction too far she would start choking as the rigid edge of her collar cut into her windpipe. And if she lowered it a fraction too little, the hood would collapse in front of her face and she would be able to see nothing and would soon find herself becoming desperately short of air and the collapsed material of the hood closed up its front opening.
Whoever designed those cloaks and especially their hoods was a genius; an evil genius as far as generations of Sybiliennes were concerned. For she had thought up a cloak and hood which ensured their wearer remained heavily blinkered all the time, as well as never being able to relax for one second for fear of lifting her head inadvertently or lowering it too much, both actions that would have grievous consequences for the wearer.
Naturally the governess thought our cloaks to be excellent garments; after all, they kept the Sybiliennes in their charge weighed down, over-heated, exhausted and, very satisfactorily, with their heads demurely lowered into a nicely humble pose.
So, when I looked at Louise as she stood next to me shrouded in her massive cloak, I expected to see her with her head bowed in the traditional Sybilienne manner. But, instead of her head being angled forward at perhaps forty five or fifty degrees, it seemed to jut out in front of her from the garments shoulders, the hood and her head projecting at right angles from her body and from the cloak. I could barely believe my eyes, asking myself how could Louise adopt such a posture even for a few seconds. Surely her high and tight buttoned collars would prevent her doing such a thing. But my horrified but silent questions were soon answered by Miss Baird.
“I am sure you are so pleased to see your friend so demurely dressed and adopting such a modest pose, aren’t you, Stensfield? But you must be wondering how she manages to lower her head that much. Well, sadly to get her to do that, I have had to loosen the top part of her collars somewhat. Sad but necessary. Now turn and look towards me, girl.”
I immediately did as I was ordered and peered out through the mesh-covered vision slits in my mask. What I saw horrified me. For Miss Nairn was holding in her hand what was clearly a stout back-bar, or as some call it, back-board. Made of some ebony wood, it was clearly strong in inflexible and it was ‘decorated’ with strong brass fittings to which were attached the heavy straps which would hold it in place when secured to a girl’s back. Each strap, I noted, was equipped not only with stout brass buckles but also with locks so as to prevent any unauthorised person from easing or removing it from its wearer.
Essentially it was not too far different from the ones I had worn on and off for years but this one had a new and terrifying aspect. For, at what was clearly the top of the rod, it had a projection that jutted forward making the whole device appear like an inverted L. With my stomach churning, I realised why my poor companion’ head was held so low within the cavern of her vast hood – her back bar must be placed so that the forward projecting part passed over the top of her head, forcing it forward and down at right angles to her body.
As I looked at the awful deportment-correction device, Miss Nairn demonstrated how the top ten inches or so of the bar, which initially had been projecting at 90 degrees to the main back-bar, could be adjusted using a curled knob which, in some way, allowed her to adjust the angle at which the shorter part was fastened in relation to the rest of the apparatus.
“I hope you appreciate the excellent design of this posture bar, Stensfield. Using it, we literally can bent the stiff necks of our charges, making sure that our girls have their heads permanently and demurely bowed all the time. Of course it is not exactly comfortable for someone like your new companion, Mather here,” Miss Nairn continued, gesturing to the cloaked figure who stood motionless before her. “I am sure that she will not be enjoying her situation at the moment, but that is all for the good. She is learning to remain still and to keep her head bowed, as well as experiencing a lesson in demure acceptance of the fact that her life can so easily be made a lot harder than is the case normally. Yes, since my arrival to take charge of her, Mather has discovered that being a Sybilienne is a relatively easy existence and that it does not take much in the way of alterations to make it a lot less pleasant from her point of view. That way she will, one trusts, be only too anxious to please me and, ultimately, her husband because she will know how simple we can make her life far less acceptable and how quickly we can make her existence really unpleasant.”
As she spoke, her voice level and controlled, my own governess moved into my field of vision and stood beside her. When she had finished her little monologue she turned to Miss Leys.
“I have employed a full length back-rod on Mather. Well, she will not be moving from where she is now until its her bedtime so it’s nice to know that she will remain upright and straight from ankles to neck. I was wondering if you would like to use a full length rod on your charge, or if you are afraid she might eventually faint or act in some way that might cause her to topple over if she has her ankles shackled together at the base of her bar. This one is only three-quarter length, reaching down to behind her knees; it will ensure she has excellent posture but maybe will be less likely to cause her to topple.”
Miss Nairn held out the strap festooned- back-bar to my governess who took it, rapidly using two hands to support its obviously considerable weight. For the device was no flimsy construction but instead was made of stout ebony and, with all its fitments and straps, weighed enough for Miss Leys to need two hands to hold it.
It was then that I saw, to my horror, that the back rod was not flat along its considerable length but instead was triangular in shape for its top half up to the point where it was angled forward. It did not take much thought to realise that, with the brass fitments attached to the flat ‘base’ of the bar’s triangular section, that the sharply projecting part was designed to rest against the wearer’s spine and, as the straps were tightened, to drive into it, thereby ensuring that the girl thus held would have what was, to all effects and purposes, a second but external spine, but this time one that was utterly inflexible and totally rigid.
As my governess inspected the hideous device, Miss Nairn spoke again, her voice as always dispassionate and even hinting at mild boredom.
“Well, Miss Leys, shall we get on with fitting it to your charge. I am sure she is anxious to try it on. And I too am anxious – to continue reading that wonderful novel by Miss Bronte that you so kindly lent me.”
The two governess laughed softly at the little joke before Miss Leys approached me. A minute or so later, I stood no longer wearing my cape, nor my sleeveless copy of a grey Sybilienne gown, nor were my arms clamped immobile within the confines of the deep laced pockets set in the sides of my stays. Even most of my petticoats had been removed with only the tough inner ‘hobble’ petticoat left in place. My arms hung loosely at my sides as the governesses fitted the back bar on me, Miss Nairn showing Miss Leys where all the straps went. It was not long before I was aware of the vertical length of the device hanging behind me, its startlingly heavy mass already dragging down on my shoulders.
One of the governesses standing behind me, took hold of one of my still tight gloved and mittened hands and drew it behind me where a strap was passed over my still well-covered wrist, holding it in place before my other hand was similarly pulled behind me and fastened to the bar. So far, apart from the sheer weight of the construction, things did not seem too bad; true I was held against the rod behind me, but………………………..
But I had judged the device too early in its being fitted in place. For further straps were passed about my body and about my forearms and elbows, all being tightened in the sequence laid down by Miss Nairn who explained to my governess that it was necessary to tighten the straps in the correct order so as to ensure the bar did its job ‘to the maximum effectiveness’.
Three or four minutes later I was howling silently into my gag, tears flowing own my cheeks as the myriad straps crushed my body, dragged my shoulders agonisingly back, and drove the viciously painful sharp edge of the triangle into my back, seemingly cutting through my underclothing and into my backbone itself, even bending my double-boned stays to its will. Hideously tight straps secured round my body at waist level, immediately below my rib-cage and diagonally across my chest made it seem that I was being crushed to dust by their appalling compression. Even breathing, something always rendered problematic by the tightness of my stays, seemed to be impossible because of the straps’ murderous compression.
But it was as Miss Nairn fastened to the locks which would ensure that those straps remained so cruelly tightened that I realised how terrible was the bar itself. Not only was I paralysed from hips upwards but it seemed it was determined to crush the very bones of my spine as its sharp edge was forced yet further into my back. All I could do was to close my tear-filled eyes and try to ride the fear and pain which overwhelmed me.
“Truly excellent, I think you’ll agree,” I heard Miss Nairn say in satisfied tones. “Now all we have to do is to secured the thigh and knee level straps – nice and tightly, I think – and your girl will have her back and body perfectly held in a decent posture. No more slouching for her, that’s for sure. As you see, with the bar ending just at knee level but not any lower, when she is dressed again you can leave her standing or kneeling. Personally I always leave my ungrateful sluggard of a girl kneeling when she is wearing a short back-bar like this one. When she is like that, I just strap her ankles together and I know she won’t trouble me nor anyone else until such time as it is convenient for me to move her. Excellent way of disciplining a girl is to leave her on her knees like that for a good long time. Goes to make her meek and VERY anxious to please me.”
One the straps around my thighs and just about my knees had been buckled tightly in place and had been locked, Miss Nairn came round in front of me to check that all was in order.
“She’ll do,” she announced when she had satisfied herself that I was held motionless and rigidly upright. “Now we must get her dressed again before adjusting the head piece so as to set her head in the right angle for meek submission to our wills.”
There was a moment or two’s silence while the governesses redressed me, fussing with my petticoats as my strap-paralysed hands her held down to the back bar below waist level. But the draw-strings were soon adjusted and tied off and my heavy but loose fitting gown was pulled down over my head and settled in place, only its fastening being left undone behind the normally high and horrendously tight collar. As I stood there, pain-wracked and in utter misery, for some incomprehensible reason, I remembered a governess at school saying to our class, “A Sybilienne gown covers many sins, and a Sybilienne cape even more.” At the time I hadn’t specially noted her words. But they came back to haunt me as I stood in the schoolroom, understanding probably or the first time why my sleeveless gown, like all Sybilienne ones, was not tailored to fit my corset-shaped figure.
Abruptly Miss Leys voice forced its way into my pain-filled consciousness.
“I am a little worried about setting Claire’s head at such an extreme angle as you have done with your charge. I am afraid that it might cause her permanent damage, even breaking her neck.”
“Oh my dear, you are being too cautious,” Miss Nairn laughed. “Messrs Brightwell and Comfort say that they have comprehensively tested these bars with the adjustable head pieces. They would not sell anything that would endanger the life of the girl upon which it was used.“
“Well, not the back-bars they supply,” Miss Nairn added almost as an aside. “But, if you wish to be gentle with your charge that is your privilege, Miss Leys. Luckily the adjusting knob allows the top piece to be set at any angle. In fact it can be set at even more than ninety degrees, forcing the wearer’s head far down below the horizontal, although I have yet to try that on Mather. It seems she is distressed enough at ninety degrees but one day I will she how she copes with her forced even lower. And left there.”
Although I could not see it, I could feel the bar pressing against the back of my head, already forcing my to slightly bend it forward. And I could imagine it standing up there behind me, the shiny knurled brass knob at neck level, ready to be turned so as to adjust the angle of the top part of the bar.
“The head harness has to be secured relatively loosely until the girl head is set in place at the correct angle, but then we can tighten it.” Miss Nairn explained to Miss Leys. “ Sometimes it’s best remove the girl’s outer coif and fasten the harness to her gag straps. But there’s no need for that this time. Look, I’ll show you how it is done.”
Standing in front of my tormentor’s I felt Miss Nairn pass further straps around my head and face, one set at mouth level over the top of my silencer’s lower face mask. The other one was fastened at forehead level; neither aspect of the harness was tightened at that stage and, as the woman forced my head slowly forward, I realised why, as the movement of the bar behind my head caused the straps to move slightly.
But what was happening to them did not concern me over much as I was too much appalled by the manner in which the bar behind my head forced it forward and down so that the high collar of my gown rammed into my throat at the base of my chin, its top edge seeming to dig deep into my flesh. But, thankfully, as the collar had not been closed at the back, it spread slightly so as not to garrotte me as would have been the case had it been, as normal, tightly buttoned closed.
The inexorable pressure of the bar behind my head forced it forward and down until it was held at perhaps sixty degrees from the vertical. I could feel my gag-mask covered chin being forced into the fabric of my gown and my neck seemed to be stretched in a manner that was both unpleasant and uncomfortable. And, of course, if I looked straight ahead, I was now forced to obey the Rule of Decorum whether I liked it or not.
“I think that will do as a start,” I heard Miss Nairn say. “WE can always increase the angle later when she becomes used to it as it is now. Now, let’s tighten those head straps, and get her masked too. Then we can get the girl caped again before she is cloaked and hooded.”
I howled into my gag as the governess’s strong hands pulled at the hideous harness about my head until it seemed tight enough to crush my skull and jaw. Tears blinded me so that I barely notice one of my mask being dragged onto my head and face to be secured in place by the ‘corset-lacing’ at the back which dragged the thick material ever tighter about my head and face while, at the same time, digging the harness attached to the back bar. Perhaps the now hidden knob would have been visible as a small projection under the mask but, otherwise, the hideous new apparatus would be concealed at head and face level by my mask.. In retrospect I realise that it must have been at that moment, when the deep throat of the mask was fastened in place and it’s padlocks snapped home, that all evidence of the hideous back bar presence was at last in effect hidden from sight Now no-one could see why I stood so straight and motionless and why my head was bent forward and down in such a humble-looking manner.
Next my normal Sybilienne cape was draped over me and buttoned up at the front from the floor to the base of its normally hideously tight collar. But, for once, the reinforced material that usually held my neck in its awful grip, paralysing my head’s movement, could not be buttoned closed as my chin was forced down towards my chest, precluding such an action.
Although I had not been ear-plugged, the thickness of my two coifs now doubled in density by the presence of my thick-walled mask radically cut down my ability to hear what was going on around me. But, as she was standing immediately behind me, I was able to just about hear Miss Nairn’s words as she spoke to my governess.
“Such a shame that we can’t close up the collar of your girl’s cape. But at least it that sad fact will be hidden from sight once we have cloaked her. All the same, I intend to see if I can design a cape with a suitable collar to be worn when my charge’s head is correctly bowed as it is now. I considered a cape that could be buttoned closed at the back but, to date, I haven’t given the design enough thought to start having one made for her. In time, perhaps.”
My governess said something which I could not make out before Miss Nairn continued
“All the same, your girl looks very nice like that, my dear Miss Leys. Suitably passive and still, demurely silent and her empty head bowed in meek acceptance of her fate.” She laughed at her own little joke before she continued, “Of course she’ll have to learn to bow her head a great deal lower in future. But for today that will do. Now, shall we get her cloaked and hooded. And do you want her on her knees or left standing? I always think that a girl like your charge looks so much better kneeling, specially when she has her head so charming like bowed. And there are only a few more hours until bedtime for the girls, so why don’t we leave your girl kneeling until then?”
I thought I heard someone laugh softly after Miss Nairn’s last rhetorical question, and I doubted if it had been Miss Leys. For my governess might be strict with me but she was fair – or as fair as any governess trained at St Sybils could ever be. So I guessed that it was the older woman who laughed at her own little joke, for she would have known just how painful and how testing it would be for me to be left kneeling upright from my knees for several hours. However, having heard Miss Leys warning, I was not overly surprised, so I tried to blink back my tears and to take stock of my situation. I could not deny that it was anything other than parlous, and there was little hope of it getting any better in the foreseeable future.
My black reverie did not last for long for, only too soon, I felt the crushing weight of my massive outdoor cloak fall about me and settle itself in crushing folds of dense fabrics, weighing me down, so that I found myself nearly driven down onto my knees by the sheer bulk of that monstrous covering. Somehow I remained upright, my head bowed painfully low as one of the governesses adjusted the great hood , dragging it forward and down so that its weight rested on the angled extension of the back bar whose fastenings held me so rigidly in their cruel embrace.
I dragged my meagre ration of air in through flared nostrils, and peering out from my suffocating mask, looking through its veiled vision slits and down the tunnel of the hood. All I could see was a tiny patch of the floor at my feet, the hood otherwise blinkering my vision. I sobbed silently, knowing that the hours to come promised to be purgatorial and endless.
It was then that I thought I heard some sound but the dense layers of material coverings my head and ears made me uncertain if I could actually hear anything or whether it was my fevered imagination playing tricks on me. I was still trying to hear something…………. anything……. when I felt a blow in the region of my calves. It was barely noticeable, softened by the multiple layers of clothing covering my legs, but I recognised it well enough – the only too familiar Sybilienne sign that I should kneel. For there were many such signs employed at that institution, taps or heavier blows inflicted on the pupils by their governesses who, rather than break the oppressive silence of a class room, would indicate their desires by means of the heavy canes that they all carried. One of the first ‘messages’ that I had learnt as a new pupil was that a blow across the back of girl’s lower legs meant that she must kneel.
So I sunk to my knees, momentarily terrified of toppling over but safely making contact with the floor so that I knelt bolt upright from my knees, head bent, back straight, my body vertical and immobilised from knees to neck. For a second or two I felt relief at having got myself into position without too much drama or distress, and I almost enjoyed the change of posture. But I knew that feeling would soon disappear to be replaced by the bone-deep aches and pains that inevitably built up whenever I (or any Sybilienne) knelt on a hard floor for any length of time. True, I had learnt long hard lessons so that I could remain in that pose longer than might seem credible. However each slow minutes would be worse than the one before and, as I knelt here in my schoolroom, head pressed down by my back bar, I knew that the time ahead would be dreadful, yet I had no way of escaping or ameliorating the misery to come. Mere aches would develop into gnawing pains, while earlier pains would grow and grow into soul-destroying agonies. So I shut my eyes and bit down on my silencer, telling myself that I had survived worse conditions and knelt for longer than I would be left that day. But those facts failed to provide me with comfort as I knew that the hours ahead were going to be too terrible to contemplate.
It would be of little merit in the cataloguing how I suffered that evening. So I will merely say that I survived those endless hours of kneeling motionless, my head cruelly forced forward and down, my body weakened by the heat trapped under my murderously heavy apparel whose weight seem to grind me to dust. It is true that I had to be lifted off my knees and half carried to my bedroom where I was undressed, and had my back bar removed. I recall screaming into my gag as the nursery maid, unwittingly careless to my comfort, having unharnessed my head and loosened the knurled knob so that the top-most section of the bar could be returned to a vertical position, took hold of my head and abruptly pulled it upright, straightening out my bent neck with a sudden jerk.
She meant her gesture to be helpful, for it was apparent to her that I could not raise my head on my own. But her actions cause a shaft of blinding agony to shoot up from my neck to seemingly almost lift off the top of my skull, and for another arrow of pain to arc down my spine. The appalling pain made me stagger and almost faint, so that the girl had to hold me upright for long moments until the pain subsided.
Only when she had convinced herself that I would not fall, she removed the bar completely, finished undressing me and washed me before putting me into my night attire. I was then put onto my hard bed by the nursery maid prior to her securing and locking the complex straps that would ensure I did not misbehave that night.. When she was done she went to fetch the two governesses who subsequently came in to check that I was properly immobilised: as they did so I noted the look of near disappointment on Miss Nairn’s face as she glared down at me. And I thought I saw sympathy in Miss Leys’ gaze as she too looked down at me. But neither woman spoke; they checked my bindings and covered me, blew out the single guttering candle that illuminated my tiny barren bedroom, and left, the heavy door slamming behind them before the iron bolts that held it closed were slid home and the key in the massive lock turned and removed to ensure that I was ‘safely tucked away’ for the night.
I slept little that night, my neck, back and knees aching intolerably until the door was at last unlocked, the bolts shot back and the maid came in to start my day, a day that was, initially to be notable for only its unremitting tedium.
True I was humiliated by being fed in the ‘new way’ by Marie at breakfast time. But otherwise I was almost left to my own devices. Almost. After my breakfast food had been shovelled into my mouth by an angry-looking but silent Marie, and then to be chewed and chewed and chewed again until my jaws ached appallingly, I was dressed in my normal Sybilienne uniform. To my surprise, Miss Leys, who oversaw the nursery maid’s careful attention to how I was dressed, did not get the girl to harness me or otherwise fetter my arms, either to my sides or behind my back. My sleeveless gown was not present nor were the stays with the arms restraints fixed to their sides. Of course, my hands were made virtually useless by my tight gloves being locked away inside the stiff leather of my mittens and, naturally and inevitably, my all-concealing cape was close-buttoned from chin to floor and its opening sealed closed by small padlocks at chin, throat, chest and ankle levels, so that there was no way I could fully free my arms – not that I would want to do so with my hands were both gloved and mittened.
Once fully dressed, I was taken to the schoolroom where I was to see, with a furtive upward glance, that my companion, the hapless Miss Mather, stood in exactly the same place and in the same position as she had been in the previous day. Cloaked and hooded as before, her head cruelly forced down into that agonising position of abasement, it looked as though she had not moved an inch all night, having been left there during the long slow hours of darkness. But I knew that could not be the case, as no-one, not even the most highly disciplined Sybilienne could manage such a feat of endurance and fortitude. Not even the strongest of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s guardsmen could have managed to remain to attention for so many hours, especially when weighed down by the horrendous burden of clothing that Louise wore, the feat being made doubly impossible by the monstrous manner in which she was back-barred and locked into such a painful posture.
But I knew better than to spend more than a fleeting second looking at her cloaked figure as I made my way into the schoolroom. Instead I kept my eyes lowered, studiously obeying the Rule of Decorum, and followed my governess’s instructions, making my way to my old desk and there seating myself, my gaze now focussed on the smooth dark wood of the desk in front of me. I sat upright, my stays holding me in their rigid embrace, head high thanks to my tall and viciously tight collars but with my line of sight demurely lowered, my invisible forearms now held across the small of my back, hands to elbows as was the pose I must adopt when seated if my arms were not otherwise tethered.
I heard Miss Leys walk to the podium on which her desk stood. Indistinctly, I thought I head the soft moan of her clothing and the hint of a creak from her own stays as she sat down. For a long moment there was silence in that grim chamber before she cleared her voice and spoke, her voice low but firm.
“I have no doubt that you will be wondering why you are her so causally dressed while Miss Mather has been returned here still back-barred in that stringent way. Oh yes, so not think that I did not see you look up, my girl. I may not yet have Miss Nairn’s experience, but I know it when The Rule of Decorum is flouted.”
My stomach turned over at her words, bile rising in my throat as fear gripped me. I had been caught breaking one of ‘The Sovereign Rules’ and I knew that, regardless of Miss Leys’ apparent sympathy towards my plight, that would be a sin for which I would be punished, and punished grievously. But I had little time to conjecture on my fate as the governess continued to speak and, as a well trained Sybilienne, I listened to every word and every nuance with all my attention. I could not afford to miss one syllable of what she had to say.
“That crime, my dear Claire, we will discuss later. But I have more immediate information to impart to you. I know that you will be wondering why you have been brought here unsilenced while Miss Mather is in the room. That, my girl, is because I do not think you stupid enough to try to speak to her, as you know only too well the sort of consequences that will come about if you did so. And also because Miss Mather is not only ear-plugged but she has her ears ‘sealed’, as her governess calls it, and she is wearing coifs with dense pads sewn inside them which will cover her ears. I doubt if the soldiers of our gallant Royal Artillery fired off their biggest cannon next to her that she would hear its explosive roar. So, Claire, she could not hear you speak, even if you were foolish enough to try such a thing.”
I was in no way surprised at this revelation as Miss Leys was never prone to carelessness, and there was no possibility that she would have given me any opportunity to speak to Miss Mather unless that was what she wanted me to do. My years as an inmate at St Sybil’s had taught me only too well that governesses trained there were ladies who took extraordinary care to ensure that their charges were given little or no opportunity to ‘misbehave’, and Miss Leys adhered o the same high standards set by other Sybilienne governesses.
“So, my girl, “ she continued, “I feel it is safe to leave you ungagged for once. I am sure that, in future, you will be kept most stringently silenced for much of the time but, for today at least, you may remain ungagged. However, if you make one sound, no matter how small or how inadvertent, you will wish that you had your vocal cords removed at birth. You understand, girl?”
Miss Leys question was, of course, rhetorical and so I stayed mute, my eyes demurely lowered.
It was then that I heard her move. My dense coifs muffled the sound, but there was little doubt that I heard her step down from the dais and move towards the door. Moments later, I heard it open and shut and then I very vaguely heard the sound of a key turning in its lock. My heart skipped and I felt almost light-headed at the thought of being left alone, or nearly alone, in the schoolroom. But I did not move and I most certainly did not look up. For my long years in St Sybils had taught me never to trust ‘evidence’ if it led to my thinking that it was safe to even slightly disobey the plethora of rules that bound the lives of every Sybilienne in their formidable web. For all I knew, Miss Leys might indeed have gone to the door, opened and closed it and then locked it. But equally she might now be standing INSIDE the door, watching me with hawk-like eyes, waiting for me to look up and openly break the Rule of Decorum. So I sat straight-backed, my useless hands held behind my back under the dense drapery of my cape, unmoving, my gaze lowered, as slow minutes ticked by. I listened, and listened. But there was nothing to hear. Nothing at all.
I allowed more time to pass. And more. And still I was surrounded in silence. Then, perhaps half an hour, perhaps an hour after Miss Leys had left, I dared glance sideways under my lowered lids, looking quickly towards the door, my heart pounding and my senses hideously alert.
The door stood closed but unguarded. There was no sign of my governess, even the barely adequate lighting of that windowless room enabled me to see that, apart from the motionless and heavily cloaked figure a few feet from where I sat, I was alone in the schoolroom. Slowly I let out the breath I had been unconsciously holding, letting it emerge in a long sigh as I relaxed as far as my stays and clothing would allow. I permitted my arms to drop into a more comfortable position behind me, and even shifted my posture slightly, something I would never have dared do had Miss Leys been present.
For long minutes I revelled in my freedom. It is true that it was only relative freedom but it felt wonderful not to be spied on, and not to forced to remain utterly motionless. Only after some time did I realise how selfish I was being. I glanced at my companion, the cloak-swathed shape to my left, still utterly silent and still motionless. For one wild second, I actually wondered if the governesses were playing a joke on me and that they had somehow propped up an unoccupied cloak and hood in the schoolroom so as to persuade me that Miss Mather stood beside me. But I rapidly dismissed that thought as no St Sybil’s trained governess would descend to such childish japes. So a wave of sympathy swept through me, for I knew what sort of purgatory Louise must be living in at that moment. I wanted so much to rise from my seat and to go and comfort her. But terror of what might happened to me if I was caught doing so was enough to leave me seated and merely wishing I could help my fellow sufferer.
Why, I wondered, was she being treated so harshly while I was, for a Sybilienne, being left almost in comfort and ease? Was it to teach me some lesson whose moral I was too stupid to grasp? Or had Louise done something despicable that caused her to be punished in this manner? Or had the two governesses clashed and were now dealing with Louise and I in very different ways? I did not know what might be the answer to that riddle, so I remained at my desk, gazing freely around the chamber and enjoying the wonderful sense of liberation that being able to ignore the Rule of Decorum gave to me.
Yet looking about me also made me feel sad. For I could remember that room in ‘the old days’, when two wide mullioned windows had given out onto a vista of woods and hills, the neat lawns sweeping down to the trees that stood sentry along the banks of the stream which represented the border of the house’s formal garden. As a child I had often sat in the window seat and looked down at that wonderful view, sun on my face and the sound of songbirds reaching my ears through the clear clean air.
Now there were no windows, no window seat. Instead the seat had long ago been removed and the window openings had been bricked up and the masonry then crudely plastered over to match the rest of the room’s walls. Instead of the sun shining in, two gutting candles provided the chamber’s illumination, leaving dark shadows and minatory corners into which no light seem to reach.. The once polished floor boards were now matt-black painted wood and, where once cheerful pictures had hung and shelves loaded with bright books had stood, there was now nothing but coarse grey plaster. Even the old comfortable desks had been removed to be replaced by a solitary one made of cast iron with narrow seat and dark wood working surface. Even to the eyes of a Sybilienne, well used to austere surroundings, that room was indeed a depressing and cheerless place, a chamber heavy with threat and whose silence weighing down on all who remained within its walls for more than a few moments.
I sighed aloud and immediately felt my whole body tense at the temerity of such an act. For a well-trained Sybilienne is eternally silent and even the slightest sigh is seen as being a deliberate contravention of the Rule of Silence. So, almost without realising what I did, I refolded my arms behind my back and sat yet more upright, my gaze lowered once more. Yes, I had been well trained and I was capable of feeling guilt at any slight hint of disobedience on my part, even if I erred in some tiny and harmless way like giving out a barely audible sigh or looking up and actually gazing at the room in which I had spent so many endless hours.
In truth that trained saved me as, with appalling suddenness, I heard the door thrown open and someone come into the room. My heart leapt in my chest as fear rushed through my whole being, but I did not move as I heard the swish of skirts as the newcomer moved across the floor from door to dais.
“I am glad to see that you are not misbehaving, my girl.” To my horror the voice I heard was that of Miss Nairn. “However I have to wonder just what you have been up to while you have been left on your own. If it were up to me, I would assume that you have committed some sin while by yourself. Yes, I would punish you just in case. Just to teach you a lesson not to succumb to temptation in future.”
I shuddered at her words, as I knew she was not merely trying to frighten me. Instead she was speaking the truth and, had I been Miss Mather, I would have been severely corrected whether or not I had disobeyed any of the multitude of rules than controlled every aspect of my existence.
As I was contemplating how awful it would be if I was in Miss Nairn’s charge, I was aware of some else entering the room.
“Ah, Miss Leys,” Miss Nairn’s voice was light and welcoming. “I hope you do not mind my coming in here just to check up on our girls. I am sure you will be glad to hear that both seem to have been behaving themselves. I would expect that from my girl, but I am sure you must be pleasantly surprised to find that Miss Stensfield actually behaving herself.”
I felt shocked at the cynicism and the veiled criticism in the senior governess’s remark, but Miss Leys obviously chose to ignore the biting comment. For she answered lightly enough.
“Claire behaves herself mostly. Provided she is not pressed too hard and is not subjected the unnecessary severity. She may not be perfect but she tries her best: I like to think that she is as well trained a Sybilienne as any emerging from that worthy establishment.”
I thought I heard Miss Nairn snort dismissively at this remark but, when she answered, her tone was friendly enough, as though she was seeking to ease the apparent tension between her and my governess.
“Perhaps you are right, although my own limited knowledge of your charge would make me wonder if she is that good. But, of course, she has been under you care since returning home from St Sybils, and I am sure you have used that time well in order to correct her faults.”
“Indeed I have, Miss Nairn,” my governess laughed. “oh yes, indeed I have.”
Even to my inexperienced ears, the joviality in Miss Leys tone rang false. But I was too concerned for my own welfare to really pay much attention to the hidden conflict between the two women. Instead I waited to see if their conversation would shift and they would start focussing their attention on the hapless Miss Mather and myself. I did not have long to wait.
“The gentlemen are due here at eleven o’clock?” Miss Nairn said, asking a clearly rhetorical question. “I see that we have one quarter hour so perhaps we should start preparing the girls for their visit.”
“Perhaps.” I heard Miss Leys come towards me, stopping in front of my desk before she carried on speaking. “Claire, my dear, I have some delightful news to impart to you; your noble fiancé is due to visit us shortly. He wishes to show his guest, Miss Mather’s own fiancé, where you live and how we look after you. And, who knows, perhaps he will even find time to pass some time with you. I think that may be possible, as, when he informed us of his visit, he wrote that he would like you to be capable of entering into a discourse with him. I am not too certain exactly what he meant by that, but we have assumed he meant that he wished to you be able to speak. Hence your not being silenced at the moment.”
With this she moved past me and I heard her open the equipment cupboard that was situated at the back of the room. My coifs deadened he sounds from behind me but I thought I heard the scrapping of something heavy and even perhaps the tinkling sound you get when buckles clash together.
The cupboard doors closed and my governess moved back in front of me and dropped a heavy object onto the desk in front of where I sat. My heart sank for my abased eyes saw the horrible length of shiny steel with its plethora of heavy straps that was the familiar back bar I was often made to wear. From its length I knew it to be the one that reached from neck to just above the knees, its length ideal for ensuring the upright posture of a girl made to spend much time at her prayers.
“May I help you with that?” Miss Nairn asked cheerfully.
“Thank you, that would be most kind of you. If you would be so kind as to remove Claire’s cape, I will sort out these straps so we can get her snugly back-barred for her fiancé’s visit.”
It seemed an impossibility that my body, compressed within the horrendous vice of my stays, could be further crushed. Yet the two governess, is fastening the broad straps that held the back bar in place, succeeded in doing exactly that. My breathing, always shallow and febrile, was made more rapid, each breath smaller as the brutal straps further compressed my lungs, while my waist was seemingly crushed even more while my shoulders were pulverised by the brutally tightened straps that ran over them and then under my arms to ensure that the heavy steel bar was drawn into my spine
End of Chapter Sixteen
And no more chapters have been written. But perhaps re-read the Introduction of 2011 with the quote “Never say never again!”
Sadly author ‘D’ passed away in May 2014.