Chapter One

 

It was, for the most part, a perfect summer's Sunday. The sun shone in gentle benevolence, bathing the English countryside in lazy warmth and the inhabitants of the rural surroundings of Castlebridge Hall were, by and large, profoundly grateful for it. There was, after all, the growing awareness that this balming seasonal pleasantness was but ephemeral. It was growing late into the summer. The calendar had already turned into the month of September and, while summer still lingered on, autumn was waiting in the wings and, behind it like a shadow on the horizon, winter waited impatiently. Yet summer seemed, as yet, reluctant to cede the field and granted the local populace a final few weeks of its agreeable grace.

Around the village, the local folk took full advantage of these last days of summer to do very little at all. They packed the beer gardens of the village pubs engaging in nothing more taxing than the consumption of good country ale and idle conversation. They pottered about in their gardens to little purpose other than a desire to be out of doors or dawdled on the river banks in lacklustre attempts to lure the piscatorial inhabitants of the river into the folly of eating a metal hook disguised within a tasty titbit. Some walked their dogs and children at a languid amble about the stray while yet others slumbered in deck chairs by the cricket pavilion; opening their eyes to applaud in desultory fashion on those occasions when the solid impact of leather on willow wood provided evidence that at least somebody was expending some physical energy this day. Otherwise they did nothing at all and were perfectly content and satisfied to do so.

Even the dour edifice of Castlebridge Hall seemed to be enjoying the last of the summer weather. Many of the Hall's small army of maids seemed to have found duties this day that took them out of doors; to beat rugs in the sunshine or to sweep the back verandas; an onerous task in autumn or winter but a perfectly agreeable one in the warmth of the summer sunshine. Those maids without duties this day were taking a picnic down by the lake or tanning themselves in the sun up on the roof of the servants’ wing. The grounds staff were pretending to work out of doors but it was a thin disguise and, in truth, little of substance was being achieved. Even the young ladies and gentlemen of the equestrian centre appeared to be partaking of chores not requiring much in the way of effort for their mistress, the formidable Miss Rachel Crawford, was away for the afternoon; rambling on horseback, with Lady Castlebridge herself, through the estates and countryside. Even this activity appeared not to be being taken entirely seriously for Lady Castlebridge's mare and Miss Crawford's gelding were currently tethered to a tree on the far side of the estates and nibbling in boredom at the late summer flowers. Their riders were currently hidden from view behind some large bushes and only a few carelessly discarded items of clothing gave any clues as to just what they were doing there.

So yes it was a Sunday to be enjoyed simply for its existence and, mostly, enjoyed it was. This is not, however, to say that this general air of contentment and idle pleasure was universal. In particular, a certain young Betty Wilson, household maid of Castlebridge Hall, was not enjoying the day at all. Indeed, at this time, were you to speak young Betty then she might, had she even been capable of coherent speech for the moment, have expressed the view that the day had nothing whatsoever, in her opinion, to recommend it. She might have even gone so far as to declare it to be the very worst day of her young life thus far and certainly not one to sustain her with fond memories in the coming days of winter.

It is perhaps unkind of us to dwell upon Betty's tribulations this day for, to be truthful, she has very little to do with this story. Other than this brief token appearance she will play little further role in the tale other than as simply part of the background of industrious young ladies whose daily lot it was to toil in domestic service within the confines of the enormous spread of Castlebridge Hall. She will, once her current misfortune is complete, fade back into obscurity and, other than perhaps a token appearance, scarce be mentioned again.

But a story has to begin somewhere and, since it is indicative of the current conditions at Castlebridge Hall at the time and because it amply demonstrates the practice of long tradition amongst the serving classes there, we might as well start with poor Betty. Betty was in the library; that large and venerable chamber within the Hall given to the purposes of earnest study and research. The library served a secondary traditional function in the Hall however and one which was rooted far back in the Hall's long history. It was for this secondary purpose that Betty was in the library and one which she shared with past generations of servant girls beyond count that had left their names etched in posterity to the furtherance of this ancient tradition.

Those names were recorded in a large leather bound tome which was, at this moment, adorning a table top a few feet away from where the unfortunate Betty was currently finding so little to savour on this sunny Sunday afternoon. It was the Hall's disciplinary ledger and future historians would doubtless be thankful for this historical document that afforded such insights into the daily life of the serving classes in a grand old English stately home. That list of names stretched back into antiquity; recalling young ladies long since no longer of this world who had passed through this austere chamber of admonition and penance in the course of their lives and rued that otherwise long forgotten day. Betty was therefore in an exalted company of long lineage for, when her current ordeal was over, it would be the duty of Mr Greenwood, the butler, to record within the pages of that historical journal that, on this early September day in the year, one Betty Wilson had, for assorted misdemeanours, unsatisfactory application to her duties and conduct unbecoming of a Castlebridge Hall maid, been sentenced to and received sixty strokes of the rattan cane on her bare bottom.

Betty, sad to say, was not appreciating her role in Castlebridge Hall's proud traditions or indeed could give a fig about the historical legacy her current woes were leaving to posterity. The miserable young lady was quite naked, stretched and bound, by leather straps and buckles, over the old caning stool which had graced the library in grim constancy from time out of mind. The fact that she was just the latest in a long line of forebears to have found herself in that woeful position was completely irrelevant to her. She was not looking into the past through the window of venerable history and tradition but rather staring, in somewhat maniacal fashion, at the floor beneath her bowed face.

Her gaze was fixed, for reasons that escaped her, at the knots in the wooden parquet floor, which appeared, to her currently frenzied imagination, to have resolved themselves into grotesquely leering faces gloating at her lamentable predicament. Those faces were becoming more indistinct with every second as her vision blurred with the tears flowing from her eyes but still she stared at them. They were at least preferable a sight to the one behind her of the muscular bulk of Mr Greenwood raising a long length of cane high above her quivering nether regions. While she dared not look at that awful cane she felt it well enough; the scything hiss of its passage through the air terminating in a loud crack as it bit deep into the bare flesh of her buttocks and precipitating a searing streak of scarcely imaginable agony in Betty's suffering rear.

Betty howled in pain. She had been doing a lot of that over the last few minutes. Her appearance in this story might only be a short one but what it lacks in duration it more than makes up for in volume for she was shrieking at the top of her lungs every time that bitter cane sliced across her throbbing rump. She had, when ordered to report to the library to be caned, hoped to be able to take her punishment in, if not entirely dignified silence, at least with some degree of stoic resilience and fortitude. Her admirable resolution had not lasted beyond the fifth or sixth stroke however. The pain had simply been too great to endure and since that time she had given vent to increasingly piercing screams of lament punctuated with pitiful sobbing. In the warm weather, the windows of the library were open and the whole hall would know by now that Betty was having her bottom soundly caned.  Indeed her howling caterwauling was clearly audible well out into the grounds and caused a small party of gardeners to pause in their labours and chuckle among themselves.

There was another sweeping stroke of the cane to bring fresh shrieks from the suffering young maid as she struggled in desperate futility in her bonds. The ordeal seemed an endless succession of those dreadful lashes to her swelling posterior. Betty herself had no idea how many strokes she had endured or, for that matter, how many more she had still to come. She had tried to keep a tally to begin with but had lost count somewhere around the dozen mark. Since then it had been simply a long procession of doleful, excruciating misery. Her rear from the top of her buttocks to the backs of her thighs were a wasteland of throbbing pain and her wrists and legs burned from the chafing of the leather straps she strained against with every stroke. Betty was a pretty girl in the normal course of events but this was not a time to see her at her best for her face was livid scarlet and contorted into a mask of agony, with eyes wild and swollen with tears. Her hair hung in tangled ruin and clung to the dampness on her cheeks. On the receiving end, her plump bottom was not unattractive normally but today was marred with vivid crimson stripes while her ample breasts hung loose over the edge of the caning stool and jiggled almost comically every time the cane struck its mark and caused her to jerk convulsively at the latest outrage to her swollen behind.

The other person present in this scene, Greenwood the butler, the person tasked with the labour of caning Betty's bottom for her, regarded Betty's loud screams with a certain degree of irritation. Indeed the piercing volume of her wailing had been getting on his pip for some time; so much so in fact that, rather than attempting to diminish them through lenience, her had increased the severity of his strokes to punish her for what he perceived to be her unwarranted over reaction. This in itself was highly unusual and telling; evidence indeed that Greenwood was another person not fully appreciating the sunny Sunday afternoon.

This is not to say that Greenwood ever enjoyed the duty of disciplining the domestic staff of Castlebridge Hall under his authority. In the normal course of events, he carried out his disciplinary duties with what may best be described as aloof detachment. He took no pleasure from the suffering resulting from the canings he was obliged to mete out as part of his remit as the head of household discipline. He did, it is true, derive a certain satisfaction from the knowledge that the miscreants on the end of his cane were thoroughly deserving of their punishment and that it would serve to teach them a salutary lesson and hopefully modify their conduct for the better as a result. For the most part however, he regarded it as a disagreeable, albeit necessary, duty to be carried out with dispassionate efficiency. He took a certain pride in the administration of that duty and his skill and firmness with the rattan cane was unquestionable. It was the pride however of a man taxed with an unpleasant obligation who nevertheless carries it out to the best of his ability.

One thing he hardly ever did however was to let his own emotions in any way impinge itself upon that duty. If a young lady was to be caned then she would be caned according to her just desserts and irrespective of his own feelings about the matter. He was honest enough to admit to himself that he had favourites among the large domestic staff of the Hall but it was a matter of pride to him that he did not allow such favouritism to colour his application of their discipline. If that person had conducted themselves in such a way as to merit the cane then they would feel no lessening of the firm authority of that cane as a result of his favourable considerations toward them. Equally, he would not allow the converse to affect his administration of his disciplinary duty. A servant he disapproved of would receive exactly the punishment concomitant with their offence irrespective of his own feelings toward them.

One thing that was unthinkable to him was to cane a person in anger. In truth, nobody could ever recall seeing Greenwood angry about anything; disapproving yes; disappointed on occasion too; stern and adamant certainly but angry never. Yet here he was, caning Betty Wilson's deserving bottom and allowing himself to become noticeably irritated about it; so irritated in fact that he was venting that irritation by applying the cane with perhaps a touch greater force than sober detachment might have considered appropriate. He would later regret his loss of impartiality and feel a little ashamed of himself.

It was certainly not Betty's fault. Yes her howls under the cane were particularly sonorous and piercing but that in itself was no crime. Some girls were apt to scream louder than others while being caned. Some of the braver girls, those with stoic natures, tough bottoms or the more seasoned veterans of the caning stool could endure a hard caning with little more than a few yelps and squeals. There were on the other hand many girls of more demonstrative temperaments and low thresholds of pain who would scream loudly and continuously throughout their punishment. Greenwood was generally tolerant of this. If anything, he welcomed the accompaniment of loud cries as evidence that his disciplinary action was having the desired effect and the miscreant in question was being taught a lesson.

Nor was his irritation anything particularly to do with the misconduct that had brought young Betty in such lamentable sorrow to the caning stool. It was not, it has to be said, Betty's first visit to the library or her first ordeal over the stool. Indeed she had received forty strokes of the cane there in July and it was this earlier visit and her failure to fully reform her behaviour as a result that had led to the more severe sentence of sixty strokes being allocated on this occasion. Nevertheless, Betty was not a particularly recalcitrant or persistent offender at Castlebridge Hall. Generally speaking, her disciplinary record was nothing unusual. There were many girls among the staff who were far more frequent visitors to the library and few indeed among the staff could count themselves fortunate enough to make it through a year of domestic service in the Hall without at least one sound thrashing on the end of Greenwood's cane. Within this context, Betty's caning was fairly mundane; routine even.

The fact was that Greenwood's irritation had nothing whatsoever to do with Betty. Her role in it was more akin to that of a cat that finds itself kicked in retaliation because its master was clumsy enough to braise his shin on the furniture. She was merely a convenient outlet for an underlying disgruntlement that had been festering for some time in Mr Greenwood. It was a resentment concerning his work. He was, and had been for the past three months, considerably overworked.

This unhappy state of affairs had resulted from the departure of the Hall's head of housekeeping, Mrs Moorhouse, in the early summer. Now let it be said straight away that Mrs Moorhouse's dismissal had been greeted with almost universal approval among the staff including that of Mr Greenwood himself. The deeply unpleasant, tyrannical and sadistic Mrs Moorhouse had been a profoundly unpopular figure in the Hall and, following her disgraceful role in the persecution of Alice Pendleton and her unforgivable collusion with Lord Stansbury, Lord Castlebridge's arch enemy, in the affair, her severe caning and subsequent summary dismissal had been the subject of general satisfaction bordering on outright glee among the junior staff.

Greenwood himself had been glad to see the back of her too. The “Black Widow” as she'd been known was consigned to history and Alice Pendleton was now the brightest young star in the Castlebridge Hall stables. The problem, however, was that, until now, there was no replacement for Mrs Moorhouse. Thus the duties which therefore should most properly have belonged to the head housekeeper had, by default, devolved upon the person of the disgruntled Greenwood in addition to his own duties as butler. He had reminded Lord Castlebridge on several occasions that they were in need of a new head of housekeeping but His Lordship, being distracted in other areas, had neglected the problem.

Greenwood had found himself obliged to fill two positions then and it was a deeply unsatisfactory situation. He simply couldn't be everywhere at once and could not find enough time, despite having scarcely had a day off in the last three months, to fully supervise all the housekeeping requirements. Compounding the problem was that the large contingent of housemaids had apparently regarded Mrs Moorhouse's departure as a welcome holiday from discipline and supervision. With Greenwood finding it difficult to keep track of them all the time, standards had slipped appallingly, duties had been neglected and general idleness and laissez faire had set in. Lord Castlebridge had taken due note of the decline and taken Greenwood to task for it; insisting that he tighten the reins and discipline the relevant offenders. Betty, therefore, was simply one among several young ladies who had trodden the sad walk to the library for caning in the past week.

Greenwood was therefore understandably disgruntled. It was not enough that he was now expected to perform the functions of two heads of departments but he now had Lord Castlebridge, who was still neglecting to hire a replacement for Mrs Moorhouse, blaming him for the slip in standards visible in the Hall and, furthermore, increasing his workload by having him discipline those girls whose conduct might never have come to warrant it had there been somebody in the role of head housekeeper to keep them under control.

It is understandable therefore, if nevertheless regrettable, that his cane swept through the air with somewhat more venom than usual to torment the scorched backside of poor Betty Wilson. But, as that pitiful figure screamed anew at the agony in her rear, far from the Hall, the man who was indirectly responsible for her increased suffering, Lord Castlebridge, had other matters on his mind.