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Birch in the Boudoir
GREYSTONES, 23 APRIL 1904
My dearest Lizzie,
Of course you'll say I've been neglecting you, my sweet. Or will you think me downright lazy? "Where is the letter he promised?" you wonder, and a frown wrinkles that beautiful brow of yours!
But that is nothing compared to the astonishment with which you will read the address from which I write. Greystones! What can your very own Charles be doing as assistant in a reformatory for wayward young women? For, alas, I am only the assistant here. It is "Miss Martinet," as the girls call her, who rules the establishment.
Let me explain, my love. On that dreary day of our separation, when your family escorted you from our last rendezvous at the Grosvenor Hotel to the boat-train at Victoria, I was at my wits' end. Bereft of you, and well-nigh penniless, I went back to my rooms in Jennyn Street, paid off the cabbie, and mounted the stairs. I mixed a hock and seltzer, lit a cheroot, and pondered on the beastliness of life. So lost in gloom was I that I did not for a time notice the envelope which the porter had laid upon the table. It bore the imprint of the family lawyers, Raven and Raven, of Gray's Inn Walk.
My first reaction, you may imagine, was to think that it must be a communication from the father who, far from acknowledging me, never had the courtesy to marry my mother. What the deuce, I thought, can the old skinflint want of me now? Ain't he cut me off without a sou already? And ain't that the worst a cove can do to his own flesh and blood?
Had the day been colder and the fire lit, I should have tossed the envelope into its flames. Yet, as it lay there, nothing was to be lost by looking over the contents.
What do you think, Lizzie? It was from old Silas Raven himself, in his crabbed lawyer's script! He presented his compliments to me - the first time the old devil had ever done so - and begged my attendance at his chambers at my earliest convenience. There, he promised, I should learn something to my advantage.
Now, my sweet, all that tosh is a lawyer's way of telling a fellow that there's a pocketful of sovereigns waiting if only he'll have the goodness to fetch 'em. I was down the stairs quicker than old Gladstone's hand up a whore's skirt, for I had scarcely known where my next meal was coming from. I hailed a hansom cab, clambered aboard, and off we went to Gray's Inn Walk, with harness a-jingle and hooves clopping.
If you never meet Silas Raven you won't miss much - he's a spiteful old devil of the prosecuting kind. A ghastly grimacing phiz, like a dose of rigor mortis. To my amazement, though, he had set out a tray of glasses and a bottle of fine old Madeira on his desk before my arrival. Hallo, says I to myself, here's a rum go and no mistake!
As the old loon went drivelling on, it appeared he was talking about my Uncle Brandon, an eccentric old bird, who was my Guv'nor's brother. I knew little enough of Uncle Brandon, whose life was vaguely described as "rackety" and who had spent much of it in foreign parts.
When Silas Raven, our cadaverous old brief, informed me that my revered uncle had gone to a better place and left me possessed of his entire estate, I could scarcely believe my ears. That Uncle Brandon's drinking and whoring had made him ripe for plucking I never doubted. Yet I had no idea he had even heard my name, let alone make me his sole heir.
My first impulse was to milk old Silas Raven for a few hundred sovereigns on the spot. Yet it was not to be. The close-fisted senior partner of Raven and Raven read my thoughts. He favoured me with a grin that would have looked unbecoming even on a stoat.
"There is - ahem! - there is a condition attending the legacy of your late uncle. Should you fail to fulfil it, the entire inheritance is to be forfeited and the moneys applied to the Shoreditch Refuge for Penitent Magdalens."
Did you ever read in story books, Lizzie, how a fellow's blood is said to run cold? I never knew the meaning of it till that moment. What need had Penitent Magdalens of the money compared to my own? The senile old curmudgeon grinned at me like a skull.
"You will become possessed of the funds held in trust when you have spent six months in gainful employment, precisely according to your late uncle's instructions. Should you fail...."
Gainful employment? I was not even sure, just then, quite what the term meant. A chap who bets a sou or two on the nags, or lays a wager at baccarat, may gain. Then again, he may lose. I need not have worried, however. My Uncle Brandon had left me no choice.
"Gainful employment!" sneered old Silas Raven. "On Monday next you will take up your post as Assistant Director of Greystones Female Reformatory on the Sussex coast. You will remain thus occupied until further instructions, confided to me by your uncle, are given you."
"Look here!" said I crossly, "suppose they won't have me at this place, wherever it is? Dammit, it ain't justice to bilk a fellow of his inheritance when he can't do what's ordered."
"Have no fear," answered the old swine softly, "your uncle was a benefactor of the Greystones charity. Arrangements are already made for you."
"The devil they are!" said I, quite taken aback.
"Very uncongenial to a shiftless young man of your habits, no doubt!" he murmured, "yet make no mistake, sir! Fail to fulfil the condition and I will see you cut from your uncle's will!"
He would too, I never doubted that! So I left his chambers, descended the steep wooden stairs of the old building, and turned away under the broad trees of Gray's Inn Walk, which were just then coming into early leaf.
All the way back to Jermyn Street in the cab I tried to puzzle out why a randy old uncle I had never seen should leave me all his spondoolicks, and on such conditions. What could it possibly matter to him if I spent a few months supervising the girls of Greystones, or working at some other profession, or doing nothing at all? Why not leave a chap the load of oof, as they say, and be done with it? Why blight his life by taking him away from the London season and sending him off to the seaside, where he might die of tedium?
Lizzie! Lizzie! How I wronged the frisky old fellow! Had I known what was to befall me at Greystones, I might almost have heard his laughter ringing out in the celestial spheres at my fury.
Fifty sovereigns was forwarded by old Silas Raven to see me safe to Pinebourne-on-Sea. Next morning, I received a letter from the Directress of Greystones, known to one and all as Miss Martinet. I was expected on the following Monday. The dogcart would be sent to the station to meet the three o'clock train.
Pinned to the letter was a list of useful clothing, including riding apparel for supervising the equestrian discipline of the girls. A further note, which made my brows rise slightly, referred to "instruments of correction." Such implements were provided by Miss Martinet for her colleagues. However, if I possessed a particular type of cane, birch, or whip, and if I preferred to use this, I might bring it with me. Naturally, the note added, it must be inspected and approved before I was authorised to use it on the bare bottom of any delinquent young woman.
I very nearly choked to death on my breakfast toast. With great care, I re-read the sentence. The words were still there - "bare bottom" - I had not fallen victim to hallucinations after all.
That was Saturday morning. Already my regrets at being parted from the London season were diminishing, and it seemed to me that Monday could not come soon enough. Believe me, Lizzie, it was not the thought of tanning the bare backside of a schoolgirl of fourteen or a runaway young wife of twenty-five which thrilled me. I was possessed by thoughts of what else might happen once I was privileged to see them slip their knickers down and pose for me.
By noon on Monday my bags were packed and secured, all my possessions crammed into them, as I waited with impatience for the cab that was to take me to Victoria. The half-past-twelve train was prompt to the minute. Seated in the dining car, I watched the houses of Pimlico and Balharn speed past. Soon we were out in the countryside of Croydon and Purley, trees and hedges flashing by.
By breaking into old Silas Raven's fifty sous, I sported a bottle of Chateau Rothschild and a first-rate spread. I sniffed my post-prandial brandy and smoked a cigar as we pulled in towards Lewes under the graceful curve of the Sussex downs. By three o'clock I stood on the platform at Pinebourne, breathing in the clean sharp air of the sea, which lay just beyond the town.
I knew Miss Martinet at first glance. She was quite tall, and smartly dressed with a look which one calls "handsome." Nearer thirty-five than forty, she wore her brown hair in a somewhat old-fashioned coiffure. Her manner was well educated and pleasant. She might equally well have been a young widow or, as proved to be the case, a lively minded spinster with a predilection for bending wayward young women to her will.
We drove together in the dogcart, exchanging pleasantries. Pinebourne was an agreeable place, I supposed, with its tree-lined shopping streets and its elegant, broad-paved Marine Parade. The freshly painted pier, the bandstand, the ornamental gardens with their yellow blooms in flower, lay beside a quiescent sea.
Would you imagine Greystones as some grim fortress of vengeance, Lizzie? How wrong you would be! Though surrounded by a high wall, which the nimblest damsel would never scale, the house and grounds were delightful. The house itself accommodated thirty penitent Magdalens, as old Silas Raven might call them, though their misdemeanours were more varied than the term implies. This extensive villa was light and airy, fronting onto ornamental grounds. Beyond the kitchen gardens at the rear stood the stable block with its little clock tower. To one side of the grounds rose the smooth turf of the downs, whose cliffs fell sheer to the tide. On the other side there was a gentle slope, where the resinous smells of warm pine led down to the rippling waters of the bay.
I took tea with Miss Martinet, who, because of my uncle's charitable interest in Greystones, treated me more as a guest than as an employee. Presently, however, she began upon one subject which had already crossed my own mind.
"You will find," said she, "that in such a place as this there are certain romantic passions which develop between some of the girls. A few of these are genuine affections, others are basely criminal. I cannot advise you whether to permit or punish such infatuations. It must be at your discretion. Whatever your decision, you may depend upon my support."
"I shall be grateful for that, ma'am," I said, swallowing my tea hard. The cup rattled nervously in the saucer, as I sat on the edge of the little chair in her drawing-room.
"Some girls," she continued, rather self-consciously, "are also liable to develop crushes or passions upon any man in the establishment. You, I am sure, will best know how to deal with that. They are also given to inventing stories about his activities. Have no fear, though, your word in such matters will always prevail with me."
"I shall strive to be worthy of such trust," I gasped weakly.
"As for the other matter," she murmured, "whatever course of action you feel to be necessary in matters of chastisement must be a decision for you alone."
As she spoke, Miss Martinet looked at me across the tea table with a new depth of meaning in her clear grey eyes. "I shall not interfere with your wishes in the matter," she went on, "except to assure you that the use of the rod is, paradoxically, the kindest form of correction in the end. A single severe punishment may save a wayward young woman from evil ways and repeated penalties later on."
'Tm obliged, ma'am," says I, awkwardly, "deuced obliged for that."
Miss Martinet smiled kindly at me. "Then we understand one another," she said quietly. "I knew that if your Uncle Brandon chose you as his heir he was certain that you would fit in with our way of doing things at Greystones."
Now, Lizzie, it may be that Miss Martinet understood, as she put it. I'll be damned if I did! Still I sensed, don't you see, some good sport ahead - just the kind that you and I love to hear of! Beyond the lace curtains of her upstairs drawing-room, the sun shone upon waves that were green as glass. Distantly, from the bandstand on the Marine Parade, came sounds of regimental brass.
"Tomorrow morning," said Miss Martinet, "you shall make your inspection. It was your uncle's wish that we should make you welcome here. I and the girls were, upon his instructions, to offer you every facility. Every facility." She looked at me, as she repeated those words, with that same depth of meaning which had made my heart beat faster a few moments before.
Ah, Lizzie! Tomorrow morning! What tales shall I have to tell you when I take up my pen tomorrow evening? For the present, as the lamp burns low, I bid you a loving goodnight and remain,
Your own adoring, Charles.