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'Gentlemen,' said Monsignor, lighting an exquisitely aromatised cigarette - for all priests, through the constant use of the censer, like the perfume of spices - 'first of all permit me to hope that you have enjoyed your dinner; and now I presume, De Vaux, your friend will not be shocked if we initiate him into the mysteries with which we solace the few hours of relaxation our priestly employment permits us to enjoy. Eh, Boniface?'
The latter, who was coarser than his superior, laughed boisterously. 'I expect, Monsignor, that Mr Clinton knows just as much about birching as we do ourselves.'
'I know absolutely nothing of it,' I said, 'and must even plead ignorance of the merest rudiments.'
'Well, sir,' said Monsignor, leaning back in his chair, 'the art of birching is one on which I pride myself that I can speak with greater authority than any man in Europe, and you may judge that I do not aver this from any self-conceit when I tell you that I have, during the last ten years, assisted by a handsome subsidy from the Holy Consistory at Rome, ransacked the known world for evidence in support of its history. In that escritoire,' he said, 'there are sixteen octavo volumes, the compilation of laborious research, in which I have been assisted by brethren of all the holy orders affiliated to Mother Church, and I may mention in passing that worthy Dr Price here and Father Boniface have both contributed largely from their wide store of experience in correcting and annotating many of the chapters which deal with recent discoveries; for, Mr Clinton, flagellation as an art is not only daily gaining fresh pupils and adherents, but scarcely a month passes without some new feature being added to our already huge stock of information.'
I lighted a cigar and said I should like to hear something more about it.
'To begin with,' began Father Peter, 'we have indubitable proof from the Canaanitish Stones found in the Plain of Shinar, in 1748, and unearthed by Professor Bannister, that the priests of Baal, more than three thousand years ago, not only practised flagellation in a crude form with hempen cords, but inculcated the practice in those who came to worship at the shrine of their god, and these are the unclean mysteries which are spoken of by Moses and Joshua, but which the Hebrew tongue had no word for.'
'You astonish me,' I said, 'but what proof have you of this?'
'Simply this: it was the age of hieroglyphics, and on the Shinar Stone was found, exquisitely carved, a figure of the god Baal gloating over a young girl whose virgin nakedness was being assailed by several stout priests with rough cords. I have a facsimile m volume 7, page 343 - hand it to Mr Clinton, Boniface.'
Boniface did so, and sure enough there was the Canaanitish presentment of a young maiden with her lovely rounded arse turned up to the sky, and her hands tied to the enormous prick of the god Baal, being soundly flogged by two stout-looking men in loose but evidently priestly vestments.
'The fact that the Israelites and men of Judah were constantly leaving their own worship, enticed away by the allurements of the Baalite priests, is another proof of the superior fascination which flagellation even in those days had over such unholy rites as sodomy.'
'Your deductions interest me as a matter of history,' I said, 'but nothing more.'
'Oh, I think I could interest you in another way presently,' said Dr Price.
Monsignor continued: 'The races all, more or less, have indulged in a love of the art, and it is well known that so far as Aryan lore will permit us to dive into the subject, both in Babylon and Nineveh, and even in later times in India also (which is surely something more than a mere coincidence), flagellation has not only thrived, but has been the fashionable recreation of all recorded time.'
'I really cannot see,' I interrupted, 'where you get your authorities from.'
'Well, so far as Nineveh goes, I simply ask you to take a walk through the Assyrian Hall of the British Museum, where in several places you will see the monarchs of that vast kingdom sitting on their thrones and watching intently some performance which seems to interest them greatly. In the foreground you will perceive a man with a whip of knotted thongs, as much like our cat-o'-nine-tails as anything, on the point of belabouring something - and then the stone ends; in other words, where the naked-arsed Assyrian damsel would be there is nil. Of course she has been chipped off by the authorities, seeing the scene as being likely to demoralise young children, who would begin to practise on their own posteriors, and end by fucking themselves into an early grave.'
'Well,' I said, in unbounded surprise, 'your research is certainly too much for me.'
'I thought we should teach you something presently,' laughed Dr Price. 'I have thousands of examples in those sixteen volumes, from the Aborigines of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand to the Eskimos in their icy homes, the latter of whom may be said to have acquired the art by instinct, the cold temperature of the frozen zone suggesting flagellation as a means of warmth, and indeed, in a lecture read to the Geographical Society, Mr Wimwam proved that the frigidity of Greenland prevented the women from procreating unless flagellation, and vigorous flagellation, too, had been previously applied.
'The patristic Latin in which the books of the Holy Fathers are written,' went on Monsignor, 'contain numerous hints and examples, but although Clement of Alexandria quotes some startling theories, and both Lactantius and Tertullian back him to some extent, I cannot help thinking that so far as practical bum-tickling is concerned, we are a long way ahead of all the ancients.'
'But,' observed Dr Price mildly, 'Ambrose and Jerome knew a thing or two.'
'They had studied,' replied the imperturbable Father Peter, 'but were not cultured as we modems are; for example, their birches grew in the hills of Illyria and Styria, and in that part of Austria we now call the Tyrol. Canada, with its glorious forests of birch, was unknown. Why, sir,' said Monsignor, turning to me, his eyes lit up with the lambent flame of enthusiasm, 'do you know the king birch of Manitoba will execute more enchantment on a girl's backside in five minutes than these old contrivances of our forefathers could have managed in half an hour? My fingers tingle when I think of it. Show him a specimen of our latest consignment, Boniface.' And the latter worthy rushed off to do his master's bidding.
To tell the truth I scarcely appreciated all this, and felt a good deal more inclined to get upstairs to the drawing-room; just at this moment an incident occurred which gave me my opportunity. The bonny brunette, Madeline, looked in at the door furtively and apologised, but reminded Monsignor that he was already late for vespers.
'My dear girl,' said the cleric, 'run over to the sacristy, and ask Brother Michael to officiate in my absence - the usual headache - and don't stay quite so long as you generally do, and if you should come back with your hair dishevelled and your dress in disorder, make up a better tale than you did last time.'
Or else your own may smart, I thought, for at this moment Father Boniface came in to ask Monsignor for another key to get the rods, as it appeared he had given him the wrong one.
Now is my time, I reflected, so making somewhat ostentatious enquiries as to the exact whereabouts of the lavatory, I quitted the apartment, promising to return in a few minutes.
I should not omit to mention that from the moment I drank the sparkling cordial that Father Peter had mixed with the champagne, my spirits had received an unwonted exhilaration, which I could not ascribe to natural causes.
I will not go so far as to assert that the augmentation of force which I found my prick to possess was entirely due to the Pinero Balsam, but this I will confidently maintain against all corners, that never had I felt so equal to any amorous exploit. It may have been the effect of a generous repast, it might have been the result of the toe-frigging I had indulged in; but as I stepped into the brilliantly lighted hail, and hastily passed upstairs to the luxurious drawing-room, I could not help congratulating myself on the stubborn bar of iron which my unfortunately dismantled trousers could scarcely keep from popping out.