“You had better take off your clothing, Helena,” Professor Simmons, the guardian into whose care my parents had placed me, said.
According to the custom of Prosperia colony, I had come to visit him as the first step in my courtship season, the beginning of the process by which I would become a wife, and a full citizen of my world.
I stared at him with wide eyes. We stood in the study of his rooms at St. Giles College in Prosperia University. I had never seen a bachelor’s residence before, let alone one in the masculine bastion of a university, where women came only on special festival days, or—as in my case today—at the invitation of a don. It had already cost me a good deal of embarrassment to pass beneath the eyes of the porter and the two undergraduates I had seen in the stairwell, who regarded me as they might look at an exotic animal.
Professor Simmons’ rooms had the same rich aroma of pipe tobacco as my father’s library did, a fragrance my mother always called ‘fusty’ and was forever trying to get rid of, or at least to keep contained to my father’s sanctum. Even the entry hall of Professor Simmons’ abode breathed with that masculine scent, however, and it had made my brow crease as I had crossed the threshold.
I had looked at my reflection in the hall mirror, though—at least my new guardian had one of those, to assist his lady visitors in arranging themselves properly. I had seen my pretty face, my golden curls under my stylish blue bonnet, and I had followed Professor Simmons into his study, with the shelves of books lining the walls and the desk of dark polished oak.
Then he had turned to me, crossed his arms over his tweed-clad chest, and instructed me to undress.
“What did you say, Professor Simmons?” I asked.
I honestly thought I had heard my new guardian wrong, though the very possibility that he might have just told me to disrobe had sent a fiery blush to my ordinarily very pale cheeks.
“Your blushes do you credit,” Mr. Simmons replied, looking me up and down in a way that only made the heat in my face blaze hotter. “As your parents told me, you have received the education suitable to the station to which your family and your world call you—including the inculcation of maidenly modesty. You are a lovely young woman, ready for courting by the suitors I approve, all of whom will, I’m sure, count themselves extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of your hand.”
Through this speech, despite my best efforts, I could not help chewing delicately on the inside of my lower lip, a habit I despised in myself for the weakness it showed. My schoolmates did it, I had noticed, at the mention of the other sex, those mysterious creatures we knew only in our fathers and brothers and occasional guests—always, even in the case of our family, kept at a distance, away from the feminine sanctuaries of girls’ school and young women’s social clubs.
Thus the founders of Prosperia colony had arranged it, in order to return at least our world’s portion of humanity to a golden age of material wealth and moral rectitude. Now I had reached my eighteenth birthday, and the next phase of my own contribution to my planet’s greatness would begin. I would marry the man I chose from among the suitors my guardian selected.
I would learn all the things about which my teachers at girls’ school said, “And that, Helena, is a matter for another day, when you are a married woman. Your husband will instruct you in such things, to the extent he wishes.”
For I had been a very curious girl at school, asking for examples about Prosperia’s origins in the first migration, from our mother world, Magisteria—why had our founders left such a wealthy, powerful world? Why did it seem that we alone knew how to regulate society?
Those questions tended to receive gentler responses than the ones I asked about men, and about marriage, but the final answer always remained the same: your husband will tell you of such things, if he wishes you to know them.
That had become the reason I, like my schoolmates, took my lower lip between my teeth at the mere mention of marriage. I loved my father dearly, but he frightened me a little—not because he showed my mother or me, his only child, any harshness, but because he seemed so distant. I could hardly imagine asking him about the founding of Prosperia, let alone about men, though I had even less capacity to imagine asking any other man about what it meant to belong to his gender, let alone the man who it seemed I would have no choice but to call my husband and to address as sir, the way my mother did my father.
Watching my mother, and how she responded to his polite requests at home for the newspaper or for a particular dish at dinner, I wondered if she had asked him such questions, when they first wed. Her sphere seemed so different from his: had she ever been as curious as I?
Surely if anyone could answer questions, a professor could? I looked at Professor Simmons and quailed, for he seemed quite disinclined to answer a young woman’s inquiries on any topic whatever, let alone the matters that my teachers at girls’ school had placed so firmly in the forbidden category of marital affairs.
And yet, it seemed, he had just instructed me to disrobe. He continued, “Yes, lovely. I am sorry to have to violate your modesty, but as your guardian this task falls to my lot. I’m afraid you heard me correctly. Please remove your clothing, or I shall be forced to do it myself. I’m rather surprised your mother didn’t inform you of the nature of your visit here today, but so be it: she has always been a rather timid woman, though possessed of a gracious and gentle nature.”
I stared at the professor, my lips parted. I had no idea whether I should thank the tall, dark, neatly bearded man for the compliment to my family, or object to his calling my mother timid. Those two possibilities, however, seemed extremely remote in comparison to my suddenly desperate need to know what in fact I had come to my new guardian’s rooms to do, or to undergo.
“You are here,” he told me rather coldly, “for an instructional inspection.”
“A what, sir?” I asked, feeling my eyes go very wide. I don’t suppose I had ever known that two such innocent words could come together into so very alarming, and yet so terribly vague, a phrase.
“You heard me, Helena Breverton,” my guardian said. “As your guardian, to prepare you for marriage, I must inspect you thoroughly, and tell you certain important facts about courtship and marriage. We will have these inspections weekly, until you choose a suitor. Thereafter, he will be the one to inspect you. At that time, you will also go with your mother to the doctor for your premarital examination.”
I had heard about a prospective bride’s visit to the doctor’s office, and though what occurred there remained a closely guarded secret, I had seen my married friends blush when the topic arose—so of course here, with the professor, I blushed myself, and lowered my eyes to the bare surface of his desk, behind which he had taken his seat.
Regarding me now with what seemed a calculating air, as if he meant to gauge my reaction in the color of my cheeks, he said, “Some guardians prefer to leave the majority of the instruction involved in these matters to the girl’s husband, but as an educator myself I consider it worth my time to provide a young lady with more information, arming her—so to speak—for the courtship campaign that awaits her. You will therefore spend a good deal of time here with your knickers down, Helena. Let us begin. Please put your hat on the table over there, and remove your dress.”
My jaw had slackened. At the very same time I realized that Professor Simmons meant to inform me of the very things as to which I had felt such curiosity, part of my mind came to the conclusion that I didn’t truly wish to know about those things after all. It seemed from what my guardian said that they must be learned in the most humiliating—unthinkably shameful, indeed—way imaginable.
I stood mute before him, my eyes casting about, seeing the table he had meant, my cheeks aflame at the thought even of removing my favorite blue hat and placing it there, let alone my matching gown.
He had said the word knickers. Only at that point did my mind fully register that I had just heard my guardian use a word I had—I realized—thought men must not even know. I could never imagine my father saying knickers, at any rate. My blush only grew fiercer as I began to understand just how much about the other sex I didn’t understand.
Much, much worse, Professor Simmons had said I would… I could barely conceive of it at all… he had said I would spend time in his study with my knickers down. I swallowed hard, and my eyes closed against the sight of the room that had itself become shameful.
“Helena, my dear,” my guardian said, a tinge of regret coming into his tone, “it seems we will have to begin with a lesson in obedience. I did not wish to have to do this, but spirited young ladies like yourself who have not received proper discipline at home do often require it. Once you are undressed you will receive six strokes of the cane for this hesitation to obey me. It will be twelve if you delay any further.”
My heart fluttered wildly in my chest. I had read education novels, of course, which made reference to the customary disciplining of older pupils in colleges like Professor Simmons’. My tummy always seemed to flip over, out of sheer anxious sympathy for the characters in those stories, who nearly always underwent their punishments unjustly.
Always male, to be sure, those stalwart students received their chastisement with a noble, stoic air that sometimes made me shed a compassionate tear. It made me wonder what I, or any other young woman, might do should I find myself in similar circumstances.
I had wondered also, I remembered now in Professor Simmons’ study, about the details of how that old-fashioned sort of discipline was conducted. The educational novels never dwelt on that part of the story at any length. Propriety, I had always supposed, must prevent their authors from giving the reader any exact idea of what happened when a young man must make a visit to the headmaster’s—or the professor’s—rooms to receive the consequences of his actions. I didn’t know precisely why propriety should interfere with the reader’s full understanding, but what they called the caning, or even the whipping, of a naughty undergraduate always happened behind a door closed to the reader as well as to anyone else’s prying eyes.
Afterward, the young man walked stiffly, and sometimes he winced when he sat down. Thus I understood, with a shiver and a blush every time I thought upon it, that the cane must be applied to a miscreant’s backside. I didn’t like to think upon it, I told myself. I merely wished to know within myself how I would respond, should I be unjustly accused like those students, though of course such a thing could never happen to a young lady.
Now as I looked at my guardian, it took me a long moment to understand fully that he had just not only threatened to apply that sort of corporal punishment to my own backside, but indeed had promised to do so. Nor had Professor Simmons given me any cause for doubt as to a question about the educational novels that I had never yet resolved: whether the cane was applied to the offender’s bare bottom, so as to make the painful lesson as memorable as possible.
To my dismay I knew the answer now.
“Come, Helena,” my guardian said, his voice growing impatient. “It is time you begin to understand what it truly means to be a marriageable young lady. I know your mamma has doubtless filled your head with visions of dancing and servile young men, begging for your hand—and you will certainly receive your share of such things. But as your guardian it is my duty to ensure you also receive the start of your training in obedience to the masculine authority that will rightfully impose its requirements upon you, and in particular upon your lovely young body.”
My lips had parted, but no sound emerged. My face blazed like my world’s sun, whiter than old Earth’s and farther away, but just as hot on the face as any noon day in an ancient book.
“Spare me,” the professor continued, shaking his head slightly, “any of your missish ‘I cannot conceive you’s’ and ‘I do not understand what you mean, sir’s.’ I know you do not understand, Helena, for you have been kept ignorant by design, and you have been taught modesty in order to increase your attractions for your suitors. Here and now, nevertheless, you will disrobe for me, and I will whip you for your delay in following my instructions and then inspect your maiden charms. You may choose whether you receive six cuts of the cane or twelve, but that represents your only liberty.”
I swallowed hard, remembered the stalwart young men, and how they had gone of their own free will into their headmasters’ studies. They had known what awaited them, and yet they had gone and received their unjust punishments.
I, on the contrary, had shown myself disobedient. I could plead on my own behalf that I did not understand, and that it seemed to me strange and even monstrous that a young lady of eighteen years should receive from her guardian the command to remove her clothing.
I had known before coming to Professor Simmons’ rooms, however, that my parents had appointed him my guardian. Then I remembered for the first time since my mother had said it that morning, her admonition to “Do as your guardian says, even if it should seem strange.”
I felt the blood drain from my face for a moment as I began to understand that this scene must represent the ordinary course of events when a young lady turned eighteen and went to see her guardian, to begin the courtship process. My mother must have undergone the same indignities, I realized, my brow furrowing deeply and the heat returning to my cheeks in a rush.
My body then did two contradictory things at the same time. My hands, trembling violently, rose to take off my hat, as if to signal to the professor that I meant to obey him. At the same time my feet began to retreat toward the door of the study.
My eyes remained fixed on my guardian’s as I backed away, my fingers fumbling at my hat pin—the static charge mechanism that served my bonnet in the same capacity a real metal hat pin would have on ancient Earth. The stray, frustrating thought came into my mind that at least young ladies of those long-ago days had carried with them a long, sharp weapon with which they might fend off ogres like Professor Simmons.
But my guardian’s face told me despite my mind’s best efforts to make him seem ogre-ish that he had nothing truly monstrous in his character. He heaved a sigh, rose from the chair behind his desk, and began deliberately to make his way around it toward me.
“I can see that you wish to obey me, Helena,” he said, his voice betraying a little strain, as if he wished to keep his natural temper in check. “I do know how new this phase of life will seem to you, and how different from what you expected.”
As he advanced, I continued to retreat, little by little, until my back came up against the door, the full skirt of my lovely blue visiting dress bunching up behind me and making me feel ridiculous. My right hand found the button of my hat pin, and I froze entirely. I wished at one and the same time to show myself a good girl, and press the button—and to lower my hand to find the doorknob in hope of turning it in order somehow to escape.
My guardian stood now only a yard away from me; much closer than he had come since he had first opened the outer door to his rooms and invited me in, allowing me to brush past and stand, as a lady should stand, in the center of the room with my skirts outlining the proper space between individuals that a Prosperian girl learned from the moment she donned her first gown. Professor Simmons’ brown shoes, I saw as I glanced downward, had come almost to the hem of my skirt, a sight that made me bite my lip in distress, and ensured that my limbs trembled all over, even as they seemed unable to move.
He extended his hand. “Come, my dear,” he said, more gently, “give me your hat. Let us get this over with.”
I pressed the button on the hat pin, and, slowly, I removed the hat to hand it to him. Then, as he turned a little to put it on the table, I found my self-command again. I moved my right hand behind me and found the doorknob. I turned it, pulled the door open, and I tried to dart away, moving as nimbly as I could in my dress to slide round the door and out into the hallway, where I could just see the outer door.
Behind me I heard my guardian let out a sigh of exasperation. Then, before I had even reached the door jamb and to my utter horror, I felt his hand upon my upper arm, grasping me firmly and pulling me backwards toward him.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Oh! Sir, please…”
I tried to make my tone indignant, but my words emerged only in the accents of one pleading for mercy.
“You try my patience, Helena,” the professor said, his voice now sounding entirely exasperated. “We shall have to do this the difficult way, I suppose.”
If the first touch of a man’s hand upon my person, other than my father’s light and occasional embraces, had horrified me, what happened next rendered me entirely speechless, as well as blushing all the way to my bosom. My guardian pulled me bodily against him, so that I felt the strength of his masculine form against my back, my skirts now entirely bunched and disarranged between us.
He put his left arm tightly around my waist as with his right hand he shut the door again, closing out the escape I had envisioned, impossible though it would surely have proven in this men’s sanctuary, the university. The thought of what might have happened, the way some other man—the porter or even an undergraduate—might have returned me to the professor’s study, suddenly came to my mind and made me feel faint, and that dizziness seemed all the greater at the sensation of my guardian’s hard body pressed against my back and even my bottom.
My bottom, the place where he had made it very clear I must now undergo a chastisement of which I had scarcely dreamt.
I watched his right hand come toward me. For a moment I could not even imagine what he meant to do with it, and then I felt its touch upon my dress, just upon my breastbone. I should have understood immediately what it meant, because I myself—and my ladies’ maid, and, when I was young, my governess and my mother—touched that place several times a day for the same purpose. As with so much else that had happened in my guardian’s study, though, it had never occurred to me that a man might have the same ability.
The place the professor touched, called the ‘clasp,’ served a Prosperian woman as the mechanism that allowed her to undress easily from the sort of gown an ancient Earth woman would have required much more effort to remove. Only the owner, and her ladies’ maid, could open it, keyed as it was to their genetic signature. Professor Simmons’ touch upon it should have done nothing at all, and thus I did not understand what he intended until my dress began to open and to slip from me as instinctively I clutched at it to try to hold it up.
“What?” I cried, turning about from side to side with the beautiful silk of my gown spilling through my fingers as it assumed the convenient form designed into the fabric, a small, folded oblong ready to be put away. I clutched both my hands to my bosom, over my white camisole, until I realized my guardian could also see my drawers below, and I lowered one hand to put in front of the joining of my legs, the place every Prosperian girl knows must never be seen even in her drawers—that embarrassing garment, whose other name, the one the professor had used, must never be uttered aloud. “What’s… how did you…?”
“As your guardian,” he said now, stepping back to pick up the gown and lay it next to my hat on the table, “I have the authority to undress you when I choose, my dear. Now will you remove your underthings for me and bend over my desk like a good girl, or must I compel your obedience in that particular as well?”