The strange future of Anne Solmes was decided in an instant, on the night of October 21, 1864, when her governess Miss Plympton discovered her in the throes of passionate self-pleasure, with her shift raised to her hips and her naughty fingers at play in the little grotto between her thighs that Miss Plympton had often instructed her she must not touch. Anne stood before her mirror, by candlelight, up far past her bedtime. A little cry she could not suppress, as she pushed her fingers in where they must not go, alerted Miss Plympton, reading edifying religious pamphlets in her own room just next to Anne’s, to the necessity of intervention.
If Miss Plympton had been a different sort of person, the discovery of Anne’s lewd practices might not have resulted in such drastic action. But Miss Plympton’s character had a very religious bent. Moreover, Miss Plympton’s parents had beaten into her at an early age the firm precept that the parts of generation constituted a source of unremitting evil. The governess therefore immediately awoke Anne’s parents in their bed, all the while scolding her pupil in a voice loud enough that all the servants could hear, and in such explicit terms that no doubt could exist as to the crime in which their young lady had just been discovered.
“In front of your mirror, no less!” Miss Plympton shouted. “With your wicked hands in the devil’s playground! Looking at what you were doing! I have never even heard of something so lascivious, and I have been a governess these twenty years!”
When Standish and Prudence Solmes awoke, Miss Plympton stood Anne at the end of their bed and commanded, “You just tell your poor parents what I found you doing.” But Anne found herself unable to say a word. She could only shake her head and weep.
At that, Miss Plympton pushed firmly upon the fair-haired Anne’s shoulders, bending her over the foot of the bed until her elbows rested upon it. Her hairbrush was in her hand, and she raised Anne’s shift and began to spank her forcefully and quickly. “That doesn’t feel as nice, does it?” Miss Plympton said, over Anne’s cries and sobs. “There you go, you little hussy! There you go! How do you like the consequences of your voluptuous little performance, miss? Are you going to tell your poor parents what you did?”
“Please!” Anne screamed. “Please don’t make me!”
“What is the meaning of this?” asked the mystified Standish Solmes. He believed very strongly in the maintenance of discipline in his home, and in general he approved heartily of the way Miss Plympton chastised Anne for the slightest infraction with the greatest severity—often including the strap and the cane in addition to her trusty hairbrush. But to be awakened in the middle of the night, and made to watch Miss Plympton punish Anne thus, seemed a little excessive.
“You won’t even give your parents that little bit of respect, girl?” Miss Plympton said sternly. “Mr. Solmes,” she said, ceasing the spanking for the moment. “I am a decent woman, and I am afraid I must submit my resignation.”
She brought the hairbrush down again, to punctuate her words. “Your. Daughter’s. Lewd. Conduct does not befit a woman of. The. Town! Let alone a girl of her station.”
“Please, Miss Plympton!” Anne screamed. “I’m sorry!”
Miss Plympton stopped spanking again, but only, apparently, so that she could concentrate on delivering her wrathful message to Standish. “When it gets about what I found her doing, my reputation will be ruined as well, but so great is my love of virtue that I will not hesitate! Any suitor for Miss Solmes’ hand, I can assure you, will have the knowledge that your daughter cannot restrain herself from lewd practices that should send her to a reformatory school, if you will take my advice. A regular, healthy dose of the cane is the only thing for her, but with such a girl one doubts that even daily thrashing will help. Whether they can cure her or not, though, at least she will receive the punishment she deserves for shaming you so!”
Miss Plympton took eighteen-year-old Anne by the ear, then, and began to lead her out of her parents’ bedchamber. “I shall strap her well, now, Mr. Solmes, but that will be the last thing I do as your employee. If you take my advice, you will send for the doctor in the morning, and pack her off to a place where they can whip some modesty into her!”
Standish Solmes looked down at his wife. Prudence’s face wore an expression of terrible apprehension. He could not think of anything to say: there seemed no way to avert the disaster that had fallen upon their family.
From down the hall came the sound of Miss Plympton scolding Anne, and then the crack of the strap upon Anne’s undoubtedly bare backside: the governess always positioned Anne on her belly, atop her bed, for the punishment of greater offenses, so that she could swing the strap downward with the utmost force. Anne began to scream in her pain, and Standish could see in his wife’s eyes that she felt, as he did, that sometimes discipline could go too far.
“Perhaps we should not have engaged Miss Plympton,” Prudence said with a quaver in her voice.
“Do not blame yourself, my dear,” Standish replied. “She came highly recommended.”
“But it was I who pressed you to engage her.”
“True, my dear. But I was the one to encourage her to flog Anne frequently.”
Down the hall, Anne shrieked, “Please! I’ll never do it again!” and Miss Plympton shouted, “I wish I could believe that, you wicked girl,” and the strap’s sharp visit made itself heard again.
“Is she ruined?” Prudence whispered. “Surely other girls… that is to say, I am told…”
“Whether the conduct in which Miss Plympton discovered her is as wicked as Miss Plympton thinks is unfortunately not of any moment, now, Prudence,” Standish said sadly. “Miss Plympton is a respected governess, with the ear of a great many matrons. We must wait and see; perhaps it will blow over.”
Then they lay there, unable to sleep and unable to speak with one another, listening to their daughter receive her terrible reward for her illicit pleasure.
Anne’s coming out, scheduled for January, was of course canceled, and she spent her days at home, mostly in tears, mourning her lost prospects. Mr. and Mrs. Solmes had hoped that their daughter’s blond, blue-eyed loveliness would be the making of them in society, and Mr. Solmes had even spent some of the money he had been sure would come to him when Anne snared a wealthy husband. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Solmes had ever been a fond parent; now they would scarcely look at Anne.
During that gloomy time, Prudence’s sister Chastity Greville brought to the grieving parents a ray of hope. She had heard, she said when she dined with the Solmeses at the beginning of November, of a special school for girls like Anne that, even if it did not save Anne’s prospects entirely, might nevertheless allow Standish and Prudence Solmes to recover their fortunes somewhat. The whole notion seemed shrouded in mystery, but it made the first hopeful news they had heard in days, and so they eagerly inquired of Chastity as to the nature of the establishment.
“What sort of school is it?” asked Prudence, a puzzled look upon her face.
“They say it is called Miss Halton’s Preparatory Academy for Girls, but apparently some also call it the Duke’s School. It is on the grounds of Panton Castle, in Sussex. Miss Halton, it seems, is under the protection of the duke of Panton, and specializes in rehabilitating and reforming girls like Anne, who are at least eighteen years of age and stand in danger of a great fall. With the help of the duke, she even arranges good marriages for the girls whom she finds not to be ruined. The duke himself, it appears, is the patron of the establishment, in keeping with his long-expressed desire that the social customs of England be updated, so as to permit girls who might once have been viewed as utterly ruined to marry nonetheless.”
“I’m not certain I understand,” Standish said. “What kind of marriage would that be? What does the duke mean by updating our social customs?”
Chastity looked blank. “My friend could not say,” she replied. “She merely gave me to understand that the gentlemen who contract with Miss Halton and the duke to find brides must have great wealth to settle upon them, and that the duke interests himself in choosing them. It is mystifying, but now that all London knows about poor Anne and her wickedness, it seemed to me that it might provide some way to see her settled.”
On a cold morning at the end of November, Miss Halton came to the Solmes’ elegant townhouse. Standish and Prudence awaited her in the front parlor.
Miss Halton, a strikingly handsome woman of about thirty-five years, with dark hair gathered into a severe bun that—exceptionally for such a hairstyle—did not detract at all from the graciousness of her features, lost no time in acquainting the Solmeses with her assessment of their daughter’s case.
“Your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Solmes,” she said, “is, I fear, a voluptuary.”
Miss Halton pronounced this word as if she were saying ‘demon’ or ‘monster.’
“I am sorry for you,” she continued, “but if you take my counsel and send her to me, she will in the end be happy, and you will be wealthy.”
“How?” demanded Standish. “No one will tell us what it is you do.”
“That is because everyone who knows is bound by an oath of secrecy. I will now administer it to you, if you are willing.”
Standish looked at Prudence. Prudence nodded. Standish said, “Very well. Let us proceed. This all seems quite ridiculous, but as you can imagine we are grasping at any straw that might provide for Anne’s future.”
Miss Halton produced a document from her reticule. “Merely sign this,” she said. “It provides that if you should disclose any of what I now tell you, the forces that protect me, forces far beyond the law, will ruin you completely.”
Standish read the document, which read merely: I, the undersigned, give my word of honor, upon an understanding that this oath will be enforced by those who engage the services of Miss Halton, that I shall not disclose anything Miss Halton tells me about her establishment. He felt his brow crease.
“The forces that protect you?” he asked, glancing sharply at Miss Halton. “Those who engage your services?”
“I am sure you will understand, Mr. Solmes, why I feel I should not elaborate until you have taken my oath. Let me simply say that honor, to such men, means everything. I do feel sure, however, that you have heard of my patron, the duke of Panton.”
Standish looked at Prudence again. He thought of the honor Anne had lost her family in that lewd moment before the mirror. He signed the oath.
Miss Halton said, “Thank you. I shall now tell you a few things more about my establishment, though by no means everything. You will have to accept upon faith that I have your best interests at heart, beyond these few things, though it is likely that they will trouble you.”
She looked intently at Standish, and then at Prudence. Standish found that he was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Something about Miss Halton seemed positively regal, and it put him slightly out of countenance, even as he burned, more and more, to understand the things of which she spoke.
“If you send Anne to me,” Miss Halton continued evenly and apparently without any emotion at all, “she will be trained to serve the lusts of men as befits a voluptuary like herself.”
“What?” Prudence hissed.
Miss Halton continued patiently, as if no interruption had occurred. “There is no cure, Mr. and Mrs. Solmes, for the lewdness that has taken up residence in your daughter’s parts of generation, I am afraid. There are, however, wealthy men who will make a very generous settlement upon her, and make it in such a way that you will prosper as well, in the knowledge that her voluptuous nature will give them license to enjoy her in certain ways that would make another sort of woman run home to her parents.”
Standish felt his eyes bug out of his head; his jaw dropped open, and he was about to say something intemperate, but Miss Halton said in the same even tone, “I shall put it no more coarsely than that, never fear.”
Standish looked at Prudence. His wife’s face had assumed a shade of crimson he had rarely seen there.
“You cannot be serious,” he said to Miss Halton.
“I assure you that I am,” she replied. “Indeed, that is the entirety of my proposal to you, except to assure you that your daughter, should she come to me, will receive regular punishment upon her bare bottom, in order to teach her the lessons of chastity she so badly needs. You may write to me if you decide that I should take your daughter into my school. If so, you must be prepared for my coach to come that same night and bring her away from here. After that, you will not see her for a while.”
What choice did the Solmeses have? Indeed, for Anne to disappear seemed like it might perhaps be the best thing. The titters that followed her everywhere were a torment to her as well as to her parents. No governess would accept the post, and no school would accept her, for fear of the corruption she might bring. On the first day of December, a Monday, Standish and Prudence called Anne into the drawing room after dinner to inform her of her fate. The clock had just struck eight and, ordinarily, Anne and Prudence would be donning their night rails and getting into bed.
“Tonight,” Standish said, “you will go away from us to a new school.”
Anne blushed, and her brow grew very troubled. “What kind of school?” she asked anxiously, looking desperately into her parents’ eyes.
“You will learn the nature of it when you arrive there,” Standish replied, speaking sternly both for her benefit and his own, in order that Anne understand that the decision had been made, and was now final. “I can assure you, however, that they will make you pay the price for your wickedness. Regular punishment upon your bare backside will be a part of your life from now on, you wicked girl, as is only fitting.”