Clara Mansfield had turned eighteen only three days before the great Midsummer Festival in Chipping Norley, the prosperous market town near the village of Harepark where Clara had grown up, a few miles distant from Chipping Norley. When the Duke of Norley’s man of business, a Mr. Ainsworth, came to her father’s door to say that Clara’s presence, like that of every other girl of eighteen or nineteen in the duchy, would be expected at the duke’s Midsummer Ball, beginning with the special music school in Chipping Norley’s grand assembly room, the lovely brown-haired girl with the creamy complexion so praised by all her friends knew that at last she would begin to live. Not only would she have a fine new dress to wear, and to show off before all her friends, but men would be present—gentlemen, even.
The music school in Chipping Norley, of course, took place the morning of the ball. At it Clara would learn to dance like a lady. So she must rise very early and go to town with the other young women of her village, upon the wagon of Mr. Voles, the beadle. The five Harepark girls rode in their everyday homespun, with their lovely dresses and their dancing shoes carefully bundled upon their laps, covered in paper to keep the dust of the road off them.
Mr. Voles, a rotund and usually pleasant personage, seemed more severe than Clara had ever found him. Indeed, the tone he employed with the five girls sounded to her ears much like that he used with the miscreant and wandering farm boys he had the duty to round up and return to their proper agricultural localities.
“You girls,” he said, turning around upon the box to give them a stern look as the cart horse plodded on toward Chipping Norley, where Clara thought she could already descry blue and white bunting in the distance, “must learn a respectful demeanor. Bettina Graham and Louisa Martin, I am surprised to hear you carry on so, since you have been to his grace’s music school before.”
The girls had only giggled a little over the sight of Joe Dell, a boy from the Rellings’ farm, walking along the same road toward town and overtaken by Mr. Voles’ wagon. It hardly seemed a thing to attract the beadle’s reproof, and when Mr. Voles turned back around to set his face toward Chipping Norley, Clara, who prided herself on being of both a thoughtful and an independent turn of character, looked speculatively at the broad expanse of black serge upon the beadle’s back, before turning to look at Bettina and Louisa, who Clara realized now had not deserved Mr. Voles’ remonstrance at all, having made only the merest show of mirth while Clara herself, along with her fellow eighteen-year-olds Deborah Harley and Nancy Lorrin, had nearly collapsed under the force of their giggles at Joe Dell’s expense.
Indeed, the nineteen-year-olds, who had attended the duke’s ball, and so also his music school, the previous year, seemed much more thoughtful about their second Midsummer’s day than Clara imagined she herself would be in a year’s time. For was not a ball a glorious thing? And would it not be wonderful to learn real dancing of the kind that the lords and ladies did, even if one must return afterward to the farm?
That, Clara concluded, must be the reason the older girls looked grave: the village girls only received their invitations to the duke’s ball in their nineteenth and twentieth years, and then must forever remember the fun, and perhaps also the lost chance at catching a fine husband from the town. Looking at her older friends, she pitied them a little now, for though Clara did not feel certain she would catch such a bridegroom tonight, at least she had two chances remaining to her, while Bettina and Louisa now had only one.
Clara considered herself thoughtful not only insofar as she had the capacity to form her own ideas on such topics, but also in the sympathetic sense of having a natural inclination toward compassionating thoughts of the feelings of others. She put her right hand out to Louisa, who sat next to her upon the bench, and laid it upon the other girl’s left, which lay folded with the other atop the paper-covered bundle of shoes and dress.
She would never cause a friend pain by adverting to a matter that might rankle, as Clara supposed the idea of Louisa’s having this one final ball might, but Clara could not help her curiosity about what lay in store for all of them. She thought also that perhaps to speak of the ball would cheer Louisa, and so she said, “I am so eager to know of the music school. Shall we learn many dancing figures?”
Louisa turned to her with an expression upon her face that confused the younger girl greatly. At once Clara perceived that the golden-haired nineteen-year-old did not look so serious out of anxiety as to finding a husband—or perhaps not only out of that—but that something more troubling about this day, something Clara and Deborah and Nancy would soon discover, occupied Louisa’s thoughts.
For the cast of Louisa’s blue eyes and the hint of trouble in her brows spoke not of anxiety or regret but of pity for Clara and the other younger girls. Louisa regarded Clara with a sympathizing demeanor of her own, as if the brown-haired girl, in her inexperience of the Midsummer Ball, deserved compassion. Then she spoke, so quietly that Clara could scarcely hear her over the creak of Mr. Voles’ ill-greased wheels.
“No, not many.”
Red-haired Deborah, who sat across from Louisa and whom Clara had always thought rather a giddy if a very pleasant companion, seemed not to catch Louisa’s facial expression or her solemn tone of voice. Deborah’s green eyes sparkled as she asked archly, “How many men will be present? And how many soldiers?”
The duke’s regiment, in their scarlet coats, had after all a prominent place both in the imagination of the country girls and in the roll of those invited to the duke’s ball.
“Oh,” Louisa said, as if those scarlet coats had very little to do with her experience of the ball, “I don’t know, really.”
Bettina, seated to Deborah’s right, put in, “Forty, perhaps?” Clara examined the face of the black-haired nineteen-year-old, and found the same apprehension she had found in Louisa’s manner. “But…” Bettina blushed, very discernibly even with her relatively dark complexion.
Clara would have thought nothing of it, and indeed might have dismissed her impression of Louisa’s knowing something troubling about the duke’s ball, if Mr. Voles had not suddenly turned around and revealed to Clara’s surprise that he had followed the entire conversation.
“Hush now, girls,” he said, looking pointedly at Bettina and then Louisa. “You know what will happen if I give Mr. Ainsworth a bad report of you.”
The stricken looks upon the older girls’ faces, and the glare Louisa bestowed upon Bettina, filled Clara’s belly with a fluttery feeling that afflicted her the short rest of the ride into town, and all the worse because she had not the slightest idea what it all might mean. Deborah and Nancy, a quieter girl anyway, seemed to feel it too, and all five girls looked down upon the parcels sitting on their laps for the next quarter hour, until the wagon drew up in front of the splendid half-timbered town hall, an unburnt relic of the days of Elizabeth and the Armada, whose upper floor held Chipping Norley’s wide-famed assembly room.
Other wagons drew up, and other village girls alit from them, carrying the same sort of parcels as the five Harepark girls. That made Clara feel a little less anxious, for she heard the girls around her chattering normally of soldiers and fine husbands and dancing, but she could not say whether she imagined it, or all the older girls of the now thirty- or forty-strong party, which began to include girls also from Chipping Norley itself, walking to the town hall through the streets in twos and threes, had upon their faces a graver look, and blushes that seemed to Clara somehow out of the ordinary.
Up the stairs they went, to find Mr. Ainsworth, awaiting them. At his behest, the younger girls giggling and the older ones looking unaccountably grave, they removed their shoes and stockings and left them in little heaps just inside the door of the assembly hall.
“You will not need them for the lesson,” said the man of business.
Into the vast, airy assembly room the girls filed, then, the eighteen-year-olds still chattering and the nineteen-year-olds now very noticeably silent. Clara heard the double doors of the assembly room close behind them, and then she heard, to her surprise, the wooden bar being lowered, and she turned to find that someone on the outside of the hall had done it: rather than locking out too-eager swains, someone had locked in the girls.
Then the mystery stood revealed, for Mr. Ainsworth, standing now upon the little stage from which the consort would play for the dancing said in a loud voice, over the noise of the garrulous girls, “You older girls know what to do. Do it now, if you do not wish it to be done by a man.”
To Clara’s astonishment, Louisa and Bettina, instead of putting on their dancing shoes, began to take off their dresses. All around them, the other older girls had started to do the same. The noise of talking, which had proceeded almost entirely from the eighteen-year-olds’ mouths, hushed in an instant, to be replaced by urgent whispers from younger girls to older ones, as Deborah’s to Bettina’s, “What are you doing?”
Mr. Ainsworth spoke again. “You younger girls, now, do the same. Everything off, and do not cover your bodily charms, or you will be whipped like…” To Clara’s horror he took a little book from his breast pocket and read out, “Louisa Martin and Bettina Graham of Harepark, who were reported for bad conduct in the wagon that brought them here. Miss Martin and Miss Graham, when you have finished undressing you will report to the stage for punishment.”
Silence had fallen over the group of girls, broken only by the sounds of cloth being manipulated, and falling to the planks of the assembly room. It did not seem to Clara as if any of the eighteen-year-olds had begun to remove their dresses, but the older girls, their faces crimson with embarrassment but obviously persuaded to follow Mr. Ainsworth’s shameful command by their knowledge of what would happen if they disobeyed, were taking off their shifts now. Soon they stood, twenty pretty girls entirely naked and with their hands at their sides so that Clara could see, though it made her heart race and her head feel light, their young breasts and the curls that had so recently grown into tight little triangles between their thighs.
A few of the town girls had drawers on, too, and Clara’s breath caught in her throat as they had to unfasten the pretty ribbons that held up those fashionable articles so that they fell to the floor, revealing pert little bottoms. When Clara looked at Louisa and Bettina, she remembered what she had heard about the way older girls learned their lessons in this Northern county, when they misbehaved, and remembered that having turned eighteen she, too, might be punished that way, upon her bare backside like a naughty little girl.
Louisa and Bettina, being village girls, had no drawers, so that when they pulled their shifts off over their heads they stood completely nude, blushing just as deeply as all the other nineteen-year-old girls invited to the duke’s Midsummer Ball who had, it seemed, found out the previous year—just as Clara herself discovered now—that the Duke of Norley’s June festival included some unusual and, for the young women of the county, highly embarrassing elements.
Now Louisa, who stood a little in advance of Clara in the crowd of girls with respect to the stage upon which Mr. Ainsworth had taken his place, turned back to Clara and the other eighteen-year-olds of Harepark. She had a deep blush upon her cheeks and fear in her eyes that made Clara’s own face get very hot.
“For goodness’ sake, take off your dress,” Louisa whispered urgently. “They… they will whip you.”
She seemed to remember, then, that her own name had just been called, and she looked urgently toward the stage, where Clara now noticed that a strange piece of furniture had just been brought on from another room, and placed next to Mr. Ainsworth by two men in the Duke of Norley’s livery.
Then, before she could get any sort of impression as to what that wooden article, to which leather straps seemed to have been attached, might be, ten other men, some in livery and some—which perhaps more than anything else made the younger girls cry out in mortification and terror—in the red coats of the duke’s regiment, stepped forth from two other doors to the side of the hall. As Clara watched, swallowing hard at the terrible contrast between these men’s clothed forms and the naked bodies of the older girls, two of them came toward Louisa and Bettina, while the rest of the men who had just come in stepped to form a line in front of the stage, facing the girls.
Mr. Ainsworth spoke again. “You girls who still have your clothes on, observe closely what happens to Miss Martin and Miss Graham. If you do not wish to feel the cane across your bottoms, as they soon will, you must undress completely, so that you may have the music lesson the duke wishes you to have.”
John Eliot, valet and, more generally, faithful manservant of the renowned-in-certain-circles Doctor Reginald Brown, answered the summons of the doctor’s bell with some curiosity that same morning, for Doctor Brown did not usually require anything between breakfast and his morning rounds of the Society for the Correction of Natural Daughters, where he served as medical advisor. Morning rounds did not customarily begin until the clock had struck eleven, and the time now stood at a quarter past nine; John had only just left Doctor Brown with his morning letters and the newspaper a few minutes since.
John knocked at the door of the doctor’s chambers and entered without waiting for a word of invitation. The physician indeed preferred his valet to enter on the instant owing to the nature of his work, which might at any time require Doctor Brown’s complete attention—as well as presenting the sort of shameful spectacle that would scandalize the majority of servants but which John had early in his service learned to take as a matter of course. Whether a lucky bridegroom should be fucking his bride’s bottom under Doctor Brown’s close supervision, or a naughty girl should be making her water in a commode while the doctor observed her and instructed her as to the nature of the shame that turned her face crimson while the golden stream splashed from her sweet young cunny into the porcelain, John Eliot’s right of entry into his employer’s presence remained peremptory and absolute, and the doctor would grow impatient should his valet hesitate to join him in his chambers.
“John,” the sandy-haired Doctor Brown called from his reading chair as soon as the servant stood within the doorway, “you must look into the timetables for trains down into Yorkshire.”
“Yorkshire, Doctor?” John asked, frowning. When the doctor kept to London, as he did during the fashionable season, which in these days of easy travel generally stretched from February to July, he stayed within the home counties and tended to the work of the noblemen and gentlemen of the society, all of whom also kept in town during those months.
Some of the girls who required seeing to, to be sure, did not come up to London for the opening of Parliament and the balls of the summer months. The natural men of the society, however, had settled their illegitimate daughters almost exclusively in the home counties, precisely in order that they be in reach of the medical and disciplinary aid the society provided in the person of one Doctor Reginald Brown.
The good physician did not, that is, travel north until the end of the season, when he removed from London to his college in Westmoreland. If he meant to make the long journey into Yorkshire now, at Midsummer, when he would have at any rate to make his way north in a few weeks, the matter must be possessed of a great deal of urgency.
“Indeed, John,” Doctor Brown replied, his Scottish burr thick enough that it made itself as plainly heard in the vowels of those three syllables as it had in the Rs of Yorkshire, a word John thought, with an inward smile, as well designed as any in the language to display his employer’s native roots. “Please to read this letter.”
John Eliot supposed he would never become fully accustomed to the degree of the doctor’s confidence in him. Having gone for a soldier, and having enjoyed the trust of his sergeant major and even of his colonel in his days, not long past, as a fusilier, he knew the pleasure of a superior’s faith that what he commanded would be done. But sergeant major and colonel did not invite a corporal to read their correspondence—nor, more to the point, did they rely on him to bring a firm hand and a hard cock to bear on any naughty bottom or sweet young cunny that required attention from a natural man.
John took the letter from Doctor Brown’s outstretched hand, sensible both of the honor his employer did him, to confide in his valet this way, and of the recognition it bestowed, confirming in John the physician’s doctrines with respect to the rights of natural manhood. Doctor Brown did not regard his servant so much as an inferior as he requested the assistance John could give in his character as a natural man—a character the doctor had on several occasions had the goodness to call sterling.
All these ideas concerning his relation to his employer traveled in John’s thoughts as he began to read, and so the letter’s first sentence struck him as forcefully as if it were his own honor, and not merely the doctor’s, that its author impugned.
Chipping Norley, Yorkshire
21 June, 1878
My execrable doctor,
Your recent ‘triumph,’ as it seems your friends call it, in the matter of the girl in the tower, is enough to turn the stomach even of a natural gentleman, such as myself, possessed of a strong constitution. Moreover, it is enough to make limp the pricks of a thousand vigorous, upstanding natural gentlemen, ready only a moment since to fuck all the comely young debutantes of London. Ah, but I suppose you, my pestilent physician, would call those men ‘unnatural,’ as they perhaps meant to leave the girls’ clitorises untouched as their pricks thrust home through their sweet maidenheads.
The time has come, o thou sanctimonious despoiler of the pleasure of true natural gentlemen, for thy defeat. Pray do not forget that I maintain this distinction: a natural man and a natural gentleman are different articles entirely, for a gentleman knows what is due to him, and to his prick.
I must confess myself enraged by the information, conveyed to my ears by merest chance, since my identity as thy nemesis is known to none, not even the publisher of the true doctrines I have set against thy false ones, that the Gaithwait boy had counted himself among my disciples before he encountered thee in the flesh. Thy base influence, it seems, made him careful for the girl’s pleasure and her welfare, and led to his ruination as a truly natural man. I hear he ‘loves’ her, from every insipid mouth that carries the tale, and will ‘make her fortune,’ her bastardy notwithstanding. Thou disgustest me, Doctor, and thou hast disgusted me far too long.
In the north, hard by Yorkshire, a town there is, in a quaint old duchy, named Chipping Norley. To this town I invite you, in behalf of his grace the Duke of Norley, father of many a natural daughter but not, alas, a member of your soi-disant ‘honorable society.’ I write ‘in behalf of’ but, truth to tell, his grace knows not of you, or me, and if he should hear of you he would no doubt strive to forbid your coming into his county. For without any tutelage from you or me, under the influence indeed only of a ducal custom from time immemorial, he fucks as he likes, and keeps for the purpose a shameful consort of naked young women, aged from eighteen to twenty years, who must serve his ducal bedchamber with music as with cunt and arse, or receive the cane until they do.
I am assured, though I know the disclosure will outrage your delicacy, dear Doctor, by a gentleman who had the honor of whipping and fucking his grace’s consort a few months since, that the duke makes it a point to forbid his nude musicians any pleasure beyond that necessary to keep them blushing as they receive the prick. My acquaintance was solemnly adjured, I gather, not to touch the girls’ tender clitoral rosebuds as he fucked one after the other, first cunts and then arseholes. His grace, it seems, maintains in this unusual way his predecessors’ custom of preserving, in a certain sense at least, the girls’ modesty for the bridegrooms to whom he awards them after their service. That is, though he debauches his lovely young musicians in every conceivable way, he nevertheless absolutely forbids them to climax, thus ensuring that they never lose their shame at being made to fuck and their reluctance to serve the penis. My acquaintance indeed observed his grace punishing a girl for spending despite herself: the duke whipped her soundly upon the cunt with a special implement made for the purpose (as I hear he had of course bared the cunt of its pretty curls, the better to awaken shame in the girl) as well as upon her lovely bottom, and gave her to his footmen for a night she will not, I imagine, soon forget.
When I heard of this laudable practice that answers so well to my own precept, that a young woman, as she is enjoyed by a truly natural man, must learn that his prick’s pleasure is of the first and indeed the only importance, I thought of course of you, false teacher of a man’s regard for what may delight a cunt. Surely even Doctor Brown himself, thought I, would see the error of his ways, were he to see his grace the Duke of Norley making pleasurable use of his shameful consort. Nor will he, thought I, be proof against the temptation to come to Yorkshire for the duke’s Midsummer Festival, where the new girls will be chosen for his grace’s consort, under the guise of a dancing lesson for the duke’s ball?
That lamentable physician, quoth I to myself, will to be sure only make the journey in hopes of saving a certain young lady who happens to have been settled in the district under the name of Mansfield, despite being as to birth the natural daughter of another duke, one much better known to the deplorable doctor. She is just risen eighteen, after all, and she will be inspected, nude like every other girl of the county, at the duke’s dancing lesson. Indeed, unless I miss my guess, Miss Mansfield will be chosen for his grace’s consort, and will begin her lessons upon two sorts of flute—one of wood and one of flesh—before the week is out.
I therefore summon thee, my hated rival, to a contest. We shall not compete over the girl. Her maidenhead is a mere bagatelle, and she herself a simple, if lovely, piece of baggage, however well suited to the prick her cunt and arse may be. Perhaps I shall fuck her and perhaps I shall not. I have no objection to your inevitable attempt to ‘render her happy’ as your friends always seem to characterize your services to the young ‘ladies’ to whom you minister.
No, we shall contest the favor of the duke, and our waxing and waning in his grace’s opinion shall stand for that of the fashionable world whose approbation we have both long sought, though I do so openly and you pretend to care only for medicine and natural philosophy. I would bid you search your bosom, or some such sentimental trash, if I cared in the slightest for your mental state, and bid you see that I write only the truth of your hypocrisy. I do not care in the slightest, however, whether you deceive yourself or not, for I know you will come to Yorkshire though you tell yourself and your patrons that you do it out of your wish to benefit the girl and advance the feigned cause of your pretended philosophy.
Enough. This much I pledge to thee, o thou oracle of unnatural erotic nonsense: thou shalt know me before the end.
Unfaithfully, but naturally, nor thy servant humble or in any other fashion,
John ceased to read, and raised his brown eyes to meet Doctor Brown’s ice-blue ones. “Is it true, sir? About the duke’s consort? About the young lady name of Mansfield?”
“To be perfectly frank,” the physician replied, “I am not certain it is—nor, moreover, am I the least bit confident that even if the Duke of Norley, a man otherwise unknown to me but who enjoys a fine, if guarded, reputation, does follow some such ancestral custom, he does so in a manner inconsistent with my principles. As you know quite well, I hold that a natural man has the duty to control his young lady’s pleasure, for her own benefit.”
John nodded. He knew the doctor’s wisdom though he found himself unable to suppress a twinge of disappointment that his master seemed not to mean to face his rival in the contest proposed.
“But,” Doctor Brown continued to John’s surprise, “it turns out to be no more than the truth concerning the young lady. I have had an urgent letter from her guardian who, it seems, was not aware of the erotic dimension to the Midsummer Ball until alerted to it by an anonymous letter. Upon consultation with the family with whom Miss Mansfield had been settled, he discovered that it is only too true that each year a few young women are taken into service at the ducal palace after Midsummer, though the circumstances are a closely held secret, and their service certainly may not be as described by my… correspondent.”
John felt his eyes go wide. “What shall you do, Doctor?”
Doctor Brown took a deep breath through his nostrils, and regarded his valet with a steely gaze that John thought held perhaps also a bit of fire.
“I shall fight,” he said. “And I shall win. There is one circumstance that perhaps Anti-Brown does not know, where the duchy of Norley is concerned. I have learned just a few days ago that the Secret Society of Saint Valentine, with whom I correspond, has sent a new vicar to the duke’s own parish of Lesterfield. A Mr. Freshet, it seems. He knows me by reputation alone, I am sure, if even that—but I hope he may prove an ally in need.”