“I am very much afraid, Theodora Harper, that sterner measures will be necessary.”
Sterner than sending me down into the country in the middle of the season? Theodora managed to keep from tossing her head as she stood in the center of the blue medallion on the Persian rug in her guardian’s study, with her eyes upon the base of his massive oak desk. She knew Sir George for a man to whom the toss of a young lady’s head represented a challenge, and truth to tell she felt a little cowed to have been brought here to his study, into which her guardian had summoned her only once before.
Her conduct in town had taken place at what Theodora had considered a safe distance from Sir George’s manor in Sussex. The tossing of her head in the drawing room, when accused by Mrs. Hedderly, the middle-aged cousin of Sir George upon whom Theodora had found herself quartered in May of 1876, had not seemed likely to bring her all the way to Hedderly Manor to stand on her guardian’s Persian rug.
“I am concerned, young lady, that you seem not to grasp the extent of the disgrace into which you have brought yourself, and Mrs. Hedderly, and even me. I care little what the world supposes of me, but Mrs. Hedderly, despite her undoubted weakness in having allowed you so much of your own way, is an honorable woman and does not deserve to have her name sullied by the lewd rumors that are bound now to circulate concerning you. Servants talk, Theodora, and now they will talk, it seems, of finding a married nobleman in your bed, and you with your shift about your waist, allowing his shameful caresses and on the verge of the worst possible dishonor.”
Sir George’s voice had grown as sharp and biting as a dagger, now. Theodora’s face burned with emotion.
Anger. Not shame, she told herself very firmly.
Anger that he felt the need to become so explicit. Anger that he had seen fit to end her season in London and bring her down to Sussex. That he had summoned her to his study, apparently to berate her for exercising her right to determine what became of her body.
“I see the red in your cheeks, and I am glad to behold it,” Sir George said. “But as I have said, sterner measures are clearly necessary.”
Theodora could bear it no longer. She raised her brown eyes, consciously hardening her brow into an expression she had practiced upon Mrs. Hedderly, which she called, to herself, the fiery eyes of Theodora Harper, natural daughter of who knows whom.
“I am not ashamed, sir,” she said. “I am irate. My cheeks glow with wrath and not with embarrassment.”
Sir George’s blue eyes went wide for a moment, and his chest rose as he took in a deep breath through his nose, as if he called upon a deep well of self-control to keep from hasty violence. The expression upon his face, accentuated by the wisdom of the dark, neatly trimmed beard just flecked with gray, gave Theodora a moment’s pause and almost made her drop her eyes again. She held his gaze, though, and managed to keep the fiery expression upon her own brow.
“Wrath, Theodora Harper?”
If Sir George’s expression had frightened her a bit, despite her intention to assert her right to find her own path in a world apparently designed for the benefit of everyone but Miss Theodora Harper, illegitimate child stained from birth by circumstances utterly beyond her control, his simple words made her heart pound.
“Yes, sir,” Theodora said, feeling the prickle of tears in her nose and determining not to let them fall but rather to use to her advantage the brightness they gave her eyes. “Wrath. You have called me from town to your house for the sort of peccadillo that girls get away with every day in London. If servants talk, servants’ silence can, I know, also be purchased, and I should be happy to have the necessary money deducted from—”
Sir George rose from his armchair as he thundered the words. Theodora felt her face twist and nearly crumple, and she did look down for an instant, because the blazing of her guardian’s eyes had made her think of Poseidon, the earthshaking sea god of Greek mythology, rising from the ocean to smite the waves, and the ships upon them, with his mighty trident. Mrs. Hedderly had, on the other hand, made her think of a tiny mouse, when she had accused Theodora concerning Lord Hodge’s presence in her bedchamber.
With an effort of will she raised her eyes again, however, and she said, “I will not be silent, sir, for I am eighteen years of age, and—”
Sir George moved around his desk, somehow both quickly and without haste, cutting off Theodora’s flow of speech not with his own words but with the simple movement, as he towered over her in his dark suit, fully six feet tall to Theodora’s five feet and a single inch.
She felt her face contort again as a thrill of panic went through her whole body, and then, resolute and determined not to give into cowardice, she began again.
“I am eighteen—”
“I told you to be silent, Theodora Harper, and I mean at least to teach you some small part of obedience here and now,” Sir George said in a less thunderous but just as severe tone. Now his physical presence only two feet away from her did more than the volume of his voice ever could.
“I do not see,” Theodora tried, though she felt her knees shake a little under her, “what you can possibly mean, Sir George. I am obedient to the extent I find proper. I have come down to the country in obedience to your summons, and I have appeared here in your study, obedient to your will.”
“Bend over the desk, girl,” he said in a low tone that carried despite its softness a firmness of purpose worthy of the sea god. “I am going to show you what I mean. You have had entirely too much freedom and entirely too little discipline. I blame myself, though my affairs kept me away from England for so long that I did not understand how lax a duenna Mrs. Hedderly was likely to be.”
“What?” Theodora asked, her eyes widening and then, a moment later, fixing Sir George with a scornful sneer. She had not heard wrong, she knew, and she disdained to pretend she did not understand. In the modern age young ladies of eighteen did not bend over desks for the sort of punishment that might be accorded a pupil. Surely Sir George knew that much at least.
“You heard me, Theodora,” Sir George growled. “You have a lesson coming, of a kind I believe Mrs. Hedderly never gave you.”
“She certainly did not, sir,” Theodora retorted. “If these are your sterner measures, I would advise that you—”
“These are not my sterner measures, you provocative minx,” her guardian interrupted, his voice rising again in evident frustration that Theodora—rather to her shame—found strangely satisfying. “You shall find out a good deal more about my sterner measures very soon, however, I assure you. For the moment, nevertheless, you are going to receive a lesson in obedience that will, I hope, make you think upon the discipline to come with a good deal more trepidation. Now bend over the desk. I am going to cane you upon your bare bottom, and perhaps you will begin to learn what befalls a little whore who lets a randy lord raise her shift and touch her young cunny.”
Theodora gasped, and the blood in her cheeks grew so hot that she almost let a tear fall at the thought Sir George would take it for shame. She had heard the word—the lewd, coarse word her guardian had used. Lord Hodge had used the word. “Just let me see that sweet cunny of yours, Dora,” he had pleaded. And Theodora herself had raised her shift, because she had wanted to exercise her power over a man, that power she knew other girls had exercised before her.
It had sounded deliciously filthy in Lord Hodge’s pretty mouth, as he had practically kissed it into her neck, clasping her close in her bed after he had climbed in at the window Theodora had opened for the purpose. It had sounded like the naughty power of a willful girl, with fiery eyes. It had sounded like the opening of a barred gate and the beginning of a real life.
In Sir George’s mouth, it sounded like dishonor, and the closing rather than the opening of the world’s portcullis.
“Ah, I see from your face that you have heard that word,” her guardian said coldly, “and you know to what I refer. All the more reason to bare your impudent backside and to whip you soundly. You will bend over this instant, and you will stay there while Mrs. Darren fetches the cane she uses upon the maids—all of whom, may I add, know not to let a man into their bedchambers, and still less to let him raise their shifts.”
Again the tear threatened to fall, but Theodora blinked it back.
“I shall not bend over your desk, sir. Have you gone mad? I am eighteen years—”
“You may say that as often as you like, hussy, and it will avail you no better at any time in the future than it will at this moment. Until you are twenty-one years of age, or are married, I have charge of you. I shall correct you as I decide you require, and as of this moment I have never encountered a girl in more urgent need of whipping.”
Theodora’s lips parted, and her heart pounded in her chest. The idea that Sir George might actually intend to go through with his abominable notion of disciplining her as a schoolmaster did a naughty pupil—in a worse manner, indeed, for he had uttered that apparent lunacy about baring her hindquarters—occurred to her as a serious notion for the first time.
Trying as hard as she could to keep her tone level, and to project the fire from her dark eyes into his icy blue gaze, she drew back her shoulders so that she could feel the corset under her blue silk morning gown and said, “I shall not obey you in this particular, Sir George. I acknowledge that I am bound to obey you in all matters, so long as I find your actions in accordance with my ethical and moral code, but—”
Sir George did not interrupt her with words, this time, but as she had reached the second sentence of her tirade, he had turned and rung the bell for Mrs. Darren, and though she had continued on undeterred the action had sent a shiver down her spine that she endeavored to cover with sharp rhetoric. Now, however, another movement of his body, this one toward her, stopped her speech with a cry of panic.
Sir George took firm grasp of her upper arm in his enormous hand, and turned her toward his desk.
“Stop!” Theodora commanded. “Sir! You cannot—”
“I most certainly can, you little whore,” Sir George thundered, seeming to shake the desk itself with the thunder of his voice, both Poseidon and Zeus, now, in Theodora’s imagination.
He began to bend her across the polished oak top of the desk, and though she resisted Theodora could find no way to prevent her guardian from enforcing his will. She struggled in his grasp, doing everything in her reasoning power to ignore the renewal of that oddly satisfied feeling that she had made him act so forcefully.
“Stop!” she tried again, but he had her all the way over the desk now, though her left hand scrabbled for purchase upon the broad wooden surface, doing everything she could to keep herself erect and unbowed.
A knock sounded at the door, and then it opened, and the housekeeper Mrs. Darren said, as if she didn’t see that a proud young woman had been made to bend with her silk-covered bottom to the door, “Sir George?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Darren,” he said, holding Theodora down with no apparent effort as he turned to address the housekeeper. “Would you please fetch the cane you use on Sundays?”
“With pleasure, sir,” the horrid woman said, as if she had already heard the whole story from Mrs. Hedderly’s housekeeper, and looked forward to seeing Theodora Harper properly punished.
Now Theodora, at last, did toss her head, and she gave up struggling. She rekindled the fire in her eyes, and she put her elbows under her, where it seemed Sir George wanted them. She looked back over her shoulder at him.
“You will do as you please, I suppose, Sir George,” she said in the iciest voice she could use. “I am, as you say, only a girl.”
The most provoking aspect of Theodora Harper’s character, Sir George thought as he gazed steadily back into her lovely face, its beauty only heightened by the girl’s righteous fury, lay in the contrast between her extreme intelligence and her failure to accept the splendid opportunities given her, if she would only concede in a few small respects to the expectations of the world.
Now as upon the first occasion he had laid eyes upon her, before sending her up to town soon after Dora’s eighteenth birthday, Sir George could not help feeling that the responsibility for her care, laid upon him by the Society for the Correction of Natural Daughters, might well bring to his rather staid and frankly tedious existence the spark of life he had missed since—well, since his carefree school days. Her vivacity and beauty, the very luster of her dark brown hair, seemed to him like a promise that his otherwise thankless work supervising the building of schools in the far reaches of the empire might not lack its rewards.
His work, undertaken not because Sir George had any need of the tiny stipend the foreign office attached to it—a remuneration that Sir George declined on principle in any case—had brought him to the attention of the Duke of Panton, after all. His grace the duke, and his grace’s consort, the remarkable Miss Clarissa Halton, had their own interest in the education both at home and abroad of young women most other authorities considered uneducable. Their paths had crossed after a lecture Sir George had delivered at the Atheneum, in which the squire of Hedderly Hall had touched, albeit very lightly, upon the problem of these girls.
“How strong an indictment,” Sir George had argued in the lecture, “is it of our great empire that as enlightened an age as ours, and as benevolent a monarch as we have, we cannot yet understand the necessity of teaching young women, once they have reached the age of eighteen, to comprehend the most urgent needs of their bodies? How many so-called fallen girls could be made happy and kept from true ruin, if we should find a way to place them in an educational system designed for their particular plight?”
His grace the duke had invited Sir George, after the lecture, to call upon him and Miss Halton. Sir George, who as a reformer gave no heed to the censure heaped upon the duke’s head for his thoroughly modern—that is, from a Tory’s point of view, thoroughly wicked—mode of life, had paid his call the following day.
At Mercester House, frequented again by the duke and Miss Halton since the death of his grace’s estranged duchess, Sir George had met the famous Doctor Reginald Brown, a man he had long desired to know. On the spot, the duke had presented Sir George for membership in the Society for the Correction of Natural Daughters, when the doctor confessed that he had himself heard of Sir George’s educational efforts.
“There is a girl,” Doctor Brown had said, then, “a Miss Theodora Harper, on the verge of turning eighteen, who may be very well suited to your guardianship. The reports of her from her foster family—for you must understand that these natural daughters nearly always reside with distant connections of their fathers until the time comes for their bringing out—make it quite clear how likely her independent spirit is to place her in difficulties which your philosophy, Sir George, may assist her in overcoming.”
So it had transpired, though Sir George had to confess himself astonished that Dora had found a way to imperil her honor so quickly. As he reached down and began to raise her skirts, the trembling of the girl’s lithe, pretty limbs told him of the burgeoning dilemma of her character: Miss Theodora Harper had a body that, like the bodies of so many young women brought up to think such things shameful and degrading, cried out for a man’s correcting hands.
Dora had turned her crimson face forward, now, and held her head hung low, he saw when he had rolled her gown and her petticoat up, to reveal a backside so shapely in her stockings and her pretty drawers that Sir George grew hard as iron in an instant at the sight.
“Please,” she murmured, her voice scarcely audible now and her defiance seemingly broken by the simple act of raising her skirts. “Please, Sir George, may I keep my drawers on?”
The squire felt his heart go out to her, but it had become very clear to him during this interview that Miss Theodora Harper truly did require the stern measures he had planned for her. She would find herself, soon enough, without any clothing at all, as she learned the ways of the special training Sir George felt himself bound to provide to her, now that she had fallen into dishonor. Her caning today in his study represented only the foretaste of the shame she must undergo, so that at last she might find, if not happiness, at least acceptance of her young body’s need for a man’s mastery.
“You wish to keep yourself covered, now, Miss Pert?” Sir George replied. “You are not so eager to show me your private parts as you were Lord Hodge? Well, Theodora, I have more right than he, or any man, to take down these drawers and have a look at your intimate charms. I am the man who will decide what befalls them, after all, now and in the future. At the moment, their fate is to undergo the painful consequences of disobedience. Very soon, thanks to your naughtiness, they will undergo a great deal more.”
Dora turned her blushing face back over her shoulder again to look at him, eyes very wide. A shudder went through her whole body, communicating itself to Sir George’s own thanks to the position of his hands on the waistband of her drawers, beginning to untie the bow in the blue ribbon that held them in place.
“What?” the girl asked. “What… what do you mean, sir?”
Sir George’s educational method, however, had as a centra tenet the idea that a student must be prepared for the answer to her question well enough that she can ask it in sufficient detail that she will also, at nearly the same time, grasp the answer. Miss Theodora Harper’s training in obedience had scarcely begun: it would hinder her learning greatly were she to hear too soon of what lay in store. For the moment, her imagination needed time, and a good deal more experience, to envision her submission to the terrible things for which she would one day in the not-far-distant future cry out.
Rather than give the girl any answer at all, the squire finished untying the pretty blue bow, and then, so very slowly that he could feel every shake that set Dora’s lovely bottom and upper thighs trembling, he lowered the thin cotton fabric of her most intimate undergarment to her knees. Carefully, listening closely to the labored, indignant breaths that came puffing from the girl’s nostrils like the snorts of a horse under the training whip, he ensured that the drawers would remain, at least for the moment, around Dora’s knees as a reminder that her guardian had bared her bottom for punishment, and would do it again as often as necessary.
At that perfect moment, Mrs. Darren’s knock sounded at the door of Sir George’s study, and the housekeeper entered a moment later. Sir George had known the estimable Mrs. Darren for twenty years of his thirty-eight years, and he could not have sworn that certain important elements of his educational philosophy had not originated in conversations he had had with her concerning the problems of managing a respectable house full of potentially disreputable maids.
“Thank you, Mrs. Darren,” he said as he accepted the two-foot-long implement that had made the intimate acquaintance of so many young female backsides. Not quite as thick as the sort of cane used at the most renowned educational institutions of the British Empire, indeed only the breadth of Sir George’s little finger, it made, he knew from long experience, an ideal pedagogical tool when skillfully wielded upon the bare buttocks of a wayward girl.
“You are most welcome, Sir George,” said Mrs. Darren. “Shall I witness Miss Theodora’s correction for you, and help her to her bedchamber afterward? I would do so most happily, and I am sure she will need help in walking once she has learned her lesson.”
Dora gave a tiny, strangled cry that Sir George felt certain the girl had done everything in her power to suppress. Turning, he saw her hasten to turn her own face away, as if zealous that he should not see fear in her eyes.
“Hush,” said Mrs. Darren. “You wicked thing, you are going to learn virtue if Sir George must thrash you every day to teach it.”
At that, Dora turned her face again, her eyes very bright. The housekeeper’s admonition, it seemed, had restored some of her fiery mettle.
“What do you have to do with it, madam?” Dora asked, elongating the honorific madam with biting sarcasm. “I do not recall that I am a chambermaid of this establishment. Perhaps my birth is known only to the wicked parents who visited it upon me, but although that places me in the most precarious of circumstances I do not see what you have to do with it, madam.”
“Well!” exclaimed Mrs. Darren. “Well, I never. I cannot wait to see that pretty young bottom of yours dance under the cane, you minx, or hear you beg for mercy as your guardian thrashes you! That will teach you to respect a woman whose forebears are known and revered a whole county over! I only wish I were to do the whipping now, for you would not leave your bed tomorrow, girl, if my right hand and that cane had anything to do with it!”
Sir George had no inclination to deny how very arousing he found this beginning to Dora’s career of obedience to those he chose to set in authority over her, but the confrontation served no useful purpose at the moment, and might prove an impediment to the intimate lesson he intended to give his ward just at the moment.
“Dora,” he said sternly, “you will treat Mrs. Darren with civility, and you will indeed obey her, or your bottom will pay the price again in the near future. From henceforth she, too, will have the right and duty to bring the cane to your bare backside when she sees fit.”
Mrs. Darren nodded with an audible harrumph from her aquiline nose, as Dora’s face contorted in impotent fury.
“You are to understand, Miss Theodora Harper,” Sir George continued, “that although I am a believer in the social and political emancipation of women, I believe also that many girls require a particular sort of training in obedience, in order that they may exercise their rights—whatever rights our benighted world sees fit to give them, which will for many years yet be lamentably few—happily. You, in allowing Lord Hodge to seduce you—in permitting him to raise your shift—demonstrated very clearly that you are that kind of girl.”
“The sort I know how to deal with,” said Mrs. Darren, nodding. “Just as I would with the naughty parlor maid who let Joe Smithers put his hand—”
“Peace, Mrs. Darren,” said Sir George, watching Dora’s eyes shift from the squire to the housekeeper with a keen intelligence that pleased him greatly. “The situations are analogous, but Miss Theodora’s case is a special one, for which as her guardian I have a particular responsibility. As I said from henceforth I empower you to bring the cane to her as necessary to ensure her proper behavior, but miss is now to undergo a different kind of training to that which your maids receive. I do not doubt that you will witness her correction, if not deliver it yourself, on a future occasion, but you may return to your other duties now. Miss Theodora and I shall be here a long while.”