Eight months have already passed since the death of my father. I still wear mourning for him and I still wear the dishonouring garb of Lady Flayskin's highly select establishment.
Seven months have passed since I slept under this roof for the first time.
Sometimes during the night, stifled laughter from the girl's dormitory comes through the thin partition and awakes me. I fall again into a fitful slumber disturbed by bad dreams. I think I am being done to death by a goblin who sits upon my body and gnaws it. I awake and
find that the busk of my corset is sticking into my stomach.
My neighbour's voice comes to me in a whisper from the next bed.
"Will you play?" he asks.
Although I reply in the negative, he raises my bedclothes and slips into my bed. I am obliged to submit silently to his repugnant contact, for should I occasion a quarrel, my companion would perhaps receive the whip and I should certainly be flogged.
For such was the "distributive justice" of Lady Flayskin.
Nor did she ever fail in her preliminary lectures to insert some fine sentiments regarding the duties of bonne camaraderie.
I shudder yet as I think of the deeds that fair-sounding expression was employed to cover in the Flayskin Academy. And many a sun has set since those far-off days.
One memorable morning, a servant entered the school-room with a note for Mrs. Stuart.
The mistress put her spectacles on her thin nose and read the short missive with an air of astonishment. I saw her read it trough a second time and then sign to Mrs. Eagle who likewise showed extreme surprise at the communication. I was idly contrasting the leanness of Mrs. Stuart with the plumpness of Mrs. Eagle, who never resembled an eagle less than at that moment, in her goggle-eyed, red-cheeked astonishment, when I heard my name called by the thin governess.
"Jimmy, come here!"
Had a thunderbolt burst at my feet, I could hardly have felt more astonishment than I did at that moment. Fer seven months I had not been addressed by my own boyish name. Why was I not "Alice?" Why was I a boy again?
So intense were my feelings, that I found it impossible to do otherwise than burst into tears. I made no attempt to obey the summons. My schoolfellows laughed, but I did not mind that. What could it mean?
My attitude was naturally a source of curiosity to my class, but actually aroused no severe reprimand on th, part af the governesses whose order I had completely ignored. Finally Mrs. Eagle, after renewed consultation with Mrs. Stuart, came to me. The fat little creature appeared in a state of great excitement and proceeded to bundle me out of the schoolroom.
Leading me through the corridors and upstairs to the dormitory, she proceeded to undress me with much show of haste. I resigned myself to this treatment with very good grace, but hardly knew if I was awake or dreaming when a servant entered with a parcel containing all the garments I had worn on entering the school, when still a boy. I saw the broad-toed serviceable shoes in which I had run so fast in other days, excellent, strong and com fortable shoes. Then I saw my knickerbockers and my little sailor's reefer and cap.
Great Heavens! My own clothes once more! Those I had worn eight months ago! Am I going to wear again?
Such were the thoughts that coursed through my brain. In reply to all my questionings and doubtings, I found that Mrs. Eagle was helping me to put on these clothes, my clothes, instead of those hated one I had just taken off. The shoes are a little short, as the abominable narrow, high-heeled boots have lengthened my foot. But no matter! The knickerbockers no longer reach to my knees. But again, what matters, that? What too does it matter, if the sleeves of the little jacket no longer cover my wrists?
Ah, what joy!
Mrs. Eagle becomes momentarily more bustling and excited and her tongue wags faster and faster. It is "dear Jimmy, my darling little Jimmy," my own name repeated so frequently that I begin once more to recognise it as my very own. There is no fear of my being addressed as "Jimmy" and forgetting to answer now. But why? Oh, why?
I decide that Mrs. Eagle is, after all, a good sort. I feel disposed to kiss her, but dare not. She, however, guesses my thoughts and imprints loud, smacking kisses first upon one cheek and then on the other, such kisses as our maid had given me long ago when my father was still alive.
At length my dressing is finished. I find the sailor cap uncomfortable, and think it must have shrunk or else that some paper has been inserted in the lining to make it smaller. But how stupid I am! My head has grown! Great Cæsar! And I laugh heartily as I pull with both hands the obstinate cap and only succeed in exposing the back of my head when I manage to cover the front. Mrs. Eagle also laughs and remarks:
"Little Jimmy, you are going to be even happier presently. A pleasant surprise is in store for you."
But this piece of news has the effect of immediately damping my high sprits. I know the pleasant surprises of Lady Flayskin only too well. They always finish disagreeably.
Mrs. Eagle can make nothing of my sudden change of mien.
"Ah, no! Not by any means! I can't have you going into the drawing-room with that sad face. Oh! certainly not, It's not to be thought of. Why, you must look happy, very happy!"
But happiness cannot be produced to order, and my step, so unpleasantly apprehensive of the promised surprise, became more and more laggard. I finish by coming to a dead stop near the drawing-room.
Mrs. Eagle, however, hurries me forward and adds to my astonishment by neglecting a most important detail of the etiquette of the establishment.
She enters Lady Flayskin's august presence and that lofty person's magnificent drawingroom, without previously knocking at the door and waiting for an invitation to enter. She pushes me in front of her and closes the door.
With a great sigh of joy, I found that my dear mother was there. Almost fainting with delight, I rushed into her arms and covered her dear face with kisses. She returned my kisses with interest and we both of us cried. She hugged me to her breast with almost feverish delight. Then suddenly she held me at arm's length from her and, looking at me earnestly, cried;
"Goodness!" How pale you are!"
Lady Flayskin intervened in honeyed tones.
"It is very natural, dear Madam; a result to be expected from emotion and joy at seeing his mother. You love your mother dearly, don't you, Jimmy?"
"Yes! Oh! Yes!"
I plucked at my mother's dress to take her away with me outside those dreadful walls. I kissed her again and murmured in her ear before removing my mouth:
"You will take me away, won't you? Oh, promise! You will not leave me here?"
She replied aloud:
"Certainly, I shall not leave you. I have come to take you home."
A second time she held me from her and said, as though talking to herself:
"He had such bonnie big cheeks, and now they are hollow. His eyes are burning with fever. You have been ill, my poor mite!"
I burst into sobs and Lady Flayskin hastened to anticipate a possible reply on my part.
"Why, Madam, you surely do not imagine he has been deprived of anything he could wish for? The cooking is excellent; the food whole some and abundant. I never let my pupils want for anything. Our dear Jimmy will not tell his mother a story? You have always eaten as much as you liked, haven't you, Jimmy?"
But covertly I pulled my mother's skirt and looked at her with imploring eyes.
She understood me. The dear angel! She has always understood what I have said to her in the dumb language of the eyes:
She rose and took s somewhat ceremonious farewell of Lady Flayskin. Meanwhile, I also turned critic but said nothing. I was none the less astonished and grieved to find my poor mother looking much older. The corners of her lips drooped and her eyelids were swollen and lined as though she had cried a great deal. She also had lost her full, plump, pretty cheeks. It was another and a thinner Mamma I was looking at.
It seemed to me that she would never come to the end of her somewhat cold, but none the less elaborate thanks and compliments. For my part, I should have preferred giving Lady Flayskin a good beating and I pulled at my mother's skirt in a frenzied way.
She turned and smiled.
"Yes! we are going! Say good-bye, Jimmy! Never forget your manners."
"Precisely!" rejoined the horrid old cat. "That is what we always tell our pupils. Jimmy, you do not kiss me?"
How much rather would I have strangled her? Nevertheless, I managed to kiss her and weleft the room. The affectation and ceremony of our leave-taking continued, however, until we reached the front door, where at the bottom of the steps a cab awaited us.
It was a hansom cab. Again I have before my eyes, as on that never-to-be-forgotten day, the honest-looking, stout driver with his red whiskers. Again I see him touching his hat as we appear, when he took his short clay pipe from his mouth.
How delightful it was to be in that hansom, nestled against my mother's heart. It gave me a certain feeling of satisfaction and security, too, to think of our stout goodnatured coach man perched up there behind us. Whould Lady Flayskin try to take me back? In that case, I thought our cabby will not let her. He will make but a mouthful of her and her whole crew of whipping women and stay-lacers.
What joy to breath the pure air without having to be apprehensive of bones and steel busks sticking into one's stomach and stifling one's lungs!
And how delightful to visit again old scenes and think of the happy rambles and merry games of days past!
Such were my thoughts when, though I hardly know why, I burst into sobs and told my mother everything. The corset, the girl's dress, the high heels, the long tight gloves, all the diabolical "discipline" of glazed black kid, everything was told. Nor did I, the reader may be sure, omit to mention that my name had been "Alice".
My mother cried too, but suddenly laughed, and clapping her hands, told me that Mr. Baker had died eight days before and left her his en entire fortune. Consequently, we were very rich. Then, for the first time, I noticed that she was in mourning.
Her face became thoughtful. A world of sorrow was reflected in her beautiful eyes, but she cried no more.
I detested even the memory of Mr. Baker, the cruel stepfather who had been the cause of all my troubles, and I felt inclined to shout with joy at the knowledge that he was dead. But my mother, I thought, must miss him sadly, so I respected her pensive looks and sat back silently in my corner, always however keeping hold of her hand.
Grown-up people so frequently misinterpret each other's sentiments that there is nothing surprising in a child making a similar error. It was only later that I fully understood the reason of those painful reveries which I had mistaken for sorrow.
My poor dear mother did not mourn in her heart for Mr. Baker, although she wore black clothes. She had suffered more at the hands of that monster than I had myself in my horrid school.
My poor mother also had had to submit to the most cruel tight-lacing, as well as to every one of the other tortures I knew so well. Her neck had been almost dislocated, and a doctor had actually been summoned after an excessive use of the "collar". And my dear pretty mother had been whipped; flogged daily and mercilessly, sometimes by Mr. Baker himself and sometimes by that execrable Betsy in his presence. Any pretext, or no pretext, sufficed as a reason for these inflictions.
In the superb Portland Place mansion there was even a special "Punishment Room." On my stepfather's death, my mother looked the door of this grim apartment and it was only some years afterwards that I could inspect it.
Nothing had been disturbed; no one had entered the room since it had been locked up. The first object I noticed was a wooden vaulting horse similar to those employed in gymnasiums, except for the addition of a blood-red pad of kid, highly glazed, and of two steel rings on each side of the neck, so to speak, of the apparatus. It was upon this pad that my dear mother was twisted by Mr. Baker and Betsy. Lying on her stomach, her arms were made fast to the rings and any resistance during her whipping was thus rendered impossible. Her skirts were then pinned over her head and the flogging proceeded with. Some times an immense whip, such as is employed by trainers and others with ungovernable stal lions, was used, and sometimes the simple, but exceedingly painful birch rod.
Should the fancy take them, they would "spread-eagle" my dear mother up on a stand designed for the purpose. This apparatus appeared particularly diabolical.
There were pullies, cords, rings, a trapeze and many other such arrangements and objects. The monster had dazzled my mother's eyes with his wealth and she had married him to be tortured by his passions.
It appears that sometimes he had made her run quite naked from end to end of this "Punishment Room" which was but a corridor. As she ran, the long lash of a whip would pursue her, and since the passage did not permit, owing to its narrowness, of side blows, Mr. Baker would strike vertically, either downwards or upwards. In the case of the latter movement, the thighs and stomach received the most severe punishment.
My poor mother would fly shrieking before the pursuing lash. If she fell, a hurricane of blows descended upon her shoulders, back, and lower parts. In spite of her groans, the unfortunate woman would be compelled to rise to her feet and provide fresh sport for the ruffian.
Mr. Baker would further compel his wife to become, so to speak, a horse, and cut capers as though in a circus, always, of course, to the tune of a long-lashed whip.
It appeared that Mr. Baker, like Lady Flayskin, was a devotee of black glazed kid. Consequently, my mother wore gloves of that material and so tight that she could not close her hands. She also wore the abominable tight-fitting combination of chemise and drawers.
But morally she had to endure even more humiliating persecution.
Baker would sometimes install Betsy in his wife's place at table and the latter would take the servant's place as waiting woman. The coarse and vicious drab would heap ridicule upon her and abuse her for clumsiness or any other fancied offence which occurred to them. They would then compel my mother to adopt a pose at once silly and obscene, while before her eyes they kissed and caressed one another in a fashion which can only be described by the one word: shameful.
My mother was allowed no personal liberty. She was not permitted to communicate with any person outside the house, nor could she go out walking or shopping except on the rare occasions when Baker or Betsy consented to accompany her. She could neither receive nor send letters, except after a censorship so cruel on the part of this man that she might as well have been entirely cut off from the rest of the world.
During this period, she was permitted to receive my letters occasionally, but as I myself was unable to write independently of the head mistress's supervision, she never learnt in that way any of the truth about myself. My letters were dictated, one and all, by astute Lady Flayskin. My mother, however, possessed not only that feminine intuition which so often counts for far more than blind and halting reason; she possessed also in no common degree a passion of maternal love whose pure flame had seemed to be actually fed at the altar of her own sufferings. Thankful, indeed, she was to know, from seeing my writing, that I still lived, but her heart told her that all was not well, that I too suffered.
But what could she do? She could, and did pour out her heart to the Most High and awaited the intervention of that Providence whose ways are mysterious.
Her prayers were not unheeded. We were reunited, rich in the world's possessions and free of our bodies as of our minds.
Mr. Baker's death had been sudden. A confirmed and immoderate spirit-drinker, he had one evening indulged in a certain fiery Scotch whiskey to an extent unusual even with him. Under the influence of the alcohol, his savage passions of cruelty and lust were aroused and he ordered my mother to the Punishment Room.
His unfortunate victim, well aware from long experience that resistance was worse than useless obeyed. Betsy accompanied her and on the staircase dealt her a cruel box on the ears with the object, as the low creature averred of making her mend her face.
My poor mother was then stripped of her clothes by the same coarse and cruel hands and bound to the wooden apparatus covered with glazed red kid. The heavy, unsteady steps of the drunkard then approached from the dining-room.
Tottering into the Punishment Room, Baker selected the long-lashed trainer's whip and managed to crack it once or twice, as was his wont, with the purpose of inspiring due preliminary terror in the heart of his victim. Suddenly he stumbled the whip fell from his hands, and he would have fallen to the ground had not Betsy received him in her arms.
Alcoholic congestion and Neronic excitement had done their work1.
Seeing her master without breath or move ment, Betsy completely lost her head. For getting even to free my mother who was stretched over the whipping-horse, her petticoats (which had not been removed) over her head and i her back parts bare, while her hands were fixed fast in the rings; forgetting the significative humiliating pose of my dear
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Entering the corridor, the first object that met his eye was my mother. He first set her free, then turned to Baker whom he found to have been dead for twenty minutes,
What can I add?
My mother has no thought of another and third mariage, young, beautiful, and charming though she is. We live together and she finds my loving companionship sufficient.
As for me doubtless I shall some day meet the girl whom I shall wish to make the adorn ment of my hearth. She will love and honour my dear mother, who in turn, will give her good counsel and love her as a daughter.
If it be God's will I shall have children.
But neither boys nor girls of mine shall ever know the oppression of the corset. Their boots shall be of the comfortable, practical, flat-heeled English type.
Glazed kid in any shape or colour shall be ever "taboo" in my house.
I hope that no little boy of mine will ever be dressed as a girl and called by a girl's name. And I express the same hope in regard to all other little boys.
For had not my darling mother delivered me in time I should have lost for ever my honour and my manhood.