Lord Castlebridge runs his stately home with a rod of iron and when his wife fritters away seven thousand pounds at Ascot, she knows that she is destined for the rod! But even his Lordship’s rigid discipline cannot ensure the smooth running of Castlebridge towers unless his faithful butler, Greenwood is prepared to use the birch as well. Fortunately the caning stool and birching post are safely installed in the library and well-prepared for the correction of the young women on his staff, as well as his wife.
Meanwhile not all is well with his business which is normally run by his mistress - who herself is well-used to being disciplined.
The wife of an employee has been indiscreet and the consequences are severe indeed. And not just for his Lordship – but for the wife as well.
The week, at the end of June, that saw the beating of Brenda Brideshead in the great library of Castlebridge Hall, was notable for the unseasonal warmth of the weather. The English climate seemed to have taken leave of its customary common sense and inflicted week after week of searing temperatures upon a population more habituated to its usual, nondescript and bland uniformity. Barely a whisper of breeze stirred the leaves of the poplars lining the drive, beyond the gates of Castlebridge Hall, and the early summer flowers wilted in their beds beneath the relentless assault of solar radiation. Even the massive stone edifice of Castlebridge Hall itself, built in solid defiance of all the usual vagaries of the country's climate, seemed to droop visibly under this unexpected onslaught of blistering heat. It shimmered resignedly, amidst the extensive parklands, themselves parched arid by weeks of drought, and waited stoically for the blissful anointment of cooling rain to alleviate its misery.
Had such scorching weather had the decency to grace the shores of the Côte d'Azur or cast its favour upon the beaches of the Costa Brava, then doubtless the inhabitants would have welcomed it. The tourists would have flocked in thankful hordes to worship it; the café owners would have put out tables, chairs and parasols on the front terraces of their establishments in anticipation of brisk business; the ice cream vendors would have laid on extra stocks with high hopes of profitable enterprise to come; the tour operators would have cancelled all leave and expected fat bonuses. In other words, all would have been as it should be and the blazing sunshine a blessing upon the venerable vocation of separating tourists from their disposable income. But this wasn't the South of France or Spain. This was Castlebridge Hall, the ancient country seat of the Earls of Castlebridge, set in magnificent splendour amidst the gentle green hills of southern England, and, whilst a day or two of pleasant weather might be looked upon with favour, this interminable heat wave was about as welcome as a blizzard in Benidorm.
The intolerable temperatures had had the most deplorable effects upon the normally rigid discipline within the solid masonry of the Hall and that, by and by, meant the discipline among its womenfolk. The enormous architectural artefact required a large labour force to maintain it in the manner to which the current Lord Castlebridge was accustomed and it was a peculiarity of the Hall that that labour force was mostly female. Many a visitor to the Hall was struck by the contrast of the Hall's outer appearance and the composition of its inhabitants. From the outside, the Hall, with its solid uncompromising stone work, appeared to be a fortress of masculinity yet, penetrate within, and you would discover that this seeming bastion of manhood was an illusion and that by far the majority of everybody you would encounter therein was female and, it has to be said, mostly young and of personable appearance to boot.
This is not to say however that the Hall was in any way a haven of feminine equality. Far from it! With the exception of Mrs Moorhouse, the head of the housekeeping department and the figure of Lord Castlebridge's wife, the senior personnel of the hall were exclusively male. The head butler was male as were the head gardener, the chef, the head caretaker, the head groundsman and the gamekeeper as well as a handful of others. At the head of this male hierarchy was Lord Castlebridge himself; the latest in a long line of Earls who had ruled with an autocratic authority that had changed little in any fundamental way since the late middle ages.
There were a few junior males such as the young men and boys who assisted in the grounds or worked under the caretaker in the physical maintenance of the buildings. Other than these however, the Hall relied for its upkeep on a small battalion of young housemaids, chambermaids, scullery and kitchen maids, serving girls, stable lasses, laundry maids and even a small clerical department of office girls, to handle the bureaucratic necessities and paperwork inevitably generated by an edifice the size of Castlebridge Hall. This small army of young womanhood took up an entire wing of the Hall for their dormitories, common rooms and dining areas and were to thank for the immaculate condition of the Hall's interior and the smooth efficiency of its domestic service.
If you could see your face in the teak panelling in the hallways it was because some young lady had, that very day, laboured long with rag and polish to achieve that perfection of sheen. Should a gentleman visitor to the Hall require his best evening clothes for dinner that evening then a young maid would scurry along to fetch his vestments to the laundry where another girl would be tasked with the job of brushing his jacket and pressing his trousers whilst her colleague shined his shoes. Should you remark upon the cleanliness of the flagstones of the back veranda overlooking the grounds then you could be assured that there was, some young lady, who had spent her afternoon, on her knees, scrubbing them, to thank for their pristine condition. A serving girl placed your evening meal before you and, should you require something to relax with by the fireside at the conclusion of your meal, then you could be certain that her colleague would appear at your elbow, as if she had sprung up from the floorboards, bearing port and cigars on a silver tray. The Hall ran with an admirable efficiency.
This commendable efficiency was not achieved lightly or without cost however. A tradition of Draconian discipline was inherent in the history of Castlebridge Hall and the current Lord Castlebridge saw no reason to deviate from that tradition or that the implementation of such discipline should be any less efficacious in the present day than it had proved to be for his ancestors of the past. Thus, if you were to admire the spotless cleanliness of the bathroom adjoining your suite, it would be because the chamber maid, tasked with the duty of cleaning it, would be all too aware of the painful consequences that a less than assiduous application of that duty would entail. Conversely, were you to run a finger along a mantelpiece and remark that the place seemed rather dusty, then the consequences of your observation would filter down the chain of command, leading to recriminations in the house keeping department, stern admonitions and all too likely to result in the maid responsible for the negligence being called upon to answer for her dereliction by bending over with her skirts and petticoats raised, her knickers lowered to her knees and receiving whatever punishment was deemed appropriate by her superiors to her bare backside.
For minor infractions this punishment would normally be a matter of internal departmental discipline. Mrs Moorhouse, the head housekeeper, for instance, would generally deal with such small infractions herself and chastise the young ladies in her charge on the spot without recourse to higher authority. She favoured the use of thick leather straps for this purpose although, when she felt it merited, would occasionally utilise a martinet which, being a short, multi-tailed whip was an instrument much to be feared.
Whilst these measures were considered sufficient for lesser offences and for general maintenance discipline, more serious matters were referred to the Hall's head butler, Mr Greenwood. Greenwood was an imposing gentleman of large stature, majestic bearing and formidable authority. His favoured instrument of choice in disciplinary matters was the rattan cane of which he had a considerable selection; all carefully chosen and fashioned with stout grips by himself. His height and build lent considerable force to cane wielded in his hands and few of the woeful culprits among the domestic staff that had suffered the misfortune to experience the agonising effect of his cane felt in any hurry to be re-acquainted with it.
Routine canings of anything up to around twenty five or thirty strokes of the cane were generally administered in the nearest convenient space with the miscreant in question being merely required to raise her skirts, lower her knickers and assume the customary position for punishment. In most cases, thirty strokes was considered the absolute maximum that any young offender could be expected to endure whilst still retaining her position obediently for the duration of the caning and there were many, it has to be said, that could not even withstand that many, such was the excruciating pain of the cane across the bare flesh when administered by Greenwood's strong right hand. For punishments beyond routine correction therefore, other measures were regarded as necessary requirements.
For those offences deemed particularly serious, matters of repeated offences or those indicative of a long pattern of misconduct the consequences were commensurately severe. Such matters might see the culprit called upon to answer for the failures in her conduct with a severe flogging that could, and frequently did, amount to fifty or more strokes of the cane. Such a caning was a fearful ordeal and not even the most hardened or compliantly obedient servant girl could be expected to submissively maintain the correct position for the receipt of her caning under the frightful agony of such a beating.
Such severe punishments, therefore, were considered formal affairs and conducted in the Hall's library which, over the generations, had, by tradition, come to be accepted as the chamber within the Hall where disciplinary hearings of a more formal and serious nature were conducted and the subsequent punishments administered. Aside from the now rarely used ballroom, the library was the largest room in the Hall. It was a high chamber with great vaulting eaves spanned by massive oaken beams, furnished with solid wooden chairs and tables and lined with acres of bookshelves containing thousands of weighty tomes. Being at a remove from the more frequented regions of the Hall and with its stern and austere manner, the library was an admirable place in which to address matters of the most serious misconduct or dereliction of duty. Amongst the servant girls of Castlebridge Hall, a summons to report to the library for punishment was the most dreaded fate of all. For the young lady thus summonsed, making her way through the galleries of the Hall, her face pale with fear, trembling with dread anticipation and with tears pricking at her eyes, such a summons almost invariably meant, a soon to be, intimate acquaintance with the library's caning stool; the venerable, solid oak apparatus which had graced the library far beyond the living memory of anybody in the Hall and over which generations of wretched domestic servants had been strapped down, in immobility, to learn the errors of their ways and rue the consequences of their misbehaviour.
All these disciplinary functions had been much in evidence over the past weeks and for that the unusual weather was largely to blame. Work at Castlebridge Hall was hard and demanding at the best of times. Under the insufferable heatwave gripping the southern counties of England it was tantamount to purgatory. Inevitably a stupefying languor had descended over the Hall and the normal rigorous application to duty of the domestic staff had suffered as a result. Under the arduous conditions, corners had been cut. Some duties had received only perfunctory attention and others had been neglected altogether. The girls of Castlebridge Hall had grown indolent and slothful under the burden of the incessant heat; grumbling and insubordination had become endemic and tempers become more frayed the longer the intolerable heat continued.
A more compassionate or sympathetic master than Lord Castlebridge would have understood that the decline in the usual high standards was attributable to the unusual circumstances and perhaps tolerated a certain temporary laxness among his domestic staff as a result of the weather. His Lordship's own temper, however, had not been improved by day after day of scorching heat and, with several worrying matters concerning him in his business dealings, the evidence of the less than satisfactory performance of his household maids had only served to irritate him further. As a result he had summonsed his senior staff and demanded that the decline be arrested forthwith and that stern measures be taken immediately to correct the perceptible idleness and negligence currently prevailing among the staff.
Evidence of this rigorous cracking of the collective whip was presently to be found in one of the downstairs drawing rooms where a certain young Peggy Monsworth was currently to be found bent over the arm of a stout leather arm chair having her bottom strapped by Mrs Moorhouse. Peggy was, in common with most of the girls at Castlebridge Hall, an attractive young lady. If there was a fault to be perceived in her appearance then it could most properly be attributed to Peggy's weakness for sweet confectionery. This weakness led her too easily to the side of plumpness. It was not that she was obese by any measure. A hard working life at Castlebridge Hall precluded that. She was merely apt to become a little chubby about the waist or hindquarters. It was this unfortunate proclivity that lay at the root of her present predicament.
The previous week Lord Castlebridge had conducted one of his periodic inspections of the Hall, accompanied by Mrs Moorhouse. They had come across Peggy in the Long Gallery, manhandling a heavy mahogany desk aside in order to dust behind it. Peggy had been perspiring heavily, which had been hardly surprising considering the weight of the desk and the ambient temperature at the time. Lord Castlebridge, on the other hand, had placed a rather more personal interpretation upon Peggy's struggles; preferring in fact to believe that they were more due to a lamentable lack of physical fitness on her part. She, he opined, appeared to be putting a lot of weight on.
Lord Castlebridge was particularly strict in this respect. Not only were the girls of Castlebridge Hall under exacting rules concerning their work and personal conduct but even their health and physical condition was monitored closely. Lord Castlebridge had narrowed his eyes at Peggy's seemingly excess pounds and felt it indicative of the atmosphere of indolence currently infecting the Hall. In order to confirm his suspicions, he had ordered Peggy to remove her clothes in order to examine her. Blushing scarlet with humiliation, poor Peggy had complied, stripping her maid's uniform and underwear off under Lord Castlebridge's critical eye. Once she was naked Lord Castlebridge had walked around her slowly, grunting with disapproval. He had even gone so far as to poke her. Finally he had turned to Mrs Moorhouse and declared that the girl was clearly overweight and had adjured Mrs Moorhouse to see to the matter.
The result of this mortifying indignity was that Peggy had been placed on a strict diet. Peggy was a girl with a healthy appetite and the diet had been torment thus far. She had been perpetually hungry all week and Mrs Moorhouse had rather suspected her of cheating on her diet. Those suspicions had been confirmed when Mrs Moorhouse, on her rounds, had caught Peggy red handed with a pair of chocolate bars in her apron pocket. After that discovery there had been nothing for it but to order Peggy to raise her skirts, lower her knickers and prostrate herself over the armchair. Peggy had a pretty face but that prettiness was not in evidence at the moment, being contorted in a grimace of pain, streaked with tears and with a crimson hue to match that of her possibly overly plump buttocks wobbling under the stinging blows of Mrs Moorhouse's strap.
It had seen much sterling service of late, that strap. In addition to Peggy, no less than five other girls had been on the receiving end of it in the last ten days alone. Nor was that all. Only the night before, Mrs Moorhouse had conducted a late night round of the servants’ wing and caught two young maids sneaking down a corridor in their nightgowns, well after lights out and at an hour when regulations demanded that they be tucked up in their beds in their dormitories. Their excuse that they were merely visiting the lavatory was transparently false for there was a lavatory adjoining their dormitory and they were not even on the same floor! Entirely dissatisfied with their explanations, Mrs Moorhouse had marched the pair of them off to her own chambers where she had ordered them to remove their nightgowns and spent five minutes whipping their backs and buttocks with the martinet before ordering them back to bed.
Mrs Moorhouse had never got to the bottom of why the two girls had been abroad at that hour but she suspected that they had been on their way to a clandestine encounter. What such an encounter might have been was open to speculation. The worst case was that possibly the encounter may have involved men.
In the strictly regimented life of the Castlebridge Hall servants, contact with the opposite sex was severely limited. In effect it was restricted to those hours of freedom afforded by their afternoons off or their free days. Even these interludes afforded little opportunity for romantic liaisons. On their afternoons off, the girls might well walk down to the village for a few hours of leisure but they were under strict curfew to be back before ten o'clock and, in any case, Mrs Moorhouse had enough spies in the village to report any unseemly dilly-dallying with the village lads. Their days off might have provided greater opportunities but even these were limited. The girls would frequently take the bus to town on their days off and hope for some romantic adventure far from the omnipresent view of the Halls' authorities. Sadly the last bus back to Castlebridge in the evening was at eight o'clock and it was a caning offence to miss it. It hardly lent itself to nights of wild adventure.
Strictly prohibited was any fraternisation with any of the young men working around the Hall other than that deemed unavoidable in the course of one's duties. This decree had its genesis in a scandal that had rocked the household many years before when one of the chamber maids had become pregnant following an affair with one of the gardener's assistants. Now there was a tightly controlled separation between the sexes. The boys on the estates had their own quarters in a converted barn down near the old mill in the grounds and were not even allowed to set foot in the main Hall except on those occasions when it was absolutely necessary. The girls for their part were mostly restricted to the garden areas immediately closest to the Hall although they were allowed, on occasions, to take walks in the park lands or even picnic down by the lake albeit only under close chaperone.
Of course these regulations were frequently transgressed. The girls had been sneaking down the old fire escape in the servants' wing for clandestine midnight trysts with their paramours since time out of mind at Castlebridge Hall. It was a dangerous occupation however for the penalties for being caught were severe. Only the month before, one of the maids had been caught in a state of partial undress in a hayloft with one of the delivery boys from the bakery. The boy had been banned in perpetuity from setting foot on the estate forthwith and the young maid in question had been ordered to the library for a salutary caning.
It might be thought, therefore, that these regulations, by so severely curtailing the occasions for romantic outlet, would result in a body of very frustrated young ladies in the Hall. Such, however, was not the case. The girls simply transferred their frustrated affections to each other. They were, after all, healthy young ladies with correspondingly healthy appetites and, if the pleasures of young men were denied to them, there were always their sisters in servitude to provide pleasant compensation. Indeed it might be said that their dalliances with each other were the favourite leisure activities among the girls of Castlebridge Hall and it would be a brave person indeed that attempted to unravel the labyrinthine complexities of romantic life among them.
Oddly enough, this was one area where the girls were less strictly controlled. It was not that it was officially tolerated as such. Any girls caught playing with each other would certainly have been in contravention of the rules and would face punishment. It was more a case that the senior staff tended to turn a blind eye to this particular aspect of the girls' conduct. The reasons for this were complicated. For one thing it was considered an inevitability of the girls' close life together with each other. They worked together; they ate together; they shared dormitories together; it was unavoidable that they would therefore play together.
Nor was this entirely considered to be altogether a bad thing. Even Lord Castlebridge himself recognised that the girls had to have some sort of outlet for their romantic passions and that efforts to curtail the sexual drives of a horde of young women were about as likely to succeed as King Canute's endeavours in the field of tidal engineering. Their love affairs with each other at least provided a safety valve for their urges and, furthermore, had the virtue of being relatively harmless in that they carried no threat of unwanted pregnancy and little chance of sexually transmitted disease.
Another reason for overlooking this particular aspect of the girls' lives was entirely pragmatic. It was a question of staff morale. The girls could be fiercely devoted and passionate towards their girlfriends and any attempt to sever the relationships between them would lead to a crash in morale among them and most probably precipitate outright rebellion. It was a wise eye, therefore, that blinkered itself to their complex and multifaceted love lives and let well alone. Only in cases where there had been a flagrant act, impossible to overlook, or those instances where the interminable infidelities, petty jealousies or squabbling over girlfriends threatened to disrupt domestic harmony, was the issue addressed at all and action taken. Otherwise the girls were left largely to their own devices in this regard and the servants' wing was such a resultant hotbed of ever changing liaisons, love triangles, clandestine meetings, devoted declarations, theatrical drama and trappings of passion that even the poetess Sappho would have thrown up her hands in despair.
There was one final reason why such activity was generally regarded as being one in which it was considered unwise to delve into too closely. It was the fact that the first lady of the household, Lady Castlebridge in person, was by no means immune to such a proclivity herself. It would have been hypocritical at best and downright risky at worst to proscribe an indulgence that Her Ladyship too was wont to seek gratification in. Few would dare to question Her Ladyship's private affairs. Even her husband, with his own skeletons in the cupboard, tended to treat his wife's diversions with her personal handmaidens with studied, benign neglect.
This is not to say that Lady Castlebridge could do as she wanted by any means. On the contrary, there were many areas of misconduct for which she could be mostly definitely taken to account. It was one of these instances of misconduct that would emerge this day and, as Castlebridge Hall sweltered under the heat of June, the consequences of that misconduct would provide a fitting prelude to the memorable week which would see Brenda Brideshead's caning at Castlebridge Hall.