Set in medieval times, a girl receives typical punishment of the age
By Jane Fairweather
“You have got the quails for your aunt, dear, haven’t you?”
Mother was fretting, Alice thought to herself. Mother did not like sending her only child away at such a time, when the loyalty of her husband to the crown was openly being questioned, but, Alice thought to herself, her lady mother knew all too well that Alice would be a lot safer with her Aunt Margaret, the countess of Eboracum, whose husband stood high in the favour of King Arthur the Fourth of Lyonesse, than here in the castle of her father, who was on the verge of being condemned to death for treason, which would lead of course to the loss of his lands and her own disinheritance. Mother would probably end up in a nunnery, if she did not find herself on a scaffold sharing her husband’s fate, which god forbid. Women were not often executed for treason, but it was not unknown. Everyone knew King Arthur was a great and wrathful king; and her Mother and Father had always been very close. If Father was involved in treason, it was quite likely that Mother was as well. This could well be the last time she would see either of her parents.
“Yes, of course, Mother,” was all she said aloud.
“The quails should survive, they are packed in salt. You must deal with them as soon as you get to your Aunt’s. And you are to be dutiful and obedient to your Aunt. She is stretching a point having you as an attendant at such a difficult time for all of us.”
“Do you think they will put Father on trial?” Alice asked, knowing full well that if her father was put on trial he would be found guilty and his head would end up on a spike on the main gate of Venta; trials in matters of treason were always a formality.
“Probably not; I hope not,” was the only reply, but Alice noticed the drawn face under the white head dress and reflected for the second or third time that morning that her Mother must have spent a lot of the night in tears.
“I have talked a lot to Jehan about the safest way to get you there. The quails are a nuisance, but your Aunt has requested them, and such a request at such a time is important. I do not want to do anything to annoy her when her intervention might well save your Father’s life.
“Anyway, it means you cannot ride your palfrey and you will have to go in the carriage. I could send three or four men at arms with you, but that is as likely to draw attention to you as save you from being robbed. Besides, I really do not want to have an even smaller garrison than I already have, if one of your Father’s enemies takes advantage of the situation to attack us.”
“Mother, you won’t fight if the King’s men come, will you?” Alice exclaimed impetuously, knowing full that it was not the sort of comment that was expected of a dutiful daughter, but past caring at the thought of what might ensue.
“I think that is not your decision, daughter, but if it becomes a question of dying ignominiously with my head on the block, or in the smouldering ruins of my own castle, I may well choose the smouldering ruins.”
“Yes, of course, Mother,” Was Alice’s only reply; she knew it was useless to say any more.
“Anyway, Jehan’s opinion is that he can get you there without trouble provided he takes the back roads and you don’t wear anything worth stealing, in case you are held up. I see you have done as I told you and put on servant’s clothes, which is excellent, though no doubt you feel a little odd in them. But you have obeyed me and not put any jewellery on, haven’t you daughter? I know your love of finery and no doubt the temptation to have something pretty to wear at your Aunt and Uncle’s court is quite considerable.”
“Yes, of course, Mother,” Alice replied demurely, knowing full well that she had two solid gold bracelets hidden under her sleeves, and her ruby necklace was at the bottom of her travel bag.
She understood her mother’s reasons for forbidding her to wear jewellery very well, but if she was abandoned by Aunt Margaret because her parents had been condemned for treason, then having some funds at her disposal might be worth a great deal.
“She is telling the truth, isn’t she, Mary?” Mother was asking the pretty red haired woman, who had been first Alice’s nurse and then her maid.
“Yes, of course, Madame; Lady Alice has never been a liar.” Mary exclaimed as if furiously resenting the imputation against her mistress, though in reality taking the jewels had been as much her suggestion as her mistress’s.
“I am sorry if I questioned your honesty, Alice.” Mother said, rather embarrassed. “Anyway, the pair of you had better get in the carriage and let Jehan get you there. You have got enough food and drink, haven’t you, Mary? It will be nearly nightfall when you get there, and if a wheel comes off or something it could well be later.”
“Enough for two days, Madame,” Mary replied briskly. “But I doubt if we shall need it.”
“It is a good solid carriage, your ladyship, and I doubt if we shall have any problems.” Jehan, the old retainer, who was in charge of the expedition, stated a trifle irritably.
“I trust you implicitly, Jehan!” Mother stated sincerely enough, though Alice noticed a flicker of a smile at the corner of her parent’s mouth.
Mother and daughter looked at one another and then embraced with very real feeling. Alice restrained herself from saying that she hoped this was not the last time she would see her Mother.
“You must obey your Aunt in all things in this very difficult situation. Remember she has the powers of a parent over you; I have told her that. And as far as I am concerned that includes whipping!” Mother said very formally as she and Alice separated from their very deeply felt embrace.
‘How like Mother to be so formal!’ Alice thought with a twinge in her heart and a faint worry that what she was doing was close to stealing, for which in theory she could be hanged, though a lady of her rank would not be hanged. However, Mary could well end up in her shift at the end of a rope, Alice suddenly realized with a shudder. But on the other hand the jewels were family property and she had always worn them. Probably she was exaggerating the risk. And if it was a question of a mild whipping, well, she had been whipped before and she was not that afraid of it. And anyway, how would anyone know they had taken the jewels with them? Certainly Aunt Margaret would have no means of knowing, unless they had to tell her for some reason. No, she was making an unnecessary fuss.
Mary and Alice got into the carriage and the expedition began its slow, laborious progress through narrow green lanes with great stone walls or earth banks to either side. Eventually they turned among the trees of the Great Wood, where the pathways lacked the clear definition of the country lanes and deer bounded just in sight. Alice, despite being bounced about in the springless carriage more than she liked, found a certain romantic charm in her surroundings. At least it had been almost too dry for three weeks and there was no mud to get stuck in and the trees with their rich summer leaves and strange shadows were absolutely lovely.
Then she wondered what the chances of being stopped by outlaws were? Probably not high, she decided. She knew from things her Father had said that the new Sheriff had been very efficient at rooting out evil doers from the Great Wood and Jehan, who she trusted, seemed to think that there was little risk. Still, she concluded, it gave a certain frisson to the adventure.
Jehan very sensibly stopped briefly in a glade so they could eat and drink without having to contend with the rolling of the carriage. However, Alice noticed he insisted on getting going as soon as they were finished; clearly he was not quite sure the journey was as safe as he had assured her Mother that it was.
Still they went on steadily for another hour or so, though Alice and Mary had got to the stage of wondering to one another if this bumping was ever going to stop, when suddenly Jehan pulled the horses up very sharply. Alice put her head out of the open carriage window and realized there were three rough and ready looking peasants on the track ahead with arrows fitted to their bows. Outlaws! And god, they were going to take the jewels and she would never be forgiven. Her heart started to beat wildly.
“Do and say as little as you can,” Mary was saying urgently. “Just remember, we are two servants with a gift of quails for Lady Margaret.”
‘Clearly a pre-arranged plan,’ Alice thought, wondering why no one had bothered to mention it before. Presumably Mother, Mary and Jehan had cooked it up between them and thought it not necessary to bother her. Idiots! How was she to play her part without knowing?
As if by way of confirmation, she heard Jehan saying: “Really, we have not much for you lads. Just a few quails my mistress thought fit to send to her sister, Lady Margaret, and she had to send a couple of maids to see they were handled properly. Lord knows why, I could have done it myself without these moaning minnies.”
“Much use quails is to us!” the leading outlaw was declaring. “Still, we had better have a look at these servant wenches. You never know lads. Cedric, help them out of the carriage, would you? I expect they will need a hand down.”
A slender young man, more of a boy than a man, with long black hair with curls, opened one of the doors of the carriage and rather ceremoniously handed the two women down.
“The younger one has got a pair of what must be copper bangles on her wrists. I can feel them through her sleeves.” He announced. “Must have pushed them out of sight when she saw us coming. Stupid bitch! We are not that bad.”
Alice flushed and shivered.
“Well, they can keep copper bangles. Don’t like to be mean to a poor servant.” the leader was saying.
Alice felt a flash of hope.
“That is no servant! That is the lord of Bellame’s daughter. I’ve seen her before,” the third man, who was greyer and older than the other two, was saying. “Her dad’s for the chop in Venta. She will be smuggling something; they’ll be scared they are going to lose everything. Treason is a costly business.”
Alice felt herself blush even redder.
“Well, lets see what her bangles are like.” Said the leader. “As I said, she can keep them if they are copper. I don’t like to be mean, even to a lady. And anyway, if it is true her dad’s fallen foul of the king, then she is almost on our side. Pull up your sleeves, girl, and take off whatever bit of finery you are hiding.”
Alice felt incredibly shaky and almost unable to comply, but equally she disliked the thought of being searched and the bracelets being forcibly removed. Very slowly, she pulled up her right sleeve, removed the gold bracelet and handed it over to the young man with black hair, since he was nearest to her.
He in turn handed it over to his leader. Alice waited shivering for his reaction.
“Good grief!” This is real gold and real workmanship. This is worth a fortune. No wonder she was trying to hide it. Take the other one off, girl. I expect it is the same.”
Alice complied, despite being on the verge of being sick.
“Well that really has made our day,” said the leader very dryly. “I wonder what else they are carrying. Look through the quails and any bags.”
A few minutes later and Lady Margaret’s quails were scattered on the ground, and the two women’s travel bags were being examined.
“It’s only a few oldish clothes like the other one,” said the young man with black curls, opening the second bag in a desultory fashion.
For a moment, Alice thought her rubies might escape.
“There will be something!’ The leader stated firmly. “Have it all out, boy!”
Alice’s clothes ended up on the ground, one item at a time. Each bit of clothing was examined for anything wrapped in it. Strangely, the robbers almost missed the necklace which had been wrapped in a thick winter gown and Alice was beginning to think the rubies at least might have escaped, but then the young man was saying: “I think I’ve found something,” and that was it; the robbers had her rubies. She nearly died with shame, thinking what this robbery was costing her family.
But in a way, worse was to come.
“She really is a good liar, this lady whatever her name is; Lord Bellame’s brat, anyway.” The leader of the outlaws was saying. “If she was my daughter, she’d get her bottom smacked for losing so much of the family’s wealth. Shall we give it to her, boys?”
Then Jehan was saying: “Surely, lads, you have got what you came for. No need to be cruel to the girl on top of taking all that wealth off her.”
And Mary was screaming that she would see the three of them in Hell, if they did this horrible thing to her mistress.
However, Alice’s servants’ protests only seemed to encourage the outlaws.
“Well, we are going to warm your bottom, mistress, whether you and your people like it or not. We can do it the easy way and you accept what is coming and I will use my hand, or you can make us hold you and we will do it without a stitch of clothing on you, and use a stick,” the leader was saying.
“Oh, do your worst!” Alice said fiercely. “My father is quite probably going to lose his head and me getting a spanking seems quite mild compared with that. Where do you want me?”
The leader suddenly looked slightly taken aback. Alice could see him looking for somewhere to administer the punishment. There were no obvious rocks, tree stumps or fallen trees.
“Oh, I will sit on the floor of the carriage. Come over here mistress,” the leader said as if there had not been a problem. “Now, pull up your skirts at the back. No doubt you won’t want to show me your front. Now, over my knee!”
Alice hesitated and felt herself being unceremoniously put across this villain’s knee. A hard hand descended on her right buttock and really stung. Alice reflected that this was a lot worse than the couple of fairly mild spankings she had endured as a small child. This general impression, unfortunately, was not misplaced. The hand slowly and systematically worked its way over her whole bottom and thighs five or six times till in the end she was crying and kicking. Rather to her relief, she managed not to plead.
Suddenly, without warning, she was let go and she made herself stand and pull her skirts down and stand nonchalantly as if her punishment had not hurt that much.
“That should teach you not to lie when the king’s men come asking you questions about your dad,” said the leader sarcastically. “And really not a bad preparation for the block, which I expect will come your way sooner or later.”
“How dare you!” Said Alice with real anger.
However, the outlaws made off without any further comment, carrying their booty, and Alice was left to face her extremely annoyed servants.
“How could you be so stupid, Lady Alice?” Jehan declared. “Why do you think you were told not to bring anything of value. And now Lady Margaret has lost her quails, which stupid cow that she is, will not please her. Quite frankly, Lady Alice, if what has just happened had not happened, I would have done it to you myself.”
“I agree with Jehan, Lady Alice! I really do,” Mary added. “And what your Aunt or your Mother will have to say, I dread to think!”
Alice bit her tongue, knowing that Mary was saying this to hide her own complicity in bringing the jewels.
They picked up the clothes and what was left of the quails and completed the journey in little more than an hour.
* * *
“How are you, Mistress?” Mary said in a rather more conciliatory way than she had spoken immediately after the robbery.
They were in a small attic room, which was a sign of the low rank that Alice was being treated with in her Aunt’s household, but at least it had a four poster bed. The two women had been used to sleeping together for over ten years, and Alice for one would have missed Mary’s warm body.
“My bottom is still hot and aching. Being tossed about in the carriage did not help that much,” Said Alice with quite genuine feeling.
“Do you want me to make you feel a bit better?” asked Mary with odd diffidence.
“I was hoping you would ask, Mary.”
Alice had her doubts if being made to feel better by Mary was altogether proper. But still, Mary was her maid and why should she not have some very real ‘help’ from her maid?
They got into their night clothes and then into bed.
* * *
The next morning, Alice found herself standing before her Aunt Margaret in her Aunt’s private chamber.
“How dare you lose my quails to some petty peasant! I am not sure that I don’t care more about that than the rest, though of course the loss of the jewels is serious. How dare you take such valuable items that did not even belong to you, despite your Mother’s clear instructions and Jehan’s very good advice. I imagine that your only reason was vanity. I only hope your maid was not involved. If I find she was part of your stupidity, I will have her whipped and dismissed. Was she part of it?”
“No, of course not. She is a very good sensible maid, and I did not tell her because I was afraid she would tell my Mother. I only did it because I was afraid that if the worst were to happen I might find myself totally penniless.”
Aunt Margaret’s face softened a little and she observed: “Yes, I can understand that with your Father in such trouble and your Mother quite likely to be drawn in. Yes, you would be frightened of being penniless. However, one of the ironies of the situation is that your Mother has been desperately trying to bribe some people at the King’s court to help your father, and these very valuable items you lost would really have been most useful. I don’t say that your stupidity will lose your Father his head, and quite possibly my sister as well, the way things are going, but your stupidity could be the thing that makes the difference.”
“I really am very sorry indeed,” said Alice, now genuinely weeping.
“I am sorely tempted to throw you out in to the street and let you starve in the gutter, but you are young and my sister’s only child and I cannot bring myself to do it. So, I will at least give you a room and food, though you will eat at the bottom of the bottom table. And I suppose your maid as well, since your Mother thinks well of her and, who knows, she may introduce a little common sense into your silly young noddle. And as to your punishment, Jehan tells me that you had quite a spanking from this ridiculous outlaw, which I must say I wish I had seen. So, we will deduct a little for that. If it were not for the pain and humiliation that you have already suffered I would have you whipped on your bare back with a leather whip. I don’t like thieves, whether from a noble background, or not, though I think hanging is a little severe. As it is, you will return to my chamber tomorrow morning at this same time wearing only your shift. You will bring your maid who will hold you while I administer the birch on a scale that you will remember for the rest of your life. Your maid no doubt will benefit from the demonstration. I am by no means sure that she is innocent in this matter, but there is not quite enough evidence to say she definitely was involved. Now, leave me! I will see you at the same time tomorrow. And do not dare appear for food till after your punishment.”
* * *
It had been a tearful night. Alice had kept waking up with nightmares about her father being beheaded. In the worst of them, she was always the next one to be beheaded after her parent. Strangely, her Mother seemed to be absent from the scaffold and Alice kept wondering where she was. Mary had done her best to caress and comfort her, but Alice had felt as if nothing would make anything better.
“That was the church bell striking eight,” said Mary diffidently as the distant bell ceased to boom. “If it is the same time as yesterday, you had better be outside your Aunt’s door by the time it starts striking nine.”
“I do know!” Alice murmured half audibly. “Anyway, I have only got to put my shift on instead of my night clothes. It is as bad as being hanged. They hang women in their shifts, don’t they?”
“At least you will be alive at the end of it and she isn’t throwing you out on the street. I should be grateful if I were you.” Mary commented firmly, but gently. “Anyway, even if you don’t need to dress, I do; her ladyship will expect me to be immaculate. And I am not going to let you go to your punishment without your hair being done.”
“I suppose so,” came the mutter from Alice.
Mary busied herself with dressing as immaculately as she could. Somewhere between half past eight and quarter to nine she shooed her mistress out of bed and out of her night gown and into a clean white shift. Then she made her sit while she very carefully arranged Alice’s auburn hair in plaits and then put it up. Then she carefully wiped the tears from her mistress’s face and washed it.
“You will do!” said Mary fiercely. “And look, I smuggled a taste of good white bread last night. Come on, eat it, you will feel better.”
“She will see I have been eating,” said Alice with a shiver.
“Not if I wipe the crumbs off.”
Alice munched briefly and felt just a little better. Mary took a cloth and wiped her mistress’s mouth and front teeth very carefully.
“Come on, we had better go.” Alice said resignedly.
The two of them went out of the door and walked through the house. People kept staring at Alice in her shift and she felt utterly humiliated. They arrived eventually at Lady Margaret’s private chamber. There was a sentry on the door, but he knew what they were there for and just let them in without a word, which Alice felt relieved about. Having to explain she was there to be whipped like a little girl had been worrying her.
“I am glad to see you are not looking like a complete wreck, Alice. I think that reflects well on both you and your maid.” Lady Margaret said briskly. “Now, shall we get this nonsense out of the way? I hate having to punish a grown girl, but there seems no sensible alternative. Kneel on the floor facing the fire place and you, Mary isn’t it, take a firm grip on your mistress’s hands and hold on. She will probably wriggle a great deal. If you don’t hold her firmly you will shortly find yourself kneeling in the same position as your mistress, which I am not sure that you don’t at least half deserve, so don’t tempt me.”
Alice very reluctantly lowered herself to the floor and knelt on the stone. Even with the fire directly in front of her it felt cold.
“Come on, Alice! I haven’t all day. Give your hands to your maid and let us get this over with.”
Alice very reluctantly held out her hands. Mary took them, surprisingly firmly, Alice felt.
“Mary, pull your mistress towards you a little. Thank you.”
Alice felt her body being yanked forward. Mary was very sensibly doing exactly what she was being told. Alice rather tearfully told herself that in Mary’s place she would have done the same.
Alice felt her shift being pulled well above her waist. Oh god, not her bare bum, she thought. She had more than half hoped the shift would stay in place. Then the bundle of birch rods in Lady Margaret’s hand hit her across her buttocks very hard indeed and she felt herself push forward. It stung so much that if Mary had not been holding her so firmly she would have fallen on her face. The second and third landed on top of the first and she found herself contorting wildly and screaming. Then Lady Margaret very unkindly switched to the open space at the bottom of Alice’s buttocks, which led to her bellowing like a stuck pig, Mary said afterwards. Then there were three more on the buttocks and three more into the top of the thighs. Alice felt on fire and totally humiliated.
There was a pause.
“Can I let her go?” Mary asked.
“Yes, of course, girl. And take her back to her room. She will need some ointment, I expect.”
But it was a little while before Alice felt able to stand up. During the interval, Lady Margaret kept talking aloud in an anxious monologue that seemed to be mainly directed at Mary.
“Your mistress must try to be as invisible as possible. She must not do anything to draw attention to herself. Her liberty, and quite possibly her life, will depend on it. And you can help her by making sure she does nothing foolish. I hope you understand, girl.”
Eventually Alice rose very uncertainly to her feet and made the long walk back to her room. She lay face down on the bed weeping while Mary applied a cold sponge and then some ointment.
When Alice had recovered enough to speak, she laughed through her tears and said: “Well, it will be good practice for the block. Except you get a blindfold and they only hold you if you make a fuss. Actually, I could have done with a blindfold. It would have been easier, in an odd way.”
“Don’t talk like that! For goodness sake, Lady Alice.” Mary said in some horror.
But sadly, it proved to be a true prophecy and only six months later Mary accompanied her mistress to the scaffold in the courtyard of her parents’ castle, where Alice lost her head for treason she had not committed, two days after her mother and two weeks after her father. Alice never knew if her loss of the jewels was decisive, or not. Mary mourned her mistress and lover for the rest of her long life.
© Jane Fairweather 2019
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