Without doubt the most annoying thing about being housemaster at a boarding school is I am never off duty. There is not a moment of the day I can truly call my own. By the nature of my work I have responsibility for a house full of schoolboys. During the day I am one of a number of masters who teach them; by evening and night we live under the same roof and I must account for their safety and general welfare.
It can be very wearisome. My wife would prefer it if I went to teach at an adult college or preferably a university where we could have a home we could call our own. I think she also finds the company of adults more agreeable.
This evening has been a case in point. We had settled down after supper to enjoy a glass of whisky (one each that is not one between two) and listen to a concert on the BBC Third Programme on the wireless when we were interrupted by Blair, the school porter. He had a message he felt he must convey to me with the utmost urgency.
I cursed under my breath when he arrived on my doorstep, but propriety requires that I treat such visits with the utmost seriousness. I allowed him to enter into the hallway, but, keen to get rid of him at the earliest opportunity, I did not invite him further into the house. I had no wish to antagonise my wife further.
Blair told me in the breathless way he has that he had intercepted Wilson, a senior pupil in my house, as he climbed over the exterior wall of the school. He had been out of school illicitly. Blair did not have the sense to ignore this and allow the boy a safe passage to his dormitory. The dunderhead decided he had to come to inform me.
There are many rules at boarding schools; too many some would say. Boys break them all the time, but logic suggests that a rule can only be noticed to have been broken if the boy is caught. Put another way, if I did not know that Wilson had been breaking bounds then I need not do anything about it. Now, that I did know, I was required to act, thereby disturbing my cosy night at home with my wife.
Blair was without doubt exceedingly pleased that he had intercepted Wilson. I knew he would not allow me to turn a blind eye and he would expect me to fulfil my duty as a housemaster. Of course, I had to act. Now, that Wilson had been caught he would expect nothing less of me. If I failed to do so word would soon spread among the boys and my credibility would be ruined. I would become a “soft touch” and they need never heed my word again. No, my hands were tied. I had no choice.
I might have left this problem until the morning but since my evening had already been disturbed I reasoned I might as well get it over with now. Blair was inordinately pleased when I asked him to seek Wilson out in the dormitory and instruct him to visit me in my study. “He’ll be in his pyjamas,” he said, his mouth widening into a cruel snarl. “It is a warm evening,” I responded evenly, “Tell him not to get dressed.” The snarl became a broad grin and Blair darted off enthusiastically.
I popped my head around the drawing room door to appraise my wife of developments. She did not speak but her icy stare said enough. I went across the passageway and awaited Wilson’s arrival. I know enough about the senior boys here to know he had probably been visiting The Three Fishers which is a run-down hostelry a short distance from the school. It is a disreputable establishment where they think nothing of serving pints of mild beer to our boys. I also knew without doubt that Wilson would not have been alone. Blair would be disappointed to know that although he had snared Wilson there were others who had evaded his capture. I also decided that I would not make it my business to try to get Blair to give me the names of his companions. The schoolboy code of honour runs deep and I did not want to spend more time on this than I absolutely had.
No more than two minutes later there was a knock on the study door. I called for Wilson to enter. He waited hesitantly in the doorway. “Come in. Stand there.” I pointed to a spot in the middle of the room and Wilson went there, his feet apart, his hands clasped behind his back and head bowed. He knew what to expect; he had been a pupil at the school for long enough.
Indeed, he was eighteen years old and in less than a month would be leaving us for good. I walked to the corner of the study where several whippy, rattan canes dangled from a rail by their crook handles. I took down the thickest cane from my collection. Wilson continued to stare at his bare feet. I flexed the cane between my hands; this serves no practical purpose and I suspect I do this by habit.
“Look at me Wilson,” I intoned and he did so. I continued bending the cane. It was less than three feet long and dark-brown in colour. It was denser than the other canes and most suitable for a senior boy. It had notches every six inches or so along its length and I knew from experience it would deliver a satisfactorily sound beating.
Boarding schools are unusual places; they are their own little world. I wonder how many people realise just what goes on here. I was about to cane an eighteen-year-old pupil for staying out late. Is there a father in the entire land who would do the same to his son of similar age? Would such a boy submit himself to punishment if called upon? I don’t need to answer those questions.
But at boarding school we have our rituals and one was about to play itself out here. I read Wilson the charge sheet. Did he know being out after lights out was against the rules? (An unnecessarily question, but one needs the miscreant to acknowledge same.) Did he have anything to say in mitigation? (Of course not, what could he say?). So, the verdict was guilty as charged. Let punishment commence.
I swished the cane through the empty air and pointed it at a somewhat worn armchair that I had already strategically placed. “Stand behind the chair,” I instructed. In my years as a housemaster I have never had a boy refuse my instructions. One or two of the younger ones, and therefore with less experience of corporal punishment, might plead for clemency. I have known them shed tears before the first stroke has landed. But, none, ever, has refused to comply.
Wilson positioned himself to my satisfaction. He placed his steady hands on the back of the chair and waited further instruction. “Take down your pyjama bottoms. Bend over.” A flicker of his grey eyes and a slight colouring of his cheeks revealed to me that he had not expected that order. His hands were less steady when he took hold of the drawstring on his pyjamas and undid it. Once the front of his pyjamas were open all he had to do was to let go and the bottoms hurled to his ankles.
He turned his body slightly to conceal his privates from my view then after taking a deep breath he slumped across the chair.
Wilson was the prefect height to fit across it. His stomach rested easily on the back’s apex. He reached his arms forward and gripped the seat cushion tightly. He kept his head low and stared down at the rather soiled material. Without my requesting, he spread his feet and raised his bottom high. He presented me with a perfect target.
All I had to do was take hold of the tail of his pyjama jacket and pull it away from the buttocks. I could hear he was breathing heavily and saw a trail of moisture forming down the centre of his back. As if to remind me that this was a senior boy submitting his backside for discipline, his bottom and legs were covered with fine hair and two testicles hung below his cheeks and between his legs.
There are some people who object to the corporal punishment of schoolboys. I can only say they have probably never taught; and certainly not in boarding school. A caning is an effective discipline and unlike a detention or the imposition of lines or an essay it is takes up no time. It is over in minutes. The boy has committed a misdemeanour, he has been found out, he admits his guilt and he submits to a beating. Then he and the schoolmaster get back to work. I have no doubt whatsoever that if the school decided to abolish the cane in favour of some other punishment the boys themselves would lead the complaints.
So it was that Wilson submitted himself to my cane. He tried to be stoic but his bottom quivered the moment I sawed my cane across the centre of his cheeks. I took my aim, raised the cane high and twisting my torso slightly (as a golfer does when taking a swing) I slashed the whippy rattan down. It hit him exactly where I intended and a glowing red line immediately appeared. A hissing noise like a steam engine setting down whistled through his clenched lips, but otherwise he made no sound. He gripped the seat cushion harder and pursed his lips.
I know (because I was beaten often enough myself as a boy) that the agony as the cane impacts is intense. Almost immediately that pain dissipates and becomes a throbbing ache. For maximum effect the master should wait a few seconds before delivering the next stoke. I have my own ritual whereby I hold the cane behind my back and gently stroll the length of the study. It is not a big room but by the time I have circumnavigated it and returned to stand behind the boy sufficient time has elapsed for me to continue.
I put the second swipe an inch below the first. Wilson’s knees wobbled but he showed great fortitude and otherwise remained motionless. I went for my walk and then laid the third cut high. Now, he had three parallel lines and a band of throbbing, red flesh three inches wide to contend with. My method of caning is quite typical. When presented with a boy’s bottom there isn’t much more one can do. I believe that a good master should put six strokes one beside the others across the posterior and that is a sound enough caning. Some of my colleagues try to get a stroke to land on top of one previously delivered, thereby re-opening the cut and intensifying the pain. I am sure the boys agree with me that that this is not cricket. Let punishment be appropriate to the misdeed committed; there is no need to resort to torture.
That can be left to our headmaster; his preferred method is to deliver four parallel strokes and then place two diagonals across them so the boy has a perfect “X” embossed across his bottom. Now, that really is not cricket; but I, a humble housemaster, will keep further comment on this to myself.
So, I put six parallel strokes across Wilson’s bare bottom. He took them well. They hurt and I could see his buttocks were glowing. I had roasted his posterior well. I toured the study for the last time giving my beating time to fully sink in. Wilson’s pyjama jacket was soaked with perspiration and the back of his neck was almost (but not quite) as scarlet as his bottom. In contrast, his face was a deathly white. I instructed him to stand and quickly he pulled up the pyjama bottoms and tied himself up. I could see he desperately wanted to rub away at his buttocks, but in the etiquette of these things, that is not allowed. A boy must never let his master know he is in pain.
I let him out of his misery and dismissed him. I am sure the moment the study door had closed behind him he massaged his rump vigorously. He certainly would have dashed to the lavatories to inspect my handiwork in the mirrors there before belatedly going to bed.
I replaced the cane with the others and went to re-join my wife. She poured us both whiskies and we settled down to enjoy the final movement of the concert on the wireless.
Picture credit: CP Services, London
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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Charles Hamilton the Second