Charlie’s jaw dropped slack with astonishment as the whirlwind flew through the door. He watched the colossus stride through the banking hall, his walking cane held at his shoulder like an infantryman’s rifle. All around, cashiers and customers alike, stopped work to stare as the man – all six feet six inches of him – hurtled towards the elevators. His immaculate checked suit appeared to glow in the electric light. The clop-clop-clop his handmade leather shoes made as he marched onwards echoed around the silent hall.
Charlie gaped across at Miss Allison, who momentarily had deserted her typewriter. “Who is that?” he whispered watching the back of the figure as it departed through the concertina barrier into the lift.
“That,” Miss Allision trilled with admiration, “That is not the bank manager. That is not even the bank director,” her voice rose to a crescendo. “That is Mr Manwaring-Robertson the owner of our bank,” she swooned back to her seat and set a fresh sheet of paper in her typewriter.
“He seems to be on a mighty important mission,” Charlie nodded at the space where Mr Manwaring-Robertson had so recently been. “Someone upstairs is in for a mighty shock.” He resumed his sentry duty at the door to the bank, shaking his head vaguely.
Upstairs three young men sat together at a marble-topped table. Their cups of coffee stood untasted before them. Reddy flicked nervously at the ash of his cigarette and looked across the table at the other two, first Morris with his scowling brow and hair horrid with grease and then Oldroyd, with his face wrinkled with confusion.
“He knows about it all right then,” Morris wheezed bitterly.
“Certain of it,” said Reddy.
“It means the sack,” said Oldroyd. “It does that.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Morris, his voice cracking. “He’s most likely already here in the building. We’ll get called up to his office any minute now.” Morris cleared his throat, phlegm filled his mouth and it made him feel sick. He swallowed hard and took a final pull at the cigarette before slamming the end into his saucer.
“We’ll be looking for a new job, I know what it’s like. I’ve been out before,” said Oldroyd.
“Know what it’s like! Do you think I don’t know too,” sneered Morris. “What kind of testimonial is M.R. going to give us. Sacked for taking bribes for loans. We’ll be starving on the streets in weeks.” He glowered around at the other two, accusingly. Why had they been so stupid? So greedy. Morris had a wife and two children, they’d all be thrown out onto the streets once he could no longer pay the rent.
“What damned fools we’ve been,” Oldroyd’s voice broke. He was close to tears. Reddy nodded, his head fell into his hands. There was a deathly hush as all three silently contemplated their fate. The workhouse beckoned.
They were so occupied with their own grief they failed to hear Miss Stewart approach. She stood, silently appraising the three wretched bank employees. Her lips pursed as if she had sucked on a particularly bitter lemon. She clicked her tongue, then announced her presence. Oldroyd was the first to react, his body froze in fear. This was Manwaring-Robertson’s secretary, come to summon them forward to meet their fate. A life of penury. Oh, he silently reproached himself, why had he been so stupid.
“You are to come with me,” Miss Stewart pronounced. She had the air of the prison wardress about her. Now in her late middle-age, Miss Stewart had to find her little pleasures wherever she could. She would make the most of her present opportunity.
The three culprits sat rigid as statues. They had every wish to delay the inevitable ignominy. The sack. The bullet. Fired. Or, the infinitely more polite, ‘let go.’ It mattered little what word was used, the result would be the same. Themselves and their families starving on the streets.
“Now!” Miss Stewart barked. She hoped her tone and attitude appeared stern, she had no wish to display the inner delight she felt at that moment. She derived immense pleasure from other people’s misfortune.
Slowly, reluctantly and with some distress each man hauled himself to his feet. They slouched forwards as if already they had balls and chains around their ankles. Debtors’ prison was but a short journey away.
“Come this way,” Miss Stewart intoned. She led the way down a dark passageway. Each of the men had worked at the bank for several years but none had seen this part of the building before. It was forbidden territory to them, the lowly worker-ants of the bank. Miss Stewart rumbled ahead, leading them slowly towards their downfall.
They reached a huge oak door, the brass nameplate shone brightly, despite the gloom in the passageway. This was indeed the office of a mightily important man. A mightily rich man. Miss Stewart abandoned them while she knocked on the door before entering.
Morris looked at Reddy and Reddy looked at Oldroyd, but none could catch the eye. None dared to speak. The sound of fearful breathing broke the silence. It seemed to the men an eternity, but it was but thirty seconds later that the secretary reappeared.
“You’re to go in,” her voice betrayed a certain disappointment. She clicked her tongue and scurried back down the passageway, leaving the door to the office ajar. The three men stood petrified. Each waiting for another to take a lead and enter the lion’s den.
“Well!” a boom sounded within the office, “What are you waiting for!”
The ferocity of the voice woke Morris, Reddy and Oldroyd and like a scene form the Keystone Cops they bundled into one another in their eagerness to be first through the door.
It was an opulent office, as might be expected of a man who owned a bank. Mr Manwaring-Robertson sat behind a huge mahogany desk, the size of a municipal swimming pool. He glared. His snow-white moustache emphasised the deep suntanned face. It bristled as he spoke, “Stand there,” he pointed to a spot in front of his desk. “There, there,” he repeated irritably, as if his three workers might be too stupid to understand his instruction. They shuffled forward; their humiliation far from hidden. Morris felt his knees buckle, he was close to fainting to the floor. Oldroyd and Reddy steadied themselves by firmly grasping their hands behind their backs. They looked to all the world like naughty schoolboys summoned before the headmaster.
Mr Manwaring-Robertson steepled his fingers and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. “Well, what have you got to say for yourselves?” He was a man of few words. Action was his watchword. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
Morris fell to his knees, it was not a plan. He had not written a script. He acted out of sheer terror. “Please, sir, please sir. Don’t fire us. I have a wife. Children. They will starve. Please. I am sorry. Sorry,” he wailed, “In the name of God Almighty have mercy on us all.”
Mr Manwaring-Robertson sat unmoved. His fierce hazel eyes shone, but otherwise they betrayed none of his thoughts.
Oldroyd stood aghast. How could Morris humiliate himself so? Begging for mercy. He had no more time for further thoughts. Reddy was falling to his knees, clasping his hands together as if in prayer. “Please master in the name of all that is holy. I repent. I repent. Never again, shall I dishonour you. Please as a good Christian gentleman have mercy.” Tears flowed down his cheeks.
Mr Manwaring-Robertson shuffled his buttocks in his large padded chair. He looked from Morris to Reddy, from one to the other and then from the other to the one. His face remained impassive, seemingly unmoved by the spectacle. His cold eyes turned towards Oldroyd, the only employee still standing. His gaze pierced Oldroyd. The proud young man, with bitterness festering in his heart, slowly bent one knee, as if he were discussing inside his own head whether he should humiliate himself so. What good would it do. This flint-hearted bank owner cared nothing for Oldroyd and his young colleagues. It would give the old man immense satisfaction to see them beg for mercy, beg for their wives, their children. Beg to be saved from the workhouse.
Oldroyd surprised himself. He was down on two knees reciting his sorrow. His promises to become a good, honest, slaving worker. If only the good, kind, charitable Mr Manwaring-Robertson would bestow mercy upon his unfortunate children.
The speeches were over. Three men knelt before him, heads bowed in supplication. Mr Manwaring-Robertson sat in smug, satisfied silence, pierced only by the heavy ticking of a clock. He watched impassively as the minute hand dragged itself across the clockface from five to ten. Two of the men before him were dissolved in tears. The third was ghostly white as if he might expire unto death at any second.
At last Mr Manwaring-Robertson spoke, “Thank you gentlemen,” he said smugly. “I have heard your speeches. I have witnessed you tell me that you are contrite. I have heard your pleas for clemency.” He paused, as a pompous judge might before donning his black cap and pronouncing a sentence of death. “I have to say that all three of you have behaved in the most wretched manner. To steal from your employer is despicable,” he shook his head as if he were carrying all the troubles of the world on his shoulders. “Despicable.”
He paused and delved into a pocket of his waistcoat. He found a handkerchief and slowly and deliberately mopped perspiration from his brow. “Look at me,” he growled and three heads immediately twitched in his direction. “I am indeed a Christian gentleman and I do believe in mercy and redemption.” He paused while he mopped the back of his neck. “It might surprise you to hear me say that, but it is true.” He slowly folded the handkerchief and replaced it in his pocket. “Indeed, indeed. But, my God is a vengeful God. I believe in retribution.”
He waited as the import of his words hung in the air and while the significance of their meaning sank into the heads of the three men kneeling supplicated before him. He cleared his throat, “I have made arrangements,” he intoned. “You are to be whipped.” He paused, he always did at this point in such speeches. It gave him the chance to savour the horrified reaction of his victims.
“Were you to appear before the magistrates bench on charges of stealing, you would be sentenced to the birch and prison with hard labour,” he peered at Morris who appeared to be murmuring to himself, and then continued, “I do not propose hard labour. You will pay to me the money you took from clients.” He paused lest anyone should think of him as a profiteer, “I shall ensure that it is passed on to a good cause.”
He shook his head sorrowfully, “Stand up you three. I have arranged for Mr Burgess to deal with you. He is waiting in an adjoining room. You are dismissed. Go. Miss Stewart is waiting for you in the passageway.”
So it was that three worthless men were escorted along the passageway, each quiet, alone with his own thoughts. Reprieved. Saved from penury and the workhouse. Oh, Mr Manwaring-Robertson was a fine Christian gentlemen. If their thoughts were of joy and relief, they were surely dashed when Miss Stewart halted them outside a dark, sombre door. It connected a room at the furthest end of the passageway, in a wing of the building as far away from the street and the bank’s main business area as it could possibly be.
Miss Stewart paused, perhaps enjoying the drama of the moment. Certainly her heart beat fast. Like her employer she considered herself to be of good Christian stock. She prayed each night and attended church twice on Sunday. What a merciful soul she was. She rapped her knuckles on the door. No sound of footsteps within the room could be heard but suddenly the heavy mahogany door inched open.
“Go in. All of you,” Miss Stewart’s voice broke. She hacked a cough to clear her throat and added ominously, Mr Burgess is expecting you. She stepped back and looked contemptuously as each man halted, trying to encourage an other to be first across the threshold.
“Come in,” a voice from within rasped. “Do not keep me waiting. I am not a man renowned for his patience. It will be the worst for you to keep me waiting.”
Morris took the initiative. He led the way inside. It was a large simple room. The only light came from a small casement window at the far end. The floorboards were bare. They creaked whenever a person moved.
Miss Stewart hesitated in the doorway. “You may leave us now, Miss Stewart,” the voice still rasped. The secretary did not hide her disappointment. Excluded once again. Unable to witness God’s wrath. She puckered her lips. She backed out of the room, slowly closing the door behind her. She stood alone in the passageway. She peered down the gloomy passageway. No other person was there, nor was one likely to appear at this hour of the day. She leaned forward and pressed her ear against the door.
Morris, Oldroyd and Reddy knew none of this. If they had they would have cared little. Their eyes were now a little more accustomed to the gloom. The room had no furniture save for one piece. It could not truthfully be described as furniture. It had no function associated with comfort. It was not a chair where one could sit. It was not a table where one could eat a meal. It was not a cupboard that one could store the little luxuries of life.
Morris stared bleakly at the one piece. He had never seen such a thing before. He was a man of little imagination but even he could detect its purpose. His heart fell to his boots.
Reddy had seen such a thing before. At the courthouse in the small town where he had been born. There was nothing unusual about this thing. There were replicas of it across the land. Many were still used, possibly even daily. But, Reddy had never expected to see such a thing in a room hidden along a dark passageway on the upper floor of the town’s most successful commercial bank.
To the ignorant it looked like a large step. One might have such a thing in a library to help the reader choose a book from a top shelf. On closer inspection, it was a little too cumbersome, two large, too heavy for such a task.
No, in all reality this thing, this wooden lump could serve only one purpose. It could only have one use. If there was any doubt in any mind that was dispelled by the only other objects in the room. Reddy could not tear his eyes away from them. There were five. Lined one beside another by the far wall. What colour that he had drained from his face, no bedsheet from the most luxurious of homes could have been whiter. Five enormous enamel pails. Each chocked full of what looked like the branches from a bush, or small tree.
Burgess stood quietly. He was a small, undistinguished man. He would walk the streets day or night unnoticed. He had no baring to speak off. He was neither particularly tall, nor particularly small. He had no distinguishing facial marks. His beard was conventional, cut neat and tidy. His clothes were those of a businessman. When he walked through the banking hall to his room people would think him to be just another clerk.
All the above was true. But here, in this room. He was more than the sum of his parts. He was man with authority. No, more than that, he was a man of power. His was total control. He had no reason to demonstrate that, beyond the obvious. He had a duty to perform. He would carry out that duty to his master’s word. The three wretches standing awkwardly before him would acquiesce to him. They might do so with some honour, presenting themselves submissively. They might not. Such had happened in the past. It trouble Burgess not at all. He had assistants that he could summon. They waited but two doors away.
Burgess was a philosopher. He was an expert. His craft had been perfected over many years in the bank’s employ. Oh how he could whisk a birch rod about so that the trembling victim could hear it hissing through the air.
He had once confirmed to Mr Manwaring-Robertson, who showed great interest in the matter, “The real art of birching consists in inflicting the greatest amount of humiliation and suffering, but without in reality doing serious damage.”
The bank owner had nodded sagely. That was wise, he had thought. If too much injury was inflicted might not the intervention of a doctor become necessary. That might leave to any number of complications. No, Mr Manwaring-Robertson, concluded, it was best not to proceed in such a way that the Authorities might become involved.
Burgess had continued, “We have to consider how so to apply the rod as to effect some radical
moral good in the disposition and mind of the culprit ; how to make them feel the very dregs as it were of humiliation, degradation, and every kind of mortification.” He might have wetted his lips as he spoke, such was his commitment to the task.
He shared his past experience with his employer, speaking as with the authority of a learned professor on the subject of birching, “It is a curious fact,” Burgess had said, “that it sends the blood
of a sensitive modest man in impulsive rushes (especially to the face and neck) in the form of scarlet blushes, which pass over those parts in continuous waves, corresponding to each stroke of the rod ; this is a curious psychological fact, which is puzzling even to anatomists.”
Mr Manwaring-Robertson continued to nod his head, as he fought to keep from betraying his lack of understanding.
“You should proceed as you see fit,” he intoned. There the matter rested. The master had given his instruction, it was for the servant to carry it out in the most efficient way possible.
The problem with the birch, Burgess knew, and he could write a book on the matter, was that it had a very short useful life. They had originally been crafted from the twigs of the birch tree, hence its name. But experience had taught that these proved to be too fragile. Hazel twigs were then used before a variety of twiggy shoots from other species were tried. When available, Burgess would constructed his birch rods from springy young maple shoots which would be bound together at one end into handle. The birches he had prepared for the three wretches were of such construction, each consisting of between eighteen and twenty shoots.
Burgess spoke quietly. “Twelve strokes of the birch for each of you, Kindly brace yourselves and keep perfectly still and take your punishment. This is going to be the most painful experience of your lives to date.” He made no attempt to gauge the feelings of the three bank clerks. He would not look them in the eye. Each in their turn preferred to stare down at the bare floorboards beneath their feet. In time, Burgess closed his eyes completely and appeared, to all the world to be silently praying.
Burgess continued, “I have to tell you that whole purpose of the exercise is to teach you through pain to be better men. It has been my experience to note that a well beaten bottom does wonders to improve the to improve a man’s character.
“You will each now, remove your lower garments.”
It must have been the thought of a future life of penury in the workhouse that encouraged the three wretches to comply. They were utterly defeated. Not one uttered a complaint. Morris was instructed to go first. It is remarkably cumbersome for a man to strip his lower half naked. It took several moments to get the shoes unfastened and off his feet. The trousers were hoisted aloft by braces and required the removal of jacket and waistcoat.
At last – and to the man about to be flogged it must have felt like half a lifetime – he was ready.
“Kneel down with your upper body over the top,” Burgess indicated the birching block. It was a simply-designed apparatus. As described earlier it was like two steps. A man faced forward, knelt on the lower step and leaned forward so that his stomach and upper body was across the top step. Morris, determined not to display weakness in front of his partners-in-crime, steadied himself. He was soon in position. Once over, he was able to see the two leather wrist straps bolted onto the reverse side of the block. Their design was clear – to tie a man in position should he not have the fortitude to present himself humbly.
Morris determined that he would not disgrace himself so. He would, as the saying goes, take it like a man.
Burgess watched with what seemed a disinterested eye as Morris made his preparations. The block had been well designed. Morris’s naked haunches were lifted high at a very good angle to receive the lashing from the birch rod. The buttocks so presented were pale and boney. There was very little meat for the birch rods to flail.
Burgess choose his first rod. All birch rods whatever their construction are almost as delicate as flowers in a vase. They fade quickly. Pieces of broken twig would gather around Burgess’s feet. He might need two or possibly three birch rods to deal with each man. He had prepared for that possibility.
Without ceremony or fanfare, he took a rod from the first bucket. He shook it vigorously. It had been soaking in water and vinegar. It was supposed that the vinegar would make the cut of the rods sting the more. Burgess had heard this to be the true case but he could not swear to its voracity. Even so, he saw no reason not to soak them in such a way. The water, he knew for certain, made the twigs supple and helped in no small way to stop them from breaking too soon.
He gripped the handle firmly and as was his wont he swished it with great ferocity through the air. It had his desired effect. Morris’s buttocks quavered in anticipation. Burgess was not afraid to allow a smile to cross his own lips. Humiliation and suffering.
Now it was time to get on with the job in hand. He stood to the left side of Morris. He allowed the birch to rest gently across the centre of both cheeks. It was of such a size that its head spread and covered almost the entire area of the wretched man’s rump.
Burgess raised the birch into the air, let it rest there and with a twist of his body he let fly. The birch rods separated into a broad fan as they connected with the pale skin. The crack of birch against naked flesh echoed around the empty room. Reddy thought he might faint.
Morris, despite his resolve to be brave in front of his fellows let out a almighty gasp. He could not help it, his body demanded such a response to the intense pain he now felt.
Burgess intended to humiliate his victims. He waited about thirty seconds for the pain to ease and Morris’s anticipation to increase before delivering the second cut. In this way he systematically and methodically covered the whole of Morris’s buttocks.
Morris gripped the leather wrist straps as if his very life depended on not letting go. His gasps grew to yaps and those yaps to yelps. At stroke six Burgess paused, the rod in his hand reduced to strands. He tossed it to the floor and slowly and dramatically crossed the empty room to the enamel pails. He gripped a substitute rod and with equal drama resumed his position to Morris’s left. The wretch was whimpering, but still valiantly gripping the wrist straps. Burgess quietly admired the man’s tenacity. Many another victim before him had broken down and was then tied firmly down to receive the residue of the whipping.
Morris did not know how he had refrained himself from begging for mercy. His protests were unspoken as stroke followed cut. He sobbed quietly.
Then it was over. Twelve slashes of the birch.
“Stand. When you are able to get dressed. Do not leave the room until I instruct you,” Burgess spoke quietly but with immense authority.
With no great dexterity, Morris found his feet. He stumbled but stopped himself falling in a faint to the floor. His companion Reddy choked back the bile in the back of his throat. He observed his colleague hobble away from the block. The poor man’s backside was a glowing expanse of small welts. Many oozed minute amounts of blood. The skin had broken as each strand of the birch had cut into his naked flesh.
Burgess selected a fresh birch, swiped it through the air and intoned, “Reddy. You should take his place.”
That was the last word Reddy heard as the lights around him dimmed and he fell with a crash to the floor.
At about that moment Mr Manwaring-Robertson retraced his journey through the banking hall. He acknowledged the many genuflections of his staff as he strode on his way. Charlie opened the front door and the bank owner was on his way. Miss Allison swooned behind her typewriter. Customers made their deposits or cashed their cheques. Life continued as usual.
Picture credit: Laurence Fellows
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Charles Hamilton the Second