Harry slouched disconsolately in the corner seat. The third-class carriage was empty, as was most of the train. A Thursday afternoon in late November was not a popular time to travel. His buttocks ached on the hard wooden seat. He hugged his arms around his body. Miserably, he shivered. At this rate, he reflected, he’d end up in the hospital with pneumonia.
It had been five hours earlier that the porter at St. Tom’s had put him unceremoniously on the train. There was no word of farewell; the brute hadn’t even carried his suitcase. That’s how they treated a chap when he was sacked.
At last, the steam train chugged into Weatherstone Halt. Journey’s End. Or, Harry supposed, New Journey Starts. What did his future have in store? Who knew? The only certainty was that first he must face Uncle Gascoigne.
He stepped from the train into a swirling mist. It engulfed the small platform; he could barely see a hand in front of his face. His feet slipped on the frost beneath his feet. An eerie silence enveloped him. If Harry had been a reader, he might have likened it to a scene from a Victorian ghost story. He stood, uncertain, suitcase by his side. How was he to get to Weatherstone Manor? It was some distance off; too far to walk with a heavy case.
“Hello Master Harry!” it was a croaking voice. It seemed to come from nearby, but the mist was thickening and he couldn’t see. “Over here!” As if by some magic the fog cleared and Harry saw an old man wrapped in a heavy overcoat, a scarf and a big woollen hat. It was Tom, his uncle’s Faithful Retainer.
The journey by pony and trap was short. A biting wind tore through Harry. He wore only his school blazer and it was no use against the cold. Nor did his grey trousers give protection from the wind. Tom, drove in silence. He was a man of few words as was expected from a devoted servant. He geed the pony and steered it along the narrow lanes to the Manor. His was the only vehicle on the road. Harry hugged his own body with cold and let the wintry countryside pass him by unnoticed.
The Manor loomed; an imposing Gothic pile. Even on a summer’s day it looked unwelcoming. On this day and in these circumstances it seemed especially hostile. Tom steadied the pony while Harry climbed down. “I’ll take care of your case, Master Harry,” the Faithful Retainer spoke with a hint of regret, “Your uncle says you are to go directly to the library.” He studied his own hands intently.
“Oh,” Harry spoke softly. The summons had not been unexpected, but he had hoped there might be some interval before he faced Uncle Gascoigne. He trudged towards the door. The inside of the manor was as ugly and imposing as the outside. The hallway could have been the entrance to a municipal town hall. It might be large enough to house a cricket pitch. Several doors of heavy dark oak ran into it. Harry was not concerned with these. The room he sought was up the imposing spiral staircase on the first floor. He trudged up it.
Harry was a boy of little imagination, so as he made his journey he did not reflect on its similarity to St. Tom’s. He had been summoned to the housemaster’s study countless times, each journey requiring a long trek through School House, along a narrow passageway towards a heavy wooden door. On the other side he would be confronted by a cane-wielding master. What happened next can be safely left to the reader’s imagination.
Harry reached the library door and paused, unsure how to proceed. Should he turn the handle, fling open the door wide and burst into the room and offer Uncle Gascoigne a cheerful “Hello Uncle! I’m home!” Perhaps not. Uncle Gascoigne was not by temperament a cheerful fellow and was generally feared and respected in equal measure by his household and the tenants of the estate he ruled over. He was dreaded by the petty villains who appeared before him at the local magistrates’ bench. Harry tapped his knuckles respectfully against the panelled door.
“Come!” the boomed command was self-important. Uncle Gascoigne was a man who demanded obedience. And invariable received it. With a quaking hand, Harry turned the handle and eased the door open, making only enough space for him to squeeze into the room. He stood anxiously. Uncle Gascoigne sat in a large, padded armchair, a cup and saucer held daintily in his hands. “Close the door boy! Close the door! You’re letting the heat out!” he barked.
Once this was done, Harry stood, hands deferentially held behind his back. Uncle Gascoigne called the room his “library” but in truth it was a drawing room with shelves of books. Harry had never once troubled himself to handle any of the hundreds of volumes that surrounded him. As well as an armchair the room contained a dining table, matching chairs and an ancient Chesterfield-type couch.
Uncle Gascoigne returned his cup and saucer to the table and stretched his arms wide. He was an imposing figure, standing head and shoulders above Harry, who himself was no dwarf. He wore a frockcoat, waistcoat and striped trousers. Harry did not know this but he had recently returned from the Magistrates’ Court. Even as they spoke seven youths were under the lash of the local police sergeant.
Uncle Gascoigne frowned. He gripped the lapel of his coat and steadied himself. This was how he stood when making speeches at the Tory Association. He had prepared some words. Harry did not change his stance; hands behind back, head high. At St. Tom’s the form was always to look at a master when he was jawing you.
“Since your parents passed on,” Uncle Gascoigne droned, “I have taken care of you. I have paid for your education.” He delivered a liturgy on his generosity. “So this is how you repay me.” He picked up a letter from the table and (for dramatic effect) peered closely at it. It was an unnecessary gesture since he knew its contents by heart. It was a letter from the headmaster at St. Tom’s detailing Harry’s misdeeds leading to the inevitable conclusion that the eighteen-year-old must leave the school forthwith.
“You spend your time playing billiards in some God-awful public house when you should be at your studies.”
Harry suppressed a smile. He did much more at the Three Fishers than play billiards, but it was better that the headmaster and Uncle Gascoigne did not hear about that.
“A disgrace!” Uncle Gascoigne had used similar words to the louts at the court earlier that day. For it was true, Harry was no better than they. For all his privileges, he was a wastrel. “We shall have to consider your future at a later date,” Uncle Gascoigne said, his puffy eyes narrowing, “For now …” he let the words trail away and glanced across the room. Harry followed his gaze. His heartbeat skipped, standing in the corner of the room was a large enamel bucket and soaking in water and sticking from its top was a freshly-cut birch rod.
Silently, Uncle Gascoigne took hold of one of the dining room chairs and moved it so that it was in front of Harry. His beady eyes met those of his nephew. He hesitated, trying to read the mind of the wayward teenager. Harry’s eyes were dull; unreadable. “Bah!” Uncle Gascoigne ejaculated. “Take off your blazer, put it on the table. Lower your trousers and underwear. Bend over the chair.” It was a simple set of commands, sternly spoken. The boy would do as he was instructed, Uncle Gascoigne was in no doubt.
While Harry climbed out of his school blazer, Uncle Gascoigne stood over the enamel bucket and gripped the birch rod by its handle. He swished it through the air allowing droplets of water to dampen the solid wooden floor. He tested the rod in his hands, taking its weight. Birch rods were made for purpose and each was unique. They could be long or short; heavy or light. They might have six branches or dozens.
The one Uncle Gascoigne held was not in fact strictly-speaking a birch rod, since it was constructed of hazel branches. Hazel was more easily available in local woods and had the properties of both suppleness and strength. It had been made at the local police station. It was unheard of for Uncle Gascoigne to request them to make him personally a birch, but they asked no questions when he did. Col. Trumpington-Smythe, his fellow magistrate, often made such a demand.
The rod in Uncle Gascoigne’s hand had been expertly constructed. There were fifteen twigs, each almost perfectly straight, that were between twenty-six and thirty inches long. They had been clipped into a conical shape. The ends and tips had been trimmed and a handle bound with cord made. It tapered gracefully from handle to tip and felt comfortable and balanced as he held it. He swished it through the air once more, it had been soaked in water overnight and felt fresh and supple.
Harry watched aghast. His blazer was safely laying on the table but his trousers and underwear were still in their rightful position. “Quickly!” Uncle Gascoigne snapped. “Or do you want additional strokes?” It was a question that needed no answer. Harry had no doubt that his uncle was serious. He forced his hands to unfasten his trousers, the weight of the heavy wool sent them hurtling to his knees. He wore fashionable athletic underwear of the short variety. He hesitated until Uncle Gascoigne’s heavy, impatient breath spurred him onwards. Soon he was bare from the waist to his ankles.
“Bend over the chair,” Uncle Gascoigne swiped the birch, “I assume you know the drill.” Indeed Harry did. Schoolmasters had their own peculiarities when administering canings. One might require a boy to present himself touching toes, knees straight; that was probably the most “traditional” position known. It was, however, not the most efficient method. The posterior was stretched and bent at such and angle that the size of the target was diminished. Others would make a boy go over a chair. How this was done depended on the furniture available. The back of an armchair could be used, but so many of them were tall and a boy could not properly reach over. Most studies had at least one hard wooden chair and this was perfect. A boy faced the seat, gipped tightly on both sides, spread his legs, arched his back and jutted his rear end out. A perfect target, offering up a generous expanse of stretched bottom for the schoolmaster’s cane. Harry chose that latter position.
Uncle Gascoigne was no expert at birching. It was one of his roles in life to order others to perform such acts. He acted on instinct. He supposed the general idea was to assault as great an area of the naked buttocks now on show as possible. The posterior should end up raw and tender, but there was no need to leave the boy bloodied and battered.
He took up position to Harry’s left. The cheeks quivered in anticipation of the assault to come. The other end of Harry appeared stoical. He held the seat cushion tightly, his eyes focused on a small stain on its fabric. His breathing was easy. Uncle Gascoigne rested the birch against his nephew’s bottom so that it covered nearly every square inch.
Harry bit down on his lower lip. He had long since been hardened to the ordeal of corporal punishment, but the application of a well-made birch rod wielded by his angry uncle might prove to be a torment of great proportions.
With the skill of a golfer, Uncle Gascoigne turned his body, screeched, and then flogged the birch across the eighteen-year-old’s bare bottom with startling speed. Harry’s head rose, his mouth gaped and his face tightened, but he uttered no sound.
The birch struck again and the delinquent schoolboy swayed noticeably. His face was now as scarlet as his bottom. He shook his head from side to side, rather like a braying donkey. A third cut slashed his once-pale buttocks, small cuts ranged from his undercurves over the fleshiest part of his bottom. Already his bum was beginning to resemble raw hamburger meat.
Harry gasped, drank in a mouthful of air, then sighed long and loudly. He wriggled and writhed, but he knew better than to try to stand. To do that in the middle of punishment always meant extra strokes (it was an unwritten law). His heartrate sped as the agony travelled through his body; his legs in particular ached terribly.
Uncle Gascoigne slashed two more into the pulsating cheeks. Whip-whip. The second swipe fell low, across the backs of Harry’s thighs. His almighty screech bounced around the library. In the passageway outside, with his ear close to the door, Old Tom the Faithful Retainer winced in sympathy.
“I think you are learning your lesson,” Uncle Gascoigne intoned.
“Yes, Sir,” Harry croaked, feeling he was required to answer.
The birch flew through the air applied with considerable beef one more time connecting with the battered and bruised bottom higher. Harry convulsed. His legs marched up and down like a demented sentry, his hips swayed from left to right and his cheeks rose and fell. He wheezed heavily, sucked a throatful of vomit back down and sniffed back the snot that was promising to drip from his nostrils.
Blood raced through his body, his temples throbbed; his ears were about to explode. The agony was intense, but it was over. “Get up.” Uncle Gascoigne, himself wheezing, returned the birch to the enamel bucket. As it jangled against the side he noted how sturdy the rod was. Very expertly made, he thought.
He turned to see Harry struggling back into his underwear and trousers, the boy’s face was drenched in tears. He stood unsteady, holding the back of the chair for balance. His backside felt like he had been forced into a bathtub of boiling water; he thought he would be unable to sit down for a week.
Uncle Gascoigne pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and swabbed his brow and the back of his neck. The flogging had taken more out of him than he had expected. “You may go,” he grimaced, “And ask Old Tom outside to fetch me a glass of whisky.”
Picture credit: The Magnet
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