In my library it was linked to Alec Leamus's Beyond the Magic Box, but, as one of the readers pointed out, that blog appears to be dead now. Another reader was kind enough to send me a saved copy of this unfinished story so I'm reposting it here to preserve it for the fans.
AN HEIRESS HUMBLED - A BOARDING SCHOOL TALE OF OLDEN DAYS
by Charlotte Fairfax-Hamilton
AN UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL
The Rolls purred its way softly up the drive to Forsyth Hall. In the back seat, alone, sat the Honourable Charlotte Forsyth - spoiled, pretty and twenty-one. Her thoughts felt fuzzy with a champagne buzz, and she sniffed, very delicately, still tasting in the back of her throat the metallic bitterness of cocaine. Ah, cocaine! How perfectly marvellous it had been of "Squiffy" Bowman-Shaw to introduce her to the delights of that magical white powder! Even if you'd been dancing all night, one little sniff, and rooty toot! - the party could continue! Oh, heaven! What a joy it was to be rich, without any boring parents, and twenty-one!
The past three days in London had been a blur. Parties, balls, young men - a kaleidoscope of memories, spinning round and round inside Charlotte's head. She smiled, careful not to close her eyes, however, and saw, faint through the autumn darkness, the distant lights of Forsyth Hall drawing near. Instinctively, she brushed her fingers against her hair. Exhausted after three days of solid partying she may have been, but Charlotte never looked less than the quintessence of elegance, of London wealth, and Paris chic. A jet-black bob framed an elfin, perfectly pale-complexioned face. Her figure, fashionably slim. Her dress, from Reville's. A single bracelet, topaz and gold. Charlotte's smile faded, to be replaced by her customary pout, but inside, she continued to smile. Yes, being a grownup was indeed the most marvellous fun!
The Rolls glided up towards the huge oaken door of the front hall. As it did so, Charlotte saw, with a tremor of petulance and indignation, that there were two other cars already parked in the forecourt. Scudder, at the wheel, had to swerve gently to avoid them, and the sudden unexpected motion gave Charlotte a most unpleasant lurching sensation in her stomach. Not wanting to blame her own overconsumption of champagne for her sudden nausea, she did what she had always preferred to do, and blamed someone else instead. "You clumsy dolt," she hissed, as Scudder opened the door for her to step out.
Stepping onto the gravel, she gazed into his blank, frozen-jawed face. Servants! "Dolt, Scudder!" She slapped him stingingly. "Stupid, clumsy, peasant dolt!" His expression remained motionless. She ran a gaze over his tight, bottle-green uniform, from the tips of his polished boots back up to his angled chauffeur's cap. She smiled, a cold, predatory smile. He was really quite handsome, she supposed, in a coarse, low-born way. She slapped him a second time, marked with satisfaction the red marks of her fingers imprinted on his cheek. "Don't be so clumsy in future."
Scudder bowed his head. "Yes, Miss Charlotte. I'm sorry, Miss Charlotte. It won't happen again, Miss Charlotte."
But Charlotte had already left him and was walking up the marble steps to the huge front door. It had been opened in anticipation of her entrance by Mary-Anne, the head parlourmaid, who was bobbing and curtseying, in an evident fluster. Charlotte smiled despite herself at the sight. She liked to see her servants looking nervous at her approach.
"These two cars", she demanded curtly, "to whom do they belong?"
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Miss, I told them you wouldn't be pleased, but they wouldn't hear no for an answer..."
"They?" Charlotte spun round as Mary-Anne, who had been removing her cape from her shoulders, hugged it tightly to herself in her fear. "Who are "THEY"?
"Well, Miss...", Mary-Anne stammered. "There's Mr Pemberton, Miss..."
"Pemberton?" Charlotte frowned. What did her father's lawyer want with her, at this early hour of the morning? "And who else, girl? Who else, you stupid slut?"
"Another man, Miss. Very handsome, Miss. Ohhhh, so VERY handsome, Miss..."
"Stop twittering. Who is he?"
But at that moment, the door of her father's study opened behind her, and a tall, turbaned native with a long flowing beard stepped out into the hallway. Charlotte glared at him in consternation. "And who, pray, are you? Get out of here, this instant!"
But the tall, turbanned man merely gazed at her impassively, then gestured to the study beyond with a sweep of his hand. Charlotte felt a positive furnace of anger burn across her cheeks, but there was something about the native's expression, something in his stare, which seemed to brook no arguing. Despite herself, reluctantly, Charlotte walked into the study. The lights were on low, the fire was a dull glow in the grate, and it took her a moment to see that as well as Pemberton, skeletal in his black suit beside her father's huge desk, there was indeed a further man seated behind it, as though he owned it, as though he owned the entire place!
Charlotte clenched her fists in fury.
"And who do you think you are? Stand up respectfully when I enter the room!"
The man smiled. He remained seated. Despite herself, Charlotte took a further step forwards, and she could see now that the man's smile was a wolfish and menacing one. Mary-Ann had been right, Charlotte admitted to herself with reluctance. The stranger was indeed handsome. Very handsome indeed. Late thirties, she guessed, with cropped blond hair, a tanned face, the faintest hint of a sneer upon his lips.
"Who am I?" he asked softly. "Who am I? Why, I am disappointed you do not remember me. I am your uncle, Charlotte."
Charlotte took a step backwards.
"But..." She swallowed. "No. You're... You're in India", she cried out.
Another wolfish smile. The faintest gesture with his hands. "As you see," he answered, "as you see, I am not."
"Then... this means..."
"Yes. Yes, indeed. Your guardian, Charlotte, is back..."
IN THE TOILS OF THE LAW
He paused. His eyes narrowed. "There are going to be a few changes round here, young lady..." Charlotte gazed at her uncle, Sir Ralph Faulconbridge, with loathing. Her pert nose wrinkled, and the customary haughtiness of her demeanour intensified a hundredfold. "Get out of here!", she cried. "You horrible, horrible man! You have no right to be here, ordering me around."
"I have every right to be here." Sir Ralph's tone had grown suddenly as harsh and implacable as his stare. He nodded to the black-suited lawyer beside him. "Tell her."
Pemberton adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. "Miss Charlotte, precisely one year ago to this day, your father, Lord Marlinpike, sent his last communication from the depths of the great South American rainforest. You, of all people, must take pride in Lord Marlinpike's status as the world's most famous explorer. Similarly, it hardly require me to remind you that his quest to discover the lost city of El Dorado was his boldest and most dangerous expedition yet. What you may not have been aware of, however, was that prior to his departure for South America, and no doubt conscious of the perils which might confront him, Lord Marlinpike came to visit me."
"Don't be so silly. Daddy never mentioned it to me."
Pemberton smiled, a creaking, dusty smile. "And yet he came to visit me all the same." He drew out an envelope from the inner pocket of his jacket. He tapped it gently with his forefinger. "By the terms of this document, you are to be provided with a guardian if an entire year goes by without a communication from Lord Marlinpike. That guardian is to be your dear departed mother's brother, your uncle, Sir Ralph Faulconbridge. He is to have complete legal authority over you, up until your twenty-third birthday, if it has been proven to my satisfaction that you have been leading a vain, idle and frivolous life."
"COMPLETE legal authority?" Charlotte could not keep a very faint tremor from her voice.
"COMPLETE legal authority." Sir Ralph's lip curled menacingly. He rose to his feet.
Charlotte glared at him with loathing again, then turned imperiously back to Pemberton. "Then it is perfectly clear what must be done. You must inform my uncle that I have NOT been leading a vain, idle and frivolous life. Pemberton!" She stamped her foot. "Pemberton, tell him this instant!"
But Pemberton kept his peace, confining himself to a quick sideways glance at Sir Ralph.
The long-bearded native looked up as his master called up his name.
"Call in the chauffeur," Sir Ralph ordered. "The parlourmaid as well."
"Sahib." The native bowed his head, and withdrew from the study, but before Charlotte could open her mouth to berate Pemberton any more, Ranjit was back with both Scudder and Mary-Ann in tow. It was almost as though the pair of them had been waiting specially, Charlotte thought. And all at once, she felt a sickness in her tummy grow even worse.
She watched in indignant silence as Sir Ralph asked Scudder to give an account of his mistress's manner and behaviour over the past year.
"Scudder!" she hissed. "Scudder! Tell the truth, or I will see you sacked."
For the first time since entering the study, Scudder turned to face his mistress. "Oh, I will tell the truth, Miss Charlotte." And he did, he did. At the end of his account, he recited in a litany all of Charlotte's faults. "She is spoiled, haughty, vicious, deceitful, spendthrift, cruel..."
Sir Ralph held up his hand. "Thank you, Scudder. I think we have the picture. Mary-Ann..." He turned his gaze onto the parlourmaid. "Would you agree with your fellow servant's description of your mistress?"
Mary-Ann twisted his hands nervously. Charlotte narrowed her eyes, gave her a menacing, minatory glare. Mary-Ann glanced back at her, then suddenly nodded. "Yes Sir. Yes Sir, she's a bitch. A right bitch. We all think so, all the servants, she treats us like we was dirt..."
"You're the bitch!" Charlotte screamed. "I'll see you sacked, I'll see you both sacked, you, you, you..." She felt fury almost like a pain rage through her, and without thinking what she was doing she took a pace forward towards the parlourmaid, and gave her a stinging slap across the cheek. But as she raised her hand to deliver a second blow, she felt her arms being held, and turning round saw the native standing behind her, his bulk looming huge.
"Let me go, you brute!"
She tried to kick him, but the native responded by pushing her forwards to her face her father's desk. From behind the vast expanse of mahogany, her uncle shook his head. "Well, Pemberton, what do you say?"
Pemberton stood in silence a long while. "It is my considered legal judgement", he nodded at last, "that the Honourable Charlotte Forsyth is indeed in most pressing need of a guardian."
"No!" Charlotte cried.
"I have no hesitation in delivering her to your absolute control, Sir Ralph, until the occasion of her twenty-third birthday, as specified by her father. She is now yours to discipline and restrain as you so please."
There was a long silence. Charlotte could feel the fingers of the native through the satin of her gloves, gripping her, and the sound, within her ears, of her own racing heart. She tried to meet her uncle's gaze, but found, to her astonishment, that she could not. To her shame, she suddenly found that she was shaking. To her shame, she suddenly found that she was very, very afraid.
At long last, Sir Ralph cleared his throat. "Well then. Well then. Let us start as I mean to carry on."
He nodded to the native, who raised his fingers to Charlotte's chin. He tilted it upwards, so that Charlotte had no choice but to meet her uncle's fearsome gaze.
"Charlotte Forsyth, you are a disgrace to your father, and the memory of your mother, God bless her soul. You will be reformed, Miss, and you will acknowledge the error of your ways, or by George, Miss, I will see you suffer as you have never suffered before. Do you understand me?"
Charlotte didn't answer.
"We will start with tonight's offences, for which you must be punished promptly and fittingly. Let go of her, Ranjit."
The native released his grip, took a couple of paces back.
"Turn and face, Scudder, Charlotte."
She stayed frozen.
"You heard me, Charlotte. Don't make it worse for yourself."
Still she stayed frozen, even her heart seeming stilled. Then slowly, agonisingly, she turned to face the chauffeur.
"Apologise to him, Charlotte."
Charlotte closed her eyes in the agony of the moment. When she opened them again, Scudder was staring at her, impassive, as he always was.
Charlotte swallowed. She licked her lips. "I'm sorry," she muttered at last in a strangled voice.
"On your knees", her uncle promptly ordered
Charlotte moaned. Another long silence. She sunk to her knees. She could smell the polish on the servant's boots. She could see her own reflection, pale as a ghost. She blinked back a tear. "I'm sorry," she muttered again.
Head bowed, she heard her uncle suddenly laugh. "You see, we'll have her trained yet." Pemberton obliged him with an answering laugh.
"May I stand now?", Charlotte asked, her voice strangled with humiliation and fury.
"Yes. Once you have asked Scudder to spank you for your insolence."
"Spa... spa...?" Charlotte's voice trailed away. She looked up at last, her view now completely blotted by her own tears. Yet through the haze she could see that Sudder had already sat down. She could see that his eyes were fixed on her, Mary-Anne's too. She could see that he was waiting, patting his lap...
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
"Please, Scudder..." Charlotte bit hard on her lip. She could taste the salt of tears in the back of her throat. But she would not cry! It was bad enough to be punished like a child, but to cry like one would be insufferable! Somehow, although she did not know how, she forced the words out. "Please, Scudder, would you spa... spank me for my insolence?"
Scudder stared up at her. Even now his face remained perfectly impassive. "Yes, Miss Charlotte, I will," he nodded at length. He patted his lap. Charlotte stared at it, her legs weak with humiliation, nervousness and fury. Unable to endure meeting the gaze of anyone else in the room, she slowly lowered herself down onto her servant's lap.
"Grip your ankles, Miss Charlotte."
Charlotte obeyed. Obeyed! The word reverberated through her thoughts. To obey a servant, oh, the shame of it, the shame! As she reached to grip her ankles, her cheek brushed against Scudder's boots. She could smell them, boot polish and leather intermingled, and knew instinctively that it was a smell she would never forget. She closed her eyes tightly. At the same moment, she felt Scudder's fingers brush her dress, smoothing the fabric as he lay his hand down on her posterior, leaving it there a moment, squeezing once, twice. Charlotte tensed, then moaned with the horror of what was being done. Oh, she would have her revenge, she would have her revenge against them all. How was it possible for a woman of her age and nobility to have to endure such shame? But even as she thought this, she felt Scudder's fingers lifted from her posterior and then she began to kick and squirm, protesting violently, struggling to break free, for the chauffeur was pulling up her skirt, exposing her underwear, publicly, in a room full of men!
"No," Charlotte sobbed, "no, no, this is too much!"
"Silence!" Sir Ralph's tone was biting and harsh. Like a slap to the cheek, it had the effect of silencing Charlotte at once. "Endure your punishment without complaint, or I promise you, it will be infinitely worse."
Charlotte stopped her squirming. She sought to imagine that it was not really her lying over the lap of a coarse and common man-servant, exposed to the gaze of other men, prepared for a spanking. At the same time, she wondered what revenge would ever be adequate to punish Sir Ralph for such an outrage.
"Look at me."
She opened her eyes, glared up at Sir Ralph.
"I want you to listen carefully to me while you are being spanked. I am going to tell you what my plans for you are. However, because I am a reasonable man, I intend to leave the ultimate choice up to you. I therefore advise you to listen carefully. If you yell and blubber too loudly, then you will not be able to pay proper attention to me, will you?"
He nodded curtly to Scudder. The chauffeur's hand lingered on Charlotte's posterior, then she felt it lifted and before she could tense, down it came, a hard stinging smack, suffusing a glow of pain through her, the cheeks of her bottom burning, but not so brightly as the cheeks of her face. She forced herself to keep her eyes fixed on Sir Ralph as he smiled and slowly leaned forwards.
For the next few minutes, Charlotte somehow struggled to keep her attention fixed on what he was saying, despite the rising haze of pain from her bottom, and the steady tattoo of Scudder's horny palm. She was spoiled, Sir Ralph told her, selfish, arrogant, lazy and ignorant. It was his duty, as her guardian, to see that she was reformed and reclaimed. To that end, he had decided that for the next two years, until she was twenty-three, he would deny her any money at all, and forbid her to live at Forsyth Hall. Just as Charlotte was wondering whether she was to be cast adrift upon the streets, he proceeded to tell her that his own daughter, Letitia, was preparing for a London season. As a debutante, she would need her own maid, and what better a maid than a woman who already had more than enough knowledge of the ballrooms of London? Sir Ralph smiled coldly. "I am sure that your former acquaintances will be most amused to observe you, the haughty Honourable Charlotte Forsyth, dancing attendance as a servant girl on your new mistress. Would you not say?"
Charlotte gasped and cried out, "Nooooooooooo!", twisting on Scudder's lap, with the pain from her bottom, and horror at her guardian's words. Sir Ralph's smile broadened. He held up his hand. "That will be all, Scudder."
"Yes, Sir Ralph."
"Rise to your feet, Charlotte, after first politely thanking Scudder for spanking you so deservedly."
Her bottom pulsing, Charlotte somehow managed to rise to her feet, smoothing down her skirt gratefully as she did so. "Tha.. thank you Scudder." She tried not to let her voice betray a hint of the loathing and fury she felt. "Thank you for giving me a spanking. I deserved it awfully."
"You are welcome, Miss Charlotte." Now at last Scudder smiled. He glanced at Mary-Ann, and Charlotte saw how the parlourmaid smiled back.
"Now, Charlotte," said Sir Ralph, "come and stand in front of my desk. Hands on head."
Charlotte stared at him in disbelief.
"You heard me."
Slowly, slowly, she did as she had been told.
"Now then, how does it feel," Sir Ralph asked, "to have a bottom that stings like that of a naughty schoolgirl?"
Charlotte glared at him, not deigning to answer, her arms already aching.
"It is my firm opinion that had your bottom stung like that more frequently during your childhood, you would not be the spoiled and unpleasant young lady you are today."
"Daddy didn't believe in punishing me. Ever."
"So I gather. Didn't even believe in sending you to school, is that right?"
"He thought it wasted on girls."
"He believed that all a gentlewoman needed to know was to ride, speak French, and play the piano."
"Then he was a fool."
"How DARE you..."
Sir Ralph rose to his feet, his face white with fury. "Listen to me, Charlotte. I have given you one option - to be humiliated in front of your friends and male acquaintances, to work for two years as a lady's maid to your cousin. Now hear the second. I have lately learned from my friend, Lord Cropem, that an old teacher of my sister's has become the Headmistress of one of our country's leading boarding schools. She is a true martinet, and taught my dear sister the benefits of discipline and obedience at the point of her cane. She has always remained grateful that she was taught such lessons while still a girl. As I said, it is a great pity that you yourself did not learn them a long while back. However, it is my intention that you have the opportunity to make up for such a lack. As an alternative to spending two years as a servant, you may spend one year at a boarding school, and if, at the end of that period, you have mastered your studies and passed your examinations to the satisfaction of your teachers, then you may return to Forsyth Hall, with your inheritance advanced to you. Those are the options. What do you choose?"
Charlotte stared at him in disbelief. The man was a lunatic! "Go to school?"
"To Birchdale School. One of the best schools in the land."
"But... but... I am 21. I am no longer a child."
"You're flat enough, and if we wipe off all that paint and powder from your face, you'll look a convincing sixteen year-old easily enough."
"That will be your age, as far as all your teachers and your fellow pupils are concerned."
Teachers! Fellow pupils! Charlotte moaned at the very idea.
Charlotte found she had quite lost her tongue.
"Which is it to be? Dancing attendance on your cousin?"
Charlotte shuddered. She shook her head violently.
"Going to school as a sixteen year-old, then?"
Charlotte remained frozen a long while. Then at last, almost imperceptibly, she nodded her head.
Her guardian smiled. "Very well." He turned to Pemberton. "Please will you draw up an accreditation, confirming that Charlotte here is henceforward to be considered as legally sixteen. And I..." - he paused, opening a drawer of the desk, and drawing out a sheet of writing paper - "I will write forthwith to my sister's old housemistress, Mrs Grouter, now the headmistress of Birchdale School!"
MORTIFICATION OUTSIDE THE RITZ
"You will wait here, Charlotte. When you are older, you may be permitted to take tea in the Ritz, but for now you will wait outside on the pavement."
"Yes, Uncle Ralph."
Charlotte spoke softly and demurely. It was the favourite dictum of her uncle that children should be seen and not heard. Charlotte, who with the stroke of a pen had gone from being twenty-one to sixteen, was now expected never to speak unless spoken to. Even when spoken to, she was expected never to raise her voice in reply, or offer any disagreement. Her uncle, hearing his haughty niece so obedient, smiled, a glitter of triumph in his eyes. "It has been a long day, a long week, indeed, and I believe that your nanny deserves a treat to reward her for all her efforts with you. Come along, Miss Smith. You will find the teas at the Ritz something quite special, I believe."
He turned, following Mary-Ann Smith through the Ritz's sweeping doors. Mary-Ann Smith! Recently head parlourmaid at Forsyth Hall, but now promoted to the status of Charlotte's nanny. For the past week, the woman who had previously been at Charlotte's imperious beck and call had closely monitored every aspect of her former mistress's life. She it was who had opened up Charlotte's old nursery, dusted down her old clothes, and set her to reading her old childish books. And she it was who had escorted her up to London that morning on the train. For her first trip to the capital since her ignominious capitulation to her uncle the previous week, Charlotte had been dressed in an excruciatingly juvenile sailor-suit dress, forced to sit on the train with her hands neatly folded in her lap, to stand every time anyone entered the compartment, to hear herself complemented to her "nanny" by all and sundry as a "well-behaved little girl."
Arriving at Waterloo, Mary-Ann had then ushered her into a taxi, and had her driven across town to Knightsbridge. Charlotte had shopped there often at Harrods, of course, but never on the floor that sold children's clothes, and never in the department that provided uniforms for schools! Oh, how mortified she had been, standing obediently as Mary-Ann and the shop assistants had talked over her head.
Then there had been the trying on of the uniform, the shapeless cotton knickers, the unflattering vest, the scratchy stockings, the ugly pleated skirt, the heavy flat black shoes, the tie with its frightful colours! It had been when Charlotte had tried on the blazer and cloche hat that she had felt her cheeks blaze most scaldingly, however, and her thighs seem to melt with a dizzying flush of shame, for both blazer and hat had been marked with a badge, the Birchdale badge, the badge of what was now HER school. Wearing such a hat and a blazer, everyone, but everyone would know what exactly what she was, a schoolgirl at Birchdale, not an adult at all.
And then, just when she had been preparing to take the uniform off after the fitting, and was gazing even on the hateful sailor-suit dress with some measure of relief, Charlotte had been told that she would have to keep the uniform on! "We are meeting your uncle," Mary-Ann had informed her, in the condescending tone which she had adopted ever since her promotion. "I am sure he will want to see how neat and respectable you look, ready to head off to your new school."
And so there Charlotte was now, dressed in her school uniform on Piccadilly, standing like a naughty little girl outside the hotel where she had so often drunk champagne with her friends, with handsome men, with all the companions of her riotous adulthood. What if one of them were to pass her now? The very thought of it made Charlotte turn and face the blank wall. As she did so, she caught sight of her reflection in the glass of the door, her face without a touch of lipstick or powder, the cloche hat with its badge pulled down over her hair, her eyes wide and nervous like those of any schoolgirl left alone on a London street by her uncle. Oh, the shame of it, the shame! Charlotte buried her face in her hands. And at that very moment, she felt a light tap on her shoulder. "Charlotte? Charlotte, is that really you?"
Charlotte turned round.
Linda Kroesig, Charlotte's best friend.
"Charlotte, you do look awfully funny dressed like that. Whatever are you up to?"
Charlotte felt a lurching sickness in her tummy. She looked at her friend. Linda was wearing a neat black dress, a dark mink coat, a tiny ostrich hat on her smooth polished hair. Comparing Linda's hat to her own, it was all Charlotte could do to struggle to find her voice. Yet find it at last she did, and the whole story came pouring out. How she was now her uncle's ward. How he had told her she was to go to school. How she would not be permitted to leave until she had passed some silly exams. How she would never have any fun ever again. How life was too beastly and frightful for words! And at the end of it, Linda held her in her arms, and told her to cheer up, and insisted that she was still the most tremendous Hon.
"Oh, Linda, I've got to find some way out of this mess."
"Yes, we will, we will."
At that moment, over Linda's shoulder, Charlotte caught a glimpse of her uncle and Mary-Ann walking through the foyer. "Quick, Linda, you must go. I mustn't be seen talking to you."
"Write to me!"
"Yes, I'll write to you. And you write to me?"
"Of course, of course!" And with that, Linda was gone. Oh, if only she could go with her, Charlotte thought! But she was happy to have seen her friend, happy that at least one other person knew the full and awful truth. Perhaps, with Linda's help, she might indeed find some way to get her revenge on Uncle Ralph, to wriggle her way out of the frightful situation in which she now found herself trapped. Perhaps, perhaps...
BEGINNING A NEW LIFE
A Bentley drew up outside the entrance hall of Birchdale School. A girl sat in the back seat, neat in her uniform. The car purred to a halt, but the girl remained where she was, her fingers gripping the leather of the seat, as though she could not endure to depart from the car. The chauffeur stepped out and opened the back door, stood and waited, then finally cleared his throat. "Miss Charlotte, we are here."
"I can see that perfectly well, Scudder, I am not blind," came the tart reply. The girl glanced out of the car window at the tall Gothic structure looming above her. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks pale, her expression that of any schoolgirl nervously contemplating her new school. Yet there was something, perhaps, about her looks, dark and fashionable and difficult, which hinted that the girl was not quite as innocent as she seemed. She bit her lip, and as though with an effort of will, all the fear and uncertainty vanished from her face. She stepped out from the car at last, gave the oaken doors ahead of her a long, calculating look, then thinned her lips into a spiteful smile. She climbed the steps, her shoulders back, her nose haughtily in the air. She pushed open the doors, was struck by an odour of chalk dust and cabbage. The Honourable Charlotte Forsyth had arrived at her new school...
Charlotte lay on her excruciatingly uncomfortable mattress, on her excruciatingly narrow dormitory bed, listening to the distant sound of children's cries from outside - and tried desperately to blank out the throb of pain from the three welts across her delicate and exquisite derrière. Every so often she would grip the sheet in her fists and knot it tightly, not only with pain, but with indignation as well. Everything about this school was insufferable, she thought, and most insufferable of all was the fact that for the first time in her life, Charlotte was starting to learn respect. Respect for the cane. Respect for the teachers. And respect for the fear which the combination brought.
Arriving at school that afternoon, she had been struck first by a mingled smell of cabbage and chalk-dust, and second by a sense of mortification at being surrounded by girls in the uniform she too was having to sport. Oh, the humiliation of walking down the school corridors and seeing children, barely teenage children, dressed exactly as she was. Any adult seeing her would never have any cause to imagine that she was anything but a schoolgirl herself. It had been simply too frightful, too frightful for words! And yet - Charlotte's pale cheek was touched by a rosy flush as she remembered it - things had soon taken a further turn for the worse!
At 6:00 that evening, she had been summoned to the study of the Headmistress, Miss Grouter. As it turned out, Miss Grouter had proved to be a severe, grey-haired woman in a gown, with the look rather of Bertie Applethorpe's head cook, Mrs Bistow. Her forearm, which bulged beneath the severe white sleeve of her blouse, was, if anything, even meatier than the cook's. From the moment she first laid eyes on her, Charlotte had realised that all her high hopes had been mistaken, and that the Headmistress was not at all the kind of woman who might prove to be a chum. Charlotte realised that she had been rather hoping that the teachers, the moment they had contact with her, would straight away recognise her maturity, despite her ghastly uniform, rather in the manner that the heroines of fairy tales, even if they live among cinders or tend geese, are always recognised by princes as princesses in waiting. In her imagination, Charlotte had pictured herself in Mrs Grouter's rooms, laughing merrily over tea.
"Why, Charlotte," Mrs Grouter should have tinkled, "tender though your years are, you have seen more of the world than I!" She should then have leaned across. "Don't bother with these silly rules and regulations," she should have whispered in a confiding tone. "And please feel free to help yourself to my sherry whenever you please." Charlotte would then have looked both grateful and superior at once, and perhaps have offered to introduce Mrs Grouter to some of London's more exclusive nightspots as a gesture of thanks. Mrs Grouter, speechless with provincial gratitude, would then have fallen into Charlotte's arms, and sobbed.
But alas, this was not at all how events had come to pass! She had glided into the Headmistress's study, and had just been on the verge of settling herself down into an armchair, when Mrs Grouter had boomed at her in sudden fury, and ordered her to stay on her feet. "Hands on head!" she had roared. Charlotte had stared at the gorgon in disbelief. By now the Headmistress was turning purple. Hurriedly, her stomach churning, Charlotte had placed her hands on her head. In her stomach, she had felt an icy sickness. How COULD she treat her in this way, as though she were nothing but a child????
Mrs Grouter had begun to talk to her, explaining what would be expected of her as a pupil at Birchdale School - but Charlotte's mind had been many miles away. How adults DID drone on! And then, no sooner had she reflected upon this, than she had frozen in renewed horror. She realised that she had just fallen into the trap of thinking exactly like a child. How long had she been at school? Barely two hours! And already she had begun to think of the teachers as people in a quite different category to her! How cunning it all was! They made you follow stupid rules and regulations which all the pupils had to follow, so that your individuality was utterly submerged! They made you wear a uniform which marked you out as a child! They even made you stand in front of their desks in their studies, and put your hands on your head! Everywhere, there were eyes watching you, restrictions to be obeyed! And if she were just to turn her back on them, to refuse to obey them, to do as she had done all her life, and scoff at anything she found boring? Well, what then indeed!
Slowly, very slowly, with great deliberation, she had lowered her hands from her head to her sides. Mrs Grouter had goggled at her in disbelief. Then, without a further word, she had pushed back her chair, and walked across to a distant cupboard. Turning a key, she had unlocked it, revealing, to Charlotte's horror, what lay inside. Canes - a whole row of canes. As she looked at them, Charlotte had shuddered, and lifted a hand to her right breast. Her heart had been racing, and there had been a queer quarried out feeling in her stomach, which it had taken her a moment to recognise as fear. She had felt suddenly as though she were trapped in a cage, as for the first time the true enormity of her situation overwhelmed her. If she did not obey the teachers, if she were not in every way a good dutiful schoolchild, just like all the REAL children, then she would be beaten, again exactly like a child! And yet she was the Honourable Charlotte Forsyth, she was the belle of London's ballrooms, she was twenty one years old! How could this be happening???? How COULD it be?????? It was a nightmare grown ABSOLUTELY out of control!!
"Bend over my desk," the Headmistress had ordered. "Grip the far side and stand on the tips of your toes."
Charlotte had been so stunned that for a few seconds she had not known how to answer, and kept telling herself stupidly that she was trapped in a nightmare from which she would very soon wake up. For a brief fraction of a second, she had even contemplated ignoring her uncle's dire warnings, and revealing to the Headmistress that she was as much of an adult as they. But then, with her legs seemingly ready to melt, her stomach the abode of a myriad butterflies, she had done as she had been ordered. She had felt the Headmistress pull up her skirt, flip it over, expose her knickers to the cane. And ohhh, when the blows had come, the pain of it! Three searing strokes! Three blazing welts of fiery crimson agony! Charlotte had not cried out, she had not even twisted with the pain, for she had been determined to do all she could to maintain her dignity -and yet, and yet, how she had longed to sob!
And when it had been done, her skirt flipped back over, the cane put away, her punishment, it turned out, had not yet been concluded. "You will go to bed now," Mrs Grouter had ordered. "It is only seven o'clock, so you will have plenty of time to reflect upon the standards of obedience we will be expecting you to maintain."
"But... but..." Charlotte had struggled not to raise her voice in disbelief. "I have not even had supper!"
"Then you should have thought about that before being such a naughty little girl. Now run along to your dormitory. Move it, girl! Run!"
And so the Honourable Charlotte Forsyth, aged 21, had done as she had been ordered - she had turned and run. And there she lay on her bed - the time, 7.30. Not even 5 year-olds were sent to bed that early - and yet there she was.
Oh, the shame of it! The paralysing SHAME!!
CHARLOTTE'S FIRST WAKE-UP CALL
Charlotte stirred and groaned. "Did I give you permission to open the curtains?" she muttered angrily at the parlourmaid, not opening her eyes. There was no answer. "Bother you, you impertinent little baggage, I told you to LEAVE THE CURTAINS DRAWN!" Charlotte reached for a pillow and buried her head beneath it. There was still no answer. The curtains remained drawn. "Oh, for goodness sake! Consider yourself sacked!" Charlotte sat up abruptly, opened her eyes - and screamed!
So it hadn't all been a nightmare! She was still at that ghastly school! Charlotte rubbed her eyes in disbelief. No, the dormitory was still there, with its peeling paint, its metal-framed beds, its faint smell of dirty stockings. Charlotte moaned, and buried her head under the pillow again. But her dreams had been so vivid! She was sure that she had left Birchdale forever! It had all seemed so convincing - no lessons, no annoying children buzzing round her, just balls and parties and fun every night! It had all seemed so - real! And now, all gone, like a shimmering of fairy dust!
At that moment, insistent, there came the clanging of a bell. Somebody nudged her. "I say," came a voice, "you really do need to get up pronto."
Charlotte moaned, and looked out blearily from under her pillow. A jolly-looking girl, already dressed neatly in navy-blue blazer and skirt, was staring down at her. "It's brekkers in ten," the girl said. "If you don't make it, then the prefects will get in the most COLOSSAL bate."
"Prefects?" Charlotte's lip curled in a sneer. "What do I care about some silly girls with badges?"
"It's not their badges you need to worry about, it's their beastly rotten slippers."
Charlotte would have sneered at that warning, too, only the very mention of the word "slippers" seemed to make the welts across her bottom start to throb with renewed anger, and she found herself, without exactly having intended it, abruptly sitting up. Sitting on the lumpy mattress, she looked around her. The dormitory was filled with milling girls, all knotting their ties or smoothing down their skirts or running brushes through their hair. Charlotte glanced at the chair beside her bed, where her own uniform had been hung. Only put that on, and she would look exactly like a schoolgirl herself again. The very image of all the others. Reluctantly, Charlotte picked up her ugly woollen vest. Naturally, she found pulling it on a perfect ordeal. Charlotte, with long experience of having her own maid, was not accustomed to dressing herself. What would Mary-Ann say if she could only see her former mistress now, she wondered, fumbling with the buttons of her blouse, struggling with her tie, simply one among twenty-odd schoolgirls? Charlotte knew the answer to that. Mary-Ann would laugh and laugh.
A large, meaty woman, dressed in a matron's uniform, and looking for all the world like Dotty Bresthewick's cook, entered the dormitory, and barked an order. "Breakfast line up!"
"Mrs Hooper," whispered Charlotte's new friend. "Perfect dragon. Better do as she says."
Charlotte, still conscious of the smarting from her bottom, hurried to join the line, just as all the other girls were doing. Only one remained by her bed, and she was sitting on her chair, while a junior, on her knees, busily polished her shoes.
"Who's that?" Charlotte whispered. "And why's she not in line?"
"Annabella," came the whispered answer, "she's Captain of the Fifth. That means she can go to breakfast on her own, with the prefects, AND she gets a tweeny to polish her shoes."
"A junior girl. Each one is assigned to do chores for a prefect or senior girl. You're jolly lucky that you never had to do it, but just came straight into the Fifth."
Charlotte nodded, and then, her green eyes narrowing, inspected the scene. The tweeny, unlike the fifth formers, had her hair tied in pigtails, and she wore, rather than blazer, skirt and tights, a gymslip and white socks. The uniform of a junior, no doubt. So it was possible, after all, in this hell-hole, for a girl to have a maid! Well, well! That was encouraging news! Charlotte would have to act on it, and soon.
But at the moment, her thoughts were interrupted by a second heavy clanging of the bell.
A NEW ENEMY - AND A FRIEND?
In total silence, the line of fifth-formers descended a winding spiral staircase, and entered a long hall. At the far end of it, by a doorway beyond which waited the dining hall, stood two girls, each wearing a bright red sash across her blazer. They were inspecting the hands of everyone who passed them on the way into breakfast, and Charlotte, as she and the other fifth-formers joined the queue, turned to her companion, and asked who the two girls were.
"The blonde one, that's Davina, she's Head Girl. Captain of lax as well, and of hockey, and of rounders too. She's absolutely WIZARD. ALL the juniors have got the most frightful pash on her, as you can jolly well imagine!"
Charlotte inspected the Head Girl with disdain. Shoulder-length flaxen hair, big bones, fat ankles. Gentry stock at best, she sniffily surmised. However, Davina's companion...
"Oh, that's Madelaine," came the whispered explanation. "Or Mademoiselle, that's what we call her. A beastly old froggy, don't you know?"
Yes, Charlotte thought, she might have guessed as much -for even in her navy blue school uniform, "Mademoiselle" managed to give a certain impression of Parisian chic. Dark hair, skin as pale as Charlotte's own, and a definite look - unless Charlotte were much mistaken - of aristocratic hauteur.
"She's a Marquise," said Charlotte's companion helpfully, as though having read her thoughts. "She and Davina are always frightfully thick. They say that Davina has actually got a PASH on Mademoiselle, but I can't believe that, can you? I mean, whoever heard of an ENGLISH head girl having a pash on some rotten old frog?"
"Who indeed?" murmured Charlotte pleasantly, thoughts of the Duc de Valseuses rising unbidden into her mind, and that wild, wild night at the Place de Vosges. She smiled, and actually managed to catch Madelaine's eye, for by now she and the other fifth-formers were nearing the two prefects, and Charlotte, repressing her indignation that she should have to be inspected by anyone, prepared to hold out her hands. But when the moment came, it was not Madelaine who took them, but Davina instead, who gave them a cursory glance, and then looked down at Charlotte's shoes.
"You haven't polished them."
Charlotte arched an eyebrow. "Is that my problem? I have not yet been assigned a maid."
"Is that supposed to be some rotten kind of joke? Hold out your hand, girl."
"I just did," Charlotte protested, but Davina, ignoring her, seized her by the wrist, picked up a ruler, then brought it down, THWACK, THWACK, THWACK, hard onto the flesh of Charlotte's palm. A ripple of giggling passed through the line behind her, and Charlotte, waving her hand up and down with the pain, felt a flush even more crimson than the ruler-marks on her palm start to burn through her cheeks. She looked up at Davina, her eyes bright with fury, and tried to think of something biting and witty to say, but she could not, and when Davina ordered her to "scurry back to the dorm," she turned without a word, and hurried away. She was aware, to her shame, that she was blinking back tears, and pausing on the stairway, she sat on a step, and let a couple drop.
Then, just as she was wiping them away, leaving childish streaks of silver on her sleeve, she heard the clattering of footsteps behind her. Looking round, Charlotte saw the junior girl who had been polishing Annabella's shoes. She felt a flush of spiteful anger. If only the silly little fool had devoted her energies to cleaning the shoes of the one LADY in the dormitory, rather than some stupid fifth-former, then Charlotte would not have been humiliated in front of a whole line of giggling schoolgirls. The junior, trying not to catch Charlotte's eyes, was attempting to squeeze past her, but Charlotte, her lips set in a minatory smile, reached for the girl, and took her by the wrist. Then, without warning, she applied a vicious and prolonged chinese burn.
The junior shrieked in alarm, and then began to cry. "What did you... sniff... do that for... sniff sniff", she blubbered, as Charlotte finally dropped her arm.
"You didn't clean my shoes."
"I don't have to, sniff. You're not the Captain of the, sniff sniff, beastly Fifth."
"But that's precisely where you are wrong. You DO have to clean my shoes. And do you know why?" Charlotte gave an icy smile.
"Because every day that you fail to clean my shoes, I will give you another chinese burn. Do you see?"
The junior looked disbelievingly into Charlotte's glittering emerald eyes. Then, as though her head were being forced downwards by an invisible hand, she lowered her gaze. "What will all the other, sniff, fifth-formers, sniff sniff, say?"
"They don't have to know. I will be leaving my shoes behind the door at the top of the stairway. You will find them there, and clean them - every morning. Also, once we have all left the dormitory, you will be making my bed."
"But..." The junior's lip wobbled. "But I will have to get up even earlier now!"
"Ah well." Charlotte perused her elegantly manicured nails. "Better that than another chinese burn." There was a long pause. "Well - what are you waiting for?"
"What do you mean?" the junior whimpered.
"My shoes. Look at them. Filthy, quite filthy. Shockingly so." And then, with a curt gesture of her right hand, Charlotte sent the hapless junior clattering back up the stairs to fetch the shoe-cleaning kit, and sat humming gently to herself as the junior returned, and began polishing the shoes up to a shiny black. "There," murmured Charlotte once the junior had finally finished, "that didn't hurt you much now, did it?"
"You're... you're... a beast and a bully," the junior suddenly spluttered, turning bright red.
"Yes, and you're a little skivvy." Charlotte laughed lightly. "I know which I would rather be. Now - run along, little... what is your name, little serving maid?"
"Geraldine," the junior said. "And I'm not a serving maid, I'm the daughter of the Duke of Baccaleugh."
"Geraldine." Charlotte patted her on the head. "Well, then, Geraldine, off you trot." Then, as the young girl duly trotted off, Charlotte inspected herself in the shine of her shoes, touched and smoothed her gleaming black hair, and rose and returned to the dining hall herself. She was the last girl to pass the twin guard of prefects. Not giving Davina so much as a single cursory glance, Charlotte stood instead before Madelaine, and gave her her hands to inspect. As Madelaine laid her fingers upon them, Charlotte gently brushed them with her own fingertips, and when Madelaine reddened, gave her the faintest, faintest smile. "Luxe," she whispered, "clame et volupté."
"Baudelaire." Madelaine frowned. "And your accent - it is perfect!"
"I have known what it is," said Charlotte in an even softer and more confiding whisper, "to toast a Parisian dawn." And then, after one last lingering glance into Madelaine's gaze, she turned and glided off towards breakfast, and her first full day at school.
AMO, AMAS, AMAT
It was Latin. Charlotte, who had never studied a word of the language, and had absolutely no desire to rectify her ignorance, shifted resentfully on her hard wooden chair. The pain in her bottom had still not entirely subsided, and the fact that was obliged to sit on the barest wood, on the most rickety of chairs, listening to the most tedious woman ever born, seemed to her a torture absolutely beyond endurance. And yet endure it she had to, for she was now a fifth former in a boarding school, and, as such, obliged to do precisely as she was told. Between 10 and 11, every Tuesday, the fifth form at Birchdale would report to their classroom, where they would all take their place at their assigned desks, and they would then be taught Latin. There was no disputing it, no wriggling free from the constrictions of the timetable. As tight as the bones of a stay gripped round the stomach, so the schedule of her lessons gripped the schoolchild. Charlotte, like all the other girls in her form, was quite without choice in the matter. So there, that half past ten, on that Tuesday morning, the Honourable Charlotte Forsyth, aged 21, had to sit and squirm.
"Now - please open your "Aeneid" to page 32." Miss Martindale, the Head of Classics, was as beaked, withered, and dusty as the stuffed vulture in the Fourth Form common room. As though one, all the girls immediately reached for their textbooks, and opened them at the set page. Charlotte did so as well, though seemingly without the alacrity that Miss Martindale expected from her charges, for the teacher glared, then pointed with the tip of her cane.
"You, girl," she demanded, "the new girl, what is your name?"
Charlotte half rolled her eyes. "The Honourable Charlotte Forsyth," she drawled.
Miss Martindale gave a furious swishing of her cane. "How dare you, girl? Your name is not the Honourable Charlotte Forsyth here, it is plain Charlotte Forsyth. Furthermore, you do not roll your eyes when speaking to an adult, nor do you remain on your derriere. On your feet at once, girl."
With that, she delivered a sharp crack of her cane on Charlotte's desk, and Charlotte, wincing despite herself, at once jumped to her feet. There was a suppressed giggling from all around her, and she felt her cheeks turn red.
"Since you appear to be a thoroughly rude and disagreeable little girl, you will approach the blackboard and write upon it "The mark of a lady is the display of perfect manners." You will continue to write out the line, in numbered sequence, until I tell you to stop."
Charlotte knew what was expected of her, and with great effort she forced herself to drag the expected words out. "Yes, Miss," she said. "I am very sorry, Miss."
"Hands on head as you walk to the blackboard, so that you may look like what you, a very silly and naughty girl, who had brought down merited punishment upon herself."
There was a further burst of suppressed giggling, silenced by a single menacing glare from Miss Martindale. Charlotte, her cheeks burning, approached the blackboard, and then, at a signal from her teacher, picked up a piece of chalk, and began to scratch out the wretched line.
"Take more care with your lettering, girl."
"Yes Miss." Charlotte curtsied, then began on her second line. Already she was conscious of chalk dust smearing the front of her navy blazer. She continued with her lines, her wrist soon starting to ache, while behind her, in a mumble of incomprehensible words, the other girls recited lines of Virgil for their teacher. Charlotte's mind began to wander. She realised, to her horror, that she would be expected to learn such mumbo jumbo! "You will stay at Birchdale until you have passed all your examinations." So her uncle had proclaimed. Charlotte's hand, as she contemplated this frightful ultimatum, and the need to actually make sense of Latin, dropped numbly to her side. And at once, from behind her, there could be heard a deathly silence.
Charlotte felt something prodding at the hem of her skirt, and then lifting it. Before she could turn round, the skirt had been flipped up, and the cane of Miss Martindale brought down stingingly across her bottom. Charlotte yelped, and tried to turn round again, but Miss Martindale's boney fingers were already pressing against her waist, and she felt her skirt being pinned up to her blazer.
"Oh Miiiiiss!" she cried, and realised, even as she did so, that she sounded like a whining sixteen year-old for real.
Another stinging blow, this time across the bare flesh between her knickers and her stocking tops, and oooohhh, she skipped and hopped! All the girls behind her burst out giggling, and at the very moment, there was a knock on the door, and the Headmistress entered the classroom. Behind her was a man and woman, both dressed in expensive-looking coats, but as yet obscured by shadow, and Charlotte, as she turned her head to inspect them more closely, received a third cut of the cane, the most painful yet. She gave a frantic yelp, and the Headmistress, inspecting her, nodded and smiled. "You see," she intoned, turning to the couple behind him, "here at Birchdale we believe in firm discipline - just as you specified, Lord Chartwell."
Lord Chartwell! Charlotte's blood turned to ice. It could not be! A memory, unbidden, came at once into her mind. Mayfair, a summer dawn, and a young man by her side. Dark-haired and aquiline, his bow-tie raffishly unknotted around his neck, his arm reaching out to take her by the waist. "Marry, me, Charlotte. I am not in the habit of begging anyone. It is not in my nature. Only I beg you, please - do marry me. Marry me, please!" Herself turning round. His expression, normally so arrogant, so superior, so icy-set, open and desperate, uncertain before her gaze. And she? What had she done? Why laugh, and then slap him, and walk away, of course! And now he was here, Lord Chartwell - no, no, no!
"Do not stand there goggling at me, girl!" roared the Headmistress, the bristles of her moustache rising like the quills of an angry porcupine. "Continue with your punishment. You will see," she confided, turning to her two companions, "that here in our fine educational establishment, naughty little girls get very short shrift indeed." Charlotte heard from behind her, as she resumed the scratching of her chalk upon the board, the sound of a man's heels upon the classroom's wooden boards, and then, in accompaniment, the clicking of a woman's shoes. Angling her head as she wrote, Charlotte saw a dumpy figure in an expensive hat and thick mink coat, and it took her a moment to realise that this second figure was - horror of horrors! - a familiar one as well. Clarissa J. Letterblair, to be precise -that insufferably vulgar American heiress who had spent the whole of the Season making eyes at English lords, and whom Charlotte, to the delight of high society, had publicly damned for having "the figure of a housemaid, and the sophistication of a 12 year-old child". How that witticism had been repeated in stately homes across the length and breadth of England! And now, she and Lord Chartwell together, they had both arrived at Birchdale. Why? What dark conspiracy was brewing here? Charlotte continued with her lines, feeling sick, and fearing the worst.
"Miss Martindale, girls," the Headmistress announced, "this is Lord Chartwell, and his fiancée, Miss Clarissa J. Letterblair."
Fiancée? Charlotte's feeling of sickness, as she continued with her lines, grew even worse.
"Lord Chartwell and Miss Letterblair, I am delighted to announce, have today offered to pay for our new sports hall!" the Headmistress boomed complacently. "His Lordship and Miss Letterblair both have a keen interest in education, and in particular, in the efficacious use of discipline and punishment in the moulding of a child! I am therefore proud to announce their appointment to the board of governors of this school forthwith!"
"A truly great honour," Charlotte heard Bertie Chartwell drawl.
"It is indeed," squeaked Clarissa Letterblair in agreement. "When my father, Mr Theodore J. Letterblair III, gave me a grant to spend on the endowment of one of your famous English schools, I knew that I wanted to give it to Birchdale, because, as my dear friend Sir Ralph Faulconbridge told me, there is no school in the world with a better reputation for keeping discipline!"
Sir Ralph Faulconbridge! Charlotte's guardian! So he was the one who must have told her bitter rival about her incarceration as a schoolgirl!
"Yes, yes," the Headmistress nodded. "And, as you can see" - Charlotte suddenly felt her hand upon her ear, twisting it so that she cried out - "our reputation is well deserved. Turn around, girl."
Wishing that the floor would open up and swallow her, Charlotte nevertheless obeyed. Unable to meet the eyes of her jilted admirer, or his new fiancée, she instead stared down at the floor. Abruptly, she cried out in pain, as the Headmistress applied a further ratchet, the veins on the back of her hand bulging as she twisted Charlotte's ear. "Hands on head, girl!"
Hurriedly, and in a state of high mortification, Charlotte obeyed.
"And what did you do that was so naughty?" Clarissa asked in her infuriating New England squeak.
"Curtsey before you answer, girl!" Miss Martindale intervened, giving an admonitory glare.
Charlotte breathed in deeply. She forced herself to curtsey. "I..."
"Come on, girl, you answer promptly when your betters address you!" Miss Martindale raised her cane, and delivered a stinging swish across Charlotte's buttocks. Charlotte winced and flinched with the pain, and, looking up, say that Clarissa was wearing a very thin smile. "I... I..." Charlotte stammered again. "I failed to display the manners of a lady, I suppose."
"I failed to display the manners of a lady, I suppose, MISS," Clarissa replied.
"I failed to display the manner of a lady, I suppose, MISS."
"Tsk tsk." Clarissa shook her head. "Why, even my most junior scullery maid knows how to address her superiors correctly, Charlotte. Do you have worse manners than a ignorant little scullery maid, do you think?"
Charlotte reddened. Standing there in a school uniform before her hated rival, hands on head, skirt pinned up, bottom throbbing with the welts of a cane, she found herself utterly lost for words.
"How old are you, Charlotte?"
"Si... sixteen. Miss."
Clarissa arched an eyebrow. "Then you are quite a grown up girl, after all. Which only makes your lack of manners even worse. I would not expect such a show of incivility even from a..." - she paused, and the silence hung in the air - "a twelve year old child."
Beside her, Bertie Chartwell nodded. "I must say, Mrs Grouter, that if this girl here is representative of the average Birchdale pupil, then we are sorely disappointed."
"Oh no, no, my Lord," the Headmistress blustered hurriedly, "this girl here has only been at the school a day!"
"Then I trust that you will soon reform her."
"Oh indeed we shall, my Lord!"
"Let us hope so."
"Perhaps, darling," said Clarissa, clinging to Bertie's arm, "we might prevail upon Mrs Grouter to keep us informed as to little Charlotte's progress. Permit us to keep track of the improvements in her behaviour. As a test case, if you like. Before I sign the cheque. Obviously, we need to be sure that my daddy's money is indeed going to a school that understands the meaning of discipline."
"A first-class idea, my little cherry pie."
The Headmistress, who had turned red, then purple, then pale in rapid succession, dabbed at her forehead with a handkerchief, and then nodded. "Of course, my Lord. Of course, Miss Letterblair. An excellent idea." She glared at Charlotte, then gestured with her arm. "Shall we continue with our tour?"
And out the three of them swept. Charlotte, watching them leave, remained perfectly motionless, her hands still on her head, until Miss Martindale, gesturing with her cane, ordered her to her desk. "And my advice to you, my girl, would be to watch your step. Do you understand?"
Charlotte nodded. She felt like crying. Her eyes, as she gazed at the lines of incomprehensible Latin verse, actually blurred. Oh yes - she understood, she understood, all right!