Story from Janus 102. By John Undermeyer
Time was, when a man could hang for stealing bread. But what if a beautiful woman could bear anything but his death?
The Welcome Home Tavern was a favourite mooring for sailors. At almost every tide some newcomer humped a studded sea-chest up the inn’s crooked stairs. Sailors made the place exciting. We never became used to their weird tattoos, missing eyes and legs, scarred hands and matted pigtails, and when they told of their adventures they mesmerised us.
For a few yards of ale, spiced with cloves and warmed with a glowing iron, they would entertain the table. But tonight we dined without Jack Tar. This was Saturday 24th April 1743 — our friend Doctor Timothy’s birthday.
We finished the eggs, trout, jugged hare and mature Stilton. The port circled the table several times. We were all in our early twenties; all the marrying kind. The talk was lewd but mere bravado: only the Doctor had enjoyed a woman and none of us had a wife.
We laughed with, and thought what we would do to, the serving maids. But our dreams were of a mistress more highly-born. As high as the raven-haired, slender-figured Lady Katherine Tovey who lived in Plimpton Manor with her irascible father, Lord Joshua.
An only daughter, her mother ran off with Lord Joshua’s younger brother when Katherine was ten years old. So shocking an event could never be kept secret in Longfield. But it had happened a decade past; Lady Katherine was now 20.
Gossip held that she inherited her mother’s rebel nature but it was hard to believe when you saw her smile. When men stood agape, devouring her face and figure, she stayed all the time silent, unwilling to look them in the eye. Her father never knew her mind and watched her constantly.
Doctor Timothy wiped his spoon and tapped loudly on the table. He had a story for us and by the way he laughed we knew he had saved it for tonight. We settled down and, satisfied all were listening, he took a red, wet mouthful of Taylor’s Reserve and began.
I was fortunate last week (he said) to be at Plimpton Manor. I am not often called there but Mrs Babbington, the cook, had an ague and Lord Joshua sent for me to examine her. I did so, and was riding off, when a mighty shout pierced the night.
In less than a minute I was back in the main hall. I saw Osric, the butler, with two other servants wrestling to hold an intruder. I was struck, at once, by the colour of the stranger’s hair: it was straw-gold. The rest of him was formidable: well over six feet tall, his body in proportion, and he looked — until I threw myself into the fray — that he might win.
We struggled for several minutes and I received some unpleasant cuffs. Then Osric produced a pistol. Feeling this at his temple, the stranger knew better than to fight on. It was not until we had him bound to a chair that we breathed easily again. We stood close to him, gradually regaining some composure, until Lord Tovey hurried down the stairs.
A pace behind him came Lady Katherine, dressed as if she were going out. She wore all black: riding boots, high-necked dress tight at the waist and hanging to the floor, boots, cape and gloves. With one hand she was taking off her hat; the other still held her horsewhip. She looked tense and milk-pale.
Reaching the tied man Lord Tovey began an interrogation. The story that emerged astonished us all. The prisoner had come for one purpose only: to collect Lady Katherine. A pair of horses were tethered nearby. They planned to elope.
Her father whirled upon her, furious and frightened. It was as if history would repeat itself. I understood how terrible that would be for him. The girl glared back, defiant and unflinching. Yes, she meant to leave. Her father’s regime, her own wilfulness and clandestine meetings with Christian (whom I guessed was the stranger) had made up her mind. She could not wait to be far from Longfield; wanted never to see Joshua again.
But his Lordship had other suspicions. He flung back her cape. Tied to her waist was her jewel box. He cut it loose and opened it. A pile of precious stones sparkled in the firelight. This was the truth of the matter: not elopement, but robbery. Could she not see, he raged at her, that she was the victim of a plausible rogue? The thief’s interest was not in her, but in her fortune. He meant to ride to the edge of Longfield, steal the gems and make off.
Vehemently Katherine declared this was a lie. She loved this blond fellow and her love was returned. Her affection for him was easy to believe seeing his handsome face, square jaw, and full head of curls. But for the man: his ardour was doubtful and neither her father nor myself believed in it.
Lord Joshua signalled to me. Since my horse was saddled, would I ride to the troopers in Fairmile and bring an officer and cohort to take the burglar into custody? Let him rot in gaol, declared his Lordship. In a month he can be at the County assizes, before the circuit judge.
I was halfway to the door when Lady Katherine screamed. She ran to her father, hair flailing, and fell on her knees. ‘Please do not call the troopers,’ she implored him. Lord Joshua swore he would. The girl seized his hands, her lips pushing into his palms in supplication. Despite his fury the old man was embarrassed. But he forced back his pity and gave vent to his bile. Craven crimes had been committed: house-breaking, assault, abduction and theft. Possibly murder would have been next — who was to say Katherine would have escaped with her life? Someone must suffer: someone must pay.
Katherine was distraught and we were moved by her desperation. ‘Can you not understand?’ she cried. ‘Robbery is a capital offence. With all of you to speak against him he must be found guilty. The judge will name the highest penalty. Christian will hang.’
We knew it was true. And, we began to muse, this blond Christian might well have meant to carry Katherine to his own home, there to make her his wife. If this were so, death was too severe a penalty. We had no doubt that even in this modern age, men went to the gallows too often.
Lady Katherine raised herself and begged her father to be lenient. If someone must suffer let it be her. Let her father bring her to heel. She would submit, be penitent and dutiful. She wrung her hands, beseeching forgiveness.
The old man blazed at her with his eyes. He turned to the prisoner and back to the girl. I could tell he felt some reluctance to be responsible for the fellow’s death. Finally, after wrestling with his demons, he growled assent. Then, as if already regretting his lenience he roared, spun Katherine round and propelled her towards the stairs, a clenched fist and angry finger pointing her towards her bedroom.
When she had gone he turned back to the men. Osric and the others were to stand guard. The fellow must not be released. Perhaps, if Katherine was properly repentant, there could be a reprieve. But for now he must wait. Turning then to me, his Lordship bid me follow him upstairs. In the mood he was in it were well to have a doctor present.
I climbed the wide, creaking staircase a pace behind him, thinking as I went that if our destination were Katherine’s bedroom, what should I do? True, I was a medical man, but I was of Katherine’s generation and (unless she were ill) would never be allowed near where she slept. Yet I said nothing, but followed her father’s clattering boots until he stopped at a door, paused fractionally then charged in, motioning me to follow.
The room was gloomy, with narrow windows that needed wash. Across one wall stood a giant four-poster surrounded by heavy curtains, open and tied back. The counterpane was embroidered damask, the sheets linen. Two goose-feather pillows were piled by the headboard. It looked old but comfortable. I wondered when the mattress had last been aired.
Six candles struggled to give us light. But there was light enough to see what I wanted to. Lady Katherine lay stretched on the bed. The outdoor clothes she had been wearing were strewn across the floor, her boots and stays slung on to a chair. She was naked and had not dared to slip beneath the covers. She knew that to appease Lord Joshua, she must not hide.
Her face was buried deep into a pillow and she had the cover clenched between her teeth. Her hands either side of her head also grasped pillows, kneading slowly, indicating her helplessness. When she felt us gazing she crushed her pelvis into the mattress, anxious to hide that part of her which I was most eager to see.
Her long black hair spread like silk across her back. Candlelight caught the upthrust of her buttocks which, I am sure, she squeezed tight in an attempt to feel more modest. From her bottom she flowed into trim thighs and slender legs. She was lovely, and she was weeping.
Lord Joshua motioned me to the far side of the room. I was to stand and observe but say nothing unless spoken to. I made myself inconspicuous, happy just to look. Katherine lifted her head, whimpered and began to tremble. I saw that her father had found her riding crop, which she had left on her dressing table.
He wasted no time. Katherine was prepared and the sooner it were done the better. He walked to the edge of the bed and satisfied himself that the girl was properly submissive. Then, deliberately measuring the distance between himself and that beautiful pale bottom, he clenched the whip handle tightly. The candles flickered, I caught myself licking my lips, Joshua took a deep breath. Katherine had only one thought in her mind — the prisoner downstairs.
Joshua’s arm drew back. Nothing could stop what was about to happen. Lips tight, he drove the whip down. It travelled those few feet in a fraction of an instant, before burying itself into her delicate flesh with a sound like a wet cloth on stone.
From that moment, in the silence before the cry, it seemed that everything which had taken place, every move made, every word spoken, every thought in every head was pure dream.
The thief’s arrival, the fight, Katherine’s pleading and submission: it had been seen through stage gauze. It was vague, hazy, indistinct, not defined, not real. Certainly not real. It was too comfortable and unimportant to be real. It was mummery; actors in a play; nothing like life.
Only Katherine knew about life — life was intolerable. All her fine thoughts, imagined love, willing self-sacrifice, her unquestioned offering of her bottom to the whip — all this was folly. More: it was madness. Nobody who knew would do this. A stroke from a riding crop across naked flesh — only that was real. And that was so real, it was unbearable. Only one thing mattered after that. Only one thought burst into the mind. Only one desire, one desperate aim, one purpose.
She must escape; rise up and fly; soar like a bird into the sky, to freedom, to blessed release from pain. Her pain could not be imagined. It was comets colliding. Sunbursts in the night. An age before birth and after death. Arrows in the heart. Worse than childbirth. She could not bear the hurt that took her, never mind the hurt to come.
Katherine knew that if Lord Joshua faltered for a second she would leap from the bed. She could not bear another stroke. No matter that her Christian would dance on a rope. She would let him — nay, want him to — rather than allow the agonising horsewhip to lash her bottom again.
But before she could rise, before she could slip out from beneath her punishment, the second stroke came down. The whole room was awake now. The candles blazed like permanent lightning. The walls shrieked in silent suffering. Lord Joshua and I moved into a new dimension. We were dead creatures, with no notion of truth. Only Katherine knew truth: fierce, vibrant, searing, forever indelible on her mind.
I know why Katherine did not rebel. Because as the third and fourth strokes came down she stopped wondering why she offered her bottom and remembered she was saving a man’s life. So instead of twisting to escape the fierce lashes, she rose into them. She grasped the bedclothes and seemingly pushed her bottom up to actively greet the descending whip. She must overcome pain, and the fear of pain. Her punishment was simply justice, suffered to prevent a fatal injustice.
However deep the fire burned it would eventually be over. She would rise from the bed, walk to the window and, in time, be comfortable again. But if, instead, Christian was punished: the thought was worse than even this…
No matter that her face twisted like flames as she fought to be brave. She could bear to writhe under the biting crop. Tears were nothing. Cries and howls were a passing affair. The air sang, the breath left her body, the twin mounds of her bottom shivered as they absorbed the strokes. It was nothing compared to the rope that broke a man’s neck.
Before the punishment ended all Katherine knew was that her body was a great light, incandescent in the gloomy bedroom, a torch that burned to save Christian’s life. When her father and I left her she continued to shine, face deep in her pillow, tears soaking the feathers, struggling to still her body, grateful that she wept for an incomparable cause. When she looked from her window at dawn she wondered if the sun had come out watery in sympathy for her tears.
Lord Joshua’s fury spent, he ordered the prisoner released and escorted to his horse. Christian must never return to Longfield. If he did, Katherine would pay and the second thrashing would be worse than the first. The flaxen-haired adventurer disappeared and whether he will return remains to be seen — I rather think he might. Because I know you will agree, gentlemen (the Doctor’s eye went round the table fixing us all) greater love hath no woman.
The story was at an end. Doctor Timothy stretched, drew his fingers through his hair and scratched vigorously. He banged his spoon again on the table: who the devil had the port? — pass it at once. Then bid the Landlord refill the decanter.
Our dinner at the Welcome Home Tavern ended late but we left sober enough to find our homes and climb the stairs to bed. Under the sheets, each thought of Katherine. Each saw in his imagination the woman whipped to save her love.It would not have surprised the Doctor to know that lying awake that night, each of his companions pictured a perfect young lady’s incandescent bottom and held it in his mind. Then each took his own incandescent candle in his hands. And gently, unhurriedly, with long, firm strokes, each put out the light.