I awoke from my hypnotic sleep feeling wonderful; clear headed and relaxed. Yet as I came around, I was totally confused. I was sitting beside Lady Sirena in a horse drawn carriage. It was only large enough for two passengers and the driver sat on elevated seat in the rear. I learnt later that this was a Hansom cab. We were driving up a cobbled driveway to a magnificent house, somewhere in the countryside.
Lady Sirena sensed my awakening and looked down at me with a smile. She had a peculiar way of smiling; I could never determine if she was being mocking or if that was just her way.
“Welcome to Beltayne House at Silver Birch Woods, Sandrine. I know you will be confused; the year is 1849 and we have time stepped back to my country house.”
I looked at her wide eyed; she must be nuts!
“We will be staying here for a few weeks to progress your training away from the watchful eyes of Mme. Bouchard. I am sure you are going to find many things to adjust to here; life here is so different to that to which you have been accustomed to!”
All of a sudden, the costume that she had required to purchase made sense. I was still trying to come to terms with whether this was reality or just a dream. Perhaps this is what hypnosis really felt like?
Lady Sirena realized that. “We really have travelled back in time, Sandrine; this is not a dream. I was privileged to have been born with some extraordinary magickal powers, and time stepping is just one of those that I have mastered. Perhaps we will initiate you into my coven while we are at Beltayne House and expose you to other strange phenomena, but you will have to prove yourself worthy before that happens. I sense your tremendous potential, and that is why I have chosen to bring you here with me.”
None of that made any sense to me; perhaps it would in due course.
Her monologue was interrupted as we pulled up under the portico of the mansion. As the driver clambered down to open our cab doors, a haughty looking woman came down the stairs from the front door to greet us. She was dressed in a severe long black dress; her waist was cinched in and back was so rigid, that I had to believe she was wearing a corset. He black, lace-up boots squealed on the cobbles as she came forward.
Her curtsey was minimal, but her tone was very deferential. “Welcome back from your trip, My lady. I hope you had a successful venture.”
Then nodding dismissively in my direction, she continued, “…and what do we have here, My Lady? Another of your projects?”
Lady Sirena chuckled; she obviously permitted this woman a tremendous latitude.
“Why thank you, Mrs. Grimes, it was most certainly successful. Sandrine, this is Mrs. Grimes; she is my housekeeper. I value her employ greatly! “
She continued: “Mrs Grimes, this is Sandrine. She seemed to have time on her hands, so I thought we could provide her with a bit of employment. And you know, a bit of discipline certainly would go a long way towards building her character!”
“Oh? We will see about that. The youth these days; it is so hard to find good help. All right, I think we can start her off in the kitchen with Mrs. Beeton and see how she gets on.”
Lady Sirena barely waited for her to finish, before she headed up the steps. I made to follow, but Mrs. Grimes wasn’t having any of that. She came right up to my face and spat out her words. There was venom in her voice.
“Oh no, you impudent thing. You never enter the house through the front door. Servants use the rear!”
As she spoke, she reached out and pinched my upper arm; it wasn’t playful and it was meant to hurt, and it did! Grabbing me by the wrist, she steered me to a path that lead around the side and took me for an introduction to Mrs. Beeton.
Introduction to the kitchen
If Mrs. Grimes was an intimidating, Mrs. Beeton was frightening. She was a mountain of a woman, and her black dress was well protected by a full-length white apron; a white, lace edged mob cap did nothing to soften the image.
When I was dragged into the kitchen, still being held tightly around my wrist by Mrs Grimes, Mrs. Beeton was standing in the middle of the kitchen berating a poor kitchen maid. She was waving a rolling pin at the trembling girl, and I genuinely feared for the poor lass’s safety.
The kitchen was huge. Counter tops lined two of the walls; maids were standing at them chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes, polishing glasses and plates. A huge oven and hearth took up most of another side, and the fourth side had further counters and sinks. There was a maid was at the sink, her sleeves rolled up, washing pans and dishes. I noticed beads of perspiration trickling down her face. An assortment of pots and pans, copper, iron and steel, along with implements of every variety, hung from hooks on the walls and even from the ceiling.
A huge table with a thick wooden blocked top stood in the middle of the room, and this is where Mrs. Beeton stood, commanding her domain, and berating the poor girl. My eyes caught sight of the huge copper bucket sitting on the corner of the table with what seemed to be a bunch of freshly cut birch switches soaking inside.
At last she finished with the girl and turned her attention on me.
“Well, Mrs. Grimes, what have you brought in here?”
“Some help for you,” was the response, “another of Lady Sirena’s projects.”
“Hah!” Mrs Beeton spat out, “the last one didn’t work out to well. I sent her off with a sound switching the day she joined. All right, leave her to me, and we will see what we can make of her.”
Mrs. Grimes marched out of the kitchen back to her domain upstairs; I was now the ward of this terrifying cook.
“Abigale!” she screamed, “Come over here and take this girl to get changed. She can share your quarters. Give her a set of shifts to change into; I will not have a newcomer assuming the airs and graces of a fully-fledged maid.”
She turned her back on me dismissively and went to supervise the maids who were preparing the vegetables.
Abigale was none other than the girl who had just received the terrible tongue lashing from Mrs. Beeton. She was more or less the same age as me and dressed like all the other maids in the kitchen: black twill dress covered with a white long full apron skirt and a bib that protected her chest. A mob cap with a band of ribbon covered her hair.
As she led me out of the kitchen and down a back path to the servant’s quarter, her demeanor changed from deadpan to bubbly.
“It will be so nice to have some extra help; Mrs. Beeton is such a slave driver!” she prattled on.
I was still stunned by all that was happening around me and realized that this was definitely not some sort of dream; we had most definitely time stepped back into some period in the mid-1800's, and my lot was to be a lowly maid.
“Oh, ‘scuse my manners” she suddenly blurted out, “I never introduced myself. I am Abigale!”
“....and I am Sandrine” I responded.
“Mrs. Beeton is really fierce,” she continued, “you make sure you carry out all your duties, else you will be swished with the birch before you even know it.”
“Oh? Would you mind telling me what my duties will be?” I enquired, just a bit nervously.
Her laughter was quite contagious. Even with the bad news she was conveying, I couldn’t help but be cheered by her.
“You will do whatever Mrs. Beeton wants you to do. Fetching and carrying, scrubbing, washing and scouring pots and pans and the working in the kitchen generally. I also hope she will also get you to do some of the chores the rest of us hate: carrying the swill out to the pigs, cleaning the hearth and oven. And the best? I hope she makes you take over chamber pot duty from me!”
“Chamber pot duty?”
She looked at me with a wicked grin, that was quite infectious.
“You are responsible for the all of the chamber pots of all the female servants. You have to go around each morning, empty them and then wash them around with a vinegar-soaked rag and make sure they are all shiny clean!”
The bedroom that we were to share, was little more than a cell. A single old bed with a thin blanket and pillow, a small wooden cabinet for personal effects, and a rickety wardrobe were all that it contained. The chamber pot peeked out from under the bed; how would I ever get used to using that?
“This is where we will be staying; it is so much better than the room I had to share with my whole family before I got employment here! Quite grand, isn’t it?”
I tried not to show the disappointment that I felt.
“There’s our bed, just room for two if we cuddle up. Could do with the extra warmth in winter. But now that summer is here, we might get a bit warm.” she chuckled.
She opened the wardrobe and pulled out a linen shift.
“Here, you had better hang your clothes up in the wardrobe and change into this. You won’t be needing your clothes here for a long time....unless you get summoned to a séance with Lady Sirena. Now that would be scary, wouldn’t it?”
I undressed slowly and found a hanger for my frock; my pantaloons were folded and pushed onto a shelf with Abigale's. The shift was little more than a linen sack with holes cut out at the top for my head and at the bottom for my legs. It hung in a shapeless drop to my mid-thigh. Slits had been cut on either side, all the way up to my bottom.
“What about underwear? She can’t expect me to walk around like this?”
Abigale grinned. “Oh, we have all had to wear that at some time. Everyone will snigger at you, but you shouldn’t take notice.”
“Do you have a pair of inside boots to lend me?”
“No.” A big smile creased her face. “New maids go barefoot until they are offered proper employment!”
This was getting worse and worse.
“Come,” she continued, “Mrs. Beeton will be wondering where we are. We will be in for the high jump if we don’t get back smartly!”
My first swishing
Mrs. Beeton had indeed, anxiously awaiting our return. When we walked into the kitchen, she was standing with her hands on her hips, glaring around menacingly. On seeing us, she cast a long, hard stare at the huge clock that was mounted on the wall above the counters, and then turned on us angrily.
“Well, where have you been? You haven’t even started, and you are already tardy! Perhaps a good dose of the birch will sort that out.”
“Girls,” she thundered out, “stop what you are doing and gather around. We are going to witness how the new wench dances to the birch.”
“You,” she pointed her rolling pin at Abigale, “bring the pins and get her tails up.”
I realized that she was referring to the back of my shift.
“And you. Greta, can horse her. Abigale, get me a switch; actually, three will be appropriate to teach this wench a lesson.”
Abigale, the girl who had been washing dishes, moved to the bucket and pulled out three switches.
“I am assuming you need lighter switches Mrs. Grimes? This is her first swishing, so I perhaps you wish to be lenient?”
I sensed an ally in Abigale; she seemed to be a sweet girl.
“Don’t you dare make assumption, girl! Do that again, and you too will be birched. I propose to teach her a sound lesson; three stout switches are needed.”
Abigale flushed, and examined each one carefully. Two were replaced with what I assumed were satisfactory branches, and then she swished the briny water off, before handing them to Mrs. Beeton.
Greta came forward; she was tall, large boned and sullen faced.
I clutched my arms across my chest protectively, suddenly I felt really scared. Abigale set about pinning the back of my shift up, and moments later she gave my bum a pinch. It was painful and demeaning; pinching the new maid was something that seemed to happen a lot around here.
Greta backed her considerable bulk right up to me, closer than I would have liked. The girls worked in concert; they had done this before. Abigale, finished with her pinning, came around and took my arms and passed them over Greta’s shoulders. Greta gripped my wrists tightly, then in what I was sure was a malicious, fully intentional act, she dug her thumbs deeply into the sensitive flesh on my lower wrists. The pain was excruciating, and I couldn’t help but gasp.
Mrs Beeton’s sneer was designed to hurt and terrify.
“She hasn’t even been swished yet and she is sniveling; where did this girl come from?”
Suddenly with a grunt, Greta bent forward, and I was hoisted into the air on her back. My legs were already waving wildly before the first strokes landed.
The birch bundle lashed my exposed buttocks. Stripes of pure agony; they seemed to cut right through my flesh. I sensed myself kicking out my legs wildly, and all that did was make Greta pull harder on my arms to prevent me slipping off.
Mrs. Beeton waited a moment for the full realization of what was happening to sink in. The next flurry of strokes was relentless. It seemed to be a haze of pain. My legs were flailing wildly, my bottom felt that it had been set on by a swarm of bees, my arms ached....and Greta dug her thumbs into my wrist even tighter.
I imagined I could feel trickles of blood creeping down my thighs; I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Just when I believed it was over, I heard the rustle of twigs again, and moments later they were slashing across my flesh again. The pain was fierce and mounted with each stroke. I had given up counting; it was just a haze of pain, and stinging and flying twigs.
I thought I heard a couple of the maids sniggering, but I could not be sure.
“Greta, put her down. Abigale, sponge her. Make sure your use plenty of brine in the water.”
I was lowered to the ground, and felt my shaky legs settle firm on ground again. I looked defiantly into Mrs. Beeton’s eye’s; I was suddenly determined not to let this bully get to me.
“There, let that be just a light warning to you, girl. Now go and stand in the corner until you are summoned. Be off with you.”
Humiliated, I walked to the corner and stood staring at it blankly. I was aware that my shift was still pinned up, exposing my swished bottom to all that cared to look, but I was too distraught to care. It was still stinging, but the pain was diminishing by the minute, and even becoming slightly pleasant.
I was woken from torpor by a renewed sensation; ice cold water was being sponged onto my bottom by Abigale. It soon became very apparent to me that this was no ordinary water; brine stings like mad. I bit my lips, controlling myself; I was not going to give anyone the pleasure of noticing my discomfort.
The intense pain as Abigale pinched me on my soft, inner thigh caused me to yelp; I couldn’t hide that! Then she was gone, and I was left to listen to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen activities behind me. I must have stood like that for at least half an hour before Mrs. Beeton came to me, unpinned my shift and dragged me by my ear to the hearth. She shoved me down unceremoniously and threw a coarse brush down in front of me.
“Scrub that fireplace girl, I don’t want to see a single speck of black on it when you are finished. Now get to it!”
This had turned into a nightmare; it was not the life I was accustomed to. It was only late morning, and I was already dispirited; my dignity had been stripped away and along with all of my prior life. I was literally a penniless, lowly scullery maid with no possessions, no support structure and no Mme. Bouchard; she was literally a few lifetimes away,
© Gail Fae 2020