Monday’s long walk from Primrose Hall to Carrington Manor was certainly the most humiliating walk of my life. Having survived it though, I find myself stronger for it. There comes a great confidence from surviving your greatest fear.
The shame on Mrs. Carrington’s face as Elizabeth and I arrived at the manor was equal to our own. I had expected nothing less than a severe birching at her hands and she did not disappoint us. On the very steps of the manor she whipped us until the birch itself was nothing more than crumbled debris floating away in the wind.
We sat naked on stools in the main hall whilst the other girls went about their business. Dinner was ate and still we remained on our perches of shame. The key in Elizabeth’s hand may have been nothing more than a worthless piece of aging metal but then and there I vowed to make it worth the price of acquisition.
Nearing bedtime we were finally released and allowed to hide in our rooms. At the top of the stairs I pulled Elizabeth aside.
“We should begin tomorrow.” I said.
“Meet me their after your last class?”
“It will be near three, shortly after.” She replied.
“I’ll be there.”
And so it begins.
I arrived in the basement room an hour before Elizabeth. I took the time to dust off a desk and a pair of chairs which were stored within The items were broken but with care could still be used. I arranged them so that we could see out the only window in the room. It gave a view of the bottom of the steps and the street passing in front of Primrose Hall.
As I finished my work, a light knock on the door startled me. I calmed myself realizing it must be Elizabeth on the other side and opened the door to allow her entry.
She looked nervously around as she slipped inside. I closed the door carefully and locked it.
“We have the room, now what?” Elizabeth asked.
“We have to decide.”
“You still do not have a plan?” Elizabeth looked on the verge of anger.
“I have not settled on one but I have ideas.” I said defensively.
“Do you intend to share them?” She asked impatiently.
“Ms. Maple assigned me the task of writing and presenting an essay to the school board next week. She expects I will write arguing to maintain separation between Primrose and Brown.”
“Why would she expect that?” Elizabeth interrupted.
“Because she attempted to degrade me in her class in front of boys who were assigned a similar task.”
“Do you know the boys?”
“Not personally, why?”
“It might be helpful to know what they plan to write.”
“I assume you plan to still write in favor of the merging classes?”
“I do not doubt your words will be persuasive, but the board will undoubtedly put more weight in the opinions of those boys.”
“Your words ring true.”
“If we could,” Elizabeth paused as if searching for the appropriate words, “manipulate their essays to reflect a consensus viewpoint with our own, I think it doubtful the board would fail to move forward.”
“Yes, but how do we accomplish this.”
“We need to know who the boys are.”
“I do not know their names but I have seen them with Penelope’s escort, Remington.”
“We will just have to ask him then.”
“I still do not understand how you expect to influence their written words.”
“We will have to be charming.”
Elizabeth fluttered her eyelashes in a perfect imitation of Penelope. I began to giggle and she followed. A noise outside interrupted us. We peered through the window to see Penelope laying in the street crying.
I started to head out the door to help her.
“Where are you going?” Elizabeth asked.
“To help her.” I said simply.
“Because she can help us.”
I left before Elizabeth could object further. I hurried down the steps to Penelope’s sobbing form. There will come a time I will have to help these two girls reclaim the peace they have lost but for now I can act as an intermediary provided Penelope will allow it.
I laid my hand on her back as I knelt beside her. She nearly flinched away from my touch. It took some time but I was able to get her to her feet once more and decided it would be wisest to escort her back to Carrington Manor.
In route she alternated between tears and explanations of what had happened to her. As we approached the front steps with Mrs. Carrington clearly in view, I seethed with fresh anger at the likes of those who would betray their own. Primrose has no place for the likes of Lucy Meyers or any girl who would stoop so low.
Undoubtedly my anger got the best of me. I felt an overwhelming need to protect Penelope from further persecution and so I found myself standing between her and Mrs. Carrington. That is a place I never thought I would find myself.
It ended as I knew it would. I did not care though. If Joan of Arc could be burned at the stake for being right at the wrong time, I could certainly withstand a whipping for the same.
Penelope and I entered Mrs. Carrington’s den as ordered and she slammed the door as she entered behind us. I turned to her ready to fight more.
“Calm yourself this instant, Edith.” Mrs. Carrington said in a hissed voice.
“I will not let you continue to persecute her or any other girl for standing up for their rights.” I replied without raising my voice.
“No one is being persecuted.” Mrs. Carrington replied.
She walked to her desk and laid the birch in her hand upon it.
“Every girl here who dared speak in favor of the class mergers has been beaten and humiliated as a result. I am unable to turn a blind eye and pretend these things do not happen.”
“You only see a small portion of a much larger picture.” The voice was not Mrs. Carrington’s but Mr. Carrington’s.
I turned around startled. He had entered the room from the back door so quietly none of us had heard him.
“It is sometimes necessary to provide deceptions so that those who are insidiously deceptive might be revealed. Miss Sumter understands this, do you not?” He continued in a quiet voice.
Penelope remained quiet but nodded her head in agreement.
“Miss Bowen, we have private matters to discuss with Miss Sumter. Go and wait for me in my study and we will have a chat later.” Mr. Carrington ordered.
I looked at Penelope, hesitating.
“I promised you, she will not be punished. Now go and wait for me.” Mr. Carrington attempted to reassure me.
I nodded while looking at him. I exited quietly through the same door he had entered. I walked unseen down the back hallway and entered his study.
I busied myself with perusing his small library while waiting. I wondered what was going on and why the Carrington’s were attempting to deceive the rest of the girls in the manor. What possible benefit could be had from pretending to be angry with Penelope and myself?
A short wait later and Mr. Carrington entered alone. He looked at me and sighed. I felt a touch self conscious and burdensome under his gaze.
“Miss Bowen,” He began. “I am at this very moment both disappointed and proud.”
I shifted nervously. I remained quiet, uncertain if he expected a response.
“It is admirable the stance you take, the willingness to stand for your beliefs and to serve as friend and protector to the other girls here. It is further pleasing to see how maturely you have handled the adversity you face for your opinions. In this way you are a shining example of what Primrose College can be.”
“Thank you, sir.” I blushed.
“However, after all my wife and I have done for you, after the confidence we have bestowed in you, for you to fail to return these favors with trust and respect is disheartening.”
“It was you who betrayed my trust.” I accused.
“I have never.” His face reddened.
“You have indeed, sir. In confidence I spoke to you and you betrayed that confidence in exposing my name to the scrutiny of all. I have been unfairly beaten, stripped of dignity and my clothes, forced to walk in humiliation, all for the confidence you failed to keep.” I nearly spat at his feet.
“I am not responsible for what has happened.”
“Then who is? Who else would have known to reveal my name in connection with the class merging proposal? WHO ELSE?” My voice raised higher with each successive syllable.
My body shook with the rage I had not yet confronted.
“I do not know who, I only know it was not I nor my wife. How could you even think we would after all we have done for you?”
“If not you then who? There was no one else present, no one else who could know. Should I take you at your word when all evidence contradicts it? Should I play the role of the ignorant and helpless lady?”
“I am disappointed, Edith. I thought you would think better of us.”
“I would have liked to but the facts remain unchanged. There were only three who knew and I know I did not reveal myself.”
“It is clear someone else knew.”
“If I knew I would have handled it by now.”
“And what about the unfair treatment I have suffered? If you cared at all it seems clear you could have intervened on my behalf.”
“I could have, yes. I cannot protect you forever though, and as long as things remain in the open you are safer.”
“What do you mean? How am I safer?”
“Edith you have not the slightest idea of what you are involved in. There are men who would stop at nothing to prevent what you have proposed from becoming reality. You are safe from them so long as they believe you are beaten down. Should that change, should I intervene, they would find alternate ways to get to you.”
“I am to believe in these conspiracies?”
“Do you really think Ms. Maple is opposed to teaching young men in her classroom? Consider the opportunities before her should those young men test as well or better than the students from other schools.”
I took pause. His words stung true to my own suppositions prior to my humiliation at Ms. Maple’s hands.
“She had no choice but to treat you as she did.”
“That does not make it better.”
“No, but when the board votes the proposal down next week, this should all fade away.”
“And if they do not vote it down?”
“We will have a war on our hands.”
“On which side will you fight?” I asked.
Mr. Carrington looked at me as though I had slapped him.
“I deserve better from you, Edith.”
“And I, from you.”
He grabbed hold of my arm suddenly and yanked me toward his desk.
“Let go of me!” I shouted.
He pushed me down on the desk and lifted my skirt up on my back. I struggled to no avail.
His bare hand slapped at my bloomer covered bottom. Ordinarily it would have been a laughable effort but with my recent encounter with Mr. Green’s ruler followed by Mrs. Carrington’s birch, it stung a thousand times worse.
I cried out in pain.
His hand alternated from left to right at a steady rhythm. My feet stomped in response and I twisted my torso back and forth in a futile effort to free myself from his grasp.
“I,” Slap! “Have,” Slap! “Had,” Slap! “Enough,” Slap! “Of,” Slap! “Your,” Slap! “Dis,” Slap! “Re!” Slap! “Spect,” Slap! “Ful,” Slap! “Attitude.” Slap! Slap! Slap!
“Stop it!” I shouted.
He ignored me and continued to spank me.
I began to cry. It was not the pain of the spanking, but the helplessness. I was right and I knew I was right but it was not enough to spare my backside, not enough to maintain my pride.
When he finally stopped I laid breathless and sobbing on his desk.
“Like it or not, I will protect you, Edith. Even if it is from yourself.” He said and walked away.