I remember that Marion felt it should be she that went up to papa after supper.
'After all,' she said, 'I am the eldest, and responsible for keeping house. It is not as though papa's complaint is of some specific fault, the onus for which we could decide between the three of us, but a declaration that an example should be made to ensure a devout attention to our duties in future.'
'But Marion,' exclaimed Charlotte; the middle sister at twenty-four, three years younger than Marion and four years older than myself, and very tender towards us both, 'your buttocks were well thrashed only two days past. I dare say you are still sore in your drawers, he beat you so.'
'Charlotte, I blush to hear you speak thus,' Marion replied. 'In any case, we do not customarily display the results of our corrections, and you would not have been aware of the state of mine, if you had not slipped into my room when my mind was on other things.'
'That I can well imagine,' Charlotte said, 'since you were lying across your bed with your skirts up, and your drawers down to cool your burning bottom. I only came in because papa had spent so long over you, and Annabel and I were worried for you.'
'I know, and I am grateful for your concern, and it was a great help that you could staunch the bleeding for me with cold compresses. Papa's rod is sometimes hard to bear.'
'All the more reason why one of us should go up this evening,' I put in. 'Your bottom is not yet recovered enough to receive it again.'
'I shall come to no harm,' Marion replied. 'Has not papa assured us many times that providence, which made woman the weaker vessel and prone to give shelter to all manner of evil, also endowed her with the wherewithal to receive correction in full measure without risking injury to health? I will steel myself to do my duty, and attend papa's study at seven, as he requires.'
She paused momentarily. 'I would make one request of you though, my dear sisters. Perhaps you would be so good as to see that the supper things are properly cleared away, and the house secured for the night. I doubt not that, after my interview with papa, I would prefer to remain in my room, and seek to learn how best to profit from the lesson he will have taught me.'
After supper, which we took alone, papa preferring to have his brought to him on a tray, where he was preparing his sermon or other uplifting text, Marion kissed us both warmly, then gathered her skirts to ascend the stairs to papa's room, moving a little stiffly, for her bruises still troubled her.
She was a long while gone.
We heard just a trace of papa's loud rumble through the heavy oak door. He seemed to have considerable matter to impart. Then there came the faint #snick we all dreaded so much. We remained in the kitchen, so did not catch them all, but it seemed a fearful count. Towards the end we heard several sharp cries accompanying the snicks, then Marion screamed, her cry answered by a bark from papa. The rhythm of the correction paused, them resumed. Another few beats and Marion screamed again. Our hearts stood still, our bellies quaked. Marion was very brave, but papa seemed to have penetrated her defences. In the silence that followed we waited to hear her leave the dreadful chamber, but the door stayed shut. After a few minutes we could hear, dimly but distinct through the heavy wood, a regular thump, punctuated by groans from our dear sister. Finally all was quiet.
Several minutes later we heard the door open and shut, and Marion's footsteps, dislocated as if she was limping or walking with stiff and parted legs, dragged across the landing to her room. We looked at each other but did not voice our unspoken thoughts. She had asked to be allowed to recover herself in private, meditating on her correction, and we would respect her wishes, and turned to clear the room and secure the house for the night, as we had promised her.
Marion did not, however, keep her room that night. You may imagine our astonishment when, a bare half-hour later, the door opened, and there was Marion, clinging to the frame. She shuffled across to us with an awkward gait, then, instead of joining us at the table, where we sat, dropped to her knees at the end of it, her bowed head on her arms. We jumped up and ran to her side, endeavouring to raise her and set her in a chair, but she resisted.
'No,' she said, her face lined with pain, 'let me be. Papa beat me most severely, and I cannot manage to sit.'
We urged her to let us assist her to her bed, but again she refused.
'Before he beat me, papa lectured me on the shortcomings of the household, and what he deemed should be done for the improvement of our souls, through the mortification of our bodies. He specifically desired me to acquaint you with the gist of his argument, though the details will have to await another occasion as, not only did he spend some time giving me examples of our shortcomings and what means we should adopt to correct them, but he made it quite clear that these were but by way of example, and that he would be expanding and expounding his thesis continuously.'
My heart sank and my knees trembled at this dire news. Our father had brought us up to fear God, and more particularly, God's surrogate on earth, himself as head of the family. I should perhaps explain at this point that, though we called him papa, and treated him in all respects as if he had indeed been our progenitor, this was by way of a courtesy title, albeit one so engrained in us that we never considered it. He was not in fact a blood relative, being the husband of our late mother's childhood friend, who had accompanied our parents on their ill-fated trip to Paris and perished with them when the packet to Dover foundered in a gale. Her relict took us in, and we were cared for by his austere housekeeper, until Marion had reached an age when she could take over the duty, and relieve our benefactor of the expense. Since our parents' death in my infancy, we had known no other source of knowledge, guidance and discipline. There were not even servants in the vicarage since Marion attained the age of sixteen years and was put in charge of the housekeeping, with Charlotte and myself undertaking more and more domestic duties as we grew older.
We had of course, daily women from the village to do the rough work in laundry and scullery, and even assist with periodical major cleaning and refurbishment, but we were expressly forbidden to engage in any but the most necessary conversation with these women, who were, in any case, too hard-driven to be communicative, and returned to their homes as soon as their allotted tasks were done. We had, besides, a groom and a gardener, but neither lived in, and both were directly employed by papa, and we scarcely saw or spoke to either.
Our regime was already one of stern and biblical patriarchy, and, if this was judged too lax and in need of additional discipline, then our failings must be lamentable, and the necessary correction vigorous and searching, and Marion's brief digest of what our stern guardian proposed for us did not fall short, nor did we expect it to, for we knew he would never shrink from his duty to curb the evil which the bible, and the church, teach us is inherent in all women and, especially it seemed, in the women of his household.
When Marion had explained the impossibility of her sitting at table, Charlotte had run to fetch a cushion from the drawing room, and now she knelt on it as on a hassock, in the attitude of prayer, her elbows on the table but her head lifted so as to address us.
'It would seem,' she began, 'that our father is conscious of a certain undesirable element within the household, an evil effusion of the feminine. As he has so often taught us, the Holy Book, St Paul, the ancient Fathers of the Church from St. Augustine onward, are all agreed that we women are sinks of iniquity and vessels of unrighteousness. It is not enough that we try not to sin, hopeless though that task may be for our sex, but we must actively mortify our flesh and discipline our minds, so that our feminine emanations do not disturb the meditations and prayers of a man of God, such as he.
'Naturally, he intends to help us all he can by increasing the frequency and severity of the corporal corrections to which we are subject, in the hope that we might derive some benefit therefrom, as my flogging tonight was intended to demonstrate, but he feels that mere fustigation in itself will not be enough to enable us to drive down those dark forces within us, which are a snare for men, dragging them down into the pit of hell, for which we women are already irredeemably destined.'
'But what new disciplines must we be subjected to?' I cried. 'We already accept his every ordinance as befits dutiful daughters, conscious as we are of the obedience we owe our father, and all other members of the superior sex. How may we serve him further?'