With the feminine costume I acquired more and more unmistakably feminine gait. Indeed, during our playtime, for the mistress permitted us to play a few of those games popular with little girls, it would happen that should I miss a ball, I would open my legs to catch it in my skirt instead of closing my knees together to prevent the ball running through, as little boys do. Accustomed to high heels, I would walk with little prim steps, wriggling my hips.
Lady Flayskin complimented me upon the way I held myself and upon my care for my clothes.
The carriage of my head did not entirely please her. My under jaw was prominent and massive, like that of a wolf, she told me. Before being entrusted to the hands of Betsy and entering this school, I had threatened to become a real wild beast; a savage brute. I had a propensity, I may add, to thrust forward my neck like one who is ready to face friends and foes alike with equal fearlessness. This combative advance of my chin was displeasing to Lady Flayskin. Twice had she told me so. Then, for a second inattention to her words, I had been again whipped by pretty Stella before the whole assembled class, and Mr. Gostock, the friend of the directress.
But deepseated habit was stronger than I. Whenever I was not paying special attention, my jawbone took that thrust forward familiar with boxers.
The "collar" was applied to me.
This instrument of torture consisted of a very high, thick, hard, leather collar which stretched the tendons of my neck in a manner that made me shriek with pain. It obliged me to hold my head erect. The shoulder straps were also tightened, to such an extent that they pierced my flesh. The corset which they had first put on me was relatively short. They selected alonger one for my use, with steel busks incomparably stiffer, and stout Mrs. Eagle, charged specially with my dressing, pulled the laces so tight that I could scarcely breathe.
Little by little, I acquired a wasp-like waist. My boots likewise were changed. Through walking badly, I had worn out of shape, those which were first given me. The new ones were far narrower and more arched. They pinched me horribly. The heels also were a good third-of-an-inch higher and very much hollowed out and pointed. If they had begun by assigning me these latter, it is certain that I should never have succeeded in making two steps without falling. Trough habit, I learnt to walk like a girl. For the rest, the new boots, like the others, were sufficiently long. Though Lady Flayskin was of opinion that a boot could not be too narow, she declared that it would be atrocious barbarity to have them too short.
This declaration was evidently regarded as sufficient for us. She took no pains to establish her subtle contention by the least argument. For that matter, I do not suppose that any reasoning would have prevented us all being afflicted with corns and bunions and our mistress was in consequence exceedingly proud.
She was equally proud of our gloves which she frequently examined, and with the minutest attention. We were punished for the least wrinkle or scratch and the only punishment employed was the whip.
It was the only recognised means of discipline. The birch was used to correct inattention and negligence. If I learnt anything at all in this establishment, it was drilled into me by the application of the birch to the proper part. It is the birch tat I must thank for the little I know.
Boys and girls were treated in the same way. Our toilet was to be our chief thought and care, and since the least incorrectness in our dress was punished by a public flogging, the reader may imagine whether or no we took care to be as neat as new pins. We had to wash our hands and faces several times a day, without counting the morning bath, and although we wore our gloves continuously, we had to draw them off at least four times a day in order to show the mistress our clean hands and carefully trimmed fingernails.
As regards bodily cleanliness, Lady Flayskin's establishment could rank as a model. But the corruption of the mind brought about in this same establishment, fatal and incurable demoralisation.
This discipline by means of the corset, gloves, and whip was without pity. He who invented it was certainly vicious, but he was no fool. The net result of this treatment was the bringing into entire and abject submissiveness the most unruly disposition.
Lady Flayskin proceeded in the most methodical manner possible and step by step.
With her, boys and girls showed upright figures, incredibly slender.
Her special pride was to point to three little girls, sisters, whom their father, a widower and man of fashion, had entrusted to her keeping at a very tender age, so soon as his wife had died.
He had not desired the responsibility of bringing up three girls. They promised to become exceedingly pretty.
The eldest was ten years old; the second eight; and the youngest five. The eldest was of refined and delicate appearance, the second was round and chubby, and the youngest thin and slender. Not one of the three wore a corset when they arrived.
Lady Flayskin imposed this garment upon them from their very first day under her roof. It was not precisely a corset, but a device for moulding the bust to shape, tight-fitting, made of an unyielding material, which did not descend lower than the waist and contained no stiffeners.
In this jacket-corset, the little girls had to get through all their occupations. At nighttime, during their sleep, they were not permitted to take it off. They had to be content with the lacing being just loosened a little by the mistress when they went to bed.
At the end of three months, these embryonic corsets were put aside and replaced by appliances of much more serious appearance and effect. The corsets were now cut much longer, though of the same material, while whalebone stiffeners were employed and the lacing was much more tightly done by the mistress. In the evening, there was no loosening of the lacing whatever. After this garment had been employed for six months, it was replaced by what may be styled an armoured corset, yet longer than the preceding one, of stiff linen overlaid with silk, with stiffeners of steel and whalebone. The laces of plaited silk were drawn very tight. These corsets were employed for a year. They were only, it is true, used during the daytime. At night, the little girls were again dressed in their former corset, which they had worn during the preceding six months. Now, however, it was laced much more tightly and there were inserted in it some fairly yielding whalebones.
Little by little, without the apparent employment of violence, Lady Flayskin had succeeded in lacing the pupils very tightly indeed. Finally, the laces of silk were replaced by leather laces, of the material used for thongs of whips and, that the lacing might be done to perfection, a small capstan was used. The little girls had their breathing impeded and showed signs of becoming asthmatic. They complained of pains in their chests and were frightfully pale.
Lady Flayskin was pitiless. The lacing was never loosened and Nature finished by conforming to the cruelty, and the young bodies lost their pristine beauty.
These girls became exceedingly delicate; their appetite was small and their digestion impaired, while the least walking exercise took away their breath. In fact, all effort was painful.
Their waists were extraordinarily small. The plump one, whose little stomach had formerly been almost prominent, decreased in waist measure, although she had grown from a little girl to a big one. At the age of fifteen, she had chubby cheeks and large limbs, but her waist was only fifteen inches. Lady Flayskin was fond of saying with a laugh that when Miss Jessy reached her thirtieth year, her waist and her calf would measure the same in circumference.
If the ofther young ladies of the school were a little stouter than these three sisters whose training in the matter of corsets had been so methodical, it remained a fact that the waists of the scholars were renowned. They had a reputation which had travelled everywhere within a distance of twenty miles round, and when a young girl of remarkable smallness of waist entered a London drawing-room, the remark did not fail to be made that she must have received her education at the establishment of Lady Flayskin.
We boys were made to submit to equally severe discipline as the girls, in this matter of stays and gloves. In this extraordinary restraint, Lady Flayskin was always inflexibly severe. Sometimes she would pardon a badlywritten exercise, lack of application, or chattering during class-time, but if there was so much as a crease in a glove or if a boy succeeded surreptitiously in loosening his stays to the extent of a quarter of an inch, the rod followed without mercy.
The result of thus living in a state of constraint and fear was to render our wills tractable. We became docile in the extreme,ready to submit in the most abject manner to any demand that was made of us.
We expressed our eagerness to carry out the least desire of a mistress. If Lady Flayskin herself deigned to give us an order, we obeyed with a kind of exaltation or religious terror. We all feared pretty Stella, Mr. Gostock's protégée, for each posterior bore lively recollections of this young lady.
This overwrought and constrained state of mind and body caused by absurd feminine garments, reduced our boyish high spirits to such a degree that we would gladly have played with dolls if we had had any. Instead of thinking of teasing the lassies, we forgot altogether that they were girls and in any way different from ourselves. This resulted from seeing so much of them, from being called by girls' names and from wearing the same clothes as they did. Similarly, when a girl was addressing me as Alice, it was hard for her to remember that I was not a girl. As girls are wont to do, we kissed and caressed one another without any wrong thoughts, yet these caresses would excite our sensibilities. We would then remember the difference of sex, though childlike we understood only vaguely the meaning of the word: sex. Still at such moments a feeling of fear would be aroused, and the pleasure of our sensations would be enhanced by our dread of discovery. It is true that Lady Flayskin and our mistress themselves when dressing us or flogging us would similarly excite our feelings and make us feel strangely confused. But this they never seemed to notice. They unceasingly harangued us regarding decency and morality and Mr. Gostock who took so evident a joy in watching pretty Stella at work whipping a bare posterior, would preach most edifying sermons upon morality and chastity.
The girls' and boys' dormitories were separated, but only by a thin partition. At night, those of us boys who were not asleep would hear curious sounds. There were whisperings and kisses and the laughter of girls being tickled. Our curiosity would be awakened and we would follow suit on our side of the wall, and the girls would hear similar sounds coming from us.
It was when one of us had been whipped that the dormitory would be most astir. The others would press round the sufferer and seek to console him. At these times, we behaved like true sisters of charity. Our hands would raise the long nightgown, which as though we had been girls we all wore, and our hands would do their best by their gentle touch, to soothe the pain of the victim.
These nocturnal maraudings had their dangers, as the mistresses would frequently make their rounds. But the danger was an attraction. For -- shall I confess it? -- while we feared the whip, we grew to desire it. On certain days, whether because the weather was heavy or stormy, or for some other inexplicable reason, we would grow restless and commit faults with the obvious and sole object of being whipped. Sometimes Lady Flayskin, Stella, and all the mistresses were not numerous enough for the flogging which was required -- our desires in this direction being always gratified to the best of the abilities of our superiors.
At these times, six boys and perhaps ten girls would be ranged in a kneeling line with drawers down, awaiting the penance of the birch.
Wat a chorus of cries, entreaties, sobs and wails would then be heard!
If the thick walls and the large garden had not deadened these sounds, an astonished passer-by would certainly have thought they proceeded from a madhouse. For never, unless the recollection of early days, similarly passed, had come to him, could he have guessed the truth.