(Apologies for all the 'oh's and exclamations - I was going for the stereotypical flighty Victorian wife thing)
The Schoolmaster’s Wife
“There you are, my dear! What are you doing in here?”
Startled, I very nearly dropped my book. “Oh! You’re home early darling.”
“I am not at all early, my dear. School finished half an hour ago.”
Looking around, I realised that our kitchen had become rather dark. And cold. Indeed, the fire had been so long neglected that it was nearing the point of burning out entirely.
I blinked. In my mind, Juliana was still at this moment swooning in Danton’s arms - oh! I have always wondered what it must feel like to swoon! - but then I looked at my husband’s expression and started to feel a little guilty. Juliana and Danton faded away. “I’m afraid I must have forgotten the time.”
“I see,” said my husband, a note of disapproval in his voice. Then he cleared his throat. “My dear, what is that book and why are you trying to hide it?”
I paused in the act of trying to secrete the book in a fold of my shawl. Damn! “Oh this? It’s… well… “
My husband gave a little sigh and walked towards me, hand held out. “Give it to me, please.”
Defeated, I handed him the book.
He took just one look at the title and his forehead creased into a frown. “What is this nonsense?”
“Oh, it isn’t nonsense darling!” I cried. “It’s wonderfully exciting! Juliana – she’s the main character – is engaged to this frightful Duke character who is unendurably cruel to her and then we discover that she is all the time in love with her father’s gamekeeper. His name is Danton and he is wonderful. They try to run away together the night before her wedding but the awful Duke finds out and kidnaps her. And then Danton rescues her back! Oh, it’s so exciting! And there are still quite a few pages left so I am sure there is still time for some more exciting events before the end.” I paused for breath and beamed at my husband.
He didn’t smile back. “Where did you get this?”
“My sister sent it to me yesterday. I’ve been reading it all day.”
I snapped my mouth shut but it was too late.
My husband stopped frowning at the book and frowned at me instead. “You have been sitting in the kitchen reading all day?” he demanded, incredulous. “Have you eaten?”
“I’ve had breakfast…”
“You’ve had nothing since breakfast? And what about your eyes? You’ve not even lit a candle to read by!”
“I’m sorry, darling.”
He shook his head at me and held up the book. “If I found a pupil of mine reading a ridiculous book like this, I would confiscate it at once.”
“But darling, I am not one of your pupils, am I?”
He allowed me a smile then, but only a small one. “No, you are far more important than that.” He turned away from me, taking the book with him. “Which is why I am not giving this book back to you. Not only is it value-less nonsense that will rot your brain but it has caused you to waste a whole day.”
“Oh but darling, I have almost finished it!” I stood up and hurried after him into the parlour. “Oh please do let me find out what happens in the end!”
“I can assure you, my dear, that the ending will be just as silly and unrealistic as the rest of the book.” And then, upon seeing my obvious disappointment, his voice softened. “I have many books that you can read, my dear. Great works of fiction. Books that will improve your mind. You don’t need this drivel.”
He stuffed my book into the inside pocket of his coat before hanging the coat in the cloakroom. I watched him in great agitation – oh, in only a few hours more I could have finished it!
“But there are only a few pages left, darling…”
“Come now, no more please,” he said, his voice stern. “I have made my feelings clear.”
I recognised that it would be senseless to argue further and gave up.
But it has never been in my nature to dwell on disappointments. Within moments, I had resolved to simply imagine an ending for Juliana and Danton myself and I spent a happy hour doing just that whilst preparing dinner.
Besides, how could I stay unhappy with my wonderful husband home at last and all mine for the rest of the evening?
You see, I had never known just how sweet long, dark, winter nights could be until I got married and discovered that you could simply spend the whole evening in bed…
My parents thought that I had rushed into marriage too young – mamma especially. Never mind that she had been barely 16 when she married my father, of course! To my mind, 19 years old is a perfectly respectable marrying age. True, my husband is nearly 20 years my senior but that is not so very strange, is it?
However, it was not just his age that my parents objected to. They looked on my husband – a schoolmaster of all things! – as a strange and unintelligible creature (So stern! So serious! Why, he barely ever cracks a smile!) and could envisage my future life as nothing more than a tedious, joyless struggle. I had been raised in gaiety and frivolity – what on earth could I see in such a man?
That it was in all truth this very difference in temper, in values and in morals that attracted me to him in the first place they could not comprehend. They saw little value in strength of conviction, moral clarity or firmness of belief and therefore refused to understand why anyone else would.
Of course, they let me have my own way in the end – they always have – and my evident happiness since that wonderful day five months ago soon soothed their former concerns.
It was a simple but happy existence, my life as a schoolmaster’s wife. We lived next door to the village school and the house was tiny enough for me to manage tolerably well on my own. That I was surviving without a single servant was the greatest shock of all for my family when they first came to visit!
But why would I need a servant when all I wanted was to have my husband and our house all to myself?
The villagers, I know, looked on our union with a great deal of amusement. They freely declared to me that they never would have believed that their strict, serious schoolmaster would have married such a frivolous, gay little thing like me, especially not one who looked barely older than some of his own pupils!
Oh, how I laughed when they said that! And, of course, that only added fuel to their gossiping.
For my poor husband’s sake (who was, I think, rather perturbed by this sudden interest in his home life) I did try to be demure and quiet and sensible, I truly did. But sadly, my true nature always found a way of making itself felt.
And that is exactly what happened that night, long after we had exhausted ourselves into sleep.
What it was that woke me up in the middle of the night, I do not know. The heavy blackness around me and the softness of my husband’s breathing told me that there must still be many hours until morning but, try as I might, I simply could not fall asleep again.
I fidgeted and rearranged my pillows for what felt like an age without success and I was at the point of despairing that I would ever get back to sleep again when a rather exciting thought popped into my head.
I could go downstairs and finish reading my book!
No sooner had this thought entered my mind than my husband suddenly rolled over in his sleep, murmuring to himself.
I listened, tense now, for a few moments.
Gradually, his breathing slowed and quietened once more and I felt a mixture of relief and creeping guilt.
But surely he would not wish for me to be lying here awake and bored all on my own?
Resolved, I edged myself out of our bed, wincing at every creak and groan. Out of the warm cocoon of heavy blankets and sleeping husband, the bedroom was freezing and I hastily found my heaviest shawl and drew it around my shoulders, before stepping lightly into my slippers and creeping out of the room.
The fire in the kitchen was still going – we never put it out now that winter was here – and I managed to light one of our larger candles in the glowing embers.
Taking careful, quiet footsteps, I made my way, candle in hand, to the cloakroom where it took only a little rummaging to find my wonderful book.
Oh! How very bold and daring I felt!
Back in the kitchen, I built up the fire and settled myself in the chair nearest to its warmth. And then, with the candle standing on the table top as close to the book as I could chance it, I began to read.
“My dear, what on earth are you doing?”
I woke with a start.
Where was I?
Oh, how I ached!
“Goodness, the candle!”
The shock in my husband’s voice dragged me away from the last vestiges of sleep and I looked around me.
I was sitting, still, at the kitchen table with my head resting on the tabletop. Next to me, not inches from my face, was a pool of hardened candle wax and next to that… my book, still unfinished.
Suddenly the full enormity of my situation hit me.
“Oh!” Mortified, I went to take hold of the book, to hide it, but my husband, with angry comprehension already dawning on his face, tore it from my grip.
He didn’t even need to look at the title. “This is the book I took from you yesterday, isn’t it?”
“Oh darling, I’m sorry! I couldn’t sleep and so I thought… that… maybe…” I stopped talking, quailing under the look he was now giving me.
“You couldn’t sleep,” he said, glaring down at me, “so you thought you’d come down here, light a candle and then fall asleep with it still lit? For goodness’ sake, you could have burned the house down!”
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep, darling, I swear.”
But he wasn’t listening. With a set, determined look on his face, he strode over to the kitchen fire, agitated the glowing embers with the poker and then dropped my book into the flames.
I watched, horrified, as my book began to smoulder. Oh! Now I would never know how it ended!
But this was the least of my concerns, for now my husband put down the poker and advanced on me and I knew, from the expression on his face, what was about to happen next.
“Oh please darling, I truly am sorry.”
“Enough!” he snapped. “Not only have you disobeyed me and sought to hide the fact, you have foolishly put both of our lives in danger. I will not let that stand! Now come away from the table and follow me.”
With a little sigh, I did as I was bid, drawing my shawl back around my shoulders as I followed him into the parlour.
It was cold in here away from the kitchen fire. I started to shiver.
“I don’t know what you thought you were doing!” My husband sat down and gave me a very severe look. “But I am going to make sure that such a foolish idea never enters your head again. Now come here.”
I was by now feeling very miserable at having angered my darling husband so much and obeyed without a murmur of dissent. And, as soon as I was within reach, he took hold of my arm and pulled me down across his lap.
Without a word, my shawl and nightdress was swiftly rearranged and in no time at all I was completely bare below the waist.
Oh! The cold was terrible! I started to shiver more violently than ever.
But then all thoughts of the cold were well and truly driven from my mind, as my husband drew back his hand and brought it down smartly onto my bare bottom.
I gasped. Oh, how it stung!
With barely a pause for me to regain my breath, he smacked me again, harder this time.
Each smack seemed to me to be harder than the one preceding it and soon my little gasps had developed into far more audible exclamations of distress.
To my shame, this was by no means the first time that I had found myself in such a position: in our five months together, my husband had twice felt himself called upon to discipline me in this way.
The first time was very early on in our marriage, when my husband’s staid and reserved brother came to visit us, along with his equally staid and reserved wife.
All was going well enough until our evening meal when, drawing on my still-fresh memories of my parents house, I placed several bottles of wine on the table.
I had already drunk half a bottle all to myself before I noticed that no one else at the table was indulging.
And that first bottle was completely empty before I noticed the warning looks that my husband was giving me from across the table.
It was only afterwards, when finally my husband was inclined to be amused rather than cross about it all, that I found out that his brother and sister-in-law were both heavily involved with the newly founded National Temperance Federation.
How on earth was I to have known this? I had protested. I had never even heard of the temperance movement!
But what happened that night would fix the knowledge of it in my mind forever.
I was, by this time, extremely merry and laughing a great deal, in spite of the fact that everyone else at the table insisted on remaining terribly solemn.
My poor husband persevered as best he could, with many pointed comments and meaningful asides, in trying to make it clear to me that my behaviour was displeasing him and his family but I was far too dizzy and muddled by the drink to understand.
It was only when I launched into the hilarious story about my Great Aunt Fanny and her little misunderstanding with a gentleman in Soho, that my husband decided that enough was enough and proceeded to march me out of the room and upstairs to our bedroom where he declared that he was going to ‘sober me up with a good spanking’.
Well, this, of course, only made me laugh all the harder! Until he made good on his threat and I found myself upended over his lap, that is. I soon stopped laughing as he spanked me in earnest and his palm brought a stinging, burning heat to my poor bottom.
Having never been subjected to this kind of treatment in my life, I was fairly shocked – indeed, I am almost glad that I was drunk that first time! However, despite the obvious physical discomfort involved, the experience itself was not wholly unpleasant.
Afterwards, once I had been reassured of my husband’s forgiveness and continued affection, I felt a curious sense of warmth and contentment: a feeling of being loved and cared for. And for many days after that, I trailed after my husband in the manner of an adoring puppy, curling up against his shoulder in bed and kissing his hands whenever the opportunity arose.
Happily, he didn’t seem to mind. Quite the opposite, in fact.
And oh you can be sure that I never brought out wine for visitors again without first checking with him!
The second time, I am afraid to say, was all of my own doing. It was one of those beautiful days in the autumn when it is possible to believe that it is still summer and I decided to take myself for a walk to explore the countryside surrounding our village.
After many hours wandering about in the heat, I came to a small, shallow river that I would need to cross to make my way back to the village. There was a makeshift wooden bridge across the river for this purpose but, upon seeing how shallow the river looked and considering that my feet were by this time feeling very hot and uncomfortable, I decided to take off my shoes, hold up my skirts and simply walk through the river itself.
It was all going splendidly until I was almost halfway across the river. Here my left foot slipped on a weed-covered rock on the riverbed and, in my desperate flailing to stay upright, I let go of both the hem of my skirts and my shoes. Now, this river may have been shallow but it was also very fast flowing and, before I could do anything to reclaim them, my shoes were fast disappearing downstream.
Standing there in the middle of a river with my shoes gone and the lower six inches of my dress in the river, I realised how ridiculous I must look and burst out laughing.
However, the situation became rather less amusing as I made my way home through briars and nettles and over rocky paths with no shoes to protect my feet. And the walk through the village itself, leaving a trail of water behind me while many of the villagers looked on and laughed, would have been unendurably humiliating had I not been blessed with the disposition to laugh at myself. Which I did then, to excess, as I explained my predicament to those I passed in the street.
When I finally traipsed into the house, barefoot, with the hem of my dress trailing mud and river water all over the floor, my husband was already home from school.
The look of disbelief on his face I will never forget!
Unsurprisingly, my husband was less inclined to laugh at the situation that I was and scolded me most terribly for doing something so foolish.
Even then, I may have escaped any further reprimand were it not for my own silliness. Once his initial shock had passed, my husband immediately ordered me upstairs to get undressed out of my wet clothes and followed me there, to continue his incessant scolding.
I had just removed my petticoat when he declared that he didn’t know what our neighbours must have thought of the spectacle I had made walking through the village. Foolishly, I laughed and interrupted him to say: “Oh darling, they didn’t mind at all! I was laughing with them about it on my way home!” At which point, my husband decided that clearly I wasn’t taking this seriously at all and proceeded to continue his scolding whilst holding me down over his lap in my under things and spanking me until I begged for forgiveness.
Now you should know that my husband warned me about this side to himself before we were married: I was never under any illusion. I clearly remember him taking me aside one day, early on in our engagement, and saying very seriously: “I do not imagine that I am going to be the easiest person in the world for a girl of your temperament to live with, my dear. It is not a particularly easy or frivolous life to be a schoolmaster’s wife, you know, and, being that much older than you, I am rather set in my ways. I think it likely that I may occasionally be a little… firm with you.” He had paused then and looked me full in the face. When he continued, his voice was softer. “My dear, if such a thought causes you discomfort, I would beg you to reconsider your acceptance of my offer. I have no desire to cause you any unhappiness. You are a dear, dear girl and it would give me great pain to see you made miserable by my actions. Please be assured that I would bear you no ill will were you to withdraw your affections.” And, oh, what could I do in the face of such a speech but declare again and again that I accepted his offer with all of my heart! To my eyes, then and now, his temper was faultless, his sense and judgement unrivalled and I knew that I would choose a life spent with him over an ‘easy’ life any day.
Even had I known what this ‘firmness’ he referred to truly meant, my decision would not have been any different.
But this morning, as he continued to spank me furiously in our parlour, I couldn’t help wishing that it didn’t hurt so very much. The sting was almost unbearable and, try as I might, I couldn’t stop myself from wriggling and twisting and flinching away from his hand.
“Do not waste your energy wriggling,” said my husband, with not an ounce of pity in his voice. “I can assure you that I have barely started yet.”
But then we were interrupted by the sound of a ringing bell, close by.
The school bell.
School was about to begin.
My husband made a sound of furious impatience and I soon realised, to my great relief, that I was to be afforded an unexpected reprieve.
However, my relief was short-lived.
“Do not think that this is the end of it,” said my husband sternly, as he hurried to gather his effects together. “We will continue this discussion when I return.” He pulled on his coat, his movements erratic and agitated. “Now, I want to see that kitchen table cleaned up when I get back and make sure you do the chores that you neglected to do yesterday. Do you understand?”
“Yes darling,” I whispered. I felt dreadful that he was still so angry with me, that I was still so clearly not forgiven. I now almost wished that he would stay home and finish spanking me so that it would all be over. But there was nothing for it: he simply must go to school and, because of me, he was going to be late.
For the first time in our married life, my husband did not kiss me goodbye before leaving the house and I was left to wander miserably into the kitchen to start scraping the dried wax off the tabletop.
By the afternoon, I had rallied my spirits tolerably. The kitchen table was now almost completely clear of wax and the few flecks that remained were of such a trifling nature as to be of no concern to anyone. My chores in the house were complete, I was washed, dressed, fed and watered and a pale wintery sun was letting in light through the parlour window.
Truly, there was no reason to give in to despair. My husband would finish my punishment went he came home and then all would be well again.
Thus consoled, I made my way out into the village to buy some food for this evening’s meal.
As I went about my business, I found myself much less inclined to laugh and chatter than usual and I am sure many of the people I encountered noticed this. Indeed, I was unintentionally behaving in the very manner that my husband so approved of!
Before long, my basket was full and I was just making my way out of the butcher’s and back onto the main street when I heard the school bell ringing once again.
School had finished for today.
I felt a creeping sense of anxiety at the sound and starting walking home at a much slower pace than usual.
By and by, the school pupils came streaming along the street towards me and as I made my through them, against the tide, I could see that many of their faces conveyed expressions of heartfelt relief, while others looked rather solemn and grey. I had often seen them skip and laugh on their way home from school, their voices raised in merriment or excitement.
But not today.
Clearly, theirs had been a trying day.
And, as the person who had sent their schoolmaster off to school in a furious temper, I couldn’t help but feel wholly responsible.
My husband’s coat was already hanging in the cloakroom when I arrived home but the house seemed utterly silent.
“Darling?” I called.
I followed the sound of his voice into the kitchen, where I found him standing next to the kitchen table.
I froze in the doorway.
His school cane was resting on the tabletop.
I had seen this cane before but only ever in the school itself, where it was usually kept hanging on the far wall directly beneath the painting of Queen Victoria.
I put my basket down on the floor. “You do not truly mean to cane me, do you darling?”
The look he gave me was set and determined. “That is precisely what I mean to do. If one of my pupils had behaved as disobediently, deceitfully and foolishly as you did last night, I would not hesitate to give them the caning they deserve.”
I could not speak and instead found myself leaning against the doorway for support. Is this what it felt like to swoon? If it was, then it was not so very pleasant as I had imagined it to be.
Perhaps sensing my own incapacitation, my husband walked towards me, took my hand and, gently but firmly, led me over to the kitchen table.
“Bend over here… that’s right.”
I found myself, once again, with my cheek resting against the cold wood of the table and there I stayed, mortified, as my husband pulled up my skirts and petticoats and settled them about me like a net.
“You may wish to grip the edges of the table, my dear.” His voice was gentle but unflinching. “I’m afraid this is likely to hurt you a great deal.”
I did as he advised and then waited, trembling, as he picked up the cane from the table in front of me and disappeared behind my gathered skirts.
I trembled even more when I felt him take down my drawers and then almost immediately begin to tap the cool, smooth length of the cane against my bare skin.
“Six strokes, I think,” he declared, tapping slightly harder now.
Oh! How I wished in that moment that my sister had never sent me that damnable book!
The tapping stopped and there was a moment of nothingness when I trembled worse than ever…
… before the first stroke cut through the air with frightening speed and lashed across my bottom.
Oh! The sting was like nothing I had ever felt before. It was unendurable!
“One,” said my husband, with devastating calmness, from behind me.
“Oh darling please!” I gasped, gripped now with such a terrified sense of panic that I could scarcely draw breath. “Please no more!”
But he was already lining up the second stroke and, impervious to my desperate pleading, he proceeded to deliver it with just as much controlled severity as the first.
As the stinging pain once again reached its peak, tears sprang to my eyes and it was all I could do not to cry out for mercy as my husband said “Two” and proceeded right away to line up the next stroke.
The next two strokes followed in quick succession with hardly an opportunity to cry out – or, indeed, breathe – between them and I gripped the edges of the table with all my might, as though this was the only way of keeping myself in one piece.
“Now then, my dear,” said my husband. “If I forbid you from reading a book again, what are you not going to do?”
“Read it!” I wept. “Oh darling, please, I am so sorry. Please - ”
“And if you are ever lying awake in bed again and can’t sleep, what are you not going to do?”
“Get up and go downstairs!”
“And if you do find yourself downstairs in the middle of the night with a candle, what are you most definitely not going to do?”
“Fall asleep with the candle still burning!” I cried. “Oh, I won’t! Ever. I promise.”
“No you certainly won’t.”
And, without warning, he lashed down the fifth stroke with such viciousness that the shock of it made me scream out loud.
And oh the pain! I felt as though my poor bottom had been sliced open.
“Shh. Come now, my dear,” said my husband, rubbing my back gently as I sobbed onto the tabletop. “We are almost finished.”
“Please no more…”
“Shh… this is the last one now. And then it will all be over.”
I tried to be comforted… but then I felt him lining up the final stroke and all I could feel was terrified anticipation.
Again, that awful silence…
… and then my husband’s cane made its final, vicious descent…whipping my poor, tortured bottom… igniting a line of purest fire across my already burning flesh…
…and I cried out and collapsed, exhausted, against the tabletop.
Afterwards, when my husband had drawn me to feet and into his arms and assured me that I was utterly forgiven, he saw that my tears had gathered here and there on the uneven surface on the table.
“Oh my poor, dear girl,” he murmured, kissing my wet cheeks. “Am I a terribly cruel husband?”
I felt recovered enough, by then, to smile. “No, my darling, you are just very firm.”
At which point, my husband gave me a smile of his own and took me – very firmly – upstairs to bed…
2014 update: if you liked this story and are interested in maybe reading more of my writing, check out my Amazon Author Page here.
2014 update: if you liked this story and are interested in maybe reading more of my writing, check out my Amazon Author Page here.