Astrid Cane adjusted the folds of her blue velvet gown and gazed curiously around her as she descended from her carriage assisted by a footman who had hastened down the broad stone steps of the country manor. Never before had Astrid made a social call on her own, but this first sight of Hardcastle-as the manor was called-pleased her. Its stone walls, latticed by Nature with ivy, had long mellowed with age, as if to avow their proud permanence in the county of Buckinghamshire. Glittering in the afternoon sunlight, the trellised windows offered their discreet greeting.
Unaccustomed to hurrying, the aristocratic young lady slowly ascended the steps, where a housemaid awaited her.
'Lady Tingle waits in the drawing room to welcome you, Miss'.
'Very well, you may show me through', replied Astrid languidly, dangling a small, blue parasol from her wrist.
The house was cool, smelling pleasantly of lavender and wood polish. The fragrance of newly baked bread wafted through from some distant kitchen, making Astrid's finely cut nostrils twitch agreeably. Opening two inner doors-since Society will oddly have it that it is impolite for servants to knock before entering drawing rooms-the maid announced Astrid briefly and then left her to be welcomed by her hostess.
Lady Tingle, who had just entered her fortieth year was a woman of imposing figure. A little above medium height, she bore herself like a queen. She was attired in a black gown whose sombreness was relieved by a subtle patterning of silvery threads interwoven in the material. Her auburn hair was bunched high, her swan-like neck adorned with a black-velvet choker set in the middle with a single diamond. Her bust, being prominent, announced a rich firmness of flesh beneath, as did the arrogant thrusting of her derriere.
'You are most welcome, my dear', Lady Tingle said in a voice as soft as a dove's feathers. Without seeming to, her eyes drank in the svelte curves which the clinging of Astrid's dress accentuated. Slender, and of equal stature to her hostess, Astrid was in her twenty-third year. Her complexion was marble smooth and clear, with a pretty hint of pink in her face that was enhanced by the noble lines of her cheekbones. Her mouth was full, her lower lip being particularly voluptuous. An aquiline nose, neither long nor short, large hazel eyes, and an abundance of soft, d ark hair completed the most pleasing nubile curves of her figure.
'I fear that I know little enough of the purpose of my visit, save what Mama wrote to me', Astrid said.
'We must have tea and talk', Julie Tingle answered comfortably, and motioned her guest to a chair. 'You need experience no embarrassment, my dear, at the fact that we have not previously been introduced. Your dear Mama is in Switzerland, of course, and, I gather, may remain there for some time. She has naturally been concerned as to your future. You are, after all, the oldest of her daughters and the one whom she cherishes the most. Ah, here is the tea!'.
The afternoon comforts of the well-to-do having been served, and the Indian tea being of the finest, Astrid was set a little more at ease, though not a wrinkle of her clear brow betrayed the uncertainty she felt at journeying to make this visit as her mother had requested.
'I know not how long I can stay', Astrid said, failing no more than her hostess to drink in all that she saw, whether of Lady Tingle herself or of the superbly appointed drawing room with its glittering chandelier, its grey and blue silks, and the numerous pretty ornaments that lay everywhere. In particular, the eyes of her hostess attracted her glances, for they seemed to glitter with hidden lights.
'It will depend on your progress, my dear. From the little I have seen of you up to this moment, I would say that a month would suffice-perhaps less. You are here to be introduced to a world of disciplinary experiences all of which will benefit you as muchly as your dear Mama intends they shall'.
At this, Astrid's mouth dropped, for she could not believe that she had heard what she thought she had, all of Lady Tingle's words being uttered in the most casual fashion.
'I fear I do not quite understand', she responded.
'You have a fine, proud look, Astrid-I am pleased with that. You will not succumb easily, but then it is for the best if you do not, as will come clear to you. Those who do, often prove useless'. Rising, Julia placed her hand beneath Astrid's chin and lifted it. 'Marie, the maid, will show you to your room', she added.
Appearing at first lost for words, Astrid returned her gaze with total wonderment. 'I… I fail to understand, Lady Tingle. I cannot possibly stay more than a day or two. Papa expects…'.
'What your Papa expects and what he receives are possibly two different things, Astrid. Do, please, call me Julia. Your clothes will have been wardrobed by now and you will naturally wish to change after your journey. We have much to talk of. There are few enough young men and young women who are sent to me for whom I have any true affection. In your case, I believe I find immediately a charming exception. Ah, Marie- yes, come in. Escort Miss Cane to her room'.
The maid had entered so silently that Astrid started and then gazed all about her as though in a dream.
'I cannot believe that Mama had any intentions other than that I should make a social call upon you', she said stiffly.
'An extremely social call, yes', Julia laughed, 'but perhaps rather more prolonged than you anticipated and certainly of a nature that you least expected. Marie, I think you had best call Tom. The young lady appears unwilling to rise. You will both assist her upstairs'.
'Madam-no!', gasped Astrid, rising quickly and utterly bewildered. 'I believe you fail to understand who I am. If you will be so kind as to have my carriage recalled, I shall leave'.
'Your carriage has long left, my dear. There is no way that you are going to leave until I judge you fit to do so. Now, Marie and Tom, take her up!'.
'How dare you! No!', screamed Astrid, who in that moment found herself in the close presence of a burly male servant and Marie. Unheard of as it was to be touched by mere servants, she felt the outrage of having her wrists seized and drawn behind her by Tom, whose grip she could find no way of escaping from without utter indignity. At the same tune, Marie took her elbow.
'To be bathed, Ma'am?', Marie asked her mistress.
'Yes, you and Amy will see to it. Have me called when it is done', Julia replied to screams from Astrid who was being propelled towards the double doors of the drawing room. Hustled into the great hallway, Astrid fought bitterly against the hands that, as she felt then, were impelling her to her doom.
'Release me! Ah, you beasts, how dare you lay hands on me!', she screeched to no avail. Bundled slowly upstairs, her feet kicked frantically until Tom wheeled her about and, with no more effort than it would take to lift a kitten, slung her over his shoulder. 'No! No! No!', moaned Astrid, beating with her fists upon his broad back the while that he reached the first landing, with Marie following. He then bore her towards a bedroom.
Meanwhile Lady Tingle languidly lit a Turkish cigarette and took from a small chest of drawers a letter which bore a Swiss stamp and which she had already perused several tunes. Astrid's cries reached her but faintly as she unfolded the delicately scented pages and regained her seat to engage herself anew in the message.
'My dearest Julia', she read, 'I write to you with a purpose that you have for several years wished and which we have not infrequently discussed. My sojourn here will be considerably extended, for the air and all about suits me as well as does that engaging rascal, Rudolph, for whose sake I have put England behind me. He and I are of mutual mind, as you well know, and thoroughly enjoy what you are occasionally pleased to call our 'sporting activities' together. He is as thorough, my dear, with the strap, the cane, and the crop as ever you were, though his own sturdy buttocks are put to such in turn when I am so minded.
'His daughters, Amanda and Rose, are perfect darlings, the former being now nineteen and her sister just attaining her sixteenth year. The little devils have been well bottom-trained, I can tell you. 'Tis a pure delight to unveil their lovely round derrieres and apply the strap or birch or what you will to their refulgent cheeks. Rose is