The Scarlet Letter

Paula could see it from the far end of the corridor. She was too far away to be sure just by observation that it was in her pigeonhole, but she had been told to expect its arrival. It could be someone else again, like the false alarm two days ago when Carly Simmons had sprinted down the hall to remove a similar overly large envelope of her own before too many of the others had noticed. Her expediency had not helped matters, with whispers of such things flying among the students with their usual speed. If only the students were as enthusiastic at sharing knowledge from their lessons, none of them would ever need worry about exams.

Paula tried not to focus on the envelope as she approached her pigeonhole, but it drew her like a moth to a flame- or perhaps more like how they say one cannot turn away from an impending train wreck. It was hardly something she desired, but as much as she wished it was only her imagination or some mistake, the deep red of the paper proved very, very real. She fought the urge to simply snatch it up and sprint away before anyone could see. She had seen that little scenario play out plenty of times over the years, and knew it would be futile- doing so would only attract the attention of those who had somehow not yet noticed.

As she withdrew the slip with trembling hands, sending the few other papers that had been waiting for her fluttering to the ground. In her obsession over the envelope, she had forgotten that anything else might be awaiting her. She gathered the falling slips with as much dignity as she could muster, glad that she had missed the peak of the afternoon rush and only had to dodge a couple of classmates as she went about her task. Of course, that meant that the remainder of the student body had already been here, had already seen . .. Paula suppressed the thought with a shudder as she tucked the gathered slips into her satchel, barely registering that they reported that she had earned top marks on her homework the previous week. While such news was hardly unusual, it normally brought at least a warm glow of pride and accomplishment. Today, however, she simply registered the fact before allowing the envelope to return to its prominent place in her thoughts. She didn’t bother to tuck away the envelope as well, even though there was no way to openly carry such an item with any subtlety. It was large and distinctive, designed to draw attention to its bearer, just as every other element in the disciplinary system was seemingly designed to maximise the embarrassment of the miscreant, as she had discovered nearly a week ago when this process had started.

In the final month of her final year at St. Brigid’s, Paula had never imagined that she would find herself standing before the headmaster’s desk with her head bowed in shame. She had never imagined herself scrambling for a plausible excuse for her behaviour, and therefore had nothing prepared that might save her from the coming ordeal. The only explanation she could think of was that it was simply end-of-term high spirits that had made her finally buckle to the pressure of the other girls in her year and agree to join them for one of their midnight parties. It had sounded like such fun, and besides, they had been holding these gatherings for most of their school years without incident, though Paula had always been too afraid of the potential consequences of discovery to dare join them. With graduation looming, her chances were running out, and had agreed to attend.

She had even done brilliantly at the little task they had set her, and had obtained a bottle of rum off her older brother when he’d come to visit with no more trouble from him than a knowing smile and a caution to be careful. Perhaps she should have paid him more heed, she reflected, for if she hadn’t tripped over the loose step she never would have lost her satchel over the railing, the bottle never would have smashed, she never would have drawn the attention of Matron, and she would not now be trying to explain her actions to the headmaster.

“I have no excuse, Sir,” she finally settled on, speaking so quietly she could barely hear the words herself.

The headmaster, apparently, either had excellent hearing or else was well used to such mumbled excuses that he didn’t much care what the girl before him uttered. “Very well,” he responded in the same stern voice in which he had been scolding her for the better part of ten minutes. “You understand that this is a serious offence and, senior girl or not, I have no option but to punish you.”

Paula nodded sadly. There was no use in protesting that she was too old for such things, that in any other setting she would be considered an adult. She was merely a St. Brigid’s girl, at least for a short while longer.

“You will receive notification of the details of your punishment within the week. You are dismissed.”

And that was it. Paula had left as if in a daze, wondering not for the first time what the purpose of such a delay could possibly be. It had sounded to her as though his mind had already been made up as to her sentence. Neither could she think of anyone else with whom he would need to consult before the event; her parents knew full well the practices the school employed, and even though they did not expect their daughter to run afoul of the rules, they had implicitly given their consent for such things, should they become necessary, by paying her fees each term.

Whatever the reason, Paula was left to stew for five whole days before the letter in its garish, oversized envelope to make its appearance. Paula looked at it again and sighed. At least the wait was over now. She moved to the side of the corridor, trying her hardest to ignore the whispers fluttering past her, and gently lifted the flap to withdraw the letter. It was written in formal, flowing script, and would have been quite pretty if not for it’s message. It took her a few minutes to decipher the unfamiliar hand. Yes, she would be caned, the letter confirmed as she read. Eight strokes. It would happen in the headmaster’s office, as it always did. It would be a “proper punishment befitting a senior girl,” she shuddered at the formal phrasing informing her that she would be required to bare herself for the ordeal. And it would happen at a quarter past four in the afternoon today.

Paula reread the last line in shock. The last classes of the day only let out at four, and she had stayed back to help Miss Slate with the poster boards the class had scattered around the room over the course of their lesson. Paula glanced up and down the corridor, cursing herself for not wearing a watch that morning, and set off for the headmaster’s office at a dead sprint. Why did it have to come today? She had been so careful to check her pigeonhole as soon as she could each day, hoping to intercept her notice before too many of her classmates could see it. Why did it have to come the one day she had dallied?

She all but burst through the door into the outer office, and attempted to pant out an introduction to the Miss Peterson. The secretary merely smiled at her in mild amusement. “He is expecting you,” she said simply as she gestured for the girl to enter the head’s office.

Still trying to catch her breath, Paula knocked at the sturdy door and entered at the muffled request from within.

Before she could begin to stutter an explanation about staying back after class, the headmaster pinned her in place with a severe glare. “You are late. And you were running. We take a dim view on both counts in this school, as you are well aware.”

“I am sorry, Sir, I only just saw the notice and-”

“I am not interested in your excuses. You were well aware this appointment was pending, and you should well aware that you are already in trouble. I will be adding two strokes for this.”

“Yes, Sir,” Paula said, the finality of his tone leaving her with no option but to attempt to take her punishment gracefully.

“Very well. You have already wasted enough of my time this afternoon through your tardiness. Prepare yourself.”

Paula hesitated. “Sir?” she asked, wringing her hands.

“You heard me, get along with it,” the headmaster replied with a vague but impatient gesture.

“But. . .Sir?” Paula asked again, her voice decidedly strained. “Prepare myself how? I- I’ve never done this before.”

The headmaster sighed, his expression softening a touch. “Yes, I have not yet seen you here for this reason. The ritual which we are about to perform is held in strictest confidence, so therefore I know that the entire student body surely knows every detail. However, if you somehow managed to miss the gossip, when I instruct you to prepare yourself, I wish for you to bend over the desk and prepare your bottom. Lift your skirt and lower your knickers to bare yourself as the notice informed you- or did you not bother to read it?” he asked, an eyebrow rising sternly.

Paula blushed nearly as red as the notice itself as she hastened to obey, glad at least that in this position she was spared from further eye contact with the man who was beginning to deeply intimidate her. She tried to calm herself as she waited for the punishment to commence, but her breath caught when she heard a loud swish issue from behind her. She waited for the sting to set in. She’d heard that it took a while for it to truly hurt, but had expected something more immediate; she had felt nothing at all.

A louder swish and splitting crack duly informed her of her mental mistake as the first true stroke landed. Paula squeezed her eyes shut as if to lock out the rapidly mounting burn.

“I expect you to count these,” a deep voice behind her instructed.

“One!” Paula cried out, remembering something through the haze of the pain about uncounted strokes not counting. “Sir,” she appended, recalling the proper phrasing Jamie Lou had whined about the consequences of forgetting one evening many years ago.

Her reward for this response came in the form of another biting stroke. “Two, Sir,” she dutifully counted in the breath before the pain truly registered, making speaking temporarily impossible. The third stroke was delivered as she was thus preoccupied.

“Three, Sir,” she panted out after the few moments it took to reassemble her thoughts, beginning to worry how she would possibly be able to count out ten strokes.

The headmaster, however, was unconcerned, delivering the fourth stroke crisply as she finished the previous count. Despite his previous insistence on moving things along and wasting no time, he proved remarkably patient while administering the punishment, allowing the breaks between strokes to lengthen exponentially as it took Paula longer and longer to find her voice for the count. Paula was grateful at first, but then realised the subtle cruelty of the technique, allowing her, even encouraging her, to draw out her own torture.

In an attempt to undermine this technique, she tried to speed her count, emitting a muffled “Seh- ehhn- Sih,” as soon as the stroke landed.

“What was that Miss?” the head asked, patiently awaiting a clearer reply as Paula emitted a defeated sob.

“Seven, S- Sir,” she uttered nearly a full minute later after bringing her tears under control.

Paula took her final three strokes with as much grace as she could manage, which proved to be not much. The headmaster, unphased, allowed her all the time she needed before she uttered her final count, “Ten. . . Sir.”

“You may rise and readjust your things,” he said lightly, as though she had merely tripped in the corridor.

Paula slowly rolled her knickers back into place, biting her lip as the fabric stretched over her swollen behind.

“I trust I won’t need to see you in here again?” he asked.

“No, Sir,” Paula winced, turning to let herself out as he dismissed her, and perhaps more sincere words had never been spoken. She winced as she slowly trod back down the corridor to join her classmates for tea. The notice was tucked out of sight now, but she was still, clearly, marked as the naughty girl.

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