For the next few days, Arabella was happy to accompany Carlo on a round of visits to his fashionable friends in their elegant town houses, and not quite so fashionable, but perhaps more interesting, acquaintance in country villas in the low hills surrounding the city,
On one of these visits, she observed a curious local tradition. Carlo had told her that the daughter of the house was to be married the next day and that she would be the subject of a special ceremony that evening. It was woman's work, so he and their host would not be present, but she would be welcome to attend. Her curiosity aroused, she joined the other women, who had gathered in their hostess's boudoir. The bride-to-be was dressed only in her shift and, while the other ladies present sat and watched, her mother took her by the hand and led her to a stern looking woman, rather older than the mother, and formally presented her. The girl was then ordered to remove her shift and stand quite naked, while the
older woman examined her minutely. Her hair was loosened and fingers run over her scalp, her mouth opened and teeth and tongue inspected. The examiner looked into and behind each ear, and ran her hands round the white column of the neck and palped the muscles of the shoulders and arms. Each finger was stretched and bent and close attention paid to the nails of each hand. The breasts were weighed in the hand and painful fingers tested the resilience of the nipples.
Next a palm slapped into the smooth belly before going on to tug at the fleece between the thighs, and pull open the pouting labia. A finger tip rubbed the bud of the clitoris as the girl stood, legs apart and head up, trying to demonstrate indifference to this cattle buying procedure. Down the thighs and calves now, and each foot lifted for the toes to be twisted and sole slapped. Finally the girl was made to turn around and, with her feet placed wide apart, bend and put her palms on the floor. Her future mother-in-law, as Arabella later found her to be, pulled apart the rounded cheeks to display the crinkled anus, and then passed her hand between the girl's thighs to slide a finger into the mouth of her vagina, where she tested the strength, and integrity of her hymen. Apparently satisfied with the condition of the goods, the older lady stood back.
"She is healthy and intact," she pronounced, "we may proceed." The mother came forward and presented the inquisitor with a cane. Arabella, with some knowledge of such things now, shuddered in sympathy for the bride-to-be. It was nearly three feet in length, a solid yellow rod that would bruise as well as sting. It would seem that this bride would be wearing more than petticoats under her wedding dress, and have good reason for a slow and careful gait, as she walked down the aisle on her new husband's arm.
The mother-in-law took the cane and tested it by flexing it between her hands, and making some experimental cuts through the air. The bending girl's buttocks were seen to flinch momentarily at the threatening sound.
"You guarantee she is strong, and well disciplined?"
"Yes, we guarantee it," said the mother, "she is a two-dozen bride." The bent figure shuddered.
Satisfied apparently with the weight and power of the weapon provided, the formidable matron took careful measure of the taut bent rounds, drew back her arm and brought the cane flashing down to wrap itself across the base of the buttocks, about mid way between their widest point, and the faintly discernible crease at the top of the thighs. The yellow wood burrowed deep into the soft woman flesh and sprang back to reveal a whitened furrow that flooded with red, turning dark even as they watched.
Clearly, from the mother's attestation of her fortitude, the girl must have had experience of comparable strokes but, as Arabella knew only too well, the first is always difficult before one gets the measure of the pain. Her body jerked, but her hands stayed on the floor, and she gave a strangled cry, followed a second later by a low groan, as the after pain flowed in.
Her future mother-in-law let her agony build to its peak and then, with practised ease, drove in the second stroke just below the first; an equally venomous bite, but this time the girl was more prepared and absorbed the blow with only a gasp, followed by an inward hissing through her teeth. Her thighs quivered with the pain building at their tops, and the cane rose again.
After six measured strokes the young woman was obviously suffering intensely. The once white hemispheres of her nether cheeks were darkly barred, and clenched and unclenched of their own volition, it would appear, while her cries were now shrill, though strangled responses to the burn in her bottom. By twelve the cane, and its expert wielder, had reduced her to cringing flesh, and open cries, interspersed with sobs, which continued to shake her naked body, when she was allowed to rise. Arabella gathered that this was an accepted part of the ritual, when a 'two dozen' bride was flogged, as the taut bent position made breathing difficult under stress, and the girl was allowed to rise half way through her ration, to restore her respiration. A mercy in some ways but it did mean that, having risen once from the attitude of martyrdom, the unfortunate postulant must bend and present her throbbing hinds anew, knowing that their tender surfaces must endure it all again.
And so she did. Called back to her stance, she could be seen to bite her lip as she forced herself back into position for the honour of her family, and the prize of her marriage. Her bridegroom's mother showed her no mercy, but tested the mettle of this coming addition to her family to the limit. As the brutal cuts sank into the already tumified flesh, the girl began to scream, though her crawling fingers still held to the floor, and her fretting knees straightened to her fustigater's order. For the last few strokes, delivered onto thick plum coloured welts under her base, the girl came close to breaking, and her mother stood to her head, resting her hands on her shoulders to reassure and restrain her as the distressed young woman writhed and shrieked her pain. Arabella was of the opinion that, just at that moment, she might be regretting her mother's pride in claiming 'two dozen' status for her daughter.
Released, her buttocks ravaged and bleeding from their fearful ordeal, she fell to her knees and raised her tear-streaked face to kiss the rod, before being surrounded and congratulated by her sisters and future sisters-in-law, who bore her off to her last maiden bed.
"Do all brides in the district suffer so?" Arabella asked later, as they left for home.
"All the old families close to the soil," Carlo replied, "they think of the girls as they do their horses and cattle. Check their health before you take delivery, and see that they have been properly broken to the bit and the bridle."
"Coletta got two dozen welts on her hinds. I think she'll limp a little down the aisle tomorrow, and lean heavily on her new husband's arm." Carlo laughed. "Well, are not all brides meant to display tender feelings? Still two dozen is very steep. That mother of hers is a proud necked creature, and the mother-in-law as bad, so the poor girl got her meat well basted between them."
"That's true. If she could have settled for twelve, I think you might have said she had won her battle with the cane, but the second dozen quite undid her and by the end her mother-in-law had her reduced to jelly."
"'Tis often the way. The last bride to enter that family never lifted her eyes from the floor when her mother-in-law passed by after her pre-nuptial swingeing. It's not just mothers-in-law either. Sometimes, where the groom has no mother, or the lady is enfeebled, a sister or aunt is deputed. The sisters can often be very hard on new girls, to ensure they know their place."
The weather was kind, so they were even able to
sail in the Bay of Palermo and admire the City and the mountains from the sea. Arabella found she enjoyed Carlo's company, and the sense of guidance he gave out, although he did not refer again to her need for the rein and the whip. Instead he extended an invitation to visit his ancestral home at Petraverdi.
"It's really very decent of him to take so much trouble over you," remarked William, "he's the most generous and open host in his house, here in Palermo, but he's a bit selective when it comes to inviting visitors to his stronghold in the hills."
"I imagine you've been there though. What's it like?" "Oh, yes, I've been up there a couple of times," he grinned wickedly. "Perhaps I should ask Carlo to treat you as one of the family. Some of their customs, when they're 'en famille' are, shall we say, a little bizarre. Might be good for you."
"What on earth do you mean by that?" Arabella asked in a surprised tone. "What's so unusual about the family anyway? We did talk about the effects of their long independence, but he didn't give much away. Just that they had acquired a well-developed code of discipline, but he went into no detail."
"No, naturally you wouldn't expect any intimacies on your first meeting." Arabella remembered her bare breasts, his gently probing fingers, the talk of mares and whips, and felt a blush rise up her neck.
"I'd better not betray too many of his secrets," William went on, "but I can tell you that you're right about the discipline. The
responsibility for the females of the family he delegates to his elder sister, who is the Senior Lady at this time, and she administers high and low justice in a sort of 'Court of Honour'. I'll not go further about their proceedings, but, be warned, if you are put under that court's jurisdiction, you'll need to be on your best behaviour or you will find it uncomfortable to sit."
"Then I shall have to watch my manners, or avoid the temptation to become one of the family." she said, with a grin.
Her brother shot her a glance, but held his peace.
"Tell me. Are the ladies, and especially their maids, used to civilized society? My Polly is excellent on her own ground in London, but she doesn't travel well. She went to pieces on the voyage out, and is still lost to the ways round here. I fear a journey into the wilderness will see her quite undone, and I may be better off asking Carlo if one of his sister's household could look after me."
"They're not savages, you know. Of course they have maids who understand civilized ways. The ladies are far from prisoners in that keep. Rather it is a retreat where they return, gratefully, from the very lively excursions they make, not only to Palermo and Naples, but to most of the other capitals of Europe. The family is wealthy, and is used to spending it, especially the women. They indulge themselves in all the luxuries of our modern world, but are happy to return to their own austere home, from time to time and enjoy a little stillness." Arabella looked thoughtful.
"Yes. I can see that they might. In any case it seems that I may rely on the local wenches for my toilette, and Polly can stay here and make eyes at your handsome footman. Just make sure she's kept from starting a belly while I'm gone."
"Only too likely, I'm afraid, Sis. Fellow seems to have a surefire pego. There are three little versions of his Roman nose clinging to the skirts of various cooks and kitchen maids that I know of, and goodness knows how many more besides. Still I have remonstrated with him over the disruption it has caused and I'll let him know that English maids are out of bounds. Though I doubt if that will deter these Latin lovers," he added.
"Tell him I'll come after him with a pruning knife, if he doesn't leave her in the same shape he finds her. He won't father any more bastards if I come opening his oysters," Arabella said darkly.
The next day they set out for Carlo's castle in the hills, William waving her off with admonitions to be of good behaviour, reinforced by a sly wink, which she pointedly ignored.
At first they travelled easily, in a comfortable carriage on fair roads, and after a steady climb through wooded foothills, entered the mountains proper. The six horses that had seemed such an extravagance on the plain and more than adequate in the hills now had hard work of it to keep them moving up the steep mountain roads. Eventually they stopped for their mid-day meal at a coaching inn, high in the mountains. It was a finely appointed establishment, and Arabella expressed surprise that there was sufficient traffic of the quality that the inn was clearly designed for, to justify its existence. Carlo explained that it was owned by the family, and subsidised as an aid to comfortable
communication with the City, and beyond. At this point the horses were exchanged for four pairs of oxen, a great come-down it seemed at first from the elegant and high bred creatures that had drawn them thus far, but as very soon became apparent, far more suited to the slogging grind that now faced them. Hour after hour they crawled up the steep rocky track, sometimes wedged between vertical rockfaces in a defile scarcely wide enough to pass their carriage, sometimes perched on a narrow ledge with nothing but a sheer drop on one side to a rushing torrent below. No wonder invaders of old had looked for more
Eventually, as the light was starting to lose its strength, they debouched onto the floor of a cultivated bowl ringed by frowning peaks. Rising from the centre was the hill of Petraverdi, just as Carlo had described it, green slopes, even this late in the year, crowned by a mass of cliff-faced rock and on top of all, the ramparts of the walled refuge. Some scattered farmsteads dotted the valley floor, evidence of the more settled times, but otherwise all occupation seemed concentrated in the castle and the buildings within its curtain wall. In the last of the light they crossed the valley floor, and climbed the causeway to the gatehouse, too narrowly defensive to admit the carriage, where they and their baggage were received by Carlo's retainers and kinsfolk with apparent respect and affection.
Tired from the lengthy journey, and the excitements along the way, Arabella was grateful to be handed into the care of a young woman of her own age, who Carlo introduced as his niece.
"Julietta will look after you tonight, and in the morning you will meet my sister, Donna Magdala, who is my Chatelaine at Petraverdi," he explained.
"Come with me," said Julietta, "my maid will prepare you a bath, and then she can bring us some supper before we go to bed for as much talk as you can manage after your journey. We are always happy to receive new faces and new news here, on our rock."
Arabella realised that she was expected to share Julietta's bed, as well as her maid. Well, it was no great thing. When she was younger that had been the general rule for the younger women of good family, but her wealth and status had brought her a private suite, and an unshared bed, in recent years. It would be comforting to share a bed with this friendly girl, and learn about this strange family which had welcomed her to their home.
Julietta's maid helped her out of her travelling clothes, and unlaced her corset for her, leaving her standing in her chemise while she adjusted the bath tub in an alcove, adding hot and cold water from great jugs set nearby. When Arabella, testing the water with her toe,
announced that it was just right, Julietta despatched the maid to fetch their supper and helped
Arabella to pull her shift over her head. As her guest sat down into the tub, she looked at her breasts for the first time and drew in her breath audibly.
"What are those marks? How did you come by them?" she asked. Arabella sighed. "Oh, dear. I had almost forgotten that I carried them. When I left England, I thought no-one would see them, and now it seems, the whole world has had a view. First my brother, then your Uncle and now you."
"Oh, please forgive me, I didn't mean to pry into your secrets," said Julietta, contritely, "I was so startled I forgot my manners, but I will ask nothing more, and make atonement at tomorrow's court."
"No, no, I didn't mean to chide you. I don't mind telling you all about it, really I don't, so you mustn't feel guilty." Arabella pleaded, "it was myself I was chiding for being so naive as to think I could leave it all behind me," and she retold the tale of the duel for a third time. "May I touch?"
A slim finger reached out to trace the multi hued tracks across the now white mounds, and caress the nipples, almost restored now to their former pink prettiness.
"Are they sore?" she asked.
Not any more. The worst was over by the time I reached Sicily, and these last few days I have worn a full corset and been quite
comfortable. Now all I have to worry about is their appearance but another week or two and plenty of powder, and I'll try wearing the nipple lipping fashions I've heard so much about."
Her hostess's finger stroked each newly pink bud in turn.
"In that case you'll need to have these ringed. I'll do it for you if you like."
"Yes please, but not tonight," came the response,
"I think food, comfort and companionship are what I need right now. I'll suffer for fashion's sake another day."
Later, after the tireless maid had given them supper, poured their wine, put them in their night gowns, and brushed out their hair, they lay in Julietta's wide bed. She apologised again for drawing attention to the now fading evidence of the duel.
"You mustn't think anything of it," Arabella chided her, "I told you it caused me no offence. But tell me," she added, "what did you mean by atoning at tomorrow's court?"
"But is not that what you have come for, at this time? We felt sure that Uncle had brought you to see the Court of Honour in action." "Well, he did make reference to a court of honour once, but he did not expand upon it, and I had no idea that we had come to witness it," Arabella turned eagerly to her bed-mate. "You must tell me all about it, what the court is, and how it works."
"Why, that would take all night, and I thought you were fatigued after your long journey, but I'll try and keep it short. First of all, it's a Court for women, run by women."
" Is this a house of women then?" Arabella asked.
"In a sense it is. Oh, there are plenty of men in the family who come here for shorter or longer visits, but they come for recreation. They hunt wild goats in the mountains, and boar in the woods, and fly their hawks, and, I dare say tumble some of the peasant girls to keep their hand in. The women come seeking something rather different, and, although there is a mixed company at meal times, and much good
friendship, the women tend to keep separate, especially in the
"So if the men come for sport, what is it the females come for?" "They come to collect themselves. We Petraverdis are scattered throughout the Courts of Europe. The men have positions and estates, families too, and they live in a world designed by and for men just like themselves."
"And are not the Petraverdi women equally adventurous, and active in the Courts of Europe?" Arabella asked.
"To be sure, but the world was not made by them and for them. The woman of spirit in that world has constantly to guard against the jealous elements, male and female, especially female, that seek to drag them down. The strains can be immense, the women fear that they may acquire the worst characteristics of men in their attempts to survive in a man's world, become overbearing and demanding. or that their rashness, unchecked, and unguided, might lead them to disaster."
Arabella thought of her own disastrous career.
"So how do they counter this?"
"They come to Petraverdi and put themselves under the discipline of the place. Here they can be with other women of their own kind, free from the strain of having to keep up a front against the world, and a guard against enemies who lie in wait. They can lay down their
responsibilities for a season by submitting to another's will, and temper their bodies and their courage by accepting and enduring pain." Arabella's eyes opened wide, and she turned in the bed to face her new-found friend.
"You mean you are subject to the discipline of the whip?" "Oh, yes. The whip, the rod and many another instrument of correction."
"And is this the function of the Court of Honour?"
"You have it. The Court is presided over by the Chatelaine, Carlo's sister," Julietta went on, "and all females resident are subject to its weekly sessions."
All thought of sleep had left her for the moment as Arabella considered this side of life within the fortress.
"What kind of misdemeanours are tried by the Court and who prosecutes the offenders?" she asked.
Julietta laughed. "Oh, the Court is not a place of argument, but a place to learn acceptance. Mostly," she added, "the women condemn themselves and are sentenced by the President, but they may also be called to account by the Chatelaine for an offence that has come to her notice, or even simply ordered discipline 'for the good of her body and soul'."
"I imagine there must be some code of behaviour, then, breaches of which lead to women either reporting themselves, or being reported by others," Arabella observed, "I shall have to be careful if I'm to keep my skin intact."
"No fear of that," replied her companion, "you're not a Petraverdi woman yet." (Not yet? What could she mean? Arabella's mind spun.) "Guests are only subject to the Court if they so request, and even so you've scarce had time to offend. But you are right," she went on, "offences are committed by breaking a code, but it is an unwritten code handed down by custom and tradition. It has to be learned the hard way, by experience and observation, but it basically entails the observance of the utmost courtesy, modesty, and decorum in words, deeds and dress at all times."
Arabella laughed in her turn.
"It sounds like a retreat to a nunnery, though a very secular one, I think."
"Very apt, especially as chastity is the rule. No men, no female tongues, no sticky fingers to exercise your sensual parts unless permission has been sought and granted."
"And are the penances those of the nunnery too?"
"They share much, but we have variations of our own." Julietta made a wry face. "Actually the President of the Court may order any punishment she considers fitting, and there have been many varieties of pain prescribed, but the rod and the whip are the most generally decreed, as I dare say tomorrow will confirm."
She yawned sleepily. "And now I think we should get some rest. I fear I, for one, may have a great deal of excitement and physical stimulation to contend with, before we can seek out our bed again, even if you are excused Donna Magdala's fustigations tomorrow."
The dreaded Chatelaine turned out to be a tall, elegant lady whose well-groomed appearance belied her sixty years, and still revealed evidence of the famous beauty she had been in her youth. Her greeting combined warmth with courtesy, but Arabella sensed a steely will and dedication to perfection behind the friendly reception.
Carlo had excused himself on the grounds of urgent estate business that could not be ignored, and having paid their respects to Carlo's deputy at Petraverdi, the two young women were free to ride out and explore the well-kept farms, the neat fields, now bare of crops, and the rushing streams coming off the rocky hillsides, where olive trees clung to the last accessible terraces.
They returned as evening drew near, and Julietta grew more and more preoccupied. Arabella was diverted from asking her the cause of her distraction by an invitation to join Carlo for dinner, which was to be early this evening. She had surprised herself at how much she had missed his company, much as she had enjoyed her day with Julietta.
Carlo asked her about her day, and she recounted all she had seen and done.
"It is so beautiful and peaceful out there it is hard to remember the tales of warfare and invaders that surround the place. Now it seems safer than the city."
"You would be mistaken to think so," he warned, "there are men in the hills above, hunters and charcoal burners who are little more than outlaws. It would be very rash to explore the tracks leading out of the valley without an escort."
"Well, it all seemed very unthreatening today, although," she added as an afterthought, "Julietta seemed to grow very uneasy later on." He laughed. "I don't think it was anything outside the castle that was causing her concern, but what was waiting for her within."
"And what might that be?" she enquired.
"I think I will let you find out for yourself. Besides it is time for you to meet the other ladies of the house. Tonight is not a suitable occasion for a man, even myself, to be present, but I have asked Julietta to call and collect you."
At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Julietta entered. Arabella noticed immediately that she was not dressed as ladies of her class usually affected, with an evening gown over stays and petticoats, but wore instead a simple straight gown, with no evidence of corset or petticoats, or anything else for that matter. Barefoot, too, judging by the sound of her footsteps.
She said goodnight to her host and accepted her guide's hand as she led her through the maze of corridors that threaded the rambling fortress. As they walked, the click of her heels contrasting with the slap of Julietta's bare feet on the stone flags, she asked her friend what was troubling her.
"Well, I'm sure you've guessed by now that we are on our way to attend the Court of Honour," Julietta explained, "Donna Magdala called me in a few days ago, and said she'd been thinking over my condition of mind, that had brought me to leave Milan to return to the shelter of
Petraverdi. The upshot of what she had to say is that I am to submit to a course of treatment over the next few weeks. She is to announce the details tonight, but a course generally means an assured severe caning on top of any actual disciplinary cuts for usually the next four weeks, though it could be longer. I had planned on staying here until after New Year, and she could easily order me a thrashing every week until them," she groaned at the thought, "and I'm to find out my fate tonight."