skip to Main Content

The Lady Sarah

The Lady Sarah

Dr James – Reginald James, Doctor of Divinity – sat in his study, habited in a dressing gown, and with a silk cap on his shaven head. He was a man of some fifty-five years, of a choleric complexion, a short upper lip adorned by small black moustache with a rather long lower lip and a slow eye. Face and cap were lit up at the moment we picture him by the level ray of an afternoon sun that shone in through the sash window in the west wall. The room was tall and lined with bookcases interrupted by paneling. On the table in front of him was a green cloth and a sliver tray with inkstands, quill pens, two or three calf-bound books, a churchwarden pipe and brass tobacco box and a liqueur glass. It was the year 1816 in the month of December with the hour approaching three.

As Dr James sat at his desk he was able to gaze out of the window at the tops of shrubs and fruit-trees of the garden and the redbrick wall, which encased its western side. In the middle of that was a iron scroll gate through which he could see the ground sloping away to the bottom along which the stream ran, rising on the other side to a field that was thickly studded with oaks now leafless. They were not so thick as to obscure the sky and horizon in parts which was now purple and golden along the distant horizon.

But Dr James was not in the least concerned with this view for his gaze was drawn ever back to one of the papers on his table and, from time to time, was also lifted to an old dark chest which stood next to the east wall and provided the only relief from the books and paneling. As he did so he sighed and muttered: “Oh dear.”

An observer to this scene would have been aware at this moment of the sounds of footsteps marching heavily in the direction of the study: by the reaction of Dr James, who turned in his chair and looked anxiously at the door, the observer would also have attested that the author of these sounds was known to Dr James. The incomer was a stout lady in a black taffeta dress, whose only ornaments were jet necklaces, and whose black-browed face carried expression of foreboding and determination that was etched by usage into a permanent mask.

The lady leaned over him and spoke in tones somewhat lower than her usual volume, “He’s in a very sad way, Reginald, I’m afraid.” “Is he really, my love?”

She nodded. Two solemn bells, not far away, rang out. Mrs. James glanced up at the sound. “Dr Mordecai assures me that if his nerves are not to be damaged any further, irretrievably damaged he said – though I’m sure my nerves are not to be taken so lightly – then the minster clock should be stopped from chiming tonight. ‘Tis just over his chamber and is sure to keep him from sleeping.” Dr Ashton gave a small smile as though to placate a child. “What would you do, my dear? It is not a small matter to give that order but it could be done if it were not a light occasion.” As the doctor addressed the question to his wife she drew back slightly from him and clasped her hands around an iron key which hung from a stout thread pinned to her bosom.

The observer might have seen a slight change in her expression evinced by a thinning of her heavy lips. “Naturally, you are the master there and must make the decisions, but since you ask,” Dr James’s gaze now fixed on the object in his wife’s hands, ” I should say the order should be given and I’ll bid Molly run to Simkins and say on your authority that he is to stop the chimes at sunset. Whilst I attend to that, it would be well to address ourselves to the matter of the Lady Sarah. Perhaps she ought to present herself in this room so that the cause of this misfortune may be discovered.”

It will be well to explain the situation at this juncture.

Dr James was the preferential holder of a prebend in the collegiate church of Upper Bradbury in the bishopric of Whitby, one of the foundations which survived dissolution and reformation, and retained its constitution and endowments for a hundred years after the date of the events of which I write. The great church, the residences of the dean and prebendaries, the choir and it’s appurtenances, worked and flourished for this time in no unmistaken order of principle. A dean, whose achievements are remembered in the clerestory engraved in a stone slab, had been a great builder, and had erected a spacious quadrangle of red brick for the residences of the officials. Some of these offices through the deterioration of time, had dwindled down to mere titles, born by laymen and clergy of the neighbourhood; and so the houses that had been to built to accommodate ten or twelve families were now inhabited by two or three.

Dr James’s included what had been a common parlour and the dining hall of the whole body. It occupied the whole side of court and at one end had a private door into the minster. As we saw earlier the other end looked out onto the country.

Dr jams was a wealthy man and childless, and he had adopted the orphan son of his wife’s nephew, one James Whale young man, or boy as is better a word for he had only nine summers, had been many months in the house and flourishing under the tutelage of the local school teacher and the care of the family. Then came a letter from the Earl of Rothsay, who had known Dr James at college, putting it to the doctor whether he would consider taking into his family the Earls sole heir and daughter the Lady Sarah, and acting in some way as her tutor. Lord Rothsay was to take up a post in India and the daughter was seen as unfit to accompany him. ‘Not that she is sickly,’ the Earl wrote, ‘but that she has a whimsical turn of mind lately, so I’ve thought, and only the other day saw fit to inform her nurse that she was possessed. The truth is that she has no friends here of her own age and her mother is away much of the time, so Sarah is given to moping about in our raths and graveyards. She is something of a wild creature to the first look, and much as governesses have tried to teach her manners and music and letters, she prefers riding the moors and talking to the local people, in particular the old women who say they can cast spells and read the leaves and such. She brings home tales that fright my servants so that last time her mother was here she took plenary action which seemed to cure Lady Sarah for a while, but now she is as headstrong as ever and no mother to check her.’ With such feelings as it would be imagined a half lifetime of friendship would stir, but without ignoring the possibility of a Scottish bishopric (at which another sentence in the Earls letter seemed to hint), Dr James accepted the charge of the Lady Sarah and of the 200 guineas a year that went with her.

The Earl’s letter also informed them that due to her ‘stubborn nature’ the Lady Sarah would insist that she dress as a boy and thus it was that they first saw her on a cool night in September. When she got out of the chaise she went first and spoke to the post boy and gave him some money then she patted the neck of the horse. Whether it was some sudden movement or not the beast started violently and the postilion being unready was thrown, the chaise lost some paint on the gateway and the wheel went over the foot of the man who was taking out the baggage. When the Lady Sarah came up the steps into the light of the porch lamp, she was seen to be a girl of sixteen years, with short straight black hair and a slim figure dressed, as they had feared in tweed jacket and trousers, as would a young gentleman of her class. She shook hands with Dr James who observed her pale colouring and thought she might be concerned with the accident, but she expressed her concern at the commotion calmly and expressed her proper anxiety for the injured in an even voice without seeming upset. Aside from the manner of her dress, Dr James only found it curious that the Lady Sarah spoke with no trace of a Scottish brogue.

James Whale was not rejected for company by the Lady Sarah for all he that was younger, and they taught each other various games and she was apt at learning not only the games but her books as well, for it was not long before she was hazarding a guess at the inscriptions in the graveyard and questioning the doctor on the books in the library. Questions to which he had to think for some while before answering.

To young James she seemed a boon companion for she was with him often, and began to take him with her on her rides across the country the nature of which the Doctor had reason to speak to her. The moors around were wild and boggy and people had been known to disappear and there were stories of marsh light and fairy folk tempting travelers from the proper paths. It is known that the Lady Sarah took this warning calmly for so the Doctor records in his diary but whether she obeys his injunct is less clear for the matter is mentioned several more times as are the words ‘Mrs. James takes authority’.

What authority that might be can only be supposed from a reading of the Earl’s letter where he says ‘I give you plenary authority to use as you see fit’. Whatever the result, the events that lead to the pass that is presented here can only be gleaned from the diary entries. It is to be supposed that the Lady Sarah made herself very agreeable to the servants, for within ten days of her coming they were almost falling over each other in their efforts to oblige her. At the same time Mrs. Ashton was rather put out to find new maidservants; for there were several changes, and some of the families in town from which she had been accustomed to draw had no one available. Dr Ashton has no explanation for this phenomenon save that at first he speculates that there is ‘some female emotion, no doubt jealousy, at work where a pretty young thing (for all her whimsical habits and dress) has the men running to her’ but later he writes that they had had reports ‘no more than rumour from the lower orders, that the Lady Sarah had shown affections to several of the maidservants which was not seemly to her station, and would be more appropriate to a sister.’

It was on a Thursday morning that a cat, or perhaps a fox, made away with Mrs. Ashton’s prize cockerel, a bird without a single white feather on his body. Dr Ashton had often remarked, following Socrates, ‘the bird would make a fit sacrifice to Aesculapius’. The Lady Sarah and James made a great search for the bird and she was able to bring a few feathers that had been partially burned on the garden rubbish heap.

It was the same day that Dr James observed the pair from the window at a game that he did not understand. James knelt on the floor looking earnestly at something in his hand. Sarah stood behind him and seemed to be listening. After some minutes she laid her hand upon his head and so gentle was her gesture, nonetheless James dropped what he was holding, which glittered in the grass, and sank down as though in a faint. Immediately Sarah stooped and picked up the thing and turned with an angry expression on young James who seemed to cower. At this point Dr James rapped on the windowpane, and Sarah picked up James by the arm and led him away. At dinner that night, Lady Sarah explained that they had been acting the story of Cassandra, in which the heroine reads the fate of her father’s kingdom in her glass ball and is overcome by the terrible events she foresees. James appeared bewildered by this tale and Mrs. Ashton deemed that he wanted to talk to her but she was distracted by domestic events and then later by his health for he was feverish and shivering in his bed. He was able to speak to him shortly that night. On the next day, she chanced upon Lady Sarah reading an old book in the library and broached the subject of the previous day’s events. “I am not to declare that your story is not true, but hark to me; I have no doubt that you remember the last time I found you defying the Doctor’s instructions and telling untruths to make it worse.” The Lady Sarah looked straight at her and for a moment Mrs. Ashton shivered, feeling a draught come across the room. “I remember the occasion well, Mrs. Ashton. How could I forget? I have ridden horse no further than your prescription, and have certainly not taken James anywhere you do not desire. Does that not satisfy you?”

“I am not sure what would satisfy me in this instance, save that I can be sure that you are not telling all of the truth with your slippery tongue. Be it known that I have recently spoken to poor James and in his feeble condition he assures me that many times have you ridden together on the moors in defiance of my instruction, and that only a fear of a curse or glamour or some pagan nonsense you put on him has held his tongue thus far. I assure you that no such fear holds me back and therefore make shift to present yourself across the doctors desk and wait on my attention.”

At this point we learn that Molly the maidservant was passing the study and it is from her conversation, as overheard and recorded by Mrs. James in her private journal that we are able to apprise ourselves of Molly’s perspective at this juncture. Mrs. James’s journal was well able to transmit the vernacular phrases bandied about in the servant’s kitchen. Apparently Molly heard voices and stopped outside the Doctor’s study. The door was open a little and through the cheveaux mirror on the opposite wall Molly was able to see the young lady rise and walk over to the dark desk where she leaned forward and grasped the far edge with her hands. And if Molly thought the Lady looked pale then she could have put that down to the weak light.

“And that Lady Sarah will wear her breeches so tight that I fair thought she they would split when she bent over!” Molly enjoyed relaying the story of the Lady Sarah’s downfall to the kitchen later that evening. “Then Mrs. James goes over to the old chest and unfastens it with that big old key and when she turns round she’s got a ferule in her hands and a look on her face that bodes ill for her ladyship.” “And what happened then?” This from several voices for Sarah was not popular with the female staff. “Well then I must have moved or something for Mrs. James turns and sees me watching in, and she doesn’t say anything but she walks to the door and pulls it shut, but not all the way if you see what I mean, so’s I could still hear what was happening though not to see a thing no more. Then I heard Mrs. James say something and the next thing I hears this whistling sound like the chaise driver makes with the whip, and then a crack and then her Ladyship’s shrieking like a rabbit for a moment. “An’ what about Mrs. James? Did she stop?” ” Lawks no, it seemed to me she just waited till her Ladyship gets her breath back and quietens down a bit, then lets her have it again. And again. And a few times after that I can tell you. The shriekin’ and the beggin’ from the Lady Sarah was enough to wake the house were the study not so far from the servant’s quarters. And when it stopped I knew they’d be out of there, so I crept down the corridor to the far end where the corner lies in shadow and I watched and sure enough, there goes Lady Sarah with her head down and walking most careful and sore like and both hands rubbing across those tight breeches, and I can hear her sobbing and sniffling from all the way down the corridor. So I reckons she won’t be flouncing around with her sly ways for a while yet. Nor will she be riding her horses for a few days if I’m any judge.”

At this point Molly became aware that the nods and ‘”Ayes” that had accompanied her story had ceased and that the staff were all looking at the door behind her. Mrs. James’ voice was the only sound now. “And perhaps you’d like to repeat your story to the master, eh, Molly?”
“Oh no, Mistress, don’t send me to the master. I need this job. I meant no harm by it.” ” What is meant and what is done are different shades of colour. If you don’t want to see the master perhaps you would be so good as to report to the study where I will endeavor to resolve this matter personally.”

And so it was that poor Molly, who only an hour earlier had enjoyed a rare laugh at the Lady Sarah’s painful expense, now entered that study again, this time for her own appointment with the mistress. Mrs. James had preceded her and was flexing the ferrule menacingly as Molly entered. Molly’s stomach turned cold at the sight and she felt her mouth dry up.

“Molly. I won’t waste time on you. You can either accept my punishment or you can explain your dishonorable behavior to the master. Which will it be?” “Oh please mistress…I do need the job.” “You also need a lesson in manners. Be so good as to place that chair in the middle of the floor.”
Which is how Molly found herself bent over the back of a leather chair, her short legs dangling off the ground, her head buried on the seat and her hands, following instructions, clinging to the front legs.
As the back of the chair bit into Molly’s belly and she began to get dizzy from being upside down, Molly thought to herself that she could at least comfort herself that she was protected by the considerable thickness of her drawers and petticoats from feeling the full force of the ferrule on her ample bottom.
At that moment she heard Mrs. James’ heavy voice and felt her skirts being lifted up. “Young ladies wear extra clothes in the winter and this is one young lady who will not escape justice by dressing for the time of year.” After that the voice was muffled for Molly as first the skirts and then the petticoats were flung over her back and head. The dark and quiet enabled Molly to concentrate on her hindquarters as being exposed to the air, and even more so within the minute as fingers moved expertly over buttons and the drawers came away. Mrs. James contemplated the white mounds presented in helpless style for her attentions and resolved that the next time the Lady Sarah erred, she would also being receiving her awards on the bare bottom.

The shrieking and crying from Lady Sarah, that had so fascinated Molly (and led indirectly to her present sorry state), had merely confirmed to Mrs. James that the ferrule was the most effective means of enforcing good behavior. As she had swung the implement down on Lady Sarah’s bottom ensuring that most of the blows landed in a narrow area the further to enforce the lesson, Mrs. James had gained a slight satisfaction from hearing the previously sly and arrogant girl start to shriek and beg for the punishment to stop, and promise to be good in future. Long experience had convinced Mrs. James that a slowly applied thrashing was more effective than one that was rushed and so it was that she had deliberately stood back and let Lady Sarah wriggle and gasp for a few moments between strokes. Only after the Lady Sarah had stopped panting for breath, would she step forward and measure the next stroke on the seat of the breeches. The result, a thoroughly contrite and apologetic girl, was well worth the effort.

Applying the same principal with the hapless Molly, Mrs. James took her time fetching the ferrule from the desk. Touching it gently to the bare flesh in front of her produced the anticipated shiver from the girl. Mrs. James paused then, leaving the girl dangling over the chair, moved to the heavy chest and, lifting the lid, replaced the ferrule and withdrew a long, stiff leather strap of about two feet in length and half an inch thick. Returning to Molly’s side Mrs. James noted with satisfaction that the delay had produced an entirely to be desired effect. Molly was shivering, and her bottom quivered constantly as she awaited her mistress’s award. Mrs. James measured the strap across the cheeks, raised her arm and delivered the first blow. Molly jumped and kicked when it landed then, as her breath came back, gave voice to a gasping moan.

The next blow, after a suitable delay of course, produced much the same effect but that the kick was harder and the moan higher pitched and louder in spite of the muffling folds of cloth. Molly’s legs parted slightly after the third stroke and she gave vent to a mighty cry that bounced round the room. The fourth stroke left Molly kicking and crying for no less than half a minute and Mrs. James noted that her legs were parting widely and the pink of her sex was now visible. Mrs. James immediately strode to the chest and took out a leather strap, which she fastened firmly around Molly’s knees. “You’ll preserve your modesty whatever the trials you have to undergo, do you understand Molly?” “Ma’am, please, I can’t, I’ll do anything…I’ll be a good girl” Mrs. James paused and surveyed the broad stripes. “You were told you would be thrashed for breaching the rules when you first arrived. I know it, for I spoke to you of this myself.” “Yes, Ma’am.” “Very well. Speak no more for I shall proceed to the end of it.”

Four more stokes of the strap, applied slowly and with a firm arm, and the belt was taken from her legs and Molly was bidden to restore order to her clothing. “I take it there’ll be no repetition of gossip from the Masters rooms while you work in my household.” Between sobs, and after blowing her nose vigorously and wiping her eyes frequently, Molly was able to assure Mrs. James that her lesson had been learned and that from now on she would be the perfect maidservant and never would a word pass her lips about what she witnessed upstairs.

Eventually Mrs. James was satisfied that the contrition was genuine, and bidding Molly build the fire before going about her other duties, the older woman moved to the door. She paused and turned as she was leaving and was satisfied to see Molly curtsey before turning to her work. She expected to have a much smoother household to run when word spread of Molly’s punishment. The fact that making a fire involved bending and straightening many times, and that this activity was guaranteed to inflame that area of the body to which Mrs. James had just paid so much attention, and that Molly would be unaware that Mrs. James had set her that task as an added punishment, was the kind of mild pleasure that Mrs. James allowed herself.

Although young Master Whale was shortly up and about it was noticed that he spent less time in Lady Sarah’s company and preferred solitary pursuits such as reading in the library and sketching the flowers and plants in the area, when his studies were done. We may be sure that some explanation of the reason for Lady Sarah’s influence on the previously happy household would be welcomed at this point and so it is that we turn to the letters of Miss Lanchester, the governess to a family now departed on good works in the dark tropics, who maintained her residence in the servants rooms through teaching needlework, English and a little Latin to the children of such as could afford her modest fees. ” I had cause to wonder about this Lady Sarah” She writes to her old friend, Mrs. Wray,” When I saw one of the maidservants packing to leave. I spoke to the girl, who had been there only two weeks, I believe, and she could scarce speak straight for crying and rubbing her nose on her sleeve. I got such a story of bewitchment and strange behavior from this girl, Rose, she is called, from the Hepton family who work the land by the river on the Whitberry side, that I could scarce believe it. At first I felt that she was a silly thing who had drawn the eye of one of the stable lads and had fallen into sin, but she swore it was not so and laid her hand on her Book of Prayer as she said it. I determined that Doctor James would remain ignorant no longer of any such goings-on under his, for such was the nature of some of her words that I was perturbed and sought solace that day in the Bible.”

And so Miss Lanchester determined that the Doctor should be apprised the very next day. She found the Doctor perambulating the gardens as was his wont at that hour. You can imagine the feelings with which the doctor received this news and he dismissed the old woman and took himself to the path along which it was his guest’s habit to pass after her daily ride. The Lady Sarah walked with her free stride and erect head toward her chamber only to be confronted by the Doctor. He lost no time in assuring the Lady Sarah that he was perturbed by some information he had received about Rose Hepton and her abrupt departure. Dr James was aware that as they conversed that day, her eyes seemed to be looking at her so intently that it was as though “there some little insect or mite crawling on the back of my head, but in the inside. I also thought that I never heard a voice sound so like water. It was very clear with a high pitch to it like a singer, but so cold. Naturally I put all this down as fancy.”

“What account can you give of this poor girls state?” “Little more than she has told you I fancy I fear she took it more to heart than I intended.” “How so?” “Why, I have a passion for romantic reading especially the old tales of Hyppolita and Anteus, Dante and his Beatrice, Perseus and Anromeda and I loved to read aloud and act the roles of these lovers. When I found Rose could read passably well, due to Miss Lanchester’s keen tutelage I believe,” Lady Sarah seemed amused for the moment then went on, “I prevailed upon her to visit my rooms and play the parts. Nothing more.” “She claims you kissed her.” “A peck on the cheek, no more.” “On the lips.” “Very well, a peck next to the lips, that is all.” “She said you held her head in your hands and kissed her.” “The girl is lying. She has a another reason for her leaving, and seeks to make a silly story to fool the gossips.” Dr James felt that nothing would perturb that expression on Lady Sarah’s face. The whole time there had been nothing in the eyes to show any feeling, even when confronted with the accusations. She was unlike any other sixteen year old he had met. Sarah spoke again, “What else has she been saying. Surely she told you of the my second sight?” Again the Doctor was shaken by her calm and that she even guessed what he had been about to say.

“Yes. What is that?” “Our ignorant folk in Scotland and elsewhere believe that some people are able to foresee what is to come – sometimes in a glass, or in the air, maybe and an old woman in Rothsay pretended to such a power. I told Rose that I had such a power myself and once frightened her by filling her with a story I had heard. I had not realised that she had taken it so much to heart till I heard she was gone.”

The Doctor pondered. He could not help but feel there was much that she was not hearing, but the Lady Sarah’s calm appeared impregnable. “It was ill advised of you to fill this girls head with nonsense. She has taken it poorly, and fled the house, and now all the foolish tongue-wags in the village, with no more good use for their time than to pull faces and repeat slanders, have a fine story to amuse themselves.” What the Doctor heard next cased him considerable surprise and curiosity. “Your reputation is most important to you Doctor, I know that, and I apologise if I have injured it unawares. I shall make amends. I have a small stipend of my own from a trust on an estate in the Americas. I shall take on this silly girl as my companion, and silence all the babbling tongues at once. How say you?” The Doctor was greatly taken aback. “I think that if you could accomplish such a thing, it would be of an order of recompense that I might describe as magickal.” He laughed and thought he saw a hint of a smile on her face. “I shall be about it. You may be sure that I shall have her installed by tomorrow.” “So soon?” “I have said I have failed you. Now is the time to repay some of your hospitality. It will take duties off the other girls to have Rose attend only to my needs. Good day to you.” The Lady Sarah moved quickly and silently away. The Doctor gazed down at the scrollwork on the gate to the fields and oaks beyond and found that although they had been bathed in unseasonable orange sunshine when he had accosted the Lady Sarah, there was a grey sky overhead now and the air was far colder.

Back To Top