This is a sample chapter from "The Arcadians" by A.D.English. The full novel is available for download from Amazon
Tomkins glanced sideways at his wife, who stood beside him watching Grace suffer the lash, while further away Mary wept into a handkerchief. Stonily expressionless, Ronnie had her arms folded across her chest and her eyes fixed on the overseer Ruth as she lacerated Grace with whip strokes of metronomic regularity.
The whipping post had been set back into its hole outside the field hands’ huts, and Grace was now hanging by her wrists from its straps, her legs having buckled. Tomkins could see the filthy soles of her feet beneath the hem of her blood-soaked skirt, and he thought she was barely conscious, because he could no longer hear any sound from her. He could hear Ruth sucking in air as she worked, he could hear Halina screaming at the assembled hands to keep their eyes on the punishment, and of course he could hear the lash disfiguring Grace’s back, but the object of all the attention had fallen silent.
Close to but separate from the other field hands, and with her ankles joined by a short chain, Sally was also watching, and waiting her turn on the post. She had already been stripped to the waist, and Tomkins had seen that her back was covered with scars, some of them extending around her flanks to her belly and right breast. He knew that her flogging was going to be a shockingly ghastly thing, and she must certainly have known it, but she appeared calm as she observed Grace’s torment.
Tomkins leaned over slightly to whisper in Ronnie’s ear. ‘This is all terrible, but just remember it’s their own choice to do things they know they’ll be punished for. I know you’re not enjoying it, but neither am I.’
And it was true, Tomkins had never enjoyed the disciplinary aspects of being a slaveholder. He had known men who derived as much pleasure from whipping a woman as they did from spreading her legs, but that had never been the Tomkins way. When his first wife, Christine, had been a young woman, and they had been starting out together with just a few slaves inherited from his father, she had been the tyrant keeping their workforce under tight control. In those days, long before the Kinsey law, mixed sex labour forces had been permitted, and Christine had ruled with apparent ease. She had possessed sufficient air of command to send man or woman to the whipping post, and before they employed a farm manager she had flogged with gusto. In those days the farm had made useful income from slave offspring, and always it had been Christine who took the children to market, for Tomkins had never had real slaver’s fire in his belly, had lacked the passionate conviction that whatever he did must be right.
Christine’s lust for life had ended at the bedroom door. She had given Tomkins two sons, but had never been enthusiastic about the coupling procedure involved, and even before disease had begun its long process of reducing her to a pain-wracked skeleton she had moved to a separate bedroom. Ronnie, however, was a different type of woman. Giving a man pleasure seemed to come naturally to her, and Tomkins now looked forward to his bed, knowing how very good she would make him feel. But his early doubts of her suitability to manage the farm had turned to cold certainty that she was not suited to the role.
Ruth gave the last stroke of Grace’s punishment, and turned to her owners. ‘That’s twenty. Am I finished with her?’
Ronnie replied, her voice loud and clear. ‘Yes, twenty was the sentence. Take her down now.’
Assisted by Halina, Ruth removed Grace from the post, both of them getting covered by her blood as they did so. The cook was dragged away by the two overseers to the jail, and a heavy silence descended as the spectators free and bond awaited the main event.
When Sally was fastened to the post, it was Halina who picked up the whip and Ruth who took the duty of ensuring the other hands were watching how a runaway was punished.
Whip in hand, Halina stood and awaited instruction. Again Ronnie spoke, still loud and still clear. ‘Forty strokes, Halina. Lay it on hard, but spare her breasts. Carry on.’ Momentarily, Tomkins lowered his gaze, not wanting to see Sally’s already ravaged back laid open. He had seen it all before, and knew the scar tissue, which appeared hard and shiny in the morning light, would seem to resist the lash for several strokes, perhaps for more, but then the braided cowhide would triumph, and bloody shreds would be thrown in all directions. He looked up to see the first stroke bite across the slave’s shoulders, and heard a gasp of pain.
By the ninth or tenth stroke, Tomkins had lost count, Sally was screaming and blood was flowing freely. He felt Ronnie lean against him, and then she was clutching at him for support as she dropped. His hands grabbed at her, but she was too heavy for him to hold up and sank swiftly to her knees before toppling over sideways to lie unconscious on the ground. Unaware of what was occurring behind her, Halina continued to excoriate Sally, and the resultant dreadful sounds filled the air.
Tomkins crouched down over Ronnie and was mightily relieved to see her eyes open. ‘What happened, Ronnie,’ he asked urgently. ‘Did did you faint?’
She blinked and rolled her eyes. ‘Stop it now, Brian. Stop the screaming, it’s insane. I’m insane, I think.’
‘Can you stand?’ Tomkins asked.
‘Of course I can,’ Ronnie replied, and with the assistance of Mary, who had rushed over, she struggled to her feet.
Halina had somehow become of aware of the little drama among the free people, and now stood waiting for orders, the gory lash trailing in the dirt at her feet.
‘Ronnie,’ Tomkins said. ‘You’ll have to go back to the house, and I’ll send for a doctor.’
Ronnie swayed, and was steadied by Mary. ‘Brian, I’m fine. But the whipping must be stopped.’
‘You don’t know what you’re saying,’ Tomkins snapped. ‘Mary, help your mistress back to the house, I’ll be along shortly.’
He went to the whipping post and looked at the raw meat that was Sally’s back before making a decision. ‘Halina, I’m leaving you in charge here. Complete the punishment as ordered, because I think the others need to see the full forty strokes. But you can ease up a little, OK?’
‘Yes, sir.’ A bloody sliver torn from Sally slid down Halina’s cheek as she grinned. ‘You can always count on me.’
Tomkins walked slowly back to the house in a disturbed state of mind. He could and could not understand why Ronnie had wanted the whipping stopped. Certainly it was a terrible thing to see, but she had ordered it, and he was sure she had been right to. She had baulked at fifty strokes, the legal maximum, because she did not want to pass a death sentence, and he had supported her. In fact, his only intervention had been when she wanted to pursue the matter of finding out who else had known about Sally hiding out in Walker’s former house. ‘That could be a mistake,’ he had advised, ‘if you pick at too many threads the fabric falls apart, and we’ve got a farm to run. Two guilty parties are enough, Ronnie.’
It was hard for Tomkins to believe that one or both overseers had not known or at least suspected the truth of Sally’s whereabouts after she had seemingly run away, but pushing the matter too hard would have destroyed productivity just as harvest was starting, and Three Roads was about profit, not justice. He did not think Ronnie could see that clearly enough, and was still trying to find fair and rational reasons for everything, an impossible task in a world where cash was the only wisdom.
In the house he found that Mary had produced the universal cure-all for ailments physical or mental, she had made a nice cup of tea, which Ronnie was holding in both hands as she sat at the kitchen table.
With a sharply dismissive gesture Tomkins sent Mary scampering from the room, and then he sat opposite his wife. ‘What happened to you, Ronnie?’
‘I was overcome, Brian. Suddenly today I realised the,’ she halted and frowned her concentration as she tried to find the right word. ‘Enormity, yes, that’s it, the enormity of what we do. Sally broke our rules, that’s what she did, and I decided she should be whipped. I wasn’t happy about it, you know that, and I was afraid she’d die. But it seemed to be the obviously right thing to do, the only thing to do.’ She laughed harshly, a sound that Tomkins found disquieting.
‘I was OK while Grace was flogged,’ Ronnie continued. ‘Of course it was horrible, especially because it was on my orders. But it didn’t really bother me to see a poor half-crazy woman whipped for feeding a fugitive, because I thought it had to be done, I thought it was a necessary evil. And then it was Sally on the post, the girl I bought cheap one Saturday morning. I was watching Halina give her stroke after stroke, and Brian, let me tell you as an expert that Halina whips harder than most men could do.’
Tomkins nodded. ‘Oh yes, I know that. She’s a bloody good overseer.’
Ronnie laughed again, and it made Tomkins shiver. ‘Bloody’s the word,’ she said. ‘Suddenly, quite out of the blue, things became clear to me. I knew that to have people tortured and mutilated is not an unpleasant duty, as I wanted to think, and it’s not a necessary part of business, as I’m sure you want to think. It’s a form of insanity.’
He slapped the table top, hard enough to make his palm sting. ‘Enough, Ronnie, enough. You’re not well, and I don’t want you to say any more until the doctor’s seen you.’
‘Please hear me out, Brian.’ She looked at him with pleading eyes, and he allowed her to continue.
‘Imagine that this was the only farm with slaves and a whipping post, the only place where one person could decide that another person must be flogged, and not only that, Brian, but to make the whole thing a festival of blood carried out before a dragooned audience. Well, everyone else in Arcadia would surely think us insane, wouldn’t they? And they’d put a stop to it, because they couldn’t allow mad people to just do as they please, now could they, Brian? The screaming would be stopped.’
Tomkins ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Where is all this coming from, Ronnie? Ours is a normal farm and we’re normal sane people who do what we have to do.’
A smile spread slowly across Ronnie’s face. ‘Is Sally dead, Brian?’
He shrugged. ‘She was alive when I left her with Halina.’
‘And that’s sane, is it? That we accept as normal that we may have killed one of our workforce?
‘Yes, dammit.’ Tomkins slapped the table again. ‘It’s the Arcadian way, and it works very well. Now don’t start moralising at me, Ronnie, don’t you dare. Our system provides you with a good life and a secure future, and because I’m not going to allow you to continue as farm manager, you won’t have to be shocked by a little blood anymore, OK?’ ‘Absolutely right.’ Ronnie mimicked his table slapping. ‘I’m far too sane now. It needs a crazy person to run this farm and organise the torture properly.’
Tomkins called Mary back into the room and gave her orders. ‘You are to remain at your mistress’s side at least until the doctor has seen her, and neither of you are to leave this house until further notice. I’m very serious about this, Mary, and I will hold you responsible.’
Mary, clearly shocked by all the day’s events, nodded nervously. ‘Yes, sir, I’ll look after Miss Ronnie.’
‘Good.’ Tomkins forced a hearty smile as he turned back to Ronnie. ‘Everything will be fine, love, I’m sure you’ll soon be back to normal.’
He instantly regretted using the word normal but could not take it back. Leaving the house, he headed back to the farm, and looking at the fields on either side of the track he made a key decision along the way. With harvest about to begin, Three Roads had to be firing on all cylinders or income would be lost. The ripe beets had to be lifted at the right time, had to be stored under cover, and would have to be loaded onto trucks, and all the time beets in other fields would become ready. There could be no disruption resulting from Ronnie’s wobble of the will, none at all.
The farmyard that had seemed crowded just a half-hour earlier was now deserted. Its straps swinging in the chilly breeze that had sprung up, the whipping post stood forlorn, and Tomkins determined it would be staying there. Whatever Ronnie had now decided to think, he had bought the hands for a purpose, and he would make damn sure they continued to be worked at their tasks, rigorously supervised and given as much physical correction as they needed.
A keening wail reached his ears, and he went over to the jail. To his satisfaction it contained two prisoners, meaning Sally had so far survived, and he made decisions concerning their disposal as they looked out at him. The cook’s error seemed unlikely to be repeated, so she would be returned to duty. But he could not imagine the runaway ever becoming trustworthy, so she would be sold when her latest wounds were healed.
He found both gangs of hands working together in the oddly-shaped field just beyond the farmyard, and called Halina over to him.
‘How’s Miss Ronnie?’ she asked cheerfully.
‘She’s fine, Halina,’ he replied. ‘Thank you for asking. Halina, this may not seem the right time or place, but needs must as the devil drives, and that sort of thing.’
Her face assumed a calculating expression, slightly lifted and with the eyebrows lowered, and he guessed she had anticipated what he was about to say.
‘Getting straight to the point, I want to progress your freedom immediately, and to offer you the farm manager position. You’ll be paid almost the salary Walker was getting, have his old house to live in, rent-free, and of course your food and work clothing will be provided. It’s a good deal for you, so what do you say?’
‘May I speak freely, sir?’ Halina asked.
‘Of course,’ Tomkins replied, but his scowl showed his reluctance.
‘Well, I don’t see why I should pay two thousand to stay here and do the job I’m already doing. Because with respect to Miss Ronnie, who is a lovely person and a beautiful wife for you, I’ve been running this farm since Walker was fired.’
Tomkins felt his cheeks beginning to burn with anger. ‘Now, Halina, it’s just not true that you’ve been running the farm. And as for the two thousand, my girl, you’re a very experienced overseer in excellent condition, and you’d be worth a lot more than that in any sale. So don’t expect me to just give you away, because I can’t do that.’
‘Then surely,’ Halina came back at him, ‘an experienced overseer in excellent condition must be worth at least the same salary as Walker was getting? And with respect, if I have to pay you two thousand to be free, then I think I’ll see what another farm will hire me for.’
‘Damn you, Halina, damn you.’ Tomkins was breathing hard in his fury. ‘I do still own you, and although I’ve not touched a whip in many years, I’ve a good mind to give you the thrashing you deserve.’
‘You said I could speak freely,’ Halina retorted hotly. ‘But you are still my master, so go ahead.’ She proffered the field whip she was carrying. ‘Your precious Miss Christine whipped me often enough, and I’m sure I can still take it. But I will definitely take my experience to another farm when I’m free, and you just see what sort of harvest you get here without me. Do you want my shirt off? Sir? Master?’
Tomkins whirled around and stamped away for a few yards before turning about again and returning to Halina. ‘Fifteen hundred,’ he said, ‘that’s the absolute minimum I will accept for your freedom. And I’ll pay you the same salary as Walker was getting, increasing each year if you can increase the harvest value.’
‘And I’ll have full authority over the hands?’ she asked.
‘Within reason and within the law,’ he replied.
‘And Miss Ronnie won’t be my boss?’ She grinned.
‘Miss Ronnie is the mistress of Three Roads, but no, she won’t be your boss.’ Tomkins breathed deeply.
‘Then we have a deal, and I can keep my shirt on.’ Halina licked her lips. ‘Unless you’d like to see me without it?’
Tomkins walked away.
Back at the house he met the doctor who had just examined Ronnie. ‘Physically, she seems fine,’ the doctor reported. ‘But she seems to be in shock, and I understand you had some unpleasantness on the farm today?’
‘A runaway was punished,’ Tomkins said curtly.
The doctor rubbed his chin. ‘Yes, well, I believe that’s a very unpleasant business, and could account for your wife’s condition. Just keep her quietly rested for a few days, and let me know if she doesn’t get back on form. This could be the start of a breakdown, but probably not. Do you want me to look at your runaway? I assume she’s quite injured now.’
Tomkins smiled thinly. ‘Yes, quite injured. But we do our own doctoring of servants, so no thank you.’
The doctor left, and Tomkins went up to see his wife. She just listened as he told her of his agreement with Halina, and made no protest. ‘There are financial implications, of course,’ he continued. ‘I’ve had to give Halina a bigger discount on her freedom, Sally will have to be sold when she’s fit, and we certainly won’t get enough for her to fund the quality replacement we need. And of course we’ll have Halina’s salary to budget for, so things will be a little tighter. What I’m thinking is this, my love. You need Mary to look after you just now, but when you’re back to your old self, do you mind if we sell her? She’s a lovely girl in her prime, and we’d get top price, enough to buy a cheap maid and put a good wedge of money back into the pot.’
Ronnie said one word, her word of the day, ‘Insane,’ before her face crumpled and she slumped forward in a flood of tears.
End of excerpt
Copyright© 2012 by A.D.English. All rights reserved.