Arabella did not sleep well that night. In fact, she hardly slept at all. Although put to bed at around nine, she did not drop off for a very long time. The corset irritated her so, her gag caused her lips to grow dry, annoying her further, and on top of that, her bound wrists got on her nerves. Eventually, around two o’ clock, she finally fell into a restless slumber, punctuated by horrible nightmares, and when she awoke in the morning, she discovered that it was only half past five. The discomfort caused by her corset prevented her from drifting off into the Land of Nod once more, and so instead, the poor girl lay awake, looking at the ceiling above her, until the solemn Svetilina came in around half past seven and ran her bath. Then the maid came and made sure that she was fully awake and attended to her charge’s needs; removing her corset, gag and handcuffs and then uttering a single word, “Banya”, whilst pointing towards the bathroom. Arabella gratefully left her bedroom, removed her shift and sunk into the steamy water.
Around quarter of an hour later, Svetilina entered the room and motioned for Arabella to remove herself from the bath. The young girl reluctantly did so and then the maid rubbed her dry like her nurse had used to do during her years in India, slipping a shift over her head. She then returned to the bedroom and motioned for Arabella to follow. When she did, Arabella was surprised to discover that Svetilina had been joined in the bedroom by another maid and also Mme. Dorozhkina.
“Good morning, Justine, I trust that you slept well,” announced the Headmistress.
“I did not and my name is Arabella, not Justine,” the girl retorted.
Mme. Dorozhkina’s face instantly grew dark like thunder. “Never, ever backchat me, Justine, or else you shall pay for it.
One more word and your gag shall be replaced!”
Arabella certainly didn’t want the uncomfortable gag invading her mouth once again so she decided to keep quiet.
“Now, let’s get you prepared for your first day at la Maison des Poupees! To the lacing bar please!”
Arabella certainly didn’t want to be laced into a corset again, particularly one that promised to be more severe than her extremely uncomfortable night corset, but what choice did she have? Reluctantly, she stepped over to the bar and let Svetilina fasten the straps around her wrists. The other maid went to the handle on the wall and once more the bar rose until she was perched on tiptoes, her hands high in the sky above her. It was then that she caught a glimpse of her new foundation garment, a glimpse that filled her with horror.
The stays which she’d worn the previous night had been tight and uncomfortable, but they had looked not nearly so frightening as this new pair, which held their shape even without her person inside them. They were a pretty pink colour, covered in prints of meadow flowers, but no amount of daisies and bluebells could make them look pleasant. Firstly, the length was twice that at least of her night corset, it would surely encase her from her armpits to just above her knees. And then there was the boning which caused the rigid shape. Arabella shuddered as Svetilina put the garment around her body and started to fasten up the clasps at the front. Already she felt confined, and the lacing hadn’t even begun! And then there was the weight: this new corset was so heavy it was unbelievable. Svetilina was now checking that it sat correctly on her body, busy pushing her charge’s flesh in certain directions and ensuring that her bottom and budding breasts were sat where they should be.
“This is your new training corset,” said Mme. Dorozhkina proudly. The Headmistress was supervising the whole process. “It will bring your waist down to forty-five centimetres, that’s around eighteen inches, when fully closed. It will not be easy to wear, but it is necessary.” She then rapped out a command to the other maid, who came over to Arabella and fastened the corset’s two shoulder straps, an action that forced the girl’s shoulders back and her tiny breasts forward into the corset busk.
“The straps help correct defects in posture,” the Headmistress explained to Arabella.
Then Svetilina commenced the lacing. She started at the bottom and slowly worked her way up. Arabella felt her legs being pinned cruelly together and a strange sensation previously unknown to her in her crotch area. Then it was the hips and the waist; Svetilina hauled with all her might and Arabella felt the air being knocked out of her. Her waist was getting visibly smaller and she felt like she was being cut in two. The young girl tried to breathe but found, to her alarm, that she could not.
Mme. Dorozhkina obviously saw the look of panic in her eyes. “Don’t worry, you won’t die. Try not to breathe, please,” was all that she said. Svetilina continued pulling away and Arabella felt the corset get tighter and tighter. Her face was bright red now and she was feeling a little dizzy, yet still the maid pulled away, although she, too, was obviously feeling the strain, beads of sweat now rolling down her cheeks.
Arabella felt her head getting lighter, and she was sure that she was about to pass out when Svetilina stopped and tied off the laces. Mme. Dorozhkina took out her tape measure.
“Fifty-one centimetres, not bad.” She then barked an order at the other maid, who then took hold of the shoulder straps and tightened them mercilessly, forcing Arabella’s body back. The pain was unbelievable, and she screamed out loud. Her shoulders felt like they were on fire!
“We’ll have none of that!” said Mme. Dorozhkina, and the Headmistress took the gag and placed it in Arabella’s mouth. Her screams were now mere grunts. “When I say silence, I mean it!”
The corset secured, it was now time to dress. The unnamed maid ran some very tight white silk stockings up Arabella’s legs and fastened them using even tighter garters. Svetilina, however, approached her charge with a rather strange white object which she then placed around Arabella’s neck.
“This is a posture collar,” explained Mme. Dorozhkina. “It makes sure that you hold your head upright as a young lady should.”
‘Collar’ however was not an appropriate word for the device, thought Arabella as Svetilina began to tighten it with laces at the back. ‘Neck corset’ would be a far more apt description! It certainly was like a tiny corset, with boning and it held her head high and proud whilst compressing her neck into a perfect white tube, about six centimetres in diameter. Arabella’s breathing, already slight due to the tight corset, grew even more ragged with this additional restriction.
Then the other maid took some pantalettes and an underskirt and made her step into them, before forcing the girl’s feet into a pair of tiny, ankle-high boots, with pointed toes and heels that must have been three inches high at least. She was sure that these shoes were too small for her, as her feet had to be levered into them using a shoehorn, but Mme.
Dorozhkina, as if reading her mind, simply said, “Small feet are an asset. Yours are too large and thus, like your waist, they must be trained.”
Once the uncomfortable boots were secured, Svetilina brought over the crinoline, a huge one with a diameter of at least five and a half feet. Arabella had never worn a crinoline before and she was unsure that she would be able to manage one, particularly such a vast one as this, but again, she had literally no say in the matter, and so meekly stepped into the steel cage and let Svetilina secure it around her now tiny waist. Then came the petticoats, three in total, plus a corset cover and blouse and finally the dress, the uniform of La Maison des Poupees, a billowing creation of blue and white pinstripe.
The ensemble complete, Arabella was let down from the bar, her wrists freed and her gag removed with a stern warning from Mme. Dorozhkina that should she misbehave, it would be straight back in her mouth.
As soon as her weight was transferred to back her feet once again, Arabella wished that she was once more hanging from the bar. The pain of wearing those tiny boots which prevented her feet from expanding to their natural size, was excruciating, and the additional tightness around her torso didn’t help either. Arabella, who had never worn high heels before, at first stumbled and had to hold on to Svetilina for support. Gradually, however, she steadied herself and managed to take a few steps across the room.
“Now Justine!” announced Mme. Dorozhkina. “It is time that you got a hair cut.”
Not only did Arabella find the shoes difficult to walk in, but she also encountered problems with the balloon-like crinoline. All along the way to wherever it was that she was to have her hair cut, it kept getting in the way and knocking into things. It was so large that Arabella really had some difficulty in keeping track of where it all was, particularly at the rear and the sides. And despite the fact that (due to the shoes and the corset that she had been forced to wear) she now took footsteps that were much smaller than previously, her walk still generated a motion that caused the steel contraption to swing in a most irksome manner, which contributed to an ungainly appearance and the consistent bumping into walls and furniture.
“Justine, your steps are way too large, please try and walk with more grace and decorum!” commanded Mme. Dorozhkina.
But Arabella had never been trained to walk in a certain way before, how was she to do it?
The biggest problem, however, were the stairs. Her corset held her rigidly straight and her shoes disturbed her balance, but the high posture collar and wide crinoline meant that she could not look down at her feet to see where she was going. Consequently, she had no definite idea whatsoever as to where to place her feet. Gingerly, she held onto the banister and felt around for each new footing. On the third step down however, she guessed wrong, missed her footing and then tripped on the hem of her underskirt, causing her to tumble headfirst down the staircase. The shock, coupled with the unrelenting corset pressure, caused her to black out almost immediately. When she came to, with the assistance of some smelling salts, she found herself, rather ruffled and bruised, at the foot of the staircase, and she needed the assistance of Svetilina to stand on her feet once more. There were no words of sympathy from the Headmistress however.
“Really Justine, your deportment is atrocious; you move like a water buffalo!” She then added, “I really must fix up a tighter underskirt to cure those long strides.”
When they finally reached the room where she was to have her hair cut, Arabella was rather tired and out of breath. She was made to sit down, (something that proved very difficult due to the tight corset), on a large armchair situated in the centre of the room, facing a large mirror. Then, to her surprise, Svetilina and the other maid took her wrists and secured them to the arms of the chair using pre- affixed leather straps. Then the other maid went and fetched a large pair of scissors and proceeded to cut off all of her beautiful long chestnut hair. Arabella couldn’t believe it! Why chop off her hair? After all, short hair is not ladylike in the slightest. She looked questioningly at the Headmistress for an explanation, but none was forthcoming. Instead, Svetilina set to work on the remains of her hair with a razor blade, similar to the type that her father had used to use to shave his face! Within twenty minutes, Arabella Hetherington’s scalp was as bare as the proverbial boiled egg. What was the meaning of all this?
Mme. Dorozhkina seemed to read her worried eyes and she came over to the pupil. “Do you remember, Justine, my explanation for naming my establishment ‘The House of Dolls’?”
“Yes, Mme.” She replied quietly. “You said that it was called so because, in your opinion, a young lady should be like a doll.”
“Exactly, Justine, like a China Doll, a pretty accessory to her spouse. Well, that is what we are here to create, young dolls, and that Justine, is why we have just shaved all your beautiful locks off. You see, to ensure discipline, and to make certain that my young ladies turn out as I want them to turn out, the very first task is to destroy completely what they once were, before they became young ladies of distinction.” She paused, thought for a moment and then started once more. “Eliminate their individuality as it were, so that we have a clean sheet upon which to create a masterpiece, a perfect young lady. Most schools and establishments recognise this important fact to a certain extent at least. Why else do you think that armies, railway companies, schools and countless other organisations employ uniforms? To destroy the individuality of their members that’s why, and to mould them into their own image. However, here at La Maison des Poupees, we go one step further than most establishments. That is why we are the best.”
Arabella was getting scared as she didn’t like what she was hearing. Mme. Dorozhkina rapped out some command to Svetilina, who appeared into view carrying a pair of white kid leather gloves which had what looked like pieces of wood or metal inside them.
“A lady should always wear gloves to protect her skin and guarantee a good complexion,” said Mme. Dorozhkina. “What’s more, her gloves should always be as tight as possible.”
“Why, Mme?” asked Arabella.
“Why? A good question, and there are several answers to it. Firstly, many men like the idea of the gloves forming a second skin over the ladies hands and arms. It excites them for reasons that you need not know. However, that is not all. A lady with tight gloves cannot do so much with her hands, she cannot bend her fingers or elbows to any great degree and therefore she cannot work. She is in fact, in many ways, entirely helpless. This also pleases males, but more importantly, it is a sign of prestige. A lady who can afford not to work must be a lady of means, a lady of distinction. These gloves here have been created specifically for your hands following measurements given to us by your guardian. They are at present being stretched in what is known as a glove-stretcher. If they were not so stretched, them fitting them onto your hands would be quite impossible. Svetilina!”
Svetilina unlocked Arabella’s left hand and held it out. The other maid then carefully took the stretchers out of the glove and started to fit it onto Arabella’s hand. Even in its stretched state, fitting the glove was not easy, the maid pushed, pulled and kneaded it over Arabella’s fingers, palm, wrist, arm and elbow and spent a considerable time trying to iron out all the wrinkles. Eventually, however, after minutes of exertion, the fitting was declared complete, and the new glove truly was like a second skin covering her arm from the fingertips until just under the shoulder, squeezing all her flesh mercilessly.
To her surprise, Arabella now found that all her movements were extremely limited, she could hardly bend at her wrist, elbow or fingers, and her arm was held almost entirely rigid. The same procedure was then followed for the right arm and, when they were finished, the poor young girl felt like a wooden toy; virtually all her movements from the neck down were constricted in some way or another.
“And now finally your head!” announced Mme. Dorozhkina. Arabella’s eyes widened in horror as Svetilina brought a finely fashioned pot mask into view. It was the mask of a beautiful doll, with a porcelain white complexion, wide blue eyes and a tiny, smiling rosebud mouth.
“No!” she screamed, “Please don’t! Please! Noooo!!”
“The ultimate device of anonyminity!” declared the Headmistress. Svetilina covered Arabella’s face with the mask, which fitted rather tightly and curved round so that it covered the entire front half of her head, ending just over her ears. Built into it, behind the mouth, was a piece of rubber that fitted into her mouth and acted like a gag, preventing her from speaking, though not uncomfortable. Thankfully, Arabella found that she could breathe quite freely through the holes in the mask’s nostrils and she could also see clearly through the doll’s blue eyes, although her side vision was somewhat impaired.
Svetilina fastened the mask tightly behind Arabella’s head and then the other maid appeared with a beautiful wig of blonde hair done in ringlets, which was securely fixed onto her bare scalp. Entirely restricted, clad in a voluminous dress and with a picture perfect smiling face of a china doll, Arabella could not believe what they had done to her. She made no attempt to move and only sat and stared at the pretty, yet somewhat disturbing vision that was reflected in the mirror in front of her. Svetilina then pinned a badge with ‘JUSTINE’ emblazoned upon it, onto her dress.
“You see,” declared Mme. Dorozhkina, “you truly are Arabella Hetherington no longer, Justine has been born!” She paused.
“Welcome to La Maison des Poupees Justine. Now let’s make you a lady.”
Arabella was led through the corridors to a large room, well-illuminated due to two large sash windows on the far side, and complete with a blackboard, desks, students and a teacher. It was a classroom.
However, just as La Maison des Poupees was no commonplace school, its classroom, too, was somewhat out of the ordinary as well. As Mme. Dorozhkina opened the door, Arabella could hardly believe her eyes. A classroom full of students she had encountered before, but never one where all the pupils were absolutely identical. There were about twenty in all, each
wearing a blue pin-stripe dress, each with flowing golden sausage curls and each with a pretty yet obviously artificial doll-like visage. What’s more, unlike most other schoolrooms that she’d set foot in, here absolute silence reigned supreme.
“Excusez moi, Madame Fontaine,” said Mme. Dorozhkina. “You have a new pupil joining your class today. This is Justine.”
She turned to the students. “Please welcome your new classmate.” At that all the girls silently rose, curtsied and then sat down once again. The only noise to be heard was the creaking of twenty obviously tight stays.
The vision disturbed Arabella immensely. ‘Everyone is different, everyone is an individual, surely!’ she thought. Yet here they all were, identical, just like the dolls that Mme. Dorzhkina wanted them to be. And she was the same! The only discernible differences between what was once twenty-one varied young people were a few inches in height and slightly different waist sizes, that was it! No, they really were like china dolls, each and every one, all looking completely artificial, for, with their masks, wigs, posture collars, gloves and uniforms – not an inch of genuine human flesh could be seen. But who were they all, what sort of people lay behind those masks? Arabella longed to find out.
“Justine cannot comprehend a word of Francais at present,” continued the Headmistress. “You will have to start from the beginning.”
“Oui Mme, j’ai compris.”
“Justine, this is Mme. Fontaine, your French mistress. Greet her, please.”
“Sit at ze back, zere, s’il vous plait,” returned the thin Frenchwoman. She pointed to an empty chair adjacent to one of the dolls. Arabella walked over and sat down. She nodded to the girl alongside her. The smiling china face nodded back.
Arabella glanced at her nametag; it read ‘JUSTINE’.
‘Strange’ she thought, and turned to the girl on her other side. Her nametag also read ‘JUSTINE’. It was then that she comprehended. All the girl’s names, like their clothing, hair and faces, were identical. Uniformity, anonyminity, moulding them into Mme. Dorozhkina’s ‘Ladies of Distinction’.
“Classe!” Madame Fontaine announced, “Copy, s’il vous plait. Je m’appelle parlez avec Pierre, s’il vous plait…’”
The French Lesson passed slowly and painfully. Not only was it all over Arabella’s head, but her restrictive clothing, particularly the ever-tight corset and the mask which made her hot, constantly irritated her. Plus, there was the fact that she could not communicate with her teacher by any means other than raising her hand. The language was taught entirely on a written level, and most of the lesson consisted of Madame Fontaine writing something on the board, and the pupils copying it down in their copy books. Even writing, however, was difficult, due to her extremely tight gloves that made gripping the pencil a real chore. Her fingers could hardly bend at all, and the gloves, being made of silk, were slippery so even when she had the pencil between her fingers, keeping it there was not so easy. Once she managed to drop it on the floor and she had to put her hand up and wait for Madame Fontaine to come and pick it up, since in her corset, bending was an impossibility. This earned her a loud ‘Tut!’ from the French mistress too.
Next came Mathematics, another session of copying down what was written on the board, in absolute silence. However, now there was a new problem to deal with: Deep within the depths of her severely constricted stomach, an ache began. Arabella realised that she hadn’t eaten at all that day, or indeed before she had gone to bed the previous night; she was famished! The minutes kept slowly by and the following lesson of handwriting practice was even worse. She was not the only one too. Arabella noticed several of the other girls starting to move about uneasily in their chairs and rub their tiny waists.
Finally the bell rang and they were ordered to return to their rooms. At first this worried Arabella since she couldn’t remember how to get to her bedroom, but luckily the problem had been foreseen and Svetilina was there waiting for her.
She followed her maid along the passages and up the staircase, down which she’d tumbled earlier in the day, until they eventually reached the room. Despite the pangs of hunger however, Arabella was a little pleased with herself, as she was now walking far better than before, and her corset was feeling a little looser by this point. ‘I’ll keep quiet about that,’ she thought, sure that the sadistic Mme. Dorozhkina would tighten it up straightaway if she found out, but then she realised, what with her mask’s in-built silencer, she didn’t really have a lot of choice about keeping quiet anyway!
Upon entering the room, Svetilina motioned for her to sit down at a small table where her lunch awaited. The Russian maid then took off the mask, handed Arabella a spoon, and took the lid of the dish to reveal her fare for the day. What she saw did not look appetizing: a tiny bowl of brownie-grey porridge-like mush, complemented with a glass of water. Arabella pointed at it and asked, “What?”
Svetilina looked at the food and then at her charge. “Sdorovoe Pitanye” said she. Arabella later learnt that this meant simply ‘Healthy Food’ in Russian.
Appetizing it did not look, but Arabella was extremely hungry. She picked up the spoon, (with difficulty), and started shovelling the mush into her mouth. The taste was disgusting, like wood-shavings, and normally she wouldn’t have touched it. However, today was not a normal day, and offensive as the taste was, the rumblings of her stomach were more pressing. To her dismay however, after about six or seven spoonfulls, she discovered that there was no more left, she devoured the lot and she was still hungry. What was she to do? Surely she couldn’t survive until five or six in the evening on that!
“Svetilina, can I please have some more?” she asked.
The maid looked at her blankly, and Arabella remembered that she spoke no English. The girl pointed to the empty bowl and said, “More.” She then pointed to her mouth.
“Nyet,” replied the maid.
Arabella knew that she would get nowhere with the servant, so she decided, much as she hated the woman, to call for Mme. Dorozhkina.
“Mme. Dorozhkina, please,” she asked.
Svetilina looked puzzled and then let forth a torrent of Slavic.
“Dorozhkina!” repeated Arabella.
“Nyet,” replied the maid.
“Dorozhkina!” yelled the girl. Svetilina looked worried and then hurried out. Arabella, pleased with her first little victory let out as big a sigh as her corset would allow, settled back and waited.
“And what, Justine, is the meaning of this?” Mme. Dorozhkina did not look a happy woman, quite the opposite in fact, her face was as black as thunder.
“Mme. Dorozhkina.” Arabella curtsied. She thought it best to be as nice and sycophantic as possible to the Headmistress at the moment, as she wanted something from her.
“What is it?”
“This food, Mme…”
“And what about the food, Justine? Is it not up to your standards?”
“Oh no, Mme, it’s fine,” Arabella lied. “It’s just that, well, I’ve eaten it all and I’m still hungry. Perhaps Svetilina or the cook forgot, but I had no breakfast this morning, nor any dinner yesterday evening. I’m still extremely hungry, Mme. I’m sorry.”
Mme. Dorozhkina’s face seemed to soften a little. Unfortunately, her words did not. “Justine, Svetilina or the cook did not forget – the small portions are intentional. I know that you’re hungry and I know that it is not pleasant but for a while at least you shall have to simply bear it.”
“But why, Mme. What have I don’t to deserve this punishment?”
“Justine, it is not punishment. Trust me, you would be in far more distress if you were being punished, I can assure you. No, this is just something that all of the girls have to go through for a time.”
“But why, Mme?”
“Why? Why? You certainly did have an ignorant upbringing indeed, Justine. The fact is, girl, that it is impossible, sadly, to simply corset fat away. You have far too much excess flesh, Justine, and with that on your body, you will never be able to achieve the reductions necessary. Therefore, the fat must go. That is why you are being placed on a diet, and that is why you are going to feel hungry for a while. I am sorry, but that is that.”
“No ‘buts’ Justine, that is that, end of story. Please get ready now or else you will be late for your deportment lesson!”
And at that, she turned on her high heels and left, slamming the door behind her.
A dejected Arabella let Svetilina clear the dish away. She then motioned for the maid to replace her doll mask, but to her surprise, the Russian shook her head and gestured towards the lacing bar.
“Why?” asked the girl, but of course she received no reply, and she knew full well that Mme. Dorozhkina would not be impressed about having to come back. For now at least, it was better to just let Svetilina do as she wanted, and so, reluctantly, she got up and walked over to the bar, letting the maid firmly strap her wrists and then raise her up.
Svetilina then opened up the back of her dress, and the corset cover and started to tighten the laces. All the slack that had developed during the day was quickly removed and, if anything, by the time the Russian had finished, Arabella’s corset was tighter than ever, and once more she was starting to feel a little light-headed. Svetilina then tied off the laces, refastened the dress and placed the hated mask over her young charge’s pretty face, before lowering her down and unfastening her wrists once more. She was now fully trussed up once more, struggling for breath and unsure on her feet, and ready for the next trial that La Maison des Poupees was to throw at her: Deportment lessons.