Deportment lessons turned out to be held in the large ballroom of the mansion, supervised by the frightful Headmistress herself. There were only five students in the class, and so everyone got a lot of individual attention.
“Deportment,” Mme. Dorozhkina announced, “is the most important of the arts that you shall learn at La Maison des Poupees. And, sadly in your case, Justine, it looks like we shall have to start from scratch. Your posture is abysmal!” She then picked up a heavy book and placed it on the girl’s head. Walk around the room five times with that on your head. Every time that it falls off, pick it up.”
‘That sounds simple,’ thought Arabella.
Once she set off however, she found her estimation to be way off the mark. Not only was the book not wanting to stay on her head, but every time it did fall off, she had a devil of a time trying to pick it up again, since bending in the extremely restrictive corset was not only painful but nigh on impossible. Once when she bent down she slipped on the polished floor and found that with her high heels and restrictive clothing, getting back up again was even harder than bending down. Several times she tried to do so alone, and failed, and eventually she had to allow Mme. Dorozhkina to ring for a maid to put her on her feet once more. For a while, (whilst the Headmistress was tending to the needs of the other students who were practicing curtsies), Arabella got round the problem by holding her hands up, near her head, ready to catch the book as it fell, but when Mme. Dorozhkina noticed her new tactic, she was far from impressed by the young girl’s ingenuity.
“A lady cannot walk around with her hands in the air!” she stormed. “Her hands, should be demurely by her sides or clasped in front of her!” And at that, she grabbed Arabella’s gloved arms and pushed them behind her back, tying them together with a piece of ribbon. Now Arabella couldn’t bring her hands up near her head at all, and every time that the book fell she had to wait patiently for her teacher to come over and place it on her head once more. Consequently, the simple task of walking the room’s perimeter five times, took over two and a half hours.
Gradually however, she did improve. Whereas on the first circuit of the ballroom, the book had fallen every three or four steps, towards the end she even managed to walk on entire side without the hard back crashing to the floor. Mme. Dorozhkina however, was far from satisfied.
“Such unladylike posture, you really are quite dreadful, Justine. And the size of the steps that you are taking too, they are huge! A lady should always use tiny mincing steps, not stride like a giraffe. Hmm, we shall soon fix that though, I shall make sure that you are wearing a more suitable underskirt and boots for tomorrow’s lesson. In the meantime, we must concentrate on some of the other basics, such as sitting.”
Thus followed another hour or so of the Headmistress instructing Arabella on how to do something that she had been doing since the day she was born. Except that apparently, all this time, she had been doing it wrong.
“No, no! Bend at the knees, not the waist, and keep your back upright and straight,” complained Mme. Dorozhkina. “You must sit gracefully, young lady, gracefully I said, not like a hippopotamus!”
Arabella was not sure quite how hippopotami sat down, but she was sure that it wasn’t what her teacher wanted, so reluctantly she raised herself and tried again to look graceful: keep her back straight, bend only at the knee and control her voluminous skirts, which were always getting in the way. On top of all this, her feet were now beginning to really hurt due to the amount of time that she spent on them and in the excruciating boots, and the pangs of hunger, plus the pain from the corset restriction were as strong as ever. The other girls had left long ago and now Arabella was completely at the mercy of her harsh taskmaster, who was meticulous in making sure that every detail of her posture and movement was perfect.
After what seemed like an age however, Mme. Dorozhkina eventually announced. “Well, it’s not good, but it is an improvement. You may go now Justine, tomorrow we shall work further upon all that we have covered today. Your new boots and underskirt should help matters. You may depart!”
The weary Arabella got up, curtsied extremely clumsily, and minced back to her room with only the prospect of a paltry bowl of Sdorovoe Pitanye to look forward to. As she slowly made her way through the innumerable corridors of la Maison des Poupees, she continually stumbled, missed her footings and bumped into the walls. For behind the happy, smiling face of a flawless china doll lay a tired, dispirited and wretched young girl with sweat and tears rolling down her pretty cheeks.
Arabella sat down to eat her meager dinner a shattered and hungry young girl. The gruelling deportment lessons had taken out of her the little bit of energy that she had left, and she was dreading what the rest of the day would hold.
Whatever that was, she was about to find out; as soon as she had finished her meal, Svetilina handed her a letter addressed in Mme. Dorozhkina’s flowery hand. Apprehensively, she unsealed the envelope, took out the paper and read what her Headmistress had to say:
After dinner your time is your own in La Maison des Poupees, free to spend at your leisure. The pupils here choose to do that in a variety of ways, some practicing the piano, some staying in their rooms, and some listening to the nightly story-telling session held by one of our teachers in the main drawing room. Other options include strolling around the grounds or dance practice. Just a final note, whatever you choose to do, your full attire is not to be removed until bedtime, which is nine o’clock.
‘Well that’s not so bad,’ thought Arabella, who was expecting more torment from the Headmistress. Not bad at all, free time in fact.
But how to spend it? She did not fancy more dance practice, that was for sure, and as for a stroll in the grounds, well her feet hurt enough as it was. Normally she loved walking, spending hours strolling through the jungle with her father whilst on hunting trips in the Raj, but now? Walking anywhere in the heavy restrictive clothes turned the joy into a torment; no, she would not go for a walk. The thought of staying in her room was tempting, but what could she do still coddled up in her restrictive attire? Write a letter? To whom? The only people that she cared for were dead. No she needed to get out and do something, so she wearily picked herself up and minced along the corridors to the main drawing room, where the story-telling session was about to begin.
The session was held by a Monsieur Jospin, who Arabella later found out was a Math master. He did not have the loudest nor the most eloquent story-telling voice, but the pleasure-starved Arabella Hetherington cared not, and nor did most of the other students, judging by the number in attendance (over thirty, which constituted well over half of the school’s two classes). Gratefully, she sat down, (bolt upright due to her corset), on a mahogany chair and let the words of the story envelope her. Monsieur Jospin was reading the Arabian Nights in French – though Arabella could understand enough to get a general gist of what was happening (she’d lied before when she’d told Mme. Dorozhkina that she was ignorant of the Gallic tongue, she’d actually studied it for two years with her tutor in Mumbai).
Away she drifted into a world of fantasy, mosques and Oriental palaces; a world akin to where she had once lived and a world a universe away from her present mournful existence. Oh, how she envied even the life-threatened Scheherazade and how she wished to come across a magic lamp that would grant her three wishes. She knew what she would ask for too, firstly to be in India, secondly to dress Mme. Dorozhkina up as a Justine doll and thirdly, to get her parents back.
But it was not to be, and bedtime came, oh, too quickly. Wearily, she trudged up the stairs and into her room, hoping just to sink into her bed and be enveloped by sleep.
The shock that Arabella experienced when she opened her bedroom door after the story-telling session was quite immense, and not of the pleasant variety. What she had expected to find in her room was Svetilina, ready with her night corset and the lacing bar. Instead, however, her maid had been joined by the Headmistress and the other unnamed servant whom had helped truss her up in the school uniform that morning. Understandably, she feared the worst.
“Justine,” Mme. Dorozhkina announced as she stepped through the doorway. “I trust you enjoyed the story session?”
Arabella nodded uneasily.
“Good, now if you don’t mind, please go and undress in the bathroom and let Svetilina wash you. We have many preparations to undergo to make you ready for bed, and it is eight already. Quickly girl!”
Arabella curtsied and obligingly minced into the bathroom, followed by Svetilina who removed her mask, undressed and unlaced her slowly, and then soaped her and shampooed her hair. Having everything done for her was a nice luxury that Arabella usually enjoyed, though today she did not appreciate it. The presence of the extra maid worried her immensely, as it probably meant that some heavy-duty lacing was involved. What’s more, Mme. Dorozhkina had mentioned some ‘preparations’, and that did not sound good. Particularly as the Headmistress sounded worried about completing them before nine.
All too quickly, the maid finished, and was gesturing for Arabella to step out of the bath. The girl did this grudgingly; she certainly didn’t want to re-enter her room with the Headmistress there again, but by now, her spirit was quite subdued.
The maid toweled her dry efficiently, then covered her with talcum powder and slipped a shift over her torso. Arabella breathed deeply for a minute or two, relishing the fact that she could now use her lungs as God had intended once again. She was sure that very soon she would not be able to.
To her surprise, when she entered the bedroom, instead of commanding her to the dreaded lacing bar, Mme. Dorozhkina instead said, “Please lie on your bed, Justine.”
Bemused, the girl did as she was commanded and then watched as the unnamed maid approached with a pair of fearsome-looking boots.
“What are those for, Mme?” asked the confused young lady, who could not see why she was expected to wear boots in bed.
“Justine, just as the pressure on your waist needs to be kept up at all times in order to ensure that it reaches the desired shape and size, well the same is true with your feet. A young lady must have dainty, tiny feet that are a pleasure to behold.
“Your feet however are far from dainty and tiny, and thus these training boots are required. Now, let’s fit them!”
Arabella looked uneasily at the boots that the unnamed maid was pulling onto her legs. They reached right up over her knees and had strong-looking lacing all the way up. Even unlaced and without the weight being put onto her feet, they were quite uncomfortable, forcing her feet into an en-pointe position like a ballerina’s. What worried her more, however, was the fact that the boots did not have heels and, instead, ended in two little points. How was she expected to walk in them? Surely she could never balance?! She voiced her fears to the Headmistress.
“You are quite right that walking in these boots is an impossibility, Justine,” replied Mme. Dorozhkina, ‘but what I wish to know is why would you want to walk in them? You are being prepared for bed, and we go to bed to sleep, not to wander around the corridors unsupervised. Of course you cannot walk in them, you do not need to walk!”
Arabella was still worried, how could she go to the toilet for example, or go to the window to catch some fresh air on a hot day. Still she knew that such complaints would fall on deaf ears, so instead she wisely stayed quiet.
Mme. Dorozhkina supervised as Svetilina and the other Russian maid each laced one of Arabella’s new training boots. With each tug of the laces the girl could feel the boots get tighter and her feet getting pushed down further into the tiny pointed toes. The pain was excruciating, and tears welled in her eyes but onwards they pulled until by the time that the laces had been tied off both of her legs were unbendable and virtually numb from the thigh down.
“Very good,” commented Mme. Dorozhkina when they had finished, “and now your face. Sit up, Justine!” Although her legs were now rigid, her waist was not and the pupil sat up with ease. Svetilina approached her charge with some white cream which she started smearing all over the girl’s face.
“Your time in the British Indian Empire has not been beneficial to your complexion,” explained Mme. Dorozhkina. “A young lady must have porcelain white skin that is soft and healthy. Your mask and the Russian climate should ensure the whiteness, this cream ensures the softness and that your skin receives the nutrients that it need.”
Arabella didn’t doubt that what the Headmistress had said was true. In fact she had been shocked by how brown her skin was compared to her fellows when she had arrived in England, but she was not sure that she wanted this cream rubbed into every crack and crevice. It felt greasy and slimy and what’s more had a rather unpleasant smell.
What came next, however, filled her with more horror. As Svetilina was rubbing the cream into her face, the other maid had disappeared and then reappeared with a fearsome-looking hood that she proceeded to fit over the young lady’s head. It covered her completely from the crown to her shoulders with only four small holes, for her eyes, nose and mouth.
Consequently, her hearing was severely impaired and she had to listen hard to what her Headmistress was saying.
“This hood will ensure that the cream penetrates your skin and that your skin stays tight and your head erect,” explained Mme. Dorozhkina. It certainly did that all right, in a none too pleasant way, as Arabella soon found out that it was laced all the way, and the neck was deliberately elongated. The silent maid pulled hard on the hood laces until the Headmistress nodded her approval. By that time Arabella was gasping for breath due to the long thin neck of the hood and her vision was blurred by the tears that she shed. The pressure was immense and when she saw Mme. Dorozhkina motioning for her to come to the lacing bar, she knew that it would only get worse.
Gingerly, Arabella transferred her weight from her posterior to her feet. The pressure and pain upon her compressed toes was unbelievable, and she cried out in agony. Mme. Dorozhkina did not, however, take any notice of the muffled cry and, instead, the two maids supported her from each side and led her over to the bar. With each step, the pressure on her poor feet grew, but there was nothing she could do about it, and after what seemed like an age, she was grateful to put her wrists in the straps and be raised upwards. The night corset was fitted and, although it was far shorter and a little less tight than her day one, coupled with her other night attire, it was almost more than she could take, and at the end of the lacing she was on the verge of passing out.
Upon the tying of the knots, she hobbled painfully back the bed and was lain down by Svetilina. ‘Well at least that’s it now,’ she thought, ‘now at last I can try and get some sleep.’
But she had underestimated La Maison des Poupees. “One final item,” declared the Headmistress, “to help cure your stoop.”
And at that the burly maid grabbed both her arms and pinioned them behind her back. Then Svetilina took what looked like a large glove and worked it over both her arms.
“This is a mono-glove, Justine,” explained Mme. Dorozhkina. “In it, your arms are as one and her shoulders forced back into a more beneficial position.” The glove covered her arms all the way past her elbows. Her two arms truly became as one, the palms of her hands pressed closely together so that her fingers were unbendable. Svetilina laced the gloved tightly.
It was, unlike the other devices, not particularly uncomfortable, but the problem was that she normally slept on her back. With the mono-glove on, that was an impossibility. Finally the other maid fitted the doll-mask back over Arabella’s face and a night cap over her head, (“The hood looks so ungraceful,” Mme. Dorozhkina had explained), and then at long last they left.
The tired Arabella lay their, trussed up like a chicken and hardly able to breath, desperate for sleep. But for many hours none came, and her rest was not a pleasant one. When at last she did drift away to the land of dreams, the images that entered her head were strange ones indeed.
There she was, a princess in one of Scheherazade’s stories, captured by an evil Arab sultan, (who lived in a palace that she’d once visited in Bombay), and who tortured her by putting her feet in a vice and letting a large python wrap itself around her waist…
The days, weeks and months passed slowly at La Maison des Poupees, and Arabella’s life assumed a sort-of regular normality. Every morning she was woken up, (if she was not already awake), by Svetilina, bathed, and then corseted and dressed. Her attire changed little – daily the tight corset and large crinoline were fitted around her, and then the blue pin-stripe dress. The only major differences were that her corset kept getting tighter and her boots and underskirts progressively more uncomfortable. Mme. Dorozhkina had decided after her mediocre performances in the deportment lessons, that more restrictive footwear was required to cure her ‘long steps’ and ungainly walk. Consequently, new boots had arrived that reached up over her knees and had four-inch heels. Not only did these reduce her step even more, but they made bending at the knee far more difficult, which gave the girl an erect gait. On top of that, there was also a new leather underskirt that was extremely tight around her thighs indeed and only permitted steps of three or four inches.
The sadistic Headmistress had not stopped there either. “You stoop too much, Justine,” she had complained, “we must rectify that!”
And the following day, she had done just so, with a specially shaped metal bar that ran under the girl’s corset and up the
back of her neck to the posture collar onto which it was fastened. “This is known as a ‘joug’, Justine,” Mme. Dorozhkina explained. “It is probably Scotland’s only worthwhile contribution to the civilised world and it will work, together with your posture collar, in making sure that you keep your head perfectly erect as a young lady should do.” She was not wrong there, Arabella could now no longer move her head up and down at all. In fact, from her neck down she was more or less completely trussed up and restrained, with extremely little movement permitted at all.
And that is how she spent her days. An anonymous Justine doll, just like all the other students.
She got up each morning, dressed and ate, and then it was lessons all day: Mathematics, Literature, Calligraphy, Theology, Fashion, French, Dance, Deportment, and Singing.
Singing was Arabella’s favourite lesson; in fact, it was almost her reason for living. For in singing alone she could be herself, Arabella Hetherington. The lessons were held in a small room in the mansion’s East Wing, and they were conducted on a one to one basis. The reason for that was simple: the girls could hardly be expected to sing well with their silencing masks covering their faces. Yet if they were all to see who each other were, and to talk freely amongst themselves, then the whole purpose of the masks would be destroyed and indeed La Maison des Poupees’ entire educational philosophy undermined.
Thus it was that once a week, Arabella minced excitedly along the Maison’s long corridors to the doorway of the room of
Madame Kovalsky. Madame Kovalsky was a half-Russian, half-Jewish lady of undefined years. She had a powered face with strong features and was a powerful soprano who allegedly sung at the Bolshoi in her youth. Most of all however, unlike the other teachers at la Maison she was kind-hearted and gentle, and Arabella cherished their time together. As soon as she entered the door, the teacher removed the girl’s mask and presented her with a cup of sweet Russian tea. “My girl!” she would say in her heavily-accented English, (she refused to speak French with Justine, “an abysmal language my dear, too many ‘oohs’ and ‘arrs’ and not enough ‘h’s!), “and how are you dis week?”
And every week Arabella poured out her woes and the teacher would gather her In her arms, clucking. “Oh my dear, eet ees a terrible world, eh. My heart ees weeth you, Arabella.”
After that they would sing for a while, the classics of Europe, Latin songs of devotion to Christ and Maria, beautiful
melodies of far off lands and tragic tunes of thwarted romance, until Madame Kovalsky would gesture with her hands for Arabella to sit and then she would tell her a story, perhaps from her own life, or of some of the other students, even the girls that Arabella sat alongside everyday, yet never knew.
“Oh the stories dat I know, eee! So many different one’s you don’t believe. Deed I ever tell you about da time dere was a boy een da school, eh?”
“No Madame Kovalsky.”
“Well, eet was about tree years ago, or maybe five. Well, dis boy, he was a naughty boy for his mama you see, very bad. He was going out Into da town, painting on da walls, gambling his money, picking da fights wiz da ozer boys, yes, yes. And
also more terrible dan dis, he was taking the servant girls, and he was using dem against dere wills, yes, he was a terrible boy eendeed. And his mama, well what could she do? She knew not and everyday she would hold her hands in da air and cry, ‘God! Help me wiz my son!’
Den, one day a friend of her’s, she told dis mama about da House of da Dolls. ‘But eet ees for da girls!’ said dis mama, but her friend said, ‘behind da mask, who ees knowing?’ Well, dis poor woman was at da end of her wits so she went to da Miss Dorozhkina. At first dis Dorozhkina refuse, but da money was good and she ees da greedy woman, and so eventually she ees accept. And dis boy he came here and was dressed up like a Justine doll, eee, yes. Nobody know because of da mask you see, dat he ees a boy. But more dan dis she do, you know how ees da Miss Dorozhkina, eh? He ees a small boy and she ees feeding him da special diet and da special herbal teas. And what happens? Slowly he ees changing, yes, growing da breasts and da bottom of da woman. Eee! Een da end he cannot be da full man again, so dey marry him to da homosexual man, a German noble. Aye, I never did see a more beautiful bride at da wedding dan him, and only da husband and his mama ees know dat underneath da dress he ees still da man, eee!
How true such tales were, Arabella did not know. She had no doubt that they were probably exaggerated, but on the other hand she definitely believed that Mme. Dorozhkina could be so cruel as to try and change a boy into a girl against his will.
Besides, what did it matter if they were true or not? They were a break, time off from the daily drudge of learning by rote and coping with her increasingly narrow and restricted, (both physically and mentally), life.
And all this time her waist kept getting smaller and smaller. The starvation rations that she was on might not have been
helping keep her healthy and strong but they certainly contributed greatly to the progress of her rapidly disappearing
midrift. By now she was well under the twenty inch mark, her waist rapidly approaching sixteen inches and it was decreed that a new corset was to be ordered. Mme. Dorozhkina was pleased with this, and indeed it was about the only thing that she praised Arabella, (or ‘Justine’), for. But our heroine did not appreciate this praise or indeed the new and tighter corset that clenched her unyieldingly all day and night. She hated la Maison des Poupees and she detested the Headmistress with a passion. Every night she lay awake, unable to sleep from the corset restriction and pangs of hunger, angry that her arms were pinioned her and that her neck felt like a giraffe. In the early hours of the morning she cried countless tears over her lost childhood in the paradise of the Raj, her mother and father who were now in heaven and over the indignation of being forced to walk, dress and act like a doll for twenty-four hours each and every day. She knew that she was being moulded, moulded into a faceless, characterless example of feminine perfection with an alluring walk, a figure that would send men wild and without an opinion on any subject at all.
As Mme. Dorozhkina had said, she would become ‘no more than a pretty accessory to her husband,’ no longer a person in her own right. The anger, hate and despair welled up and boiled over inside her. But no one ever saw those tears and nobody ever witnessed the hate and anger. No, if anyone ever happened to enter her bedroom at all, all that they would see would be a happy, contented china doll, her eyes shut, her mouth fixed in a rosebud smile, dreaming away in a peaceful slumber.
And then one day it happened. It was always going to happen, Arabella knew that, and doubtless Mme. Dorozhkina and
the other teachers knew it too. You cannot deprive someone of most of their energy, body movements and their power of speech and not expect them to get frustrated. It was only natural after all. Nonetheless, Arabella was surprised when it happened, as surprised as anyone else in the room, (and they too were surprised), even though she doesn’t remember doing it.
It was a French lesson and Arabella had been a pupil at la Maison des Poupees for, well she didn’t know exactly how long
for as she hadn’t been counting the days, but since Christmas had come and gone and the freezing Russian winter was
gradually abating, she imagined for well, about eight months. That day they’d been set some extremely hard perfect tense compositions to do and Arabella, like most of the girls, simply could not work them out. That in itself was frustrating enough, but coupled with her ever-tight corset, pinching boots and the accursed mask which deprived her of the ability to explain to Madame Fontaine what exactly it was that she could not work out, it seemed like her head was pounding at the seams.
“Girls, girls!” exclaimed Madame Fontaine in her Parisian French, “What is the matter with you all today! I teach you
and I explain it all to you, and when I come round to see your work it is a disgrace, an insult to this beautiful tongue!” She stopped and gazed around at the glass. A row of dolls smiled back at her and the strained breathing of the corset-clad girls was all that could be heard.
“Justine twenty-four,” called out the French mistress. “Come to the front and show me your composition. ‘Justine twenty-four’.
In French lessons Arabella was number twenty-four. In other classes she was alternately thirteen, four, nineteen, eight and twenty. Wearily she rose, took hold of her jotter and walked to the front. The French teacher grabbed the composition off her and viewed it.
“Non! Non! Non!” she explained, “This is even worse than before, how stupid are you Justine?”
It was the ‘Non! Non! Non!’ that did it. Arabella had never been an admirer of the French tongue at the best of times and at that present moment she detested it with a passion. Something in her mind snapped.
Neither Madame Fontaine nor the pupils could believe their eyes. Justine Twenty-Four, instead of bowing an apology to the French mistress as was the norm, instead lifted up her gloved arms and ripped the golden wig from her head, and threw it to the floor, revealing a boyish head of chestnut hair. She then grabbed the mask and tried to untie it at the back of her head. Unable to do so with the over tight gloves she then brought her face crashing towards the desk, shattering the pottery doll mask into a thousand pieces, once of which she took up and slashed at her fine gloves with until they were in shreds.
Behind the remains of the mask, a bloody, tear-strewn face of a haggard and starving girl of fourteen was revealed, with fiery blue eyes. “I am not Justine, I am Arabella!” the former doll exclaimed in English, before continuing with, “And may God Almighty damn you into hell!” And at that she picked up her skirts and ran out of the room as fast as
she could, slamming the door behind her.
Justine did not get far, the tight underskirt and high heels limited her steps severely and the corset impaired her breathing. At the top of the stairs she lost her footing tumbled downwards and passed out instantly. To this day she never remembers doing what I have just told, although it was undoubtedly true, and indeed soon became a legend of la Maison, retold countless times over by Madame Kovalsky.
No, all that she remembers is waking up in bed with the angry face of Mme. Dorozhkina looming over her.
And the words, “You are in big trouble, Justine.”