Whipping The Baroness
Excerpt From "Europa: The Days of Ignorance" (1935)
By Robert Briffault
"This," said the prince, "was apparently used as an oratory. It is said to communicate with the convent near by. You see, there are still the old wooden altar and some devotional pictures." Over the altar was a large painted wooden crucifix, horribly naturalistic. It reminded Cornès of the crucified Christ of Mathias Grünewald. The maciated form, with stretched muscles and dislocated joints, was spattered with blood and covered with greenish contusions and gaping wounds. On one of the walls hung a replica of the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, by Sebastian del Piombo. Two men were approaching the saint, who was stripped to the waist and tied to a post, and with enormous pincers were about to seize the erect nipples of her superb breasts. In another picture, representing the martyrdom of Saint Supina, the sainted virgin was hanging head downwards, suspended by one foot. Still another picture showed Saint Gunemanda being held, with her nun's clothing untrussed, over a glowing brazier. There were other pictures exhibiting the penances of holy women submitting to the discipline applied by saintly confessors.
While the others examined the pictures with curiosity, Baroness Rubenstein looked away, refraining from comment.
Leaving the oratory, the prince led the way further down the passage.
"Take care of the steps," he warned the baroness. "You had better hold up your train to avoid any risk of tripping."
The last flight led into a fairly spacious hall. The low vault was supported by squat romanesque pillars. The brick-tiled floor rose in the centre of the hall, forming a sort of elevated platform. There were iron rings in the floor, ceiling, and pillars, from some of which hung ropes. Along the walls, in the side aisles stood uncouth contrivances. "Those," Prince Nevidof said carelessly, "are old engines that were used in the Middle Ages to apply the question. Some were found here; others were sold to me by dealers. Many people collect these things. I have never gone in for it much, myself. One of the best collections is, I believe, that of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria. That, you see, is the iron boot, and this is the 'Maiden,' here is the wheel, and the rack. Those are various pincers, claws, hooks, spiked stools, cauteries, gouges, flaying knives, raspatories, clamps, screws, wedges. This, which looks like a pillory, is merely a whipping post, with apertures, as you see, for the head and wrists of the victim."
"How perfectly horrible! I shall have nightmare, prince," said Baroness Rubinstein, glancing at the grim appliances. "Have those hideous things been actually used?"
"Undoubtedly; the old barons used to exercise their own judicial powers, and enjoyed full discretion," said Prince Nevidof. After all, it was much more satisfactory than the clumsy and long-drawn procedures of modern law and of the police. I doubt whether there was less justice. We, in Russia, have always done the same. We hold ourselves responsible, to the extent of the means at our disposal, for order on our estates. I do the same myself, even here. Do you suppose, for instance, that I would apply to the Italian government to protect me from any petty theft or robbery that might be committed on my estate?" He shrugged his shoulders with a smile at such a notion. "Now, for instance, baroness," the prince went on after a pause, "I have suffered from a petty pilfering this very evening, one which, moreover, casts a particularly offensive stain upon my honor."
There was a tense silence. The prince spoke with slow deliberation, looking at Baroness Rubinstein. There was an ugly glitter in his eyes. The baroness raised her brow interrogatively with studied unconcern.
"One of my guests has grossly abused my confidence by cheating at cards, tricking my other guests out of sundry considerable sums." The prince paused again, while the baroness, looking stolidly at him, uttered a nonchalant interrogative exclamation. "And the culprit, Baroness Rubinstein, is yourself," the prince said, in the midst of a silence in which the dropping of a pin could have been heard.
Starting, and drawing herself up, flashing with indignation, the baroness said: "Sir! You have no right to insult me. You have no proof of your outrageous suggestion." "I have ten witnesses. Is it not so?" Prince Nevidof said, turning to the company.
Several signified their assent. Count Osio, very flustered, consulted below his breath with his wife.
"You have no proof," the baroness repeated. "But since it is your desire to insult me, here are the preceeds which I much regret having derived from your disreputable gaming hell." Drawing the bundle of notes from her handbag, she threw it on the ground.
With a smile, the prince slowly picked it up.
"Do not be alarmed, baroness," he said. "I will have no scandal. I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to give your solemn assurance that nothing that may have occurred during your stay under my roof shall be mentioned outside these walls. I shall ask you to be so good as to sign a written assurance, which I shall have prepared, to that effect. The secret will be buried as deep as is this old dungeon."
Baroness Rubinstein, alternately flushed and blanched, retained her defiant countenance. She shrugged her shoulders, with a scornful snort. Only a slight twitch of her full lower lip betrayed her feelings. Drawing her furs about her, she stepped towards the door by which the company had entered.
"That door, Baroness, is locked," said the prince.
Baroness Rubinstein turned round sharply, with her back to the door. For the first time a look of alarm disturbed the assurance of her aspect. But in an instant she recovered herself, and looked with haughty assurance at the prince. She was rather magnificent in her defiance. Her eyes flashed as brilliantly as the diamonds on her white neck and coal-black hair. In the opulent glitter of her rich attire, with her back to door, her jewelled hands stretched out form her side, her cloak of white ermine drooping from her superb shoulders, she looked like some eastern queen at bay.
The prince spoke with quiet nonchalance:
"As I was telling you just now, I am in the habit of dispensing my own justice. If you are spared the humiliation of a public scandal which would close against you the doors of every decent society in Europe, that is not to say that you are to get off without penalty."
"What do you mean?" she said.
"I mean, Baroness Rubinstein," the prince said calmly, "that I am going to have you whipped."
She stared aghast for an instant. Then, with a sardonic smile that showed her white eye-teeth, she said scornfully: "Don't make empty, indecent threats, Prince Nevidof. If you dared to offer me the slightest violence, I should have you dragged to justice like a common criminal, if I had to set every chancellery in Europe at work."
"You prefer being exposed as a card-cheat? I am afraid that you would be the chief sufferer form an appeal to common courts. And you forget, Baroness Rubinstein, That I have at least as much influence with European chancelleries as you have," the prince said.
"Kindly order your servants to open the door," said Baroness Rubinstein, "and to have my car ready."
The prince did not reply, looking at her with a flickering smile. The company stood round breathless. Count Osio made a movement as if about to speak, but the countess stopped him with a gesture of her hand. His mouth closed with a snap.
Julian spoke to Simpson:
"Don't you think," he said, "that this has gone too far? We can't surely . . ."
"Yes, yes," Simpson said. Then aloud to the prince: "Sir, so far as we are concerned, we are satisfied that sufficent amend has been made for the . . . irregularity that has taken place." "I am sole judge of that," said Prince Nevidof sharply. He clapped his hands.
The two russian giants, who had been standing impassive at the further end of the hall, came forward. At a sign from the prince they advanced toward Baroness Rubinstein. They seized her by the arms. The Baroness, who to the last had not believed that the prince would dare to carry out his threat, and supposed that the men were about to open the door for her, uttered a piercing shriek. Her frantic struggles availed nothing against the two big Russians. They dragged the baroness, screaming, tripping over her train, to the centre of the room, on to the raised platform. While one man held her, the other undid the bodice of her gown and disengaged her arms and shoulders. They made fast her wrists to the ends of ropes which hung from rings in the ceiling. Baroness Rubinstein, with her hands hitched above her head, showing black armpits, gasped and choked, her eyes starting out of her head.
Accustomed to their tasks, Gheorghii and his assistant handled with stolid unconcern the billowing satin and silk, the cascading lace and lawn, detaching the creaking brocade, the hems of pearl-colored hose. They flattered their master's eye with the spectacle of the luxurious disorder, heedless of the futile struggles of the raving woman, frenzied with outraged pudicity. Expertly they uncorseted her. She writhed, her dark-circled breasts staring like bulging eyes from the collapsing folds, as the men disrobed her. They stripped her completely.
While they cleared aside the heap of draperies, Baroness Rubinstein remained tethered under the intolerable gaze of avid eyes. On the white sleekness of her full-fleshed oriental nudity, stained with orbs of swarth and black contrasts, diamonds sparkled in the glare of the lights, and ropes of pearl dangled. "Moreau's Salome," Cornes murmured.
The women glanced sidelong with derisive expression at the men.
"Ti piacciono le poppe nere?" Tea whispered to Julian.
Gheorgii returned bearing a short-handled whip. The baroness watched him over her shoulder with terrified eyes. The Cossack raised his arm and, with a sharp crack, the lash came down across her buttocks. She gave a strident yell. Her flesh quivered from head to foot. Again and again the lash fell on the full flesh, the big thighs. She sprang from one foot to the other, her belly heaving, her breasts dancing.
Julian closed his eyes. The screams of the victim echoed under the low vault.
"Look!" he heard Tëa whisper at his side.
A horrible fascination compelled him. He gazed, spellbound, as in a dream. The woman was throwing her nude body about, from one side of the platform to the other, straining at the tethering ropes in desperate efforts to draw away. Gheorghii followed round the screaming, writhing, kicking woman, whipping her everywhere.
Beads of blood began to appear on the striped, reddened flesh. The prince, who had been watching with gloating eyes the contortions of the victim, signed to the man to stop. The ropes were loosened from her wrists, and the men carried her, collapsed, to a couch. Gheorghii opened a door at the further end of the hall. Two nuns appeared, with downcast eyes, bearing salves and restoratives. They tended the baroness till she could be assisted to her room.
The company retired, stirred with varying emotions. They dispersed in small groups, whispering. Julian found himself in one of the corridors of the guests' apartments with the Duchess of Anticatro.
"Was it not exciting?" Tëa was saying.