|"It really is intolerable!" Netta says,
pacing up and down the study restlessly. Giuliana stands at the window
with her hands on her hips, staring outside with a pained expression. Both
have been laced into training corsets, and neither can comfortably sit.
"It is very bad, certainly," Giuliana agrees without looking round, "but what can we do about it? Your parents will not understand or they will not care. I have none. And what can we do against Miss Badsteel and her staff? We are too few."
"We certainly are," Netta says fretfully. "Where is Gertie?"
"I can’t say," Giuliana replies, looking round just a little. Her plait, still firmly secured deep within the confines of her tight day dress, prevents her moving her head much. "After she fainted in the French class she was carried away. I have not seen her since."
"Perhaps she overdid it, you know…she was planning to pretend a faint, but she may have done it for real. She was very upset by this health corset business."
"Yes, and Miss Badsteel used the screw after lacing her this morning. Her stays are much too tight. She may be in real trouble."
Netta stops pacing and clasps her hands together. "We can’t just…just stand here and talk about her! We’ve got to do something! I’m going to find out if she’s all right."
"No!" Giuliana whirls round. "Your stays are too tight also. If you faint on the way, where will we be? Stay here and try to keep quiet. I will go."
Netta puts a hand to her busk. "Thank you, Giuliana, you are a dear, really. I do feel a bit dizzy…"
Giuliana smooths her tight bodice where it has pulled into horizontal creases across her tightly corseted belly. "I am only laced to sixteen and three-quarters inches this morning," she says. "See, my bodice is straining because my stays are not tight enough for it. It is my place to do it." And without another word she slips out. Netta goes over to her bed and stands looking balefully at it as if it’s hateful; then she turns her back on it and with a deep groan slowly lowers herself down, bending hardly at all at the hips. Suddenly she loses her balance and falls down with a crash. The bed rocks back and forth, squeaking wildly. She squeezes her eyes shut and presses her hands fiercely into her sides until it is still. Then she lies quiet, staring up at the ceiling, her face sometimes rebellious and sometimes grimly resigned.
After an undetermined amount of time she hears two sets of footsteps coming along the corridor. They are slow, and one pair is shuffling and unsteady. She knows it is Giuliana with Gertie, and she wants to get up and help; but she finds that in her training corset she can’t get up without help. "Dash it!" she snaps, and collapses back onto the bed again to wait for them.
Presently the door opens and Netta recognises Giuliana’s hand on the knob; but as soon as the door is open the hand withdraws. "You are safe now," Giuliana says gently. "You are back. Come in and we will look after you."
The shuffling footsteps begin again, and now someone very slowly enters the room. It is Gertie, and though she is dressed as she was from the first that morning she is quite a different girl from the one who talked back to Miss Badsteel after prayers. Watching her come in Netta has a sudden mad vision of Monsieur Eiffel’s steel tower balanced on its point. Gertie’s feet are visible below the ankle-length skirt, crammed into canvas boots with pointed toes and the highest heels Netta has ever seen. She balances with great difficulty, and as she comes further into the room Netta realises Giuliana is standing behind her with both arms outstretched, guiding her from either side. At the top, where the skirt hugs the figure, Gertie’s hips seem much slimmer than usual; and her waist is alarmingly small. The tight school blouse shows that above it her figure continues with an almost ludicrous explosion of bosom, swelled by tight-lacing apparently almost to bursting-point and surging up and down like waves in a storm as Gertie battles to gather enough air to breathe. Someone has pulled on her plait again and she stands with her head back and her nose pointing haughtily at the sky; but her expression is anything but haughty. Her eyes, usually flashing with wit and intelligence, are filled with panic, and she seems to want to bolt like a spooked horse—but she is much too thoroughly restrained by Miss Badsteel’s efforts to make a girl into a lady.
Netta struggles again to get up, but all she manages to do is make her corset creak and her bed shake noisily. "Gertie!" she gasps. "What have they done to you?"
Gertie gives her an anguished look, but says nothing. "Please don’t ask her to speak." Giuliana says. "She cannot spare the breath. I will tell you. Is that right, Gertie?" Gertie gives a very faint nod, and Giuliana says "Let me get her lying on her bed, Netta, and then I will tell you what she told me." And with that Netta has to be content. She lies there feeling very useless, sensing how one of her friends is suffering and how the other is doing her best to help, wishing she could do something herself; but the damn training corset has her trapped on the bed and all she can do is just lie there. She watches as Giuliana helps Gertie to her bed, guides her round until she has her back to it, and then despite ominous creaking and cracking from her own tightly-laced stays gently lowers the American girl down. When Gertie is lying on the mattress Giuliana drops to her knees and helps Gertie straighten out until she is lying evenly on the bed; then and only then does she take hold of the bedstead and awkwardly lever herself up.
"I cannot breathe very well," she says, as she regains her feet. "I do not think that I shall sit down…"
"Why not lie down?" Netta asks.
"Because if I cannot get up, like you, then we will all be crippled…someone has to stay on her feet. Well. Do you want to know about poor Gertie?"
"Yes, of course!" And Netta looks sympathetically across at her friend lying suffering on her bed.
"Well. You remember when Gertie fainted in the French class?"
"Of course I do! They called the maids to carry her away, and then that’s the last we saw of her…"
"Yes. Gertie says that when she woke Miss Badsteel was there. I think that the nurse called her because she was afraid for Gertie being so tightly laced. Everyone knows that Gertie is our top tight-lacer and that in the morning she had had special attention and the screw. So. Miss Badsteel learned that Gertie had made herself faint on purpose. Yes, she had hoped to just seem as if she was fainting, but by the time she reached the floor it was for real. So Miss Badsteel was very angry, especially after Gertie talked back to her after prayers, and she took her down to the training room and sent for the punishment corset. The black kid punishment corset."
"Oh yes. We all have to have two punishment corsets. One is bad, and the other is very bad. The black kid ones are the worst. Miss Badsteel has had the waist of Gertie’s black kid corset adjusted to keep it hard for her as her figure has developed so much recently, and she had her laced close. Poor Gertie! She says she fainted more than once, but Miss Badsteel was determined, and in the end the waist closed at fourteen inches. Now Gertie can hardly move, or speak, or do anything. She will not be able to do any classes this afternoon. I can think of nothing to do but be kind to her and let her know she is among friends."
Netta rolls on her side and tries, against the will of her training corset, to prop herself on one elbow. "Can’t we loosen her stays?"
"I thought of that, Netta. It is no good. Look. Now, cara mia, I am just going to roll you over, I won’t hurt you…That’s right…" Gently, kindly, sadly, Giuliana rolls Gertie over on her bed until she is facing away from Netta and the buttons down the back of her tight school blouse come into view. Reaching down with some difficulty Giuliana unfastens them and also unhooks Gertie’s skirt. She pulls the blouse out and opens it up to reveal the back of the frightening black kid training corset. "Can you see, Netta? They have padlocked her in again. There is a steel belt and it is locked. We cannot get her out without unfastening the padlock."
"We could still cut the laces…"
"It is no good. The belt will still hold the stays tight to her waist at fourteen inches. Anyway if we let the laces go when her stays are so tight we will hurt her. There is nothing we can do."
Netta fumes silently for a minute; then she says "There is something we can do! Help me up." Giuliana comes back to her and laboriously hauls her up off the bed. "Thank you, my dear. Yes. As I was saying. We must write to our families. They can’t possibly want us to go through this. I mean, I know it’s hard to become a belle, but nobody should be treated this way!"
"cr.l…n…ny.sh.l…" someone whispers feebly.
"Excuse me? Gertie, is that you?" Netta bustles over with a great swishing of skirts and comes as close as her corset will permit to Gertie’s face as she lies facing the wall. Giuliana follows, but Netta holds up her hand. "Don’t, Giuli. Be quiet. I need to listen." She frowns, listening intently. "Yes…‘Cruel and unusual’, she says. I’m sorry? She says there’s an amendment to the…to the constitution. The American constitution, I suppose she means. Yes. Forbidding ‘cruel and unusual punishment’."
"But we are not in America," Giuliana says. "We are in England."
"Well," Netta says, "if we don’t try we’re bound to fail. Come on. We’ve got to write to our people today and tell them about this. Even if they won’t take us out of the school at the very least they’ve got to stop this health corset business. And we’ll have to get the letters out somehow, maybe by the gardener, so Miss Badsteel doesn’t see them…Yes, I know, Gertie. I’ll help you."
"I have a relation at the embassy who looks after my affairs in England," Giuliana says. "What about Gertie? Are her parents in America?"
"Not at the moment, no. They want to get her presented at Court so they’re staying in England for several months, trying to get an entrée into Society. We can get in touch with all our people. Goodness knows if we’ll get sensible answers, but we’ve got to try it."