Floyd Dell

The Beating

Published: The Masses, August, 1914.
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2000.

A sixteen year old girl sat on the bed undressing. It was in one of the two upstairs dormitories in the Training School for Girls, otherwise the Girls' Reform School. The room held a double row of hastily made beds. Across the wooden headboard of each bed was stretched a piece of clothesline, on which hung a towel and a nightgown. Beside each bed was a white-painted washstand. On the whitewashed wall at one end of the room, hanging from a nail, was a little framed motto: "God Is Love." High up in the thin whitewashed partition behind the bed on which the girl was sitting was a little window, barred against the other dormitory. In the opposite wall were a number of similar windows, barred against the world. In the fourth wall was the door, which was now locked.

Minnie was getting ready to be whipped. She was undressing slowly, because she knew she had about half an hour. They had not yet whipped Jeanette, and Jeanette had been the first over the high picket fence in the break for liberty the night before. Minnie had followed, and so she would be whipped afterward. Minnie, who understood little of the ways of Miss Hampton and Miss Carter, and those other people who "ran" the Reform School, could understand that. She would have resented being whipped first. Besides, she wanted to hear how Jeanette would take her beating.

Jeanette had sworn to her that she would "never let them devils lay a hand on her again"; she would kill herself first, she said. Minnie did not take that very seriously. She knew Jeanette was in for a beating all right, and a good hard one. But there was one funny thing. Jeanette had had one beating in the month she had been there, and the girls said that "They"–meaning Miss Hampton and Miss Carter–couldn't get a whimper out of her. They had taken turns, and beaten her until they were tired, but she wouldn't make a sound. Well, they would see that she hollered this time! Minnie would be able to hear it all–and perhaps even see, for there was that window in the partition right above her bed. The first day Jeanette had been there, a girl named Anna had been beaten in the other dormitory, and she and Jeanette had hidden here to listen. Jeanette had seen this window, and climbed up on the headboard of the bed to get to it. She had "gone up there like a cat," and caught hold of the bars of the window, and looked through. Minnie was not so tall as Jeanette, but she might see too if she was careful.

Minnie smiled, remembering how Jeanette had acted that time. She had turned–like the heroine in a show Minnie had seen–and told what was happening on the other side of the partition. She did that for a while, and then jumped down–anyhow. It was lucky she lit on the bed. She didn't care what she did, it seemed like. She just seemed to go crazy.

The way she had raged around that dormitory frightened Minnie now to think of it. She had beat on the walls with her fists, and kicked at the beds, and flung herself on the floor and rolled and writhed, screaming and kicking.

They had put her in the "strong room," which existed for just such cases. She could kick and scream there all she wanted to–she would get tired of it after a while.

The thought of all these things agitated Minnie as she undressed. It made her fumble as she unbuttoned her dress in the back, and it made her pull one of her shoe strings into a hard knot. She sat there jerking at it savagely and stupidly, drawing it tighter and tighter. She cursed, in a vicious monosyllable; and then, her nervous tension seeming to find relief in this, all her excitement flooding this channel, there poured out a stream of vile words. A stranger to her kind, hearing her, would have felt her words like a blow in the face. They would have seemed to him horribly and unthinkably foul. But she did not have any idea of that. She had learned those words when she was fourteen years old, at the box factory, and they had seemed "smart" to her then. She knew they were considered "bad," and she did not let Miss Carter or Miss Hampton catch her saying them. But it made her feel good to do it, and so now she spat them out, a putrescent stream. Then her unconscious lips smiled sweetly, as she caught the right end of the string and pulled the knot loose.

She went on undressing, faster now, for she could hear sounds in the other room. They were dragging out the bed from the wall, so that someone could stand at each corner and hold the girl who was being whipped. Minnie kicked off the last of the soiled and ragged underclothing furnished her by the state, and reached up for her coarse nightgown.

She had very little of that physical charm of adolescence in which a mother might take pleasure. Her chest was narrow, and her breasts, with their pale nipples, were barely rounded out on her bosom; she sat ungracefully, her back bent, her feet twisted under the edge of the bed–an undernourished, undeveloped little woman-child.

As she sat there she bit her under-lip a little. It was a trick she had caught from Jeanette, who always did it when she was thinking. Minnie's thoughts were half-defined, and intermixed with vivid memories that flowed through her mind in an uneasy stream.

She thought of the night before, when she had tried to run away. She hadn't much wanted to try–she didn't believe they would succeed–but she had to go with her chum. She knew all the time it would only end in a beating. But she had been beaten at home often enough to know what a beating was. She didn't care much.

She had shown Jeanette her back and legs, on which, at that time, the marks of her last beating still faintly remained–little purple bruises. She was rather amused at the way Jeanette took it: she turned white. Jeanette said she had never been beaten in all her life. "Just you wait," Minnie told her, "you will be." And Jeanette had been. But she hadn't made a sound. It was game of her, all right.

There were a lot of queer things about Jeanette. The time they had waited to hear Anna get whipped Jeanette had stretched herself out languorously on the coverlet. Lying there, Jeanette had asked, "Why do they call us delinquent?" Minnie had said, "It means bad, doesn't it?" And then Jeanette had laughed and said: "No, I know what it means. It means that we came along too late. 1 ought to have lived a thousand years ago. ... I'll bet they wouldn't have put me in a stockade and learned me to sew and cook and scrub. Sew and cook and scrub! ... I wonder if I'll ever get what I want?"

And when Minnie asked, "What do you want?" she said: "What every girl wants–-to wear nice clothes, and talk to men–and make love."

Minnie thought she meant the "red light district," but found out that she was mistaken. Jeanette had never heard of it. She had lived seventeen years in a little country town, and did not know what prostitution meant. Minnie explained. Jeanette was disgusted.

"Well," Minnie said, "you needn't try to make out that you're so good. How about those drummers?" And Jeanette flushed and said: "Oh, that was different." Jeanette had told her about the things she had been sent to the Reform School for; when she talked of them, a light came into her eyes. Jeanette was a queer girl. She thought that such things were beautiful.... Jeanette was queer.

Minnie did not understand. Minnie was not "queer." She would have made, under other circumstances, a dutiful wife for the same reasons that now made her an inmate of a Reform School. She had never been other than passive and acquiescent. She had never wanted to be "bad"–and wouldn't have been, if they had only let her alone. But the boys at the box factory and the tablet factory, who took her to the parks and nickel theaters, were insistent. She had never encouraged them; she had been merely apprehensively submissive. There was nothing beautiful about that.

Minnie meant to be "good" when she got out, so as not to run the risk of being sent back to this place again. But Jeanette wasn't going to be "good" she said; and she wasn't going to come back here, either. Minnie couldn't understand what she meant. She only remembered that right after that they had had a quarrel. Jeanette had a curious set of circumlocutions, which she used instead of the simple and vulgar terms which served Minnie's needs in these discussions. Jeanette had objected with a sudden fierceness to Minnie's terminology. Minnie's lips moved unconsciously as she rehearsed what they had said to each other.

A sound came from the other dormitory, and Minnie jumped up and came over close to the partition. There was a noise of scuffling–and she knew they were dragging in Jeanette to be whipped.

Minnie jumped up on the bed. She seized hold of the top of the headboard, and drew herself up. She made an ineffectual clutch for the sill of the little window high above, missed and fell, scraping her knee against the sharp edge of a panel in the headboard. She rose, panting, and seized hold again. More carefully this time, she drew herself up, supporting one foot on the tiny eighth-of-an-inch panel edge on which she had scraped her knee. She reached up, biting her lower lip cruelly, and caught the sill of the window with her fingers' ends. She steadied herself, pulled herself up once more, and in a moment was safely clutching the bars of the window, while her feet rested on the top of the headboard.

She was sorry she was not so tall as Jeanette. She could not see through the window while standing on the headboard. But she must have a glimpse. So she pulled herself up by main strength, and rested with a forearm flat on the sill while the other hand gripped a bar in the window. Hanging there, her body hunched awkwardly against the wall, her neck craned uncomfortably, she gazed through into the other dormitory. The scuffling had ceased, and there was Jeanette lying on her face on the bed, with one of the "goody-goods"-meaning the girls who were going to be let out soon, and who curried favor with "Them" rather than be kept longer–at each corner of the bed. Each "goody-good" held an arm or a leg, held it tightly with both hands, while the girl lay a limp, exhausted thing on the sheets, panting audibly. Only her nightgown, which should have been slipped up to her shoulders, was not on her body at all. Minnie saw with a thrill, before she slipped down the wall and rested her feet again on the top of the headboard, that it was lying scattered all over the floor, in shreds and threads.

Minnie was sitting on the edge of the bed, listening dully to the regular sound of blows from the other side of the partition. She had grown tired of hanging there, and had climbed down. She had not been able to see very much, after all. She could see Miss Hampton and Miss Carter, as they stood between her and the low window, and she could see first Miss Carter for a while and then Miss Hampton stoop as she brought down the piece of hose on Jeanette's bare back and legs. But she could not see Jeanette, and could not tell whether she flinched and writhed or not. Certainly she did keep silent. The "goody-goods" said nothing, and there was no sound, except the hysterical laugh of Miss Carter and the cold tones of Miss Hampton, and the dull impact of the hose against the girl's flesh.

Minnie had been disappointed. She hardly realized it, but she had been expecting some spectacular action on the part of Jeanette. And here was Jeanette merely lying still and letting them beat her. Minnie listened. There was a little pause in the thud, thud, thud, and then it commenced again. Miss Carter was doing it now. Miss Carter struck more quickly, and with less strength; sometimes her blows went wild.

Suddenly Minnie realized what was happening; it flashed on her mind like a vision. She had seen the thing, and had been unmoved, because she had not realized it. But now the mere sound of it had somehow brought realization. First she felt–with a keenness greater than she had ever felt it in her own body–the pain of those blows on Jeanette's flesh; and more than that–a sensation she had never experienced–the humiliation of them. She felt the pain, the shame, and wanted to cry out; and then she felt with a shock the violent mastery which Jeanette had put upon herself to keep from crying out. The realization shook her from head to foot. She drew her breath heavily, and her heart labored painfully in her breast. As she listened, time seemed to have commenced to run more slowly, so that the blows fell at a longer interval. She waited for each blow, she braced herself in imagination to meet it; she felt it fall, and suffered the exquisite torture of the fire that ate fiercely into the flesh, burned red-hot for an unendurable moment, and then died slowly down. She caught her breath, braced herself anew for the next blow, suffered its pangs; and the next, and the and the next, and the next.

Her wide open eyes saw, as though no partition were there, the quivering body on the bed; her mind, more appreciative than it had ever been of the emotions of another, viewed the struggle with pain, the terrible struggle for silence, that was fought and won ten times in every minute–won and almost lost, renewed and won again, endlessly.

Minnie put her fingers in her ears, but she heard her heart keeping time to the blows, and took them out again. There was a little pause, and Minnie gasped with relief; but the blows commenced again, more steady than before; Miss Hampton was taking her turn again. Minnie began desperately counting them; but she stopped at ten, and again put her fingers in her ears for a moment. Then she began to walk up and down the aisle, between the beds, lingering as she neared the window through which the sounds came. Twice she went back and forth, walking and running, and then she flung herself sobbing on the bed. But in a moment she was up again, and transformed. She rushed down the aisle, striking blindly both ways with her clenched hands, wounding them on the wood and iron of the bedsteads.

At the other end of the room she saw the little sign, "God is Love." She stopped short. Trembling uncontrollably all through her body, she threw back her head, and uttered a hoarse, agonized cry. As she did so, the sounds in the other room ceased. There was silence for a whole minute, and then the key turned in the lock, and the door of the dormitory opened.