A woman in her early thirties lay stretched out on her bed. She was wearing her night-dress but had little prospect of a comfortable night's sleep. Her arms and legs were spread out with ropes tightly tied round each wrist and ankle and fastened to the corners of her bed. A thick white cloth was jammed between her teeth and knotted behind her head. The ropes dug painfully into the flesh of her wrists and ankles and pulled her limbs cruelly taut. She could feel the bruising causing her flesh to swell against the ropes and the tension in her arms had settled into a deep ache in her shoulders and back. Struggling was pointless; all she could do was to await rescue with as much patience as she could summon up.
Three storeys below the woman tied to her bed, two women in black domestic servants' uniforms sat bound to chairs and gagged. Neither was in particular pain beyond the general discomfort of being forced to sit in one position with one's hands behind one's back for a lengthy period of time. Both were feeling a slight ache from their gags but their chief complaint was the sheer tedium of sitting still with nothing to do but look at each other and watch minutes tick slowly by on the kitchen clock.
Sarah Marks and I had been through the general pieces of magic and escape artistry that made up our act and had progressed to our grand finale for the evening, which was also the finale for the Christmas Eve variety show in which we had been performing.
The theme for our finale was that Sarah (with an appropriate cry of "Bah! Humbug!") was making good Ebenezer Scrooge's view that anyone who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on their lips deserved a stake of holly through the heart. (We had decided that the bit about being boiled with one's own pudding was a little impractical to stage.)
A long length of colourful Christmas paper chain had been magically transformed into a length of grim grey steel chain which had then been wound around my arms, legs and body and securely locked. I had been inserted into an enormous Christmas cracker about ten feet long which was resting horizontally on a board and a pair of trestles, with the curtains at the back of the stage clearly visible underneath it. I had been struggling mightily as I was put into the cracker and the audience could see central part of it continue to bulge and twist as I fought my bonds.
Above the cracker was suspended the holly stake. It was equally impressive in scale, fully twelve inches in diameter, wickedly pointed at the lower end and disappearing up behind the top of the proscenium arch. The audience could tell that it was holly from the glossy green papier maché leaves, each about four feet long, and bright red berries the size of footballs.
After about a minute, the huge stake dropped, tearing through the cracker and detonating it with a loud bang, a bright flash and a great billow of smoke.
The audience were hushed as the smoke cleared and they could see the ruin that had been the cracker. After letting them worry for ten seconds or so, two spotlights were turned on to reveal me walking triumphantly down the central aisle of the theatre.
In reality, I had escaped from the cracker almost as soon as I was out of the audience's sight. The chains were gimmicked for easy removal, the cracker was fatter from front to back than was obvious to the audience and the view underneath the cracker was actually not of the curtains behind it but of the curtains at the sides of the stage by means of two large mirrors. An ingenious mechanism sustained the illusion of a struggling body inside the cracker when I was already long gone. All this hid my rapid exit from the rear of the stage, my run along the basement corridor under the auditorium and up the side stairs into the foyer. I even had a moment to catch my breath before making my entrance back into the theatre.
The curtains were drawn as I reached the stage and opened again to reveal the rest of the performers that had been on the night's bill. We led the audience in a few well-known Christmas carols and then took our bow.
I clattered down the narrow wooden stairs to my dressing room after we had taking the final curtain call of the show. As it was Christmas Eve, Sarah and I were anxious to pack up and get home to our families for the festive season. (Christmas in my case and the eighth day of Hanukkah in Sarah's, which happened to fall on the 25th of December that year.)
I opened my dressing room door and stopped in astonishment on the threshold. An immensely tall thin man was sitting leaning back in my chair with the heels of his immaculately polished shoes resting on my dressing table. His hands rested on his waistcoat with his fingers steepled. He raised one eyebrow quizzically as I opened the door and stopped dead in my tracks.
"Ah, Miss MacKenzie, do come in," he invited magnanimously.
Too surprised to answer the man, I stepped into the small room and closed the door behind me.
The man rose to his feet. At five feet eight, I was taller than many men back in those days, especially when I was wearing high heels, but even with the stoop to the shoulders brought about by my visitor's eight decades, he towered over me. I knew him of course, and so would anyone else who had ever seen Sidney Paget's illustrations of the man. His name was Sherlock Holmes.
"Please forgive the intrusion, Miss MacKenzie," Mr Holmes said apologetically. "I crave a little of your time and expert advice as I find myself at something of a loss in an urgent case."
I was flattered that Mr Holmes should feel that I could provide him with advice of any kind but at the same time more than a little irritated at the intrusion when I was tired from performing and eager to get away home. I allowed my irritation to colour my response.
"Sherlock Holmes baffled?" I retorted cattily, but softened it with a smile.
"Bafflement is merely the state of having insufficient data to draw a conclusive inference," Mr Holmes replied haughtily, sounding a little wounded.
"My remark was uncalled-for, please accept my apology," I offered contritely. "All the same, I can't imagine how I could possibly help the Great Detective."
"I am a consulting detective, and I aim to be an expert in many fields," he explained. "Nevertheless, no man can possibly be an expert in everything, so even a consulting detective must sometimes seek the advice of other consultants. Wisdom lies in knowing when and from whom."
"The only things I am expert at are picking locks and escaping from ropes and chains," I pointed out.
"Precisely," he replied with an enigmatic smile as he resumed his seat on my chair.
"Perhaps you had better explain what you have in mind," I conceded. "Do you mind looking away while I get some proper clothes on."
Mr Holmes turned the chair to face into a corner of the room. "I thought your stage costume was quite charming," he remarked gallantly.
"Rather revealing for street wear and a little chilly for December perhaps?" I observed as I worked my sequinned leotard down to my waist then put on my brassiere.
"I am sure the degree to which it is revealing is carefully calculated to appeal to the men in the audience without unduly outraging their wives," Mr Holmes pointed out disarmingly.
"Touché," I acknowledged.
I had taken my leotard off completely but left my tights on with their opaque gusset providing at least some degree of modesty. In the absence of a chair to sit on, I crouched in front of the mirror while I removed my stage make-up.
"Earlier this evening," Mr Holmes began, "I was contacted by telephone by the Marquess of Epping and Ongar. He had returned to his London residence to find what appeared to be the aftermath of a robbery. He first discovered his wife, the marchioness, gagged and tied to her bed. There was a pane of glass smashed in the bedroom window and a jewellery box was standing open on the marchioness's dressing table. You have perhaps heard of the Epping Sapphire? It is a very large sapphire of exquisite quality forming the centrepiece of a pendant which is an heirloom in the marquess's family. That gem alone was missing, levered out of its setting. A search of the house led to the marquess discovering the two female servants present, both maids, bound to chairs and gagged in the kitchen. It was at this point that the marquess telephoned me."
"After phoning the police?" I queried, still scrubbing away at make-up.
"No, the marquess had not contacted the police at that point," Mr Holmes replied. "I telephoned them myself from his house later on."
"Why did he call you first?" I persisted. "Surely he should just have dialled 999?"
"There is a good reason," Mr Holmes explained. "Some weeks ago, I was approached by the marquess, who is a personal friend of mine, for some advice regarding certain difficulties in his marriage. It seems that the marchioness has formed an attachment, which is with another lady as it happens, and she wishes to dissolve their marriage. Now, the marquess is not strongly opposed to that as the marriage has been over in all but name for some time. He and the marchioness have conducted separate social lives within the one household, seemingly quite amicably, until very recently. The marchioness informed her husband that she proposed to sell the Epping Sapphire in order to raise capital to establish her own household. The marquess told her it was not hers to sell as it was a family treasure passed on from generation to generation. Her position was that it had been a personal gift to her from the marquess's late mother and she had a deed of gift to support it. The marquess maintains that it wasn't his mother's to give away either, but the proof would probably lead to an expensive and very public court case, which he feels would have an adverse effect on his political career."
"So the marquess thinks that this robbery might well be a put-up job to remove the sapphire from the scene before any legal proceedings can take place?" I asked, seeing where the logic was leading.
"Exactly so," Mr Holmes declared. "His conclusion precisely."
My make-up was satisfactorily gone by this point, so I removed my tights and put on more conventional underwear in the form of a camisole and a pair of briefs. Sherlock Holmes was attired in a quite exquisite evening suit, but I was restricted to the clothes I had intended to wear for travelling home that evening.
"You disagree with the marquess?" I asked Mr Holmes, as much a statement as a question.
"Not entirely," he replied as I put on a pair of black stockings. "I do indeed believe that the incident was a 'put up job' as you so delightfully expressed it, but I have misgivings about the evidence presented to me."
"Presented by the marquess?" I asked, fastening a mid-calf-length bottle-green jersey skirt.
"Mmm, possibly," Mr Holmes replied non-committally. "I would really prefer you to cast your expert eye over the scene without being prejudiced by any of my ideas, if you would honour me by sparing the time to do so."
I wriggled into my bright red sweater and smoothed it down over my hips then put on a pair of sensible flat shoes. "I'm decent now," I told Mr Holmes.
Mr Holmes turned the chair to face me and took in my costume from head to toe in one appraising sweep of his eyes. "Very seasonal," he commented with a slight smile.
"It gets worse," I admitted, as I added a bright emerald green beret to my ensemble. My overcoat was a slightly less lurid shade of red than my sweater. I completed the outfit with a long white woollen scarf. I packed my costume and a few props I wished to take home into a battered old Gladstone bag.
"I would be pleased to offer you what help I can, Mr Holmes," I assured him, "and the honour would be all mine." He examined my face carefully as if checking for any irony in my statement. He nodded gravely and rose to his feet.
I could not help admiring Mr Holmes's splendid black barrathea evening suit once more. "I just hope you don't mind being seen out with someone dressed like a Christmas decoration," I remarked.
"I seek only your professional skills, not your dress sense," Mr Holmes replied, the twinkle in his eye blunting the barb in his comment.
I knocked on Sarah's dressing room door, but there was no reply. I knew that she sometimes just threw a coat on over her costume and went home in full make-up if she was in a hurry, so I was not entirely surprised. "Just us, then," I remarked to Mr Holmes, somewhat unnecessarily.
As we left the stage door, I was surprised to see that there was a taxi waiting in the street with its engine running. I felt a little guilty not to have been quicker in getting changed. Mr Holmes opened the cab door for me and I climbed in. "Scotland Yard!" he commanded the driver as he took his seat.
The traffic was very light this late on Christmas Eve and it took only a few minutes for the taxi to work its way down to the Thames and then along the Victoria Embankment to New Scotland Yard.
"Wait here," Mr Holmes instructed the taxi driver as he climbed out of the cab. There was a spring in his step that belied his years as he ascended the steps to the main door.
It was less than a minute later that Sherlock Holmes emerged from Scotland Yard again. He was clutching a small camera in one hand and a large brown manilla envelope in the other. "I always carry my Leica with me when I visit crime scenes these days," he explained. "I dropped the film in for the Police Laboratory to develop on my way to your theatre." I was quietly impressed with the standing that Mr Holmes still had with the ordinary officers of the Metropolitan Police that he could walk in off the street unannounced and use them as a film processing service, apparently with no questions asked.
Mr Holmes gave the taxi driver an address in Belgravia and then handed me the envelope. He sat back, watching me intently as I opened it. I drew out a sheaf of full-plate sized glossy black-and-white prints. I gasped as I took in the content of the first image. It was a close-up of a woman's head resting on a pillow. She was brutally tightly gagged with a pale cloth which pulled her cheeks into deep furrows. Pain showed in her eyes, emphasised by the stark, almost shadowless lighting brought about by the miniature flash-bulbs used in Mr Holmes's camera. The next few photographs showed the same woman seen from different angles. She was wearing a frilled white nightdress and lying on her back on top of a slightly rumpled bed. It was an old-fashioned brass bedstead with ornamental tubes and curlicues forming the head and foot. The woman was pulled into a cruelly taut spread-eagle with ropes linking her wrists and ankles to the extremities of the bed frame. There were close-ups of her wrists and ankles with bruising apparent even in black-and-white photographs. I was not sure whether to be more shocked by the way this woman had been treated or by Mr Holmes apparently calmly taking photographs before freeing her from her torment.
I was searching for a way to express my horror, when Mr Holmes anticipated my unspoken question. "The marquess was sufficiently suspicious that he insisted I record the crime scene before we released the victims," he explained.
"He called you and didn't even free his own wife?" I asked, a little tremor of outrage in my voice.
"As you so succinctly expressed it, he suspected a 'put-up job' and wanted to make sure no evidence was inadvertently destroyed," Mr Holmes replied with a slightly dismissive shrug as if distancing himself from the decision.
"And is she still tied up?" I asked, fearing the answer.
"No, of course not," Mr Holmes said, a little more sharply than I thought appropriate. "We freed her and the servants as soon as I had taken my photographs and the police had arrived."
Somewhat mollified, I continued examining the photographs. The next few showed different parts of the marchioness's bedroom, including the open jewel case and the damaged setting for the Epping Sapphire.
The last dozen or so photographs were of the two servants Mr Holmes had mentioned. Both appeared to be women in their twenties or thirties and were dressed in the black cotton dresses with white aprons that formed most female house-servants' uniforms. They were seated on upright wooden kitchen chairs and tightly bound. Both appeared to have been tied in the same way. Their wrists were crossed behind their backs and lashed together securely with several turns of rope both horizontally and vertically. A band of four or five turns of rope secured each of them to the chair frame at their waists. A similar band passed over each of their laps and under their chair seats. A less tidy but quite secure arrangement of a further half dozen or so turns of rope was wrapped around each of the women, binding their upper arms to their body and the back of the chair. Their legs were also lashed together at knee and ankle and the ankle bindings had been fastened off to a stretcher between the front legs of each chair. As in the case of their mistress, these women were tightly gagged with thick light coloured cloths passing between their teeth and knotted behind their heads.
Mr Holmes's photographs were of superb quality, showing both general views and details in close-up.
"The pictures are excellent," I remarked, genuinely impressed. "I'm sure that I could reproduce any of these bindings on the basis of your photographs alone."
"Thank you," Mr Holmes replied modestly.
"But," I persisted, "what I don't understand is what more you expect me to be able to tell you at the crime scene. The women are untied now and the original evidence in the ropes must be gone now."
"Ah, the fallacy of the expert!" Mr Holmes declared theatrically. "Details are important, make no mistake, but details are meaningless without the bigger picture, the narrative that draws the details together and gives them substance. Experts so often concentrate on details and never understand their meaning."
I have to confess that Mr Holmes had lost me at that point. I am no dunce, but I could not tell for the moment whether Mr Holmes was attempting to explain a principle to me or to make the whole topic more obscure than it already was.
I was excused the need to reply to that assertion by the taxi's arrival at our intended destination in Belgravia.
The Marquess of Epping and Ongar had an imposingly large Victorian or late Georgian town house. It was situated on the corner of two streets so that some rooms must have windows on both the front and side of the building, making them light and airy. The building was constructed in the white Portland limestone, so popular in London, now almost black from the city's filthy air. Most of the façade was plain smooth ashlar stonework, but their were decorative quoin stones at the corner of the building, with deeply incised decorative joints between the individual stones.
A sudden though struck me. "Only having two maids seems a rather inadequate staff for a place this size," I commented.
"The household is usually considerably bigger, but most are at the marquess's country residence in Essex, preparing for Christmas. The marquess and marchioness were intending to travel to the country on Christmas morning," Mr Holmes explained.
We had reached the front door at this point. Mr Holmes rang the bell and the door was promptly opened by a uniformed police constable who recognised him immediately and ushered us inside.
Without hesitation, Mr Holmes made for the stairs. I followed him and had to trot to keep up with his purposeful stride. The room he entered was two storeys up on the corner of the house. It was a magnificent room with windows on two sides. It was large for one woman's bedroom and had perhaps been the marquess and marchioness's shared bedroom before the onset of their present marital difficulties.
The massive brass bed shown in Mr Holmes's photographs was the main piece of furniture in the room. Pieces of rope were still tied to the corners of the bed. A young man in a fawn raincoat was examining the rope carefully. He stood up and nodded an acknowledgement to Mr Holmes as we entered the room.
"Miss MacKenzie, this is Detective Sergeant Roger West, who is in charge of the physical evidence in this case," Mr Holmes intoned, suddenly very formal. "Sergeant West, Miss Flora MacKenzie."
"Not Flora MacKenzie the escape lady?" Sergeant West asked with a touch of awe in his voice.
I admitted that I was indeed the escape lady.
"That's jolly good," he replied, "Mrs West and I loved your act when we saw it; she'll be thrilled to hear I've met you in person."
"Miss MacKenzie is here at my request to see if she can shed any light on the way the apparent victims were tied up," Mr Holmes interjected smoothly, neatly rescuing me from Sergeant West's adulation.
I looked from one man to the other. Both stood impassively waiting. Apparently I was 'on' next, but was not sure how I was expected to perform.
"Go ahead and inspect anything you wish, Miss MacKenzie," Mr Holmes invited, with just a hint of impatience in his voice. "We will both witness what you do and note any disturbance to the evidence that you have to make. Just keep talking as you work so that we can follow your train of thought."
"Very well," I replied nervously. This was like being on stage but under far more intense scrutiny than I was used to.
I noted that Holmes had freed the marchioness by cutting through the single strand of rope around each wrist and ankle. He confirmed that it had indeed been his work and that he had done it that way in order to preserve the knots intact.
I studied the rope that had been used on the marchioness's left ankle. "Well, this is cotton sash cord, probably No 8 gauge, and probably new," I began. I traced the route of the rope through the knot with one fingertip. "This is a buntline hitch. It's not a common knot other than at sea, except for one special use. However, it has some useful properties. It forms a slip-noose, so it can be tightened onto a limb, such as has been done here, but when the loop is pulled tight, the interior of the knot jams, preventing it from coming loose again. Very handy either in ship's rigging where you don't want knots coming loose or where you don't want a prisoner to escape." I demonstrated that the remains of the tightened knot would no longer slip.
"What's the other special use you mentioned?" Sergeant West asked.
"If you use a standard knot in your neck-tie, you will find that it too is a buntline hitch, sergeant," I explained with a grin.
"But otherwise, not a commonly understood knot?" Mr Holmes asked.
"Other than to sailors, no," I agreed.
I turned my attention to the way the rope was belayed to the bedpost. Again, I traced the line of the rope through the knot. "A midshipman's hitch," I announced. "Another nautical knot and something to do with rigging, I imagine, but also the knot of choice for the guy ropes on a tent as it is secure but also fairly easily adjustable."
"Excellent!" Mr Holmes exclaimed. "It is a pleasure to hear an expert not only comfortable with her subject but well able to explain it."
I was ridiculously pleased at the compliment and hoped I would not blush.
"Since the knots used are slip-knots," Mr Holmes continued. "I imagine that it would be possible to tie oneself up quite securely with these knots."
"Certainly," I agreed. "Just tie the ropes to the bed, put hands and feet through the loops and pull tight."
"Would it be possible to achieve the situation in which we found the marchioness?" Mr Holmes asked, offering me one of the photographs to examine.
"I doubt it," I replied. "The loops around the limbs have to be tightened and that must create some slack. The only place the slack can go is into the length of rope between the slip knots and the belays to the bed frame. The ropes look to be quite taut in the photograph."
"They were," Holmes confirmed.
"The only way I can think of determining just how tight the ropes could be would be to try it," I said somewhat hesitantly.
"That would be splendid!" Sergeant West declared enthusiastically. "If you can't do it, then nobody can."
"I'm not sure it actually proves anything of the kind," I replied. "It merely demonstrates that I don't know how to do it."
"Well said, Miss MacKenzie!" Mr Holmes said emphatically. "Impeccable logic. But don't forget that an expert witness in a court of law may express an opinion and discuss likelihoods. I regard you as an expert in this matter, so your opinion is of great value to me. Would you really be prepared to conduct an experiment in this matter?"
"Certainly," I replied, making my mind up, "but surely we should not disturb the marchioness's bed unnecessarily?"
"No indeed," replied Sergeant West. "I will find out if there is another bed we may use."
While the sergeant was away, I prepared myself for the experiment. I was clearly impractically dressed for struggling with ropes on a bed, so with Mr Holmes's back discreetly turned, I removed my skirt and stockings. I had a pair thick black tights, which I used for rehearsal and practice, in my bag. I sat on the floor to pull them on and stood up somewhat self-consciously. I also had a coil of rope almost identical to that used to bind the marchioness.
Sergeant West returned shortly after I had finished changing. His eyes goggled slightly at the sight of my impromptu sweater-and-tights costume, but he said nothing and thereafter kept his gaze firmly on my face. "There is another room with an identical bed," he told us.
Mr Holmes and I followed the sergeant to another bedroom on the same floor of the house. It was a much smaller and less splendid room but, as promised, the bed was the twin of the one we had just been examining. The room appeared to be a spare bedroom. The bed was not made up and the chairs in the room were covered by dust sheets.
I did not waste time but set to work immediately. I cut four lengths of rope each about a yard long. I secured each of them to a bedpost with a midshipman's hitch and formed a running noose in the end of each with a buntline hitch, exactly as I had observed in the marchioness's bedroom. I sat on the bed and inserted each foot through the prepared loops which I tightened firmly. I demonstrated to Mr Holmes and Sergeant West that the loops would now not release without considerable effort.
The problem was to achieve the minimum slack in the ropes. I lay back and stretched my left arm up towards the head of the bed. It was immediately obvious that I would end up with far too much slack if I used the rope as it was. I decided not to disturb the buntline hitch forming the loop, but instead to take up the slack at the midshipman's hitch that formed the belay to the bed head. I discovered that I could not reach it. I sat up again and leaned towards the foot of the bed to lengthen the ropes securing my ankles. I could just do it, but I was fit and flexible for my act; many women would not be able to fold themselves almost in half with their legs straight and spread apart.
I stretched out again and fiddled with the rope for my left wrist for almost five minutes before I was happy with the length. I shuffled to my right and repeated the adjustment with the other wrist rope. Finally satisfied, I guided my left hand through its loop with the fingertips of my right hand then pulled the loop tight until it jammed. I reached out with my right hand for the remaining loop but discovered that I had misjudged the length of rope and, even with my whole body at maximum stretch, I could only hook one fingertip though the loop intended for my hand. I muttered an unladylike curse under my breath and prepared to free my left hand in order to be able to adjust both the length of both ropes.
Mr Holmes signalled me to stop. "I perceive that this process may take several iterations to obtain the optimum lengths," he said. "Let me perform the adjustments in order to save some time."
I agreed readily. Holmes released and re-tightened both the midshipman's hitches securing my wrist ropes to make the ropes fractionally longer. The loop for my right wrist was now just within reach. I kept my fingers together and slid them through the loop then spread them out to ease the rope towards my wrist. I tugged gently against the rope to close the loop a little, giving me slightly more slack, then I shook it down the rest of the way to my wrist and pulled against the rope to tighten and lock the buntline hitch.
I experimented with the tension on the ropes. They were disappointingly slack. "Gentlemen," I announced. "I do not believe that I could have successfully tied myself up with the ropes any tighter than they are just now. This does not seem to match the marchioness's position as shown in Mr Holmes's photographs."
Mr Holmes and Sergeant West examined the photographs closely.
"Can you pull the ropes any tighter yourself?" the sergeant asked after a moment.
I obediently did so, bending my elbows and knees to tighten the ropes.
"No," Sergeant West said, "that's not it either."
"I think we can safely say that the marchioness did not tie herself up," Mr Holmes concluded.
"I agree," I replied, "but I am nevertheless helpless until one of you comes to my aid."
Sergeant West grinned at me and reached into his pocket. He selected the tool on his multi-bladed knife that is usually described as being for removing stones from horses hooves and used it as a marlin spike to tease open the knots securing my wrists and ankles.
I recovered my pieces of rope from the bed and followed Mr Holmes and Sergeant West back to the marchioness's bedroom.
"That puts us back where we started," Sergeant West remarked to Mr Holmes.
"Excuse me," I interjected, "but I have still not heard the whole story."
"True," Mr Holmes acknowledged, fixing me with a sharp stare, "and your insight is surely worth adding to our collective wisdom." He turned to the sergeant. "Perhaps you would oblige, West."
"Yes, sir," replied the sergeant, opening his notebook. "As I think you know, Mr Holmes summoned us after he was himself called in personally by the marquess. The marchioness has told us her version of events. She states that she had retired to bed early with a headache at 8 pm or thereabouts. She says that she was woken by a loud bang and saw two men enter her bedroom by way of the window. On realising that she was in the room and awake, the men threatened her with a gun then bound and gagged her in the way that Mrs Holmes's photographs show. She says she fainted at that point and did not therefore see the men make their escape. On recovering her wits, she struggled with her bonds until discovered by her husband. The brute, her words, mind you, left her tied up and it was not until Mr Holmes had taken his photographs that she was released."
"Did she see her attackers?" I asked.
"Yes, she describes two men, one with a red beard and one with a black beard," Sergeant West confirmed.
I burst out laughing.
"Yes it does seem a trifle improbable," Mr Holmes agreed with a wry smile.
"Not just that," I replied. "Have you read The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie?"
"I am aware of Mrs Christie's books," Mr Holmes answered a little stiffly, "but I am not an aficionado of sensational fiction."
"I must confess that I am," I admitted. "The marchioness's description of her alleged assailants matches exactly the description of a pair of entirely imaginary intruders in the book. A woman is found bound and gagged in her bed and claims to have been set upon and tied up by two men meeting that description whereas in reality she has actually been bound by her husband as part of a scheme they have set up."
"Are you suggesting that the marquess tied his own wife up?" Mr Holmes demanded.
"No, not at all," I protested. "I am merely suggesting a possible source for the marchioness's testimony."
The room fell silent for a moment. "The marquess says..." Sergeant West continued.
"Wait; is there anything to support the marchioness's story?" I asked.
"There is a broken window," the sergeant confirmed.
I slipped my feet back into my shoes in case of encounters with broken glass and walked carefully across to the window. The window was en example of the traditional vertically-sliding sash-and-case window virtually universal in Georgian and Victorian London. This one was open, with both sashes pushed to the upper limit of their travel. The window was glazed with twelve small panes of glass. The centre bottom pane in the upper sash was broken and the glass almost entirely missing. I realised that anyone breaking that pane would immediately be able to reach in and release the catch securing the window.
There was a crumpled piece of brown paper with pieces of glass adhering to it which was lying on the carpet.
"Paper stuck to the window with treacle to deaden the noise!" I exclaimed. "I didn't think anyone did that apart from in detective novels."
"Golden syrup in this case, ma'am," Sergeant West corrected me, indicating a green and gold Lyle's tin standing incongruously on the marchioness's dressing table alongside the opened jewel case. "I seem to remember that Raffles used this technique, but I have never encountered an instance outside of the pages of fiction."
"May I look out?" I asked.
"We have already dusted the window for fingerprints, so please go ahead," the sergeant invited.
I leaned carefully out of the window, taking care not to overbalance. There was a vertiginous drop of about 35 feet straight down into the basement area at the front of the house The street was about ten feet higher, but separated from the area by a spiked iron railing. Not a place to lose your footing, I concluded. I looked to my left, where I could see the decorative quoin stones on the corner of the building. They protruded from the smooth ashlar surface of the wall by about two inches. Although the quoins had deeply incised joints, these were in the form of a 45-degree chamfer on each stone. Offering not the least suggestion of a toehold. I turned myself around in the window opening and looked upwards. The wall ended in a parapet about six feet above the head of the window. Finally, I examined the stonework. I could see nothing apart from one clear heel print on the window sill.
"What do you conclude?" Mr Holmes asked as I brought my head and upper body back into the room.
"Well, I'm no climber, but even if I was I would not like to tackle that without safety ropes," I offered.
"So?" Mr Holmes prompted.
"So, whoever came in through the window must have come down from the roof, having secured a rope there," I replied, pleased at my deduction.
"And?" Mr Holmes prompted again.
"And..." I thought hard. "And, they went back the same way, otherwise the rope would still be there!" I concluded triumphantly.
"Excellent!" cried Me Holmes with a broad smile. "Now, describe the complete sequence to me."
"Well," I began, "the intruders get to the roof somehow. It has a parapet, so there is probably a broad gutter behind that going right round to the back. Perhaps they used a ladder there or maybe gained the roof from an adjoining building.
"One man stays on the roof, while his companion lowers himself on a rope, applies syrup to the glass then brown paper and smashes the pane. He opens the window and lets himself in. Meanwhile the second man lowers himself and enters too.
"The marchioness wakes up and they overpower her, gag her and bind her. They remove the Epping Sapphire from its setting and leave the way they came."
"Very good," Mr Holmes congratulated, his smile now looking more predatory. "And the servants? Why were they tied up?"
"Ah, yes, the servants," I replied hesitantly. "Maybe to stop them raising the alarm?"
"So our two bearded burglars have successfully silenced the marchioness and lifted the sapphire," Mr Holmes summarised. "And they decide they have to leave this room, descend three storeys to the basement to locate, threaten and bind the two maids before ascending those same three storeys and making their escape over the rooftops?"
"But someone must have tied up the marchioness," I persisted.
"The crux of the problem," Mr Holmes agreed. "Could it have been the servants?"
"No," I replied firmly, feeling myself on more certain territory. I found the photographs showing the two maids tied to chairs. "There are many ways in which two people might tie one another up, given sufficient skill, but I do not believe that to be the case here."
"Why not?" Mr Holmes demanded sharply.
"Well, let us turn the question around and assume that they did indeed tie each other up," I suggested. "They can probably each tie their own legs. The ropes over their laps and around their waists are also easily tied by themselves. That leaves their wrist bindings and the ropes around their arms and upper bodies.
"If we ignore the ropes around the arms and body, it would be possible with difficulty and with great skill. Essentially, with the chairs back to back, one woman would have to bind the other's wrists working with her own hands behind her back. The second woman would then need to do the same, but with her own wrists already tied. As I say, possible, but incredibly difficult."
"Could you do that?" Sergeant West asked.
"With plenty of rehearsal, I think Sarah Marks and I could manage it, but we've had a lot of practice," I replied.
"What if we don't ignore those other ropes?" Mr Holmes asked, steering the discussion back to the immediate question.
"Then it becomes impossible, I believe," I declared.
"Because?" Mr Holmes prompted.
"Because of the arrangement of those ropes," I replied. "They are a single length of rope in each case, wound around the woman's arms and chest and the back of the chair. The angle varies with each turn rather than forming a definite band of rope. The rope passes over both shoulders and below both elbows in each case. Both have the knot somewhere at the front of their bodies but are tied with their arms, and particularly their elbows behind the back of the chair, therefore they did not tie those ropes around themselves. One woman could have tied this rope around the other with difficulty, but then who tied the second woman? They cannot both have been tied first, therefore some third person did the tying."
"Reductio ad absurdum!" cried Mr Holmes in delight. "Splendid!"
"Whoever tied them up used an awful lot of rope," Sergeant West observed. "I've seen a few people tied up before, but it's usually just wrists and sometimes ankles too. Never anything as complicated as this. It must have taken a long time."
"At least five minutes each," I estimated, "and that's with every move planned in advance and an expert doing the tying."
"Not something to do if you're in a hurry, then," the sergeant concluded. "Would you ever think of tying someone up like that?"
"Not if I was in a hurry," I agreed. "Just tying a person's hands behind their back buys quite a lot of time before they can raise the alarm. I would only contemplate something like this if I wanted to hold someone for a long time securely but with minimal discomfort or risk of injury."
"Why not tie the marchioness up the same way?" Sergeant West wondered.
"An excellent question, sergeant," Mr Holmes said emphatically, "and possibly just another way of asking who tied her up."
"Maybe the marquess tied her up and then stole the sapphire himself to prevent her making off with it?" I speculated.
"Then she would have denounced him immediately," Mr Holmes replied dismissively. "She would have had no reason not to."
All three of us fell into silent contemplation of the problem. Sergeant West paced irritably; I prowled around the room examining the signs of disturbance again; Mr Holmes sat impassively in the marchioness's dressing table chair with his chin cupped in one hand.
It was Mr Holmes who broke the silence. "Miss MacKenzie, are you absolutely sure that the marchioness could not have tied herself up in the position in which I found her?"
"I am as certain as I can be," I replied carefully.
"And the difference between the knots used to secure the marchioness and the ones you used for your demonstration makes no material difference?"
I stared back at Mr Holmes in open-mouthed astonishment. "They're different?" I asked, lamely.
"Look for yourself," Mr Homes ordered brusquely.
I went back to the marchioness's bed. I knelt down beside the foot of the bed and closely studied the knots I had examined earlier. The loop was definitely and without doubt a buntline hitch and the belay to the bedpost was equally certainly a midshipman's hitch. I checked the other side of the foot of the bed: the knots were identical.
I could feel both men's eyes on me as I walked the few steps to the head of the marchioness's bed. I had not previously examined the knots here as closely as those at the foot as they were harder to see because of the position of the bed-head against the wall and the presence of a bedside cabinet at each side of the bed.
I asked permission to move the bed and Sergeant West helped me pull it away from the wall. I knelt down again and examined the ropes. Superficially, the arrangement was the same as at the foot, but the knot used as the belay was entirely different and was a knot I did not recognise. I, supposedly the rope expert, had looked but not seen a detail difference which Mr Holmes had taken in at a glance. I felt extremely stupid to have missed it and embarrassed that Mr Holmes had assumed I had seen it but had dismissed it as irrelevant.
Sergeant West agreed to my untying one of the knots to determine what it was. Mr Holmes took several photographs with his Leica as I teased one of the mysterious knots undone with the sergeant's pocket-knife.
I quickly discovered that the belay was formed of a separate piece of rope, tied to the bedpost in a knot which produced two fixed loops of rope. Both loops stood horizontally out from the rest of the knot which was formed around the bedpost. One loop was about an inch long and the other slightly smaller and lying directly on top of the first. The rope which was led from the noose to secure the marchioness's wrist had no knot in it at all. Instead, it was threaded through the two rope loops and back towards the noose. I took two pieces of rope from my own stock and with a little trial and error managed to reproduce the arrangement I had just dissected. I tested the resulting knot and smiled to myself.
"Gentlemen, I believe I have a solution to the puzzle," I announced dramatically. "I think another experiment in the spare bedroom is in order."
The sergeant led the way to the room we had used previously. I quickly tied the knots that I was now certain I had identified correctly and showed Mr Holmes and Sergeant West how I could use them to secure myself effectively to the bed.
"Magnificent!" Mr Holmes declared. "Time for a demonstration, sergeant!"
"Right you are, sir," Sergeant West replied with a grin and left the room. I heard his feet on the stairs.
"Let me just get you out of this," Mr Homes said as he freed me, "then you can lay on a second performance to a larger audience.
By the time we were back in the marchioness's bedroom, Sergeant West had assembled a small crowd. I recognised the marchioness herself and the two maids from Mr Holmes's photographs. The two additional men were introduced to me as the Marquess of Epping and Ongar and Inspector Battle, Sergeant West's superior. I felt very conspicuous in my outfit of red sweater and black tights but maintained a confident stage presence.
The inspector explained wearily that he had achieved absolutely nothing by close questioning of the available witnesses. He hoped that our demonstration would be more illuminating.
Mr Holmes began by explaining who I was and why he had called me in. I examined the faces of the household members gathered there to see if any of them looked especially uneasy, but they all looked so nervous anyway, that it was impossible to tell.
"Now," Mr Holmes said, warming to his theme, "this case presents the detective with a number of interesting questions. How, for example did two burglars scale up or down the sheer face of soot-encrusted building, yet leave no marks? Why were they not observed doing so in plain sight on a street corner? Having broken in and subdued their victim, why did they descend from almost the top of the building to the basement in order to capture two servants who had probably seen and heard nothing and who believed their mistress to be asleep in bed?
"Ladies and gentlemen, we propounded many theories, but all foundered on one or more fatal flaws. At last, however, we found one explanation, and one only, that fits all the facts. Let me put it to you and hear your opinions."
Mr Holmes walked dramatically to the open window. "The marchioness is an able and apparently well-read lady," he continued. "Her reading would appear to encompass the exploits of Mr E.W. Hornung's character Raffles, the gentleman cracksman. Raffles professional toolkit includes a jar of treacle and some brown paper. The marchioness chose to substitute Lyle's excellent Golden Syrup, but to much the same effect: the paper is glued to the glass with the syrup and it deadens the sound as the glass breaks, probably in this case by being struck with the syrup tin. She has read enough detective stories to know that broken glass must be found inside a room suggest entry from outside. Fortunately, windows of this type facilitate such a ruse. Allow me to demonstrate."
Mr Holmes slid the bottom sash up to the limit of its travel and pulled the top one down until the lower three panes of glass were below the frame of the top sash. He sat on the inner window ledge with his head and upper body outside. He steadied himself with one hand against the bottom of the open sash above him and mimed applying syrup and paper to the glass and then smashing it.
"Of course, even that bang makes a lot of noise, so most well-equipped burglars these days would simply insert a fine-toothed saw up between the two sashes of the window and cut through the catch, a process both rapid and virtually silent but one which can only performed on a closed and latched window and only from the outside." Mr Holmes paused for dramatic effect. "We seem to have eliminated the need for anyone to be outside the window at all."
"What about that footprint?" the marchioness demanded.
"I wonder that you had any opportunity to observe it, madam," Mr Holmes remarked drily. "However, it is there and must be explained along with al the other evidence. To be more precise, rather than a footprint, we have what appears to be a heel-print, apparently from a man's shoe." He pointed to it and Inspector Battle walked across the room to see it. He nodded and walked back to his place in Mr Holmes's audience.
"The first question to ask is why there should be a heel-print there at all," Mr Holmes continued. "A toe-print would be understandable, but why would a man stand with his back to the window and his heel, one heel only, mind you, on the window sill? Surely a very precarious position?" He looked at the people gathered in the room, but none ventured a suggestion. "Very well, then we must ask another question: what is this heel-print? It is a small area with no soot upon it. It is semi-circular at one end and has parallel sides leading to the outer edge of the sill. Surely a heel-print, you say, but I reply 'not necessarily'." Mr Homes took the syrup tin again and placed it on the stone outer window sill a few inches from the heel print. He gripped it firmly and pushed it towards the edge of the sill. There was a grinding sound and a puff of soot as the tin scraped a clean area on the dirty stone work. It was identical in shape to the 'heel-print'."
Mr Holmes replaced the syrup tin on the marchioness's dressing table where he had found it. "Now it is always a risky matter to invent a description of a burglar. After all, the police will ask more and more details and may eventually catch you out. However, if you make your burglars wear a disguise and make it transparently obvious that they are in disguise, then perhaps the embarrassing questions will be fewer. The marchioness's splendidly whiskered intruders are an excellent case. It was immediately obvious to all, apparently except to the lady herself, that the beards had come from a joke shop. Miss MacKenzie was even able to identify the book that inspired this particular ruse. Instead of berating her for making up her evidence, the police were forced to tut at her naïveté and explain gently that what she saw were disguises." The inspector coughed and shuffled his feet.
"Now, the element of this tangled web of deceit that gave us the greatest difficulty was the way the marchioness was apparently tied up in a way that could not possibly have been self-inflicted I called in the specialist services of Miss MacKenzie to apply her peculiar skills with ropes top this problem."
Mr Holmes stepped back to stand by the window once more, relinquishing his centre-stage position to me. "Thank you Mr Holmes, perhaps my experience rather than my skills was the more telling" I began modestly. "You may be surprised to learn that it is not at all difficult to tie oneself up in such a way that escape is impossible and so that one is wholly dependent on being rescued by someone else. While it is easy to make ropes inescapable, it is very difficult to make them as tight as if they had been tied by another person. That illusion is the unique achievement of this case. A demonstration will make my point more clearly than any words could."
I took six pieces of rope which I had already cut to appropriate lengths. I tied two of them to the foot of the marchioness's bed just above the ropes that had secured her, which I left undisturbed. I used the combination of midshipman's hitch and buntline hitch which I had used before. At the head end of the bed, I tied a pair of ropes to produce two replicas of the unusual knot I had studied earlier, with its two unequal-sized loops. My last two pieces of rope, I fashioned into a pair of small nooses with buntline hitches and then threaded the free ends through the loops on the knots fastened to the bedposts.
I climbed onto the bed and inserted one foot through each of the loops attached to the bottom of the bed. I pulled them tight and made sure that the knots jammed properly, explaining as I did so the useful properties of the knots used, which might give a rescuer the impression that they were not slip-knots at all.
I lay back and put my hands through the other pair of nooses, pulling them tight. "Now, I am already completely helpless," I explained to the fascinated audience. "None of the loops enclosing my wrists or ankles will slip. I cannot possibly reach the knots at my own wrists and in any case would need a tool to tease the knots open. I am also unable to reach far enough to untie the knots at the bed-head. However, as you can see, none of the ropes is particularly tight, so a rescuer might just suspect that my predicament was self-inflicted."
I reached up and grabbed the free ends of the ropes leading from my wrist bindings. "These knots, however, provide a clever solution to that problem. I have seen the principle before, but never in rope. The sergeant is wearing a raincoat which has a buckle consisting of no more than two metal rings. When threaded through them, the end of the belt can be pulled to tighten it. Pulling on the end of the belt tends to separate the rings, so allowing it to slip but the tension from the belt being around his waist will tend to pull the rings together so preventing slippage. These rather ingenious knots work the same way. I can pull on the ends of the ropes and they slide through the knots pulling ever tighter on my wrists, but the rope will not slide back. I demonstrated by tugging on the ends of the ropes until I had taken all the slack out of my bindings and I lay in a taut spread-eagle with the tension in the ropes obvious to all."
"Now," I continued, my voice sounding a little strained because of the difficulty of expanding my lungs fully, "it will be obvious to anyone finding me that I could not possibly have done this to myself, or so I hope, and it will equally obvious that I am in acute discomfort and in immediate need of release. I would therefore hope that anyone rescuing me would slash through the knots, destroying all evidence of the way they had been tied. Canny Mr Holmes, was, however, careful to photograph the knots and to cut through the rope in such a way as to preserve them."
"Bravo," Miss MacKenzie," Mr Holmes congratulated me as he deftly cut me free.
"I think that covers just about all the details of the puzzle," Sergeant West concluded.
"But why were the servants tied up?" Inspector Battle asked.
"Simple to exclude them from suspicion," Mr Holmes explained. "If they were tied up in the kitchen, they cannot possibly have been involved in the burglary. The marchioness will have tied them both up well before preparing the little charade in here. I expect a sum of money changed hands in order to ensure that they kept to the agreed story. She seems to have taken considerable care to tie them securely but without causing undue distress. I don't think they will have bothered struggling and I doubt if there is even a mark on their wrists, let alone any bruises."
Inspector Battle examined the maid's wrists. They were indeed completely unmarked. "I doubt that a real burglar would have been quite so compassionate," he remarked drily.
The two maids said nothing but adopted a curiously fixed expression, their gaze studiously avoiding eye contact with anyone else.
"And where's the sapphire gone?" the marquess demanded indignantly.
"Gone?" Mr Holmes retorted gently. "Why, it has not gone anywhere. It is still here."
"The setting's here all right," the marquess continued angrily, "but I don't see the stone!"
"Ah! Another question that this case raises," Mr Holmes replied lightly. "Why remove the major stone here and now? Why not take the whole thing away and dismantle it at leisure somewhere safe?"
Mr Holmes looked at each face in the room in turn, but no-one offered an answer.
"The answer," he continued, "lies in the difficulty of hiding the gem in the house, which will surely be searched thoroughly, and then the further difficulty of smuggling it out."
The faces looking back at Mr Holmes were even more puzzled than before.
"The solution, my friends, lies in the juxtaposition of the broken jewellery with that strangely misplaced tin of syrup," he announced. "Syrup is not only a passable adhesive, but can also be a lubricant. I think a large spoonful will have eased the passage of the sapphire down the marchioness's gullet and it now resides in her stomach. It has no sharp points or edges, so, although she will experience an uncomfortable couple of days, it should complete its journey through her interior with no damage either to it or to her. I rather imagine she planned a few days convalescence over Christmas to recover from her terrible ordeal at the hands of the bearded burglars and would have mysteriously disappeared shortly after that."
"Is this true, Edith?" the marquess asked furiously.
The marchioness's eyes flooded with tears and she nodded unhappily while staring at the floor.
The inspector cleared his throat noisily. "Well, if there was no break-in, no-one was tied up against their will and the sapphire has not actually been stolen, it is entirely up to individuals to decide whether to press charges against anyone else here present," he said, sounding acutely embarrassed and as though he would rather be anywhere else.
Mr Holmes and I staged a discreet withdrawal before any of the recrimination that were bound to ensue became too heated. I put my skirt back on over my practice tights while we stood together on the landing. As we walked down the stairs together, I raised another question about the evening's events.
"The logic leading to the marchioness is so clear, that I never had a chance to air one of my own misgivings," I said to Mr Holmes.
He raised a quizzical eyebrow at me.
"I really did not believe that she would be capable of quite such ingenious use of rope. Where do you suppose she learned to tie knots like a sailor?" I wondered.
"Well, she's quite a yachtswoman you know," Mr Holmes replied casually. "British team at the 1936 Olympic Games."
I stopped dead in my tracks. "Why didn't you tell me that?" I demanded.
"I did not wish to bias your judgement," he replied disarmingly.
Copyright © 2004 Gillian B
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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