A ship's siren woke me in the early hours of the morning. I was in an unfamiliar room and it took my befuddled mind a moment to re-orientate itself. I remembered that I was staying in my grandparents' house in North Berwick on the East Coast of Scotland. It was early April 1916, only a couple of weeks after my 11th birthday. My father was a Commander in the Royal Navy, serving with Sir David Beatty's battle-cruiser fleet based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. My Mother and I had moved from our home in London to be closer to my father and to be far away from the threat of Zeppelin raids.
I wrapped a shawl round my shoulders and crept out of my bedroom and across the landing to the upstairs sitting room of the house, which commanded an excellent view out to sea. I drew back the curtain. It was a clear night and I could just make out the silhouette of a light cruiser and a flotilla of destroyers, probably HMS Champion and the 13th Destroyer Flotilla. The cruiser was signalling by lamp to someone on the shore. I have been able to read Morse code as long as I have been able to read books and this was quite slow and in plain language. I just caught the end of the message, "...AND THANK YOU. GOD SAVE THE KING." Someone had presumably signalled a greeting to the ships from the somewhere in the town. After a few moments, the signal lamp on the cruiser started flashing again. It was much faster now and the traffic was composed of groups of numbers, which I recognised as orders in cipher to the other ships. I could read the characters but not the messages they concealed.
I was fully awake, despite my desire for more sleep, so I snuggled down in an armchair to watch the pre-dawn sky lighten. I drew my legs up, tucked my warm flannel nightdress round my feet and pulled the shawl more snugly round me. I must have been sleepier than I realised, and dozed off, for I awoke feeling cold some time later. The sky was lightening now with the false dawn and I could make out the Fife coast opposite as a black outline.
The naval ships were well out of sight by then, but I just discern another vessel, out in the North Sea, which was signalling. Automatically, I read the signal. It didn't seem to be in code, because it was plainly divided into words. The problem was that I couldn't understand any of them. I followed the Morse for nearly a minute when suddenly I caught a word I recognised, "SCHIFF", which I knew was the German word for 'ship'. In horror, I realised why I had not been able to follow the signal - it was in German.
The shock of that realisation brought me fully to my senses. I knew that signal lamps sent out a fairly narrow beam of light and that meant that if I could see it, then the intended recipient was not far away. There must be a German spy somewhere in North Berwick!
Should I run and fetch my Grandfather? No, because the vessel might go out of sight in the time that took and I could only really pick it out because of its signal lamp. I thought furiously about what to do, then I had it; I had to mark the position of the vessel in some way. I thought about putting something on the window, but that would mark positions differently depending on where you were in the room. Then I realised I had to mark two points. Quickly, I stepped back from the window and then moved an upright chair into the middle of the room. I sighted over the top of it towards the mysterious vessel and noted where it came on the window. I dashed back to the window, heedless of the noise I was undoubtedly making. I fumbled in my hair and pulled out a hairpin, which I jammed into the joint between the upper and lower sashes of the window. I went back to the chair and adjusted its position so that the line of sight was marked accurately.
Just then, my Mother came into the room in her night-dress and dressing-gown, her hair in disarray and her eyes bleary with sleep. "Flora!" she chided. "What in the world are you doing? Get back to bed this minute!" I tried to explain what I was doing, but she was in no mood to listen. I was still trying to get her to understand that what I was doing was important, when my Grandfather joined us. He was clearly not in the mood for disturbed sleep. Nevertheless, he was a fair-minded man and listened to my explanation. As I spoke, his eyes widened. As I finished, he broke into a broad grin, "Capital, Flora! Britain can be proud of girls like you!" My Mother was clearly not impressed and was just about to protest when he spoke again, barking out orders like the retired Royal Navy Captain he was, "Flora, you sit on that chair and make sure no-one moves it; not even an inch! Marjorie, you keep her company and you're to keep everyone else out of this room until the proper authorities arrive, d'ye hear?"
The proper authorities turned out to be Inspector Andrew Dalhousie of the East Lothian County Constabulary. He listened attentively to my explanation and my rationale for believing there was a spy at large in North Berwick. "Splendid, Child!" he commented. My pleasure at his evident satisfaction with my account tempered my irritation at being addressed as "Child" as if it were my name.
There was very little point in going back to bed by that time, so I washed and dressed. I was excused lessons for the day and the time dragged slowly past as my excitement waned and my lack of sleep caught up with me. I knew that the Police were doing a discreet but systematic search of all houses which had a view in the direction in which I had seen the mysterious signal, but I expected results sooner.
Although I was not having lessons, I spent most of the day in the company of Queenie Holkham, my governess, who was also a good friend to me. (Queenie was actually named Victoria, but like many girls with that name born in the reign of the last Queen, she acquired Queenie as a childhood nickname.) In an effort to divert me, Queenie suggested we put in some rehearsal time. This was a codeword for Queenie's abiding passion, escapology. Queenie harboured a lifelong passion for the stage and, in particular, a fascination with escape artistes. As she was then in her mid 20s, the probability of this ambition ever being realised was receding, but she still trained against the day when she might tread the boards as a professional.
Our rehearsal room was Queenie's bedroom, upstairs at the back of the house. Queenie quickly changed into her practice costume of camisole and short bloomers worn over long black stockings. While she dressed, Queenie instructed me in the practice she proposed to do that afternoon. I knew where to find the rope she kept for these training sessions. I extracted her battered tin trunk from under the bed and opened it. Even at the tender age of eleven I had the experience to select exactly the material needed.
Queenie crossed her wrists behind her back and I tied them firmly, looping the rope both horizontally and vertically, finishing it off in a firm reef knot that I was sure she could not reach. As always, we chatted happily as I worked. Other than occasional instructions or queries, the conversation was never about escape artistry but roamed free over any imaginable topic. That day, the main subject was the strange signals I had seen the previous night.
Queenie sat on the edge of her bed while I bound and cinched her ankles then her knees, we speculated on the possible identity of the spy in our midst.
I helped Queenie down onto the floor and bound her thighs to her chest, the rope passing under her knees then under her arms and around her back. We wondered whether the spy would try to get away and whether there would be an exciting chase across the sand dunes.
I carefully rolled Queenie over onto her side and then linked her bound wrists and ankles with a short length of rope passing under her bottom. I finished the job by winding a long length of rope right round her, squeezing her calves against her thighs and her arms against her back. Lastly, I positioned her in a sort of squashed-down kneeling position. I conjectured luridly on the putative spy's likely fate. Queenie told me that there would be a short trial held behind closed doors and the spy would be hanged like a common murderer. I was frankly disappointed. My childish love of gore demanded a firing squad on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle at the very least.
I had Queenie's stopwatch in my hand ready. "Now!" she instructed. There was never any conversation at this stage; Queenie was completely focussed on her escape attempt, while I was paying attention to her technique. There was something compelling about the battle between the my governess, whom I believed to be the possessor of the wisdom of Solomon as well as the beauty of the Queen of Sheba, and the inanimate ropes confining her. I was always astonished that no matter how snugly I had drawn the ropes, she always managed to steal some slack somewhere. As I watched, she found some slack in the final rope I had wrapped round her and redistributed it so she could move her arms a little. Somehow she squeezed her legs tighter against her body, so that there was a little play in the rope linking her wrists and ankles. I could see where the strategy was leading. Sure enough she began a slow stirring motion with one hand. This manoeuvre does not appear to achieve much but gradually and inexorably it 'walks' the ropes binding the wrist up towards the fingers until eventually, the whole hand can be pulled free. After a few moments, the ropes were up to the base of her thumb. The trick at that point was to relax the hand sufficiently to allow the rope to ride unimpeded over its widest part. Another few moments and the hand came free. I let out a sigh; suddenly conscious that I had been tense as I silently urged Queenie on. It was all straightforward from here; I relaxed and enjoyed the efficiency of Queenie's movements as she methodically undid all my careful ropework. It was as much a pleasure to watch her work as it was to watch a trained gymnast or acrobat perform.
Queenie stretched out luxuriously on the carpet once she was free, easing the kinks out of her limbs. "Shall I show you where the slack came from?" she asked from the floor, reading my mind. "Yes please," I replied eagerly. My Mother knew all about Queenie's hobby and, while not exactly welcoming it with open arms, neither did she condemn it. As long as it did not corrupt me, interfere with her duties or lead to social scandal, Mother was content for Queenie to pursue any leisure activities she might care to choose. Similarly, she was not put out by my choice of Queenie as a friend, despite our disparity in years and despite the difference in our social status in those class-conscious days. She had drawn the line, however, at Queenie giving me practical experience in escape technique. Instead, I had to content myself with acting as Queenie's assistant. I had hopes that Mother's attitude might soften in the future.
"Very well," said Queenie, her voice settling into her professional teaching cadence. "The key to a successful escape often lies in subverting the efforts of the person tying the ropes, without their ever realising it." She went on to explain that it was often possible to position limbs slightly tensed, so that more rope was used to bind them than necessary, yielding valuable slack when the limbs were relaxed. She pantomimed various very obvious moves to do this and pointed out that they were likely to be detected in short order. Queenie had me hold one of her wrists with my hands gently clasped round it. With hardly any obvious movement of her hand, her wrist suddenly became thicker and very hard, the tendons standing out like wooden pencils. I was astonished.
"Do this," instructed Queenie, her hand positioned as if it held an invisible orange. "Now make your hand tense, as if you were holding something heavy like a cannon ball in your hand." I mimicked what she was doing and was delighted that my wrist also became bulkier. True, I did not achieve quite the expansion that she did, but I managed a small and probably useful gain.
"Let's see how it works," said Queenie with a grin. She crossed her wrists in front of her and invited me to feel her hands. They felt quite relaxed and I could not detect the tension in the wrists that I knew must be there. "See how tight you can tie them," Queenie invited. I took a piece of rope and bound her wrists, first one way, then the other, pulling the rope as tightly as my 11-year-old arms were capable. "Any slack?" asked Queenie. I shook my head. "Then watch this."
There was the faintest of movements to her hands and I could see that the ropes were suddenly not pressing into the flesh of her wrists. I felt the binding. I could now slip my little finger between the rope and her wrist. "The left wrist is slightly tighter, so I will concentrate on the right" Queenie explained. She began the usual twisting motion with the right hand, as if she were stirring something with an invisible spoon. I watched fascinated as the rope began to creep towards her hand. There was a struggle, and I thought a little abrasion, to get it past her thumb, but the hand pulled completely free after that. I gave Queenie a little round of applause, not entirely ironic. I heaved an inward sigh wishing that I could learn to do that.
In the evening, Inspector Dalhousie returned to confer with my Grandfather. He was courteous enough to report back to me too. He explained to me that, despite a diligent search, nothing suspicious had been found in any house. I was crestfallen, both from disappointment and also a feeling that somehow this reflected on my credibility.
Grandfather was very kind and gentle with me. He explained quietly that the conclusion was that I must have been mistaken. I protested that I knew what I had seen. He reassured me that no-one thought I was lying, just mistaken, and that he was sure that I believed what I said. I am not sure if I was more annoyed at being disbelieved or at being patronised.
I went to bed early, tired from the exertions of the previous night and frustrated at the conclusion to the search. I fell into a deep sleep as soon as I was in bed.
I woke unexpectedly in the small hours of the following morning. I was still angry about being disbelieved the previous day and wanted to see if there was another signal that night. I had not noticed the time the previous night, so I had no idea when I should mount a lookout. I tossed and turned in indecision, torn between forcing myself to settle again to enjoy the warmth of my bed or getting up and holding a vigil at the sitting room window in the hope of more evidence. I finally decided that I would never get back to sleep again, so I rose, wrapped myself in my shawl and went to sit at the window.
I was desperately tired and, despite my best efforts, I dozed from time to time. Suddenly, without remembering waking up, I could see last night's pattern repeating itself. A single ship was coming up the Firth from the North Sea. She was in communication in slow plain-language Morse with someone on the land near me.
I made my way quickly to Queenie's room and shook her awake. I clapped my hand over her mouth as she started to protest and held a finger to my lips. She followed me back to the sitting room in silence. I pointed out the ship I had seen, a destroyer from its size. The signalling had stopped while I was fetching her, but that didn't bother her as the rest of the circumstantial evidence seemed to weigh in my favour.
Queenie thought for a moment, then pointed out that if the previous night's pattern was followed, we could expect communication with the mysterious vessel out at sea later on. If we were to position ourselves on the beach, we could watch the town for lights as well as seeing the signal from the vessel. I readily agreed.
My heart was pounding both with nervousness and with excitements at the prospect of our adventure. I had read enough sensational fiction the think of an obvious objection, "What if they see us?" I had also read enough of that sort of fiction not to find anything odd in Queenie's melodramatic response, "It's the middle of the night so they won't see us if we cover our faces in something dark."
I dressed as quickly as I knew how. I chose the dark warm clothes I usually wore for sailing in Gradfather's small boat, navy blue sweater, like a seaman's one in miniature, worn with a navy serge skirt which reached just below my knees. I wore two pairs of black woollen stockings for warmth and my heavy boots. I tucked my hair up into a tight black knitted cap. As a dramatic final gesture, I wore a black eye-mask which was in my dressing-up chest of old clothes. At the last moment, I remembered a pair of gloves and dropped a small electric torch into my skirt pocket. It can't have taken me more than two or three minutes to dress; such was my sense of urgency.
I tapped gently on the door of Queenie's room, then let myself in. She was dressed entirely in black, with a long skirt and jacket and a black woollen muffler. She was wearing a felt hat with a narrow brim and had wrapped a black veil over it and her head to hide the lightness of her face and her fair hair. She nodded at my outfit then tossed me a pair of very old woollen stockings, "Put these on over your boots so you can walk silently." I did as she bid quickly. While I was pulling the stockings on, Queenie tied another black stocking over my mouth and nose, to hide my face completely in the dark.
Now kitted out like comic opera burglars, we crept out of the house through the back door and out into the dark and silent street. We made our way down to North Berwick harbour which is part of a small rocky peninsula with long sandy beaches forming bays either side of it. We stared out to sea in what I judged to be the right direction. With the lighthouses dark for the duration of the War, it was hard to get one's bearings accurately.
With a growing sense of anticlimax and beginning to feel faintly ridiculous in my melodramatic outfit, I waited. Suddenly, I picked out a point of light on the horizon and watched for a moment to confirm that it was a Morse signal.
Anxiously, we scanned the dark buildings of the town for a glimmer of light. We looked carefully at the tall terraced houses of Melbourne Road all along the seafront and with clear views of the unidentified vessel out at sea, but they were in darkness. Eventually, we spotted a winking light on a small building about half a mile away to our east.
Quickly, we made our way along the promenade, then dropped down onto the sand of the beach, so we could run without being heard. At last we reached the building we sought. It was a small workshop in the gap between the two fine ranges of houses forming Marine Parade and Tantallon Terrace (each section of development along the seafront had its own name). I could read enough of the Morse to confirm with Queenie's help (she understood German) that the ship I had seen earlier was indeed a destroyer and had been identified as HMS Active.
Eventually the signal stopped. We waited on the beach, wondering what to do. No-one entered or left the building we had been watching. We decided to see what could be found out by looking around the outside of the premises. Silently, we crept up to the sea wall, climbed the steps and crossed the road. Behind the building was a deserted yard. There were no lights visible in the windows or under the doors.
We waited again, not daring to speak above a whisper. Silently, we made our way round to the front again. A dim light, possibly from an oil lamp, appeared in one of the windows. We decided to find out if we could see anything through the window. It was a ground floor window, but too high up for either of us to see through. Queenie laced her fingers and offered her hands as a footstep for me. As she boosted me up, I was able to grasp the bars on the window with my gloved hands and to gain a toehold on a projecting course of brickwork. I peeped in, showing as little of my head as I could. There was no-one in the room. The source of light was indeed a rather dirty oil lamp on a table. Also on the table was an Aldis lamp, clearly the source of the Morse signal.
I had seen enough. "Coming down," I whispered to Queenie. I felt hands grip me at the waist and lower me back to the ground. With rising panic, I realised that they were not Queenie's hands. As I turned to see who it was, a powerful electric torch was shone in my face. I could see nothing but the torch. A male voice came from behind the glare, "Who have we got here, then?" I was rooted to the spot and stood unresisting as the stocking round my face was removed and my mask was pulled up. "It's that girl who's been staying with Captain MacKenzie," a woman's voice replied. I was voiceless with fear and my knees felt weak.
The torch changed hands and, as my vision returned, I could see that a woman now held it. The man who had been shining it in my face was struggling to keep Queenie still. He had one arm round her neck and a hand clamped over her mouth. "Better get them inside," he growled. Queenie was dragged along struggling. Without warning, she kicked the man's shins and tried to break free. She was rewarded by the woman delivering a smart blow to back of her head with the torch and collapsed limply into the man's arms. That broke my trance of fear. A wave of anger swept over me and I realised that Queenie's best chance lay in my escaping.
Furiously, I swept the torch from the woman's hand. It clattered on the paving and went out. I fled down the street, silent on my stocking-covered boots, and abruptly went through the front gate of a house at random and into the garden. I found some dense shrubbery and squatted down deep inside it to recover my breath. After a few minutes, I heard footsteps on the road and could see glimpses of light as if a torch was being shone around. Each garden in turn was apparently being checked.
I sat perfectly still as the beam of light swept across my hiding place. I realised that dressed in dark clothes and with my face completely covered, I would be hard to pick out of the confusing shadows amongst the bushes. I peeked out through the cracks between the fingers of my gloved hands so that not even my eyes would give me away. It worked. The search continued past one or two more gardens then was abandoned. I heard the woman snort in disgust before turning back to the workshop. I held my breath and listened. I eventually heard a faint clunk as a door was shut.
I managed to jam my rising panic into a dark corner in the back of my mind and was strangely calm. I knew it was risky, possibly foolhardy, but I felt that I had to try to find out what had happened to Queenie. I crept back to the workshop. It appeared to be in complete darkness. The ground rose slightly at the back of the building, so the ground floor windows were no more than small slots just above the paved surface of the enclosed rear yard.
There was light visible through one of the windows. I lay down on my stomach and crawled cautiously up to it. I was looking down into a cluttered store-room. The man and woman were there and had evidently just finished securing Queenie to their satisfaction. Queenie was sitting on a rather battered-looking upright wooden chair. Her wrists were crossed and bound behind the back of the chair with rope and her ankles had been lashed together. I could see no other bonds and she did not actually seem to be tied to the chair. Queenie's hat and veil had been removed and I could see that she had been gagged and blindfolded, apparently by two turns of her black muffler around her head, one between her teeth and one across her eyes with a knot at the back.
I was relieved that Queenie's binding had been so cursory, so that she would surely be able to escape. A nagging doubt nevertheless lingered; if Queenie had been unconscious or dazed when they tied her up, how much had she been able to resist?
As I continued to watch, the man and the woman left Queenie alone closed the door to the room. They took the lamp with them so it was now quite dark in the room. I was torn by indecision. Should I attempt to force the window open and try to rescue Queenie? Should I go to find help and, if so, to whom should I go?
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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