I sat frozen in indecision. I had seen Queenie bound, gagged and blindfolded in a semi-basement room and I was not sure whether I should try to rescue her on my own or to find help.
I finally decided that I just could not go away and leave Queenie like that. The window to her prison was at ground level, so I could get to it easily. It was not fastened securely but there were vertical bars in front of it. The bars were quite widely spaced and there was one missing. I judged that I could probably wriggle through that gap. The window was only about 18 inches high and hinged at the top edge. The catch was old and broken, so the window loosened with a firm push to the bottom of the casement.
I turned round and wriggled feet first through the window. I estimated that the floor was about six feet below the windowsill so I hung on to the sill until I was dangling by my fingertips before letting go. I dropped a few inches onto a hard stone floor, silent in my stocking-covered boots.
The window could just be made out as a midnight blue rectangle against black. I could see nothing in the room. I fumbled in my skirt pocket for my torch. I snapped it on and looked around. Although I knew Queenie's plight, it was nevertheless startling to see her caught in the torchlight. She must have been aware of my presence, because her blindfolded face was turned towards me. "It's me!" I hissed and she visibly relaxed.
I tucked the torch under one arm and untied the knot securing the scarf which was both blindfolding and gagging Queenie. I unwound it from round her head and then spotted the wad of cloth in her mouth, which I gently extracted.
Before I could start untying her, Queenie started asking questions. I explained how I had evaded capture and how I had broken into the room where she was imprisoned. She looked up at the window in dismay. "I can't possibly get through a hole as small as that." I looked at the window and at Queenie and sadly nodded assent.
"At least I can untie you," I offered, trying to be helpful.
"That's no good," replied Queenie. "They will know someone has been in here. There must be a better way." I stood waiting while Queenie thought about the problem. "I have it," she said decisively. "If I am free but they think I'm still tied up, then I can choose an opportunity to break out if one presents itself." She obviously knew what she was talking about but I was baffled. I shook my head in confusion.
"I'll explain," said Queenie. "You will untie me and then tie me up again, so I look just the same but we will do it so that I can escape instantly if I want to. I'll show you the knots." This was rapidly turning into the most bizarre escape rehearsal I had ever been involved in.
"Tell me exactly how my wrists are tied," Queenie instructed.
I shone the torch and examined the ropes. "Wrists crossed and rope just wrapped round about 4 times then reef-knotted," I reported. "It does look terribly tight though," I added sympathetically.
"It is very tight," Queenie confirmed. "Now untie them." I undid the knot and removed the rope, revealing angry red marks on her wrists.
Queenie rubbed her wrists and leaned forwards to examine her bound ankles. They were simply lashed together and the ends of the rope knotted, but, again, they were very tight. Queenie removed the binding then smiled at me, "Now for the Houdini stuff." Queenie formed a loop in one end of the rope and held it against one ankle. With the other hand, she wound the remainder of the rope round both ankles, so the coils of rope covered the loop and hid it. She carefully tightened the rope, making sure that the initial loop did not pull out and then tied a reef knot. "Now," she explained, "all I have to do is to pull my ankles apart and that loop will give me all the slack I need."
Queenie crossed her wrists behind her back. "Come on," she encouraged, "I need your help for this bit." I followed her instructions and placed a loop of rope in one of her hands, which she then grasped. I wound the rope round her wrists and knotted it. All she had to do to get free was to open the hand with the concealed loop of rope and separate her wrists.
"Now put my gag and blindfold back and tell someone what's happening," Queenie said urgently. Reluctantly, I forced the soggy rag back into Queenie's mouth and wrapped the scarf first round her mouth then across her eyes and knotted it at the back of her head as it had been before.
I deliberately didn't look at Queenie as I assessed how to get back out of the room. I found an old chair and placed it against the wall. By standing on the chair then stepping carefully onto to top of the chair back, I could just reach the windowsill. I grabbed it and hauled myself up by brute force as only desperate and frightened people can.
I pulled the window as tight shut as I could from the outside then tried to get my thoughts straight in order to decide what to do. I concluded that I should go straight to the Police so that they could mount a rescue of Queenie as soon as possible. I decided to go straight to Inspector Dalhousie's home in Dunbar Road. I was sure that he would listen to me without raising side issues of what I was doing out at night dressed like this.
I hurried along the dark and deserted streets, pausing now and then to make sure no-one was following me. As I approached Inspector Dalhousie's house, I was surprised to see lights on. Some instinct made me slow down. I crept along the pavement, keeping my head down below the level of the hedge along the front of the Inspector's house. I stopped close to the garden gate.
The Inspector was at his front door, talking to a man. I recognised the man's voice; it was the same man who had caught Queenie and me not many minutes before. I concentrated on the voice, edging myself a little closer to the gate to be able to hear their conversation better. "...we had to snatch that teacher woman. The MacKenzie brat was there too, but she got away." I heard the Inspector reply calmly, but with steel in his voice, "We know where to find her." Both men went inside the house and the front door was closed.
I was horrified. If the man who had captured Queenie was a spy, then Inspector Dalhousie was a spy too or, at the very least, was in league with spies. I crept into the garden to see if I could gather any more intelligence. Looking in through a window, I could see the Inspector and the man in conversation but could hear nothing.
One again, I was faced with a dilemma. If Inspector Dalhousie could not be trusted, then neither could I trust any other policeman. While they might all be individually trustworthy, they would all nevertheless refer back to the Inspector and follow his orders, with the best of motives. I concluded that the only adult I knew I could trust was my Grandfather.
I made my way back to my Grandfather's house, concealed in my dark clothes and still silent on my stocking-covered boots, but keeping a sharp lookout as I went. I let myself in through the back door, which Queenie and I had left unlocked and crept through the sleeping house to my Grandfather's bedroom.
With a pounding heart, I reached out in the dark and shook my Grandfather's shoulder. His years of experience as a serving naval officer had made their mark; he was awake and fully alert instantly. The reprimand that rose to his lips fell silent as he listened to my explanation.
After a moment of listening to me, my Grandfather gestured me to silence and swung his legs out of bed. "Turn your back while I dress," he ordered. "But you keep talking, girl. I need all the details you can give me." As he dressed, he occasionally interrupted my account to ask questions.
Suddenly, my Grandfather was ready. He paused long enough to reach into a drawer and bring out two naval issue revolvers, which went into his jacket pockets, and a short, wickedly curved naval cutlass, which he stuck through his belt.
We crept out through the back door, Grandfather locking it and pocketing the spare key as we went. My boots were still muffled with Queenie's old stockings but I went without my melodramatic mask; I felt much safer with my Grandfather at my side.
We hurried through the dark streets back to the workshop where Queenie was imprisoned. There were no lights visible as I led my Grandfather round to the back, to the window of the room where I had left Queenie. I shone my torch in through the glass, but could see no-one in the room. I could see the chair where Queenie had been sitting when I last saw her, but she was no longer there.
Grandfather decided to take a direct approach. We went round to the front of the building and tried the front door. It was locked. Grandfather drew one of his revolvers and then delivered a mighty kick to the door handle. There was a splintering sound and, after a second kick, the door swung open. He drew his other gun and went in, bellowing at the top of his voice, "Lay down your weapons in the name of the King!" There was no response. Cautiously we searched each room in turn, but it was clear that there was no-one at all in the workshop. I found Queenie's hat in the room in which I had seen her. Had she escaped or had been taken somewhere else?
My Grandfather decided that we needed reinforcements, but agreed with me that the local police force had to be treated with suspicion. He concluded that we should return to the house and he would summon assistance from Edinburgh or elsewhere. We hurried back through the streets, now becoming more visible in the grey dawn light.
When we reached the house, we were surprised to find the side gate ajar. Our surprise turned to alarm as we discovered that the back door had been jemmied open. Grandfather drew one of his guns and I followed him into the house. As soon as we crossed the threshold, I could hear a very muffled but agitated voice.
In the centre of the kitchen was Mrs Dunbar, our cook and general housekeeper. She was wearing her nightdress and dressing gown and sitting in a kitchen chair, to which she had been securely tied. From my experience with Queenie, I knew how difficult it could be to tie a person up effectively; this was clearly the work of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. Her wrists were crossed and bound behind the back of the chair and her upper arms had been tied to the sides of the chair back. Several turns of rope round her chest held her back into the chair, as did more rope round her waist and over her lap. Her ankles had been lashed to the front legs of the chair and her knees roped together over the dressing gown. A thick kitchen towel had been jammed between her teeth and knotted behind her head.
I shook myself out of the shocked stupor I had frozen into and went to Mrs Dunbar's aid. I untied the knot in her gag and gently prised it out of her mouth. She shook her head vigorously when I bent to start untying her, clearly wanting to speak but not able to find her voice. I quickly fetched her a tumbler of water and held it while she drank thirstily. She nodded her head and I removed the glass. As soon as she was able, she started a rapid and rather confusing account of what had happened. We quickly gathered that the important point was that there had been an unexpected early guest followed by armed intruders who had tied her up and she feared for my Mother's safety.
My Grandfather and I looked at each other and without another word rushed upstairs; we could release Mrs Dunbar later.
We paused at the sitting room door; we could hear movement from inside. Grandfather gestured me to stand behind him and then, revolver in hand, jerked the door open. The solitary occupant of the room was a bound and gagged woman lying on the floor. It was Mrs Dalhousie, the Inspector's wife, and she seemed to be in a state of some agitation.
I knelt down beside Mrs Dalhousie. I pulled her gag down; it was a silk handkerchief folded into a band between her teeth and knotted behind her head. She immediately launched into an explanation that she had heard from her husband how Queenie and I had gone missing and had come both to tell my Mother and to offer comfort. She went on to say that two masked men had entered the house by force and carried my Mother off.
"Untie her quickly, Flora," my Grandfather urged.
I was shocked and horrified by the situation, but some part of my brain was still working logically. "No, Grandpa, listen to me first" I replied, to his evident surprise. I felt awkward and a little scared defying an adult like that, but I knew my worries were justified. Thinking aloud, I pointed out that only Queenie's abductors knew that she was actually missing; anyone else would assume that she and I were out on some prank together. If Mr Dalhousie knew, he could only have heard from the abductors and Mrs Dalhousie could only have heard from him, as she had in fact admitted.
Mrs Dalhousie, harrumphed indignantly and was clearly just about to speak, but Grandfather motioned her to keep silent. I reminded Grandfather of the conversation I had overheard at Mr Dalhousie's home and our suspicions. I suggested that she had been sent as a decoy to spy on us as we reacted to their abduction of my Mother. I finished in a gabble, acutely embarrassed at the outrageousness of my accusations and with rising panic about my Mother's safety.
Grandfather nodded. "I think that all makes sense, Flora." Mrs Dalhousie's indignation seemed to be giving way to fear as the tables were being turned on her.
"And," I continued, getting more confident, "she could have freed herself easily." I pointed out that although Mrs Dalhousie had her hands tied behind her back and her ankles tied together, they were tied very loosely and there were no other bonds. I added that I didn't think her gag would have stopped her crying out.
My Grandfather examined the bonds and nodded. "Well, Flora, it seems we do indeed have a decoy in our midst. I've seen what you can do when you tie Queenie up, so I think you had better make sure Mrs Dalhousie is properly secure. Perhaps Queenie would not mind if we borrowed some of her rope."
While Grandfather kept Mrs Dalhousie covered with his revolver, I went to Queenie's room and helped myself to a generous supply of rope from the chest under her bed. When I returned to the sitting room, neither of them seemed to have moved a muscle.
Feeling very self-conscious, I set to work to remove the ropes that had purported to hold her. It took only seconds to untie her ankles. I did not bother to untie the knot on her wrist binding at all; it was so loose, I simply pulled it down over her hands. Her vigorous protestation had given way to a grim silence.
I moved a chair into the middle of the room and Grandfather ordered Mrs Dalhousie to sit in it and to remain perfectly still. I immediately started work on immobilising her. The chair was an upright wooden one with arms, so I started by tying her wrists down to the arms and cinching off firmly to draw the rope tight. With Queenie, I was usually very careful to make sure that bindings were snug but not painful, but was in no mood to be so conscientious with Mrs Dalhousie. The look of surprise and alarm in her eyes suggested that this was a very different experience from the token binding she had been subjected to earlier. I tied her elbows down as well for good measure then wound rope round her chest and the back of the chair, holding her upright. As I tied more rope around her waist, I made eye contact; her gaze was venomous. I finished off by lashing Mrs Dalhousie's legs together at knee and ankle and tying her ankles back to the front rail of the chair.
I looked round at my Grandfather. His gun was still trained on Mrs Dalhousie. "We need to keep her quiet then you can fetch Mrs Dunbar to stand guard," he instructed. The silk handkerchief was still round Mrs Dalhousie's neck. I used it again, but first, I pushed my own cotton handkerchief into her mouth. Grandfather nodded approval.
While my Grandfather stood guard over Mrs Dalhousie, I went back downstairs to release Mrs Dunbar. Mrs Dunbar was waiting patiently, if a little anxiously, still tied to her chair in the kitchen. I quickly set to work to free her. I had plenty of rope from Queenie's collection, so I did not attempt to preserve the ropes securing Mrs Dunbar, instead hacking through them with a kitchen knife.
After a few minutes, Mrs Dunbar stood rubbing her chafed wrists and gently stretching her cramped limbs. I went back upstairs while she went to her bedroom to dress.
A few minutes later, Mrs Dunbar presented herself in the sitting room, wearing her neatly starched and pressed uniform and armed with a substantial wooden rolling pin. She took in Mrs Dalhousie's fate with a look of satisfied interest as she sat down on a chair with a look of grim determination on her face.
Grandfather pocketed his revolver and nodded his approval of the arrangement. He stood, rubbing his beard thoughfully, when his meditation was broken by the sound of the telephone ringing. He gestured me to follow him as he went downstairs to his small study to answer it.
"MacKenzie," he announced as he lifted the handset. He held it so that I could hear too, with my face pressed closely against the side of his. I heard a neutral educated Scots accent announce in matter-of-fact tones that the well-being of my Mother depended on Grandfather keeping me in the house and not allowing me or any other member of his household interfere with matters which did not concern them. Grandfather said nothing other than to confirm that he understood when asked.
No mention of Queenie. I was puzzled.
Grandfather looked grim when he hung up the telephone. He looked at me sadly. "Flora, dear, we will do all we can to rescue your Mother and find out what has happened to Queenie, but you do realise that sometimes the good of our Country and the Empire are more important?" I nodded. I had a lump in my throat, but I knew he was right.
Grandfather's sadness hardened into determination. He turned to me, more thinking aloud than discussing the problem with me. "We badly need reinforcements," he began. "The Police can't be trusted as long as Dalhousie is in charge. It might take too long to get anyone from Edinburgh, but if we could get a Naval contingent sent from Rosyth, they could be here in a couple of hours or so."
He reached for the telephone then hesitated. "If they could put through a telephone call like that, then they must have a confederate at the exchange."
I thought for a moment then we both said, together, "Mary Dalhousie!" The Inspector's daughter was a wartime telephone operator and very likely as deeply involved in this affair as her father or mother.
Grandfather nodded. "Let's go in person, and I think I should be in uniform for this."
We left the house discreetly through the back door again, my Grandfather still wearing his rough seaman's trousers and sweater but now with his Naval uniform coat on top. We checked the street before setting out. The Post Office, which also housed the telephone exchange, was only a few hundred yards away. We made the journey unobserved. It was still too early for the main part of the premises to be open but the side door into the mail sorting room and the exchange was unlocked. Grandfather marched in as if he owned the place, revolver in hand.
The postman we met on his way out to deliver his bag of mail froze in shock at the sight of a rather dishevelled but armed and clearly determined Royal Naval captain advancing on him. A deathly hush fell on the sorting room as all eyes turned upon us and work ceased. The postmaster emerged from his office and inquired, rather irritably, what our business was. "The King's business, sir!" Grandfather roared and demanded access to the telephone exchange. The postmaster was not about to argue with a great bear of a man like Grandfather, especially when he was brandishing a loaded revolver; he took us to a wooden shed-like structure built within the sorting room.
Inside the exchange, two women operators were seated at the switchboard. Mary Dalhousie, a young woman of perhaps 19 or 20 years was one of them. Grandfather pointed his gun at her and demanded her immediate surrender in the King's name. She sat frozen in terror in her chair and only moved when Grandfather commanded her to disconnect all her calls. She complied, pulling all the connected plugs out with trembling hands.
Without taking his gun or his eyes off Mary Dalhousie, Grandfather spoke to me in a quieter tone, "We will have to take her prisoner. Find something to tie her hands with while I make my call." While I looked round for something to use, Grandfather instructed the other operator to connect him with the commodore at Rosyth naval base. He spoke rapidly and quietly into the handset, apprising the commodore of the situation and requesting support.
While Grandfather was telephoning, I found some spare leads for the switchboard and helped myself to one. Mary Dalhousie looked first at me then at Grandfather in utter disbelief, but did not resist as I drew her hands round behind her and bound her wrists securely. The cable was quite long, so I wrapped the spare length round her waist and knotted it at the front.
As I finished securing Miss Dalhousie, I noticed something odd. Two of the sockets on her switchboard had been marked with small pieces of gummed paper, apparently the edging from a sheet of stamps. One had a figure "1" on it in pencil, the other a "2". I pointed it out to my Grandfather. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, then asked the operator who had connected his call whether she could identify the sockets. She knew one immediately as a large house, on the high ground just south of the town. The other one, she had to look up; it was the workshop on the seafront which had been the source of the mysterious signals.
"I think we know where to look for your mother now," Grandfather commented quietly, with a combination of relief and determination.
Grandfather handed me Mary Dalhousie's overcoat and I draped it over her shoulders then rammed her hat down on her head. We escorted her out into the sorting office. Grandfather summoned the Postmaster and commanded that nothing of what had happened should be communicated to anyone else whomsoever or, and he looked at all the staff members at that point, the consequences would be very serious. Without another word, we marched her past the bewildered staff, out of the Post Office and onto the street. She walked the few hundred yards back to Grandfather's house without a murmur of protest. No doubt the presence of my grandfather's gun helped her keep her peace.
Mary Dalhousie's first sight on being ushered into the sitting room of Grandfather's house was her own mother bound to a chair and gagged. She stopped, rooted to the spot in shock.
Grandfather kept her covered with his gun and spoke while keeping his eyes unwaveringly on her, "We have a second prisoner for you to guard, Mrs Dunbar. Flora, perhaps you would make sure she is secure." I visited Queenie's bedroom again to get more supplies of rope and returned to the sitting room with it.
Mary Dalhousie was not as stoical about the situation as her mother. She was pale and trembling by the time I returned to the room. I removed the overcoat from her shoulders and the hat from her head then untied the temporary binding I had made using cable.
I pointed her towards a chair similar to the one that held her mother and Grandfather reinforced it by barking out an order for her to sit, which she hurriedly did.
I paused for a moment to plan my strategy. My first thought was to tie her up in the way I had tied Mrs Dalhousie, but a moment's thought suggested a weakness in that plan; they might be able to move their chairs together and, with their wrists both bound to the chair arms, could possibly reach each others' ropes and untie them.
I had Mary Dalhousie lean forward in her chair, then I crossed her wrists behind her back and roped them tightly together. I wound more rope round her arms and chest, pinning her elbows tightly to her sides. I let her sit back in the chair and then lashed her body to the back of the chair. It's a very uncomfortable position, with the arms trapped between the person's body and the woodwork of the chair, but hard to escape from. I bound her knees and ankles and tied off her ankle binding to the crossbar between the front legs of the chair.
I checked my knots carefully then stood up. "Should I gag her too?" I asked Grandfather. He nodded. I fetched a clean face cloth from the bathroom and folded it into a band. She resisted as I tried to get it into her mouth but the look in Grandfather's eyes persuaded her and she opened her mouth while I pushed the towelling between her teeth and knotted the ends tightly behind her neck.
Grandfather briefed Mrs Dunbar to guard the prisoners then turned to me. "Now we have a good idea of where to look for your Mother, I think we should do some reconnaissance ahead of our reinforcements. And, if we get half a chance, we'll rescue her!"
Copyright © 2000 Gillian B
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Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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