There was a knock at my dressing room door, "Drei Minuten, Fräulein!"
"Danke!" I called back and stood up. I checked my make-up - cadaverous painted shadows to counteract the upward light of the footlights they still used in this theatre. I took a few deep breaths then consciously relaxed my body before taking the short walk up the stairs to the stage. My assistant was already waiting in the wings with our props. She nodded to me as I stood beside her. The variety show was about three quarters through before we went on. We weren't the top of the bill, but we were important enough to warrant a good position in the running order.
The barker ended his introduction, stumbling slightly over my name, "...MacKenzie und Marks!" I waited a couple of heartbeats then swept on, my sequinned cape trailing behind me. I spread my arms out to reveal the costume under the cape, flesh coloured tights, black gym knickers, black patent leather belt and a Union Jack patterned camisole top. I feigned horror and lowered my arms so the cape covered the costume then immediately lifted them again. This time my camisole was in patriotic Austrian red and white stripes. There was tumultuous applause from the audience - I had them all on my side before I even started.
While the applause died down, I divested myself of the cape and my assistant came on pushing the trolley containing our small props. and set it up centre stage in front of the main curtains which were still closed.
We ran through our first trick rapidly. I held my hands out in front of me and my assistant bound my wrists quickly with white rope. I held my hands up for the audience to see, lowered them then spun right round once on the spot. As I ended the spin and turned to face the audience again, I handed the rope to my assistant and lifted up my now free hands for the audience to see. There was the sporadic and somewhat dutiful applause I expected. This trick was just a throw-away to set the scene for our traditional first act.
As the applause died away, I addressed the audience (in my accented but functional German), "Meine Herren und Damen, was that a fake? Who knows? Who can trust a conjurer anyway? Maybe some of you can do a better job. There's a gold sovereign for anyone who can tie my hands so I can't escape." I produced a small bag and dropped it on the stage with a satisfyingly loud bang and jingle. The bag really did contain gold sovereigns - about a hundred of them. We had only twice had to pay a sovereign over as a result of this challenge.
The first contender was a tall, rather nervous looking youth. My assistant handed him a piece of rope and I held my hands out in front of me. He wrapped the rope round my wrists and tied a rather clumsy knot. The rope was so loose, I toyed with the idea of doing an instant escape right under his nose, but decided that would be unkind. As before, I spun round and handed the rope back to my assistant. The youth looked dumbfounded but pleased at his moment of fame. Polite applause followed.
The next contender looked rather more determined. He was a thick-set middle aged man and looked as if he might be a manual labourer of some kind. He certainly looked tough. He insisted that he would tie my hands behind my back. I obediently turned my back on him and crossed my wrists. He wound the rope round my wrists twice, tied a half hitch and then pulled it tight with a colossal heave, jerking my arms back and down as he did so. (There was a sympathetic gasp from the audience.) He finished off the reef knot in the rope and folded his arms, giving me a satisfied grin. He had not bothered to examine my wrists closely and had therefore not noticed that although I had crossed them, I had placed them edge-to-edge not flat-to-flat. I turned to face the audience, rotated both my wrists behind my back to gain some slack and simply pulled hard to get first one then the other wrist free. I flung the rope up in the air behind my back, then spread my arms wide to show they were free before catching the rope as it fell in front of me. The applause sounded as if it had more conviction this time.
The third contender was an aristocratic looking young man with a military bearing. He too elected to tie my hands behind my back. However, instead of brute strength, he exercised caution and care. He gently, but firmly, positioned my wrists so they were crossed and flat-to-flat. When I clenched my hands into fists to thicken my wrists, he gently flattened them out. He tied my wrists firmly without any showiness or fuss. I relied on upper arm strength to force my wrists apart and get as much slack as possible into the binding, but feared that it might not be enough. The man now insisted that he should tie my arms to my sides as well. I would normally refuse on the basis that it was not part of the challenge, but I saw the opportunity for a little diversionary comedy. I agreed and stood still while he wound another rope around my chest and upper arms. As he started to tie the knot in the middle of my chest, I deliberately moved slightly, making him lose his grip on the rope. I then said, "Here, let me help," and brought my hands (now free) round in front of me and helped hold the knot steady. Most of the audience were unsighted by the man's body in front of me, but as the laughter spread amongst those who could see, he gallantly stepped aside and the rest of the audience joined in as they saw what was going on. My assistant picked up the rope from the floor behind me and handed it to the man, who held it up, now one big loop with a knot still firmly tied in it. He turned to me, clicked his heels and bowed. He had a half smile on his face, but an unsettlingly cold look in his eye. I bowed to him, then to the audience who responded warmly with applause.
Now, just in case you go away with the idea that there's something spooky and unnatural going on here, I'd better tell you how I did that. It's very easy - there is a small, but sharp and serviceable blade concealed in the back of my belt. I just cut the rope and let it drop behind me. My wonderful assistant exercised her sixth sense and had already tied a knot in another piece of rope while the man was tying my wrists and no-one was looking at her. She then substituted it for the real rope when she picked it up off the stage. As I said to the audience that night, "Who can trust a conjuror anyway?"
Our fourth and last contender was (by tradition and by prior arrangement) the local Police Chief. This one was a portly old man with a Franz Josef moustache and wearing a most splendid uniform with much gold braid and complete with a coal-scuttle helmet. This is the point of the contest where I got to try out the local police restraints. In Austria at that time, they did not use handcuffs, but instead an arrangement of chain wound around and between the wrists and locked with a small padlock fixed to one end. I held my wrists out in front and the Police Chief applied the chain to them. Thankfully, he was being a gentleman and didn't pull the chain tighter than necessary - this escape was quite painful enough without that. I turned my back for about two seconds, then turned round and handed the chain back to the Police Chief. The Police Chief's visible but amused chagrin was wonderful, and the audience enjoyed it too.
The great thing about the chain, is that it goes round both wrists, so if you are prepared to pull it tight round one wrist, you automatically have slack available for the other. This is exactly what I do - I pull the chain painfully tight (and I mean painfully) around my right wrist, which leaves enough slack to get my left hand (which is slightly smaller than the right) out of the chain by pulling hard. I lose a little bit of skin in the process, but nothing too serious. On occasions, other policemen have attempted to reproduce my escape, but, so far, all have failed - probably just because they were not prepared to hurt themselves that much.
At this point there is always a little hiatus in the action, while we move on to our "Big Trick" of the evening. It takes my assistant a minute or two to set things up. We have the curtains opened at this point and usually arrange to have a juggler or a tumbler to perform at the front of the stage while we organise our props at the back. I'll fill in the pause by introducing myself to you properly.
My name is Flora MacKenzie and, despite the splendid Highland name, I was actually brought up in London. My father is Commodore Alexander MacKenzie, RN (Sandy to his friends). Physically, Father is no longer the man he once was; he came back from the Great War with smoke-damaged lungs, a wooden leg and a Victoria Cross, no longer fit for active service.
After graduating from Oxford in 1926, I toured Europe and was horrified at the political and social turmoil still going on so long after the War. In Munich, I heard a rather deranged-looking man named Adolf Hitler address a political rally and my very soul was chilled. I became aware that the awful price we had already paid for Europe's safety might still not be enough. Since then, things have become worse until at the beginning of 1938 we stood on the brink of war again. Back in 1930, I had asked my Father what I could do to help the situation. His reply was to offer me a job. It turned out that his desk job procuring radio equipment for the Royal Navy was a cover for his real post as Commodore Admiralty Intelligence, reporting directly to their Lordships of the Admiralty. The Women's Royal Naval Service (the Wrens) was disbanded in 1919, so Britain no longer officially has any women sailors. Nevertheless, I bear a commission as Lieutenant F.I. MacKenzie, RN. It's in the King's name and if it's good enough for him, it should be good enough for anyone else.
While I was at Oxford, my childhood passion for the music halls blossomed into an interest and an aptitude for stage magic. The act was originally strictly amateur, but with my Father's encouragement, I have become quite a respected professional. Over the years, the act has changed, especially since finding my assistant, into an escape act, now with very little conventional magic. Father quite rightly saw that I would have a perfect excuse to travel as a stage performer and ample opportunity to carry out little jobs for the Admiralty. I generally break even or make a small profit, but it's comforting to know that, uniquely amongst escape artists, I have the financial backing of His Majesty's Treasury.
My assistant, Sarah Marks, is one of nature's rough diamonds. She was born in 1912 in the East End of London, daughter of an industrious and energetic family well known to the Metropolitan Police. She joined the family business quite early on and although she missed much formal schooling, received an education second to none in the art of opening locked doors and safes. Her slight build was an asset in the tricky business of entering premises by unconventional routes. Her luck eventually ran out and she spent a while as a guest of His Majesty at Holloway. On her release, she took a job in a radio shop. She taught herself the basics of wireless repair and by day serviced wireless sets (with conspicuous skill) while by night, she augmented her partner's stock by acquiring sets from unsuspecting members of the public as they slept.
Sarah came to the notice of Intelligence when she removed a rather unusual and secret piece of equipment posing as a domestic wireless from the home of one of their officers one night. When she started to dismantle the set, she realised it was no ordinary wireless and that it was probably military in origin. Now, Sarah may have been a thief but she is nevertheless intensely patriotic and knew that whether the strange wireless was the property of our forces or some enemy, it must be reported. Accordingly, she surrendered both the wireless and herself to a bemused desk sergeant at Cannon Row police station before it had even been missed. One of Father's staff was far-sighted and imaginative enough to make Sarah an offer she couldn't refuse and thus harness her unusual talents to the service of the Crown. Sarah now works as my assistant, more than pulling her weight as part of the act and also has her name on a naval paybook as Leading Wireless Operator S.J. Marks.
So, what were we doing here in a theatre in Innsbruck? The unpleasant little man with the silly moustache that I had seen in Munich had become first Chancellor then self-appointed Führer of Germany. It was becoming obvious that he had designs on controlling central Europe and that Austria, which had already abandoned democracy, would become part of a greater Germany sooner rather than later. It was also becoming clear that the free world would have to stop Hitler, probably at the cost of another war. The job entrusted to Sarah and me by His Majesty's Government was to make contact with known Austrian patriots who were expected to become the core of a partisan resistance movement and hand over code books to them, so that messages could be relayed to them by way of information hidden in BBC broadcasts and could be passed back by clandestine transmissions.
Back to the show. This was our last night in Innsbruck and we always put on a bigger "Big Trick" on our last night. On this occasion it was our version of Harry Houdini's "Metamorphosis". One of my big regrets was never seeing Harry Houdini perform - I was only 8 when he toured England for the last time in 1913 and his untimely death in 1926 came before my first visit to the United States.
We exchanged the escape artist and assistant roles for Metamorphosis for this tour as Sarah does not speak German well and would therefore not be able to deliver the "patter" during the act. We enlisted the help of the affable Police Chief and the intense young aristocrat as scrutineers. The audience knew that after being hoodwinked before, they would be especially vigilant in examining the trick. We also brought the theatre's first aid nurse on stage.
The trick begins with the nurse taking Sarah behind a screen and frisking her thoroughly (as it turns out, not thoroughly enough, but she does her honest best). As Sarah is wearing only black tights and a black sequinned Leotard costume, there is very little scope for hiding illicit tools anyway.
Sarah now sits on a stool and I apply a combined manacle and leg-iron set to her, effectively two pairs of handcuffs linked by a fairly short chain. Sarah's hands are cuffed in front of her, but the chain linking them to her feet is so short that she has to lean forward on the stool. At this point, I invite the scrutineers to judge the security of the cuffs and they find nothing amiss. I hand the key to one of them for safe keeping.
I now offer a large sack to the scrutineers for examination. It's quite an unremarkable sack - a large double-stitched canvas sack with a series of brass eyelets round the top edge, essentially a very big mail bag. Again the scrutineers find nothing wrong.
Sarah lifts her feet and I place the open sack on the floor beneath her feet then help her to stand in the sack, slightly doubled over because of the manacles. I pull the sack up above her head and gather the top of it. Next, I have the scrutineers hold the sack closed and watch me as I thread a chain through the eyelets, pull it tight and padlock it. Again I hand the key to one of them to look after.
When the sack is secure, I direct the scrutineers to examine the large wooden trunk on the stage. While they are doing this, I have a stage hand position a block and tackle (suspended from one of the scenery hoists) over the sack, the I have him use it to hoist the sack about three feet up in the air. I spread out two chains joined together in the form of a cross on the floor below the sack.
The trunk is declared clean and I get the scrutineers to help me position it below the sack. "Are you all right, Sarah?" I ask loudly (in German). A muffled reply is heard and the sack moves slightly. "She thinks so," I relay to the audience, who laugh somewhat nervously. That done, the stage hand lowers the sack into the trunk. I close the lid of the trunk, lock it and hand the keys over to the scrutineers. Next, I bring the chains up over the sides and ends of the trunk and fasten them all together with a large padlock, again handing the key over.
I attach the hook on the block and tackle to the chains and the stage hand hoists the whole trunk off the stage to a height of just over three feet. With the scrutineers' help, I position a large table under the trunk. It has a stout leg at each corner, but otherwise you can see right underneath it. The stage hand lowers the trunk onto the table, I climb up and unhook the block and tackle from the chains and he hoists it up out of sight into the fly tower.
I position the scrutineers either side of the table and slightly forward towards the edge of the stage. They are very close, but essentially have the same view as the audience. There is a screen attached to the front and sides of the table as the audience see it. It has a stiff upper edge so it can be raised by a single pair of hands. I kneel on top of the trunk facing the audience and lean forward to pick up the screen. Once I have it in my grasp, I lift it up and stand on the trunk. The screen is up to shoulder level and the audience can still see my face. "Eins!" I call out ("one") and lift my arms right up so the screen hides me. "Zwei!" ("two") and then a different voice, "Drei!" ("three"). The screen is dropped and falls to reveal Sarah standing where I had been seen only a second before.
Sarah jumps down off the trunk and demands the keys from the scrutineers. Working as fast as she can, she unlocks the chains and throws then aside then unlocks the trunk and flips its lid open. She reaches inside and lifts up the top of the sack, which is still chained and locked. She unlocks the padlock and opens the top of the sack to reveal - me. I am standing slightly crouched. Sarah reaches down inside the sack and unlocks my fetters so I can straighten up. I step out of the sack and the trunk then jump down onto the stage. Sarah and I come right to the front of the stage and the main curtains close behind us. I raise my hands over my head (still cuffed) and we take our bow together and acknowledge the audience's appreciation.
The trick climaxes and is over very quickly, but that is deliberate. Once the audience has seen that Sarah and I have indeed changed places, there is little more to add to the trick, so we wind it up quickly while the applause is still loud.
As with all the greatest stage magic, "Metamorphosis" is mainly a huge piece of deception. Considerable rehearsal is needed to keep the speed up, but it is not a fundamentally difficult trick.
Once she had been locked into the manacles, Sarah was very quickly out of sight in the big sack. As soon as she was hidden, she produced a piece of steel shim (actually a piece of clock spring) out of her mouth. It had been hidden between her gum and the inside of her upper lip - almost impossible to find. The manacles yielded very easily to the shim being used to spring their ratchets.
After the sack was in the trunk, Sarah progressed to the next stage. The locking part of one of the wrist cuffs had been ground to a razor sharp edge (which is why we only invite scrutiny after they have been locked onto her). She used this edge to slit the stitching holding the bottom of the sack together and then wriggled out of it.
Sarah waited until the trunk was in place and I was standing on top of it before the next move, which was to remove one of the two back panels from the trunk, so she could get out through it. The trunk is gimmicked so that all the panels are firm when the lid is open, but this one becomes easily removable from inside when it is closed.
When I got to the point in my speech that Sarah knew meant the screen had been lifted up, she climbed out of the trunk and joined me on top, still crouching down. She stood up fully when I did the count, "Eins, zwei." She took hold of the screen at that point and I climbed into the trunk as quickly as I could. After saying, "Drei," Sarah lowered the screen to reveal her face, but didn't drop it until she felt a thump from me inside the trunk, confirming that the secret panel was closed again.
While Sarah organised the unlocking of the trunk, all I had to do was climb into the sack through its open bottom and snap the manacles onto my wrists. Although I was bent over as if still fettered when I was revealed to the audience and Sarah went through the motions of freeing my ankles, I never actually bothered to re-lock the fetters. Naturally, we never gave any of the scrutineers a chance to look at the apparatus after the end of the trick.
As this was our last night in Innsbruck, we had decided that I alone would stay for the final curtain call of the whole company, while Sarah would return to the dressing room. As soon as we were into the wings, Sarah went downstairs. I picked up my cape (which still had our bag of gold sovereigns inside it) and went backstage to supervise removal of our big props. I directed the stage-hands while they packed it all up for me. (Everything, including the table, could be collapsed into the trunk for transportation.) Our other big props from previous nights were already packed up, labelled and waiting on the scenery dock for transport to the railway station later that night.
As the last turn of the evening finished, representatives of each act gathered in the wings and trooped on in turn to take our final bows. Once the curtain had come down for the last time, we made for our dressing rooms. The audience was leaving by this time, so it was no longer necessary to maintain silence backstage and we chatted together on our way down the stairs and those of us moving on after that night made our farewells.
I was still wishing good luck to another performer in my best (but severely fractured) Italian as I opened my dressing-room door. As I entered the room, I froze. Sarah was not alone; there was a rather unsavoury looking man pointing a gun at her. He turned the gun in my direction and said, "Please come in and close the door behind you." I had little choice in the matter, so I did as I was told. I quickly surveyed the room, which appeared to have been the subject of quite an extensive ransacking and looked at Sarah.
My assistant was quite thoroughly tied to an upright wooden chair (apparently with rope stolen from backstage). There were ropes round her waist and over her shoulders securing her to the chair, her ankles were tied to the chair legs and her hands were out of sight behind the chair, presumably bound. She had been gagged with a towel pushed between her teeth and knotted behind her head. As I looked at Sarah, she nodded at me almost imperceptibly and moved her elbows a little. I inferred from this that she had already freed her hands.
I carefully did not react to Sarah's signal, but turned my gaze on her captor. He gestured to the chaos in the dressing room, almost apologetically, and said, "The gold sovereigns do not appear to be here. Please give them to me." I said nothing but nodded slightly to Sarah. The intruder followed my eyes and looked at Sarah just as she was bringing her hands (now visibly free) from behind the chair. Instinctively, he swung the gun round towards her. As soon as I had a clear aim, I dropped everything I was carrying and let fly with my best high kick. The toe of my right shoe struck the gunman's outstretched forearm hard. The gun didn't go off, which I half expected; instead he let go of it, and it went flying across the room, luckily still not going off when it landed. The man swung back to face me. By now my right foot was back on the floor and I could bring my left foot up hard into his groin. He gasped and buckled forwards. I was ready for him; as he caved in, I brought my fists up, clenched together, and hit him as hard as I could under the chin. He collapsed untidily, not unconscious but effectively incapacitated, and curled himself up in a ball on the floor moaning.
Sarah had ungagged herself by this time. "Very neat, Boss," she commented. I helped Sarah free herself quickly, then we hoisted the would-be thief onto the chair Sarah had been tied to and secured him there instead. We tied him in much the same way as he had tied Sarah - ropes round waist and over shoulders, ankles and knees tied to the chair legs, wrists crossed and bound behind the chair back and gagged with the towel he had used on Sarah. I checked his bonds carefully - they were rather tighter than his tying of Sarah and applied with considerably more skill. I re-tightened one or two knots, then pushed him into a corner.
Sarah and I had a brief discussion. The man appeared to be nothing more than a casual thief with a taste for gold. I examined his gun. It was an 1912 pattern Mauser 7.65mm automatic, presumably once the property of the Austro-Hungarian army, now sadly neglected and corroded - not an improbable weapon for a petty thief. His ransacking of the room still bothered me; it was more thorough than I would have expected and he seemed to have looked in places too small to hide our bag of sovereigns. Also, he had tied Sarah up without bothering to ask her where the gold was. Still, in the absence of any better clues, the issue did not seem to be worth pursuing.
Sarah and I had a train to catch, so we concentrated on packing up our things After half an hour, we had a full cabin trunk, were dressed in our travelling clothes and everything else we needed was in the carpet bags we each carried. I labelled the trunk with our next destination and Sarah and I dragged it out into the corridor. We picked up our bags, Sarah blew a kiss to our prisoner, who growled in return and I locked the dressing room door.
I spoke to the porter at the Stage Door to confirm the luggage we needed to have sent on to the next theatre. I wished him well and delicately explained that we had left an unwelcome guest indisposed in our dressing room. I handed him a sizeable tip as I told him this and he seemed to accept it without demurral.
It was snowing lightly as we left the theatre and I paused to put my gloves on and pull my scarf up around my face before we set off on the short walk to the railway station and the overnight train to Salzburg.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Foreword Part 2
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
KP Presents Contents