It was a cold but sunny early morning when we arrived in Salzburg after a somewhat sleepless overnight train journey from Innsbruck. There was a light covering of snow on the ground as we made our way to our lodgings for the duration of our visit. Our landlady was Frau Hübert whom we had met on a previous visit. She had been recommended to us by a Miss Froy, an acquaintance of ours who also did odd errands for His Majesty's Government. Frau Hübert didn't know exactly what our business was, but knew that we valued her patriotism as an Austrian almost as much as we valued our own as Englishwomen. She probably realised that we rather were more than the stage artistes we purported to be.
Frau Hübert was a large jolly woman, still in her early thirties I judged, but tragically widowed and left to bring up a daughter, who was now about 10. She ran her large house as a guesthouse during the Summer season. She was, however, happy to open her house at other times for special guests (particularly stage artistes like us) and today she was (as always) overwhelming in her welcome. As soon as we had put our bags into our bedroom and freshened up, Frau Hübert ushered us into the dining room where we were fed a mountain of the most delicious (and wickedly fattening) pastries accompanied by an ocean of fragrant coffee. We tucked in and brought each other up to date with our news, while Frau Hübert's daughter Greta listened and watched us in silence with solemn eyes.
It was still only mid-morning, so after our impromptu feast, I declared that I intended to go to Church and asked if Sarah wished to accompany me. She grinned at me and said that nice Jewish girls didn't usually do that. I pointed out (only half joking) that, in some circles in Austria, being a Jewish girl, however nice, was something not to be publicised too widely. Sarah laughed and said that she would probably go for a walk.
I set off alone in search of a suitable Church. Not for me the extravaganza of Catholic worship. My Calvinist upbringing had left a strong streak of Puritanism in me and I sought out the more austere pleasures of a Lutheran Church. I found a Church more-or-less by accident in good time for their morning service and went in. After the end of the service, as I was making my farewell to the Pastor, I met up with a family whom I remembered from my previous visit to Salzburg. We exchanged greetings and news, one thing led to another and I found myself being invited to lunch with them. I gratefully accepted their kind offer.
Well fed and content, it was late afternoon by the time I reached Frau Hübert's guesthouse again. I was surprised to find the front door not locked. I let myself in and pushed the door closed but did not lock it in case I was shutting someone out. I thought no further of the matter and went up the stairs to the room Sarah and I were sharing. I found that this door was also not locked. I pushed the door open and was confronted by a scene of devastation. Our clothes and other belongings had all been pulled out of the cupboards and drawers we had put them in. Our carpet bags had evidently also been rifled. I was looking over the mess in dismay when my eyes came upon a note pushed into the edge of the mirror frame above our dressing table. It was blunt and to the point, "Miss Marks is our guest at present. Her health depends on your co-operation. Be at the Mozart Fountain at 6.00 pm." Someone clearly had a good idea of who we were and what we were doing.
I stood still and took a deep breath to clear my head. There was no immediate panic - Sarah would certainly be kept alive as long as I was at large and as long as her captors (whoever they may be) still did not have whatever they wanted of us. I decided that I would indeed be at the Mozart Fountain at the required time, but would remain out of sight in the hope of making some useful observations. At worst, I would learn nothing and another demand would be made for me to meet Sarah's captors.
I was suddenly worried about Frau Hübert. I could not see her tolerating strangers coming into her house and turning her guests' rooms over like this. With some trepidation, I went back downstairs to look for her. I eventually found Frau Hübert in the kitchen. She had been tied very securely to a straight-backed wooden chair and it had been done by an expert from the look of things. Her wrists were tied behind the chair back. There were ropes round her chest and arms and over her lap anchoring her firmly to the chair. Her legs had been tied together at ankles and knees and her bound ankles fastened to one chair leg. She was gagged with a white cotton oven cloth covering her mouth.
Greta had not been treated quite so brutally. She was sitting in a chair with her wrists tied in front of her and her ankles tied together. Ropes round her chest and over her lap secured her to the chair. She too was gagged with an oven cloth over her mouth. Her eyes were red and her face was streaked with tears. I was horrified that anyone could treat a child like this and set to work to free her. As I removed her gag, she retched and spat out a handkerchief then started crying. The tears were probably of relief as much as anything else.
Another five minutes had both mother and daughter free. They were badly shaken by the experience, but other than a few bruises and some stiffness, they seemed to be physically unharmed. I plied them both with hot coffee loaded with sugar and that seemed to help.
When Frau Hübert had collected her wits sufficiently, I asked her what had happened. It seemed that a man and woman had come to the door, purporting to be acting on my instructions, to get something from Sarah's and my room and take it to the theatre. Frau Hübert had smelled a rat and refused to let them in. They settled the argument by pulling a gun on her. Once they knew which room was occupied by Sarah and me, they tied up Frau Hübert and Greta in the kitchen and that was the last she saw of them.
I told Frau Hübert about the note and Sarah's apparent kidnapping. She was greatly alarmed. I explained my intended plan to see who was waiting at the Mozart Fountain but not to make contact. I felt that a little light disguise might be in order and asked if I could borrow a coat and hat and possibly also Frau Hübert's bicycle. She was now sufficiently recovered to be both worried about Sarah and keen to see revenge on her attackers so she readily agreed.
It was dark as I pedalled my borrowed bicycle slowly past the Mozart Fountain. Instead of my own (not surprisingly) rather English-looking coat, I had on Frau Hübert's dark green overcoat and a Tyrolean-style felt hat. I also had a veil pulled down over my face - rather passé in England but wonderfully cosy on an icy January evening in Austria, and, of course, it hid my face completely. I took careful note of all those around the fountain and went on my way.
About fifteen minutes later, I returned and again took stock of the passers by. Several people were still there from my previous sortie. I particularly noted a man and woman who seemed to be looking around and waiting for someone. I tentatively identified a nearby motor-car as belonging to them and memorised its number. I guessed that the car was probably positioned for a quick getaway and would head off the way it was pointed. I pedalled off in that direction and found a suitable dark corner in which to hide.
Sure enough, about ten minutes later, the car passed me and I set out in pursuit on the bicycle. The streets of that part of Salzburg are old, narrow and winding, so a car has no particular speed advantage over a bicycle. I was however anxious not to be spotted following them, so I kept back a discreet distance, which meant that if I had to follow them for any length of time, there was a real risk of losing them.
As luck would have it, I had to follow them for less than a mile, before the car swept into a gateway. I glanced in as I rode past. There was a large house set back form the road and apparently in total darkness. A few hundred yards on, I dismounted and paused for thought. The chances were that if I had been correct in my identification of my would-be reception committee at the Mozart Fountain, then Sarah was probably being held in that house. More reconnaissance was called for.
I found a quiet corner in which I hoped Frau Hübert's bicycle would be safe and readied myself for action. I took off the borrowed overcoat and hat, bundled them up and jammed them into the basket which was fitted to the handlebars. Underneath, I was wearing a black sweater over tight black alpaca breeches with black socks. I completed this black ensemble with a small black woollen cap and gloves Finally, I tied a black stocking over my mouth and nose as a mask, leaving just my eyes exposed. I should be well-nigh invisible if I kept to the shadows. There were a few people about on the streets, so I waited a few moments rather than be seen in my unusual costume.
I crept back to the house in which I suspected Sarah was imprisoned and took careful stock of the situation. The house appeared still to be in darkness and there was now no sign of the car I had seen drive up to the it. All the ground floor windows were covered with wrought iron grilles. Pretty, but impenetrable. The first floor looked more promising. I felt that an attack on the front of the house might be a little too conspicuous, so I quietly made my way round to the back. After a few minutes contemplation, I spotted a perfect route. Three of the first floor windows had balconies and two of those might be accessible from a substantial looking vine growing up the wall. All the windows were dark.
I tested the vine cautiously. It seemed to be strong enough to take my weight without either breaking or parting company with the wall. With care, I committed my weight to it and it did indeed seem to be secure. As silently as I could, I climbed up to the first floor. There was little to choose between the windows opening onto the balconies; both were full-height glazed double doors. I chose the one that appeared to be more heavily curtained and climbed over the balcony railing to examine it more closely.
The door was locked and without any visible keyhole. The doors were inward opening so I tried gentle pressure, but to no avail. I wished I had Sarah's skill with locked doors.
I climbed across to the other balcony to see if there was a better chance there. The doors moved slightly when I pushed against them. A moment's thought made me realise that the key had been turned in the lock, but the bolts at the top and bottom of the doors had not been shot. I decided to apply a little more pressure and the doors opened. There was slightly more noise than I would have wished as the two parts of the lock separated, but nothing too excessive. I pushed the doors shut behind me and made sure the curtains were properly closed across them.
I stood and waited for a few minutes until my eyes adapted to the darkness in the house and tuned my ears to the small noises one hears in any house at night. I crept to the door and turned the knob silently, then gently pulled it open. There was a corridor beyond, also in darkness. I stepped quietly out into the middle of the corridor and looked around me. I was still looking when the lights in the corridor came on and I was momentarily blinded.
I saw the figures of two people only about eight feet away from me. As my eyes recovered from the sudden brightness, I could see that the figures were those of a man and a woman and that the man held a gun which was pointed at me. I said nothing but slowly raised my hands.
The man spoke first, "We appear to have a second guest. So kind of her to come here when we missed her earlier."
"Very kind," the woman echoed. "She must be anxious about her friend. Won't you come this way, Miss MacKenzie."
My feelings were a mess of relief that I had found the right house, chagrin at being caught so easily, worry about Sarah's safety and an over-riding fear that these people knew far too much about us. I was ushered downstairs by my captors. They were careful always to keep their distance, too far for me to reach either of them safely, and the woman was careful never to cross the line of fire of the man's gun; they obviously knew what they were doing. I was shown into a large room, which appeared to be a library, at what I judged to be the front of the house. Sarah was tied to a large wooden chair in the middle of the room and gagged.
I looked Sarah over quickly. She was tied to the chair with ropes round her chest and upper arms, her waist and over her lap. Her wrists were crossed and tied in front of her. Her legs had been tied together at ankles and just above her knees. Her wrists were also tied to the rope round her knees and her bound ankles had been tied to a crossbar between the chair legs. She was gagged with a piece of white cloth between her teeth and also had something in her mouth from the look of her bulging cheeks. Sarah had apparently put up a struggle - she had a black eye and a cut lip. There were no other obvious signs of injury.
While the man held the gun pointed at me, the woman fetched another chair and placed it near the middle of the room. She then left the room and I stood waiting, still with my hands up and still looking at the gun aimed at me. When the woman returned, she was carrying a bundle of rope. The man spread his legs slightly and gripped his gun with both hands to steady his aim, which was now unwaveringly at my head. "Please stay perfectly still," he ordered. I had no intention of doing anything else. Crouching slightly, so as never to obstruct the line of fire, the woman methodically felt my clothes all over and removed the contents of my pockets, relieving me of my clasp knife, a set of skeleton keys and a small but sturdy jemmy. When she had finished, she stepped back and instructed me to take off my mask and hat. Again, I complied without question. She was at last satisfied that I had no hidden secrets and ordered me to sit down on the chair.
I sat down and inwardly cursed myself for the stupidity that had led to my capture. I resigned myself to the binding which would surely follow and which would undoubtedly be as ruthlessly professional as everything else these two had done so far.
The woman set to work on my wrists first. She pulled my hands round behind the chair back, positioned them so that my wrists were crossed and then bound them tightly in both directions. The chair had a very wide back, so my elbows were forced far apart and my wrists only just met closely enough to be tied in this way. I realised now why Sarah's wrists were tied in front - her arms were probably too short to meet behind the chair. A long length of rope was used next to lash my chest and arms tightly to the chair back.
The woman now turned her attention to my feet. She bound one ankle to a chair leg, not as tightly as I expected. With that foot safely out of the way, she unlaced and removed the shoe from my other foot and examined both it and my stockinged foot carefully. Once she was satisfied, she bound that leg to the chair leg both at ankle level and just below my knee. This time it was as tight as I had anticipated. She freed my other ankle and repeated the examination and binding process on that leg. Lastly, she made sure I was well tied down into the chair with a few turns of rope across my lap.
Now that I was completely immobilised, the man lowered his gun and stood facing me. After a long pause, he made a proposal, "We know that you are carrying information valuable to those who would hold this country back from her true destiny." (What he meant was that it would be valuable to patriots who opposed a Nazi takeover.) He continued, "We have no quarrel with you personally and will trouble you no further if you give us what we want. If you withhold it, however, things will be extremely painful and ultimately fatal for both of you." He stood and waited while I digested this ultimatum. (I was under no illusion; whatever the man said, I knew that if they ever got what they wanted from us, there would be a swift end for Sarah and me, probably with a bullet in the head for each of us.)
If there was to be any chance of escaping from these ropes, it would have to be soon, before bruising and cramp set in. I decided to take a huge gamble and send them off on a wild goose chase. I described to them a hiding place within the packing case which contained the apparatus for one of our tricks and which would be lodged on the scenery dock at the theatre. I patiently explained which case to look in and exactly how to get at the secret compartment within it. I made sure they understood my instructions thoroughly and corrected or clarified where necessary. The equipment involved was quite heavy, so it would require both of them to unload the case to gain access to the hidden section within.
My plan was that with both the man and the woman out of the house, Sarah and I would have ample opportunity to free ourselves without being disturbed. I was wrong again. The woman pulled a bell-cord and I realised with a sinking heart that there must be others in the house. After a few moments, a middle-aged woman in a black dress, presumably the housekeeper, came into the room. She did not seem to be the least perturbed that Sarah and I were sitting there tied up. The man explained that he and the woman had to go out and instructed her to look in every fifteen minutes to check that we were secure. She nodded and left the room.
The woman then finished off my imprisonment by gagging me. She carefully folded up a square of scrap cotton, probably part of an old bedsheet, and pushed it firmly into my mouth. She secured it with a wide strip of the same material wound several times round my head, passing between my teeth each time, and knotted off at the back of my neck. She and the man then departed for the theatre.
Our luggage from Innsbruck was not due to be delivered to the theatre until the Monday morning, so it would not take them long to discover that they had been sent on a false errand. Our real time limit, however, was the housekeeper who would return in fifteen minutes to check on us.
As soon as I heard the front door shut, I set to work. Neither Sarah nor I stood any chance of freeing ourselves unaided. I hoped that we would be able to free each other. I had enough purchase with my feet to be able to move my chair around. I manoeuvred it so that my back was towards Sarah. I thought that I might be able to reach her hands or that she could reach mine. With the back of my chair right up against her knees, it was still hopeless - I couldn't get my hands down far enough to reach hers and she couldn't get hers up to mine. I paused for a moment's reflection.
I looked round over my shoulder at Sarah and made a sort of sideways nodding gesture to her. I meant to indicate that I was planning to tip my chair over sideways and that she should do the same. She nodded and mumbled assent through her gag. I set to work to rock the chair from side to side until, on about the fourth rock, it went over. With my arms tied the way they were, I inevitably took a painful blow on the elbow as the chair crashed over. I didn't know if anyone had heard us - we just had to take our chances. Sarah had more trouble tipping her chair, as her ankles were tied together, but eventually she managed it.
The way Sarah was tied, she couldn't move her chair at all once it was on its side, so I inched mine into position to get our hands as close together as possible (causing further distress to my elbow as I did so). Finally, I felt Sarah's fingers touch mine. She could see what she was doing, so I let her free my hands first. It took longer than I anticipated, probably because her hands were stiff from being bound for a long time. As soon as my hands were free, I felt around for the knots securing Sarah's hands and untied them.
I worked my arms round to the front of my body and found the knot on the rope securing my arms and chest to the chair. I untied it then wriggled until the loops of rope around my body were reasonably slack so I could push it all up over my head. I could lean forward now, so I untied my legs next and lastly released the ropes over my lap. Joyfully, I rolled free of the chair.
It was almost fifteen minutes since we had been left alone, so I anticipated a visit from the housekeeper before long. Instead of freeing Sarah, who was having trouble getting loose, I looked around for a suitable weapon. My clasp knife was still there on a table, so I opened it and stood guard by the door. While I waited, I unwound the gag from round my head and spat out the cloth packing.
I did not have to wait long. Within two minutes, I heard footsteps. A key turned in the lock and I saw the doorknob start to move. I grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open, hauling the astonished housekeeper into the room. She opened her mouth to scream, but shut it again without a sound as she saw the point of my knife hovering at the end of her nose. I took the key out of the door, closed it and locked it on the inside, all without taking my eyes off the housekeeper.
"Over here," I said (in German), pointing at the tangle of ropes which had held me. She obediently followed. I bent down and picked up the short length of rope that had bound my wrists. I ordered her to turn around and then re-used it to tie her wrists behind her back. She gasped as I tightened the rope. Next, I instructed her to lie down on her stomach on the floor. I used another short length of rope to bind her ankles then a third length to join her ankle and wrist bindings together, so her feet were pulled up behind her.
I went back to Sarah and tipped her chair upright again then cut through her remaining bonds and untied the knot on her gag. I turned my attention back to the housekeeper. I pointed my knife at her nose again and asked if there was anyone else in the house. She confirmed that there was a maid who was probably downstairs in the kitchen. Sarah was now standing up, somewhat stiffly and tentatively. I asked her to gag the housekeeper while I went in search of the maid.
I crept out of the library. There were very few lights on in the house and ample shadows to hide in as I learned the geography of the place. In the event, the kitchen was in the basement and not difficult to find. I could hear the maid singing to herself and clattering crockery before I even saw the door.
My attack on the maid was a complete success; the first she was even aware I was there was when I clapped my hand over her mouth and ordered her to be quiet. I tied her hands behind her back with a piece of rope I had brought with me and then marched her upstairs to the library.
When we got to the library, the maid gave a little shriek of alarm at seeing her colleague securely tied up on the floor. Since I left them, Sarah had gagged the housekeeper with the cloth she had just removed from her own mouth and added some ropes around her body and arms. We tied the maid in much the same way. I gagged her using the cloth that had been used for my gag while Sarah tied a rope around her arms and body. We helped her lie down on the floor and I tied her ankles then hitched her ankles to her wrists with another length of rope.
I finished off securing the maid and checked the housekeeper's bonds then tidied up the tangle of rope that was littering the library, so we would have room to deal with the man and the woman when they returned. While I did that, Sarah went in search of weapons.
I paused after a few minutes. I had gathered up and disentangled all the rope that was lying around. My possessions which had been removed from me were now back in my pockets and I had put my shoes on again. Our two prisoners were lying motionless on the floor, apparently resigned to their situation. Sarah returned with a small automatic pistol of such ridiculously tiny calibre that I doubted if it was even lethal. She also had some cruder improvised weapons which were likely to be of more direct use - a heavy stone pestle, a huge wooden rolling pin, a selection of vicious-looking kitchen knives and a stocking full of something. I gazed quizzically at the stocking. "Sugar," explained Sarah, "I couldn't find a sandbag." Our discussion was cut short by the sound of a car drawing up outside. We ran to the front door, switching off the hallway lights as we went.
The man and woman were clearly in a foul temper following the fruitless errand I had sent them on. This may also have made them a little careless. The man came in first, opening the door and striding in without looking around. I let him get about four steps into the house, then felled him with a single blow of the rolling pin. The woman heard the crash and came running up the steps to the front door. She too appeared to have been deserted by her professionalism. Sarah's improvised sandbag caught her across the back of the head. She wasn't quite knocked unconscious, but collapsed to her hands and knees, stunned.
The man was clearly going to be out of the game for some time, so Sarah and I concentrated on the woman. We hauled her to her feet and steered her, still badly dazed, to the library. The two servants were still lying where we had left them. We were not about to take any chances with the woman and set to work to tie her up as securely as we could. Following a quick discussion, Sarah held her upright while I crossed her wrists behind her back and tied them tightly. We sat her down on one of the two chairs that we had been tied to. Sarah again propped her upright while I attended to the tying. I roped her back to the chair with eight or ten turns round her body and the chair back. Her arms were thus trapped between her back and the woodwork of the chair, which is desperately uncomfortable, but almost impossible to escape from. While I was tightening the ropes, the woman seemed to be recovering. For a moment she stared at Sarah, then spat in her face. There was muttered comment from the woman, the only words of which I heard clearly were, "ekelhaftige Judin," ("disgusting Jewess"). I was shocked - I had come across antisemitism before but never naked hatred like this. Sarah blanched but said nothing and held on to our prisoner. Grimly, I carried on my task by binding the woman's ankles and knees then tying her ankles back to the crossbar between the front legs of the chair. Meanwhile, Sarah ripped a piece of fabric off the hem of the woman's dress and wadded it into her mouth as a gag, securing it in place with a couple of turns of rope, which she tightened with savage satisfaction.
We dragged the man in from the hallway next, still unconscious. We dumped him in the other chair and rifled his pockets, but found nothing of interest other than his keys and a 7.65mm Walther automatic pistol of the type used by the German police. Having disarmed him, we tied him up in the same way that we had dealt with the woman.
Once I was satisfied that our captives were all secure, I made a telephone call. In my best professional German (which, unlike my stage German, does not have an English accent), I asked the operator for a number which I had memorised. When the telephone was answered, I engaged in a brief and apparently innocuous conversation which contained a codeword identifying me and the address of the house we were in.
After a few minutes of waiting, the doorbell rang three times with deliberate pauses between the rings. I went to the front door and opened it cautiously, gun in hand. There were two men and a woman outside. One of the men immediately identified himself with a codeword and my codename, so I let them in. These were a group of Austrian patriots, opposed to the growing Nazi sympathy in their country, who were known to my superiors at the Admiralty and the Foreign Office.
I briefed our new visitors with the events of the day and handed over the keys and gun I had acquired. I made sure they knew where we were staying, then Sarah and I left the house in their charge. We did not ask what the fate of our four prisoners would be - it was not really our business, after all we were visitors to their country and only doing what we could to help out.
We returned to Frau Hübert's bicycle. It and Frau Hübert's coat and hat had acquired a light dusting of snow but were otherwise as I had left them. I was oddly dressed as I was, so I shook the coat out and put it on again. I pushed the bicycle and Sarah walked beside me, discussing our first brush with the enemy. We were clearly up against some very unpleasant but very capable people and probably had not seen the last of them.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
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Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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