I had a monster of a headache. I slowly surfaced into consciousness and became aware of my surroundings, but most of all I became aware of my headache. I sorted my jumbled thoughts into order and dimly recalled being hit on the head in my dressing room after I came off stage. I tried to get some notion of how long ago that might have been, then gave up.
I attempted to get my bearings. It was immediately obvious that I couldn't move and I couldn't see. I explored my surroundings a little more. It became apparent that I had been tied up. I was lying on my back, my legs were together and my arms were crossed on my chest, Egyptian mummy style. There weren't any obvious pressure points, so I probably wasn't tied with rope - cloth or bandages were possibilities. My mouth was stuffed with some kind of fabric, probably surgical gauze from the feel of it, and it was bound in place with something over my mouth. I could feel some pressure on my eyes, so I was probably also blindfolded.
I didn't seem to be held down at all, so I tried jerking myself up into a sitting position. My face collided violently with a surface just a few inches above me. Stars exploded inside my aching head and my stomach performed a somersault. I lay still while the nausea subsided.
I tried a more tentative exploration. I could shuffle a few inches in any direction before hitting an obstruction and I was lying on something lumpy. Possibly I was in a box of some kind. A little more exploration showed that if it was a box, it was much narrower where my feet were than further up. All at once, the penny dropped - I was in a coffin, and what I was lying on was undoubtedly its rightful occupant.
Panic gripped me and another wave of nausea swept over me. I mentally took a grip of myself and forced the panic down. First of all, I was breathing, so I clearly hadn't been buried. I knew that coffins were normally airtight (for obvious reasons), so that also implied that there were ventilation holes in this one. Another wave of panic grabbed me - I knew about coffins with holes; they were for burial at sea.
Again I calmed myself down and thought the situation through carefully. If the coffin was just a means of disposal, then surely I would have been killed by now. As I was alive and had been tied up, I was presumably being taken somewhere.
I decided that my only hope was to tackle the situation methodically. I breathed slowly and deeply for a minute or so to relax, then began a systematic exploration of my surroundings. I started with my bindings. I was definitely tied up with cloth of some kind. It was almost completely unyielding, so I concluded that it was likely to be a sheet or bandages. The closeness of the coffin's lid prevented me from bending forward to get my mouth and fingers together, which was a pity, as there might have been a possibility of escape that way.
I turned my attention to the coffin itself. It was quite a large one - probably it had to be to accommodate two. Exploration with my toes showed that the inside of the lid was not flat - it appeared to have a raised section in the middle, presumably with a decorative moulding round the edges on the outside.
I lay still for a moment and listened. I was on a train - I could hear the wheels faintly through my bindings and the wood of the coffin and I could just detect a slight swaying motion. Most importantly I could not hear voices or footsteps.
My most likely destination was Nazi Germany. I had been taken in Salzburg, just a few miles from the frontier and could easily be deep inside Germany by now. I decided that escape was imperative.
I thought about what might be the most fruitful line of attack. I could think of no way to get free from my bindings with my movement restricted as it was. The coffin itself was my next most obvious target. I thought carefully about the construction of a coffin. The lid was generally screwed down to achieve a snug fit and to preserve its contents. It was not, however, designed to withstand pressure from within. The raised panel on the lid, I realised, was probably only lightly nailed down to the moulding round the edge of the lid.
I tried pushing up with my feet, but to no avail - I couldn't get enough leverage. I tried instead to draw my knees up to my chest to use those, but the limited space below the lid did not permit it. Finally, I worked out how to do it. I had just enough room to swivel my hips to my left, so that my bottom was touching one side of the coffin. It was then possible to draw my knees right up above my waist. It took more struggling to re-arrange myself so I was on my back once more. My knees were now jammed tightly against the inside of the lid and against my chest. I relaxed for a moment before mounting my assault.
I braced myself and applied steady upward pressure with my knees. The lid stayed firm at first, and my body sank down slightly. I tried not to think too hard about what might be happening underneath me and continued pushing. There were a few promising creaks and groans from the woodwork. I switched to a rhythmic series of upward pushes and I felt the panel yield progressively. It became clear that most of the nails amidships had loosened but the head and foot ends were still secure. I pulled my knees as far up as I could, ending up taking the pressure on my shoulders. Progressively, I forced more and of the nails to pull out until the panel was loose from somewhere below my waist all the way to the head end.
I lay down straight again. The panel in the lid was largely loose, so it didn't impede my knees as my legs straightened. I still had the problem of getting out of the coffin. I concluded that I would have to get the loose panel off in its entirety. I shuffled as far footwards as I could go and raised my knees. A succession of pushes with my knees, followed by shuffling a little further down the coffin each time, progressively loosened the panel until it was just held on by a few nails at the foot end.
I rolled over, so that I was lying face down on the other occupant. Trying very hard not to breathe in, I pushed myself towards a kneeling position by pressing down with my forehead and arching my back. As my back came up, so the panel lifted, until I reached the point where I could bring my body completely upright (with a struggle to get my shoulders through the frame round the raised part of the lid) and forced the panel off completely. It fell to the floor with a clatter.
Again I paused. No-one had interfered with any of my performance so far, so I concluded that I was alone, probably in a luggage van. I was now kneeling upright in a badly damaged coffin. There was only one way out and that was to roll. I had no way of knowing if the coffin was on the floor or on top of something else, so I just had to take my chances. I straightened myself up as far as I could and, choosing a direction at random, leaned to my left until I toppled. There was about a three foot drop to the floor. I grazed my right knee as I came out of the coffin and banged my left shoulder hard on the floor.
I lay slightly shaken and enjoyed breathing fresh air. I finally recognised the odd smell in the coffin that I hadn't been able to place - it was formaldehyde, which certainly had not improved either my headache or the state of my stomach.
Now for the escape proper. My hands and face were relatively close together, so there was really only one sensible strategy to adopt - this would be a teeth-and-fingers escape. I curled forwards, bringing my face towards my chest, while at the same time, I tried to work my fingers out from under the cloth covering them. With a few minutes more work, I was able to feel my face through the thickness of my gag.
A little exploration with my fingers revealed that my face had been covered in gauze bandages. I managed to pull several layers away and push some below my chin and the rest above my nose. I was at last able to reach the packing in my mouth. However, I still couldn't get the packing out - there were more layers of bandage under my chin holding my mouth shut. Further probing pulled those layers loose and at last I was able to spit out a wad of soggy gauze. I felt further up my face and was able to pull two surgical eye-pads out from under the bandages. A little more re-arranging of bandages and I could see again.
It took my eyes a few minutes to adapt to the absence of pressure and the presence of light. Once I could see properly, I took stock of my surroundings. I was in a luggage van, full of cases and trunks and dimly lit by a small electric light bulb overhead. The coffin stood on trestles beside me, with the panel I had forced off leaning precariously on a nearby packing case.
I looked down at myself. I was swathed in broad gauze bandages and probably looked enough like a corpse in transit that customs officers and other potentially interested parties would be unlikely to inspect me too closely.
My wrists turned out on examination also to be bound with gauze bandages. The knots were too tight to do anything with, but gauze is a flimsy material and I set to work to gnaw through it with my teeth. Five minutes or so of chewing had my wrists loose, but my arms still swathed in bandages.
Undignified wriggling turned out to be the best approach to getting my arms free. It took only a few minutes to get them loose from the bandages wrapped round me. With my arms mobile, I was able to unwind the rest of the bandages from round my head. I was still wrapped in bandages from my waist to my feet.
As I sat working out my next move, I giggled quietly to myself. It was a mixture of relief at being well on the way to freedom and the sheer absurdity of my situation. In particular, I wondered what anyone coming into the luggage van would think, seeing a broken coffin and a dishevelled and wild-eyed woman wriggling her way out of a winding sheet.
It took the best part of another ten minutes, as well as I can judge, to get completely free. There were a lot of bandages wrapped round me and, under those, my ankles and knees had been separately bound with bandages. I worked away methodically, pulling most of the bandages away with my hands but using a rough point on the metal corner of a nearby steamer trunk as a saw when necessary. Finally I was able to stand up (a little unsteadily) and work some life back into my stiff legs.
I moved back to the coffin. I could see now that I had indeed been sharing it with its true owner, an elderly woman, now no longer laid to rest as tidily as she once had been. Ridiculous as it may seem, I spoke to her to express my regret at the indignities wrought on her body. I heaped the bandages that had bound me into the coffin as a makeshift covering for her and placed the panel I had removed back on top of the coffin.
I turned my thoughts back to the living, in particular, to my own predicament. I looked down at myself - I was still wearing just the combinations which I had on as my underwear in the Fireproof Nun Escape. So here I was, stuck in a train going to some unknown destination and dressed only in my underthings.
I explored the van. The end doors, at least one of which must lead into the rest of the train, were locked. The side doors were no use while the train was moving. The luggage was the usual varied assortment you find on a long distance train - any number of suitcases and trunks, hatboxes, big packing cases, several bicycles and, of course, one coffin.
I looked more closely at the luggage around me. All had labels and, on examination, they were all for destinations in Austria or further east. Even the coffin had a label, "Wien" (Vienna), which I speculated was probably this train's destination. In life you can be a passenger, in death you are just luggage. Wherever I was, I was apparently still in Austria.
I was still pondering what to do next, whether to wait until the train stopped or whether to try to escape from the van and whether to rifle the cases and trunks for some clothes, when fate intervened. I heard a light footstep, then a scratching sound at one door. There was nowhere to hide, so I just stood and awaited developments.
The door opened slowly, a figure hesitated, took stock and then stepped into the van. It was Sarah with a picklock clutched in her hand. "There you are, Boss," she said with the tone one would use speaking to a stray child.
Sarah dumped a small rucksack on the floor in front of me. "Clothes for you in there, Boss," she said, "better get them on quick, we'll be in Linz soon." I looked Sarah up and down. She was dressed for country walking - green tweed suit with a wide calf-length skirt, knitted sweater under the jacket, heavy wool stockings and hob-nailed boots. My gaze lingered on the boots. "I thought I might need to kick someone," Sarah explained pragmatically.
I opened the rucksack. Sarah had provided my equivalent walking outfit. My suit was in brown herringbone tweed, but otherwise similar to Sarah's. I stripped naked and started dressing anew with the underwear Sarah had also packed for me.
While I dressed, Sarah explained the events of the evening. She and Rudi had followed me to my dressing room only to find me not there. Normally, this would not be a cause for concern - there were many things I could have been doing. However, Sarah noticed immediately that the washbasin tap was running and my towel was on the floor. She knows that I am an infuriatingly tidy individual and would almost rather die than leave my possessions in a mess.
Sarah immediately sensed trouble and rushed to the stage door, pausing only to arm herself with my .38 calibre revolver and dragging Rudi with her. The doorman reported that no-one had left the theatre within the last half hour or so. The other likely exit was the scenery dock, so they rushed there next. They arrived just in time to see a motor car pulling out of the yard behind the theatre. Rudi's own car, a fast Mercedes convertible, was parked there, so, at Sarah's insistence, they gave chase. It took a few minutes to catch up with the car and some creative driving on Rudi's part to force it to stop.
The driver and passenger proved to be two women. There were no other occupants and the boot was empty. Apparently, Rudi had been following a decoy. The women were, however, well known to Sarah - they were the two servants who had been in the house in which Sarah had been imprisoned the previous Sunday. Our contacts in the Patriotic Movement with whom we had liaised had obviously let them go, presumably believing them innocent.
Sarah was in no mood for niceties, so she produced her revolver and threatened the women with immediate annihilation if they did not tell her at once exactly what had happened to me. They recognised that Sarah was not about to negotiate and gave in, telling her that I had been taken to the railway station. The two women were bundled into Rudi's car at gunpoint and he set off for the station.
When Rudi and Sarah had arrived at the station, a train to Vienna had just departed. There was no sign of me or any suspicious activity around the station, so they concluded that I had been taken on the train.
Rudi and Sarah made enquiries, held a quick consultation and concluded that the train's timetable was sufficiently leisurely that they stood a good chance of overtaking it in the car. Rudi first drove to a secluded backwater of Salzburg where he and Sarah bound and gagged their prisoners securely and loaded them into the boot of the car before setting off in pursuit of the train. On the way, Sarah changed out of her evening dress and into her more practical walking costume. (Our personal luggage was already loaded into Rudi's car for our own departure from Salzburg, which had been scheduled for early on Saturday morning.)
The train's first stop was after only sixteen miles or so from Salzburg at the small railway junction of Straßwalchen, where it was held awaiting a connecting service. Sarah boarded the train there to search for me, while Rudi drove on towards Linz with the intention of making another rendezvous there.
Sarah had worked her way steadily through the train, but had found nothing amiss until, finally, she broke into the luggage van and found me there.
There was still the mystery of who had abducted me from the theatre and where they were now. We concluded that I must have been bound and gagged and then put into the coffin while I was in the vehicle which had been used to take me to the station. Further investigations would be required in Salzburg to add any hard evidence to this supposition.
By this stage, I was fully dressed and had put my Flameproof Nun underwear into the rucksack. I was anxious to see if there was anyone I recognised in the train who might have been involved in my kidnapping. We just had time to make one sortie the length of the train before reaching Linz.
As we were approaching a major station, Sarah and I could quite plausibly be dressed ready to descend from the train. Accordingly, as I had done previously, we employed that most useful of female accessories, the veil. I finished my outfit off with a woollen scarf and gloves, put my tweed trilby on my head, securing it with a hatpin and pulled the attached veil down below my chin. I was quite unrecognisable and not particularly conspicuous dressed like that. Sarah had already shown herself to everyone in the train during her pass through the carriages in search of me, so she left her veil up, but put her scarf and gloves on as if she was also just about to disembark.
Sarah re-locked the luggage van to forestall early discovery of the damaged coffin. As we worked our way down the train, I kept up a continuous stream of chatter to Sarah in German. She understood little of it, but merely had to nod from time to time as if humouring a tiresome friend. I was ahead of Sarah, so this gave me ample excuse to look round at her from time to time and to see the passengers in each compartment.
I saw no-one that I remembered having seen during our stay in Austria. I was disappointed - I suspected that we had been watched closely and had probably seen our watchers.
As the train drew into Linz Hauptbahnhof, I spotted Rudi waiting on the platform for us. We stepped down off the train as soon as it had stopped moving and walked briskly over to meet him. He stood to attention, then formally kissed each of us on the hand. We did not know who might be watching, so it was vital that we stayed in character while we were on public view.
We walked with Rudi to his car, which was carefully parked away from street lights. Rudi opened the boot to reveal the two captured servants. They were still bound and gagged, but appeared to have been making efforts to free each other.
I decided that we would be prudent to keep our prisoners well supervised and that would entail transferring them to the back seat of the car. I looked around; there was almost no-one moving around and the night was so cold that the few people who were out and about were hurriedly pursuing their business and not paying attention to anyone else. We had a good chance of dealing with the prisoners without being disturbed.
Sarah held the revolver pointed steadily as I dealt with the housekeeper first. I lifted her out of the boot of the car. Rudi and Sarah had only tied her wrists and ankles, which was reasonable considering the short time they had available. It was apparent, from the state of their bonds, that the women would have freed themselves in only a little more time.
I untied the housekeeper's wrists and ankles, but left her gagged. She was wearing a heavy dark winter coat and clearly had been wearing a hat, from the state of her hair. I removed her coat and put it to one side. She was wearing a surprisingly good quality dress for someone who was supposed to be a servant. I turned her round, so her back was towards me and pulled her hands behind her back. I crossed her wrists and tied them firmly. Rudi had found some more rope in our luggage and handed me a length, which I bound tightly round the housekeeper's arms and body. I turned the sleeves of the housekeeper's coat inside out, then hung it on her shoulders and buttoned it up, trapping her arms inside. I helped her sit down on the back seat of the car and bound her legs together at the ankles and knees. I looked in the boot and found her hat there, a trifle battered. It was a rather old fashioned cloche hat with a turned up brim. I knocked it back into shape and put it on her head. Lastly, I rummaged in my own suitcase and found a black wool scarf, which I tied over the housekeeper's mouth and nose to hide the gag. Now she just looked like a woman well dressed against the elements for a night journey.
The maid had seen some of this process and looked apprehensive as I hoisted her out of the boot. I subjected her to the same treatment as her colleague and installed her at the other side of the back seat.
Sarah sat between our prisoners on the back seat and rode shotgun with my revolver out of sight but at the ready.
I settled myself down in the front passenger seat next to Rudi and as we drove away, I suddenly realised how very tired I was and, lulled by the motion of the car and the sound of the engine, I drifted off into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I woke instinctively, as one often does at the end of a journey. I was cold and stiff, but greatly refreshed by my sleep.
There was no sign of any lights in the house as I tentatively rang the front door bell. However, Frau Hübert clearly had not been in bed as there was less than a minute's wait before the hall light came on and a worried looking Frau Hübert opened the door. She was visibly relieved to see me safe and well. I explained that there had been some trouble, but that Sarah, Rudi and I were all safe now. Rather more tentatively, I explained that we now had two prisoners in our charge. Frau Hübert looked surprised but nodded in understanding.
By this time, Rudi had freed our prisoners' legs and Sarah marched them up to the door. Frau Hübert looked them over grimly and declared that if they had anything to do with the people who had tied her and her daughter up the previous Sunday, she was glad to help keep them out of circulation.
Frau Hübert led us all down to the kitchen, where, judging from the warmth and the lights which were still on, she had been awaiting news of our safety.
We left Rudi with my gun to guard the housekeeper, while Sarah and I escorted the maid to the bathroom so that she could relieve herself before her next spell of captivity. We repeated the operation with the housekeeper.
The next job was to make our two prisoners completely secure and to ensure that they would not be a danger to Frau Hübert. I had selected two wooden chairs with arms as being suitably robust for the job. I had also asked Frau Hübert if she had any rope available as our present stocks were limited (most was with our equipment in the theatre). She produced a coil of thin hemp rope which she used as a washing line.
I started with the housekeeper. I bound her to the chair with ropes round her waist, over her shoulders and over her lap. I tied her arms to the arms of the chair with ropes round her wrists and just below her elbows. I ripped her dress so that I could tie her legs securely to the front legs of the chair. I bound her ankles to the chair legs first then used ropes just below her knees to hold her legs back against the chair. I put another few turns of rope over each knee and under the front corner of the chair seat so she could not try to lift her feet out of the ankle bonds. Lastly, I took a 20 foot length of rope and tied it tightly round her arms and body and the chair back, so that it came above her elbows, but below her bust.
I removed the housekeeper's gag and, while Sarah gave her some water to drink, prepared a new gag. I used a strip of bedsheet provided by Frau Hübert, in which I tied a bulky knot. I forced the knot into the housekeeper's mouth and tied the ends of the strip tightly behind her head, making sure there was no scope for her to work it down over her chin. It was not strictly necessary, but I decided to blindfold the housekeeper as well - mainly for the added sense of safety it would give Frau Hübert.
Once I was satisfied that the housekeeper was secure, I repeated the process on the maid, tying her to the other chair in much the same way. Lastly, I manoeuvred the two chairs back-to-back. I looped a couple of turns of rope round both the women and their chair backs so that they could not move the chairs to a position where they could reach each others' bonds and get free.
The housekeeper took the process of being tied up stoically and was apparently resigned to her fate. The maid was clearly terrified, but at the same time seemed to despise us as if we sere somehow inferior to her. I mentally tagged the housekeeper as a professional much like ourselves and the maid as an ideologue - unpredictable and therefore potentially a greater danger to us.
Frau Hübert's daughter Greta had appeared from upstairs at some stage during the process of tying up our prisoners. She sat watching me with wide-eyed interest. "I'm making sure they can't hurt you," I said. She nodded and carried on watching.
Rudi, Sarah and I sat round Frau Hübert's kitchen table and discussed the events of the night. We concluded that someone, but we didn't know who, knew far too much about us and our mission but not enough detail to know precisely what we were carrying or how we were carrying it.
Sarah and I were due to move on to Graz, to open at the theatre there on Monday. We concluded that there was nothing to be gained by altering our programme, indeed that doing so would only draw attention to the fact that we knew we were being pursued. We decided the right thing to do was to carry on and to leave any tidying up of loose ends to Rudi and his fellows in the Patriotic Movement.
Rudi handed me a piece of paper. I looked surprised and then remembered what it was - the copy of Schiller's Ode to Joy which had been passed to me at the theatre the previous night. I had given it to him as I went on stage to do the Fireproof Nun Escape.
I spread the paper out on the table between us and we all craned our necks to read it. There was nothing remarkable about it - the handwriting was difficult but regular and neat, there were no corrections or, as far as I could tell, any omissions. I read it aloud very slowly and we all savoured the words.
"Vielleicht die Wörter sind verändert," offered Frau Hübert ("Perhaps the words have been altered"). We agreed that this was a possibility, although they sounded familiar to me. Frau Hübert fetched a copy of Schiller's poetry and we laboriously compared the text word-by-word. Even the punctuation was correct.
I sighed and picked the paper up, holding it in front of my face as if I could divine the hidden meaning it must surely contain by staring at it. As I did so, Greta's voice chimed in, "Warum gibt da Nadelsticher durch das Blatt?" ("Why are there pinholes in the page?") Why indeed? I held the page up to the light - she was right, there were barely discernible pinpricks under some of the letters. Quickly, I marked those letters with a pencil, then once again we stared at the paper:
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, überm Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja - wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Was den großen Ring bewohnet,
Huldige der Sympathie!
Zu den Sternen leitet sie,
Wo der Unbekannte thronet.
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An der Brüsten der Natur,
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küße gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod.
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such ihn überm Sternezelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
There was our message.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Part 3 Part 5
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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