We stared at the copy of Schiller's Ode to Joy and at the letters I had underlined on it. I gestured towards our two prisoners in the kitchen. They were bound, gagged and blindfolded, but they could still hear what we were saying. I held my finger to my lips and we continued in silence.
I transcribed the letters to a clean piece of paper to see if we could make sense of them:
sch l o s s g r a z S u n at f o u r a l on e i W i ll te ll i n F o v I t A l u S
The language was a little terse and strained by the medium used to encrypt it, but it came out clearly enough:
Schloss, Graz: Sun[day] at four, alone. I will tell info[rmation] vital [to or for] us.
Someone wanted me to be at the Castle (the Schloß) in Graz at four (presumably in the afternoon) on Sunday. I was apparently to be alone and would be told information vital to us. Precisely who 'us' referred to was not clear.
Now that the message was safely in our hands and trivial enough to memorise, I ripped up both the poem and my notes. I handed the pieces to Frau Hübert, who transferred them to the kitchen fire.
A summons like that from an unknown source and with an unknown purpose had to be treated with caution. It would require thought, but I was too exhausted to think. Further deliberations could wait until I had had at least a few hours sleep.
I made my apologies and staggered up the stairs to my bed. Getting undressed seemed just too much effort to contemplate, so I lay down on the bed fully clothed, pulled a blanket over myself and was instantly asleep.
I was woken by the sound of the doorbell. I remembered that we were due to meet someone from the Patriotic Movement, both to hand over our prisoners and to discuss our mission, which seemed to be developing more and more complex ramifications every hour.
I staggered to the washstand, so that I could at least splash some cold water on my face before meeting anyone. I studied the red-eyed and wild-haired creature that stared back at me from the mirror and despaired. A bath and a hair-wash were long overdue, but would have to wait until later.
As I descended the staircase, I could hear voices in the hallway. Rudi and Sarah were there together with a man and a woman whom I did not recognise. The conversation was all in German, so, although Sarah was apparently paying attention and nodding from time to time, I knew she would only understand a small part of what was being said.
Our visitors were a middle aged man of medium height who looked like a caricature of an Austrian - round face, moustache, receding hair and a ready smile. His companion was a plump and grave faced woman of about my own age. Rudi turned to greet me and introduced me to the strangers. I, in turn introduced them to Sarah, "This is Korvettenkapitän Freiherr Georg von Trapp, that's Lieutenant Commander the Baron von Trapp, and his wife." Sarah reacted as generations of naval ratings have reacted when confronted unexpectedly by an officer in mufti - she hauled herself to attention and stared fixedly at a point in space somewhere over the Baron's shoulder. The Baron and I both recognised this performance and laughed, much to Sarah's chagrin. His command of English was sufficient to invite Sarah to stand easy.
Rudi led us all down the service stairs to the kitchen, which was now firmly established as our de facto centre of operations. Our prisoners were still securely bound to their chairs, but the chairs had now been separated. Both women's blindfolds had been removed and the Maid's gag had been taken out. Greta was helping the maid to drink some water, while Frau Hübert held my revolver pointed at the housekeeper.
The Baron agreed to take charge of the prisoners and to hand them over to other members of the Patriotic Movement. Rudi, Sarah and the Baroness set to work to prepare the prisoners for transport.
They dealt with the maid first. After replacing her gag, they untied her from the chair she was sitting in and helped her to get to her feet, somewhat stiffly. After a quick conference, Rudi and Sarah agreed what they would do. Rudi stood guard with my revolver, while Sarah saw to securing the prisoner and the Baroness looked on, slightly bemused. Sarah crossed the maid's wrists behind her back and bound them tightly. She next hung the maid's coat around her shoulders and did the buttons up. Lastly, she wound a long length of rope round the maid at about elbow level so the coat would be held firmly round her and her arms would be firmly pinioned. Sarah checked the maid's gag carefully and tightened it slightly. She, Rudi and the Baroness then escorted the maid up to the Baron's car, which was outside, to install her in the boot. Sarah carefully chose two extra lengths of rope and took them with her, presumably to secure the maid's legs.
While all this was going on, I discussed our situation and progress with the Baron. Graz was the next destination on our tour anyway. I had full authority from the Admiralty to undertake any extra liaison with the various small groups which formed the loose Patriotic Movement. I also had authority to gather any additional intelligence that happened to come my way. My uncertainty was the wisdom and risk of such additional endeavours for an unknown benefit. The Baron counselled extreme caution but acknowledged that the movement would benefit from having as many independent links with the outside world as possible. None of this was particularly a surprise to me, but it was helpful to discuss it with someone else. I decided that the mysterious message should be heeded, but as yet had no clear plan for carrying it out.
By this stage, the housekeeper had also been released from her chair, re-tied for transport and taken to the Baron's car. Sarah and I bade the Baron and his wife farewell. Our next task was to finish packing for our journey to Graz. We busied ourselves gathering and packing belongings, before finally saying goodbye to Frau Hübert and Greta, thanking them for all their help.
Rudi drove us to the theatre and waited in the car while we checked our belongings. All we had to do was to ensure that the various boxes and trunks were all present and accounted for, all were correctly labelled and were either waiting on the scenery dock or were about to be moved there.
Sarah went to clear up our dressing room (which we would have done the previous evening had events not overtaken us). I collected our fees from the theatre manager then went to the scenery dock to check the boxes that were already there.
I had one of the prop boxes open and was leaning over, checking its contents when I heard behind me the unmistakable sound of an automatic pistol being cocked. I froze, then slowly straightened up and raised my hands.
I stood perfectly still waiting for something to happen. I felt the muzzle of the gun press gently against my back at waist level. I might normally have paused for at least a fraction of a second to weigh up possibilities, but tense and irritable as I was following the events of the previous twelve hours, I acted on instinct. The touch of the gun's muzzle told me exactly where the gun was and gave me a pretty good idea of where its owner might be.
I spun to my right, away from the gun and towards my assailant. As I turned, I brought my left hand up and, as soon as I had a clear sight, followed through with a left hook to his jaw. He was trying to get the gun round to bear on me when I hit him. The blow caused him to pull the trigger involuntarily. The shot went wild, but the gun went off only an inch or two from my face. Blinded and deafened by the report, I carried on regardless and swung my right knee up into my attacker's stomach. He buckled forward and, as his head sank below my shoulder level, I felled him with a rabbit punch to the nape of his neck.
Sarah had heard the shot and came running into the backstage area, to find a man crumpled at my feet but no obvious injuries to me. I had no choice but to stand still with my ears ringing and trying to blink away a big purple after-image of the muzzle-flash. When my head had cleared a bit, I looked down at my would-be assailant, unconscious at my feet. Sarah had rolled him over to face us and I recognised the aristocratic young man who had been a volunteer at our farewell performance in Innsbruck and also at the previous night's farewell here in Salzburg.
We looked round for somewhere to deposit the man until we were well away from Salzburg. There were several large wicker laundry baskets awaiting collection on the scenery dock. The first one I investigated proved to contain used hand towels, presumably the previous night's supply to the dressing rooms. Sarah and I helped ourselves to several and soon had the mysterious man immobilised with them. We tore the towels into strips and used them to tie his wrists behind his back, his ankles and knees together and to gag him. We lifted him up and dumped him in the basket. He was just beginning to show signs of coming round as we closed and fastened the lid of the basket.
Our business at the theatre was concluded, so I picked up my carpet bag, ready to leave the theatre. Sarah tutted and shook her head at me. She was looking at me critically, so I knew what was coming. I sighed and put the bag down again. "You look a mess, Boss," she observed. I stood patiently while Sarah straightened my coat and did her best to brush dust off my sleeve which seemed to have come in contact with something chalky . She unpinned my hat, ran her fingers through my hair with a look of despair and settled for straightening my hat, pinning it back on and pulling the normally unused veil on my hat down, presumably on the principle of hiding what she could not fix.
Running repairs completed, we picked up our bags and set off for the railway station.
The walk through the crisp winter air to the station revived me somewhat, but I could still feel the tendrils of exhaustion clutching me as went.
The train journey from Salzburg to Graz is a tiresome one involving no less than three changes of train. I have to report that I was far from being a good travelling companion that day. As soon as I sat down in our compartment, I wrapped myself in a travelling blanket and collapsed into a deep sleep. I awoke rather irritably and with bad grace when Sarah roused me to get off the train. While we awaited our connection, I stood gloomily shivering in the cold, despite the travelling blanket draped round my shoulders on top of my heavy overcoat. I repeated this performance throughout the journey.
By the time we arrived in Graz, I was fairly well rested and in a far better frame of mind. It was snowing and Graz was an unfamiliar city to both of us, so we took a cab to travel to our lodgings.
We had relied on a friend's recommendation to arrange accommodation in Graz. Our abode turned out to be a dismal hotel which specialised in renting rooms at the lowest possible price to commercial travellers and to stage people like ourselves.
We were welcomed, for want of a better expression, by an ancient hag who inhabited a tiny and filthy conciergerie at the front door. Having subjected us and our travel documents to a minute examination, and having extracted three nights' board from us in advance, she grudgingly offered us a key and pointed us in the direction of the stairs.
We staggered up four incredibly steep flights of stairs and, after several false starts, found our way along a twisting series of corridors to our room. It was a gloomy little space containing two beds a ramshackle wardrobe and a rather battered looking washstand.
I went in search of a bathroom. When I found it, all hopes of a luxurious soak in the bath finally evaporated. There was a bath, a vast cast iron affair, which was probably new when Emperor Franz-Josef was a very young man. There was no hot water. The bath was devoid of taps and the basin's single tap emitted a grudging stream of freezing water. My spirits collapsed again and I trudged back to our bedroom to fetch and fill the washstand jug.
An icy wash, a change of clothes and a vigorous session with a hairbrush at least left me looking more presentable.
We left our room to go out and find a meal, hoping to lavish some good cheer on ourselves. In the lobby, we met another inmate of the hotel, a tall slender young woman. I addressed her first in German, then in French before realising that she was actually English like us. Further discussion established that she was a dancer and also elicited the address of a restaurant she was prepared to recommend. As this conversation ended, I was aware of the eyes of the concierge on us.
The recommendation proved excellent, we enjoyed an excellent Wiener Schnitzel accompanied by a palatable house wine, followed by a huge dessert consisting mainly of chocolate and cream. The world seemed a better place as we drank our coffee together and took stock of our mysterious assignation scheduled for the following day and weighed up possible plans of action.
Attempting to find breakfast in a strange city on a snowy Sunday morning is a frustrating and bone-chilling experience. We eventually happened on a small café which was empty but apparently open for business. I opened the door and called inside. A disembodied voice confirmed that they were indeed open and invited us to take a seat.
Sarah and I sat at a small table luxuriating in the warmth after the bitter cold outside. After a short while, a tall dark-haired woman appeared through a door at the back of the café. As she entered the room, she turned and said a few words, which I did not catch to someone in the back premises. Sarah's reaction astonished me - she sat bolt upright and swung round in her chair with a broad grin on her face. I then had the tables turned on me linguistically. Sarah addressed what I supposed to be a greeting to the woman and an animated conversation ensued. I understood maybe one word in fifty of the conversation. Although Sarah was not well versed in any of the major European languages, she was virtually bilingual in Yiddish and we had chanced on a Jewish-owned café.
We were treated as long-lost cousins and, over an excellent breakfast (even if a little unusual to my palate), discussed the present and future prospects for Austria and the possible impending crisis with Germany. It seemed that our hosts feared the worst and, should the Germans invade, favoured a swift exit to the German-speaking South Tyrol, now part of Italy.
We learned few details of the Patriotic Movement in Graz, but the general picture painted was not optimistic. It seemed that there were a number of small groups, but, beyond opposing any move to unite Austria with Germany, they had little or nothing in common with each other. Some had Communist leanings, others favoured a re-establishment of monarchy, still others were dedicated democrats. Privately, I wondered which category of organisation our mysterious coded message had come from.
The Castle in Graz sits high on a steep hill overlooking the city. Access is via a funicular railway or a winding path. Sarah and I walked slowly up through gardens planted on the Schloßberg (the castle hill). It had stopped snowing but was still bitterly cold and we were well muffled up against the weather.
When we reached the bell tower at the top, we were able to enjoy a magnificent panorama of Graz. Even under leaden skies, the view over snow-covered rooftops was magical.
No instructions had been given regarding the location of the intended rendezvous, other that that I was to be at the Castle. The Castle itself was locked up and in darkness. There were many possible places for people to wait unobtrusively in the gardens, and by 4.00 pm, it would be dark.
We walked back down the hill and discussed strategy as we went. It was difficult to think of a sensible plan in advance - there were just too many things that could happen. At the foot of the hill, we scouted neighbouring streets until we found a café open. We waited out the remaining time until our appointment by lingering over a warming cup of coffee and a brandy each.
At 3.45 pm, we started our climb back up the Schloßberg. The plan was that I would go on ahead alone while Sarah followed at a distance, trying to maintain visual contact with me at all times. Sarah would also be able to take a good look at anyone coming down the road after the rendezvous and intercept them if necessary.
The sky wasn't quite completely dark, but the shadows between shrubs and beneath trees were black, impenetrable and sinister. I trudged slowly up the road. I looked around me and listened carefully, but there was no-one in sight and I could hear nothing beyond the crunch of my boots on the snow and the sound of my own breathing.
I stamped around in the snow at the top of the hill, outside the Castle, trying to keep warm and waiting for someone else to appear. By 4.15, no-one had turned up and I was getting very cold. I decided to walk slowly back down the road and see if anyone was waiting further down.
Sarah's instructions were to keep ahead of me and stay just within sight of me if I started coming down again. She was generally good at being unobtrusive, but I was surprised not to catch any glimpse of her at all.
Some distance down the road, I caught sight of three people sitting on a bench, apparently waiting. Even in poor light and at a distance, I was fairly sure the middle one was Sarah. I decided to approach cautiously.
Sarah was sitting in the middle of the bench. Her arms were behind her and her veil had been pulled down, obscuring her face. I could see rope round her ankles. She was flanked by a man and a woman whose faces I could not see clearly in the poor light. The man held a small pistol pointed at Sarah. The woman addressed me, "Good afternoon, Fräulein MacKenzie. Your colleague has come to no harm and will not be hurt if you co-operate with us and do exactly as you are told." She pulled Sarah's veil up and I could see that Sarah had been gagged and blindfolded.
I had little room for manoeuvre, so I assented to the demand, hoping for a chance to buy some more time. The woman stood up and produced a length of rope from a bag on the bench beside her. "Very well," she ordered, "turn round and cross your wrists behind your back." The man kept his gun pointed at Sarah, so I did as I was told. I felt my wrists being lashed together firmly, the rope being wound round them both horizontally and vertically. I was glad of the padding afforded by my woollen gloves and hoped that the gloves might have left me enough slack to free myself when I had a chance. The woman grabbed my shoulders and swivelled me round to face her. She took a rag from the bag and gestured towards my face with it. "Open," she ordered and stuffed it into my mouth.
There seemed little point in resisting, so I concentrated on observing the couple. They were handling Sarah and me quite competently, but at the same time seemed slightly unsure of themselves. I tentatively concluded that they might well not be professionals we were dealing with. Another rag appeared and was pushed between my teeth and then knotted tightly at the back of my neck. A third rag tied over my eyes ended my observation of my captors. I felt the woman pull my veil down over my face, hiding the gag and blindfold. Something was draped round my shoulders - I guessed it might well be a shawl to hide my bound hands.
I heard the woman's voice again, this time speaking to Sarah, "There is a knife on the bench beside you. If you work quickly to free yourself, you will not freeze to death." Sarah was clearly not going wherever I was about to be taken.
My shoulders were gripped firmly from both sides and I was marched off down the road towards the bottom of the Schloßberg. My legs were free, but with bound wrists and blindfolded, there was no point in attempting to make a run for it.
Eventually, I felt the texture of the surface under my feet change to a cobbled street and then we stopped. I heard a car door being opened and I was bundled inside and pushed to the floor. I was lying face down and someone's feet were planted firmly on my back. The car's engine started and a rather uncomfortable journey began.
Eventually, the car stopped. The door was opened and, feeling slightly battered, I was dragged bodily out and made to stand up. Still disoriented, I was again held by the shoulders and propelled firmly in I knew not what direction. I was guided up some steps and into a building - I could feel carpet under my feet. Next came a descent of a steep flight of stone steps and a winding route along a series of passages. From the sound of our footsteps, I guessed that the space we were in was quite small with hard surfaces, a cellar possibly.
When my forced march finished, my veil was pulled up and my hat removed. I felt hands working at the knots behind my head and first my blindfold and then my gag were removed. I exercised my mouth gratefully as the packing was pulled out. Once I could see, I took stock of my surroundings. I was in a small, bare cellar room with no furniture other than a mattress on the floor. A rather intense-looking young man with a beard held a revolver pointed steadily at me. The other person in the room was behind me, untying my wrists. When my wrists were free, she came round in front of me. It was the woman who had given me the coded message in Salzburg. My worst fears were confirmed - it had been a trap and I had fallen into it. Moreover, no-one knew where I was.
"We hoped you would not be able to resist our bait," the woman commented. "Now, we must make sure you are secure for the night." I was instructed to remove my coat and boots then I was led to a small room with a toilet and a sink and allowed to use them while being kept at gunpoint all the time. After performing rather desultory ablutions, I was led back into the cellar room again. The man kept the gun pointed at me, while the woman subjected me to a minute search. I judged that the search was being carried out by an amateur, but it was nevertheless effective - I was relieved of my set of skeleton keys, two small pocket knives and, unaccountably, a teaspoon that I didn't know I had. My watch and hairgrips were also removed.
The woman left the cellar, taking with her my coat and boots and the fruit of her search. The man kept the gun pointing steadily at me and said nothing. When the woman returned she had a bundle of rope and a handful of rags with her. "I hope this will not be too unpleasant for you if you co-operate," she said. My hope lay in appearing not to resist but in subtly interfering with the tying process - I could only hope that I would get away with it.
She started by binding my arms behind me. She positioned my forearms so they were together, but horizontally across my back so each hand was near the opposite elbow. A few turns of rope were looped round my forearms and knotted, not particularly tightly. The ends of the rope were taken up over my shoulders, crossed on my chest between my breasts, and taken round behind my back again, tied to the rope around my forearms and then brought bound to the front again below my bust, where the ends were knotted together.
She produced another length of rope, found the centre and then hitched it onto the point where the first rope was crossed in the middle of my chest. The two ends were taken up over my shoulders, and crossed between my shoulder-blades. Each end was then passed between one of my upper arms and my body, brought round behind my bound arms and tied off to the knot already securing them. This second rope was also not particularly tight but it kept my elbows tucked in against my body and pushed each hand firmly towards the opposite elbow, preventing me from withdrawing my arms from the rope which bound my forearms. The combined effect was that my arms were cradled behind me, apparently quite inescapably, without being particularly tightly tied.
I was oddly split between a professional detachment observing an unfamiliar method of tying with interest and an urgent desire to escape and get on with my mission. The woman finished the last knot securing my arms. "There, that should hold you without being too uncomfortable," she pronounced, evidently satisfied with her efforts. Once again, I was struck by the meticulous, yet amateur approach of these two. In her position, I would not have been overly concerned with my prisoner's comfort.
She indicated that I should sit down on the mattress and I did so. The woman equipped herself with some more rope and set to work on my legs. She hitched my skirt up and bound first my ankles, then my knees with care. In each case, she coiled the rope fairly loosely around my legs and then cinched the rope tightly with a series of turns round the first coils and at right angles to them. The result was very secure but not particularly uncomfortable. Her tying was more competent than I would have expected, but somehow carried more of a whiff of the bordello than the prison yard with it.
Lastly, the woman pushed a clean rag into my mouth and bound it in place with another one.
She checked my bonds over carefully then nodded in satisfaction. "You will get cold," she commented practically. The shawl, which had been draped round me earlier to hide my bound wrists, was still in the room, so she put it round my shoulders, crossed the ends in front of me and knotted them at the back, beneath my bound arms.
Next, the woman took a large black wool headscarf. I was not surprised - I had expected to be blindfolded. However instead of tying it over my eyes, she draped the whole thing over my head, then gathered the four corners together and knotted them behind my neck. I probably would not be able to rid myself of this blindfold, but at least I wouldn't be cold.
I was helped to lie down on the mattress and I heard the door to the room I was in being shut and locked. I explored my bonds as much as I could, but with no real success. With my hands, I could reach the ropes which went round the lower part of my chest, but there were no knots anywhere in reach. Further up, with my fingertips, I could just reach the ropes that held my upper arms, but could not find any knots.
I decided to rest for a bit, both to recover my strength and to wait until the house was likely to be more quiet.
I woke up with a start. Waking up bound, gagged and blindfolded in a strange cellar is a disorientating experience. It took a moment or too to get my bearings.
I lay still and listened. There was no noise evident anywhere. Now was probably a good time to attempt an escape in that case.
I decided that thinking about my situation was probably a good move to start with. I had been tied up using unfamiliar techniques, so I would have to consider the problem from first principles. I focussed on the ropes which held my upper arms in position - if I could only get those, or even one of them, down over my elbows, I could escape quite easily. If I could force my forearms further into the ropes binding them, then my elbows would be closer together and I might be able to get the ropes on my upper arms down over them.
I tried grabbing the fabric of my sweater with my fingers to pull my elbows closer together, but I could not get enough purchase to achieve anything. I rolled off the mattress and onto my side and tried to jerk my elbows together by banging my elbow down on the floor, but all I was doing was hurting myself.
I lay still trying to imagine ways of applying the necessary pressure to my arms and suddenly I had it. I shuffled myself back onto the mattress. I remembered that the mattress was in one corner of the room, and a corner was what I needed most just then. I inched myself along on my back until the top of my head collided with the wall. It probably took another ten minutes after that to achieve a sitting position with my back to the corner of the room.
Both my elbows were in contact with the walls and, by leaning backwards, I could put quite a lot of pressure on them. I bent my knees and braced myself back into the corner. The mattress responded by sliding away from the wall. I kicked the mattress out of the way and laboriously worked myself back into position in the corner again.
This time it worked. I could "walk" my elbows along the wall, forcing myself further into the corner. Each tiny step pushed my elbows closer together and drove my forearms deeper into the rope encircling them. I suddenly realised I had enough slack to pull the rope down over one elbow. I leaned forwards and was then able to wriggle one arm free.
I was slightly impeded by the shawl, but able to use my free hand to push the rope on the opposite upper arm down over my elbow. The other arm came free at this point. I found the knot in the shawl and untied it then stretched my arms luxuriously before reaching up to the knot holding the headscarf which covered my head.
As I removed the headscarf, I was surprised to find that the room was not in complete darkness. There was a dim lightbulb overhead and its light was sufficient to reveal the shadowy figure of the man who had presided over my binding. He was sitting impassively in a chair with his arms folded. He unfolded his arms. In one hand was a revolver which he pointed at me. With his other hand he reached up to the wall behind him and pressed a bell-push.
I sat and waited. There seemed little point in removing either my gag or the ropes which still wrapped my body and bound my legs, so I didn't bother.
A few minutes later, the woman appeared wearing a topcoat over a nightdress. She smiled coldly at me. "You didn't think we would leave you unsupervised did you?" I felt such a fool - that was exactly what I had thought.
She knelt down beside me and removed the ropes which were still round my upper body. I suspected that my re-tying might well be considerably more uncomfortable than the arrangement I had escaped from.
My wrists were crossed behind my back and tied tightly. A short length of rope was tied between my arms at elbow level, pulling my shoulders back. More rope was tied round my upper arms and chest, passing just below my bust.
The woman laid me down on my side on the mattress. She took a long length of rope and folded it in half. The centre of the rope was tied to my wrist binding. She pulled the rope up tightly and hitched it to my elbow binding. The two ends were separated and taken over my shoulders then hitched to the rope round my upper arms and chest. From there, she attached the rope to my knee binding, drawing my knees up to my chest. There was still plenty of rope left, so the woman attached it to my ankle ropes next. Finally, she pulled the rope tight under my bottom and knotted the end of it off to my wrist binding.
The headscarf which had formed my all-enveloping blindfold was folded up into a strip and tied on firmly as a more conventional blindfold.
I had no chance of escape if I was to be under guard, and, in all probability, could not escape from this tie-up anyway. Therein lies the difference between stage escapes and real life - on stage it is always the performer who is in control, and what cannot be managed by skill alone can always be achieved by subterfuge or deceit.
The rest of the night was going to be uncomfortable and debilitating.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Part 4 Part 6
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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