QUEENIE DECIDED not to join in the desultory applause from other members of the audience in the Elephant and Castle Theatre. To her credit, she did not join in the scattering of boos and hisses either. Queenie enjoyed a night out at the music hall, and had enjoyed almost all of the acts so far, but nevertheless felt let down. Her particular reason for being there was to see an escape act which featured on the bill that night. The performance was dismal, hence Queenie's abstention from the applause. A walrus-moustached man of middle years, clad unflatteringly in red and white striped bathing drawers, had been subjected to a token binding by an alleged member of the audience (an obvious stooge) and had then wriggled and flailed around the stage for five minutes before finally shedding his layers of rope and chain in apparent triumph.
Since inheriting an unexpectedly large sum of money some months before, Queenie had begun a systematic programme to see as many professional escape artists' performances as possible. She harboured a dream of one day going on stage as an escape artist and billing herself as Victoria Holkham, Queen of Escapes. In the mean time, she was working on developing her skills and her personal fitness and watching as many established professionals as she could.
Queenie had a notebook open ready at the beginning of the performance and had already written the date, the name of the theatre and the name of the performer at the top of a blank page. She snapped the book shut in disgust without writing anything more and thrust it back into her handbag. "Waste of time," she muttered to herself irritably.
"He wasn't very good, was he?" the middle-aged woman sitting next to Queenie observed. "I could have tied him up better than that."
"It was an insult to the audience," Queenie agreed. "Even a child could have tied him up better than that."
"He could probably have been free sooner if he just stood still and let the ropes fall off by themselves," the woman added drily.
"An escape act so bad that his struggling actually keeps him tied up longer," Queenie summarised with a wicked glint in her eye. She rummaged for her notebook again. "I really must write that down."
"So," Queenie's neighbour ventured, "are you writing a review of the show?"
Queenie shook her head and gave a brief explanation of her interest in escape artistry.
"Well, it wouldn't be terribly difficult to be better than that charlatan," the woman remarked after digesting Queenie's words. "And we must presume that he makes some kind of living at it."
"I wouldn't demean myself," Queenie declared. "I plan to be the best or nothing at all."
"London's own lady Houdini?" came the obvious response.
"London's own Victoria Holkham!" Queenie replied emphatically. "Not a pale imitation of anyone else."
The house lights were dimmed and the next act, a troupe of Chinese acrobats, swung into action. Queenie was enthralled. She had no ambition whatever to be an acrobat, but this act combined skill and showmanship in exactly the way that Queenie most admired and it was utterly captivating in its sheer entertainment value.
At the interval, Queenie and her companion for the evening made their way to the bar. Queenie suggested that she get the drinks while her new friend found a table. The offer was accepted with a promise of buying the second round.
A few moments later, Queenie manoeuvred her way through the crowd and set down the gin she had bought for her companion and her own cup of coffee. "I told you my name," she remarked, "but I never really introduced myself properly: Victoria Holkham, Queenie to my friends. Soon-to-be-ex-schoolteacher by trade."
"Mary-Ann Rafferty;" came the reply, "Mrs, but known as Molly to my friends."
"A pleasure," Queenie declared, shaking her hand.
"So tell me about this idea of being an escape artist," Mrs Rafferty ventured. "You can't drop something like that into a conversation and just walk away from it."
"It's just something I've always wanted to do, ever since I saw Houdini in London in 1908," Queenie explained. "As soon as I saw him in action I knew that was what I wanted to do more than anything."
"You must really like being tied up," Molly Rafferty observed.
"Well, I don't mind it," Queenie admitted. "After all, it wouldn't be much good if I did! What I really enjoy is the excitement of escaping. It gives me a real thrill to work myself free when I've been tied up. What I want to do is to make that a thrill I can use to entertain an audience. Just being clever and escaping isn't enough; I want to make it an experience they will remember and tell their friends about."
"Unlike the man we've just seen," remarked Mrs Rafferty drily, "whose audience will probably tell their friends to stay away!"
"I plan to be better than that," Queenie assured her drily.
"I'm sure you will be," Mrs Rafferty agreed, "but how do you learn something like that? There are music schools and dance schools but I've never seen a school for escape artists."
"True," Queenie conceded. "I have a friend who helps me, but I have to practice on my own a lot."
"Not easy," Molly Rafferty commented. "If you tie yourself up, the chances are it's either going to be ridiculously easy to get free or completely impossible."
Queenie had been chattering away quite unselfconsciously but suddenly pulled herself up short, wondering how Mrs Rafferty came to know that nugget of information. She was quite right, but it was hardly everyday knowledge.
"It's very astute of you to work that out, Mrs Rafferty," Queenie replied after a long pause. "Most people don't even know that you can tie yourself up."
"Oh, I know all about that," Mrs Rafferty remarked lightly.
Queenie was at a loss as to where to take the conversation after a remark like that. "I didn't quite catch what it is you do, Mrs Rafferty," she said at length, hoping it might give her a clue as to what she might say next.
"That's because I didn't tell you what I do," Molly Rafferty replied. "I'm a madam."
Queenie was momentarily baffled. She knew what a madam was, but found herself in uncharted waters conversationally. Her confusion showed on her face.
Mrs Rafferty leaned towards her. "I run a brothel, dear," she confided with an endearing smile.
Fiercely resisting the urge to giggle nervously, Queenie replied as evenly as she could. "Really? I don't think I've met anyone in your line of work before."
Queenie's blushes were spared by the bell sounding to summon the audience back for the second half of the show.
The worst spot on the bill, just after the interval, when half the audience was still trailing in late, had fallen to a truly awful stand-up comedian. He was quite young and just learning his craft. He would either get better with experience or give up and get a job out in the real world instead. Queenie felt quite sympathetic towards him and applauded more enthusiastically than his performance really deserved.
As the show progressed, Queenie found she was paying as much attention to Mrs Rafferty as to the performers on stage. Queenie really didn't know what to make of her accidental companion. She was clearly Irish from her name and her accent. She was at least in her forties, Queenie judged, and quite possibly well into her fifties. Her figure was mature but good and her face was handsome in a way that suggested that she might have been quite a beauty in her day. Her personality and charm seemed to be entirely genuine and were presumably an asset to her chosen career. Judging from the quality of the clothes and accessories she wore, her chosen career must also be quite lucrative.
As the show ended and the crowd spilled out into the street, Mrs Rafferty was still at Queenie's side. "I promised you a drink," she said, "but I wouldn't honestly recommend any of the pubs around here; they're all a bit rough."
"Another time perhaps?" suggested Queenie, wavering between escaping her own embarrassment and a genuine regret not to have the opportunity to continue her conversation with the fascinating Mrs Rafferty.
"I would enjoy that," Mrs Rafferty replied warmly. "Or, if you like, you could come back to my place for a drink."
Queenie gulped. "You mean back to the..." She struggled for a polite circumlocution.
"...brothel, dear," Mrs Rafferty finished for her. "Or night-house, if you prefer a euphemism."
"I've never been in one of those," Queenie replied inanely, horrified at the squeak that had unaccountably crept into her voice.
"I'm sure you haven't," Mrs Rafferty assured her, "but it's really quite respectable, you know. You would be amazed at some of the people who are our regular clients."
"I don't know if I should go," Queenie said in as steady a voice as she could muster. "After all, somebody might see me."
"Well, if someone sees you there, then it follows that you will also have seen them there," Mrs Rafferty explained patiently. "Besides, I'm only inviting you in for a drink; I'm not enticing you into a life of vice or planning to sell you into white-slavery."
Queenie's curiosity, both in Mrs Rafferty and in her business premises, finally got the better of her. "In that case, I accept," she announced, "but I'm still a bit worried about being seen."
"We can always disguise you a little bit," Mrs Rafferty suggested. "You're wearing black, except for that bright red scarf of yours. Swap it for my black one and you won't stand out so much."
Queenie handed over her long red woollen scarf and accepted Mrs Raffery's scarf in exchange. As she wound it around her neck and pulled it up over her mouth, she realised that unlike her own well-worn hand-knitted item, this was probably real cashmere.
"Perfect," declared Mrs Rafferty. "A cloche hat like yours casts a nice deep shadow over your eyes and I'm sure no-one will recognise you from just your nose!"
Queenie agreed with the logic but nevertheless felt extremely conspicuous and quite certain that everyone must not only know who she was but must also know exactly where she was going. Her heart pounded with a heady blend of nervousness and excitement.
Mrs Rafferty chattered on as they walked along the street together while Queenie remained silent. "You are allowed to talk you know," she said at length. "I'm sure that scarf isn't tight enough to gag you."
Queenie giggled nervously and made an effort to summon up some small-talk.
At length Queenie and Mrs Rafferty turned into a street of large Victorian villas. Some had brass plates outside their front doors indicating that they were now used as business premises by doctors, lawyers or other professions. There was nothing like that at the house where Mrs Rafferty turned in through the open gateway.
"This is your..." Queenie began, lost for a polite word again.
"Well, dear," Mrs Rafferty replied, "you could call it a house of introduction. The rates bill from the council calls it a ladies' boarding house. Or you could be continental and call it a bordello. I just prefer brothel: more direct and down-to-earth."
As they were about to ascend the steps to the front door, two young men in evening dress came out. They were obviously both slightly the worse for drink.
One took off his top hat and greeted Mrs Rafferty effusively. "Good evening, madam. The hospitality of your young ladies was irreproachable as ever."
His companion made the mistake of attempting a bow. His hat fell off and he almost overbalanced trying to catch it. "Yesh, ver' fine hospital," he mumbled as his friend steadied him and steered him down the path.
Somehow, seeing two of Mrs Rafferty's customers, clearly with no darker motive than simply having a good time, Queenie felt less daunted by the situation she found herself in.
With a backward glance at the departing young men, Queenie walked up the steps to join Mrs Rafferty who was holding open the door for her. There was a small vestibule between outer and inner doors and a spacious hallway beyond. A generously proportioned staircase curved around the back of a space which was large enough for two sofas and a comfortable armchair. Two men were sitting on the sofas smoking cigars while three young women chatted to them.
One of the men looked familiar to Queenie. A bubble of panic rose inside her as she expected to be recognised then she realised that she knew the man only from seeing his photograph in the newspaper. He was a politician of some note. Queenie looked more closely at the other man. She recognised him too, probably also from a photograph, but could not put a name to the face.
One of the young women came across to Mrs Rafferty and Queenie. "Good evening, Mrs Rafferty," she greeted her employer cheerily. "Good evening, miss," she added to Queenie with a nod of the head. Mrs Rafferty had removed her coat by then and handed it to the young woman. "May I take your coat, miss?" she asked Queenie.
Queenie was startled; she had been absorbed in taking in her surroundings. She realised that she had unconsciously worked her face down inside the borrowed scarf so all that the woman addressing her could see was two eyes peering out through the narrow slit between scarf and hat. "How silly of me; of course you may," Queenie replied hurriedly. She removed her coat and unwound the scarf but left on her hat as lady visitors generally did in those days.
Quite unashamedly, Queenie carried on staring at her surroundings. The décor was opulent in the extreme but managed to convey luxurious comfort rather than stuffy formality. The emphasis of the colour palette was on red and gold and choice of fabrics concentrated on velvet and velour. It was, in short, decorated like a brothel, but Queenie was, much to her surprise, quite taken with it. There were paintings decorating the walls, mostly of dancers and other women in various states of undress. It was all more friendly and less threatening than she had expected.
There were a number of women busy taking with trays of drinks or food to different parts of the premises. Most of the women were quite young, but some were clearly in their thirties or forties. All were quite well dressed in smart contemporary evening dresses or looser tea gowns or in more old-fashioned style dresses with the bustles and boned waistlines common before the Great War. Most outfits placed more emphasis on the bosom, sometimes a lot more, than had become common in the flat-chested 1920s. Queenie was intrigued. It had not occurred to her how much conventional catering would be involved in the running of a top-class brothel. Apart from a few women flitting past in dressing gowns, most looked much like waitresses or barwomen anywhere else. Queenie assumed that these women might well provide more intimate services than delivering refreshments, but they did not fit Queenie's expected image of prostitutes.
Mrs Rafferty led Queenie to a downstairs room. "My parlour," she explained. "I'll get one of the girls to bring us a drink."
Opening the door, Mrs Rafferty ushered Queenie in ahead of her. Queenie's stopped dead with her mouth open. The room was a pleasantly-decorated sitting-room surnished with comforable chairs and a large sofa. It also appeared to double as an office as a large writing table with a wooden swivel chair in front of it stood in one corner of the room. Sitting on a stool in the middle of the room and facing the door was a buxom woman of about thirty wearing a bright red corset with black lace decoration, a pair of black silk stockings and not much else. Another woman, more conventionally dressed and a little younger, was standing behind her and apparently industriously tying her up.
"Sorry Mrs R," the woman in the corset said in a rich French accent and not sounding at all apologetic. "There was not room in the dressing room upstairs, so I thought you would not mind if I prepared myself here."
"That's perfectly all right, Sophie," Mrs Rafferty replied. "I brought my friend Queenie back for a drink on the spur of the moment. I'm sure she doesn't mind."
Queenie shook her head, not trusting her voice not to squeak if she tried to say anything. Almost despite herself, Queenie had sidled around to a position where she could see what was going on. Sophie, the woman in the corset, was wearing opera-length black gloves, which somehow seemed to make her costume even more scant than it looked at first sight. Her colleague had already bound her wrists behind her back and was now drawing her elbows alarmingly close together with extra turns of rope.
"Pas trop fort, Annie," protested Sophie.
"It has to be tight," the other retorted, "otherwise the ropes will fall off you."
"Hurry up and finish, please, girls," Mrs Rafferty chided good-naturedly.
"Nearly done, Mrs R," the girl with the ropes reassured her, looping two turns of rope around Sophie's arms and body just below her bust and knotting them at the front.
"Me bâillones vite! Il faut que je suis prête de bonne heure," Sophie chipped in.
Annie responded by stretching out a white silk scarf between her hands. Sophie caught it between her teeth and held it while Annie knotted it behind her head.
"All done, Mrs R," Annie announced, draping a Japanese-style silk dressing gown around Sophie's shoulders, opening the door for her and then following her out.
Queenie discovered that she was still staring at the closed door. With a deliberate effort, she tore her eyes away and looked at Mrs Rafferty.
"Do take a seat," Mrs Rafferty invited. "I'll ring for a drink."
Queenie sat down, still feeling slightly stunned, while Mrs Rafferty crossed the room and tugged on the dark red rope bell-pull by the fireplace.
"Some of our gentlemen like to engage in a little play-acting," Mrs Rafferty explained. "Sophie's gentleman this evening likes to pretend that he's a story-magazine hero, rescuing the love of his life from peril. We indulge him by tying up Sophie or one of the other girls and hiding her in the room somewhere. He has to find her and set her free."
"So he finds her and then he..." Queenie hesitated. She knew what she wanted to say; it was just that she had never before engaged in conversations where it was possible to say anything like that.
"Then he tumbles her," Mrs Rafferty finished. "Yes."
"And other men like just to go upstairs and take the lady to bed?" Queenie ventured.
"Delicately put," Mrs Rafferty remarked. "Most men just want to have a drink and maybe a snack, have fun with a girl then smoke a cigar and then go on their way."
"But why do they come here and buy..." Queenie spread her hands helplessly.
"Sex? Well, there's lots of reasons. Maybe they aren't married or maybe they are married and that bit of the marriage doesn't quite work out. Maybe their marriage is fine, but they want something a little different or maybe they just need the touch of an expert."
"Expert?" echoed Queenie.
"Our girls are professionals," Mrs Rafferty explained. "They do this for a living and they're very, very good at it. It's an art to give a man pleasure and to send him away feeling fulfilled and satisfied. My girls are experts." There was a note of pride in her voice.
"And some men like to have their companions tied up?" asked Queenie, returning to the point that intrigued her most.
"We cater for a range of tastes. The majority just enjoy female flesh, but we have others who like a little more variety. Some like to have their ladies delivered tied up, some like to do the tying up themselves. Some like it the other way round and like a girl who will tie them up. There are those who like to be a lady themselves: we have an extensive wardrobe and make-up, you know."
Mrs Rafferty broke off her dissertation noticing that Queenie was sitting with her mouth open. "I didn't mean to shock you, Queenie," she offered apologetically.
"I'm not exactly shocked," Queenie assured her, the hesitation in her voice slightly belying her words. "I'm fascinated. I thought I knew about this stuff, but clearly, I don't."
The conversation was interrupted by Annie's return in response to the bell. "Yes, Mrs R. Can I get something for you?"
"Can I interest you in a glass of port?" Mrs Rafferty asked Queenie. She relayed the affirmative reply to Annie and added, "Bring something for yourself too and join us Annie, if you're not too busy."
"Somehow, I expected the... er... staff to be more deferential," Queenie observed.
"They are all polite and co-operative," Mrs Rafferty replied. "I see no reason to have them grovel as well. After all, I'm no better than they are: I'm a whore too!"
Queenie smiled sweetly in reply; she was beginning to get inured to these mental jolts, or possibly just a little punch-drunk.
Annie returned to the room carrying a silver tray bearing three crystal glasses and a decanter of port. She served Queenie then Mrs Rafferty and sat down with her own glass. Queenie sipped her port and waited for someone else to start the conversation.
"Annie, I haven't introduced my friend Queenie to you properly," said Mrs Rafferty to break the silence.
"Delighted to meet you," Annie responded, extending her hand to Queenie. Her handshake was firm and vigorous.
"So, what can we do for you?" Annie continued with a smile. She was well-spoken with no identifiable accent but an oddly precise manner of speaking. Her warm smile was also reflected in a tone of voice that seemed to have laughter just below the surface.
"Annie," Mrs Rafferty chipped in with a slight note of warning in her voice, "Queenie is just a friend; she's not a client."
"Client?" echoed Queenie, startled. "But surely your clients are all..."
"Men?" Annie offered. "Mostly they are, but we get ladies in here too."
Queenie was torn between fascination and horror. "But what could they possibly want here?" she asked, hoping she didn't sound too terribly naïve.
"Much the same as the men," Mrs Rafferty explained, "a bit of expert attention in comfortable surroundings."
"You have men working here too then?" Queenie ventured, feeling herself in very uncertain territory.
"Gigolos? No, we're an all-girls establishment here," Mrs Rafferty assured her.
"So the ladies who come here are ladies who... er... like other ladies?" Queenie concluded tentatively.
"That's right," Annie confirmed. "Sapphic lovers, tribades, lesbians if you prefer."
"Don't be so shocked, Queenie," Mrs Rafferty chided gently. "Ladies with tastes like that have a difficult time. Some like to come here as couples just to have a safe and private place to enjoy each other."
"And we've got lots of nice toys for them to play with!" Annie added enthusiastically.
"If that's what they want, of course," Mrs Rafferty continued smoothly. "And just like the men, some like to be entertained by a professional."
"Does that mean that some of the girls here also prefer ladies?" Queenie asked, picking her way across the conversational wilderness.
"Some of us like both!" Annie affirmed with a cheerful grin.
"How interesting," Queenie responded, genuinely fascinated, but now too far beyond her conversational repertoire to know how to express it.
"I think Queenie might prefer a more conventional topic of conversation," Mrs Rafferty said, coming to the rescue.
"Not at all," Queenie protested. "It would be silly of me to visit an... establishment like this and then discuss the weather or the price of fish!"
"So how did you two meet up then?" Annie asked, changing the subject anyway.
"We happened to be sitting next to each other at the theatre tonight," Queenie replied, relieved at the change of topic, despite her protests.
"Queenie wants to become an escape artist," Mrs Rafferty explained. "She's trying to see as many different performers as she can."
"And there was one tonight?" Annie asked, now no longer quite sure which of them she was having the conversation with.
"He was rubbish," Queenie summarised. "When people pay to see me, I want them to feel that they have received good value for their money."
"That's how I feel about my job too," Annie commented, collapsing in giggles.
"Annie!" chided Mrs Rafferty, smiling despite herself. "Queenie is being quite serious and deserves more respect than that."
"Oh, I don't know," mused Queenie. "There can't be anything terribly serious about the prospect of spending my life being tied up in public as a profession."
"If you want to be tied up, you've come to the right place," Annie affirmed.
Mrs Rafferty shook her head. "Now Annie, Queenie is a respectable lady. I'm sure that she wouldn't want to have anything to do with being tied up in a brothel."
Annie said nothing but looked at Queenie.
Queenie's glass of port suddenly seemed to have become terribly interesting. She cradled it in her hands and stared at it for a full minute before speaking. "Well, going on stage is hardly respectable in itself. Mrs Rafferty was right when she wondered how I practice escaping; it's very difficult to find someone to tie me up without asking a lot of very embarrassing questions. I wouldn't ever have thought about coming to a place like this," she said thoughtfully and then added, "Besides, I don't know if I can afford your rates."
"We'll just call it a treat for a friend if you really would like to find out what Annie can do," Mrs Rafferty offered.
There was another very long pause for thought, then Queenie's face brightened and broke into a broad grin. "I've come this far," she reasoned, "so I might as well go the rest of the way. Let's see what you can do for an apprentice escape artist, Annie."
"Well, I must go and circulate and make sure all my guests are happy," Mrs Rafferty announced, finishing her port and standing up. "I'll leave you two to carry on."
"All right if we do it in here, Mrs R?" Annie asked Mrs Rafferty, who nodded a gracious consent as she left the room. "Right, then," said Annie to Queenie, "I'll go and get some rope and I'll be back in a jiffy."
Queenie was aware of her heart pounding and wondered just what she had allowed herself to be led into. She drained her port glass in the hope of steadying her nerves.
Annie returned surprisingly quickly carrying an armful of cordage. Queenie's was not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but she was intrigued to see that the rope Annie had brought, was all a dark red colour with an unusual glossy finish. It would not look out of place discreetly closing off a room in an art gallery.
"It's silk," Annie replied to Queenie's unspoken question. "I thought I should bring out the best for Mrs R's guest."
Queenie felt the rope, which Annie had dumped on a chair. There was a definite glossiness to the strands of fibre, but the texture was no smoother than good cotton rope. It seemed to be more flexible though.
"It's very soft and takes knots well without damage," Annie explained. "It's very strong too and it's got hardly any stretch in it. You could moor a battleship with this stuff."
Annie's matter-of-fact businesslike attitude rather appealed to Queenie. She had never imagined that there would be any circumstances where she could feel so much at ease with a prostitute. Nor, she also realised, had she imagined that there could be so much professional common ground between them.
"I don't like to be indelicate," Annie begain tentatively, studying Queenie critically, "but the rope might make a bit of a mess of your clothes."
"Oh, I know that," replied Queenie with a disarming grin. "I usually wear gymnastics clothes for practice, but I don't have anything with me tonight. I thought I might just take my skirt and blouse off." Queenie was still grinning but inside, she was horrified at herself. It needed a certain degree of bravado to go through with this, but she wasn't expecting to hear herself offer to strip for a prostitute.
Annie had the good manners to look a little taken aback.
Queenie decided to follow her instincts before her courage foundered on the rocks of convention. She began by kicking her shoes off and unpinning then and removing her hat. Avoiding eye contact with Annie, she slid her skirt around so that she could get at the buttons and deftly undid them, stepping daintily out as the garment slid down. Annie picked it up, shook the creases out and hung it over the back of a chair. Queenie unbuttoned the front of her blouse next, then struggled with the tight cuff buttons. Once again Annie, took the garment from Queenie and neatly folded it. Queenie was wearing two light cotton petticoats with elasticated waists, which she removed and handed to Annnie.
"I always wondered what it would be like to have my own lady's maid," Queenie quipped nervously.
"I always aim to satisfy, ma'am," Annie replied, bobbing a little curtsey in imitation of a maid. Queenie could not help laughing as she decoded the double entendre.
"I think I'll stop now," Queenie announced. She was wearing a thin machine-knit liberty bodice in cream-coloured wool with matching knee length pants and black lisle stockings. "I've got a bandeau on underneath, but I'm not stripping that far!"
Queenie did a little pirouette to show herself off to Annie. "I know it's about as alluring as cold porridge," she remarked with a sigh.
"Warm, sensible and comfortable," Annie countered approvingly. "Nothing wrong with that. The stuff we wear here is more like a uniform."
"So, what are you planning to do with that rope?" Queenie asked, bringing the subject back to safer territory.
"Well, I'm going to show you the kind of tying up that we do here," Annie replied, suddenly businesslike. "Nothing too undignified, but I hope it will be something a little different for you."
Queenie stood waiting with her heart pounding in anticipation, wondering once again just what she had let herself in for.
Annie selected a suitable long length of rope, folded in half and wrapped it once around Queenie's upper arms and chest. She threaded the free ends through the lark's head formed by the fold in the rope and pulled the resulting loop tight around Queenie, carefully positioning it just below Queenie's bust. She wound the free ends around Queenie again, still keeping them together as a pair but this time going above Queeni'e bust. Queenie felt the tugging as Annie threaded the ends through the lark's head again and pulled the second loop tight.
Queenie's neck was craned as far round as it would go in a vain attempt to see what was going on behind her own back.
"I'll fetch a mirror when I'm done," Annie assured her, still tugging on ropes. "Mind your nose, dear," she added as she tossed the free ends of the rope forward over Queenie's shoulder.
Annie came round in front of Queenie for the next part. She threaded the free ends of the rope under the lower of the two pairs around Queenie's chest (the ones below her bust) and pulled it tight and then tossed the ends over Queenie's other shoulder so that the rope formed a V with the point on Queenie's sternum with her breasts standing proud either side of it. Annie finished off by securing the free ends to the increasingly bulky knot between Queenie's shoulder blades.
Queenie was not at all sure what she could say about this process, so she just stayed quiet and let Annie get on with her work.
"I'll do your arms next," Annie said sounding like a nanny tending to a rather dim child.
Queenie allowed Annie to bend her arms at the elbows so that her wrists crossed in the middle of her back and her forearms were parallel to the floor. Annie lashed her wrists together and knotted the rope firmly then tied the loose ends of the rope to the big knot securing her chest harness.
"Legs together, please," Annie requested.
Queenie brought her feet together so that she was standing to attention. She felt Annie coil rope around her ankles and knot it and then do the same just below her knees.
"All done," Annie announced with a smile. There was a tall cheval mirror on casters in the corner of the room which Annie wheeled in front of Queenie so that she could see the effect of the ropework.
Queenie was impressed with the general effect. The red rope stood out nicely against both the cream wool of her underwear and the black of her stockings. The ropes on her chest lifted, separated and outlined her breasts quite spectacularly. She shuffled herself around so she was side-on to the mirror: the profile of her bust was equally impressive.
"It certainly shows off everything I've got," Queenie remarked with a wry smile. "I never thought of rope as a bust enhancer."
"We don't get much chance to flaunt what we've got with the flat-chested look the fashion houses think we should wear these days," Annie commented.
Queenie was almost back-on to the mirror now and looking over her shoulder at the arrangement of rope behind her. "It's quite comfortable too," she remarked. "I like the way the rope supports the weight of my arms."
"I think that would look good on stage too," Annie ventured.
"I think you're right," Queenie replied. "It shows off my body and makes it look vulnerable, it's an unusual arrangement for the arms and it looks as though it ought to be hard to get out of."
"I suppose that's a problem," Annie replied with a sympathetic smile. "You have to limit yourself to tie-ups you can escape from."
"No, I didn't explain properly," Queenie countered. "This looks difficult to escape from, so it impresses the audience, but it's really quite easy."
"You mean you could get out of that?" Annie asked incredulously.
"Two minutes tops," Queenie assured her.
"I'll believe it when I see it!" Annie challenged.
"All right," Queenie agreed. "Watch and learn."
Queenie pushed her right elbow outwards and upwards while keeping her left elbow braced against the tension of the ropes around her chest and arms. The ropes slid upwards by half an inch or so. She repeated the move with her left arm and was rewarded by another movement in the ropes. Because the back of the harness was secured to her wrist binding, Queenie had to force her hands further up behind her back. The rope below Queenie's bust was now tight underneath her breasts. With the next few moves of her arms, the rope rode slowly and uncomfortably up over them.
"Just as well your bristols aren't any bigger than that," Annie commented, coquettishly cupping her own ample breasts in her hands.
Queenie said nothing but smiled grimly as she continued to work at the ropes. Once the rope was above her bust, it took only a determined wriggle to get it up over her shoulders. The formerly provocative chest harness was now an untidy tangle of rope draped around Queenie's neck. With no rope constraining her arms, Queenie could work on her wrist binding more easily. She knew from experience that a wrist tie with hands pointing in opposite directions was more difficult to escape from than the conventional arrangements, but with the rope simply wrapped around her wrists and not cinched between them, there was very little to stop her working one hand free of the binding. It took only a few seconds for Queenie to pull her right hand free and then to slide the slack binding off her left hand. She lifted the all the loose rope up off her shoulders and dumped it dramatically on the floor.
Annie was by now watching in open-mouthed astonishment.
Without further ado, Queenie bent down and untied her knees then her ankles. As soon as she was completely free, she bowed to Annie and gave herself a little fanfare, "Ta-daaa!"
With an effort, Annie gathered her wits enough to give Queenie a round of applause. "That's brilliant," she enthused. "Can you get out of anything as easily as that?"
"Well, no," admitted Queenie. "That's why I need practice, but that really wasn't difficult. Don't you and the other girls find it easy to get free from tie-ups like that?"
"If we wriggle for long enough, we can sometimes get loose," Annie agreed, "but nothing like as quick as you did."
"It wouldn't have taken much to make that tie-up really hard for me to get out of, you know," Queenie pointed out.
"Really?" asked Annie. "Could you show me?"
"You mean you want me to tie you up?" Queenie asked, trying to keep up with the conversation.
"I want to find out what you mean about making it harder to get out of," Annie explained.
Queenie shook her head in astonishment. Her quiet evening out at the theatre had developed in utterly unexpected directions. She shrugged helplessly and agreed to Annie's suggestion.
"We really need to learn how to do good tie-ups here," Annie continued animatedly as she and Queenie untangled the ropes. "Some of us are all right but none of us is really, really good and we want to make sure all our clients are happy."
Annie wasn't making a great deal of sense to Queenie, but was clearly getting very excited by the evening's developments, so Queenie decided not to comment and just to see where things led.
Once the rope was neatly coiled again, Annie kicked her shoes off and turned her back towards Queenie. "Help me get out of this dress, please," she asked. She could hardly keep still as Queenie patiently undid the hooks and eyes in the back of Annie's black silk dress and pulled it up over her head. Underneath, she was wearing a long fine cotton chemise under a bright red corset which hugged and accentuated her figure from hips to bust.
Queenie could not help but stare at the corset. Annie smiled back. "Professional attire," she explained. "I know it looks like something our mothers wore in Queen Victoria's day."
"My mother never wore a corset that colour!" Queenie assured her.
"They probably weren't in the same line of business," Annie admitted with a sheepish grin.
By this time, Queenie had doubled the rope that Annie had used to form the chest harness and was ready to begin tying Annie up. Annie was still chattering away when she suddenly realised that Queenie was ready for her. She stood neatly to attention in an exaggerated pose of readiness and smiled sweetly at Queenie, who burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation she found herself in.
Composing herself, Queenie looped the double rope around Annie and threaded the free ends through the lark's head exactly as Annie had done to her. She checked that the rope was exactly where she wanted it to be, just below Annie's bust, on the red silk covering of the corset. Again, exactly as Annie had done, the second turn of rope was above the bust line and, in Annie's case, above her corset too.
"I was expecting something much tighter and more complicated," Annie complained, obviously feeling a little cheated.
"This is basically the same tie-up you used on me," Queenie explained. "I'm just going to make it a little more secure. I'm just hoping this rope is long enough to do what I have in mind."
Queenie continued as Annie had done, leading the doubled rope forward over Annie's left shoulder, under the lower of the chest ropes and back over her right shoulder. She threaded the free ends through the mass of loops that had formed around the original lark's head and separated the two strands of rope. She fed one under Annie's left armpit so it went above the upper of the two paired chest ropes and repeated the manoeuvre with the other free end under the right armpit. Queenie then brought the two ends down in front of the chest ropes and then back between Annie's arms and body, pulled them tight and fastened them off to the ropes behind Annie's back.
Annie's eyes widened as the ropes suddenly constricted her chest and breasts. "This is more the sort of thing I was expecting," she said approvingly.
"Arms next," Queenie announced, pleased with progress so far.
Annie dutifully bent her elbows to bring her wrists together behind her back. "You know, I'm not sure I could get out of this even if you didn't tie my hands," she commented.
"Well, a good tie-up shouldn't all be dependent on one part," Queenie explained, "but I'm sure you would find some knots to undo if you tried, so I'm going to tie your hands just to make sure you don't," she added teasingly.
Queenie lifted Annie's hands so that her forearms were parallel with the floor and then looped rope around her wrists, just as Annie had done to her. The difference was that Queenie finished off by wrapping the rope around the initial turns to cinch it neatly between Annie's wrists.
"I think I'm completely stuck now," Annie commented, flexing her wrists gently.
"Not too tight?" Queenie enquired anxiously.
"No, not uncomfortable at all," Annie confirmed, "but very secure."
"In that case, I'll just finish off by tying the ends off to your chest ropes like you did to me," Queenie informed her prisoner. She lifted Annie's bound wrists slightly and attached the ends of the rope binding them to the big knot at the back of the chest harness.
Queenie examined her handiwork thoughtfully. "You know," she remarked, "I think I can improve on this." She selected another length of rope and wound it several times around Annie's waist then knotted it at the back, so that it formed an impromptu belt on top of her corset. She then led the ends of the rope up to Annie's wrist binding and tied them securely to the cinching turns. "Your arms shouldn't move much now," she commented.
"The certainly don't," Annie assured her, testing the limits of her freedom.
"Right, I'll finish off by tying your legs," Queenie announced. "You might want to sit down for this bit."
"No, I want to watch what you're doing in the mirror," Annie protested. "You're really good at this."
"Very well," Queenie replied, "but don't blame me if you fall over!"
Annie brought her feet together while Queenie selected another piece of rope. She wrapped it four times around Annie's ankles then twisted the ends of the rope around each other before putting three turns around the initial four to cinch them snugly together.
"I really must learn how you do that thing to make everything go tight," Annie commented, unable to get a clear view either by looking down or in the mirror.
"I won't bother with your knees," Queenie told Annie. "If I leave your legs just tied at the ankles, you should be able to turn yourself around in front of the mirror.
Annie shuffled herself around to view her predicament from as many angles as possible. She was delighted with the effect.
There was a brief knock on the door, but before Annie had a chance to say anything, it opened and Mrs Rafferty returned to the room. She looked at Queenie, then at Annie, then at Queenie again. "Somehow, I was expecting Queenie to be the one wearing the ropes," she said after a pause.
"Well she was," Annie confirmed, "but they didn't stay on her for long."
"I liked the way Annie tied me up," Queenie assured her hostess, "especially the way it showed off my..." She gestured vaguely with her hands in front of her bust.
"Your tits, dear," Mrs Rafferty interjected smoothly.
"Yes, those," Queenie agreed. "But it really wasn't very hard to get free. I told Annie it could be made much more secure and she asked me to show her how."
"And look what she did to me, Mrs R," Annie said excitedly. "I can't move anything but my fingers and it's still all quite comfy."
Mrs Rafferty walked slowly around Annie, inspecting the arrangement with interest.
"It certainly looks as though you're going to be there until Queenie decides to let you go," Mrs Rafferty concluded. "And it does look very good on you." She stroked one of Annie's breasts to make her point.
"I really just used the same ideas that Annie showed me but made the knots a bit better," Queenie pointed out modestly.
"Very good all the same," Mrs Rafferty assured her. "I know exactly who we should try this out on," she remarked to Annie.
"Lady Dorking!" Annie returned instantly. "That's what I was thinking too."
Queenie looked from Annie to Mrs Rafferty and back again, trying to work out where the conversation was leading.
"The Countess of Dorking is one of our lady clients," Mrs Rafferty explained. "She seems to be very happily married, but she craves a little excitement in her life. She likes us to pretend to kidnap her and one of her friends and penny-dreadful stuff like that."
"Trouble is," Annie continued, "She gets loose really quickly. She's always complaining that the fun is over far too soon. We've tried tying her up with lots and lots more rope."
"Let me guess," Queenie offered, "it took three times as long to tie her up and she still got out as quickly?"
"About right," Annie admitted with a wry grin.
"It's not how much rope you use, but what you do with it that counts," Queenie summarised.
"You and Annie will have to work out something special for Lady Dorking," Mrs Rafferty suggested.
Queenie was horrified. "I can't possibly help you with your clients," she protested.
"No, no, no," Mrs Rafferty assured her. "What I mean is that you are welcome to practice with Annie or any of the other girls any time you like. You'll get all the practice you need and with a bit of luck Annie will learn to tie people up so they don't get away."
"If I can ever pluck up the nerve to come here again, I would enjoy that," Queenie replied appreciatively.
"We're very, very discreet here," Mrs Rafferty assured her. "We have to be with some of the clients we entertain."
"I'd noticed," Queenie said. "But what happens if the police come visiting?"
"They won't. We have security clearance for foreign diplomatic staff who come here to use our services. Special Branch keep an eye on things but nobody is about to get arrested. Not for having his trousers down anyway," Mrs Rafferty explained with a laugh.
"Well maybe I'll risk another visit," Queenie ventured. "I've really enjoyed this evening, but I must go soon, otherwise it will be really late by the time I get home."
"I think I can arrange a lift for you," Mrs Rafferty offered.
As Queenie rode home in the back of an enormous black Renault limousine, she reflected on her strange evening. It was wonderful how supportive many people she had met when they learned about her ambition to be an escape artist. She had already realised that the theatre was a far less respectable profession than teaching and that her social status would take a tumble, but she wondered if frequenting a brothel was a step too far.
Before she expected it, Queenie found herself in familiar streets. The car pulled up almost silently outside her own front door. The French ambassador's personal chauffeur stepped nimbly round to Queenie's door and saluted smartly as he opened it for her.
Queenie thanked the chauffeur profusely for his effort as he helped her out of the car. "Ça ne fait rien, ma'm'selle," he demurred.
It was good to be back home, Queenie decided as she fumbled for her key. She paused to watch the French ambassador's car head back to Mrs Rafferty's establishment, where its authorised occupant was undoubtedly still enjoying the hospitality. As she opened the door, Queenie came to a decision. Her planned new career would involve risk and adventure and her evening had been risky and adventurous (on a modest scale) but far, far too interesting not to repeat.
© Copyright Gillian B 2006
The Adventures of Queenie Holkham
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