QUEENIE STAYED in contact with Mrs Rafferty by way of a series of notes posted or received almost every day. About a week after their first encounter, Queenie received an oddly formally-worded letter inviting her to join Mrs Rafferty for tea at her home. The invitation stated 'home' although the address given was that of the brothel. Queenie was not in fact sure whether Mrs Rafferty did indeed live on the premises.
Queenie wrote back a textbook example of a letter replying to an invitation, properly set out in the third person and written in the best copperplate script she could muster (rather than the informal roundhand she usually used in order to make it easier for children to read).
The invitation was for five o'clock on a Friday afternoon. As classes ended at four, Queenie decided to go straight from school to Mrs Rafferty's establishment. She debated what to wear. A formal invitation to tea implied a degree of formality of dress, but other than two rather elderly evening gowns, Queenie's wardrobe was limited to very conservative dresses and suits for teaching, and certainly nothing resembling a tea-gown or an afternoon dress.
There was also the matter of transport. She could afford a taxi, but rather preferred not to attract attention from her colleagues by having one pick her up from school and whisk her off to some mysterious destination. (If only they knew, she thought.) Queenie rapidly concluded that her trusty bicycle was the best choice and that would rather determine what she could wear.
In the event, Queenie wore a sober black suit with a mid-calf-length skirt and a tailored hip-hugging jacket over a high-collared white blouse for teaching. She usually avoided black at work as it tended to pick up every speck of chalk dust in the air. (She also had to remember not to surreptitiously wipe the dust off her hands on the seat of her skirt as she sat down, which was a bad habit of hers.) Black ankle-length lace-up boots with inch-and-a half heels, worn over the sheerest black stockings Queenie possessed added a touch of class.
At four o'clock, the school bell rang. There was the usual confusion as children jostled one another to get coats on. As always, there were buttons that Queenie had to help with and dropped gloves to help locate, but by ten past four, she was alone in the classroom. She closed the dampers on the coke stove in the corner to allow it to burn as embers most of the night then she opened the door of the store cupboard in the opposite corner. The cupboard was almost large enough to be classed as a small room in its own right. It contained exercise books, pencils, art materials and the other consumables required by a primary school teacher. It was also the place Queenie hung her coat and hat during the working day and was just large enough to be used as an impromptu changing room when the need arose.
Closing the cupboard door behind her, Queenie unbuttoned her skirt, removed her white blouse and then the white camisole underneath it, both of which she folded neatly and stowed in the carpet bag she had brought with her that day. She shivered, partly because of the chill in the air but at least as much from nervous excitement. A black camisole replaced the white one and Queenie topped it off with a blouse of scarlet silk, which she had bought in a moment of daring but only once had the courage to wear. It had a turned-down collar like a man's shirt and she set it off with an equally masculine black silk neck-tie. She put her skirt and then her jacket back on, concentrating the red into the triangular area visible above its collar, which somehow made it seem all the more intense.
It was difficult to get a clear view of more than her face in the tiny circular mirror Queenie kept in the cupboard but with a little squinting, she was able to inspect herself and, on the whole, she approved of what she saw.
Queenie felt that her blouse was a trifle too conspicuous to be seen leaving school in and she also felt in need of a little disguise for her evening expedition, so she wound a black woollen scarf around her neck and face and tucked it into the top of her jacket, completely concealing the scarlet silk and covering her face almost up to her eyes. Her hat was a black cloche with a deep, concealing brim. Queenie settled it carefully on her head and skewered it in place with a hatpin at the back.
After one last check of the classroom, Queenie drew on her thin black leather gloves, picked up her carpet bag and left the room, turning out the lights as she went. As Queenie reached the outside door into the school playground, she caught up with two small girls dawdling along together. They turned and looked at the apparition in black that Queenie had transformed herself into then scuttled out of the door with a squeak of alarm.
Still chuckling at the encounter, Queenie unlocked her bicycle from the rack and wheeled it to the gate where she mounted and pedalled off along the street.
From what she had seen on her previous visit, Queenie was fairly sure that Mrs Rafferty's brothel had a rear entrance. The building itself was a Victorian villa, set slightly back from the street. Queenie expected that there would be a garden to the rear and very probably a secondary entrance either from another street or from a lane. She rode past the brothel slowly but without hesitating. She glanced to her left as she passed it, but it was already too dark to see anything of the layout behind the house other than the black silhouette of trees. Queenie turned left at the end of the street and immediately found what she was looking for: there was indeed a narrow lane parallel to the street she had just left and the one backing onto it. This presumably served the back gates of the houses in both streets and would be used by tradesmen making deliveries. The lane was unlit, so Queenie proceeded cautiously, pedalling up the middle, her bicycle rattling on the cobbled surface. She counted off the houses, visible as dark outlines to her left, to be sure of identifying the right one. In the event, it was not difficult to recognise Mrs Rafferty's establishment, even from the rear. Most windows were curtained but, even so, every one of them showed a glow of light.
Queenie dismounted and located a wooden door in the high brick wall that separated Mrs Rafferty's garden from the lane. It was not locked, so Queenie let herself in and found a gravel path on the other side. She closed the door quietly and wheeled her bicycle slowly towards the house. She could just make out shrubs and trees with a central area of lawn. A low murmur of voices and the occasional giggle suggested that at least one hardy customer was enjoying his pleasures outside.
There was a substantial iron and glass conservatory on the back of the house. A door leading into it appeared to be the main thoroughfare between the house and garden. The glass was rather steamed up, so Queenie could not see inside clearly. Whether the condensation was due to heavy breathing in the conservatory, or merely to the differences in temperature and humidity inside and outside, Queenie preferred not to speculate. She decided to find an alternative entrance.
To one side of the conservatory, there were steps leading down into a small basement area with a door that appeared to give access to the domestic parts of the house. Queenie propped up her bicycle and descended the stairs. The door was unlocked and gave access to a narrow corridor with a scullery opening off one side of it. Queenie closed the door behind her and made her way along the corridor. She turned the corner at the end of it and found herself in a small hallway with several doors leading off it and a flight of stairs apparently leading up into the rest of the house.
As Queenie paused to get her bearings, one of the doors opened and a young woman emerged carrying a tray of food. She stopped abruptly in surprise. "Ooh, you did give me a start... ma'am," she remarked with a grin. "Can I help at all?"
Queenie noticed the odd pause before 'ma'am' then realised that gender could not always be inferred immediately from clothing amongst some of Mrs Rafferty's guests. Nevertheless, she was also impressed at the woman's poise; the way Queenie was dressed, it would have been a perfectly reasonable response to scream and drop the tray. Queenie pulled her scarf down before replying. "You're obviously busy and I don't want to hold you up, but if you could just tell me where to find Mrs Rafferty, that would be a big help."
The woman looked uncomfortable. "Well, she's in there," she replied, gesturing with her head towards the door she had just come out of, which was still standing slightly ajar, "but I think you should wait here."
"Is that someone looking for me?" came Mrs Rafferty's voice from beyond the door.
"Yes Mrs R," the woman with the tray replied.
Mrs Rafferty came out herself and smiled at Queenie as she dismissed the woman. "Thank you Katie; better get that tray upstairs."
Katie clearly demonstrated her skill and experience as a domestic servant as she bobbed an acknowledging curtsey to Mrs Rafferty, turned on her heel and took the stairs at a run, all without so much as a rattle from the contents of the tray.
"I'll be with you shortly, Queenie," Mrs Rafferty continued. "But first, I have a matter of staff discipline to attend to."
"Discipline?" echoed Queenie, slightly confused.
"Well, punishment then," Mrs Rafferty said. "I really will not tolerate my girls pilfering from the punters," she added angrily.
"Does this happen often?" Queenie asked.
"No it does not," Mrs Rafferty replied vehemently, her blood still high. "Come this way and I'll show you the wretch that thought she could go through a client's wallet."
Queenie was intrigued but also felt that she was intruding on the private business of running a brothel. Nevertheless, she meekly followed Mrs Rafferty. The room they had entered was a huge Victorian kitchen, fully equipped with sinks, cooking ranges and a large wooden table for food preparation. There were three women busily engaged in chopping, cooking and washing up. The opposite end of the room clearly served as a cross between a traditional servants' hall (which it might well have been in the days when the building was still a private house) and a works staffroom, with newspapers and other personal items in evidence.
The centre of attention was a young woman, little more than a girl (Queenie judged her to be 18 or 19 years old), who was tied to a chair in the 'staffroom' end of the room. She was wearing a camisole and black stockings and, as far as Queenie could tell, nothing else. She was gagged with a wide strip of cloth forced between her teeth and knotted behind her head. Her gag partly obscured a red mark on one cheek which was clearly the result of a ferocious slap. The girl looked very distressed and from the streaks of mascara down her face, it was obvious she had been crying. Her wrists were tied in front of her with white rope and more of the same rope was wound around her and the chair-back and over her lap. Her ankles were also bound together but not tied to the chair. Queenie was appalled to see anyone maltreated like this.
Queenie turned to Mrs Rafferty to protest, but found that she was too shocked to find any words to say.
"I really don't understand how she can behave like this," Mrs Rafferty said with a note of despair in her voice. "I took her out of the gutter and I've given her food, clothes and a pay packet every Friday. She has a comfortable room to call her own and she gets good medical care if she needs it."
Mrs Rafferty leaned forward almost nose-to-nose with the bound woman. "And how does she repay me?" she roared. "She dips into a wallet, that's how she repays me!"
The whole room fell into a deathly silence, but Queenie had found her voice again. "Molly, surely this should be a matter for the police?" she ventured tentatively.
"It probably should," Mrs Rafferty agreed, "but what good would it do?" She turned to Queenie as if expecting a response but went on to answer her own question. "The police can't do anything without evidence. Most of our clients are respectable gentlemen. Some of them are also very important public figures. I really can't imagine many of them prepared to stand up in a police court and testify that they were robbed in a brothel while tumbling a whore."
"True," Queenie acknowledged, trying to suppress a giggle at her mental picture of the situation.
Mrs Rafferty still wasn't finished. "But just suppose someone did give evidence and suppose it was enough to convict Poppy here," she continued. "She'd get what? Maybe six months or a year inside? She does her time in Holloway picking oakum or sewing mailbags and when she comes out, she has nothing and she's back in the gutter where she started."
Queenie was at a loss for words again. Her instinct was that wrongdoers should have the opportunity to reform and not be thrown on the scrapheap of society but she also felt that a betrayal of trust ought to be punished. It was a matter of balance, but one in which idealism and pragmatic realism pulled in different directions.
"I may be a foolish old woman," Mrs Rafferty continued in a softer voice, "but I believe in second chances. Poppy, here, has been as good as gold since I took her on and I think she might just learn a lesson here so I'm going to give her a choice."
Mrs Rafferty turned her attention back to the unfortunate Poppy. "I'm going to give you time to think about what you've done," she announced. "After that you can start work again but you'll be back in the kitchen where you began and you'll have to earn my trust again before you entertain any more men. If you don't like it you can leave now. Your choice."
Poppy sat motionless, staring back at Mrs Rafferty, her expression unreadable behind her gag.
"Just nod if you agree to my conditions," Mrs Rafferty prompted, not unkindly.
Poppy dropped her eyes and studied the floor for almost a minute before looking up at Mrs Rafferty again and nodding her assent.
"So what happens to her now?" Queenie asked, intrigued by the home-grown justice she had just witnessed in action.
"Well, it's about five now," Mrs Rafferty said, consulting the fob watch pinned to the front of her dress, "and we don't serve meals until after six, so we won't need her in the kitchen until about this time tomorrow. She'll need a bit of time to recover, so I think she's going to spend the next twenty-two hours tied to that chair. As I said: time for her to think."
Poppy hung her head. It was impossible to tell if it was in shame or in despondency at the punishment to come.
"Just as well the police don't know how you deal with miscreants here, Molly," Queenie remarked, still not at all sure that she approved of Mrs Rafferty's approach to staff discipline.
"Oh, some of them do," Mrs Rafferty replied lightly. "Don't they, Lucy?" She turned to face the 'kitchen' end of the room as she said Lucy's name.
One of the women cooking turned her head and smiled knowingly at Mrs Rafferty and Queenie then carried on with her work. Queenie was astonished to realise that she had met the woman before, only that time she had been introduced as Detective Sergeant Kennington of Special Branch and had been working undercover as cook to a refugee Russian princess.
Still open-mouthed in astonishment, Queenie turned back to Mrs Rafferty.
"We have some very important guests and some of them need very special protection," Mrs Rafferty explained. "It's better if they have somewhere to come to that the Home Office know is safe, otherwise they'll just wander off into the back streets somewhere. You know what men are like."
Queenie actually didn't know much about what men were like, but she nodded anyway.
"Now, I invited you to tea," Mrs Rafferty reminded Queenie. "Let's go upstairs and perhaps Lucy will bring us some."
Unable to stop her eyes drifting back to Poppy, Queenie noticed that the ropework was not particularly well done and looked fairly insecure. On the one hand, Queenie wanted nothing to do with Mrs Rafferty's treatment of her staff and really wanted to distance herself from what was going on. On the other hand, she reminded herself, Poppy seemed to have assented to her own punishment so perhaps it would be appropriate to put the temptation to escape beyond her. Also, although she had severe reservations about the methods, Queenie understood and sympathised with the principles of Mrs Rafferty's rough and ready justice. Finally, she decided simply to state the facts and let Mrs Rafferty do with them what she wished.
"Molly, I doubt very much if Poppy will stay in that chair for twenty-two hours tied the way she is," Queenie pointed out.
"Oh, don't worry about her," Mrs Rafferty replied airily, "We'll untie her for calls of nature and so on."
Queenie, sighed; she hadn't expected to be misunderstood so thoroughly. "No, I mean I think she'll get loose rather easily," she explained.
"Well, we have had a few escapes when I've had to do this before," Mrs Rafferty admitted. "I'll get Annie to see to her; I think she's been practising some of the tricks you taught her."
Satisfied to have steered a moral middle course, Queenie followed Mrs Rafferty out of the kitchen.
Queenie had removed her hat, scarf and jacket and gratefully settled in a comfortable armchair in Mrs Rafferty's sitting room. She was glad to have avoided further involvement in Poppy's fate but felt a slight pang of guilt that because of her, Annie was probably subjecting Poppy to a far more stringent restraint than she had bargained for.
Mrs Rafferty broke into Queenie's reverie by commenting on her scarlet blouse.
"Sorry," Queenie apologised, "I was miles away."
"I was just admiring your blouse," Mrs Rafferty said. "I don't think I've ever seen a teacher in one like that before."
"Neither have I, Molly," Queenie replied. "That's probably why I never wear it!"
"Red and black suits you," Mrs Rafferty assured her. "Very theatrical. You should wear it more often."
"You mean they're good colours for being tied up in?" Queenie retorted, deftly deflecting the compliment.
"Well, white rope would stand out rather well, now you mention it," Mrs Rafferty replied, not attempting to pursue her point.
The two women chatted around various topics including the theatre, the skill of escape artistry and the business of running a successful brothel. It was a measure of Mrs Rafferty's charm that Queenie felt so much at ease discussing subjects she would normally regard as unmentionable.
After about half an hour, there was a gentle tap at the door and Annie entered the room with a fresh pot of tea on a tray. Without being asked, she refilled the cups and poured one for herself. Queenie was fascinated to see the way Annie took her tea. She added no milk or sugar but squeezed a slice of lemon into it then delicately gripped a sugar cube between her front teeth and drank the tea past it.
"You must be Russian!" Queenie exclaimed excitedly. "I've seen a picture in a geography book, but I've never seen anyone really drink tea that way before."
Annie drained her cup a little self-consciously and then munched the now soggy remains of the sugar cube before replying. "Almost," she explained. "I'm from Belo-Russia White Russia not Great Russia."
"I would never have guessed to listen to you," Queenie complimented her. "Your English is perfect."
"I had an English governess as a child," Annie explained, "and I have lived in London since 1919, when the Red Army marched into Minsk."
The fact of having a governess and having to flee the Bolsheviks suggested to Queenie that Annie had a surprisingly privileged background to be found working as a prostitute in South London, albeit at a rather exclusive establishment.
Queenie frowned slightly as she tried to frame a question. Annie deftly answered her. "You're wondering what I'm doing in a place like this if I came from a posh home? Only two reasons, really: independence and money," she explained, answering the question. "I do enjoy the work too," she added with a lascivious smile.
Queenie smiled back, slightly embarrassed. "Well, I was wondering that," she conceded, "but I was actually going to ask if Poppy is all right and I was trying to find a way of asking that wouldn't sound as if I was criticising Mrs Rafferty."
"Poppy will be fine," Annie assured her. "I don't suppose she is going to enjoy being tied up all night but she won't come to any harm. I've tied her up so she can't get away but I've made sure nothing is tight enough to hurt her. She's still in the kitchen, so everyone can keep an eye on her and we'll get the doctor to give her a once-over tomorrow."
Queenie was reassured but still harboured misgivings. She decided to change the subject: "Annie, did you ever manage to get yourself loose after I tied you up last time?"
"I tried very hard, but I didn't get anywhere," Annie confessed. "It was a lot of fun trying, but Mrs R had to untie me eventually."
"It was a really good job," Mrs Rafferty confirmed. "Annie has tried some of those ideas out on a few of the other girls and none of them got out either."
"Could you have got out of that tie-up you put me in?" Annie asked Queenie.
"I think so," Queenie replied. "It would have been close to my limits just now, but I think I could probably have managed it. It would have been good practice trying anyway, even if I couldn't escape."
Annie and Mrs Rafferty exchanged meaningful glances. "Annie has been thinking about another challenge for you, if you fancy trying," Mrs Rafferty offered.
"I thought that might come up," Queenie commented cheerfully, "so I've got nicer underwear on today. What do you two have in mind?"
Mrs Rafferty nodded to Annie, who rose from her chair and fetched a book from the writing desk that stood in one corner of the room. She opened the book on Queenie's lap and perched on the arm of Queenie's chair, looking over her shoulder.
Queenie's jaw dropped open. The book was a photograph album but not like any she had ever seen before. Most pages had one large photograph while some had two or three smaller ones. Every photograph, without exception, featured one or more bound women. There were women tied to chairs, women chained to walls, women tying each other up, women strapped to beds, women roped to trees, and so on, in apparently endless variety. Most of the women shown were either wearing underwear or nothing at all, although there seemed to be another minority trend towards exotic costumes. Queenie already had some inkling that such material existed, but had never personally seen anything like this before. She was fascinated, horrified and acutely embarrassed all at once. The images were at once disturbing but also strangely compelling. Not daring to say anything, Queenie silently turned the pages. Some photographs depicted scenes that she though might work well on stage as the prelude to an escape, others frankly disgusted her and she turned past those pages quickly.
Annie reached down and turned to a page that had been marked with a slip of paper. The photograph showed a woman wearing a corset and very little else. She was shown lying on her stomach with her wrists bound behind her back. Her ankles were also tied and ingeniously connected to her wrists. Various other ropes also encircled her arms and body.
"That's clever," Queenie commented non-commitally studying the picture closely.
Annie reached down again and turned the page. The next photograph showed the same woman in the same predicament but viewed from a position looking almost straight down on her.
Queenie turned back to the previous photograph and then to the second one again, comparing them carefully. "That looks completely inescapable at first sight," she commented, "but I think it might just be possible to get free."
"It would look sensational on stage," Mrs Rafferty suggested. "On a raised platform perhaps?"
"Lying on a glass-topped table would be better," Queenie countered, her enthusiasm growing.
"Do you fancy giving it a try?" Annie offered.
Queenie considered the proposition for a few seconds. "Yes please," she declared emphatically, "but perhaps I should try it on the floor first."
"It might be safer first time," Annie agreed with a grin.
"I'll just get ready, then," Queenie said,reaching for her skirt buttons.
A few minutes later, Queenie had stripped to her underwear. Her black camisole was set off by matching black satin briefs. Her stockings were supported by elastic garters decorated with daring red silk bows. At Mrs Rafferty's suggestion, Queenie kept her boots on. ("It makes your legs look so much more shapely, dear," she has explained.)
Queenie turned slowly to show the effect off to Annie and Mrs Rafferty, who studied her carefully.
"Nice undies," Mrs Rafferty eventually commented, "but it just makes you look as if you forgot to put your dress on. As I see it, you either need to wear underwear for showing off in, like my girls do, or go the other way and go for the clean-cut gymnasium look."
"I don't want to go on stage looking like... well, looking like..." Queenie faltered.
"Like a prostitute," Mrs Rafferty finished for her. "That's what my girls and I are, so we might at least be honest about it."
Queenie nodded meekly.
"The thing is," Mrs Rafferty continued, "that a lot of the men in your audience will want you to dress like a prostitute. After all, music hall is a way of seeing lots of female flesh without having to go anywhere riskier than a theatre.
"How old are you, Queenie?" Annie asked.
"Thirty-two," Queenie admitted with a modest smile.
Annie turned to Mrs Rafferty. "She could just get away with the fresh-from-the-gym look now," she remarked, "but once she's past forty, it will begin to look a bit silly."
" 'Ageing tart' isn't much better," Mrs Rafferty retorted.
"No, but you can get away with it a lot longer," Annie explained. "And once you're past fifty, you will remind everyone of their outrageous old aunts."
"Well, thank you very much," Mrs Rafferty replied with heavy irony and struck an exaggerated grief-stricken theatrical pose to show her wounded pride.
"Let's try to work on costume another time," Annie suggested diplomatically. "You're just fine for now, Queenie."
At Annie's suggestion, Queenie remained standing for the initial stages of Annie's planned tie-up. She offered her hands behind her back first. Annie carefully arranged them palm to palm and wound several turns of rope around her wrists. She twisted the free ends round each other and then wrapped them around the first coils, gently drawing them tight, just as Queenie had taught her. She finished off by tying a neat reef knot.
Next, Annie selected a long length of rope which she doubled. As Queenie expected, Annie used this rope to form a noose around her arms and chest, running just above her elbows and below her bust. She carefully tensioned the rope, pulling Queenie's elbows tight against her ribs. As in the previous session, the next turn went above Queenie's bust-line and the ends of the rope were threaded through the loop formed by the first turn. Annie pulled the rope tight again, gently but very firmly hugging Queenie's upper arms.
"You'll like the next bit," Annie assured Queenie.
Annie passed the pair of ropes between Queenie's left arm and her body so that it went below the lower pair of ropes around her arms and chest. She brought it up in front of the two pairs of ropes above and below Queenie's breasts, took it across the back of her neck and down across the chest ropes again to pass below the lower one between Queenie's right arm and body. Annie threaded the free ends through the mass of rope that was building up on Queenie's back and made sure everything was evenly tensioned. Lastly, she pulled down on the pair of ropes at the back of Queenie's neck and fastened the free ends of the rope to it. Queenie felt the whole arrangement of ropes around her chest suddenly become tight and unyielding. She gasped in surprise.
"I told you you'd like it," Annie remarked jauntily.
"It's amazing," Queenie replied. "I really wasn't expecting it to tighten up like that, and with the ropes going between my arms and body, I won't just be able to wriggle out of it either."
"I think that's the general idea," Mrs Rafferty pointed out drily.
"However did you work this one out, Annie?" Queenie asked, still impressed.
"I found it in the photo album," Annie replied modestly. "I was just working from a front view at first and I had trouble figuring out where the ropes went at the back, but once I knew how it had to work and knew what to look for, I found another photo with a back view I could work from too. You're not the first I've tried it out on of course."
"Sophie is a very helpful and patient girl," Mrs Rafferty observed.
"I think I need you on the floor from here on," Annie announced.
Queenie was able to get down onto her knees unaided then simply toppled forwards with Annie taking her weight and letting her down gently onto the carpet.
"I'll do your ankles next," Annie informed Queenie.
"Right-ho," Queenie replied, trying to crane her neck sideways and backwards enough to see what was going on.
Mrs Rafferty helped by placing the cheval mirror in front of Queenie's head and tilting it so that she could see along the length of her own body.
Annie selected another length of rope and began by lashing Queenie's ankles tightly together with the rope carefully placed on the leather of her boots. She wound the final few turns under the soles of Queenie's boots and knotted it off tightly.
Queenie wiggled her feet experimentally. "That's amazing, they just won't move separately tied like that," she concluded.
"Dashed erotic too," Mrs Rafferty assured her.
"Now, I need to tie your knees together," Annie announced, selecting more rope. "Can you lift them a little?"
Queenie flexed her ankles the little that she could and straightened her legs so that her toes were in contact with the carpet, but there was a clear gap under most of the length of her legs.
"Perfect, now just hold that for a moment."
Annie wound about half a dozen turns of rope around Queenie's thighs about two inches above her knees and knotted it neatly. Queenie relaxed her legs again.
"It doesn't feel very tight," Queenie pointed out.
"I think it will tighten up when I bend your legs," Annie said, "but it was a bit of a guess how tight I should make it now."
Annie lifted Queenie's feet off the floor and bent her legs until the heels of her boots were almost in contact with her bottom.
"You're right, it does tighten quite a bit," Queenie commented.
Mrs Rafferty held Queenie's feet in position while Annie fastened a rope from Queenie's ankle binding to the big knot at the back of her chest harness.
"I thought the idea was to tie my hands to my feet," Queenie pointed out.
"I thought that might hurt your arms," Annie replied.
"This still feels pretty secure," Queenie said after an experimental wriggle. "I really don't know if I will get out, but it will be fun to try." A thought struck Queenie. "Is there a name for being tied up like this?" she asked.
"There's one in French that we use," Annie replied. "En crapaudine."
"That makes a sort of sense," Queenie acknowledged. "I know that en crapaudine is the French term for the way you fold up a chicken for roasting."
"The Americans call it a 'hog-tie'," Mrs Rafferty added helpfully.
"So the French use a term from the kitchen and the Americans use one from the rodeo?" Queenie asked with a laugh.
"And the English are too coy to have a proper term at all!" Mrs Rafferty pointed out. "It all seems inevitable somehow!"
"Do you think I should gag her too?" Annie asked Mrs Rafferty.
"I think so," Mrs Rafferty agreed after a moment's thought. "It'll make her look more helpless and that always makes girls look that bit more alluring."
Queenie said nothing but privately welcomed the idea of a gag. It would relieve of feeling that she had to keep up a running commentary on her escape attempt. Instead, she could focus single-mindedly on the business of outwitting her captors and getting free.
Annie fetched a large square of cotton fabric, neatly hemmed on all four edges. It was too large to be a handkerchief, Queenie decided. She wondered if it was intended top be a table napkin, before realising the obvious: it was simply a purpose-made cloth gag. Annie folded the gag into a triangle then folded that further to make a band of cloth. She tied a single overhand knot in the middle of the band and then knelt down beside Queenie. Gently but very firmly, she forced the knot past Queenie's teeth and into her mouth. Annie tied the ends of the gag at the back of Queenie's neck.
"All done!" Annie declared emphatically.
"I'll pop back later and see how you're getting on," Mrs Rafferty told Queenie as she left the room. "I need to be a good hostess and make sure everyone is happy."
"Will you be all right on your own for a minute?" Annie asked Queenie. "I need to make some arrangements with the other girls."
Queenie nodded her head and mumbled assent through her gag.
In peace to concentrate, Queenie began exploring her bonds. She felt around carefully for the knot on her wrist binding, but found nothing within reach. It was unlikely that Annie would have been so careless, but nevertheless worth checking. Next, she brought her feet as close to her bottom as she could. It was just possible to touch the ropes binding her ankles with outstretched fingertips, but again there were no knots within reach. With her upper arms locked in place by the chest ropes, there would be no reachable knots on the harness: her bound wrists simply wouldn't lift that far. Queenie concluded that her only possible course of action was to concentrate on her wrists and to see if she could work a hand free.
Queenie had practised escaping from a straightforward wrist tie many, many times in the past and now regarded herself as something of an expert. In her days as a governess before and during the Great War, she had been able to recruit some of her pupils to assist her training programme by tying her up. She remembered a girl named Lizzie, who had taken a particularly savage delight in trussing Queenie up and who regarded it as something close to a personal affront when Queenie was able to escape. That would have been in 1909 or 1910. Queenie snapped out of her reverie and mentally scolded herself for wasting time.
The small twisting and turning movements which inexorably find any slack available in a wrist binding were second nature to Queenie and she set to work systematically. Although she was well practised, it was nevertheless necessary to concentrate, as it was all too easy to make the movements too vigorous with the result that the wrists would be abraded and would swell up and stymie the escape. Equally, it was necessary to feel the tension and lie of the ropes with every movement of the hands in order not to miss every opportunity to find and exploit the tiniest bit of slack; mindless flexing of the wrists would miss chances.
After a few minutes, Queenie felt the distinct qualitative change in the feel of the ropes that indicated that they were beginning to ride up over the base of her left thumb. She worked on carefully. Having her upper arms so tightly bound hampered Queenie, but still allowed enough freedom of movement to make progress. She forced her left hand to relax, imagining it flowing through the wrist binding like wet clay. Quite suddenly, all the pressure was on her fingers and it took just a few deft tugs to pull her hand completely free. Queenie flexed and wiggled her fingers to loosen them up after the struggle. With one hand free, it was a simple matter to pull the now useless binding clear of her right hand and to toss it onto the floor.
Queenie engaged in another exploration of her predicament. With free hands, she could now reach much further, but still could not find any knots on her ankle binding. She reasoned that there ought to be at least two: one on the ankle binding proper and one where the rope leading to her chest harness was secured. Annie had apparently been too careful in her positioning of knots to allow an easy escape.
The only other possibility open to Queenie was to try to reach the knots at the back of the chest harness. She bent her right arm to bring her hand as far up behind her back as possible. It was painful work as the ropes encircling her upper arm bit into the flesh. With patience, Queenie was able to reach a rope. She grasped it with her fingers to relieve some of the stress on her arm. It was clear to Queenie that she could not stand this level of strain indefinitely so speed was essential. She probably had to make the first attempt work or endure a long wait for her arm to recover. Nevertheless, she decided that it was essential to plan her moves in order not to waste the opportunity. Queenie concentrated on the mental picture of the ropes binding the upper part of her body. She concluded that the fingertips of her right hand were clutching the lowest of the ropes around her chest at a point somewhat to the left of the large knot that she knew must be in the middle of her back between her shoulder blades.
Without letting go with her right hand, Queenie reached up behind her with her left hand until she contacted her right forearm, which she gripped firmly. Accepting that it would probably hurt, Queenie pushed hard, forcing her right hand higher. Her elbow joint felt as though it would surely snap, but she persisted and was rewarded by the feel of a knot under her fingers. Queenie arched her back to force her feet towards her head. The rope attached to the knot slackened and Queenie was able to use her strong fingers to untie the knot. As soon as the knot started to unravel, Queenie allowed her arms to drop to her sides. Gentle tension with her legs pulled the rope out from under the knot securing her chest harness.
Queenie lay still for a few moments. Her legs were still tied at the knees and ankles and her upper arms and chest were still tightly bound, but her hands were free and she was no longer en crapaudine.
The rope harness around her chest and upper arms was problematic. It was hard to see just how the ropes were arranged; without moving her head Queenie could see little apart from the higher of the two pairs of ropes as it passed across the upper slope of her bosom and the ropes over her shoulders. As it was still in position in front of her, Queenie and took the opportunity to use the tall cheval mirror to inspect the arrangement.
The problem, Queenie concluded, was the shoulder ropes, or rather rope in the singular, she corrected herself, as only one doubled length went over both shoulders and under the ropes around her chest. Queenie rolled over onto her left side to get a better look at the ropes in the mirror. Her right elbow was entirely free to bend as all the ropes restraining that arm were between elbow and shoulder. She was able to hook her thumb under the shoulder rope as it reached the slightly hollow part of her shoulder just above the level of her armpit. It was, however, impossible simply to pull the pair of ropes up over the top of her shoulder: it was far too tight. Queenie decided to pull hard on the rope and see if she could steal any slack from elsewhere. She worked her thumb further under the ropes so that they rested in the V between her thumb and forefinger then she pushed as hard as she could away from her body. There was indeed slack available, Queenie discovered. Most of it came from the left shoulder rope, which drastically tightened, pulling the chest ropes tighter. Some came from lower down the right shoulder rope, which pulled up the lower of the two pairs of chest ropes so that her right breast was uncomfortably pinched. As Queenie pushed harder, she felt the knot at her back slip slightly to the right, increasing all the pressure on her left arm but somewhat relieving her right breast. Eventually, there was enough slack to push the pair of ropes up over the curve of her shoulder. Queenie straightened her right arm and shook the now loose rope down below her elbow. She wormed her hand and forearm through the slack loop and it flopped uselessly down behind her. With all of the tension gone out of the shoulder rope, it was a trivial task to repeat the process with her left arm.
Queenie rolled over onto her stomach again and now had enough freedom of movement to push herself up into a kneeling position. There was considerable friction in the mass of rope behind Queenie's back, so releasing the shoulder rope did not immediately translate into increased slack in the chest ropes but vigorous wriggling combined with spreading her elbows gave her enough to be able to push the ropes upwards towards her shoulders with her hands and then lift the whole tangle up over her head and dump it on the floor.
Hardly pausing for breath, Queenie moved to a sitting position with her knees slightly raised in front of her. The knee binding was quite slack in this position so she just pushed it down her legs and flicked it off her feet with a double-footed kick. Finally, Queenie was able to lean forwards and undo the single knot securing her ankle binding. She unwound the ropes from around her ankles and feet, feeling the pressure fade with considerable pleasure.
Queenie was still sitting enjoying the feeling of being able to move her feet when the door opened once again and Annie bustled in. "Sorry, Queenie, that took a bit longer than I expected..." she began, but her voice died away in stunned silence as she took in her friend and former prisoner sitting on the floor, completely free and surrounded by tangled piles of rope.
Queenie was about to reply when she remembered that she was still wearing a gag. She reached behind her head and untied it then eased the soggy knot out of her mouth. She licked her lips and loosened the slight stiffness in her jaw before answering. "That's all right. I had plenty to keep me occupied so I wasn't bored," she remarked brightly.
Annie was still standing stock-still in the doorway, rooted to the spot in astonishment when Mrs Rafferty came up behind her. "How's Queenie doing?" she asked. Annie stood aside to let her see for herself. "Was that just ten minutes?" Mrs Rafferty asked.
"Possibly a touch less," Queenie replied as she got to her feet and started stretching cramped limbs. "I took a couple of breaks and I didn't notice the exact time when I finished."
"That's very good," Mrs Rafferty said admiringly. "Not many people could have done it at all."
"It's still too slow," Queenie complained. "No audience is going to sit still staring at a curtain for ten minutes while I wriggle around with ropes."
"Houdini makes his audiences do that," Annie pointed out.
"True," admitted Queenie, now critically inspecting the red marks on her arms, "but Houdini is Houdini: the rules don't apply to him."
"Do you need anything to put on that?" Mrs Raffery asked, concerned at the state of Queenie's skin.
"Just clothes," Queenie replied with a smile. "I'll stiffen up if I don't get dressed and keep warm."
"You know," Annie said slowly, "you should do the escape without a curtain. It's not like it's a magic trick where you have secrets to keep. The audience will come to see you escape so you should treat them to a full view of your efforts as you do it. I'm sure most men would pay good money to watch an attractive woman struggling out of ropes."
"An attractive and scantily-clad woman," Mrs Rafferty amended.
"Helplessness is very erotic, you know," Annie added.
"Would you like me to send in some more tea?" Mrs Rafferty asked, sensing Queenie's discomfort with the direction of the conversation.
"Yes please, Molly," Queenie replied gratefully, already putting her blouse back on.
Mrs Rafferty left the room and closed the door behind her. Annie took a seat but said nothing while Queenie dressed herself. Normally Queenie would have expected to feel very self-conscious dressing with another woman watching her, but Annie's gaze was oddly impersonal and she found that she didn't mind.
Queenie was re-buttoning her skirt when there was a knock at the door. Annie glanced at Queenie to check that she was decent then called out, "Come in!"
The door opened and Sophie entered with a heavy Sheffield plate teapot on a tray. "J'ai vous apporté encore un pot de thé, ma'm'selle," she announced.
"Merci beaucoup, Sophie. Tu es très gentile," Queenie replied carefully in her very best schoolgirl French.
"De rien," Sophie murmured with a broad grin as she left the room.
Queenie tried to work out whether Sophie was pleased at being addressed in her own language or just highly amused at the quality of Queenie's accent.
Annie poured two cups of tea then sat down looking oddly serious. "Queenie," she began tentatively, "Mrs R and I wondered if you would consider doing a really big favour for us."
"It's Lady Dorking, isn't it?" Queenie asked, recalling the conversation on her previous visit.
Annie was slightly disconcerted by the immediacy of Queenie's response, but it made the next part of her request easier to frame. "Yes," she confirmed. "Lady Dorking is here this evening with a companion and they would like us to lay on a little adventure."
Queenie picked up her tea and walked across to the fireplace with it. "Let me refresh my memory," she said in a carefully neutral voice. "Lady Dorking comes here to be entertained and an adventure for her is to be tied up in some kind of story-magazine situation?"
Annie nodded confirmation.
"And there's some sort of storyline to the adventure?" Queenie queried.
"Usually there is, but it doesn't have to be complicated," Annie explained.
"What's, the plan tonight?" Queenie asked.
"We're just going to stage a kidnap and tie them up in the cellar," Annie replied. "And hope they don't get loose too quickly."
"And you want me to do the tying to make sure they don't get loose quickly?" Queenie demanded.
"Well, at least to supervise," Annie pleaded.
"I won't be a schoolteacher much longer, but I do have to think about my reputation and I don't want to be dismissed," Queenie pointed out, sharply.
"You could wear a mask," Annie suggested a little weakly.
Queenie's defences were crumbling. She was truly concerned about her professional reputation and the reputation of her school, but the temptation to indulge in a little fantasy play-acting was darkly compelling.
"Do you want to see Lady Dorking and then decide?" Annie asked.
The look of horror on Queenie's face was immediate and obvious, so Annie quickly added, "We have a two-way mirror , so she won't see you."
"Very well," Queenie replied, bargaining for thinking time, "let me have a look."
Annie stood up and walked across the room to a door which Queenie had assumed led into a built-in cupboard. She opened the door and gestured to Queenie to enter, holding one finger to her lips to signal silence as she did so.
Queenie nodded in understanding as she crossed the room.
The door led into a tiny room painted entirely in black. It had probably once been a built-in cupboard; it was certainly too small for anything else. Opposite the door was a pair of heavy velvet curtains, also black.
Annie closed the door plunging the two women into darkness. Queenie heard the tiny noise of a well-maintained pair of curtains being drawn back. They revealed a window out into the hallway of the house, evidently the back of the two-way mirror.
Two women were in sitting at either end of a sofa, both holding sherry glasses and deep in animated conversation. One of the women looked familiar to Queenie. She was in her mid-twenties, certainly not as old as thirty, with a trim figure and a slightly angular aristocratic face. Her hair was heaped up on top of her head and partly hidden by her hat but it appeared to be dark and curly. I know her from somewhere, thought Queenie, but who is she?
It was impossible to hear the women's conversation distinctly through the glass, but the woman Queenie recognised had apparently just made a slightly risqué comment. Her companion covered her mouth with her hand as her body shook with embarrassed laughter which was faintly audible. The first woman smiled gently and fleetingly touched the tip of her nose with the little finger of her gloved left hand. It was a tiny nervous gesture and over in an instant, but Queenie recognised the mannerism and immediately knew the woman. Queenie had not seen her for over twelve years, not since she was little more than a child, but she was quite unmistakable: Lizzie.
© Copyright Gillian B 2006
The Adventures of Queenie Holkham
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