QUEENIE HAD IMAGINED Lady Dorking as a woman of mature years seeking paid-for adventures in Mrs Rafferty's establishment to enliven a dull life. Instead, she turned out to be a lively looking young woman in her mid twenties. Furthermore, it was now obvious that the Honourable Miss Elizabeth Featherstone, who had been one of Queenie's charges twelve years before, and the Countess of Dorking were one and the same. Queenie remembered calling her Busy Lizzie, not after the flower, but because she had boundless energy and enthusiasm for anything and everything as a girl in her early teens. At that time, in a very different England before the Great War, Queenie had already started her self-training towards her dream of being a stage escape artist. Lizzie had been very happy to help by tying Queenie up, not always very efficiently, but always with gusto and a very definite relish for the penny-dreadful storylines she wove around those times.
Queenie turned away from the two-way mirror through which she and Annie had been covertly observing Lady Dorking and her companion. She gestured to Annie that they should return to Mrs Rafferty's parlour. Annie drew the black curtains that covered the back of the two-way mirror before opening the door from the tiny observation room into the parlour, where Mrs Rafferty was waiting for them.
As soon as the door was closed, it was safe for Queenie to speak without risk of being overheard. She quickly explained that she already knew Lady Dorking and outlined the background.
"Oh dear," Mrs Rafferty said in response. "I quite understand that you won't want to have anything to do with this. Still, it was very good of you to listen to..."
Queenie waved Mrs Rafferty into silence. "No, I'm not making myself clear," she said. "If Lizzie Lady Dorking enjoys escapades like this, she can't have changed much since I knew her. I would love to help."
Mrs Rafferty and Annie exchanged pleased and (Queenie thought) slightly relieved smiles.
"But tell me," Queenie continued, "who is the other lady?"
"That's Miss Margaret Featherstone," Mrs Rafferty explained. "I think she's Lady Dorking's cousin or somesuch."
Queenie's smile broadened as she remembered the mischief that Lizzie and Maggie, a year or so the younger, used to get into. "I know her too," she explained.
Mrs Rafferty, Annie and Queenie quickly formulated a plan, happily exchanging ideas with each other like a gang of anarchists plotting together.
Ten minutes later, Sophie appeared in front of Lady Dorking and her cousin, who were still chatting on the sofa but beginning to show signs of boredom and irritation. She bobbed a little curtsey and then addressed them in her carefully-preserved French accent: "Mrs Rafferty present 'er compliment and she apologise for keep you waiting. She ask you join 'er in 'er parlour."
"Oh dear," Lady Dorking's companion remarked, "it sounds as if they won't be able to fit us in."
"She's always managed something before, but it was very short notice tonight," Lady Dorking agreed.
Lady Dorking briefly glanced at her hair in the large mirror that hung in the hallway before following Sophie and her cousin round a corner to Mrs Rafferty's parlour. Sophie opened the door for them and ushered them in.
Mrs Rafferty was sitting at her writing desk with her back to the door when the Featherstone cousins entered. She swivelled the chair round to face them to reveal the thick white cloth tied between her teeth and the rope wound around her arms and body. "Hnnnng!" she yelled urgently through the gag, eyes wide with fear.
Lady Dorking hesitated. Was this a game set up for her or was this real? The door to the parlour was slammed shut behind her and she heard the key turn in the lock. Before she could move a step into the room, she felt the muzzle of a gun rest lightly on her left temple. "Don't move," hissed a voice. Lady Dorking froze then swivelled her eyes as far to the left as they would go without turning her head. There was a black-clad woman with her back flat against the wall alongside the doorway so that she had been out of sight as they entered the room. She swivelled her eyes to the right. Margaret was similarly standing frozen with another black-clad woman holding a pistol to her head in a neatly symmetrical position.
"Now raise your hands and walk very slowly into the middle of the room," the woman on Lady Dorking's left commanded smoothly. She withdrew the gun from actual contact with Lady Dorking's head but kept it pointed at her.
Lady Dorking and Margaret Featherstone stepped forwards as ordered, their pace slow, measured and synchronised as if engaged in some strange dance. Lady Dorking stole a glance to her left. The woman was very obviously Annie wearing a long black dress, opera length black gloves and a black domino mask. The last tiny spark of fear that this might actually be real died away and was replaced by the warm glow of excitement that always accompanied these adventures.
Mrs Rafferty continued to squirm in her bonds and to utter dark imprecations through her gag. Lady Dorking watched her for a moment, enjoying the performance.
The woman on Margaret's right was a mystery to Lady Dorking. She wore a surprisingly formal black suit with a black silk scarf tucked into the jacket, concealing whatever she wore underneath. Her hands were hidden inside black leather gloves and she too wore a black domino mask.
"Stop there," Annie ordered, in her role as chief gunwoman. She moved around to stand in front of the Featherstone cousins, her revolver still trained steadily on Lady Dorking. Queenie, who was greatly enjoying her role as a masked villainess, moved round to join Annie. She offered her gun to Annie, who took it in her left hand without taking her eyes off the prisoners, just as she imagined a professional would do it. She attempted to keep one gun pointing at each woman without waving them around too much and struck a dramatic pose as some sort of bandit queen.
Lady Dorking was aware that the revolvers pointed at her and at her cousin were no longer practical weapons. Both showed hints of rust in the barrel and one had a slight kink in its frame; presumably they were souvenirs brought home from the Great War. However, in her imagination, they were lovingly maintained instruments of death aimed unwaveringly in the expert hands of a trained killer.
Relieved of her weapon, which she had found surprisingly heavy, Queenie took two lengths of rope from a bundle of binding materials which Annie had provided from a store somewhere in the brothel. She went first to Margaret Featherstone. "Cross your wrists behind your back," she instructed crisply. Queenie noticed a small reaction from Lady Dorking as she spoke. Margaret Featherstone obediently lowered her hands and put them behind her back. Queenie wrapped rope several times around the crossed wrists, first horizontally, then vertically and finally between them to pull everything snugly together. She finished off with a firm knot above the mass of rope and well out of the reach of even the most flexible of hands. Margaret Featherstone clenched and unclenched her hands and tugged gently at the binding, clearly testing its efficacy.
"You next," Queenie instructed, moving to Lady Dorking. The hands were duly lowered and presented behind her. Queenie repeated exactly the same wrist binding that she had applied to Margaret and smiled a secret little smile as she did so. She was amused to notice Lady Dorking go through the same routine of testing her bonds that her cousin had. Get out of that, Lizzie Featherstone, she thought to herself.
At first glance, Lady Dorking had seemed to be dressed in a smart skirt and jacket of very fine bottle-green tweed, a neat compromise between city and country. However on closer inspection, Queenie realised that the jacket, although of good quality, was showing signs of wear at the cuffs and had leather patches on the elbows. One of the shoulder seams had evidently burst and been re-stitched. Queenie surmised that this was an old outfit she kept for games and that she had been tied up in it before, quite possibly several times.
Lady Dorking was delighted at the way her wrists had been tied. This was no token or pretend binding, but the real thing. Escape might well be impossible, or at the very least it would require the use of a blade rather than simple struggling to regain her freedom. Whoever this new girl was, she certainly knew her stuff.
Meanwhile, Queenie had returned to the table where Annie had set out the material she proposed to use. She picked up four strips of cotton cloth and returned to Margaret Featherstone. She rolled one piece of cloth into a ball and stuffed it unceremoniously into her victim's mouth then bound it in place with another, settling it carefully between her teeth and double knotting it securely behind her head. Queenie watched critically as Margaret Featherstone attempted to chew the gag down into a more comfortable lump inside her mouth and was pleased to note that there was no significant compaction of the wad of cotton visible.
Lady Dorking waited excitedly as she watched her cousin being gagged. Mrs Rafferty's girls had always been somewhat more efficient at gagging than binding and could often do so very imaginatively. The gag that this girl had chosen was nothing terribly special but appropriate to the scene they were acting out. It looked to have been very competently applied too.
Queenie deftly applied a duplicate of Margaret Featherstone's gag to Lady Dorking. The sparkle in the Countess's eyes was unmistakable: she was clearly enjoying every moment of her adventure.
Annie was impressed at Queenie's performance. She had no idea what Queenie might be thinking, but whatever it was didn't seem to inhibit her from performing her role with panache. She was particularly pleased that Queenie took the play-acting seriously enough that she was always careful never to stray between Annie's pistols and the prisoners they were supposedly covering.
After another visit to the table, Queenie returned to her captives, with two head-sized black cotton bags and hooded each of them with one. She was privately very curious to see what else might be in the store-cupboard that these specialised items had been brought from.
Relieved of the need to keep up her performance, Mrs Rafferty ceased her simulated struggle with the ropes wound around her. She brought her hands out from behind her back, where she had been pretending they were tied, and pulled her gag down. About time too, she mouthed silently as she started to disentangle herself from her ropes.
Annie hung her revolver on the sash of her dress and handed Queenie's back to her. Queenie stuck hers into the waistband of her skirt in true bandit fashion. Annie rubbed her wrists; she had underestimated the weight of the guns and in consequence her dramatic desperado pose with arms outstretched was more tiring than she had expected.
Without saying another word, Annie grabbed Lady Dorking by one elbow and steered her towards the door while Queenie similarly piloted Margaret Featherstone. Annie leaned forwards and opened the door as they reached it. (Sophie had locked the door from the outside and immediately unlocked it again to make the right sounds but not impede progress later.)
The strange procession made its way along the corridor to the hallway and attracted no attention whatsoever. Apparently bound and hooded women being escorted to unspecified destinations were not a particularly remarkable sight in that establishment.
Without warning, Lady Dorking broke away from Annie's grip and made to run off, despite having her hands bound behind her and being hooded. Queenie let go of her own charge momentarily, drew her pistol and leapt into action. Lady Dorking found herself with her back to the wall, gripped at the throat by Queenie's left hand and with the muzzle of the revolver pressed firmly against her cheek through the fabric of the hood. Even Queenie was astonished at her own action. "Bad idea," she growled, trying to stay in character. She attempted to pull back the hammer of the gun to make a menacing click, but it was rusted solid.
"Let's try it again," Annie said evenly, seizing her prisoner by the elbow once more.
Queenie retrieved Margaret Featherstone who was just standing still, apparently disorientated. They resumed their march. It took some care to guide the captives down the stairs to the basement where the kitchen was and even more to get them down the steep, almost ladder-like wooden staircase into the cellar. Fortunately, the cellar was equipped with bright electric lighting, so there was little genuine hazard to either prisoners or escort.
The cellar was the usual slightly dusty bare brick room that would be expected in a large house in London. The floor was smooth grey artificial stone and the ceiling just the underside of the floorboards in the room above. The presence of a bed and two chairs suggested that the room was used for purposes other than storage. All were clean but old and shabby wooden furniture, giving the impression of a stage set rather than an everyday room.
Annie led Lady Dorking to one of the two chairs and pushed down firmly on her shoulders so that she sat down heavily. Queenie followed the same procedure with her cousin then waited to see what Annie would do next. Annie left her captive for a moment to open an old chest of drawers. In an instant, Lady Dorking was on her feet and searching blindly for a way out. Queenie wrestled her back onto her chair and then kept her there by the simple expedient of sitting on her lap. The chair creaked in protest. It was a basic upright wooden chair with a rush-covered seat; Queenie wondered if it was robust enough to stand up to this treatment.
Annie had meanwhile found a bundle of rope. As Margaret Featherstone was showing signs of restlessness, she dealt briefly with her first by winding a coil of rope over her lap and under the chair seat. She brought more rope over to the chair where Queenie was holding Lady Dorking down. Annie and Queenie nimbly changed places, so that Queenie could see to the serious business of further immobilising their feisty client.
Queenie quickly concluded that Annie's instinct had been right and that they would gain the maximum effect by starting with rope over Lady Dorking's lap. Accordingly, she tied her down in much the same way that Annie had seen to Margaret Featherstone. Queenie was amused to discover that the chairs had once been furnishings for a church or chapel: they each had a small shelf under the seat for hymn-books.
Annie was free to get off Lady Dorking's lap at last and was able to help hold her ladyship in place while Queenie wielded ropes. They first arranged for Lady Dorking's bound wrists to go behind the chair. Queenie tied rope around her waist and the back of the chair and then secured the wrist binding to that band of ropes. Lady Dorking was lashing out with her feet in the hope of landing a lucky kick on her captors. For safety's sake Annie grabbed the flailing legs and held them still while Queenie wrapped several turns of rope around them at ankle level and cinched it off snugly. Queenie tied Lady Dorking's legs just below the knees as well in the same way then secured her ankle binding to the stretcher that spanned between the front legs of the chair. It was a comparatively thin wooden spindle and bent alarmingly under the onslaught to which it was being subjected.
With Lady Dorking largely subdued, Queenie took a moment to consider what more she should do to restrain their prisoner. Coming to a decision, she bound Lady Dorking's chest to the back of the chair with half a dozen turns of rope passing between her arms and the chair. She took the last few turns up over Lady Dorking's shoulders. Finally she bound Lady Dorking's upper arms to the main verticals that formed the sides of the chair's backrest.
While Lady Dorking was being restrained, Margaret Featherstone was mounting her own less flamboyant but equally determined attempt to break free. Despite being roped down to her chair, she had managed to twist herself almost sideways and had brought her fingertips within reach of the ropes over her lap. The knot she was so diligently seeking was in fact under the chair seat, so her efforts were in vain. Once Lady Dorking was fully secure, Annie and Queenie lost no time in subjecting Margaret Featherstone to an identical set of bonds.
Once their prisoners were secure, Annie lifted a pair of bottles down from a high shelf. Each had been turned into a makeshift candlestick with a stub of paraffin-wax candle stuck in it. She took a box of matches down from the same shelf, lit both candles and put the bottles back where she found them, well out of the reach of struggling captives. She switched the lights off so that the candles were the only illumination, instantly lending an air of menace and mystery to the room.
At Annie's signal, she and Queenie simultaneously removed the bound women's hoods. Queenie preceded Annie up the steps. "What happens next?" she asked.
"The boat for Morocco sails at midnight," Annie informed her. "They'll pick these two up about ten o'clock."
"Nearly eight o'clock now," Queenie observed, consulting her wristwatch. "Plenty of time for them to enjoy their last night in England."
With a suitably evil laugh, Annie and Queenie turned and waved farewell to their prisoners from the top of the steps then closed the cellar door. Once through the door, they clutched each other, shaking with helpless giggles at the success of their charade.
Once they regained control, Annie asked Queenie, "Do you think they'll be able to escape from that?"
"I really don't know how good they are," Queenie replied. "On their own, probably not, but they may be able to get the chairs back to back or possibly rub against the brickwork."
"Just have to wait and see," Annie concluded. "Let's go and report back to Mrs R."
"I'm still worried about Poppy," Queenie confided. "Could I look in and see how she is?"
"Of course," Annie replied. "I'm sure she'll be touched by your concern."
This last remark puzzled Queenie. It seemed to be an odd phrase to use about someone who was to spend another 19 hours tied up as a punishment.
They went straight to the kitchen. Lucy Kennington was busily engaged in preparing meals. It had been a long time since lunch and Queenie found her attention drawn by the steaks that Lucy had laid out ready for cooking.
As expected, the unfortunate Poppy was securely bound to her chair. When Queenie had last seen her, she was wearing only a camisole and stockings. She was more warmly dressed for the rigours of her ordeal in a light-weight knit sweater and a long cotton print skirt. Her wrists were crossed on her lap and had been skilfully bound. Several long lengths of rope had been used to lash her arms to her sides, her arms and body to the back of the kitchen chair and over her lap to keep her hands in position and to tie her down to the chair seat. Her legs were bound at knee and ankle and her ankle binding had been fastened off to the front legs of the chair. It looked to Queenie's eyes to be a very competent and secure tie-up but not cruel in either its tightness or the position in which Poppy was forced to sit.
Poppy was blindfolded but not gagged and to Queenie's surprise, one of the other girls was sitting beside her, gently feeding her soup and chatting quietly with her as she did so.
"Are you all right, Poppy?" asked Annie. "One of Mrs R's friends is here and she was worried about you."
"That's very kind," Poppy replied after swallowing a spoonful of soup. "I'm sure I'll be all right, thank you ma'am."
Annie saw Queenie's puzzled frown as they left the kitchen. "Poppy grew up with nothing," she explained. "She had to steal to live and that's a hard habit to break. Everyone here understands how easy it is to slip back into old habits like that. Mrs Rafferty has decided that a punishment, and quite a hard one, is called for, but all the girls will support Poppy through it. I think she'll come out feeling more part of the team than before."
"It sounds like something you'd hear in church," Queenie remarked. "Hate the sin; love the sinner."
"Exactly," Annie replied enigmatically.
After returning to Mrs Rafferty's parlour, Annie reported back how successful she and Queenie had been in setting up an adventure for Lady Dorking.
"Well, the real test will be how soon she turns up here complaining about how easy it was to escape," Mrs Rafferty replied.
Queenie was a little crestfallen and it must have shown on her face.
"That's no criticism of you, Queenie," Mrs Rafferty went on. "It's just that Lady Dorking can be a very difficult client to satisfy. I want to thank you for helping us out. It sounds like you've done a splendid job on Lady Dorking and apart from that we are very short-handed tonight with Poppy out of action."
Queenie smiled back her thanks. Once again, she was surprised at how little Mrs Rafferty's business differed from any other business in the way it needed efficient management.
"Hungry?" Mrs Rafferty asked. "Would you like to join me for a meal?"
"Yes, please," Queenie replied, responding to the other thought uppermost on her mind.
"It tends to be rather masculine fare we serve here," Mrs Rafferty explained apologetically.
"Anything would be fine," Queenie assured her.
Mrs Rafferty rose to her feet and crossed the room to the fireplace. Queenie was delighted to see that the room was fitted with an old-fashioned speaking-tube. Mrs Rafferty pulled the plug out of the end of it and put it to her mouth, blowing hard to sound the whistle at the other end. She put the bell to her ear while she waited for a response then issued an order for three meals to be sent up.
Queenie was alarmed at how easily she seemed to have slipped into the behind-the-scenes life of the brothel. She had always known that such places existed, even if she had no real understanding of their workings. If pressed, Queenie would probably have adopted a neutral position, not particularly in support of or opposed to the existence of organised brothels. Now, she felt she was seeing something close to a legitimate entertainment business. Admittedly, she reminded herself, this was an extraordinarily well-run establishment with Mrs Rafferty's strong moral sense guiding its ethos and probably not typical, but nevertheless she felt quite positive towards it. The apparent tacit approval of the establishment in the form of a serving police officer permanently under cover as cook influenced Queenie's judgement too. However, Queenie's alarm was chiefly at herself. She regarded herself as both a moral and an outwardly respectable person. She was not prepared to sacrifice her moral standards but was surprised, and not a little shocked, at how flexible she could apparently be on conventional social respectability.
A knock at the door broke Queenie's private reverie. "I'm sorry, I was miles away," she apologised to Mrs Rafferty.
Before anyone had a chance to respond to the knock, the door opened and Lucy bustled in with a tray.
"I thought you looked a bit preoccupied," Mrs Rafferty commented to Queenie with a smile. "Perhaps food will help."
Annie quickly set up a card table and helped Lucy put out cutlery and to unload the tray. Queenie understood Mrs Rafferty's remark about 'rather masculine fare'. The plates each contained a large sirloin steak with mustard sauce, a pile of French beans and a serving of fluffy mashed potato. The steak proved to be grilled to perfection, the sauce was tangy without being overbearingly hot, the beans retained just a hint of crispness and the potato was creamy and almost decadently loaded with butter.
Queenie suddenly became aware that both Mrs Rafferty and Annie were watching her reaction to the food with interest. "Lucy certainly knows her way around a kitchen," she declared.
"Lucy calls her style 'French cooking for Englishmen'," Mrs Rafferty explained, as she produced a claret jug from a discreet drinks cabinet near her desk and poured a glass for each of the three of them.
"It's gorgeous!" Queenie declared. "Eating this is every bit as hedonistic as anything that goes on upstairs."
The table talk went back to the adventure currently being enjoyed by the Featherstone cousins two storeys below them in the cellar. Mrs Rafferty listened appreciatively as Annie and Queenie explained what they had done. From there, it was only a short step to discussing Queenie's future career. Mrs Rafferty saw Queenie as a continuation of a great tradition that had included the Davenport Brothers in the past and now had Harry Houdini as its unquestioned star. Annie disagreed and expressed the view that Queenie needed to be entirely new, fresh and different as befitted post-war Britain. Queenie actually thought they were both right and saw no contradiction in being new and fresh within the context of an old tradition, but neither of the others could apparently see that.
Queenie sidestepped the increasingly entrenched opinions of her two friends by discussing the specifics of her act. Annie thought that the escape itself was such an exquisite piece of athletic skill that it should be shown off to the audience, not hidden behind a curtain. Queenie was inclined to agree with that view, but could foresee occasions when she would have to rescue herself with a hidden knife or key.
"In that case," Mrs Rafferty suggested, "you need an assistant as clever as you."
Queenie's eyes automatically drifted to Annie, who raised her hands defensively. "Oh no! I know exactly what I do best and it happens here," she protested.
Before Queenie could respond, the parlour door opened.
Without ceremony, Lady Dorking and Margaret Featherstone marched into the room. Queenie was astonished to see them so soon. She glanced at the clock and realised that she had lost track of time: it was a whole hour since she and Annie had tied them up.
"That was magnificent fun, Molly," Lady Dorking enthused to Mrs Rafferty. "I really thought we wouldn't get out of that and I was beginning to wonder if you really did have white slavers lined up to drag us away. That new girl of yours is really good."
Queenie was trying to avert her face and wondering if there was a socially acceptable way to hide under the table. "I think this is where you take a bow," Mrs Rafferty suggested gently.
With a sheepish grin, Queenie turned to face Lady Dorking, whose eyes had widened and mouth dropped open in a very satisfactory manner. "Miss Holkham!" she exclaimed, somewhat unnecessarily, once she had found her voice again. "It's really you! I heard a voice I thought sounded exactly like yours earlier but I decided I must be mistaken."
"I think I should let you call me Queenie now you're all grown up, your ladyship" Queenie replied.
"Never mind the ladyship," Lady Dorking demurred. "I'm married to Dorking but I'm still Liz Featherstone inside."
Queenie took an appreciative look at Lady Dorking. She was flushed and dishevelled and her jacket had burst another seam. Queenie was strongly reminded of the young Lizzie Featherstone she had known. The boisterous, big-hearted tomboy had managed to turn into a splendidly poised young woman who could apparently still also indulge in quite outrageous escapades.
Annie rose to her feet and ushered Lady Dorking into her chair then fetched two more: one for herself and one for Margaret Featherstone. Mrs Rafferty fetched more glasses and poured more wine.
"So how does my old governess come to be tying people up in a brothel then?" Lady Dorking demanded.
Queenie tried not to wince too obviously at the bluntness of the way that the question was phrased and launched into what proved to be a lengthy and detailed account of her life history, starting with her early days of exploring the art of escape, which Lady Dorking remembered well at first hand. Both the Featherstone cousins seemed fascinated by Queenie's story but most of the questions came from Lady Dorking, who was by far the more vocal of the two.
"Well, make sure I know when your first public performance is and I'll buy tickets for the front row," Lady Dorking said once Queenie's story had come right up to the present day.
"It will probably turn out to be at some fleapit in the East End," Queenie replied dismissively.
"Well that will be an adventure too," Lady Dorking declared firmly.
Queenie was surprised to discover that it was already after 11 o'clock and started to offer apologies, insisting that she really ought to make her way home soon. Mrs Rafferty assured her that she was most welcome to come and go as she pleased.
"Before you go, Queenie, can I ask you a question?" Lady Dorking ventured, sounding more like a timid child than her usual forthright self.
"Certainly you may, Lizzie," Queenie replied, automatically correcting Lady Dorking's grammar. "Whether or not I reply rather depends upon the nature of the question."
Unabashed by Queenie's schoolmistressly response, Lady Dorking went ahead with her question. "I realise that you don't actually work here in any capacity and tonight's escapade was by way of a favour to Molly," she began carefully, "but I wonder if I might persuade you to help Molly's girls organise another adventure for my cousin and me and perhaps to supervise it yourself."
"So you are asking me, a respectable schoolteacher, to provide you, a customer of a common brothel, with an evening of, shall we say, unconventional physical entertainment?" Queenie summarised bluntly.
"Not so much of the 'common'," Mrs Rafferty chided gently.
"Well, if you put it that way, Queenie, then yes, I am," Lady Dorking agreed with a demure smile. "However, I prefer to think of you as a skilled performer offering your personal expertise to the wife of a peer of the realm."
"The knots will be the same, either way," Queenie replied with an enigmatic smile on her face.
"I do hope so," enthused Lady Dorking. "Does that mean 'yes'?"
"Only because it's you, Lizzie," Queenie told her firmly. "I'm here as Molly's friend and she helps me with my training because she's my friend. I do not have any plans beyond that to become a professional..." She searched for a suitable term.
"...bondage strumpet?" Mrs Rafferty offered with a disarming grin. Queenie had the good grace to look shocked.
"I will discuss the matter with Annie," Queenie agreed, "and we'll see what we can come up with."
Queenie decided that was an opportune moment to bid her farewells and make her way home. She saw herself to the back door and retrieved her bicycle from the garden before pedalling slowly and thoughtfully back to her home in Clapham.
Saturday was Queenie's day for domestic chores. She considered possible ideas for an adventure for the Featherstone cousins as she saw to her washing, cleaning and dusting. It was a far harder problem than she had really anticipated, she concluded after some hours of turning it over in her mind. Friday's session had been fun but it was not so much an adventure as a prolonged ordeal to which the women had been subjected, albeit willingly and apparently very enjoyably. The problem with a scenario in which the cousins would have complete freedom of choice, as if it were a real adventure, was that the whole thing would then become impossibly open-ended to manage. It was, Queenie concluded, like writing a play in which everyone knew what was supposed to happen, except for the leading actors who somehow had to be guided to an inevitable conclusion but with the illusion that they had themselves been in control of the process.
Queenie's brain felt as if it would explode from the tangle of ideas and problems that filled it. She decided that a gentle walk around the local shops to buy some provisions and get some fresh air might very well clear her head.
It was a pleasant if chilly autumn morning and Queenie enjoyed the combination of clear air (or as clear as it ever got in London) and not taxing her brain with anything more complex than choosing vegetables for the week ahead and passing the time of day with the girl who served her at the baker's shop.
While Queenie was queuing in the Post Office to replenish her stock of penny and halfpenny stamps, a small hand-written poster caught her eye. It was for a treasure-hunt being organised by her local church as a fund-raising exercise. She knew all about this event already, as she was one of the organisers and was also the author of most of the clues. Church fund-raising activities and possible adventures for Mrs Rafferty's clientèle had hitherto occupied entirely different parts of Queenie's mind, but as she shuffled forwards in the queue, she began to ponder the possibility of treasure-hunt-style clues to guide an adventure.
Inspiration struck again a few minutes later. The local bookshop was a typical small shop with a display window either side of a recessed doorway. The proprietor always used the two windows to good effect to show the range of books on offer. On that day, one window seemed to be showing serious natural history and science books, while the other had fantastic fiction with lurid covers. Edgar Rice Burroughs' newest offering, Chessmen of Mars, caught Queenie's eye as she passed. Five yards further on, her mind had built a series of links from that observation: Burroughs; Tarzan; jungle. She stopped dead in her tracks and turned smartly on her heel, forcing the person behind her to take evasive action. Queenie had a theme for an adventure and a way to guide it. She strode purposefully back to the bookshop and entered. A few minutes later, she emerged having purchased nothing more expensive than a threepenny notebook.
Back in her flat, Queenie sat down at her table with a cup of tea at her elbow and opened the new notebook. She sharpened a pencil and began by sketching a floor plan of Mrs Rafferty's brothel as she remembered it. Next, she jotted down a series of ideas almost at random and looked for a possible thread to link them together.
Hours later, Queenie stood and stretched herself. It was getting dark and she was feeling chilly. She noticed that the open fire that heated her small bed-sitting room had burned down to glowing embers. She switched on the electric light then added some coal to the fire and poked it back into life. She was still cold, so she wrapped a warm shawl around herself before sitting down again to review her work. Queenie decided that, as she had missed lunch, it was time to eat and set to work in her tiny kitchen, preparing herself a simple but filling meal of cauliflower in cheese sauce. Every few minutes, she broke off her cooking to go back to the notebook and add to her work.
After her meal, Queenie reviewed her notes one again and concluded that it was time to share the ideas with Mrs Rafferty or Annie before developing them any further. The time was still only a little after 6 o'clock, so Queenie decided that it was not too late to pay an unannounced visit to Mrs Rafferty's establishment.
Queenie was wearing an old but comfortable white cotton blouse with an equally old serge skirt, now shiny with wear and a thin round-necked woollen sweater. She considered the contents of her wardrobe carefully. It was sadly lacking in anything suitable to pay an evening social call. Queenie occasionally went out to the theatre or dances and always felt a little under-dressed for the occasion in her smart but severely utilitarian teacher's outfits. She had been surprised to discover that a brothel was little different from any other social gathering in its dress etiquette (aside from some of the outfits worn by the professional girls). Resolving to visit a dress shop in the near future, Queenie selected the most stylishly cut of her suits: one in a dashing shade of French navy blue. She changed her blouse for a less elderly one with a high collar and pinned on a pale blue cameo brooch at her throat.
As she fastened her practical black lace-up boots, Queenie concluded that an expensive visit to a shoe shop was also called for. No longer being a teacher seemed certain to prove a costly change in her life-style.
Queenie surveyed herself in her long mirror. Not perfect, she decided, but presentable. She settled a dark blue hat with a narrow brim on her head and secured it with a hat-pin, then hesitated. She wondered if she ought to disguise herself again. Mrs Rafferty's establishment was hardly the hotbed of vice and iniquity she might once have imagined, but still not the kind of place a respectable lady should be seen entering. Besides, she told herself, it was a winter night and she really had to protect her throat and lungs from cold air and London's smoky atmosphere. She draped her long red scarf over her shoulders, carefully tucked one end into the top of her jacket to keep her chest warm then wrapped the rest of it across her mouth and nose and flung the end back over one shoulder. Secretly, Queenie admitted to herself that she rather enjoyed the excitement of going out at night in disguise.
Queenie took the back route to Mrs Rafferty's premises again. She had no difficulty finding the gate into the garden from the lane at the back and wheeled her bicycle unobtrusively up the gravel pathway. There seemed to be no activity going on in the garden apart from two men smoking cigars and discussing the relative merits of rival football teams. Queenie propped her bicycle up in the corner she had discovered before and let herself in through the door into the basement. It was quite warm inside, so she unwound her warm muffler from around her neck and face and left it draped across her shoulders. The kitchen seemed to be one of the nerve-centres of Mrs Rafferty's establishment, so Queenie made her way straight there.
The heat was quite oppressive in the kitchen as the catering staff prepared for the surge in demand that would come later. As usual, Lucy Kennington was in charge of activities and was now assisted by Poppy, who had fallen foul of Mrs Rafferty's wrath the previous day. Annie was sitting at the kitchen table clutching a large mug of tea. Queenie was still concerned about the severity of the fate which had befallen Poppy. By her calculations, Poppy should have keen kept tied up since she last saw her until only a couple of hours ago. There was a slight stiffness to Poppy's movements and the hint of a bruise on one wrist, but otherwise no sign of her ordeal and she seemed cheerful enough so Queenie decided not to pursue the matter.
Queenie had been studying Poppy's physical condition and not paying any attention to conversation. As she tuned in on it, she realised that Annie and Poppy were engaged in technical discussion of the finer points of a rather exotic and complicated-sounding sexual manoeuvre designed to delight the more adventurous gentlemen clients. Lucy Kennington also offered the occasional comment on the subject. Queenie was horrified but also intrigued, torn between breaking into the conversation and just listening. In the event, Poppy spotted her and the conversation stopped anyway.
"It's Mrs Rafferty's friend," Poppy observed, bobbing in a neat curtsey as she continued deftly cutting vegetables.
"Good evening, Queenie," Annie said with a welcoming smile as she rose to her feet. "I'll let Mrs R know you are here."
"It's really you I've come to see," Queenie responded with a shy smile. "I've been thinking about some ideas for Lady Dorking and I wanted your opinion, if you have time, that is."
"I'm sure I do," Annie replied. "I've just shown a client upstairs for one of the other girls and I've nothing else that needs attention just now. Let's use Mrs R's parlour. It's a bit less steamy up there."
Annie ushered Queenie to the kitchen door. "Would you be a sweetie and bring us up a tray of tea when you've a moment?" she called out to Poppy as she went.
It was indeed much cooler and far less steamy in Mrs Rafferty's parlour. There was a fire burning merrily in the grate, but it seemed to offer a gentler, more welcoming warmth than the engine-room atmosphere downstairs. Queenie unbuttoned her jacket and hung it and her scarf on the coat-stand in the corner of the room She realised immediately that it was not quite warm enough to wear just a blouse and put the red scarf on again, draping it around her shoulders like a stole.
"Very stylish," Annie commented. "You've a definite touch of the Bohemian when you allow yourself."
Queenie just smiled but inwardly acknowledged that there was a wild streak within her, continually held in check by shyness and the need for a schoolteacher to be, at least outwardly, conventional. She retrieved her notebook from her bag and joined Annie, who was already sitting at the card table waiting for her.
With her notes and sketches spread out on the table, Queenie explained to Annie her ideas for staging an adventure for Lady Dorking. There were a few ideas that Annie thought might be impractical but many more that she thought excellent and some for which she suggested improvements and embellishments. After about an hour, Queenie and Annie had consolidated the plan into a definite scenario.
"This is going to be rather expensive," Annie remarked as she did a quick calculation.
"Expensive?" Queenie echoed, not having thought about that aspect in the least.
"Yes, there are the people involved in staging this and the use of the rooms. All the time this is going on, they can't be used for other clients," Annie explained. "It's just a matter of resources, like any other business."
Queenie had not really considered those implications, but they were obvious now that Annie had mentioned them. She wished she had thought of them before getting so carried away with her ideas.
"Don't worry," Annie reassured her, "I still think it's a great plan, but we need to see what Mrs R thinks about it, because in the end it's her business we're talking about."
Queenie nodded, trying not to look too crestfallen.
Annie consulted a ledger open on the writing table. "Mrs R is with a client just now, but my guess is that she will be back here within about ten minutes. Let's just have some more tea and wait for her."
As Annie sounded so positive, Queenie set her worry aside and decided just to enjoy her company. They chatted together amiably and discussed Queenie's plans for her future career. Annie seemed to have taken a decided interest in Queenie and enthusiastically encouraged her to find a personal style that would pull together her act, her stage persona and her private lifestyle to provide a consistent public message of who she was. Queenie realised that this was precisely what film and stage actresses did, but had never conceived of herself ever being in the same category.
The discussion was broken off by Mrs Rafferty returning to the parlour. The time was closer to twenty minutes than the ten predicted by Annie. "Queenie!" she cried as she entered the room and embraced her as if she had not seen Queenie in months. "Excuse the working outfit," she apologised as she hung up the dressing-gown she had been wearing.
Ordinarily, Queenie would regard it as extremely rude to stare at someone else's clothes, but she found she could not help herself. Mrs Rafferty was wearing a robust corset finished in black silk satin. It covered her nipples but pushed her breasts up unto a magnificent bosom and left nothing else in that area to the imagination. The black was relieved by the edges of the garment, including the busk, being finished in red silk which was also echoed by the red silk briefs she wore. There was a narrow gap of bare flesh between the briefs and the tops of a pair of opera-length black fishnet stockings, which vanished inside a pair of gleaming black knee-length patent leather lace-up boots with precariously high heels. The black leather theme was reflected in the elbow-length thin black leather gloves and black leather domino mask she wore.
Molly Rafferty was not by any stretch of the imagination slim, Queenie observed, but the weight she carried was concentrated into nicely rounded breasts, hips and thighs and for someone probably in her fifties, she was a splendid figure of womanhood and undoubtedly had a profound effect on men.
With an effort, Queenie dragged her eyes away from Mrs Rafferty's body to her face, now unmasked. The knowing grin suggested that Mrs Rafferty had read her mind with some accuracy.
"When a man asks you for a good thrashing, you have to dress the part," she explained. "And it's hard work even in this rig-out," she added, helping herself to a cup of tea. "I'll get dressed properly in a minute, when I've cooled down."
As they sat drinking tea, Queenie explained her plans to Mrs Rafferty. She pointed out Annie's objection about cost and disruption to the brothel's other activities. Mrs Rafferty reflected on this in silence for a few minutes before commenting.
"I think it's an excellent piece of planning, Queenie, and I think we might be able to get it to work. Annie is right about the number of people involved, but that's only for the first few minutes of the adventure. After that, it takes two at most and the clues can be arranged only to use a small number of rooms. Besides, if we want a jungle, it probably mostly happens in the conservatory and that connects through to the cellar. All we need is a short gap in bookings on the evening that this takes place."
Annie agreed with Mrs Rafferty and withdrew her reservations, pointing out that Lady Dorking would be able to afford the expense and was likely to be willing to do so in the pursuit of quality.
While Mrs Rafferty had been talking, Sophie had come into the room to speak to Annie. She studied the sketches and notes laid out on the table. "I know just where to 'ide someone for treasure 'unt," she remarked.
Later that evening, Queenie returned home with mixed emotions. She was pleased at the way her plans had been praised but also a little scared. Queenie was concerned at the responsibility she bore for the professional risk that Mrs Rafferty was prepared to take on the basis of her ideas, but what unsettled her even more was the strange direction her life had taken. Teaching was a safe if rather staid profession but suddenly she found herself skating on the very edge of social respectability, if not somewhere beyond it, and acting as a freelance entertainer of a very peculiar kind.
© Copyright Gillian B 2006
The Adventures of Queenie Holkham
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