IT WAS NEARING TEN O'CLOCK on a winter's morning in London. Alongside the platform at St Pancras station stood the train grandly designated in the Midland Railway timetable as the Thames-Clyde Express. To the railwaymen who operated it, it was simply the Scotch Express.
Miss Victoria Holkham (known to her friends as Queenie) was looking forward to her Christmas break from the south London primary school where she taught. It was unusual for her to travel far at Christmas and quite unknown for her to be travelling to Scotland, first class, no less, as she was now about to do. A friend had recommended her to acquaintances looking for someone reliable to chaperone their 18-year-old daughter on a trip to Scotland. The chaperoning would only involve accompanying the girl in question on the train journeys to and from Glasgow, where relatives would meet her. Queenie had old college friends in Scotland who declared that they would be delighted to put her up over Christmas and New Year.
Queenie's big suitcase had been sent on ahead as luggage in advance and she had only to deal with her carpet-bag filled with necessities for the journey, which had turned out surprisingly heavy in itself. As she trudged up the ramp from the tube station to the wide concourse of St Pancras, the sharp chill of a December morning contrasted with the subterranean warmth she had just left. She looked around and orientated herself in the noise and bustle that are the life of main-line railway stations. The great arched roof above her was barely visible through the pall of smoke and condensing steam above the trains. She quickly found a helpful porter, who directed her to platform 3, where the train was already waiting.
Queenie spotted a middle-aged couple who were standing at the ticket barrier, accompanied by a young woman of about the right age for her charge. She hurried across to them and politely enquired whether they were waiting for her. They were indeed the right family and they greeted Queenie cordially, brushing aside her attempt to apologise for keeping them waiting. Introductions were made and Queenie politely shook hands with Miss Griselda Barrington.
Miss Barrington had been elated to discover that she was to travel all the way to Scotland without her parents. It would be so grown-up to make such a long journey unaccompanied. Her elation had dissipated rapidly when she discovered that she was to be chaperoned, and by a schoolteacher at that. Griselda was somewhat mollified to discover that Miss Holkham was a personable woman in her late twenties or early thirties, rather than the desiccated spinster she had dreaded. It still seemed belittling to Griselda's eighteen years to be nannied like this.
While Queenie was being briefed in considerable and unnecessary detail about the journey to come, Griselda continued to appraise her. Suddenly and without warning, Queenie shot her a brief glance unmistakably conveying both exasperation at the detailed instructions and knowing sympathy for Griselda, whom she realised had undergone a similar talk. Mr and Mrs Barrington noticed nothing but Griselda almost choked as she struggled to suppress her delighted laughter. Queenie was clearly going to be an admirable travelling companion.
Miss Barrington's parents handed the railway tickets over to Queenie and bade their daughter a fond farewell and a Merry Christmas there on the concourse. Queenie presented the tickets for the inspector at the barrier to examine and he ushered them onto the platform, indicating that the first class compartments were at the nearer end of the train. The two women walked together alongside the line of gleaming carriages, painted in the Midland Railway's deep maroon livery, with their wooden panelling picked out in black and gold. A luggage van was the rearmost vehicle in the train, then two first class compartment carriages and the first class dining car. The kitchen car separated that part of the train from the third class territory beyond.
As they walked, Queenie looked around at the other passengers on the platform. She had been a little nervous that she might not be smartly enough dressed for first class. She was wearing a dark green wool skirt with a matching hip-length jacket and a small snugly-fitting black cloche hat. She had brightened up the ensemble with a scarlet knitted scarf wrapped round her neck and flung over one shoulder, which she felt was daring but not excessive. Sensible low-heeled shoes and spats finished off her protection against a journey in an English winter. Queenie was relieved to note that many of the women on the platform, including some clearly very well-to-do, were wearing tweeds and robust footwear. There was perhaps something about travel to Scotland that brought out a traveller's instincts to dress like an explorer. Queenie was often amused to note that although the upper classes bought clothes that cost far more than hers, they seemed to wear them far longer, resulting in an air of genteel shabbiness, achievable only by the really wealthy.
Queenie's roving eyes took in two passengers who certainly stood out from the crowd. They were two Muslim women travelling together, apparently unaccompanied. They were dressed entirely in black, with a loose enveloping coat, head-dress and veil, leaving only mysterious dark eyes and a small area of olive skin visible. One of them wore spectacles, further masking her features. Queenie was fascinated, having only seen outfits like that in pictures before, usually in school geography textbooks. She knew it was extremely rude to stare and tried to study them surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye as they passed by.
Miss Barrington identified the compartment where their seats were reserved and opened the door for Queenie to climb in first. There was a middle-aged woman sitting in the corner of the compartment next to the door out into the corridor which ran the length of the carriage at one side. Queenie and Miss Barrington gave her a polite "Good morning" and settled themselves into the window seats either side of the door they had just passed though.
The steam heating in the train was working well and it was wonderfully warm in the compartment, so after only a few moments, Queenie stood again and removed her scarf and jacket, the neat grey sweater she was wearing over her blouse being more than sufficient. She tossed the tartan travel blanket she had with her up onto one of the overhead luggage racks bracketed out from the wall above each row of seats; clearly it would not be needed.
"A good idea, Miss Holkham," commented Miss Barrington, following suit.
"Please call me Queenie," replied Queenie, who had been used to being addressed by her first name in her years as a governess.
"And you must call me Zelda," came the reply. Queenie must have looked surprised, for Miss Barrington continued, slightly defensively, "A name with a Z in it is so much more exciting and romantic than 'Griselda', don't you think?" Queenie laughed and had to agree.
For the first time, Queenie had an opportunity to study her travelling companion. Zelda was tall and slender with that slight awkwardness that young women sometimes have, as if somehow, she had not quite grown accustomed to her own height. She was wearing a navy blue tweed suit, the jacket of which she had now removed, and a white blouse with a collar, which she wore with a necktie and waistcoat in the rather masculine style then in vogue. A small diamond pin offset the severity of the style and lent a touch of femininity.
The sound of a guard's whistle came from the platform and the train started so gently as to be almost imperceptible at first. It seemed that the remaining three seats in the compartment would remain unoccupied. As the train picked up speed and the rhythm of the wheel beats lent a sense of purposefulness to the journey, the third occupant of the compartment introduced herself as the dowager Countess of Giffnock. She was a plump lady of uncertain age but probably (Queenie estimated) in her early fifties. She clearly subscribed to the genteel-but-shabby school of fashion, wearing a battered tweed suit of an indeterminate shade of brown. It was of excellent cut, but looked as though it probably predated the Great War. Frizzy grey hair was escaping from the ruined remains of a bun, which had not entirely survived the removal of her hat.
As she was speaking, Lady Giffnock removed the tartan scarf she was still wearing. The piece of jewellery she revealed contrasted strangely with the rest of her attire, a magnificent brooch pinned just below the collar of her blouse. It was a circular silver filigree setting surrounding a massive brilliant-cut diamond, fully a quarter of an inch across, and encircled by a ring of much smaller red stones, presumably rubies rather than garnets in a setting like that.
The weather outside was grey and threatening, with poor light and occasional flurries of snow obscuring the view. Accordingly, the three travellers settled down to read the various books they had brought with them. Conversation was sparse and consisted of few words. After an hour or so, the companionable silence was interrupted by a smartly uniformed steward offering them coffee, which they gratefully accepted.
Zelda had become bored with her book some time before and had laid it aside. As they drank coffee, she looked at Queenie's book, open on her lap, and tried to read it upside down. "What's that you're reading, Queenie?" she asked, curiosity finally getting the better of her.
Queenie held the book up for Zelda to see the cover. "It's Houdini's new book on rope escape tricks."
"Wizard!" exclaimed Zelda, sounding like a ten-year-old. "Are you going to join the circus or something?" Queenie had clearly leaped up in her estimation.
"Well," Queenie explained, with just a touch of wistfulness, "I once dreamed of going on stage and being an escape artist like Harry Houdini. It all started when I saw him on stage in London in '08, when I was about your age. I thought about calling myself 'Victoria Holkham, Queen of Escapes'."
Zelda was intrigued and sitting on the edge on her seat. "So, do you know how to get out of ropes and things, like in the films?"
"I'm not as good as Houdini," Queenie hedged defensively, "but I sometimes do an act at church bazaars and things like that."
"Can I tie you up and see how you do it?" asked Zelda, all pretence of adult reserve defeated by girlish enthusiasm. "Please?" she pleaded.
Queenie turned to Lady Giffnock, who was quite openly listening to the conversation with amused interest. "Go ahead, if you wish," she said. "It will be better entertainment than this excuse for a novel."
Queenie shrugged her shoulders and spread her hands in resignation. She lifted her carpetbag down from the overhead rack and opened it. She rummaged deep within and withdrew a piece of soft white rope about a yard long. "My practice piece," she explained as she handed it to Zelda.
"I used to be pretty good at tying up my sister when we were little," Zelda commented with relish. "We got into awful trouble when we tied our nanny up though. Can I tie your hands behind your back, please, Queenie?"
Queenie smiled indulgently then stood up and turned her back on Zelda, feet well apart to steady herself in the moving train, and offered her hands behind her back.
Zelda positioned Queenie's hands so that her wrists were crossed then set to work wrapping the rope round her wrists first one way, then the other, then between them. She finished off by pulling the rope tight and tying a firm knot. "There!" she exclaimed with glee. "I bet you can't get out of that!"
Queenie, said nothing, but turned round to face Zelda and, after a moment's concentration, brought her hands round in front of her body, completely free. She handed the rope back to Zelda and retorted, "I bet I can!"
Zelda's astonishment and confusion was wonderful to behold. "But I tied you up really tight!" she protested indignantly.
"So you did," replied Queenie smoothly, "but you tied the knot where I could reach it."
"I'll soon fix that," promised Zelda with a determined edge to her voice.
Queenie once more submitted herself to Zelda's ministrations. The tying followed the same general pattern, but this time was carried out with more care. After about three minutes' painstaking work, Zelda declared herself satisfied.
"Don't turn round this time," Zelda requested. "I want to see how this works."
Zelda sat with all her attention focussed on Queenie's bound wrists in front of her. The hands were moving minutely but with no seeming purpose or pattern. "I can't see anything happening," she complained.
"You will," Queenie reassured her. "Just keep watching."
Queenie continued her series of small twists and turns with her hands. "Now feel the rope," she suggested.
"Gosh!" exclaimed Zelda as she did so. "It's really tight round one wrist and quite slack on the other."
"Almost done," announced Queenie. The movements became much more pronounced and quite suddenly, she worked her left hand free of the binding. She turned round and handed the rope back to Zelda.
"That's brilliant!" cried Zelda. "But your poor wrists are all red and rubbed."
"It's smooth rope, so there aren't any grazes and the marks go soon," Queenie reassured her.
"Well, I hope you're around if I ever get tied up by burglars," Zelda said, thoughtfully. "You'd be free in a moment and surprise them."
"That's right," Queenie agreed, getting into the spirit of the fantasy. "So when the desperate gang of robbers burst in to steal the Countess's brooch and tie us all up, I'll get free and summon the police before they know what's happening!"
Queenie and Zelda laughed out loud at their own imagined adventure then realised that the Countess didn't seem to be sharing the joke. "I'm sorry, your Ladyship," said Queenie, "I didn't mean to distress you."
"No need to apologise," Lady Giffnock assured her. "I know you meant no harm. It just didn't seem quite so hysterically funny to me."
Queenie thanked the Countess, but the fun had gone out of the moment, so she and Zelda sat down soberly and resumed their books.
Queenie consulted her watch as the train drew into Chesterfield station. The train was fifteen minutes late, undoubtedly, Queenie concluded, because of the worsening weather. The snow had become more persistent the further north they had gone. Queenie wiped a small area of window clear of condensation and took stock of the conditions outside. It was snowing hard here and she could see that there was already an accumulation of several inches on the uncovered parts of the platform.
Shortly after the train left Chesterfield, a steward presented himself and politely asked whether anyone in the compartment wished to take lunch and, if so, would they make their way to the dining car. All three ladies confirmed that they would, thank you.
It was chilly in the unheated corridor as they made their way forward to the first class dining car and Lady Giffnock paused to wind her scarf around her neck before leaving the compartment. Two tweed-clad middle-aged women in the next compartment waved to Lady Giffnock as the threesome passed. One of them was peering at a book through thick spectacles, while her companion knitted. They had not gone much further when one of the heavily-veiled Muslim women appeared round the corner at the end of the carriage and bustled towards them. Queenie and her companions paused to make room for her to pass, but she disappeared into a compartment a few yards ahead of them, acknowledging them with a bob of the head and an almost inaudible "Thank you" as she did so. When they passed that compartment, the blinds were drawn on the glass windows separating it from the corridor.
"It must be strange to go around muffled up like that all the time," Zelda mused. "Isn't that what they call 'being in purdah'?"
"The veil is part of it, but purdah is a whole culture and philosophy of separation and seclusion of women in some Middle Eastern countries," Queenie explained as her teacher's instinct to educate and inform took over unbidden.
The dining car was pleasantly warm with enticing aromas of food in the air. The senior steward ushered the ladies to a vacant table, issued them with menus and took an order for aperitifs, while still managing to issue instructions to three of his staff at the same time. His calm efficiency and apparent lack of rush testified to his many years' experience.
Queenie settled herself onto her comfortable dining chair approvingly. Proper loose furniture was so much more amenable to eating than the usual railway seating which invariably placed her too far back from the table and too low for comfort. A chair with arms was an added bonus; she always liked to have somewhere to rest her elbows while she was eating.
In common with many young women her age, Zelda seemed to be permanently hungry and was an enthusiastic eater. She studied the menu with rapt attention, carefully assessing all the alternative combinations of courses possible, while Queenie and Lady Giffnock, who had chosen almost immediately, chatted together quietly.
While she was enjoying a succulently grilled Dover sole, Queenie consulted her watch. From the little that could be seen through the falling snow, they seemed to be in the industrial part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, but there was no sign, as yet, of Leeds, which they should have reached at 1.30.
Zelda was faintly aware that she seemed to be eating about twice as much as either Queenie or Lady Giffnock as they enjoyed their soup and main courses. She tackled the steamed sponge pudding set before her as dessert with gusto as her companions each nibbled a small selection from the cheese board.
Hunger satisfied, the three ladies made their way back to their compartment. As they reached it, the train drew into Leeds Central station, now half an hour late.
Queenie hesitated at the door of the compartment. Lady Giffnock had been immediately behind her but was now talking to the ladies, whom she apparently knew, in the adjacent compartment. The Countess gestured Queenie not to stand waiting for her, so she closed the door behind her to keep the heat in.
Leeds Central station was a terminus, so there were assorted clatters and bangs and the occasional jolt as the engine was uncoupled and a fresh one attached to the opposite end of the train.
The stop at Leeds lasted only a few minutes and the train was on the move again before Lady Giffnock returned to her seat. The three travellers read in companionable silence as the train wound its way up Airedale in the worsening snow.
The train had become slower and slower after the stops at Skipton and Hellifield. There was an unscheduled stop of several minutes at Ribblehead, the isolated station serving a scatter of remote villages high in the Yorkshire Dales. At length the train plodded on slowly, now almost an hour behind schedule.
The wind howled dismally over the train as it crossed the great Ribblehead viaduct. Moments later, the train drew to a complete halt, clearly far from any station or even any habitation.
Queenie cleaned the condensation off a small area of window and peered out. "I can't really see anything," she commented. "I'll try the other side." She put her jacket on then opened the sliding door and went out into the chill of the corridor, closing the door quickly behind her. The windows were less steamed up here but still she could see nothing and it was beginning to get dark. She decided that there was no alternative to opening a window and looking out. She poked her head out into the freezing air and in the fading light she looked along the side of the train towards the engine. The reason for the stop was all too obvious; the train was in a cutting and the track was blocked by snow. It was no more than a few feet deep but sufficient to stop a train.
Queenie ducked back inside, closed the window and returned to her compartment, brushing snow off her hair and shoulders as she did so. She reported what she had seen to Zelda and to Lady Giffnock and they exchanged dismal glances. It would be a very long time before they reached Glasgow.
As the travellers were digesting the news of their delay and awaiting more information from the train crew, the door from the corridor was flung open. The two Muslim women they had seen earlier burst in, one of them brandishing a large and unfriendlylooking revolver. Her companion pulled down the blinds on the windows separating the compartment from the carriage's corridor then the blinds on the other side.
"Please sit perfectly still," the woman with the gun commanded in accented English, "and you will not be hurt." Neither Queenie nor her companions were about to argue with a pistol.
The second woman, having finished with the blinds, advanced on Lady Giffnock and reached for the magnificent brooch at her throat. The Countess flinched but when the woman with the gun reiterated her command to sit still, she froze and allowed the massive jewel to be removed.
"Now," announced the woman with the gun, in her strange, slightly stilted English, "we will have to restrain you. It will probably not be comfortable but I promise that you will be in no danger if you remain in your seats and co-operate fully."
Her companion produced a length of what appeared to be muslin from some recess in her black robes and proceeded to gag Lady Giffnock with it. She forced it between the unfortunate woman's teeth, crossed it behind her head and brought the ends round to the front again. She knotted and double knotted them so the knot formed a fat ball of cloth wedging Lady Giffnock's mouth further open.
There was a brief exchange between the two Muslim women in a language Queenie did not recognise but took to be Arabic or perhaps Persian or Turkish. Nods were exchanged and the woman who had gagged Lady Giffnock resumed her task by gagging Queenie in the same way. As the knot was tightened, Queenie tried to study her captor's face, the little she could see of it, but with the eyes massively magnified by the spectacles and almost everything else hidden, it was unreadable as a complete face.
Queenie tried to look reassuring as Zelda suffered the same fate. Zelda looked more angry than frightened, which, Queenie reflected, could be good or bad depending on whether Zelda could contain her anger.
After another brief incomprehensible exchange between the two black-clad women, the inevitable binding commenced. Queenie's heart fell when she saw that she was to be tied first. She knew that she would have had a better chance if she were able to see one of the others being bound in order to know how to resist her own binding most effectively and maybe to effect an escape later.
The bespectacled woman advanced on Queenie. There was little option but to co-operate and to hope for the best, so Queenie offered no resistance.
The woman grabbed Queenie's right hand and pulled it up across her chest, so that it was resting on her left shoulder. Her other arm was then crossed over it so that her left hand rested on her right shoulder, the forearms crossing just below her chin. The woman repositioned Queenie's hands slightly then produced a length of what looked like sash cord from the depths of the black robes. The cord was looped once round Queenie's wrist and tied it in a firm reef knot at the inside of her wrist. One free end was then taken across the back of her neck and tied round her left wrist in exactly the same way as the right. The rope was not painfully tight but Queenie knew that it would be impossible to slip her hands through the loops.
Queenie was surprised at the pattern that her binding was following. She had experienced nothing like this before and was not at all sure where there might be weaknesses she could exploit, if indeed there were any weaknesses.
The woman checked the knots at Queenie's wrists and nodded in satisfaction. She lifted Queenie's elbows up and knotted the two ends of the rope together at her throat. Panic rose within Queenie as she realised what was happening, but subsided again as she realised that the knot had not been pulled tight against her neck.
Firm pressure of a hand between her shoulder blades encouraged Queenie to lean forward until her elbows were below her knees. The woman then knelt down beside Queenie and led the free ends of the rope below Queenie's legs where she knotted them firmly together. Queenie had little to look at but her captor's hands. She noticed that the black cotton gloves were very slightly too big for their owner's hands and there was a loose thread at one of the fingertips. It was curious, she thought, that they should not be of better quality and closer fit if the woman wore them all the time.
Queenie watched helplessly as first Zelda and then Lady Giffnock were tied up in the same fashion as she had been. Lady Giffnock was not forced to lean quite as far forward, but, Queenie realised, that was probably more due to the limitations of her stays than any merciful intent on the part of their assailants.
Satisfied that their victims were secure, the two Muslim women departed after having locked both the compartment door and the door into the corridor using the curious device that Queenie recognised as one of the special keys used by railway guards.
Now that the immediate threat to her life had passed, Zelda found herself in a curious mixture of alarm and excitement. Being tied up at gunpoint was absolutely the most terrifying thing that she had ever experienced but the aftermath had a curiously unreal quality as if it was somehow separated from normal life. She had often read about situations like this in adventure stories, but never dreamed that anything like this would ever happen to her.
Zelda was not particularly uncomfortable as yet but was aware that the pressure of the rope on the back of her neck and on the backs of her knees could develop into serious pain given time as the ache which had settled in the hinge of her jaw was already beginning to do. She looked round at Queenie, who seemed to be carrying out a careful investigation of her bonds.
Queenie could just make her fingertips meet behind her neck and she could feel the fabric of her gag. However, with the gag knotted at the front, there was no opportunity to untie it. With either hand, she could just touch the knots at her wrists with the tip of one middle finger, but there was no scope for slackening the loops round her wrists. Infuriatingly, if it weren't for her skirt, she would be able to get her legs out of the loop passing under her knees. If she were wearing the tights she wore for practice, she would have been able to force the rope below her knees and then to get her feet out by crossing her ankles and spreading her knees wide.
For a tie-up using a single six-foot length of rope, the arrangement was devastatingly effective. In the absence of any obvious way to free herself, Queenie considered the possibility of freeing Zelda or getting Zelda to free her. After a few moments' thought, an idea dawned. The problem was to communicate it to Zelda.
Queenie flapped her hands until the movement caught Zelda's eye and she paid attention. Speech and any meaningful gestures were out of the question, so Queenie pantomimed what she wanted Zelda to do. She shuffled herself as far forward on the seat as she could and, perched on the edge, swung her knees as far to one side as she could. From there is was relatively easy to roll over to end up lying on her side, facing the back of the seat and with her legs straight and her knees close to the edge.
With some difficulty, Queenie struggled upright again and pointed, as well as she could, at Zelda, sitting opposite her, who nodded. Zelda was both relieved and excited that Queenie seemed to have a plan. On the one hand, the novelty of the experience was rapidly wearing off and the grim reality of being tied up in an awkward position beginning to assert itself, but on the other hand, the prospect of being able to free themselves from the wiles of their captors appealed strongly to that part of her which was still enthralled by the real-life adventure she was in.
It took quite a lot of squirming, but within a minute or so, Zelda had duplicated Queenie's move. Now it was Queenie's turn to make a move. She needed to be on the floor and there was nothing for it but to dig her heels into the carpet and haul herself off the edge of the seat. Her bottom hit the floor with a spine-jarring jolt, but no harm was done. Painstakingly, Queenie shuffled across the floor to get a hand close to the knot under Zelda's knees. She could not quite reach it at first but a firm tug on the loose ends of the rope binding Zelda brought it within her grasp. Queenie's hands were so far round the sides of her neck that she was unable to see what she was doing as she groped with the fingers of one hand to loosen the knot. After several minutes of work and a broken fingernail, the knot finally yielded. Zelda's sigh of relief was audible even through her gag.
Zelda manoeuvred herself back into a sitting position. The tenderness under her knees and the ache in her back told her that it had not been a moment too soon that her legs had been freed.
The next move was obvious and Zelda lifted her elbows as far as they would go in order to give Queenie access to the knot at her throat. Try as she might, Queenie could not get either hand anywhere near the knot; with her body folded forward at the waist, her legs got in the way every time.
Zelda understood what the problem was and frantically tried to signal Queenie to stay still so she could untie her legs. Queenie eventually understood and rolled over on her side on the carpet. Zelda knelt down beside her and, with her forehead and elbows on the floor, found a position where she could release the knot behind Queenie's knees.
Queenie stretched her legs and waited until enough life had returned to them to entrust them with her weight, then resumed her seat. Zelda sat beside her and Queenie again attempted to reach the elusive knot at Zelda's neck. This time she succeeded and Zelda was able to unwind her cramped arms from around her neck.
Without bothering to untie her wrists, Zelda set to work to remove her gag. "That was horrible," she croaked as she dragged it out from between her teeth. She untied the knot at Queenie's throat, before starting to get her own hands free with a combination of fingers and teeth.
As soon as Queenie was free, she and Zelda worked quickly to untie Lady Giffnock, who was looking pale and seemed a little faint. While Queenie offered the Countess a nip of brandy (which she always carried for medicinal purposes), Zelda confirmed that the doors were indeed both locked.
Zelda opened the blinds on the windows and yelled at the top of her voice, banging on the door to the corridor and on the partitions separating the compartment from its neighbours on either side but no-one seemed to have heard.
"Queenie," she said after a moment's thought, "I bet I can get into the next compartment if you help me get out through the window."
Against her instinct to avoid risk, Queenie agreed; she was concerned about Lady Giffnock's condition. Zelda lowered the window in the compartment door and peered out into the darkness and snow. "The hard bit will be getting out through the window," she announced, "after that it's easy."
Queenie helped Zelda get into a position where she was sitting in the window opening, with the upper half of her body outside. With her fingertips, she clutched the narrow wooden rainstrip that ran along the edge of the carriage roof, while Queenie helped her get her feet up and out so that she was kneeling on the narrow ledge of the window opening. With Queenie's arms around her in case she slipped, she was able to get her feet down onto the footboard which ran the length of the carriage below the doors.
Zelda was right, after that it really was easy. She shuffled along the footboard, keeping one hand on the useless door handle to their own compartment until she was able to reach the handle on the door to the adjacent compartment. Hanging onto the grab handle next to the door, she swung the door open, hoisted herself in and closed the door behind her, disappearing from Queenie's view at the window. A moment later, there was the sound of the sliding door to the corridor opening and shutting and Zelda appeared in the corridor outside her own compartment. She pointed forwards along the corridor, indicating to Queenie that she was going to the luggage van, where the guard's compartment was also located.
Zelda hurried along the corridor of the carriage and then the one next to it. As she opened the door in the flexible gangway leading into the luggage van, it was like stepping into an icehouse as most of the side doors were open. The train crew, together with a few passenger volunteers were outside shovelling snow but coming into the van to warm themselves every few minutes. It was not obvious which if any of the men milling around was the Guard, so Zelda adopted the simple approach of yelling at the top of her voice, "Help! I need the Guard!"
There was an immediate hush and a rather harassed-looking man in a snow-covered greatcoat climbed into the van from outside. His irritation at being diverted from line clearing was moderated by Zelda's obvious distress. He followed her as she led the way back to her compartment, trying to follow the complicated tale of a robbery and why they were all locked in and needed his key and why she wasn't locked in any more but now she was locked out.
When they arrived at the locked compartment, the Guard lost no time opening the door with his carriage key. Queenie was ready with a calm, lucid and detailed account of what had happened. The Guard was astonished and rather offended that such a thing should happen on his train. Queenie further suggested that Lady Giffnock might feel better in the dining car with its more comfortable seats and the possibility of some strong reviving tea.
The Guard had recovered his aplomb and went one better than that; he knew where there was a nurse aboard. He instructed the three travelling companions to wait while he organised everything. The Guard disappeared in the direction of the next carriage and a few moments later, a uniformed nurse appeared. She had been travelling with her employer, an elderly and rather ailing gentleman, but he had given her leave to do all that was required to minister to a lady in distress. While the nurse was examining Lady Giffnock, the Guard had gone past the compartment again in the direction of the dining car. After completing her examination, the nurse declared Lady Giffnock to be shocked but otherwise unharmed. She rapidly came to the same conclusion about Queenie and Zelda, the only injuries either of them had suffered being some minor rope burns to their wrists.
Lady Giffnock agreed to Queenie's suggestion that the dining car would be more comfortable and allowed the nurse to accompany her there but firmly told Queenie and Zelda that there was no need for them to fuss over her. Smiling to each other, Queenie and Zelda resumed their seats; the Countess was clearly rapidly returning to her old self.
After a few minutes' quiet contemplative silence, Zelda suddenly exclaimed, "Golly! I wonder what happened to those two who tied us up? I wonder if the Guard went looking for them."
"Surely they must still be on the train," replied Queenie. "They would freeze to death outside. We'd better check with the Guard, all the same."
The Guard had last gone in the direction of the dining car, so they headed that way along the corridor. The two ladies in the next compartment were still reading and knitting, apparently resigned to the train's delay.
Queenie and Zelda were not at all surprised to see that the compartment formerly occupied by the two Muslim women was now empty with its door forlornly standing open.
On reaching the dining car, Queenie and Zelda were astonished to find the two Muslim women were there, each securely tied to a dining chair, with a great deal of rope, and gagged. Lady Giffnock was seated at an adjacent table, a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits at her elbow and looking much better than when they had last seen her.
The Guard was standing in the central aisle of the carriage making notes in a small book. He looked up and saw the astonishment on Queenie's and Zelda's faces. "Her Ladyship insisted that these two should be restrained," he explained, an almost apologetic note in his voice, "and we don't carry anything like handcuffs in the train."
Queenie looked at the two prisoners. They were far more thoroughly restrained than they would have been with handcuffs. Each woman's wrists were lashed down to the arms of her chair. More rope held their forearms down just below the elbow. Their bodies were bound to the backs of their chairs with rope round their waists and chests. Their ankles were bound together and the ends of the rope tied to the front legs of their chairs. Their legs were bound at the knees and, as if the rest was not sufficient, a further coil of rope held each of them down to the seats of their chairs. The women's veils had been removed, but the lower part of their faces were now hidden by dining car serviettes which had been used to gag them.
"Gagged?" asked Queenie, incredulously.
"My request," Lady Giffnock interjected. "They were babbling to each other in that heathen language of theirs. Who knows what they were plotting?"
"Her ladyship was most insistent," the guard explained, "and, as she was the chief victim, I felt it appropriate to comply with her wishes. He seemed slightly embarrassed, but continued, "I take it you confirm that these are the women who attacked you?"
"Well," Queenie hesitated, "they are certainly dressed the same way..."
"Look at the one in glasses," Zelda hissed to Queenie. "They make her eyes look smaller, not bigger. It's not the same woman."
Queenie looked. The face did indeed narrow quite distinctly behind the spectacles. "It's not the same glasses, I grant you," Queenie whispered back, "but it might be the same woman."
Zelda spoke up and declared, "I am not at all sure that these are the people who attacked us."
"Nonsense, girl," Lady Giffnock countered vigorously. "Who else would have tied us up in a heathen fashion like that?"
"I'll take a look in their compartment and see if there are any clues," Zelda whispered to Queenie, well into her own private detective adventure. She left the dining car without another word.
Queenie flinched at Lady Giffnock's overuse of heathen and wondered at the forcefulness of her response to Zelda, but was far from sure either way. It was certainly the simplest explanation that the two Muslim women had staged the robbery. After all, how many veiled Muslim women were there on the train? But why carry out a robbery with no hope of escape when they were so conspicuously dressed? And how had they planned the robbery? To Queenie's knowledge, the only possible time they could have seen Lady Giffnock's brooch had been that glimpse of her when they passed in the corridor. And wouldn't her tartan scarf have hidden it at that moment?
While Queenie was still trying to make sense of the situation, Lady Giffnock's two friends from the adjacent compartment bustled into the dining room.
"Euphemia!" exclaimed the taller of the two women, the one who had been knitting.
"Mabel and I came as soon as we heard what happened," continued her companion, the reader with the thick spectacles.
The second woman was wearing gloves against the increasing chill in the stationary train. And, Queenie noticed, they were fractionally too large and had a loose thread at one fingertip.
Suddenly, most of the mental jigsaw Queenie was trying to put together resolved itself. "No, those two women you have had tied up are not the robbers," she announced to the Guard. "But," she paused dramatically, "these two are." She indicated Lady Giffnock's friends.
Lady Giffnock snorted contemptuously, "Ridiculous! Why, these are two of my oldest friends, Mabel Eglinton and Sadie Pollokshaws. I've known them for years."
Queenie stood her ground. "Nevertheless, I am certain that this woman was the one who tied us up." She indicated Lady Giffnock's spectacle-wearing friend. "I recognise the glasses and the gloves she is wearing."
The Guard was impressed by Queenie's forthrightness and felt inclined to trust her judgement, but everything she was saying went contrary to the Countess's testimony.
"You can search our compartment and our luggage if it makes you any happier," offered the taller of the women, now identified as Mabel Eglinton.
"I think we should do just that," the Guard responded evenly. "Just so we can clear up any misunderstanding.
The Guard led a procession consisting of Miss Eglinton and Miss Pollokshaws followed by Lady Giffnock with Queenie bringing up the rear.
When they reached the compartment, Mabel Eglinton pointed out that the only luggage they had to hand consisted of a small Gladstone bag each, containing their necessities for the journey. Still in high indignation, she suggested that Queenie have a look for herself if she though that there was anything there.
Feeling that the situation was getting out of control, Queenie looked at the Guard who nodded at her. Sure that she would find nothing, Queenie dutifully searched each bag. They contained all sorts of odds and ends but no diamond brooch and no black Muslim robes. Queenie shrugged despairingly.
The silence that followed was deep and uncomfortable. Queenie was at a loss for what to do next when a loud bang resounded round the compartment, apparently coming from the compartment next door, from Queenie's own compartment.
Without another word, Queenie and the Guard moved to the adjacent compartment. Lady Giffnock and her friends followed and stood in the doorway. There was no obvious source of the noise at first, until Queenie spotted some movement on the overhead luggage rack above the seats. She stood on the seat to investigate and, with the Guard's help lifted down what proved to be a well-wrapped human being. To be precise, it was Zelda wrapped up in Queenie's travel blanket.
Zelda gasped for air as Queenie released her. Good use had been made of the discarded bindings from the earlier robbery. Zelda was gagged as before with one of the muslin gags. Her wrists were bound behind her back with another of the lengths of muslin. Her arms had been lashed to her body with one of the six-foot ropes used to tie them. The blanket had been tossed over her head and another six-foot rope tied round her waist to secure it. Her knees were bound with the remaining rope. The last piece of muslin had been used to tie her ankles together. The ends of the muslin had been tied to the back of the rope round Zelda's waist, pulling her feet up behind her. She had managed to work her feet loose of this binding and the bang we had heard was her kicking against the partition wall.
Zelda was dishevelled but grinning and seemed none the worse for her escapade.
"What happened?" asked Queenie, trying to work out how this fitted in with the rest of the puzzle.
"Those two," Zelda replied, pointing out Miss Eglinton and Miss Pollokshaws quite matter-of-factly and fearlessly, "are the real robbers. I recognised that one," she indicated Miss Pollokshaws, "from her spectacles. When I came back to look in the Arab ladies' compartment, there was nothing at all incriminating in their bags or elsewhere in the compartment. While I was looking, I was grabbed from behind and tied up like you found me. It was very quick and I didn't even have a chance to cry out."
"Can you be sure who tied you up?" asked the Guard, searching for hard facts in the confusion.
"Well," replied Zelda with a sly grin, "It can't have been those two women who were already tied up in the dining car. Whoever it was, though, I bit her finger really hard."
"Perhaps you would remove your gloves, Miss Pollokshaws," the Guard invited.
Reluctantly, Miss Pollockshaws drew her gloves off. There was an angry red weal on her right index finger.
"But what about the brooch?" asked the Guard. "And they must have had black clothes like those other women. We searched their luggage and found nothing."
"I think I know where the brooch is," Zelda announced. "The last place anyone would search. I think it's in the Countess's own jacket pocket."
Lady Giffnock went through the motions of searching her pockets and attemped, unsuccessfully, to portray surprise as she found it in her right-hand hip pocket. The Guard held out his hand and she passed it to him, her face stony and unreadable.
"It's a magnificent piece," the Guard said at length, almost reverentially.
"It would be if it was real," Zelda remarked lightly. Queenie and the Guard looked at her in astonishment.
"Look at my tie pin," she continued. "It's a tiny diamond, but it's genuine and it has real fire in its sparkle. A diamond the size of that one in the Countess's brooch should be almost dazzling.
"Why would anyone steal a fake brooch?" wondered the Guard.
"Perhaps," replied Queenie, "it had to be stolen precisely because it was fake."
"These are matters for the police," the Guard concluded. "But my first task is to release the women who were falsely accused."
Back in the dining car, the two Muslim women were quickly freed and their veils restored to them. The Guard offered abject apologies on behalf of the Midland Railway Company and explained the circumstances.
The women, who spoke perfect and almost accentless English, were surprisingly gracious about the whole thing. The Guard, in their view, had acted honourably according to the evidence presented to him. The falseness of that evidence was not his fault.
The Guard was incensed at the way the three real culprits had sought to lay the blame on two innocent travellers and did not hesitate to have them tied up in the way the Countess had insisted on the Muslim women being tied. He appointed a burly dining car steward to act as sergeant-at-arms.
Just as the prisoners were secured, One of the train's ticket inspectors announced to the Guard that the track was now clear enough of snow to proceed and that a pilot engine had arrived from the north and was now coupled in front of the train engine.
Queenie and Zelda left the dining car to return to their own compartment and the last sight they had of Lady Giffnock was of her glaring sullenly at them over the top of a gag.
The subsequent police investigation revealed more twists and turns to the story.
The brooch was indeed a fake. It seems that the dowager Countess had lost the real brooch to her passion for gambling. The brooch was not really hers at all but an heirloom belonging to the family. Sooner or later, therefore, the loss would be discovered, which was the reason she planned to have it stolen. Her co-conspirators, Miss Eglinton and Miss Pollokshaws, were, of course, on the train for the sole purpose of staging the robbery.
The two Muslim women were themselves the victims of a deception. They were both noted Koranic scholars and proponents of the role of women in Islamic society. They had received an invitation to speak to a group of Persian expatriate women in Glasgow. The address with which they had been corresponding was a Post Office box number in Glasgow, which, it transpired, had been set up by Lady Giffnock using a false name. Neither the Persian women nor the address they were supposed to go to in Glasgow had any substance in reality.
The black robes used in the robbery were never found, but Queenie's private theory was that they had been tossed from a train window, probably up onto the roof, where they would not be readily noticed and where they would either be blown away or ripped apart once the train picked up speed.
Lady Giffnock and her companions were released shortly before Christmas the next year, having spent an instructive twelve months becoming highly skilled at sewing mail bags in Holloway women's prison.
When the Thames-Clyde Express finally rolled into St Enoch station, fully three hours late, Miss Griselda Barrington's uncle and aunt were relieved to see their niece at last but startled to discover that a uniformed police inspector was there to meet her as well.
Zelda grinned broadly and blushed to the roots of her hair when a dashingly handsome inspector of the City of Glasgow Constabulary stepped forward to meet her, snapped to attention and delivered a smart but jaunty salute. "Ma colleagues in Yorrkshirre," he began, rolling his Rs impressively, "wished me to convey their verra grreat apprreciation of your efforrts, Miss Barrington. And yours too, Miss Holkham." With that, he saluted again and went on his way. Zelda's uncle and aunt stood in open-mouthed astonishment.
"Merry Christmas, Zelda," said Queenie, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "See you on the train south."
"Merry Christmas to you too, Queenie," Zelda replied. "Perhaps I should practice some escape artistry just in case."
© Copyright Gillian B 2001
The Adventures of Queenie Holkham
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