Queenie all at Sea

R.M.S. Mauretania, North Atlantic, April 1923

QUEENIE WAS LYING FACE DOWN on a bed. Her upper arms were bound to her sides with six turns of rope encircling her chest just below her bust. Her legs were bound above and below the knees and her ankles lashed together with ropes also passing under the soles of the high-heeled calf-length laced boots she wore. Her legs were bent at the knee approximately at right angles, with more rope linking her ankle binding to the coil of rope round her arms and chest. A loop of rope encircled her waist and passed between her legs, linking back to itself in a parody of a pair of briefs and was then tied to her ankle ropes. Queenie's wrists were encircled behind her back by a pair of Scotland Yard regulation pattern handcuffs. The chain of the cuffs passed under the rope which emerged cheekily from between her legs. A handkerchief was wadded in Queenie's mouth and bound in place with another. Finally, she was blindfolded with a black silk scarf fashioned into a bandage.

     Despite the blindfold, Queenie knew exactly how she was bound because she had tied every knot herself. If one is training to become an escape artist, a prerequisite is an associate to apply the bonds in the first place. Back home in London, this was not a problem. She had found two willing and able assistants. One was the proprietress and coach of the ladies' gymnasium in which Queenie exercised most evenings, who was prepared to devise exercise regimes to suit even quite unusual individual needs. At her strong and capable hands, Queenie had experienced and mastered progressively more demanding escape challenges. Her coach was uncompromising in the way she motivated her pupil to greater efforts. She was prepared to tie Queenie up any time any evening but would release her only at eight o'clock in the morning. To her credit, Queenie had only endured the helpless and ignominious wait for dawn three times, twice lying on a gymnasium mat and once bound to a chair. On the first occasion, Queenie discovered that attempting to plead to her captor's better nature simply earned her a gag.

     Queenie's other helper was a cheerful and engaging middle-aged Irishwoman who earned her living by running a successful brothel. Several of her regular clients were notable members of the establishment, which probably explained the apparent invisibility of her premises to the Metropolitan Police. Queenie had met Mrs Rafferty once by chance at a music hall, where they were comparing notes on an escape artist who had featured on the evening's bill. Mrs Rafferty turned out to be something of a connoisseur of the art of restraint herself and offered it as one of the delights available at her establishment. Queenie became an occasional visitor, often taking tea with Mrs Rafferty in her private sitting room, while her team of professional girls plied their trade in the rooms above. Queenie rather enjoyed the private frisson of her friend's notoriety. At Mrs Rafferty's skilled and nimble hands, Queenie experienced a variety of interesting ties, designed mainly for the enjoyment of the person restrained than for security, but offering a range of novel positions and ropework. In return, Queenie suggested improvements which would make the predicaments that much harder to escape.

     For now, however, far from home, Queenie was thrown back on her own resources and had to do her own tying. The bed on which she lay was within the snug confines of an inside cabin on the great Cunard liner Mauretania. A few months before, Queenie had inherited a surprisingly large sum of money from a favourite aunt. Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try her luck at setting herself up as a stage performer. For several years, she had dreamed of being an escape artist, billing herself as Victoria Holkham, Queen of Escapes. She handed in her notice as a primary school teacher and laid careful plans through the remainder of her final term. She calculated that she could live easily and comfortably on her inheritance for at least ten years. Her plan, however, was to gain experience and then launch herself in a new career. If she lived frugally, she would have sufficient capital to spend five years travelling extensively and meet and study other performers and to unveil an act, then develop it to the point where it supported her financially. After a tour of British music halls, she was now setting out on a voyage to New York with a single main goal in mind, to meet Harry Houdini and to gain from watching his act and from any advice he might be prepared to pass on. To be sure, there were other performers to see, but Houdini was the one with the power to draw her all the way across the Atlantic.

     Queenie had regained her breath after the effort of tying herself up and was ready to begin her escape. She felt around for the stopwatch lying beside her on the bed and clicked it to begin timing herself. She had already planned the escape method, which would be demanding but, she calculated, within her capabilities. She giggled softly to herself through her gag at the thought that some day, she would get stuck. Summoning help would be no problem as there was a button by the door to call a steward, but she would have a hard time explaining how she came to be helplessly bound and so bizarrely dressed. Queenie's usual practice costume was a pair of the black alpaca knickerbockers, commonly worn by ladies exercising in gymnasiums, a black sweater of the same material and a pair of fine black wool stockings. The usual costume proved too hot for the over-warm atmosphere in her cabin, so today she wore a one-piece blue swimming costume, a pair of thick black stockings and her boots. She planned eventually to put together a more glamorous stage costume; the boots were the first move in that direction, but were important because they set the pattern for her ankle binding.

     Queenie kicked her bound ankles towards her bottom, feeling the ropes around her legs bite into the flesh slightly as her muscles flexed. After two kicks, she was able to grab the rope linking her ankles and chest ropes. She hauled on it with one hand to get her ankles within reach. The rope between her legs made its presence felt as she deftly untied the knots with the fingertips of one hand. She grunted into the handkerchief filling her mouth as she did so. This was the main purpose of the gag, to muffle any strange sound that might be heard emanating from her cabin. Once Queenie's ankles were untied, she could straighten her legs and loosen the intrusive rope wedged tightly against her crotch.

     The next stage was the one with the greatest risk of failure. She rolled over onto her back and curled her spine with her legs folded so that her knees almost touched her face. Painstakingly, with many more muffled grunts and mumbles, she worked the chain of her handcuffs over the curve of her buttocks. Her upper arms were still lashed to her sides, and there was no chance of working those ropes up over her bosom, so her ability to get her hands over her bottom was severely limited. Suddenly her wrists slid easily and came to a stop just behind her knees.

     Had it not been for her bound arms, Queenie could simply have slid her hands all the way to her feet and brought them in front of her that way. As it was, she had another strenuous and painstaking manoeuvre to do. She rotated her hips to bring her feet down and the lower parts of her legs as nearly horizontal as possible. It took considerable squirming with all the breath squeezed out of her lungs by the position, to get her knees through the loop formed by her handcuffed wrists.

     Queenie lay and gasped for a few moments before beginning the final stage. She brought her cuffed hands up to her face, pulled down the gag and extracted the soggy handkerchief from her mouth. Also in her mouth, secreted between gum and lower lip was a handcuff key. She used it to free her wrists, pausing only for a second to rub them. All was straightforward now as Queenie untied her chest and then leg ropes. Perversely, she left the blindfold until last.

     The stopwatch showed just over three minutes. Not outstanding but creditable.

     It was now mid-morning on the second day out from Southampton and Queenie moved on to the more conventional second stage of her morning exercise. Swiftly she dressed herself for her mile of deck running. The black alpaca knickerbockers which were too warm for the cabin were perfect for outdoors. She teamed them with black knee length wool socks and her rubber-soled canvas plimsoles. She wore a warm spencer topped off with a thick sweater in a jaunty royal blue. She took her hat and gloves with her to put on in the cool air outside.

     Back in London, Queenie had been surprised at how far north the ship would sail as it crossed the Atlantic. Naively, she had thought in terms of a straight line drawn on the Mercator world map in her old classroom. Another teacher had demonstrated by stretching a piece of string over a globe of the world from New York to Southampton. Queenie was astonished to see that it had to be pushed south of Land's End and even so, still went a long way north in mid-Atlantic.

     Outside, a blast of cold air hit Queenie, a combination of the wild Atlantic wind and the 22 knots of the ship's progress. It was far colder than it had been yesterday, when she had seen the Scilly Isles and the Bishop Rock lighthouse slip over the horizon behind them. Queenie pulled her blue woollen tam o'shanter firmly down on her head and tucked as much stray hair into it as she could. Her fingers were grateful for the warmth when she slipped her hands into her gloves.

     Just as Queenie was about to start her run, a voice hailed her, "Wait, we can run together!" Startled, she turned. Another woman jogged up to her and then stopped. The newcomer was American or Canadian from her accent. "Excuse the rig," she continued, a laugh in her voice, "but it's a bit colder than California." She gestured to her running outfit, which Queenie had to admit was unusual. The woman was wearing a seaman's navy blue sweater which was much too big for her. It reached down almost to her knees and hid her hands completely, which appeared to be clutching the turned-in ends of the sleeves for warmth. The huge sweater was gathered in at the waist with a bright red woollen scarf worn as a sash or belt. The visible part of her legs were encased in red and white striped socks which would not have been out of place on a footballer. To complete her defences, the woman's face was hidden by a red watch cap and matching scarf, leaving only her large brown eyes visible.

     Queenie was glad of a companion and together the puffed their way round the deck clocking up a quarter of a mile every circuit. After a mile and a half, more for her companion, Queenie was ready to stop. They made their way to the second class observation lounge with views out across the featureless grey ocean. Before lunch time, shipboard custom seemed to allow for unconventional costume amongst those engaged in exercise on board, so the two women did not feel out of place as they collapsed in comfortable rattan chairs and ordered a tray of coffee. Queenie's companion introduced herself as Hilda Thornfalcon as she peeled of her layers of insulation to reveal a small neat face framed by straight dark brown hair cut in the rather severe bob in vogue at the time. Queenie judged Hilda to be a little younger than her, perhaps in her late twenties. It turned out that they had teaching in common. Hilda was a high-school teacher on a year's sabbatical and was just returning from a trip to Europe to visit some of the major art galleries. The women got on famously together from the start and agreed to meet again for lunch.

     In the restaurant, Hilda's attire was altogether more conventional. Queenie recognised the signs of someone like herself who could recognise good quality but not always afford it. Nevertheless, she wore a woollen sweater over a cotton blouse with panache as if it were cashmere and silk. Queenie found the heating on the ship more than adequate in contrast to her own rather chilly flat and was perfectly comfortable in a thin cardigan over a light short-sleeved sweater.

     Conversation roamed over many subjects as they ate. Their tastes in books and theatre were close enough for common points of interest but distinct enough for lively discussion. Well satisfied gastronomically and conversationally, they retired to a lounge for coffee.

     The lounge was warm and smoky so Queenie shed her cardigan as she settled into an oversized leather armchair and took up her cup. Hilda looked at her quizzically, "Whatever did you do to your wrists? You look like you've been handcuffed."

     Queenie choked and spluttered as a mouthful of coffee collided with a gasp of surprise. Hilda spread her hands in apology, "I'm real sorry, Queenie. I didn't mean to alarm you."

     Queenie examined her wrists and, sure enough, a bruise was appearing on each one from her previous exertions. She slipped her cardigan back on to hide the evidence, all the while trying to think of a plausible explanation. In the end, she decided that the truth was the best policy. She told Hilda how she had seen Houdini on stage in London in 1908 and how she had a secret ambition since then to be an escape artist like him and to have her own show. She explained that her inheritance had made it all possible and told Hilda of her plan to establish herself as a performer.

     "And I thought I was pretty bold just going to Europe," Hilda replied fascinated.

     Queenie went on to explain that, although she was working on her strength and fitness and getting lots of practice, it was all theoretical work and she lacked experience in running an actual show, hence her mission to see Houdini.

     "I think that's really great," replied Hilda. "I really hope it all works out."

     Hilda was quiet for a moment, clearly following through the implications of what Queenie had told her. "But, say," she exclaimed suddenly, "how do you practice when you're on your own?"

     Queenie mimed putting on a pair of handcuffs.

     Hilda's mouth opened in astonishment. "You tie yourself up and then you escape? That's really incredible."

     There was another pause for thought, then Hilda continued, "Say, if you need anybody to truss you up, I'd be happy to oblige. I'm no girl scout, but I'm sure I could tie a few knots."

     Queenie sat forward in her seat, her eyes bright, and replied with surprising intensity, "Would you? It would be a real help."

     Hilda laughed. "Well, I sort of meant that as a joke, but if it would really help you, well I guess it would be an honour to oblige."

     Half an hour later, on the principle that there was no time like the present, Queenie and Hilda were ensconced in Queenie's cabin. They had ordered a tray of tea so Hilda could have refreshments while Queenie was practising.

     Queenie was once again dressed for action, in a clean swimming costume and stockings as before, but had left off the boots and had added a rather battered pair of elbow-length silk gloves, which she explained were to avert further bruising to her wrists.

     Hilda was astonished at the sheer quantity of rope, not to mention handcuffs and leather straps, in Queenie's cabin trunk. Queenie sat in the hard wooden chair at the dressing table in her cabin and, under her expert guidance, Hilda began to bind her to it.

     First, Queenie's body was tied back to the chair, with rope round her chest and waist and over both her shoulders. Queenie tested the security of her binding several times and had Hilda tighten the ropes until she was satisfied. Hilda was worried at just how tight the ropes were, but Queenie reassured her that they had to be tight otherwise the escape would be trivially easy.

     Hilda was beginning to get into the swing of the process when she tied Queenie's legs. She bound each ankle to one of the front legs of the chair, winding the rope round several times and then putting a few turns round at right angles to cinch the rope tight. She bound Queenie's legs back to the tops of the chair legs with the ropes passing just below her knees. Another half dozen coils of rope held Queenie down to the chair seat.

     Queenie had deliberately left her arms until last, so that Hilda would get a good feel for the ropes before tackling the most critical part of the process.

     "Now," explained Queenie, this is an experiment, and there is no guarantee I will get out, but I would like to try." She went on to describe how Hilda should place her arms and where the ropes should go.

     Hilda obediently arranged Queenie's arms behind the narrow chair-back, so the forearms were in contact and parallel to the floor. Tying now with confidence, she looped rope round each wrist and the adjacent elbow, cinching it off to pull the binding tight. A coil of rope secured each of Queenie's upper arms to the wooden verticals forming the sides of the chair-back.

     "I don't see how you could possibly get out of that!" exclaimed Hilda, stepping back to admire her handiwork in all its glory.

     "Maybe I can't," replied Queenie with a grin. "I'll give it a try anyway."

     Nothing seemed to be happening for a long time. Queenie was moving continually, making small, apparently random movements. Hilda was, however, not bored waiting. She was enjoying her tea and browsing through Queenie's books on magic and escape artistry which were proving to be fascinating reading.

     Quite suddenly, Queenie's concentrated frown gave way to a childish grin. Hilda's jaw dropped as she saw that the ropes on Queenie's arms were visibly quite slack now and surely it was only a matter of time before she was free.

     "It's all a matter of finding and using the slack," Queenie commented. "And, of course, once you have one hand out, then the rest generally follows," she added as she pulled her right hand free of the rope encircling it.

     Hilda continued to watch in fascinated silence as Queenie methodically freed herself from the remaining ropes.

     "So, the key to making it hard must be to make sure that the victim's hands are secure and to make sure that, even if she gets a hand free, the knots are hard to reach," Hilda ventured.

     "That's right," Queenie confirmed. "Are you thinking of tying someone up?"

     "No," replied Hilda with a smile, "just reviewing my lesson like a good student."

     "I could set up a school," mused Queenie. "I wonder if I would get more pupils for a tying up course or an escaping course?"

     "It could be a course in etiquette," Hilda suggested. "'Manners for Burglary Victims' teaching the correct and decorous way for a lady to sit while being bound and gagged."

     Hilda posed on the chair, her wrists behind her back and feet together with her chin tilted up coquettishly.

     Queenie, fully dressed again, examined the pose critically then knelt down and adjusted Hilda's feet. "Ankles crossed for modesty, I think. Besides, it's much more comfortable that way."

     Standing again, Queenie examined the rest of Hilda's pose. "Arms behind the chair-back, please. You won't get cramp that way and with your back straight, it shows off the bust so much more flatteringly." Hilda adjusted her posture accordingly.

     "Bottom back in the chair, Hilda," Queenie ordered, "it looks slovenly otherwise and we don't want any slack ropes." Hilda shuffled back, barely suppressing her laughter.

     "And don't forget," Queenie concluded, "no matter how long you have to wait for rescue, always keep your head erect, otherwise your back and shoulders will droop and look terribly unladylike."

     Hilda squared her shoulders and stretched her neck even further. "Well, aren't you going to tie me up then?" she asked. "Here I am like a movie serial heroine resigned to my fate. I don't expect to be able to escape, but it's only fair you get your own back on me. Anyway, it looks kinda fun!"

     "Well, don't complain if you don't like it," Queenie replied as she selected a piece of rope.

     Queenie started by arranging Hilda's wrists so they were crossed slightly above the actual joint. She then bound them firmly, winding the rope both horizontally and vertically across the X formed by Hilda's forearms with the rope bearing on her sweater and blouse rather than her skin.

     "This stage gets a bit intimate," commented Queenie as she fastened a doubled length of rope to the chair-back and then wound it twice round Hilda just below her bust, snugly enclosing her body, her upper arms and the woodwork of the chair. Queenie deftly secured the rope to the knot she had already tied and put another two turns around Hilda, this time above her bust line.

     Hilda looked down wide-eyed at the exaggerated curve of her bosom between the coils of rope. "Well, I guess it's one way of showing them off," she remarked with a grin.

     Hilda tried a little experimental struggling and was surprised how securely her bonds held her. "I think you've got me," she declared with an air of mock resignation.

     "I haven't finished yet," Queenie replied with a slightly sinister smile.

     Hilda was astonished at the speed and dexterity with which Queenie manipulated the ropes. Four turns of rope encircled her waist and held her back immovably in the chair. Hilda could feel some more tying going on behind her back, but it was only when she tried struggling again that she realised that the ropes securing her wrists were now attached to the rope round her middle and that she could now move nothing above waist level except for her head and fingers.

     "Pretty good so far," Queenie declared, surveying her work, "but I'd better get your feet under control so you don't go shuffling the chair around and getting into mischief."

     Queenie adjusted the position of Hilda's legs so her knees were together and her ankles demurely crossed. Hilda craned forward to see what was happening as Queenie expertly wound rope round and between her ankles, locking them firmly together. Queenie fastened off the ends of the ropes to the front legs of the chair, so Hilda's feet were immobilised between them.

     Hilda swivelled her knees left and right in a futile effort to see what Queenie had done to her ankles. "That comes next," Queenie assured her as she selected a final length of rope. Queenie lifted Hilda's feet as far off the floor as the ropes would allow then, after tidying her skirt, lashed Hilda's legs tightly together just above the knees. She allowed Hilda to put her feet on the floor again and secured the ends of the rope binding her knees to the tops of the chair legs.

     "All done," Queenie announced, a note of pride in her voice.

     "Amazing," mused Hilda, testing her bonds as far as they would permit. "The last time I was tied up was playing cowboys and Indians as a kid and it was a struggle to stop the ropes falling off me."

     "We played games like that too," Queenie replied, "but nobody got away when I did the tying!"

     "I'll bet they didn't," laughed Hilda. "And you could really get out of a set-up like this?"

     "Probably, with a bit of effort," confirmed Queenie, who was now investigating the teapot. "This is cold," she complained. "I can't very well call the steward with you all tied up like that, so I better go and ask for some fresh at the galley."

     "You're not going to leave me like this are you?" asked Hilda with a tremor in her voice, her eyebrows raised in mock fear.

     "I won't be long," Queenie reassured her. "All the same, I'd better make sure no-one hears you," she added theatrically with her eyes narrowed threateningly.

     Queenie fetched a large white cotton handkerchief from the top drawer of her dressing table, folded it into a band and then advanced menacingly on Hilda with it. Hilda feigned abject terror but co-operated completely as Queenie worked the fabric between her teeth and then knotted the ends behind her head.

     Taking up the tea tray, Queenie bade farewell to Hilda, who replied with an incoherent mumble.

     On her return with a fresh tray of tea, Queenie found Hilda exactly as she had left her. Setting the tray down, she removed Hilda's gag.

     "Well, Queenie," Hilda declared after working her jaw for a moment, "it's fun to try but I wouldn't like to make a career of this myself; teaching is quite tough enough. Will you untie me now, if I promise to be a good girl?"

     Queenie laughed and set to work releasing her friend.

     Queenie and Hilda's conversation over tea had turned to the detailed comparison of schools and classes that teachers invariably delight in and which prove so tedious to outsiders. They broke to change for dinner and continued their discussion into the evening. The two friends agreed to meet again for another run around the deck before breakfast the next day.

     Queenie savoured the chilly morning air as she pulled on her hat and gloves and then jogged on the spot to keep warm while she waited for Hilda at their agreed spot under the port bridge wing. Queenie was surprised to see Hilda approaching from astern, bundled up to the eyes as she had been the previous day and already running. She must have been ready well before their intended rendezvous and decided to do a lap on her own.

     Queenie continued to jog on the spot as her friend approached but was astonished when Hilda ran right past without a word or a glance. Queenie was too astonished to react and just stood still watching her run towards the bows and then turn right, disappearing out of sight as she crossed to the starboard side.

     There was no sensible reason that Queenie could think of for Hilda's behaviour. There was no chance of catching up so, after a moment's thought, she decided to run in the opposite direction, with the intention of meeting Hilda somewhere near the aft end of the circuit.

     Sure enough, as Queenie rounded the corner at the aft end of the superstructure, she saw Hilda coming towards her. Queenie stopped and hailed her, "Excuse me!"

     Hilda stopped too and replied with a puzzled sounding "Yes?"

     As at their first meeting there was nothing visible of Hilda apart from a pair of blue eyes. Queenie hesitated; weren't Hilda's eyes brown? Surely this must be Hilda; surely there couldn't be two women dressed in this same eccentric fashion on the ship. "Hilda Thornfalcon?" Queenie ventured hesitantly.

     "Yes, I am she," came the reply. "I am sorry but I cannot place you."

     The accent was American but not remotely like Hilda's Californian drawl. Queenie was very confused and just muttered, "Sorry, my mistake." in reply.

     Queenie abandoned her exercise and returned to her cabin. She changed slowly, completely baffled by the turn of events. She went up to breakfast, not remotely hungry but hopeful that she might see Hilda, there. Her Hilda.

     Queenie nibbled half-heartedly at her breakfast and surveyed the other diners. A few had hairstyles like Hilda's but none of them were Hilda.

     Queenie reached into her bag for a pencil to sign the bill for breakfast and found a scrap of paper with a note she had made of Hilda's cabin number the previous day. She decided to pay a visit to sort out the confusion.

     It took a while to identify Hilda's cabin in the maze of corridors on the accommodation decks. With her heart quaking despite herself, Queenie knocked at the door.

     After a pause, the cabin door opened. "Yes?" enquired the woman who answered the door. "Oh, it's you," she continued, with a polite smile.

     Queenie recognised the voice as the one she had heard earlier, yet this was Hilda's cabin and the woman, who had earlier claimed to be Hilda, was wearing the same sweater and skirt that she has seen Hilda wearing the previous day. The woman was about Hilda's height but quite unlike her in appearance.

     "I was looking for a friend," Queenie explained lamely, "but I seem to have come to the wrong cabin. Sorry to have disturbed you."

     Queenie walked slowly back to her own cabin, deep in thought. She could make no sense of it at all. The thought of telling one of the ship's officers, perhaps the purser, but what could she tell him? There was an American woman claiming to be Hilda Thornfalcon in a cabin presumably booked in that name and that was unlikely to impress anyone as an argument.

     What if the woman she met yesterday was the impostor (surely one of them must be) and was usurping the name of another passenger? No, that didn't make sense either and didn't explain the clothes or the personal habits like running.

     Perhaps "Hilda Thornfalcon" was a convenient fiction allowing two women to share one identity so that one of them could gain a possibly illicit entry to the United States. No, that was absurd; even if it were true, no-one in a position like that would have risked the exposure that "her" Hilda had done yesterday.

     Queenie decided that her abandoned run would perhaps clear her head, so she put her exercise clothes on again and made her way back up to the deck.

     There was a penetrating wind blowing and a fine drizzle falling when she ventured outside, so the decks were almost empty except for a few hardy souls braving the elements. Queenie bowed her head and hunched her shoulders as she ran. The rhythm of her feet pounding on the deck allowed her thoughts to cease their endless confused whirling and to focus on nothing more than running.

     On her second circuit, as she crossed the width of the ship in front of the superstructure with her eyes almost closed against the icy rain, Queenie was seized by at least four hands. A blanket was thrown over her head and secured by a rope wound around her. Her yells were muffled by the folds of the blanket and would be unlikely to have been heard over the sound of the wind in any case. A hand felt for Queenie's mouth and a finger pushed a fold of blanket into it. Queenie bit down hard, there was an angry curse then a tremendous blow struck the back of Queenie's head and she slipped helplessly into unconsciousness.

Part 2

© Copyright Gillian B 2001

The Adventures of Queenie Holkham

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