Queenie all at Sea

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

QUEENIE'S WITS CAME SLOWLY BACK TO HER. She realised that she was lying down and tried to sit up. Fireworks exploded inside her head and a wave of nausea rolled over her. She lay still for a moment and decided to take a more circumspect approach to assessing her situation.

     As she lay, the pain in Queenie's head subsided to an unpleasant throb and she was aware of a tender area, and probably a large bruise, on the back of her head.

     Queenie quickly realised that her arms and legs wouldn't move, suggesting she was bound in some way, which hardly surprised her. A little exploration with the small freedom of movement she had available revealed that she was, in fact, straitjacketed. Her arms were crossed in front of her in the classic position and the lump she was lying on was presumably the buckle linking the sleeves.

     In addition to the straitjacket, Queenie's legs were bound at knees and ankles. From the way the bonds felt, Queenie tentatively concluded they were straps not ropes.

     Queenie discovered she was gagged, which again hardly surprised her. Her mouth was packed with cloth wadding, possibly medical gauze, and her face had been bandaged from below her chin to just under her nose. She was also blindfolded with what felt like a purpose-made padded blindfold. There was some sort of hood on her head too, possibly a padded helmet, such as a lunatic might be forced to wear for self-protection.

     Lastly, Queenie was strapped down at waist level and seemed to be lying on a bed of some kind, or at least a mattress.

     The straitjacket was worthy of more investigation. It seemed to be a conventional women's pattern jacket with a fairly tight waist but no strap between the legs as men's jackets often had. The sleeves had not been drawn particularly tight, Queenie discovered, and there didn't seem to be any of the auxiliary straps securing her arms to the front of the jacket or loops at the sides for the sleeves to pass through.

     Queenie had never personally experienced a straitjacket, but she had seen them and, more importantly, had seen performers escape from them, so she knew how to do it in principle. As far as she could tell, there was no-one watching over her, certainly there had been no audible reaction to her earlier attempt to sit up. She would soon find out when she started her escape attempt, so she might as well start now.

     A properly-fastened straitjacket, as Queenie knew, has the straps passing below the occupant's arms at both sides. (Queenie had seen performers who were fastened into their jackets with the straps much higher up, but she regarded that as cheating.) To get an escape under way, therefore, it is necessary to get one of the straps up over an elbow.

     Queenie quickly worked out that her right arm was fastened over her left, which suited her perfectly as she was quite strongly right-handed. Once she started investigating, Queenie discovered that there was an surprising amount of slack in the sleeves. Not enough to escape easily, but certainly enough to work with. She paused for a moment's thought to plan her attempt and to focus herself for the exertion to come.

     The first priority was to see if any more slack could be found. Queenie tugged as hard as she could with her right arm. This had the effect of pulling the linked sleeves tight across her back and also pulling the left sleeve tight so her left hand was drawn further under her right armpit. After a few moments of this, Queenie judged that she had gained as much slack as was to be found.

     Queenie could still not work her right sleeve up over her left elbow. She needed a little pressure to help. She painstakingly rolled over onto her right side, wriggling to work herself found under the constricting strap pinning her down at the waist. At last her right elbow contacted the mattress. She continued to work her body round, putting more weight on her elbow and so forcing her right arm further across her body.

     At last, Queenie felt the right sleeve of the straitjacket slip up over her left elbow. It was still hard work to ease it further up but she was almost certain of success now, at least for this stage. Several more minutes of exertion passed before Queenie felt the sleeve slacken as it finally rode up over the angle of her shoulder. She permitted herself a moment's breathing time before starting work on the other sleeve. The left sleeve was easier than the right but still hard work and another three minutes passed before it too reached her shoulder.

     Queenie eased herself up into a partial sitting position and disentangled the linked sleeves of the straitjacket from around her neck. With her arms now relatively mobile, she felt the buckle joining the sleeves with her fingers through the fabric of the jacket. It was made of a heavy cotton material and Queenie was thankful that it did not have leather reinforcing to enclose the wearer's hands. It was awkward and frustrating work, but after a few minutes' perseverance, Queenie managed to unfasten the buckle.

     The gag, blindfold and hood were claustrophobic in the extreme and hampered Queenie's escape progress. She tried vainly to remove them but her fingers could gain no purchase working through the layer of canvas enclosing them. She turned her attention instead to the jacket itself. It was fastened at the back. For one awful moment, Queenie feared that it was fastened by lacing and that she would have no chance of further progress but, with relief, her fingers found a buckle at the back of her neck. It was much smaller then the buckle on the sleeves and therefore harder to manipulate, but a few moments' determined effort won through.

     Queenie could tell that there was another buckle about level with her shoulder blades, but it was totally inaccessible with either hand, let alone with both. The only option would be to try to get her arms free with only the freedom of movement permitted by unfastening the buckle at neck level. She grabbed the end of the right sleeve with her left hand and started struggling and hoping for the best. It was very difficult and quite painful at times but Queenie did manage to haul her arm out of the sleeve, ending up with the top part of the opening of the jacket cutting into her armpit.

     The jacket had already rotated around Queenie's body slightly. She pulled it further round until she could just reach the next buckle of the rear fastening with her right hand. With that undone, her left arm came out of its sleeve quite easily.

     Now both hands were free, Queenie lost no time undoing the drawstring on the padded hood, which was knotted under her chin and then removing the blindfold. She unwound the bandage from around her lower face and gratefully spat out the soggy packing from her mouth.

     It was now an easy matter to work the straitjacket round to bring the remaining two buckles in front of Queenie's body and within easy reach. She unfastened them then leaned forward to release the strap over her waist and then the straps fastening her legs at the knees and ankles.

     Queenie studied her surroundings. She was lying on a mattress on wooden board laid on a bare steel floor. It was gloomy and hard to see. She stood up to investigate her location better. It was quite cold where she was and she hugged herself for warmth. She suddenly realised that she no longer had her own clothes on. She was wearing a suit of long underwear, slightly too big for her, a pair of thick sea-boot socks and a seaman's sweater. Queenie mentally filed this information away as just another mystery to solve.

     Queenie discovered that she was locked inside some kind of large cage, apparently one of several. The neighbouring cages contained canvas sacks, so possibly this was where mail in transit to America was stored for the voyage. Her own cage contained several packing cases but was otherwise almost empty.

     On her second tour of her prison, Queenie discovered a second mattress and, just visible in the semi-darkness, another figure bound as she had been. "Hilda?" she asked impulsively. A faint moan was the only answer, but Queenie fancied it was an affirmative moan.

     With feverish haste, Queenie began by unfastening the other prisoner's hood and removing the blindfold and gag. It was indeed Hilda who was revealed, exhausted and frightened.

     "Oh, Hilda!" exclaimed Queenie. "I've been so worried since you disappeared and there's another woman pretending to be you." Queenie explained the rest of what she knew rapidly and not entirely coherently as she unfastened the strap securing her friend at the waist in order to gain better access to the straitjacket.

     Suddenly the room, now revealed as a sizeable mail hold, was flooded with light. Queenie and Hilda could hear footsteps approaching, echoing on the steel deck. "Quiet," hissed Queenie instinctively, dragging her bound friend into hiding behind one of the packing cases. They heard the footsteps break into a run, presumably as Queenie's discarded bonds were spotted by whoever was approaching. There was a rattling sound as the cage door was unlocked and opened.

     Queenie risked a glance over the case hiding her. It was the woman who had been impersonating Hilda and she was alone. Queenie recognised the dress as the one Hilda had worn to dinner the previous evening. Rage filled her at the treatment her friend had suffered and she leaped out of her hiding place. Before either of them really knew what was happening, the false Hilda was lying face down on Queenie's mattress with Queenie sitting on her back painfully twisting her arm.

     Now calmer, Queenie pressed home her advantage. "We can make this easy or hard," she explained levelly. "Easy is you let me tie you up. Hard is I break your arm first." She paused to let the ultimatum sink in and applied a little more pressure to the twisted arm. "Shall we do it the easy way?" The reply was an almost imperceptible nod.

     Losing no time, Queenie crossed the woman's wrists behind her back and bound them securely using the length of bandage which had previously secured her gag. Queenie stuffed the woman's mouth with the packing from her own gag then bound it in place with the bandage which had been around Hilda's face. One of the leather straps served to secure her ankles and Queenie felt that was probably sufficient to keep her under control for the time being.

     Queenie returned to Hilda to finish freeing her when she was interrupted by a male voice behind her. "That's enough, if you please, Miss Holkham."

     Neither Queenie nor Hilda had heard anyone else arrive with the commotion as Queenie had overpowered Hilda's impostor. The man was wearing a Cunard uniform, with three gold rings on each cuff, suggesting that he was one of the more senior officers. In his right hand, he held a large and unfriendly looking revolver, which was pointed squarely at Queenie's heart.

     Queenie was dumbstruck. Her next plan had been to find the purser or one of the other ship's officers. After a moment's reflection, Queenie realised that this was the purser, so her quest would have been in vain, to say the least. In the absence of anything sensible to say, Queenie waited in silence.

     "No-one has had the wit to escape like this before," the purser continued conversationally. "I'm afraid I shall have to apply more stringent measures." He gestured to one of the packing cases with his gun. "Open that crate please."

     Queenie hesitated, then did as she was bid. She could not contain her gasp of astonishment when she lifted the lid. The crate was perhaps two feet wide, thirty inches long and thirty inches high. When the lid was raised, all four sides were released. They were hinged at the bottom and fell to the deck, so they lay radiating out from the rectangular base. The interior proved to be filled with a complex looking arrangement of wooden supports, padded cushions and leather straps. Without being clear how it was intended to be used, it was nevertheless obvious that it had been constructed for the express purpose of transporting a human being, without damage but probably in considerable discomfort. Queenie's heart sank as she realised what her fate would be.

     "You would have gone ashore in one of these anyway," the purser explained, "so a few days beforehand will probably not be pleasant but should cause no permanent injury."

     Still keeping his pistol trained on Queenie, the purser removed most of the fittings from the packing case, which all seemed to be quite well engineered and easy enough for him to manipulate with one hand.

     "Now, Miss Holkham," he ordered, "please kneel down on the base of the crate. I am sure you can see where."

     It was indeed obvious. There was a pair of parallel channels clearly designed to accommodate shins and there was padding to support the knees and ankles. Queenie knelt down and discovered that the ankle supports were raised just enough to allow her feet to fit in without her toes being in contact with the bottom of the box.

     The purser fitted in the next piece of the apparatus. It slotted down over Queenie's ankles, trapping them in padded stocks, and provided a padded seat for her to sit on. A pair of steel dowels secured this component in place.

     The purser now felt it was safe to put his gun down on the deck. Queenie realised that she had no chance of resisting whatever would follow and looked despairingly at Hilda, who was struggling ineffectually with her straitjacket and leg straps.

     Queenie's prison was built up methodically around her. The next part bridged her legs, holding her thighs down. It also provided a padded support for her chest, an alarming leather collar and a support for her forehead. When she obediently leaned forward on it, straps were buckled across her back and behind her neck. The board holding Queenie's thighs down had two heavy leather mittens fastened permanently to it. Queenie slid her hands into them as instructed and the purser fastened the straps around her wrists. Her arms were also secured to the underside of the chest support with straps just above her elbows.

     For the first time since the purser had arrived on the scene, Queenie ventured to speak. "But why are you doing all this?"

     "Profit, pure profit," the purser replied candidly. "You are a little older than most, but fit, quite attractive and you have fire in your belly. My customers like women with spirit."


     "Oh yes, Brazil mainly. A fair, white skin like yours commands a good price there."

     Hilda had made no progress whatsoever on gaining her freedom but while the purser had been gloating over Queenie, she had positioned herself for the best attack she could mount. She rolled onto one side and swung her bound legs as hard as she could so that her heels struck the purser just above his ankles. He toppled helplessly as his feet were swept from under him and fell heavily to the deck. He rolled onto his back just in time to see Hilda's heels descending on his face for a second blow. There was a dull clang as the back of his head hit the deck and an unpleasant crunch as his nose broke. Queenie winced.

     "My God, I've killed him!" Hilda exclaimed with a tremor in her voice.

     "I don't think so," Queenie replied after watching for a few seconds. "He's still breathing, but he'll be out for a while."

     "Not that I care," Hilda declared, nevertheless sounding relieved. "What do we do now? Can you get out of that box?"

     "Not a chance. This thing was designed by professionals. The straps aren't even very tight but the position I'm in means that I can't work anything free."

     "No progress here either," Hilda admitted.

     "And your impostor isn't going to stay tied up forever either," Queenie observed dejectedly. "I think we just have to wait and see what happens."

     Queenie was frustrated in the extreme at her failure to escape when she had a good chance and at how easily she had been recaptured. As she waited helplessly, she watched dispassionately as the woman in Hilda's dress struggled with her impromptu bonds. Queenie could see that she was making some progress and it would only be a matter of time.

     Sure enough, the woman managed to pull a hand free from the bandage tied around her wrists. Without troubling to sit up, she reached up to her face and pulled her gag down, spitting out the gauze packing as she did so. She lay gasping for a moment before sitting up and freeing her ankles.

     Slightly unsteady on her feet, the woman came across to Queenie and to her astonishment started unbuckling the straps securing her.

     "We must hurry," the woman urged breathlessly, "while he's still out cold."

     Queenie was puzzled but didn't argue. As soon as Queenie was free, the woman started unstrapping Hilda from her straitjacket. "Hurry," she said again, apparently to herself.

     Queenie and Hilda exchanged baffled glances. None of this was making any sense at all. "What's going on and whose side are you on anyway?" Queenie asked.

     "We have to hurry while we have the chance," the woman replied, ignoring Queenie's question. "Come on!" There was a note of genuine panic in her voice, so Queenie and Hilda had little choice but to follow.

     The route took them from the mail hold, which was in the fo'c'sle down to one of the accommodation decks. Queenie and Hilda were both still dressed in the odd combination of long underwear, sweaters and sea-boot socks they had been wearing when they were captives. They drew a few quizzical looks, but did their best to ignore them.

     Queenie suddenly realised that they were near her own cabin. A few seconds more and they were outside her door. The woman produced a key and unlocked the door. She stepped inside and then wailed in distress, "Oh no! She's not here!"

     Queenie lost her patience. "Will you please just tell us what's going on?"

     A long tearful explanation followed. It seemed that the purser chose unaccompanied female passengers as kidnap targets on a regular basis. This was easy for him as he had access to all the passenger lists before embarkation. The modus operandi was that the woman and another woman accomplice would be brought aboard inside two of those crates that Queenie had experienced at first hand. That way, they wouldn't be counted amongst the legitimate passengers. During the voyage, they would assist in the kidnap of the victims selected by the purser and take their places, eventually going ashore with their identities. Their captives would go ashore in the awful crates. That way, all passengers would be accounted for, so that it would appear that no-one had gone missing at all during the voyage. Their disappearance would be detected eventually, of course, but would not be traceable back to the Mauretania. As the purser had himself indicated, the kidnap victims would be sold into slavery in South America and would vanish without trace.

     It transpired that the purser's accomplices were not entirely willing helpers. Both had been victims of previous kidnappings and were therefore missing, and possibly presumed dead, as far as their families were concerned. Hilda asked what hold the purser could have over them to make them do such a thing. The woman, quite distraught now, explained that she and the other accomplice were never allowed to be alone together unless they were both tied up or otherwise restrained. Often one or the other was kept bound or locked up as a hostage against the other's continued co-operation. The ultimate threat was that if either of them betrayed the purser, then both of them and the current kidnap victims would be thrown overboard along with all the evidence. Queenie shuddered as she imagined being fastened inside one of those terrible crates as it filled with water and sank.

     "After all," the woman concluded, in tears, "where can you run to on a ship?"

     By then Queenie had dressed herself in a practical sweater and serge skirt and had lent a dress to Hilda. "Where will this other woman be?" Hilda asked, not unkindly.

     "I've been kept in the purser's cabin before now," the woman ventured. "We could try there."

     With renewed hope, the woman led Hilda and Queenie off at a great pace up to the officers' cabins just below the bridge and chartroom.

     The appropriate door was clearly labelled "Purser" but proved to be locked. Queenie produced a small oilcloth packet from her pocket and extracted a strangely shaped piece of metal. "It's a skeleton key," she explained as she inserted it into the lock, "and I've been practising." There was a scratching noise as Queenie explored the interior of the lock, then an almost imperceptible creak as she forced up the spring and a sharp click as the bolt slid back.

     Queenie grinned with pleasure at the open-mouthed astonishment on her companions' faces as she opened the door. They entered boldly but with a degree of caution. Queenie closed the door as silently as she could.

     They were in a small sitting room, very neat and slightly austere. But there was no sign of anyone or anything untoward.

     "Try in there," suggested Hilda's impersonator, indicating a door. The door proved to be locked but soon succumbed to Queenie's skeleton key.

     Queenie gasped as she swung the door open. The room was a compact bedroom, containing the purser's bunk. Beside it stood a chair and tied to the chair and gagged was a young woman wearing a sweater and skirt belonging to Queenie. This was evidently Queenie's impersonator and as had been suggested, she was being held hostage against the false Hilda's co-operation.

     Queenie surveyed the ropework before setting to work to free the woman, who, she noted, was younger than she was and bore no particular resemblance. The woman was sitting on a wooden chair identical to the one in Queenie's cabin. She had her wrists crossed behind the chair-back and firmly tied together and her upper arms tied to the verticals either side of the chair-back. There were ropes around her chest and over her shoulders tying her back to the woodwork and more around her waist and over her lap. Her legs were lashed to the chair legs at the ankles and just below the knees. A thick cloth gag was wedged between the woman's teeth and knotted tightly behind her neck.

     Queenie noticed something odd about the woman's posture that she couldn't at first understand; it was just indefinably odd. Then it came to her that the woman was completely relaxed in her bonds. With a sick feeling in her stomach, Queenie realised that the woman had been tied up so often that she was used to it and had learned how to endure it with the minimum physical distress. Queenie noticed too that the woman was wearing thick socks and gloves, perhaps to protect her skin from the ravages of frequent binding.

     Anger boiled up inside Queenie to see a fellow human being treated so, but she pushed it back down as counterproductive. Anger could come later. Quickly, she freed the woman, who was relieved but very surprised to be released. The woman who had been impersonating Hilda explained the situation quickly.

     Hilda suggested going straight to the bridge to report to the captain. Even if there were other officers in league with the purser, surely all of them couldn't be.

     The captain listened gravely to the information reported to him by the four women sitting in his office. He had already despatched a junior officer to the mail hold and had heard that the purser was alive but barely conscious and had been taken to the sick bay under armed escort.

     Queenie spoke up for the two women who had assisted the purser. She accepted that they had committed serious crimes but pointed out that prolonged fear could make ordinarily brave moral people behave quite differently as the experience of the Great War had proven.

     The captain could understand that as a former serving officer himself as his medal ribbons testified. However, he said that it was not for him to decide but rather a matter for the police in Southampton on their return to Britain.

     The women themselves declared that they would be overjoyed to be held under arrest and even clapped in irons just so long as they were safe from the purser.

     The captain laughed and replied that people hadn't been clapped in irons since the days of sail and that house arrest on board ship would be quite sufficient. He planned to appoint one of the female stewards as sergeant at arms.

     Three thankfully uneventful days passed during which time Queenie and Hilda were inseparable. At last, land came in sight and they were amongst the people on deck as the great ship slipped through the Narrows, the strait between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and into New York harbour.

     The New York skyline was less spectacular than in later years. In lower Manhattan there was little as yet to compete with the slender finger of the Woolworth Building pointing skywards to the future.

     Queenie was excited to see the Statue of Liberty looking just like the pictures she had seen in books, standing proud and tall on Bedloe's Island.

     "But she has her back to the city!" exclaimed Queenie suddenly.

     "No, she has her face to the sea to welcome people seeking liberty," replied Hilda with pride. "There's a poem inscribed on the base. It goes:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

     "The land of the free," Queenie acknowledged.

     "And the home of the brave," Hilda added.

The End

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© Copyright Gillian B 2001

The Adventures of Queenie Holkham

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