The essence of my plan had been sound. Gambling on the principle that there is no honour amongst thieves, I had led Professor Chance to believe that May Dixon had betrayed his trust, anticipating that he would then turn evidence against her. The truth vis-a-vis Lady Duff-Gordon’s diamond ring and Armand Cherpillod’s innocence would surely emerge thereafter.
Admittedly, I came rather closer to being tossed off a sixth-story balcony than I’d have liked, but once they were both in police custody, Chance and May Dixon did, indeed, turn against each other. Unsuspecting of my lip-reading talents, neither could account for my foreknowledge of their burglary other than by secret collusion.
Mr. Cherpillod was released from Wandsworth in due course, and shortly thereafter I was pleased to accept Persephone’s invitation to a soirée in his honour, held at the Bartitsu Club.
When we were introduced he kissed my hand in gratitude, then blushed like a school-girl; the champion Swiss wrestler was, indeed, that rare bird that Persi and her uncle Edward had described, a genuinely humble athlete.
There followed an evening of the most stimulating conversation – one highlight being a hilarious account by William Grenfell, the Baron Desborough, of his adventure swimming the rapids at Niagara Falls – leavened by a lively bout at the rapier and dagger performed by Captain Hutton, the Club’s fencing master, and his pupil, Esme Beringer. Later on, Toupie Lowther favoured us with stirring solo performance of See, the Conq’ring Hero Comes, in Armand’s honour; she possessed a very fine singing voice and evidently also a fine wardrobe of gentleman’s attire.
By eleven o’clock the soirée was winding down and I was just making the rounds of fond farewells when Persephone asked, sotto voce, if I might tarry a while longer. She led me to the back of the hall, then through a doorway, up a short flight of stairs and into a corridor upon whose dark, oak-panelled walls were hung numerous small framed photographs of men and women posing in attitudes of defence. Persephone paused before one of these – it appeared to be a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt posing with Persi’s Uncle Edward, both of them clad in jiu-jitsu garb – and, reaching out with her right hand, gave the frame a quarter-turn to the left. I heard a quiet click and the oak panel swung open.
Following Persi through the secret door, I found myself standing on the sturdy grille of a fire escape platform, overlooking the shadowy gardens of St. Anne’s Church and convent next door.
“So, Judith,” she began, “what do you think of my uncle’s Club?”
“There’s an air of benevolent mystery about it,” I observed, as Persi busied herself fitting a cigarette into an ivory holder. “This evening I’ve met aristocrats, politicians from both sides of the House, actors, soldiers, suffragettes, big-game hunters, artists – it’s a melting pot, which suits me well.” Just then a flash of movement across the shadowy lawn below caught my eye, and as I peered down into the gloom I saw a pair of foxes racing.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” she said, and she handed me a small card – a Bartitsu Club membership card, in fact, with my own name embossed upon it in silver script.
“Uncle Edward hopes that you will accept this as a token of our thanks,” she beamed. “It’s a lifetime membership. We know that you never accept payment for your ‘little services’, but surely a thorough knowledge of Bartitsu will stand you in good stead …”
Indeed so, as it transpired; but those are other stories.
And so it was that I found myself, very late indeed the next evening, awaiting a jewel thief in the darkened but opulent Room 613 at the Charing Cross Hotel. The rightful occupant of that room, an Italian heiress whose name I should not care to mention, was currently enjoying the Lake District.
I had been sitting a long time and, I confess, struggling to remain awake despite the urgency of the situation, when I first heard a soft clicking suggestive of a skilled lockpicker in action. However, the sound came not from the door out to the corridor, but rather from the glass door leading out onto the small balcony, six stories over Charing Cross Lane. As the thief silently swung the door open and pushed aside the heavy drapes, I was not the slightest bit surprised to recognise John Chance’s silhouette against the starry sky – for of course, as an escapologist, he was well-versed in both scaling buildings and picking locks.
“That’s quite far enough, Mr. Chance!” I said as he stepped into the room. He started, instinctively dropping into his wrestler’s crouch, hands darting up as if to ward off a blow – but I had absolutely no intention of coming to grips with him.
“Who the devil …?” he whispered hoarsely, but then his eyes found me in the gloom. “Why, it’s you – the Oriental girl from the Club! What’s your game, then, eh? What do you mean by this?”
He advanced across the room towards me and I circled away, keeping the heavy table between us.
“You’ll stop right there, Mr. Chance, if you know what’s good for you. I’ve no doubt that you’re quick on your feet, but not so quick as I might pull this trigger. Do keep your hands raised, now.”
At that, he stopped dead in his tracks, palms up, with his back to the door leading out to the corridor. Even in the dim light, I could see his eyes widen as he registered the neat Dreyse pistol in my right hand.
“What’s your game?” he asked again.
“It’s simply this,” I said. “I am Judith Lee and your accomplice, May Dixon, has confessed to me her part in the theft of a certain diamond ring belonging to Lady Duff-Gordon. She has also implicated you in that theft.”
“No, May would never …” Chance began.
“Do you need proof of her betrayal? Then ask yourself, how else could I possibly have known to be waiting for you here?”
Chance scowled in bewilderment, and I continued. “She told me all about this evening’s spree. ‘Not just diamonds’, eh? Well, not even diamonds is more to the point. Now, you keep your hands up and my colleagues shall be here presently …”
I withdrew my brass whistle. Just then his expression turned to one of sly satisfaction and I felt a sudden premonition of danger, but too late; a powerful arm entwined both of mine in a cruel wrestling grip from behind, striking the pistol from my grasp, and a meaty hand clamped over my mouth, muffling my cry of alarm.
“All right, then, there’s no use struggling now. Just you keep quiet and still, like a good girl. If you don’t, I swear I’ll make you very sorry.”
A woman’s voice, low and soft … although I had never heard her speak, I knew at once that my captor could only be May Dixon!
“Nicely done,” Chance whispered, as he snatched up the pistol from where it had fallen and leveled it at me. “Now, Miss Whatever-your-name-is, don’t you feel a fool?”
In fact, I was indeed just then cursing myself for blithely assuming that the burglar would be alone.
“Speak softly, now,” May hissed into my ear, as she lifted her hand a short distance from my mouth. “How did you know to be here?”
“It’s as I said, as well you know, you …” but she muffled me again.
“She’s lying through her pretty teeth, John,” May Dixon whispered. “I don’t know how she’s here, but here she is.”
Chance scowled suspiciously, then shook his head as if to clear it of an unwelcome thought.
“Well then, May, whatever shall we do with this little snoop?” he sneered.
“Only one thing to do, I should say,” she replied quietly. “She knows our faces, John; she knows a damned sight too much to be allowed to tell.”
“Hmm. A tragic accident, then. We’ll be over the roofs and far away, and then this haul will set us up for life, far from merry old England.”
“You won’t be the first young lady to fall to her death,” murmured May. At this, I was lifted bodily off my feet and swung about, as May Dixon carried me back towards the terrace door. I strained against her grip and kicked and scratched as well as I could, but I had precious little leverage and she held firm. The narrow rectangle of starry sky grew larger and larger …
“Wait!” Chance whispered. I was swung around again and saw him stuff the pistol into his belt, then open the liquor cabinet and uncork a bottle of wine. “Ease up a moment, May. We’ll douse her hair and clothes; from the smell when they find her, the rozzers will think her just a drunken sot who took a tumble.” He winked at me. “We’ll even send the bottle down with you, to complete the trick.”
The villain splashed me with wine and then nodded to his accomplice, who again lifted me up and started to carry me towards the balcony. By now I was quite faint from lack of breath, nerves and wine fumes, and I felt myself slipping into a dreamlike state; the room seemed to ripple with a swirling kind of purple fog and my muscles, exhausted from the struggle, went suddenly slack. In the instant that I became a dead weight, my neck seemed to arch bonelessly, my left arm slipped free of May Dixon’s grip and I slid down to the floor.
“Ah, she’s out,” I heard Chance murmur, but I wasn’t – not quite. I drew in a great, invigorating draught of air and, raising the whistle to my lips, let forth a piercing trill while scrambling blindly sideways, feeling May’s hands slap across my blouse without finding purchase. I crawled headlong on knees and elbows under the heavy oaken table, snatched another deep breath and whistled again as I felt her frightfully strong hands seize my skirts.
“Shut her up! Shut her up, damn it!” whispered Chance hoarsely.
I was in the process of being hauled out from beneath the table when suddenly the door to the hallway burst open with a splintering crash. At once the room was as filled with light and commotion as it had been dark and still. May’s grip faltered and then released altogether. My head still swimming, I crawled further under the table and so beheld the ensuing combat from that peculiar vantage point, counting four, now five additional sets of legs; three in skirts, one in tight-fitting black pants and one set in grey linens that could only have belonged to Inspector Ellis.
Shouts and curses rent the air as my bodyguards had at Chance and May Dixon with gusto. The Dreyse went off with a deafening bang and glass shattered; there was a short scuffle and then Chance cried out in pain and the pistol thumped to the floor. Next came a loud clattering on the tabletop above my head and I was treated to the spectacle of Chance rolling off the table in an awkward somersault. He landed like a cat on the other side, though, and retreated around the couch; my eyes widened as I saw Persi vault clear over the couch, skirts billowing, in hot pursuit.
Chance lunged at her as she landed and seemed at once to overpower her, for she fell back; but then, via some swirling feat of Bartitsu too swift and complex for me to follow, much less describe, it was Chance who got the worst of it, being flung heels over head into the wall some ten feet away. He rebounded and then fell below my line of sight, but I did see Miss Sanderson rush and swing her ball-handled umbrella at him, for all the world as if she were playing hockey. There was a sickening thud followed by a soft groan.
I turned just in time to see May Dixon brought down by Flossie and Toupie in tandem, each of them having seized one of her powerful arms in a painful-looking twist.
I rolled out from under the table and retrieved my pistol before being helped (quite unnecessarily) to my feet by Inspector Ellis, who surveyed the scene with some wonder.
“Good Heavens, Miss Lee,” he began, “you do get yourself into some scrapes, don’t you?”
The next day we set out for Chance’s Hammersmith Club, myself accompanied by Persephone and two of her colleagues; a cherubic and fair-haired New Zealander named Florence, who insisted with disarming colonial informality that I should call her Flossie, and a distinctly peculiar, tallish dark-haired woman who was introduced to me only as “Miss Sanderson” and who nodded politely as she shook my hand but uttered not a single word.
To my not insubstantial surprise, our driver turned out to be none other than Toupie Lowther, a fact that I must admit escaped my attention until Persi addressed her by name. Toupie was dressed in an entirely masculine fashion, her already short hair tucked up under a cap and her eyes concealed behind the thick tinted lenses of her driver’s goggles. I knew that she was a woman of considerable means and could not just then guess as to why she might be playing chauffeur; evidently, Mrs. Pankhurst’s Amazons were a rather pleasingly eccentric bunch.
As we drove I explained my plan. Turn-about being fair play, I would infiltrate the Hammersmith Athletic Club in much the same manner as the mysterious Marjorie had the Bartitsu Club – by posing as a prospective pupil. Once inside I would snoop about for any clues that might tend to confirm Mr. Barton-Wright’s suspicions. Persi and her friends would wait in the motorcar, ready to intervene in case of trouble; our signal was to be a piercing trill from a small brass whistle, which I concealed about my person.
Toupie parked the motorcar on the opposite side of the road from the rival Club, which was situated in a nondescript, free-standing building that I judged to have been formerly a dance hall. I disembarked and then marched across briskly to the front door. I was about to knock when the door was yanked open from within and out rushed a slight young man in hotel porter’s livery, nearly bowling me over. As I recovered my poise, I was then confronted by a burly chap in white gymnasium flannels, who was evidently the cause of the young man’s fright and rapid egress, and whom I immediately recognised as Chance himself.
“And you can stay out!” he roared after the young man, who was sprinting away down the pavement. He then focussed his attention upon me. “Pardon me, Miss,” he said. “Just a lad who doesn’t know his place, soon sorted. Professor John Chance, at your service. How can I help you?”
“Well,” I replied, “my name’s Miss Portia Wing and I am hoping to take some physical culture classes.”
“Ah,” he said, his thin moustache branching skyward as he grinned, “then you’ve come to the right place, Miss Wing. The Hammersmith Club offers gymnastics, antagonistics and calisthenics for all, young ladies a specialty.”
He ushered me inside and I had a moment to take in my surroundings. It was altogether a rather shabby, temporary-feeling establishment in comparison with Mr. Barton-Wright’s. A number of rough-looking men were grappling on a threadbare, much-patched wrestling mat, while several others clambered about on an elaborate climbing scaffold, all ladders and ropes and horizontal bars, affixed to the far wall. Curiously, nearby stood a door, into which was set a large number of keyholes, affixed to a portable platform; a piece of apparatus that I had certainly never before seen in a gymnasium.
“Our ladies’ classes run on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, with a special class on Saturday afternoons,” Chance explained. “Our instructress is Miss May Dixon, lately of the Tumbling Dixons – you may have heard of them?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Best knockabout troupe in the West End, Miss Wing, and that’s saying something these days,” Chance said, handing me a prospectus pamphlet. “Here, you have a read of this, and a look around if you’d like – ah, pardon me, but now I must attend to some urgent business for a few moments.”
I followed his gaze across the hall and through the window of a small office, from which a tall, broad-shouldered woman was waving and beckoning him. Chance departed for the office and I remained, glancing at the prospectus and finding on the second page a photograph of the same woman, dressed in physical culture attire that demonstrated her powerful physique. This was, according to the caption, the Miss May Dixon of whom Chance has spoken; although, unless I much missed my guess, Persi and her friends would have recognised her as Marjorie, the erstwhile student of the unfortunate Mr. Cherpillod.
Holding the pamphlet up to my face so as to give the appearance of studying it closely, I instead concentrated my gaze over the top of it and upon the conversation taking place between Chance and May Dixon some twenty feet away. They had no reason to suspect that their words could be overheard through a closed door and the glass of the window, and in fact, of course, they could not be – but they could be overseen, as it were.
Lip reading is easiest if the speaker is facing one directly, more difficult if they are in profile and is, obviously, impossible if their mouth is obscured in any way. As Chance and May Dixon were moving about within the office, I could follow only these parts of their discussion:
“Have you the layout, May?” – this from Chance.
“Yes, the porter … ” but then Miss Dixon had turned away from me. However, she was unfolding some kind of diagram, which she placed on the desk out of my line of sight. As she turned past the window again, I caught the merest flash of what she was saying: “… not just diamonds …”.
“Good, good,” said Chance, with a sly grin. “Tomorrow evening at the Charing Cross Hotel, then.” I could not tell whether this was a question or a statement, but Miss Dixon nodded.
“Does this say Room 618?” Chance asked, indicating the paper.
“No, it’s 613,” she replied.
I had the impression that Chance was still talking, but he was turned too far for me to read his lips. Still, putting two and two together, I suspected that the occupant of Room 613 at the Charing Cross Hotel should do well to mind their valuables the next evening. May Dixon was still nodding while she re-folded the paper and tucked it away in a drawer.
Chance emerged from the office and approached me with a spring in his step.
“Well, Miss Wing, what do you think of our humble club?”
“Oh, I think it should suit me well,” I replied. “I’ll have to look again at my schedule, but I’ll hope to start lessons with your Miss Dixon within the week. May I keep the prospectus?”
“Of course, my dear,” he smiled. “I’ll show you out, shall I?”
As we walked we passed by the curious door set with too many keyholes, and I asked him as to its purpose.
“A piece of professional apparatus that I find convenient to keep here,” he answered. “I work occasionally in the music halls, you see, both as a wrestler and, more often these days, as an escapologist. The locks are for training my fingers.”
“Like the Great Houdini?” I asked.
“Something very like that, yes indeed,” he replied, and gave me a cheery wave as I stepped out into the cool afternoon breeze.
I started to walk away, waited until I heard the door close behind me, then doubled back slightly and crossed the road to the waiting motorcar. Persi and Flossie were leaning against the passenger doors and smoking; Toupie, still sitting in the driver’s seat, was reading a novel. I saw no sign of the silent Miss Sanderson until Persi hailed her; I spun about in confusion and found her standing right behind me. That woman’s thin-lipped smile was distinctly unsettling.
As we drove back to the City I showed the Amazons the prospectus and they confirmed that May Dixon was the women they knew as Marjorie. I then described Chance’s seeming plan vis-à-vis the Charing Cross Hotel.
“I have trusted contacts within the police force,” I explained. “At my word, Inspector Ellis of Scotland Yard could be ready tomorrow night to spring a trap on Mr. Chance, or whomever is to carry out the hotel burglary. But that, in itself, would not necessarily do Mr. Cherpillod any favours, for no jewel thief caught red-handed would further incriminate himself by confessing to falsification of evidence.”
“We need an unforced confession,” Persephone said.
“Too right,” remarked Flossie. “One or both of these crooks must admit to the theft of Lady Duff-Gordon’s ring and to pinning the blame on Armand, else this is all for nothing.”
“Precisely so,” I replied, “and I think I know how we might achieve that …”