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 …”