My name is Judith Lee and I am a teacher. I teach people who are deaf and dumb, and I teach them by lip-reading. When people say a word, they all move their lips the same way, so if you watch them carefully, you know what they are saying.
My father was one of the first people to teach lip-reading. My mother was deaf, but she could lip-read, so lip-reading has always been part of my life. And because I have always been able to do it, I was able to play a part in the adventure I am going to tell you about…
I was thirteen years old when it happened. My mother and father were visiting another country, and I was staying in a small village, in a cottage which we owned. Mrs Dickson, our servant, was staying there with me.
I was returning home by train one day, after a visit to some friends. There were two people sitting opposite me, a man and a woman. The woman got out at a station not far from my home. Then a man got in and sat beside the one who was already there. They seemed to know each other.
They talked quietly for some minutes, and it was impossible to hear what they said. But I only had to look at their faces. I was reading a magazine and looked up to see the first man say something which surprised me.
‘…Myrtle Cottage. It’s got a large myrtle tree in the front garden.’
The other man said something in a low voice, but his face was turned away from me. The first man replied, and I read his lips again. ‘His name is Colegate, and he uses it as a summer cottage. He’s got some of the best old silver in England.’
The other man shook his head and turned so I could see his face. I saw him say: ‘Old silver is no better than new. You can only melt it.’
The first man’s face became red. ‘Only melt it! Don’t be stupid! I can sell old silver at good prices. And that silver in Myrtle Cottage must be worth more than a thousand pounds. There’s a silver salt-cellar worth at least a hundred.’
The other man looked at me while I was watching his friend speak. He had fair hair and blue eyes. ‘That child is watching us,’ he whispered. ‘Be careful.’
The look in those blue eyes began to frighten me.
The first man said, ‘Let her watch, she can’t hear us.’
I was alone with them, and I was quite small. So I looked back at my magazine instead of watching the rest of their conversation. I knew Myrtle Cottage because it was not very far from our own cottage. And I knew Mr Colegate, and about his old silver. I knew the silver salt-cellar the two men spoke about, and wondered why they were interested in it. I was very young. I did not think: ‘These two men who speak in whispers may not be honest.’
They both got out at the station before our village.
After tea that evening, I went for a walk without telling Mrs Dickson. My walk took me past Myrtle Cottage. It was small, and there were no other houses near it. I knew that Mr Colegate was away, but when I went into the garden, I saw that the front-room window was open. I looked inside. What I saw surprised me very much.
In the room was the first man from the train. All of Mr Colegate’s silver was on the table in front of him, and he was holding the silver salt-cellar. I did not know what to think. What was he doing there? What should I do? I was still trying to decide when a hand went round my throat.
‘If you make a sound, I’ll kill you,’ said a man’s voice in my ear. ‘Believe me, I will!’
It was the other man, and he recognised me.
‘It’s the girl from the train!’ he said.
The first man came to the window. ‘What’s happening?’ he asked. ‘Who’s that child you’re holding?’
The other man pushed my face forwards. ‘Can’t you see? I knew she was listening!’
‘She couldn’t hear us on the train,’ said the first man. ‘Nobody could hear our whispers. Give her to me.’
I was passed through the window, and now it was his hands that went round my throat. ‘Who are you?’ he wanted to know. ‘If you scream, I’ll pull your head right off you!’
I did not move or speak.
‘Cut her throat,’ said the other man, and took a long, terrible-looking knife with a silver handle from the table.
‘Wait,’ said his friend. He took a piece of rope from his bag. Then they pushed me into a chair and tied the rope around my arms and legs. They also tied something across my mouth to stop me speaking.
The man with blue eyes moved towards me with the knife. I was sure he was going to cut my throat. But he took my long hair in one hand, and with that terrible knife he cut all of it from my head!
I was more angry than I thought possible. I wanted to take that knife and push it into him! My long hair was more valuable to me than almost anything. Not because of my own love of it, but because my mother loved it. It pleased her so much, and she often told me how beautiful it was. And now this man had robbed me of it in the most terrible way. At that moment, I wanted to kill him.
He hit me across the face with my own hair. ‘It didn’t take me long to cut it off,’ he said, ‘but I’ll cut your throat quicker if you try to move.’
The man with blue eyes let my hair fall all over me. Then the two of them began to put Mr Colegate’s silver into two large bags. That was when I realized they were stealing it, and there was nothing I could do.
The man with blue eyes moved towards the window, carrying one of the bags. The first man put a hand on his arm, and I watched him whisper, ‘Do you remember the plan?’
The man with blue eyes put his mouth close to the other man’s ear. I watched his lips as he said, ‘Cotterill, Cloakroom, Victoria Station, Brighton Railway.’
I knew the words were important and promised myself that I would not forget them.
He got out of the window and his bag was passed to him. He turned towards me and said, ‘Sorry I can’t take a piece of your hair. Perhaps I’ll come back for some later.’ Then he went, and anger burned inside me.
His friend did not look at me. He took his bag and went out through the door. I don’t know what happened to him afterwards. I was left alone, all through that night.
I was not afraid, but the rope hurt my arms and legs. I repeated the words, ‘Cotterill, Cloakroom, Victoria Station Brighton Railway.’ I was sure they were important.
I did not sleep that night. Day came, and I wondered what Mrs Dickson was doing. Was she looking for me? I had some friends who lived three or four miles away. Sometimes I stayed the night with them, without telling anyone at home. Did Mrs Dickson think I was with them?
I do not know what time it was when I heard the sound of feet outside. The day seemed almost over. I watched the open window, and suddenly a face appeared.
It was Mr Colegate.
‘Judith!’ he said. ‘Judith Lee!’
He was not a young man, but he climbed in through that window as quickly as a boy. He took a knife from his pocket and cut the rope around my arms and legs, then he uncovered my mouth and at last I could speak.
‘Cotterill, Cloakroom, Victoria Station, Brighton Railway,’ I said. Then I fell into Mr Colegate’s arms.
I knew no more until I woke up in bed with Mrs Dickson standing beside me. With her were Dr Scott, Mr Colegate, Pierce the village policeman, and another man. I discovered later that he was a detective.
I saw that I was in a room in Myrtle Cottage, and sat up in bed — and remembered everything.
‘He cut off my hair with the long knife!’ I said.
My head felt strange. I asked for a mirror, then became angry again when I saw the blue-eyed man’s work. Before anyone could stop me, I jumped out of bed.
‘Cotterill, Cloakroom, Victoria Station, Brighton Railway,’ I said. ‘Where are my clothes?’
At first they thought I was crazy. But then I told them my story. ‘Cotterill, Cloakroom, Victoria Station, Brighton Railway,’ I said again. ‘That’s where I’m gong to catch the man who cut off my hair. And if we don’t go quickly, we may be too late.’
Mr Colegate agreed. He wanted to get his silver back as much as I wanted to find the man who cut my hair. So we went up to London on the first train that we could catch — Mr Colegate, the detective, and an almost hairless child.
We got to Victoria Station and went to the cloakroom.
‘Is there a parcel here in the name of Cotterill?’ Asked the detective.
‘One in the name of Cotterill was taken only half a minute ago,’ the cloakroom man replied. ‘Didn’t you see him walking off with it?’ He looked along the station. ‘There he is! Someone’s going to speak to him.’
I saw a man carrying a parcel, and I saw the man who was going to speak to him. ‘It’s the man who cut my hair!’ I shouted, and ran towards him as fast as I could go. He looked round and saw me, and quickly realized who I was. He whispered to the man with the parcel before running away.
I saw clearly what he said. ‘Bantock, 13 Harwood Street, near Oxford Street.’ Those were the words. And then he turned and ran away. Mr Colegate and the detective were close behind me. The man with the parcel saw us, and at once he dropped the parcel and ran off.
We did no catch him, or the man who cut my hair. The station was full of people coming off a train, which made it easy for both men to escape. But we got the parcel. It was not big enough to contain Mr Colegate’s silver, we realized that. But it did contain a much bigger surprise.
A London detective was sent for. He looked at the jewels and said, ‘These are the Duchess of Dachet’s jewels. The police all over Europe are looking for them.’
The man from the cloakroom was with us. ‘That parcel has been with us for nearly a month,’ he said. ‘The person who took it out paid for twenty-seven days.’
‘I wish I could catch him,’ said the London detective. ‘I have a word or two that I want to say to him.’
‘I think I know where you can find him,’ I said. ‘Bantock, 13 Harwood Street, near Oxford Street.’
‘Who is Bantock?’ the detective asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘But I saw the man who cut off my hair whisper those words before he ran away.’
‘You saw him whisper them?’ The London detective looked at the others. ‘What does she mean? Young lady, you were fifteen metres away. How could you hear him whisper?’
‘I didn’t say I heard him whisper,’ I replied. ‘I said I saw him. I don’t need to hear to know what a person is saying.’
‘Judith is an excellent lip-reader,’ said Mr Colegate. He explained, but the others found it hard to believe.
‘So what did you see him whisper?’ asked the detective.
‘I’ll tell you if I can come with you,’ I said.
The detective laughed. He seemed to think that I was amusing, but I don’t know why. He did not understand how angry I was about my hair. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘You can come. Now, tell me what you saw him whisper.’
So I told him again and he wrote it down.
‘I know Harwood Street, but I don’t know Mr Bantock,’ he said. ‘First I’ll send a message for some help, then we’ll go and visit Mr Bantock — if there is a Mr Bantock.’
The four of us went in a taxi — the two detectives, Mr Colegate and I. After a while, the taxi stopped on the corner of a street.
‘This is Harwood Street,’ said the London detective. ‘We can walk the rest of the way. We don’t want to stop outside the door. They may guess who we are.’
It was a street full of shops. The shop at number 13 sold jewels and other less valuable things. The name ‘Bantock was over the top of the window.
As we reached the shop, a taxi stopped outside it and five men got out. The London detective recognized them and did not look pleased. ‘Now our visit won’t be a surprise,’ he said. ‘Come on, let’s go in quickly.’
And we went in, the detective first and me behind him. There were two young men standing close together at the other side of the shop. When they saw us, I saw one whisper, ‘They’re detectives! Ring the alarm bell!’
‘He’s going to ring the alarm bell!’ I shouted.
The men from the other taxi were also detectives.
They came in quickly and held each of the two young men.
There was a door at the end of the shop which the London detective opened. ‘Stairs,’ he said. ‘We’ll go up. You men wait here until you’re wanted.’
I followed him up the stairs. At the top were two more doors. I could hear voices coming from behind one of them. The London detective went towards it. He opened the door and went in, and I was close behind him. There were several men in there, but I was only interested in one. He was standing on the other side of a table.
‘That’s the man who cut off my hair!’ I cried.
He seemed at first like a man who had seen a ghost, but then he said, ‘I wish I had cut your throat!’
The police caught all the thieves. They were wanted all over the world for other robberies. Mr Colegate got his silver back. Mr Bantock, who owned the shop, was someone who bought and sold stolen jewels. He and all the other men in that room were sent to prison.
It took many years for my hair to grow long again, and it never grew as long as before. Each time I looked into a mirror, some of my anger returned.
But the man who cut my hair was stupid. Before he cut it, the rope hurt me badly and I wasn’t interested in what he and his friend were doing or saying. But after he cut it, I was very angry indeed, and so I watched every move which they — and their lips! — made!