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Chapter One

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« on: June 05, 2023, 11:07:10 am »


As the aircraft changed course, heading a point east of south, it seemed to pivot on a wing-tip, smoothly and effortlessly, like an albatross whose glancing wings plane delicately to win advantage from an air current.

Far below---so very far below that visibility had a ghost quality---the crazy patchwork of English fields faded out, to be replaced by a shot-silk effect, vaguely bordered by a drift of golden-brown.

The man who was looking down through the oval window of the Viscount, watched fascinated as the English coast slipped away. He had often seen all this before, but never wearied of it. Nothing here of the famous white cliffs which board-ship passengers sentimentalise over, he pondered: no white headlands outlined proudly against a pale English sky. There was hardly any shape at all; just a gradation of colour blurred by chiffon trails of low tenuous cloud, a mingling of earth and strand and sea, like interwoven scarves of colour changing imperceptibly from pale gold to paler aquamarine, as the shallow waters deepened and earth and sand faded out. The shipping away below looked no more important than sardines---very slender sardines---gliding over a shimmer which was more like light than sea.

“Dungeness,” thought Robert Macdonald, “with Romney Marsh behind, and Rye and Winchelsea away back, but it might be anywhere in the world: elements of geography misted over into a dream.”

It was very tranquil in the aircraft on that sunny September morning. There are many ways of travelling from London to Vienna, and those who love roads and seas wax scornful over the lazy unintelligence of air-travel; but for a tired man, intent on a comfortable holiday, there is a lot to recommend the ease of flying. From the passenger, no effort is demanded: once his baggage has been checked in, he is taken in hand by benevolent authority. He becomes freight---human freight, handled with care---and there’s nothing he need do about it: only watch a silver wing-tip describe an arc over the land he is leaving, and enjoy (if he is wise) the blended colours far below.

As the English coast slipped away and the blurred outline of the Continent took its place, the aircraft bumped a little in the air-pockets which often signal an aerial “landfall.” Macdonald had an odd feeling that he was reliving his own past, slipping through the years as imperceptibly as the Viscount slipped over the North Sea. He had travelled overnight from Inverness (where his forebears had lived) to London (where he had spent his boyhood). Now he was somewhere above northern France and the Low Countries, where he had fought in the London Scottish between 1914 and 1918. Names came back---names never forgotten by Englishmen of Macdonald’s age---Amiens, Abbeville, Ypres, Paschendaele: the Aisne, the Somme, the Marne. Was that the valley of the Marne, away below there, with Rheims to the north and Vitry to the south? After the Armistice of 1918, Macdonald had gone on into Germany with the Army of Occupation, marching eastwards, as the Viscount was bearing him eastwards now---into another zone of “Occupation.”

With a sudden sense of repugnance, Macdonald decided his analogy had gone too far: he didn’t want to think about Occupying Powers and the turmoil of East-West power politics. He thanked his stars he had never got involved in what is generically described as “Intelligence”---M.I.5, Special Duties, Counter Espionage and “Security.” His passport described him as a Government Servant, and that was true enough, but his job was, of its very nature, blessedly unpolitical: it gave a man leave to be himself when on leave, not binding him to Intelligence with a capital I.

With acknowledgments to Robert Graves in the long ago, Macdonald said “Good-bye to all that,” turned from the window and its reminders of the war-to-end-war, and considered his fellow-passengers instead.

The white-haired man of ambassadorial aspect he recognised: an ambassador of commerce this one, a V.I.P. in one of the great chemical combines. The stout lady was French, her complexion and closed eyes denoting that she fought an internal battle with air sickness.

Immediately across the gangway from Macdonald sat a fair-haired girl, neat as a daisy in a nicely-tailored suit, with a demure little wing of a black hat on her shining hair. She was doing her best to look out of the window, but she had been unlucky in not getting a window seat. Beside her, blocking the window as he leaned over a book, was a young man to whom Macdonald took an immediate dislike. Hunched up in a most superior top-coat of the “camel” variety, he leant over his book so that only his unruly dark hair and outsize horn-rims were observable. A blasé young man, obviously quite uninterested in aerial views: he didn’t want to see the world below, or the incredible shining cloud-scape which occasionally obscured that world. “He might just as well let the lass have his seat,” thought Macdonald. “He’s seen it all before and he’s bored in advance. She’s never seen it and wants to.”

Inevitably he began to place his fellow-passengers: the girl, he guessed, was not merely on holiday. She was so neat, so soignée, so businesslike, despite her chic. “Going to a job, and all kitted-up to look efficient as well as attractive,” he hazarded. And the young man? Something self-consciously artistic---but his artistry appeared to pay. That coat had cost a lot of money. “Architect, doing nicely out of the dehumanised school?” thought the Scot, “or a designer . . . book production . . . going to the Vienna Trade Fair as representative of some precious bindery or pure-fount type. And the stout merchant might be encouraging the sales of Scots whisky---if it needs any encouraging.”

Coffee was brought to the passengers by the inevitably charming stewardess: newspapers were offered, but Macdonald turned to his window again. Chalons-sur-Marne was away behind: Switzerland was coming up, and Switzerland brought wholesome memories: the Wengen Scheidegg ski-run: climbing Mont Blanc (not nearly so difficult as some of the lesser peaks), driving over the Simplon---and the view from the hospice. Switzerland . . . a sane, safe wholesome country: alpensport and the best watches in the world.

When the Viscount began to circle over Zürich, Macdonald observed again the astonishing contrast between British and Swiss systems of land tenure. The English landscape, “. . . plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough” was a patchwork quilt---crazy patchwork, no modern geometry of hexagons or such like: every field a different shape and size, a jig-saw of individual eccentricity. Below him now, in Switzerland, striped ribbons curved over the rolling landscape, each strip of exquisite precision: vivid green of mown meadow, gold of stubble, brown of ploughland, blue green of root crops; border and headland as precise as if measured by a foot-rule. It had an astonishing look of ordered virtuosity, an economy both beautiful and efficient.

The plane swung lower and lower, the white buildings of the airport came into view, as tiny as a child’s toy, and then the long white runways. The plane swooped gently, lined up on its own runway, touched down without even a bounce and taxied towards its place, between a K.L.M. and a T.W.A. Macdonald glanced at his watch: they were ahead of schedule: the following wind had added an unofficial quota of m.p.h. That meant a good hour in Zürich airport---a pleasant prospect on this sunny morning: air travellers frequently say that if you have seen one airport you have seen them all, but the Swiss had done an out-of-the-way good job at Zürich and it is a pleasant halt.

The passengers all left the plane and were shepherded to the airport building, cards thrust into their hands: “Those leaving the plane at Zürich this side, please. Those going on to Vienna, this side. Thank you: you will be called when the plane is due to leave.”

With smiling courtesy, repeating their injunctions in other languages, the Swiss airport hostesses dealt kindly yet firmly with their little flock, encouraging the passengers for Vienna to walk on into the main hall of the airport. Macdonald went downstairs for a wash, finding the Swiss version of the international word “Toilet” catered for in thoroughgoing Swiss fashion (baths, barbers, and toilet articles all laid on).

When he returned to the main hall (where nationals of seemingly every variety were eating, drinking, buying and chattering), he walked across to examine the display of Swiss watches at the farther end and found himself standing beside the fair girl whom he had observed in the plane. She looked a little lost and uncertain, but her face brightened as she saw Macdonald.

“Please---are you going on to Vienna?” she asked.

“I am---B.E.A. flight 265; and you?”

“I’m going there, too. I’m terrified of missing the plane. Sorry to sound so feeble, but I’ve never done this before. I tried to keep in sight of some of the other passengers, but they’ve all melted away and I wondered if I’d got stranded.”

“It’s all right,” said Macdonald. “We shan’t be called for over half an hour. We got to Zürich early because of the north-west wind. It’s all a bit bewildering the first time, isn’t it? But I’m certainly not going to miss the plane, so freeze on to me if it’d give you a feeling of confidence.”

“Thanks awfully! It would!” she replied promptly; “it’s terribly kind of you not to mind. I’m pretty good at trains and buses abroad, but I’ve not developed the right sort of attitude to all this.”

“Would you like some coffee?” asked Macdonald, “just because it will be Swiss coffee and therefore different?”

“I should love some---but I haven’t got any Swiss currency.”

“I’ve got enough for coffees. Say you go and sit by the window and I’ll see about it.”

When he returned with a waiter, carrying the little cups piled high with cream, he asked, “Will this be your first visit to Vienna?”

She was very young---not more than twenty-one, he guessed---and she was looking around happily now.

“Yes,” she replied. “I’ve got a job there. Isn’t it marvellous?”

“I’m sure it is,” he said. “Jobs in Vienna can’t be very plentiful.”

“I was lucky, a friend put me on to it because I talk German. I’m going to be secretary to a V.I.P. who’s writing a book---or oughtn’t I to have said that? Everybody warned me not to talk too much.”

He laughed. “I don’t think it matters saying it to me. I’m so obviously British. Anyway, I won’t quote you.”

She turned and looked at him, her face dimpling. “When I saw you in the plane, I decided you were a doctor. Are you?”

“No---no doctorate of any variety. It’s my guess now: you read Modern Languages at . . . Oxford, was it? and then you had a secretarial training, and since you spell correctly and talk German, you seemed to be the right person for this job.”

“You’re very good at it, aren’t you?” she said. “When I put you down for a doctor it was because you look observant and analytical---used to diagnosing: and I knew you’d be helpful.”

“Thank you: that’s very pleasant and quite acute,” said Macdonald. “Is your father a doctor?”

“No, but my uncle is. Daddy’s a Civil Servant---poor dear.”

“No poor dear about it. I’m one myself---of a sort.”

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” she said hastily. “We always tease Daddy because the Civil Servants get all the abuse and can’t answer back. Do tell me, what did you make of the young man next to me in the plane? I’ve developed an allergy to him.”

“He takes up too much window space, doesn’t he?” said Macdonald. “When we get in the plane again you may be able to get a window-seat: several passengers were only travelling to Zürich.”

“He was reading Ezra Pound,” she said, “and the Pisan Cantos at that: or if not reading, going into a trance over.”

“One does, over the Cantos,” said Macdonald.

She dimpled at him, her curving cheeks as charming as a child’s. “If you read Ezra Pound I shall have to think again. Not a don, surely. . . .”

“Definitely not a don,” said Macdonald. “Commonplace people like myself do sometimes read Ezra Pound, though perhaps he’s more a poet’s poet.”

“My allergy isn’t a poet: he’s only trying to look like one,” she said. “Poets are always poor and that coat of his cost the earth. He wears suède shoes. I had a bet with myself they would be suède and they were.” She turned and looked out at the planes, all colours and shapes and sizes, lined up on the airfield.

“Isn’t it marvellous: you could go anywhere in the world---just like the magic carpet. But I’m terribly thrilled to be going to Vienna. It must be lovely. Have you been there before?”

“Once, a very long time ago: travelling ‘hard.’ It was hard, too. It’s a perishing long journey in a third class railway carriage, when you haven’t much money to buy food. But it was worth it. Hallo, they’re calling us. Listen.”

The Tannoy blared out: “Attention, please. Passengers for Vienna by British European Airways, flight 265 . . .”

“You see, it’s as easy as that,” said Macdonald. “They never let you get lost. Come along---only ninety minutes and you’ll be circling over the Danube and humming Strauss to celebrate.”

She jumped up. “The Danube! How superb---and thank you very much for being so kind to me---and won’t you tell me your name? Perhaps Daddy knows you.”

“My name is Macdonald. Your father doesn’t know me; he’s in the Home Office, isn’t he?---and your doctor uncle, too. You see, I couldn’t help seeing the nice new name-tape on your handkerchief, and your name is rather an uncommon one. Perhaps that’s cheating, but that’s how it was.”

She laughed. “You ought to be a detective! Anyway, thank you again. The coffee was marvellous.”


Within a few minutes, the passengers were settled in their places in the Viscount again. Much to Macdonald’s amusement, the dark young man in the camel coat collected the papers he had left on his seat and moved to another place in the rear of the plane, close to the door. The fair girl (whose name Macdonald had learnt to be Le Vendre) now had the window seat, and she laughed up at Macdonald as he passed her. “Allergy mutual---and he hadn’t----” He lost the final words of her sentence and went on to his own place. The plane circled over the airport again, the striped ribbons faded out as they gained height, and lunch was served with the dexterity of a conjuring trick as they rose above the clouds and floated over a shining white floor of cumulus. It was after lunch that the white-haired man moved across the gangway.

“Am I right in thinking that your name is Macdonald?” he asked, speaking with almost apologetic courtesy.

“Quite right, Sir Charles.”

“I thought I couldn’t be mistaken,” said the older man. “On holiday---or on a job, like myself?”

“Holiday, sir.”

“I hope you have a thundering good one. May I sit here for a moment? I’ve got a story that might amuse you.”

“Delighted,” said Macdonald.

The silver-haired man sat down in the gangway seat beside Macdonald and said, “You met my daughter not so long ago---Mrs. Nigel Villiers. You may remember they’d had a spot of excitement over a burglary: I’ve no doubt she told you about it, it was her chief topic of conversation for days and we all got a bit tired of it.”

“I remember. She lost a fur coat.”

“That’s it. I gave her the coat when she got married. A silly business: a mink coat is just asking for trouble---but all the girls want one. Well, to cut a long story short, the coat’s been found.”

“Well, the insurance company will be delighted to hear it,” said Macdonald. “Where did she find it?”

“She didn’t. Some workmen found it---on the roof.”

Macdonald laughed. “That’s an even better story than the original burglary,” he said.

“Quite a story. The roof leaked, and they had the builders in to see to it and they found a small suit-case tucked away by the chimney stack. In the suit-case was Val’s fur coat. It was her own suit-case, too. Now the interesting point is that the trap-door leading to the roof was bolted on the inside: the police had a look at it---careful chaps, take nothing for granted. The trap was secure---and it’s a foolproof fitment. Access had been gained to the house by a lavatory window---but I’ve no doubt she told you all that. She told everybody.”

Macdonald chuckled. “Yes. I remember.”

“Well, the great idea now is that the burglar didn’t want to be seen leaving the house carrying a suit-case or parcel, so he went up to the roof and hid his loot---to be collected at leisure later---rebolted the trap-door and left the house with no incriminating parcel or what have you. You may remember, the house they live in is one of a terrace---like so many of the houses round the Park.”

Macdonald nodded. “Yes. A common roof, so to speak.”

“That’s it: and one of the other houses is in the hands of builders---being modernised---so it may be the thief was looking out for a chance to get up to the roof that way.”

“I’ve no doubt he’ll find a reception committee waiting if he tries that on,” said Macdonald. “All the same, he’s left it quite a time. It’s over a fortnight, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I admit that occurred to me: still, I can’t see any other explanation. There wasn’t anything else missing. The young folks are a bit casual, as all youngsters seem to be these days, but I think they’ve checked up by now.”

Macdonald sat silent for a moment, and Sir Charles Bland added, “I thought you’d be amused to hear the upshot of the story---now I’ll leave you in peace again.”

“Don’t hurry away, sir. I’ve enjoyed hearing a story off the record, so to speak, and I agree with you it’s an odd story. What you might call a new technique. Your son-in-law is a publisher, isn’t he?”

“It’d be more exact to say he’s in a publishing firm---Barrards. How far he’ll get, I don’t know, but they say he’s a flare for spotting winners. However, there weren’t any priceless manuscripts stolen, or anything of that kind: and from what I’ve seen of the scripts he brings home, a burglar who stole one would be madder than the chap who wrote the script---if possible. Well---there you are. You showed a kindly interest in the original story, so I thought you’d be interested to hear the upshot.”

“I am---very much interested, sir.”

Sir Charles chuckled. “Forget it---as the young say---and have a good holiday. How long will you be in Vienna?”

“Three weeks.”

“Fortunate you. I have three days, and conferences every day. But it’ll be too bad if I don’t get to the Opera---and a Heurige. Good luck to you and the best of holidays.” And with that he went back to his own seat.


Macdonald laughed to himself a little. He was pretty certain that no one had overheard Sir Charles Bland’s story, but if they had done so, they would have taken it for nothing but a casual anecdote---the sort of story which travellers tell to pass the time. Nothing in Sir Charles’s approach gave any inkling that the man he spoke to was a Superintendent of Scotland Yard, or that that same Superintendent had gone to the Villiers’ house when the mink coat had been stolen. The Divisional Police had been bothered by a series of burglaries in the big houses round the Park, and the C.I.D. from the Central (or Commissioner’s) Office had been brought in for consultation. Macdonald thought back to his inspection in the Villiers’ house: it had been an amateurish sort of burglary to his mind. While Nigel Villiers and his wife were out, and the two maids immersed in television, someone had climbed up to a lavatory window at the side of the house, forced the window-catch and gone upstairs to the Villiers’ bedroom and removed the coat. The wardrobe and drawers had been left open, as though the thief had been disturbed, and nothing else had been taken (except the suit-case found on the roof). The job had nothing in common with the more carefully organised burglaries (all on a much larger scale) which the Divisional Police had been investigating.

Sitting in the Viscount, aware from the changed note of the engines, that the long run-in had begun, Macdonald said to himself, “Reeves can cope with all that.” But because no man can entirely dismiss interest in his own profession from his mind, the C.I.D. Superintendent could not help listing the points which would be of particular concern to Chief Inspector Reeves.

One was the trap-door to the roof. It was, as Sir Charles had observed, a very efficient fitment, with good bolts: and it had certainly not been opened since it was last painted, six months ago. The burglar had not used the trap-door to get access to the roof. That brought up the second point: the builders in a house farther along the terrace: a builder’s man might well have been concerned in this---and other burglaries. Finally, the two maids: they were both foreign girls, but girls with very good characters. Macdonald suddenly remembered that they were Austrians, from Wiener Neustadt, a few miles south of Vienna.

“That’s a bit odd,” he thought. “Surely a man of Sir Charles’s intelligence doesn’t think I’m out for a busman’s holiday . . . or did he think the ‘holiday’ was a put-up job? If so, he’s wrong for once in his life. But why tell me the additional items at all? He has the reputation of being a man who never says anything without a reason. . . . Glory! There it is. . . .”

“It” was the River Danube: a sight of which it might be said “Once seen, never forgotten.” Whether from the air or from ground level, from the heights of the Wiener Wald or from the bridges, the Danube is unforgettable.

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