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Chapter Eleven

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« on: June 07, 2023, 08:21:24 am »


WHEN Macdonald left the Vanbrughs’ house, bowed out solemnly by old Josef, who closed the double doors behind the visitor with a resounding clang, there was a group of people standing on the opposite side of the road. Their presence was inevitable and Macdonald knew it. Vienna was the same as London or any other city: where there was an “accident” or an “incident,” sightseers would gather; pressmen, gossips, passers-by. The story of Neville Walsingham’s death was becoming known in Hietzing, and from Hietzing it had spread into the city and brought the pressmen out.

Just as he was getting into the car Macdonald caught sight of a figure he recognised---Mr. Webster. The stout cameraman was making no attempt to take photographs, though his camera was slung around his neck, but he smiled cheerfully at Macdonald and saluted him with a raised hand. Macdonald beckoned to him.

“Good morning, Mr. Webster. What are you doing here?”

“Good morning, sir. I don’t want to intrude, but I heard about the accident to that young lady and very sorry I was to hear it. I couldn’t help admiring her when I saw her in the plane---as pretty a young thing as I ever set eyes on. I hoped there might be some news of her, but I didn’t expect to see all these chaps here. I hope it doesn’t mean bad news.”

“I’m driving along to the High Street: if you want a word with me, get in.”

Webster beamed. “That’s uncommonly kind of you, sir. I’d be very much honoured.”

He bundled into the back of the car and chuckled as he saw cameras raised on the pavement. “That’s a new experience for me,” he said, “but I do hope it doesn’t mean the worst. I’m no good at the lingo, but it did seem to me these chaps thought they was on to something in the way of news.”

“I’ve no doubt they do think so, but it’s not the accident to the English girl they’re worrying about,” rejoined Macdonald. “The hospital authorities are quite satisfied with the way she’s getting on. There’s been another accident, Mr. Webster, but it hasn’t got into the papers yet. Hadn’t you heard anything about it?”

“No, sir, I haven’t. As I said, I’m no linguist: I can pass the time of day in German and say please and thank you, but I’m sunk when it comes to conversation. I’m sorry there’s more trouble, sir.” He paused and then added, “Spoilt your holiday, so to speak, sir.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it has,” replied Macdonald. “I don’t want to spoil yours, too, but I’d be glad of a word with you. Have you any objection to coming into the local police station and answering a few questions?”

“Bless you, no, sir. Why should I have? Only too glad to help if there’s any way I can. You should know, sir. If I’d been up to any funny stuff I shouldn’t have gone out of my way to get into yours, if you take me.”

“That’s what I thought,” replied Macdonald. “Here we are, come along in.”

A few moments later, seated in a bare little office which might have been in any police station in the English provinces, Macdonald said:

“D’you mind telling me just why you came to Vienna, Mr. Webster?”

“Only too glad, sir: I’ve no doubt you’ve your reasons for asking. It’s like this: first, I came to take pictures as I told you, but I also came because of Auntie---my mother’s sister, Elsie Brown her name is, only they all call her Fräulein Ilse Braun here. Been in Vienna since nineteen-o-five, if you’ll believe it. A governess, she was, in a very good family, too. Name of Rothmeister. Now I needn’t go telling you all Auntie’s history. If so be you’re interested you can find out all about her from the British Embassy ladies. Very good they’ve been to her, very good indeed. She’s as poor as a church mouse, Auntie is, but she’s got a couple of nice little rooms, not far from the railway station---West Bahnhof.” Mr. Webster scratched his head and added apologetically, “Afraid I run on---not much good at telling a story, never have been, but to cut the cackle, it was like this. Auntie wrote to me in London---always kept in touch with the old folks at home, she has---and she asked one of us to come and pay her a visit before she got too old. It was that bit about her having a room settled it. Hotels cost the devil, wherever you go. And as it happened, I had a chance of selling some good pictures of Vienna---Tucker & Tucker are producing a series of picture-books on European capitals---so I thought I’d risk it. Not that I could remember Auntie myself---I was only a small nipper fifty years ago---but my mum often talked about her, and I thought it’d be nice to look the old lady up, and maybe help her along a bit, as far as the Government’ll let you, anyway.”

“And you decided you’d fly to Vienna, Mr. Webster?”

“Yes, sir. It was an extravagance, I know. I could have done it cheaper if I’d travelled by rail, third class. But I had a fancy for a nice air trip, and them Viscounts---well, I’d always wanted to sample them, and they are a proper treat. If I never have another such trip, well, I enjoyed that one. Makes travel a pleasure and no mistake. And then there’s this to it: you pay B.E.A. in sterling---no extras, like meals on the train, which run away with your currency allowance, and that meant I could do a bit more for Auntie: new blankets and such-like, and a few comforts she can’t afford for herself.” Again he broke off, and then added diffidently, “If ever you could find the time to pop in and see her, sir, it’d please her a lot. Loves to hear an English voice, Auntie does. West Bahnhofgasse 295, that’s her address.”

“And what’s your own address, Mr. Webster, when you’re at home?”

“75, Nightingale Buildings, Clerkenwell, sir. Not what you’d call classy, but I’ve lived there for years---right through the blitz and buzz bombs and all the rest.”

Macdonald often enjoyed listening to the odd characters he interviewed in the course of the day’s work, and he enjoyed Mr. Webster very much: he sounded so absolutely genuine. The story of “Auntie” was told with such simple gusto, including the bits about the Embassy ladies and the appeal to go and visit the old governess in her rooms by the West Bahnhof: and there was the (verifiable) touch about Tucker & Tucker’s projected book---all as genuine as sterling.

“And I’ve got some good pictures, sir, out of the way good,” went on Mr. Webster. “There’s something about this city: it’s got drama---great buildings and that, and some lovely detail---by jiminy, they don’t half let ’emselves go over decoration---rococo or whatever they call it. Got our St. Paul’s beaten hollow when it comes to gilding and twiddly bits: it’s gay all through. Not jazz stuff: nothing vulgar. Seems right the waltz should be Viennese: that’s what Vienna’s like, a lovely old-fashioned waltz. Nothing to touch it.”

He stopped for a moment and added, almost shamefacedly, “I always was a one for talking, and staying in foreign parts makes me want to let off steam when I meet a fellow-countryman. Now you said there’d been another bit of trouble, sir?”

“Yes. There’s been an accident to another of the passengers who was in the Viscount with us last Monday, Mr. Webster. Now it seems to me that you’re an observant person. You noticed I was on the plane, for instance: and you noticed Miss Le Vendre, who had an accident during the thunderstorm. I’m wondering if you noticed anybody else.”

“Well, sir, I did. I had a good look round: and the reason I had a look was because you were aboard, sir. Somehow I never thought of you being on holiday; silly, perhaps, but there it was. I just said to myself, ‘Anything here for me?’ Comes of looking out for notabilities. You can make good money from pictures as well as from a write-up.”

Macdonald nodded. “True enough: and did you find anybody to interest you?”

“There was that chap Rimmel, sir: brother to the fellow who got a stretch for stealing papers from the F.O. But you know all about him.”

“I don’t know anything about a Rimmel on that plane. What made you think he was a passenger?”

“Using my eyes, sir. I hung around Rimmel’s house in Watford when the case was on---all in the way of business---and I saw this chap come out of the house and one of the neighbours told me he was J. N. Rimmel’s brother. I don’t often forget a face, and when I saw him on the plane, well, I thought that accounted for you being there.”

“You got that wrong,” said Macdonald, “but where was this man sitting, and what was he like?”

“Thin weedy fellow, mousey-coloured, very unnoticeable. He sat right forward, next to a gentleman in a light Burberry and a good tweed suit---I summed that one up as a personality, something striking about him. Rimmel’s a commonplace-looking chap---not the sort to make a picture. But he was interested in you, sir, even though you weren’t interested in him.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because he was watching you. At Zürich it was.” Mr. Webster gave a little chuckle. “I’ve been called a Nosey Parker once to my face already to-day---but you’re asking me, sir: you’re saying, ‘Webster, what did you notice?’---and I’m going to tell you. You can stop me if what I’m saying’s neither here nor there. Now at Zürich, I had a good look round at all them pretty things they sell for souvenirs in the main hall, and I had a drink and kept my eye on Rimmel. You’ll remember, sir, you went and had a look at the watches they’ve got in the show-cases---very nice, too, but they cost a pretty penny. Then---no offence meant---that young lady---Miss Le Vendre, is it?---she spoke to you. Asked if you were going to Vienna. That right, sir?”

“Quite right.”

“I was just behind you as it happened. You two went to a seat by the windows and you got a waiter to bring coffee. I had another look at the watches, and I noticed Rimmel (I was sure it was him, sir), he took a seat near to you and the young lady. He was sitting behind you, and I’ll lay any money he was listening to what you said. You can always tell when a chap’s listening. And if you don’t believe me, there was another passenger noticed Rimmel sitting there. A young fellow name of Stratton---I’ve seen him around in Vienna once or twice since I’ve been here, and I had a word with him, too, only this morning it was. Young fellow in a camel coat, very posh. A la-di-dah young fellow, I’d call him, but something about him caught the eye, so to speak. Next to you in the Customs at Schwechat, he was.”

“You seem to have noticed a lot more than I did,” said Macdonald.

“Well, sir---I had my reasons: you being the reason. If I see a Yard ace travelling almost beside me, I’ve got to take notice. Business is business---and you’re pretty famous in your own line, if I may take the liberty of saying so.” Mr. Webster sighed a little. “Perhaps I’m putting my foot in it, but I told you at Schwechat I knew your dial---told you so straight. You see, sir, I’ve made my living by spotting the news and putting Who’s Who into pictures, and when I saw a notability like you, well, I watched out.”

“Very enterprising of you,” said Macdonald. “Your methods seem to be successful, too. For instance, how did you learn Miss Le Vendre’s name, and that she was staying with Sir Walter Vanbrugh?”

“I recognised him when he met her at Schwechat, sir: as young Stratton said (and he’s not what I’d call an observant chap), Sir Walter’s face is familiar to everybody who buys the picture papers. And then there’s this.” Webster pulled his Hietzinger Zeitung out of his pocket. “Local paper, sir. Not that I can read the lingo, but I got young Stratton to translate that bit about the accident: and then I put two and two together a bit: if my sum wasn’t quite correct, I still thought it was an interesting set-out. Seemed to me you were in the picture somehow, sir.”

“Why?” asked Macdonald.

Webster tilted an eyebrow at the curt monosyllable and then sighed. “Seems to me I’d better’ve kept quiet,” he said. “You’re thinking I know a bit more than I do. Well, all I know is along of what I’ve seen keeping my eyes open and asking who was who if I didn’t know. On Wednesday I looked in at Sacher’s, sir: very famous place it is. Auntie told me not to miss it. And when I saw you lunching there, I thought maybe your friend was a big pot in the Austrian police. I asked the waiter and he told me the name---Dr. Natzler.” Webster pushed his newspaper across to Macdonald. “Natzler,” he repeated: “he found the young lady up there in the woods: something about an English guest with him. Well---I ask you.”

Macdonald chuckled. “What you’d call a logical deduction,” he said. “Very intelligent, Mr. Webster. Now by way of clearing the decks, where were you yesterday (Thursday) evening, between five and seven o’clock?”

“Bless you, I’m glad you’ve asked that one,” rejoined Webster heartily. “I hate going round in circles. If you think I’ve been up to any funny business, I’d rather get it straight. Between five and seven yesterday I was at home with Auntie. She’s nervous of thunderstorms: nervous as a cat. She said to me earlier, ‘Ernie, don’t you stay out too long this afternoon. It’s going to thunder. I know it.’ So I went home early---four o’clock it was---and took the old lady some nice cakes and got her tea. Not that she ate anything; much too upset she was with the storm.” Mr. Webster prodded Macdonald’s arm. “You go and see the old lady, sir, like I said. She’ll be that pleased to see you. Quite compos mentis, she is. She’ll tell you I stayed with her till the storm was over, and then I went to the flicks after I’d tucked her up in bed.”


Macdonald was called to the telephone at this juncture. He offered Mr. Webster a cigarette and said, “D’you mind waiting a few minutes?”

“Not me. I’ll wait till you’re ready, sir. If you think I want to do a bolt, you think again. This is jam to me, sir. I’ve often longed to get behind the scenes at the Yard, and I reckon this is the nearest I’ve ever been to it.”

When Macdonald came back, he found Webster chatting to a young constable, teaching him the days of the week in English.

Montag, Monday; Dienstag, Tuesday; Mittwoch, Wednesday; Donnerstag, Thursday; Freitag, Friday,” chanted the cameraman. “Auntie taught me that. Meine Tante. Ah, here you are, sir. I’ve been improving the shining hour. Now where were we?”

“We were hearing about yesterday afternoon,” said Macdonald, “but I should like to go back to Monday and the wait at Zürich. You said you saw this man Rimmel sitting behind Miss Le Vendre and myself while we were having coffee. How long was he there?”

“Matter of ten minutes, I’d say. He got up when they called the passengers for another plane---Prague, wasn’t it? You were there, sir, you’ll remember. They called two planes: one for Amsterdam, I think it was---the K.L.M. I saw it take off. Then there was another. Prague that was---if I heard aright. I was listening carefully, too. I didn’t want to miss our bus. Like the young lady---she was all in a flap, wasn’t she, afraid she’d get left behind.”

“And did you see if Rimmel went out to the Prague air liner?”

“I saw him go through the door and into the lobby, sir. I’d’ve liked to follow him up, but one of them air hostesses asked to see my card---you know the card they give you when you leave the plane for the refuelling stop---and she sent me back. Said we wouldn’t leave for another twenty minutes. A lot of trouble they take for you.”

“They certainly do,” rejoined Macdonald, and Webster went on:

“I thought I’d have a word with that young chap in the camel coat: something about him took my eye. He’d been sitting there in a corner---behind one of those newspaper stands he was---with his nose in a book as though nothing else in the world mattered. Don’t seem natural to me for a young chap travelling around to keep his nose in a book all the time. I suppose he’d done it all so often he was blasé, as they say. But when I said my little piece---‘Nice flying weather,’ or what have you, he just stared at me and went back to his book.”

“You mean he sat in the same place all the time we were at Zürich?”

“Apart from having a drink at the bar when we first went in, he just stayed put with his book,” said Webster, “but if you want a line on Rimmel, the chap you should go for is the tall grey-haired gent who sat next to him in the plane: though now I come to think of it, that gent left the plane at Zürich, too. A bit odd, that. Don’t you call him to mind, sir---very blue eyes, he’d got, and a small moustache. I remember looking out for him when we got going again after Zürich: had an idea he might be somebody who was somebody.”

“You’ve given me a recognisable description of three of the passengers,” said Macdonald, but Webster cut in:

“I’ve done better than that, sir. I’d describe you to anybody: then the young lady, fair, neat, stylish: slick little black suit and a tiny hat with a diamond pin and very nice pearls round her neck: that makes two. Then the dark nose-in-the-book fellow with big hornrims and a smashing coat, that’s three. The big grey-haired gent who left at Zürich, and Rimmel, that’s five. And the white-haired old nobleman who came and chatted to you---looked like a duke any day, he did, I could list him for you. And the stout dame who looked like a dying duck in a thunderstorm and the young lady in a grey pin-stripe and a mink stole. Eight passengers that is---and I’d swear to any of them, wherever I saw them. It’s the one thing I’m good at, remembering faces.” Webster sat silent for a moment and then went on: “You said there’d been another accident, sir. I know it’s not my business to ask questions, but fair’s fair. I’ve done my best to help you as far as I could.”

“A very good best, too,” rejoined Macdonald. “You’ll hear all about this other accident before long---the facts will be in the papers. A gentleman named Walsingham, who was staying with Sir Walter Vanbrugh, was killed in a traffic accident last night, on the Wattmanngasse.”

Webster’s eyes were naturally a bit protuberant: blue eyes in a rubicund face, and he fairly goggled at Macdonald. “Staying with Sir Walter . . . by heck, now I understand why those chaps were queueing up outside the house. Two accidents to residents in that house---doesn’t look too good. And then look here, sir”---Webster was getting excited---“didn’t you say this gentleman was a passenger on the plane we came in?”

“Yes, he was. He left the plane at Zürich and flew on to Vienna on Wednesday.”

Macdonald produced a photograph from his pocket (it had been cut from the jacket of J. B. S. Neville’s last book) and handed it to Webster. “Do you recognise it?” he asked.

“By jiminy,” said the cameraman. “This is the gent who sat next to that Rimmel on the plane. That’s the one. I’ll swear it is.” He gave a long whistle. “This is a story, sir, by heck it is. And to think I could have got a picture of the pair of them if only I’d known. Both on the same plane, both staying at the same address. Was he in the Diplomatic, sir?”

“No, he wasn’t. He was a writer,” replied Macdonald. “Now there’s one last question I’d like you to answer, Mr. Webster. When you spoke to me at Schwechat you mentioned the old opera singer, Hedwige Waldtraut Körner, and you said there was a story which brought her into the news. What is the story?”

“That? Oh, that’s neither here nor there, sir, not so far as all this is concerned. It’s just one of those silly stories which get into the gossip columns. I brought the cutting for Auntie to see---in World Pictures it was. ‘The Hapsburg Jewels’ was the heading. It said the old emperor---Franz Josef---took a fancy to Waldtraut Körner in the long ago and gave her a famous necklace or tiara or what have you, and some chap raked the story up and said the old lady was going to wear the sparklers when she’s present at the reopening of the Opera House here. You ask any newspaperman in Vienna---they’ve all got one version or another of the same story, or so Auntie tells me. Romance stuff, I call it---just what some of the picture papers like, a bit of old-fashioned scandal and some outsize diamonds: that’s a recipe which always goes down when there’s no straight news.” Webster stared at Macdonald for a moment and then chuckled. “Look here, sir, if I gave you a wrong impression, I’m sorry. The trouble with me is I talk first and think afterwards. I mentioned the Waldtraut Körner dame to you on the spur of the moment---famous diamonds plus C.I.D.---the sort of thing which comes into my head when I’m looking for a caption for a picture. Silly, I know---but I dare say I am silly. There’s just the one thing I’m good at and that’s remembering faces. I’ve made my living out of that and I’m proud of it.”

“You’ve a right to be,” rejoined Macdonald. “Well, thank you very much for answering all my questions, Mr. Webster. How long will you be staying in Vienna?”

“Perhaps it’s not for me to say, sir,” rejoined Webster, and for once there was irony in his hearty voice. “I’d like to stay till this story gets sorted out. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’ll do it: and maybe you’ll let me in on the picture angle if there’s anything doing in that line.”

After Mr. Webster had gone, Macdonald called in his young interpreter---the English-speaking Austrian policeman who was detailed to assist the C.I.D. man, who had been in a position to hear Mr. Webster’s conversation.

“You heard the story Mr. Webster told about Waldtraut Körner’s Hapsburg diamonds, Schmidt. Had you heard of it before?”

“Yes, sir. As the gentleman said, it was a bit of gossip---scandal you call it?---which got into some of the papers when Waldtraut Körner came back to Vienna. Nobody believes it---no sensible person.” The young man paused a moment and then added, “If she had any ‘Hapsburg diamonds’ she would have sold them long ago. Life was hard for her after the war.”

“That seems common sense to me,” agreed Macdonald.

“This Mr. Webster, he likes romances,” said Schmidt. “Romance pays better than common sense in the picture papers.”

“Quite true---but he gets some of his facts right,” said Macdonald, “and it’s true he remembers faces. He remembered mine---and told me so when he needn’t have.”

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