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Chapter Four

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« on: June 06, 2023, 08:10:10 am »

==1==

The weather changed on the day that Karl Natzler arrived in Vienna. Macdonald drove with Dr. Natzler to Schwechat to meet Karl, and the doctor had some misgivings as to whether the Viscount would be able to land, for the cloud ceiling was low. It was still warm, but heavy purple clouds had been massing overhead and then a mist seemed to settle below the clouds: there was no wind, and to Macdonald’s mind it looked as though the fine weather was going to break up with a thunderstorm.

They heard the plane approach and circle overhead, but it did not break the cloud ceiling, and from the sound of the engine they knew it was receding again.

“I am glad Ilse did not come,” said Natzler. “She gets nervous. If it’s too difficult to land here, they may have to try Münich.”

“It’s coming back,” said Macdonald. “They’re still trying.”

The Viscount circled three times altogether before it succeeded in coming down to the runway, while all the personnel of Schwechat listened and watched, and the fire-engine crews stood by in the manner so nerve-racking to the inexperienced. Then the great aircraft touched down and taxied in sedately.

Gott sei Dank,” exclaimed Dr. Natzler. “It comes in safely every day---and every day it seems a miracle.”

For a moment Macdonald found it difficult to recognise Karl. In 1945 he had been a thin leggy schoolboy: now, at the age of twenty-six he was as tall as Macdonald, well built and well poised, looking older than his years, and exceedingly good-looking. It was when he smiled and his dark eyes gleamed with pleasure that Macdonald saw again the schoolboy he had known in the wartime years.

“This is grand!” said Karl. “We have so often said ‘When Robert Macdonald comes to stay, we will do this that and the other,’ and now you’re really here. You haven’t altered a bit: I should have known you wherever I’d seen you.”

“You’ve altered quite a lot,” said Macdonald. “You’re as tall as I am---just---and you probably weigh more than I do.”

“I probably do: you were always lean--‘long and lank and brown,’ as I learnt at school in England. What weather for Vienna! I thought we should have to give up and land somewhere else, but the B.E.A. pilots are marvellous chaps.”

They drove back to Hietzing and sat in the white-walled sitting-room, while Karl told his father about the clinic where he was working, and Frau Natzler pressed upon them the Viennese “sandwiches” and pastries which are the delight (and despair) of all visitors. It was when all the professional news had been exchanged that Dr. Natzler said, “Now I am going to leave you and Macdonald to gossip, Karl. I have a patient to see---a friend of old Weinberg, I gather.”

“And I am going to the kitchen to see that Margret has got everything in order,” said Frau Natzler.

“Well, that will give me a chance to discuss a point with you, Macdonald,” said Karl. “It pertains to doctoring, but it’s one on which you may have had more experience than I have. Have you ever known a case of a head injury which subsequently proved fatal when the injured person was able to get up and move and speak normally after the injury?” He held out a box of cigarettes to Macdonald (Player’s no. 6, bought in Switzerland).

“There are a number of such cases on record,” rejoined Macdonald, “as you probably know from the text-books.” He lighted his cigarette and went on: “I take it you want to know if I have met such a case personally. I once worked on a murder case where a man---a farm labourer---was found dead in his own cottage kitchen, having been seen to walk indoors, take his boots off and ask for a cup of tea before he died. Death was due to brain injuries, caused by a blow on the temple. The confusing part of it was that this man had been attacked outside the cottage, and presumably left for dead. He recovered consciousness sufficiently to walk indoors, where he sat down in a chair and died an hour or so later.”

“Well, I’m interested to know you’ve met such a case,” said Karl, “because old Zeiss met me at Zürich on my way through, and told me about a similar case which happened at the airport on the Monday you came to Vienna. About half an hour before your plane arrived, a young chap in hiking kit went to the Toiletten and slipped on the flight of steps leading down from the main hall. He went a proper purler on his back and bumped from top to bottom, hitting the back of his head as he fell.”

“Was he drunk?” asked Macdonald promptly. “I should say those were very safe stairs.”

“If he was drunk, nobody noticed, but there’s no evidence to show he was; but he’d certainly got nailed boots on, and nailed boots are inclined to be treacherous on stairs. He was also clutching a parcel---a cuckoo clock he’d bought as a souvenir---and apparently he clutched his parcel trying to save it, instead of dropping the parcel and saving himself, silly cuckoo! The attendant saw it happen, and the chap was knocked right out; by the time he got to the bottom he just lay there---semi-conscious, I gather.”

“It sounds a bit odd,” said Macdonald. “Was the attendant certain the chap wasn’t pushed, or tripped?”

“The attendant was perfectly certain,” rejoined Karl. “As it happened, there was nobody else on the stairs at all. The attendant---Stein---rushed to help the chap up, and after a few seconds the latter recovered, sat up, collected his parcel and laughed at himself for being such a clumsy idiot. He spoke both French and German---he was a Belgian, I think, and was on his way home to Brussels after a holiday in Switzerland. He had over an hour to wait for his plane, because he’d been driven to the airport by a friend, and said he wanted a shower. I’m giving you all the details, because it shows that he talked quite collectedly: Stein said he never thought for a moment the chap could be badly hurt: he said baths in Switzerland were too expensive and he wanted a shower and a clean shirt before boarding the plane---all perfectly sensible.”

“And you’re going to tell me that this chap died from injuries received in his tumble?”

“He died of cerebral hæmorrhage some hours later, after being admitted to hospital. The rest of the story is as follows. He went into the shower-room, and the attendant being busy with other customers coming in, didn’t give the clumsy chap another thought, until he went to tidy up the shower-room best part of an hour later. He found the chap---Welsbach his name was, I think---unconscious on the tiled floor. A doctor was sent for, the patient was removed to hospital and died there. The injury to the base of his skull set up hæmorrhage and he must have fallen a second time, this time on the tiled floor of the shower. It was an odd case, but from the medical point of view consistent with what was known to have happened.”

Macdonald sat and pondered. “I take it the police were informed?”

“Certainly they were. I know what you’re asking yourself---was Welsbach robbed? The answer is that he was not: his purse, wallet, passport, plane tickets, watch---everything was safe, including the broken cuckoo clock. The authorities found his address, notified his people and somebody came along in another plane and identified him. It was all quite straightforward---but it demonstrates again the incalculable nature of head injuries. Moral, never move a patient with a head injury until a doctor has arrived.”

“Very sound---in theory,” said Macdonald. “If I’d stayed put and waited for a doctor every time I’ve been bashed on the head, I should have been dead long ago. My general preoccupation is to get my head out of the way before the next bash. But come to think of it, I was lucky on Monday. Presumably the unfortunate young man was lying unconscious in the shower-room when I went down to the lavatories at Zürich Airport. If I’d seen him tumble, or found him unconscious, professional probity would have forced me to stop and say ‘What’s all this about?’---just as you would have done if you’d found him. And I should probably have missed the Viscount.” He paused and then added, “My guess is that the chap had put down a couple of cognacs, or what have you, and was dizzy before he tackled the stairs.”

“Well, it’s an idea,” said Karl Natzler. “Eaten something which disagreed with him, had a couple of drinks to steady his stomach and it didn’t work. Biliousness can make any chap see double, even without the brandy. . . . Hallo! You said it was going to thunder, and you’re right! It’s going to be a terrific storm.”

“We’d better move those deck-chairs in,” said Macdonald, “it’s going to pour.”

They rushed outside to the garden, moved the chairs and hurried back indoors to hear Frau Natzler exclaiming to her husband:

“But she will be sheltering from the storm. No one would walk through a storm like this.”

“But English girls never mind storms,” said Dr. Natzler.

He turned to Macdonald. “Miss Vanbrugh has just rung up. She asked if Miss Le Vendre were here with us. The young lady went out for a walk with the little fat dog, and the dog has gone home alone, all trembling and frightened, and the young lady has not returned, although it is past the time she promised to be home. Miss Vanbrugh is worried about her, and as we are the only people Miss Le Vendre knows in Vienna Miss Vanbrugh rang me up to inquire.”

“I expect the dog smelt the thunder and rushed home on its own account,” said Macdonald, “and Miss Le Vendre may well have taken shelter. At least, that’s what I should say if I were in London,” he added.

“Perhaps you can’t say it quite so comfortably in Vienna,” said Karl. “Who is the young lady?”

“Sir Walter Vartbrugh’s new English secretary,” replied Dr. Natzler. “She has only been in Vienna a few days. She came on the same plane as Macdonald.”

Karl turned and looked at Macdonald. “A sensible girl?”

“Quite sensible---but very young. Still, I don’t think she’d have done anything silly, like accepting a lift from a stranger.”

“Sir Walter Vanbrugh,” said Karl thoughtfully. “He was a V.I.P. in the Foreign Office at one time, wasn’t he? Is he in Vienna officially?”

It was Dr. Natzler who answered. “No. He has retired, and is living in Vienna as a private resident. His son-in-law is in the Embassy, of course, and it may be that Sir Walter acts in some advisory capacity. It is not for me to say---and one does not inquire.”

“How does an Englishman contrive to live in Vienna in a private capacity these days?” Karl asked Macdonald. “I thought your currency regulations were binding on everybody, high and low alike.”

“I don’t pretend to know,” replied Macdonald. “Ex-Foreign Office eminences are not the concern of my department, unless they are given police protection, and even then they’re not my cup of tea.” He turned to his host. “About this girl,” he said. “Do you think there is any reason for disquiet?”

Natzler shrugged his shoulders. “I should have said not, especially in this sector of Vienna. It is as safe as your Hampstead Heath . . . generally speaking.”

“But there have been exceptions,” said Karl.

“Not in Hietzing,” said Frau Natzler firmly. “In any case, if Miss Vanbrugh is worried, she can let the police know. We have police in Vienna,” she added to Macdonald, rather indignantly, but her husband replied:

“Sir Walter is out, and Miss Vanbrugh did not wish to raise an alarm unnecessarily. She is an old lady,” he added to Karl, “and she is of a nervous disposition. She never ventures out alone herself, and she did not feel happy that this young girl insisted on going out alone---as all English girls do, of course.”

“And Austrian girls also,” said Frau Natzler. “It is ridiculous to imagine a young girl is not safe in Vienna: there are university students, music students, art students---and of all nationalities. It is only the Russians who do not go out alone,” she added severely.

“But that doesn’t help Miss Vanbrugh if she is troubled about Miss Le Vendre’s absence,” said the doctor. “As I have said, Miss Vanbrugh is old, and she tends to exaggerate her troubles: if she is worried she gets a migraine, with a tic douloureux which is most painful. I think I will just drive round and see her. I can at least reassure her.”

“But, Franz---look at the rain! It is a deluge, it is like a wall of water! Would any girl walk through such a downpour?”

“I think this one would have,” said Macdonald. “Miss Le Vendre wouldn’t be frightened of a thunderstorm, still less of a downpour, but I think she would be very unwilling to cause Miss Vanbrugh distress. I don’t like it very much.”

“I will go round to the Trauttmansdorffgasse,” said the doctor, “and I will let you know if the young lady has returned.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Macdonald, and Karl said:

“I’ll come, too---and then we can all take counsel.”

“Do not be late for supper,” said Ilse. “My chicken, it must not be spoiled.”

==2==

It was nearly dark when they dashed across to the garage through torrential rain, and lightning was fairly crackling across the sky in blinding spasms.

“We have not had a storm like this for years,” said the doctor. “It is indeed fierce. Perhaps Ilse was right---no one would walk through this.”

“You’re worried, Macdonald,” said Karl, “and that is not like you. What are you thinking?”

“Simply this: if that child---and to me she’s no more than a child---if she took the dog for a walk, she would have gone up towards the woods---it’s the obvious direction to take a dog for a walk, especially in Vienna, where leads and muzzles are demanded. Accidents in thunderstorms aren’t very frequent, but they do happen, and when they happen, it’s generally under trees.”

“True enough. I wasn’t thinking of the woods,” said Karl. “If she did go through the woods, she probably walked up to the old anti-aircraft-gun emplacement. It’s the obvious place to walk to, because it’s something definite, and being high up you get a good view on a fine day. But perhaps we shall find she’s got home again. Otherwise,” he added resignedly, “it looks as though you and I are going to get very wet, and the chicken is going to be ruined.”

Dr. Natzler drew up outside the imposing front of the Vanbrughs’ house. It did not stand in a garden, as the Natzlers’ house did, but straight on to the pavement, with wrought-iron grilles across the lower windows and great double doors closed before the carriage entrance. It was so built that cars could be driven in under cover before the occupants alighted, but Natzler drew his car up at the kerb and stood in the rain and rang at the formidable-looking gates.

Karl whistled to himself as they sat in the car, and Macdonald said, “This seems rather bad luck on you---and on your mother. You’ve only just got home for a holiday, the fatted calf is being prepared, your mother is rejoicing, and then the whole time-table is upset because an English girl goes out and gets caught in a thunderstorm.”

“But that’s nothing,” said Karl, “or one might say it’s in character with family habits. Hardly a week goes by without my parents being involved in somebody else’s crises. Anything from a lost dog to a runaway husband, a premature birth or a sudden death---and I might tell you my mother rushes to the rescue also, presto, con brio, sforzando, agitato. I am used to it. Had it not been the English young lady, it would have been the little fat dog. If I have to get wet to the skin, I would rather it were the young lady. . . . Ah, here is my father.”

Dr. Natzler reappeared to tell them that Miss Le Vendre had not returned, and that Miss Vanbrugh was still unwilling to inform the police without her brother’s permission. “She does not wish to make ‘an international situation,’ ” said Natzler. “She is foolish---but then she is very old. Now Schmidt---the old maid, thinks that Miss Le Vendre went up into the woods with Fritzel----”

“I knew it,” said Karl. “Macdonald and I will go up to the old ack-ack site---and there, while he and I are soaked to the skin, we shall find a sensible English miss keeping dry in the lee of the emplacement. Have you a torch in this car? It is nearly dark---good, here is a torch.”

“Take the car---it will save you some walking,” said Natzler, but Karl retorted:

“No. You may need the car yourself. The little dog may get lost next---or Sir Walter himself. And ring the police, Father: report on your own authority. This is not really funny.”

“How long has the girl been out?” asked Macdonald.

“Nearly two hours. She started before there was any thunder at all.”

“Then it’s quite time she was found,” said Macdonald.

Dr. Natzler went back into the house, and Karl and Macdonald turned up the collars of their raincoats and set out in the pouring rain through the quiet shadowy streets. It was not more than ten minutes before they reached a hilly road which led to the open woodland which lies to the south and west of Hietzing, adding great charm to that pleasant district. Soon the road became a track, down which the rain-water poured in runnels.

“There are dozens of these tracks,” said Karl. “She may have taken any of them---and there are small houses, chalets and gardeners’ shacks where she could have sheltered. I’m only guessing at the route she took, on the supposition that she’s more likely to have made for the high ground and a definite point. Then it’s possible the dog chose the way: Fritzel may be old and fat, but all dachshunds are intelligent.”

“It’s a wild goose chase anyway,” said Macdonald. “At least you have an idea, so we might as well follow it.”

They trudged on through the rain: in the gloom it was impossible to tell if the woodlands were of large or small extent, but at least there were definite paths and they climbed steadily until they were clear of the trees and approaching a sort of plateau. It was less dark here, and Macdonald could see the line of a building against the sky---not a house, but a wall of some sort whose ridge was clearly perceptible.

“That’s the gun-site,” said Karl. “I often thought of this place when I used to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath when we were in London during the war. The distances in London are much bigger, of course, but Hampstead Heath gives a view over London as these hills do over Vienna. Let’s walk right round the emplacement to begin with, and then go up to the gun-site.”

The thunder had almost ceased: only an occasional distant rumble sounded now, and the lightning flickered sporadically behind the heights of the Leopoldsberg away to the north. The rain still fell, not in the storm torrents of half an hour ago, but steadily, and a wind was blowing through the rough herbage and undergrowth. Through the curtain of rain Macdonald could see the blurred lights of the city far below, and the heavy clouds reflected the lights in a sullen glare. The C.I.D. man walked on beside Karl Natzler, who was swinging his torch and whistling cheerfully: the tune he had chosen sounded incongruous to Macdonald in this place, but he joined his whistle to Karl’s, feeling that if an English girl heard “The bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond” in the hills above Vienna she would surely be encouraged to find out who was whistling it. The two men walked round the rampart, and then Karl said:

“There are some steps up here to the gun platform: there’d be shelter of a sort under the walls. . . .”

It was there that they found Elizabeth Le Vendre: she was lying at the foot of the steps, as though she had fallen down them. In the beam of the torch, her fair hair shone a little, as the runnels of rain-water shone: she lay face down in a pool of water and her light woollen coat lay in sodden folds on the saturated ground.

==3==

“She can’t have drowned . . . not in that puddle . . . she can’t.” It was Karl who muttered, as he bent and lifted the girl, very slowly and gently, while Macdonald held the torch. “No. . . . She’s not dead, either, but she’s deadly cold.” He laid her on her back and his hands moved round her neck, under her head, and then the careful skilful fingers felt over her skull, under the sodden fair hair which still shone pathetically round the grey-white face.

“It’s here---the hell of a bump: she must have fallen backwards. . . . Well, it’s your drill again, Macdonald---be careful how you move a head injury. We daren’t risk carrying her. A stretcher’s the only way.”

He stood up and took his raincoat off and bent to wrap it round the girl’s body. “I’ll run to the nearest house that has a telephone and call an ambulance. Then I’ll come back here with blankets. I won’t be long. If we try carrying her we may kill her.”

“Yes. All right. I’ll stay here.”

Karl pounded off down the slope, and Macdonald added his own coat on top of Karl’s. He knew well enough that cold following a head injury and shock might weigh the balance on the wrong side. Then he stood beside the prone body and sought to penetrate the gloom around him: he could see the steps, and could believe that it might have been possible for the girl to have been half stunned or stupefied by the lightning and to have crashed down the steps. His eyes picked out a lighter patch on the dark ground and he found her bag, a white leather satchel: it was closed and the contents were still in it. Not robbed, then: though robbery in this place did not seem very likely.

Macdonald felt uneasy and unhappy about the whole business: when he and Dr. Natzler had walked back from Schönbrunn with Elizabeth Le Vendre the doctor had talked about the walk through the woods, and Macdonald had said, “When you have made friends with Fritzel, you must take him up there for a walk. I remember the view from the top, though it’s years and years since I was there.”

“I told her to come here,” he thought, “and this is the result.”

He bent down to listen for her breathing, aware that her face had looked so much more dead than alive---and then he heard running footsteps and Karl’s breathless voice.

“I’ve called an ambulance: they’ll bring the stretcher up here. With any luck she’ll be all right . . . and perhaps the chicken will still be edible after all.”

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