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Chapter Six

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« on: June 06, 2023, 09:22:36 am »

==1==

SUPERINTENDENT Macdonald, on what might justly be described as “his lawful occasions,” had made many entries into many houses, from mansions to hovels, but he had seldom had the feeling that he had got himself involved in a stage-set. As he walked up the wide red-carpeted stairway in Trauttmansdorffgasse, one side of his mind admired the architectural grace of a stylised interior, the other half asked, “Am I a super on an occasion of state, or in a performance of ‘der Graf von Luxembourg’? Is this the ambassadorial or mere Franz Lehar?”

Perhaps it was because he was neither on duty nor yet on a purely social occasion that he was conscious of a sense of incongruity---as though he were making an entrance while still uncertain what part he was cast for.

It was a long stairway and a wide one, with a turn halfway up: the stairs were flanked by a fine balustrade with a velvet covered hand-rail, and great pots of gladioli provided an intensity of colour against dark curtains, so that even the flowers looked dramatic. It was, indeed, “a state staircase,” but it had the charming Viennese quality of simultaneously mingling mirth with stateliness, an approach suitable to either carnival or splendour, but not, Macdonald thought, a congruous background for two rather solemn men dressed in lounge suits.

Karl Natzler and Macdonald followed a dignified manservant who led them very slowly and decorously up the stairs and then through a long shadowy music-room where a Bechstein grand gleamed in the half light and made Macdonald wonder who played it: then, through a deep white plaster archway, whose underside was studded with moulded stars, they saw the salon proper through long glass doors. It was a big airy gleaming room, beautifully lighted with many shaded lamps. The lengthy approach to this room (preceded by the solemn manservant) reinforced the first impression of dignity playing hide-and-seek with Franz Lehar---or even Strauss in lighter vein---and it was not until Macdonald was face to face with his host and hostess that the feeling of unreality left him and something quite different took its place. Here, he knew at once, were two very worried human beings, and the concern on their aged faces brought the C.I.D. man into focus again: the operatic staircase faded out and the problems of troubled humanity came to the fore.

Karl Natzler introduced Macdonald, and Sir Walter Vanbrugh shook hands and apologised for having brought him out.

“We are already profoundly indebted to you and to Dr. Natzler and his son,” said the old diplomat. “May I present you to my sister?”

Miss Vanbrugh was seated in a wide graceful armchair close to the fireplace. (An open wood fire in Vienna was a rarity, but it added greatly to the charm of the big room.) She was a very old lady, clad in sweeping black, and her ivory pale face reminded Macdonald at once of a Rembrandt portrait in the National Gallery: the finely wrinkled face and filmy dark eyes had the same sombre beauty and dignity.

“It is good of you to come to see us, Mr. Macdonald. My brother and I are greatly distressed over this matter. We cannot help asking ourselves ‘Is this just an unhappy accident?’ Now will you sit beside me, here---and you do not know our guest: Mr. Walsingham; Mr. Macdonald, Dr. Natzler.”

Macdonald turned to face a tall thin fellow of forty to fifty, who studied him with eyes that were at once interested and amused. Walsingham: the name was unknown to Macdonald (apart from historical connections), but the thin shrewd face and lively eyes were somehow familiar.

“Yes, you’ve probably seen me before,” said Walsingham, guessing the unspoken thought. “I was once taken round your department, and I remember you were pointed out to me---it was when you had just tidied up the Rodney Bretton case.”

Macdonald had no time to ransack his memory (though he was sure he had never met a man named Walsingham). Sitting facing Sir Walter Vanbrugh, he gave his mind to answering the inevitable question:

“Are you satisfied that Miss Le Vendre’s injury was caused by an accident?”

“I can only say that we found no evidence to the contrary, sir,” replied Macdonald. “She was lying where she fell: she had not been robbed: there was no evidence of malicious or maniacal attack. We heard no footsteps and so far as we could tell there was no one in the vicinity. But all these points will be considered by the Vienna police. I think I should make it quite clear that I have no standing in this matter. While I am most willing to answer your questions personally, I am not here as a policeman. Karl Natzler has more standing than I have and his opinion in this case is as authoritative as mine.”

“I can only agree with what Macdonald has said,” said Karl. “I think Miss Le Vendre was dazed by the lightning and fell backwards when she was standing on the gun-site. There was nothing at all which suggested a struggle, and I imagine she was a strong healthy girl. I looked at her hands and her neck---there was no evidence which suggested she had been attacked.”

“I am indeed glad to hear you say that,” said Sir Walter. He turned to his sister. “I think you have been worrying unnecessarily, my dear---though it may relieve your mind to tell Mr. Macdonald what bothered you. Neville---Dr. Natzler and Mr. Macdonald must have a drink.”

Walsingham, with a twitch of an eyebrow and a gesture of his hand, tacitly inquired what Macdonald would drink: there was an array of most decorative bottles on a table standing in front of the long faint gold curtains.

“Cognac?” murmured Walsingham. “I commend it as being like wisdom---above rubies---or a whisky and soda? or a concoction?”

“Cognac, thanks,” said Macdonald. “Neville,” he said to himself. “I remember him now: J. B. S. Neville . . . what was his last book . . . it went into edition after edition. . . .”

“It seems a foolish story to inflict on you,” said Miss Vanbrugh. She still had a beautiful voice, very soft and deep, with a rare quality of clarity, every vowel and consonant exquisitely enunciated. It occurred to Macdonald that her voice had something in common with the brandy which Walsingham (or J. B. S. Neville) had handed him in a balloon glass---both had aroma.

“I was once a very good housekeeper, Mr. Macdonald,” she went on. “I have ordered my brother’s households in more places than I care to remember, from Peking to Washington and Madrid to Copenhagen---but I fear I let things slip and take the line of least resistance these days: in short, I leave domestic matters to my good Frau Schmidt.” She smiled at him, the least twinkle in her dark eyes, and Macdonald realised how beautiful she had once been---and how beautiful she still was in her old age.

“I am ashamed that I should inflict on you anything so banal as domestic troubles: the servant problem in short---the stock-in-trade of the harassed suburban housewife,” she went on. “To talk to you, in Vienna of all places, merits a more intelligent choice of subject---but I will try to be brief. Schmidt consults me about the maids we employ here: you will understand that we cannot be casual in this matter, but generally I rely on her judgment. Recently, however, we made a mistake, and engaged a pretty young thing to work in the kitchen---a lovely fair girl named Clara Schwarz. She was frivolous and lazy, and she has been dismissed. But this morning another of the maids, Greta, told Frau Schmidt a rather disturbing story: last night---or last evening---the two girls went for a walk in the Hietzing woods, and Greta says they were attacked by an unknown man.” She paused, and Macdonald asked:

“Attacked in what way? Was either of them hurt?”

“No, I gather not, though Greta was very incoherent: she realised they were being followed and said so to Clara, who laughed and turned round to see who was following them. Greta caught sight of a man with a stick in his hand, and as he raised the stick Clara screamed and called to Greta to run. They were both good runners and they got away and ran home. Now that in itself is a foolish little story, Mr. Macdonald. I can well believe that Clara is a type to invite followers, but there is one thing which made me uneasy. Greta says that as they went out, Clara had the effrontery to borrow a coat from the Garderobe in the front hall, and the coat which Clara wore last night was Miss Le Vendre’s coat---a loose white woollen coat which Miss Le Vendre slips on when she goes out for a walk.”

Sir Walter put a word in here. “This baggage, Clara Schwarz, was sent packing this morning, after Greta had told Frau Schmidt about the coat,” he said, “but when charged with the offence, Clara denied it utterly. It is one girl’s word against another. My sister, of course, was troubled lest Miss Le Vendre were attacked by mistake for Clara. They both have fair hair, and wearing the same coat it is conceivable that such a mistake might be made.”

“I see,” said Macdonald. “This story puts rather a different complexion on the matter. I take it you have told the Superintendent of Police about it.”

“Not yet,” said Sir Walter. “My sister was very anxious not to make any statement to the police before she had consulted me.”

Miss Vanbrugh laid a wrinkled white hand on Macdonald’s sleeve for a moment. It was a moving gesture from one so old and dignified, like an appeal for understanding and sympathy.

“You may well think I am both foolish and timorous, Mr. Macdonald, but I want you to understand my repugnance to calling in the police unnecessarily. We are foreigners here: I have always followed the principle of being scrupulously careful before complaining to the police of a country not my own. In the first instance, I did not wish to trouble the police without good cause: it is all too easy to get English people a name for being suspicious and intolerant, and I feel this particularly in Vienna, for the Austrians are the most friendly of peoples.”

“I understand that very well,” said Macdonald. “The London divisional police are quick to resent unjustified complaints from the many aliens who live in London. I don’t belittle your scruples, I respect them: but I think this matter has gone beyond the merely trivial---and that the Vienna police should now know about this incident.”

“Thank you for your understanding,” she smiled. “Now how does the position stand? I take into my household a pretty, frivolous, foolish child. Clara Schwarz is not much more than a child. Her work is unsatisfactory and she is dismissed: so far I am justified. But am I justified in bringing her to the notice of the police when I have no more to go on than the report of another young maid, who may have made an accusation out of jealousy of a girl more attractive than herself? The very fact that we are English, and that my brother has held high office in times past, might cause the police to act with greater severity than the circumstances warrant.” She held out her frail wrinkled hands in a troubled gesture. “I do not know for certain that pretty, silly Clara is involved in this at all, but if I report her to the police, involved she will be.”

Macdonald smiled at her. “Are you not worrying too much, madam, and being over-scrupulous about this ‘baggage,’ as Sir Walter calls her? Why not trust the discretion of the police? I can only give you my word for it that the police are generally discreet in such matters, and I have no reason to believe that the Vienna police would fall short of the English in their investigations. I do advise you, very strongly, to tell them the whole story.”

“Mr. Macdonald is perfectly right, Miss Vanbrugh: the police must be told,” put in Walsingham. “They will probably get the truth out of young Greta in a matter of minutes and then deal with Clara. Does she live in Vienna, by the way?”

“No. She came to Vienna to find work, and stayed with a married sister. I think she has gone back to Wiener Neustadt. My good Frau Schmidt will know,” replied Miss Vanbrugh. She looked at Walsingham with some severity. “You say the police will get the truth out of Greta: my own fear is that the police will terrify her. I have seen this very thing happen before.” She turned to Macdonald. “If I were in London, I should not feel like this, Mr. Macdonald. I wish there were a kindly sensible London police constable here---I have a great regard for our London police.” She smiled at him. “You talk German yourself, I am sure.”

Macdonald laughed back at her, replying to her underlying thought. “I’m very sorry, madam, but I cannot help you over this. My German was never fluent and I have forgotten most of what I did know, but apart from that, I cannot interfere. Police rules are as exact and punctilious as diplomatic ones.”

The old lady sighed. “I knew you would say that---but I regret it. Nevertheless, you did say quite explicitly, both of you and Dr. Karl Natzler, that you thought that Elizabeth Le Vendre was injured in an accident, not by an assailant. With all my heart I hope that that is true, and that she herself will be able to reassure us on that point when she recovers consciousness.”

==2==

Ten minutes later, Macdonald and Karl Natzler were strolling back towards Altzaugasse in company with Neville Walsingham, who had said that he would enjoy a walk. The evening air was sweet and fragrant after the storm, the rain-washed earth and trees giving out a scent which was at once tonic and sensuous.

“I have a certain amount of sympathy with the old lady over this business,” said Walsingham abruptly. “There was some wretched story---in Germany, I think---when a young maid employed by the Vanbrughs killed herself rather than face the police when she had been caught stealing---or snooping---or both. The circumstances here are different, of course, but Miss Vanbrugh was immeasurably distressed over the other business.”

“That explains her present attitude,” said Macdonald. “It occurred to me that there must have been a reason, for common sense dictates that all the facts should be put before the police.”

“How thankful she would have been if you and Natzler had undertaken to interrogate Greta, poor old lady,” chuckled Walsingham. “An English C.I.D. man on the spot was like an answer to prayer. But it’s quite a conundrum, isn’t it? Assuming that the blonde baggage did borrow Miss Le Vendre’s coat, who is to say whether Clara Schwarz was attacked because she was mistaken for the English girl, or the English girl was attacked because she was mistaken for Clara Schwarz? And believe me, in the gloaming it would have been quite easy to have mistaken one for the other.”

“But why should anybody have attacked the English girl?” demanded Karl. “She has only been in Vienna a few days: and I agree with my mother that things like that are not characteristic of Hietzing.”

“I can’t tell you,” said Walsingham, “but I do believe it’s true that there is an aftermath of wartime distrust in Vienna. By and large, the Viennese have liked the British, even in conditions of the Occupation, but there is a small minority, especially among the pro-Germans, who hate us. And I think Vanbrugh is a man who has made enemies as well as friends. He’s unconsciously arrogant, you know.”

“Even though that is all true---and I don’t admit it---why attack an English girl from the Vanbrugh establishment?” demanded Karl indignantly.

“Again, I don’t know,” said Walsingham, and Macdonald put in:

“You may not know, Mr. Walsingham, but it occurs to me that you have some ideas on the subject. If that is so, I hope you’ll give the police the benefit of your ideas.”

“I haven’t anything as definite as ideas, and certainly nothing that I could tell the police,” said Walsingham, “but I sense a tension of sorts between Vanbrugh and some of the Austrians who are ultra nationalists. It’s difficult to put into words, and I shouldn’t attempt to do so if it weren’t that you were here, Macdonald. You know, you’re bound to get drawn into this, however rigidly you try to keep outside.”

“I don’t propose to argue on that point,” rejoined Macdonald, “but I should be interested to know what you mean by a tension between the Austrians and Sir Walter Vanbrugh.”

“Again, I’m not prepared to give you chapter and verse,” said Walsingham, “but I have known Vienna most of my life and I pick up the feelings of people I knew in the long ago. I’m a writer and my friends are mostly in the bookish line. It’s known---how, I can’t tell you---that Sir Walter is writing his memoirs, and I think that a number of people in Vienna would be happier if his script remained unpublished.” He paused, and Macdonald put in:

“All this is no business of mine, whether you are right or wrong in your surmises, but I should be interested to hear if you, in your own mind, connect an accident to Sir Walter’s secretary with the apprehensions (of persons unspecified) concerning Sir Walter’s memoirs.”

Walsingham laughed, quite good humouredly. “Oh, I know my suspicions are nebulous---without form and void as the Scriptures put it---and it’s because I do know that, that I should decline to give any opinion to the police even if they asked me to do so. But one can’t help being aware that certain results may follow from Miss Le Vendre’s unfortunate accident. I think, you know, that she will be sent home to England after she has recovered. Not that she isn’t an excellent secretary: I’m told she is very good indeed. But Miss Vanbrugh will plead that she does not care to have responsibility for a young English girl so far away from home: and Sir Walter has got to a stage in what some might call his ‘literary labours’ when a trustworthy and competent secretary is needed. I’m sure he was a most distinguished diplomat, but as an author he is a fine old muddler. I’ve seen his script---holograph, with addenda, footnotes and corrections ad lib. In short, in the absence of a secretary, the great work will falter: especially as Miss Vanbrugh, who has previously co-operated, finds this work too wearing.” Walsingham broke off, and there was a note of amusement again in his voice when he added, “It’s a pity that you insist on the formalities of police procedure so firmly, Macdonald. I think there might be a number of points in this problem on which your opinion might be of great value to your Austrian colleagues. And this business of pretty lazy Clara intrigues me quite a lot. She may not have been so foolish as Miss Vanbrugh assumes.”

“Well, I admit that you have put forward some fruitful suggestions,” said Macdonald, “but I think it not improbable that the Vienna police will envisage all the possibilities which have occurred to you without co-operation from either you or me.”

“Even so, they’ll never get beyond the façade in the Vanbrugh mansion,” said Walsingham. “You would see through it. But to consider the simplest elucidation of this story: Dr. Natzler, what are the chances, in your opinion, that Miss Le Vendre will remember exactly what did happen to her just before she fell off the gun-site?”

“My opinion is of no value,” said Karl. “It’s not a subject on which there can be any certainty: some concussed patients remember events in detail, some suffer a complete black-out. The most I can say is that I should expect Miss Le Vendre to remember if there were anybody near at hand immediately previous to her accident.”

They had reached the gate of the Natzlers’ house, and Walsingham bade them good night adding to Macdonald, “I shall hope to see you again while I am in Vienna. Admittedly I may try to cadge some information from you---writers are shameless cadgers of information---but it’s just possible that I may be able to reciprocate with a quid pro quo.”

“That should be very interesting,” said Macdonald dryly. “Incidentally, when did you yourself arrive in Vienna?”

“Yesterday; I left London on the same plane as yourself, oddly enough. I don’t think we noticed one another---or at least, I didn’t notice you. I put in a brief visit to some friends in Zürich and then came on here.” He broke off and then asked coolly, “And you maintain that you are in Vienna on holiday, having no ulterior motive?”

“I am on holiday, having no other purpose of any kind,” replied Macdonald. “I thought I had made that clear.”

“Abundantly clear,” chuckled Walsingham. “Well, I respect a man’s holidays---so I’ll leave you to yours. Nevertheless, I doubt if a specialist of your calibre is any more capable of ignoring detection than a medical man is capable of ignoring diagnosis.”

“I leave you to your doubts,” retorted Macdonald, “only reminding you that detectives observe professional etiquette as doctors do. In other words, we don’t butt in on other men’s cases.”

Walsingham laughed a little. “Very high-minded. I’m a writer---perhaps not a very high-minded one. I take an interest in anything interesting that comes my way. Good night.”

==3==

Karl Natzler paused in the hall. “What did you make of that chap?” he inquired.

“I didn’t like him too much: but he has a capacity for fitting together the bits and pieces he has observed, and I think it’s probable that he has more powers of exact observation than you might imagine from his conversation,” replied Macdonald. “In fact, I know he has: he’s a pretty able writer---J. B. S. Neville. You’ve probably heard of him.”

“I know his name—but what does he write?”

“Travel stuff, generally with a political angle. Between the wars he wrote up his travels in Eastern Europe: in 1945 he published Wings over the World---an assessment of aerial attack in the future. His last book dealt with the north polar regions, a medley of exploration, adventure and future air bases on the polar ice cap. It sold in thousands.”

“What’s he doing in Vienna?” demanded Karl.

Ça, se voit---getting material for yet another book. Perhaps he thinks he’s found it. A lot of writers are cashing in on the popularity of the intellectual ‘blood’.”

Macdonald paused for a moment before entering the sitting-room. “I was interested in the fact that Walsingham thought out for himself the two possibilities---that Clara Schwarz might have been attacked because she was mistaken for Elizabeth Le Vendre, or vice versa. And he produced a reason of sorts to account for an attack on the latter.”

Karl nodded. “Wouldn’t it have been more logical to attack Sir Walter himself, though?”

“More logical but less easy,” said Macdonald. “Vanbrugh doesn’t go for solitary walks in the Hietzing woods, and I expect he’s driven to all his appointments, with a chauffeur to see him in and out of the car. He couldn’t be got at ‘accidentally’ in short. If Vanbrugh were attacked there would be an uproar.”

“Then you think this man Walsingham may be right in his ideas?”

“I’ve no means of knowing---and anyway it’s not my business,” said Macdonald firmly. “The Vienna police don’t butt in on my preserves and I’m not poaching on theirs.”

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