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Chapter Ten

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« on: June 07, 2023, 06:42:08 am »


MR. Ernest Henry Webster, described on his passport as a professional photographer, had not the good fortune to stay in the gracious quarter of Hietzing, near to the Schönbrunn Palace and the wooded hills, when he came to Vienna. Not that this troubled him: Mr. Webster was not, as he himself put it, ‘choosey.’ He considered that he was very fortunate to be given hospitality in Vienna at all, hotels costing what they do. “If it hadn’t been for Auntie, I shouldn’t have risked coming,” he said. Ernest Henry Webster was a gregarious soul: he liked talking and he talked to anybody he could find who spoke English---and a surprising number of Viennese had picked up some English during the Occupation.

“Auntie’s an old inhabitant,” said Mr. Webster. “Came to Vienna in 1905---and that’s a long time ago, that is, even to a middle-aged chap like me.”

“Auntie,” known as Fräulein Braun, was known to a number of charitably minded English persons in Vienna: she was a survival of a once well-known type---the private governess. She had come to Vienna in 1905, at the age of twenty, as English governess to a prosperous family of Viennese bankers, and she had stayed in Austria ever since. During the troubled days of the First World War she had accompanied her original employer to a country refuge in Carinthia, where she had spent the next ten years, teaching English to another generation of young Rothmeisters and helping to run a house where poverty had superseded wealth. Undoubtedly Auntie (her real name was Elsie Brown) had shown the qualities of devotion and faithfulness which did distinguish the English governess of long ago, and she had returned to Vienna with her original mistress in 1930 and had cared for Frau Rothmeister until the latter’s death in 1940. “Fräulein Braun,” a poor and prematurely aged spinster, had been ignored under the Nazi régime—there were many ageing Englishwomen of her type in Vienna, too humble to attract retaliation for their nationality. She was left a small bequest by the Rothmeister family, who installed her in a two-roomed flat not far from the West Bahnhof. During the rest of the Second World War she had let one of her precious rooms (house room was at a premium in Vienna) to an Austrian bank clerk and his wife who “collaborated.” When the war came to an end and the Occupation began, she had once again let her room. It was not until 1955 that she had found herself in possession of two rooms again. Then, having established contact with her English relatives again, she had invited her unknown nephew---Ernest Henry (son of her married sister), to visit her in Vienna. Fräulein Braun was very poor: she had survived because she had a room to let, and since the Occupation the charitable English and American families resident in Vienna had helped to keep her in food and firing. Small blame to her if she thought her English nephew might do something to assist her---and so Ernest Henry Webster came to Vienna “to look up Auntie,” occupied her spare room, and not ungenerously spent his Travellers’ Allowance in buying her some much needed comforts. In a poor house in a poor street, Webster attracted very little attention: it was a crowded neighbourhood and the Viennese had become accustomed to the English---and French and Americans---in their midst. If he had wished, Ernest Henry Webster could have stayed on there unnoticed, for he had a trick of taking colour from his environment and becoming one of a crowd in a crowded quarter, and he could pass the time of day and say a few phrases in very passable German.


On the Friday morning after Walsingham’s death, Mr. Webster set out for Schönbrunn Palace. He was a very skilful photographer, and he had in mind a possible sale for a series of unusual photographs of Vienna. Whatever artistry he was capable of expressed itself in the ability to “see a picture” through the medium of his viewfinder. He had already spent several days in the heart of the city, getting pictures of people as well as streets and buildings: the old market women, the children who played in the parks, the professors who came and went in the University. Now he had decided to concentrate on Schönbrunn, the gardens, the fountain, the Tiergarten and the Gloriette. The arches of the Gloriette, mirrored in the still waters of the pool, attracted him particularly. “They ought to use it for a film,” he thought, “ballet, maybe . . . there’s something about it . . .”

He took a tram out to Hietzing and strolled across to the Schönbrunn entrance. It was a beautiful day after a night of rain, and Mr. Webster walked slowly round, studying the vistas between the avenues of clipped trees and keeping an eye open for interesting types. After a while he climbed slowly up the paths which led to the Gloriette, noting the play of sunlight and shadow on the open arches and under the colonnade, and the great imperial eagle which crowned the central pediment. He took a number of shots, concentrating on his work, before he strolled to the path by the pool and looked back to the palace, away down below. A young man was sitting on a bench just below the Gloriette, reading in the sunshine, and Mr. Webster, conscious of a picture, turned his camera towards the solitary figure.

“A student,” hazarded the cameraman, and from habit his mind formulated a caption for the shot. “Young Austria . . . studying history in the grounds of the Hapsburg Palace.”

Then, as the young man turned to look at him, Mr. Webster hurriedly beamed and hurried forward towards the bench.

“What a bit of luck!” cried the cameraman cheerfully. “I mistook you for an Austrian, but of course you’re English. Now I never like to take liberties, although I’m a cameraman with my living to earn---and folks sometimes forget that---and it’s not always easy. Would you mind if I used you as a model, so to speak? ‘Student of history in the shadow of the ‘Hapsburgs’ Folly’---if you take me. A good picture needs a striking caption, and I’d say that’s a good one, though I says it as shouldn’t.”

“Matter of opinion,” replied the other, “and why were you so sure I’m an Englishman, anyway?”

Webster chuckled. “Matter of observation,” he replied. “As it happened, you came to Vienna on the same plane as I did---last Monday. You’ve got an English passport---I saw it. Not that you wouldn’t pass for an Austrian: quite a continental look about you. And you talk the language---like any native.” Mr. Webster smiled happily, sat down and produced a cigarette, quite indifferent to the fact that his companion on the bench looked anything but encouraging.

“It’s a funny thing,” went on the cameraman. “I’ve often noticed when I’m on holiday in foreign parts---and I get around quite a bit---that if you observe fellow-travellers---(no offence meant, just a descriptive phrase)---on the train or coach or what have you, you often happen across them again when you get to your destination. Just chance, of course. All a matter of being observant.”

“There might be other ways of putting it,” rejoined the dark fellow.

“Nosey Parker? That sort of thing?” queried Mr. Webster affably. “I’m a good-natured sort of bloke myself, and not thin-skinned either. No cameraman can afford to be thin-skinned. Now there’s one thing I should like to have your opinion on. What did you think of that film we both saw last night?”

The other still did not reply and Mr. Webster chuckled.

“Bless you, I sat behind you best part of three hours in that picture house---the Apollo, in the Gumpendorfer Strasse: or if I didn’t, I’ll eat my hat. I’ll swear it was you, besides . . .” He broke off, a look of doubt crossing his face for a moment. “If I’m wrong, tell me so,” he added. “I’ll always admit it if I’ve made a mistake---but you’ve got a striking face, if I may say so.”

“I didn’t say you’d made a mistake,” rejoined the other. “I was at the Apollo, and I did sit through the Streicher film---a damned good film, too---but I didn’t see you there.”

“You wouldn’t have, would you: I was sitting behind you,” replied Webster. “Fact was, I nearly spoke to you as we went out. Just because I knew you were English. I get a bit lonesome in foreign cities: I’m not so good at the lingo as you are, though Auntie does her best to improve me. Auntie’s lived in Vienna since nineteen-o-five. What was the name of that joint you went to after the picture? I went there, too. I like these light ales. . . . What was the place called? Liesinger something?”

“Liesingerkeller,” replied the other. “If you’ve been following me around, I’d like to know why.”

“No offence meant,” replied Mr. Webster. “As I said, I sat behind you in the cinema and after the picture I thought I’d stroll around: very gay the city looks at night---animated as you might put it. Maybe I did say to myself ‘He’s English: if I could cotton on to him, perhaps we could have a drink together.’ Comes of that lonely feeling you get in foreign parts---or I get it, anyway.”

The younger man suddenly laughed. “You’re a rum cove,” he said.

“Name of Webster,” rejoined the cameraman. “Mr. Stratton, isn’t it? I saw your name on your suitcase while we were in the Customs at Schwechat. Well, there it is. I sat and drank light ale in the Liesingerkeller two tables away from you. You speak the lingo,” he added sadly. “I don’t. That adds up to the fact that you got off. I didn’t. Makes a fellow sort of shy when he can’t get beyond ‘Wie geht es Ihnen?’ or whatever it is. Then anno domini has something to do with it. No one’d ever suggest I’m the answer to a maiden’s prayer.” Mr. Webster broke off for a moment and then asked, “Staying here long?”

“Just a few days,” responded the other. “Are you taking pictures for one of the English papers? Vienna’s quite in the news these days.”

“You’re right, it is,” rejoined Mr. Webster. “I haven’t any contract---mine’s free-lance stuff, but I’ve a chance of selling a series to a publishing bloke---European cities, you know the sort of thing. Quite a good sale for that type of book now tourism is on the increase---and it’s not easy to get books about Vienna in London.” He paused and then went on: “Well, that explains me---just a chap with his living to earn. Of course I wouldn’t have risked coming so far if it hadn’t been that Auntie could put me up. Simple but homely---she’s a wonderful old lady. Keeps up with the news, too. I always try to take back a few newsy items: she likes to know what’s going on. And that reminds me---isn’t there a story in these parts? Accident to a young English girl up in the woods, during that thunderstorm?”

“I believe so,” rejoined Stratton, “though I can’t see there’s anything to make a fuss about. She wasn’t killed. If you want to know about it, it’s reported in the local paper.”

“I’ve no doubt it is: the trouble is that I’m no good at the language,” said Mr. Webster plaintively. “I’d like to know about it---I’ve a reason for being interested.”

“Why?” demanded Stratton. “Is she a friend of yours?”

His voice was curt and scornful, and he took up his book as though his patience were exhausted, but Mr. Webster talked on as affably as ever.

“A friend? No, I couldn’t put it quite like that, although I’ve seen her. You saw her, too. Come to think of it, you sat next to her in the plane when we left London. You can’t have forgotten her---pretty as a picture she was.”

“Good lord, I don’t notice whom I sit next to while I’m travelling,” retorted Stratton scornfully.

“Well, I do. And there were some very interesting passengers: very interesting indeed,” said Webster. “I happened to notice this young lady particularly. For one thing, she was met at Schwechat---on the runway, too. Sir Walter Vanbrugh met her. One thing about my job, you do get to know the faces of all the celebrities, and Sir Walter always made a fine picture---that white hair and fine-cut profile. I remember getting a very good picture of him at the Foreign Ministers’ Conference way back in ‘49. I only mention that to explain why I recognised him at Schwechat.”

“Good lord, everybody knows Vanbrugh by sight,” retorted Stratton. “He’s been at every Foreign Ministers’ Conference this century: might have been better for international relations if he’d stayed away.”

“Not for me to say,” rejoined Webster. “I’ve only studied their faces, not their policies. Now you’re probably a student---an intellectual. I noticed your face at once---very fine head you’ve got if I may say so. That’s why I wanted you in this picture I spoke about---‘Student of history’ and so forth. But to get back to this story, the young girl who was hurt in the storm----”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” groaned Stratton, “if you’ve got to go on talking, can’t you find someone else to talk to? Must it be me?”

“Just wait half a jiff,” said Mr. Webster. “I’m slow in getting to the point---comes of not having a good education---but there’s a fact or two I found very interesting. Now when we were at Zürich on Monday, you got a drink at the bar there: I was beside you as it happened---didn’t you notice that nice young lady? Are you going to tell me you’re so highbrow you don’t see a pretty girl when you’re near one? Don’t seem natural to me. Now as it happened I noticed her palling up with another Englishman: a tall dark fellow, chap about fifty, with a good profile. I couldn’t help being interested because it happened I knew him by sight---quite famous in his own line, he is. They had some coffee together, you may remember, sitting by the window in the main hall.”

“Well, why not, for the love of Mike?” groaned Stratton. “He looked respectable enough. Why shouldn’t she have had coffee with him---and what’s it to do with you or me or anybody else?”

“Nothing,” agreed Mr. Webster hastily. “Don’t think I’m making any insinuations, nothing of that kind. It just happened I knew who this chap is---the one who got coffee for her. His name’s Macdonald: Robert Macdonald. Senior Superintendent, C.I.D., Scotland Yard. That’s who he was.”

“C.I.D.? Good God! What was he after?” rejoined Stratton.

Webster chuckled. “Ha ha---you’re like all the rest: mention a Yard man and you take notice. Not that I wasn’t interested myself---I was. And I had my own private guess as to what he was after---but when I spoke to him at Schwechat he said he was on holiday. Stuck to it, too.”

“Do you know him then?” asked Stratton.

“Don’t you go getting ideas into your head, young fella-me-lad,” said Webster. “I’ve never had the Yard on my tail---rather the other way about. I’ve tailed some of these big noises, like Macdonald---to get a picture. That’s all, but I’ve a good memory for faces, and it’d be asking too much of a chap like me not to let the Super know I’d recognised him. I like my little joke.”

Stratton sat and studied the garrulous little man. “Quite a chap, aren’t you?” he said. “Well, having gone so far, you might as well tell me what your private guess was: what brought a C.I.D. man to Vienna?”

Webster gave his companion a dig in the ribs: a jovial vulgar gesture. “Sitting up and taking notice at last,” he chuckled. “Out to pick Uncle Ernest’s brains after all. If you don’t do a spot of journalism, I’m a Dutchman. You’re a highbrow, I recognise that---but you’ve got your living to earn like the rest of us, eh? Well, I’ll oblige with my own ideas if you’ll oblige me for a moment.” He pulled a newspaper out of his pocket and unfolded it carefully. “Bought it as I came along,” he said, “but it’s pain and grief to me to read German. I know some of the words but they’re all in the wrong order. Now if you’ll just translate this bit about the accident to that young girl.”

“All right, bung it over---not that there’s anything more than you know already,” said Stratton.

He translated the short paragraph and passed the paper back. “Why you’re making so much fuss about it beats me,” he said.

“I’m interested. There’s more here than meets the eye,” said Webster. “I thought I’d got that bit right, but I couldn’t be sure. It was a Dr. Natzler who found her: that’s right, isn’t it?”

“Yes: he’s the son of a well-known doctor in Hietzing---Dr. Franz Natzler. Everybody round here knows him: the son’s name is Karl.”

“And he was accompanied by an English guest who is staying with them,” persisted Webster, “and I know who the guest is. You see, I saw Macdonald having lunch at Sacher’s two days ago---I looked in there, knowing it’s a famous place, and I asked a waiter the name of the gentleman with Macdonald---all these waiters talk English---and I was told it was the Herr Doktor Natzler. And if you put all that into short words of three letters,” concluded Mr. Webster triumphantly, “it’s as good as saying that it was Superintendent Macdonald who found the young lady after her accident. And that’s what you might call a different bag of tricks altogether.”


“Do you generally trail round after your ‘fellow travellers,’ snooping?” demanded Charles Stratton, “because that’s what it seems to me you’ve been doing.”

“Call it snooping if you like,” rejoined Webster placidly. “Takes a lot to hurt my feelings. I’ve told you I’m a free-lance cameraman with my living to earn, and you don’t earn a living my way by being shy. If so be I spot a personality I know and they’re with someone I don’t know, well, I take steps to find out. I admit I hoped the old chap having lunch with Macdonald would be one of the police ‘high-ups’ in Vienna, but I’m not sure it hasn’t turned out better as it is. If there’s not a story in this I don’t know my onions.”

“Well, as you say, you’ve got your living to earn,” rejoined Stratton, “and it takes all sorts to make a world. I’ve done your bit of translating for you: now you can reciprocate. What did you think a C.I.D. man came to Vienna for?”

“To watch one of the passengers on that plane,” replied Webster promptly. He sat back, his thumbs in his armholes, his coat thrown back, a cocky cheerful vulgar little man, completely at his ease. “You’ve got education,” he went on. “No doubt about that. Likely you’re a scholar---Oxford and Cambridge and that: and I reckon you make a living the highbrow way, perhaps with a little journalism thrown in to help with the b. and b. Every since I was a nipper I’ve earned my living by noticing things and noticing people. Particularly people. I get the butter on my bread by remembering people’s faces. And as it happened there were some faces I knew on that plane. Of course,” he added, “the minute I saw Superintendent Macdonald was aboard I looked round to see if I could spot anyone else. That was only common sense. Cause and effect, if you take me.”

Stratton laughed, but Mr. Webster had his attention now: there was something oddly impressive about the fat little man and his air of being completely master of the situation.

“Go on,” said Stratton. “Sorry if I underrated you. You’re being damned interesting.”

Webster chuckled again, a wheezy cheerful sound. “Thinking of writing me up?” he queried. “Types I have met. A publicity hound with his nose to the trail. Some of you clever chaps can be funny and no mistake when you try. Don’t think I mind. I take your pictures---you’re welcome to mine. Now you never thought of giving the other passengers the once-over: got your nose in a poetry book. All very high-minded. Not that I’m being rude about poets, or poetry either, mind you----”

“Oh, spare me your reflections on poetry,” groaned Stratton. “Why not come to the point---if there is one.”

“There’s a point all right,” said Webster. “As I told you, I had a good look round at the other passengers: got up and walked down the gangway to the Gent’s and took my time over it---and sure enough there was another face I knew. You can say I make my living by a memory for faces,” he added.

“And so what?” asked Stratton.

“Right forward, nearest the flight deck or whatever you call it---a place I don’t fancy in any plane, liking to be near the exit myself---there was a young chap whose face I knew. Do you remember, about six months ago, it was, a Foreign Office clerk was charged under the Official Secrets Act: name of Rimmel. Got five years. This chap in the Viscount with us was his brother. I should know: I spent hours round their place. You never know, you know. Those shots may be worth the time I spent on them.”

“Aren’t you just jumping to conclusions, or making up a story to please yourself?” asked Stratton scornfully. “D’you really believe a Superintendent from Scotland Yard travels round with a bloke whose brother’s been quadded for selling Government papers? Because I don’t.”

“Please yourself,” rejoined Webster. “You can say I’m making things up if you like---but if you’d had the gump to notice as much as I did, you might have had a story to write up---and some stories are worth big money. I tell you it happened under your very nose---and you never noticed.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” said Stratton.

“No, I know you don’t,” said Webster. “You sat there, in the main hall at Zürich airport, reading a poetry book: and you weren’t a coupla’ yards from the C.I.D. Super and the young girl, and you never noticed them. And you didn’t see this chap Rimmel. I reckon he didn’t see you either. He was listening-in to the C.I.D. chap talking to the young lady: listening till his ears flapped.” He broke off. “And you still can’t make any sense of a story, even when you’re told it in short words of three letters,” he groaned.

“Oh, my God!” groaned Stratton. “It may be a story---but it’s not my sort of story. Just doesn’t interest me. And anyway, how do I know you’re not talking through your hat?”

“Making it all up, eh?” rejoined Webster. “Well---you watch out. You’ll find Superintendent Macdonald’s name will be in the papers soon: and as for that young girl---well, she’s in the papers already. Had this accident, poor young thing.”

“But why tell me about it?” groaned Stratton.

“I’ll tell you for why,” rejoined Webster. “First: you’re English---which means I can talk to you: second, you talk German---which means you can tell me what’s being said and written about all this: third, you’ve got brains and you’ve got education. Now I’ve got a memory for faces and a nose for a story, and my bet is you and I together could make a good thing out of this. If you’ll co-operate, that is.”

“Co-operate how?”

“Well, if a story breaks, you can do the writing---English or German or both---and I provide the pictures and some of the trimmings,” replied Webster. “I tell you there’s something in it---and I’m not often mistaken when it comes to smelling a story. I’m offering you the chance to pay for your holiday: ‘holidays with pay’---that’s the slogan for the blokes who call themselves the world’s workers. I pay for my holidays by using my wits and I tell you it’s not often I haven’t gone home with more cash in my pocket than I had when I left. What about it?”

“Well, I don’t mind writing up a story when there’s a story to write,” rejoined Stratton, “always provided it’s not asking for trouble. If there’s anything in what you’ve said---and I tell you I don’t believe it without proof---we might both get into trouble by trying to be too smart.”

“Quite right, quite right: careful does it,” agreed Webster. “Now say if we leave it like this: I’ll go in for a drink at that dive where I saw you last night---Liesingerkeller. Seven o’clock any evening this week. If you like to join me there, I’ll tell you if there’s anything in it for us. If not---well, you’re losing an opportunity. Can’t put it fairer than that.”

With a cheerful nod Mr. Webster touched his hat in salute and strolled off down the steep path, leaving Charles Stratton staring after him.

“Bats or not bats?” he asked himself---and though he went back to his book, he found it oddly difficult to concentrate on the printed page.

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