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Chapter Fourteen

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« on: June 08, 2023, 04:36:32 am »

==1==

“WELL, so much for the London report. They’ve done as much as could be expected in the time: and now for a few ideas of my own,” said Macdonald. “I doubt if I’ve ever put forward a theory with fewer facts to justify it,” he added cheerfully. “It’s a network of supposition, mainly holes, with a few tough strands to connect the random observations.”

The Superintendent and Inspector Nauheim had met for a belated lunch and were consuming rolls and cheese washed down with Lager beer. Nauheim had established one important fact: at twenty minutes past eleven the previous night Walsingham had been seen on the Kärntnerstrasse, in the heart of Vienna. This discovery had been made by a combination of hard work and good luck---those twin factors of success in detection, because all the hard work in the world can come to naught without the occasional lucky chance. Working round the different parking places in the city with a photograph of Walsingham to display, Nauheim had found one of the old men who stand by the car-parks to open car doors in the hope of occasional groschen: this ancient claimed that a tall man in an English style raincoat, wearing English shoes, had alighted from a car just after eleven-fifteen: that he had had an altercation with a motorist who was in a hurry to move off and that the latter---Herr Marx---could be found at his place of business in Weinburggasse, not far from the Stephansdom. Herr Heinrich Marx had obliged by identifying the photograph of Walsingham with certainty. Indeed, he had thought that Walsingham’s face was in some way familiar and was greatly animated to learn that the man he had argued with was the English writer, J. B. S. Neville, whose books were known to Herr Marx.

“And that in itself is fortunate,” said Nauheim, with his quick flickering smile. “Because he was a popular writer, his picture appeared on the jacket of his books: all we had to do to get copies of his picture was to buy copies of his books---and Wolframs have a quantity in their excellent book shop. Had he not been a writer, we should not have obtained these ‘speaking likenesses.’ ”

“Very fortunate indeed,” agreed Macdonald, “and the fact that he was a writer, with friends in the literary world of Vienna, encourages me to put one of my outrageous guesses to the test. I postulate in the first place that Walsingham did not go to the Grünekeller merely to pick up local gossip concerning Miss Le Vendre’s accident, but in the hope of meeting somebody. Whether he saw the person he hoped to see we do not know: it is possible that the presence of Schulze, who knew Walsingham, made the latter decide to change his plans, and he walked on, to be picked up in a car at the corner of the Lindengasse, as described by Glöck, and was driven to the car-park, near the Opera House, in the Kärntnerstrasse.”

“That’s all reasonable enough,” said Nauheim, “and it’s worth considering that he did not tell Sir Walter that he was going into Vienna again, neither did he take the small car Sir Walter had put at his disposal. Which indicates that his business was something he preferred to keep quiet about.”

“Yes: and I think the fact that he did not tell Josef that he expected to be very late indicates that he expected his business to be brief,” went on Macdonald, “so now for my guess. Did Walsingham go to see Fräulein Waldtraut Körner, with whom he was hoping to negotiate for the famous Steinadler papers?”

Nauheim looked at Macdonald almost reproachfully. “You knew of this negotiation then?”

“No, I did not: and I do not know now. I told you I was guessing---outrageously. I did not hear this story of the Steinadler papers until I came to Vienna, although I have since heard that London publishers are interested in the matter. It doesn’t seem too far off the mark to suggest that this was the business which brought Walsingham to Vienna. That, as I have admitted, is guesswork: the only fact I can put forward to support it is that Walsingham was recently a guest in the house of a young English publisher and that the latter had some information about the Steinadler papers which he may have discussed with Walsingham.”

“Ah . . . not entirely guesswork then,” murmured Nauheim.

“Well, let’s get on to something nearer at hand,” continued Macdonald. “According to your morning papers, Waldtraut Körner was present last evening at the performance of Aïda in the Theater an der Wien. She would not have got back to her hotel before eleven o’clock. I think it would be worth your while to ask the porter at her hotel if Fräulein Waldtraut Körner had any visitors after she returned from the Opera. From what I know of old singers, they tend to be more approachable towards midnight than before midday.”

“That,” said Nauheim, “is a very good idea.”

“We shan’t lose anything by it,” said Macdonald. “Now I gather that you haven’t been able to learn much about the car in which Walsingham left Hietzing?”

“Herr Marx thought it was an old Benz, probably pre-war: dark grey, wide, with a Vienna number plate. He said the driver backed it into position after Walsingham had got out, thus blocking Marx’s exit, but as Marx reserved his abuse for Walsingham he didn’t notice the driver who was still in the car.”

“It might be worth trying to find out if any patrol men noticed a car which had broken down, or had anything in the nature of a small collision,” said Macdonald. “It appears from the preliminary autopsy that Walsingham was knocked out---or knocked down---and his body then moved to the Wattmanngasse. Now we know that he arrived in Vienna at eleven-twenty, having been driven direct from Hietzing. His body was lying in the Wattmannstrasse by midnight, and it would have taken at least a quarter of an hour to have got him from the centre of Vienna to Hietzing. So he was only in Vienna for twenty-five minutes at most. Now I should think it’s improbable that he would have been attacked in the centre of the city. Vienna is still lively between eleven o’clock and midnight, isn’t it?”

Nauheim nodded. “Yes. I see your idea: there are a lot of people about at that time and the main streets are brightly lighted. You are thinking that he would have been driven out of the city and attacked in a quiet quarter where there were no onlookers.”

“Yes: and I think Walsingham would not have been an easy chap to lay out: he was a big powerful fellow. But if he and the driver got out of the car to investigate a breakdown, if he bent over the bonnet or was induced to crank the car, well, that puts a man in a vulnerable position. I have known attacks engineered on a motorist by that method.”

“That’s a sound idea,” agreed Nauheim. “Now the first thing I will do is to go to the Emperor Maximilian hotel, where Waldtraut Körner is staying, and see the porter. After that, I will worry the city police again to see if they can get any further news of the grey car, and then go to the Liesingerkeller to find if the waiters remember your cameraman and young Mr. Stratton.”

“And I will go to the Embassy and see the two men who travelled in the Viscount on Monday, and perhaps I will go and see Mr. Webster’s Auntie,” replied Macdonald. “I’m interested in Auntie.”

Nauheim laughed. “Are you hoping she has the same qualities of observation and curiosity which distinguish her nephew? Meantime, I’ll report to H.Q. If there’s anything in your guesswork, we might ask to be received by the Waldtraut Körner later. That will be a distinction for you, sir. She is as unapproachable as royalty.”

==2==

John Prestwood and Guy Vincent, both of the Diplomatic Service, welcomed Macdonald to their office in the British Embassy with lively interest. When he saw them, Macdonald remembered both their faces: he had noticed them in passing both at London Airport and at Zürich. John Prestwood, the younger of the two men, fair-headed, sunburnt and lively, laughed straight back at the C.I.D. man.

“Yes, I remember you, Superintendent. I thought you might be a member of the Surgical Congress which is meeting next week.”

“I’m delighted to know you’re a person who takes an interest in your fellow travellers,” said Macdonald. “I generally do, but on this trip I was half asleep. Say if you start by telling me how many people on the Viscount you noticed enough to remember.”

It was Guy Vincent who answered this one. “There were four Austrian women and two men: two of the women are well-known buyers in a big Vienna fashion house and the two younger women were their secretaries. They’d been to some fashion pre-views in London. I think the two Austrian men were in the same line of business. There was a stout French dame and across the gangway from me two blameless-looking English ladies of the academic variety. Then there was the young lovely who was met by old Vanbrugh, and she was sitting next to a dark-headed fellow in a camel coat: there was Sir Charles Bland, whom I recognised, and behind Prestwood and me two chaps whom I guessed to be architects in government employ---brief-case of government issue, plus Journal of British Architects, plus copy of Nicholas Pevsner’s latest. I noticed these details when I passed them going forward. The navigator was a pal of mine and he asked John and me to the flight deck.”

“That’s a pretty good effort,” said Macdonald, but John Prestwood put in:

“Well he knows the fashion contingent anyway, and he got in a huddle with them at Zürich---that’s the sort of lad he is---and that lot’s of no interest to you, Superintendent. Neither are the two architects---if that’s what they are: they’re Civil Servants anyway, and as a job that’s as fossilising as the Diplomatic. I’m more interested in low life: the stout merchant with the camera took my fancy. It’s funny, you know, but if I’d been asked to spot the detective out of that bunch of passengers, I’d have plumped for the stout merchant. He was on the qui vive all the time, snooping round at everybody. Shows how mistaken one can be. I should have put you last in the detective stakes. You were obviously uninterested.”

“Don’t rub it in,” said Macdonald. “Now it seems to me you two can be helpful: you say you went forward to the flight deck.”

“Yes, and we saw J. B. S. Neville, alias Walsingham, sitting right forward,” put in Vincent. “We didn’t know who he was at the time, but I got a copy of one of his books at lunch-time, after we’d heard about his death, and the picture on the back settled it. He was sitting next to a dreary-looking chap: a pallid, unhealthy object in a drab raincoat and a depressed hat. Looked as though he might just have come out of quad and not seen the sun in years. The two were a complete contrast: Neville very well turned out, prosperous-looking, sure of himself, and the other bloke looking furtive and sickly: but they were talking away at a great rate, almost as though they were consulting over something. Oddly enough, I got the impression they were talking German---but I may have been wrong. I only noticed them as we went forward but I didn’t really hear a word they said.”

“Did you notice either of them at Zürich?”

“No,” replied Prestwood. “Neville left the plane there, didn’t he---and the other bloke, too? At least, I didn’t see either of them aboard after Zürich. As for the halt at the airport, I told you Guy ganged up with his fashion friends, and we made a party at the bar and weren’t doing any noticing. And at Schwechat they let us both through, more or less---diplomatic immunity, God bless it.”

“You haven’t noticed any of the passengers around in Vienna?” asked Macdonald, and Prestwood replied:

“I’ve seen the fat cameraman several times, busy taking pictures. He’s a talkative bloke, he tried to button-hole me outside the Rathauskeller, but I wasn’t having any: and I think I saw the camel-coat object gooping around on the Heldenplatz---but I’m afraid none of that’s going to help you very much, Superintendent.” He stopped a moment and then went on. “There are the wildest stories going around. In the cafés they’re saying that Anthony Vanbrugh ran over Walsingham and killed him and then tried to cook it as an accident. I think that’s hitting below the belt, especially as it doesn’t seem too easy for Vanbrugh to disprove it. The moral seems to be don’t move a body if you find one in the road---leave it to the cops.”

“I know: it’s a difficult problem to be faced with,” said Macdonald soberly. “Well, thanks very much, both of you.”

“I’m afraid we haven’t done a thing to help,” said Vincent, and Macdonald replied:

“I wouldn’t say that. You may be able to identify Walsingham’s companion if the occasion arises.”

==3==

“Fräulein Braun---Tante Ilse, as everybody calls her,” said Mrs. Edshaw, smiling across at Macdonald. “We all know Tante Ilse: she’s a remarkable old woman.”

In a small room at the British Embassy Macdonald was talking to the wife of one of the Counsellors who had undertaken to tell him what was known by the “Embassy ladies” of Mr. Webster’s Auntie. Macdonald felt he was having a breathing space, a pleasant interim when he need not analyse every answer given to him, or seek for a possible hidden meaning in ordinary conversation. Mrs. Edshaw had beauty and poise and dignity---the attributes which every diplomat’s wife should have---she had also a beautiful voice and a quality of repose, so that Macdonald found it refreshing to talk to her.

“You probably don’t realise how many old English women like Tante Ilse still live in Vienna,” went on Mrs. Edshaw. “Old governesses, old confidential maids, even old dressmakers and tea-shop ladies: they were just caught by the disaster of war and they couldn’t even get home. They had no money, no influence and no exit visas. When we came to Vienna after the war---the British and Americans and French---all the Embassy wives formed committees to help the poor derelicts, particularly the old governesses. We give them parties and help them with necessities. I always think Tante Ilse is the most interesting character of them all.”

“In what way?” asked Macdonald.

“Because she is a very intelligent woman, and always has been,” rejoined Mrs. Edshaw. “When she came to Vienna as a girl, fifty years ago, she couldn’t have been a well-educated girl, but she lived with a very good family: the Rothmeisters were highly cultured and informed, and all their children had to speak French and English in addition to German. Because Tante Ilse lived with them so long, and was by nature educable, I suppose, she developed her own intelligence and acquired information because she lived among informed people.”

Mrs. Edshaw looked across at Macdonald inquiringly. “Am I just wasting your time, Superintendent? Do stop me if I’m only being irrelevant.”

“You are not being irrelevant, far from it,” said Macdonald. “Please go on and tell me in your own words about Fräulein Braun: what you are saying is giving me a fresh angle on Mr. Webster’s ‘Auntie.’ And would you like a cigarette---or do you not smoke?”

Mrs. Edshaw smiled at him; her smile was like her voice, almost grave, yet tinged with amusement. “Thank you: I do smoke---and it will be a great help. I am not used to giving evidence. . . .” When she spoke again, she said, “You know---you must know---a little about the history of Austria in the last fifty years: it’s an integral part of your life, as it is of mine: the magnificence of the Hapsburg régime before 1914, the glitter and the brilliance of Vienna, and then the appalling collapse after Germany was defeated in 1918. Vienna starved---literally starved. Then followed the slow building up of an Austria cut off from its eastern territories, the Federal Republic with very real achievements to its credit: then the Germans again, occupying Vienna: and then another hideous collapse, with devastation and the Russians marching in. Oh dear. . . . I’m not trying to give you a very bad lecture on Austrian history: all I want to remind you is that that remarkable old woman lived through all this history. She was here, she remembers it, she can talk about it. For all I know, she could write a book about it, because she’s taught herself to use words---German in preference to English: but she really is remarkable. . . .”

“Good heavens!” exclaimed Macdonald. “Not another book.” He suddenly laughed. “I seem to have plunged into a world of memoirs, all of them fraught with significance: Sir Walter Vanbrugh, Fräulein Waldtraut Körner and now Mr. Webster’s Auntie.”

“Don’t take me too literally,” she cried. “Perhaps I can best explain my outburst by telling you that when I first saw Fräulein Braun I thought she was just another old derelict, half-starved, looking like a witch in shawls and ragged wraps, poorer than anything you could imagine in London. Yet behind that poverty was a background of experience which she could express in academic German, even though her English was commonplace. It was because she had lived so long with the Rothmeisters and learned their ways of speech. You see, my husband and I were in Germany for years and I did learn the language.”

“Unfortunately I never have learnt the language,” said Macdonald, “so I shall have to talk to Fräulein Braun in English.”

“Oh, you are going to see her: I’m glad. I’m quite incapable of describing her properly.”

“But you have told me a lot that is very valuable,” said Macdonald. “Now when you describe Fräulein Braun as intelligent, doesn’t that imply that she would keep up with the news, the gossip of Vienna of to-day?”

“It does, indeed. She has a host of acquaintances, many of them as old and poor as herself, but between them they are in touch with a surprising variety of people. I know that I am always very careful what I say to her, for she has that avid curiosity that old people do develop, including the intelligent ones.”

“Did she ever talk to you of her relations in England?”

“Yes. I asked her if she would like to go back to England, but she said no. She told me she had kept in touch with her sister in London until the latter died, and there were one or two nephews, but she could not face going back and living in a country which was now strange to her: she also implied, with the quaint snobbery you find in her type, that her people had always been small-minded, their interests very limited, while she had been fortunate in living with the Rothmeisters. In short, the old folks at home were not up to her own social standard,” concluded Mrs. Edshaw with her grave smile.

Macdonald pondered for a moment: then he said, “I know this is going to be a difficult question to answer, but I think you possess a sort of awareness about people: you appreciated Fräulein Braun’s intelligence and her memory for the troubled history she has lived through in Austria. What sort of woman is she---good, bad, indifferent? Trustworthy or the reverse?”

“The Rothmeisters found her trustworthy---and she slaved for them,” replied Mrs. Edshaw. “I have never had any reason to distrust her: she has never told me any lies, so far as I know: she has never cheated, or tried to get more than her fair share of the comforts we dispense, as some of them do. But if you want my own opinion, I have the feeling that she’s a wicked old woman. I’ve no justification for saying so, and my husband would be very angry with me if he knew I’d said such a thing. I’ve told you she’s intelligent and that she worked for years for a fine family, but I think in her old age, after all the miseries of wartime Vienna, she has gone sour. Perhaps the word wicked is too strong---but that’s the way she affects me, and since you asked me, I’ve told you.”

==4==

Fräulein Braun reminded Macdonald of a spider: she was so small, so shrunken, so brown, and her claw-like hands were incredibly thin. Her quavery voice spoke English with the mincing refinement of days gone by, and was oddly accented at moments by Germanic gutturals which made her none too easy to follow. “Auntie” told Macdonald her own history, sometimes putting in a German phrase when the English escaped her. “It is long since I speak English,” she said. “It is easier to me now to speak German, but I am happy to have my nephew here. . . . He has been kind to me, very kind. He is a good man.”

“Wouldn’t you like to go back to England again?” asked Macdonald. The answer to his question did not matter: he wanted her to go on talking so that he could get some idea of the personality behind the shrivelled brown mask and the filmy deep-set eyes.

“I could not go back to England: I have told Ernest so. I am used to life in Vienna, no matter how hard: I am used to the food, to the language. I have my own friends; they are poor, like myself, but we understand each other. To the English I would be a foreigner.”

“You must have many friends in Vienna,” said Macdonald, and she quavered on, telling him of Frau this and Fräulein that, of the ladies from the Embassy who brought her books and papers as well as food. “I have always been a reader and tried to follow the news,” she added. “With the Rothmeisters I heard good conversation, talk of the arts, of opera and ballet. Everybody in Vienna cares for these things; in England, nobody. I cannot go out much now: in the winter, not at all. Who would talk to me in England?”

He let her go on for some time before he said, “I have told you who I am, Fräulein Braun, and my business in Vienna.”

“You are a detective,” she said, and her filmy eyes suddenly looked venomous. “You cannot expect me, an Englishwoman who lived in Vienna during the Nazi occupation, to welcome the police. What do you want?”

“I don’t want to worry you,” said Macdonald. “My questions are very simple. I want to know where your nephew, Mr. Webster, was during the thunderstorm yesterday, and what time he came in last night.”

“You could ask him, Herr Superintendent. He is a very truthful man. You could ask my neighbours in the flat across the hall. They see him come in and go out. Frau Wilhov, she sits at her window all day long. She knows when he goes out and comes in. When the thunder began, Ernest was here, Gott sei Dank. I have always been afraid of thunder since I was a child, and now it grows worse: thunder reminds me of the bombing: but he was here. He promised to come in early and to get me an English tea as he calls it. I have told you, he is very kind: he was here before the thunder began, and he did not go out again until after the storm was over. It was late when he came in---midnight. I did not go to bed until he came in. I was listening to the radio. Ernest bought me the set, heaven reward him: it is the first radio I have ever had, and I listened until the station closed down at midnight. Ernest came in just after I had turned the knob.”

As he listened, Macdonald became more and more certain that she was lying. He could not have told why this conviction grew on him, why it was that this ancient desiccated crone, with her careful speech and refined diction, gave him such a sense of unease. He remembered Mrs. Edshaw saying ‘I have the feeling she’s a wicked old woman,’ and Macdonald knew what she meant. “And she’ll stick to what she says and bribe and cajole her neighbours into saying exactly what she wants them to say,” he thought, “and if we try to disprove it, she’ll raise a wail of Gestapo, police bullies. . . .”

“You cannot tell what a radio set means to me,” went on Fräulein Braun. “I love music: I have heard the great opera singers in the old Opera House, I have heard the Philharmonic Orchestra---Vienna is like that, rich and poor go alike to the Opera. . . .”

An idea flashed through Macdonald’s mind: a ludicrous idea, perhaps, yet one worth trying. Because he believed that “Auntie” was lying to him, there must be some secret she and her voluble nephew were guarding, and her conversation about the Opera gave him his opportunity to spring a surprise on her.

“You must have heard many singers during your years in Vienna,” he went on conversationally. “I expect you have seen Waldtraut Körner since her return to this city. She is a friend of yours, is she not?”

As he said to Nauheim afterwards, it was the element of surprise which took her aback. One moment she was a refined old governess, boasting in genteel fashion of her experiences in the musical world of Vienna, the next moment she was a baleful old horror, with eyes that were venomous and lips that quivered: but she recovered herself remarkably quickly.

“A friend of mine, the Waldtraut Körner?” she quavered. “You do not know what you say. No one but an Englishman could say a thing so foolish. Why should I know her, why should she know me? I am poor, I am old, of no importance. . . . You may be a great detective, Herr Superintendent, but you should not make mock of a poor old woman.”

Macdonald did not answer for a moment. He sat and considered the old woman in her bare comfortless room. Mrs. Edshaw had said she was intelligent: that in the German language at least, she was highly literate. She had lived in Vienna in the thirties with Frau Rothmeister, and had opportunities to know the Rothmeisters’ friends. Was it conceivable that this poverty-stricken old woman had used her intelligence, had been a link in this story which Macdonald was trying to unravel? Of one thing he was certain, he would get no admission from her, beyond that startled glance of sheer hatred which he had precipitated by mentioning the name of Waldtraut Körner.

He got up at last, deciding not to let her know what was in his mind---to leave her to guess.

“I am very far from making a mock of you, Fräulein Braun. I have a great respect for the straightforwardness with which you have answered my questions. Thank you very much.”

As he left the poor apartment house, Macdonald saw another aged face peering at him from a ground-floor window: another face which showed in its wrinkled greyness the aftermath of starvation. They were not starving now, these old derelicts, but they were very poor. Fräulein Braun had an English nephew who could buy her a radio set, a warm coat, new blankets. Macdonald guessed that it was pretty certain that the other inhabitants of that poor house would think it worth their while to keep on the right side of Mr. Webster’s Auntie.

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