The Thirty-nine Steps (3 of 3)


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THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS
by
JOHN BUCHAN
CHAPTER SEVEN
The Dry-Fly Fisherman
I sat down on a hill-top and took stock of my position. I wasn't
feeling very happy, for my natural thankfulness at my escape was
clouded by my severe bodily discomfort. Those lentonite fumes had
fairly poisoned me, and the baking hours on the dovecot hadn't helped
matters. I had a crushing headache, and felt as sick as a cat. Also
my shoulder was in a bad way. At first I thought it was only a bruise,
but it seemed to be swelling, and I had no use of my left arm.
My plan was to seek Mr Turnbull's cottage, recover my garments, and
especially Scudder's note-book, and then make for the main line and get
back to the south. It seemed to me that the sooner I got in touch with
the Foreign Office man, Sir Walter Bullivant, the better. I didn't see
how I could get more proof than I had got already. He must just take
or leave my story, and anyway, with him I would be in better hands than
those devilish Germans. I had begun to feel quite kindly towards the
British police.
It was a wonderful starry night, and I had not much difficulty about
the road. Sir Harry's map had given me the lie of the land, and all I
had to do was to steer a point or two west of south-west to come to the
stream where I had met the roadman. In all these travels I never knew
the names of the places, but I believe this stream was no less than the
upper waters of the river Tweed. I calculated I must be about eighteen
miles distant, and that meant I could not get there before morning. So
I must lie up a day somewhere, for I was too outrageous a figure to be
seen in the sunlight. I had neither coat, waistcoat, collar, nor hat,
my trousers were badly torn, and my face and hands were black with the
explosion. I daresay I had other beauties, for my eyes felt as if they
were furiously bloodshot. Altogether I was no spectacle for
God-fearing citizens to see on a highroad.
Very soon after daybreak I made an attempt to clean myself in a hill
burn, and then approached a herd's cottage, for I was feeling the need
of food. The herd was away from home, and his wife was alone, with no
neighbour for five miles. She was a decent old body, and a plucky one,
for though she got a fright when she saw me, she had an axe handy, and
would have used it on any evil-doer. I told her that I had had a
fall—I didn't say how—and she saw by my looks that I was pretty sick.
Like a true Samaritan she asked no questions, but gave me a bowl of
milk with a dash of whisky in it, and let me sit for a little by her
kitchen fire. She would have bathed my shoulder, but it ached so badly
that I would not let her touch it.
I don't know what she took me for—a repentant burglar, perhaps; for
when I wanted to pay her for the milk and tendered a sovereign which
was the smallest coin I had, she shook her head and said something
about 'giving it to them that had a right to it'. At this I protested
so strongly that I think she believed me honest, for she took the money
and gave me a warm new plaid for it, and an old hat of her man's. She
showed me how to wrap the plaid around my shoulders, and when I left
that cottage I was the living image of the kind of Scotsman you see in
the illustrations to Burns's poems. But at any rate I was more or less
clad.
It was as well, for the weather changed before midday to a thick
drizzle of rain. I found shelter below an overhanging rock in the
crook of a burn, where a drift of dead brackens made a tolerable bed.
There I managed to sleep till nightfall, waking very cramped and
wretched, with my shoulder gnawing like a toothache. I ate the oatcake
and cheese the old wife had given me and set out again just before the
darkening.
I pass over the miseries of that night among the wet hills. There were
no stars to steer by, and I had to do the best I could from my memory
of the map. Twice I lost my way, and I had some nasty falls into
peat-bogs. I had only about ten miles to go as the crow flies, but my
mistakes made it nearer twenty. The last bit was completed with set
teeth and a very light and dizzy head. But I managed it, and in the
early dawn I was knocking at Mr Turnbull's door. The mist lay close
and thick, and from the cottage I could not see the highroad.
Mr Turnbull himself opened to me—sober and something more than sober.
He was primly dressed in an ancient but well-tended suit of black; he
had been shaved not later than the night before; he wore a linen
collar; and in his left hand he carried a pocket Bible. At first he
did not recognize me.
'Whae are ye that comes stravaigin' here on the Sabbath mornin'?' he
asked.
I had lost all count of the days. So the Sabbath was the reason for
this strange decorum.
My head was swimming so wildly that I could not frame a coherent
answer. But he recognized me, and he saw that I was ill.
'Hae ye got my specs?' he asked.
I fetched them out of my trouser pocket and gave him them.
'Ye'll hae come for your jaicket and westcoat,' he said. 'Come in-bye.
Losh, man, ye're terrible dune i' the legs. Haud up till I get ye to a
chair.'
I perceived I was in for a bout of malaria. I had a good deal of fever
in my bones, and the wet night had brought it out, while my shoulder
and the effects of the fumes combined to make me feel pretty bad.
Before I knew, Mr Turnbull was helping me off with my clothes, and
putting me to bed in one of the two cupboards that lined the kitchen
walls.
He was a true friend in need, that old roadman. His wife was dead
years ago, and since his daughter's marriage he lived alone.
For the better part of ten days he did all the rough nursing I needed.
I simply wanted to be left in peace while the fever took its course,
and when my skin was cool again I found that the bout had more or less
cured my shoulder. But it was a baddish go, and though I was out of
bed in five days, it took me some time to get my legs again.
He went out each morning, leaving me milk for the day, and locking the
door behind him; and came in in the evening to sit silent in the
chimney corner. Not a soul came near the place. When I was getting
better, he never bothered me with a question. Several times he fetched
me a two days' old SCOTSMAN, and I noticed that the interest in the
Portland Place murder seemed to have died down. There was no mention
of it, and I could find very little about anything except a thing
called the General Assembly—some ecclesiastical spree, I gathered.
One day he produced my belt from a lockfast drawer. 'There's a
terrible heap o' siller in't,' he said. 'Ye'd better coont it to see
it's a' there.'
He never even sought my name. I asked him if anybody had been around
making inquiries subsequent to my spell at the road-making.
'Ay, there was a man in a motor-cawr. He speired whae had ta'en my
place that day, and I let on I thocht him daft. But he keepit on at
me, and syne I said he maun be thinkin' o' my gude-brither frae the
Cleuch that whiles lent me a haun'. He was a wersh-lookin' sowl, and I
couldna understand the half o' his English tongue.'
I was getting restless those last days, and as soon as I felt myself
fit I decided to be off. That was not till the twelfth day of June,
and as luck would have it a drover went past that morning taking some
cattle to Moffat. He was a man named Hislop, a friend of Turnbull's,
and he came in to his breakfast with us and offered to take me with him.
I made Turnbull accept five pounds for my lodging, and a hard job I had
of it. There never was a more independent being. He grew positively
rude when I pressed him, and shy and red, and took the money at last
without a thank you. When I told him how much I owed him, he grunted
something about 'ae guid turn deservin' anither'. You would have
thought from our leave-taking that we had parted in disgust.
Hislop was a cheery soul, who chattered all the way over the pass and
down the sunny vale of Annan. I talked of Galloway markets and sheep
prices, and he made up his mind I was a 'pack-shepherd' from those
parts—whatever that may be. My plaid and my old hat, as I have said,
gave me a fine theatrical Scots look. But driving cattle is a mortally
slow job, and we took the better part of the day to cover a dozen miles.
If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time.
It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of
brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and
curlews and falling streams. But I had no mind for the summer, and
little for Hislop's conversation, for as the fateful fifteenth of June
drew near I was overweighed with the hopeless difficulties of my
enterprise.
I got some dinner in a humble Moffat public-house, and walked the two
miles to the junction on the main line. The night express for the
south was not due till near midnight, and to fill up the time I went up
on the hillside and fell asleep, for the walk had tired me. I all but
slept too long, and had to run to the station and catch the train with
two minutes to spare. The feel of the hard third-class cushions and
the smell of stale tobacco cheered me up wonderfully. At any rate, I
felt now that I was getting to grips with my job.
I was decanted at Crewe in the small hours and had to wait till six to
get a train for Birmingham. In the afternoon I got to Reading, and
changed into a local train which journeyed into the deeps of Berkshire.
Presently I was in a land of lush water-meadows and slow reedy streams.
About eight o'clock in the evening, a weary and travel-stained being—a
cross between a farm-labourer and a vet—with a checked black-and-white
plaid over his arm (for I did not dare to wear it south of the Border),
descended at the little station of Artinswell. There were several
people on the platform, and I thought I had better wait to ask my way
till I was clear of the place.
The road led through a wood of great beeches and then into a shallow
valley, with the green backs of downs peeping over the distant trees.
After Scotland the air smelt heavy and flat, but infinitely sweet, for
the limes and chestnuts and lilac bushes were domes of blossom.
Presently I came to a bridge, below which a clear slow stream flowed
between snowy beds of water-buttercups. A little above it was a mill;
and the lasher made a pleasant cool sound in the scented dusk. Somehow
the place soothed me and put me at my ease. I fell to whistling as I
looked into the green depths, and the tune which came to my lips was
'Annie Laurie'.
A fisherman came up from the waterside, and as he neared me he too
began to whistle. The tune was infectious, for he followed my suit.
He was a huge man in untidy old flannels and a wide-brimmed hat, with a
canvas bag slung on his shoulder. He nodded to me, and I thought I had
never seen a shrewder or better-tempered face. He leaned his delicate
ten-foot split-cane rod against the bridge, and looked with me at the
water.
'Clear, isn't it?' he said pleasantly. 'I back our Kenner any day
against the Test. Look at that big fellow. Four pounds if he's an
ounce. But the evening rise is over and you can't tempt 'em.'
'I don't see him,' said I.
'Look! There! A yard from the reeds just above that stickle.'
'I've got him now. You might swear he was a black stone.'
'So,' he said, and whistled another bar of 'Annie Laurie'.
'Twisdon's the name, isn't it?' he said over his shoulder, his eyes
still fixed on the stream.
'No,' I said. 'I mean to say, Yes.' I had forgotten all about my
alias.
'It's a wise conspirator that knows his own name,' he observed,
grinning broadly at a moor-hen that emerged from the bridge's shadow.
I stood up and looked at him, at the square, cleft jaw and broad, lined
brow and the firm folds of cheek, and began to think that here at last
was an ally worth having. His whimsical blue eyes seemed to go very
deep.
Suddenly he frowned. 'I call it disgraceful,' he said, raising his
voice. 'Disgraceful that an able-bodied man like you should dare to
beg. You can get a meal from my kitchen, but you'll get no money from
me.'
A dog-cart was passing, driven by a young man who raised his whip to
salute the fisherman. When he had gone, he picked up his rod.
'That's my house,' he said, pointing to a white gate a hundred yards
on. 'Wait five minutes and then go round to the back door.' And with
that he left me.
I did as I was bidden. I found a pretty cottage with a lawn running
down to the stream, and a perfect jungle of guelder-rose and lilac
flanking the path. The back door stood open, and a grave butler was
awaiting me.
'Come this way, Sir,' he said, and he led me along a passage and up a
back staircase to a pleasant bedroom looking towards the river. There
I found a complete outfit laid out for me—dress clothes with all the
fixings, a brown flannel suit, shirts, collars, ties, shaving things
and hair-brushes, even a pair of patent shoes. 'Sir Walter thought as
how Mr Reggie's things would fit you, Sir,' said the butler. 'He keeps
some clothes 'ere, for he comes regular on the week-ends. There's a
bathroom next door, and I've prepared a 'ot bath. Dinner in 'alf an
hour, Sir. You'll 'ear the gong.'
The grave being withdrew, and I sat down in a chintz-covered easy-chair
and gaped. It was like a pantomime, to come suddenly out of beggardom
into this orderly comfort. Obviously Sir Walter believed in me, though
why he did I could not guess. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw
a wild, haggard brown fellow, with a fortnight's ragged beard, and dust
in ears and eyes, collarless, vulgarly shirted, with shapeless old
tweed clothes and boots that had not been cleaned for the better part
of a month. I made a fine tramp and a fair drover; and here I was
ushered by a prim butler into this temple of gracious ease. And the
best of it was that they did not even know my name.
I resolved not to puzzle my head but to take the gifts the gods had
provided. I shaved and bathed luxuriously, and got into the dress
clothes and clean crackling shirt, which fitted me not so badly. By
the time I had finished the looking-glass showed a not unpersonable
young man.
Sir Walter awaited me in a dusky dining-room where a little round table
was lit with silver candles. The sight of him—so respectable and
established and secure, the embodiment of law and government and all
the conventions—took me aback and made me feel an interloper. He
couldn't know the truth about me, or he wouldn't treat me like this. I
simply could not accept his hospitality on false pretences.
'I'm more obliged to you than I can say, but I'm bound to make things
clear,' I said. 'I'm an innocent man, but I'm wanted by the police.
I've got to tell you this, and I won't be surprised if you kick me out.'
He smiled. 'That's all right. Don't let that interfere with your
appetite. We can talk about these things after dinner.' I never ate a
meal with greater relish, for I had had nothing all day but railway
sandwiches. Sir Walter did me proud, for we drank a good champagne and
had some uncommon fine port afterwards. It made me almost hysterical
to be sitting there, waited on by a footman and a sleek butler, and
remember that I had been living for three weeks like a brigand, with
every man's hand against me. I told Sir Walter about tiger-fish in the
Zambesi that bite off your fingers if you give them a chance, and we
discussed sport up and down the globe, for he had hunted a bit in his
day.
We went to his study for coffee, a jolly room full of books and
trophies and untidiness and comfort. I made up my mind that if ever I
got rid of this business and had a house of my own, I would create just
such a room. Then when the coffee-cups were cleared away, and we had
got our cigars alight, my host swung his long legs over the side of his
chair and bade me get started with my yarn.
'I've obeyed Harry's instructions,' he said, 'and the bribe he offered
me was that you would tell me something to wake me up. I'm ready, Mr
Hannay.'
I noticed with a start that he called me by my proper name.
I began at the very beginning. I told of my boredom in London, and the
night I had come back to find Scudder gibbering on my doorstep. I told
him all Scudder had told me about Karolides and the Foreign Office
conference, and that made him purse his lips and grin.
Then I got to the murder, and he grew solemn again. He heard all about
the milkman and my time in Galloway, and my deciphering Scudder's notes
at the inn.
'You've got them here?' he asked sharply, and drew a long breath when I
whipped the little book from my pocket.
I said nothing of the contents. Then I described my meeting with Sir
Harry, and the speeches at the hall. At that he laughed uproariously.
'Harry talked dashed nonsense, did he? I quite believe it. He's as
good a chap as ever breathed, but his idiot of an uncle has stuffed his
head with maggots. Go on, Mr Hannay.'
My day as roadman excited him a bit. He made me describe the two
fellows in the car very closely, and seemed to be raking back in his
memory. He grew merry again when he heard of the fate of that ass
Jopley.
But the old man in the moorland house solemnized him. Again I had to
describe every detail of his appearance.
'Bland and bald-headed and hooded his eyes like a bird ... He sounds a
sinister wild-fowl! And you dynamited his hermitage, after he had
saved you from the police. Spirited piece of work, that!' Presently I
reached the end of my wanderings. He got up slowly, and looked down at
me from the hearth-rug.
'You may dismiss the police from your mind,' he said. 'You're in no
danger from the law of this land.'
'Great Scot!' I cried. 'Have they got the murderer?'
'No. But for the last fortnight they have dropped you from the list of
possibles.'
'Why?' I asked in amazement.
'Principally because I received a letter from Scudder. I knew
something of the man, and he did several jobs for me. He was half
crank, half genius, but he was wholly honest. The trouble about him
was his partiality for playing a lone hand. That made him pretty well
useless in any Secret Service—a pity, for he had uncommon gifts. I
think he was the bravest man in the world, for he was always shivering
with fright, and yet nothing would choke him off. I had a letter from
him on the 31st of May.'
'But he had been dead a week by then.'
'The letter was written and posted on the 23rd. He evidently did not
anticipate an immediate decease. His communications usually took a
week to reach me, for they were sent under cover to Spain and then to
Newcastle. He had a mania, you know, for concealing his tracks.'
'What did he say?' I stammered.
'Nothing. Merely that he was in danger, but had found shelter with a
good friend, and that I would hear from him before the 15th of June.
He gave me no address, but said he was living near Portland Place. I
think his object was to clear you if anything happened. When I got it
I went to Scotland Yard, went over the details of the inquest, and
concluded that you were the friend. We made inquiries about you, Mr
Hannay, and found you were respectable. I thought I knew the motives
for your disappearance—not only the police, the other one too—and
when I got Harry's scrawl I guessed at the rest. I have been expecting
you any time this past week.' You can imagine what a load this took off
my mind. I felt a free man once more, for I was now up against my
country's enemies only, and not my country's law.
'Now let us have the little note-book,' said Sir Walter.
It took us a good hour to work through it. I explained the cypher, and
he was jolly quick at picking it up. He emended my reading of it on
several points, but I had been fairly correct, on the whole. His face
was very grave before he had finished, and he sat silent for a while.
'I don't know what to make of it,' he said at last. 'He is right about
one thing—what is going to happen the day after tomorrow. How the
devil can it have got known? That is ugly enough in itself. But all
this about war and the Black Stone—it reads like some wild melodrama.
If only I had more confidence in Scudder's judgement. The trouble
about him was that he was too romantic. He had the artistic
temperament, and wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be.
He had a lot of odd biases, too. Jews, for example, made him see red.
Jews and the high finance.
'The Black Stone,' he repeated. 'DER SCHWARZE STEIN. It's like a
penny novelette. And all this stuff about Karolides. That is the weak
part of the tale, for I happen to know that the virtuous Karolides is
likely to outlast us both. There is no State in Europe that wants him
gone. Besides, he has just been playing up to Berlin and Vienna and
giving my Chief some uneasy moments. No! Scudder has gone off the
track there. Frankly, Hannay, I don't believe that part of his story.
There's some nasty business afoot, and he found out too much and lost
his life over it. But I am ready to take my oath that it is ordinary
spy work. A certain great European Power makes a hobby of her spy
system, and her methods are not too particular. Since she pays by
piecework her blackguards are not likely to stick at a murder or two.
They want our naval dispositions for their collection at the Marineamt;
but they will be pigeon-holed—nothing more.'
Just then the butler entered the room.
'There's a trunk-call from London, Sir Walter. It's Mr 'Eath, and he
wants to speak to you personally.'
My host went off to the telephone.
He returned in five minutes with a whitish face. 'I apologize to the
shade of Scudder,' he said. 'Karolides was shot dead this evening at a
few minutes after seven.'
CHAPTER
EIGHT
The Coming of the Black Stone
I came down to breakfast next morning, after eight hours of blessed
dreamless sleep, to find Sir Walter decoding a telegram in the midst of
muffins and marmalade. His fresh rosiness of yesterday seemed a
thought tarnished.
'I had a busy hour on the telephone after you went to bed,' he said.
'I got my Chief to speak to the First Lord and the Secretary for War,
and they are bringing Royer over a day sooner. This wire clinches it.
He will be in London at five. Odd that the code word for a SOUS-CHEF
D/ETAT MAJOR-GENERAL should be "Porker".'
He directed me to the hot dishes and went on.
'Not that I think it will do much good. If your friends were clever
enough to find out the first arrangement they are clever enough to
discover the change. I would give my head to know where the leak is.
We believed there were only five men in England who knew about Royer's
visit, and you may be certain there were fewer in France, for they
manage these things better there.'
While I ate he continued to talk, making me to my surprise a present of
his full confidence.
'Can the dispositions not be changed?' I asked.
'They could,' he said. 'But we want to avoid that if possible. They
are the result of immense thought, and no alteration would be as good.
Besides, on one or two points change is simply impossible. Still,
something could be done, I suppose, if it were absolutely necessary.
But you see the difficulty, Hannay. Our enemies are not going to be
such fools as to pick Royer's pocket or any childish game like that.
They know that would mean a row and put us on our guard. Their aim is
to get the details without any one of us knowing, so that Royer will go
back to Paris in the belief that the whole business is still deadly
secret. If they can't do that they fail, for, once we suspect, they
know that the whole thing must be altered.'
'Then we must stick by the Frenchman's side till he is home again,' I
said. 'If they thought they could get the information in Paris they
would try there. It means that they have some deep scheme on foot in
London which they reckon is going to win out.'
'Royer dines with my Chief, and then comes to my house where four
people will see him—Whittaker from the Admiralty, myself, Sir Arthur
Drew, and General Winstanley. The First Lord is ill, and has gone to
Sheringham. At my house he will get a certain document from Whittaker,
and after that he will be motored to Portsmouth where a destroyer will
take him to Havre. His journey is too important for the ordinary
boat-train. He will never be left unattended for a moment till he is
safe on French soil. The same with Whittaker till he meets Royer.
That is the best we can do, and it's hard to see how there can be any
miscarriage. But I don't mind admitting that I'm horribly nervous.
This murder of Karolides will play the deuce in the chancelleries of
Europe.'
After breakfast he asked me if I could drive a car. 'Well, you'll be
my chauffeur today and wear Hudson's rig. You're about his size. You
have a hand in this business and we are taking no risks. There are
desperate men against us, who will not respect the country retreat of
an overworked official.'
When I first came to London I had bought a car and amused myself with
running about the south of England, so I knew something of the
geography. I took Sir Walter to town by the Bath Road and made good
going. It was a soft breathless June morning, with a promise of
sultriness later, but it was delicious enough swinging through the
little towns with their freshly watered streets, and past the summer
gardens of the Thames valley. I landed Sir Walter at his house in
Queen Anne's Gate punctually by half-past eleven. The butler was
coming up by train with the luggage.
The first thing he did was to take me round to Scotland Yard. There we
saw a prim gentleman, with a clean-shaven, lawyer's face.
'I've brought you the Portland Place murderer,' was Sir Walter's
introduction.
The reply was a wry smile. 'It would have been a welcome present,
Bullivant. This, I presume, is Mr Richard Hannay, who for some days
greatly interested my department.'
'Mr Hannay will interest it again. He has much to tell you, but not
today. For certain grave reasons his tale must wait for four hours.
Then, I can promise you, you will be entertained and possibly edified.
I want you to assure Mr Hannay that he will suffer no further
inconvenience.'
This assurance was promptly given. 'You can take up your life where
you left off,' I was told. 'Your flat, which probably you no longer
wish to occupy, is waiting for you, and your man is still there. As
you were never publicly accused, we considered that there was no need
of a public exculpation. But on that, of course, you must please
yourself.'
'We may want your assistance later on, MacGillivray,' Sir Walter said
as we left.
Then he turned me loose.
'Come and see me tomorrow, Hannay. I needn't tell you to keep deadly
quiet. If I were you I would go to bed, for you must have considerable
arrears of sleep to overtake. You had better lie low, for if one of
your Black Stone friends saw you there might be trouble.'
I felt curiously at a loose end. At first it was very pleasant to be a
free man, able to go where I wanted without fearing anything. I had
only been a month under the ban of the law, and it was quite enough for
me. I went to the Savoy and ordered very carefully a very good
luncheon, and then smoked the best cigar the house could provide. But
I was still feeling nervous. When I saw anybody look at me in the
lounge, I grew shy, and wondered if they were thinking about the murder.
After that I took a taxi and drove miles away up into North London. I
walked back through fields and lines of villas and terraces and then
slums and mean streets, and it took me pretty nearly two hours. All
the while my restlessness was growing worse. I felt that great things,
tremendous things, were happening or about to happen, and I, who was
the cog-wheel of the whole business, was out of it. Royer would be
landing at Dover, Sir Walter would be making plans with the few people
in England who were in the secret, and somewhere in the darkness the
Black Stone would be working. I felt the sense of danger and impending
calamity, and I had the curious feeling, too, that I alone could avert
it, alone could grapple with it. But I was out of the game now. How
could it be otherwise? It was not likely that Cabinet Ministers and
Admiralty Lords and Generals would admit me to their councils.
I actually began to wish that I could run up against one of my three
enemies. That would lead to developments. I felt that I wanted
enormously to have a vulgar scrap with those gentry, where I could hit
out and flatten something. I was rapidly getting into a very bad
temper.
I didn't feel like going back to my flat. That had to be faced some
time, but as I still had sufficient money I thought I would put it off
till next morning, and go to a hotel for the night.
My irritation lasted through dinner, which I had at a restaurant in
Jermyn Street. I was no longer hungry, and let several courses pass
untasted. I drank the best part of a bottle of Burgundy, but it did
nothing to cheer me. An abominable restlessness had taken possession
of me. Here was I, a very ordinary fellow, with no particular brains,
and yet I was convinced that somehow I was needed to help this business
through—that without me it would all go to blazes. I told myself it
was sheer silly conceit, that four or five of the cleverest people
living, with all the might of the British Empire at their back, had the
job in hand. Yet I couldn't be convinced. It seemed as if a voice
kept speaking in my ear, telling me to be up and doing, or I would
never sleep again.
The upshot was that about half-past nine I made up my mind to go to
Queen Anne's Gate. Very likely I would not be admitted, but it would
ease my conscience to try.
I walked down Jermyn Street, and at the corner of Duke Street passed a
group of young men. They were in evening dress, had been dining
somewhere, and were going on to a music-hall. One of them was Mr
Marmaduke Jopley.
He saw me and stopped short.
'By God, the murderer!' he cried. 'Here, you fellows, hold him!
That's Hannay, the man who did the Portland Place murder!' He gripped
me by the arm, and the others crowded round. I wasn't looking for any
trouble, but my ill-temper made me play the fool. A policeman came up,
and I should have told him the truth, and, if he didn't believe it,
demanded to be taken to Scotland Yard, or for that matter to the
nearest police station. But a delay at that moment seemed to me
unendurable, and the sight of Marmie's imbecile face was more than I
could bear. I let out with my left, and had the satisfaction of seeing
him measure his length in the gutter.
Then began an unholy row. They were all on me at once, and the
policeman took me in the rear. I got in one or two good blows, for I
think, with fair play, I could have licked the lot of them, but the
policeman pinned me behind, and one of them got his fingers on my
throat.
Through a black cloud of rage I heard the officer of the law asking
what was the matter, and Marmie, between his broken teeth, declaring
that I was Hannay the murderer.
'Oh, damn it all,' I cried, 'make the fellow shut up. I advise you to
leave me alone, constable. Scotland Yard knows all about me, and
you'll get a proper wigging if you interfere with me.'
'You've got to come along of me, young man,' said the policeman. 'I
saw you strike that gentleman crool 'ard. You began it too, for he
wasn't doing nothing. I seen you. Best go quietly or I'll have to fix
you up.'
Exasperation and an overwhelming sense that at no cost must I delay
gave me the strength of a bull elephant. I fairly wrenched the
constable off his feet, floored the man who was gripping my collar, and
set off at my best pace down Duke Street. I heard a whistle being
blown, and the rush of men behind me.
I have a very fair turn of speed, and that night I had wings. In a
jiffy I was in Pall Mall and had turned down towards St James's Park.
I dodged the policeman at the Palace gates, dived through a press of
carriages at the entrance to the Mall, and was making for the bridge
before my pursuers had crossed the roadway. In the open ways of the
Park I put on a spurt. Happily there were few people about and no one
tried to stop me. I was staking all on getting to Queen Anne's Gate.
When I entered that quiet thoroughfare it seemed deserted. Sir
Walter's house was in the narrow part, and outside it three or four
motor-cars were drawn up. I slackened speed some yards off and walked
briskly up to the door. If the butler refused me admission, or if he
even delayed to open the door, I was done.
He didn't delay. I had scarcely rung before the door opened.
'I must see Sir Walter,' I panted. 'My business is desperately
important.'
That butler was a great man. Without moving a muscle he held the door
open, and then shut it behind me. 'Sir Walter is engaged, Sir, and I
have orders to admit no one. Perhaps you will wait.'
The house was of the old-fashioned kind, with a wide hall and rooms on
both sides of it. At the far end was an alcove with a telephone and a
couple of chairs, and there the butler offered me a seat.
'See here,' I whispered. 'There's trouble about and I'm in it. But
Sir Walter knows, and I'm working for him. If anyone comes and asks if
I am here, tell him a lie.'
He nodded, and presently there was a noise of voices in the street, and
a furious ringing at the bell. I never admired a man more than that
butler. He opened the door, and with a face like a graven image waited
to be questioned. Then he gave them it. He told them whose house it
was, and what his orders were, and simply froze them off the doorstep.
I could see it all from my alcove, and it was better than any play.
I hadn't waited long till there came another ring at the bell. The
butler made no bones about admitting this new visitor.
While he was taking off his coat I saw who it was. You couldn't open a
newspaper or a magazine without seeing that face—the grey beard cut
like a spade, the firm fighting mouth, the blunt square nose, and the
keen blue eyes. I recognized the First Sea Lord, the man, they say,
that made the new British Navy.
He passed my alcove and was ushered into a room at the back of the
hall. As the door opened I could hear the sound of low voices. It
shut, and I was left alone again.
For twenty minutes I sat there, wondering what I was to do next. I was
still perfectly convinced that I was wanted, but when or how I had no
notion. I kept looking at my watch, and as the time crept on to
half-past ten I began to think that the conference must soon end. In a
quarter of an hour Royer should be speeding along the road to
Portsmouth ...
Then I heard a bell ring, and the butler appeared. The door of the
back room opened, and the First Sea Lord came out. He walked past me,
and in passing he glanced in my direction, and for a second we looked
each other in the face.
Only for a second, but it was enough to make my heart jump. I had
never seen the great man before, and he had never seen me. But in that
fraction of time something sprang into his eyes, and that something was
recognition. You can't mistake it. It is a flicker, a spark of light,
a minute shade of difference which means one thing and one thing only.
It came involuntarily, for in a moment it died, and he passed on. In a
maze of wild fancies I heard the street door close behind him.
I picked up the telephone book and looked up the number of his house.
We were connected at once, and I heard a servant's voice.
'Is his Lordship at home?' I asked.
'His Lordship returned half an hour ago,' said the voice, 'and has gone
to bed. He is not very well tonight. Will you leave a message, Sir?'
I rang off and almost tumbled into a chair. My part in this business
was not yet ended. It had been a close shave, but I had been in time.
Not a moment could be lost, so I marched boldly to the door of that
back room and entered without knocking.
Five surprised faces looked up from a round table. There was Sir
Walter, and Drew the War Minister, whom I knew from his photographs.
There was a slim elderly man, who was probably Whittaker, the Admiralty
official, and there was General Winstanley, conspicuous from the long
scar on his forehead. Lastly, there was a short stout man with an
iron-grey moustache and bushy eyebrows, who had been arrested in the
middle of a sentence.
Sir Walter's face showed surprise and annoyance.
'This is Mr Hannay, of whom I have spoken to you,' he said
apologetically to the company. 'I'm afraid, Hannay, this visit is
ill-timed.'
I was getting back my coolness. 'That remains to be seen, Sir,' I
said; 'but I think it may be in the nick of time. For God's sake,
gentlemen, tell me who went out a minute ago?'
'Lord Alloa,' Sir Walter said, reddening with anger. 'It was not,' I
cried; 'it was his living image, but it was not Lord Alloa. It was
someone who recognized me, someone I have seen in the last month. He
had scarcely left the doorstep when I rang up Lord Alloa's house and
was told he had come in half an hour before and had gone to bed.'
'Who—who—' someone stammered.
'The Black Stone,' I cried, and I sat down in the chair so recently
vacated and looked round at five badly scared gentlemen.
CHAPTER NINE
The Thirty-Nine Steps
'Nonsense!' said the official from the Admiralty.
Sir Walter got up and left the room while we looked blankly at the
table. He came back in ten minutes with a long face. 'I have spoken
to Alloa,' he said. 'Had him out of bed—very grumpy. He went
straight home after Mulross's dinner.'
'But it's madness,' broke in General Winstanley. 'Do you mean to tell
me that that man came here and sat beside me for the best part of half
an hour and that I didn't detect the imposture? Alloa must be out of
his mind.'
'Don't you see the cleverness of it?' I said. 'You were too interested
in other things to have any eyes. You took Lord Alloa for granted. If
it had been anybody else you might have looked more closely, but it was
natural for him to be here, and that put you all to sleep.'
Then the Frenchman spoke, very slowly and in good English.
'The young man is right. His psychology is good. Our enemies have not
been foolish!'
He bent his wise brows on the assembly.
'I will tell you a tale,' he said. 'It happened many years ago in
Senegal. I was quartered in a remote station, and to pass the time
used to go fishing for big barbel in the river. A little Arab mare
used to carry my luncheon basket—one of the salted dun breed you got
at Timbuctoo in the old days. Well, one morning I had good sport, and
the mare was unaccountably restless. I could hear her whinnying and
squealing and stamping her feet, and I kept soothing her with my voice
while my mind was intent on fish. I could see her all the time, as I
thought, out of a corner of my eye, tethered to a tree twenty yards
away. After a couple of hours I began to think of food. I collected
my fish in a tarpaulin bag, and moved down the stream towards the mare,
trolling my line. When I got up to her I flung the tarpaulin on her
back—'
He paused and looked round.
'It was the smell that gave me warning. I turned my head and found
myself looking at a lion three feet off ... An old man-eater, that was
the terror of the village ... What was left of the mare, a mass of
blood and bones and hide, was behind him.'
'What happened?' I asked. I was enough of a hunter to know a true yarn
when I heard it.
'I stuffed my fishing-rod into his jaws, and I had a pistol. Also my
servants came presently with rifles. But he left his mark on me.' He
held up a hand which lacked three fingers.
'Consider,' he said. 'The mare had been dead more than an hour, and
the brute had been patiently watching me ever since. I never saw the
kill, for I was accustomed to the mare's fretting, and I never marked
her absence, for my consciousness of her was only of something tawny,
and the lion filled that part. If I could blunder thus, gentlemen, in
a land where men's senses are keen, why should we busy preoccupied
urban folk not err also?'
Sir Walter nodded. No one was ready to gainsay him.
'But I don't see,' went on Winstanley. 'Their object was to get these
dispositions without our knowing it. Now it only required one of us to
mention to Alloa our meeting tonight for the whole fraud to be exposed.'
Sir Walter laughed dryly. 'The selection of Alloa shows their acumen.
Which of us was likely to speak to him about tonight? Or was he likely
to open the subject?'
I remembered the First Sea Lord's reputation for taciturnity and
shortness of temper.
'The one thing that puzzles me,' said the General, 'is what good his
visit here would do that spy fellow? He could not carry away several
pages of figures and strange names in his head.'
'That is not difficult,' the Frenchman replied. 'A good spy is trained
to have a photographic memory. Like your own Macaulay. You noticed he
said nothing, but went through these papers again and again. I think
we may assume that he has every detail stamped on his mind. When I was
younger I could do the same trick.'
'Well, I suppose there is nothing for it but to change the plans,' said
Sir Walter ruefully.
Whittaker was looking very glum. 'Did you tell Lord Alloa what has
happened?' he asked. 'No? Well, I can't speak with absolute
assurance, but I'm nearly certain we can't make any serious change
unless we alter the geography of England.'
'Another thing must be said,' it was Royer who spoke. 'I talked freely
when that man was here. I told something of the military plans of my
Government. I was permitted to say so much. But that information
would be worth many millions to our enemies. No, my friends, I see no
other way. The man who came here and his confederates must be taken,
and taken at once.'
'Good God,' I cried, 'and we have not a rag of a clue.'
'Besides,' said Whittaker, 'there is the post. By this time the news
will be on its way.'
'No,' said the Frenchman. 'You do not understand the habits of the
spy. He receives personally his reward, and he delivers personally his
intelligence. We in France know something of the breed. There is
still a chance, MES AMIS. These men must cross the sea, and there are
ships to be searched and ports to be watched. Believe me, the need is
desperate for both France and Britain.'
Royer's grave good sense seemed to pull us together. He was the man of
action among fumblers. But I saw no hope in any face, and I felt none.
Where among the fifty millions of these islands and within a dozen
hours were we to lay hands on the three cleverest rogues in Europe?
Then suddenly I had an inspiration.
'Where is Scudder's book?' I cried to Sir Walter. 'Quick, man, I
remember something in it.'
He unlocked the door of a bureau and gave it to me.
I found the place. THIRTY-NINE STEPS, I read, and again, THIRTY-NINE
STEPS—I COUNTED THEM—HIGH TIDE 10.17 P.M.
The Admiralty man was looking at me as if he thought I had gone mad.
'Don't you see it's a clue,' I shouted. 'Scudder knew where these
fellows laired—he knew where they were going to leave the country,
though he kept the name to himself. Tomorrow was the day, and it was
some place where high tide was at 10.17.'
'They may have gone tonight,' someone said.
'Not they. They have their own snug secret way, and they won't be
hurried. I know Germans, and they are mad about working to a plan.
Where the devil can I get a book of Tide Tables?'
Whittaker brightened up. 'It's a chance,' he said. 'Let's go over to
the Admiralty.'
We got into two of the waiting motor-cars—all but Sir Walter, who went
off to Scotland Yard—to 'mobilize MacGillivray', so he said. We
marched through empty corridors and big bare chambers where the
charwomen were busy, till we reached a little room lined with books and
maps. A resident clerk was unearthed, who presently fetched from the
library the Admiralty Tide Tables. I sat at the desk and the others
stood round, for somehow or other I had got charge of this expedition.
It was no good. There were hundreds of entries, and so far as I could
see 10.17 might cover fifty places. We had to find some way of
narrowing the possibilities.
I took my head in my hands and thought. There must be some way of
reading this riddle. What did Scudder mean by steps? I thought of
dock steps, but if he had meant that I didn't think he would have
mentioned the number. It must be some place where there were several
staircases, and one marked out from the others by having thirty-nine
steps.
Then I had a sudden thought, and hunted up all the steamer sailings.
There was no boat which left for the Continent at 10.17 p.m.
Why was high tide so important? If it was a harbour it must be some
little place where the tide mattered, or else it was a heavy-draught
boat. But there was no regular steamer sailing at that hour, and
somehow I didn't think they would travel by a big boat from a regular
harbour. So it must be some little harbour where the tide was
important, or perhaps no harbour at all.
But if it was a little port I couldn't see what the steps signified.
There were no sets of staircases on any harbour that I had ever seen.
It must be some place which a particular staircase identified, and
where the tide was full at 10.17. On the whole it seemed to me that
the place must be a bit of open coast. But the staircases kept
puzzling me.
Then I went back to wider considerations. Whereabouts would a man be
likely to leave for Germany, a man in a hurry, who wanted a speedy and
a secret passage? Not from any of the big harbours. And not from the
Channel or the West Coast or Scotland, for, remember, he was starting
from London. I measured the distance on the map, and tried to put
myself in the enemy's shoes. I should try for Ostend or Antwerp or
Rotterdam, and I should sail from somewhere on the East Coast between
Cromer and Dover.
All this was very loose guessing, and I don't pretend it was ingenious
or scientific. I wasn't any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have
always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I
don't know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far
as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I
usually found my guesses pretty right.
So I set out all my conclusions on a bit of Admiralty paper. They ran
like this:
FAIRLY CERTAIN
(1) Place where there are several sets of stairs; one that
matters distinguished by having thirty-nine steps.
(2) Full tide at 10.17 p.m. Leaving shore only possible at full
tide.
(3) Steps not dock steps, and so place probably not harbour.
(4) No regular night steamer at 10.17. Means of transport must
be tramp (unlikely), yacht, or fishing-boat.
There my reasoning stopped. I made another list, which I headed
'Guessed', but I was just as sure of the one as the other.
GUESSED
(1) Place not harbour but open coast.
(2) Boat small—trawler, yacht, or launch.
(3) Place somewhere on East Coast between Cromer and Dover.
It struck me as odd that I should be sitting at that desk with a
Cabinet Minister, a Field-Marshal, two high Government officials, and a
French General watching me, while from the scribble of a dead man I was
trying to drag a secret which meant life or death for us.
Sir Walter had joined us, and presently MacGillivray arrived. He had
sent out instructions to watch the ports and railway stations for the
three men whom I had described to Sir Walter. Not that he or anybody
else thought that that would do much good.
'Here's the most I can make of it,' I said. 'We have got to find a
place where there are several staircases down to the beach, one of
which has thirty-nine steps. I think it's a piece of open coast with
biggish cliffs, somewhere between the Wash and the Channel. Also it's
a place where full tide is at 10.17 tomorrow night.'
Then an idea struck me. 'Is there no Inspector of Coastguards or some
fellow like that who knows the East Coast?'
Whittaker said there was, and that he lived in Clapham. He went off in
a car to fetch him, and the rest of us sat about the little room and
talked of anything that came into our heads. I lit a pipe and went
over the whole thing again till my brain grew weary.
About one in the morning the coastguard man arrived. He was a fine old
fellow, with the look of a naval officer, and was desperately
respectful to the company. I left the War Minister to cross-examine
him, for I felt he would think it cheek in me to talk.
'We want you to tell us the places you know on the East Coast where
there are cliffs, and where several sets of steps run down to the
beach.'
He thought for a bit. 'What kind of steps do you mean, Sir? There are
plenty of places with roads cut down through the cliffs, and most roads
have a step or two in them. Or do you mean regular staircases—all
steps, so to speak?'
Sir Arthur looked towards me. 'We mean regular staircases,' I said.
He reflected a minute or two. 'I don't know that I can think of any.
Wait a second. There's a place in Norfolk—Brattlesham—beside a
golf-course, where there are a couple of staircases, to let the
gentlemen get a lost ball.'
'That's not it,' I said.
'Then there are plenty of Marine Parades, if that's what you mean.
Every seaside resort has them.'
I shook my head. 'It's got to be more retired than that,' I said.
'Well, gentlemen, I can't think of anywhere else. Of course, there's
the Ruff—'
'What's that?' I asked.
'The big chalk headland in Kent, close to Bradgate. It's got a lot of
villas on the top, and some of the houses have staircases down to a
private beach. It's a very high-toned sort of place, and the residents
there like to keep by themselves.'
I tore open the Tide Tables and found Bradgate. High tide there was at
10.17 P.m. on the 15th of June.
'We're on the scent at last,' I cried excitedly. 'How can I find out
what is the tide at the Ruff?'
'I can tell you that, Sir,' said the coastguard man. 'I once was lent
a house there in this very month, and I used to go out at night to the
deep-sea fishing. The tide's ten minutes before Bradgate.'
I closed the book and looked round at the company.
'If one of those staircases has thirty-nine steps we have solved the
mystery, gentlemen,' I said. 'I want the loan of your car, Sir Walter,
and a map of the roads. If Mr MacGillivray will spare me ten minutes,
I think we can prepare something for tomorrow.'
It was ridiculous in me to take charge of the business like this, but
they didn't seem to mind, and after all I had been in the show from the
start. Besides, I was used to rough jobs, and these eminent gentlemen
were too clever not to see it. It was General Royer who gave me my
commission. 'I for one,' he said, 'am content to leave the matter in
Mr Hannay's hands.'
By half-past three I was tearing past the moonlit hedgerows of Kent,
with MacGillivray's best man on the seat beside me.
CHAPTER TEN
Various Parties Converging on the Sea
A pink and blue June morning found me at Bradgate looking from the
Griffin Hotel over a smooth sea to the lightship on the Cock sands
which seemed the size of a bell-buoy. A couple of miles farther south
and much nearer the shore a small destroyer was anchored. Scaife,
MacGillivray's man, who had been in the Navy, knew the boat, and told
me her name and her commander's, so I sent off a wire to Sir Walter.
After breakfast Scaife got from a house-agent a key for the gates of
the staircases on the Ruff. I walked with him along the sands, and sat
down in a nook of the cliffs while he investigated the half-dozen of
them. I didn't want to be seen, but the place at this hour was quite
deserted, and all the time I was on that beach I saw nothing but the
sea-gulls.
It took him more than an hour to do the job, and when I saw him coming
towards me, conning a bit of paper, I can tell you my heart was in my
mouth. Everything depended, you see, on my guess proving right.
He read aloud the number of steps in the different stairs.
'Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-nine, forty-two, forty-seven,' and
'twenty-one' where the cliffs grew lower. I almost got up and shouted.
We hurried back to the town and sent a wire to MacGillivray. I wanted
half a dozen men, and I directed them to divide themselves among
different specified hotels. Then Scaife set out to prospect the house
at the head of the thirty-nine steps.
He came back with news that both puzzled and reassured me. The house
was called Trafalgar Lodge, and belonged to an old gentleman called
Appleton—a retired stockbroker, the house-agent said. Mr Appleton was
there a good deal in the summer time, and was in residence now—had
been for the better part of a week. Scaife could pick up very little
information about him, except that he was a decent old fellow, who paid
his bills regularly, and was always good for a fiver for a local
charity. Then Scaife seemed to have penetrated to the back door of the
house, pretending he was an agent for sewing-machines. Only three
servants were kept, a cook, a parlour-maid, and a housemaid, and they
were just the sort that you would find in a respectable middle-class
household. The cook was not the gossiping kind, and had pretty soon
shut the door in his face, but Scaife said he was positive she knew
nothing. Next door there was a new house building which would give
good cover for observation, and the villa on the other side was to let,
and its garden was rough and shrubby.
I borrowed Scaife's telescope, and before lunch went for a walk along
the Ruff. I kept well behind the rows of villas, and found a good
observation point on the edge of the golf-course. There I had a view
of the line of turf along the cliff top, with seats placed at
intervals, and the little square plots, railed in and planted with
bushes, whence the staircases descended to the beach. I saw Trafalgar
Lodge very plainly, a red-brick villa with a veranda, a tennis lawn
behind, and in front the ordinary seaside flower-garden full of
marguerites and scraggy geraniums. There was a flagstaff from which an
enormous Union Jack hung limply in the still air.
Presently I observed someone leave the house and saunter along the
cliff. When I got my glasses on him I saw it was an old man, wearing
white flannel trousers, a blue serge jacket, and a straw hat. He
carried field-glasses and a newspaper, and sat down on one of the iron
seats and began to read. Sometimes he would lay down the paper and
turn his glasses on the sea. He looked for a long time at the
destroyer. I watched him for half an hour, till he got up and went
back to the house for his luncheon, when I returned to the hotel for
mine.
I wasn't feeling very confident. This decent common-place dwelling was
not what I had expected. The man might be the bald archaeologist of
that horrible moorland farm, or he might not. He was exactly the kind
of satisfied old bird you will find in every suburb and every holiday
place. If you wanted a type of the perfectly harmless person you would
probably pitch on that.
But after lunch, as I sat in the hotel porch, I perked up, for I saw
the thing I had hoped for and had dreaded to miss. A yacht came up
from the south and dropped anchor pretty well opposite the Ruff. She
seemed about a hundred and fifty tons, and I saw she belonged to the
Squadron from the white ensign. So Scaife and I went down to the
harbour and hired a boatman for an afternoon's fishing.
I spent a warm and peaceful afternoon. We caught between us about
twenty pounds of cod and lythe, and out in that dancing blue sea I took
a cheerier view of things. Above the white cliffs of the Ruff I saw
the green and red of the villas, and especially the great flagstaff of
Trafalgar Lodge. About four o'clock, when we had fished enough, I made
the boatman row us round the yacht, which lay like a delicate white
bird, ready at a moment to flee. Scaife said she must be a fast boat
for her build, and that she was pretty heavily engined.
Her name was the ARIADNE, as I discovered from the cap of one of the
men who was polishing brasswork. I spoke to him, and got an answer in
the soft dialect of Essex. Another hand that came along passed me the
time of day in an unmistakable English tongue. Our boatman had an
argument with one of them about the weather, and for a few minutes we
lay on our oars close to the starboard bow.
Then the men suddenly disregarded us and bent their heads to their work
as an officer came along the deck. He was a pleasant, clean-looking
young fellow, and he put a question to us about our fishing in very
good English. But there could be no doubt about him. His
close-cropped head and the cut of his collar and tie never came out of
England.
That did something to reassure me, but as we rowed back to Bradgate my
obstinate doubts would not be dismissed. The thing that worried me was
the reflection that my enemies knew that I had got my knowledge from
Scudder, and it was Scudder who had given me the clue to this place.
If they knew that Scudder had this clue, would they not be certain to
change their plans? Too much depended on their success for them to
take any risks. The whole question was how much they understood about
Scudder's knowledge. I had talked confidently last night about Germans
always sticking to a scheme, but if they had any suspicions that I was
on their track they would be fools not to cover it. I wondered if the
man last night had seen that I recognized him. Somehow I did not think
he had, and to that I had clung. But the whole business had never
seemed so difficult as that afternoon when by all calculations I should
have been rejoicing in assured success.
In the hotel I met the commander of the destroyer, to whom Scaife
introduced me, and with whom I had a few words. Then I thought I would
put in an hour or two watching Trafalgar Lodge.
I found a place farther up the hill, in the garden of an empty house.
From there I had a full view of the court, on which two figures were
having a game of tennis. One was the old man, whom I had already seen;
the other was a younger fellow, wearing some club colours in the scarf
round his middle. They played with tremendous zest, like two city
gents who wanted hard exercise to open their pores. You couldn't
conceive a more innocent spectacle. They shouted and laughed and
stopped for drinks, when a maid brought out two tankards on a salver.
I rubbed my eyes and asked myself if I was not the most immortal fool
on earth. Mystery and darkness had hung about the men who hunted me
over the Scotch moor in aeroplane and motor-car, and notably about that
infernal antiquarian. It was easy enough to connect those folk with
the knife that pinned Scudder to the floor, and with fell designs on
the world's peace. But here were two guileless citizens taking their
innocuous exercise, and soon about to go indoors to a humdrum dinner,
where they would talk of market prices and the last cricket scores and
the gossip of their native Surbiton. I had been making a net to catch
vultures and falcons, and lo and behold! two plump thrushes had
blundered into it.
Presently a third figure arrived, a young man on a bicycle, with a bag
of golf-clubs slung on his back. He strolled round to the tennis lawn
and was welcomed riotously by the players. Evidently they were
chaffing him, and their chaff sounded horribly English. Then the plump
man, mopping his brow with a silk handkerchief, announced that he must
have a tub. I heard his very words—'I've got into a proper lather,'
he said. 'This will bring down my weight and my handicap, Bob. I'll
take you on tomorrow and give you a stroke a hole.' You couldn't find
anything much more English than that.
They all went into the house, and left me feeling a precious idiot. I
had been barking up the wrong tree this time. These men might be
acting; but if they were, where was their audience? They didn't know I
was sitting thirty yards off in a rhododendron. It was simply
impossible to believe that these three hearty fellows were anything but
what they seemed—three ordinary, game-playing, suburban Englishmen,
wearisome, if you like, but sordidly innocent.
And yet there were three of them; and one was old, and one was plump,
and one was lean and dark; and their house chimed in with Scudder's
notes; and half a mile off was lying a steam yacht with at least one
German officer. I thought of Karolides lying dead and all Europe
trembling on the edge of earthquake, and the men I had left behind me
in London who were waiting anxiously for the events of the next hours.
There was no doubt that hell was afoot somewhere. The Black Stone had
won, and if it survived this June night would bank its winnings.
There seemed only one thing to do—go forward as if I had no doubts,
and if I was going to make a fool of myself to do it handsomely. Never
in my life have I faced a job with greater disinclination. I would
rather in my then mind have walked into a den of anarchists, each with
his Browning handy, or faced a charging lion with a popgun, than enter
that happy home of three cheerful Englishmen and tell them that their
game was up. How they would laugh at me!
But suddenly I remembered a thing I once heard in Rhodesia from old
Peter Pienaar. I have quoted Peter already in this narrative. He was
the best scout I ever knew, and before he had turned respectable he had
been pretty often on the windy side of the law, when he had been wanted
badly by the authorities. Peter once discussed with me the question of
disguises, and he had a theory which struck me at the time. He said,
barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits
were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his
business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards and
such childish follies. The only thing that mattered was what Peter
called 'atmosphere'.
If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in
which he had been first observed, and—this is the important
part—really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had
never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on
earth. And he used to tell a story of how he once borrowed a black
coat and went to church and shared the same hymn-book with the man that
was looking for him. If that man had seen him in decent company before
he would have recognized him; but he had only seen him snuffing the
lights in a public-house with a revolver.
The recollection of Peter's talk gave me the first real comfort that I
had had that day. Peter had been a wise old bird, and these fellows I
was after were about the pick of the aviary. What if they were playing
Peter's game? A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the
same and is different.
Again, there was that other maxim of Peter's which had helped me when I
had been a roadman. 'If you are playing a part, you will never keep it
up unless you convince yourself that you are it.' That would explain
the game of tennis. Those chaps didn't need to act, they just turned a
handle and passed into another life, which came as naturally to them as
the first. It sounds a platitude, but Peter used to say that it was
the big secret of all the famous criminals.
It was now getting on for eight o'clock, and I went back and saw Scaife
to give him his instructions. I arranged with him how to place his
men, and then I went for a walk, for I didn't feel up to any dinner. I
went round the deserted golf-course, and then to a point on the cliffs
farther north beyond the line of the villas.
On the little trim newly-made roads I met people in flannels coming
back from tennis and the beach, and a coastguard from the wireless
station, and donkeys and pierrots padding homewards. Out at sea in the
blue dusk I saw lights appear on the ARIADNE and on the destroyer away
to the south, and beyond the Cock sands the bigger lights of steamers
making for the Thames. The whole scene was so peaceful and ordinary
that I got more dashed in spirits every second. It took all my
resolution to stroll towards Trafalgar Lodge about half-past nine.
On the way I got a piece of solid comfort from the sight of a greyhound
that was swinging along at a nursemaid's heels. He reminded me of a
dog I used to have in Rhodesia, and of the time when I took him hunting
with me in the Pali hills. We were after rhebok, the dun kind, and I
recollected how we had followed one beast, and both he and I had clean
lost it. A greyhound works by sight, and my eyes are good enough, but
that buck simply leaked out of the landscape. Afterwards I found out
how it managed it. Against the grey rock of the kopjes it showed no
more than a crow against a thundercloud. It didn't need to run away;
all it had to do was to stand still and melt into the background.
Suddenly as these memories chased across my brain I thought of my
present case and applied the moral. The Black Stone didn't need to
bolt. They were quietly absorbed into the landscape. I was on the
right track, and I jammed that down in my mind and vowed never to
forget it. The last word was with Peter Pienaar.
Scaife's men would be posted now, but there was no sign of a soul. The
house stood as open as a market-place for anybody to observe. A
three-foot railing separated it from the cliff road; the windows on the
ground-floor were all open, and shaded lights and the low sound of
voices revealed where the occupants were finishing dinner. Everything
was as public and above-board as a charity bazaar. Feeling the
greatest fool on earth, I opened the gate and rang the bell.
A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places,
gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper
and the lower. He understands them and they understand him. I was at
home with herds and tramps and roadmen, and I was sufficiently at my
ease with people like Sir Walter and the men I had met the night
before. I can't explain why, but it is a fact. But what fellows like
me don't understand is the great comfortable, satisfied middle-class
world, the folk that live in villas and suburbs. He doesn't know how
they look at things, he doesn't understand their conventions, and he is
as shy of them as of a black mamba. When a trim parlour-maid opened
the door, I could hardly find my voice.
I asked for Mr Appleton, and was ushered in. My plan had been to walk
straight into the dining-room, and by a sudden appearance wake in the
men that start of recognition which would confirm my theory. But when
I found myself in that neat hall the place mastered me. There were the
golf-clubs and tennis-rackets, the straw hats and caps, the rows of
gloves, the sheaf of walking-sticks, which you will find in ten
thousand British homes. A stack of neatly folded coats and waterproofs
covered the top of an old oak chest; there was a grandfather clock
ticking; and some polished brass warming-pans on the walls, and a
barometer, and a print of Chiltern winning the St Leger. The place was
as orthodox as an Anglican church. When the maid asked me for my name
I gave it automatically, and was shown into the smoking-room, on the
right side of the hall.
That room was even worse. I hadn't time to examine it, but I could see
some framed group photographs above the mantelpiece, and I could have
sworn they were English public school or college. I had only one
glance, for I managed to pull myself together and go after the maid.
But I was too late. She had already entered the dining-room and given
my name to her master, and I had missed the chance of seeing how the
three took it.
When I walked into the room the old man at the head of the table had
risen and turned round to meet me. He was in evening dress—a short
coat and black tie, as was the other, whom I called in my own mind the
plump one. The third, the dark fellow, wore a blue serge suit and a
soft white collar, and the colours of some club or school.
The old man's manner was perfect. 'Mr Hannay?' he said hesitatingly.
'Did you wish to see me? One moment, you fellows, and I'll rejoin you.
We had better go to the smoking-room.'
Though I hadn't an ounce of confidence in me, I forced myself to play
the game. I pulled up a chair and sat down on it.
'I think we have met before,' I said, 'and I guess you know my
business.'
The light in the room was dim, but so far as I could see their faces,
they played the part of mystification very well.
'Maybe, maybe,' said the old man. 'I haven't a very good memory, but
I'm afraid you must tell me your errand, Sir, for I really don't know
it.'
'Well, then,' I said, and all the time I seemed to myself to be talking
pure foolishness—'I have come to tell you that the game's up. I have
a warrant for the arrest of you three gentlemen.'
'Arrest,' said the old man, and he looked really shocked. 'Arrest!
Good God, what for?'
'For the murder of Franklin Scudder in London on the 23rd day of last
month.'
'I never heard the name before,' said the old man in a dazed voice.
One of the others spoke up. 'That was the Portland Place murder. I
read about it. Good heavens, you must be mad, Sir! Where do you come
from?'
'Scotland Yard,' I said.
After that for a minute there was utter silence. The old man was
staring at his plate and fumbling with a nut, the very model of
innocent bewilderment.
Then the plump one spoke up. He stammered a little, like a man picking
his words.
'Don't get flustered, uncle,' he said. 'It is all a ridiculous
mistake; but these things happen sometimes, and we can easily set it
right. It won't be hard to prove our innocence. I can show that I was
out of the country on the 23rd of May, and Bob was in a nursing home.
You were in London, but you can explain what you were doing.'
'Right, Percy! Of course that's easy enough. The 23rd! That was the
day after Agatha's wedding. Let me see. What was I doing? I came up
in the morning from Woking, and lunched at the club with Charlie
Symons. Then—oh yes, I dined with the Fishmongers. I remember, for
the punch didn't agree with me, and I was seedy next morning. Hang it
all, there's the cigar-box I brought back from the dinner.' He pointed
to an object on the table, and laughed nervously.
'I think, Sir,' said the young man, addressing me respectfully, 'you
will see you are mistaken. We want to assist the law like all
Englishmen, and we don't want Scotland Yard to be making fools of
themselves. That's so, uncle?'
'Certainly, Bob.' The old fellow seemed to be recovering his voice.
'Certainly, we'll do anything in our power to assist the authorities.
But—but this is a bit too much. I can't get over it.'
'How Nellie will chuckle,' said the plump man. 'She always said that
you would die of boredom because nothing ever happened to you. And now
you've got it thick and strong,' and he began to laugh very pleasantly.
'By Jove, yes. Just think of it! What a story to tell at the club.
Really, Mr Hannay, I suppose I should be angry, to show my innocence,
but it's too funny! I almost forgive you the fright you gave me! You
looked so glum, I thought I might have been walking in my sleep and
killing people.'
It couldn't be acting, it was too confoundedly genuine. My heart went
into my boots, and my first impulse was to apologize and clear out.
But I told myself I must see it through, even though I was to be the
laughing-stock of Britain. The light from the dinner-table
candlesticks was not very good, and to cover my confusion I got up,
walked to the door and switched on the electric light. The sudden
glare made them blink, and I stood scanning the three faces.
Well, I made nothing of it. One was old and bald, one was stout, one
was dark and thin. There was nothing in their appearance to prevent
them being the three who had hunted me in Scotland, but there was
nothing to identify them. I simply can't explain why I who, as a
roadman, had looked into two pairs of eyes, and as Ned Ainslie into
another pair, why I, who have a good memory and reasonable powers of
observation, could find no satisfaction. They seemed exactly what they
professed to be, and I could not have sworn to one of them.
There in that pleasant dining-room, with etchings on the walls, and a
picture of an old lady in a bib above the mantelpiece, I could see
nothing to connect them with the moorland desperadoes. There was a
silver cigarette-box beside me, and I saw that it had been won by
Percival Appleton, Esq., of the St Bede's Club, in a golf tournament.
I had to keep a firm hold of Peter Pienaar to prevent myself bolting
out of that house.
'Well,' said the old man politely, 'are you reassured by your scrutiny,
Sir?'
I couldn't find a word.
'I hope you'll find it consistent with your duty to drop this
ridiculous business. I make no complaint, but you'll see how annoying
it must be to respectable people.'
I shook my head.
'O Lord,' said the young man. 'This is a bit too thick!'
'Do you propose to march us off to the police station?' asked the plump
one. 'That might be the best way out of it, but I suppose you won't be
content with the local branch. I have the right to ask to see your
warrant, but I don't wish to cast any aspersions upon you. You are
only doing your duty. But you'll admit it's horribly awkward. What do
you propose to do?'
There was nothing to do except to call in my men and have them
arrested, or to confess my blunder and clear out. I felt mesmerized by
the whole place, by the air of obvious innocence—not innocence merely,
but frank honest bewilderment and concern in the three faces.
'Oh, Peter Pienaar,' I groaned inwardly, and for a moment I was very
near damning myself for a fool and asking their pardon.
'Meantime I vote we have a game of bridge,' said the plump one. 'It
will give Mr Hannay time to think over things, and you know we have
been wanting a fourth player. Do you play, Sir?'
I accepted as if it had been an ordinary invitation at the club. The
whole business had mesmerized me. We went into the smoking-room where
a card-table was set out, and I was offered things to smoke and drink.
I took my place at the table in a kind of dream. The window was open
and the moon was flooding the cliffs and sea with a great tide of
yellow light. There was moonshine, too, in my head. The three had
recovered their composure, and were talking easily—just the kind of
slangy talk you will hear in any golf club-house. I must have cut a
rum figure, sitting there knitting my brows with my eyes wandering.
My partner was the young dark one. I play a fair hand at bridge, but I
must have been rank bad that night. They saw that they had got me
puzzled, and that put them more than ever at their ease. I kept
looking at their faces, but they conveyed nothing to me. It was not
that they looked different; they were different. I clung desperately
to the words of Peter Pienaar.
Then something awoke me.
The old man laid down his hand to light a cigar. He didn't pick it up
at once, but sat back for a moment in his chair, with his fingers
tapping on his knees.
It was the movement I remembered when I had stood before him in the
moorland farm, with the pistols of his servants behind me.
A little thing, lasting only a second, and the odds were a thousand to
one that I might have had my eyes on my cards at the time and missed
it. But I didn't, and, in a flash, the air seemed to clear. Some
shadow lifted from my brain, and I was looking at the three men with
full and absolute recognition.
The clock on the mantelpiece struck ten o'clock.
The three faces seemed to change before my eyes and reveal their
secrets. The young one was the murderer. Now I saw cruelty and
ruthlessness, where before I had only seen good-humour. His knife, I
made certain, had skewered Scudder to the floor. His kind had put the
bullet in Karolides.
The plump man's features seemed to dislimn, and form again, as I looked
at them. He hadn't a face, only a hundred masks that he could assume
when he pleased. That chap must have been a superb actor. Perhaps he
had been Lord Alloa of the night before; perhaps not; it didn't matter.
I wondered if he was the fellow who had first tracked Scudder, and left
his card on him. Scudder had said he lisped, and I could imagine how
the adoption of a lisp might add terror.
But the old man was the pick of the lot. He was sheer brain, icy,
cool, calculating, as ruthless as a steam hammer. Now that my eyes
were opened I wondered where I had seen the benevolence. His jaw was
like chilled steel, and his eyes had the inhuman luminosity of a
bird's. I went on playing, and every second a greater hate welled up
in my heart. It almost choked me, and I couldn't answer when my
partner spoke. Only a little longer could I endure their company.
'Whew! Bob! Look at the time,' said the old man. 'You'd better think
about catching your train. Bob's got to go to town tonight,' he added,
turning to me. The voice rang now as false as hell. I looked at the
clock, and it was nearly half-past ten.
'I am afraid he must put off his journey,' I said.
'Oh, damn,' said the young man. 'I thought you had dropped that rot.
I've simply got to go. You can have my address, and I'll give any
security you like.'
'No,' I said, 'you must stay.'
At that I think they must have realized that the game was desperate.
Their only chance had been to convince me that I was playing the fool,
and that had failed. But the old man spoke again.
'I'll go bail for my nephew. That ought to content you, Mr Hannay.'
Was it fancy, or did I detect some halt in the smoothness of that voice?
There must have been, for as I glanced at him, his eyelids fell in that
hawk-like hood which fear had stamped on my memory.
I blew my whistle.
In an instant the lights were out. A pair of strong arms gripped me
round the waist, covering the pockets in which a man might be expected
to carry a pistol.
'SCHNELL, FRANZ,' cried a voice, 'DAS BOOT, DAS BOOT!' As it spoke I
saw two of my fellows emerge on the moonlit lawn.
The young dark man leapt for the window, was through it, and over the
low fence before a hand could touch him. I grappled the old chap, and
the room seemed to fill with figures. I saw the plump one collared,
but my eyes were all for the out-of-doors, where Franz sped on over the
road towards the railed entrance to the beach stairs. One man followed
him, but he had no chance. The gate of the stairs locked behind the
fugitive, and I stood staring, with my hands on the old boy's throat,
for such a time as a man might take to descend those steps to the sea.
Suddenly my prisoner broke from me and flung himself on the wall.
There was a click as if a lever had been pulled. Then came a low
rumbling far, far below the ground, and through the window I saw a
cloud of chalky dust pouring out of the shaft of the stairway.
Someone switched on the light.
The old man was looking at me with blazing eyes.
'He is safe,' he cried. 'You cannot follow in time ... He is gone ...
He has triumphed ... DER SCHWARZE STEIN IST IN DER SIEGESKRONE.'
There was more in those eyes than any common triumph. They had been
hooded like a bird of prey, and now they flamed with a hawk's pride. A
white fanatic heat burned in them, and I realized for the first time
the terrible thing I had been up against. This man was more than a
spy; in his foul way he had been a patriot.
As the handcuffs clinked on his wrists I said my last word to him.
'I hope Franz will bear his triumph well. I ought to tell you that the
ARIADNE for the last hour has been in our hands.'
Three weeks later, as all the world knows, we went to war. I joined
the New Army the first week, and owing to my Matabele experience got a
captain's commission straight off. But I had done my best service, I
think, before I put on khaki.
End of Chapter 10 And end of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS
by
JOHN BUCHAN