The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan

Chapter Four

The Adventure of the Radical Candidate

You may picture me driving that 40 h.p. car for all she was worth over the crisp moor roads on that shining May morning; glancing back at first over my shoulder, and looking anxiously to the next turning; then driving with a vague eye, just wide enough awake to keep on the highway. For I was thinking desperately of what I had found in Scudder’s pocket-book.

The little man had told me a pack of lies. All his yarns about the Balkans and the Jew–Anarchists and the Foreign Office Conference were eyewash, and so was Karolides. And yet not quite, as you shall hear. I had staked everything on my belief in his story, and had been let down; here was his book telling me a different tale, and instead of being once-bitten-twice-shy, I believed it absolutely.

Why, I don’t know. It rang desperately true, and the first yarn, if you understand me, had been in a queer way true also in spirit. The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago. It was so big that I didn’t blame Scudder for keeping me out of the game and wanting to play a lone hand. That, I was pretty clear, was his intention. He had told me something which sounded big enough, but the real thing was so immortally big that he, the man who had found it out, wanted it all for himself. I didn’t blame him. It was risks after all that he was chiefly greedy about.

The whole story was in the notes — with gaps, you understand, which he would have filled up from his memory. He stuck down his authorities, too, and had an odd trick of giving them all a numerical value and then striking a balance, which stood for the reliability of each stage in the yarn. The four names he had printed were authorities, and there was a man, Ducrosne, who got five out of a possible five; and another fellow, Ammersfoort, who got three. The bare bones of the tale were all that was in the book — these, and one queer phrase which occurred half a dozen times inside brackets. ‘(Thirty-nine steps)’ was the phrase; and at its last time of use it ran —’(Thirty-nine steps, I counted them — high tide 10.17 p.m.)’. I could make nothing of that.

The first thing I learned was that it was no question of preventing a war. That was coming, as sure as Christmas: had been arranged, said Scudder, ever since February 1912. Karolides was going to be the occasion. He was booked all right, and was to hand in his checks on June 14th, two weeks and four days from that May morning. I gathered from Scudder’s notes that nothing on earth could prevent that. His talk of Epirote guards that would skin their own grandmothers was all billy-o.

The second thing was that this war was going to come as a mighty surprise to Britain. Karolides’ death would set the Balkans by the ears, and then Vienna would chip in with an ultimatum. Russia wouldn’t like that, and there would be high words. But Berlin would play the peacemaker, and pour oil on the waters, till suddenly she would find a good cause for a quarrel, pick it up, and in five hours let fly at us. That was the idea, and a pretty good one too. Honey and fair speeches, and then a stroke in the dark. While we were talking about the goodwill and good intentions of Germany our coast would be silently ringed with mines, and submarines would be waiting for every battleship.

But all this depended upon the third thing, which was due to happen on June 15th. I would never have grasped this if I hadn’t once happened to meet a French staff officer, coming back from West Africa, who had told me a lot of things. One was that, in spite of all the nonsense talked in Parliament, there was a real working alliance between France and Britain, and that the two General Staffs met every now and then, and made plans for joint action in case of war. Well, in June a very great swell was coming over from Paris, and he was going to get nothing less than a statement of the disposition of the British Home Fleet on mobilization. At least I gathered it was something like that; anyhow, it was something uncommonly important.

But on the 15th day of June there were to be others in London — others, at whom I could only guess. Scudder was content to call them collectively the ‘Black Stone’. They represented not our Allies, but our deadly foes; and the information, destined for France, was to be diverted to their pockets. And it was to be used, remember — used a week or two later, with great guns and swift torpedoes, suddenly in the darkness of a summer night.

This was the story I had been deciphering in a back room of a country inn, overlooking a cabbage garden. This was the story that hummed in my brain as I swung in the big touring-car from glen to glen.

My first impulse had been to write a letter to the Prime Minister, but a little reflection convinced me that that would be useless. Who would believe my tale? I must show a sign, some token in proof, and Heaven knew what that could be. Above all, I must keep going myself, ready to act when things got riper, and that was going to be no light job with the police of the British Isles in full cry after me and the watchers of the Black Stone running silently and swiftly on my trail.

I had no very clear purpose in my journey, but I steered east by the sun, for I remembered from the map that if I went north I would come into a region of coalpits and industrial towns. Presently I was down from the moorlands and traversing the broad haugh of a river. For miles I ran alongside a park wall, and in a break of the trees I saw a great castle. I swung through little old thatched villages, and over peaceful lowland streams, and past gardens blazing with hawthorn and yellow laburnum. The land was so deep in peace that I could scarcely believe that somewhere behind me were those who sought my life; ay, and that in a month’s time, unless I had the almightiest of luck, these round country faces would be pinched and staring, and men would be lying dead in English fields.

About mid-day I entered a long straggling village, and had a mind to stop and eat. Half-way down was the Post Office, and on the steps of it stood the postmistress and a policeman hard at work conning a telegram. When they saw me they wakened up, and the policeman advanced with raised hand, and cried on me to stop.

I nearly was fool enough to obey. Then it flashed upon me that the wire had to do with me; that my friends at the inn had come to an understanding, and were united in desiring to see more of me, and that it had been easy enough for them to wire the description of me and the car to thirty villages through which I might pass. I released the brakes just in time. As it was, the policeman made a claw at the hood, and only dropped off when he got my left in his eye.

I saw that main roads were no place for me, and turned into the byways. It wasn’t an easy job without a map, for there was the risk of getting on to a farm road and ending in a duck-pond or a stable-yard, and I couldn’t afford that kind of delay. I began to see what an ass I had been to steal the car. The big green brute would be the safest kind of clue to me over the breadth of Scotland. If I left it and took to my feet, it would be discovered in an hour or two and I would get no start in the race.

The immediate thing to do was to get to the loneliest roads. These I soon found when I struck up a tributary of the big river, and got into a glen with steep hills all about me, and a corkscrew road at the end which climbed over a pass. Here I met nobody, but it was taking me too far north, so I slewed east along a bad track and finally struck a big double-line railway. Away below me I saw another broadish valley, and it occurred to me that if I crossed it I might find some remote inn to pass the night. The evening was now drawing in, and I was furiously hungry, for I had eaten nothing since breakfast except a couple of buns I had bought from a baker’s cart. just then I heard a noise in the sky, and lo and behold there was that infernal aeroplane, flying low, about a dozen miles to the south and rapidly coming towards me.

I had the sense to remember that on a bare moor I was at the aeroplane’s mercy, and that my only chance was to get to the leafy cover of the valley. Down the hill I went like blue lightning, screwing my head round, whenever I dared, to watch that damned flying machine. Soon I was on a road between hedges, and dipping to the deep-cut glen of a stream. Then came a bit of thick wood where I slackened speed.

Suddenly on my left I heard the hoot of another car, and realized to my horror that I was almost up on a couple of gate-posts through which a private road debouched on the highway. My horn gave an agonized roar, but it was too late. I clapped on my brakes, but my impetus was too great, and there before me a car was sliding athwart my course. In a second there would have been the deuce of a wreck. I did the only thing possible, and ran slap into the hedge on the right, trusting to find something soft beyond.

But there I was mistaken. My car slithered through the hedge like butter, and then gave a sickening plunge forward. I saw what was coming, leapt on the seat and would have jumped out. But a branch of hawthorn got me in the chest, lifted me up and held me, while a ton or two of expensive metal slipped below me, bucked and pitched, and then dropped with an almighty smash fifty feet to the bed of the stream.

Slowly that thorn let me go. I subsided first on the hedge, and then very gently on a bower of nettles. As I scrambled to my feet a hand took me by the arm, and a sympathetic and badly scared voice asked me if I were hurt.

I found myself looking at a tall young man in goggles and a leather ulster, who kept on blessing his soul and whinnying apologies. For myself, once I got my wind back, I was rather glad than otherwise. This was one way of getting rid of the car.

‘My blame, Sir,’ I answered him. ‘It’s lucky that I did not add homicide to my follies. That’s the end of my Scotch motor tour, but it might have been the end of my life.’

He plucked out a watch and studied it. ‘You’re the right sort of fellow,’ he said. ‘I can spare a quarter of an hour, and my house is two minutes off. I’ll see you clothed and fed and snug in bed. Where’s your kit, by the way? Is it in the burn along with the car?’

‘It’s in my pocket,’ I said, brandishing a toothbrush. ‘I’m a Colonial and travel light.’

‘A Colonial,’ he cried. ‘By Gad, you’re the very man I’ve been praying for. Are you by any blessed chance a Free Trader?’

‘I am,’ said I, without the foggiest notion of what he meant.

He patted my shoulder and hurried me into his car. Three minutes later we drew up before a comfortable-looking shooting box set among pine-trees, and he ushered me indoors. He took me first to a bedroom and flung half a dozen of his suits before me, for my own had been pretty well reduced to rags. I selected a loose blue serge, which differed most conspicuously from my former garments, and borrowed a linen collar. Then he haled me to the dining-room, where the remnants of a meal stood on the table, and announced that I had just five minutes to feed. ‘You can take a snack in your pocket, and we’ll have supper when we get back. I’ve got to be at the Masonic Hall at eight o’clock, or my agent will comb my hair.’

I had a cup of coffee and some cold ham, while he yarned away on the hearth-rug.

‘You find me in the deuce of a mess, Mr — by-the-by, you haven’t told me your name. Twisdon? Any relation of old Tommy Twisdon of the Sixtieth? No? Well, you see I’m Liberal Candidate for this part of the world, and I had a meeting on tonight at Brattleburn — that’s my chief town, and an infernal Tory stronghold. I had got the Colonial ex-Premier fellow, Crumpleton, coming to speak for me tonight, and had the thing tremendously billed and the whole place ground-baited. This afternoon I had a wire from the ruffian saying he had got influenza at Blackpool, and here am I left to do the whole thing myself. I had meant to speak for ten minutes and must now go on for forty, and, though I’ve been racking my brains for three hours to think of something, I simply cannot last the course. Now you’ve got to be a good chap and help me. You’re a Free Trader and can tell our people what a wash-out Protection is in the Colonies. All you fellows have the gift of the gab — I wish to Heaven I had it. I’ll be for evermore in your debt.’

I had very few notions about Free Trade one way or the other, but I saw no other chance to get what I wanted. My young gentleman was far too absorbed in his own difficulties to think how odd it was to ask a stranger who had just missed death by an ace and had lost a 1,000-guinea car to address a meeting for him on the spur of the moment. But my necessities did not allow me to contemplate oddnesses or to pick and choose my supports.

‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’m not much good as a speaker, but I’ll tell them a bit about Australia.’

At my words the cares of the ages slipped from his shoulders, and he was rapturous in his thanks. He lent me a big driving coat — and never troubled to ask why I had started on a motor tour without possessing an ulster — and, as we slipped down the dusty roads, poured into my ears the simple facts of his history. He was an orphan, and his uncle had brought him up — I’ve forgotten the uncle’s name, but he was in the Cabinet, and you can read his speeches in the papers. He had gone round the world after leaving Cambridge, and then, being short of a job, his uncle had advised politics. I gathered that he had no preference in parties. ‘Good chaps in both,’ he said cheerfully, ‘and plenty of blighters, too. I’m Liberal, because my family have always been Whigs.’ But if he was lukewarm politically he had strong views on other things. He found out I knew a bit about horses, and jawed away about the Derby entries; and he was full of plans for improving his shooting. Altogether, a very clean, decent, callow young man.

As we passed through a little town two policemen signalled us to stop, and flashed their lanterns on us.

‘Beg pardon, Sir Harry,’ said one. ‘We’ve got instructions to look out for a car, and the description’s no unlike yours.’

‘Right-o,’ said my host, while I thanked Providence for the devious ways I had been brought to safety. After that he spoke no more, for his mind began to labour heavily with his coming speech. His lips kept muttering, his eye wandered, and I began to prepare myself for a second catastrophe. I tried to think of something to say myself, but my mind was dry as a stone. The next thing I knew we had drawn up outside a door in a street, and were being welcomed by some noisy gentlemen with rosettes. The hall had about five hundred in it, women mostly, a lot of bald heads, and a dozen or two young men. The chairman, a weaselly minister with a reddish nose, lamented Crumpleton’s absence, soliloquized on his influenza, and gave me a certificate as a ‘trusted leader of Australian thought’. There were two policemen at the door, and I hoped they took note of that testimonial. Then Sir Harry started.

I never heard anything like it. He didn’t begin to know how to talk. He had about a bushel of notes from which he read, and when he let go of them he fell into one prolonged stutter. Every now and then he remembered a phrase he had learned by heart, straightened his back, and gave it off like Henry Irving, and the next moment he was bent double and crooning over his papers. It was the most appalling rot, too. He talked about the ‘German menace’, and said it was all a Tory invention to cheat the poor of their rights and keep back the great flood of social reform, but that ‘organized labour’ realized this and laughed the Tories to scorn. He was all for reducing our Navy as a proof of our good faith, and then sending Germany an ultimatum telling her to do the same or we would knock her into a cocked hat. He said that, but for the Tories, Germany and Britain would be fellow-workers in peace and reform. I thought of the little black book in my pocket! A giddy lot Scudder’s friends cared for peace and reform.

Yet in a queer way I liked the speech. You could see the niceness of the chap shining out behind the muck with which he had been spoon-fed. Also it took a load off my mind. I mightn’t be much of an orator, but I was a thousand per cent better than Sir Harry.

I didn’t get on so badly when it came to my turn. I simply told them all I could remember about Australia, praying there should be no Australian there — all about its labour party and emigration and universal service. I doubt if I remembered to mention Free Trade, but I said there were no Tories in Australia, only Labour and Liberals. That fetched a cheer, and I woke them up a bit when I started in to tell them the kind of glorious business I thought could be made out of the Empire if we really put our backs into it.

Altogether I fancy I was rather a success. The minister didn’t like me, though, and when he proposed a vote of thanks, spoke of Sir Harry’s speech as ‘statesmanlike’ and mine as having ‘the eloquence of an emigration agent’.

When we were in the car again my host was in wild spirits at having got his job over. ‘A ripping speech, Twisdon,’ he said. ‘Now, you’re coming home with me. I’m all alone, and if you’ll stop a day or two I’ll show you some very decent fishing.’

We had a hot supper — and I wanted it pretty badly — and then drank grog in a big cheery smoking-room with a crackling wood fire. I thought the time had come for me to put my cards on the table. I saw by this man’s eye that he was the kind you can trust.

‘Listen, Sir Harry,’ I said. ‘I’ve something pretty important to say to you. You’re a good fellow, and I’m going to be frank. Where on earth did you get that poisonous rubbish you talked tonight?’

His face fell. ‘Was it as bad as that?’ he asked ruefully. ‘It did sound rather thin. I got most of it out of the Progressive Magazine and pamphlets that agent chap of mine keeps sending me. But you surely don’t think Germany would ever go to war with us?’

‘Ask that question in six weeks and it won’t need an answer,’ I said. ‘If you’ll give me your attention for half an hour I am going to tell you a story.’

I can see yet that bright room with the deers’ heads and the old prints on the walls, Sir Harry standing restlessly on the stone curb of the hearth, and myself lying back in an armchair, speaking. I seemed to be another person, standing aside and listening to my own voice, and judging carefully the reliability of my tale. It was the first time I had ever told anyone the exact truth, so far as I understood it, and it did me no end of good, for it straightened out the thing in my own mind. I blinked no detail. He heard all about Scudder, and the milkman, and the note-book, and my doings in Galloway. Presently he got very excited and walked up and down the hearth-rug.

‘So you see,’ I concluded, ‘you have got here in your house the man that is wanted for the Portland Place murder. Your duty is to send your car for the police and give me up. I don’t think I’ll get very far. There’ll be an accident, and I’ll have a knife in my ribs an hour or so after arrest. Nevertheless, it’s your duty, as a law-abiding citizen. Perhaps in a month’s time you’ll be sorry, but you have no cause to think of that.’

He was looking at me with bright steady eyes. ‘What was your job in Rhodesia, Mr Hannay?’ he asked.

‘Mining engineer,’ I said. ‘I’ve made my pile cleanly and I’ve had a good time in the making of it.’

‘Not a profession that weakens the nerves, is it?’

I laughed. ‘Oh, as to that, my nerves are good enough.’ I took down a hunting-knife from a stand on the wall, and did the old Mashona trick of tossing it and catching it in my lips. That wants a pretty steady heart.

He watched me with a smile. ‘I don’t want proof. I may be an ass on the platform, but I can size up a man. You’re no murderer and you’re no fool, and I believe you are speaking the truth. I’m going to back you up. Now, what can I do?’

‘First, I want you to write a letter to your uncle. I’ve got to get in touch with the Government people sometime before the 15th of June.’

He pulled his moustache. ‘That won’t help you. This is Foreign Office business, and my uncle would have nothing to do with it. Besides, you’d never convince him. No, I’ll go one better. I’ll write to the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. He’s my godfather, and one of the best going. What do you want?’

He sat down at a table and wrote to my dictation. The gist of it was that if a man called Twisdon (I thought I had better stick to that name) turned up before June 15th he was to entreat him kindly. He said Twisdon would prove his bona fides by passing the word ‘Black Stone’ and whistling ‘Annie Laurie’.

‘Good,’ said Sir Harry. ‘That’s the proper style. By the way, you’ll find my godfather — his name’s Sir Walter Bullivant — down at his country cottage for Whitsuntide. It’s close to Artinswell on the Kenner. That’s done. Now, what’s the next thing?’

‘You’re about my height. Lend me the oldest tweed suit you’ve got. Anything will do, so long as the colour is the opposite of the clothes I destroyed this afternoon. Then show me a map of the neighbourhood and explain to me the lie of the land. Lastly, if the police come seeking me, just show them the car in the glen. If the other lot turn up, tell them I caught the south express after your meeting.’

He did, or promised to do, all these things. I shaved off the remnants of my moustache, and got inside an ancient suit of what I believe is called heather mixture. The map gave me some notion of my whereabouts, and told me the two things I wanted to know — where the main railway to the south could be joined and what were the wildest districts near at hand. At two o’clock he wakened me from my slumbers in the smoking-room armchair, and led me blinking into the dark starry night. An old bicycle was found in a tool-shed and handed over to me.

‘First turn to the right up by the long fir-wood,’ he enjoined. ‘By daybreak you’ll be well into the hills. Then I should pitch the machine into a bog and take to the moors on foot. You can put in a week among the shepherds, and be as safe as if you were in New Guinea.’

I pedalled diligently up steep roads of hill gravel till the skies grew pale with morning. As the mists cleared before the sun, I found myself in a wide green world with glens falling on every side and a far-away blue horizon. Here, at any rate, I could get early news of my enemies.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/39steps/chapter4.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32