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The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan

Part 3 out of 3

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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

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.

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