The Thirty-nine Steps
By John Buchan
Public Domain Books
(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.