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