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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, 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 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 chancellories of Europe.”
After breakfast he asked me if I could drive a car.
“Well, you’ll be my chauffeur to-day 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 over-worked 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 streets1, 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 to-day. For certain grave reasons his tale must wait for twenty-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 to-morrow, 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 the 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 sometime, 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 around; 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 bad turned down towards St. James’ 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 hail 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 any one 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 it them. 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 recognised 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 hail. 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 to-night. Will you leave a message, sir?”
I rang off and sat down numbly in 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 some one who recognised me, some one 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 — ” some one stammered:
“The Black Stone,” I cried, and I sat down in the chair so recently vacated and looked round at five badly scared gentlemen.
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 Muiross’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 the use of your 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!”
“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 to-night for the whole fraud to be exposed.”
Sir Walter laughed drily. “The selection of Alloa shows their acumen. Which of us was likely to speak to him about to-night? 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 had happened?” he asked. “No! 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 asked Sir Walter. “Quick, man, I remember something in it.”
He unlocked the drawer 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 cried. “Scudder knew where these fellows laired — he knew where they were going to leave the country; though he kept the name to himself. To-morrow was the day, and it was some place where high tide was at 10.17.”
“They may have gone to-night,” some one said.
“Not them. 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,” be 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 “mobilise 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 outfit.
It was no good. There were hundreds of entries, and as 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.
Why was high tide 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 at 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 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.
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 the north 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:
(1) Place where there are several sets of
stairs: one that matters distinguished by having thirty-nine steps.
There my reasoning stopped. I made another list, which I headed “Guessed,” but I was just as sure of the one as the other.
(1) Place not harbour but open coast.
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 gentlemen 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 10.27 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 coast-guard 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 to-morrow.”
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.
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