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The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps

Author:John Buchan


it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick.
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  I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoonpretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the OldCountry, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago thatI would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; butthere was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of theordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, andthe amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has beenstanding in the sun. “Richard Hannay,” I kept telling myself, “you havegot into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.”

  It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building upthose last years in Buluwayo. I had got my pile—not one of the bigones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of waysof enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at theage of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort ofArabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest ofmy days.

  But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I wastired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough ofrestaurants and theatres and race-meetings. I had no real pal to goabout with, which probably explains things. Plenty of people invited meto their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested in me. They wouldfling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on to theirown affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meetschoolmasters from New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that wasthe dismalest business of all. Here was I, thirty-seven years old,sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawningmy head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get backto the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

  That afternoon I had been worrying my brokers about investments to givemy mind something to work on, and on my way home I turned into myclub—rather a pot-house, which took in Colonial members. I had a longdrink, and read the evening papers. They were full of the row in theNear East, and there was an article about Karolides, the Greek Premier.I rather fancied the chap. From all accounts he seemed the one big manin the show; and he played a straight game too, which was more thancould be said for most of them. I gathered that they hated him prettyblackly in Berlin and Vienna, but that we were going to stick by him,and one paper said that he was the only barrier between Europe andArmageddon. I remember wondering if I could get a job in those parts.It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a manfrom yawning.

  About six o’clock I went home, dressed, dined at the Café Royal, andturned into a music-hall. It was a silly show, all capering women andmonkey-faced men, and I did not stay long. The night was fine and clearas I walked back to the flat I had hired near Portland Place. The crowdsurged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering, and I envied thepeople for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks anddandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. Igave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was afellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked up into the spring sky and Imade a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me intosomething; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for theCape.

  My flat was the first floor in a new block behind Langham Place. Therewas a common staircase, with a porter and a liftman at the entrance,but there was no restaurant or anything of that sort, and each flat wasquite shut off from the others. I hate servants on the premises, so Ihad a fellow to look after me who came in by the day. He arrived beforeeight o’clock every morning and used to depart at seven, for I neverdined at home.

  I was just fitting my key into the door when I noticed a man at myelbow. I had not seen him approach, and the sudden appearance made mestart. He was a slim man, with a short brown beard and small, gimletyblue eyes. I recognized him as the occupant of a flat on the top floor,with whom I had passed the time of day on the stairs.

  “Can I speak to you?” he said. “May I come in for a minute?” He wassteadying his voice with an effort, and his hand was pawing my arm.

  I got my door open and motioned him in. No sooner was he over thethreshold than he made a dash for my back room, where I used to smokeand write my letters. Then he bolted back.

  “Is the door locked?” he asked feverishly, and he fastened the chainwith his own hand.

  “I’m very sorry,” he said humbly. “It’s a mighty liberty, but youlooked the kind of man who would understand. I’ve had you in my mindall this week when things got troublesome. Say, will you do me a goodturn?”

  “I’ll listen to you,” I said. “That’s all I’ll promise.” I was gettingworried by the antics of this nervous little chap.

  There was a tray of drinks on a table beside him, from which he filledhimself a stiff whisky-and-soda. He drank it off in three gulps, andcracked the glass as he set it down.

  “Pardon,” he said, “I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen atthis moment to be dead.”

  I sat down in an armchair and lit my pipe.

  “What does it feel like?” I asked. I was pretty certain that I had todeal with a madman.

  A smile flickered over his drawn face. “I’m not mad—yet. Say, sir, I’vebeen watching you, and I reckon you’re a cool customer. I reckon, too,you’re an honest man, and not afraid of playing a bold hand. I’m goingto confide in you. I need help worse than any man ever needed it, and Iwant to know if I can count you in.”

  “Get on with your yarn,” I said, “and I’ll tell you.”

  He seemed to brace himself for a great effort, and then started on thequeerest rigmarole. I didn’t get hold of it at first, and I had to stopand ask him questions. But here is the gist of it:

  He was an American, from Kentucky, and after college, being pretty welloff, he had started out to see the world. He wrote a bit, and acted aswar correspondent for a Chicago paper, and spent a year or two inSouth-Eastern Europe. I gathered that he was a fine linguist, and hadgot to know pretty well the society in those parts. He spoke familiarlyof many names that I remembered to have seen in the newspapers.

  He had played about with politics, he told me, at first for theinterest of them, and then because he couldn’t help himself. I read himas a sharp, restless fellow, who always wanted to get down to the rootsof things. He got a little further down than he wanted.

  I am giving you what he told me as well as I could make it out. Awaybehind all the Governments and the armies there was a big subterraneanmovement going on, engineered by very dangerous people. He had come onit by accident; it fascinated him; he went further, and then he gotcaught. I gathered that most of the people in it were the sort ofeducated anarchists that make revolutions, but that beside them therewere financiers who were playing for money. A clever man can make bigprofits on a falling market, and it suited the book of both classes toset Europe by the ears.

  He told me some queer things that explained a lot that had puzzledme—things that happened in the Balkan War, how one state suddenly cameout on top, why alliances were made and broken, why certain mendisappeared, and where the sinews of war came from. The aim of thewhole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.

  When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would givethem their chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and theylooked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in theshekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, hadno conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, andthe Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

  “Do you wonder?” he cried. “For three hundred years they have beenpersecuted, and this is the return match for the _pogroms_. The Jew iseverywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him.Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with itthe first man you meet is Prince _von und zu_ Something, an elegantyoung man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. Ifyour business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathousWestphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is theGerman business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But ifyou’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the realboss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew ina bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the manwho is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire ofthe Tsar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in someone-horse location on the Volga.”

  I could not help saying that his Jew-anarchists seemed to have got leftbehind a little.

  “Yes and no,” he said. “They won up to a point, but they struck abigger thing than money, a thing that couldn’t be bought, the oldelemental fighting instincts of man. If you’re going to be killed youinvent some kind of flag and country to fight for, and if you surviveyou get to love the thing. Those foolish devils of soldiers have foundsomething they care for, and that has upset the pretty plan laid inBerlin and Vienna. But my friends haven’t played their last card by along sight. They’ve gotten the ace up their sleeves, and unless I cankeep alive for a month they are going to play it and win.”

  “But I thought you were dead,” I put in.

  “_Mors janua vitæ_,” he smiled.

I recognized the quotation: it wasabout all the Latin I knew.

“I’m coming to that, but I’ve got to putyou wise about a lot of things first. If you read your newspaper, Iguess you know the name of Constantine Karolides?”

  I sat up at that, for I had been reading about him that very afternoon.

  “He is the man that has wrecked all their games. He is the one bigbrain in the whole show, and he happens also to be an honest man.Therefore he has been marked down these twelve months past. I foundthat out—not that it was difficult, for any fool could guess as much.But I found out the way they were going to get him, and that knowledgewas deadly. That’s why I have had to decease.”

  He had another drink, and I mixed it for him myself, for I was gettinginterested in the beggar.

  “They can’t get him in his own land, for he has a bodyguard of Epirotesthat would skin their grandmothers. But on the 15th day of June he iscoming to this city. The British Foreign Office has taken to havinginternational tea-parties, and the biggest of them is due on that date.Now Karolides is reckoned the principal guest, and if my friends havetheir way he will never return to his admiring countrymen.”

  “That’s simple enough, anyhow,” I said. “You can warn him and keep himat home.”

  “And play their game?” he asked sharply. “If he does not come they win,for he’s the only man that can straighten out the tangle. And if hisGovernment are warned he won’t come, for he does not know how big thestakes will be on June the 15th.”

  “What about the British Government?” I said. “They’re not going to lettheir guests be murdered. Tip them the wink, and they’ll take extraprecautions.”

  “No good. They might stuff your city with plain-clothes detectives anddouble the police and Constantine would still be a doomed man. Myfriends are not playing this game for candy. They want a big occasionfor the taking off, with the eyes of all Europe on it. He’ll bemurdered by an Austrian, and there’ll be plenty of evidence to show theconnivance of the big folk in Vienna and Berlin. It will all be aninfernal lie, of course, but the case will look black enough to theworld. I’m not talking hot air, my friend. I happen to know everydetail of the hellish contrivance, and I can tell you it will be themost finished piece of blackguardism since the Borgias. But it’s notgoing to come off if there’s a certain man who knows the wheels of thebusiness alive right here in London on the 15th day of June. And thatman is going to be your servant, Franklin P. Scudder.”

  I was getting to like the little chap. His jaw had shut like arat-trap, and there was the fire of battle in his gimlety eyes. If hewas spinning me a yarn he could act up to it.

  “Where did you find out this story?” I asked.

  “I got the first hint in an inn on the Achensee in Tyrol. That set meinquiring, and I collected my other clues in a fur-shop in the Galicianquarter of Buda, in a Strangers’ Club in Vienna, and in a littlebookshop off the Racknitzstrasse in Leipsig. I completed my evidenceten days ago in Paris. I can’t tell you the details now, for it’ssomething of a history. When I was quite sure in my own mind I judgedit my business to disappear, and I reached this city by a mighty queercircuit. I left Paris a dandified young French-American, and I sailedfrom Hamburg a Jew diamond merchant. In Norway I was an English studentof Ibsen collecting materials for lectures, but when I left Bergen Iwas a cinema-man with special ski films. And I came here from Leithwith a lot of pulp-wood propositions in my pocket to put before theLondon newspapers. Till yesterday I thought I had muddied my trailsome, and was feeling pretty happy. Then....”

  The recollection seemed to upset him, and he gulped down some morewhisky.

  “Then I saw a man standing in the street outside this block. I used tostay close in my room all day, and only slip out after dark for an houror two. I watched him for a bit from my window, and I thought Irecognized him.... He came in and spoke to the porter.... When I cameback from my walk last night I found a card in my letter-box. It borethe name of the man I want least to meet on God’s earth.”

  I think that the look in my companion’s eyes, the sheer naked scare onhis face, completed my conviction of his honesty. My own voicesharpened a bit as I asked him what he did next.

  “I realized that I was bottled as sure as a pickled herring, and thatthere was only one way out. I had to die. If my pursuers knew I wasdead they would go to sleep again.”

  “How did you manage it?”

  “I told the man that valets me that I was feeling pretty bad, and I gotmyself up to look like death. That wasn’t difficult, for I’m no slouchat disguises. Then I got a corpse—you can always get a body in Londonif you know where to go for it. I fetched it back in a trunk on the topof a four-wheeler, and I had to be assisted upstairs to my room. Yousee I had to pile up some evidence for the inquest. I went to bed andgot my man to mix me a sleeping-draught, and then told him to clearout. He wanted to fetch a doctor, but I swore some and said I couldn’tabide leeches. When I was left alone I started in to fake up thatcorpse. He was my size, and I judged had perished from too muchalcohol, so I put some spirits handy about the place. The jaw was theweak point in the likeness, so I blew it away with a revolver. Idaresay there will be somebody tomorrow to swear to having heard ashot, but there are no neighbours on my floor, and I guessed I couldrisk it. So I left the body in bed dressed up in my pyjamas, with arevolver lying on the bed-clothes and a considerable mess around. ThenI got into a suit of clothes I had kept waiting for emergencies. Ididn’t dare to shave for fear of leaving tracks, and besides, it wasn’tany kind of use my trying to get into the streets. I had had you in mymind all day, and there seemed nothing to do but to make an appeal toyou. I watched from my window till I saw you come home, and thenslipped down the stair to meet you.... There, sir, I guess you knowabout as much as me of this business.”

  He sat blinking like an owl, fluttering with nerves and yet desperatelydetermined. By this time I was pretty well convinced that he was goingstraight with me. It was the wildest sort of narrative, but I had heardin my time many steep tales which had turned out to be true, and I hadmade a practice of judging the man rather than the story. If he hadwanted to get a location in my flat, and then cut my throat, he wouldhave pitched a milder yarn.

  “Hand me your key,” I said, “and I’ll take a look at the corpse. Excusemy caution, but I’m bound to verify a bit if I can.”

  He shook his head mournfully. “I reckoned you’d ask for that, but Ihaven’t got it. It’s on my chain on the dressing-table. I had to leaveit behind, for I couldn’t leave any clues to breed suspicions. Thegentry who are after me are pretty bright-eyed citizens. You’ll have totake me on trust for the night, and tomorrow you’ll get proof of thecorpse business right enough.”

  I thought for an instant or two. “Right. I’ll trust you for the night.I’ll lock you into this room and keep the key. Just one word, MrScudder. I believe you’re straight, but if so be you are not I shouldwarn you that I’m a handy man with a gun.”

  “Sure,” he said, jumping up with some briskness. “I haven’t theprivilege of your name, sir, but let me tell you that you’re a whiteman. I’ll thank you to lend me a razor.”

  I took him into my bedroom and turned him loose. In half an hour’s timea figure came out that I scarcely recognized. Only his gimlety, hungryeyes were the same. He was shaved clean, his hair was parted in themiddle, and he had cut his eyebrows. Further, he carried himself as ifhe had been drilled, and was the very model, even to the browncomplexion, of some British officer who had had a long spell in India.He had a monocle, too, which he stuck in his eye, and every trace ofthe American had gone out of his speech.

  “My hat! Mr Scudder—” I stammered.

  “Not Mr Scudder,” he corrected; “Captain Theophilus Digby, of the 40thGurkhas, presently home on leave. I’ll thank you to remember that,sir.”

  I made him up a bed in my smoking-room and sought my own couch, morecheerful than I had been for the past month. Things did happenoccasionally, even in this God-forgotten metropolis.

  I woke next morning to hear my man, Paddock, making the deuce of a rowat the smoking-room door. Paddock was a fellow I had done a good turnto out on the Selakwe, and I had inspanned him as my servant as soon asI got to England. He had about as much gift of the gab as ahippopotamus, and was not a great hand at valeting, but I knew I couldcount on his loyalty.

  “Stop that row, Paddock,” I said. “There’s a friend of mine,Captain—Captain”

I couldn’t remember the name

“dossing down in there.Get breakfast for two and then come and speak to me.”

  I told Paddock a fine story about how my friend was a great swell, withhis nerves pretty bad from overwork, who wanted absolute rest andstillness. Nobody had got to know he was here, or he would be besiegedby communications from the India Office and the Prime Minister and hiscure would be ruined. I am bound to say Scudder played up splendidlywhen he came to breakfast. He fixed Paddock with his eyeglass, justlike a British officer, asked him about the Boer War, and slung out atme a lot of stuff about imaginary pals. Paddock couldn’t learn to callme “sir’, but he “sirred’ Scudder as if his life depended on it.

  I left him with the newspaper and a box of cigars, and went down to theCity till luncheon. When I got back the liftman had an important face.

  “Nawsty business ’ere this morning, sir. Gent in No. 15 been and shot’isself. They’ve just took ’im to the mortiary. The police are up therenow.”

  I ascended to No. 15, and found a couple of bobbies and an inspectorbusy making an examination. I asked a few idiotic questions, and theysoon kicked me out. Then I found the man that had valeted Scudder, andpumped him, but I could see he suspected nothing. He was a whiningfellow with a churchyard face, and half-a-crown went far to consolehim.

  I attended the inquest next day. A partner of some publishing firm gaveevidence that the deceased had brought him wood-pulp propositions, andhad been, he believed, an agent of an American business. The jury foundit a case of suicide while of unsound mind, and the few effects werehanded over to the American Consul to deal with. I gave Scudder a fullaccount of the affair, and it interested him greatly. He said he wishedhe could have attended the inquest, for he reckoned it would be aboutas spicy as to read one’s own obituary notice.

  The first two days he stayed with me in that back room he was verypeaceful. He read and smoked a bit, and made a heap of jottings in anote-book, and every night we had a game of chess, at which he beat mehollow. I think he was nursing his nerves back to health, for he hadhad a pretty trying time. But on the third day I could see he wasbeginning to get restless. He fixed up a list of the days till June15th, and ticked each off with a red pencil, making remarks inshorthand against them. I would find him sunk in a brown study, withhis sharp eyes abstracted, and after those spells of meditation he wasapt to be very despondent.

  Then I could see that he began to get edgy again. He listened forlittle noises, and was always asking me if Paddock could be trusted.Once or twice he got very peevish, and apologized for it. I didn’tblame him. I made every allowance, for he had taken on a fairly stiffjob.

  It was not the safety of his own skin that troubled him, but thesuccess of the scheme he had planned. That little man was clean gritall through, without a soft spot in him. One night he was very solemn.

  “Say, Hannay,” he said, “I judge I should let you a bit deeper intothis business. I should hate to go out without leaving somebody else toput up a fight.” And he began to tell me in detail what I had onlyheard from him vaguely.

  I did not give him very close attention. The fact is, I was moreinterested in his own adventures than in his high politics. I reckonedthat Karolides and his affairs were not my business, leaving all thatto him. So a lot that he said slipped clean out of my memory. Iremember that he was very clear that the danger to Karolides would notbegin till he had got to London, and would come from the very highestquarters, where there would be no thought of suspicion. He mentionedthe name of a woman—Julia Czechenyi—as having something to do with thedanger. She would be the decoy, I gathered, to get Karolides out of thecare of his guards. He talked, too, about a Black Stone and a man thatlisped in his speech, and he described very particularly somebody thathe never referred to without a shudder—an old man with a young voicewho could hood his eyes like a hawk.

  He spoke a good deal about death, too. He was mortally anxious aboutwinning through with his job, but he didn’t care a rush for his life.

  “I reckon it’s like going to sleep when you are pretty well tired out,and waking to find a summer day with the scent of hay coming in at thewindow. I used to thank God for such mornings way back in theBlue-Grass country, and I guess I’ll thank Him when I wake up on theother side of Jordan.”

  Next day he was much more cheerful, and read the life of StonewallJackson much of the time. I went out to dinner with a mining engineer Ihad got to see on business, and came back about half-past ten in timefor our game of chess before turning in.

  I had a cigar in my mouth, I remember, as I pushed open thesmoking-room door. The lights were not lit, which struck me as odd. Iwondered if Scudder had turned in already.

  I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw somethingin the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a coldsweat.

  My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife throughhis heart which skewered him to the floor.