فصل 09

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فصل 09

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Chapter nine

The Thirty-nine Steps

‘But that can’t be true,’ Mr Whittaker said. ‘Lord Alloa told me that he was probably not going to come to the meeting. But I know him very well and was not surprised to see him here. You’re quite wrong about this, Hannay.’

Sir Walter left the room and spoke to someone on the telephone. When he came back, his face had turned pale.

‘I’ve spoken to Alloa,’ he said. ‘He got out of bed to come to the telephone. Hannay is right. That man was not Lord Alloa.’

‘I don’t believe it,’ General Winstanley said. ‘Alloa was standing next to me ten minutes ago.’

‘Gentlemen,’ I said, ‘the Black Stone knows its business. You probably didn’t look at the man very well.You were talking about these important plans. The man looked like Lord Alloa, and so you accepted him. But it was another man, and I probably saw him in Scotland.’

Then the Frenchman spoke. ‘This young man is right,’ he said slowly. ‘Our enemies know their business very well. Listen and I’ll tell you a true story. Many years ago, I was in Senegal. I was living in a hotel but every day I went fishing. The river was a few kilometres away and I rode there on a little horse.

‘Well, one day I packed my lunch as usual and hung it over the horse’s neck. Then I left for the river. When I arrived there, I tied the horse to a tree. I fished for several hours, and I was thinking only about the fish. I didn’t look at the horse at all, but I could hear her. And I could see her shape out of the corner of my eye. She was moving about a lot and making a bit of noise too. I spoke to her as usual, but I did not look up from the water.

‘Well, lunchtime came, so I put the fish into a bag and walked along the river bank. While I was walking, I continued to watch the water. When I reached the tree, I threw the bag on to the horse’s back…’

The Frenchman stopped and looked around the table.

‘It was the smell that hit me first. I looked up and turned my head. My bag was lying on a lion’s back. The horse was dead and half eaten on the ground behind him.’

‘What did you do?’ I asked. I knew that this was a real African story.

‘I shot the lion in the head,’ he said. ‘But before he died, he took a part of me.’ And he held up his left hand, which only had two fingers on it.

‘That horse died hours before I finished fishing,’ he continued. ‘And the lion was watching me all the time. He was a brown shape near the tree. I saw the shape and colour but I did not really look at him. That was my mistake, gentlemen, and we have made the same mistake tonight.’

Sir Walter agreed.

‘This Black Stone man,’ the General said, ‘is he a German spy or something? Nobody could keep all these facts in his head. It doesn’t seem very important to me.’

‘Oh, yes, he could,’ the Frenchman replied. ‘A good spy can remember everything. His eyes are like a camera. Do you remember that he didn’t speak at all? He read the papers several times but didn’t say anything. You can be sure that he has all the facts now. When I was young, I could do the same thing.’

‘Well, we’ll have to change the plans,’ Sir Walter said.

Mr Whittaker looked surprised. ‘Did you say that to Lord Alloa?’ he asked.


‘Of course we can’t decide it now. But I’m almost sure about this: if we change the plans, we’ll have to change the coast of England too!’

‘And there’s another problem,’ Royer said. ‘I’ve told you some of the French plans, and that German spy heard them. Now we can’t possibly change our plans. But we can do this, gentlemen: we can catch them before they leave the country.’

‘But how?’ I cried. ‘We don’t know anything about them.’

‘And there’s the post,’ Whittaker said. ‘They can easily send the facts to Germany by post. Perhaps they are on their way there now. We can’t possibly search the post.’

‘No,’ the Frenchman said. ‘You don’t know how a good spy works. He carries the secrets himself. The Germans will pay the man who brings the plans. So we have a chance. The man has to get across the sea to reach Germany, and we’ll have to search all ships. Believe me, gentlemen. This matter is very important for both France and Britain.’

Royer was clearly an intelligent man, and he had the right ideas. But where could we find these German spies? The problem was a very difficult one. Then I remembered Scudder’s book.

‘Sir Walter,’ I cried, ‘did you bring Scudder’s notebook from the cottage? I’ve just remembered something in it.’

He went to a cupboard. And a few moments later I found the page.

‘Thirty-nine steps’ I read. ‘Thirty-nine steps. I counted them. High tide is at 10.17p.m.’

Whittaker was looking at me. ‘What does all that mean?’ he asked.

‘Scudder knew these spies,’ I said. ‘And he knew the place where they lived. They’re probably leaving the country tomorrow. And I believe that we’ll find them near the sea. There are steps at this place, and it has a high tide at seventeen minutes past ten.’

‘But they will probably leave tonight,’ someone said. ‘They won’t wait until tomorrow.’

‘I don’t think so. They have their own secret way and they’re not going to hurry. They’re Germans, aren’t they? And Germans always like to follow a plan. Now where can we find a book of tides?’

‘Well, it’s a chance,’ Whittaker said, ‘and it’s probably our only chance to catch them.’

‘Isn’t there a book of tides at the Admiralty?’ Sir Walter asked. ‘Yes, of course,’ Whittaker replied. ‘Let’s go there now.’

We went out into the hall, and the butler gave the gentlemen their coats. We got into two of the cars, but Sir Walter did not come with us.

‘I’m going to Scotland Yard,’ he said. ‘We’ll probably need some of MacGillivray’s men.’

We reached the Admiralty and followed Whittaker through several empty rooms to the map room. There he found a book of tides and gave it to me. I sat down at a desk and the others stood around me. But the job was too difficult for any of us. There were hundreds of names in the book. And high tide was at seventeen minutes past ten in forty or fifty places.

I put down the book and began to think about the steps. ‘We’re looking for a place,’ I said, ‘which probably has several staircases. But the important one has thirty-nine steps.’

‘And the tide is important too,’ Royer said. ‘So that means that it’s probably a small port. These people won’t try to get away in a big boat. They may have a small sailing boat or a fishing boat.’

‘That’s quite possible,’ I said. ‘The place may not be a port at all. These spies were in London, and now they want to go to Germany. So they’ll probably leave from a place on the East Coast.’

I picked up a piece of paper and wrote down our ideas.

1 The place has several staircases. The important one has thirty-nine steps.

2 High tide is at seventeen minutes past ten. High tide is necessary for the boat to leave.

3 The place is a small port or perhaps a piece of open coast.

4 The Germans may use a sailing boat or a fishing boat.

Then I made three guesses and wrote them down:

1 The place is a piece of open coast.

2 The boat is probably small and foreign.

3 The place is on the East Coast between Cromer and Dover.

Sir Walter came into the room with MacGillivray behind him. ‘The police are watching the ports and railway stations,’ MacGillivray said. ‘But it’s not going to be easy for them. They’re looking for a fat man, a thin man and an old man!’

I showed my paper to Sir Walter and said, ‘These are our ideas. But we’ll need someone to help us.’ I turned to Whittaker and said, ‘Is there a Chief Coastguard on the East Coast?’

‘I don’t know. But I know one in London. He lives in Clapham and he knows the East Coast very well.’

‘Can you bring him here tonight?’ I asked.

‘Yes, I think so. I’ll go to his house.’

It was very late when Whittaker returned with the coastguard. He was a fine old man and very polite to the officers. Sir Arthur Drew spoke to him first.

‘We’re looking for a place on the East Coast,’ he said, ‘where there are several staircases. The steps probably lead down to a beach. Do you know any place like that?’

‘Well, sir, I don’t know. There’s Brattlesham in Norfolk, of course. There are steps there, but only the fishermen use them.’

‘That isn’t the place,’ I said.

‘Then there are a lot of holiday places. They usually have a few steps.’

‘No. This is probably a very quiet place.’

‘Then I’m sorry, gentlemen. I don’t know. There’s only the Ruff-‘

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘It’s a bit of high ground on the Kent coast. Near Bradgate.

There are some fine houses on the top and some of them have steps down to the beach. They’re private beaches, of course.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘Well, the people who own the houses also own the beaches, sir. When you buy a house there, you get a piece of private beach as well.’

I picked up the book of tides and found Bradgate. High tide there was at twenty-seven minutes past ten on 15 June.

‘How can I find the time of high tide at the Ruff?’ I asked the coastguard.

‘Oh, I know that, sir. I stayed there once in June. It’s ten minutes before high tide at Bradgate.’

I shut the book and looked around.

‘Sir Walter,’ I said, ‘can I borrow your car and a map of the roads in Kent? I’d like to have some of your men too, MacGillivray. Perhaps we can surprise these Germans tomorrow morning.’

They did not answer me for a moment. I did not work for the Foreign Office or the Admiralty, or the General. But I was young and strong and I already knew these spies.

It was Royer who spoke first. ‘I’m quite happy,’ he said, ‘to leave this matter in Mr Hannay’s hands.’

Sir Walter said, ‘I think so too.’ And MacGillivray agreed.

Half an hour later I was driving quickly through the villages of Kent. MacGillivray’s best officer was sitting next to me in the car. It was half past three in the morning.

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