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John Buchan


'But that can't be true,' Mr. Whittaker said. 'Lord Alloa told me that he probably wouldn't 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 went out of 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. The gentleman who was here was not Lord Alloa.'
'I don't believe it,' General Winstanley said. 'Alloa was standing beside me ten minutes ago.'
'Gentlemen,' I said, 'the Black Stone knows its business. You probably didn't look at the man carefully. You were talking about these important plans. The fellow was like Lord Alloa, and so you accepted him. But it was another man, and I have probably seen him during the past month.'
Then the Frenchman spoke. 'This young man is right,' he said slowly and in good English. 'Our enemies know their business very well. Listen and I'll tell you a true story. It happened many years ago when I was in Senegal. I was living at a hotel but every day I used to go fishing. The river was a few miles away and I used to ride there on a little horse.
''Well, one day I packed my dinner 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 take any notice of the horse at all, but I could hear her. And I could see her shape from the corner of my eye. She was moving about a lot and crying a bit too. I spoke to her as usual, but I did not look up from the water.
''Well, dinner-time came, so I put the fish into a bag and walked along the river bank. I was still fishing carefully and watching 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 I noticed 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 happened next?' I asked. I recognized this as 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 had only two fingers on it.
'That horse had been dead for an hour,' he continued. 'And the lion was watching me all the time. He was a brown shape near the tree. I had seen the shape and colour but I had not looked carefully. That was my mistake, gentlemen, and we have made the same mistake tonight.'
Sir Walter agreed.
''This Black Stone fellow,' the General said, 'is he a German spy or something? No one could keep all these facts and figures 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. Did you notice 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 must 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 certain 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 that man and his friends 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. They may be on their way now. We can't possibly search the post.'
'No,' the Frenchman said. 'You don't know how a good spy works, gentlemen. He delivers the secrets himself The Germans will pay the man who brings the plans. So we still have a chance. The fellow must cross the sea to get to Germany, and we must search all ships. Believe me, gentlemen. This matter is very important for both France and Britain.'
Royer was clearly a wise man, and he had the right ideas. But where could we find these German spies? The problem was a very difficult one.
Then suddenly I remembered Scudder's book.
'Sir Walter,' I cried, 'did you bring Scudder's note-book from the cottage? I've just remembered something in it.'
He nodded and went to a cupboard. And a few moments later I had found the page.
'Thirty-nine steps,' I read. 'Thirty-nine steps - I counted them. High tide is at seventeen minutes past ten.'
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 could leave tonight,' someone said. 'They needn'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 may be our only chance to catch them.'
'Isn't there a book of tides at the Admiralty? Sir Walter asked.
'Yes, of course,' Whittaker replied. 'We'd better go there immediately.'
We went out into the hall, and the butler gave their coats to the gentlemen. We got into two of the motor-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 sets of steps. But the important set has thirty-nine steps in it.'
'And the tide is important too,' Royer said. 'So that means that it's probably a small harbour. These fellows won't try to escape in a big boat. They may have a yacht or a fishing-boat.'
'That's quite possible,' I said. 'The place may not be a harbour at all. These spies have been 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 sets of steps or stairs. The important set has thirty-nine steps.
(2) High tide is at seventeen minutes past ten, and the tide may be necessary for boats to leave.
(3) The place has a small harbour or it may be a piece of open coast.
(4) The Germans may use a yacht or a fishing-boat.

Then I guessed three things and wrote them down:
(1) The steps may not be a part of the harbour.
(2) It is a quiet place.
(3) It is on the East Coast between Cromer and Dover.

We have to look for a foreign yacht.

Sir Walter came into the room with MacGillivray behind him.
'The police are watching the harbours 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 we have an Inspector of Coastguards 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 Inspector. He was a fine old fellow 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 sets of steps. They probably lead down to the 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 plenty 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 stairs 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 June 15th.
'How can I find the time of high tide at the Ruff?' I asked the Inspector.
'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. We may be able to surprise these German gentlemen tomorrow morning.'
They did not answer me for a moment. I did not work for the Foreign Office or the Admiralty, and I was not in the British Army. But I was young and strong and I had met these spies before.
It was Royer who spoke first. 'I'm quite happy,' he said, 'to leave this matter in Mr. Hannay's hands.'
'Yes, yes,' Sir Walter said, 'I think so too.' And he nodded at MacGillivray.
Half an hour later I was driving quickly through the villages of Kent. MacGillivray's best officer was sitting beside me in the car. It was half past three in the morning.

Adapted by Roland John for Intermediate Level


Click here to read CHAPTER 10: The House by the Sea