In The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), the best-known of his thrillers (made into a popular movie by Alfred Hitchcock), John Buchan introduces his most enduring hero, Richard Hannay, who, despite claiming to be an "ordinary fellow," is caught up in the dramatic and dangerous race against a plot to devastate the British war effort. In this, the only critical edition available, Christopher Harvie's introduction interweaves the writing of the tale with the equally fascinating story of how John Buchan, publisher and lawyer, came in from the cold and, via The Thirty-Nine Steps, ended the war as spy-master and propaganda chief.
TOTHOMAS ARTHUR NELSON(LOTHIAN AND BORDER HORSE)
My Dear Tommy,
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the “dime novel” and which we know as the “shocker”—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with 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. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. “Richard Hannay,” I kept telling myself, “you have got 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 up those last years in Buluwayo. I had got my pile—not one of the big ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of my days.
But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I was tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings. I had no real pal to go about with, which probably explains things. Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested in me. They would fling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on to their own affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meet schoolmasters from New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that was the dismalest business of all. Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.
That afternoon I had been worrying my brokers about investments to give my mind something to work on, and on my way home I turned into my club—rather a pot-house, which took in Colonial members. I had a long drink, and read the evening papers. They were full of the row in the Near East, and there was an article about Karolides, the Greek Premier. I rather fancied the chap. From all accounts he seemed the one big man in the show; and he played a straight game too, which was more than could be said for most of them. I gathered that they hated him pretty blackly 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 and Armageddon. 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 man from yawning.
About six o’clock I went home, dressed, dined at the Café Royal, and turned into a music-hall. It was a silly show, all capering women and monkey-faced men, and I did not stay long. The night was fine and clear as I walked back to the flat I had hired near Portland Place. The crowd surged past me on the pavements, busy and chattering, and I envied the people for having something to do. These shop-girls and clerks and dandies and policemen had some interest in life that kept them going. I gave half-a-crown to a beggar because I saw him yawn; he was a fellow-sufferer. At Oxford Circus I looked up into the spring sky and I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.
My flat was the first floor in a new block behind Langham Place. There was 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 was quite shut off from the others. I hate servants on the premises, so I had a fellow to look after me who came in by the day. He arrived before eight o’clock every morning and used to depart at seven, for I never dined at home.
I was just fitting my key into the door when I noticed a man at my elbow. I had not seen him approach, and the sudden appearance made me start. He was a slim man, with a short brown beard and small, gimlety blue 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 was steadying 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 the threshold than he made a dash for my back room, where I used to smoke and write my letters. Then he bolted back.
“Is the door locked?” he asked feverishly, and he fastened the chain with his own hand.
“I’m very sorry,” he said humbly. “It’s a mighty liberty, but you looked the kind of man who would understand. I’ve had you in my mind all this week when things got troublesome. Say, will you do me a good turn?”
“I’ll listen to you,” I said. “That’s all I’ll promise.” I was getting worried by the antics of this nervous little chap.
There was a tray of drinks on a table beside him, from which he filled himself a stiff whisky-and-soda. He drank it off in three gulps, and cracked the glass as he set it down.
“Pardon,” he said, “I’m a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this 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 to deal with a madman.
A smile flickered over his drawn face. “I’m not mad—yet. Say, sir, I’ve been 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 going to confide in you. I need help worse than any man ever needed it, and I want 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 the queerest rigmarole. I didn’t get hold of it at first, and I had to stop and ask him questions. But here is the gist of it:
He was an American, from Kentucky, and after college, being pretty well off, he had started out to see the world. He wrote a bit, and acted as war correspondent for a Chicago paper, and spent a year or two in South-Eastern Europe. I gathered that he was a fine linguist, and had got to know pretty well the society in those parts. He spoke familiarly of many names that I remembered to have seen in the newspapers.
He had played about with politics, he told me, at first for the interest of them, and then because he couldn’t help himself. I read him as a sharp, restless fellow, who always wanted to get down to the roots of 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. Away behind all the Governments and the armies there was a big subterranean movement going on, engineered by very dangerous people. He had come on it by accident; it fascinated him; he went further, and then he got caught. I gathered that most of the people in it were the sort of educated anarchists that make revolutions, but that beside them there were financiers who were playing for money. A clever man can make big profits on a falling market, and it suited the book of both classes to set Europe by the ears.
He told me some queer things that explained a lot that had puzzled me—things that happened in the Balkan War, how one state suddenly came out on top, why alliances were made and broken, why certain men disappeared, and where the sinews of war came from. The aim of the whole conspiracy was to get Russia and Germany at loggerheads.
When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.
“Do you wonder?” he cried. “For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tsar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.”
I could not help saying that his Jew-anarchists seemed to have got left behind a little.
“Yes and no,” he said. “They won up to a point, but they struck a bigger thing than money, a thing that couldn’t be bought, the old elemental fighting instincts of man. If you’re going to be killed you invent some kind of flag and country to fight for, and if you survive you get to love the thing. Those foolish devils of soldiers have found something they care for, and that has upset the pretty plan laid in Berlin and Vienna. But my friends haven’t played their last card by a long sight. They’ve gotten the ace up their sleeves, and unless I can keep 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 was about all the Latin I knew.) “I’m coming to that, but I’ve got to put you wise about a lot of things first. If you read your newspaper, I guess 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 big brain in the whole show, and he happens also to be an honest man. Therefore he has been marked down these twelve months past. I found that 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 knowledge was deadly. That’s why I have had to decease.”
He had another drink, and I mixed it for him myself, for I was getting interested in the beggar.
“They can’t get him in his own land, for he has a bodyguard of Epirotes that would skin their grandmothers. But on the 15th day of June he is coming to this city. The British Foreign Office has taken to having international tea-parties, and the biggest of them is due on that date. Now Karolides is reckoned the principal guest, and if my friends have their way he will never return to his admiring countrymen.”
“That’s simple enough, anyhow,” I said. “You can warn him and keep him at 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 his Government are warned he won’t come, for he does not know how big the stakes will be on June the 15th.”
“What about the British Government?” I said. “They’re not going to let their guests be murdered. Tip them the wink, and they’ll take extra precautions.”
“No good. They might stuff your city with plain-clothes detectives and double the police and Constantine would still be a doomed man. My friends are not playing this game for candy. They want a big occasion for the taking off, with the eyes of all Europe on it. He’ll be murdered by an Austrian, and there’ll be plenty of evidence to show the connivance of the big folk in Vienna and Berlin. It will all be an infernal lie, of course, but the case will look black enough to the world. I’m not talking hot air, my friend. I happen to know every detail of the hellish contrivance, and I can tell you it will be the most finished piece of blackguardism since the Borgias. But it’s not going to come off if there’s a certain man who knows the wheels of the business alive right here in London on the 15th day of June. And that man is going to be your servant, Franklin P. Scudder.”
I was getting to like the little chap. His jaw had shut like a rat-trap, and there was the fire of battle in his gimlety eyes. If he was 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 me inquiring, and I collected my other clues in a fur-shop in the Galician quarter of Buda, in a Strangers’ Club in Vienna, and in a little bookshop off the Racknitzstrasse in Leipsig. I completed my evidence ten days ago in Paris. I can’t tell you the details now, for it’s something of a history. When I was quite sure in my own mind I judged it my business to disappear, and I reached this city by a mighty queer circuit. I left Paris a dandified young French-American, and I sailed from Hamburg a Jew diamond merchant. In Norway I was an English student of Ibsen collecting materials for lectures, but when I left Bergen I was a cinema-man with special ski films. And I came here from Leith with a lot of pulp-wood propositions in my pocket to put before the London newspapers. Till yesterday I thought I had muddied my trail some, and was feeling pretty happy. Then....”
The recollection seemed to upset him, and he gulped down some more whisky.
“Then I saw a man standing in the street outside this block. I used to stay close in my room all day, and only slip out after dark for an hour or two. I watched him for a bit from my window, and I thought I recognized him.... He came in and spoke to the porter.... When I came back from my walk last night I found a card in my letter-box. It bore the 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 on his face, completed my conviction of his honesty. My own voice sharpened a bit as I asked him what he did next.
“I realized that I was bottled as sure as a pickled herring, and that there was only one way out. I had to die. If my pursuers knew I was dead 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 got myself up to look like death. That wasn’t difficult, for I’m no slouch at disguises. Then I got a corpse—you can always get a body in London if you know where to go for it. I fetched it back in a trunk on the top of a four-wheeler, and I had to be assisted upstairs to my room. You see I had to pile up some evidence for the inquest. I went to bed and got my man to mix me a sleeping-draught, and then told him to clear out. He wanted to fetch a doctor, but I swore some and said I couldn’t abide leeches. When I was left alone I started in to fake up that corpse. He was my size, and I judged had perished from too much alcohol, so I put some spirits handy about the place. The jaw was the weak point in the likeness, so I blew it away with a revolver. I daresay there will be somebody tomorrow to swear to having heard a shot, but there are no neighbours on my floor, and I guessed I could risk it. So I left the body in bed dressed up in my pyjamas, with a revolver lying on the bed-clothes and a considerable mess around. Then I got into a suit of clothes I had kept waiting for emergencies. I didn’t dare to shave for fear of leaving tracks, and besides, it wasn’t any kind of use my trying to get into the streets. I had had you in my mind all day, and there seemed nothing to do but to make an appeal to you. I watched from my window till I saw you come home, and then slipped down the stair to meet you.... There, sir, I guess you know about as much as me of this business.”
He sat blinking like an owl, fluttering with nerves and yet desperately determined. By this time I was pretty well convinced that he was going straight with me. It was the wildest sort of narrative, but I had heard in my time many steep tales which had turned out to be true, and I had made a practice of judging the man rather than the story. If he had wanted to get a location in my flat, and then cut my throat, he would have pitched a milder yarn.
“Hand me your key,” I said, “and I’ll take a look at the corpse. Excuse my 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 I haven’t got it. It’s on my chain on the dressing-table. I had to leave it behind, for I couldn’t leave any clues to breed suspicions. The gentry who are after me are pretty bright-eyed citizens. You’ll have to take me on trust for the night, and tomorrow you’ll get proof of the corpse 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, Mr Scudder. I believe you’re straight, but if so be you are not I should warn you that I’m a handy man with a gun.”
“Sure,” he said, jumping up with some briskness. “I haven’t the privilege of your name, sir, but let me tell you that you’re a white man. I’ll thank you to lend me a razor.”
I took him into my bedroom and turned him loose. In half an hour’s time a figure came out that I scarcely recognized. Only his gimlety, hungry eyes were the same. He was shaved clean, his hair was parted in the middle, and he had cut his eyebrows. Further, he carried himself as if he had been drilled, and was the very model, even to the brown complexion, 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 of the American had gone out of his speech.
“My hat! Mr Scudder—” I stammered.
“Not Mr Scudder,” he corrected; “Captain Theophilus Digby, of the 40th Gurkhas, 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, more cheerful than I had been for the past month. Things did happen occasionally, even in this God-forgotten metropolis.
I woke next morning to hear my man, Paddock, making the deuce of a row at the smoking-room door. Paddock was a fellow I had done a good turn to out on the Selakwe, and I had inspanned him as my servant as soon as I got to England. He had about as much gift of the gab as a hippopotamus, and was not a great hand at valeting, but I knew I could count 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, with his nerves pretty bad from overwork, who wanted absolute rest and stillness. Nobody had got to know he was here, or he would be besieged by communications from the India Office and the Prime Minister and his cure would be ruined. I am bound to say Scudder played up splendidly when he came to breakfast. He fixed Paddock with his eyeglass, just like a British officer, asked him about the Boer War, and slung out at me a lot of stuff about imaginary pals. Paddock couldn’t learn to call me “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 the City 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 there now.”
I ascended to No. 15, and found a couple of bobbies and an inspector busy making an examination. I asked a few idiotic questions, and they soon kicked me out. Then I found the man that had valeted Scudder, and pumped him, but I could see he suspected nothing. He was a whining fellow with a churchyard face, and half-a-crown went far to console him.
I attended the inquest next day. A partner of some publishing firm gave evidence that the deceased had brought him wood-pulp propositions, and had been, he believed, an agent of an American business. The jury found it a case of suicide while of unsound mind, and the few effects were handed over to the American Consul to deal with. I gave Scudder a full account of the affair, and it interested him greatly. He said he wished he could have attended the inquest, for he reckoned it would be about as spicy as to read one’s own obituary notice.
The first two days he stayed with me in that back room he was very peaceful. He read and smoked a bit, and made a heap of jottings in a note-book, and every night we had a game of chess, at which he beat me hollow. I think he was nursing his nerves back to health, for he had had a pretty trying time. But on the third day I could see he was beginning to get restless. He fixed up a list of the days till June 15th, and ticked each off with a red pencil, making remarks in shorthand against them. I would find him sunk in a brown study, with his sharp eyes abstracted, and after those spells of meditation he was apt to be very despondent.
Then I could see that he began to get edgy again. He listened for little noises, and was always asking me if Paddock could be trusted. Once or twice he got very peevish, and apologized for it. I didn’t blame him. I made every allowance, for he had taken on a fairly stiff job.
It was not the safety of his own skin that troubled him, but the success of the scheme he had planned. That little man was clean grit all 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 into this business. I should hate to go out without leaving somebody else to put up a fight.” And he began to tell me in detail what I had only heard from him vaguely.
I did not give him very close attention. The fact is, I was more interested in his own adventures than in his high politics. I reckoned that Karolides and his affairs were not my business, leaving all that to him. So a lot that he said slipped clean out of my memory. I remember that he was very clear that the danger to Karolides would not begin till he had got to London, and would come from the very highest quarters, where there would be no thought of suspicion. He mentioned the name of a woman—Julia Czechenyi—as having something to do with the danger. She would be the decoy, I gathered, to get Karolides out of the care of his guards. He talked, too, about a Black Stone and a man that lisped in his speech, and he described very particularly somebody that he never referred to without a shudder—an old man with a young voice who could hood his eyes like a hawk.
He spoke a good deal about death, too. He was mortally anxious about winning 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 the window. I used to thank God for such mornings way back in the Blue-Grass country, and I guess I’ll thank Him when I wake up on the other side of Jordan.”
Next day he was much more cheerful, and read the life of Stonewall Jackson much of the time. I went out to dinner with a mining engineer I had got to see on business, and came back about half-past ten in time for our game of chess before turning in.
I had a cigar in my mouth, I remember, as I pushed open the smoking-room door. The lights were not lit, which struck me as odd. I wondered if Scudder had turned in already.
I snapped the switch, but there was nobody there. Then I saw something in the far corner which made me drop my cigar and fall into a cold sweat.
My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.