I came down to breakfast next morning, after eight hours of blessed dreamles_leep, to find Sir Walter decoding a telegram in the midst of muffins an_armalade. 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 m_hief to speak to the First Lord and the Secretary for War, and they ar_ringing Royer over a day sooner. This wire clinches it. He will be in Londo_t five. Odd that the code word for a SOUS-CHEF D/ETAT MAJOR-GENERAL should be
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 t_ind 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 onl_ive men in England who knew about Royer's visit, and you may be certain ther_ere 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 hi_ull confidence.
'Can the dispositions not be changed?' I asked.
'They could,' he said. 'But we want to avoid that if possible. They are th_esult of immense thought, and no alteration would be as good. Besides, on on_r two points change is simply impossible. Still, something could be done, _uppose, 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 an_hildish game like that. They know that would mean a row and put us on ou_uard. Their aim is to get the details without any one of us knowing, so tha_oyer will go back to Paris in the belief that the whole business is stil_eadly secret. If they can't do that they fail, for, once we suspect, the_now 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 recko_s going to win out.'
'Royer dines with my Chief, and then comes to my house where four people wil_ee him — Whittaker from the Admiralty, myself, Sir Arthur Drew, and Genera_instanley. The First Lord is ill, and has gone to Sheringham. At my house h_ill get a certain document from Whittaker, and after that he will be motore_o Portsmouth where a destroyer will take him to Havre. His journey is to_mportant for the ordinary boat-train. He will never be left unattended for _oment till he is safe on French soil. The same with Whittaker till he meet_oyer. That is the best we can do, and it's hard to see how there can be an_iscarriage. But I don't mind admitting that I'm horribly nervous. This murde_f Karolides will play the deuce in the chancelleries of Europe.'
After breakfast he asked me if I could drive a car. 'Well, you'll be m_hauffeur today and wear Hudson's rig. You're about his size. You have a han_n this business and we are taking no risks. There are desperate men agains_s, who will not respect the country retreat of an overworked official.'
When I first came to London I had bought a car and amused myself with runnin_bout the south of England, so I knew something of the geography. I took Si_alter to town by the Bath Road and made good going. It was a soft breathles_une morning, with a promise of sultriness later, but it was delicious enoug_winging through the little towns with their freshly watered streets, and pas_he summer gardens of the Thames valley. I landed Sir Walter at his house i_ueen Anne's Gate punctually by half-past eleven. The butler was coming up b_rain with the luggage.
The first thing he did was to take me round to Scotland Yard. There we saw _rim 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 m_epartment.'
'Mr Hannay will interest it again. He has much to tell you, but not today. Fo_ertain grave reasons his tale must wait for four hours. Then, I can promis_ou, you will be entertained and possibly edified. I want you to assure M_annay that he will suffer no further inconvenience.'
This assurance was promptly given. 'You can take up your life where you lef_ff,' I was told. 'Your flat, which probably you no longer wish to occupy, i_aiting for you, and your man is still there. As you were never publicl_ccused, we considered that there was no need of a public exculpation. But o_hat, of course, you must please yourself.'
'We may want your assistance later on, MacGillivray,' Sir Walter said as w_eft.
Then he turned me loose.
'Come and see me tomorrow, Hannay. I needn't tell you to keep deadly quiet. I_ were you I would go to bed, for you must have considerable arrears of slee_o overtake. You had better lie low, for if one of your Black Stone friend_aw you there might be trouble.'
I felt curiously at a loose end. At first it was very pleasant to be a fre_an, able to go where I wanted without fearing anything. I had only been _onth under the ban of the law, and it was quite enough for me. I went to th_avoy and ordered very carefully a very good luncheon, and then smoked th_est cigar the house could provide. But I was still feeling nervous. When _aw anybody look at me in the lounge, I grew shy, and wondered if they wer_hinking about the murder.
After that I took a taxi and drove miles away up into North London. I walke_ack through fields and lines of villas and terraces and then slums and mea_treets, and it took me pretty nearly two hours. All the while my restlessnes_as growing worse. I felt that great things, tremendous things, were happenin_r about to happen, and I, who was the cog-wheel of the whole business, wa_ut of it. Royer would be landing at Dover, Sir Walter would be making plan_ith the few people in England who were in the secret, and somewhere in th_arkness the Black Stone would be working. I felt the sense of danger an_mpending calamity, and I had the curious feeling, too, that I alone coul_vert it, alone could grapple with it. But I was out of the game now. Ho_ould it be otherwise? It was not likely that Cabinet Ministers and Admiralt_ords 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 _ulgar scrap with those gentry, where I could hit out and flatten something. _as rapidly getting into a very bad temper.
I didn't feel like going back to my flat. That had to be faced some time, bu_s I still had sufficient money I thought I would put it off till nex_orning, and go to a hotel for the night.
My irritation lasted through dinner, which I had at a restaurant in Jermy_treet. I was no longer hungry, and let several courses pass untasted. I dran_he best part of a bottle of Burgundy, but it did nothing to cheer me. A_bominable restlessness had taken possession of me. Here was I, a ver_rdinary fellow, with no particular brains, and yet I was convinced tha_omehow I was needed to help this business through — that without me it woul_ll go to blazes. I told myself it was sheer silly conceit, that four or fiv_f the cleverest people living, with all the might of the British Empire a_heir back, had the job in hand. Yet I couldn't be convinced. It seemed as i_ voice kept speaking in my ear, telling me to be up and doing, or I woul_ever sleep again.
The upshot was that about half-past nine I made up my mind to go to Quee_nne's Gate. Very likely I would not be admitted, but it would ease m_onscience to try.
I walked down Jermyn Street, and at the corner of Duke Street passed a grou_f young men. They were in evening dress, had been dining somewhere, and wer_oing 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 th_thers crowded round. I wasn't looking for any trouble, but my ill-temper mad_e 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 fo_hat matter to the nearest police station. But a delay at that moment seeme_o me unendurable, and the sight of Marmie's imbecile face was more than _ould bear. I let out with my left, and had the satisfaction of seeing hi_easure his length in the gutter.
Then began an unholy row. They were all on me at once, and the policeman too_e in the rear. I got in one or two good blows, for I think, with fair play, _ould have licked the lot of them, but the policeman pinned me behind, and on_f them got his fingers on my throat.
Through a black cloud of rage I heard the officer of the law asking what wa_he matter, and Marmie, between his broken teeth, declaring that I was Hanna_he murderer.
'Oh, damn it all,' I cried, 'make the fellow shut up. I advise you to leave m_lone, constable. Scotland Yard knows all about me, and you'll get a prope_igging if you interfere with me.'
'You've got to come along of me, young man,' said the policeman. 'I saw yo_trike that gentleman crool 'ard. You began it too, for he wasn't doin_othing. 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 m_he 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 dow_uke 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 wa_n Pall Mall and had turned down towards St James's Park. I dodged th_oliceman at the Palace gates, dived through a press of carriages at th_ntrance to the Mall, and was making for the bridge before my pursuers ha_rossed the roadway. In the open ways of the Park I put on a spurt. Happil_here were few people about and no one tried to stop me. I was staking all o_etting to Queen Anne's Gate.
When I entered that quiet thoroughfare it seemed deserted. Sir Walter's hous_as 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 th_utler refused me admission, or if he even delayed to open the door, I wa_one.
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 t_dmit no one. Perhaps you will wait.'
The house was of the old-fashioned kind, with a wide hall and rooms on bot_ides of it. At the far end was an alcove with a telephone and a couple o_hairs, and there the butler offered me a seat.
'See here,' I whispered. 'There's trouble about and I'm in it. But Sir Walte_nows, and I'm working for him. If anyone comes and asks if I am here, tel_im a lie.'
He nodded, and presently there was a noise of voices in the street, and _urious ringing at the bell. I never admired a man more than that butler. H_pened the door, and with a face like a graven image waited to be questioned.
Then he gave them it. He told them whose house it was, and what his order_ere, and simply froze them off the doorstep. I could see it all from m_lcove, and it was better than any play.
I hadn't waited long till there came another ring at the bell. The butler mad_o bones about admitting this new visitor.
While he was taking off his coat I saw who it was. You couldn't open _ewspaper or a magazine without seeing that face — the grey beard cut like _pade, the firm fighting mouth, the blunt square nose, and the keen blue eyes.
I recognized the First Sea Lord, the man, they say, that made the new Britis_avy.
He passed my alcove and was ushered into a room at the back of the hall. A_he door opened I could hear the sound of low voices. It shut, and I was lef_lone again.
For twenty minutes I sat there, wondering what I was to do next. I was stil_erfectly convinced that I was wanted, but when or how I had no notion. I kep_ooking at my watch, and as the time crept on to half-past ten I began t_hink that the conference must soon end. In a quarter of an hour Royer shoul_e speeding along the road to Portsmouth …
Then I heard a bell ring, and the butler appeared. The door of the back roo_pened, and the First Sea Lord came out. He walked past me, and in passing h_lanced 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 see_he great man before, and he had never seen me. But in that fraction of tim_omething sprang into his eyes, and that something was recognition. You can'_istake it. It is a flicker, a spark of light, a minute shade of differenc_hich means one thing and one thing only. It came involuntarily, for in _oment it died, and he passed on. In a maze of wild fancies I heard the stree_oor close behind him.
I picked up the telephone book and looked up the number of his house. We wer_onnected 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 t_ed. He is not very well tonight. Will you leave a message, Sir?'
I rang off and almost tumbled into a chair. My part in this business was no_et 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 roo_nd entered without knocking.
Five surprised faces looked up from a round table. There was Sir Walter, an_rew the War Minister, whom I knew from his photographs. There was a sli_lderly man, who was probably Whittaker, the Admiralty official, and there wa_eneral 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 t_he 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 _hink it may be in the nick of time. For God's sake, gentlemen, tell me wh_ent 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 someone wh_ecognized me, someone I have seen in the last month. He had scarcely left th_oorstep when I rang up Lord Alloa's house and was told he had come in half a_our before and had gone to bed.'
'Who — who—' someone stammered.
'The Black Stone,' I cried, and I sat down in the chair so recently vacate_nd looked round at five badly scared gentlemen.