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Thirty-nine Steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps
'Nonsense!' said the official from the Admiralty.
Sir Walter got up and left the room while we looked blankly at the table. He came back in
ten minutes with a long face. 'I have spoken to Alloa,' he said. 'Had him out of bed--very
grumpy. He went straight home after Mulross's dinner.'
'But it's madness,' broke in General Winstanley. 'Do you mean to tell me that that man
came here and sat beside me for the best part of half an hour and that I didn't detect the
imposture? Alloa must be out of his mind.'
'Don't you see the cleverness of it?' I said. 'You were too interested in other things to have
any eyes. You took Lord Alloa for granted. If it had been anybody else you might have
looked more closely, but it was natural for him to be here, and that put you all to sleep.'
Then the Frenchman spoke, very slowly and in good English.
'The young man is right. His psychology is good. Our enemies have not been foolish!'
He bent his wise brows on the assembly.
'I will tell you a tale,' he said. 'It happened many years ago in Senegal. I was quartered in
a remote station, and to pass the time used to go fishing for big barbel in the river. A little
Arab mare used to carry my luncheon basket--one of the salted dun breed you got at
Timbuctoo in the old days. Well, one morning I had good sport, and the mare was
unaccountably restless. I could hear her whinnying and squealing and stamping her feet,
and I kept soothing her with my voice while my mind was intent on fish. I could see her
all the time, as I thought, out of a corner of my eye, tethered to a tree twenty yards away.
After a couple of hours I began to think of food. I collected my fish in a tarpaulin bag,
and moved down the stream towards the mare, trolling my line. When I got up to her I
flung the tarpaulin on her back--'
He paused and looked round.
'It was the smell that gave me warning. I turned my head and found myself looking at a
lion three feet off ... An old man-eater, that was the terror of the village ... What was left
of the mare, a mass of blood and bones and hide, was behind him.'
'What happened?' I asked. I was enough of a hunter to know a true yarn when I heard it.
'I stuffed my fishing-rod into his jaws, and I had a pistol. Also my servants came
presently with rifles. But he left his mark on me.' He held up a hand which lacked three
fingers.
 
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