The Sawmill on the Lesque

Seymour Merriman was tired; tired of the jolting saddle of his motor bicycle, of the cramped position of his arms, of the chug of the engine, and most of all, of the dreary, barren country through which he was riding. Early that morning he had left Pau, and with the exception of an hour and a half at Bayonne, where he had lunched and paid a short business call, he had been at it ever since. It was now after five o’clock, and the last post he had noticed showed him he was still twenty-six kilometers from Bordeaux, where he intended to spend the night.

“This confounded road has no end,” he thought. “I really must stretch my legs a bit.”

A short distance in front of him a hump in the white ribbon of the road with parapet walls narrowing in at each side indicated a bridge. He cut off his engine and, allowing the machine to coast, brought it to a stand at the summit. Then dismounting, he slid it back on its bracket; stretched himself luxuriously, and looked around.

In both directions, in front of him and behind, the road stretched, level and monotonous as far as the eye could reach, as he had seen it stretch, with but few exceptions, during the whole of the day’s run. But whereas farther south it had led through open country, desolate, depressing wastes of sand and sedge, here it ran through the heart of a pine forest, in its own way as melancholy. The road seemed isolated, cut off from the surrounding country, like to be squeezed out of existence by the overwhelming barrier on either flank, a screen, aromatic indeed, but dark, gloomy, and forbidding. Nor was the prospect improved by the long, unsightly gashes which the resin collectors had made on the trunks, suggesting, as they did, that the trees were stricken by some disease. To Merriman the country seemed utterly uninhabited. Indeed, since running through Labouheyre, now two hours back, he could not recall having seen a single living creature except those passing in motor cars, and of these even there were but few.

He rested his arms on the masonry coping of the old bridge and drew at his cigarette. But for the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle, the spring evening was very still. The river curved away gently towards the left, flowing black and sluggish between its flat banks, on which the pines grew down to the water’s edge. It was delightful to stay quiet for a few moments, and Merriman took off his cap and let the cool air blow on his forehead, enjoying the relaxation.

He was a pleasant-looking man of about eight-and-twenty, clean shaven and with grey, honest eyes, dark hair slightly inclined to curl, and a square, well-cut jaw. Business had brought him to France. Junior partner in the firm of Edwards & Merriman, Wine Merchants, Gracechurch Street, London, he annually made a tour of the exporters with whom his firm dealt. He had worked across the south of the country from Cette to Pau, and was now about to recross from Bordeaux to near Avignon, after which his round would be complete. To him this part of his business was a pleasure, and he enjoyed his annual trip almost as much as if it had been a holiday.

The vehicle which he had heard in the distance was now close by, and he turned idly to watch it pass. He did not know then that this slight action, performed almost involuntarily, was to change his whole life, and not only his, but the lives of a number of other people of whose existence he was not then aware, was to lead to sorrow as well as happiness, to crime as well as the vindication of the law, to⁠ ⁠… in short, what is more to the point, had he not then looked round, this story would never have been written.

The vehicle in itself was in no way remarkable. It was a motor lorry of about five tons capacity, a heavy thing, travelling slowly. Merriman’s attention at first focused itself on the driver. He was a man of about thirty, good-looking, with thin, clear-cut features, an aquiline nose, and dark, clever-looking eyes. Dressed though he was in rough working clothes, there was a something in his appearance, in his pose, which suggested a man of better social standing than his occupation warranted.

“Ex-officer,” thought Merriman as his gaze passed on to the lorry behind. It was painted a dirty green, and was empty except for a single heavy casting, evidently part of some large and massive machine. On the side of the deck was a brass plate bearing the words in English “The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 4.” Merriman was somewhat surprised to see a nameplate in his own language in so unexpected a quarter, but the matter really did not interest him and he soon dismissed it from his mind.

The machine chuffed ponderously past, and Merriman, by now rested, turned to restart his bicycle. But his troubles for the day were not over. On the ground below his tank was a stain, and even as he looked, a drop fell from the carburetor feed pipe, followed by a second and a third.

He bent down to examine, and speedily found the cause of the trouble. The feed pipe was connected to the bottom of the tank by a union, and the nut, working slack, had allowed a small but steady leak. He tightened the nut and turned to measure the petrol in the tank. A glance showed him that a mere drain only remained.

“Curse it all,” he muttered, “that’s the second time that confounded nut has left me in the soup.”

His position was a trifle awkward. He was still some twenty-five kilometers from Bordeaux, and his machine would not carry him more than perhaps two. Of course, he could stop the first car that approached, and no doubt borrow enough petrol to make the city, but all day he had noticed with surprise how few and far between the cars were, and there was no certainty that one would pass within a reasonable time.

Then the sound of the receding lorry, still faintly audible, suggested an idea. It was travelling so slowly that he might overtake it before his petrol gave out. It was true he was going in the wrong direction, and if he failed he would be still farther from his goal, but when you are twenty-five kilometers from where you want to be, a few hundred yards more or less is not worth worrying about.

He wheeled his machine round and followed the lorry at full speed. But he had not more than started when he noticed his quarry turning to the right. Slowly it disappeared into the forest.

“Funny I didn’t see that road,” thought Merriman as he bumped along.

He slackened speed when he reached the place where the lorry had vanished, and then he saw a narrow lane just wide enough to allow the big vehicle to pass, which curved away between the tree stems. The surface was badly cut up with wheel tracks, so much so that Merriman decided he could not ride it. He therefore dismounted, hid his bicycle among the trees, and pushed on down the lane on foot. He was convinced from his knowledge of the country that the latter must be a cul-de-sac, at the end of which he would find the lorry. This he could hear not far away, chugging slowly on in front of him.

The lane twisted incessantly, apparently to avoid the larger trees. The surface was the virgin soil of the forest only, but the ruts had been filled roughly with broken stones.

Merriman strode on, and suddenly, as he rounded one of the bends, he got the surprise of his life.

Coming to meet him along the lane was a girl. This in itself was perhaps not remarkable, but this girl seemed so out of place amid such surroundings, or even in such a district, that Merriman was quite taken aback.

She was of medium height, slender and graceful as a lily, and looked about three-and-twenty. She was a study in brown. On her head was a brown tam, a rich, warm brown, like the brown of autumn bracken on the moor. She wore a brown jumper, brown skirt, brown stockings and little brown brogued shoes. As she came closer, Merriman saw that her eyes, friendly, honest eyes, were a shade of golden brown, and that a hint of gold also gleamed in the brown of her hair. She was pretty, not classically beautiful, but very charming and attractive-looking. She walked with the free, easy movement of one accustomed to an out-of-door life.

As they drew abreast Merriman pulled off his cap.

“Pardon, mademoiselle,” he said in his somewhat halting French, “but can you tell me if I could get some petrol close by?” and in a few words he explained his predicament.

She looked him over with a sharp, scrutinizing glance. Apparently satisfied, she smiled slightly and replied:

“But certainly, monsieur. Come to the mill and my father will get you some. He is the manager.”

She spoke even more haltingly than he had, and with no semblance of a French accent⁠—the French rather of an English school. He stared at her.

“But you’re English!” he cried in surprise.

She laughed lightly.

“Of course I’m English,” she answered. “Why shouldn’t I be English? But I don’t think you’re very polite about it, you know.”

He apologised in some confusion. It was the unexpectedness of meeting a fellow-countryman in this out of the way wood⁠ ⁠… It was⁠ ⁠… He did not mean.⁠ ⁠…

“You want to say my French is not really so bad after all?” she said relentlessly, and then: “I can tell you it’s a lot better than when we came here.”

“Then you are a newcomer?”

“We’re not out very long. It’s rather a change from London, as you may imagine. But it’s not such a bad country as it looks. At first I thought it would be dreadful, but I have grown to like it.”

She had turned with him, and they were now walking together between the tall, straight stems of the trees.

“I’m a Londoner,” said Merriman slowly. “I wonder if we have any mutual acquaintances?”

“It’s hardly likely. Since my mother died some years ago we have lived very quietly, and gone out very little.”

Merriman did not wish to appear inquisitive. He made a suitable reply and, turning the conversation to the country, told her of his day’s ride. She listened eagerly, and it was borne in upon him that she was lonely, and delighted to have anyone to talk to. She certainly seemed a charming girl, simple, natural and friendly, and obviously a lady.

But soon their walk came to an end. Some quarter of a mile from the wood the lane debouched into a large, D-shaped clearing. It had evidently been recently made, for the tops of many of the tree-stumps dotted thickly over the ground were still white. Round the semicircle of the forest trees were lying cut, some with their branches still intact, others stripped clear to long, straight poles. Two small gangs of men were at work, one felling, the other lopping.

Across the clearing, forming its other boundary and the straight side of the D, ran a river, apparently from its direction that which Merriman had looked down on from the road bridge. It was wider here, a fine stretch of water, though still dark coloured and uninviting from the shadow of the trees. On its bank, forming a center to the cleared semicircle, was a building, evidently the mill. It was a small place, consisting of a single long narrow galvanized iron shed, and placed parallel to the river. In front of the shed was a tiny wharf, and behind it were stacks and stacks of tree trunks cut in short lengths and built as if for seasoning. Decauville tramways radiated from the shed, and the men were running in timber in the trucks. From the mill came the hard, biting screech of a circular saw.

“A sawmill!” Merriman exclaimed rather unnecessarily.

“Yes. We cut pit-props for the English coal mines. Those are they you see stacked up. As soon as they are drier they will be shipped across. My father joined with some others in putting up the capital, and⁠—voila!” She indicated the clearing and its contents with a comprehensive sweep of her hand.

“By Jove! A jolly fine notion, too, I should say. You have everything handy⁠—trees handy, river handy⁠—I suppose from the look of that wharf that seagoing ships can come up?”

“Shallow draughted ones only. But we have our own motor ship specially built and always running. It makes the round trip in about ten days.”

“By Jove!” Merriman said again. “Splendid! And is that where you live?”

He pointed to a house standing on a little hillock near the edge of the clearing at the far or downstream side of the mill. It was a rough, but not uncomfortable-looking building of galvanized iron, one-storied and with a piazza in front. From a brick chimney a thin spiral of blue smoke was floating up lazily into the calm air.

The girl nodded.

“It’s not palatial, but it’s really wonderfully comfortable,” she explained, “and oh, the fires! I’ve never seen such glorious wood fires as we have. Cuttings, you know. We have more blocks than we know what to do with.”

“I can imagine. I wish we had ’em in London.”

They were walking not too rapidly across the clearing towards the mill. At the back of the shed were a number of doors, and opposite one of them, heading into the opening, stood the motor lorry. The engine was still running, but the driver had disappeared, apparently into the building. As the two came up, Merriman once more ran his eye idly over the vehicle. And then he felt a sudden mild surprise, as one feels when some unexpected though quite trivial incident takes place. He had felt sure that this lorry standing at the mill door was that which had passed him on the bridge, and which he had followed down the lane. But now he saw it wasn’t. He had noted, idly but quite distinctly, that the original machine was No. 4. This one had a precisely similar plate, but it bore the legend “The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 3.”

Though the matter was of no importance, Merriman was a little intrigued, and he looked more closely at the vehicle. As he did so his surprise grew and his trifling interest became mystification. The lorry was the same. At least there on the top was the casting, just as he had seen it. It was inconceivable that two similar lorries should have two identical castings arranged in the same way, and at the same time and place. And yet, perhaps it was just possible.

But as he looked he noticed a detail which settled the matter. The casting was steadied by some rough billets of wood. One of these billets was split, and a splinter of curious shape had partially entered a bolt hole. He recalled now, though it had slipped from his memory, that he had noticed that queer-shaped splinter as the lorry passed him on the bridge. It was therefore unquestionably and beyond a shadow of doubt the same machine.

Involuntarily he stopped and stood staring at the number plate, wondering if his recollection of that seen at the bridge could be at fault. He thought not. In fact, he was certain. He recalled the shape of the 4, which had an unusually small hollow in the middle. There was no shadow of doubt of this either. He remained motionless for a few seconds, puzzling over the problem, and was just about to remark on it when the girl broke in hurriedly.

“Father will be in the office,” she said, and her voice was sharpened as from anxiety. “Won’t you come and see him about the petrol?”

He looked at her curiously. The smile had gone from her lips, and her face was pale. She was frowning, and in her eyes there showed unmistakable fear. She was not looking at him, and his gaze followed the direction of hers.

The driver had come out of the shed, the same dark, aquiline-featured man as had passed him on the bridge. He had stopped and was staring at Merriman with an intense regard in which doubt and suspicion rapidly changed to hostility. For a moment neither man moved, and then once again the girl’s voice broke in.

“Oh, there is father,” she cried, with barely disguised relief in her tones. “Come, won’t you, and speak to him.”

The interruption broke the spell. The driver averted his eyes and stooped over his engine; Merriman turned towards the girl, and the little incident was over.

It was evident to Merriman that he had in some way put his foot in it, how he could not imagine, unless there was really something in the matter of the number plate. But it was equally clear to him that his companion wished to ignore the affair, and he therefore expelled it from his mind for the moment, and once again following the direction of her gaze, moved towards a man who was approaching from the far end of the shed.

He was tall and slender like his daughter, and walked with lithe, slightly feline movements. His face was oval, clear skinned, and with a pallid complexion made still paler by his dark hair and eyes and a tiny mustache, almost black and with waxed and pointed ends. He was good-looking as to features, but the face was weak and the expression a trifle shifty.

His daughter greeted him, still with some perturbation in her manner.

“We were just looking for you, daddy,” she called a little breathlessly. “This gentleman is cycling to Bordeaux and has run out of petrol. He asked me if there was any to be had hereabouts, so I told him you could give him some.”

The newcomer honored Merriman with a rapid though searching and suspicious glance, but he replied politely, and in a cultured voice:

“Quite right, my dear.” He turned to Merriman and spoke in French. “I shall be very pleased to supply you, monsieur. How much do you want?”

“Thanks awfully, sir,” Merriman answered in his own language. “I’m English. It’s very good of you, I’m sure, and I’m sorry to be giving so much trouble. A liter should run me to Bordeaux, or say a little more in case of accidents.”

“I’ll give you two liters. It’s no trouble at all.” He turned and spoke in rapid French to the driver.

Oui, monsieur,” the man replied, and then, stepping up to his chief, he said something in a low voice. The other started slightly, for a moment looked concerned, then instantly recovering himself, advanced to Merriman.

“Henri, here, will send a man with a two-liter can to where you have left your machine,” he said, then continued with a suave smile:

“And so, sir, you’re English? It is not often that we have the pleasure of meeting a fellow-countryman in these wilds.”

“I suppose not, sir, but I can assure you your pleasure and surprise is as nothing to mine. You are not only a fellow-countryman but a friend in need as well.”

“My dear sir, I know what it is to run out of spirit. And I suppose there is no place in the whole of France where you might go farther without finding any than this very district. You are on pleasure bent, I presume?”

Merriman shook his head.

“Unfortunately, no,” he replied. “I’m travelling for my firm, Edwards & Merriman, Wine Merchants of London. I’m Merriman, Seymour Merriman, and I’m going round the exporters with whom we deal.”

“A pleasant way to do it, Mr. Merriman. My name is Coburn. You see I am trying to change the face of the country here?”

“Yes, Miss”⁠—Merriman hesitated for a moment and looked at the girl⁠—“Miss Coburn told me what you were doing. A splendid notion, I think.”

“Yes, I think we are going to make it pay very well. I suppose you’re not making a long stay?”

“Two days in Bordeaux, sir, then I’m off east to Avignon.”

“Do you know, I rather envy you. One gets tired of these tree trunks and the noise of the saws. Ah, there is your petrol.” A workman had appeared with a red can of Shell. “Well, Mr. Merriman, a pleasant journey to you. You will excuse my not going farther with you, but I am really supposed to be busy.” He turned to his daughter with a smile. “You, Madeleine, can see Mr. Merriman to the road?”

He shook hands, declined Merriman’s request to be allowed to pay for the petrol and, cutting short the other’s thanks with a wave of his arm, turned back to the shed.

The two young people strolled slowly back across the clearing, the girl evidently disposed to make the most of the unwonted companionship, and Merriman no less ready to prolong so delightful an interview. But in spite of the pleasure of their conversation, he could not banish from his mind the little incident which had taken place, and he determined to ask a discreet question or two about it.

“I say,” he said, during a pause in their talk, “I’m afraid I upset your lorry man somehow. Did you notice the way he looked at me?”

The girl’s manner, which up to this had been easy and careless, changed suddenly, becoming constrained and a trifle self-conscious. But she answered readily enough.

“Yes, I saw it. But you must not mind Henri. He was badly shell-shocked, you know, and he has never been the same since.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Merriman apologised, wondering if the man could be a relative. “Both my brothers suffered from it. They were pretty bad, but they’re coming all right. It’s generally a question of time, I think.”

“I hope so,” Miss Coburn rejoined, and quietly but decisively changed the subject.

They began to compare notes about London, and Merriman was sorry when, having filled his tank and pushed his bicycle to the road, he could no longer with decency find an excuse for remaining in her company. He bade her a regretful farewell, and some half-hour later was mounting the steps of his hotel in Bordeaux.

That evening and many times later, his mind reverted to the incident of the lorry. At the time she made it, Miss Coburn’s statement about the shell-shock had seemed entirely to account for the action of Henri, the driver. But now Merriman was not so sure. The more he thought over the affair, the more certain he felt that he had not made a mistake about the number plate, and the more likely it appeared that the driver had guessed what he, Merriman, had noticed, and resented it. It seemed to him that there was here some secret which the man was afraid might become known, and Merriman could not but admit to himself that all Miss Coburn’s actions were consistent with the hypothesis that she also shared that secret and that fear.

And yet the idea was grotesque that there could be anything serious in the altering of the number plate of a motor lorry, assuming that he was not mistaken. Even if the thing had been done, it was a trivial matter and, so far as he could see, the motives for it, as well as its consequences, must be trivial. It was intriguing, but no one could imagine it to be important. As Merriman cycled eastward through France his interest in the affair gradually waned, and when, a fortnight later, he reached England, he had ceased to give it a serious thought.

But the image of Miss Coburn did not so quickly vanish from his imagination, and many times he regretted he had not taken an opportunity of returning to the mill to renew the acquaintanceship so unexpectedly begun.