Merriman Becomes Desperate

The failure of the attempt to learn the secret of the Pit-Prop Syndicate affected Merriman more than he could have believed possible. His interest in the affair was not that of Hilliard. Neither the intellectual joy of solving a difficult problem for its own sake, nor the kudos which such a solution might bring, made much appeal to him. His concern was simply the happiness of the girl he loved, and though, to do him justice, he did not think overmuch of himself, he recognised that any barrier raised between them was the end for him of all that made life endurable.

As he lay back with closed eyes in the corner seat of a first-class compartment in the boat train from Calais he went over for the thousandth time the details of the problem as it affected himself. Had Mr. Coburn rendered himself liable to arrest or even to penal servitude, and did his daughter know it? The anxious, troubled look which Merriman had on different occasions surprised on the girl’s expressive face made him fear both these possibilities. But if they were true did it stop there? Was her disquietude due merely to knowledge of her father’s danger, or was she herself in peril also? Merriman wondered could she have such knowledge and not be in peril herself. In the eyes of the law would it not be a guilty knowledge? Could she not be convicted as an accessory?

If it were so he must act at once if he were to save her. But how? He writhed under the terrible feeling of impotence produced by his ignorance of the syndicate’s real business. If he were to help Madeleine he must know what the conspirators were doing.

And he had failed to learn. He had failed, and Hilliard had failed, and neither they nor Leatham had been able to suggest any method by which the truth might be ascertained.

There was, of course, the changing of the number plates. A trained detective would no doubt be able to make something of that. But Merriman felt that without even the assistance of Hilliard, he had neither the desire nor the ability to tackle it.

He pondered the question, as he had pondered it for weeks, and the more he thought, the more he felt himself driven to the direct course⁠—to see Madeleine, put the problem to her, ask her to marry him and come out of it all. But there were terrible objections to this plan, not the least of which was that if he made a blunder it might be irrevocable. She might not hear him at all. She might be displeased by his suggestion that she and her father were in danger from such a cause. She might decide not to leave her father for the very reason that he was in danger. And all these possibilities were, of course, in addition to the much more probable one that she would simply refuse him because she did not care about him.

Merriman did not see his way clearly, and he was troubled. Once he had made up his mind he was not easily turned from his purpose, but he was slow in making it up. In this case, where so much depended on his decision, he found his doubt actually painful.

Mechanically he alighted at the Gare du Nord, crossed Paris, and took his place in the southern express at the Quai d’Orsay. Here he continued wrestling with his problem, and it was not until he was near his destination that he arrived at a decision. He would not bother about further investigations. He would go out and see Madeleine, tell her everything, and put his fate into her hands.

He alighted at the Bastide Station in Bordeaux, and driving across to the city, put up at the Gironde Hotel. There he slept the night, and next day after lunch he took a taxi to the clearing.

Leaving the vehicle on the main road, he continued on foot down the lane and past the depot until he reached the manager’s house.

The door was opened by Miss Coburn in person. On seeing her visitor she stood for a moment quite motionless while a look of dismay appeared in her eyes and a hot flush rose on her face and then faded, leaving it white and drawn.

“Oh!” she gasped faintly. “It’s you!” She still stood holding the door, as if overcome by some benumbing emotion.

Merriman had pulled off his hat.

“It is I, Miss Coburn,” he answered gently. “I have come over from London to see you. May I not come in?”

She stepped back.

“Come in, of course,” she said, making an obvious effort to infuse cordiality into her tone. “Come in here.”

He fumbled with his coat in the hall, and by the time he followed her into the drawing-room she had recovered her composure.

She began rather breathlessly to talk commonplaces. At first he answered in the same strain, but directly he made a serious attempt to turn the conversation to the subject of his call she adroitly interrupted him.

“You’ll have some tea?” she said presently, getting up and moving towards the door.

“Er⁠—no⁠—no, thanks, Miss Coburn, not any. I wanted really⁠—”

“But I want some tea,” she persisted, smiling. “Come, you may help me to get it ready, but you must have some to keep me company.”

He had perforce to obey, and during the tea-making she effectually prevented any serious discussion. But when the meal was over and they had once more settled down in the drawing-room he would no longer be denied.

“Forgive me,” he entreated, “forgive me for bothering you, but it’s so desperately important to me. And we may be interrupted. Do hear what I’ve got to say.”

Without waiting for permission he plunged into the subject. Speaking hoarsely, stammering, contradicting himself, boggling over the words, he yet made himself clear. He loved her; had loved her from that first day they had met; he loved her more than anything else in the world; he⁠—She covered her face with her hands.

“Oh!” she cried wildly. “Don’t go on! Don’t say it!” She made a despairing gesture. “I can’t listen. I tried to stop you.”

Merriman felt as if a cold weight was slowly descending upon his heart.

“But I will speak,” he cried hoarsely. “It’s my life that’s at stake. Don’t tell me you can’t listen. Madeleine! I love you. I want you to marry me. Say you’ll marry me. Madeleine! Say it!”

He dropped on his knees before her and seized her hands in his own.

“My darling,” he whispered fiercely. “I love you enough for us both. Say you’ll marry me. Say⁠—”

She wrenched her hands from him. “Oh!” she cried as if heartbroken, and burst into an uncontrollable flood of tears.

Merriman was maddened beyond endurance by the sight.

“What a brute I am!” he gasped. “Now I’ve made you cry.”

“For pity’s sake! Do stop it! Nothing matters about anything else if only you stop!”

He was almost beside himself with misery as he pleaded with her. But soon he pulled himself together and began to speak more rationally.

“At least tell me the reason,” he besought. “I know I’ve no right to ask, but it matters so much. Have pity and tell me, is it someone else?”

She shook her head faintly between her sobs.

“Thank goodness for that anyway. Tell me once again. Is it that you don’t like me?”

Again she shook her head.

“You do like me!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “You do, Madeleine. Say it! Say that you do!”

She made a resolute effort for self-control.

“You know I do, but⁠—” she began in a tremulous whisper. In a paroxysm of overwhelming excitement he interrupted her.

“Madeleine,” he cried wildly, again seizing her hands, “you don’t⁠—it couldn’t be possible that you⁠—that you love me?”

This time she did not withdraw her hands. Slowly she raised her eyes to his, and in them he read his answer. In a moment she was in his arms and he was crushing her to his heart.

For a breathless space she lay, a happy little smile on her lips, and then the moment passed. “Oh!” she cried, struggling to release herself, “what have I done? Let me go! I shouldn’t have⁠—”

“Darling,” he breathed triumphantly. “I’ll never let you go as long as I live! You love me! What else matters?”

“No, no,” she cried again, her tears once more flowing. “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have allowed you. It can never be.”

He laughed savagely.

“Never be?” he repeated. “Why, dear one, it is. I’d like to know the person or thing that could stop it now!”

“It can never be,” she repeated in a voice of despair. “You don’t understand. There are obstacles.”

She argued. He scoffed first, then he pleaded. He demanded to be told the nature of the barrier, then he besought, but all to no purpose. She would say no more than that it could never be.

And then⁠—suddenly the question of the syndicate flashed into his mind, and he sat, almost gasping with wonder as he realised that he had entirely forgotten it! He had forgotten this mysterious business which had occupied his thoughts to the exclusion of almost all else for the past two months! It seemed to him incredible. Yet so it was.

There surged over him a feeling of relief, so that once more he all but laughed. He turned to Madeleine.

“I know,” he cried triumphantly, “the obstacle. And it’s just nothing at all. It’s this syndicate business that your father has got mixed up in. Now tell me! Isn’t that it?”

The effect of his words on the girl was instantaneous. She started and then sat quite still, while the colour slowly drained from her face, leaving it bleached and deathlike. A look of fear and horror grew in her eyes, and her fingers clasped until the knuckles showed white.

“Oh!” she stammered brokenly, “what do you mean by that?”

Merriman tried once more to take her hand.

“Dear one,” he said caressingly, “don’t let what I said distress you. We know the syndicate is carrying on something that⁠—well, perhaps wouldn’t bear too close investigation. But that has nothing to do with us. It won’t affect our relations.”

The girl seemed transfixed with horror.

We know?” she repeated dully. “Who are we?”

“Why, Hilliard; Hilliard and I. We found out quite by accident that there was something secret going on. We were both interested; Hilliard has a mania for puzzles, and besides he thought he might get some kudos if the business was illegal and he could bring it to light, while I knew that because of Mr. Coburn’s connection with it the matter might affect you.”

“Yes?” She seemed hardly able to frame the syllable between her dry lips.

Merriman was profoundly unhappy. He felt it was out of the question for him to tell her anything but the exact truth. Whether she would consider he had acted improperly in spying on the syndicate he did not know, but even at the risk of destroying his own chance of happiness he could not deceive her.

“Dear one,” he said in a low tone, “don’t think any worse of me than you can help, and I will tell you everything. You remember that first day that I was here, when you met me in the lane and we walked to the mill?”

She nodded.

“You may recall that a lorry had just arrived, and that I stopped and stared at it? Well, I had noticed that the number plate had been changed.”

“Ah,” she exclaimed, “I was afraid you had.”

“Yes, I saw it, though it conveyed nothing to me. But I was interested, and one night in London, just to make conversation in the club, I mentioned what I had seen. Hilliard was present, and he joined me on the way home and insisted on talking over the affair. As I said, he has a mania for puzzles, and the mystery appealed to him. He was going on that motorboat tour across France, and he suggested that I should join him and that we should call here on our way, so as to see if we could find the solution. Neither of us thought then, you understand, that there was anything wrong; he was merely interested. I didn’t care about the mystery, but I confess I leaped at the idea of coming back in order to meet you again, and on the understanding that there was to be nothing in the nature of spying, I agreed to his proposal.”

Merriman paused, but the girl, whose eyes were fixed intently on his face, made no remark, and he continued:

“While we were here, Hilliard, who is very observant and clever, saw one or two little things which excited his suspicion, and without telling me, he slipped on board the Girondin and overheard a conversation between Mr. Coburn, Captain Beamish, Mr. Bulla, and Henri. He learned at once that something serious and illegal was in progress, but he did not learn what it was.”

“Then there was spying,” she declared accusingly.

“There was,” he admitted. “I can only say that under the circumstances he thought himself justified.”

“Go on,” she ordered shortly.

“We returned then to England, and were kept at our offices for about a week. But Hilliard felt that we could not drop the matter, as we should then become accomplices. Besides, he was interested. He proposed we should try to find out more about it. This time I agreed, but I would ask you, Madeleine, to believe me when I tell you my motive, and to judge me by it. He spoke of reporting what he had learned to the police, and if I hadn’t agreed to help him he would have done so. I wanted at all costs to avoid that, because if there was going to be any trouble I wanted Mr. Coburn to be out of it first. Believe me or not, that was my only reason for agreeing.”

“I do believe you,” she said, “but finish what you have to tell me.”

“We learned from Lloyd’s List that the Girondin put into Hull. We went there and at Ferriby, seven miles upstream, we found the depot where she discharged the props. You don’t know it?”

She shook her head.

“It’s quite like this place; just a wharf and shed, with an enclosure between the river and the railway. We made all the inquiries and investigations we could think of, but we learned absolutely nothing. But that, unfortunately, is the worst of it. Hilliard is disgusted with our failure and appears determined to tell the police.”

“Oh!” cried the girl with an impatient gesture. “Why can’t he let it alone? It’s not his business.”

Merriman shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s what he said at all events. I had the greatest difficulty in getting him to promise even to delay. But he has promised, and we have a month to make our plans. I came straight over to tell you, and to ask you to marry me at once and come away with me to England.”

“Oh, no, no, no!” she cried, putting up her hand as if to shield herself from the idea. “Besides, what about my father?”

“I’ve thought about him too,” Merriman returned. “We will tell him the whole thing, and he will be able to get out before the crash comes.”

For some moments she sat in silence; then she asked had Hilliard any idea of what was being done.

“He suggested brandy smuggling, but it was only a theory. There was nothing whatever to support it.”

“Brandy smuggling? Oh, if it only were!”

Merriman stared in amazement.

“It wouldn’t be so bad as what I had feared,” the girl added, answering his look.

“And that was⁠—? Do trust me, Madeleine.”

“I do trust you, and I will tell you all I know; it isn’t much. I was afraid they were printing and circulating false money.”

Merriman was genuinely surprised.

“False money?” he repeated blankly.

“Yes; English Treasury notes. I thought they were perhaps printing them over here, and sending some to England with each trip of the Girondin. It was a remark I accidentally overheard that made me think so. But, like you, it was only a guess. I had no proof.”

“Tell me,” Merriman begged.

“It was last winter when the evenings closed in early. I had had a headache and I had gone to rest for a few minutes in the next room, the dining-room, which was in darkness. The door between it and this room was almost but not quite closed. I must have fallen asleep, for I suddenly became conscious of voices in here, though I had heard no one enter. I was going to call out when a phrase arrested my attention. I did not mean to listen, but involuntarily I stayed quiet for a moment. You understand?”

“Of course. It was the natural thing to do.”

“Captain Beamish was speaking. He was just finishing a sentence and I only caught the last few words. ‘So that’s a profit of six thousand, seven hundred and fifty pounds,’ he said; ‘fifty pounds loss on the props, and six thousand seven hundred netted over the other. Not bad for one trip!’ ”

“Lord!” Merriman exclaimed in amazement. “No wonder you stopped!”

“I couldn’t understand what was meant, and while I sat undecided what to do I heard my father say, ‘No trouble planting the stuff?’ Captain Beamish answered, ‘Archer said not, but then Archer is⁠—Archer. He’s planting it in small lots⁠—ten here, twenty there, fifty in t’other place; I don’t think he put out more than fifty at any one time. And he says he’s only learning his way round, and that he’ll be able to form better connections to get rid of it.’ Then Mr. Bulla spoke, and this was what upset me so much and made me think, ‘Mr. Archer is a wonderful man,’ he said with that horrible fat chuckle of his, ‘he would plant stuff on Old Nick himself with the whole of the C.I.D. looking on.’ I was bewildered and rather horrified, and I did not wait to hear any more. I crept away noiselessly, and I didn’t want to be found as it were listening. Even then I did not understand that anything was wrong, but it happened that the very next day I was walking through the forest near the lane, and I noticed Henri changing the numbers on the lorry. He didn’t see me, and he had such a stealthy surreptitious air, that I couldn’t but see it was not a joke. Putting two and two together I felt something serious was going on, and that night I asked my father what it was.”

“Well done!” Merriman exclaimed admiringly.

“But it was no use. He made little of it at first, but when I pressed him he said that against his will he had been forced into an enterprise which he hated and which he was trying to get out of. He said I must be patient and we should get away from it as quickly as possible. But since then,” she added despondently, “though I have returned to the subject time after time he has always put me off, saying that we must wait a little longer.”

“And then you thought of the false notes?”

“Yes, but I had no reason to do so except that I couldn’t think of anything else that would fit the words I had overheard. Planting stuff by tens or twenties or fifties seemed to⁠—”

There was a sudden noise in the hall and Madeleine broke off to listen.

“Father,” she whispered breathlessly. “Don’t say anything.”

Merriman had just time to nod when the door opened and Mr. Coburn appeared on the threshold. For a moment he stood looking at his daughter’s visitor, while the emotions of doubt, surprise and annoyance seemed to pass successively through his mind. Then he advanced with outstretched hand and a somewhat satirical smile on his lips.

“Ah, it is the good Merriman,” he exclaimed. “Welcome once more to our humble abode. And where is brother Hilliard? You don’t mean to say you have come without him?”

His tone jarred on Merriman, but he answered courteously: “I left him in London. I had business bringing me to this neighbourhood, and when I reached Bordeaux I took the opportunity to run out to see you and Miss Coburn.”

The manager replied suitably, and the conversation became general. As soon as he could with civility, Merriman rose to go. Mr. Coburn cried out in protest, but the other insisted.

Mr. Coburn had become more cordial, and the two men strolled together across the clearing. Merriman had had no opportunity of further private conversation with Madeleine, but he pressed her hand and smiled at her encouragingly on saying goodbye.

As the taxi bore him swiftly back towards Bordeaux, his mind was occupied with the girl to the exclusion of all else. It was not so much that he thought definitely about her, as that she seemed to fill all his consciousness. He felt numb, and his whole being ached for her as with a dull physical pain. But it was a pain that was mingled with exultation, for if she had refused him, she had at least admitted that she loved him. Incredible thought! He smiled ecstatically, then, the sense of loss returning, once more gazed gloomily ahead into vacancy. As the evening wore on his thoughts turned towards what she had said about the syndicate. Her forged note theory had come to him as a complete surprise, and he wondered whether she really had hit on the true solution of the mystery. The conversation she had overheard undoubtedly pointed in that direction. “Planting stuff” was, he believed, the technical phrase for passing forged notes, and the reference to “tens,” “twenties,” and “fifties,” tended in the same direction. Also “forming connections to get rid of it” seemed to suggest the finding of agents who would take a number of notes at a time, to be passed on by ones and twos, no doubt for a consideration.

But there was the obvious difficulty that the theory did not account for the operations as a whole. The elaborate mechanism of the pit-prop industry was not needed to provide a means of carrying forged notes from France to England. They could be secreted about the person of a traveller crossing by any of the ordinary routes. Hundreds of notes could be sewn into the lining of an overcoat, thousands carried in the double bottom of a suitcase. Of course, so frequent a traveller would require a plausible reason for his journeys, but that would present no difficulty to men like those composing the syndicate. In any case, by crossing in rotation by the dozen or so well-patronised routes between England and the Continent, the continuity of the travelling could be largely hidden. Moreover, thought Merriman, why print the notes in France at all? Why not produce them in England and so save the need for importation?

On the whole there seemed but slight support for the theory and several strong arguments against it, and he felt that Madeleine must be mistaken, just as he and Hilliard had been mistaken.

Oh! how sick of the whole business he was! He no longer cared what the syndicate was doing. He never wanted to hear of it again. He wanted Madeleine, and he wanted nothing else. His thoughts swung back to her as he had seen her that afternoon; her trim figure, her daintiness, her brown eyes clouded with trouble, her little shell-like ears escaping from the tendrils of her hair, her tears.⁠ ⁠… He broke out once more into a cold sweat as he thought of those tears.

Presently he began wondering what his own next step should be, and he soon decided he must see her again, and with as little delay as possible.

The next afternoon, therefore, he once more presented himself at the house in the clearing. This time the door was opened by an elderly servant, who handed him a note and informed him that Mr. and Miss Coburn had left home for some days.

Bitterly disappointed he turned away, and in the solitude of the lane he opened the note. It read:


Dear Mr. Merriman⁠—I feel it is quite impossible that we should part without a word more than could be said at our interrupted interview this afternoon, so with deep sorrow I am writing to you to say to you, dear Mr. Merriman, ‘Goodbye.’ I have enjoyed our short friendship, and all my life I shall be proud that you spoke as you did, but, my dear, it is just because I think so much of you that I could not bring your life under the terrible cloud that hangs over mine. Though it hurts me to say it, I have no option but to ask you to accept the answer I gave you as final, and to forget that we met.

“I am leaving home for some time, and I beg of you not to give both of us more pain by trying to follow me. Oh, my dear, I cannot say how grieved I am.

“Your sincere friend,

“Madeleine Coburn.”

Merriman was overwhelmed utterly by the blow. Mechanically he regained the taxi, where he lay limply back, gripping the note and unconscious of his position, while his bloodless lips repeated over and over again the phrase, “I’ll find her. I’ll find her. If it takes me all my life I’ll find her and I’ll marry her.”

Like a man in a state of coma he returned to his hotel in Bordeaux, and there, for the first time in his life, he drank himself into forgetfulness.