An Unexpected Ally

For several days Merriman, sick at heart and shaken in body, remained on at Bordeaux, too numbed by the blow which had fallen on him to take any decisive action. He now understood that Madeleine Coburn had refused him because she loved him, and he vowed he would rest neither day nor night till he had seen her and obtained a reversal of her decision. But for the moment his energy had departed, and he spent his time smoking in the Jardin and brooding over his troubles.

It was true that on three separate occasions he had called at the manager’s house, only to be told that Mr. and Miss Coburn were still from home, and neither there nor from the foreman at the works could he learn their addresses or the date of their return. He had also written a couple of scrappy notes to Hilliard, merely saying he was on a fresh scent, and to make no move in the matter until he heard further. Of the Pit-Prop Syndicate as apart from Madeleine he was now profoundly wearied, and he wished for nothing more than never again to hear its name mentioned.

But after a week of depression and self-pity his natural good sense reasserted itself, and he began seriously to consider his position. He honestly believed that Madeleine’s happiness could best be brought about by the fulfilment of his own, in other words by their marriage. He appreciated the motives which had caused her to refuse him, but he hoped that by his continued persuasion he might be able, as he put it to himself, to talk her round. Her very flight from him, for such he believed her absence to be, seemed to indicate that she herself was doubtful of her power to hold out against him, and to this extent he drew comfort from his immediate difficulty.

He concluded before trying any new plan to call once again at the clearing, in the hope that Mr. Coburn at least might have returned. The next afternoon, therefore, saw him driving out along the now familiar road. It was still hot, with the heavy enervating heat of air held stagnant by the trees. The freshness of early summer had gone, and there was a hint of approaching autumn in the darker greenery of the firs, and the overmaturity of such shrubs and wild flowers as could find along the edge of the road a precarious roothold on the patches of ground not covered by pine needles. Merriman gazed unceasingly ahead at the straight white ribbon of the road, as he pondered the problem of what he should do if once again he should be disappointed in his quest. Madeleine could not, he thought, remain indefinitely away. Mr. Coburn at all events would have to return to his work, and it would be a strange thing if he could not obtain from the father some indication of his daughter’s whereabouts.

But his call at the manager’s house was as fruitless on this occasion as on those preceding. The woman from whom he had received the note opened the door and repeated her former statement. Mr. and Miss Coburn were still from home.

Merriman turned away disconsolately, and walked slowly back across the clearing and down the lane. Though he told himself he had expected nothing from the visit, he was nevertheless bitterly disappointed with its result. And worse than his disappointment was his inability to see his next step, or even to think of any scheme which might lead him to the object of his hopes.

He trudged on down the lane, his head sunk and his brows knitted, only half conscious of his surroundings. Looking up listlessly as he rounded a bend, he stopped suddenly as if turned to stone, while his heart first stood still, then began thumping wildly as if to choke him. A few yards away and coming to meet him was Madeleine!

She caught sight of him at the same instant and stopped with a low cry, while an expression of dread came over her face. So for an appreciable time they stood looking at one another, then Merriman, regaining the power of motion, sprang forward and seized her hands.

“Madeleine! Madeleine!” he cried brokenly. “My own one! My beloved!” He almost sobbed as he attempted to strain her to his heart.

But she wrenched herself from him.

“No, no!” she gasped. “You must not! I told you. It cannot be.”

He pleaded with her, fiercely, passionately, and at last despairingly. But he could not move her. Always she repeated that it could not be.

“At least tell me this,” he begged at last. “Would you marry me if this syndicate did not exist; I mean if Mr. Coburn was not mixed up with it?”

At first she would not answer, but presently, overcome by his persistence, she burst once again into tears and admitted that her fear of disgrace arising through discovery of the syndicate’s activities was her only reason for refusal.

“Then,” said Merriman resolutely, “I will go back with you now and see Mr. Coburn, and we will talk over what is to be done.”

At this her eyes dilated with terror.

“No, no!” she cried again. “He would be in danger. He would try something that might offend the others, and his life might not be safe. I tell you I don’t trust Captain Beamish and Mr. Bulla. I don’t think they would stop at anything to keep their secret. He is trying to get out of it, and he must not be hurried. He will do what he can.”

“But, my dearest,” Merriman remonstrated, “it could do no harm, to talk the matter over with him. That would commit him to nothing.”

But she would not hear of it.

“If he thought my happiness depended on it,” she declared, “he would break with them at all costs. I could not risk it. You must go away. Oh, my dear, you must go. Go, go!” she entreated almost hysterically, “it will be best for us both.”

Merriman, though beside himself with suffering, felt he could no longer disregard her.

“I shall go,” he answered sadly, “since you require it, but I will never give you up. Not until one of us is dead or you marry someone else⁠—I will never give you up. Oh, Madeleine, have pity and give me some hope; something to keep me alive till this trouble is over.”

She was beginning to reply when she stopped suddenly and stood listening.

“The lorry!” she cried. “Go! Go!” Then pointing wildly in the direction of the road, she turned and fled rapidly back towards the clearing.

Merriman gazed after her until she passed round a corner of the lane and was lost to sight among the trees. Then, with a weight of hopeless despair on his heart, he began to walk towards the road. The lorry, driven by Henri, passed him at the next bend, and Henri, though he saluted with a show of respect, smiled sardonically as he noted the other’s woebegone appearance.

But Merriman neither knew nor cared what the driver thought. Almost physically sick with misery and disappointment, he regained his taxi and was driven back to Bordeaux.

The next few days seemed to him like a nightmare of hideous reality and permanence. He moved as a man in a dream, living under a shadow of almost tangible weight, as a criminal must do who has been sentenced to early execution. The longing to see Madeleine again, to hear the sound of her voice, to feel her presence, was so intense as to be almost unendurable. Again and again he said to himself that had she cared for another, had she even told him that she could not care for him, he would have taken his dismissal as irrevocable and gone to try and drag out the remainder of his life elsewhere as best he could. But he was maddened to think that the major difficulty⁠—the overwhelming, insuperable difficulty⁠—of his suit had been overcome. She loved him! Miraculous and incredible though it might seem⁠—though it was⁠—it was the amazing truth. And that being so, it was beyond bearing that a mere truckling to convention should be allowed to step in and snatch away the ecstasy of happiness that was within his grasp. And worse still, this truckling to convention was to save him! What, he asked himself, did it matter about him? Even if the worst happened and she suffered shame through her father, wasn’t all he wanted to be allowed to share it with her? And if narrow, stupid fools did talk, what matter? They could do without their companionship.

Fits of wild rage alternated with periods of cold and numbing despair, but as day succeeded day the desire to be near her grew until it could no longer be denied. He dared not again attempt to force himself into her presence, lest she should be angry and shatter irrevocably the hope to which he still clung with desperation. But he might without fear of disaster be nearer to her for a time. He hired a bicycle, and after dark had fallen that evening he rode out to the lane, and leaving his machine on the road, walked to the edge of the clearing. It was a perfect night, calm and silent, though with a slight touch of chill in the air. A crescent moon shone soft and silvery, lighting up pallidly the open space, gleaming on the white wood of the freshly cut stumps, and throwing black shadows from the ghostly looking buildings. It was close on midnight, and Merriman looked eagerly across the clearing to the manager’s house. He was not disappointed. There, in the window that he knew belonged to her room, shone a light.

He slowly approached, keeping on the fringe of the clearing and beneath the shadow of the trees. Some shrubs had taken root on the open ground, and behind a clump of these, not far from the door, he lay down, filled his pipe, and gave himself up to his dreams. The light still showed in the window, but even as he looked it went out, leaving the front of the house dark and, as it seemed to him, unfriendly and forbidding. “Perhaps she’ll look out before going to bed,” he thought, as he gazed disconsolately at the blank, unsympathetic opening. But he could see no movement therein.

He lost count of time as he lay dreaming of the girl whose existence had become more to him than his very life, and it was not until he suddenly realised that he had become stiff and cramped from the cold that he looked at his watch. Nearly two! Once more he glanced sorrowfully at the window, realizing that no comfort was to be obtained therefrom, and decided he might as well make his way back, for all the ease of mind he was getting.

He turned slowly to get up, but just as he did so he noticed a slight movement at the side of the house before him, and he remained motionless, gazing intently forward. Then, spellbound, he watched Mr. Coburn leave by the side door, walk quickly to the shed, unlock a door, and disappear within.

There was something so secretive in the way the manager looked around before venturing into the open, and so stealthy about his whole walk and bearing, that Merriman’s heart beat more quickly as he wondered if he was now on the threshold of some revelation of the mystery of that outwardly innocent place. Obeying a sudden instinct, he rose from his hiding-place in the bushes and crept silently across the sward to the door by which the other had entered.

It was locked, and the whole place was dark and silent. Were it not for what he had just seen, Merriman would have believed it deserted. But it was evident that some secret and perhaps sinister activity was in progress within, and for the moment he forgot even Madeleine in his anxiety to learn its nature.

He crept silently round the shed, trying each door and peering into each window, but without result. All remained fast and in darkness, and though he listened with the utmost intentness of which he was capable, he could not catch any sound.

His round of the building completed, he paused in doubt. Should he retire while there was time, and watch for Mr. Coburn’s reappearance with perhaps some of his accomplices, or should he wait at the door and tackle him on the matter when he came out? His first preference was for the latter course, but as he thought it over he felt it would be better to reserve his knowledge, and he turned to make for cover.

But even as he did so he heard the manager say in low harsh tones: “Hands up now, or I fire!” and swinging round, he found himself gazing into the bore of a small deadly-looking repeating pistol.

Automatically he raised his arms, and for a few moments both men stood motionless, staring perplexedly at one another. Then Mr. Coburn lowered the pistol and attempted a laugh, a laugh nervous, shaky, and without merriment. His lips smiled, but his eyes remained cold and venomous.

“Good heavens, Merriman, but you did give me a start,” he cried, making an evident effort to be jocular. “What in all the world are you doing here at this hour? Sorry for my greeting, but one has to be careful here. You know the district is notorious for brigands.”

Merriman was not usually very prompt to meet emergencies. He generally realised when it was too late what he ought to have said or done in any given circumstances. But on this occasion a flash of veritable inspiration revealed a way by which he might at one and the same time account for his presence, disarm the manager’s suspicions, and perhaps even gain his point with regard to Madeleine. He smiled back at the other.

“Sorry for startling you. Mr. Coburn. I have been looking for you for some days to discuss a very delicate matter, and I came out late this evening in the hope of attracting your attention after Miss Coburn had retired, so that our chat could be quite confidential. But in the darkness I fell and hurt my knee, and I spent so much time in waiting for it to get better that I was ashamed to go to the house. Imagine my delight when, just as I was turning to leave, I saw you coming down to the shed, and I followed with the object of trying to attract your attention.”

He hardly expected that Mr. Coburn would have accepted his statement, but whatever the manager believed privately, he gave no sign of suspicion.

“I’m glad your journey was not fruitless,” he answered courteously. “As a matter of fact, my neuralgia kept me from sleeping, and I found I had forgotten my bottle of aspirin down here, where I had brought it for the same purpose this morning. It seemed worth the trouble of coming for it, and I came.”

As he spoke Mr. Coburn took from his pocket and held up for Merriman’s inspection a tiny phial half full of white tablets.

It was now Merriman’s turn to be sceptical, but he murmured polite regrets in as convincing a way as he was able. “Let us go back into my office,” the manager continued. “If you want a private chat you can have it there.”

He unlocked the door, and passing in first, lit a reading lamp on his desk. Then relocking the door behind his visitor and unostentatiously slipping the key into his pocket, he sat down at the desk, waved Merriman to a chair, and producing a box of cigars, passed it across.

The windows, Merriman noticed, were covered by heavy blinds, and it was evident that no one could see into the room, nor could the light be observed from without. The door behind him was locked, and in Mr. Coburn’s pocket was the key as well as a revolver, while Merriman was unarmed. Moreover, Mr. Coburn was the larger and heavier, if not the stronger man of the two. It was true his words and manner were those of a friend, but the cold hatred in his eyes revealed his purpose. Merriman instantly realised he was in very real personal danger, and it was borne in on him that if he was to get out of that room alive, it was to his own wits he must trust.

But he was no coward, and he did not forget to limp as he crossed the room, nor did his hand shake as he stretched it out to take a cigar. When he came within the radius of the lamp he noticed with satisfaction that his coat was covered with fragments of moss and leaves, and he rather ostentatiously brushed these away, partly to prove to the other his calmness, and partly to draw attention to them in the hope that they would be accepted as evidence of his fall.

Fearing lest if they began a desultory conversation he might be tricked by his astute opponent into giving himself away, he left the latter no opportunity to make a remark, but plunged at once into his subject.

“I feel myself, Mr. Coburn,” he began, “not a little in your debt for granting me this interview. But the matter on which I wish to speak to you is so delicate and confidential, that I think you will agree that any precautions against eavesdroppers are justifiable.”

He spoke at first somewhat formally, but as interest in his subject quickened, he gradually became more conversational.

“The first thing I have to tell you,” he went on, “may not be very pleasant hearing to you, but it is a matter of almost life and death importance to me. I have come, Mr. Coburn, very deeply and sincerely to love your daughter.”

Mr. Coburn frowned slightly, but he did not seem surprised, nor did he reply except by a slight bow. Merriman continued:

“That in itself need not necessarily be of interest to you, but there is more to tell, and it is in this second point that the real importance of my statement lies, and on it hinges everything that I have to say to you. Madeleine, sir, has given me a definite assurance that my love for her is returned.”

Still Mr. Coburn made no answer, save then by another slight inclination of his head, but his eyes had grown anxious and troubled.

“Not unnaturally,” Merriman resumed, “I begged her to marry me, but she saw fit to decline. In view of the admission she had just made, I was somewhat surprised that her refusal was so vehement. I pressed her for the reason, but she utterly declined to give it. Then an idea struck me, and I asked her if it was because she feared that your connection with this syndicate might lead to unhappiness. At first she would not reply nor give me any satisfaction, but at last by persistent questioning, and only when she saw I knew a great deal more about the business than she did herself, she admitted that that was indeed the barrier. Not to put too fine a point on it⁠—it is better, is it not, sir, to be perfectly candid⁠—she is living in terror and dread of your arrest, and she won’t marry me for fear that if it were to happen she might bring disgrace on me.”

Mr. Coburn had not moved during this speech, except that his face had become paler and the look of cold menace in his eyes seemed charged with a still more vindictive hatred. Then he answered slowly:

“I can only assume, Mr. Merriman, that your mind has become temporarily unhinged, but even with such an excuse, you cannot really believe that I am going to wait here and listen to you making such statements.”

Merriman bent forward.

“Sir,” he said earnestly, “I give you my word of honour and earnestly ask you to believe that I am approaching you as a friend. I am myself an interested party. I have sought this interview for Madeleine’s sake. For her sake, and for her sake only, I have come to ask you to discuss with me the best way out of the difficulty.”

Mr. Coburn rose abruptly.

“The best way out of the difficulty,” he declared, no longer attempting to disguise the hatred he felt, “is for you to take yourself off and never to show your face here again. I am amazed at you.” He took his automatic pistol out of his pocket. “Don’t you know that you are completely in my power? If I chose I could shoot you like a dog and sink your body in the river, and no one would ever know what had become of you.”

Merriman’s heart was beating rapidly. He had the uncomfortable suspicion that he had only to turn his back to get a bullet into it. He assumed a confidence he was far from feeling.

“On the contrary, Mr. Coburn,” he said quietly, “it is you who are in our power. I’m afraid you don’t quite appreciate the situation. It is true you could shoot me now, but if you did, nothing could save you. It would be the rope for you and prison for your confederates, and what about your daughter then? I tell you, sir, I’m not such a fool as you take me for. Knowing what I do, do you think it likely I should put myself in your power unless I knew I was safe?”

His assurance was not without its effect. The other’s face grew paler and he sat heavily down in his chair.

“I’ll hear what you have to say,” he said harshly, though without letting go his weapon.

“Then let me begin at the beginning. You remember that first evening I was here, when you so kindly supplied me with petrol? Sir, you were correct when you told Captain Beamish and Mr. Bulla that I had noticed the changing of the lorry number plate. I had.”

Mr. Coburn started slightly, but he did not speak, and Merriman went on:

“I was interested, though the thing conveyed nothing to me. But some time later I mentioned it casually, and Hilliard, who has a mania for puzzles, overheard. He suggested my joining him on his trip, and calling to see if we could solve it. You, Mr. Coburn, said another thing to your friends⁠—that though I might have noticed about the lorry, you were certain neither Hilliard nor I had seen anything suspicious at the clearing. There, sir, you were wrong. Though at that time we could not tell what was going on, we knew it was something illegal.”

Coburn was impressed at last. He sat motionless, staring at the speaker. As Merriman remained silent, he moved.

“Go on,” he said hoarsely, licking his dry lips.

“I would ask you please to visualise the situation when we left. Hilliard believed he was on the track of a criminal organisation, carrying on illicit operations on a large scale. He believed that by lodging with the police the information he had gained, the breakup of the organisation and the capture of its members would be assured, and that he would stand to gain much kudos. But he did not know what the operations were, and he hesitated to come forward, lest by not waiting and investigating further he should destroy his chance of handing over to the authorities a complete case. He was therefore exceedingly keen that we should carry on inquiries at what I may call the English end of the business. Such was Hilliard’s attitude. I trust I make myself clear.”

Again Coburn nodded without speaking.

“My position was different. I had by that time come to care for Madeleine, and I saw the effect any disclosure must have on her. I therefore wished things kept secret, and I urged Hilliard to carry out his second idea and investigate further so as to make his case complete. He made my assistance a condition of agreement, and I therefore consented to help him.”

Mr. Coburn was now ghastly, and was listening with breathless earnestness to his visitor. Merriman realised what he had always suspected, that the man was weak and a bit of a coward, and he began to believe his bluff would carry him through.

“I need not trouble you,” he went on, “with all the details of our search. It is enough to say that we found out what we wanted. We went to Hull, discovered the wharf at Ferriby, made the acquaintance of Benson, and witnessed what went on there. We know all about Archer and how he plants your stuff, and Morton, who had us under observation and whom we properly tricked. I don’t claim any credit for it; all that belongs to Hilliard. And I admit we did not learn certain small details of your scheme. But the main points are clear⁠—clear enough to get convictions anyway.”

After a pause to let his words create their full effect, Merriman continued:

“Then arose the problem that had bothered us before. Hilliard was wild to go to the authorities with his story; on Madeleine’s account I still wanted it kept quiet. I needn’t recount our argument. Suffice it to say that at last we compromised. Hilliard agreed to wait for a month. For the sake of our friendship and the help I had given him, he undertook to give me a month to settle something about Madeleine. Mr. Coburn, nearly half that month is gone and I am not one step farther on.”

The manager wiped the drops of sweat from his pallid brow. Merriman’s quiet, confident manner, with its apparent absence of bluff or threat, had had its effect on him. He was evidently thoroughly frightened, and seemed to think it no longer worthwhile to plead ignorance. As Merriman had hoped and intended, he appeared to conclude that conciliation would be his best chance.

“Then no one but you two know so far?” he asked, a shifty, sly look passing over his face.

Merriman read his thoughts and bluffed again.

“Yes and no,” he answered. “No one but we two know at present. On the other hand, we have naturally taken all reasonable precautions. Hilliard prepared a full statement of the matter which we both signed, and this he sent to his banker with a request that unless he claimed it in person before the given date, the banker was to convey it to Scotland Yard. If anything happens to me here, Hilliard will go at once to the Yard, and if anything happens to him our document will be sent there. And in it we have suggested that if either of us disappear, it will be equivalent to adding murder to the other charges made.”

It was enough. Mr. Coburn sat, broken and completely cowed. To Merriman he seemed suddenly to have become an old man. For several minutes silence reigned, and then at last the other spoke.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, in a tremulous voice, hardly louder than a whisper.

Merriman’s heart leaped.

“To consider your daughter, Mr. Coburn,” he answered promptly. “All I want is to marry Madeleine, and for her sake I want you to get out of this thing before the crash comes.”

Mr. Coburn once more wiped the drops of sweat from his forehead.

“Good lord!” he cried hoarsely. “Ever since it started I have been trying to get out of it. I was forced into it against my will and I would give my soul if I could do as you say and get free. But I can’t⁠—I can’t.”

He buried his head in his hands and sat motionless, leaning on his desk.

“But your daughter, Mr. Coburn,” Merriman persisted. “For her sake something must be done.”

Mr. Coburn shook his clenched fists in the air.

“Damnation take you!” he cried, with a sudden access of rage, “do you think I care about myself? Do you think I’d sit here and listen to you talking as you’ve done if it wasn’t for her? I tell you I’d shoot you as you sit, if I didn’t know from my own observation that she is fond of you. I swear it’s the only thing that has saved you.” He rose to his feet and began pacing jerkily to and fro. “See here,” he continued wildly, “go away from here before I do it. I can’t stand any more of you at present. Go now and come back on Friday night at the same time, and I’ll tell you of my decision. Here’s the key,” he threw it down on the desk. “Get out quick before I do for you!”

Merriman was for a moment inclined to stand his ground, but, realizing that not only had he carried his point as far as he could have expected, but also that his companion was in so excited a condition as hardly to be accountable for his actions, he decided discretion was the better part, and merely saying: “Very well, Friday night,” he unlocked the door and took his leave.

On the whole he was well pleased with his interview. In the first place, he had by his readiness escaped an imminent personal danger. What was almost as important, he had broken the ice with Mr. Coburn about Madeleine, and the former had not only declared that he was aware of the state of his daughter’s feelings, but he had expressed no objection to the proposed match. Further, an understanding as to Mr. Coburn’s own position had been come to. He had practically admitted that the syndicate was a felonious conspiracy, and had stated that he would do almost anything to get out of it. Finally he had promised a decision on the whole question in three days’ time. Quite a triumph, Merriman thought.

On the other hand he had given the manager a warning of the danger which the latter might communicate to his fellow-conspirators, with the result that all of them might escape from the net in which Hilliard, at any rate, wished to enmesh them. And just to this extent he had become a copartner in their crime. And though it was true that he had escaped from his immediate peril, he had undoubtedly placed himself and Hilliard in very real danger. It was by no means impossible that the gang would decide to murder both of the men whose knowledge threatened them, in the hope of bluffing the bank manager out of the letter which they would believe he held. Merriman had invented this letter on the spur of the moment and he would have felt a good deal happier if he knew that it really existed. He decided that he would write to Hilliard immediately and get him to make it a reality.

A great deal, he thought, depended on the character of Coburn. If he was weak and cowardly he would try to save his own skin and let the others walk into the net. Particularly might he do this if he had suffered at their hands in the way he suggested. On the other hand, a strong man would undoubtedly consult his fellow-conspirators and see that a pretty determined fight was made for their liberty and their source of gain.

He had thought of all this when it suddenly flashed into his mind that Mr. Coburn’s presence in the shed at two in the morning in itself required a lot of explanation. He did not for a moment believe the aspirin story. The man had looked so shifty while he was speaking, that even at the time Merriman had decided he was lying. What then could he have been doing?

He puzzled over the questions but without result. Then it occurred to him that as he was doing nothing that evening he might as well ride out again to the clearing and see if any nocturnal activities were undertaken.

Midnight therefore found him once more ensconced behind a group of shrubs in full view of both the house and the shed. It was again a perfect night, and again he lay dreaming of the girl who was so near in body and in spirit, and yet so infinitely far beyond his reach.

Time passed slowly, but the hours wore gradually round until his watch showed two o’clock. Then, just as he was thinking that he need hardly wait much longer, he was considerably thrilled to see Mr. Coburn once more appear at the side door of the house, and in the same stealthy, secretive way as on the previous night, walk hurriedly to the shed and let himself in by the office door.

At first Merriman thought of following him again in the hope of learning the nature of these strange proceedings, but a moment’s thought showed him he must run no risk of discovery. If Coburn learned that he was being spied on he would at once doubt Merriman’s statement that he knew the syndicate’s secret. It would be better, therefore, to lie low and await events.

But the only other interesting event that happened was that some fifteen minutes later the manager left the shed, and with the same show of secrecy returned to his house, disappearing into the side door.

So intrigued was Merriman by the whole business that he determined to repeat his visit the following night also. He did so, and once again witnessed Mr. Coburn’s stealthy walk to the shed at two a.m., and his equally stealthy return at two-fifteen.

Rack his brains as he would over the problem of these nocturnal visits, Merriman could think of no explanation. What for three consecutive nights could bring the manager down to the sawmill? He could not imagine, but he was clear it was not the pit-prop industry.

If the Girondin had been in he would have once more suspected smuggling, but she was then at Ferriby. No, it certainly did not work in with smuggling. Still less did it suggest false note printing, unless⁠—Merriman’s heart beat more quickly as a new idea entered his mind. Suppose the notes were printed there, at the mill! Suppose there was a cellar under the engine house, and suppose the work was done at night? It was true they had not seen signs of a cellar, but if this surmise was correct it was not likely they would.

At first sight this theory seemed a real advance, but a little further thought showed it had serious objections. Firstly, it did not explain Coburn’s nightly visits. If the manager had spent some hours in the works it might have indicated the working of a press, but what in that way could be done in fifteen minutes? Further, and this seemed to put the idea quite out of court, if the notes were being produced at the clearing, why the changing of the lorry numbers? That would then be a part of the business quite unconnected with the illicit traffic. After much thought, Merriman had to admit to himself that here was one more of the series of insoluble puzzles with which they found themselves faced.

The next night was Friday, and in accordance with the arrangement made with Mr. Coburn, Merriman once again went out to the clearing, presenting himself at the works door at two in the morning. Mr. Coburn at once opened to his knock, and after locking the door, led the way to his office. There he wasted no time in preliminaries.

“I’ve thought this over, Merriman,” he said, and his manner was very different from that of the previous interview, “and I’m bound to say that I’ve realised that, though interested, your action towards me has been correct not to say generous. Now I’ve made up my mind what to do, and I trust you will see your way to fall in with my ideas. There is a meeting of the syndicate on Thursday week. I should have been present in any case, and I have decided that, whatever may be the result, I will tell them I am going to break with them. I will give ill-health as my reason for this step, and fortunately or unfortunately I can do this with truth, as my heart is seriously diseased. I can easily provide the necessary doctor’s certificates. If they accept my resignation, well and good⁠—I will emigrate to my brother in South America, and you and Madeleine can be married. If they decline, well”⁠—Mr. Coburn shrugged his shoulders⁠—“your embarrassment will be otherwise removed.”

He paused. Merriman would have spoken, but Mr. Coburn held up his hand for silence and went on:

“I confess I have been terribly upset for the last three days to discover my wisest course, and even now I am far from certain that my decision is best. I do not want to go back on my former friends, and on account of Madeleine I cannot go back on you. Therefore, I cannot warn the others of their danger, but on the other hand I won’t give your life into their hands. For if they knew what I know now, you and Hilliard would be dead men inside twenty-four hours.”

Mr. Coburn spoke simply and with a certain dignity, and Merriman found himself disposed not only to believe what he had heard, but even to understand and sympathise with the man in the embarrassing circumstances in which he found himself. That his difficulties were of his own making there could be but little doubt, but how far he had put himself in the power of his associates through deliberate evildoing, and how far through mistakes or weakness, there was of course no way of learning.

At the end of an hour’s discussion, Mr. Coburn had agreed at all costs to sever his connection with the syndicate, to emigrate to his brother in Chile, and to do his utmost to induce his daughter to remain in England to marry Merriman. On his side, Merriman undertook to hold back the lodging of information at Scotland Yard for one more week, to enable the other’s arrangements to be carried out.

There being nothing to keep him in Bordeaux, Merriman left for London that day, and the next evening he was closeted with Hilliard in the latter’s rooms, discussing the affair. Hilliard at first was most unwilling to postpone their visit to the Yard but he agreed on Merriman’s explaining that he had pledged himself to the delay.

So the days, for Merriman heavily weighted with anxiety and suspense, began slowly to drag by. His fate and the fate of the girl he loved hung in the balance, and not the least irksome feature of his position was his own utter impotence. There was nothing that he could do⁠—no action which would take him out of himself and ease the tension of his thoughts. As day succeeded day and the silence remained unbroken, he became more and more upset. At the end of a week he was almost beside himself with worry and chagrin, so much so that he gave up attending his office altogether, and was only restrained from rushing back to Bordeaux by the knowledge that to force himself once more on Madeleine might be to destroy, once and for ever, any hopes he might otherwise have had.

It was now four days since the Thursday on which Mr. Coburn had stated that the meeting of the syndicate was to have been held, and only three days to the date on which the friends had agreed to tell their story at Scotland Yard. What if he received no news during those three days? Would Hilliard agree to a further postponement? He feared not, and he was racked with anxiety as to whether he should cross that day to France and seek another interview with Mr. Coburn.

But, even as he sat with the morning paper in his hand, news was nearer than he imagined. Listlessly he turned over the sheets, glancing with but scant attention to the headlines, automatically running his eyes over the paragraphs. And when he came to one headed “Mystery of a Taxicab,” he absentmindedly began to read it also.

But he had not gone very far when his manner changed. Starting to his feet, he stared at the column with horror-stricken eyes, while his face grew pallid and his pipe dropped to the floor from his open mouth. With the newspaper still tightly grasped in his hand, he ran three steps at a time down the stairs of his flat, and calling a taxi, was driven to Scotland Yard.