A Commercial Proposition

Merriman was roused next morning by the feeling rather than the sound of stealthy movements going on not far away. He had not speedily slept after turning in. The novelty of his position, as well as the cramped and somewhat knobby bed made by the locker, and the smell of oils, had made him restless. But most of all the conversation he had had with Hilliard had banished sleep, and he had lain thinking over the adventure to which they had committed themselves, and listening to the little murmurings and gurglings of the water running past the piles and lapping on the woodwork beside his head. The launch kept slightly on the move, swinging a little backwards and forwards in the current as it alternately tightened and slackened its mooring ropes, and occasionally quivering gently as it touched the wharf. Three separate times Merriman had heard the hour chimed by the city clocks, and then at last a delightful drowsiness crept over him, and consciousness had gradually slipped away. But immediately this shuffling had begun, and with a feeling of injury he roused himself to learn the cause. Opening his eyes he found the cabin was full of light from the dancing reflections of sunlit waves on the ceiling, and that Hilliard, dressing on the opposite locker, was the author of the sounds which had disturbed him.

“Good!” cried the latter cheerily. “You’re awake? Quarter to five and a fine day.”

“Couldn’t be,” Merriman returned, stretching himself luxuriously. “I heard it strike two not ten seconds ago.”

Hilliard laughed.

“Well, it’s time we were under way anyhow,” he declared. “Tide’s running out this hour. We’ll get a fine lift down to the sea.”

Merriman got up and peeped out of the porthole above his locker.

“I suppose you tub over the side?” he inquired. “Lord, what sunlight!”

“Rather. But I vote we wait an hour or so until we’re clear of the town. I fancy the water will be more inviting lower down. We could stop and have a swim, and then we should be ready for breakfast.”

“Right-o. You get way on her, or whatever you do, and I shall have a shot at clearing up some of the mess you keep here.”

Hilliard left the cabin, and presently a racketing noise and vibration announced that the engines had been started. This presently subsided into a not unpleasing hum, after which a hail came from forward.

“Lend a hand to cast off, like a stout fellow.”

Merriman hurriedly completed his dressing and went on deck, stopping in spite of himself to look around before attending to the ropes. The sun was low down over the opposite bank, and transformed the whole river down to the railway bridge into a sheet of blinding light. Only the southern end of the great structure was visible stretching out of the radiance, as well as the houses on the western bank, but these showed out with incredible sharpness in high lights and dark shadows. From where they were lying they could not see the great curve of the quays, and the town in spite of the brilliancy of the atmosphere looked drab and unattractive.

“Going to be hot,” Hilliard remarked. “The bow first, if you don’t mind.”

He started the screw, and kept the launch alongside the wharf while Merriman cast off first the bow and then the stern ropes. Then, steering out towards the middle of the river, he swung round and they began to slip rapidly downstream with the current.

After passing beneath the huge mass of the railway bridge they got a better view of the city, its rather unimposing buildings clustering on the great curve of the river to the left, and with the fine stone bridge over which they had driven on the previous evening stretching across from bank to bank in front of them. Slipping through one of its seventeen arches, they passed the long lines of quays with their attendant shipping, until gradually the houses got thinner and they reached the country beyond.

About a dozen miles below the town Hilliard shut off the engines, and when the launch had come to rest on the swift current they had a glorious dip⁠—in turn. Then the odour of hot ham mingled in the cabin with those of paraffin and burned petrol, and they had an even more glorious breakfast. Finally the engines were restarted, and they pressed steadily down the ever-widening estuary.

About nine they got their first glimpse of the sea horizon, and, shortly after, a slight heave gave Merriman a foretaste of what he must soon expect. The sea was like a mill pond, but as they came out from behind the Pointe de Grave they began to feel the effect of the long, slow ocean swell. As soon as he dared Hilliard turned southwards along the coast. This brought the swells abeam, but so large were they in relation to the launch that she hardly rolled, but was raised and lowered bodily on an almost even keel. Though Merriman was not actually ill, he was acutely unhappy and experienced a thrill of thanksgiving when, about five o’clock, they swung round east and entered the estuary of the Lesque.

“Must go slowly here,” Hilliard explained, as the banks began to draw together. “There’s no sailing chart of this river, and we shall have to feel our way up.”

For some two miles they passed through a belt of sand dunes, great yellow hillocks shaded with dark green where grasses had seized a precarious foothold. Behind these the country grew flatter, and small, blighted-looking shrubs began to appear, all leaning eastwards in witness of the devastating winds which blew in from the sea. Farther on these gave place to stunted trees, and by the time they had gone ten or twelve miles they were in the pine forest. Presently they passed under a girder bridge, carrying the railway from Bordeaux to Bayonne and the south.

“We can’t be far from the mill now,” said Hilliard a little later. “I reckoned it must be about three miles above the railway.”

They were creeping up very slowly against the current. The engines, running easily, were making only a subdued murmur inaudible at any considerable distance. The stream here was narrow, not more than about a hundred yards across, and the tall, straight-stemmed pines grew down to the water’s edge on either side. Already, though it was only seven o’clock, it was growing dusk in the narrow channel, and Hilliard was beginning to consider the question of moorings for the night.

“We’ll go round that next bend,” he decided, “and look for a place to anchor.”

Some five minutes later they steered close in against a rapidly shelving bit of bank, and silently lowered the anchor some twenty feet from the margin.

“Jove! I’m glad to have that anchor down,” Hilliard remarked, stretching himself. “Here’s eight o’clock, and we’ve been at it since five this morning. Let’s have supper and a pipe, and then we’ll discuss our plans.”

“And what are your plans?” Merriman asked, when an hour later they were lying on their lockers, Hilliard with his pipe and Merriman with a cigar.

“Tomorrow I thought of going up in the collapsible boat until I came to the works, then landing on the other bank and watching what goes on at the mill. I thought of taking my glass and keeping cover myself. After what you said last night you probably won’t care to come, and I was going to suggest that if you cared to fish you would find everything you wanted in that forward locker. In the evening we could meet here and I would tell you if I saw anything interesting.”

Merriman took his cigar from his lips and sat up on the locker.

“Look here, old man,” he said, “I’m sorry I was a bit ratty last night. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve been thinking of what you said, and I agree that your view is the right one. I’ve decided that if you’ll have me, I’m in this thing until we’re both satisfied there’s nothing going to hurt either Miss Coburn or our own country.”

Hilliard sprang to his feet and held out his hand.

“Cheers!” he cried. “I’m jolly glad you feel that way. That’s all I want to do too. But I can’t pretend my motives are altogether disinterested. Just think of the kudos for us both if there should be something.”

“I shouldn’t build too much on it.”

“I’m not, but there is always the possibility.”

Next morning the two friends got out the collapsible boat, locked up the launch, and paddling gently up the river until the galvanized gable of the Coburns’ house came in sight through the trees, went ashore on the opposite bank. The boat they took to pieces and hid under a fallen trunk, then, screened by the trees, they continued their way on foot.

It was still not much after seven, another exquisitely clear morning giving promise of more heat. The wood was silent though there was a faint stir of life all around them, the hum of invisible insects, the distant singing of birds as well as the murmur of the flowing water. Their footsteps fell soft on the carpet of scant grass and decaying pine needles. There seemed a hush over everything, as if they were wandering amid the pillars of some vast cathedral with, instead of incense, the aromatic smell of the pines in their nostrils. They walked on, repressing the desire to step on tiptoe, until through the trees they could see across the river the galvanized iron of the shed.

A little bit higher upstream the clearing of the trees had allowed some stunted shrubs to cluster on the river bank. These appearing to offer good cover, the two men crawled forward and took up a position in their shelter.

The bank they were on was at that point slightly higher than on the opposite side, giving them an excellent view of the wharf and mill as well as of the clearing generally. The ground, as has already been stated, was in the shape of a D, the river bounding the straight side. About halfway up this straight side was the mill, and about halfway between it and the top were the shrubs behind which the watchers were seated. At the opposite side of the mill from the shrubs, at the bottom of the D pillar, the Coburns’ house stood on a little knoll.

“Jolly good observation post, this,” Hilliard remarked as he stretched himself at ease and laid his glass on the ground beside him. “They’ll not do much that we shall miss from here.”

“There doesn’t seem to be much to miss at present,” Merriman answered, looking idly over the deserted space.

About a quarter to eight a man appeared where the lane from the road debouched into the clearing. He walked towards the shed, to disappear presently behind it. Almost immediately blue smoke began issuing from the metal chimney in the shed roof. It was evident he had come before the others to get up steam.

In about half an hour those others arrived, about fifteen men in all, a rough-looking lot in labourers’ kit. They also vanished behind the shed, but most of them reappeared almost immediately, laden with tools, and, separating into groups, moved off to the edge of the clearing. Soon work was in full swing. Trees were being cut down by one gang, the branches lopped off fallen trunks by another, while a third was loading up and running the stripped stems along a Decauville railway to the shed. Almost incessantly the thin screech of the saws rose penetratingly above the sounds of hacking and chopping and the calls of men.

A map showing the location of the observation point. It lies on the opposite side of the River Lesque and just upstream from the sawmill, which itself is across the clearing from the manager’s house.

“There doesn’t seem to be much wrong here,” Merriman said when they had surveyed the scene for nearly an hour.

“No,” Hilliard agreed, “and there didn’t seem to be much wrong when I inspected the place on Sunday. But there can’t be anything obviously wrong. If there is anything, in the nature of things it won’t be easy to find.”

About nine o’clock Mr. Coburn, dressed in grey flannel, emerged from his house and crossed the grass to the mill. He remained there for a few minutes, then they saw him walking to the workers at the forest edge. He spent some moments with each gang, afterwards returning to his house. For nearly an hour things went on as before, and then Mr. Coburn reappeared at his hall door, this time accompanied by his daughter. Both were dressed extraordinarily well for such a backwater of civilisation, he with a grey Homburg hat and gloves, she as before in brown, but in a well-cut coat and skirt and a smart toque and motoring veil. Both were carrying dust coats. Mr. Coburn drew the door to, and they walked towards the mill and were lost to sight behind it. Some minutes passed, and between the screaming of the saws the sound of a motor engine became audible. After a further delay a Ford car came out from behind the shed and moved slowly over the uneven sward towards the lane. In the car were Mr. and Miss Coburn and a chauffeur.

Hilliard had been following every motion through his glass, and he now thrust the instrument into his companion’s hand, crying softly:

“Look, Merriman. Is that the lorry driver you saw?” Merriman focused the glass on the chauffeur and recognised him instantly. It was the same dark, aquiline-featured man who had stared at him so resentfully on the occasion of his first visit to the mill, some two months earlier.

“By Jove, what an extraordinary stroke of luck!” Hilliard went on eagerly. “All three of them that know you out of the way! We can go down to the place now and ask for Mr. Coburn, and maybe we shall have a chance to see inside that shed. Let’s go at once, before they come back.”

They crawled away from their point of vantage into the wood, and retracing their steps to the boat, put it together and carried it to the river. Then rowing upstream, they reached the end of the wharf, where a flight of wooden steps came down into the stream. Here they went ashore, after making the painter fast to the woodwork.

The front of the wharf, they had seen from the boat, was roughly though strongly made. At the actual edge, there was a row of almost vertical piles, pine trees driven unsquared. Behind these was a second row, inclined inwards. The feet of both rows seemed to be pretty much in the same line, but the tops of the raking row were about six feet behind the others, the arrangement, seen from the side, being like a V of which one leg is vertical. These tops were connected by beams, supporting a timber floor. Behind the raking piles rough tree stems had been laid on the top of each other horizontally to hold back the earth filled behind them. The front was about a hundred feet long, and was set some thirty feet out in the river.

Parallel to the front and about fifty feet behind it was the wall of the shed. It was pierced by four doors, all of which were closed, but out of each of which ran a line of narrow gauge railway. These lines were continued to the front of the wharf and there connected up by turntables to a cross line, evidently with the idea that a continuous service of loaded trucks could be sent out of one door, discharged, and returned as empties through another. Stacks of pit-props stood ready for loading between the lines.

“Seems a sound arrangement,” Hilliard commented as they made their inspection.

“Quite. Anything I noticed before struck me as being efficient.”

When they had seen all that the wharf appeared to offer, they walked round the end of the shed. At the back were a number of doors, and through these also narrow gauge lines were laid which connected with those radiating to the edge of the clearing. Everywhere between the lines were stacks of pit-props as well as blocks and cuttings. Three or four of the doors were open, and in front of one of them, talking to someone in the building, stood a man.

Presently he turned and saw them. Immediately they advanced and Hilliard accosted him.

“Good morning. We are looking for Mr. Coburn. Is he about?”

“No, monsieur,” the man answered civilly, “he has gone into Bordeaux. He won’t be back until the afternoon.”

“That’s unfortunate for us,” Hilliard returned conversationally. “My friend and I were passing up the river on our launch, and we had hoped to have seen him. However, we shall get hold of him later. This is a fine works you have got here.”

The man smiled. He seemed a superior type to the others and was evidently a foreman.

“Not so bad, monsieur. We have four saws, but only two are running today.” He pointed to the door behind him as he spoke, and the two friends passed in as if to have an idle look round.

The interior was fitted up like that of any other sawmill, but the same element of design and efficiency seemed apparent here as elsewhere. The foreman explained the process. The lopped trunks from the wood came in by one of two roads through a large door in the center of the building. Outside each road was a saw, its axle running parallel to the roads. The logs were caught in grabs, slung on to the table of the saws and, moving automatically all the time, were cut into lengths of from seven to ten feet. The pieces passed for props were dumped on to a conveyor which ran them out of the shed to be stacked for seasoning and export. The rejected pieces by means of another conveyor moved to the third and fourth saws, where they were cut into blocks for firewood, being finally delivered into two large bins ready for loading on to the lorries.

The friends exhibited sufficient nontechnical interest to manage to spend a good deal of time over their survey, drawing out the foreman in conversation and seeing as much as they could. At one end of the shed was the boiler house and engine room, at the other the office, with between it and the mill proper a spacious garage in which, so they were told, the six lorries belonging to the syndicate were housed. Three machines were there, two lying up empty, the third, with engine running and loaded with blocks, being ready to start. They would have liked to examine the number plate, but in the presence of the foreman it was hardly possible. Finally they walked across the clearing to where felling and lopping was in progress, and inspected the operations. When they left shortly after with a promise to return to meet Mr. Coburn, there was not much about the place they had missed.

“That business is just as right as rain,” Merriman declared when they were once more in the boat. “And that foreman’s all right too. I’d stake my life he wasn’t hiding anything. He’s not clever enough for one thing.”

“So I think too,” Hilliard admitted. “And yet, what about the game with the number plates? What’s the idea of that?”

“I don’t know. But all the same I’ll take my oath there’s nothing wrong about the timber trade. It’s no go, Hilliard. Let’s drop chasing wild geese and get along with our trip.”

“I feel very like it,” the other replied as he sucked moodily at his pipe. “We’ll watch for another day or so, and if we see nothing suspicious we can clear out.”

But that very evening an incident occurred which, though trifling, revived all their suspicions and threw them at once again into a sea of doubt.

Believing that the Coburns would by that time have returned, they left the launch about five o’clock to call. Reaching the edge of the clearing almost directly behind the house, they passed round the latter and rang.

The door was opened by Miss Coburn herself. It happened that the sun was shining directly in her eyes, and she could not therefore see her visitors’ features.

“You are the gentlemen who wished to see Mr. Coburn, I presume?” she said before Merriman could speak. “He is at the works. You will find him in his office.”

Merriman stepped forward, his cap off.

“Don’t you remember me, Miss Coburn?” he said earnestly. “I had the pleasure of meeting you in May, when you were so kind as to give me petrol to get me to Bordeaux.”

Miss Coburn looked at him more carefully, and her manner, which had up to then been polite, but coolly self-contained, suddenly changed. Her face grew dead white and she put her hand sharply to her side, as though to check the rapid beating of her heart. For a moment she seemed unable to speak, then, recovering herself with a visible effort, she answered in a voice that trembled in spite of herself:

Mr. Merriman, isn’t it? Of course I remember. Won’t you come in? My father will be back directly.”

She was rapidly regaining self-control, and by the time Merriman had presented Hilliard her manner had become almost normal. She led the way to a comfortably furnished sitting-room looking out over the river.

“Hilliard and I are on a motor launch tour across France,” Merriman went on. “He worked from England down the coast to Bordeaux, where I joined him, and we hope eventually to cross the country to the Mediterranean and do the Riviera from the sea.”

“How perfectly delightful,” Miss Coburn replied. “I envy you.”

“Yes, it’s very jolly doing these rivers and canals,” Hilliard interposed. “I have spent two or three holidays that way now, and it has always been worthwhile.”

As they chatted on in the pleasant room the girl seemed completely to have recovered her composure, and yet Merriman could not but realise a constraint in her manner, and a look of anxiety in her clear brown eyes. That something was disturbing her there could be no doubt, and that something appeared to be not unconnected with himself. But, he reasoned, there was nothing connected with himself that could cause her anxiety, unless it really was that matter of the number plates. He became conscious of an almost overwhelming desire to share her trouble whatever it might be, to let her understand that so far from willingly causing a shadow to fall across her path there were few things he would not do to give her pleasure; indeed, he began to long to take her in his arms, to comfort her.⁠ ⁠…

Presently a step in the hall announced Mr. Coburn’s return. “In here, daddy,” his daughter called, and the steps approached the door.

Whether by accident or design it happened that Miss Coburn was seated directly opposite the door, while her two visitors were placed where they were screened by the door itself from the view of anyone entering. Hilliard, his eyes on the girl’s face as her father came in, intercepted a glance of what seemed to be warning. His gaze swung round to the newcomer, and here again he noticed a start of surprise and anxiety as Mr. Coburn recognised his visitor. But in this case it was so quickly over that had he not been watching intently he would have missed it. However, slight though it was, it undoubtedly seemed to confirm the other indications which pointed to the existence of some secret in the life of these two, a secret shared apparently by the good-looking driver and connected in some way with the lorry number plates.

Mr. Coburn was very polite, suave and polished as an accomplished man of the world. But his manner was not really friendly; in fact, Hilliard seemed to sense a veiled hostility. A few deft questions put him in possession of the travelers’ ostensible plans, which he discussed with some interest.

“But,” he said to Hilliard, “I am afraid you are in error in coming up this River Lesque. The canal you want to get from here is the Midi, it enters the Mediterranean not far from Narbonne. But the connection from this side is from the Garonne. You should have gone upstream to Langon, nearly forty miles above Bordeaux.”

“We had hoped to go from still farther south,” Hilliard answered. “We have penetrated a good many of the rivers, or rather I have, and we came up here to see the sand-dunes and forests of the Landes, which are new to me. A very desolate country, is it not?”

Mr. Coburn agreed, continuing courteously:

“I am glad at all events that your researches have brought you into our neighbourhood. We do not come across many visitors here, and it is pleasant occasionally to speak one’s own language to someone outside one’s household. If you will put up with potluck I am sure we should both be glad”⁠—he looked at his daughter⁠—“if you would wait and take some dinner with us now. Tomorrow you could explore the woods, which are really worth seeing though monotonous, and if you are at all interested I should like to show you our little works. But I warn you the affair is my hobby, as well as my business for the time being, and I am apt to assume others have as great an interest in it as myself. You must not let me bore you.”

Hilliard, suspicious and critically observant, wondered if he had not interrupted a second rapid look between father and daughter. He could not be sure, but at all events the girl hastened to second her father’s invitation.

“I hope you will wait for dinner,” she said. “As he says, we see so few people, and particularly so few English, that it would be doing us a kindness. I’m afraid that’s not very complimentary”⁠—she laughed brightly⁠—“but it’s at least true.”

They stayed and enjoyed themselves. Mr. Coburn proved himself an entertaining host, and his conversation, though satirical, was worth listening to. He and Hilliard talked, while Merriman, who was something of a musician, tried over songs with Miss Coburn. Had it not been for an uneasy feeling that they were to some extent playing the part of spies, the evening would have been a delight to the visitors.

Before they left for the launch it was arranged that they should stay over the following day, lunch with the Coburns, and go for a tramp through the forest in the afternoon. They took their leave with cordial expressions of good will.

“I say, Merriman,” Hilliard said eagerly as they strolled back through the wood, “did you notice how your sudden appearance upset them both? There can be no further doubt about it, there’s something. What it may be I don’t know, but there is something.”

“There’s nothing wrong at all events,” Merriman asserted doggedly.

“Not wrong in the sense you mean, no,” Hilliard agreed quickly, “but wrong for all that. Now that I have met Miss Coburn I can see that your estimate of her was correct. But anyone with half an eye could see also that she is frightened and upset about something. There’s something wrong, and she wants a helping hand.”

“Damn you, Hilliard, how you talk,” Merriman growled with a sudden wave of unreasoning rage. “There’s nothing wrong and no need for our meddling. Let us clear out and go on with our trip.”

Hilliard smiled under cover of darkness.

“And miss our lunch and excursion with the Coburns tomorrow?” he asked maliciously.

“You know well enough what I mean,” Merriman answered irritably. “Let’s drop this childish tomfoolery about plots and mysteries and try to get reasonably sane again. Here,” he went on fiercely as the other demurred, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do if you like. I’ll have no more suspicions or spying, but I’ll ask her if there is anything wrong: say I thought there was from her manner and ask her the direct question. Will that please you?”

“And get well snubbed for your pains?” Hilliard returned. “You’ve tried that once already. Why did you not persist in your inquiries about the number plate when she told you about the driver’s shell-shock?”

Merriman was silent for a few moments, then burst out:

“Well, hang it all, man, what do you suggest?”

During the evening an idea had occurred to Hilliard and he returned to it now.

“I’ll tell you,” he answered slowly, and instinctively he lowered his voice. “I’ll tell you what we must do. We must see their steamer loaded. I’ve been thinking it over. We must see what, if anything, goes on board that boat beside pit-props.”

Merriman only grunted in reply, but Hilliard, realizing his condition, was satisfied.

And Merriman, lying awake that night on the port locker of the Swallow, began himself to realise his condition, and to understand that his whole future life and happiness lay between the dainty hands of Madeleine Coburn.