The Visit of the Girondin

Next morning found both the friends moody and engrossed with their own thoughts.

Merriman was lost in contemplation of the new factor which had come into his life. It was not the first time he had fancied himself in love. Like most men of his age he had had affairs of varying seriousness, which in due time had run their course and died a natural death. But this, he felt, was different. At last he believed he had met the one woman, and the idea thrilled him with awe and exultation, and filled his mind to the exclusion of all else.

Hilliard’s preoccupation was different. He was considering in detail his idea that if a close enough watch could be kept on the loading of the syndicate’s ship it would at least settle the smuggling question. He did not think that any article could be shipped in sufficient bulk to make the trade pay, unnoticed by a skilfully concealed observer. Even if the commodity were a liquid⁠—brandy, for example⁠—sent aboard through a flexible pipe, the thing would be seen.

But two unexpected difficulties had arisen since last night. Firstly, they had made friends with the Coburns. Excursions with them were in contemplation, and one had actually been arranged for that very day. While in the neighbourhood they had been asked virtually to make the manager’s house their headquarters, and it was evidently expected that the two parties should see a good deal of each other. Under these circumstances how were the friends to get away to watch the loading of the boat?

And then it occurred to Hilliard that here, perhaps, was evidence of design; that this very difficulty had been deliberately caused by Mr. Coburn with the object of keeping himself and Merriman under observation and rendering them harmless. This, he recognised, was guesswork, but still it might be the truth.

He racked his brains to find some way of meeting the difficulty, and at last, after considering many plans, he thought he saw his way. They would as soon as possible take leave of their hosts and return to Bordeaux, ostensibly to resume their trip east. From there they would come out to the clearing by road, and from the observation post they had already used keep a close eye on the arrival of the ship and subsequent developments. At night they might be even able to hide on the wharf itself. In any case they could hardly fail to see if anything other than pit-props was loaded.

So far, so good, but there was a second and more formidable difficulty. Would Merriman consent to this plan and agree to help? Hilliard was doubtful. That his friend had so obviously fallen in love with this Madeleine Coburn was an unexpected and unfortunate complication. He could, of course, play on the string that the girl was in danger and wanted help, but he had already used that with disappointing results. However, he could see nothing for it but to do his best to talk Merriman round.

Accordingly, when they were smoking their after-breakfast pipes, he broached the subject. But as he had feared, his friend would have none of it.

“I tell you I won’t do anything of the kind,” he said angrily. “Here we come, two strangers, poking our noses into what does not concern us, and we are met with kindness and hospitality and invited to join a family party. Good Lord, Hilliard, I can’t believe that it is really you that suggests it! You surely don’t mean that you believe that the Coburns are smuggling brandy?”

“Of course not, you old fire-eater,” Hilliard answered good-humoredly, “but I do believe, and so must you, that there is something queer going on. We want to be sure there is nothing sinister behind it. Surely, old man, you will help me in that?”

“If I thought there was anything wrong you know I’d help you,” Merriman returned, somewhat mollified by the other’s attitude. “But I don’t. It is quite absurd to suggest the Coburns are engaged in anything illegal, and if you grant that your whole case falls to the ground.”

Hilliard saw that for the moment at all events he could get no more. He therefore dropped the subject and they conversed on other topics until it was time to go ashore.

Lunch with their new acquaintances passed pleasantly, and after it the two friends went with Mr. Coburn to see over the works. Hilliard thought it better to explain that they had seen something of them on the previous day, but notwithstanding this assurance Mr. Coburn insisted on their going over the whole place again. He showed them everything in detail, and when the inspection was complete both men felt more than ever convinced that the business was genuine, and that nothing was being carried on other than the ostensible trade. Mr. Coburn, also, gave them his views on the enterprise, and these seemed so eminently reasonable and natural that Hilliard’s suspicions once more became dulled, and he began to wonder if their host’s peculiar manner could not have been due to some cause other than that he had imagined.

“There is not so much money in the pit-props as I had hoped,” Mr. Coburn explained. “When we started here the Baltic trade, which was, of course, the big trade before the war, had not revived. Now we find the Baltic competition growing keener, and our margin of profit is dwindling. We are handicapped also by having only a one-way traffic. Most of the Baltic firms exporting pit-props have an import trade in coal as well. This gives them double freights and pulls down their overhead costs. But it wouldn’t pay us to follow their example. If we ran coal it could only be to Bordeaux, and that would take up more of our boat’s time than it would be worth.”

Hilliard nodded and Mr. Coburn went on:

“On the other hand, we are doing better in what I may call ‘sideshows.’ We’re getting quite a good price for our firewood, and selling more and more of it. Three large firms in Bordeaux have put in wood-burning fireboxes and nothing else, and two others are thinking of following suit. Then I am considering two developments; in fact, I have decided on the first. We are going to put in an air compressor in our engine-room, and use pneumatic tools in the forest for felling and lopping. I estimate that will save us six men. Then I think there would be a market for pine paving blocks for streets. I haven’t gone into this yet, but I’m doing so.”

“That sounds very promising,” Hilliard answered. “I don’t know much about it, but I believe soft wood blocks are considered better than hard.”

“They wear more evenly, I understand. I’m trying to persuade the Paris authorities to try a piece of it, and if that does well it might develop into a big thing. Indeed, I can imagine our giving up the pit-props altogether in the future.”

After a time Miss Coburn joined them, and, the Ford car being brought out, the party set off on their excursion. They visited a part of the wood where the trees were larger than near the sawmill, and had a pleasant though uneventful afternoon. The evening they spent as before at the Coburns’ house.

Next day the friends invited their hosts to join them in a trip up the river. Hilliard tactfully interested the manager in the various “gadgets” he had fitted up in the launch, and Merriman’s dream of making tea with Miss Coburn materialised. The more he saw of the gentle, brown-eyed girl, the more he found his heart going out to her, and the more it was borne in on him that life without her was becoming a prospect more terrible than he could bring himself to contemplate.

They went upstream on the flood tide for some twenty miles, until the forest thinned away and they came on vineyards. There they went ashore, and it was not until the shades of evening were beginning to fall that they arrived back at the clearing.

As they swung round the bend in sight of the wharf Mr. Coburn made an exclamation.

“Hallo!” he cried. “There’s the Girondin. She has made a good run. We weren’t expecting her for another three or four hours.”

At the wharf lay a vessel of about 300 tons burden, with bluff, rounded bows sitting high up out of the water, a long, straight waist, and a bridge and cluster of deckhouses at the stern.

“Our motor ship,” Mr. Coburn explained with evident pride. “We had her specially designed for carrying the pit-props, and also for this river. She only draws eight feet. You must come on board and have a look over her.”

This was of all things what Hilliard most desired. He recognised that if he was allowed to inspect her really thoroughly, it would finally dispel any lingering suspicion he might still harbour that the syndicate was engaged in smuggling operations. The two points on which that suspicion had been founded⁠—the absence of return cargoes and the locality of the French end of the enterprise⁠—were not, he now saw, really suspicious at all. Mr. Coburn’s remark met the first of these points, and showed that he was perfectly alive to the handicap of a oneway traffic. The matter had not been material when the industry was started, but now, owing to the recovery of the Baltic trade after the war, it was becoming important, and the manager evidently realised that it might easily grow sufficiently to kill the pit-prop trade altogether. And the locality question was even simpler. The syndicate had chosen the pine forests of the Landes for their operations because they wanted timber close to the sea. On the top of these considerations came the lack of secrecy about the ship. It could only mean that there really was nothing aboard to conceal.

On reaching the wharf all four crossed the gangway to the deck of the Girondin. At close quarters she seemed quite a big boat. In the bows was a small forecastle, containing quarters for the crew of five men as well as the oil tanks and certain stores. Then amidships was a long expanse of holds, while aft were the officers’ cabins and tiny mess-room, galley, navigating bridge, and last, but not least, the engine-room with its set of diesel engines. She seemed throughout a well-appointed boat, no money having apparently been spared to make her efficient and comfortable.

“She carries between six and seven thousand props every trip,” Mr. Coburn told them, “that is, without any deck cargo. I dare say in summer we could put ten thousand on her if we tried, but she is rather shallow in the draught for it, and we don’t care to run any risks. Hallo, captain! Back again?” he broke off, as a man in a blue pilot cloth coat and a peaked cap emerged from below.

The newcomer was powerfully built and would have been tall, but for rather rounded shoulders and a stoop. He was clean shaven, with a heavy jaw and thin lips which were compressed into a narrow line. His expression was vindictive as well as somewhat crafty, and he looked a man who would not be turned from his purpose by nice points of morality or conscience.

Though Hilliard instinctively noted these details, they did not particularly excite his interest. But his interest was nevertheless keenly aroused. For he saw the man, as his gaze fell on himself and Merriman, give a sudden start, and then flash a quick, questioning glance at Mr. Coburn. The action was momentary, but it was enough to bring back with a rush all Hilliard’s suspicions. Surely, he thought, there must be something if the sight of a stranger upsets all these people in this way.

But he had not time to ponder the problem. The captain instantly recovered himself, pulled off his cap to Miss Coburn and shook hands all round, Mr. Coburn introducing the visitors.

“Good trip, captain?” the manager went on. “You’re ahead of schedule.”

“Not so bad,” the newcomer admitted in a voice and manner singularly cultivated for a man in his position. “We had a good wind behind us most of the way.”

They chatted for a few moments, then started on their tour of inspection. Though Hilliard was once again keenly on the alert, the examination, so far as he could see, left nothing to be desired. They visited every part of the vessel, from the forecastle storerooms to the tunnel of the screw shaft, and from the chart-house to the bottom of the hold, and every question either of the friends asked was replied to fully and without hesitation.

That evening, like the preceding, they passed with the Coburns. The captain and the engineer⁠—a short, thickset man named Bulla⁠—strolled up with them and remained for dinner, but left shortly afterwards on the plea of matters to attend to on board. The friends stayed on, playing bridge, and it was late when they said good night and set out to walk back to the launch.

During the intervals of play Hilliard’s mind had been busy with the mystery which he believed existed in connection with the syndicate, and he had decided that to try to satisfy his curiosity he would go down to the wharf that night and see if any interesting operations went on under cover of darkness. The idea of a midnight loading of contraband no longer appealed to his imagination, but vaguely he wished to make sure that no secret activities were in progress.

He was at least certain that none had taken place up to the present⁠—that Mr. Coburn was personally concerned in, at all events. From the moment they had first sighted the ship until they had left the manager’s house at the conclusion of the game of bridge, not five minutes ago, he had been in Mr. Coburn’s company. Next day it was understood they were to meet again, so that if the manager wished to carry out any secret operations they could only be done during the night.

Accordingly when they reached the launch he turned to Merriman.

“You go ahead, old man. I’m going to have a look round before turning in. Don’t wait up for me. Put out the light when you’ve done with it and leave the companion unlatched so that I can follow you in.”

Merriman grunted disapprovingly, but offered no further objection. He clambered on board the launch and disappeared below, while Hilliard, remaining in the collapsible boat, began to row silently upstream towards the wharf.

The night was dark and still, but warm. The moon had not risen, and the sky was overcast, blotting out even the small light of the stars. There was a faint whisper of air currents among the trees, and the subdued murmur of the moving mass of water was punctuated by tiny splashes and gurgles as little eddies formed round the stem of the boat or wavelets broke against the banks. Hilliard’s eyes had by this time become accustomed to the gloom, and he could dimly distinguish the serrated line of the trees against the sky on either side of him, and later, the banks of the clearing, with the faint, ghostly radiance from the surface of the water.

He pulled on with swift, silent strokes, and presently the dark mass of the Girondin loomed in sight. The ship, longer than the wharf, projected for several feet above and below it. Hilliard turned his boat inshore with the object of passing between the hull and the bank and so reaching the landing steps. But as he rounded the vessel’s stern he saw that her starboard side was lighted up, and he ceased rowing, sitting motionless and silently holding water, till the boat began to drift back into the obscurity downstream. The wharf was above the level of his head, and he could only see, appearing over its edge, the tops of the piles of pit-props. These, as well as the end of the ship’s navigating bridge and the gangway, were illuminated by, he imagined, a lamp on the side of one of the deckhouses. But everything was very still, and the place seemed deserted.

Hilliard’s intention had been to land on the wharf and, crouching behind the props, await events. But now he doubted if he could reach his hiding place without coming within the radius of the lamp and so exposing himself to the view of anyone who might be on the watch on board. He recollected that the port or river side of the ship was in darkness, and he thought it might therefore be better if he could get directly aboard there from the boat.

Having removed his shoes he rowed gently round the stern and examined the side for a possible way up. The ship being light forward was heavily down in the stern, and he found the lower deck was not more than six or seven feet above water level. It occurred to him that if he could get hold of the mooring rope pawls he might be able to climb aboard. But this after a number of trials he found impossible, as in the absence of someone at the oars to steady the boat, the latter always drifted away from the hull before he could grasp what he wanted.

He decided he must risk passing through the lighted area, and, having for the third time rowed round the stern, he brought the boat up as close to the hull as possible until he reached the wharf. Then passing in between the two rows of piles and feeling his way in the dark, he made the painter fast to a diagonal, so that the boat would lie hidden should anyone examine the steps with a light. The hull lay touching the vertical piles, and Hilliard, edging along a waling to the front of the wharf, felt with his foot through the darkness for the stern belting. The tide was low and he found this was not more than a foot above the timber on which he stood. He could now see the deck light, an electric bulb on the side of the captain’s cabin, and it showed him the top of the taffrail some little distance above the level of his eyes. Taking his courage in both hands and stepping upon the belting, he succeeded in grasping the taffrail. In a moment he was over it and on deck, and in another moment he had slipped round the deckhouse and out of the light of the lamp. There he stopped, listening for an alarm, but the silence remained unbroken, and he believed he had been unobserved.

He recalled the construction of the ship. The lower deck, on which he was standing, ran across the stern and formed a narrow passage some forty feet long at each side of the central cabin. This cabin contained the galley and mess room as well as the first officer’s quarters. Bulla’s stateroom, Hilliard remembered, was down below beside the engine-room.

From the lower deck two ladders led to the bridge deck at the forward end of which was situated the captain’s stateroom. Aft of this building most of the remaining bridge deck was taken up by two lifeboats, canvas-covered and housed in chocks. On the top of the captain’s cabin was the bridge and chart-house, reached by two ladders which passed up at either side of the cabin.

Hilliard, reconnoitering, crept round to the port side of the ship. The lower deck was in complete darkness, and he passed the range of cabins and silently ascended the steps to the deck above. Here also it was dark, but a faint light shone from the window of the captain’s cabin. Stealthily Hilliard tiptoed to the porthole. The glass was hooked back, but a curtain hung across the opening. Fortunately, it was not drawn quite tight to one side, and he found that by leaning up against the bridge ladder he could see into the interior. A glance showed him that the room was empty.

As he paused irresolutely, wondering what he should do next, he heard a door open. There was a step on the deck below, and the door slammed sharply. Someone was coming to the ladder at the top of which he stood.

Like a shadow Hilliard slipped aft, and, as he heard the unknown ascending the steps, he looked round for cover. The starboard boat and a narrow strip of deck were lighted up, but the port boat was in shadow. He could distinguish it merely as a dark blot on the sky. Recognizing that he must be hidden should the port deck light be turned on, he reached the boat, felt his way round the stern, and, crouching down, crept as far underneath it as he could. There he remained motionless.

The newcomer began slowly to pace the deck, and the aroma of a good cigar floated in the still air. Up and down he walked with leisurely, unhurried footsteps. He kept to the dark side of the ship, and Hilliard, though he caught glimpses of the red point of the cigar each time the other reached the stern, could not tell who he was.

Presently other footsteps announced the approach of a second individual, and in a moment Hilliard heard the captain’s voice.

“Where are you, Bulla?”

“Here,” came in the engineer’s voice from the first-comer. The captain approached and the two men fell to pacing up and down, talking in low tones. Hilliard could catch the words when the speakers were near the stern, but lost them when they went forward to the break of the poop.

“Confound that man Coburn,” he heard Captain Beamish mutter. “What on earth is keeping him all this time?”

“The young visitors, doubtless,” rumbled Bulla with a fat chuckle, “our friends of the evening.”

“Yes, confound them, too,” growled Beamish, who seemed to be in an unenviable frame of mind. “Damned nuisance their coming round. I should like to know what they are after.”

“Nothing particular, I should fancy. Probably out doing some kind of a holiday.”

They passed round the deckhouse and Hilliard could not hear the reply. When they returned Captain Beamish was speaking.

“⁠—thinks it would about double our profits,” Hilliard heard him say. “He suggests a second depot on the other side, say at Swansea. That would look all right on account of the South Wales coalfields.”

“But we’re getting all we can out of the old hooker as it is,” Bulla objected. “I don’t see how she could do another trip.”

“Archer suggests a second boat.”

“Oh.” The engineer paused, then went on: “But that’s no new suggestion. That was proposed before ever the thing was started.”

“I know, but the circumstances have changed. Now we should⁠—”

Again they passed out of earshot, and Hilliard took the opportunity to stretch his somewhat cramped limbs. He was considerably interested by what he had heard. The phrase Captain Beamish had used in reference to the proposed depot at Swansea⁠—“it would look all right on account of the coalfields”⁠—was suggestive. Surely that was meaningless unless there was some secret activity⁠—unless the pit-prop trade was only a blind to cover some more lucrative and probably more sinister undertaking? At first sight it seemed so, but he had not time to think it out then. The men were returning.

Bulla was speaking this time, and Hilliard soon found he was telling a somewhat improper story. As the two men disappeared round the deckhouse he heard their hoarse laughter ring out. Then the captain cried: “That you, Coburn?” The murmur of voices grew louder and more confused and immediately sank. A door opened, then closed, and once more silence reigned.

To Hilliard it seemed that here was a chance which he must not miss. Coming out from his hiding place, he crept stealthily along the deck in the hope that he might find out where the men had gone, and learn something from their conversation.

The captain’s cabin was the probable meeting place, and Hilliard slipped silently back to the window through which he had glanced before. As he approached he heard a murmur of voices, and he cautiously leaned back against the bridge ladder and peeped in round the partly open curtain.

Three of the four seats the room contained were now occupied. The captain, engineer, and Mr. Coburn sat round the central table, which bore a bottle of whisky, a soda siphon and glasses, as well as a box of cigars. The men seemed preoccupied and a little anxious. The captain was speaking.

“And have you found out anything about them?” he asked Mr. Coburn.

“Only what I have been able to pick up from their own conversation,” the manager answered. “I wrote Morton asking him to make inquiries about them, but of course there hasn’t been time yet for a reply. From their own showing one of them is Seymour Merriman, junior partner of Edwards & Merriman, Gracechurch Street, Wine Merchants. That’s the dark, square-faced one⁠—the one who was here before. The other is a man called Hilliard. He is a clever fellow, and holds a good position in the Customs Department. He has had this launch for some years, and apparently has done the same kind of trip through the Continental rivers on previous holidays. But I could not find out whether Merriman had ever accompanied him before.”

“But you don’t think they smell a rat?”

“I don’t think so,” he said slowly, “but I’m not at all sure. Merriman, we believe, noticed the number plate that day. I told you, you remember. Henri is sure that he did, and Madeleine thinks so too. It’s just a little queer his coming back. But I’ll swear they’ve seen nothing suspicious this time.”

“You can’t yourself account for his coming back?”

Again Mr. Coburn hesitated.

“Not with any certainty,” he said at last, then with a grimace he continued: “But I’m a little afraid that it’s perhaps Madeleine.”

Bulla, the engineer, made a sudden gesture.

“I thought so,” he exclaimed. “Even in the little I saw of them this evening I thought there was something in the wind. I guess that accounts for the whole thing. What do you say, skipper?”

The big man nodded.

“I should think so,” he admitted, with a look of relief. “I think it’s a mare’s nest, Coburn. I don’t believe we need worry.”

“I’m not so sure,” Coburn answered slowly. “I don’t think we need worry about Merriman, but I’m hanged if I know what to think about Hilliard. He’s pretty observant, and there’s not much about this place that he hasn’t seen at one time or another.”

“All the better for us, isn’t it?” Bulla queried.

“So far as it goes, yes,” the manager agreed, “and I’ve stuffed him with yarns about costs and about giving up the props and going in for paving blocks and so on which I think he swallowed. But why should he want to know what we are doing? What possible interest can the place have for him⁠—unless he suspects?”

“They haven’t done anything suspicious themselves?”

“Not that I have seen.”

“Never caught them trying to pump any of the men?”


Captain Beamish moved impatiently.

“I don’t think we need worry,” he repeated with a trace of aggression in his manner. “Let’s get on to business. Have you heard from Archer?”

Mr. Coburn drew a paper from his pocket, while Hilliard instinctively bent forward, believing he was at last about to learn something which would throw a light on these mysterious happenings. But alas for him! Just as the manager began to speak he heard steps on the gangway which passed on board and a man began to climb the starboard ladder to the upper deck.

Hilliard’s first thought was to return to his hiding place under the boat, but he could not bring himself to go so far away from the center of interest, and before he had consciously thought out the situation he found himself creeping silently up the ladder to the bridge. There he believed he would be safe from observation while remaining within earshot of the cabin, and if anyone followed him up the ladder he could creep round on the roof of the cabin to the back of the chart-house, out of sight.

The newcomer tapped at the captain’s door and, after a shout of “Come in,” opened it. There was a moment’s silence, then Coburn’s voice said:

“We were just talking of you, Henri. The skipper wants to know⁠—” and the door closed.

Hilliard was not long in slipping back to his former position at the porthole.

“By Jove!” Bulla was saying. “And to think that two years ago I was working a little coaster at twenty quid a month! And you, Coburn; two years ago you weren’t much better fixed, if as well, eh?”

Coburn ignored the question.

“It’s good, but it’s not good enough,” he declared. “This thing can’t run for ever. If we go on too long somebody will tumble to it. What we want is to try to get our piles made and close it down before anything happens. We ought to have that other ship running. We could double our income with another ship and another depot. And Swansea seems to me the place.”

“Bulla and I were just talking of that before you came aboard,” the captain answered. “You know we have considered that again and again, and we have always come to the conclusion that we are pushing the thing strongly enough.”

“Our organisation has improved since then. We can do more now with less risk. It ought to be reconsidered. Will you go into the thing, skipper?”

“Certainly. I’ll bring it before our next meeting. But I won’t promise to vote for it. In our business it’s not difficult to kill the goose, etcetera.”

The talk drifted to other matters, while Hilliard, thrilled to the marrow, remained crouching motionless beneath the porthole, concentrating all his attention on the conversation in the hope of catching some word or phrase which might throw further light on the mysterious enterprise under discussion. While the affair itself was being spoken of he had almost ceased to be aware of his surroundings, so eagerly had he listened to what was being said, but now that the talk had turned to more ordinary subjects he began more or less subconsciously to take stock of his own position.

He realised in the first place that he was in very real danger. A quick movement either of the men in the cabin or of some member of the crew might lead to his discovery, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that he might pay the forfeit for his curiosity with his life. He could imagine the manner in which the “accident” would be staged. Doubtless his body, showing all the appearance of death from drowning, would be found in the river with alongside it the upturned boat as evidence of the cause of the disaster.

And if he should die, his secret would die with him. Should he not then be content with what he had learned and clear out while he could, so as to ensure his knowledge being preserved? He felt that he ought, and yet the desire to remain in the hope of doing still better was overpowering. But as he hesitated the power of choice was taken away. The men in the cabin were making a move. Coburn finished his whisky, and he and Henri rose to their feet.

“Well,” the former said, “There’s one o’clock. We must be off.”

The others stood up also, and at the same moment Hilliard crept once more up the ladder to the bridge and crouched down in the shadow of the chart-house. Hardly was he there when the men came out of the cabin to the deck beneath the bridge, then with a brief exchange of “Good nights,” Coburn and the lorry driver passed down the ladder, crossed the gangway and disappeared behind a stack of pit-props on the wharf. Bulla with a grunted “ ’Night” descended the port steps and Hilliard heard the door leading below open and shut; the starboard deck lamp snapped off, and finally the captain’s door shut and a key turned in the lock. Some fifteen minutes later the faint light from the porthole vanished and all was dark and silent.

But for more than an hour Hilliard remained crouching motionless on the bridge, fearing lest some sound that he might make in his descent should betray him if the captain should still be awake. Then, a faint light from the rising moon appearing towards the east, he crept from his perch, and crossing the gangway, reached the wharf and presently his boat.

Ten minutes later he was on board the launch.