A Change of Venue

Still making as little noise as possible, Hilliard descended to the cabin and turned in. Merriman was asleep, and the quiet movement of the other did not awaken him.

But Hilliard was in no frame of mind for repose. He was too much thrilled by the adventure through which he had passed, and the discovery which he had made. He therefore put away the idea of sleep, and instead gave himself up to consideration of the situation.

He began by trying to marshal the facts he had already learned. In the first place, there was the great outstanding point that his suspicions were well founded, that some secret and mysterious business was being carried on by this syndicate. Not only, therefore, was he justified in all he had done up to the present, but it was clear he could not leave the matter where it stood. Either he must continue his investigations further, or he must report to headquarters what he had overheard.

Next, it seemed likely that the syndicate consisted of at least six persons; Captain Beamish (probably from his personality the leader), Bulla, Coburn, Henri, and the two men to whom reference had been made, Archer, who had suggested forming the depot at Swansea, and Morton, who had been asked to make inquiries as to himself and Merriman. Madeleine Coburn’s name had also been mentioned, and Hilliard wondered whether she could be a member. Like his companion he could not believe that she would be willingly involved, but on the other hand Coburn had stated that she had reported her suspicion that Merriman had noticed the changed number plate. Hilliard could come to no conclusion about her, but it remained clear that there were certainly four members, and probably six or more.

But if so, it followed that the operations must be on a fairly large scale. Educated men did not take up a risky and presumably illegal enterprise unless the prize was worth having. It was unlikely that £1,000 a year would compensate any one of them for the risk. But that would mean a profit of from £4,000 to £6,000 a year. Hilliard realised that he was here on shaky ground, though the balance of probability was in his favor.

It also seemed certain that the whole pit-prop business was a sham, a mere blind to cover those other operations from which the money came. But when Hilliard came to ask himself what those operations were, he found himself up against a more difficult proposition.

His original brandy smuggling idea recurred to him with renewed force, and as he pondered it he saw that there really was something to be said for it. Three distinct considerations were consistent with the theory.

There was first of all the size of the fraud. A theft of £4,000 to £6,000 or more a year implied as victim a large corporation. The sum would be too big a proportion of the income of a moderate-sized firm for the matter to remain undiscovered, and, other things being equal, the larger the corporation the more difficult to locate the leakage.

But what larger corporation was there than a nation, and what so easy to defraud as a government? And how could a government be more easily defrauded than by smuggling? Here again Hilliard recognised he was only theorizing; still the point had a certain weight.

The second consideration was also inconclusive. It was that all the people who, he had so far learned, were involved were engaged in transport operations. The ostensible trade also, the blind under which the thing was worked, was a transport trade. If brandy smuggling were in progress something of precisely this kind would have to be devised. In fact anything more suitable than the pit-prop business would be hard to discover.

The third point he had thought of before. If brandy were to be smuggled, no better locality could have been found for the venture than this country round about Bordeaux. As one of the staple products of the district, brandy could be obtained here, possibly more easily than anywhere else.

The converse argument was equally inconclusive. What hypothesis other than that of brandy smuggling could meet the facts? Hilliard could not think of any, but he recognised that his failure did not prove that none existed.

On the other hand, in spite of these considerations, he had to admit that he had seen nothing which in the slightest degree supported the theory, nor had he heard anything which could not equally well have referred to something else.

But whatever their objective, he felt sure that the members of the syndicate were desperate men. They were evidently too far committed to hesitate over fresh crime to keep their secret. If he wished to pursue his investigations, it was up to him to do so without arousing their suspicions.

As he pondered over the problem of how this was to be done he became more and more conscious of its difficulty. Such an inquiry to a trained detective could not be easy, but to him, an amateur at the game, it seemed well-nigh impossible. And particularly he found himself handicapped by the intimate terms with the Coburns on which he and Merriman found themselves. For instance, that very morning an excursion had been arranged to an old château near Bordeaux. How could he refuse to go? And if he went how could he watch the loading of the Girondin?

He had suspected before that the Coburns’ hospitality was due to something other than friendliness, and now he was sure of it. No longer had he any doubt that the object was to get him out of the way, to create that very obstacle to investigation which it had created. And here again Miss Coburn had undoubtedly lent herself to the plot.

He was not long in coming to the conclusion that the sooner he and Merriman took leave of the Coburns the better. Besides this question of handicap, he was afraid with so astute a man as Coburn he would sooner or later give himself away.

The thought led to another. Would it not be wise to keep Merriman in ignorance of what he had learned at least for the present? Merriman was an open, straightforward chap, transparently honest in all his dealings. Could he dissemble sufficiently to hide his knowledge from his hosts? In particular could he deceive Madeleine? Hilliard doubted it. He felt that under the special circumstances his friend’s discretion could not be relied on. At all events Merriman’s appearance of ignorance would be more convincing if it were genuine.

On the whole, Hilliard decided, it would be better not to tell him. Let them once get away from the neighbourhood, and he could share his discoveries and they could together decide what was to be done. But first, to get away.

Accordingly next morning he broached the subject. He had expected his friend would strenuously oppose any plan involving separation from Madeleine Coburn, but to his relief Merriman immediately agreed with him.

“I’ve been thinking we ought to clear out too,” he declared ungrammatically. “It’s not good enough to be accepting continuous hospitality which you can’t return.”

Hilliard assented carelessly, remarked that if they started the following morning they could reach the Riviera by the following Friday, and let it go at that. He did not refer again to the subject until they reached the Coburns’ door, when he asked quickly: “By the way, will you tell them we’re leaving tomorrow or shall I?”

“I will,” said Merriman, to his relief.

The Girondin was loading props as they set out in the Ford car, and the work was still in progress on their return in the late afternoon. Mr. Coburn had excused himself from joining the party on the ground of business, but Captain Beamish had taken his place, and had proved himself a surprisingly entertaining companion. At the old château they had a pleasant alfresco lunch, after which Captain Beamish took a number of photographs of the party with his pocket Kodak.

Merriman’s announcement of his and Hilliard’s impending departure had been met with a chorus of regrets, but though these sounded hearty enough, Hilliard noticed that no definite invitation to stay longer was given.

The friends dined with the Coburns for the last time that evening. Mr. Coburn was a little late for the meal, saying he had waited on the wharf to see the loading completed, and that all the cargo was now aboard, and that the Girondin would drop down to sea on the flood tide in the early morning.

“We shall have her company so far,” Hilliard remarked. “We must start early, too, so as to make Bordeaux before dark.”

When the time came to say goodbye, Mr. Coburn and his daughter went down to the launch with their departing visitors. Hilliard was careful to monopolise the manager’s attention, so as to give Merriman his innings with the girl. His friend did not tell him what passed between them, but the parting was evidently affecting, as Merriman retired to his locker practically in silence.

Five o’clock next morning saw the friends astir, and their first sight on reaching the deck was the Girondin coming downstream. They exchanged hand waves with Captain Beamish on the bridge, then, swinging their own craft, followed in the wake of the other. A couple of hours later they were at sea.

Once again they were lucky in their weather. A sun of molten glory poured down from the clearest of blue skies, burnishing a track of intolerable brilliance across the water. Hardly a ripple appeared on the smooth surface, though they rose and fell gently to the flat ocean swell. They were running up the coast about four miles out, and except for the Girondin, now almost hull down to the northwest, they had the sea to themselves. It was hot enough to make the breeze caused by the launch’s progress pleasantly cool, and both men lay smoking on the deck, lazily watching the water and enjoying the easy motion. Hilliard had made the wheel fast, and reached up every now and then to give it a slight turn.

“Jolly, I call this,” he exclaimed, as he lay down again after one of these interruptions. “Jolly sun, jolly sea, jolly everything, isn’t it?”

“Rather. Even a landlubber like me can appreciate it. But you don’t often have it like this, I bet.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Hilliard answered absently, and then, swinging round and facing his friend, he went on:

“I say, Merriman, I’ve something to tell you that will interest you, but I’m afraid it won’t please you.”

Merriman laughed contentedly.

“You arouse my curiosity anyway,” he declared. “Get on and let’s hear it.”

Hilliard answered quietly, but he felt excitement arising in him as he thought of the disclosure he was about to make.

“First of all,” he began, speaking more and more earnestly as he proceeded, “I have to make you an apology. I quite deliberately deceived you up at the clearing, or rather I withheld from you knowledge that I ought to have shared. I had a reason for it, but I don’t know if you’ll agree that it was sufficient.”

“Tell me.”

“You remember the night before last when I rowed up to the wharf after we had left the Coburns? You thought my suspicions were absurd or worse. Well, they weren’t. I made a discovery.”

Merriman sat up eagerly, and listened intently as the other recounted his adventure aboard the Girondin. Hilliard kept nothing back; even the reference to Madeleine he repeated as nearly word for word as possible, finally giving a bowdlerised version of his reasons for keeping his discoveries to himself while they remained in the neighbourhood.

Merriman received the news with a dismay approaching positive horror. He had but one thought⁠—Madeleine. How did the situation affect her? Was she in trouble? In danger? Was she so entangled that she could not get out? Never for a moment did it enter his head that she could be willingly involved.

“My goodness! Hilliard,” he cried hoarsely, “whatever does it all mean? Surely it can’t be criminal? They,”⁠—he hesitated slightly, and Hilliard read in a different pronoun⁠—“they never would join in such a thing.”

Hilliard took the bull by the horns.

“That Miss Coburn would take part in anything shady I don’t for a moment believe,” he declared, “but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be so sure of her father.”

Merriman shook his head and groaned.

“I know you’re right,” he admitted to the other’s amazement. “I saw⁠—I didn’t mean to tell you, but now I may as well. That first evening, when we went up to call, you probably don’t remember, but after he had learned who we were he turned round to pull up a chair. He looked at you; I saw his face in a mirror. Hilliard, it was the face of a⁠—I was going to say, a devil⁠—with hate and fear. But the look passed instantly. When he turned round he was smiling. It was so quick I half thought I was mistaken. But I know I wasn’t.”

“I saw fear on his face when he recognised you that same evening,” Hilliard replied. “We needn’t blink at it, Merriman. Whether willingly or unwillingly, Mr. Coburn’s in the thing. That’s as certain as that we’re here.”

“But what is it? Have you any theory?”

“No, not really. There was that one of brandy smuggling that I mentioned before. I suggest it because I can suggest nothing else, but I admit I saw no evidence of it.”

Merriman was silent for several minutes as the boat slid over the smooth water. Then with a change of manner he turned once more to his friend.

“I suppose we couldn’t leave it alone? Is it our business after all?”

“If we don’t act we become accessories, and besides we leave that girl to fight her own battles.”

Merriman clenched his fists and once more silence reigned. Presently he spoke again:

“You had something in your mind?”

“I think we must do one of two things. Either continue our investigations until we learn what is going on, or else clear out and tell the police what we have learned.”

Merriman made a gesture of dissent.

“Not that, not that,” he cried. “Anything rather than the police.”

Hilliard gazed vacantly on the long line of the coast.

“Look here, old man,” he said, “Wouldn’t it be better if we discussed this thing quite directly? Don’t think I mean to be impertinent⁠—God knows I don’t⁠—but am I not right in thinking you want to save Miss Coburn all annoyance, and her father also, for her sake?”

“We needn’t talk about it again,” Merriman said in a hard voice, looking intently at the stem of the mast, “but if it’s necessary to make things clear, I want to marry her if she’ll have me.”

“I thought so, old man, and I can only say⁠—the best of luck! As you say, then, we mustn’t call in the police, and as we can’t leave the thing, we must go on with our own inquiry. I would suggest that if we find out their scheme is something illegal, we see Mr. Coburn and give him the chance to get out before we lodge our information.”

“I suppose that is the only way,” Merriman said doubtfully. After a pause Hilliard went on:

“I’m not very clear, but I’m inclined to think we can do no more good here at present. I think we should try the other end.”

“The other end?”

“Yes, the unloading of the ship and the disposal of the pit-props. You see, the first thing we’re up against is that these people are anything but fools, and the second is that they already suspect us and will keep a watch on us. A hundred to one they make inquiries and see that we really do go through the Canal du Midi to the Riviera. We can’t hang about Bordeaux without their knowing it.”

“That’s true.”

“Of course,” Hilliard went on, “we can see now we made a frightful mess of things by calling on the Coburns or letting Mr. Coburn know we were about, but at the time it seemed the wisest thing.”

“It was the only thing,” Merriman asserted positively. “We didn’t know then there was anything wrong, and besides, how could we have hidden the launch?”

“Well, it’s done anyway. We needn’t worry about it now, except that it seems to me that for the same reason the launch has served its purpose. We can’t use it here because the people at the clearing know it, and we can’t use it at the unloading end, for all on board the Girondin would recognise it directly they saw it.”

Merriman nodded without speaking and Hilliard continued:

“I think, therefore, that we should leave the launch at Bordeaux tonight and go back to London overland. I shall write Mr. Coburn saying we have found Poste Restante letters recalling us. You can enclose a note to Miss Coburn if you like. When we get to town we can apply at the Inquiry Office at Lloyd’s to find out where the Girondin calls in England. Then let us go there and make inquiries. The launch can be worked back to England some other time. How does that strike you?”

“Seems all right. But I should leave the launch at Bordeaux. We may have to come back, and it would furnish us with an excuse for our presence if we were seen.”

Hilliard gave a little sigh of relief. Merriman’s reply took a weight off his mind, not because of the value of the suggestion⁠—though in its way it was quite useful⁠—but because of its indication of Merriman’s frame of mind. He had feared that because of Miss Coburn’s connection with the affair he would lose his friend’s help, even that they might quarrel. And now he saw these fears were groundless. Thankfully he recognised that they would cooperate as they had originally intended.

“Jolly good notion, that,” he answered cordially.

“I confess,” Merriman went on slowly, “that I should have liked to stay in the neighbourhood and see if we couldn’t find out something more about the lorry numbers. It may be a trivial point, but it’s the only direct and definite thing we know of. All the rest are hints or suspicions or probabilities. But here we have a bit of mystery, tangible, in our hands, as it were. Why were those number plates changed? It seems to me a good point of attack.”

“I thought of that, too, and I agree with every word you say,” Hilliard replied eagerly, “but there is the question of our being suspects. I believe we shall be watched out of the place, and I feel sure our only chance of learning anything is to satisfy them of our bona fides.”

Merriman agreed, and they continued discussing the matter in detail, at last deciding to adopt Hilliard’s suggestion and set to work on the English end of the mysterious traffic.

About two that afternoon they swung round the Pointe de Grave into the estuary of the Gironde. The tide, which was then flowing, turned when they were some two-thirds of the way up, and it was well on to seven o’clock when they made fast to the same decaying wharf from which they had set out. Hilliard saw the owner, and arranged with him to let the launch lie at one of his moorings until she should be required. Then the friends went up town, got some dinner, wrote their letters, and took the night train for Paris. Next evening they were in London.

“I say,” Hilliard remarked when later on that same evening they sat in his rooms discussing their plans, “I believe we can find out about the Girondin now. My neighbour on the next landing above is a shipping man. He might have a copy of Lloyd’s Register. I shall go and ask him.”

In a few moments he returned with a bulky volume. “One of the wonders of the world, this, I always think,” he said, as he began to turn over the pages. “It gives, or is supposed to give, information about everything over a hundred tons that floats anywhere over the entire globe. It’ll give the Girondin anyway.” He ran his finger down the columns. “Ah! what’s this? Motor ship Girondin, 350 tons, built and so on. ‘The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, Ferriby, Hull.’ Hull, my son. There we are.”

“Hull! I know Hull,” Merriman remarked laconically. “At least, I was there once.”

“We shall know it a jolly sight better than that before we’re through, it seems to me,” his friend replied. “Let’s hope so, anyway.”

“What’s the plan, then? I’m on, provided I have a good sleep at home tonight first.”

“Same here,” Hilliard agreed as he filled his pipe. “I suppose Hull by an early train tomorrow is the scheme.”

Merriman borrowed his friend’s pouch and refilled his pipe in his turn.

“You think so?” he said slowly. “Well, I’m not so sure. Seems to me we can very easily dish ourselves if we’re not careful.”

“How so?”

“We agreed these folk were wide-awake and suspicious of us. Very well. Directly our visit to them is over, we change our plans and leave Bordeaux. Will it not strike them that our interest in the trip was only on their account?”

“I don’t see it. We gave a good reason for leaving.”

“Quite; that’s what I’m coming to. We told them you were recalled to your office. But what about that man Morton, that was to spy on us before? What’s to prevent them asking him if you really have returned?”

Hilliard sat up sharply.

“By Jove!” he cried. “I never thought of that.”

“And there’s another thing,” Merriman went on. “We turn up at Hull, find the syndicate’s depot and hang about, the fellow in charge there sees us. Well, that’s all right if he hasn’t had a letter from France describing us and enclosing a copy of that group that Captain Beamish took at the château.”

Hilliard whistled.

“Lord! It’s not going to be so simple as it looks, is it?”

“It isn’t. And what’s more, we can’t afford to make any mistakes. It’s too dangerous.”

Hilliard got up and began to pace the room.

“I don’t care,” he declared savagely. “I’m going through with it now no matter what happens.”

“Oh, so am I, for the matter of that. All I say is we shall have to show a bit more intelligence this time.”

For an hour more they discussed the matter, and at last decided on a plan. On the following morning Hilliard was to go to his office, see his chief and ask for an extension of leave, then hang about and interview as many of his colleagues as possible, telling them he had been recalled, but was not now required. His chief was not very approachable, and Hilliard felt sure the subject would not be broached to him. In the evening they would go down to Hull.

This program they would have carried out, but for an unforeseen event. While Hilliard was visiting his office Merriman took the opportunity to call at his, and there learned that Edwards, his partner, had been taken ill the morning before. It appeared there was nothing seriously wrong, and Edwards expected to be back at work in three or four days, but until his return Merriman was required, and he had reluctantly to telephone the news to Hilliard. But no part of their combined holiday was lost. Hilliard by a stroke of unexpected good fortune was able to spend the same time at work, and postpone the remainder of his leave until Merriman was free. Thus it came to pass that it was not until six days later than they had intended that the two friends packed their bags for Hull.

They left King’s Cross by the 5:40 p.m. train, reaching their destination a little before eleven. There they took rooms at the George, a quiet hotel in Baker Street, close to the Paragon Station.