The Ferriby Depot

The two friends, eager and excited by their adventure, were early astir next morning, and after breakfast Hilliard went out and bought the best map of the city and district he could find.

“Why, Ferriby’s not in the town at all,” he exclaimed after he had studied it for some moments. “It’s up the river⁠—must be seven or eight miles up by the look of it; the North-Eastern runs through it and there’s a station. We’d better go out there and prospect.”

Merriman agreed, they called for a timetable, found there was a train at 10:35, and going down to Paragon Station, got on board.

After clearing the suburbs the line came down close to the river, and the two friends kept a good lookout for the depot. About four and a half miles out they stopped at a station called Hassle, then a couple of miles farther their perseverance was rewarded and they saw a small pier and shed, the latter bearing in large letters on its roof the name of the syndicate. Another mile and a half brought them to Ferriby, where they alighted.

“Now what about walking back to Hassle,” Hilliard suggested, “and seeing what we can see?”

They followed the station approach road inland until they reached the main thoroughfare, along which they turned eastwards in the direction of Hull. In a few minutes they came in sight of the depot, half a mile off across the fields. A lane led towards it, and this they followed until it reached the railway.

A map showing from top to bottom a road, railway lines, and the River Humber. Along the railway lines, from Ferriby towards Hull, there the syndicate’s depot, a cottage, Ackroyd & Holt’s and a signal box.

There it turned in the direction of Hull and ran parallel to the line for a short distance, doubling back, as they learned afterwards, until it reached the main road halfway to Hassle. The railway tracks were on a low bank, and the men could just see across them to the syndicate’s headquarters.

The view was not very good, but so far as they could make out, the depot was a replica of that in the Landes clearing. A timber wharf jutted out into the stream, apparently of the same size and construction as that on the River Lesque. Behind it was the same kind of galvanized iron shed, but this one, besides having windows in the gables, seemed the smaller of the two. Its back was only about a hundred feet from the railway, and the space between was taken up by a yard surrounded by a high galvanized iron fence, above which appeared the tops of many stacks of pit-props. Into the yard ran a siding from the railway. From a door in the fence a path led across the line to a wicket in the hedge of the lane, beside which stood a “Beware of the Trains” notice. There was no sign of activity about the place, and the gates through which the siding entered the enclosure were shut.

Hilliard stopped and stood looking over.

“How the mischief are we to get near that place without being seen?” he questioned. “It’s like a German pillbox. There’s no cover anywhere about.”

It was true. The country immediately surrounding the depot was singularly bare. It was flat except for the low bank, four or five feet high, on which lay the railway tracks. There were clumps of trees farther inland, but none along the shore, and the nearest building, a large block like a factory with beside it a cottage, was at least three hundred yards away in the Hull direction.

“Seems an element of design in that, eh, Hilliard?” Merriman remarked as they turned to continue their walk. “Considering the populous country we’re in, you could hardly find a more isolated place.”

Hilliard nodded as they turned away.

“I’ve just been thinking that. They could carry on any tricks they liked there and no one would be a bit the wiser.”

They moved on towards the factory-like building. It was on the inland side of the railway, and the lane swung away from the line and passed what was evidently its frontage. A siding ran into its rear, and there were connections across the main lines and a signal cabin in the distance. A few yards on the nearer side stood the cottage, which they now saw was empty and dilapidated.

“I say, Hilliard, look there!” cried Merriman suddenly.

They had passed along the lane until the façade of the building had come into view and they were able to read its signboard: “Ackroyd & Holt, Licensed Rectifiers.”

“I thought it looked like a distillery,” continued Merriman in considerable excitement. “By Jove! Hilliard, that’s a find and no mistake! Pretty suggestive, that, isn’t it?”

Hilliard was not so enthusiastic.

“I’m not so sure,” he said slowly. “You mean that it supports my brandy smuggling theory? Just how?”

“Well, what do you think yourself? We suspect brandy smuggling, and here we find at the import end of the concern the nearest building in an isolated region is a distillery⁠—a rectifying house, mind you! Isn’t that a matter of design too? How better could they dispose of their stuff than by dumping it on to rectifiers?”

“You distinguish between distillers and rectifiers?”

“Certainly; there’s less check on rectifiers. Am I not right in saying that while the regulations for the measurement of spirit actually produced from the stills are so thorough as to make fraud almost impossible, rectifiers, because they don’t themselves produce spirit, but merely refine what other firms have produced, are not so strictly looked after? Rectifiers would surely find smuggled stuff easier to dispose of than distillers.”

Hilliard shook his head.

“Perhaps so, theoretically,” he admitted, “but in practice there’s nothing in it. Neither could work a fraud like that, for both are watched far too closely by our people. I’m afraid I don’t see that this place being here helps us. Surely it’s reasonable to suppose that the same cause brought Messrs. Ackroyd & Holt that attracted the syndicate? Just that it’s a good site. Where in the district could you get a better? Cheap ground and plenty of it, and steamer and rail connections.”

“It’s a coincidence anyway.”

“I don’t see it. In any case unless we can prove that the ship brings brandy the question doesn’t arise.”

Merriman shrugged his shoulders good-humoredly.

“That’s a blow,” he remarked. “And I was so sure I had got hold of something good! But it just leads us back to the question that somehow or other we must inspect that depot, and if we find nothing we must watch the Girondin unloading. If we can only get near enough it would be impossible for them to discharge anything in bulk without our seeing it.”

Hilliard murmured an agreement, and the two men strolled on in silence, the thoughts of each busy with the problem Merriman had set. Both were realizing that detective work was a very much more difficult business than they had imagined. Had not each had a strong motive for continuing the investigation, it is possible they might have grown fainthearted. But Hilliard had before him the vision of the kudos which would accrue to him if he could unmask a far-reaching conspiracy, while to Merriman the freeing of Madeleine Coburn from the toils in which she seemed to have been enmeshed had become of more importance than anything else in the world.

The two friends had already left the distillery half a mile behind, when Hilliard stopped and looked at his watch.

“Ten minutes to twelve,” he announced. “As we have nothing to do let’s go back and watch that place. Something may happen during the afternoon, and if not we’ll look out for the workmen leaving and see if we can pick up something from them.”

They retraced their steps past the distillery and depot, then creeping into a little wood, sat down on a bank within sight of the enclosure and waited.

The day was hot and somewhat enervating, and both enjoyed the relaxation in the cool shade. They sat for the most part in silence, smoking steadily, and turning over in their minds the problems with which they were faced. Before them the country sloped gently down to the railway bank, along the top of which the polished edges of the rails gleamed in the midday sun. Beyond was the wide expanse of the river, with a dazzling track of shimmering gold stretching across it and hiding the low-lying farther shore with its brilliancy. A few small boats moved slowly near the shore, while farther out an occasional large steamer came into view going up the fairway to Goole. Every now and then trains roared past, the steam hardly visible in the dry air.

The afternoon dragged slowly but not unpleasantly away, until about five o’clock they observed the first sign of activity about the syndicate’s depot which had taken place since their arrival. The door in the galvanized fence opened and five figures emerged and slowly crossed the railway. They paused for a moment after reaching the lane, then separated, four going eastwards towards the distillery, the fifth coming north towards the point at which the watchers were concealed. The latter thereupon moved out from their hiding place on to the road.

The fifth figure resolved itself into that of a middle-aged man of the labouring class, slow, heavy, and obese. In his rather bovine countenance hardly any spark of intelligence shone. He did not appear to have seen the others as he approached, but evinced neither surprise nor interest when Hilliard accosted him.

“Any place about here you can get a drink?”

The man slowly jerked his head to the left.

“Oop in village,” he answered. “Raven bar.”

“Come along and show us the way and have a drink with us,” Hilliard invited.

The man grasped this and his eyes gleamed.

“Ay,” he replied succinctly.

As they walked Hilliard attempted light conversation, but without eliciting much response from their new acquaintance, and it was not until he had consumed his third bottle of beer that his tongue became somewhat looser.

“Any chance of a job where you’re working?” Hilliard went on. “My pal and I would be glad to pick up something.”

The man shook his head, apparently noticing nothing incongruous in the question.

“Don’t think it.”

“No harm in asking the boss anyway. Where might we find him?”

“Down at works likely. He be there most times.”

“I’d rather go to his house. Can you tell where he lives?”

“Ay. Down at works.”

“But he doesn’t sleep at the works surely?”

“Ay. Sleeps in tin hut.”

The friends exchanged glances. Their problem was even more difficult than they had supposed. A secret inspection seemed more and more unattainable. Hilliard continued the labourious conversation.

“We thought there might be some stevedoring to do. You’ve a steamer in now and then, haven’t you?”

The man admitted it, and after a deal of wearisome questioning they learned that the Girondin called about every ten days, remaining for about forty-eight hours, and that she was due in three or four days.

Finding they could get no further information out of him, they left their bovine acquaintance with a fresh supply of beer, and returning to the station, took the first train back to Hull. As they sat smoking that evening after dinner they once more attacked the problem which was baffling them.

“It seems to me,” Hilliard asserted, “that we should concentrate on the smuggling idea first, not because I quite believe in it, but because it’s the only one we have. And that brings us again to the same point⁠—the unloading of the Girondin.”

Merriman not replying, he continued:

“Any attempt involves a preliminary visit to see how the land lies. Now we can’t approach that place in the daytime; if we try to slip round secretly we shall be spotted from those windows or from the wharf; on the other hand, if we invent some tale and go openly, we give ourselves away if they have our descriptions or photographs. Therefore we must go at night.”


“Obviously we can only approach the place by land or water. If we go by land we have either to shin up on the pier from the shore, which we’re not certain we can do, or else risk making a noise climbing over the galvanized iron fence. Besides we might leave footmarks or other traces. But if we go by water we can muffle our oars and drop down absolutely silently to the wharf. There are bound to be steps, and it would be easy to get up without making any noise.”

Merriman’s emphatic nod expressed his approval.

“Good,” he cried warmly. “What about getting a boat tomorrow and having a try that night?”

“I think we should. There’s another thing about it too. If there should be an alarm we could get away by the river far more easily than across the country. It’s a blessing there’s no moon.”

Next day the object of their search was changed. They wanted a small, handy skiff on hire. It did not turn out an easy quest, but by the late afternoon they succeeded in obtaining the desired article. They purchased also close-fitting caps and rubber-soled shoes, together with some food for the night, a couple of electric torches, and a yard of black cloth. Then, shortly before dusk began to fall, they took their places and pulled out on the great stream.

It was a pleasant evening, a fitting close to a glorious day. The air was soft and balmy, and a faint haze hung over the water, smoothing and blurring the sharp outlines of the buildings of the town and turning the opposite bank into a grey smudge. Not a breath was stirring, and the water lay like plate glass, unbroken by the faintest ripple. The spirit of adventure was high in the two men as they pulled down the great avenue of burnished gold stretching westwards towards the sinking sun.

The tide was flowing, and but slight effort was needed to keep them moving upstream. As darkness grew they came nearer inshore, until in the fading light they recognised the railway station at Hassle. There they ceased rowing, drifting slowly onwards until the last faint haze of light had disappeared from the sky.

They had carefully muffled their oars, and now they turned north and began sculling gently inshore. Several lights had come out, and presently they recognised the railway signals and cabin at the distillery sidings.

“Two or three hundred yards more,” said Hilliard in low tones.

They were now close to the beach, and they allowed themselves to drift on until the dark mass of the wharf loomed up ahead. Then Hilliard dipped his oars and brought the boat silently alongside.

As they had imagined from their distant view of it, the wharf was identically similar in construction to that on the River Lesque. Here also were the two lines of piles like the letter V, one, in front vertical, the other raking to support the earthwork behind. Here in the same relative position were the steps, and to these Hilliard made fast the painter with a slip hitch that could be quickly released. Then with the utmost caution both men stepped ashore, and slowly mounting the steps, peeped out over the deck of the wharf.

As far as they could make out in the gloom, the arrangement here also was similar to that in France. Lines of narrow gauge tramway, running parallel from the hut towards the water, were connected along the front of the wharf by a cross road and turntables. Between the lines were stacks of pit-props, and Decauville trucks stood here and there. But these details they saw afterwards. What first attracted their attention was that lights shone in the third and fourth windows from the left hand end of the shed. The manager evidently was still about.

“We’ll go back to the boat and wait,” Hilliard whispered, and they crept down the steps.

At intervals of half an hour one or other climbed up and had a look at the windows. On the first two occasions the light was unchanged, on the third it had moved to the first and second windows, and on the fourth it had gone, apparently indicating that the manager had moved from his sitting-room to his bedroom and retired.

“We had better wait at least an hour more,” Hilliard whispered again.

Time passed slowly in the darkness under the wharf, and in a silence broken only by the gentle lapping of the water among the piles. The boat lay almost steady, except when a movement of one of its occupants made it heel slightly over and started a series of tiny ripples. It was not cold, and had the men not been so full of their adventure they could have slept. At intervals Hilliard consulted his luminous-dialed watch, but it was not until the hands pointed to the half-hour after one that they made a move. Then once more they softly ascended to the wharf above.

The sides of the structure were protected by railings which ran back to the gables of the tin house, the latter stretching entirely across the base of the pier. Over the space thus enclosed the two friends passed, but it speedily became apparent that here nothing of interest was to be found. Beyond the stacks of props and wagons there was literally nothing except a rusty steam winch, a large water butt into which was led the down spout from the roof, a tank raised on a stand and fitted with a flexible pipe, evidently for supplying crude oil for the ship’s engines, and a number of empty barrels in which the oil had been delivered. With their torch carefully screened by the black cloth the friends examined these objects, particularly the oil tank which, forming as it did a bridge between ship and shore, naturally came in for its share of suspicion. But, they were soon satisfied that neither it nor any of the other objects were connected with their quest, and retreating to the edge of the wharf, they held a whispered consultation.

Hilliard was for attempting to open one of the doors in the shed at the end away from the manager’s room, but Merriman, obsessed with the idea of seeing the unloading of the Girondin, urged that the contents of the shed were secondary, and that their efforts should be confined to discovering a hiding place from which the necessary observations could be made.

“If there was any way of getting inside one of these stacks of props,” he said, “we could keep a perfect watch. I could get in now, for example; you relieve me tomorrow night; I relieve you the next night, and so on. Nothing could be unloaded that we wouldn’t see. But,” he added regretfully, “I doubt even if we could get inside that we should be hidden. Besides, they might take a notion to load the props up.”

“Afraid that is hardly the scheme,” Hilliard answered, then went on excitedly: “But, there’s that barrel! Perhaps we could get into that.”

“The barrel! That’s the ticket.” Merriman was excited in his turn. “That is, if it has a lid.”

They retraced their steps. With the tank they did not trouble; it was a galvanized iron box with the lid riveted on, and moreover was full of oil; but the barrel looked feasible.

It was an exceptionally large cask or butt, with a lid which projected over its upper rim and which entirely protected the interior from view. It was placed in the corner beside the right hand gable of the shed, that is, the opposite end of the manager’s rooms, and the wooden down spout from the roof passed in through a slot cut in the edge of the lid. A more ideal position for an observation post could hardly have been selected.

“Try to lift the lid,” whispered Hilliard.

They found it was merely laid on the rim, cleats nailed on below preventing it from slipping off. They raised it easily and Hilliard flashed in a beam from his electric torch. The cask was empty, evidently a result of the long drought.

“That’ll do,” Merriman breathed. “That’s all we want to see. Come away.”

They lowered the cover and stood for a moment. Hilliard still wanted to try the doors of the shed, but Merriman would not hear of it.

“Come away,” he whispered again. “We’ve done well. Why spoil it?”

They returned to the boat and there argued it out. Merriman’s proposal was to try to find out when the Girondin was expected, then come the night before, bore a few eyeholes in the cask, and let one of them, properly supplied with provisions, get inside and assume watch. The other one would row away, rest and sleep during the day, and return on the following night, when they would exchange roles, and so on until the Girondin left. In this way, he asserted, they must infallibly discover the truth, at least about the smuggling.

“Do you think we could stand twenty-four hours in that barrel?” Hilliard questioned.

“Of course we could stand it. We’ve got to. Come on, Hilliard, it’s the only way.”

It did not require much persuasion to get Hilliard to fall in with the proposal, and they untied their painter and pulled silently away from the wharf. The tide had turned, and soon they relaxed their efforts and let the boat drift gently downstream. The first faint light appeared in the eastern sky as they floated past Hassle, and for an hour afterwards they lay in the bottom of the boat, smoking peacefully and entranced by the gorgeous pageant of the coming day.

Not wishing to reach Hull too early, they rowed inshore and, landing in a little bay, lay down in the lush grass and slept for three or four hours. Then re-embarking, they pulled and drifted on until, between seven and eight o’clock, they reached the wharf at which they had hired their boat. An hour later they were back at their hotel, recuperating from the fatigues of the night with the help of cold baths and a substantial breakfast.