The Pit-Prop Syndicate

By Freeman Wills Crofts.

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Part I

The Amateurs

I

The Sawmill on the Lesque

Seymour Merriman was tired; tired of the jolting saddle of his motor bicycle, of the cramped position of his arms, of the chug of the engine, and most of all, of the dreary, barren country through which he was riding. Early that morning he had left Pau, and with the exception of an hour and a half at Bayonne, where he had lunched and paid a short business call, he had been at it ever since. It was now after five o’clock, and the last post he had noticed showed him he was still twenty-six kilometers from Bordeaux, where he intended to spend the night.

“This confounded road has no end,” he thought. “I really must stretch my legs a bit.”

A short distance in front of him a hump in the white ribbon of the road with parapet walls narrowing in at each side indicated a bridge. He cut off his engine and, allowing the machine to coast, brought it to a stand at the summit. Then dismounting, he slid it back on its bracket; stretched himself luxuriously, and looked around.

In both directions, in front of him and behind, the road stretched, level and monotonous as far as the eye could reach, as he had seen it stretch, with but few exceptions, during the whole of the day’s run. But whereas farther south it had led through open country, desolate, depressing wastes of sand and sedge, here it ran through the heart of a pine forest, in its own way as melancholy. The road seemed isolated, cut off from the surrounding country, like to be squeezed out of existence by the overwhelming barrier on either flank, a screen, aromatic indeed, but dark, gloomy, and forbidding. Nor was the prospect improved by the long, unsightly gashes which the resin collectors had made on the trunks, suggesting, as they did, that the trees were stricken by some disease. To Merriman the country seemed utterly uninhabited. Indeed, since running through Labouheyre, now two hours back, he could not recall having seen a single living creature except those passing in motor cars, and of these even there were but few.

He rested his arms on the masonry coping of the old bridge and drew at his cigarette. But for the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle, the spring evening was very still. The river curved away gently towards the left, flowing black and sluggish between its flat banks, on which the pines grew down to the water’s edge. It was delightful to stay quiet for a few moments, and Merriman took off his cap and let the cool air blow on his forehead, enjoying the relaxation.

He was a pleasant-looking man of about eight-and-twenty, clean shaven and with grey, honest eyes, dark hair slightly inclined to curl, and a square, well-cut jaw. Business had brought him to France. Junior partner in the firm of Edwards & Merriman, Wine Merchants, Gracechurch Street, London, he annually made a tour of the exporters with whom his firm dealt. He had worked across the south of the country from Cette to Pau, and was now about to recross from Bordeaux to near Avignon, after which his round would be complete. To him this part of his business was a pleasure, and he enjoyed his annual trip almost as much as if it had been a holiday.

The vehicle which he had heard in the distance was now close by, and he turned idly to watch it pass. He did not know then that this slight action, performed almost involuntarily, was to change his whole life, and not only his, but the lives of a number of other people of whose existence he was not then aware, was to lead to sorrow as well as happiness, to crime as well as the vindication of the law, to⁠ ⁠… in short, what is more to the point, had he not then looked round, this story would never have been written.

The vehicle in itself was in no way remarkable. It was a motor lorry of about five tons capacity, a heavy thing, travelling slowly. Merriman’s attention at first focused itself on the driver. He was a man of about thirty, good-looking, with thin, clear-cut features, an aquiline nose, and dark, clever-looking eyes. Dressed though he was in rough working clothes, there was a something in his appearance, in his pose, which suggested a man of better social standing than his occupation warranted.

“Ex-officer,” thought Merriman as his gaze passed on to the lorry behind. It was painted a dirty green, and was empty except for a single heavy casting, evidently part of some large and massive machine. On the side of the deck was a brass plate bearing the words in English “The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 4.” Merriman was somewhat surprised to see a nameplate in his own language in so unexpected a quarter, but the matter really did not interest him and he soon dismissed it from his mind.

The machine chuffed ponderously past, and Merriman, by now rested, turned to restart his bicycle. But his troubles for the day were not over. On the ground below his tank was a stain, and even as he looked, a drop fell from the carburetor feed pipe, followed by a second and a third.

He bent down to examine, and speedily found the cause of the trouble. The feed pipe was connected to the bottom of the tank by a union, and the nut, working slack, had allowed a small but steady leak. He tightened the nut and turned to measure the petrol in the tank. A glance showed him that a mere drain only remained.

“Curse it all,” he muttered, “that’s the second time that confounded nut has left me in the soup.”

His position was a trifle awkward. He was still some twenty-five kilometers from Bordeaux, and his machine would not carry him more than perhaps two. Of course, he could stop the first car that approached, and no doubt borrow enough petrol to make the city, but all day he had noticed with surprise how few and far between the cars were, and there was no certainty that one would pass within a reasonable time.

Then the sound of the receding lorry, still faintly audible, suggested an idea. It was travelling so slowly that he might overtake it before his petrol gave out. It was true he was going in the wrong direction, and if he failed he would be still farther from his goal, but when you are twenty-five kilometers from where you want to be, a few hundred yards more or less is not worth worrying about.

He wheeled his machine round and followed the lorry at full speed. But he had not more than started when he noticed his quarry turning to the right. Slowly it disappeared into the forest.

“Funny I didn’t see that road,” thought Merriman as he bumped along.

He slackened speed when he reached the place where the lorry had vanished, and then he saw a narrow lane just wide enough to allow the big vehicle to pass, which curved away between the tree stems. The surface was badly cut up with wheel tracks, so much so that Merriman decided he could not ride it. He therefore dismounted, hid his bicycle among the trees, and pushed on down the lane on foot. He was convinced from his knowledge of the country that the latter must be a cul-de-sac, at the end of which he would find the lorry. This he could hear not far away, chugging slowly on in front of him.

The lane twisted incessantly, apparently to avoid the larger trees. The surface was the virgin soil of the forest only, but the ruts had been filled roughly with broken stones.

Merriman strode on, and suddenly, as he rounded one of the bends, he got the surprise of his life.

Coming to meet him along the lane was a girl. This in itself was perhaps not remarkable, but this girl seemed so out of place amid such surroundings, or even in such a district, that Merriman was quite taken aback.

She was of medium height, slender and graceful as a lily, and looked about three-and-twenty. She was a study in brown. On her head was a brown tam, a rich, warm brown, like the brown of autumn bracken on the moor. She wore a brown jumper, brown skirt, brown stockings and little brown brogued shoes. As she came closer, Merriman saw that her eyes, friendly, honest eyes, were a shade of golden brown, and that a hint of gold also gleamed in the brown of her hair. She was pretty, not classically beautiful, but very charming and attractive-looking. She walked with the free, easy movement of one accustomed to an out-of-door life.

As they drew abreast Merriman pulled off his cap.

“Pardon, mademoiselle,” he said in his somewhat halting French, “but can you tell me if I could get some petrol close by?” and in a few words he explained his predicament.

She looked him over with a sharp, scrutinizing glance. Apparently satisfied, she smiled slightly and replied:

“But certainly, monsieur. Come to the mill and my father will get you some. He is the manager.”

She spoke even more haltingly than he had, and with no semblance of a French accent⁠—the French rather of an English school. He stared at her.

“But you’re English!” he cried in surprise.

She laughed lightly.

“Of course I’m English,” she answered. “Why shouldn’t I be English? But I don’t think you’re very polite about it, you know.”

He apologised in some confusion. It was the unexpectedness of meeting a fellow-countryman in this out of the way wood⁠ ⁠… It was⁠ ⁠… He did not mean.⁠ ⁠…

“You want to say my French is not really so bad after all?” she said relentlessly, and then: “I can tell you it’s a lot better than when we came here.”

“Then you are a newcomer?”

“We’re not out very long. It’s rather a change from London, as you may imagine. But it’s not such a bad country as it looks. At first I thought it would be dreadful, but I have grown to like it.”

She had turned with him, and they were now walking together between the tall, straight stems of the trees.

“I’m a Londoner,” said Merriman slowly. “I wonder if we have any mutual acquaintances?”

“It’s hardly likely. Since my mother died some years ago we have lived very quietly, and gone out very little.”

Merriman did not wish to appear inquisitive. He made a suitable reply and, turning the conversation to the country, told her of his day’s ride. She listened eagerly, and it was borne in upon him that she was lonely, and delighted to have anyone to talk to. She certainly seemed a charming girl, simple, natural and friendly, and obviously a lady.

But soon their walk came to an end. Some quarter of a mile from the wood the lane debouched into a large, D-shaped clearing. It had evidently been recently made, for the tops of many of the tree-stumps dotted thickly over the ground were still white. Round the semicircle of the forest trees were lying cut, some with their branches still intact, others stripped clear to long, straight poles. Two small gangs of men were at work, one felling, the other lopping.

Across the clearing, forming its other boundary and the straight side of the D, ran a river, apparently from its direction that which Merriman had looked down on from the road bridge. It was wider here, a fine stretch of water, though still dark coloured and uninviting from the shadow of the trees. On its bank, forming a center to the cleared semicircle, was a building, evidently the mill. It was a small place, consisting of a single long narrow galvanized iron shed, and placed parallel to the river. In front of the shed was a tiny wharf, and behind it were stacks and stacks of tree trunks cut in short lengths and built as if for seasoning. Decauville tramways radiated from the shed, and the men were running in timber in the trucks. From the mill came the hard, biting screech of a circular saw.

“A sawmill!” Merriman exclaimed rather unnecessarily.

“Yes. We cut pit-props for the English coal mines. Those are they you see stacked up. As soon as they are drier they will be shipped across. My father joined with some others in putting up the capital, and⁠—voila!” She indicated the clearing and its contents with a comprehensive sweep of her hand.

“By Jove! A jolly fine notion, too, I should say. You have everything handy⁠—trees handy, river handy⁠—I suppose from the look of that wharf that seagoing ships can come up?”

“Shallow draughted ones only. But we have our own motor ship specially built and always running. It makes the round trip in about ten days.”

“By Jove!” Merriman said again. “Splendid! And is that where you live?”

He pointed to a house standing on a little hillock near the edge of the clearing at the far or downstream side of the mill. It was a rough, but not uncomfortable-looking building of galvanized iron, one-storied and with a piazza in front. From a brick chimney a thin spiral of blue smoke was floating up lazily into the calm air.

The girl nodded.

“It’s not palatial, but it’s really wonderfully comfortable,” she explained, “and oh, the fires! I’ve never seen such glorious wood fires as we have. Cuttings, you know. We have more blocks than we know what to do with.”

“I can imagine. I wish we had ’em in London.”

They were walking not too rapidly across the clearing towards the mill. At the back of the shed were a number of doors, and opposite one of them, heading into the opening, stood the motor lorry. The engine was still running, but the driver had disappeared, apparently into the building. As the two came up, Merriman once more ran his eye idly over the vehicle. And then he felt a sudden mild surprise, as one feels when some unexpected though quite trivial incident takes place. He had felt sure that this lorry standing at the mill door was that which had passed him on the bridge, and which he had followed down the lane. But now he saw it wasn’t. He had noted, idly but quite distinctly, that the original machine was No. 4. This one had a precisely similar plate, but it bore the legend “The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 3.”

Though the matter was of no importance, Merriman was a little intrigued, and he looked more closely at the vehicle. As he did so his surprise grew and his trifling interest became mystification. The lorry was the same. At least there on the top was the casting, just as he had seen it. It was inconceivable that two similar lorries should have two identical castings arranged in the same way, and at the same time and place. And yet, perhaps it was just possible.

But as he looked he noticed a detail which settled the matter. The casting was steadied by some rough billets of wood. One of these billets was split, and a splinter of curious shape had partially entered a bolt hole. He recalled now, though it had slipped from his memory, that he had noticed that queer-shaped splinter as the lorry passed him on the bridge. It was therefore unquestionably and beyond a shadow of doubt the same machine.

Involuntarily he stopped and stood staring at the number plate, wondering if his recollection of that seen at the bridge could be at fault. He thought not. In fact, he was certain. He recalled the shape of the 4, which had an unusually small hollow in the middle. There was no shadow of doubt of this either. He remained motionless for a few seconds, puzzling over the problem, and was just about to remark on it when the girl broke in hurriedly.

“Father will be in the office,” she said, and her voice was sharpened as from anxiety. “Won’t you come and see him about the petrol?”

He looked at her curiously. The smile had gone from her lips, and her face was pale. She was frowning, and in her eyes there showed unmistakable fear. She was not looking at him, and his gaze followed the direction of hers.

The driver had come out of the shed, the same dark, aquiline-featured man as had passed him on the bridge. He had stopped and was staring at Merriman with an intense regard in which doubt and suspicion rapidly changed to hostility. For a moment neither man moved, and then once again the girl’s voice broke in.

“Oh, there is father,” she cried, with barely disguised relief in her tones. “Come, won’t you, and speak to him.”

The interruption broke the spell. The driver averted his eyes and stooped over his engine; Merriman turned towards the girl, and the little incident was over.

It was evident to Merriman that he had in some way put his foot in it, how he could not imagine, unless there was really something in the matter of the number plate. But it was equally clear to him that his companion wished to ignore the affair, and he therefore expelled it from his mind for the moment, and once again following the direction of her gaze, moved towards a man who was approaching from the far end of the shed.

He was tall and slender like his daughter, and walked with lithe, slightly feline movements. His face was oval, clear skinned, and with a pallid complexion made still paler by his dark hair and eyes and a tiny mustache, almost black and with waxed and pointed ends. He was good-looking as to features, but the face was weak and the expression a trifle shifty.

His daughter greeted him, still with some perturbation in her manner.

“We were just looking for you, daddy,” she called a little breathlessly. “This gentleman is cycling to Bordeaux and has run out of petrol. He asked me if there was any to be had hereabouts, so I told him you could give him some.”

The newcomer honored Merriman with a rapid though searching and suspicious glance, but he replied politely, and in a cultured voice:

“Quite right, my dear.” He turned to Merriman and spoke in French. “I shall be very pleased to supply you, monsieur. How much do you want?”

“Thanks awfully, sir,” Merriman answered in his own language. “I’m English. It’s very good of you, I’m sure, and I’m sorry to be giving so much trouble. A liter should run me to Bordeaux, or say a little more in case of accidents.”

“I’ll give you two liters. It’s no trouble at all.” He turned and spoke in rapid French to the driver.

Oui, monsieur,” the man replied, and then, stepping up to his chief, he said something in a low voice. The other started slightly, for a moment looked concerned, then instantly recovering himself, advanced to Merriman.

“Henri, here, will send a man with a two-liter can to where you have left your machine,” he said, then continued with a suave smile:

“And so, sir, you’re English? It is not often that we have the pleasure of meeting a fellow-countryman in these wilds.”

“I suppose not, sir, but I can assure you your pleasure and surprise is as nothing to mine. You are not only a fellow-countryman but a friend in need as well.”

“My dear sir, I know what it is to run out of spirit. And I suppose there is no place in the whole of France where you might go farther without finding any than this very district. You are on pleasure bent, I presume?”

Merriman shook his head.

“Unfortunately, no,” he replied. “I’m travelling for my firm, Edwards & Merriman, Wine Merchants of London. I’m Merriman, Seymour Merriman, and I’m going round the exporters with whom we deal.”

“A pleasant way to do it, Mr. Merriman. My name is Coburn. You see I am trying to change the face of the country here?”

“Yes, Miss”⁠—Merriman hesitated for a moment and looked at the girl⁠—“Miss Coburn told me what you were doing. A splendid notion, I think.”

“Yes, I think we are going to make it pay very well. I suppose you’re not making a long stay?”

“Two days in Bordeaux, sir, then I’m off east to Avignon.”

“Do you know, I rather envy you. One gets tired of these tree trunks and the noise of the saws. Ah, there is your petrol.” A workman had appeared with a red can of Shell. “Well, Mr. Merriman, a pleasant journey to you. You will excuse my not going farther with you, but I am really supposed to be busy.” He turned to his daughter with a smile. “You, Madeleine, can see Mr. Merriman to the road?”

He shook hands, declined Merriman’s request to be allowed to pay for the petrol and, cutting short the other’s thanks with a wave of his arm, turned back to the shed.

The two young people strolled slowly back across the clearing, the girl evidently disposed to make the most of the unwonted companionship, and Merriman no less ready to prolong so delightful an interview. But in spite of the pleasure of their conversation, he could not banish from his mind the little incident which had taken place, and he determined to ask a discreet question or two about it.

“I say,” he said, during a pause in their talk, “I’m afraid I upset your lorry man somehow. Did you notice the way he looked at me?”

The girl’s manner, which up to this had been easy and careless, changed suddenly, becoming constrained and a trifle self-conscious. But she answered readily enough.

“Yes, I saw it. But you must not mind Henri. He was badly shell-shocked, you know, and he has never been the same since.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Merriman apologised, wondering if the man could be a relative. “Both my brothers suffered from it. They were pretty bad, but they’re coming all right. It’s generally a question of time, I think.”

“I hope so,” Miss Coburn rejoined, and quietly but decisively changed the subject.

They began to compare notes about London, and Merriman was sorry when, having filled his tank and pushed his bicycle to the road, he could no longer with decency find an excuse for remaining in her company. He bade her a regretful farewell, and some half-hour later was mounting the steps of his hotel in Bordeaux.

That evening and many times later, his mind reverted to the incident of the lorry. At the time she made it, Miss Coburn’s statement about the shell-shock had seemed entirely to account for the action of Henri, the driver. But now Merriman was not so sure. The more he thought over the affair, the more certain he felt that he had not made a mistake about the number plate, and the more likely it appeared that the driver had guessed what he, Merriman, had noticed, and resented it. It seemed to him that there was here some secret which the man was afraid might become known, and Merriman could not but admit to himself that all Miss Coburn’s actions were consistent with the hypothesis that she also shared that secret and that fear.

And yet the idea was grotesque that there could be anything serious in the altering of the number plate of a motor lorry, assuming that he was not mistaken. Even if the thing had been done, it was a trivial matter and, so far as he could see, the motives for it, as well as its consequences, must be trivial. It was intriguing, but no one could imagine it to be important. As Merriman cycled eastward through France his interest in the affair gradually waned, and when, a fortnight later, he reached England, he had ceased to give it a serious thought.

But the image of Miss Coburn did not so quickly vanish from his imagination, and many times he regretted he had not taken an opportunity of returning to the mill to renew the acquaintanceship so unexpectedly begun.

II

An Interesting Suggestion

About ten o’clock on a fine evening towards the end of June, some six weeks after the incident described in the last chapter, Merriman formed one of a group of young men seated round the open window of the smoking room in the Rovers’ Club in Cranbourne Street. They had dined together, and were enjoying a slack hour and a little desultory conversation before moving on, some to catch trains to the suburbs, some to their chambers in town, and others to round off the evening with some livelier form of amusement. The Rovers had premises on the fourth floor of a large building near the Hippodrome. Its membership consisted principally of business and professional men, but there was also a sprinkling of members of Parliament, political secretaries, and minor government officials, who, though its position was not ideal, were attracted to it because of the moderation of its subscription and the excellence of its cuisine.

The evening was calm, and the sounds from the street below seemed to float up lazily to the little group in the open window, as the smoke of their pipes and cigars floated up lazily to the ceiling above. The gentle hum of the traffic made a pleasant accompaniment to their conversation, as the holding down of a soft pedal fills in and supports dreamy organ music. But for the six young men in the bow window the room was untenanted, save for a waiter who had just brought some fresh drinks, and who was now clearing away empty glasses from an adjoining table.

The talk had turned on foreign travel, and more than one member had related experiences which he had undergone while abroad. Merriman was tired and had been rather silent, but it was suddenly borne in on him that it was his duty, as one of the hosts of the evening, to contribute somewhat more fully towards the conversation. He determined to relate his little adventure at the sawmill of the Pit-Prop Syndicate. He therefore lit a fresh cigar, and began to speak.

“Any of you fellows know the country just south of Bordeaux?” he asked, and, as no one responded, he went on: “I know it a bit, for I have to go through it every year on my trip round the wine exporters. This year a rather queer thing happened when I was about half an hour’s run from Bordeaux; absolutely a trivial thing and of no importance, you understand, but it puzzled me. Maybe some of you could throw some light on it?”

“Proceed, my dear sir, with your trivial narrative,” invited Jelfs, a man sitting at one end of the group. “We shall give it the weighty consideration which it doubtless deserves.”

Jelfs was a stockbroker and the professional wit of the party. He was a good soul, but boring. Merriman took no notice of the interruption.

“It was between five and six in the evening,” he went on, and he told in some detail of his day’s run, culminating in his visit to the sawmill and his discovery of the alteration in the number of the lorry. He gave the facts exactly as they had occurred, with the single exception that he made no mention of his meeting with Madeleine Coburn.

“And what happened?” asked Drake, another of the men, when he had finished.

“Nothing more happened,” Merriman returned. “The manager came and gave me some petrol, and I cleared out. The point is, why should that number plate have been changed?”

Jelfs fixed his eyes on the speaker, and gave the little sidelong nod which indicated to the others that another joke was about to be perpetrated.

“You say,” he asked impressively, “that the lorry was at first 4 and then 3. Are you sure you haven’t made a mistake of 41?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean that it’s a common enough phenomenon for a No. 4 lorry to change, after lunch, let us say, into No. 44. Are you sure it wasn’t 44?”

Merriman joined in the laughter against him.

“It wasn’t forty-anything, you old blighter,” he said good-humoredly. “It was 4 on the road, and 3 at the mill, and I’m as sure of it as that you’re an amiable imbecile.”

“Inconclusive,” murmured Jelfs, “entirely inconclusive. But,” he persisted, “you must not hold back material evidence. You haven’t told us yet what you had at lunch.”

“Oh, stow it, Jelfs,” said Hilliard, a thin-faced, eager-looking young man who had not yet spoken. “Have you no theory yourself, Merriman?”

“None. I was completely puzzled. I would have mentioned it before, only it seemed to be making a mountain out of nothing.”

“I think Jelfs’ question should be answered, you know,” Drake said critically, and after some more good-natured chaff the subject dropped.

Shortly after one of the men had to leave to catch his train, and the party broke up. As they left the building Merriman found Hilliard at his elbow.

“Are you walking?” the latter queried. “If so I’ll come along.”

Claud Hilliard was the son of a clergyman in the Midlands, a keen, not to say brilliant student who had passed through both school and college with distinction, and was already at the age of eight-and-twenty making a name for himself on the headquarters staff of the Customs Department. His thin, eager face, with its hooked nose, pale blue eyes and light, rather untidy-looking hair, formed a true index of his nimble, somewhat speculative mind. What he did, he did with his might. He was keenly interested in whatever he took up, showing a tendency, indeed, to ride his hobbies to death. He had a particular penchant for puzzles of all kinds, and many a knotty problem brought to him as a last court of appeal received a surprisingly rapid and complete solution. His detractors, while admitting his ingenuity and the almost uncanny rapidity with which he seized on the essential facts of a case, said he was lacking in staying power, but if this were so, he had not as yet shown signs of it.

He and Merriman had first met on business, when Hilliard was sent to the wine merchants on some matter of Customs. The acquaintanceship thus formed had ripened into a mild friendship, though the two had not seen a great deal of each other.

They passed up Coventry Street and across the Circus into Piccadilly. Hilliard had a flat in a side street off Knightsbridge, while Merriman lived farther west in Kensington. At the door of the flat Hilliard stopped.

“Come in for a last drink, won’t you?” he invited. “It’s ages since you’ve been here.”

Merriman agreed, and soon the two friends were seated at another open window in the small but comfortable sitting-room of the flat.

They chatted for some time, and then Hilliard turned the conversation to the story Merriman had told in the club.

“You know,” he said, knocking the ash carefully off his cigar, “I was rather interested in that tale of yours. It’s quite an intriguing little mystery. I suppose it’s not possible that you could have made a mistake about those numbers?”

Merriman laughed.

“I’m not exactly infallible, and I have, once or twice in my life, made mistakes. But I don’t think I made one this time. You see, the only question is the number at the bridge. The number at the mill is certain. My attention was drawn to it, and I looked at it too often for there to be the slightest doubt. It was No. 3 as certainly as I’m alive. But the number at the bridge is different. There was nothing to draw my attention to it, and I only glanced at it casually. I would say that I was mistaken about it only for one thing. It was a black figure on a polished brass ground, and I particularly remarked that the black lines were very wide, leaving an unusually small brass triangle in the center. If I noticed that, it must have been a 4.”

Hilliard nodded.

“Pretty conclusive, I should say.” He paused for a few moments, then moved a little irresolutely. “Don’t think me impertinent, old man,” he went on with a sidelong glance, “but I imagined from your manner you were holding something back. Is there more in the story than you told?”

It was now Merriman’s turn to hesitate. Although Madeleine Coburn had been in his thoughts more or less continuously since he returned to town, he had never mentioned her name, and he was not sure that he wanted to now.

“Sorry I spoke, old man,” Hilliard went on. “Don’t mind answering.”

Merriman came to a decision.

“Not at all,” he answered slowly. “I’m a fool to make any mystery of it. I’ll tell you. There is a girl there, the manager’s daughter. I met her in the lane when I was following the lorry, and asked her about petrol. She was frightfully decent; came back with me and told her father what I wanted, and all that. But, Hilliard, here’s the point. She knew! There’s something, and she knows it too. She got quite scared when that driver fixed me with his eyes, and tried to get me away, and she was quite unmistakably relieved when the incident passed. Then later her father suggested she should see me to the road, and on the way I mentioned the thing⁠—said I was afraid I had upset the driver somehow⁠—and she got embarrassed at once, told me the man was shell-shocked, implying that he was queer, and switched off on to another subject so pointedly I had to let it go at that.”

Hilliard’s eyes glistened.

“Quite a good little mystery,” he said. “I suppose the man couldn’t have been a relation, or even her fiancé?”

“That occurred to me, and it is possible. But I don’t think so. I believe she wanted to try to account for his manner, so as to prevent my smelling a rat.”

“And she did not account for it?”

“Perhaps she did, but again I don’t think so. I have a pretty good knowledge of shell-shock, as you know, and it didn’t look like it to me. I don’t suggest she wasn’t speaking the truth. I mean that this particular action didn’t seem to be so caused.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Merriman continued:

“There was another thing which might bear in the same direction, or again it may only be my imagination⁠—I’m not sure of it. I told you the manager appeared just in the middle of the little scene, but I forgot to tell you that the driver went up to him and said something in a low tone, and the manager started and looked at me and seemed annoyed. But it was very slight and only for a second; I would have noticed nothing only for what went before. He was quite polite and friendly immediately after, and I may have been mistaken and imagined the whole thing.”

“But it works in,” Hilliard commented. “If the driver saw what you were looking at and your expression, he would naturally guess what you had noticed, and he would warn his boss that you had tumbled to it. The manager would look surprised and annoyed for a moment, then he would see he must divert your suspicion, and talk to you as if nothing had happened.”

“Quite. That’s just what I thought. But again, I may have been mistaken.”

They continued discussing the matter for some time longer, and then the conversation turned into other channels. Finally the clocks chiming midnight aroused Merriman, and he got up and said he must be going.

Three days later he had a note from Hilliard.

“Come in tonight about ten if you are doing nothing,” it read. “I have a scheme on, and I hope you’ll join in with me. Tell you when I see you.”

It happened that Merriman was not engaged that evening, and shortly after ten the two men were occupying the same armchairs at the same open window, their glasses within easy reach and their cigars well under way.

“And what is your great idea?” Merriman asked when they had conversed for a few moments. “If it’s as good as your cigars, I’m on.”

Hilliard moved nervously, as if he found a difficulty in replying. Merriman could see that he was excited, and his own interest quickened.

“It’s about that tale of yours,” Hilliard said at length. “I’ve been thinking it over.”

He paused as if in doubt. Merriman felt like Alice when she had heard the mock-turtle’s story, but he waited in silence, and presently Hilliard went on.

“You told it with a certain amount of hesitation,” he said. “You suggested you might be mistaken in thinking there was anything in it. Now I’m going to make a suggestion with even more hesitation, for it’s ten times wilder than yours, and there is simply nothing to back it up. But here goes all the same.”

His indecision had passed now, and he went on fluently and with a certain excitement.

“Here you have a trade with something fishy about it. Perhaps you think that’s putting it too strongly; if so, let us say there is something peculiar about it; something, at all events, to call one’s attention to it, as being in some way out of the common. And when we do think about it, what’s the first thing we discover?”

Hilliard looked inquiringly at his friend. The latter sat listening carefully, but did not speak, and Hilliard answered his own question.

“Why, that it’s an export trade from France to England⁠—an export trade only, mind you. As far as you learned, these people’s boat runs the pit-props to England, but carries nothing back. Isn’t that so?”

“They didn’t mention return cargoes,” Merriman answered, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. I did not go into the thing exhaustively.”

“But what could there be? What possible thing could be shipped in bulk from this country to the middle of a wood near Bordeaux? Something, mind you, that you, there at the very place, didn’t see. Can you think of anything?”

“Not at the moment. But I don’t see what that has to do with it.”

“Quite possibly nothing, and yet it’s an interesting point.”

“Don’t see it.”

“Well, look here. I’ve been making inquiries, and I find most of our pit-props come from Norway and the Baltic. But the ships that bring them don’t go back empty. They carry coal. Now do you see?”

It was becoming evident that Hilliard was talking of something quite definite, and Merriman’s interest increased still further.

“I daresay I’m a frightful ass,” he said, “but I’m blessed if I know what you’re driving at.”

“Costs,” Hilliard returned. “Look at it from the point of view of costs. Timber in Norway is as plentiful and as cheap to cut as in the Landes, indeed, possibly cheaper, for there is water there available for power. But your freight will be much less if you can get a return cargo. Therefore, a priori, it should be cheaper to bring props from Norway than from France. Do you follow me so far?”

Merriman nodded.

“If it costs the same amount to cut the props at each place,” Hilliard resumed, “and the Norwegian freight is lower, the Norwegian props must be cheaper in England. How then do your friends make it pay?”

“Methods more up to date perhaps. Things looked efficient, and that manager seemed pretty wide-awake.”

Hilliard shook his head.

“Perhaps, but I doubt it. I don’t think you have much to teach the Norwegians about the export of timber. Mind you, it may be all right, but it seems to me a question if the Bordeaux people have a paying trade.”

Merriman was puzzled.

“But it must pay or they wouldn’t go on with it. Mr. Coburn said it was paying well enough.”

Hilliard bent forward eagerly.

“Of course he would say so,” he cried. “Don’t you see that his saying so is in itself suspicious? Why should he want to tell you that if there was nothing to make you doubt it?”

“There is nothing to make me doubt it. See here, Hilliard, I don’t for the life of me know what you’re getting at. For the Lord’s sake explain yourself.”

“Ah,” Hilliard returned with a smile, “you see you weren’t brought up in the Customs. Do you know, Merriman, that the thing of all others we’re keenest on is an import trade that doesn’t pay?” He paused a moment, then added slowly: “Because if a trade which doesn’t pay is continued, there must be something else to make it pay. Just think, Merriman. What would make a trade from France to this country pay?”

Merriman gasped.

“By Jove, Hilliard! You mean smuggling?”

Hilliard laughed delightedly.

“Of course I mean smuggling, what else?”

He waited for the idea to sink into his companion’s brain, and then went on:

“And now another thing. Bordeaux, as no one knows better than yourself, is just the center of the brandy district. You see what I’m getting at. My department would naturally be interested in a mysterious trade from the Bordeaux district. You accidentally find one. See? Now what do you think of it?”

“I don’t think much of it,” Merriman answered sharply, while a wave of unreasoning anger passed over him. The suggestion annoyed him unaccountably. The vision of Madeleine Coburn’s clear, honest eyes returned forcibly to his recollection. “I’m afraid you’re out of it this time. If you had seen Miss Coburn you would have known she is not the sort of girl to lend herself to anything of that kind.”

Hilliard eyed his friend narrowly and with some surprise, but he only said:

“You think not? Well, perhaps you are right. You’ve seen her and I haven’t. But those two points are at least interesting⁠—the changing of the numbers and the absence of a return trade.”

“I don’t believe there’s anything in it.”

“Probably you’re right, but the idea interests me. I was going to make a proposal, but I expect now you won’t agree to it.”

Merriman’s momentary annoyance was subsiding.

“Let’s hear it anyway, old man,” he said in conciliatory tones.

“You get your holidays shortly, don’t you?”

“Monday week. My partner is away now, but he’ll be back on Wednesday. I go next.”

“I thought so. I’m going on mine next week⁠—taking the motor launch, you know. I had made plans for the Riviera⁠—to go by the Seine, and from there by canal to the Rhone and out at Marseilles. Higginson was coming with me, but as you know he’s crocked up and won’t be out of bed for a month. My proposal is that you come in his place, and that instead of crossing France in the orthodox way by the Seine, we try to work through from Bordeaux by the Garonne. I don’t know if we can do it, but it would be rather fun trying. But anyway the point would be that we should pay a call at your sawmill on the way, and see if we can learn anything more about the lorry numbers. What do you say?”

“Sounds jolly fascinating.” Merriman had quite recovered his good humor. “But I’m not a yachtsman. I know nothing about the business.”

“Pooh! What do you want to know? We’re not sailing, and motoring through these rivers and canals is great sport. And then we can go on to Monte and any of those places you like. I’ve done it before and had no end of a good time. What do you say? Are you on?”

“It’s jolly decent of you, I’m sure, Hilliard. If you think you can put up with a hopeless landlubber, I’m certainly on.”

Merriman was surprised to find how much he was thrilled by the proposal. He enjoyed boating, though only very mildly, and it was certainly not the prospect of endless journeyings along the canals and rivers of France that attracted him. Still less was it the sea, of which he hated the motion. Nor was it the question of the lorry numbers. He was puzzled and interested in the affair, and he would like to know the solution, but his curiosity was not desperately keen, and he did not feel like taking a great deal of trouble to satisfy it. At all events he was not going to do any spying, if that was what Hilliard wanted, for he did not for a moment accept that smuggling theory. But when they were in the neighbourhood he supposed it would be permissible to call and see the Coburns. Miss Coburn had seemed lonely. It would be decent to try to cheer her up. They might invite her on board, and have tea and perhaps a run up the river. He seemed to visualise the launch moving easily between the tree-clad banks, Hilliard attending to the engine and steering, he and the brown-eyed girl in the taffrail, or the cockpit, or the well, or whatever you sat in on a motor boat. He pictured a gloriously sunny afternoon, warm and delightful, with just enough air made by the movement to prevent it being too hot. It would⁠ ⁠…

Hilliard’s voice broke in on his thoughts, and he realised his friend had been speaking for some time.

“She’s over-engined, if anything,” he was saying, “but that’s all to the good for emergencies. I got fifteen knots out of her once, but she averages about twelve. And good in a seaway, too. For her size, as dry a boat as ever I was in.”

“What size is she?” asked Merriman.

“Thirty feet, eight feet beam, draws two feet ten. She’ll go down any of the French canals. Two four-cylinder engines, either of which will run her. Engines and wheel amidships, cabin aft, decked over. Oh, she’s a beauty. You’ll like her, I can tell you.”

“But do you mean to tell me you would cross the Bay of Biscay in a boat that size?”

“The Bay’s maligned. I’ve been across it six times and it was only rough once. Of course, I’d keep near the coast and run for shelter if it came on to blow. You need not worry. She’s as safe as a house.”

“I’m not worrying about her going to the bottom,” Merriman answered. “It’s much worse than that. The fact is,” he went on in a burst of confidence, “I can’t stand the motion. I’m ill all the time. Couldn’t I join you later?”

Hilliard nodded.

“I had that in my mind, but I didn’t like to suggest it. As a matter of fact it would suit me better. You see, I go on my holidays a week earlier than you. I don’t want to hang about all that time waiting for you. I’ll get a man and take the boat over to Bordeaux, send the man home, and you can come overland and join me there. How would that suit you?”

“A1, Hilliard. Nothing could be better.”

They continued discussing details for the best part of an hour, and when Merriman left for home it had been arranged that he should follow Hilliard by the night train from Charing Cross on the following Monday week.

III

The Start of the Cruise

Dusk was already falling when the 9 p.m. Continental boat-train pulled out of Charing Cross, with Seymour Merriman in the corner of a first-class compartment. It had been a glorious day of clear atmosphere and brilliant sunshine, and there was every prospect of a spell of good weather. Now, as the train rumbled over the bridge at the end of the station, sky and river presented a gorgeous color scheme of crimson and pink and gold, shading off through violet and grey to nearly black. Through the latticing of the girders the great buildings on the northern bank showed up for a moment against the light beyond, dark and somber masses with nicked and serrated tops, then, the river crossed, nearer buildings intervened to cut off the view, and the train plunged into the maze and wilderness of South London.

The little pleasurable excitement which Merriman had experienced when first the trip had been suggested had not waned as the novelty of the idea passed. Not since he was a boy at school had he looked forward so keenly to holidays. The launch, for one thing, would be a new experience. He had never been on any kind of cruise. The nearest approach had been a couple of days’ yachting on the Norfolk Broads, but he had found that monotonous and boring, and had been glad when it was over. But this, he expected, would be different. He delighted in poking about abroad, not in the great cosmopolitan hotels, which after all are very much the same all the world over, but where he came in contact with actual foreign life. And how better could a country be seen than by slowly motoring through its waterways? Merriman was well pleased with the prospect.

And then there would be Hilliard. Merriman had always enjoyed his company, and he felt he would be an ideal companion on a tour. It was true Hilliard had got a bee in his bonnet about this lorry affair. Merriman was mildly interested in the thing, but he would never have dreamed of going back to the sawmill to investigate. But Hilliard seemed quite excited about it. His attitude, no doubt, might be partly explained by his love of puzzles and mysteries. Perhaps also he half believed in his absurd suggestion about the smuggling, or at least felt that if it were true there was the chance of his making some coup which would also make his name. How a man’s occupation colours his mind! thought Merriman. Here was Hilliard, and because he was in the Customs his ideas ran to Customs operations, and when he came across anything he did not understand he at once suggested smuggling. If he had been a soldier he would have guessed gunrunning, and if a politician, a means of bringing anarchist literature into the country. Well, he had not seen Madeleine Coburn! He would soon drop so absurd a notion when he had met her. The idea of her being party to such a thing was too ridiculous even to be annoying.

However, Hilliard insisted on going to the mill, and he, Merriman, could then pay that call on the Coburns. It would not be polite to be in the neighbourhood and not do so. And it would be impossible to call without asking Miss Coburn to come on the river. As the train rumbled on through the rapidly darkening country Merriman began once again to picture the details of that excursion. No doubt they could have tea on board.⁠ ⁠… He mustn’t forget to buy some decent cakes in Bordeaux.⁠ ⁠… Perhaps she would help him to get it ready while Hilliard steered and pottered over his old engines.⁠ ⁠… He could just imagine her bending over a tea tray, her graceful figure, the little brown tendrils of her hair at the edge of her tam-o’-shanter, her brown eyes flashing up to meet his own.⁠ ⁠…

Dover came unexpectedly soon and Merriman had to postpone the further consideration of his plans until he had gone on board the boat and settled down in a corner of the smoker room. There, however, he fell asleep, not awaking until roused by the bustle of the arrival in Calais.

He reached Paris just before six and drove to the Gare Quai d’Orsay, where he had time for a bath and breakfast before catching the 7:50 a.m. express for Bordeaux. Again it was a perfect day, and as the hours passed and they ran steadily southward through the pleasing but monotonous central plain of France, the heat grew more and more oppressive. Poitiers was hot, Angoulême an oven, and Merriman was not sorry when at a quarter to five they came in sight of the Garonne at the outskirts of Bordeaux and a few moments later pulled up in the Bastide Station.

Hilliard was waiting at the platform barrier.

“Hallo, old man,” he cried. “Jolly to see you. Give me one of your handbags. I’ve got a taxi outside.”

Merriman handed over the smaller of the two small suitcases he carried, having, in deference to Hilliard’s warnings, left behind most of the things he wanted to bring. They found the taxi and drove out at once across the great stone bridge leading from the Bastide Station and suburb on the east bank to the main city on the west. In front of them lay the huge concave sweep of quays fronting the Garonne, here a river of over a quarter of a mile in width, with behind the massed buildings of the town, out of which here and there rose church spires and, farther downstream, the three imposing columns of the Place des Quinconces.

“Some river, this,” Merriman said, looking up and down the great sweep of water.

“Rather. I have the Swallow ’longside a private wharf farther upstream. Rather tumbled down old shanty, but it’s easier than mooring in the stream and rowing out. We’ll go and leave your things aboard, and then we can come up town again and get some dinner.”

“Right-o,” Merriman agreed.

Having crossed the bridge they turned to the left, upstream, and ran along the quays towards the south. After passing the railway bridge the taxi swung down towards the water’s edge, stopping at a somewhat decrepit enclosure, over the gate of which was the legend “Andre Leblanc, Location de Canots.” Hilliard jumped out, paid the taxi man, and, followed by Merriman, entered the enclosure.

It was a small place, with a wooden quay along the river frontage and a shed at the opposite side. Between the two lay a number of boats. Trade appeared to be bad, for there was no life about the place and everything was dirty and decaying.

“There she is,” Hilliard cried, with a ring of pride in his voice. “Isn’t she a beauty?”

The Swallow was tied up alongside the wharf, her bow upstream, and lay tugging at her mooring ropes in the swift run of the ebb tide. Merriman’s first glance at her was one of disappointment. He had pictured a graceful craft of well-polished wood, with white deck planks, shining brasswork and cushioned seats. Instead he saw a square-built, clumsy-looking boat, painted, where the paint was not worn off, a sickly greenish white, and giving a general impression of dirt and want of attention. She was flush-decked, and sat high in the water, with a freeboard of nearly five feet. A little forward of amidships was a small deck cabin containing a brass wheel and binnacle. Aft of the cabin, in the middle of the open space of the deck, was a skylight, the top of which formed two short seats placed back to back. Forward rose a stumpy mast carrying a lantern cage near the top, and still farther forward, almost in the bows, lay an unexpectedly massive anchor, housed in grids, with behind it a small hand winch for pulling in the chain.

“We had a bit of a blow coming round the Coubre into the river,” Hilliard went on enthusiastically, “and I tell you she didn’t ship a pint. The cabin bone dry, and green water coming over her all the time.”

Merriman could believe it. Though his temporary home was not beautiful, he could see that she was strong; in fact, she was massive. But he thanked his stars he had not assisted in the test. He shuddered at the very idea, thinking gratefully that to reach Bordeaux the Paris-Orleans Railway was good enough for him.

But, realizing it was expected of him, he began praising the boat, until the unsuspecting Hilliard believed him as enthusiastic as himself.

“Yes, she’s all of that,” he agreed. “Come aboard and see the cabin.”

They descended a flight of steps let into the front of the wharf, wet, slippery, ooze-covered steps left bare by the receding tide, and stepping over the side entered the tiny deckhouse.

“This is the chart-house, shelter, and companionway all in one,” Hilliard explained. “All the engine controls come up here, and I can reach them with my left hand while steering with my right.” He demonstrated as he spoke, and Merriman could not but agree that the arrangements were wonderfully compact and efficient.

“Come below now,” went on the proud owner, disappearing down a steep flight of steps against one wall of the house.

The hull was divided into three compartments; amidships the engine room with its twin engines, forward a store containing among other things a collapsible boat, and aft a cabin with lockers on each side, a folding table between them, and a marble-topped cupboard on which was a Primus stove.

The woodwork was painted the same greenish white as the outside, but it was soiled and dingy, and the whole place looked dirty and untidy. There was a smell of various oils, paraffin predominating.

“You take the port locker,” Hilliard explained. “You see, the top of it lifts and you can stow your things in it. When there are only two of us we sleep on the lockers. You’ll find a sheet and blankets inside. There’s a board underneath that turns up to keep you in if she’s rolling; not that we shall want it until we get to the Mediterranean. I’m afraid,” he went on, answering Merriman’s unspoken thought, “the place is not very tidy. I hadn’t time to do much squaring⁠—I’ll tell you about that later. I suppose”⁠—reluctantly⁠—“we had better turn to and clean up a bit before we go to bed. But”⁠—brightening up again⁠—“not now. Let’s go up town and get some dinner as soon as you are ready.”

He fussed about, explaining with the loving and painstaking minuteness of the designer as well as the owner, the various contraptions the boat contained, and when he had finished, Merriman felt that, could he but remember his instructions, there were few situations with which he could not cope or by which he could be taken unawares.

A few minutes later the two friends climbed once more up the slippery steps, and, strolling slowly up the town, entered one of the large restaurants in the Place de la Comedie.

Since Merriman’s arrival Hilliard had talked vivaciously, and his thin, hawk-like face had seemed even more eager than the wine merchant had ever before seen it. At first the latter had put it down to the natural interest of his own arrival, the showing of the boat to a newcomer, and the start of the cruise generally, but as dinner progressed he began to feel there must be some more tangible cause for the excitement his friend was so obviously feeling. It was not Merriman’s habit to beat about the bush.

“What is it?” he asked during a pause in the conversation.

“What is what?” returned Hilliard, looking uncomprehendingly at his friend.

“Wrong with you. Here you are, jumping about as if you were on pins and needles and gabbling at the rate of a thousand words a minute. What’s all the excitement about?”

“I’m not excited,” Hilliard returned seriously, “but I admit being a little interested by what has happened since we parted that night in London. I haven’t told you yet. I was waiting until we had finished dinner and could settle down. Let’s go and sit in the Jardin and you shall hear.”

Leaving the restaurant, they strolled to the Place des Quinconces, crossed it, and entered the Jardin Public. The band was not playing and, though there were a number of people about, the place was by no means crowded, and they were able to find under a large tree set back a little from one of the walks, two vacant chairs. Here they sat down, enjoying the soft evening air, warm but no longer too warm, and watching the promenading Bordelais.

“Yes,” Hilliard resumed as he lit a cigar, “I have had quite an interesting time. You shall hear. I got hold of Maxwell of the telephones, who is a yachtsman, and who was going to Spain on holidays. Well, the boat was laid up at Southampton, and we got down about midday on Monday week. We spent that day overhauling her and getting in stores, and on Tuesday we ran down Channel, putting into Dartmouth for the night and to fill with petrol. Next day was our big day⁠—across to Brest, something like 170 miles, mostly open sea, and with Ushant at the end of it⁠—a beastly place, generally foggy and always with bad currents. We intended to wait in the Dart for good weather, and we wired the Meteorological Office for forecasts. It happened that on Tuesday night there was a first-rate forecast, so on Wednesday we decided to risk it. We slipped out past the old castle at Dartmouth at 5 a.m., had a topping run, and were in Brest at seven that evening. There we filled up again, and next day, Thursday, we made St. Nazaire, at the mouth of the Loire. We had intended to make a long day of it on Friday and come right here, but as I told you it came on to blow a bit off the Coubre, and we could only make the mouth of the river. We put into a little place called Le Verdon, just inside the Pointe de Grave⁠—that’s the end of that fork of land on the southern side of the Gironde estuary. On Saturday we got here about midday, hunted around, found that old wharf and moored. Maxwell went on the same evening to Spain.”

Hilliard paused, while Merriman congratulated him on his journey.

“Yes, we hadn’t bad luck,” he resumed. “But that really wasn’t what I wanted to tell you about. I had brought a fishing rod and outfit, and on Sunday I took a car and drove out along the Bayonne Road until I came to your bridge over that river⁠—the Lesque I find it is. I told the chap to come back for me at six, and I walked down the river and did a bit of prospecting. The works were shut, and by keeping the mill building between me and the manager’s house, I got close up and had a good look round unobserved⁠—at least, I think I was unobserved. Well, I must say the whole business looked genuine. There’s no question those tree cuttings are pit-props, and I couldn’t see a single thing in the slightest degree suspicious.”

“I told you there could be nothing really wrong,” Merriman interjected.

“I know you did, but wait a minute. I got back to the forest again in the shelter of the mill building, and I walked around through the trees and chose a place for what I wanted to do next morning. I had decided to spend the day watching the lorries going to and from the works, and I naturally wished to remain unobserved myself. The wood, as you know, is very open. The trees are thick, but there is very little undergrowth, and it’s nearly impossible to get decent cover. But at last I found a little hollow with a mound between it and the lane and road⁠—just a mere irregularity in the surface like what a Tommy would make when he began to dig himself in. I thought I could lie there unobserved, and see what went on with my glass. I have a very good prism monocular⁠—twenty-five diameter magnification, with a splendid definition. From my hollow I could just see through the trees vehicles passing along the main road, but I had a fairly good view of the lane for at least half its length. The view, of course, was broken by the stems, but still I should be able to tell if any games were tried on. I made some innocent looking markings so as to find the place again, and then went back to the river and so to the bridge and my taxi.”

Hilliard paused and drew at his cigar. Merriman did not speak. He was leaning forward, his face showing the interest he felt.

“Next morning, that was yesterday, I took another taxi and returned to the bridge, again dressed as a fisherman. I had brought some lunch, and I told the man to return for me at seven in the evening. Then I found my hollow, lay down and got out my glass. I was settled there a little before nine o’clock.

“It was very quiet in the wood. I could hear faintly the noise of the saws at the mill and a few birds were singing, otherwise it was perfectly still. Nothing happened for about half an hour, then the first lorry came. I heard it for some time before I saw it. It passed very slowly along the road from Bordeaux, then turned into the lane and went along it at almost walking pace. With my glass I could see it distinctly and it had a label plate same as you described, and was No. 6. It was empty. The driver was a young man, clean-shaven and fairhaired.

“A few minutes later a second empty lorry appeared coming from Bordeaux. It was No. 4, and the driver was, I am sure, the man you saw. He was like your description of him at all events. This lorry also passed along the lane towards the works.

“There was a pause then for an hour or more. About half-past ten the No. 4 lorry with your friend appeared coming along the lane outward bound. It was heavily loaded with firewood and I followed it along, going very slowly and bumping over the inequalities of the lane. When it got to a point about a hundred yards from the road, at, I afterwards found, an S curve which cut off the view in both directions, it stopped and the driver got down. I need not tell you that I watched him carefully and, Merriman, what do you, think I saw him do?”

“Change the number plate?” suggested Merriman with a smile.

“Change the number plate!” repeated Hilliard. “As I’m alive, that’s exactly what he did. First on one side and then on the other. He changed the 4 to a 1. He took the 1 plates out of his pocket and put the 4 plates back instead, and the whole thing just took a couple of seconds, as if the plates slipped in and out of a holder. Then he hopped up into his place again and started off. What do you think of that?”

“Goodness only knows,” Merriman returned slowly. “An extraordinary business.”

“Isn’t it? Well, that lorry went on out of sight. I waited there until after six, and four more passed. About eleven o’clock No. 6 with the clean-shaven driver passed out, loaded, so far as I could see, with firewood. That was the one that passed in empty at nine. Then there was a pause until half past two, when your friend returned with his lorry. It was empty this time, and it was still No. 1. But I’m blessed, Merriman, if he didn’t stop at the same place and change the number back to 4!”

“Lord!” said Merriman tersely, now almost as much interested as his friend.

“It only took a couple of seconds, and then the machine lumbered on towards the mill. I was pretty excited, I can tell you, but I decided to sit tight and await developments. The next thing was the return of No. 6 lorry and the clean-shaven driver. You remember it had started out loaded at about eleven. It came back empty shortly after the other, say about a quarter to three. It didn’t stop and there was no change made with its number. Then there was another pause. At half past three your friend came out again with another load. This time he was driving No. 1, and I waited to see him stop and change it. But he didn’t do either. Sailed away with the number remaining 1. Queer, isn’t it?”

Merriman nodded and Hilliard resumed.

“I stayed where I was, still watching, but I saw no more lorries. But I saw Miss Coburn pass about ten minutes later⁠—at least I presume it was Miss Coburn. She was dressed in brown, and was walking smartly along the lane towards the road. In about an hour she passed back. Then about five minutes past five some workmen went by⁠—evidently the day ends at five. I waited until the coast was clear, then went down to the lane and had a look round where the lorry had stopped and saw it was a double bend and therefore the most hidden point. I walked back through the wood to the bridge, picked up my taxi and got back here about half past seven.”

There was silence for some minutes after Hilliard ceased speaking, then Merriman asked:

“How long did you say those lorries were away unloading?”

“About four hours.”

“That would have given them time to unload in Bordeaux?”

“Yes; an hour and a half, the same out, and an hour in the city. Yes, that part of it is evidently right enough.”

Again silence reigned, and again Merriman broke it with a question.

“You have no theory yourself?”

“Absolutely none.”

“Do you think that driver mightn’t have some private game of his own on⁠—be somehow doing the syndicate?”

“What about your own argument?” answered Hilliard. “Is it likely Miss Coburn would join the driver in anything shady? Remember, your impression was that she knew.”

Merriman nodded.

“That’s right,” he agreed, continuing slowly: “Supposing for a moment it was smuggling. How would that help you to explain this affair?”

“It wouldn’t. I can get no light anywhere.”

The two men smoked silently, each busy with his thoughts. A certain aspect of the matter which had always lain subconsciously in Merriman’s mind was gradually taking concrete form. It had not assumed much importance when the two friends were first discussing their trip, but now that they were actually at grips with the affair it was becoming more obtrusive, and Merriman felt it must be faced. He therefore spoke again.

“You know, old man, there’s one thing I’m not quite clear about. This affair that you’ve discovered is extraordinarily interesting and all that, but I’m hanged if I can see what business of ours it is.”

Hilliard nodded swiftly.

“I know,” he answered quickly. “The same thing has been bothering me. I felt really mean yesterday when that girl came by, as if I were spying on her, you know. I wouldn’t care to do it again. But I want to go on to this place and see into the thing farther, and so do you.”

“I don’t know that I do specially.”

“We both do,” Hilliard reiterated firmly, “and we’re both justified. See here. Take my case first. I’m in the Customs Department, and it is part of my job to investigate suspicious import trades. Am I not justified in trying to find out if smuggling is going on? Of course I am. Besides, Merriman, I can’t pretend not to know that if I brought such a thing to light I should be a made man. Mind you, we’re not out to do these people any harm, only to make sure they’re not harming us. Isn’t that sound?”

“That may be all right for you, but I can’t see that the affair is any business of mine.”

“I think it is.” Hilliard spoke very quietly. “I think it’s your business and mine⁠—the business of any decent man. There’s a chance that Miss Coburn may be in danger. We should make sure.”

Merriman sat up sharply.

“In Heaven’s name, what do you mean, Hilliard?” he cried fiercely. “What possible danger could she be in?”

“Well, suppose there is something wrong⁠—only suppose, I say,” as the other shook his head impatiently. “If there is, it’ll be on a big scale, and therefore the men who run it won’t be over squeamish. Again, if there’s anything, Miss Coburn knows about it. Oh, yes, she does,” he repeated as Merriman would have dissented, “there is your own evidence. But if she knows about some large, shady undertaking, she undoubtedly may be in both difficulty and danger. At all events, as long as the chance exists it’s up to us to make sure.”

Merriman rose to his feet and began to pace up and down, his head bent and a frown on his face. Hilliard took no notice of him and presently he came back and sat down again.

“You may be right,” he said. “I’ll go with you to find that out, and that only. But I’ll not do any spying.”

Hilliard was satisfied with his diplomacy. “I quite see your point,” he said smoothly, “and I confess I think you are right. We’ll go and take a look round, and if we find things are all right we’ll come away again and there’s no harm done. That agreed?”

Merriman nodded.

“What’s the program then?” he asked.

“I think tomorrow we should take the boat round to the Lesque. It’s a good long run and we mustn’t be late getting away. Would five be too early for you?”

“Five? No, I don’t mind if we start now.”

“The tide begins to ebb at four. By five we shall get the best of its run. We should be out of the river by nine, and in the Lesque by four in the afternoon. Though that mill is only seventeen miles from here as the crow flies, it’s a frightful long way round by sea, most of 130 miles, I should say.” Hilliard looked at his watch. “Eleven o’clock. Well, what about going back to the Swallow and turning in?”

They left the Jardin, and, sauntering slowly through the well-lighted streets, reached the launch and went on board.

IV

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.

V

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?”

“Never.”

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.

VI

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.

VII

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.”

“Well?”

“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.

VIII

The Unloading of the Girondin

After breakfast Hilliard disappeared. He went out ostensibly to post a letter, but it was not until nearly three o’clock that he turned up again.

“Sorry, old man,” he greeted Merriman, “but when I was going to the post office this morning an idea struck me, and it took me longer to follow up than I anticipated. I’ll tell you. I suppose you realise that life in that barrel won’t be very happy for the victim?”

“It’ll be damnable,” Merriman agreed succinctly, “but we needn’t worry about that; we’re in for it.”

“Oh, quite,” Hilliard returned. “But just for that reason we don’t want more of it than is necessary. We could easily bury ourselves twenty-four hours too soon.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that we mustn’t go back to the wharf until the night before the Girondin arrives.”

“Don’t see how we can be sure of that.”

“Nor did I till I posted my letter. Then I got my idea. It seemed worth following up, so I went round the shipping offices until I found a file of Lloyd’s List. As you know it’s a daily paper which gives the arrivals and departures of all ships at the world’s ports. My notion was that if we could make a list of the Girondin’s Ferriby arrivals and departures, say, during the last three months, and if we found she ran her trip regularly, we could forecast when she would be next due. Follow me?”

“Rather.”

“I had no trouble getting out my list, but I found it a bit disappointing. The trip took either ten, eleven, or twelve days, and for a long time I couldn’t discover the ruling factor. Then I found it was Sunday. If you omit each Sunday the Girondin is in port, the round trip always takes the even ten days. I had the Lesque arrival and departure for that one trip when we were there, so I was able to make out the complete cycle. She takes two days in the Lesque to load, three to run to Hull, two at Ferriby to discharge, and three to return to France. Working from that and her last call here, she should be due back early on Friday morning.”

“Good!” Merriman exclaimed. “Jolly good! And today is Thursday. We’ve just time to get ready.”

They went out and bought a one-inch auger and a three-sixteenths bradawl, a thick footstool and a satchel. This latter they packed with a loaf, some cheese, a packet of figs, a few bottles of soda water and a flask of whisky. These, with their caps, rubber shoes, electric torches and the black cloth, they carried to their boat; then returning to the hotel, they spent the time resting there until eleven o’clock. Solemnly they drew lots for the first watch, recognizing that the matter was by no means a joke, as, if unloading were carried on by night, relief might be impossible during the ship’s stay. But Merriman, to whom the fates were propitious, had no fear of his ability to hold out even for this period.

By eleven-thirty they were again sculling up the river. The weather was as perfect as that of the night before, except that on this occasion a faint westerly breeze had covered the surface of the water with myriads of tiny wavelets, which lapped and gurgled round the stem of their boat as they drove it gently through them. They did not hurry, and it was after one before they moored to the depot steps.

All was dark and silent above, as, carrying their purchases, they mounted to the wharf and crept stealthily to the barrel. Carefully they raised the lid, and Merriman, standing on the footstool, with some difficulty squeezed himself inside. Hilliard then lifted the footstool on to the rim and lowered the lid on to it, afterwards passing in through the opening thus left the satchel of food and the one-inch auger.

A means of observation now remained to be made. Two holes, they thought, should afford all the view necessary, one looking towards the front of the wharf, and the other at right angles, along the side of the shed. Slowly, from the inside, Merriman began to bore. He made a sound like the nibbling of a mouse, but worked at irregular speeds so as not to suggest human agency to anyone who might be awake and listening. Hilliard, with his hand on the outside of the barrel, stopped the work when he felt the point of the auger coming through, and he himself completed the hole from the outside with his bradawl. This gave an aperture imperceptible on the rough exterior, but large within, and enabled the watcher to see through a much wider angle than he could otherwise have done. Hilliard then once more raised the lid, allowing Merriman to lift the footstool within, where it was destined to act as a seat for the observer.

All was now complete, and with a whispered exchange of good wishes, Hilliard withdrew, having satisfied himself by a careful look round that no traces had been left. Regaining the boat, he loosed the painter and pulled gently away into the night.

Left to himself in the confined space and inky blackness of the cask, Merriman proceeded to take stock of his position. He was anxious if possible to sleep, not only to pass some of the time, which at the best would inevitably be terribly long, but also that he might be the more wakeful when his attention should be required. But his unusual surroundings stimulated his imagination, and he could not rest.

He was surprised that the air was so good. Fortunately, the hole through the lid which received the down spout was of large dimensions, so that even though he might not have plenty of air, he would be in no danger of asphyxiation.

The night was very still. Listening intently, he could not hear the slightest sound. The silence and utter darkness indeed soon became overpowering, and he took his watch from his pocket that he might have the companionship of its ticking and see the glimmering hands and ring of figures.

He gave himself up for the thousandth time to the consideration of the main problem. What were the syndicate people doing? Was Mr. Coburn liable to prosecution, to penal servitude? Was it possible that by some twist of the legal mind, some misleading circumstantial evidence, Miss Coburn⁠—Madeleine⁠—could be incriminated? Oh, if he but knew what was wrong, that he might be able to help! If he could but get her out of it, and for her sake Mr. Coburn! If they were once safe he could pass on his knowledge to the police and be quit of the whole business. But always there was this enveloping cloak of ignorance baffling him at every turn. He did not know what was wrong, and any step he attempted might just precipitate the calamity he most desired to avoid.

Suppose he went and asked her? This idea had occurred to him many times before, and he had always rejected it as impracticable. But suppose he did? The danger was that she might be alarmed or displeased, that she might refuse to admit there was anything wrong and forbid him to refer to the matter again or even send him away altogether. And he felt he was not strong enough to risk that. No, he must know where he stood first. He must understand his position, so as not to bungle the thing. Hilliard was right. They must find out what the syndicate was doing. There was no other way.

So the hours dragged slowly away, but at last after interminable ages had gone by, Merriman noticed two faint spots of light showing at his eyeholes. Seating himself on his footstool, he bent forward and put his eye first to one and then to the other.

It was still the cold, dead light of early dawn before the sun had come to awaken colour and sharpen detail, but the main outlines of objects were already clear. As Merriman peered out he saw with relief that no mistake had been made as to his outlooks. From one hole or the other he could see the entire area of the wharf.

It was about five a.m., and he congratulated himself that what he hoped was the most irksome part of his vigil was over. Soon the place would awaken to life, and the time would then pass more quickly in observation of what took place.

But the three hours that elapsed before anything happened seemed even longer than those before dawn. Then, just as his watch showed eight o’clock, he heard a key grind in a lock, a door opened, and a man stepped out of the shed on the wharf.

He was a young fellow, slight in build, with an extremely alert and intelligent face, but a rather unpleasant expression. The sallowness of his complexion was emphasised by his almost jet black hair and dark eyes. He was dressed in a loose grey Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, but wore no hat. He moved forward three or four feet and stood staring downstream towards Hull.

“I see her, Tom,” he called out suddenly to someone in the shed behind. “She’s just coming round the point.”

There was another step and a second man appeared. He was older and looked like a foreman. His face was a contrast to that of the other. In it the expression was good⁠—kindly, reliable, honest⁠—but ability was not marked. He looked a decent, plodding, stupid man. He also stared eastward.

“Ay,” he said slowly. “She’s early.”

“Two hours,” the first agreed. “Didn’t expect her till between ten and eleven.”

The other murmured something about “getting things ready,” and disappeared back into the shed. Presently came the sounds of doors being opened, and some more empty Decauville trucks were pushed out on to the wharf. At intervals both men reappeared and looked downstream, evidently watching the approach of the ship.

Some half an hour passed, and then an increase of movement seemed to announce her arrival. The manager walked once more down the wharf, followed by the foreman and four other men⁠—apparently the whole staff⁠—among whom was the bovine-looking fellow whom the friends had tried to pump on their first visit to the locality. Then came a long delay during which Merriman could catch the sound of a ship’s telegraph and the churning of the screw, and at last the bow of the Girondin appeared, slowly coming in. Ropes were flung, caught, slipped over bollards, drawn taut, made fast⁠—and she was berthed.

Captain Beamish was on the bridge, and as soon as he could, the manager jumped aboard and ran up the steps and joined him there. In a few seconds both men disappeared into the captain’s cabin.

The foreman and his men followed on board and began in a leisurely way to get the hatches open, but for at least an hour no real activity was displayed. Then work began in earnest. The clearing of the hatches was completed, the ship’s winches were started, and the unloading of the props began.

This was simply a reversal of the procedure they had observed at the clearing. The props were swung out in bundles by the Girondin’s crew, lowered on to the Decauville trucks, and pushed by the depot men back through the shed, the empty trucks being returned by another road, and brought by means of the turntables to the starting point. The young manager watched the operations and took a tally of the props.

Merriman kept a close eye on the proceedings, and felt certain he was witnessing everything that was taking place. Every truckload of props passed within ten feet of his hiding place, and he was satisfied that if anything other than props were put ashore he would infallibly see it. But the close watching was a considerable strain, and he soon began to grow tired. He had some bread and fruit and a whisky and soda, and though he would have given a good deal for a smoke, he felt greatly refreshed.

The work kept on without intermission until one o’clock, when the men knocked off for dinner. At two they began again, and worked steadily all through the afternoon until past seven. During all that time only two incidents, both trifling, occurred to relieve the monotony of the proceedings. Early in the forenoon Bulla appeared, and under his instructions the end of the flexible hose from the crude oil tank was carried aboard and connected by a union to a pipe on the lower deck. A wheel valve at the tank was turned, and Merriman could see the hose move and stiffen as the oil began to flow through it. An hour later the valve was turned off, the hose relaxed, the union was uncoupled and the hose, dripping black oil, was carried back and left in its former place on the wharf. The second incident was that about three o’clock Captain Beamish and Bulla left the ship together and went out through the shed.

Merriman was now horribly tired, and his head ached intolerably from the strain and the air of the barrel, which had by this time become very impure. But he reflected that now when the men had left was the opportunity of the conspirators. The time for which he had waited was approaching, and he nerved himself to resist the drowsiness which was stealing over him and which threatened the success of his vigil.

But hour after hour slowly dragged past and nothing happened. Except for the occasional movement of one of the crew on the ship, the whole place seemed deserted. It was not till well after ten, when dusk had fallen, that he suddenly heard voices.

At first he could not distinguish the words, but the tone was Bulla’s, and from the sounds it was clear the engineer and some others were approaching. Then Beamish spoke:

“You’d better keep your eyes open anyway,” he said. “Morton says they only stayed at work about a week. They’re off somewhere now. Morton couldn’t discover where, but he’s trying to trace them.”

“I’m not afraid of them,” returned the manager’s voice. “Even if they found this place, which of course they might, they couldn’t find out anything else. We’ve got too good a site.”

“Well, don’t make the mistake of underestimating their brains,” counseled Beamish, as the three men moved slowly down the wharf. Merriman, considerably thrilled, watched them go on board and disappear into the captain’s cabin.

So it was clear, then, that he and Hilliard were seriously suspected by the syndicate and were being traced by their spy! What luck would the spy have? And if he succeeded in his endeavor, what would be their fortune? Merriman was no coward, but he shivered slightly as he went over in his mind the steps of their present quest, and realised how far they had failed to cover their traces, how at stage after stage they had given themselves away to anyone who cared to make a few inquiries. What fools, he thought, they were not to have disguised themselves! Simple disguises would have been quite enough. No doubt they would not have deceived personal friends, but they would have made all the difference to a stranger endeavoring to trace them from descriptions and those confounded photographs. Then they should not have travelled together to Hull, still less have gone to the same hotel. It was true they had had the sense to register under false names, but that would be but a slight hindrance to a skillful investigator. But their crowning folly, in Merriman’s view, was the hiring of the boat and the starting off at night from the docks and arriving back there in the morning. What they should have done, he now thought bitterly, was to have taken a boat at Grimsby or some other distant town and kept it continuously, letting no one know when they set out on or returned from their excursions.

But there was no use in crying over spilt milk. Merriman repeated to himself the adage, though he did not find it at all comforting. Then his thoughts passed on to the immediate present, and he wondered whether he should not try to get out of the barrel and emulate Hilliard’s exploit in boarding the Girondin and listening to the conversation in the captain’s cabin. But he soon decided he must keep to the arranged plan, and make sure nothing was put ashore from the ship under cover of darkness.

Once again ensued a period of waiting, during which the time dragged terribly heavily. Everything without was perfectly still, until at about half past eleven the door of the captain’s cabin opened and its three occupants came out into the night. The starboard deck light was on and by its light Merriman could see the manager take his leave, cross the gangway, pass up the wharf and enter the shed. Bulla went down towards his cabin door and Beamish, snapping off the deck light, returned to his. In about fifteen minutes his light also went out and complete darkness and silence reigned.

Some two hours later Merriman, who had kept awake and on guard only by the most determined effort, heard a gentle tap on the barrel and a faint “Hist!” The lid was slowly raised, and to his intense relief he was able to stand upright and greet Hilliard crouching without.

“Any news?” queried the latter in the faintest of whispers.

“Absolutely none. Not a single thing came out of that boat but props. I had a splendid view all the time. Except this, Hilliard”⁠—Merriman’s whisper became more intense⁠—“They suspect us and are trying to trace us.”

“Let them try,” breathed Hilliard. “Here, take this in.”

He handed over the satchel of fresh food and took out the old one. Then Merriman climbed out, held up the lid until Hilliard had taken his place, wished his friend good luck, and passing like a shadow along the wharf, noiselessly descended the steps and reached the boat. A few seconds later he had drifted out of sight of the depot, and was pulling with long, easy strokes downstream.

The air and freedom felt incredibly good after his long confinement, and it was a delight to stretch his muscles at the oars. So hard did he row that it was barely three when he reached the boat slip in Hull. There he tied up the skiff and walked to the hotel. Before four he was sound asleep in his room.

That evening about seven as he strolled along the waterfront waiting until it should be time to take out his boat, he was delighted to observe the Girondin pass out to sea. He had dreaded having to take another twenty-four hours’ trick in the cask, which would have been necessary had the ship not left that evening. Now all that was needed was a little care to get Hilliard out, and the immediate job would be done.

He took out the boat about eleven and duly reached the wharf. All was in darkness, and he crept to the barrel and softly raised the lid.

Hilliard was exhausted from the long strain, but with his friend’s help he succeeded in clambering out, having first examined the floor of the barrel to see that nothing had been overlooked, as well as plugging the two holes with corks. They regained the boat in silence, and it was not until they were some distance from the wharf that either spoke.

“My goodness! Merriman,” Hilliard said at last, “but that was an awful experience! You left the air in that cursed barrel bad, and it got steadily worse until I thought I should have died or had to lift the lid and give the show away. It was just everything I could do to keep going till the ship left.”

“But did you see anything?” Merriman demanded eagerly.

“See anything? Not a blessed thing! We are barking up the wrong tree, Merriman. I’ll stake my life nothing came out of that boat but props. No; what those people are up to I don’t know, but there’s one thing a dead cert, and that is that they’re not smuggling.”

They rowed on in silence, Hilliard almost sick with weariness and disappointment, Merriman lost in thought over their problem. It was still early when they reached their hotel, and they followed Merriman’s plan of the morning before and went straight to bed.

Next day they spent in the hotel lounge, gloomily smoking and at intervals discussing the affair. They had admitted themselves outwitted⁠—up to the present at all events. And neither could suggest any further step. There seemed to be no line of investigation left which might bear better fruit. They agreed that the brandy smuggling theory must be abandoned, and they had nothing to take its place.

“We’re fairly up against it as far as I can see,” Hilliard admitted despondently. “It’s a nasty knock having to give up the only theory we were able to think of, but it’s a hanged sight worse not knowing how we are going to carry on the inquiry.”

“That is true,” Merriman returned, Madeleine Coburn’s face rising before his imagination, “but we can’t give it up for all that. We must go on until we find something.”

“That’s all very well. What are we to go on doing?”

Silence reigned for several minutes and then Hilliard spoke again.

“I’m afraid it means Scotland Yard after all.”

Merriman sat up quickly.

“Not that, not that!” he protested, as he had protested in similar terms on a previous occasion when the same suggestion had been made. “We must keep away from the police at all costs.” He spoke earnestly.

“I know your views,” Hilliard answered, “and agree with them. But if neither of us can suggest an alternative, what else remains?”

This was what Merriman had feared and he determined to play the one poor trump in his hand.

“The number plates,” he suggested. “As I said before, that is the only point at which we have actually come up against this mystery. Why not let us start in on it? If we knew why those plates were changed, the chances are we should know enough to clear up the whole affair.”

Hilliard, who was suffering from the reaction of his night of stress, took a depressed view and did not welcome the suggestion. He seemed to have lost heart in the inquiry, and again urged dropping it and passing on their knowledge to Scotland Yard. But this course Merriman strenuously opposed, pressing his view that the key to the mystery was to be found in the changing of the lorry numbers. Finally they decided to leave the question over until the following day, and to banish the affair from their minds for that evening by a visit to a music hall.

IX

The Second Cargo

Merriman was awakened in the early hours of the following morning by a push on the shoulder and, opening his eyes, he was amazed to see Hilliard, dressed only in his pajamas, leaning over him. On his friend’s face was an expression of excitement and delight which made him a totally different man from the gloomy pessimist of the previous day.

“Merriman, old man,” he cried, though in repressed tones⁠—it was only a little after five⁠—“I’m frightfully sorry to stir you up, but I just couldn’t help it. I say, you and I are a nice pair of idiots!”

Merriman grunted.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he murmured sleepily.

“Talking about?” Hilliard returned eagerly. “Why, this affair, of course! I see it now, but what I don’t see is how we missed it before. The idea struck me like a flash. Just while you’d wink I saw the whole thing!”

Merriman, now thoroughly aroused, moved with some annoyance.

“For Heaven’s sake, explain yourself,” he demanded. “What whole thing?”

“How they do it. We thought it was brandy smuggling but we couldn’t see how it was done. Well, I see now. It’s brandy smuggling right enough, and we’ll get them this time. We’ll get them, Merriman, we’ll get them yet.”

Hilliard was bubbling over with excitement. He could not remain still, but began to pace up and down the room. His emotion was infectious, and Merriman began to feel his heart beat quicker as he listened.

Hilliard went on:

“We thought there might be brandy, in fact we couldn’t suggest anything else. But we didn’t see any brandy; we saw pit-props. Isn’t that right?”

“Well?” Merriman returned impatiently. “Get on. What next?”

“That’s all,” Hilliard declared with a delighted laugh. “That’s the whole thing. Don’t you see it now?”

Merriman felt his anger rising.

“Confound it all, Hilliard,” he protested. “If you haven’t anything better to do than coming round wakening⁠—”

“Oh, don’t get on your hind legs,” Hilliard interrupted with another ecstatic chuckle. “What I say is right-enough. Look here, it’s perfectly simple. We thought brandy would be unloaded! And what’s more, we both sat in that cursed barrel and watched it being done! But all we saw coming ashore was pit-props, Merriman, pit-props! Now don’t you see?”

Merriman suddenly gasped.

“Lord!” he cried breathlessly. “It was in the props?”

“Of course it was in the props!” Hilliard repeated triumphantly. “Hollow props; a few hollow ones full of brandy to unload in their shed, many genuine ones to sell! What do you think of that, Merriman? Got them at last, eh?”

Merriman lay still as he tried to realise what this idea involved. Hilliard, moving jerkily about the room as if he were a puppet controlled by wires, went on speaking.

“I thought it out in bed before I came along. All they’d have to do would be to cut the props in half and bore them out, attaching a screwed ring to one half and a screwed socket to the other so that they’d screw together like an ordinary gas thimble. See?”

Merriman nodded.

“Then they’d get some steel things like oxygen gas cylinders to fit inside. They’d be designed of such a thickness that their weight would be right; that their weight plus the brandy would be equal to the weight of the wood bored out.”

He paused and looked at Merriman. The latter nodded again.

“The rest would be as easy as tumbling off a log. At night Coburn and company would screw off the hollow ends, fill the cylinders with brandy, screw on the end again, and there you have your props⁠—harmless, innocent props⁠—ready for loading up on the Girondin. Of course, they’d have them marked. Then when they’re being unloaded that manager would get the marked ones put aside⁠—they could somehow be defective, too long or too short or too thin or too anything you like⁠—he would find some reason for separating them out⁠—and then at night he would open the things and pour out the brandy, screw them up again and⁠—there you are!”

Hilliard paused dramatically, like a conjurer who has just drawn a rabbit from a lady’s vanity bag.

“That would explain that Ferriby manager sleeping in the shed,” Merriman put in.

“So it would. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“And,” Merriman went on, “there’d be enough genuine props carried on each trip to justify the trade.”

“Of course. A very few faked ones would do all they wanted⁠—say two or three percent. My goodness, Merriman, it’s a clever scheme; they deserve to win. But they’re not going to.” Again he laughed delightedly.

Merriman was thinking deeply. He had recovered his composure, and had begun to weigh the idea critically.

“They mightn’t empty the brandy themselves at all,” he said slowly. “What’s to prevent them running the faked props to the firm who plants the brandy?”

“That’s true,” Hilliard returned. “That’s another idea. My eyes, what possibilities the notion has!”

They talked on for some moments, then Hilliard, whose first excitement was beginning to wane, went back to his room for some clothes. In a few minutes he returned full of another side of the idea.

“Let’s just work out,” he suggested, “how much you could put into a prop. Take a prop say nine inches in diameter and nine feet long. Now you can’t weaken it enough to risk its breaking if it accidentally falls. Suppose you bored a six-inch hole down its center. That would leave the sides one and half inches thick, which should be ample. What do you think?”

“Take it at that anyway,” answered Merriman.

“Very well. Now how long would it be? If we bore too deep a hole we may split the prop. What about two feet six inches into each end? Say a five-foot tube?”

“Take it at that,” Merriman repeated.

“How much brandy could you put into a six-inch tube, five feet long?” He calculated aloud, Merriman checking each step. “That works out at a cubic foot of brandy, six and a quarter gallons, fifty pints or four hundred glasses⁠—four hundred glasses per prop.”

He paused, looked at his friend, and resumed:

“A glass of brandy in France costs you sixpence; in England it costs you half-a-crown. Therefore, if you can smuggle the stuff over you make a profit of two shillings a glass. Four hundred glasses at two shillings. There’s a profit of £40 per prop, Merriman!”

Merriman whistled. He was growing more and more impressed. The longer he considered the idea, the more likely it seemed. He listened eagerly as Hilliard, once again excitedly pacing the room, resumed his calculations.

“Now you have a cargo of about seven thousand props. Suppose you assume one percent of them are faked, that would be seventy. We don’t know how many they have, of course, but one out of every hundred is surely a conservative figure. Seventy props means £2,800 profit per trip. And they have a trip every ten days⁠—say thirty trips a year to be on the safe side⁠—£84,000 a year profit! My eyes, Merriman, it would be worth running some risks for £84,000 a year!”

“Risks?” cried Merriman, now as much excited as his friend. “They’d risk hell for it! I bet, Hilliard, you’ve got it at last. £84,000 a year! But look here,”⁠—his voice changed⁠—“you have to divide it among the members.”

“That’s true, you have,” Hilliard admitted, “but even so⁠—how many are there? Beamish, Bulla, Coburn, Henri, the manager here, and the two men they spoke of, Morton and Archer⁠—that makes seven. That would give them £12,000 a year each. It’s still jolly well worthwhile.”

“Worth while? I should just say so.” Merriman lay silently pondering the idea. Presently he spoke again.

“Of course those figures of yours are only guesswork.”

“They’re only guesswork,” Hilliard agreed with a trace of impatience in his manner, “because we don’t know the size of the tubes and the number of the props, but it’s not guesswork that they can make a fortune out of smuggling in that way. We see now that the thing can be done, and how it can be done. That’s something gained anyway.”

Merriman nodded and sat up in bed.

“Hand me my pipe and baccy out of that coat pocket like a good man,” he asked, continuing slowly:

“It’ll be some job, I fancy, proving it. We shall have to see first if the props are emptied at that depot, and if not we shall have to find out where they’re sent, and investigate. I seem to see a pretty long program opening out. Have you any plans?”

“Not a plan,” Hilliard declared cheerfully. “No time to make ’em yet. But we shall find a way somehow.”

They went on discussing the matter in more detail. At first the testing of Hilliard’s new theory appeared a simple matter, but the more they thought it over the more difficult it seemed to become. For one thing there would be the investigations at the depot. Whatever unloading of the brandy was carried on there would probably be done inside the shed and at night. It would therefore be necessary to find some hiding place within the building from which the investigations could be made. This alone was an undertaking bristling with difficulties. In the first place, all the doors of the shed were locked and none of them opened without noise. How were they without keys to open the doors in the dark, silently and without leaving traces? Observations might be required during the entire ten-day cycle, and that would mean that at some time each night one of these doors would have to be opened and shut to allow the watcher to be relieved. And if the emptying of the props were done at night how were they to ensure that this operation should not coincide with the visit of the relief? And this was all presupposing that a suitable hiding place could be found inside the building in such a position that from it the operations in question could be overlooked.

Here no doubt were pretty serious obstacles, but even were they all successfully overcome it did not follow that they would have solved the problem. The faked props might be loaded up and forwarded to some other depot, and, if so, this other depot might be by no means easy to find. Further, if it were found, nocturnal observation of what went on within would then become necessary.

It seemed to the friends that all they had done up to the present would be the merest child’s play in comparison to what was now required. During the whole of that day and the next they brooded over the problem, but without avail. The more they thought about it the more hopeless it seemed. Even Hilliard’s cheery optimism was not proof against the wave of depression which swept over him.

Curiously enough it was to Merriman, the plodding rather than the brilliant, that light first came. They were seated in the otherwise empty hotel lounge when he suddenly stopped smoking, sat motionless for nearly a minute, and then turned eagerly to his companion.

“I say, Hilliard,” he exclaimed. “I wonder if there mightn’t be another way out after all⁠—a scheme for making them separate the faked and the genuine props? Do you know Leatham⁠—Charlie Leatham of Ellerby, somewhere between Selby and Boughton? No? Well, he owns a group of mines in that district. He’s as decent a soul as ever breathed, and is just rolling in money. Now⁠—how would it do if we were to go to Charlie and tell him the whole thing, and ask him to approach these people to see if they would sell him a cargo of props⁠—an entire cargo. I should explain that he has a private wharf for lighters on one of those rivers up beyond Goole, but the approach is too shallow for a seagoing boat. Now, why shouldn’t he tell these people about his wharf, saying he had heard the Girondin was shallow in the draught, and might get up? He would then say he would take an entire cargo on condition that he could have it at his own place and so save rail carriage from Ferriby. That would put the syndicate in a hole. They couldn’t let any of the faked props out of their possession, and if they agreed to Leatham’s proposal they’d have to separate out the faked props from the genuine, and keep the faked aboard. On their way back from Leatham’s they would have to call at Ferriby to put these faked ones ashore, and if we are not utter fools we should surely be able to get hold of them then. What do you think, Hilliard?”

Hilliard smote his thigh.

“Bravo!” he cried with enthusiasm. “I think it’s just splendid. But is there any chance your friend would take a cargo? It’s rather a large order, you know. What would it run into? Four or five thousand pounds?”

“Why shouldn’t he? He has to buy props anyway, and these are good props and they would be as cheap as any he could get elsewhere. Taking them at his own wharf would be good business. Besides, 7,000 props is not a big thing for a group of mines. There are a tremendous lot used.”

“That’s true.”

“But the syndicate may not agree,” Merriman went on. “And yet I think they will. It would look suspicious for them to refuse so good an offer.”

Hilliard nodded. Then a further idea seemed to strike him and he sat up suddenly.

“But, Merriman, old man,” he exclaimed, “you’ve forgotten one thing. If they sent a cargo of that kind they’d send only genuine props. They wouldn’t risk the others.”

But Merriman was not cast down.

“I dare say you’re right,” he admitted, “but we can easily prevent that. Suppose Leatham arranges for a cargo for some indefinite date ahead, then on the day after the Girondin leaves France he goes to Ferriby and says some other consignment has failed him, and could they let him have the next cargo? That would meet the case, wouldn’t it?”

“By Jove, Merriman, but you’re developing the detective instinct and no mistake! I think the scheme’s worth trying anyway. How can you get in touch with your friend?”

“I’ll phone him now that we shall be over tomorrow to see him.”

Leatham was just leaving his office when Merriman’s call reached him.

“Delighted to see you and meet your friend,” he answered. “But couldn’t you both come over now and stay the night? You would be a perfect godsend to me, for Hilda’s in London and I have the house to myself.”

Merriman thanked him, and later on the two friends took the 6:35 train to Ellerby. Leatham’s car was waiting for them at the station, and in a few minutes they had reached the mineowner’s house.

Charles Leatham was a man of about five-and-thirty, tall, broad, and of muscular build. He had a strong, clean-shaven face, a kindly though direct manner, and there was about him a suggestion of decision and efficiency which inspired the confidence of those with whom he came in contact.

“This is very jolly,” he greeted them. “How are you, old man? Glad to meet you, Hilliard. This is better than the lonely evening I was expecting.”

They went into dinner presently, but it was not until the meal was over and they were stretched in basket chairs on the terrace in the cool evening air that Merriman reverted to the subject which had brought them together.

“I’m afraid,” he began, “it’s only now when I am right up against it that I realise what appalling cheek we show in coming to you like this, and when you hear what we have in our minds, I’m afraid you will think so too. As a matter of fact, we’ve accidentally got hold of information that a criminal organisation of some kind is in operation. For various reasons our hands are tied about going to the police, so we’re trying to play the detectives ourselves, and now we’re up against a difficulty we don’t see our way through. We thought if we could interest you sufficiently to induce you to join us, we might devise a scheme.”

Amazement had been growing on Leatham’s face while Merriman was speaking.

“Sounds like the New Arabian Nights!” he exclaimed. “You’re not by any chance pulling my leg?”

Merriman reassured him.

“The thing’s really a bit serious,” he continued. “If what we suspect is going on, the parties concerned won’t be squeamish about the means they adopt to keep their secret. I imagine they’d have a short way with meddlers.”

Leatham’s expression of astonishment did not decrease, but “By Jove!” was all he said.

“For that reason we can only tell you about it in confidence.”

Merriman paused and glanced questioningly at the other, who nodded without replying.

“It began when I was cycling from Bayonne to Bordeaux,” Merriman went on, and he told his host about his visit to the clearing, his voyage of discovery with Hilliard and what they had learned in France, their trip to Hull, the Ferriby depot and their adventures thereat, ending up by explaining their hollow pit-prop idea, and the difficulty with which they found themselves faced.

Leatham heard the story with an interest which could hardly fail to gratify its narrator. When it was finished he expressed his feelings by giving vent to a long and complicated oath. Then he asked how they thought he could help. Merriman explained. The mineowner rather gasped at first, then he laughed and slapped his thigh.

“By the Lord Harry!” he cried, “I’ll do it! As a matter of fact I want the props, but I’d do it anyway to see you through. If there’s anything at all in what you suspect it’ll make the sensation of the year.”

He thought for a moment, then went on:

“I shall go down to that depot at Ferriby tomorrow, have a look at the props, and broach the idea of taking a cargo. It’ll be interesting to have a chat with that manager fellow, and you may bet I’ll keep my eyes open. You two had better lie low here, and in the evening we’ll have another talk and settle what’s to be done.”

The next day the friends “lay low,” and evening saw them once more on the terrace with their host. It seemed that he had motored to Ferriby about midday. The manager had been polite and even friendly, had seemed pleased at the visit of so influential a customer, and had shown him over the entire concern without the slightest hesitation. He had appeared delighted at the prospect of disposing of a whole cargo of props, and had raised no objection to the Girondin unloading at Leatham’s wharf. The price was moderate, but not exceptionally so.

“I must admit,” Leatham concluded, “that everything appeared very sound and businesslike. I had a look everywhere in that shed and enclosure, and I saw nothing even remotely suspicious. The manager’s manner, too, was normal and it seems to me that either he’s a jolly good actor or you two chaps are on a wild goose chase.”

“We may be about the hollow props,” Merriman returned, “and we may be about the brandy smuggling. But there’s no mistake at all about something being wrong. That’s certain from what Hilliard overheard.”

Leatham nodded.

“I know all that,” he said, “and when we’ve carried out this present scheme we shall know something more. Now let’s see. When does that blessed boat next leave France?”

“Thursday morning, we reckon,” Hilliard told him.

“Then on Friday afternoon I shall call up those people and pitch my yarn about my consignment of props having gone astray, and ask if they can send their boat direct here. How’s that?”

“Nothing could be better.”

“Then I think for the present you two had better clear out. Our connection should not be known. And don’t go near London either. That chap Morton has lost you once, but he’ll not do it a second time. Go and tramp the Peak District, or something of that kind. Then you’ll be wanted back in Hull on Saturday.”

“What’s that for?” both men exclaimed in a breath.

“That blessed barrel of yours. You say the Girondin will leave France on Thursday night. That means she will be in the Humber on Sunday night or Monday morning. Now you reckoned she would unload here and put the faked props ashore and load up oil at Ferriby on her way out. But she mightn’t. She might go into Ferriby first. It would be the likely thing to do, in fact, for then she’d get here with nothing suspicious aboard and could unload everything. So I guess you’ll have to watch in your barrel on Sunday, and that means getting into it on Saturday night.”

The two friends swore and Leatham laughed.

“Good heavens,” Hilliard cried, “it means about four more nights of the damned thing. From Saturday night to Sunday night for the arrival; maybe until Monday night if she lies over to discharge the faked props on Monday. Then another two nights or maybe three to cover her departure. I tell you it’s a tall order.”

“But think of the prize,” Leatham smiled maliciously. “As a matter of fact I don’t see any other way.”

“There is no other way,” Merriman declared with decision. “We may just set our teeth and go through with it.”

After further discussion it was arranged that the friends would leave early next day for Harrogate. There Leatham would wire them on Friday the result of his negotiations about the Girondin. They could then return to Hull and get out their boat on Saturday should that be necessary. When about midnight they turned in, Leatham was quite as keen about the affair as his guests, and quite as anxious that their joint experiment should be crowned with success.

The two friends spent a couple of lazy days amusing themselves in Harrogate, until towards evening on the Friday Merriman was called to the telephone.

“That’ll be Leatham,” he exclaimed. “Come on, Hilliard, and hear what he has to say.”

It was the mineowner speaking from his office.

“I’ve just rung up our friends,” he told them, “and that business is all right. There was some delay about it at first, for Benson⁠—that’s the manager⁠—was afraid he hadn’t enough stock of props for current orders. But on looking up his records he found he could manage, so he is letting the ship come on.”

“Jolly good, Leatham.”

“The Girondin is expected about seven tomorrow evening. Benson then asked about a pilot. It seems their captain is a certified pilot of the Humber up to Ferriby, but he could not take the boat farther. I told him I’d lend him the man who acted for me, and what I’ve arranged is this. I shall send Angus Menzies, the master of one of my river tugs, to the wharf at Ferriby about six on Saturday evening. When the Girondin comes up he can go aboard and work her on here. Menzies is a good man, and I shall drop a hint that I’ve bought the whole cargo, and to keep his eyes open that nothing is put ashore that I don’t get. That’ll be a still further check.”

The friends expressed their satisfaction at this arrangement, and it was decided that as soon as the investigation was over all three should meet and compare results at Leatham’s house.

Next evening saw the two inquirers back at their hotel in Hull. They had instructed the owner of their hired boat to keep it in readiness for them, and about eleven o’clock, armed with the footstool and the satchel of food, they once more got on board and pulled out on to the great stream. Merriman not wishing to spend longer in the barrel than was absolutely necessary, they went ashore near Hassle and had a couple of hours’ sleep, and it was well past four when they reached the depot. The adventure was somewhat more risky than on the previous occasion, owning to the presence of a tiny arc of moon. But they carried out their plans without mishap, Merriman taking his place in the cask, and Hilliard returning to Hull with the boat.

If possible, the slow passage of the heavily weighted hours until the following evening was even more irksome to the watcher than on the first occasion. Merriman felt he would die of weariness and boredom long before anything happened, and it was only the thought that he was doing it for Madeleine Coburn that kept him from utter collapse.

At intervals during the morning, Benson, the manager, or one of the other men came out for a moment or two on the wharf, but no regular work went on there. During the interminable hours of the afternoon no one appeared at all, the whole place remaining silent and deserted, and it was not until nearly six that the sound of footsteps fell on Merriman’s weary ears. He heard a gruff voice saying: “Ah’m no so sairtain o’ it mesel’,” which seemed to accord with the name of Leatham’s skipper, and then came Benson’s voice raised in agreement.

The two men passed out of the shed and moved to the edge of the wharf, pursuing a desultory discussion, the drift of which Merriman could not catch. The greater part of an hour passed, when first Benson and then Menzies began to stare eastwards down the river. It seemed evident to Merriman that the Girondin was in sight, and he began to hope that something more interesting would happen. But the time dragged wearily for another half-hour, until he heard the bell of the engine-room telegraph and the wash of the screw. A moment later the ship appeared, drew alongside, and was berthed, all precisely as had happened before.

As soon as the gangway was lowered, Benson sprang aboard, and running up the ladder to the bridge, eagerly addressed Captain Beamish. Merriman could not hear what was said, but he could see the captain shaking his head and making little gestures of disapproval. He watched him go to the engine room tube and speak down it. It was evidently a call to Bulla, for almost immediately the engineer appeared and ascended to the bridge, where all three joined in a brief discussion. Finally Benson came to the side of the ship and shouted something to Menzies, who at once went on board and joined the group on the bridge. Merriman saw Benson introduce him to the others, and then apparently explain something to him. Menzies nodded as if satisfied and the conversation became general.

Merriman was considerably thrilled by this new development. He imagined that Benson while, for the benefit of Menzies, ostensibly endeavoring to make the arrangements agreed on, had in reality preceded the pilot on board in order to warn the captain of the proposal, and arrange with him some excuse for keeping the ship where she was for the night. Bulla had been sent for to acquaint him with the situation, and it was not until all three were agreed as to their story that Menzies was invited to join the conclave. To Merriman it certainly looked as if the men were going to fall into the trap which he and his friends had prepared, and he congratulated himself on having adhered to his program and hidden himself in the barrel, instead of leaving the watching to be done by Menzies, as he had been so sorely tempted to do. For it was clear to him that if any secret work was to be done Menzies would be got out of the way until it was over. Merriman was now keenly on the alert, and he watched every movement on the ship or wharf with the sharpness of a lynx. Bulla presently went below, leaving the other three chatting on the bridge, then a move was made and, the engineer reappearing, all four entered the cabin. Apparently they were having a meal, for in about an hour’s time they emerged, and bringing canvas chairs to the boat deck, sat down and began to smoke⁠—all except Bulla, who once again disappeared below. In a few moments he emerged with one of the crew, and began to superintend the coupling of the oil hose. The friends had realised the ship would have to put in for oil, but they had expected that an hour’s halt would have sufficed to fill up. But from the delay in starting and the leisurely way the operation was being conducted, it looked as if she was not proceeding that night.

In about an hour the oiling was completed, and Bulla followed his friends to the captain’s cabin, where the latter had retired when dusk began to fall. An hour later they came out, said “Good night,” and separated, Benson coming ashore, Bulla and Menzies entering cabins on the main deck, and Captain Beamish snapping off the deck light and re-entering his own room.

“Now or never,” thought Merriman, as silence and darkness settled down over the wharf.

But apparently it was to be never. Once again the hours crept slowly by and not a sign of activity became apparent. Nothing moved on either ship or wharf, until about two in the morning he saw dimly in the faint moonlight the figure of Hilliard to relieve him.

The exchange was rapidly effected, and Hilliard took up his watch, while his friend pulled back into Hull, and following his own precedent, went to the hotel and to bed.

The following day Merriman took an early train to Goole, returning immediately. This brought him past the depot, and he saw that the Girondin had left.

That night he again rowed to the wharf and relieved Hilliard. They had agreed that in spite of the extreme irksomeness of a second night in the cask it was essential to continue their watch, lest the Girondin should make another call on her way to sea and then discharge the faked props.

The remainder of the night and the next day passed like a hideous dream. There being nothing to watch for in the first part of his vigil, Merriman tried to sleep, but without much success. The hours dragged by with an incredible deliberation, and during the next day there was but slight movement on the wharf to occupy his attention. And then just before dark he had the further annoyance of learning that his long-drawn-out misery had been unnecessary. He saw out in the river the Girondin passing rapidly seawards.

Their plan then had failed. He was too weary to think consecutively about it, but that much at least was clear. When Hilliard arrived some five hours later, he had fallen into a state of partial coma, and his friend had considerable trouble in rousing him to make the effort necessary to leave his hiding place with the requisite care and silence.

The next evening the two friends left Hull by a late train, and reaching Leatham’s house after dusk had fallen, were soon seated in his smoking-room with whiskies and sodas at their elbows and Corona Coronas in their mouths. All three were somewhat gloomy, and their disappointment and chagrin were very real. Leatham was the first to put their thoughts into words.

“Well,” he said, drawing at his cigar, “I suppose we needn’t say one thing and think another. I take it our precious plan has failed?”

“That’s about the size of it,” Hilliard admitted grimly.

“Your man saw nothing?” Merriman inquired.

“He saw you,” the mineowner returned. “He’s a very dependable chap, and I thought it would be wise to give him a hint that we suspected something serious, so he kept a good watch. It seems when the ship came alongside at Ferriby, Benson told the captain not to make fast as he had to go further up the river. But the captain said he thought they had better fill up with oil first, and he sent to consult the engineer, and it was agreed that when they were in they might as well fill up as it would save a call on the outward journey. Besides, no one concerned was on for going up in the dark⁠—there are sandbanks, you know, and the navigation’s bad. They gave Menzies a starboard deck cabin⁠—that was on the wharf side⁠—and he sat watching the wharf through his porthole for the entire night. There wasn’t a thing unloaded, and there wasn’t a movement on the wharf until you two changed your watch. He saw that, and it fairly thrilled him. After that not another thing happened until the cook brought him some coffee and they got away.”

“Pretty thorough,” Hilliard commented. “It’s at least a blessing to be sure beyond a doubt nothing was unloaded.”

“We’re certain enough of that,” Leatham went on, “and we’re certain of something else too. I arranged to drop down on the wharf when the discharging was about finished, and I had a chat with the captain; superior chap, that. I told him I was interested in his ship, for it was the largest I have ever seen up at my wharf, and that I had been thinking of getting one something the same built. I asked him if he would let me see over her, and he was most civil and took me over the entire boat. There was no part of her we didn’t examine, and I’m prepared to swear there were no props left on board. So we may take it that whatever else they’re up to, they’re not carrying brandy in faked pit-props. Nor, so far as I can see, in anything else either.”

The three men smoked in silence for some time and then Hilliard spoke.

“I suppose, Leatham, you can’t think of any other theory, or suggest anything else that we should do.”

“I can’t suggest what you should do,” returned Leatham, rising to his feet and beginning to pace the room. “But I know what I should do in your place. I’d go down to Scotland Yard, tell them what I know, and then wash my hands of the whole affair.”

Hilliard sighed.

“I’m afraid we shall have no option,” he said slowly, “but I needn’t say we should much rather learn something more definite first.”

“I dare say, but you haven’t been able to. Either these fellows are a deal too clever for you, or else you are on the wrong track altogether. And that’s what I think. I don’t believe there’s any smuggling going on there at all. It’s some other game they’re on to. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t believe it’s anything so crude as smuggling.”

Again silence fell on the little group, and then Merriman, who had for some time been lost in thought, made a sudden movement.

“Lord!” he exclaimed, “but we have been fools over this thing! There’s another point we’ve all missed, which alone proves it couldn’t have been faked props. Here, Hilliard, this was your theory, though I don’t mean to saddle you with more imbecility than myself. But anyway, according to your theory, what happened to the props after they were unloaded?”

Hilliard stared at this outburst.

“After they were unloaded?” he repeated. “Why, returned of course for the next cargo.”

“But that’s just it,” cried Merriman. “That’s just what wasn’t done. We’ve seen that boat unloaded twice, and on neither occasion were any props loaded to go back.”

“That’s a point, certainly; yes,” Leatham interposed. “I suppose they would have to be used again and again? Each trip’s props couldn’t be destroyed after arrival, and new ones made for the next cargo?”

Hilliard shook his head reluctantly.

“No,” he declared. “Impossible. Those things would cost a lot of money. You see, no cheap scheme, say of shipping bottles into hollowed props, would do. The props would have to be thoroughly well made, so that they wouldn’t break and give the show away if accidentally dropped. They wouldn’t pay unless they were used several times over. I’m afraid Merriman’s point is sound, and we may give up the idea.”

Further discussion only strengthened this opinion, and the three men had to admit themselves at a total loss as to their next move. The only suggestion in the field was that of Leatham, to inform Scotland Yard, and that was at last approved by Hilliard as a counsel of despair.

“There’s nothing else for it that I can see,” he observed gloomily. “We’ve done our best on our own and failed, and we may let someone else have a shot now. My leave’s nearly up anyway.”

Merriman said nothing at the time, but next day, when they had taken leave of their host and were in train for King’s Cross, he reopened the subject.

“I needn’t say, Hilliard,” he began, “I’m most anxious that the police should not be brought in, and you know the reason why. If she gets into any difficulty about the affair, you understand my life’s at an end for any good it’ll do me. Let’s wait a while and think over the thing further, and perhaps we’ll see daylight before long.”

Hilliard made a gesture of impatience.

“If you can suggest any single thing that we should do that we haven’t done, I’m ready to do it. But if you can’t, I don’t see that we’d be justified in keeping all that knowledge to ourselves for an indefinite time while we waited for an inspiration. Is not that reasonable?”

“It’s perfectly reasonable,” Merriman admitted, “and I don’t suggest we should wait indefinitely. What I propose is that we wait for a month. Give me another month, Hilliard, and I’ll be satisfied. I have an idea that something might be learned from tracing that lorry number business, and if you have to go back to work I’ll slip over by myself to Bordeaux and see what I can do. And if I fail I’ll see her, and try to get her to marry me in spite of the trouble. Wait a month, Hilliard, and by that time I shall know where I stand.”

Hilliard was extremely unwilling to agree to this proposal. Though he realised that he could not hand over to his superiors a complete case against the syndicate, he also saw that considerable kudos was still possible if he supplied information which would enable their detectives to establish one. And every day he delayed increased the chance of someone else finding the key to the riddle, and thus robbing him of his reward. Merriman realised the position, and he therefore fully appreciated the sacrifice Hilliard was risking when after a long discussion that young man gave his consent.

Two days later Hilliard was back at his office, while Merriman, after an argument with his partner not far removed from a complete break, was on his way once more to the south of France.

X

Merriman Becomes Desperate

The failure of the attempt to learn the secret of the Pit-Prop Syndicate affected Merriman more than he could have believed possible. His interest in the affair was not that of Hilliard. Neither the intellectual joy of solving a difficult problem for its own sake, nor the kudos which such a solution might bring, made much appeal to him. His concern was simply the happiness of the girl he loved, and though, to do him justice, he did not think overmuch of himself, he recognised that any barrier raised between them was the end for him of all that made life endurable.

As he lay back with closed eyes in the corner seat of a first-class compartment in the boat train from Calais he went over for the thousandth time the details of the problem as it affected himself. Had Mr. Coburn rendered himself liable to arrest or even to penal servitude, and did his daughter know it? The anxious, troubled look which Merriman had on different occasions surprised on the girl’s expressive face made him fear both these possibilities. But if they were true did it stop there? Was her disquietude due merely to knowledge of her father’s danger, or was she herself in peril also? Merriman wondered could she have such knowledge and not be in peril herself. In the eyes of the law would it not be a guilty knowledge? Could she not be convicted as an accessory?

If it were so he must act at once if he were to save her. But how? He writhed under the terrible feeling of impotence produced by his ignorance of the syndicate’s real business. If he were to help Madeleine he must know what the conspirators were doing.

And he had failed to learn. He had failed, and Hilliard had failed, and neither they nor Leatham had been able to suggest any method by which the truth might be ascertained.

There was, of course, the changing of the number plates. A trained detective would no doubt be able to make something of that. But Merriman felt that without even the assistance of Hilliard, he had neither the desire nor the ability to tackle it.

He pondered the question, as he had pondered it for weeks, and the more he thought, the more he felt himself driven to the direct course⁠—to see Madeleine, put the problem to her, ask her to marry him and come out of it all. But there were terrible objections to this plan, not the least of which was that if he made a blunder it might be irrevocable. She might not hear him at all. She might be displeased by his suggestion that she and her father were in danger from such a cause. She might decide not to leave her father for the very reason that he was in danger. And all these possibilities were, of course, in addition to the much more probable one that she would simply refuse him because she did not care about him.

Merriman did not see his way clearly, and he was troubled. Once he had made up his mind he was not easily turned from his purpose, but he was slow in making it up. In this case, where so much depended on his decision, he found his doubt actually painful.

Mechanically he alighted at the Gare du Nord, crossed Paris, and took his place in the southern express at the Quai d’Orsay. Here he continued wrestling with his problem, and it was not until he was near his destination that he arrived at a decision. He would not bother about further investigations. He would go out and see Madeleine, tell her everything, and put his fate into her hands.

He alighted at the Bastide Station in Bordeaux, and driving across to the city, put up at the Gironde Hotel. There he slept the night, and next day after lunch he took a taxi to the clearing.

Leaving the vehicle on the main road, he continued on foot down the lane and past the depot until he reached the manager’s house.

The door was opened by Miss Coburn in person. On seeing her visitor she stood for a moment quite motionless while a look of dismay appeared in her eyes and a hot flush rose on her face and then faded, leaving it white and drawn.

“Oh!” she gasped faintly. “It’s you!