THE PIT PROP SYNDICATE
By Freeman Wills Crofts
PART ONE THE AMATEURS
1. The Sawmill on the Lesque 2. An Interesting Suggestion 3. The Start of the Cruise 4. A Commercial Proposition 5. The Visit of the Girondin 6. A Change of Venue 7. The Ferriby Depot 8. The Unloading of the Girondin 9. The Second Cargo 10. Merriman Becomes Desperate 11. An Unexpected Ally
PART TWO THE PROFESSIONALS
12. Murder! 13. A Promising Clue 14. A Mystifying Discovery 15. Inspector Willis Listens In 16. The Secret of the Syndicate 17. "Archer Plants Stuff" 18. The Bordeaux Lorries 19. Willis Spreads His Net 20. The Double Cross
PART ONE. THE AMATEURS
CHAPTER 1. 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 gray, 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 apologized 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 colored 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 sea-going 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 down-stream 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 apologized, 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 hall-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.
CHAPTER 2. 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?"
"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."
"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 fiancee?"
"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 arm-chairs 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?"
"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?"
"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 neighborhood 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 visualize 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 realized 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 sea-way, 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?"
"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.
CHAPTER 3. 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 gray 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 colors 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 gun-running, 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 neighborhood 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 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, Angouleme 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 down-stream, 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 up-stream. Rather tumble-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 companion-way 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 new-comer, 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 fight 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?"
"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."
"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?"
"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.
CHAPTER 4. 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 be 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."
"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 odor 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 up-stream 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 half-way up this straight side was the mill, and about half-way 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 laborers' 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.
"" trees trees "" "" >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> "" >>>>>>>>> trees Observation Point (X) "" > "" lane to********** ""  sawmill road ************ "" > "" > "" CLEARING > trees "" river landing > trees "" > "" Manager's House > ""  > "" > "" > trees trees "" > "" >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> "" trees ""
[transcriber's note: to view map variable spacing must be disabled.]
"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 gray 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 civilization, he with a gray 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 recognized 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 up-stream, 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 turn-tables 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."