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The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Croft

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The Pit Prop Syndicate

by Freeman Wills Croft

CONTENTS

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

CHAPTER 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 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 Aviguon."

"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?"

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 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?"

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
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?"

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.

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 ln 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.

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 f0rwards 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 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."

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 non-technical 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 worth while."

As they chatted on in the pleasant room the girl seemed completely
to have recovered her composure, and yet Merriman could not but
realize 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.

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