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The Pit Prop Syndicate by Freeman Wills Croft

Part 2 out of 6

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Whether by accident or design it happened that Miss Coburn was seated
directly opposite the door, while her two visitors were placed where
they were screened by the door itself from the view of anyone
entering. Hilliard, his eyes on the girl's face as her father came
in, intercepted a glance of what seemed to be warning. His gaze
swung round to the new-comer, and here again he noticed a start of
surprise and anxiety as Mr. Coburn recognized his visitor. But in
this case it was so quickly over that had he not been watching
intently he would have missed it. However, slight though it was,
it undoubtedly seemed to confirm the other indications which pointed
to the existence of some secret in the life of these two, a secret
shared apparently by the good-looking driver and connected in some
way with the lorry number plates.

Mr. Coburn was very polite, suave and polished as an accomplished
man of the world. But his manner was not really friendly; in fact,
Hilliard seemed to sense a veiled hostility. A few deft questions
put him in possession of the travelers ostensible plans, which he
discussed with some interest.

"But," he said to Hilliard, "I am afraid you are in error in coming
up this River Lesque. The canal you want to get from here is the
Midi, it enters the Mediterranean not far from Narbonne. But the
connection from this side is from the Garonne. You should have gone
up-stream to Langon, nearly forty miles above Bordeaux."

"We had hoped to go from still farther south," Hilliard answered.
"We have penetrated a good many of the rivers, or rather I have, and
we came up here to see the sand-dunes and forests of the Landes,
which are new to me. A very desolate country, is it not?"

Mr. Coburn agreed, continuing courteously:

"I am glad at all events that your researches have brought you into
our neighborhood. We do not come across many visitors here, and it
is pleasant occasionally to speak one's own language to someone
outside one's household. If you will put up with pot-luck I am sure
we should both be glad - " he looked at his daughter" - if you would
wait and take some dinner with us now. Tomorrow you could explore
the woods, which are really worth seeing though monotonous, and if
you are at all interested I should like to show you our little works.
But I warn you the affair is my hobby, as well as my business for
the time being, and I am apt to assume others have as great an
interest in it as myself. You must not let me bore you."

Hilliard, suspicious and critically observant, wondered if he had
not interrupted a second rapid look between father and daughter.
He could not be sure, but at all events the girl hastened to second
her father's invitation.

"I hope you will wait for dinner," she said. "As he says, we see
so few people, and particularly so few English, that it would be
doing us a kindness. I'm afraid that's not very complimentary" -
she laughed brightly - "but it's at least true."

They stayed and enjoyed themselves. Mr. Coburn proved himself an
entertaining host, and his conversation, though satirical, was worth
listening to. He and Hilliard talked, while Merriman, who was
something of a musician, tried over songs with Miss Coburn. Had it
not been for an uneasy feeling that they were to some extent playing
the part of spies, the evening would have been a delight to the

Before they left for the launch it was arranged that they should
stay over the following day, lunch with the Coburns, and go for a
tramp through the forest in the afternoon. They took their leave
with cordial expressions of good will.

"I say, Merriman," Hilliard said eagerly as they strolled back
through the wood, "did you notice how your sudden appearance upset
them both? There can be no further doubt about it, there's something.
What it may be I don't know, but there is something."

"There's nothing wrong at all events," Merriman asserted doggedly.

"Not wrong in the sense you mean, no," Hilliard agreed quickly, "but
wrong for all that. Now that I have met Miss Coburn I can see that
your estimate of her was correct. But anyone with half an eye could
see also that she is frightened and upset about something. There's
something wrong, and she wants a helping hand."

"Damn you, Hilliard, how you talk," Merriman growled with a sudden
wave of unreasoning rage. "There's nothing wrong and no need for
our meddling. Let us clear out and go on with our trip."

Hilliard smiled under cover of darkness.

"And miss our lunch and excursion with the Coburns to-morrow?" he
asked maliciously.

"You know well enough what I mean," Merriman answered irritably.
"Let's drop this childish tomfoolery about plots and mysteries and
try to get reasonably sane again. Here," he went on fiercely as
the other demurred, "I'll tell you what I'll do if you like. I'll
have no more suspicions or spying, but I'll ask her if there is
anything wrong: say I thought there was from her manner and ask her
the direct question. Will that please you?"

"And get well snubbed for your pains?" Hilliard returned. "You've
tried that once already. Why did you not persist in your inquiries
about the number plate when she told you about the driver's

Merriman was silent for a few moments, then burst out:

"Well, hang it all, man, what do you suggest?"

During the evening an idea had occurred to Hilliard and he returned
to it now.

"I'll tell you," he answered slowly, and instinctively he lowered
his voice. "I'll tell you what we must do. We must see their
steamer loaded. I've been thinking it over. We must see what, if
anything, goes on board that boat beside pit-props."

Merriman only grunted in reply, but Hilliard, realizing his
condition, was satisfied.

And Merriman, lying awake that night on the port locker of the
Swallow, began himself to realize his condition, and to understand
that his whole future life and happiness lay between the dainty
hands of Madeleine Coburn.



Next morning found both the friends moody and engrossed with their
own thoughts.

Merriman was lost in contemplation of the new factor which had come
into his life. It was not the first time he had fancied himself in
love. Like most men of his age he had had affairs of varying
seriousness, which in due time had run their course and died a
natural death. But this, he felt, was different. At last he
believed he had met the one woman, and the idea thrilled him with
awe and exultation, and filled his mind to the exclusion of all else.

Hilliard's preoccupation was different. He was considering in
detail his idea that if a close enough watch could be kept on the
loading of the syndicate's ship it would at least settle the
smuggling question. He did not think that any article could be
shipped in sufficient bulk to make the trade pay, unnoticed by a
skilfully concealed observer. Even if the commodity were a liquid
- brandy, for example - sent aboard through a flexible pipe, the
thing would be seen.

But two unexpected difficulties had arisen since last night. Firstly,
they had made friends with the Coburns. Excursions with them were
in contemplation, and one had actually been arranged for that very
day. While in the neighborhood they had been asked virtually to make
the manager's house their headquarters, and it was evidently expected
that the two parties should see a good deal of each other. Under
these circumstances how were the friends to get away to watch the
loading of the boat?

And then it occurred to Hilliard that here, perhaps, was evidence of
design; that this very difficulty had been deliberately caused by Mr.
Coburn with the object of keeping himself and Merriman under
observation and rendering them harmless. This, he recognized, was
guesswork, but still it might be the truth.

He racked his brains to find some way of meeting the difficulty, and
at last, after considering many plans, he thought he saw his way.
They would as soon as possible take leave of their hosts and return
to Bordeaux, ostensibly to resume their trip east. From there they
would come out to the clearing by road, and from the observation post
they had already used keep a close eye on the arrival of the ship and
subsequent developments. At night they might be even able to hide on
the wharf itself. In any case they could hardly fail to see if
anything other than pit-props was loaded.

So far, so good, but there was a second and more formidable
difficulty. Would Merriman consent to this plan and agree to help?
Hilliard was doubtful. That his friend had so obviously fallen in
love with this Madeleine Coburn was an unexpected and unfortunate
complication. He could, of course, play on the string that the girl
was in danger and wanted help, but he had already used that with
disappointing results. However, he could see nothing for it but to
do his best to talk Merriman round.

Accordingly, when they were smoking their after-breakfast pipes, he
broached the subject. But as he had feared, his friend would have
none of it.

"I tell you I won't do anything of the kind," he said angrily.
"Here we come, two strangers, poking our noses into what does not
concern us, and we are met with kindness and hospitality and invited
to join a family party. Good Lord, Hilliard, I can't believe that
it is really you that suggests it! You surely don't mean that you
believe that the Coburns are smuggling brandy?"

"Of course not, you old fire-eater," Hilliard answered good-humoredly,
"but I do believe, and so must you, that there is something queer
going on. We want to be sure there is nothing sinister behind it.
Surely, old man, you will help me in that?"

"If I thought there was anything wrong you know I'd help you,"
Merriman returned, somewhat mollified by the other's attitude. "But
I don't. It is quite absurd to suggest the Coburns are engaged in
anything illegal, and if you grant that your whole case falls to
the ground."

Hilliard saw that for the moment at all events he could get no more.
He therefore dropped the subject and they conversed on other topics
until it was time to go ashore.

Lunch with their new acquaintances passed pleasantly, and after it
the two friends went with Mr. Coburn to see over the works. Hilliard
thought it better to explain that they had seen something of them on
the previous day, but notwithstanding this assurance Mr. Coburn
insisted on their going over the whole place again. He showed them
everything in detail, and when the inspection was complete both men
felt more than ever convinced that the business was genuine, and
that nothing was being carried on other than the ostensible trade.
Mr. Coburn, also, gave them his views on the enterprise, and these
seemed so eminently reasonable and natural that Hilliard's suspicions
once more became dulled, and he began to wonder if their host's
peculiar manner could not have been due to some cause other than
that he had imagined.

"There is not so much money in the pit-props as I had hoped," Mr.
Coburn explained. "When we started here the Baltic trade, which
was, of course, the big trade before the war, had not revived. Now
we find the Baltic competition growing keener, and our margin of
profit is dwindling. We are handicapped also by having only a
one-way traffic. Most of the Baltic firms exporting pit-props have
an import trade in coal as well. This gives them double freights
and pulls down their overhead costs. But it wouldn't pay us to
follow their example. If we ran coal it could only be to Bordeaux,
and that would take up more of our boat's time than it would be

Hilliard nodded and Mr. Coburn went on:

"On the other hand, we are doing better in what I may call
'sideshows.'" We're getting quite a good price for our fire-wood,
and selling more and more of it. Three large firms in Bordeaux
have put in wood-burning fireboxes and nothing else, and two others
are thinking of following suit. Then I am considering two
developments; in fact, I have decided on the first. We are going to
put in an air compressor in our engine-room, and use pneumatic tools
in the forest for felling and lopping. I estimate that will save
us six men. Then I think there would be a market for pine paving
blocks for streets. I haven't gone into this yet, but I'm doing so."

"That sounds very promising," Hilliard answered. "I don't know much
about it, but I believe soft wood blocks are considered better than

"They wear more evenly, I understand. I'm trying to persuade the
Paris authorities to try a piece of it, and if that does well it
might develop into a big thing. Indeed, I can imagine our giving
up the pit-props altogether in the future."

After a time Miss Coburn joined them, and, the Ford car being
brought out, the party set off on their excursion. They visited a
part of the wood where the trees were larger than near the sawmill,
and had a pleasant though uneventful afternoon. The evening they
spent as before at the Coburns' house.

Next day the friends invited their hosts to join them in a trip up
the river. Hilliard tactfully interested the manager in the various
"gadgets" he had fitted up in the launch, and Merriman's dream of
making tea with Miss Coburn materialized. The more he saw of the
gentle, brown-eyed girl, the more he found his heart going out to
her, and the more it was borne in on him that life without her was
becoming a prospect more terrible than he could bring himself to

They went up-stream on the flood tide for some twenty miles, until
the forest thinned away and they came on vineyards. There they
went ashore, and it was not until the shades of evening were
beginning to fall that they arrived back at the clearing.

As they swung round the bend in sight of the wharf Mr. Coburn made
an exclamation.

"Hallo!" he cried. "There's the Girondin. She has made a good run.
We weren't expecting her for another three or four hours."

At the wharf lay a vessel of about 300 tons burden, with bluff,
rounded bows sitting high up out of the water, a long, straight
waist, and a bridge and cluster of deckhouses at the stern.

"Our motor ship," Mr. Coburn explained with evident pride. "We had
her specially designed for carrying the pit-props, and also for this
river. She only draws eight feet. You must come on board and have
a look over her."

This was of all things what Hilliard most desired. He recognized
that if he was allowed to inspect her really thoroughly, it would
finally dispel any lingering suspicion he might still harbor that
the syndicate was engaged in smuggling operations. The two points
on which that suspicion had been founded - the absence of return
cargoes and the locality of the French end of the enterprise - were
not, he now saw, really suspicious at all. Mr. Coburn's remark met
the first of these points, and showed that he was perfectly alive
to the handicap of a oneway traffic. The matter had not been
material when the industry was started, but now, owing to the
recovery of the Baltic trade after the war, it was becoming important,
and the manager evidently realized that it might easily grow
sufficiently to kill the pit-prop trade altogether. And the locality
question was even simpler. The syndicate had chosen the pine forests
of the Landes for their operations because they wanted timber close
to the sea. On the top of these considerations came the lack of
secrecy about the ship. It could only mean that there really was
nothing aboard to conceal.

On reaching the wharf all four crossed the gangway to the deck of
the Girondin. At close quarters she seemed quite a big boat. In
the bows was a small forecastle, containing quarters for the crew
of five men as well as the oil tanks and certain stores. Then
amidships was a long expanse of holds, while aft were the officers'
cabins and tiny mess-room, galley, navigating bridge, and last, but
not least, the engine-room with its set of Diesel engines. She
seemed throughout a well-appointed boat, no money having apparently
been spared to make her efficient and comfortable.

"She carries between six and seven thousand props every trip," Mr.
Coburn told them, "that is, without any deck cargo. I dare say in
summer we could put ten thousand on her if we tried, but she is
rather shallow in the draught for it, and we don't care to run any
risks. Hallo, captain! Back again?" he broke off, as a man in a
blue pilot cloth coat and a peaked cap emerged from below.

The newcomer was powerfully built and would have been tall, but for
rather rounded shoulders and a stoop. He was clean shaven, with a
heavy jaw and thin lips which were compressed into a narrow line.
His expression was vindictive as well as somewhat crafty, and he
looked a man who would not be turned from his purpose by nice points
of morality or conscience.

Though Hilliard instinctively noted these details, they did not
particularly excite his interest. But his interest was nevertheless
keenly aroused. For he saw the man, as his gaze fell on himself
and Merriman, give a sudden start, and then flash a quick,
questioning glance at Mr. Coburn. The action was momentary, but it
was enough to bring back with a rush all Hilliard's suspicions.
Surely, he thought, there must be something if the sight of a stranger
upsets all these people in this way.

But he had not time to ponder the problem. The captain instantly
recovered himself, pulled off his cap to Miss Coburn and shook
hands all round, Mr. Coburn introducing the visitors.

"Good trip, captain?" the manager went on. "You're ahead of

"Not so bad," the newcomer admitted in a voice and manner singularly
cultivated for a man in his position. "We had a good wind behind
us most of the way."

They chatted for a few moments, then started on their tour of
inspection. Though Hilliard was once again keenly on the alert,
the examination, so far as he could see, left nothing to be desired.
They visited every part of the vessel, from the forecastle
storerooms to the tunnel of the screw shaft, and from the chart-house
to the bottom of the hold, and every question either of the friends
asked was replied to fully and without hesitation.

That evening, like the preceding, they passed with the Coburns. The
captain and the engineer - a short, thick-set man named Bulla -
strolled up with them and remained for dinner, but left shortly
afterwards on the plea of matters to attend to on board. The friends
stayed on, playing bridge, and it was late when they said good-night
and set out to walk back to the launch.

During the intervals of play Hilliard's mind had been busy with the
mystery which he believed existed in connection with the syndicate,
and he had decided that to try to satisfy his curiosity he would go
down to the wharf that night and see if any INTERESTING operations
went on under cover of darkness. The idea of a midnight loading of
contraband no longer appealed to his imagination, but vaguely he
wished to make sure that no secret activities were in progress.

He was at least certain that none had taken place up to the present
- that Mr. Coburn was personally concerned in, at all events.
>From the moment they had first sighted the ship until they had left
the manager's house at the conclusion of the game of bridge, not
five minutes ago, he had been in Mr. Coburn's company. Next day it
was understood they were to meet again, so that if the manager
wished to carry out any secret operations they could only be done
during the night.

Accordingly when they reached the launch he turned to Merriman.

"You go ahead, old man. I'm going to have a look round before
turning in. Don't wait up for me. Put out the light when you've
done with it and leave the companion unlatched so that I can
follow you in."

Merriman grunted disapprovingly, but offered no further objection.
He clambered on board the launch and disappeared below, while
Hilliard, remaining in the collapsible boat, began to row silently
up-stream towards the wharf.

The night was dark and still, but warm. The moon had not risen,
and the sky was overcast, blotting out even the small light of the
stars. There was a faint whisper of air currents among the trees,
and the subdued murmur of the moving mass of water was punctuated
by tiny splashes and gurgles as little eddies formed round the stem
of the boat or wavelets broke against the banks. Hilliard's eyes
had by this time become accustomed to the gloom, and he could dimly
distinguish the serrated line of the trees against the sky on
either side of him, and later, the banks of the clearing, with the
faint, ghostly radiance from the surface of the water.

He pulled on with swift, silent strokes, and presently the dark
mass of the Girondin loomed in sight. The ship, longer than the
wharf, projected for several feet above and below it. Hilliard
turned his boat inshore with the object of passing between the hull
and the bank and so reaching the landing steps. But as he rounded
the vessel's stern he saw that her starboard side was lighted up,
and he ceased rowing, sitting motionless and silently holding water,
till the boat began to drift back into the obscurity down-stream.
The wharf was above the level of his head, and he could only see,
appearing over its edge, the tops of the piles of pit-props. These,
as well as the end of the ship's navigating bridge and the gangway,
were illuminated by, he imagined, a lamp on the side of one of the
deckhouses. But everything was very still, and the place seemed

Hilliard's intention had been to land on the wharf and, crouching
behind the props, await events. But now he doubted if he could
reach his hiding place without coming within the radius of the
lamp and so exposing himself to the view of anyone who might be on
the watch on board. He recollected that the port or river side of
the ship was in darkness, and he thought it might therefore be
better if he could get directly aboard there from the boat.

Having removed his shoes he rowed gently round the stern and examined
the side for a possible way up. The ship being light forward was
heavily down in the stern, and he found the lower deck was not more
than six or seven feet above water level. It occurred to him that
if he could get hold of the mooring rope pawls he might be able to
climb aboard. But this after a number of trials he found impossible,
as in the absence of someone at the oars to steady the boat, the
latter always drifted away from the hull before he could grasp what
he wanted.

He decided he must risk passing through the lighted area, and,
having for the third time rowed round the stern, he brought the
boat up as close to the hull as possible until he reached the wharf.
Then passing in between the two rows of piles and feeling his way
in the dark, he made the painter fast to a diagonal, so that the
boat would lie hidden should anyone examine the steps with a light.
The hull lay touching the vertical piles, and Hilliard, edging
along a waling to the front of the wharf, felt with his foot through
the darkness for the stern belting. The tide was low and he found
this was not more than a foot above the timber on which he stood.
He could now see the deck light, an electric bulb on the side of
the captain's cabin, and it showed him the top of the taffrail some
little distance above the level of his eyes. Taking his courage in
both hands and stepping upon the belting, he succeeded in grasping
the taffrail. In a moment he was over it and on deck, and in another
moment he had slipped round the deckhouse and out of the light of
the lamp. There he stopped, listening for an alarm, but the silence
remained unbroken, and he believed he had been unobserved.

He recalled the construction of the ship. The lower deck, on which
he was standing, ran across the stern and formed a narrow passage
some forty feet long at each side of the central cabin. This cabin
contained the galley and mess room as well as the first officer's
quarters. Bulla's stateroom, Hilliard remembered, was down below
beside the engine-room.

>From the lower deck two ladders led to the bridge deck at the
forward end of which was situated the captain's stateroom. Aft of
this building most of the remaining bridge deck was taken up by
two lifeboats, canvas-covered and housed in chocks. On the top of
the captain's cabin was the bridge and chart-house, reached by two
ladders which passed up at either side of the cabin.

Hilliard, reconnoitering, crept round to the port side of the
ship. The lower deck was in complete darkness, and he passed
the range of cabins and silently ascended the steps to the deck
above. Here also it was dark, but a faint light shone from the
window of the captain's cabin. Stealthily Hilliard tiptoed to
the porthole. The glass was hooked back, but a curtain hung
across the opening. Fortunately, it was not drawn quite tight
to one side, and he found that by leaning up against the bridge
ladder he could see into the interior. A glance showed him
that the room was empty.

As he paused irresolutely, wondering what he should do next, he
heard a door open. There was a step on the deck below, and the
door slammed sharply. Someone was coming to the ladder at the
top of which he stood.

Like a shadow Hilliard slipped aft, and, as he heard the unknown
ascending the steps, he looked round for cover. The starboard
boat and a narrow strip of deck were lighted up, but the port boat
was in shadow. He could distinguish it merely as a dark blot on
the sky. Recognizing that he must be hidden should the port deck
light be turned on, he reached the boat, felt his way round the
stern, and, crouching down, crept as far underneath it as he could.
There he remained motionless.

The newcomer began slowly to pace the deck, and the aroma of a good
cigar floated in the still air. Up and down he walked with
leisurely, unhurried footsteps. He kept to the dark side of the
ship, and Hilliard, though he caught glimpses of the red point of
the cigar each time the other reached the stern, could not tell who
he was.

Presently other footsteps announced the approach of a second
individual, and in a moment Hilliard heard the captain's voice.

"Where are you, Bulla?"

"Here," came in the engineer's voice from the first-comer. The
captain approached and the two men fell to pacing up and down,
talking in low tones. Hilliard could catch the words when the
speakers were near the stern, but lost them when they went forward
to the break of the poop.

"Confound that man Coburn," he heard Captain Beamish mutter. "What
on earth is keeping him all this time?"

"The young visitors, doubtless," rumbled Bulla with a fat chuckle,
"our friends of the evening."

"Yes, confound them, too," growled Beamish, who seemed to be in an
unenviable frame of mind. "Damned nuisance their coming round. I
should like to know what they are after."

"Nothing particular, I should fancy. Probably out doing some kind
of a holiday."

They passed round the deckhouse and Hilliard could not hear the
reply. When they returned Captain Beamish was speaking.

" - thinks it would about double our profits," Hilliard heard him
say. "He suggests a second depot on the other side, say at Swansea.
That would look all right on account of the South Wales coalfields."

"But we're getting all we can out of the old hooker as it is," Bulla
objected. "I don't see how she could do another trip."

"Archer suggests a second boat."

"Oh." The engineer paused, then went on: "But that's no new
SUGGESTION. That was proposed before ever the thing was started."

"I know, but the circumstances have changed. Now we should - "

Again they passed out of earshot, and Hilliard took the opportunity
to stretch his somewhat cramped limbs. He was considerably
interested by what he had heard. The phrase Captain Beamish had
used in reference to the proposed depot at Swansea - "it would
look all right on account of the coalfields" - was suggestive.
Surely that was meaningless unless there was some secret activity
- unless the pit-prop trade was only a blind to cover some more
lucrative and probably more sinister undertaking? At first sight
it seemed so, but he had not time to think it out then. The men
were returning.

Bulla was speaking this time, and Hilliard soon found he was
telling a somewhat improper story. As the two men disappeared round
the deckhouse he heard their hoarse laughter ring out. Then the
captain cried: "That you, Coburn?" The murmur of voices grew louder
and more confused and immediately sank. A door opened, then closed,
and once more silence reigned.

To Hilliard it seemed that here was a chance which he must not miss.
Coming out from his hiding place, he crept stealthily along the deck
in the hope that he might find out where the men had gone, and learn
something from their conversation.

The captain's cabin was the probable meeting place, and Hilliard
slipped silently back to the window through which he had glanced
before. As he approached he heard a murmur of voices, and he
cautiously leaned back against the bridge ladder and peeped in round
the partly open curtain.

Three of the four seats the room contained were now occupied. The
captain, engineer, and Mr. Coburn sat round the central table, which
bore a bottle of whisky, a soda siphon and glasses, as well as a box
of cigars. The men seemed preoccupied and a little anxious. The
captain was speaking.

"And have you found out anything about them?" he asked Mr. Coburn.

"Only what I have been able to pick up from their own conversation,"
the manager answered. "I wrote Morton asking him to make inquiries
about them, but of course there hasn't been time yet for a reply.
>From their own showing one of them is Seymour Merriman, junior
partner of Edwards & Merriman, Gracechurch Street, Wine Merchants.
That's the dark, square-faced one - the one who was here before.
The other is a man called Hilliard. He is a clever fellow, and holds
a good position in the Customs Department. He has had this launch
for some years, and apparently has done the same kind of trip through
the Continental rivers on previous holidays. But I could not find
out whether Merriman had ever accompanied him before."

"But you don't think they smell a rat?"

"I don't think so," he said slowly, "but I'm not at all sure.
Merriman, we believe, noticed the number plate that day. I told you,
you remember. Henri is sure that he did, and Madeleine thinks so
too. It's just a little queer his coming back. But I'll swear
they've seen nothing suspicious this time."

"You can't yourself account for his coming back?"

Again Mr. Coburn hesitated.

"Not with any certainty," he said at last, then with a grimace he
continued: "But I'm a little afraid that it's perhaps Madeleine."

Bulla, the engineer, made a sudden gesture.

"I thought so," he exclaimed. "Even in the little I saw of them
this evening I thought there was something in the wind. I guess
that accounts for the whole thing. What do you say, skipper?"

The big man nodded.

"I should think so," he admitted, with a look of relief. "I think
it's a mare's nest, Coburn. I don't believe we need worry."

"I'm not so sure," Coburn answered slowly. "I don't think we need
worry about Merriman, but I'm hanged if I know what to think about
Hilliard. He's pretty observant, and there's not much about this
place that he hasn't seen at one time or another."

"All the better for us, isn't it?" Bulla queried.

"So far as it goes, yes," the manager agreed, "and I've stuffed him
with yarns about costs and about giving up the props and going in
for paving blocks and so on which I think he swallowed. But why
should he want to know what we are doing? What possible interest
can the place have for him - unless he suspects?"

"They haven't done anything suspicious themselves?"

"Not that I have seen."

"Never caught them trying to pump any of the men?"


Captain Beamish moved impatiently.

"I don't think we need worry," he repeated with a trace of aggression
in his manner. "Let's get on to business. Have you heard from

Mr. Coburn drew a paper from his pocket, while Hilliard instinctively
bent forward, believing he was at last about to learn something which
would throw a light on these mysterious happenings. But alas for him!
Just as the manager began to speak he heard steps on the gangway which
passed on board and a man began to climb the starboard ladder to the
upper deck.

Hilliard's first thought was to return to his hiding place under
the boat, but he could not bring himself to go so far away from
the center of interest, and before he had consciously thought out
the situation he found himself creeping silently up the ladder to
the bridge. There he believed he would be safe from observation
while remaining within earshot of the cabin, and if anyone followed
him up the ladder he could creep round on the roof of the cabin to
the back of the chart-house, out of sight.

The newcomer tapped at the captain's door and, after a shout of
"Come in," opened it. There was a moment's silence, then Coburn's
voice said:

"We were just talking of you, Henri. The skipper wants to know - "
and the door closed.

Hilliard was not long in slipping back to his former position at the

"By Jove!" Bulla was saying. "And to think that two years ago I was
working a little coaster at twenty quid a month! And you, Coburn;
two years ago you weren't much better fixed, if as well, eh?"

Coburn ignored the question.

"It's good, but it's not good enough," he declared. "This thing
can't run for ever. If we go on too long somebody will tumble to
it. What we want is to try to get our piles made and close it
down before anything happens. We ought to have that other ship
running. We could double our income with another ship and another
depot. And Swansea seems to me the place."

"Bulla and I were just talking of that before you came aboard," the
captain answered. "You know we have considered that again and again,
and we have always come to the conclusion that we are pushing the
thing strongly enough."

"Our organization has improved since then. We can do more now with
less risk. It ought to be reconsidered. Will you go into the
thing, skipper?"

"Certainly. I'll bring it before our next meeting. But I won't
promise to vote for it. In our business it's not difficult to kill
the goose, etcetera."

The talk drifted to other matters, while Hilliard, thrilled to
the marrow, remained crouching motionless beneath the porthole,
concentrating all his attention on the conversation in the hope of
catching some word or phrase which might throw further light on
the mysterious enterprise under discussion. While the affair
itself was being spoken of he had almost ceased to be aware of his
surroundings, so eagerly had he listened to what was being said,
but now that the talk had turned to more ordinary subjects he began
more or less subconsciously to take stock of his own position.

He realized in the first place that he was in very real danger. A
quick movement either of the men in the cabin or of some member of
the crew might lead to his discovery, and he had the uncomfortable
feeling that he might pay the forfeit for his curiosity with his
life. He could imagine the manner in which the "accident" would
be staged. Doubtless his body, showing all the appearance of death
from drowning, would be found in the river with alongside it the
upturned boat as evidence of the cause of the disaster.

And if he should die, his secret would die with him. Should he not
then be content with what he had learned and clear out while he
could, so as to ensure his knowledge being preserved? He felt that
he ought, and yet the desire to remain in the hope of doing still
better was overpowering. But as he hesitated the power of choice
was taken away. The men in the cabin were making a move. Coburn
finished his whisky, and he and Henri rose to their feet.

"Well," the former said, "There's one o'cl6ck. We must be off."

The others stood up also, and at the same moment Hilliard crept
once more up the ladder to the bridge and crouched down in the
shadow of the chart-house. Hardly was he there when the men came
out of the cabin to the deck beneath the bridge, then with a brief
exchange of "Good-nights," Coburn and the lorry driver passed down
the ladder, crossed the gangway and disappeared behind a stack of
pit-props on the wharf. Bulla with a grunted "'Night" descended
the port steps and Hilliard heard the door leading below open and
shut; the starboard deck lamp snapped off, and finally the captain's
door shut and a key turned in the lock. Some fifteen minutes later
the faint light from the porthole vanished and all was dark and

But for more than an hour Hilliard remained crouching motionless
on the bridge, fearing lest some sound that he might make in his
descent should betray him if the captain should still be awake.
Then, a faint light from the rising moon appearing towards the
east, he crept from his perch, and crossing the gangway, reached
the wharf and presently his boat.

Ten minutes later he was on board the launch.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I will," said Merriman, to his relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merriman laughed contentedly.

"You arouse my curiosity anyway," he declared. "Get on and let's
hear it."

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

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

"Tell me."

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

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

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

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

Hilliard took the bull by the horns.

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

Merriman shook his head and groaned.

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

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

"But what is it? Have you any theory?"

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

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

"I suppose we couldn't leave it alone? Is it our business after

"If we don't act we become accessories, and besides we leave that
girl to fight her own battles."

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

"You had something in your mind?"

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

Merriman made a gesture of dissent.

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

Hilliard gazed vacantly on the long line of the coast.

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

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

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

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

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

"The other end?"

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

"That's true."

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

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

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

Merriman nodded without speaking and Hilliard continued:

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

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

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

"Jolly good notion, that," he answered cordially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merriman borrowed his friend's pouch and refilled his pipe in his

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

"How so?"

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

"I don't see it. We gave a good reason for leaving."

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

Hilliard sat up sharply.

"By Jove!" he cried. "I never thought of that."

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

Hilliard whistled.

"Lord! It's not going to be so simple as it looks, is it?"

"It isn't. And what's more, we can't afford to make any mistakes.
It's too dangerous."

Hilliard got up and began to pace the room.

"I don't care," he declared savagely. "I'm going through with it
now no matter what happens."

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

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

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

They left King's Cross by the 5.40 p.m. train, reaching their
destination a little before eleven. There they took rooms at the
George, a quiet hotel in Baker Street, close to the Paragon Station.



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

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

Merriman agreed, they called for a timetable, found there was a train
at 10.35, and going down to Paragon Station, got on board.

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

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

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

Ferriby to Main Road
* Fields * * * * *
* *
* *_*|
* * [_]Ackroyd & Holt's
* cottage[] |
* Lane * | |
Railway * * * * * * * * * * * * * | | to Hull


from Ferriby [ ]Syndicate's Depot ()signal box


~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~to the sea~~~

River Humber

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

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

Hilliard stopped and stood looking over.

"How the mischief are we to get near that place without being seen?"
he questioned. "It's like a German pill-box. There's no cover
anywhere about."

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

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

Hilliard nodded as they turned away.

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

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

"I say, Hilliard, look there!" cried Merriman suddenly.

They had passed along the lane until the facade of the building
had come into view and they were able to read its signboard:
"Ackroyd & Bolt, Licensed Rectifiers."

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

Hilliard was not so enthusiastic.

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

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

"You distinguish between distillers and rectifiers?"

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

Hilliard shook his head.

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

"It's a coincidence anyway."

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

Merriman shrugged his shoulders good-humoredly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Any place about here you can get a drink?"

The man slowly jerked his head to the left.

"Oop in village," he answered. "Raven bar."

"Come along and show us the way and have a drink with us," Hilliard

The man grasped this and his eyes gleamed.

"Ay," he replied succinctly.

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

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

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

"Don't think it."

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

"Down at works likely. He be there most times."

"I'd rather go to his house. Can you tell where he lives?"

"Ay. Down at works."

"But he doesn't sleep at the works surely?"

"Ay. Sleeps in tin hut."

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

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

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

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

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

Merriman not replying, he continued:

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


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

Merriman's emphatic nod expressed his approval.

"Good," he cried warmly. "What about getting a boat to-morrow and
having a try that night?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We'll go back to the boat and wait," Hilliard whispered, and they
crept down the steps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Try to lift the lid," whispered Hilliard.

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

"That'll do," Merriman breathed. "That's all we want to see. Come

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

"Come away," he whispered again. "We've done well. Why spoil

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

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

"Of course we could stand it. We've got to. Come on, Hilliard,
it's the only way."

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

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



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

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

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

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


"Meaning that we mustn't go back to the wharf until the night before
the Girondin arrives."

"Don't see how we can be sure of that."

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


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

"Good!" Merriman exclaimed. "Jolly good! And today is Thursday.
We've just time to get ready."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ay," he said slowly. "She's early."

"Two hours," the first agreed. "Didn't expect her till between ten
and eleven."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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