Read CHAPTER 9. THE SECOND CARGO of The Pit Prop Syndicate , free online book, by Freeman Wills Crofts, on

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

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

Merriman grunted.

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

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

Merriman, now thoroughly aroused, moved with some annoyance.

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

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

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

Hilliard went on:

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

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

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

Merriman felt his anger rising.

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

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

Merriman suddenly gasped.

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

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

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

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

Merriman nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take it at that anyway,” answered Merriman.

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

“Take it at that,” Merriman repeated.

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

He paused, looked at his friend, and resumed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merriman nodded and sat up in bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilliard smote his thigh.

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

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

“That’s true.”

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

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

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

But Merriman was not cast down.

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

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

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

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

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

Merriman thanked him, and later on the two friends took the 6.35 train to Ellerby. Leatham’s car was waiting for them at the station, and in a few minutes they had reached the mineowner’s house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merriman reassured him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He thought for a moment, then went on:

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

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

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

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

Leatham nodded.

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

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

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

“Nothing could be better.”

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

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

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

The two friends swore and Leatham laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the mineowner speaking from his office.

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

“Jolly good, Leatham.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your man saw nothing?” Merriman inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilliard sighed.

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

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

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

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

Hilliard stared at this outburst.

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

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

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

Hilliard shook his head reluctantly.

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

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

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

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

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

Hilliard made a gesture of impatience.

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

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

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

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