Twenty-six kilometers from Bordeaux, Seymour Merriman’s motorcycle runs low on gas. He is waiting for a passing motorist to come to his rescue when he notices a lorry turn down a nearby country road. Following it leads him to a mill, where an English firm manufactures pit-props for coal mines. They give him two liters of petrol and send him on his way, but not before he sees something odd. The lorry he saw on the road was marked No. 4, but it has been changed to No. 3—a peculiar incident that will lead Merriman into the greatest danger he has ever known.
With the help of a customs officer, Merriman looks into the mill’s business, and discovers that nothing about the little English firm is as it seems. All he wanted was a few liters of petrol, but he has stumbled across the century’s most fiendish crime.
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The Sawmill on the Lesque
Seymour Merriman was tired; tired of the jolting saddle of his motor bicycle, of the cramped position of his arms, of the chug of the engine, and most of all, of the dreary, barren country through which he was riding. Early that morning he had left Pau, and with the exception of an hour and a half at Bayonne, where he had lunched and paid a short business call, he had been at it ever since. It was now after five o'clock, and the last post he had noticed showed him he was still twenty-six kilometers from Bordeaux, where he intended to spend the night.
"This confounded road has no end," he thought. "I really must stretch my legs a bit."
A short distance in front of him a hump in the white ribbon of the road with parapet walls narrowing in at each side indicated a bridge. He cut off his engine and, allowing the machine to coast, brought it to a stand at the summit. Then dismounting, he slid it back on its bracket, stretched himself luxuriously, and looked around.
In both directions, in front of him and behind, the road stretched, level and monotonous as far as the eye could reach, as he had seen it stretch, with but few exceptions, during the whole of the day's run. But whereas farther south it had led through open country, desolate, depressing wastes of sand and sedge, here it ran through the heart of a pine forest, in its own way as melancholy. The road seemed isolated, cut off from the surrounding country, like to be squeezed out of existence by the overwhelming barrier on either f lank, a screen, aromatic indeed, but dark, gloomy, and forbidding. Nor was the prospect improved by the long, unsightly gashes which the resin collectors had made on the trunks, suggesting, as they did, that the trees were stricken by some disease. To Merriman the country seemed utterly uninhabited. Indeed, since running through Labouheyre, now two hours back, he could not recall having seen a single living creature except those passing in motor cars, and of these even there were but few.
He rested his arms on the masonry coping of the old bridge and drew at his cigarette. But for the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle, the spring evening was very still. The river curved away gently towards the left, flowing black and sluggish between its flat banks, on which the pines grew down to the water's edge. It was delightful to stay quiet for a few moments, and Merriman took off his cap and let the cool air blow on his forehead, enjoying the relaxation.
He was a pleasant-looking man of about eight-and-twenty, clean shaven and with gray, honest eyes, dark hair slightly inclined to curl, and a square, well-cut jaw. Business had brought him to France. Junior partner in the firm of Edwards & Merriman, Wine Merchants, Grace-church Street, London, he annually made a tour of the exporters with whom his firm dealt. He had worked across the south of the country from Cette to Pau, and was now about to recross from Bordeaux to near Avignon, after which his round would be complete. To him this part of his business was a pleasure, and he enjoyed his annual trip almost as much as if it had been a holiday.
The vehicle which he had heard in the distance was now close by, and he turned idly to watch it pass. He did not know then that this slight action, performed almost involuntarily, was to change his whole life, and not only his, but the lives of a number of other people of whose existence he was not then aware, was to lead to sorrow as well as happiness, to crime as well as the vindication of the law, to ... in short, what is more to the point, had he not then looked round, this story would never have been written.
The vehicle in itself was in no way remarkable. It was a motor lorry of about five tons capacity, a heavy thing, travelling slowly. Merriman's attention at first focused itself on the driver. He was a man of about thirty, good-looking, with thin, clear-cut features, an aquiline nose, and dark, clever-looking eyes. Dressed though he was in rough working clothes, there was a something in his appearance, in his pose, which suggested a man of better social standing than his occupation warranted.
"Ex-officer," thought Merriman as his gaze passed on to the lorry behind. It was painted a dirty green, and was empty except for a single heavy casting, evidently part of some large and massive machine. On the side of the deck was a brass plate bearing the words in English "The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 4." Merriman was somewhat surprised to see a nameplate in his own language in so unexpected a quarter, but the matter really did not interest him and he soon dismissed it from his mind.
The machine chuffed ponderously past, and Merriman, by now rested, turned to restart his bicycle. But his troubles for the day were not over. On the ground below his tank was a stain, and even as he looked, a drop fell from the carburetor feed pipe, followed by a second and a third.
He bent down to examine, and speedily found the cause of the trouble. The feed pipe was connected to the bottom of the tank by a union, and the nut, working slack, had allowed a small but steady leak. He tightened the nut and turned to measure the petrol in the tank. A glance showed him that a mere drain only remained.
"Curse it all," he muttered, "that's the second time that confounded nut has left me in the soup."
His position was a trifle awkward. He was still some twenty-five kilometers from Bordeaux, and his machine would not carry him more than perhaps two. Of course, he could stop the first car that approached, and no doubt borrow enough petrol to make the city, but all day he had noticed with surprise how few and far between the cars were, and there was no certainty that one would pass within a reasonable time.
Then the sound of the receding lorry, still faintly audible, suggested an idea. It was travelling so slowly that he might overtake it before his petrol gave out. It was true he was going in the wrong direction, and if he failed he would be still farther from his goal, but when you are twenty-five kilometers from where you want to be, a few hundred yards more or less is not worth worrying about.
He wheeled his machine round and followed the lorry at full speed. But he had not more than started when he noticed his quarry turning to the right. Slowly it disappeared into the forest.
"Funny I didn't see that road," thought Merriman as he bumped along.
He slackened speed when he reached the place where the lorry had vanished, and then he saw a narrow lane just wide enough to allow the big vehicle to pass, which curved away between the tree stems. The surface was badly cut up with wheel tracks, so much so that Merriman decided he could not ride it. He therefore dismounted, hid his bicycle among the trees, and pushed on down the lane on foot. He was convinced from his knowledge of the country that the latter must be a cul-de-sac, at the end of which he would find the lorry. This he could hear not far away, chugging slowly on in front of him.
The lane twisted incessantly, apparently to avoid the larger trees. The surface was the virgin soil of the forest only, but the ruts had been filled roughly with broken stones.
Merriman strode on, and suddenly, as he rounded one of the bends, he got the surprise of his life.
Coming to meet him along the lane was a girl. This in itself was perhaps not remarkable, but this girl seemed so out of place amid such surroundings, or even in such a district, that Merriman was quite taken aback.
She was of medium height, slender and graceful as a lily, and looked about three-and-twenty. She was a study in brown. On her head was a brown tam, a rich, warm brown, like the brown of autumn bracken on the moor. She wore a brown jumper, brown skirt, brown stockings and little brown brogued shoes. As she came closer, Merriman saw that her eyes, friendly, honest eyes, were a shade of golden brown, and that a hint of gold also gleamed in the brown of her hair. She was pretty, not classically beautiful, but very charming and attractive-looking. She walked with the free, easy movement of one accustomed to an out-of-door life.
As they drew abreast Merriman pulled off his cap.
"Pardon, mademoiselle," he said in his somewhat halting French, "but can you tell me if I could get some petrol close by?" and in a few words he explained his predicament.
She looked him over with a sharp, scrutinizing glance. Apparently satisfied, she smiled slightly and replied:
"But certainly, monsieur. Come to the mill and my father will get you some. He is the manager."
She spoke even more haltingly than he had, and with no semblance of a French accent — the French rather of an English school. He stared at her.
"But you're English!" he cried in surprise.
She laughed lightly.
"Of course I'm English," she answered. "Why shouldn't I be English? But I don't think you're very polite about it, you know."
He apologized in some confusion. It was the unexpectedness of meeting a fellow-countryman in this out of the way wood ... It was ... He did not mean. ...
"You want to say my French is not really so bad after all?" she said relentlessly, and then: "I can tell you it's a lot better than when we came here."
"Then you are a newcomer?"
"We're not out very long. It's rather a change from London, as you may imagine. But it's not such a bad country as it looks. At first I thought it would be dreadful, but I have grown to like it."
She had turned with him, and they were now walking together between the tall, straight stems of the trees.
"I'm a Londoner," said Merriman slowly. "I wonder if we have any mutual acquaintances?"
"It's hardly likely. Since my mother died some years ago we have lived very quietly, and gone out very little."
Merriman did not wish to appear inquisitive. He made a suitable reply and, turning the conversation to the country, told her of his day's ride. She listened eagerly, and it was borne in upon him that she was lonely, and delighted to have anyone to talk to. She certainly seemed a charming girl, simple, natural and friendly, and obviously a lady.
But soon their walk came to an end. Some quarter of a mile from the wood the lane debouched into a large, D-shaped clearing. It had evidently been recently made, for the tops of many of the tree-stumps dotted thickly over the ground were still white. Round the semicircle of the forest trees were lying cut, some with their branches still intact, others stripped clear to long, straight poles. Two small gangs of men were at work, one felling, the other lopping.
Across the clearing, forming its other boundary and the straight side of the D, ran a river, apparently from its direction that which Merriman had looked down on from the road bridge. It was wider here, a fine stretch of water, though still dark colored and uninviting from the shadow of the trees. On its bank, forming a center to the cleared semicircle, was a building, evidently the mill. It was a small place, consisting of a single long narrow galvanized iron shed, and placed parallel to the river. In front of the shed was a tiny wharf, and behind it were stacks and stacks of tree trunks cut in short lengths and built as if for seasoning. Decauville tramways radiated from the shed, and the men were running in timber in the trucks. From the mill came the hard, biting screech of a circular saw.
"A sawmill!" Merriman exclaimed rather unnecessarily.
"Yes. We cut pit-props for the English coal mines. Those are they you see stacked up. As soon as they are drier they will be shipped across. My father joined with some others in putting up the capital, and — voilà!" She indicated the clearing and its contents with a comprehensive sweep of her hand.
"By Jove! A jolly fine notion, too, I should say. You have everything handy — trees handy, river handy — I suppose from the look of that wharf that sea-going ships can come up?"
"Shallow draughted ones only. But we have our own motor ship specially built and always running. It makes the round trip in about ten days."
"By Jove!" Merriman said again. "Splendid! And is that where you live?"
He pointed to a house standing on a little hillock near the edge of the clearing at the far or down-stream side of the mill. It was a rough, but not uncomfortable-looking building of galvanized iron, one-storied and with a piazza in front. From a brick chimney a thin spiral of blue smoke was floating up lazily into the calm air.
The girl nodded.
"It's not palatial, but it's really wonderfully comfortable," she explained, "and oh, the fires! I've never seen such glorious wood fires as we have. Cuttings, you know. We have more blocks than we know what to do with."
"I can imagine. I wish we had 'em in London."
They were walking not too rapidly across the clearing towards the mill. At the back of the shed were a number of doors, and opposite one of them, heading into the opening, stood the motor lorry. The engine was still running, but the driver had disappeared, apparently into the building. As the two came up, Merriman once more ran his eye idly over the vehicle. And then he felt a sudden mild surprise, as one feels when some unexpected though quite trivial incident takes place. He had felt sure that this lorry standing at the mill door was that which had passed him on the bridge, and which he had followed down the lane. But now he saw it wasn't. He had noted, idly but quite distinctly, that the original machine was No. 4. This one had a precisely similar plate, but it bore the legend "The Landes Pit-Prop Syndicate, No. 3."
Though the matter was of no importance, Merriman was a little intrigued, and he looked more closely at the vehicle. As he did so his surprise grew and his trifling interest became mystification. The lorry was the same. At least there on the top was the casting, just as he had seen it. It was inconceivable that two similar lorries should have two identical castings arranged in the same way, and at the same time and place. And yet, perhaps it was just possible.
But as he looked he noticed a detail which settled the matter. The casting was steadied by some rough billets of wood. One of these billets was split, and a splinter of curious shape had partially entered a bolt hole. He recalled now, though it had slipped from his memory, that he had noticed that queer-shaped splinter as the lorry passed him on the bridge. It was therefore unquestionably and beyond a shadow of doubt the same machine.
Involuntarily he stopped and stood staring at the number plate, wondering if his recollection of that seen at the bridge could be at fault. He thought not. In fact, he was certain. He recalled the shape of the 4, which had an unusually small hollow in the middle. There was no shadow of doubt of this either. He remained motionless for a few seconds, puzzling over the problem, and was just about to remark on it when the girl broke in hurriedly.
"Father will be in the office," she said, and her voice was sharpened as from anxiety. "Won't you come and see him about the petrol?"
He looked at her curiously. The smile had gone from her lips, and her face was pale. She was frowning, and in her eyes there showed unmistakable fear. She was not looking at him, and his gaze followed the direction of hers.
The driver had come out of the shed, the same dark, aquiline-featured man as had passed him on the bridge. He had stopped and was staring at Merriman with an intense regard in which doubt and suspicion rapidly changed to hostility. For a moment neither man moved, and then once again the girl's voice broke in.
"Oh, there is father," she cried, with barely disguised relief in her tones. "Come, won't you, and speak to him."
The interruption broke the spell. The driver averted his eyes and stooped over his engine; Merriman turned towards the girl, and the little incident was over.
It was evident to Merriman that he had in some way put his foot in it, how he could not imagine, unless there was really something in the matter of the number plate. But it was equally clear to him that his companion wished to ignore the affair, and he therefore expelled it from his mind for the moment, and once again following the direction of her gaze, moved towards a man who was approaching from the far end of the shed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Pit-Prop Syndicate"
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Amateurs,
1. The Sawmill on the Lesque, 3,
2. An Interesting Suggestion, 13,
3. The Start of the Cruise, 23,
4. A Commercial Proposition, 33,
5. The Visit of the Girondin, 45,
6. A Change of Venue, 58,
7. The Ferriby Depot, 68,
8. The Unloading of the Girondin, 78,
9. The Second Cargo, 87,
10. Merriman Becomes Desperate, 103,
11. An Unexpected Ally, 114,
Part Two: The Professionals,
12. Murder!, 131,
13. A Promising Clue, 140,
14. A Mystifying Discovery, 149,
15. Inspector Willis Listens In, 161,
16. The Secret of the Syndicate, 171,
17. "Archer Plants Stuff", 182,
18. The Bordeaux Lorries, 196,
19. Willis Spreads His Net, 207,
20. The Double Cross, 222,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A little bit slow and wordy descriptions. Otherwise very good reading.