The Pit Prop Syndicate

Contents:
Author: Freeman Wills Crofts

Chapter 20. The Double Cross

Inspector Willis spent the Saturday before the fateful Tuesday at the telephone in the empty cottage. Nothing of interest passed over the wire, except that Benson informed his chief that he had had a telegram from Beamish saying that, in order to reach Ferriby at the prearranged hour, he was having to sail without a full cargo of props, and that the two men went over again the various trains by which they and their confederates would travel to London. Both items pleased Willis, as it showed him that the plans originally made were being adhered to.

On Monday morning, as the critical hour of his coup approached, he became restless and even nervous - so far, that is, as an inspector of the Yard on duty can be nervous. So much depended on the results of the next day and a half! His own fate hung in the balance as well as that of the men against whom he had pitted himself; Miss Coburn and Merriman too would be profoundly affected however the affair ended, while to his department, and even to the nation at large, his success would not be without importance.

He determined he would, if possible, see the various members of the gang start, travelling himself in the train with Archer, as the leader and the man most urgently "wanted." Benson, he remembered, was to go first. Willis therefore haunted the Paragon station, watching the trains leave, and he was well satisfied when he saw Benson get on board the 9.10 a.m. By means of a word of explanation and the passing of a couple of shillings, he induced an official to examine the traveller’s ticket, which proved to be a third return to King’s Cross.

Beamish and Bulla were to travel by the 4 p.m., and Willis, carefully disguised as a deep-sea fisherman, watched them arrive separately, take their tickets, and enter the train. Beamish travelled first, and Bulla third, and again the inspector had their tickets examined, and found they were for London.

Archer was to leave at 5.3, and Willis intended as a precautionary measure to travel up with him and keep him under observation. Still in his fisherman’s disguise, he took his own ticket, got into the rear of the train, and kept his eye on the platform until he saw Archer pass, suitcase and rug in hand. Then cautiously looking out, he watched the other get into the through coach for King’s Cross.

As the train ran past the depot at Ferriby, Willis observed that the Girondin was not discharging pit-props, but instead was loading casks of some kind. He had noted on the previous Friday, when he had been in the neighborhood, that some wagons of these casks had been shunted inside the enclosure, and were being unloaded by the syndicate’s men. The casks looked like those in which the crude oil for the ship’s Diesel engines arrived, and the fact that she was loading them unemptied-he presumed them unemptied seemed to indicate that the pumping plant on the wharf was out of order.

The 5.3 p.m. ran, with a stop at Goole, to Doncaster, where the through carriage was shunted on to one of the great expresses from the north. More from force of habit than otherwise, Willis put his head out of the window at Goole to watch if anyone should leave Archer’s carriage. But no one did.

At Doncaster Willis received something of a shock. As his train drew into the station another was just coming out, and he idly ran his eye along the line of coaches. A figure in the corner of a third-class compartment attracted his attention. It seemed vaguely familiar, but it was already out of sight before the inspector realized that it was a likeness to Benson that had struck him. He had not seen the man’s face and at once dismissed the matter from his mind with the careless thought that everyone has his double. A moment later they pulled up at the platform.

Here again he put out his head, and it was not long before he saw Archer alight and, evidently leaving his suitcase and rug to keep his seat, move slowly down the platform. There was nothing remarkable in this, as no less than seventeen minutes elapsed between the arrival of the train from Hull and the departure of that from London, and through passengers frequently left their carriage while it was being shunted. At the same time Willis unostentatiously followed, and presently saw Archer vanish into the first-class refreshment room. He took up a position where he had a good view of the door, and waited for the other’s reappearance.

But the distiller was in no hurry. Ten minutes elapsed, and still he made no sign. The express from the north thundered in, the engine hooked off, and shunting began. The train was due out at 6.22, and now the hands of the great clock pointed to 6.19. Willis began to be perturbed. Had he missed his quarry?

At 6.20 he could stand it no longer, and at risk of meeting Archer, should the latter at that moment decide to leave the refreshment room, he pushed open the door and glanced in. And then he breathed freely again. Archer was sitting at a table sipping what looked like a whisky and soda. As Willis looked he saw him glance up at the clock - now pointing to 6.21 - and calmly settle himself more comfortably in his chair!

Why, the man would miss the train! Willis, with a sudden feeling of disappointment, had an impulse to run over and remind him of the hour at which it left. But he controlled himself in time, slipped back to his post of observation, and took up his watch. In a few seconds the train whistled, and pulled majestically out of the station.

For fifteen minutes Willis waited, and then he saw the distiller leave the refreshment room and walk slowly down the platform. As Willis followed, it was clear to him that the other had deliberately allowed his train to start without him, though what his motive had been the inspector could not imagine. He now approached the booking-office and apparently bought a ticket, afterwards turning back down the platform.

Willis slipped into a doorway until he had passed, then hurrying to the booking-window, explained who he was and asked to what station the last comer had booked. He was told "Selby," and he retreated, exasperated and puzzled beyond words. What could Archer be up to?

He bought a time-table and began to study the possibilities. First he made himself clear as to the lie of the land. The main line of the great East Coast route from London to Scotland ran almost due north and south through Doncaster. Eighteen miles to the north was Selby, the next important station. At Selby a line running east and west crossed the other, leading in one direction to Leeds and the west, in the other to Hull.

About half-way between Selby and Hull, at a place called Staddlethorpe, a line branched off and ran south-westerly through Goole to Doncaster. Selby, Staddlethorpe, and Doncaster therefore formed a railway triangle, one of the sides of which, produced, led to Hull. From this it followed, as indeed the inspector had known, that passengers to and from Hull had two points of connection with the main line, either direct to Selby, or through Goole to Doncaster.

He began to study the trains. The first northwards was the 4 p.m. dining-car express from King’s Cross to Newcastle. It left Doncaster at 7.56 and reached Selby at 8.21. Would Archer travel by it? And if he did, what would be his next move?

For nearly an hour Willis sat huddled up in the corner of a seat, his eye on Archer in the distance, and his mind wrestling with the problem. For nearly an hour he racked his brains without result, then suddenly a devastating idea flashed before his consciousness, leaving him rigid with dismay. For a moment his mind refused to accept so disastrous a possibility, but as he continued to think over it he found that one puzzling and unrelated fact after another took on a different complexion from that it had formerly borne; that, moreover, it dropped into place and became part of a connected whole.

to the North
|
|
|Selby Stsaalethorpt Hull
___________x______x_____x________x_______x______
Leeds | / Ferriby Hassle
| x Goole
| /
| /
| /
|/
x Dorcaster
|
from London

He saw now why Archer could not discuss Madeleine’s letter over the telephone, but was able to arrange in that way for the interview with Beamish. He understood why Archer, standing at his study window, had mentioned the call at eleven next morning. He realized that Benson’s amendment was probably arranged by Archer on the previous evening. He saw why the Girondin had left the Lesque without her full cargo, and why she was loading barrels at Ferriby. He knew who it was he had seen passing in the other train as his own reached Doncaster, and he grasped the reason for Archer’s visit to Selby. In a word, he saw he had been hoaxed - fooled - carefully, systematically, and at every point. While he had been congratulating himself on the completeness with which the conspirators had been walking into his net, he had in reality been caught in theirs. He had been like a child in their hands. They had evidently been watching and countering his every step.

He saw now that his tapping of the secret telephone must have been discovered, and that his enemies had used their discovery to mislead him. They must have recognized that Madeleine’s letter was inspired by himself, and read his motives in making her send it. They had then used the telephone to make him believe they were falling into his trap, while their real plans were settled in Archer’s study.

What those plans were he believed he now understood. There would be no meetings in London on the following day. The meetings were designed to bring him, Willis, to the Metropolis and keep him there. By tomorrow the gang, convinced that discovery was imminent, would be aboard the Girondin and on the high seas. They were, as he expressed it to himself, "doing a bunk."

Therefore of necessity the Girondin would load barrelled oil to drive her to some country where Scotland Yard detectives did not flourish, and where extradition laws were of no account. Therefore she must return light, or, he suspected, empty, as there would be no time to unload. Moreover, a reason for this "lightness" must be given him, lest he should notice the ship sitting high out of the water, and suspect. And he now knew that it was really Benson that he had seen returning to Ferriby via Goole, and that Archer was doing the same via Selby.

He looked up the trains from Selby to Ferriby. There was only one. It left Selby at 9.19, fifty-eight minutes after the Doncaster train arrived there, and reached Ferriby at 10.7. It was now getting on towards eight. He had nearly two and a half hours to make his plans.

Though Willis was a little slow in thought he was prompt in action. Feeling sure that Archer would indeed travel by the 7.56 to Selby, he relaxed his watch and went to the telephone call office. There he rang up the police station at Selby, asking for a plain-clothes man and two constables to meet him at the train to make an arrest. Also he asked for a fast car to be engaged to take him immediately to Ferriby. He then called up the police in Hull, and had a long talk with the superintendent. Finally it was arranged that a sergeant and twelve men were to meet him on the shore at the back of the signal cabin near the Ferriby depot, with a boat and a grappling ladder for getting aboard the Girondin. This done, Willis hurried back to the platform, reaching it just as the 7.56 came in. He watched Archer get on board, and then himself entered another compartment.

At Selby the quarry alighted, and passed along the platform towards the booking-office. Willis’s police training instantly revealed to him the plain-clothes man, and him he instructed to follow Archer and learn to what station he booked. In a few moments the man returned to say it was Ferriby. Then calling up the two constables, the four officers followed the distiller into the first-class waiting room, where he had taken cover. Willis walked up to him.

"Archibald Charles Archer," he said impressively, "I am Inspector Willis of Scotland Yard. I have a warrant for your arrest on a charge of murdering Francis Coburn in a cab in London on September 12 last. I have to warn you that anything you say may be used in evidence."

For a moment the distiller seemed so overwhelmed with surprise as to be incapable of movement, and before he could pull himself together there was a click, and handcuffs gleamed on his wrists. Then his eyes blazed, and with the inarticulate roar of a wild beast he flung himself wildly on Willis, and, manacled as he was, attempted to seize his throat. But the struggle was brief. In a moment the three other men had torn him off, and he stood glaring at his adversary, and uttering savage curses.

"You look after him, sergeant," Willis directed a little breathlessly, as he tried to straighten the remnants of his tie. "I must go on to Ferriby."

A powerful car was waiting outside the station, and Willis, jumping in, offered the driver an extra pound if he was at Ferriby within fifty minutes. He reckoned the distance was about twenty-five miles, and he thought he should maintain at average of thirty miles an hour.

The night was intensely dark as the big vehicle swung out of Selby, eastward bound. A slight wind blew in from the east, bearing a damp, searching cold, more trying than frost. Willis, who had left his coat in the London train, shivered as he drew the one rug the vehicle contained up round his shoulders.

The road to Howden was broad and smooth, and the car made fine going. But at Howden the main road turned north, and speed on the comparatively inferior cross roads to Ferriby had to be reduced. But Willis was not dissatisfied with their progress when at 9.38, fifty-four minutes after leaving Selby, they pulled up in the Ferriby lane, not far from the distillery and opposite the railway signal cabin.

Having arranged with the driver to run up to the main road, wait there until he heard four blasts on the Girondin’s horn, and then make for the syndicate’s depot, the inspector dismounted, and forcing his way through the railway fence, crossed the rails and descended the low embankment on the river side. A moment later, just as he reached the shore, the form of a man loomed up dimly through the darkness.

"Who is there?" asked Willis softly.

"Constable Jones, sir," the figure answered. "Is that Inspector Willis? Sergeant Hobbs is here with the boats."

Willis followed the other for fifty yards along the beach, until they came on two boats, each containing half a dozen policemen. It was still very dark; and the wind blew cold and raw. The silence was broken only by the lapping of the waves on the shingle. Willis felt that the night was ideal for his purpose. There was enough noise from wind and water to muffle any sounds that the men might make in getting aboard the Girondin, but not enough to prevent him overhearing any conversation which might be in progress.

"We have just got here this minute, sir," the sergeant said. "I hope we haven’t kept you waiting."

"Just arrived myself," Willis returned. "You have twelve picked men?"

"Yes, sir."

"Armed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. I need not remind you all not to fire except as a last resort. What arrangements have you made for boarding?"

"We have a ladder with hooks at the top for catching on the taffrail."

"Your oars muffled?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. Now listen, and see that you are clear about what you are to do. When we reach the ship get your ladder into position, and I’ll go up. You and the men follow. Keep beside me, sergeant. We’ll overhear what we can. When I give the signal, rush in and arrest the whole gang. Do you follow?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then let us get under way."

They pushed off, passing like phantoms over the dark water. The ship carried a riding light, to which they steered. She was lying, Willis knew, bow upstream. The tide was flowing, and when they were close by they ceased rowing and drifted down on to her stern. There the leading boat dropped in beneath her counter, and the bowman made the painter fast to her rudder post. The second boat’s painter was attached to the stern of the first, and the current swung both alongside. The men, fending off, allowed their craft to come into place without sound. The ladder was raised and hooked on, and Willis, climbing up, stealthily raised his head above the taffrail.

The port side of the ship was, as on previous occasions, in complete darkness, and Willis jerked the ladder as a signal to the others to follow him. In a few seconds the fourteen men stood like shadows on the lower deck. Then Willis, tiptoeing forward, began to climb the ladder to the bridge deck, just as Hilliard had done some four months earlier. As on that occasion, the starboard side of the ship, next the wharf, was dimly lighted up. A light also showed in the window of the captain’s cabin, from which issued the sound of voices.

Willis posted his men in two groups at either end of the cabin, so that at a given signal they could rush round in opposite directions and reach the door. Then he and the sergeant crept forward and put their ears to the window.

This time, though the glass was hooked back as before, the curtain was pulled fully across the opening, so that the men could see nothing and only partially hear what was said. Willis therefore reached in and very gradually pulled it a little aside. Fortunately no one noticed the movement, and the talk continued uninterruptedly.

The inspector could now see in. Five men were squeezed round the tiny table. Beamish and Bulla sat along one side, directly facing him. At the end was Fox. The remaining two had their backs to the window, and were, the inspector believed, Raymond and Henri. Before each man was a long tumbler of whisky and soda, and a box of cigars lay on the table. All seemed nervous and excited, indeed as if under an intolerable strain, and kept fidgeting and looking at their watches. Conversation was evidently maintained with an effort, as a thing necessary to keep them from a complete breakdown. Raymond was speaking:

"And you saw him come out?" he was asking.

"Yes," Fox answered. "He came out sort of stealthy and looked around. I didn’t know who it was then, but I knew no one had any business in the cottage at that hour, so I followed him to Ferriby station. I saw his face by the lamps there."

"And you knew him?"

"No, but I recognized him as having been around with that Excise inspector, and I guessed he was on to something."

"Oui, oui. Yes?" the Frenchman interrogated.

"Well, naturally I told the chief. He knew who it was."

"Bien! There is not - how do you say? - flies on Archer, n’est-ce pas? And then?"

"The chief guessed who it was from the captain’s description."

Fox nodded his head at Beamish. "You met him, eh, captain?"

"He stood me a drink," the big man answered, "but what he did it for I don’t know."

"But how did he get wise to the telephone?" Bulla rumbled.

"Can’t find out," Fox replied, "but it showed he was wise to the whole affair. Then there was that letter from Miss Coburn. That gave the show away, because there could have been no papers like she said, and she couldn’t have discovered anything then that she hadn’t known at the clearing. Archer put Morton on to it, and he found that this Willis went down to EASTBOURNE one night about two days before the letter came. So that was that. Then he had me watch for him going to the telephone, and he has fooled him about proper. I guess he’s in London now, arranging to arrest us all tomorrow."

Bulla chuckled fatly.

"As you say," he nodded at Raymond, "there ain’t no flies on Archer, what?"

"I’ve always thought a lot of Archer," Beamish remarked, "but I never thought so much of him as that night we drew lots for who should put Coburn out of the way. When he drew the long taper he never as much as turned a hair. That’s the last time we had a full meeting, and we never reckoned that this would be the next."

At this moment a train passed going towards Hull.

"There’s his train," Fox cried. "He should be here soon."

"How long does it take to get from the station?" Raymond inquired.

"About fifteen minutes," Captain Beamish answered. "We’re time enough making a move."

The men showed more and more nervousness, but the talk dragged on for some quarter of an hour. Suddenly from the wharf sounded the approaching footsteps of a running man. He crossed the gangway and raced up the ladder to the captain’s cabin. The others sprang to their feet as the door opened and Benson appeared.

"He hasn’t come!" he cried excitedly. "I watched at the station and he didn’t get out!"

Consternation showed on every face, and Beamish swore bitterly. There was a variety of comments and conjectures.

"There’s no other train?"

"Only the express. It doesn’t stop here, but it stops at Hassle on notice to the guard."

"He may have missed the connection at Selby," Fox suggested. "In that case he would motor."

Beamish spoke authoritatively.

"I wish, Benson, you would go and ring up the Central and see if there has been any message."

Willis whispered to the sergeant, who, beckoning to two of his men, crept hurriedly down the port ladder to the lower deck. In a moment Benson followed down the starboard or lighted side. Willis listened breathlessly above, heard what he was expecting - a sudden scuffle, a muffled cry, a faint click, and then silence. He peeped through the porthole. Fox was expounding his theory about the railway connections, and none of those within had heard the sounds. Presently the sergeant returned with his men.

"Trussed him up to the davit pole," he breathed in the inspector’s ear. "He won’t give no trouble."

Willis nodded contentedly. That was one out of the way out of six, and he had fourteen on his side.

Meanwhile the men in the cabin continued anxiously discussing their leader’s absence, until after a few minutes Beamish swore irritably.

"Curse that fool Benson," he growled. "What the blazes is keeping him all this time? I had better go and hurry him up. If they’ve got hold of Archer, it’s time we were out of this."

Willis’s hand closed on the sergeant’s arm.

"Same thing again, but with three men," he whispered.

The four had hardly disappeared down the port ladder when Beamish left his cabin and began to descend the starboard. Willis felt that the crisis was upon him. He whispered to the remaining constables, who closed in round the cabin door, then grasped his revolver, and stood tense.

Suddenly a wild commotion arose on the lower deck. There was a warning shout from Beamish, instantly muffled, a tramp of feet, a pistol shot, and sounds of a violent struggle.

For a moment there was silence in the cabin, the men gazing at each other with consternation on their faces. Then Bulla yelled: "Copped, by heck!" and with an agility hardly credible in a man of his years, whipped out a revolver, and sprang out of the cabin. Instantly he was seized by three constables, and the four went swinging and lurching across the deck, Bulla fighting desperately to turn his weapon on his assailants. At the same moment Willis leaped to the door, and with his automatic levelled, shouted, "Hands up, all of you! You are covered from every quarter!"

Henri and Fox, who were next the door, obeyed as if in a stupor, but Raymond’s hand flew out, and a bullet whistled past the inspector’s head. Instantly Willis fired, and with a scream the Frenchman staggered back.

It was the work of a few seconds for the remaining constables to dash in under the inspector’s pistol and handcuff the two men in the cabin, and Willis then turned to see how the contests on deck were faring. But these also were over. Both Beamish and Bulla, borne down by the weight of numbers, had been secured.

The inspector next turned to examine Raymond. His shot had been well aimed. The bullet had entered the base of the man’s right thumb, and passed out through his wrist. His life was not in danger, but it would be many a long day before he would again fire a revolver.

Four blasts on the Girondin’s horn recalled Willis’s car, and when, some three hours later, the last batch of prisoners was safely lodged in the Hull police station, Willis began to feel that the end of his labors was at last coming in sight.

The arrests supplied the inspector with fresh material on which to work. As a result of his careful investigation of the movements of the prisoners during the previous three years, the entire history of the Pit-Prop Syndicate was unravelled, as well as the details of Coburn’s murder.

It seemed that the original idea of the fraud was Raymond’s. He looked round for a likely English partner, selected Archer, broached the subject to him, and found him willing to go in. Soon, from his dominating personality, Archer became the leader. Details were worked out, and the necessary confederates carefully chosen. Beamish and Bulla went in as partners, the four being bound together by their joint liability. The other three members were tools over whom the quartet had obtained some hold. In Coburn’s case, Archer learned of the defalcations in time to make the erring cashier his victim. He met the deficit in return for a signed confession of guilt and an I 0 U for a sum that would have enabled the distiller to sell the other up, and ruin his home and his future.

An incompletely erased address in a pocket diary belonging to Beamish led Willis to a small shop on the south side of London, where he discovered an assistant who had sold a square of black serge to two men, about the time of Coburn’s murder. The salesman remembered the transaction because his customers had been unable to describe what they wanted otherwise than by the word "cloth," which was not the technical name foy any of his commodities. The fabric found in the cab was identical to that on the roll this man stated he had used; moreover, he identified Beamish and Bulla as the purchasers.

Willis had a routine search made of the restaurants of Soho, and at last found that in which the conspirators had held their meetings previous to the murder. There had been two. At the first, so Willis learned from the description given by the proprietor, Coburn had been present, but not at the second.

In spite of all his efforts he was unable to find the shop at which the pistol had been bought, but he suspected the transaction had been carried out by one of the other members of the gang, in order as far as possible to share the responsibility for the crime.

On the Girondin was found the false bulkhead in Bulla’s cabin, behind which was placed the hidden brandy tank. The connection for the shore pipe was concealed behind the back of the engineer’s wash-hand basin, which moved forward by means of a secret spring.

On the Girondin was also found something over 700,000 pounds, mostly in Brazilian notes, and Benson admitted later that the plan had been to scuttle the Girondin off the coast of Bahia, take to the boats and row ashore at night, remaining in Brazil at least till the hue and cry had died down. But instead all seven men received heavy sentences. Archer paid for his crimes with his life, the others got terms of from ten to fifteen years each. The managers of the licensed houses in Hull were believed to have been in ignorance of the larger fraud, and to have dealt privately and individually with Archer, and they and their accomplices escaped with lighter penalties.

The mysterious Morton proved to be a private detective, employed by Archer. He swore positively that he had no knowledge of the real nature of the syndicate’s operations, and though the judge’s strictures on his conduct were severe, no evidence could be found against him, and he was not brought to trial.

Inspector Willis got his desired promotion out of the case, and there was someone else who got more. About a month after the trial, in the Holy Trinity Church, EASTBOURNE, a wedding was solemnized - Seymour Merriman and Madeleine Coburn were united in the holy bonds of matrimony. And Hilliard, assisting as best man, could not refrain from whispering in his friend’s ear as they turned to leave the vestry, "Three cheers for the Pit-Prop Syndicate!"

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Chicago: Freeman Wills Crofts, "Chapter 20. The Double Cross," The Pit Prop Syndicate, trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Pit Prop Syndicate Original Sources, accessed April 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRJQ4W27GG4ZX9S.

MLA: Crofts, Freeman Wills. "Chapter 20. The Double Cross." The Pit Prop Syndicate, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in The Pit Prop Syndicate, Original Sources. 25 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRJQ4W27GG4ZX9S.

Harvard: Crofts, FW, 'Chapter 20. The Double Cross' in The Pit Prop Syndicate, trans. . cited in , The Pit Prop Syndicate. Original Sources, retrieved 25 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CRJQ4W27GG4ZX9S.