One Crowded Hour
by Arthur Conan
The place was the Eastbourne-Tunbridge road, not very far from
the Cross in Hand—a lonely stretch, with a heath running
upon either side. The time was half-past eleven upon a
Sunday night in the late summer. A motor was passing slowly
down the road.
It was a long, lean Rolls-Royce, running smoothly with a
gentle purring of the engine. Through the two vivid circles
cast by the electric head-lights the waving grass fringes and
clumps of heather streamed swiftly like some golden
cinematograph, leaving a blacker darkness behind and around
them. One ruby-red spot shone upon the road, but no
number-plate was visible within the dim ruddy halo of the
tail-lamp which cast it. The car was open and of a tourist
type, but even in that obscure light, for the night was moonless,
an observer could hardly fail to have noticed a curious
indefiniteness in its lines. As it slid into and across the
broad stream of light from an open
cottage door the reason could be seen. The body was hung
with a singular loose arrangement of brown holland. Even
the long black bonnet was banded with some close-drawn
The solitary man who drove this curious car was broad and
burly. He sat hunched up over his steering-wheel, with the
brim of a Tyrolean hat drawn down over his eyes. The red
end of a cigarette smouldered under the black shadow thrown by
the headgear. A dark ulster of some frieze-like material
was turned up in the collar until it covered his ears. His
neck was pushed forward from his rounded shoulders, and he
seemed, as the car now slid noiselessly down the long, sloping
road, with the clutch disengaged and the engine running free, to
be peering ahead of him through the darkness in search of some
The distant toot of a motor-horn came faintly from some point
far to the south of him. On such a night, at such a place,
all traffic must be from south to north when the current of
London week-enders sweeps back from the watering-place to the
capital—from pleasure to duty. The man sat straight
and listened intently. Yes, there it was again, and
certainly to the south of him. His face was over the wheel
and his eyes strained through the darkness. Then
suddenly he spat out his cigarette and gave a sharp intake of the
breath. Far away down the road two little yellow points had
rounded a curve. They vanished into a dip, shot upwards
once more, and then vanished again. The inert man in the
draped car woke suddenly into intense life. From his pocket
he pulled a mask of dark cloth, which he fastened securely across
his face, adjusting it carefully that his sight might be
unimpeded. For an instant he uncovered an acetylene
hand-lantern, took a hasty glance at his own preparations, and
laid it beside a Mauser pistol upon the seat alongside him.
Then, twitching his hat down lower than ever, he released his
clutch and slid downward his gear-lever. With a chuckle and
shudder the long, black machine sprang forward, and shot with a
soft sigh from her powerful engines down the sloping
gradient. The driver stooped and switched off his electric
head-lights. Only a dim grey swathe cut through the black
heath indicated the line of his road. From in front there
came presently a confused puffing and rattling and clanging as
the oncoming car breasted the slope. It coughed and
spluttered on a powerful, old-fashioned low gear, while its
engine throbbed like a weary heart. The yellow, glaring
lights dipped for the last time into a switchback curve.
When they reappeared over the crest the two cars were within thirty yards of each other. The dark one darted
across the road and barred the other’s passage, while a
warning acetylene lamp was waved in the air. With a jarring
of brakes the noisy new-comer was brought to a halt.
“I say,” cried an aggrieved voice,
“’pon my soul, you know, we might have had an
accident. Why the devil don’t you keep your
head-lights on? I never saw you till I nearly burst my
radiators on you!”
The acetylene lamp, held forward, discovered a very angry
young man, blue-eyed, yellow-moustached, and florid, sitting
alone at the wheel of an antiquated twelve-horse Wolseley.
Suddenly the aggrieved look upon his flushed face changed to one
of absolute bewilderment. The driver in the dark car had
sprung out of the seat, a black, long-barrelled, wicked-looking
pistol was poked in the traveller’s face, and behind the
further sights of it was a circle of black cloth with two deadly
eyes looking from as many slits.
“Hands up!” said a quick, stern voice.
“Hands up! or, by the Lord—”
The young man was as brave as his neighbours, but the hands
went up all the same.
“Get down!” said his assailant, curtly.
The young man stepped forth into the road, followed closely by
the covering lantern and pistol. Once he made as if he
would drop his hands, but a short, stern word jerked
them up again.
“I say, look here, this is rather out o’ date,
ain’t it?” said the traveller. “I expect
“Your watch,” said the man behind the Mauser
“You can’t really mean it!”
“Your watch, I say!”
“Well, take it, if you must. It’s only
plated, anyhow. You’re two centuries out in time, or
a few thousand miles longitude. The bush is your
mark—or America. You don’t seem in the picture
on a Sussex road.”
“Purse,” said the man. There was something
very compelling in his voice and methods. The purse was
“Don’t wear ’em.”
“Stand there! Don’t move!”
The highwayman passed his victim and threw open the bonnet of
the Wolseley. His hand, with a pair of steel pliers, was
thrust deep into the works. There was the snap of a parting
“Hang it all, don’t crock my car!” cried the
He turned, but quick as a flash the pistol was at his head
once more. And yet even in that flash, whilst the robber
whisked round from the broken circuit, something had caught the
young man’s eye which made him gasp
and start. He opened his mouth as if about to shout some
words. Then with an evident effort he restrained
“Get in,” said the highwayman.
The traveller climbed back to his seat.
“What is your name?”
“Ronald Barker. What’s yours?”
The masked man ignored the impertinence.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“My cards are in my purse. Take one.”
The highwayman sprang into his car, the engine of which had
hissed and whispered in gentle accompaniment to the
interview. With a clash he threw back his side-brake, flung
in his gears, twirled the wheel hard round, and cleared the
motionless Wolseley. A minute later he was gliding swiftly,
with all his lights’ gleaming, some half-mile southward on
the road, while Mr. Ronald Barker, a side-lamp in his hand, was
rummaging furiously among the odds and ends of his repair-box for
a strand of wire which would connect up his electricity and set
him on his way once more.
When he had placed a safe distance between himself and his
victim, the adventurer eased up, took his booty from his pocket,
replaced the watch, opened the purse, and counted out the
money. Seven shillings constituted the miserable
spoil. The poor result of his efforts seemed to amuse
rather than annoy him, for he chuckled
as he held the two half-crowns and the florin in the glare of his
lantern. Then suddenly his manner changed. He thrust
the thin purse back into his pocket, released his brake, and shot
onwards with the same tense bearing with which he had started
upon his adventure. The lights of another car were coming
down the road.
On this occasion the methods of the highwayman were less
furtive. Experience had clearly given him confidence.
With lights still blazing, he ran towards the new-comers, and,
halting in the middle of the road, summoned them to stop.
From the point of view of the astonished travellers the result
was sufficiently impressive. They saw in the glare of their
own head-lights two glowing discs on either side of the long,
black-muzzled snout of a high-power car, and above the masked
face and menacing figure of its solitary driver. In the
golden circle thrown by the rover there stood an elegant,
open-topped, twenty-horse Humber, with an undersized and very
astonished chauffeur blinking from under his peaked cap.
From behind the wind-screen the veil-bound hats and wondering
faces of two very pretty young women protruded, one upon either
side, and a little crescendo of frightened squeaks announced the
acute emotion of one of them. The other was cooler and more
“Don’t give it away, Hilda,” she
whispered. “Do shut up, and don’t be such a
silly. It’s Bertie or one of the boys playing it on
“No, no! It’s the real thing, Flossie.
It’s a robber, sure enough. Oh, my goodness, whatever
shall we do?”
“What an ‘ad.’!” cried the
other. “Oh, what a glorious ‘ad.’!
Too late now for the mornings, but they’ll have it in every
evening paper, sure.”
“What’s it going to cost?” groaned the
other. “Oh, Flossie, Flossie, I’m sure
I’m going to faint! Don’t you think if we both
screamed together we could do some good? Isn’t he too
awful with that black thing over his face? Oh, dear, oh,
dear! He’s killing poor little Alf!”
The proceedings of the robber were indeed somewhat
alarming. Springing down from his car, he had pulled the
chauffeur out of his seat by the scruff of his neck. The
sight of the Mauser had cut short all remonstrance, and under its
compulsion the little man had pulled open the bonnet and
extracted the sparking plugs. Having thus secured the
immobility of his capture, the masked man walked forward, lantern
in hand, to the side of the car. He had laid aside the
gruff sternness with which he had treated Mr. Ronald Barker, and
his voice and manner were gentle, though determined. He even raised his hat as a prelude to his address.
“I am sorry to inconvenience you, ladies,” said
he, and his voice had gone up several notes since the previous
interview. “May I ask who you are?”
Miss Hilda was beyond coherent speech, but Miss Flossie was of
a sterner mould.
“This is a pretty business,” said she.
“What right have you to stop us on the public road, I
should like to know?”
“My time is short,” said the robber, in a sterner
voice. “I must ask you to answer my
“Tell him, Flossie! For goodness’ sake be
nice to him!” cried Hilda.
“Well, we’re from the Gaiety Theatre, London, if
you want to know,” said the young lady.
“Perhaps you’ve heard of Miss Flossie Thornton and
Miss Hilda Mannering? We’ve been playing a week at
the Royal at Eastbourne, and took a Sunday off to
ourselves. So now you know!”
“I must ask you for your purses and for your
Both ladies set up shrill expostulations, but they found, as
Mr. Ronald Barker had done, that there was something quietly
compelling in this man’s methods. In a very few
minutes they had handed over their purses, and a pile of
glittering rings, bangles, brooches, and chains was lying
upon the front seat of the car. The diamonds glowed and
shimmered like little electric points in the light of the
lantern. He picked up the glittering tangle and weighed it
in his hand.
“Anything you particularly value?” he asked the
ladies; but Miss Flossie was in no humour for concessions.
“Don’t come the Claude Duval over us,” said
she. “Take the lot or leave the lot. We
don’t want bits of our own given back to us.”
“Except just Billy’s necklace!” cried Hilda,
and snatched at a little rope of pearls. The robber bowed,
and released his hold of it.
The valiant Flossie began suddenly to cry. Hilda did the
same. The effect upon the robber was surprising. He
threw the whole heap of jewellery into the nearest lap.
“There! there! Take it!” he said.
“It’s trumpery stuff, anyhow. It’s worth
something to you, and nothing to me.”
Tears changed in a moment to smiles.
“You’re welcome to the purses. The
‘ad.’ is worth ten times the money. But what a
funny way of getting a living nowadays! Aren’t you
afraid of being caught? It’s all so wonderful, like a
scene from a comedy.”
“It may be a tragedy,” said the robber.
“Oh, I hope not—I’m sure I hope
not!” cried the two ladies of the drama.
But the robber was in no mood for further conversation.
Far away down the road tiny points of light had appeared.
Fresh business was coming to him, and he must not mix his
cases. Disengaging his machine, he raised his hat, and
slipped off to meet this new arrival, while Miss Flossie and Miss
Hilda leaned out of their derelict car, still palpitating from
their adventure, and watched the red gleam of the tail-light
until it merged into the darkness.
This time there was every sign of a rich prize. Behind
its four grand lamps set in a broad frame of glittering brasswork
the magnificent sixty-horse Daimler breasted the slope with the
low, deep, even snore which proclaimed its enormous latent
strength. Like some rich-laden, high-pooped Spanish
galleon, she kept her course until the prowling craft ahead of
her swept across her bows and brought her to a sudden halt.
An angry face, red, blotched, and evil, shot out of the open
window of the closed limousine. The robber was aware of a
high, bald forehead, gross pendulous cheeks, and two little
crafty eyes which gleamed between creases of fat.
“Out of my way, sir! Out of my way this
instant!” cried a rasping voice. “Drive over
him, Hearn! Get down and pull him off the
seat. The fellow’s drunk—he’s drunk I
Up to this point the proceedings of the modern highwayman
might have passed as gentle. Now they turned in an instant
to savagery. The chauffeur, a burly, capable fellow,
incited by that raucous voice behind him, sprang from the car and
seized the advancing robber by the throat. The latter hit
out with the butt-end of his pistol, and the man dropped groaning
on the road. Stepping over his prostrate body the
adventurer pulled open the door, seized the stout occupant
savagely by the ear, and dragged him bellowing on to the
highway. Then, very deliberately, he struck him twice
across the face with his open hand. The blows rang out like
pistol-shots in the silence of the night. The fat traveller
turned a ghastly colour and fell back half senseless against the
side of the limousine. The robber dragged open his coat,
wrenched away the heavy gold watch-chain with all that it held,
plucked out the great diamond pin that sparkled in the black
satin tie, dragged off four rings—not one of which could
have cost less than three figures and finally tore from his inner
pocket a bulky leather note-book. All this property he
transferred to his own black overcoat, and added to it the
man’s pearl cuff-links, and even the golden stud which held
his collar. Having made sure that there
was nothing else to take, the robber flashed his lantern upon the
prostrate chauffeur, and satisfied himself that he was stunned
and not dead. Then, returning to the master, he proceeded
very deliberately to tear all his clothes from his body with a
ferocious energy which set his victim whimpering and writhing in
imminent expectation of murder.
Whatever his tormentor’s intention may have been, it was
very effectually frustrated. A sound made him turn his
head, and there, no very great distance off, were the lights of a
car coming swiftly from the north. Such a car must have
already passed the wreckage which this pirate had left behind
him. It was following his track with a deliberate purpose,
and might be crammed with every county constable of the
The adventurer had no time to lose. He darted from his
bedraggled victim, sprang into his own seat, and with his foot on
the accelerator shot swiftly off down the road. Some way
down there was a narrow side lane, and into this the fugitive
turned, cracking on his high speed and leaving a good five miles
between him and any pursuer before he ventured to stop.
Then, in a quiet corner, he counted over his booty of the
evening—the paltry plunder of Mr. Ronald Barker, the rather
better-furnished purses of the actresses, which contained four
pounds between them, and, finally, the
gorgeous jewellery and well-filled note-book of the plutocrat
upon the Daimler. Five notes of fifty pounds, four of ten,
fifteen sovereigns, and a number of valuable papers made up a
most noble haul. It was clearly enough for one
night’s work. The adventurer replaced all his
ill-gotten gains in his pocket, and, lighting a cigarette, set
forth upon his way with the air of a man who has no further care
upon his mind.
* * * * *
It was on the Monday morning following upon this eventful
evening that Sir Henry Hailworthy, of Walcot Old Place, having
finished his breakfast in a leisurely fashion, strolled down to
his study with the intention of writing a few letters before
setting forth to take his place upon the county bench. Sir
Henry was a Deputy-Lieutenant of the county; he was a baronet of
ancient blood; he was a magistrate of ten years’ standing;
and he was famous above all as the breeder of many a good horse
and the most desperate rider in all the Weald country. A
tall, upstanding man, with a strong, clean-shaven face, heavy
black eyebrows, and a square, resolute jaw, he was one whom it
was better to call friend than foe. Though nearly fifty
years of age, he bore no sign of having passed his youth, save
that Nature, in one of her freakish moods, had planted one little
feather of white hair above his right ear,
making the rest of his thick black curls the darker by
contrast. He was in thoughtful mood this morning, for
having lit his pipe he sat at his desk with his blank note-paper
in front of him, lost in a deep reverie.
Suddenly his thoughts were brought back to the present.
From behind the laurels of the curving drive there came a low,
clanking sound, which swelled into the clatter and jingle of an
ancient car. Then from round the corner there swung an
old-fashioned Wolseley, with a fresh-complexioned,
yellow-moustached young man at the wheel. Sir Henry sprang
to his feet at the sight, and then sat down once more. He
rose again as a minute later the footman announced Mr. Ronald
Barker. It was an early visit, but Barker was Sir
Henry’s intimate friend. As each was a fine shot,
horseman, and billiard-player, there was much in common between
the two men, and the younger (and poorer) was in the habit of
spending at least two evenings a week at Walcot Old Place.
Therefore, Sir Henry advanced cordially with outstretched hand to
“You’re an early bird this morning,” said
he. “What’s up? If you are going over to
Lewes we could motor together.”
But the younger man’s demeanour was peculiar and
ungracious. He disregarded the hand which was held out
to him, and he stood pulling at his own long moustache and
staring with troubled, questioning eyes at the county
“Well, what’s the matter?” asked the
Still the young man did not speak. He was clearly on the
edge of an interview which he found it most difficult to
open. His host grew impatient.
“You don’t seem yourself this morning. What
on earth is the matter? Anything upset you?”
“Yes,” said Ronald Barker, with emphasis.
Sir Henry smiled. “Sit down, my dear fellow.
If you have any grievance against me, let me hear it.”
Barker sat down. He seemed to be gathering himself for a
reproach. When it did come it was like a bullet from a
“Why did you rob me last night?”
The magistrate was a man of iron nerve. He showed
neither surprise nor resentment. Not a muscle twitched upon
his calm, set face.
“Why do you say that I robbed you last night?”
“A big, tall fellow in a motor-car stopped me on the
Mayfield road. He poked a pistol in my face
and took my purse and my watch. Sir Henry, that man was
The magistrate smiled.
“Am I the only big, tall man in the district? Am I
the only man with a motor-car?”
“Do you think I couldn’t tell a Rolls-Royce when I
see it—I, who spend half my life on a car and the other
half under it? Who has a Rolls-Royce about here except
“My dear Barker, don’t you think that such a
modern highwayman as you describe would be more likely to operate
outside his own district? How many hundred Rolls-Royces are
there in the South of England?”
“No, it won’t do, Sir Henry—it won’t
do! Even your voice, though you sunk it a few notes, was
familiar enough to me. But hang it, man! What did you
do it for? That’s what gets over me.
That you should stick up me, one of your closest friends, a man
that worked himself to the bone when you stood for the
division—and all for the sake of a Brummagem watch and a
few shillings—is simply incredible.”
“Simply incredible,” repeated the magistrate, with
“And then those actresses, poor little devils, who have
to earn all they get. I followed you down the road, you
see. That was a dirty trick, if ever I heard one. The
City shark was different. If a chap
must go a-robbing, that sort of fellow is fair game. But
your friend, and then the girls—well, I say again, I
couldn’t have believed it.”
“Then why believe it?”
“Because it is so.”
“Well, you seem to have persuaded yourself to that
effect. You don’t seem to have much evidence to lay
before any one else.”
“I could swear to you in a police-court. What put
the lid on it was that when you were cutting my wire—and an
infernal liberty it was!—I saw that white tuft of yours
sticking out from behind your mask.”
For the first time an acute observer might have seen some
slight sign of emotion upon the face of the baronet.
“You seem to have a fairly vivid imagination,”
His visitor flushed with anger.
“See here, Hailworthy,” said he, opening his hand
and showing a small, jagged triangle of black cloth.
“Do you see that? It was on the ground near the car
of the young women. You must have ripped it off as you
jumped out from your seat. Now send for that heavy black
driving-coat of yours. If you don’t ring the bell
I’ll ring it myself, and we shall have it in.
I’m going to see this thing through, and don’t you
make any mistake about that.”
The baronet’s answer was a surprising one.
He rose, passed Barker’s chair, and, walking over to the
door, he locked it and placed the key in his pocket.
“You are going to see it through,” said
he. “I’ll lock you in until you do. Now
we must have a straight talk, Barker, as man to man, and whether
it ends in tragedy or not depends on you.”
He had half-opened one of the drawers in his desk as he
spoke. His visitor frowned in anger.
“You won’t make matters any better by threatening
me, Hailworthy. I am going to do my duty, and you
won’t bluff me out of it.”
“I have no wish to bluff you. When I spoke of a
tragedy I did not mean to you. What I meant was that there
are some turns which this affair cannot be allowed to take.
I have neither kith nor kin, but there is the family honour, and
some things are impossible.”
“It is late to talk like that.”
“Well, perhaps it is; but not too late. And now I
have a good deal to say to you. First of all, you are quite
right, and it was I who held you up last night on the Mayfield
“But why on earth—”
“All right. Let me tell it my own way. First
I want you to look at these.” He unlocked a drawer
and he took out two small packages. “These were to be
posted in London to-night. This one is addressed
to you, and I may as well hand it over to you at once. It
contains your watch and your purse. So, you see, bar your
cut wire you would have been none the worse for your
adventure. This other packet is addressed to the young
ladies of the Gaiety Theatre, and their properties are
enclosed. I hope I have convinced you that I had intended
full reparation in each case before you came to accuse
“Well?” asked Barker.
“Well, we will now deal with Sir George Wilde, who is,
as you may not know, the senior partner of Wilde and Guggendorf,
the founders of the Ludgate Bank of infamous memory. His
chauffeur is a case apart. You may take it from me, upon my
word of honour, that I had plans for the chauffeur. But it
is the master that I want to speak of. You know that I am
not a rich man myself. I expect all the county knows
that. When Black Tulip lost the Derby I was hard hit.
And other things as well. Then I had a legacy of a
thousand. This infernal bank was paying 7 per cent. on
deposits. I knew Wilde. I saw him. I asked him
if it was safe. He said it was. I paid it in, and
within forty-eight hours the whole thing went to bits. It
came out before the Official Receiver that Wilde had known for
three months that nothing could save him. And yet he took
all my cargo aboard his sinking vessel. He was all
right—confound him! He had plenty besides. But
I had lost all my money and no law could help me. Yet he
had robbed me as clearly as one man could rob another. I
saw him and he laughed in my face. Told me to stick to
Consols, and that the lesson was cheap at the price. So I
just swore that, by hook or by crook, I would get level with
him. I knew his habits, for I had made it my business to do
so. I knew that he came back from Eastbourne on Sunday
nights. I knew that he carried a good sum with him in his
pocket-book. Well it’s my pocket-book
now. Do you mean to tell me that I’m not morally
justified in what I have done? By the Lord, I’d have
left the devil as bare as he left many a widow and orphan, if
I’d had the time!”
“That’s all very well. But what about
me? What about the girls?”
“Have some common sense, Barker. Do you suppose
that I could go and stick up this one personal enemy of mine and
escape detection? It was impossible. I was bound to
make myself out to be just a common robber who had run up against
him by accident. So I turned myself loose on the high road
and took my chance. As the devil would have it, the first
man I met was yourself. I was a fool not to recognise that
old ironmonger’s store of yours by the row it
made coming up the hill. When I saw you I could hardly
speak for laughing. But I was bound to carry it
through. The same with the actresses. I’m
afraid I gave myself away, for I couldn’t take their little
fal-lals, but I had to keep up a show. Then came my man
himself. There was no bluff about that. I was out to
skin him, and I did. Now, Barker, what do you think of it
all? I had a pistol at your head last night, and, by
George! whether you believe it or not, you have one at mine this
The young man rose slowly, and with a broad smile he wrung the
magistrate by the hand.
“Don’t do it again. It’s too
risky,” said he. “The swine would score heavily
if you were taken.”
“You’re a good chap, Barker,” said the
magistrate. “No, I won’t do it again.
Who’s the fellow who talks of ‘one crowded hour of
glorious life’? By George! it’s too
fascinating. I had the time of my life! Talk of
fox-hunting! No, I’ll never touch it again, for it
might get a grip of me.”
A telephone rang sharply upon the table, and the baronet put
the receiver to his ear. As he listened he smiled across at
“I’m rather late this morning,” said he,
“and they are waiting for me to try some petty larcenies on
the county bench.”