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 critical.
“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 us.”
“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 question.”
“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 jewellery.”
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 say!”