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Title: A Masked Battery
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201361h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
Date most recently updated: February 2012

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A Masked Battery


Fred M White


HAD Gresson been an imaginative man he would, perhaps, have pondered over the mutability of human affairs and tne decree of Fate which kept him hiding in a conservatory at the very moment when he had expected to play billiards in his favorite public-house. It is on record somewhere that the accidental swallowing of a grape seed changed the destiny of the world, and thus, in a smaller way, the forgetfulness of an attractive housemaid changed the life current of Mr. Gresson, and ended his existence in an unexpected and most startling manner. Whether the gods of Chance are novelists in embryo or not, it is certain they are remarkably good plotters, hence the sudden demise of George Gresson in a manner which would have done credit to the most brilliant writer of melodrama, living or dead.

The story is too good to be lost. It was the housemaid's fault, of course. She ought to have told Gresson that her master, Vivian Laycock, had suddenly changed his plans and had decided to dispose of his works of art without delay. If a master in the predatory art cannot rely upon his information, his best-laid schemes are apt to go astray. For a long time past, Gresson had made up his mind to possess himself of Vivian Laycock's matchless collection of snuff-boxes, and as a precautionary measure he had made the acquaintance of one of Mr. Laycock's housemaids, in whose heart he had inspired a tender passion mainly by boasting about his little place at Hendon and how happy those two were going to be later on. Therefore he was considerably upset and annoyed to find, quite at the eleventh hour, that Mr. Laycock had arranged for the following morning for his treasure to be fetched away and deposited in the interim for safe custody with the famous firm of auctioneers who were to dispose of the articles.

To think with Gresson was to act. This important conversation had taken place down the lane by the side of the rose-garden, and within ten minutes of that time the housemaid had retired to dream of the little house at Hendon and George Gresson was more or less safe in the conservatory. A mimosa bush tickled his nose and he was more or less distressed by the overpowering scent of the tuberoses. Still, on the whole, these were merely minor vexations, and he began to see his way to a successful expedition.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate for Gresson that Mr. Laycock had been in the rose-garden attending to a convalescent flower of distinguished parentage and had overheard the whole conversation. He jumped to a natural and logical conclusion, and smiled grimly to himself as he picked a green fly off one of the salmon-pink leaves.

As a matter of fact, he was sorely in need of some mental relaxation. People envied Vivian Laycock his beautiful house, his magnificent gardens and his priceless collection of art treasures. But the master of it all would have cheerfully changed places with any of these envious ones. For Laycock went in constant fear of his life. There was always the chance that he would be found some morning with a knife through his back, and become another victim in the long list of mysteries which the police had never solved. It matters nothing for the purpose of the story what Laycock was afraid of. We will assume, if you like, that the man had a past. For years he had been pursued by a relentless enemy whom he had never seen. The pursuit had begun a decade or more before on another continent. Laycock had managed to get away; but he knew that, sooner or later, his pursuer would run him down. And the strange part of the whole affair was that he had never seen the man who would, some time or another, wreak this vengeance upon him. There were moments when he almost forgot the whole matter. There were other times when they came back to him with vivid force. And now the mysterious punishment was upon him,—the man who meant to take his life was in London; he had written to Laycock; he would call upon his victim that evening before midnight.

It sounded absurdly like a chapter from some wild romance; but there the letter was, and the writer meant every word he had penned. Laycock might have placed the matter in the hands of the police, but he knew that, had he done so, the enemy would never appear—he would be warned in time, and then the vengeance would fall in some other, unexpected, direction. Besides, the police would probably only have laughed at the story. In any case they could have done no more than bind the offender over to keep the peace, which would have been tantamount to giving him a free hand to carry out his intentions in his own good time and pleasure. He was coming there that night, either to take Laycock's life, or lose his own. Therefore the odds were all in favor of the stranger: if Laycock had the best of the encounter, he would find it exceedingly difficult, not to say impossible, to convince the authorities that he had acted only in self-defence. And, besides, in that case, the whole disgraceful story would have to be told.

From this it will be seen that Laycock was between the devil and the deep sea when he stood in the rose-garden listening to the piquant little conversation on the other side of the fence. Vaguely he began to see that here was a gift from the god of Chance, and that possibly there was a way out of it for him after all. He was more or less amused. He was more or less looking forward to a dramatic encounter with George Gresson later on. He marked the intruder down in the conservatory. Then he retired to the library and, under the influence of a cigar and a whisky-and-soda, began to elaborate his plans.

It was just before eleven when he retired, somewhat noisily, to bed. Five minutes later he crept down to the library again and took his seat in an arm-chair by the side of the fireplace, where he could control the electric switch. Ten minutes later Gresson came quietly into the room, walking like a cat in the dark and making his way quite coolly in the direction of a glass case of snuff-boxes which stood on the other side of the fireplace. A moment later the switch clicked, the room was flooded with light and the trigger of the revolver in Laycock's hand clicked also. It was a persuasive kind of sound and brought the burglar up all standing.

"Mr. Gresson, I think," Laycock said. "To be more exact, Mr. George Gresson. Glad to see you. Sit down."

George Gresson sat down accordingly. It was not for him to force the conversation; it was his part to listen politely.

"I have heard of you," Laycock went on.

"Only lately, of course—in fact, I happened to overhear your conversation with my housemaid. You are the class of man that poisons life for art collectors like myself; we have always to take you into consideration. Of course you know what is going to happen."

Gresson nodded his head and looked longingly in the direction of the w:hisky-and-soda. His lips were parched, his throat was peculiarly dry.

"Help yourself," Laycock went on. "Now, you know perfectly well that if I hand you over to the police, you will get at least five years. I don't mind telling you that in ordinary circumstances I shouldn't hesitate for a moment. But you are in luck to-night, Mr. Gresson. Oh, you may smile, but, in your own brilliant metaphor, you never know your luck. I mean it is in your hands to walk away from here in an hour's time, a free man with a hundred pounds in your pocket. I am sure you will think that is far better than having the trouble of disposing of my snuff-boxes, with the chance of being picked up by the police at any moment. I should say by the look of you that you are an educated man."

"That is so," Gresson said quietly.

"And a man of the world, too. Now, suppose I ask you to pass yourself off as me for an hour. I am expecting to call at any moment an individual who is personally an entire stranger to me. He knows nothing about my life or my friends; he has never seen me. He is by way of being a blackmailer of sorts. Now, suppose you stay here and personate me, keeping the man as long as you can, while I run over to his lodgings in my motor and obtain possession of certain incriminating papers of mine which he has. I think I can trust you to remain here, because all my works of art are already secure in the safe in my bedroom. If you don't believe me, you have only to look at that glass case behind; and I take it that even you would be more than an hour getting into my safe. Now, if you will do this little service for me, I shall take great pleasure in handing you a hundred pounds when I come back."

Gresson's eyes began to glisten. Here was an adventure after his own heart. From a professional point of view he was disappointed; even from a business outlook the program was more or less of a failure. But, on the other hand, he had saved himself from what he would have termed a "five years' stretch," and the fee was out of all proportion to the services rendered. He helped himself engagingly to a whisky-and-soda and proclaimed that he was game.

"Better do the thing thoroughly while you are about it," he suggested. "I have no doubt I shall be able to draw the feather over the eyes of your friend. You see, I was in a pretty good position at one time, and you can see for yourself that there is nothing in my appearance which is the least objectionable. If you could rig me out in a dress-suit of yours, I think I could act my part all the better. It will be agreeable to sit here and feel that I am master of this place, if only for an hour."

"Very well," Laycock agreed. "Come with me as far as my bedroom... There, upon my word, you look like a gentleman now. All you have to do is to throw dust in the eyes of the man who is coming and treat him as you like. Only keep him here for an hour, and the money is yours."

"Don't you worry about that," Gresson said quietly.

Left to himself, Gresson glanced complacently around and helped himself liberally to another drink. He was enjoying himself by this time. The dress-clothes were by no means a bad fit, the single diamond in his glossy shirt-front sparkled alluringly. It was easy to imagine himself the master of all this wealth and luxury, for Gresson had a lively imagination, and he looked forward to playing his part with satisfaction both to himself and his employer.

It was about half an hour before Gresson was aroused by the ripple of an electric bell somewhere in the distance. He came rightly enough to the conclusion that here was the mysterious stranger, waiting on the doorstep for admission. He crossed the hall leisurely and threw back the big door. A tall, dark man with a beard and mustache, his eyes hidden behind a pair of eye-glasses, lifted a Trilby hat politely. His face was thin and drawn and there was a certain nervousness in his manner which was not lost upon Gresson. Moreover, the new-comer evidently was a foreigner, although his English was correct enough; Gresson mentally put him down as an American.

"You got my letter, sir?" he suggested.

"Go on," Gresson said in non-committal fashion. "I may say that you were expected. Won't you come in?"

The stranger's eyes gleamed behind his glasses.

"You are a very bold man," he murmured.

"Think so?" Gresson asked complacently.

"Well, perhaps I am. In a way I have been expecting you. Come in."

The stranger appeared about to speak, then suddenly changed his mind. With an air of almost indifference he followed Gresson into the library. He took the proffered seat, but curtly declined anything in the way of refreshment. At the mere suggestion, his lips tightened until they were a thin, straight thread under his closely clipped mustache. Despite the man's frailness and his apparent lack of physical qualities, Gresson recognized that he had all the makings of a first-class antagonist; the burglar was a judge in such matters, and, consequently, he was not so complacent as a little time before; he would have felt more cheerful and reliant had the stranger partaken of the suggested whisky-and-soda. This was the kind of fanatic who usually murders his victim first and blows out his own brains afterward. Still, Gresson himself was not without a weapon, for before answering the bell he had taken up Laycock's discarded revolver and slipped it into the pocket of the dress-jacket he was wearing.

"Sorry you won't help yourself," he said. "And now, if you don't mind, we'll get to business."

"I came here for no other purpose," the stranger said, calmly enough. "We have never met before, but you know me."

Gresson nodded his head gravely. Obviously it was his cue to wait for the other man to give him a lead.

"Twelve years ago you did me and mine an irreparable wrong," the stranger went on.

"You did that wrong in cold blood; you calculated the chances to a nicety. But for a little act on your part you would be a poor man to-day; you would not be leading a life of luxury like this. But your scheme, to a certain extent, like most other schemes, was not crowned with complete success. So far as the material side is concerned, you were successful enough. But there were three people you wanted to get rid of, three people you schemed to get out of the way; but two of them lived—lived long enough to find you out. The second man died soon after, but not before he had told the third—myself— what had happened. It was a story that moved me from the first; the more I dwelt upon it, the more did the desire to be even with you grow upon me. We led a lonely life out yonder, as you know, and I have had little else to think about. The remembrance of your treachery was with me day and night until it became a monomania. I swore to myself that if ever I had luck enough, or made money enough, to take a year's holiday in England, I would come and track you down. I have all the evidence of your crime by me, most of it in your own handwriting."

The speaker paused for a moment and coughed; it was a deep, distressing cough, that told of lung trouble behind it. Gresson had his hand on the revolver in his pocket. He checked a tendency to whistle; he was feeling somewhat annoyed with Laycock. What right, he wondered, had the master of this house to put on airs and treat like a dog men who were, at least, as honest as himself? Gresson might be a burglar, but he had never knowingly wronged any one except in the way of business, and his victims could well afford to sustain their losses. Still, Gresson had promised to go through with this interview, and he meant to see the play out to the finish. Just for the moment he had almost forgotten that he was acting the part of substitute to Laycock.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked.

"I want you to do nothing," the stranger replied. "It is too late to talk now. The time has come for action. Even if I thought your repentance was deep and sincere, I should still pursue the same course. But to allow things to go on as they are now—never. You appear to be rich and prosperous. I am a poor man, with barely enough money to pay my passage back home again. Besides, I am naturally not of a robust nature; I have lived too fast, and I have not many months before me. But, at any rate, when my time does come, it will be a satisfaction to me to know that you are out of the way. Now you know what I mean."

"It sounds like a threat," Gresson suggested.

"A threat! Aye, it is something more than that. After all the warnings you have had during these years, you must have learned your lesson very badly if you think that one of my family would stop at threats. But I am going to give you the chance. I could have come here without warning. I could have taken your life with none any the wiser. But I prefer to do the thing openly. Physically you are quite a match for me."

"I should think I was," Gresson said thoughtfully. "Why, Lord love the man, I could smother you!"

The stranger's eyes gleamed again.

"That is how I expected you to speak," he said. "You are as cool and hard and callous as you ever were, just as flippant and artificial. If there had remained a gleam of pity in my heart, it would be extinguished now. But we are wasting time."

Gresson glanced uneasily at the clock. Things were progressing a little faster than he had expected, and he had promised to detain the stranger for at least an hour. It was only fair to Laycock that he should do so. Yet here was this bloodthirsty intruder forcing matters along at a breakneck pace, and altogether refusing to play the game in a neat and artistic manner. It would be an easy matter, Gresson thought, to take the revolver from his pocket and drive the stranger off the premises with a threat of an ounce or so of lead in his brain if he did not comply forthwith.

"What's your hurry!" he said. "Do you suppose there is only one side to the business? Are you not going to listen to anything that I have got to say? Come, be fair."

A strange laugh broke from the intruder's hps. His face was pale and ghastly now. But there was no fear or hesitation in his eyes. He looked round the room with a sudden contempt for all its luxury and artistic splendor.

"What can you have to say?" he asked. "What possible point can you adduce in your own favor. Why, of all the poisonous scoundrels who ever lived, of all the cold-blooded rascals ever heard of, you are the worst! And yet you sit quietly there asking me to argue the point. I have argued it with myself, and I have found you guilty. And now—"

"What a beggar it is to talk!" Gresson said thoughtlessly. He was forgetting his part for the moment. "You remind me of a dreary play I once saw across the water. I think it was called 'The Stranger.' He was the most garrulous beggar I ever saw on the stage, and, upon my word, you remind me of him. If it is a matter of money, you have only to say the word"

"Money!" the stranger cried passionately.

"Do you think money will do everything? Is it omnipotent?"

"In a general way, yes," Gresson said sapiently. "At least, I find it so. Now, my dear man"

But the stranger was not listening. He had risen to his feet excitedly. He was trembling and shaking from head to foot, like a cat about to spring on a bird. Before Gresson could realize what had happened, the man had cleared the intervening space and was upon him. He pinned Laycock's understudy down in the springy depths of his arm-chair. He had him by the throat with a grip that could have been inspired only by hatred or malice or both commingled. A long knife gleamed in his hand. Gresson could see the red rims of his eyes as he bent forward with a knife drawn back as if to strike a final and deadly blow.

"Here, steady on!" Gresson expostulated. "If you are not careful, you will be doing—"

But it was too late. The knife came down in a swerving glittering circle right over the glossy shirt which covered Gresson's heart. At the same time Gresson drew his revolver and fired point-blank into the face of his mad antagonist.

* * * * *

Vivian Laycock came back slowly and thoughtfully from Blackheath. He was driving his car himself. He had many things to dispose of in his mind before he reached his residence. His mission had not been altogether unsuccessful, for in his breast-pocket was the bundle of papers of which he had been in search.

He put the car away, congratulating himself upon the fact that it had been a dry night and that there was not much to be done to the big automobile in the way of removing such dust and stains as would have given evidence that the car had been on the road. The garage was some distance from the house and Laycock's chauffeur was in London on a brief holiday. At the end of half an hour not even the astutest detective would have noticed that the motor had been out of its stable. Laycock removed his leather suit and hung it carefully in its usual place.

He was quite calm and collected now; it seemed his plans were moving smoothly. Then he went back to the house and let himself quietly in with his latch-key. He did not proceed directly to the library. On the contrary, after he had fastened the front door, he turned to the dining-room. Here he helped himself liberally to brandy.

"I need it," he muttered. "I am afraid my nerves are not quite what I thought they were. I wonder what I shall see when I get to the library? It is very quiet in there."

The brandy had steadied him, for Laycock was an abstemious man, so that the generous spirit lost no time in getting to work. Yet, as he stood there he could hear the beating of his own heart; he could feel the sharp, quick flutter of his pulses. And it was still, too, deadly, awfully still, so that the scratching of a mouse behind one of the panels sounded like a strident voice of accusation shouting from the house-top.

It seemed to Laycock that he could stand it no longer, though at the same time he was afraid to move. Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. With an effort he raised one foot, and put it down on the parquet floor a yard nearer the library door. He had control of himself now. He pushed the door open and strode into the room.

Small wonder that the place was deadly still. For Gresson lay back in his arm-chair, his limbs relaxed, his head grotesquely and awfully sideways. Over his heart a great slash in the glossy shirt-front, from which a thin, beady stream of dark red was flowing. It needed no critical glance to see that the burglar was dead.

Stretched at his feet across the hearth-rug the stranger lay, with his head in the fireplace. Close by him was a revolver, one chamber only of which was discharged. There was a small blue scar on his forehead through which the bullet had entered.

For full five minutes Laycock stood contemplating the scene, then he glanced fearfully around him. Something like this he had expected. The only fact that he noticed now was the appalling success of his scheme. That the burglar would perish in his place he had expected; but that the murderer, who had crossed a whole continent to do this thing, should have perished also was to jump from the realm of possibility into romance. The man had come all these miles to do this deed! In ordinary circumstances he would have gone away, feeling that at length vengeance was satisfied and desirous only of putting an ocean between himself and possible pursuit. If only the burglar had died, then Laycock would have felt himself secure for the future. But that both of them should be wiped out of existence was a piece of good fortune on which he had not counted for a moment.

He could see now that he had gone a little too far, that he had been just a little too calculating and elaborate. What he needed was an explanation so simple that he could have given it without change or variation, even if he had been roused in the night to do so. Now there was work before him. He regretted from the bottom of his heart that he had gone so far as to fall in with Gresson's suggestion that the latter should wear one of his own dress-suits. Fortunately, the shirt Gresson was wearing was a new one and unmarked. The shot which had slain the stranger had been fired by Laycock's own revolver; but that, again, was a detail capable of ready explanation.

It was not an easy matter to remove Gresson's dress-clothes and substitute his own, but it was accomplished at length without any one in that silent, slumbering household being any the wiser. Laycock left the coat and waistcoat unfastened so that the blow from the knife should look quite natural. Once the repulsive work was done, he stepped back to contemplate the picture with the eye of an artist who has at last posed his models to his perfect satisfaction. Then he started from the room, shouting at the top of his voice and thundering upon the bronze gong which stood in the hall. He had discarded his own clothes and was in his pajamas and a dressing-gown. The whole place re-echoed to the din. The clang of it sounded horrible in Laycock's own ears. He was profoundly thankful when the butler and a footman presently appeared, followed in the background by a knot of timid women-servants.

"I thought I should never rouse you," Laycock said. "One of you go round to the stables and wake up the coachman. I came down-stairs just now, roused by the sound of a shot and found that two burglars were in the library. Possibly they had come together, possibly they were strangers to each other and had both arranged to raid the house the same night. At any rate, they seem to have come in conflict. As far as I can see, they are both dead."

It was all coolly and naturally done. The whole house was a blaze of light now. A little while later and one of the grooms hurried off for the police. An inspector arrived presently and listened gravely to all Laycock had to say.

"Bit of a startler for you, sir," the inspector said respectfully. "But perhaps I had better go into the library and examine things for myself. If you don't care to come along with me, sir"

"Why not?" Laycock asked. "I have already seen the horrors for myself. I am not afraid."

The inspector proceeded to take notes coolly enough. He naturally desired to know how these intruders had got into the house. But the open door of the conservatory explained that. Then the inspector bent down over the body of the man lying in the arm-chair, and a gleam of recognition came into his eyes.

"I know him, at any rate, sir," he said. "Why, it is George Gresson! Of all the artful burglars in London, he is about the sharpest of the lot. We have been trying to catch him for years without success. But, you see, he was a man of education, and all the time he has been at the game we have never been able to lay him by the heels more than once."

"Do you know the other man?" Laycock asked.

The inspector shook his head. He had not the least idea who the other man was. Assuredly he had never seen him before; neither had he any theory to advance.

"We shall never clear it up, sir," the inspector said. "You mark my words if we do. There are certain crimes which always remain mysteries, and you will see that this will be one of them."

Laycock was of the same opinion.

The collector of curios never explained why he changed his mind about the sale of his snuff-boxes, and why they still adorn his beautiful house at Lee. But, then, Laycock is a man of few words, and the reticent habit grows on him as he gets older.


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