A little bell tinkled very softly and Stanlaw, sitting in his cozy den, reading, promptly came to attention. He knew a window was being raised somewhere below stairs. He was sure he was to have a visitor. He had expected, even hoped for, this man to put in his appearance for the past several nights. Now he had come. Stanlaw knew that, just as he knew the exact reason for his coming.
Herbert Stanlaw was a man a little past thirty years of age — a tall, straight, athletic individual, with a rather handsome face, tanned to a rich brown by much living in the open; a broad forehead, black hair, and keen, dark eyes. He had about him the air of a man who enjoys life immensely — of one who was in the habit of extracting a large amount of enjoyment from the little, everyday things, as well as from the ones of greater proportions.
He was wealthy, educated, and had traveled much, often pushing his way to some little-known spot of the earth, seeking rare curios and studying the language and customs of some almost- extinct people. He still was a student and spent much of his time in investigation — anything which offered a new angle of research. This work often led him along strange lines and brought to him many amusing experiences.
Stanlaw now had laid aside his book and sat tensely listening. From somewhere below stairs he caught a faint, almost imperceptible sound — like the tread of a cat that stalks a mouse.
He snapped off the switch of his reading lamp, leaving the room in darkness. Some one was creeping softly up the stairs. Then the waiting man heard the sluff-sluff of soft-soled shoes along the hall.
Now Stanlaw knew the intruder must pass his door before entering any one of the second-floor rooms. He waited, breathing softly, as he listened to the man making his almost noiseless way along the hall.
Suddenly Stanlaw saw a denser blur in the darkness that choked the doorway leading to the hall. Once more his hand found the switch, gave this a turn, and the room suddenly was flooded with a blinding white light.
There, framed in the doorway, stood a man. The lower part of his face was covered by a black mask, his cap was pulled low over his eyes, but he was blinking in the sudden, staggering glare.
Stanlaw still sat in his chair beside his reading table, his right arm outstretched, a heavy automatic pistol in his hand, carefully covering the man before him.
"Come in," he said pleasantly.
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The burglar stumbled forward and Stanlaw motioned him to a chair. When he was seated, Stanlaw continued:
"No doubt, my friend, you know something about guns. If you do, you will recognize the one which I have trained on you at present as being of a very fast, very deadly type. I dislike to pay myself the compliment but I will say that I know how to use it. Last year I won first honors in the tri-State revolver shoot. Now, may I trouble you for any weapons which you may happen to have concealed about your person? Remember, no tricks, either."
For a moment the burglar looked steadily into Stanlaw's eyes. He evidently saw in the calm, cool man before — him one with whom it would be folly to trifle, for he brought forth from his coat pockets a blackjack and a pistol, the latter almost identical with that which Stanlaw was holding. He threw the blackjack on the table, theft extended the pistol, butt first, to Stanlaw, making a mock bow as he did so, Stanlaw took the gun and placed it on the table, his own close beside it.
"That is better," said he. "I think we can talk now without danger of interruption."
"Well, since you have me at your mercy," the stranger began, "I suppose the next thing for you to do is to call in the police."
"Oh, no," Stanlaw assured him, "the next thing for me to do is to ask you to remove your cap and mask."
His fingers toyed with the butt of the heavy automatic.
Without a moment's hesitation the man removed his cap and took away the piece of black cloth which had concealed the lower part of his face.
Stanlaw noted, with a little thrill of satisfaction, that this was not the ordinary type of burglar. The fellow was well dressed and he had about him an unmistakable air of refinement. His face was rather sharp and he had a thin, straight nose, reddish-brown hair, and bold, brown eyes. His lips were thin, almost colorless, and his mouth drooped slightly at the corners. His well-kept hands, with their long, slender fingers, were as white and shapely as those of a woman. They were the hands of an artist almost.
"And now, my friend," Stanlaw was saying, "I can tell you that, in so far as you are concerned, I have no business with the police. I shall deal with you alone."
"What! Don't you mean to turn 'em loose on me ?"
Genuine amazement expressed itself in the man's words.
"That is exactly the meaning I tried to convey," Stanlaw replied. "You see, I rather welcome your coming. I took your gun simply as a matter of precaution. I know exactly what you have come for, but I cannot know to what means you might resort in order to achieve your ends."
"I fail to get you exactly," the burglar confessed.
"You know, do you not, that I have in my possession a very valuable ruby — a stone that has quite a history — and one that you would, no doubt, prize very highly ?"
"And you've come for that ruby?"
"Frankly speaking, I have."
"And, just as frankly speaking, it is yours."
Again amazement was written large in the burglar's face.
"I said the ruby was yours. It now rests in that cabinet over there in the corner, third drawer from the top, right-hand side. Remember the location. I shall ask you to go for it in a little while."
The man sat speechless. He plainly showed that this was something he had not expected.
"But," Stanlaw continued, "before you go for the ruby I wish to tell you a little story. I assure you it will not take a great while, and, as you still have the greater part of the night before you, need have no fear of the police, and — I trust — are quite comfortable, I can see no reason why you should object to listening.
"You see, I wish to make this thing perfectly clear to you; and, as this story, which I am about to relate, has to do with this same ruby, it is one which you should know, since you intend to have the stone in your possession when you leave this room."
The man settled himself more comfortably in his chair and smiled, saying: "Go to it."
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Stanlaw pushed matches and a pack of cigarettes across the table toward the burglar, at the same time lighting one himself. He then went on:
"A good many years ago, when my great-grandfather was a young man, he, in company with three others of an equally adventurous nature, were traveling in the interior of China, and while there they heard of a mandarin in one of the upper provinces who possessed what was said to be the finest ruby in the whole world.
"Now I am going to be entirely frank with you, and while one always should speak reverently of the dead, I am going to tell you that my great-grandfather was a bad sort. He was a man who, when he really wanted a thing, would stop at nothing which would aid him to carry out his desire.
"Well, as I said, my great-grandfather and his companions heard of this wonderful ruby. Of course my ancestor wanted it, as did each of the others. But they pooled their interests and started out to get the stone, my great-grandfather trusting that, by fair means or foul, it would come into his hands in the end.
"When the four adventurers reached the city wherein lived the mandarin who owned the wonderful ruby, they found that it was going to be a difficult task to obtain an audience with the old gentleman, to say nothing of getting a glimpse of the famous ruby.
"The mandarin was a very old man. He had come to be looked upon as a prophet by his people, and thus was held in great esteem.
"At last, however, by some method known only to themselves, the adventurers obtained an audience with the mandarin. Arriving at his house, a servant showed them into an almost bare room where, on a low divan, reclined a man of incalculable age. His yellow skin was dry and seamed and cracked like leather that has been exposed to the elements for a long period of time. His hair was gone and his hands, with their thin, bony fingers and long, pointed nails, were like the talons of some bird of prey. His legs were withered and he could not walk, but in his eyes there burned an unquenchable fire, and his tongue still retained its powers. A great book lay open on the floor at his side, while the pungent odor of incense, burning in a tall censer, filled the room.
"My great-grandfather, who spent some little time in China and who knew a bit of the language, carried on the conversation with the old man. He told the mandarin they had heard of the wonderful ruby which he had in his possession, and asked that they be allowed to look upon the priceless stone.
"At this the old man became very much agitated. He replied that none but the faithful servants of his own gods had ever looked upon the sacred fire which burned in the heart of the ruby and which had been there since the beginning of the world.
"The ruby, so the old man said, had been given to the first man of his family, when the world was still young and the race but beginning, by the daughter of a great Chinese deity, who had found it one day while walking by the sea. There was not in the world enough money to buy it, and my great-grandfather, still insisting that he must see the ruby, was ordered from the place.
"At first he refused to go but suddenly something caused him to turn and glance to the rear. What he saw there seems to have brought about a swift decision. A curtain had parted in what before had appeared to be a portion of the wall of the room, and in that space there stood a man who was tall and powerfully built — a giant almost — with a long, naked blade in his hand. The four adventurers, realizing that the moment for their departure had arrived, hastily left the room.
"Having the story of the wonderful ruby confirmed by the old mandarin himself only made them more determined to possess the stone, so they at once set about perfecting their plans for securing it.
"First they must arrange to get safely away. This they accomplished by securing the services of several natives of an adjoining province, who happened to be in the city at the time and who agreed, for a certain sum in gold, to guide them safely across the border.
"Then came the real problem of securing the ruby. How were they to enter the mandarin's house? And how were they to find the stone, once they had forced an entrance, not knowing where it was concealed?
"Then it was that my great-grandfather, who seems to have possessed the brains of the party, decided that the only way to secure the stone would be to enter forcibly the mandarin's room, slay the guard, if there was a guard, and then compel the old man to reveal the whereabouts of the ruby.
"Well, they succeeded in getting into the room. The big man again was there, but was surprised before he could defend himself. He went down at the first blow from the butt of a revolver in the hands of my great-grandfather. The old man, who still was on the divan, was quickly seized by one of the party, who clapped a heavy hand over his mouth, thus preventing any outcry.
"They then demanded the ruby, and the old mandarin, of course, refused to make known its whereabouts.
"Then, their anger running wild because they had been foiled at this point in the game, they began a system of torture calculated to make a man give up anything which he might possess, if by so doing he would be able to allay the terrible agony which was being inflicted upon his body.
"First they stood the old man on his head for long periods of time, always demanding the ruby. When they found this was of no avail they tied his hands behind him, twisting his arms until they were almost tom from their sockets. Notwithstanding that the old man had told them such dogs as they could not inflict pain upon one protected by the gods as he was, his old, mummy-like face twisted itself into the most horrible grimaces, and it seemed that his eyeballs were being forced from their cavities.
"This also failed. Then they placed their victim in a chair; one of the men sat before him with a leveled revolver and counted off the time, swearing that at the tenth count he would fire.
"Several times they tried this, but it brought no results. They were growing tired, as well as desperate, so my great-grandfather told the old mandarin he should have but one more chance. He still refused to reveal the whereabouts of the stone, you see, and the adventurers well knew if they killed him they would never discover it. That was the only reason they had spared his life so long.
"This time they stretched the old man on the floor; my great-grandfather took a long, keen knife, held it directly over the heart and began to press down. The sharp point sank into the old mandarin's flesh and blood began to flow from the wound, but still he would not speak.
"Then it was that my great-grandfather, becoming terribly angry, said with an oath that the old man should never speak again. With this he seized the mandarin's tongue, drew it out to its full length, then severed it.
"And as he did so something fell from the old man's mouth and rolled upon the floor. One of the party bent down and picked up this thing. It was the great ruby, all wet and sticky!
"Then, though there were in the room only the four adventurers, the unconscious guard, and the old mandarin, who seemed to be breathing his last, there came a voice in their midst, and this voice, thin and high-pitched as had been that of the old man, put upon that stone a curse so terrible that the faces of all four of the men blanched with fear, though but one among them could understand the awful significance of the words uttered.
"Death, violent, hideous, damnable, he invoked upon whosoever should undertake to keep in his possession that stone. Upon some would death fall instantaneously; upon some would it come like a lingering, withering blight, causing them to pray for the release which would be for many, many days denied them.
"The man who had picked up the ruby suddenly crumpled in a heap on the floor. He died without a word. Then another of the adventurers, with an oath, tore the stone from the dead man's hand, wrapped it in a bit of oiled silk and concealed it about his person. With that he and the two others left hurriedly.
"On the way to the coast this man was bitten by a viper. He lived several days, tormented by an intense suffering, finally dying in great agony. This left but my great-grandfather and one other of the original quartet. This other man had taken the ruby from his dying companion. .
"A few days later he was stricken with a slow fever, deserted and left to die in the jungle by my ancestor and the native guides. My great-grandfather had, of course, lifted the ruby, and he swore that he would get safely out of China with the precious stone — that no heathen curse could have power to bring harm to him.
"Well, he finally reached the United States and went to his old home to live. Shortly after arriving there he died a very singular and painful death. His body appeared to have been burned from head to foot. The ruby then went to my grandfather. He took the stone to the river, intending to dispose of it by tossing it into the water. He was found some time later, drowned, and the ruby was picked up on the shore near the point where he was last seen alive. After this the stone went to an uncle of mine, then in succession to two of his sons. All have died sudden, and, in most cases, violent deaths. The stone now has come into my possession, and I am confident something of the sort will in a short time happen to me, unless I can dispose of the ill-fated thing."
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"I Didn't Come For Your Ruby"
There was silence in the room, save for the little clock on the mantel, that ticked out its monotonous measures of time.
"I think," Stanlaw said at last, "that is about all. If you are ready to do so, you may now get the ruby."
The man hesitated, looking at Stanlaw in a startled sort of way. Seeing this, Stanlaw took both guns from the table, dropped them into a coat pocket, then went to the cabinet in the corner of the room. He pulled out one of the small drawers and returned with it to the table. From this drawer he took a leather case, opened it, and there, wrapped in many folds of oiled silk, was the great ruby. He unwound the covering, exposing the stone to view.
"Take it up," he told the man.
The fellow did so, then dropped it quickly. His thumb and index finger, where they had come in contact with the stone, were stained the color of blood!
"Ugh!" He shivered, wiping his fingers on a handkerchief, which he then threw upon the floor. "You couldn't hire me to take that thing."
Without another word Stanlaw re-wound the silken covering about the ruby, replaced it in its leather case, then dropped it back into the cabinet drawer.
"I think I'll be going," suddenly announced the burglar. "Since I've thought of it, I didn't come for your ruby, anyway. I merely thought I did. I wonder if you'd let me have my gun. Rather costly things now, you know."
"Certainly; take it along," Stanlaw told him, handing over the gun. "It looks like a good one, and you may have need of it some time. You can go out by way of the front door, as it is not fastened. Sorry you will not take the ruby. Good night."
The burglar immediately went through the doorway, and Stanlaw heard him hurrying along the hall and down the stairs. A little later the closing of the front door told him the man had gone.
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The Result of the Experiment
Once more Stanlaw seated himself in his big armchair beside his reading table and lighted another cigarette.
"Well," he mused, "my friend, Jimmy Steele, certainly did an excellent job on that story he wrote for the Sunday Courier, in which he described the fabulous ruby which I was supposed to keep lying around as though it were a bit of colored glass.
"I was sure the story would bring some one, and it did — a fine specimen. The old ruby has practically no value but the story I told the man so impregnated him with a sense of fear that he would not have taken the thing for worlds. That was a brilliant idea of Steele's — putting the heavy, red ink on the stone. The fellow really believed it was blood.
"Anyway, to-morrow I must write my old friend, Professor Cosgrove, the result of my experiment, as this will be another link in the long chain of evidence which he already has gathered, and will add weight to his claim that fear, especially fear of the supernatural, is the ruling element of the world."
Midnight came and Stanlaw decided he had best make the rounds of his lower floor before retiring. The window whereby the would-be burglar had entered must be attended to and the front door fastened.
With these things in mind he went down the stairs to the lower floor. First he entered his dining room, and the sight which fell upon his eyes there caused him to halt with a sharp gasp of astonishment —
Stanlaw always had been rather proud of his collection of old silver, cut glass, and rare and beautiful china, owning many pieces of value.
Practically everything worth taking was gone. A small safe, built into the wall and which had been concealed behind the buffet — wherein the more valuable pieces were kept — now stood open and empty.
Then it was that Stanlaw saw a note spread out on the dining table. It had been hastily scrawled with a lead pencil. Taking it up, he read:
I feel that I should not leave your house without first expressing a few words in appreciation of your kindness. That was a fully good story you told me about the old ruby.
Of course I did not believe a word of it but it had a convincing ring, all right. Just as soon as I saw the ruby I knew it was worthless. It has a flaw in it a blind man ought to be able to discover.
But, as you will have learned by this time, our little expedition has not been altogether without profit.
While I was being so well entertained in your room, my partner was very busy below stairs. Thanks for giving him plenty of time.
We both wish you better luck in the future.
Slowly the tense muscles relaxed and a smile spread itself over Stanlaw's face.
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I guess I'll not write Cosgrove, after all. The joke seems to be on me!"
~ The End ~