The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
In Tewfick Pasha’s harem everything was astir.
It was the morning of the marriage, almost the very hour when the wedding cortège would bear the bride from her father’s home to the house of her husband.
The invited guests were already arrived and streaming through the reception rooms, a bright, feminine tide in evening toilettes, surrounding the exhibited gifts or pausing about tables of cool syrups, and their soft, low voices, the delicious musical tones of highbred Turkish women, rose like a murmuring of somnolent bees to the tenser regions about, tightening the excitement of haste.
The bride was not yet ready. Still and white, she was the only image of calm in that fluttering, confusing room. Her nearer friends were hovering about her, and her maids of honor, two charming little Turks in rose robes, were draping her veil while old Miriam, resplendent in green and silver, endeavored jealously to outmaneuver them.
On her knees, the gnome-like Mrs. Hendricks was adding an orange blossom to the laces on the train. Then she sat back on her heels, her head a-tilt like a curious bird’s, her eyes beaming sentimentally upon the bride.
“The prettiest h’I h’ever did see,” she pronounced with satisfaction, “H’as pretty as a wax figger now–h’only a thought too waxy.”
And like a wax figure indeed, immobile, rigid, the bride was standing before them, arrayed at last in the shimmering white of the sweeping satin, overrich of lace and orange flowers, and shrouded in the clouding waves of her veil. White as her robes, pale as death and as still, the girl looked out at them, and only that sick pallor of her face and the glitter of her dark eyes betrayed the tumult within.
“Your diadem, my dear–you are keeping us attending,” came Madame de Coulevain’s voice from the door.
The diadem, that heavy circlet of brilliants which crowned the Eastern bride in place of the orange wreath of Western convention, must not be touched by the bride’s fingers but placed by one of her friends, married and married but once, and exceptionally happy in that marriage.
Ghul-al-Din, Aimée’s selection from her friends, stepped hastily forward now, a soft, dimpled, slow-smiling girl, her eyes drowsy with domesticity. No question of Ghul-al-Din’s happiness! She extolled her husband, a young captain of cavalry, and she adored her infant son, a prodigy among children. Life for her was a rosy, unquestioning absorption.
A shaft of irony sped through Aimée, as she bent her head for its crowning at this young wife’s hands, and received the ceremonial wishes for her crowning of happiness, a crowning occurring but once in her lifetime. Irony was the only salvation for the hour; without that outlet for her tortured spirit she felt she would grow suddenly mad, hysterical and babbling or passionate and wild.
So many moods had stormed through her since that night when she had found all hope of rescue gone with her lost key! So many impulses seethed frantically now beneath her quiet, as she faced for the last time that white-misted image in the glass. She had a furious longing to tear off that diadem and veil and heavy robe, to scatter the ornaments and drive out all those maddening spectators, all those interested, eager, unknowing, uncaring spectators of her humiliation.
Arranging her veil, draping her satins, as if gauze and silk were all that mattered to this hour! Wishing her happiness–as if happiness could ever be hers now for the wishing! Smiling, fluttering, complimenting, lending to the ghastly sacrifice the familiar acceptances of every day....
If only she could wake from this nightmare and find that it was all a dream. If only she could brush this confusion from her senses and from her heart its dumb terrors.... If only she had the courage for some desperate revolt, some outburst of strength–
“I am ready,” she said faintly, turning from the glass, and moved towards the door, while a young eunuch bent for her train, that train of three yards length, which stretched so regally behind her in her slow descent of the stairs.
In the French drawing-room below her father was waiting for the ceremonial farewell, in which the father received the daughter’s thanks for all his care of her.
Mechanically Aimée advanced. She stood before him, she lifted her eyes–and there passed from them a look of such strange, breathless, questioning intensity that it was like something palpable.... She had not foreseen this, sudden crisping of her nerves, this defiant passion of her spirit....
Her father? Was he her father? Was it a father who had sold her so, careless, callous–or was it only a father’s semblance, and did there lie in the background of those petted, childish years some darker shadow, of a tragedy that had wrecked her mother’s life and broken her heart–?
Like flashing light that look passed between them. It penetrated Tewfick’s nonchalant guard and brought the unaccustomed color to his olive cheeks. His handsome eyes turned uneasily aside. A girl’s pique perhaps, at the situation, her last defiance of his power,–but for all his reassurance there was something deeper in that look, something tenable, accusing, which went into his soul.
It was a moment in which the last cord of their relationship was severed forever.
She did not speak a word. She bent, not to kiss his hand as custom dictated, but to sweep a long, slow courtesy, that salutation of a maid of spirit to a conqueror, a bending of the pliant back, but with the head held high and the spirit unsurrendered.
And yet there was wretchedness in those proud eyes and a blind fear and supplication.
Useless to beg now. She knew it, and yet the eyes implored.
And then she smiled. And before that smile Tewfick faltered in his paternal benediction and hastened the phrases.
Little murmurs flew back and forth as she turned away, and then a hasty chatter sprang up as the guests hurried into their tcharchafs for the journey to the bridegroom’s house.
That day Aimée did not put on her veil. On either side of her, as she went out her father’s gate, huge negroes held up silken walls of damask, and between those walls she walked into the carriage that awaited her, followed by Madame de Coulevain and the two little maids of honor.
It was when the carriage began to move that the panic inside of her grew to whirlwind. The horse’ hoofs, trotting, trotting, the motion of the wheels, seemed to be the onbearing rush of fate itself. If she could only stop it! If she could only cry out, tear open the windows, scream to the passers by. She knew these were only the impotent visions of hysteria, but she indulged them pitifully.
She saw herself, in those moments, helpless, and hopeless, passing on into the slavery of this marriage–Aimée, no longer the daughter of Tewfick Pasha, but Aimée Delcassé, child of a dead Frenchman, inheritor of freedom, sold like any dancing girl....
And her own lips had assented. In the supreme, silly uselessness of sacrifice she had given herself for the safety of that man who had spent such careless indulgence upon her ... that man whom perhaps her mother had loved and perhaps had hated....
Faster and faster the horses were trotting, leading the long file of carriages and impatient motors that bore the relatives and guests and trousseau, rolling on under the lebbeks and sycamores of the wide Shubra Avenue, once the delight of fashionables before the Gezireh Drive had drained it of its throngs and its prestige.
Now some bright-eyed urchins ran out from their games in the dust to curious attention, and through a half open gate Aimée caught once a glimpse of a young, unveiled girl watching eagerly from the tangled greens and ruined statuary of an old garden. Farther on came glimpses of farm lands, the wheat rising in bright spears, and of well-wooded heights and in the distance the white houses of Demerdache against the Gibel Achmar beyond.
But where were they bearing her? Aimée had a despairing sense of distance and desolation as the carriage turned again–Abdullah, the coachman, having traversed unnecessary miles to gratify his pride before the house of his parents–and made a zigzag way towards the river, where old palaces rose from the backwaters, their faces hidden by high walls or covered with heavy vines and moss.
Deeper and deeper grew the girl’s dismay. It was a different world from that bright, modern Cairo that she knew; this was as remote from her daily life as the old streets of Al Raschid. Her thoughts flew forward to that unknown lord, that Hamdi Bey, whose image she had refused to assemble to her consciousness. Now she comforted her terror with a sudden assumption of age and dignity and kindness, of a courtesy that would protect her and a deference that would assuage the horror of a life together, when unknown, fearful familiarities would alone vibrate in the empty monotonies.
Before a high wall the carriage had stopped. A huge, repellent Ethiopian was standing before an opened doorway, through which a rich carpet was spread.
“Ah, but he looks like an ogre, that new eunuch of yours, Aimée," murmured one of the little Turks. The other, more touched with thought, gave her a disturbed glance, and laughed in nervousness.
Madame, alone serene, ignored the dismaying impression.
“The palace is of a fine, ancient beauty, I am told,” she mentioned cheerfully.
For one wild instant Aimée thought to plead with her, to implore her to tell Abdullah to drive on, to give her the freedom of flight, if only flight down those deserted streets. And then a mad vision of herself in her bridal robes in flight, brought the hysterical laughter to her throat. The time for flight had gone by ... And as for madame’s pity on her–this was not the first time that Aimée had thought of invoking her aid, but she had always known, too well, that thought’s supreme futility.
Sympathetic as Madame de Coulevain might be in her inmost heart–and Aimée divined in her an understanding pity for the necessities of existence–never would that sympathy betray her to rashness. She never would believe that in serving Aimée she would not be ruining her; and even if assured of Aimée’s safety, she could never be brought to betray her own reputation for truthworthiness among the harems of Cairo.... As well appeal to the rocks of the Mokattam hills.
The carriage stopped. The negroes extended the damask walls, and one sprang to open the carriage door and bear the bride’s train. In one moment’s parting of the silken walls the girl saw a sun-flooded cluster of staring faces, thronging for her arrival, and then the damask intervened and through its lane, followed by her duenna and her maids of honor, she entered the arched doorway.
She was in a garden, a great gloomy place, over-spread with ancient, moss-encrusted trees. A broken, marble fountain flung up waters into which no sunlight flashed, and the heavy stepping stones, leading to it, were buried in untrodden grass. A garden in which no one lingered.
The Ethiopian was marshaling them to the left, to an entrance in the dark palace walls before them. Behind them the oncoming guests were streaming out in veiled procession.
He opened a door. Ancient, beautiful arches framed a long vestibule and against a background of profuse cut flowers a man’s figure stepped forward in the glittering uniform of the Sultan’s guard. Aimée had a confused impression of a thin, meager, dandified figure with a waspish waist ... of a blond mustache with upstanding ends ... of sallow cheek-bones and small, light eyes smiling at her in a strained, eager curiosity....
Through all her sinking dismay she had a flash of clear, enlightening irony at that look’s suspense. If she were not as represented! If his cousin’s fervor had misled his hope–!
But in that instant’s encounter his eyes cleared to triumph and gayety, and he smiled–a smile curiously feline, ironic, for all its intended ingratiation–a conqueror’s smile, winged to reassure and melt.
He stepped forward. There were formal words of welcome to which she returned a speechless bow, and then he offered his arm and conducted her slowly up the stairs, his sword rattling in its scabbard, to the apartment which was to be her home, and the prison for the spirit and the body.
She knew in a moment that she hated this man and that he inspired her with fear and horror.
Across a long expanse of drawing-room he conducted her to the ancient marriage throne upon its platform, surmounted by a pompous crown from which old, embroidered silks hung heavily.
Then with an unheard phrase, and another bow, he left her to the day-long ordeal of the reception while he withdrew to his own entertainment at her father’s house. She would not see him again until night, when he would pay her a call of ceremony.
She saw his figure hesitating a moment, as he faced the oncoming guests, such a flood of femininity, unmantled now and unveiled, sparkling in rainbow hues of silks and tulle and gauze that he had never before faced and never would again. Like a bright wave the throng closed about him and then surged on towards the bride upon the throne.
How often, in the last years, Aimée had pitied that poor puppet of a bride, stuck there like some impaled, winged creature, helpless for flight, to the exhibition of the long stream of passersby! How often she had promised herself that never would this be her fate, never would she be given to an unknown! And now–
She was smiling as she faced them, that light, fixed smile she had seen so often on others’ lips, the smile of pride trying desperately to hide its wounds from the penetrating glances of the curious. Satiric, cynical, or sympathetic, that light smile defied them all, but beneath its guard she felt she was slowly bleeding to death of some mortal hurt.
The sympathy unconsciously betrayed, was hardest. The whispers of her young maids of honor, “Really, Aimée, he looks so young! One would never surmise,” were more galling in their intended consolation, more revealing in their betrayal of her friends’ own shrinking from that arrogant, dandified old man than the barbed dart of the uncaring, inquisitive, “How do you find him, my dear? He has the reputation for conquest!”
They were all there, her friends, young, slim, modish Turkish girls whose time had not yet come, glancing quizzically about the ancient drawing room, with its solid side of mashrubiyeh, its old wall panelings of carvings and rare inlay, and then pointing their glances back at her, as if to ask, “And is this our revoltée? Is this her end, in this dim, old palace among the ghosts of the past?”
Some, the frankest, murmured, “But why did you not refuse?” and others attempted consolation with a light, “As well the first as the last–since we must all come to it.”
Of the married women there were those who raised blank, bitter eyes to her, and others, more mild, romantic, affectionate, tried to infuse encouragement into their smiles as if they said, “Come–courage–it’s not so bad. And what would you? We are women, after all; we do not need so much for happiness.
“Those dreams of yours for love, for a spirit to delight in your spirit in place of a master delighting in your beauty alone, what are they, those dreams, but the childish stuff of fancies? For other races, perhaps–but for you, take hold of life. There are realities yet in it to bring you joy.”
It was all in their eyes, their voices, their intonations, their pressure of her hands.
And she stood there among them all, smiling always that smile demanded of the bride, looking unseeingly into their eyes, listening unhearingly to the sea of voices breaking on her ears, responding in vague monosyllables and a wider smile, while all the time her eyes saw only that face, that smirking, cynical old face, and the tide of terror rose higher and higher in her soul.
Never had she given way to her fear, never since the black night when she found the key was gone.
Then, after frenzied searching in impossible places she had stolen back to her room and buried her face in her pillow to stifle the breaking sobs of rebellion and despair–and of a longing so deep and so terrible that it seemed to rend her with a physical anguish, a pain so fiery that her heart would forever bear the scar.
Never again would she see him now.... Never would she know–never would she know all. She had refused his aid. And he might believe her still aloof, incredulous.... It was finished–forever and ever.
She had told herself that before. But always there had been the key. And now there was no key and no escape and her heart broke itself against the iron of necessity.
She had cried the night through. Morning had brought her exhaustion, not peace but a despairing submission. Why struggle when the prison gate is shut? And if there was never to be freedom for her ... never again the sight of that too-remembered face and the sound of that voice–why, then, as well one fate as another. And it was too late now to recede.
So she had called upon her pride and summoned her spirit to play its part to protect her from whispers, and surmise and half-contemptuous pity. She would surrender to this man because she must, and she would win his respect by her dignity and worth, but her soul she would keep its own, in its unsullied dreams ... and in its memories.... Life would be nothing but a hardship, nobly borne.
But now she had seen the man. Now this wild dislike, this sickening terror.
To be alone with him, to have only the few days grace of courtship which the Mohammadan custom imposes upon the bridegroom, to be forever at his mercy in this solitary palace, with its echoing corridors, its blackened walla, its damp breath of age....
She thought wildly of death.
And all the time she was smiling, bending her cheek to the kiss of a friend, feeling the fingers of some well-wisher press upon her, listening to praises of her beauty....
For she was beautiful. No image of wax now. The scarlet of her frightened blood was staining her cheeks, her eyes were bright as the jewels in her diadem, and beneath the thrown-back veil her dark hair revealed its lovely wealth.
“Is she not a rose–will he not adore her, our Hamdi?” she heard that stout cousin of Hamdi’s say to a companion, and the two stared on appraisingly at the young girl, in her freshness and virginal youth, as if at some toy to invite the jaded appetite of a satiated master.
And still the throng filed by, a strange throng beneath the flickering light and shadow of the mashrubiyeh, slender young Turks or blonde Circassians in their Paris frocks, their eyes tormented or malicious, and here and there, like a green island of calm, some rotund matron grave and serene, her head encircled with an old fashioned turban of gauze, her stout flesh encased in heavy silks, bought at Damask so as not to enrich the Unbelievers at Lyons.
And then the spectacle changed, the black street mantles appeared, yashmaks and tcharchafs, for now the doors were opened to all the feminine world, and there came strange, unknown women, slipping out from their grills for this pleasuring in a palace, old-timers often, draped and turbaned in the fashion of some far province of their youth; women, incredibly fat, in rich stuffs of Asia, their bright, deep-sunken eyes spying delightedly upon the scene, or furtive, poor women, keeping courage in twos and threes.
Now, too, at four, came the women from the Embassies, a Russian girl with whom Aimée had played tennis in ages past, rosy now with yesterday’s sun and sleepy with last night’s dance, who touched the bride’s hand as if it were the hand of one half-dead, already consigned to the tomb; other girls she did not know, who stared at her with the avid eyes of their young curiosities; older women, experienced, unstirred, drinking their tea and smoking cigarettes and gossiping of their own affairs, and occasionally among them a tourist agog with wonder and exultation, storing away details for a lifetime of talk, asking amiably the most incredible questions....
“And is it true you have never met your husband? Listen, Jane–she says she has never met him–”
A girl in a creamy white silk came forward a little uncertainly. She was a pretty girl, with a curve of ruddy hair visible under her smart straw, and very bright eyes, where shyness was at variance with a friendly smile.
Indeed Jinny Jeffries was extraordinarily intimidated by the occasion. She had a distinct sense of intrusion mingling with her delight at having intruded, and she murmured her good wishes in an almost inaudible tone.
“It is very good of you to let us come ... I wish you every happiness,” she said.
Beside her a tall slender figure, in black tcharchaf and yashmak, made its appearance.
Aimée’s eyes slipped past the pretty American; the mechanical smile was frozen on her lips. Over the black veil she saw the hazel eyes, bright with excitement, vivid as speech; the eyes of the masquerader in the Scotch costume, the eyes of the man at the garden gate–Jack Ryder’s eyes ... the eyes of her dreams.