The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
THE FORTY DOORS
When Ryder had despatched from the jeweler’s who had polished the locket for him, that package with its secret note, and its warning plaid, he had no real assurance that the message would fall into Aimée’s hands. But he could think of nothing better, and he argued very favorably for his stratagem.
That miniature should have some effect, and given the miniature, and the bit of plaid cloth, Aimée’s quick wit ought to divine a message.
She had always the key, he remembered, and the power of egress from her prison. And surely it ought not to be difficult for her to devise some way of getting a letter into the post.
So his hope fluctuated between the garden gate and the daily mail at the Bank, and he rather surprised McLean by the frequency and brevity of his visits, and by the duration of his stay in Cairo.
For that he had an excuse, both to McLean and to the deserted Thatcher, at the excavation camp, two excuses in fact–some belated identification work to be done at the Museum and a cracked wisdom tooth.
Chiefly he spoke of the necessity for dentistry and accounted for his moods with his molar.
Of moods he had many. Moods when he contemplated his behavior lightly and brightly or darkly, in unrelieved disgust, moods when he refused to contemplate it at all. But he stayed. That was the conspicuous and enduring thing. He stayed.
Jinny Jeffries returned from the Nile by express to find him ensconced at her hotel, and her bright confidence suffered no diminution of its self respect. And it was through Jinny that chance set another straw of circumstance dancing his way.
Jinny had a frock she wished repaired. Mrs. Heath-Brown, whom she had met upon the Nile, recommended to her a Mrs. Hendricks, wife of a British soldier and a most clever little needle woman. Jinny looked up Mrs. Hendricks and found it impossible to secure her for some days as she was busy refitting for a fashionable wedding in the Mohammedan world.
A night later, and two nights before the wedding, Jinny made a narrative of the circumstances for Jack Ryder’s benefit.
“Such frocks h’as h’I ’ave to do–and the young lady no more caring!” had been a saying of the Hendricks that Jinny passed interestedly on to Jack. She had no memory of the young lady’s name, but distinctly she recalled that she was young and beautiful and to marry a general.
It was enough to launch Jinny’s eager interest in Mohammedan marriages and foster the wish that she might attend one. She regretted Mrs. Heath-Brown’s absence and her lack of acquaintance, and suggested that Jack ought to know some one–
“Better than that, I’ll take you,” said Jack with a promptness that brought a light to Miss Jeffries’ eyes.
There was also a light in Jack Ryder’s eyes, a swift burning of excitement and adventure.
Why not? The thing was possible. Muffled in a tcharchaf and veiled with a heavy yashmak, armed with enough Arabic for the briefest of encounters, he might dare the danger. Who in the world would discover him? Who would ever know?
The thing was unthinkable. It was a desperate desecration, comparable only, in his vague analogies, to the Mecca pilgrimage and profanation of a Holy Tomb. But its very improbability would prevent detection.
Only Jinny had to keep her mouth extremely shut–before and afterwards.
He impressed this upon her so thoroughly, as they did their shopping for the costume together the next morning, that she had compunctious moments of solicitude when she said he really ought not to.... She would feel responsible....
Thereupon he laughed, and dared her to be game, and she grew all mirthful confidence again.
But that night, sitting alone in a native café over his Turkish coffee, Ryder was grimly serious.
He knew that it was a mad thing to do. He felt, not so much the danger he ran from discovery, but the danger to his already shattered peace of mind from another glimpse of that strange girl ... that young unknown, on whom he had spent such time and thought, of late, that she seemed a very part of his existence.
What was the good of going to her wedding reception? Feebly he told himself that it was his only chance to inform her upon the history of the Delcassés. There might have been reasons for her non-appearance at the gate, for her not writing.... He could have no glimmering of what went on behind those barred windows. This was his only chance–he meant to say, to tell her–but his eager senses murmured, to see her again.
That was it–to see her again. He owned the lure, at last, with a bitter ruefulness. But–he brightened up at that–it was partly his duty to himself. Now he had all sorts of fool imaginings about this girl. He was remembering her as something lovelier than a Houri, more enchanting than fairy magic, more sweet than spring. He owed it to himself to rout these imbecile prepossessions and prove clearly and dispassionately that the girl was just a very nice little girl, a pretty bride, marrying into a very distinct life from his own–and a girl with whom he would not have an idea in common. A girl, in fact, far inferior to any American. A girl not to be compared to Jinny Jeffries.
Besides, there was fun in the thing. It tempted him tremendously. It was adventurous, romantic forbidden.
He heard the word echoed in Turkish behind him.
So engrossed in his thoughts had he been that he had been inattentive to the rhythm of old Khazib, the tale teller’s voice, as he held forth, from the divan, beside his long-stemmed pipe, to his nightly audience, of men and boys, camel drivers, small merchants, desert men from the long caravans who were the frequenters of this café.
To-night there were few about the old man, and Ryder had small difficulty in drawing nearer the circle. A green-turbaned Arab, with the profile of a Washington and the naïve eyes of youth, whispered to him courteously that it was the tale of the Third Kaland, and the Prince Azib was in the palace of the forty damsels who were farewelling him, as they were to depart, according to custom, for forty days.
Khazib, with a faint salutation of his turban towards the newcomer, went slowly, sonorously on with his tale.
“We fear,” said the damsel unto Azib, “lest thou contraire our charge and disobey our injunctions. Here now we commit to thee the keys of the palace which containeth forty chambers and thou mayest open of these thirty and nine, but beware (and we conjure thee by Allah and by the lives of us!) lest thou open the fortieth door, for therein is that which shall separate us forever.”
For a moment the café faded from Ryder’s eyes. He was in the gloom of a garden, a shadowy darkness just touched by a crescent moon, and beside him in the shrubbery a dark-shrouded form, shaking its shawled head at him in denial, and whispering, lightly but tremblingly. “It is a forbidden door ... forbidden as that fortieth.... There are thirty and nine doors in your life, monsieur, that you may open, but this is the forbidden....”
He had meant to look up that tale. And now chance was reminding him of it again. A superstitious man–Ryder’s great grandfather, perhaps, would have felt it an omen of warning, and a devout man–Ryder’s grandfather, perhaps–would have taken it for a sign from Heaven to divert his steps. Ryder reflected upon coincidence.
“When I saw her weeping,” Khazib was intoning, and now Ryder attended, his scanty knowledge of the vernacular straining and overleaping the blanks, “Prince Azib said to himself, ’By Allah, I will never open that fortieth door, never, and in no wise!’”
“A wise bird,” thought Ryder to himself, drawing on his cigarette.
“And I bade her farewell,” continued the voice slipping into the first person. “Thereupon all departed, flying like birds, leaving me alone in the palace. When evening drew near, I opened the door of the first chamber and found myself in a place like one of the pleasances of Paradise. It was a garden with trees of freshest green and ripe fruits of yellow sheen. And I walked among the trees and I smelt the breath of the flowers and heard the birds sing their praise to Allah, the One, the Almighty.”
“_Allhamdollillah,” murmured Ryder’s neighbors reverently.
“And I looked upon the apple, whose hue is parcel red and parcel yellow ... and I looked upon the quince whose fragrance putteth to shame musk and ambergris ... and upon the pear whose taste surpasseth sherbet and sugar, and the apricot, whose beauty striketh the eye as she were a polished ruby....
“On the morrow I opened the second door and found myself in a spacious plain set with tall date palms and watered by a running stream whose banks were shrubbed with rose and jasmine, while privet and eglantine, oxe-eye, violet and lily, narcissus, origane and the winter gilliflower carpeted the borders; and the breath of the breeze swept over those sweet-smelling growths....”
How inadequate, Ryder realized, had been the description given by the Book of Genesis to the Garden of Eden.
“And the third door,” droned on the rhythmic voice, “into an open hall, hung with cages of sandal-wood and eagle-wood; full of birds which made sweet music, such as the mocking bird, and the cusha, the merle, the turtle dove–and the Nubian ring-dove.”
A trifle restively Ryder stirred. He liked birds but he wanted to be getting on to that fortieth door and this was slow progress. Not a sign of impatience marred the bright, absorbed content of the other listeners, intent now upon the wonders behind that the fourth chamber revealed, stores of “pearls and jacinths and beryls, and emeralds and corals and carbuncles and all manner of precious gems and jewels such as the tongue of man could not describe.”
The story teller proceeded, “Then, quoth Prince Azib, now verily am I the monarch of the age, since by Allah’s grace this enormous wealth is mine; and I have forty damsels under my hand nor is there any to claim them save myself.”
The handsome Arab beside Ryder inhaled his pipe luxuriously. “By the grace of Allah!” he said reverently.
“Then I gave not over opening place after place until nine and thirty days were passed and in that time I had entered every chamber except that one whose door I was charged not to open. But my thoughts ever ran upon that forbidden fortieth and Satan urged me to open it for my own undoing....”
“I see his finish,” said Ryder interestedly to himself–and he thought of the analogy.
“So I stood before the chamber, and after a few moments’ hesitation, opened the door which was plated with red gold and entered. I was met by a perfume whose like I had never before smelt; and so sharp and subtle was the odor that it made my senses drunken as with strong wine, and I fell to the ground in a fainting fit which lasted a full hour. When I came to myself I strengthened my heart, and entering found myself in a chamber bespread with saffron and blazing with light.... Presently, I spied a noble steed, black as the murks of night when murkiest, standing ready saddled and bridled (and his saddle was of red gold) before two mangers one of clear crystal wherein was husked sesame, and the other, also of crystal containing water of the rose scented with musk. When I saw this I marveled and said to myself, ’Doubtless in this animal must be some wondrous mystery, and Satan–’”
“Satan the Stoned!” murmured Ryder’s neighbor religiously.
“Satan cozened me, so I led him without and mounted him ... and struck him withal. When he felt the blow he neighed a neigh with a sound like deafening thunder and opening a pair of wings flew up with me in the firmament of heaven far beyond the eyesight of man. After a full hour of flight he descended and shaking me off his back lashed me on the face with his tail, and gouged out my left eye, causing it to roll along my cheek. Then he flew away.”
On rolled the voice, narrating the prince’s descent to the table of the other one-eyed youths, but Ryder was unheeding. And at the close he inclined his head with the other listeners, murmuring “May Allah increase thy prosperity,” as he felt in his pockets for the silver which the others were drawing from turban and sleeves and sash to lay in the patriarch’s lap, and then raised his head to question diffidently, “Would you interpret, O Khazib, the meaning of that door? For I hear that it hath now become a saying of a forbidden thing.”
The sage hesitated, sucking at his pipe. Then he said slowly, “To every man, O Youth, is there a forbidden door, beyond which waits the steed of high adventure ... with wings beyond man’s riding. And so the rider is lost and his vision is gone.”
“But for him who could ride?” Ryder suggested.
“Inshallah! Who can say till he has tried his destiny–and better are the nine and thirty chambers of safe pleasance than the lonely sightlessness of the outcast one.... It is a tale which if it were written upon the eye-corners with needle-gravers, were a warning to those who would be warned.”
For a moment their eyes held each other, smiling but grave. Ryder’s thoughts were of the morrow, of that forbidden entry he was planning to make, of the risks, the wild uncertainties....
Wisdom and counsel looked significantly out at him out of those patriarchal eyes. Prudence and sanity clamored within him for a hearing.
And then he smiled, the whimsical, boyish smile of young adventuring.
“But whoever, O, my father, had opened that forbidden door the veriest crack, and breathed its scent and glimpsed its dazzlement–then for him there is no turning back,” he confided.
He rose and Khazib’s eyes followed him.
“Luck go with you, my son,” he said clearly, “in Allah’s name,” and smiling in faint ruefulness, “May Allah heed thee!” Ryder murmured piously.