The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
THE UNINVITED GUEST
Now as he stood before Aimée, and saw her eyes widen with recognition, he knew that he would have need of all his luck and all his wit. He stepped hastily forward.
“_Alhamdolillah–Glory to God that he has permitted me to behold you this day,” he murmured, in the studiously sing-song Arabic that might be expected from a humble Turkish woman in plain mantle and yashmak. “May Allah continue to spread before thee the carpet of enjoyment–” and then lower, almost muffled by the thick veil, “Can you give me a moment–?”
Eagerly, significantly, his eyes met hers.
Half fearfully, Aimée flashed an excited look around her. The space before the marriage throne had thinned, for there were no more arrivals waiting to offer their congratulations and the guests were clustering now about the tables for refreshment or drifting into the next salon where behind firmly stretched silken walls a stringed orchestra was playing.
Miss Jeffries alone was lingering near, but she moved off now–at a secret look from Ryder–with an appearance of unconcern.
“I am going to try my vernacular on the bride,” Ryder had told her. “Don’t linger or look alarmed. I won’t give the show away.”
So there was no one to overhear a low-toned colloquy between the bride and the veiled woman, no one to note or wonder that the veiled woman was speaking, strangely enough, in rapid English.
“When I didn’t hear from you I had to come, to know if you received the package and letter I sent–”
With a swift gesture of her little ringed hand Aimée drew from the laces on her bosom that heavy gold locket.
“Indeed I have it–and the note, too, I found. But I could not write you. There was no way–no one to trust to mail it. And they had stolen my key,” she whispered, and the confessing words with their quiver of forlornness told Ryder something of the story of those helpless days and nights.
He murmured, “I didn’t dare write you more personally for fear they would find the note.”
“I understood. That plaid about the box–that was so clever a warning. I kept the box and hunted in it.”
“I wanted to tell you more about that locket. I dug it up myself from the tomb I was excavating–do you remember how you wished that I would dig from the sands whatever secret I most desired? And I found that.... And it happened that at McLean’s I had met the French agent who was searching for any trace of the Delcassés, of the wife and child of the explorer who had disappeared fifteen years before. That miniature was your image, and I guessed at once. McLean and I went to the pasha–Oh, I didn’t tell him I’d met you!” he flung in, his eyes twinkling, “and we pretended we knew all about his marriage to Madame Delcassé and he owned up without a quiver. But when we tried to claim you for the French family, he doubled like a hare. He said the Delcassé child was dead, died when his own child was a baby, and that you were his own. But I was sure that you were more than fourteen, and that he was simply putting it over on us so as to have this marriage go on without interference–and so I tried to get the story to you. Even now I thought you ought to know,” he added, as if in palliation of his invasion here.
For he realized now how tremendous an invasion it was.
All the guests about him had not given him that feeling, all that sea of femininity, those grave matrons whose serenely unveiled faces would burn with shame to be beheld by this stranger, those bright, slim girls in their extravagant frocks, their tulle, their lace, their pearls, their diamonds, all the hidden charms that no man had yet seen stirred in him no more than an excited and adventurous curiosity.
But the vision of Aimée–that delicate beauty in its tragic irony of throne and diadem! It touched him to tenderness and to an actual sense of sacrilege at the freedom of his gaze. No moonlight vision this, ethereal and dream-like, but a vivid, disquieting radiance of dark, shining eyes and rose-flushed cheeks. He had never seen her hair before, midnight hair, escaping little curls from the veil and the diadem. And he had never really seen her mouth–wistful and gay, like the mouth of the miniature ... nor her chin, so tender and willful ... nor her skin, satin-soft, in its veiling from the daylight....
She was more than young and sweet and fair. She was beauty, beauty with its elusive, ineluctable spell, entangled with the appeal of her helplessness.
A bright blush flooded her now and her eyes fell in confusion, before the prolonging of his look.
“But it is dangerous–your being here,” she murmured.
“The fortieth door,” he reminded her.
Under her breath, “Ah, you remember?”
“I remember. And but last night I heard Khazib, the story teller, tell the tale, and I thought of you and your warning–of the door that hid you, that it was forbidden for me to open.”
“And so you opened it, monsieur.” Faintly she smiled, with downcast lashes.
“And I came as you first came to me–in mantle and veil.”
For a moment their thoughts fled back to that masquerade, which seemed so long ago.
“But it is too late,” she said tremulously.
“_Is it too late–for me to help you?”
At that her eyes rose to his again in a swift flash of hunted fear.
“Oh, take me away from him!” she breathed suddenly, unpremeditately. “Somehow–somewhere–”
Another figure came towards them. Madame De Coulevain in all her severe elegance of black.
“Come and join your friends at the supper, my dear; there is no need for you to be pilloried here any longer,” she observed with an indifferent scrutiny of the persistent veiled woman, and Ryder moved slowly away while Aimée came dutifully down from the throne, a huge black bending to hold her train.
“I thought you were never coming! What were you talking about?" demanded a voice in Ryder’s ear, and he found Jinny Jeffries at his side, her bright gray eyes pouncing upon him with curiosity.
“Oh, I wished her joy–native phrases–that sort of thing,” he answered mechanically as they drew back into an embrasure of the mashrubiyeh that formed one side of the great room.
“But you were talking forever. I saw you holding forth at a tremendous rate. Why wouldn’t you let me stay and listen–?”
“You’d have put me off my shot, I had to feel unobserved to play up.”
“You must be fearfully good at Arabic,” said Jinny guilelessly. “And what did she say?”
“Why–she didn’t say anything in particular–”
“But what was that she was showing you? I saw her bend forward with a locket or something–?”
A plague upon Jinny’s bright eyes! “Oh, yes, the locket,” said Ryder with an effort. “She–ah–she showed it to me.”
“But why? Wasn’t that awfully funny–”
“Oh, I believe it’s a custom, courtesy stunt you know, to show a poor guest some of the presents,” he explained, manufacturing under pressure.
“I wish she’d show me her rings. Did you ever see so many? It was the only thing about her you’d call really Eastern–all those glittering diamonds on her fingers. And did you notice her hands?" Jinny went on enthusiastically. “Jack, I never knew there was anything so lovely as that girl in the world. She’s simply exquisite.... I suppose it’s her whole life,” Miss Jeffries reflected, “keeping herself beautiful.” Her eyes rested curiously on the feminine groups before them. “They haven’t anything else to do or think about, have they?”
“I understand some of them are remarkably educated young women.”
“What’s the use of it?” said the practical daughter of an American college. “They can’t ever meet any men, but just a husband–”
“They can read for themselves, can’t they? And talk to each other. And–well, what do you girls do with your education anyway? You don’t lug anything very heavy about the golf course and the ball room.”
“Who wants us to? But we do bring something to committees and clubs and–and welfare work,” Miss Jeffries maintained stoutly. “And we are always into arguments at dinners. While these girls, they can’t dine out, they haven’t anybody but themselves to argue with, and it doesn’t matter a straw politically what they think–they can’t even change the customs that their great, great, great grandfathers imposed.
“If I were one of these girls,” she declared positively, “I wouldn’t bother about Kant and chemistry and history–I’d stuff myself full of sweetmeats and loll around on a divan and not care what happened outside. Or else I’d be miserable.”
“Perhaps they are miserable.”
“They ought to fight. Think, think,” said Jinny dramatically, “of marrying some man you’ve never seen–the way that lovely girl is doing. Suppose she doesn’t like him? Suppose he’s dull and cranky and mean and greedy? Suppose he bores her? Suppose she actually hates him? Why, Jack, it’s horrible! And yet she submits–she submits to it–”
“Suppose she has to submit, that she hasn’t a soul on earth to help her? How would you fight, I wonder–”
“Well, you don’t need to shout about it! That woman’s looking now–that one with the green turban and the stuffed-date eyes.”
Nervously Jinny glanced around.
“It’s a fearful lark,” she murmured, “but I don’t believe I’d ever have had the nerve if I’d realized.... What do you suppose they would do, Jack, if they found you out?... Those big blacks look so–so uncivilized.”
Her eyes rested upon the huge eunuch at the far entrance of the salon, a huge hideous fellow, with red fez, baggy blouse and trousers, and a knife handle sticking piratically from a sash.
“He has on English oxfords,” said Ryder lightly. “That’s a saving something. But they aren’t going to find out..... I have an idea we ought to make our getaway now, and that we had better not go together. You go first and then I’ll stroll along, and whisk off these duds in some quiet corner.... I have to meet a man to-night, but I’ll probably see you to-morrow. And don’t,” he entreated, “don’t as you love your life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, breathe a word of my being here like this to any one–any time–anywhere. I was an unmitigated ass to link you up with it. So be wary.”
“Oh, I shall!” Jinny Jeffries promised vividly and with a last look about the old palace, the empty marriage throne and the dissolving knots of guests, she gave a little nod to her veiled companion, sauntered without visible trepidation past the staring eunuch at the door, went down the long stairs where other departing guests were drawing on mantles and veils, and so made her way across a shadowy garden and out the gate that another black opened.
And then she drew a sudden breath of relief and glanced up at a sky of sunset fires and felt the free airs play with her hair and face and so shook off, lightly and gratefully, that darkening impression of shuttered rooms and guarding blacks.
Little rivers of wine and fire were bubbling in Aimée’s veins. She was gay at supper, as a bride should be gay. It was enough, for those first few moments, that she had seen him again, that he had dared to come and try to help her–that he cared enough to come!
Her heart sang little pæans of joy and triumph. She sketched impossible scenes of escape–she saw herself, in a shrouding mantle, slipping with him past the guests at the door, she saw them speeding away in a motor, she saw France, the unknown Delcassés–a bright, gay world of freedom and romance.
Or, perhaps, if not to-night, then to-morrow.... They would plan ... she would obtain permission to take a drive and there would be a signal, a waiting car....
But, better now. She could not endure even the call of ceremony from that man who called himself her husband. The very memory of his eyes on her....
Decidedly, it must be to-night. And Ryder would think of a way. She must get back to him ... he would be lingering. She must get away from this hateful table, these guests and companions....
A wild impatience tore at her. She grew uneasy, anxious, fretted at the frightening way that time was slipping past....
Her radiance vanished, her smile was nervous, forced, as she sat at her table of honor, amid the circle of her friends, with a linked wreath of candelabra sending its sparkle of lights over the young faces and jewel-clasped throats, over the glittering silver on the white satin cloth among the drift of pink and white rose petals.
She began to bite her lips nervously... she did not hear what her bridesmaids were chattering about ... her eyes went often, with that stealth that invites regard, to the tiny platinum and diamond watch upon her wrist.
Would they never finish? Would they never be free? She wondered if she dared feign an illness to rise and leave them; but no, that would mean solicitude, companions....
And now the slaves were bringing still another round of trays....
Oh, hurry, hurry, her tightening nerves besought.
At last! The older women were going. Not even for a wedding would they deeply infringe upon that rule which keeps the Moslem women indoors after the sun has set. Ceremoniously each made to the bride her adieux and good wishes, and ceremoniously a frantically impatient Aimée returned the formal thanks due for “assistance at the humble fête.”
She did not see that black mantle anywhere.
Her heart sank. Stupid, she told herself with quivering lips, to dream that he could dare to linger, that he had any way to get her out. By help he meant no more than getting letters to France for her.... And yet his eyes when they had met hers.... Surely he had meant–but when she had disappeared from the reception room to attend the supper, when there seemed no way of speaking again to her, and all the outsiders, all but the invited guests were departed, he had been, obliged to go, too.
Perhaps some one had begun to notice him.... She wondered if he had been careful about his shoes, his hands.... How had he managed about the dress anyway?
And then she remembered that girl, that pretty American with the ruddy hair to whom she had seen him talking, and she conjectured that there was feminine aid and confidence....
A wave of bitterness swept over her. He had told that girl about her–he knew that girl well enough to tell her! And perhaps he was only sorry for the poor little French girl in the Turkish harem, perhaps they were both sorry....
Had he told that girl, she thought with bitter mutiny, that he had kissed her?
That girl must have been very sure of him not to be jealous of his interest in herself!
And now they could be somewhere together, perhaps talking her over, while she was here ... here forever....
She was so white now, so silent, so distrait, that all the chatter of the younger girls who were lingering around her could not dispel the feeling of depression. They cast covert glances of discomfort at each other, begged for more music from the orchestra, tallied with an effort of the size and spaciousness of the palace and the magnificence of the feast.
She had told herself that she had ceased to hope. She did not know how false it was until the eunuch brought his message. Then hope really died.
The general was below and begged to be announced to madame.
“We fly!” whispered a lingerer with nervous laughter, and hastily the young people hurried into their tcharchafs and veils, murmuring among themselves, with sidelong glances at that white figure whose cold hand and cheek they had just touched, hastily they sped, like light-footed nymphs in some witches’ robes, down the long room, while Madame de Coulevain drew back a strand of the girl’s dark hair and murmured, “But smile, my dear,” to the still figure and escaped with the guests.
And then Aimée was alone in the great room, deserted of its throngs, a darkening room, full of burned-down candles and fallen flower petals, with here and there the traces of the revelers, a scented handkerchief ... a fan ... a buckle from some French slipper ... or a feather from some ancient turban clasp....
Like the ghost of some deserted queen, with her regal satins and glittering circlet, she waited. There was a moment of grace in which she tried, to turn a gallant face toward the next moment.
Then he came, advancing.... It may have been her distorted fancy, but down the long perspective, that figure looked more mincing, more waspish, more unreal than ever. And she was conscious of that swift rising of dislike, of antagonism touched with reasonless fear.