The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
THE BEY RETURNS
He kissed her hands. She caught the murmur of compliments and the mingled scent of musk and wine. He had been dining at his reception for the men, but he called now for a table and more refreshment.
A small table was brought to the end of the room near the marriage throne where all the day she had paraded; a richly embroidered cloth of satin was flung over it, and from crowding candelabra fresh lights shed down a little circle of brilliance.
Faintly Aimée protested that eat she could not, and then she made a feint of eating, lingering over her sherbets, because eating was, after all, so safe and uncomplicated a thing.
The black brought champagne in its jacket of ice and filled their glasses.
The general rose. ’À notre bonheur–to our happiness,” he declared, holding out his glass, and she clinked her own to it and brought her lips to touch the brim, but not to that toast could she swallow a single one of the bubbles that went winking up and down the hollow stem.
The glass trembled suddenly in her hand as she set it down. An overpowering sense of fatigue was upon her. With the death of her poor hope, with the collapse of all those flighty, childish dreams, the leaden weight of realities seemed to descend crushingly upon her. She felt stricken, inert, apathetic.
It was all so unreal, so bizarre. This could not possibly be taking place in her life, this fantastic scene, this table set with lights and food at the end of a dark, deserted old room opposite this grimacing, foppish stranger....
She could barely master strength for her replies. How had it all gone? Excellently? She was satisfied with her new home? With the service? The appointments?
He plied her with questions and she tried to summon her spirit: she achieved a few perfunctory phrases, the words of a frightened child struggling for its manners. She tried to smile, unconscious of the betrayal of her eyes.
He told her, sketchily, of his day. A bore, those affairs, those speeches, he told her, gazing at her, his wine glass in his hand, a flush of wine and excitement in his face. She found it unpleasant to look at him. Her glance evaded his.
She stammered a word of praise for the palace. It must be very ancient, she told him. Very–interesting.
He waved a hand on which an enormous ruby glittered. He could tell her stories of it, he promised. It had been built by one of the Mamelukes, his ancestor. Its old banqueting hall was still untouched–the collectors would give much to rifle that, but they would never get their sharks’ noses in. Nothing had been changed, but something added. Once the Mad Khedive had borrowed it for some years and begun his eternal additions.
“Forty girls, they say, he kept here,” smiled Hamdi Bey. “They gulped their pleasure, in those days. It is better to sip, is it not?”
He smiled. “But these are no stories for a bride! I only trust that you will not find your palace dull. It is very quiet now, very much of the old school. You may miss your pianos, your electricity, all your pretty Parisian modernity.”
She glanced at the glittering table.
“But I do not find this so–so much of the old school. Here one does not eat rice with the fingers!”
“And I?” said the bey, leaning suddenly towards her on his outspread arm. “Do you find me too much of the old school? Eh? eh?”
“But you, monsieur,” she stammered, still looking down, “you–I do not know you–not yet.”
“Not–yet. Excellent! There will be time.”
“I confess that now I am weary–”
“Ah,–and that diadem is heavy. Your head must ache with it,” he said solicitously.
Perhaps it was the diadem that gave her that leaden, constricted sense of a band tightening about her forehead. She put up her hands to it.
“Permit me,” he said quickly, springing to his feet. “Permit me to aid you.”
He stepped behind her and bent over her. She held her head very still, stiff with distaste, and felt the weight lifted. He surveyed the circlet a moment then placed it upon the marriage throne behind her. She had an ironic memory of the false omen of her crowning, of soft, satisfied little Ghul-al-Din’s bestowal of her own happiness.... Happiness, indeed....
“And that veil–surely that is incommoding?” suggested the suave voice, and she felt the touch of his hands on her hair where the misty veil was secured.
She stammered that it was quite light–she would not trouble him–
Then she held herself rigid, for suddenly he had swept the veil aside and bent to press his lips to that most hidden of all veiled sanctities, for a Moslem, the back of her neck.
She did not stir. She sat fixed and tense. Then slowly the blood came back to her heart, for he was moving away from her again to his place at the table.
Laughing a little, pulling at his blond mustache in a gesture of conquest, his kindling eyes glinting down at her, “You must forgive the precipitateness–of a lover,” he murmured. “You do not know your own beauty. You are like a crystal in which the world has thrown no reflections. All is pure and transparent–”
If she did not find words to answer him, to divert his admiration, she felt that she was lost.
“You are not complimentary–a bit of glass, monsieur, instead of a diamond! But I am too weary to be exacting.... If now, you will permit me to bid you good evening and withdraw–”
“Little trembler,” said the general facetiously, and reached out a hand to touch her cheek, the light, reassuring caress that one might give a petted child, but it almost brought a cry of nervous terror from her lips.
She thought that if he touched her again she would scream. He inspired her with a horrible fear. There was something so false, so smiling in him... he was like an ogre sitting down to a delicate dish of her young innocence, her childish terrors, her frank fears....
She could not have told why she found him so horrible, but everything in her shrank convulsively from him.
And the need of courtesy to him, of propititation–!
The cup was bitterer than her darkest dreams.... She wondered how many other women had drained such deadly brews... had sat in such ghastly despair, before some other bridegroom, affable, confident, masterful....
She told herself that she was overwrought, hysterical. The man was courteous. He was trying to be agreeable, to make a little expected love. He had drank a little too much–another time she might find him different. He was probably no worse than any other man of her world.
It was not in her world, each young Turkish girl said in those days, that one could find love.
But it was not her world! It was an alien world, enforced, imprisoning.... That was the bitterest gall of all the deadly cup.
“There is no need for haste,” he was assuring her. “In a moment I will call your woman. Fatima, her name is, an old slave of our house.”
“I could wish,” said Aimée, “that I had been permitted to bring my old nurse, Miriam, without whom I feel strange–”
“No old nurses–I know their wiles,” laughed the bey, setting down his drained cup with a wavering hand. “They are never for the husbands, those old nurses–we will have no old trot’s tricks here!”
He laughed again. “This Fatima is a watch dog, I warn you, my little one ... but if she does not please you, we can find another. And as for the rooms–I have assigned this suite to you, the suite of honor. This is the salon, and there,” he pointed to a curtained door behind them, opening into a small room that Aimée had already seen, “there is your boudoir and beyond that, your sleeping apartment. I have had them done over for you, but you shall choose your own furnishings–everything shall be to your taste, I promise you. You are too sweet to deny. You have but to ask–”
Certainly, she thought, he was drunk. He moved his head so jerkily and his whole body swayed so queerly. Desperately she fought against her horror. Perhaps it was better for him to be drunk.
Drunken men grow sleepy. Perhaps he would fall down and sleep. Perhaps she ought to urge him to drink. Long ago the black had left the bottle at his elbow and gone out of his room.
But she did not move. She sat back in her chair, withdrawn and shrinking, watching him out of those dark, terrified eyes.
“You are beautiful as dreams,” he told her, leaning towards her with such abruptness that his sword struck clankingly against the table. “Beyond even the words of my babbling cousin–eh, Allah reward her!–but she did me a good turn with her talk of you!”
Fixedly he stared at her, out of those intent, inflamed eyes.
“I did not know that there was anything like you in the harems of Cairo. You are like a vision of the old poets–but I suppose that you do not know the ancient poetry. You little moderns are brought up upon French and English and music and know little of the Arabic and the Persian.... I daresay that you have never heard of the poet Utayyah.”
Still leaning towards her he began to intone the stanzas in a very fair tenor voice, and if his movements were at all unsteady, his speech was most precise and accurate.
“From her radiance the sun taketh increase when She unveileth and shameth the moonlight bright.”
He chuckled.... “Ah, I shall put the triple veil upon you, my little moon.... How Is this one?
“’On Sun and Moon of Palace cast thy sight, Enjoy her flower-like face, her fragrant light, Thine eyes shall never see in hair so black Beauty encase a brow so purely white.’”
He got up and drew his chair closer to her. “That is the song for you, little white rose of beauty.”
Back went her own chair, and she rose to her feet.
“I thank you for the compliment, monsieur. But now have I your permission to retire? For it has been a long day and I am indeed fatigued–”
To her vexation her voice was trembling, but she steadied it proudly.
“I bid you good evening.”
“Nonsense, my little white rose. This is not so fatiguing–a few words more. But you are like the flower that flies before the wind.... But your room, yes, to be sure. Shall I show you the way?”
“I can discover it, monsieur.”
“Monsieur–fie on you, my little dove.... Hamdi, I tell you, your lover Hamdi.”
He laughed unsteadily, and put a hand on her arm. “You are running away, I know that. And I have so much to tell you ... Oh, it was tedious in that villa of your father’s! ’Yes,’ I thought to myself, ’that is a fine story, a funny story, but I have heard them all before. And you are in no haste, you revelers–you have no little bride waiting for you at home.’... That one glance at you–I tell you it was the glance of which the poet sings–the glance that cost him a thousand sighs. I was on fire with impatience.... For I am beauty’s slave, little dove.... You may have heard–but no matter. A wife must be a pearl unspotted.... I am not as the English who take their wives from the highways, where all men’s glances have rested upon them. Have I not been at their balls? Their women dance in other men’s arms. They marry wives whose hands other men have pressed. Sometimes–who knows?–their lips have been kissed.... And then a husband takes her.... Oh, many thanks!”
He laughed sardonically and waved his hands a little wildly. “Oh, I know English–all the Europeans. I have seen their women. I have seen them selling their wares–stripping themselves half bare in the evenings, the shameless–For me, never! My wife is a hidden treasure. You know what the poet says:
“’An’ there be one who shares with me her love I’d strangle Love tho’ Life by Love were slain, Saying, O Soul, Death were the nobler choice, For ill is Love when shared twixt partners twain.’”
“You are fond of your poets,” said Aimée with stiff lips.
“You–you kindle poetic fires, my little one. You–I–” He stammered a moment, then forgot his fierce speech against foreign ways. “You have the raven hair–”
His hand went out to it. He smoothed it back out of her eyes, then tried to draw her to him.
Desperately she resisted. “Monsieur, one does not expect a gentleman–”
“Expect! Ho–what should one expect when a man has such a little sweetmeat, such a little syrup drop, such a rose petal–Come, come, you would not struggle–”
But it was not the struggling hand of the frightened girl that sent the general back.
It was a brown, sinewy hand on his shoulder, a hand protruding from a well tailored gray sleeve and lilac striped cuff, that caught Hamdi Bey by the epauleted shoulder and sent him spinning about.
Another hand was holding a revolver very directly at him.
“Silence!” said Jack Ryder in his best Turkish and repeated it, with amplification, in English. “Not a sound–or I’ll blow your head off.”
Aimée gave a strangled gasp.
He had not gone, then! He had hidden there, in some nook of that boudoir behind those shadowy curtains, waiting to protect her, to rescue....
Over one arm he had the black mantle and veil, “Better put these on,” he suggested, without taking his eyes from the rigid bey, “and then run for it.”
“I’ll take care of myself. After you are out of the way. Dare you try that? Or what do you suggest?”
“Oh, not alone. Together–”
“So–so–” said Hamdi Bey inarticulately, his head nodded, he staggered, his knees gave way and he crumpled very completely upon the floor, and lay like a felled log.
After a quick look down at him Ryder turned to Aimée. “Quick, then. We’ll make a run for it–”
He did not finish. Hamdi Bey, upon the floor, fallen half under the folds of the white cloth, made a swift and very expert roll and darted to his feet beside Aimée, whirling her about, with pinioned elbows, for his shield.
And so screened, he gave a shrill whistle.