The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
WITHIN THE WALLS
Ryder sprang forward, trying to reach the bey, but he dodged skillfully; his holding Aimée blocked Ryder in his attack.
He knew that high, peculiar whistle had been a signal, a call for aid, and he flung a lightning glance down that long room, tightening his hold on the revolver–but he did not see the small door that opened in the shadowy paneling behind him, nor the shadow that grew into the gorilla-like shape of the black as it launched itself through the air upon his back.
He only heard Aimée’s scream, and then before the crashing weight upon his shoulders he staggered and went down.
The bey flung Aimée aside and rushed upon the prostrate figure, kicking the revolver from the outspread hand. The black knelt swiftly down, unfastening his silken sash.
Giddily the room whirled about Aimée.... In the candle light, leaping in the rush of conflict, she saw the bey and the black, and their distorted shadows in a goblin blur.... And beneath them she saw Ryder, helpless, his hands and feet pinioned.... With the madness of despair she rushed forward, but the general intercepted her.
“He is quite helpless.... You need not be alarmed for my safety, madame!”
The cold, biting fury of his voice steadied her. She saw his face was distorted, livid with anger. His breathing was stertorous.
She stood helplessly by the table; the general turned and looked down upon the face of the man who had dared to violate the sanctity of his harem and attempt to steal his bride; beyond the man’s head Yussuf, the black, was squatting with a grinning, dog-like watchfulness.
But Ryder did not require watching. That sash had been tied strongly about his hands and feet. He was as helpless as a baby.
But the peculiar flavor of his helplessness was not so much fear before the fanatic fury of this man he had outraged, although he had a clear notion that his position was not enviably secure, but a bitter, black chagrin.
To have had the game in his hands and have bungled it! To have been surprised by that simple strategy, taken off his guard by a feigned collapse! The wily old Turk for all his champagne had the clearer, quicker brain....
To have let him get to Aimée and call in his black! To have been thrown, disarmed.... It was crass stupidity. It was outrageous mismanagement, abominable, maddening....
And Aimée must pay for it. He tried to think very quickly what could best clear her.
He fixed his eyes on those glittering eyes, staring down upon him.
“I realize I owe you an explanation,” he said grimly. “If you will let me tell you–”
The bey turned to Aimée with a smile that was the lifting of a lip and the distention of his nostrils.
“This fool thinks he has the time to talk–his English.”
Desperately Ryder grasped for his vernacular. “I want to tell you–why I came. This–this young lady doesn’t know me.”
Past the general he shot a look of warning at the girl.
“I was trying to get hold of her for her family in France–She is really a French girl. Tewfick Pasha is not her father but her–" he could not find the word and dropped into English. “Her step-father–do you understand? And he had no business to marry her off, so I tried to steal her for the French family. It was a mad attempt which has failed–but for which the young lady should not be blamed. She had never seen me before. She had no idea I was here.”
After a pause, “A remarkable story,” said the general distinctly. He turned about to the table and drank off the last of a glass of champagne, then wiped his mouth with the back of a hand that trembled.
He turned back to stand over his prostrate invader. “Now, you–you dog of Satan,” he snarled in a sudden snapping of restraint, “how did you get here? Who admitted you?”
And at that, for all his trussed and helpless plight, Jack Ryder grinned. He moved his head slightly. “That blackbird of yours here.”
“The very one. But he didn’t know it–I was in that black mantle–and veil.”
“Oh, the mantle, I had forgot. So you stole in, disguised, to violate my hospitality, to outrage my harem, to gaze upon the forbidden faces of women and to steal the bride–”
“I tell you I was trying to rescue the girl for her French family. She is French and Tewfick Pasha is only–”
“And what is that to me? Do I–” the bey broke off and then turned to the silent girl who stood leaning towards them, a trembling ghost in white.
“And you, my little one,” he murmured sardonically with a savage irony of restraint, “you, the little dove secluded from the world, who trembled at a kiss, the crystal vase who had never reflected the blush of love, whose virginal praises I was chanting when I was so oddly assaulted, do you support this idiot’s story?”
Mechanically her head moved in assent, her eyes, dilated with fear, were like the dark, fascinated eyes of some helpless bird.
“You never saw this young man?” the bey pursued. “And yet you were ready to run off with him–a pretty character you give yourself, my snowdrop!–and you liked his eyes and hastened to obey?”
Aimée was silent. From his ignominy upon the floor Ryder hastened to interpose.
“It is true she had never seen me, but I had already written to her and acquainted her with the story. I tried to reach her first through her father but that was useless so I resorted to these desperate means.”
“Oh you wrote! And you told her you would be here, and murder her husband–”
“I told her nothing of the kind. She didn’t know that I was coming until I spoke to her here, and then she had no idea that I was going to wait and carry her off–”
“In the name of Allah! Do you take me for a dolt, an ass? You, with your writing and your masquerade and your secrets! Do any families try to recover their relatives with such means? Daughter or step-daughter, it is nothing to me–”
“But it is true,” Aimée insisted, in a trembling voice. “My father was Paul Delcassé–”
“_Yahrak Kiddisak man rabbabk–curse the man who brought thee up! Delcassé or devil, it is Tewfick Pasha who is your step-father, your guardian, who gave you to me for wife–what has your genealogy to do with this affront upon my honor?”
“But he did not intend to affront your honor–only to aid the family in France–”
“I ask you again, do I resemble an ass that you should put such a burden of lies upon me? As if I did not know why young men risked their lives, in the dead of night, in other men’s rooms! If I did not know what turns their brains to mush and their hearts to leading strings! And you–you–you little white rose of seclusion–!”
His venom leaped out at her in his voice. It was a terrible voice, the cold, grating menace of a madman.
“You, who had never seen this man but who fluttered to him like a white moth to a fire, you who cowered from your husband’s hand but who turned to follow this strange dog into the streets–there will be care taken of you later. But now–you complained of fatigue. Surely this scene is overtaxing for your delicacy. If you will come to your rooms–”
She drew back from the hand he laid upon her. “Do not injure him! By Allah’s truth! He is rash, mad, but a stranger. He did not know–”
“He needs enlightenment. He needs to learn that a nobleman’s harem is not a café of dancing girls, where all may enter and stare and fondle. Bismallah–he shall learn!... And now come–”
“I shall not go,” she said breathlessly.
“What–struggle? But your father has been strangely remiss with his discipline.... Permit me.”
His hand tightened in a grasp of iron.
“My train is caught,” she said in a tone of sudden pettishness; she stooped to lift it with her hand that was free.
“My train–!” he mimicked her in a quivering falsetto. “Have a care of my frock–do not crush my chiffons.... And these are the women for whom men break their heads and hearts!”
“I tell you, sir,” came urgently from Ryder, “that the girl is innocent of all–”
“Keep your tongue from her name–and your eyes from her face!... Come, madame.”
With his iron grasp on her elbow he thrust her towards the boudoir at the end of the drawing-room, behind whose curtains Ryder had so long been hiding.
The chamber was in darkness, lighted only by a pale gleam from the other room. Aimée stumbled across the rug and found herself upon a huge divan against a window screen.
“Fatima is in the next room to come at a call. But perhaps you would prefer to wait for me alone? I shall not be long.”
Desperately she caught at his arm, imploring, “I beg you, monsieur. He has done no real harm. Let him go. He is a stranger–he did not know. And he will never trouble you again. I will do anything–everything you desire–if only you will not injure him–”
“You trouble yourself strangely for a stranger.”
“He is a stranger in danger for my sake. For it was in his duty to my–my family–” her trembling lips stumbled over the ridiculous lies, “that he has blundered into this. He has no idea how shocking a thing he has–”
“And you had no idea, either, I suppose. You had never heard of honor or treachery or–”
“I was wrong, oh, I was wrong! I did want to go to France–I own it. And I was not ready for marriage. And I had heard that you–I was afraid. But now–if you will let him go for my sake, if you will not visit my sins upon him, oh, I should be so grateful–so grateful that anything I can ever do–”
“But you will be grateful, anyway, my little blossom. I promise you that you will learn to be very grateful–”
“It is easier to die than to learn to love a hated one,” she reminded him softly, leaning towards him. “I can die very willingly, monsieur.... And you would not want a wife before whom there was always an object of terror–”
Through the dusk her great eyes sought his.
“Be generous–and harm him not,” she breathed. “I beg of you, I implore–”
“And if I am–lenient–you will always be grateful?”
Mutely she nodded, her eyes trying pitifully to read that shadowy mask of mockery he turned towards her.
“And how grateful could you be, little dove?”
Pitifully she smiled.
“Could you,” he murmured, “could you learn to kiss?”
He leaned nearer and involuntarily she shrank back. Faintly, “At this moment–I beg of you, monsieur–”
“Oh, if it is to be an affair of moments! We shall never find the right one. But you were so full of promises–”
“I will do anything,” said Aimée, convulsively, “if you will promise me–”
“Come, then a kiss. A peck from my little dove.”
She looked at him out of wretched eyes.
“And you promise to free him, not to hurt him–”
“I promise not to hurt a hair of his head. Come, that is generous, isn’t it? As to freeing him–h’m–that is for later. Perhaps, if you are very good. A kiss then... and later....”
He bent over her. She shut her eyes and heard the taunt of his laugh. She kissed him, and he laughed again.
“What is it the Afghan poets say? ’Kissed lips lose no sweetness, but renew their freshness with the moon.’ Certainly if you have ever been kissed, little bud, you have lost no dew.... Delicious.... I shall hurry back.”
He cast a hard look down at her as she sat there, her arms drooping at her sides. He looked about the room as if consideringly, then nodded at an unseen door at the right.
“Fatima is there if you want lights or assistance.... And Alsamit, Yussuf’s brother, is at the other door beyond. Do not stir, little bird. I shall be back very soon.”
“And he–you promised–”
“I shall not hurt a hair of his head.”
But he was smiling evilly in the darkness as he drew shut the door and returned to the bound figure by the guarding black.
For a moment he stood silent, considering, while Yussuf looked up with glistening-eyed intentness like an eager dog ready for the word of attack.
Then in hasty Turkish the general gave his directions and the black nodded and strode to a portière, jerking it down, which he wrapped about Ryder’s helpless form.
Then he hoisted his burden over his huge shoulder and bore it on after the general.
Across the great room they went and down the long stairs up which that day a most complacent Hamdi Bey had escorted his just-glimpsed bride.
Now at the bottom of the stairs a shadowy figure of a sleeping eunuch was stretched.
Hamdi Bey spoke sharply, giving a quick order. The black scrambled to his feet, yawned, nodded, and strode away into the main vestibule and out into the garden to investigate a shadow which the general had just reported, and when he was out of sight the general and Yussuf, with his unwieldy burden, came quietly down the stairs and turned back into a long, dark hall.
For a moment they paused outside a wide, many-columned banqueting room, and there Hamdi Bey stood listening, straining attentive ears for the faint sounds from the service quarters on the other side of the room. He caught the guttural of a half inaudible voice, and the wash of water and clink of a dish, showing that the belated work of the reception was going draggingly on, but it was all far away and invisible.
Satisfied he went on a few steps to a pointed door set in the heavy stone. From a nail he took down a lantern of heavy, fretted brass and lighted it, not without some difficulty, for his hands were still trembling. Then he took from the black a cumbersome key which he fitted into the lock and turned heavily.
Drawing back the door he motioned Yussuf ahead, and followed, drawing the door shut. Down a steep, stone spiral stair they went, and at the bottom, at the general’s order, the black set Ryder down from his shoulder and flung aside the portière.
From its muffling folds Ryder looked out bewilderedly into the darkness about him, illumined only by the yellow flare of the ancient lantern. The general cautioned him to silence while Yussuf knelt and untied the strip that bound his feet, then, his arms still bound, he was ordered to march on before them.
This, he said to himself, as he silently obeyed that order, this really was the time to pinch himself and wake up! Of all the dark, eerie nightmares! This slow procession through these underground halls, the giant black on his heels, the general’s lantern throwing its flickering rays over the huge, seamed blocks of granite foundations.
It made him think of the Catacombs. It made him think of the Serapeum. It made him think of those damp, tortuous underground ways of the Villa Bordoni....
They seemed to be in the wine cellars. He saw bins and barrels and barred vaults that would have done credit to an English squire, and he reflected fleetly that wine bibbing was forbidden to Mohammedans and that Hamdi Bey was a fanatic Moslem.... Then he saw open spaces of ancient stuffs, broken tables and dismantled caiques and a broken oar. His earlier observation of the palace had told him that it had a water gate and he thought now that they might be near some opening.
He wondered if they were going to throw him, pinioned, into the river. He wouldn’t put it past this livid, silent, shaking man–and yet the thing appeared so impossible, so theatric, so utterly unrelated to any of the ways that he, Jack Ryder, might be expected to end his days, that it couldn’t possibly send more than a shiver of speculation down his spine.
And yet men had been thrown into rivers–this very river. And men had disappeared from just such palaces as this. There was the story about young Monkton. He knew it perfectly; he had reminded himself of it the last evening while he reflected upon this escapade, but he had never actually appreciated the peculiar poignancy of the thing until now.
Monkton had met–so rumor reported–a Turkish lady of position, flirted with her, it was said, while on horseback outside her motor when caught in the crush at Kasr-el-Nil bridge. There had been a meeting or two in the back of shops, and then he had boasted, lightheartedly, of a design to take tea in her harem.
He had never boasted about the tea. No one had ever seen Monkton again and he was generally reported, after a stifled inquiry, to have been thrown from his horse in the desert, or spilled out of his sailing canoe.
The government, English or Egyptian, assumed no interest in the matter of gentlemen found in other gentlemen’s harems.
There were other stories, too. There was one of a little Viennese actress who after a dramatic escape reported a whole winter of captivity in one of these old palaces, and there was a vaguer rumor of a rash young American girl, detained for days....
Ryder had always known these stories. They were part of the gossip and thrill of Cairo. But he had never till now realized how exquisitely possible was their occurrence.
Anything, everything might happen in these hidden, secret chambers. These Turks were as much masters here as their old predecessors who had reared these stones. This black upon his heels might have been the grinning, faithful executioner of some Khedive or Caliph–he might have been the very Masrur, the Sworder of Vengeance of Al Raschid.
He told himself that it was no time to think of the past. His business–acutely–was the present. If only he could get his hands untied! If only he could get those untied hands upon that demoniac Turk!
But, strain as he could upon the knots, they held.
It seemed to him that they had been walking for an interminable distance, in odd, roundabout ways. Once they had stopped and he had involuntarily glanced back over his shoulder, but at a word from the general he had kept his head forward again, while he heard the black behind him gathering something that clinked. Later, a stolen glance had revealed the eunuch with some tools in one hand and bag slung over his shoulder.
The bag disquieted him. Bags filled a foreboding place in the Eastern literature of vengeance. He wondered if he were to go into the river in that bag, with the tools for weight.
He decided, feeling now a very odd and definite disturbance in the region of his stomach, that he would tell that general that he was a cousin of the late Lord Cromer and a nephew of Lord Kitchener. Something insistent would have to be done about this.
They were passing now through a strange, open space, between old arches that for an instant arrested his excavator’s interest. He saw in the shadows about them, a crumpled, crumbling dome and broken shafts, with half a wall of masonry pierced with Arabesques. Traces of old ruins, fragments of some old, forgotten mosque over which the palace had spread its foundations in bygone days.... Buried treasure, looted, some of it, for the palace overhead, but still rare and lovely.... That was a gleam of lapis lazuli that winked at him from the crumbling mortar under his feet.
Then they were between other walls, not crumbling ones, but the solid, pillared blocks of the palace masonry with here and there broad arches of old brick.
They stopped. Between two arches the general held his lantern high, flashing it over the surface while Yussuf swung down his sack and knocked with the handle of his tool.
Suddenly he stopped and looked at his master, nodding cheerfully. The general lowered his light and stepped back and Yussuf reared the pickaxe in his powerful arms and sent it dexterously at the wall, between two broken bits of brick.
It caught, and sent the mortar spraying; another blow and another loosened a hole in which the black inserted a short iron and began nervously grinding and prying.
Ryder, watching with oppressed and helpless fury, saw the bricks at last break and tumble faster and faster in a cloud of dust, and saw a pocket in the wall become revealed, a long, upright niche, the size, perhaps, of a man’s coffin, on end.
He tried, very suddenly, to talk. His tongue felt thick and swollen and there seemed no words in all the world to fit his need of overcoming this fanatic madman,–and after all, he had no chance for them, for Yussuf, with a huge palm upon his mouth, urged him suddenly backwards towards that horrible niche.
“Gently, Yussuf, gently,” said the general, suavely and with a slow distinctness that was for Ryder’s ears. “I gave my word that I would not hurt a hair of his head–”
Grinning, the black lifted him over the remaining wall, and set him down into the niche, leaving him standing in there like a helpless statue, tasting to the full fury of his heart the bitterness of his helplessness and the ludicrous impotence of all struggle.
“Good God, sir, you must be mad,” he said in a strained sharp voice that his ears would not have known as his own. “Do you realize–there will be an inquiry–there is such a thing as law–”
It seemed to him that he talked, in English and stammering Arabic, for a long time. The black was kneeling, out of sight, stooping over a basin of water and his abominable sack, and Ryder was facing that silent, sardonic face, with its fantastic mustache, its evil, gloating eyes....
He stopped for very shame. The man was mad. Mad and drunk–and there was no appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober.... Mad or drunk, he had devised his vengeance shrewdly.
Upon Ryder’s helpless body a cold sweat of incredulous horror broke softly out.
At his feet he heard the black beginning to fit his bricks and smooth his mortar.
“You do well to save your breath,” said Hamdi Bey at last, as Ryder still stood silent. “You will need it in this chamber I am providing.... But it may be,” he said thoughtfully, “that your breath will last your need. Thirst may be the more impatient for her victim; they tell me thirst is an obtrusive visitor. As you were, this evening.... Still, why do you not cry out a little? It will amuse my black.”
Yes, this was real, Ryder reminded himself. And these things could happen–had happened. He remembered suddenly the hideous scene, outside the dungeons, in “Francesca da Rimini,” when that bestial brother goes in to the helpless prisoners. He remembered the sick horror of those groans....
He remembered also various excursions of his in the Tower of London and the Seigniory of Florence, and the sight of old rings and stakes and racks and the feeling of their total unrelatedness to every actuality.
And yet they had happened. And this thing, for all its fantastic medieval horror, was happening. Brick by brick the imprisoning wall was rising. Brick by brick it intervened between him and sane, sensible, happy, normal life.
Eye for eye he gave the general back his look. He had always wondered about the poor devils in underground torture chambers. Had wondered how they had the stuff to hold out, against such odds, for some belief, some information.... Now he knew the stiffening stuff of a personal hate, upholding to the very grave....
That sardonic, devil’s face.... That face which was going back upstairs to Aimée.... But he must not think of that or he should give way and begin to babble, to plead.... He must simply stand and meet that glance....
And there came the incredible, insane moment when Ryder looked out on that face through one last breathing space, and then saw the fitted brick, settled into place, blot the world to darkness before his eyes.