The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
Alone in the gloom of that strange room, Aimée sat rigid. Listening. Not a sound, beyond the closed door, from the long drawing room. Not a sound, beyond the other door, from the room where the slave, Fatima, waited to assist in her disrobing.
Silence everywhere–save for a low lapping of water against the masonry beneath her windows.
The palace was on the river, then, or on some old backwater. She remembered glimpses of dark canals on her drive that morning–had it only been that morning? The sound of that soft, hidden water added to her feeling of isolation and remoteness from everything that had been her life before–she thought fleetingly, almost indifferently of her friends, Azima, who to-day had crowned her for happiness, and fond, foolish old Miriam and Madame de Coulevain and Tewfick Pasha, weakly cruel, but amiable; she thought of them all, as unreal figures from whom she had long taken leave.
The old life was over. It had died for her when she passed through the dark doorway and met that arrogant, sardonic, fatuous man, the master of this palace....
Or more truly that old life had died for her when she had flung a black mantle about her chiffon frock and a street veil across her sparkling face and had stolen, daring and breathless, into the lights and revelry of that hotel masquerade. There, when she had shrunk back from the Harlequin and had looked up to meet the kindling glance of that mask in tartans–yes, there, the old life had died for her forever if only she had known it.
And now–she would only like to die, too, she thought miserably, after she had been assured of Ryder’s safety. She was tense with fear for him, distrusting in every fiber the assurance of that fanatic, outraged Turk.
She was not utterly resourceless. When Ryder’s revolver had dropped to the floor she had maneuvered, unseen by Hamdi Bey, to get her train over it, and when she had stooped for her train her one free hand had closed over the revolver handle beneath the satin and lace.
Now the revolver lay on the divan, and very eagerly she drew it out, feeling it in the darkness, curling her finger about the trigger. Never in her life had she fired a shot, for her most formidable weapon had been the bows and arrows of the Children’s Archery Contest of the English Club, but she felt in herself now that highstrung tensity which at all cost would carry her on.
Carefully she bestowed the small, steel thing in the bosom of her dress, then she stared questioningly at the dress itself, hastily unpinning the veil, and tying the long train up to her girdle. Then, with a wary glance for the closed door behind which waited that Fatima she dreaded, she stole to the door the general had shut and pressed it softly ajar, peering out into the deserted throne room.
Like a great cave of darkness the room stretched before her, peopled with goblin shadows from the dying candles upon the disordered, abandoned table; she saw the chair pushed back where she had risen to struggle with the bey, the long folds of white cloth, sweeping the floor, behind which Hamdi had rolled so agilely; a stain was still spreading about an upset glass, and from the overturned cooler the ice water was dripping, dripping with a steady, sinister implication.
She thought of flight.... There was another black, the general had warned her, beyond the door, and there would be bars and bolts on any egress from the harem, but with the revolver in her possession some desperate escape might be achieved.
But Ryder.... No, the gun was for another purpose.... She would not squander it yet upon herself....
From the boudoir she moved slowly, carrying one of the gilt candelabra from the table to light the room. She would need light for her plan....
For ages, long, unending ages, she sat there, waiting.... A hundred times it seemed to her that she could stand no more, that she must make her way out at all costs, must discover what fate they were dealing to Ryder, but still she forced herself to sit there, her pulses racing, her heart sick with suspense, but desperately waiting....
She felt a sudden wave of weakness go through her at an advancing step from the next room. But her chin was up, her eyes fixed and desperate as the figure of the general appeared in her opening door.
“Ah, light! This is more cheerful, little one.”
She had risen, half moved towards him. “Is he safe?”
“The stranger? Safe as treasure–buried treasure, little one.”
The bey laughed, and that laughter and the glittering satisfaction of his eyes, filled her with foreboding although his next words came with smiling reassurance.
“Not a hair of his head is hurt, I give you my word.”
“But where is he–what have you done?”
“Shut him up, to be sure. Kept him as hostage for your sweet humility–a novel way to win a bride, oh, essence of shyness!”
Malevolently he smiled down at her and in the back of her frightened mind she realized that this man did well to be angry, that the affront to him had been immeasurable, and that many a Turk would have simply driven his dagger through the intruder’s heart–and her own, too.
But though she tried to tell herself that there was forbearance in him, she felt, instinctively, that there was deeper kindness in direct, thrusting fury than in this man’s sinister mockery.
She had sunk back upon the divan on the bey’s approach; now as he stood before her with that mask of a smile upon his face, drawing a silk handkerchief across a forehead she saw glistening in the candlelight, she leaned towards him again, her hands involuntarily clasping.
“Monsieur, I seem to have done you a great wrong,” she said tremblingly, “but it is not so great as you suppose. Will you listen to me? I–”
“Useless, useless.” He waved the handkerchief negligently at her. “I have had words enough. You are not the daughter of Tewfick Pasha–you are his step-daughter–your French family desires to capture you–I know the rigmarole by heart, you observe. And of course when a French family desires to obtain possession of a charming step-daughter, on the eve of her marriage, that family always employs a handsome young man to break into the bride’s chamber–and point a gun at the husband–”
His mustache lifted in a grimacing sneer.
“But it is true, and I am French,” she interposed swiftly.
“Excellent–I do not object in the least.” He shot his handkerchief up his cuff, and turned to her with eyes that lightly mocked the agonized appeal of the young face. “French blood is delightful–quicksilver and champagne. You will enliven me, I promise you.”
“But the marriage–it is not legal, monsieur,” she said desperately, summoning all her courage. “Tewfick Pasha has no right to give me to you–”
Indulgently he smiled down at her, then his narrowed eyes traveled slowly about the room.
“But this is a strange time–and place!–to talk of legalities. Do not distress yourself–your step-father is your guardian and your marriage will be as binding as the oaths of the prophet. Have no qualms.... And now, if your French blood will smile a little–”
He started to seat himself beside her, but in that instant she was on her feet. With all the courage in her beating heart she whipped out that revolver and pointed it at him.
“If you call–I shoot,” she said breathlessly.
The round mouth of the gun shook ever so slightly in the excited hand gripping it, but in the blazing look she turned on him was the unshaken, imperious passion of a woman swept absolutely beyond all fear.
Meeting that look Hamdi Bey stood extremely still and made no sound.
“There are plenty of shots–for you, at the first noise, and for the servants, if they come,” she went on in that fierce undertone, and then, passionately, “What did you do to him? Take me to him–at once!”
Irresolutely the man stood and looked up at her under his half-lowered lids. He was near enough for a spring–and yet if that excited finger should press.... The girl was capable of anything. She was possessed.... And men had died of such accidents before that....
“May I speak?” he murmured, in a tone scarcely audible, yet preserving somehow its flavor of sardonic amusement.
“Under your breath. One sound, remember–and I am a very good shot.”
“But what a wife,” he sighed. “All the talents–”
“I tell you that I will see him for myself. Take me to him, this moment–”
“Shall I give orders and have him brought here? He is quite safe, I assure you.”
“Orders? If you summon a servant I will shoot. No, lead the way, and I will follow you. And if you make one sound–one false move–”
Decidedly the girl was possessed. She stood there like a white image of war, her hand on that infernal automatic.... He hesitated, gnawed his mustache, then swung sullenly upon his heel.
Like some fantastic sculpture from an Amazonian triumph, they crossed the long drawing-room, the erect, gilt-braided general preceding, very slowly, the white-clad feminine creature, who held one hand extended, with something boring almost into his shoulder blades.
He did not lead her down the long stairs, past the guarding eunuch. He took, instead, an inner way through the late supper room which led down into the pillared hall of banquets. That way was safe of servants now; crossing the pillared hall there were no more sounds of late work from the service quarters beyond. Oblivious of the wild developments of that wedding reception, the tired servants, stuffed with the last pasty, warmed with the last surreptitious drop of wine, were asleep at last.
Outside the door in the stone wall the bey took down the lantern which so short a time before he had replaced upon its nail and lighted its still smoking wick. He had not restored the key to Yussuf, and he drew it now from his pocket and fitted it into the lock, drawing back the door.
“These stairs are steep,” he murmured. “I hardly like you to descend them unaided, but if you insist–”
“Go on,” she said imperiously.
Down he went, and after him she came, following the way he led her down the long stone underground ways.
“We have, of course, very pleasant stairs down to our water gate," he murmured apologetically, “but since you prefer this way–really not the way that I would have chosen to have you first explore your palace, madame! These, you perceive, are the cellars and old storerooms–”
“I do not want you to talk,” she said urgently.
“But you would not shoot me for it? Only for raising an alarm? And surely you cannot be unreasonable about a few words–you must be very careful, here, this doorway is low–”
It was not past the old ruined mosque, included in the palace’s underground world, that he was leading her, but down a narrow branching way, between walls so low that the general’s head was bowed in caution.
“This part of the palace is very old,” he murmured, over his shoulder. “An ancestor of mine, Sharyar the Wazir, raised these walls during the wars–for the dispensing of that sacred duty of hospitality which Allah enjoins upon the faithful. It is reported that he was host here to fifty of the enemy during their remaining lifetime–although they had the delicacy not to cumber him with overlong living. It is not, as I said, a pleasant place, but the walls are strong and so I selected a spot here–”
Here, somewhere, then, in these grim ruins, Ryder was penned, helpless and questioning the to-morrow. The girl trembled with excitement when she thought of his joy, his deliverance–and at her hands. For their escape she had no plans, only the decision to thrust the gun into his hands and follow him unquestioningly ... Perhaps they could leave the general in his place and he could wear the general’s uniform for disguise....
Everything was possible now that she was nearing him and his safety was at hand. She thrilled with a reanimating excitement that flew its scarlet banners in her cheeks ... Only a few steps now....
“Go on,” she said breathlessly.
The bey had stopped and now flashed his lantern over a low, timbered door, studded with ancient nail heads in a design whose artistry did not arrest her. From a peg beside it he took down a key of brass, fitted it to the lock and turned it with a deliberation maddening to her tense nerves.
Her heart was beating as if it would burst its bounds. Only a moment or two–
He had trouble with that door. It took his shoulder; at last he set it swinging inward slowly on its creaking hinges. Then he stepped back and with a wave of his hand invited her to enter.
“Not a chamber of luxury, you understand, but substantial, as you will see–”
“Go first,” she ordered.
He laughed. “Ever distrustful, little thorn-of-the-rose! Follow, then,” and he stepped within, into the darkness, which his failing lantern but little illumined, calling out in a louder tone in his halting English, “A visitor, my friend. A tourist of the subterranean.”
She had followed him to the threshold, seeing nothing in the blackness but the seamed blocks of stone within the lantern’s rays, afraid always to turn her eyes from him or her hand from its outstretched pointing.
He said very quickly to her in Turkish, “If you will wait by the door. The floor is bad and there is another lantern, here on the wall–”
At her left he fumbled along the stone wall. She heard him mutter ... and then reach.... And then–she did not know what was happening. For the very ground on which she stood, the solid block of stone began to slip swiftly beneath her feet–she staggered–and felt herself falling, falling, into some precipitately opened abyss....
She gave a wild scream, flinging out her arms in terror, and then cold waters closed above her, and the scream ended in a gurgling cry.
It was no great distance that she fell. What the dropped stone had revealed, answering the signal of the old lever in the wall that the general had pressed, was a stone well, narrow, deep, implanted there by some ingenious lord of the palace in by-gone days, for the subtle elimination of friend or foe or rival.
But it was not part of Hamdi’s plan to leave the young girl there and close the obliterating stone. Scarcely had the waters met above her head than he was flinging down a rope ladder whose upper ends were fastened to rings in the floor and descending this with swift agility until the waters reached his waist.
Then he leaned out and clutched the floating satin bubbling and ballooning yet unsubmerged above the stagnant depths and drew it towards him. As the struggling girl came gasping within his reach, he carried her panting up the ladder again, and laid her down in the darkness, while he drew up the ladder and closed the stone by pressing that hidden lever.
But the stone which had dropped so swiftly, was slow and heavy in slipping back in place, and when he turned again to Aimée, she had ceased her choking cough and was sitting up, thrusting back the dripping hair from her black eyes, staring bewilderedly about the gloom as murky as any genie’s cave.
The lantern light was almost out. In its expiring gleams she saw no more inky water, but only the damp, moss-grown stones, on which a pool was widening from her wet garments, and the half-defined figure of the general stooping over to squeeze the streams from his own wet clothes.
The nightmarish horror of it overwhelmed her. For a moment she could have screamed with horror, and then she felt a cold and terrible despair lay its paralyzing hand upon her heart.
Somewhere, she felt, beneath those secret stones lay Ryder, drowned ... And she was living, in her helplessness ... No revolver now. That was gone ... in the water, perhaps....
There was no resource, now, no refuge.... Strength went out of her, and passive in a dream of evil darkness she felt herself being hurried, stumblingly, back through the secret corridors and the dark halls.