The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
There was no measure of time for Ryder in that walled coffin of death. The seconds seemed hours, the minutes ages.
He drew quick, short breaths as if economizing the air that was so soon to fail him; he tugged at his bonds till the veins rose on his forehead, but the silk held and the confines of the prison permitted him no room for struggle; then he leaned forward, to press with all his might upon the bricks before him; he grunted, he sweated with the agony of his exertions, but not a brick was stirred, not a crack was made in the mortar that gripped them tighter every instant.
He died a thousand deaths in the horror that invaded him then. Already he felt strangling, and the painful pumping of his heart seemed the beginning of the end.
Cold sweat stood out all over him; it ran down his face in trickling streams and his body was drenched with that clammy dew of fear.
He tried to count the minutes, the hours, to estimate how long he would hold out....
And then he heard his own voice saying very distinctly and clearly and dispassionately, “This thing is absurd.”
It was absurd. It was idiotic. It was utterly irrational. It was an impossible end for an able-bodied young American, an excavator of no mean attainments, a young scholar and explorer of twentieth century science, a sane, modern, harmless young man, to die immured in the ancient walls of a Turkish palace–because he had invaded a marriage reception and intervened between man and wife.
Violent death in any form must always appear absurd to the young and energetic. And the fantastic horror of his death removed it definitely from any realm of possibility. The thing simply could not happen.... He thought of the amazement and the incredulity of his friends....
Dangers in plenty they had warned him against, to his youthful amusement–sand storms and chills and raw fruit and unboiled waters, but they had not warned him against veiled women and the resentments of outraged lords and masters.
He thought of his mother’s consternation and dismay. He thought of his father’s stern amazement.... What an awful jolt it would give them, he reflected, with an irrational tickling of young humor.
But no, it would not. They would never know. Not a word of this fate would percolate into the world without. Not a comment upon his true end would enliven the daily columns of the East Middleton Monitor. Never would it regret the tragic and romantic interment of a young native son of talent, buried alive by a revengeful general of the Sultan....
He amused himself by writing the paragraph that would never be written. Then he told himself that he was lightheaded and hysterical and that he had better wonder what would actually be written. What explanation would be found?
A desert storm perhaps, or some accident. McLean would poke about–but for all McLean knew he might be on his way back to camp that very moment. And sometimes he went by sailing canoe, and a rented horse, and sometimes by the accredited steamer and a camel, and sometimes by tram or train to the nearest station. Even McLean’s mind and McLean’s Copts wouldn’t make much of all the alternatives that his unsettled habits had afforded.
Was there any possibility of his being traced, of any rescue reaching him? He thought hard and long upon his last free moments. Jinny Jeffries knew that he was in the palace, and Jinny had been reiteratedly warned about the danger of betraying that knowledge. It would take some little time for alarm before Jinny said anything. And it would take a little time for Jinny to begin to worry.
He had not been so instant in attendance upon Jinny of late, for all their residence in the same hotel, that she would suspect that his absence of twenty-four hours was due to actual incarceration.
His cursed passion for freedom in which to ramble up and down that deserted lane without Tewfick Pasha’s garden! His inane love of solitary mooning....
No, Jinny would not soon wonder about him. She had not expected to see him that evening, anyway–he had muttered something to her about a man and an engagement.
She would rather look to see him the next day and talk about their adventure.... But still she would feel no more than pique at his absence; positive worry would not develop until later.
Besides, all the revelations that Jinny could make would do no good. Jinny could only report that he had maintained a disguise at a wedding reception, and talked a few moments, apparently undetected, to a bride. Hamdi Bey, and Hamdi’s eunuchs, would be blandly ignorant of such a scandal. What his disappearance would indicate would be some further frolic on his part, some tempting of a later Providence before he had abandoned his disguise.... If he were discovered, for instance, in some of those native quarters, behind a woman’s veil....
Decidedly the only effect of Jinny’s revelations would be an unsavory cloud upon his character.
There was no hope to be looked for.
And yet he could not believe it. There were moments when the black terror mastered him, but involuntarily his young strength shook it off. He could not believe in its reality. He could not believe that he was actually here, bricked and bound, in this infernal coffin....
But, indisputably, the evidence was in favor of belief.... Only to believe was to feel again that horror....
He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter. One had to die some time. Everybody did. One might as well go out young and strong and still interested in life.
But that was remarkably cold comfort. He didn’t want to go out at all. He didn’t want to die, not for fifty or sixty years yet, and of all the ways of dying, he wanted least to smother and choke and stifle like a rat walled in its hole in the wall.
He recalled, with peculiar pain, a woodchuck that he had penned up as a boy, and he hoped with extraordinary passion that the poor beast had made another hole. Never again, he resolved, would he pen up a living creature, never again, if only again he could see the light of day and breathe the free air....
He thought of Aimée. And when he thought of her his heart seemed to turn to water. Useless to repeat to himself now those old reminders that he had seen her so little, known her so slightly. Useless to measure that strange feeling that drew him by any artifice of time and acquaintance.
She was Aimée. She was enchantment and delight. She was appeal and tenderness. She was blind longing and mystery. She was beauty and desire....
Even to think of her now, in the infernal horror of this cramping grave, was to feel his heart quicken and his blood grow hot in a helpless passion of dread and fear. She was alone, there, helpless, with that madman.
He tried to tell himself that she was not wholly helpless, that she had wit and spirit and courage, and that somehow she would manage to quell the storm; she might persuade Hamdi to their story, make him remember that this was the twentieth century wherein one does not go about immuring inconvenient trespassers as in the earlier years of the Mad Khedive–years which had probably formed the general’s impulses–but in telling himself this there was no comfort for the thought of the price that Aimée would have to pay.
It was pleasanter to pretend that Hamdi was really only joking, in a shockingly exaggerated, practical way, and that presently, when the suitable time had elapsed, he would present himself, smiling, to end the ghastly, antiquated jest.
For some time he continued to tell himself that.
And then suddenly he told himself that the time for intervention had surely come. It was very hard to breathe.
The next minute he was assuring himself that this was merely some devil’s trick of his apprehensive imagination. There must be a great deal of air left.... But he was distressingly ignorant of the contents of air, and his calculations were lamentably unsupported by any sound basis of fact.
Mistake, not to have gone in for chemistry and physics. A chap who’d done time in those subjects wouldn’t now be rocking with suspense; he’d comfortably and satisfactorily know just how many hours, minutes and seconds were allotted before his finish and he could think his thoughts accordingly.
Undoubtedly, so he insisted to himself, there was air enough here to last him till morning. This gasping stuff was all imagination. He wanted to keep cool and quiet. But for all his reassurance there was something a little queer with his lungs, and his heart was lurching sickeningly in his side, like a runaway ship’s engine.
And then he heard his own voice repeating very tonelessly, “O God, O God,” and the horror of it all came blackly over him and a feeling of profound and awful sickness....
It was a sound. The faintest scraping and knocking without that wall. It went through him like an electric current.... And then a roar burst from him that fairly split his ears, the reaction of his quivered nerves and racking fears of his uncertainties, his tightening terrors.
But now–nothing. He could not hear a thing. A delusion? A torture of his final hours?... No, it came again. More definitely now, a little grinding and scraping.
Faster and faster, a muffled, driving thud.
A jubilant reassurance sang gayly through him. He had expected this–this was what he had predicted. Hamdi was no foul friend. He was a devilish uncomfortable customer with antiquated notions of revenge, but now he had shot his wad and was going to undo his tricks.
Ryder braced himself to present a carefree jauntiness–an air somewhat difficult to assume when one is trussed like a spitted bird, in a hot coffin space, with hair falling dankly over a steaming brow, with a collar like a string, and an indescribable pallor beneath the bronze of one’s face.
Something stirred. One end of a brick was driven in against his chest. Then he felt the blind working of some tool that caught it and worried it free.
It seemed to him that through that dark aperture a current of cold, delicious air came rushing in about him. The blows sounded against the adjoining bricks and he thought of the glorious joy of seeing out again, feeling that he would welcome even the sight of Hamdi’s blond mustache and the eunuch’s hideous grin.
Now the aperture admitted a pale gleam upon his chest. Staring steadily down he caught a glimpse of the fingers curving about a brick, and his heart that had steadied, began to race again wildly. For they were not the fingers of the black nor yet the wiry joints of the general.
They were soft, white fingers, with a gleam of rings.
Aimée! Somehow, somewhere, she had managed to come to him, to achieve this rescue....
“Aimée!” He breathed the name.
“S-sh!” came a warning little whisper, and impatiently he waited until that opening should be greater and permit of sight and speech.
His helplessness was maddening. If only he could raise his hands, could get those bonds off! He twisted, he writhed, he tried to lift his elbows and get his wrists in reach of the opening, but the coffin was too diabolically cramped for movement until the hole was very much larger. Then with a convulsive pressure he swung his wrists within reach and after a moment’s wait he felt a thin blade drawn across the silk.
The relief was glorious. He swung his hands free, rubbing the chafed wrists, then thrust an opened hand out into the opening, and with instant comprehension a short, pointed bit of iron was put within it.
Now he could do something! With furious strength he attacked the bricks edging the hole and as he pried free each brick he could again get a glimpse of those white delicate fingers lifting it carefully away.
And now the hole was large enough. He twisted about and thrust out a leg, and then, with a feeling of ecstasy which made the official literary raptures of saints and conquerors but pale, dim moods, he wormed his way out of that jagged hole and turned, erect and free, to the shrouded figure of his rescuer.
She had drawn back a little against the wall, a gauzy veil across her face. Beside her, upon the stone floor, a solitary candle sent its flickering rays into the shadows, edging with light her slender outlines.
Ryder took one quick step to her, his heart in his throat, and put out eager arms. But in the very moment that he was gathering her to him, even when he felt her pliant body, at first resistant, then softly yielding, swept against his own, he felt, too, a little palm suddenly upon his mouth.
“Hsh!” said the soft, whispering voice, cutting into his low murmur of “Aimée!” and then, in slow emphatic caution, “Be–careful!”
He had need of that caution. For under the saffron veil was not the face of Aimée. He was clasping a young creature that he had never seen before, a girl with flaming henna hair and kohl darkened brows, a vivid blazoning face that smiled enigmatically with a certain mockery of delight at the amazement he reflected so unguardedly.