The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
From the slackening grip of his astounded arms she stepped backward, still smiling faintly and holding up in admonishment the palm she had pressed against his mouth.
“But what–what the dev–” muttered Ryder.
She nodded mysteriously, and beckoned.
“Come,” she whispered, catching up her candle, and after holding it high for a moment, staring at him, she extinguished it suddenly, and turned to lead the cautious way across the stone spaces while Ryder closely followed.
Not Aimée, then. But some messenger, he could only suppose. Some confidante, at need. A handmaid? The whisper of her silks, the remembered gleam of jewels in the henna hair flouted that thought, and not troubling his ingenuity with alternatives he was content to follow her swift steps.
They were now in those open rubbishy spaces where he remembered the crumbling masonry and broken arches of old, disregarded mosques; now they were again enclosed in narrow stone walls, winding past cellars and store rooms.
The girl’s advance grew more cautious. Often she stopped and listened, peering ahead into the darkness, and now, as she took another turning, her care redoubled and Ryder needed no exhortation to imitate it. Obeying a gesture of her arm, he followed at a greater distance, prepared, at the warning of a sound, to flatten himself against the wall or dart into some cranny of retreat.
They were now in the cellars. The corridor was widening out before them with a pallid showing of light, crossed with many bars, at some far end.... They stole towards it. It was a window, or barred gate, he saw, and he heard again that lapping of restless water against stone.
He could see, too, in the dimness the curve of a stair near the gate.
Abruptly his guide checked him. Wary and noiseless he waited while she stole forward to those stairs, peering up into the gloom, attentive for any sound from above.... Apparently satisfied, she went on towards the barred gate, and bent down over a spot of darkness which Ryder had taken for a shadow.
He saw now that it had some semblance to a human outline.
Closely the girl bent and he caught the pallor of her hands, searching swiftly, and then a muffled clink.... Next moment, a wraith with soundless steps, she was back at his side again, urging him on with her. They passed the stairs; he felt the soft yield of carpet beneath his feet; they passed that recumbent figure and now he heard the rhythm of a sleeper’s heavy breath, escaping muffledly from the folds of a thick mantle which the sleeper’s habits had wrapped about his head. For all the mantle he was aware of the fumes of wine.
“I saw that Ja’afar had his drink,” said the girl suddenly in softly whispered Turkish, her head close to his. “He is my friend. I do not neglect him,” and under her breath she laughed, as she exhibited the great bunch of keys she had taken from the imbiber.
Stooping now before the gate she fitted the key into the lock. Then over her shoulder she looked up at the young man, and asked him a quick question.
He did not understand. That was the trouble with his vernacular. It would go on very well for a time, when he had a clue to the sense, or when it was a question of every day expression, but a sudden divergence, an unexpected word, was apt to prove a hopeless obstacle.
Now she repeated her question again, more slowly, and again he shook his head.
Now she stood up, frowning a little and began again in English, “You–no, I not know–This way? You do it?” A sudden smile broke over her face as she made a swift pushing gesture with her hands, that, with her pointing to the water outside, sent Ryder a sudden enlightenment.
“Swim? You mean–do I swim?”
She nodded. “Not go–” She made a swift downward movement of her hands and then pointed again to that water just outside the gate.
“Not go down–not sink?” interpreted Ryder. “No, indeed, I can swim,” he assured her, and revisited with smiling satisfaction she knelt again before the barred gate.
Open it swung with so sharp a crack that both glanced at the figure behind them, and then at the shadowy gloom of the stairs. But no alarm sounded. Outside the gate Ryder saw the darkness of fairly wide rippling waters, visited with floating stars, and beyond a low-lying, dun bank.
Escape was there. Freedom. Safety. He felt an exultant longing to plunge in and strike out, but he turned, questioningly, to the mysterious rescuer.
“Aimée?” he asked, under his breath. “Where is she?” He repeated it in the vernacular, distrusting her English, and in the vernacular she answered, “You want her? You want to take her away with you?”
She laughed softly at the quick flash in his eyes and hardly waited for his speech.
“Good–what a lover! You are not afraid?”
Mendaciously he assured her that he was not.
“Good!” she said again, with a showing of white teeth between her carmined lips. “You take her–you take her away from him. That is what I want. You understand?”
Very suddenly he understood.