The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
AZIZA IS OFFENDED
This was no emissary from Aimée. This was no philanthropic bystander. It was some girl of the palace, jealous and daring, conspiring shrewdly for the removal of her rival.
“Take her away,” she was saying urgently. “Out of this palace. We want no brides here.” Lowering and sullen, she turned bitter on the word.
“To-night, I was watching,” she went on swiftly. “I heard–the noise–and then the whispering.... The darkness has ears and eyes–and a tongue. And so I waited out there....”
He could not distinguish all the quick flow of her speech, but he caught enough to understand how she had lurked in the halls, jealously spying, defying the eunuchs’ authority, and how she had caught with passionate delight that stifled alarm of scandal. Later, hanging over some banister, she had seen the Ethiopian pass with his burden and had stolen down afterwards, stalking like a cat, and had discovered the lantern gone, the door unlocked.... And then she had watched until the pair emerged without the burden.
She had not been able to get hold of the key to the door. But she had resolved to explore and so she had furnished the waterman with his wine, drugged, Ryder gathered, and so stolen past him on the other route to those underground foundations to which her suspicions had been directed by the mortar and dust upon Yussuf.
Evidently she knew the possibilities of the place and the mind of its master. And when she found the old niche freshly bricked and the mortar at hand she had not needed more to assure her that here was the burial place of her rival’s lover.
Now, for the boon of his life, he was to relieve her of that rival. Or try to.
“For once–he might not kill her,” she whispered, “but if again–" Her eyes glowed like a cat’s in the dark. “Take her away. Make her name a spitting and a disgrace.... Her memory a shame and a sting.... Is she beautiful?” she broke off to demand. “They say–but slaves lie–”
“Can you believe a lover?” he said whimsically for all his impatience. “She is a pearl–a rose–a crescent moon–”
“They say she is very pale and thin–”
“She is an Houri from Paradise,” he said distinctly. “And now, in the name of Allah, let me get to her. Tell me the way–”
“Will she go gladly with you?” the low, insistent voice went on, and at his quick nod, “Holy Prophet, what a bride!”
She clapped her two ringed hands to smother the impish joy of her laugh. “A warning to those who can be warned–he will not be so eager for another stripe from that same stick!–It was his cousin, Seniha Hanum–Satan devour her!–who made this marriage. Always she hated me.... But now I will tell you how to get to her. Look out, with me.”
Kneeling at the gate, over the dark flow of the water, she drew him down beside her, and thrusting out her veiled head, she pointed upward and to the right to a jutting balcony of mashrubiyeh, where a pale light showed through the fretwork.
“There–you see? That is my room. And if you climb up, I can let you in.... There... Up,” she repeated in English, resolved to make certain.
“I see. I can get there,” he assured her, measuring with his eye the dim distance.
“At once,” she said. “I will be there. I cannot take you with me through the upper hall–it is dangerous even for me to be caught. But no eunuch wants my displeasure.”
He could believe it, watching the subtle, malicious daring of her face. Even in the gloom he caught the steady-lidded arrogance of her kohl-darkened eyes and the bold insolence of a high cheek bone. She had a hint of gypsy....
“And you can get me in? You’re a wonder!” he whispered. “I can’t thank you enough–”
“Rid me of her,” said the girl swiftly. “But not–not him. You must swear–what is it that Christians swear by?” she broke off to demand. “By the grave of your father? Yes? You will swear not to hurt him, to hurt Hamdi, by the grave of your father? Yes?”
Ryder nodded quickly. His father, to be sure, was in no grave at all. He was, allowing hastily for the difference in time, in his treasurer’s cage at the bank in East Middleton, but he did not wait to explain this to the girl.
“I swear it,” he repeated. “I won’t hurt your Hamdi, since that’s your condition. But we’re wasting time–”
“Up, then. And if you fall down–do like this.”
Smiling mischievously, she made the gesture of swimming. “Allah go with thee–and with me also,” he heard her murmur, as he stepped out to the ledge of the entrance, twisted himself agilely about and climbing up the opened gate swung himself up to the stone carving overhead.
Below him, he heard the gate swing shut. He did not hear her lock it. Fervently he hoped she had not, since it was a possible exit for any one in a hurry, but at any rate, he need not worry about a way out of the place until he had got into it again.
And the getting in was not any too simple. It was work for a mountain goat, he reflected, after a short interval devoted to tentative reaches and balancing and digging in of hands and feet. The distances were far greater than the first-glimpsed, foreshortened perspective had allowed him to guess, and there was only the starlight to illumine the gray face of the palace.
He had no idea of the time. Somewhere about the middle of the night or early morning, he judged vaguely by the stars, although it seemed impossible that so few hours had passed.
The river was all silence and darkness. No nuggars with their sleeping crews were moored below. He seemed the only living, breathing thing clambering across the face of time and space.
Gingerly he kicked off the nondescript black shoes he had worn with his disguise that afternoon and essayed a perilous toehold while he reached for the interstices of a mashrubiyeh window just overhead.
Once gripping the rounds he pulled himself up, reflecting that it was well it was night and that no lady was sitting within her shelter to be affrighted at this intrusion of fingers and toes.
From the jutting top of this projection he surveyed his further field of operation. The window with a light was two stories higher yet and to the right. There were two other windows with lights on the second story, very much farther along, and he wondered painfully if these were the rooms of Aimée.
That boudoir in which he had hidden through the end of the long reception had been upon the water. And there had been a door into an adjoining room, for he had seen a sallow-faced attendant passing in and out.
A wild longing seized him to crawl on and over into those windows. But it was a difficult, almost an impossible distance, and even when there he would be like a fly on the outside of a pane with no way of getting in.
The unknown girl had promised him a way through her window and he had confidence in her ingenuity and daring.
So he went on, worming cautiously along old gutters and ledges and jutting balconies until at last he was clasping the lower grill of that mashrubiyeh from which her light gleamed.
Instantly the light went out.
“Wait!” he heard her voice say sharply over his head. She was standing by the window fumbling with the woodwork, and in a moment he heard the click of a knob and then, just opposite his head, the screening grill slipped aside and an aperture appeared.
“Quick!” admonished the voice, and quickly indeed he drew himself up and in, reflecting whimsically as he did so that this girl had first helped him out of a hole and then into one.
The next moment she had moved the grill into place and lifted the cover she had placed over her triplet of candles on a stand.
Triumphant, her eyes dancing, her teeth a gleam of light between those scarlet lips of hers, she looked at him for the admiration she saw twinkling back at her in his eyes.
“But not me–no!” she protested, her supple hands gesturing towards the magic casement. “I found it here. It is very old–you understand? Some other, long ago, found time dull and so–”
Delightedly she shared the flavor of that secret of the vagabond lady of long ago who had devised this cunning entrance for her lover.
On some dark night like this, with the gatekeeper drowsy with old wine, some other stripling had climbed that worn façade before him and slipped through the secret space and stood triumphantly before some daring, laughing girl who had cast aside for him her veil and her fear of death.
What ingenuity, Ryder wondered fleetly, had smuggled in the carpenter for the contrivance, what jewels had gone to the bribing, what lies had been told!... And what had been the end of it all?
Evidently not the discovery of the opening....
He hoped, with singular intensity, for the safety of the daring young lovers, that unknown youth whose feet had foreworn the path for his feet and that dead and gone young girl, who had dared anything rather than endure the mortal ennui of those hours behind the veil....
These thoughts all went through him like one thought as he stood there, his eyes roving about the dim, shadowy room of old divans and Eastern hangings, and then turning back to the glimmering figure of its mistress.
She was staring frankly at him, her eyes boldly curious and examining. They were not dark eyes, he saw now; that had been the impression given by the kohl about them and the black line of the brows penciled into one line; they were yellow eyes, golden and glowing, scornful and lazy-lidded.
As she looked at him, these eyes smiled slowly. She was seeing in this lover of her rival a singularly delightful looking young man, for all his dust and disarray, a slender, bronzed, hardy-looking young man, with dark, disordered hair straying across a white brow, and audacious, eager eyes in which the fear of death, so lately glimpsed, had left no daunting refection.
Slowly she lifted her hand and with deliberate softness put back that straying hair of his.
“Poor boy,” she said slowly in English, and then, smiling ruefully, she held out her hands for his inspection. The grime of the bricks had discolored their scented delicacy and he saw bruised finger tips and a torn nail.
“I’m infernally sorry,” he said quickly.
Her smile deepened at his look of concern, as he held, a little helplessly, the witnesses of her work of rescue which seemed somehow to stray into his keeping.
“It is nothing–but you–poor boy,” she said again, in that English of which she seemed naïvely proud.
“If you could give me some water,” he suggested, and drank deep with delight the last drop she brought him from an earthen jar. It seemed to wash from his throat the taste of that dust and fear.
“I can’t begin to thank you,” he murmured. “I only wish that I could do something for you–”
She looked up at him. They were standing close together, their voices cautiously low.
“Perhaps, yes, you can–”
“It’s not doing anything for you to save Aimée,” he told her. “That’s what you are doing for her and for me.... But if ever you want me for anything after this–my name is Ryder, Jack Ryder, and you can reach me at the Agricultural Bank.”
He had a vague vision of some day repaying his enormous debt by assisting this girl, grown tired of her Hamdi, out of this aperture and into a waiting boat. He would do it like a shot, he told himself gladly; he would do anything on God’s green earth if only she helped him get Aimée away from that infernal villain.
“Jack,” she repeated, under her breath, and then in her slow English, “I like–Jack.”
“Don’t forget it. I’ll always come and do anything for you. And if you’ll tell me your name–”
“Aziza. I’ll never forget that. And now, if you’ll tell me how I can get to her and then the best way out–”
“Why you so hurry–”
“Why?” he looked a little blank. “I can’t lose a minute–he may be with her–”
She came a little nearer to him, her head tilting back with a slow, indolent challenge.
Gone was the silken mantle that had been about her below stairs and he saw now that she was a vivid, exotic shimmer of gauzy green against the saffron veil that fell from her henna hair. There was barbaric beauty in her, in the bold, painted face, the bare, gold-banded arms, the slender, sinuous lines, and there was barbaric splendor in the heavy jewels that winked and flashed....
It struck Ryder that she was gotten up regardless.... In pride, perhaps, on her rival’s wedding night?... Or had there been some defiant, desperate design upon Hamdi–?
She did not miss that sudden prolonging of his look upon her.
“You like me–yes?” she murmured, and then slipping back into the vernacular, “I–I am not the stupid veiled girl of the seclusion–not forever. I come from the west, the deserts. I have seen the world: Men–men, I know ... I danced before them, not the dances of the Cairene cafés,” she uttered with swift scorn, “but the dance of the two swords, the dance of the serpents.... Men threw the gold from their turbans about my feet when I had danced to them ... And others, English, French–”
She broke off, but her eyes told many things. “Then–Hamdi,” she said slowly. “Him I ruled–and his palace.... But I have known other things.”
Closer yet she came to him. Her eyes, golden fires of eyes, were smiling up into his, her scarlet lips gathered in soft, sensual curves ... her whole silken scented body seemed to slip into his embrace. A bare arm touched his neck, resting heavily.
“Sweet–heart,” she said slowly, in her difficult English.
It was the deuce of a position.
No man can rudely snatch from his neck the arm of the lady who has just saved him from a harrowing death. And a lady who was risking more than her life in sheltering him–decidedly the situation was delicate.
It was not the lady’s fault that her impetuosity, the impetuosity which had been his salvation, now plunged her into amorous caprice. There were obvious handicaps, moral, social and ethical, in her upbringing. She was a child of nature, a nature undisciplined, unruly, tempestuous.
And even queening over Hamdi and his palace must have offered little diversion to a wild dancing girl familiar with the excitement of more varied conquest.
Ryder was horribly embarrassed. He was visited with a fearful constraint, a chivalrous wish not to hurt her feelings, and a sharp prevision of the danger of offending her.
He took the first turn of least resistance.
He did not need to bend his head; their eyes were on a level. He simply kissed her. And she kissed him back.
He hated himself for the leap of his blood... and for the Puritanical discomfort of his nature....
Her arm about his neck was pressing closer. It was the moment for action and Ryder acted. Very firmly he put his hand upon her hand, withdrew it from its clasp about him, and raised it to his lips.
His kiss was respectful gratitude and an abdication of the delights of dalliance.
“Good-bye, my dear,” he murmured. “Now, if you will show me the way out–”
Her eyes agleam between half-closed lids, she studied him. It occurred to Ryder that probably never before had her hands been detached–and kissed–and put away. He must be a phenomenon, an enigma.
Then her lips parted in a faintly scornful smile.
“You afraid–you? You want–run?”
“I’m horribly afraid,” he said earnestly. “I want to get out of here as quick as I can.”
That was putting, he considered, the very wisest construction upon it.
Negligently her gesture reminded him of the opening in the window. “Here you are safe.” she murmured in the vernacular. “And the doors are locked–”
“Yes, but–but Aimée isn’t safe, you know–and I must get her out of here.”
“Aimée?” In those yellow eyes he caught the flash of capricious resentment at the reminder. Then, indifferently, she brushed the distraction away.
“There is time enough for Aimée. She is not lonely now.”
“Not lonely?” he shivered at the cold carelessness of her tone. “I must get to her quickly then.”
“But that is not safe.... A little–later.”
Uncomfortably he tried to infuse his glance with innate innocence and utter lack of understanding.
“I shan’t hurt him–if I have the chance,” he told her. “I’ve given you my word–”
“And I trust you–much.” Her gaze sought his in a trifle of impatience at such simplicity. “But it is not safe for you now.... Later ... By and by.”
“You don’t want him to have a chance to make love to her, do you?" said Ryder sharply. “I thought that was the very thing you didn’t–”
Her smile was a subtle, confessing caress. “I shall have my revenge,” she murmured, and pressed closer to him again, every sensuous, sumptuous line of her a challenge and an enticement.
“I give you life,” she whispered, very low in her throat. “You give me, perhaps, an hour–?”
“I haven’t an hour,” said Ryder very desperately and unhappily. “Not when Aimée is with that devil–”
It took every thought of Aimée to get the words out.
He felt a brute about it, a low, ungrateful dog. She had given him life and every fiber in him clamored to save her pride and champion her caprice.
It seemed so dastardly to wrench away from her now, like some self-centered Joseph, leaving that beastly stab in her vanity.... And she was a stunning creature, lawless, elemental, hot and cold like the seventh wind of the inferno....
But it was Aimée who was in his blood like a fever.... Aimée, that frail white rose of a girl, in her bonds of terror....
He saw the flame in Aziza’s eyes. He saw the stiffening of her defiance, of half-incredulous affront. Then, her form drawn up, her bared arms outflung, her vivid, painted, furious face challenging him. “I am not beautiful–like Aimée?” she said in a voice of venom, and in the English, for double measure, “You not like me–no?”
“You are beautiful and I do like you,” Ryder combated, feeling a bungling fool. And then went on to thrust into that half-second of suspended fury, a faint breath of appeasing. “But–don’t you see–it’s my duty–”
“You go–?” she said clearly.
Even in that moment he had a sharp prescience of the unwisdom of his rejection. A cold calculator of chance and probabilities would have reckoned that a half hour of assuagement here would have been a wiser investment of his mortal moments than any virtuous plunge into single-hearted duty.
But Ryder did not calculate. He could not, with Aimée under that beast’s hand. His heart and soul were possessed with her danger and his heart and soul carried his body instinctively back from the dancing girl’s advance, and he whispered, “I must go. There is no time–”
She flung back her fiery-hued head with a gesture of intolerable rage. Her eyes were lightnings.
“Dog of a Christian!” she said chokingly and flew to the doors.
Back she thrust the heavy hangings, turning a quick key in the lock and wrenching the door wide. And before Ryder could understand, before he could bring himself to realize that she was not simply violently expelling him from her room, she gave a shriek that rang wildly down the long-unseen corridors.
At the top of her lungs, with one hand out to thrust him back or cling to him if he attempted to pass, she shrieked again and again.
Instantly there came a running of feet.