The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
When Hamdi Bey had taken Aimée back to her apartments he pulled sharply upon a bellcord. In a few moments the slave woman, Fatima, made her appearance, no kindly-eyed old crone like Miriam, but a sallow, furtive-faced creature, with an old disfiguring scar across a cheek.
The general pointed to the wet and fainting girl huddling weakly upon the divan.
“Your new mistress has met with an accident, out boating–a curse upon me for gratifying forbidden caprice!” he said crisply. “Be silent of this and array her quickly in garments of rest. I will return.”
Very hurriedly he took himself and his own wet condition away. He was furious, through and through. What a night–what a wedding night! Scandal and frustration... a bride with a desperate lover... a bride who, herself, drew revolvers and threatened.
It was beyond any old tale of the palace. For less, girls had had his father’s dagger driven through their hearts–his grandfather, at a mere whisper from a eunuch, had given his favorite to the lion. The whisper was found incorrect at a later–too late–date, and the eunuch had furnished the lion another meal.
His modern leniency in this case would have outraged his ancestors.
But it was not in the bey’s nature to deal the finishing stroke to anything so soft and lovely as Aimée. He had no intention of depriving himself of her. If she were red with guilt he would feign belief in her, to save his face until his infatuation was gratified.
But actually he did not believe in any great guilt of hers. Tewfick Pasha, for all his indulgent modernity, would keep too strict a harem for that. What he rather believed, had happened was that the young American–now so happily immured in his masonry–had become aware of the girl through the story of her French father, and in that connection had struck up the clandestine and romantic correspondence which had led to their mutual infatuation and his desperate venture there that afternoon.
The young man had been dealt with–and the thought of the very summary and competent way he had been dealt with drew the fangs from the bite of that night’s invasion.
His fury felt soothingly glutted.
He had been a match for them both. He recalled his own subtlety and agility with a genuine smile as he exchanged his dripping uniform for more informal trousers and a house coat. He had taught that young man a lesson–a final and ultimate lesson. And he was beginning to teach one to that girl. Before he was done with her ...
He felt for her a mingled passion for her beauty and a lust for conquest of her resistant spirit that fed every base and cruel instinct of his nature.
A find–a rare find–even with her circumvented lover! He would have his sport with her.... But though he promised this to himself with feline relish, apprehension and chagrin were still working.
The fond fatuity with which he had welcomed that starry-eyed little creature had been rudely overthrown. And his pride smarted at the idea of the whispers that might echo and re-echo through his palace. He was too wise an old hand to flatter himself that it would preserve its bland and silent unawareness of this night.
So far, he believed, he had been unobserved. In Yussuf’s silence he had absolute confidence.... But of course there were a hundred other chances–some spying, back-stairs eye, some curious, straining ear....
And for this matter of the boating mishap–he cursed himself now, as he combed up his fair mustaches and settled a scarlet fez upon his thinned thatch of graying hair, cursed himself roundly for his malicious resort to that old oubliette. Anything else would have done to frighten and overwhelm her and yet he had gratified his dramatic itch–and now had paid for it with that idiotic story of the boating expedition.
He had reason to trust Fatima–there was history behind the old sword scar upon her cheek, and he had a hold over her through her ambition for a son. But Fatima was a woman. And she–or some other who would see that drenched satin would be curious of that boating story....
And of course they could find out from the boatman.
It occurred to him to go and see the boatman and order him away so that afterward the man could say he had been sent off duty, and the story of a nocturnal river trip would not appear too incredible. It was a small concession to stop gossip’s mouth.
So drawing on a swinging military cloak, the general stole down through the stair of the water entrance into the lower hall, where the pale light gleamed through the cross-barred iron of the gate and the gatekeeper slept like a log in his muffling cloak.
The soundness of that slumber–loudly attested by the fumes of wine–afforded the general a profound pleasure. He took the man’s keys softly, and went to the gate; it afforded him less pleasure to observe that the gate was unlocked, but he put this down to the keeper’s muddleheadedness.
Carefully he turned the lock and pocketed the keys–for a lesson to the man’s overdeep sleep in the morning and to attest his own presence there that night; then he went back and brought out an oar, which he placed conspicuously beside the smallest boat, drawn up just within the gates.
He was afraid to alter the boat’s position lest the noise should prove too wakening, but he considered he had laid an artistic foundation for his story and with a gratifying sense of triumph he mounted the stairs.
He was not conscious of fatigue. He had always been a wiry, indefatigable person, and the alarms and emotions of this night had cleared his head of its wines and drowsiness. He felt the sense of tense, highstrung power which came to him in war, in fighting, in any element of danger.
Youth! He snapped his fingers at it. Youth was buried in his masonry–and helpless in its shuttered room. Power was master–power, craft, subtlety.
But his elation ebbed as he crossed again that long drawing room with its faded flowers about the marriage throne, and its abandoned table with its cloth askew, its crystal disarrayed, its candles gutted and spent.
The memory of that insolent moment when a man’s hand had gripped him, had whirled him from Aimée–when a man’s voice and gun had threatened him–that memory was too overpowering for even his triumph over the invader to lay wholly its smart of outrage.
He felt again the tightening of his nerves, like quivering wires, as he crossed the violated reception room and entered the boudoir. It was empty, but on the divan the flickering candle light revealed the damp, spreading stain where Aimée’s drenched satins had been.
He thrust aside a hanging and pushed open the door into the room beyond.
It was a small bedroom evidently very recently furnished in new and white shining lacquer of French design, elaborately inlaid with painted porcelains and draped with a profusion of rosy taffeta. Among this elegance, surprisingly unrelated to the ancient paneled walls, stood the hastily opened trunk and bags of the bride, their raised lids and disarranged trays heaped with the confusion of unaccustomed, swiftly searching hands.
Aimée herself, in a gay little French boudoir robe of jade and citron, sat huddled in a chair, like a mute, terrified child, in the hand of her dresser, who was shaking out the long, damp hair and fanning it with a peacock fan.
At the bey’s entrance Fatima suspended the fanning, but with easy familiarity exhibited the long ringlets.
Curtly the bey nodded, and gestured in dismissal; the woman laid down her fan, and with a last slant-eyed look at that strangely still new mistress she went noiselessly out a small service door.
With an air of negligent assurance Hamdi Bey gazed about the room and yawned. “Truly a fatiguing evening,” he remarked in his dry, sardonic voice. “But you look so untouched! What a thing is radiant youth.”
He sauntered over to her, who drew a little closer together at his approach, and lifted one of the long dark curls that the serving woman had exhibited.
“The ringlets of loveliness,” he murmured. “You know the old saying of the Sadi? ’The ringlets of the lovely are a chain on the feet of reason and a snare for the bird of wisdom.’... How long ago he said it–and how true to-day ... Yet such a charming chain! Suppose, then, I forgive you, little one, since sages have forgiven beauty before?”
She was silent, her eyes fixed on him with the silent terror with which a trapped bird sees its captor, in their bright darkness the same mute apprehension, the same filming of helpless despair.
Ryder was dead, she thought. This cruel, incensed old madman had killed him, for all his oaths. Somewhere beneath those ancient stones he was lying drowned and dead, a strange, pitiable addition to the dark secrets of those grim walls.
He had died for her sake, and all that she asked now of life, she thought in the utter agony of her youth, was death. And very quickly.
“I am so soft hearted,” he sighed, still with that ringlet in his lifted hand, his hand which wanted palpably to settle upon her and yet was withheld by some strange inhibition of those fixed, helpless eyes. “Who knows–perhaps I may forgive you yet? You might persuade me–”
“He is dead,” she said shiveringly.
“Dead? He?... Ah, the invader, the intruder, the young man who wanted you for a family in France!” The bey laughed gratingly. “No, I assure you he is not dead–I have not harmed a hair of his head. He is alive–only not with quite the widest range of liberty–”
He broke off to laugh again. “Ah, you disbelieve?” he said politely. “Shall I send, then, for some proof–an ear, perhaps, or a little finger, still very warm and bleeding, to convince you?... In five minutes it will be here.”
Then terror stirred again in her frozen heart. If Ryder were alive and still in this man’s power–
“You are horrible,” she said to him in a voice that was suddenly clear and unshaken. “What is it you want of me–fear and hate–and utter loathing?”
Her unexpected spirit was briefly disconcerting. The Turk looked down upon her in arrested irony and then he smiled beneath his mustaches and bent nearer with kindling gaze.
“Not at all–nothing at all like that, little dove with talons. I want sweetness and repentance–and submission. And–”
“You have a strange way to win them,” she said desperately.
“You have taken a strange way with me, my love! Little did I foresee, when I escorted you up the stairs this morning–” He broke off. “There are men,” he reminded her, “who would not consider a cold bath as a complete recompense for your bridal plans.”
She was silent.
“But I,” he murmured, “I am soft hearted.” He dropped on one knee before her and tried to smile into her averted face. “I can never resist a charming penitent.... I assure you I am pliability itself in delicate fingers–although iron and steel to a threatening hand.... If you should woo me very sweetly, little one–”
She could not overcome and she could not hide from his mocking eyes the sick shrinking that drew her back from his least touch. But she did fight down the wild hysteria of her repugnance so that her voice was not the trembling gasp it wanted to be.
“How can I know what you are?” she told him. “You mock me–you threaten to torture that man–it would be folly not to think that you are deceiving me. If you would only prove to me so that I could believe–”
“If you would but prove to me so that I could believe–! Prove that you are mine–and not that infidel’s. Prove that you bring me a wife’s devotion–not a wanton’s indifference.” He caught her cold hands, trying to draw her forward to him. “Prove that you only pity him,” he whispered, “but that your love will be mine–”
She felt as if a serpent clasped her. And yet, if that were the only way to win Ryder’s safety–if it were possible for her sickened senses to allay this madman’s suspicions and undermine his revenge–
Quiveringly she thought that to save Ryder she would go through fire.
But the hideous, mocking uncertainties! Her utter helplessness–her lost deference....
It was not a sudden sound that broke in upon them but rather the perception of many sounds, muffled, half heard, but gaining upon their consciousness. Running feet–a stifled voice–something faint and shrill–
Aimée sprang to her feet; the general rose with her and turned his head inquiringly in the direction. Then he jerked open the door through which Fatima had disappeared; it led to a dark service corridor and small anteroom, from whose bed the attendant was absent. An outer door was ajar.
No need to question the sounds now. Faint, but piercingly shrill shrieks were sounding from above, while the footsteps were racing, some down, some up–
The bey flung shut the door behind him and hurried towards the confusion.