The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
MASKS AND MASKERS
Moors and Juliets and Circassian slaves and Knights at Arms were fast emerging from lift or cloak room, and confronting each other through their masks in sheepish defiance and curiosity. Adventurous spirits were circulating. Voices, lowered and guarded, began to engage in nervous, tittering banter.... Laughter, belatedly smothered, flared to betrayals....
The orchestra was playing a Viennese waltz and couple after couple slipped out upon the floor.
Lounging against the wall, Ryder glowered mockingly through his mask holes at the motley. It was so exactly as he had foreseen. He was bored–and he was going to be more bored. He was jostled–and he was going to be more jostled. He was hot–and he was going to be hotter.
Where in the world was Jinny Jeffries? He deserved, he felt, exhilaratingly kind treatment to compensate him for this insanity. He gazed about, and encountering a plump shepherdess ogling him he stepped hastily behind a palm.
He fairly stepped upon a very small person in black. A phantom-like small person, with the black silk hubarah of the Mohammedan high-caste woman drawn down to her very brows, and over the entire face the black street veil. Not a feature visible. Not an eyebrow. Not an eyelash, not a hint of the small person herself, except a very small white, ringed hand, lifted as if in defense of his clumsiness.
“Sorry,” said Ryder quickly, and driven by the instinct of reparation. “Won’t you dance?”
A mute shake of the head.
Well, his duty was done. But something, the very lack of all invitation in the black phantom, made him linger. He repeated his request in French.
From behind the veil came a liquidly soft voice with a note of mirth. “I understand the English, monsieur,” it informed him.
“Enough, then, to say yes in it?”
The black phantom shook its head. “My education, alas! has only proceeded to the N.” Her speech was quaint, unhesitating, but oddly inflected. “I regret–but I am not acquainted with the yes.”
A gay character for a masked ball! Indifference and pique swung Ryder towards a geisha girl, but a trace of irritation lingered and he found her, “You likee plink gleisha?” singularly witless.
He’d tell McLean just how darned captivating his outfit was, he promised himself.
And then he caught sight of a familiar pair of gray eyes smiling over the white veil of an odalisque. Jinny Jeffries was wearing one of the many costumes there that passed for Oriental, a glittering assemblage of Turkish trousers and Circassian veils, silver shawls and necklaces and wide bracelets banding bare arms.
As an effect it was distinctly successful.
“Ten thousand dinars could not pay for the chicken she has eaten," uttered Ryder appreciatively in the language of the old slave market, and stepped promptly ahead of a stout Pantalon.
“Jack! You did come!” There was a note in the girl’s voice as if she had disbelieved in her good fortune. “Oh, and beautiful as Roderick Dhu! Didn’t I tell you that you could find something in that shop?" she declared in triumph.
“Do you imagine that this came out of a costumer’s?” Ryder swung her swiftly out in the fox trot before the crowd invaded the floor. “If Andy McLean could hear you! Why this, this is the real thing, the Scots-wha-hae-wi’-Wallace-bled stuff.”
“Who is Andy McLean?”
“Andrew is Scotch, Single, and Skeptical. He is a great pal of mine and also an official of the Agricultural Bank which is by way of being a Government institution. These are the togs of his Hieland Grandsire–”
“Why didn’t you bring him?”
“Too dead, unfortunately–grandsires often are–”
“I mean Andrew McLean.”
“It would take you, my dear Jinny, to do that. You brought me–and I can believe in anything after the surprise of finding myself here.”
Jinny Jeffries laughed. “If I could only believe what you say!”
“Oh, you can believe anything I say,” Jack obligingly assured her. “I’m very careful what I say–”
“I wish I were.”
“You’d have to be careful how you look, Jinny–and you can’t help that. The Lord who gave you red hair must provide the way to elude its consequences.... I suppose the Orient isn’t exactly a manless Sahara for you?”
She countered, her bright eyes intent, “Is it a girl-less Sahara for you, Jack?”
“The only woman I have laid a hand on, in kindness or unkindness, died before Ptolemy rebuilt Denderah.”
“That’s not right–”
“No? And I thought it such a virtuous record!”
“I mean,” Jinny laughed, “that you really ought to be seeing more of life–like to-night–”
“To-night? Do you imagine this is a place for seeing life?”
“Why not?” she retorted to the irony in his voice. “It’s real people–not just dead and gone things in cases with their lives all lived. I don’t care if you are going to be a very famous person, Jack, you ought to see more of the world. You have just been buried out here for two years, ever since you left college–”
Beneath his mask the young man was smiling. A quaint feminine notion, that life was to be encountered at a masquerade! This motley of hot, over-dressed, wrought up idiots a human contact!
Life? Living?... Thank you, he preferred the sane young English officials ... the comradeship of his chief ... the glamor of his desert tombs.
Of course there was a loneliness in the desert. That was part of the big feeling of it, the still, stealing sense of immensity reaching out its shadowy hands for you.... Loneliness and restlessness.... These tropic nights, when the stars burned low and bright, and the hot sands seemed breathing.... Loneliness and restlessness–but they gave a man dreams.... And were those dreams to be realized here?
The music stopped and the ever-watchful Pantalon bore down upon them. Abandoning Jinny to her fate, Ryder sought refuge and a cigarette.
The hall was crowded now; the ball was a flash of color, a whirl of satins and spangles and tulle and gauze, gold and green and rose and sapphire, gyrating madly in vivid projection against the black and white stripes of the Moorish walls. The color and the music had sent their quickening reactions among the throng. Masks were lending audacity to mischief and high spirits.
Three little Pierrettes scampered through the crowd, pelting right and left with confetti and balloons, and two stalwart monks and a thin Hamlet pursued them, keeping up the bombardment amid a great combustion of balloons. A spangled Harlequin snatched his hands full of confetti and darted behind a palm.
It was the palm of the black phantom, the palm of Ryder’s rebuff. Perhaps the Harlequin had met repulse here, too, and cherished resentment, not a very malicious resentment but a mocking feint of it, for when Ryder turned sharply after him–oddly, he himself was strolling toward that nook–he found Harlequin circling with mock entreaties about the stubbornly refusing black domino.
“Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?” chanted Harlequin, with a shower of confetti flung at the girl’s averted face.
There was such a shrinking of genuine fright in her withdrawal that Ryder had a fine thrill of rescue.
“My dance,” he declared, laying an intervening hand on her muffled arm.
His tartan-draped shoulder crowded the Harlequin from sight.
She raised her head. The black street veil was flung back, but a black yashmak was hiding all but her eyes. Great dark eyes they were, deep as night and soft as shadows, arched with exquisitely curved brows like the sweep of wild birds’ wings.... The most lovely eyes that dreams could bring.
A flash of relief shone through their childish fright. With sudden confidence she turned to Ryder.
“Thank you.... My education, monsieur, has proceeded to the Ts,” she told him with a nervous little laugh over her chagrin, drowned in a burst of louder laughter from the discomfited Harlequin, who turned on his heel and then bounded after fresh prey.
“Shall we dance or promenade?” asked Ryder.
Hesitatingly her gaze met his. Red and gold and green and blue flecks of confetti were glimmering like fishscales over her black wrap and were even entangled drolly in the absurd lengths of her eye-lashes.
“It is–if I have not forgotten how to dance,” she murmured. “If it is a waltz, perhaps–”
It was a waltz. Ryder had an odd impression of her irresolution before, with strange eagerness, he swept her into the music. Within the clumsy bulk of her draperies his arm felt the slightness of her young form. She was no more than a child.... No child, either, at a masquerade, but a fairy, dancing in the moonlight.... She was a leaf blowing in the breeze.... She was the very breeze and the moonlight.
And then, to his astonishment, the dance was over. Those moments had seemed no more than one.
“We must have the next,” he said quickly. “What made you think you had forgotten?”
“It is nearly four years, monsieur, since I danced with a man.”
“With a man? You have been dancing with girls, then?”
“At a school?”
“At a–a sort of school.” The black domino laughed with ruefulness. “At a very dull sort of school.”
“To which, I hope, you are not to return?”
She made no answer to that–unless it was a sigh that slipped out.
“At any rate,” he said cheerily, “you are dancing to-night.”
“To-night–yes, to-night I am dancing!” There was triumph in her young voice, triumph and faint defiance, and gayety again in her changing eyes.
Extraordinary, those eyes. Innocent, audacious, bewildering.... To look down into them produced the oddest of excitement.
He took off his mask. Masks were hindering things–he could see so much better without.
She, too, could see better–could see him better. Shyly, yet intently, her gaze took note of him, of the clean, clear-cut young face, bronzed and rather thin, of the dark hair that looked darker against the scarlet cap, of the deep-set eyes, hazel-brown, that met hers so often and were so full of contradictory things ... life ... and humor ... and frank simplicity ... and subtle eagerness.
He looked so young and confident and handsome....
“You are–a Scotchman?” slipped out from her black yashmak.
“Only in costume. I am an American.”
She repeated it a little musingly. “I do not think I ever met an American young man.” She added, “I have met old ones–yes, and middle-aged ones and the women–but a young one, no.”
“A retired spot, that school of yours,” said Ryder appreciatively. “You are French?”
“That is for your imagination!” Teasingly, she laughed. “I am, monsieur, only a black domino!”
It was the loveliest laugh, Ryder was instantly aware, and the loveliest voice in the world. Yes, and the loveliest eyes.
He forgot the crowd. He forgot the heat. He forgot–alas!–Jinny Jeffries. He was aware of an intense exhilaration, a radiant sense of well-being, and–at the music’s beginning–of a small palm pressed again to his, a light form within his arm ... of shy, enchanting eyes out from the shrouding black.
“Do put that veil away,” he youthfully entreated. “It’s quite time. The others are almost all unmasked.”
Her glance about the room returned to him with mock plaintiveness. She shook her head as they spun lightly about a corner.
“Perhaps, monsieur, I have an unfortunate nose.”
“My nerves are strong.”
“But why afflict them?” Prankishly her eyes sparkled up at him over the black veil that made her a mystery. “Enjoy the present, monsieur!”
“Are you enjoying it?”
Her lashes dropped, like black butterflies. She was a changeling of a girl, veering from gayety to shyness.... Her gaze was now on her wrist watch, a slender blaze of platinum and diamonds.
“The present–yes,” she said in a muffled little voice.
He bent his head to hear her through the veil.
A tormenting curiosity was assailing him. It had become not enough to know that she was young and slender, with enchanting eyes and a teasing spirit of wit.... Vaguely he had thought her to be French, one of the quaint jeunes filles so rarely taken traveling.
But who was she? A child at her first ball? But what in the world was she doing, back in the palms, away from her chaperon?
He realized, even in the cloud of his fascination, that French jeunes filles are not wonted to lurk about palms at a ball.
Was she a little Cinderella, then, slipping among the guests? Some poor companion, stealing in for fun?... She was too young. And there was that watch, that glitter of diamonds upon her wrist.
“Have you just come to Cairo?”
She shook her head. “For some time–I have been here.”
“Up the Nile yet?”
“The Nile–no, monsieur.”
“But you are going?”
“That–that I do not know. Sometime, perhaps.”
She sounded guarded.... He hurried into revelations.
“I am staying not far from Cairo, myself. I am an excavator–on an expedition from an American museum.”
“Ah, you dig?”
“Well, not personally.... But the expedition digs.... We’ve had some bully finds.”
“And you came from America–to dig in the sands?” The black domino laughed softly. “For how long, monsieur?”
“This is my second year.”
Still laughing, she shook her shrouded little head at him. “But I cannot understand! What wonderful thing do you hope to find–what buried secret–?”
“Nothing half as wonderful as to know who you are,” he said boldly.
“That, too, is–is buried, monsieur!”
“But not beyond discovery,” he told her very gayly and confidently, and danced the music out.
As the last strains died, they paused for an instant as if the spell still bound them, then his arms fell slowly away, and he heard the girl draw a quick, startled breath. Her eyes sped to that tiny, blazing watch; when she lifted them he thought he surprised a gleam of panic.
“How fast is an hour!” she said with an excited little laugh. “Time is a–a very sudden thing!”
Sudden, indeed! How long since he had been a badly bored, impatient young man, mocking the follies of the masquerade? How long since he had danced with Jinny, flouting her notion of this sort of thing as life? How long since he had looked into a pair of dark disquieting eyes ... listened to a gay little voice....
Many important things in life happen suddenly. Juliet happened very suddenly to Romeo. Romeo happened as suddenly to Juliet.
But Jack Ryder was not remembering anything about Romeo and Juliet. He was watching that glance steal to the wrist watch again.
Then, as if with a determination of the spirit, they smiled up at him.
“Monsieur the American,” said the black domino, “you have been most kind to an–an incognita–of a masque. I hope that you dig out of your sands all the secrets that you most desire.”
“You sound as if you were saying good-bye,” said Jack Ryder with quick denial in his blood.
The smile in her eyes flickered.
“Perhaps I have kept you too long from the other guests.”
He shook his head. “They don’t exist.”
“Ah! I will give you the chance to say such nice things to them.”
“But I never say nice things–unless I mean them!”
“Never. I am very careful what I say,” he assured her, even as he had assured another girl, in what different meaning, hours or centuries before. “You can believe anything that I say.”
“A young man of character! Perhaps that goes with the Scotch costume. I have read the Scots are a noble people.”
“They haven’t a thing on the Americans. You must know me better and discover–”
But again her eyes had gone, almost guiltily, to that watch. And when she raised them again they were not smiling but very strangely resolved.
“Monsieur, it is so hot–if you would get me a glass of sherbet?”
“Certainly.” Convention brought out the assent; convention turned him about and marched him dutifully toward the crowded table she indicated.
But something deeper than convention, some warning born of that too-often consulted watch and that strange look in her eyes, that uneasy fear and swift resolve, turned him quickly about again.
Other couples had strolled between them. He hurried through and stepped back among the palms.
The place was empty. The black domino was gone.
He wasted one minute in assuring himself that she was not hidden in some corner, not mingled with the crowd. But the niche was deserted as a rifled nest. Then his eyes spied the door that the green decorations had conspired to hide and he wrenched it open.
He found himself on a little balcony overlooking the hotel garden. He knew the place in daytime–palms and shrubs and a graveled walk and painted chairs where he had drunk tea with Jinny and watched a Russian tourist beautifully smoking cigarettes.
Now the place was strange. Night and a crescent moon had wrought their magic, and the garden was a mystery of velvet dusks and ivory pallors. The graveled path ran glimmering beneath the magnolias. Over the wall’s blankness the eucalyptus defined its crooked lines against the blue Egyptian sky.
No living thing was there ... nothing ... or did that shadow stir? There, just at the path’s end.
Ryder’s lithe strength was swift. There was one breathless moment of pursuit, then his hand fell with gripping fierceness upon the huddled dark figure that had sped so frantically to the tiny door in the garden’s end.... A moment more and she would have been through.
His hand on her shoulder turned her towards him. Her eyes met his with a dash of desperation.... He was unconscious how his own were blazing ... how queerly white his face had gone under its desert brown.
She was actually running away. She had meant never to see him again. He had frustrated her, but the blow she had meant to deal him was still felt.
His voice, when it came, sounded shaken.
“You were going to leave me?”
Strangely her eyes changed. The defiance, the panic fear, faded. A cloud of slow despair welled up in them.
“What else?” she said very softly.
He did not lose his hold on her. He drew her back into the shadows with involuntary caution, and he felt her slender body trembling in his grasp. The tremors seemed to pass into his own.
A sense of urgency was pressing upon him. He was not himself, not any self that he had known. He stood there, in the Egyptian night, in the motley of a Scotch chieftain, grasping this mysterious creature of the masquerade, and he heard a voice that he did not know ask of her again and again, “But why? Why? Why were you going?”
It was not, he was telling himself, and her eyes were telling him, as if she wanted to go. He knew what he knew.... Those had been enchanted hours.... Yet she had deceived and fled from him.
Her eyes looked darkly back at him through the dusk.
“Because I must return to my own life.” Her voice was a whisper. “And I did not want you to know–”
“To know what? Who are you? Where were you going?” A confusion of conjecture, fantastic, horrible, impossible, was surging in him. Dim, vague, terrible things....
“Who are you, anyway?”
She looked away from him, to the door which she had tried to gain.
“No masker, monsieur.... For me, there is no unveiling.”
Ryder’s hand stiffened. He felt his blood stop a moment, as if his heart stood still.
And then it beat on again in a furious turmoil of contradiction of this impossible thing that she was telling him.
“That door, monsieur, is to the lane, and in the lane another door leads to another garden–the garden of a girl you can never know.”
He was no novice to Egypt. Even while his credulity was still battling with belief, his mind had realized this thing that had happened ... the astounding, unbelievable thing.... He had heard something of those Turkish girls, daughters of rich officials, whose lives were such strange opposition of modernity and tradition.
Indulgence and luxury. French governesses and French frocks ... freedom, travel, often,–Paris, London, perhaps–and then, as the girl eclipses the child–the veil. Still indulgence and luxury, still books and governesses and frocks and motors and society–but a feminine society.
Not a man in it. Not a caller. Not a friend. Not a lover.... Not an interview, even, with the man who is to be the husband–until the bride is safe in the husband’s home. Hidden women. Secret, secluded lives.... Extinguished by tradition–a tradition against which their earlier years only had won modern emancipation.
And she–this slim creature in the black domino–one of those invisibles?
Stark amazement looked out of his eyes into hers.
“You–a Turk?” he blurted.
“I–a Turk!” Her head went suddenly high; she stiffened with defensive pride. “I am ashamed–but for the thing I have done. That is a shameful thing. To steal out at night–to a hotel–to a ball–And to dance with a man! To tell him who I am–Oh, yes, I am much ashamed. I am as bold as a Christian!” she tossed at him suddenly, between mockery and malice.
Still his wonder and his trouble found no words and the shadow on his face was reflected swiftly in her own.
“I beg you to believe, monsieur, that never before–never have I done such a thing. My greatest fault was to be out in the garden after sunset–when all Moslem women should be within. But my nurse was indulgent.”
Almost pleadingly she looked up at the young man. “Believe this of me, monsieur. I would not have you think of me lightly. But to-night something possessed me. I had heard of the masque, and I remembered the balls of the Embassy where I danced when I was so young and so I slipped away–there was a garden key that I had stolen, long ago, and kept for another thing.... I did not mean to dance. Only to look on at the world again.”
“Oh, my good Lord,” said Jack Ryder.
And then suddenly he asked, “Are you–do you–whom do you live with?”
And when she answered in surprise, “But with whom but my father–he is Tewfick Pasha,” he drew a long breath.
“I thought you’d tell me next you were married,” he said limply.
The next moment they were laughing the sudden, incredibly absorbed laughter of youth.
“No husband. I am one of the young revoltées–the moderns–and I am the only daughter of a most indulgent father.”
“Well, that’s something to the good,” was Ryder’s comment upon that. He added, “But if that most indulgent father caught you–”
He looked down at her. The secret trouble of her answering look told him more than its assumption of courage.
This was no boarding school girl lingering beyond hours.... This was a high-born Moslem, risking more than he could well know.
The escapade was suddenly serious, tremendously menacing.
She answered faintly, “I have no idea–the thing is so impossible! But of course,” she rallied her spirit to protest, “I do not think they would sew me in a sack with a stone and drop me in the river, like the odalisques of yesterday!”
She added, her voice uncertain in spite of her, “I meant only to stay a moment.”
“Which is the way?” said Jack briefly.
With caution he opened the gate into the black canyon of the lane. Silence and darkness. Not a loiterer, only one of the furtive starved dogs, slinking back from some rubbish....
The girl moved forward and keeping closely at her side he followed; they crossed to the other wall, and turned towards the right, stopping before the deeper shadow of a small, pointed door set into the heavy brick of the high wall. From her draperies the girl drew out a huge key.
She fitted it into the ancient lock and turned it; carefully she pressed open the gate and stared anxiously into the gloom of the shadowy garden that it disclosed.
Relief colored her voice as she turned to him.
“All is quiet.... I am safe, now.... And so–good-bye, monsieur.”
“And this is where you live?” Ryder whispered.
“There–in that wing,” she murmured, slipping within the gate, and he stole after her, and looked across the garden, through a fringe of date palms, to the outlines of the buildings.
Dim and dark showed the high walls, black as a prison, only here and there the pale orange oblong of a lighted window.
“Did you climb out the window?” he murmured.
From beneath the veil came a little sound of soft derision.
“But there are always bars, even in the garden windows of the haremlik!... No, I stole down by an old stair.... That wing, there, on the right.”
Barred on the garden, and on the street the impregnable wooden screens of the mashrubiyeh, those were the rooms where this girl beside him was to spend her life–until that most indulgent father wearied of her modernity and transferred her to other rooms, as barred and screened, in the palace of some husband!... That thought was brushing Ryder ... with other thoughts of her present risk ... of her lovely eyes, visible again, above the veil, thoughts of the strangeness and unreality of it all ... there in the shrubbery of a pasha’s garden, the pasha’s daughter whispering at his side.
“What about your mother–?” he asked her. “Is she–?”
“She is dead,” the girl told him, with a drop in her voice.
And after a long moment of silence, “When I was so little–but I remember her, oh, indeed I do ... She was French, monsieur.”
“Oh! And so you–”
“I am French-Turk,” she whispered back. “That is very often so–in the harems of Cairo.... She was so lovely,” said the girl wistfully. “My father must have loved her very much ... he never brought another wife here. Always I lived alone with my old nurse and the governesses–”
“Oh, nothing but lessons–all of that world which was shut away so soon.... French and English and music and the philosophy–Oh, we Turks are what you call blue stockings, monsieur, shut away with our books and our dreams ... and our memories ... We are so young and already the real world is a memory.... Sometimes,” she said, with a tremor of suppressed passion in her still little tones, “I could wish that I had died when I was very young and so happy when my father took me traveling in Europe.... I played games on the decks of the ships ... I had my tea with the English children.... I went down into the hold to play with their dogs...”
She broke off, between a laugh and a sigh, “Dogs are forbidden to Moslems–but of course you know, if you have been here two years.... And emancipated as we may be, there is no changing the customs. We must live as our grandmothers lived ... though we are not as our grandmothers are...”
“With a French mother, you must be very far from what some of your grandmothers were!”
“My poor French mother!” Whimsically the girl sighed. “Must I blame it on her–the spirit that took me to the ball?... To-morrow this will be a dream to me.... I shall not believe in my shamelessness.... And you, too, must forget–”
“Forget?” said Ryder under his breath.
“Forget–and go. Positively you must go now, monsieur. It is very dangerous here–”
“It is.” There was a light dancing in his hazel eyes. “It is more dangerous every moment–”
“But I mean–” Her confusion betrayed itself.
“But I mean–that you are magic–black magic,” he murmured bending over the black domino.
The crescent moon had found its way through a filigree of boughs. Faintly its exploring ray lighted the contour of that shrouded head, touched the lovely curves of her arched brows and the tender pallor of the skin about those great wells of dark eyes.... From his own eyes a flame seemed to pass into hers.... Breathlessly they gazed at each other ... like dim shadows in a garden of still enchantment.
And then, as from a palpable clasp, she tried to slip away. “Truly, I must go! It is so late–”
Ryder’s heart was pounding within him. He did not recognize this state of affairs; it was utterly unrelated to anything that had gone before in his merry, humorous, rather clear-sighted and wary young life.... He felt dazed and wondering at himself ... and irresponsible ... and appalled ... but deeper than all else, he felt eager and exultant and strangely, furtively determined about something that he was not owning to himself ... something that leaped off his lips in the low murmur to her, “But to-morrow night–I shall see you again–”
She caught her breath. “Oh, never again! To-night has no to-morrow–”
“Outside this gate,” he persisted. “I shall wait–and other nights after that. For I must know–if you are safe–”
“See, I am very safe now. For if I were missed there would be running and confusion–”
He only drew a little closer to her. “To-morrow night–or another–I shall come to this door–”
“It must not open to you.... It is a forbidden door–forbidden as that fortieth door in the old story.... There are thirty and nine doors in your life, monsieur, that you may open, but this is the forbidden–”
“I shall be waiting,” he insisted. “To-morrow night–or another–”
She moved her head in denial.
“Neither to-morrow nor another night–”
Again their eyes met. He bent over her. He knew a gleam of sharpest wonder at himself as his arms went swiftly round that shrouding drapery, and then all duality of consciousness was blotted out in the rush of his young madness. For within that drapery was the soft, human sweetness of her; his arms tightened, his face bent close, and through the sheer gauze of her veil his lips pressed her lips....
Some one was coming down the walk: Footsteps crunched the gravel.
Like a wraith the girl was out of his arms ... in anger or alarm his whirling senses could not know, although it was their passionate concern. But his last gleam of prudence got him through the gate he heard her locking after.
And then, for her sake, he fled.