The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
BEYOND THE DOOR
Ryder had stood stock still with amazement when the girl began to scream. She had gone mad, he thought for an instant, in masculine bewilderment, and then her madness revealed its treacherous cunning, for she began crying wildly for help against an invader, an infidel, a dog of a Christian who had stolen into her rooms.
She had chucked him to the lions, Ryder perceived; one furious flash of lightning jealousy and Oriental anger had overthrown, in that wild and lawless head, every other design for him for which she had risked so much.
He had scorned her.... He had flouted her caprice.... He had dared to refuse the languors of those dangerous eyes....
The hurrying footsteps appeared to him the tread of a legion in action, and he had no desire to rush out upon the oncomers; he had, indeed, distinct doubts of his ruthless ability to pass that supple, clawing, incensed creature at the door.
He whirled and made a bolt for the window, striking at the fastened grill. He heard the snapping of wooden bolts and the splintering of wood and out through the hole he climbed to a precipitous, head-long flight that fairly felt the clutching hands upon his ankle.
He had meant to make a jump for it. A three-story plunge into the Nile appeared a gentle exercise compared to the alternative within the palace, but in the very act of releasing his hold he changed his mind.
Quicker than he had ever moved before, in any vicissitude of his lithe and agile youth, he clambered up, not down, and crouching back from sight upon the jutting top of the window, he sent his coat sailing violently through space.
He dared not look over for its descent upon the water, for other heads were peering from below and he could hear an excited outburst of speech, that broke sharply off.
Evidently they were hurrying down to the water gate. Swiftly he utilized this misdirection for his own ends.
The roofs. That was the refuge to make for. Flat, long-reaching roofs, from which one could climb off onto a wall or a palm or a side street.
He had only a story to ascend and he made it in record time, fearful that the searchers whom he heard now launching a boat below would turn their eyes skywards.
But he gained the top without an outcry being raised and found himself upon the roof where the ladies of the harem took their air unseen of any save the blind eyes of the muezzin in the Sultan mosque upon the hill. There were divans and a little taboret or two and a framework where an awning could be raised against the sun.
There was also a trap door.
And here, tempestuously he changed his mind again. He abandoned the goal of outer walls and chances of escape. He wrenched violently at that trap door. It was bolted but the bolt was an ancient one and gave at his furious exertions, letting him down into a narrow spiral staircase between walls.
Down he plunged in haste, before some confused searcher should dash up. It was no place to meet an opposing force. Nor was the corridor in which he found himself much better.
It was black and baffling as a labyrinth, with unexpected turnings, and he kept gingerly close to the wall with one hand clutching a bit of iron which he had taken into his possession and his pocket when Aziza had led him out of the underground walls–the very bit of pointed iron, it was, with which the volatile creature had effected his rescue.
He considered it an invaluable souvenir and twice, in his nervous apprehension, he almost brought it down upon shadows.
Direction he judged vaguely by the screaming which was still going on at a tremendous rate–evidently the girl had gone off into genuine hysterics or else she had determined not to leave her agitation at the intrusion in any manner of question. No doubt the outcries were a relief to her mingled emotions–remorse at her impetuosity and chagrin that her thwarted plans might conceivably be now among those emotions–and since the vicinity of those shrieks must be a gathering place to be avoided by him he stole on, down the upper hall, and finding a stair, he went down for two continuous flights.
Aimée’s rooms, he knew, had been upon the water, and recalling the general direction of those two lighted windows that he had seen so recently from without, his excavator’s instinct led him on. Once he saw the flitting figure of a turbaned woman in time to draw back into a heaven-sent niche and again he flattened into a soundless shadow against the wall as two young serving girls ran by on slippered feet, their anklets tinkling, chattering to each other in delighted excitement.
And then the stealthy opening of a door–it was the very door by which Yussuf had precipitated himself upon the struggle at the supper table some age-long hours ago–gave him a glimpse into the far glooms of the reception room, where its long side of mashrubiyeh windows revealed now between its fretwork tiny chinks of a paling sky.
He could make out the dark-draped marriage throne and the pallor of the disordered cloth upon the abandoned table below, and behind the table the dark draperies of the remaining portières before the doorway into the boudoir where he had hidden himself and into which he had last seen Aimée thrust.
At the other end of the great room were the entrance stairs to the harem, and there, he imagined, a watchman was stationed, or else stout bolts and bars were guarding the situation. There remained an arched doorway into other formal rooms through which he had seen Aimée and the guests disappear for the wedding supper, and that way led, he surmised, down into the service quarters.
A sorry choice of exits! He could form no plan in advance but trust blindly to the amazing chances of adventure. And first, before he rushed for escape, there was Aimée to find.
Yet for all the mad hazard of the situation he was elated with life. He felt as if he had never fully lived until now, when every breath was informed with the sharp prescience of danger. He was at once cool and exultant, wary yet reckless, with the joyous recklessness of utter desperation.
With cat-like care he surveyed the drawing-room; it appeared deserted but as he watched his tense nerves could see the shadows forming, taking furtive, crouching shape–and then dissolving harmlessly into a rug, a chair, or a stirring drapery. His eyes grown used to the dimness he identified the mantle upon the floor in which he had come and which he had extended to Aimée in that brief moment of fatuous triumph, and beyond it, across a chair, was the portière which the black had torn down from the doorway to wrap about Ryder’s helpless form as he had carried him down to living death.
That mantle, he thought, might yet be useful, and he stole forward and recovered it, but, as he straightened, another shadow darted out from the boudoir door and silhouetted for an instant against the lighted, room he saw a figure in a long, swinging military cloak.
Discovery was inevitable and Ryder made a swift plunge to take the cloaked figure by surprise, but even as one hand shot out and gripped the throat while the other held his threatening iron aloft, his clutch relaxed, his arm fell nervelessly at his side.
For from the figure had come the broken gasp of a soft voice, and the face upturned to his was a pale oval under dark, disordered hair.
“Aimée!” he breathed in exultant, still half-incredulous joy. “Aimée!... Did I hurt you–?”
“Oh, no, no!” came Aimée’s shaken voice. “Oh, you are safe!”
He felt her trembling in his clasp and he swept her close to him. For one breathless instant they clung together, in a sharp, passionate gladness which blurred every sense of dread or danger. They were safe–they were together–and for the moment it was enough. Every obstacle was surmounted, every terror conquered.
They clung, obliviously, like children, her pale face against his shoulder, her hair brushing his lips, her wild heartbeats throbbing against his own.
Then the girl, remembering, lifted her head.
“Quick–we must go,” she whispered. “For there I made a fire–”
He fallowed her frightened, backward glance at the boudoir door and suddenly saw its cracks and key hole strangely radiant with light.
“He left me, to go to those screams,” she was saying rapidly. “I tried to run that way–and found that woman coming back. And I told her to wait–in her own room–and I slipped back in there–and suddenly it came to me to thrust the candle about. I thought I would run out and if I met any one I would call, ’Fire’, and say the general was burning and perhaps in the confusion–”
The terrible desperation of her both stirred and wrung him. She was so little, so helpless, so trembling in his clasp ... so made for love and tenderness.... And to think of her in such fear and horror that she went thrusting reckless candles into her hangings, setting a palace on fire in the blind fury for escape....
To such work had this night brought her.... This night, and three men–for he and the craven Tewfick and the fanatic bey were all linked in this night’s work. Yes, and another man–and he thought swiftly, in a lightning flash of wonder, how little that Paul Delcassé had known when he set his eager face toward the Old World, with his wife and baby with him, that he was setting his feet into such a web ... that his wife would die, languishing in a pasha’s harem, and his little daughter would one night be flying in mad terror from the cruel beast the weak pasha had sold her to!
And how little, for that matter, he had known when he had set his own face toward those same sands what secrets he would discover there and what forbidden ways his heart would know.
These thoughts all went through him like one thought, in some clear, remote background of his mind, while he was swiftly drawing on the military cloak she gave him and wrapping her in the black mantle. There was a veil on the mantle’s hood that she could fling across her face when she wished, but Ryder had no fez to complete the deceptive outline of his masquerade. He must trust to the dark and to the concealment of the high, military collar of the cloak.
“Do you know a way?” he whispered and at her shaken head, “The water gate,” he said, thinking swiftly.
There would be a crowd now about the gate, but if they could only manage to gain those cellars and hide somewhere they could steal out later upon that waterman.
It seemed the most feasible of all the desperate plans. The roofs might be a trap. The harem entrance led into a garden and the garden was guarded by an impassable wall. But if he could only get to the river he knew that he was a strong enough swimmer to save Aimée, or he might even terrorize the watchman into furnishing a boat.
She did not question but guided him swiftly through the arch that led down into the banqueting hall. Twice that day she had gone down those stairs. Once in her bridal state, her eyes shining, her cheeks glowing with the wild joy of Ryder’s arrival and dreams of escape, and again, scarcely an hour gone by, she had descended them, tense and desperate, her revolver at the general’s head, seeking vainly Ryder’s rescue.
And now a third time, a guilty, reckless fugitive in the night, she stole down those stairs into the many-columned hall where she had been fêted in state among her guests. Here her only knowledge was of the stone corridor and the locked door through which the bey had led her, but Ryder knew the way that Aziza had brought him and he turned cautiously toward those wide, curving stairs.
Keeping Aimée a few steps behind him, he went down the soft carpet and peered out at the bottom towards the water gate. He saw no bars; the gate was open and against the pale square of the water were the black silhouettes of the general and the gateman, both leaning out at some splashing in the river.
He knew a boy’s reckless impulse to shove them both in. It was an unholy thought his better judgment rejected–unless driven to it–yet some prankish element in his roused recklessness would not have deplored the necessity.
If they looked about–!
But they did not stir as, with Aimée’s cold hand in his, he made the tiptoed descent and slipped softly about the corner of the steps. Then, instead of going on down the hall to some hiding place in the ruins, he took a suddenly revealed, sharper turn into a narrow passage just beyond the stairs.
It might lead to another gate, some service entrance, perhaps, it ran so straight and direct between its walls.
Intuitively that excavator’s sense of his defined the direction. They were going parallel with the river, although a little way back from the water wall, and in the direction of the men’s part of the palace, the selamlik.
He recalled the selamlik vaguely as an irregular mass of buildings, and though the formal entrance was of course through the garden from the avenue, there was a narrow side street or lane leading back to the water’s edge between this part of the palace and the nest building, and very likely there was some entrance on that lane.
Bitterly he blamed himself for his lack of complete inspection that morning. To be sure he had told himself, then, as he strolled about the high garden walls and peered down the narrow lane on one side of the Nile backwaters, that he didn’t need a map of the place for his arrival at an afternoon reception; he was simply going in and out, and clothes and speech were his only real concern.
He had even said to himself that he might not reveal himself to Aimée–if she did not discover him. He wanted merely to see her again, and be sure that she understood her own history–he had no notion of attempting any further relations with her, any resumption of their forbidden and dangerous acquaintance.
And it was true that had been the defiant and protesting surface of his thoughts, but deep within himself there had always been that hot, hidden spark, ready to kindle to a flame at her word–and with it the unowned, secret longing that she would speak the word.
And when she had called on him for help, when the trembling appeal had sprung past her stricken pride, and he had seen the terror in her soft, child’s eyes, then the spark had struck its conflagration. He had become nothing but a hot, headstrong fury of devotion.
And he said to himself now that he might have known it was going to happen, and that if he had not been so concerned that morning about saving his face and preserving this fiction of indifference he would know a little more about the labyrinth they were poking about in–the little more that tips the scale between safety and destruction.
But he did not know and blind Chance was his only goddess.
The passage had brought him to a wall and a narrow stairs while another passage led off to the right, apparently to the forward regions of the place.
He took the stairs. He had had enough of underground regions when they did not lead to water gates and the stairs promised novelty at least.
He wished he knew more about Turkish palaces. He supposed they had a fairly consistent ground plan, but beyond a few main features of inner courts and halls he was culpably ignorant of their intentions. If it were an early Egyptian tomb or temple now! But then, perhaps the Turks were more indefinite in their building and rebuilding.
At the head of the stairs a door stood half ajar. Through the crack he strained his eyes, but his anxious glance met only the darkness of utter night. Not a gleam of light. And not a sound–except the far, hollow stamping of some stabled horse.
Softly he pushed the door open and he and Aimée slipped within. The place, whatever it was, appeared deserted, a dark, bare, backstairs region–for he stumbled over a bucket–from which to the right he could just discern a hall leading into the forward part of the palace, wanly lighted some distance on, with the pale flicker of an old ceiling lamp.
They seemed to be at the end of the hall and the darker shadows in the walls about them appeared to be a number of doors–closed, so his groping hands informed him.
Oh, for his excavator’s steady light, or a pocket flash! Oh, for a light of any kind, even a temporary match! But he dared not risk the scratch, for now he caught the thud of footfalls overhead, heavy footfalls, and there might be stairs unexpectedly close at hand.
He turned to Aimée but the girl shook her head helplessly and hesitant and dashed, for all their young confidence, they wavered a moment hand in hand in the dark, fearful of what a rash move might bring upon them. And in the beating stillness Ryder became conscious that the muffled, monotonous stamping of a horse is a gloomy, disheartening thing in the night, and that footsteps overhead are of all noises the most nervous and unsettling.
What was behind those doors? Not a spark of light came from them, that was one comfort. The rooms, kitchen, service, store rooms or whatever they were, appeared in the same blackness and oblivion.... But any door might open on a roomful of sleeping gardeners and grooms....
Life and more than life hung on the blind goddess.
It was only an instant that they hesitated there, yet it appeared an eternity of indecision, then nearer footsteps sounded, coming down that hall. No more wavering of the scales!
Ryder turned to the door at his left, at the very end of the wall beyond which came that far stamping, and wrenched it open, closing it swiftly behind him. He saw a light now, a mild, yellow ray through an opened door ahead that vaguely illumined the strange old vehicles of the palace, and the stables were beyond.
Some one else was beyond, too, in the stables, for that very instant he saw a black horse backed restively into sight, its tossing head evading the hands that were trying to bridle it.
“The Fortieth Door!” said Ryder to himself with an involuntary thrust of humor.
The door of the horse! The door of forbidden daring! He knew now the vague associations that had stirred in him as he had stared blindly about that place of doors.... But he had opened so many forbidden doors of late that this last was welcome as the supreme test.
And nothing in the world could have been more welcome than a horse–a horse with a way out behind it!
“Stay back,” he said under his breath to Aimée, and clasping his bit of iron he moved toward the door.
He could see the attendant now, who was finishing his bridling, and it was Yussuf, the eunuch, so busy gentling and soothing the horse that he cast only one glance in the direction of the sounds he heard and that one glance misled him in its glimpse of the general’s cloak.
“By your favor–but an instant,” he called out, “and he is ready–”
“Stand aside,” said Ryder very clearly, emerging from the shadows at the horse’s heels. “Out of the way with you. The horse is for me.”
A moment Yussuf gaped. Then he dropped the bridle and his hand went swiftly to the knife hilt in his belt.
“Fool!” said Ryder contemptuously. “Would you tempt fate? Do you think I am such that your knife could harm me? Must I prove to you again that walls are nothings–that I but let myself be taken to prove my powers?”
Ethiopians are superstitious. And Yussuf knew that his brick and mortar had been strong.... Yet they have great trust in a crooked, short-bladed knife, and Yussuf did not relax his hold upon his and for all that Ryder could See there was no hesitation in the grinning ferocity of his black face.
Yet his spring was an instant delayed and in that instant Ryder spoke again.
“Look, now at the wall behind you,” he said quickly.
Yussuf looked. And as he turned his bullet head Ryder jumped close and brought his iron down upon it with a sickening force he thought scarcely short of murder.
To his amazement the black did not fall, but staggered only, and Ryder had need to send the knife spinning from his grasp and strike again before the eunuch’s knees sagged and his huge bulk sank at Ryder’s feet.
This time Ryder took no chance with a shammed unconsciousness. He snatched down bits of leather from the wall and bound the man’s hands and feet in tight security and seeing that he was breathing, although heavily, he thrust a gagging handkerchief into his mouth.
Then he dragged the heavy body towards a pile of hay he saw in a vacant stall and concealed it effectively but not too smotheringly–although Yussuf, he felt, would be no grievous loss to society.
Vaguely in the back of his consciousness he had been aware of the excited plunge of the horse and then of a low, soothing murmur of speech, and now he turned to find Aimée holding the bridle and stroking the quivering creature with gentle, fearless hands.
“Is he dead?” she asked quietly of the eunuch.
“Stunned,” said Ryder, meaning reassurement and was startled by the passion of her cry, “Oh, I could kill them all–all!”
“I will–if they try to stop us,” he promised grimly, forgetful of that oath to Aziza.
Hastily he glanced about the stalls. There was no other horse there, only a pair of mild-eyed donkeys, and though there might conceivably be other horses behind other doors there was no instant to spare in search.
This luck was too prodigious to risk.
The door to the street had already been unbolted and now he threw it back with a quick look into the dark emptiness of the narrow side street, and then, with a tight hold of the reins, he swung himself into the saddle and Aimée up into his arms, her head on his shoulder, her arms clasping him.
It was a huge Bedouin saddle with high-arched back and curved pummel and the slender pair no more than filled it, making apparently no weight at all for the spirited beast which tore out of the stalls at the charging gallop beloved of Eastern horsemen.
For a moment Ryder felt wildly that he might meet the fate of the rash youth in his patron story. He had never ridden a horse like this, which, like all high-mettled Arabs, resented the authority of any but his master, and though a good horseman Ryder had all he could do to keep his seat and Aimée in his arms.
Around the corner of the lane the horse went racing, and down the dark, lebbek-lined avenue his flying feet struck back their sparks of fire. Across an open square he plunged, while irate camels screamed at him and a harsh voice shouted back loud curses. It seemed to Ryder that other voices joined in–that there was a pursuit, an outcry–and then they were out down an open road, wildly galloping, like a mad highwayman under a pale morning sky.