The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
FROM THE BAZAARS
There was a moment’s pause.
“What? That lovely girl?” said Jinny in startled pity. She added incredulously, “Yesterday?... And only the day before–why, what could have happened?”
That was what McLean was asking himself very grimly.
Aloud he told her slowly. “They say that fire happened. Some accident–a candle overturned in her apartments. And of course the windows were screened–”
“_Fire–how terrible! That lovely girl,” said Jinny again. She was genuinely horrified and pitiful, yet she found a moment to wonder at the evident depths of McLean’s consternation. For of course he had never seen the girl.
Yet he looked utterly upset.
“It’s one of the most dreadful things I ever heard of,” Jinny murmured. “On her wedding night.... And she was so young, Mr. McLean, and so exquisite. She didn’t look like a real girl.... She was a fairy creature.... I never dreamed there really were rose-leaf skins before but hers was just like flower petals. Jack and I talked about it, I remember. And her face had something so bewitching about it, something so sweet and delicate–”
She broke off revisited with that vision of Aimée’s sprite-like beauty.... How little that poor girl had thought, as she stood there in the bright splendor of her robes and diadem, that in a few hours more–
“Oh, I hope that fire–that it was merciful–that she didn’t suffer,” she said almost inaudibly.
But speech itself was too definitive of horrors.
“It’s tragic,” she finished simply.
It was tragic, with a complicated tragedy, thought Andrew McLean as he stood there, his eyes narrowing, his lips compressed, his mind invaded with a dark swarm of conjecture, surmise, suspicion, his vision possessed by a flitting rush of pictures.
He saw Jack talking with the girl at the reception.... The girl showing him something about her neck–that accursed locket, he thought acutely.... Jack sending Miss Jeffries home.... Had he arranged that purposely? Was there some mad, improvised scheme of escape in the air?
The pictures became mere flitting wraiths of conjecture, yet touched with horrifying possibility.... Jack lingering, hiding.... Jack making love to the girl, attempting flight.... Jack discovered–and the quick saber thrust–for both.
A fire?... Very likely–to screen the darker tragedy. Hamdi was capable of it to save his pride. And it would dispose so easily of the–evidence.
McLean’s thoughts flinched from the grim outcome of his fear. He tried to tell himself that he was inventing horrors, that the fire might be the simple truth, that Ryder’s talk with the girl might actually have ended in farewell–at least a temporary farewell–and that his consequent low spirits had taken him off to mope in camp.
That was undoubtedly the thing to believe, at least until there was actual necessity to disbelieve it, and looking at the story in that way, McLean’s Scotch sense of Providence was capable of pointing out the stern benefits of the sad visitation.
Whatever mischief might have been afoot between his friend and that unfortunate young girl the fire had prevented. And however hard Jack might take this now, decidedly the poor girl’s death was better for him than her life.
No more wasting himself now on sad romance and adventure. No more desire and danger. No more lurking about barred gates and secret doors and forbidden palaces. No more clandestine trysts. No more fury of mind, beating against the bars of fate.
Jack was saved.
Even if he had succeeded in rescuing the girl–what then? McLean was skeptical of felicity from such contrasting lives. Better the finality, the sharp pain, the utter separation. And then–
His eyes returned to the young American before him. She was the unconscious answer to that future. She would save Ryder from regret and retrospection.... In after years, looking back from a happy and well-ordered domesticity, this would all become to him a fantastic, far-off adventure, sad with the remembered but unfelt sadness of youth, yet mercifully dim and softened with young beauty.
Jack must never tell this girl the story. McLean had read somewhere of the mistakes of too-open revelation to women and now he was very sure of it.... She must never receive this hurt, never know that when she had been troubling over Jack’s disappearance he had been agonizing over another girl–that the escapade she thought so intimate a lark had been a trick to see the other–that the young creature whose loveliness she so innocently praised had been her rival, drawing Jack from her....
McLean would speak clearly to Ryder about this and seal his lips.... But first he would have to be found.
He became conscious that he had been a long time silent, following these thoughts, while Jinny waited.
“I’ll do everything I can to find out about that fire,” he told her. “I mean, about any discovery of Jack in the palace,” he quickly amended as her face was touched with instant question. “And I’ll see if any one in Cairo knows where he is. Then if nothing turns up I’ll just pop out to his diggings in the morning and make sure he’s all right.... I’ll get back that night and telephone you. And until then, not a word about it. Much better not.”
“Not a word,” Jinny promised. “And if you should happen to find out anything to-night–”
“I’ll let you know at once. Well, rather. But don’t count on that. The old boy is out in his tombs, dusting off his mummies. You may get a letter, yourself, in the morning,” he threw out with heartening inspiration, “And while you are reading it, I’ll be tearing along to the infernal desert–”
He had brought the smile to her eyes as well as lips. Bright and reassured and comfortably dependent upon his resourceful strength, she took her leave.
But there was no smile remaining upon Andrew McLean’s visage.
Twenty-four hours. Two nights and a day.... And the girl was dead and in her grave–Moslems wasted no time before interment–and Jack was–where?