The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
IN THE DESERT
Clinging to that plunging horse Ryder made little attempt at first to guide the flight. It was enough to keep himself in the saddle and Aimée in his arms while every galloping moment flung a farther distance between them and that palace of horror.
His heart was beating in a wild, triumphant exultation. Glorious to be out under the free sky, the wind in his face, the open world ahead! He felt one with that dashing creature beneath him.
And Aimée was in his arms, untouched, unhurt, out from the power of that sinister man and the expectation of dread things.
The moment was a supreme and glorious emotion.
They were headed south. And to Ryder’s exhilaration this seemed good. Cairo offered no hiding place for that fugitive girl. Even the harbor that McLean could give would not be proof against the legal forces of the Turks. Law and order, power and police were all in the hands of the husband or father. Even now the alarm might be given, the telephones ringing.
Aimée must be hidden until she could be smuggled to France–or until the French authorities could get out their protective documents. The hiding place that occurred to Ryder was a wild and desperate expedient.
The American hospital at Siut. The isolation ward–the pretense of contagious illness. And then later travel north, in the care of nurses–
All this, if he could win over one of the doctors. At that moment winning over a doctor appeared a sane and simple thing to Ryder’s mind. The only difficulty he recognized was getting Aimée into that hospital.
But they would not be looking for him in the south. He could manage it, he felt jubilantly. He could smuggle her into his diggings at night and then make his arrangements. Anything, everything was possible, now that the nightmare of a palace was left behind them.
South they went then, at a quieter pace, the Arab’s rhythmic footfalls ringing through the still, gray world of before dawn. Across the Nile they made their way, working out on sandbars to the narrow depths, where Ryder swam beside the swimming horse while Aimée clung to the saddle. Then south again along the river road.
The sky was light now. And the river was light. Only the palms and the villages and the flat dhurra fields were dark. And in the east behind the Mokattam hills a thin band of gold began to brighten.
Life was stirring. Small black boys on huge black buffaloes splashed in the river. Veiled girls with water jars on their high-held heads from which the shawls trailed down to the dust filed past from the villages like a Parthenon frieze. On the high banks the naked fellaheen were already stooping to the incessant dipping of the shadouf, while from the fields came the plaintive creaking of the well sweep, as some harnessed camel or bullock began its eternal round.
A flock of sheep came down the river road, driven by their ragged shepherds, and a string of camels, burdened beyond all semblance to themselves, bobbed by like rhythmic haystacks, led by a black-robed, bare-footed child, carrying a live turkey in her arms while before her rode her father, in shining pongee robes on a white donkey strung with beads of blue.
And by these travelers there passed in that brightening dawn two other travelers from the north, a pair on a powerful but tired black horse, a man in a military cloak and a green and gold turban about his bronzed head, and behind him, on a pillion, a black-mantled, black-veiled girl, with bare, dangling feet.
It was Aimée who had evolved the disguise, constructing the turban from the negligee beneath her mantle, and it was Aimée who bargained with the villagers for their breakfast, eggs and goats’ milk and bread and rice, while her lord, as befitted his dignity, stayed aloof upon his steed, returning a courteous response of ’Allah salimak–God bless you” to their greetings.
Then as the day brightened and the last soft veil of mist was burned away before a blood-red sun, that pair of travelers left the highroad and turned west upon a byway that led past fields of corn and yellow water and mud villages where goats and naked babies and ragged women squatted idly in the dust, and on through low, red-granite hills swirled about with yellow sand drift and out into the desert beyond.
Here fresh vigor came to the Arab horse, and tossing his mane and stretching out his nostrils to the dry air he broke into a gallop that sent sand and pebbles flying from his hoofs. To right and left the startled desert hares scattered, and from the clumps of spiky helga the black vultures rose in heavy-winged flight.
Then the breeze dropped, and the swift-coming heat rushed at them like a furnace breath, and slower and slower they made their way, Ryder leading the jaded horse and Aimée nodding in the saddle, mere crawling specks across the immensity of sand.
Then, in the shade of a huge clump of gray-green mit minan beside a jutting boulder they stopped at last to rest. The horse sank on his knees; Ryder spread out his cloak and Aimée dropped down upon its folds, lost in exhausted sleep as soon as her head touched the sands. Ryder, his back against the rock, kept watch.
It was not the exultant Ryder of that first hour of flight. The excitement of the night had subsided and withdrawn its wild stimulation. It was a hot and tired and immensely sobered young man who sat there with eyes that burned from lack of sleep and a brow knit into a taut and anxious line.
Realization flooded him with the sun. Responsibility burned in upon him with the heat.
Alone in the Libyan desert he sat there, and at his feet there slept the young girl whose life he had snapped utterly off from its roots.
He was overwhelmingly responsible for her. If she had never met him, if he had never continued to thrust himself upon her, she would have gone on her predestined way, safe, secluded, luxurious–vaguely unhappy and mutinous at times, perhaps, in the secret stirrings of her blood, but still an indulged and wealthy little Moslem.
And now–she lay there, like a sleeping child, the dark tendrils of hair clinging to her moist, sun-flushed cheeks, her long lashes mingling their shadows with the purple underlining of the night’s terrors, homeless, exhausted, resourceless but for that anxious-eyed young man.
Desperately he hoped that she would not wake to regret. Even a sardonic tyrant in a palace might be preferable in the merciless daylight to a helpless young man in the Libyan desert.
And she was so slight, so delicate, so made for rich and lovely luxury.... Looking down at her he felt a lump in his throat ... a lump of queer, choking tenderness....
He wanted to protect her, to save her, to spend himself for her.... He felt for her a reverent wonder, a stirring that was at once protective and possessive and denying of all self.
He would die to save her. He tried to tell himself reassuringly that he had saved her.... If only he could keep her safe....
He thought of the life before her. He thought of that family in France in whose name he had urged his interference. That unknown Delcassé aunt who had sent out her agents for her lost heirs–would she welcome and endow this lovely girl?
He could not doubt it.... Aimée’s youth and beauty would be treasure trove to a jaded lonely woman with money to invest in futures. Aimée would be a belle, an heiress....
He looked down at her with a sudden darkness in his young eyes.... And still she slept, wrapped in the sorry mantle of his masquerade, the torn chiffons of her negligée fluttering over her slim, bare feet.