The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
THE TOMB OF A KING
There were several approaches to the American excavations. McLean, on that morning after his visit from Jinny Jeffries, chose to borrow a friend’s motor and man and break the speed laws of Upper Egypt, and then shift to an agile donkey at the little village from which the gulleys ran west through the red hills into the desert.
It was a still, hot day without cloud or wind and the sun had an air of standing permanently high in the heavens, holding the day at noon. Shimmering heat waves quivered about the base of the farther hills and veiled the desert reaches. It was not conducive to comfort and Andrew McLean was not comfortable. He was hot and sticky and sandy and abominably harassed.
Not a creature, as far as he could discover, had seen Jack Ryder in Cairo since the afternoon of that reception at Hamdi Bey’s. He had not been seen at the Museum nor the banks, nor at Cook’s, nor the usual restaurants, nor at the clubs with his friends. And the clever clerk–with the two brothers in the bazaar–had unearthed quite a bit of disquieting news about that reception–disquieting, that is, to one with secret fears.
There had been a fire in the apartments of the bride of Hamdi Bey and the bride had been killed instantly–that much was known to all the world. The general had been distracted. He had sat brooding beside his bride’s coffin, allowing no one, not even her father, to look upon the poor charred remains that he had placed within. He had been a man out of his mind with grief, gnawing his nails, beating his slaves,–Oh, assuredly, it had been a calamity of a very high order!
One of the brothers in the bazaar had himself talked with an old crone whose sister’s child was employed in the general’s kitchen, and the fourth-hand story had lost nothing on the route.
The bride’s youth and beauty, her jewels, her robes, the general’s infatuation, and the general’s grief, the reports of these ran through the city like wildfire. And from the particular channel of the kitchen maid and the old aunt and the brother in the bazaars came news of the very especial means that Allah had taken to preserve the general from destruction.
For he had been in the bride’s apartments just before the fire. But the power of Allah, the Allseeing, had sent a thief, a prowler, by night, upon the palace roofs, and the screams of a girl in the upper story had called the general to that direction.
And so his preservation had been accomplished.
It was that rumor of the thief upon the roofs which sent the chill of apprehension down McLean’s spine. For though the bazaars knew nothing of the thief’s identity and it was reported he had escaped by the river yet McLean felt the sinister finger of suspicion. If the thief had not been a thief–unless of brides!–and if he had not escaped–?
Impatiently the young Scotchman clapped his heels against the donkey’s sides, enhancing the efforts of the runner with the gesticulating stick.
Suppose, now, that he should not find Jack at the excavations?
It was encouraging, somehow, to hear the monotonous rise and fall of the labor song proceeding as usual, although McLean immediately told himself that the work would naturally be going on under Thatcher’s direction whether Ryder were there or not. The camp knew nothing of Cairo. The camp would be as usual.
And yet, after his first moment’s survey, he had an indefinite but uneasy idea that the camp was not as usual.
True, the tatterdemalion frieze of basket bearers still wove its rhythmic way over the mounds to the siftings where Thatcher was presiding as was his wont, but in the native part of the encampment there appeared a sly stir and excitement.
The unoccupied, of all ages and sexes, that usually were squatting interminably about some fire or sleeping like mummies in hermetically wrapped black mantles, now were gathered in little whispering knots whose backward glances betrayed a sense of uneasiness, and as McLean rode past, a young Arab who had been the center of attention drew back with such carefulness to escape observation that McLean’s shrewd eyes marked him closely.
It might be that his nerves were deceiving him, but there did seem to be something surreptitious in the air.
Over his shoulder he glimpsed the young Arab hurrying out of the camp.
It might be anything or nothing, he told himself. The man might be going shopping to the village and the others giving him their commissions, or he might be an illicit dealer in curios trying to pick up some dishonest treasure. In native diggings those hangers on were thick as flies.
He dismounted and hurried forward to meet Thatcher’s advance. The men had rarely met and Thatcher’s air of hesitation and absent-mindedness made McLean proffer his name promptly with a sense of speeding through the preliminaries. Then with a manner he strove to make casual he put his question.
“I say, is Ryder back?”
He knew, in the moment’s pause, how tight suspense was gripping him. Then Thatcher glanced toward the black yawning mouth of a tomb entrance.
“Why, yes–he’s down there.” He added. “Been a bit sick. Complains of the sun.”
For a moment his relief was so great that McLean did not believe in it. Jack here–Jack absolutely safe–
Mechanically he put, “When did he come in?”
“When?” Thatcher hesitated, trying to recall. “Oh, night before last–rode in after dark.” He added reassuringly, as the other swung about towards the tomb, “He says there’s nothing really wrong with him. There’s no temperature.”
McLean nodded. His relief now was acutely compounded with disgust. He felt no lightning leap of thanksgiving that his friend was safe, but rather that flash of irritated reaction which makes the primitive parent smack a recovered child.
Not a thing in the world the matter! A mare’s nest–just as he had prophesied to Miss Jeffries. Why in heaven’s name hadn’t Jack the decency to send that over-anxious young lady a card when he abandoned town so suddenly?... Not that McLean blamed Miss Jeffries. Given the masquerade and Jack’s disappearance and a zealous feminine interest her concern was perfectly natural.
But McLean had left a busy office and taken an anxious and uncomfortable excursion, and his voice had no genial ring as he shouted his friend’s name down the dark entrance of the tomb shaft.
In a moment he heard a voice shouting hollowly back, then a wavering spot of light appeared upon the inclined floor and Ryder’s figure emerged like an apparition from the gloom.
“I say! That you, Andy?”
Evidently he had been snatched from sleep. His dark hair was rumpled, his face flushed, and he yawned with complete frankness.
McLean knew a sudden yearning to put an arm about him.... Dear old Jack.... Dear, irresponsible scamp.... His reaction of the irritation vanished.... It was so darned good to see the old chap again....
He muttered something about being in the vicinity while Ryder, rousing to hostship, called directions to the cook boy to bring a tray of luncheon.
“It’s cool down here,” he told McLean, leading the way back.
It was cool indeed, in the Hall of Offerings. It was also, McLean thought, satisfying a recovered appetite, a trifle depressing.
They sat in a small island of light in an ocean of gloom while about them shadowy columns towered to indistinguishable heights and half-seen carvings projected their strange suggestions.
It seemed incongruous to be smoking cigarettes so unconcernedly at the feet of the ancient gods.
But McLean’s feeling of depression might have been due to his renewed awareness of catastrophe. For though Jack was here, safe and sound enough, although a bit unlike himself in manner, yet Jack had been at that confounded reception in a woman’s rig and Jack had seen the girl and talked with her–apparently on terms of understanding.
And if Jack had left Cairo that night, as he said he did–claiming delay on the way due to a tired horse–then Jack knew nothing in the world of the palace fire, and the girl’s sudden and tragic death.
And McLean would have to tell him. He would have to tell him that the girl he was probably dreaming of in some fool’s paradise of memory and hope was now only a little mound of dust in an Oriental cemetery. That a shaft of temporary wood already marked the grave of Aimée Marie Dejane, daughter of Tewfick Pasha and wife of Hamdi Bey....
And however much McLean’s sound senses might disapprove of the whole fantastic affair and his sober judgment commend the workings of Providence, he loved his friend, and he feared that his friend loved this lost girl.
He had to end love and hope and romance and implant a desperate grief....
He thought very steadily of Jinny Jeffries. He cleared his throat.
“Jack, old man–”
He started to tell him that there had been a fire in Cairo, a most shocking fire in a haremlik. It seemed to him that Jack was not listening, that he had a faraway, yet intent look upon his face, as of one attending to other things. And then suddenly Jack seemed to gather resolution and turned to his friend with an air of narration of his own.
“Look here, McLean, there’s something I want to tell you–”
“Wait a minute now,” said McLean quietly. “I want you to hear this.... It was a fire in the palace of your friend, Hamdi Bey.”
He had Jack’s attention now–he was fairly conscious of arrested breath. Not looking about him he went grimly on, “The night of the wedding a fire started in the haremlik.... It was a bad business, a very bad business, Jack. For the girl–the girl Hamdi had just married–”
He was conscious of Jack’s look upon him but he did not turn to meet it.
“She died,” he said heavily. “He buried her yesterday.”
He thought that Jack was never going to speak.
Then, “Died?” said Ryder in an odd voice.
“I expect she breathed in a bit of smoke,” said McLean, trying for a merciful suggestion.
“And he buried her–?”
Jack was like a child, trying to fit bewildering facts together. McLean’s sympathy hurt him like a physical pain. He wondered what it could be like to realize that some loved one you had just talked with, in radiant life, was now gone utterly....
And then he heard Jack laugh. Mad, he thought quickly, turning now to look at him.
Ryder’s head was tilted back; Ryder’s shoulders were shaking. “Oh, my Aunt!” he gasped hysterically. “My Aunt Clarissa–is that what Hamdi says!”
He sobered instantly and leaned towards McLean. “That looks as if he’s done with her–what? Saving his face that way? You’re sure it was Aimée–the girl he had just married? Not some other girl–some co-wife or something?”
And as McLean bewilderedly muttered that he was sure, Ryder began to laugh again. To laugh jubilantly, joyously, triumphantly.
“He’s given her up–he’s got a saving explanation to thrust in the world’s face! Oh, blessed Allah, Veiler of all that should be veiled! The man’s through. He’s had enough. He isn’t going to try to–”
Across the bright oblong of the entrance a shadow appeared.
“Ryder–I say, Ryder,” said a hurried voice–Thatcher’s voice–and Thatcher came hastily forward in perturbed urgency.
“There’s a lot of men outside–police and natives and what not. With warrants. They’re searching the place. And they want to see you.... Hang it all, Ryder,” said Thatcher explosively but apologetically, “they say you’ve made off with some sheik’s daughter.”
He paused, shocked at the monstrosity of the accusation. He was a delicate-minded man–outside of his knowledge of antiquities–and he evidently expected his young associate to fall upon him and slay him for the slander.
“A sheik’s daughter–?” said Ryder in a mildly wondering voice. From his emphasis one might have inferred he was saying, “How odd! I don’t remember any sheik’s daughter–”
A queer uncomfortable flush spread fanways from Thatcher’s thin temples and rayed across his high cheekbones. He did not look at either of the men as he murmured, “It’s most peculiar, but that Arab horse–the sheik claims the horse is his, too. He says you rode off on it, with his daughter.”
“That’s all right,” said Ryder absently. “I don’t want the horse.... But you say the sheik’s there? What does he look like? Thin–with blond mustaches?”
“Oh, no, no, not at all. He is quite heavy and bearded–one-eyed, if I recollect. But there is a man with a blond mustache who appears to do the directing–”
“And you mean they are searching?” said Ryder abruptly. “You’ve let them in–?”
“They have warrants,” Thatcher protested. “And there are proper policemen conducting the search–”
“My good God! Where are they now? Not coming here? I don’t have any policemen trampling here and meddling with my finds–tell them to clear out, Thatcher, you know there’s no sheik’s daughter here!”
Ryder gave a quick laugh but the impression of his laughter was not as sharp as the impression of his alarm.
“I did tell them it was preposterous,” Thatcher began, “but, you see, after finding the horse–”
“Oh, the horse! I got him for a song–of course the beggar is stolen. Give him back, if they claim him. But as for any sheik’s daughter–keep the crowd out, Thatcher, I won’t have them here, not in these tombs–”
“I tell you they are policemen–they are armed–you can’t resist–”
“How many are they? A lot? But they’ll take your word, won’t they? Look here, McLean, can’t you settle this for me and keep them out?”
“The natives have been talking,” murmured Thatcher, reddening still deeper, “and they have said enough about your riding in at night and–and keeping to this tomb all day to make the men very suspicious. They are watching this one now–”
“Then keep them back–long as you can. For God’s sake,” entreated Ryder with that strange passionate violence. “Andy–you do something–hold them back. Give me time. I–I’ve got to get some things together–I won’t have them at my things–hold them back–out here–till I come.”
He was gone. Gone tearing back into the gloom and silence of his tomb. And McLean and Thatcher, astounded witnesses of his outburst, turned speedily to the entrance, avoiding each other’s eyes.
Agitatedly Thatcher was murmuring that Ryder’s finds were valuable, immensely valuable, and it was disturbing to contemplate any invasion, and with equal agitation but more mechanical calm McLean was murmuring back that he understood–he quite understood–
As for understanding he was stunned and dazed. A sheik’s daughter! And the father himself claiming her–under the direction of a blond-mustached man.... And a stolen horse.... Jack conceding the horse.... Jack utterly upset at the search party....
But he himself had seen that new-placed shaft with its inscription to Aimée Marie Dejane.... What then in the name of wonders did this mean? There couldn’t be another girl? McLean’s imagination faltered then dashed on at a gallop. Some–some hand-maiden, perhaps, whom Jack had rescued in mistaken chivalry? Perhaps the French girl has sent a maid on ahead?
McLean’s head was whirling now. One thing appeared quite as possible as another. Pasha’s daughters and sheik’s daughters, stolen horses and Djinns and Afrits and palaces and masquerades at wedding receptions appeared upon the same plane of feasibility.
Outwardly he was extremely calm. Calm and cold and crisp.
At the mouth of the tomb he detained the party of native policemen with their hangers-on of curious natives and examined, with great show of circumspection and authority, the perfectly regular search warrants which had been issued for them at the instigation of an apparently bereft parent.
He conversed with the alleged parent, a stolid, taciturn native dignitary whose accusations were confirmed by eagerly assenting followers. He lived in a small village, not far north of the camp. He had a young daughter, very beautiful. Three nights ago he had surprised her with this young American and they had fled upon his noblest horse.
It was a simple and direct story. And Jack–by his own report–had been out upon the desert that night, had appeared, upon the next night, with this unknown and beautiful horse, and had since kept to the tomb, claiming illness, in a most persistent way.
The camp boys had testified that he had been vividly critical of the food sent in to him, and that he had required extraordinary amounts of heated water.
“All of which,” McLean said sternly, in the vernacular, “amounts to nothing–unless you can discover the girl.”
“And that, monsieur,” said a Turk in the uniform of the Sultan’s guards, appearing beside the desert sheik, “that is exactly what we are here to do.”
McLean found himself looking into a thin, menacing face, capped with a red fez, a face deeply lined, marked by light, arrogant eyes and embellished with a huge, blond mustache.
“And your interest in this, monsieur?” he questioned.
“I am a friend of Sheik Hassan’s,” said the Turk loftily. “I shall see that my friend obtains his rights.”
And in McLean’s other ear a distraught Thatcher was murmuring “That officer chap is Hamdi Bey–a General of the Guards. You know, Mr. McLean, this really is–you know, it is–”
Hamdi Bey ... Hamdi Bey, two days after his distressing loss, befriending this sheik and trying to involve Jack Ryder in disgrace.
Mystifying. Mystifying and disquieting–yes, disquieting, in the face of Jack’s alarm. But for that alarm McLean could have believed the whole thing a farcical attempt of Hamdi’s to revenge himself upon Ryder–supposing that Hamdi had discovered Ryder in his masquerade or else as the prowler by night–but Jack’s furious anxiety to keep the party out, and his dashing back, ostensibly to preserve his things–
Was it actually possible that he had that sheik’s daughter concealed in some nook or cranny of the place?
McLean told himself that it was preposterous. It waspreposterous–but Ryder had been doing preposterous things.... And glancing at Thatcher he perceived that that perturbed and transparent gentleman was also telling himself that hissuspicions were preposterous.
The search party, tiring of parley, was moving about the hall in businesslike inspection.
And then Ryder reappeared, a distinctly alert but self-contained Ryder, who met the interrogations of the police with scoffing and absolute denial.
But McLean was conscious that there was something tense and nervous in his alertness, something wary and defensive in his readiness, and his own nerves began to tighten apprehensively.
It did not add to his composure to see Ryder salute Hamdi Bey with an ironic and overdone politeness.
“Ah, monsieur le general! We meet as we parted–in the depths!”
The general appeared to smile as at some amiable pleasantry, but McLean caught the snarl of his lifted lip, and felt the currents of animosity.
So those two had met! Ryder had been discovered then.... McLean tried, in futile bewilderment, to recall just what amazing thing Ryder had been saying when this party had appeared.
He kept very close at that young man’s side as the strange party moved on into the inner chamber. The searchers were scrupulously careful of the excavator’s finds; they did not finger a frieze nor disturb a single small box of the tenderly packed potteries and beads and miniature boats, but they scraped every heap of dust to see if it concealed an entrance, they exhausted the resources of each corner, they circled every pillar, shook out every rug of Jack’s blankets and required the opening of the large chest in which the wax reproductions of the friezes were placed, awaiting transportation.
“You will perceive, messieurs,” declared Ryder in mocking irony, “that no human being is within this last fold of wax–especially a being,” he added thoughtfully with a glance at the stolid sheik, “of the proportions of her papa.... This daughter, was she a large young lady?” he inquired politely of the Arab.
The sheik vouchsafed no reply, but from across his ample person the general leaned forward.
“She was small, Monsieur Ryder,” he said in silken tones, “but she can raise a man as high as the gallows–or as low as the grave.”
“A marvel!” returned young Ryder smoothly. “And was she also of charm–a charm that could kindle fires–?”
It appeared to McLean that he caught the flaunting implications of the taunt.
He wished to heaven that Ryder would hold his reckless tongue.
Ryder was turning now to the official in charge of the police.
“If you have satisfied yourselves that this place is empty–”
The man, a rather apologetic, pleasant fellow, shrugged and smiled. “We have examined all–”
There was a moment in which the searchers regarded one another through the gloom in the inquiring embarrassment of the discountenanced and considered departure. But Hamdi Bey had more insistent eyes.
He was circling the place again like a wolf for the scent, flashing his search light over the carved walls, the dancing gleam picking out now a relief of Osiris, now a fishing boat upon the Nile, now the judgment hall of Maat. Suddenly he stopped and began examining a limestone slab.
“These stones–these have been merely piled here,” he cried excitedly. “This is a hole–an entrance. Dig them out, men. There is a door there, I tell you.”
Hastily Ryder addressed the police. “It is simply the burial vault," he told them. “The sarcophagi are there, ready for transportation. Mr. Thatcher will tell you–”
“I assure you it is merely the actual tomb,” said Thatcher nervously. “I have myself assisted my colleague with the preparation.”
The slabs had been displaced now, disclosing the small door, with its fine wrought stele. Hamdi flashed a look of triumph upon the man who had obviously tried to conceal that door from them, a look which Ryder ignored as he turned to McLean.
“That is the door which is sealed forever upon the dead, and upon the Ka, the spiritual double,” he said in a low conversational tone. “It has some remarkable representations of the jackal Anubis–”
It seemed to McLean a most extraordinary time for a disquisition upon Anubis. If Ryder was attempting to prove himself at his ease he had certainly misjudged his manner.
“Damn Anubis,” McLean gave back under his breath. “He’s not the only jackal–What the devil’s the meaning of this?”
Ryder made no reply. The stone had been pushed back and the searchers were stooping beneath the narrow entrance. Then as McLean’s head bent at the door he heard his friend whispering, “I say–you haven’t a gun you could slip me–?”
Mutely he shook his head. And that agitated whisper died away with the last vestige of belief in Ryder’s innocence. Apprehensively McLean glanced about that inner chamber he was entering, dreading to encounter instant and damning evidence of a girl.
He found himself in the presence of the dead. The chamber was a small, square, walled-up affair, and at one side stood the three sarcophagi. The other halls had been in total darkness, but the blackness of this place appeared something palpable and weighty. And the air had the dry, acrid tang of dust which has lain waiting for centuries.
It was hot, whereas the other chambers had been cool–or else McLean’s disturbed blood was pumping too furiously through his pulses. Instinctively he drew close to Jack, as the party stood flashing their lights over the bare walls and empty corners, and then concentrated the pale illumination upon those caskets of the dead.
“I told you that the place was empty,” Ryder said with distinct impatience in his voice. “And now, if you have satisfied yourselves–”
“You are in haste, monsieur,” said Hamdi Bey’s smooth voice. “If you will permit us to see what is within–”
He approached the first sarcophagus.
The sheik, who appeared to have committed the restoration of his daughter into the other’s hands, remained imperturbably beside the entrance while the head of the police came forward to assist Hamdi in raising the painted lid.
“I protest,” said Ryder very sharply. He stood upon the other side of the case, eying them combatively. “It is useless to disturb this lid–I tell you that the Persians have been considerably before you.”
And indeed the case was empty. Hamdi moved to the next and again Ryder took up his post opposite.
“Again I protest,” he insisted. “The least jar or injury–”
But the men raised the lid, and after the briefest look, moved on.
“And now,” Ryder spoke very clearly and authoritatively, addressing the head of the police, “I must ask you to stop. Even the dust that you are disturbing is precious. This thing has gone beyond all reason.”
The police official looked as if he agreed with him, but Hamdi Bey had moved determinedly to the third sarcophagus. The official hesitated, evidenced discomfort, but moved finally after the bey.
“If there is nothing here,” he murmured, “surely you cannot object–”
“There is precious dust here,” Ryder repeated. “You must understand–”
“We see for ourselves,” said Hamdi Bey, and now his voice had a ring of triumphant steel through its soft smoothness. “Stand aside. This is in the name of the law.”
It seemed to McLean that for one mad moment Ryder was tempted to resist. In the flickering light of the torches he stood defiantly above the painted mummy case, his eyes steadily upon the bey, his hands pressing down upon the vivid bloom of the dead woman’s pictured face.
Then with a beaten but ironic smile he stood aside.
Slowly the men lifted the lid.... In that moment McLean became aware that his heart was pumping thickly somewhere in his throat and that the rest of him was a hollow, horrible void of suspense.
Hamdi Bey turned his arrogant stare from young Ryder and looked down.... Drawing closer, fearfully McLean’s eyes followed him.
He could not believe their evidence. His heart could not stop its idiotic pumping.
But there he saw no terror-stricken girl, no pallid runaway of the harems, but a still, dark-shrouded form, swathed in the tight bandages of the ancient embalmer, a dry, dusty little mummy creature blankly and inscrutably confronting this unforeseen resurrection.
Over their dumbfounded heads he heard young Ryder’s mocking laugh.