The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
“It’s good news!” said Miss Jeffries with bright positives.
It was her response to Andrew McLean’s greeting that evening. He had made rather a tardy appearance at the hotel, for there had been an important dinner with an important bank official passing through Cairo to escape from, but he arrived at last, looking extraordinarily well in his very best dinner clothes.
And Miss Jeffries, for all her harassment of suspense, was no woeful object in a vivacious blue evening frock with silvery gleams.
“He’s safe–absolutely safe,” McLean confirmed.
He expected radiance. Miss Jeffries’ expression was arrested judgment.
“At his camp ... I just returned–just in time to dine. I motored out this morning.”
“Oh!... It took your whole day. I am so sorry!” For a moment the girl appeared to concentrate her sympathetic interest upon McLean.
“You must simply hate me,” she told him repentantly, dropping into one of the chairs in the drawing-room corner she had long been guarding. “Do sit down and tell me all the horrid details....–Uncle and Aunt are in the Lounge, and I should like you to meet them, but they’ll be there forever and I do want to hear first.... Was it fearfully hot?”
“Oh, rather,” murmured the young man, confused by this change of interest. “I mean, that’s quite the usual thing, isn’t it, for deserts? I got up a good breeze going, for I was a bit wrought up, you know–not a soul in Cairo had seen Jack since that day.”
“And he was out at his camp,” said Jinny thoughtfully. “How–how long had he been there?”
“He says he started that night,” said McLean non-committally.
“Oh!... That night.... That was rather sudden, wasn’t it?”
“Jack’s sudden, you know,” mentioned his friend uncomfortably. “And he had a lot of finds to pack up for transport–they are taking their stuff to the museum and Jack had been away so long, here in the city–”
“No wonder I didn’t hear then!” said the girl with a laugh in which it would have taken an acuter ear than McLean’s to detect the secret clamor of chagrin and humiliation.
Of course she had wanted Jack to be safe.... But he might have been ill–or away on some official summons–
Just back at his diggings. Gone off on an impulse, with no thought to let her know....
And she had rushed to McLean with her silly worries and her anxious concern which he had probably taken for a tender interest....
Heaven knows what disillusionizing thing Jack had said to him that day!... Men were too hateful.
And now McLean had come dutifully to report that the man she was so worried about was quite well and busy, thank you, only he had overlooked any friendship for her, and so had sent no word–
In Jinny’s ears was the rush of the furies’ wings. But on Jinny’s lips was a proud little smile, and her bright look was a shining shield for the wounds of the spirit.
“That is a comfort,” she said with pleasant, friendly warmth. “You don’t know how horridly responsible I felt! Really, Jack ought to have let me know–but that’s Jack all over. He’s never grown up.”
“He’s not had much time,” returned McLean from the height of his twenty-nine years.
“He never will,” said Jinny sagely, “not until–well, not until he meets some girl, you know, who will make him feel really responsible.”
It occurred unhappily to McLean that the girl Jack had been meeting so assiduously of late had certainly not added to his claims to responsibility!
Steadily he guarded silence. There are ice fields, on Mont Blanc, where a whisper precipitates an avalanche, and McLean had no intention of starting anything in his friend’s slippery field of affairs.
“I have spent more time,” Miss Jeffries was confiding brightly, for those imperative reasons of her own so obscure to the bewildered young man, “introducing Jack to nice girls–but it never takes! Not seriously. He’s a perfectly dear friend, but he doesn’t care anything really about girls–and he does need somebody to get him out of his antiquities and his dusty old diggings ... But of course you think I am a sentimental thing!”
McLean did not tell her what he thought. He was still fascinatedly engrossed with her revelation of the impeccable Platonic basis of her friendship. His mood of complicated emotion lightened and brightened and at the same time an amazed wonder unfolded its astonishment.
He marveled at his friend. To turn to something fantastic, something bizarre–for so he thought of that veiled girl of the harem–when he had this Miss Jeffries for a friend–but probably the young lady herself had never given him the least encouragement. Women are not easily moved to romance for men they have always regarded as brothers and he could see that her feeling for Jack was the warm, honest, sisterly affection of utter frankness.
The worse for Jack. For now there seemed no ministering angel to mend his troubled future.
It was not only Ryder’s troubled future that troubled McLean–it was also Ryder’s troubled present. He was very far from easy in his mind about him. After that mystifying performance in the tomb he had not wanted to leave without a frank explanation, but there had been no moment for revelation; Thatcher had hung about them and Hamdi Bey, of all men, had requested a place in McLean’s motor for the return to Cairo.
And that dinner engagement had pressed. He could have abandoned it for any real reason, but Jack had assured him that there was none.
“Get the old devil out of here,” had been Jack’s furious appeal, referring to Hamdi. “Deny everything to him. Only get him out.”
And McLean had got him out.
The sheik and his followers after a murmurous conference with the bey had galloped off; the police had turned towards their post and Hamdi had accompanied McLean to the nearest village and his waiting motor.
Clearly he had wanted to talk to McLean and McLean was not sorry for the opportunity to exchange implications. The bey had unfolded his sympathetic friendship for the sheik; McLean had unfolded a cold surprise that anything so disgraceful should be attributed to such a prominent archaeologist. The bey had produced the evidence and McLean had produced a skeptical wonder, and then a thoughtful wonder if the British government had not better take the matter up and sift it, for the benefit of all concerned.
Clearly the thing could not go on. Ryder could not accept such a rumor against his reputation. Yes, he thought he would advise Ryder to take the matter up.
And there he perceived that even the suave and politic Hamdi squirmed. Doubtless to the Turk, McLean represented British prestige and political power and all sorts of unknown influence.... And native testimony, while voluable and unscrupulous, had a way of offering confused discrepancies to the coldly questioning investigators of the law.
And with no real evidence against Ryder–
The matter of the sheik’s daughter, McLean perceived, would be dropped. Unless the girl–whatever girl they sought–could be discovered.
If Hamdi wished to pay off some score against the American he would choose other weapons. McLean reflected upon the bey’s capacity for assassination or poisoning while he bade him farewell before the dark wall of his palace entrance.
Between them had passed no reference to the bey’s recent loss. Since it would not have been etiquette for him to mention the bey’s wife, he judged it equally inadvisable to refer to her ashes.
The whole affair was so wrapped in darkness that he could not decide upon any creditable explanation. It would have to wait until he saw Ryder in the next day or two–for Ryder had told him he would try to get in with his finds as soon as possible.
But no matter how he tried to dismiss the matter from his mind he had found himself asking, through the courses of that important dinner and now in the pauses of his conversation with Miss Jeffries–Was there really some girl? Had he only dreamed that tense anxiety of Jack’s–had Jack led them on for his own young amusement?
But it was not long possible to maintain an inner communion with Jinny Jeffries for a vis-ŕ-vis.
A divided mind could not companion her swift flights and sudden tangents. Deriding now her silly anxieties and deploring McLean’s unnecessary trip, she had branched into the consideration of how busy McLean must be–and McLean found himself somehow embarked in sketchy descriptions of the institution of which Miss Jeffries seemed to think he was the backbone and of its very interesting work throughout the country.
And as he had talked he found himself noticing things that he had never noticed before about girls, the wave of bright hair against a flushed cheek, the dimples in a rounded arm, the slim grace of crossed ankles and silver-slippered feet.
“And you live all alone in that big house?” Jinny was murmuring.
“Not exactly alone.” McLean smiled. “There’s Mohammed and Hassan and Abdullah and Alewa and Saord-el-Tawahi–”
“What do you call him when you are in a hurry?” laughed the girl.
It was a tremendously pleasant evening. He had expected constraint and secret embarrassment and he had discovered this delightful interest and bright vivacity.
And if beneath that interest and vivacity something lay forever stilled and chilled in Miss Jeffries’ breast–like a poor hidden corpse beneath bright roses–why at two and twenty expectancies flourish so gayly that one lone bud is not long missed. And chagrin is sometimes a salutary transient shower, and self-confidence is all the more delicate for a dimming cloud.
Moreover McLean’s unconscious absorption was balm and blessing.
When in startled realization of time and place he rose at last and she murmured laughing, “And after all you never met Aunt and Uncle!" he felt a queer blush tingle his cheek bones and a daring impulse shape the thought aloud that in that case he must come again.
“We’re here five days more,” said Jinny, the explicit.
Thoughtfully he repeated, “Five days,” and said farewell.
“Now if he decorously waits to the next to the last day–!” murmured Jinny to herself, her opinion of the Scots race hanging in the balance.
He didn’t. But it was not the initiative of the Scots race which brought him to her, late that very next afternoon, but a soiled looking note which he held crumpled in his hand.
He found her at tea upon the veranda with her aunt and uncle and while he made conversation with the Pendletons he gave Miss Jeffries the note.
“From our friend Ryder,” he said with forced lightness. “It explains itself.”
But it certainly did not. It was a hasty scrawl to McLean, saying that Ryder was on his way with the museum finds and sending this ahead by runner, and that McLean must positively be at the Cairo Museum to meet him at five and would he please stop on the way and call at his hotel upon a Miss Jeffries and borrow a woman’s cloak and hat and veil, or if she wasn’t in, get them elsewhere.
“What is it–another masquerade?” said Jinny blankly.
McLean looked mutely at her and shook his head, but within him horrific suspicion was raging like a forest fire.
He continued his converse with the Pendletons while Jinny went for the things; she returned with a small bag containing coat and hat and veil, and the announcement that she would go right over with him.
“If the things aren’t right I’ll know what he wants,” she declared, and then, smiling, “What do you suppose he is up to now?”
McLean felt that he didn’t want to know. And most positively he didn’t want her to know. But having lacked the instant inspiration to deny her, he could only acquiesce and wonder why he hadn’t thought up some brilliant excuse.
He looked helplessly at the Pendletons, but they merely murmured their adieux and their independent niece accompanied McLean to his waiting carriage as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The caravan was before them. A long line of camels was just turning in the gates and before the steps of a back entrance other camels, kneeling with that profound and squealing resentment with which even the camel’s most exhausted moments oppose commands, were being relieved of their huge loads by natives under the very minute and exact direction of Thatcher.
And within the entrance a young man with rumpled dark hair and a thin, bronzed face flushed with impatience was imperiously conveying the Arabs who were bearing the precious sarcophagi.
Over his shoulder he caught sight of the two arrivals.
“I asked for motors–and they furnished these!” he cried disgustedly, gesturing at the enduring camels. “It took us all day though we half killed the brutes.... Hello, Jinny, did you bring the things?”
With light casualness he accepted her appearance on the scene. That glitter in his bright hazel eyes was not for that. “Come in, both of you,” he called, plunging after his men.
At the foot of the stairs McLean waited with Miss Jeffries until the men had reached the top and deposited their burdens in the room and in the manner which Ryder was specifying so crisply, and then they came mechanically up.
McLean had the automatic feeling of a mere super in a well rehearsed scene. He had no idea of plot or appearance but his rôle of dumb subservience was clearly defined.
“You understand,” Ryder was calling to the men, “nothing more goes in this room. All else down stairs.... Come in,” he said hurriedly to his waiting friends, and shutting the door swiftly behind them, “of course–this doesn’t lock!” he muttered. “Jinny, you stand here, do, and if any one tries to come in tell them they can’t.”
“Tell them you say they can’t?” questioned Jinny a little helplessly.
“No–no–not that. Tell them you are using the room; tell them," said Ryder with very brisk and serious inspiration, “tell them your petticoat is coming off!”
“Why Jack Ryder!” said Jinny indignantly.
“Nonsense,” said he to her indignation. “Don’t you remember when your aunt’s petticoat came off on the way to church? It happens.”
“But it doesn’t run in families!”
Her protest fell apparently upon the back of his head. He had turned to the last sarcophagus and was slipping his fingers beneath the lid. “Here, Andy,” he said quickly. “I had it wedged so it wasn’t tight shut, but it’s been so infernally hot and dusty–”
He was tremendously troubled. It was not the heat which had brought those fine beads of moisture to his brow, white above the line of brown, and drawn such a pale ring about his mouth. McLean saw that the slim, wiry wrists which supported the case’s top were shaking.
“Gently now,” he murmured and the lid was lifted and laid aside.
The same dark, unstirring form of the tomb scene. The same dry, dusty little mummy.... But with hands strangely reckless for an archaeologist dealing with the priceless stuff of time Ryder tore at those bandages; he unwrapped, he unwound, and in a lightning’s flash–
To McLean’s tense, expectant nerves it was like a scene at the pantomime. He had divined it; he had foreseen and yet there was the shock and eerie thrill of magic, the appealing unreality of the supernatural in the revelation.
In a wave of an enchanter’s wand the mummy was gone. And in its place lay a Sleeping Beauty, the dark hair in sculptured closeness to the head, the long, black lashes sweeping the still cheeks.