The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
THE PAINTED CASE
“She’s fainted,” said Ryder in a voice that shook. From his pocket he drew swiftly a thermos bottle but before the top was off those long lashes fluttered, and from under their shadow the soft, dark eyes looked up at him with a smile of very gallant reassurance.
“Not–faint,” said the girl, in a breath of a voice. “But it was so long–so hot–”
“Drink this.” Ryder slipped an arm about her, offering the filled top of the thermos. “It’s over, all over,” he murmured as she drank. “You’re safe now, safe.... You’re at the museum.... Then we’ll get you to the hotel–”
“Hotel–?” the girl echoed with a faint implication of humor in that silver bell of a voice.
She put her hands to her hair and to her face in which the hues of life mingled with the pallor of exhaustion; on her small fingers sparkled the gleam of diamonds and from her slender arms fell back the gold and jade tissues of her chiffon robe.
To McLean she had increasingly the appearance of a creature of enchantments. And to see that young loveliness in its strange gleam of color lying against his friend’s supporting tan linen arm–
Sardonically his eyes sought Ryder.
“So that was your mummy!”
“There was nothing else to do.” Ryder had withdrawn his arm; the two men faced each other across the girl. “I was in a blue funk–you see, I was hiding her in the inner chamber until I could smuggle her away. And when those wolves came on the scent, and not an instant to lose–I got the bandages off the real mummy and about Aimée.... Lord, it was a close call!”
He drew a long breath. “I hadn’t a gun. I hadn’t a thing–and I had to grin and play it through ... And I was deathly afraid of Thatcher.”
“Yes, Thatcher. You see I’d popped the mummy into a case without its bandages and if Thatcher had glimpsed that he’d have said something–Oh, innocently–that would have given the show away. He knew there was only one mummy and it was wrapped. But the Lord was with me. The men opened the empty case first and at the second they said nothing to show it wasn’t empty and Thatcher didn’t look in. Then they went on to the third.”
“And me–when I heard those voices–I stopped breathing,” said the girl. “But I shook so–I thought they would think that mummy was coming to life! And the dust–Oh, it was almost beyond my force not to sneeze–”
“You’d have sneezed us to Kingdom Come,” said Ryder, gayly now.
“But I did not,” she protested. “I lay there and thought of Hamdi looking down upon me, and my flesh crept.... Oh, it was terrible! And yet it was funny.”
Funny.... McLean gazed in sardonic astonishment upon the two young creatures with such misguided humor that they found something funny in this appalling business. Flying from palaces ... hiding in tombs ... taking a mummy’s place beneath the dusty bandages of the dead ... Funny....
And yet there was laughter in their young eyes when they looked at each other and a curve of astounding amusement in their lips.
It touched McLean to wonder. It touched him–queerly–to an odd and aching pain. For he saw suddenly that he was looking upon something deathless and imperishable, yet fragile and fleeting as the breath of time....
They were so young, so absorbed, so oblivious....
He had forgotten Jinny Jeffries. So too,–not for the first time, alas!–had Ryder. Now her clear voice from the doorway made them start.
“You might present me, Jack.”
Ryder turned, so did the girl in the painted case, and her eyes widened with a startled surprise. The doorway had not been within her vision.
Jinny was leaning back against the door, her hand behind her on the knob she was to guard, her figure still rigid with astonishment.
“I didn’t know you–you dug them up–alive,” she said with a quiver of uncertain humor.
“My dear Jinny, I had for–Miss Jeffries, let me present you to Mademoiselle Delcassé,” said Jack gravely. “I know that you met her the day of her reception–”
Only in that moment did Jinny place the haunting recollection.
“But she was burned–she was killed,” she protested, shaken now with excitement.
“She was not burned–although there was a fire. The man who called himself her husband pretended she was killed in order to save his pride. For she escaped from him. And he tried to get her back, setting another man, a false father, after her with lying witnesses–Oh, it’s a long story!–so I had to hide her in this case.”
“But Jack, you–why were you hiding her–? Did you get her out?" stammered Jinny.
“The night of that reception. You see, I knew she was truly a French girl who had been stolen by Tewfick Pasha and brought up as his daughter–Oh, that’s a long story, too! But at McLean’s I had happened on the agents who were searching for her from her aunt in France, and so I knew.... And at the reception when I found she hated that marriage I stayed behind and–and managed to get her away,"–thus lightly did Ryder indicate the dangers of that night!–"so she could escape to France.”
“Oh–France!” said Jinny.
She could be forgiven for the tone. She had been kept shamefully in the dark, misled, ignored.... She had been a catspaw, a bystander.
Not that she cared. Not that she would let them think for a minute that she cared....
But as for this talk of France–
Her eyes met the eyes of the girl in the mummy case. And Jinny found herself looking, not at the interloper, the enchantress, but at a very young, frightened girl, lost in a strange world, but resolved upon courage. She saw more than the men could see. She saw the loveliness, the helplessness, and she saw too the sensitive dignity, the delicate, defensive spirit....
Really, she was a child.
And to have gone through so much, dared such danger.... She remembered that dark, forbidding palace, the guarded doors, the hideous blacks–and that bright, smiling figure in its misty veil.... And now that little figure sat in its strange hiding place, confronting her with a lost child’s eyes....
Into Jinny’s bright gray eyes came a mist of tears. She was queerly moved. It was a mingled emotion, but if some drops for her own disconcertment were mingled with the warm prompting of pity, her compassion was none the less true.
“I’ll be so glad to do anything I can to help,” she said impulsively. “If you have no friends to trust in Cairo–”
“I have no friends to trust–beyond this room,” said the girl.
“Then I’ll take you to the hotel with me. You can register as one of our party and keep your room till we leave–we are going in four days now. And, oh, I know! You can cross on the same steamer with us to Europe, for there’s a woman at the hotel who wants to give up her transportation and go on to the Holy Land–she was moaning about it only this noon. It would all fit in beautifully.”
It seemed to McLean that an angel from Heaven was revealing her blessed goodness.
Ryder took the revelation delightedly for granted.
“Bully for you, Jinny,” he said warmly. “I knew I could count on you.”
If for one moment a twinge of wry reminder recalled that she had never been able exactly to count upon him it did not dim his mood. He was alight with triumph.
“I’ll see to the transportation,” he said quickly, doing mental arithmetic about present sums in the bank. “And we won’t wire your aunt until you’re safely out of Egypt–better send a wireless from the ship. I think your aunt is near Paris–”
“We are going to hurry to Paris,” said Jinny, “That was our regular plan–”
“And London?” said McLean.
“London, later, of course. Cathedrals, lakes and universities–then London.”
“I shall be in London,” said McLean thoughtfully, “in June.... If you are not too occupied–”
“With cathedrals?” said Miss Jeffries.
“Where are the things?” demanded Ryder ruthlessly, and thus recalled, Jinny produced the bag.
McLean moved toward the door. “We might go and mount guard in the corridor,” he suggested, and he and Jinny stepped outside, back into the everyday world of Egypt where nothing at all had been happening but the arrival of a caravan from the excavations.
Within the room Ryder stooped and lifted the girl from the case and set her lightly on the floor. Ruefully she shook out the torn chiffons of that French audacity of a robe, and with a whimsical smile surveyed the soiled little slippers that she had discarded in her disguise when she had ridden behind the turbaned Ryder upon the Arab horse.
So little time ago, and yet so long away–
Under her long lashes she looked up at the young man, who had set the old life crumbling about her at a touch. Wistfulness edged the brave smile with which she murmured, “And so it is all arranged–so quick. I am safe–I go to the hotel with that nice girl–”
“And I won’t be able to see you,” he said suddenly.
“But you have seen me, monsieur, these many days–”
“Seen you? I haven’t seen you. I’ve sat outside a tomb on guard, I’ve marched beside a mummy case–and–and we’ve said so little–”
It was true. They had said little. The hours had been absorbed in action. Their words had always been of explanation, of reassurance, of anxious planning. Of the future, the future after safety had been achieved, they had said nothing. It had all been uncertain, nebulous, vague....
And now it was upon them.
“And I have never said Thank you,” she murmured. “I–I think I began by saying Thank you, monsieur. I remember saying that my education had proceeded to the Ts!”
“If–if only you never want to unsay it,” he muttered. “You don’t know what’s ahead–life’s so uncertain–”
“No, I do not know what is ahead,” she told him, “but I am free–free for whatever will come.”
The brightness of that freedom shone suddenly from her upturned face.
“Anything is better than that man,” she vowed. “Even if my aunt, that Madame Delcassé, should not like me–you see, I have thought of everything, and I am not afraid.”
“Like you–? She’ll love you,” said Ryder bitterly. “She’ll go mad over you and give you all she has–she’ll marry you to a count–”
“Another marriage?” Aimée raised brows of mockery. “But I am through with the marriages of convenience–”
“You’re so lovely, darling, that you’ll have the world at your feet,” said the young man huskily.
He looked at her with eyes that could not hide their pain. “Oh, I–you–it’s not fair–” he muttered incoherently.
He had meant–ever since that sobering moment of guardianship in the desert–to be very fair. He would not bind her with a word, a touch. Not since that impulsive clasp of reunion in the palace had he touched her in caress. With the reverence of his deep tenderness he had served her in the tomb, meaning to deny his heart, to delay its revelation, to wait upon her freedom and her youth....
Nobly he had resolved.... But now parting was upon him.
“It’s not fair to you,” he said desperately–and drew closer.
For at his blurted words her look had magically changed. The defensive lightness was fled. A breathless wonder shone out at him ... a delicious shyness brushed with dancing expectation like the gleam of a butterfly’s wing.
No glamorous moonlight was about them now. No scented shadowy garden.... But the enchantment was there, in the bare and dusty room, with its grim old mummy cases, the enchantment and the very flame of youth.
“Sweet, I’ll be on the ship–I’ll wait till you are ready,” he vowed and at her low murmur, “Ready–?” he gave back, “Ready–for love," with a boy’s stammer over the first sound of that word between them.
“But what is this now,” she said wondering, yet with a little elfish gleam of laughter, “but–love?”
His last resolve went to the winds.
And as his arms closed about her, as he held to his heart all that young loveliness that had been his despair and his delight, there was more than joy in the confused tumult of his youth, there was the supreme exultation of triumphant daring.
For he had opened the forbidden door; he had challenged the adventure and overcome the risk.
He had won. And he would hold his winnings.
“Aimée,” he whispered. “Aimée–Beloved.”