The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
IN THE PASHA’S PALACE
Nearer sounded the footsteps on the graveled walk and in frightened haste the girl drew out the key from the gate and slipped away into the shrubbery, grateful for the blotting shadows.
At the foot of a rose bush she crouched to thrust the key into a hole in the loose earth, covering the top and drawing the low branches over it.
“Aimée,” came a guarded call. “Aimée!”
Still stooping, she tried to steal through the bushes, but the thorns held her and she stood up, pulling at her robes.
“Yes? Miriam?” she said faintly, and desperately freeing herself, she hurried forward towards the dark, bulky figure of her old nurse, emerging now into the moonlight.
“_Alhamdolillah–Glory to God!” ejaculated the old woman, but cautiously under her breath. “Come quickly–he is here–thy father! And thou in the garden, at this hour.... But come,” and urgently she gripped the girl’s wrist as if afraid that she would vanish again into the shadows of the shrubbery.
Aimée felt her knees quake under her. “My father!” she murmured, and her voice died in her throat.
Had he discovered? Had some one seen her slip out? Or recognized her at the ball?
The panic-stricken conjectures surged through her in dismaying confusion. She tried to beat down her fear, to think quickly, to rally her force, but her swimming senses were still invaded with the surprise of those last moments at the gate, her heart still beating with the touch of Ryder’s arms about her ... of that long, deep look ... that kiss, beyond all else, that kiss....
Little rivers of fire were running through her veins. Shame and proud anger set up their swift reactions. Oh, what wings of wild, incredible folly had brought her to this! To be kissed like–like a dancing girl–by a man, an unknown, an American!
How could he, how could he! After all his kindness–to hold her so lightly.... And yet there had been no lightness in his eyes, those eager, shining young eyes, so gravely concerned....
But she could not stop to think of this thing. Her father was waiting.
“He came in like a fury,” the old nurse was panting, as they scurried up the walk together, “and asked for you ... and your room empty, your bed not touched!... Oh, Allah’s ruth upon me, I went trotting through the house, mad with fear.... Up to the roofs then down to the garden ... sending him word that you were dressing that he should not know the only child of his house was a shameless one, devoid of sense.”
“But there is no harm in a garden,” breathed the girl, her face hot with shame. “To-night was so hot–”
“Is there no coolth upon the roof?”
“But the roses–”
“Can roses not be brought you? Have you no maids to attend you?”
“I am tired of being attended! Can I never be alone–”
“Alone in the garden!... A pretty talk! Eh, I will tell thy father, I will have a stop put to this–hush, would you have him hear?" she admonished, in a sudden whisper, as they opened the little door at the foot of the dark well of spiral steps.
Like conspirators they fled up the staircase, and then with fumbling haste the old nurse dragged off the girl’s mantle and veil, muttering at the pins that secured it. She shook out the pale-flowered chiffon of her rumpled frock and gathered back a strand of her dark, disordered hair.
“Say that you were on the roofs,” she besought her.
For a moment the girl put the warm rose of her cheek against the old woman’s dark, wrinkled one.
“But you are good, Dadi,” she said softly, using the Turkish word for familiar old servants.
With a sound of mingled vexation and affection Miriam pushed her ahead of her into the drawing-room.
It was a long, dark room, on whose soft, buff carpet the little gilt chairs and sofas were set about with the empty expectancy of a stage scene in a French salon. French were the shirred, silk shades upon the electric lamps, French the music upon the chic rosewood piano.
And then, as if some careless property man had overlooked them in changing the act, two window balconies of closely carved old wood, of solidly screening mashrubiyeh wood, jutted out from one cream-tinted wall, and above a gilded sofa, upholstered in the delicate fabric of the Rue de la Paix, hung a green satin banner embroidered in silver with a phrase from the Koran.
Tewfick Pasha was at one side of the room, filling his match case. He was in evening dress, a ribbon of some order across a rather swelling shirt bosom, a red fez upon his dark head.
At his daughter’s entrance he turned quickly, with so sharp a gleam from his full, somewhat protuberant black eyes that her guilty heart fairly turned over in her.
It made matters no more comforting to have Miriam packed from the room.
She would deny it all, she thought desperately ... No, she would admit it, and implore his indulgence.... She would admit nothing but the garden.... She would admit the ball.... She would never admit the young man....
With conscious eyes and flushing cheeks, woefully aware of dew-drenched satin slippers and an upsettingly hammering heart, Aimée presented the young image of irresolute confusion.
To her surprise there was no outburst. Her father was suddenly gay and smiling, with a flow of pleasant phrases that invited her affection. In his good humor–and Tewfick Pasha liked always to be kept in good humor–he had touches of that boyish charm that had made him the enfant gâté of Paris and Vienna as well as Cairo and Constantinople. An enfant no more, in the robustly rotund forties, his cheerful self-indulgence demanded still of his environment that smiling acquiescence that kept life soft and comfortable.
And now it suddenly struck Aimée, through her tense alarm, that his smile was not a spontaneous smile, but was silently, uneasily asking his daughter not to make something too unpleasant for him ... that something that had brought him here, at an unprecedented midnight ... that had kept him waiting until she, supposedly, should rise and dress....
If it were not then a knowledge of her escapade–?
The relief from that fear made everything else bearable. She was even able to entertain, with a certain welcome, the alternative alarm that he had decided to marry again–that nightmare from whose realization the unknown gods (or more truly, the unknown goddesses of the Cairene demi-monde!) had assisted to save her.
There was a furtive excitement about him that fanned the supposition.
Then, quite suddenly, the illuminating lightning cut the clouds.
“My dear child, I have news, really important news for you. If I have not been discussing your future,” said Tewfick Pasha, staring with stern nonchalance ahead and determinedly unaware of her instant stiffening of attention, “I have by no means been neglectful of it.... To-day–indeed to-night–there has been a consummation of my plans.... It is not to every daughter that a father may hurry with such an announcement.”
Her first feeling was a merciful relief. He knew nothing then of the ball! She could breathe again.... It was her marriage that had brought him.
No new danger, that, but the eternal menace that she had always to dread.... But how many times had he promised that she should have no unknown husband, imposed by tradition! How many times had she indulged dreams of Europe, of bright, free romance!
And now he was off on some tangent from which it would need all her coaxing wit to divert him. With wide eyes painfully intent, her little, jeweled fingers very still in their locked grip in her lap, the color draining from her cheeks, she sat waiting for the revelation.
What was it all? Had he really decided upon something? Upon some one?
Tewfick Pasha appeared in no hurry to inform her. He wandered rather confusedly into a rambling speech about her age and her position and the responsibilities of life and his inabilities to prevent their reaching her, and about his very tender affection for her and his understanding of all those girlish reticences and reluctances which made innocent youth so exquisite, while silently his daughter hung her head and wondered what he would be saying if he knew that she had broken every canon of seclusion and convention, had talked and danced with a man....
His astonishment would be so horrific that she flinched even from the thought.
And if he knew, moreover, that this man had caught her and kissed her–!
She told herself that she was disgraced for life. She had a dreamy desire to close her eyes and lean back and dream on about that disgrace....
But she must listen to her father. He was talking now about the powers of wealth, not merely the nominal riches of his somewhat precarious political affiliations, but solid, sustaining, invested and invulnerable wealth.
Unexpectedly Aimée laughed. “He must be very plain,” she declared, her face brightening with mockery, “if you take so long to tell me his name!”
Not, she added to herself under her breath, that any name would weigh a feather’s difference!
“On the contrary,” and the pasha’s eyes met hers frankly for the first time and he seemed delighted to indulge a laugh, “he has the reputation of good looks. He is much à la mode.”
“Beautiful and golden–did you meet him just to-night, my father?" Aimée went on, in that light audacity which he had loved to indulge.
Now he smiled, but his glance went uneasily away from her.
“Not at all. This is a serious affair, you understand–the devil of a serious affair!” and for the first time she felt she heard the accents of his candor.
But again he was back to voluble protestation. This man was really an old friend. He boggled over the word, then got it out resonantly. A man he knew well. Not a young man, perhaps–certainly he was not going to hand his only daughter to any boy, a mere novice in life!–but a man who could give her the position she deserved. Not only a rich man, but an influential one.
His name, he brought out at last, was Hamdi Bey. He was a general in the armies of the sultan.
It was a long moment before she could piece any shreds of recollection together.
Hamdi Bey ... A general.... Why, that was a man her father had disliked ... more than once he had dropped resentful phrases of his airs, his arrogance ... had recounted certain clashes with malicious joy.
And now he was planning–no, seriously announcing–
A general ... He must be terribly old....
Not that it made any difference. Old or young, black or white, general or ghikar, would mean nothing in her life. She would have none of him ... none of him.... Never would she endure the humiliation of being handed over like a toy, an odalisque, a slave....
What had happened? She could only suppose that her father had been overcome by that wealth of the general’s on which he had made her such a speech. Or perhaps his dislike of Hamdi had been founded on nothing but resentment of Hamdi’s airs of superiority, and now that the bey was condescending to ask for her hand her father’s flattered appeasement was rushing into genial acceptance.
Anything might be possible to Tewfick Pasha’s eternally youthful enthusiasms.
She told her frightened heart that she was not afraid.... Her father would never really fail her.... And she would never surrender to this degradation; for all her fright and all her flinching from defiance she divined in herself some hidden stuff of resistance, tenacious to endure ... some strain of daring which had made her brave that wild escapade to-night.
Was it still the same night? Were the violins still playing, the people still dancing in their fairy land of freedom?... Was that young man in the Highland dress, that unknown American, was he back there dancing with some other girl?
What was it he had said? To-morrow night, and another night, he would be there in the lane.... If she would come! As if she would demean herself, after his rude affront, to steal again to the gate, like a gardener’s daughter–!
Her thoughts were so full of him. And now she had this new horror to face, this marriage to Hamdi Bey. Did her father dream that she would not resist? It was against such a danger that she had long ago stolen a garden key, a key to the outer world in which she had neither a friend nor a piaster to save her....
“My dear father,” she said entreatingly, “please do not tell me that you really mean–that you really think you would like to–that you would consider–this man–”
He turned on her a suddenly direct, confessing look.
“Aimée, I have arranged this matter.”
He added heavily, “To-night. That is what I came to tell you.”
In the silence that settled upon them he finally ceased his effort to ignore her shocked dismay. He abandoned his airy pretense that the affair could possibly evoke her enthusiasm. He sucked at his cigarette like a rather sullen little boy.
“I have always indulged you, Aimée,” he said at last, without looking round at her. “I hope you are not going to make me infernally sorry.”
“I think you are m-making me inf-fernally sorry,” said an unsteady little voice.
He looked about. His daughter was sitting very still upon the gilded sofa beneath the banner of Mahomet; as he regarded her two great tears formed in her dark eyes and ran slowly down her cheeks.
With a sound of impatience he jumped to his feet and began to pace up and down the room.
This, he pointed out heatedly, to her, was what a man got who indulged his daughter. This is what came of French and English governesses and modern ideas.... After all he had done–more than any other father! To sit and weep! Weep–at such a marriage! What did she expect of life? Was she not as other women? Did she never look ahead? Had she no pride, no ambition–no hopes? Did she wish never to marry, then, to become an old mees like her English companion?
“I am but eighteen,” she said quiveringly. “Oh, my father, do not give me to this unknown–”
“Unknown–unknown! Do I not know him?”
“But you promised–”
Angrily he gestured with his cigarette. “Do I know what is good for you or do I not? Have I your interest at heart–tell me! Am I a savage, a dolt–”
“But you do not know what it is to be unhappy. I beg of you, my father,–I should die with such a life before me, with such a man for my husband. I am too French, too like my mother–”
“Ah, your mother!... Too French, are you?... But what would you have in France?” he demanded with the bursting appearance of a man making every effort to restrain himself within unreasonable bounds. “Would not your parents there arrange your marriage? You might see the fiancé,” he caught the words out of her mouth, “but only for a time or two–after the arrangements–and what is that? What more would you know than what your father knows? Are you a thing to be exhibited–given to a man to gaze at and appraise? I tell you, no.... You are my daughter. You bear my name. And when you marry you marry in the sanctity of the custom of your father–and you go to your husband’s house as his mother went to his father.”
Timidly she protested, “But my mother–and you–”
“Do not speak of your mother! If she were here she would counsel gratitude and obedience.” He turned his back on her. “This is what comes,” he muttered, “of this modernity, this education....”
He pitched away his stub as if he were casting all that he hated away with it.
She had never seen him so angry. Helplessly she felt that his vanity and his word were engaged with the general more than she had dreamed. She felt a surge of panic at the immensity of the trouble before her.
“But, my father, if you love me–”
“No, my little one, if you love me!”
With a sudden assumption of good humor over the angry red mottling his olive cheeks, he came and sat beside her, putting his arm about her silently shrinking figure.
“I am a weak fool to stay and drink a woman’s tears, as the saying goes,” he told her, “but this is what a man gets for being good natured.... But, tears or not, I know what is best.... Come, Aimée, have I not ever been fond of you–?”
He patted her hand with his own plump one where bright rings were sparkling deep in the encroaching flesh. Aimée looked down with a sudden wild dislike.... That soft, ingratiating hand, with its dimples and polished nails, which thought it could pat her so easily into submission....
It was nothing to him, she thought, chokingly, whether she was happy or unhappy. He had decided on the match–perhaps he had foreseen her protests and plunged into it, so as to be committed against her entreaties!–and he was not stopped by any thought of her feelings.
After all her hopes! After all he had promised!
But she told herself that she had never been secure. Beneath all her trust there had always been the silent fear, slipping through the shadows like a serpent.... Some instinct for character, more precocious than her years, had whispered through her fond blindness, and initiated her into foreboding.
“Come now, my dear,” he said heartily, “this is a surprise, of course, but after all you will find it is for the best–much for the best–”
His voice died away. After a long pause, “You may make the arrangements,” she told him in a still, tenacious little voice, “but you cannot make me marry him.... I will never put on the marriage dress.... Never wear the diadem.... Never stir one step within his house.”
A complete silence succeeded this declaration. He got up violently from beside her. She did not dare look at him. He was going away, she thought.
It would be the beginning of war. She did not know what he would do but she knew that she would endure it.
And the gossip of the harems would be her protection. Her opposition, bruited through those feminine channels, would not be long in reaching Hamdi Bey.... And no man could to-day be so callous of his pride or the world’s opinion that he would be willing to receive such a revolting bride.
Did her father think of that, that poor, pale power of hers? He stood irresolute, as if meditating a last exhortation, and then suddenly turned on her the haggard face of a violent despair.
“Would you see me ruined?” he said passionately.
Sharply he glanced about the room, at the far, closed doors where it was not inconceivable that old Miriam was lurking, and strode over to her and began talking very jerkily and huskily, over her bent head.
“I tell you that Hamdi is making this a condition–it is the price of silence, of those papers back.... He came to me to-night. I knew that hound of Satan had been smelling about, but I could not imagine–as if, between gentlemen–”
At that, she lifted her stupefied head.... Her father, with the face of a cornered fox!... She caught her breath with the shock of it. Her lips parted, but only her mute eyes asked their startled questions.
Hurriedly, shamefacedly, with angry resentments and self-justifications, he was pouring a flood of broken phrases at her. She caught unintelligible references to narrow laws and the imbecile English, to impositions binding only upon the fools.... And then the word hasheesh.
Sharply then the truth took its outlines. Her father had been smuggling in hasheesh. Hamdi Bey had discovered this, and Hamdi Bey, unless silenced, had threatened betrayal.
The danger was real. English laws were stringent. Vaguely the horrors loomed–arrest, trial.... Even if he escaped the scandal was ruin....
Small wonder that her father had come flying upon the wings of his danger and its deliverance, small wonder that his brow was wet and his lips dry and his eyes hard with terror.
Thrown to the winds now his pretense of affection for Hamdi Bey! He hated and feared him. The old fox had done this, he declared, to get a hold upon him, for always there had been bad blood.
And the bey had heard, of course, of the beauty of the pasha’s daughter. Some cousin had babbled.... And undoubtedly the rumor of that beauty–Tewfick Pasha received his inspiration upon the moment, but that was not gainsaying its truth–had determined the bey to find some vulnerable hold.
He was like that, a soft-voiced, sardonic devil! And this accursed business of the hasheesh had served his ends. To-night, he had come with his proofs....
“So you see,” muttered Tewfick Pasha, “what the devil of a serious business this is. And how any talk of–of unreadiness–if you were not amiable, for example, to his cousin when she calls upon you–might serve to anger him.... And so–”
Significantly his glance met hers. Her eyes fell, stricken. The color flooded her trembling face. She quivered with confused pain, with shame for his shame, with terror and fright ... with a hot, protective compassion that tore at her pride....
She struggled against her dismay, trying for reassuring little words that would not come. Her heart seemed beating thickly in her throat.
She never knew just what she said, what little broken words of pity, of understanding, of promise, she achieved. But her father suddenly dropped beside her, with an abandon reminiscent of the enfant gâtéof his Paris days, and drew her hands to his lips, kissing their soft, quiescent palms.... She drew one away and placed it upon his dark head from which the fez had tumbled.
For the moment she was sorry, as one is sorry for a hurt child. And her sorriness held her heart warm, in the glow of giving comfort.
She had need of that warmth. For a cold tide was rising in her, a tide of chill, irresistible foreboding....
For all the years of her life.... For all the years....