The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
The remaining hours of Jack Ryder’s night might be divided into three periods. There was an interval of astounding exhilaration coupled with complete mental vacancy, during which a figure in a Scots costume might have been observed by the astonished Egyptian moon striding obliviously along the silent road to the Nile, past sleeping camels and snoring dhurra merchants–a period during which his sole distinguishable sensation was the memory of enchanting eyes, of a voice, low and lovely ... of a slender figure in a muffling tcharchaf ... of the touch of soft lips beneath a gauzy veil....
This period was succeeded by hours of utter incredulity, in which he lay wide-eyed on the sleeping porch of McLean’s domicile and stared into the white cloud of his fly net and questioned high heaven and himself.
Had he really done this? Had he actually caught and kissed this girl, this girl whose name he did not know, whose face he had never seen, of whom he knew nothing but that she was the daughter of a Turk and utterly forbidden by every canon of sanity and self-preservation?
In the name of wonder, what had possessed him? The night? The moon? The mystery of the unknown?... If he had never really kissed her he might have convinced himself that he had never really wanted to. But having kissed her–!
He looked upon himself as a stranger. A stranger of whom he would be remarkably wary, in the days and nights to come ... but a stranger for whom he entertained a sort of secret, amazed respect. There had been an undeniable dash and daring to that stranger....
During the third period he slept.
When he awoke, late in the morning, and descended from a cold tub to a breakfast room from which McLean had long since departed, he brought yet another mood with him, a mood of dark, deep disgust and a shamed inclination to dismiss these events very speedily from memory. For that shadowy and rather shady affair he had abandoned the merry and delightful Jinny Jeffries and got himself involved now in the duty of explanations and peacemaking.
What in the world was he going to say?
He meditated a note–but he hated a lie on paper. It looked so thunderingly black and white. Besides, he could not think of any. “Dear Jinny–Awfully sorry I was called away.”
No, that wouldn’t do. He could take refuge in no such vagueness. Unfortunately, he and Jinny were on such terms of old intimacy that a certain explicitness of detail was expected.
“Dear Jinny–I had to leave last night and take a girl home–”
No, she would ask about the girl. Jinny had a propensity for locating people. It wouldn’t do.
His masculine instinct for saying the least possible in a matter with a woman, and his ripening experience which taught him to leave no mystery to awaken suspicion, wrestled with the affair for some time and then retired from the field.
He compromised by telephoning Jinny briefly–and Jinny was equally as brief and twice as cool and cryptic–and promising to take her out to tea.
He reflected that if he took her to tea he would really have to stay over another night, for it would be too late to regain his desert camp. But the circumstances seemed to call for some social amend.... And no matter how many nights he stayed he certainly was not going to lurk about that lane, outside garden doors!
He must have been mad, stark, staring, March-hatter mad!
That morning, during its remainder, he concluded his buying of supplies and saw to their shipment upon the boat that left upon the following morning. That noon he lunched with an assistant curator of the Cairo museum who found him a good listener.
That afternoon he escorted Jinny Jeffries and her uncle and aunt, the Josiah Pendletons, to tea upon the little island in the Cairo park, where white-robed Arabs brought them tea over the tiny bridge and violins played behind the shrubbery and white swans glided upon the blue lake, and then he carried them off in a victoria to view the sunset from the Citadel heights.
Not a word about the dance–except a general affirmative to Mrs. Pendleton’s question if he had enjoyed himself. The Pendletons had not stayed to look on for long, and Jinny had apparently not worn her bleeding heart upon her sleeve.
But this immunity could not last. He could not hug the protecting Pendletons to him forever.
Nor did he want to. They waned upon him. Mrs. Pendleton’s conversation was a perpetual, “Do look at–!” or dissertations from the guide books–already she had imparted a great deal of Flinders Petrie to him about his tombs. Mr. Pendleton was neither enthusiastic nor voluble, but he was attacking the objects of their travels in the same thorough-going spirit that he had attacked and surmounted the industrial obstacles of his career, and he went to a great deal of persistent trouble to ascertain the exact dates of passing mosques and the conformations of their arches.
The travelers had already “done” the Citadel. They had climbed its rocky hill, they had viewed the Mahomet Ali mosque and its columns and its carpets and had taken their guide’s and their guidebook’s word that it was an inferior structure although so amazingly effective from below; they had looked studiously down upon the city and tried to distinguish its minarets and towers and ancient gates, they had viewed with proper quizzicalness the imprint in the stone parapet of the hoof of that blindfolded horse which the last of the Mamelukes, cornered and betrayed, had spurred from the heights.
So now, no duty upon them, Ryder led them past the Citadel, up the Mokattam hills behind it, to that hilltop on which stood the little ancient mosque of the Sheykh-el-Gauchy, where the sunset spaces flowed round them like a sea of light and the world dropped into miniature at their feet.
Below them, in a golden haze, Cairo’s domes and minarets were shining like a city of dreams. To the north, toy fields, vivid green, of rice and cotton lands, and the silver thread of the winding Nile, and all beyond, west and southwest, the vast, illimitable stretch of desert, shimmering in the opalescent air, sweeping on to the farthest edge of blue horizon.
“A nice resting place,” said Jack Ryder appreciatively of the tomb of the Sheykh-el-Gauchy.
“I presume the date is given,” Mr. Pendleton was murmuring, as he began to ferret with his Baedecker.
Mrs. Pendleton sighed sentimentally. “He must have been very fond of nature.”
“He was very distrustful of his wives,” said Ryder, grinning. “He had three of them, all young and beautiful.”
“I thought you said he was a saint?” murmured Jinny, to which interpolation he responded, “Wouldn’t three wives make any man a saint?” and resumed his narrative.
“And so he had his tomb made where he could overlook the whole city and observe the conduct of his widows.”
“They could move,” objected Miss Jeffries.
“The female of the Mohammedan species is not the free agent that you imagine,” Ryder retorted, beginning with a smile and ending with a queer, reminiscent pang. He had a moment’s rather complicated twinge of amusement at her reactions if she should know that to an encounter with a female of the Mohammedan species was to be attributed his departure from her party last night.
And then he remembered that he hadn’t decided yet what to tell her and the time was undoubtedly at hand.
The time was at hand. The Pendletons were too thorough-going Americans not to abdicate before the young. They did not saunter self-consciously away and make any opportunity for Jack and Jinny, as sympathetic European chaperons might have done; they sat matter-of-factedly upon the rocks while their competent young people betook themselves to higher heights.
Conscientiously Ryder was pointing out the pyramid fields.
“Gizeh, Abusir, Sakkara, Dahsur–and now here, if you look–that’s the Medun pyramid–that tiny, sharp prick. If we had glasses....”
“Yes; but why didn’t you like the ball?” murmured Jinny the direct.
“I did like the ball. Very much.”
“Then why didn’t you stay?”
“I–I wasn’t feeling top-hole,” he murmured lamely, wondering why girls always wanted to go back and stir up dogs that had gone comfortably to sleep.
“Did it come on suddenly?” said Jinny, unsympathetically, her eyes still upon the pyramids.
Something whimsical twitched at Jack Ryder’s lips. “Very suddenly. Like thunder, out of China crost the bay.”
“I suppose that dancing with the same girl in succession brings on the seizures?”
So she had noticed that!... Not for nothing were those bright, gray eyes of hers! Not for nothing the red hair.
“Well, I rather think it did,” he said deliberately. “That girl was a child who hadn’t danced in four years–so she said, and I believe her.”
And Jinny received what he intended to convey. “Stepped on your buckled shoon and you felt a martyr?... But why bolt? There were other girls who had danced within four years–”
“I went into the garden,” he murmured. “The fact is, I was feeling awfully–queer,” he brought out in an odd tone.
Queer was a good word for it. He let it go at that. He couldn’t do better.
Jinny looked suddenly uncertain. Her pique was streaked with compunction. She had been horribly angry with him for running away, and she remembered his opposition to the idea enough to be suspicious of any disappearance–but there was certainly an accent of embarrassed sincerity about him.
Perhaps he had been ill. Sudden seizures were not unknown in Egypt. And for all his desert brown he didn’t look very rugged.
She murmured, “I hope you hadn’t taken anything that disagreed with you.”
“H’m–it rather agreed with me at the time,” said Jack, and then brought himself up short. “I expect I haven’t looked very sharp after myself–”
But Jinny did not wholly renounce her idea. “Does it always take you at dances you don’t want to go to?”
“That’s unfair. I came, you know.”
“You came–and went.”
“I’d have been all right if I hadn’t come,” he murmured, and Jinny felt suddenly ashamed of herself.
“Do you suppose that you would stay all right if you came to dinner?” she offered pacificably. “It’s our last night, you know, till we come back from the Nile.”
“I wish I could.” Ryder stopped short. Now, why didn’t he? Certainly he didn’t intend–
But his tongue took matters promptly out of his hesitation’s hands. “Fact is, I’ve an engagement.” He added, appeasingly, “That’s why I was so keen on getting you for tea.” And Jinny told him appreciatively that it was a lovely tea and a lovely view.
“We’re going to be at the hotel, I expect,” she threw out, carelessly, “and if you get through in time–”
Rather hastily he assured her that indeed, if he got through in time–
She was a nice girl, was Jinny. A pretty girl, with just the right amount of red in her hair. Sanity would have sent him to the hotel to dine with her.
Sanity would also have sent him to the Jockey Club with McLean.
Certainly sanity had nothing to do with the way that he kept himself to himself, after his farewells at the hotel with the Pendletons, and took him to an out-of-the-way Greek café where he dined very badly upon stringy lamb and sodden baklava.
Later he wandered restlessly about dark, medieval streets where squat groups were clustered about some coffee house door, intent upon a game of checkers or some patriarchal story teller, recounting, very probably, a bandied narration of the Thousand and One Nights. Through other open doors drifted the exasperating nasal twang of Cairene music, and idly pausing, Ryder could see above the red fezes and turbans that topped the cross-legged audiences the dark, sleek, slowly-revolving body of some desert dancing girl.
Irresolutely he drifted on to the Esbekeyih quarters, to the streets where the withdrawn camels and donkeys had left pre-eminent the carriages and motors of that stream of Continental night life which sets towards Cairo in the season, Russian dukes and German millionaires, Viennese actresses and French singers and ladies of no avowed profession, gamblers, idlers, diplomats, drifters, vivid flashes of color in the bizarre, kaleidoscopic spectacle.
It was quite dark now. The last pale gleam of the afterglow had faded, and the blue of the sky, deepening and darkening, was pierced with the thronging stars. It was very warm; no breeze, but a fitful stirring in the tops of the feathery palms.
The streets were growing still. Only from some of the hotels came the sound of music from lighted, open windows.
Jinny would be rather expectant at her hotel. He could, of course, drop in for a few minutes since he was so near.... He walked past the hotel.... Jinny would be packing–or ought to be. A pity to disturb her.... And his dusty tweeds and traveling cap was no calling costume....
He walked past again. And this time he paused, on the brink of a dark canyon of a lane, running back between walls hung with bougainvillea.
Quite suddenly he remembered that he had told that girl, whose name he did not know, that he would come. It was a definite promise. It was an obligation.
He could do nothing less. It might be unwelcome, absurd, a nuisance, but really it was an obligation.
He sauntered down the lane, keeping carefully in the shadow. He loitered within that deep-set door–and felt a queer throb of emotion at the sight of it–and so, sauntering and loitering, he waited in the darkening night, promising himself disgustedly through the dragging moments to clear out and be done with this, but still interminably lingering, his pulses throbbing with that disowned expectancy.
Very cautiously, the gate began to open.