The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
AT THE GARDEN GATE
Inch by inch the gate edged open. Warily he presented himself. The furtive crack gave him an instant’s glimpse of a dark form within the shadows, then, in his face, it closed.
Ryder waited. In a moment it was opened wider, and he saw the dark-shrouded head and the veiled face of the Turkish girl, and out from the blackness the sparkle of young eyes.
“Is it–but who is it?” whispered a doubtful voice, and at his, “Why it is I–the American,” quickly drawing off his cap, a little hand darted out of the darkness to pluck him swiftly within and the door was closed to within an inch of its opening.
Then the black phantom, drawing him back among the shrubbery, against the wall, turned with a muffled note of laughter.
“But the costume! Imagine that I–I was looking again for a Scottish chieftain with red kilts and a feather in his cap!”
“And instead–” Ryder glanced down at his tweeds with humorous recognition of his change of figure. Then his eyes returned to her.
“But you are the same,” he murmured.
She was indeed the same. The same black street mantle, down to her very brows. The same black veil, up to her very eyes. And the eyes–! Their soft mysterious loveliness–the little winged tilt of the brows!
Apparently their effect was disconcertingly the same. He was conscious of a feeling that was far from a normal calm.
“So you were all right?” he half whispered. “Those steps, last night, you know, made me horribly afraid for you–”
“But, yes, I am all right.”
As excitement gained upon him, a constraint was falling upon her. They were both remembering that moment, overlooked in the rush of recognition, when they had parted in this place, when he had had the temerity to clasp and kiss her.
Aimée was standing rigid and wary, ready for flight at the first fear. She told herself that she had only come through pride, the pride that insisted upon humbling his presumption. She would let him see how bitterly he had offended.... She had only come for this, she told herself–and to see if he had come.
If he had not come! That would have dealt a sorrily humiliating blow.
But he was here. And reassured and haughty, repeating that she was mortally offended, her spirit alternating between pride and shame and a delicious fear, she stood there in the shrubbery, fascinated, like a wild, shy thing of another age.
“That was old Miriam,” she explained constrainedly. “My father had come in–with unexpectedness.”
“Lord, it was lucky you were back!”
“Yes, it was–lucky,” she assented. “If it had been half an hour before–”
She broke off. There came to the young man a sobering perception of the risk she ran, of the supreme folly of this escapade to which they were entrusting themselves.
It was a realization that deserved some consideration. But, obstinately, with young carelessness, he shook it off. After all, this was comparatively safe for her. She was not out of bounds. At an alarm he could slip away and no one could ever know. What risk there might be was chiefly his own.
“When you asked who it was,” he murmured, “it occurred to me that you did not know my name–nor I yours. My own,” he added, as she stood unresponsive, “is Ryder–Jack Ryder. You can always get a letter to me at the Agricultural Bank. That is the quickest way. My friend, McLean there, always knows where my diggings are. When in Cairo I stop with him; or at the Rossmore House.”
“I shall not need to get a letter to you, monsieur,” she told him stiffly.
“But, if you did, how would you sign it?”
“Aimée.... That is French–after my mother.”
“Aimée. That means Beloved, doesn’t it?”
She was silent.
Surely, she thought with a swelling heart, if he were sorry he would tell her now. It was the moment for contrition, for appeasement, for whatever explanation his American ways might have.
She had thought about him all night. She had given his declaration a hundred forms–but always it had been a declaration.
Now she waited, flagellating her sensitive pride.
Ryder was conscious of the constraint tightening about them and in the dragging pause an uncomfortable common sense had time to put its disconcerting questions.
What did it matter what her name meant? What in the world was he doing here?.... And what did she think she was doing here?... Not that he wanted her to go....
And suddenly it didn’t matter–whatever they thought. It was enough that they were together in that still, soft, jasmine-scented dark. He was breathing quickly; his pulses were beating; he had a feeling of strange, heady delight.
The crescent moon was up at last, sailing clear of the house tops, sending its bright rays through the filigree of tall shrubs. A finger of light edged the contour of her shrouded head.
He bent a little closer.
“Won’t you,” he said softly, “take off your veil for me?”
Appalled, she clasped it to her. He had no idea in the world of the shock of that request. It would be only a faint parallel of its impropriety to suggest to Jinny Jeffries that she discard her frock. Even Ryder’s acquaintance with Egypt could not tell him how that swift, confident eagerness of his could startle and affront.
“I want to see you so very much,” he was murmuring, and met the chill disdain of her retort, “But it is not for you to see my face, monsieur!”
“Who is to see it?” he demanded.
“Who but the man I am to marry,” she gave distinctly back.
The word hit him like stone.
He was conscious of a shock. Did she intend to rebuke–or to imply–to question his intention? The steadiness of her low voice suggested a certain steadiness of design.... He had heard of girls who knew their own minds ... girls with unexpectedly far-sighted vision.... Perhaps, poor child, she looked upon him as romantic escape from all that was restrictive in her life. Secluded women go fast–when they start.
The devil take him for that kiss!
A somewhat set look upon his thin face guarded the fluctuations of his soul, but the blood rose strongly under his dark skin.
For a moment he did not venture upon a reply, and in that moment he was suddenly aware that she had caught his meaning from him–and that it was a horrible mistake. It was one of those instants of highly-charged exchanges of meanings whose revelation was as useless to be denied as powerless to be explained.
Then her words came in tumultuous, passionate refutation of his thought. “That is what my father had come to tell me–that he had arranged my marriage. It is a very splendid thing. To a general–a rich general!”
She had not meant to tell him like that! But for the moment she was savagely glad to hurl it at him.
He made no answer. His eyes were inscrutably intent. A variety of things were rearranging themselves in his head.
“You’re–you’re going to marry him?” he said slowly.
“What else?” But she felt the phrase unfortunate and plunged past it. “It is not for me to say no, monsieur. It is for my father to arrange.”
“But his indulgence–? You were telling me, you know, that he was so fond of you. And that you were one of the moderns–the revolting moderns–”
Jack Ryder’s tone was questioningly cynical and its raillery cut through her brief sham of pride.
“So I thought, too, last night.” A tinge of infinite disillusionment was in her young voice. “But it is not so.”
“Then you accept–?”
The shrouded head nodded.
“But you can’t want to,” he broke out with sudden heat. “You don’t know him at all, do you–this general?”
“Know him? I have never seen his face nor heard his voice–and I would die first,” she added with bitter, helpless fierceness under her breath.
The veil muffled that from him. “But why–why?” he repeated in an angrily puzzled way.
She made a little gesture of weary impotence. Out of the dark draperies her hands were like white fluttering butterflies.
“What can I do?”
“I should think you could do the Old Harry of a lot.”
“Weep?” said the girl with a pale irony not lost upon him.
“Weep–or row. Or run,” he added, almost reluctantly.
She turned away her head. “I know, I thought once that I could run. For that I stole the key to this gate. But where would I run, monsieur? I have neither friends, nor–nor the resources.... There have been girls–two sisters–who ran away last year–but they were already married and they had cousins in France. For me, my cousins do not exist. I do not know my mother’s family. They disowned her for her marriage, my father says. And so–but it is not possible to evade this.... It is not possible. This marriage is required.”
“Required–rot! Can’t you–don’t you–” he paused, looking down upon her in tremendous and serious uncertainty. The impulse was strong upon him to tell her that he would help her. The accents of her voice had seemed to tear at his very heart.
It was utter madness. Where, in the map of Africa, would he hide her? And how would he take care of her? What would he do to her? Make love to her? Marry her? Take home a wife from an Egyptian harem–a surprising acquisition with which to startle and enchant his decorous family in East Middleton!
And a pretty end to his work here, his reputation, his responsibilities–
It was madness. And the fact that the thought had presented itself, even for his flouting mockery, indicated that he was mad. He told himself to be careful. Better men than he had everlastingly done for themselves because upon a night of stars and moonshine some dark-eyed girl had played the very devil with their common sense.
He reminded himself that he had never set eyes on her until last night, that she might be the consummate perfection of a minx, that there might not be a word of truth in all of this.
This general, now! Sudden. Not a word about it last night. And now–
He had an inkling that even Mohammedan fathers do not rush matters at such a pace.
For all he knew the girl might be inventing this general–for some artless reasons of her own. For all he knew she might be married to him and desirous of escape.
But he didn’t believe it. She was too young and shy and virginal. The accents of her candor rebuked his skepticism. He merely told himself these things because the last vestige of his expiring common sense was prompting him.
And after all these creditable and excellent exhortations, to the utter extinction of the last vestige of that common sense he heard himself saying abruptly, “But isn’t there anything in the world that I can do–?”
“But for you to submit–like this–”
“It is not to be helped.”
“But it is to be helped–if you really dislike it,” he added jealously.
“I cannot help it, because–because my father–” She hesitated. The honor of her father and her family pride and affection were all involved, yet suddenly the sacrifice of these became more tolerable than to consent to that image of herself which she saw swiftly defining itself in his mind, that slight, weak creature, whose acquiescent passivity submitted to this marriage.
The thought was unbearable. She was burning beneath her veil. She would tell him.... And perhaps she was not averse, in her childish pride, to the pitiful glory of having him see her in the beauty of her filial sacrifice.
“My father has–has done something against the English laws,” she faltered, “and Hamdi Bey, this general, knows of it, and will inform unless–unless my father makes this marriage. A cousin of his has seen me,” she added, her young vanity forlornly rearing its head, “and told Hamdi that I am not–not too ill-looking a girl–”
Her essay of a laugh died.
Ryder’s look deepened its sharp, defensive concentration.
“This is true–I mean your father is not just putting something over–telling you to get your consent?”
Her thoughts flew back to her father’s haggard face. “Oh, it is true! I know.”
“And he’s going to hand you over–What sort is this Hamdi?”
“A general. Old. Evil enough to lay traps to obtain me.”
“It’s abomination.” The anger in the young man surged beyond his control. “You must not do it.... If your father is clever enough to break a law let him be clever enough to mend it–by himself. Such a sacrifice is not required.... You must realize what this means to you. You must realize–Look here, I’ll help you. I’ll plan some escape. There must be ways. I have friends–”
She stifled the leap of her heart. She held her head high and made what she thought was a very noble little speech. “It is for my father, monsieur. You do not understand. It is to save my father.”
He looked at her in silence. He was afraid to answer for a moment; he could feel the unruly blood beating even in the lips he pressed together.
“But don’t you understand–” he blurted at last and broke off.
After all, he did not know this girl. If he swayed her judgment now, and dragged her away, what life, what compensation could he offer her? How did he know that she would not regret it? Would she be happier in a world unknown?....
She had been brought up to this sort of thing. It was bred in her.... Marriage was her inevitable game. This very charm she exercised, this subtle, haunting invasion of his senses, what was that but another proof of the harem existence where all influences were forced to serve the ends of sex ...
And she was so maddeningly resigned to taking this general!
A queer hot rage was gaining possession of him. “Oh, well, if you prefer this,” he said brutally, with a youthful desire to wreak pain in return for that strange pain which something was inflicting upon him.
A girl who would let him kiss her one night–and on the next inform him that she was giving herself to an unknown–an old Turk.... If she could go like that, to some other’s arms and lips ...
He wanted to take her fiercely in his arms and crush her lips against his and then fling her away and say, “Oh, go to him now–if you can!”
And at the same time he wanted to gather her to him as tenderly as if she were a flower he was guarding and tell her that he would protect her against all the world.
He was divided and confused and blindly angry. He felt baffled and frustrated. He was both aching and raging. And yet he was capable of reminding himself, in some corner of his uninvaded mind, that this was undoubtedly the best thing for them both.
What else? For him? For her?
And yet his tongue went on stabbing her.
“If this is what you are determined to do–” he heard himself saying hardly, yet with a hint of deferred finality.
It was as if he had said, “If this, then, is what you are like! If you are the soft, submissive harem creature, the toy, the odalisque–If you will endure undesired love rather than face the world–”
And she knew that was what he was saying to her. The injustice brought a lump of self-pity to her throbbing throat.... That he should not realize and honor the courage of her sacrifice.... That he should reproach, despise.... She had expected other entreaties ... protestations....
Her heart ached with a throb of steady dreariness.
But she did not stir. Not a line of her drooping draperies wavered towards him. And swallowing that lump in her throat, she achieved a toneless, “That is what I am going to do.”
At the other end of the garden a sound came from the house.
Ryder seemed to rouse himself. “Good-bye, then,” he said, uncertainly.
He looked oddly at her. “Good-bye,” he muttered again, and turned, and stumbled out of the gate.
A pool of moonlight lay without its arches, and he stepped into it as if coming out of the shadows of an enchanted garden. He stood and straightened himself as if throwing off that garden’s spell. He put back his shoulders and took a quick step down the lane.
A slight sound drew his eyes back.
She had followed him to the gate; she stood there, in the moonlight, against the inky wells of shadow into which her black robe flowed, and in the moonlight her face, gazing after him, was an exquisite, ethereal apparition, like a spirit of the garden.
She had cast off her veil. He had a vision of her dark eyes shining over rose-flushed cheeks, of deeper-rose-red lips in curves of haunting sweetness, of the tender contour of her young face, fixed unforgettingly in the radiant moonlight–only an instant’s vision, for while the blood stopped in his veins the darkness engulfed her, like a magician’s curtain.
But he waited while he heard the gate closed. Still he waited while he heard her locking it. And then for all his hot young pride, he turned back and knocked upon it. He called softly. He whispered entreaties.
Not a sound. Not an answer.
In a revulsion of feeling he turned and made his way blindly from the lane.
She had heard his voice. Like a creature utterly spent, she had been leaning against the great gate from which she had withdrawn the key. But she uttered not a breath in answer, and after she had heard his footsteps die away she turned slowly back and groped among the rose roots for the key’s hiding place.
Mechanically she smoothed it over and moved on towards the house. All was quiet there. That sound had been no alarm. Unobserved she slipped within the little door, and up the spiral steps.
She had not seen the dark eyes that were watching her, from the other side of the rose thicket. After the girl had gained the house, the old woman came forward and stooped before the marked bush, muttering under her breath at the thorns. After a few moments she gave a little grunt of satisfaction and her exploring hand drew out the key.
Smoothing again the rifled hiding place among the roses, she made her careful way into the house.