The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
A SECRET OF THE SANDS
The siesta was past. The sun was tilting towards the west and shadows were beginning to jut out across the blazing sands.
Over the mounds of rubbish the bearers had resumed their slow procession, a picturesque frieze of tattered, indigo-robed, ebony figures, baskets on heads, against a cloudless cobalt sky, and again the hot air was invaded with the monotonous rise and fall of their labor chant.
A man with a short, pointed red beard and an academic face beneath a pith helmet was stooping over the siftings from those baskets, intent upon the stream of sand through the wire screens. Patiently he discarded the unending pebbles, discovering at rare intervals some lost bead, some splinter of old sycamore wood, some fragment of pottery in which a Ptolemy had sipped his wine–or a kitchen wench had soaked her lentils.
Beyond the man were traces of the native camp, a burnt-out fire, a roll of rags, a tattered shelter cloth stuck on two tottering sticks, and distributed indiscriminatingly were a tethered goat, a white donkey with motionless, drooping ears, and a few supercilious camels.
The camp was in the center of a broken line of foothills on the desert’s edge. North and south and west the wide sands swept out to meet the sky, and to the east, shutting out the Nile valley, the hills reared their red rock from the yellow drift.
Among the jutting rock in the foreground yawned dark mouths that were the entrances of the discovered tombs, and within one of these tombs was another white man. He was conducting his own siftings in high solitude, a lean, bronzed young man, with dark hair and eyes and, at the present moment, an unexhilarated expression.
It had been two weeks since Jack Ryder had returned to camp. Two interminable weeks. They were the longest, the dullest, the dreariest, the most irritatingly undelighting weeks that he had ever lived through.
But bitterly he resented any aspersion from the long-suffering Thatcher upon his disposition. He wanted it distinctly understood that he was not low-spirited. Not in the least. A man wasn’t in the dumps just because he wasn’t–well, garrulous. Just because he didn’t go about whistling like a steam siren or exult like a cheer leader when some one dug up the effigy of a Hathor-cow.... Just because he objected when the natives twanged their fool strings all night and wailed at the moon.
The moon was full now. Round and white it went sailing blandly over the eternal monotony of desert.... Round and white, it lighted up the eternal sameness of life.... He had never noticed it before, but a moon was a poignantly depressing phenomenon.
He couldn’t help it. A man couldn’t make himself be a comedian. It wasn’t as if he wanted to be a grump. He would have been glad to be glad. He wanted Thatcher to make him glad. He defied him to.
He didn’t enjoy this flat, insipid taste of things, this dull grind, this feeling of sameness and dullness that made nothing seem worth while.... A feeling that he had been marooned on a desert island, far from all stir and throb of life.
Suppose he did dig up a Hathor-cow? Suppose he dug up Hathor herself, or Cleopatra, or ten little Ptolemies? What was the good of it?
Not Jinny Jeffries herself could have cast more aspersions upon the personal value of excavations.
When he was tired of denying to himself that there was anything unusual the matter with him, he shifted the inner argument and took up the denial that anything which had happened in Cairo those two weeks before had anything to do with it. As if that rash encounter mattered! As if he were the silly, senseless sentimental sort of idiot to go mooning about his work because of a girl–and a girl from a harem with a taste for secret masquerades and Turkish marriages!
As if he cared–!
Of course–he admitted this logically and coldly now to himself, as he sat there in the ray of his excavator’s lantern, on the sanded floor at the end of the Hall of Offerings–of course, he was sorry for the girl. It was no life for any young girl–especially a spirited one, with her veins bubbling with French blood.
The system was wrong. If they were going to shut up those girls, they had no business to bring them up on modern ideas. If they kept the mashrubiyeh on the windows and the yashmak on their faces they ought to keep the kohl on their eyes and the henna on their fingers and education out of their hidden heads.
It was too bad.... But, of course, they were brought up to it. Look how quickly that girl had given in. She was Turkish, through and through. Submissive. Docile.... And a darned good thing she was, too! Suppose she had taken him at his fool word. Suppose she had really wanted to get away!
Lucky, that’s what he’d been. And it would be a lesson to him. Never again. No more masked young things with their stolen keys and their harem entrances. No more whispered tales of woe in a shady garden. No more–
Violently he wrenched himself from his No Mores. Recollection had a way of stirring an unpleasant tumult.
But it was all over. He had forgotten it–he would forget it. He would forget her. Work, that was the thing. Normal, sensible, every day work.
But there was no joy in this tonic work. Somewhere, between a night and a morning, he had lost that glow of accomplishment which had buoyed him, which had made him fairly ecstatic over the discovery of this very tomb.
For this tomb was his own find. It had been found long before by the plundering Persians, and it had been found by Arabs who had plundered the Persian remains–but between and after those findings the oblivious sands had swept over it, blotting it from the world, choking the entrance hall and the shafts, seeping through half-sealed entrances and packing its dry drift over the rifled sarcophagus of the king and over the withered mummy of the young girl in the ante-room. The tombs had been cleared now, down almost to the stone floors, and Ryder was busy with the drifts that had lodged in the crevices about the entrance to the shaft.
It was really an important find. Although much plundered, the walls were intact, and the delicate carvings in the white limestone walls were exceptional examples. And there were some very interesting things to decipher. A scholar and an explorer could well be enthusiastic.
But Ryder continued to look far from enthusiastic. Even when his groping fingers, searching a cranny, came in contact with a hard substance his face did not change to any lightning radiance. Unexpectantly he picked up the sand-encrusted lump and brushed it off. A gleam of gold shone in his hand. But it was no ancient amulet or necklace or breast guard–nor was it any bit of the harness of the plundering Persians. It was a locket, very heavily and ornately carved.
He stood a moment staring down at the thing with a curious feeling of having stood staring down at exactly the same thing before–that subconscious feeling of the repetition of events which supports the theories of reincarnationists–and then, quite suddenly, memory came to his aid.
In McLean’s office. That day of the masquerade. Those visiting Frenchmen and that locket they had shown him. Of course the thing reminded him–
And it was remarkably alike. The same thick oval, the same ponderous effect of the coat of arms–if it should prove the same coat of arms that would be a clue!
With his mind still piecing the recollection and surmise together his fingers pressed the spring. There was a miniature within, but it was not the picture of Monsieur Delcassé. Ryder was looking down upon the face of a girl, a beautiful, spirited face, with merry eyes and wistful lips–dark eyes, with a lovely arch of brow, and rose-red lips with haunting curves.
And eyes and brows and lips and curves, it was the face of the girl who had gazed after him in the moonlight against the shadows of the pasha’s garden.