The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
A huge Soudanese admitted them. They found themselves in a tiled vestibule, looking through open arches into the green of a garden–that garden, Ryder hardly needed to remind himself, with whose back door he had made such unconventional acquaintance.
Now he had a glimpse of a sunny fountain and fluttering pigeons, and, on either side of the garden, of the two wings of the building, gay white walls with green shutters more suggestive of a French villa than an Egyptian palace, before the Soudanese marshaled them toward the stairs upon the right.
The left, then, was the way to the haremlik. And somewhere in those secluded rooms, to which no man bat the owner of the palace ever gained admission, was Aimée.
The Soudanese mounted the stairs before them and held open a door into a long drawing-room from which the pasha’s modernity had stripped every charm except the color of some worn old rugs; the windows were draped in European style, the walls exhibited paper instead of paneling; in one corner was a Victrola and in another, beside a lounge chair, stood a table littered with cigarette trays and French novels with explicit titles.
The only Egyptian touch to the place was four enormous oil portraits of pompous turbaned gentlemen, in one of whom Ryder recognized the familiar rotundity of Mahomet Ali in his grand robes.
As a pasha’s palace it was a blow, and Ryder’s vague, romantic notions of high halls and gilded arches, suffered a collapse.
Tewfick Pasha came in with haste. He had been going out when these callers were announced and he was dressed for parade, in a very light, very tight suit, gardenia in his button-hole, cane in his gloved hands, fez upon his head. For all their smiling welcome, his full, dark eyes were uneasy.
He had grown distrustful of surprises.
It was McLean’s affair to reassure him. Far from fulminating any accusations the canny Scot announced himself as the bearer of glad tidings. A fortune, he announced, was coming to the pasha–or to the pasha’s family. A very rich old woman in France had decided to change her will.
There he paused and the pasha continued to smile non-committally, but the word fortune was operating. In the back of his mind he was hastily trying to think of rich old women in France who might change their wills.
“I am afraid that it is my stupidity which has kept you from the knowledge of this for some weeks,” McLean went on. “I had so many other matters to look up that I did not at once consult my records. And it has been so many years since you married Madame Delcassé that the name had slipped general recollection.... It was twelve years ago, I believe, that she died?”
Casually he waited and Jack Ryder held his breath. He felt the full suspense of a pause long enough for the pasha’s thoughts to dart down several avenues and back. If the man should deny it! But why should he? What harm in the admission, after all these years, with Madame Delcassé dead and buried? And with a fortune involved in the admission.
The Turk bowed and Ryder breathed again.
“Ten years,” said Tewfick softly.
“Ah–ten. But there has been no communication with France for twelve years or even longer?”
“Possibly not, monsieur.”
“This old aunt,” pursued McLean, “was a person of prejudice as well as fortune–hence it has taken a little time for her to adjust herself.” He paused and looked understandingly at the Turk, who nodded amiably as one whose comprehension met him more than half way.
“My own aunt was of a similar obstinacy,” he murmured. He added, “This fortune you speak of–it comes through my wife?”
“For her inheritors. Madame Delcassé–the former Madame Delcassé I should say–left but one daughter?”
Again the pasha bowed and again Ryder felt the throb of triumph. He looked upon his friend with admiration. How marvelously McLean had worked the miracle. No accusations, no threats, no obstacles, no blank walls of denial! Not a ruffle of discord in the establishment of these salient facts–the marriage of Madame Delcassé to the pasha and the existence of the daughter.
Wonderful man–McLean. He had never half appreciated him.
But the pasha was not wholly the simple assenter.
“Do I understand,” he inquired, “that there is a fortune coming from France for my daughter?” And at McLean’s confirmation, “And when you say fortune,” he continued, “you intend to say–?” and his glance now took in the silent American, considering that some cue must be his.
But McLean responded. “The figures are not to be divulged–not until the aunt is in communication with her niece. But they will be large, monsieur, for this aunt is a person of great wealth.”
“And yet alive to enjoy it,” said Tewfick with smiling eyes.
“An aged and dying woman,” thrust in Ryder in haste. “Her only care now is to see her niece before she dies.”
“Ah!... But that could be arranged,” said Tewfick amiably.
“We have at once communicated with France,” McLean told him, “but we came instantly to you, to, inform you–”
“A thousand thanks and a thousand! The bearers of good tidings," smiled their host.
“Because we understand that there is a question of the young lady’s marriage,” pursued McLean, “and you would, of course, wish to defer this until these new circumstances are complied with.”
The pasha stared. “Not at all. A fortune is as pleasant to a wife as to a maid.”
“There are so many questions of law,” offered McLean with purposeful vagueness. “French wardship and trusteeship and all that. It would be advisable, I think, to wait.”
“Absurd,” said the pasha easily.
“You would want no doubts cast upon the legality of the marriage," McLean persisted thoughtfully, “and since mademoiselle is under age and the French law has certain restrictions–”
“Pff! We are not under the French law–at least I have not heard that England has relinquished her power,” retorted Tewfick not without malice.
“But Mademoiselle Delcassé is French,” thrust in Ryder. He knew that McLean had ventured as far as he, an official and responsible person, could go, and that the burden of intimation must rest upon himself. “And under her father’s will his family there is considered in trusteeship. So there would be certain technicalities that must be considered before any marriage can be arranged, the signature of the French guardian, the settlement of the dot–this inheritance, for instance–all mere formalities but involving a little delay.”
Tewfick Pasha turned in his chair and cocked his eyes at this strange young man who had dropped from the blue with this extensive advice. He looked puzzled. This American fitted into no type of his acquaintance. He was so very young and slim and boyish ... with not at all the air of a legal representative.... But McLean’s position vouched for him.
“You speak for the French family, monsieur?”
Unhesitatingly Ryder declared that he did.
“Then you may inform the family,” announced Tewfick, bristling, “that my daughter has been very well cared for all these years without advice from France.”
“I haven’t a doubt of it,” said Ryder quickly, “but the French law might begin to entertain doubts of it, if mademoiselle were married off now without consultation with the authorities.... Already,” he added a little meaningly, as the other shrugged the suggestion away, “there have been questions raised concerning the mother’s marriage and the separation of the little Mademoiselle Delcassé from her relatives in France, and now if she were to be married without any legal settlement of her estate–”
Steadily he sustained the other’s gaze, while his unfinished thought seemed to float significantly in the air about them.
“Have a cigarette,” said the pasha hospitably, extending a gold case monogrammed with diamonds and emeralds. “Ah, coffee!” he announced, welcomingly, as a little black boy entered with a brass tray of steaming cups.
“I hope, gentlemen, that you like my coffee. It is not the usual Turkish brew. No, this comes from Aden, the finest coffee in the world. A ship captain brings it to me, especially.”
Beamingly he sipped the scalding stuff, then darted back to that suspended sentence. “But you were saying–something of a trusteeship?... Do I understand that it is an aunt of Madame Delcassé–the former Madame Delcassé–who is leaving this money?”
“Not of Madame but of Monsieur Delcassé,” McLean informed him.
“Ah!... That accounts ... But in that case, then, there need be no concern in France over my daughter’s marriage....” He turned his round eyes from one to the other a moment.
“There is no Mademoiselle Delcassé.”
“Sir?” said Ryder sharply.
“There is no Mademoiselle Delcassé,” repeated the pasha, his eyes frankly enlivened.
“But–we have just been speaking–you cannot mean to say–”
“We have been speaking of my daughter–the daughter of the former Madame Delcassé.”
Smilingly he looked upon them. “A pity that we did not understand each other. But you appear to know so much–and I supposed that you knew that, too, that the daughter of Monsieur Delcassé was dead.”
Neither of the young men spoke. McLean looked politely attentive; Ryder’s face maintained that look of concentration which guarded the fluctuations of his feelings.
“It was many years ago,” the pasha murmured, putting down his coffee cup and selecting another cigarette. “Not long after her mother’s marriage to me.... A very charming little girl–I was positively attached to her,” Tewfick added reminiscently.
“Well, well, well, what a pity now,” said McLean very slowly. “This will be a great disappointment.... And so the present mademoiselle–”
“Is my daughter.”
McLean was silent. Ryder could hardly trust himself to speak.
“What did she die of?” he asked at last, in a voice whose edged quality brought the pasha’s glance to him with a flash of hostility behind its veil.
But he answered calmly enough. “Of the fever, monsieur.... She was never strong.”
“And her grave... I should like to make a report.”
“It was in the south ... desert burial, I am afraid. You must know that the little one was hardly a true believer for our cemetery.”
“And you would say that she was only five or six years old?” Ryder persisted.
The pasha nodded.
“I should like to get as near as possible to the date if it is not too much trouble.... The father died about fifteen years ago and the mother was married to you soon after?”
“Really, monsieur, you–”
Tewfick was frankly restive.
“I know nothing of the father,” he said sullenly. “And as to the child’s death–how can one recall after these years? In one, two years after she came to me–one does not grave these things upon the eyeballs.”
“But you do remember that it was long ago–when your own daughter was very little?”
“Exactly. That is my recollection, monsieur.... And I recall,” said the pasha, suddenly obliging and sentimental, “that even my little one cried for the child. It was afflicting.... Assure the family in France of my sympathy in their disappointment.”
“I am sorry that my news is after all of no interest to you," observed McLean, setting the example for rising. “You will pardon my error of information–and accept my appreciation of your courtesy.”
“It is I who am indebted for your trouble,” their host assured them, all smiles again.
But Ryder was not to be led away without a parting shot.
“The name of the Delcassé child–was Aimée?”
Imperceptibly Tewfick hesitated. Then bowed in assent.
“Odd,” said young Ryder thoughtfully. “And your own daughter’s name, also, is Aimée.... Two little ones with the same name.”
With a slight, vexed laugh, as one despairing of understanding, the pasha turned to McLean. “Your young friend, monsieur, is uninformed that Turkish children have many names.... After the loss of the elder we called the little one by the same name.... I trust I have made everything perfectly clear to you?”
“As crystal,” said McLean politely.
“As lightning,” said Jack Ryder hotly, striding down the street. “It was a flash of invention, that yarn. When I spoke about the questions raised by his marriage the old fox sniffed the wind and was afraid of trouble–he decided on the instant that no future fortune was worth interference with his plans, and he cut the ground from under our feet.... Lord, what a lie!”
“Masterly, you must admit.”
“Oh, I admired the beggar, even while I choked on it. But fever–desert burial–two Aimées! And the sentimental face he pulled–he ought to have had a spot-light and wailing woodwinds.”
“I’ll believe anything of him now,” Ryder rushed on. “I’ll bet he murdered Delcassé and kidnapped the mother–and now he is selling their daughter–”
“I fancy murder’s a bit beyond our Tewfick. That’s too thick. He’s probably telling the truth there–he may never have known Delcassé. And as for the widow–she must have been in no end of trouble with a dead man and a wrecked expedition and a baby on her hands, and Tewfick may have offered himself as a grateful solution to her. You’d be surprised at the things I’ve heard. And if she looked like her picture Tewfick probably laid himself out to be lovely to her.... I rather like the chap, myself.”
“I love him,” Ryder snorted. “The infernal liar–”
“Steady now–suppose it’s all the truth? Nothing impossible to it. Fact is, I rather believe it,” said McLean imperturbably. “It hangs together. If this girl you met thinks she’s his daughter, that’s conclusive. She’d have some idea–servants’ gossip or family whisperings.... And why should he have brought her up as his own?”
“No other children. And he’d grown fond of her, of course. If you could see her!” retorted Ryder.
“Just as well, I can’t.... And I think he could hardly have kept her in the dark.... We’d better call it a wild goose chase and say the man’s telling the truth.”
“If this girl were his daughter she couldn’t be more than fourteen years old. And I’ve seen the girl and she’s eighteen if she’s a day–you might take her for twenty. Fourteen!” said Ryder in repudiating scorn.
Hesitating McLean murmured something about the early maturity of the natives.
“Natives?” Ryder flung angrily back. “This girl’s French!”
“As far as we are concerned, Jack, this girl is Turkish–and fourteen.... We can’t get around that, and you had better not forget it,” his friend quietly advised. “We’ve done everything that we can and there is no use working yourself up.... If anybody’s to blame in this business, I don’t think it’s Tewfick–he’s done the handsome thing by her–but the fool Frenchman who took his baby and his wife into the desert, and it’s too late to rag him. Cheer up, old top, and forget it. There’s nothing more to be done.”
It was sound advice, Jack Ryder knew it. They had done all that they could. McLean had been a brick. There remained nothing now but to notify the Delcassé aunt that Tewfick Pasha claimed the child.
“And I’ve a notion, Jack,” said McLean thoughtfully, “that he might not have done that if you hadn’t rushed him so, trying to break off the marriage. That was what frightened him.”
“I thought you said she was his own daughter,” Ryder responded indignantly, and to that McLean merely murmured, “She will be now, to all time.”
It was a haunting thought. It left Ryder with the bitter taste of blame in his mouth, the gall and wormwood of blame and a baffled defeat.
But for that sense of blame he might have taken McLean’s advice. He might–but for that–have gone the way of wisdom, and accepted the inevitable.
As it was, he did none of these things.
He said to himself that all that he could do now–and the least that he could do–was to let the girl know as much of the story as he knew and draw her own conclusions. Then, if she wanted to go on and sacrifice herself for Tewfick, very well. That was none of his affair.
But she had a right to the truth and to the chance of choice.
He did not know what he could do, but secretly and defiantly he promised himself that he would do something, and in the back of his mind an idea was already taking shape. It was manifest in the tenacity with which he refused to send the locket to the Delcassés. He had the case and the miniature photographed very carefully by the man who did the reproductions for museum illustrations, and he sent that, conscious of McLean’s silent thought that he was cherishing the portrait for a sentimental memory.
But he had other plans for it.
He did not return to his diggings. He sent a message to the deserted Thatcher, faking errands in Cairo, and he took a room at the hotel where Jinny Jeffries–now up the Nile–had stayed. He spent a great deal of time evenings in the hotel garden, staring over the brick walls to the tops of distant palms beyond, and not infrequently he slipped out the garden’s back door and wandered up and down the dark canyon of a lane.
He might as well have walked up and down the veranda of Shepheard’s Hotel.
And yet the girl had her key. She could get away if she wanted to and she might want to if she knew the truth.
But how to get that truth to her? That was his problem. A dozen plans he considered and rejected. There were the mails–simple and obvious channel–but he had a strong idea that maidens in Mohammedan seclusion do not receive their letters directly. And now, especially, Tewfick would be on his guard.
Then there was the chance of a message through some native’s hands. The house servants–? There were hours, one day, when Ryder sauntered about the streets, covertly eyeing the baggy-trousered sais who stood holding a horse in the sun or the tattered baker’s boy, approaching the entrance with his long loaves upon his head, but Ryder’s Arabic was not of a power or subtlety to corrupt any creature, and he stayed his tongue.
Bitterly he regretted his wasted years. If he had not misspent them in godly living he would now be upon such terms of intimacy with some official’s pretty wife who had the entrée to a pasha’s daughter that she could be induced to make use of it for him.
Desperately he thought of remedying this defect. There were several charming young matrons not averse to devoted young men, but the time was short for establishing those confidential relations which were what he required now.
Jinny Jeffries would do it for him if she could, but Jinny would not return for another week. And if she changed her mind and took the boat back–as he, alack! had advised–instead of the express, then she would be longer.
And meanwhile the days were passing, four of them now since he and McLean had heard the Soudanese locking the door behind them.
There seemed nothing for it but to trust to that idea which had been slowly shaping in his mind.