The Fortieth Door
By Mary Hastings Bradley
Public Domain Books
A WEDDING PRESENT
In a room high in the palace a young girl was trying on a frock. Before a tall pier glass she stood indifferently, one hip sagging to the despair of the kneeling seamstress, her face turned listlessly from the image in the glass.
Through the open window, banded with three bars, she looked into the rustling tops of palms, from which the yellow date fruit hung, and beyond the palms the hot, bright, blue sky and the far towers of a minaret.
“A bit more to the left, h’if you please, miss,” the woman entreated through a mouthful of pins, and apathetically the young figure moved.
“A bit of h’all right, now, that drape,” the woman chirped, sitting back on her heels to survey her work.
She was an odd gnome-like figure, with a sharp nose on one side of her head and an outstanding knob of hair on the other. Into that knob the thin locks were so tightly strained that her pointed features had an effect of popping out of bondage.
She was London born, brought out by an English official’s wife as dressmaker to the children, remaining in Cairo as wife of a British corporal. Since no children had resulted to require her care and the corporal maintained his distaste for thrift, Mrs. Hendricks had resumed her old trade, and had become a familiar figure to many fashionable Turkish harems, slipping in and out morning and evening, sewing busily away behind the bars upon frocks that would have graced a court ball, and lunching in familiar sociability with the family, sometimes having a bey or a captain or a pasha for a vis-à-vis when the men in the family dropped in for luncheon.
As the girl did not turn her head she looked for approbation to the third person in the room, a tall, severely handsome Frenchwoman in black, whose face had the beauty of chiseled marble and the same quality of cold perfection. This was Madame de Coulevain, teacher of French and literature to the jeunes filles of Cairo, former governess of Aimée, returned now to her old room in the palace for the wedding preparations.
There was history behind madame’s sculptured face. In an incredibly impulsive youth she had fled from France with a handsome captain of Algerian dragoons; after a certain matter at cards he had ceased to be a captain and became petty official in a Cairo importing house; later yet, he became an invalid.
Life, for the Frenchwoman, was a matter of paying for her husband’s illness, then for his funeral expenses, and then of continuing to pay for the little one which the climate had required them to send to a convent in France.
There was, at first, the hope of reunion, extinguished by each added year. What could madame, unknown, unfriended, unaccredited, accomplish in France? The mere getting there was impossible–the little one required so much. Her daughter was no dependent upon charity. And in Cairo madame had a clientèle, she commanded a price. And so for the child’s sake she taught and saved, concentrating now upon a dot, and feeding her heart with the dutifully phrased letters arriving each week of the years, and the occasional photographs of an ever-growing, unknown young creature.
It was to madame’s care that Aimée had been given when the motherless girl had grown beyond old Miriam’s ministrations, and for nearly nine years in the palace madame had maintained her courteous and tactful supervision. Indeed, it was only this last year that madame had undertaken new relations with the world outside, perceiving that Aimée would not longer require her.
“Excellent,” she said now in her careful, unfamiliar English to Mrs. Hendricks, and in French to Aimée she added, with a hint of asperity, “Do give her a word. She is trying to please you.”
“It is very nice, Mrs. Hendricks,” said the girl dutifully, bringing her glance back from that far sky.
The little seamstress was instantly all vivacity. “H’and now for the sash–shall we ’ave it so–or so?” she demanded, attaching the wisp of tulle experimentally.
“As you wish it.... It is very nice,” Aimée repeated vaguely. She picked up a bit of the shimmering stuff and spread it curiously across her fingers. A dinner gown.... When she wore this she would be a wife.... The wife of Hamdi Bey.... A shiver went through her and she dropped the tulle swiftly.
In ten days more....
Gone was her first rush of sustaining compassion. Gone was her fear for her father and her tenderness to him. Only this numb coldness, this dumb, helpless certainty of a destiny about to be accomplished.... Only this hopeless, useless brooding upon that strange brief past.
There was a stir at the door and on her shuffling, slippered feet old Miriam entered, handing some packages to Madame de Coulevain. Then she turned to revolve about the bright figure of her young mistress, her eyes glistening fondly, her dark fingers touching a soft fold of silver ribbon, while under her breath she chanted in a croon like a lullaby, “Beautiful as the dawn ... she will walk upon the heart of her husband with foot of rose petals ... she will dazzle him with the beams of her eyes and with the locks of her hair, she will bind him to her ... beautiful as the dawn....”
It was the marriage chant of Miriam’s native village, an old love song that had come down the wind of centuries.
Mrs. Hendricks, thrusting in the final pins, paid not the slightest attention and Madame de Coulevain displayed interest only in the packages. If she saw the stiffening of the girl’s face and the rigid aversion of her eyes from the old nurse’s adulation she gave no sign.
Towards Aimée’s moods madame preserved a calm and sensible detachment. Never had she invited confidence, and for all the young girl’s charm she had never taken her to her heart in the place of that absent daughter. As if jealously she had held herself aloof from such devotion.
Perhaps in Aimée’s indulged and petted childhood, with a fond pasha extolling her small triumphs, her dances, her score at tennis at the legation, madame found a bitter contrast to the lot of that lonely child in France. Certainly there was nothing in Aimée’s life then to invite compassion, and later, during those hard, mutinous months of the girl’s first veiling and seclusion, she had not tried to soften the inevitable for her with a useless compassion.
So now, perceiving this marriage as one more step in the irresistible march of destiny for her charge, she overlooked the youthful fretting and offered the example of her own unmoved acceptance.
“What diamonds!” she said now admiringly, holding up a pin, and, examining the card. “From Seniha Hanum–the cousin of Hamdi Bey.”
A moment more she held up the pin but the girl would not give it a look.
“And this, from the same jeweler’s,” continued madame, while the dressmaker was unfastening the frock, aided by Miriam, anxious that no scratch should mar that milk-white skin.
“How droll–the box is wrapped in cloth, a cloth of plaid.”
Aimée spun about. The dress fell, a glistening circle at her feet, and with regardless haste she tripped over it to madame.
“How–strange!” she said breathlessly.
A plaid ... A Scotch plaid. Memories of an erect, tartan-draped young figure, of a thin, bronzed face and dark hair where a tilted cap sat rakishly ... memories of smiling, boyish eyes, darkening with sudden emotion ... memories of eager lips....
She took the box from madame. Within the cloth lay a jeweler’s case and within the case a locket of heavily ornamented gold.
Her heart beating, she opened it. For a moment she did not understand. Her own face–her own face smiling back. Yet unfamiliar, that oddly piled hair, that black velvet ribbon about the throat....
Murmuring, madame shared her wonder.
It was Miriam’s cry of recognition that told them.
“Thy mother–the grace of Allah upon her!–It is thy mother! Eh, those bright eyes, that long, dark hair that I brushed the many hot nights upon the roof!”
“But you are her image, Aimée,” murmured the Frenchwoman, but half understanding the nurse’s rapid gutturals, and then, “Your father’s gift?”
With the box in her hands the girl turned from them, fearful of the tell-tale color in her cheeks. “But whose else–his thought, of course,” she stammered.
That plaid was warning her of mystery.
The dressmaker was creating a diversion. Leaving, she wished to consult about the purchases for to-morrow’s work, and madame moved towards the hall with her, talking in her careful English, while Miriam bent towards the dropped finery.
Aimée slipped through another door, into the twilight of her bedroom, whose windows upon the street were darkened by those fine-wrought screens of wood. Swiftly she thrust the box from sight, into the hollow in the mashrubiyeh made in old days to hold a water bottle where it could be cooled by breezes from the street.
Leaning against the woodwork, her fingers curving through the tiny openings, she stared toward the west. The sky was flushing. Broken by the circles, the squares, the minute interstices of the mashrubiyeh, she saw the city taking on the hues of sunset.
Suddenly the cry of a muezzin from a nearby minaret came rising and falling through the streets.
“_La illahé illallah Mohammedun Ressoulallah–”
The call swelled and died away and rose again ... There is no God but the God and Mahomet is the Prophet of God ... From farther towers it sounded, echoing and re-echoing, vibrant, insistent, falling upon crowded streets, penetrating muffling walls.
“_La illahé illallah–”
In the avenue beneath her two Arabs, leading their camels to market, were removing their shoes and going through the gestures of ceremonial washing with the dust of the street.
The city was ringing with it.
The seamstress and the Frenchwoman, still talking, had passed down the hall. In the next room Miriam’s lips were moving in pious testimony.
“_Ech hedu en la illahé–! I testify that there is no God but theGod.”
In the street the Arabs were bowing towards the east, their heads touching the earth.
And in the window above them a girl was reading a note.
The last call of the muezzin, falling from the tardy towers of Kait Bey drifted faintly through the colored air. With resounding whacks the Arabs were urging on their beast; Miriam, her prayers concluded, was shaking out silks and tulle with a sidelong glance for that still figure in the next room, pressing so close against the guarding screens.
She could not see the pallor in the young face. She could not see the tumult in the dark eyes. She could not see the note, crushed convulsively against the beating breast, in the fingers which so few moments ago had drawn it from the hiding place in the box.
Ryder had not dared a personal letter. But clearly, and distinctly, he stated the story of the Delcassés. He gave the facts which the pasha admitted and the ingenious explanation of the two Aimées. And for reference he gave the address of the Delcassé aunt and agent in France and of Ryder and McLean at the Agricultural Bank.
The pasha did not dine with his daughter that night. He had been avoiding her of late, a natural reaction from the strain of too-excessive gratitude. A man cannot be continually humble before the young! And it was no pleasure to be reminded by her candid eyes of his late misfortunes and of her absurd reluctance towards matrimony.
As if this marriage were not the best thing for her! As if it were a hardship! To make sad eyes and draw a mouth because one is to be the wife of a rich general.... Irrational ... The little sweetmeat was irritating.
To this point Tewfick’s buoyancy had brought him, and all the more hastily because of his eagerness to escape the pangs of that uncomfortable self-reproach. To Aimée, in her new clear-sightedness of misery, it was bitterly apparent that he was reconciled with her lot and careless of it.
So blinded had been her young affection that it was a hard awakening, and she was too young, too cruelly involved, to feel for his easy humors that amused tolerance of larger acquaintance with human nature. She had grown swiftly bitter and resentful, and deeply cold.
And now this letter. It dazed her, like a flame of lightning before her eyes, and then, like lightning, it lit up the world with terrifying luridity. Fiery colored, unfamiliar, her life trembled about her.
Truth or lies? Custom and habit stirred incredulously to reject the supposition. The romance, the adventure of youth, dared its swift acceptance. How could she know? Intuitively she shrank from any question to the pasha, realizing the folly and futility of exposing her suspicion. If he needed to lie, lie he would–and in her understanding of that, she read her own acceptance of the possibility of his needing to lie.
Madame de Coulevain? Madame had never known her mother. Only old Miriam had known her mother and Miriam was the pasha’s slave. But the old woman was unsuspecting now, and full of disarming comfort in this marriage of her wild darling.
Through dinner she planned the careless-seeming questions. And then in her negligée, as the old nurse brushed out her hair for the night, “Dadi,” said the girl, in a faint voice, “am I truly like my mother?” and when Miriam had finished her fond protestation that they were as like as two roses, as two white roses, bloom and bud, she launched that little cunning phrase on which she had spent such eager hoping.
“And was I like her when I was little–when first she came to my father?”
“Eh–yes. Always thou wast the tiny image which Allah–Glory to his Name!–had made of her,” came the nurse’s assurance.
“I am glad,” said Aimée, in a trembling voice.
She dared not press that more. Confronted with her unconscious admission the old woman would destroy it, feigning some evasion. But there it was, for as much as it was worth....
Presently then, she found another question to slip into the old woman’s narrative of the pasha’s grief.
“Eh, to hear a man weep,” Miriam was murmuring. “Her beauty had set its spell upon him, and–”
“And he lost her so soon. Three or four years only, was it not," ventured Aimée, “that they had of life together?”
It seemed that Miriam’s brush missed a stroke.
“Years I forget,” the nurse muttered, “but tears I remember,” and she began to talk of other things.
But it seemed to Aimée that she had answered. As for that other matter, of the dead Delcassé child, she dared not refer to it, lest Miriam tell the pasha. But how many times, she remembered, had she been told that she was her mother’s only one!
Yet, oh, to know, to hear all the story, to learn Ryder’s discovery of it! It was all as strange and startling as a tale of Djinns. And the life that it held out to her, the enchanted hope of freedom, of aid–Oh, not again would she refuse his aid!
She had no plans, no purposes. But that night over her hastily-donned frock she slipped the black street mantle and when at last, after endless waiting, the murmuring old palace was safely still and dark, she stole down the spiral stair and gained the garden. And then, a phantom among its shadows, she fled to the rose bushes by the gate.
Breathlessly she knelt and dug into the hiding place of that gate’s key. To the furthest corner her fingers explored the hole, pushing furiously against the earth. And then she drew back her hand and crushed it against her face to check the nervous sobs.
The hole was empty. The key was gone.