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 Delcasse. 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.
TO McLEAN'S ASTONISHMENT
"It is no end of good of you, Jack, to take this trouble," Andrew McLean remarked appreciatively, looking up from his scrutiny of the packet which his unexpected luncheon guest had pushed over to his plate.
"Uncommon thoughtful. It's undoubtedly a twin to that locket, the portrait of the man's wife—whatever his name was."
"Delcasse," said Jack Ryder promptly.
Gratefully he drained the second lemon squash which the silent-footed Mohammed had placed at his elbow. It had been a hard morning's trip, this coming in from camp in high haste, and he was hot and dusty.
"You might have sent the thing," McLean mentioned. "I daresay that special agent chap has left the country, for I recollect he said he was at the end of his search.... And, of course, this isn't much of a clue—eh, what?"
"It's everything of a clue," insisted Ryder. "It shows where this Frenchman was working, for the first thing—"
"Unless it had been stolen by some native who lost it in that tomb."
"Natives don't lose gold lockets. Of course it might have been stolen and hidden—but that's far-fetched. It's much more likely that this was the very tomb where Delcasse was working at the time of his death. For one thing, the place showed signs of previous excavation up to the inner corridor, and there I'll swear no modern got ahead of me. And for another thing, it's a perfect specimen of the limestone carving of the Tomb of Thi which Delcasse wrote his book about—looks very much as if it might be by the same artist. There's a flock of hippopotami in a marsh scene with the identical drawing, and there's the same lovely boat in full sail—but there, you bounder, you don't know the Tomb of Thi from a thyroid gland. You're here to administer financial justice, the middle, the high, and the low; your soul is with piasters, not the past. But take my word for it, it's exactly the spot where an enthusiast of the Thi Tomb would be grubbing away.... Lord, they could choose their find in those days!"
"It's uncommonly likely," McLean conceded, abandoning his demolished cherry tart and pulling out his briar. "And if the locket proves the duplicate of the other it indicates that it's a portrait of Madame Delcasse, but it doesn't indicate what has become of Madame Delcasse.... Though in a general way," McLean deduced with Scotch judicialness, "it supports the theory of foul play. The woman would hardly have lost her miniature, or have sold it, except under pressing conditions. In fact—"
Ryder was brusque with his facts.
"That doesn't matter—Madame Delcasse doesn't matter. The thing that matters is—"
As brusquely he broke off. His tongue balked before the revelation but he goaded it on.
"That there is a girl—the living image of that picture."
"I say!" McLean looked up at that, distinctly intrigued. "That's getting on.... You mean you've seen her?"
Ryder nodded, suddenly busy with his cigarette.
"Where is she, now? In Cairo? That's luck, man!... And you say she's like?"
"You'd think it her picture."
"It's an uncommon face." McLean bent over it again. "I fancied the artist had just been making a bit of beauty, but if there's a girl like that—! Fancy stumbling on that!... But where is she? And what name does she go by?"
"Oh, her name—she doesn't know her own, of course." Ryder paused uncertainly. "She's in Cairo," he began again vaguely. "She'd be just about the right age—eighteen or so. She—she's had awf'ly hard luck." Distressfully he hesitated.
The shrewd eyes of McLean dwelt upon him in sorrowful silence. "Eh, Jock," he said at last, with mock scandal scarcely veiling rebuke. "I did not know that you knew any of that sort—the poor, wee lost thing.... Tell me, now—"
"Tell you you're off your chump," said Jack rudely. "She's no lost lamb. Fact is, she's never spoken to a man—except myself." He rather enjoyed the start this gave McLean after his insinuations. It helped him on with his story.
"The girl doesn't know her own name at all, I gather. She thinks she's the daughter of Tewfick Pasha. Her mother married the Turk and died very soon afterwards and he brought up this girl as his own. She says she's his only child."
He paused, ostensibly to blow an elaborate smoke ring, but actually to enjoy McLean's astonishment. As astonishment, it was distinctly vivid. It verged upon a genuine horror as Ryder's meaning sank into his friend's mind.
McLean knew—slightly—Tewfick Pasha. He knew—supremely—the inviolable seclusion of a daughter of such a household. He knew the utter impossibility of any man's speech with her.
Yet here was Ryder telling him—
Ryder's telling him was a sketchy performance. He mentioned the girl's appearance at the masquerade and their acquaintance. He touched lightly upon her attempted flight and his pursuit. Even more lightly he passed over those lingering moments at her garden gate and the exchange of confidences.
"She said that her dead mother had been French. And that her name was her mother's—Aimee. So there is—"
"But the likeness, man—her face? She never unveiled to you?"
"Well, the next night—"
"The next night?"
It was at this point that Ryder began to lose his relish of McLean's astonishment.
"Yes, the next night," he repeated with careful carelessness.... "I told the girl I would come and see if she got in all right—there had been some footsteps the night before—"
"And you went? And she came?"
"Do you suppose she sent her father?"
"You're lucky she didn't send her father's eunuch," McLean retorted grimly. "Well, get on with your damning story. The girl took off her veil—"
"Nothing of the kind," said Jack a trifle testily—so soon does conventional masculinity champion the conservatism of the other sex! "That was just as I was going—gone, in fact. I looked back and she had drawn her veil aside. The moon was bright on her face—I saw her as clear as daylight, and I tell you that this miniature is a picture of her. She is Delcasse's daughter and she doesn't know it. Her mother was stolen by that disgusting old Turk—"
"Hold on a bit. Fifteen years ago Tewfick could hardly have been thirty and he has the rep of a Don Juan. It may have been a love affair or it may have been plunder.... The girl remembers her?"
"Very little. She was so young when her mother died. She said that the father was so in love that he never married again."
"H'm ... It seems to me that I've heard tales of our Tewfick and of pretty ladies in apartments. Cairo is a city of secrets and tattlers. However—as to this Delcasse inheritance, I'll just notify the French legation—"
"We'll have to look sharp," said Ryder quickly. "There's no time to lose. The girl is to be married."
"Married?... But she'll inherit the money just the same."
"But she doesn't want to be married," Ryder insisted anxiously. "Her father—her alleged father—has just sprung this on her. Says there are political or financial reasons. He's been caught in some dirty work by this Hamdi Bey and he's stopping Hamdi's mouth with the girl.... And we've got to stop that."
"I wonder if we can," said McLean thoughtfully.
"If we can? When the girl is French? When she's been lied to and deceived?"
"She seems to have been taken jolly well care of. Brought up as his own and all that. Keep your shirt on, Jack," McLean advised dryly with a shrewd glance from his gray eyes at the other's unguarded heat.
Then his eyes dropped to the miniature again. A lovely face. A lovely unfortunate creature.... And if the daughter looked like that, small wonder that Jack was touched.... Beauty in distress.
Some men had all the luck, McLean reflected. He had never taken Jack for the gallivanting kind, either, yet here he was going to masquerades with one girl and coming home with another....
Jack was too good looking, that was the trouble with the youngster. Good looking and gay humored. The kind that attracted women.... Women and romance were never fluttering about lank, light-eyed, uninteresting old Scotchmen of twenty-nine!
A mild and wistful pang, which McLean refused to name, made itself known.
"I'll see the legation," he began.
"At once. I'll wait," urged Ryder.
And at once McLean went.
* * * * *
The result was what he had foreseen. The legation was appreciative of his interest. That special agent had returned to France but his address was left, and undoubtedly the family of Delcasse would be grateful for any information which Monsieur McLean could send.
"Send!" repudiated Ryder hotly. "Write to France and back—wait for somebody to come over! Can't the legation do something now?"
"The legation has no authority. They can't take the girl away from the man who is, at any rate, her step-father."
"They can put the fear of God into him about this marriage. They can deny his right to hand her over to one of his pals. They can threaten him with an inquiry into the circumstances of her mother's marriage."
"And why should they? They may regard it as a very natural marriage. And remember, my dear Jack, that the legation has no desire to alienate the affections of influential Turks, or criticize fifteen-years-ago romances. You have a totally wrong impression of the responsibilities of foreign representatives."
"But to let him dispose of a French girl—"
"He is disposing of her, as his daughter, in honorable marriage to a wealthy and aristocratic general. There can be no question of his motives—"
"Of course, if you think that sort of thing is all right—"
Carefully McLean ignored the other's wrath.
Patiently he explained. "It's not what I think, my dear fellow, it's what the legation thinks. There's not a chance in the world of getting the marriage stopped."
"Then I'll do it myself," declared Ryder. "I'll see this Tewfick Pasha and talk to him. Tell him the money is to come to the girl only when she is single. Tell him the French law gives the father's representatives full charge. Tell him that he kidnapped the mother and the government will prosecute unless the girl is given her liberty. Tell him anything. A man with a guilty conscience can always be bluffed."
In silence McLean gazed upon him, perplexed and clouded, his quizzical twinkle gone. Jack was taking this thing infernally to heart.... And it was a bad business.
"You will let me do the telling," he stated at last, grimly. "What can be said, I'll say. Like a fool, I will meddle."
And so it happened that within another hour two very stiff and constrained young men were ringing the bell at the entrance door of Tewfick Pasha.
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 but the owner of the palace ever gained admission, was Aimee.
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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse—the former Madame Delcasse 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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse—the former Madame Delcasse—who is leaving this money?"
"Not of Madame but of Monsieur Delcasse," 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 Delcasse."
"Sir?" said Ryder sharply.
"There is no Mademoiselle Delcasse," 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 Delcasse."
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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse child—was Aimee?"
Imperceptibly Tewfick hesitated. Then bowed in assent.
"Odd," said young Ryder thoughtfully. "And your own daughter's name, also, is Aimee.... 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 Aimees! 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 Delcasse 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 Delcasse. 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 Delcasse 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 Delcasses. 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 entree 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.
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-a-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 Aimee, 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 clientele, 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 Aimee 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 Aimee would not longer require her.
"Excellent," she said now in her careful, unfamiliar English to Mrs. Hendricks, and in French to Aimee 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," Aimee 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 Aimee'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 Aimee'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 Aimee'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."
Aimee 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, Aimee," 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.
Aimee 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 illahe 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 illahe 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 illahe—! I testify that there is no God but the God."
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 Delcasses. He gave the facts which the pasha admitted and the ingenious explanation of the two Aimees. And for reference he gave the address of the Delcasse 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 Aimee, 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 negligee, 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 Aimee, 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 Aimee, "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 Aimee that she had answered. As for that other matter, of the dead Delcasse 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.
In Tewfick Pasha's harem everything was astir.
It was the morning of the marriage, almost the very hour when the wedding cortege would bear the bride from her father's home to the house of her husband.
The invited guests were already arrived and streaming through the reception rooms, a bright, feminine tide in evening toilettes, surrounding the exhibited gifts or pausing about tables of cool syrups, and their soft, low voices, the delicious musical tones of highbred Turkish women, rose like a murmuring of somnolent bees to the tenser regions about, tightening the excitement of haste.
The bride was not yet ready. Still and white, she was the only image of calm in that fluttering, confusing room. Her nearer friends were hovering about her, and her maids of honor, two charming little Turks in rose robes, were draping her veil while old Miriam, resplendent in green and silver, endeavored jealously to outmaneuver them.
On her knees, the gnome-like Mrs. Hendricks was adding an orange blossom to the laces on the train. Then she sat back on her heels, her head a-tilt like a curious bird's, her eyes beaming sentimentally upon the bride.
"The prettiest h'I h'ever did see," she pronounced with satisfaction, "H'as pretty as a wax figger now—h'only a thought too waxy."
And like a wax figure indeed, immobile, rigid, the bride was standing before them, arrayed at last in the shimmering white of the sweeping satin, overrich of lace and orange flowers, and shrouded in the clouding waves of her veil. White as her robes, pale as death and as still, the girl looked out at them, and only that sick pallor of her face and the glitter of her dark eyes betrayed the tumult within.
"Your diadem, my dear—you are keeping us attending," came Madame de Coulevain's voice from the door.
The diadem, that heavy circlet of brilliants which crowned the Eastern bride in place of the orange wreath of Western convention, must not be touched by the bride's fingers but placed by one of her friends, married and married but once, and exceptionally happy in that marriage.
Ghul-al-Din, Aimee's selection from her friends, stepped hastily forward now, a soft, dimpled, slow-smiling girl, her eyes drowsy with domesticity. No question of Ghul-al-Din's happiness! She extolled her husband, a young captain of cavalry, and she adored her infant son, a prodigy among children. Life for her was a rosy, unquestioning absorption.
A shaft of irony sped through Aimee, as she bent her head for its crowning at this young wife's hands, and received the ceremonial wishes for her crowning of happiness, a crowning occurring but once in her lifetime. Irony was the only salvation for the hour; without that outlet for her tortured spirit she felt she would grow suddenly mad, hysterical and babbling or passionate and wild.
So many moods had stormed through her since that night when she had found all hope of rescue gone with her lost key! So many impulses seethed frantically now beneath her quiet, as she faced for the last time that white-misted image in the glass. She had a furious longing to tear off that diadem and veil and heavy robe, to scatter the ornaments and drive out all those maddening spectators, all those interested, eager, unknowing, uncaring spectators of her humiliation.
Arranging her veil, draping her satins, as if gauze and silk were all that mattered to this hour! Wishing her happiness—as if happiness could ever be hers now for the wishing! Smiling, fluttering, complimenting, lending to the ghastly sacrifice the familiar acceptances of every day....
If only she could wake from this nightmare and find that it was all a dream. If only she could brush this confusion from her senses and from her heart its dumb terrors.... If only she had the courage for some desperate revolt, some outburst of strength—
"I am ready," she said faintly, turning from the glass, and moved towards the door, while a young eunuch bent for her train, that train of three yards length, which stretched so regally behind her in her slow descent of the stairs.
In the French drawing-room below her father was waiting for the ceremonial farewell, in which the father received the daughter's thanks for all his care of her.
Mechanically Aimee advanced. She stood before him, she lifted her eyes—and there passed from them a look of such strange, breathless, questioning intensity that it was like something palpable.... She had not foreseen this, sudden crisping of her nerves, this defiant passion of her spirit....
Her father? Was he her father? Was it a father who had sold her so, careless, callous—or was it only a father's semblance, and did there lie in the background of those petted, childish years some darker shadow, of a tragedy that had wrecked her mother's life and broken her heart—?
Like flashing light that look passed between them. It penetrated Tewfick's nonchalant guard and brought the unaccustomed color to his olive cheeks. His handsome eyes turned uneasily aside. A girl's pique perhaps, at the situation, her last defiance of his power,—but for all his reassurance there was something deeper in that look, something tenable, accusing, which went into his soul.
It was a moment in which the last cord of their relationship was severed forever.
She did not speak a word. She bent, not to kiss his hand as custom dictated, but to sweep a long, slow courtesy, that salutation of a maid of spirit to a conqueror, a bending of the pliant back, but with the head held high and the spirit unsurrendered.
And yet there was wretchedness in those proud eyes and a blind fear and supplication.
Useless to beg now. She knew it, and yet the eyes implored.
And then she smiled. And before that smile Tewfick faltered in his paternal benediction and hastened the phrases.
Little murmurs flew back and forth as she turned away, and then a hasty chatter sprang up as the guests hurried into their tcharchafs for the journey to the bridegroom's house.
That day Aimee did not put on her veil. On either side of her, as she went out her father's gate, huge negroes held up silken walls of damask, and between those walls she walked into the carriage that awaited her, followed by Madame de Coulevain and the two little maids of honor.
It was when the carriage began to move that the panic inside of her grew to whirlwind. The horse' hoofs, trotting, trotting, the motion of the wheels, seemed to be the onbearing rush of fate itself. If she could only stop it! If she could only cry out, tear open the windows, scream to the passers by. She knew these were only the impotent visions of hysteria, but she indulged them pitifully.
She saw herself, in those moments, helpless, and hopeless, passing on into the slavery of this marriage—Aimee, no longer the daughter of Tewfick Pasha, but Aimee Delcasse, child of a dead Frenchman, inheritor of freedom, sold like any dancing girl....
And her own lips had assented. In the supreme, silly uselessness of sacrifice she had given herself for the safety of that man who had spent such careless indulgence upon her ... that man whom perhaps her mother had loved and perhaps had hated....
Faster and faster the horses were trotting, leading the long file of carriages and impatient motors that bore the relatives and guests and trousseau, rolling on under the lebbeks and sycamores of the wide Shubra Avenue, once the delight of fashionables before the Gezireh Drive had drained it of its throngs and its prestige.
Now some bright-eyed urchins ran out from their games in the dust to curious attention, and through a half open gate Aimee caught once a glimpse of a young, unveiled girl watching eagerly from the tangled greens and ruined statuary of an old garden. Farther on came glimpses of farm lands, the wheat rising in bright spears, and of well-wooded heights and in the distance the white houses of Demerdache against the Gibel Achmar beyond.
But where were they bearing her? Aimee had a despairing sense of distance and desolation as the carriage turned again—Abdullah, the coachman, having traversed unnecessary miles to gratify his pride before the house of his parents—and made a zigzag way towards the river, where old palaces rose from the backwaters, their faces hidden by high walls or covered with heavy vines and moss.
Deeper and deeper grew the girl's dismay. It was a different world from that bright, modern Cairo that she knew; this was as remote from her daily life as the old streets of Al Raschid. Her thoughts flew forward to that unknown lord, that Hamdi Bey, whose image she had refused to assemble to her consciousness. Now she comforted her terror with a sudden assumption of age and dignity and kindness, of a courtesy that would protect her and a deference that would assuage the horror of a life together, when unknown, fearful familiarities would alone vibrate in the empty monotonies.
Before a high wall the carriage had stopped. A huge, repellent Ethiopian was standing before an opened doorway, through which a rich carpet was spread.
"Ah, but he looks like an ogre, that new eunuch of yours, Aimee," murmured one of the little Turks. The other, more touched with thought, gave her a disturbed glance, and laughed in nervousness.
Madame, alone serene, ignored the dismaying impression.
"The palace is of a fine, ancient beauty, I am told," she mentioned cheerfully.
For one wild instant Aimee thought to plead with her, to implore her to tell Abdullah to drive on, to give her the freedom of flight, if only flight down those deserted streets. And then a mad vision of herself in her bridal robes in flight, brought the hysterical laughter to her throat. The time for flight had gone by ... And as for madame's pity on her—this was not the first time that Aimee had thought of invoking her aid, but she had always known, too well, that thought's supreme futility.
Sympathetic as Madame de Coulevain might be in her inmost heart—and Aimee divined in her an understanding pity for the necessities of existence—never would that sympathy betray her to rashness. She never would believe that in serving Aimee she would not be ruining her; and even if assured of Aimee's safety, she could never be brought to betray her own reputation for truthworthiness among the harems of Cairo.... As well appeal to the rocks of the Mokattam hills.
The carriage stopped. The negroes extended the damask walls, and one sprang to open the carriage door and bear the bride's train. In one moment's parting of the silken walls the girl saw a sun-flooded cluster of staring faces, thronging for her arrival, and then the damask intervened and through its lane, followed by her duenna and her maids of honor, she entered the arched doorway.
She was in a garden, a great gloomy place, over-spread with ancient, moss-encrusted trees. A broken, marble fountain flung up waters into which no sunlight flashed, and the heavy stepping stones, leading to it, were buried in untrodden grass. A garden in which no one lingered.
The Ethiopian was marshaling them to the left, to an entrance in the dark palace walls before them. Behind them the oncoming guests were streaming out in veiled procession.
He opened a door. Ancient, beautiful arches framed a long vestibule and against a background of profuse cut flowers a man's figure stepped forward in the glittering uniform of the Sultan's guard. Aimee had a confused impression of a thin, meager, dandified figure with a waspish waist ... of a blond mustache with upstanding ends ... of sallow cheek-bones and small, light eyes smiling at her in a strained, eager curiosity....
Through all her sinking dismay she had a flash of clear, enlightening irony at that look's suspense. If she were not as represented! If his cousin's fervor had misled his hope—!
But in that instant's encounter his eyes cleared to triumph and gayety, and he smiled—a smile curiously feline, ironic, for all its intended ingratiation—a conqueror's smile, winged to reassure and melt.
He stepped forward. There were formal words of welcome to which she returned a speechless bow, and then he offered his arm and conducted her slowly up the stairs, his sword rattling in its scabbard, to the apartment which was to be her home, and the prison for the spirit and the body.
She knew in a moment that she hated this man and that he inspired her with fear and horror.
Across a long expanse of drawing-room he conducted her to the ancient marriage throne upon its platform, surmounted by a pompous crown from which old, embroidered silks hung heavily.
Then with an unheard phrase, and another bow, he left her to the day-long ordeal of the reception while he withdrew to his own entertainment at her father's house. She would not see him again until night, when he would pay her a call of ceremony.
She saw his figure hesitating a moment, as he faced the oncoming guests, such a flood of femininity, unmantled now and unveiled, sparkling in rainbow hues of silks and tulle and gauze that he had never before faced and never would again. Like a bright wave the throng closed about him and then surged on towards the bride upon the throne.
How often, in the last years, Aimee had pitied that poor puppet of a bride, stuck there like some impaled, winged creature, helpless for flight, to the exhibition of the long stream of passersby! How often she had promised herself that never would this be her fate, never would she be given to an unknown! And now—
She was smiling as she faced them, that light, fixed smile she had seen so often on others' lips, the smile of pride trying desperately to hide its wounds from the penetrating glances of the curious. Satiric, cynical, or sympathetic, that light smile defied them all, but beneath its guard she felt she was slowly bleeding to death of some mortal hurt.
The sympathy unconsciously betrayed, was hardest. The whispers of her young maids of honor, "Really, Aimee, he looks so young! One would never surmise," were more galling in their intended consolation, more revealing in their betrayal of her friends' own shrinking from that arrogant, dandified old man than the barbed dart of the uncaring, inquisitive, "How do you find him, my dear? He has the reputation for conquest!"
They were all there, her friends, young, slim, modish Turkish girls whose time had not yet come, glancing quizzically about the ancient drawing room, with its solid side of mashrubiyeh, its old wall panelings of carvings and rare inlay, and then pointing their glances back at her, as if to ask, "And is this our revoltee? Is this her end, in this dim, old palace among the ghosts of the past?"
Some, the frankest, murmured, "But why did you not refuse?" and others attempted consolation with a light, "As well the first as the last—since we must all come to it."
Of the married women there were those who raised blank, bitter eyes to her, and others, more mild, romantic, affectionate, tried to infuse encouragement into their smiles as if they said, "Come—courage—it's not so bad. And what would you? We are women, after all; we do not need so much for happiness.
"Those dreams of yours for love, for a spirit to delight in your spirit in place of a master delighting in your beauty alone, what are they, those dreams, but the childish stuff of fancies? For other races, perhaps—but for you, take hold of life. There are realities yet in it to bring you joy."
It was all in their eyes, their voices, their intonations, their pressure of her hands.
And she stood there among them all, smiling always that smile demanded of the bride, looking unseeingly into their eyes, listening unhearingly to the sea of voices breaking on her ears, responding in vague monosyllables and a wider smile, while all the time her eyes saw only that face, that smirking, cynical old face, and the tide of terror rose higher and higher in her soul.
Never had she given way to her fear, never since the black night when she found the key was gone.
Then, after frenzied searching in impossible places she had stolen back to her room and buried her face in her pillow to stifle the breaking sobs of rebellion and despair—and of a longing so deep and so terrible that it seemed to rend her with a physical anguish, a pain so fiery that her heart would forever bear the scar.
Never again would she see him now.... Never would she know—never would she know all. She had refused his aid. And he might believe her still aloof, incredulous.... It was finished—forever and ever.
She had told herself that before. But always there had been the key. And now there was no key and no escape and her heart broke itself against the iron of necessity.
She had cried the night through. Morning had brought her exhaustion, not peace but a despairing submission. Why struggle when the prison gate is shut? And if there was never to be freedom for her ... never again the sight of that too-remembered face and the sound of that voice—why, then, as well one fate as another. And it was too late now to recede.
So she had called upon her pride and summoned her spirit to play its part to protect her from whispers, and surmise and half-contemptuous pity. She would surrender to this man because she must, and she would win his respect by her dignity and worth, but her soul she would keep its own, in its unsullied dreams ... and in its memories.... Life would be nothing but a hardship, nobly borne.
But now she had seen the man. Now this wild dislike, this sickening terror.
To be alone with him, to have only the few days grace of courtship which the Mohammadan custom imposes upon the bridegroom, to be forever at his mercy in this solitary palace, with its echoing corridors, its blackened walla, its damp breath of age....
She thought wildly of death.
And all the time she was smiling, bending her cheek to the kiss of a friend, feeling the fingers of some well-wisher press upon her, listening to praises of her beauty....
For she was beautiful. No image of wax now. The scarlet of her frightened blood was staining her cheeks, her eyes were bright as the jewels in her diadem, and beneath the thrown-back veil her dark hair revealed its lovely wealth.
"Is she not a rose—will he not adore her, our Hamdi?" she heard that stout cousin of Hamdi's say to a companion, and the two stared on appraisingly at the young girl, in her freshness and virginal youth, as if at some toy to invite the jaded appetite of a satiated master.
And still the throng filed by, a strange throng beneath the flickering light and shadow of the mashrubiyeh, slender young Turks or blonde Circassians in their Paris frocks, their eyes tormented or malicious, and here and there, like a green island of calm, some rotund matron grave and serene, her head encircled with an old fashioned turban of gauze, her stout flesh encased in heavy silks, bought at Damask so as not to enrich the Unbelievers at Lyons.
* * * * *
And then the spectacle changed, the black street mantles appeared, yashmaks and tcharchafs, for now the doors were opened to all the feminine world, and there came strange, unknown women, slipping out from their grills for this pleasuring in a palace, old-timers often, draped and turbaned in the fashion of some far province of their youth; women, incredibly fat, in rich stuffs of Asia, their bright, deep-sunken eyes spying delightedly upon the scene, or furtive, poor women, keeping courage in twos and threes.
Now, too, at four, came the women from the Embassies, a Russian girl with whom Aimee had played tennis in ages past, rosy now with yesterday's sun and sleepy with last night's dance, who touched the bride's hand as if it were the hand of one half-dead, already consigned to the tomb; other girls she did not know, who stared at her with the avid eyes of their young curiosities; older women, experienced, unstirred, drinking their tea and smoking cigarettes and gossiping of their own affairs, and occasionally among them a tourist agog with wonder and exultation, storing away details for a lifetime of talk, asking amiably the most incredible questions....
"And is it true you have never met your husband? Listen, Jane—she says she has never met him—"
A girl in a creamy white silk came forward a little uncertainly. She was a pretty girl, with a curve of ruddy hair visible under her smart straw, and very bright eyes, where shyness was at variance with a friendly smile.
Indeed Jinny Jeffries was extraordinarily intimidated by the occasion. She had a distinct sense of intrusion mingling with her delight at having intruded, and she murmured her good wishes in an almost inaudible tone.
"It is very good of you to let us come ... I wish you every happiness," she said.
Beside her a tall slender figure, in black tcharchaf and yashmak, made its appearance.
Aimee's eyes slipped past the pretty American; the mechanical smile was frozen on her lips. Over the black veil she saw the hazel eyes, bright with excitement, vivid as speech; the eyes of the masquerader in the Scotch costume, the eyes of the man at the garden gate—Jack Ryder's eyes ... the eyes of her dreams.
THE FORTY DOORS
When Ryder had despatched from the jeweler's who had polished the locket for him, that package with its secret note, and its warning plaid, he had no real assurance that the message would fall into Aimee's hands. But he could think of nothing better, and he argued very favorably for his stratagem.
That miniature should have some effect, and given the miniature, and the bit of plaid cloth, Aimee's quick wit ought to divine a message.
She had always the key, he remembered, and the power of egress from her prison. And surely it ought not to be difficult for her to devise some way of getting a letter into the post.
So his hope fluctuated between the garden gate and the daily mail at the Bank, and he rather surprised McLean by the frequency and brevity of his visits, and by the duration of his stay in Cairo.
For that he had an excuse, both to McLean and to the deserted Thatcher, at the excavation camp, two excuses in fact—some belated identification work to be done at the Museum and a cracked wisdom tooth.
Chiefly he spoke of the necessity for dentistry and accounted for his moods with his molar.
Of moods he had many. Moods when he contemplated his behavior lightly and brightly or darkly, in unrelieved disgust, moods when he refused to contemplate it at all. But he stayed. That was the conspicuous and enduring thing. He stayed.
Jinny Jeffries returned from the Nile by express to find him ensconced at her hotel, and her bright confidence suffered no diminution of its self respect. And it was through Jinny that chance set another straw of circumstance dancing his way.
Jinny had a frock she wished repaired. Mrs. Heath-Brown, whom she had met upon the Nile, recommended to her a Mrs. Hendricks, wife of a British soldier and a most clever little needle woman. Jinny looked up Mrs. Hendricks and found it impossible to secure her for some days as she was busy refitting for a fashionable wedding in the Mohammedan world.
A night later, and two nights before the wedding, Jinny made a narrative of the circumstances for Jack Ryder's benefit.
"Such frocks h'as h'I 'ave to do—and the young lady no more caring!" had been a saying of the Hendricks that Jinny passed interestedly on to Jack. She had no memory of the young lady's name, but distinctly she recalled that she was young and beautiful and to marry a general.
It was enough to launch Jinny's eager interest in Mohammedan marriages and foster the wish that she might attend one. She regretted Mrs. Heath-Brown's absence and her lack of acquaintance, and suggested that Jack ought to know some one—
"Better than that, I'll take you," said Jack with a promptness that brought a light to Miss Jeffries' eyes.
There was also a light in Jack Ryder's eyes, a swift burning of excitement and adventure.
Why not? The thing was possible. Muffled in a tcharchaf and veiled with a heavy yashmak, armed with enough Arabic for the briefest of encounters, he might dare the danger. Who in the world would discover him? Who would ever know?
The thing was unthinkable. It was a desperate desecration, comparable only, in his vague analogies, to the Mecca pilgrimage and profanation of a Holy Tomb. But its very improbability would prevent detection.
Only Jinny had to keep her mouth extremely shut—before and afterwards.
He impressed this upon her so thoroughly, as they did their shopping for the costume together the next morning, that she had compunctious moments of solicitude when she said he really ought not to.... She would feel responsible....
Thereupon he laughed, and dared her to be game, and she grew all mirthful confidence again.
But that night, sitting alone in a native cafe over his Turkish coffee, Ryder was grimly serious.
He knew that it was a mad thing to do. He felt, not so much the danger he ran from discovery, but the danger to his already shattered peace of mind from another glimpse of that strange girl ... that young unknown, on whom he had spent such time and thought, of late, that she seemed a very part of his existence.
What was the good of going to her wedding reception? Feebly he told himself that it was his only chance to inform her upon the history of the Delcasses. There might have been reasons for her non-appearance at the gate, for her not writing.... He could have no glimmering of what went on behind those barred windows. This was his only chance—he meant to say, to tell her—but his eager senses murmured, to see her again.
That was it—to see her again. He owned the lure, at last, with a bitter ruefulness. But—he brightened up at that—it was partly his duty to himself. Now he had all sorts of fool imaginings about this girl. He was remembering her as something lovelier than a Houri, more enchanting than fairy magic, more sweet than spring. He owed it to himself to rout these imbecile prepossessions and prove clearly and dispassionately that the girl was just a very nice little girl, a pretty bride, marrying into a very distinct life from his own—and a girl with whom he would not have an idea in common. A girl, in fact, far inferior to any American. A girl not to be compared to Jinny Jeffries.
Besides, there was fun in the thing. It tempted him tremendously. It was adventurous, romantic forbidden.
He heard the word echoed in Turkish behind him.
So engrossed in his thoughts had he been that he had been inattentive to the rhythm of old Khazib, the tale teller's voice, as he held forth, from the divan, beside his long-stemmed pipe, to his nightly audience, of men and boys, camel drivers, small merchants, desert men from the long caravans who were the frequenters of this cafe.
To-night there were few about the old man, and Ryder had small difficulty in drawing nearer the circle. A green-turbaned Arab, with the profile of a Washington and the naive eyes of youth, whispered to him courteously that it was the tale of the Third Kaland, and the Prince Azib was in the palace of the forty damsels who were farewelling him, as they were to depart, according to custom, for forty days.
Khazib, with a faint salutation of his turban towards the newcomer, went slowly, sonorously on with his tale.
"We fear," said the damsel unto Azib, "lest thou contraire our charge and disobey our injunctions. Here now we commit to thee the keys of the palace which containeth forty chambers and thou mayest open of these thirty and nine, but beware (and we conjure thee by Allah and by the lives of us!) lest thou open the fortieth door, for therein is that which shall separate us forever."
For a moment the cafe faded from Ryder's eyes. He was in the gloom of a garden, a shadowy darkness just touched by a crescent moon, and beside him in the shrubbery a dark-shrouded form, shaking its shawled head at him in denial, and whispering, lightly but tremblingly. "It is a forbidden door ... forbidden as that fortieth.... There are thirty and nine doors in your life, monsieur, that you may open, but this is the forbidden...."
He had meant to look up that tale. And now chance was reminding him of it again. A superstitious man—Ryder's great grandfather, perhaps, would have felt it an omen of warning, and a devout man—Ryder's grandfather, perhaps—would have taken it for a sign from Heaven to divert his steps. Ryder reflected upon coincidence.
"When I saw her weeping," Khazib was intoning, and now Ryder attended, his scanty knowledge of the vernacular straining and overleaping the blanks, "Prince Azib said to himself, 'By Allah, I will never open that fortieth door, never, and in no wise!'"
"A wise bird," thought Ryder to himself, drawing on his cigarette.
"And I bade her farewell," continued the voice slipping into the first person. "Thereupon all departed, flying like birds, leaving me alone in the palace. When evening drew near, I opened the door of the first chamber and found myself in a place like one of the pleasances of Paradise. It was a garden with trees of freshest green and ripe fruits of yellow sheen. And I walked among the trees and I smelt the breath of the flowers and heard the birds sing their praise to Allah, the One, the Almighty."
"Allhamdollillah," murmured Ryder's neighbors reverently.
"And I looked upon the apple, whose hue is parcel red and parcel yellow ... and I looked upon the quince whose fragrance putteth to shame musk and ambergris ... and upon the pear whose taste surpasseth sherbet and sugar, and the apricot, whose beauty striketh the eye as she were a polished ruby....
"On the morrow I opened the second door and found myself in a spacious plain set with tall date palms and watered by a running stream whose banks were shrubbed with rose and jasmine, while privet and eglantine, oxe-eye, violet and lily, narcissus, origane and the winter gilliflower carpeted the borders; and the breath of the breeze swept over those sweet-smelling growths...."
How inadequate, Ryder realized, had been the description given by the Book of Genesis to the Garden of Eden.
"And the third door," droned on the rhythmic voice, "into an open hall, hung with cages of sandal-wood and eagle-wood; full of birds which made sweet music, such as the mocking bird, and the cusha, the merle, the turtle dove—and the Nubian ring-dove."
A trifle restively Ryder stirred. He liked birds but he wanted to be getting on to that fortieth door and this was slow progress. Not a sign of impatience marred the bright, absorbed content of the other listeners, intent now upon the wonders behind that the fourth chamber revealed, stores of "pearls and jacinths and beryls, and emeralds and corals and carbuncles and all manner of precious gems and jewels such as the tongue of man could not describe."
The story teller proceeded, "Then, quoth Prince Azib, now verily am I the monarch of the age, since by Allah's grace this enormous wealth is mine; and I have forty damsels under my hand nor is there any to claim them save myself."
The handsome Arab beside Ryder inhaled his pipe luxuriously. "By the grace of Allah!" he said reverently.
"Then I gave not over opening place after place until nine and thirty days were passed and in that time I had entered every chamber except that one whose door I was charged not to open. But my thoughts ever ran upon that forbidden fortieth and Satan urged me to open it for my own undoing...."
"I see his finish," said Ryder interestedly to himself—and he thought of the analogy.
"So I stood before the chamber, and after a few moments' hesitation, opened the door which was plated with red gold and entered. I was met by a perfume whose like I had never before smelt; and so sharp and subtle was the odor that it made my senses drunken as with strong wine, and I fell to the ground in a fainting fit which lasted a full hour. When I came to myself I strengthened my heart, and entering found myself in a chamber bespread with saffron and blazing with light.... Presently, I spied a noble steed, black as the murks of night when murkiest, standing ready saddled and bridled (and his saddle was of red gold) before two mangers one of clear crystal wherein was husked sesame, and the other, also of crystal containing water of the rose scented with musk. When I saw this I marveled and said to myself, 'Doubtless in this animal must be some wondrous mystery, and Satan—'"
"Satan the Stoned!" murmured Ryder's neighbor religiously.
"Satan cozened me, so I led him without and mounted him ... and struck him withal. When he felt the blow he neighed a neigh with a sound like deafening thunder and opening a pair of wings flew up with me in the firmament of heaven far beyond the eyesight of man. After a full hour of flight he descended and shaking me off his back lashed me on the face with his tail, and gouged out my left eye, causing it to roll along my cheek. Then he flew away."
On rolled the voice, narrating the prince's descent to the table of the other one-eyed youths, but Ryder was unheeding. And at the close he inclined his head with the other listeners, murmuring "May Allah increase thy prosperity," as he felt in his pockets for the silver which the others were drawing from turban and sleeves and sash to lay in the patriarch's lap, and then raised his head to question diffidently, "Would you interpret, O Khazib, the meaning of that door? For I hear that it hath now become a saying of a forbidden thing."
The sage hesitated, sucking at his pipe. Then he said slowly, "To every man, O Youth, is there a forbidden door, beyond which waits the steed of high adventure ... with wings beyond man's riding. And so the rider is lost and his vision is gone."
"But for him who could ride?" Ryder suggested.
"Inshallah! Who can say till he has tried his destiny—and better are the nine and thirty chambers of safe pleasance than the lonely sightlessness of the outcast one.... It is a tale which if it were written upon the eye-corners with needle-gravers, were a warning to those who would be warned."
For a moment their eyes held each other, smiling but grave. Ryder's thoughts were of the morrow, of that forbidden entry he was planning to make, of the risks, the wild uncertainties....
Wisdom and counsel looked significantly out at him out of those patriarchal eyes. Prudence and sanity clamored within him for a hearing.
And then he smiled, the whimsical, boyish smile of young adventuring.
"But whoever, O, my father, had opened that forbidden door the veriest crack, and breathed its scent and glimpsed its dazzlement—then for him there is no turning back," he confided.
He rose and Khazib's eyes followed him.
"Luck go with you, my son," he said clearly, "in Allah's name," and smiling in faint ruefulness, "May Allah heed thee!" Ryder murmured piously.
THE UNINVITED GUEST
Now as he stood before Aimee, and saw her eyes widen with recognition, he knew that he would have need of all his luck and all his wit. He stepped hastily forward.
"Alhamdolillah—Glory to God that he has permitted me to behold you this day," he murmured, in the studiously sing-song Arabic that might be expected from a humble Turkish woman in plain mantle and yashmak. "May Allah continue to spread before thee the carpet of enjoyment—" and then lower, almost muffled by the thick veil, "Can you give me a moment—?"
Eagerly, significantly, his eyes met hers.
Half fearfully, Aimee flashed an excited look around her. The space before the marriage throne had thinned, for there were no more arrivals waiting to offer their congratulations and the guests were clustering now about the tables for refreshment or drifting into the next salon where behind firmly stretched silken walls a stringed orchestra was playing.
Miss Jeffries alone was lingering near, but she moved off now—at a secret look from Ryder—with an appearance of unconcern.
"I am going to try my vernacular on the bride," Ryder had told her. "Don't linger or look alarmed. I won't give the show away."
So there was no one to overhear a low-toned colloquy between the bride and the veiled woman, no one to note or wonder that the veiled woman was speaking, strangely enough, in rapid English.
"When I didn't hear from you I had to come, to know if you received the package and letter I sent—"
With a swift gesture of her little ringed hand Aimee drew from the laces on her bosom that heavy gold locket.
"Indeed I have it—and the note, too, I found. But I could not write you. There was no way—no one to trust to mail it. And they had stolen my key," she whispered, and the confessing words with their quiver of forlornness told Ryder something of the story of those helpless days and nights.
He murmured, "I didn't dare write you more personally for fear they would find the note."
"I understood. That plaid about the box—that was so clever a warning. I kept the box and hunted in it."
"I wanted to tell you more about that locket. I dug it up myself from the tomb I was excavating—do you remember how you wished that I would dig from the sands whatever secret I most desired? And I found that.... And it happened that at McLean's I had met the French agent who was searching for any trace of the Delcasses, of the wife and child of the explorer who had disappeared fifteen years before. That miniature was your image, and I guessed at once. McLean and I went to the pasha—Oh, I didn't tell him I'd met you!" he flung in, his eyes twinkling, "and we pretended we knew all about his marriage to Madame Delcasse and he owned up without a quiver. But when we tried to claim you for the French family, he doubled like a hare. He said the Delcasse child was dead, died when his own child was a baby, and that you were his own. But I was sure that you were more than fourteen, and that he was simply putting it over on us so as to have this marriage go on without interference—and so I tried to get the story to you. Even now I thought you ought to know," he added, as if in palliation of his invasion here.
For he realized now how tremendous an invasion it was.
All the guests about him had not given him that feeling, all that sea of femininity, those grave matrons whose serenely unveiled faces would burn with shame to be beheld by this stranger, those bright, slim girls in their extravagant frocks, their tulle, their lace, their pearls, their diamonds, all the hidden charms that no man had yet seen stirred in him no more than an excited and adventurous curiosity.
But the vision of Aimee—that delicate beauty in its tragic irony of throne and diadem! It touched him to tenderness and to an actual sense of sacrilege at the freedom of his gaze. No moonlight vision this, ethereal and dream-like, but a vivid, disquieting radiance of dark, shining eyes and rose-flushed cheeks. He had never seen her hair before, midnight hair, escaping little curls from the veil and the diadem. And he had never really seen her mouth—wistful and gay, like the mouth of the miniature ... nor her chin, so tender and willful ... nor her skin, satin-soft, in its veiling from the daylight....
She was more than young and sweet and fair. She was beauty, beauty with its elusive, ineluctable spell, entangled with the appeal of her helplessness.
A bright blush flooded her now and her eyes fell in confusion, before the prolonging of his look.
"But it is dangerous—your being here," she murmured.
"The fortieth door," he reminded her.
Under her breath, "Ah, you remember?"
"I remember. And but last night I heard Khazib, the story teller, tell the tale, and I thought of you and your warning—of the door that hid you, that it was forbidden for me to open."
"And so you opened it, monsieur." Faintly she smiled, with downcast lashes.
"And I came as you first came to me—in mantle and veil."
For a moment their thoughts fled back to that masquerade, which seemed so long ago.
"But it is too late," she said tremulously.
"Is it too late—for me to help you?"
At that her eyes rose to his again in a swift flash of hunted fear.
"Oh, take me away from him!" she breathed suddenly, unpremeditately. "Somehow—somewhere—"
Another figure came towards them. Madame De Coulevain in all her severe elegance of black.
"Come and join your friends at the supper, my dear; there is no need for you to be pilloried here any longer," she observed with an indifferent scrutiny of the persistent veiled woman, and Ryder moved slowly away while Aimee came dutifully down from the throne, a huge black bending to hold her train.
"I thought you were never coming! What were you talking about?" demanded a voice in Ryder's ear, and he found Jinny Jeffries at his side, her bright gray eyes pouncing upon him with curiosity.
"Oh, I wished her joy—native phrases—that sort of thing," he answered mechanically as they drew back into an embrasure of the mashrubiyeh that formed one side of the great room.
"But you were talking forever. I saw you holding forth at a tremendous rate. Why wouldn't you let me stay and listen—?"
"You'd have put me off my shot, I had to feel unobserved to play up."
"You must be fearfully good at Arabic," said Jinny guilelessly. "And what did she say?"
"Why—she didn't say anything in particular—"
"But what was that she was showing you? I saw her bend forward with a locket or something—?"
A plague upon Jinny's bright eyes! "Oh, yes, the locket," said Ryder with an effort. "She—ah—she showed it to me."
"But why? Wasn't that awfully funny—"
"Oh, I believe it's a custom, courtesy stunt you know, to show a poor guest some of the presents," he explained, manufacturing under pressure.
"I wish she'd show me her rings. Did you ever see so many? It was the only thing about her you'd call really Eastern—all those glittering diamonds on her fingers. And did you notice her hands?" Jinny went on enthusiastically. "Jack, I never knew there was anything so lovely as that girl in the world. She's simply exquisite.... I suppose it's her whole life," Miss Jeffries reflected, "keeping herself beautiful." Her eyes rested curiously on the feminine groups before them. "They haven't anything else to do or think about, have they?"
"I understand some of them are remarkably educated young women."
"What's the use of it?" said the practical daughter of an American college. "They can't ever meet any men, but just a husband—"
"They can read for themselves, can't they? And talk to each other. And—well, what do you girls do with your education anyway? You don't lug anything very heavy about the golf course and the ball room."
"Who wants us to? But we do bring something to committees and clubs and—and welfare work," Miss Jeffries maintained stoutly. "And we are always into arguments at dinners. While these girls, they can't dine out, they haven't anybody but themselves to argue with, and it doesn't matter a straw politically what they think—they can't even change the customs that their great, great, great grandfathers imposed.
"If I were one of these girls," she declared positively, "I wouldn't bother about Kant and chemistry and history—I'd stuff myself full of sweetmeats and loll around on a divan and not care what happened outside. Or else I'd be miserable."
"Perhaps they are miserable."
"They ought to fight. Think, think," said Jinny dramatically, "of marrying some man you've never seen—the way that lovely girl is doing. Suppose she doesn't like him? Suppose he's dull and cranky and mean and greedy? Suppose he bores her? Suppose she actually hates him? Why, Jack, it's horrible! And yet she submits—she submits to it—"
"Suppose she has to submit, that she hasn't a soul on earth to help her? How would you fight, I wonder—"
"Well, you don't need to shout about it! That woman's looking now—that one with the green turban and the stuffed-date eyes."
Nervously Jinny glanced around.
"It's a fearful lark," she murmured, "but I don't believe I'd ever have had the nerve if I'd realized.... What do you suppose they would do, Jack, if they found you out?... Those big blacks look so—so uncivilized."
Her eyes rested upon the huge eunuch at the far entrance of the salon, a huge hideous fellow, with red fez, baggy blouse and trousers, and a knife handle sticking piratically from a sash.
"He has on English oxfords," said Ryder lightly. "That's a saving something. But they aren't going to find out..... I have an idea we ought to make our getaway now, and that we had better not go together. You go first and then I'll stroll along, and whisk off these duds in some quiet corner.... I have to meet a man to-night, but I'll probably see you to-morrow. And don't," he entreated, "don't as you love your life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, breathe a word of my being here like this to any one—any time—anywhere. I was an unmitigated ass to link you up with it. So be wary."
"Oh, I shall!" Jinny Jeffries promised vividly and with a last look about the old palace, the empty marriage throne and the dissolving knots of guests, she gave a little nod to her veiled companion, sauntered without visible trepidation past the staring eunuch at the door, went down the long stairs where other departing guests were drawing on mantles and veils, and so made her way across a shadowy garden and out the gate that another black opened.
And then she drew a sudden breath of relief and glanced up at a sky of sunset fires and felt the free airs play with her hair and face and so shook off, lightly and gratefully, that darkening impression of shuttered rooms and guarding blacks.
Little rivers of wine and fire were bubbling in Aimee's veins. She was gay at supper, as a bride should be gay. It was enough, for those first few moments, that she had seen him again, that he had dared to come and try to help her—that he cared enough to come!
Her heart sang little paeans of joy and triumph. She sketched impossible scenes of escape—she saw herself, in a shrouding mantle, slipping with him past the guests at the door, she saw them speeding away in a motor, she saw France, the unknown Delcasses—a bright, gay world of freedom and romance.
Or, perhaps, if not to-night, then to-morrow.... They would plan ... she would obtain permission to take a drive and there would be a signal, a waiting car....
But, better now. She could not endure even the call of ceremony from that man who called himself her husband. The very memory of his eyes on her....
Decidedly, it must be to-night. And Ryder would think of a way. She must get back to him ... he would be lingering. She must get away from this hateful table, these guests and companions....
A wild impatience tore at her. She grew uneasy, anxious, fretted at the frightening way that time was slipping past....
Her radiance vanished, her smile was nervous, forced, as she sat at her table of honor, amid the circle of her friends, with a linked wreath of candelabra sending its sparkle of lights over the young faces and jewel-clasped throats, over the glittering silver on the white satin cloth among the drift of pink and white rose petals.
She began to bite her lips nervously... she did not hear what her bridesmaids were chattering about ... her eyes went often, with that stealth that invites regard, to the tiny platinum and diamond watch upon her wrist.
Would they never finish? Would they never be free? She wondered if she dared feign an illness to rise and leave them; but no, that would mean solicitude, companions....
And now the slaves were bringing still another round of trays....
Oh, hurry, hurry, her tightening nerves besought.
At last! The older women were going. Not even for a wedding would they deeply infringe upon that rule which keeps the Moslem women indoors after the sun has set. Ceremoniously each made to the bride her adieux and good wishes, and ceremoniously a frantically impatient Aimee returned the formal thanks due for "assistance at the humble fete."
She did not see that black mantle anywhere.
Her heart sank. Stupid, she told herself with quivering lips, to dream that he could dare to linger, that he had any way to get her out. By help he meant no more than getting letters to France for her.... And yet his eyes when they had met hers.... Surely he had meant—but when she had disappeared from the reception room to attend the supper, when there seemed no way of speaking again to her, and all the outsiders, all but the invited guests were departed, he had been, obliged to go, too.
Perhaps some one had begun to notice him.... She wondered if he had been careful about his shoes, his hands.... How had he managed about the dress anyway?