And then she remembered that girl, that pretty American with the ruddy hair to whom she had seen him talking, and she conjectured that there was feminine aid and confidence....
A wave of bitterness swept over her. He had told that girl about her—he knew that girl well enough to tell her! And perhaps he was only sorry for the poor little French girl in the Turkish harem, perhaps they were both sorry....
Had he told that girl, she thought with bitter mutiny, that he had kissed her?
That girl must have been very sure of him not to be jealous of his interest in herself!
And now they could be somewhere together, perhaps talking her over, while she was here ... here forever....
She was so white now, so silent, so distrait, that all the chatter of the younger girls who were lingering around her could not dispel the feeling of depression. They cast covert glances of discomfort at each other, begged for more music from the orchestra, tallied with an effort of the size and spaciousness of the palace and the magnificence of the feast.
She had told herself that she had ceased to hope. She did not know how false it was until the eunuch brought his message. Then hope really died.
The general was below and begged to be announced to madame.
"We fly!" whispered a lingerer with nervous laughter, and hastily the young people hurried into their tcharchafs and veils, murmuring among themselves, with sidelong glances at that white figure whose cold hand and cheek they had just touched, hastily they sped, like light-footed nymphs in some witches' robes, down the long room, while Madame de Coulevain drew back a strand of the girl's dark hair and murmured, "But smile, my dear," to the still figure and escaped with the guests.
And then Aimee was alone in the great room, deserted of its throngs, a darkening room, full of burned-down candles and fallen flower petals, with here and there the traces of the revelers, a scented handkerchief ... a fan ... a buckle from some French slipper ... or a feather from some ancient turban clasp....
Like the ghost of some deserted queen, with her regal satins and glittering circlet, she waited. There was a moment of grace in which she tried, to turn a gallant face toward the next moment.
Then he came, advancing.... It may have been her distorted fancy, but down the long perspective, that figure looked more mincing, more waspish, more unreal than ever. And she was conscious of that swift rising of dislike, of antagonism touched with reasonless fear.
THE BEY RETURNS
He kissed her hands. She caught the murmur of compliments and the mingled scent of musk and wine. He had been dining at his reception for the men, but he called now for a table and more refreshment.
A small table was brought to the end of the room near the marriage throne where all the day she had paraded; a richly embroidered cloth of satin was flung over it, and from crowding candelabra fresh lights shed down a little circle of brilliance.
Faintly Aimee protested that eat she could not, and then she made a feint of eating, lingering over her sherbets, because eating was, after all, so safe and uncomplicated a thing.
The black brought champagne in its jacket of ice and filled their glasses.
The general rose. "A notre bonheur—to our happiness," he declared, holding out his glass, and she clinked her own to it and brought her lips to touch the brim, but not to that toast could she swallow a single one of the bubbles that went winking up and down the hollow stem.
The glass trembled suddenly in her hand as she set it down. An overpowering sense of fatigue was upon her. With the death of her poor hope, with the collapse of all those flighty, childish dreams, the leaden weight of realities seemed to descend crushingly upon her. She felt stricken, inert, apathetic.
It was all so unreal, so bizarre. This could not possibly be taking place in her life, this fantastic scene, this table set with lights and food at the end of a dark, deserted old room opposite this grimacing, foppish stranger....
She could barely master strength for her replies. How had it all gone? Excellently? She was satisfied with her new home? With the service? The appointments?
He plied her with questions and she tried to summon her spirit: she achieved a few perfunctory phrases, the words of a frightened child struggling for its manners. She tried to smile, unconscious of the betrayal of her eyes.
He told her, sketchily, of his day. A bore, those affairs, those speeches, he told her, gazing at her, his wine glass in his hand, a flush of wine and excitement in his face. She found it unpleasant to look at him. Her glance evaded his.
She stammered a word of praise for the palace. It must be very ancient, she told him. Very—interesting.
He waved a hand on which an enormous ruby glittered. He could tell her stories of it, he promised. It had been built by one of the Mamelukes, his ancestor. Its old banqueting hall was still untouched—the collectors would give much to rifle that, but they would never get their sharks' noses in. Nothing had been changed, but something added. Once the Mad Khedive had borrowed it for some years and begun his eternal additions.
"Forty girls, they say, he kept here," smiled Hamdi Bey. "They gulped their pleasure, in those days. It is better to sip, is it not?"
He smiled. "But these are no stories for a bride! I only trust that you will not find your palace dull. It is very quiet now, very much of the old school. You may miss your pianos, your electricity, all your pretty Parisian modernity."
She glanced at the glittering table.
"But I do not find this so—so much of the old school. Here one does not eat rice with the fingers!"
"And I?" said the bey, leaning suddenly towards her on his outspread arm. "Do you find me too much of the old school? Eh? eh?"
"But you, monsieur," she stammered, still looking down, "you—I do not know you—not yet."
"Not—yet. Excellent! There will be time."
"I confess that now I am weary—"
"Ah,—and that diadem is heavy. Your head must ache with it," he said solicitously.
Perhaps it was the diadem that gave her that leaden, constricted sense of a band tightening about her forehead. She put up her hands to it.
"Permit me," he said quickly, springing to his feet. "Permit me to aid you."
He stepped behind her and bent over her. She held her head very still, stiff with distaste, and felt the weight lifted. He surveyed the circlet a moment then placed it upon the marriage throne behind her. She had an ironic memory of the false omen of her crowning, of soft, satisfied little Ghul-al-Din's bestowal of her own happiness.... Happiness, indeed....
"And that veil—surely that is incommoding?" suggested the suave voice, and she felt the touch of his hands on her hair where the misty veil was secured.
She stammered that it was quite light—she would not trouble him—
Then she held herself rigid, for suddenly he had swept the veil aside and bent to press his lips to that most hidden of all veiled sanctities, for a Moslem, the back of her neck.
She did not stir. She sat fixed and tense. Then slowly the blood came back to her heart, for he was moving away from her again to his place at the table.
Laughing a little, pulling at his blond mustache in a gesture of conquest, his kindling eyes glinting down at her, "You must forgive the precipitateness—of a lover," he murmured. "You do not know your own beauty. You are like a crystal in which the world has thrown no reflections. All is pure and transparent—"
If she did not find words to answer him, to divert his admiration, she felt that she was lost.
"You are not complimentary—a bit of glass, monsieur, instead of a diamond! But I am too weary to be exacting.... If now, you will permit me to bid you good evening and withdraw—"
"Little trembler," said the general facetiously, and reached out a hand to touch her cheek, the light, reassuring caress that one might give a petted child, but it almost brought a cry of nervous terror from her lips.
She thought that if he touched her again she would scream. He inspired her with a horrible fear. There was something so false, so smiling in him... he was like an ogre sitting down to a delicate dish of her young innocence, her childish terrors, her frank fears....
She could not have told why she found him so horrible, but everything in her shrank convulsively from him.
And the need of courtesy to him, of propititation—!
The cup was bitterer than her darkest dreams.... She wondered how many other women had drained such deadly brews... had sat in such ghastly despair, before some other bridegroom, affable, confident, masterful....
She told herself that she was overwrought, hysterical. The man was courteous. He was trying to be agreeable, to make a little expected love. He had drank a little too much—another time she might find him different. He was probably no worse than any other man of her world.
It was not in her world, each young Turkish girl said in those days, that one could find love.
But it was not her world! It was an alien world, enforced, imprisoning.... That was the bitterest gall of all the deadly cup.
"There is no need for haste," he was assuring her. "In a moment I will call your woman. Fatima, her name is, an old slave of our house."
"I could wish," said Aimee, "that I had been permitted to bring my old nurse, Miriam, without whom I feel strange—"
"No old nurses—I know their wiles," laughed the bey, setting down his drained cup with a wavering hand. "They are never for the husbands, those old nurses—we will have no old trot's tricks here!"
He laughed again. "This Fatima is a watch dog, I warn you, my little one ... but if she does not please you, we can find another. And as for the rooms—I have assigned this suite to you, the suite of honor. This is the salon, and there," he pointed to a curtained door behind them, opening into a small room that Aimee had already seen, "there is your boudoir and beyond that, your sleeping apartment. I have had them done over for you, but you shall choose your own furnishings—everything shall be to your taste, I promise you. You are too sweet to deny. You have but to ask—"
Certainly, she thought, he was drunk. He moved his head so jerkily and his whole body swayed so queerly. Desperately she fought against her horror. Perhaps it was better for him to be drunk.
Drunken men grow sleepy. Perhaps he would fall down and sleep. Perhaps she ought to urge him to drink. Long ago the black had left the bottle at his elbow and gone out of his room.
But she did not move. She sat back in her chair, withdrawn and shrinking, watching him out of those dark, terrified eyes.
"You are beautiful as dreams," he told her, leaning towards her with such abruptness that his sword struck clankingly against the table. "Beyond even the words of my babbling cousin—eh, Allah reward her!—but she did me a good turn with her talk of you!"
Fixedly he stared at her, out of those intent, inflamed eyes.
"I did not know that there was anything like you in the harems of Cairo. You are like a vision of the old poets—but I suppose that you do not know the ancient poetry. You little moderns are brought up upon French and English and music and know little of the Arabic and the Persian.... I daresay that you have never heard of the poet Utayyah."
Still leaning towards her he began to intone the stanzas in a very fair tenor voice, and if his movements were at all unsteady, his speech was most precise and accurate.
"From her radiance the sun taketh increase when She unveileth and shameth the moonlight bright."
He chuckled.... "Ah, I shall put the triple veil upon you, my little moon.... How Is this one?
"'On Sun and Moon of Palace cast thy sight, Enjoy her flower-like face, her fragrant light, Thine eyes shall never see in hair so black Beauty encase a brow so purely white.'"
He got up and drew his chair closer to her. "That is the song for you, little white rose of beauty."
Back went her own chair, and she rose to her feet.
"I thank you for the compliment, monsieur. But now have I your permission to retire? For it has been a long day and I am indeed fatigued—"
To her vexation her voice was trembling, but she steadied it proudly.
"I bid you good evening."
"Nonsense, my little white rose. This is not so fatiguing—a few words more. But you are like the flower that flies before the wind.... But your room, yes, to be sure. Shall I show you the way?"
"I can discover it, monsieur."
"Monsieur—fie on you, my little dove.... Hamdi, I tell you, your lover Hamdi."
He laughed unsteadily, and put a hand on her arm. "You are running away, I know that. And I have so much to tell you ... Oh, it was tedious in that villa of your father's! 'Yes,' I thought to myself, 'that is a fine story, a funny story, but I have heard them all before. And you are in no haste, you revelers—you have no little bride waiting for you at home.'... That one glance at you—I tell you it was the glance of which the poet sings—the glance that cost him a thousand sighs. I was on fire with impatience.... For I am beauty's slave, little dove.... You may have heard—but no matter. A wife must be a pearl unspotted.... I am not as the English who take their wives from the highways, where all men's glances have rested upon them. Have I not been at their balls? Their women dance in other men's arms. They marry wives whose hands other men have pressed. Sometimes—who knows?—their lips have been kissed.... And then a husband takes her.... Oh, many thanks!"
He laughed sardonically and waved his hands a little wildly. "Oh, I know English—all the Europeans. I have seen their women. I have seen them selling their wares—stripping themselves half bare in the evenings, the shameless—For me, never! My wife is a hidden treasure. You know what the poet says:
"'An' there be one who shares with me her love I'd strangle Love tho' Life by Love were slain, Saying, O Soul, Death were the nobler choice, For ill is Love when shared twixt partners twain.'"
"You are fond of your poets," said Aimee with stiff lips.
"You—you kindle poetic fires, my little one. You—I—" He stammered a moment, then forgot his fierce speech against foreign ways. "You have the raven hair—"
His hand went out to it. He smoothed it back out of her eyes, then tried to draw her to him.
Desperately she resisted. "Monsieur, one does not expect a gentleman—"
"Expect! Ho—what should one expect when a man has such a little sweetmeat, such a little syrup drop, such a rose petal—Come, come, you would not struggle—"
But it was not the struggling hand of the frightened girl that sent the general back.
It was a brown, sinewy hand on his shoulder, a hand protruding from a well tailored gray sleeve and lilac striped cuff, that caught Hamdi Bey by the epauleted shoulder and sent him spinning about.
Another hand was holding a revolver very directly at him.
"Silence!" said Jack Ryder in his best Turkish and repeated it, with amplification, in English. "Not a sound—or I'll blow your head off."
Aimee gave a strangled gasp.
He had not gone, then! He had hidden there, in some nook of that boudoir behind those shadowy curtains, waiting to protect her, to rescue....
Over one arm he had the black mantle and veil, "Better put these on," he suggested, without taking his eyes from the rigid bey, "and then run for it."
"I'll take care of myself. After you are out of the way. Dare you try that? Or what do you suggest?"
"Oh, not alone. Together—"
"So—so—" said Hamdi Bey inarticulately, his head nodded, he staggered, his knees gave way and he crumpled very completely upon the floor, and lay like a felled log.
After a quick look down at him Ryder turned to Aimee. "Quick, then. We'll make a run for it—"
He did not finish. Hamdi Bey, upon the floor, fallen half under the folds of the white cloth, made a swift and very expert roll and darted to his feet beside Aimee, whirling her about, with pinioned elbows, for his shield.
And so screened, he gave a shrill whistle.
WITHIN THE WALLS
Ryder sprang forward, trying to reach the bey, but he dodged skillfully; his holding Aimee blocked Ryder in his attack.
He knew that high, peculiar whistle had been a signal, a call for aid, and he flung a lightning glance down that long room, tightening his hold on the revolver—but he did not see the small door that opened in the shadowy paneling behind him, nor the shadow that grew into the gorilla-like shape of the black as it launched itself through the air upon his back.
He only heard Aimee's scream, and then before the crashing weight upon his shoulders he staggered and went down.
The bey flung Aimee aside and rushed upon the prostrate figure, kicking the revolver from the outspread hand. The black knelt swiftly down, unfastening his silken sash.
Giddily the room whirled about Aimee.... In the candle light, leaping in the rush of conflict, she saw the bey and the black, and their distorted shadows in a goblin blur.... And beneath them she saw Ryder, helpless, his hands and feet pinioned.... With the madness of despair she rushed forward, but the general intercepted her.
"He is quite helpless.... You need not be alarmed for my safety, madame!"
The cold, biting fury of his voice steadied her. She saw his face was distorted, livid with anger. His breathing was stertorous.
She stood helplessly by the table; the general turned and looked down upon the face of the man who had dared to violate the sanctity of his harem and attempt to steal his bride; beyond the man's head Yussuf, the black, was squatting with a grinning, dog-like watchfulness.
But Ryder did not require watching. That sash had been tied strongly about his hands and feet. He was as helpless as a baby.
But the peculiar flavor of his helplessness was not so much fear before the fanatic fury of this man he had outraged, although he had a clear notion that his position was not enviably secure, but a bitter, black chagrin.
To have had the game in his hands and have bungled it! To have been surprised by that simple strategy, taken off his guard by a feigned collapse! The wily old Turk for all his champagne had the clearer, quicker brain....
To have let him get to Aimee and call in his black! To have been thrown, disarmed.... It was crass stupidity. It was outrageous mismanagement, abominable, maddening....
And Aimee must pay for it. He tried to think very quickly what could best clear her.
He fixed his eyes on those glittering eyes, staring down upon him.
"I realize I owe you an explanation," he said grimly. "If you will let me tell you—"
The bey turned to Aimee with a smile that was the lifting of a lip and the distention of his nostrils.
"This fool thinks he has the time to talk—his English."
Desperately Ryder grasped for his vernacular. "I want to tell you—why I came. This—this young lady doesn't know me."
Past the general he shot a look of warning at the girl.
"I was trying to get hold of her for her family in France—She is really a French girl. Tewfick Pasha is not her father but her—" he could not find the word and dropped into English. "Her step-father—do you understand? And he had no business to marry her off, so I tried to steal her for the French family. It was a mad attempt which has failed—but for which the young lady should not be blamed. She had never seen me before. She had no idea I was here."
After a pause, "A remarkable story," said the general distinctly. He turned about to the table and drank off the last of a glass of champagne, then wiped his mouth with the back of a hand that trembled.
He turned back to stand over his prostrate invader. "Now, you—you dog of Satan," he snarled in a sudden snapping of restraint, "how did you get here? Who admitted you?"
And at that, for all his trussed and helpless plight, Jack Ryder grinned. He moved his head slightly. "That blackbird of yours here."
"The very one. But he didn't know it—I was in that black mantle—and veil."
"Oh, the mantle, I had forgot. So you stole in, disguised, to violate my hospitality, to outrage my harem, to gaze upon the forbidden faces of women and to steal the bride—"
"I tell you I was trying to rescue the girl for her French family. She is French and Tewfick Pasha is only—"
"And what is that to me? Do I—" the bey broke off and then turned to the silent girl who stood leaning towards them, a trembling ghost in white.
"And you, my little one," he murmured sardonically with a savage irony of restraint, "you, the little dove secluded from the world, who trembled at a kiss, the crystal vase who had never reflected the blush of love, whose virginal praises I was chanting when I was so oddly assaulted, do you support this idiot's story?"
Mechanically her head moved in assent, her eyes, dilated with fear, were like the dark, fascinated eyes of some helpless bird.
"You never saw this young man?" the bey pursued. "And yet you were ready to run off with him—a pretty character you give yourself, my snowdrop!—and you liked his eyes and hastened to obey?"
Aimee was silent. From his ignominy upon the floor Ryder hastened to interpose.
"It is true she had never seen me, but I had already written to her and acquainted her with the story. I tried to reach her first through her father but that was useless so I resorted to these desperate means."
"Oh you wrote! And you told her you would be here, and murder her husband—"
"I told her nothing of the kind. She didn't know that I was coming until I spoke to her here, and then she had no idea that I was going to wait and carry her off—"
"In the name of Allah! Do you take me for a dolt, an ass? You, with your writing and your masquerade and your secrets! Do any families try to recover their relatives with such means? Daughter or step-daughter, it is nothing to me—"
"But it is true," Aimee insisted, in a trembling voice. "My father was Paul Delcasse—"
"Yahrak Kiddisak man rabbabk—curse the man who brought thee up! Delcasse or devil, it is Tewfick Pasha who is your step-father, your guardian, who gave you to me for wife—what has your genealogy to do with this affront upon my honor?"
"But he did not intend to affront your honor—only to aid the family in France—"
"I ask you again, do I resemble an ass that you should put such a burden of lies upon me? As if I did not know why young men risked their lives, in the dead of night, in other men's rooms! If I did not know what turns their brains to mush and their hearts to leading strings! And you—you—you little white rose of seclusion—!"
His venom leaped out at her in his voice. It was a terrible voice, the cold, grating menace of a madman.
"You, who had never seen this man but who fluttered to him like a white moth to a fire, you who cowered from your husband's hand but who turned to follow this strange dog into the streets—there will be care taken of you later. But now—you complained of fatigue. Surely this scene is overtaxing for your delicacy. If you will come to your rooms—"
She drew back from the hand he laid upon her. "Do not injure him! By Allah's truth! He is rash, mad, but a stranger. He did not know—"
"He needs enlightenment. He needs to learn that a nobleman's harem is not a cafe of dancing girls, where all may enter and stare and fondle. Bismallah—he shall learn!... And now come—"
"I shall not go," she said breathlessly.
"What—struggle? But your father has been strangely remiss with his discipline.... Permit me."
His hand tightened in a grasp of iron.
"My train is caught," she said in a tone of sudden pettishness; she stooped to lift it with her hand that was free.
"My train—!" he mimicked her in a quivering falsetto. "Have a care of my frock—do not crush my chiffons.... And these are the women for whom men break their heads and hearts!"
"I tell you, sir," came urgently from Ryder, "that the girl is innocent of all—"
"Keep your tongue from her name—and your eyes from her face!... Come, madame."
With his iron grasp on her elbow he thrust her towards the boudoir at the end of the drawing-room, behind whose curtains Ryder had so long been hiding.
The chamber was in darkness, lighted only by a pale gleam from the other room. Aimee stumbled across the rug and found herself upon a huge divan against a window screen.
"Fatima is in the next room to come at a call. But perhaps you would prefer to wait for me alone? I shall not be long."
Desperately she caught at his arm, imploring, "I beg you, monsieur. He has done no real harm. Let him go. He is a stranger—he did not know. And he will never trouble you again. I will do anything—everything you desire—if only you will not injure him—"
"You trouble yourself strangely for a stranger."
"He is a stranger in danger for my sake. For it was in his duty to my—my family—" her trembling lips stumbled over the ridiculous lies, "that he has blundered into this. He has no idea how shocking a thing he has—"
"And you had no idea, either, I suppose. You had never heard of honor or treachery or—"
"I was wrong, oh, I was wrong! I did want to go to France—I own it. And I was not ready for marriage. And I had heard that you—I was afraid. But now—if you will let him go for my sake, if you will not visit my sins upon him, oh, I should be so grateful—so grateful that anything I can ever do—"
"But you will be grateful, anyway, my little blossom. I promise you that you will learn to be very grateful—"
"It is easier to die than to learn to love a hated one," she reminded him softly, leaning towards him. "I can die very willingly, monsieur.... And you would not want a wife before whom there was always an object of terror—"
Through the dusk her great eyes sought his.
"Be generous—and harm him not," she breathed. "I beg of you, I implore—"
"And if I am—lenient—you will always be grateful?"
Mutely she nodded, her eyes trying pitifully to read that shadowy mask of mockery he turned towards her.
"And how grateful could you be, little dove?"
Pitifully she smiled.
"Could you," he murmured, "could you learn to kiss?"
He leaned nearer and involuntarily she shrank back. Faintly, "At this moment—I beg of you, monsieur—"
"Oh, if it is to be an affair of moments! We shall never find the right one. But you were so full of promises—"
"I will do anything," said Aimee, convulsively, "if you will promise me—"
"Come, then a kiss. A peck from my little dove."
She looked at him out of wretched eyes.
"And you promise to free him, not to hurt him—"
"I promise not to hurt a hair of his head. Come, that is generous, isn't it? As to freeing him—h'm—that is for later. Perhaps, if you are very good. A kiss then... and later...."
He bent over her. She shut her eyes and heard the taunt of his laugh. She kissed him, and he laughed again.
"What is it the Afghan poets say? 'Kissed lips lose no sweetness, but renew their freshness with the moon.' Certainly if you have ever been kissed, little bud, you have lost no dew.... Delicious.... I shall hurry back."
He cast a hard look down at her as she sat there, her arms drooping at her sides. He looked about the room as if consideringly, then nodded at an unseen door at the right.
"Fatima is there if you want lights or assistance.... And Alsamit, Yussuf's brother, is at the other door beyond. Do not stir, little bird. I shall be back very soon."
"And he—you promised—"
"I shall not hurt a hair of his head."
But he was smiling evilly in the darkness as he drew shut the door and returned to the bound figure by the guarding black.
For a moment he stood silent, considering, while Yussuf looked up with glistening-eyed intentness like an eager dog ready for the word of attack.
Then in hasty Turkish the general gave his directions and the black nodded and strode to a portiere, jerking it down, which he wrapped about Ryder's helpless form.
Then he hoisted his burden over his huge shoulder and bore it on after the general.
Across the great room they went and down the long stairs up which that day a most complacent Hamdi Bey had escorted his just-glimpsed bride.
Now at the bottom of the stairs a shadowy figure of a sleeping eunuch was stretched.
Hamdi Bey spoke sharply, giving a quick order. The black scrambled to his feet, yawned, nodded, and strode away into the main vestibule and out into the garden to investigate a shadow which the general had just reported, and when he was out of sight the general and Yussuf, with his unwieldy burden, came quietly down the stairs and turned back into a long, dark hall.
For a moment they paused outside a wide, many-columned banqueting room, and there Hamdi Bey stood listening, straining attentive ears for the faint sounds from the service quarters on the other side of the room. He caught the guttural of a half inaudible voice, and the wash of water and clink of a dish, showing that the belated work of the reception was going draggingly on, but it was all far away and invisible.
Satisfied he went on a few steps to a pointed door set in the heavy stone. From a nail he took down a lantern of heavy, fretted brass and lighted it, not without some difficulty, for his hands were still trembling. Then he took from the black a cumbersome key which he fitted into the lock and turned heavily.
Drawing back the door he motioned Yussuf ahead, and followed, drawing the door shut. Down a steep, stone spiral stair they went, and at the bottom, at the general's order, the black set Ryder down from his shoulder and flung aside the portiere.
From its muffling folds Ryder looked out bewilderedly into the darkness about him, illumined only by the yellow flare of the ancient lantern. The general cautioned him to silence while Yussuf knelt and untied the strip that bound his feet, then, his arms still bound, he was ordered to march on before them.
This, he said to himself, as he silently obeyed that order, this really was the time to pinch himself and wake up! Of all the dark, eerie nightmares! This slow procession through these underground halls, the giant black on his heels, the general's lantern throwing its flickering rays over the huge, seamed blocks of granite foundations.
It made him think of the Catacombs. It made him think of the Serapeum. It made him think of those damp, tortuous underground ways of the Villa Bordoni....
They seemed to be in the wine cellars. He saw bins and barrels and barred vaults that would have done credit to an English squire, and he reflected fleetly that wine bibbing was forbidden to Mohammedans and that Hamdi Bey was a fanatic Moslem.... Then he saw open spaces of ancient stuffs, broken tables and dismantled caiques and a broken oar. His earlier observation of the palace had told him that it had a water gate and he thought now that they might be near some opening.
He wondered if they were going to throw him, pinioned, into the river. He wouldn't put it past this livid, silent, shaking man—and yet the thing appeared so impossible, so theatric, so utterly unrelated to any of the ways that he, Jack Ryder, might be expected to end his days, that it couldn't possibly send more than a shiver of speculation down his spine.
And yet men had been thrown into rivers—this very river. And men had disappeared from just such palaces as this. There was the story about young Monkton. He knew it perfectly; he had reminded himself of it the last evening while he reflected upon this escapade, but he had never actually appreciated the peculiar poignancy of the thing until now.
Monkton had met—so rumor reported—a Turkish lady of position, flirted with her, it was said, while on horseback outside her motor when caught in the crush at Kasr-el-Nil bridge. There had been a meeting or two in the back of shops, and then he had boasted, lightheartedly, of a design to take tea in her harem.
He had never boasted about the tea. No one had ever seen Monkton again and he was generally reported, after a stifled inquiry, to have been thrown from his horse in the desert, or spilled out of his sailing canoe.
The government, English or Egyptian, assumed no interest in the matter of gentlemen found in other gentlemen's harems.
There were other stories, too. There was one of a little Viennese actress who after a dramatic escape reported a whole winter of captivity in one of these old palaces, and there was a vaguer rumor of a rash young American girl, detained for days....
Ryder had always known these stories. They were part of the gossip and thrill of Cairo. But he had never till now realized how exquisitely possible was their occurrence.
Anything, everything might happen in these hidden, secret chambers. These Turks were as much masters here as their old predecessors who had reared these stones. This black upon his heels might have been the grinning, faithful executioner of some Khedive or Caliph—he might have been the very Masrur, the Sworder of Vengeance of Al Raschid.
He told himself that it was no time to think of the past. His business—acutely—was the present. If only he could get his hands untied! If only he could get those untied hands upon that demoniac Turk!
But, strain as he could upon the knots, they held.
It seemed to him that they had been walking for an interminable distance, in odd, roundabout ways. Once they had stopped and he had involuntarily glanced back over his shoulder, but at a word from the general he had kept his head forward again, while he heard the black behind him gathering something that clinked. Later, a stolen glance had revealed the eunuch with some tools in one hand and bag slung over his shoulder.
The bag disquieted him. Bags filled a foreboding place in the Eastern literature of vengeance. He wondered if he were to go into the river in that bag, with the tools for weight.
He decided, feeling now a very odd and definite disturbance in the region of his stomach, that he would tell that general that he was a cousin of the late Lord Cromer and a nephew of Lord Kitchener. Something insistent would have to be done about this.
They were passing now through a strange, open space, between old arches that for an instant arrested his excavator's interest. He saw in the shadows about them, a crumpled, crumbling dome and broken shafts, with half a wall of masonry pierced with Arabesques. Traces of old ruins, fragments of some old, forgotten mosque over which the palace had spread its foundations in bygone days.... Buried treasure, looted, some of it, for the palace overhead, but still rare and lovely.... That was a gleam of lapis lazuli that winked at him from the crumbling mortar under his feet.
Then they were between other walls, not crumbling ones, but the solid, pillared blocks of the palace masonry with here and there broad arches of old brick.
They stopped. Between two arches the general held his lantern high, flashing it over the surface while Yussuf swung down his sack and knocked with the handle of his tool.
Suddenly he stopped and looked at his master, nodding cheerfully. The general lowered his light and stepped back and Yussuf reared the pickaxe in his powerful arms and sent it dexterously at the wall, between two broken bits of brick.
It caught, and sent the mortar spraying; another blow and another loosened a hole in which the black inserted a short iron and began nervously grinding and prying.
Ryder, watching with oppressed and helpless fury, saw the bricks at last break and tumble faster and faster in a cloud of dust, and saw a pocket in the wall become revealed, a long, upright niche, the size, perhaps, of a man's coffin, on end.
He tried, very suddenly, to talk. His tongue felt thick and swollen and there seemed no words in all the world to fit his need of overcoming this fanatic madman,—and after all, he had no chance for them, for Yussuf, with a huge palm upon his mouth, urged him suddenly backwards towards that horrible niche.
"Gently, Yussuf, gently," said the general, suavely and with a slow distinctness that was for Ryder's ears. "I gave my word that I would not hurt a hair of his head—"
Grinning, the black lifted him over the remaining wall, and set him down into the niche, leaving him standing in there like a helpless statue, tasting to the full fury of his heart the bitterness of his helplessness and the ludicrous impotence of all struggle.
"Good God, sir, you must be mad," he said in a strained sharp voice that his ears would not have known as his own. "Do you realize—there will be an inquiry—there is such a thing as law—"
It seemed to him that he talked, in English and stammering Arabic, for a long time. The black was kneeling, out of sight, stooping over a basin of water and his abominable sack, and Ryder was facing that silent, sardonic face, with its fantastic mustache, its evil, gloating eyes....
He stopped for very shame. The man was mad. Mad and drunk—and there was no appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober.... Mad or drunk, he had devised his vengeance shrewdly.
Upon Ryder's helpless body a cold sweat of incredulous horror broke softly out.
At his feet he heard the black beginning to fit his bricks and smooth his mortar.
"You do well to save your breath," said Hamdi Bey at last, as Ryder still stood silent. "You will need it in this chamber I am providing.... But it may be," he said thoughtfully, "that your breath will last your need. Thirst may be the more impatient for her victim; they tell me thirst is an obtrusive visitor. As you were, this evening.... Still, why do you not cry out a little? It will amuse my black."
Yes, this was real, Ryder reminded himself. And these things could happen—had happened. He remembered suddenly the hideous scene, outside the dungeons, in "Francesca da Rimini," when that bestial brother goes in to the helpless prisoners. He remembered the sick horror of those groans....
He remembered also various excursions of his in the Tower of London and the Seigniory of Florence, and the sight of old rings and stakes and racks and the feeling of their total unrelatedness to every actuality.
And yet they had happened. And this thing, for all its fantastic medieval horror, was happening. Brick by brick the imprisoning wall was rising. Brick by brick it intervened between him and sane, sensible, happy, normal life.
Eye for eye he gave the general back his look. He had always wondered about the poor devils in underground torture chambers. Had wondered how they had the stuff to hold out, against such odds, for some belief, some information.... Now he knew the stiffening stuff of a personal hate, upholding to the very grave....
That sardonic, devil's face.... That face which was going back upstairs to Aimee.... But he must not think of that or he should give way and begin to babble, to plead.... He must simply stand and meet that glance....
And there came the incredible, insane moment when Ryder looked out on that face through one last breathing space, and then saw the fitted brick, settled into place, blot the world to darkness before his eyes.
Alone in the gloom of that strange room, Aimee sat rigid. Listening. Not a sound, beyond the closed door, from the long drawing room. Not a sound, beyond the other door, from the room where the slave, Fatima, waited to assist in her disrobing.
Silence everywhere—save for a low lapping of water against the masonry beneath her windows.
The palace was on the river, then, or on some old backwater. She remembered glimpses of dark canals on her drive that morning—had it only been that morning? The sound of that soft, hidden water added to her feeling of isolation and remoteness from everything that had been her life before—she thought fleetingly, almost indifferently of her friends, Azima, who to-day had crowned her for happiness, and fond, foolish old Miriam and Madame de Coulevain and Tewfick Pasha, weakly cruel, but amiable; she thought of them all, as unreal figures from whom she had long taken leave.
The old life was over. It had died for her when she passed through the dark doorway and met that arrogant, sardonic, fatuous man, the master of this palace....
Or more truly that old life had died for her when she had flung a black mantle about her chiffon frock and a street veil across her sparkling face and had stolen, daring and breathless, into the lights and revelry of that hotel masquerade. There, when she had shrunk back from the Harlequin and had looked up to meet the kindling glance of that mask in tartans—yes, there, the old life had died for her forever if only she had known it.
And now—she would only like to die, too, she thought miserably, after she had been assured of Ryder's safety. She was tense with fear for him, distrusting in every fiber the assurance of that fanatic, outraged Turk.
She was not utterly resourceless. When Ryder's revolver had dropped to the floor she had maneuvered, unseen by Hamdi Bey, to get her train over it, and when she had stooped for her train her one free hand had closed over the revolver handle beneath the satin and lace.
Now the revolver lay on the divan, and very eagerly she drew it out, feeling it in the darkness, curling her finger about the trigger. Never in her life had she fired a shot, for her most formidable weapon had been the bows and arrows of the Children's Archery Contest of the English Club, but she felt in herself now that highstrung tensity which at all cost would carry her on.
Carefully she bestowed the small, steel thing in the bosom of her dress, then she stared questioningly at the dress itself, hastily unpinning the veil, and tying the long train up to her girdle. Then, with a wary glance for the closed door behind which waited that Fatima she dreaded, she stole to the door the general had shut and pressed it softly ajar, peering out into the deserted throne room.
Like a great cave of darkness the room stretched before her, peopled with goblin shadows from the dying candles upon the disordered, abandoned table; she saw the chair pushed back where she had risen to struggle with the bey, the long folds of white cloth, sweeping the floor, behind which Hamdi had rolled so agilely; a stain was still spreading about an upset glass, and from the overturned cooler the ice water was dripping, dripping with a steady, sinister implication.
She thought of flight.... There was another black, the general had warned her, beyond the door, and there would be bars and bolts on any egress from the harem, but with the revolver in her possession some desperate escape might be achieved.
But Ryder.... No, the gun was for another purpose.... She would not squander it yet upon herself....
From the boudoir she moved slowly, carrying one of the gilt candelabra from the table to light the room. She would need light for her plan....
For ages, long, unending ages, she sat there, waiting.... A hundred times it seemed to her that she could stand no more, that she must make her way out at all costs, must discover what fate they were dealing to Ryder, but still she forced herself to sit there, her pulses racing, her heart sick with suspense, but desperately waiting....
She felt a sudden wave of weakness go through her at an advancing step from the next room. But her chin was up, her eyes fixed and desperate as the figure of the general appeared in her opening door.
"Ah, light! This is more cheerful, little one."
She had risen, half moved towards him. "Is he safe?"
"The stranger? Safe as treasure—buried treasure, little one."
The bey laughed, and that laughter and the glittering satisfaction of his eyes, filled her with foreboding although his next words came with smiling reassurance.
"Not a hair of his head is hurt, I give you my word."
"But where is he—what have you done?"
"Shut him up, to be sure. Kept him as hostage for your sweet humility—a novel way to win a bride, oh, essence of shyness!"
Malevolently he smiled down at her and in the back of her frightened mind she realized that this man did well to be angry, that the affront to him had been immeasurable, and that many a Turk would have simply driven his dagger through the intruder's heart—and her own, too.
But though she tried to tell herself that there was forbearance in him, she felt, instinctively, that there was deeper kindness in direct, thrusting fury than in this man's sinister mockery.
She had sunk back upon the divan on the bey's approach; now as he stood before her with that mask of a smile upon his face, drawing a silk handkerchief across a forehead she saw glistening in the candlelight, she leaned towards him again, her hands involuntarily clasping.
"Monsieur, I seem to have done you a great wrong," she said tremblingly, "but it is not so great as you suppose. Will you listen to me? I—"
"Useless, useless." He waved the handkerchief negligently at her. "I have had words enough. You are not the daughter of Tewfick Pasha—you are his step-daughter—your French family desires to capture you—I know the rigmarole by heart, you observe. And of course when a French family desires to obtain possession of a charming step-daughter, on the eve of her marriage, that family always employs a handsome young man to break into the bride's chamber—and point a gun at the husband—"
His mustache lifted in a grimacing sneer.
"But it is true, and I am French," she interposed swiftly.
"Excellent—I do not object in the least." He shot his handkerchief up his cuff, and turned to her with eyes that lightly mocked the agonized appeal of the young face. "French blood is delightful—quicksilver and champagne. You will enliven me, I promise you."
"But the marriage—it is not legal, monsieur," she said desperately, summoning all her courage. "Tewfick Pasha has no right to give me to you—"
Indulgently he smiled down at her, then his narrowed eyes traveled slowly about the room.
"But this is a strange time—and place!—to talk of legalities. Do not distress yourself—your step-father is your guardian and your marriage will be as binding as the oaths of the prophet. Have no qualms.... And now, if your French blood will smile a little—"
He started to seat himself beside her, but in that instant she was on her feet. With all the courage in her beating heart she whipped out that revolver and pointed it at him.
"If you call—I shoot," she said breathlessly.
The round mouth of the gun shook ever so slightly in the excited hand gripping it, but in the blazing look she turned on him was the unshaken, imperious passion of a woman swept absolutely beyond all fear.
Meeting that look Hamdi Bey stood extremely still and made no sound.
"There are plenty of shots—for you, at the first noise, and for the servants, if they come," she went on in that fierce undertone, and then, passionately, "What did you do to him? Take me to him—at once!"
Irresolutely the man stood and looked up at her under his half-lowered lids. He was near enough for a spring—and yet if that excited finger should press.... The girl was capable of anything. She was possessed.... And men had died of such accidents before that....
"May I speak?" he murmured, in a tone scarcely audible, yet preserving somehow its flavor of sardonic amusement.
"Under your breath. One sound, remember—and I am a very good shot."
"But what a wife," he sighed. "All the talents—"
"I tell you that I will see him for myself. Take me to him, this moment—"
"Shall I give orders and have him brought here? He is quite safe, I assure you."
"Orders? If you summon a servant I will shoot. No, lead the way, and I will follow you. And if you make one sound—one false move—"
Decidedly the girl was possessed. She stood there like a white image of war, her hand on that infernal automatic.... He hesitated, gnawed his mustache, then swung sullenly upon his heel.
Like some fantastic sculpture from an Amazonian triumph, they crossed the long drawing-room, the erect, gilt-braided general preceding, very slowly, the white-clad feminine creature, who held one hand extended, with something boring almost into his shoulder blades.
He did not lead her down the long stairs, past the guarding eunuch. He took, instead, an inner way through the late supper room which led down into the pillared hall of banquets. That way was safe of servants now; crossing the pillared hall there were no more sounds of late work from the service quarters beyond. Oblivious of the wild developments of that wedding reception, the tired servants, stuffed with the last pasty, warmed with the last surreptitious drop of wine, were asleep at last.
Outside the door in the stone wall the bey took down the lantern which so short a time before he had replaced upon its nail and lighted its still smoking wick. He had not restored the key to Yussuf, and he drew it now from his pocket and fitted it into the lock, drawing back the door.
"These stairs are steep," he murmured. "I hardly like you to descend them unaided, but if you insist—"
"Go on," she said imperiously.
Down he went, and after him she came, following the way he led her down the long stone underground ways.
"We have, of course, very pleasant stairs down to our water gate," he murmured apologetically, "but since you prefer this way—really not the way that I would have chosen to have you first explore your palace, madame! These, you perceive, are the cellars and old storerooms—"
"I do not want you to talk," she said urgently.
"But you would not shoot me for it? Only for raising an alarm? And surely you cannot be unreasonable about a few words—you must be very careful, here, this doorway is low—"
It was not past the old ruined mosque, included in the palace's underground world, that he was leading her, but down a narrow branching way, between walls so low that the general's head was bowed in caution.
"This part of the palace is very old," he murmured, over his shoulder. "An ancestor of mine, Sharyar the Wazir, raised these walls during the wars—for the dispensing of that sacred duty of hospitality which Allah enjoins upon the faithful. It is reported that he was host here to fifty of the enemy during their remaining lifetime—although they had the delicacy not to cumber him with overlong living. It is not, as I said, a pleasant place, but the walls are strong and so I selected a spot here—"
Here, somewhere, then, in these grim ruins, Ryder was penned, helpless and questioning the to-morrow. The girl trembled with excitement when she thought of his joy, his deliverance—and at her hands. For their escape she had no plans, only the decision to thrust the gun into his hands and follow him unquestioningly ... Perhaps they could leave the general in his place and he could wear the general's uniform for disguise....
Everything was possible now that she was nearing him and his safety was at hand. She thrilled with a reanimating excitement that flew its scarlet banners in her cheeks ... Only a few steps now....
"Go on," she said breathlessly.
The bey had stopped and now flashed his lantern over a low, timbered door, studded with ancient nail heads in a design whose artistry did not arrest her. From a peg beside it he took down a key of brass, fitted it to the lock and turned it with a deliberation maddening to her tense nerves.
Her heart was beating as if it would burst its bounds. Only a moment or two—
He had trouble with that door. It took his shoulder; at last he set it swinging inward slowly on its creaking hinges. Then he stepped back and with a wave of his hand invited her to enter.
"Not a chamber of luxury, you understand, but substantial, as you will see—"
"Go first," she ordered.
He laughed. "Ever distrustful, little thorn-of-the-rose! Follow, then," and he stepped within, into the darkness, which his failing lantern but little illumined, calling out in a louder tone in his halting English, "A visitor, my friend. A tourist of the subterranean."
She had followed him to the threshold, seeing nothing in the blackness but the seamed blocks of stone within the lantern's rays, afraid always to turn her eyes from him or her hand from its outstretched pointing.
He said very quickly to her in Turkish, "If you will wait by the door. The floor is bad and there is another lantern, here on the wall—"
At her left he fumbled along the stone wall. She heard him mutter ... and then reach.... And then—she did not know what was happening. For the very ground on which she stood, the solid block of stone began to slip swiftly beneath her feet—she staggered—and felt herself falling, falling, into some precipitately opened abyss....
She gave a wild scream, flinging out her arms in terror, and then cold waters closed above her, and the scream ended in a gurgling cry.
It was no great distance that she fell. What the dropped stone had revealed, answering the signal of the old lever in the wall that the general had pressed, was a stone well, narrow, deep, implanted there by some ingenious lord of the palace in by-gone days, for the subtle elimination of friend or foe or rival.
But it was not part of Hamdi's plan to leave the young girl there and close the obliterating stone. Scarcely had the waters met above her head than he was flinging down a rope ladder whose upper ends were fastened to rings in the floor and descending this with swift agility until the waters reached his waist.
Then he leaned out and clutched the floating satin bubbling and ballooning yet unsubmerged above the stagnant depths and drew it towards him. As the struggling girl came gasping within his reach, he carried her panting up the ladder again, and laid her down in the darkness, while he drew up the ladder and closed the stone by pressing that hidden lever.
But the stone which had dropped so swiftly, was slow and heavy in slipping back in place, and when he turned again to Aimee, she had ceased her choking cough and was sitting up, thrusting back the dripping hair from her black eyes, staring bewilderedly about the gloom as murky as any genie's cave.
The lantern light was almost out. In its expiring gleams she saw no more inky water, but only the damp, moss-grown stones, on which a pool was widening from her wet garments, and the half-defined figure of the general stooping over to squeeze the streams from his own wet clothes.
The nightmarish horror of it overwhelmed her. For a moment she could have screamed with horror, and then she felt a cold and terrible despair lay its paralyzing hand upon her heart.
Somewhere, she felt, beneath those secret stones lay Ryder, drowned ... And she was living, in her helplessness ... No revolver now. That was gone ... in the water, perhaps....
There was no resource, now, no refuge.... Strength went out of her, and passive in a dream of evil darkness she felt herself being hurried, stumblingly, back through the secret corridors and the dark halls.
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
There was no measure of time for Ryder in that walled coffin of death. The seconds seemed hours, the minutes ages.
He drew quick, short breaths as if economizing the air that was so soon to fail him; he tugged at his bonds till the veins rose on his forehead, but the silk held and the confines of the prison permitted him no room for struggle; then he leaned forward, to press with all his might upon the bricks before him; he grunted, he sweated with the agony of his exertions, but not a brick was stirred, not a crack was made in the mortar that gripped them tighter every instant.
He died a thousand deaths in the horror that invaded him then. Already he felt strangling, and the painful pumping of his heart seemed the beginning of the end.
Cold sweat stood out all over him; it ran down his face in trickling streams and his body was drenched with that clammy dew of fear.
He tried to count the minutes, the hours, to estimate how long he would hold out....
And then he heard his own voice saying very distinctly and clearly and dispassionately, "This thing is absurd."
It was absurd. It was idiotic. It was utterly irrational. It was an impossible end for an able-bodied young American, an excavator of no mean attainments, a young scholar and explorer of twentieth century science, a sane, modern, harmless young man, to die immured in the ancient walls of a Turkish palace—because he had invaded a marriage reception and intervened between man and wife.
Violent death in any form must always appear absurd to the young and energetic. And the fantastic horror of his death removed it definitely from any realm of possibility. The thing simply could not happen.... He thought of the amazement and the incredulity of his friends....
Dangers in plenty they had warned him against, to his youthful amusement—sand storms and chills and raw fruit and unboiled waters, but they had not warned him against veiled women and the resentments of outraged lords and masters.
He thought of his mother's consternation and dismay. He thought of his father's stern amazement.... What an awful jolt it would give them, he reflected, with an irrational tickling of young humor.
But no, it would not. They would never know. Not a word of this fate would percolate into the world without. Not a comment upon his true end would enliven the daily columns of the East Middleton Monitor. Never would it regret the tragic and romantic interment of a young native son of talent, buried alive by a revengeful general of the Sultan....
He amused himself by writing the paragraph that would never be written. Then he told himself that he was lightheaded and hysterical and that he had better wonder what would actually be written. What explanation would be found?
A desert storm perhaps, or some accident. McLean would poke about—but for all McLean knew he might be on his way back to camp that very moment. And sometimes he went by sailing canoe, and a rented horse, and sometimes by the accredited steamer and a camel, and sometimes by tram or train to the nearest station. Even McLean's mind and McLean's Copts wouldn't make much of all the alternatives that his unsettled habits had afforded.
Was there any possibility of his being traced, of any rescue reaching him? He thought hard and long upon his last free moments. Jinny Jeffries knew that he was in the palace, and Jinny had been reiteratedly warned about the danger of betraying that knowledge. It would take some little time for alarm before Jinny said anything. And it would take a little time for Jinny to begin to worry.
He had not been so instant in attendance upon Jinny of late, for all their residence in the same hotel, that she would suspect that his absence of twenty-four hours was due to actual incarceration.
His cursed passion for freedom in which to ramble up and down that deserted lane without Tewfick Pasha's garden! His inane love of solitary mooning....
No, Jinny would not soon wonder about him. She had not expected to see him that evening, anyway—he had muttered something to her about a man and an engagement.
She would rather look to see him the next day and talk about their adventure.... But still she would feel no more than pique at his absence; positive worry would not develop until later.
Besides, all the revelations that Jinny could make would do no good. Jinny could only report that he had maintained a disguise at a wedding reception, and talked a few moments, apparently undetected, to a bride. Hamdi Bey, and Hamdi's eunuchs, would be blandly ignorant of such a scandal. What his disappearance would indicate would be some further frolic on his part, some tempting of a later Providence before he had abandoned his disguise.... If he were discovered, for instance, in some of those native quarters, behind a woman's veil....
Decidedly the only effect of Jinny's revelations would be an unsavory cloud upon his character.
There was no hope to be looked for.
And yet he could not believe it. There were moments when the black terror mastered him, but involuntarily his young strength shook it off. He could not believe in its reality. He could not believe that he was actually here, bricked and bound, in this infernal coffin....
But, indisputably, the evidence was in favor of belief.... Only to believe was to feel again that horror....
He tried to tell himself that it didn't matter. One had to die some time. Everybody did. One might as well go out young and strong and still interested in life.
But that was remarkably cold comfort. He didn't want to go out at all. He didn't want to die, not for fifty or sixty years yet, and of all the ways of dying, he wanted least to smother and choke and stifle like a rat walled in its hole in the wall.
He recalled, with peculiar pain, a woodchuck that he had penned up as a boy, and he hoped with extraordinary passion that the poor beast had made another hole. Never again, he resolved, would he pen up a living creature, never again, if only again he could see the light of day and breathe the free air....
He thought of Aimee. And when he thought of her his heart seemed to turn to water. Useless to repeat to himself now those old reminders that he had seen her so little, known her so slightly. Useless to measure that strange feeling that drew him by any artifice of time and acquaintance.
She was Aimee. She was enchantment and delight. She was appeal and tenderness. She was blind longing and mystery. She was beauty and desire....
Even to think of her now, in the infernal horror of this cramping grave, was to feel his heart quicken and his blood grow hot in a helpless passion of dread and fear. She was alone, there, helpless, with that madman.
He tried to tell himself that she was not wholly helpless, that she had wit and spirit and courage, and that somehow she would manage to quell the storm; she might persuade Hamdi to their story, make him remember that this was the twentieth century wherein one does not go about immuring inconvenient trespassers as in the earlier years of the Mad Khedive—years which had probably formed the general's impulses—but in telling himself this there was no comfort for the thought of the price that Aimee would have to pay.
It was pleasanter to pretend that Hamdi was really only joking, in a shockingly exaggerated, practical way, and that presently, when the suitable time had elapsed, he would present himself, smiling, to end the ghastly, antiquated jest.
For some time he continued to tell himself that.
And then suddenly he told himself that the time for intervention had surely come. It was very hard to breathe.
The next minute he was assuring himself that this was merely some devil's trick of his apprehensive imagination. There must be a great deal of air left.... But he was distressingly ignorant of the contents of air, and his calculations were lamentably unsupported by any sound basis of fact.
Mistake, not to have gone in for chemistry and physics. A chap who'd done time in those subjects wouldn't now be rocking with suspense; he'd comfortably and satisfactorily know just how many hours, minutes and seconds were allotted before his finish and he could think his thoughts accordingly.
Undoubtedly, so he insisted to himself, there was air enough here to last him till morning. This gasping stuff was all imagination. He wanted to keep cool and quiet. But for all his reassurance there was something a little queer with his lungs, and his heart was lurching sickeningly in his side, like a runaway ship's engine.
And then he heard his own voice repeating very tonelessly, "O God, O God," and the horror of it all came blackly over him and a feeling of profound and awful sickness....
It was a sound. The faintest scraping and knocking without that wall. It went through him like an electric current.... And then a roar burst from him that fairly split his ears, the reaction of his quivered nerves and racking fears of his uncertainties, his tightening terrors.
But now—nothing. He could not hear a thing. A delusion? A torture of his final hours?... No, it came again. More definitely now, a little grinding and scraping.
Faster and faster, a muffled, driving thud.
A jubilant reassurance sang gayly through him. He had expected this—this was what he had predicted. Hamdi was no foul friend. He was a devilish uncomfortable customer with antiquated notions of revenge, but now he had shot his wad and was going to undo his tricks.
Ryder braced himself to present a carefree jauntiness—an air somewhat difficult to assume when one is trussed like a spitted bird, in a hot coffin space, with hair falling dankly over a steaming brow, with a collar like a string, and an indescribable pallor beneath the bronze of one's face.
Something stirred. One end of a brick was driven in against his chest. Then he felt the blind working of some tool that caught it and worried it free.
It seemed to him that through that dark aperture a current of cold, delicious air came rushing in about him. The blows sounded against the adjoining bricks and he thought of the glorious joy of seeing out again, feeling that he would welcome even the sight of Hamdi's blond mustache and the eunuch's hideous grin.
Now the aperture admitted a pale gleam upon his chest. Staring steadily down he caught a glimpse of the fingers curving about a brick, and his heart that had steadied, began to race again wildly. For they were not the fingers of the black nor yet the wiry joints of the general.
They were soft, white fingers, with a gleam of rings.
Aimee! Somehow, somewhere, she had managed to come to him, to achieve this rescue....
"Aimee!" He breathed the name.
"S-sh!" came a warning little whisper, and impatiently he waited until that opening should be greater and permit of sight and speech.
His helplessness was maddening. If only he could raise his hands, could get those bonds off! He twisted, he writhed, he tried to lift his elbows and get his wrists in reach of the opening, but the coffin was too diabolically cramped for movement until the hole was very much larger. Then with a convulsive pressure he swung his wrists within reach and after a moment's wait he felt a thin blade drawn across the silk.
The relief was glorious. He swung his hands free, rubbing the chafed wrists, then thrust an opened hand out into the opening, and with instant comprehension a short, pointed bit of iron was put within it.
Now he could do something! With furious strength he attacked the bricks edging the hole and as he pried free each brick he could again get a glimpse of those white delicate fingers lifting it carefully away.
And now the hole was large enough. He twisted about and thrust out a leg, and then, with a feeling of ecstasy which made the official literary raptures of saints and conquerors but pale, dim moods, he wormed his way out of that jagged hole and turned, erect and free, to the shrouded figure of his rescuer.
She had drawn back a little against the wall, a gauzy veil across her face. Beside her, upon the stone floor, a solitary candle sent its flickering rays into the shadows, edging with light her slender outlines.
Ryder took one quick step to her, his heart in his throat, and put out eager arms. But in the very moment that he was gathering her to him, even when he felt her pliant body, at first resistant, then softly yielding, swept against his own, he felt, too, a little palm suddenly upon his mouth.
"Hsh!" said the soft, whispering voice, cutting into his low murmur of "Aimee!" and then, in slow emphatic caution, "Be—careful!"
He had need of that caution. For under the saffron veil was not the face of Aimee. He was clasping a young creature that he had never seen before, a girl with flaming henna hair and kohl darkened brows, a vivid blazoning face that smiled enigmatically with a certain mockery of delight at the amazement he reflected so unguardedly.
From the slackening grip of his astounded arms she stepped backward, still smiling faintly and holding up in admonishment the palm she had pressed against his mouth.
"But what—what the dev—" muttered Ryder.
She nodded mysteriously, and beckoned.
"Come," she whispered, catching up her candle, and after holding it high for a moment, staring at him, she extinguished it suddenly, and turned to lead the cautious way across the stone spaces while Ryder closely followed.
Not Aimee, then. But some messenger, he could only suppose. Some confidante, at need. A handmaid? The whisper of her silks, the remembered gleam of jewels in the henna hair flouted that thought, and not troubling his ingenuity with alternatives he was content to follow her swift steps.
They were now in those open rubbishy spaces where he remembered the crumbling masonry and broken arches of old, disregarded mosques; now they were again enclosed in narrow stone walls, winding past cellars and store rooms.
The girl's advance grew more cautious. Often she stopped and listened, peering ahead into the darkness, and now, as she took another turning, her care redoubled and Ryder needed no exhortation to imitate it. Obeying a gesture of her arm, he followed at a greater distance, prepared, at the warning of a sound, to flatten himself against the wall or dart into some cranny of retreat.
They were now in the cellars. The corridor was widening out before them with a pallid showing of light, crossed with many bars, at some far end.... They stole towards it. It was a window, or barred gate, he saw, and he heard again that lapping of restless water against stone.
He could see, too, in the dimness the curve of a stair near the gate.
Abruptly his guide checked him. Wary and noiseless he waited while she stole forward to those stairs, peering up into the gloom, attentive for any sound from above.... Apparently satisfied, she went on towards the barred gate, and bent down over a spot of darkness which Ryder had taken for a shadow.
He saw now that it had some semblance to a human outline.
Closely the girl bent and he caught the pallor of her hands, searching swiftly, and then a muffled clink.... Next moment, a wraith with soundless steps, she was back at his side again, urging him on with her. They passed the stairs; he felt the soft yield of carpet beneath his feet; they passed that recumbent figure and now he heard the rhythm of a sleeper's heavy breath, escaping muffledly from the folds of a thick mantle which the sleeper's habits had wrapped about his head. For all the mantle he was aware of the fumes of wine.
"I saw that Ja'afar had his drink," said the girl suddenly in softly whispered Turkish, her head close to his. "He is my friend. I do not neglect him," and under her breath she laughed, as she exhibited the great bunch of keys she had taken from the imbiber.
Stooping now before the gate she fitted the key into the lock. Then over her shoulder she looked up at the young man, and asked him a quick question.
He did not understand. That was the trouble with his vernacular. It would go on very well for a time, when he had a clue to the sense, or when it was a question of every day expression, but a sudden divergence, an unexpected word, was apt to prove a hopeless obstacle.
Now she repeated her question again, more slowly, and again he shook his head.
Now she stood up, frowning a little and began again in English, "You—no, I not know—This way? You do it?" A sudden smile broke over her face as she made a swift pushing gesture with her hands, that, with her pointing to the water outside, sent Ryder a sudden enlightenment.
"Swim? You mean—do I swim?"
She nodded. "Not go—" She made a swift downward movement of her hands and then pointed again to that water just outside the gate.
"Not go down—not sink?" interpreted Ryder. "No, indeed, I can swim," he assured her, and revisited with smiling satisfaction she knelt again before the barred gate.
Open it swung with so sharp a crack that both glanced at the figure behind them, and then at the shadowy gloom of the stairs. But no alarm sounded. Outside the gate Ryder saw the darkness of fairly wide rippling waters, visited with floating stars, and beyond a low-lying, dun bank.
Escape was there. Freedom. Safety. He felt an exultant longing to plunge in and strike out, but he turned, questioningly, to the mysterious rescuer.
"Aimee?" he asked, under his breath. "Where is she?" He repeated it in the vernacular, distrusting her English, and in the vernacular she answered, "You want her? You want to take her away with you?"
She laughed softly at the quick flash in his eyes and hardly waited for his speech.
"Good—what a lover! You are not afraid?"
Mendaciously he assured her that he was not.
"Good!" she said again, with a showing of white teeth between her carmined lips. "You take her—you take her away from him. That is what I want. You understand?"
Very suddenly he understood.
AZIZA IS OFFENDED
This was no emissary from Aimee. This was no philanthropic bystander. It was some girl of the palace, jealous and daring, conspiring shrewdly for the removal of her rival.
"Take her away," she was saying urgently. "Out of this palace. We want no brides here." Lowering and sullen, she turned bitter on the word.
"To-night, I was watching," she went on swiftly. "I heard—the noise—and then the whispering.... The darkness has ears and eyes—and a tongue. And so I waited out there...."
He could not distinguish all the quick flow of her speech, but he caught enough to understand how she had lurked in the halls, jealously spying, defying the eunuchs' authority, and how she had caught with passionate delight that stifled alarm of scandal. Later, hanging over some banister, she had seen the Ethiopian pass with his burden and had stolen down afterwards, stalking like a cat, and had discovered the lantern gone, the door unlocked.... And then she had watched until the pair emerged without the burden.
She had not been able to get hold of the key to the door. But she had resolved to explore and so she had furnished the waterman with his wine, drugged, Ryder gathered, and so stolen past him on the other route to those underground foundations to which her suspicions had been directed by the mortar and dust upon Yussuf.
Evidently she knew the possibilities of the place and the mind of its master. And when she found the old niche freshly bricked and the mortar at hand she had not needed more to assure her that here was the burial place of her rival's lover.
Now, for the boon of his life, he was to relieve her of that rival. Or try to.
"For once—he might not kill her," she whispered, "but if again—" Her eyes glowed like a cat's in the dark. "Take her away. Make her name a spitting and a disgrace.... Her memory a shame and a sting.... Is she beautiful?" she broke off to demand. "They say—but slaves lie—"
"Can you believe a lover?" he said whimsically for all his impatience. "She is a pearl—a rose—a crescent moon—"
"They say she is very pale and thin—"
"She is an Houri from Paradise," he said distinctly. "And now, in the name of Allah, let me get to her. Tell me the way—"
"Will she go gladly with you?" the low, insistent voice went on, and at his quick nod, "Holy Prophet, what a bride!"
She clapped her two ringed hands to smother the impish joy of her laugh. "A warning to those who can be warned—he will not be so eager for another stripe from that same stick!—It was his cousin, Seniha Hanum—Satan devour her!—who made this marriage. Always she hated me.... But now I will tell you how to get to her. Look out, with me."
Kneeling at the gate, over the dark flow of the water, she drew him down beside her, and thrusting out her veiled head, she pointed upward and to the right to a jutting balcony of mashrubiyeh, where a pale light showed through the fretwork.
"There—you see? That is my room. And if you climb up, I can let you in.... There... Up," she repeated in English, resolved to make certain.
"I see. I can get there," he assured her, measuring with his eye the dim distance.
"At once," she said. "I will be there. I cannot take you with me through the upper hall—it is dangerous even for me to be caught. But no eunuch wants my displeasure."
He could believe it, watching the subtle, malicious daring of her face. Even in the gloom he caught the steady-lidded arrogance of her kohl-darkened eyes and the bold insolence of a high cheek bone. She had a hint of gypsy....
"And you can get me in? You're a wonder!" he whispered. "I can't thank you enough—"
"Rid me of her," said the girl swiftly. "But not—not him. You must swear—what is it that Christians swear by?" she broke off to demand. "By the grave of your father? Yes? You will swear not to hurt him, to hurt Hamdi, by the grave of your father? Yes?"
Ryder nodded quickly. His father, to be sure, was in no grave at all. He was, allowing hastily for the difference in time, in his treasurer's cage at the bank in East Middleton, but he did not wait to explain this to the girl.
"I swear it," he repeated. "I won't hurt your Hamdi, since that's your condition. But we're wasting time—"
"Up, then. And if you fall down—do like this."
Smiling mischievously, she made the gesture of swimming. "Allah go with thee—and with me also," he heard her murmur, as he stepped out to the ledge of the entrance, twisted himself agilely about and climbing up the opened gate swung himself up to the stone carving overhead.
Below him, he heard the gate swing shut. He did not hear her lock it. Fervently he hoped she had not, since it was a possible exit for any one in a hurry, but at any rate, he need not worry about a way out of the place until he had got into it again.
And the getting in was not any too simple. It was work for a mountain goat, he reflected, after a short interval devoted to tentative reaches and balancing and digging in of hands and feet. The distances were far greater than the first-glimpsed, foreshortened perspective had allowed him to guess, and there was only the starlight to illumine the gray face of the palace.
He had no idea of the time. Somewhere about the middle of the night or early morning, he judged vaguely by the stars, although it seemed impossible that so few hours had passed.
The river was all silence and darkness. No nuggars with their sleeping crews were moored below. He seemed the only living, breathing thing clambering across the face of time and space.
Gingerly he kicked off the nondescript black shoes he had worn with his disguise that afternoon and essayed a perilous toehold while he reached for the interstices of a mashrubiyeh window just overhead.
Once gripping the rounds he pulled himself up, reflecting that it was well it was night and that no lady was sitting within her shelter to be affrighted at this intrusion of fingers and toes.
From the jutting top of this projection he surveyed his further field of operation. The window with a light was two stories higher yet and to the right. There were two other windows with lights on the second story, very much farther along, and he wondered painfully if these were the rooms of Aimee.
That boudoir in which he had hidden through the end of the long reception had been upon the water. And there had been a door into an adjoining room, for he had seen a sallow-faced attendant passing in and out.
A wild longing seized him to crawl on and over into those windows. But it was a difficult, almost an impossible distance, and even when there he would be like a fly on the outside of a pane with no way of getting in.
The unknown girl had promised him a way through her window and he had confidence in her ingenuity and daring.
So he went on, worming cautiously along old gutters and ledges and jutting balconies until at last he was clasping the lower grill of that mashrubiyeh from which her light gleamed.
Instantly the light went out.
"Wait!" he heard her voice say sharply over his head. She was standing by the window fumbling with the woodwork, and in a moment he heard the click of a knob and then, just opposite his head, the screening grill slipped aside and an aperture appeared.
"Quick!" admonished the voice, and quickly indeed he drew himself up and in, reflecting whimsically as he did so that this girl had first helped him out of a hole and then into one.
The next moment she had moved the grill into place and lifted the cover she had placed over her triplet of candles on a stand.
Triumphant, her eyes dancing, her teeth a gleam of light between those scarlet lips of hers, she looked at him for the admiration she saw twinkling back at her in his eyes.
"But not me—no!" she protested, her supple hands gesturing towards the magic casement. "I found it here. It is very old—you understand? Some other, long ago, found time dull and so—"
Delightedly she shared the flavor of that secret of the vagabond lady of long ago who had devised this cunning entrance for her lover.
On some dark night like this, with the gatekeeper drowsy with old wine, some other stripling had climbed that worn facade before him and slipped through the secret space and stood triumphantly before some daring, laughing girl who had cast aside for him her veil and her fear of death.
What ingenuity, Ryder wondered fleetly, had smuggled in the carpenter for the contrivance, what jewels had gone to the bribing, what lies had been told!... And what had been the end of it all?
Evidently not the discovery of the opening....
He hoped, with singular intensity, for the safety of the daring young lovers, that unknown youth whose feet had foreworn the path for his feet and that dead and gone young girl, who had dared anything rather than endure the mortal ennui of those hours behind the veil....
These thoughts all went through him like one thought as he stood there, his eyes roving about the dim, shadowy room of old divans and Eastern hangings, and then turning back to the glimmering figure of its mistress.
She was staring frankly at him, her eyes boldly curious and examining. They were not dark eyes, he saw now; that had been the impression given by the kohl about them and the black line of the brows penciled into one line; they were yellow eyes, golden and glowing, scornful and lazy-lidded.
As she looked at him, these eyes smiled slowly. She was seeing in this lover of her rival a singularly delightful looking young man, for all his dust and disarray, a slender, bronzed, hardy-looking young man, with dark, disordered hair straying across a white brow, and audacious, eager eyes in which the fear of death, so lately glimpsed, had left no daunting reflection.
Slowly she lifted her hand and with deliberate softness put back that straying hair of his.
"Poor boy," she said slowly in English, and then, smiling ruefully, she held out her hands for his inspection. The grime of the bricks had discolored their scented delicacy and he saw bruised finger tips and a torn nail.
"I'm infernally sorry," he said quickly.
Her smile deepened at his look of concern, as he held, a little helplessly, the witnesses of her work of rescue which seemed somehow to stray into his keeping.
"It is nothing—but you—poor boy," she said again, in that English of which she seemed naively proud.
"If you could give me some water," he suggested, and drank deep with delight the last drop she brought him from an earthen jar. It seemed to wash from his throat the taste of that dust and fear.
"I can't begin to thank you," he murmured. "I only wish that I could do something for you—"
She looked up at him. They were standing close together, their voices cautiously low.
"Perhaps, yes, you can—"
"It's not doing anything for you to save Aimee," he told her. "That's what you are doing for her and for me.... But if ever you want me for anything after this—my name is Ryder, Jack Ryder, and you can reach me at the Agricultural Bank."
He had a vague vision of some day repaying his enormous debt by assisting this girl, grown tired of her Hamdi, out of this aperture and into a waiting boat. He would do it like a shot, he told himself gladly; he would do anything on God's green earth if only she helped him get Aimee away from that infernal villain.
"Jack," she repeated, under her breath, and then in her slow English, "I like—Jack."
"Don't forget it. I'll always come and do anything for you. And if you'll tell me your name—"
"Aziza. I'll never forget that. And now, if you'll tell me how I can get to her and then the best way out—"
"Why you so hurry—"
"Why?" he looked a little blank. "I can't lose a minute—he may be with her—"
She came a little nearer to him, her head tilting back with a slow, indolent challenge.
Gone was the silken mantle that had been about her below stairs and he saw now that she was a vivid, exotic shimmer of gauzy green against the saffron veil that fell from her henna hair. There was barbaric beauty in her, in the bold, painted face, the bare, gold-banded arms, the slender, sinuous lines, and there was barbaric splendor in the heavy jewels that winked and flashed....
It struck Ryder that she was gotten up regardless.... In pride, perhaps, on her rival's wedding night?... Or had there been some defiant, desperate design upon Hamdi—?
She did not miss that sudden prolonging of his look upon her.
"You like me—yes?" she murmured, and then slipping back into the vernacular, "I—I am not the stupid veiled girl of the seclusion—not forever. I come from the west, the deserts. I have seen the world: Men—men, I know ... I danced before them, not the dances of the Cairene cafes," she uttered with swift scorn, "but the dance of the two swords, the dance of the serpents.... Men threw the gold from their turbans about my feet when I had danced to them ... And others, English, French—"
She broke off, but her eyes told many things. "Then—Hamdi," she said slowly. "Him I ruled—and his palace.... But I have known other things."
Closer yet she came to him. Her eyes, golden fires of eyes, were smiling up into his, her scarlet lips gathered in soft, sensual curves ... her whole silken scented body seemed to slip into his embrace. A bare arm touched his neck, resting heavily.
"Sweet—heart," she said slowly, in her difficult English.
It was the deuce of a position.
No man can rudely snatch from his neck the arm of the lady who has just saved him from a harrowing death. And a lady who was risking more than her life in sheltering him—decidedly the situation was delicate.
It was not the lady's fault that her impetuosity, the impetuosity which had been his salvation, now plunged her into amorous caprice. There were obvious handicaps, moral, social and ethical, in her upbringing. She was a child of nature, a nature undisciplined, unruly, tempestuous.
And even queening over Hamdi and his palace must have offered little diversion to a wild dancing girl familiar with the excitement of more varied conquest.
Ryder was horribly embarrassed. He was visited with a fearful constraint, a chivalrous wish not to hurt her feelings, and a sharp prevision of the danger of offending her.
He took the first turn of least resistance.
He did not need to bend his head; their eyes were on a level. He simply kissed her. And she kissed him back.
He hated himself for the leap of his blood... and for the Puritanical discomfort of his nature....
Her arm about his neck was pressing closer. It was the moment for action and Ryder acted. Very firmly he put his hand upon her hand, withdrew it from its clasp about him, and raised it to his lips.
His kiss was respectful gratitude and an abdication of the delights of dalliance.
"Good-bye, my dear," he murmured. "Now, if you will show me the way out—"
Her eyes agleam between half-closed lids, she studied him. It occurred to Ryder that probably never before had her hands been detached—and kissed—and put away. He must be a phenomenon, an enigma.
Then her lips parted in a faintly scornful smile.
"You afraid—you? You want—run?"
"I'm horribly afraid," he said earnestly. "I want to get out of here as quick as I can."
That was putting, he considered, the very wisest construction upon it.
Negligently her gesture reminded him of the opening in the window. "Here you are safe." she murmured in the vernacular. "And the doors are locked—"