HotFreeBooks.com
The Fortieth Door
by Mary Hastings Bradley
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Yes, but—but Aimee isn't safe, you know—and I must get her out of here."

"Aimee?" In those yellow eyes he caught the flash of capricious resentment at the reminder. Then, indifferently, she brushed the distraction away.

"There is time enough for Aimee. She is not lonely now."

"Not lonely?" he shivered at the cold carelessness of her tone. "I must get to her quickly then."

"But that is not safe.... A little—later."

Uncomfortably he tried to infuse his glance with innate innocence and utter lack of understanding.

"I shan't hurt him—if I have the chance," he told her. "I've given you my word—"

"And I trust you—much." Her gaze sought his in a trifle of impatience at such simplicity. "But it is not safe for you now.... Later ... By and by."

"You don't want him to have a chance to make love to her, do you?" said Ryder sharply. "I thought that was the very thing you didn't—"

Her smile was a subtle, confessing caress. "I shall have my revenge," she murmured, and pressed closer to him again, every sensuous, sumptuous line of her a challenge and an enticement.

"I give you life," she whispered, very low in her throat. "You give me, perhaps, an hour—?"

"I haven't an hour," said Ryder very desperately and unhappily. "Not when Aimee is with that devil—"

It took every thought of Aimee to get the words out.

He felt a brute about it, a low, ungrateful dog. She had given him life and every fiber in him clamored to save her pride and champion her caprice.

It seemed so dastardly to wrench away from her now, like some self-centered Joseph, leaving that beastly stab in her vanity.... And she was a stunning creature, lawless, elemental, hot and cold like the seventh wind of the inferno....

But it was Aimee who was in his blood like a fever.... Aimee, that frail white rose of a girl, in her bonds of terror....

He saw the flame in Aziza's eyes. He saw the stiffening of her defiance, of half-incredulous affront. Then, her form drawn up, her bared arms outflung, her vivid, painted, furious face challenging him. "I am not beautiful—like Aimee?" she said in a voice of venom, and in the English, for double measure, "You not like me—no?"

"You are beautiful and I do like you," Ryder combated, feeling a bungling fool. And then went on to thrust into that half-second of suspended fury, a faint breath of appeasing. "But—don't you see—it's my duty—"

"You go—?" she said clearly.

Even in that moment he had a sharp prescience of the unwisdom of his rejection. A cold calculator of chance and probabilities would have reckoned that a half hour of assuagement here would have been a wiser investment of his mortal moments than any virtuous plunge into single-hearted duty.

But Ryder did not calculate. He could not, with Aimee under that beast's hand. His heart and soul were possessed with her danger and his heart and soul carried his body instinctively back from the dancing girl's advance, and he whispered, "I must go. There is no time—"

She flung back her fiery-hued head with a gesture of intolerable rage. Her eyes were lightnings.

"Dog of a Christian!" she said chokingly and flew to the doors.

Back she thrust the heavy hangings, turning a quick key in the lock and wrenching the door wide. And before Ryder could understand, before he could bring himself to realize that she was not simply violently expelling him from her room, she gave a shriek that rang wildly down the long-unseen corridors.

At the top of her lungs, with one hand out to thrust him back or cling to him if he attempted to pass, she shrieked again and again.

Instantly there came a running of feet.



CHAPTER XIX

AN INTERRUPTION

When Hamdi Bey had taken Aimee back to her apartments he pulled sharply upon a bellcord. In a few moments the slave woman, Fatima, made her appearance, no kindly-eyed old crone like Miriam, but a sallow, furtive-faced creature, with an old disfiguring scar across a cheek.

The general pointed to the wet and fainting girl huddling weakly upon the divan.

"Your new mistress has met with an accident, out boating—a curse upon me for gratifying forbidden caprice!" he said crisply. "Be silent of this and array her quickly in garments of rest. I will return."

Very hurriedly he took himself and his own wet condition away. He was furious, through and through. What a night—what a wedding night! Scandal and frustration... a bride with a desperate lover... a bride who, herself, drew revolvers and threatened.

It was beyond any old tale of the palace. For less, girls had had his father's dagger driven through their hearts—his grandfather, at a mere whisper from a eunuch, had given his favorite to the lion. The whisper was found incorrect at a later—too late—date, and the eunuch had furnished the lion another meal.

His modern leniency in this case would have outraged his ancestors.

But it was not in the bey's nature to deal the finishing stroke to anything so soft and lovely as Aimee. He had no intention of depriving himself of her. If she were red with guilt he would feign belief in her, to save his face until his infatuation was gratified.

But actually he did not believe in any great guilt of hers. Tewfick Pasha, for all his indulgent modernity, would keep too strict a harem for that. What he rather believed had happened was that the young American—now so happily immured in his masonry—had become aware of the girl through the story of her French father, and in that connection had struck up the clandestine and romantic correspondence which had led to their mutual infatuation and his desperate venture there that afternoon.

The young man had been dealt with—and the thought of the very summary and competent way he had been dealt with drew the fangs from the bite of that night's invasion.

His fury felt soothingly glutted.

He had been a match for them both. He recalled his own subtlety and agility with a genuine smile as he exchanged his dripping uniform for more informal trousers and a house coat. He had taught that young man a lesson—a final and ultimate lesson. And he was beginning to teach one to that girl. Before he was done with her ...

He felt for her a mingled passion for her beauty and a lust for conquest of her resistant spirit that fed every base and cruel instinct of his nature.

A find—a rare find—even with her circumvented lover! He would have his sport with her.... But though he promised this to himself with feline relish, apprehension and chagrin were still working.

The fond fatuity with which he had welcomed that starry-eyed little creature had been rudely overthrown. And his pride smarted at the idea of the whispers that might echo and re-echo through his palace. He was too wise an old hand to flatter himself that it would preserve its bland and silent unawareness of this night.

So far, he believed, he had been unobserved. In Yussuf's silence he had absolute confidence.... But of course there were a hundred other chances—some spying, back-stairs eye, some curious, straining ear....

And for this matter of the boating mishap—he cursed himself now, as he combed up his fair mustaches and settled a scarlet fez upon his thinned thatch of graying hair, cursed himself roundly for his malicious resort to that old oubliette. Anything else would have done to frighten and overwhelm her and yet he had gratified his dramatic itch—and now had paid for it with that idiotic story of the boating expedition.

He had reason to trust Fatima—there was history behind the old sword scar upon her cheek, and he had a hold over her through her ambition for a son. But Fatima was a woman. And she—or some other who would see that drenched satin would be curious of that boating story....

And of course they could find out from the boatman.

It occurred to him to go and see the boatman and order him away so that afterward the man could say he had been sent off duty, and the story of a nocturnal river trip would not appear too incredible. It was a small concession to stop gossip's mouth.

So drawing on a swinging military cloak, the general stole down through the stair of the water entrance into the lower hall, where the pale light gleamed through the cross-barred iron of the gate and the gatekeeper slept like a log in his muffling cloak.

The soundness of that slumber—loudly attested by the fumes of wine—afforded the general a profound pleasure. He took the man's keys softly, and went to the gate; it afforded him less pleasure to observe that the gate was unlocked, but he put this down to the keeper's muddleheadedness.

Carefully he turned the lock and pocketed the keys—for a lesson to the man's overdeep sleep in the morning and to attest his own presence there that night; then he went back and brought out an oar, which he placed conspicuously beside the smallest boat, drawn up just within the gates.

He was afraid to alter the boat's position lest the noise should prove too wakening, but he considered he had laid an artistic foundation for his story and with a gratifying sense of triumph he mounted the stairs.

He was not conscious of fatigue. He had always been a wiry, indefatigable person, and the alarms and emotions of this night had cleared his head of its wines and drowsiness. He felt the sense of tense, highstrung power which came to him in war, in fighting, in any element of danger.

Youth! He snapped his fingers at it. Youth was buried in his masonry—and helpless in its shuttered room. Power was master—power, craft, subtlety.

But his elation ebbed as he crossed again that long drawing room with its faded flowers about the marriage throne, and its abandoned table with its cloth askew, its crystal disarrayed, its candles gutted and spent.

The memory of that insolent moment when a man's hand had gripped him, had whirled him from Aimee—when a man's voice and gun had threatened him—that memory was too overpowering for even his triumph over the invader to lay wholly its smart of outrage.

He felt again the tightening of his nerves, like quivering wires, as he crossed the violated reception room and entered the boudoir. It was empty, but on the divan the flickering candle light revealed the damp, spreading stain where Aimee's drenched satins had been.

He thrust aside a hanging and pushed open the door into the room beyond.

It was a small bedroom evidently very recently furnished in new and white shining lacquer of French design, elaborately inlaid with painted porcelains and draped with a profusion of rosy taffeta. Among this elegance, surprisingly unrelated to the ancient paneled walls, stood the hastily opened trunk and bags of the bride, their raised lids and disarranged trays heaped with the confusion of unaccustomed, swiftly searching hands.

Aimee herself, in a gay little French boudoir robe of jade and citron, sat huddled in a chair, like a mute, terrified child, in the hand of her dresser, who was shaking out the long, damp hair and fanning it with a peacock fan.

At the bey's entrance Fatima suspended the fanning, but with easy familiarity exhibited the long ringlets.

Curtly the bey nodded, and gestured in dismissal; the woman laid down her fan, and with a last slant-eyed look at that strangely still new mistress she went noiselessly out a small service door.

With an air of negligent assurance Hamdi Bey gazed about the room and yawned. "Truly a fatiguing evening," he remarked in his dry, sardonic voice. "But you look so untouched! What a thing is radiant youth."

He sauntered over to her, who drew a little closer together at his approach, and lifted one of the long dark curls that the serving woman had exhibited.

"The ringlets of loveliness," he murmured. "You know the old saying of the Sadi? 'The ringlets of the lovely are a chain on the feet of reason and a snare for the bird of wisdom.'... How long ago he said it—and how true to-day ... Yet such a charming chain! Suppose, then, I forgive you, little one, since sages have forgiven beauty before?"

She was silent, her eyes fixed on him with the silent terror with which a trapped bird sees its captor, in their bright darkness the same mute apprehension, the same filming of helpless despair.

Ryder was dead, she thought. This cruel, incensed old madman had killed him, for all his oaths. Somewhere beneath those ancient stones he was lying drowned and dead, a strange, pitiable addition to the dark secrets of those grim walls.

He had died for her sake, and all that she asked now of life, she thought in the utter agony of her youth, was death. And very quickly.

"I am so soft hearted," he sighed, still with that ringlet in his lifted hand, his hand which wanted palpably to settle upon her and yet was withheld by some strange inhibition of those fixed, helpless eyes. "Who knows—perhaps I may forgive you yet? You might persuade me—"

"He is dead," she said shiveringly.

"Dead? He?... Ah, the invader, the intruder, the young man who wanted you for a family in France!" The bey laughed gratingly. "No, I assure you he is not dead—I have not harmed a hair of his head. He is alive—only not with quite the widest range of liberty—"

He broke off to laugh again. "Ah, you disbelieve?" he said politely. "Shall I send, then, for some proof—an ear, perhaps, or a little finger, still very warm and bleeding, to convince you?... In five minutes it will be here."

Then terror stirred again in her frozen heart. If Ryder were alive and still in this man's power—

"You are horrible," she said to him in a voice that was suddenly clear and unshaken. "What is it you want of me—fear and hate—and utter loathing?"

Her unexpected spirit was briefly disconcerting. The Turk looked down upon her in arrested irony and then he smiled beneath his mustaches and bent nearer with kindling gaze.

"Not at all—nothing at all like that, little dove with talons. I want sweetness and repentance—and submission. And—"

"You have a strange way to win them," she said desperately.

"You have taken a strange way with me, my love! Little did I foresee, when I escorted you up the stairs this morning—" He broke off. "There are men," he reminded her, "who would not consider a cold bath as a complete recompense for your bridal plans."

She was silent.

"But I," he murmured, "I am soft hearted." He dropped on one knee before her and tried to smile into her averted face. "I can never resist a charming penitent.... I assure you I am pliability itself in delicate fingers—although iron and steel to a threatening hand.... If you should woo me very sweetly, little one—"

She could not overcome and she could not hide from his mocking eyes the sick shrinking that drew her back from his least touch. But she did fight down the wild hysteria of her repugnance so that her voice was not the trembling gasp it wanted to be.

"How can I know what you are?" she told him. "You mock me—you threaten to torture that man—it would be folly not to think that you are deceiving me. If you would only prove to me so that I could believe—"

"If you would but prove to me so that I could believe—! Prove that you are mine—and not that infidel's. Prove that you bring me a wife's devotion—not a wanton's indifference." He caught her cold hands, trying to draw her forward to him. "Prove that you only pity him," he whispered, "but that your love will be mine—"

She felt as if a serpent clasped her. And yet, if that were the only way to win Ryder's safety—if it were possible for her sickened senses to allay this madman's suspicions and undermine his revenge—

Quiveringly she thought that to save Ryder she would go through fire.

But the hideous, mocking uncertainties! Her utter helplessness—her lost deference....

It was not a sudden sound that broke in upon them but rather the perception of many sounds, muffled, half heard, but gaining upon their consciousness. Running feet—a stifled voice—something faint and shrill—

Aimee sprang to her feet; the general rose with her and turned his head inquiringly in the direction. Then he jerked open the door through which Fatima had disappeared; it led to a dark service corridor and small anteroom, from whose bed the attendant was absent. An outer door was ajar.

No need to question the sounds now. Faint, but piercingly shrill shrieks were sounding from above, while the footsteps were racing, some down, some up—

The bey flung shut the door behind him and hurried towards the confusion.



CHAPTER XX

BEYOND THE DOOR

Ryder had stood stock still with amazement when the girl began to scream. She had gone mad, he thought for an instant, in masculine bewilderment, and then her madness revealed its treacherous cunning, for she began crying wildly for help against an invader, an infidel, a dog of a Christian who had stolen into her rooms.

She had chucked him to the lions, Ryder perceived; one furious flash of lightning jealousy and Oriental anger had overthrown, in that wild and lawless head, every other design for him for which she had risked so much.

He had scorned her.... He had flouted her caprice.... He had dared to refuse the languors of those dangerous eyes....

The hurrying footsteps appeared to him the tread of a legion in action, and he had no desire to rush out upon the oncomers; he had, indeed, distinct doubts of his ruthless ability to pass that supple, clawing, incensed creature at the door.

He whirled and made a bolt for the window, striking at the fastened grill. He heard the snapping of wooden bolts and the splintering of wood and out through the hole he climbed to a precipitous, head-long flight that fairly felt the clutching hands upon his ankle.

He had meant to make a jump for it. A three-story plunge into the Nile appeared a gentle exercise compared to the alternative within the palace, but in the very act of releasing his hold he changed his mind.

Quicker than he had ever moved before, in any vicissitude of his lithe and agile youth, he clambered up, not down, and crouching back from sight upon the jutting top of the window, he sent his coat sailing violently through space.

He dared not look over for its descent upon the water, for other heads were peering from below and he could hear an excited outburst of speech, that broke sharply off.

Evidently they were hurrying down to the water gate. Swiftly he utilized this misdirection for his own ends.

The roofs. That was the refuge to make for. Flat, long-reaching roofs, from which one could climb off onto a wall or a palm or a side street.

He had only a story to ascend and he made it in record time, fearful that the searchers whom he heard now launching a boat below would turn their eyes skywards.

But he gained the top without an outcry being raised and found himself upon the roof where the ladies of the harem took their air unseen of any save the blind eyes of the muezzin in the Sultan mosque upon the hill. There were divans and a little taboret or two and a framework where an awning could be raised against the sun.

There was also a trap door.

And here, tempestuously he changed his mind again. He abandoned the goal of outer walls and chances of escape. He wrenched violently at that trap door. It was bolted but the bolt was an ancient one and gave at his furious exertions, letting him down into a narrow spiral staircase between walls.

Down he plunged in haste, before some confused searcher should dash up. It was no place to meet an opposing force. Nor was the corridor in which he found himself much better.

It was black and baffling as a labyrinth, with unexpected turnings, and he kept gingerly close to the wall with one hand clutching a bit of iron which he had taken into his possession and his pocket when Aziza had led him out of the underground walls—the very bit of pointed iron, it was, with which the volatile creature had effected his rescue.

He considered it an invaluable souvenir and twice, in his nervous apprehension, he almost brought it down upon shadows.

Direction he judged vaguely by the screaming which was still going on at a tremendous rate—evidently the girl had gone off into genuine hysterics or else she had determined not to leave her agitation at the intrusion in any manner of question. No doubt the outcries were a relief to her mingled emotions—remorse at her impetuosity and chagrin that her thwarted plans might conceivably be now among those emotions—and since the vicinity of those shrieks must be a gathering place to be avoided by him he stole on, down the upper hall, and finding a stair, he went down for two continuous flights.

Aimee's rooms, he knew, had been upon the water, and recalling the general direction of those two lighted windows that he had seen so recently from without, his excavator's instinct led him on. Once he saw the flitting figure of a turbaned woman in time to draw back into a heaven-sent niche and again he flattened into a soundless shadow against the wall as two young serving girls ran by on slippered feet, their anklets tinkling, chattering to each other in delighted excitement.

And then the stealthy opening of a door—it was the very door by which Yussuf had precipitated himself upon the struggle at the supper table some age-long hours ago—gave him a glimpse into the far glooms of the reception room, where its long side of mashrubiyeh windows revealed now between its fretwork tiny chinks of a paling sky.

He could make out the dark-draped marriage throne and the pallor of the disordered cloth upon the abandoned table below, and behind the table the dark draperies of the remaining portieres before the doorway into the boudoir where he had hidden himself and into which he had last seen Aimee thrust.

At the other end of the great room were the entrance stairs to the harem, and there, he imagined, a watchman was stationed, or else stout bolts and bars were guarding the situation. There remained an arched doorway into other formal rooms through which he had seen Aimee and the guests disappear for the wedding supper, and that way led, he surmised, down into the service quarters.

A sorry choice of exits! He could form no plan in advance but trust blindly to the amazing chances of adventure. And first, before he rushed for escape, there was Aimee to find.

Yet for all the mad hazard of the situation he was elated with life. He felt as if he had never fully lived until now, when every breath was informed with the sharp prescience of danger. He was at once cool and exultant, wary yet reckless, with the joyous recklessness of utter desperation.

With cat-like care he surveyed the drawing-room; it appeared deserted but as he watched his tense nerves could see the shadows forming, taking furtive, crouching shape—and then dissolving harmlessly into a rug, a chair, or a stirring drapery. His eyes grown used to the dimness he identified the mantle upon the floor in which he had come and which he had extended to Aimee in that brief moment of fatuous triumph, and beyond it, across a chair, was the portiere which the black had torn down from the doorway to wrap about Ryder's helpless form as he had carried him down to living death.

That mantle, he thought, might yet be useful, and he stole forward and recovered it, but, as he straightened, another shadow darted out from the boudoir door and silhouetted for an instant against the lighted, room he saw a figure in a long, swinging military cloak.

Discovery was inevitable and Ryder made a swift plunge to take the cloaked figure by surprise, but even as one hand shot out and gripped the throat while the other held his threatening iron aloft, his clutch relaxed, his arm fell nervelessly at his side.

For from the figure had come the broken gasp of a soft voice, and the face upturned to his was a pale oval under dark, disordered hair.

"Aimee!" he breathed in exultant, still half-incredulous joy. "Aimee!... Did I hurt you—?"

"Oh, no, no!" came Aimee's shaken voice. "Oh, you are safe!"

He felt her trembling in his clasp and he swept her close to him. For one breathless instant they clung together, in a sharp, passionate gladness which blurred every sense of dread or danger. They were safe—they were together—and for the moment it was enough. Every obstacle was surmounted, every terror conquered.

They clung, obliviously, like children, her pale face against his shoulder, her hair brushing his lips, her wild heartbeats throbbing against his own.

Then the girl, remembering, lifted her head.

"Quick—we must go," she whispered. "For there I made a fire—"

He followed her frightened, backward glance at the boudoir door and suddenly saw its cracks and key hole strangely radiant with light.

"He left me, to go to those screams," she was saying rapidly. "I tried to run that way—and found that woman coming back. And I told her to wait—in her own room—and I slipped back in there—and suddenly it came to me to thrust the candle about. I thought I would run out and if I met any one I would call, 'Fire', and say the general was burning and perhaps in the confusion—"

The terrible desperation of her both stirred and wrung him. She was so little, so helpless, so trembling in his clasp ... so made for love and tenderness.... And to think of her in such fear and horror that she went thrusting reckless candles into her hangings, setting a palace on fire in the blind fury for escape....

To such work had this night brought her.... This night, and three men—for he and the craven Tewfick and the fanatic bey were all linked in this night's work. Yes, and another man—and he thought swiftly, in a lightning flash of wonder, how little that Paul Delcasse had known when he set his eager face toward the Old World, with his wife and baby with him, that he was setting his feet into such a web ... that his wife would die, languishing in a pasha's harem, and his little daughter would one night be flying in mad terror from the cruel beast the weak pasha had sold her to!

And how little, for that matter, he had known when he had set his own face toward those same sands what secrets he would discover there and what forbidden ways his heart would know.

These thoughts all went through him like one thought, in some clear, remote background of his mind, while he was swiftly drawing on the military cloak she gave him and wrapping her in the black mantle. There was a veil on the mantle's hood that she could fling across her face when she wished, but Ryder had no fez to complete the deceptive outline of his masquerade. He must trust to the dark and to the concealment of the high, military collar of the cloak.

"Do you know a way?" he whispered and at her shaken head, "The water gate," he said, thinking swiftly.

There would be a crowd now about the gate, but if they could only manage to gain those cellars and hide somewhere they could steal out later upon that waterman.

It seemed the most feasible of all the desperate plans. The roofs might be a trap. The harem entrance led into a garden and the garden was guarded by an impassable wall. But if he could only get to the river he knew that he was a strong enough swimmer to save Aimee, or he might even terrorize the watchman into furnishing a boat.

She did not question but guided him swiftly through the arch that led down into the banqueting hall. Twice that day she had gone down those stairs. Once in her bridal state, her eyes shining, her cheeks glowing with the wild joy of Ryder's arrival and dreams of escape, and again, scarcely an hour gone by, she had descended them, tense and desperate, her revolver at the general's head, seeking vainly Ryder's rescue.

And now a third time, a guilty, reckless fugitive in the night, she stole down those stairs into the many-columned hall where she had been feted in state among her guests. Here her only knowledge was of the stone corridor and the locked door through which the bey had led her, but Ryder knew the way that Aziza had brought him and he turned cautiously toward those wide, curving stairs.

Keeping Aimee a few steps behind him, he went down the soft carpet and peered out at the bottom towards the water gate. He saw no bars; the gate was open and against the pale square of the water were the black silhouettes of the general and the gateman, both leaning out at some splashing in the river.

He knew a boy's reckless impulse to shove them both in. It was an unholy thought his better judgment rejected—unless driven to it—yet some prankish element in his roused recklessness would not have deplored the necessity.

If they looked about—!

But they did not stir as, with Aimee's cold hand in his, he made the tiptoed descent and slipped softly about the corner of the steps. Then, instead of going on down the hall to some hiding place in the ruins, he took a suddenly revealed, sharper turn into a narrow passage just beyond the stairs.

It might lead to another gate, some service entrance, perhaps, it ran so straight and direct between its walls.

Intuitively that excavator's sense of his defined the direction. They were going parallel with the river, although a little way back from the water wall, and in the direction of the men's part of the palace, the selamlik.

He recalled the selamlik vaguely as an irregular mass of buildings, and though the formal entrance was of course through the garden from the avenue, there was a narrow side street or lane leading back to the water's edge between this part of the palace and the nest building, and very likely there was some entrance on that lane.

Bitterly he blamed himself for his lack of complete inspection that morning. To be sure he had told himself, then, as he strolled about the high garden walls and peered down the narrow lane on one side of the Nile backwaters, that he didn't need a map of the place for his arrival at an afternoon reception; he was simply going in and out, and clothes and speech were his only real concern.

He had even said to himself that he might not reveal himself to Aimee—if she did not discover him. He wanted merely to see her again, and be sure that she understood her own history—he had no notion of attempting any further relations with her, any resumption of their forbidden and dangerous acquaintance.

And it was true that had been the defiant and protesting surface of his thoughts, but deep within himself there had always been that hot, hidden spark, ready to kindle to a flame at her word—and with it the unowned, secret longing that she would speak the word.

And when she had called on him for help, when the trembling appeal had sprung past her stricken pride, and he had seen the terror in her soft, child's eyes, then the spark had struck its conflagration. He had become nothing but a hot, headstrong fury of devotion.

And he said to himself now that he might have known it was going to happen, and that if he had not been so concerned that morning about saving his face and preserving this fiction of indifference he would know a little more about the labyrinth they were poking about in—the little more that tips the scale between safety and destruction.

But he did not know and blind Chance was his only goddess.

The passage had brought him to a wall and a narrow stairs while another passage led off to the right, apparently to the forward regions of the place.

He took the stairs. He had had enough of underground regions when they did not lead to water gates and the stairs promised novelty at least.

He wished he knew more about Turkish palaces. He supposed they had a fairly consistent ground plan, but beyond a few main features of inner courts and halls he was culpably ignorant of their intentions. If it were an early Egyptian tomb or temple now! But then, perhaps the Turks were more indefinite in their building and rebuilding.

At the head of the stairs a door stood half ajar. Through the crack he strained his eyes, but his anxious glance met only the darkness of utter night. Not a gleam of light. And not a sound—except the far, hollow stamping of some stabled horse.

Softly he pushed the door open and he and Aimee slipped within. The place, whatever it was, appeared deserted, a dark, bare, backstairs region—for he stumbled over a bucket—from which to the right he could just discern a hall leading into the forward part of the palace, wanly lighted some distance on, with the pale flicker of an old ceiling lamp.

They seemed to be at the end of the hall and the darker shadows in the walls about them appeared to be a number of doors—closed, so his groping hands informed him.

Oh, for his excavator's steady light, or a pocket flash! Oh, for a light of any kind, even a temporary match! But he dared not risk the scratch, for now he caught the thud of footfalls overhead, heavy footfalls, and there might be stairs unexpectedly close at hand.

He turned to Aimee but the girl shook her head helplessly and hesitant and dashed, for all their young confidence, they wavered a moment hand in hand in the dark, fearful of what a rash move might bring upon them. And in the beating stillness Ryder became conscious that the muffled, monotonous stamping of a horse is a gloomy, disheartening thing in the night, and that footsteps overhead are of all noises the most nervous and unsettling.

What was behind those doors? Not a spark of light came from them, that was one comfort. The rooms, kitchen, service, store rooms or whatever they were, appeared in the same blackness and oblivion.... But any door might open on a roomful of sleeping gardeners and grooms....

Life and more than life hung on the blind goddess.

It was only an instant that they hesitated there, yet it appeared an eternity of indecision, then nearer footsteps sounded, coming down that hall. No more wavering of the scales!

Ryder turned to the door at his left, at the very end of the wall beyond which came that far stamping, and wrenched it open, closing it swiftly behind him. He saw a light now, a mild, yellow ray through an opened door ahead that vaguely illumined the strange old vehicles of the palace, and the stables were beyond.

Some one else was beyond, too, in the stables, for that very instant he saw a black horse backed restively into sight, its tossing head evading the hands that were trying to bridle it.

"The Fortieth Door!" said Ryder to himself with an involuntary thrust of humor.

The door of the horse! The door of forbidden daring! He knew now the vague associations that had stirred in him as he had stared blindly about that place of doors.... But he had opened so many forbidden doors of late that this last was welcome as the supreme test.

And nothing in the world could have been more welcome than a horse—a horse with a way out behind it!

"Stay back," he said under his breath to Aimee, and clasping his bit of iron he moved toward the door.

He could see the attendant now, who was finishing his bridling, and it was Yussuf, the eunuch, so busy gentling and soothing the horse that he cast only one glance in the direction of the sounds he heard and that one glance misled him in its glimpse of the general's cloak.

"By your favor—but an instant," he called out, "and he is ready—"

"Stand aside," said Ryder very clearly, emerging from the shadows at the horse's heels. "Out of the way with you. The horse is for me."

A moment Yussuf gaped. Then he dropped the bridle and his hand went swiftly to the knife hilt in his belt.

"Fool!" said Ryder contemptuously. "Would you tempt fate? Do you think I am such that your knife could harm me? Must I prove to you again that walls are nothings—that I but let myself be taken to prove my powers?"

Ethiopians are superstitious. And Yussuf knew that his brick and mortar had been strong.... Yet they have great trust in a crooked, short-bladed knife, and Yussuf did not relax his hold upon his and for all that Ryder could See there was no hesitation in the grinning ferocity of his black face.

Yet his spring was an instant delayed and in that instant Ryder spoke again.

"Look, now at the wall behind you," he said quickly.

Yussuf looked. And as he turned his bullet head Ryder jumped close and brought his iron down upon it with a sickening force he thought scarcely short of murder.

To his amazement the black did not fall, but staggered only, and Ryder had need to send the knife spinning from his grasp and strike again before the eunuch's knees sagged and his huge bulk sank at Ryder's feet.

This time Ryder took no chance with a shammed unconsciousness. He snatched down bits of leather from the wall and bound the man's hands and feet in tight security and seeing that he was breathing, although heavily, he thrust a gagging handkerchief into his mouth.

Then he dragged the heavy body towards a pile of hay he saw in a vacant stall and concealed it effectively but not too smotheringly—although Yussuf, he felt, would be no grievous loss to society.

Vaguely in the back of his consciousness he had been aware of the excited plunge of the horse and then of a low, soothing murmur of speech, and now he turned to find Aimee holding the bridle and stroking the quivering creature with gentle, fearless hands.

"Is he dead?" she asked quietly of the eunuch.

"Stunned," said Ryder, meaning reassurement and was startled by the passion of her cry, "Oh, I could kill them all—all!"

"I will—if they try to stop us," he promised grimly, forgetful of that oath to Aziza.

Hastily he glanced about the stalls. There was no other horse there, only a pair of mild-eyed donkeys, and though there might conceivably be other horses behind other doors there was no instant to spare in search.

This luck was too prodigious to risk.

The door to the street had already been unbolted and now he threw it back with a quick look into the dark emptiness of the narrow side street, and then, with a tight hold of the reins, he swung himself into the saddle and Aimee up into his arms, her head on his shoulder, her arms clasping him.

It was a huge Bedouin saddle with high-arched back and curved pummel and the slender pair no more than filled it, making apparently no weight at all for the spirited beast which tore out of the stalls at the charging gallop beloved of Eastern horsemen.

For a moment Ryder felt wildly that he might meet the fate of the rash youth in his patron story. He had never ridden a horse like this, which, like all high-mettled Arabs, resented the authority of any but his master, and though a good horseman Ryder had all he could do to keep his seat and Aimee in his arms.

Around the corner of the lane the horse went racing, and down the dark, lebbek-lined avenue his flying feet struck back their sparks of fire. Across an open square he plunged, while irate camels screamed at him and a harsh voice shouted back loud curses. It seemed to Ryder that other voices joined in—that there was a pursuit, an outcry—and then they were out down an open road, wildly galloping, like a mad highwayman under a pale morning sky.



CHAPTER XXI

MISS JEFFRIES MAKES A CALL

That morning Miss Jeffries ate two eggs. She ate them successively, with increasing deliberation, and afterwards she lingered interminably over her toast and marmalade.

Still Ryder made no appearance and since the Arab waiter had informed her that he had not yet breakfasted she concluded that he was not at the hotel but had spent the night with some friend of his—probably that Andrew McLean to whom he was always running off.

Nor was he in to luncheon. That was rank extravagance because he was paying at pension rates. His extravagance, however, was no affair of hers. Neither, she informed herself frigidly, was his appearance or his non-appearance. It was only rather dull of Jack to lose so many, well, opportunities.

She was not going to be in Cairo forever. Not much longer, in fact. There were adages about gathering rosebuds while ye may and making hay while the sun shone that Jack Ryder would do well to observe.

Other men did, reflected Jinny Jeffries with a proud lift of her ruddy head. Only somehow, the other men—

Well, Jack was provokingly attractive! Only of course, if he was going to rely upon his attraction and not upon his attentions—

Deliberately Miss Jeffries smiled upon a stalwart tourist from New York and promised her society for a foursome at bridge in the hotel lounge that evening.

Later, when Jack still failed to materialize and behold her inaccessibility, the exhibition seemed hardly to have been worth while.... And there were difficulties getting rid of the New Yorker the next day. He had ideas about excursions.

It was during the forenoon of the next day that the first twinge of genuine worry shot across the sustained resentment which she was pleased to call her complete indifference. She recalled the vigor of Ryder's warnings about mentioning his adventure and the grave dangers of disclosure, and she began to wonder.

She wished, rather, that he had gone safely out of the house before she went away.

Of course nothing could happen. He had done nothing to give himself away. He was simply a veiled shadow, moving humbly as befitted a lowly stranger among the high and hospitable surroundings.

But still, it would have been better if he had gone....

Those turbaned women had looked queerly at them when they were talking so long in the window. Perhaps it was not simply at the intimacy between a young American and a veiled Oriental. Perhaps their voices had been unguarded or Jack's tones had awakened suspicion. Perhaps he had given himself away in his long talk with the bride. She remembered a Frenchwoman who had come to interrupt that talk who had looked rather sharply at Jack.... And that dreadful eunuch was always staring....

She thought of a great many things now, more and more things every minute.

And still she told herself that she was absurd, that Jack would be the first to ridicule her alarm. He was probably enjoying himself, staying on with his friends, forgetting all about herself.... Still his room at the hotel had not been slept in for two nights now nor had he called at the hotel and he certainly didn't have an extensive supply of clothes and linen upon him beneath the mantle.

Particularly she remembered that he had exhibited some funny black tennis shoes which he had thought would go appropriately with a woman's robes. Absurd, to think of him as spending two days in tennis shoes, and absurd to say that he would go to the shops and buy more when he had plenty of footgear in his hotel room.

Unless he wore McLean's.

She had always regarded the unknown McLean as a most unnecessary absorbent of Jack Ryder's time and attention and now that view was deeply reinforced.

By noon she decided to do something. She would telephone that Andrew McLean and see if Jack had been there. The Agricultural Bank, that was the place. An obliging hotel clerk—clerks were always obliging to Miss Jeffries—gave her the number and she slipped into the booth feeling a ridiculous amount of excitement and suspense.

She had never telephoned in Cairo—only been telephoned to—and she was not prepared for the fact that the telephone company was French. At the phone girl's "Numero?—Quel numero, s'il vous plait?" Jinny hastily choked back the English response and clutched violently at French numerals.

"Huit cent—no, quatre vingt—un moment!" she demanded desperately and hanging up the receiver, sat down to write out her number in French correctly.

And then she got the Bank, and, still clinging to her French, she requested to speak to Monsieur McLean and was informed that it was Monsieur McLean himself.

"Je suis—oh, how absurd! Of course you speak English," she exclaimed. "This French telephone upset me.... I wanted to speak to Mr. Ryder if he is there—or else leave a message for him, if you know when he will come in."

"Ryder?" There was a faint intonation of surprise in the voice. "I've no idea really when he'll be in," said McLean, "but you may leave the message if you like."

"Hasn't he—haven't you seen him for some time?" stammered Jinny, feeling that McLean must be taking her for a pursuing adventuress.

"Well—not for some time."

Her heart sank.

"Not—not for two days?"

"It might be that," said the Scotchman cautiously.

Two days. Forty-eight hours, almost, since she had left him in that harem! And McLean had not seen him. Of course there might be other friends who had and McLean might know of them.

"I'm afraid I'll have to see you," she said desperately. "It's rather important about Jack Ryder—and if I could just talk with you a minute—this afternoon—?"

"I have no appointment for three fifteen," McLean told her concisely.

Evidently he expected her to call at the Bank.... He was used to being called on.... "Shall I come—?" she began.

"I can see you at three fifteen," McLean reassured her, and she repeated "Three fifteen," with an odd vibration in her voice.

"I wonder," she murmured, "if I came at three ten—or three twenty—?"

* * * * *

But she didn't. She was humorously careful to make it exactly a quarter past the hour when she left her cab before McLean's official looking residence and stepped into the tiled entrance.

She had no very clear notion of Andrew McLean except that he was, as Jack had said, Scotch, single, and skeptical, that he was Jack's intimate friend and an official sort of banker—and the word banker had unconsciously prepared her for stout dignity and middle age.

She was not at all prepared for the lean, sandy-haired, rather abrupt young man who came forward from the depths of the gratefully cool reception room, and after a nervous hand clasp waved her to a chair.

He was still holding her card, and as he glanced covertly at it she recalled that she had given him no name over the telephone and that he had known her only by the time of her appointment. Decidedly she must have made an odd impression!

Well, he could see for himself now, she thought, a trifle defiantly. Certainly he was taking stock of her out of those shrewd swift gray eyes of his. He could see that she was, well—certainly a nice girl!

As a matter of fact McLean could see that she was considerably more. Rather disconcertingly more! It was not often that such white-clad apparitions, piquant of face and coppery of hair, teased the eyes in his receiving room.

"You wanted to see me—?" he offered mechanically.

"Perhaps you have heard Jack Ryder speak of me—of Jinny Jeffries?" began the girl, determined to put the affair on a sound social footing as soon as possible.

McLean considered and, in honesty, shook his head. "He very seldom mentioned young ladies."

"Oh—!" Jinny tried not to appear dashed. "We are very old friends—in America—and of course I've seen a good deal of him since I've been in Cairo. In fact, he is stopping now at the same hotel with us—with my aunt and uncle and myself."

McLean smiled. "He said it was a tooth," he mentioned dryly.

In Jinny's eyes a little flicker answered him, but her words were ingenuous. "Oh, of course he has been having a time with the dentist. That's why he couldn't return to his camp. What I meant was, that at the hotel we have been seeing him every day until—he has just disappeared since day before yesterday and we—that is, I—am very much concerned about it."

"Disappeared? You mean, he—"

"Just disappeared, that's all. He hasn't been at the hotel—he hasn't been anywhere that I know of, and I haven't heard a word from him—so I telephoned you and then when I found he hadn't been here—"

McLean looked off into space. "Eh, well, he'll turn up," he said comfortingly. "Jack's erratic, you may say, in his comings and goings. He means nothing by it.... I've known him do the same to me.... Any time, now; you're likely to hear—"

Miss Jeffries sat up a little straighter and her cheeks burned with brighter warmth.

"It isn't just that I want to see him, Mr. McLean," she took quietly distinct pains to explain. "It's because I am anxious—"

"Not a need, not a need in the world. Jack knows his way about.... He may have been called back to the diggings, you know—if they dug up a bit porcelain there or a few grains of corn the boy would forget the sun was shining."

Perhaps his caller's burnished hair had shaped that thought. "Jack knows his way about," he repeated encouragingly, as one who demolishes the absurd fears of women and children.

"You don't quite understand." Jinny's tones were silken smooth. "You see, I left him in rather unusual circumstances. It was a place where he had no business in the world to be—"

At McLean's unguardedly startled gaze her humor overtook her wrath.

"Oh, it was quite all right for me" she replied mischievously to that look. "Only not for him. You see, he was masquerading—"

"Again?" thought McLean, involuntarily. Lord, what a hand for the lassies that lad was—and he had thought him such an aloof one!

"Masquerading as a woman—so he could take me to a reception."

Jinny began to falter. Just putting that escapade into words portrayed its less commendable features.

"It was a woman's reception," she began again, "at a Turkish house. A marriage reception—"

She had certainly secured McLean's whole-hearted attention.

"A marriage reception—a Turkish marriage reception?" he said very sharply and amazedly as his caller continued to pause. "Do you mean to say that Jack Ryder went into a Turkish house dressed as a woman—?"

There was a pronounced angularity of feature about the young Scotchman which now took on a chiseled sternness.

Swiftly Jinny interposed. "Oh, you mustn't blame him, Mr. McLean! You see, I wanted very much to go to a Turkish reception and I didn't have the courage to go alone or drag some other tourist as inexperienced as myself, and so Jack—why, there didn't seem any harm in his dressing up. Just for fun, you know. He put on a Turkish mantle and a veil up to his eyes and he was sure he'd never be found out. I ought not to have let him, I know—it was my fault—"

She looked so flushed and innocent and distressed that McLean's chivalry rose swiftly to her need.

"Indeed you mustn't blame yourself Miss—Miss Jeffries. You don't know Egypt—and Jack does. He knew that if he had been discovered there would have been no help for him—and no questions asked afterwards. And it might have been very dangerous for you. The blame is just his now," he said decisively, yet not without a certain weak-kneed sympathy with the culprit.

For if the girl had looked like this ... he could see that she would be a difficult little piece to withstand ... though any man with an ounce of sense in his head would have behaved as a responsible protector and not as a reckless school boy.

"What happened?" he said quickly.

"Oh, nothing happened—nothing that I know of. We got along very well, I thought, although now I remember that some people did stare.... But I wasn't worried at the time. I thought it was just because I was an American and he was apparently a Turkish woman, but there was no reason why an American might not get a Turkish woman to act as a guide, was there?... And then Jack told me to go home first—he said it would be simpler that way and that he would slip over to some friend's or to some safe place and take his disguise off. He wore a gray suit beneath it, and the only funny thing was some black tennis shoes.... So I left him. And he hasn't been back since."

She added as McLean was silent, "He told me that he had some engagement for that evening, so I did not begin to worry until the next day."

"Now just how long ago was this?"

"Two days ago. Day before yesterday afternoon."

She looked anxiously at McLean's face and took alarm at his careful absence of expression.

"Oh, Mr. McLean, do you think—"

He brushed that aside. "And where was it—this reception?"

"At an old palace, forever away on the edge of the city. I don't remember the street—we drove and I had the cab wait. But it belonged to a Turkish general. Hamdi Bey," she brought out triumphantly. "General Hamdi Bey."

McLean did not correct her idea of the title. His expression was more carefully non-committal than ever, while behind its quiet guard his thoughts were breaking out like a revolution.

Hamdi Bey.... A wedding reception.... The daughter of Tewfick Pasha....

In the secret depths of his soul he uttered profane and troubled words. That French girl, again.... So Ryder had not forgotten that affair, although he had kept silent about it of late. He had bided his time and taken that rash means of seeing the girl again—and he had involved this unknowing young American in a risk of scandal and deceived her into believing herself responsible for this caprice while all the time she had been a mere cloak and it had been his own diabolical desire....

Miss Jeffries was surprised to see a sudden sorry softness dawn in the young man's look upon her. And she was surprised, too, at his next question.

"I wonder, now, if you were the young lady who took him to a masquerade ball—some time ago?"

Lightly she acknowledged it. "You'll think I'm always taking him to things," she said brightly, but McLean's troubled gaze did not quicken with a smile.

He was experiencing a vast compassion. She was so innocent, so unconscious of the quicksands about her.... Probably she had never heard a breath of that first adventure.

And it was this fair Christian creature whom Jack Ryder had abandoned for a veiled girl from a Turk's harem!

McLean filled with cold, antagonistic wonder. He forgot the lovely image of the French miniature, and remembering Tewfick's rounded eyes and olive features he thought of the veiled girl—most illogically, for he knew that Tewfick was not her father—as some bold-eyed, warm-skinned image of base allure.

Sorrowfully he shook his head over his friend. He determined to protect him and to protect this girl's innocence of his behavior. He would help her to save him.... She could do it yet—if only she did not learn the truth and turn from him. If ever she had been able to make Jack go to a masquerade—that cursed masquerade!—she could work other, more beneficent, miracles.

So now he asked, very cautiously, his mind on divided paths, "Do you say there was nothing to draw suspicion—he did not talk to any one, the guests or the bride—?"

"Oh, yes, he did talk to the bride," said Miss Jeffries with such utter unconsciousness that McLean's heart hardened against the renegade.

"He talked quite a while to her," she said.

"Did you notice anything—?"

"Oh, I couldn't hear what was said. He was the last in line and he stayed for some time. He said afterward that it was all right. She was very nice to him," said Jinny earnestly, producing every scrap of incident for McLean's judgment. "She showed him some of her presents—something about her neck."

In mid-speech McLean changed a startled "God!" to "Good!"

"She wasn't suspicious, then?" he said weakly.

"Not as far as I could see. Oh, nothing seemed to be wrong. But I did feel uneasy until I got away and then, Jack hasn't come back—"

Again she looked at the young Scotchman for confirmation of her fear and again she saw that careful expressionless calm.

"It's no need for alarm," he told her slowly, "since nothing went wrong. I see no reason why Jack couldn't have walked out of that reception. If we only knew where he was going later—"

"Yes, something might have happened later," Jinny took up. "I thought of that. He might have wanted some more fun and felt more reckless—Oh, I am worried," she confessed, her gray eyes very round and childlike.

And if anything had happened she would always blame herself, thought McLean ironically.... The unthinking deviltry of the young scoundrel!... When he found him he'd have a few things to say!

"That's why I came to you," Jinny went on. "I hesitated, for he had warned me so against telling any one, but no one else knows—"

"And no one must know," McLean assured her crisply. "I daresay it's a mare's nest and Jack will be found safe and sound at his diggings or off on a lark with some friend or other, but it's well to make sure and you did quite right in coming to me."

Jinny thought she had done quite right, too.

There was a satisfying strength about McLean. She resented a trifle his masculine way of trying to keep the dark side from her; she was not greatly misled by that untroubled look of his and yet she was unconsciously reassured by it.... And although he refused to be stampeded by alarm he was not incredulous of it, for his manner was frankly grave.

"I'll send out at once," he said decisively, "and see if I can pick up any gossip of that reception. I've a very clever clerk with brothers in the bazaars who is a perfect wireless for information. He has told me the night before a man was to be murdered."

He paused, reflecting that was not a happy suggestion.

"Then I'll send out to Jack's diggings. That express doesn't stop to-night, but I'll find a way. And I'll let you know as soon as I can."

"You're very kind," said Jinny gratefully.

His competent manner brought her a light-hearted sensation of difficulties already solved. Jack was as good as found, she felt in swift reaction. If he was in any trouble this forceful young man would settle it.

But probably he wasn't in any trouble. Probably he was just at his diggings—rushing off from her in the exasperating way he seemed to do whenever they were getting on particularly well.... She remembered how he had bolted from that masquerade which had begun so happily. He had said he was ill, but she had never completely slain the suspicion that his illness sprang from ennui and disinclination.

She rose. "I mustn't take any more of your time, Mr. McLean—and you probably have a four fifteen engagement."

But her light raillery failed of its mark.

"Eh? No, I have not," seriously he assured her. "You are quite the last one I took on—the last before tea."

He paused confused with a strange suggestion.... Tea.... His servant did it rather well.... And it was time—

Usually he had it in the garden. It was a charming garden, full of roses, with a nice view of the Citadel—and his strange suggestion expanded with a rosy vision of Jinny among the roses, beside his wicker table.... Would she possibly care to—?

He struggled with his idea—and with his shyness. And then the sense that it wasn't quite decent, somehow, to be offering tea to this girl whom anxiety for Ryder's unknown lot had brought to him overcame that unwonted impulse.

He dismissed the idea. And like all shy men he was oddly relieved at the passing of the necessity for initiative, even while he felt his mild hope's expiring pang.

He stepped before her to open the doors to which she was now taking herself.

In the entrance he saw his clerk—the clever one—going out, and excusing himself he went forward to detain the man. For a moment there ensued a low-toned colloquy. Then the clerk, a dark-browned keen-featured fellow in European clothes with a red fez, began to relate something.

When McLean turned back to Jinny Jeffries she saw that his look was sharply altered. There was a transfixed air about him and when he spoke his voice told her that he had had a shock.

"My man tells me," he said, "that Hamdi Bey's bride is dead. He buried her yesterday."



CHAPTER XXII

FROM THE BAZAARS

There was a moment's pause.

"What? That lovely girl?" said Jinny in startled pity. She added incredulously, "Yesterday?... And only the day before—why, what could have happened?"

That was what McLean was asking himself very grimly.

Aloud he told her slowly. "They say that fire happened. Some accident—a candle overturned in her apartments. And of course the windows were screened—"

"Fire—how terrible! That lovely girl," said Jinny again. She was genuinely horrified and pitiful, yet she found a moment to wonder at the evident depths of McLean's consternation. For of course he had never seen the girl.

Yet he looked utterly upset.

"It's one of the most dreadful things I ever heard of," Jinny murmured. "On her wedding night.... And she was so young, Mr. McLean, and so exquisite. She didn't look like a real girl.... She was a fairy creature.... I never dreamed there really were rose-leaf skins before but hers was just like flower petals. Jack and I talked about it, I remember. And her face had something so bewitching about it, something so sweet and delicate—"

She broke off revisited with that vision of Aimee's sprite-like beauty.... How little that poor girl had thought, as she stood there in the bright splendor of her robes and diadem, that in a few hours more—

"Oh, I hope that fire—that it was merciful—that she didn't suffer," she said almost inaudibly.

But speech itself was too definitive of horrors.

"It's tragic," she finished simply.

It was tragic, with a complicated tragedy, thought Andrew McLean as he stood there, his eyes narrowing, his lips compressed, his mind invaded with a dark swarm of conjecture, surmise, suspicion, his vision possessed by a flitting rush of pictures.

He saw Jack talking with the girl at the reception.... The girl showing him something about her neck—that accursed locket, he thought acutely.... Jack sending Miss Jeffries home.... Had he arranged that purposely? Was there some mad, improvised scheme of escape in the air?

The pictures became mere flitting wraiths of conjecture, yet touched with horrifying possibility.... Jack lingering, hiding.... Jack making love to the girl, attempting flight.... Jack discovered—and the quick saber thrust—for both.

A fire?... Very likely—to screen the darker tragedy. Hamdi was capable of it to save his pride. And it would dispose so easily of the—evidence.

McLean's thoughts flinched from the grim outcome of his fear. He tried to tell himself that he was inventing horrors, that the fire might be the simple truth, that Ryder's talk with the girl might actually have ended in farewell—at least a temporary farewell—and that his consequent low spirits had taken him off to mope in camp.

That was undoubtedly the thing to believe, at least until there was actual necessity to disbelieve it, and looking at the story in that way, McLean's Scotch sense of Providence was capable of pointing out the stern benefits of the sad visitation.

Whatever mischief might have been afoot between his friend and that unfortunate young girl the fire had prevented. And however hard Jack might take this now, decidedly the poor girl's death was better for him than her life.

No more wasting himself now on sad romance and adventure. No more desire and danger. No more lurking about barred gates and secret doors and forbidden palaces. No more clandestine trysts. No more fury of mind, beating against the bars of fate.

Jack was saved.

Even if he had succeeded in rescuing the girl—what then? McLean was skeptical of felicity from such contrasting lives. Better the finality, the sharp pain, the utter separation. And then—

His eyes returned to the young American before him. She was the unconscious answer to that future. She would save Ryder from regret and retrospection.... In after years, looking back from a happy and well-ordered domesticity, this would all become to him a fantastic, far-off adventure, sad with the remembered but unfelt sadness of youth, yet mercifully dim and softened with young beauty.

Jack must never tell this girl the story. McLean had read somewhere of the mistakes of too-open revelation to women and now he was very sure of it.... She must never receive this hurt, never know that when she had been troubling over Jack's disappearance he had been agonizing over another girl—that the escapade she thought so intimate a lark had been a trick to see the other—that the young creature whose loveliness she so innocently praised had been her rival, drawing Jack from her....

McLean would speak clearly to Ryder about this and seal his lips.... But first he would have to be found.

He became conscious that he had been a long time silent, following these thoughts, while Jinny waited.

"I'll do everything I can to find out about that fire," he told her. "I mean, about any discovery of Jack in the palace," he quickly amended as her face was touched with instant question. "And I'll see if any one in Cairo knows where he is. Then if nothing turns up I'll just pop out to his diggings in the morning and make sure he's all right.... I'll get back that night and telephone you. And until then, not a word about it. Much better not."

"Not a word," Jinny promised. "And if you should happen to find out anything to-night—"

"I'll let you know at once. Well, rather. But don't count on that. The old boy is out in his tombs, dusting off his mummies. You may get a letter, yourself, in the morning," he threw out with heartening inspiration, "And while you are reading it, I'll be tearing along to the infernal desert—"

He had brought the smile to her eyes as well as lips. Bright and reassured and comfortably dependent upon his resourceful strength, she took her leave.

But there was no smile remaining upon Andrew McLean's visage.

Twenty-four hours. Two nights and a day.... And the girl was dead and in her grave—Moslems wasted no time before interment—and Jack was—where?



CHAPTER XXIII

IN THE DESERT

Clinging to that plunging horse Ryder made little attempt at first to guide the flight. It was enough to keep himself in the saddle and Aimee in his arms while every galloping moment flung a farther distance between them and that palace of horror.

His heart was beating in a wild, triumphant exultation. Glorious to be out under the free sky, the wind in his face, the open world ahead! He felt one with that dashing creature beneath him.

And Aimee was in his arms, untouched, unhurt, out from the power of that sinister man and the expectation of dread things.

The moment was a supreme and glorious emotion.

They were headed south. And to Ryder's exhilaration this seemed good. Cairo offered no hiding place for that fugitive girl. Even the harbor that McLean could give would not be proof against the legal forces of the Turks. Law and order, power and police were all in the hands of the husband or father. Even now the alarm might be given, the telephones ringing.

Aimee must be hidden until she could be smuggled to France—or until the French authorities could get out their protective documents. The hiding place that occurred to Ryder was a wild and desperate expedient.

The American hospital at Siut. The isolation ward—the pretense of contagious illness. And then later travel north, in the care of nurses—

All this, if he could win over one of the doctors. At that moment winning over a doctor appeared a sane and simple thing to Ryder's mind. The only difficulty he recognized was getting Aimee into that hospital.

But they would not be looking for him in the south. He could manage it, he felt jubilantly. He could smuggle her into his diggings at night and then make his arrangements. Anything, everything was possible, now that the nightmare of a palace was left behind them.

South they went then, at a quieter pace, the Arab's rhythmic footfalls ringing through the still, gray world of before dawn. Across the Nile they made their way, working out on sandbars to the narrow depths, where Ryder swam beside the swimming horse while Aimee clung to the saddle. Then south again along the river road.

The sky was light now. And the river was light. Only the palms and the villages and the flat dhurra fields were dark. And in the east behind the Mokattam hills a thin band of gold began to brighten.

Life was stirring. Small black boys on huge black buffaloes splashed in the river. Veiled girls with water jars on their high-held heads from which the shawls trailed down to the dust filed past from the villages like a Parthenon frieze. On the high banks the naked fellaheen were already stooping to the incessant dipping of the shadouf, while from the fields came the plaintive creaking of the well sweep, as some harnessed camel or bullock began its eternal round.

A flock of sheep came down the river road, driven by their ragged shepherds, and a string of camels, burdened beyond all semblance to themselves, bobbed by like rhythmic haystacks, led by a black-robed, bare-footed child, carrying a live turkey in her arms while before her rode her father, in shining pongee robes on a white donkey strung with beads of blue.

And by these travelers there passed in that brightening dawn two other travelers from the north, a pair on a powerful but tired black horse, a man in a military cloak and a green and gold turban about his bronzed head, and behind him, on a pillion, a black-mantled, black-veiled girl, with bare, dangling feet.

It was Aimee who had evolved the disguise, constructing the turban from the negligee beneath her mantle, and it was Aimee who bargained with the villagers for their breakfast, eggs and goats' milk and bread and rice, while her lord, as befitted his dignity, stayed aloof upon his steed, returning a courteous response of "Allah salimak—God bless you" to their greetings.

Then as the day brightened and the last soft veil of mist was burned away before a blood-red sun, that pair of travelers left the highroad and turned west upon a byway that led past fields of corn and yellow water and mud villages where goats and naked babies and ragged women squatted idly in the dust, and on through low, red-granite hills swirled about with yellow sand drift and out into the desert beyond.

Here fresh vigor came to the Arab horse, and tossing his mane and stretching out his nostrils to the dry air he broke into a gallop that sent sand and pebbles flying from his hoofs. To right and left the startled desert hares scattered, and from the clumps of spiky helga the black vultures rose in heavy-winged flight.

Then the breeze dropped, and the swift-coming heat rushed at them like a furnace breath, and slower and slower they made their way, Ryder leading the jaded horse and Aimee nodding in the saddle, mere crawling specks across the immensity of sand.

Then, in the shade of a huge clump of gray-green mit minan beside a jutting boulder they stopped at last to rest. The horse sank on his knees; Ryder spread out his cloak and Aimee dropped down upon its folds, lost in exhausted sleep as soon as her head touched the sands. Ryder, his back against the rock, kept watch.

It was not the exultant Ryder of that first hour of flight. The excitement of the night had subsided and withdrawn its wild stimulation. It was a hot and tired and immensely sobered young man who sat there with eyes that burned from lack of sleep and a brow knit into a taut and anxious line.

Realization flooded him with the sun. Responsibility burned in upon him with the heat.

Alone in the Libyan desert he sat there, and at his feet there slept the young girl whose life he had snapped utterly off from its roots.

He was overwhelmingly responsible for her. If she had never met him, if he had never continued to thrust himself upon her, she would have gone on her predestined way, safe, secluded, luxurious—vaguely unhappy and mutinous at times, perhaps, in the secret stirrings of her blood, but still an indulged and wealthy little Moslem.

And now—she lay there, like a sleeping child, the dark tendrils of hair clinging to her moist, sun-flushed cheeks, her long lashes mingling their shadows with the purple underlining of the night's terrors, homeless, exhausted, resourceless but for that anxious-eyed young man.

Desperately he hoped that she would not wake to regret. Even a sardonic tyrant in a palace might be preferable in the merciless daylight to a helpless young man in the Libyan desert.

And she was so slight, so delicate, so made for rich and lovely luxury.... Looking down at her he felt a lump in his throat ... a lump of queer, choking tenderness....

He wanted to protect her, to save her, to spend himself for her.... He felt for her a reverent wonder, a stirring that was at once protective and possessive and denying of all self.

He would die to save her. He tried to tell himself reassuringly that he had saved her.... If only he could keep her safe....

He thought of the life before her. He thought of that family in France in whose name he had urged his interference. That unknown Delcasse aunt who had sent out her agents for her lost heirs—would she welcome and endow this lovely girl?

He could not doubt it.... Aimee's youth and beauty would be treasure trove to a jaded lonely woman with money to invest in futures. Aimee would be a belle, an heiress....

He looked down at her with a sudden darkness in his young eyes.... And still she slept, wrapped in the sorry mantle of his masquerade, the torn chiffons of her negligee fluttering over her slim, bare feet.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE TOMB OF A KING

There were several approaches to the American excavations. McLean, on that morning after his visit from Jinny Jeffries, chose to borrow a friend's motor and man and break the speed laws of Upper Egypt, and then shift to an agile donkey at the little village from which the gulleys ran west through the red hills into the desert.

It was a still, hot day without cloud or wind and the sun had an air of standing permanently high in the heavens, holding the day at noon. Shimmering heat waves quivered about the base of the farther hills and veiled the desert reaches. It was not conducive to comfort and Andrew McLean was not comfortable. He was hot and sticky and sandy and abominably harassed.

Not a creature, as far as he could discover, had seen Jack Ryder in Cairo since the afternoon of that reception at Hamdi Bey's. He had not been seen at the Museum nor the banks, nor at Cook's, nor the usual restaurants, nor at the clubs with his friends. And the clever clerk—with the two brothers in the bazaar—had unearthed quite a bit of disquieting news about that reception—disquieting, that is, to one with secret fears.

There had been a fire in the apartments of the bride of Hamdi Bey and the bride had been killed instantly—that much was known to all the world. The general had been distracted. He had sat brooding beside his bride's coffin, allowing no one, not even her father, to look upon the poor charred remains that he had placed within. He had been a man out of his mind with grief, gnawing his nails, beating his slaves,—Oh, assuredly, it had been a calamity of a very high order!

One of the brothers in the bazaar had himself talked with an old crone whose sister's child was employed in the general's kitchen, and the fourth-hand story had lost nothing on the route.

The bride's youth and beauty, her jewels, her robes, the general's infatuation, and the general's grief, the reports of these ran through the city like wildfire. And from the particular channel of the kitchen maid and the old aunt and the brother in the bazaars came news of the very especial means that Allah had taken to preserve the general from destruction.

For he had been in the bride's apartments just before the fire. But the power of Allah, the Allseeing, had sent a thief, a prowler, by night, upon the palace roofs, and the screams of a girl in the upper story had called the general to that direction.

And so his preservation had been accomplished.

It was that rumor of the thief upon the roofs which sent the chill of apprehension down McLean's spine. For though the bazaars knew nothing of the thief's identity and it was reported he had escaped by the river yet McLean felt the sinister finger of suspicion. If the thief had not been a thief—unless of brides!—and if he had not escaped—?

Impatiently the young Scotchman clapped his heels against the donkey's sides, enhancing the efforts of the runner with the gesticulating stick.

Suppose, now, that he should not find Jack at the excavations?

It was encouraging, somehow, to hear the monotonous rise and fall of the labor song proceeding as usual, although McLean immediately told himself that the work would naturally be going on under Thatcher's direction whether Ryder were there or not. The camp knew nothing of Cairo. The camp would be as usual.

And yet, after his first moment's survey, he had an indefinite but uneasy idea that the camp was not as usual.

True, the tatterdemalion frieze of basket bearers still wove its rhythmic way over the mounds to the siftings where Thatcher was presiding as was his wont, but in the native part of the encampment there appeared a sly stir and excitement.

The unoccupied, of all ages and sexes, that usually were squatting interminably about some fire or sleeping like mummies in hermetically wrapped black mantles, now were gathered in little whispering knots whose backward glances betrayed a sense of uneasiness, and as McLean rode past, a young Arab who had been the center of attention drew back with such carefulness to escape observation that McLean's shrewd eyes marked him closely.

It might be that his nerves were deceiving him, but there did seem to be something surreptitious in the air.

Over his shoulder he glimpsed the young Arab hurrying out of the camp.

It might be anything or nothing, he told himself. The man might be going shopping to the village and the others giving him their commissions, or he might be an illicit dealer in curios trying to pick up some dishonest treasure. In native diggings those hangers on were thick as flies.

He dismounted and hurried forward to meet Thatcher's advance. The men had rarely met and Thatcher's air of hesitation and absent-mindedness made McLean proffer his name promptly with a sense of speeding through the preliminaries. Then with a manner he strove to make casual he put his question.

"I say, is Ryder back?"

He knew, in the moment's pause, how tight suspense was gripping him. Then Thatcher glanced toward the black yawning mouth of a tomb entrance.

"Why, yes—he's down there." He added. "Been a bit sick. Complains of the sun."

For a moment his relief was so great that McLean did not believe in it. Jack here—Jack absolutely safe—

Mechanically he put, "When did he come in?"

"When?" Thatcher hesitated, trying to recall. "Oh, night before last—rode in after dark." He added reassuringly, as the other swung about towards the tomb, "He says there's nothing really wrong with him. There's no temperature."

McLean nodded. His relief now was acutely compounded with disgust. He felt no lightning leap of thanksgiving that his friend was safe, but rather that flash of irritated reaction which makes the primitive parent smack a recovered child.

Not a thing in the world the matter! A mare's nest—just as he had prophesied to Miss Jeffries. Why in heaven's name hadn't Jack the decency to send that over-anxious young lady a card when he abandoned town so suddenly?... Not that McLean blamed Miss Jeffries. Given the masquerade and Jack's disappearance and a zealous feminine interest her concern was perfectly natural.

But McLean had left a busy office and taken an anxious and uncomfortable excursion, and his voice had no genial ring as he shouted his friend's name down the dark entrance of the tomb shaft.

In a moment he heard a voice shouting hollowly back, then a wavering spot of light appeared upon the inclined floor and Ryder's figure emerged like an apparition from the gloom.

"I say! That you, Andy?"

Evidently he had been snatched from sleep. His dark hair was rumpled, his face flushed, and he yawned with complete frankness.

McLean knew a sudden yearning to put an arm about him.... Dear old Jack.... Dear, irresponsible scamp.... His reaction of the irritation vanished.... It was so darned good to see the old chap again....

He muttered something about being in the vicinity while Ryder, rousing to hostship, called directions to the cook boy to bring a tray of luncheon.

"It's cool down here," he told McLean, leading the way back.

It was cool indeed, in the Hall of Offerings. It was also, McLean thought, satisfying a recovered appetite, a trifle depressing.

They sat in a small island of light in an ocean of gloom while about them shadowy columns towered to indistinguishable heights and half-seen carvings projected their strange suggestions.

It seemed incongruous to be smoking cigarettes so unconcernedly at the feet of the ancient gods.

But McLean's feeling of depression might have been due to his renewed awareness of catastrophe. For though Jack was here, safe and sound enough, although a bit unlike himself in manner, yet Jack had been at that confounded reception in a woman's rig and Jack had seen the girl and talked with her—apparently on terms of understanding.

And if Jack had left Cairo that night, as he said he did—claiming delay on the way due to a tired horse—then Jack knew nothing in the world of the palace fire, and the girl's sudden and tragic death.

And McLean would have to tell him. He would have to tell him that the girl he was probably dreaming of in some fool's paradise of memory and hope was now only a little mound of dust in an Oriental cemetery. That a shaft of temporary wood already marked the grave of Aimee Marie Dejane, daughter of Tewfick Pasha and wife of Hamdi Bey....

And however much McLean's sound senses might disapprove of the whole fantastic affair and his sober judgment commend the workings of Providence, he loved his friend, and he feared that his friend loved this lost girl.

He had to end love and hope and romance and implant a desperate grief....

He thought very steadily of Jinny Jeffries. He cleared his throat.

"Jack, old man—"

He started to tell him that there had been a fire in Cairo, a most shocking fire in a haremlik. It seemed to him that Jack was not listening, that he had a faraway, yet intent look upon his face, as of one attending to other things. And then suddenly Jack seemed to gather resolution and turned to his friend with an air of narration of his own.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse