"Look here, McLean, there's something I want to tell you—"
"Wait a minute now," said McLean quietly. "I want you to hear this.... It was a fire in the palace of your friend, Hamdi Bey."
He had Jack's attention now—he was fairly conscious of arrested breath. Not looking about him he went grimly on, "The night of the wedding a fire started in the haremlik.... It was a bad business, a very bad business, Jack. For the girl—the girl Hamdi had just married—"
He was conscious of Jack's look upon him but he did not turn to meet it.
"She died," he said heavily. "He buried her yesterday."
He thought that Jack was never going to speak.
Then, "Died?" said Ryder in an odd voice.
"I expect she breathed in a bit of smoke," said McLean, trying for a merciful suggestion.
"And he buried her—?"
Jack was like a child, trying to fit bewildering facts together. McLean's sympathy hurt him like a physical pain. He wondered what it could be like to realize that some loved one you had just talked with, in radiant life, was now gone utterly....
And then he heard Jack laugh. Mad, he thought quickly, turning now to look at him.
Ryder's head was tilted back; Ryder's shoulders were shaking. "Oh, my Aunt!" he gasped hysterically. "My Aunt Clarissa—is that what Hamdi says!"
He sobered instantly and leaned towards McLean. "That looks as if he's done with her—what? Saving his face that way? You're sure it was Aimee—the girl he had just married? Not some other girl—some co-wife or something?"
And as McLean bewilderedly muttered that he was sure, Ryder began to laugh again. To laugh jubilantly, joyously, triumphantly.
"He's given her up—he's got a saving explanation to thrust in the world's face! Oh, blessed Allah, Veiler of all that should be veiled! The man's through. He's had enough. He isn't going to try to—"
Across the bright oblong of the entrance a shadow appeared.
"Ryder—I say, Ryder," said a hurried voice—Thatcher's voice—and Thatcher came hastily forward in perturbed urgency.
"There's a lot of men outside—police and natives and what not. With warrants. They're searching the place. And they want to see you.... Hang it all, Ryder," said Thatcher explosively but apologetically, "they say you've made off with some sheik's daughter."
He paused, shocked at the monstrosity of the accusation. He was a delicate-minded man—outside of his knowledge of antiquities—and he evidently expected his young associate to fall upon him and slay him for the slander.
"A sheik's daughter—?" said Ryder in a mildly wondering voice. From his emphasis one might have inferred he was saying, "How odd! I don't remember any sheik's daughter—"
A queer uncomfortable flush spread fanways from Thatcher's thin temples and rayed across his high cheekbones. He did not look at either of the men as he murmured, "It's most peculiar, but that Arab horse—the sheik claims the horse is his, too. He says you rode off on it, with his daughter."
"That's all right," said Ryder absently. "I don't want the horse.... But you say the sheik's there? What does he look like? Thin—with blond mustaches?"
"Oh, no, no, not at all. He is quite heavy and bearded—one-eyed, if I recollect. But there is a man with a blond mustache who appears to do the directing—"
"And you mean they are searching?" said Ryder abruptly. "You've let them in—?"
"They have warrants," Thatcher protested. "And there are proper policemen conducting the search—"
"My good God! Where are they now? Not coming here? I don't have any policemen trampling here and meddling with my finds—tell them to clear out, Thatcher, you know there's no sheik's daughter here!"
Ryder gave a quick laugh but the impression of his laughter was not as sharp as the impression of his alarm.
"I did tell them it was preposterous," Thatcher began, "but, you see, after finding the horse—"
"Oh, the horse! I got him for a song—of course the beggar is stolen. Give him back, if they claim him. But as for any sheik's daughter—keep the crowd out, Thatcher, I won't have them here, not in these tombs—"
"I tell you they are policemen—they are armed—you can't resist—"
"How many are they? A lot? But they'll take your word, won't they? Look here, McLean, can't you settle this for me and keep them out?"
"The natives have been talking," murmured Thatcher, reddening still deeper, "and they have said enough about your riding in at night and—and keeping to this tomb all day to make the men very suspicious. They are watching this one now—"
"Then keep them back—long as you can. For God's sake," entreated Ryder with that strange passionate violence. "Andy—you do something—hold them back. Give me time. I—I've got to get some things together—I won't have them at my things—hold them back—out here—till I come."
He was gone. Gone tearing back into the gloom and silence of his tomb. And McLean and Thatcher, astounded witnesses of his outburst, turned speedily to the entrance, avoiding each other's eyes.
Agitatedly Thatcher was murmuring that Ryder's finds were valuable, immensely valuable, and it was disturbing to contemplate any invasion, and with equal agitation but more mechanical calm McLean was murmuring back that he understood—he quite understood—
As for understanding he was stunned and dazed. A sheik's daughter! And the father himself claiming her—under the direction of a blond-mustached man.... And a stolen horse.... Jack conceding the horse.... Jack utterly upset at the search party....
But he himself had seen that new-placed shaft with its inscription to Aimee Marie Dejane.... What then in the name of wonders did this mean? There couldn't be another girl? McLean's imagination faltered then dashed on at a gallop. Some—some hand-maiden, perhaps, whom Jack had rescued in mistaken chivalry? Perhaps the French girl has sent a maid on ahead?
McLean's head was whirling now. One thing appeared quite as possible as another. Pasha's daughters and sheik's daughters, stolen horses and Djinns and Afrits and palaces and masquerades at wedding receptions appeared upon the same plane of feasibility.
Outwardly he was extremely calm. Calm and cold and crisp.
At the mouth of the tomb he detained the party of native policemen with their hangers-on of curious natives and examined, with great show of circumspection and authority, the perfectly regular search warrants which had been issued for them at the instigation of an apparently bereft parent.
He conversed with the alleged parent, a stolid, taciturn native dignitary whose accusations were confirmed by eagerly assenting followers. He lived in a small village, not far north of the camp. He had a young daughter, very beautiful. Three nights ago he had surprised her with this young American and they had fled upon his noblest horse.
It was a simple and direct story. And Jack—by his own report—had been out upon the desert that night, had appeared, upon the next night, with this unknown and beautiful horse, and had since kept to the tomb, claiming illness, in a most persistent way.
The camp boys had testified that he had been vividly critical of the food sent in to him, and that he had required extraordinary amounts of heated water.
"All of which," McLean said sternly, in the vernacular, "amounts to nothing—unless you can discover the girl."
"And that, monsieur," said a Turk in the uniform of the Sultan's guards, appearing beside the desert sheik, "that is exactly what we are here to do."
McLean found himself looking into a thin, menacing face, capped with a red fez, a face deeply lined, marked by light, arrogant eyes and embellished with a huge, blond mustache.
"And your interest in this, monsieur?" he questioned.
"I am a friend of Sheik Hassan's," said the Turk loftily. "I shall see that my friend obtains his rights."
And in McLean's other ear a distraught Thatcher was murmuring "That officer chap is Hamdi Bey—a General of the Guards. You know, Mr. McLean, this really is—you know, it is—"
Hamdi Bey ... Hamdi Bey, two days after his distressing loss, befriending this sheik and trying to involve Jack Ryder in disgrace.
Mystifying. Mystifying and disquieting—yes, disquieting, in the face of Jack's alarm. But for that alarm McLean could have believed the whole thing a farcical attempt of Hamdi's to revenge himself upon Ryder—supposing that Hamdi had discovered Ryder in his masquerade or else as the prowler by night—but Jack's furious anxiety to keep the party out, and his dashing back, ostensibly to preserve his things—
Was it actually possible that he had that sheik's daughter concealed in some nook or cranny of the place?
McLean told himself that it was preposterous. It was preposterous—but Ryder had been doing preposterous things.... And glancing at Thatcher he perceived that that perturbed and transparent gentleman was also telling himself that his suspicions were preposterous.
The search party, tiring of parley, was moving about the hall in businesslike inspection.
And then Ryder reappeared, a distinctly alert but self-contained Ryder, who met the interrogations of the police with scoffing and absolute denial.
But McLean was conscious that there was something tense and nervous in his alertness, something wary and defensive in his readiness, and his own nerves began to tighten apprehensively.
It did not add to his composure to see Ryder salute Hamdi Bey with an ironic and overdone politeness.
"Ah, monsieur le general! We meet as we parted—in the depths!"
The general appeared to smile as at some amiable pleasantry, but McLean caught the snarl of his lifted lip, and felt the currents of animosity.
So those two had met! Ryder had been discovered then.... McLean tried, in futile bewilderment, to recall just what amazing thing Ryder had been saying when this party had appeared.
He kept very close at that young man's side as the strange party moved on into the inner chamber. The searchers were scrupulously careful of the excavator's finds; they did not finger a frieze nor disturb a single small box of the tenderly packed potteries and beads and miniature boats, but they scraped every heap of dust to see if it concealed an entrance, they exhausted the resources of each corner, they circled every pillar, shook out every rug of Jack's blankets and required the opening of the large chest in which the wax reproductions of the friezes were placed, awaiting transportation.
"You will perceive, messieurs," declared Ryder in mocking irony, "that no human being is within this last fold of wax—especially a being," he added thoughtfully with a glance at the stolid sheik, "of the proportions of her papa.... This daughter, was she a large young lady?" he inquired politely of the Arab.
The sheik vouchsafed no reply, but from across his ample person the general leaned forward.
"She was small, Monsieur Ryder," he said in silken tones, "but she can raise a man as high as the gallows—or as low as the grave."
"A marvel!" returned young Ryder smoothly. "And was she also of charm—a charm that could kindle fires—?"
It appeared to McLean that he caught the flaunting implications of the taunt.
He wished to heaven that Ryder would hold his reckless tongue.
Ryder was turning now to the official in charge of the police.
"If you have satisfied yourselves that this place is empty—"
The man, a rather apologetic, pleasant fellow, shrugged and smiled. "We have examined all—"
There was a moment in which the searchers regarded one another through the gloom in the inquiring embarrassment of the discountenanced and considered departure. But Hamdi Bey had more insistent eyes.
He was circling the place again like a wolf for the scent, flashing his search light over the carved walls, the dancing gleam picking out now a relief of Osiris, now a fishing boat upon the Nile, now the judgment hall of Maat. Suddenly he stopped and began examining a limestone slab.
"These stones—these have been merely piled here," he cried excitedly. "This is a hole—an entrance. Dig them out, men. There is a door there, I tell you."
Hastily Ryder addressed the police. "It is simply the burial vault," he told them. "The sarcophagi are there, ready for transportation. Mr. Thatcher will tell you—"
"I assure you it is merely the actual tomb," said Thatcher nervously. "I have myself assisted my colleague with the preparation."
The slabs had been displaced now, disclosing the small door, with its fine wrought stele. Hamdi flashed a look of triumph upon the man who had obviously tried to conceal that door from them, a look which Ryder ignored as he turned to McLean.
"That is the door which is sealed forever upon the dead, and upon the Ka, the spiritual double," he said in a low conversational tone. "It has some remarkable representations of the jackal Anubis—"
It seemed to McLean a most extraordinary time for a disquisition upon Anubis. If Ryder was attempting to prove himself at his ease he had certainly misjudged his manner.
"Damn Anubis," McLean gave back under his breath. "He's not the only jackal—What the devil's the meaning of this?"
Ryder made no reply. The stone had been pushed back and the searchers were stooping beneath the narrow entrance. Then as McLean's head bent at the door he heard his friend whispering, "I say—you haven't a gun you could slip me—?"
Mutely he shook his head. And that agitated whisper died away with the last vestige of belief in Ryder's innocence. Apprehensively McLean glanced about that inner chamber he was entering, dreading to encounter instant and damning evidence of a girl.
He found himself in the presence of the dead. The chamber was a small, square, walled-up affair, and at one side stood the three sarcophagi. The other halls had been in total darkness, but the blackness of this place appeared something palpable and weighty. And the air had the dry, acrid tang of dust which has lain waiting for centuries.
It was hot, whereas the other chambers had been cool—or else McLean's disturbed blood was pumping too furiously through his pulses. Instinctively he drew close to Jack, as the party stood flashing their lights over the bare walls and empty corners, and then concentrated the pale illumination upon those caskets of the dead.
"I told you that the place was empty," Ryder said with distinct impatience in his voice. "And now, if you have satisfied yourselves—"
"You are in haste, monsieur," said Hamdi Bey's smooth voice. "If you will permit us to see what is within—"
He approached the first sarcophagus.
The sheik, who appeared to have committed the restoration of his daughter into the other's hands, remained imperturbably beside the entrance while the head of the police came forward to assist Hamdi in raising the painted lid.
"I protest," said Ryder very sharply. He stood upon the other side of the case, eying them combatively. "It is useless to disturb this lid—I tell you that the Persians have been considerably before you."
And indeed the case was empty. Hamdi moved to the next and again Ryder took up his post opposite.
"Again I protest," he insisted. "The least jar or injury—"
But the men raised the lid, and after the briefest look, moved on.
"And now," Ryder spoke very clearly and authoritatively, addressing the head of the police, "I must ask you to stop. Even the dust that you are disturbing is precious. This thing has gone beyond all reason."
The police official looked as if he agreed with him, but Hamdi Bey had moved determinedly to the third sarcophagus. The official hesitated, evidenced discomfort, but moved finally after the bey.
"If there is nothing here," he murmured, "surely you cannot object—"
"There is precious dust here," Ryder repeated. "You must understand—"
"We see for ourselves," said Hamdi Bey, and now his voice had a ring of triumphant steel through its soft smoothness. "Stand aside. This is in the name of the law."
It seemed to McLean that for one mad moment Ryder was tempted to resist. In the flickering light of the torches he stood defiantly above the painted mummy case, his eyes steadily upon the bey, his hands pressing down upon the vivid bloom of the dead woman's pictured face.
Then with a beaten but ironic smile he stood aside.
Slowly the men lifted the lid.... In that moment McLean became aware that his heart was pumping thickly somewhere in his throat and that the rest of him was a hollow, horrible void of suspense.
Hamdi Bey turned his arrogant stare from young Ryder and looked down.... Drawing closer, fearfully McLean's eyes followed him.
He could not believe their evidence. His heart could not stop its idiotic pumping.
But there he saw no terror-stricken girl, no pallid runaway of the harems, but a still, dark-shrouded form, swathed in the tight bandages of the ancient embalmer, a dry, dusty little mummy creature blankly and inscrutably confronting this unforeseen resurrection.
Over their dumbfounded heads he heard young Ryder's mocking laugh.
"It's good news!" said Miss Jeffries with bright positives.
It was her response to Andrew McLean's greeting that evening. He had made rather a tardy appearance at the hotel, for there had been an important dinner with an important bank official passing through Cairo to escape from, but he arrived at last, looking extraordinarily well in his very best dinner clothes.
And Miss Jeffries, for all her harassment of suspense, was no woeful object in a vivacious blue evening frock with silvery gleams.
"He's safe—absolutely safe," McLean confirmed.
He expected radiance. Miss Jeffries' expression was arrested judgment.
"At his camp ... I just returned—just in time to dine. I motored out this morning."
"Oh!... It took your whole day. I am so sorry!" For a moment the girl appeared to concentrate her sympathetic interest upon McLean.
"You must simply hate me," she told him repentantly, dropping into one of the chairs in the drawing-room corner she had long been guarding. "Do sit down and tell me all the horrid details....—Uncle and Aunt are in the Lounge, and I should like you to meet them, but they'll be there forever and I do want to hear first.... Was it fearfully hot?"
"Oh, rather," murmured the young man, confused by this change of interest. "I mean, that's quite the usual thing, isn't it, for deserts? I got up a good breeze going, for I was a bit wrought up, you know—not a soul in Cairo had seen Jack since that day."
"And he was out at his camp," said Jinny thoughtfully. "How—how long had he been there?"
"He says he started that night," said McLean non-committally.
"Oh!... That night.... That was rather sudden, wasn't it?"
"Jack's sudden, you know," mentioned his friend uncomfortably. "And he had a lot of finds to pack up for transport—they are taking their stuff to the museum and Jack had been away so long, here in the city—"
"No wonder I didn't hear then!" said the girl with a laugh in which it would have taken an acuter ear than McLean's to detect the secret clamor of chagrin and humiliation.
Of course she had wanted Jack to be safe.... But he might have been ill—or away on some official summons—
Just back at his diggings. Gone off on an impulse, with no thought to let her know....
And she had rushed to McLean with her silly worries and her anxious concern which he had probably taken for a tender interest....
Heaven knows what disillusionizing thing Jack had said to him that day!... Men were too hateful.
And now McLean had come dutifully to report that the man she was so worried about was quite well and busy, thank you, only he had overlooked any friendship for her, and so had sent no word—
In Jinny's ears was the rush of the furies' wings. But on Jinny's lips was a proud little smile, and her bright look was a shining shield for the wounds of the spirit.
"That is a comfort," she said with pleasant, friendly warmth. "You don't know how horridly responsible I felt! Really, Jack ought to have let me know—but that's Jack all over. He's never grown up."
"He's not had much time," returned McLean from the height of his twenty-nine years.
"He never will," said Jinny sagely, "not until—well, not until he meets some girl, you know, who will make him feel really responsible."
It occurred unhappily to McLean that the girl Jack had been meeting so assiduously of late had certainly not added to his claims to responsibility!
Steadily he guarded silence. There are ice fields, on Mont Blanc, where a whisper precipitates an avalanche, and McLean had no intention of starting anything in his friend's slippery field of affairs.
"I have spent more time," Miss Jeffries was confiding brightly, for those imperative reasons of her own so obscure to the bewildered young man, "introducing Jack to nice girls—but it never takes! Not seriously. He's a perfectly dear friend, but he doesn't care anything really about girls—and he does need somebody to get him out of his antiquities and his dusty old diggings ... But of course you think I am a sentimental thing!"
McLean did not tell her what he thought. He was still fascinatedly engrossed with her revelation of the impeccable Platonic basis of her friendship. His mood of complicated emotion lightened and brightened and at the same time an amazed wonder unfolded its astonishment.
He marveled at his friend. To turn to something fantastic, something bizarre—for so he thought of that veiled girl of the harem—when he had this Miss Jeffries for a friend—but probably the young lady herself had never given him the least encouragement. Women are not easily moved to romance for men they have always regarded as brothers and he could see that her feeling for Jack was the warm, honest, sisterly affection of utter frankness.
The worse for Jack. For now there seemed no ministering angel to mend his troubled future.
It was not only Ryder's troubled future that troubled McLean—it was also Ryder's troubled present. He was very far from easy in his mind about him. After that mystifying performance in the tomb he had not wanted to leave without a frank explanation, but there had been no moment for revelation; Thatcher had hung about them and Hamdi Bey, of all men, had requested a place in McLean's motor for the return to Cairo.
And that dinner engagement had pressed. He could have abandoned it for any real reason, but Jack had assured him that there was none.
"Get the old devil out of here," had been Jack's furious appeal, referring to Hamdi. "Deny everything to him. Only get him out."
And McLean had got him out.
The sheik and his followers after a murmurous conference with the bey had galloped off; the police had turned towards their post and Hamdi had accompanied McLean to the nearest village and his waiting motor.
Clearly he had wanted to talk to McLean and McLean was not sorry for the opportunity to exchange implications. The bey had unfolded his sympathetic friendship for the sheik; McLean had unfolded a cold surprise that anything so disgraceful should be attributed to such a prominent archaeologist. The bey had produced the evidence and McLean had produced a skeptical wonder, and then a thoughtful wonder if the British government had not better take the matter up and sift it, for the benefit of all concerned.
Clearly the thing could not go on. Ryder could not accept such a rumor against his reputation. Yes, he thought he would advise Ryder to take the matter up.
And there he perceived that even the suave and politic Hamdi squirmed. Doubtless to the Turk, McLean represented British prestige and political power and all sorts of unknown influence.... And native testimony, while voluable and unscrupulous, had a way of offering confused discrepancies to the coldly questioning investigators of the law.
And with no real evidence against Ryder—
The matter of the sheik's daughter, McLean perceived, would be dropped. Unless the girl—whatever girl they sought—could be discovered.
If Hamdi wished to pay off some score against the American he would choose other weapons. McLean reflected upon the bey's capacity for assassination or poisoning while he bade him farewell before the dark wall of his palace entrance.
Between them had passed no reference to the bey's recent loss. Since it would not have been etiquette for him to mention the bey's wife, he judged it equally inadvisable to refer to her ashes.
The whole affair was so wrapped in darkness that he could not decide upon any creditable explanation. It would have to wait until he saw Ryder in the next day or two—for Ryder had told him he would try to get in with his finds as soon as possible.
But no matter how he tried to dismiss the matter from his mind he had found himself asking, through the courses of that important dinner and now in the pauses of his conversation with Miss Jeffries—Was there really some girl? Had he only dreamed that tense anxiety of Jack's—had Jack led them on for his own young amusement?
But it was not long possible to maintain an inner communion with Jinny Jeffries for a vis-a-vis.
A divided mind could not companion her swift flights and sudden tangents. Deriding now her silly anxieties and deploring McLean's unnecessary trip, she had branched into the consideration of how busy McLean must be—and McLean found himself somehow embarked in sketchy descriptions of the institution of which Miss Jeffries seemed to think he was the backbone and of its very interesting work throughout the country.
And as he had talked he found himself noticing things that he had never noticed before about girls, the wave of bright hair against a flushed cheek, the dimples in a rounded arm, the slim grace of crossed ankles and silver-slippered feet.
"And you live all alone in that big house?" Jinny was murmuring.
"Not exactly alone." McLean smiled. "There's Mohammed and Hassan and Abdullah and Alewa and Saord-el-Tawahi—"
"What do you call him when you are in a hurry?" laughed the girl.
It was a tremendously pleasant evening. He had expected constraint and secret embarrassment and he had discovered this delightful interest and bright vivacity.
And if beneath that interest and vivacity something lay forever stilled and chilled in Miss Jeffries' breast—like a poor hidden corpse beneath bright roses—why at two and twenty expectancies flourish so gayly that one lone bud is not long missed. And chagrin is sometimes a salutary transient shower, and self-confidence is all the more delicate for a dimming cloud.
Moreover McLean's unconscious absorption was balm and blessing.
When in startled realization of time and place he rose at last and she murmured laughing, "And after all you never met Aunt and Uncle!" he felt a queer blush tingle his cheek bones and a daring impulse shape the thought aloud that in that case he must come again.
"We're here five days more," said Jinny, the explicit.
Thoughtfully he repeated, "Five days," and said farewell.
"Now if he decorously waits to the next to the last day—!" murmured Jinny to herself, her opinion of the Scots race hanging in the balance.
He didn't. But it was not the initiative of the Scots race which brought him to her, late that very next afternoon, but a soiled looking note which he held crumpled in his hand.
He found her at tea upon the veranda with her aunt and uncle and while he made conversation with the Pendletons he gave Miss Jeffries the note.
"From our friend Ryder," he said with forced lightness. "It explains itself."
But it certainly did not. It was a hasty scrawl to McLean, saying that Ryder was on his way with the museum finds and sending this ahead by runner, and that McLean must positively be at the Cairo Museum to meet him at five and would he please stop on the way and call at his hotel upon a Miss Jeffries and borrow a woman's cloak and hat and veil, or if she wasn't in, get them elsewhere.
"What is it—another masquerade?" said Jinny blankly.
McLean looked mutely at her and shook his head, but within him horrific suspicion was raging like a forest fire.
He continued his converse with the Pendletons while Jinny went for the things; she returned with a small bag containing coat and hat and veil, and the announcement that she would go right over with him.
"If the things aren't right I'll know what he wants," she declared, and then, smiling, "What do you suppose he is up to now?"
McLean felt that he didn't want to know. And most positively he didn't want her to know. But having lacked the instant inspiration to deny her, he could only acquiesce and wonder why he hadn't thought up some brilliant excuse.
He looked helplessly at the Pendletons, but they merely murmured their adieux and their independent niece accompanied McLean to his waiting carriage as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
* * * * *
The caravan was before them. A long line of camels was just turning in the gates and before the steps of a back entrance other camels, kneeling with that profound and squealing resentment with which even the camel's most exhausted moments oppose commands, were being relieved of their huge loads by natives under the very minute and exact direction of Thatcher.
And within the entrance a young man with rumpled dark hair and a thin, bronzed face flushed with impatience was imperiously conveying the Arabs who were bearing the precious sarcophagi.
Over his shoulder he caught sight of the two arrivals.
"I asked for motors—and they furnished these!" he cried disgustedly, gesturing at the enduring camels. "It took us all day though we half killed the brutes.... Hello, Jinny, did you bring the things?"
With light casualness he accepted her appearance on the scene. That glitter in his bright hazel eyes was not for that. "Come in, both of you," he called, plunging after his men.
At the foot of the stairs McLean waited with Miss Jeffries until the men had reached the top and deposited their burdens in the room and in the manner which Ryder was specifying so crisply, and then they came mechanically up.
McLean had the automatic feeling of a mere super in a well rehearsed scene. He had no idea of plot or appearance but his role of dumb subservience was clearly defined.
"You understand," Ryder was calling to the men, "nothing more goes in this room. All else down stairs.... Come in," he said hurriedly to his waiting friends, and shutting the door swiftly behind them, "of course—this doesn't lock!" he muttered. "Jinny, you stand here, do, and if any one tries to come in tell them they can't."
"Tell them you say they can't?" questioned Jinny a little helplessly.
"No—no—not that. Tell them you are using the room; tell them," said Ryder with very brisk and serious inspiration, "tell them your petticoat is coming off!"
"Why Jack Ryder!" said Jinny indignantly.
"Nonsense," said he to her indignation. "Don't you remember when your aunt's petticoat came off on the way to church? It happens."
"But it doesn't run in families!"
Her protest fell apparently upon the back of his head. He had turned to the last sarcophagus and was slipping his fingers beneath the lid. "Here, Andy," he said quickly. "I had it wedged so it wasn't tight shut, but it's been so infernally hot and dusty—"
He was tremendously troubled. It was not the heat which had brought those fine beads of moisture to his brow, white above the line of brown, and drawn such a pale ring about his mouth. McLean saw that the slim, wiry wrists which supported the case's top were shaking.
"Gently now," he murmured and the lid was lifted and laid aside.
The same dark, unstirring form of the tomb scene. The same dry, dusty little mummy.... But with hands strangely reckless for an archaeologist dealing with the priceless stuff of time Ryder tore at those bandages; he unwrapped, he unwound, and in a lightning's flash—
To McLean's tense, expectant nerves it was like a scene at the pantomime. He had divined it; he had foreseen and yet there was the shock and eerie thrill of magic, the appealing unreality of the supernatural in the revelation.
In a wave of an enchanter's wand the mummy was gone. And in its place lay a Sleeping Beauty, the dark hair in sculptured closeness to the head, the long, black lashes sweeping the still cheeks.
THE PAINTED CASE
"She's fainted," said Ryder in a voice that shook. From his pocket he drew swiftly a thermos bottle but before the top was off those long lashes fluttered, and from under their shadow the soft, dark eyes looked up at him with a smile of very gallant reassurance.
"Not—faint," said the girl, in a breath of a voice. "But it was so long—so hot—"
"Drink this." Ryder slipped an arm about her, offering the filled top of the thermos. "It's over, all over," he murmured as she drank. "You're safe now, safe.... You're at the museum.... Then we'll get you to the hotel—"
"Hotel—?" the girl echoed with a faint implication of humor in that silver bell of a voice.
She put her hands to her hair and to her face in which the hues of life mingled with the pallor of exhaustion; on her small fingers sparkled the gleam of diamonds and from her slender arms fell back the gold and jade tissues of her chiffon robe.
To McLean she had increasingly the appearance of a creature of enchantments. And to see that young loveliness in its strange gleam of color lying against his friend's supporting tan linen arm—
Sardonically his eyes sought Ryder.
"So that was your mummy!"
"There was nothing else to do." Ryder had withdrawn his arm; the two men faced each other across the girl. "I was in a blue funk—you see, I was hiding her in the inner chamber until I could smuggle her away. And when those wolves came on the scent, and not an instant to lose—I got the bandages off the real mummy and about Aimee.... Lord, it was a close call!"
He drew a long breath. "I hadn't a gun. I hadn't a thing—and I had to grin and play it through ... And I was deathly afraid of Thatcher."
"Yes, Thatcher. You see I'd popped the mummy into a case without its bandages and if Thatcher had glimpsed that he'd have said something—Oh, innocently—that would have given the show away. He knew there was only one mummy and it was wrapped. But the Lord was with me. The men opened the empty case first and at the second they said nothing to show it wasn't empty and Thatcher didn't look in. Then they went on to the third."
"And me—when I heard those voices—I stopped breathing," said the girl. "But I shook so—I thought they would think that mummy was coming to life! And the dust—Oh, it was almost beyond my force not to sneeze—"
"You'd have sneezed us to Kingdom Come," said Ryder, gayly now.
"But I did not," she protested. "I lay there and thought of Hamdi looking down upon me, and my flesh crept.... Oh, it was terrible! And yet it was funny."
Funny.... McLean gazed in sardonic astonishment upon the two young creatures with such misguided humor that they found something funny in this appalling business. Flying from palaces ... hiding in tombs ... taking a mummy's place beneath the dusty bandages of the dead ... Funny....
And yet there was laughter in their young eyes when they looked at each other and a curve of astounding amusement in their lips.
It touched McLean to wonder. It touched him—queerly—to an odd and aching pain. For he saw suddenly that he was looking upon something deathless and imperishable, yet fragile and fleeting as the breath of time....
They were so young, so absorbed, so oblivious....
He had forgotten Jinny Jeffries. So too,—not for the first time, alas!—had Ryder. Now her clear voice from the doorway made them start.
"You might present me, Jack."
Ryder turned, so did the girl in the painted case, and her eyes widened with a startled surprise. The doorway had not been within her vision.
Jinny was leaning back against the door, her hand behind her on the knob she was to guard, her figure still rigid with astonishment.
"I didn't know you—you dug them up—alive," she said with a quiver of uncertain humor.
"My dear Jinny, I had for—Miss Jeffries, let me present you to Mademoiselle Delcasse," said Jack gravely. "I know that you met her the day of her reception—"
Only in that moment did Jinny place the haunting recollection.
"But she was burned—she was killed," she protested, shaken now with excitement.
"She was not burned—although there was a fire. The man who called himself her husband pretended she was killed in order to save his pride. For she escaped from him. And he tried to get her back, setting another man, a false father, after her with lying witnesses—Oh, it's a long story!—so I had to hide her in this case."
"But Jack, you—why were you hiding her—? Did you get her out?" stammered Jinny.
"The night of that reception. You see, I knew she was truly a French girl who had been stolen by Tewfick Pasha and brought up as his daughter—Oh, that's a long story, too! But at McLean's I had happened on the agents who were searching for her from her aunt in France, and so I knew.... And at the reception when I found she hated that marriage I stayed behind and—and managed to get her away,"—thus lightly did Ryder indicate the dangers of that night!—"so she could escape to France."
"Oh—France!" said Jinny.
She could be forgiven for the tone. She had been kept shamefully in the dark, misled, ignored.... She had been a catspaw, a bystander.
Not that she cared. Not that she would let them think for a minute that she cared....
But as for this talk of France—
Her eyes met the eyes of the girl in the mummy case. And Jinny found herself looking, not at the interloper, the enchantress, but at a very young, frightened girl, lost in a strange world, but resolved upon courage. She saw more than the men could see. She saw the loveliness, the helplessness, and she saw too the sensitive dignity, the delicate, defensive spirit....
Really, she was a child.
And to have gone through so much, dared such danger.... She remembered that dark, forbidding palace, the guarded doors, the hideous blacks—and that bright, smiling figure in its misty veil.... And now that little figure sat in its strange hiding place, confronting her with a lost child's eyes....
Into Jinny's bright gray eyes came a mist of tears. She was queerly moved. It was a mingled emotion, but if some drops for her own disconcertment were mingled with the warm prompting of pity, her compassion was none the less true.
"I'll be so glad to do anything I can to help," she said impulsively. "If you have no friends to trust in Cairo—"
"I have no friends to trust—beyond this room," said the girl.
"Then I'll take you to the hotel with me. You can register as one of our party and keep your room till we leave—we are going in four days now. And, oh, I know! You can cross on the same steamer with us to Europe, for there's a woman at the hotel who wants to give up her transportation and go on to the Holy Land—she was moaning about it only this noon. It would all fit in beautifully."
It seemed to McLean that an angel from Heaven was revealing her blessed goodness.
Ryder took the revelation delightedly for granted.
"Bully for you, Jinny," he said warmly. "I knew I could count on you."
If for one moment a twinge of wry reminder recalled that she had never been able exactly to count upon him it did not dim his mood. He was alight with triumph.
"I'll see to the transportation," he said quickly, doing mental arithmetic about present sums in the bank. "And we won't wire your aunt until you're safely out of Egypt—better send a wireless from the ship. I think your aunt is near Paris—"
"We are going to hurry to Paris," said Jinny, "That was our regular plan—"
"And London?" said McLean.
"London, later, of course. Cathedrals, lakes and universities—then London."
"I shall be in London," said McLean thoughtfully, "in June.... If you are not too occupied—"
"With cathedrals?" said Miss Jeffries.
"Where are the things?" demanded Ryder ruthlessly, and thus recalled, Jinny produced the bag.
McLean moved toward the door. "We might go and mount guard in the corridor," he suggested, and he and Jinny stepped outside, back into the everyday world of Egypt where nothing at all had been happening but the arrival of a caravan from the excavations.
Within the room Ryder stooped and lifted the girl from the case and set her lightly on the floor. Ruefully she shook out the torn chiffons of that French audacity of a robe, and with a whimsical smile surveyed the soiled little slippers that she had discarded in her disguise when she had ridden behind the turbaned Ryder upon the Arab horse.
So little time ago, and yet so long away—
Under her long lashes she looked up at the young man, who had set the old life crumbling about her at a touch. Wistfulness edged the brave smile with which she murmured, "And so it is all arranged—so quick. I am safe—I go to the hotel with that nice girl—"
"And I won't be able to see you," he said suddenly.
"But you have seen me, monsieur, these many days—"
"Seen you? I haven't seen you. I've sat outside a tomb on guard, I've marched beside a mummy case—and—and we've said so little—"
It was true. They had said little. The hours had been absorbed in action. Their words had always been of explanation, of reassurance, of anxious planning. Of the future, the future after safety had been achieved, they had said nothing. It had all been uncertain, nebulous, vague....
And now it was upon them.
"And I have never said Thank you," she murmured. "I—I think I began by saying Thank you, monsieur. I remember saying that my education had proceeded to the Ts!"
"If—if only you never want to unsay it," he muttered. "You don't know what's ahead—life's so uncertain—"
"No, I do not know what is ahead," she told him, "but I am free—free for whatever will come."
The brightness of that freedom shone suddenly from her upturned face.
"Anything is better than that man," she vowed. "Even if my aunt, that Madame Delcasse, should not like me—you see, I have thought of everything, and I am not afraid."
"Like you—? She'll love you," said Ryder bitterly. "She'll go mad over you and give you all she has—she'll marry you to a count—"
"Another marriage?" Aimee raised brows of mockery. "But I am through with the marriages of convenience—"
"You're so lovely, darling, that you'll have the world at your feet," said the young man huskily.
He looked at her with eyes that could not hide their pain. "Oh, I—you—it's not fair—" he muttered incoherently.
He had meant—ever since that sobering moment of guardianship in the desert—to be very fair. He would not bind her with a word, a touch. Not since that impulsive clasp of reunion in the palace had he touched her in caress. With the reverence of his deep tenderness he had served her in the tomb, meaning to deny his heart, to delay its revelation, to wait upon her freedom and her youth....
Nobly he had resolved.... But now parting was upon him.
"It's not fair to you," he said desperately—and drew closer.
For at his blurted words her look had magically changed. The defensive lightness was fled. A breathless wonder shone out at him ... a delicious shyness brushed with dancing expectation like the gleam of a butterfly's wing.
No glamorous moonlight was about them now. No scented shadowy garden.... But the enchantment was there, in the bare and dusty room, with its grim old mummy cases, the enchantment and the very flame of youth.
"Sweet, I'll be on the ship—I'll wait till you are ready," he vowed and at her low murmur, "Ready—?" he gave back, "Ready—for love," with a boy's stammer over the first sound of that word between them.
"But what is this now," she said wondering, yet with a little elfish gleam of laughter, "but—love?"
His last resolve went to the winds.
And as his arms closed about her, as he held to his heart all that young loveliness that had been his despair and his delight, there was more than joy in the confused tumult of his youth, there was the supreme exultation of triumphant daring.
For he had opened the forbidden door; he had challenged the adventure and overcome the risk.
He had won. And he would hold his winnings.
"Aimee," he whispered. "Aimee—Beloved."