He didn’t want to go. He loathed the very thought of it. Every flinching nerve in him protested.
A masked ball—a masked ball at a Cairo hotel! Grimacing through peep-holes, self-conscious advances, flirtations ending in giggles! Tourists as nuns, tourists as Turks, tourists as God-knows-what, all preening and peacocking!
Unhappily he gazed upon the girl who was proposing this horror as a bright delight. She was a very engaging girl—that was the mischief of it. She stood smiling there in the bright, Egyptian sunshine, gay confidence in her gray eyes. He hated to shatter that confidence.
And he had done little enough for her during her stay in Cairo. One tea at the Gezireh Palace Hotel, one trip to the Sultan al Hassan Mosque, one excursion through the bazaars—not exactly an orgy of entertainment for a girl from home!
He had evaded climbing the Pyramids and fled from the ostrich farm. He had withheld from inviting her to the camp on the edge of the Libyan desert where he was excavating, although her party had shown unmistakable signs of a willingness to be diverted from the beaten path of its travel.
And he was not calling on her now. He had come to Cairo for supplies and she had encountered him by chance upon a corner of the crowded Mograby, and there promptly she had invited him to to-night’s ball.
“But it’s not my line, you know, Jinny,” he was protesting. “I’m so fearfully out of dancing—”
“More reason to come, Jack. You need a change from digging up ruins all the time—it must be frightfully lonely out there on the desert. I can’t think how you stand it.”
Jack Ryder smiled. There was no mortal use in explaining to Jinny Jeffries that his life on the desert was the only life in the world, that his ruins held more thrills than all the fevers of her tourist crowds, and that he would rather gaze upon the mummied effigy of any lady of the dynasty of Amenhotep than upon the freshest and fairest of the damsels of the present day.
It would only tax Jinny’s credulity and hurt her feelings. And he liked Jinny—though not as he liked Queen Hatasu or the little nameless creature he had dug out of a king’s ante-room.
Jinny was an interfering modern. She was the incarnation of impossible demands.
But of course there was no real reason why he should not stop over and go to the dance.
Ten minutes later, when she had extracted his promise and abandoned him to the costumers, he was scourging his weakness.
He had known better! Very well, then, let him take his medicine. Let him go as—here he disgustedly eyed the garment that the Greek was presenting—as Little Lord Fauntleroy! He deserved it.
Shudderingly he looked away from the pretty velvet suit; he scorned the monk’s robes that were too redolent of former wearers; he rejected the hot livery of a Russian mujik; he flouted the banality of the Pierrot pantaloons.
Thankfully he remembered McLean. Kilts, that was the thing. Tartans, the real Scotch plaids. Some use, now, McLean’s precious sporrans…. He’d look him up at once.
Out of the crowded Mograby he made his way on foot to the Esbekeyih quarters where the streets were wider and emptier of Cairene traffickers and shrill itinerates and laden camels and jostling donkeys.
It was a glorious day, a day of Egypt’s blue and gold. The sky was a wash of water color; the streets a flood of molten amber. A little wind from the north rustled the acacias and blew in his bronzed face cool reminders of the widening Nile and dancing waves.
He remembered a chap he knew, who had a sailing canoe—but no, he was going to get a costume for a fool ball!
Disgustedly he turned into the very modern and official-looking residence that was the home of his friend, Andrew McLean, and the offices of that far-reaching institution, the Agricultural Bank.
A white-robed, red-sashed and red-fezed houseboy led him across the tiled entrance into the long room where McLean was concluding a conference with two men.
“Not the least trace,” McLean was saying. “We’ve questioned all our native agents—”
Afterwards Ryder remembered that indefinite little pause. If the two men had not lingered—if McLean had not remembered that he was an excavator—if chance had not brushed the scales with lightning wings—!
“Ever hear of a chap called Delcassé, Paul Delcassé, a French excavator?” McLean suddenly asked of him. “Disappeared in the desert about fifteen years ago.”
“He was reported, monsieur, to have died of the fever,” one of the men explained.
McLean introduced him as a special agent from France. His companion was one of the secretaries of the French legation. They were trying every quarter for traces of this Delcassé.
Ryder’s memory darted back to old library shelves. He saw a thin, brown volume, almost uncut….
“He wrote a book on the Tomb of Thi,” he said suddenly. “Paul Delcassé—I remember it very well.”
Now that he thought of it, the memory was clear. It was one of those books that had whetted his passion for the past, when his student mind was first kindling to buried cities and forgotten tombs and all the strange store and loot of time.
Paul Delcassé. He didn’t remember a word of the book, but he remembered that he had read it with absorption. And now the special agent, delighted at the recognition, was talking eagerly of the writer.
“He was a brilliant young man, monsieur, but he was of no importance to his generation—and he becomes so now through the whim of a capricious woman to disinherit her other heirs. After all this time she has decided to make active inquiries.”
“But you said that Delcassé had died—”
“He left a wife and child. Her letters of her husband’s death reached his relatives in France, then nothing more. They feared that the same fever—but nothing, positively, was known…. A sad story, monsieur…. This Delcassé was young and adventurous and an ardent explorer. An ardent lover, too, for he brought a beautiful French wife to share the hazards of his expedition—”
“An ardent idiot,” thrust in McLean unfeelingly. “Knocking a woman about the desert…. Not much chance of a clue after all these years,” he concluded with a very British air of dismissal.
But the French agent was not to be sundered from the American who remembered the book of Delcassé.
From his pocket he brought a leather case and from the case a large and ornate gold locket.
“His picture, monsieur.” He pressed the spring and offered Ryder the miniature. “It was done in France before he returned on that last trip, and was left with the aunt. It is said to be a good likeness.”
Ryder looked down upon the young face presented to his gaze with a feeling of sympathy for this unlucky searcher of the past who had left his own secret in the sands he had come to conquer—sympathy mingled with blank wonder at the insanity which had brought a woman with it….
McLean couldn’t understand a man’s doing it.
Jack Ryder couldn’t understand a man’s wanting to do it. Love to Ryder was incomprehensible idiocy. Woman, as far as he was concerned, had never been created. She was still a spectacle, an historical record, an uncomprehended motive.
“Nice looking chap,” he commented briefly, fingering the curious old case as he handed it back.
“I’ll keep up the inquiries,” McLean assured them, “but, as I said, nothing will come of it…. It’s been fifteen years. One more grain lost in the desert of sand…. By luck, you know, you might just stumble on something, some native who knew the story, but if fever carried them off and the Arabs rifled their camp, as I fancy, they’ll jolly well keep their mouths shut. No white man will know…. I don’t advise your people to spend much money on the search.”
“Odd, the inquiries we get,” he commented to Ryder when the Frenchmen had completed their courteous farewells. “You’d think the Bank was a Bureau of Information! Yesterday there was a stir about two crazy lads who are supposed to have joined the Mecca pilgrims in disguise…. Of course our clerks are Copts and do pick up a bit and the Copts will talk…. I say, Jack, what are you doing?” he broke off to demand in astonishment, for Jack Ryder had seated himself upon a divan and was absorbedly rolling up his trouser leg.
“The dear Egyptian flea?” he added.
“Not at all. I am looking at my knees,” said Ryder glumly. “I just remembered that I have to show them to-night…. A ball—in masquerade. At a hotel. Tourist crowd…. How do you think they’ll look with one of your Scotch plaidies atop?” he inquired feelingly.
“Fascinating, Jack, fascinating,” said the promptly sardonic McLean. “You—at a masquerade!… So that’s what brought you to town.”
He cocked a taunting eye at him. “Well, well, she must be a most engaging young person—you’ll be taking her out on the desert with you now, like our friend Delcassé—a pleasant, retired spot for a body to have his honeymoon … no distractions of society … undiluted companionship, you might say…. Now what made you think she’d like your knees?” he murmured contemplatively. “Aren’t you just a bit—previous? Apt to startle and frighten the lady?”
“Oh, go on, go on,” Ryder exhorted bitterly. “I like it. It’s better than I can do myself. Go on…. But while you are talking trot out your tartans. Something clannish now—one of those ancestral rigs that you are always cherishing … Rich and red, to set off my dark, handsome type.”
“Set off you’ll be, Jack dear,” promised McLean, dragging out a huge chest. “Set off you’ll be.”
Set off he was.
And a fool he felt himself that night, as he confronted his brilliant image in the glass. A Scot of the Scots, kilted in vivid plaid, a rakish cap on his black hair, a tartan draped across his shoulder, short, heavy stockings clasping his legs and low shoes gay with big buckles.
“Oh, young Lochinvar has come out of the west,” warbled McLean merrily, as he straightened the shoulder pin of silver and Scotch topaz.
“Out of Hades,” said Ryder, rather pointlessly, for he felt it was Hades he was going into.
Chiefly he was concerned with his knees and the striking contrast between their sheltered whiteness and the desert brown of his face…. Milky pale they gleamed at him from the glass…. Bony hard, they flaunted their angles at every move…. He was grateful that he was not a centipede.
“Oh, ’twas all for my rightful king,
That I gaed o’er the border;
Twas all for—
“You didn’t tell me her name, now, Jack.”
“Where’s my mask?” Ryder was muttering. “I say, aren’t there any pockets in these confounded petticoats?”
“In the sporran, man…. There!” McLean at last withheld his hand from its handiwork. “Jock, you’re a grand sight,” he pronounced with a special Scottish burr. “If ye dinna win her now—’Bonny Charley’s now awa,'” he sung as Ryder, with a last darkling look at his vivid image, strode towards the door.
“He’s awa’ all right—and he’ll be back again as soon as he can make it.”
With this cheerless anticipation of the evening’s promise, the departing one stalked, like an exiled Stuart, to his waiting carriage.
For a moment more McLean kept the ironic smile alive upon his lips, as he listened to the rattle of the wheels and the harsh gutturals of the driver, then the smile died as he turned back into the room.
“Eh, but wouldn’t you like it, though, Andy,” he said to himself, “if some girl now liked you enough to get you to go to one of those damned things…. The lucky dog!”
Click the title for a link to a free ebook from Project Gutenberg:
The Fortieth Door
by Mary Hastings Bradley, 1920