[Transcriber's Note: The following variant spellings used by the author were retained as printed: Babar/Baber, Sultanum/Sultanam, gray/grey, Allah/Alah, meaowed/miaowed.]
THE ADVENTURES OF AKBAR
Uniform with this Volume
Price 6/-net each
THE SECRET GARDEN, by FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT, author of "The Shuttle," etc., illustrated by CHARLES ROBINSON.
THE FOUR GARDENS, by "HANDASYDE," illustrated by CHARLES ROBINSON.
ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, by LEWIS CARROLL, illustrated by ARTHUR RACKHAM.
AESOP'S FABLES, translated by V. S. VERNON JONES, with an introduction by G. K. CHESTERTON, illustrated by ARTHUR RACKHAM.
LONDON: WILLIAM HEINEMANN 21, BEDFORD STREET, W.C.
THE ADVENTURES OF AKBAR
FLORA ANNIE STEEL
ILLUSTRATED BY BYAM SHAW
LONDON . WILLIAM HEINEMANN . 1913
All rights reserved
Oft when the house lay silent in the heat My thoughts would be so full of you, my sweet, That dreaming half—I seemed to hear once more Your little fingers fluttering at the door, The pitter patter of your childish feet In joyous rhythm cross the echoing floor.
Then small, soft hands would nestle into mine, And warm soft arms around my neck would twine, As soft and warm the dream child on my knees, Cuddling so close in clear young voice would tease And tease and tease in mimicked glad young whine For "Just one little story if you please."
So half in jest and half in earnest, too, Mostly I think to dream my dreaming true, I'd conjure up long tales of lands afar And days gone by that yet remembered are; Shaping my stories with this end in view To gain the verdict "Tell some more, Mamma."
For I was happy when I had beguiled Into my life the spirit of a child. Thus one by one the weary hours flew And page by page a little volume grew, So—that my dreams with truth be reconciled, Take it, my darling, it was writ for you.
Long years have sped since that poor book was penned. None read the pages. Therefore at the end Of this world's life I dedicate to two Small boys—her sons—whose question'ng eyes of blue Tell me that dreams of childhood never end This book. So take it boys—'twas writ for you.
This book is written for all little lads and lasses, but especially for the former, since it is the true—quite true—story of a little lad who lived to be, perhaps, the greatest king this world has ever seen.
It is a strange, wild tale this of the adventures of Prince Akbar among the snowy mountains between Kandahar and Kabul, and though the names may be a bit of a puzzle at first, as they will have to be learned by and bye in geography and history lessons, it might be as well to get familiar with them in a story-book; though, indeed, as everybody in it except Roy the Rajput, Meroo the cook boy; Tumbu, the dog; and Down, the cat (and these four may have been true, you know, though they have not been remembered) really lived, I don't know whether this book oughtn't to be considered real history, and therefore
A LESSON BOOK
Anyhow, I hope you won't find it dull.
CHAPTER I FAREWELL 1
CHAPTER II THE FIRST VICTORY 11
CHAPTER III THE ROYAL UMBRELLA 20
CHAPTER IV TUMBU-DOWN 27
CHAPTER V ON THE ROAD 39
CHAPTER VI AT COURT 50
CHAPTER VII WINTER 58
CHAPTER VIII DOWN'S STRATAGEM 68
CHAPTER IX SPRING 77
CHAPTER X THE NIGHT OF RECORD 88
CHAPTER XI A WINTER MARCH 100
CHAPTER XII SNOW AND ICE 109
CHAPTER XIII OVER THE PASS 119
CHAPTER XIV IN THE VALLEY 128
CHAPTER XV DEAREST-LADY 138
CHAPTER XVI CRUEL BROTHER KUMRAN 147
CHAPTER XVII IMPRISONMENT 159
CHAPTER XVIII THE GARDEN OF GAMES 169
CHAPTER XIX BETWIXT CUP AND LIP 178
CHAPTER XX ESCAPED 187
CHAPTER XXI DAWN 196
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
ON A SHELVING BANK OF DRY SAND BABY AKBAR SITTING UP AND RUBBING HIS EYES Frontispiece
To face page
PRINCE ASKURRY ... STRODE ... INTO THE TENT 16
THE CHILD HAD SLIPPED IT ONTO HIS LITTLE FOREFINGER 62
SO THEY BOTH TOUCHED THE COLD MARBLE FLOOR WITH THEIR WARM LITTLE FOREHEADS 98
AHEAD OF THEM, A SHADOW SHOWED, A SHAMBLING SHADOW! TUMBU ... WITH A BOUND WAS OFF FULL TILT AFTER IT 126
AND ONE DAY THE DOOR DID OPEN.... "MY SON—MY LITTLE SON!" 166
"LADIES! UNVEIL!" 176
"I STAY MY HAND WHILE I COUNT TEN—NO MORE" 198
Bismillah Al-la-hu Akbar!
These queer-looking, queer-sounding words, which in Arabic mean "thanks be to God," were shrilled out at the very top of Head-nurse's voice. Had she been in a room they would have filled it and echoed back from the walls; for she was a big, deep-chested woman. But she was only in a tent; a small tent, which had been pitched in a hurry in an out-of-the-way valley among the low hills that lead from the wide plains of India to Afghanistan. For Head-nurse's master and mistress, King Humayon and Queen Humeeda, with their thirteen months' old little son, Prince Akbar, were flying for their lives before their enemies. And these enemies were led by Humayon's own brothers, Prince Kumran, Askurry and Hindal. It is a long story, and a sad story, too, how Humayon, so brave, so clever, so courteous, fell into misfortune by his own fault, and had to fly from his beautiful palaces at Delhi and wander for years, pursued like a hare, amid the sandy deserts and pathless plains of Western India. And now, as a last resource, his followers dwindled to a mere handful, he was making a desperate effort to escape over the Persian border and claim protection at the hands of Persia's King.
So the poor tent was ragged and out at elbows, for all that it was made of costly Kashmir shawls, and that its poles were silver-gilt.
But Head-nurse's "Thanks be to God!" came from a full heart.
"What is it? What is it?" called an anxious voice from behind the curtain which divided the tent in two.
"What?" echoed Head-nurse in high glee. "Only this: His Imperial Highness, Prince Akbar, the Admired-of-the-World, the Source-of-Dignity, the Most-Magnificent-Person-of-the-Period—" She went on, after her wont, rolling out all the titles that belonged of right to the little Prince, until the soft, anxious voice lost patience and called again, "Have done—have done; what is it? Heaven save he hath not been in danger."
Head-nurse, stopped in her flow of fine words, sniffed contemptuously. "Danger! with me to guard him? No! 'Tis that the High-in-Pomp hath cut his first real back tooth! He can eat meat! He has come to man's estate! He is no longer dependent upon milk diet." Here she gave a withering glance at the gentle looking woman who was Baby Akbar's wet-nurse, who, truth to tell, was looking just a little sad at the thought that her nursling would soon leave her consoling arms.
"Heavens!" exclaimed the voice from within, "say you so?" And the next instant the curtain parted, and there was Queen Humeeda, Baby Akbar's mother, all smiling and eager.
Now, if you want to know what she was like, you must just think of your own dearest dear mummie. At least that was what she seemed to little Prince Akbar, who, at the sight of her, held out his little fat arms and crowed, "Amma! Amma!" Now, this, you will observe, is only English "Ma-Ma" arranged differently; from which you may guess that English and Indian children are really very much alike.
And Queen Humeeda took the child and kissed him and hugged him just as any English mother would have done. Head-nurse, however, was not a bit satisfied with this display of affection. That would have been the portion of any ordinary child, and Baby Akbar was more than that: he was the heir apparent to the throne of India! If he had only been in the palaces that belonged to him, instead of in a miserable tent, there would have been ceremonials and festivities and fireworks over this cutting of a tooth! Aye! Certainly fireworks. But how could one keep up court etiquette when royalty was flying for its life? Impossible! Why, even her determination that, come what might, a royal umbrella must be held over the blessed infant during their perilous journeys had very nearly led to his being captured!
Despite this recollection, as she listened impatiently to the cooings and gurglings, she turned over in her mind what she could do to commemorate the occasion. And when pretty Queen Humeeda (thinking of her husband, the king, who, with his few followers, had ridden off to see if a neighboring chief would help them) said, "This will be joyful news wherewith to cheer my lord on his return," Head-nurse's irritation found voice.
"That is all very well," she cried. "So it would be to any common father of any common child, Your Royal Highness! This one is the Admired-of-the-Whole-World, the Source-of-Dignity, the Most-Magnificent-Person-of-the-Period——"
And she went on rolling out queer guttural Arabic titles till Foster-mother implored her to be silent or she would frighten the child. Could she not see the look on the darling's face?
For Baby Akbar was indeed listening to something with his little finger up to command attention. But it was not to Head-nurse's thunderings, but to the first long, low growl of a coming storm that outside the miserable tent was turning the distant hills to purple and darkening the fast-fading daylight.
"Frighten?" echoed Head-nurse in derision. "The son of Humayon the heroic, the grandson of Baber the brave could never be frightened at anything!"
And in truth the little lad was not a bit afraid, even when a distant flash of lightning glimmered through the dusk.
"Heavens!" cried gentle Queen Humeeda, "his Majesty will be drenched to the skin ere he returns." She was a brave woman, but the long, long strain of daily, hourly danger was beginning to tell on her health, and the knowledge that even this coming storm was against them brought the tears to her eyes.
"Nay! Nay! my royal mistress," fussed Head-nurse, who, in spite of her love of pomp, was a kind-hearted, good woman, "this must not be on such an auspicious day. It must be celebrated otherwise, and for all we are so poor, we can yet have ceremonial. When the child was born were we not in direst danger? Such danger that all his royal father could do in honor of the glad event was to break a musk-bag before his faithful followers as sign that the birth of an heir to empire would diffuse itself like perfume through the whole world? Even so now, and if I cannot devise some ceremony, then am I no Head-nurse!"
So saying she began to bustle around, and ere long even poor, unhappy Queen Humeeda began to take an interest in the proceedings.
A mule trunk, after being ransacked for useful odds and ends, was put in a corner and covered with a worn satin quilt. This must do for a throne. And a strip of red muslin wound about the little gold-embroidered skull cap Baby Akbar wore must, with the heron's plume from his father's state turban, make a monarch of the child.
In truth he looked very dignified indeed, standing on the mule trunk, his little legs very wide apart, his little crimson silk trousers very baggy, his little green brocade waistcoat buttoned tight over his little fat body, and, trailing from his shoulders in great stiff folds, his father's state cloth-of-gold coatee embroidered with seed pearls.
So, as he always wore great gold bracelets on his little fat arms, and great gold jingling anklets fringing his little fat feet, he looked very royal indeed. Very royal and large and calm, for he was a grave baby with big, dark, piercing eyes and a decided chin.
"He is as like his grandfather as two splits of a pea!" cried Head-nurse in rapture, and then she went to the tent door and shrilled out:
"Slaves! Quick! Come and perform your lowly salute on the occasion of the cutting of a back tooth belonging to the Heir-to-Empire, the Most——"
She cut short her string of titles, for a crash of thunder overhead warned her she had best be speedy before the rain soaked through the worn tent.
"Quick, slaves!" she added; "keep us not waiting all day. Enter and prostrate yourselves on the ground with due reverence! Quick! Quick!"
She need not have been in such a hurry, for it did not take long for the "slaves," as she called them, to perform their lowly salaam by touching the very ground with their foreheads. There were but three of them—Old Faithful, the trooper; Roy, the Rajput boy; and Meroo, the scullion; the rest were away with their master, King Humayon.
Old Faithful, however, tall, lank, grey-bearded, brought enough devotion for half a dozen followers. He had served with little Akbar's grandfather, Babar the brave, and when he saw the child standing so fair and square, he gave almost a sharp cry of remembrance and delight. And when he stood up after his prostration, in soldier fashion he held out the hilt of his old sword for the baby to touch in token that its service was accepted. Queen Humeeda, who stood beside her little son, guided his fat fingers to the sword; but at the very moment a vivid flash of lightning made her give a shriek and cover her face with her hands. But little Prince Akbar having got a hold of the hilt, would not let go. And to Old Faithful's huge delight he pulled and pulled till the sword came out of the scabbard.
"An omen! An omen!" cried the old man. "Like his grandfather, he will fight battles ere he be twelve!"
Then there was Roy, the Rajput lad, whom the royal fugitives had found half dead from sunstroke in the wide, sandy Rajputana deserts, and whom, with their customary kindness, they had succoured and befriended, putting him on as a sort of page boy to the little Heir-to-Empire. He was a tall, slim lad for his twelve years, was Roy, with a small, well-set head and a keen, well-cut face. And his eyes! They were like a deer's—large, brown, soft, but with a flash in them at times.
For the sunstroke which had so nearly killed the lad had left his mind a little confused. As yet he could remember nothing of what had happened to him before it, and could not even recollect who he was, or anything save that his name was Roy. But every now and again he would say something or do something which would make those around him look surprised, and wonder who he could have been to know such things and have such manners.
After him came Meroo, the misshapen cook-boy. He was an odd fellow, all long limbs and broad smiles, who, when his time arrived, shambled forward, cast himself in lowliest reverence full length on the ground and blubbered out his delight—now that the princely baby could really eat—at being able to supply all sorts of toothsome stews full of onions and green ginger, to say nothing of watermelons and sugar cane. These things, strange to say, being to little Indian children very much what chocolate creams and toffee are to English ones.
So far all had gone well, and now there only remained one more salute to be made. But little Adam, who was Head-nurse's own son, and who had hitherto been Baby Akbar's playmate, refused absolutely to do as he was bid. He was a short, sturdy boy of five, and nothing would induce him to go down on his knees and touch the ground with his forehead. In vain Meroo, the cook-boy, promised him sweets if he would only obey orders; in vain Old Faithful spoke of a ride on his old war-horse, and Roy, who was a most wonderful story-teller, promised him the best of all, Bopuluchi. In vain his mother, losing patience at such a terrible piece of indecorum, rushed at him and cuffed him soundly. He only howled and kicked.
And then suddenly Baby Akbar, who had been listening with a solemn face, brought his little bare foot down on the mule trunk with such a stamp that the golden anklets jingled and jangled, and his little forefinger went up over his head in the real Eastern attitude of royal command.
"Salute, slave, salute," he said with a tremendous dignity. And there was something so comical about the little mite of a child, something so masterful in the tiny figure, something so commanding in the loud, deep-toned baby voice, that every one laughed, and somehow or other Adam forgot his obstinacy and made his obeisance like a good boy.
And then once more pretty Queen Humeeda hugged and kissed her little son, and all the rest applauded him, and made so much of him that he began to think he had done something very fine indeed, and crowed and clapped his hands in delight.
But the merriment did not last long, for there was a clatter of horses and swords outside the tent.
"My husband!" cried Queen Humeeda in a flutter. "What news does my lord bring?"
THE FIRST VICTORY
The next moment a tall, handsome man entered the tent; but one look at his pale, anxious face was enough to tell those inside that the news was bad. So for an instant there was silence; and in the silence, with a deafening roar and a blinding blaze of blue light, came a terrific crash of thunder followed by a sudden fierce pelt of hail upon the taut tent roof.
It sent a shiver through the listeners. They felt that the storm had broken indeed upon their heads, that danger was close beside them.
Then the King stepped to his wife's side and took her hand, and as he spoke there was a sob in his breath as of an animal who after a long chase finds himself at last driven to bay.
"Come!" he said briefly, "there may yet be a chance for us. My horse, weary though it be, will suffice for thy light weight. In the mountains lies possible safety. Come! There is not a moment to lose."
"But—but the child—" faltered the Queen.
King Humayon's voice failed him. He could not speak for a moment; but he shook his head.
"I will not leave the child—" began the wretched mother. "My lord! thou canst not have the heart——"
"It is his only chance—" interrupted the poor King, his face full of grief and anger, of bitter, bitter regret—"His only chance of life! In the mountains yonder, with winter snow upon us, lies certain death for one so young. Were we to stay with him here, he would find death with us—for my brother Askurry is close behind us. But if we are gone, God knows, but he might spare the child. Askurry is not all unkind, and the little lad favors my father so much that his blessed memory may be safeguard. God send it so. It is his best chance, his only chance. So come——"
"I cannot! I cannot!" moaned the poor mother distractedly.
"There is no other way, sweetheart!" said the King, "so be brave, little mother, and come for thy son's sake. He will be safer here than with thee. Come! trusting in God's mercy for the child. And come quickly while the darkness of the storm shrouds our going."
Then he looked round on those others—Head-nurse, Wet-nurse, Old Faithful, Roy the Rajput, and Meroo the cook-boy—not much of a bodyguard for the young prince, and yet, since force would be useless, perhaps as good as any other, if they had a head between them. But the nurses were women, Faithful nothing but an old soldier, and the two others were mere boys. Some one else must be left. Who? Then he remembered Foster-father, Foster-mother's husband. He was the man. Solid, sober, clear-headed. So, as Queen Humeeda was being hurriedly wrapped in a shawl by the two weeping nurses, he gave them a few directions. They were to stay where they were, no matter what happened, until Foster-father returned from showing the fugitives a path he knew to the mountains, and then——
King Humayon could say no more. Only as, after a hurried, tearless, hopeless farewell to his little son, he paused at the tent door to take a last look, his half-fainting wife in his arms, he said suddenly in a sharp, loud voice:
"Remember! In your charge lies the safety of the Heir-to-Empire."
The words sank into the very hearts of those who stood watching the group of hurrying figures making its way rapidly toward the hills.
"Pray Heaven," muttered Old Faithful anxiously, "that they be over the rise before those who follow see them."
So they stood fearfully watching, watching. And Heaven was kind, for though one great blue blaze of lightning showed the fugitives clear against the sky line, when the next came there was nothing but the rugged rocks.
Then for the first time Baby Akbar, who had been silent in his nurses' arms, watching with the rest, lifted up his deep-toned baby voice:
"Daddy, Amma," he said contentedly, "gone up in a 'ky."
Whereupon Foster-mother wept loudly and prayed that good angels might protect her darling.
But Head-nurse was more practical, and set about considering how best that safety might be secured. Who was there who could help? No one of much use, truly, though every one was brimful of devotion and ready to give his or her life for the Heir-to-Empire.
"I will kill the first man who dares—" began Old Faithful.
"Aye! The first! But how about the last, old man?" interrupted Head-nurse. "Force will be of no avail. Askurry hath half an army with him."
"Harm shall only come to the child through my body," wept Foster-mother, whereat Head-nurse laughed scornfully.
"Woman's flesh is a poor shield, fool! God send we find better protection than thy carcass."
"Boo! hoo!" blubbered Meroo the cook-boy. "Lo! Head-nurse! I could kill a whole army by poisoning their suppers."
Head-nurse nodded faint approval. "Now, there is some sense in that, scullion, but what about that they may do supperless? If they should dare——"
"They will not dare," said a clear, sharp voice, and Roy the Rajput lad stepped forward, a light in his great eyes. "My mother used to say, 'Fear not! A king's son is a king's son always, so be that he forgets not kingship.'"
Head-nurse stood puzzled for a second, then she caught the meaning of the lad's words, for she was a clever, capable woman, and had all a woman's quickness.
"Thou art right, my lad," she said slowly, looking curiously at Roy, from whose face the flash of memory seemed to have passed. "Thou art right. In royalty lies safety. The Heir-to-Empire must receive his enemies as a King! Quick! slaves! Close the tent door and let us bring forth all we have, and make all things as regal as we can. There is no time to lose."
And they did not lose any. The result being that when, quarter of an hour afterward, Prince Askurry, bitterly disappointed at finding that his real quarry, the King and Queen, had escaped, strode with some of his followers into the tent where he was told Baby Akbar was to be found, he paused at the door, first in astonishment and then in amusement.
It was really rather a pretty picture which he saw. To begin with the tent had been lit up with the little rushlight lamps they call in India chiraghs—tiny saucers which can be made of mud in which a cotton wick floats in a few drops of oil—and a row of these outlined the mule trunk throne. Then Meroo's misshapen limbs had been hidden under a chain corselet and helmet, so he made quite a respectable fellow to Old Faithful, as the two supporters stood bolt upright with drawn swords one on either side, while beneath them, on the ragged old Persian carpet which had been spread to hide the dirty tent drugget, crouched Head-nurse and Foster-mother, their faces veiled with their best gold embroidered veils.
A great pile of cushions had been placed on the muletrunk, and in the centre of these sat Baby Akbar, the Royal heron's plume of his turban waving gently in the breeze caused by the slow dignified sweep of the Royal fan which Roy, who stood behind his young master, was swinging backwards and forwards.
But it was not the prettiness of the picture which made Prince Askurry pause. It was the child's open fearless face which reminded him at once—as King Humayon had hoped it might—of that dear, beloved father whose memory, even in their worst wickednesses, was ever a good influence in the lives of his sons. Babar the Brave! Babar of the Generous Heart! the Kindly Smile! Who could forget him?
But behind Prince Askurry were others who did not remember; who were eager to kill and have done with Humayon and his son for ever.
And when they saw Prince Askurry pause, they were quick with advice.
"It is unwise to spare snakes' spawn," said one.
"The boy is father to the man," said another. "He who is wise kills young rats as well as old ones."
And still Prince Askurry paused while poor Head-nurse and Wet-nurse went sick with fear under their veils at what might be going to happen, and Old Faithful's hand clasped the hilt of his sword tighter, since come what may he meant to strike one blow for his young master. But Roy's keen eyes showed—as the peacock's feather fan swept past them backwards and forwards—like a hawk's as it hovers above a partridge. There was in them a defiance, a certainty that victory must come.
Suddenly a wicked laugh filled the tent. "Peace! brothers," said a sneering voice, "Prince Askurry prefers to leave the snake to fight with his own son in the future."
The taunt told. It was true! Better to scotch the snake now, than to leave it to be dangerous by and by; dangerous perhaps to his own little son who was but a few years older than Baby Akbar.
Prince Askurry strode forward drawn sword in hand; but whether he really meant to use it or not cannot be told, for a very strange thing happened. Baby Akbar had been listening to the fierce voices just as he had listened to the angry voices when Adam had refused to salute. And now he saw some one before him who appeared to have no intention—as Adam had no intention—of making his reverence; so, remembering the fine thing he had done when the latter had been naughty, up went the little hand again, and once more the loud, deep, baby voice said imperiously:
"Salute! Slave! salute!"
The words were barely uttered when by pure chance Prince Askurry's foot caught in the ragged carpet, and——?
And down he came flat as a pancake on the floor in the very lowliest salute that ever was made!
The next moment, however, he sat up, half-stunned, and looked wrathfully at his little nephew.
But Baby Akbar's honest open face was full of grieved sympathy.
"Poor, poor!" he said, shaking his quaintly crowned head, "tumbu down. Nanna kiss it, make it well."
Prince Askurry sat stupidly staring for a moment or two. Then the memory of many a childish hurt cured by like gracious offer from his father came back to him, making his heart soft. He sprang to his feet and waved by his councillors to cruelty.
"Go, my lords!" he cried fiercely. "Go seek the King who is no true King if ye will, and kill him. But this boy goes with me to Kandahar; the stuff of which he is made counts for life, not for death."
Then with a sudden generous impulse, for he was at heart his father's son, he held the hilt of his drawn sword in token of vassalage for Baby Akbar to touch.
And the child, clever, observant beyond his years, remembering how his mother had guided his fingers to Old Faithful's weapon, put out his little hand solemnly and touched it.
Behind their close-folded veils Head-nurse and Wet-nurse wept for joy. And the old trooper's grip relaxed and the hard relentless look faded from Roy's face.
For here was safety, for a while at any rate, for the Heir-to-Empire.
He, and Fate between them, had won his first victory. No! his second, since the first had been the conquering of Adam's obstinacy.
But for that Baby Akbar might not have behaved with such dignity.
THE ROYAL UMBRELLA
That night even Roy the Rajput, who as a rule woke every hour to see to his little master's safety, slept sound. And so did the others, though they sat up till Foster-father crept in to the tent about midnight, after having seen the Royal Fugitives safely over the Persian border. Of course, there was nothing but miles on miles of snowy mountains before them, nothing but long struggle and privation to be hoped for; still they were out of India, out of an enemy's country. For which Heaven be thanked!
So they wrapped themselves in their quilts and lay down to rest with hearts eased for the time of immediate anxiety.
Head-nurse, however, began at once, after her wont, to make plans for resuming some of the courtly ways which hurry had made impossible. The gold embroidered royal red umbrella was one thing she was determined to have.
But who was to hold it over the Royal Infant? Roy would get tired of it during a long march. He was but a boy; and after all there should be a Deputy, Assistant, Second, Umbrella Bearer to Majesty.
Could Meroo, properly dressed, of course, be promoted to the position?
She actually woke Foster-father from his well-earned first sleep to propound this knotty question.
"Good woman," he murmured patiently, "make what court appointments ye will. Create the scullion Prime Minister, so I have my sleep."
And he was snoring almost before the words were out of his mouth.
So next morning Head-nurse, refusing the baggage camel with panniers which Prince Askurry sent for the use of the little Heir-to-Empire, organised a procession of her own.
First of all came Foster-father, stout and solid, on his skew-bald hill pony which was called Horse-chestnut because it was patched all over, like an unripe chestnut, with yellow, brown and white.
It had a lovely tail that touched the ground, and a coat that was long and wavy like an Irish setter's. A wise, sober pony was Horse-chestnut; he never attempted to climb up anything he thought too difficult, but just gave a look at it to make sure and then put down his head calmly, and began to graze until his rider found an easier path.
Next came Trooper Faithful on his old white charger Lightning. Once upon a time it had been like its name, swift exceedingly, but now, like its master, it was slow and stiff.
Then followed Head-nurse, astride, in Indian fashion, the bay Belooch mare which had been Queen Humeeda's favourite mount until it had had to be left behind in one of the hasty moves which had of late been so common in the hunted life of the Royal Fugitives. The mare, of course, had been taken by the pursuers, and brought along with them; and the groom in charge of it had come grinning with delight to Foster-father when he found himself in the same camp again. Foster-father was for riding the bay mare himself and giving sober Horse-chestnut to the Heir-to-Empire, but Head-nurse would not hear of this. The bay mare was, she said, altogether more royal. So there she was, with Baby Akbar astride a cushion in front, perched on the skittish creature, feeling at heart very nervous, for she was but a poor rider. However, she held on very tight with one hand, held Baby Akbar still tighter with the other, and trusted to Providence, while Roy and Meroo ran beside her on either side, alternately holding up the Royal Umbrella as best they could.
Foster-mother on a mule, with little Adam perched in front of her brought up the rear of the procession. It was a poor one for progress even along the levels, because of the bay mare's fidgeting and caperings, but when the steep hill sides were reached it became impossible to keep up with the rest of the equipage. So Prince Askurry and his men pushed on ahead leaving the little party alone, since escape was impossible on that wild mountain road, especially with the rear guard of the camp coming a few miles behind them. And, indeed, if such an idea had entered the heads of any of the party it must soon have fled before the difficulty of getting along at all. It was a steep zig-zag path, and looking upwards you could see it zigging and zagging right away to the sky line. Poor Foster-mother, who came last, could not take her eyes off it, for the bends immediately above her were filled with the most terrifying sights. First her stout husband, who seemed to be in the act of slipping over Horse-chestnut's tail. On the next Old Faithful, driven to dismounting and laboriously lugging Lightning up by the bridle. But the last zig-zag in front of her called forth piercing shrieks. For the bay mare, not having been ridden for some time, was full of beans. Baby Akbar insisted on holding the reins, and Meroo, whose turn it was to hold the umbrella, would slip and slither among the stones, thereby bringing its fringe right on the bay mare's nose.
"Oh! Head-nurse, have a care! The blessed child!" shrieked poor Foster-mother as a more than usually bad stumble sent the umbrella on to the mare's tail.
This was too much for it. Frightened out of its senses, it gave a frenzied bound forwards, then rearing straight up, hung over the edge of the path, as if it meant to take a downward plunge.
All seemed lost! Foster-father and Faithful stood petrified with despair. Meroo would have dashed forward to catch at the rein but Roy, knowing with that curious instinct of his, that that would only make matters worse, as it would still further frighten the mare, held him back by main force. The only person who was not spellbound with fear was Baby Akbar. He thought it a fine joke that his mount should stand up on its hind legs and paw the air. So he shrieked with delight, and dropped the reins to clap his hands, as he always did when he was pleased. Now this was the very best thing he, or anybody else, could have done. The mare, feeling herself free, thought better of it, and wheeling round dropped her fore feet on the path once more.
Foster-father's loud Arabic thanksgiving ended in an equally loud order. "Get off the mare, woman. Horse-chestnut is the only mount thou art fit for. Roy! carry that foolish umbrella behind."
"In front—the emblems are ever carried in front," protested Head-nurse feebly.
"I said behind," was all the answer she got, and behind it went while they toiled up and up.
After a while the road became surprisingly bad; nothing in fact but a watercourse, and Foster-father began to doubt if they could be on the right way. Possibly, when they were all excited over the mare's bad behaviour, they had taken a wrong turning. But as the path led ever upwards, he judged it better to go on, though it was terribly hard work. Every moment the road became worse and worse until it ceased to be more than a mere ladder of rocks which puzzled even Horse-chestnut. More than once he stopped dead and would no doubt have refused any further attempt to climb had there been anything at which to graze. But there was nothing; nothing but rocks. So, after a pause he made the best of a bad bargain, raised himself on his hind legs, sought a foothold for his fore feet in some crevice, and then scrambled up. Only the two children enjoyed themselves, Baby Akbar laughing with delight and clapping his hands over all the slips and slitherings which even nimble Horse-chestnut made, and which reduced Head-nurse and Wet-nurse to piteous wails to Roy not for Heaven's sake to let go of the Heir-to-Empire's baggy trousers. And Adam enjoyed himself, also, running on in front and making snowballs in the drifts which, ere long, were to be seen sheltering from the sun in the clefts of the rocks.
The sight of them made Foster-father frown. "We go too high," he said. "Heaven send we have not to climb to a higher pass."
His remark made Head-nurse give way altogether. She wept loudly, saying in that case she had better stay and die where she was, thus saving them the trouble of carrying her down the hill.
At that very moment, however, Adam who had run far ahead began waving his arms and shouting:
"He says 'The top! the top!'" cried Roy, who was keen in hearing as in everything else. "Courage, mother! our troubles are over!"
They had not quite ended, but in a few minutes more they had reached the beginning of the pass proper. Before them lay a grassy boggy slope curling gently upwards between higher rockier slopes. A little stream plashed softly adown it, through a perfect wilderness of flowers, and without one word the tired travellers threw themselves beside it for rest and refreshment.
But Baby Akbar looked a little troubled.
"Amma, Dadda 'way 'way in a 'ky," he said solemnly, and essayed to crawl on over the grass. For he could not walk yet, though he spoke so well. They say he began to talk when he was nine months old.
After a while the party started on their way once more feeling greatly brisked up. But the heat of the day was now upon them, and though the snow lay close beside the path, the fierce sun melting it made the vapour rise and turned the narrow valley into a regular steam bath.
The perspiration ran down the travellers' faces and especially down poor Head-nurse's; for she had insisted on taking off her veil to twist it turbanwise round Baby Akbar's head since the Royal Umbrella was forbidden. Foster-mother had tried to take off hers also, but Head-nurse had angrily forbidden her to do any such thing. If she, Head-nurse, died of sunstroke what matter, but if Foster-mother failed, what—even though one back tooth had been gloriously cut—would become of the Heir-to-Empire, the Admired-of-the-World, the Great-in-Pomp, etc.?
So, to comfort herself she went on mumbling titles as she struggled along, the sun beating fiercely on her bare head. Such a quaint head, with sleek black hair parted and plaited and hung with jewels, even down the long pigtail of brown wool that was added on to the back to make the hair look more plentiful.
It was a piteous sight and Foster-mother was so conscious of the devotion it meant that she said "Lo! Head-nurse, thou art a good, good soul though a hard one to me; but I will never, never, never, forget this day."
"Nor I," groaned Head-nurse, "but 'tis for the Heir-to-Empire."
It was a full hour before the slope ended in a level bog, on the other side of which began a visible descent. Then in the angled hills a blue shadow began to rise, telling of a valley below them.
"Bismillah!" (Thanks be to God) cried Foster-father piously. And every one echoed the remark except Baby Akbar. He turned round and looked back at the snowy peaks which were beginning to show behind them.
"Amma, Dadda 'way 'way mountains," he said regretfully and his little mouth went down as for a cry, when everybody's attention was distracted by the sudden appearance of a huge furry black dog which came bounding down the hill side, its big white teeth gleaming as it uttered shrill, sharp, growling barks.
Head-nurse and Foster-mother shrieked with fright, little Adam ran like a hare for the shelter of his mother's petticoats, and Meroo the cook-boy, remembering his bare legs—for like all Indian scullions he wore short cotton drawers—squatted down where he was standing, in order to protect them. Even Roy, brave boy that he was, looked uncomfortable, and both Foster-father and Old Faithful whipped out their swords.
These were not needed, however, for the next instant a wild-looking figure clad in a brown blanket started up from behind a rock and shouted to the dog. It stopped instantly, but stood still—snarling, though obedient.
It was the funniest looking dog you can imagine. Bigger than a big collie, it was furry all over even to its tail. And it was black as ink. In fact with its tiny prick ears and small sharp pointed muzzle all lost in a huge soft black ruff and nothing to be seen but red tongue, white teeth and beady black eyes, it was a regular golliwog of a dog.
When Foster-father saw the man in the brown blanket, who from his crook was evidently a shepherd, he heaved a sigh of relief. "Now," he said, "we shall be able to find out our way."
But he was mistaken. The man did not understand a word they said, neither could they understand a word he said.
Head-nurse was in despair. "He speaks like a ghost of the desert," she wept. "We shall all die of starvation before he understands."
"Die?" echoed Foster-father stoutly. "Not so, woman! There is one language all understand."
Whereupon he placed himself right in front of the shepherd, opened his mouth wide and then shook his head. Next he pointed to his stomach and shook his head again. Finally he began to chew violently, rubbed his stomach and grinned.
The shepherd grinned too and rubbed his stomach, whereupon Foster-father turned triumphantly to Head-nurse.
"Said I not sooth, woman," he asked. "Hunger hath a tongue of its own, and all men know it."
Once begun, signs soon brought so much understanding, that, whistling to his dog, the shepherd started down the hill at a great pace, beckoning them to follow.
"Not so fast, friend, not so fast!" panted Foster-father, "we be not all born on a mountain as thou art. And there are women and children, too." He pointed to poor Head-nurse and Foster-mother, who were indeed dropping with fatigue, and the man seemed to understand, for he pulled up. But he had to keep some way off because his dog, who kept close as a shadow to his master's heels, never ceased growling. So they tramped on wearily until just below them they saw a marg or mountain upland, where some goats were grazing. One part of this dipped down into a little valley, and there, in the shelter of some huge rocks, they saw two or three small brown blanket tents, such as shepherds use on the Beluchistan hills. They were just like waggon tilts only not so large.
Here, at any rate, was prospect of food and rest, and the poor travellers brisked up again. But alas! between them and the tents lay a formidable obstacle. Nothing less than a birch-twig bridge over a rushing stream which filled up the bottom of a wide rift or chasm in the upland. This chasm stretched right across the upland from a steep rock which blocked up the head of the little valley, and out of which the stream gushed, and there was no way of crossing it, so the shepherd explained by signs, except the birch-twig bridge. Now a birch-twig bridge is a very terrifying thing to anybody who is not accustomed to them. It is simply a strong flat plait of birch twigs about nine inches wide which is flung from one side to the other, and which, of course, droops and sags like a rope in the middle. Into this plait are stuck every few feet or so cross sticks, and to these sticks a rope is fastened as a sort of hand rail. Across such a bridge as this the hill children walk as easily as an English child does over a great brick span; but Head-nurse resolutely refused to set foot over it herself, much less to allow the Heir-to-Empire to risk his neck on such an appallingly dangerous structure. In vain Foster-father, in order to set a good example, allowed himself to be led over by the shepherd with his eyes carefully bandaged lest he should get giddy in the middle by looking down. As a matter of fact, this only made Head-nurse more frightened, for, of course, the bridge swung and swayed with the weight of the men on it. She would sooner, she declared, try to climb Heaven on a rainbow! That was at least steady. Roy tried to hearten her up by walking over himself with open eyes, though he felt frightfully dizzy and had to fling himself flat on the grass to recover when he did get over. Then Meroo, blubbering loudly that he was going to his death for his young master, climbed up on the shepherd's back and allowed himself to be carried over just to show how easy it was.
It was all in vain! Head-nurse was firm. They must bring the tents to the Heir-to-Empire; the Heir-to-Empire should not go across a tight rope to the tents. And there she would have remained had not a great, tall burly woman with a fat baby on her hip come out of one of the tents, and grasping the position, stalked over the bridge without even touching the hand rail, caught Baby Akbar from Foster-mother, who was too taken aback to resist, set him on her other hip and calmly stalked back again, leaving the two women too surprised and horrified even to scream.
But when they saw the Heir-to-Empire safe on the other side, they consented to be carried across pick-a-back.
So there they were before long eating goats' milk cheese fried like a beefsteak and drinking long draughts of a sort of sour milk.
One of the shepherds could speak a little Persian, and from him Foster-father, to his great relief, learned that Prince Askurry's camp was only a mile or two down the valley, so, feeling certain of being able to reach it before sundown, he called a halt, and they all lay down to rest in one of the tents, Baby Akbar between his two nurses for safety sake. For one could never tell, Head-nurse remarked, what might happen amongst people who spoke the language of ghosts in the desert, and kept such strange animals. A great golliwog of a black dog who sat on one side of the tent like an image, watching them as if he meant to eat them, and a great fluff of a white cat sitting on the other with her eyes shut as if she did not want to watch them.
No! Indeed it was impossible to tell what might not happen!
And that is exactly how it turned out. What really did happen no one knew. It was Foster-mother who, waking first, let loose a shriek while still half awake. This roused Head-nurse, who let loose another. For Baby Akbar was no longer between them. The Heir-to-Empire had gone—had disappeared—was not to be found!
Roy was out of the tent in a second, treading in his haste on Meroo, who was sleeping outside, and who began to howl confusedly. Old Faithful fumbled for his sword, Foster-father rubbed his eyes as if they must be at fault.
But there was no Baby! And what is more, both the black dog and the white cat had disappeared also; at least they were no longer on the watch.
Never was there such a commotion. The rocks resounded with cries and every one searched everywhere; even in the great tall basket panniers in which hill shepherds carry their goods and chattels.
But not one sign of the little fellow was to be found, until—horribly, dreadfully, near to that awful birch-twig bridge—Foster-mother seized on a tiny gold-embroidered skull cap that was lying on the grass.
"It is his!" she sobbed, "it is my darling's! He hath tried to get to the mountains to his Amma, and he hath fallen from that accursed cats' cradle. He is dead! He is killed!"
Every face, except the shepherds', who did not, of course, understand what was said, turned pale. It was indeed possible, perhaps probable, that the faithful little soul, who remembered when others forgot, had tried——
It was a terrible thought. But the shepherds, seeing the cap, at once whistled to their dog, and the one who spoke Persian explained that if it were shown the cap it would take up the track of the child at once.
But though they whistled and whistled no dog came.
Then the shepherds began to look grave and mutter among themselves.
"What are they saying? What gibberish are they talking?" shrilled poor Head-nurse, trying to keep hope alive by being angry. The man who spoke Persian looked at her cheerfully.
"Only that perhaps the dog has eaten the child. We keep it hungry that it may chase the wild animals."
This was too much for the womankind. They simply rent the air with heartbroken sobs.
But Foster-father, grave and silent, would not give up hope. Every foot of the ravine must be searched, first downwards, as, had the child really fallen into the stream it must have been carried with it. Then as a last forlorn hope upwards. So, peering down carefully from either side, they traced the ravine till, gradually becoming shallower, less steep, it merged into the grassy valley. But there was no sign. Then sadly they commenced their upward search, until they were close to the high cliff whence the stream gushed out. Here they found that the ravine was wider, and at the bottom of it a patch of sand and boulders showed that there was foothold beside the roaring torrent.
"I will climb down and see if there is aught," said Roy; "it is easier here—if he had fallen here, he might—" the tears in his voice prevented more, as he tucked up his garments preparatory to the difficult descent.
But the shepherds raised an urgent outcry. There was a demon in the cavern, they said, whence the water came. There was no use angering it, no use in losing another life.
Roy struggled madly in their detaining hands, but Old Faithful and Foster-father looked at each other. Whether there was a demon or not it was a risk to another life and that should not be a young one.
"No, boy!" said the old warrior stoutly. "This is my task, not thine. I am good swordsman to begin with, and demons—if there be any—like not a clean sword thrust. Also I have been pilgrim to Holy Mecca and demons—if there be any—like not pilgrims' flesh."
So, muttering prayers and holding his drawn sword in his teeth, since both hands were needed for the parlous descent, he commenced his task while the others watched him eagerly.
About half way down he paused, looked up and called back; but they could not hear what he said.
"Take thy sword out of thy mouth, man," shrieked Head-nurse almost beside herself with grief and rage; "it isn't manners to speak with the mouth full."
True enough, but Old Faithful had some difficulty in obeying orders. However, he managed to steady himself for a moment on his two feet; so sword in hand he bawled back.
"'Tis true! There is a demon. It growls. I hear it plainly. Farewell! I go on, secure in my sword and Holy——"
Here a foot slipped and he went sliding, slithering, slipping down to the bottom where, happily only bruised, he sat half-stunned staring in front of him.
And then there echoed up to the listeners the most terrible barking, and yelping, and growling, and spitting, that ever was heard!
"The demon! The demon!" yelled the shepherds in terror, and ran for their lives.
But Roy, ear over the cliff, listened for a second, and the next had followed Old Faithful. Foster-father was not long behind him, and Meroo was close on his heels. Foster-mother and Head-nurse were not to be left out, and somehow they all managed to get down in safety.
And then they all stood and sat silent and agape with surprise and delight.
For what they saw was this. A low cavern in the rock, and on a shelving bank of dry sand Baby Akbar sitting up and rubbing his eyes, while on one side of him was the golliwog of a black dog, his fur all bristling, his white teeth gleaming as he filled the air with furious barks; while on the other was the white fluff of a cat, her back arched, her tail the size of two, spitting and growling fiercely.
How had he got there? Foster-father looked at Foster-mother, Head-nurse looked at Old Faithful, and Roy looked at Meroo, and they all looked at each other.
But Baby Akbar only put out one fat hand towards the black dog and said "Tumbu," and the other fat hand towards the cat and said "Down," and that was all he would say.
He had tumbled down; but how, when, and where, and how the dog and the cat came to be with him no one ever knew from that day to this.
ON THE ROAD
Naturally when, after an uneventful journey with the shepherd as guide, they reached Prince Askurry's camp that evening, they came to talk over the incident. Foster-father was not sparing of Head-nurse. The whole tissue of misfortunes, which had ended in Baby Akbar so nearly losing his life—and that he had been spared was simply a miracle—arose from her insisting on a Royal Procession. But for that, both she and the child would have gone comfortably on a camel. They would have kept up with the other baggage animals and none of the distressful events would have happened. It should not, however, happen again. Of course, Head-nurse tried to brazen it out and assert that the Heir-to-Empire could always count on a miracle in his favour; but in her heart-of-hearts she knew that Foster-father was right.
So next morning she said nothing when she saw a camel with two panniers kneeling in front of the tent, ready for its load. That had to be endured, but she revenged herself by objecting to the black dog and the white cat, who sat expectantly one on either side, evidently prepared for a start.
"Whose are those uncouth beasts?" she asked of Roy angrily. "Did I not tell those ghosts of the desert who call themselves shepherds to remove them last night? Why have they come back? Take them away! Catch them! Tie them up! Such mean born animals have no right to attend the Mighty-in-Pomp, the Lord-of-Light," etc., etc.
She rolled out the titles sonorously, determined that if she was docked of dignity in one way she would have it in another.
Now it was not very hard to catch the big black golliwog of a dog, even though he did snarl and snap and try to bite. There were a lot of camp followers who were only too glad to have the amusement of capturing him, so, after a very short space poor "Tumbu," for Baby Akbar insisted on calling him so, was being dragged off at the end of a long rope to his masters the shepherds, looking very sad, with his tail between his legs.
But it was quite different with "Down," the cat. She had made up her mind to stay where she was, and it is very hard, indeed, to make a cat change its mind when it is once made up.
So she moved about gently, from one place to the other, purring softly and looking as mild as milk, her blue eye—for real Persian cats often have their eyes of different colours and one of them is always blue—ever so friendly, as if she were just longing to be picked up. Only the very tip of her bushy tail swayed a little, and that is a sure sign that a cat is contrary. And contrary Down was. The very instant any one tried to pick her up—why! she was somewhere else!
Head-nurse ere long joined in the chase, saying all the rest didn't understand cats. But she soon lost patience and declaring that she had never been done by a dumb animal yet, started capture by force. A circle was formed round the point where Down sat blinking in the sunlight, and shawls and veils were held up to make it complete. Then step by step they advanced towards the cat, who, in truth, viewed the enclosing wall with polite indifference. It was really rather a funny sight to see stout Head-nurse without her veil tip-toeing in line towards pussy and shrilling out her orders to the others to close in and be sure to leave no loopholes. Step by step her voice became more and more triumphant, and it really seemed as if the cat must be caught this time, for Down sat sweetly purring until she was actually hidden from sight behind the high-held screening cloths.
"Now then! quick!" shrilled Head-nurse. "Close in—close——"
But her order ended in a scream of fright, for there was pussy in one flying leap on her bare head, scrabbling up her scanty hair, and with another away up the hillside leaving nothing but claw-marks behind her!
Head-nurse wept with angry tears; but Foster-father, always sensible, said "Enough! cry on the camel if you will, but now is the time to slip away before the obstinate animal can return."
There was wisdom in this; therefore Head-nurse composed herself comfortably in one pannier while Foster-mother, who was lighter, settled into the other with Baby Akbar. So off they set at the dignified lollop which camels affect, and Head-nurse began to congratulate herself on having successfully evaded the "uncouth beasts."
But there is no counting on cats. If they are here one moment and gone the next, they are also gone one moment and here the next. So, as the camel was passing under a thorn tree about half a mile out from camp, a great fluff of white hair sprang from the branches and landed right in Head-nurse's broad lap. And there was Mistress Down looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and purring away like a kettle on the boil.
Head-nurse gave in altogether then. "When a cat really makes up its mind," she said with forced wisdom, "it is little use any one else making up theirs!"
So pussy sat in her lap, and after a while the warmth of the pretty creature and even the very roughness of the small three-cornered red tongue that licked her hand, as half-unconsciously she began to stroke the long soft fur, made her say suddenly:
"Who knows but it is the Will of the Creator! This mean-born thing may in the future be of use to the Light-of-the-World, the Observed-of-all-Observers," etc., etc., etc.
And her words were to come true, for, as you will see by and bye, Down was of great use to her little master. Nevertheless when, at the very next camping ground, a great big black golliwog of a dog with a gnawed end of rope still round his neck was seen calmly awaiting them at the door of the tent that was pitched for their reception, Head-nurse became tearful again and said that if Providence intended to send all the wild beasts of the field to look after Baby Akbar, there was no need for her; so she would give up her place.
But the little Prince himself was delighted. He plumped down on the hot sand beside the dog and hugged it, calling it "Dear Tumbu," and when the white cat jealously rubbed her back against his little fat person he hugged her too and called her "Darling Down."
"Hark to the Lord-of-the-Universe giving his creatures names!" said Foster-mother piously. So after that everybody called the golliwog dog Tumbu, and the fluffy cat Down.
This was the beginning of a whole week on camel back; a very pleasant week too, though the minds of the elders were rather on the stretch concerning the fate of King Humayon and Queen Humeeda.
Still the sky was as blue as blue could be, the sun shone bright and the air was crisp with coming winter. Head-nurse spent most of her days dozing and mumbling long strings of titles in one pannier, while Down slept and purred on her lap. In the other pannier were Foster-mother and Baby Akbar. The little fellow did not sleep much, but spent most of his time craning over the pannier side to see everything there was to be seen. But what amused him most was to watch Tumbu, who would look up and bark and gambol for hours to attract his little master's attention. Whereat Down would become impatient and come over the camel's hump from the other pannier, rub her back against the little Prince and watch, too, with a sort of dignified contempt. It was the way of dogs to be loud and effusive, and gushing; but it didn't mean much. Tumbu, for instance, despite his display of affection, would leave his post to run after every wild thing he saw; and though he always came back to it, he was so helplessly breathless, with half a yard of red tongue hanging out, that he would have been little use had an enemy turned up and his protection been needed.
Cats were far wiser. They sat still and watched; so they were always ready.
And one evening Down watched to some purpose. Baby Akbar was asleep on some quilts and Down, as usual, lay keeping his feet warm, her eyes closed, purring away like a steaming kettle.
You would have sworn she was half asleep, but in a second there was one spring, something reared itself at her to strike, but her paws were too quick. One, two, three, came the blows swiftly like boxes on the ears, and there was a snake squirming and helpless in the dust. Old Faithful's armoured feet were on its head in a second and the danger was over.
"Truly a cat is a terrible thing," said Head-nurse in a twitter. "There is no fear in them. The reptile had not a chance."
But Down was back on her young master's feet, her eyes closed, purring away as if nothing had happened.
Tumbu was in favour, however, next evening, but for a different cause. He appeared with a great prickly porcupine held gingerly in his mouth and laid it before Baby Akbar.
"Ohi! Porcupine for supper!" cried Meroo, the cook boy, who knew what a delicacy it was; but Head-nurse shrieked, "Take it away quick—the Heir-to-Empire will prick himself with the quills and they are poisonous. Take it away at once, I say."
But alas! The Heir-to-Empire was wilful, like all Eastern Princelings, and he shrieked to match at the suggestion. So there arose such a hubbub, which was only calmed by Baby Akbar being allowed to do as he chose.
"Poor! Poor!" he said as his little hand touched the sharp prickles and no one found out, till Foster-mother came to put him to bed, that he really did scratch himself. There was quite a little runnel of blood on the palm; but Akbar, even when he was a baby, was proud. He knew how to bear discomfort and punishment when it was his own fault.
They were all rather merry that night, for they had roast porcupine stuffed with pistachio nuts for supper. And afterward Roy sat by Baby Akbar's pile of quilts and sang him to sleep with this royal lullaby:
"Baby, Baby-ling, You are always King; Always wear a crown, Though you tumble down; Call each thing your own, Find each lap a throne; Dearest, sweetest King, Baby! Baby-ling!"
When the child had fallen asleep Roy sat at the door of the tent and looked at the stars, which shone, as they do in the East, all colours, like jewels in the velvety sky. They seemed so far away, but not farther than he seemed to be from himself. For Roy's head had been dreadfully confused by that sunstroke in the desert. Only that morning something had seemed to come back to him in a flash, and he had so far forgotten he was only a page boy as to call the little Heir-to-Empire "Brother," but Head-nurse's cuff had brought him back to reality in double quick time. And as he sat there in the dark he saw a man creeping stealthily to the tent. He was on his feet in a moment challenging him.
"Hush!" whispered the newcomer, "I bring a message from King Humayon. I must see Foster-father at once."
The good man was already between the quilts, but he got up quickly, and when he had heard the message he sent for Head-nurse and Foster-mother and Old Faithful, for he felt that a most momentous decision had to be made. Yet the message was a very simple one. Those in charge of the child were to creep away that very night with the messenger, who would guide them in safety to King Humayon, who had found help and shelter in Persia.
Head-nurse and Foster-mother wept tears of joy at the glad news, and proposed at once that they should wrap the child in a blanket and start. But Foster-father was more wary.
"You come as a thief in the darkness," he said. "Where is your token from the king, that I may know who you are?"
But there was no token.
"Then the child stays where he is," asserted Foster-father boldly. "Am I not right oh! Faithful?"
"Assuredly my lord is right. Who knows but this man may be an emissary of those who would wile away the little lad from his uncle, Prince Askurry's protection. His other uncle, Kumran, is not so kind."
The messenger scowled at the old man. "As you please," he began blusteringly, "but those who disobey the King's order may find their lives forfeit."
"Mine is forfeit already to the child's service," replied Foster-father with spirit. "And without a token I stir not—Peace! woman," he added to Head-nurse, who would fain have sided with the messenger, "and go fetch the Heir-to-Empire's cap. That shall go as sign that he is his father's vassal, to do what he is told when the order comes accredited. So take that as my answer to those who sent you, sir messenger!"
So despite Head-nurse's protestations the man went off with nothing but the little gold-laced skull cap. And he had not to go far; only into a tent on the outskirts of the camp. For Foster-father's suspicions had been correct, and he had been sent to try and entice the child by some of Prince Kumran's partisans who, booted and spurred, and with a swift pacing camel for the child, were waiting eagerly for the return of their messenger.
Their faces fell as he flung the little cap upon the ground.
"The old fox is too wary," he said. "We must get at the child some other way."
One of the party took up the cap and fingered it, half idly. "He has a large-sized head for his years," he remarked; "if it be full of brains, hereafter he may do well."
Of course, the messenger never returned from King Humayon with the token; but Foster-father was a good-natured man and did not boast of his wisdom to Head-nurse, who, however, remained wonderfully meek and silent until at the end of a fortnight's marching they saw, against the blue of the distant valley, the white domes of the town of Kandahar with the citadel rising above them. Then, with the chance of a court before her once more, she began chattering of ceremonials and titles and etiquettes.
"Praise be!" she shrilled in her high voice. "No more jiggettings and joggettings on camel back. I shall be on my own feet once more, and it shall not be my fault if His just dues are not given to the Great-in-Pomp——" etc., etc.
Foster-mother interrupted the string of titles. "So that they harm not the child," she said, clasping her charge tight. She was always thinking of his safety, always alarmed for danger; but he, young Turk that he was, struggled from her arms and pointed to the hills they were leaving behind them.
"Dadda, Amma 'way 'way mountains," he repeated once more; then added cheerfully, "Akka 'way, too."
"It is a prophecy!" said Old Faithful, overhearing the remark. "Sure his grand-dad Baber—on whom be peace—had the gift, and this babe may have inherited it."
"May have," echoed Head-nurse indignantly. "He has inherited it, and has much of his own besides. Mark my words! if this child live—which Heaven grant—he will be the King of Kings! Not two summers old and he talks as one of three."
"Aye!" assented Foster-mother, "but he does not walk yet."
Head-nurse sniffed. "Thou are a foolish soul, woman! Sure either the feet or the tongue must come first, and for my part I prefer the tongue. Any babe can walk!"
And Foster-mother was silent; it was true one could not have everything.
Their last camp was pitched just outside the city of Kandahar, so that Prince Askurry could make a regular triumphal entry the next morning and let everybody see with their own eyes that he had come back victorious, holding Baby Akbar as prisoner and hostage.
But this did not suit Head-nurse at all. She had no notion that her Heir-to-Empire should be stared at as a captive; so, though she started from camp humbly as ever on the baggage camel, no sooner had they passed through the arched gate of the city with Prince Askurry well ahead of them in the narrow streets, than out she whipped the Royal Umbrella which she had patched up with an old scarlet silk petticoat, and there was Baby Akbar under its shadow; and, having—young as he was—been taught to salute to a crowd, he began waving his little fat hand with much dignity, until the people who had come out to gape whispered among themselves and said:
"He looks every inch a king's son."
"And that is what he is," said a bold voice in the crowd; but though folk turned to see who spoke, there was no sign of the speaker. For loyal men had to hide their loyalty in those days. Still the populace were pleased with the little Prince's bearing, and many a hand was raised to welcome him.
Before they reached the frowning palace, indeed, where Prince Askurry kept a right royal court as Governor of Kandahar, Head-nurse's mind was full of the things she intended to insist upon for the honour and dignity of her small charge. Meanwhile she had to obey the order to take him at once into Princess Sultanam's apartments. Now Princess Sultanam was Prince Askurry's wife, and she had a boy of her own who was about three years older than Baby Akbar, and a little daughter who had just been born about a month before. So, as she lay among cushions at the farther end of the long room, with Prince Askurry, who had hurried to see his wife on his return, beside her, she looked suspiciously at the child which Head-nurse put down on the Persian carpet as soon as she came into the room; since though others might carry him to the upstarts at the farther end, she was not going to do so, when they were clearly bound to come humbly to the Heir-to-Empire and prostrate themselves before him!
So there stood Baby Akbar, fair and square, steadying himself by Head-nurse's petticoats, but for all that looking bold and big and brave.
Now Princess Sultanam was a kindly foolish woman at heart, much given to impulses, and the sight of the upstanding little boy made her think instantly what a fine man he would make, and that brought another thought which made her sit up delightedly and clap her hands.
"I have it, my lord!" she exclaimed, turning to Prince Askurry. "It is a grand idea! We will betroth our little Amina to this young master. That will settle everything and they will be the handsomest couple in the country!"
Now, strange as this may sound to my readers, Prince Askurry, who was accustomed to the Indian habit of settling that quite little boys and girls should marry each other when they grew up, could not help at once seeing that his wife's suggestion was not such a bad one. It would help him to keep a hold over the little Heir-to-Empire. If King Humayon returned it would make him more inclined to forgive, and if he did not, why! it would prevent cruel brother Kumran from stepping in and getting all, since as father-in-law to the young king he, Askurry, would be Regent.
Still, taken aback, he hummed and hawed.
"It would be a long time to wait until they are old enough to marry," he began.
"Long!" interrupted the lively Princess gaily. "All the longer for merriment and festivities. Thy daughter, my lord, is already beautiful, and I'll wager the boy will be a grown man ere we have time to turn round. So that is settled. Therefore come hither, oh nephew! Jallaluddin Mahomed Akbar, since that is thy long name, and kiss thy cousin Amina—Nurse! bring my sweeting hither. Now then, woman," she continued sharply, addressing Head-nurse, who stood petrified with astonishment and anger at the very idea of such scant ceremony. "If the boy cannot walk, carry him!"
Head-nurse could scarcely speak. To be called "Woman" by an upstart—for Prince Askurry had married Princess Sultanam for her beauty—was too much!
"The Feet-of-the-Most-Condescending-of-Majesties," she began pompously, "have not yet conferred happiness on the earth by treading it underfoot, neither——"
Here she broke off hurriedly, for at that very instant, as if in denial of her words, Baby Akbar gave a little crow of assent, let go her petticoats, and with outspread balancing arms, and legs very wide apart, launched himself boldly for his very first steps!
"Bismillah!" (Well done!) shrieked Foster-mother in delight.
"Bismillah! Bismillah!" echoed every one in the room, while all eyes full of smiles were on the stalwart young toddler as he lurched forward, his face one broad grin.
Princess Sultanam clapped her hands again. "Thy turban, my lord!" she cried in a flutter of amusement. "Thy turban, quick; as his father is not here 'tis thy place to prevent him falling of himself—thy turban—quick! quick!"
Prince Askurry, full of laughter, pulled off the soft turban he wore—it was all wound round and round to fit the head like a cap—and in obedience to the Indian custom, which always prevents a child from falling of itself in its first attempt at walking, flung it full at the little lad. It caught him between his outspread balancing arms and over he went on to the thick pile carpet.
Foster-mother was beside him in a second, eager to snatch him up and cover him with kisses; but Baby Akbar wriggled himself from her hold. He had set himself a task and he meant to do it.
"Go way!" he said with determination. "Tumbu down. Get up again."
So, calmly reaching round for the turban which lay beside him, which he evidently thought had tumbled down too, he clapped it on his head with both hands, rose to his feet and recommenced his forward lurch; a yard or two of the fringed turban, which had become unrolled, trailing behind him like a royal robe.
It was a quainter little figure than before, but nobody laughed now. They looked at each other, then at the child staggering along under the Prince's plumed turban, then at Prince Askurry himself standing bareheaded before his nephew.
It was an ill omen. And yet as Head-nurse said proudly when they got back to the rooms that had been given them in a frowning bastion of the palace, Baby Akbar had once more scored off his uncle.
Indeed, she was so cock-a-hoop about it that she stickled for this, and she stickled for that until the attendants, who were at first inclined to be civil, began to look askance, and Foster-father had to bid her hold her tongue.
"Wise folk leave steel traps alone," he said; "fiddling with them lets off the spring. Then—pouf!"
He shook his head significantly.
"Steel traps?" echoed Head-nurse sniffily, "who is talking of steel traps?"
"I am, woman!" replied Foster-father sternly. "I tell you this Kandahar is as a steel trap ready to snap on us at any moment."
Head-nurse was silent, even though he also had ventured to call her "woman"; but she was beginning to learn that nine times out of ten Foster-father was right.
The winter settled in early that year, and with the passes of the hills blocked by snow, the caravans of laden camels which, in addition to merchandise of all sorts, brought news from the world to the east and the world to the west of mountain-clipped Kandahar, ceased to come into the big bazaar. And the cold kept most people at home, or shivering beside the glowing braziers set outside the shops. It was not the season for active work, and so Prince Askurry let it slip by without really making up his mind what he was to do with Baby Akbar. Meanwhile the child could live in the bastion of the palace, and play with his little cousins. Whether he was to be betrothed to Baby Amina or not could be decided in the spring; this was the time for rest and home comfort without fear of any disturbing, since none could cross the passes in winter.
Princess Sultanam, however, to whom in her seclusion winter and summer were much alike, grew fond of the little lad, and never ceased to urge on her husband the wisdom of so treating Prince Akbar, that should King Humayon by good luck—and he had a knack of being lucky—find himself again with an army at his back, his hands would be tied from revenge on the Court at Kabul.
Now, Askurry was no fool; he saw that, for the present at any rate, until Humayon's fate was decided, it would be wiser to be kind; so he decided that when he held the New Year's assemblage he would present the little prince in due form to the chiefs and nobles.
Head-nurse was almost crazy with delight at the very idea. She and Foster-mother sent all their jewels to the goldsmith to be made up into suitable ornaments for Baby Akbar, and they ransacked the shops for odd scraps of brocade with which to make him the finest of fine state robes.
And on the eventful day they began the child's toilette early, pressing Roy the Rajput into service as tire-woman to hold the ointments, and scents, and what not, that they deemed necessary for the due dressing of a Prince.
So that it rather dashed their spirits when Foster-father came in with a sober face and the news that a man had come into the bazaar bringing bad tidings of the King and Queen. They had, he said, been lost in the snow; but whether this was true or not, who could tell?
"Then what is the use of worrying?" snapped Head-nurse, who was too much occupied in making her charge beautiful to think of other things. "Lo! Foster-father, evil is never lost on the road. It arrives sooner or later, so why watch for it at the door?"
"That is true," replied Foster-father, "but mark my words, all depends on good news. If that comes, the child is safe; if evil—then God help him!"
Roy, who, Baby Akbar being nearly dressed, was now holding the pot of lamp-black and oil with which Head-nurse, after the Indian custom, would put a finishing touch to her work by smearing a big black smut on the child's forehead, lest he should be too sweet and so attract an envious, evil eye, looked up at the words, his face full of light and remembrance.
"God does help true kingship," he said proudly. "Mother used to say so, and that is why she was never afraid—" He paused and the light in his face faded. "I—I don't remember any more," he added apologetically.
"Remembrance or no," snapped Head-nurse, "hold the pot straight, boy, or thou wilt spill it over the Mighty-in-Pomp, the Admired-of-the-World," etc.
But Foster-father looked at Old Faithful and laid his hand kindly on Roy's shoulder. "It matters not, Roy! It is there within thee, all the same. And 'twill come back some day, never fear. And I for one," he added aside to the old trooper, "should not wonder at much; for the lad's manners are ever above his present station."
Old Faithful shook his head wisely. "'Tis not the boy's manners, friend," he said, "but his breed. A man may compass manners for himself, but not that his father should have had them also."
By this time the black smear was on Baby Akbar's forehead, and despite the smudge, he looked a very fine little fellow indeed. So much so that quite a murmur of delighted admiration ran round the assemblage when Askurry appeared, leading him by the hand; for he had quickly learned to run about and was now quite steady on his legs.
"A chip of the old block," said an ancient mountain chief, who had known his grandfather Babar, and many others nodded assent. Then Prince Askurry began a set speech, little Akbar seated on his knee the while.
It was a very clever, crafty speech, that could be taken two ways, and Prince Askurry was so much interested in it, and making sure that he was neither too disloyal or too loyal to his unfortunate brother, the King, that he did not notice what was passing on his knee until a sudden lack of attention on the part of his audience made him follow their eyes, and look down at the child upon his lap.
Then he sat dumbfounded, his face flushing to a dull, dark red, for he saw in a moment what the thing that had happened would mean to those others—the audience before him—the men he had summoned to listen to his half-hearted words.
Yet it was a very simple little thing. Baby Akbar, tired, doubtless, of his uncle's speechifying, had found amusement in a slender gold chain which hung round his uncle's neck; had traced it to a secret pocket in his inner waistcoat, and so had drawn out from its hiding place a golden signet ring, set with an engraved emerald. A toy indeed! So after playing with it for a bit the child had slipped it onto his little forefinger, which he held up the better to admire his new-found treasure. So it came to pass that as Askurry's smooth, oily voice went on and on, those who listened could see a little image sitting on his knee.
A dignified, gracious-looking image with forefinger held up in the attitude of kingly command; and on that forefinger—what?
The Signet of the King!
The Ring of Empire!
It was unmistakable! Askurry must have found it in his fugitive brother's tent. He must have concealed it. Uncertain what part he meant to play in the end, he must have worn it on his person until the child—the true Heir-to-Empire——
The chiefs looked at each other furtively. There was a pause. Then suddenly an old, thin voice—the voice of the old mountain chief, who remembered Babar the brave—rose on the silence.
"God save the Heir-to-Empire!"
It gave the lead, and from every side rose the cry:
"God save the Heir-to-Empire!"
Prince Askurry's face fell. He had not meant to rouse loyalty, but he was quick and clever, so he saw that it had been roused, and that now was not the time to try and stifle it. So his frown turned to a smile as he caught the child to him and rose, holding him in his arms.
"The rogue, my lords," he said lightly, "has forestalled me. I meant to place the ring upon his finger myself before you all, in token that he does in truth represent our King, but praise be to Heaven! he has saved me the task. Long live the Heir-to-Empire!"
But the nobles as they passed out of the assembly, and the people who heard the tale outside, said it was a strange happening that the innocent child should so claim his right. And cruel brother Kumran's party laid their heads together once more, and swore it was time to end Prince Askurry's foolish hesitation. They must get at the child somehow.
But by this time, if Prince Askurry had not quite made up his mind how he should treat Baby Akbar, he had quite settled that no one else—least of all cruel brother Kumran—should have anything to do with the child. So the little prince was carefully watched and guarded, rather to Foster-father's and Old Faithful's relief. Indeed, as time went on they almost forgot to watch themselves, being accustomed to see the sentry walking up and down before the entry to the narrow stairs that led up to the three rooms in the old bastion which were given them as lodgings. They were large, comfortable rooms, and the inner one was used by Foster-mother, Head-nurse and Baby Akbar, the outer one by the two men and the two boys, while the middle one, a great wide hall of a place, they used as a living room. It was lighter than the others, since it had slits of windows—without glass, of course—high up in the walls, and though these let the cold as well as the winter sunshine into the room, there was a roaring great fireplace, which kept the farther end of the hall nice and warm. And here on very frosty nights the women folk would drag their beds and sleep, while during the snowy days they would spread quilts on the floor, and Baby Akbar would have high jinks with Tumbu and Down, who were his constant playmates. Then, when he was tired, Roy would cradle his young master in his arms and sing to him. Not lullabies, for little Akbar's mind kept pace with his body, and every month saw him more and more of a boy and less and less of a baby.
"Tell me how Rajah Rasalu did this," or "Tell me how Rajah Rasalu did that," he would say; and so Roy's boyish voice would go over the old story of endless adventures, which has delighted so many Indian children for so many generations.
So time passed quite merrily until one night, when something dreadful happened. So dreadful that it will really require another chapter to describe it. But it was one night when Roy had been telling the little prince how "Rajah Rasalu's friends forsook him for fear." And as this is rather a nice story, it shall be told here.
"You know, great Kingly child," began Roy, "how Rajah Rasalu was born and how Rajah Rasalu set out into the world to seek for fortune, taking with him his dear horse, Baunwa-iraki, his parrot, Kilkila, who had lived with him since he was born, besides the Carpenter-lad and the Goldsmith-lad, who had sworn never to leave their young master. So he journeyed north to a lonely place, all set with sombre trees. And the night was dark, so he set a watch, and the goldsmith took the first, while the young prince slept by the Carpenter-lad, on a couch of clean, sweet leaves. And lest the heart of the prince should sink, they sang a cheering song:
"'Cradled till now on softest down, Leaves are thy bed to-night; Yet grieve not thou at fortune's frown, Brave men heed not her slight.'
"And while they slept and the goldsmith watched, a snake slid out from the trees. 'Now, who are you?' quoth the Goldsmith-lad, 'who come to disturb his rest?' 'Lo! I have killed all living things that have ventured within ten miles of this my place of rest,' it hissed, 'and now I will slay you, too!' So they fought and fought, but the Goldsmith-lad he killed the snake in the end. Then he hid the body under his shield, lest the others might be afraid, and he roused from his rest the Carpenter-lad, to take his share of the watch, while he, in his turn, on the clean, sweet leaves lay down beside the prince. And while they slept, and the Carpenter watched, a dragon slid from the trees. 'Now, who are you?' quoth the Carpenter-lad, 'who come to disturb his rest?' 'Lo! I have killed all living things for twenty miles round this place; and I'll kill you, too,' it roared, 'and crack your bones to eat.' So they fought and fought and fought till he killed the dragon at last. Then he hid the body behind a bush lest the others should be afraid, and roused Rasalu from out his sleep to take his share of the watch; while he in turn by the Goldsmith-lad lay down to take his rest.
"And while they slept and Rasalu waked a THING slid out from the trees; an awful THING! No man could tell th' unspeakable horror of it. But Rasalu smiled in its face of dread, and laughed in, its horrible eyes. 'Pray, who are you to disturb our rest, and why do you dare to come?' 'Lo! I have killed all living things for twenty times twenty miles, and I will kill you, upstart boy, and crack your bones to dust.'
"So they fought and fought and fought, and Rasalu drew his bow, and the arrow fled like the wind and pierced the Awful Horror through. Then it fled to a cave close by, with Rasalu at its heels. So they fought and fought and fought till the dawn showed clear in the sky, and the Awful Horror gave up with a groan and rolled on its side and died. Now, just as Rasalu wiped his sword the sleepers awoke from their sleep. 'See here!' said the Goldsmith-lad with pride, 'what I killed in my lonely watch.' 'Pooh! only a snake!' said the Carpenter-lad; 'see the dragon I have killed.' But Rasalu took them both by the hand and led them into the cave; but dead as it was, they shrieked with fear at the Awful Horror they saw. And they fell at Rasalu's feet and groaned and moaned and prayed and wept. 'Let us go! Oh, hero, we are but men. We dare not follow you now. It is nothing to you; it is death to us to follow and be your friends.'
"Then tears came into Rasalu's eyes, but he said no word of nay. 'Do as you will,' he said to them. 'I will not bid you stay.
"'Aloes linger long before they flower, Gracious rain too soon is overpast; Youth and strength are with us but an hour, All glad life must end in death at last. But king reigns king without consent of courtier, Rulers may rule, though none heed their command; Heaven-crowned heads, stoop not, but rise the haughtier, Alone and friendless in a strangers' land.'
"So his friends forsook him and fled. But Rasalu went on his way."
Now the terrible thing that happened was one which Foster-father might have expected, but for two things.
One was the sentry who walked up and down all night long below the high second-story windows of the central room. He would be bound to see any attempt to gain an entrance through them, even if they were wide enough to admit the entry of a grown man, which they were not.
The other was the fact that he, Old Faithful, Meroo and Roy all slept in the outer room, into which the only door opened, so that any intruder would have to force an entrance over their bodies; for they slept with drawn swords beside them.
So as the days passed on Foster-father's vigilance—though he knew that cruel brother Kumran's agents were on the lookout for any opportunity of kidnapping the Heir-to-Empire—slackened somewhat, especially when the afternoons drew in, the fire in the big hall was made up, the quilts put down and Baby Akbar, surrounded by his admiring circle, listened to Roy's stories or tumbled about with his playmates, Tumbu, the dog, and Down, the cat.
One day, however, Down did not appear until little Akbar was having his supper, and then she came in a great hurry out of a small archway by the big fireplace, which led to a sort of cupboard in the masonry, where charcoal had been kept, gobbled up a plate of bread and milk, and hurried in again as if she had to catch a train.
"She has had kittens," said Foster-mother; "I wonder if they are white or black."
"Black!" sniffed Head-nurse. "What else could they be in that hole? Have a care, woman! or the Heir-to-Empire will be blacking himself, too. The archway is large enough for him to creep in, and Heaven only knows whither it might lead."
"That is true," replied Foster-mother, alarmed, as she distracted the child's attention.
But in a day or two his quick ear caught the sound of a feeble mewing inside the arch, and, of course, he wanted to know what it was. So he was told that kittens had to be kept quiet and that Down would be very vexed if her kitten was disturbed; but that by-and-bye she would doubtless bring it out for him to see, and then, of course, he could play with it. Now, Baby Akbar was always a reasonable little fellow, so he waited patiently; though every night when he went to bed and Down came out for her supper, his little mouth would go down and he would hold up his little hands and twiddle them round and say mournfully:
"Kitty not 'weady. Kitty not 'weady."
Now, one night there was a great festival in the palace, and the Heir-to-Empire had to go and pay his respects, after the Indian manner on feast days, to his aunt and uncle. Then, when he returned, they sent him, after Indian wont, trays full of fruit and sugar-toffee made in the shape of animals, and a few pieces of muslin and stuffs to make new dresses for the party. In addition to this there was a trayful of supper, which came afterward, when daylight had gone, with the Princess Sultanum's best compliments. At least so said the man who brought it; but he did not wait to be questioned, and disappeared so soon as Meroo had taken the tray from him.
But it was full of the most delicious dainties, including a bowl of sweet milk made with almonds and honey and rice meal for Baby Akbar.
Head-nurse, however, would not let him eat it. She was always afraid of the little lad being poisoned, so Meroo always cooked with his own hands everything the child ate. Therefore they gave it to Tumbu instead; for, having been brought up by shepherds, he loved milk, and he licked his lips after it and was soon sound asleep by the fire.
The lamb stewed with pistachio nuts and full of saffron looked, however, so delicious that after Meroo had tasted it and pronounced it quite safe, since all knew that saffron would not go with real poison, they set to work and finished the platter.
They were all as jolly as could be afterward, though the heat of the fire and their heavy supper made them sleepy; so Head-nurse, declaring it was far too cold in the inner room, dragged her bed and Foster-mother's close to the fire, the others retired to the outer room, and before long they were all snoring away quite happily.