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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel

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DAWN

[196] UPON the Arkab‚n hill the artillery men were already at work. In those days guns were not what they are now, quick loading, quick firing.

It needed a good hour to ram the coarse powder down, adjust the round ball and prepare the priming; to say nothing of the task of aiming. So, long ere dawn, the glimmering lights were seen about the battery, which, perched on a hill, gave on the half-breached bastion. Between the two stretched an open space of undulating ground. Sumbal, "the master fireworker," as he is called in the old history books, was up betimes seeing to his men, and with him came a grave, silent man, who, though he had no interest in the quarrels of Hum‚yon and his brothers, was as eager as any to get within the walls of K‚bul and find what he sought—a R‚jput lad of whom word had been brought to a little half-desert R‚jput state lying far away in the Jesulmer plain.

For the grave, silent man, who showed so much knowledge of warfare, who was keen to see everything new in weapons and the handling of them, was a messenger sent by a widowed mother to see if indeed it could be her long-lost son, of whom a certain old trooper had spoken on his return from K‚bul.

[197] "See you!" said Sumbal, who was a bit of a boaster, "give me time to aim and I'll warrant me 'Thunder of God'" (that was the name let in with gold on the breech of the gun) "will hit the mark within a yard every time. Thou shalt see it ere-long. There is a sort of pigeon place on the face of the bastion where I will aim, and thou shalt see the splinters of it spin!" He shaded his eyes with his hand and looked piercingly into the shadows. "'Tis too dark to see it yet, but so soon as it shows I will let fly, and then——"

And then?

Roy, who had never stopped for a breath yet in his headlong race, was at that very moment rounding on the bastion, and looking up, saw what he had feared to see—a little figure bound hand and foot to a framework of wood that hung close to what Sumbal had called the pigeon place, seeming to form part of it. The child was not crying. Perhaps he was past that. Perhaps he had never cried, but had taken this last and urgent danger as he had taken others, with grave dignity.

All we know is that he hung there on the wall, and that before his very eyes the light was growing in the east, and over in the hill battery a dozen men were sweating away to bring the "Thunder of God" into position. Roy gave a gasp. Should he call to the little Heir-to-Empire and let him know that a friend was near, that help might come? No! per- [198] haps he did not realise his danger. It was better to let be.

So gathering all his forces for a last effort, he dashed into the open for the final five minutes' run. And there could be no dodging here. Every loophole of the bastion was, he knew, crammed with the matchlocks of many marksmen. And there was now, worse luck, little darkness to cover him!

"Three minutes more, friend!" said Sumbal boastfully, "and thou shalt see what thou wilt see. Slave! the port fire, quick. I will give the signal. Lo! What is up?"

A rattle of musketry rose on the still air of dawn, and an artillery man leaned over the low embrasure to see better into the intervening valley.

"Some one escaping," he said with a yawn, for he had been up half the night. "Lo! he runs like a hare! But they will have him, for sure."

"Quick," called Sumbal, "we will silence their noise. The portfire, I say. I will fire old Thunderer myself."

The man carrying the flaming flashlight handed it to his superior, but in so doing by some mischance it dropped, and in the dropping went out!

"Fool!" cried Sumbal passionately. "Are we to stand insulted here without reply while thou fetchest another? Put him in irons, sergeant, and bring light at once!"

But the grave, silent R‚jput was watching the [199] runner. "He is but a boy," he said slowly, "yet see how he runs. And they have hit him, for he staggers. Yet he comes on. He must bring news, friend, for sure!"


[Illustration]

"I STAY MY HAND WHILE I COUNT TENNO MORE."

"News!" echoed Sumbal contemptuously; "we have half a hundred such runaways coming in every day. It is no news that King Hum‚yon is better liked than Kumran. Lo! hast thou it at last?" He snatched the portfire from the sergeant and went toward the gun.

"Stay one moment, friend!" said the grave and silent man with sudden command in his voice. "A moment's hastiness may bring disaster. Discretion is better than valour. Yonder boy brings news—he waves his arms—he shouts! Stay at least till we can hear what he says."

Sumbal laughed. "Bah! But, see you, I stay my hand while I count ten—no more."

"One! two! three! four!"

The artillery men, amused at the race, leaned over. "He runs well!—He will win!—He will lose!—He climbs like a hill cat!"——

"Five! six! seven! eight! nine!"

And now, unintelligible from sheer breathlessness, Roy's voice is heard. The grave, silent R‚jput leaps out to meet him.

"Ten!"

Sumbal's hand swings the portfire to the breech.

[200] Roy sees it, throws up his arms wildly, and with a cry—

"The bastion! The bastion! The Heir-to-Empire!" falls headlong into the R‚jput's arms.

"What did he say?" asked the master fireworker, pausing half surprised, half angry.

But the R‚jput was too busy tearing aside Roy's flimsy, bloodstained waistcoat to answer.

"Something about the bastion and the Heir-to-Empire, master!" said the sergeant doubtfully. "Mayhap 'twould be as well to wait till we can see more clearly. Kumran," he added in a lower voice, "would stick at naught——"

Sumbal hesitated, then put down the portfire and walked over to the fallen lad, beside whom the stranger was kneeling.

"He is not dead! He is not dead!" said the grave, silent R‚jput, looking up, his face working, the tears streaming down his bronzed cheek. "My master is not dead!"

"Who?" asked Sumbal, uncomprehending.

"I knew it must be he!" went on the man exultantly, even in his grief. "None could do that sort of thing save a Sun hero! My Master! my King! See, here the race mark on his breast! The sign of uttermost truth! My Master! My King!"

But Roy did not hear himself called thus. He did not even know for days afterwards if he had succeeded [201] or if he had failed; for a wound just above the heart, close to the sign-mark of his race, very nearly carried him off into the Shadowy Land where all things are remembered, yet all are forgotten.

But he had  succeeded. He had saved the Heir-to-Empire's life that dawn, and a day or two afterwards Kumran, daily more hated for his cruelty, had escaped, and the soldiers, rejoiced to get rid of him, flung open the gates of the Bala Hissar, thus ending Prince Akbar's adventures.

But when Roy came to himself Mirak was sitting beside him and Down was purring on Bija's lap; Bija, who had just returned from India with Queen Humeeda in time to console the Heir-to-Empire for all he must have suffered during the few days he was left alone with cruel Uncle Kumran. How much he had suffered no one knew, and the little fellow refused to say anything about it. It was a way he had when the luck went against him. So, just as he had remarked when he had fallen down the ravine, when the white cat and the black dog first came to him, that he had "tumbu-down," so now he simply said that it wasn't "very comfy," but that Tumbu had come to see him more than once. And this was possible, for you may be sure that once he allowed the Afghan sentry to rise, Tumbu, being a wise dog, never went near him again. Therefore he had  to find his old master.

And Foster-father, Foster-mother and Head-nurse [202] were all there, the latter greatly subdued for the time, and in her gratitude to Roy inclined to give him some of the titles she was wont to bestow on little Prince Akbar.

For there was no doubt whatever that the lad was the rightful R‚jah of Sury‚mer, whom wicked rebels had exposed in the desert to die, who had been found and kept alive by wandering goatherds and had finally been discovered when unconscious from sunstroke by the royal fugitives.

And out of this arose the only sadness of the happy May days when the little party once more journeyed out to Babar's tomb towards evening to sit under the arghaw‚n  trees and watch the sunset.

Of course Dearest-Lady was not there, but all the others were assembled, and Down, the cat, purred as loud as ever, while Tumbu, the dog, frolicked round even more like a golliwog than before. But it was not the absence of the Kh‚nz‚da Kh‚num which made faces thoughtful at times. She, they knew, was at rest, and they laid flowers for her beside those they gathered in memory of Firdoos Gita Mak‚ni—on whom be peace!

No! it was the knowledge that Roy could not remain with them. So soon as he was strong again he must go back to his mother, go back to a people who, tired of rebellion, were longing for their old rulers.

[203] "You see, brother, I am a King," said Roy sorrowfully, "and Kings cannot always do what they like."

"Do you think they ever do, really?"  asked the little Heir-to-Empire gravely, "for I don't."

And here we come to the end—for a time at least—of Prince Akbar's adventures.

Now, if you want to know how much of this so-called veracious story is really true, I cannot quite say.

Did some one like Roy really  tell the master fireworker that the Heir-to-Empire was hung over the battlements of the bastion? If some one did not, how did the master-fireworker find it out? And he did; indeed, in the history books he takes great credit to himself for having  found it out. But then he was a boaster.

Then did Dearest-Lady really bind Kumran by an oath not to harm the Heir-to-Empire until she returned?

If she did not, then why did she, an old, frail woman of seventy, go out into the wilderness just as winter was coming on, and why did not cruel Kumran kill the Heir-to-Empire when he had him in his power?

These are all questions; but what is certain is that Baby Akbar did go through all these adventures before he was five years old.

So good-bye, brave little lads! Good-bye, stout old Foster-father and kindly Foster-mother! Good-bye, worthy Head-nurse with your strings of titles, and [204] good-bye, dainty little Bija! Good-bye also to grinning Meroo, to purring Down, and frolicking Tumbu!

And for those other three whose memory remained—Old Faithful, Dearest Lady, and the Great Emperor, Firdoos Gita Mak‚ni, who all helped the little prince to safety, what of them?

"Heaven," as the marble slab among the tulips and violets of the Garden-of-the-New-Year says,

"'Is their eternal abode.'"


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