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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel

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DEAREST-LADY

[138] FOR two whole days the little party was too weary even to attempt a move. They had some provisions with them, and Tumbu, as good as his word, brought in more and more marmots; for being unaccustomed to dogs, they were easily caught.

The death of Old Faithful weighed upon the spirits of all, and for the first twelve hours or so the Heir-to-Empire was inconsolable for the loss of his beloved cat; for Foster-father had found it impossible to carry Down farther, and she had remained behind in the snow, protesting piteously. It was a terrible grief, and the child had almost wept himself sick, when, to every one's surprise and delight, Mistress Down was seen walking sedately across the flowers, her bushy tail carried very high, not one hair of her silky white coat awry. She took no notice of anybody, but passed to the fire, sat down beside it with stiff dignity, curled her tail round her paws, yawned and then began to purr gently. It was as if nothing had happened. And she certainly was not hungry, for she turned up her dainty nose at Tumbu's marmot bones.

"Cats," said Head-nurse, who had just awakened from a long sleep of many hours, "are not to be counted as other beasts. Having nine lives, they could [139] afford to lose one; but they never do. They always fall on their feet. It is the way of the world; the more you have the more you get. Still, I am glad she has returned; and I wish there were a chance of others turning up also," she added with a sigh.

The Heir-to-Empire looked up gravely. "But Faithful can't come back, you know. He went to help Grand-dad to help us."

"Hark to the innocent," cried Foster-mother, half in smiles, half in tears, "but it is true. If ever poor mortals were watched over by saints in Paradise, we were; and for my part if ever I get to Kâbul, my duty shall be paid to the tomb of Firdoos Gita Makâni—on whom be peace."

"Amen!" added her husband devoutly; "but for the memory of that good man we should not be here now."

It was on the third day that leaving Meroo in charge for a few hours Foster-father and Roy set off to explore. They were fortunate in finding some shepherds' huts within a walking distance for even footsore women, and returned ere nightfall with a skin bag of fresh milk.

Early next morning, therefore, they all set off, Roy girding on dead Faithful's sword from the sledge that was wanted no more, and from that moment feeling himself indeed bodyguard to the Heir-to-Empire.

[140] Once they had reached safety from starvation in the shepherds' huts, a great desire for rest came upon them all; and for three whole days they did nothing but eat, and sleep, and rejoice in the early spring sunshine, and the early spring flowers. For the late snap of extreme cold had passed and every green thing was hurrying to be ahead of its neighbour. Bija made endless cowslip balls out of the beautiful rose-pink primulas, while Roy and Mirak, following the shepherds' boys, came back with their hands full of young rhubarb shoots and green fern croziers, which they ate like asparagus. But this sort of thing could not last long, since they were close to the caravan route from Kandahâr to Kâbul; and sure enough, no sooner had the snow on the uplands melted than travellers began to pass through.

Thus news that the little party had escaped death soon filtered from mouth to mouth, till it reached the Captain of the Escort, and ere long Foster-father found himself and those in his care once more semi-prisoners on their way to cruel brother Kumran; all the more cruel, doubtless, because King Humâyon had already begun the siege of Kandahâr, believing his little son to be still within its walls.

Now Kumran was a far cleverer fellow than his brother Askurry; but there was in him a love of deceit for deceit's sake, which spoiled all his cleverness, for it made him uncertain what he would do in the [141] end. This indeed is always the case with deceitful people. They know that what they say and do is not  straightforward and true, and so they are like sailors without a compass. They have no fixed pole by which to steer.

And, in addition, Kumran liked to be considered clever; so he was always outwardly very courteous, very polite, very charming; but what he was within none could say for long.

Thus Foster-father's heart sank within him, when in the distance, down the rocky ravine through which the Kâbul River dashes, and along which the caravan road took its high-perched way, he saw the battlemented wall of the city, cresting the low hills on which the town was built. It was a fully fortified town through which the river ran, and at its extreme end, commanding the wider plain below, stood the citadel called the Bala Hissar or High Fort. To reach this the travellers had to cross the iron bridge and wend their way through the narrow bazaars.

Such wonderful bazaars as they were, too! Crowded with tiny dark arched shops, like caverns, full to the brim with Persian silk carpets, furs from the north, turquoises and all kinds of precious stones from out-of-the-way places with unpronounceable names. And there were such a quantity of cats! Grey Persian cats and white ones, and tabbies and black cats who sat on the balconies and stared at Down as [142] she lay on Horse-chestnut's broad, wavy back. For the Captain of the Escort had found out what an excellent creature the old pony was, and had brought it along with him.

The High Fort was a huge place with great gardens within its battlements and several separate palaces. Here, to Foster-father's unbounded delight, they found that Prince Kumran was himself away, having gone out with a small body of men to the Kandahâr frontier, where King Humâyon's arrival had aroused loyalty. But what was still more cheering was the news that he had left orders for the Heir-to-Empire and his sister to be handed over on arrival to the charge of Dearest-Lady! Foster-father could hardly believe his ears; for Dearest-Lady (as she was always called by all her family, by all her nephews and nieces, by all her grand nephews and nieces, and cousins, and every one who was lucky enough to belong to her) was simply—Well! what was she not? Wise, and gentle, and good, and clever—all this and more. She was the sort of Dearest-Lady who lived so long in the hearts of those who knew her, that, years after she was dead they would say, if there was any difficult point to be settled—"We wonder what Dearest-Lady would have said?"

She was old, of course, for she was Babar the Brave's elder sister; the sister to whom he had been devoted, who had always been to him also "his Dear- [143] est-One." Now, when you come to think of it, boys and girls, that is a nice sort of fame to have—to remain for—let me see how many hundred years?—nearly four—Dearest-Lady, or Dearest-Gentleman to all the world.

This Dearest-Lady was, of course, the Heir-to-Empire's grand-aunt, and the mere sound of her name was enough to calm Foster-father's fears. Even Head-nurse, though she sniffed a little and said she had heard tell that the Khânzâda Khânum was a trifle careless of ceremonials, was satisfied. There was no doubt that she was the Highest-Born-in-the-Land.

As for little Prince Akbar himself, he only opened his big, grave eyes widely when the tall white figure clasped him closely in its arms and kissed his hair softly.

"So like his grandfather," she murmured, "so like! so like!—the very hands, the very feet—so strong, so shapely." And both in turn felt the touch of the soft old lips. "And thou, too, small maiden," she continued kindly, "welcome to one who has never yet let it be said in her hearing that God made women weaker than man! Thou shalt learn here to be proud thou wast born a girl. And you also, Nurse! Bring cooling sherbets, slaves, while she tells me all that has happened."

Then she sat and listened while Head-nurse told the tale of what had happened, and her faded, gay, [144] old face flashed and sparkled and grew grave by turns.

"But where is Tumbu?" she interrupted, "and where is Down? Bring them hither, slaves! Lo! I love all animals, as my dear brother did!"

And she laughed over their doings, and wept over Old Faithful's death, while Bija and Mirak sat cuddled up close beside her, listening also and enjoying the tale of their own adventures as if they had happened to other children!

"Surely," she said softly when Head-nurse ended, "my dearest brother—on whom be peace—must have protected them! Lo! Mirak! and Bija—for I shall call you naught else since they are sweet kindly names, better than fine sounding titles—this very afternoon ye shall come with me to the garden he loved, and where his earthly form lies at rest, and lay flowers on his grave for thanks. Since he loved flowers as he loved everything."

So that evening, about an hour before sunset time, they were all carried in litters to the Garden of the New Year, about a mile beyond the city. It was a most peaceful, lovely spot, right up on the hillside with a splendid view from it of valley and mountain and river. A fresh bubbling spring ran through it, and beneath the Judas trees, whose leafless branches were flushed with pink blossoms, stretched great carpets of spring flowers.

[145] "Pluck him yonder tulips, Mirak," said Dearest-Lady with a smile. "He loved to count their kinds and those—as he wrote—are 'yellow, double, and scented like a rose'!"

And the boy who was to grow to be a greater man even than his grandfather, though he could scarcely be a more lovable one, plucked a posy of the tulips and laid them on the plain marble slab which bore nothing but the words, "Heaven is the eternal home of the Emperor Babar." And when Bija, with many a little feminine ceremonial, had deposited her nosegay of sweet violets, and Head-nurse and Foster-mother had offered up their respects, they all went and sat down on a grassy spot, and Dearest-Lady, who was always full of youthful curiosities concerning all things, began to question Roy, who as a mere lad had been allowed to come with them, as to what he could remember of the time before he was picked up in the desert.

"Hold my hand, child, and think," she said at last, "mayhap it may come to thee then. The touch of kinship has power, and if I do not mistake me, there is that in thy blood that is in mine—royalty!"

So she clasped Roy's slim long-fingered hand and held it tight, and the boy's face changed, his eyes grew startled, he shivered slightly.

"Yea!" he said, "now I do remember. Mother was like you, and she told me I had the mark of Kingship [146] strong enough, for all the rebels might say—" As he spoke, he drew down his loose garments, and there upon the clear olive of his breast, just above the heart, showed a small dark stain.

Dearest-Lady bent close to look at it. "What is't?" she asked.

"Mother said it was the sign of uttermost truth, and that we all had it," he replied, speaking dreamily.

"But who were we?" persisted Dearest-Lady, her kind eyes on the lad's.

Just at that moment, however, Tumbu, who had, of course, accompanied them, burst out with a series of shrill, short barks, and Roy was on his feet in a second, his hand on Old Faithful's sword, lest any newcomer might bring danger to his little master. But as it turned out Tumbu was only excited by a water-rat! All the same the interruption prevented Dearest-Lady's question from being answered, for the spell was broken.

"Yea! thou wilt be true to the very uttermost, of that I am sure," said Dearest-Lady, half pleased, half amused at the young Râjput's quick leap to arms, "and so long as I have charge of the Heir-to-Empire thou shalt be his esquire. So go call the litter-men, boy, it is time we returned. I must remember I am gaoler as well as grand-aunt."


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