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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel

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ESCAPED

[187] ONCE more Roy felt helpless and hopeless before the great task which seemed to be laid upon him. He alone out of all the little Heir-to-Empire's guardians knew the dire danger he was in. Yet how could he, a poor, prisoned Rājput lad, save the young prince?

Still he had to be saved; he must be saved; and there was no time to be lost. At dawn the firing would recommence from the Arkabān hill; at dawn the helpless child would be in the half-breached bastion exposed to that fire!

Yes! He, Roy, must get out somehow. If he could only loosen one bar of the window so that he could squeeze through, then he might be able to let himself down by a rope twined out of his long waist-cloth and turban! Thus he might be able to get out of the fort! He might be able to gain the camp on the Arkabān hill before dawn! So he might be able to warn the guns not to fire on the bastion; might be able to tell them that the Heir-to-Empire hung there!

What a number of "might be ables"; but would he be able, even for the first task?

He took up his sword and began forthwith on the iron bar; but the mortar was hard, he could scarcely make a mark upon it. Still, it must be done. In order [188] to free his arms better for the work he took off all his clothes save his flimsy, sleeveless waistcoat and the loin-cloth that was girt about him, and buckled down steadily. But when more than an hour had passed the bar seemed as firm as ever. As he crouched down on the window sill he could see through it to the flat roof of the neighboring palaces; for it was a bright moonlight night still, though the moon must be nigh to her setting. So the thought crossed his mind that if he could only squeeze through he might be able to reach one of those roofs; since, if he remembered aright, a wide cornice ran just below. He paused for a second in his labour to see if this was so, craning his head through the crossbars. Yes, the cornice was there! Scarcely wide enough for a cat to walk, but if he got through in time he would risk it. He must risk it!

But would he get through in time? He set to work again feverishly until suddenly a familiar sound reached his ear from outside; the sound of a cat purring!

Could it be Down? She had not found them out in their new prison, but if she had happened to be on the roof when he looked out of the window she might have seen him or smelled him—yes! There was a white cat on the cornice, and the next moment Down was on the sill, arching her back and purring away contentedly.

So she had found them at last—no! not them, for [189] the Heir-to-Empire was not there—he had been stolen away! Roy could have leaned his head on Down's soft fur and cried his heart out in despair at his own helplessness, but he set his teeth instead and dug harder with the sword point.

Would the bar never loosen? So the minutes passed without a sound save the grating of the eager sword and the soft, soothing purr of the cat as she sat beside him watching him indifferently. Then suddenly the latter ceased and Down leaped swiftly to the floor of the cell. Doubtless she heard something. Cats hear so many things humans do not hear, and they seem to know so many things humans do not know, so perhaps she heard a mouse far down the arched passage, or even in the next cell. Anyhow she marched straight to the door and stood by it, miaowing  to be let out. Ah! if he only could let her out! If the door were only open, thought poor Roy, as he worked away at the still immovable bar.

"No! Down, no! I can't," he murmured bitterly as the cat miaowed  more and more insistently.

But still the miaowing  went on. Down became quite plaintive, then ill-used; finally she leaped onto Roy's shoulder, licked his ear with her rough red tongue as if to coax him, and was back again at the door asking to be let out.

Why was she so set on it? Roy turned to look at her half stupidly and for a moment forgot his task; forgot [190] how rapidly time was passing; forgot everything save that Down was asking to be let out. So wearily he passed to the door, and scarcely conscious of what he was doing, laid his hand on the latch.

"I can't, Down," he said; "I can't open—" He broke off hurriedly.

For the latch yielded, the door opened!!

It could never have been locked!!

Had they forgotten, or, having secured the Heir-to-Empire, had they not cared what became of the henchman? The latter, most likely, for there was no sentry in the arched passage along which Down had already disappeared.

Another second and Roy, sword in hand, had disappeared down it also, remembering as he ran a certain little fretted marble balcony which gave on the gardens below. For Roy, of course, knew every turn of the Bala Hissar. This balcony opened onto an unused gallery room. To gain this, bolt the heavy door behind him, and so, secure from interruption, set to work twining a rope from strips torn from his turban and waistband did not take long; but it was a good twenty minutes before he had knotted all fast; though while he worked he thought of nothing else; of nothing but somehow reaching the garden. Once there he would face the next difficulty. One was enough at a time. And then, when he had made the rope fast to one of the marble pillars and slid down it, [191] it proved too short. He swung with his feet just touching the topmost branch of a blossoming peach tree. There was nothing for it but to let go, snatch at the branches as he fell and trust to chance for safety. He found it; and dropped to the ground amid a perfect shower of shed peach petals.

So he stood for an instant to consider what must come next. A gate! Aye! but which? The farthest from the point of attack would be the best, as there would be less vigilance there. That meant the Delhi gate, and meant also a long round; yet he must be quick, for already there was a faint lightening of the eastern sky. But the moon had set and the shadows, always darker in the hour before dawn, lay upon all things.

And luckily he knew every turn of the Bala Hissar garden, knew every point where danger might be expected. So he began to make his way carefully. He dodged more than one sentry by creeping on through the bushes while the man passed away from him, and crouched among them, still as a mouse, while the measured march came toward him. And once he had to run for bare life from a shower of arrows which a company of soldiers sent into the darkness after a suspicious rustling in the bushes. But mostly the men on duty had too much to think of outside the walls to trouble themselves much about the things inside them.

So with doublings and turnings he came at last on [192] the Delhi gate, a small, round, flat-roofed building pierced by a high archway. It was too dark for him to see its outline, but he knew it well, and paused against the outside wall to consider what he had to do next. The place seemed almost deserted, but a glimmer of light from the archway and the even tramp of a sentry's footstep told it was not all unguarded.

What was he to do? It would be useless for him to try and steal past the sentry, as the gate beyond must be locked, or at any rate bolted and barred. He must either, therefore, try and overpower the man or else try to gain the flat roof by the stairs—of which he knew the position—and, trusting to find a rope or something of the sort in the upper room of the gate, let himself down into the ditch outside.

Now, Roy was a well-grown lad of nigh fifteen, tall for his age, and with his light, youthful sinews of iron might well be a match for many a man, especially as his purpose was like steel, and that is ever half the battle. But there was the chance of other soldiers being within call, and that might mean failure. Now, that  must not be. Roy had to succeed—he must!

Therefore the roof was the wiser, safer plan; he must make for the stairs, trusting to escape notice when the sentry's back was turned. Till then—silence!

But even as he settled this in his mind Fate was against him. As he crouched in the darkness something cold suddenly touched his face, and the next [193] moment a clamour of excited yappings and joyful barks arose, as something warm and furry and cold and slobbery flung itself all over him.

Tumbu! It could be nothing but blundering, bumbling Tumbu! He made one useless effort to still the dog, then rose to his feet feeling himself discovered, prepared to run for it. But it was too late. A sentry, lantern in hand, roused by the commotion, barred the way. All seemed lost, but a ray of hope shone when the familiar voice of the Afghan sentry, the unrepentant turncoat, was heard as the lantern waved in Roy's very face.

"By my word, one of the Kings! How come you hither at this time o' night, friend?"

The voice was a little thick, as if the owner, finding the quiet of the Delhi Gate wearisome, had sought amusement in a skin of wine.

Roy gave a gasp—he was too confused for thought. "The dog—" he began.

"Aye! The dog that was yours and is mine," jeered the sentry. "So he nosed you out, did he? Knows his duty—good dog, Tumbu! Knows his master now! Knows who saved him from starvation when he was lurking about in the gutter. Eh! you brute!"

He lunged a kick at Tumbu, who retreated a step, looking from the new to the old master, feeling, in truth, a trifle confused. For the Afghan sentry had certainly found him homeless, friendless, and the dog [194] had stuck by him, feeling that here at least was something vaguely connected with the past life. But now he stood doubtful, expectant, his little ears pricked, his small eyes watchful.

"Well," continued the sentry with a half-drunken laugh, "dog or no dog, you've no business here, so come along with me, my King."

He reached out a heavy hand, and Roy shrunk from it. As he did so there came a sound which sent the blood to Roy's heart with a spasm of instant hope, of possible escape. It was Tumbu's low growl as he realised that some one wanted to touch his old master and that his old master did not want to be touched.

"At him, Tumbu! At him, good dog!" The words came to Roy in a flash, and like a flash the great, powerful dog leaped forward, his fur a-bristle, his white teeth gleaming, and the next instant, taken by the suddenness of the attack, the sentry lay on his back half stunned by the fall, while Tumbu, on the top of him, checked even a cry by a clutch at his throat. A soft clutch so far; but one that would tear through flesh if needful.

Roy was on his knees beside the fallen man.

"Hist! not a sound or the dog shall kill you. He can. Give me the keys. I want to get out of the gate! The keys, do you hear?"

The sentry tried to struggle, but warned by the weight of the dog on his breast and those sharp teeth [195] ready to close upon his throat, murmured hoarsely, "It is only barred, but the bolts are difficult. If you will let me get up and call off your dog——"

But Roy took no heed of his words. "Keep him there, Tumbu," he whispered as he ran to the gate.

Bolted and barred it was, and in the darkness of the archway it was hard to see, for the lantern had gone out in the scuffle. But there was no time to lose, for already beyond the archway it showed faintly light. One bar down! The sentry made a faint effort to stir, that was answered by an ominous growl from Tumbu.

Only one more bolt now!

Roy's long fingers were at it—his whole strength went to it—it creaked—groaned—slid, and with a sob of exultation Roy felt the fresh air of dawn in his face as he stood outside the Bala Hissar.

But he had still much to do. The city must be skirted, the hill of Arkabān gained, and already a faint primrose streak in the eastern sky told of coming light.


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