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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel


 

 

THE GARDEN OF GAMES

[169] AND now, for the time at any rate, Prince Akbar's adventures were over, and all the little party prepared to enjoy themselves. Foster-father, taken out of his dungeon, soon recovered consciousness, and the news of King Hum‚yon's victory and the Heir-to-Empire's safety, being the best tonic in the world, he was soon about again.

Head-nurse, at last absolutely restored to her proper position in Court, found, however, that her young charge had considerably outgrown the nursery. To begin with, his father, overjoyed at recovering his son, could not see too much of him, and took him about with him wherever he went.

"Time enough for his education to begin when he is four," said Hum‚yon, when Foster-father pointed out that the boy was old beyond his years and that if he did not soon begin schooling it would be difficult for him by-and-bye.

"Let be—friend, let be!" continued the fond father; "let us have a while to amuse ourselves, now the trouble is over! I tell you I have been in such straits these last four years that I have had no time to amuse myself. Now I mean to show K‚bul that life isn't so bad after all!"

[170] So tall, handsome, good-natured, with a vivid love of colour and beauty and a light-heartedness almost beyond belief,—light-heartedness which had carried him through dangers that might have proved too much for one less gay—Hum‚yon set to work to lavish his money on the most magnificent entertainments that ever were seen.

So long as winter lasted these had to be held in the Bala Hissar, where a sound of music and a ripple of laughter was to be heard day and night; but as spring began once more to carpet the barren hills with millions of flowers, Hum‚yon's amusements went further afield. One day he and his Court, a glittering cohort of merry men, flashing with diamonds, and prepared to enjoy everything, would ride out many miles to see the great groves of Judas trees flushed with their pink blossoms; ride out to find a magnificent camp awaiting them, a magnificent repast prepared, and all the best singers and dancers in K‚bul ready to amuse them. Then the next day, mayhap, they would all go a-hawking, and at each and all of these diversions Hum‚yon's little son was part of his father's enjoyment, and so naturally, became more and more of a man every day.

He used to ride on Horse-chestnut, and Tumbu was always of the party, getting in consequence rather too fat, by reason of the rich food which was given him.

[171] But despite all this fun and jollity little Prince Akbar was not quite satisfied.

"You took my mother away with you to the hills," he would say to his father. "Why didn't you bring her back with you? I want to see her."

Then King Hum‚yon would laugh—for he was always merry—and bid his little son be patient. His mother would come with the spring. At present she was in Persia, but so soon as the passes were open she would start for K‚bul. And then there would be fun! Whereupon little Prince Akbar would smile a dignified smile, and say, of course  there would be fun!

Now out of this arose a plan which came into King Hum‚yon's head, as so many other plans came, without very much thought; for he was full of kindly, not over-wise fancies. And this one was that little Prince Akbar should choose his own mother!

It would be rather a hard task for a child who had not seen her for two years and a half, and who was but a baby of less than eighteen months old when he had parted from her! But Hum‚yon was convinced that his  son would remember; and anyway, even if he did not, no harm would be done and it would be very amusing. So orders were given for a huge entertainment in the Arta Gardens just outside K‚bul. They were the most beautiful gardens, not close cropped and orderly like English gardens, but with wide, bare, marble-paved walks and squares, big marble-stepped [172] tanks full of waterlilies, all set in tangles of widespread roses and jasmine and gardenia. And here Hum‚yon's fancy set up a Mystic Palace of three Houses: The House of Pleasure; The House of Fortune, and the House of Power. Never was such a beautiful Palace. By day it shone with the reflected light of thousands and thousands of looking-glasses, by night it rose outlined in every detail by thousands and thousands of little lamps. Every marble path was spread with priceless silken carpets, the very fountains were scented with attar-of-rose. All the musicians and dancers and acrobats and jugglers of K‚bul were commanded to be there, snow came from the higher hills to ice the drinks, and cooks worked day and night to prepare the most wonderful dishes.

"That is what I call a King," remarked the Afghan sentry, whom Roy, going with his little master to see the preparations, found keeping guard at the gate. "None of your skinflints like Kumran. Aye!" he continued, seeing Roy's look of surprise and distaste, "I have done what I said I would—fought for Kumran till there was no more fighting to be done. And now, like His Gracious Majesty King Hum‚yon, I am enjoying myself. I want no more! Ha! Ha!"

Little Prince Akbar, who was standing by, turned on him sharply. "Thou art a slave, fellow, and know nothing of Kingship. Roy and I do. In his country [173] Kings ride and shoot and play polo, and—and do things. Besides," he added, "I want my mother."

"Your Highness will have to choose her then, so I hear," began the sentry almost rudely, and Roy started to rebuke him, but Prince Akbar was first.

"Of course I shall choose my own mother, slave. She is quite different, you know, from any one else in the world. Isn't she, Roy?"

The R‚jput lad passed his hand over his forehead. "Mine was, Most Noble! I should know her again if I ever saw her, but I never shall."

"Say not that, boy," said the sentry, who, despite his roughness, had a kind heart and was touched by the sorrow in Roy's voice. "I have an old comrade down Sury‚mer way and I will speak to him of thee and see what he says; then who knows but——"

Little Akbar interrupted him gravely. "It is as God chooses. Roy always says that. Don't you, Roy?"

"By my word!" said the sentry, saluting, "you are a proper pair of Kings."

There were to be three days festival. On the first, that of Pleasure, everybody was to be dressed in white, on the second day of Power all were to be in scarlet, and on the third, the day of Fortune, the day on which little Prince Akbar was to choose his mother, every one was to wear green. Head-nurse and Foster-mother spent all their time in devising wonderful [174] new designs for their darling's dresses, and Hum‚yon himself added many little fanciful touches, for he had a most wonderful imagination, and this festival, which was to welcome his wife to K‚bul and give her back her little son, occupied all his thoughts.

The queen arrived on the first day, but, according to custom, in a closed litter, and she went straight to the secluded balcony arranged for the royal ladies, whence she could see without being seen. So she had the advantage of her little son, who, in a magnificent costume of white and silver, looked such a darling that Queen Humeeda longed to hug him.

"Has my Amma-j‚n  come?" whispered the little Prince to his father, "is she up there behind the lattice of roses?"

"Yea! she is there sure enough, little rogue," laughed Hum‚yon. "So give a good look right through the flowers."

"No!" said little Akbar, "I've got to shut my eyes; then I can see her with my other eyes."

But his father was too busy directing the festival to hear what he said.

So the first day passed on and everybody thought it was the very finest entertainment that ever was seen. But the second day surpassed it. The crowds, all in scarlet, filling the gardens, looked like bright roses amid the green leaves, and the blare of golden trumpets, the scattering of golden coins as largesse, the [175] stately processions of soldiers made it, indeed, a marvellous show of power; and this was increased by the arrival of ambassadors from the Shah of Persia, who had so much helped King Hum‚yon. They brought magnificent presents and hearty congratulations on success. So, nothing was lacking; and at night, lit up by red fires, the scene was one never to be forgotten. But with the dawn everything changed! A thousand servants set to work, and in one short half hour the garden showed green. Green carpets, green trees, green water falling from the fountains like liquid emeralds. And by-and-bye came green crowds, every shade of green mixing and mingling in harmony. And inside the arched pavilion of the house of Good Fortune were green rustlings of silk, green shimmerings of satin as three hundred ladies of the Court, all veiled with green veils, took their seats in a semicircle. Three hundred ladies in green all dressed alike! Which was Queen Humeeda? That, it was the part of a child of four to tell, a child who had not seen his mother for two and a half years!

The crowd outside, pale green, sage green, emerald green, leaf green, were hushed to silence, waiting; but from every thicket of rose and jasmine a chorus of singing birds, deftly concealed in cages behind the leaves, filled the air as Hum‚yon and his little son advanced to take their places. The king was dressed in green also, a fine figure in royal robes embroidered [176] with a thousand allegorical designs. He took his seat on a golden throne.

And little Prince Akbar!

He was the one spot of colour! He was the flower of the whole garden! Dressed in rose satin of various shades, he looked indeed what Head-nurse had called him fondly, thus adding to her string of titles, "The Rose of the World."

And now the great moment approaches! The little fellow takes his stand fearlessly below his father; before him the semicircle of green veiled ladies; a hundred in the first row, a hundred in the second row, a hundred in the third row.

But little Akbar's eyes as he stands there do not wander from row to row. To tell the truth, his eyes are not open at all! He has them fast closed; for so, he knows, he can see his mother.

"Ladies! Unveil!" comes the king's voice. It sounds a little anxious.

There is a rustling of silks and satins, a faint swishing of gauze and muslins, and three hundred faces flash out, like flowers against leaves, from their green draperies.

Which is Queen Humeeda's?


[Illustration]

"LADIES! UNVEIL!"

For an instant the child stands silent, his lips trembling, his face flushing. Then his eyes open and he sees something.

What is it?

[177] Is one face less smiling than another?

Where is it? In the first row, or the second row, or the third row?

What matter? There is a glad cry of——

"Amma-j‚n!  My Amma-j‚n. There you are!" And a little flying figure in rose-coloured satin has dashed across the floor to fling itself into the arms of—Queen Humeeda.

Little Akbar has found his own darlingest mother, and there is not a dry eye in the whole assemblage.


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