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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel


 

 

IMPRISONMENT

[159] BUT if Kumran was let and hindered by his oath from actually killing the Heir-to-Empire in cold blood, or, in lesser degree, from treating him so harshly that he might die, he did not feel so bound towards the others; and being cruel by nature, he set to work upon them at once. Foster-father he sent to the State prison, which was down a well in the big courtyard. There were two of these prison-wells, in which the water was reached by a flight of steep steps, and where dark, underground cells opened on to the deep silent pool. They were terribly damp, but here poor Foster-father had to drag out long, miserable days, cut off even from news of the others. Until one day, just when the sentry was eating his mid-day meal, he heard a violent barking, and by swinging himself up by the bars of the tiny shaft of the well he could just get a glimpse of Tumbu on the steps. Why had he come? Perhaps he had been sent; if so he would come again at the same time. All that night Foster-father lay awake, feverishly wondering what Tumbu had meant, and all the next morning, having no means of telling the time, he waited and waited anxiously, until, just as he was beginning to give up hope, the familiar bark echoed down the well, and there was good old Tumbu [160] on the steps! So he must have been sent by some one; and therefore some one must be alive and desire him to know the fact.

In truth, both his wife, Foster-mother, and Head-nurse had been racking their brains how to find out where either the Heir-to-Empire or Foster-father were imprisoned until little Bija had said, "Tell Tumbu to seek for them. If you show him Mirak's cap and say, 'Go seek,' he will go."

And so he did; but it was a long, long time before he found out where Mirak had hidden himself, for he had gone to the big palace in a litter, and so had left no trace. Then little Bija came to the rescue once more.

"You say, Foster-mother, that you feel sure that Down must have gone away to keep Mirak company. Now she can't  be prisoned, 'cos cats won't be caught unless they want to be caught, and she doesn't want to be, of course. So she must be going about, so why don't you tell Tumbu to seek for Down; then we should find where Mirak was."

"But we haven't got anything of Down's to show him," argued Foster-mother. And that was a puzzler.

At last Head-nurse said, "I believe all cats have the same smell, else why do all dogs go after all cats? At any rate, it would be worth trying."

So they got a fine, large, handsome white cat in the [161] bazaar, and said to Tumbu, "Go seek!" And then there was the most awful scrimmage that ever was seen. Tumbu was after the cat in a second, and the cat jumped for protection on Head-nurse, and Head-nurse howled, while Tumbu deafened everybody by yowls; for the cat had caught him on the nose! Peace was not restored till pussy had made her escape back to the bazaar through the window.

"That was not a success," sighed poor Head-nurse as she put herself tidy; but after all it was not such a failure, since, either from putting two and two together, or by mere chance, Tumbu appeared the very next day barking and frolicking after his usual fashion when he wanted them to go out, and then led them straight to a lonely corner of the palace garden, whence, looking upwards, they could plainly see Down seated on a narrow window sill. And the next moment, hearing the familiar bark, who should pop his head out of the window but Roy!

"All's well," he whispered rapidly seeing them below him; then withdrew his head swiftly. For he had determined never by anything or in any way to risk being sent away from the little Heir-to-Empire.

But the others were more than satisfied with the whisper.

"Now," said little Bija, who was beginning to manage her nurses, "Tumbu must find Foster-father and tell him." And this, we have seen, he did.

[162] Even so, with the daily content of knowing that all were at least safe, the time passed with deadly slowness, for the days grew to weeks, the weeks to months, bringing no change. Denied, as he was, the outdoor life, the fresh air to which he had been accustomed, little Prince Akbar grew pale and thin. But his spirits did not flag, and he would laugh over the tale of how R‚jah Ras‚lu swung the Seventy Maidens as heartily as ever, though sometimes his little lip would go down and he would say, "If Bija were only here I'd never ask her to tumble down. I would go on swinging till she wanted me to stop."

So the winter came on, but still Dearest-Lady did not return. A letter had come from her saying she had reached Kandah‚r in safety—that she was staying in the K‚r Garden outside the town which her father had planted—that King Hum‚yon was not angry—that he had already forgiven Prince Askurry—that Kumran had nothing to fear if he only kept to his promise.

The prisoners, of course, knew nothing of this letter, but the effect of it showed in a greater freedom. Foster-father was moved to a more comfortable dungeon and Bija, Head-nurse and Foster-mother were allowed to go and see the Heir-to-Empire. Their delight may be imagined, and even Tumbu shared in the joy, for, when he was refused admittance and left down below, he dashed up the stairs, evading [163] the sentries and barked furiously at the door to be let in. And the meeting between him and Mirak was so pretty that the sentry had not the heart to insist on poor doggie going down again. And this, in its way, was a good thing, for it was the beginning of a sort of friendship between the young Prince and this particular Afghan sentry. Sometimes, after he had been relieved, he would come up to the little captive's room for a bit, and listen to Roy's stories, or tell a few in his turn; for he had wandered about, over half India, giving the use of his sword to any one who would pay him well for it.

"Lo! I have not heard that tale since I was in R‚jputana!" he said one day after Roy had been singing an old-world legend of fighting days. "It was an old Brahman of Sury‚mer told it me of the Sun-Heroes."

Roy's face flushed up in a second. "Sury‚mer is mine!" he said proudly; "I am of the Sun-Heroes!"

Then he started to his feet, pale as ashes. "I have remembered! I have remembered at last," he said almost with a cry. "It is true! I was R‚jah of Sury‚mer! It has come back to me at last!"

Then as suddenly he crouched down again and covered his face with both hands.

"Roy!" said little Prince Akbar gravely. "Why should you cry because you are a King? I don't."

[164] The sentry laughed. "By my word," he remarked, "there is a blessed pair of you Kings!"

"Of course there is," assented the Heir-to-Empire with the greatest dignity. "I have been one ever since I was born, and I always knew Roy belonged to me!" Then in quick impulse he ran over to the R‚jput lad and flung his arms round his neck crying, "Oh Roy! Roy! I'm so glad you are my brother!"

"Not so fast, young sir," objected the sentry, who was hugely amused and interested; "what proof can you bring of this, stripling?"

Roy lifted a scared face; then hung his head.

"None, save my memory, and this mark upon my breast. My mother said we all had the stamp of truth over our hearts."

The sentry shrugged his shoulders. "That is not much in this wicked world," he said carelessly. "And anyhow it matters little if either or both of you be Kings, since ye are in cruel Kumran's power."

"Not till my Dearest-Lady returns," dissented little Akbar gravely. "Head-nurse said so; and if cruel Uncle Kumran is to get me, Dearest-Lady won't  come back. I know  she won't—so there!"

And, as events turned out, the Heir-to-Empire was right!

But a few days afterwards a messenger, bearing a blue handkerchief in his hand—the sign of death tidings to the Royal Family—appeared in hot [165] haste before the nobles assembled in the Audience Hall.

"News! News!" he cried breathlessly. "Cover your heads with dust, ye people, while ye thank the Merciful One that Kh‚nz‚da Kh‚num of the House of Babar hath found freedom, that after a long and godly life she hath found rest and peace. Bismillah—ul——"

The long Arabic sentence went rolling through the Hall, while Kumran stood stunned by the suddenness of his aunt's death. And yet it might have been expected; the journey was far too trying for one of her years. And she had risked it—for what?

With a rush Kumran realised that his promise still held good, and for the moment disappointment, anger, savage desire for revenge swept away his regret. Yet even he could not fail to be touched by the letter his brother Hum‚yon had sent him by the hand of the messenger. Dearest-Lady had, he said, pled his, Kumran's, cause well, and he, Hum‚yon, was ready to forgive for the sake of the dead woman who had loved them both, whom they both loved, and who had died with a smile.

But such softer feelings did not, could not linger long in a mind that had no fixed belief in anything. Before a day had passed the feeling that he had been tricked onto an oath he dared not break came uppermost again. Foster-father was ordered back to his [166] damp dungeon, the little Heir-to-Empire and Roy were taken from the Palace and given over to the charge of a man noted for his hardness of heart. Only the women and little Bija, being of no account, were turned out into the streets to beg or starve as they chose.

Then followed a terrible month in which the little party were cut off from news of one another. Only Down, the cat, wandering over roofs and Heaven knows where and how, looked in here and there to settle on some one's lap and purr.

"Cats," said poor Head-nurse, as she sat opposite Foster-mother, grinding for all they were worth at a stone hand-mill in order to gain enough to keep Bija from starving, "are of all God's creatures the most contented; and so little pleases them. Hark! to Down how she purrs, just because she has found us poor miserable women."

"Allah!" replied Foster-mother more cheerfully. "Is love such a little thing? I think not, and Down hath seen my darling. Of that I feel sure; she would not come and purr otherwise."

Still it was silent comfort and there was so much going on; so much that even the "miserable women" could not hear, though they were free to come and go. But one day when Down was purring on Bija's lap in the straw thatch which was all the three had for lodging, a passer-by paused to say:


[Illustration]

AND ONE DAY THE DOOR DID OPEN. . . "MY SONMY LITTLE SON."

[167] "That is the cat I used to see with the little King. Have you ought to do with him, sister?"

"I am  his sister," replied Bija haughtily, whereat the sentry, for it was he, laughed; but for all that he paused to tell the two women what he knew; though that was not much. It could not be long, however, he said, before news of one sort or another came to them; for King Hum‚yon was, so they said, within a day's march of K‚bul, and any time they might hear the guns begin. Then would be his turn. He would fight till all was blue, and then if the outsiders won, turn round and fight for them as hardily, since all he required was plenty of fighting and plenty of food and wine.

He was right in one thing. The very next day about noon, a sudden pouf—bing-bing—thud, told that the first shot had been fired. And after that there was no peace and little safety. Only Foster-father in his dungeon was free even from anxiety; for fever had seized on him and he lay unconscious. And in his close prison room, where there was little air and less light, and where Roy racked his brain for stories wherewith to while away the leaden-footed hours, the little Heir-to-Empire lay listless also, yet not ill. Only weary, weary.

"I want Tumbu," he would say, "I want to run a race with him. I want to be out of doors."

And so while the city was alive with armed men, [168] when there were assaults and repulses and sorties and forlorn hopes going on day after day, Roy would tell Mirak that some day something would happen. Some day the door would open and——

And one day the door did open. And a tall man stood for a second, half-blinded by the darkness. But the next he strode forward and caught the little Heir-to-Empire to his heart, murmuring, "My son—my little son!"

It was King Hum‚yon; for Kumran, after pleading for a few hours' truce to allow him to make submission, had taken advantage of this breathing time to make his escape with the more desperate of his followers. Fear had overcome him once more. Having nothing in himself on which he could rely, he could not trust to the generosity of his brother.

So, after more than two and a half years of separation Akbar found his father again.


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