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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel


 

 

THE NIGHT OF RECORD

[88] SO the summer days passed and winter set in once more. Though more satisfied, Foster-father felt still that safety depended on King Humāyon's success or failure.

So, whenever one of the long files of camels tied together in a string, head-and-tail, showed on the hill road above Kandahār, he was off to the halting-place outside the city to see what news it had collected in its march from Hindustan; for caravans in those days were the postmen.

And sometimes he heard one thing, and sometimes another, but as often as not he returned as he went, without any remedy but patience.

"Anyhow the child grows in stature and strength," Head-nurse would say, "and our present lodging is better than our last!"

Which was true; for the old house of three stories which they now inhabited was full of little rooms leading one out of the other like a rabbit-warren. And if there was no furniture in them, so much the better for the children's games of "I espy" and "Touch who Touch can."

For Bija and Mirak played such games with infinite zest. As Head-nurse had foretold, the coming [89] of his little sister had been an immense gain to the Heir-to-Empire; not only in manners, but also in his outlook upon life. For Princess Bakshee Bāni Begum was a very determined small person, who did not in the least see why the elder sister of a boy should give way to him in all things, simply because he was Heir-to-Empire.

"I won't have it, Mirak," she would say with a stamp of her little foot; "you shall not break my doll's head just because you want to."

So Prince Akbar, who was full of sound common sense, began to think she had reason on her side; and this was of great advantage to him, for with Head-nurse, and Foster-mother and the others, he stood a great chance of being spoiled.

And after a time he became quite devoted to the prim little maid, who, for all her primness in general, could be as wild as a hawk on occasion.

And out of that arose an incident which, unfortunately, turned Princess Sultanum against the little lad and so endangered his safety. It came about in this way. Prince Askurry's son Yakoob was, as has been said, three years older than Akbar, a lanky, rather weedy lad-ling of nearly six. Now Prince Askurry was himself a noted wrestler, and was determined his son should be one also. So he had the boy carefully taught, and set a good deal of store by the quickness of the little fellow in learning the grips, [90] and how to trip up an adversary. On high days and holidays, indeed, Prince Askurry and his wife used often to amuse themselves by seeing the discomfiture of other less experienced children who were set up to compete with the young wrestler. Baby Akbar had been one of these, and being so much younger, he had always gone down before Yakoob's skill; but he had always taken his overthrow in good part, though Head-nurse had felt as if she could not keep her fingers off the victor. It was not fair, she would say afterwards, to match a baby of two with a child of six, and then she would try to hug the vanquished Heir-to-Empire and cover him with kisses; but Akbar, always independent, resented this. "Akbar tumble him  down some day," he would say philosophically; and indeed there seemed every chance of it, for, mere baby as he was, there was more promise of future strength in his little finger than in Yakoob's whole body.

Now, as winter came on, the children were driven indoors for their play, and Old Faithful at their earnest request, rigged up a swing in a large empty room in the palace, and here Princess Bija would be swung like the Seventy Maidens, until Prince Akbar wearied of swinging her; and knowing that nothing would induce his elder sister to tumble down like the princesses in the story, would say quite plaintively:

"Please, Bija, get down; I'm tired of being [91] Rasālu," when the little maid would descend gracefully and they would play at something else.

But one day, just after the New Year, Prince Yakoob came to spend the day with his cousins, and the children fell to acting the adventures of Rājah Rasālu; Yakoob, as the guest, playing the hero's part.

They got through several of them quite successfully, Princess Bija making a spirited carpenter's lad and killing his dragon with great vigour, while the Heir-to-Empire, disguising his deep baby voice in a high squeak, doubled the parts of the seventy-nine maidens and the cricket. So all went merry as a marriage bell until Rasālu had to order the giggling crew out of the swing.

Then, of course, Bija refused; whereupon Yakoob, a spoiled boy, cast aside the tinsel-covered wooden sword, and whipped out from his belt a toy dagger his father had given him that morning. It was not very sharp, but very little cuts a taut rope, and one furious slash severed some of the strands, the weight of the two children did the rest, and there they were both on the marble floor!

And unfortunately the "pearl of pearls," Rājah Rasālu's bride, did not  fall on top. She fell underneath the Heir-to-Empire, and the Heir-to-Empire was heavy! So there was her poor little lip all cut and her pretty little nose all bleeding. Then two  Head-nurses rushed in, and two  Foster-mothers, and [92] ever so many pairs of nursery attendants, each taking the part of their respective nurslings, and there was a terrible to-do, for, of course, one Head-nurse said it was the fault of the other Head-nurse, and so on. In fact peace did not return until the party separated and the offender, Prince Yakoob, was being joggetted back to his mother by his excited attendants, while Princess Bija was having her swollen nose soothed by cold water. She did not cry much, but she was terribly indignant with every one, including her brother.

He couldn't have prevented his cousin from cutting the rope, of course, but he might have made his cousin's nose bleed also! If she hadn't been otherwise occupied she could have done it herself; she was quite sure she could; or at any rate have done something quite as disagreeable!

She looked very fierce as she spoke, while Akbar listened with grieved attention. In fact, what Bija would have done, had Head-nurse not had her in her arms cossetting her, became quite a subject of conversation between the two children, Bija sitting demurely threading beads and inventing new methods of just punishment, and the Heir-to-Empire lolling on the floor pretending to sharpen his tinfoil sword, and interposing objections such as, "But you couldn't do that, Bija, you're not strong  enough," or "That  wouldn't be fair, Bija, for he only hurt you a little, you know." For Akbar was born with a sense of fair- [93] play and justice which never forsook him, because he always gave it  fair play.

So the idea of somehow getting the better of Yakoob became a fixed one in the little lad's mind until an opportunity for action came to him.

It was about a month afterwards, on the "Festival of Record"; that is to say, the day when good Mohammedans pray for guidance during the coming year, and believe that God's Angel, accompanied by the spirits of their dead ancestors, appears on earth to judge the record of the past year, and write on the forehead of each man and woman and child what reward or punishment is deserved in the next. In the evening, thousands of little lamps are lit, so that there shall be no darkness anywhere, but all things shall be made manifest, and when the little platters of sweets and food are set out lest any of the spirits, who come to plead for their descendants, should feel hungry, it is a very solemn affair; but the day is generally spent in amusement.

So Princess Sultanum arranged an entertainment, and, as usual, there was to be a bout of wrestling between her son and some little companions, amongst them the Heir-to-Empire. Head-nurse was furious, of course. The show was invented, she declared, to disgrace the Mighty-in-Pomp, the Pole-star of the Universe, etc., etc.

Akbar himself took it very complacently and al- [94] lowed himself to be undressed and oiled all over, so as to make a grip very hard; for these are the Indian customs. And a very sturdy specimen he looked as he stood up and crossed his arms and then slapped himself with resounding slaps before crossing them again; also after Indian fashion, for so much he had learned of wrestling.

Then the signal was given, and Yakoob, as was his wont, began, in imitation of grown-up wrestlers, to steal an advance on his adversary.

But Akbar would none of that. Whether, watching real wrestling, he had noticed the method of attack he employed, or whether Roy had taught him, or whether he got it out of his own head, does not matter; but the little fellow rushed forward furiously and charging like a butting ram, caught his cousin full in the stomach, then making a snatch at his ankle tripped him up. So there in a second was Yakoob on his back, and Akbar, breathless but triumphant, on top of him.

"Now you've  tumbled down," remarked the Heir-to-Empire suavely, as, astride his cousin's prostrate body, he paused for breath ere getting up.

Of course, some people said it wasn't fair; but others admitted that though not the polite  style of wrestling, such a method was strictly within the rules. All, however, admired the big, bold, strong little Heir-to-Empire; all but his aunt and uncle; and the [95] former bid Head-nurse take away her young savage at once, while the latter's crafty face, uneasy before, settled into a scowl.

But Head-nurse could hardly contain her joy, even when Foster-father shook his wise old head and said he would not have had it happen for all the wealth of the world, for of late, if he were not much mistaken, things had been shaping ill for his young master, and that very morning a secret messenger had come in from Kābul. What it might portend who could say; but it was bad fortune the child should lose favour at Court to such slight purpose.

"Slight, indeed!" sniffed Head-nurse. "Is it not something to have shown that woman that her brat cannot stand up before true Kingship?"

"I would it were so, woman," replied Foster-father, "but a child under three with but two old men and two boys for protection cannot show much fight."

Head-nurse tossed her head. "So we women are not to count—" she began; but Baby Akbar had been listening seriously and now put in with his deep childish voice, and a wise little shake of the head:

"And there's Tumbu and Down, too; they can bite and scratch beautifully for me when they like."

Whereupon Foster-mother caught him up, and wept, and swore that Heaven must and would protect such a heart's darling.

[96] Perhaps it was this conversation which put the idea of getting help into the children's heads, but after a time it was evident they had some plan between them, for after watching the women light hundreds of little lamps, and set out a quantity of tiny platters full of sweets, they stole off by themselves to an empty room which was almost dark and began to whisper.

"I think it had better be grand-dad," said the Heir-to-Empire gravely, "'cos my father isn't dead yet, and they must be deaders, you know, if they are really  to help."

"And we'll take the little summer room at the very top of the house, Mirak, so's we'll be able to stop him on his way down, 'case any one else has got a platter for him," said Bija the practical. "Now, Mirak, I'll fetch the sweets if you'll get some lamps. They won't be missed, you know, if we take them betwixt and between."

After that there was much secret hurrying up and down stairs and secret gurglings of delight as the preparations advanced.

"Oh, Mirak! Won't it be lovely? He's sure to come in when he sees it!" said the little girl, clasping her hands. "And Old Faithful was saying that Grand-dad Babar was as good as twenty other men in a fight, so then  you'll be quite safe."

But Mirak's face was solemn. "If Grand-dad doesn't know it's for him he won't come in, and he [97] won't eat the sweets either. It's greedy to eat sweets as doesn't belong to you, and he  wasn't greedy. Old Faithful says he wasn't. He was a real King."

"Don't you think he might be greedy just to help you?" suggested Bija mournfully; but after thinking a little she clapped her hands. "I have it, Mirak! If his name was on it that would do! I think I could write 'Ba-ba.' It's only the two first letters, you see, and I know them;  and you could prick yourself for some blood to write with, and I could use my little finger as a pen. It's very, very tiddly wee."

It was, indeed! and Mirak sat large-eyed in admiration of his sister's ingenuity, while she, mistress of the situation, did this and that until even she was satisfied. And really the little arched and domed cupola set in Eastern fashion on the roof, looked quite pretty with the little glittering lights in a square on the white marble floor, and the platter of sweets placed in the middle of the square, whereon in smeared red letters showed this:


[Illustration]

"And now, Mirak!" chattered Bija, "we'll go down and go to bed like good boys and girls, and then when the others are saying their prayers and going to sleep we can come up again and sleep here."

[98] "Won't it be very cold, Bija?" asked Mirak, whose little nose was half frost-bitten already, for a cold wind was blowing off the snow hills.

"We will bring quilts," said the little lady with a superior air.

So, about an hour afterwards, after the children had been put to bed and their elders had begun the serious work of watching and waiting and dozing through the night, two little figures, well wrapped up in quilted cotton gowns and dragging quilted cotton blankets behind them, stole up the stairs to the roof of the house.

"I'm going to ask God to let him come," said Baby Akbar solemnly. So they both touched the cold marble floor with their warm little foreheads and said:

"Please Great God! Let our grand-dad Babar come and take care of us, and be kind to us, and not let the Angel write nasty things on our foreheads for this next year!"

Then they cuddled themselves closely together in the blankets and were soon fast asleep.

So fast asleep that even when, after the short hullaballoo which followed on the discovery that they were not in their beds, they were traced to the roof, they did not thoroughly wake up, but were carried down again without knowing much about it.

"Shall I blow out the lights?" asked Roy, as Head-nurse prepared to descend also.


[Illustration]

SO THEY BOTH TOUCHED THE COLD MARBLE FLOOR WITH THEIR WARM LITTLE FOREHEADS.

[99] Head-nurse looked round to Foster-father for his opinion.

"No!" he said shortly, "leave them! The children have asked some one to eat those sweets. Let be! They may want all the help they can get."

So all the night long the little lamps twinkled and twinkled.

But when morning came there was not a sweet left!

"It must have been the rats," said Meroo, who, as cook, had gone up to see what he could save. "I saw the tail of one disappearing."

But Foster-father said swiftly: "I would it were some other helper, for the time has come for help. Prince Askurry hath sent to say we start for Kābul and cruel brother Kumran at noon to-day!"


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