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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel


 

 

ON THE ROAD

[39] NATURALLY when, after an uneventful journey with the shepherd as guide, they reached Prince Askurry's camp that evening, they came to talk over the incident. Foster-father was not sparing of Head-nurse. The whole tissue of misfortunes, which had ended in Baby Akbar so nearly losing his life—and that he had been spared was simply a miracle—arose from her insisting on a Royal Procession. But for that, both she and the child would have gone comfortably on a camel. They would have kept up with the other baggage animals and none of the distressful events would have happened. It should not, however, happen again. Of course, Head-nurse tried to brazen it out and assert that the Heir-to-Empire could always count on a miracle in his favour; but in her heart-of-hearts she knew that Foster-father was right.

So next morning she said nothing when she saw a camel with two panniers kneeling in front of the tent, ready for its load. That  had to be endured, but she revenged herself by objecting to the black dog and the white cat, who sat expectantly one on either side, evidently prepared for a start.

"Whose are those uncouth beasts?" she asked of [40] Roy angrily. "Did I not tell those ghosts of the desert who call themselves shepherds to remove them last night? Why have they come back? Take them away! Catch them! Tie them up! Such mean born animals have no right to attend the Mighty-in-Pomp, the Lord-of-Light," etc., etc.

She rolled out the titles sonorously, determined that if she was docked of dignity in one way she would have it in another.

Now it was not very hard to catch the big black golliwog of a dog, even though he did snarl and snap and try to bite. There were a lot of camp followers who were only too glad to have the amusement of capturing him, so, after a very short space poor "Tumbu," for Baby Akbar insisted on calling him so, was being dragged off at the end of a long rope to his masters the shepherds, looking very sad, with his tail between his legs.

But it was quite different with "Down," the cat. She had made up her mind to stay where she was, and it is very hard, indeed, to make a cat change its mind when it is once made up.

So she moved about gently, from one place to the other, purring softly and looking as mild as milk, her blue eye—for real Persian cats often have their eyes of different colours and one of them is always blue—ever so friendly, as if she were just longing to be picked up. Only the very tip of her bushy tail swayed [41] a little, and that is a sure sign that a cat is contrary. And contrary Down was. The very instant any one tried to pick her up—why! she was somewhere else!

Head-nurse ere long joined in the chase, saying all the rest didn't understand cats. But she soon lost patience and declaring that she had never been done by a dumb animal yet, started capture by force. A circle was formed round the point where Down sat blinking in the sunlight, and shawls and veils were held up to make it complete. Then step by step they advanced towards the cat, who, in truth, viewed the enclosing wall with polite indifference. It was really rather a funny sight to see stout Head-nurse without her veil tip-toeing in line towards pussy and shrilling out her orders to the others to close in and be sure to leave no loopholes. Step by step her voice became more and more triumphant, and it really seemed as if the cat must  be caught this time, for Down sat sweetly purring until she was actually hidden from sight behind the high-held screening cloths.

"Now then! quick!" shrilled Head-nurse. "Close in—close——"

But her order ended in a scream of fright, for there was pussy in one flying leap on her bare head, scrabbling up her scanty hair, and with another away up the hillside leaving nothing but claw-marks behind her!

[42] Head-nurse wept with angry tears; but Foster-father, always sensible, said "Enough! cry on the camel if you will, but now is the time to slip away before the obstinate animal can return."

There was wisdom in this; therefore Head-nurse composed herself comfortably in one pannier while Foster-mother, who was lighter, settled into the other with Baby Akbar. So off they set at the dignified lollop which camels affect, and Head-nurse began to congratulate herself on having successfully evaded the "uncouth beasts."

But there is no counting on cats. If they are here one moment and gone the next, they are also gone one moment and here the next. So, as the camel was passing under a thorn tree about half a mile out from camp, a great fluff of white hair sprang from the branches and landed right in Head-nurse's broad lap. And there was Mistress Down looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and purring away like a kettle on the boil.

Head-nurse gave in altogether  then. "When a cat really makes up its mind," she said with forced wisdom, "it is little use any one else making up theirs!"

So pussy sat in her lap, and after a while the warmth of the pretty creature and even the very roughness of the small three-cornered red tongue that licked her hand, as half-unconsciously she began to stroke the long soft fur, made her say suddenly:

[43] "Who knows but it is the Will of the Creator! This mean-born thing may in the future be of use to the Light-of-the-World, the Observed-of-all-Observers," etc., etc., etc.

And her words were to come true, for, as you will see by and bye, Down was of great use to her little master. Nevertheless when, at the very next camping ground, a great big black golliwog of a dog with a gnawed end of rope still round his neck was seen calmly awaiting them at the door of the tent that was pitched for their reception, Head-nurse became tearful again and said that if Providence intended to send all the wild beasts of the field to look after Baby Akbar, there was no need for her; so she would give up her place.

But the little Prince himself was delighted. He plumped down on the hot sand beside the dog and hugged it, calling it "Dear Tumbu," and when the white cat jealously rubbed her back against his little fat person he hugged her too and called her "Darling Down."

"Hark to the Lord-of-the-Universe giving his creatures names!" said Foster-mother piously. So after that everybody called the golliwog dog Tumbu, and the fluffy cat Down.

This was the beginning of a whole week on camel back; a very pleasant week too, though the minds of the elders were rather on the stretch [44] concerning the fate of King Hum‚yon and Queen Humeeda.

Still the sky was as blue as blue could be, the sun shone bright and the air was crisp with coming winter. Head-nurse spent most of her days dozing and mumbling long strings of titles in one pannier, while Down slept and purred on her lap. In the other pannier were Foster-mother and Baby Akbar. The little fellow did not sleep much, but spent most of his time craning over the pannier side to see everything there was to be seen. But what amused him most was to watch Tumbu, who would look up and bark and gambol for hours to attract his little master's attention. Whereat Down would become impatient and come over the camel's hump from the other pannier, rub her back against the little Prince and watch, too, with a sort of dignified contempt. It was the way of dogs to be loud and effusive, and gushing; but it didn't mean much. Tumbu, for instance, despite his display of affection, would leave his post to run after every wild thing he saw; and though he always came back to it, he was so helplessly breathless, with half a yard of red tongue hanging out, that he would have been little use had an enemy turned up and his protection been needed.

Cats were far wiser. They sat still and watched; so they were always ready.

And one evening Down watched to some purpose. [45] Baby Akbar was asleep on some quilts and Down, as usual, lay keeping his feet warm, her eyes closed, purring away like a steaming kettle.

You would have sworn she was half asleep, but in a second there was one spring, something reared itself at her to strike, but her paws were too quick. One, two, three, came the blows swiftly like boxes on the ears, and there was a snake squirming and helpless in the dust. Old Faithful's armoured feet were on its head in a second and the danger was over.

"Truly a cat is a terrible thing," said Head-nurse in a twitter. "There is no fear in them. The reptile had not a chance."

But Down was back on her young master's feet, her eyes closed, purring away as if nothing had happened.

Tumbu was in favour, however, next evening, but for a different cause. He appeared with a great prickly porcupine held gingerly in his mouth and laid it before Baby Akbar.

"Ohi! Porcupine for supper!" cried Meroo, the cook boy, who knew what a delicacy it was; but Head-nurse shrieked, "Take it away quick—the Heir-to-Empire will prick himself with the quills and they are poisonous. Take it away at once, I say."

But alas! The Heir-to-Empire was wilful, like all Eastern Princelings, and he shrieked to match at the suggestion. So there arose such a hubbub, which was [46] only calmed by Baby Akbar being allowed to do as he chose.

"Poor! Poor!" he said as his little hand touched the sharp prickles and no one found out, till Foster-mother came to put him to bed, that he really did  scratch himself. There was quite a little runnel of blood on the palm; but Akbar, even when he was a baby, was proud. He knew how to bear discomfort and punishment when it was his own fault.

They were all rather merry that night, for they had roast porcupine stuffed with pistachio nuts for supper. And afterward Roy sat by Baby Akbar's pile of quilts and sang him to sleep with this royal lullaby:

"Baby, Baby-ling,

You are always King;

Always wear a crown,

Though you tumble down;

Call each thing your own,

Find each lap a throne;

Dearest, sweetest King,

Baby! Baby-ling!"

When the child had fallen asleep Roy sat at the door of the tent and looked at the stars, which shone, as they do in the East, all colours, like jewels in the velvety sky. They seemed so far away, but not farther than he seemed to be from himself. For Roy's head had been dreadfully confused by that sunstroke [47] in the desert. Only that morning something had seemed to come back to him in a flash, and he had so far forgotten he was only a page boy as to call the little Heir-to-Empire "Brother," but Head-nurse's cuff had brought him back to reality in double quick time. And as he sat there in the dark he saw a man creeping stealthily to the tent. He was on his feet in a moment challenging him.

"Hush!" whispered the newcomer, "I bring a message from King Hum‚yon. I must see Foster-father at once."

The good man was already between the quilts, but he got up quickly, and when he had heard the message he sent for Head-nurse and Foster-mother and Old Faithful, for he felt that a most momentous decision had to be made. Yet the message was a very simple one. Those in charge of the child were to creep away that very night with the messenger, who would guide them in safety to King Hum‚yon, who had found help and shelter in Persia.

Head-nurse and Foster-mother wept tears of joy at the glad news, and proposed at once that they should wrap the child in a blanket and start. But Foster-father was more wary.

"You come as a thief in the darkness," he said. "Where is your token from the king, that I may know who you are?"

But there was no token.

[48] "Then the child stays where he is," asserted Foster-father boldly. "Am I not right oh! Faithful?"

"Assuredly my lord is right. Who knows but this man may be an emissary of those who would wile away the little lad from his uncle, Prince Askurry's protection. His other uncle, Kumran, is not so kind."

The messenger scowled at the old man. "As you please," he began blusteringly, "but those who disobey the King's order may find their lives forfeit."

"Mine is forfeit already to the child's service," replied Foster-father with spirit. "And without a token I stir not—Peace! woman," he added to Head-nurse, who would fain have sided with the messenger, "and go fetch the Heir-to-Empire's cap. That shall go as sign that he is his father's vassal, to do what he is told when the order comes accredited. So take that as my answer to those who sent you, sir messenger!"

So despite Head-nurse's protestations the man went off with nothing but the little gold-laced skull cap. And he had not to go far; only into a tent on the outskirts of the camp. For Foster-father's suspicions had been correct, and he had been sent to try and entice the child by some of Prince Kumran's partisans who, booted and spurred, and with a swift pacing camel for the child, were waiting eagerly for the return of their messenger.

[49] Their faces fell as he flung the little cap upon the ground.

"The old fox is too wary," he said. "We must get at the child some other way."

One of the party took up the cap and fingered it, half idly. "He has a large-sized head for his years," he remarked; "if it be full of brains, hereafter he may do well."


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