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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel

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SPRING

[77] WINTER passed to spring and spring to early summer, and yet no certain news came of King Humāyon or Queen Humeeda. Foster-father almost gave up hope, yet he said little, though he took counsel with Old Faithful, and he in his turn consulted the old mountain chief, who at the assemblage had been the first to cry, "Long live the Heir-to-Empire."

But the old man shook his head. The times were new, he said; very few people remembered, as he did, the old ways, the old Kings. But for the sake of Babar the brave they might always count on his sword and the sabres of fifty or more of his followers. So, if the worst came to the worst, they were welcome to an asylum in his eagle's eyrie of a fortress, where at any rate they could all die together fighting for the King; and what more did any brave man want?

This was not much consolation to Foster-father, who felt that there was nothing to be done, save by every means in his power, to curry favour with the Princess Sultanum.

But, indeed, the little Heir-to-Empire made himself friends wherever he went; they could not help liking the frank little fellow who spoke to them so freely, with a certain grave dignity of his own. For by the [78] time the peach gardens around Kandahār lay like clouds of pink and white about the old domed city, little Prince Akbar was in looks and ways a child of three or even four; so big and strong was he. He spoke perfectly in his childish way, with great emphasis and a curious, soft burr over his r's and h's. And he actually tried to wrestle with his cousin Ibrahim, who was, however, rather a puny boy, despite the fact that he was three years older than the little Heir-to-Empire.

But with Roy as playmate Akbar began all sorts of games. There was a high, walled peach garden not far from the bastion, where the little Prince used to be allowed to go; and there, during the long sunny hours, the Rājput lad, to whom such things were all curiously familiar, taught the child how to ride on Tumbu's back, and how to hold a spear. Aye! and to take a tent peg, too; the peg being only a soft carrot stuck in the earth! But the great game was shooting with a bow and arrow, and in this, before spring passed to summer, the pupil was a match with his teacher except in strength; for, from the very beginning, Akbar showed himself steady and straight as a shot; so it is no wonder he grew up to be the finest marksman in India. But it would take too long to tell all the games they played, all the manly sports which the little prince learned without any difficulty. There was a shallow marble tank in the middle of the [79] garden, where he took to the water like a duck, and would lie on his back and kick and shout with laughter as the tank got rough with waves, till Foster-mother would beg him not to drown, as the water splashed over him high in the air.

But Foster-father always reproved her for her fears. "Leave the lad to learn King's ways," he said, "and thank Heaven the Rājput foundling is here to teach him. Think you I  could tumble head over heels in air or water or ride bareback standing on one leg?"

"No, indeed!" would reply Head-nurse, who stifled her terrors from a sense of duty, "none, seeing thy figure, friend, would ask so much of thee."

Then, when Akbar grew tired, Roy would sit leaning his back against a peach tree so as to make a soft pillow for his little master, and Akbar would lean against him and listen to endless stories while the soft fresh breeze stole over the garden wall, and sent showers of pink peach petals on both the boys. And sometimes the little Prince, outwearied, would fall asleep, and then Roy would sit still as a mouse, gently flicking away with the end of his muslin turban the blossoms that fell on the little sleeper's face. But his thoughts would be busy, wondering above other things why it was that, do what he would, he could not help when they were alone at play sometimes calling the Heir-to-Empire "little brother." It was dreadfully [80] wrong of him, of course, and Head-nurse would rightly cuff his ears if she overheard it!

Then Akbar would wake and call imperiously for some favourite story, and as often as not it would be the tale of "How Rājah Rasālu swung the Seventy Maidens."

And Roy would reply submissively: "It is ordered, Highness!" and begin:

"Now Rājah Rasālu, soft heart and strong, heard a pitiful voice as he rode along. 'Oh traveller! traveller! turn aside, and help God's creature,' it moaned and cried. So the Prince turned straight and saw that a fire had caught a bush, blazing higher and higher, while a tiny cricket lay gasping for breath, half-scorched, half-choked, and nigh to its death. Then Rājah Rasālu, soft hearted and stout, put his hand in the fire and snatched it out! And the cricket drew forth a feeler and said: 'Take this, my preserver, 'twill bring you aid; should any  thing ever  prove troublesome, burn this  in the fire and I  will come.' Then Rasālu laughed with a great big laugh, 'I thank you, weakling! But none of your chaff! You  couldn't help me  I'll go bail.' So he rode on careless o'er hill and dale, a glittering knight in his shining mail, till he came to the city of King Surkāp, whom he'd sworn to kill with his sword so sharp. Now as he rode through a garden gay, Seventy Maidens barred the way; Seventy Maidens young and fair, [81] with flowers decking their golden hair. Seventy daughters of the king, come out to play and laugh and swing and jibe at the stripling who'd sworn to slay their father, the mightiest king of this day. But the youngest maid had a heart of gold, and when she saw Rasālu so bold, and strong and handsome riding to death, on his horse Irāki, she caught her breath, and whispered to him as he passed her way:

"'Fair prince on thy charger so gray,

Turn thee back, turn thee back.

If thou lowerest thy lance for the fray,

Thy head will be forfeit to-day.

Dost love life? then, stranger! I pray

Turn thee back—turn thee back.'

"But Rasālu smiled in the maiden's face, and drew his rein for an instant's space, while he gave her answer with courtly grace: 'Fair maiden, I come from afar, sworn conqueror in love and in war. Thy father my coming will rue, for his head in four pieces I'll hew. Then forth as a bridegroom I'll ride with you, little maid, as my bride.'

"Now at these words, and his face so kind, and strong, and brave, the maiden's mind fluttered, the blood through her heartstrings whirled, she felt she could follow him through the world; but her sixty-nine sisters were jealous and cried: 'Not so fast, young man! If she  be your bride, you  be our younger [82] brother, beside! So do our bidding or go on your way.' 'Fair sisters,' quoth he, 'let me hear your say!' Now the sisters vowed he should not succeed, so they took a whole hundred-weight of seed, as fine as the hundred-weight of sand they mixed it with, then gave command: 'If you wish to marry our sister, sir, take the seed from the sand without demur.'

"Then Rājah Rasālu stood aghast; but he thought of the cricket's gift at last, and taking it out of his pocket thrust it into the fire, and a cloud as dust showed in the sky and the distant whirr of thousands of wings caused the air to stir, as, dark'ning the day like a fun'ral pall, a flight of crickets appeared at the call. 'What is our task?' asked his friend with a laugh; 'only that?  I've brought too many by half!' So they set to work with a will indeed, till the sand lay separate from the seed, and sixty-nine maidens pouted and frowned as they wondered what  new task could be found, to puzzle Rasālu and keep him there a slave to the wishes of maidens fair. 'Now swing us all, sir, one by one, when we grow tired your task is done!'—they laughed in their sleeve, for they knew right well, that when they'd be tired, none could tell!

"But Rasālu laughed: 'What! seventy girls—for my little bride is the pearl of pearls—and only one man to swing the lot! Shall I spend my life in such silly rot? No! into one swing the seventy go; I'll fasten the rope to my mighty bow, and shoot an arrow [83] for all I know, so in with you, girls, sit all in a row, and don't be frightened, my little dears, I'll swing till you're tired, so have no fears.'

"Then the seventy clambered into one swing—so merry, so careless, their voices ring. And Rasālu stood in his shining array, as merry and careless as happy as they. He fastened the ropes to his mighty bow, and bent till it would no further go; then with a twang he loosed the string, and like an arrow the laden swing with its burden of seventy maidens fair, shot like an arrow into the air. Merry and careless with laugh and smile, up in the sky for many a mile; like a soaring bird in the distant blue, while merry and careless, and tall and true, Rasālu waited upon the plain, till the swing swung back to its place again. Then he out with his sword and laughed anew, 'Ye have had a fine ride, ye giggling crew; enough and to spare, so out with you there!' Then he severed the ropes with one mighty sweep, and the seventy maidens fell in a heap; and some were broken and some were bruised, and the only one that was not ill-used was the youngest maid, for she did not drop till the very last, so she fell on top!"

And here Prince Akbar used always to laugh gravely and say: "Glad she didn't tumble down really, for she was a nice little girl."

One day when the peach blossoms had all floated away, leaving in their place grey-green fluffy ovals [84] that by-and-bye would be luscious ripe fruits, Foster-father arrived in a great state of excitement just as Rasālu had finished swinging his Seventy Maidens.

"News, news!" he cried; "real news at last; and thank Heaven they are good! My master, the King, has not only secured shelter, but help, and hath written to his brother, Prince Askurry, advising him not to listen to ill advice, but to give in his allegiance at once, when all shall be forgotten. In token of which clemency he is sending to his still-dearly-beloved brother, Her Royal Highness the Princess Bakshee Bāni Begum, that she may be a companion to her half-brother, the Heir-to-Empire."

Prince Akbar, who was leaning on Roy's breast, suddenly sat up. "Is that my sister?" he asked eagerly, "is she a nice little girl like Rasālu's bride?"

Head-nurse laughed. "Nice enough I'll warrant, though I never saw her; she has been since she was born, six years past, with her mother's people; but so long as they send no fine ladies of nurses with her she is welcome."

Little Prince Akbar stood up and stretched himself, and looked at Head-nurse critically.

"Akka will welcome her, and Akka will tell you to be her nurse, and Akka will swing her a great big swing."

So far as he was concerned that  settled the question; but up at the Court there were endless question- [85] ings of heart. Prince Askurry was, as ever, in two minds as to what he should do. Cruel brother Kumran, who was Governor at Kābul, pressed his advice to stand firm, to send the child to him, to let him show King Humāyon that paid Persian troops could not stand up against Indian ones. But Princess Sultanum had really become fond of the little Heir-to-Empire, and felt sure that if they only played their cards carefully the king, out of gratitude, would consent to a betrothal between his son and her little daughter Amina. And in the end the wife's counsel prevailed. So a better lodgment was found for the royal children in an old palace surrounded by a lovely garden, and here, just as the roses were beginning to bloom, little Prince Akbar, dressed in his best, stood awaiting his sister's arrival. He had insisted on having, like Rājah Rasālu, a coat of mail; so Foster-mother had made him a tight-fitting corselet of silver tissue, in which he looked very fine indeed, as he stood brandishing a wooden sword covered with tin foil.

But when the red and gold bedecked camel did finally come up the marble-paved pathway with silent soft elastic swing, little Akbar forgot all about the part he was playing, and when he saw his sister, just ran up to her and hugged her tight, and said breathlessly: "Ah! you are a nice little girl!"

And a very nice little girl she was! Very small for [86] her age, with a little oval delicate face, big hazel eyes, and brownish hair all plaited in tiny, tiny little plaits on her forehead.

And she was dressed just like a grown-up, with little ear-rings and wristlets and anklets and necklaces and rings, with the dearest, daintiest of flimsey gauze veils set with little silver stars wound all about her! Never, said Head-nurse, had been such a darling little marionette, and when the small person fell gracefully at her brother's feet and begged his favour in a little piping voice, that stern believer in court etiquette was perfectly enchanted.

"It will be a real boon to the First-Gentleman-of-the-World, the Courtly-one-of-Courts, etc., etc., to have the society of his equals," she said with a darkling look at Princess Sultanum's Head-nurse, who had brought Prince Ibrahim and Baby Amina to welcome their cousin.

But, after all, Bakshee Bāni Begum did not turn out so demure as she looked! Indeed, when Head-nurse was not by, she was a regular tomboy; and after a whole morning spent in most lady-like fashion either playing with her dolls, or stringing beads, while Down, the cat, on her lap blinked and purred and stared out on the world with her big blue eyes and her little white feet tucked well inside, she would, when the women retired to get ready the mid-day meal, spring up like a squirrel, scattering beads and cats as [87] if they were of no account! Then the garden would re-echo to children's laughter.

And she would let Mirak, as she elected to call her brother, swing her for hours, but she obstinately refused to tumble down!

"But, Bija," expostulated the little lad, "the princess did tumble down in the story."

"I am not a princess in a story," said Bija calmly, "I am Her Royal Highness Princess Bakshee Bāni Begum."


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