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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel


 

 

TUMBU-DOWN

[27] AFTER a while the party started on their way once more feeling greatly brisked up. But the heat of the day was now upon them, and though the snow lay close beside the path, the fierce sun melting it made the vapour rise and turned the narrow valley into a regular steam bath.

The perspiration ran down the travellers' faces and especially down poor Head-nurse's; for she had insisted on taking off her veil to twist it turbanwise round Baby Akbar's head since the Royal Umbrella was forbidden. Foster-mother had tried to take off hers also, but Head-nurse had angrily forbidden her to do any such thing. If she, Head-nurse, died of sunstroke what matter, but if Foster-mother failed, what—even though one back tooth had been gloriously cut—would become of the Heir-to-Empire, the Admired-of-the-World, the Great-in-Pomp, etc.?

So, to comfort herself she went on mumbling titles as she struggled along, the sun beating fiercely on her bare head. Such a quaint head, with sleek black hair parted and plaited and hung with jewels, even down the long pigtail of brown wool that was added on to the back to make the hair look more plentiful.

It was a piteous sight and Foster-mother was so [28] conscious of the devotion it meant that she said "Lo! Head-nurse, thou art a good, good soul though a hard one to me; but I will never, never, never, forget this day."

"Nor I," groaned Head-nurse, "but 'tis for the Heir-to-Empire."

It was a full hour before the slope ended in a level bog, on the other side of which began a visible descent. Then in the angled hills a blue shadow began to rise, telling of a valley below them.

"Bismillah!" (Thanks be to God) cried Foster-father piously. And every one echoed the remark except Baby Akbar. He turned round and looked back at the snowy peaks which were beginning to show behind them.

"Amma, Dadda 'way 'way mountains," he said regretfully and his little mouth went down as for a cry, when everybody's attention was distracted by the sudden appearance of a huge furry black dog which came bounding down the hill side, its big white teeth gleaming as it uttered shrill, sharp, growling barks.

Head-nurse and Foster-mother shrieked with fright, little Adam ran like a hare for the shelter of his mother's petticoats, and Meroo the cook-boy, remembering his bare legs—for like all Indian scullions he wore short cotton drawers—squatted down where he was standing, in order to protect them. Even Roy, brave boy that he was, looked uncomfortable, and both [29] Foster-father and Old Faithful whipped out their swords.

These were not needed, however, for the next instant a wild-looking figure clad in a brown blanket started up from behind a rock and shouted to the dog. It stopped instantly, but stood still—snarling, though obedient.

It was the funniest looking dog you can imagine. Bigger than a big collie, it was furry all over even to its tail. And it was black as ink. In fact with its tiny prick ears and small sharp pointed muzzle all lost in a huge soft black ruff and nothing to be seen but red tongue, white teeth and beady black eyes, it was a regular golliwog of a dog.

When Foster-father saw the man in the brown blanket, who from his crook was evidently a shepherd, he heaved a sigh of relief. "Now," he said, "we shall be able to find out our way."

But he was mistaken. The man did not understand a word they said, neither could they understand a word he said.

Head-nurse was in despair. "He speaks like a ghost of the desert," she wept. "We shall all die of starvation before he understands."

"Die?" echoed Foster-father stoutly. "Not so, woman! There is one language all understand."

Whereupon he placed himself right in front of the shepherd, opened his mouth wide and then shook his [30] head. Next he pointed to his stomach and shook his head again. Finally he began to chew violently, rubbed his stomach and grinned.

The shepherd grinned too and rubbed his  stomach, whereupon Foster-father turned triumphantly to Head-nurse.

"Said I not sooth, woman," he asked. "Hunger hath a tongue of its own, and all men know it."

Once begun, signs soon brought so much understanding, that, whistling to his dog, the shepherd started down the hill at a great pace, beckoning them to follow.

"Not so fast, friend, not so fast!" panted Foster-father, "we be not all born on a mountain as thou art. And there are women and children, too." He pointed to poor Head-nurse and Foster-mother, who were indeed dropping with fatigue, and the man seemed to understand, for he pulled up. But he had to keep some way off because his dog, who kept close as a shadow to his master's heels, never ceased growling. So they tramped on wearily until just below them they saw a marg  or mountain upland, where some goats were grazing. One part of this dipped down into a little valley, and there, in the shelter of some huge rocks, they saw two or three small brown blanket tents, such as shepherds use on the Beluchistan hills. They were just like waggon tilts only not so large.

[31] Here, at any rate, was prospect of food and rest, and the poor travellers brisked up again. But alas! between them and the tents lay a formidable obstacle. Nothing less than a birch-twig bridge over a rushing stream which filled up the bottom of a wide rift or chasm in the upland. This chasm stretched right across the upland from a steep rock which blocked up the head of the little valley, and out of which the stream gushed, and there was no way of crossing it, so the shepherd explained by signs, except the birch-twig bridge. Now a birch-twig bridge is a very terrifying thing to anybody who is not accustomed to them. It is simply a strong flat plait of birch twigs about nine inches wide which is flung from one side to the other, and which, of course, droops and sags like a rope in the middle. Into this plait are stuck every few feet or so cross sticks, and to these sticks a rope is fastened as a sort of hand rail. Across such a bridge as this the hill children walk as easily as an English child does over a great brick span; but Head-nurse resolutely refused to set foot over it herself, much less to allow the Heir-to-Empire to risk his neck on such an appallingly dangerous structure. In vain Foster-father, in order to set a good example, allowed himself to be led over by the shepherd with his eyes carefully bandaged lest he should get giddy in the middle by looking down. As a matter of fact, this only made Head-nurse more frightened, for, of [32] course, the bridge swung and swayed with the weight of the men on it. She would sooner, she declared, try to climb Heaven on a rainbow! That was at least steady. Roy tried to hearten her up by walking over himself with open eyes, though he felt frightfully dizzy and had to fling himself flat on the grass to recover when he did get over. Then Meroo, blubbering loudly that he was going to his death for his young master, climbed up on the shepherd's back and allowed himself to be carried over just to show how easy it was.

It was all in vain! Head-nurse was firm. They must bring the tents to the Heir-to-Empire; the Heir-to-Empire should not go across a tight rope to the tents. And there she would have remained had not a great, tall burly woman with a fat baby on her hip come out of one of the tents, and grasping the position, stalked over the bridge without even touching the hand rail, caught Baby Akbar from Foster-mother, who was too taken aback to resist, set him on her other hip and calmly stalked back again, leaving the two women too surprised and horrified even to scream.

But when they saw the Heir-to-Empire safe on the other side, they consented to be carried across pick-a-back.

So there they were before long eating goats' milk [33] cheese fried like a beefsteak and drinking long draughts of a sort of sour milk.

One of the shepherds could speak a little Persian, and from him Foster-father, to his great relief, learned that Prince Askurry's camp was only a mile or two down the valley, so, feeling certain of being able to reach it before sundown, he called a halt, and they all lay down to rest in one of the tents, Baby Akbar between his two nurses for safety sake. For one could never tell, Head-nurse remarked, what might happen amongst people who spoke the language of ghosts in the desert, and kept such strange animals. A great golliwog of a black dog who sat on one side of the tent like an image, watching them as if he meant to eat them, and a great fluff of a white cat sitting on the other with her eyes shut as if she did not want to watch them.

No! Indeed it was impossible to tell what might not happen!

And that is exactly how it turned out. What really  did happen no one knew. It was Foster-mother who, waking first, let loose a shriek while still half awake. This roused Head-nurse, who let loose another. For Baby Akbar was no longer between them. The Heir-to-Empire had gone—had disappeared—was not to be found!

Roy was out of the tent in a second, treading in his haste on Meroo, who was sleeping outside, and who [34] began to howl confusedly. Old Faithful fumbled for his sword, Foster-father rubbed his eyes as if they  must be at fault.

But there was no Baby! And what is more, both the black dog and the white cat had disappeared also; at least they were no longer on the watch.

Never was there such a commotion. The rocks resounded with cries and every one searched everywhere; even in the great tall basket panniers in which hill shepherds carry their goods and chattels.

But not one sign of the little fellow was to be found, until—horribly, dreadfully, near to that awful birch-twig bridge—Foster-mother seized on a tiny gold-embroidered skull cap that was lying on the grass.

"It is his!" she sobbed, "it is my darling's! He hath tried to get to the mountains to his Amma, and he hath fallen from that accursed cats' cradle. He is dead! He is killed!"

Every face, except the shepherds', who did not, of course, understand what was said, turned pale. It was indeed possible, perhaps probable, that the faithful little soul, who remembered when others forgot, had tried——

It was a terrible thought. But the shepherds, seeing the cap, at once whistled to their dog, and the one who spoke Persian explained that if it were shown the cap it would take up the track of the child at once.

But though they whistled and whistled no dog came.

[35] Then the shepherds began to look grave and mutter among themselves.

"What are they saying? What gibberish are they talking?" shrilled poor Head-nurse, trying to keep hope alive by being angry. The man who spoke Persian looked at her cheerfully.

"Only that perhaps the dog has eaten the child. We keep it hungry that it may chase the wild animals."

This was too much for the womankind. They simply rent the air with heartbroken sobs.

But Foster-father, grave and silent, would not give up hope. Every foot of the ravine must be searched, first downwards, as, had the child really fallen into the stream it must have been carried with it. Then as a last forlorn hope upwards. So, peering down carefully from either side, they traced the ravine till, gradually becoming shallower, less steep, it merged into the grassy valley. But there was no sign. Then sadly they commenced their upward search, until they were close to the high cliff whence the stream gushed out. Here they found that the ravine was wider, and at the bottom of it a patch of sand and boulders showed that there was foothold beside the roaring torrent.

"I will climb down and see if there is aught," said Roy; "it is easier here—if he had fallen here, he might—" the tears in his voice prevented more, as he [36] tucked up his garments preparatory to the difficult descent.

But the shepherds raised an urgent outcry. There was a demon in the cavern, they said, whence the water came. There was no use angering it, no use in losing another life.

Roy struggled madly in their detaining hands, but Old Faithful and Foster-father looked at each other. Whether there was a demon or not it was a risk to another life and that should not be a young one.

"No, boy!" said the old warrior stoutly. "This is my task, not thine. I am good swordsman to begin with, and demons—if there be any—like not a clean sword thrust. Also I have been pilgrim to Holy Mecca and demons—if there be any—like not pilgrims' flesh."

So, muttering prayers and holding his drawn sword in his teeth, since both hands were needed for the parlous descent, he commenced his task while the others watched him eagerly.

About half way down he paused, looked up and called back; but they could not hear what he said.

"Take thy sword out of thy mouth, man," shrieked Head-nurse almost beside herself with grief and rage; "it isn't manners to speak with the mouth full."

True enough, but Old Faithful had some difficulty in obeying orders. However, he managed to steady himself for a moment on his two feet; so sword in hand he bawled back.

[37] "'Tis true! There is  a demon. It growls. I hear it plainly. Farewell! I go on, secure in my sword and Holy——"

Here a foot slipped and he went sliding, slithering, slipping down to the bottom where, happily only bruised, he sat half-stunned staring in front of him.

And then there echoed up to the listeners the most terrible barking, and yelping, and growling, and spitting, that ever was heard!

"The demon! The demon!" yelled the shepherds in terror, and ran for their lives.

But Roy, ear over the cliff, listened for a second, and the next had followed Old Faithful. Foster-father was not long behind him, and Meroo was close on his heels. Foster-mother and Head-nurse were not to be left out, and somehow they all managed to get down in safety.

And then they all stood and sat silent and agape with surprise and delight.

For what they saw was this. A low cavern in the rock, and on a shelving bank of dry sand Baby Akbar sitting up and rubbing his eyes, while on one side of him was the golliwog of a black dog, his fur all bristling, his white teeth gleaming as he filled the air with furious barks; while on the other was the white fluff of a cat, her back arched, her tail the size of two, spitting and growling fiercely.

How had he got there? Foster-father looked at [38] Foster-mother, Head-nurse looked at Old Faithful, and Roy looked at Meroo, and they all looked at each other.

But Baby Akbar only put out one fat hand towards the black dog and said "Tumbu," and the other fat hand towards the cat and said "Down," and that was all he would say.

He had tumbled down; but how, when, and where, and how the dog and the cat came to be with him no one ever knew from that day to this.


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