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The Adventures of Akbar by  Flora Annie Steel

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THE FIRST VICTORY

[11] THE next moment a tall, handsome man entered the tent; but one look at his pale, anxious face was enough to tell those inside that the news was bad. So for an instant there was silence; and in the silence, with a deafening roar and a blinding blaze of blue light, came a terrific crash of thunder followed by a sudden fierce pelt of hail upon the taut tent roof.

It sent a shiver through the listeners. They felt that the storm had broken indeed upon their heads, that danger was close beside them.

Then the King stepped to his wife's side and took her hand, and as he spoke there was a sob in his breath as of an animal who after a long chase finds himself at last driven to bay.

"Come!" he said briefly, "there may yet be a chance for us. My horse, weary though it be, will suffice for thy light weight. In the mountains lies possible safety. Come! There is not a moment to lose."

"But—but the child—" faltered the Queen.

King Hum‚yon's voice failed him. He could not speak for a moment; but he shook his head.

"I will not leave the child—" began the wretched mother. "My lord! thou canst not have the heart——"

"It is his only chance—" interrupted the poor King, [12] his face full of grief and anger, of bitter, bitter regret—"His only chance of life! In the mountains yonder, with winter snow upon us, lies certain death for one so young. Were we to stay with him here, he would find death with us—for my brother Askurry is close behind us. But if we are gone, God knows, but he might spare the child. Askurry is not all unkind, and the little lad favors my father so much that his blessed memory may be safeguard. God send it so. It is his best chance, his only chance. So come——"

"I cannot! I cannot!" moaned the poor mother distractedly.

"There is no other way, sweetheart!" said the King, "so be brave, little mother, and come for thy son's sake. He will be safer here than with thee. Come! trusting in God's mercy for the child. And come quickly while the darkness of the storm shrouds our going."

Then he looked round on those others—Head-nurse, Wet-nurse, Old Faithful, Roy the R‚jput, and Meroo the cook-boy—not much of a bodyguard for the young prince, and yet, since force would be useless, perhaps as good as any other, if they had a head between them. But the nurses were women, Faithful nothing but an old soldier, and the two others were mere boys. Some one else must be left. Who? Then he remembered Foster-father, Foster-mother's hus- [13] band. He was the man. Solid, sober, clear-headed. So, as Queen Humeeda was being hurriedly wrapped in a shawl by the two weeping nurses, he gave them a few directions. They were to stay where they were, no matter what happened, until Foster-father returned from showing the fugitives a path he knew to the mountains, and then——

King Hum‚yon could say no more. Only as, after a hurried, tearless, hopeless farewell to his little son, he paused at the tent door to take a last look, his half-fainting wife in his arms, he said suddenly in a sharp, loud voice:

"Remember! In your charge lies the safety of the Heir-to-Empire."

The words sank into the very hearts of those who stood watching the group of hurrying figures making its way rapidly toward the hills.

"Pray Heaven," muttered Old Faithful anxiously, "that they be over the rise before those who follow see them."

So they stood fearfully watching, watching. And Heaven was kind, for though one great blue blaze of lightning showed the fugitives clear against the sky line, when the next came there was nothing but the rugged rocks.

Then for the first time Baby Akbar, who had been silent in his nurses' arms, watching with the rest, lifted up his deep-toned baby voice:

[14] "Daddy, Amma," he said contentedly, "gone up in a 'ky."

Whereupon Foster-mother wept loudly and prayed that good angels might protect her darling.

But Head-nurse was more practical, and set about considering how best that safety might be secured. Who was there who could help? No one of much use, truly, though every one was brimful of devotion and ready to give his or her life for the Heir-to-Empire.

"I will kill the first man who dares—" began Old Faithful.

"Aye! The first! But how about the last, old man?" interrupted Head-nurse. "Force will be of no avail. Askurry hath half an army with him."

"Harm shall only come to the child through my body," wept Foster-mother, whereat Head-nurse laughed scornfully.

"Woman's flesh is a poor shield, fool! God send we find better protection than thy carcass."

"Boo! hoo!" blubbered Meroo the cook-boy. "Lo! Head-nurse! I could kill a whole army by poisoning their suppers."

Head-nurse nodded faint approval. "Now, there is some sense in that, scullion, but what about that they may do supperless? If they should dare——"

"They will not dare," said a clear, sharp voice, and Roy the R‚jput lad stepped forward, a light in his great eyes. "My mother used to say, 'Fear not! A [15] king's son is a king's son always, so be that he forgets not kingship.'"

Head-nurse stood puzzled for a second, then she caught the meaning of the lad's words, for she was a clever, capable woman, and had all a woman's quickness.

"Thou art right, my lad," she said slowly, looking curiously at Roy, from whose face the flash of memory seemed to have passed. "Thou art right. In royalty lies safety. The Heir-to-Empire must receive his enemies as a King! Quick! slaves! Close the tent door and let us bring forth all we have, and make all things as regal as we can. There is no time to lose."

And they did not lose any. The result being that when, quarter of an hour afterward, Prince Askurry, bitterly disappointed at finding that his real quarry, the King and Queen, had escaped, strode with some of his followers into the tent where he was told Baby Akbar was to be found, he paused at the door, first in astonishment and then in amusement.

It was really rather a pretty picture which he saw. To begin with the tent had been lit up with the little rushlight lamps they call in India chiraghs—tiny saucers which can be made of mud in which a cotton wick floats in a few drops of oil—and a row of these outlined the mule trunk throne. Then Meroo's misshapen limbs had been hidden under a chain corselet and helmet, so he made quite a respectable fellow to [16] Old Faithful, as the two supporters stood bolt upright with drawn swords one on either side, while beneath them, on the ragged old Persian carpet which had been spread to hide the dirty tent drugget, crouched Head-nurse and Foster-mother, their faces veiled with their best gold embroidered veils.

A great pile of cushions had been placed on the muletrunk, and in the centre of these sat Baby Akbar, the Royal heron's plume of his turban waving gently in the breeze caused by the slow dignified sweep of the Royal fan which Roy, who stood behind his young master, was swinging backwards and forwards.

But it was not the prettiness of the picture which made Prince Askurry pause. It was the child's open fearless face which reminded him at once—as King Hum‚yon had hoped it might—of that dear, beloved father whose memory, even in their worst wickednesses, was ever a good influence in the lives of his sons. Babar the Brave! Babar of the Generous Heart! the Kindly Smile! Who could forget him?

But behind Prince Askurry were others who did not remember; who were eager to kill and have done with Hum‚yon and his son for ever.

And when they saw Prince Askurry pause, they were quick with advice.

"It is unwise to spare snakes' spawn," said one.


[Illustration]

PRINCE ASKURRY ... STRODE ... INTO THE TENT.

[17] "The boy is father to the man," said another. "He who is wise kills young rats as well as old ones."

And still Prince Askurry paused while poor Head-nurse and Wet-nurse went sick with fear under their veils at what might be going to happen, and Old Faithful's hand clasped the hilt of his sword tighter, since come what may he meant to strike one blow for his young master. But Roy's keen eyes showed—as the peacock's feather fan swept past them backwards and forwards—like a hawk's as it hovers above a partridge. There was in them a defiance, a certainty that victory must come.

Suddenly a wicked laugh filled the tent. "Peace! brothers," said a sneering voice, "Prince Askurry prefers to leave the snake to fight with his own son in the future."

The taunt told. It was true! Better to scotch the snake now, than to leave it to be dangerous by and by; dangerous perhaps to his own little son who was but a few years older than Baby Akbar.

Prince Askurry strode forward drawn sword in hand; but whether he really meant to use it or not cannot be told, for a very strange thing happened. Baby Akbar had been listening to the fierce voices just as he had listened to the angry voices when Adam had refused to salute. And now he saw some one before him who appeared to have no intention—as Adam had no intention—of making his reverence; so, [18] remembering the fine thing he had done when the latter had been naughty, up went the little hand again, and once more the loud, deep, baby voice said imperiously:

"Salute! Slave! salute!"

The words were barely uttered when by pure chance Prince Askurry's foot caught in the ragged carpet, and——?

And down he came flat as a pancake on the floor in the very lowliest salute that ever was made!

The next moment, however, he sat up, half-stunned, and looked wrathfully at his little nephew.

But Baby Akbar's honest open face was full of grieved sympathy.

"Poor, poor!" he said, shaking his quaintly crowned head, "tumbu down. Nanna kiss it, make it well."

Prince Askurry sat stupidly staring for a moment or two. Then the memory of many a childish hurt cured by like gracious offer from his father came back to him, making his heart soft. He sprang to his feet and waved by his councillors to cruelty.

"Go, my lords!" he cried fiercely. "Go seek the King who is no true King if ye will, and kill him. But this boy goes with me to Kandah‚r; the stuff of which he is made counts for life, not for death."

Then with a sudden generous impulse, for he was at heart his father's son, he held the hilt of his drawn sword in token of vassalage for Baby Akbar to touch.

[19] And the child, clever, observant beyond his years, remembering how his mother had guided his fingers to Old Faithful's weapon, put out his little hand solemnly and touched it.

Behind their close-folded veils Head-nurse and Wet-nurse wept for joy. And the old trooper's grip relaxed and the hard relentless look faded from Roy's face.

For here was safety, for a while at any rate, for the Heir-to-Empire.

He, and Fate between them, had won his first victory. No! his second, since the first had been the conquering of Adam's obstinacy.

But for that Baby Akbar might not have behaved with such dignity.


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