The winter settled in early that year, and with the passes of the hills blocked by snow, the caravans of laden camels which, in addition to merchandise of all sorts, brought news from the world to the east and the world to the west of mountain-clipped Kandahâr, ceased to come into the big bazaar. And the cold kept most people at home, or shivering beside the glowing braziers set outside the shops. It was not the season for active work, and so Prince Askurry let it slip by without really making up his mind what he was to do with Baby Akbar. Meanwhile the child could live in the bastion of the palace, and play with his little cousins. Whether he was to be betrothed to Baby Amina or not could be decided in the spring; this was the time for rest and home comfort without fear of any disturbing, since none could cross the passes in winter.
Princess Sultanam, however, to whom in her seclusion winter and summer were much alike, grew fond of the little lad, and never ceased to urge on her husband the wisdom of so treating Prince Akbar, that should King Humâyon by good luck--and he had a knack of being lucky--find himself again with an army at his back, his hands would be tied from revenge on the Court at Kâbul.
Now, Askurry was no fool; he saw that, for the present at any rate, until Humâyon's fate was decided, it would be wiser to be kind; so he decided that when he held the New Year's assemblage he would present the little prince in due form to the chiefs and nobles.
Head-nurse was almost crazy with delight at the very idea. She and Foster-mother sent all their jewels to the goldsmith to be made up into suitable ornaments for Baby Akbar, and they ransacked the shops for odd scraps of brocade with which to make him the finest of fine state robes.
And on the eventful day they began the child's toilette early, pressing Roy the Râjput into service as tire-woman to hold the ointments, and scents, and what not, that they deemed necessary for the due dressing of a Prince.
So that it rather dashed their spirits when Foster-father came in with a sober face and the news that a man had come into the bazaar bringing bad tidings of the King and Queen. They had, he said, been lost in the snow; but whether this was true or not, who could tell?
"Then what is the use of worrying?" snapped Head-nurse, who was too much occupied in making her charge beautiful to think of other things. "Lo! Foster-father, evil is never lost on the road. It arrives sooner or later, so why watch for it at the door?"
"That is true," replied Foster-father, "but mark my words, all depends on good news. If that comes, the child is safe; if evil--then God help him!"
Roy, who, Baby Akbar being nearly dressed, was now holding the pot of lamp-black and oil with which Head-nurse, after the Indian custom, would put a finishing touch to her work by smearing a big black smut on the child's forehead, lest he should be too sweet and so attract an envious, evil eye, looked up at the words, his face full of light and remembrance.
"God does help true kingship," he said proudly. "Mother used to say so, and that is why she was never afraid--" He paused and the light in his face faded. "I--I don't remember any more," he added apologetically.
"Remembrance or no," snapped Head-nurse, "hold the pot straight, boy, or thou wilt spill it over the Mighty-in-Pomp, the Admired-of-the-World," etc.
But Foster-father looked at Old Faithful and laid his hand kindly on Roy's shoulder. "It matters not, Roy! It is there within thee, all the same. And 'twill come back some day, never fear. And I for one," he added aside to the old trooper, "should not wonder at much; for the lad's manners are ever above his present station."
Old Faithful shook his head wisely. "'Tis not the boy's manners, friend," he said, "but his breed. A man may compass manners for himself, but not that his father should have had them also."
By this time the black smear was on Baby Akbar's forehead, and despite the smudge, he looked a very fine little fellow indeed. So much so that quite a murmur of delighted admiration ran round the assemblage when Askurry appeared, leading him by the hand; for he had quickly learned to run about and was now quite steady on his legs.
"A chip of the old block," said an ancient mountain chief, who had known his grandfather Babar, and many others nodded assent. Then Prince Askurry began a set speech, little Akbar seated on his knee the while.
It was a very clever, crafty speech, that could be taken two ways, and Prince Askurry was so much interested in it, and making sure that he was neither too disloyal or too loyal to his unfortunate brother, the King, that he did not notice what was passing on his knee until a sudden lack of attention on the part of his audience made him follow their eyes, and look down at the child upon his lap.
Then he sat dumbfounded, his face flushing to a dull, dark red, for he saw in a moment what the thing that had happened would mean to those others--the audience before him--the men he had summoned to listen to his half-hearted words.
Yet it was a very simple little thing. Baby Akbar, tired, doubtless, of his uncle's speechifying, had found amusement in a slender gold chain which hung round his uncle's neck; had traced it to a secret pocket in his inner waistcoat, and so had drawn out from its hiding place a golden signet ring, set with an engraved emerald. A toy indeed! So after playing with it for a bit the child had slipped it onto his little forefinger, which he held up the better to admire his new-found treasure. So it came to pass that as Askurry's smooth, oily voice went on and on, those who listened could see a little image sitting on his knee.
A dignified, gracious-looking image with forefinger held up in the attitude of kingly command; and on that forefinger--what?
The Signet of the King!
The Ring of Empire!
It was unmistakable! Askurry must have found it in his fugitive brother's tent. He must have concealed it. Uncertain what part he meant to play in the end, he must have worn it on his person until the child--the true Heir-to-Empire----
The chiefs looked at each other furtively. There was a pause. Then suddenly an old, thin voice--the voice of the old mountain chief, who remembered Babar the brave--rose on the silence.
"God save the Heir-to-Empire!"
It gave the lead, and from every side rose the cry:
"God save the Heir-to-Empire!"
[Illustration: The child had slipped it onto his little forefinger.]
Prince Askurry's face fell. He had not meant to rouse loyalty, but he was quick and clever, so he saw that it had been roused, and that now was not the time to try and stifle it. So his frown turned to a smile as he caught the child to him and rose, holding him in his arms.
"The rogue, my lords," he said lightly, "has forestalled me. I meant to place the ring upon his finger myself before you all, in token that he does in truth represent our King, but praise be to Heaven! he has saved me the task. Long live the Heir-to-Empire!"
But the nobles as they passed out of the assembly, and the people who heard the tale outside, said it was a strange happening that the innocent child should so claim his right. And cruel brother Kumran's party laid their heads together once more, and swore it was time to end Prince Askurry's foolish hesitation. They must get at the child somehow.
But by this time, if Prince Askurry had not quite made up his mind how he should treat Baby Akbar, he had quite settled that no one else--least of all cruel brother Kumran--should have anything to do with the child. So the little prince was carefully watched and guarded, rather to Foster-father's and Old Faithful's relief. Indeed, as time went on they almost forgot to watch themselves, being accustomed to see the sentry walking up and down before the entry to the narrow stairs that led up to the three rooms in the old bastion which were given them as lodgings. They were large, comfortable rooms, and the inner one was used by Foster-mother, Head-nurse and Baby Akbar, the outer one by the two men and the two boys, while the middle one, a great wide hall of a place, they used as a living room. It was lighter than the others, since it had slits of windows--without glass, of course--high up in the walls, and though these let the cold as well as the winter sunshine into the room, there was a roaring great fireplace, which kept the farther end of the hall nice and warm. And here on very frosty nights the women folk would drag their beds and sleep, while during the snowy days they would spread quilts on the floor, and Baby Akbar would have high jinks with Tumbu and Down, who were his constant playmates. Then, when he was tired, Roy would cradle his young master in his arms and sing to him. Not lullabies, for little Akbar's mind kept pace with his body, and every month saw him more and more of a boy and less and less of a baby.
"Tell me how Râjah Rasâlu did this," or "Tell me how Râjah Rasâlu did that," he would say; and so Roy's boyish voice would go over the old story of endless adventures, which has delighted so many Indian children for so many generations.
So time passed quite merrily until one night, when something dreadful happened. So dreadful that it will really require another chapter to describe it. But it was one night when Roy had been telling the little prince how "Râjah Rasâlu's friends forsook him for fear." And as this is rather a nice story, it shall be told here.
"You know, great Kingly child," began Roy, "how Râjah Rasâlu was born and how Râjah Rasâlu set out into the world to seek for fortune, taking with him his dear horse, Baunwa-iraki, his parrot, Kilkila, who had lived with him since he was born, besides the Carpenter-lad and the Goldsmith-lad, who had sworn never to leave their young master. So he journeyed north to a lonely place, all set with sombre trees. And the night was dark, so he set a watch, and the goldsmith took the first, while the young prince slept by the Carpenter-lad, on a couch of clean, sweet leaves. And lest the heart of the prince should sink, they sang a cheering song:
"'Cradled till now on softest down, Leaves are thy bed to-night; Yet grieve not thou at fortune's frown, Brave men heed not her slight.'
"And while they slept and the goldsmith watched, a snake slid out from the trees. 'Now, who are you?' quoth the Goldsmith-lad, 'who come to disturb his rest?' 'Lo! I have killed all living things that have ventured within ten miles of this my place of rest,' it hissed, 'and now I will slay you, too!' So they fought and fought, but the Goldsmith-lad he killed the snake in the end. Then he hid the body under his shield, lest the others might be afraid, and he roused from his rest the Carpenter-lad, to take his share of the watch, while he, in his turn, on the clean, sweet leaves lay down beside the prince. And while they slept, and the Carpenter watched, a dragon slid from the trees. 'Now, who are you?' quoth the Carpenter-lad, 'who come to disturb his rest?' 'Lo! I have killed all living things for twenty miles round this place; and I'll kill you, too,' it roared, 'and crack your bones to eat.' So they fought and fought and fought till he killed the dragon at last. Then he hid the body behind a bush lest the others should be afraid, and roused Rasâlu from out his sleep to take his share of the watch; while he in turn by the Goldsmith-lad lay down to take his rest.
"And while they slept and Rasâlu waked a THING slid out from the trees; an awful THING! No man could tell th' unspeakable horror of it. But Rasâlu smiled in its face of dread, and laughed in, its horrible eyes. 'Pray, who are you to disturb our rest, and why do you dare to come?' 'Lo! I have killed all living things for twenty times twenty miles, and I will kill you, upstart boy, and crack your bones to dust.'
"So they fought and fought and fought, and Rasâlu drew his bow, and the arrow fled like the wind and pierced the Awful Horror through. Then it fled to a cave close by, with Rasâlu at its heels. So they fought and fought and fought till the dawn showed clear in the sky, and the Awful Horror gave up with a groan and rolled on its side and died. Now, just as Rasâlu wiped his sword the sleepers awoke from their sleep. 'See here!' said the Goldsmith-lad with pride, 'what I killed in my lonely watch.' 'Pooh! only a snake!' said the Carpenter-lad; 'see the dragon I have killed.' But Rasâlu took them both by the hand and led them into the cave; but dead as it was, they shrieked with fear at the Awful Horror they saw. And they fell at Rasâlu's feet and groaned and moaned and prayed and wept. 'Let us go! Oh, hero, we are but men. We dare not follow you now. It is nothing to you; it is death to us to follow and be your friends.'
"Then tears came into Rasâlu's eyes, but he said no word of nay. 'Do as you will,' he said to them. 'I will not bid you stay.
"'Aloes linger long before they flower, Gracious rain too soon is overpast; Youth and strength are with us but an hour, All glad life must end in death at last. But king reigns king without consent of courtier, Rulers may rule, though none heed their command; Heaven-crowned heads, stoop not, but rise the haughtier, Alone and friendless in a strangers' land.'
"So his friends forsook him and fled. But Rasâlu went on his way."