Gratitude had longer to wait than even Foster-father, who always took a gloomy view of things, had thought for, since the next morning found the shed almost hidden beneath a snowdrift. Still, as Old Faithful remarked, it was not altogether to be regretted since the covering kept out the cold and allowed them to save their small store of firewood for cooking. The lack of light was, however, terrible until Old Faithful, whose experience with Babar the brave made him full of expedients, hit on the plan of setting Tumbu to work to dig out a hole through the drift, for they had nothing with them to use as a spade. What he did was to set the door wide, cut a narrow tunnel with his sword as far as he could reach in the banked-up snow, and thrust a bit of food in its farther end. Then Roy brought Tumbu and said:
"Fetch it out, good dog! fetch it out!" while Mirak and Bija looked on delightedly, calling, "Good dog! Dig it out! dig it out!" Tumbu, the most playful of animals, soon entered into the fun, and set to work shovelling out the snow till he found the food. Then another bit was thrust in, always in an upward direction.
"'Tis slow," said Old Faithful, "but not so slow as trampling down a road!"
Not half so slow, for after a time Tumbu seemed to understand what they would be at, and needed no more bits of food to make him dig, but went on solidly, every now and again giving a yap just to make himself believe he really was digging something out. In fact, he got on so fast that Roy, who, as the slimmest of the party, had to keep the tunnel clear of the dug-out snow, had almost more to do than he could manage. It was frightfully exciting, and Mirak and Bija were dancing about, unable to keep still, when a sudden shaft of light that burst into the dark shed, and a furiously joyful barking that came down the funnel as if it had been a speaking trumpet, announced Tumbu's arrival in free air.
"Now, we shall do," said Old Faithful with much importance. "Lo! how one clever idea begets another. But for Firdoos Gita Makâni trampling a road I should never have thought of a tunnel!"
Roy, however, was already hard at work improving on the idea by widening the way with Old Faithful's sword, being only let from doing more by Head-nurse's exclamation that the melting snow would flood the shed.
"Let be, boy!" said Foster-father; "the hot air from within, rising through the tunnel, will melt the sides by degrees. To-morrow will see it large enough for you, at any rate, to pass through."
And so it proved. Not next day, but the day after, not only Roy, but Mirak and Bija, had managed to climb up to the outer world by the notches which Roy cut in the snow walls.
It was a strange, chill world which they saw. Far as the eye could reach, nothing but snow, the air frosty and sharp, though the sun was shining once more. Mirak was keen to snowball, but Roy would not hear of it; the snow was melting with the faint heat of the mid-day sun, he said, and a step might make the frost film break, and down into the powdery drift they might go, never to come up again. So they only stood looking about them for a few minutes and then prepared to go back.
"Take care, my lord, take care!" cried Roy, as Mirak, who was preparing to descend legs foremost, as he had been told to do, suddenly looked up with a face full of mischief, let go with his hands, and pouf! disappeared down the slippery tunnel like a pea in a pea-shooter. A burst of laughter from below told them he had arrived safely, and nothing would suit Bija but to do likewise, Roy being still too tight a fit to slide quickly. In fact, the children were eager to climb up once more and do it again, but Head-nurse said she could not hear of it; their clothes were wet enough as it was; besides, it was most unlady-like for a real Princess!
The days, therefore, did not pass so uncomfortably, though pressing anxiety sat on Foster-father's honest face, and every time Roy returned from a climb up to outer air he would ask him if he had seen anything.
"Nothing," Roy would reply, "and the snow wastes but little, we are so high up."
At last one night, after the children were asleep, Foster-father summoned a council of war. It would not be wise, he said, to remain where they were, without making any effort at escape, until their provisions were exhausted. Then they would be helpless. Now they still had enough for two or three days, and it behooved them to make a push--but whither?
"Not back on our steps," advised Old Faithful. "Firdoos Gita Makâni always said: 'No retreat till there is no advance.' Besides, see you, if we go down, the snow will be melting and give us no foothold. But at night the frost will hold on the pass. And it is but little farther to the next shelter; for, see you, I have come twice this way from Kandahâr; but never the other way back. So my memory of land-marks--if there be any--would be nothing on the downward journey. But upward it might come to life. Again, upward there is less chance of missing the way, as all the valleys converge to the Pass, whereas downward they spread out in different directions."
In fact, there were so many points in favour of advance that the decision was made for it, and the next night settled on for the start. There were not many preparations to make except for the women, who had to bake what flour they had into hearth cakes. They had a little wheat and pulse, too, and this they roasted and tied up in the corners of their veils. Everything that was heavy had to be left behind, for they knew that even unburdened they might have difficulty in getting the frost film on the snow to bear their weight. It was a bright, starlight night when, the snow tunnel having been enlarged by Roy, regardless of flooding the shed, the whole party crept out and stood on the wide, snowy expanse. Tumbu was first, and with joyful yaps began to career about in circles curved like a comma, biting and snapping at the snow. Down came last, and meaowed piteously, lifting up first one cold foot, then another, and shaking it in disgust. Finally an idea seemed to come into her head; she made a bound toward Tumbu, and the next moment was on his back, clawing onto his fluffy black fur; whereat everybody laughed. So, with many a prayer for guidance, the little party set off, Old Faithful leading the way. At first they managed pretty well, though the men and women, being heavy, sank over the ankles at each step. But both Bija and Mirak, and even Roy, being light, found the surface hard enough to bear them; so they ran on ahead and chattered and laughed, the whole business being to them a huge joke. Thus an hour passed cheerfully enough; then Bija began to get tired, and Foster-father took her in his arms. The result sent his heart into his mouth with sudden fear, sudden certainty that no help could come that way. Even her slight additional weight sent him almost waist deep into the snow. He could scarcely move! And ere long the Heir-to-Empire would doubtless weary also; then what was to be done? For every hour after midnight would bring the thawing sun nearer and nearer; they might have to remain on the Pass till night brought frost again, and in that case what would become of the children?
Then suddenly his eye caught Tumbu, who was marching along sullenly, Down nestling, fast clawed in his broad, furry back. Could the dog carry a child? A creature with four feet had greater purchase of foothold than one with two.
"Roy," he said, "turn the cat off and put the Heir-to-Empire on the dog's back; he must be tired also."
Mirak, nothing loath, climbed quickly to his mount; but ere he had settled himself on its back Tumbu had begun to sink slowly. The little lad's weight was too much for even four feet; there was a struggle, over went the little Prince, and both he and Tumbu had to be picked up and set on their legs again on a fresh, unbroken place.
Foster-father looked in despair at Old Faithful, and for a minute no one said anything. Then the old man's face lit up. "Lo! I had forgotten it utterly, but the time and place bring memory back. Firdoos Gita Makâni--who knew all things under the sun--had a favourite horse, that strained itself falling into a drift. They were for leaving it to die, but that did not suit Firdoos Gita Makâni, who was kind to all God's creatures. So, having read of the like somewhere, he set us to make a sort of platform with our lances and blankets underneath the poor brute, and so we dragged him over the snow, until we reached a place where there was water and grass."
"We have no lances," said Foster-father, "and there is no wood." He looked around helplessly.
"My lord has a sword," put in Roy eagerly, "and so has Faithful. If he were to tie them crossways to the scabbards--" He had already thrown off his skin coat and was unwinding his long muslin waistband to tear it into strips to use as a cord.
"It is worth the trying, friend Foster-father," said Old Faithful, unbuckling his sword.
"Aye!" continued Roy, elated with the idea, "and Tumbu can drag it. He makes no mark on the snow, so it will be smooth and slippy--and the curved scabbards will be like runners."
His dexterous fingers were hard at work binding the long sword blades to place. Then a strip of woollen shawl was fastened to them as a seat, Meroo's turban served as harness, and in less time than could have been imagined the quaint sledge was ready for trial.
Mirak sat on it first. "Now then, Tumbu! Good dog!" said Roy in a flutter for fear of failure. Tumbu turned round, looked at his little master with a broad grin of red tongue and white teeth, gave a little grunt, and started.
The sledge slid on over the frozen snow quite easily!
"Now praise be to God!" cried Foster-father, overjoyed.
"And Grand-dad!" said the little Prince, who always listened to everything; "but I knew he would help us, didn't you, Bija?"
"But I want to go on the thing, too," she whimpered.
"Mayhap it might support them both," put in Head-nurse; "she is but a featherweight, and there is plenty of room."
Ere five minutes were over the little party, greatly heartened up by finding this unexpected way out of their difficulties, started once more, Roy encouraging Tumbu, who, in truth, seemed to feel his task quite a light one, while Foster-father, in his relief and gratitude, allowed Down, the cat, to creep once more inside his fur coat. Her weight made him sink a little farther into the snow, but he was strong, and felt he could have done more for the sake of the children's safety.
On and on they went, the frost film giving firmer foothold on the top of the pass, while the chill which always precedes dawn took away still more from the difficulty of Tumbu's task. In fact, the curved scabbards slipped over the hard snow as if it had been ice.
[Illustration: Ahead of them, a shadow showed, a shambling shadow! Tumbu ... with a bound was off full tilt after it.]
So they went on till a glimmer of dawn showed them that the summit had been reached, the downward slope begun. But still, far and near, nothing but snow was to be seen. Then suddenly, ahead of them, a shadow showed, a shambling shadow! Tumbu stopped dead, sniffed, then with a bound was off full tilt after it, the sledge, with the two children in it, flying behind him!
For an instant the others were too much astonished to speak. Then Roy, with frantic cries to Tumbu to come back, was off after them. In vain! As he crested a little rise he saw by the growing light a big brown Isabelline bear shambling along contentedly, seeming to go no pace at all, yet gaining steadily on the sledge that was giving chase.
"I will follow as fast as I can!" panted the Râjput lad breathlessly, as Foster-father, Meroo, and Old Faithful, hampered by their greater weight, ran up. "It is a bear; but they cannot catch it--and Tumbu will tire--then he always comes back. Follow you on my tracks with the women."
With that he was off like an arrow from a bow behind the bear, Tumbu, the sledge, the Heir-to-Empire and the Princess Bakshee Bâni Begum, who by this time had all disappeared behind the hilly horizon.