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Chapter VI: At Court

Of course, the messenger never returned from King Humâyon with the token; but Foster-father was a good-natured man and did not boast of his wisdom to Head-nurse, who, however, remained wonderfully meek and silent until at the end of a fortnight's marching they saw, against the blue of the distant valley, the white domes of the town of Kandahâr with the citadel rising above them. Then, with the chance of a court before her once more, she began chattering of ceremonials and titles and etiquettes.

"Praise be!" she shrilled in her high voice. "No more jiggettings and joggettings on camel back. I shall be on my own feet once more, and it shall not be my fault if His just dues are not given to the Great-in-Pomp----" etc., etc.

Foster-mother interrupted the string of titles. "So that they harm not the child," she said, clasping her charge tight. She was always thinking of his safety, always alarmed for danger; but he, young Turk that he was, struggled from her arms and pointed to the hills they were leaving behind them.

"Dadda, Amma 'way 'way mountains," he repeated once more; then added cheerfully, "Akka 'way, too."

"It is a prophecy!" said Old Faithful, overhearing the remark. "Sure his grand-dad Baber--on whom be peace--had the gift, and this babe may have inherited it."

"May have," echoed Head-nurse indignantly. "He has inherited it, and has much of his own besides. Mark my words! if this child live--which Heaven grant--he will be the King of Kings! Not two summers old and he talks as one of three."

"Aye!" assented Foster-mother, "but he does not walk yet."

Head-nurse sniffed. "Thou are a foolish soul, woman! Sure either the feet or the tongue must come first, and for my part I prefer the tongue. Any babe can walk!"

And Foster-mother was silent; it was true one could not have everything.

Their last camp was pitched just outside the city of Kandahâr, so that Prince Askurry could make a regular triumphal entry the next morning and let everybody see with their own eyes that he had come back victorious, holding Baby Akbar as prisoner and hostage.

But this did not suit Head-nurse at all. She had no notion that her Heir-to-Empire should be stared at as a captive; so, though she started from camp humbly as ever on the baggage camel, no sooner had they passed through the arched gate of the city with Prince Askurry well ahead of them in the narrow streets, than out she whipped the Royal Umbrella which she had patched up with an old scarlet silk petticoat, and there was Baby Akbar under its shadow; and, having--young as he was--been taught to salute to a crowd, he began waving his little fat hand with much dignity, until the people who had come out to gape whispered among themselves and said:

"He looks every inch a king's son."

"And that is what he is," said a bold voice in the crowd; but though folk turned to see who spoke, there was no sign of the speaker. For loyal men had to hide their loyalty in those days. Still the populace were pleased with the little Prince's bearing, and many a hand was raised to welcome him.

Before they reached the frowning palace, indeed, where Prince Askurry kept a right royal court as Governor of Kandahâr, Head-nurse's mind was full of the things she intended to insist upon for the honour and dignity of her small charge. Meanwhile she had to obey the order to take him at once into Princess Sultanam's apartments. Now Princess Sultanam was Prince Askurry's wife, and she had a boy of her own who was about three years older than Baby Akbar, and a little daughter who had just been born about a month before. So, as she lay among cushions at the farther end of the long room, with Prince Askurry, who had hurried to see his wife on his return, beside her, she looked suspiciously at the child which Head-nurse put down on the Persian carpet as soon as she came into the room; since though others might carry him to the upstarts at the farther end, she was not going to do so, when they were clearly bound to come humbly to the Heir-to-Empire and prostrate themselves before him!

So there stood Baby Akbar, fair and square, steadying himself by Head-nurse's petticoats, but for all that looking bold and big and brave.

Now Princess Sultanam was a kindly foolish woman at heart, much given to impulses, and the sight of the upstanding little boy made her think instantly what a fine man he would make, and that brought another thought which made her sit up delightedly and clap her hands.

"I have it, my lord!" she exclaimed, turning to Prince Askurry. "It is a grand idea! We will betroth our little Amina to this young master. That will settle everything and they will be the handsomest couple in the country!"

Now, strange as this may sound to my readers, Prince Askurry, who was accustomed to the Indian habit of settling that quite little boys and girls should marry each other when they grew up, could not help at once seeing that his wife's suggestion was not such a bad one. It would help him to keep a hold over the little Heir-to-Empire. If King Humâyon returned it would make him more inclined to forgive, and if he did not, why! it would prevent cruel brother Kumran from stepping in and getting all, since as father-in-law to the young king he, Askurry, would be Regent.

Still, taken aback, he hummed and hawed.

"It would be a long time to wait until they are old enough to marry," he began.

"Long!" interrupted the lively Princess gaily. "All the longer for merriment and festivities. Thy daughter, my lord, is already beautiful, and I'll wager the boy will be a grown man ere we have time to turn round. So that is settled. Therefore come hither, oh nephew! Jallaluddin Mahomed Akbar, since that is thy long name, and kiss thy cousin Amina--Nurse! bring my sweeting hither. Now then, woman," she continued sharply, addressing Head-nurse, who stood petrified with astonishment and anger at the very idea of such scant ceremony. "If the boy cannot walk, carry him!"

Head-nurse could scarcely speak. To be called "Woman" by an upstart--for Prince Askurry had married Princess Sultanam for her beauty--was too much!

"The Feet-of-the-Most-Condescending-of-Majesties," she began pompously, "have not yet conferred happiness on the earth by treading it underfoot, neither----"

Here she broke off hurriedly, for at that very instant, as if in denial of her words, Baby Akbar gave a little crow of assent, let go her petticoats, and with outspread balancing arms, and legs very wide apart, launched himself boldly for his very first steps!

"Bismillah!" (Well done!) shrieked Foster-mother in delight.

"Bismillah! Bismillah!" echoed every one in the room, while all eyes full of smiles were on the stalwart young toddler as he lurched forward, his face one broad grin.

Princess Sultanam clapped her hands again. "Thy turban, my lord!" she cried in a flutter of amusement. "Thy turban, quick; as his father is not here 'tis thy place to prevent him falling of himself--thy turban--quick! quick!"

Prince Askurry, full of laughter, pulled off the soft turban he wore--it was all wound round and round to fit the head like a cap--and in obedience to the Indian custom, which always prevents a child from falling of itself in its first attempt at walking, flung it full at the little lad. It caught him between his outspread balancing arms and over he went on to the thick pile carpet.

Foster-mother was beside him in a second, eager to snatch him up and cover him with kisses; but Baby Akbar wriggled himself from her hold. He had set himself a task and he meant to do it.

"Go way!" he said with determination. "Tumbu down. Get up again."

So, calmly reaching round for the turban which lay beside him, which he evidently thought had tumbled down too, he clapped it on his head with both hands, rose to his feet and recommenced his forward lurch; a yard or two of the fringed turban, which had become unrolled, trailing behind him like a royal robe.

It was a quainter little figure than before, but nobody laughed now. They looked at each other, then at the child staggering along under the Prince's plumed turban, then at Prince Askurry himself standing bareheaded before his nephew.

It was an ill omen. And yet as Head-nurse said proudly when they got back to the rooms that had been given them in a frowning bastion of the palace, Baby Akbar had once more scored off his uncle.

Indeed, she was so cock-a-hoop about it that she stickled for this, and she stickled for that until the attendants, who were at first inclined to be civil, began to look askance, and Foster-father had to bid her hold her tongue.

"Wise folk leave steel traps alone," he said; "fiddling with them lets off the spring. Then--pouf!"

He shook his head significantly.

"Steel traps?" echoed Head-nurse sniffily, "who is talking of steel traps?"

"I am, woman!" replied Foster-father sternly. "I tell you this Kandahâr is as a steel trap ready to snap on us at any moment."

Head-nurse was silent, even though he also had ventured to call her "woman"; but she was beginning to learn that nine times out of ten Foster-father was right.