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Chapter VIII: Down's Strategem

Now the terrible thing that happened was one which Foster-father might have expected, but for two things.

One was the sentry who walked up and down all night long below the high second-story windows of the central room. He would be bound to see any attempt to gain an entrance through them, even if they were wide enough to admit the entry of a grown man, which they were not.

The other was the fact that he, Old Faithful, Meroo and Roy all slept in the outer room, into which the only door opened, so that any intruder would have to force an entrance over their bodies; for they slept with drawn swords beside them.

So as the days passed on Foster-father's vigilance--though he knew that cruel brother Kumran's agents were on the lookout for any opportunity of kidnapping the Heir-to-Empire--slackened somewhat, especially when the afternoons drew in, the fire in the big hall was made up, the quilts put down and Baby Akbar, surrounded by his admiring circle, listened to Roy's stories or tumbled about with his playmates, Tumbu, the dog, and Down, the cat.

One day, however, Down did not appear until little Akbar was having his supper, and then she came in a great hurry out of a small archway by the big fireplace, which led to a sort of cupboard in the masonry, where charcoal had been kept, gobbled up a plate of bread and milk, and hurried in again as if she had to catch a train.

"She has had kittens," said Foster-mother; "I wonder if they are white or black."

"Black!" sniffed Head-nurse. "What else could they be in that hole? Have a care, woman! or the Heir-to-Empire will be blacking himself, too. The archway is large enough for him to creep in, and Heaven only knows whither it might lead."

"That is true," replied Foster-mother, alarmed, as she distracted the child's attention.

But in a day or two his quick ear caught the sound of a feeble mewing inside the arch, and, of course, he wanted to know what it was. So he was told that kittens had to be kept quiet and that Down would be very vexed if her kitten was disturbed; but that by-and-bye she would doubtless bring it out for him to see, and then, of course, he could play with it. Now, Baby Akbar was always a reasonable little fellow, so he waited patiently; though every night when he went to bed and Down came out for her supper, his little mouth would go down and he would hold up his little hands and twiddle them round and say mournfully:

"Kitty not 'weady. Kitty not 'weady."

Now, one night there was a great festival in the palace, and the Heir-to-Empire had to go and pay his respects, after the Indian manner on feast days, to his aunt and uncle. Then, when he returned, they sent him, after Indian wont, trays full of fruit and sugar-toffee made in the shape of animals, and a few pieces of muslin and stuffs to make new dresses for the party. In addition to this there was a trayful of supper, which came afterward, when daylight had gone, with the Princess Sultanum's best compliments. At least so said the man who brought it; but he did not wait to be questioned, and disappeared so soon as Meroo had taken the tray from him.

But it was full of the most delicious dainties, including a bowl of sweet milk made with almonds and honey and rice meal for Baby Akbar.

Head-nurse, however, would not let him eat it. She was always afraid of the little lad being poisoned, so Meroo always cooked with his own hands everything the child ate. Therefore they gave it to Tumbu instead; for, having been brought up by shepherds, he loved milk, and he licked his lips after it and was soon sound asleep by the fire.

The lamb stewed with pistachio nuts and full of saffron looked, however, so delicious that after Meroo had tasted it and pronounced it quite safe, since all knew that saffron would not go with real poison, they set to work and finished the platter.

They were all as jolly as could be afterward, though the heat of the fire and their heavy supper made them sleepy; so Head-nurse, declaring it was far too cold in the inner room, dragged her bed and Foster-mother's close to the fire, the others retired to the outer room, and before long they were all snoring away quite happily.

For if the supper had not truly been poisoned, it had been drugged. Drugged with sleep-bringing drugs.

So, as the firelight flickered over the room faintly, it showed Head-nurse's face and Foster-mother's face and even Tumbu's black muzzle in a dead sleep that was almost unconsciousness. And in the outer room Foster-father snored, and even Roy's keen, hawk-face lay like one dead. Only Baby Akbar tossed and turned in his comfortable nest between his two nurses.

Save for this, due to Head-nurse's precaution in not allowing the Heir-to-Empire sweet milk for supper, all was as cruel brother Kumran's agents had planned when they had sent the pretended messenger from the palace with the platter of delicacies. Even the sentry below was sleeping sound after his share of kid curry.

Thus, those who were on the roof waiting until the moon had set and they could without fear of discovery lower the young lad, who was to steal Baby Akbar, down to the window (through which, being slender, the thief could slip easily), felt that their task was almost done.

But they reckoned without a great white fluff which after a time showed itself at the entry to the charcoal bunker, yawning and stretching and blinking its eyes. Head-nurse had been quite wrong in saying Down's kitten must be black in that hole! Its mother, anyhow, was beautifully white, perhaps because Down was a sensible cat and had only chosen the charcoal bunker because she had found a lot of old straw and a blanket tucked away in its farther corner. Besides, as she only had one kitten, she could spend all her time in licking it and cleaning it with her rough, red tongue, after the manner of cats. Anyhow, there it lay, right out of reach of any one, a little bundle of white fluff, and Down was just beginning to feel that there were other things in the world besides kittens. For instance, was that scratching on the roof, think you, a mouse? If so--? She passed to the fire. It was warm and nice; just the very place for a kitten's first look at the world, and there were no troublesome people about; not but what she was anxious to show her kitten to Baby Akbar. But who knew if horrid Head-nurse might not try to catch it? But Head-nurse was asleep. Down whisked her tail, disappeared through the archway, and reappeared again gingerly, carrying the kitten in her mouth. It sprawled in the firelight and mewed piteously. And there was that scratching on the roof again ... really, kittens were a bore when one wanted to mouse....

So far it is easy to follow Down's thoughts. What came next is more difficult. No one can say whether the cat had really any notion that danger to her young master was abroad, or whether she only wanted to show him her kitten, or whether she wanted it taken care of--for Persian cats, if they kill a rat at night, have often been known to jump on their master's bed and insist on his taking custody of their prize lest it should somehow come to life again if they left it alone--only this was certain, Baby Akbar woke with a rough, red tongue licking his nose, and there, on the quilt, was Down beside the fluffiest, darlingest little kitten that ever was!

He made a grab at it with his little fat hands. Whether this frightened its anxious mother or whether Down really had a purpose in view, who can say? Only this is sure: she was off the bed in a second, Miss Kitten in her mouth. A minute afterward Baby Akbar was off it also with a little crow of delight. But the drugged nurses did not stir; they were away in the Land of Dreams. And hark! what was that curious noise outside the window, as if something was slipping down the wall? Perhaps it was that that frightened Down once more; for just as Baby Akbar's hand reached out to lay hold of the kitten, which she had set down by the fire, Down snatched it up again and was off with it back to the charcoal bunker, with Baby Akbar after her, his face full of solemn resolve. He meant to play with that kitty.

And play with her he did. At least, after he disappeared down the archway by the fireplace he did not come out again. Only Down reappeared and seated herself at the entrance, her ears cocked, her eyes fixed on the window.

For something very funny had happened there, which, though the flicker of the fire had died down, she could see with her cat's eyes.

A lad had slipped in, carrying the end of a rope, to which was attached a network bag. And now, since it was dark, he was striking a light. A feeble little glimmer, but sufficient to show the two sleeping nurses and the comfy little nest of quilts between them. But it was empty!

The boy seemed puzzled, and went into the inner room, only to return without what he sought. Then he stole into the outer room, but came back softly with a puzzled look on his face. Then he began to peer about him on the floor, and in the corners, holding the feeble light in front of him. Whereupon Down, apparently to satisfy herself that her kitten really was safe in the corner of the charcoal bunker where she had left it, retreated for a moment, so that as the searcher came round he saw nothing but the low, round arch. The next he gave a stifled yell, for something white that was all claws leaped right in his face, over he went and out went his light.

"I look no more," he said, shivering as, after five minutes' hasty retreat, he stood on the roof among those who had sent him down. "Let some one else go; but I tell you the child is not there."

But one of the crafty, cruel men had sharp wits. "Could he have crept into the charcoal bunker?" he suggested, and the faces round him lit up. But the lad's remained sullen, as he wiped the blood from Down's scratches.

"Mayhap," he said. "But I go not near that cat again!"

So, as no one else was small enough to slip through the narrow slits of windows, the conspirators could only curse their bad luck.

Thus it came to pass that the hours passed by without further attempt at baby-theft, while Foster-father snored and Head-nurse dreamed the most heavenly dreams of wonderful court ceremonials, and all the others were wrapped in the profoundest slumbers.

But they all woke at last, and once more there was the most terrible hullabaloo until Foster-mother recollected the kitten in the charcoal bunker. Whereupon every one in turn flattened themselves on the floor and reached in, and Roy actually got his head and one shoulder in; but no one could feel anything or find out how big it was or anything about it. Whereupon the two women began mutual recriminations and the men stood helpless, when suddenly Down appeared with the kitten in her mouth, and Baby Akbar, who had evidently been comfortably asleep on the blanket amid the straw, came crawling after his new pet.

"So far so good!" said Foster-father, who, noticing a fallen piece of mortar at the window-sill, had been carefully examining certain signs and scratches both without and within, "but if I be not much mistaken, some one hath been through here this night. And that we were all drugged ye must know if the inside of your mouths be like mine! So we have to thank Heaven and the cat for an escape!"

And so they had, though it was a sore trial once more to the women to have nothing but guesswork to go upon.

"I wish I knew," murmured poor Foster-mother mournfully, as she watched Baby Akbar, and Down, and the kitten, and Tumbu, all playing together before the fire.

But once more Baby Akbar was silent, and Down told nobody--unless it was Tumbu. Perhaps he did know, because he allowed Down's kitten to play with his tail!