If Dearest-Lady was in truth a gaoler, she was a very kind one, and her prison the pleasantest prison in the world. It would take too long to tell how happily the next four months passed, not only for the two children, but for Roy and Foster-father, Head-nurse and Foster-mother. Even misshapen Meroo, in the kitchen, felt the better for helping to cook the Kh‚nz‚da Kh‚num's dinner. For that was one of Dearest-Lady's virtues, she always made people feel contented, and as if they were doing the right thing. So even Prince Kumran, when he returned to K‚bul, though he frowned at the big, bold, frank-faced boy who claimed to be the Heir-to-an-Empire which his own fingers itched to have, did not feel inclined to interfere with his aunt. The truth being that, like the rest of the family, he loved and trusted her beyond measure; perhaps more than did any of his brothers, since she had brought him up as a child. And she, in her turn, though she knew his faults, though she not only bewailed them, but resented them, at times most fiercely, could not forget that he had been her nursling, could not forget, above all, that he was her dear brother Babar's son.
Thus all went smoothly in the Bala Hissar, where young Prince Akbar, now close on three years old, looked and talked and acted like one of six. This same strength of his was always getting him into scrapes with people who did not believe he was so young, or, knowing him to be so young, did not believe him to be so strong!
He played a similar trick to the one he had played on cousin Yakoob at Kandah‚r on his big cousin Ibrahim, Prince Kumran's son. It was about a fine kettledrum all tasselled in royal fashion, with gold and silver, that Ibrahim's father had given him. Being a selfish boy, he would not allow Akbar to touch it; whereupon the Heir-to-Empire, after a brief tussle, carried off the kettledrum and beat it loudly through the palace!
Kumran hearing of this was very angry, for the beating of a kettledrum is a sign of Empire.
"Keep that young fighting cock of thine in better order, madam," he said to his aunt, "or I shall have to find him a sterner gaoler."
Whereupon she flashed out and told him fairly that short of killing the child, and for that crime even he was not prepared, there was no way of preventing the Heir-to-Empire from being what he was, a born king. That was her way of quelling Kumran. By boldly setting aside the thought of murder as impossible, she hoped to make it so; but she was not sure, and after this she kept Mirak and Bija under control.
It was not much good, however, when just as autumn was coming on news arrived from Kandah‚r that Hum‚yon had at last succeeded in taking the city, and, disappointed in not finding his son in the palace, was preparing to march on K‚bul.
Then the worst side of Prince Kumran showed itself at once. Like all deceitful people, he was a coward at heart, and cowardice made him think of immediate revenge upon his victorious brother. Of what use would even two victories be to him if the Heir-to-Empire was beyond recall?
So Kumran's charming polished manner vanished in an instant, and one day, without any warning, little Mirak, playing in the garden, was kidnapped by two stalwart Abyssinian slaves and carried off, howling horribly and fighting with his fists, to the palace where Kumran's wife lived. Tumbu, who was with him at the time, made a gallant show of resistance, and actually bit one of the kidnapper's calves to the bone; but when he found himself confronted with a whole regiment of armed men who ran out to their assistance, he gave up the hopeless fight, and flew off to tell Roy what had happened. And Roy, missing his little master, fled to tell Dearest-Lady. Her face paled, but she did not hesitate.
"My litter! page!" she cried, and drawing her white veil closer round her, she went straight to the audience hall, where Kumran was receiving his nobles; her great age, her great nobility, giving her a right, even as a woman, to appear amongst them.
All eyes turned to her tall, upright, slim figure, every ear thrilled to the tones of her clear voice.
"By what right," she asked, "has Kumran, the nephew I have nurtured, stolen from my care the son of his elder brother, the Heir to that Empire which Babar the Brave gave, dying, into the hands of Hum‚yon, his eldest son? I say there can be no right; and if it be wrong then will God's curse light on the man who undoes his father's work. Lo! he is worse than parricide, for he would kill that for which his father gave his life."
Now this appeal was a very strong one; for the story of how Babar the Brave gave up his own life to save that of his darling son, Hum‚yon, is one of the most touching tales in Indian history, and none of Babar's immediate family could even think of it without strong emotion. So it was Kumran's turn to grow pale.
"August lady," he replied, evading her question, "this is a matter of policy with which women have naught to do. King Hum‚yon hath taken Kandah‚r, he hath imprisoned and degraded his brother Askurry, and for this, I, Kumran, challenge him!"
"And wherefore?" asked Dearest-Lady boldly. "Did not Askurry deserve it? Nay! did he not deserve death? Did he not steal the King-of-Empire? Did he not defy the king? Did he not send the Heir-to-Empire away, instead of returning him to his father's keeping? I tell you, nephew Kumran, that your father, Babar the Brave, Babar the Kindly, Babar the Generous, Babar the Just, whom all men loved for his mercy, would have given death for such faults—and given it rightly. And will you, like a fool, court death also?" She looked round the assembly to see many a sullen, suspicious face, and understood that danger lay close at hand. So her resolution was taken in a moment. "See you!" she went on, "nothing has been done yet to make forgiveness impossible. Well! I—Kh‚nz‚da Kh‚num,—old as I am, will go forth to meet King Hum‚yon and plead thy cause. I will ask what boon you wish, and I promise it shall be yours. Hum‚yon will give much in exchange for his son, and none have ever denied me anything. Shall it be so?" Then seeing hesitation she put in a crafty word: "There will be time afterwards for—anything——"
Kumran looked round his nobles, then into his own heart. What he saw there was such a tissue of lies and deceit that he could find no clear decision; so, as usual, he temporised. "It is worth a trial," he murmured. "I might ask for much."
"Ask for all and everything," said Dearest-Lady, who felt she had gained her point; "I make but one condition. The child must remain unharmed until I return."
Again Kumran hesitated. Again he looked in his own heart. Again he found no clear cause for decision there; so he said doubtfully:
"Until you return?"
"Nay! swear it," came the high, insistent voice. "Say before them all, 'By the memory of my dear father no harm shall come to the child ere you return.'"
Half unwillingly Kumran repeated the words and Dearest-Lady gave a sigh of relief. She had gained her point. But now that she had to face the consequences of her offer to go forth and meet Hum‚yon her heart sank within her; for she was very old and not over strong. The journey was long; winter was coming on fast. Still it had to be done, and at once. For Kumran's promise of safety to the Heir-to-Empire was only during her absence, and who knew whether his craft might not claim freedom to do as he chose ere she started!
So she made her arrangements for that very evening, and she had much to do. To begin with she must see the Heir-to-Empire the very last thing, and make certain that he was well cared for. Then she had to arrange for the safety and comfort of Head-nurse, Foster-mother and little Bija, for it was unlikely they would be allowed to be with the little Prince. He must, however, have some one with him to whom the child was accustomed, and Roy, being still quite a lad, might not be considered dangerous. Then his gift of story-telling might make the ladies in the women's apartments more inclined to have him. Anyhow she must try her best to secure his stopping with his young master, and to this end she ordered him some fine clothes and gave him a finely bedizened lute; for since he came to K‚bul they had found out that he could play the vina beautifully.
Thus just before sunsetting, leaving poor Head-nurse and Foster-mother in floods of tears, while poor little Bija was sobbing her very heart out, and good dog Tumbu was slowly wagging his tail as his eyes asked sorrowfully if he might not come, too, she started on her journey, going round by the Chief Palace on her way.
Now, Dearest-Lady's visits were considered to be an honour, so she had no difficulty in gaining admittance. And once inside the women's apartments she simply turned to the first attendant and said curtly that she had come to see the Heir-to-Empire and say farewell to him; therefore he must either be brought to her or she must go to him. Boldness succeeded, as it always does, and she was shown into a room where she found little Prince Akbar playing contentedly with Down the cat, who was running about after a ball like a young kitten. She stopped when she saw Dearest-Lady, and giving an apologetic miaow, as who should say, "I was obliged to amuse him somehow," settled herself down on the rug and began as usual to purr. Of course Mirak forgot all about her in his joy at seeing Dearest-Lady and Roy, and it was some time before the former could ask the attendant how the cat had managed to get there.
"Highness," said the woman, "it is impossible to keep cats out if they want to come in. She appeared at the window three times, and three times I put her downstairs. Then I gave in. It is no use quarrelling with cats."
Meanwhile notice of Her Highness Dearest-Lady's arrival had reached Kumran's wife and she hastened to little Akbar's prison room. But once more Dearest-Lady was bold and took the first word.
"I came to bid the boy farewell, content to trust him to thy kind care, my niece," she said; "and also to leave with him this R‚jput singer, who has the art of amusing the child—and other folk also. Roy! sing us one of thy tales, that the Princess may hear thee."
And Roy, knowing his part, sang as he had never sung before. "I will sing of how the palm squirrels helped the Great R‚m to find his wife, Sita the Peerless, whom the wicked Giant R‚vana had carried off. We sing it to the squirrels when we feed them in our country. Perhaps Her Highness does not know what a palm squirrel is. It is tiny, tiny, no bigger than a rat, but it has a bushy tail and four dark stripes like finger marks down its goldy-coloured back. And it never does anything but play, is never anything but happy; and this is why":
Then he smote the strings of the vina till they thrilled again, and began, his high voice warbling and carolling like a summer bird.
"Pretty! Pretty! Pretty! are you there, my sweet,
In your leafy seat, where the branches meet?
Wasting all the sunny hours
Pulling down the mango flowers
With your dainty feet.
"Pretty, prettiest thing yawning as you lie
Watching with glad eye, busy life go by.
Not the tiniest sense of duty
In your careless days, my beauty,
'Neath the cloudless sky.
"Happiest, merriest ways,
Knowing no gainsays, so the story says,
Since the Great R‚m loved and blessed you,
With his care-worn hand caressed you,
In the olden days.
"Then, when he was seeking Sita, peerless maid,
By his foes dismayed, R‚m, her lover, bade
All the beasts and birds and fishes
Leave their play to do his wishes,
Fight to give him aid.
"And the golden squirrel sprang at his behest,
Nestled to his breast, first to join the quest.
But Great R‚m's grave eyes grew tender,
Smiled upon the warrior slender,
Braver than the rest!
"'Nay! thou art too pretty! fearless little heart,
Thou should'st have no part in Strife's bitter art;
Live to show man, worn and weary,
One blythe soul for ever cheery,
Free from sorrow's smart.'
"Laid his kind hand softly on its golden hair,
So palm squirrels bear, where R‚m's fingers were,
Four dark shadows on them, showing
Gladdest life must lose its glowing
From the touch of care.
"So the squirrels' birthright is to want for naught,
Have no grief or thought, know not 'must' or 'ought.'
Yet upon their gold there lingers
Shades of care, that Great R‚m's fingers
For their blessing wrought."
"Wah! Wah!" cried the Queen, delighted. "He can stop if he likes."
Ten minutes after Roy had finished his song Dearest-Lady's litter paused for a moment on a high-perched corner of the road towards Kandah‚r, to give her a last look of the fair city of K‚bul. Her bright old face was bright still, undimmed by care. She was old and frail, she was going a wearisome, trying journey; yet, for the present, she knew that she had saved the Heir-to-Empire's life. That at any rate was secure until she returned—and she might never return! The thought made her smile. "Forward, slaves!" she cried cheerfully, and K‚bul, the city she loved so well, was left behind without one regret.
And she was right. She had saved the Heir-to-Empire's life; for at that very minute the door of little Prince Akbar's room opened wide, and Roy starting up found himself face to face with cruel Uncle Kumran followed by two men with drawn swords. And, alas for Roy! he had no sword to draw, for Old Faithful's sabre did not fit the disguise of a R‚jput bard. Despite that, he stepped forward boldly, though his heart beat to suffocation. For Kumran's face was cruel indeed.
Still, for one second, the latter's attention was distracted. He had wanted no witnesses to what he meant to do.
"How camest thou hither, slave?" he asked fiercely.
And Roy gave him back the simple truth, no more, no less; but it was sufficient.
"Her Highness Kh‚nz‚da Kh‚num brought me hither to be with the Heir-to-Empire ere she left at sunset."
Kumran started back. "Left? Hath she left already?" he asked, his face paling. So he stood for a moment irresolute, the words of his own oath pealing through his brain, "By the memory of my father I promise." That was not one which any son of Babar's was ever likely to break. "Sheath your swords, fools!" he said at last bitterly; "they are not needed. I am not the first man who has been outwitted by a woman."