The Captain of the Escort was not over pleased to find Roy when he came in the next morning, and said curtly that the boy, having found his way on foot, must make it on foot, and that none should wait for him. To this the Rājput lad made no demur. His long limbs on that hilly country were more than an equal even for Horse-chestnut's climbing powers, and the cold was so intense that it was a relief not to sit still on horseback. So he raced on ahead with Tumbu or held by Horse-chestnut's stirrup, and, as he ran, told stories to amuse the Heir-to-Empire; for neither of the nurses was in a fit state to do more than sit tight, tied by leathern belts to the troopers behind whom they rode.
About sunset time they arrived at a lonely shed at the beginning of the highest bit of the main road, which they were now obliged to take, as there was no other way over the mountains ahead of them. Here, at the end—as poor Head-nurse wailed—of the habitable world, the Captain of the Escort had expected to find the remainder of his men; but they were not there, and as his provisions were running short, he could not go on till they did arrive. So, in an ill humor, he ordered a halt, and the whole outwearied party hastily cooked themselves a meagre supper and lay down in hot haste for rest at last. And rest they had, for that night the snow, which had been threatening, began to fall, and by daylight a good nine inches lay on the ground. The children, who had never seen such thick snow before, were delighted; but Foster-father looked fearfully at the passes before them, while the Captain of the Escort fumed and fretted at the non-arrival of his men. Unless they came soon, he said, if more snow fell, the pass immediately in front of them might be closed for days. Not that there seemed much likelihood of further storm, for the sky was blue as blue, the air, though keen, pleasant. About noon, there being still no sign of the missing men with provisions, the captain became impatient, and told Foster-father curtly that he and his three troopers would ride back some fifteen miles to a village, where perchance the others were waiting, and that meanwhile the rest of them could wait till he returned; there were provisions enough for a day or two. Foster-father protested against being left alone in the snow with but a boy, two helpless women and two young children; but the Captain only laughed and rode off, taking with him Horse-chestnut, as a precaution, doubtless, against any attempt to escape with the Heir-to-Empire.
There was nothing to be done, Foster-father felt, save to wait with what patience he could; but his heart sank as, while Head-nurse and Foster-mother slept, outwearied by the past two days' fatigue, and the children under Roy's care played snowballs, he sat and watched the sky. At first there was only a cloud or two in the west; then a sudden wind sprang up and drove the fine, powdery snow in drifts. But still the sun shone, though it seemed to grow a little dimmer, a little paler; finally, about two hours after the others had left, Foster-father felt uncertain whether it was all drift that seemed to fill the air with a fine white film, or whether fresh snow was falling.
An hour later there was no doubt about it. Great flakes were circling down silently, the sun had vanished, all things had become grey. Head-nurse heaped up the fire, set a quilt before it for the children to play upon, and then opened out the wallets to see what she could find for supper. There was not much left, and she was about to knead up all the flour to bake hearth cakes when Foster-father crossed over to her and whispered:
"Half will do, sister; otherwise there may be none for to-morrow."
"None?" she echoed. "But they will be back——"
Foster-father pointed to the snow that, driven now by a rising wind, had drifted underneath the door. "Not through that, sister! We may have to stay here till the weather moderates, for none save friends will risk their lives, and these men love us not!"
But even as he spoke there was a bustling at the door, Tumbu flew forward, barking loudly, and in stumbled——
Old Faithful and Meroo the cook-boy!
They were heavily burdened, half-blinded by the snow, and they had a disquieting tale to tell. About twelve miles back, just as the snow began to fall, their party, which had been delayed on the main road by a flooded river, had come upon the Captain of the Escort and his three troopers. Then had ensued a hurried consultation, in which several of the men had flatly refused to go on in face of the coming storm. It was, they said, sheer madness. Better return to the nearest township and await better weather. As for the prisoners, they had food enough to keep life in them for a day or two, and after that they must take their chance. Whereupon Old Faithful and Meroo had offered to go on, carrying some of the provisions they had with them, and trusting to be able to follow the tracks left by the horses in the snow. This had been agreed upon, and—here they were!
"For," as Old Faithful went on, "see you, I am not afraid of snow, having been with Babar the brave (on whom be peace) when he marched from Herāt to Kābul and was nigh lost on the Great Zirrin pass."
Little Akbar, who was playing at cat's cradle with his sister, looked up eagerly. "Was Grand-dad ever in the snow? 'Cos if he was, he's quite sure to help us, for he ate all our sweeties, didn't he, Bija?"
The little girl shook her head and put her finger to her lip, in warning to him not to give away their secret; but Head-nurse was sharp.
"Ohé," said she, "so that was it! Listen, Foster-father! these babes set the platter for Firdoos Gita Makāni—on whom be peace! Is not that good omen for us all?"
"Mayhap!" said Foster-father, clearing his throat cautiously, "and my heart is comforted also by the presence of Faithful, who was with the great king in his battle with snow and ice."
The Heir-to-Empire dropped his cat's cradle and went over to the old trooper and stood before him with grave, questioning eyes.
"Is it so, slave? Were you with Grand-dad in the snow?"
"Most-Honourable! I was," replied the old man boastfully, "and I remember as if 'twas yesterday——"
"Tell us the tale, trooper," interrupted Head-nurse. "'Twill hearten us all up ere we sleep, since there is naught else to be done."
"That will I, mother," replied Old Faithful with alacrity, "and in the very words of my revered master as written in that book of books, his Memoirs, which doubtless the most Learned-of-the-Universe will read some day."
Mirak, who was back at his cat's cradle, looked up with grave superiority.
"Nay, slave! They shall read it to Akbar. He will be King."
"Hark to him!" ejaculated Foster-mother, delighted. "His words are all fortunate."
"We have need of more fortune by works, not words, woman," said Foster-father sternly. "So proceed, friend Faithful; the recitation of brave deeds can never come amiss."
Old Faithful settled himself by the fire and began. "First you must know that Firdoos Gita Makāni, or Babar the brave, had to get back to Kābul, because wicked men were waiting to be punished. Now, it was winter time, and none dreamed of travelling over the passes at that season. But Firdoos Gita Makāni was not one to hold back when a thing had to be done. So we started, and this is what happened, in his own words:
"From the time we left Herāt it snowed incessantly; the farther we advanced the deeper it became. After three days it reached above the stirrups. In places the horses' feet did not reach the ground; yet the snow continued to fall. One Bishāi was our guide. I do not know whether it was from old age, or from his heart failing him, but having once lost the road, he never could find it again; so, as it was not to be found with all our exertions, we were brought to a complete stand. Seeing no other remedy, we returned back to a place where there was abundance of firewood, and despatched sixty or seventy chosen men to retrace our footsteps and find on lower ground any people who might be wintering there, and bring back another guide. We halted thus for three or four days awaiting the return of our messengers; but when they did appear it was without any one to show the way. Placing my reliance on God alone, therefore, I went on. For about a week we continued beating down the snow so as to form a road, only advancing two or three miles a day. Accompanied by ten or fifteen of my personal followers, I worked myself with the others. Every step we took forward we sank up to the middle, but still we went on, trampling till we got firm foothold. And as the first person wearied of the exertion, he stood back and another took his place. So, after a time, we managed to lead on a riderless horse. It generally sank to the stirrups, and after floundering on a dozen paces was worn out. But the second did better. Thus in this way the twenty or so of us managed to prepare a sort of road for the rest, who with hanging heads (though many of them had seemed our best men) advanced along it without even dismounting! But this was no time for reproof or authority. Every man of spirit hastens to such work of himself, and the rest do not count. In this way after three or four days we reached a cave at the foot of the Zirrin Pass. That day the wind and storm were dreadful; the snow fell in quantities; we all expected to meet death together. The snow was so deep, the path so narrow, the days were at shortest. The first of the troops reached the cave while it was yet daylight; but some men had to wait for morning on horseback. The cave seemed to be too small for all, so I would not go in. I felt that for me to be warm and comfortable while my men were in snow and drift; for me to sleep at my ease while my followers were in trouble and distress, would be unfair. I felt that whatever their sufferings might be, I ought to share them. So I took a hoe and dug down into the snow as deep as my breast; this gave me some shelter from the wind, and I sat down in the hole. By bedtime prayers the snow had fallen so fast that four inches of it had settled on my head——'"
Here Old Faithful paused and shook his head gravely. "His Majesty," he went on, "writes in the margin, 'That night I caught a cold in my ear.' It is only wonder he did not catch his death."
"But what happened next?" asked Akbar impatiently. "Did poor Grand-dad sit in the snow all night?"
"No, Most-Honourable. He goes on to say, 'The cave was properly explored and found to be large enough to hold us all. So I ordered all to go in, and thus we escaped from the terrible cold, snow, and drift, into a wonderfully warm, safe, comfortable place. And next morning the snow and tempest ceased and we moved on, trampling down the snow as before; but ere we quite got through the pass, night fell. Though the wind had fallen, the cold was dreadful, and several lost fingers, toes, even hands and feet from frostbite, as we waited for dawn in the open. As early as we could we moved down the glen, descending, without road, over difficult and precipitous places, the extreme depth of the snow enabling us to pass over countless dangers. Thus our enemy became our friend.
"'It was evening prayer time ere we got from the mouth of the valley, bedtime prayers when we reached the village of Auleng. The people carried us to their warm houses, brought out fat sheep for us, a superfluity of hay and grain for our horses, with abundance of wood to kindle our fires. To pass from the cold and snow into such a village with its warm houses, to find plenty of good food as we did after days of hunger is an enjoyment that can only be understood by those who have suffered similar hardship, have endured such heavy distress.'"
Old Faithful paused and sighed. "That is so like Firdoos Gita Makāni," he said. "When danger was over he would sit down and write beautiful things about it; but when it was there he never seemed to think of anything but trampling it down."
"That is like all Kings," said Roy proudly, "and brave men are always Kings in danger."
But Foster-father was looking at the fire. "Abundance of fuel," he murmured, "that is what we have not."
"We shall not need it here, friend," replied the old trooper. "Meroo, remove that log; 'tis too hot as it is, and if the snow continues to drift as it was doing a while agone—" he moved to the door, which opened inward and set it wide. A great white wall reaching almost to the eaves showed filling up the doorway! "It is as I thought," he said; "we are prisoned here till the storm passes. Thank God we have provision enough for some days."
"And thanks to others also," put in Foster-father heartily; "but for thee and Meroo, old friend——"
"As Firdoos Gita Makāni used to say," remarked the old man with an air of great virtue, "'Gratitude comes when danger has gone,' so she must wait a bit yet."