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Flora Annie Steel

Betwixt Cup and Lip

Now it may indeed seem that all our little Heir-to-Empire's troubles were over; but there is still somewhat to tell of our young hero. To begin with, Queen Humeeda was a wise woman, and she saw that it was not good for the little lad to be always at play. She knew that as a King's son in the East, he would have small time after he was ten for schooling, and as he was now close on four that did not leave many years for teaching.

So a tutor was found for him; but it is to be feared that he was by no means an industrious scholar. Indeed, we hear of such dreadful things as playing truant, so that when a day was fixed for an examination by learned men as to how the Heir-to-Empire was getting on with his studies, "at the master moment it was found that the scholar, having attired himself for sport, had disappeared!" Then his first tutor was dismissed because he encouraged his pupil in pigeon flying, and we read of his applying his thoughts more to dog-fancying and Arab horses than to his books. Still he did learn one thing, and a good thing, too.

The day he was four years and four days old he was taught, as all little Mohammedans are taught, to understand what  he was, what  the world about him was, and to recognise that neither he himself, nor the world he lived in were the Beginning and the End of all things. It was a stately ceremonial, not beautiful, and lavish, and expensive like the Festival of the Mystic Palace, but one which left its mark for always on the mind of the child.

Despite his dislike to books as the only way of learning to be wise, he never forgot the day in the Great Mosque, when, before all his relations, he had to stand up dressed in his simple every day clothes and take the Holy Book from the hands of the high priest. And he never forgot the high priest's words:

"Read in the Name of Him who hath made all things in Heaven and earth, and Who hath given men power to be wise."

"Bismillah!—Irruhman-nirruheem!"  he had answered as in duty bound, which means, "Thanks be to Him who is merciful in this world and merciful in the next world."

In this way young Prince Akbar learned that every man has power to be wise, and that the great mystery of birth and death is a merciful mystery.

Thus the summer passed and in early autumn King Hum‚yon, who had now wasted nearly a whole year in amusement, found it necessary to quell rebellion in a neighbouring province.

So the governorship of K‚bul was made over to a trusted noble of the Court, one Shurruf Kh‚n by name, who was made as it were Regent for little Prince Akbar, who was left with his attendants in regal state at the palace in the Bala Hissar, while Queen Humeeda went back to India, taking Bija with her, on a visit to her mother's relations.

Roy, whose story had become known in the Court, was now made equerry to the young prince, and very handsome he looked in his chain armour, with the noonday sun all rayed and shiny in gold on his breast, in token that he claimed to be a Sun-hero. As, indeed, seemed likely, since the Afghan sentry's old Sury‚mer friend had a tale about a young R‚jah who had been kidnapped and, it was supposed, left in the desert to die. But whether Roy was the young R‚jah or not, who could tell? They might send the story to Sury‚mer and see what befell. Meanwhile Roy was happy, and little Akbar and he became more and more like elder and younger brother. How much in after years the prince owed to the companionship of this friend of his childhood it is impossible to say. Perhaps it accounts for the marvellous way in which the Great Emperor Akbar ruled his Hindoo subjects.

Hum‚yon had expected to return in a month's time, but luck was against him. A King cannot waste a whole year in amusement and so let wicked men have time to hatch plots without suffering for it. And Hum‚yon did suffer. He had to march and counter-march with winter coming on apace, until he was struck down by sudden illness. At first the news caused no alarm, for he was known to be strong and healthy; but there came a day when folk began to whisper that the King was said to be lying unconscious, that death might come any moment.

The news stirred the whole city of K‚bul to its depths. It had but lately passed into the hands of Hum‚yon. There were not wanting many who preferred Kumran, and Kumran was in exile waiting an opportunity.

And that came with the suddenness of a summer storm. One night the gates of the town were closed by the Regent Shurruf Kh‚n in Hum‚yon's name; the next dawn saw the Iron Entry, after a brief scuffle, opened in the name of Kumran! There was a rush of armed men through the streets of the town, a murder or two of loyal men in high authority. And then?

Up at the Bala Hissar, Foster-father roused from his sleep, went in haste to the Regent, expecting to hear bugles, to find troops gatherings for defence; but the gates of the Fort were open!

Shurruf Kh‚n was traitor! He had gone over to the enemy. Ere an hour was over Kumran, scowling, walked up and down the royal apartments, a King once more; but biting his lips and frowning over something that stood between him and perfect revenge!

Foster-father, good old fool, was back in his dungeon in the well, where this time he would rot. The women, as a change, were walled up in a tiny room, where, bread and water being thrust in to them, they might eat and live, or starve and die as they chose.

But the Heir-to-Empire? What of him? Ah! fool that he had been to make that promise to a crafty old woman who had died in order to spite him. Kumran's anger rose fierce; he would have given anything to break his oath; but he could not. He was not strong enough; even his wickedness was not real.

But, short of death, the young heir should have no shelter. Kumran flung him into a miserable cell close to the Iron Gate and thought no more of him. And now, but for faithful Roy, Akbar would indeed have been in sorry plight. They had barely enough to eat, but Roy stinted himself, eating nothing but the hard half-burned crusts of the coarse hearth-cakes and excusing himself from even touching the miserable mess of pease-porridge on the ground that he did not like it. So he grew thin and his brown deer-eyes had a startled look. Indeed, he hardly slept at all, but watched and dozed beside his little master all night long.

Yet he was always cheerful. Always ready with stories and songs. When he could not remember any new-old ones, he took to inventing tales of people who were always in dangers and difficulties, but who took no notice of them, who went on their way trusting in the Truth.

"For! see you!" he would finish gravely,

"He who has Truth

Need fear no ruth."

So, ever and always his hero came out of his trials scathless.

And, by degrees, this faith in final good grew deep into both the boys' hearts, and showed in their very faces.

"By my word!" said the Afghan sentry, whom chance one day sent to guard them. "Ye be a precious pair of Kings!"

He could admire them, though he did not seem in the least ashamed of having yet once more turned his coat; for he was again on Kumran's side.

How time passed none of the prisoners cared to count. But one day the sudden roar of a great gun told them that the city was once more besieged. In truth, Hum‚yon hearing, while still on his bed of sickness, the fatal news of Shurruf Kh‚n's treachery, had strained every nerve, ill as he was, to come to the rescue of his little son. It was midwinter, the passes were blocked with snow, he and his troops had to meet endless hardships; but at last they were before K‚bul once more. Camped on the Arkab‚n hill, opposite the Iron Gate, the artillery were brought into position, the first shot fired.

It would take too long to follow all the varied incidents of the siege. But one thing was constant. Night after night recruits from inside the town managed to scale the walls and join King Hum‚yon's forces. They were getting tired of Kumran, who, unable to satisfy his cruelty on the little Heir-to-Empire, vented it on all and sundry. And day by day as the number of the besieged dwindled, bit after bit of the town fell into the besiegers' hands, until at last only the Bala Hissar remained. But the Bala Hissar is a town in itself, and many a time has it withstood a siege successfully.

Now, however, it was near to the death. There could be no more talk or thought of escape. Kumran, ever half-hearted, tried it one night and failed, losing many followers in the attempt.

After that his face hardened. He went about dreaming of revenge—revenge on Hum‚yon, even revenge on Dearest-Lady, who had tied his hands.

"Till I return!"

No! Dead folks can never return to the worldly. Even their memory comes seldom, save to the pure in heart.

And one night he hit on a plan. The fort was almost at its last gasp. All day Sumbal Kh‚n, Hum‚yon's famous artillery general, had been pounding away at the Iron Gate with deadly aim. A few more well-sent shots would leave the bastion crumbling, and then——

Then would come the assault through the breach, and Kumran knew he could not face it. His force was too small.

So about midnight the door of Akbar's prison room was opened and Kumran with a few armed men stood within.

Roy, startled from a doze, was on his feet in a second.

"What want ye?" he challenged fiercely.

"Let the Hindoo fool alone," said Kumran to those who would have seized on the R‚jput lad. "All we want is the child. Take him, slaves, and be quick about it."

Ere the words were out of his mouth a stalwart man bent to lift the sleeping Heir-to-Empire. Roy's sword flashed the same second, but, held back by sneering men, he was helpless.

"What want ye with him? I say, what want ye with him?" panted the poor lad as he struggled madly.

Kumran paused at the door to turn an icy cold look of cruelty upon him. "What! Thou wouldst know? Then thou shalt have it, young idolater. It may cool thy hot blood. I will dress him in dust colour like the walls of K‚bul and hang him over the battlement at dawn as a mark for my brother's artillery. Then we shall see the breach in my citadel made! Then we shall see my revenge—but it will not be of my making! His father shall kill him."

So with a mirthless laugh he followed his men, who were bearing away the Heir-to-Empire, still but half awake.

Roy stood for one second like a stone, too horror stricken for full belief; but the echoing laugh convinced him; with a wild cry he rushed to the narrow window and shook fruitlessly at its iron bars like a wild animal when it is newly caged. But they were immovable.

Yet something must be done—something—something——

The thought of dawn was too dreadful. The beautiful, calm, peaceful April dawn, shadowy grey! Just light enough to see the outline of the Bala Hissar, just light enough to begin upon the breach once more; but too dark to see what was in the line of fire.

Yes! Something must be done, and done swiftly. Not four hours left before the eastern hills would begin to show dark against the coming of day.