So far all had gone well, and now there only remained one more salute to be made. But little Adam, who was Head-nurse’s own son, and who had hitherto been Baby Akbar’s playmate, refused absolutely to do as he was bid. He was a short, sturdy boy of five, and nothing would induce him to go down on his knees and touch the ground with his forehead. In vain Meroo, the cook-boy, promised him sweets if he would only obey orders; in vain Old Faithful spoke of a ride on his old war-horse, and Roy, who was a most wonderful story-teller, promised him the best of all, Bopuluchi. In vain his mother, losing patience at such a terrible piece of indecorum, rushed at him and cuffed him soundly. He only howled and kicked.
And then suddenly Baby Akbar, who had been listening with a solemn face, brought his little bare foot down on the mule trunk with such a stamp that the golden anklets jingled and jangled, and his little forefinger went up over his head in the real Eastern attitude of royal command.
“Salute, slave, salute,” he said with a tremendous dignity. And there was something so comical about the little mite of a child, something so masterful in the tiny figure, something so commanding in the loud, deep-toned baby voice, that every one laughed, and somehow or other Adam forgot his obstinacy and made his obeisance like a good boy.
And then once more pretty Queen Humeeda hugged and kissed her little son, and all the rest applauded him, and made so much of him that he began to think he had done something very fine indeed, and crowed and clapped his hands in delight.
But the merriment did not last long, for there was a clatter of horses and swords outside the tent.
“My husband!” cried Queen Humeeda in a flutter. “What news does my lord bring?”
THE FIRST VICTORY
The next moment a tall, handsome man entered the tent; but one look at his pale, anxious face was enough to tell those inside that the news was bad. So for an instant there was silence; and in the silence, with a deafening roar and a blinding blaze of blue light, came a terrific crash of thunder followed by a sudden fierce pelt of hail upon the taut tent roof.
It sent a shiver through the listeners. They felt that the storm had broken indeed upon their heads, that danger was close beside them.
Then the King stepped to his wife’s side and took her hand, and as he spoke there was a sob in his breath as of an animal who after a long chase finds himself at last driven to bay.
“Come!” he said briefly, “there may yet be a chance for us. My horse, weary though it be, will suffice for thy light weight. In the mountains lies possible safety. Come! There is not a moment to lose.”
“But—but the child—” faltered the Queen.
King Humayon’s voice failed him. He could not speak for a moment; but he shook his head.