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MESSER MARCO POLO

The message came to me, at the second check of the hunt, that a countryman and a clansman needed me. The ground was heavy, the day raw, and it was a drag, too fast for fun and too tame for sport. So I blessed the countryman and the clansman, and turned my back on the field.

But when they told me his name, I all but fell from the saddle.

"But that man's dead!"

But he wasn't dead. He was in New York. He was traveling from the craigs of Ulster to his grandson, who had an orange-grove on the Indian River, in Florida. He wasn't dead. And I said to myself with impatience, "Must every man born ninety years ago be dead?"

"But this is a damned thing," I thought, "to be saddled with a man over ninety years old. To have to act as GARDE-MALADE at my age! Why couldn't he have stayed and died at home? Sure, one of these days he will die, as we all die, and the ghost of him will never be content on the sluggish river, by the mossy trees, where the blue herons and the white cranes and the great gray pelicans fly. It will be going back, I know, to the booming surf and the red-berried rowan-trees and the barking eagles of Antrim. To die out of Ulster, when one can die in Ulster, there is a gey foolish thing. . ."

But the harsh logic of Ulster left me, and the soft mood of Ulster came on me as I remembered him, and I going into the town on the train. And the late winter grass, of Westchester, spare, scrofulous; the jerry-built bungalows; the lines of uncomely linen; the blatant advertising boards -- all the unbeauty of it passed away, and I was again in the Antrim glens. There was the soft purple of the Irish Channel, and there the soft, dim outline of Scotland. There was the herring school silver in the sun, and I could see it from the crags where the surf boomed like a drum. And underfoot was the springy heather, the belled and purple heather. . .

And there came to me again the vision of the old man's thatched farmhouse when the moon was up and the bats were out, and the winds of the County Antrim came bellying down the glens. . .The turf fire burned on the hearth, now red, now yellow, and there was the golden light of lamps, and Malachi of the Long Glen was reciting some poem of Blind Raftery's, or the lament of Pierre Ronsard for Mary, Queen of Scots:

Ta ribin o mo cheadshearc ann mo phocs sios. Agas mna Eirip ni leigheasfadaois mo bhron, faraor! Ta me reidh leat go ndeantar comhra caol! Agas gobhfasfaidh an fear no dhiaidh sin thrid mo lar anios!

There is a ribbon from my only love in my pocket deep, And the women of Europe they could not cure my grief, alas! I am done with you until a narrow coffin be made for me. And until the grass shall grow after that up through my heart!

And I suddenly discovered on the rumbling train that apart from the hurling and the foot-ball and the jumping of horses, what life I remembered of Ulster was bound up in Malachi Campbell of the Long Glen. . .

A very strange old man, hardy as a blackthorn, immense, bowed shoulders, the face of some old hawk of the mountains, hair white and plentiful as some old cardinal's. All his kinsfolk were dead except for one granddaughter. . .And he had become a tradition in the glens. . . It was said he had been an ecclesiastical student abroad, in Valladolid. .and that he had forsaken that life. And in France he had been a tutor in the family of MacMahon, roi d' Irlande. . .and somewhere he had married, and his wife had died and left him money. . .and he had come back to Antrim. . .He had been in the Papal Zouaves, and fought also in the American Civil War. . .A strange old figure who knew Greek and Latin as well as most professors, and who had never forgotten his Gaelic. . .

Antrim will ever color my own writing. My Fifth Avenue will have something in it of the heather glen. My people will have always a phrase, a thought, a flash of Scots-Irish mysticism, and for that I must either thank or blame Malachi Campbell of the Long Glen. The stories I heard, and I young, were not of Little Rollo and Sir Walter Scott's, but the horrible tale of the Naked Hangman, who goes through the Valleys on Midsummer's Eve; of Dermot, and Granye of the Bright Breasts; of the Cattle Raid of Maeve, Queen of Connacht; of the old age of Cuchulain in the Island of Skye; grisly, homely stories, such as yon of the ghostly foot-ballers of Cushendun, whose ball is a skull, and whose goal is the portals of a ruined graveyard; strange religious poems, like the Dialogue of Death and the Sinner:

Do thugainn loistin do gach deoraidh treith-lag -- I used to give lodging to every poor wanderer; Food and drink to him I would see in want, His proper payment to the man requesting reckoning, Och! Is not Jesus hard if he condemns me!

All these stories, of all these people he told, had the unreal, shimmering quality of that mirage that is seen from Portrush cliffs, a glittering city in a golden desert, surrounded by a strange sea mist. All these songs, all these words he spoke, were native, had the same tang as the turf smoke, the Gaelic quality that is in dark lakes on mountains summits, in plovers nests amid the heather. . .And to remember them now in New York, to see him. . .

Fifteen years had changed him but little: little more tremor and slowness in the walk, a bow to the great shoulders, an eye that flashed like a knife.

"And what do you think of New York, Malachi?"

"I was here before, your honor will remember. I fought at the Wilderness."

I forbore asking him what change he had found. I saw his quivering nostrils.

In a few days he would proceed south, when he had orientated himself after the days of shipboard.

That night it seemed every one chose to come in and cluster around the fire. Randall, the poet; and the two blond Danish girls, with their hair like flax; Fraser, the golfer, just over from Prestwick; and a young writer, with his spurs yet to win; and this one. . .and that one.

They all kept silence as old Malach spoke, sportsmen, artists, men and women of the world; a hush came on them and their eyes showed they were not before the crackling fire in the long rooms but amazed in the Antrim glens.

Yes, old Malachi said, things were changed over there, and a greater change was liable. . .People whispered that in the Valley of the Black Pig the Boar without Bristles had been seen at the close of the day, and in Templemore there was a bleeding image, and these were ominous portents. . .Some folks believed and some didn't. . . And the great Irish hunter that had won the Grand National, the greatest horse in the world. . .But our Man of War, Malachi?. . Oh, sure, all he could do was run, and a hare or a greyhound could beat him at that; but Shawn Spadah, a great jumper him, as well as a runner; in fine, a horse. . .And did I know that Red Simon McEwer of Cushundall had gone around Portrush in eighteen consecutive fours?

. .A Rathlin Islander had tried the swim across to Scotland, but didn't make it, and there was great arguing as to whether it was because of the currents or of lack of strength. . .There were rumblings in the Giants' Causeway. . .very strange. . .A woman in Oran had the second sight, the most powerful gift of second sight in generations. . .There was a new piper in Islay, and it was said he was a second McCrimmon. . .And a new poet had arisen in Uist, and all over the Highlands they were reciting his songs and his "Lament for the Bruce". . .Was I still as keen for, did I still remember the poems, and the great stories?. . .

"'Behold, the night is of great length,'" I quoted, "'Unbearable. Tell us, therefore, of those wondrous deeds.'"

"If you've remembered your Gaidhlig as you've remembered your Greek!"

"It's a long time since you've had a story of me, twelve long years, and it's a long time before you'll have another, and I going away tomorrow. Old Sergeant Death has his warrant out for me this many a day, and it's only the wisdom of an old dog fox that eludes him; but he'll lay me by the heels one of these days. . .then there'll be an end to the grand stories. . .So after this, if you're wanting a story, you must be writing it yourself. . .

"But before I die, I'll leave you the story of Marco Polo. There's been a power of books written about Marco Polo. The scholars have pushed up their spectacles and brushed the cobwebs from their ears, and they've said, 'There's all there is about Marco Polo.'

"But the scholars are a queer and blind people, Brian Oge. I've heard tell there's a doctor in Spain can weigh the earth. But he can't plow a furrow that is needful, for planting corn. The scholars can tell how many are the feathers in a bird's wing, but it takes me to inform the doctors why the call comes to them, and they fly over oceans without compass or sextant or sight of land.

"Did you ever see a scholar standing in front of a slip of a girl? In all his learning he can find nothing to say to her. And every penny poet in the country knows.

"Let you be listening now, Brian Oge, and let also the scholars be listening. But whether the scholars do or not, I'm not caring. A pope once listened to me with great respect, and a marshal of France and poets without number. But the scholars do be turning up their noses. And, mind you, I've got as much scholarship as the next man, as you'll see from my story.

"Barring myself, is there no one in this house that takes snuff? No! Ah, well, times do be changing."




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