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CHAPTER I

Now it's nearing night on the first day of spring, and you could see how loath day was to be going for even the short time until the rising of the sun again. And though there was a chill on the canals, yet there was great color to the sunset, the red of it on the water ebbing into orange, and then to purple, and losing itself in the olive pools near the mooring-ties. And a little wind came up from the Greek islands, and now surged and fluttered, the way you'd think a harper might be playing. You'd hear no sound, but the melody was there. It was the rhythm of spring, that the old people recognize.

But the young people would know it was spring, too, by token of the gaiety that was in the air. For nothing brings joy to the heart like the coming of spring. The folk who do be blind all the rest of the year, their eyes do open then, and a sunset takes them, and the wee virgin flowers coming up between the stones, or the twitter of a bird upon the bough. . .And young women do be preening themselves, and young men do be singing, even they that have the voices of rooks. There is something stirring in them that is stirring, in the ground, with the bursting of the seeds. . .

And young Marco Polo threw down the quill in the counting house where he was learning his trade. The night was coming on. He was only a strip of a lad, and to lads the night is not rest from work, and the quietness of sleeping, but gaming, and drinking, and courting young women. Now, there were two women he might have gone to, and one was a great Venetian lady, with hair the red of a queen's cloak, and a great noble shape to her and great dignity. But with her he would only be reciting verses or making grand, stilted compliments, the like of those you would hear in a play. And while that seemed to fit in with winter and candlelight, it was poor sport for spring. The other one was a black, plump little gown-maker, a pleasant, singing little woman, very affectionate, and very proud to have one of the great Polos loving her. She was eager for kissing, and always asking the lad to be careful of himself, to be putting his cloak on, or to be sure and drink something warm when he got home that night, for the air from the canals was chill. The great lady was too much of the mind, and the little gown-maker was too much of the body, either of them, to be pleasing young Marco on the first night of spring.

Now, it is a queer thing will be pleasing a young man on the first night of spring. The wandering foot itches, and the mind and body are keen to follow. There is that inside a young man that makes the hunting dog rise from the hearth on a moonlit night: "Begor! it's myself'll take a turn through the fields on the chance of a bit of coursing. A weasel, maybe, or an otter, would be out the night. Or a hare itself. Ay, there would be sport for you! The hare running hell-for-leather, and me after him over brake and dell. Ay! Ay! Ay! A good hunt's a jewel! I'll take a stretch along the road."

Or there is in him what does be troubling the birds, and they on tropic islands. "Tweet-tweet," they grumble. "A grand place this surely, and very comfortable for the winter. The palm-trees are green, but I'd rather have the green of young grass. And the sea, you ken, it becomes monotonous. Do you remember the peaches of Champagne, wife, and the cherry-trees of Antrim? Do you remember the farmer who was such a bad shot, and his wife with the red petticoat? I'm feeling fine and strong in the wings, AVOURNEEN. What do you say? Let's bundle and go!"

He wandered out with the discontent of the season on him. The sun had dropped at last, and everywhere you'd see torches, and the image of torches in the water. On the canals of the town great barges moved. Everywhere were fine, noble shadows and the splashing of oars. There was a great admiral's galley, ready to put to sea against Genoa. There a big merchantman back from Africa. And along the canals went all the people in the world, you'd think. Now it was a Frenchman, all silks and satins and 'la-di-da, monsieur!' Or a Spaniard with a pointed beard and long, lean legs and a long, lean sword. And now it was a Greek courtesan, white as milk, sitting in her gondola as on a throne. Here was a Muscovite, hairy, dirty, with fine fur and fine jewels and teeth sharp as a dog's. And now an effeminate Greek nobleman, languid as a bride. And here were Moorish captains, Othello's men, great giants of black marble; and swarthy, hook-nosed merchants of Palestine; and the squires of Crusaders -- pretty, ringleted boys, swearing like demons. And here and there were Scots and Irish mercenaries, kilted, sensitive folk, one moment smiling at you and the next a knife in your gizzard.

And as he went through the courts there were whispers and laughter, and occasionally a soft voice invited him to enter; but he smiled and shook his head. Near the Canal de Mestre, which is close by the Ghetto, he stopped by the wine-shop called The Prince of Bulgaria, and he could hear great disputation. And some were speaking of Baldwin II, and how he had no guts to have let Palaeologus take Constantinople from him. And others were murmuring about Genoa.

"Mark us, they mean trouble, those dogs. Better wipe them off the face of the earth now." And a group were discussing the chances of raiding the Jewish Kingdom of the Yemen. "They've got temples there roofed with gold.". . .And an Irish piper was playing on a little silver set of pipes, and an Indian magician was doing great sleight of hand. . .

"I'll go in and talk to the strange foreign people," said Marco Polo.




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