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CHAPTER XXI

You must see him now as he was seventeen years after he had come to China, and fourteen years after his wife, little Golden Bells, had died, a lean figure of a man, with his hair streaked with gray, a lean, hard face on him and savage eyes, and all the body of him steel and whale-bone from riding on the great Khan's business, and riding fast and furious, so that he might sleep and forget; but forgetting never came to him. . .You might think he was a harsh man from his face and eyes, but he was the straight man in administering justice, and he had the soft heart for the poor -- the heart of Golden Bells. He was easily moved to anger, but the fine Chinese people never minded him, knowing he was a suffering man. Though never a word of Golden Bells came from his mouth, barring maybe that line of Dante's, the saddest line in the world, and that he used to repeat to himself and no one there:

. ."'la bella persona Che mi fu tolta. . .che mi fu tolta'; who was taken from me; Taken! Taken from me!"

And oftentimes a look would come over his face as if he were listening for a voice to speak -- listening, listening, and then a wee harsh laugh would come from him, very heartbreaking to hear, and whatever was in his hand, papers or a riding-whip, he would pitch down and walk away. . .

He had just come in from the borders of the Arctic lands, from giving the khan's orders to the squat, hairy tribes who live by the icy shores, and had come to the garden by the Lake of Cranes, the garden where the Golden Bells of singing and laughter were dumb this armful of years, and he was alone, and the listening look was on his face, when there came Kubla and Li Po and the old magician. . .

Now Kubla was very old, so old he could hardly walk, and very frail, and Li Po was very old, too, and gray in the face, and sadder in the eyes than ever, and the magician's white beard had grown to his knees, but there was no more humor in his eyes. . .And Marco Polo helped the old khan to sit down.

"Oh, sir, why did you come to me? Sure I was going to you the moment I had changed my riding-clothes. . .Sir, you should have stayed in your bed. . ."

"There was something on my mind, Marco, and the old do be thinking long to get things off their mind."

"What can I do sir?"

"Marco, my child, you mustn't take what I say amiss. But I want you to be going back, to be going back to Venice."

"Sir, what have I done to dissatisfy you? In all my embassies have I been weak to the strong or bullying toward the weak? Does an oppressed man complain of injustice, does a merchant complain of being cheated, or a woman say she was wronged?"

"Now, Marco of my heart, didn't I say not to be taking it amiss? Is there any one closer to me nor you, or is it likely I'd be listening to stories brought against you? It's just this. I'm an old and tired man, Marco Beag, and in a week or a moon at most I'm due to die, so the Sanang tells me. Don't be sorry, son. Be glad for me. Life has been a wee bit too long.

"And now, son dear, I want to tell you. You've been closer to me than my own sons, and you've been the dear lad. And there's not one man in all China can say you did a harsh or an unjust thing; but, my dear son, 'tis just the way of people; there's a power of hard feeling against you in this land, you being a stranger and having stood so high.

"So when I'm dead, dear son, there's many would do you an injury, and treat you badly; aye, in our family itself, though they smile on you now. Let you be going now, Marco. I'll miss you to close my eyes for me, but my heart will be lighter. It will so. I couldn't sleep easy, and you ill treated in this land of mine. You ask him, too, Li Po."

"Ah, sir," Marco laughed, -- "and, Li Po, what is ill treatment to me? Sorrow's my blood brother. What I've suffered! Do you think I could suffer more?"

"I know, Marco, I know."

"Don't you think I suffer now, sir? Fourteen years she's dead now, the wee one who lay by my side in sleep. And never a word and never a sign. In the house where we were married I can see the pool and the willows and the hibiscus, but there is never a token of her," he broke out. "The leaves of trees cover the pavilion, the hair of the musicians is silver, and dust is on the blue and white tiles. And she never comes to comfort pie. I can't sleep with waiting. The stars never seem to wane, and the hoar frost comes on the grass, and I'm always waiting. Christ! Why should I go back? I've forgotten Venice. I've even forgotten my God for her!"

"Sanang," says Kubla Khan to the magician, "couldn't you do something for this poor lad?"

It was now dusk in the garden by the Lake of Cranes. . .

"I don't need any damned wizard to bring my wife to me," raged Marco Polo. "If she were to come, she would come, and I in the dark of the moon and the moorfowl calling. She would have come because my heart needed her." And he raged through the dusk by the Lake of Cranes. . .

"Now, Marco, dear lad, don't be flying off again, but remember that there is science needed to all things. And think, too, that maybe she was not permitted. The older we get, the more we understand the destiny that rules all things, with now a nudge, with now a leading finger, with now a terrible blow over the heart, and what we think at twenty-five was a trifling accident, at seventy-five we know to have been the enormous gesture of God. We are not asked when we like to be born, Marco, nor is it up to us when to die.

"And again, Marco, consider. If she were to have come to you in the dark of the moon-time, in the strange mystic hours when you can hear eternity tick like a clock, your eyes would have been not on this world, but the next. Your look would have been vacant that's now keen to discover injustice. Your body would have been flabby that's now whalebone and steel. And there would have been no memory of you in China, that's now like sweet honey in the mouth.

"Would a wee dead spirit be proud of a man, Marco, and he just crying, crying, crying, and letting the days go by while even the brown bee works, and even the grass grows that cattle may fatten and men eat? She might be sorry, but would there be pride on her? Even a dead woman wants a strong man.

"Now, I'm not saying that the silent dead should not have a voice in our affairs when we need them. But they have wisdom, else what is the use of having died? And if the Sanang can bring her, she'll come now and join with us in asking you, now being the time she's needed.

"Child, be guided by us three ancient men. I have lived long and have knowledge of the world. Li Po has lived long and has knowledge of the heart. The Sanang has lived long, and knows the secrets of the dead. If to our three voices, who love you, there is added a sign from Golden Bells, will you leave China?"

"If there is a sign from her I'll leave China," said Marco Polo.

And it was dusk in the Garden by the Lake of Cranes.




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