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CHAPTER III

And so Marco Polo went into the wine-shop to see and hear the strange foreign people.

It was a dark, long room, very high, full of shadows between the flaming torches on the wall. At one side of it was a great fire burning, for all it was the first night of spring. At one end of it were the great barrels of liquor for the thirsty customers; black beer for the English and the Irish, grand, hairy stuff with great foam to it, and brown beer for the Germans; and there was white wine there for the French people, and red wine for the Italians, asquebaugh for the Scots, and rum from the sugar cane for such as had cold in their bones. There was all kind of drink there in the brass-bound barrels -- drink would make you mad and drink would make you merry, drink would put heart in a timid man and drink would make fighting men peaceful as pigeons; and drink that would make you forget trouble -- all in the brass-bound barrels at the end of the room. And pleasant, fat little men were roaming around serving the varied liquor in little silver cups, and fine Venetian glasses for the wine, and in broad-bellied drinking-pots that would hold more than a quart.

And there was such a babel of language as was never heard but in one place before.

Some of the drinkers were dicing and shouting as they won, and grumbling and cursing when they lost. And some were singing. And some were dancing to the Irish pipes. And there was a knot around the Indian conjurer.

But there was one man by himself at a table. And him being so silent, you'd think he was shouting for attention. He was so restful against the great commotion, you'd know he was a great man. You might turn your back on him, and you'd know he was there, though he never even whispered nor put out a finger. A fat, pleasant, close-coupled man he was, in loose, green clothes, with gold brocade on them. And there were two big gold ear-rings in his lobes. He smoked a wee pipe with the bowl half-ways up it. The pipe was silver and all stem, and the bowl no bigger than a ten-cent piece. His shoulders were very powerful, so you'd know he was a man you should be polite to, and out of that chest of his a great shout could come. He might have been a working-man, only, when he fingered his pipe, you'd see his hands were as well kept as a lord's lady's, fine as silk and polished to a degree. And you'd think maybe a pleasant poet, which is a scarce thing, until you looked at the brown face of him and big gold ear-rings. And then you'd know what he was: he was a great sea-captain.

But where did he come from? You might know from the high cheek bones and the eyes that were on a slant, as it were, that it was an Eastern man was in it. It might be Java and it might be Borneo, or it might be the strange country of Japan.

And there were a couple of strange occurrences in the wine-shop. The Indian juggler was being baited by the fighting men, as people will be after poking coarse fun at a foreigner. The slim Hindu fellow wasn't taking it at all well. He was looking with eyes like gimlets at a big bullock of a soldier that was leading the tormenters.

"Show me something would surprise me," he was ordering. "Be damned to this old woman's entertainment!" says he. "As a magician," says he, "you're the worst I ever saw. If you're a magician," says he, "I'm a rabbit."

And there was a roar at that, because he was known to be a very brave man.

"Show me a magic trick," says he.

Says the Hindu:

"Maybe you'd wish you hadn't seen it."

"Be damned to that!" says the big fellow.

"Look at this man well," the Hindu told the room. "Look at him well." He throws a handful of powder in the fire and chants in his foreign language. A cloud of white smoke arises from the fire. He makes a pass before it, and, lo and behold ye! it's a screen against the wall. And there's a great commotion of shadows on the screen, and suddenly you see what it's all about. It's a platform, and a man kneeling, with his head on the block. You don't see who it is, but you get chilled. And suddenly there's a headsman in a red cloak and a red mask, and the ax swings and falls. The head pops off, and the body falls limp. And the head rolls down the platform and stops, and you see it's the head of the fellow who wanted to see something, and it's in the grisly grin of death. . .

"There's your latter end for you," says the conjurer. "You wanted to see something. I hope you're content."

The big fellow turns white, gulps, gives a bellow, and makes a rush; but the conjurer isn't there, nor his screen nor anything.

Everybody in the room was white and shaken -- all but the sea-captain. He just tamps his pipe as if nothing had happened, and smokes on. He doesn't even take a drink from his glass.

And a little while later an Irish chieftain walks in. He's poor and ragged and very thin. You might know he'd been fighting the heathen for the Holy sepulchre, and so entitled to respect, no matter what his condition. And behind him are five clansmen as ragged as he. But a big German trooper rolls up.

"And what are you?" says the big, burly fellow.

"A gentleman, I hope," says the ragged chief.

"'Tis yourself that says it," laughs the German trooper. The chieftain snicks the knife from his armpit, and sticks him in the jugular as neat as be damned.

"You'd might take that out, Kevin Beg" -- the Irish chief points to the killed man -- "and throw it in the canal. Somebody might stumble over it and bark their shins."

Now this, as you can conceive, roused a powerful commotion in the room. They were all on their feet, captains and mariners and men-at-arms, cheering or grumbling, and arguing the rights and wrongs of the matter. All but the sea-captain, who saw it all, and he never blinked an eyelid, never even missed a draw of the pipe.

And then Marco Polo knew him to be a Chinaman, because, as all the world knows, Chinamen are never surprised at anything.




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