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CHAPTER IV

So Marco Polo goes over and salutes him politely.

"I wonder if you mind my sitting down by you for a while," he says. "I perceive you're from China."

The sea-captain waves him politely to his place.

"I'm from China." He smiles. "You guessed right."

"Is it long since you've been in China?"

"Well, that depends upon what you call long," says the captain. "If you mean time, it's one thing. If you mean voyage, it's another. For you've got to take into account," says he, "adverse winds, roundabout turns to avoid currents, possible delays to have the ship scraped free from the parasite life that does be attaching itself to the strakes, time spent in barter and trade. Other matters, too; the attacks of pirates; cross-grained princes who don't want you to be leaving their ports with a good cargo in your hold; sickness; loss of sails and masts; repairs to the ship. It wasn't a short journey and it wasn't a long one."

"It will be a long ways to China, I'm thinking."

"I can tell you how long it is from China to here, and you can reverse that, and you will get a fair idea of how long it is from here to China. I left Zeitoon with a cargo of porcelain for Japan, and traded it for gold-dust, and from Japan I went to Chamba to lay in a store of chessmen and pen-cases. And from Chamba I sailed to Java, which is the greatest island in the world. Java is fifteen hundred miles from Chamba, south and southeast, and it took me four months sailing, but a sea-captain cannot pass Java by, for it is the chief place for black pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, doves, and all the spices that grow.

"And I stopped at various small islands from there, until I came to Basma, which is the island of the unicorns. And there we trade in pygmies, which ignorant people think are human folk. They are just a wee monkey, with all the hair plucked out except the hair of the beard. There is great money in them.

"I stopped at Sumatra for cocoanuts and toddy, and just for water at Dragoian. Dragoian is not a good city. It is filled with sorcerers who have tattooed faces. At Lambri I put in for the sago you buy from the hairy men with tails.

"Son, never stop at the isle of Andaman. The men there have faces like dogs. They are a cruel generation, and eat every one they can catch. I could tell you a story, but I would not spoil this fine spring night. Go rather to the island of Ceylon, and see the King's Ruby, which is the greatest jewel in the world. I stopped there and at Coromandel for the pearls the divers go down in the sea for, and there are no clothes on that island, so that every one goes naked as a fish. And there is the shrine of Saint Thomas. I was there.

"Gujarat, Tana, I stopped there. The Male and Female Islands I put into for ambergris. Svestra, which is full of magicians -- I was there, too. Madagascar and Zanzibar, where they live on camel flesh, I was there. And from Zanzibar I came north to Abyssinia, because I had to get an ostrich there for the King of Siam. And there was a letter and a parcel for the Sultan of Egypt. So I went to Cairo. I had a month on my hands, so I thought I'd run over and see Venice, because it's a hobby of mine, you might say, to see the world.

"Now let me reckon. Four and three makes seven, and four more are eleven, and six are seventeen, and let us say nine with that, and you have twenty-six. And the month I'm forgettng on the rocks of Aden is twenty-seven, and a week here and a week there for bad winds and such like. It would be safe to put that at three months. So it's two years and a half since I left China."

"You never," says young Marco, "met anybody in China by the name of Polo?"

"Poh-lo? Poh-lo? China's a bigger place nor you would imagine, laddie. There's half a hundred million people there."

"These were foreigners," Marco explained, "traders. They were at the court of the great Khan."

"Polo? Polo? Well, now, I think I've heard of them. Was one of them a big red-bearded man with a great eye for a horse and a great eye for a woman?"

"That would be my Uncle Matthew."

"For God's sake! And was the other a cold, dark man, a good judge of a jewel and a grand judge of a sword?"

"My father, Nicholas Polo."

"For God's sake! You're the son of one and the nephew of the other?"

"Did you know them?"

"Ah, laddie, how would I be knowing people like that! Sure, they're great folks, high in the esteem of the grand Khan, and I'm only a poor sailorman."

"But you heard of them."

"I heard of them. They were in good health. And I heard they were on their way home, though they would travel overland and not risk the great dangers of the sea. I suppose, if they go back to China, you'll be going with them?"

"I don't know," says Marco Polo.

"You ought to see China. It's a great country, a beautiful country."

"It would have to be very great and beautiful," says Marco Polo, "to out-weigh the greatness and the beauty that are here. You mustn't think I'm running down your country, mister," says he; "but for greatness, where is the beating of Venice in this day? What struck Constantinople like a thunderbolt but the mailed hand of Venice? When the Barbary corsairs roamed the seven seas, so that it was no more safe for a merchant vessel to be sailing than for a babe to be walking through a wild jungle, it was Venice who accepted the challenge and made the great sea as peaceful as the Grand Canal. Who humbled proud Genoa? And hurled the Saracen from Saint John of Acre's walls? Venice. And as for magnificence, the retinue of our doge when he goes to marry the sea with a ring it makes the court of Lorenzo seem like a huckster's train."

"It is a crowning city."

"And as for beauty, sir," went on Marco Polo, "there is nothing in the world like San Marco's, and it ablaze in the setting sun, and the great pillars before it rising in tongues of flame. And was there ever in all time anything like the Grand Canal at the dusk of day, and the torches beginning to show like fireflies, and the lap of the water, and stringed music, and the great barges going by like swans, now a battle-hacked captain of war, now a great gracious lady? And the moon does be rising. . .

"You've sailed all the way from China and seen strange and beautiful things, but I remember one summer's day, when I took out my little sailing-boat and went out on the water to compose a poem for a lady, and the water was blue -- oh, as blue as the sky's self, and the sands of the Lido were silver, and the water shuffled gently over them, as gently as a child's little feet. And there was a clump of olive-trees there so green as to be black, and there alighted before it a great scarlet Egyptian bird. And the beauty of that brought the tears to my eyes, so that I thought of nuns in their cells and barefoot friars in the hollow lands, and they striving for paradise. What did I care about paradise? A Venetian I. So why should I want to go to China?"

"You have made a great case for the grandeur and beauty of Venice," says the sea-captain. "It is lovely, surely," says he, filling his pipe; "but finer poets nor you, my lad," says he, lighting it, "have tried to describe the grace and beauty of Tao-Tuen, and," says he taking a draw, "have failed."

"Tao-Tuen is a beautiful name. It is like two notes plucked on a harp. And it must be a wonderful place, surely, if great poets cannot describe it."

"It is not a place," said the captain, "it's a girl."

"As for women, Venice --"

"Venice be damned!" said the sea-captain. "Not in Venice, not in all the world, is there the like for grace or beauty of Tao-Tuen. They call her Golden Bells," he says.

"Is she a dancing-girl?" Marco asked.

"She is not a dancing-girl," says the sea-captain, "she is the daughter of Kubla, the great Khan."

"A cold and beautiful princess," says Marco Polo.

"She is not a cold and beautiful princess," says the sea-captain. "She is warm as the sun in early June, and she may be beautiful and a princess, but we all think of her as Golden Bells, the little girl in the Chinese garden."

"Did you ever see her?" says Marco, eagerly. "Tell me."

"I saw her before I left," says the sea-captain. "I was at the Khan's palace of Chagannor," says he, "seeing of the chief of the stewards was there anything I could get for him, and I in foreign parts. And as I was being rowed back along the river by my ten brawny sailormen, what did I pass but the garden of Golden Bells.

"And there she was by the river-side, a little brown slip of a girl in green coat and trousers, with a flower in her dark hair.

"And I lower my head in reverence as we pass by. But I hear her low, merry voice, by reason of which they call her Golden Bells.

"'Ho, master of the vessel.' she calls. 'Where do you go?'

"And the sailors back water with a swish, and I stand up respectfully, for all she is only a slip of a girl.

"'I go to foreign parts, Golden Bells,' I tell her; 'to far and dangerous places, into the Indian Ocean. To the Island of Unicorns and to the land where men eat men.'

"'I hope you come back safe, master of the vessel,' she says. 'I hope you have a good voyage and come back safe. It must be a dreadful strain on your people to think of you so far away.'

"'In all this wide land,' I tell her, 'there is none to worry about me. I have neither chick nor child.'

"'Golden Bells will worry about you, then,' she said, 'and you in the hazards of the sea. And take this flower for luck.' And she gave me the flower from her hair. 'And let it bring you luck against the anger of the ocean and the enemies all men have. And let me know when you are back, because I'll be worried about a man of China and him in danger on the open sea.'

"And wasn't that a wonderful thing from a daughter of Kubla to me, a poor sailor-man?

"The son of the King of Siam came to woo her with a hundred princes on a hundred elephants, but she wouldn't have him. 'I don't wish to be a queen,' she told her father. 'How could I be a queen? I am only Golden Bells.' Nor would she have anything to say to the Prince of the Land of Darkness, who came to her with sea ivory and pale Arctic gold. 'The sun of China is in my heart, and you wouldn't have me go up into the great coldness to shiver and die?'

"So she remains in her garden by the lake of Cranes with Li Po, the great poet, him they call the Drinker of Wine, to make songs for her; and the SANANG Tung Chih, the great magician, to perform wonders for her when she is wearied; and Bulagan, her nurse, to take her to her heart when she is sad.

"And sad she is a lot of the time, they tell me. She sits in her garden in the dusk, playing her lute, and singing the song of the Willow branches, which is the saddest love-song in the world. . .

"And why she should be singing a sad love-song, is a mystery, for her soft, brown beauty is the flower of the world. For there would be no lack of suitors for her, nor is she the one to refuse love. The only thing I make of it is that the right hour hasn't come.

"The beauty of Venice jumps to your eyes, but the beauty of this pulls at your heart. Little brown Golden Bells, in her Chinese garden, singing the song of the Willow Branches at the close of day. .Is that not better nor Venice?"

But he got no word out of Marco Polo, sitting with his chin cupped in his hands. And that was the finest answer at all, at all. . .




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