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CHAPTER V

The times went by, and Marco Polo busied himself with his daily affairs, keeping track of the galleasses with merchandise to strange far-away ports, buying presents for refractory governors who didn't care for foreign trade in their domains, getting wisdom from the old clerks, and knowledge from the mariners; in the main, acting as the son of a great house while the heads of it were away.

You would think that he would have forgotten what the sea-captain of China told him about Golden Bells, what with work and sport and other women near him. You would think that would drop out of his memory like an old rime. But it stuck there, as an old rime sometimes sticks, and by dint of thinking he had her fast now in his mind -- so fast, so clear, so full of life, that she might be some one he had seen an hour ago or was going to see an hour from now. He would think of the now merry, now sad eyes of her, and the soft, sweet voice of her by reason of which they called her Golden Bells, and the dusky little face, and the hair like black silk, and the splotch of the red flower in it. She was as distinct to him as the five fingers on his hand. It wasn't only she was clear in his mind's eye, but she was inside of him, closer than his heart. She was there when the sun rose, so he would be saying, "It's a grand day is in it surely, Golden Bells." She was there in the dim counting house and he going over in the great intricate ledgers the clerks do be posting carefully with quills of the gray goose, so that he would be saying: "I wonder where this is and that is. Sure I had my finger on it only a moment ago, Golden Bells." And when the dusk was falling, and the bats came out, and the quiet of Christ was over everything, and the swallows flew low on the great canals, she would be beside him, and never a word would he say to her, so near to him would she be.

And she wrought strangeness between him and the women he knew, the great grave lady with the large, pale mouth, her that was of his mind, and the little black cloak-maker with the eager, red mouth, her that was closer than mind or heart to him. So that the first found fault with his poetry.

"I don't know what's come over you, Marco Polo," -- and there was a touch of temper in her voice, -- "but these poems of yours show me you haven't your mind on your subject. Would you mind telling me when I had bound black hair?" she says. "And you say my bosom is like two little russet apples. Now, a regular poet once compared it to two great silver cups, and that was a good comparison, though in truth," she says, "he knew as little about it as you. And my hands are not like soft Eastern flowers. They're like lilies. I don't know where you do be getting these Eastern comparisons," she says. "But I don't like them. Tell me, pretty boy," -- she looks suspicious,

-- "you haven't been taking any of the strange Egyptian drugs the dark people do be selling in the dim shops on the quiet canals? Look out, pretty boy! Look out!"

And the little cloak-maker grumbled when he was gone. "I don't know what's wrong with him," says she. "Or maybe it's something that's wrong with myself, but this delicate love isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's all right in books," she says, "and it's a grand sight, and the players doing it; but I like a hug," she says, "would put the breath out of you, and a kiss," she says, "you could feel in the soles of your feet." And she lay awake and grumbled. "Let him be taking his la-di-da courting to those as favor it," says she. "It's not my kind," and she grumbled through the lonely night. "I wonder where my husband is now," she said. "And wasn't I the foolish girl to be sending him off! Sure, he drank like a fish and beat me something cruel, but he was a rare lover, and the mood on him. Sure, a woman never knows when she's well off," says she.

And Marco Polo didn't miss them any more nor you'd miss an old overcoat and the winter past. All his mind was on was the Golden Bells of China. And he thought long until his uncle and father came, so that he could be off with them to the strange Chinese land.

"But there's no use to me going there," says he. "I couldn't marry her. She would laugh at me," he says. "She, who refused the son of the King of Siam, with his hundred princes on a hundred elephants, what use would she have for me, who's no better nor a peddler with his pack? But it would be worth walking the world barefoot for to see that little golden face, to hear the low, sweet voice they call Golden Bells."

They came back in due time, his uncle Matthew, the red, hairy man, and his father, the thin, dark man, who knew precious stones. And he told them he wanted to go with them when they made their next expedition to China.

"We could be using you, after your training in trade," says the father. But Marco Polo would take no interest in barter. "Sure, you'd better come along," says his uncle Matthew. "There's great sport to be had on the road, kissing and courting the foreign women and not a word of language between you, barring a smile and a laugh."

"I have no interest in the foreign women, Uncle Matthew."

"Then it's the horses you've been hearing about, the fine Arab horses faster nor the wind, and the little Persian ponies they do be playing polo on, and the grand Tatar hunters that can jump the heighth of a man, and they sure-footed as a goat. Ah, the horses, the bonny horses!"

"Ah, sure, Uncle Matthew, 'tis little I know of horses. Sure, I know all about boats, racing and trade and war boats, but a horse is not kin to me."

"Then what the hell's the use of your going to China?"

"Ah, sure, that's the question I'm asking myself, Uncle Matthew. But I have to go. I do so. There is something calling me, Uncle Matthew -- a bell in my ear, father's brother, and there's a ringing bell in my heart."




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