I shall now tell you how it came about that Marco Polo went to China with his uncle and father, though he had no eye for a bargain, or interest in courting foreign women, or sense of horses.
Now, as you may know, this was a great religious time. The Crusaders, feeling shame that the Sepulchre of the Lord Jesus should be in Saracen hands, had come with horse, foot and artillery to Palestine to give tribute of arms to Him who had died for them on the Bitter Tree. And great feats were performed and grand battles won. And kings became saints, like Louis of France, and saints became kings, like Baldwin of Constantinople. Mighty wonders were seen and miracles performed, so that people said, "Now will be the second coming of Christ and the end of the world."
And a great desire came on the Christian people to tell the truth of Christ to the strange and foreign peoples of the world. So that every day out of Jerusalem you would see friars hitting the road, some of them to confront the wizards of the Land of Darkness, and some to argue theology with the old lamas of Tibet, and some to convert the sunny Southern islands, where the young women do be letting down their hair and the men do be forgetting God for them. And all over the world there was spreading a great rumor that the truth of all things was at last known.
Even Kubla Khan had heard of it far off in China, and he had charged the uncle and father of Marco with a message to the Pope of Rome. Let the pope be sending some theologians to his court, and they'd argue the matter out; and if he was satisfied that this new religion was the True Religion, then he'd turn Christian and tell his people to turn Christian, too. And let them be bringing back some of the Oil of the Lamp which burns in the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and is a cure for all the ills in the world.
And when they came to the City of Acre, sure the pope was dead. And they waited a long time, but no new pope was chosen, so they decided to go back, because they had a good business there, and they didn't want to lose it. And yet they knew there'd be trouble with the Grand Khan, if they didn't bring back the news of the True Religion and people to argue it.
"I've been a long time trading," says Nicolo, and it's a queer thing, but the more trading you do, the less religion you have. The arguing of religion would not come easy to me. And I'd be up against experts. I'm not the man for it," says he. "How about you, Matthew?"
"Oh, sure, they'd never listen to me," Matthew laughs -- "me that's drank with them, and deludhered their women, and gambled until I left them nothing but the sweat of their brows. I'd be a great one to preach religion to them. Why, man, they'd laugh at me. But I tell you what, Nicolas. There's a bishop in Negropont, and I know where he lives, and I know his house and everything. What do you say, Nicolas? We'll just throw a bag over his head and tie him on a horse. Oh, sure, he'd give grand discourses to the Great Khan!"
"Have sense, Matthew; have sense. You're always too rough; always ready to end an argument with a knife, or just lift what you want. Have sense, man; you can't kidnap a bishop like you'd kidnap a woman.
"Well, I don't see why not," says Matthew. "It would be easier, too, because a woman will scratch like a wildcat. But if you're set against it, I won't do it," he says. "Well, then, how about young Marco?"
"My sound man Matthew! My bully fellow! Sure you were never at a loss yet! Young Marco it is; sure, 'tis the elegant idea. There's not a man born of woman better for the job."
Now, all the Christian world had gone religious, and young Marco was no exception; for't is not only the old that are religious. The young are, too; but there's a difference. The religion of old men is reason and translation; the religion of the young is just a burning cloud. The Tragedy of the Bitter Tree is not a symbol to them, but a reality, and their tears are not of the spirit, but of the body, too.
And there are no half-way houses, no compromises, in a young man's creed. It's swallow all, or be damned to you. It's believe or be lost.
And thinking over the little girl in the Chinese garden, there had come into Marco's heart, a thought past enduring. If little Golden Bells did not believe, then little Golden Bells was lost. She might have everything in this world, in this life, an emperor for a father, kings for suitors, a great poet for a minstrel, a wizard for an entertainer; but once the little blue shadow left her body, she was lost forever. And the sight came to him of little Golden Bells going down the dim and lonely alleys of death, and weeping, weeping, weeping. . .Her eyes would be shot with panic, and the little mouth twisted, and the little flowery hands twitching at each other. And it would be cold there for her who was so warm, and it would be dark there for her who loved light, and the Golden Bells of her voice would be lost in the whistling and clanging of the stars as they swung by in their orbits. He to be in the great delight of paradise, and she to be in the blue-gray maze between the worlds -- what tragedy!
Kings might bring her presents, a husband might bring her happiness; but if he could only bring her salvation! If he could only tell her of the Bitter Tree!
The body, when you came to think of it, mattered little. All the beauty in the world could not endure more than its appointed span. Helen was dust now, and Deirdre nothing. What had become of the beauty of Semiramis, Alexander's darling; and Cleopatra, who loved the great proconsul; and Bathsheba, for whom David of the Psalms fell from grace? And Balkis, queen of Sheba, with her apes, ivory, and peacocks? Dust and ashes, dust and ashes! And Scheherazade was but a strange, sad sound. Beauty increased and waned like the moon. A little shadow around the eyes, a little crinkle in the neck, the backs of the hands stiffening like parchment. Dust and ashes, dust and ashes!
But the little blue shadow would glow like an Easter morning.
Or it would be a poor, lonely, unlit shadow in the cold gloom of the clanging worlds.
Poor Golden Bells! Poor little weeping Golden Bells! If he could only tell her about the Bitter Tree!
And then what happens but his uncle Matthew claps him on the back,
"How would you like to go to China, Marco Markeen," says he, "and preach religion to the benighted people!"
"How did you know, Uncle Matthew?"
"How did I know what?"
"That I wanted to go to China and preach religion to the -- the people!"
"Well, if that doesn't beat Banagher," says Matthew Polo, "and Banagher beats the devil! Tell me, did you ever hear an old tune called 'Bundle and Go!'?"
And so the three of them leave upon their journey, but at Layas, where the King of Armenia had his castle, they heard of the election of a new pope, so they came back to Acre to get his instructions and blessing.
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