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Messer Marco Polo

Chapter 2
Now, you might be thinking that the picture I'm drawing is out of my own head.
Let you not be thinking of it as it is now, a city of shadows and ghosts, with a few
scant visitors mooning in the canals. The Pride of the West she was, the Jewel of
the East. Constantinople was her courtyard. Greece, Egypt, Abyssinia, Bulgaria,
and Muscovy, her ten-acre fields. The Crusaders on their way to fight the
Saracen stopped to plead for her help and generosity. There were no soldiers
more chivalrous, not even the French. There were no better fighters, not even the
Highland clans. Sailors? You'd think those fellows had invented the sea. And as
for riches and treasures, oh! the wonder of the world she was! Tribute she had
from everywhere; the four great horses of Saint Mark they came from
Constantinople. The two great marble columns facing the Piazetta, sure, they
came from Acre. When foreign powers wanted the loan of money, it was to
Venice they came. Consider the probity of Venetian men. They once held as
pledge the Crown of Thorns itself. King Louis IX of France redeemed it.
The processions of the tradespeople were like a king's retinue, and they
marching in state on the election of a doge. Each in their separate order they'd
come, the master smiths first, as is right, every one garlanded like a conqueror,
with their banner and their buglers. The furriers next in ermine and taffeta; the
tanners, with silver cups filled with wine; the tailors in white, with vermilion stars;
the wool-workers, with olive branches; the quilt- makers in cloaks trimmed with
fleur-de-lis; the cloth-of-gold weavers, with golden crowns set with pearls; the
shoemakers in fine silk, while the silk-workers were in fustian; the cheese-dealers
and pork-butchers in scarlet and purple; the fish-mongers and poulterers, armed
like men-of-war; the glass-makers, with elegant specimens of their art; the comb-
makers, with little birds in cages; the barber-surgeons on horseback, very
dignified, very learned, and with that you'd think there'd be an end to them, but
cast your eye back on that procession and you'd find guilds as far as your sight
would reach. . .
Let you be going down the markets, and what would you see for sale? Boots,
clothes, bread? No, they were out of sight; but scattered on the booths, the like of
farls of bread on a fair-day, you'd find cloves and nutmegs, mace and ebony from
Moluccas, that had come by way of Alexandria and the Syrian ports; sandalwood
from Timor, in Asia; camphor from Borneo. Sumatra and Java sent benzoin to
her markets. Cochin China sent bitter aloes-wood. From China and Japan and
from Siam came gum, spices, silks, chessmen, and curiosities for the parlor.
Rubies from Peru, fine cloths from Coromandel, and finer still from Bengal. They
got spikenard from Nepaul and Bhutan. Their diamonds were from Golconda.
From Nirmul they purchased Damascus steel for their swords. Nor is that all
you'd see, and you'd be going down by the markets on a sunny morning, and a
fine- thinking, low-voiced woman on your arm. You'd see pearls and sapphires,
topaz and cinnamon from Ceylon; lac and agates, brocades and coral from