The Journeyer

( 38 )


Legendary trader and explorer Marco Polo was nicknamed "Marco of the millions" because his Venetian countrymen took the grandiose stories of his travels to be exaggerated, if not outright lies. As he lay dying, his priest, family, and friends offered him a last chance to confess his mendacity, and Marco, it is said, replied, "I have not told the half of what I saw and did."

Now Gary Jennings has imagined the half left unsaid as even more elaborate and adventurous than Polo's ...

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Legendary trader and explorer Marco Polo was nicknamed "Marco of the millions" because his Venetian countrymen took the grandiose stories of his travels to be exaggerated, if not outright lies. As he lay dying, his priest, family, and friends offered him a last chance to confess his mendacity, and Marco, it is said, replied, "I have not told the half of what I saw and did."

Now Gary Jennings has imagined the half left unsaid as even more elaborate and adventurous than Polo's tall tales. From the palazzi and back streets of medieval Venice to the sumptuous court of Kublai Khan, Marco meets all manner of people, survives all manner of danger, and becomes an almost compulsive collector of customs, languages, and women.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A novel of epic proportions.

Publishers Weekly
Relentlessly gripping.

Pound for pound, The Journeyer is a classic.

Gene Lyons
Miami Herald
Remarkable . . .Extraordinary . . . Recreates a whole lost civilization.
From the Publisher
"Superb."—The New York Times on The Journeyer

"Astonishing and titillating."—The Chicago Tribune on The Journeyer

"Fabulous. . . .Sumptuous and exceedingly bawdy."—The Washington Post on The Journeyer

"He enlivens his picaresque story with wonderfully detailed descriptions of the landscape, climate, flora and fauna Polo encountered along the way. The real energy of Gary Jennings's narrative is devoted to those old standbys lust and bloodlust. His zeal for clinical description of sexual practices is matched only by his enthusiasm for the minutiae of Oriental torture. Pound for pound, The Journeyer is a classic."—-Gene Lyons, Newsweek

"A novel of epic proportions."—Library Journal on The Journeyer

"As Gary Jennings did for pre-Hispanic Mexico in Aztec, he has enriched The Journeyer with an anthropologist's knowledge of diverse lands and cultures. . . . Jennings combines inexhaustible research with the yarn-spinner's art, drawing indelible portraits of Marco and his companions on the long journey. Stunning . . . You'll never want it to end. "—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Perfect entertainment."—Philadelphia Inquirer on The Journeyer

"Employing both great sweep and meticulous detail, Gary Jennings has produced an impressively learned gem of the astounding and the titillating."—Chicago Tribune Book World on The Journeyer

"A first-rate narrative. . .spiced with bawdy tales and bizarre customs . . . Sensual delights. . . Jennings is a superb storyteller."—Houston Post on The Journeyer

"Wild adventure . . . endlessly intriguing . . . constantly surprising."—Atlantic Monthly on The Journeyer

"Relentlessly gripping."—Publishers Weekly on The Journeyer

"Remarkable . . .Extraordinary . . . Recreates a whole lost civilization."—Miami Herald on The Journeyer

Newsweek - Gene Lyons
Pound for pound, The Journeyer is a classic.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Stunning . . . You'll never want it to end.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Perfect entertainment.
Houston Post
A first-rate narrative....Jennings is a superb storyteller.
Atlantic Monthly
Wild adventure . . . endlessly intriguing . . . constantly surprising.
The New York Times
The Chicago Tribune
Astonishing and titillating.
The Washington Post
Fabulous. . . .Sumptuous and exceedingly bawdy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765323491
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 3/2/2010
  • Edition description: Second Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 800
  • Sales rank: 173,453
  • Product dimensions: 9.26 (w) x 6.18 (h) x 1.37 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Jennings was known for the rigorous and intensive research behind his books, which often included hazardous travel—exploring every corner of Mexico for his Aztec novels, retracing the numerous wanderings of Marco Polo for The Journeyers, joining nine different circuses for Spangle, and roaming the Balkans for Raptor. Born in Buena Vista, Virginia in 1928, Jennings passed away in 1999 in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, leaving behind a rich legacy of historical fiction and outlines for new novels.

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Read an Excerpt

The Journeyer

By Gary Jennings

Forge Books

Copyright © 2010 Gary Jennings
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780765323491

Journeyer, The
VENICE1ALTHOUGH the Polo family has been Venetian, and proud of it, for perhaps three hundred years now, it did not originate on this Italian peninsula, but on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Yes, we were originally from Dalmatia, and the family name would then have been something like Pavlo. The first of my forebears to sail to Venice, and stay here, did so sometime after the year 1000. He and his descendants must have risen rather quickly to prominence in Venice, for already in the year 1094 a Domènico Polo was a member of the Grand Council of the Republic, and in the following century so was a Piero Polo.The most remote ancestor of whom I have even a dim recollection was my grandfather Andrea. By his time, every man of our house of Polo was officially designated an Ene Aca (meaning N.H., which in Venice means Nobilis Homo or gentleman), and was addressed as Messere, and we had acquired the family arms: a field argent bearing three birds sable with beaks gules. This is actually a visual play on words, for that emblematic bird of ours is the bold and industrious jackdaw, which is called in the Venetian tongue the pola.Nono Andrea had three sons: my uncle Marco, for whom I wasnamed, my father Nicolò and my uncle Mafìo. What they did when they were boys I do not know, but when they grew up, the eldest son, Marco, became the Polo trading company's agent in Constantinople in the Latin Empire, while his brothers remained in Venice to manage the company's headquarters and keep up the family palazzo. Not until after Nono Andrea's death did Nicolò and Mafìo scratch the itch to go traveling themselves, but when they did they went farther than any Polo before them had gone.In the year 1259, when they sailed away from Venice, I was five years old. My father had told my mother that they intended to go only as far as Constantinople, to visit their long-absent elder brother. But, as that brother eventually reported to my mother, after they had stayed with him there for a time, they took a notion to go on eastward. She never heard another report of them, and, after a twelvemonth, she decided they must be dead. That was not just the vaporings of an abandoned and grieving woman; it was the most likely possible surmise. For it was in that year of 1259 that the barbarian Mongols, having conquered all the rest of the Eastern world, pushed their implacable advance to the very gates of Constantinople. While every other white man was fleeing or quailing before "the Golden Horde," Mafìo and Nicolò Polo had gone marching foolhardily right into their front line--or, considering how the Mongols were then regarded, better say: into their slavering and champing jaws.We had reason to regard the Mongols as monsters, did we not? The Mongols were something more and something less than human, were they not? More than human, in their fighting ability and physical endurance. Less than human, in their savagery and lust for blood. Even their everyday food was known to be reeking raw meat and the rancid milk of mares. And it was known that, when a Mongol army ran out of those rations, it would unhesitatingly cast lots to choose every tenth man of its ranks to be slaughtered for food for the others. It was known that every Mongol warrior wore leather armor only on his breast, not his back; so that, if he ever did feel cowardice, he could not turn and run from an opponent. It was known that the Mongols polished their leather armor with grease, and they procured that grease by boiling down their human victims. All those things were known in Venice, and were repeated and retold, in hushed voices of horror, and some of those things were even true.I was just five years old when my father went away, but I could share the universal dread of those savages from the East, for I was already familiar with the spoken threat: "The Mongols will get you! The orda will get you!" I had heard that all through my childhood, and so had every other little boy whenever he required admonishment. "The orda will get you if you do not eat up all your supper. If you do not go straight to bed. If you do not cease your noise." The orda was wielded by mothers and governesses, in those times, as they had earlier threatened their misbehaving children with "The orco will get you!"The orco is the demon giant that mothers and nursemaids have forever kept on call, so it was no strain for them to substitute the wordorda: the horde. And the Mongol horde was assuredly the more real and believable monster; the women invoking it did not have to feign the fright in their voices. The fact that they even knew that word is evidence that they had reason to fear the orda as much as any child did. For it was the Mongols' own word, yurtu, originally meaning the great pavilioned tent of the chieftain of a Mongol encampment, and it was adopted, only slightly changed, into all the European languages, to mean what Europeans thought of when they thought of Mongols--a marching mob, a teeming mass, an irresistible swarm, a horde.But I did not much longer hear that threat from my mother. As soon as she decided that my father was dead and gone, she commenced to languish and dwindle and weaken. When I was seven years old, she died. I have only one recollection of her, from a few months before that. The last time she ventured outside our Casa Polo, before she took to her bed and never got up again, was to accompany me on the day I was enrolled in school. Indeed, although that day was in another century, nearly sixty years ago, I recall it quite clearly.At that time, our Ca' Polo was a small palazzo in the city's confino of San Felice. In the bright morning hour of mezza-terza, my mother and I came out the house door onto the cobbled street alongside the canal. Our old boatman, the black Nubian slave Michièl, was waiting with our batèlo moored to its striped pole, and the boat was freshly waxed for the occasion, gleaming in all its colors. My mother and I got into it and seated ourselves under the canopy. Also for the occasion, I was dressed in new and fine raiment: a tunic of brown Lucca silk, I remember, and hose soled with leather. So, as old Michièl rowed us down the narrow Rio San Felice, he kept exclaiming things like "Che zentilòmo!" and "Dassèno, xestu, Messer Marco?"--meaning "Quite the gentleman!" and "Truly, is that you, Master Marco?"--which unaccustomed admiration made me feel proud and uncomfortable. He did not desist until he turned the batèlo into the Grand Canal, where the heavy boat traffic required all his attention.That day was one of Venice's best sort of days. The sun was shining, but its light lay on the city in a manner more diffused than sharp-edged. There was no sea mist or land haze, for the sunlight was by no means diminished. Rather, the sun seemed to shine not in direct beams, but with a more subtle luminosity, the way candles glow when they are set in a many-crystaled chandelier. Anyone who knows Venice has known that light : as if pearls had been crushed and powdered--pearl-colored pearls and the pale pink ones and the pale blue--and that powder ground so fine that its particles hung in the air, not dimming the light but making it more lustrous yet soft at the same time. And the light came from other places than the sky alone. It was reflected from the canals' dancing waters, so it put dapples and spangles and roundels of that pearl-powder light bouncing about on all the walls of old wood and brick and stone, and softened their rough textures as well. That day had a gentling bloom on it like the bloom on a peach.Our boat slid under the Grand Canal's one bridge, the Ponte Rialto --the old, low, pontoon bridge with the swing-away center section; ithad not then been rebuilt as the arched drawbridge it is now. Then we passed the Erbarìa, the market where young men, after a night of wine, go strolling in the early morning to clear their heads with the fragrance of its flowers and herbs and fruits. Then we turned off the canal again into another narrow one. A little way up that, my mother and I debarked at the Campo San Todaro. Around that square are situated all the lower-grade schools of the city, and at that hour the open space seethed with boys of all ages, playing, running, chattering, wrestling, while they waited for the school day to begin.My mother presented me to the school maistro, presenting him also with the documents pertaining to my birth and to my registry in the Libro d'Oro. ("The Golden Book" is the popular name for the Register of Protocol in which the Republic keeps the records of all its Ene Aca families. ) Fra Varisto, a very stout and forbidding man in voluminous robes, appeared less than impressed by the documents. He looked at them and snorted, "Brate!" which is a not very polite word meaning a Slav or Dalmatian. My mother countered with a ladylike sniff, and murmured, "Veneziàn nato e spuà.""Venetian spawned and born, perhaps," rumbled the friar. "But Venetian bred, not yet. Not until he has endured proper schooling and the stiffening of school discipline."He took up a quill and rubbed the point of it on the shiny skin of his tonsure, I suppose to lubricate its nib, then dipped it in an inkwell and opened a tremendous book. "Date of Confirmation?" he inquired. "Of First Communion?"My mother told him and added, with some hauteur, that I had not, like most children, been allowed to forget my Catechism as soon as I had been confirmed, but could still say it and the Creed and the Commandments on demand, as facilely as I could say the Our Father. The maistro grunted, but made no additional notation in his big book. My mother then went on to ask some questions of her own: about the school's curriculum and its examinations and its rewards for achievement and its punishments for failure and ...All mothers take their sons to school for the first time with a considerable pride, I suppose, but also, I think, with an equal measure of wariness and even sadness, for they are relinquishing those sons to a mysterious realm they never can enter. Almost no female, unless she is destined for holy orders, ever gets the least bit of formal schooling. So her son, as soon as he learns just so much as to write his own name, has vaulted somewhere beyond her reach forever after.Fra Varisto patiently told my mother that I would be taught the proper use of my own language and of Trade French as well, that I would be taught to read and to write and to figure in numbers, that I would learn at least the rudiments of Latin from the Timen of Donadello, and the rudiments of history and cosmography from Callisthenes' Book of Alexander, and religion from Bible stories. But my mother persisted with so many other anxious questions that the friar finally said, in a voice mingling compassion and exasperation, "Dona e Madona, the boy is merely being enrolled in school. He is not taking the veil. We will immurehim merely during the daylight hours. You will still have him the rest of the time."She had me for the rest of her life, but that was not long. So thereafter I heard the threat that "the Mongols will get you if" only from Fra Varisto at school, and at home from old Zulià. This was a woman who really was a Slav, born in some back corner of Bohemia, and clearly of peasant stock, for she always walked like a washerwoman waddling with a full wash bucket dangling from either hand. She had been my mother's personal maid since before I was born. After my mother's death, Zulià took her place as my nurse and monitor, and took the courtesy title of Aunt. In assuming the task of raising me up to be a decent and responsible young man, Zia Zulià did not exert much strictness--apart from frequently invoking the orda--nor did she, I must confess, have much success in her self-appointed task.In part, this was because my namesake Uncle Marco had not come back to Venice after the disappearance of his two brothers. He had for too long made his home in Constantinople, and was comfortable there, although by this time the Latin Empire had succumbed to the Byzantine. Since my other uncle and my father had left the family business in the keeping of expert and trustworthy clerks, and the family palazzo in the keeping of similarly efficient domestics, Zio Marco left them so. Only the most weighty but least urgent matters were referred to him, by courier vessel, for his consideration and decision. Managed in that manner, both the Compagnia Polo and the Ca' Polo went on functioning as well as ever.The one Polo property that misfunctioned was myself. Being the last and sole male scion of the Polo line--the only one in Venice, anyway--I had to be tenderly preserved, and I knew it. Though I was not of an age to have any say in the management of either the business or the house (fortunately), neither was I answerable to any adult authority for my own actions. At home I demanded my own way, and I got it. Not Zia Zulià, nor the maggiordomo, old Attilio, nor any of the lesser servants dared to raise a hand against me, and seldom a voice. My Catechism I never again recited, and soon forgot all the responses. At school I began to shirk my lessons. When Fra Varisto despaired of wielding the Mongols and resorted to wielding a ferrule, I simply stayed away from school.It is a small wonder that I got as much formal education as I did. But I remained in school long enough to learn to read and write and do arithmetic and speak the Trade French of commerce, mainly because I knew I should need those abilities when I grew old enough to take over the family business. And I learned what history of the world, and what description of it, is supplied by The Book of Alexander. I absorbed all of that, mainly because the great Alexander's journeys of conquest had taken him eastward, and I could imagine my father and uncle having followed some of the same trails. But I saw little likelihood of my ever needing a knowledge of Latin, and it was when my school class had its collective nose forced into the boring rules and precepts of the Timen that I pointed my nose elsewhere.Though my seniors loudly lamented and predicted dire ends for me, I really do not think that my willfulness signified that I was an evil child. My chief besetting sin was curiosity, but of course that is a sin by our Western standards. Tradition insists that we behave in conformity with our neighbors and peers. The Holy Church demands that we believe and have faith, that we stifle any questions or opinions derived from our own reasoning. The Venetian mercantile philosophy decrees that the only palpable truths are those numerated on the bottommost ledger line where debits and credits are balanced.But something in my nature rebelled against the constraints accepted by all others of my age and class and situation. I wished to live a life beyond the rules and the ruled ledger lines and the lines written in the Missal. I was impatient and perhaps distrustful of received wisdom, those morsels of information and exhortation so neatly selected and prepared and served up like courses of a meal, for consumption and assimilation. I much preferred to make my own hunt for knowledge, even if I found it raw and unpalatable to chew and nauseating to swallow, as often I would do. My guardians and preceptors accused me of lazy avoidance of the hard work required to gain an education. They never realized that I had chosen to follow a far harder path, and would follow it--wherever it led--from that childhood time through all the years of my manhood.On the days when I stayed away from the school and could not go home, I had to idle the days away somewhere, so sometimes I loitered about the establishment of the Compagnia Polo. It was situated then, as now, on the Riva Ca' de Dio, the waterfront esplanade which looks directly out onto the lagoon. On the water side, that esplanade is fringed with wooden quays, between which are ships and boats moored stem to stern and side by side. There are vessels of small and medium size: the shallow-draft batèli and gòndole of private houses, the bragozi fishing boats, the floating saloons called burchielli. And there are the much grander seagoing galleys and galeazze of Venice, interspersed with English and Flemish cogs, Slavic trabacoli and Levantine caïques. Many of those ocean vessels are so large that their stems and bowsprits overhang the street, and cast a latticed shadow on its cobbles, almost all the way to the variegated building fronts that line the esplanade's landward side. One of those buildings was (and still is) ours: a cavernous warehouse, with one little interior space of it partitioned off for a counting room.I liked the warehouse. It was aromatic of all the smells of all the countries of the world, for it was heaped and piled with sacks and boxes and bales and barrels of all the world's produce--everything from Barbary wax and English wool to Alexandria sugar and Marseilles sardines. The warehouse workers were heavily muscled men, hung about with hammers, fist-hooks, coils of rope and other implements. They were forever busy, one man perhaps wrapping in burlap a consignment of Cornish tinware, another hammering the lid on a barrel of Catalonia olive oil, yet another shouldering a crate of Valencia soap out to the docks, and every man seeming always to be shouting some command like "logo!" or "a corando!" at the others.But I liked the counting room, too. In that cramped coop sat the director of all that business and busy-ness, the old clerk Isidoro Priuli. With no apparent exertion of muscle, no rushing about or bellowing, no tools but his abaco, his quill and his ledger books, Maistro Doro controlled that crossroads of all the world's goods. With a little clicking of the abaco's colored counters and a scribble of ink in a ledger column, he could send to Bruges an ànfora of Corsican red wine and to Corsica, in exchange, a skein of Flanders lace, and, as the two items passed each other in our warehouse, dip off a metadella measure of the wine and snip off a braccio length of the lace to pay the Polos' profit on the transaction.Because so many of the warehouse's contents were flammable, Isidoro did not allow himself the aid of a lamp or even a single candle to light his working space. Instead, he had arranged on the wall above and behind his head a large concave mirror made of real glass, which scooped in what light it could from the day outside and directed it down onto his high table. Seated there at his books, Maistro Doro looked like a very small and shriveled saint with an oversized halo. I would stand peering over the edge of that table, marveling that just the twitch of the maistro's fingers could exercise so much authority, and he would tell me things about the work in which he took such pride."It was the heathen Arabs, my boy, who gave the world these curlicue marks representing numbers, and this abaco for counting them with. But it was Venice that gave the world this system of keeping account--the books with facing pages for double entry. On the left, the debits. On the right, the credits."I pointed to an entry on the left: "to the account of Messer Domeneddio," and asked, just for instance, who that Messere might be."Mefè!" the maistro exclaimed. "You do not recognize the name under which our Lord God does business?"He flipped over the pages of that ledger to show me the flyleaf in the front, with its inked inscription: "In the name of God and of Profit.""We mere mortals can take care of our own goods when they are secure here in this warehouse," he explained. "But when they go out in flimsy ships upon the hazardous seas, they are at the mercy of--who else but God? So we count Him a partner in our every enterprise. In our books He is allotted two full shares of every transaction at venture. And if that venture succeeds, if our cargo safely reaches its destination and pays us the expected profit, why then those two shares are entered to il conto di Messer Domeneddio, and at the end of each year, when our dividends are apportioned, they are paid to Him. Or rather, to His factor and agent, in the person of Mother Church. Every Christian merchant does the same."If all my days stolen from school had been passed in such improving conversations, no one could have complained. I probably would have had a better education than I could ever have got from Fra Varisto. But inevitably my loitering about the waterfront brought me into contact with persons less admirable than the clerk Isidoro.I do not mean to say that the Riva is in any sense a low-class street.While it teems with workmen, seamen and fishermen at all hours of the day, there are just as many well-dressed merchants and brokers and other businessmen, often accompanied by their genteel wives. The Riva is also the promenade, even after dark on fine nights, of fashionable men and women come merely to stroll and enjoy the lagoon breeze. Nevertheless, among those people, day or night, there lurk the louts and cutpurses and prostitutes and other specimens of the rabble we call the popolàzo. There were, for example, the urchins I met one afternoon on that Riva dockside, when one of them introduced himself by throwing a fish at me.2IT was not a very large fish, and he was not a very large boy. He was of about my own size and age, and I was not hurt when the fish hit me between my shoulder blades. But it left a smelly slime on my Lucca silk tunic, which was clearly what the boy had intended, for he was clad in rags already redolent of fish. He danced about, gleefully pointing at me and singing a taunt:Un ducato, un ducatòn! Bùtelo ... bùtelo ... zo per el cavròn!That is merely a fragment of a children's chant, meant to be sung during a throwing game, but he had changed the last word of it into a word which, though I could not then have told you its meaning, I knew to be the worst insult one man can fling at another. I was not a man and neither was he, but my honor was obviously in dispute. I interrupted his dance of mockery by stepping up to him and striking him in the face with my fist. His nose gushed bright red blood.In the next moment, I was flattened under the weight of four other rascals. My assailant had not been alone on that dockside, and he was not alone in resenting the fine clothes Zia Zulià made me don on school-days. For a while, our struggles made the dock planks rattle. Numerous of the passersby stopped to watch us, and some of the rougher sorts shouted things like "Gouge him!" and "Kick the beggar in his baggage!" I fought valiantly, but I could strike back at only one boy at a time, while they all five were pummeling me. Before long, I had the wind knocked out of me and my arms pinned down. I simply lay there being beaten and kneaded like pasta dough."Let him up!" said a voice from outside our entangled heap.It was only a piping falsetto of a voice, but it was loud and commanding. The five boys stopped pounding on me, and one after another, although reluctantly, peeled off me. Even when I was unencumbered, I still had to lie there for a bit and get my breath back before I could stand.The other boys were shuffling their bare feet and sullenly regarding the owner of the voice. I was surprised to see that they had obeyed a mere girl. She was as ragged and aromatic as they were, but smaller and younger than any of them. She wore the short, tight, tubelike dress worn by all Venetian girl children until about the age of twelve--or I should say she wore the remains of one. Hers was so tattered that she would have been quite indecently exposed, except that what showed of her body was the same dingy gray color as her frock. Perhaps she derived some authority from the fact that she, alone of the urchins, wore shoes--the cloglike wooden tofi of the poor.The girl came close to me and maternally brushed at my clothes, which were now not very disparate from her own. She also informed me that she was the sister of the boy whose nose I had bloodied."Mama told Boldo never to fight," she said, and added, "Papà told him always to fight his own fights without help."I said, panting, "I wish he had listened to one of them.""My sister is a liar! We do not have a mama or a papà!""Well, if we did, that is what they would tell you. Now pick up that fish, Boldo. It was hard enough to steal." To me she said, "What is your name? He is Ubaldo Tagiabue and I am Doris."Tagiabue means "built like an ox," and I had learned in school that Doris was the daughter of the pagan god Oceanus. This Doris was too pitifully skinny to merit the surname, and far too dirty to resemble any water goddess. But she stood staunch as the ox, imperious as the goddess, as we watched her brother obediently go to pick up the discarded fish. He could not exactly pick it up; it had several times been stepped on during the brawl; he had more or less to gather it up."You must have done something terrible," Doris said to me, "to have made him throw our supper at you.""I did nothing at all," I said truthfully. "Until I hit him. And that was because he called me a cavròn."She looked amused and asked, "Do you know what that means?""Yes, it means one must fight."She looked even more amused and said, "A cavròn is a man who lets his wife be used by other men."I wondered why, if that was all it meant, the word should be such a deadly insult. I knew of several men whose wives were washerwomen or seamstresses, and those women's services were used by many other men, and that excited no public commotion or private vendèta. I made some remark to that effect, and Doris burst out laughing."Marcolfo!" she jeered at me. "It means the men put their candles into the woman's scabbard and together they do the dance of San Vito!"No doubt you can divine the street meaning of her words, so I will not tell you the bizarre picture they brought to my ignorant mind. But some respectably merchant-looking gentlemen were strolling nearby at that moment, and they recoiled from Doris, their various mustaches and beards bristling like quills, when they heard those obscenities shouted by so small a female child.Bringing the mangled corpse of his fish cradled in his grimy hands,Ubaldo said to me, "Will you share our supper?" I did not, but in the course of that afternoon he and I forgot our quarrel and became friends.He and I were perhaps eleven or twelve years old then, and Doris about two years younger, and during the next few years I spent most of my days with them and their somewhat fluid following of other dockside brats. I could easily have been consorting in those years with the well-fed and well-dressed, prim and priggish offspring of the lustrìsimi families, such as the Balbi and the Cornari--and Zia Zulià used every effort and persuasion to make me do so--but I preferred my vile and more vivacious friends. I admired their pungent language, and I adopted it. I admired their independence and their fichèvelo attitude to life, and I did my best to imitate it. As could be expected, since I did not slough off those attitudes when I went home or elsewhere, they did not make me any better beloved by the other people in my life.During my infrequent attendances at school, I began calling Fra Varisto by a couple of nicknames I had learned from Boldo--"il bel de Roma" and "il Culiseo"--and soon had all the other schoolboys doing the same. The friar-maistro put up with that informality, even seemed flattered by it, until gradually it dawned on him that we were not likening him to the grand old Beauty of Rome, the Colosseum, but were making a play on the word culo, and in effect were calling him the "landmark of buttocks." At home, I scandalized the servants almost daily. On one occasion, after I had done a thing reprehensible, I overheard a conversation between Zia Zulià and Maistro Attilio, the maggiordomo of the household."Crispo!" I heard the old man exclaim. That was his fastidious way of uttering a profanity without actually saying the words "per Cristo!" but he managed, anyway, to sound outraged and disgusted. "Do you know what the whelp has done now? He called the boatman a black turd of merda, and now poor Michièl is dissolving in tears. It is an unforgivable cruelty to speak so to a slave, and remind him that he is a slave.""But Attilio, what can I do?" whimpered Zulià. "I cannot beat the boy and risk injuring his precious self."The chief servant said sternly, "Better he be beaten young, and here in the privacy of his home, than that he grow up to earn a public scourging at the pillars.""If I could keep him always under my eye ..." sniffled my nena. "But I cannot chase him throughout the city. And since he took to running with those popolàzo boat children ...""He will be running with the bravi next," growled Attilio, "if he lives long enough. I warn you, woman: you are letting that boy become a real bimbo viziato."A bimbo viziato is a child spoiled to rottenness, which is what I was, and I would have been delighted with a promotion from bimbo to bravo. In my childishness, I thought the bravi were what their name implies, but of course they are anything but brave.The skulking bravi are the modern Vandals of Venice. They are young men, sometimes of good family, who have no morals and no useful employment, and no ability except low cunning and perhaps someswordsmanship, and no ambition except to earn an occasional ducat for committing a sneak murder. They are sometimes hired for that purpose by politicians seeking a short road to preferment, or merchants seeking to eliminate competition by the easiest means. But, ironically, the bravi are more often utilized by lovers--to dispose of an impediment to their love, like an inconvenient husband or a jealous wife. If, in daytime, you should see a young man swaggering about with the air of a cavaliere errante, he is either a bravo or wishes to be mistaken for one. But if you should meet a bravo by night, he will be masked and cloaked, and wearing modern chain mail under his cloak, and lurking furtively far from any lamplight, and when he stabs you with sword or stilèto, it will be in the back.This is no digression from my history, for I did live to become a bravo. Of sorts.However, I was speaking of the time when I was still a bimbo viziato, when Zia Zulià complained of my being so often in the company of those boat children. Of course, considering the foul mouth and abominable manners I acquired from them, she had good reason to disapprove. But only a Slav, not Venice-born, would have thought it unnatural that I should loiter about the docks. I was a Venetian, so the salt of the sea was in my blood, and it urged me seaward. I was a boy, so I did not resist the urge, and to consort with the boat children was as close as I could then get to the sea.I have, since then, known many seaside cities, but I have known none that is so nearly a part of the sea as is this Venice. The sea is not just our means of livelihood--as it is also for Genoa and Constantinople and the Cherbourg of the fictional Bauduin--here it is indissoluble from our lives. It washes about the verge of every island and islet composing Venice, and through the city's canals, and sometimes--when the wind and the tide come in from the same quarter--it laps at the very steps of the Basilica of San Marco, and a gondolier can row his boat among the portal arches of Samarco's great piazza.Only Venice, of all the world's port cities, claims the sea for its bride, and annually affirms that espousal with priests and panoply. I watched the ceremony again just last Thursday. That was Ascension Day, and I was one of the honored guests aboard the gold-encrusted bark of our Doge Zuàne Soranzo. His splendid buzino d'oro, rowed by forty oarsmen, was but one of a great fleet of vessels, crowded with seamen and fishermen and priests and minstrels and lustrìsimi citizens, going in stately procession out upon the lagoon. At the Lido, the most seaward of our islands, Doge Soranzo made the ages-old proclamation, "Ti sposiamo, O mare nostro, in cigno di vero e perpetu o dominio," and threw into the water a gold wedding ring, while the priests led our waterborne congregation in a prayer that the sea might, in the coming twelvemonth, prove as generous and submissive as a human bride. If the tradition is true--that the same ceremony has been performed on every Ascension Day since the year 1000--then there is a considerable fortune of more than three hundred gold rings lying on the sea bottom off the beaches of the Lido.The sea does not merely surround and pervade Venice: it is within every Venetian; it salts the sweat of his laboring arms, and the weeping or laughing tears of his eyes, and even the speech of his tongue. Nowhere else in the world have I heard men meet and greet each other with the glad cry of "Che bon vento?" That phrase means "What good wind?" and to a Venetian it means "What good wind has wafted you across the sea to this happy destination of Venice?"Ubaldo Tagiabue and his sister Doris and the other denizens of the docks had an even more terse greeting, but the salt was in that one, too. They said simply, "Sana capàna," which is short for a salute "to the health of our company," and assumes the understanding that what is meant is the company of boat people. When, after we had been acquainted for some time, they began to salute me with that phrase, I felt included, and proud to be so.Those children lived, like a swarm of dock rats, in a rotting hulk of a tow barge mired in a mud flat off the side of the city that faces the Dead Lagoon and, beyond that, the little cemetery isle of San Michièl, or Isle of the Dead. They really spent only their sleeping hours inside that dark and clammy hull, for their waking hours had to be mainly devoted to scavenging bits of food and clothing. They lived almost entirely on fish because, when they could steal no other nutriment, they could always descend on the Fish Market at the close of each day, when, by Venetian law--to prevent any stale fish from ever being vended--the fishmongers have to scatter on the ground whatever stock is left unsold. There was always a crowd of poor people to scramble and fight for those leavings, which seldom consisted of anything tastier than molefish.I did bring to my new friends what scraps I could save from the table at home, or pilfer from the kitchen. At least that put some vegetables in the children's diet when I fetched something like kale ravioli or turnip jam, and some eggs and cheese when I brought them a maccherone, and even good meat when I could sneak a bit of mortadella or pork jelly. Once in a while I provided some viand they found most marvelous. I had always thought that, on Christmas Eve, Father Baba brought to all Venetian children the traditional torta di lasagna of the season. But when, one Christmas Day, I carried a portion of that confection to Ubaldo and Doris, their eyes widened in wonder, and they exclaimed with delight at every raisin and pine-nut and preserved onion and candied orange peel they found among the pasta.I also brought what clothing I could--outgrown or worn-out garb of my own for the boys and, for the girls, articles that had belonged to my late mother. Not everything fit everybody, but they did not mind. Doris and the other three or four girls paraded about, most proudly, in shawls and gowns so much too big for them that they tripped on the dragging ends. I even brought along--for my own wear when I was with the boat children--various of my old tunics and hose so derelict that Zia Zulià had consigned them to the household bin of dust rags. I would remove whatever fine attire I had left my house in, and leave that wedged among the barge's timbers, and dress in the rags and look just like another boat urchin, until it was time to change again and go home.You might wonder why I did not give the children money instead of my meager gifts. But you must remember that I was as much of an orphan as any of them were, and under strict guardianship, and too young to make any dispensation from the Polo family coffers. Our household's money was doled out by the company, meaning by the clerk Isidoro Priuli. Whenever Zulià or the maggiordomo or any other servant had to buy any sort of supplies or provender for the Ca' Polo, he or she went to the markets accompanied by a page from the company. That page boy carried the purse and counted out the ducats or sequins or soldi as they were spent, and made a memorandum of every one. If there was anything I personally needed or wanted, and if I could put up a good argument, that thing would be bought for me. If I contracted a debt, it would be paid for me. But I never possessed, at any one time, more than a few copper bagatini of my own, for jingling money.I did manage to improve the boat children's existence at least to the extent of improving the scope of their thievery. They had always filched from the mongers and hucksters of their own squalid neighborhood; in other words, from petty merchants who were not much less poor than they were, and whose goods were hardly worth the stealing. I led the children to my own higher-class confino, where the wares displayed for sale were of better quality. And there we devised a better mode of theft than mere snatch-and-run.The Mercerìa is the widest, straightest and longest street in Venice, meaning that it is practically the only street that can be called wide or straight or long. Open-fronted shops line both sides of it and, between them, long ranks of stalls and carts do an even brisker business, selling everything from mercery to hourglasses, and all kinds of groceries from staples to delicacies.Suppose we saw, on a meat man's cart, a tray of veal chops that made the children's mouths water. A boy named Daniele was our swiftest runner. So he it was who elbowed his way to the cart, seized up a handful of the chops and ran, nearly knocking down a small girl who had blundered into his path. Daniele continued running, stupidly it seemed, along the broad, straight, open Mercerìa where he was visible and easily pursued. So the meat man's assistant and a couple of outraged customers took out after him, shouting "alto!" and "salva!" and "al ladro!"But the girl who had been shoved was our Doris, and Daniele had in that scuffling moment, unobserved, handed to her the stolen veal chops. Doris, still unnoticed in the commotion, quickly and safely disappeared down one of the narrow, twisty side alleys leading off the open area. Meanwhile, his flight being somewhat impeded by the crowds on the Mercerìa, Daniele was in peril of capture. His pursuers were closing in on him, and other passersby were clutching at him, and all were bellowing for a "sbiro!" The sbiri are Venice's apelike policemen, and one of them, heeding the call, was angling through the crowd to intercept the thief. But I was nearby, as I always contrived to be on those occasions. Daniele stopped running and I started, which made me seem the quarry, and I ran deliberately right into the sbiro's ape arms.After being soundly buffeted about the ears, I was recognized, as Ialways was and expected to be. The sbiro and the angry citizens hauled me to my house not far from the Mercerìa. When the street door was hammered on, the unhappy maggiordomo Attilio opened it. He heard out the people's babble of accusation and condemnation and then wearily put his thumbprint on a pagherò, which is a paper promising to pay, and thereby committed the Compagnia Polo to reimburse the meat man for his loss. The sbiro, after giving me a stern lecture and a vigorous shaking, let go of my collar, and he and the crowd departed.Though I did not have to interpose myself every time the boat children stole something--more often it was deftly managed, with both the grabber and the receiver getting clean away--nevertheless I was dragged to the Ca' Polo more times than I can remember. That did not much lessen Maistro Attilio's opinion that Zia Zulià had raised the first black sheep in the Polo line.It might be supposed that the boat children would have resented the participation of a "rich boy" in their pranks, and that they would have resented the "condescension" implicit in my gifts to them. Not so. The popolàzo may admire or envy or even revile the lustrìsimi, but they keep their active resentment and loathing for their fellow poor, who are, after all, their chief competitors in this world. It is not the rich who wrestle with the poor for the discarded molefish at the Fish Market. So when I came along, giving what I could and taking nothing, the boat people tolerated my presence rather better than if I had been another hungry beggar.3JUST to remind myself now and again that I was not of the popolàzo, I would drop in at the Compagnia Polo to luxuriate in its rich aromas and industrious activity and prosperous ambience. On one of those visits, I found on the clerk Isidoro's table an object like a brick, but of a more glowing red color, and lighter in weight, and soft and vaguely moist to the touch, and I asked him what it was.Again he exclaimed, "My faith!" and shook his gray head and said, "Do you not recognize the very foundation of your family's fortune? It was built on those bricks of zafràn.""Oh," I said, respectfully regarding the brick. "And what is zafràn?""Mefè! You have been eating it and smelling it and wearing it all your life! Zafràn is what gives that special flavor and yellow color to rice and polenta and pasta. What gives that unique yellow color to fabrics. What gives the women's favorite scent to their salves and pomades. A mèdego uses it, too, in his medicines, but what it does there I do not know.""Oh," I said again, my respect somewhat less for such an everyday article. "Is that all?""All!" he blurted. "Hear me, marcolfo." That word is not an affectionate play on my name; it is addressed to any exceedingly stupid boy. "Zafràn has a history more ancient and more noble even than the history of Venice. Long before Venice existed, zafràn was used by the Greeks and Romans to perfume their baths. They scattered it on their floors to perfume whole rooms. When the Emperor Nero made his entry into Rome, the streets of the entire city were strewn with zafràn and made fragrant.""Well," I said, "if it has always been so commonly available ...""It may have been common then," said Isidoro, "in the days when slaves were numerous and cost nothing. Zafràn is not common today. It is a scarce commodity, and therefore of much value. That one brick you see there is worth an ingot of gold of almost equal weight.""Is it indeed?" I said, perhaps sounding unconvinced. "But why?""Because that brick was made by the labor of many hands and immeasurable zonte of land and a countless multitude of flowers.""Flowers !"Maistro Doro sighed and said patiently, "There is a purple flower called the crocus. When it blooms, it extends from that blossom three delicate stigmi of an orange-red color. Those stigmi are ever so carefully detached by human hands. When some millions of those dainty and almost impalpable stigmi are collected, they are either dried to make loose zafràn, what is called hay zafràn, or they are what is called 'sweated' and compressed together to make brick zafràn like this one. The arable land must be devoted to nothing but that crop, and the crocus blooms only once a year. That blooming season is brief, so many gatherers must work at the same time, and they must work diligently. I do not know how many zonte of land and how many hands are required to produce just one brick of zafràn in a year, but you will understand why it is of such extravagant value."I was by now convinced. "And where do we buy the zafràn?""We do not. We grow it." He put on the table beside the brick another object; I would have said it was a bulb of ordinary garlic. "That is a culm of the crocus flower. The Compagnia Polo plants them and harvests from the blossoms."I was astonished. "Not in Venice, surely!""Of course not. On the teraferma of the mainland southwest of here. I told you it requires innumerable zonte of terrain.""I never knew," I said.He laughed. "Probably half the people of Venice do not even know that the milk and eggs of their daily meals are extracted from animals, and that those animals must have dry land to live on. We Venetians are inclined to pay little attention to anything but our lagoon and sea and ocean.""How long have we been doing this, Doro? Growing crocuses and zafràn?"He shrugged. "How long have there been Polos in Venice? That was the genius of some one of your long-ago ancestors. After the time of the Romans, zafràn became too much of a luxury to cultivate. No one farmercould grow enough of it to make it worth his while. And even a landowner of great estates could not afford all the paid laborers that crop would require. So zafràn was pretty well forgotten. Until some early Polo remembered it, and also realized that modern Venice has almost as big a supply of slaves as Rome had. Of course, we now have to buy our slaves, not just capture them. But the gathering of crocus stigmi is not an arduous labor. It does not require strong and expensive male slaves. The puniest women and children can do it; weaklings and cripples can do it. So that was the cheap sort of slaves your ancestor bought; the sort the Compagnia Polo has been acquiring ever since. They are a motley sort, of all nations and colors--Moors, Lezghians, Circassians, Russniaks, Armeniyans--but their colors blend, so to speak, to make that red-gold zafràn.""The foundation of our fortune," I repeated."It buys everything else we sell," said Isidoro. "Oh, we sell the zafràn too, for a price, when the price is right--to be used as a foodstuff, a dye, a perfume, a medicament. But basically it is our company's capital, with which we barter for all our other articles of merchandise. Everything from Ibiza's salt to Còrdoba's leather to Sardinia's wheat. Just as the house of Spinola in Genoa has the monopoly of trading in raisins, our Venetian house of Polo has the zafràn."The only son of the Venetian house of Polo thanked the old clerk for that edifying lesson in high commerce and bold endeavor--and, as usual, sauntered off again to partake of the easy indolence of the boat children.As I have said, those children tended to come and go; there was seldom the same lot living in the derelict barge from one week to the next. Like all the grown-up popolàzo, the children dreamed of somewhere finding a Land of Cockaigne, where they could shirk work in luxury instead of squalor. So they might hear of some place offering better prospects than the Venice waterfront, and they might stow away aboard an outbound vessel to get there. Some of them would come back after a while, either because they could not reach their destination or because they had and were disillusioned. Some never came back at all, because--we never knew--the vessel sank and they drowned, or because they were apprehended and thrown into an orphanage, or maybe because they did find "il paese di Cuccagna" and stayed there.But Ubaldo and Doris Tagiabue were the constants, and it was from them that I got most of my education in the ways and the language of the lower classes. That education was not force-fed to me in the way Fra Varisto stuffed Latin conjugations into his schoolboys; rather, the brother and sister parceled it out to me in fragments, as I required it. Whenever Ubaldo would jeer at some backwardness or bewilderment of mine, I would realize that I lacked some bit of knowledge, and Doris would supply it.One day, I remember, Ubaldo said he was going to the western side of the city, and going by way of the Dogs' Ferry. I had never heard of that, so I went along, to see what strange kind of boat he meant. But we crossed the Grand Canal by the quite ordinary agency of the Rialto Bridge, and I must have looked either disappointed or mystified, for hescoffed at me, "You are as ignorant as a cornerstone!" and Doris explained:"There is only one way to get from the eastern to the western side of the city, no? That is to cross the Grand Canal. Cats are allowed in boats, to catch the rats, but dogs are not. So the dogs can cross the canal only on the Ponte Rialto. So that is the Dogs' Ferry, no xe vero?"Some of their street jargon I could translate without assistance. They spoke of every priest and monk as le rigioso, which could mean "the stiff one," but it did not take me long to realize that they were merely twisting the word religioso. When, in fine summer weather, they announced that they were moving from the barge hulk to La Locanda de la Stela, I knew that they were not going to reside in any Starlight Inn; they meant that they would be sleeping outdoors for a season. When they spoke of a female person as una largazza, they were playing on the proper term for a girl, la ragazza, but coarsely suggesting that she was ample, even cavernous, in her genital aperture. As a matter of fact, the greater part of the boat people's language--and the greater part of their conversations, and their interests--dealt with such indelicate topics. I absorbed a lot of information, but it sometimes did more to confuse than to enlighten me.Zia Zulià and Fra Varisto had taught me to refer to those parts between my legs--if I had to refer to them at all--as le vergogne, "the shames." On the docks I heard many other terms. The word baggage for a man's genital equipment was clear enough; and candelòto was an apt word for his erect organ, which is like a stout candle; and so was fava for the bulbous end of that organ, since it does somewhat resemble a broad bean; and so was capèla for the foreskin, which does enclose the fava like a little cloak or a little chapel. But it was a mystery to me why the word lumaghèta was sometimes spoken in reference to a woman's parts. I understood that a woman had nothing but an opening down there, and the word lumaghèta can mean either a small snail or the tiny peg with which a minstrel tunes each string of his lute.Ubaldo and Doris and I were playing on a dock one day when a greengrocer came pushing his cart along the esplanade, and the boat wives ambled over to paw through his produce. One of the women fondled a large yellowish cucumber, and grinned and said, "II mescolòto," and all the women cackled lasciviously. "The stirrer"--I could make out the implications of that. But then two lissome young men came strolling along the esplanade, arm in arm, walking with a sort of springiness in their step, and one of the boat women growled, "Don Meta and Sior Mona." Another woman glanced scornfully at the more delicate of the two young men and muttered, "That one wears a split seat in his hose." I had no notion of what they were talking about, and Doris's explanation did not tell me much:"Those are the sorts of men who do with each other what a real man does only with a woman."Well, there was the main flaw in my comprehension: I had no very clear idea of what a man did with a woman.Mind you, I was not entirely benighted in the matter of sex, anymore than other upper-class Venetian children are--or, I daresay, upper-class children of any other European nationality. We may not consciously remember it, but we have all had an early introduction to sex, from our mothers or our nursemaids, or both.It seems that mothers and nurses have known, from the beginning of time, that the best way to quiet a restless baby or put it easily to sleep is to do for it the act of manustupraziòn. I have watched many a mother do that to an infant boy whose bimbìn was so tiny that she could only just manipulate it with her finger and thumb. Yet the wee organ lifted and grew, though not in proportion as a man's does, of course. As the woman stroked, the baby quivered, then smiled, then squirmed voluptuously. He did not ejaculate any spruzzo, but there was no doubt that he enjoyed a climax of release. Then his little bimbìn shrank again to its littlest, and he lay quiet and soon he slept.Assuredly my own mother often did that for me, and I think it is good that mothers do so. That early manipulation, besides being an excellent pacifier of the infant, clearly stimulates development in that part of him. The mothers in the Eastern countries do not engage in that practice, and the omission is sadly evident when their babies grow up. I have seen many Eastern men undressed, and almost all had organs pitifully minute in comparison to mine.Although our mothers and nursemaids gradually leave off doing that, when their children are about two years old--that is, at the age when they are weaned from the breast milk and introduced to wine--nevertheless, every child retains some dim recollection of it. Therefore a boy is not puzzled or frightened when he grows to adolescence and that organ seeks attention of its own accord. When a boy wakes in the night with it coming erect under his hand, he knows what it wants."A cold sponge bath," Fra Varisto used to tell us boys at school. "That will quell the upstart, and avert the risk of its shaming you with the midnight stain."We listened respectfully, but on our way home we laughed at him. Perhaps friars and priests do endure involuntary and surprising spruzzi, and feel embarrassed or somehow guilty on that account. But no healthy boy of my acquaintance ever did. And none would choose a cold douche in place of the warm pleasure of doing for his candelòto what his mother had done for it when it was just a bimbìn. However, Ubaldo was contemptuous when he learned that those night games were the total extent of my sexual experience to date."What? You are still waging the war of the priests?" he jeered. "You have never had a girl?"Once again uncomprehending, I inquired, "The war of the priests?""Five against one," Doris said, without a blush. She added, "You must get yourself a smanza. A compliant girl friend."I thought about that and said, "I do not know any girls I could ask. Except you, and you are too young."She bridled and said angrily, "I may not have hair on my artichoke yet, but I am twelve, and that is of marrying age!""I do not wish to marry anybody," I protested. "Only to--""Oh, no!" Ubaldo interrupted me. "My sister is a good girl."You might smile at the assertion that a girl who could talk as she did could be a "good" girl. But there you have evidence of one thing our upper and lower classes have in common: their reverent regard for a maiden's virginity. To the lustrìsimi and the popolàzo alike, that counts for more than all other feminine qualities: beauty, charm, sweetness, demureness, whatever. Their women may be plain and malicious and ill-spoken and ungracious and slovenly, but they must retain unbroken that little tuck of maidenhead tissue. In that respect at least, the most primitive and barbarous savages of the East are superior to us: they value a female for attributes other than the bung in her hole.To our upper classes, virginity is not so much a matter of virtue as of good business, and they regard a daughter with the same cool calculation as they would a slave girl in the market. A daughter or a slave, like a cask of wine, commands a better price if it is sealed and demonstrably untampered with. Thus they barter their daughters for commercial advantage or social enhancement. But the lower classes foolishly think that their betters have a high moral regard for virginity, and they try to imitate that. Also, they are more easily frightened by the thunders of the Church, and the Church demands the preservation of virginity as a sort of negative show of virtue, in the same way that good Christians show virtue by abstaining from meat during Lent.But even in those days when I was still a boy, I found reason to wonder just how many girls, of any class, really were kept "good" by the prevailing social precepts and attitudes. From the time I was old enough to sprout the first fuzz of "hair on my artichoke," I had to listen to lectures from Fra Varisto and Zia Zulià on the moral and physical dangers of consorting with bad girls. I listened with close attention to their descriptions of such vile creatures, and their warnings about them, and their inveighings against them. I wanted to make sure I would recognize any bad girl at first sight, because I hoped with all my heart that I would soon get to meet one. That seemed quite likely, because the main impression I got from those lectures was that the bad girls must considerably outnumber the good ones.There is other evidence for that impression. Venice is not a very tidy city, because it does not have to be. All of its discards go straight into the canals. Street garbage, kitchen trash, the wastes from our chamber pots and licet closets, all gets dumped into the nearest canal and is soon flushed away. The tide comes in twice daily, and surges through every least waterway, roiling up whatever matter lies on the bottom or is crusted on the canal walls. Then the tide departs and takes all those substances with it, through the lagoon, out past the Lido and off to sea. That keeps the city clean and sweet-smelling, but it frequently afflicts fishermen with unwelcome catches. There is not one of them who has not many times found on his hook or in his net the glistening pale blue and purple cadaver of a newborn infant. Granted, Venice is one of the three most populous cities of Europe. Still, only half of its citizens arefemale, and of those perhaps only half are of childbearing age. So the fishermen's annual catch of discarded infants would seem to indicate a scarcity of "good" Venetian girls."There is always Daniele's sister Malgarita," said Ubaldo. He was not enumerating good girls, but quite the contrary. He was counting those females of our acquaintance who might serve to wean me from the war of the priests to a more manly diversion. "She will do it with anybody who will give her a bagatìn.""Malgarita is a fat pig," said Doris."She is a fat pig," I concurred."Who are you to sneer at pigs?" said Ubaldo. "Pigs have a patron saint. San Tonio was very fond of pigs.""He would not have been fond of Malgarita," Doris said firmly.Ubaldo went on, "Also there is Daniele's mother. She will do it and not even ask a bagatìn."Doris and I made noises of revulsion. Then she said, "There is someone down there waving at us."We three were idling the afternoon away on a rooftop. That is a favorite occupation of the lower classes. Because all the common houses of Venice are one story high, and all have flat roofs, their people like to stroll or loll upon them and enjoy the view. From that vantage, they can behold the streets and canals below, the lagoon and its ships beyond, and Venice's more elegant buildings that stand above the mass: the domes and spires of churches, the bell towers, the carved facades of palazzi."He is waving at me," I said. "That is our boatman, taking our batèlo home from somewhere. I might as well ride with him."There was no necessity for me to go home before the bells began ringing the nighttime coprifuoco, when all honest citizens who do not retire indoors are supposed to carry lanterns to show that they are abroad on honest errands. But, to be truthful, I was at that moment feeling a bit apprehensive that Ubaldo might insist on my immediately coupling with some boat woman or girl. I did not so much fear the adventure, even with a slattern like Daniele's mother; I feared making a fool of myself, not knowing what to do with her.From time to time, I tried to atone for my being so often rude to poor old Michièl, so that day I took the oars from him and myself rowed us homeward, while he took his ease under the boat canopy. We conversed as we went, and he told me that he was going to boil an onion when he got to the house."What?" I said, unsure I had heard him right.The black slave explained that he suffered from the bane of boatmen. Because his profession required him to spend most of his time with his backside on a hard and damp boat thwart, he was often troubled by bleeding piles. Our family mèdego, he said, had prescribed a simple allevement for that malady. "You boil an onion until it is soft, and you wad it well up in there, and you wind a cloth around your loins to hold it there. Truly, it does help. If you ever have piles, Messer Marco, you try that."I said I would indeed, and forgot about it. I arrived home to be accosted by Zia Zulià."The good friar Varisto was here today, and he was so angry that his dear face was bright red, clear to his tonsure."I remarked that that was not unusual.She said warningly, "A marcolfo with no schooling should speak with a smaller mouth. Fra Varisto said you have been shirking your classes again. For more than a week this time. And tomorrow your class must be heard in recitation, whatever that is, by the Censori de Scole, whoever they are. It is required that you participate. The friar told me--and I am telling you, young man--you will be in school tomorrow."I said a word that made her gasp, and stalked off to my room to sulk. I refused to come out even when called to supper. But by the time the coprifuoco was rung, my better instincts had begun to overcome my worse ones. I thought to myself: today when I behaved with kindness to old Michièl it gratified him; I ought to say a kindly word of apology to old Zulià.(I realize that I have characterized as "old" almost all the people I knew in my youth. That is because they seemed so to my young eyes, though only a few of them really were. The company's clerk Isidoro and the chief servant Attilio were perhaps as old as I am now. But the friar Varisto and the black slave Michièl were no more than middle-aged. Zulià of course seemed old because she was about the same age as my mother, and my mother was dead; but I suppose Zulià was a year or two younger than Michièl.)That night, when I determined to make amends to her, I did not wait for Zia Zulià to do her customary before-bedtime rounds of the house. I went to her little room and rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an avanti. I probably had always assumed that servants did nothing at night except sleep to restore their energies for service the next day. But what was happening in that room that night was not sleep. It was something appalling and ludicrous and astounding to me--and educational.Immediately before me on the bed was a pair of immense buttocks bouncing up and down. They were distinctive buttocks, being as purple-black as aubergines, and even more distinctive because they had a strip of cloth binding a large, pale-yellow onion in the cleft between them. At my sudden entrance, there was a squawk of dismay and the buttocks bounded out of the candlelight into a darker corner of the room. This revealed on the bed a contrastingly fish-white body--the naked Zulià, sprawled supine and splayed wide open. Her eyes were shut, so she had not noticed my arrival.At the buttocks' abrupt withdrawal, she gave a wail of deprivation, but continued to move as if she were still being bounced upon. I had never seen my nena except in gowns of many layers and floor length, and of atrociously garish Slavic colors. And the woman's broad Slavic face was so very plain that I had never even tried to imagine her similarly broad body as it might look undressed. But now I took avid notice ofeverything so wantonly displayed before me, and one detail was so eminently noticeable that I could not restrain a blurted comment:"Zia Zulià," I said wonderingly, "you have a bright red mole down there on your--"Her meaty legs closed together with a slap, and her eyes flew open almost as audibly. She grabbed for the bed covers, but Michièl had taken those along in his leap, so she seized at the bed curtains. There was a moment of consternation and contortion, as she and the slave fumbled to swaddle themselves. Then there was a much longer moment of petrified embarrassment, during which I was stared at by four eyeballs almost as big and luminous as the onion had been. I congratulate myself that I was the first to regain composure. I smiled sweetly upon my nena and spoke, not the words of apology I had come to say, but the words of an arrant extortioner.With smug assurance I said, "I will not go to school tomorrow, Zia Zulià," and I backed out of the room and closed the door.4BECAUSE I knew what I would be doing the next day, I was too restless with anticipation to sleep very well. I was up and dressed before any of the servants awoke, and I broke my fast with a bun and a gulp of wine as I went through the kitchen on my way out into the pearly morning. I hurried along the empty alleys and over the many bridges to that northside mud flat where some of the barge children were just emerging from their quarters. Considering what I had come to ask, I probably should have sought out Daniele, but I went instead to Ubaldo and put my request to him."At this hour?" he said, mildly scandalized. "Malgarita is likely still asleep, the pig. But I will see."He ducked back inside the barge, and Doris, who had overheard us, said to me, "I do not think you ought to, Marco."I was accustomed to her always commenting on everything that everybody did or said, and I did not always appreciate it, but I asked, "Why ought I not?""I do not want you to.""That is no reason.""Malgarita is a fat pig." I could not deny that, and I did not, so she added, "Even I am better looking than Malgarita."Impolitely I laughed, but I was polite enough not to say that there was small choice between a fat pig and a scrawny kitten.Doris kicked moodily at the mud where she stood, and then said in a rush of words, "Malgarita will do it with you because she does not care what man or boy she does it with. But I would do it with you because I do care."I looked at her with amused surprise, and perhaps I also looked ather for the first time with appraisal. Her maidenly blush was perceptible even through the dirt on her face, and so was her earnestness, and so was a dim prefiguring of prettiness. At any rate, her undirtied eyes were of a nice blue, and seemed extraordinarily large, though that was probably because her face was somewhat pinched by lifelong hunger."You will be a comely woman someday, Doris," I said, to make her feel better. "If you ever get washed--or at least scraped. And if you grow more of a figure than a broomstick. Malgarita already is grown as ample as her mother."Doris said acidly, "Actually she looks more like her father, since she also grew a mustache."A head with frowzy hair and gummy eyelids poked out through one of the splintery holes in the barge hull, and Malgarita called, "Well, come on then, before I put on my frock, so I do not have to take it off!"I turned to go and Doris said, "Marco!" but when I turned back impatiently, she said, "No matter. Go and play the pig."I clambered inside the dark, dank hull and crept along its rotting plank decking until I came to the hold partition where Malgarita squatted on a pallet of reeds and rags. My groping hands encountered her before I saw her, and her bare body felt as sweaty and spongy as the barge's timbers. She immediately said, "Not even a feel until I get my bagatìn."I gave her the copper, and she lay back on the pallet. I got over her, in the position in which I had seen Michièl. Then I flinched, as there came a loud wham! from the outside of the barge hull, but just beside my ear, and then a screech! The boat boys were playing one of their favorite games. One of them had caught a cat--and that is no easy feat, although Venice does teem with cats--and had tied it to the barge side, and the boys were taking turns running and butting it with their heads, competing to see who would first mash it to death.As my eyes adapted to the darkness, I noted that Malgarita was indeed hairy. Her palely shining breasts seemed the only hairless part of her. In addition to the frowze on her head and the fuzz on her upper lip, she was shaggy of legs and arms, and a large plume of hair hung from either armpit. What with the darkness in the hold and the veritable bush on her artichoke, I could see considerably less of her female apparatus than I had seen of Zia Zulià's. (I could smell it, however, Malgarita being no more given to bathing than were any of the boat people.) I knew that I was expected to insert myself somewhere down there, but ...Wham! from the hull, and a yowl from the cat, further confounding me. In some perplexity, I began to feel about Malgarita's nether regions."Why are you playing with my pota?" she demanded, using the most vulgar word for that orifice.I laughed, no doubt shakily, and said, "I am trying to find the--er--your lumaghèta.""Whatever for? That is of no use to you. Here is what you want." She reached down one hand to spread herself and the other to guide me in. It was easily done, she was so well reamed.Wham! Squawl!"Clumsy, you jerked it out again!" she said peevishly, and did some brisk rearranging.I lay there for a moment, trying to ignore her piggishness and her aroma and the dismal surroundings, trying to enjoy the unfamiliar, warm, moist cavity in which I was loosely clasped."Well, get on with it," she whined. "I have not yet peed this morning."I commenced to bounce as I had seen Michièl do, but, before I could get fairly started, the barge hold seemed to darken still more before my eyes. Though I tried to restrain and savor it, my spruzzo gushed unbidden and without any sensation of pleasure whatever.Wham! Yee-oww!"Oh, che braga! What a lot of it!" Malgarita said disgustedly. "My legs will be sticking together all day. All right, get off, you fool, so I can jump!""What?" I said groggily.She wriggled out from under me, stood up, and took a jump backward. She jumped forward, then backward again, and the whole barge rocked. "Make me laugh!" she commanded, between jumps."What?" I said."Tell me a funny story! There, that was seven jumps. I said make me laugh, marcolfo! Or would you rather make a baby?""What?""Oh, never mind. I will sneeze instead." She grabbed a lock of her hair, stuck the frowzy ends of it up one of her nostrils, and sneezed explosively.Wham! Rowr-rr-rrr ... The cat's complaint died off as, evidently, the cat died, too. I could hear the boys squabbling about what to do with the carcass. Ubaldo wanted to throw it in onto me and Malgarita, Daniele wanted to throw it in some Jew's shop door."I hope I have jarred it all out," said Malgarita, wiping at her thighs with one of her bed rags. She dropped the rag back on her pallet, moved to the opposite side of the hold, squatted down and began copiously to urinate. I waited, thinking that one of us ought to say something more. But finally I decided that her morning bladder was inexhaustible, and so crept out of the barge the way I had come in."Sana capàna!" shouted Ubaldo, as if I had just then joined the company. "How was it?"I gave him the jaded smile of a man of the world. All the boys whooped and hooted good-naturedly, and Daniele called, "My sister is good, yes, but my mother is better!"Doris was nowhere about, and I was glad I did not have to meet her eyes. I had made my first journey of discovery--a short foray toward manhood--but I was not disposed to preen myself on that accomplishment. I felt dirty and I was sure I smelled of Malgarita. I wished I had listened to Doris and not done it. If that was all there was to being a man, and doing it with a woman, well, I had done it. From now on, I was entitled to swagger as brashly as any of the other boys, and swaggerI would. But I was privately determining, all over again, to be kind to Zia Zulià. I would not tease her about what I had found in her room, or despise her, or tell on her, or wrest concessions with the threat of telling. I was sorry for her. If I felt soiled and wretched after my experience with a mere boat girl, how much more miserable my nena must feel, having no one willing to do it with her but a contemptible black man.However, I was to have no opportunity to demonstrate my noble-mindedness. I got home again to find all the other servants in a turmoil, because Zulià and Michièl had disappeared during the night.The sbiri had already been called in by Maistro Attilio, and those police apes were making conjectures typical of them: that Michièl had forcibly abducted Zulià in his batèlo, or that the two of them had for some reason gone out in the boat in the night, overturned it, and drowned. So the sbiri were going to ask the fishermen on the seaward side of Venice to keep a close eye on their hooks and nets, and the peasants on the Vèneto mainland to keep a lookout for a black boatman conveying a captive white damsel. But then they thought to investigate the canal right outside the Ca' Polo, and there lay the batèlo innocently moored to its post, so the sbiri scratched their heads for new theories. In any event, if they could have caught Michièl even without the woman, they would have had the pleasure of executing him. A runaway slave is ipso facto a thief, in that he steals his master's property: his own living self.I kept silent about what I knew. I was convinced that Michièl and Zulià, alarmed by my discovery of their sordid connection, had eloped together. Anyway, they were never apprehended and never heard from again. So they must have made their way to some back corner of the world, like his native Nubia or her native Bohemia, where they could live squalidly ever after.


Excerpted from The Journeyer by Gary Jennings Copyright © 2010 by Gary Jennings. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 38 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2011

    Awesome read!

    In print, it was over 1,000 pages long. When I finished, I was sad that there wasn't more!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2006

    I totally AGREE - AWSOME BOOK!

    I've read this book twice and I will read it again in the future! Very exciting and realistic.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2013

    NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART!!!! This book is enthralling. It ri

    NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART!!!! This book is enthralling. It rivals Aztec in its remarkable story of a real person in a fictitious biography. It will lift you up and drop you like a hot potato. Beware. There are no safe characters, and avoid snacks while reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 4, 2011

    Almost Perfect

    Not quite Aztec, but not far off.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2001

    Simply the BEST!!!

    Hard to believe that Mr. Gary Jennings was not actually present with Marco Polo during his adventure. Amazing writing...

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2000


    it is one of the best books i have ever read everybody would enjoy it. gary jennings writes as good as stephen king.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2012

    Excellent research, awful style

    This novel was highly rated. I had also read Aztec so I presumed I'd enjoy the book. Little did I expect that the style would be so anachronistic. The narration is much like that of The Arabian Nights as originally written and translated. I suppose that was Jennings's intention, but it didn't work for me. I felt like I was being forced to read some ancient text for a lit class. In Aztec, the narrator shared his humanity; I could relate to him. Not here. I couldn't make it past the first 100 pages. What a disappointment.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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