Six or seven hundred years ago, Venice was the largest, richest and gayest city of Europe. Along her canals stood marble palaces, where proud noblemen and rich merchants lived. Her warehouses were packed with merchandise from the East, her markets were full of traders from all countries and speaking all languages, and her bay was crowded with ships whose sails had been spread on all seas. Venice was queen of the Adriatic Sea.
There was always talk of the far country to the East, from which caravans had brought rare silks, perfumes and spices. Eastern traders, coming half-way to meet the Western merchants, had told marvelous tales of cities paved with gold, of gardens heavy with spices, of courts and kings so splendid that the eye was dazzled and the mind lost in wonder. It was a fairy tale of China that grew in the telling.
There was a wealthy family in Venice named Polo. They lived in a palace on one of the canals, stately and imposing, full of servants to do their bidding, and friends to help them make merry with the wealth that had come to them by inheritance and industry. But for many years it had been quiet, and tenanted only by a few members of the family. The servants still cared for it, and a few rooms were still occupied, but for the most part it was closed and silent.
The fact was that, for twenty years, the master of the home, Nicolo Polo, his brother, Maffeo, and his son, Marco Polo, had been traveling in the East, and not a word had been heard of them, nor a letter received from them in all this time. "They are dead, sir," was the answer the servants gave to all questions. "They left here many years ago, saying they were going to China, but we heard they were killed by a band of robbers somewhere in the East."
This was not the first trip that Nicolo and Maffeo Polo had made to China, for years before they had ventured into that strange country, and on their return had decided to go back, taking Marco, a lad of seventeen years of age, with them. This second adventure is the one with which our story deals, for it lasted a long time, and their friends, relatives, and servants thought that they were all lost.
And so the years had passed, the servants had grown old, some friends had died, and Venice had grown larger and more powerful. The palace of the Polos stood almost vacant and its former splendor almost forgotten.
One day, however, three rough-looking men landed from a galley that was moored at the quay, and walked across the square of St. Mark. Their clothes were rough and shabby, and were of Tartar make. In fact, they looked as if they might be Tartars. The two older men wore long pointed caps and coats that reached to the ground. About their waists were belts, from which hung scimitars, such as the Tartars use. One of them led by a chain a great shaggy dog that he had brought from Tartary.
The youngest of the three was about forty years of age, but he, also, wore the outlandish costume of some oriental race, and, like the others, was tanned by exposure, until he was the color of the savage tribes that live upon the wilds of Asia. All three wore long beards and their hair fell in tangled heaps over their shoulders.
The two older men were Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, and the younger man was Marco Polo. They had returned unannounced to Venice, after an absence of twenty years. They presented a queer sight as they tramped across the square and the people turned and looked at them in astonishment.
Not far from the square, they took a gondola, and tried to tell the gondolier to take them to Nicolo Polo's house. They had almost forgotten their own Italian tongue, and it was with much difficulty that they could gather together enough words to make themselves understood. For twenty years they had spoken in the language of the Tartars. It did not take long, however, for the gondolier to land them at the steps of their own palace.
There was the same old house as they remembered it, stately and beautiful as ever, with its carved doors, its beautiful arches, looking just as it did twenty years before, when the same three travelers had left it amid the farewells of their family and friends. A group of curious neighbors gathered around the strange men, staring at them with all their might.
Marco knocked loudly at the portal. At first there was no response, but after awhile a servant leaned out the window and demanded, "Who are you, and what do you want?"
Marco answered, "We are the masters of this house, and we demand admission. Come down and unbar the door."
At this unheard-of assertion the servants laughed, and called out, "Away, you impostors! Leave the place at once, or we shall call an officer of the law. The masters of this palace are dead, and their relatives are away on a hunt."
The three travelers were forced to find lodgings at a near-by inn for the night, though they did not hesitate to announce to everyone that they were the three Polos, who had been away for twenty years and had now returned to give an account of their wanderings.
In order to prove they were really what they pretended to be, the three Polos persuaded the servants at the palace to allow them to give a great feast and invite their friends to it. On the night of the banquet, the Polos sent around to the palace a number of boxes, which were carefully stored in one of the rooms, and plenty of money to pay for all the food and wine.
The guests came, with some misgivings of the outcome. The banquet was a very grand affair; nothing better could be prepared or served in all Venice. Instead of appearing in the ragged clothes that they had been wearing, the Polos had completely changed their costume and appearance. They wore now the richest silks and velvets that any one ever saw, and jewels sparkled on their fingers and shoe buckles. Their hair and beards had been cut in the latest style of Venice, and their manners had become those of real noblemen, and besides that, their native language had fully returned in a few days' practice.
In the midst of the banquet Marco Polo arose and said, "My friends, you once doubted that we really were what we claimed to be. Twenty years ago we left Venice, and since that time we have traveled far and have seen many wonders of the world. We returned to you in the garb of Tartars, but we have brought with us the riches of China. We concealed our treasures, for fear of robbers on the way. It now remains for us to prove to you that we are not beggars."
Saying this, he left the room, and soon returned, bringing with him the old shabby Tartar clothes in which the three had made their appearance in Venice. He then began to rip open the seams of the long coats as they lay upon the table. Out from the seams rolled a number of beautiful diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and other precious stones. Every seam was ripped open and revealed its treasures, until there was a dazzling heap on the table.
The company was amazed at all this wealth, and also at the wonderful silks and other cloths which Marco Polo showed, from the boxes he had stored in the room of the palace. There was no longer any doubt of the identity of the three men. They were indeed Nicolo, Maffeo and Marco Polo, who had returned to their home after so many years of wandering. The company was convinced that it was so, and the Polos settled again in their old palace, amid the wealth and luxury which were justly theirs.
The story of the adventures of Marco Polo was a wonder story that never tired the Venetians, who listened to him with ever increasing delight. "It took us nearly four years to reach the lands of the great Khan, a ruler of China, and we passed through many strange lands on our way. We went through Palestine and Arabia, and stayed awhile in the city of Bagdad. Then we wandered through Persia and Turkestan, seeing many singular people and gorgeous shows, and having perilous escapes from bandits and accidents. We walked most of the way, and by no means were in a hurry, for it takes a long time to see the world," said Marco to those around him one day.
"And what are the Chinese like?" asked the Venetians.
"They are a quiet, busy, civilized people, most of whom are farmers. They are short in stature, with squint eyes, high cheek bones, with hair worn in a long braid down the back, and of a peculiar yellow complexion," answered Marco, for up to that time the Venetians had never seen a Chinaman. "They wear a long, loose coat, embroidered in rich designs, odd little cloth shoes, and hats with broad brims and the crown coming up to a point." From which we see that the Chinese a thousand years ago, in Polo's time, were very much in appearance and dress as they are to-day.
Then he told them of the gorgeous temples, covered inside and out with ornaments, and containing huge idols, before which the Chinese knelt and burned a strange incense; of the strange houses they lived in, of beautiful and curious design; of the little shops where carvings and curiosities were sold; of the great rice fields, where the grain was raised that furnished the main food for the people. Of all this Marco spoke in glowing terms, telling many interesting facts about his life with the strange people of the East.
"The ruler's name is Kublai Khan," continued he, "and he lives in the most wonderful palace in the world, with hunting grounds many hundreds of miles in extent, with thousands of attendants to do his bidding."
Then Marco told how he gained the favor of the Khan, who sent him on several important missions to various parts of China. He was a trusted envoy of the great Chinese ruler, and visited many strange lands and had many adventures. He finally rose to a position of importance and was once the governor of a great Chinese city.
Finally the Polos decided to return to Venice, but the Khan had grown so fond of them, particularly of Marco, that he did not wish them to leave him. In fact, he told them positively not to leave the kingdom and to make no more requests to depart.
After a great hunting party in the North, when the Khan had returned to his capital, he found an envoy from the court of Persia, asking the Khan to select one of the fairest and noblest of his subjects to be the wife of the Persian king. After much ceremony and many weeks of entertainment for the ambassadors, a beautiful young girl was selected, loaded with presents and made ready for the journey. The ambassadors from Persia, on their departure, approached the Khan and, bowing low, said in humble tones, "Most noble sir, we have learned to love the three Venetians now in your employ, who greatly desire to accompany us to Persia, as escort for the lady who is to be the wife of our sovereign; we pray you to send them with her, since she also wishes it."
The Khan frowned, but could find no excuse for not allowing the Polos to go. So he gave his consent, and even agreed that they should return to Venice. He filled their bags with rare clothing and jewels, and wept on the day of their departure.
Thus it was that the Polos told the story of how they had lived in and finally left China, after many years' wandering over that empire. Years afterward Marco had all his adventures set down in a book, written by a friend of his, when they were both in prison in Genoa, after being captured in a great sea fight between the Venetian and Genoese fleets. The book was copied and read by many people, and nearly two hundred years afterward, fell into the hands of Christopher Columbus, whose desire to reach India and China was greatly enhanced by reading the wonderful adventures of this Prince of Travelers.