M ARCO POLO—for the reader has already guessed that the elder of the two boys who had welcomed their father home was Marco Polo—was born amid surroundings of wealth and luxury. His family was a noble one, and held high rank in Venice. His father, Nicolo, before he made his memorable journey to the court of Kublai Khan, had both inherited and amassed riches. Marco suffered in early life none of those privations which have hardened so many great travellers and discoverers, and have accustomed them to lives of peril and rough adventure. From his most tender years, he had not known what it was to wish for anything beyond his reach. Fine clothes, plenty of playmates, petting, fond parents, all the pleasures enjoyed by the children of his time, were his.
Instead of going to school, he was taught at home by tutors and governesses; and happily his own tastes led him to find study interesting, so that he became a better scholar than most boys of his age. He especially loved history and narratives of adventure and discovery, and it was often difficult to persuade him to leave his books and go to bed. He was fond, too, of geography, and was wont to puzzle for hours over such rude maps and charts as he could lay his hands on; though at that period, the maps and charts in existence were but few, and represented but here and there patches of the world.
Marco Surveying the Charts
The Polo family lived all together in the great mansion that has been described. Marco's uncle, whose name also was Marco, was the eldest brother, and when Nicolo and Maffeo went on their travels, remained in Venice to retain charge of the important trading-house which they carried on in common. This elder Marco was a kindly, though rather proud and stately man; and while he treated his little nephews, deprived as they were both of father and mother, with gentleness, he kept a close watch upon their habits and conduct. As the phrase is, he "brought them up well;" and once in a great while, when young Marco's high spirits betrayed him into wild pranks, his uncle would shut him up in one of the remote rooms of the house. On this occasion the little fellow would beg, as a special favor, that one of his books might keep him company, and when his uncle refused this, the punishment he inflicted was indeed a severe one.
Besides their uncle, Marco and young Maffeo were left in the care of their aunt, the wife of that uncle who had gone away with their father; and their daily companions were their two cousins, the daughters of this aunt, not far from their own age. But their aunt was a fine lady of the doge's court, and was always going to balls, the theatre, or galas in the lagoon; and so they saw but little of her. Marco and his brother spent many happy hours in their gondolas, which they themselves learned to manage with skill; and once in a while as they grew older, their uncle took them with him on hunting expeditions on the mainland.
At this period, ferocious wars were continually going on between Venice and its great maritime rival, the republic of Genoa. Both struggled for the supremacy of Mediterranean commerce, and sought to gain as many military stations and fortresses as possible on the islands and seaboards of the Levant. In these wars, Venice up to this time had been generally successful; the time was, indeed, drawing near when the Genoese would become the conquerors; but it had not yet come.
It was one of Marco's chief delights to watch the brilliant arrays of troops as they were reviewed by the doge in the Piazza before leaving for the seat of conflict, and to haunt the quays and watch the preparations for departure of the quaint war-galleys of the age. He caught the martial spirit which was then in the air, and often longed to be old enough to go to the wars and fight under the proud flag of Venice; and thus came to have adventurous and military tastes. He was not destined to indulge these tastes for many years to come; but the time was, long after, to arrive, when he would engage in furious battle with his country's foes, and have a romantic and thrilling experience in the fortunes of war.
At the period of his father's return from Cathay, Marco, as has been said, was fifteen years of age, a bright, promising boy, intelligent beyond his age, and a great favorite with all who knew him. It may well be believed that he was delighted to see his father once more, after the lapse of so many years; and to hear from his lips the tale of his many and marvellous adventures in the East. Nicolo, on his side, was rejoiced to find his elder son grown up to be so vigorous and attractive a youth, and was extremely proud of him. He freely indulged Marco's desire to hear him recount his adventures; and used to sit talking with him for hours together. He soon perceived that Marco had a keen taste for a life of stirring adventure, and was far from displeased to make the discovery.
One day, when Nicolo had been at home for several months, he was chatting with Marco, and happened to say that he had given his promise to Kublai Khan to return to Cathay.
"And you will go, sir, will you not?" eagerly asked Marco. "You will keep your promise to the great king?"
"In truth, I know not," was the father's reply. "There are many things to keep me at home. These wars interfere much with our trade, and it needs all three of us brothers to be here to look after it. The journey to Cathay, too, is not only long and dreary, but dangerous. The man who goes thither, holds his life, every hour, in his hand. At any moment, a hidden enemy may despatch him before he can lift a weapon; or, he may be lost on the great deserts, and die of sheer thirst and starvation. Then, my son, how can I leave you and your brother again, for so long a time? It would be too hard to part from you; to be far away, and not able to watch you, as month by month you grow towards manhood. On the other hand, there are vast riches to be had in Cathay; and noble service to be done for our Holy Church, by once more venturing thither."
"But, father," replied Marco, grasping Nicolo's arm, "you need not leave me behind. I beg you to go, and to let me go with you! Surely I am old enough and big enough now to go anywhere. Think, sir, I shall be soon sixteen: why, that is almost a man. Look, I am almost as tall as you are now. I can handle a sword, javelin, and cross-bow as well as any boy of my age; I am strong and well, and can walk and ride with the stoutest. My uncle Maffeo said, the other day, I would make a fine soldier, young as I am. Pray, sir, let me go with you to Cathay!"
Nicolo smiled, and patted the eager boy's flushed cheek; but gently shook his head.
"You ask, dear Marco," said he, "what cannot be. What! Do you suppose I would risk your young life amid those fierce Tartar tribes, those frightful jungles, those dreary, trackless wastes? And even if you reached Cathay in safety, do you think I would trust you with that Eastern despot, Kublai Khan, who might take it into his wilful head to separate you from me, and keep you forever? No, no, Marco, I should not dare take you, even if I went."
Marco hung his head in deep disappointment. He had long had it in his heart to implore his father to let him return with him to Cathay; and now Nicolo's words chilled and grieved him. But he was not easily discouraged. In spite of his father's refusal, he resolved to leave no persuasion untried. Again and again he returned to the subject that absorbed his mind; but all his pleading might have been in vain, had it not been that a powerful ally took up his cause. This was his uncle Maffeo: who, besides admiring Marco greatly, said that the companionship of a brave and vigorous youth would be of great value to his brother and himself, in case they again crossed Asia, and that Marco might win the special friendship of Kublai Khan by his youth, lively spirits, and agreeable bearing.
In due time, the two brothers definitely made up their minds to fulfil their promise to the oriental monarch; and after many long and earnest talks, Nicolo filled his son's heart with joy by telling him that he might go with them.
Much remained to be done, however, before they set out. On arriving at Acre, returning from their first journey, the brothers Polo had borne in mind the message of Kublai Khan to the pope; and the first thing they did was to visit a famous Church dignitary who was staying there, named Tedaldo, archdeacon of Liége. This eminent man had no sooner heard their errand, than he astonished them very much by telling them that, just now, there was no pope at all, and that consequently, they could not deliver their message! Not long before their arrival, Pope Clement IV had died; and the cardinals had not yet been able to agree upon a successor. This vacancy in the papal chair was not, indeed, yet filled. The Polos, after having resolved to go again to Cathay, delayed their departure until a new pope should be chosen, so that he might send some missionaries with them, as Kublai Khan desired.
But they grew tired of waiting; for, after two years, the great council of the Church seemed no nearer electing a pope than at first; and the Polos made up their minds that they must return to Cathay, if at all, without the missionaries. Then the naval wars going on between Venice and Genoa made it for a while unsafe for Venetians to cross the Mediterranean to Syria, and this compelled another postponement of their plans. At last, however, a favorable opportunity occurred to traverse the sea to Acre, which as before was to be the starting-point of the travellers. A war-galley destined for that Asiatic town, then in the possession of Venice, was about to set forth; and by Nicolo's great influence at court, where he had been heartily welcomed back by the reigning doge, a passage was secured in her for all three.
Marco had scarcely slept since permission to go had been wrung from his reluctant father. He devoted himself ardently to the practise of the sword and the cross-bow; he was measured for two suits of clothes, fit for rough travelling; again and again he went over the proposed route, on such charts relating to it as his father had brought with him; and he constantly talked about the wonderful things he was about to see, and the many adventures he would undoubtedly meet with. Happily his younger brother, Maffeo, whose tastes were gentle and domestic, did not share his eagerness for a wandering life; and, well content to stay at home, was only distressed at the thought of the long absence of his father and of the brother who had been his constant companion.
On the eve of the day appointed for the departure of the travellers, the great house on the canal of San Giovanni Crisostomo was once more crowded with a numerous and brilliantly attired assemblage. Nicolo had resolved to give a bounteous parting feast to his family and friends; and the doge himself had consented to honor the feast with his presence. There was no family more honored and respected in Venice than the Polos; and the doge regarded Nicolo as one of the bravest and most estimable of his subjects.
The appearance of the guests was very different from that on the former occasion. The joyful welcome was replaced by the sad leave-taking. Little Maffeo's face was suffused with tears, which he in vain tried to repress; and the elder Marco looked grave and downcast. As for young Marco, his anticipations of the journey so excited him that he could scarcely think of grief, even at leaving his home and parting from his brother and kind kindred. His fair face was flushed with eager expectation, and he felt very proud of the brand-new sword which swung, for the first time, at his side. He felt himself already a man and a soldier, and never once thought of shrinking from the dangers of the tour. To him it was more like a holiday journey than a dangerous venture; and it seemed as if the morrow would never come.
At last the guests tearfully embraced the brothers and Marco, and one by one departed. The candles in the glittering candelabra were put out, and the house was left in darkness.
The sun had scarcely risen when Marco leaped from his bed, donned the suit which had been prepared for his setting out, and buckled on his sword; and while almost all the people of Venice were still wrapped in slumber, the travellers wended their way to the war-galley on the quay, and went on board.