The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo a Prisoner

Marco Polo had accepted Rusticiano's proposition, to dictate to him an account of his travels, with pleasure. It afforded a grateful relief from the monotony of prison life; and, besides, Marco well knew that the wonderful narrative would perpetuate his fame long after he himself was dead.

We may picture to ourselves the two men, seated on the rude chairs of their cell; Marco leaning against the wall, and leisurely recounting his adventures, while the grave Rusticiano slowly wrote at the table. Sometimes the scholar would stop and look at Marco with incredulous amazement, as he related some story that seemed to Rusticiano beyond belief, but Marco would nod his head emphatically, and assert that what he told was not half the truth. Then Rusticiano would quietly shrug his shoulders, and go on writing.

Thus sped quickly the hours, days, and weeks, The imprisonment of both seemed the shorter for this pleasant labor and Rusticiano was very careful, when the day's work was over, to deposit the precious manuscript where it would be safe.

Meanwhile, the rules of the prison were gradually relaxed in Marco's favor. He was allowed to roam about the gloomy old edifice pretty much as he pleased, and to take ample exercise in the courtyard. Gradually it became known in Genoa and the country round about, that a famous Venetian traveller occupied the prison, and then Marco began to receive many visits from the principal personages of the city. Crowds gathered at the prison gate to catch a glimpse of him; dames of noble rank sent him presents of books and rare wines. The carriages of noblemen jostled each other at the prison gates, as their occupants waited for an opportunity of talking with the traveller. The governor of the prison invited Marco and his companion Rusticiano, to dine at his table and finally, they were transferred to another cell which was large, well lighted and ventilated, and handsomely and luxuriously furnished while the food placed before them was as rich and various as that supplied to a nobleman's family.

The prisoners now lived in the greatest comfort. The walls were lined with book shelves; they slept on soft couches at night and, had it not been for the heavy bars across the windows, they would have scarcely known that they were prisoners at all. Every day their apartment—for it could no longer be called a cell—was thronged with visitors; and every little while Marco gave dinner's and suppers to his visitors, and made very merry with them. Months thus passed, not wholly without their pleasures and consolations. But Marco often grieved at his situation, and became impatient to regain his freedom. It seemed cruel that, no sooner had he found himself at home after his long sojourn in the east, he should have been captured and doomed to suffer exile and the grim slavery of dungeon walls. He longed to breathe once more the free air of Venice, to settle down among his kindred, and to reap the reward of all his toils, in the establishment of a family and the enjoyment of his well-earned riches. Yet there seemed no prospect of his captivity coming to an end. He knew that Venetians were often kept prisoners at Genoa for many years, and he saw no reason to hope that he would be set at liberty sooner than the rest.

One day, after he had been at Genoa about five months, Marco was sitting at his table with Rusticiano, reading, when the door of his room was thrown open, and two men entered. At first Marco did not recognize them; but when one of them advanced, and took off his cap, he saw that it was his father, Nicolo, and that his companion was Marco's brother, Maffeo. In a moment Marco was locked in his father's close embrace. The emotion of all three at meeting was so great, that for a while neither, could speak. At last Marco exclaimed:

"You have filled me with joy, father and brother, by coming to me! How did you venture into the territory of our enemies?"

"I could bear no longer the thought of your imprisonment," answered Nicolo, wiping his eyes; "and so I sought and procured the consent of the Genoese to come hither, and see you, my dear son, and to try to obtain your liberty."

"Alas, father," returned Marco, shaking his head mournfully, "I fear it will be of no avail. The Genoese treat me with the most generous kindness, but they have no idea of setting me free."

Nicolo groaned as he heard these words; but Maffeo with cheerful voice, said, "Do not despair, father. We come with the offer of a heavy ransom. Perhaps the Genoese will yield to a golden argument."

"We can but try," replied Nicolo. Then all three sat down, and began to talk of all that had happened to them since the time they had parted at Venice. Marco told his father and brother the history of his prison life, the indulgence shown him by his captors, and the consolation he had had in the friendship of the learned and warm-hearted Rusticiano. Of home news that Nicolo gave him in return, there was little that was interesting. This friend had married and that friend had died, but the course of life at their own home had gone smoothly on. Marco observed that his father was more bent, gray and feeble than when he had seen him last; and knew that grief at his own misfortunes was, in part at least, the cause of Nicolo's altered appearance.

The effort to secure his liberty proved, as Marco had predicted, unsuccessful. In vain Nicolo offered the Genoese a large sum as a ransom they refused to think of setting Marco free. But Nicolo at least procured one privilege for his son. The government consented that Marco should be released froth prison, and live as he pleased in the city, on condition that he would give his word of honor that he would not attempt to escape from it.

Nicolo hastened to the prison with the news of this fresh favor, and Marco was delighted at least to bid adieu to the gloomy walls which had so long confined him. His effects were soon packed, and he took up his residence in one of the best inns in Genoa. He parted from Rusticiano with much regret, and promised that he would come to the prison very often and see him, and would try to procure the same favor for his friend that he himself had just secured. This he soon after succeeded in accomplishing.

It was with keen sorrow that Marco parted from his father and brother. It seemed very doubtful whether he should ever see Nicolo again; he himself might be kept at Genoa for the rest of his life and he felt very unhappy to be left behind, while his father and brother were free to return to Venice.

But in his new situation Marco soon recovered his buoyant spirits. No longer treated as a prisoner, he lived like a Genoese gentleman, and had as his friends and companions men of wealth and rank. Wherever he went he was treated with great honor and respect. He was invited to all the fashionable balls and fetes, and often attended them and with his ample means, was able to indulge his desires and tastes as he pleased.

It has already been said that, before leaving the court of the great khan, Marco had made up his mind that on reaching home, he would marry, and rear a family of children. His departure for the war had postponed the execution of this design, and now there seemed no prospect that he could carry it out. He desired to perpetuate his name, family, and property yet now, when he was over forty years old, he found himself still a bachelor.

But though Marco could not, situated as he was, think of marriage, his father Nicolo had not experienced the same difficulty; for, old as he was, Nicolo, some time before Marco had been taken prisoner, had taken to himself a new wife. Marco's new step-mother was considerably younger than himself; and he was rejoiced to think that now, in all probability, the family name and fame was in no danger of dying out.

In course of time the news came to him of the birth of a little step-brother and Marco was greatly amused to think of being the brother at over forty, of a little fellow just come into the world. Then he heard the sad intelligence that his father Nicolo had suddenly died, leaving his young widow and child. Marco grieved much that he could not have been at the old man's bedside in his last hours. He sent word to Venice that a splendid tomb should be erected in Nicolo's honored memory, in the Church of San Lorenzo, at his own expense. This tomb, consisting of a sarcophagus of solid stone, upon which was engraved the coat-of-arms of the Polos, long stood under the portico of that venerable edifice.

The quarrel between Venice and Genoa, which had now lasted for many years, and still continued, was the cause why Marco and his comrades in the war were yet retained a prisoner . Many attempts had been made to bring about peace between the rival cities, each of whom proudly claimed to be queen of the sea. After Marco bad been at Gen about a year, he heard one day with great delight that the Prince of Milan had become a mediator between the two foes, and was making every effort to induce them to come to terms. Both Venice and Genoa, indeed, were tired of the long strife, which had not resulted in any very important gain on either side and the Prince of Milan did not find it very difficult to make them listen to reason. Envoys from Venice anti Genoa went to Milan, and after they had talked the matter over with each other, finally agreed upon terms of peace. Among these terms were, that when the treaty was signed the prisoners on both sides should be released and returned to their homes. In due time the news came that the doge of Venice and duke of Genoa had both signed the treaty, and that the two cities were friends again.

Marco was entertaining a number of friends at supper when it was announced to him that he was a last free to return o Venice, Among his guests were some Venetians, who like himself were prisoners, and who had been allowed to reside outside the prison walls. These rose from the table and, with tears in their eyes, embraced each other and Marco. The Genoese gentlemen who were present exclaimed that now the Venetians were their brothers, and a scene of great hilarity and. rejoicing followed, and was continued far into the night.

But Marco, though free, was not a lowed to depart at once. His many Genoese friends, who had already become strongly attached to him, insisted that he should attend the banquets and fetes which were to celebrate the return of peace, and some of which were to be given in his own honor. The duke of Genoa invited all the high nobility of the "City of Palaces" to his own palace, where night was turned into day by gorgeous illuminations, and from whose towers floated the flags of the sister cities between whom concord once more reigned. Among the brilliant throng, Marco's stalwart form and handsome face were conspicuous, and everywhere he went he was surrounded by admiring groups. The duke himself invited Marco to walk beside him to the banqueting hall, where he was placed at the sovereign's right hand. At the dukes fete, too, were very many of the gallant Venetians who had fought with Marco at Curzola, and had since shared his captivity.

Now that friendship was restored between the two cities, the Genoese were resolved to treat their late prisoners with all honor and attention. A fleet of galleys was ordered to anchor in the picturesque bay, for the purpose of transporting the Venetians home. These were fitted up with every luxury and comfort that the voyage might be as pleasant as possible and a store of provisions was stored away in them, comprising good things enough to supply the travellers with bounteous meals throughout the transit.

Before Marco took his departure, he paid a visit to his old prison comrade, the worthy Rusticiano. Rusticiano was still a prisoner, though Genoa had just made peace with Pisa, and he was looking forward to a speedy release. The interview between the two friends was therefore a very happy one and Marco made Rusticiano promise that, ere long, he would pay him a visit in Venice.

On a hot morning in the midsummer of 1299 the Venetians embarked on the galleys, homeward bound. A vast crowd of Genoese thronged the quays to see them off and bid them God speed on their voyage. Marco, on reaching the scene of departure, was almost suffocated by the warm reception given him by his Genoese friends. They pressed close around him and embraced him, and would scarcely let him go to proceed on board his galley.

At last he found himself standing upon the deck, and gazing for the last time at the noble and stately city which had dealt so gently with him as a captive, and where, in spite of his captivity, he had formed so many pleasant ties and passed so many happy hours. The signal was given the fleet of galleys, gay with flags and pennons, and alive with the quick movements of the many long oars, glided away from the quays; the multitude on shore gave a great shout of farewell, the Genoese ladies waving their veils, and the men their plumed hats; and soon the vineclad eminences and long lines of palaces disappeared from view.

Meanwhile word had gone to Venice that the prisoners had been released, and were on their way home by sea. Immediately the city was thrown into a great commotion. It was resolved that the heroes of Curzola should have a reception worthy of their bravery and their misfortunes; and every preparation was made to greet them with the most distinguished honors. Among the prisoners, who numbered more than a thousand, were many Venetian youths of noble birth, the hopes of haughty houses, the beloved of many a fair damsel of rank and beauty. It seemed, indeed, as if there were scarcely a noble family in Venice who had not been bereft of a son in the heroic but disastrous sea-fight.

Had there been powder in these times, no doubt the cannon would have boomed forth a deafening roar of boisterous welcome as, on the misty August afternoon, the fleet of Genoese galleys made its appearance in the Gulf of Venice. As it was, the whole city seemed fluttering with flags and banners; from the doge's palace and the lofty Campanile, from the Byzantine domes and pinnacles of St. Mark's, from the spires of churches and the summits of bell towers, waved innumerable standards, bearing the national device of the winged lion. Towards the quays, ever balcony of the ducal palace and the council houses, the palaces of the proud nobles of Venice, and the terraces on the edge of the grand canal, were thronged with a gay and excited multitude. The doge himself, with his long, pointed cap, his rich robes sweeping the ground, and his white beard flowing over his breast, stood, surrounded by his brilliant court, on the quay in front of his palace; while on every side of the square was drawn up the flower of the Venetian army, the lancers and crossbow-men being conspicuous. In the bay and canal, countless gondolas awaited the arrival. As the fleet of galleys came nearer, they were greeted by the long and loud applause of the multitude on shore; and it was with difficulty that the soldiers prevented the crowd from invading the quay where the prisoners were to land. At last the galleys were safely moored, The oarsmen raised their oars, and held them upright in long lines along the decks. Then the prisoners, in groups of twos and threes, advanced up the planks, and sprang on shore. First they advanced to the doge, who welcomed them with cordial words of affection and praise. Then each sought his parents, sweethearts or friends, in the swaying crowd or on the overflowing balconies.

Marco soon found himself in the arms of his brother and uncle while other relatives and friends huddled excitedly around him. They talked to each other rapidly and earnestly; and as soon as they could make their way through the crowd, they hastened across the square of St. Mark, and taking a gondola, were soon speeding towards the street of San Giovanni Chrysostomo. The retainers of the household were waiting in a group in front of the "Court of the Millions" to welcome their master home; and as he landed from the gondola, formed in a line on either side, and bowed low while he passed, with brother and friends, through the archway.

That night, as may well be believed, there were sounds of revelry and rejoicing in the spacious mansion of the Polos. Marco thought of his return, with his father and uncle, from Cathay: and could not restrain himself from shedding a tear when he saw his father's vacant seat at the groaning board. He was now to take the old man's place; his voyages, travels and adventures over, he would henceforth live quietly at home, and devote himself to the service of his family and of the state, reaping the reward of the perils he had passed and the fame he had won.