Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape and they will prefer death to flight. — Sun Tzu

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo's Return

Marco was very reluctant to leave Kinsai. Every day that he tarried there, he saw something new and curious; he thought it a far more interesting city than Kambalu. Attended by one or two of the Tartars who had accompanied him on his journey, and by an old merchant whom he had attached to him, he went about the streets, marvelling at the vastness of the place and its population, at the immense collection of goods displayed in the warehouses and shops, and especially at the great public works, comforts and conveniences, which gave evidence of a civilization in many respects as high as that of Europe itself.

He found ten or twelve vast squares, half a mile long, succeeding each other in regular order and in a straight line, from one end of the city to the other. On these squares were lofty warehouses, filled to overflowing with goods from India and Arabia, from Africa, Java and Ceylon. Parallel to this series of squares ran a broad canal, crossed, at the intersection of the streets, by dainty little bridges; and on either side of the canal, rows of stone warehouses. There were certain days in the week when these business quarters were thronged by thousands of merchants from every Eastern clime, and in all the picturesque costumes of the Orient.

In the markets Marco saw the greatest variety of game and fruit. There were partridges and pheasants, fowl, ducks and geese. On the stalls of the fruiterers were immense pears, some of which seemed to Marco to weigh ten pounds, and which were delicious to eat large luscious peaches, yellow and white and grapes of many hues and flavors.

Each avocation, rank and profession of the people seemed to have a quarter of its own in which to reside. In one quarter lived, in spacious mansions often richly frescoed on the exterior, the prosperous merchants. There were streets on which you could find no one but astrologers and seers; others devoted to doctors and teachers; yet others where all the residents were artisans. Many of the wealthier mansions had lovely gardens, with marble fountains and blooming flower beds attached to them. The interiors displayed very rich carvings, and luxurious furniture.

The lake which has been spoken of, where the wedding parties of the rich and noble were held, was full of pretty barges with banners and streamers, which, on pleasant afternoons, fairly dotted its placid waters, crowded with gay pleasure-seekers. They were pushed along by means of long poles; and each barge had its elegantly fitted cabin, with every arrangement for eating and drinking. Sailing in these barges was, indeed, the favorite amusement of the people after the labors of the day were over. Another pastime was driving along the spacious shady avenues in their handsome carriages, which were long, covered at the top, and supplied with elegant silk curtains and cushions. No European dame, however high her degree, would have disdained to ride in one of these luxurious conveyances.

Indeed, Marco found that the people of Kinsai liked very much the same recreations as did the Venetians. What with boating, driving, and sauntering in beautiful gardens, where they drank tea and listened to music, their habits of pleasure closely resembled those of his own countrymen.

The people themselves seemed to him not only highly civilized, but very amiable and agreeable. They lived peaceably, and seemed to hate disturbance and war; and the only class generally disliked in the city were the royal guard placed there by the khan, who kept careful watch over the walls and the palace, and also acted as policemen. The people did not even go armed, and seemed to have but little knowledge of the use of warlike weapons. Their business dealings with each other were frank and honest, and they treated each other with a familiar courtesy very pleasing to see. The men held their wives in high respect and confided implicitly in them and all strangers who, came to Kinsai were received with the most generous and genial hospitality.

Ruling over Kinsai, before the conquest of the khan, had been a native king, named Facfur He lived in gorgeous style in the palace, and had had everything for his enjoyment that heart could wish. In the inner part of the palace, beyond the sight of men, and most jealously guarded, were ten courts which contained fifty beautifully fitted apartments, and which were reached by a long, dark corridor. These apartments were occupied by a thousand beautiful girls, who were the king's slaves, and whom he daily visited. Beyond this seraglio was a lake, on the banks of which were pretty groves, orchards, and enclosures; and to this spot the king, with his multitude of lovely damsels often repaired, sometimes driving with them in carriages, at other times on horseback. The groves were full of deer, antelopes and rabbits, and the damsels joined their master in the hunt with great zest and skill. Sometimes breakfast or dinner was spread beneath the wide spreading trees of the grove, and the king and his seraglio enjoyed their meals in the open air.

But all this had passed away when Marco was at Kinsai; for some years before Kublai Khan had besieged and taken the city, and had driven Facfur from the throne of his ancestors, and now the palace and its pleasure grounds were fast falling into decay. Instead of their king, the people were ruled over by a Tartar governor sent by the khan and peaceably as they were disposed, they were far from contented with the dominion of a foreign despot.

Marco, however, was treated with kindness as long as he stayed, though the envoy of the khan; and at last, having accomplished his mission there, departed with his train, being followed beyond the walls by the governor and a great concourse of the people.

Continuing his journey, Marco passed through many thriving cities and pretty towns, which favorably impressed him with the value of this part of the khan's dominions, all of which had been acquired by conquest. The inhabitants were no longer Tartars, but almond-eyed Chinese; and Marco gazed upon them, with their yellow skins, their long pig-tails, their little shoes and loose dress, with much interest.

Everywhere the people seemed a most peaceful, harmless, industrious race until Marco came to a place called Fugui, where the inhabitants were rude and ferocious, and lived apart from all the surrounding population, They were always fighting, and when they went to war, they cut their hair close to their heads, and painted their faces a deep blue, which gave them a horrible, ghastly expression. They always fought on foot, the only mounted person in the army being its chief. The prisoners they took they cooked and ate, and seemed to exceedingly relish this human food. Marco stayed in this place as short a time as possible for his escort was not a large one, and the natives were so hostile to the rule of the khan, that he feared they might suddenly attack him.

It was time for Marco to think of returning to the khan's court, and reporting the result of his errand to the western provinces. As he reflected on all that he had seen and heard, he could not but be astounded at the wonderful civilization, riches, and activity of these far Eastern peoples, of which Europe had scarcely heard, and certainly of whose great skill in the arts and industries Europeans had not the faintest idea. He cast his eyes into the future, and foresaw the time when all these marvels would become known to the Western world; he pictured to himself the immense trade which would grow up between the West and the East—what luxuries, comforts and adornments Europe would sooner or later derive from Asia. In his heart he was glad that he had seen all these things, and that, when he returned to Venice, he should have so thrilling a story to tell.

He took the journey back to Kambalu leisurely, pursuing much the same route as that by which he had come, and meeting with many adventures on the way. He encountered the same perils and witnessed the same wild sports, as those of his outward progress; loitered in the pleasant places, and hurried through those the memory of which was not agreeable, or the dangers of which were to be avoided.

More than a year had passed since his settings out, when, one cloudy morning, the domes and roofs of Kambalu once more met his view. He was not sorry to see them, for he should embrace his father and uncle once more, and he had news for the khan which could not fail to please his royal friend. A messenger, gone on before, had carried the tidings of his return and when he was within a few miles of the city, he was met by his father and uncle, who had galloped out on horseback to greet him. Father and son leaped off their steeds, and were locked in each other's fond embrace. They eagerly questioned each other as to what had happened while they had parted Nicolo remarked how stalwart, brown and sinewy Marco had grown, and how long his beard was; and Marco perceived that his father bore more wrinkles, and that his hair was more plentifully sprinkled with streaks of gray.

The khan's welcome of his faithful envoy was most cordial. He warmly embraced him, and heard his account of at he had seen and done with emphatic tokens of his pleasure. That night a noble feast was held in the great hall of the palace in honor of the wanderer's return, after which the khan ordered his jugglers and clowns to perform their most perilous and amusing feats for the entertainment of the court.

Marco now enjoyed a long period of repose from his wanderings. He found himself more firmly fixed than ever in the khan's favor, and that his position at court was more privileged and prominent than before. But having had a taste of adventure, he soon wearied of the luxurious indolence and ease that marked life at the palace; and when the khan proposed another expedition to him, he eagerly caught at the chance for a more stirring career.

Thus it came about that Marco often went on embassies to distant parts of the monarch's dominions. Sometimes he was accompanied by his father and uncle; sometimes they went, while he staid at home. After a time, he was oftener on his travels than idly loitering about the court. He became acquainted with all the khan's provinces, even the remotest and was soon known and honored by all the governors and vassal kings who were subject to the khan, and even by the populations of the cities and towns.

Happily for the world, Marco had a wonderfully good memory and he took care to make notes of the curious things he observed, So that years after, when he was cast into prison (as we shall find), he was able to give a full narrative of all that he had seen and all that had befallen him in the romantic East.

The khan was pursuing his military operations all the time that the Polos were at his court. He was a warlike potentate, loved the din of battle, and was insatiably ambitious of adding new territory to his already vast dominions. It was rarely that a neighbor whom he had resolved to subdue could withstand him for any length of time for so numerous and well-appointed were his armies, such was his own skill and perseverance, and such was the fierce courage of his troops that he was well nigh irresistible.

There was one large and prosperous city on the western borders of his empire, however, which defied every assault that he could make upon it. It was a valuable prize, for it was not only a good military stronghold, but also a seat of busy manufacture and highly profitable arts. To subdue this city would be to add largely to the khan's revenues; but to this advantage he was more indifferent than to the others it possessed. He would also acquire a most thrifty population, a stout defence against his enemies beyond, and a large addition to his armies. Besides, Kublai Khan was unwilling that any foreign city should rival his own in power and prosperity; he wished to rule supreme in Asia.

For three years this brave city, the name of which was Sayanfu, had held out against the imperial forces, though the khan had sent a mighty army to besiege it. The army could only approach it on one side, because on every other side the city was bounded by a wide lake. Across this lake came the provisions which enabled the garrison to hold out. The khan's troops were therefore obliged to give up the siege, and return to Cathay,

This discomfiture irritated the khan, whose will was seldom thwarted in anything he undertook and he became morose and despondent. Not long after the return of the troops, Marco Polo sought an audience of the khan and having been admitted to his presence, as he always was freely when he asked it, addressed the downcast monarch as follows:

"Sire, I think, if you will intrust an expedition against Sayanfu to my father, my uncle and myself, we can subdue the city, and deliver it into your hands."

The khan looked up surprised, and a new hope glowed in his eyes. He had unlimited confidence in the wisdom and capacity of the Polos, and Marco's words at once, aroused him from his gloom.

"And how will you do this, Venetian, when my greatest generals and braves troops have failed?"

"We will assail the walls, sire, and batter them down. We have certain skilful men in our train. One of them, a German and a Christian, can build a powerful engine which no wall can resist and other engines, which will hurl enormous stones to a great distance, and will thus bring the city to terms."

"Go speedily, then," cried the khan; "take such troops as you choose, and assume their command. Once more lay siege to this audacious city; and if you can take it with your engines, my gratitude will be boundless."

The Polos started forth with a numerous force. The German and his companions were as good as Marco's word. The march was a long and dreary one; but both the Polos and the cohorts they commanded were used to hard tramping, and in a shorter time than might be believed found themselves confronting the frowning walls of Sayanfu. The machines made by the German and transported to the scene of action were soon placed in position and ere long the people of Sayanfu found their houses pelted with huge rocks, which came crashing through the roofs and spreading devastation in the streets. At the same time great battering-rams were brought near the walls, and being set in motion, made terrible breaches in them. This was a kind of warfare which the people of Sayanfu had never before seem They soon became panic-stricken, and began to clamor to their governor and generals to give up the city. The chiefs met in council; meanwhile building after building was falling headlong, crushed by the missiles of the Tartars. At last, it was resolved to send out messengers to plead for terms of peace.

The Polos received the envoys in their camp. They told them that there was only one condition on which they would cease bombarding the city. This was that it should submit to the dominion of the khan. There was no time to waste in parleying. The harsh terms were agreed to, and the Tartar army entered Sayanfu in triumph, and took possession of it in the name of their sovereign.

Their return to Kambalu was signalized by the wildest rejoicings. The khan was beside himself with delight, and showered honors and gifts upon the Venetians, who had so valiantly succeeded where his oldest and ablest generals had failed.

The triumph of the Polos, however, gave rise to much jealousy on the part of these generals, and other nobles of the khan's court and it was not long before Marco heard of a plot to entice himself, his father and his uncle, out of the city to a lonely spot, and there to murder them. He divulged this plot to the khan, who instantly banished those who were concerned in it and after that it was long before Marco heard of any further jealousy or ill will towards him and his kinsmen.

Many years had now elapsed since the arrival of the Polos in Cathay. Marco, amid all the excitements and luxury of his life there, had often sighed for home and the friends left behind, so long ago, in Venice. But when he or his father spoke to the khan of their desire to turn their steps westward towards Europe again, the swarthy potentate would not listen to such a thing. The Polos knew well that, if he had set his heart on their remaining, he could, if necessary, prevent their departure by force nor could they hope to escape secretly from his court and country. They were forced, therefore, to bide their time and await a favorable opportunity to return to Europe.

Meanwhile, Marco was destined to have many adventures, and see other peoples, as strange and interesting as those he had a ready visited. It was not long after their unsuccessful attempt to get away, that the khan sent him upon a longer and more interesting expedition than he had before undertaken.