Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle

A Strange Welcome

Marco and his party reached Trebizond in safety, having crossed the Armenian mountains, and seen with great interest still another phase of Oriental life. Trebizond was then a very thriving port of the Black Sea, and Marco was delighted when his eyes greeted, among the crowded shipping in the harbor, several vessels from which floated the once so familiar Venetian flag. There were also Cossack, Circassian, Greek and Moorish vessels, each with its peculiar and striking characteristics.

It was not long before an opportunity occurred of procuring a passage across the Black Sea to Constantinople and the weary travellers, worn and bronzed by long wanderings, at last found themselves snugly ensconced in a European cabin. The passage across the Black Sea was a rapid and pleasant one. Soft winds blew, and the sky remained serene throughout the voyage. Yet it seemed a long voyage to Marco, who, now that he once more found himself among Europeans, was doubly eager to reach home.

One morning he awoke to find the vessel entering the narrow strait of the Bosphorus, its high banks on either side crowned with fortresses, and with the stately residences of the Greek nobles who chose to live near the metropolis of the empire. A brief sail brought them within sight of the domes and minarets of Constantinople itself and soon Marco once more put foot upon dry land, and was threading the narrow winding streets of the famous city.

The stay of the Polos at Constantinople was not a long one. Nicolo had some business to transact with Levantine merchants, whose large warehouses stood upon the quay, and who only recognized their old acquaintance with difficulty, so entirely had he changed during his twenty years' residence at Cathay. Happily there were Venetian galleys in port and on one of these, bound for home, the party was able to procure a passage. Setting sail once more, they swiftly sped through the picturesque Sea of Marmora and then entered the channel of the Hellespont, of which Marco had read much in his ancient histories. From the Hellespont they issued into the Aegean Sea, and were now full on the way to Venice. The galley stopped at several Greek ports on the way; and Marco had an opportunity which he eagerly seized, to observe the monuments and traits of that noble race, which had now reached its period of rapid decline.

Ere many days had passed, Marco found himself sailing up the Adriatic, and so vivid had been his first impressions of his outward voyage, that at twenty years' distance he easily recognized many of the objects he espied along the shores. The weather continued propitious from the time they left Constantinople; it seemed as if the elements were giving the travellers a smiling and sunny welcome back to Europe again.

It was late in the afternoon of a mellow autumn day, that, far off in the northern haze, Marco saw dimly rising from the waters the well-known domes and palaces of his beloved Venice. He could with difficulty contain himself for joy. He could scarcely speak, so deep were his emotions at beholding the longed-for sight. The three travellers stood on the deck of the galley, and, shading their eyes from the sun's rays with their hands, strained their eyes towards their native city.

Nearer and nearer they approached it; each object became every moment more distinct. The big dome of St. Mark's, the column of the lion, the spires of many churches, the broad, ornate facade of the doge's palace, came, one by one, into view and now gondolas began to appear, gliding swiftly and noiselessly in every direction across the glassy bay. Then the mouth of the Grand Canal, flanked on either side by its palaces and churches, was easily recognized and, before the Polos had done pointing out to each other, with eager delight, the familiar points, they found the galley drawing up to the quay. It was soon moored, and the Polos tremblingly prepared to disembark.

What had become of all their relatives and friends, whom they had left behind so many years before? It could not be but they would find many of them dead, and it was certain that all would have, like themselves, greatly changed. To land once more at Venice, therefore, after such an absence, was to encounter pain, and to exist for a time in feverish suspense.

The galley in which they had come was to remain at Venice for some time; and the three travellers left such baggage as they had brought with them from the east on board of her, while they landed and visited home once more.

It happened that all three of the Polos wore the rough travelling costumes which they brought from Cathay. Their clothes were not only rough and shabby, but were of Tartar make; so that they looked much more like Tartars than Venetians. The two elders wore long pointed caps of fur, and coats that fell to the ground. About their waists were belts, from which hung yataghans and scimitars such as those used by Tartar soldiers. Marco had a flat fur cap, with a long tassel; very much such a head-gear as some Chinese mandarins wear at the present day. Maffeo Polo led with him, by a stout chain, a great shaggy dog that he had brought with him from Tartary. All three, moreover, were very dark, their skins having been tanned almost to the color of their Tartar friends, by long residence in a tropical clime, and long journeyings through rude and difficult lands. They wore long, shaggy, beards, those of Maffeo and Nicolo being quite gray; and their hair fell in tangled mats down over their shoulders. On their feet were the short, thick shoes, turned up at the ends, which every one wore in Cathay.

They thus presented, as they tramped across the square of Saint Mark, a very strange and striking appearance to the good folk of Venice whom they met; and many turned around and stared after them with no little astonishment. Not far from the square, they took a gondola, and, as well as they could, directed, the gondolier to row them to Nicolo's house. They found that, in so long an absence, they had actually almost forgotten their native tongue. It was as much as they could do to make the gondolier understand them; they had to stop, and scratch their heads, and search their memories for the simplest word; for they had got accustomed at the khan's court, to talk with each other, as well as with the Tartars, in the Tartar language, and had long ceased to speak Italian altogether.

The street of San Giovanni Chrysostomo, on which stood the home of the Polos, was not far distant from the Square of St. Mark; and the swift gondola soon brought them to the broad flight of steps which led up to it. Marco felt a curious emotion at finding himself once more speeding across the canals in one of the boats familiar to his youth; while Nicolo and Maffeo could not but call to mind their former return from Cathay.

Everything in the street where their home stood looked much as they remembered it. Neither fire nor improvements had done away with any of the neighboring buildings. There were the same stairways, the same ornamental portals, the same snug balconies, the same pretty cupolas, the same air of indolent quiet and repose, which they so well remembered. There, too, stood the old home, as stately and silent as of old, with the dainty carving around the arch of the door, the same handsome cross set in the wall just above it, and the same coat-of-arms, with its bars and initials, on the wall at the side. It looked just as if everything had gone on as usual for twenty years; as if it were but the other day that the travellers had set out from that spot, followed by the tearful farewells of their families and friends.

No sooner had they landed and advanced toward the door, than a group of curious neighbors, mostly women and children, gathered closely around them, staring at them with all their might. Such strange, uncouth figures, surely, they had never seen nor could those good people imagine what the foreign looking men were doing at the door of the big Polo house.

Marco knocked loudly upon the portal. At first, no response came to his summons but presently several women leaned out of the windows above, glared at the strangers, and somewhat curtly demanded what they wanted. They were evidently taken for foreign vagabonds and tramp their rough, shabby coats, and bronzed and bearded faces, confirmed this idea. Nor were the suspicions of the women at the windows diminished when Marco tried in vain—so hard did he find it to speak his native tongue—to explain who they were, and what they were there for.

At last, however, the people consented to open the door, and admit the three men into the courtyard, where the entire household gathered around them. Marco addressed himself to the butler, a stout, pompous person, who had entered the family service long after the departure of the travellers; and at last made him understand that they were really Nicole, Maffeo, and Marco Polo. The butler stared at him as if he did not believe a word he said; and then called two old women who were in the group to come forth and see if they could recognize the strangers. The old dames placed they hands on their hips, stooped down, and narrowly scanned the countenances of all three.

"Pooh, pooh," exclaimed one of them, in a shrill voice, "We know you not. You are a set of impostors."

"Besides," added the other, "Messer Nicolo and Messer Marco are dead long ago. It is years since we heard that they were killed by a band of robbers, away off there in the East."

By this time a crowd of neighbors had penetrated the court-yard, and were gathered in a close group about the travellers. Among them were several old men and women, who had seen the Polos before they went to Cathay. To these the butler appealed but one and all shook their heads. Stare as hard as they might, no one could recognize their old acquaintances in these rugged features.

"But where is Messer Marco the elder?" Nicolo asked, anxiously, in broken Italian, looking about him. "And young Maffeo, the son of Nicolo?"

"Messer Maffeo," responded the butler, pompously, "is away in the country, on a hunt, Messer Marco is dead long ago."

"Alas, poor Marco!" exclaimed Nicolo, with a deep sigh. Then, turning to the group, he added, "Very well, good friends, since you deny me in my own house, and my son is at a distance, we will repair to an inn, and await an opportunity to prove to all that we are the persons we represent ourselves to be."

With this Nicolo walked out of the courtyard of his own house, followed by Maffeo and Marco, and all three betook themselves to an inn not far distant.

The rumor of the arrival of the three strangers was soon spread through the neighborhood and the city and a large number of their old friends and acquaintances came to see them at the inn. But, though there were some who thought they saw a dim likeness in the strangers' faces to the old friends they asserted themselves to be, nearly all denied that they perceived the likeness whatever. Besides, the fact that the Polos were so shabby, and looked and appeared so destitute, gave a general impression that they were impudent pretenders, who were trying, by this device, to obtain the Polo property.

The affair was getting to be serious; for some time must elapse before young Maffeo and other relatives at a distance could be apprized of their arrival, and return to recognize and welcome them.

At last Nicolo hit upon a plan by which he thought they would be able to prove their identity, and win the recognition of all; and without delay the three set about putting the plan into execution.

They sent forth and invited all the old friends and acquaintances whom they could find to be living, and in Venice, to meet them at a grand banquet at Nicolo's house on a certain evening and so earnest were they in asserting their ability to prove themselves what they claimed, that those left in charge of the house reluctantly consented that the banquet should be held there. They did not believe there would be any banquet at all, and suspected that before the appointed time, the strange men would slip away from the city, and be well rid of.

The night of the banquet, warm and serene, came; and about an hour before the guests were expected to arrive, the three Polos came to the house accompanied by porters bearing large boxes, and asked to have an apartment set aside for them, where they might make their toilet for the festivity. This request was grudgingly granted to them, and they entered the room where their boxes had been deposited and locked themselves in.

The banquet was prepared with great splendor and expense and in due time the invited friends began to flock in, and gazed with astonishment at the bounteous feast that was spread in the great hall. They assembled in a large apartment just beyond, and there awaited the entrance of their singular hosts.

They had not long to wait; for in a few moments the doors of the apartment were thrown open, and the three men entered. As soon at they appeared, there was a general exclamation, of surprise and admiration, No longer attired the uncouth costume of Tartars, no longer shaggy of hair and ragged aspect, the three Polos presented themselves in gorgeous robes of crimson satin, that reached to the floor. Their hair and beards had been cut to the prevailing fashion in Venice; and on their necks and finger's sparkled jewels of dazzling brightness and enormous size.

The guests gathered around them, and some cried out at once that they recognized the strangers as the three Polos who had been supposed to be long ago dead. Others hung back, and still suspected that the company were being made the victims of a trick.

With graceful courtesy, however, the Polos conducted their guests to the groaning tables, and the feasting began. They talked to those who sat next to them in a free, easy strain, and with a manner as if they were the undoubted lord's of the house. After the first course, the three Polos rose from the table, and, while the company moistened their hands—a custom practised in Venice after each course—retired to their apartment.

By the time the second course was served, they had reappeared, this time in fresh and still more brilliant costumes of crimson damask, with hew bracelets and rings on their becks and fingers. Behind them came attendants, bearing the satin robes they had just taken off and these they ordered to be cut up on the spot, and divided among the servants. They then resumed their seats, and once more made merry with their guests.

In due time all the courses had been served, and the company had grown gay and boisterous with the meat and wine. The cloth was removed and the servants were ordered to leave the banqueting room; and then Marco rose, and turning to the guests, said,

"My friends, you have doubted that we are the Polos, and have denied us with much scorn and scoffing. You did this because, when we arrived from our long journey, our hair and beards were long and straggling, our faces scarred and sunburnt; and a so because, ragged and miserable as we looked, you took us to be poor, scheming beggars. Now you see us trim and kempt, and some of you recognize in our faces, thus restored, something of the Polo look. It still remains to prove to you that we are not beggars, forced by want to make false pretensions to a name that is not ours."

So saying, he strode through the room, and for a moment disappeared. .He soon returned, bringing on his arm the shabby Tartar coats in which they had made their appearance in Venice.

Laying them upon the table, while the guests gathered curiously around him, Marco began to rip open the seams of the rough coats. Presently out from between the seams rolled a great number of large and beautiful diamonds and emeralds, pearls, turquoises, rubies and sapphires! Seam after seam was torn open, and more and more jewels fell upon the table; until there was a pile of them equal in value to a very considerable fortune.

"You see, my good friends," said 'Marco, "that we have not returned from Cathay quite penniless. Before leaving the court of the great khan, we turned all our property into these jewels, which might be easily carried; and in order both to carry and to conceal them safely, we had them sewed up as you see, in these rude garments.

The company could no longer doubt that the three men before them were really the long-absent Polos; and one and all crowded around them, eager to be forgiven for having at first denied them.

Ere many days had passed, young Maffeo, hearing of the return of his relatives, reached home, and was locked in the embrace of his father and brother; and now the wanderers heard the news of all that had happened during their absence of nearly a quarter of a century. The elder Maffeo's wife had also died, and this intelligence for a while filled him with grief: but happily his children still lived, though they had grown up, and were scattered in different parts of Italy.

The Polos were soon cozily settled once more in their old home and enjoyed, it may well be believed, the rest and luxury which it afforded after their weary travels.