Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle

Marco Polo Among the Tartars

Before Marco had lived in the khan's palace a year, he had become quite used to his novel surroundings; and felt as much at home as he could anywhere outside of his native Italy. As soon as he learned the language so as to talk readily, he learned a great deal that was very curious about Cathay. He was never tired of asking questions, and he found many learned men about the court who were very willing to satisfy his curiosity.

He had now thrown aside his Venetian attire, and, like his father and uncle, wore the costume which was imposed upon him by Tartar custom and very oddly he looked, in loose tunic, small turban, and turned-up shoes, his complexion being many shades lighter than that of the dusky faces around him. He had adopted, a so, the Tartar ways of living and instead of keeping himself apart, made himself one among the courtiers.

The more he saw of Kublai Khan, and the more he learned of his method of governing his vast empire, the more ardently did he admire that energetic and kindly monarch. He observed that whenever there was a great storm, or flood, or other calamity the khan sent messengers into the districts where it had occurred, to find out if the crops had been destroyed; and if they had been, the khan not only relieved the sufferers of their taxes for the year, but distributed food among them out of his own abundant stores.

The khan, in times of plenty, always caused his store-houses to be filled full of grain and when a period of scarcity occurred, he ordered this grain to be sold to the common-folk at a third or a fourth of its cost. The poor people of Kambalu were constantly fed from the khan's generous bounty even the humblest beggar was not turned away empty from the palace doors. Not only did the khan thus provide the hungry with food, but the ragged with clothing. Of the silk, hemp, and wool which he collected as a part of the tributes due him, he caused cloths to be made in a building within the palace was; and these cloths were turned into comfortable garments, and given freely to those who stood in need of them. The good monarch also took care that there should be spacious highways leading from every part of his dominions to the capital. Nor was he content with merely constructing these roads; he caused them to be planted, on either side, with tall trees, which served at once to afford the tired traveller a grateful shade on his way, and to guide him aright to his destination. When the soil was such that trees could not be planted, the khan caused mile-stones to be erected at convenient intervals. On these highroads, at distances of five-and-twenty miles, were stationed a kind of post houses, to serve as resting-places both for the khan's messengers, and for travellers. These houses were often spacious and luxuriously furnished, and many horses were kept in the stables, so as to be ready for use at any moment.

The khan, indeed, had no need to fear that his treasure would ever become exhausted; for he had the power, and freely used it, to manufacture as much money as he chose. This he did with the rind beneath the bark of a certain tree. This was cut up into small strips, and stamped with the royal seal; and thus the khan had an ample supply of funds. This was, perhaps, the earliest known employment of paper money. It surprised Marco very much to see the Tartars burning lumps of "blackstone," instead of wood, in their fire-places; for he had never seen or heard of coal in Europe.

Nothing about the country was more interesting to Marco than the many astrologers and magicians whom he saw there, and who were held in high honor by the khan and all his courtiers. These grave men, who always wore very long beards and had wise, solemn countenances, were supported at the khan's expense, and were constantly engaged in the exercise of their mysterious arts. They studied the stars, and had many curious instruments for this purpose; and from the positions and course of the heavenly bodies, they foretold the weather and many other events. When they made their prophecies, these were written down on small tablets, and sold to all who wished to peer into the future. When a noble courtier was going to a distance, and desired to know whether he would be overtaken by storms, or would succeed in the object of his journey, he went to an astrologer to be informed, and paid him roundly for his service.

Marco often attended the religious rites in the temples, and noted with curiosity the religious customs of the people. Each Tartar had, he observed, a small tablet fixed in the wall of one of his rooms, with the name of Buddha engraved upon it in large letters. To this tablet he and his family prayed every morning. They prostrated themselves on the ground, raised their hands, frantically beat their foreheads, and then burned incense in honor of their god. On the floor below the tablet, stood a small statue of an inferior god, who was supposed to have a care of the earthly affairs Of Buddha's worshippers, and to whom prayers were offered for good weather, full crops, and health. The Tartars believed that as soon as a man died, his soul inhabited a new body; that a poor man who had been good during this life, would be reborn a gentleman, or perhaps a noble; but that on the other hand a man of rank who had been wicked would, after death, become a peasant, and afterwards a dog or a wolf.

The more Marco saw of the Tartars the more he respected and liked them. He was pleased with their polite and gentle manners he was attracted by their agreeable, smiling faces, he noticed with what cleanliness and care they ate; and he observed that children invariably treated their parents with reverence and humility, and that the punishment of a child who rebelled against parental authority was very severe.

The khan was treated by his subjects with a respect and awe which passed the bounds of servility. When any one came within half a mile of where the khan was, he at once assumed a very sober face, advanced slowly and softly, and talked in a subdued voice and on reaching the portal of the palace, proceeded to produce from a pocket a pair of soft leather buskins, with which he replaced his shoes. On entering the royal presence, he fell upon the carpet, and did not lift his head until he had received the khan's permission to do so.

But the time was soon to come when Marco must abandon the idle and luxurious life he had so long led, and to engage in active and perilous service for the khan. Everything about the court and city had amused and interested him, and the days had passed quickly amid so many strange scenes and so many brilliant shows and attractions. He could scarcely believe in the rapid passage of time and he almost forgot that his presence in Cathay was for more serious purposes than to saunter and dream among those beautiful and bewildering surroundings. Yet, when the moment arrived for him to arouse himself, to enter upon active pursuits, and do something to show his gratitude for all the khan's generosity, hospitality and kindness, he was by no means sorry for Marco had an adventurous disposition, and was happiest when engaged in some stirring task.

One afternoon, when he was lolling in his apartment, an attendant entered and summoned Marco into the khan's presence. Kublai was reposing by a fountain in one of the shady court yards of the palace. Dark-visaged slaves were fanning him with peacock fans, as the monarch reclined on soft pillows, and quaffed, every now and then, a cooling beverage from a golden goblet. By his side lay, in languid attitude, two of his beautiful young wives, attired in light but exceedingly rich costumes, their ears, necks and arms sparkling with many gems. Around the khan stood a group of courtiers and attendants while in the corners of the courtyard, gigantic and fierce-featured guards watched over his safety.

Marco approached and made the usual humble obeisance to the monarch. Kublai, raising himself on his elbow, motioned to Marco to come nearer and stand by him; for he said he had something to say to him.

"Venetian," began Kublai, "I have made you very welcome at my court, and have found pleasure in your presence. Your countenance was agreeable to my eyes when I first saw you and since, your conduct has been such as to win my confidence and esteem. I trust you, and believe that you are devoted to me. Is it not so?"

Marco replied that he longed for an occasion to show the khan how grateful he was for all that the khan had done for him.

"Such an occasion has now arisen," continued the khan. "There is grave business to be done in my western and southern provinces. They are disturbed, and the people do not understand my fatherly care over them. I must send thither some one who will reason with them, and explain my proceedings; who will persuade them to be submissive, and assure them that they may be certain of justice and protection. This task, Venetian, I have marked out for you."

"Nothing," declared Marco, "would please me better than to undertake it. Thank your majesty for the confidence you thus repose in me."

"Your journey will be long, and it may be perilous. My subjects in those distant portions of my empire are not easily governed. Sometimes they break out into rebellion. Besides, the mountains are full of robbers, who dare to attack even my royal messengers. But you are a brave and active youth, and danger has no terrors for you. You shall go well guarded shall give orders that you are attended as the chosen envoy of the great khan should be."

Marco was far from dismayed by the prospect before him. Now that it was decided upon, he became impatient to enter on his travels, and encounter the possible perils of which the khan had spoken. His father was at first loth to have him go. He feared lest he should never see his young son again. But Nicolo knew that Kublai Khan's will was law and that, however kind he might be on ordinary occasions, he was very resolute that his will, when expressed, should be obeyed at once, and without a murmur.

In no long time the preparations for Marco's setting out were complete. He was to be attended by a considerable guard of soldiers, armed to the teeth: and also by a large train of attendants, as an indication of his rank and his position near the khan.

The day of departure came; and Marco, arrayed in Tartar costume, his belt well armed with sword and daggers, and his horse fresh and sleek from the royal stables, bade the khan adieu in the midst of his court. He received his last instructions from one of the principal ministers, and then retired to his father's apartment to embrace Nicolo and Maffeo for the last time. This touching interview over, he mounted his horse, and accompanied by his guard .and attendants, emerged from the palace gate, crossed the river, and wended his way leisurely through the spacious avenues of Kambalu.

Soon the open country beyond the suburbs was reached, and now Marco pushed forward more rapidly. When he had gone about ten miles he came to a river, much wider and more rapid than that which flowed beneath the palace wall. On approaching the banks, he espied before him the finest bridge he had ever seen. It was built of stone, and had four-and-twenty arches supported by massive piers imbedded in the stream. A one end was a lofty column of marble, around the foot of which were several skilfully carved figures of lions. As he rode across the bridge, Marco found that ten horsemen could easily go abreast upon it. In spite of all that he had already seen in Cathay, Marco was surprised to find there as splendid a work of art as this bridge really was.

Continuing hi journey, Marco found himself passing through a rich and thriving country, the soil of which was fruitful, the landscapes charming, and the people industrious and busy. He reached towns and villages all alive with bazaars, and silk and linen factories; he passed broad fields of waving grain, and beneath avenues of trees which stretched far away over the hills. On eminences here and there he espied quite stately castles, guarded by towers and high walls, just as were the castles he used to see about Venice; and vineyards crept up the slopes to their foundations. Once in a while Marco came upon very large cities teeming with dense populations, and all alive with manufacture and trade processions of camels and carts going in and out the lofty gateways, and many temples rising high above the mass of dwellings. In the bazaars great fairs were. being held; and Marco could not but remark how intelligent and shrewd this race of Tartar merchants seemed. He seized every occasion to talk both with merchants and the native soothsayers, and with the landlords of the inns where he sojourned. He heard accounts of the country through which he was passing, the manners and customs of the people, and, as well, many anecdotes of the events which had taken place in the various neighborhoods.

One afternoon he stopped at a large town called Pianfu, and was enjoying his ease after supper and talking with one of the local gossips. On a hill some two miles distant he observed a very spacious and hoary castle. He asked his companion what castle it was.

"That is the castle of Cayafu," was the reply "and there is an interesting story about a good king who once dwelt there."

Marco was fond of listening to the stories with which all Tartar minds seemed stored, and begged his companion to tell that of Cayafu.

"A long time ago," said the native, "the king of this region, whose name was Dor, had a war with the famous Prester John. The country was invaded by Prester John, but Dor so stoutly entrenched himself that his enemy could not get at him. Prester John was exceedingly vexed, for he supposed that it would be the easiest matter in the world to conquer Dor; and did not know what to do. Seven of his servants, seeing their master's anger, went to him and told him that, if he chose, they would bring Dor into his tent alive. Prester John listened to them incredulously, but gave them permission to attempt the feat which they proposed. They disguised themselves and got access to Dors camp. Presenting themselves before the king, they offered him their services. Dor received them with a hearty welcome, and gave them posts immediately about his person. He soon became attached to them, and learned to trust them completely. The traitors watched and waited for their opportunity. After a while, it came. Dor set out one day on a short excursion beyond his camp; and with him went these seven men. The party crossed a wide river and entered a dense forest. Perceiving that the king was now separated from the main body of his followers, the villains fell upon the few that remained, stretched one after another dead on the ground, and rudely seized their benefactor.

"'What means this, my children?' exclaimed Dor, amazed. 'What would you do with me? How have I offended you?'

"'We are going to take you to our master—Prester John'

"Dor, on hearing this, covered his face with his hands and exclaimed: 'How have I been deceived! Why, my children, have I not welcomed and honored you like brothers? And will you, like traitors, give me up to my bitterest foe?'

They said nothing in reply, but putting him bound upon a horse, hurriedly cleared the forest, and galloped to Prester John's camp as fast as they could go. Prester John was as surprised as he was delighted to see his enemy in his power at last. Turning to him roughly, he exclaimed:

"'Well, you are caught at last. Now confess that you are not equal to making war with me.'

"Dor bowed with humility and replied:

"'I know well, sire, that I am not as strong as you. I repent of having taken up arms against you, and in future I will act as your faithful friend.'

"Prester John, though a stout warrior, was not obdurate of heart. On hearing these gentle words fall from his royal prisoner's lips, he arose and embraced him.

"'Be of good cheer, brother,' said he; 'I will not humiliate you any further, but will give you my esteem and friendship.'

"Whereupon Prester John provided Dor with a splendid escort of cavalry, and after having feasted him in a manner worthy of a king, sent him rejoicing back to the castle of Cayafu. From that time Dor and Prester John were the best of friends, and fought side by side in many a furious battle with their common foes."

Marco was deeply interested in this story, and thought it sounded very much like the stories of what sometimes had happened to European kings.