Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/22

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.

whole realm of Egypt, and, being advised by him to wait patiently, went home to Venice, where they found that Nicolo's wife was dead, but had left a son Marco, now fifteen. The papal interregnum was the longest that had been known, at least since the dark ages. After the Polos had spent two years at home there was still no pope, and the brothers resolved on starting again for the East, taking young Marco with them. At Acre they again saw Tedaldo, and were furnished by him with letters to authenticate the causes that had hindered their mission. They had not yet left Lajazzo, Layas, or Ayas on the Cilician coast (then one of the chief points for the arrival and departure of the land trade of Asia), when they heard that Tedaldo had been elected pope. They hastened back to Acre, and at last were able to execute Kublai's mission, and to obtain a papal reply. But, instead of the hundred teachers asked for by the Great Khan, the new pope (styled Gregory X.) could supply but two Dominicans; and these lost heart and turned back, when they had barely taken the first step of their journey.

The second start from Acre must have taken place about November 1271; and from a consideration of the indications and succession of chapters in Polo's book, it would seem that the party proceeded from Lajazzo to Sivas and Tabriz, and thence by Yezd and Kirman down to Hormuz (Hurmuz) at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, with the purpose of going on to China by sea; but that, abandoning their naval plans (perhaps from fear of the flimsy vessels employed on this navigation from the Gulf eastwards), they returned northward through Persia. Traversing Kirman and Khorasan they went on to Balkh and Badakshan, in which last country young Marco recovered from illness. In a passage touching on the climate of the Badakshan hills, Marco breaks into an enthusiasm which he rarely betrays, but which is easily understood by those who have known what it is, with fever in the blood, to escape to the exhilarating mountain air and fragrant pine-groves. They then ascended the upper Oxus through Wakhan to the plateau of Pamir (a name first heard in Marco's book). These regions were hardly described again by any European traveller (save Benedict Goes) till the expedition in 1838 of Lieut. John Wood of the Indian navy, whose narrative abounds in incidental illustration of Marco Polo. Crossing the Pamir the travellers descended upon Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan (Khutan). These are regions which remained almost absolutely closed to our knowledge till after 1860, when the temporary overthrow of the Chinese power, and the enterprise of British, Russian and other explorers, again made them known.

From Khotan the Polos passed on to the vicinity of Lop-Nor, reached for the first time since Polo's journey by Prjevalsky in 1871. Thence the great desert of Gobi was crossed to Tangut, as the region at the extreme north-west of China, both within and without the Wall, was then called. In his account of the Gobi, or desert of Lop, as he calls it, Polo gives some description of the terrors and superstitions of the waste, a description which strikingly reproduces that of the Chinese pilgrim Suan T'sang, in passing the same desert in the contrary direction six hundred years before. The Venetians, in their further journey, were met and welcomed by the Great Khan's people, and at last reached his presence at Shangtu, in the spring of 1275. Kublai received them with great cordiality, and took kindly to young Marco, by this time about twenty-one years old. The “ young bachelor, ” as the book calls him, applied himself diligently to the acquisition of the divers languages and written characters chiefly in use among the multifarious nationalities subject to the Khan; and Kublai, seeing .that he was both clever and discreet, soon began to employ him in the public service. G. Pauthier found in the Chinese annals a record that in the year 1277 a certain Polo was nominated as a second-class commissioner or agent attached to the imperial council, a passage which we may apply to the young Venetian. Among his public missions was one which carried him through the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, and Szechuen, and the wild country on the borders of Tibet, to the remote province of Yunnan, called by the Mongols Karajang, and into northern Burma (Mien). Marco, during his stay at court, had observed the Khan's delight in hearing of strange countries, of their manners, marvels, and oddities, and had heard his frank expressions of disgust at the stupidity of envoys and commissioners who could tell of nothing but their official business. He took care to store his memory or his note-book with curious facts likely to interest Kublai, which, on his return to court, he related. This south-western journey led him through a country which till about 1860 was almost a Jefra incognito-though since the middle of the 19th century we have learned much regarding it through the journeys of Cooper, Garnier, Richthofen, Gill, Baber and others. In this region there existed and still exists in the deep valleys of the great rivers, and in the alpine regions which border them, a vast ethnological garden, as it were, of tribes of various origin, and in every stage of semi-civilization or barbarism; these afforded many strange products and eccentric traits to entertain Kublai. Marco rose rapidly in favour and was often employed on distant missions as well as in domestic administration; but we gather few details of his employment. He held for three years the government of the great city of Yangchow; on another occasion he seems to have visited Kangchow, the capital of Tangut, just within the Great Wall, and perhaps Karakorum on the north of the Gobi, the former residence of the Great Khans: again we find him in Ciampa, or southern Cochin-China; and perhaps, once more, on separate mission to the southern states of India. We are not informed whether his father and uncle shared in such employments, though they are mentioned as having rendered material servicetto the Khan, in forwarding the capture of Siang-yang (on the Han river) during the war against southern China, by the construction of powerful artillery engines-a story, however, perplexed by chronological difficulties.

All the Polos were gathering wealth which they longed to carry back to their home, and after their exile they began to dread what might follow Kublai's death. The Khan, however, was deaf to suggestions of departure and the opportunity only came by chance.

Arghun, khan of Persia, the grandson of Kublai's brother Hulagu, lost in 1286 his favourite wife, called by Polo Balgana (Le. Bulughan or “ Sable ”). Her dying injunction was that her place should be filled only by a lady of her own Mongol tribe. Ambassadors were dispatched to the court of Peking to obtain such a bride. The message was courteously received, and the choice fell on the lady Cocacin (Kukachin), a maiden of seventeen. The overland road from Peking to Tabriz was then imperilled by war, so Arghun's envoys proposed to return by sea. Having made acquaintance with the Venetians, and eager to profit by their experience, especially by that of Marco, who had just returned from a mission to the Indies, they begged the Khan to send the Franks in their company. He consented with reluctance, but fitted out the party nobly for the voyage, charging them with friendly messages to the potentates of Christendom, including the pope, and the kings of France, Spain and England. They sailed from Zaiton or Amoy Harbour in Fukien (a town corresponding either to the modern Changchow or less probably to Tswanchow or Chinchew), then one of the chief Chinese havens for foreign trade, in the beginning of 1292. The voyage involved long detention on the coast of Sumatra, and in south India, and two years or more passed before they arrived in Persia. Two of the three envoys and a vast proportion of their suite perished by the way; but the three Venetians survived all perils, and so did the young lady, who had come to look on them with filial regard. Arghun Khan had died even before they quitted China; his brother reigned in his stead; and his son Ghazan succeeded to the lady's hand. The Polos went on (apparently by Tabriz, Trebizond, Constantinople and Negropont) to Venice, which they seem to have reached about the end of 129 5.

The first biographer of Marco Polo was the famous geographical collector John Baptist Ramusio, who wrote more than two centuries after the traveller's death. Facts and dates