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Delights of Banks of Traurl.
FROM WILLIAM DE RUBRUQUIS, MARCO POLO, LEDYARD, AND MUNGO PARK.
In an old honse, or new house, or any house, but particularly in a house in the country, where there are storms at night, and the wind is thundering in the trees, and the rain comes dashing against the windows in the gusts of it, who does not think of men at sea, of disasters by shipwreck, of husbands and sons far away, struggling perhaps in breakers on the shore, or clinging to icy shrouds, while we are lying in the safe and warm bed ? It seems as if none of us ought to be comfortable on such occasions; and yet, provided we do our duty to the unfortunate, we ought to be as much so as we can; for, in the first place, none of our friends may be in danger; and, secondly, Nature, in the course of her harshest but always beneficent operations, never desires more suffering to be inflicted than can be helped.
Now, homes have always a tendency to make us think of remote places; comfortable beds remind us of travellers by night; and comfortable books, of travellers at all hours who cannot get any; but of all books, those which are written by travellers themselves give us a quintessence of all these feelings : and the older the books are, and the remoter the countries they treat of, the completer becomes our satisfaction, because the antiquity itself has become a sort of reverend novelty, and danger is over with all parties except in the happy shuddering sense of it on the part of the reader.
“With many a tempest had his beard been shaken,” says Chaucer of his seaman. It had been shaken, observe. So have all the beards of travellers of old; and the older or more ancient they were, the more bearded one fancies them. An old folio book of ro
mantic yet credible voyages and travels to read, an old bearded traveller for its hero, a fireside in an old country-house to read it by, curtains drawn, and just wind enough stirring out of doors to make an accompaniment to the billows or forests we are reading of, this surely is one of the perfect moments of existenee.
English reading of this kind, we mean the reading of books of travels in the English language, may be said to commence with the travels of good old William de Rubruquis and accomplished Marco Polo. See how instinctively our good friend Dr. John Harris, thorough disinterested bookworm, and one of the fathers of these collections of knowledge, intimates their superiority over their precursors, in the Table of Contents prefixed to his huge folio volumes, one of which is now before us:
“An account of the Several Passages to the Indies, both by sea and land, that have been attempted, discovered, or practised by the Ancients.
“An account of the Travels of two Mahommedans through India and China in the ninth century.
“The Travels of Rabbi Benjamin, the son of Jonas of Tudela, through Europe, Asia, and Africa, from Spain to China, from the year of our Lord 1160 to 1173; from the Latin versions of Benedict Arias Montanus, and Constantine l’Empereur, compared with other Translations into different languages.”
“The remarkable Travels of William de Rubruquis, a monk, sent by Louis IX., king of France, commonly styled St. Louis, ambassador into different parts of the East, particularly into Tartary and China, A.D. 1253, containing abundance of curious Particulars relating to those Countries, written by the Ambassador, and addressed to his Royal Master King Louis.
“The curious and remarkable Voyages and Travels of Marco Polo, a gentleman of Venice, who, in the middle of the thirteenth century, passed through a great part of Asia, all the dominions of the Tartars, and returned home by sea through the Islands of the East Indies; taken chiefly from the accurate edition of Ramusio, compared with an original manuscript in His Prussian Majesty's library, and with most of the translations hitherto published.”
The very tables of contents in these good folio writers; who give “full measure, pressed down and running over,” are a kind of books in themselves, and save us the trouble of stating who their heroes
were. Only, for the pleasure of the thing, we may add, that these two fine old voyagers, from whom we are about to make some extracts, were, the one as simple, honest, truth-telling, and intelligent a soul withal as ever took monkery for a good thing; and the other, a man of as proved a credibility in his way, a noble, trading, and accomplished Venetian, though he may have leant his ear a little too much to reports He dealt in such very large and prosperous matters, both of jewellery and government, and saw such heaps of countries, and cities, and populations, and revenues, that although he fairly overbore the incredulity of his astounded countrymen with the bushels of diamonds and precious stones which he poured forth before their eyes (in a scene which our readers will meet with), he left behind him the nickname of Marco Milione; and a worthy epitomiser of his book informs us, that the Venetians in their carnival entertainments long had a character of that name, whose “chief jest lay in describing cities with a million of bridges, husbands with a million of wives, birds with a million of wings, beasts with a million of legs,” &c.* But if Marco had come to life again, he might have retorted by personifying a buffoon populace possessed of a million of ignorances. Marco, like Bruce, has outlived misconception. Every fresh traveller has tended to confirm the relations both of him and Rubruquis; and as those relations chiefly concern one of the largest, most curious, and most unchanging countries and people on the face of the earth, they present a singular combination of modern with ancient interest. The Tartars are still nomade rovers in one part of their vast possessions, and Chinese rulers in the other. Their dresses are the same as of old, their faces the same; they still exhibit the same mixture of great and civilized, yet clumsy, undertakings; and if in their joint character of Tartar and Chinese, their philosopher, Confucius, has rendered them a far wiser and more thinking people than is supposed even by the thinking
* Vide Mr. MacFarlane, himself a traveller, and very shrewd and entertaining observer, in a publication entitled the Romance of Travel, vol. i., p. 239 (Knight's Weekly Volumes). We have read Mr. MacFarlane's first two little books with the greatest pleasure; but though not wanting in curious extract as well as abridgment, he is too summary for the purpose of the present book. Our extracts from Marco Polo and Rubruquis are taken from the revised republication of Harris ;-Navigantium atque Intinerantium Bibliotheca; or, a Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels, consisting of above siw hundred of the most authentio writers, &c., two volumes folio, 1764. Harris includes Hackluyt and Purchas, and translations from the best authorities in other languages.
European (himself not so free from prejudice and foolish custom as he fancies), their jealousy of innovation is a remnant of the old Tartar pride, as well as an instinct of security. The greatest innovation in China, next to philosophy, was-tea; which, however, appears to be of older date than the times of Polo and Rubruquis, though Mr. MacFarlane has observed the curious fact of their making no mention of it. There are no three ideas which we associate more strongly with the two great portions of the East, than tea with the Chinese, and coffee and smoking with the Turks and Persians; yet tea is not alluded to by the oldest Chinese writers, and the use of coffee and tobacco by mankind dates no further back than a few centuries. There is no mention of smoking in the Arabian Nights; nor was there of coffee, till Mr. Lane found it in one of his additional stories. The Mussulman's drink was sherbet; and instead of smoke, he chewed dates and tarts.
This honesty on the part of our two good old travellers is, in fact, a virtue belonging emphatically to the best travellers, ancient and modern. Herodotus, the first authentic traveller, was an honest man. Nearchus, Alexander's admiral, the first authentic voyager, was an honest man. The great Columbus was one; Drake was one; Dampier, Bernier, Cook, Bell of Antimony, Niebuhr, Pocock, Park, Ledyard, the other explorers of Africa, and the heroical men who adorn our own days, the Franklins, Richardsons, and Backs. Bruce's fault was not dishonesty, but ostentation. It is impossible indeed to conceive men of this kind unpossessed of great virtues. Nothing less could animate or support them. Hence, in reading the best books of travels, we have the double pleasure of feeling ourselves to be in the company of the brave and the good.
In selecting the following extracts from some of the most interesting of these writers, we have gone upon the principle of exemplifying the chief points of attraction in books of voyages and travels; to wit, remoteness and obscurity of place, difference of custom, marvellousness of hearsay, surprising but conceivable truth, barbaric or civilized splendour, savage or simple contentment, personal danger, courage, and suffering, and moral enthusiasm.
WILLIAM DE RUBRUQUIS.
And first for a taste of William de Rubruquis. It is to be borne in mind, that he was sent into the East by the French king and crusader Louis IX., in the middle of the thirteenth century. The crusades had opened up a new Christian interest all over that quarter of the world. Enterprising monks, and remnants of Christian churches in Turkey and Armenia, had occasioned exaggerated notions of the state of the faith in various parts of it; and Louis had heard of the famous Prester John, or imaginary Christian presbyter and king, reigning somewhere over Christian subjects, who is supposed to have meant the king of Abyssinia. Louis had sent some monks to look out for this royal brother in vain; and now he sent three more, to find him in the person of a Tartar king of the name of Sartach. One of these was our good monk William, who seems to have been a Brabanter, and who had Latinized his name, after the fashion of those times, from Ruysbrock or Rysbruck into De Rubruquis. The servant of the church militant went rejoicing on his perilous mission, armed with a Bible and prayer-book, with a few lowly presents of wine, dried fruit, and biscuits, which the Tartars plundered and laughed at, and with a heap of bad arguments in divinity, which Sartach appears to have laughed at still more. As to Prester John, William could hear not a word about him, except from a few Nestorian Christians, who had nothing to show for the existence of such a personage.
Prester John was eternally sitting on his throne somewhere; but it was always in some other place.
Of Sartach the reader will find little in our extracts, the glory of the sight of him having been prejudiced by that of his brother chief and vagabond, Zagatai, whom Rubruquis saw first, and of whose state and presence he gives a more particular account. All the statements of Rubruquis are full of the life of truth. The appearance of Zagatai's carts with their houses on them, moving towards the traveller as if “ a great city came to him,” is particularly striking; and Zagatai's consort, with her lovely noseless face, has a virtue of repulsion in her, beyond all the foreign beauties we ever read of.