Dumas and the Count
The senior Alexandre Dumas was a very prolific writer, particularly of historical novels, which sometimes ran to several volumes. He wrote in the days before there were typewriters, and sometimes hired hacks to write the background text for his works. But when he wanted to concentrate on personalities, he had a keen ear for dialogue and human nature.
“The Count of Monte Cristo” is a Gothic tale of unjust imprisonment, fabulous wealth and implacable revenge. One section is about a breakfast in Paris, given by a viscount, Albert de Morcerf, for the count. He met the count in Rome and invited him to the breakfast at 10:30 on a certain date. He had invited various friends to participate and the dialogue perfectly reflects the banter and gossip of upper-class Parisians of the time.
The background international event has to do with a pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos, who the French have taken into protective custody on the Spanish border. The first guest to arrive at Morcerf’s apartment for breakfast is Lucien Debray, secretary to the minister of the interior. Morcerf says:
“Your punctuality really alarms me. You, whom I expected last, arrive at five minutes to 10, when the time fixed was half-past. Has the ministry resigned?”
“No, my dear fellow” returned the young man, seating himself on the divan. “Reassure yourself. We are tottering always, but we never fall....”
Morcerf says: “I see you have a blue ribbon at your buttonhole.”
“Yes, they sent me the order of Charles III,” returned Debray carelessly.
“Come, do not affect indifference, but confess you were pleased to have it.”
“Oh, it is very well as a finish to the toilet. It looks very neat on a black coat buttoned up ... It is for that reason you see me so early.”
“Because you have the order of Charles III and wish to announce the good news to me?”
“No, because I passed the night writing letters, 25 dispatches. I got up and went for a ride. In the Bois de Boulonge boredom and hunger attacked me at once. I then recollected you gave a breakfast this morning, and here I am. I am hungry, feed me. I am bored, amuse me.”
After a little more conversation comes the arrival of Beauchamp a newspaper editor, But Debray says contemptuously that he never reads the papers.
“Come in, come in,” said Albert rising and advancing to meet the young man. “Here is Debray, who detests you without reading you.”
“He is quite right,” returned Beauchamp, “for I criticize him without knowing what he does. Good-day, commander.”
“Ah, you know about that already,” said the private secretary, smiling and shaking hands with him.
Soon there arrive a young aristocrat, Chateau-Renaud, and a soldier, Maximilian Morrel. After more chit-chat, Debray is impatient for breakfast, and says, “Come, my dear Albert, confess that your cook is behindhand, that the oysters have not arrived from Ostend ... say so at once, and we are sufficiently well-bred to excuse you.”
Morcerf explains how the Count of Monte Cristo rescued him from bandits outside Rome. His friends listen, half doubting, and just as 10:30 strikes the valet announces the count. The story continues:
“The count advanced, smiling, into the center of the room and approached Albert, who hastened toward him holding out his hand in a ceremonial manner. ‘Punctuality said Monte Cristo, is the politeness of kings, according to one of your sovereigns, I think. But it is not the same with travelers. However I hope you will excuse the two or three seconds I am behindhand. Five hundred leagues are not to be accomplished without some trouble, and especially in France where, it seems, it is forbidden to beat the postilions.’”
The count makes quite an impression on the group of young men, as blase as they profess to be, and the plot thickens as the story continues, but the conversations listed here illustrate what an acute ear Dumas possessed for the interchange of thoughts among upper-class Parisians of his day.
Kendall Wild is a former editor of the Herald.