The senior Alexandre Dumas was capable of writing scenes in the style of Gothic complication and drama, with every nuance of passion and convoluted relationships.
But when he wanted to, he could write conversations among groups of people which were very low-key and realistic. One such appears in the “Count of Monte Cristo” as casual chit-chat between members of Parisian society.
The Viscount Albert de Morcerf has scheduled a breakfast for the count on a certain day and certain hour when he wants to introduce him to some Parisian friends. The first friend to show up is Lucien Debray, personal secretary to the minister of the interior, who casually mentions he has been made a chevalier in a particular order.
Then he says: “Ennui and hunger attacked me at once, two enemies who rarely accompany each other. ... I then recollected that you gave a breakfast this morning, and here I am. I am hungry, feed me. I am bored, amuse me.”
Albert orders sherry and a biscuit for Debray, adding: “In the meantime my dear Lucien, here are cigars — contraband, of course — try them, and persuade the minister to sell us such, instead of poisoning us with cabbage leaves.”
“Bah, I will do nothing of the kind. The moment they come from government you would find them execrable.”
Soon another friend, a journalist named Beauchamp, shows up. Albert says the two can dispute about what Beauchamp’s papers say.
“My dear friend,” said Lucien, with sovereign contempt, “do I ever read the papers?”
“Then you will dispute all the more.”
Then Albert says: “Come in, come in. Here is Debray, who detests you without reading you, so he says.”
“He is quite right,” returned Beauchamp, “for I criticize him without knowing what he does. Good-day, commander.”
“Ah, you know that already,” said the private secretary, smiling and shaking hands with him.
After more guests arrive Albert explains that the count, when he shows up, will be a special guest because Albert was abducted by bandits while on a visit to Rome, and the count used his influence with the bandit chief to win his release without paying a ransom.
After considerable more chit-chat, one of the guests says: “Come, my dear Albert. Confess that your cook is behindhand, that the oysters have not arrived from Ostend and that, like Madame de Maintenon you are going to replace the dish by a story. Say so at once. We are sufficiently well-bred to excuse you, and to listen to your history, fabulous as it promises to be.”
But Albert continues to describe the count’s obvious wealth and freezing politeness until 10:30 strikes, the hour the breakfast is scheduled. Debray says: “No count of Monte Cristo.”
At that moment the butler announces: “His excellency the Count of Monte Cristo.” The involuntary start everyone gave proved how much Morcerf’s narrative had impressed them. The count advances smiling into the room, saying to Albert:
“Punctuality is the politeness of kings, according to one of your sovereigns, I think, but it is not the same with travelers. I hope you will excuse the two or three seconds I am behindhand. Five hundred leagues are not to be accomplished without some trouble, especially in France where, it seems, it is forbidden to beat the coachmen.”
The story develops in Dumas’s usual bizarre fashion, but you can see he also had an ear for casual conversation.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.