The Count of Monte Cristo – Day 230 of 400

The Count of Monte Cristo offered his arm to Madame de Villefort. “M. de Villefort,” he said, “will you conduct the Baroness Danglars?”

Villefort complied, and they passed on to the dining-room.

Chapter 63. The Dinner.

It was evident that one sentiment affected all the guests on entering the dining-room. Each one asked what strange influence had brought them to this house, and yet astonished, even uneasy though they were, they still felt that they would not like to be absent. The recent events, the solitary and eccentric position of the count, his enormous, nay, almost incredible fortune, should have made men cautious, and have altogether prevented ladies visiting a house where there was no one of their own sex to receive them; and yet curiosity had been enough to lead them to overleap the bounds of prudence and decorum. And all present, even including Cavalcanti and his son, notwithstanding the stiffness of the one and the carelessness of the other, were thoughtful, on finding themselves assembled at the house of this incomprehensible man. Madame Danglars had started when Villefort, on the count’s invitation, offered his arm; and Villefort felt that his glance was uneasy beneath his gold spectacles, when he felt the arm of the baroness press upon his own. None of this had escaped the count, and even by this mere contact of individuals the scene had already acquired considerable interest for an observer. M. de Villefort had on the right hand Madame Danglars, on his left Morrel. The count was seated between Madame de Villefort and Danglars; the other seats were filled by Debray, who was placed between the two Cavalcanti, and by Chateau-Renaud, seated between Madame de Villefort and Morrel.

The repast was magnificent; Monte Cristo had endeavored completely to overturn the Parisian ideas, and to feed the curiosity as much as the appetite of his guests. It was an Oriental feast that he offered to them, but of such a kind as the Arabian fairies might be supposed to prepare. Every delicious fruit that the four quarters of the globe could provide was heaped in vases from China and jars from Japan. Rare birds, retaining their most brilliant plumage, enormous fish, spread upon massive silver dishes, together with every wine produced in the Archipelago, Asia Minor, or the Cape, sparkling in bottles, whose grotesque shape seemed to give an additional flavor to the draught,—all these, like one of the displays with which Apicius of old gratified his guests, passed in review before the eyes of the astonished Parisians, who understood that it was possible to expend a thousand louis upon a dinner for ten persons, but only on the condition of eating pearls, like Cleopatra, or drinking refined gold, like Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Monte Cristo noticed the general astonishment, and began laughing and joking about it. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will admit that, when arrived at a certain degree of fortune, the superfluities of life are all that can be desired; and the ladies will allow that, after having risen to a certain eminence of position, the ideal alone can be more exalted. Now, to follow out this reasoning, what is the marvellous?—that which we do not understand. What is it that we really desire?—that which we cannot obtain. Now, to see things which I cannot understand, to procure impossibilities, these are the study of my life. I gratify my wishes by two means—my will and my money. I take as much interest in the pursuit of some whim as you do, M. Danglars, in promoting a new railway line; you, M. de Villefort, in condemning a culprit to death; you, M. Debray, in pacifying a kingdom; you, M. de Chateau-Renaud, in pleasing a woman; and you, Morrel, in breaking a horse that no one can ride. For example, you see these two fish; one brought from fifty leagues beyond St. Petersburg, the other five leagues from Naples. Is it not amusing to see them both on the same table?”

“What are the two fish?” asked Danglars.

“M. Chateau-Renaud, who has lived in Russia, will tell you the name of one, and Major Cavalcanti, who is an Italian, will tell you the name of the other.”

“This one is, I think, a sterlet,” said Chateau-Renaud.

“And that one, if I mistake not, a lamprey.”

“Just so. Now, M. Danglars, ask these gentlemen where they are caught.”

“Sterlets,” said Chateau-Renaud, “are only found in the Volga.”

“And,” said Cavalcanti, “I know that Lake Fusaro alone supplies lampreys of that size.”

“Exactly; one comes from the Volga, and the other from Lake Fusaro.”

“Impossible!” cried all the guests simultaneously.

“Well, this is just what amuses me,” said Monte Cristo. “I am like Nero—cupitor impossibilium; and that is what is amusing you at this moment. This fish, which seems so exquisite to you, is very likely no better than perch or salmon; but it seemed impossible to procure it, and here it is.”

“But how could you have these fish brought to France?”

“Oh, nothing more easy. Each fish was brought over in a cask—one filled with river herbs and weeds, the other with rushes and lake plants; they were placed in a wagon built on purpose, and thus the sterlet lived twelve days, the lamprey eight, and both were alive when my cook seized them, killing one with milk and the other with wine. You do not believe me, M. Danglars!”

“I cannot help doubting,” answered Danglars with his stupid smile.

“Baptistin,” said the count, “have the other fish brought in—the sterlet and the lamprey which came in the other casks, and which are yet alive.” Danglars opened his bewildered eyes; the company clapped their hands. Four servants carried in two casks covered with aquatic plants, and in each of which was breathing a fish similar to those on the table.

“But why have two of each sort?” asked Danglars.

“Merely because one might have died,” carelessly answered Monte Cristo.

“You are certainly an extraordinary man,” said Danglars; “and philosophers may well say it is a fine thing to be rich.”

“And to have ideas,” added Madame Danglars.

“Oh, do not give me credit for this, madame; it was done by the Romans, who much esteemed them, and Pliny relates that they sent slaves from Ostia to Rome, who carried on their heads fish which he calls the mulus, and which, from the description, must probably be the goldfish. It was also considered a luxury to have them alive, it being an amusing sight to see them die, for, when dying, they change color three or four times, and like the rainbow when it disappears, pass through all the prismatic shades, after which they were sent to the kitchen. Their agony formed part of their merit—if they were not seen alive, they were despised when dead.”

“Yes,” said Debray, “but then Ostia is only a few leagues from Rome.”

“True,” said Monte Cristo; “but what would be the use of living eighteen hundred years after Lucullus, if we can do no better than he could?” The two Cavalcanti opened their enormous eyes, but had the good sense not to say anything. “All this is very extraordinary,” said Chateau-Renaud; “still, what I admire the most, I confess, is the marvellous promptitude with which your orders are executed. Is it not true that you only bought this house five or six days ago?”

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