If the Count of Monte Cristo had been for a long time familiar with the way_f Parisian society, he would have appreciated better the significance of th_tep which M. de Villefort had taken. Standing well at court, whether the kin_egnant was of the older or younger branch, whether the government wa_octrinaire liberal, or conservative; looked upon by all as a man of talent, since those who have never experienced a political check are generally s_egarded; hated by many, but warmly supported by others, without being reall_iked by anybody, M. de Villefort held a high position in the magistracy, an_aintained his eminence like a Harlay or a Mole. His drawing-room, under th_egenerating influence of a young wife and a daughter by his first marriage, scarcely eighteen, was still one of the well-regulated Paris salons where th_orship of traditional customs and the observance of rigid etiquette wer_arefully maintained. A freezing politeness, a strict fidelity to governmen_rinciples, a profound contempt for theories and theorists, a deep-seate_atred of ideality, — these were the elements of private and public lif_isplayed by M. de Villefort.
He was not only a magistrate, he was almost a diplomatist. His relations wit_he former court, of which he always spoke with dignity and respect, made hi_espected by the new one, and he knew so many things, that not only was h_lways carefully considered, but sometimes consulted. Perhaps this would no_ave been so had it been possible to get rid of M. de Villefort; but, like th_eudal barons who rebelled against their sovereign, he dwelt in an impregnabl_ortress. This fortress was his post as king's attorney, all the advantages o_hich he exploited with marvellous skill, and which he would not have resigne_ut to be made deputy, and thus to replace neutrality by opposition.
Ordinarily M. de Villefort made and returned very few visits. His wife visite_or him, and this was the received thing in the world, where the weighty an_ultifarious occupations of the magistrate were accepted as an excuse for wha_as really only calculated pride, a manifestation of professed superiority — in fact, the application of the axiom, "Pretend to think well of yourself, an_he world will think well of you," an axiom a hundred times more useful i_ociety nowadays than that of the Greeks, "Know thyself," a knowledge fo_hich, in our days, we have substituted the less difficult and mor_dvantageous science of knowing others.
To his friends M. de Villefort was a powerful protector; to his enemies, h_as a silent, but bitter opponent; for those who were neither the one nor th_ther, he was a statue of the law-made man. He had a haughty bearing, a loo_ither steady and impenetrable or insolently piercing and inquisitorial. Fou_uccessive revolutions had built and cemented the pedestal upon which hi_ortune was based. M. de Villefort had the reputation of being the leas_urious and the least wearisome man in France. He gave a ball every year, a_hich he appeared for a quarter of an hour only, — that is to say, five an_orty minutes less than the king is visible at his balls. He was never seen a_he theatres, at concerts, or in any place of public resort. Occasionally, bu_eldom, he played at whist, and then care was taken to select partners worth_f him — sometimes they were ambassadors, sometimes archbishops, or sometime_ prince, or a president, or some dowager duchess. Such was the man whos_arriage had just now stopped before the Count of Monte Cristo's door. Th_alet de chambre announced M. de Villefort at the moment when the count, leaning over a large table, was tracing on a map the route from St. Petersbur_o China.
The procureur entered with the same grave and measured step he would hav_mployed in entering a court of justice. He was the same man, or rather th_evelopment of the same man, whom we have heretofore seen as assistan_ttorney at Marseilles. Nature, according to her way, had made no deviation i_he path he had marked out for himself. From being slender he had now becom_eagre; once pale, he was now yellow; his deep-set eyes were hollow, and th_old spectacles shielding his eyes seemed to be an integral portion of hi_ace. He dressed entirely in black, with the exception of his white tie, an_is funeral appearance was only mitigated by the slight line of red ribbo_hich passed almost imperceptibly through his button-hole, and appeared like _treak of blood traced with a delicate brush. Although master of himself, Monte Cristo, scrutinized with irrepressible curiosity the magistrate whos_alute he returned, and who, distrustful by habit, and especially incredulou_s to social prodigies, was much more despised to look upon "the nobl_tranger," as Monte Cristo was already called, as an adventurer in search o_ew fields, or an escaped criminal, rather than as a prince of the Holy See, or a sultan of the Thousand and One Nights.
"Sir," said Villefort, in the squeaky tone assumed by magistrates in thei_ratorical periods, and of which they cannot, or will not, divest themselve_n society, "sir, the signal service which you yesterday rendered to my wif_nd son has made it a duty for me to offer you my thanks. I have come, therefore, to discharge this duty, and to express to you my overwhelmin_ratitude." And as he said this, the "eye severe" of the magistrate had los_othing of its habitual arrogance. He spoke in a voice of the procureur- general, with the rigid inflexibility of neck and shoulders which caused hi_latterers to say (as we have before observed) that he was the living statu_f the law.
"Monsieur," replied the count, with a chilling air, "I am very happy to hav_een the means of preserving a son to his mother, for they say that th_entiment of maternity is the most holy of all; and the good fortune whic_ccurred to me, monsieur, might have enabled you to dispense with a dut_hich, in its discharge, confers an undoubtedly great honor; for I am awar_hat M. de Villefort is not usually lavish of the favor which he now bestow_n me, — a favor which, however estimable, is unequal to the satisfactio_hich I have in my own consciousness." Villefort, astonished at this reply, which he by no means expected, started like a soldier who feels the blo_evelled at him over the armor he wears, and a curl of his disdainful li_ndicated that from that moment he noted in the tablets of his brain that th_ount of Monte Cristo was by no means a highly bred gentleman. He glance_round. in order to seize on something on which the conversation might turn, and seemed to fall easily on a topic. He saw the map which Monte Cristo ha_een examining when he entered, and said, "You seem geographically engaged, sir? It is a rich study for you, who, as I learn, have seen as many lands a_re delineated on this map."
"Yes, sir," replied the count; "I have sought to make of the human race, take_n the mass, what you practice every day on individuals — a physiologica_tudy. I have believed it was much easier to descend from the whole to a par_han to ascend from a part to the whole. It is an algebraic axiom, which make_s proceed from a known to an unknown quantity, and not from an unknown to _nown; but sit down, sir, I beg of you."
Monte Cristo pointed to a chair, which the procureur was obliged to take th_rouble to move forwards himself, while the count merely fell back into hi_wn, on which he had been kneeling when M. Villefort entered. Thus the coun_as halfway turned towards his visitor, having his back towards the window, his elbow resting on the geographical chart which furnished the theme o_onversation for the moment, — a conversation which assumed, as in the case o_he interviews with Danglars and Morcerf, a turn analogous to the persons, i_ot to the situation. "Ah, you philosophize," replied Villefort, after _oment's silence, during which, like a wrestler who encounters a powerfu_pponent, he took breath; "well, sir, really, if, like you, I had nothing els_o do, I should seek a more amusing occupation."
"Why, in truth, sir," was Monte Cristo's reply, "man is but an ugl_aterpillar for him who studies him through a solar microscope; but you said, I think, that I had nothing else to do. Now, really, let me ask, sir, hav_ou? — do you believe you have anything to do? or to speak in plain terms, d_ou really think that what you do deserves being called anything?"
Villefort's astonishment redoubled at this second thrust so forcibly made b_is strange adversary. It was a long time since the magistrate had heard _aradox so strong, or rather, to say the truth more exactly, it was the firs_ime he had ever heard of it. The procureur exerted himself to reply. "Sir,"
he responded, "you are a stranger, and I believe you say yourself that _ortion of your life has been spent in Oriental countries, so you are no_ware how human justice, so expeditions in barbarous countries, takes with u_ prudent and well-studied course."
"Oh, yes — yes, I do, sir; it is the pede claudo of the ancients. I know al_hat, for it is with the justice of all countries especially that I hav_ccupied myself — it is with the criminal procedure of all nations that I hav_ompared natural justice, and I must say, sir, that it is the law of primitiv_ations, that is, the law of retaliation, that I have most frequently found t_e according to the law of God."
"If this law were adopted, sir," said the procureur, "it would greatl_implify our legal codes, and in that case the magistrates would not (as yo_ust observed) have much to do."
"It may, perhaps, come to this in time," observed Monte Cristo; "you know tha_uman inventions march from the complex to the simple, and simplicity i_lways perfection."
"In the meanwhile," continued the magistrate, "our codes are in full force, with all their contradictory enactments derived from Gallic customs, Roma_aws, and Frank usages; the knowledge of all which, you will agree, is not t_e acquired without extended labor; it needs tedious study to acquire thi_nowledge, and, when acquired, a strong power of brain to retain it."
"I agree with you entirely, sir; but all that even you know with respect t_he French code, I know, not only in reference to that code, but as regard_he codes of all nations. The English, Turkish, Japanese, Hindu laws, are a_amiliar to me as the French laws, and thus I was right, when I said to you, that relatively (you know that everything is relative, sir) — that relativel_o what I have done, you have very little to do; but that relatively to all _ave learned, you have yet a great deal to learn."
"But with what motive have you learned all this?" inquired Villefort, i_stonishment. Monte Cristo smiled. "Really, sir," he observed, "I see that i_pite of the reputation which you have acquired as a superior man, you look a_verything from the material and vulgar view of society, beginning with man, and ending with man — that is to say, in the most restricted, most narrow vie_hich it is possible for human understanding to embrace."
"Pray, sir, explain yourself," said Villefort, more and more astonished, "_eally do — not — understand you — perfectly."
"I say, sir, that with the eyes fixed on the social organization of nations, you see only the springs of the machine, and lose sight of the sublime workma_ho makes them act; I say that you do not recognize before you and around yo_ny but those office-holders whose commissions have been signed by a ministe_r king; and that the men whom God has put above those office-holders, ministers, and kings, by giving them a mission to follow out, instead of _ost to fill — I say that they escape your narrow, limited field o_bservation. It is thus that human weakness fails, from its debilitated an_mperfect organs. Tobias took the angel who restored him to light for a_rdinary young man. The nations took Attila, who was doomed to destroy them, for a conqueror similar to other conquerors, and it was necessary for both t_eveal their missions, that they might be known and acknowledged; one wa_ompelled to say, `I am the angel of the Lord'; and the other, `I am th_ammer of God,' in order that the divine essence in both might be revealed."
"Then," said Villefort, more and more amazed, and really supposing he wa_peaking to a mystic or a madman, "you consider yourself as one of thos_xtraordinary beings whom you have mentioned?"
"And why not?" said Monte Cristo coldly.
"Your pardon, sir," replied Villefort, quite astounded, "but you will excus_e if, when I presented myself to you, I was unaware that I should meet with _erson whose knowledge and understanding so far surpass the usual knowledg_nd understanding of men. It is not usual with us corrupted wretches o_ivilization to find gentlemen like yourself, possessors, as you are, o_mmense fortune — at least, so it is said — and I beg you to observe that I d_ot inquire, I merely repeat; — it is not usual, I say, for such privilege_nd wealthy beings to waste their time in speculations on the state o_ociety, in philosophical reveries, intended at best to console those who_ate has disinherited from the goods of this world."
"Really, sir," retorted the count, "have you attained the eminent situation i_hich you are, without having admitted, or even without having met wit_xceptions? and do you never use your eyes, which must have acquired so muc_inesse and certainty, to divine, at a glance, the kind of man by whom you ar_onfronted? Should not a magistrate be not merely the best administrator o_he law, but the most crafty expounder of the chicanery of his profession, _teel probe to search hearts, a touchstone to try the gold which in each sou_s mingled with more or less of alloy?"
"Sir," said Villefort, "upon my word, you overcome me. I really never heard _erson speak as you do."
"Because you remain eternally encircled in a round of general conditions, an_ave never dared to raise your wings into those upper spheres which God ha_eopled with invisible or exceptional beings."
"And you allow then, sir, that spheres exist, and that these marked an_nvisible beings mingle amongst us?"
"Why should they not? Can you see the air you breathe, and yet without whic_ou could not for a moment exist?"
"Then we do not see those beings to whom you allude?"
"Yes, we do; you see them whenever God pleases to allow them to assume _aterial form. You touch them, come in contact with them, speak to them, an_hey reply to you."
"Ah," said Villefort, smiling, "I confess I should like to be warned when on_f these beings is in contact with me."
"You have been served as you desire, monsieur, for you were warned just now, and I now again warn you."
"Then you yourself are one of these marked beings?"
"Yes, monsieur, I believe so; for until now, no man has found himself in _osition similar to mine. The dominions of kings are limited either b_ountains or rivers, or a change of manners, or an alteration of language. M_ingdom is bounded only by the world, for I am not an Italian, or a Frenchman, or a Hindu, or an American, or a Spaniard — I am a cosmopolite. No country ca_ay it saw my birth. God alone knows what country will see me die. I adopt al_ustoms, speak all languages. You believe me to be a Frenchman, for I spea_rench with the same facility and purity as yourself. Well, Ali, my Nubian, believes me to be an Arab; Bertuccio, my steward, takes me for a Roman; Haidee, my slave, thinks me a Greek. You may, therefore, comprehend, tha_eing of no country, asking no protection from any government, acknowledgin_o man as my brother, not one of the scruples that arrest the powerful, or th_bstacles which paralyze the weak, paralyzes or arrests me. I have only tw_dversaries — I will not say two conquerors, for with perseverance I subdu_ven them, — they are time and distance. There is a third, and the mos_errible — that is my condition as a mortal being. This alone can stop me i_y onward career, before I have attained the goal at which I aim, for all th_est I have reduced to mathematical terms. What men call the chances of fate — namely, ruin, change, circumstances — I have fully anticipated, and if any o_hese should overtake me, yet it will not overwhelm me. Unless I die, I shal_lways be what I am, and therefore it is that I utter the things you hav_ever heard, even from the mouths of kings — for kings have need, and othe_ersons have fear of you. For who is there who does not say to himself, in _ociety as incongruously organized as ours, `Perhaps some day I shall have t_o with the king's attorney'?"
"But can you not say that, sir? The moment you become an inhabitant of France, you are naturally subjected to the French law."
"I know it sir," replied Monte Cristo; "but when I visit a country I begin t_tudy, by all the means which are available, the men from whom I may hav_nything to hope or to fear, till I know them as well as, perhaps better than, they know themselves. It follows from this, that the king's attorney, be h_ho he may, with whom I should have to deal, would assuredly be mor_mbarrassed than I should."
"That is to say," replied Villefort with hesitation, "that human nature bein_eak, every man, according to your creed, has committed faults."
"Faults or crimes," responded Monte Cristo with a negligent air.
"And that you alone, amongst the men whom you do not recognize as you_rothers — for you have said so," observed Villefort in a tone that faltere_omewhat — "you alone are perfect."
"No, not perfect," was the count's reply; "only impenetrable, that's all. Bu_et us leave off this strain, sir, if the tone of it is displeasing to you; _m no more disturbed by your justice than are you by my second-sight."
"No, no, — by no means," said Villefort, who was afraid of seeming to abando_is ground. "No; by your brilliant and almost sublime conversation you hav_levated me above the ordinary level; we no longer talk, we rise t_issertation. But you know how the theologians in their collegiate chairs, an_hilosophers in their controversies, occasionally say cruel truths; let u_uppose for the moment that we are theologizing in a social way, or eve_hilosophically, and I will say to you, rude as it may seem, `My brother, yo_acrifice greatly to pride; you may be above others, but above you there i_od.'"
"Above us all, sir," was Monte Cristo's response, in a tone and with a_mphasis so deep that Villefort involuntarily shuddered. "I have my pride fo_en — serpents always ready to threaten every one who would pass withou_rushing them under foot. But I lay aside that pride before God, who has take_e from nothing to make me what I am."
"Then, count, I admire you," said Villefort, who, for the first time in thi_trange conversation, used the aristocratic form to the unknown personage, whom, until now, he had only called monsieur. "Yes, and I say to you, if yo_re really strong, really superior, really pious, or impenetrable, which yo_ere right in saying amounts to the same thing — then be proud, sir, for tha_s the characteristic of predominance. Yet you have unquestionably som_mbition."
"I have, sir."
"And what may it be?"
"I too, as happens to every man once in his life, have been taken by Sata_nto the highest mountain in the earth, and when there he showed me all th_ingdoms of the world, and as he said before, so said he to me, `Child o_arth, what wouldst thou have to make thee adore me?' I reflected long, for _nawing ambition had long preyed upon me, and then I replied, `Listen, — _ave always heard of providence, and yet I have never seen him, or anythin_hat resembles him, or which can make me believe that he exists. I wish to b_rovidence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublim_hing in the world, is to recompense and punish.' Satan bowed his head, an_roaned. `You mistake,' he said, `providence does exist, only you have neve_een him, because the child of God is as invisible as the parent. You hav_een nothing that resembles him, because he works by secret springs, and move_y hidden ways. All I can do for you is to make you one of the agents of tha_rovidence.' The bargain was concluded. I may sacrifice my soul, but wha_atters it?" added Monte Cristo. "If the thing were to do again, I would agai_o it." Villefort looked at Monte Cristo with extreme amazement. "Count," h_nquired, "have you any relations?"
"No, sir, I am alone in the world."
"So much the worse."
"Why?" asked Monte Cristo.
"Because then you might witness a spectacle calculated to break down you_ride. You say you fear nothing but death?"
"I did not say that I feared it; I only said that death alone could check th_xecution of my plans."
"And old age?"
"My end will be achieved before I grow old."
"I have been nearly mad; and you know the axiom, — non bis in idem. It is a_xiom of criminal law, and, consequently, you understand its ful_pplication."
"Sir," continued Villefort, "there is something to fear besides death, ol_ge, and madness. For instance, there is apoplexy — that lightning-strok_hich strikes but does not destroy you, and yet which brings everything to a_nd. You are still yourself as now, and yet you are yourself no longer; yo_ho, like Ariel, verge on the angelic, are but an inert mass, which, lik_aliban, verges on the brutal; and this is called in human tongues, as I tel_ou, neither more nor less than apoplexy. Come, if so you will, count, an_ontinue this conversation at my house, any day you may be willing to see a_dversary capable of understanding and anxious to refute you, and I will sho_ou my father, M. Noirtier de Villefort, one of the most fiery Jacobins of th_rench Revolution; that is to say, he had the most remarkable audacity, seconded by a most powerful organization — a man who has not, perhaps, lik_ourself seen all the kingdoms of the earth, but who has helped to overtur_ne of the greatest; in fact, a man who believed himself, like you, one of th_nvoys, not of God, but of a supreme being; not of providence, but of fate.
Well, sir, the rupture of a blood-vessel on the lobe of the brain ha_estroyed all this, not in a day, not in an hour, but in a second. M.
Noirtier, who, on the previous night, was the old Jacobin, the old senator, the old Carbonaro, laughing at the guillotine, the cannon, and the dagger — M.
Noirtier, playing with revolutions — M. Noirtier, for whom France was a vas_hess-board, from which pawns, rooks, knights, and queens were to disappear, so that the king was checkmated — M. Noirtier, the redoubtable, was the nex_orning `poor M. Noirtier,' the helpless old man, at the tender mercies of th_eakest creature in the household, that is, his grandchild, Valentine; a dum_nd frozen carcass, in fact, living painlessly on, that time may be given fo_is frame to decompose without his consciousness of its decay."
"Alas, sir," said Monte Cristo "this spectacle is neither strange to my ey_or my thought. I am something of a physician, and have, like my fellows, sought more than once for the soul in living and in dead matter; yet, lik_rovidence, it has remained invisible to my eyes, although present to m_eart. A hundred writers since Socrates, Seneca, St. Augustine, and Gall, hav_ade, in verse and prose, the comparison you have made, and yet I can wel_nderstand that a father's sufferings may effect great changes in the mind o_ son. I will call on you, sir, since you bid me contemplate, for th_dvantage of my pride, this terrible spectacle, which must have been so grea_ source of sorrow to your family."
"It would have been so unquestionably, had not God given me so large _ompensation. In contrast with the old man, who is dragging his way to th_omb, are two children just entering into life — Valentine, the daughter by m_irst wife — Mademoiselle Renee de Saint-Meran — and Edward, the boy whos_ife you have this day saved."
"And what is your deduction from this compensation, sir?" inquired Mont_risto.
"My deduction is," replied Villefort, "that my father, led away by hi_assions, has committed some fault unknown to human justice, but marked by th_ustice of God. That God, desirous in his mercy to punish but one person, ha_isited this justice on him alone." Monte Cristo with a smile on his lips, uttered in the depths of his soul a groan which would have made Villefort fl_ad he but heard it. "Adieu, sir," said the magistrate, who had risen from hi_eat; "I leave you, bearing a remembrance of you — a remembrance of esteem, which I hope will not be disagreeable to you when you know me better; for I a_ot a man to bore my friends, as you will learn. Besides, you have made a_ternal friend of Madame de Villefort." The count bowed, and contented himsel_ith seeing Villefort to the door of his cabinet, the procureur being escorte_o his carriage by two footmen, who, on a signal from their master, followe_im with every mark of attention. When he had gone, Monte Cristo breathed _rofound sigh, and said, — "Enough of this poison, let me now seek th_ntidote." Then sounding his bell, he said to Ali, who entered, "I am going t_adam's chamber — have the carriage ready at one o'clock."