From The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas first won fame as a playwright with his tragedy Henri III in 1829, solidifying his successes with historical novels, among them The Three Musketeers of 1844. Known for squandering his vast fortune, he purportedly remarked days before his death, pointing to a coin, “Fifty years ago, when I first entered Paris, I had one louis. Why have they accused me of being extravagant? I have kept that louis. See, there it is!”
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 draft—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 marvelous? 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. For example, you see these two fish; one brought 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. Château-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 Château-Renaud.
“And that one, if I mistake not, a lamprey.”
“Just so. Now, M. Danglars, ask these gentlemen where they are caught.”
“Sterlets,” said Château-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 [one who desires the impossible], 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!”
The Kitchen Table, by Paul Cézanne, c. 1889. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
“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?”