It is late February, 1814, and a three-masted ship called the Pharaon docks near the coastal port of Marseille. A pilot guides the ship toward its docking place with skill, and his first mate, a young man with “fine dark eyes” and dark hair, watches him. The owner of the ship, a man named Monsieur (M.) Morrel, rows up to the Pharaon in a small boat and senses that something has gone wrong during the voyage from Smyrna. The young man, who is identified as Dantes, announces that the captain of the ship, named Leclere, has died of a fever during the voyage. Dantes reports to the anxious Morrel that, in spite of this, the cargo has been saved. Morrel is relieved to hear it.
Although the death of the original captain of the ship is never mentioned again, it is Leclere’s untimely demise that creates a vacancy within the hierarchy of the Pharaon, allowing Dantes to ascend to the position of captain. This event, referred to only in passing for a few pages, introduces several elements that will recur in the novel: characters’ demises, either by illness or violence; the power of mischance, fate, or ill-luck to influence events; and the notion that, in any life, people must choose how to respond to and make the best of events that are beyond their immediate control.
Dantes welcomes Morrel aboard the ship and readies it for “mooring and mourning.” Morrel meets with a man named Danglars, who, as the “supercargo” of the ship, is in charge of the precious cargo it carries. Danglars reports, like Dantes, that that cargo is safe. Morrel has learned from Danglars that the ship, on its way to Marseille, stopped off at Elba, and Morrel calls Dantes back over, asking Dantes to explain to him why he ordered for this additional port that was not called for in the ship’s log. (Danglars, meanwhile, is out of earshot.) Dantes replies that it was Capt. Leclere’s dying wish that a packet be given over at Elba to a man named Marshal Bertrand, a close associate of the deposed Emperor Napoleon, who is living at Elba in exile.
This passage introduces the presence of the Emperor Napoleon into the text. Napoleon was deposed from power in 1814, but was removed only to a small island, Elba, relatively close to the European mainland. Thus, in 1814 and 1815, Napoleon’s presence on Elba created a feeling—especially among supporters of the Royalist faction on the continent—that Napoleon might return. This fear was corroborated by the presence of small societies of devoted Napoleonic sympathizers in Europe’s capitals. It is revealed that Villefort’s father Noirtier belongs to one of these.
Dantes also mentions to Morrel and Danglars that he caught sight of, and spoke to, Napoleon at Elba. Napoleon asked after the ship, and when Dantes said that he worked for a man named Morrel, Napoleon replied that he once served in the army with Morrel’s uncle, which Morrel confirms. Morrel tells Dantes that this stop-off was therefore authorized and acceptable, although he warns Dantes that he might be “compromised” if authorities in France learned that he had communicated material to the deposed Emperor. Returning to the conversation after Dantes is excused, Danglars mentions that Dantes has also received a letter from Capt. Leclere to deliver to Morrel.
Although Dantes is a very young man when this interaction occurs, he gives no indication, to Morrel or anyone else, that he was overawed of or scared by the Emperor, still one of the most powerful and imposing presences in Europe. This indicates a quality that Dantes will possess going forward – a cool, steely resolve to do what he knows he must do, when he must do it. As the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes will go on to rub shoulders with a great many famous and influential people in Paris, Rome, and elsewhere.
Morrel calls Dantes back over to finally discharge him of his present duties on the ship. Morrel asks if Dantes will join him for dinner that night, but Dantes politely declines, saying he must see to his father, about whom he’s worried, and to his fiancée, a beautiful woman of Catalan descent named Mercedes. Morrel asks if Dantes has a letter from Leclere to give to him, and Dantes says that he does not—that Leclere was in fact in no state to write a letter at all. Dantes also reports, on Morrel’s questioning, that Danglars is a well-qualified supercargo and that he would retain him in that role, although the two of them did get in a fight onboard, near an island called “Monte Cristo.” Dantes requests two weeks’ leave to marry Mercedes and to go to Paris, which Morrel grants. Morrel also names him provisional captain of the Pharaon, pending the approval of his partner. About this, Dantes is thrilled, and he departs for the shore quickly.
This scene introduces two important characteristics of two important, and in a sense diametrically opposed, characters. Upon his return to Marseille, Dantes’ only thoughts are to check in on his father and on Mercedes, his betrothed. Danglars, for his part, immediately distrusts what he sees as Dantes’ ability to move up the ranks, and Dantes’ close relationship to Morrel, boss of the shipping company. Thus, even before Danglars launches his plot to place Dantes in prison, he has a sense that Dantes has become involved in sensitive business between the former ship’s captain and Napoleon – and Danglars vows to use this knowledge to his advantage, and to Dantes’ disadvantage, however he might be able.