The narrative shifts substantially, to the year 1838 (some seven years after the events of the previous chapter) and to Italy, where two nobles are planning to celebrate the Roman festivities of Carnival. The men are Albert de Morcerf (briefly mentioned in an earlier chapter as the son of Fernand) and someone named Baron Franz d’Epinay. Franz has lived in Italy for some years, and Albert, a scion of the important Morcerf family in Paris, is on his first tour of the country, with Franz as his guide.
This is a jarring turn in the novel, and perhaps its most remarkable pivot. Franz and Albert initially seem worlds away from Dantes and his tale of anguish and revenge. Franz and Albert have a great deal of time on their hands; they are young, handsome, and wealthy; and they insist on having a good time together, wherever they go.
Albert and Franz book rooms in a choice location in Rome through a hotelier named Pastrini, and Albert then leaves Franz, for a brief time, to head to Naples in the few weeks before Carnival. Franz, for his part, becomes bored of Florence, where he is staying, and wishes to travel to parts of Italy he has not yet seen. He goes first to Elba, and then, hoping to hunt, spots an island that his guide, a man named Gaetano, tells him is called Monte Cristo. Gaetano says that he and his men can row Franz out to the island, but that it is an occasionally dangerous place, a port for smugglers looking to “cool off” for a few days and hide from the authorities. This piques Franz’s interest, and he, Gaetano, and some of the other guides row out to Monte Cristo so that Franz might have a look around.
Franz is in search of an authentic-seeming adventure as he travels around outside France. He is, as the narrator describes, a perfect exemplar of a certain kind of French nobility. He is interested in adventuring for its own sake, and in associating with people he considers to be close to adventure. He also has a special interest in places that seem foreign, exciting, and new. Thus Monte Cristo is a perfect location for Franz to investigate – a place that, though close to western Europe, seems to be filled with shady and fascinating characters.
Gaetano and Franz approach the island warily, and Gaetano, when they are close by, reveals to Franz that there seem to be some smugglers by the fire on its coast, cooking a goat. Gaetano reveals that he himself is a “bit of a smuggler,” and should be able to speak to the others on the island and to welcome Franz onshore, if he so wishes. Franz appears intrigued, and so Gaetano and Franz make their way ashore and speak politely with the smugglers, who, Gaetano notes, are traveling as part of the crew of a man named Sinbad the Sailor.
Gaetano has been hiding his own identity, in a mild and subtle way, from Franz. Gaetano mentions that he smuggles because, as he elaborates to Franz, he must do a little bit of everything to survive. This mentality of bendable rules and men who work at the margins of society will come to dominate this portion of the novel set in Italy – in which most characters appear to be engaged in some form or another of gray-market activity.
The sailors of Sinbad’s crew ask Franz if, as a tourist, he might not be interested in some of the wonders that Monte Cristo has on display. Franz is indeed intrigued, and Gaetano seems to indicate that Franz can trust these men. Franz agrees to be led to a palace of wonders, below-ground, controlled by “His Excellency” Sinbad the Sailor, and the men of the Genoan boat blindfold Franz and lead him underground, until he is in a place that feels, from the carpet and its smells, as sumptuous as a palace. When the sailors pull off Franz’s blindfold, he finds himself before Sinbad the Sailor, a man of great beauty and power of gaze, dressed as a Turkish sultan, and the “ruler” of this small underground palace-world of Monte Cristo.
This is the reader’s first full view of the underground caves of Monte Cristo. Although nothing is made explicit here, the reader can surmise that these caves, and their master Sinbad, are the same caves Dantes visited earlier on. What’s not immediately explained is where, for example, all the furnishings of the cave came from, or how Dantes was able to transport all this material to the spot without anyone noticing. But the island’s status as a smuggler’s cove, and the intervening years mentioned at the start of this chapter, appear sufficient to justify that Dantes has had ample time to outfit his home base on the island.
Franz cannot believe his eyes, and he and Sinbad have a sumptuous and delicious meal, which Franz repeatedly says must be taken from one of the tales of the 1001 Arabian Nights. They are served by a Tunisian man, Ali, who is unable to speak. Franz asks, perceptively, if Sinbad is a man who has “suffered much in life”—he notes that, in particular, his host seems to be someone who is bent on revenge. Although Sinbad says he travels all the time, as his namesake Sinbad the Sailor does in the Arabian Nights, he is not a tortured soul, but rather a soul whose every moment is delight and pleasure. He says, however, that Franz might be able to do him a favor one day, introducing him to Parisian society, playing host to him as Sinbad hosts Franz now on the mysterious island of Monte Cristo.
This is an important reference to a significant literary work. The 1,001 Arabian Nights are a set of Middle-Eastern tales organized around a central conceit: that the teller of these tales, a woman named Scheherazade, be allowed each night to survive the cruelty of the king if she can pick up her story the following night. This leads to an interlocking series of narratives whose focus is more on the unspooling of action, adventure, and romance than it is on closure – on the individual endings of particular stories. This idea of a long, continuing narrative is therefore reflected in the structure of The Count of Monte Cristo itself, which unfolds to over 1200 pages.
At the close of the meal, which has prompted Franz to remark with wonder at the furnishings around him and the delicacy of the food, Sinbad offers Franz a delicious “sweetmeat” which he reveals to be hashish, and which Sinbad takes in jellied form while reposing on a couch. Franz, initially wary of such a forbidden drug, takes some and has a reverie on a couch nearby, in which the women, carved in marble and adorning the room in the cave in which they sit, are tempting him and kissing him. This sexual dream goes on for some time, with the paintings and sculptures around the cave turning into human or godlike forms, until Franz can no longer stand it, and he falls into a kind of oblivion in which Sinbad and Ali, the servant, are no longer present.
This is the introduction of another important thread in the novel. This hashish jelly is both a pleasant potion and a drug with very specific, and frightening, effects. Franz loses control of himself, and though the visions surrounding him in the cave are fundamentally harmless, they are terrifying for as long as they last, and Franz has little to say about them – he must simply endure. Although the purpose of this potion is unclear at this point, it will appear again in the Valentine-Maximilien subplot, where the Count will use it for protective rather than mysterious effect.