Albert shows the Count personally around his lodgings, including his many curios and fine paintings; he is surprised that the Count can identify each one by painter and year. They stop in front of a portrait of a young woman, whom the Count praises as Albert’s mistress. But Albert corrects him, saying it’s a portrait of his mother by a famous painter, looking beautiful but melancholic. Although Albert says that it is his favorite image of his mother, he begs the Count not to mention the work in front of M. de Morcerf, who does not like to speak of it.
This scene foreshadows the difficult life that Mercedes lives in her household with Fernand. Although Mercedes looks from the outside to be a lady of leisure and part of a wealthy, upper-class home, what is known to the painter who painted her image is known to the reader of the book – that she cannot really be happy in Paris, because she is married to the wrong man, and because she believes that Dantes is dead or languishing in prison.
They continue on their tour of the room, with the Count asking questions about the family’s herald and about where the family has come from initially. Albert is convinced that the family’s noble title has existed many generations in the past, and he also notes that the family’s roots are in Catalonia and in Provence, near Marseille. At this the Count gives a knowing and ironical look but betrays no emotion. Very soon thereafter, the Count de Morcerf enters the room.
This is another piece of foreshadowing, and also of dramatic irony. The Count knows, and the reader knows, that the “Morcerf” family is really from the lower-class fisherman’s section of Marseille, Les Catalans. And this scene tips ahead toward the later revelation that Fernand is not, in fact, of high birth originally – and thus Albert isn’t, either.
Morcerf and Monte Cristo meet for the first time, with Monte Cristo asking more questions about Morcerf and his family. Since we have last heard of Fernand, he has risen highly in the ranks of the French army, to a commanding position with a sign of the Legion of Honor awarded to him—and has now given up a military life for a post in the upper house of the French Parliament. The narrator notes that, in the extravagance of his praise for Fernand’s achievements, the Count would seem only to the most perceptive ear actually to be mocking his host.
Here, the narrator takes pains to make clear what the reader already knows, but what no one else in the scene could know. Albert does not understand the Count’s relationship to his father, and indeed Fernand doesn’t recognize the Count at all – he believes him simply to be a nobleman who saved his son from a bad scrape in Rome. But the Count is beginning to set his plan for vengeance in action.
The Countess de Morcerf soon enters. Of course, she is Mercedes, whom the Count has not seen for many years. And although Fernand seems to have no idea who the Count is, Mercedes is immediately struck, flushed, almost entirely pale. She thanks the Count of Monte Cristo for saving her son’s life in Rome, and asks that he come back again to visit them. Fernand de Morcerf leaves to go for another meeting in parliament, and Monte Cristo takes his leave to attend to his new house on the Champs-Elysees. When Monte Cristo leaves, Mercedes warns her son about him and asks for smelling salts, wondering aloud whether Fernand has noticed how surprised and jolted Mercedes was when the Count set foot in the Morcerf home. Albert, not understanding his mother’s distress, said his father seemed perfectly comfortable with the presence of Monte Cristo.
Even though the reader has been prepared, through various mentions in the previous forty chapters, that this woman is in fact Mercedes, it is nevertheless with a mixture of suspense and excitement that she is “introduced” to the Count here. It is then a powerful moment when Mercedes responds to the Count’s presence with a look of strickenness, of feeling completely overwhelmed. What is perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Mercedes is then able to hold herself together, even on the deep suspicion that the man standing before her is none other than her long-lost beloved, Dantes.