Excerpt from The Black Count by Tom Reiss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Black Count

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

by Tom Reiss

The Black Count
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2012, 432 pages
    May 2013, 432 pages

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the sugar factory

Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie—father of the future Alex Dumas—was born on February 26, 1714, in the Norman province of Caux, a region of rolling dairy farms that hung above great chalk cliffs on the northwest coast of France. A scrawled scrap of paper from the time states that he was baptized "without ceremony, at home, because of the peril of death," suggesting he was too sickly to risk bringing in to the local church. He was the firstborn son of an old family that possessed a castle, a scarcity of cash, and an abundance of conniving members, though Antoine would one day outdo them all.

The boy survived, but the following year his sovereign, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, died after seventy-two years on the throne. As he lay dying, the old king counseled his heir, his five-year-old great-grandson: "I loved war too much, do not imitate me in this, nor in my excessive spending habits." The five-year-old presumably nodded earnestly. His reign, as Louis XV, would be marked by a cycle of spending and wars so extravagantly wasteful and unproductive that they would bring shame not only on his person but on the institution of the French monarchy itself.

But the profligate, war-driven habits of its kings could not hold France back. In fact the "Great Nation" was about to unleash the age of the philosophes, the Enlightenment, and all that would follow from it. Frenchmen were about to shake the world into the modern age. Before they could do that, they would need money. Big money.

Big money was not to be found in Normandy, and certainly not around the Pailleterie château. The family's coat of arms—three golden eagles holding a golden ring on an azure background—looked impressive but meant little. The Davy de la Pailleteries were provincial aristocrats from a region more abounding in old glories than in current accounts. Their fortune was not enough to sustain grandeur without work—or not for more than one generation.

Still, a title was a title, and as the oldest son, Antoine would eventually claim the title of "marquis" and the ancestral estate of Bielleville that went with it. Next in succession after Antoine were his two younger brothers—Charles Anne Edouard (Charles), born in 1716, and Louis François Thérèse (Louis), born in 1718.

Faced with their limited prospects in Normandy, all three Pailleterie brothers sought their fortunes in the army, which then accepted nobles as young as twelve into its commissioned ranks. Antoine received a commission in the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie, an up-and-coming branch of the service, as a second lieutenant at sixteen. His brothers soon followed him as teenage junior officers. The Pailleterie brothers were kept busy by His Majesty's plunge, in 1734, into the War of the Polish Succession, one of a series of dynastic conflicts that regularly provided excuses for the gory quaintness of eighteenth-century European combat. The big-power rivals behind this little war were the traditional competitors for European land domination, the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs, France and Austria. (England would soon play a bigger role, especially on the high seas and in the New World, but that was still one or two wars in the future.)

In addition to his commission in the artillery, Antoine served at the front as gentleman in the entourage of the Prince de Conti, the king's dashing, fabulously rich cousin. Antoine saw his main action at the Siege of Philipsburg, in 1734—later written into the military annals by Karl von Clausewitz, in On War, as the "perfect example of how not to site a fortress. Its location was that of an idiot standing with his nose against the wall." Voltaire was also there, fleeing a royal arrest warrant, and working as a kind of one-man eighteenth-century USO show during the siege, offering bons mots and brandy between bouts of battle and composing odes to the military men.

Excerpted from The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Reiss. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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