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A French Gentleman Extraordinaire
The world’s great literature reflects and reveals human character and the character of Life. Among the greatest writers of fiction, the 19th Century French novelist Alexander Dumas ranks very near the top. Best known for The Count of Monte Cristo and the swashbuckling adventures of the Three Musketeers, Dumas’s novels are as rich in insights as they are exciting to read. In Three Musketeers and its four sequels ending with Man in the Iron Mask, he traces the careers of four larger-than-life heroes during the reign of France’s greatest monarch, King Louis XIV. The incidents narrated in this article are from the third novel of the series, The Vicomte de Bragalonne.
Each of his four heroes depicts a different dimension of human character with unique brilliance. But of the four, the most remarkable is the man called Athos, the Count de la Fere, who embodies in every fiber and action of his being the qualities of a gentleman. Honor, fearless courage, unwavering truthfulness, generosity, humility, gentleness, discretion, patience and silence are prominent characteristics which the name of Athos calls to mind. He shares what he has with others and never makes a claim, even on those he has aided. He scrupulously avoids any subject that may cause discomfort or embarrassment to a companion, while keeping his own problems to himself, rather than imposing his suffering on others. Any one of these attributes taken to a high level would mark a person as extraordinary. Found together in one person, they indicate the presence of a highly evolved soul behind the human garb of a nobleman-soldier. Contemplating the beauty of his character leaves the reader as speechless as his nobility of behavior left his friends and acquaintances in the novels.
Biographical details provide the physical facts of a persons’ life but they barely reveal the man who is great of soul. Born a nobleman, married at a young age to a beautiful but evil woman, disheartened and disillusioned by the falsehood and ugliness he found around him, Athos enlists as a common soldier in the king’s musketeers, concealing his past from all but his most intimate friends. After serving with courage and distinction, discolored by the bitterness of disappointed youth, he leaves the military at age 30 to manage his family estate and raise his son, Raoul. In the midst of this quiet pastoral existence, life seeks him out and confronts him with challenges that call forth the inner strength and greatness of this quiet, modest man.
As great dancers and gymnasts are known for the flowing ease, graceful beauty and flawless perfection of their physical movements, the true gentleman is marked by an artist’s flawless perfection in his interactions and relationships with other people. Such perfect behavior cannot arise from the selfish, egoistic motives that normally guide human beings. One who lives entirely for himself cannot be utterly truthful, generous, selfless and good. Even perfection in the most external manners is not possible without a corresponding purity of thought and self-mastery over one’s impulses. These qualities are only for the soul that aspires to transcend his limited, separate existence and live for something wider and higher than itself.
The true gentleman is one who believes in and values something greater than himself and dedicates his life to serving that higher ideal and values. For Athos, the ideals were honor and the crown. To him, honor means to be absolutely truthful in word and deed, never to speak a false word or break a promise given, never to shrink from duty or place one’s own interests before the interests of others, never to refuse a request for help or forget a help bestowed by others, never to hesitate to do what is right out of concern for one’s own safety.
Athos combines this personal credo with a total dedication of his mind and body to service of the monarchy. Although kingship has long since lost its luster and social value, Athos lived at a crucial stage in the social evolution of humanity when nation-states were still evolving from the smaller social units of feudal Europe, a movement which will ultimately lead to human unity. In those days, the monarchy was the embodiment of a nation’s soul. Service to the crown was self-giving to one’s own universal being. Kings could be all too human, self-serving, ruthless and even evil, but the power they represented was the power for social evolution. Athos cherished that power and dedicated himself to supporting it.
Having served two kings of France with honor and distinction, Athos extended his loyalty to the principle of monarchy in general. When the old king of France died and his son had not yet come of age, Athos risked his life to liberate Prince Beaufort, a brave and honorable member of the royal family imprisoned because he had a legitimate claim to the throne. When Charles I of England was defeated and dethroned by Oliver Cromwell and his puritan army, Athos again risked his life in a vain effort to save the British monarch from execution. Here is a man who clearly valued high principles and service above his own life and personal welfare.
Let us meet Athos as the English General Monk did for the first time some 12 years after the execution of Charles I and soon after the death of Cromwell left a power vacuum in England. The country is in the midst of a civil war dominated by two military leaders. General Lambert fights for personal supremacy to rule the nation as a dictator. General Monk fights for the rule of law and Parliament without any personal ambition for power. Young Charles II, heir to the British crown, is in exiled in Holland, a king without a country, impoverished and in despair. Having been refused all aid by the French, Charles contemplates ending his own life. It is at this dire moment that Life brings aid to the powerless exile, when he unknowingly passes by the estate of Athos, is recognized by a servant, and then invited in to meet the Count.
For the first time he hears from Athos the extraordinary tale of Charles I’s last moments and learns of a vast treasure concealed by his father before death. Knowledge of its location was entrusted by the dying English king to the French nobleman Athos to be passed on at the appropriate moment to Charles II. That treasure is buried at Newcastle right in the middle of the battlefield occupied by the forces of Lambert and Monk, hopelessly beyond the reach of Charles, who lacks even a small armed force that could attempt to wrest it from his enemies. What even an army would find difficult to accomplish, Athos volunteers to undertake all by himself—an unthinkable act of boldness, courage and self-sacrifice to serve a man he has met only moments earlier and a country regarded as the enemy of France.
Athos travels to England, appears at Monk’s camp and asks for an interview with the general. He quietly introduces himself as a French nobleman without adding one extra word to impress the general, the single most powerful man in all of England. Sensing Athos to be a person of superior breeding, the general asks what distinctions his visitor holds. Athos replies in the fewest words possible that King Charles I had made him Knight of the Garter and the Queen of France had given him the Cordon of the Holy Ghost. Surprised, Monk presses to know what Athos had done to earn these highest awards from two monarchs and is astonished by the modesty of Athos’ reply, “For services rendered to their Majesties.” Monk realizes immediately that only a true gentleman of the highest nobility would have the self-effacing restraint to respond in this manner.
Monk is further astonished when he asks Athos the purpose of his visit. Athos replies that he has come to recover a treasure buried on the battlefield. Naturally suspicious of this strange visitor who shows up on an improbable mission just on the eve of the battle, Monk is nevertheless struck by the Frenchman’s presence, poise and fearlessness. Most of all he is amazed that Athos would voluntarily reveal to him the location of the treasure, trusting entirely in Monk’s honor not to betray his trust and seek the treasure for himself. Only a trustworthy person can trust others. Only a man with the highest sense of honor would have the capacity to recognize and believe in the honor of another man when so much is at stake. Had Monk felt any temptation to betray the confidence, the great complement paid to him by this gesture of trust forces him to dismiss any such consideration from his mind.
Still wary of some possible treachery, the general offers to help Athos recover the treasure and personally accompanies him to the place where it is buried. They locate the treasure and prepare to return to camp. But before leaving the spot, Athos confesses to the general that he had spoken falsely when he said earlier that the treasure was his own. He is unwilling to consciously deceive Monk and make him unknowingly serve his own enemy. So Athos explains that the treasure belongs to Charles II and that Athos plans to restore it to the young king. In doing so Athos admits that he has lied to Monk – the first lie he has told in his entire life! – and apologizes for the falsehood. Athos lies for the sake of another, not himself, and he confesses the lie while Monk still has power to stop him and even arrest him on a charge of treason.
Instead of begging the general for mercy and a personal pardon, then Athos uses the occasion to persuade Monk to support Charles II as king. He offers Monk a simple choice: “Allow me to carry the gold to Charles or keep the gold and kill me, for I will not return without it.” The general replies that had anyone else made this proposal to him, he would have had him imprisoned or worse. Monk says he knows nothing about this ‘phantom king’, Charles II, that he considers worthy of his respect or allegiance. But the general is so deeply moved by the nobility, honor, integrity and courage of the king’s emissary, Athos, that it makes him wonder whether his judgment of Charles may be wrong. He agrees to reserve his decision for seven days and asks Athos to wait at his camp till then.
Athos has done what no man can contemplate, but will it be enough to win Monk’s support for the monarchy that he has for so long opposed? Where man exhausts his effort, the Divine in the form of Life responds. Unknown to Athos, his old comrade in arms, D’Artagnan, has come to England on his own personal mission to serve Charles II. Athos has done the unthinkable. Now D’Artagnan does the unimaginable. As bold and courageous as Athos, D’Artagnan has an unparalleled intelligence to match. Disguised as a fisherman, he kidnaps Monk as he is walking unaccompanied back to his camp and carries him off to Holland in a small boat before anyone realizes he is missing. D’Artagnan presents the captured general to Charles II, who knew nothing about his scheme and is as shocked as the general by his arrival. Now Charles has the most powerful man in England within his grasp.
Stunned speechless by D’Artagnan’s unimaginably bold enterprise, Charles’ responds first with disbelief and then with amazement at the unheard-of audacity and genius of the act. But he is also fully sensitive to the deceitful, ignoble manner in which the general has been subdued and refuses to take advantage of an inglorious action. Instead of leaping at the opportunity to dispose of his enemy, he instructs D’Artagnan to escort Monk safely back to his camp in England. Now it is Monk’s term to express surprise at the noble behavior of the young gentleman king, who values his honor and sense of fairness even above the throne. Charles wins Monk’s respect and admiration by an act of honor, which he could never have taken from Monk by force. Having witnessed the true nobility of Charles, Monk makes up his mind to support Charles’ claim to the throne.
A few weeks later, Athos and D’Artagnan are on hand in London to witness the restoration of the young king. D’Artagnan is hoping that the king will express his gratitude in the form of money for services rendered. He is not disappointed. For his act of unimaginable courage, Charles bestows on him a fortune 15 times greater than his total savings from 35 years of military service. In contrast, Athos is filled with a sense of personal satisfaction for having served his cherished ideas. He expects nothing in return, not even public recognition. After the coronation, Charles calls for Athos and bestows on him a third order of highest merit – the Golden Fleece – an order held by only one other Frenchman, the King of France! Charles tells him: “I wish you to be in your country and elsewhere the equal of all those whom sovereigns have honored with their favor.”