Rodolph, the grand duke of Gerolstein, a small German state, is a handsome young man in his thirties in 1838. Behind him lay a strange past. As a youth, he had been brought up in his father’s court by an evil tutor named Polidori, who had done his best to warp and confuse the young prince’s mind. Polidori had been urged on by the beautiful but sinister Lady Sarah Macgregor, who was told in her youth that she was destined someday to be a queen.
Sarah has decided that Rodolph, heir to a duchy, will be the perfect husband for her. With the aid of Polidori, she forces Rodolph into a secret morganatic marriage. In England, where she has fled, she gives birth to a daughter. Rodolph’s father is furious, and he has the marriage annulled. One day, after he threatens to kill his father, Rodolph is sent into exile. Before long, Sarah loses all interest in her child and pays her Paris lawyer, Jacques Ferrand, to find a home for the girl. Ferrand gives the child into the care of some unscrupulous child takers and, after a few years, writes to Sarah and says, falsely, that the child has died. Sarah forwards the letter to Rodolph.
Rodolph moves to Paris, where he amuses himself by roaming through the slums in disguise. Although he is strong, agile, and a fine fighter, the young duke is always followed by his faithful servant, Sir Walter Murphy. Together they ferret out the secrets and mysteries of Paris streets. One night, Rodolph chances to save a young girl who is being attacked. When he has heard her story, he is so touched by it that he decides to help her. Fleur-de-Marie, as she is called, is an orphan who had been brought up by criminals and had been in prison. After being freed, she was recognized by her old tormentors and captured by them, drugged, made a prisoner, and compelled to suffer great indignities. Feeling that she is really innocent of the crimes into which she has been forced, Rodolph takes her to the farm of Madame Georges. The girl’s beauty, her sad plight, and her being the age his dead daughter would have been arouse his interest and pity.
Madame Georges is likewise a woman whom the duke has befriended. Her criminal husband had deserted her, and he took their son with him. Rodolph searched the streets of Paris for a clue to the whereabouts of Madame Georges’ son. At the farm, Fleur-de-Marie soon develops into a devout and delightful young woman.
Rodolph continues to live his double life. He attends diplomatic balls and the parties of thieves, and on both planes he finds much to do to help people to live better lives. At last, to learn better the secrets of Paris, he takes lodgings in a boardinghouse in one of the poorer sections of town. There he meets many needy families, and in countless ways he helps them all. One of the occupants of the house is a girl named Rigolette, who had been Fleur-de-Marie’s friend in prison. Rigolette is hardworking and kind, and Rodolph learns a great deal from her about the people of the house.
One day, Rodolph learns that Clémence d’Harville, the wife of one of his good friends, is involved in an affair with a lodger in the house. It does not take him long to discover that the person behind this affair, plotting the destruction of d’Harville and his wife, is Lady Sarah Macgregor. As soon as he can, Rodolph warns Clémence and saves her from her folly. Clémence is unfortunate in that she has been forced into marriage with d’Harville by her mother-in-law, for she does not love her husband. Because he and their daughter are subject to epileptic seizures, her life is an unhappy one. By chance, d’Harville learns of his wife’s unhappiness and contrives to commit suicide in such a way that everyone thinks his death accidental. By this act, he saves Clémence from greater unhappiness and atones for the evil he had committed in marrying her.
While staying at the lodging house, Rodolph learns of the numerous evil deeds of the hypocritical lawyer, Jacques Ferrand. When...
(The entire section is 1631 words.)