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...
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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 Rodolph learns that Ferrand is planning the murder of Clémence’s father, he and Sir Walter Murphy succeed in thwarting the lawyer’s evil scheme. Ferrand is also responsible for the imprisonment of Rigolette’s lover. To get to the bottom of Ferrand’s plans, Rodolph remembers Cecily, a beautiful woman who had once been married to his private doctor, but who later became a depraved creature. Rodolph secures her release from prison and has her introduced into Ferrand’s household, where she can spy on his activities and learn his secrets.
Meanwhile, Sarah asks Ferrand to find a young girl whom she could claim is really her child by Rodolph, for she hopes that if she can produce the dead girl she could effect a reconciliation, now that Rodolph is the reigning duke of Gerolstein. Ferrand, learning the whereabouts of Fleur-de-Marie, hires La Chouette, an ugly one-eyed woman, and a criminal called the Schoolmaster to kidnap the girl from the farm of Madame Georges. When the Schoolmaster arrives at the farm, he discovers that Madame Georges is his wife, the woman he had deserted. He does not succeed in getting Fleur-de-Marie. Instead, she is put in jail for failing to give testimony concerning a crime she had witnessed before Rodolph had saved her from the slums. By chance, Clémence finds the girl while on a charitable errand. Not knowing that Fleur-de-Marie knows Rodolph, she tries to make the girl’s life more pleasant in prison.
When Sarah learns that Fleur-de-Marie has been under the care of Rodolph’s friends, she gets jealous and makes arrangements to have Fleur-de-Marie killed as soon as she is released from the prison. Ferrand, entrusted with plans for her death, has her released from prison by an accomplice who pretended to be an agent of Clémence d’Harville. On leaving the prison, Fleur-de-Marie meets Rigolette and tells her old friend of her fortune. Rigolette, who knows Clémence through Rodolph, is pleased. After they part, Fleur-de-Marie is seized by Ferrand’s hirelings and taken into the country, where she is thrown into the river. Some passersby, however, see her in the water and pull her ashore in time to save her life.
Meanwhile, La Chouette, learning that Fleur-de-Marie is really the daughter of Rodolph and Sarah, hurries to Sarah with her information. Sarah is shocked at the discovery. La Chouette, seeing a chance to make more money by killing Sarah and stealing her jewels, stabs her protector. The attacker escapes with the jewels and returns to the Schoolmaster to taunt him with her success. The two get into a fight, and the Schoolmaster kills La Chouette. He is captured and put into prison.
Through Cecily, Rodolph also learns that his daughter is not really dead. Cecily had had little difficulty in uncovering Ferrand’s past. As soon as he finds out what Sarah has done, Rodolph sees her; despite her terrible wound, he accuses her violently of the shameful and criminal neglect of her daughter.
Returning home, Rodolph is surprised to hear that Clémence had visited him. Clémence had had the fortune to find Fleur-de-Marie in the home where she had been cared for after her escape from drowning, and she had brought the girl to Rodolph. Clémence does not know that events had proved that Fleur-de-Marie is Rodolph’s daughter, so the reunion of father and child is not without pain as well as pleasure, for Clémence and Rodolph had long secretly known that they love each other. Rodolph begs Clémence to marry him and to be a mother to his child. He feels sure that Sarah will die and the way will thus be clear for their happy life together.
Rodolph remarries Sarah on her deathbed so that their daughter can be called truly legitimate. Information that Rodolph receives from Cecily also makes it possible for him to free Rigolette’s lover from prison, and it turns out that he is the long-lost son of Madame Georges. With these problems solved, Rodolph plans to return to Germany. First, however, he uses his knowledge of Ferrand’s activities to force the lawyer to establish many worthy charities. His money gone, Ferrand goes into a decline and dies soon afterward. Rigolette’s lover becomes administrator for one of the charities and, after their marriage, he and Rigolette live happily with Madame Georges.
Rodolph returns to Germany with Fleur-de-Marie as his legitimate daughter and Clémence as his wife. For a time the three live together with great happiness. Then Rodolph notices that Fleur-de-Marie seems to have moods of depression. One day, weeping, she explains that his goodness to her is without compare but that the evil life that she had led before he had rescued her from the slums preyed constantly on her mind. She begs to be allowed to enter a convent. Rodolph, realizing that nothing he could say will change her mind, gives his permission.
While serving as a novice at the convent. Fleur-de-Marie’s conduct is so perfect that when she is admitted to the order, she immediately becomes the abbess. This honor is too much for her gentle soul to bear, or for her weak, sick body to withstand, and that very night she dies. Rodolph, noting that the day of her death is the anniversary of the day on which he had tried to kill his father, feels that the ways of fate are strange.