His conversation was gay and affable. He put himself on a level
with the two old women who had passed their lives beside him.
When he laughed, it was the laugh of a schoolboy. Madame Magloire
liked to call him Your Grace [Votre Grandeur]. One day he rose
from his arm-chair, and went to his library in search of a book.
This book was on one of the upper shelves. As the bishop was rather
short of stature, he could not reach it. "Madame Magloire," said he,
"fetch me a chair. My greatness [grandeur] does not reach as far as
One of his distant relatives, Madame la Comtesse de Lo, rarely
allowed an opportunity to escape of enumerating, in his presence,
what she designated as "the expectations" of her three sons.
She had numerous relatives, who were very old and near to death,
and of whom her sons were the natural heirs. The youngest of the
three was to receive from a grand-aunt a good hundred thousand
livres of income; the second was the heir by entail to the title
of the Duke, his uncle; the eldest was to succeed to the peerage
of his grandfather. The Bishop was accustomed to listen in silence
to these innocent and pardonable maternal boasts. On one occasion,
however, he appeared to be more thoughtful than usual, while Madame
de Lo was relating once again the details of all these inheritances
and all these "expectations." She interrupted herself impatiently:
"Mon Dieu, cousin! What are you thinking about?" "I am thinking,"
replied the Bishop, "of a singular remark, which is to be found,
I believe, in St. Augustine,--`Place your hopes in the man from whom
you do not inherit.'"
At another time, on receiving a notification of the decease of
a gentleman of the country-side, wherein not only the dignities
of the dead man, but also the feudal and noble qualifications
of all his relatives, spread over an entire page: "What a stout
back Death has!" he exclaimed. "What a strange burden of titles
is cheerfully imposed on him, and how much wit must men have,
in order thus to press the tomb into the service of vanity!"
He was gifted, on occasion, with a gentle raillery, which almost
always concealed a serious meaning. In the course of one Lent,
a youthful vicar came to D----, and preached in the cathedral.
He was tolerably eloquent. The subject of his sermon was charity.
He urged the rich to give to the poor, in order to avoid hell,
which he depicted in the most frightful manner of which he was capable,
and to win paradise, which he represented as charming and desirable.
Among the audience there was a wealthy retired merchant, who was
somewhat of a usurer, named M. Geborand, who had amassed two millions
in the manufacture of coarse cloth, serges, and woollen galloons.
Never in his whole life had M. Geborand bestowed alms on any poor wretch.
After the delivery of that sermon, it was observed that he gave a sou
every Sunday to the poor old beggar-women at the door of the cathedral.
There were six of them to share it. One day the Bishop caught sight
of him in the act of bestowing this charity, and said to his sister,
with a smile, "There is M. Geborand purchasing paradise for
When it was a question of charity, he was not to be rebuffed even
by a refusal, and on such occasions he gave utterance to remarks
which induced reflection. Once he was begging for the poor in a
drawing-room of the town; there was present the Marquis de Champtercier,
a wealthy and avaricious old man, who contrived to be, at one
and the same time, an ultra-royalist and an ultra-Voltairian. This
variety of man has actually existed. When the Bishop came to him,
he touched his arm, "You must give me something, M. le Marquis."
The Marquis turned round and answered dryly, "I have poor people
of my own, Monseigneur." "Give them to me," replied the Bishop.
One day he preached the following sermon in the cathedral:--
"My very dear brethren, my good friends, there are thirteen hundred
and twenty thousand peasants' dwellings in France which have but
three openings; eighteen hundred and seventeen thousand hovels which
have but two openings, the door and one window; and three hundred
and forty-six thousand cabins besides which have but one opening,
the door. And this arises from a thing which is called the tax
on doors and windows. Just put poor families, old women and little
children, in those buildings, and behold the fevers and maladies
which result! Alas! God gives air to men; the law sells it to them.
I do not blame the law, but I bless God. In the department
of the Isere, in the Var, in the two departments of the Alpes,
the Hautes, and the Basses, the peasants have not even wheelbarrows;
they transport their manure on the backs of men; they have no candles,
and they burn resinous sticks, and bits of rope dipped in pitch.
That is the state of affairs throughout the whole of the hilly
country of Dauphine. They make bread for six months at one time;
they bake it with dried cow-dung. In the winter they break this
bread up with an axe, and they soak it for twenty-four hours,
in order to render it eatable. My brethren, have pity! behold
the suffering on all sides of you!"
Born a Provencal, he easily familiarized himself with the dialect of
the south. He said, "En be! moussu, ses sage?" as in lower Languedoc;
"Onte anaras passa?" as in the Basses-Alpes; "Puerte un bouen moutu
embe un bouen fromage grase," as in upper Dauphine. This pleased
the people extremely, and contributed not a little to win him
access to all spirits. He was perfectly at home in the thatched
cottage and in the mountains. He understood how to say the grandest
things in the most vulgar of idioms. As he spoke all tongues,
he entered into all hearts.
Moreover, he was the same towards people of the world and towards
the lower classes. He condemned nothing in haste and without
taking circumstances into account. He said, "Examine the road
over which the fault has passed."
Being, as he described himself with a smile, an ex-sinner, he had none
of the asperities of austerity, and he professed, with a good deal
of distinctness, and without the frown of the ferociously virtuous,
a doctrine which may be summed up as follows:--
"Man has upon him his flesh, which is at once his burden
and his temptation. He drags it with him and yields to it.
He must watch it, cheek it, repress it, and obey it only at the
last extremity. There may be some fault even in this obedience;
but the fault thus committed is venial; it is a fall, but a fall
on the knees which may terminate in prayer.
"To be a saint is the exception; to be an upright man is the rule.
Err, fall, sin if you will, but be upright.
"The least possible sin is the law of man. No sin at all is the
dream of the angel. All which is terrestrial is subject to sin.
Sin is a gravitation."
When he saw everyone exclaiming very loudly, and growing angry
very quickly, "Oh! oh!" he said, with a smile; "to all appearance,
this is a great crime which all the world commits. These are
hypocrisies which have taken fright, and are in haste to make
protest and to put themselves under shelter."
He was indulgent towards women and poor people, on whom the burden
of human society rest. He said, "The faults of women, of children,
of the feeble, the indigent, and the ignorant, are the fault
of the husbands, the fathers, the masters, the strong, the rich,
and the wise."
He said, moreover, "Teach those who are ignorant as many things
as possible; society is culpable, in that it does not afford
instruction gratis; it is responsible for the night which it produces.
This soul is full of shadow; sin is therein committed. The guilty
one is not the person who has committed the sin, but the person
who has created the shadow."
It will be perceived that he had a peculiar manner of his own
of judging things: I suspect that he obtained it from the Gospel.
One day he heard a criminal case, which was in preparation and on
the point of trial, discussed in a drawing-room. A wretched man,
being at the end of his resources, had coined counterfeit money,
out of love for a woman, and for the child which he had had by her.
Counterfeiting was still punishable with death at that epoch.
The woman had been arrested in the act of passing the first false
piece made by the man. She was held, but there were no proofs
except against her. She alone could accuse her lover, and destroy
him by her confession. She denied; they insisted. She persisted in
her denial. Thereupon an idea occurred to the attorney for the crown.
He invented an infidelity on the part of the lover, and succeeded,
by means of fragments of letters cunningly presented, in persuading
the unfortunate woman that she had a rival, and that the man was
deceiving her. Thereupon, exasperated by jealousy, she denounced
her lover, confessed all, proved all.
The man was ruined. He was shortly to be tried at Aix with
his accomplice. They were relating the matter, and each one was
expressing enthusiasm over the cleverness of the magistrate.
By bringing jealousy into play, he had caused the truth to burst
forth in wrath, he had educed the justice of revenge. The Bishop
listened to all this in silence. When they had finished, he inquired,--
"Where are this man and woman to be tried?"
"At the Court of Assizes."
He went on, "And where will the advocate of the crown be tried?"
A tragic event occurred at D---- A man was condemned to death
for murder. He was a wretched fellow, not exactly educated,
not exactly ignorant, who had been a mountebank at fairs, and a writer
for the public. The town took a great interest in the trial.
On the eve of the day fixed for the execution of the condemned man,
the chaplain of the prison fell ill. A priest was needed to attend
the criminal in his last moments. They sent for the cure.
It seems that he refused to come, saying, "That is no affair
of mine. I have nothing to do with that unpleasant task, and with
that mountebank: I, too, am ill; and besides, it is not my place."
This reply was reported to the Bishop, who said, "Monsieur le Cure
is right: it is not his place; it is mine."
He went instantly to the prison, descended to the cell of the
"mountebank," called him by name, took him by the hand, and spoke to him.
He passed the entire day with him, forgetful of food and sleep,
praying to God for the soul of the condemned man, and praying the
condemned man for his own. He told him the best truths, which are
also the most simple. He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop
only to bless. He taught him everything, encouraged and consoled him.
The man was on the point of dying in despair. Death was an abyss to him.
As he stood trembling on its mournful brink, he recoiled with horror.
He was not sufficiently ignorant to be absolutely indifferent.
His condemnation, which had been a profound shock, had, in a manner,
broken through, here and there, that wall which separates us
from the mystery of things, and which we call life. He gazed
incessantly beyond this world through these fatal breaches,
and beheld only darkness. The Bishop made him see light.
On the following day, when they came to fetch the unhappy wretch,
the Bishop was still there. He followed him, and exhibited himself
to the eyes of the crowd in his purple camail and with his episcopal
cross upon his neck, side by side with the criminal bound with cords.
He mounted the tumbril with him, he mounted the scaffold with him.
The sufferer, who had been so gloomy and cast down on the preceding day,
was radiant. He felt that his soul was reconciled, and he hoped
in God. The Bishop embraced him, and at the moment when the knife
was about to fall, he said to him: "God raises from the dead him
whom man slays; he whom his brothers have rejected finds his Father
once more. Pray, believe, enter into life: the Father is there."
When he descended from the scaffold, there was something in his look
which made the people draw aside to let him pass. They did not know
which was most worthy of admiration, his pallor or his serenity.
On his return to the humble dwelling, which he designated,
with a smile, as his palace, he said to his sister, "I have just
Since the most sublime things are often those which are the
least understood, there were people in the town who said,
when commenting on this conduct of the Bishop, "It is affectation."
This, however, was a remark which was confined to the drawing-rooms.
The populace, which perceives no jest in holy deeds, was touched,
and admired him.
As for the Bishop, it was a shock to him to have beheld the guillotine,
and it was a long time before he recovered from it.
In fact, when the scaffold is there, all erected and prepared,
it has something about it which produces hallucination.
One may feel a certain indifference to the death penalty,
one may refrain from pronouncing upon it, from saying yes or no,
so long as one has not seen a guillotine with one's own eyes:
but if one encounters one of them, the shock is violent;
one is forced to decide, and to take part for or against.
Some admire it, like de Maistre; others execrate it, like Beccaria.
The guillotine is the concretion of the law; it is called vindicte;
it is not neutral, and it does not permit you to remain neutral.
He who sees it shivers with the most mysterious of shivers.
All social problems erect their interrogation point around
this chopping-knife. The scaffold is a vision. The scaffold
is not a piece of carpentry; the scaffold is not a machine;
the scaffold is not an inert bit of mechanism constructed of wood,
iron and cords.
It seems as though it were a being, possessed of I know not what
sombre initiative; one would say that this piece of carpenter's
work saw, that this machine heard, that this mechanism understood,
that this wood, this iron, and these cords were possessed of will.
In the frightful meditation into which its presence casts the soul
the scaffold appears in terrible guise, and as though taking part in
what is going on. The scaffold is the accomplice of the executioner;
it devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood; the scaffold is a sort
of monster fabricated by the judge and the carpenter, a spectre
which seems to live with a horrible vitality composed of all the death
which it has inflicted.
Therefore, the impression was terrible and profound; on the day
following the execution, and on many succeeding days, the Bishop
appeared to be crushed. The almost violent serenity of the
funereal moment had disappeared; the phantom of social justice
tormented him. He, who generally returned from all his deeds
with a radiant satisfaction, seemed to be reproaching himself.
At times he talked to himself, and stammered lugubrious monologues
in a low voice. This is one which his sister overheard one evening
and preserved: "I did not think that it was so monstrous.
It is wrong to become absorbed in the divine law to such a degree
as not to perceive human law. Death belongs to God alone.
By what right do men touch that unknown thing?"
In course of time these impressions weakened and probably vanished.
Nevertheless, it was observed that the Bishop thenceforth avoided
passing the place of execution.
M. Myriel could be summoned at any hour to the bedside of the sick
and dying. He did not ignore the fact that therein lay his greatest
duty and his greatest labor. Widowed and orphaned families had
no need to summon him; he came of his own accord. He understood
how to sit down and hold his peace for long hours beside the man
who had lost the wife of his love, of the mother who had lost
her child. As he knew the moment for silence he knew also the moment
for speech. Oh, admirable consoler! He sought not to efface sorrow
by forgetfulness, but to magnify and dignify it by hope. He said:--
"Have a care of the manner in which you turn towards the dead.
Think not of that which perishes. Gaze steadily. You will perceive
the living light of your well-beloved dead in the depths of heaven."
He knew that faith is wholesome. He sought to counsel and calm
the despairing man, by pointing out to him the resigned man,
and to transform the grief which gazes upon a grave by showing him
the grief which fixes its gaze upon a star.