THE BISHOP IN THE PRESENCE OF AN UNKNOWN LIGHT
At an epoch a little later than the date of the letter cited
in the preceding pages, he did a thing which, if the whole town
was to be believed, was even more hazardous than his trip across
the mountains infested with bandits.
In the country near D---- a man lived quite alone. This man,
we will state at once, was a former member of the Convention.
His name was G----
Member of the Convention, G---- was mentioned with a sort of horror
in the little world of D---- A member of the Convention--can you
imagine such a thing? That existed from the time when people
called each other thou, and when they said "citizen." This man
was almost a monster. He had not voted for the death of the king,
but almost. He was a quasi-regicide. He had been a terrible man.
How did it happen that such a man had not been brought before
a provost's court, on the return of the legitimate princes?
They need not have cut off his head, if you please; clemency must
be exercised, agreed; but a good banishment for life. An example,
in short, etc. Besides, he was an atheist, like all the rest of
those people. Gossip of the geese about the vulture.
Was G---- a vulture after all? Yes; if he were to be judged by the
element of ferocity in this solitude of his. As he had not voted
for the death of the king, he had not been included in the decrees
of exile, and had been able to remain in France.
He dwelt at a distance of three-quarters of an hour from the city,
far from any hamlet, far from any road, in some hidden turn
of a very wild valley, no one knew exactly where. He had there,
it was said, a sort of field, a hole, a lair. There were no neighbors,
not even passers-by. Since he had dwelt in that valley, the path
which led thither had disappeared under a growth of grass.
The locality was spoken of as though it had been the dwelling of
Nevertheless, the Bishop meditated on the subject, and from time
to time he gazed at the horizon at a point where a clump of trees
marked the valley of the former member of the Convention, and he said,
"There is a soul yonder which is lonely."
And he added, deep in his own mind, "I owe him a visit."
But, let us avow it, this idea, which seemed natural at the first blush,
appeared to him after a moment's reflection, as strange, impossible,
and almost repulsive. For, at bottom, he shared the general impression,
and the old member of the Convention inspired him, without his being
clearly conscious of the fact himself, with that sentiment which
borders on hate, and which is so well expressed by the word estrangement.
Still, should the scab of the sheep cause the shepherd to recoil?
No. But what a sheep!
The good Bishop was perplexed. Sometimes he set out in that direction;
then he returned.
Finally, the rumor one day spread through the town that a sort of
young shepherd, who served the member of the Convention in his hovel,
had come in quest of a doctor; that the old wretch was dying,
that paralysis was gaining on him, and that he would not live over
night.--"Thank God!" some added.
The Bishop took his staff, put on his cloak, on account of his too
threadbare cassock, as we have mentioned, and because of the evening
breeze which was sure to rise soon, and set out.
The sun was setting, and had almost touched the horizon when the
Bishop arrived at the excommunicated spot. With a certain beating
of the heart, he recognized the fact that he was near the lair.
He strode over a ditch, leaped a hedge, made his way through a fence
of dead boughs, entered a neglected paddock, took a few steps
with a good deal of boldness, and suddenly, at the extremity of the
waste land, and behind lofty brambles, he caught sight of the cavern.
It was a very low hut, poor, small, and clean, with a vine nailed
against the outside.
Near the door, in an old wheel-chair, the arm-chair of the peasants,
there was a white-haired man, smiling at the sun.
Near the seated man stood a young boy, the shepherd lad.
He was offering the old man a jar of milk.
While the Bishop was watching him, the old man spoke: "Thank you,"
he said, "I need nothing." And his smile quitted the sun to rest
upon the child.
The Bishop stepped forward. At the sound which he made in walking,
the old man turned his head, and his face expressed the sum total
of the surprise which a man can still feel after a long life.
"This is the first time since I have been here," said he, "that any
one has entered here. Who are you, sir?"
The Bishop answered:--
"My name is Bienvenu Myriel."
"Bienvenu Myriel? I have heard that name. Are you the man whom
the people call Monseigneur Welcome?"
The old man resumed with a half-smile
"In that case, you are my bishop?"
"Something of that sort."
The member of the Convention extended his hand to the Bishop,
but the Bishop did not take it. The Bishop confined himself
to the remark:--
"I am pleased to see that I have been misinformed. You certainly
do not seem to me to be ill."
"Monsieur," replied the old man, "I am going to recover."
He paused, and then said:--
"I shall die three hours hence."
Then he continued:--
"I am something of a doctor; I know in what fashion the last hour
draws on. Yesterday, only my feet were cold; to-day, the chill
has ascended to my knees; now I feel it mounting to my waist;
when it reaches the heart, I shall stop. The sun is beautiful,
is it not? I had myself wheeled out here to take a last look
at things. You can talk to me; it does not fatigue me. You have
done well to come and look at a man who is on the point of death.
It is well that there should be witnesses at that moment. One has
one's caprices; I should have liked to last until the dawn, but I
know that I shall hardly live three hours. It will be night then.
What does it matter, after all? Dying is a simple affair.
One has no need of the light for that. So be it. I shall die
The old man turned to the shepherd lad:--
"Go to thy bed; thou wert awake all last night; thou art tired."
The child entered the hut.
The old man followed him with his eyes, and added, as though
speaking to himself:--
"I shall die while he sleeps. The two slumbers may be good neighbors."
The Bishop was not touched as it seems that he should have been.
He did not think he discerned God in this manner of dying; let us
say the whole, for these petty contradictions of great hearts must
be indicated like the rest: he, who on occasion, was so fond of
laughing at "His Grace," was rather shocked at not being addressed
as Monseigneur, and he was almost tempted to retort "citizen."
He was assailed by a fancy for peevish familiarity, common enough
to doctors and priests, but which was not habitual with him.
This man, after all, this member of the Convention, this representative
of the people, had been one of the powerful ones of the earth;
for the first time in his life, probably, the Bishop felt in a mood to
Meanwhile, the member of the Convention had been
surveying him with a modest cordiality, in which one
could have distinguished, possibly, that humility
which is so fitting when one is on the verge of returning to dust.
The Bishop, on his side, although he generally restrained his curiosity,
which, in his opinion, bordered on a fault, could not refrain from
examining the member of the Convention with an attention which,
as it did not have its course in sympathy, would have served his
conscience as a matter of reproach, in connection with any other man.
A member of the Convention produced on him somewhat the effect of being
outside the pale of the law, even of the law of charity. G----, calm,
his body almost upright, his voice vibrating, was one of those
octogenarians who form the subject of astonishment to the physiologist.
The Revolution had many of these men, proportioned to the epoch.
In this old man one was conscious of a man put to the proof.
Though so near to his end, he preserved all the gestures of health.
In his clear glance, in his firm tone, in the robust movement of
his shoulders, there was something calculated to disconcert death.
Azrael, the Mohammedan angel of the sepulchre, would have turned back,
and thought that he had mistaken the door. G---- seemed to be dying
because he willed it so. There was freedom in his agony. His legs
alone were motionless. It was there that the shadows held him fast.
His feet were cold and dead, but his head survived with all the power
of life, and seemed full of light. G----, at this solemn moment,
resembled the king in that tale of the Orient who was flesh above
and marble below.
There was a stone there. The Bishop sat down. The exordium
"I congratulate you," said he, in the tone which one uses for
a reprimand. "You did not vote for the death of the king, after all."
The old member of the Convention did not appear to notice the
bitter meaning underlying the words "after all." He replied.
The smile had quite disappeared from his face.
"Do not congratulate me too much, sir. I did vote for the death
of the tyrant."
It was the tone of austerity answering the tone of severity.
"What do you mean to say?" resumed the Bishop.
"I mean to say that man has a tyrant,--ignorance. I voted for the death
of that tyrant. That tyrant engendered royalty, which is authority
falsely understood, while science is authority rightly understood.
Man should be governed only by science."
"And conscience," added the Bishop.
"It is the same thing. Conscience is the quantity of innate science
which we have within us."
Monseigneur Bienvenu listened in some astonishment to this language,
which was very new to him.
The member of the Convention resumed:--
"So far as Louis XVI. was concerned, I said `no.' I did not think
that I had the right to kill a man; but I felt it my duty to
exterminate evil. I voted the end of the tyrant, that is to say,
the end of prostitution for woman, the end of slavery for man,
the end of night for the child. In voting for the Republic,
I voted for that. I voted for fraternity, concord, the dawn.
I have aided in the overthrow of prejudices and errors. The crumbling
away of prejudices and errors causes light. We have caused the
fall of the old world, and the old world, that vase of miseries,
has become, through its upsetting upon the human race, an urn
"Mixed joy," said the Bishop.
"You may say troubled joy, and to-day, after that fatal return
of the past, which is called 1814, joy which has disappeared!
Alas! The work was incomplete, I admit: we demolished the ancient
regime in deeds; we were not able to suppress it entirely in ideas.
To destroy abuses is not sufficient; customs must be modified.
The mill is there no longer; the wind is still there."
"You have demolished. It may be of use to demolish, but I distrust
a demolition complicated with wrath."
"Right has its wrath, Bishop; and the wrath of right is an element
of progress. In any case, and in spite of whatever may be said,
the French Revolution is the most important step of the human race
since the advent of Christ. Incomplete, it may be, but sublime.
It set free all the unknown social quantities; it softened spirits,
it calmed, appeased, enlightened; it caused the waves of civilization
to flow over the earth. It was a good thing. The French Revolution is
the consecration of humanity."
The Bishop could not refrain from murmuring:--
The member of the Convention straightened himself up in his
chair with an almost lugubrious solemnity, and exclaimed,
so far as a dying man is capable of exclamation:--
"Ah, there you go; '93! I was expecting that word. A cloud had
been forming for the space of fifteen hundred years; at the end
of fifteen hundred years it burst. You are putting the thunderbolt
on its trial."
The Bishop felt, without, perhaps, confessing it, that something
within him had suffered extinction. Nevertheless, he put a good
face on the matter. He replied:--
"The judge speaks in the name of justice; the priest speaks
in the name of pity, which is nothing but a more lofty justice.
A thunderbolt should commit no error." And he added, regarding the
member of the Convention steadily the while, "Louis XVII.?"
The conventionary stretched forth his hand and grasped the Bishop's arm.
"Louis XVII.! let us see. For whom do you mourn? is it for
the innocent child? very good; in that case I mourn with you.
Is it for the royal child? I demand time for reflection.
To me, the brother of Cartouche, an innocent child who was hung
up by the armpits in the Place de Greve, until death ensued,
for the sole crime of having been the brother of Cartouche, is no
less painful than the grandson of Louis XV., an innocent child,
martyred in the tower of the Temple, for the sole crime of having
been grandson of Louis XV."
"Monsieur," said the Bishop, "I like not this conjunction of names."
"Cartouche? Louis XV.? To which of the two do you object?"
A momentary silence ensued. The Bishop almost regretted having come,
and yet he felt vaguely and strangely shaken.
The conventionary resumed:--
"Ah, Monsieur Priest, you love not the crudities of the true.
Christ loved them. He seized a rod and cleared out the Temple.
His scourge, full of lightnings, was a harsh speaker of truths.
When he cried, `Sinite parvulos,' he made no distinction between the
little children. It would not have embarrassed him to bring together
the Dauphin of Barabbas and the Dauphin of Herod. Innocence, Monsieur,
is its own crown. Innocence has no need to be a highness.
It is as august in rags as in fleurs de lys."
"That is true," said the Bishop in a low voice.
"I persist," continued the conventionary G---- "You have mentioned
Louis XVII. to me. Let us come to an understanding. Shall we
weep for all the innocent, all martyrs, all children, the lowly
as well as the exalted? I agree to that. But in that case, as I
have told you, we must go back further than '93, and our tears must
begin before Louis XVII. I will weep with you over the children
of kings, provided that you will weep with me over the children
of the people."
"I weep for all," said the Bishop.
"Equally!" exclaimed conventionary G----; "and if the balance
must incline, let it be on the side of the people. They have been
Another silence ensued. The conventionary was the first to break it.
He raised himself on one elbow, took a bit of his cheek between
his thumb and his forefinger, as one does mechanically when one
interrogates and judges, and appealed to the Bishop with a gaze full
of all the forces of the death agony. It was almost an explosion.
"Yes, sir, the people have been suffering a long while. And hold!
that is not all, either; why have you just questioned me and talked
to me about Louis XVII.? I know you not. Ever since I have been
in these parts I have dwelt in this enclosure alone, never setting
foot outside, and seeing no one but that child who helps me.
Your name has reached me in a confused manner, it is true, and very
badly pronounced, I must admit; but that signifies nothing: clever men
have so many ways of imposing on that honest goodman, the people.
By the way, I did not hear the sound of your carriage; you have left
it yonder, behind the coppice at the fork of the roads, no doubt.
I do not know you, I tell you. You have told me that you are the Bishop;
but that affords me no information as to your moral personality.
In short, I repeat my question. Who are you? You are a bishop;
that is to say, a prince of the church, one of those gilded men
with heraldic bearings and revenues, who have vast prebends,--
the bishopric of D---- fifteen thousand francs settled income,
ten thousand in perquisites; total, twenty-five thousand francs,--
who have kitchens, who have liveries, who make good cheer,
who eat moor-hens on Friday, who strut about, a lackey before,
a lackey behind, in a gala coach, and who have palaces, and who roll
in their carriages in the name of Jesus Christ who went barefoot!
You are a prelate,--revenues, palace, horses, servants, good table,
all the sensualities of life; you have this like the rest,
and like the rest, you enjoy it; it is well; but this says
either too much or too little; this does not enlighten me upon
the intrinsic and essential value of the man who comes with the
probable intention of bringing wisdom to me. To whom do I speak?
Who are you?"
The Bishop hung his head and replied, "Vermis sum--I am a worm."
"A worm of the earth in a carriage?" growled the conventionary.
It was the conventionary's turn to be arrogant, and the Bishop's
to be humble.
The Bishop resumed mildly:--
"So be it, sir. But explain to me how my carriage, which is a few
paces off behind the trees yonder, how my good table and the moor-hens
which I eat on Friday, how my twenty-five thousand francs income,
how my palace and my lackeys prove that clemency is not a duty,
and that '93 was not inexorable.
The conventionary passed his hand across his brow, as though
to sweep away a cloud.
"Before replying to you," he said, "I beseech you to pardon me.
I have just committed a wrong, sir. You are at my house, you are
my guest, I owe you courtesy. You discuss my ideas, and it becomes
me to confine myself to combating your arguments. Your riches and
your pleasures are advantages which I hold over you in the debate;
but good taste dictates that I shall not make use of them. I promise
you to make no use of them in the future."
"I thank you," said the Bishop.
"Let us return to the explanation which you have asked of me.
Where were we? What were you saying to me? That '93 was inexorable?"
"Inexorable; yes," said the Bishop. "What think you of Marat
clapping his hands at the guillotine?"
"What think you of Bossuet chanting the Te Deum over the dragonnades?"
The retort was a harsh one, but it attained its mark with the
directness of a point of steel. The Bishop quivered under it;
no reply occurred to him; but he was offended by this mode of alluding
to Bossuet. The best of minds will have their fetiches, and they
sometimes feel vaguely wounded by the want of respect of logic.
The conventionary began to pant; the asthma of the agony
which is mingled with the last breaths interrupted his voice;
still, there was a perfect lucidity of soul in his eyes. He went on:--
"Let me say a few words more in this and that direction;
I am willing. Apart from the Revolution, which, taken as a whole,
is an immense human affirmation, '93 is, alas! a rejoinder.
You think it inexorable, sir; but what of the whole monarchy, sir?
Carrier is a bandit; but what name do you give to Montrevel?
Fouquier-Tainville is a rascal; but what is your opinion as to
Lamoignon-Baville? Maillard is terrible; but Saulx-Tavannes,
if you please? Duchene senior is ferocious; but what epithet
will you allow me for the elder Letellier? Jourdan-Coupe-Tete is
a monster; but not so great a one as M. the Marquis de Louvois.
Sir, sir, I am sorry for Marie Antoinette, archduchess and queen;
but I am also sorry for that poor Huguenot woman, who, in 1685,
under Louis the Great, sir, while with a nursing infant, was bound,
naked to the waist, to a stake, and the child kept at a distance;
her breast swelled with milk and her heart with anguish;
the little one, hungry and pale, beheld that breast and cried
and agonized; the executioner said to the woman, a mother and a nurse,
`Abjure!' giving her her choice between the death of her infant
and the death of her conscience. What say you to that torture
of Tantalus as applied to a mother? Bear this well in mind sir:
the French Revolution had its reasons for existence; its wrath will
be absolved by the future; its result is the world made better.
From its most terrible blows there comes forth a caress for the
human race. I abridge, I stop, I have too much the advantage;
moreover, I am dying."
And ceasing to gaze at the Bishop, the conventionary concluded
his thoughts in these tranquil words:--
"Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions.
When they are over, this fact is recognized,--that the human race
has been treated harshly, but that it has progressed."
The conventionary doubted not that he had successively conquered
all the inmost intrenchments of the Bishop. One remained, however,
and from this intrenchment, the last resource of Monseigneur
Bienvenu's resistance, came forth this reply, wherein appeared
nearly all the harshness of the beginning:--
"Progress should believe in God. Good cannot have an impious servitor.
He who is an atheist is but a bad leader for the human race."
The former representative of the people made no reply. He was seized
with a fit of trembling. He looked towards heaven, and in his glance
a tear gathered slowly. When the eyelid was full, the tear trickled
down his livid cheek, and he said, almost in a stammer, quite low,
and to himself, while his eyes were plunged in the depths:--
"O thou! O ideal! Thou alone existest!"
The Bishop experienced an indescribable shock.
After a pause, the old man raised a finger heavenward and said:--
"The infinite is. He is there. If the infinite had no person,
person would be without limit; it would not be infinite;
in other words, it would not exist. There is, then, an _I_.
That _I_ of the infinite is God."
The dying man had pronounced these last words in a loud voice,
and with the shiver of ecstasy, as though he beheld some one.
When he had spoken, his eyes closed. The effort had exhausted him.
It was evident that he had just lived through in a moment the
few hours which had been left to him. That which he had said
brought him nearer to him who is in death. The supreme moment
The Bishop understood this; time pressed; it was as a priest that
he had come: from extreme coldness he had passed by degrees to
extreme emotion; he gazed at those closed eyes, he took that wrinkled,
aged and ice-cold hand in his, and bent over the dying man.
"This hour is the hour of God. Do you not think that it would
be regrettable if we had met in vain?"
The conventionary opened his eyes again. A gravity mingled
with gloom was imprinted on his countenance.
"Bishop," said he, with a slowness which probably arose more
from his dignity of soul than from the failing of his strength,
"I have passed my life in meditation, study, and contemplation.
I was sixty years of age when my country called me and commanded
me to concern myself with its affairs. I obeyed. Abuses existed,
I combated them; tyrannies existed, I destroyed them; rights and
principles existed, I proclaimed and confessed them. Our territory
was invaded, I defended it; France was menaced, I offered my breast.
I was not rich; I am poor. I have been one of the masters of
the state; the vaults of the treasury were encumbered with specie
to such a degree that we were forced to shore up the walls,
which were on the point of bursting beneath the weight of gold
and silver; I dined in Dead Tree Street, at twenty-two sous.
I have succored the oppressed, I have comforted the suffering.
I tore the cloth from the altar, it is true; but it was to bind up
the wounds of my country. I have always upheld the march forward
of the human race, forward towards the light, and I have sometimes
resisted progress without pity. I have, when the occasion offered,
protected my own adversaries, men of your profession. And there
is at Peteghem, in Flanders, at the very spot where the Merovingian
kings had their summer palace, a convent of Urbanists, the Abbey
of Sainte Claire en Beaulieu, which I saved in 1793. I have done
my duty according to my powers, and all the good that I was able.
After which, I was hunted down, pursued, persecuted, blackened,
jeered at, scorned, cursed, proscribed. For many years past,
I with my white hair have been conscious that many people think they
have the right to despise me; to the poor ignorant masses I present
the visage of one damned. And I accept this isolation of hatred,
without hating any one myself. Now I am eighty-six years old;
I am on the point of death. What is it that you have come to ask
"Your blessing," said the Bishop.
And he knelt down.
When the Bishop raised his head again, the face of the conventionary
had become august. He had just expired.
The Bishop returned home, deeply absorbed in thoughts which
cannot be known to us. He passed the whole night in prayer.
On the following morning some bold and curious persons attempted
to speak to him about member of the Convention G----; he contented
himself with pointing heavenward.
From that moment he redoubled his tenderness and brotherly feeling
towards all children and sufferers.
Any allusion to "that old wretch of a G----" caused him to fall
into a singular preoccupation. No one could say that the passage
of that soul before his, and the reflection of that grand conscience
upon his, did not count for something in his approach to perfection.
This "pastoral visit" naturally furnished an occasion for a murmur
of comment in all the little local coteries.
"Was the bedside of such a dying man as that the proper place
for a bishop? There was evidently no conversion to be expected.
All those revolutionists are backsliders. Then why go there?
What was there to be seen there? He must have been very curious indeed
to see a soul carried off by the devil."
One day a dowager of the impertinent variety who thinks
herself spiritual, addressed this sally to him, "Monseigneur,
people are inquiring when Your Greatness will receive the red
cap!"--"Oh! oh! that's a coarse color," replied the Bishop.
"It is lucky that those who despise it in a cap revere it in a hat."