BOOK FIRST--A JUST MAN
In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D----
He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied
the see of D---- since 1806.
Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real
substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous,
if merely for the sake of exactness in all points, to mention here
the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him
from the very moment when he arrived in the diocese. True or false,
that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in
their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do.
M. Myriel was the son of a councillor of the Parliament of Aix;
hence he belonged to the nobility of the bar. It was said that
his father, destining him to be the heir of his own post, had married
him at a very early age, eighteen or twenty, in accordance with a
custom which is rather widely prevalent in parliamentary families.
In spite of this marriage, however, it was said that Charles Myriel
created a great deal of talk. He was well formed, though rather short
in stature, elegant, graceful, intelligent; the whole of the first
portion of his life had been devoted to the world and to gallantry.
The Revolution came; events succeeded each other with precipitation;
the parliamentary families, decimated, pursued, hunted down,
were dispersed. M. Charles Myriel emigrated to Italy at the very
beginning of the Revolution. There his wife died of a malady of
the chest, from which she had long suffered. He had no children.
What took place next in the fate of M. Myriel? The ruin of the French
society of the olden days, the fall of his own family, the tragic
spectacles of '93, which were, perhaps, even more alarming to the
emigrants who viewed them from a distance, with the magnifying powers
of terror,--did these cause the ideas of renunciation and solitude
to germinate in him? Was he, in the midst of these distractions,
these affections which absorbed his life, suddenly smitten with one
of those mysterious and terrible blows which sometimes overwhelm,
by striking to his heart, a man whom public catastrophes would
not shake, by striking at his existence and his fortune? No one
could have told: all that was known was, that when he returned
from Italy he was a priest.
In 1804, M. Myriel was the Cure of B---- [Brignolles]. He was already
advanced in years, and lived in a very retired manner.
About the epoch of the coronation, some petty affair connected
with his curacy--just what, is not precisely known--took him
to Paris. Among other powerful persons to whom he went to solicit
aid for his parishioners was M. le Cardinal Fesch. One day,
when the Emperor had come to visit his uncle, the worthy Cure,
who was waiting in the anteroom, found himself present when His
Majesty passed. Napoleon, on finding himself observed with a certain
curiosity by this old man, turned round and said abruptly:--
"Who is this good man who is staring at me?"
"Sire," said M. Myriel, "you are looking at a good man, and I
at a great man. Each of us can profit by it."
That very evening, the Emperor asked the Cardinal the name of the Cure,
and some time afterwards M. Myriel was utterly astonished to learn
that he had been appointed Bishop of D----
What truth was there, after all, in the stories which were invented
as to the early portion of M. Myriel's life? No one knew.
Very few families had been acquainted with the Myriel family before
M. Myriel had to undergo the fate of every newcomer in a little town,
where there are many mouths which talk, and very few heads which think.
He was obliged to undergo it although he was a bishop, and because he
was a bishop. But after all, the rumors with which his name was
connected were rumors only,--noise, sayings, words; less than words--
palabres, as the energetic language of the South expresses it.
However that may be, after nine years of episcopal power and of
residence in D----, all the stories and subjects of conversation
which engross petty towns and petty people at the outset had fallen
into profound oblivion. No one would have dared to mention them;
no one would have dared to recall them.
M. Myriel had arrived at D---- accompanied by an elderly spinster,
Mademoiselle Baptistine, who was his sister, and ten years his junior.
Their only domestic was a female servant of the same age
as Mademoiselle Baptistine, and named Madame Magloire, who,
after having been the servant of M. le Cure, now assumed
the double title of maid to Mademoiselle and housekeeper to Monseigneur.
Mademoiselle Baptistine was a long, pale, thin, gentle creature;
she realized the ideal expressed by the word "respectable"; for it
seems that a woman must needs be a mother in order to be venerable.
She had never been pretty; her whole life, which had been nothing
but a succession of holy deeds, had finally conferred upon her
a sort of pallor and transparency; and as she advanced in years
she had acquired what may be called the beauty of goodness.
What had been leanness in her youth had become transparency in
her maturity; and this diaphaneity allowed the angel to be seen.
She was a soul rather than a virgin. Her person seemed made
of a shadow; there was hardly sufficient body to provide for sex;
a little matter enclosing a light; large eyes forever drooping;--
a mere pretext for a soul's remaining on the earth.
Madame Magloire was a little, fat, white old woman, corpulent
and bustling; always out of breath,--in the first place,
because of her activity, and in the next, because of her asthma.
On his arrival, M. Myriel was installed in the episcopal palace with
the honors required by the Imperial decrees, which class a bishop
immediately after a major-general. The mayor and the president
paid the first call on him, and he, in turn, paid the first call
on the general and the prefect.
The installation over, the town waited to see its bishop at work.