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
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 a
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
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
"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
"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 by
The old man turned to the shepherd lad:—
"Go to thy bed; thou wert awake all last night; thou art
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
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 be
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 was
"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
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 of joy."
"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
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
"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
"Monsieur," said the Bishop, "I like not this conjunction of
"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
"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
"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
"A worm of the earth in a carriage?" growled the
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; 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
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
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
"O thou! O ideal! Thou alone existest!"
The Bishop experienced an indescribable shock.
After a pause, the old man raised a finger heavenward and
"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 was
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
"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 of
"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
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."