In 1855, Charles François Bienvenu Myriel had freely chosen a simple life as Bishop of Digne for nearly 50 years. He gave to the needy, sick, and suffering. If anyone was in need, people would point the way to the Bishop’s house.
In October, an hour before sunset, a traveller entered Digne on foot. Nobody let him in their house, but an old lady pointed to the Bishop’s door. He rapped on the door, and the Bishop replied, “Come in.” The man said loudly, “My name is Jean Valjean. I’ve done 19 years as a convict. They let me out four days ago. I’m very tired and terribly hungry.”
The Bishop said to the housekeeper, “Please set another place and kindly put clean sheets on a bed.” Then the Bishop turned to the man. “Sit down and warm yourself, sir. It’s nearly time for supper. Your bed will be prepared while we eat.”
Every time he said sir, the man’s face lit up. To say sir to a convict is like giving a glass of water to a man dying of thirst.
“Father,” said the traveler, “you are truly kind. You don’t despise me. You accept me as a friend and light your fine candles for me, even though I’ve told you where I’ve come from, and what a poor devil I am.” The Bishop said, “Only one person is at home here: the one who needs shelter.”
When dinner was over, the Bishop picked up one of the silver candlesticks and gave the other to his guest. “Let me lead you to your room, sir,” he said. The man followed him.
“I hope you sleep well,” said the Bishop.
“Thank you, Father,” he said.
Jean Valjean woke just as the cathedral clock struck two in the morning. He had noticed the silver forks and spoons and the great ladle and taken careful note of the cupboard in the Bishop’s bedroom where the housekeeper had put them away. He held his breath and walked soundlessly towards the room where the bishop was sleeping.
Jean Valjean walked quickly along the bed. He opened the cupboard and seized the basket with all the silver. He thrust the silver into his knapsack, leapt into the garden, threw away the basket and bounded over the wall like a tiger.
Next morning, the housekeeper came running in a state of panic. “Sir! Sir!” she shouted. “Does Your Eminence know where the basket of silver is?” “Yes,” said the Bishop. He had just picked up the basket in a flower bed and handed it to her. “But there’s nothing in it,” she said. “Where’s the silver?”
“Ah,” said the Bishop, “I have no idea where it is.”
“Good Lord. It’s been stolen …by that man who came here last night!”
The Bishop stood silent for a moment, then looked earnestly up at her and said gently, “By the way, did that silver really belong to us?” A few minutes later, as they were finishing breakfast, there came a knock at the door. The door opened and three policemen holding Jean Valjean by the collar appeared on the threshold. One walked up to the Bishop. “My Lord Bishop,” he said.
Jean Valjean looked crushed. “My Lord Bishop?” he muttered. “So he isn’t just the local priest?”
“Be quiet!” said one of the policemen, “This gentleman is indeed My Lord Bishop.”
Meanwhile, the Bishop came forward. “Ah! There you are!” he said, looking at Jean Valjean. “I’m glad to see you. I gave you the candlesticks as well.” Jean Valjean gave the Bishop a look that no language could describe.
“So,” said the Corporal, “is what this man told us true?”
The Bishop smiled, “He told you that it had been given to him by an old priest who had given him a bed for the night.” Jean Valjean staggered backward as the policemen let him go. “My friend,” the Bishop went on, “before you go, you must take your candlesticks.” He went to the mantel to fetch the two candlesticks, which he gave to Jean Valjean. “Now go in peace,” said the Bishop. Then he turned to the policemen and said, “Gentlemen, you may leave us.” They did so.
The Bishop said quietly to Jean Valjean, “Never forget that you promise me to use this money in order to become an honest man.”