In 1855, Charles François Bienvenu Myriel had freely chosen an ascetic life as Bishop of Digne for nearly 50 years. He slept little, but soundly. Each morning he began with an hour of meditation, then celebrated Mass before breakfast of rye bread dipped in milk from his own cows. He did his work, conducted services, read his Prayer Book, kept his garden and gave to the needy, sick and suffering.
About mid-day, if the weather was fine, he would go out walking and visiting people in their cottages. He would stroll along dressed in a warm, padded purple overcoat. His stockings, also purple, were thrust into clumsy shoes. He wore a flat hat with three golden acorns hanging like tassels from each corner.
Whenever he came along, life and warmth came with him. Old men and children came to the door to welcome him—just as they would greet warm sunshine. He would give them his blessing, and they would bless him in return.
If anyone were in need, people would point out the way to the Bishop’s house. He used to say, “A clean house takes nothing from the poor.” Six silver spoons and six forks and a soup ladle, however, remained in the house. The Bishop of Digne was heard to say, more than once, “I don’t think I could give up eating with silver.” His silver plate included two heavy candlesticks, which he had inherited from a great aunt. Each held two wax candles and usually stood on the Bishop’s mantel.
In October, about an hour before sunset, a traveller entered Digne on foot. Inhabitants watched anxiously at their windows. He was strong and muscular, in the prime of life. His sunburnt face, soaked in perspiration, was half-hidden by a cap with a leather peak. His shirt of coarse yellow calico, fastened with a small silver anchor, showed his hairy chest. His neck-cloth was twisted like a rope, his blue twill trousers were worn and threadbare, and his ragged grey jacket was patched at one elbow with a scrap of green cloth. His iron-shod shoes had no stockings. He carried a strong, knotty stick in his hand and a new, large, loaded knapsack on his back.
He was worn out and lay down on a stone bench outside in Cathedral Square. An old lady came out of the church and approached him with concern in the darkness. He explained he’d been turned away at every door. She pointed to the Bishop’s door, “Not at that one,” she said.
To his firm, loud rap on the front door, the Bishop replied, “Come in.” He threw the door open and stood there, knapsack on his shoulder and stick in hand. Madame Magloire stood shaking, her mouth wide open. Mademoiselle Baptistine half rose in terror, but turned toward her brother sitting by the hearth.
The Bishop looked calmly at the man, who said loudly, “My name is Jean Valjean. I’m a galley slave. I’ve done 19 years as a convict. They let me out four days ago. I set off from Toulon for Pontarlier. Today I’ve covered twelve leagues. When I got to this town I was turned away at every door. I went to the prison, but the jailer wouldn’t let me in. I went in a dog kennel, but the dog bit me and drove me away. I went into the fields, but there weren’t any stars. I thought it was sure to rain, because there was no God to stop it raining. Then I came into town to sleep in a doorway. A good woman pointed to this house. I’m very tired and terribly hungry. Will you let me stay?”
“Madame Magloire,” said the Bishop, “please lay another knife and fork. And kindly put clean sheets on the bed in the alcove.” Madame Magloire left the room to do so. 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 are eating.”
He looked stupefied, joyful; he began to stammer like a madman. “Is this true? You really will let me stay? You know I’m a convict, but you won’t turn me out? You call me sir and treat me with respect. You really do mean to let me stay here. I can see that you are good people — but I do have money, and I can pay you well. Please, Mr. Landlord, what is your name?”
“I’m a priest,” said the Bishop.
Madame Magloire came back, bringing a silver spoon and fork which she placed on the table. “Madame Magloire,” said the Bishop, “please lay them as close to the fire as you can.” He turned to his guest and said, “The night wind blows bitter on the Alps, and you, sir, must be feeling cold.”
Every time he said sir in that grave and gentle voice, the man’s face would light up. To say sir to a convict is like giving a glass of water to a man dying of thirst.
“This lamp gives a very poor light,” said the Bishop. Madame Magloire understood — and went to fetch the two silver candlesticks from the mantelpiece in the Bishop’s bedroom. She lit them and placed them on the table.
“Monsieur le Cure,” 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, seated beside him, touched his hand. “There was no need to tell me who you were. This is the house of Christ, not my house. When someone comes in, the door does not ask for your name, or whether you are in trouble. You are suffering, hungry, and thirsty—and so you’re welcome. Don’t thank me. Don’t think that I am the one who is taking you in. Only one person is at home here: the one who needs shelter.”
Meanwhile, Madame Magloire had brought in the soup and the Bishop’s face suddenly lit with delight, which comes naturally to people who like to entertain others. When dinner was over, Monseigneur Bienvenu said good night to his sister, 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.
To reach the alcove in the private chapel, they had to pass through the Bishop’s bedroom and were doing so just as Madame Magloire was putting the silver plate away in a cupboard on the wall at the end of the bed, as she did every night.
The man placed the branched candlestick on a small table. “I hope you sleep well,” said the Bishop. “Tomorrow morning, before you set off, our cows will provide you with a glass of fresh milk.”
“Thank you, Monsieur L’Abbe,” 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. He picked up the candlestick, held his breath and walked soundlessly towards the door where the bishop was sleeping. When he got to the door, he found it ajar—the Bishop had not closed it. He listened, but there was utter silence. He gave the door a push. He waited for a moment, and gave it a bolder push. The hinge was badly oiled and its screech pierced the darkness. He stood still, like a statue, not daring to move. A few minutes went by, then he plucked up the courage to look into the bedroom and found nothing had stirred.
And then, just as Jean Valjean stopped at the foot of the bed, a cloud suddenly divided and a moonbeam cast light on the Bishop’s pale face. He was sleeping peacefully, wrapped in a long garment of brown wool, which covered his arms to the wrists, and the hand that had done so many good deeds hung down at the side of the bed. A look of well-being lit his face, with a smile that almost seemed to glow. Jean Valjean stood stock still, terrified at the sight of the radiant old man.
Jean Valjean walked quickly along the bed. He went straight to the cupboard and raised his crowbar to force the lock, but the key was still in place. He opened the cupboard and seized the basket with all the silver. He hurried across the room, grabbed his stick, thrust the silver into his knapsack, leapt into the garden, threw away the basket and bounded over the wall like a tiger.
Next morning at sunrise, Madame Magloire 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.
“Praise the Lord! I didn’t know what had become of it.” The Bishop had just picked up the basket in a flower bed. He handed it to her. “But there’s nothing in it,” she said. “Where’s the silver plate?”
“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 plate really belong to us?” Madame Magloire was speechless. After another moment of silence, he went on, “Madame Magloire, it was wrong of me to keep that silver, which plainly belonged to the poor. And who was that man? Plainly he was poor indeed.” A few minutes later, as he and his sister were rising from breakfast, there came a knock at the door. “Come in,” said the Bishop. The door opened and three gendarmes holding Jean Valjean by the collar appeared on the threshold. A corporal walked up to the Bishop and gave a military salute. “My Lord Bishop,” he said.
Jean Valjean looked utterly 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 the Bishop.”
Meanwhile, Monseigneur Bienvenu had come forward as quickly as his great age would allow. “Ah! There you are!” he said, looking at Jean Valjean. “I’m glad to see you. I gave you the candlesticks as well. They are of silver too, and they will fetch 200 francs. Why didn’t you take them along with the rest of the silver?” Jean Valjean looked up and gave the Bishop a look that no language could describe.
“My Lord Bishop,” said the Corporal, “is what this man told us true after all?”
The Bishop interrupted with a smile, “And he told you that it had been given to him by an old priest who had given him a bed for the night. I see it all. And so you brought him back here. That was a mistake.”
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. The poor man trembled in every limb. He accepted the candlesticks in a daze. “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 walked over to Jean Valjean and said quietly, “Never forget that you promise me to use this money in order to become an honest man.” Jean Valjean stood silent. The Bishop added in a solemn tone, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong to evil no longer; you now belong to good. I have rescued your soul. I set it free from black thoughts and the spirit of destruction. I place it in the hands of God.”