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CHAPTER XI—A RESTRICTION
We should incur a great risk of deceiving ourselves, were we to conclude
from this that Monseigneur Welcome was "a philosophical bishop," or a
"patriotic cure." His meeting, which may almost be designated as his
union, with conventionary G——, left behind it in his mind a
sort of astonishment, which rendered him still more gentle. That is all.
Although Monseigneur Bienvenu was far from being a politician, this is,
perhaps, the place to indicate very briefly what his attitude was in the
events of that epoch, supposing that Monseigneur Bienvenu ever dreamed of
having an attitude.
Let us, then, go back a few years.
Some time after the elevation of M. Myriel to the episcopate, the Emperor
had made him a baron of the Empire, in company with many other bishops.
The arrest of the Pope took place, as every one knows, on the night of the
5th to the 6th of July, 1809; on this occasion, M. Myriel was summoned by
Napoleon to the synod of the bishops of France and Italy convened at
Paris. This synod was held at Notre-Dame, and assembled for the first time
on the 15th of June, 1811, under the presidency of Cardinal Fesch. M.
Myriel was one of the ninety-five bishops who attended it. But he was
present only at one sitting and at three or four private conferences.
Bishop of a mountain diocese, living so very close to nature, in rusticity
and deprivation, it appeared that he imported among these eminent
personages, ideas which altered the temperature of the assembly. He very
soon returned to D—— He was interrogated as to this speedy
return, and he replied: "I embarrassed them. The outside air penetrated to
them through me. I produced on them the effect of an open door."
On another occasion he said, "What would you have? Those gentlemen are
princes. I am only a poor peasant bishop."
The fact is that he displeased them. Among other strange things, it is
said that he chanced to remark one evening, when he found himself at the
house of one of his most notable colleagues: "What beautiful clocks! What
beautiful carpets! What beautiful liveries! They must be a great trouble.
I would not have all those superfluities, crying incessantly in my ears:
'There are people who are hungry! There are people who are cold! There are
poor people! There are poor people!'"
Let us remark, by the way, that the hatred of luxury is not an intelligent
hatred. This hatred would involve the hatred of the arts. Nevertheless, in
churchmen, luxury is wrong, except in connection with representations and
ceremonies. It seems to reveal habits which have very little that is
charitable about them. An opulent priest is a contradiction. The priest
must keep close to the poor. Now, can one come in contact incessantly
night and day with all this distress, all these misfortunes, and this
poverty, without having about one's own person a little of that misery,
like the dust of labor? Is it possible to imagine a man near a brazier who
is not warm? Can one imagine a workman who is working near a furnace, and
who has neither a singed hair, nor blackened nails, nor a drop of sweat,
nor a speck of ashes on his face? The first proof of charity in the
priest, in the bishop especially, is poverty.
This is, no doubt, what the Bishop of D—— thought.
It must not be supposed, however, that he shared what we call the "ideas
of the century" on certain delicate points. He took very little part in
the theological quarrels of the moment, and maintained silence on
questions in which Church and State were implicated; but if he had been
strongly pressed, it seems that he would have been found to be an
ultramontane rather than a gallican. Since we are making a portrait, and
since we do not wish to conceal anything, we are forced to add that he was
glacial towards Napoleon in his decline. Beginning with 1813, he gave in
his adherence to or applauded all hostile manifestations. He refused to
see him, as he passed through on his return from the island of Elba, and
he abstained from ordering public prayers for the Emperor in his diocese
during the Hundred Days.
Besides his sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine, he had two brothers, one a
general, the other a prefect. He wrote to both with tolerable frequency.
He was harsh for a time towards the former, because, holding a command in
Provence at the epoch of the disembarkation at Cannes, the general had put
himself at the head of twelve hundred men and had pursued the Emperor as
though the latter had been a person whom one is desirous of allowing to
escape. His correspondence with the other brother, the ex-prefect, a fine,
worthy man who lived in retirement at Paris, Rue Cassette, remained more
Thus Monseigneur Bienvenu also had his hour of party spirit, his hour of
bitterness, his cloud. The shadow of the passions of the moment traversed
this grand and gentle spirit occupied with eternal things. Certainly, such
a man would have done well not to entertain any political opinions. Let
there be no mistake as to our meaning: we are not confounding what is
called "political opinions" with the grand aspiration for progress, with
the sublime faith, patriotic, democratic, humane, which in our day should
be the very foundation of every generous intellect. Without going deeply
into questions which are only indirectly connected with the subject of
this book, we will simply say this: It would have been well if Monseigneur
Bienvenu had not been a Royalist, and if his glance had never been, for a
single instant, turned away from that serene contemplation in which is
distinctly discernible, above the fictions and the hatreds of this world,
above the stormy vicissitudes of human things, the beaming of those three
pure radiances, truth, justice, and charity.
While admitting that it was not for a political office that God created
Monseigneur Welcome, we should have understood and admired his protest in
the name of right and liberty, his proud opposition, his just but perilous
resistance to the all-powerful Napoleon. But that which pleases us in
people who are rising pleases us less in the case of people who are
falling. We only love the fray so long as there is danger, and in any
case, the combatants of the first hour have alone the right to be the
exterminators of the last. He who has not been a stubborn accuser in
prosperity should hold his peace in the face of ruin. The denunciator of
success is the only legitimate executioner of the fall. As for us, when
Providence intervenes and strikes, we let it work. 1812 commenced to
disarm us. In 1813 the cowardly breach of silence of that taciturn
legislative body, emboldened by catastrophe, possessed only traits which
aroused indignation. And it was a crime to applaud, in 1814, in the
presence of those marshals who betrayed; in the presence of that senate
which passed from one dunghill to another, insulting after having deified;
in the presence of that idolatry which was loosing its footing and
spitting on its idol,—it was a duty to turn aside the head. In 1815,
when the supreme disasters filled the air, when France was seized with a
shiver at their sinister approach, when Waterloo could be dimly discerned
opening before Napoleon, the mournful acclamation of the army and the
people to the condemned of destiny had nothing laughable in it, and, after
making all allowance for the despot, a heart like that of the Bishop of D——,
ought not perhaps to have failed to recognize the august and touching
features presented by the embrace of a great nation and a great man on the
brink of the abyss.
With this exception, he was in all things just, true, equitable,
intelligent, humble and dignified, beneficent and kindly, which is only
another sort of benevolence. He was a priest, a sage, and a man. It must
be admitted, that even in the political views with which we have just
reproached him, and which we are disposed to judge almost with severity,
he was tolerant and easy, more so, perhaps, than we who are speaking here.
The porter of the town-hall had been placed there by the Emperor. He was
an old non-commissioned officer of the old guard, a member of the Legion
of Honor at Austerlitz, as much of a Bonapartist as the eagle. This poor
fellow occasionally let slip inconsiderate remarks, which the law then
stigmatized as seditious speeches. After the imperial profile disappeared
from the Legion of Honor, he never dressed himself in his regimentals, as
he said, so that he should not be obliged to wear his cross. He had
himself devoutly removed the imperial effigy from the cross which Napoleon
had given him; this made a hole, and he would not put anything in its
place. "I will die," he said, "rather than wear the three frogs upon my
heart!" He liked to scoff aloud at Louis XVIII. "The gouty old creature in
English gaiters!" he said; "let him take himself off to Prussia with that
queue of his." He was happy to combine in the same imprecation the two
things which he most detested, Prussia and England. He did it so often
that he lost his place. There he was, turned out of the house, with his
wife and children, and without bread. The Bishop sent for him, reproved
him gently, and appointed him beadle in the cathedral.
In the course of nine years Monseigneur Bienvenu had, by dint of holy
deeds and gentle manners, filled the town of D——with a sort of
tender and filial reverence. Even his conduct towards Napoleon had been
accepted and tacitly pardoned, as it were, by the people, the good and
weakly flock who adored their emperor, but loved their bishop.