Les Miserables

Author: Victor Hugo  | Date: 1862



THE day that M. Mabeuf said to Marius: "Certainly, I approve of political opinions ," he expressed the real condition of his mind. All political opinions were indifferent to him, and he approved them all without distinction, provided they left him quiet, as the Greeks called the Furies. "the beautiful, the good, the charming," the Eumenides . M. Mabeuf’s political opinion was a passionate fondness for plants, and a still greater one for books. He had, like everybody else, his termination in ist , without which nobody could have lived in those times, but he was neither a royalist, nor a Bonapartist, nor a chartist, nor an Orleanist, nor an anarchist; he was an old-bookist.

He did not understand how men could busy themselves with hating one another about such bubbles as the charter, democracy, legitimacy, the monarchy, the republic, etc., when there were in this world all sorts of mosses, herbs and shrubs, which they could look at, and piles of folios and even of 32mos which they could pore over. He took good care not to be useless; having books did not prevent him from reading, being a botanist did not prevent him from being a gardener. When he knew Pontmercy, there was this sympathy between the colonel and himself, that what the colonel did for flowers, he did for fruits. M. Mabeuf had succeeded in producing seedling pears as highly flavoured as the pears of Saint Germain; to one of his combinations, as it appears, we owe the October Mirabelle, now famous, and not less fragrant than the Summer Mirabelle. He went to mass rather from good-feeling than from devotion, and because he loved the faces of men, but hated their noise and he found them, at church only, gathered together and silent. Feeling that he ought to be something in the government, he had chosen the career of a churchwarden. Finally, he had never succeeded in loving any woman as much as a tulip bulb, or any man as much as an Elzevir. He had long passed his sixtieth year, when one day somebody asked him: "Were you never married?" "I forget," said he. When he happened sometimes- to whom does it not happen?- to say: "Oh! if I were rich," it was not upon ogling a pretty girl, like M. Gillenormand, but upon seeing an old book. He lived alone, with an old governess. He was a little gouty, and when he slept, his old fingers, stiffened with rheumatism, were clenched in the folds of the clothes. He had written and published a "Flora of the Environs of Cauteretz" with coloured illustrations, a highly esteemed work, the plates of which he owned and which he sold himself. People came two or three times a day and rang his bell, in the Rue Mezieres, for it. He received fully two thousand francs a year for it; this was nearly all his income. Though poor, he had succeeded in gathering together, by means of patience, self-denial, and time, a valuable collection of rare copies on every subject. He never went out without a book under his arm, and he often came back with two. The only decoration of the four ground-floor rooms which, with a small garden, formed his dwelling, were some framed herbariums and a few engravings of old masters. The sight of a sword or a gun chilled him. In his whole life, he had never been near a cannon, even at the Invalides. He had a passable stomach, a brother who was a cure, hair entirely white, no teeth left either in his mouth or in his mind, a tremor of the whole body, a Picard accent, a childlike laugh, weak nerves, and the appearance of an old sheep. With all that, no other friend nor any other intimate acquaintance among the living, but an old book-seller of the Porte Saint Jacques named Royol. His mania was the naturalisation of indigo in France.

His servant was, also, a peculiar variety of innocence. The poor, good old woman was a maid. Sultan, her cat, who could have miauled the Miserere of Allegri at the Sistine Chapel, had filled her heart, and sufficed for the amount of passion which she possessed. None of her dreams went as far as man. She had never got beyond her cat. She had, like him, moustaches. Her glory was in the whiteness of her caps. She spent her time on Sunday after mass in counting her linen in her trunk, and in spreading out upon her bed the dresses in the piece which she had bought and never made up. She could read. Monsieur Mabeuf had given her the name of Mother Plutarch .

Monsieur Mabeuf took Marius into favour, because Marius, being young and gentle, warmed his old age without arousing his timidity. Youth, with gentleness, has upon old men the effect of sunshine without wind. When Marius was full of military glory, gunpowder, marches, and countermarches, and all those wonderful battles in which his father had given and received such huge sabre strokes he went to see Monsieur Mabeuf, and Monsieur Mabeuf talked with him about the hero from the floricultural point of view.

Towards 1830, his brother the cure died, and almost immediately after, as at the coming on of night, the whole horizon of Monsieur Mabeuf was darkened. By a failure- of a notary- he lost ten thousand francs, which was all the money that he possessed in his brother’s name and his own. The revolution of July brought on a crisis in bookselling. In hard times, the first thing that does not sell is a "Flora." "The Flora of the Environs of Cauteretz" stopped short. Weeks went by without a purchaser. Sometimes Monsieur Mabeuf would start at the sound of the bell. "Monsieur," Mother Plutarch would say sadly, "it is the water-porter." In short, Monsieur Mabeuf left the Rue Mezieres one day, resigned his place as church-warden, gave up Saint Sulpice, sold a part, not of his books, but of his prints- what he prized the least- and installed himself in a little house on the Boulevard, Montparnasse, where however he remained but one quarter, for two reasons; first, the ground floor and the garden let for three hundred francs, and he did not dare to spend more than two hundred francs for his rent; secondly, being near the Fatou shooting gallery, he heard pistol shots; which was insupportable to him.

He carried off his "Flora," his plates, his herbariums, his portfolios and his books, and established himself near La Saltpetriere in a sort of cottage in the village of Austerlitz, where at fifty crowns a year he had three rooms, a garden inclosed with a hedge, and a well. He took advantage of this change to sell nearly all his furniture. The day of his entrance into this new dwelling, he was very gay, and drove nails himself on which to hang the engravings and the herbariums; he dug in his garden the rest of the day, and in the evening, seeing that Mother Plutarch had a gloomy and thoughtful air, he tapped her on the shoulder and said with a smile: "We have the indigo."

Only two visitors, the bookseller of the Porte Saint Jacques and Marius, were admitted to his cottage at Austerlitz, a tumultuous name which was, to tell the truth, rather disagreeable to him.

However, as we have just indicated, brains absorbed in wisdom, or in folly, or, as often happens, in both at once, are but very slowly permeable by the affairs of life. Their own destiny is far from them. There results from such concentrations of mind a passivity which, if it were due to reason, would resemble philosophy. We decline, we descend, we fall, we are even overthrown, and we hardly perceive it. This always ends, it is true, by an awakening, but a tardy one. In the meantime, it seems as though we were neutral in the game which is being played between our good and our ill fortune. We are the stake, yet we look upon the contest with indifference.

Thus it was that amid this darkness which was gathering about him, all his hopes going out one after another, Monsieur Mabeuf had remained serene, somewhat childishly, but very thoroughly. His habits of mind had the swing of a pendulum. Once wound up by an illusion, he went a very long time, even when the illusion had disappeared. A clock does not stop at the very moment you lose the key.

Monsieur Mabeuf had some innocent pleasures. These pleasures were cheap and unlooked-for; the least chance furnished them. One day Mother Plutarch was reading a romance in one corner of the room. She read aloud, as she understood better so. To read aloud, is to assure yourself of what you are reading. There are people who read very loud, and who appear to be giving their words of honour for what they are reading.

It was with that kind of energy that Mother Plutarch was reading the romance she held in her hand. Monsieur Mabeuf heard, but was not listening.

As she read, Mother Plutarch came to this passage. It was about an officer of dragoons and a belle:

"The belle bouda [pouted], and the dragon [dragoon]-"

Here she stopped to wipe her spectacles.

"Bouddha and the Dragon," said Monsieur Mabeuf in an undertone. "Yes, it is true, there was a dragon who, from the depth of his cave, belched forth flames from his jaws and was burning up the sky. Several stars had already been set on fire by this monster, who, besides, had claws like a tiger. Bouddha went into his cave and succeeded in converting the dragon. That is a good book which you are reading there, Mother Plutarch. There is no more beautiful legend."

And Monsieur Mabeuf fell into a delicious reverie.


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Chicago: Victor Hugo, "IV," Les Miserables, trans. Charles E. Wilbour in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0 (Irvine, CA: World Library, Inc., 1996), Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D21ILZ7PLTU78JA.

MLA: Hugo, Victor. "IV." Les Miserables, translted by Charles E. Wilbour, in Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, Irvine, CA, World Library, Inc., 1996, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D21ILZ7PLTU78JA.

Harvard: Hugo, V, 'IV' in Les Miserables, trans. . cited in 1996, Library of the Future ® 4th Edition Ver. 5.0, World Library, Inc., Irvine, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D21ILZ7PLTU78JA.