The Bishop’s Candlesticks
It would be incomplete to read this soul-stirring drama without learning about Victor Hugo who wrote Les Miserables. The novel, written in mid-nineteenth century, portrays the poverty, insensitivity, and the economic disparity of the then French society. The book brought to public eye the extremely oppressive prison conditions in France and the brutalization of the inmates in the hands of officials who manned both the judiciary and the jails. They displayed shocking arbitrariness and an odious arrogance in handing down stringent sentences to errant inmates. When the inmates were finally released from the jail, they were reduced to beasts after long years of crippling torture and isolation. Bereft of all human feelings, and ostracized by the society, they failed to integrate into mainstream society. Broken in mind and robbed of their soul, they wandered around to eke out a living, often plunging again to the crime world.
Victor Hugo, a thinker, writer, and dramatist lived in the era of Napoleon. Fearing capture, jail and even death, he left France to spend some years in Brussels and Germany. The torment of his heart resulting from his knowledge of the infamous prisons of Paris never let him live peacefully. With his heart burdened with anguish and resentment, Hugo, through Les Miserables, drew the attention of the thinking elite of Europe to the inhuman treatment of its citizens inside the walls of the jails. This book took him nearly seven years to complete, but it shook the European conscience to its very foundation. It shattered many and sobered many others who, using their official authority, turned on the defenseless prisoners with savage vengeance.
Since its publication, Les Miserables has been translated to many languages, read by countless readers and has reformed countless human beings to be compassionate, forgiving and sensitive to fellow humans. It has been made into films by many eminent producers. Whatever may be the difference in nuance, the kernel remains the same. Les Miserables, in any form — book or film, radiates goodness, and its aura of godliness is unmistakable. It races to touch the soul of the reader, and leaves an indelible mark in it.
The Bishop’s Candlesticks is a dramatization of a part of this seminal book Les miserables. Possibly, this part marks a turning point of the story. The eminent playwright Norman Mckinnell (1870-1932) has done a commendable job in giving shape to the characters. Although he has deviated from the original text somewhat, the undertone of compassion, forgiveness and sympathy has remained loud and clear.
Characters .. The Bishop, The Convict, Bishop’s sister Persome, the domestic help Marie and the Sergeant of Gendarmes.
Short description of the characters ….
The Bishop … He is an unusual man. He has a heart that overflows with compassion and humility. Sights of suffering of any human being drive him to extreme limits of generosity. He invites ridicule from his sister, he remains undeterred.
Persome .. She oversees the Bishop’s household. She is just like any other woman, loving, caring, but has the mundane pettiness we get to see in most human beings. She disapproves of her brother’s benevolence as unwarranted and eccentric.
Marie .. As the young domestic help, she is obedient and too mindful of her duties. Perhaps because of her impoverished childhood, her intelligence is somewhat blighted. It makes her appear stupid at times.
Sergeant of Gendrames … The dutiful police officer who hunts down shady characters on the road. He is very respectful of the Bishop.
The Story …..
The drama opens with a scene of Marie making the soup and Persome chiding her for her minor follies. It is getting late in the night and the Bishop has not returned home. Persome is worried. After a brief questioning by Persome, Marie tells her that she had gone to sell off the silver salt-cellars at the master’s (Bishop’s) behest. The money was needed by the Bishop to pay off the arrear rent of Marie’s ailing mother who was facing imminent eviction from her rented accommodation. It also emerged that the Bishop had been to the ailing lady to attend to her and pray for her.
Obviously, Marie’s mother’s suffering had moved the kindly Bishop to sell off the silver salt-cellars. It was a desperate act to save a distressed soul. There was no way the Bishop look the other way when the ailing lady was at the end of her tether.
Persome, ever protective about her brother, was not a person to fathom the depth of the Bishop’s compassion. She was just an ordinary worldly woman who chided her brother for going to such extra-ordinary lengths to help a woman.
The Bishop was very caring of Marie. He asked her to dart off to her mother and gave her his woolen head muffler to save her from the cold outside.
The Bishop, despite being reprimanded by his sister Persome, remained calm and totally unruffled. He showed no irritation, no anger at Persome’s petty-mindedness.
Persome, prepared to go to bed. She wished her brother ‘Good Bye’ excusing him as another incorrigible eccentric philanthropist. It was midnight. The Bishop, tired after the errands he did during the day, sat down to unwind before going to sleep.
Just about then, a vicious-looking man with long hair and beard came in and grabbed the Bishop from behind. He had a dagger in his hand. With frightening sternness, he orders the Bishop not to shriek, not to move. The Bishop, in his characteristic way, remained impassive. The convict, at the point of his dagger, demanded food saying he had not eaten for three days. Far from being polite for the service he was seeking, he was quite boorish in his talk and manners.
The Bishop was not the least offended by the stranger’s rudeness. On the other hand, he was most willing to feed the famished trespasser. When he got up to go to get the key to open the food cupboard to get something for the hungry man to eat, the latter mistook it to be a ruse by the host to call in the police or raise an alarm. The stranger ordered the Bishop to sit down and not attempt any dirty trick! Instead, he told he was too hungry to wait and could wait no further. Saying this, he demanded to know where the food was and wanted to get it himself.
The Bishop speaks to the rude bearded man most lovingly and reassures him that he had no hostile intention. He further confided to the visitor that there was just one more person in the household. It was his sister.
The visitor was still not very convinced. He gave another dire warning to the Bishop. He threatened to use his dagger to rip apart his host’s heart in case the latter planned to spring a surprise.
The Bishop’s response was as cool as it was disarming. With remarkable calmness, he told his guest that losing his heart and thus his life did not bother him as much as the loss of soul of the visitor if he indeed carried out the murder. The Bishop was alluding to the sense of guilt the stranger would have to live with if he killed his benign host.
The Bishop summoned her sister Persome to see if there was any food in the cupboard that the hungry visitor could eat. Persome, in her usual way, responded rather scornfully to the Bishop’s request. She wondered if it was their obligation to feed every destitute that passed their way at very inconvenient hours (It was past mid-night by then.). The Bishop persisted showing little irritation.
Persome soon returned, but she was aghast to see a knife in the hand of the uncouth man her Bishop was offering food. The Bishop remained unruffled. He tried to make light of Persome’s fear saying that the visitor might have brought it thinking the host’s house didn’t have it.
Persome was still shaken by the encounter, She told her brother how chillingly the traveler looked at them.The traveler had little patience for Persome’s feelings. He demanded food fast, threatening the hosts to smother them if they delayed any further.
The Bishop took the keys from her sister and let her leave. The visitor was still not mollified. He asked the two remain where they were.
The Bishop asked Persome to wait on the guest as he ate. Persome agreed. The food that was offered was cold pie, wine and some bread. The traveler asked to stand still there as he ate. He examines the knife and fork used in the Bishop’s house hold. He blurts out the fact that he never got to use a fork in the ‘prison’.
The mention of the word ‘prison’ created a flutter in the minds of the hosts. Persome was taken aback.
The visitor started eating the bread like a hungry beast. Then he looked at the open window and the door and wondered with some trepidation as to why they remained open. Was it to let others in to nab him?
The door and windows were shut in the meantime as the visitor devours his food. The Bishop revealed that the doors and windows have been closed after a period of thirty long years.
The visitor dropped food on the floor annoying Persome. The Bishop picked up the bone from the floor and put it back on the plate.
With his hunger partly satiated, the visitor wanted to know if his hosts were not afraid of ‘thieves’.
The Bishop replied that he felt sorry for them.
The convict treats the soft comment with some hard cynicism. He is a bit amused too. He asks his host what he was.
The host said he was a Bishop.
It draws another bout of cynical laugh from the visitor. He sharpens his dismissive comment by exclaiming the Bishop to be someone associated with Virgin Mary, as if Virgin Mary was a small mean woman.
The Bishop was not ready to give up despite the hurtful words of the visitor. He wanted to have a one-to-one chat with the visitor who appeared to be frustrated to the point of a total break-down. He wanted Persome to go and leave the duo alone.
Persome was apprehensive. Bishop clarified that he must talk to the visitor alone.
The visitor, although appearing quite disturbed, appeared amused at the prospect of talking to a Bishop.
Persome retreated to her bed.
The visitor, in utter disbelief, asks the Bishop if he was aware of his antecedents.
The Bishop, in a voice of sympathy, said that he apparently was a man who had got a very bad deal in life.
The visitor began to open up. Emotions seemed to grip his mind as began his journey down the memory lane. He said he had suffered for far too long to suffer any more. Now, he was a beast robbed of his human sensibilities. He had been reduced to a number –15279. The ten years of incarceration had been un-endurable for him.
The Bishop was all ears for the man who had suffered so much in the prison. He wanted to hear in detail about the brutalities inflicted on him while in jail.
The convict’s mind was still suspicious of the Bishop. He wanted to know why the Bishop was so keen to hear his story. Was it a ruse to hand him over to the police, he asked.
The Bishop calmly assured him that he would never be handed over to the police.
The convict replied that he believed the Bishop, but did not know why.
The Bishop was keen to know what had landed the man in jail.
The convict agreed to open up. He told the how inhumanely the prison guards had treated him. He was chained, robbed of all freedom, given rotten food unfit for human consumption, kept with wild animals and frequently thrashed. The guards treated him with odious contempt heaping physical and mental abuses of unendurable proportions.
The convict narrated how his incarceration of ten years and the unrelenting torture had destroyed the human side of his soul and made him a beast. Then, one day the opportunity finally arrived. The guards had forgot to chain him and he fled the confines of the prison for good. That was some six weeks ago. He went out of the prison, but had nowhere to go. Since then he had gone without food. Starvation had followed him all the way.
The Bishop sighed in disbelief. He couldn’t believe that the visitor sitting before him had suffered so much.
The security police had been all over the place trying to nab him. Being on the run, and having no identification papers, the convict had to dodge the police by hiding. This made his life much more difficult. He couldn’t even beg for food. He managed to steal the rag he wore and stole food to stay alive. He had to spend his nights in odd places. He couldn’t go out and ask for work. The whole world appeared to turn its face away from him. He was a thief now.
The convict boiled in anger as he narrated his account.
The Bishop’s heart melted in sympathy for the convict as he heard the ordeal. The Bishop advised him not to give up and have some hope.
The convict was clearly incredulous and cynical.
The Bishop asked the convict to lie down on the couch for some time to beatoff the tiredness. He offered to get him a blanket.
The convict was still unsure about his safety. He feared being arrested while he was asleep.
The Bishop tried to calm the nerves of his nervous guest, addressing him as his ‘friend’. He reassured him that no one would come. Even if anyone did come, the frightened guest would have the Bishop’s protection.
This show of solidarity and sympathy came as a big surprise for the convict. Clearly, he was baffled at the kind treatment he was receiving.
The Bishop briefly goes to fetch the blanket. The convict went towards the fireplace to warm himself. His eyes fell on the beautiful candlesticks kept near the fire place. The devil in him came to the fore. Greed overtook him. The lure of the heavy silver candlestick became irresistible. His host’s kindness got drowned in the avarice that reared its ugly head in his mind. He thought it was a rare opportunity to make a windfall.
He had his greedy gaze fixed on the silver candlesticks when the Bishop stepped in. In his characteristics eyes that saw no evil, he complimented the convict for appreciating his candlesticks. The Bishop told the convict that the candle sticks were his departed mother’s gifts. He lovingly had treasured the beautiful pieces as memento. The Bishop wanted his guest to retire for the night.
The convict was flummoxed by the Bishop’s show of such unusual kindness. The Bishop continued to pacify the host, who, by now, appeared to be a bit confused. Nevertheless, the convict agreed to go and take rest, but again wanted to know why the Bishop had been so extra-ordinarily kind to him.
The simply said that he wanted the tired guest to have some good rest.
The convict had another bout of rudeness to fling at his host. He blurted out that he had no place for any more spiritual lessons in his mind. As regards, being reconverted to Christianity, said he had no intention of falling into the Bishop’s evangelical motives. He bluntly said that he ‘hated’ Church.
Bishop remained unruffled. He said that it was such a pity to see the convict hating Church, when Jesus hated none, not least the convict.
The convict didn’t stop being dismissive about Church and all that it stands for. He said he loathed the idea of religion, charity and Hope. Without showing even a faint sign of gratitude to the Bishop, the convict declared that it was futile to hope that a convict could be reformed by goodness. In other words, he asserted that he was too degraded a human being to be swayed towards spirituality.
The Bishop was not a man to give up before such blunt negativity. He said it was worth slogging for a ‘fallen’ devil’s renewal because the effort would be a service to God.
The convict was not a bit softened. He reiterated his loathing for religion.
The Bishop asked his stubborn guest to lie down and rest.
The convict was caught in double minds. He said he would rest, but the fear of arrest still troubled him.
The Bishop assured him that there was no danger of anyone coming in to nab him. After all, the convict had locked the door himself, the Bishop reminded.
The convict again went to double-check the door lock. The Bishop was beginning to lose his patience. He held the blanket in his hand to put t on the convict after he slept on the bed. Finally, the comnvict came to sleep.
The Bishop left saying ‘Good Night’ lovingly.
The convict had other intentions. His mind was riveted to the silver candlesticks. He gets up and goes to hold the candlesticks, caressing it with great greed.
A torrent of conflicting emotions was buffeting his mind. He knew he could steal the silver pieces, sell them and start life anew. But, the guilt of robbing the Bishop who had been so kind to him disturbed him. The duel swung his mind taking him to his insufferable prison days. On the other side, the prospect of a prosperous life appeared so tantalizingly close. The candlesticks were precious mementos the Bishop treasured as memories of his departed mother. Stealing the pieces would hurt his host. Momentarily, the ‘noble’ element in his mind reared its head. But, the convict brushed it aside thinking he too had a mother. It had not deterred his tormentors in the jail to detain him for ten long years! So, mother’s memory was not sacrosanct, he reasoned.
Still vacillating between stealing and not stealing, he thought that Bishops were meant to be kind and helpful to people in distress. So, his host had done what he ought to do. With such self-serving thoughts, the convict decided to take the plunge to hell again. He decided to flee with the silver pieces. The door slammed as the convict stepped out with the booty.
It awoke Persome. She shouted to ascertain the source of the sound. It didn’t take long for her to discover that the convict had decamped with precious silver candlesticks.
The Bishop entered and realized what had happened. He was totally heart-broken. From the depth of his heart he pined for the lost candlesticks. He was devastated.
Persome suggested to her brother to rush and inform the police. She chided her brother for letting in a stranger to a place where the precious candlesticks had been kept.
The Bishop conceded that he had been very indiscreet in dealing with the convict. He lamented the loss of the items that meant so much to him emotionally.
Persome was very upset with her brother whom she saw as too naïve and imprudent.
The Bishop became thoughtful, weighing carefully the consequences of informing the police. They would surely apprehend him and send him back to the prison – the dungeon that had destroyed his soul.
Persomme was extremely angry at the way her brother, whom she adored so much, had been robbed by an odious character who was treated with such kindness. She simply could not countenance her brother’s continued softness for the convict. She was adamant on calling in the police. She sternly told her brother not to intervene.
The Bishop pondered the matter. He appeared to be reconciled to the loss of the treasured items. In fact, the resentment in his mind had ceded place to lofty compassion. He wanted the convict to own the pieces and meet his needs, which he felt, were more dire than his own.
The Bishop pleaded with his sister to let the convict be forgiven. After all, he said, his departed kind mother would have been happy to give away the silver pieces to any one with such pressing need.
Persome remained un-convinced. At this point of time, a loud knock on the door was heard.
The Sergeant and three Gendarmes came in with the Convict firmly in their custody.
Persome seethed in anger on seeing the chained Convict. The countenance on her face showed her anger.
The Sergeant narrated how they had picked up the Convict on suspicion while the latter was walking on the road. The police personnel had to grapple with the Convict really hard before they could subdue him. The silver pieces fell off the Convict’s bag. The Sergeant had seen these pieces in the Bishop’s place earlier. So, he had brought the Convict there to get the matter sorted out and restore the silver pieces to its rightful owner – the Bishop.
Around that time, Persome took the pieces from the Sergeant and carefully wiped them with her apron. She was both happy and relieved.
The Bishop’s kind eyes met the defiant glance of that of the Convict. There was not a trace of remorse in his face for what he had done.
Something very strange happened. The Bishop feigned surprise, and said the shabby-looking man in the police custody was his friend.
The Sergeant was surprised at the turn of events.
The Bishop cleared the air by further declaring that the man assumed to be a thief had been his guest for the supper that night. After the meals, the host had gifted the priceless pieces to the guest.
For the Sergeant, it was utterly baffling. But, he had little left to do when the Bishop said that he had gifted the silver pieces to the man he was holding.
The Bishop invoked the name of Virgin Merry.
The Sergeant felt sorry for the mess he had inadvertently created by dishonouring the guest of the Bishop. He had no hesitation in apologizing to the Bishop.
With some lingering doubts, he complained that the stranger had no identification papers with him.
The Bishop reiterated that the stranger was indeed his friend. With rare calm, he asked the Sergeant to set the arrested man free.
The Sergeant asked his men to back off.
The Convict was as perplexed as he was intrigued. He wondered why the Bishop had been so immensely forgiving and gracious.
Pesome gave the Convict a venomous rebuke calling him all sorts of names.
The Bishop was quite terse with her extremely abusive sister. He motioned her to leave.
Pesome feared that the Convict might do some new harm to her brother if she left, but the Bishop was firm that she should leave.
Persome insisted on regaining the possession of the lost silver pieces. Again, the Bishop put his feet down and asked his sister to leave. Persome was un-relenting, so was her brother. He, with all the authority at his command, ordered her to go. Pesome left the two behind and made her exit.
The Convict finally seemed to see reason. Some good sense was returning to him. He, with shame writ large on his face, told the Bishop that he was happy not to have sold off the pieces.
In his characteristic way, the Bishop showed no sign of any displeasure with the Convict. On the contrary, he asked the person to sleep on the bed and get some rest.
The Convict saw great risk in staying behind. He told his host that he must escape to Paris under the cover of the night’s darkness. Paris was a big enough place for a fugitive to hide.
The Bishop seemed to agree.
The Convict, by then, had his stone heart melting. He saw how gracious and good his host had been. His cynicism about the evil world was receding fast. He said he discerned some good in this brutal world. He begged the Bishop to bless him for his difficult days ahead.
The Bishop readily obliged.
Overwhelmed by the Bishop’s goodness, the Convict came to tears. He began to sob. He felt the tumultuous wind of change that was sweeping his heart. He was desperate to shed his beastly mind, and reclaim his conscience.
The Bishop was generous and loving. He assured the repentant Convict that there was still enough time and scope to retrace his steps and live a dignified life. He told his friend to remember that his body was the Temple of the Living God.
The Convict was experiencing the powerful gush of good and noble sentiments. He said he would remember the Bishop’s words – the Temple of Living God.