One evening in October 1815, an hour before sunset, a man with a long beard and dusty, torn clothes walked into the town of Digne. He was in his late forties, of medium height, broad-shouldered and strong. A leather cap half-hid his face, which was sunburnt and shining with sweat. His rough yellow shirt was unbuttoned, revealing a hairy chest. On his back was a heavy soldier’s bag, and in his hand was a large wooden stick.
The townspeople, who had never seen him before, watched with interest as he stopped for water at a fountain. Children followed him to the marketplace, where he stopped for more water at another fountain. He then crossed the square towards an inn, and entered by the kitchen door.
The innkeeper, who was also the cook, was busy with his pots and pans, preparing a meal for a group of travellers who were laughing and joking in the next room.
‘What can I do for you, Monsieur?’ he asked without looking up.
‘A meal and a bed,’ said the stranger.
‘Of course.’ The innkeeper turned to look at him. Then, seeing the visitors rough appearance, he added, ‘If you can pay for it.’
‘I have money.’ The stranger produced an old leather purse from his jacket.
‘Then you’re welcome,’ the innkeeper said.
The stranger smiled with relief and sat down by the fire. He did not see a young boy run out with a note that the innkeeper had quickly written. He did not see the boy return a short time later and whisper something to the innkeeper.
‘When will the meal be ready?’ the stranger asked.
‘I’m sorry, Monsieur,’ the innkeeper said. ‘You can’t stay here. I’ve got no free rooms.’
‘Then put me in a stable. All I need is a quiet corner somewhere. After dinner
‘You can’t eat here either,’ the innkeeper interrupted. ‘I haven’t enough food.’
‘What about all that food in the pots?’
The innkeeper approached and, bending towards the man, said in a fierce whisper, ‘Get out. I know who you are. Your name is Jean Valjean. You’ve just been released from prison. I can’t serve people like you here.’
The man rose without another word, picked up his bag and stick, and left. Outside, it was growing dark and a cold wind was blowing from the mountains in the east. The man looked around, desperate for somewhere to spend the night. He tried another inn, but the same thing happened. He knocked on the doors of people’s houses, but news of his arrival had quickly spread and nobody would offer him shelter from the cold. He even tried sleeping in a garden, but was chased away by a dog. Finally, he found himself in the cathedral square. He shook his fist at the church and then, cold and hungry, he lay down on a stone bench by the doorway.
A few minutes later, an old woman came out of the cathedral and saw him lying there.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
He answered angrily, ‘Can’t you see? I’m trying to sleep.’
‘On this bench, in this cold wind?’
‘I’ve slept for nineteen years on a piece of wood. Now it’s stone. What’s the difference?’
‘Why don’t you go to an inn?’
‘Because I haven’t any money,’ he lied.
The old woman opened her purse and gave him a few coins. Then she said, ‘Have you tried everywhere?’
‘I’ve knocked at every door.’
‘What about that one over there?’ she said, pointing across the square to a small house beside the bishop’s palace.
The Bishop of Digne was a kind old man who, many years earlier, had given his palace to the town hospital. He lived a simple life with his sister, Mademoiselle Baptistine, and his old servant, Madame Magloire, and he was much loved by the people in the town. He trusted everyone. His doors were never locked, so that anybody who needed his help could find him easily.
That evening, Mme Magloire was chatting with Mile Baptistine before serving the meal.
‘People say there’s a stranger in town,’ she said. ‘The police say that he looks dangerous, and it would be better for everyone to lock their windows and doors.’
‘Brother.’ Mile Baptistine turned to the bishop, who was sitting by the fire. ‘Did you hear what Mme Magloire was saying?’
‘Something about a dangerous stranger walking the streets?’ he asked with an amused smile.
‘This is no joke,’ Mme Magloire said. ‘The man is in rags and has an evil look on his face. Everybody in the town agrees that something terrible will happen tonight. And your sister agrees with me that this house isn’t safe. If you like, I can make arrangements now to get a lock put on the door
Before the bishop could reply, there was a heavy knock on the door.
‘Come in,’ said the bishop.
The door opened and Jean Valjean, the stranger, walked in. Mme Magloire trembled, open-mouthed with fear, while Mile Baptistine rose from her seat with alarm. The bishop, however, looked calmly at his unexpected visitor.
‘My name is Jean Valjean,’ the stranger said before anybody could speak. ‘I’ve been in prison for nineteen years. They let me out four days ago. I’ve been walking all day, and nobody in this town will give me food or a bed for the night. A woman saw me lying on a stone bench across the square and suggested that I come here. So here I am. What is this place? Is it an inn? I’ve got money. Will you let me stay?’