Les Misérables [1.1-VI] Who guarded his House for him
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[Fr.] [En.] Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam. Si le Seigneur ne protège pas la maison, c’est en vain que veillent ceux qui la protègent. Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam. Unless the Lord guard the house, in vain do they watch who guard it.
This chapter sets the stage for the major plot development that will happen in book 2. While in chapter II~V, Hugo used the character of Myriel in order to expose his own idealistic vision, the purpose of this one is chiefly to help get the story started.
Still, it does not prevent the author from covering a couple of important themes, providing additional pieces to his overall vision.
Security is the main theme being expounded in this chapter: the huge differential between the richest and the poorest is one of the main factors which affect security and which drives individuals and whole countries to build more and more extreme defences in order to protect and maintain that differential.
Also this chapter completes the portrait of the practical, heart-centred intellectual which was started in the previous chapter.
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Il y avait en outre dans le jardin une étable qui était l’ancienne cuisine de l’hospice et où l’évêque entretenait deux vaches. Quelle que fût la quantité de lait qu’elles lui donnassent, il en envoyait invariablement tous les matins la moitié aux malades de l’hôpital. Je paye ma dîme, disait-il. In addition to this, there was in the garden a stable, which had formerly been the kitchen of the hospital, and in which the Bishop kept two cows. No matter what the quantity of milk they gave, he invariably sent half of it every morning to the sick people in the hospital. "I am paying my tithes," he said.
Myriel gives 50% of his milk production in tithe. This is in addition to the 90% of his cash income that he gives in tithe in chapter II!
L’ambition de mademoiselle Baptistine eût été de pouvoir acheter un meuble de salon en velours d’Utrecht jaune à rosaces et en acajou à cou de cygne, avec canapé. Mais cela eût coûté au moins cinq cents francs, et, ayant vu qu’elle n’avait réussi à économiser pour cet objet que quarante-deux francs dix sous en cinq ans, elle avait fini par y renoncer. D’ailleurs qui est-ce qui atteint son idéal ? Mademoiselle Baptistine's ambition had been to be able to purchase a set of drawing-room furniture in yellow Utrecht velvet, stamped with a rose pattern, and with mahogany in swan's neck style, with a sofa. But this would have cost five hundred francs at least, and in view of the fact that she had only been able to lay by forty-two francs and ten sous for this purpose in the course of five years, she had ended by renouncing the idea. However, who is there who has attained his ideal?
While most of book 1 is about M. Myriel, there would also be a lot to say about the two women who live with him. They had to sacrifice a lot of their own ambitions in order to live with a man such as Myriel whom they loved, respected and trusted.
Compare this paragraph to chapter 1.1.IX: "The Brother as depicted by the Sister". Also, the title of chapter 1.2.III is praising their main virtue: "The Heroism of Passive Obedience". (Here, obviously, we are not talking about gender relationship in general nor about some misplaced feminist or anti-feminist agenda. It simply is a fact that, regardless of the genders involved, it requires a lot of courage to listen to and obey a person who is way ahead in terms of spiritual development!)
Dans les commencements, les deux femmes avaient été fort tourmentées de cette porte jamais close ; mais M. de Digne leur avait dit : Faites mettre des verrous à vos chambres, si cela vous plaît. Elles avaient fini par partager sa confiance ou du moins par faire comme si elles la partageaient. At first, the two women had been very much tried by this door, which was never fastened, but Monsieur de D---- had said to them, "Have bolts put on your rooms, if that will please you." They had ended by sharing his confidence, or by at least acting as though they shared it.
Another example of their courage and trust.
[...] au-dessus de la cheminée, un crucifix de cuivre désargenté fixé sur un velours noir râpé dans un cadre de bois dédoré. [...] above the chimney-piece hung a crucifix of copper, with the silver worn off, fixed on a background of threadbare velvet in a wooden frame from which the gilding had fallen;
The original French of this quote is most poetic. We have three nouns each qualified by a pair of antithetical adjectives. If we remove only one adjective each, we get a picture of a nice piece of artwork in its bygone glory:
[...] au-dessus de la cheminée, un crucifix de cuivre fixé sur un velours noir dans un cadre de bois. [...] above the chimney-piece hung a crucifix of copper fixed on a background of [black] velvet in a wooden frame;
Each of the additional adjectives lower the value of the item by more than compensating for its corresponding positive qualifier.
Compare this description to the description of other items, e.g. the mended curtains elsewhere in this chapter (discussed below) and the used cassock featured in the previous chapter. In all of these, we can witness the direct effects of Myriel's giving out most of his income to the poor.
Deux portraits dans des cadres ovales étaient accrochés au mur des deux côtés du lit. De petites inscriptions dorées sur le fond neutre de la toile à côté des figures indiquaient que les portraits représentaient, l’un, l’abbé de Chaliot, évêque de Saint-Claude, l’autre, l’abbé Tourteau, vicaire général d’Agde, abbé de Grand-Champ, ordre de Citeaux, diocèse de Chartres. L’évêque, en succédant dans cette chambre aux malades de l’hôpital, y avait trouvé ces portraits et les y avait laissés. C’étaient des prêtres, probablement des donateurs, deux motifs pour qu’il les respectât. Tout ce qu’il savait de ces deux personnages, c’est qu’ils avaient été nommés par le roi, l’un à son évêché, l’autre à son bénéfice, le même jour, le 27 avril 1785. Two portraits in oval frames were fastened to the wall on each side of the bed. Small gilt inscriptions on the plain surface of the cloth at the side of these figures indicated that the portraits represented, one the Abbe of Chaliot, bishop of Saint Claude; the other, the Abbe Tourteau, vicar-general of Agde, abbe of Grand-Champ, order of Citeaux, diocese of Chartres. When the Bishop succeeded to this apartment, after the hospital patients, he had found these portraits there, and had left them. They were priests, and probably donors--two reasons for respecting them. All that he knew about these two persons was, that they had been appointed by the king, the one to his bishopric, the other to his benefice, on the same day, the 27th of April, 1785.
What is the greater motive for Myriel to respect them? The fact that they are priests, or that they are donors? Today, Myriel is himself in what used to be the hospital, whereas before, only a portrait of a priest was there. In effect, Myriel is giving himself out wholly, body and soul!
Note that the priests used to be named by the King. See Religion and State in France.
« Ne demandez pas son nom à qui vous demande un gîte. C’est surtout celui-là que son nom embarrasse qui a besoin d’asile. » "Do not inquire the name of him who asks a shelter of you. The very man who is embarrassed by his name is the one who needs shelter."
As we saw in chapter II, Myriel trusted the poor implicitly. He gave them the money, avoiding intermediaries. He asks nothing of the people he helps, no guarantee that the money will be used properly, not even their names.
Today, our welfare system and charitable gifts always require some form of proof that the individual needs it and will use it in the proper way. Maybe it is much better this way; there may be fewer opportunities for abuse... but one cannot help wonder about the value of implicit trust in a loving heart...
The Fesch Museum
In chapter I, we met Napoleon's uncle by marriage, the Cardinal Fesch. If you go to Corsica, the French island in the Mediterranean sea off France's southern coast, you may visit the beautiful harbour city of Ajaccio where Napoleon grew up before going to continental France to study. There, you can visit the Fesch museum, named after the Cardinal who had a famous, powerful nephew.
Cardinal Fesch was an avid art collector. At his death, he owned well over 17,000 pieces of art, mostly paintings. He donated many to the city of Ajaccio which set up the aforementioned museum to display the collection. Fesch amassed his huge collection by acquiring whole lots of paintings so that the quality was very uneven, from the barely mediocre to the sublime.
Compare this to M. Myriel's art collection:
Il avait à sa fenêtre un antique rideau de grosse étoffe de laine qui finit par devenir tellement vieux que, pour éviter la dépense d’un neuf, madame Magloire fut obligée de faire une grande couture au beau milieu. Cette couture dessinait une croix. L’évêque le faisait souvent remarquer. — Comme cela fait bien ! disait-il. At his window he had an antique curtain of a coarse woollen stuff, which finally became so old, that, in order to avoid the expense of a new one, Madame Magloire was forced to take a large seam in the very middle of it. This seam took the form of a cross. The Bishop often called attention to it: "How delightful that is!" he said.
That is Christian art, very raw, very true to Christ's teachings.
The luxury of poor people
Du reste, ce logis, tenu par deux femmes, était du haut en bas d’une propreté exquise. C’était le seul luxe que l’évêque permît. Il disait : — Cela ne prend rien aux pauvres. Altogether, this dwelling, which was attended to by the two women, was exquisitely clean from top to bottom. This was the sole luxury which the Bishop permitted. He said, "That takes nothing from the poor."
Le beau est aussi utile que l’utile. — Il ajouta après un silence : Plus peut-être. "The beautiful is as useful as the useful." He added after a pause, "More so, perhaps."
Compare this to the French (Mexican?) saying: "La propreté est le luxe du pauvre" (Cleanliness is the luxury of the poor.).
There is a French saying: "l’argent est le nerf de la guerre". We don't know of an equivalent in English. It roughly translates as: "money is the sinews of war", meaning one needs money if one wants to achieve anything. It is often true. If we had at our disposition the budget of the US military, think about all the people all around the world whom we could feed, educate, house, etc. However, the fact is that most of the time, we have no budget at all to work with. Yet, many activists around the world achieve a lot without having any funds to speak of at their disposal. Like we said in the commentary, "cleanliness is the luxury of the poor". It does not cost anything to have a clean house and a clean neighbourhood. For example, a certain Mrs. Wallace, once featured in one episode of the Secret Millionaire, inspired troubled youth in poor inner cities to go about and clean their neighbourhood, sending a message to the world (and to themselves!) about who they really are.
Often, we give ourselves excuses. But we already have at our disposition everything that we need to improve our own lives and that of others. Forget about fund raising. The only thing we need is the will to spend some time and some effort to start doing something with what we have.
Character and story development
Il faut convenir cependant qu’il lui restait de ce qu’il avait possédé jadis six couverts d’argent et une cuiller à soupe que madame Magloire regardait tous les jours avec bonheur reluire splendidement sur la grosse nappe de toile blanche. Et, comme nous peignons ici l’évêque de Digne tel qu’il était, nous devons ajouter qu’il lui était arrivé plus d’une fois de dire : — Je renoncerais difficilement à manger dans de l’argenterie. It must be confessed, however, that he still retained from his former possessions six silver knives and forks and a soup-ladle, which Madame Magloire contemplated every day with delight, as they glistened splendidly upon the coarse linen cloth. And since we are now painting the Bishop of D---- as he was in reality, we must add that he had said more than once, "I find it difficult to renounce eating from silver dishes." Il faut ajouter à cette argenterie deux gros flambeaux d’argent massif qui lui venaient de l’héritage d’une grand’tante. Ces flambeaux portaient deux bougies de cire et figuraient habituellement sur la cheminée de l’évêque. Quand il avait quelqu’un à dîner, madame Magloire allumait les deux bougies et mettait les deux flambeaux sur la table. To this silverware must be added two large candlesticks of massive silver, which he had inherited from a great-aunt. These candlesticks held two wax candles, and usually figured on the Bishop's chimney-piece. When he had any one to dinner, Madame Magloire lighted the two candles and set the candlesticks on the table.
In this chapter, there are many little details that will prove to be important for the story development to happen in book 2. We are not going to insist on each one of them. Those of you who already know and remember the details of the subsequent plot development can re-read this chapter and count the number of details which are presently setting the stage.
Note that despite all of his saintly qualities, Myriel has not yet reached perfection: he still has some more room for personal growth. He has not surrendered everything to the poor.
You want security?
Il y avait dans la chambre même de l’évêque, à la tête de son lit, un petit placard dans lequel madame Magloire serrait chaque soir les six couverts d’argent et la grande cuiller. Il faut dire qu’on n’en ôtait jamais la clef. In the Bishop's own chamber, at the head of his bed, there was a small cupboard, in which Madame Magloire locked up the six silver knives and forks and the big spoon every night. But it is necessary to add, that the key was never removed.
Security is an important buzz work in politics. However, few people realise that they have two chose between either wealth or security. The two are often mutually incompatible. Extreme wealth decreases security.
La maison n’avait pas une porte qui fermât à clef. La porte de la salle à manger, qui, nous l’avons dit, donnait de plain-pied sur la place de la cathédrale, était jadis ornée de serrures et de verrous comme une porte de prison. L’évêque avait fait ôter toutes ces ferrures, et cette porte, la nuit comme le jour, n’était fermée qu’au loquet. Le premier passant venu, à quelque heure que ce fût, n’avait qu’à la pousser. The house had not a single door which could be locked. The door of the dining-room, which, as we have said, opened directly on the cathedral square, had formerly been ornamented with locks and bolts like the door of a prison. The Bishop had had all this ironwork removed, and this door was never fastened, either by night or by day, with anything except the latch. All that the first passerby had to do at any hour, was to give it a push.
Wealthy people sometimes create their own jail. One millionaire family featured in the US TV show The Secret Millionaire build their luxurious home in a huge fenced-in, gated property. There was a mile drive from the gate to the house proper. The name of their estate? "Almost Heaven". No pesky neighbour, for sure! Then, for the purposes of the TV show, there were propelled into a poor inner city neighbourhood where they witnessed first hand the love, dedication and the community spirit of local charities. At the end of the show, when they were back into their estate, they wondered whether this really was "almost heaven": they had completely isolated themselves from the community. It didn't feel right any more. The immense open space within their estate was suddenly constricting because it cut them off from anything meaningful.
Il advint qu’un digne curé, je ne sais plus si c’était le curé de Couloubroux ou le curé de Pompierry, s’avisa de lui demander un jour, probablement à l’instigation de madame Magloire, si monseigneur était bien sûr de ne pas commettre jusqu’à un certain point une imprudence en laissant jour et nuit sa porte ouverte à la disposition de qui voulait entrer, et s’il ne craignait pas enfin qu’il n’arrivât quelque malheur dans une maison si peu gardée. L’évêque lui toucha l’épaule avec une gravité douce, et lui dit : Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam. Puis il parla d’autre chose. It chanced that a worthy cure, I know not whether it was the cure of Couloubroux or the cure of Pompierry, took it into his head to ask him one day, probably at the instigation of Madame Magloire, whether Monsieur was sure that he was not committing an indiscretion, to a certain extent, in leaving his door unfastened day and night, at the mercy of any one who should choose to enter, and whether, in short, he did not fear lest some misfortune might occur in a house so little guarded. The Bishop touched his shoulder, with gentle gravity, and said to him, "Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam," Unless the Lord guard the house, in vain do they watch who guard it. Then he spoke of something else.
I once was at the French embassy in London, UK. I accompanied my then Asian girlfriend to get a visa for a short holiday in France. It was almost 20 years ago. The European Community had just become the European Union. The Schengen Treaty creating a Europe without any inner borders was starting to be implemented. Had my girlfriend been European, British maybe, she'd had been welcome at the nice visa offices at the embassy's main floor. Obtaining a visa would have only been a matter of simple formality. But she wasn't. Instead, she had to stand in a long queue that went all around the building, to a small back door leading to much less welcoming visa offices in the uninspiring basement of the embassy. Here we saw all the Asian and (mostly) African diaspora who were eager to get a coveted visa to have a chance to visit France, or maybe emigrate there. There were many queues, depending on the nationalities and the type of visa being sought after. As you can imagine, things were not always as orderly as the French administrators would have liked them to be. There was this young French embassy worker who reigned as a God in these otherwise godless basement offices. And he was barking orders, scolding a poor helpless African lady who was standing in the wrong queue. The lady didn't seem to understand the loud French that was being vomited at her...
My girlfriend got her tourist visa alright. But I came out of that embassy completely drained of energy. I was appalled at what I had just witnessed. Also - I was still a bit young back then - I had just realised the wider meaning of the European Union and the Schengen Treaty. I was a young, pro-European idealist. But I had just seen the flip side of the coin. There are two aspects to the Schengen treaty. One is to facilitate personal travel within Europe, create a Union without any inner border. But while the inner borders were being dissolved, the outer borders of the "Schengen Area" were being strengthened. Because of its colonial past, France used to have strong ties with the African countries under its sphere of influence. But I saw France washing its hand of the sad legacy of its past African policy and locking the gates ever more tightly to African emigration.
It is useful here to create an analogy. Picture yourself the Hoover Dam. Impressive, massive it is! It has to withstand a tremendous amount of pressure. The differential between the huge mass of water on one side and the powerful trickle on the other is huge.
Now picture a beaver dam. It's much more organic (!); the differential - and the pressure - is no way near that big. It is in tune with the surrounding ecology.
Got back now to the story about the European Union outer borders. It is the same story in the US with its Mexican border which many want to be much better protected, sealed tight. What the US and Europe are effectively doing is building the equivalent of the Hoover Dam all around their respective borders. The differential in wealth is too great and the pressure has to be contained. Our increasingly global community is behaving like communicating vessels: there is a natural tendency to even things out. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty on the same world exacerbates that tendency. Unfair wealth begets crime. Extreme measures like harsh laws and re-enforced borders are ultimately futile attempts at preventing the said vessels from communicating, at keeping the wealth squarely on one side of the bid divide.
But God - Nature - is not on the side of the lawmakers, the immigration officers and the border patrols. Something has to give. Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam.
Myriel understood this: the best way to create security is to create a fairer world. And he lived by what he believed. Thus, he had no needs for locks at his doors.
On botany, the intellect and the heart
Ce carré, composé de trois ou quatre plates-bandes, occupait M. l’évêque presque autant que ses livres. Il y passait volontiers une heure ou deux, coupant, sarclant, et piquant çà et là des trous en terre où il mettait des graines. Il n’était pas aussi hostile aux insectes qu’un jardinier l’eût voulu. Du reste aucune prétention à la botanique ; il ignorait les groupes et le solidisme ; il ne cherchait pas le moins du monde à décider entre Tournefort et la méthode naturelle ; il ne prenait parti ni pour les utricules contre les cotylédons, ni pour Jussieu contre Linné. Il n’étudiait pas les plantes ; il aimait les fleurs. Il respectait beaucoup les savants, il respectait encore plus les ignorants, et, sans jamais manquer à ces deux respects, il arrosait ses plates-bandes chaque soir d’été avec un arrosoir de fer-blanc peint en vert. This plot, consisting of three or four beds, occupied the Bishop almost as much as did his books. He liked to pass an hour or two there, trimming, hoeing, and making holes here and there in the earth, into which he dropped seeds. He was not as hostile to insects as a gardener could have wished to see him. Moreover, he made no pretensions to botany; he ignored groups and consistency; he made not the slightest effort to decide between Tournefort and the natural method; he took part neither with the buds against the cotyledons, nor with Jussieu against Linnaeus. He did not study plants; he loved flowers. He respected learned men greatly; he respected the ignorant still more; and, without ever failing in these two respects, he watered his flower-beds every summer evening with a tin watering-pot painted green.
Joseph Pitton de Tournefort [1656-1708] was a French botanist who was contributed to establishing a taxonomy (genus) for plants.
Carl Linnaeus [1707-1778] was a Swedish botanist, the father of modern taxonomy.
The natural method may have been the 19th century equivalent of today's holistic management, a concept developed by Allan Savory. The latter's TED talk "How to green the desert and reverse climate change" is a must see!
This paragraph gives a small preview of the greatest opposition that will run through the whole novel: that of the heart (incarnated by Valjean) and the mind (incarnated by Javert). Myriel is both an intellectual and a manual labourer. He does not oppose the mind. He simply chooses to go along with what his heart dictates. What if he doesn't know the scientific name of a plant nor it taxonomical classification? It is still there and it is lovable on its own right. It's just like the person in need of help: Myriel does not need to know their names or their back story before loving them.
Compare this paragraph to the passage in chapter XIII where Myriel's heart is moved by an ugly-looking spider. There is a lot of Francis of Assisi in Myriel's attitude.
Here is a (subjective) list of short passages from this chapter that are worth quoting.
[Fr.] Citations [En.] Quotes Le plus beau des autels, c’est l’âme d’un malheureux consolé qui remercie Dieu. The most beautiful of altars is the soul of an unhappy creature consoled and thanking God. ~~~ ~~~ Le beau est aussi utile que l’utile. — Il ajouta après un silence : Plus peut-être. "The beautiful is as useful as the useful." He added after a pause, "More so, perhaps." ~~~ ~~~ Il n’étudiait pas les plantes ; il aimait les fleurs. Il respectait beaucoup les savants, il respectait encore plus les ignorants. He did not study plants; he loved flowers. He respected learned men greatly; he respected the ignorant still more. ~~~ ~~~ L’évêque avait fait ôter toutes ces ferrures, et cette porte, la nuit comme le jour, n’était fermée qu’au loquet. Le premier passant venu, à quelque heure que ce fût, n’avait qu’à la pousser. The Bishop had had all this ironwork removed, and this door was never fastened, either by night or by day, with anything except the latch. All that the first passerby had to do at any hour, was to give it a push. ~~~ ~~~ « Voici la nuance : la porte du médecin ne doit jamais être fermée, la porte du prêtre doit toujours être ouverte. » "This is the shade of difference: the door of the physician should never be shut, the door of the priest should always be open." ~~~ ~~~ « Est-ce que je ne suis pas médecin comme eux ? Moi aussi j’ai mes malades ; d’abord j’ai les leurs, qu’ils appellent les malades ; et puis j’ai les miens, que j’appelle les malheureux. » "Am not I a physician like them? I also have my patients, and then, too, I have some whom I call my unfortunates." ~~~ ~~~ « Ne demandez pas son nom à qui vous demande un gîte. C’est surtout celui-là que son nom embarrasse qui a besoin d’asile. » "Do not inquire the name of him who asks a shelter of you. The very man who is embarrassed by his name is the one who needs shelter." ~~~ ~~~ Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam. Si le Seigneur ne protège pas la maison, c’est en vain que veillent ceux qui la protègent. Nisi Dominus custodierit domum, in vanum vigilant qui custodiunt eam. Unless the Lord guard the house, in vain do they watch who guard it. ~~~ ~~~ « Il y a la bravoure du prêtre comme il y a la bravoure du colonel de dragons. Seulement la nôtre doit être tranquille. » "There is a bravery of the priest as well as the bravery of a colonel of dragoons,--only, ours must be tranquil." ~~~ ~~~
Open Questions / Open Tasks
What follows is a list of items requiring more research and better documentation. A more general list can be found here: Taking action. Interested people can contribute by picking up an item according to the aspects and issues that interest them the most.
We need you help to complete the following translation comparison table. Check now who is the translator of your copy of the novel and then check if we have all the excerpts that we are seeking for that translation. If we don't, we'd appreciate if you could contribute at least a paragraph or two that we could fill into the table.
Although the main idea is clear, further research is required to elucidate the paragraph on botany. For example, which Jussieu did Hugo exactly refer to? In which way was he opposed to Linneaus? What is the "natural method" that he refers to and how is it in opposition to Tournefort?
Also, I remember a very inspiring story by a Swiss (or Austrian?) farmer whose farm was high up in the mountains and who practised holistic farming before holistic farming had a name. I don't recall his name. I searched but I cannot find the reference to this man. Myriel's attitude while gardening made me think of that man.
It'd be nice to have more examples of simple actions that literally cost nothing but that can help to improve some people's lives, etc. We'd need a list of inspiring stories of people taking matters into their own hands and changing things around them, without having disbursed any money.
When you come across such stories or examples, please remember this project and come back to feed the wiki with it.
Here are two simple ideas that help communities save money while reducing the amount of trash that fill up landfills:
Fashion Circle: organize clothes-swapping events in your community.
Do you know of any neighbourhood (inner cities) cleaning/beautifying projects by local charities? Tell us about them!
The problem caused by extreme wealth inequalities will be a recurring theme in this project. We have already talked about the solutions offered by Jacques Lemaire. That is another project that will be developed alongside this one. Meanwhile, we need your help to collect data, anecdotal evidence, stories related to the wealth gap.
Specifically and in relation to the commentary on the current chapter, we need more examples of the extreme means being employed in order to protect the haves from the have-nots.
Some more research is needed with regard to the definition of the poverty line. The usual definition is usually country specific. We also want a global perspective. Still, the number of people living at or under the poverty line provides an indication of the actual wealth gap and the strong measures needed to maintain order in such unstable conditions.
Cross posted from Les Misérables [1.1-VI] Who guarded his House for him.