The evening before my departure from America I had received a long cablegram, signed Grosos, president of the Life Saving Society at Havre, asking me to give upon my arrival a performance, the proceeds of which would be distributed among the families of the society of Life Savers. I accepted with unspeakable joy.
On regaining my native land, I should assist in drying tears.
After the decks had been cleared for departure, our ship moved slowly off, and we left New York on Thursday the 5th of May.
Detesting sea travelling as I usually do, I set out this time with a light heart and smiling face, disdainful of the horrible discomfort caused by the voyage.
We had not left New York forty-eight hours when the vessel stopped. I sprang out of my berth, and was soon on deck, fearing some accident to our Phantom, as we had nick-named the ship. In front of us a French boat had raised, lowered, and again raised its small flags. The captain, who had given the replies to these signals, sent for me, and explained to me the working and the orthography of the signals. I could not remember anything he told me, I must confess to my shame. A small boat was lowered from the ship opposite us, and two sailors and a young man very poorly dressed and with a pale face embarked. Our captain had the steps lowered, the small boat was hailed, and the young man, escorted by two sailors, came on deck. One of them handed a letter to the officer who was waiting at the top of the steps. He read it, and looking at the young man he said quietly, "Follow me!" The small boat and the sailors returned to the ship, the boat was hoisted, the whistle shrieked, and after the usual salute the two ships continued their way. The unfortunate young man was brought before the captain. I went away, after asking the captain to tell me later on what was the meaning of it all, unless it should prove to be something which had to be kept secret.
The captain came himself and told me the little story. The young man was a poor artist, a wood-engraver, who had managed to slip on to a steamer bound for New York. He had not a sou of money for his passage, as he had not even been able to pay for an emigrant's ticket. He had hoped to get through without being noticed, hiding under the bales of various kinds. He had, however, been taken ill, and it was this illness which had betrayed him. Shivering with cold and feverish, he had talked aloud in his sleep, uttering the most incoherent words. He was taken into the infirmary, and when there he had confessed everything. The captain undertook to make him accept what I sent him for his journey to America. The story soon spread, and other passengers made a collection, so that the young engraver found himself very soon in possession of a fortune of twelve hundred francs. Three days later he brought me a little wooden box, manufactured, carved, and engraved by him. This little box is now nearly full of petals of flowers, for every year on May 7 I received a small bouquet of flowers with these words, always the same ones, year after year, "Gratitude and devotion." I always put the petals of the flowers into the little box, but for the last seven years I have not received any. Is it forgetfulness or death which has caused the artist to discontinue this graceful little token of gratitude? I have no idea, but the sight of the box always gives me a vague feeling of sadness, as forgetfulness and death are the most faithful companions of the human being. Forgetfulness takes up its abode in our mind, in our heart, while death is always present laying traps for us, watching all we do, and jeering gaily when sleep closes our eyes, for we give it then the illusion of what it knows will some day be a reality.
Apart from the above incident, nothing particular happened during the voyage. I spent every night on deck gazing at the horizon, hoping to draw towards me that land on which were my loved ones. I turned in towards morning, and slept all day to kill the time.
The steamers in those days did not perform the crossing with the same speed as they do nowadays. The hours seemed to me to be wickedly long. I was so impatient to land that I called for the doctor and asked him to send me to sleep for eighteen hours. He gave me twelve hours sleep with a strong dose of chloral, and I felt stronger and calmer for affronting the shock of happiness.
Santelli had promised that we should arrive on the evening of the 14th. I was ready, and had been walking up and down distractedly for an hour when an officer came to ask whether I would not go on to the bridge with the commander, who was waiting for me.
With my sister I went up in haste, and soon understood from the embarrassed circumlocutions of the amiable Santelli that we were too far off to hope to make the harbour that night.
I began to cry. I thought we should never arrive. I imagined that the sprite was going to triumph, and I wept those tears that were like a brook that runs on and on without ceasing.
The commander did what he could to bring me to a rational state of mind. I descended from the bridge with both body and soul like limp rags.
I lay down on a deck-chair, and when dawn came was benumbed and sleepy.
It was five in the morning. We were still twenty miles from land. The sun, however, began joyously to brighten up the small white clouds, light as snowflakes. The remembrance of my young beloved one gave me courage again. I ran towards my cabin. I spent a long while over my toilet in order to kill time.
At seven o'clock I made inquiries of the captain.
"We are twelve miles off," he said. "In two hours we shall land."
"You swear to it?"
"Yes, I swear." I returned on deck, where, leaning on the bulwark, I scanned the distance. A small steamer appeared on the horizon. I saw it without looking at it, expecting every minute to hear a cry from over there, over there....
All at once I noticed masses of little white flags being waved on the small steamer. I got my glasses—and then let them fall with a joyous cry that left me without any strength, without breath. I wanted to speak: I could not. My face, it appears, became so pale that it frightened the people who were about me. My sister Jeanne wept as she waved her arms towards the distance.
They wanted to make me sit down. I would not. Hanging on to the bulwarks, I smell the salts that are thrust under my nose. I allow friendly hands to wipe my temples, but I am gazing over there whence the vessel is coming. Over there lies my happiness! my joy! my life! my everything! dearer than everything!
The Diamond (the vessel's name) comes near. A bridge of love is formed between the small and the large ship, a bridge formed of the beatings of our hearts, under the weight of the kisses that have been kept back for so many days. Then comes the reaction that takes place in our tears, when the small boats, coming up to the large vessel, allow the impatient ones to climb up the rope ladders and throw themselves into outstretched arms.
The America is invaded. Every one is there, my dear and faithful friends. They have accompanied my young son Maurice. Ah, what a delicious time! Answers get ahead of questions. Laughter is mingled with tears. Hands are pressed, lips are kissed, only to begin over again. One is never tired of this repetition of tender affection. During this time our ship is moving. The Diamond has disappeared, carrying away the mails. The farther we advance, the more small boats we meet; they are decked with flags, ploughing the sea. There are a hundred of them. And more are coming....
"Is it a public holiday?" I asked Georges Boyer, the correspondent of the Figaro, who with some friends had come to meet me.
"Oh yes, Madame, a great fete day to-day at Havre, for they are expecting the return of a fairy who left seven months ago."
"Is it really in my honour that all these pretty boats have spread their wings and beflagged their masts? Ah, how happy I am!" We are now alongside the jetty. There are perhaps twenty thousand people there, who cry out, "Vive Sarah Bernhardt!"
I was dumfounded. I did not expect any triumphant return. I was well aware that the performance to be given for the Life Saving Society had won the hearts of the people of Havre, but now I learnt that trains had come from Paris, packed with people, to welcome my return....
I feel my pulse. It is me. I am not dreaming.
The boat stops opposite a red velvet tent, and an invisible orchestra strikes up an air from Le Chalet, "Arretons-nous ici."
I smile at this quite French childishness. I get off and walk through the midst of a hedge of smiling, kind faces of sailors, who offer me flowers.
Within the tent all the life-savers are waiting for me, wearing on their broad chests the medals they have so well deserved.
M. Grosos, the president, reads to me the following address:
"Madame,—As President, I have the honour to present to you a delegation from the Life Saving Society of Havre, come to welcome you and express their gratitude for the sympathy you have so warmly worded in your transatlantic despatch.
"We have also come to congratulate you on the immense success that you have met with at every place you have visited during your adventurous journey. You have now achieved in two worlds an incontestable popularity and artistic celebrity; and your marvellous talent, added to your personal charms, has affirmed abroad that France is always the land of art and the birthplace of elegance and beauty.
"A distant echo of the words you spoke in Denmark, evoking a deep and sad memory, still strikes on our ears. It repeats that your heart is as French as your talent, for in the midst of the feverish and burning successes on the stage you have never forgotten to unite your patriotism to your artistic triumphs.
"Our life-savers have charged me with expressing to you their admiration for the charming benefactress whose generous hand has spontaneously stretched itself out towards their poor but noble society. They wish to offer you these flowers, gathered from the soil of the mother-country, on the land of France, where you will find them everywhere under your feet. They are worthy that you should accept them with favour, for they are presented to you by the bravest and most loyal of our life-savers."
It is said that my reply was very eloquent, but I cannot affirm that that reply was really made by me. I had lived for several hours in a state of over-excitement from successive emotions. I had taken no food, had no sleep. My heart had not ceased to beat a moving and joyous refrain. My brain had been filled with a thousand facts that had been piled up for seven months and narrated in two hours. This triumphant reception, which I was far from expecting after what had happened just before my departure, after having been so badly treated by the Paris Press, after the incidents of my journey, which had been always badly interpreted by several French papers—all these coincidences were of such different proportions that they seemed hardly credible.
The performance furnished a fruitful harvest for the life-savers. As for me, I played La Dame aux Camelias for the first time in France.
I was really inspired. I affirm that those who were present at that performance experienced the quintessence of what my personal art can give.
I spent the night at my place at Ste. Adresse. The day following I left for Paris.
A most flattering ovation was waiting for me on my arrival. Then, three days afterwards, installed in my little mansion in the Avenue de Villiers, I received Victorien Sardou, in order to hear him read his magnificent piece, Fedora.
What a great artiste! What an admirable actor! What a marvellous author!
He read that play to me right off, playing every role, giving me in one second the vision of what I should do.
"Ah!" I exclaimed, after the reading was over. "Ah, dear Master! Thanks for this beautiful part! Thanks for the fine lesson you have just given me."
That night left me without sleep, for I wished to catch a glimpse in the darkness of the small star in which I had faith.
I saw it as dawn was breaking, and fell asleep thinking over the new era that it was going to light up.
* * * * *
My artistic journey had lasted seven months. I had visited fifty cities, and given 156 performances, as follows:
La Dame aux Camelias . . . . 65 performances Adrienne Lecouvreur . . . . 17 " Froufrou . . . . . . . 41 " La Princesse Georges . . . . 3 " Hernani . . . . . . . 14 " L'Etrangere . . . . . . 3 " Phedre . . . . . . . 6 " Le Sphinx . . . . . . 7 "
Total receipts . . . . 2,667,600 francs Average receipts . . . 17,100 "
I conclude the first volume of my souvenirs here, for this is really the first halting-place of my life, the real starting-point of my physical and moral being.
I had run away from the Comedie Francaise, from Paris, from France, from my family, and from my friends.
I had thought of having a wild ride across mountains, seas, and space, and I came back in love with the vast horizon, but calmed down by the feeling of responsibility which for seven months had been weighing on my shoulders.
The terrible Jarrett, with his implacable and cruel wisdom, had tamed my wild nature by a constant appeal to my probity.
In those few months my mind had matured and the brusqueness of my will was softened.
My life, which I thought at first was to be so short, seemed now likely to be very, very long, and that gave me a great mischievous delight whenever I thought of the infernal displeasure of my enemies.
I resolved to live. I resolved to be the great artiste that I longed to be.
And from the time of this return I gave myself entirely up to my life.