It is impossible now for our brain to picture Jesus and the Virgin Mary accomplishing humiliating human functions. They lived the life that we are living. Death chilled their sacred limbs, and it is not without rebellion and grief that we accept this fact. We start off in pursuit of them in an ethereal heaven, in the infinite of our dreams. We cast aside all the failings of humanity in order to leave them, clothed in the ideal, seated on a throne of love. We do not like Joan of Arc to be the rustic, bold peasant girl, repulsing violently the hardy soldier who wants to joke with her, the girl sitting astride her big Percheron horse like a man, laughing readily at the coarse jokes of the soldiers, submitting to the lewd promiscuities of the barbarous epoch in which she lived, and having on that account all the more merit in remaining the heroic virgin.
We do not care for such useless truths. In the legend she is a fragile woman guided by a divine soul. Her girlish arm which holds the heavy banner is supported by an invisible angel. In her childish eyes there is something from another world, and it is from this that all the warriors drew strength and courage. It is thus that we wish it to be, and so the legend remains triumphant.
MY FIRST ENGAGEMENT AT THE COMEDIE FRANCAISE
But to return to the Conservatoire. Nearly all the pupils had gone away, and I remained quiet and embarrassed on my bench. Marie Lloyd came and sat down by me.
"Are you unhappy?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. "I wanted the first prize, and you have it. It is not fair."
"I do not know whether it is fair or not," answered Marie Lloyd, "but I assure you that it is not my fault."
I could not help laughing at this.
"Shall I come home with you to luncheon?" she asked, and her beautiful eyes grew moist and beseeching. She was an orphan and unhappy, and on this day of triumph she felt the need of a family. My heart began to melt with pity and affection. I threw my arms round her neck, and we all four went away together—Marie Lloyd, Madame Guerard, Mlle. de Brabender, and I. My mother had sent me word that she had gone on home.
In the cab my "don't care" character won the day once more, and we chattered about every one. "Oh, how ridiculous such and such a person was!" "Did you see her mother's bonnet?" "And old Estebenet; did you see his white gloves? He must have stolen them from some policeman!" And hereupon we laughed like idiots, and then began again. "And that poor Chatelain had had his hair curled!" said Marie Lloyd. "Did you see his head?"
I did not laugh any more, though, for this reminded me of how my own hair had been uncurled, and it was thanks to that I had not won the first prize for tragedy.
On reaching home we found my mother, my aunt, my godfather, our old friend Meydieu, Madame Guerard's husband, and my sister Jeanne with her hair all curled. This gave me a pang, for she had straight hair and it had been curled to make her prettier, although she was charming without that, and the curl had been taken out of my hair, so that I had looked uglier.
My mother spoke to Marie Lloyd with that charming and distinguished indifference peculiar to her. My godfather made a great fuss of her, for success was everything to this bourgeois. He had seen my young friend a hundred times before, and had not been struck by her beauty nor yet touched by her poverty, but on this particular day he assured us that he had for a long time predicted Marie Lloyd's triumph. He then came to me, put his two hands on my shoulders, and held me facing him. "Well, you were a failure," he said. "Why persist now in going on the stage? You are thin and small, your face is pretty enough when near, but ugly in the distance, and your voice does not carry!"
"Yes, my dear girl," put in M. Meydieu, "your godfather is right. You had better marry the miller who proposed, or that imbecile of a Spanish tanner who lost his brainless head for the sake of your pretty eyes. You will never do anything on the stage! You'd better marry."
M. Guerard came and shook hands with me. He was a man of nearly sixty years of age, and Madame Guerard was under thirty. He was melancholy, gentle, and timid: he had been awarded the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour, and he wore a long, shabby frock coat, used aristocratic gestures, and was private secretary to M. de la Tour Desmoulins, a prominent deputy at the time. M. Guerard was a well of science, and I owe much to his kindness. My sister Jeanne whispered to me, "Sister's godfather said when he came in that you looked as ugly as possible." Jeanne always spoke of my godfather in this way. I pushed her away, and we sat down to table. All through the meal my one wish was to go back to the convent. I did not eat much, and directly after luncheon was so tired that I had to go to bed.
When once I was alone in my room between the sheets, with tired limbs, my head heavy, and my heart oppressed with keeping back my sighs, I tried to consider my wretched situation; but sleep, the great restorer, came to the rescue, and I was very soon slumbering peacefully. When I woke I could not collect my thoughts at first. I wondered what time it was, and looked at my watch. It was just ten, and I had been asleep since three o'clock in the afternoon. I listened for a few minutes, but everything was silent in the house. On a table near my bed was a small tray on which were a cup of chocolate and a cake. A sheet of writing paper was placed upright against the cup. I trembled as I took it up, for I never received any letters. With great difficulty, by my night-light, I managed to read the following words, written by Madame Guerard: "When you had gone to sleep the Duc de Morny sent word to your mother that Camille Doucet had just assured him that you were to be engaged at the Comedie Francaise. Do not worry any more, therefore, my dear child, but have faith in the future.—Your petit Dame."
I pinched myself to make sure that I was really awake. I got up and rushed to the window. I looked out, and the sky was black. Yes, it was black to every one else, but starry to me. The stars were shining, and I looked for my own special one, and chose the largest and brightest.
I went back towards my bed and amused myself with jumping on to it, holding my feet together. Each time I missed I laughed like a lunatic. I then drank my chocolate, and nearly choked myself devouring my cake.
Standing up on my bolster, I then made a long speech to the Virgin Mary at the head of my bed. I adored the Virgin Mary, and I explained to her my reasons for not being able to take the veil, in spite of my vocation. I tried to charm and persuade her, and I kissed her very gently on her foot, which was crushing the serpent. Then in the darkness I tried to find my mother's portrait. I could scarcely see this, but I threw kisses to it. I then took up again the letter from mon petit Dame, and went to sleep with it clasped in my hand. I do not remember what my dreams were.
The next day every one was very kind to me. My godfather, who arrived early, nodded his head in a contented way.
"She must have some fresh air," he said. "I will treat you to a landau."
The drive seemed to me delicious, for I could dream to my heart's content, as my mother disliked talking when in a carriage.
Two days later our old servant Marguerite, breathless with excitement, brought me a letter. On the corner of the envelope there was a large stamp, around which stood the magic words "Comedie Francaise." I glanced at my mother, and she nodded as a sign that I might open the letter, after blaming Marguerite for handing it to me before obtaining her permission to do so.
"It is for to-morrow, to-morrow!" I exclaimed. "I am to go there to-morrow! Look—read it!"
My sisters came rushing to me and seized my hands. I danced round with them, singing, "It's for to-morrow! It's for to-morrow!" My younger sister was eight years old, but I was only six that day. I went upstairs to the flat above to tell Madame Guerard. She was just soaping her children's white frocks and pinafores. She took my face in her hands and kissed me affectionately. Her two hands were covered with a soapy lather, and left a snowy patch on each side of my head. I rushed down-stairs again like this, and went noisily into the drawing-room. My godfather, M. Meydieu, my aunt, and my mother were just beginning a game of whist. I kissed each of them, leaving a patch of soap-suds on their faces, at which I laughed heartily. But I was allowed to do anything that day, for I had become a personage.
The next day, Tuesday, I was to go to the Theatre Francais at one o'clock to see M. Thierry, who was then director.
What was I to wear? That was the great question. My mother had sent for the milliner, who arrived with various hats. I chose a white one trimmed with pale blue, a white bavolet and blue strings. Aunt Rosine had sent one of her dresses for me, for my mother thought all my frocks were too childish. Oh, that dress! I shall see it all my life. It was hideous, cabbage-green, with black velvet put on in a Grecian pattern. I looked like a monkey in that dress. But I was obliged to wear it. Fortunately, it was covered by a mantle of black gros-grain stitched all round with white. It was thought better for me to be dressed like a grown-up person, and all my clothes were only suitable for a school-girl. Mlle. de Brabender gave me a handkerchief that she had embroidered, and Madame Guerard a sunshade. My mother gave me a very pretty turquoise ring.
Dressed up in this way, looking pretty in my white hat, uncomfortable in my green dress, but comforted by my mantle, I went, the following day, with Madame Guerard to M. Thierry's. My aunt lent me her carriage for the occasion, as she thought it would look better to arrive in a private carriage. Later on I heard that this arrival in my own carriage, with a footman, made a very bad impression. What all the theatre people thought I never cared to consider, and it seems to me that my extreme youth must really have protected me from all suspicion.
M. Thierry received me very kindly, and made a little nonsensical speech. He then unfolded a paper which he handed to Madame Guerard, asking her to read it and then to sign it. This paper was my contract, and mon petit Dame explained that she was not my mother.
"Ah," said M. Thierry, getting up, "then will you take it with you and have it signed by Mademoiselle's mother?"
He then took my hand. I felt an instinctive horror at his, for it was flabby, and there was no life or sincerity in its grasp. I quickly took mine away and looked at him. He was plain, with a red face and eyes that avoided one's gaze. As I was going away I met Coquelin, who, hearing I was there, had waited to see me. He had made his debut a year before with great success.
"Well, it's settled then!" he said gaily.
I showed him the contract and shook hands with him. I went quickly down the stairs, and just as I was leaving the theatre found myself in the midst of a group in the doorway.
"Are you satisfied?" asked a gentle voice which I recognised as M. Doucet's.
"Oh yes, Monsieur; thank you so much," I answered.
"But my dear child, I have nothing to do with it," he said.
"Your competition was not at all good, but nevertheless we feel sure of you," put in M. Regnier, and then turning to Camille Doucet he asked, "What do you say, Excellency?"
"I think that this child will be a very great artist," he replied.
There was a silence for a moment.
"Well, you have got a fine carriage!" exclaimed Beauvallet rudely. He was the first tragedian of the Comedie, and the most uncouth man in France or anywhere else.
"This carriage belongs to Mademoiselle's aunt," remarked Camille Doucet, shaking hands with me gently.
"Oh—well, I am glad to hear that," answered the tragedian.
I then stepped into the carriage which had caused such a sensation at the theatre, and drove away. On reaching home I took the contract to my mother. She signed it without reading it.
I made my mind resolutely to be some one quand-meme.
A few days after my engagement at the Comedie Francaise my aunt gave a dinner-party. Among her guests were the Duc de Morny, Camille Doucet and the Minister of Fine Arts, M. de Walewski, Rossini, my mother, Mlle. de Brabender, and I. During the evening a great many other people came. My mother had dressed me very elegantly, and it was the first time I had worn a really low dress. Oh, how uncomfortable I was! Every one paid me great attention. Rossini asked me to recite some poetry, and I consented willingly, glad and proud to be of some little importance. I chose Casimir Delavigne's poem, "L'Ame du Purgatoire." "That should be spoken with music as an accompaniment," exclaimed Rossini when I came to an end. Every one approved this idea, and Walewski said; "Mademoiselle will begin again, and you could improvise, cher maitre."
There was great excitement, and I at once began again. Rossini improvised the most delightful harmony, which filled me with emotion. My tears flowed freely without my being conscious of them, and at the end my mother kissed me, saying: "This is the first time that you have really moved me."
As a matter of fact, she adored music, and it was Rossini's improvisation that had moved her.
The Comte de Keratry, an elegant young hussar, was also present. He paid me great compliments, and invited me to go and recite some poetry at his mother's house.
My aunt then sang a song which was very much in vogue, and made a great success. She was coquettish and charming, and just a trifle jealous of this insignificant niece who had taken up the attention of her adorers for a few minutes.
When I returned home I was quite another being. I sat down, dressed as I was, on my bed, and remained for a long time deep in thought. Hitherto all I had known of life had been through my family and my work. I had now just had a glimpse of it through society, and I was struck by the hypocrisy of some of the people and the conceit of others. I began to wonder uneasily what I should do, shy and frank as I was. I thought of my mother. She did not do anything, though she was indifferent to everything. I thought of my aunt Rosine, who, on the contrary, liked to mix in everything.
I remained there looking down on the ground, my head in a whirl, and feeling very anxious, and I did not go to bed until I was thoroughly chilled.
The next few days passed by without any particular events. I was working hard at Iphigenie, as M. Thierry had told me that I was to make my debut in that role.
At the end of August I received a notice requesting me to attend the rehearsal of Iphigenie. Oh, that first notice, how it made my heart beat. I could not sleep at night, and daylight did not come quickly enough for me. I kept getting up to look at the time. It seemed to me that the clock had stopped. I had dozed, and I fancied it was the same time as before. Finally a streak of light coming through my window-panes was, I thought, the triumphant sun illuminating my room. I got up at once, pulled back the curtains, and mumbled my role while dressing.
I thought of my rehearsing with Madame Devoyod, the leading tragedienne of the Comedie Francaise, with Maubant, with—I trembled as I thought of all this, for Madame Devoyod was said to be anything but indulgent. I arrived for the rehearsal an hour before the time. The stage manager, Davenne, smiled and asked me whether I knew my role. "Oh yes," I exclaimed with conviction. "Come and rehearse it. Would you like to?" and he took me to the stage.
I went with him through the long corridor of busts which leads from the green-room to the stage. He told me the names of the celebrities represented by these busts. I stood still a moment before that of Adrienne Lecouvreur.
"I love that artiste," I said.
"Do you know her story?" he asked.
"Yes; I have read all that has been written about her." "That's right, my child," said the worthy man. "You ought to read all that concerns your art. I will lend you some interesting books."
He took me towards the stage. The mysterious gloom, the scenery reared up like fortifications, the bareness of the floor, the endless number of weights, ropes, trees, borders, battens overhead, the yawning house completely dark, the silence, broken by the creaking of the floor, and the vault-like chill that one felt—all this together awed me. It did not seem to me as if I were entering the brilliant ranks of living artistes who every night won the applause of the house by their merriment or their sobs. No, I felt as though I were in the tomb of dead glories, and the stage seemed to me to be getting crowded with the illustrious shadows of those whom the stage manager had just mentioned. With my highly strung nerves, my imagination, which was always evoking something, now saw them advance towards me stretching out their hands. These spectres wanted to take me away with them. I put my hands over my eyes and stood still. "Are you not well?" asked M. Davenne.
"Oh yes, thank you; it was just a little giddiness."
His voice had chased away the spectres, and I opened my eyes and paid attention to the worthy man's advice. Book in hand, he explained to me where I was to stand, and my changes of place, &c. He was rather pleased with my way of reciting, and he taught me a few of the traditions. At the line,
Eurybate a l'autel, conduisez la victime,
he said, "Mademoiselle Favart was very effective there."
The artistes gradually began to arrive, grumbling more or less. They glanced at me, and then rehearsed their scenes without taking any notice of me at all.
I felt inclined to cry, but I was more vexed than anything else. I heard three coarse words used by one or another of the artistes. I was not accustomed to this somewhat brutal language. At home every one was rather timorous. At my aunt's people were a trifle affected, whilst at the convent, it is unnecessary to say, I had never heard a word that was out of place. It is true that I had been through the Conservatoire, but I had not cultivated any of the pupils with the exception of Marie Lloyd and Rose Baretta, the elder sister of Blanche Baretta, who is now a Societaire of the Comedie Francaise.
When the rehearsal was over it was decided that there should be another one at the same hour the following day in the public foyer.
The costume-maker came in search of me, as she wanted to try on my costume. Mlle. de Brabender, who had arrived during the rehearsal, went up with me to the costume-room. She wanted my arms to be covered, but the costume-maker told her gently that this was impossible in tragedy.
A dress of white woollen material was tried on me. It was very ugly, and the veil was so stiff that I refused it. A wreath of roses was tried on, but this too was so unsightly that I refused to wear it.
"Well, then, Mademoiselle," said the costume-maker dryly, "you will have to get these things and pay for them yourself, as this is the costume supplied by the Comedie."
"Very well," I answered, blushing; "I will get them myself."
On returning home I told my mother my troubles, and, as she was always very generous, she promptly bought me a veil of white barege that fell in beautiful, large, soft folds, and a wreath of hedge roses which at night looked very soft and white. She also ordered me buskins from the shoemaker employed by the Comedie.
The next thing to think about was the make-up box. For this my mother had recourse to the mother of Dica Petit, my fellow student at the Conservatoire. I went with Madame Dica Petit to M. Massin, a manufacturer of these make-up boxes. He was the father of Leontine Massin, another Conservatoire pupil.
We went up to the sixth floor of a house in the Rue Reaumur, and on a plain-looking door read the words Massin, manufacturer of make-up boxes, I knocked, and a little hunchback girl opened the door. I recognised Leontine's sister, as she had come several times to the Conservatoire.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "what a surprise for us! Titine," she then called out, "here is Mademoiselle Sarah!"
Leontine Massin came running out of the next room. She was a pretty girl, very gentle and calm in demeanour. She threw her arms round me, exclaiming, "How glad I am to see you! And so you are going to make your debut at the Comedie. I saw it in the papers."
I blushed up to my ears at the idea of being mentioned in the papers.
"I am engaged at the Varietes," she said, and then she talked away at such a rate that I was bewildered. Madame Petit did not enter into all this, and tried in vain to separate us. She had replied by a nod and an indifferent "Thanks" to Leontine's inquiries about her daughter's health. Finally, when the young girl had finished saying all she had to say, Madame Petit remarked:
"You must order your box. We have come here for that, you know."
"Oh you will find my father in his workshop at the end of the passage, and if you are not very long I shall still be here. I am going to rehearsal at the Varietes later on."
Madame Petit was furious, for she did not like Leontine Massin.
"Don't wait, Mademoiselle," she said; "it will be impossible for us to stay afterwards."
Leontine was annoyed, and, shrugging her shoulders, turned her back on my companion. She then put her hat on, kissed me, and bowing gravely to Madame Petit, said: "I hope, Madame 'Gros-tas,' I shall never see you again." She then ran off, laughing merrily. I heard Madame Petit mutter a few disagreeable words in Dutch, but the meaning of them was only explained to me later on. We then went to the workshop, and found old Massin at his bench, planing some small planks of white wood. His hunch-back daughter kept coming in and out, humming gaily all the time. The father was glum and harsh, and had an anxious look. As soon as we had ordered the box we took our leave. Madame Petit went out first; Leontine's sister held me back by the hand and said quietly, "Father is not very polite, but it is because he is jealous. He wanted my sister to be at the Theatre Francais."
I was rather disturbed by this confidence, and I had a vague idea of the painful drama which was acting so differently on the various members of this humble home.
MY DEBUT AT THE HOUSE OF MOLIERE, AND MY FIRST DEPARTURE THEREFROM
On September 1, 1862, the day I was to make my debut, I was in the Rue Duphot looking at the theatrical posters. They used to be put up then at the corner of the Rue Duphot and the Rue St. Honore. On the poster of the Comedie Francaise I read the words "Debut of Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt." I have no idea how long I stood there, fascinated by the letters of my name, but I remember that it seemed to me as though every person who stopped to read the poster looked at me afterwards, and I blushed to the very roots of my hair.
At five o'clock I went to the theatre. I had a dressing-room on the top floor which I shared with Mlle. Coblentz. This room was on the other side of the Rue de Richelieu, in a house rented by the Comedie Francaise. A small covered bridge over the street served as a passage and means of communication for us to reach the Comedie.
I was a tremendously long time dressing, and did not know whether I looked nice or not. Mon petit Dame thought I was too pale, and Mlle. de Brabender considered that I had too much colour. My mother was to go direct to her seat in the theatre, and Aunt Rosine was away in the country.
When the call-boy announced that the play was about to begin, I broke into a cold perspiration from head to foot, and felt ready to faint. I went downstairs trembling, tottering, and my teeth chattering. When I arrived on the stage the curtain was rising. That curtain which was being raised so slowly and solemnly was to me like the veil being torn which was to let me have a glimpse of my future. A deep gentle voice made me turn round. It was Provost, my first professor, who had come to encourage me. I greeted him warmly, so glad was I to see him again. Samson was there, too; I believe that he was playing that night in one of Moliere's comedies. The two men were very different. Provost was tall, his silvery hair was blown about, and he had a droll face. Samson was small, precise, dainty; his shiny white hair curled firmly and closely round his head. Both men had been moved by the same sentiment of protection for the poor, fragile, nervous girl, who was nevertheless so full of hope. Both of them knew my zeal for work, my obstinate will, which was always struggling for victory over my physical weakness. They knew that my motto "Quand-meme" had not been adopted by me merely by chance, but that it was the outcome of a deliberate exercise of will power on my part. My mother had told them how I had chosen this motto at the age of nine, after a formidable leap over a ditch which no one could jump and which my young cousin had dared me to attempt. I had hurt my face, broken my wrist, and was in pain all over. Whilst I was being carried home I exclaimed furiously, "Yes, I would do it again, quand-meme, if any one dared me again. And I will always do what I want to do all my life." In the evening of that day my aunt, who was grieved to see me in such pain, asked me what would give me any pleasure. My poor little body was all bandaged, but I jumped with joy at this, and quite consoled, I whispered in a coaxing way, "I should like to have some writing-paper with a motto of my own."
My mother asked me rather slyly what my motto was. I did not answer for a minute, and then, as they were all waiting quietly, I uttered such a furious "Quand-meme" that my Aunt Faure started back exclaiming, "What a terrible child!"
Samson and Provost reminded me of this story in order to give me courage, but my ears were buzzing so that I could not listen to them. Provost heard my "cue" on the stage, and pushed me gently forward. I made my entry and hurried towards Agamemnon, my father. I did not want to leave him again, as I felt I must have some one to hold on to. I then rushed to my mother, Clytemnestra ... I stammered ... and on leaving the stage I rushed up to my room and began to undress.
Madame Guerard was terrified, and asked me if I was mad. I had only played one act, and there were four more. I realised then that it would really be dangerous to give way to my nerves. I had recourse to my own motto, and, standing in front of the glass gazing into my own eyes, I ordered myself to be calm and to conquer myself, and my nerves, in a state of confusion, yielded to my brain. I got through the play, but was very insignificant in my part.
The next morning my mother sent for me early. She had been looking at Sarcey's article in L'Opinion Nationale, and she now read me the following lines: "Mlle. Bernhardt who made her debut yesterday in the role of Iphigenie, is a tall, pretty girl with a slender figure and a very pleasing expression; the upper part of her face is remarkably beautiful. Her carriage is excellent, and her enunciation is perfectly clear. This is all that can be said for her at present."
"The man is an idiot," said my mother, drawing me to her. "You were charming."
She then prepared a little cup of coffee for me, and made it with cream. I was happy, but not completely so.
When my godfather arrived in the afternoon he exclaimed, "Good heavens! My poor child, what thin arms you have!"
As a matter of fact, people had laughed, and I had heard them, when stretching out my arms towards Eurybate. I had said the famous line in which Favart had made her "effect" that was now a tradition. I certainly had made no "effect," unless the smiles caused by my long, thin arms can be reckoned as such. My second appearance was in Valerie, when I did make some slight success.
My third appearance at the Comedie resulted in the following boutade from the pen of the same Sarcey:
L'Opinion Nationale, September 12: "The same evening Les Femmes Savantes was given. This was Mlle. Bernhardt's third debut, and she assumed the role of Henriette. She was just as pretty and insignificant in this as in that of Junie [he had made a mistake, as it was Iphigenie I had played] and of Valerie. both of which roles had been entrusted to her previously. This performance was a very poor affair, and gives rise to reflections by no means gay. That Mlle. Bernhardt should be insignificant does not much matter. She is a debutante, and among the number presented to us it is only natural that some should be failures. The pitiful part is, though, that the comedians playing with her were not much better than she was, and they are Societaires of the Theatre Francais. All that they had more than their young comrade was a greater familiarity with the boards. They are just as Mlle. Bernhardt may be in twenty years' time, if she stays at the Comedie Francaise."
I did not stay there, though, for one of those nothings which change a whole life changed mine. I had entered the Comedie expecting to remain there always. I had heard my godfather explain to my mother all about the various stages of my career.
"The child will have so much during the first five years," he said, "and so much afterwards, and then at the end of thirty years she will have the pension given to Societaires—that is, if she ever becomes a Societaire." He appeared to have his doubts about that.
My sister Regina was the cause (though quite involuntarily this time) of the drama which made me leave the Comedie. It was Moliere's anniversary, and all the artistes of the Francais salute the bust of the great writer, according to the tradition of the theatre. It was to be my first appearance at a "ceremony," and my little sister, on hearing me tell about it at home, besought me to take her to it.
My mother gave me permission to do so, and our old Marguerite was to accompany us. All the members of the Comedie were assembled in the foyer. The men and women, dressed in different costumes, all wore the famous doctor's cloak. The signal was given that the ceremony was about to commence, and every one hurried along the corridor of the busts. I was holding my little sister's hand, and just in front of us was the very fat and very solemn Madame Nathalie. She was a Societaire of the Comedie, old, spiteful, and surly.
Regina, in trying to avoid the train of Marie Roger's cloak, stepped on to Nathalie's, and the latter turned round and gave the child such a violent push that she was knocked against a column on which was a bust. Regina screamed out, and as she turned back to me I saw that her pretty face was bleeding.
"You miserable creature!" I called out to the fat woman, and as she turned round to reply I slapped her in the face. She proceeded to faint; there was a great tumult, and an uproar of indignation, approval, stifled laughter, satisfied revenge, pity for the poor child from those artistes who were mothers, &c. &c. Two groups were formed, one around the wretched Nathalie, who was still in her swoon, and the other around little Regina. And the different aspect of these two groups was rather strange. Around Nathalie were cold, solemn-looking men and women, fanning the fat, helpless lump with their handkerchief's or fans. A young but severe-looking Societaire was sprinkling her with drops of water. Nathalie, on feeling this, roused up suddenly, put her hands over her face, and muttered in a far-away voice, "How stupid! You'll spoil my make-up!"
The younger men were stooping over Regina, washing her pretty face, and the child was saying in her broken voice, "I did not do it on purpose, sister, I am certain I didn't. She's an old cow, and she just kicked for nothing at all!" Regina was a fair-haired seraph, who might have made the angels envious, for she had the most ideal and poetical beauty—but her language was by no means choice, and nothing in the world could change it. Her coarse speech made the friendly group burst out laughing, while all the members of the enemy's camp shrugged their shoulders. Bressant, who was the most charming of the comedians and a general favourite, came up to me and said:
"We must arrange this little matter, dear Mademoiselle, for Nathalie's short arms are really very long. Between ourselves, you were a trifle hasty, but I like that, and then that child is so droll and so pretty," he added, pointing to my little sister.
The house was stamping with impatience, for this little scene had caused twenty minutes' delay, and we were obliged to go on to the stage at once. Marie Roger kissed me, saying, "You are a plucky little comrade!" Rose Baretta drew me to her, murmuring, "How dared you do it! She is a Societaire!"
As for me, I was not very conscious as to what I had done, but my instinct warned me that I should pay dearly for it.
The following day I received a letter from the manager asking me to call at the Comedie at one o'clock, about a matter concerning me privately. I had been crying all night long, more through nervous excitement than from remorse, and I was particularly annoyed at the idea of the attacks I should have to endure from my own family. I did not let my mother see the letter, for from the day that I had entered the Comedie I had been emancipated. I received my letters now direct, without her supervision, and I went about alone.
At one o'clock precisely I was shown into the manager's office. M. Thierry, his nose more congested than ever, and his eyes more crafty, preached me a deadly sermon, blamed my want of discipline, absence of respect, and scandalous conduct, and finished his pitiful harangue by advising me to beg Madame Nathalie's pardon.
"I have asked her to come," he added, "and you must apologise to her before three Societaires, members of the committee. If she consents to forgive you, the committee will then consider whether to fine you or to cancel your engagement."
I did not reply for a few minutes. I thought of my mother in distress, my godfather laughing in his bourgeois way, and my Aunt Faure triumphant, with her usual phrase, "That child is terrible!" I thought too of my beloved Brabender, with her hands clasped, her moustache drooping sadly, her small eyes full of tears, so touching in their mute supplication. I could hear my gentle, timid Madame Guerard arguing with every one, so courageous was she always in her confidence in my future.
"Well, Mademoiselle?" said M. Thierry curtly.
I looked at him without speaking, and he began to get impatient.
"I will go and ask Madame Nathalie to come here," he said, "and I beg you will do your part as quickly as possible, for I have other things to attend to than to put your blunders right."
"Oh no, do not fetch Madame Nathalie," I said at last. "I shall not apologise to her. I will leave; I will cancel my engagement at once."
He was stupefied, and his arrogance melted away in pity for the ungovernable, wilful child, who was about to ruin her whole future for the sake of a question of self-esteem. He was at once gentler and more polite. He asked me to sit down, which he had not hitherto done, and he sat down himself opposite to me, and spoke to me gently about the advantages of the Comedie, and of the danger that there would be for me in leaving that illustrious theatre, which had done me the honour of admitting me. He gave me a hundred other very good, wise reasons which softened me. When he saw the effect he had made he wanted to send for Madame Nathalie, but I roused up then like a little wild animal.
"Oh, don't let her come here; I should box her ears again!" I exclaimed.
"Well then, I must ask your mother to come," he said.
"My mother would never come," I said.
"Then I will go and call on her," he remarked.
"It will be quite useless," I persisted. "My mother has emancipated me, and I am quite free to lead my own life. I alone am responsible for all that I do."
"Well then, Mademoiselle, I will think it over," he said, rising, to show me that the interview was at an end. I went back home, determined to say nothing to my mother; but my little sister when questioned about her wound had told everything in her own way, exaggerating, if possible, the brutality of Madame Nathalie and the audacity of what I had done. Rose Baretta, too, had been to see me, and had burst into tears, assuring my mother that my engagement would be cancelled. The whole family was very much excited and distressed when I arrived, and when they began to argue with me it made me still more nervous. I did not take calmly the reproaches which one and another of them addressed to me, and I was not at all willing to follow their advice. I went to my room and locked myself in.
The following day no one spoke to me, and I went up to Madame Guerarde comforted and consoled.
Several days passed by, and I had nothing to do at the theatre. Finally one morning I received a notice requesting me to be present at the reading of a play,—Dolores, by M. Bouilhet. This was the first time I had been asked to attend the reading of a new piece. I was evidently to have a role to "create." All my sorrows were at once dispersed like a cloud of butterflies. I told my mother of my joy, and she naturally concluded that as I was asked to attend a reading my engagement was not to be cancelled, and I was not to be asked again to apologise to Madame Nathalie.
I went to the theatre, and to my utter surprise I received from M. Davennes the role of Dolores, the chief part in Bouilhet's play. I knew that Favart, who should have had this role, was not well; but there were other artistes, and I could not get over my joy and surprise. Nevertheless, I felt somewhat uneasy. A terrible presentiment has always warned me of any troubles about to come upon me.
I had been rehearsing for five days, when one morning on going upstairs I suddenly found myself face to face with Nathalie, seated under Gerome's portrait of Rachel, known as "the red pimento." I did not know whether to go downstairs again or to pass by. My hesitation was noticed by the spiteful woman.
"Oh, you can pass, Mademoiselle," she said. "I have forgiven you, as I have avenged myself. The role that you like so much is not going to be for you after all."
I went by without uttering a word. I was thunderstruck by her speech, which I guessed would prove true.
I did not mention this incident to any one, but continued rehearsing. It was on Tuesday that Nathalie had spoken to me, and on Friday I was disappointed to hear that Davennes was not there, and that there was to be no rehearsal. Just as I was getting into my cab the hall-porter ran out to give me a letter from Davennes. The poor man had not ventured to come himself and give me the news, which he was sure would be so painful to me.
He explained to me in his letter that on account of my extreme youth—the importance of the role—such responsibility for my young shoulders—and finally that as Madame Favart had recovered from her illness, it was more prudent that, &c. &c. I finished reading the letter through blinding tears, but very soon anger took the place of grief. I rushed back again and sent my name in to the manager's office. He could not see me just then, but I said I would wait. After one hour, thoroughly impatient, taking no notice of the office-boy and the secretary, who wanted to prevent my entering, I opened the door of M. Thierry's office and walked in. All that despair, anger against injustice, and fury against falseness could inspire me with I let him have, in a stream of eloquence only interrupted by my sobs. The manager gazed at me in bewilderment. He could not conceive of such daring and such violence in a girl so young.
When at last, thoroughly exhausted, I sank down in an arm-chair, he tried to calm me, but all in vain.
"I will leave at once," I said. "Give me back my contract and I will send you back mine."
Finally, tired of argument and persuasion, he called his secretary and gave him the necessary orders, and the latter soon brought in my contract.
"Here is your mother's signature, Mademoiselle. I leave you free to bring it me back within forty-eight hours. After that time if I do not receive it I shall consider that you are no longer a member of the theatre. But believe me, you are acting unwisely. Think it over during the next forty-eight hours."
I did not answer, but went out of his office. That very evening I sent back to M. Thierry the contract bearing his signature, and tore up the one with that of my mother.
I had left Moliere's Theatre, and was not to re-enter it until twelve years later.
AT THE GYMNASE THEATRE—A TRIP TO SPAIN
This proceeding of mine was certainly violently decisive, and it completely upset my home life. I was not happy from this time forth amongst my own people, as I was continually being blamed for my violence. Irritating remarks with a double meaning were constantly being made by my aunt and my little sister. My godfather, whom I had once for all requested to mind his own business, no longer dared to attack me openly; but he influenced my mother against me. There was no longer any peace for me except at Madame Guerard's so I was constantly with her. I enjoyed helping her in her domestic affairs. She taught me to make cakes, chocolate, and scrambled eggs. All this gave me something else to think about, and I soon recovered my gaiety.
One morning there was something very mysterious about my mother. She kept looking at the clock, and seemed uneasy because my godfather, who lunched and dined with us every day, had not arrived.
"It's very strange," my mother said, "for last night after whist he said he should be with us this morning before luncheon. It's very strange indeed!"
She was usually calm, but she kept coming in and out of the room, and when Marguerite put her head in at the door to ask whether she should serve the luncheon, my mother told her to wait.
Finally the bell rang, startling my mother and Jeanne. My little sister was evidently in the secret.
"Well, it's settled!" exclaimed my godfather, shaking the snow from his hat. "Here, read that, you self-willed girl."
He handed me a letter stamped with the words "Theatre du Gymnase." It was from Montigny, the manager of the theatre, to M. de Gerbois, a friend of my godfather's whom I knew very well. The letter was very friendly, as far as M. de Gerbois was concerned, but it finished with the following words, "I will engage your protegee in order to be agreeable to you.... but she appears to me to have a vile temper."
I blushed as I read these lines, and I thought my godfather was wanting in tact, as he might have given me real delight and avoided hurting my feelings in this way, but he was the clumsiest-minded man that ever lived. My mother seemed very much pleased, so I kissed her pretty face and thanked my godfather. Oh, how I loved kissing that pearly face, which was always so cool and always slightly dewy. When I was a little child I used to ask her to play at butterfly on my cheeks with her long lashes, and she would put her face close to mine and open and shut her eyes, tickling my cheeks whilst I lay back breathless with delight.
The following day I went to the Gymnase. I was kept waiting for some little time, together with about fifty other girls. M. Monval, a cynical old man who was stage manager and almost general manager, then interviewed us. I liked him at first, because he was like M. Guerard I very soon disliked him. His way of looking at me, of speaking to me, and of taking stock of me generally roused my ire at once. I answered his questions curtly, and our conversation, which seemed likely to take an aggressive turn, was cut short by the arrival of M. Montigny, the manager.
"Which of you is Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt?" he asked. I at once rose, and he continued, "Will you come into my office, Mademoiselle?"
Montigny had been an actor, and was plump and good-humoured. He appeared to be somewhat infatuated with his own personality, with his ego, but that did not matter to me.
After some friendly conversation, he preached a little to me about my outburst at the Comedie made me a great many promises about the roles I should have to play. He prepared my contract, and gave it me to take home for my mother's signature and that of my family council.
"I am emancipated," I said to him, "so that my own signature is all that is required."
"Oh, very good," he said; "but what nonsense to have emancipated a self-willed girl. Your parents did not do you a good turn by that."
I was just on the point of replying that what my parents chose to do did not concern him, but I held my peace, signed the contract, and hurried home feeling very joyful.
Montigny kept his word at first. He let me understudy Victoria Lafontaine, a young artist very much in vogue just then, who had the most delightful talent. I played in La maison sans enfants, and I took her role at a moment's notice in Le demon du jeu, a piece which made a great success. I was fairly good in both plays, but Montigny, in spite of my entreaties, never came to see me in them, and the spiteful stage manager played me no end of tricks. I used to feel a sullen anger stirring within me, and I struggled with myself as much possible to keep my nerves calm.
One evening, on leaving the theatre, a notice was handed to me requesting me to be present at the reading of a play the following day. Montigny had promised me a good part, and I fell asleep that night lulled by fairies, who carried me off into the land of glory and success. On arriving at the theatre I found Blanche Pierson and Celine Montalant already there—two of the prettiest creatures that God has been pleased to create, the one as fair as the rising sun, and the other as dark as a starry night, for she was brilliant-looking in spite of her black hair. There were other women there, too—very, very pretty ones.
The play to be read was entitled Un mari qui lance sa femme, and it was by Raymond Deslandes. I listened to it without any great pleasure, and I thought it stupid. I waited anxiously to see what role was to be given to me, and I discovered this only too soon. It was a certain Princess Dimchinka, a frivolous, foolish, laughing individual, who was always eating or dancing. I did not like the part at all. I was very inexperienced on the stage, and my timidity made me rather awkward. Besides, I had not worked for three years with such persistency and conviction in order to create the role of an idiotic woman in an imbecile play. I was in despair, and the wildest ideas came into my head. I wanted to give up the stage and go into business. I spoke of this to our old family friend, Meydieu, who was so unbearable. He approved of my idea, and wanted me to take a shop—a confectioner's—on the Boulevard des Italiens. This became a fixed idea with the worthy man. He loved sweets himself, and he knew lots of recipes for various sorts of sweets that were not generally known, and which he wanted to introduce. I remember one kind that he wanted to call "bonbon negre." It was a mixture of chocolate and essence of coffee rolled into grilled licorice root. It was like black praline, and was extremely good. I was very persistent in this idea at first, and went with Meydieu to look at a shop, but when he showed me the little flat over it where I should have to live, it upset me so much that I gave up for ever the idea of business.
I went every day to the rehearsal of the stupid piece, and was bad-tempered all the time. Finally the first performance took place, and my part was neither a success nor a failure. I simply was not noticed, and at night my mother remarked, "My poor child, you were ridiculous in your Russian princess role, and I was very much grieved!"
I did not answer at all, but I should honestly have liked to kill myself. I slept very badly that night, and towards six in the morning I rushed up to Madame Guerard. I asked her to give me some laudanum, but she refused. When she saw that I really wanted it, the poor dear woman understood my design. "Well, then," I said, "swear by your children that you will not tell any one what I am going to do, and then I will not kill myself." A sudden idea had just come into my mind, and, without going further into it, I wanted to carry it out at once. She promised, and I then told her that I was going at once to Spain, as I had longed to see that country for a long time.
"Go to Spain!" she exclaimed. "With whom and when?"
"With the money I have saved," I answered. "And this very morning. Every one is asleep at home. I shall go and pack my trunk, and start at once with you!"
"No, no, I cannot go," exclaimed Madame Guerard, nearly beside herself. "There is my husband to think of, and my children."
Her little girl was scarcely two years old at that time.
"Well, then, mon petit Dame, find me some one to go with me."
"I do not know any one," she answered, crying in her excitement. "My dear little Sarah give up such an idea, I beseech you."
But by this time it was a fixed idea with me, and I was very determined about it. I went downstairs, packed my trunk, and then returned to Madame Guerard. I had wrapped up a pewter fork in paper, and this I threw against one of the panes of glass in a skylight window opposite. The window was opened abruptly, and the sleepy, angry face of a young woman appeared. I made a trumpet of my two hands and called out:
"Caroline, will you start with me at once for Spain?" The bewildered expression on the woman's face showed that she had not comprehended, but she replied at once, "I am coming, Mademoiselle." She then closed her window, and ten minutes later Caroline was tapping at the door. Madame Guerard had sunk down aghast in an arm-chair.
M. Guerard had asked several times from his bedroom what was going on.
"Sarah is here," his wife had replied. "I will tell you later on."
Caroline did dressmaking by the day at Madame Guerard's, and she had offered her services to me as lady's maid. She was agreeable and rather daring, and she now accepted my offer at once. But as it would not do to arouse the suspicions of the concierge, it was decided that I should take her dresses in my trunk, and that she should put her linen into a bag to be lent by mon petit Dame.
Poor dear Madame Guerard had given in. She was quite conquered, and soon began to help in my preparations, which certainly did not take me long.
But I did not know how to get to Spain.
"You go through Bordeaux," said Madame Guerard.
"Oh no," exclaimed Caroline; "my brother-in-law is a skipper, and he often goes to Spain by Marseilles."
I had saved nine hundred francs, and Madame Guerard lent me six hundred. It was perfectly mad, but I felt ready to conquer the universe, and nothing would have induced me to abandon my plan. Then, too, it seemed to me as though I had been wishing to see Spain for a long time. I had got it into my head that my Fate willed it, that I must obey my star, and a hundred other ideas, each one more foolish than the other, strengthened me in my plan. I was destined to act in this way, I thought.
I went downstairs again. The door was still ajar. With Caroline's help I carried the empty trunk up to Madame Guerard's, and Caroline emptied my wardrobe and drawers, and then packed the trunk. I shall never forget that delightful moment. It seemed to me as though the world was about to be mine. I was going to start off with a woman to wait on me. I was about to travel alone, with no one to criticise what I decided to do. I should see an unknown country about which I had dreamed, and I should cross the sea. Oh, how happy I was! Twenty times I must have gone up and down the staircase which separated our two flats. Every one was asleep in my mother's flat, and the rooms were so disposed that not a sound of our going in and out could reach her.
My trunk was at last closed, Caroline's valise fastened, and my little bag crammed full. I was quite ready to start, but the fingers of the clock had moved along by this time, and to my horror I discovered that it was eight o'clock. Marguerite would be coming down from her bedroom at the top of the house to prepare my mother's coffee, my chocolate, and bread and milk for my sisters. In a fit of despair and wild determination I kissed Madame Guerard with such violence as almost to stifle her, and rushed once more to my room to get my little Virgin Mary, which went with me everywhere. I threw a hundred kisses to my mother's room, and then, with wet eyes and a joyful heart, went downstairs. Mon petit Dame had asked the man who polished the floors to take the trunk and the valise down, and Caroline had fetched a cab. I went like a whirlwind past the concierge's door. She had her back turned towards me and was sweeping the floor. I sprang into the cab, and the driver whipped up his horse. I was on my way to Spain. I had written an affectionate letter to my mother begging her to forgive me and not to be grieved. I had written a stupid letter of explanation to Montigny, the manager of the Gymnase Theatre. The letter did not explain anything, though. It was written by a child whose brain was certainly a little affected, and I finished up with these words: "Have pity on a poor, crazy girl!"
Sardou told me later on that he happened to be in Montigny's office when he received my letter.
"The conversation was very animated, and when the door opened Montigny exclaimed in a fury, 'I had given orders that I was not to be disturbed!' He was somewhat appeased, however, on seeing old Monval's troubled look, and he knew something urgent was the matter. 'Oh, what's happened now?' he asked, taking the letter that the old stage manager held out to him. On recognising my paper, with its grey border, he said, 'Oh, it's from that mad child! Is she ill?'
"'No,' said Monval; 'she has gone to Spain.'
"'She can go to the deuce!' exclaimed Montigny. 'Send for Madame Dieudonnee to take her part. She has a good memory, and half the role must be cut. That will settle it.'
"'Any trouble for to-night?' I asked Montigny.
"'Oh, nothing,' he answered; 'it's that little Sarah Bernhardt who has cleared off to Spain!'
"'That girl from the Francais who boxed Nathalie's ears?'
"'She's rather amusing.'
"'Yes, but not for her managers,' remarked Montigny, continuing immediately afterwards the conversation which had been interrupted."
This is exactly as Victorien Sardou related the incident.
* * * * *
On arriving at Marseilles, Caroline went to get information about the journey. The result was that we embarked on an abominable trading-boat, a dirty coaster, smelling of oil and stale fish, a perfect horror.
I had never been on the sea, so I fancied that all boats were like this one, and that it was no good complaining. After six days of rough sea we landed at Alicante. Oh, that landing, how well I remember it! I had to jump from boat to boat, from plank to plank, with the risk of falling into the water a hundred times over, for I am naturally inclined to dizziness, and the little gangways, without any rails, rope, or anything, thrown across from one boat to another and bending under my light weight seemed to me like mere ropes stretched across space.
Exhausted with fatigue and hunger, I went to the first hotel recommended to us. Oh, what a hotel it was! The house itself was built of stone, with low arcades. Rooms on the first floor were given to me. Certainly the owners of these hotel people had never had two ladies in their house before. The bedroom was large, but with a low ceiling. By way of decoration there were enormous fish bones arranged in garlands caught up by the heads of fish. By half shutting one's eyes this decoration might be taken for delicate sculpture of ancient times. In reality, however, it was merely composed of fish-bones.
I had a bed put up for Caroline in this sinister-looking room. We pulled the furniture across against the doors, and I did not undress, for I could not venture on those sheets. I was accustomed to fine sheets perfumed with iris, for my pretty little mother, like all Dutch women, had a mania for linen and cleanliness, and she had inculcated me with this harmless mania.
It was about five in the morning when I opened my eyes, no doubt instinctively, as there had been no sound to rouse me. A door, leading I did not know where, opened, and a man looked in. I gave a shrill cry, seized my little Virgin Mary, and waved her about, wild with terror.
Caroline roused up with a start, and courageously rushed to the window. She threw it up, screaming, "Fire! Thieves! Help!"
The man disappeared, and the house was soon invaded by the police. I leave it to be imagined what the police of Alicante forty years ago were like. I answered all the questions asked me by a vice-consul, who was an Hungarian and spoke French. I had seen the man, and he had a silk handkerchief on his head. He had a beard, and on his shoulder a poncho, but that was all I knew. The Hungarian vice-consul, who, I believe, represented France, Austria, and Hungary, asked me the colour of the brigand's beard, silk handkerchief, and poncho. It had been too dark for me to distinguish the colours exactly. The worthy man was very much annoyed at my answer. After taking down a few notes he remained thoughtful for a moment and then gave orders for a message to be taken to his home. It was to ask his wife to send a carriage, and to get a room ready in order to receive a young foreigner in distress. I prepared to go with him, and after paying my bill at the hotel we started off in the worthy Hungarian's carriage, and I was welcomed by his wife with the most touching cordiality. I drank the coffee with thick cream which she poured out for me, and during breakfast told her who I was and where I was going. She then told me in return that her father was an important manufacturer of cloth, that he was from Bohemia, and a great friend of my father's. She took me to the room that had been prepared for me, made me go to bed, and told me that while I was asleep she would write me some letters of introduction for Madrid.
I slept for ten hours without waking, and when I roused up was thoroughly rested in mind and body. I wanted to send a telegram to my mother, but this was impossible, as there was no telegraph at Alicante. I wrote a letter, therefore, to my poor dear mother, telling her that I was in the house of friends of my father, etc. etc.
The following day I started for Madrid with a letter for the landlord of the Hotel de la Puerta del Sol. Nice rooms were given to us, and I sent messengers with the letters from Madame Rudcowitz. I spent a fortnight in Madrid, and was made a great deal of and generally feted. I went to all the bull-fights, and was infatuated with them. I had the honour of being invited to a great corrida given in honour of Victor Emmanuel, who was just then the guest of the Queen of Spain—I forgot Paris, my sorrows, disappointments, ambitions and everything else, and I wanted to live in Spain. A telegram sent by Madame Guerard made me change all my plans. My mother was very ill, the telegram informed me. I packed my trunk and wanted to start off at once, but when my hotel bill was paid I had not a sou to pay for the railway journey. The landlord of the hotel took two tickets for me, prepared a basket of provisions, and gave me two hundred francs at the station, telling me that he had received orders from Madame Rudcowitz not to let me want for anything. She and her husband were certainly most delightful people.
My heart beat fast when I reached my mother's house in Paris. Mon petit Dame was waiting for me downstairs in the concierge's room. She was very excited to see me looking so well, and kissed me with her eyes full of tears of joy. The concierge and family poured forth their compliments. Madame Guerard went upstairs before me to inform my mother of my arrival, and I waited a moment in the kitchen and was hugged by our old servant Marguerite.
My sisters both came running in. Jeanne kissed me, then turned me round and examined me. Regina, with her hands behind her back, leaned against the stove gazing at me furiously.
"Well, won't you kiss me, Regina?" I asked, stooping down to her.
"No, don't like you," she answered. "You've went off without me. Don't like you now." She turned away brusquely to avoid my kiss, and knocked her head against the stove.
Finally Madame Guerard appeared again, and I went with her. Oh, how repentant I was, and how deeply affected. I knocked gently at the door of the room, which was hung with pale blue rep. My mother looked very white, lying in her bed. Her face was thinner, but wonderfully beautiful. She stretched out her arms like two wings, and I rushed forward to this white, loving nest. My mother cried silently, as she always did. Then her hands played with my hair, which she let down and combed with her long, taper fingers. Then we asked each other a hundred questions. I wanted to know everything, and she did too, so that we had the most amusing duet of words, phrases, and kisses. I found that my mother had had a rather severe attack of pleurisy, that she was now getting better, but was not yet well. I therefore took up my abode again with her, and for the time being went back to my old bed-room. Madame Guerard had told me in a letter that my grandmother on my father's side had at last agreed to the proposal made by my mother. My father had left a certain sum of money which I was to have on my wedding-day. My mother, at my request, had asked my grandmother to let me have half this sum, and she had at last consented, saying that she should use the interest of the other half, but that this latter half would always be at my disposal if I changed my mind and consented to marry.
I was therefore determined to live my life as I wished, to go away from home and be quite independent. I adored my mother, but our ideas were altogether different. Besides, my godfather was perfectly odious to me, and for years and years he had been in the habit of lunching and dining with us every day, and of playing whist every evening. He was always hurting my feelings in one way or another. He was a very rich old bachelor, with no near relatives. He adored my mother, but she had always refused to marry him. She had put up with him at first, because he was a friend of my father's. After my father's death she had continued to put up with him, because she was then accustomed to him, until finally she quite missed him when he was ill or travelling. But, placid as she was, my mother was authoritative, and could not endure any kind of constraint. She therefore rebelled against the idea of another master. She was very gentle but determined, and this determination of hers ended sometimes in the most violent anger. She used then to turn very pale, and violet rings would come round her eyes, her lips would tremble, her teeth chatter, her beautiful eyes take a fixed gaze, the words would come at intervals from her throat, all chopped up—hissing and hoarse. After this she would faint; and the veins of her throat would swell, and her hands and feet turned icy cold. Sometimes she would be unconscious for hours, and the doctors told us that she might die in one of these attacks, so that we did all in our power to avoid these terrible accidents. My mother knew this, and rather took advantage of it, and, as I had inherited this tendency to fits of rage from her, I could not and did not wish to live with her. As for me, I am not placid. I am active and always ready for fight, and what I want I always want immediately. I have not the gentle obstinacy peculiar to my mother. The blood begins to boil under my temples before I have time to control it. Time has made me wiser in this respect, but not sufficiently so. I am aware of this, and it causes me to suffer.
I did not say anything about my plans to our dear invalid, but I asked our old friend Meydieu to find me a flat. The old man, who had tormented me so much during my childhood, had been most kind to me ever since my debut at the Theatre Francais, and, in spite of my row with Nathalie, and my escapade when at the Gymnase, he was now ready to see the best in me. When he came to see us the day after my return home, I remained talking with him for a time in the drawing-room, and confided my intentions to him. He quite approved, and said that my intercourse with my mother would be all the more agreeable because of this separation.
FROM THE PORTE ST. MARTIN THEATRE TO THE ODEON
I took a flat in the Rue Duphot, quite near to my mother, and Madame Guerard undertook to have it furnished for me. As soon as my mother was well again, I talked to her about it, and I was not long in making her agree with me that it was really better I should live by myself and in my own way. When once she had accepted the situation everything went along satisfactorily. My sisters were present when we were talking about it. Jeanne was close to my mother, and Regina, who had refused to speak to me or look at me ever since my return three weeks ago, suddenly jumped on to my lap.
"Take me with you this time!" she exclaimed suddenly. "I will kiss you, if you will."
I glanced at my mother, rather embarrassed.
"Oh, take her," she said, "for she is unbearable."
Regina jumped down again and began to dance a jig, muttering the rudest, silliest things at the same time. She then nearly stifled me with kisses, sprang on to my mother's arm-chair, and kissed her hair, her eyes, her cheeks, saying:
"You are glad I am going, aren't you? You can give everything to your Jenny!"
My mother coloured slightly, but as her eyes fell on Jeanne her expression changed and a look of unspeakable affection came over her face. She pushed Regina gently aside, and the child went on with her jig.
"We two will stay together," said my mother, leaning her head back on Jeanne's shoulder, and she said this quite unconsciously, just in the same way as she had gazed at my sister. I was perfectly stupefied, and closed my eyes so that I should not see. I could only hear my little sister dancing her jig and emphasising every stamp on the floor with the words, "And we two as well; we two, we two!"
It was a very painful little drama that was stirring our four hearts in this little bourgeois home, and the result of it was that I settled down finally with my little sister in the flat in the Rue Duphot. I kept Caroline with me, and engaged a cook. Mon petit Dame was with me nearly all day, and I dined every evening with my mother.
I was still on good terms with an actor of the Porte Saint Martin Theatre, who had been appointed stage manager there, Marc Fournier being at that time manager of the theatre. A piece entitled La biche au bois was then being given. It was a spectacular play, and was having a great success. A delightful actress from the Odeon Theatre, Mlle. Debay, had been engaged for the principal role. She played tragedy princesses most charmingly. I often had tickets for the Porte Saint Martin, and I thoroughly enjoyed La biche au bois. Madame Ulgade sang admirably in her role of the young prince, and amazed me. Mariquita charmed me with her dancing. She was delightful and so animated in her dances, so characteristic, and always so full of distinction. Thanks to old Josse, I knew every one.
But to my surprise and terror, one evening towards five o'clock, on arriving at the theatre to get the tickets for our seats, he exclaimed on seeing me:
"Why here is our Princess, our little biche au bois. Here she is! It is the Providence that watches over theatres who has sent her."
I struggled like an eel caught in a net, but it was all in vain. M. Marc Fournier, who could be very charming, gave me to understand that I should be rendering him a great service and would "save" the receipts. Josse, who guessed what my scruples were, exclaimed:
"But, my dear child, it will still be your high art, for Mademoiselle Debay from the Odeon Theatre plays this role of Princess, and Mademoiselle Debay is the first artiste at the Odeon and the Odeon is an imperial theatre, so that it cannot be any disgrace after your studies."
Mariquita, who had just arrived, also persuaded me, and Madame Ulgade was sent for to rehearse the duos, for I was to sing. Yes, and I was to sing with a veritable artiste, one who was considered to be the first artiste of the Opera Comique.
There was but little time to spare. Josse made me rehearse my role, which I almost knew, as I had seen the piece often and I had an extraordinary memory. The minutes flew, soon running into quarters of an hour, and these quarters of an hour made half-hours, and then entire hours. I kept looking at the clock, the large clock in the manager's room, where Madame Ulgade was making me rehearse. She thought my voice was pretty, but I kept singing out of tune, and she helped me along and encouraged me all the time.
I was dressed up in Mlle. Debay's clothes, and the curtain was raised. Poor me! I was more dead than alive, but my courage returned after a triple burst of applause for the couplet which I sang on waking in very much the same way as I should have murmured a series of Racine's lines.
When the performance was over Marc Fournier offered me, through Josse, a three years' engagement, but I asked to be allowed to think it over. Josse had introduced me to a dramatic author, Lambert Thiboust, a charming man who was certainly not without talent. He thought I was just the ideal actress for his heroine in La bergere d'Ivry, but M. Faille, an old actor, who had just become manager of the Ambigu Theatre, was not the only person to consult, for a certain M. de Chilly had some interest in the theatre. De Chilly had made his name in the role of Rodin in Le Juif errant, and after marrying a rather wealthy wife, had left the stage, and was now interested in the business side of theatrical affairs. He had, I think, just given the Ambigu up to Faille.
De Chilly was then helping on a charming girl named Laurence Gerard. She was gentle and very bourgeoise, rather pretty, but without any real beauty or grace.
Faille told Lambert Thiboust that he was negotiating with Laurence Gerard, but that he was ready to do as the author wished in the matter. The only thing he stipulated was that he should hear me before deciding. I was willing to humour the poor fellow, who must have been as poor a manager as he had been an artiste. I gave a short performance for him at the Ambigu Theatre. The stage was only lighted by the wretched servante, a little transportable lamp. About a yard in front of me I could see M. Faille balancing himself on his chair, one hand on his waistcoat and the fingers of the other hand in his enormous nostrils. This disgusted me horribly. Lambert Thiboust was seated near him, his handsome face smiling as he looked at me encouragingly.
I had selected On ne badine pas avec l'amour; I did not want to recite verse, because I was to perform in a play in prose. I believe I was perfectly charming, and Lambert Thiboust thought so too, but when I had finished poor Faille got up in a clumsy, pretentious way, said something in a low voice to the author, and took me to his office.
"My child." remarked the worthy but stupid manager, "you are no good on the stage!"
I resented this, but he continued:
"Oh no, no good," and as the door then opened he added, pointing to the new-comer, "here is M. de Chilly, who was also listening to you, and he will say just the same as I say."
M. de Chilly nodded and shrugged his shoulders.
"Lambert Thiboust is mad," he remarked. "No one ever saw such a thin shepherdess!"
He then rang the bell and told the boy to show in Mlle. Laurence Gerard. I understood; and, without taking leave of the two boors, I left the room.
My heart was heavy, though, as I went back to the foyer, where I had left my hat. There I found Laurence Gerard, but she was fetched away the next moment. I was standing near her, and as I looked in the glass I was struck by the contrast between us. She was plump, with a wide face and magnificent black eyes; her nose was rather canaille, her mouth heavy, and there was a very ordinary look about her generally. I was fair, slight, and frail-looking, like a reed, with a long, pale face, blue eyes, a rather sad mouth and a general look of distinction. This hasty vision consoled me for my failure, and then, too, I felt that this Faille was a nonentity and that de Chilly was common.
I was destined to meet with them both again later in my life: Chilly soon after, as manager at the Odeon, and Faille twenty years later, in such a wretched condition that the tears came to my eyes when he appeared before me and begged me to play for his benefit.
"Oh, I beseech you," said the poor man. "You will be the only attraction at this performance, and I have only you to count on for the receipts."
I shook hands with him. I do not know whether he remembered our first interview and my "audition," but I who remembered it well only hope that he did not.
Five days later Mile. Debay was well again, and took her role as usual.
Before accepting an engagement at the Porte Saint Martin, I wrote to Camille Doucet. The following day I received a letter asking me to call at the Ministry. It was not without some emotion that I went to see this kind man again. He was standing up waiting for me when I was ushered into the room. He held out his hands to me, and drew me gently towards him.
"Oh, what a terrible child!" he said, giving me a chair. "Come now, you must be calmer. It will never do to waste all these admirable gifts in voyages, escapades, and boxing people's ears."
I was deeply moved by his kindness, and my eyes were full of regret as I looked at him.
"Now, don't cry, my dear child; don't cry. Let us try and find out how we are to make up for all this folly."
He was silent for a moment, and then, opening a drawer, he took out a letter. "Here is something which will perhaps save us," he said.
It was a letter from Duquesnel, who had just been appointed manager of the Odeon Theatre in conjunction with Chilly.
"They ask me for some young artistes to make up the Odeon company. Well, we must attend to this." He got up, and, accompanying me to the door, said as I went away, "We shall succeed."
I went back home and began at once to rehearse all my roles in Racine's plays. I waited very anxiously for several days, consoled by Madame Guerard, who succeeded in restoring my confidence. Finally I received a letter, and went at once to the Ministry. Camille Doucet received me with a beaming expression on his face.
"It's settled," he said. "Oh, but it has not been easy, though," he added. "You are very young, but very celebrated already for your headstrong character. But I have pledged my word that you will be as gentle as a young lamb."
"Yes, I will be gentle, I promise," I replied, "if only out of gratitude. But what am I to do?"
"Here is a letter for Felix Duquesnel," he replied; "he is expecting you."
I thanked Camille Doucet heartily, and he then said, "I shall see you again, less officially, at your aunt's on Thursday. I have received an invitation this morning to dine there, so you will be able to tell me what Duquesnel says."
It was then half-past ten in the morning. I went home to put some pretty clothes on. I chose a dress the underskirt of which was of canary yellow, the dress being of black silk with the skirt scalloped round, and a straw conical-shaped hat trimmed with corn, and black ribbon velvet under the chin. It must have been delightfully mad looking. Arrayed in this style, feeling very joyful and full of confidence, I went to call on Felix Duquesnel. I waited a few moments in a little room, very artistically furnished. A young man appeared, looking very elegant. He was smiling and altogether charming. I could not grasp the fact that this fair-haired, gay young man would be my manager.
After a short conversation we agreed on every point we touched.
"Come to the Odeon at two o'clock," said Duquesnel, by way of leave-taking, "and I will introduce you to my partner. I ought to say it the other way round, according to society etiquette," he added, laughing, "but we are talking theatre" (shop).
He came a few steps down the staircase with me, and stayed there leaning over the balustrade to wish me good-bye.
At two o'clock precisely I was at the Odeon, and had to wait an hour. I began to grind my teeth, and only the remembrance of my promise to Camille Doucet prevented me from going away.
Finally Duquesnel appeared and took me across to the manager's office.
"You will now see the other ogre," he said, and I pictured to myself the other ogre as charming as his partner. I was therefore greatly disappointed on seeing a very ugly little man, whom I recognised as Chilly.
He eyed me up and down most impolitely, and pretended not to recognise me. He signed to me to sit down, and without a word handed me a pen and showed me where to sign my name on the paper before me. Madame Guerard interposed, laying her hand on mine.
"Do not sign without reading it," she said.
"Are you Mademoiselle's mother?" he asked, looking up.
"No," she said, "but it is just as though I were."
"Well, yes, you are right. Read it quickly," he continued, "and then sign or leave it alone, but be quick."
I felt the colour coming into my face, for this man was odious. Duquesnel whispered to me, "There's no ceremony about him, but he's a good fellow; don't take offence."
I signed my contract and handed it to his ugly partner.
"You know," he remarked, "He is responsible for you. I should not upon any account have engaged you."
"And if you had been alone, Monsieur," I answered, "I should not have signed, so we are quits."
I went away at once, and hurried to my mother's to tell her, for I knew this would be a great joy for her. Then, that very day, I set off with mon petit Dame to buy everything necessary for furnishing my dressing-room.
The following day I went to the convent in the Rue Notre Dame-des-Champs to see my dear governess, Mlle. de Brabender. She had been ill with acute rheumatism in all her limbs for the last thirteen months. She had suffered so much that she looked like a different person. She was lying in her little white bed, a little white cap covering her hair; her big nose was drawn with pain, her washed-out eyes seemed to have no colour in them. Her formidable moustache alone bristled up with constant spasms of pain. Besides all this she was so strangely altered that I wondered what had caused the change. I went nearer, and, bending down, kissed her gently. I then gazed at her so inquisitively that she understood instinctively. With her eyes she signed to me to look on the table near her, and there in a glass I saw all my dear old friend's teeth. I put the three roses I had brought her in the glass, and, kissing her again, I asked her forgiveness for my impertinent curiosity. I left the convent with a very heavy heart, for the Mother Superior told me in the garden that my beloved Mlle. de Brabender could not live much longer. I therefore went every day for a time to see my gentle old governess, but as soon as the rehearsals commenced at the Odeon my visits had to be less frequent.
One morning about seven o'clock a message came from the convent to fetch me in great haste, and I was present at the dear woman's death-agony. Her face lighted up at the supreme moment with such a holy look that I suddenly longed to die. I kissed her hands, which were holding the crucifix, and they had already turned cold. I asked to be allowed to be there when she was placed in her coffin. On arriving at the convent the next day, at the hour fixed, I found the sisters in such a state of consternation that I was alarmed. What could have happened, I wondered? They pointed to the door of the cell, without uttering a word. The nuns were standing round the bed, on which was the most extraordinary looking being imaginable. My poor governess, lying rigid on her deathbed, had a man's face. Her moustache had grown longer, and she had a beard nearly half an inch long. Her moustache and beard were sandy, whilst the long hair framing her face was white. Her mouth, without the support of the teeth, had sunk in so that her nose fell on the sandy moustache. It was like a terrible and ridiculous-looking mask, instead of the sweet face of my friend. It was the mask of a man, whilst the little delicate hands were those of a woman.
There was an awe-struck expression in the eyes of the nuns, in spite of the assurance of the nurse who had dressed the poor dead body, and had declared to them that the body was that of a woman. But the poor little sisters were trembling and crossing themselves all the time.
The day after this dismal ceremony I made my debut at the Odeon in Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard. I was not suited for Marivaux's plays, as they require a certain coquettishness and an affectation which were not then and still are not among my qualities. Then, too, I was rather too slight, so that I made no success at all. Chilly happened to be passing along the corridor, just as Duquesnel was talking to me and encouraging me. Chilly pointed to me and remarked:
"Une flute pour les gens du monde, il n'y a meme pas de mie."
I was furious at the man's insolence, and the blood rushed to my face, but I saw through my half-closed eyes Camille Doucet's face, that face always so clean shaven and young-looking under his crown of white hair. I thought it was a vision of my mind, which was always on the alert, on account of the promise I had made. But no, it was he himself, and he came up to me.
"What a pretty voice you have!" he said. "Your second appearance will be such a pleasure for us!"
This man was always courteous, but truthful. This debut of mine had not given him any pleasure, but he was counting on my next appearance, and he had spoken the truth. I had a pretty voice, and that was all that any one could say from my first trial.
I remained at the Odeon, and worked very hard. I was ready to take any one's place at a moment's notice, for I knew all the roles. I made some success, and the students had a predilection for me. When I came on to the stage I was always greeted by applause from these young men. A few old sticklers used to turn towards the pit and try and command silence, but no one cared a straw for them.
Finally my day of triumph dawned. Duquesnel had the happy idea of putting Athalie on again, with Mendelssohn's choruses.
Beauvallet, who had been odious as a professor, was charming as a comrade. By special permission from the Ministry he was to play Joad. The role of Zacharie was assigned to me. Some of the Conservatoire pupils were to take the spoken choruses, and the female pupils who studied singing undertook the musical part. The rehearsals were so bad that Duquesnel and Chilly were in despair.
Beauvallet, who was more agreeable now, but not choice in his language, muttered some terrible words. We began over and over again, but it was all to no purpose. The spoken choruses were simply abominable. When suddenly Chilly exclaimed:
"Well, let the young one say all the spoken choruses. They will be right enough with her pretty voice!"
Duquesnel did not utter a word, but he pulled his moustache to hide a smile. Chilly was coming round to his protegee after all. He nodded his head in an indifferent way, in answer to his partner's questioning look, and we began again, I reading all the spoken choruses. Every one applauded, and the conductor of the orchestra was delighted, for the poor man had suffered enough. The first performance was a veritable little triumph for me! Oh, quite a little one, but still full of promise for my future. The audience, charmed with the sweetness of my voice and its crystal purity, encored the part of the spoken choruses, and I was rewarded by three rounds of applause.
At the end of the act Chilly came to me and said, "Thou art adorable!" His thou rather annoyed me, but I answered mischievously, using the same form of speech:
"Thou findest me fatter?"
He burst into a fit of laughter, and from that day forth we both used the familiar thou and became the best friends imaginable.
Oh, that Odeon Theatre! It is the theatre I loved most. I was very sorry to leave it, for every one liked each other there, and every one was gay. The theatre is a little like the continuation of school. The young artistes came there, and Duquesnel was an intelligent manager, and very polite and young himself. During rehearsal we often went off, several of us together, to play ball in the Luxembourg, during the acts in which we were not "on." I used to think of my few months at the Comedie Francaise. The little world I had known there had been stiff, scandal-mongering, and jealous. I recalled my few months at the Gymnase. Hats and dresses were always discussed there, and every one chattered about a hundred things that had nothing to do with art.
At the Odeon I was happy. We thought of nothing but putting plays on, and we rehearsed morning, afternoon, and at all hours, and I liked that very much.
For the summer I had taken a little house in the Villa Montmorency at Auteuil. I went to the theatre in a petit duc, which I drove myself. I had two wonderful ponies that Aunt Rosine had given to me because they had very nearly broken her neck by taking fright at St. Cloud at a whirligig of wooden horses. I used to drive at full speed along the quays, and in spite of the atmosphere brilliant with the July sunshine, and the gaiety of everything outside, I always ran up the cold cracked steps of the theatre with veritable joy, and rushed up to my dressing-room, wishing every one I passed good morning on my way. When I had taken off my coat and gloves I went on to the stage, delighted to be once more in that infinite darkness with only a poor light (a servante hanging here and there on a tree, a turret, a wall, or placed on a bench) thrown on the faces of the artistes for a few seconds.
There was nothing more vivifying for me than that atmosphere, full of microbes, nothing more gay than that obscurity, and nothing more brilliant than that darkness.
One day my mother had the curiosity to come behind the scenes. I thought she would have died with horror and disgust. "Oh, you poor child," she murmured, "how can you live in that!" When once she was outside again she began to breathe freely, taking long gasps several times. Oh yes, I could live in it, and I really only lived well in it. Since then I have changed a little, but I still have a great liking for that gloomy workshop in which we joyous lapidaries of art cut the precious stones supplied to us by the poets.
The days passed by, carrying away with them all our little disappointed hopes, and fresh days dawned bringing fresh dreams, so that life seemed to me eternal happiness. I played in turn in Le Marquis de Villemer and Francois le Champi. In the former I took the part of the foolish baroness, an expert woman of thirty-five years of age. I was scarcely twenty-one myself, and I looked seventeen. In the second piece I played Mariette, and made a great success.
Those rehearsals of the Marquis de Villemer and Francois le Champi have remained in my memory as so many exquisite hours. Madame George Sand was a sweet, charming creature, extremely timid. She did not talk much, but smoked all the time. Her large eyes were always dreamy, and her mouth, which was rather heavy and common, had the kindest expression. She had perhaps had a medium-sized figure, but she was no longer upright. I used to watch her with the most romantic affection, for had she not been the heroine of a fine love romance!
I used to sit down by her, and when I took her hand in mine I held it as long as possible. Her voice, too, was gentle and fascinating.
Prince Napoleon, commonly known as "Plon-Plon," often used to come to George Sand's rehearsals. He was extremely fond of her. The first time I ever saw that man I turned pale, and felt as though my heart had stopped beating. He looked so much like Napoleon I. that I disliked him for it. By resembling him it seemed to me that he made him seem less far away, and brought him nearer to every one.