Madame Sand introduced me to him, in spite of my wishes. He looked at me in an impertinent way: he displeased me. I scarcely replied to his compliments, and went closer to George Sand.
"Why, she is in love with you!" he exclaimed, laughing.
George Sand stroked my cheek gently.
"She is my little Madonna," she answered; "do not torment her."
I stayed with her, casting displeased and furtive glances at the Prince. Gradually, though, I began to enjoy listening to him, for his conversation was brilliant, serious, and at the same time witty. He sprinkled his discourses and his replies with words that were a trifle crude, but all that he said was interesting and instructive. He was not very indulgent, though, and I have heard him say base, horrible things about little Thiers which I believe had little truth in them. He drew such an amusing portrait one day of that agreeable Louis Bouilhet, that George Sand, who liked him, could not help laughing, although she called the Prince a bad man. He was very unceremonious, too, but at the same time he did not like people to be wanting in respect to him. One day an artiste, named Paul Deshayes, who was playing in Francois le Champi, came into the green-room. Prince Napoleon, Madame George Sand, the curator of the library, whose name I have forgotten, and myself were there. This artiste was common, and something of an anarchist. He bowed to Madame Sand, and addressing the Prince, said:
"You are sitting on my gloves, sir."
The Prince scarcely moved, pulled the gloves out, and, throwing them on the floor, remarked, "I thought this seat was clean."
The actor coloured, picked up the gloves, and went away, murmuring some revolutionary threat.
I played the part of Hortense in Le testament de Cesar, by Girodot, and of Anna Danby in Alexandre Dumas's Kean.
On the evening of the first performance of the latter piece [Footnote: February 18, 1868.] the audience was most aggravating. Dumas pere was quite out of favour on account of a private matter that had nothing to do with art. Politics for some time past had been exciting every one, and the return of Victor Hugo from exile was very much desired. When Dumas entered his box he was greeted by yells. The students were there in full force, and they began shouting for Ruy Blas. Dumas rose and asked to be allowed to speak. "My young friends," he began, as soon as there was silence. "We are quite willing to listen," called out some one, "but you must be alone in your box."
Dumas protested vehemently. Several persons in the orchestra took his side, for he had invited a lady into his box, and whoever that lady might be, no one had any right to insult her in so outrageous a manner. I had never yet witnessed a scene of this kind. I looked through the hole in the curtain, and was very much interested and excited. I saw our great Dumas, pale with anger, clenching his fists, shouting, swearing, and storming. Then suddenly there was a burst of applause. The woman had disappeared from the box. She had taken advantage of the moment when Dumas, leaning well over the front of the box, was answering, "No, no, this lady shall not leave the box!"
Just at this moment she slipped away, and the whole house, delighted, shouted, "Bravo!" Dumas was then allowed to continue, but only for a few seconds. Cries of "Ruy Blas! Ruy Blas! Victor Hugo! Hugo!" could then be heard again in the midst of an infernal uproar. We had been ready to commence the play for an hour, and I was greatly excited. Chilly and Duquesnel then came to us on the stage.
"Courage, mes enfants, for the house has gone mad," they said. "We will commence anyhow, let what will happen."
"I'm afraid I shall faint," I said to Duquesnel. My hands were as cold as ice, and my heart was beating wildly. "What am I to do," I asked him, "if I get too frightened?"
"There's nothing to be done," he replied. "Be frightened, but go on playing, and don't faint upon any account!"
The curtain was drawn up in the midst of a veritable tempest, bird cries, cat-calls, and a heavy rhythmical refrain of "Ruy Blas! Ruy Blas! Victor Hugo! Victor Hugo!"
My turn came. Berton pere, who was playing Kean, had been received badly. I was wearing the eccentric costume of an Englishwoman in the year 1820. As soon as I appeared I heard a burst of laughter, and I stood still, rooted to the spot in the doorway. At the very same instant the cheers of my dear friends the students drowned the laughter of the aggravators. This gave me courage, and I even felt a desire to fight. But it was not necessary, for after the second endlessly long harangue, in which I give an idea of my love for Kean, the house was delighted, and gave me an ovation.
"Ignotus" wrote the following paragraph in the Figaro:
"Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt appeared wearing an eccentric costume which increased the tumult, but her rich voice, that astonishing voice of hers, appealed to the public, and she charmed them like a little Orpheus."
After Kean I played in La loterie du mariage. When we were rehearsing the piece, Agar came up to me one day, in the corner where I usually sat. I had a little arm-chair there from my dressing-room, and put my feet up on a straw chair. I liked this place, because there was a little gas-burner there, and I could work whilst waiting for my turn to go on the stage. I loved embroidery and tapestry work. I had a quantity of different kinds of fancy work commenced, and could take up one or the other as I felt inclined.
Madame Agar was an admirable creature. She had evidently been created for the joy of the eyes. She was a brunette, tall, pale, with large, dark, gentle eyes, a very small mouth with full rounded lips, which went up at the corners with an imperceptible smile. She had exquisite teeth, and her head was covered with thick, glossy hair. She was the living incarnation of one of the most beautiful types of ancient Greece. Her pretty hands were long and rather soft, whilst her slow and rather heavy walk completed the illusion. She was the great tragedienne of the Odeon Theatre. She approached me, with her measured tread, followed by a young man of from twenty-four to twenty-six years of age.
"Well, my dear," she said, kissing me, "there is a chance for you to make a poet happy!" She then introduced Francois Coppee. I invited the young man to sit down, and then I looked at him more thoroughly. His handsome face, emaciated and pale, was that of the immortal Bonaparte. A thrill of emotion went through me, for I adore Napoleon I.
"Are you a poet, Monsieur?" I asked.
His voice, too, trembled, for he was still more timid than I was.
"I have written a little piece," he continued, "and Mlle. Agar is sure that you will play it with her."
"Yes, my dear," put in Agar, "you are going to play it for him. It is a little masterpiece, and I am sure you will make a gigantic success."
"Oh, and you too. You will be so beautiful in it!" said the poet, gazing rapturously at Agar.
I was called on to the stage just at this moment, and on returning a few minutes later I found the young poet talking in a low voice to the beautiful tragedienne. I coughed, and Agar, who had taken my arm-chair, wanted to give it me back. On my refusing it she pulled me down on to her lap. The young man drew up his chair and we chatted away together, our three heads almost touching. It was decided that after reading the piece I should show it to Duquesnel, who alone was capable of judging poetry, and that we should then get permission from both managers to play it at a benefit that was to take place after our next production.
The young man was delighted, and his pale face lighted up with a grateful smile as he shook hands excitedly. Agar walked away with him as far as the little landing which projected over the stage. I watched them as they went, the magnificent statue-like woman and the slender outline of the young writer. Agar was perhaps thirty-five at that time. She was certainly very beautiful, but to me there was no charm about her, and I could not understand why this poetical Bonaparte was in love with this matronly woman. It was as clear as daylight that he was, and she too appeared to be in love. This interested me infinitely. I watched them clasp each other's hands, and then, with an abrupt and almost awkward movement, the young poet bent over the beautiful hand he was holding and kissed it fervently.
Agar came back to me with a faint colour in her cheeks. This was rare with her, for she had a marble-like complexion. "Here is the manuscript!" she said, giving me a little roll of paper.
The rehearsal was over, and I wished Agar good-bye, and on my way home read the piece. I was so delighted with it that I drove straight back to the theatre to give it to Duquesnel at once. I met him coming downstairs.
"Do come back again, please!" I exclaimed.
"Good heavens, my dear girl, what is the matter?" he asked. "You look as though you have won a big lottery prize."
"Well, it is something like that," I said, and entering his office, I produced the manuscript.
"Read this, please," I continued.
"I'll take it with me," he said.
"Oh no, read it here at once!" I insisted. "Shall I read it to you?"
"No, no," he replied; "your voice is treacherous. It makes charming poetry of the worst lines possible. Well, let me have it," he continued, sitting down in his arm-chair. He began to read whilst I looked at the newspapers.
"It's delicious!" he soon exclaimed. "It's a perfect masterpiece."
I sprang to my feet in joy.
"And you will get Chilly to accept it?"
"Oh yes, you can make your mind easy. But when do you want to play it?"
"Well, the author seems to be in a great hurry," I said, "and Agar too."
"And you as well," he put in, laughing, "for this is a role that just suits your fancy."
"Yes, my dear 'Duq,'" I acknowledged. "I too want it put on at once. Do you want to be very nice?" I added. "If so, let us have it for the benefit of Madame —— in a fortnight from now. That would not make any difference to other arrangements, and our poet would be so happy."
"Good!" said Duquesnel, "I will settle it like that. What about the scenery, though?" he muttered meditatively, biting his nails, which were then his favourite meal when disturbed in his mind.
I had already thought that out, so I offered to drive him home, and on the way I put my plan before him.
We might have the scenery of Jeanne de Ligneris, a piece that had been put on and taken off again immediately, after being jeered at by the public. The scenery consisted of a superb Italian park, with flowers, statues, and even a flight of steps. As to costumes, if we spoke of them to Chilly, no matter how little they might cost he would shriek, as he had done in his role of Rodin. Agar and I would supply our own costumes.
When I arrived at Duquesnel's house, he asked me to go in and discuss the costumes with his wife. I accepted his invitation, and, after kissing the prettiest face one could possibly dream of, I told its owner about our plot. She approved of everything, and promised to begin at once to look out for pretty designs for our costumes. Whilst she was talking I compared her with Agar. Oh, how much I preferred that charming head, with its fair hair, those large, limpid eyes, and the face, with its two little pink dimples. Her hair was soft and light, and formed a halo round her forehead. I admired, too, her delicate wrists, finishing with the loveliest hands imaginable, hands that were later on quite famous.
On leaving my two friends I drove straight to Agar's to tell her what had happened. She kissed me over and over again, and a cousin of hers, a priest, who happened to be there, appeared to be very delighted with my story. He seemed to know about everything. Presently there was a timid ring at the bell, and Francois Coppee was announced.
"I am just going away," I said to him, as I met him in the doorway and shook hands. "Agar will tell you everything."
LE PASSANT—AT THE TUILERIES—FIRE IN MY FLAT
The rehearsals of Le Passant commenced very soon after this, and were delightful, for the timid young poet was a most interesting and intelligent talker.
The first performance took place as arranged, and Le Passant was a veritable triumph. The whole house cheered over and over again, and Agar and myself had eight curtain calls. We tried in vain to bring the author forward, as the audience wished to see him. Francois Coppee was not to be found. The young poet, hitherto unknown, had become famous within a few hours. His name was on all lips. As for Agar and myself, we were simply overwhelmed with praise, and Chilly wanted to pay for our costumes. We played this one-act piece more than a hundred times consecutively to full houses.
We were asked to give it at the Tuileries, and at the house of Princess Mathilde.
Oh, that first performance at the Tuileries! It is stamped on my brain for ever, and with my eyes shut I can see every detail again even now. It had been arranged between Duquesnel and the official sent from the Court that Agar and I should go to the Tuileries to see the room where we were to play, in order to have it arranged according to the requirements of the piece. Count de Laferriere was to introduce me to the Emperor, who would then introduce me to the Empress Eugenie. Agar was to be introduced by Princess Mathilde, to whom she was then sitting as Minerva.
M. de Laferriere came for me at nine o'clock in a state carriage, and Madame Guerard accompanied me.
M. de Laferriere was a very agreeable man, with rather stiff manners. As we were turning round the Rue Royale the carriage had to draw up an instant, and General Fleury approached us. I knew him, as he had been introduced to me by Morny. He spoke to us, and Comte de Laferriere explained where we were going. As he left us he said to me, "Good luck!" Just at that moment a man who was passing by took up the words and called out, "Good luck, perhaps, but not for long, you crowd of good-for-nothings!"
On arriving at the Palace we all three got out of the carriage, and were shown into a small yellow drawing-room on the ground floor.
"I will go and inform his Majesty that you are here," said M. de Laferriere, leaving us.
When alone with Madame Guerard I thought I would rehearse my three curtseys.
"Mon petit Dame," I said, "tell me whether they are right."
I made the curtseys, murmuring, "Sire... Sire..." I began over again several times, looking down at my dress as I said "Sire..." when suddenly I heard a stifled laugh.
I stood up quickly, furious with Madame Guerard, but I saw that she too was bent over in a half circle. I turned round quickly, and behind me—was the Emperor. He was clapping his hands silently and laughing quietly, but still he was laughing. My face flushed, and I was embarrassed, for I wondered how long he had been there. I had been curtseying I do not know how many times, trying to get my reverence right, and saying, "There... that's too low... There; is that right, Guerard?"
"Good Heavens!" I now said to myself. "Has he heard it all?"
In spite of my confusion, I now made my curtsey again, but the Emperor said, smiling:
"Oh! no; it could not be better than it was just now. Save them for the Empress, who is expecting you."
Oh, that "just now." I wondered when it had been?
I could not question Madame Guerard, as she was following at some distance with M. de Laferriere. The Emperor was at my side, talking to me of a hundred things, but I could only answer in an absent-minded way, on account of that "just now."
I liked him much better thus, quite near, than in his portraits. He had such fine eyes, which he half closed whilst looking through his long lashes. His smile was sad and rather mocking. His face was pale and his voice faint, but seductive.
We found the Empress seated in a large arm-chair. Her body was sheathed in a grey dress, and seemed to have been moulded into the material. I thought her very beautiful. She too was more beautiful than her portraits. I made my three curtseys under the laughing eyes of the Emperor. The Empress spoke, and the spell was then broken. That rough, hard voice coming from that brilliant woman gave me a shock.
From that moment I felt ill at ease with her, in spite of her graciousness and her kindness. As soon as Agar arrived and had been introduced, the Empress had us conducted to the large drawing-room, where the performance was to take place. The measurements were taken for the platform, and there was to be the flight of steps where Agar had to pose as the unhappy courtesan cursing mercenary love and longing for ideal love.
This flight of steps was quite a problem. They were supposed to represent the first three steps of a huge flight leading up to a Florentine palace, and had to be half hidden in some way. I asked for some shrubs, flowers and plants, which I arranged along the three steps.
The Prince Imperial, who had come in, was then about thirteen years of age. He helped me to arrange the plants, and laughed wildly when Agar mounted the steps to try the effect. He was delicious, with his magnificent eyes with heavy lids like those of his mother, and with his father's long eyelashes. He was witty like the Emperor, whom people surnamed "Louis the Imbecile," and who certainly had the most refined, subtle, and at the same time the most generous wit.
We arranged everything as well as we could, and it was decided that we should return two days later for a rehearsal before their Majesties.
How gracefully the Prince Imperial asked permission to be present at the rehearsal! His request was granted, and the Empress then took leave of us in the most charming manner, but her voice was very ugly. She told the two ladies who were with her to give us wine and biscuits, and to show us over the Palace if we wished to see it. I did not care much about this, but mon petit Dame and Agar seemed so delighted at the offer that I gave in to them.
I have regretted ever since that I did so, for nothing could have been uglier than the private rooms, with the exception of the Emperor's study and the staircases. This inspection of the Palace bored me terribly. A few of the pictures consoled me, and I stayed some time gazing at Winterhalter's portrait representing the Empress Eugenie. She looked beautiful, and I thanked Heaven that the portrait could not speak, for it served to explain and justify the wonderful good luck of her Majesty.
The rehearsal took place without any special incident. The young Prince did his utmost to prove to us his gratitude and delight, for we had made it a dress rehearsal on his account, as he was not to be present at the soiree. He sketched my costume, and intended to have it copied for a bal deguise which was to be given for the Imperial child. Our performance was in honour of the Queen of Holland, accompanied by the Prince of Orange, commonly known in Paris as "Prince Citron."
A rather amusing incident occurred during the evening. The Empress had remarkably small feet, and in order to make them look still smaller she encased them in shoes that were too narrow. She looked wonderfully beautiful that night, with her pretty sloping shoulders emerging from a dress of pale blue satin embroidered with silver. On her lovely hair she was wearing a little diadem of turquoises and diamonds, and her small feet were on a cushion of silver brocade. All through Coppee's piece my eyes wandered frequently to this cushion, and I saw the two little feet moving restlessly about. Finally I saw one of the shoes pushing its little brother very, very gently, and then I saw the heel of the Empress come out of its prison. The foot was then only covered at the toe, and I was very anxious to know how it would get back, for under such circumstances the foot swells, and cannot go into a shoe that is too narrow. When the piece was over we were recalled twice, and as it was the Empress who started the applause, I thought she was putting off the moment for getting up, and I saw her pretty little sore foot trying in vain to get back into its shoe. The curtains were drawn, and as I had told Agar about the cushion drama, we watched through them its various phases.
The Emperor rose, and every one followed his example. He offered his arm to the Queen of Holland, but she looked at the Empress, who had not yet risen. The Emperor's face lighted up with that smile which I had already seen. He said a word to General Fleury, and immediately the generals and other officers on duty, who were seated behind the sovereigns, formed a rampart between the crowd and the Empress. The Emperor and the Queen of Holland then passed on, without appearing to have noticed her Majesty's distress, and the Prince of Orange, with one knee on the ground, helped the beautiful sovereign to put on her Cinderella-like slipper. I saw that the Empress leaned more heavily on the Prince's arm than she would have liked, for her pretty foot was evidently rather painful.
We were then sent for to be complimented, and we were surrounded and feted so much that we were delighted with our evening.
After Le Passant and the prodigious success of that adorable piece, a success in which Agar and I had our share, Chilly thought more of me, and began to like me. He insisted on paying for our costumes, which was great extravagance for him. I had become the adored queen of the students, and I used to receive little bouquets of violets, sonnets, and long, long poems—too long to read. Sometimes on arriving at the theatre as I was getting out of my carriage I received a shower of flowers which simply covered me, and I was delighted, and used to thank my worshippers. The only thing was that their admiration blinded them, so that when in some pieces I was not so good, and the house was rather chary of applause, my little army of students would be indignant and would cheer wildly, without rhyme or reason. I can understand quite well that this used to exasperate the regular subscribers of the Odeon, who were very kindly disposed towards me nevertheless, as they too used to spoil me, but they would have liked me to be more humble and meek, and less headstrong. How many times one or another of these old subscribers would come and give me a word of advice. "Mademoiselle, you were charming in Junie," one of them observed; "but you bite your lips, and the Roman women never did that!"
"My dear girl," another said, "you were delicious in Francois le Champi, but there is not a single Breton woman in the whole of Brittany with her hair curled."
A professor from the Sorbonne said to me one day rather curtly, "It is a want of respect, Mademoiselle, to turn your back on the public!"
"But, Monsieur," I replied, "I was accompanying an old lady to a door at the back of the stage. I could not walk along with her backwards."
"The artistes we had before you, Mademoiselle, who were quite as talented as you, if not more so, had a way of going across the stage without turning their back on the public."
And he turned quickly on his heel and was going away, when I stopped him.
"Monsieur, will you go to that door, through which you intended to pass, without turning your back on me?"
He made an attempt, and then, furious, turned his back on me and disappeared, slamming the door after him.
I lived some time at 16 Rue Auber, in a flat on the first floor, which was rather a nice one. I had furnished it with old Dutch furniture which my grandmother had sent me. My godfather advised me to insure against fire, as this furniture, he told me, constituted a small fortune. I decided to follow his advice, and asked mon petit Dame to take the necessary steps for me. A few days later she told me that some one would call about it on the 12th.
On the day in question, towards two o'clock, a gentleman called, but I was in an extremely nervous condition, and said: "No, I must be left alone to-day. I do not wish to see any one."
I had refused to be disturbed, and had shut myself up in my bedroom in a frightfully depressed state.
That same evening I received a letter from the fire insurance company, La Fonciere, asking which day their agent might call to have the agreement signed. I replied that he might come on Saturday.
On Friday I was so utterly wretched that I sent to ask my mother to come and lunch with me. I was not playing that day, as I never used to perform on Tuesdays and Fridays, days on which repertoire plays only were given. As I was playing every other day in new pieces, it was feared that I should be over-tired.
My mother on arriving thought I looked very pale.
"Yes," I replied. "I do not know what is the matter with me, but I am in a very nervous state and most depressed."
The governess came to fetch my little boy, to take him out for a walk, but I would not let him go.
"Oh no!" I exclaimed. "The child must not leave me to-day. I am afraid of something happening."
What happened was fortunately of a less serious nature than, with my love for my family, I was dreading.
I had my grandmother living with me at that time, and she was blind. It was the grandmother who had given me most of my furniture. She was a spectral-looking woman, and her beauty was of a cold, hard type. She was very tall indeed, six feet, but she looked like a giantess. She was thin and very upright, and her long arms were always stretched in front of her, feeling for all the objects in her way, so that she might not knock herself, although she was always accompanied by the nurse whom I had engaged for her. Above this long body was her little face, with two immense pale blue eyes, which were always open, even when asleep at night. She was generally dressed from head to foot in grey, and this neutral colour gave something unreal to her general appearance.
My mother, after trying to comfort me, went away about two o'clock. My grandmother, seated opposite me in her large Voltaire armchair, questioned me:
"What are you afraid of?" she asked. "Why are you so mournful? I have not heard you laugh all day."
I did not answer, but looked at my grandmother. It seemed to me that the trouble I was dreading would come through her.
"Are you not there?" she insisted.
"Yes, I am here," I answered; "but please do not talk to me."
She did not utter another word, but with her two hands on her lap sat there for hours. I sketched her strange, fatidical face.
It began to grow dusk, and I thought I would go and dress, after being present at the meal taken by my grandmother and the child. My friend Rose Baretta was dining with me that evening, and I had also invited a most charming and witty man, Charles Haas. Arthur Meyer came too. He was a young journalist already very much in vogue. I told them about my forebodings with regard to that day, and begged them not to leave me before midnight.
"After that," I said, "it will not be to-day, and the wicked spirits who are watching me will have missed their chance."
They agreed to humour my fancy, and Arthur Meyer, who was to have gone to some first night at one of the theatres, remained with us. Dinner was more animated than luncheon had been, and it was nine o'clock when we left the table. Rose Baretta sang us some delightful old songs. I went away for a minute to see that all was right in my grandmother's room. I found my maid with her head wrapped up in cloths soaked in sedative water. I asked what was the matter, and she said that she had a terrible headache. I told her to prepare my bath and everything for me for the night, and then to go to bed. She thanked me, and obeyed.
I went back to the drawing-room, and, sitting down to the piano, played "Il Bacio," Mendelssohn's "Bells," and Weber's "Last Thought." I had not come to the end of this last melody when I stopped, suddenly hearing in the street cries of "Fire! Fire!"
"They are shouting 'Fire!'" exclaimed Arthur Meyer.
"That's all the same to me," I said, shrugging my shoulders. "It is not midnight yet, and I am expecting my own misfortune."
Charles Haas had opened the drawing-room window to see where the shouts were coming from. He stepped out on to the balcony, and then came quickly in again.
"The fire is here!" he exclaimed. "Look!"
I rushed to the window, and saw the flames coming from the two windows of my bedroom. I ran back through the drawing-room in to the corridor, and then to the room where my child was sleeping with his governess and his nurse. They were all fast asleep. Arthur Meyer opened the hall door, the bell of which was being rung violently. I roused the two women quickly, wrapped the sleeping child in his blankets, and rushed to the door with my precious burden. I then ran downstairs, and, crossing the street, took him to Guadacelli's chocolate shop opposite, just at the corner of the Rue Caumartin.
The kind man took my little slumberer in and let him lie on a couch, where the child continued his sleep without any break. I left him in charge of his governess and his nurse, and went quickly back to the flaming house. The firemen, who had been sent for, had not yet arrived, and at all costs I was determined to rescue my poor grandmother. It was impossible to go back up the principal staircase, as it was filled with smoke.
Charles Haas, bareheaded and in evening dress, a flower in his button-hole, started with me up the narrow back staircase. We were soon on the first floor, but when once there my knees shook; it seemed as thought my heart had stopped, and I was seized with despair. The kitchen door, at the top of the first flight of stairs, was locked with a triple turn of the key. My amiable companion was tall, slight, and elegant, but not strong. I besought him to go down and fetch a hammer, a hatchet, or something, but just at that moment, a newcomer wrenched the door open by a violent plunge with his shoulder against it. This new arrival was no other than M. Sohege, a friend of mine. He was a most charming and excellent man, a broad-shouldered Alsatian, well known in Paris, very lively and kind, and always ready to do any one a service. I took my friends to my grandmother's room. She was sitting up in bed, out of breath with calling Catherine, the servant who waited upon her. This maid was about twenty-five years of age, a big, strapping girl from Burgundy, and she was now sleeping peacefully, in spite of the uproar in the street, the noise of the fire-engines, which had arrived at last, and the wild shrieks of the occupants of the house. Sohege shook the maid, whilst I explained to my grandmother the reason of the tumult and why we were in her room.
"Very good," she said; and then she added calmly, "Will you give me the box, Sarah, that you will find at the bottom of the wardrobe? The key of it is here."
"But, grandmother," I exclaimed, "the smoke is beginning to come in here. We have not any time to lose."
"Well, do as you like. I shall not leave without my box!"
With the help of Charles Haas and of Arthur Meyer we put my grandmother on Sohege's back in spite of herself. He was of medium height, and she was extremely tall, so that her long legs touched the ground, and I was afraid she might get them injured. Sohege therefore took her in his arms, and Charles Haas carried her legs. We then set off, but the smoke stifled us, and after descending about ten stairs I fell down in a faint.
When I came to myself I was in my mother's bed. My little boy was asleep in my sister's room, and my grandmother was installed in a large armchair. She sat bolt upright, frowning, and with an angry expression on her lips. She did not trouble about anything but her box, until at last my mother was angry, and reproached her in Dutch with only caring for herself. She answered excitedly, and her neck craned forward as though to help her head to peer through the perpetual darkness which surrounded her. Her thin body, wrapped in an Indian shawl of many colours, the hissing of her strident words, which flowed freely, all contributed to make her resemble a serpent in some terrible nightmare. My mother did not like this woman, who had married my grandfather when he had six big children, the eldest of whom was sixteen and the youngest, my uncle, five years. This second wife had never had any children of her own, and had been indifferent, even harsh, towards those of her husband; and consequently she was not liked in the family. I had taken charge of her because small-pox had broken out in the family with whom she had been boarding. She had then wished to stay with me, and I had not had courage enough to oppose her.
On the occasion of the fire, though, I considered she behaved so badly that a strong dislike to her came over me, and I resolved not to keep her with me. News of the fire was brought to us. It continued to rage, and burnt everything in my flat, absolutely everything, even to the very last book in my library. My greatest sorrow was that I had lost a magnificent portrait of my mother by Bassompierre Severin, a pastelist very much a la mode under the Empire; an oil portrait of my father, and a very pretty pastel of my sister Jeanne. I had not much jewellery, and all that was found of the bracelet given to me by the Emperor was a huge shapeless mass, which I still have. I had a very pretty diadem, set with diamonds and pearls, given to me by Kalil Bey after a performance at his house. The ashes of this had to be sifted in order to find the stones. The diamonds were there, but the pearls had melted.
I was absolutely ruined, for the money that my father and his mother had left me I had spent in furniture, curiosities, and a hundred other useless things, which were the delight of my life. I had, too, and I own it was absurd, a tortoise named Chrysagere. Its back was covered with a shell of gold set with very small blue, pink, and yellow topazes. Oh, how beautiful it was, and how droll! It used to wander round my flat, accompanied by a smaller tortoise named Zerbinette, which was its servant, and I used to amuse myself for hours watching Chrysagere, flashing with a hundred lights under the rays of the sun or the moon. Both my tortoises died in this fire.
Duquesnel, who was very kind to me at that time, came to see me a few weeks later, for he had just received a summons from La Fonciere, the fire insurance company, whose papers I had refused to sign the day before the catastrophe. The company claimed a heavy sum of money from me for damages done to the house itself. The second storey was almost entirely destroyed, and for many months the whole building had to be propped up. I did not possess the 40,000 francs claimed. Duquesnel offered to give a benefit performance for me, which would, he said, free me from all difficulties. De Chilly was very willing to agree to anything that would be of service to me. The benefit was a wonderful success, thanks to the presence of the adorable Adelina Patti. The young singer, who was then the Marquise de Caux, had never before sung at a benefit performance, and it was Arthur Meyer who brought me the news that "La Patti" was going to sing for me. Her husband came during the afternoon to tell me how glad she was of this opportunity of proving to me her sympathy. As soon as the "fairy bird" was announced, every seat in the house was promptly taken at prices which were higher than those originally fixed. She had no reason to regret her friendly action, for never was any triumph more complete. The students greeted her with three cheers as she came on the stage. She was a little surprised at this noise of bravos in rhythm. I can see her now coming forward, her two little feet encased in pink satin. She was like a bird hesitating as to whether it would fly or remain on the ground. She looked so pretty, so smiling, and when she trilled out the gem-like notes of her wonderful voice the whole house was delirious with excitement.
Every one sprang up, and the students stood on their seats, waved their hats and handkerchiefs, nodded their young heads in their feverish enthusiasm for art, and "encored" with intonations of the most touching supplication.
The divine singer then began again, and three times over she had to sing the Cavatina from Il Barbiere de Seville, "Una voce poco fa."
I thanked her affectionately afterwards, and she left the theatre escorted by the students, who followed her carriage for a long way, shouting over and over again, "Long live Adelina Patti!" Thanks to that evening's performance I was able to pay the insurance company. I was ruined all the same, or very nearly so.
I stayed a few days with my mother, but we were so cramped for room there that I took a furnished flat in the Rue de l'Arcade. It was a dismal house, and the flat was dark. I was wondering how I should get out of my difficulties, when one morning M. C——, my father's notary, was announced. This was the man I disliked so much, but I gave orders that he should be shown in. I was surprised that I had not seen him for so long a time. He told me that he had just returned from Hamburg, that he had seen in the newspaper an account of my misfortune, and had now come to put himself at my service. In spite of my distrust, I was touched by this, and I related to him the whole drama of my fire. I did not know how it had started, but I vaguely suspected my maid Josephine of having placed my lighted candle on the little table to the left of the head of my bed. I had frequently warned her not to do this, but it was on this little piece of furniture that she always placed my water-bottle and glass, and a dessert dish with a couple of raw apples, for I adore eating apples when I wake in the night. On opening the door there was always a terrible draught, as the windows were left open until I went to bed. On closing the door after her the lace bed-curtains had probably caught fire. I could not explain the catastrophe in any other way. I had several times seen the young servant do this stupid thing, and I supposed that on the night in question she had been in a hurry to go to bed on account of her bad headache. As a rule, when I was going to undress myself she prepared everything, and then came in and told me, but this time she had not done so. Usually, too, I just went into the room myself to see that everything was right, and several times I had been obliged to move the candle. That day, however, was destined to bring me misfortune of some kind, though it was not a very great one. "But," said the notary, "you were not insured, then?" "No; I was to sign my policy the day after the event." "Ah!" exclaimed the man of law, "and to think that I have been told you set the flat on fire yourself in order to receive a large sum of money!"
I shrugged my shoulders, for I had seen insinuations to this effect in a newspaper. I was very young at this time, but I already had a certain disdain for tittle-tattle.
"Oh well, I must arrange matters for you if things are like this," said Maitre C——. "You are really better off than you imagine as regards the money on your father's side," he continued. "As your grandmother leaves you an annuity, you can get a good amount for this by agreeing to insure your life for 250,000 francs for forty years, for the benefit of the purchaser."
I agreed to everything, and was only too delighted at such a windfall. This man promised to send me two days after his return 120,000 francs, and he kept his word. My reason for giving the details of this little episode, which after all belongs to my life, is to show how differently things turn out from what seems likely according to logic or according to our own expectations. It is quite certain that the accident which had just then happened to me scattered to the winds the hopes and plans of my life. I had arranged for myself a luxurious home with the money that my father and mother had left me. I had kept by me and invested a sufficient amount of money so as to be sure to complete my monthly salary for the next two years: I reckoned that at the end of the two years I should be in a position to demand a very high salary. And all these arrangements had been upset by the carelessness of a domestic. I had rich relatives and very rich friends, but not one amongst them stretched out a hand to help me out of the ditch into which I had fallen. My rich relatives had not forgiven me for going on to the stage. And yet Heaven knows what tears it had cost me to take up this career that had been forced upon me. My Uncle Faure came to see me at my mother's house, but my aunt would not listen to a word about me. I used to see my cousin secretly, and sometimes his pretty sister. My rich friends considered that I was wildly extravagant, and could not understand why I did not place the money I had inherited in good, sound investments.
I received a great deal of verse on the subject of my fire. Most of it was anonymous. I have kept it all, however, and I quote the following poem, which is rather nice:
Passant, te voila sans abri: La flamme a ravage ton gite. Hier plus leger qu'un colibri; Ton esprit aujourd'hui s'agite, S'exhalant en gemissements Sur tout ce que le feu devore. Tu pleures tes beaux diamants?... Non, tes grands yeux les ont encore!
Ne regrette pas ces colliers Qu'ont a leur cou les riches dames! Tu trouveras dans les halliers, Des tissus verts, aux fines trames! Ta perle?... Mais, c'est le jais noir Qui sur l'envers du fosse pousse! Et le cadre de ton miroir Est une bordure de mousse!
Tes bracelets?.. Mais, tes bras nus, Tu paraitras cent fois plus belle! Sur les bras jolis de Venus, Aucun cercle d'or n'etincelle! Garde ton charme si puissant! Ton parfum de plante sauvage! Laisse les bijoux, O Passant, A celles que le temps ravage!
Avec ta guitare a ton cou, Va, par la France et par l'Espagne! Suis ton chemin; je ne sais ou.... Par la plaine et par la montagne! Passe, comme la plume au vent! Comme le son de ta mandore! Comme un flot qui baise en revant, Les flancs d'une barque sonore!
The proprietor of one of the hotels now very much in vogue sent me the following letter, which I quote word for word:
"MADAME,—If you would consent to dine every evening for a month in our large dining-room, I would place at your service a suite of rooms on the first floor, consisting of two bedrooms, a large drawing-room, a small boudoir, and a bath-room. It is of course understood that this suite of rooms would be yours free of charge if you would consent to do as I ask.—Yours, etc.
"(P.S.) You would only have to pay for the fresh supplies of plants for your drawing-room."
This was the extent of the man's coarseness. I asked one of my friends to go and give the low fellow his answer.
I was in despair, though, for I felt that I could not live without comfort and luxury.
I soon made up my mind as to what I must do, but not without sorrow. I had been offered a magnificent engagement in Russia, and I should have to accept it. Madame Guerard was my sole confidant, and I did not mention my plan to any one else. The idea of Russia terrified her, for at that time my chest was very delicate, and cold was my most cruel enemy. It was just as I had made up my mind to this that the lawyer arrived. His avaricious and crafty mind had schemed out the clever and, for him, profitable combination which was to change my whole life once more.
I took a pretty flat on the first floor of a house in the Rue de Rome. It was very sunny, and that delighted me more than anything else. There were two drawing-rooms and a large dining-room. I arranged for my grandmother to live at a home kept by lay sisters and nuns. She was a Jewess, and carried out very strictly all the laws laid down by her religion. The house was very comfortable, and my grandmother took her own maid with her, the young girl from Burgundy, to whom she was accustomed.
When I went to see her she told me that she was much better off there than with me. "When I was with you," she said, "I found your boy too noisy." I very rarely went to visit her there, for after seeing my mother turn pale at her unkind words I never cared any more for her. She was happy, and that was the essential thing.
I now played successfully in Le Batard, in which I had great success, in L'Affranchi, in L'Autre by George Sand, and in Jean-Marie, a little masterpiece by Andre Theuriet, which had the most brilliant success. Porel played the part of Jean-Marie. He was at that time slender, and full of hope. Since then his slenderness has developed into plumpness and his hope into certitude.
THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR
Evil days then came upon us. Paris began to get feverish and excited. The streets were black with groups of people, discussing and gesticulating. And all this noise was only the echo of far-distant groups gathered together in German streets. These other groups were yelling, gesticulating, and discussing, but—they knew, whilst we did not know!
I could not keep calm, but was extremely excited, until finally I was ill. War was declared, and I hate war! It exasperates me and makes me shudder from head to foot. At times I used to spring up terrified, upset by the distant cries of human voices.
Oh, war! What infamy, shame, and sorrow! War! What theft and crime, abetted, forgiven, and glorified!
Recently, I visited a huge steel works. I will not say in what country, for all countries have been hospitable to me, and I am neither a spy nor a traitress. I only set forth things as I see them. Well, I visited one of these frightful manufactories, in which the most deadly weapons are made. The owner of it all, a multi-millionaire, was introduced to me. He was pleasant, but no good at conversation, and he had a dreamy, dissatisfied look. My cicerone informed me that this man had just lost a huge sum of money, nearly sixty million francs.
"Good Heavens!" I exclaimed; "how has he lost it?"
"Oh well, he has not exactly lost the money, but has just missed making the sum, so it amounts to the same thing."
I looked perplexed, and he added, "Yes; you remember that there was a great deal of talk about war between France and Germany with regard to the Morocco affair?"
"Well, this prince of the steel trade expected to sell cannons for it, and for a month his men were very busy in the factory, working day and night. He gave enormous bribes to influential members of the Government, and paid some of the papers in France and Germany to stir up the people. Everything has fallen through, thanks to the intervention of men who are wise and humanitarian. The consequence is that this millionaire is in despair. He has lost sixty or perhaps a hundred million francs."
I looked at the wretched man with contempt, and I wished heartily that he could be suffocated with his millions, as remorse was no doubt utterly unknown to him.
And how many others merit our contempt just as this man does! Nearly all those who are known as "suppliers to the army," in every country in the world, are the most desperate propagators of war.
Let every man be a soldier in the time of peril. Yes, a thousand times over, yes! Let every man be armed for the defence of his country, and let him kill in order to defend his family and himself. That is only reasonable. But that there should be, in our times, young men whose sole dream is to kill in order to make a position for themselves, that is inconceivable!
It is indisputable that we must guard our frontiers and our colonies, but since all men are soldiers, why not take these guards and defenders from among "all men"? We should only have schools for officers then, and we should have no more of those horrible barracks which offend the eye. And when sovereigns visit each other and are invited to a review, would they not be much more edified as to the value of a nation if it could show a thousandth part of its effective force chosen hap-hazard among its soldiers, rather than the elegant evolutions of an army prepared for parade? What magnificent reviews I have seen in all the different countries I have visited! But I know from history that such and such an army as was prancing about there so finely before us had taken flight, without any great reason, before the enemy.
On July 19 war was seriously declared, and Paris then became the theatre of the most touching and burlesque scenes. Excitable and delicate as I was, I could not bear the sight of all these young men gone wild, who were yelling the "Marseillaise" and rushing along the streets in close file, shouting over and over again, "To Berlin! To Berlin!"
My heart used to beat wildly, for I too thought that they were going to Berlin. I understood the fury they felt, for these people had provoked us without plausible reasons, but at the same time it seemed to me that they were getting ready for this great deed without sufficient respect and dignity. My own impotence made me feel rebellious, and when I saw all the mothers, with pale faces and eyes swollen with crying, holding their boys in their arms and kissing them in despair, the most frightful anguish seemed to choke me. I cried, too, almost unceasingly, and I was wearing myself away with anxiety, but I did not foresee the horrible catastrophe that was to take place.
The doctors decided that I must go to Eaux-Bonnes. I did not want to leave Paris, for I had caught the general fever of excitement. My weakness increased, though, day by day, and on July 27 I was taken away in spite of myself. Madame Guerard, my man-servant, and my maid accompanied me, and I also took my child with me.
In all the railway stations there were posters everywhere, announcing that the Emperor Napoleon had gone to Metz to take command of the army.
At Eaux-Bonnes I was compelled to remain in bed. My condition was considered very serious by Dr. Leudet, who told me afterwards that he certainly thought I was going to die. I vomited blood, and had to have a piece of ice in my mouth all the time. At the end of about twelve days, however, I began to get up, and after this I soon recovered my strength and my calmness, and went for long rides on horseback.
The war news led us to hope for victory. There was great joy and a certain emotion felt by every one on hearing that the young Prince Imperial had received his baptism of fire at Saarbruck, in the engagement commanded by General Frossard.
Life seemed to me beautiful again, for I had great confidence in the issue of the war. I pitied the Germans for having embarked on such an adventure. But, alas! the fine, glorious progress which my brain had been so active in imagining was cut short by the atrocious news from Saint-Privat. The political news was posted up every day in the little garden of the Casino at Eaux-Bonnes. The public went there to get information. Detesting, as I did, tranquillity, I used to send my man-servant to copy the telegrams. Oh, how grievous was that terrible telegram from Saint-Privat, informing us laconically of the frightful butchery; of the heroic defence of Marshal Canrobert; and of Bazaine's first treachery in not going to the rescue of his comrade.
I knew Canrobert, and was very fond of him. Later on he became one of my faithful friends, and I shall always remember the exquisite hours spent in listening to his accounts of the bravery of others—never of his own. And what an abundance of anecdotes, what wit, what charm!
This news of the battle of Saint-Privat caused my feverishness to return. My sleep was full of nightmares, and I had a relapse. The news was worse every day. After Saint-Privat came Gravelotte, where 36,000 men, French and German, were cut down in a few hours. Then came the sublime but powerless efforts of MacMahon, who was driven back as far as Sedan; and finally Sedan.
Sedan! Ah, the horrible awakening! The month of August had finished the night before, amidst a tumult of weapons and dying groans. But the groans of the dying men were mingled still with hopeful cries. But the month of September was cursed from its very birth. Its first war-cry was stifled back by the brutal and cowardly hand of Destiny.
A hundred thousand men! A hundred thousand Frenchmen compelled to capitulate, and the Emperor of France forced to hand his sword over to the King of Prussia!
Ah! that cry of grief, that cry of rage, uttered by the whole nation. It can never be forgotten!
On September 1, towards ten o'clock, Claude, my man-servant, knocked at my door. I was not asleep, and he gave me a copy of the first telegrams:
"Battle of Sedan commenced. MacMahon wounded," &c. &c.
"Ah! go back again," I said, "and as soon as a fresh telegram comes, bring me the news. I feel that something unheard of, something great and quite different, is going to happen. We have suffered so terribly this last month, that there can only be something good now, something fine, for God's scales mete out joy and suffering equally. Go at once, Claude," I added, and then, full of confidence, I soon fell asleep again, and was so tired that I slept until one o'clock. When I awoke, my maid Felicie, the most delightful girl imaginable, was seated near my bed. Her pretty face and her large dark eyes were so mournful that my heart stopped beating. I gazed at her anxiously, and she put into my hands the copy of the last telegram:
"The Emperor Napoleon has just handed over his sword...."
Blood rushed to my head, and my lungs were too weak to control its flow. I lay back on my pillow, and the blood escaped through my lips with the groans of my whole being.
For three days I was between life and death. Dr. Leudet sent for one of my father's friends, a shipowner named M. Maunoir. He came at once, bringing with him his young wife. She too was very ill, worse in reality than I was, in spite of her fresh look, for she died six months later. Thanks to their care and to the energetic treatment of Dr. Leudet, I came through alive from this attack.
I decided to return at once to Paris, as the siege was about to be proclaimed, and I did not want my mother and my sisters to remain in the capital. Independently of this, every one at Eaux-Bonnes was seized with a desire to get away, invalids and tourists alike. A post-chaise was found, the owner of which agreed, for an exorbitant price, to drive me to the nearest station without delay. When once in it, we were more or less comfortably seated as far as Bordeaux, but it was impossible to find five seats in the express from there. My man-servant was allowed to travel with the engine-driver. I do not know where Madame Guerard and my maid found room, but in the compartment I entered, with my little boy, there were already nine persons. An ugly old man tried to push my child out when I had put him in, but I pushed him back again energetically in my turn.
"No human force will make us get out of this carriage," I said. "Do you hear that, you ugly old man? We are here, and we shall stay."
A stout lady, who took up more room herself than three ordinary persons, exclaimed:
"Well! that is lively, for we are suffocated already. It's shameful to let eleven persons get into a compartment where there are only seats for eight!"
"Will you get out, then?" I retorted, turning to her quickly, "for without you there would only be seven of us."
The stifled laughter of the other travellers showed me that I had won over my audience. Three young men offered me their places, but I refused, declaring that I was going to stand. The three young men had risen, and they declared that they would also stand. The stout lady called a railway official. "Come here, please!" she began.
The official stopped an instant at the door.
"It is perfectly shameful," she went on. "There are eleven in this compartment, and it is impossible to move."
"Don't you believe it," exclaimed one of the young men. "Just look for yourself. We are standing up, and there are three seats empty. Send some more people in here."
The official went away laughing and muttering something about the woman who had complained. She turned to the young man and began to talk abusively to him. He bowed very respectfully in reply, and said:
"Madame, if you will calm down you shall be satisfied. We will seat seven on the other side, including the child, and then you will only be four on your side."
The ugly old man was short and slight. He looked sideways at the stout lady and murmured, "Four! Four!" His look and tone showed that he considered the stout lady took up more than one seat. This look and tone were not lost on the young man, and before the ugly old man had comprehended he said to him, "Will you come over here and have this corner? All the thin people will be together then," he added, inviting a placid, calm-looking young Englishman of eighteen to twenty years of age to take the old man's seat. The Englishman had the torso of a prize-fighter, with a face like that of a fair-haired baby. A very young woman, opposite the stout one, laughed till the tears came. All six of us then found room on the thin people's side of the carriage. We were a little crushed, but had been considerably enlivened by this little entertainment, and we certainly needed something to enliven us. The young man who had taken the matter in hand in such a witty way was tall and nice-looking. He had blue eyes, and his hair was almost white, and this gave to his face a most attractive freshness and youthfulness. My boy was on his knee during the night. With the exception of the child, the stout lady, and the young Englishman, no one went to sleep. The heat was overpowering, and the war was of course discussed. After some hesitation, one of the young men told me that I resembled Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt. I answered that there was every reason why I should resemble her. The young men then introduced themselves. The one who had recognised me was Albert Delpit, the second was a Dutchman, Baron van Zelern or von Zerlen, I do not remember exactly which, and the young man with white hair was Felix Faure. He told me that he was from Havre, and that he knew my grandmother very well. I kept up a certain friendship with these three men afterwards, but later on Albert Delpit became my enemy. All three are now dead—Albert Delpit died a disappointed man, for he had tried everything and succeeded in nothing, the Dutch baron was killed in a railway accident, and Felix Faure was President of the French Republic.
The young woman, on hearing my name, introduced herself in her turn.
"I think we are slightly related," she said. "I am Madame Laroque."
"Of Bordeaux?" I asked.
My mother's brother had married a Mlle. Laroque of Bordeaux, so that we were able to talk of our family. Altogether the journey did not seem very long, in spite of the heat, the over-crowding, and our thirst.
The arrival in Paris was more gloomy. We shook hands warmly with each other. The stout lady's husband was awaiting her; he handed her, in silence, a telegram. The unfortunate woman read it, and then, uttering a cry, burst into sobs and fell into his arms. I gazed at her, wondering what sorrow had come upon her. Poor woman, I could no longer see anything ridiculous about her! I felt a pang of remorse at the thought that we had been laughing at her so much, when misfortune had already singled her out.
On reaching home I sent word to my mother that I should be with her some time during the day. She came at once, as she wanted to know how my health was. We then arranged about the departure of the whole family, with the exception of myself, as I wanted to stay in Paris during the siege. My mother, my little boy and his nurse, my sisters, my Aunt Annette, who kept house for me, and my mother's maid were all ready to start two days later. I had taken rooms at Frascati's, at Havre, for the whole tribe. But the desire to leave Paris was one thing, and the possibility of doing so another. The stations were invaded by families like mine, who thought it more prudent to emigrate. I sent my man-servant to engage a compartment, and he came back three hours later with his clothes torn, after receiving no end of kicks and blows.
"Madame cannot go into that crowd," he assured me; "it is quite impossible. I should not be able to protect her. Besides, Madame will not be alone; there is Madame's mother, the other ladies, and the children. It is really quite impossible."
I sent at once for three of my friends, explained my difficulty, and asked them to accompany me. I told my steward to be ready, as well as my other man-servant and my mother's footman. He in his turn invited his younger brother, who was a priest, and who was very willing to go with us. We all set off in a railway omnibus. There were seventeen of us in all, but only nine who were really travelling. Our eight protectors were none too many, for those who were taking tickets were not human beings, but wild beasts haunted by fear and spurred on by a desire to escape. These brutes saw nothing but the little ticket office, the door leading to the train, and then the train which would ensure their escape. The presence of the young priest was a great help to us, for his religious character made people refrain sometimes from blows.
When once all my people were installed in the compartment which had been reserved for them, they waved their farewells, threw kisses, and the train started. A shudder of terror ran through me, for I suddenly felt so absolutely alone. It was the first time I had been separated from the little child who was dearer to me than the whole world.
Two arms were then thrown affectionately round me, and a voice murmured, "My dear Sarah, why did you not go, too? You are so delicate. Will you be able to bear the solitude without the dear child?"
It was Madame Guerard, who had arrived too late to kiss the boy, but was there now to comfort the mother. I gave way to my despair, regretting that I had let him go away. And yet, as I said to myself, there might be fighting in Paris! The idea never for an instant occurred to me that I might have gone away with him. I thought that I might be of some use in Paris. Of some use, but in what way? This I did not know. The idea seemed stupid, but nevertheless that was my idea. It seemed to me that every one who was fit ought to remain in Paris. In spite of my weakness, I felt that I was fit, and with reason, as I proved later on. I therefore remained, not knowing at all what I was going to do.
For some days I was perfectly dazed, missing the life around me, and missing the affection.
SARAH BERNHARDT'S AMBULANCE AT THE ODEON THEATRE
The defence, however, was being organised, and I decided to use my strength and intelligence in tending the wounded. The question was, where could we instal an ambulance?
The Odeon Theatre had closed its doors, but I moved heaven and earth to get permission to organise an ambulance in that theatre, and, thanks to Emile de Girardin and Duquesnel, my wish was gratified. I went to the War Office and made my declaration and my request, and my offers were accepted for a military ambulance. The next difficulty was that I wanted food. I wrote a line to the Prefect of Police. A military courier arrived very soon, with a note from the Prefect containing the following lines:
"Madame,—If you could possibly come at once, I would wait for you until six o'clock. If not I will receive you to-morrow morning at eight. Excuse the earliness of the hour, but I have to be at the Chamber at nine in the morning, and, as your note seems to be urgent, I am anxious to do all I can to be of service to you.
"COMTE DE KERATRY."
I remembered a Comte de Keratry who had been introduced to me at my aunt's house, the evening I had recited poetry accompanied by Rossini, but he was a young lieutenant, good-looking, witty, and lively. He had introduced me to his mother. I had recited poetry at her soirees. The young lieutenant had gone to Mexico, and for some time we had kept up a correspondence, but this had gradually ceased, and we had not met again. I asked Madame Guerard whether she thought that the Prefect were a near relative of my young friend's. "It may be so," she replied, and we discussed this in the carriage which was taking us at once to the Tuileries Palace, where the Prefect had his offices. My heart was very heavy when we came to the stone steps. Only a few months previously, one April morning, I had been there with Madame Guerard. Then, as now, a footman had come forward to open the door of my carriage, but the April sunshine had then lighted up the steps, caught the shining lamps of the State carriages, and sent its rays in all directions. There had been a busy, joyful coming and going of the officers then, and elegant salutes had been exchanged. On this occasion the misty, crafty-looking November sun fell heavily on all it touched. Black, dirty-looking cabs drove up one after the other, knocking against the iron gate, grazing the steps, advancing or moving back, according to the coarse shouts of their drivers. Instead of the elegant salutations I heard now such phrases as: "Well, how are you, old chap?" "Oh, la gueule de bois!" "Well, any news?" "Yes, it's the very deuce with us!" &c. &c.
The Palace was no longer the same.
The very atmosphere had changed. The faint perfume which elegant women leave in the air as they pass was no longer there. A vague odour of tobacco, of greasy clothes, of dirty hair, made the atmosphere seem heavy. Ah, the beautiful French Empress! I could see her again in her blue dress embroidered with silver, calling to her aid Cinderella's good fairy to help her on again with her little slipper. The delightful young Prince Imperial, too! I could see him helping me to arrange the pots of verbena and marguerites, and holding in his arms, which were not strong enough for it, a huge pot of rhododendrons, behind which his handsome face completely disappeared. Then, too, I could see the Emperor Napoleon III. with his half-closed eyes, clapping his hands at the rehearsal of the curtseys intended for him.
And the fair Empress, dressed in strange clothes, had rushed away in the carriage of her American dentist, for it was not even a Frenchman, but a foreigner, who had had the courage to protect the unfortunate woman. And the gentle Utopian Emperor had tried in vain to be killed on the battle-field. Two horses had been killed under him, and he had not received so much as a scratch. And after this he had given up his sword. And we at home had all wept with anger, shame, and grief at this giving up of the sword. And yet what courage it must have required for so brave a man to carry out such an act. He had wanted to save a hundred thousand men, to spare a hundred thousand lives, and to reassure a hundred thousand mothers. Our poor, beloved Emperor! History will some day do him justice, for he was good, humane, and confiding. Alas, alas! he was too confiding!
I stopped a minute before entering the Prefect's suite of rooms. I was obliged to wipe my eyes, and in order to change the current of my thoughts I said to mon petit Dame.
"Tell me, should you think me pretty if you saw me now for the first time?"
"Oh yes!" she replied warmly.
"So much the better," I said, "for I want this old Prefect to think me pretty. There are so many things I must ask him for!"
On entering his room, my surprise was great when I recognised in him the lieutenant I knew. He had become captain, and then Prefect of Police. When my name was announced by the usher, he sprang up from his chair and came forward with his face beaming and both hands stretched out.
"Ah, you had forgotten me!" he said, and then he turned to greet Madame Guerard in a friendly way.
"But I never thought I was coming to see you!" I replied: "and I am delighted," I continued, "for you will let me have everything I ask for."
"Only that!" he remarked with a burst of laughter. "Well, will you give your orders, Madame?" he continued.
"Yes. I want bread, milk, meat, vegetables, sugar, wine, brandy, potatoes, eggs, coffee," I said straight away.
"Oh, let me get my breath!" exclaimed the Count-Prefect. "You speak so quickly that I am gasping."
I was quiet for a moment, and then I continued:
"I have started an ambulance at the Odeon, but as it is a military ambulance, the municipal authorities refuse me food. I have five wounded men already, and I can manage for them, but other wounded men are being sent to me, and I shall have to give them food."
"You shall be supplied above and beyond all your wishes," said the Prefect. "There is food in the Palace which was being stored by the unfortunate Empress. She had prepared enough for months and months. I will have all you want sent to you, except meat, bread, and milk, and as regards these I will give orders that your ambulance shall be included in the municipal service, although it is a military one. Then I will give you an order for salt and other things, which you will be able to get from the Opera."
"From the Opera?" I repeated, looking at him incredulously. "But it is only being built, and there is nothing but scaffolding there yet."
"Yes; but you must go through the little doorway under the scaffolding opposite the Rue Scribe; you then go up the little spiral staircase leading to the provision office, and there you will be supplied with what you want."
"There is still something else I want to ask," I said.
"Go on; I am quite resigned, and ready for your orders," he replied.
"Well, I am very uneasy," I said, "for they have put a stock of powder in the cellars under the Odeon. If Paris were to be bombarded and a shell should fall on the building, we should all be blown up, and that is not the aim and object of an ambulance."
"You are quite right," said the kind man, "and nothing could be more stupid than to store powder there. I shall have more difficulty about that, though," he continued, "for I shall have to deal with a crowd of stubborn bourgeois who want to organise the defence in their own way. You must try to get a petition for me, signed by the most influential householders and tradespeople in the neighbourhood. Now are you satisfied?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, shaking both his hands cordially. "You have been most kind and charming. Thank you very much."
I then moved towards the door, but I stood still again suddenly, as though hypnotised by an overcoat hanging over a chair. Madame Guerard saw what had attracted my attention, and she pulled my sleeve gently.
"My dear Sarah," she whispered, "do not do that."
I looked beseechingly at the young Prefect, but he did not understand.
"What can I do now to oblige you, beautiful Madonna?" he asked.
I pointed to the coat and tried to look as charming as possible.
"I am very sorry," he said, bewildered, "but I do not understand at all."
I was still pointing to the coat.
"Give it me, will you?" I said.
"What do you want it for?"
"For my wounded men when they are convalescent."
He sank down on a chair in a fit of laughter. I was rather vexed at this uncontrollable outburst, and I continued my explanation.
"There is nothing so funny about it," I said. "I have a poor fellow, for instance, two of whose fingers have been taken off. He does not need to stay in bed for that, naturally, and his soldier's cape is not warm enough. It is very difficult to warm the big foyer of the Odeon sufficiently, and those who are well enough have to be there. The man I tell you about is warm enough at present, because I took Henri Fould's overcoat when he came to see me the other day. My poor soldier is huge, and as Henri Fould is a giant I might never have had such an opportunity again. I shall want a great many overcoats, though, and this looks like a very warm one."
I stroked the furry lining of the coveted garment, and the young Prefect, still choking with laughter, began to empty the pockets of his overcoat. He pulled out a magnificent white silk muffler from the largest pocket.
"Will you allow me to keep my muffler?" he asked.
I put on a resigned expression and nodded my consent.
Our host then rang, and when the usher appeared he handed him the overcoat, and said in a solemn voice, in spite of the laughter in his eyes:
"Will you carry this to the carriage for these ladies?"
I thanked him again, and went away feeling very happy.
Twelve days later I returned, taking with me a letter covered with the signatures of the householders and tradesmen residing near the Odeon.
On entering the Prefect's room I was petrified to see him, instead of advancing to meet me, rush towards a cupboard, open the door, and fling something hastily into it. After this he leaned against the door as though to prevent my opening it.
"Excuse me," he said, in a witty, mocking tone, "but I caught a violent cold after your first visit. I have just put my overcoat—oh, only an ugly old overcoat, not a warm one," he added quickly, "but still an overcoat—inside there, and there it now is, and I will take the key out of the lock."
He put the key carefully into his pocket, and then came forward and offered me a chair. But our conversation soon took a more serious turn, for the news was very bad. For the last twelve days the ambulances had been crowded with wounded men. Everything was in a bad way, home politics as well as foreign politics. The Germans were advancing on Paris. The army of the Loire was being formed. Gambetta, Chanzy, Bourbaki, and Trochu were organising a desperate defence. We talked for some time about all these sad things, and I told him about the painful impression I had had on my last visit to the Tuileries, of my remembrance of every one, so brilliant, so considerate, and so happy formerly, and so deeply to be pitied at present. We were silent for a moment, and then I shook hands with him, told him I had received all he had sent, and returned to my ambulance.
The Prefect had sent me ten barrels of wine and two of brandy; 30,000 eggs, all packed in boxes with lime and bran; a hundred bags of coffee and boxes of tea, forty boxes of Albert biscuits, a thousand tins of preserves, and a quantity of other things.
M. Menier, the great chocolate manufacturer, had sent me five hundred pounds of chocolate. One of my friends, a flour dealer, had made me a present of twenty sacks of flour, ten of which were maize flour. This flour-dealer was the one who had asked me to be his wife when I was at the Conservatoire. Felix Potin, my neighbour when I was living at 11 Boulevard Malesherbes, had responded to my appeal by sending two barrels of raisins, a hundred boxes of sardines, three sacks of rice, two sacks of lentils, and twenty sugar-loaves. From M. de Rothschild I had received two barrels of brandy and a hundred bottles of his own wine for the convalescents. I also received a very unexpected present. Leonie Dubourg, an old school-fellow of mine at the Grand-Champs convent, sent me fifty tin boxes each containing four pounds of salt butter. She had married a very wealthy gentleman farmer, who cultivated his own farms, which it seems were very numerous. I was very much touched at her remembering me, for I had never seen her since the old days at the convent. I had also asked for all the overcoats and slippers of my various friends, and I had bought up a job lot of two hundred flannel vests. My Aunt Betsy, my blind grandmother's sister, who is still living in Holland, and is now ninety-three years of age, managed to get for me, through the charming Ambassador for the Netherlands, three hundred night-shirts of magnificent Dutch linen, and a hundred pairs of sheets. I received lint and bandages from every corner of Paris, but it was more particularly from the Palais de l'Industrie that I used to get my provisions of lint and of linen for binding wounds. There was an adorable woman there, named Mlle. Hocquigny, who was at the head of all the ambulances. All that she did was done with a cheerful gracefulness, and all that she was obliged to refuse she refused sorrowfully, but still in a gracious manner. She was at that time over thirty years of age, and although unmarried she looked more like a very young married woman. She had large, blue, dreamy eyes, and a laughing mouth, a deliciously oval face, little dimples, and, crowning all this grace, this dreamy expression, and this coquettish, inviting mouth, a wide forehead like that of the Virgins painted by the early painters, rather prominent, encircled by hair worn in smooth, wide, flat bandeaux, separated by a faultless parting. The forehead seemed like the protecting rampart of this delicious face. Mlle. Hocquigny was adored and made much of by every one, but she remained invulnerable to all homage. She was happy in being beloved, but she would not allow any one to express affection for her.
At the Palais de l'Industrie a remarkable number of celebrated doctors and surgeons were on duty, and they, as well as the convalescents, were all more or less in love with Mlle. Hocquigny. As she and I were great friends, she confided to me her observations and her sorrowful disdain. Thanks to her, I was never short of linen nor of lint. I had organised my ambulance with a very small staff. My cook was installed in the public foyer. I had bought her an immense cooking range, so that she could make soups and herb-tea for fifty men. Her husband was chief attendant. I had given him two assistants, and Madame Guerard, Madame Lambquin, and I were the nurses. Two of us sat up at night, so that we each went to bed one night in three. I preferred this to taking on some woman whom I did not know. Madame Lambquin belonged to the Odeon, where she used to take the part of the duennas. She was plain and had a common face, but she was very talented. She talked loud and was very plain-spoken. She called a spade a spade, and liked frankness and no under meaning to things. At times she was a trifle embarrassing with the crudeness of her words and her remarks, but she was kind, active, alert, and devoted. My various friends who were on service at the fortifications came to me in their free time to do my secretarial work. I had to keep a book, which was shown every day to a sergeant who came from the Val-de-Grace military hospital, giving all details as to how many men came into our ambulance, how many died, and how many recovered and left. Paris was in a state of siege; no one could go far outside the walls, and no news from outside could be received. The Germans were not, however, round the gates of the city. Baron Larrey came now and then to see me, and I had as head surgeon Dr. Duchesne, who gave up his whole time, night and day, to the care of my poor men during the five months that this truly frightful nightmare lasted.
I cannot recall those terrible days without the deepest emotion. It was no longer the country in danger that kept my nerves strung up, but the sufferings of all her children. There were all those who were away fighting, those who were brought in to us wounded or dying; the noble women of the people, who stood for hours and hours in the queue to get the necessary dole of bread, meat, and milk for their poor little ones at home. Ah, those poor women! I could see them from the theatre windows, pressing up close to each other, blue with cold, and stamping their feet on the ground to keep them from freezing—for that winter was the most cruel one we had had for twenty years. Frequently one of these poor, silent heroines was brought in to me, either in a swoon from fatigue or struck down suddenly with congestion caused by cold. On December 20 three of these unfortunate women were brought into the ambulance. One of them had her feet frozen, and she lost the big toe of her right foot. The second was an enormously stout woman, who was suckling her child, and her poor breasts were harder than wood. She simply howled with pain. The youngest of the three was a girl of sixteen to eighteen years of age. She died of cold, on the trestle on which I had had her placed to send her home. On December 24, there were fifteen degrees of cold. I often sent Guillaume, our attendant, out with a little brandy to warm the poor women. Oh! the suffering they must have endured—those heart-broken mothers, those sisters and fiancees—in their terrible dread. How excusable their rebellion seems during the Commune, and even their bloodthirsty madness!
My ambulance was full. I had sixty beds, and was obliged to improvise ten more. The soldiers were installed in the green-room and in the general foyer, and the officers in a room which had been formerly the refreshment-room of the theatre.
One day a young Breton, named Marie Le Gallec, was brought in. He had been struck by a bullet in the chest and another in the wrist. Dr. Duchesne bound up his chest firmly, and attended to his wrist. He then said to me very simply:
"Let him have anything he likes—he is dying."
I bent over his bed, and said to him:
"Tell me what would give you pleasure, Marie Le Gallec."
"Soup," he answered promptly, in the most comic way.
Madame Guerard hurried away to the kitchen, and soon returned with a bowl of broth and pieces of toast. I placed the bowl on the little four-legged wooden shelf, which was so convenient for the meals of our poor sufferers. The wounded man looked up at me and said, "Barra." I did not understand, and he repeated, "Barra." His poor chest caused him to hiss out the word, and he made the greatest efforts to repeat his emphatic request.
I sent immediately to the Marine Office, thinking that there would surely be some Breton seamen there, and I explained my difficulty and my ignorance of the Breton dialect.
I was informed that the word "barra" meant bread. I hurried at once to Le Gallec with a large piece of bread. His face lighted up, and taking it from me with his sound hand, he broke it up with his teeth and let the pieces fall in the bowl. He then plunged his spoon into the middle of the broth, and filled it up with bread until the spoon could stand upright in it. When it stood up without shaking about, the young soldier smiled. He was just preparing to eat this horrible concoction when the young priest from St. Sulpice who had my ambulance in charge arrived. I had sent for him on hearing the doctor's sad verdict. He laid his hand gently on the young man's shoulder, thus stopping the movement of his arm. The poor fellow looked up at the priest, who showed him the holy cup.
"Oh," he said simply, and then, placing his coarse handkerchief over the steaming soup, he put his hands together.
We had arranged the two screens which we used for isolating the dead or dying around his bed. He was left alone with the priest whilst I went on my rounds to calm those who were chaffing, or help the believers raise themselves for prayer. The young priest soon pushed aside the partition, and I then saw Marie Le Gallec, with a beaming face, eating his abominable bread sop. He soon fell asleep but awoke before long and asked for something to drink, and then died in a slight fit of choking. Fortunately I did not lose many men out of the three hundred who came into my ambulance, for the death of the unfortunate ones completely upset me.
I was very young at that time, only twenty-four years of age, but I could nevertheless see the cowardice of some of the men and the heroism of many of the others. A young Savoyard, eighteen years old, had had his forefinger shot off. Baron Larrey was quite sure that he had done it himself with his own gun, but I could not believe that. I noticed, though, that, in spite of our nursing and care, the wound did not heal. I bound it up in a different way, and the following day I saw that the bandage had been altered. I mentioned this to Madame Lambquin, who was sitting up that night with Madame Guerard.
"Good; I will keep my eye on him. You go to sleep, my child, and rely on me."
The next day when I arrived she told me that she had caught the young man scraping the wound on his finger with his knife. I called him, and told him that I should have to report this to the Val-de-Grace Hospital.
He began to weep, and vowed to me that he would never do it again, and five days later he was well. I signed the paper authorising him to leave the ambulance, and he was sent to the army of the defence. I often wondered what became of him. Another of our patients bewildered us too. Each time that his wound seemed to be just on the point of healing up, he had a violent attack of dysentery, which prevented him getting well. This seemed suspicious to Dr. Duchesne, and he asked me to watch the man. At the end of a considerable time we were convinced that our wounded man had thought out the most comical scheme.
He slept next the wall, and therefore had no neighbour on the one side. During the night he managed to file the brass of his bedstead. He put the filings in a little pot which had been used for ointment of some kind. A few drops of water and some salt mixed with this powdered brass formed a poison which might have cost its inventor his life. I was furious at this stratagem. I wrote to the Val-de-Grace, and an ambulance conveyance was sent to take this unpatriotic Frenchman away.
But side by side with these despicable men what heroism we saw! A young captain was brought in one day. He was a tall fellow, a regular Hercules, with a superb head and a frank expression. On my book he was inscribed as Captain Menesson. He had been struck by a bullet at the top of the arm, just at the shoulder. With a nurse's assistance I was trying as gently as possible to take off his cloak, when three bullets fell from the hood which he had pulled over his head, and I counted sixteen bullet holes in the cloak. The young officer had stood upright for three hours, serving as a target himself, whilst covering the retreat of his men as they fired all the time on the enemy. This had taken place among the Champigny vines. He had been brought in unconscious, in an ambulance conveyance. He had lost a great deal of blood, and was half dead with fatigue and weakness. He was very gentle and charming, and thought himself sufficiently well two days later to return to the fight. The doctor, however, would not allow this, and his sister, who was a nun, besought him to wait until he was something like well again.
"Oh, not quite well," she said, smiling, "but just well enough to have strength to fight."
Soon after he came into the ambulance the Cross of the Legion of Honour was brought to him, and this was a moment of intense emotion for every one. The unfortunate wounded men who could not move turned their suffering faces towards him, and, with their eyes shining through a mist of tears, gave him a fraternal look. The stronger amongst them held out their hands to the young giant.
It was Christmas-eve, and I had decorated the ambulance with festoons of green leaves. I had made pretty little chapels in front of the Virgin Mary, and the young priest from St. Sulpice came to take part in our poor but poetical Christmas service. He repeated some beautiful prayers, and the wounded men, many of whom were from Brittany, sang some sad solemn songs full of charm.
Porel, the present manager of the Vaudeville Theatre, had been wounded on the Avron Plateau. He was then convalescent and was one of my patients, together with two officers now ready to leave the ambulance. That Christmas supper is one of my most charming and at the same time most melancholy memories. It was served in the small room which we had made into a bedroom. Our three beds were covered with draperies and skins which I had had brought from home, and we used them as seats. Mlle. Hocquigny had sent me five metres of boudin blanc ("white-pudding"), the famous Christmas dish, and all my poor soldiers who were well enough were delighted with this delicacy. One of my friends had had twenty large brioche cakes made for me, and I had ordered some large bowls of punch, the coloured flames from which amused the grown-up sick children immensely. The young priest from St. Sulpice accepted a piece of brioche, and after taking a little white wine left us. Ah, how charming and good he was, that poor young priest! And how well he managed to make Fortin, the insupportable wounded fellow, cease talking. Gradually the latter began to get humanised, until finally he began to think the priest was a good sort of fellow. Poor young priest! He was shot by the Communists. I cried for days and days over the murder of this young St. Sulpice priest.