"Yes, certainly, Pere Lucas; I will go down at once."
My little boy was building forts and castles on the sand with Felicie. Only Claude was with me. He did not say a word, knowing my unbridled desire to meet danger. He looked to see if the belt was properly fastened, and asked my permission to tie the tongue of the belt to the belt itself; then he passed a strong cord several times around to strengthen the leather, and I was let down, suspended by the rope in the blackness of the crevasse. I extended my arms to the right and the left, as the guardian had told me to do, and even then I got my elbows scraped. At first I thought that the noise I heard was the reverberation of the echo of the blows of the wooden shoes against the edges of the crevasse, but suddenly a frightful din filled my ears: successive firings of cannons, strident ringings, crackings of a whip, plaintive howls, and repeated monotonous cries as of a hundred fishermen drawing up a net filled with fish, sea-weed, and pebbles. All the noises mingled under the mad violence of the wind. I became furious with myself, for I was really afraid.
The lower I went, the louder the howlings became in my ears and my brain, and my heart beat the order of retreat. The wind swept through the narrow tunnel and blew in all directions round my legs, my body, my neck. A horrible fear took possession of me.
I descended slowly, and at each little shock I felt that the four hands holding me above had come to a knot. I tried to remember the number of knots, for it seemed to me that I was making no progress.
Then I opened my mouth to call out, "Draw me up!" but the wind, which danced in mad folly around me, filled my mouth and drove back the words. I was nearly suffocated. Then I shut my eyes and ceased to struggle. I would not even put out my arms. A few instants after I pulled up my legs in unspeakable terror. The sea had just seized them in a brutal embrace which had wet me through. However, I recovered courage, for now I could see clearly. I stretched out my legs, and found myself upright on the little rock. It is true it was very slippery.
I took hold of a large ring fixed in the vault which overhung the rock, and I looked round. The long and narrow crevasse grew suddenly wider at its base, and terminated in a large grotto which looked out over the open sea; but the entrance of this grotto was protected by a quantity of both large and small rocks, which could be seen for a distance of a league in front on the surface of the water—which explains the terrible noise of the sea dashing into the labyrinth and the possibility of standing upright on a stone, as the Bretons say, with the wild dance of the waves all around.
However, I saw very plainly that a false step might be fatal in the brutal whirl of waters, which came rushing in from afar with dizzy speed and broke against the insurmountable obstacle, and in receding dashed against other waves which followed them. From this cause proceeded the perpetual fusillade of waters which rushed into the crevasse without danger of drowning me.
It now began to grow dark, and I experienced a fearful anguish in discovering on the crest of a little rock two enormous eyes, which looked fixedly at me. Then a little farther, near a tuft of seaweed, two more of these fixed eyes. I saw no body to these beings—nothing but the eyes. I thought for a minute that I was losing my senses, and I bit my tongue till the blood came; then I pulled violently at the rope, as I had agreed to do in order to give the signal for being drawn up. I felt the trembling joy of the four hands pulling me, and my feet lost their hold as I was hauled up by my guardians. The eyes were lifted up also, uneasy at seeing me depart. And while I mounted through the air I saw nothing but eyes everywhere—eyes throwing out long feelers to reach me.
I had never seen an octopus, and I did not even know of the existence of these horrible beasts.
During the ascent, which appeared to me interminable, I imagined I saw these beasts along the walls, and my teeth were chattering when I was drawn out on to the green hillock.
I immediately told the guardian the cause of my terror, and he crossed himself, saying, "Those are the eyes of the shipwrecked ones. No one must stay there!"
I knew very well that they were not the eyes of shipwrecked ones, but I did not know what they were. For I thought I had seen some strange beasts that no one had ever seen before.
It was only at the hotel with Pere Batifoule that I learnt about the octopus.
Only five more days' holiday were left to me, and I passed them at the Pointe du Raz, seated in a niche of rock which has been since named "Sarah Bernhardt's Arm-chair." Many tourists have sat there since.
After my holiday I returned to Paris. But I was still very weak, and could only take up my work towards the month of November. I played all the pieces of my repertoire, and I was annoyed at not having any new roles.
One day Perrin came to see me in my sculptor's studio. He began to talk at first about my busts; he told me that I ought to do his medallion, and asked me incidentally if I knew the role of Phedre. Up to that time I had only played Aricie, and the part of Phedre seemed formidable to me. I had, however, studied it for my own pleasure.
"Yes, I know the role of Phedre. But I think if ever I had to play it I should die of fright."
He laughed with his silly little laugh, and said to me, squeezing my hand (for he was very gallant), "Work it up. I think that you will play it."
In fact, eight days after I was called to the manager's office, and Perrin told me that he had announced Phedre for December 21, the fete of Racine, with Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt in the part of Phedre. I thought I should have fallen.
"Well, but what about Mademoiselle Rousseil?" I asked.
"Mademoiselle Rousseil wants the committee to promise that she shall become a Societaire in the month of January, and the committee, which will without doubt appoint her, refuses to make this promise, and declares that her demand is like a threat. But perhaps Mademoiselle Rousseil will change her plans, and in that case you will play Aricie and I will change the bill."
Coming out from Perrin's I ran up against M. Regnier. I told him of my conversation with the manager and of my fears.
"No, no," said the great artiste to me, "you must not be afraid! I see very well what you are going to make of this role. But all you have to do is to be careful and not force your voice. Make the role rather more sorrowful than furious—it will be better for every one, even Racine."
Then, joining my hands, I said, "Dear Monsieur Regnier, help me to work up Phedre I shall not be so much afraid!"
He looked at me rather surprised, for in general I was neither docile nor apt to be guided by advice. I own that I was wrong, but I could not help it. But the responsibility which this put upon me made me timid. Regnier accepted, and made an appointment with me for the following morning at nine o'clock.
Roselia Rousseil persisted in her demand to the committee, and Phedre was billed for December 21, with Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt for the first time in the role of Phedre.
This caused quite a sensation in the artistic world and in theatrical circles. That evening over two hundred people were turned away at the box office. When I was informed of the fact I began to tremble a good deal.
Regnier comforted me as best he could, saying, "Courage! Cheer up! Are you not the spoiled darling of the public? They will take into consideration your inexperience in important leading parts," &c.
These were the last words he should have said to me. I should have felt stronger if I had known that the public were come to oppose and not to encourage me.
I began to cry bitterly like a child. Perrin was called, and consoled me as well as he could; then he made me laugh by putting powder on my face so awkwardly that I was blinded and suffocated.
Everybody on the stage knew about it, and stood at the door of my dressing-room wishing to comfort me, Mounet-Sully, who was playing Hippolyte, told me that he had dreamed "we were playing Phedre, and you were hissed; and my dreams always go by contraries—so," he cried, "we shall have a tremendous success."
But what put me completely in a good humour was the arrival of the worthy Martel, who was playing Theramene, and who had come so quickly, believing me to be ill, that he had not had time to finish his nose. The sight of this grey face, with a wide bar of red wax commencing between the two eyebrows, coming down to half a centimetre below his nose and leaving behind it the end of the nose with two large black nostrils—this face was indescribable! And everybody laughed irrepressibly. I knew that Martel made up his nose, for I had already seen this poor nose change shape at the second performance of Zaire, under the tropical depression of the atmosphere, but I had never realised how much he lengthened it. This comical apparition restored all my gaiety, and from thenceforth I was in full possession of my faculties.
The evening was one long triumph for me. And the Press was unanimous in praise, with the exception of the article of Paul de St. Victor, who was on very good terms with a sister of Rachel, and could not get over "my impertinent presumption in daring to measure myself with the great dead artiste." These are his own words addressed to Girardin, who immediately communicated them to me. How mistaken he was, poor St. Victor! I had never seen Rachel, but I worshipped her talent, for I had surrounded myself with her most devoted admirers, and they little thought of comparing me with their idol.
A few days after this performance of Phedre the new piece of Bornier was read to us—La Fille de Roland. The part of Berthe was confided to me, and we immediately began the rehearsals of this fine piece, the verses of which were nevertheless a little flat, though the play rang with patriotism. There was in one act a terrible duel, not seen by the public, but related by Berthe, the daughter of Roland, while the incidents happened under the eyes of the unhappy girl, who from a window of the castle followed in anguish the fortunes of the encounter. This scene was the only important one of my much-sacrificed role.
The play was ready to be performed, when Bornier asked that his friend Emile Augier might attend the dress rehearsal. When this rehearsal was over Perrin came to me; he had an affectionate and constrained air. As to Bornier, he came straight to me in a decided and quarrelsome manner. Emile Augier followed him. "Well——" he said to me. I looked straight at him, feeling at the moment that he was my enemy. He stopped short and scratched his head, then turned towards Augier and said:
"I beg you, cher maitre, explain to Mademoiselle yourself."
Emile Augier was a broad man, with wide shoulders and a common appearance, and was at that time rather stout. He was in very good repute at the Theatre Francais, of which he was at that epoch the successful author. He came near me.
"You managed the part at the window very well, Mademoiselle, but it is ridiculous; it is not your fault, but that of the author, who has written a most improbable scene. The public would laugh immoderately. This scene must be taken out."
I turned towards Perrin, who was listening silently. "Are you of the same opinion, sir?"
"I talked it over a short time ago with these gentlemen, but the author is master to do as he pleases with his work."
Then, addressing myself to Bornier, I said, "Well, my dear author, what have you decided?"
Little Bornier looked at big Emile Augier. There was in this beseeching and piteous glance an expression of sorrow at having to cut out a scene which he prized, and of fear at vexing an Academician just at the time when he was hoping to become a member of the Academy.
"Cut it out, cut it out—or you are done for!" brutally replied Augier, and he turned his back. Then poor Bornier, who resembled a Breton gnome, came up to me. He scratched himself desperately, for the unfortunate man suffered from a distressing skin disease. He did not speak. He looked at us searchingly. Poignant anxiety was expressed on his face. Perrin, who had come up to me, guessed the private little drama which was taking place in the heart of the mild Bornier.
"Refuse energetically," murmured Perrin to me.
I understood, and declared firmly to Bornier that if this scene were cut out I should refuse the part. Then Bornier seized both my hands, which he kissed ardently, and running up to Augier he exclaimed, with comic emphasis:
"But I cannot cut it out—I cannot cut it out! She will not play! And the day after to-morrow the play is to be performed." Then, as Emile Augier made a gesture and would have spoken: "No! No! To put back my play eight days would be to kill it! I cannot cut it out! Oh, mon Dieu!" And he cried and gesticulated with his two long arms, and he stamped with his short legs. His large hairy head went from right to left. He was at the same time funny and pitiable. Emile Augier was irritated, and turned on me like a hunted boar on a pursuing dog:
"Will you take the responsibility, Mademoiselle, of the absurd window scene on the first performance?"
"Certainly, Monsieur; and I even promise to make of this scene, which I find very beautiful, an enormous success!"
He shrugged his shoulders rudely, muttering something very disagreeable between his teeth.
When I left the theatre I found poor Bornier quite transfigured. He thanked me a thousand times, for he thought very highly of this scene, and he dared not thwart Emile Augier. Both Perrin and myself had divined the legitimate emotions of this poor poet, so gentle and so well bred, but a trifle Jesuitical.
The play was an immense success. But the window scene on the first night was a veritable triumph.
It was a short time after the terrible war of 1870. The play contained frequent allusions to it, and owing to the patriotism of the public made an even greater success than it deserved as a play. I sent for Emile Augier. He came to my dressing-room with a surly air, and said to me from the door:
"So much the worse for the public! It only proves that the public is idiotic to make a success of such vileness!" And he disappeared without having even entered my dressing-room.
His outburst made me laugh, and as the triumphant Bornier had embraced me repeatedly, I scratched myself all over.
Two months later I played Gabrielle, by this same Augier, and I had incessant quarrels with him. I found the verses of this play execrable. Coquelin, who took the part of my husband, made a great success. As for me, I was as mediocre as the play itself, which is saying a great deal.
I had been appointed a Societaire in the month of January, and since then it seemed to me that I was in prison, for I had undertaken an engagement not to leave the House of Moliere for many years. This idea made me sad. It was at Perrin's instigation that I had asked to become a Societaire, and now I regretted it very much.
During all the latter part of the year I only played occasionally.
My time was then occupied in looking after the building of a pretty little mansion which I was having erected at the corner of the Avenue de Villiers and the Rue Fortuny. A sister of my grandmother had left me in her will a nice legacy, which I used to buy the ground. My great desire was to have a house that should be entirely my own, and I was then realising it. The son-in-law of M. Regnier, Felix Escalier, a fashionable architect, was building me a charming place. Nothing amused me more than to go with him in the morning over the unfinished house. Afterwards I mounted the movable scaffolds. Then I went on the roofs. I forgot my worries of the theatre in this new occupation. The thing I most desired just then was to become an architect. When the building was finished, the interior had to be thought of. I spent much time in helping my painter friends who were decorating the ceilings in my bedroom, in my dining-room, in my hall: Georges Clairin; the architect Escalier, who was also a talented painter; Duez, Picard, Butin, Jadin, and Parrot. I was deeply interested. And I recollect a joke which I played on one of my relations.
My aunt Betsy had come from Holland, her native country, in order to spend a few days in Paris. She was staying with my mother. I invited her to lunch in my new unfinished habitation. Five of my painter friends were working, some in one room, some in another, and everywhere lofty scaffoldings were erected. In order to be able to climb the ladders more easily I was wearing my sculptor's costume. My aunt, seeing me thus arrayed, was horribly shocked, and told me so. But I was preparing yet another surprise for her. She thought these young workers were ordinary house-painters, and considered I was too familiar with them. But she nearly fainted when midday came and I rushed to the piano to play "The Complaint of the Hungry Stomachs." This wild melody had been improvised by the group of painters, but revised and corrected by poet friends. Here it is:
Oh! Peintres de la Dam' jolie, De vos pinceaux arretez la folie! Il faut descendr' des escabeaux, Vous nettoyer et vous faire tres beaux! Digue, dingue, donne! L'heure sonne. Digue, dingue, di.... C'est midi!
Sur les grils et dans les cass'roles Sautent le veau, et les oeufs et les soles. Le bon vin rouge et l'Saint-Marceaux Feront gaiment galoper nos pinceaux! Digue, dingue, donne! L'heure sonne. Digue, dingue, di.... C'est midi!
Voici vos peintres, Dam' jolie Qui vont pour vous debiter leur folie. Ils ont tous lache l'escabeau Sont frais, sont fiers, sont propres et tres beaux! Digue, dingue, donne L'heure sonne Digue, dingue, di.... C'est midi.
When the song was finished I went into my bedroom and made myself into a belle dame for lunch.
My aunt had followed me. "But, my dear," said she, "you are mad to think I am going to eat with all these workmen. Certainly in all Paris there is no one but yourself who would do such a thing."
"No, no, Aunt; it is all right."
And I dragged her off, when I was dressed, to the dining-room, which was the most habitable room of the house. Five young men solemnly bowed to my aunt, who did not recognise them at first, for they had changed their working clothes and looked like five nice young society swells. Madame Guerard lunched with us. Suddenly in the middle of lunch my aunt cried out, "But these are the workmen!" The five young men rose and bowed low. Then my poor aunt understood her mistake and excused herself in every possible manner, so confused was she.
ALEXANDRE DUMAS—L'ETRANGERE—MY SCULPTURE AT THE SALON
One day Alexandre Dumas, junior, was announced. He came to bring me the good news that he had finished his play for the Comedie Francaise, L'Etrangere, and that my role, the Duchesse de Septmonts, had come out very well. "You can," he said to me, "make a fine success out of it." I expressed my gratitude to him.
A month after this visit we were requested to attend the reading of this piece at the Comedie.
The reading was a great success, and I was delighted with my role, Catherine de Septmonts. I also liked the role of Croizette, Mrs. Clarkson.
Got gave us each copies of our parts, and thinking that he had made a mistake, I passed on to Croizette the role of l'Etrangere which he had just given me, saying to her, "Here, Got has made a mistake—here is your role."
"But he is not making any mistake. It is I who am to play the Duchesse de Septmonts."
I burst out into irrepressible laughter, which surprised everybody present, and when Perrin, annoyed, asked me at whom I was laughing like that, I exclaimed:
"At all of you—you, Dumas, Got, Croizette, and all of you who are in the plot, and who are all a little afraid of the result of your cowardice. Well, you need not alarm yourselves. I was delighted to play the Duchesse de Septmonts, but I shall be ten times more delighted to play l'Etrangere. And this time, my dear Sophie, I'll be quits with you; no ceremony, I tell you; for you have played me a little trick which was quite unworthy of our friendship!"
The rehearsals were strained on all sides. Perrin, who was a warm partisan of Croizette, bewailed the want of suppleness of her talent, so much so that one day Croizette, losing all patience, burst out:
"Well, Monsieur, you should have left the role to Sarah; she would have played it with the voice you wish in the love scenes; I cannot do any better. You irritate me too much: I have had enough of it!" And she ran off, sobbing, into the little guignol, where she had an attack of hysteria.
I followed her and consoled her as well as I could. And in the midst of her tears she kissed me, murmuring, "It is true. It is they who instigated me to play this nasty trick, and now they are annoying me." Croizette used vulgar expressions, very vulgar ones, and at times uttered many a Gallic joke.
That day we made up our quarrel entirely.
A week before the first performance I received an anonymous letter informing me that Perrin was trying his very best to get Dumas to change the name of the play. He wished—it goes without saying—to have the piece called La Duchesse de Septmonts.
I rushed off to the theatre to find Perrin at once.
At the entrance door I met Coquelin, who was playing the part of the Duc de Septmonts, which he did marvellously well. I showed him the letter. He shrugged his shoulders. "It is infamous! But why do you take any notice of an anonymous letter? It is not worthy of you!"
We were talking at the foot of the staircase when the manager arrived.
"Here, show the letter to Perrin!" And he took it from my hands in order to show it to him. Perrin blushed slightly.
"I know this writing," he said. "Some one from the theatre has written this letter."
I snatched it back from him. "Then it is some one who is well informed, and what he says is perhaps true. Is it not so? Tell me. I have the right to know."
"I detest anonymous letters." And he went up the stairs, bowing slightly, but without saying anything further.
"Ah, if it is true," said Coquelin, "it is too much. Would you like me to go and see Dumas, and I will get to know at once?"
"No, thank you. But you have put an idea into my head. I'll go there." And shaking hands with him, I went off to see the younger Dumas. He was just going out.
"Well, well? What is the matter? Your eyes are blazing!"
I went with him into the drawing-room and asked my question at once. He had kept his hat on, and took it off to recover his self-possession. And before he could speak a word I got furiously angry; I fell into one of those rages which I sometimes have, and which are more like attacks of madness. And in fact, all that I felt of bitterness towards this man, towards Perrin, towards all this theatrical world that should have loved me and upheld me, but which betrayed me on every occasion—all the hot anger that I had been accumulating during the rehearsals, the cries of revolt against the perpetual injustice of these two men, Perrin and Dumas—I burst out with everything in an avalanche of stinging words which were both furious and sincere. I reminded him of his promise made in former days; of his visit to my hotel in the Avenue de Villiers; of the cowardly and underhand manner in which he had sacrificed me, at Perrin's request and on the wishes of the friends of Sophie. I spoke vehemently, without allowing him to edge in a single word. And when, worn out, I was forced to stop, I murmured, out of breath with fatigue, "What—what—what have you to say for yourself?"
"My dear child," he replied, much touched, "if I had examined my own conscience I should have said to myself all that you have just said to me so eloquently! But I can truly say, in order to excuse myself a little, that I really believed that you did not care at all about the stage; that you much preferred your sculpture, your painting, and your court. We have seldom talked together, and people led me to believe all that I was perhaps too ready to believe. Your grief and anger have touched me deeply. I give you my word that the play shall keep its title of L'Etrangere. And now embrace me with good grace, to show that you are no longer angry with me."
I embraced him, and from that day we were good friends.
That evening I told the whole tale to Croizette, and I saw that she knew nothing about this wicked scheme. I was very pleased to know that. The play was very successful. Coquelin, Febvre, and I carried off the laurels of the day.
I had just commenced in my studio in the Avenue de Clichy a large group, the inspiration for which I had gathered from the sad history of an old woman whom I often saw at nightfall in the Baie des Trepasses.
One day I went up to her, wishing to speak to her, but I was so terrified by her aspect of madness that I rushed off at once, and the guardian told me her history.
She was the mother of five sons, all sailors. Two had been killed by the Germans in 1870, and three had been drowned. She had brought up the little son of her youngest boy, always keeping him far from the sea and teaching him to hate the water. She had never left the little lad, but he became so sad that he was really ill, and he said he was dying because he wanted to see the sea. "Well, make haste and get well," said the grandmother tenderly, "and we will go to see it together."
Two days later the child was better, and the grandmother left the valley in the company of her little grandson to go and see the ocean, the grave of her three sons.
It was a November day; a low sky hung over the ocean, narrowing the horizon. The child jumped with joy. He ran, gambolled, and sang for happiness when he saw all this living water.
The grandmother sat on the sand, and hid her tearful eyes in her two trembling hands; then suddenly, struck by the silence, she looked up in terror. There in front of her she saw a boat drifting, and in the boat her boy, her little lad of eight years old, who was laughing right merrily, paddling as well as he could with one oar that he could hardly hold, and crying out, "I am going to see what there is behind the mist, and I will come back."
He never came back. And the following day they found the poor old woman talking low to the waves which came and bathed her feet. She came every day to the water's edge, throwing in the bread which kind folks gave her, and saying to the waves, "You must carry that to the little lad."
This touching narrative had remained in my memory. I can still see the tall old woman, with her brown cape and hood.
I worked feverishly at this group. It seemed to me now that I was destined to be a sculptor, and I began to despise the stage, I only went to the theatre when I was compelled by my duties, and I left as soon as possible.
I had made several designs, none of which pleased me. Just when I was going to throw down the last one in discouragement, the painter Georges Clairin, who came in just at that moment to see me, begged me not to do so. And my good friend Mathieu Meusnier, who was a man of talent, also added his voice against the destruction of my design.
Excited by their encouragement, I decided to hurry on with the work and to make a large group. I asked Meusnier if he knew any tall, bony old woman, and he sent me two, neither of whom suited me. Then I asked all my painter and sculptor friends, and during eight days all sorts of old and infirm women came for my inspection. I fixed at last on a charwoman who was about sixty years old. She was very tall, and had very sharp-cut features. When she came in I felt a slight sentiment of fear. The idea of remaining alone with this female gendarme for hours together made me feel uneasy. But when I heard her speak I was more comfortable. Her timid, gentle voice and frightened gestures, like a shy young girl, contrasted strangely with the build of the poor woman. When I showed her the design she was stupefied. "Do you want me to have my neck and shoulders bare? I really cannot." I told her that nobody ever came in when I worked, and I asked to see her neck immediately.
Oh, that neck! I clapped my hands with joy when I saw it. It was long, emaciated, terrible. The bones literally stood out almost bare of flesh; the sterno-cleido-mastoid was remarkable—it was just what I wanted. I went up to her and gently bared her shoulder. What a treasure I had found! The shoulder bone was visible under the skin, and she had two immense "salt-cellars"! The woman was ideal for my work. She seemed destined for it. She blushed when I told her so. I asked to see her feet. She took off her thick boots and showed a dirty foot which had no character. "No," I said, "thank you. Your feet are too small; I will take only your head and shoulders."
After having fixed the price I engaged her for three months. At the idea of earning so much money for three months the poor woman began to cry, and I felt so sorry for her that I told her she would not have to seek for work that winter, because she had already told me that she generally spent six months of the year in the country, in Sologne, near her grandchildren.
Having found the grandmother, I now needed the child.
I passed a review of a whole army of professional Italian models. There were some lovely children, real little Jupins. The mothers undressed their children in a second, and the children posed quite naturally and took attitudes which showed off their muscles and the development of the torso. I chose a fine little boy of seven years old, but who looked more like nine. I had already had in the workmen, who had followed out my design and put up the scaffolding necessary to make my work sufficiently stable and to support the weight. Enormous iron supports were fixed into the plaster by bolts and pillars of wood and iron wherever necessary. The skeleton of a large piece of sculpture looks like a giant trap put up to catch rats and mice by the thousand.
I gave myself up to this enormous work with the courage of ignorance. Nothing discouraged me.
Often I worked on till midnight, sometimes till four o'clock in the morning. And as one humble gas-burner was totally insufficient to work by, I had a crown or rather a silver circlet made, each bud of which was a candlestick, and each had its candle burning, and those of the back row were a little higher than those of the front. And with this help I was able to work almost without ceasing. I had no watch or clock in the room, as I wished to ignore time altogether, except on the days I had to perform at the theatre. Then my maid would come and call for me. How many times have I gone without lunch or dinner. Then I would perhaps faint, and so be compelled to send for something to eat to restore my strength.
I had almost finished my group, but I had done neither the feet nor the hands of the grandmother. She was holding her little dead grandson on her knees, but her arms had no hands and her legs had no feet. I looked in vain for the hands and feet of my ideal, large and bony. One day, when my friend Martel came to see me at my studio and to look at this group, which was much talked of, I had an inspiration. Martel was big, and thin enough to make Death jealous. I watched him walking round my work. He was looking at it as a connoisseur. But I was looking at him. Suddenly I said:
"My dear Martel, I beg you—I beseech you—to pose for the hands and feet of my grandmother!"
He burst out laughing, and with perfectly good grace he took off his shoes and took the place of my model.
He came ten days in succession, and gave me three hours each day.
Thanks to him, I was able to finish my group. I had it moulded and sent to the Salon (1876), where it met with genuine success.
Is there any need to say that I was accused of having got some one else to make this group for me? I sent a summons to one critic. He was no other than Jules Claretie, who had declared that this work, which was very interesting, could not have been done by me. Jules Claretie apologised very politely, and that was the end of it.
The Jury, after a full investigation, awarded me an "honourable mention," and I was wild with joy.
I was very much criticised, but also very much praised. Nearly all the criticisms referred to the neck of my old Breton woman, that neck on which I had worked with such eagerness.
The following is from an article by Rene Delorme:
"The work of Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt deserves to be studied in detail. The head of the grandmother, well worked out as to the profound wrinkles it bears, expresses that intense sorrow in which everything else counts as nothing.
"The only reproach I have to make against this artist is that she has brought too much into prominence the muscles of the neck of the old grandmother. This shows a lack of experience. She is pleased with herself for having studied anatomy so well, and is not sorry for the opportunity of showing it. It is," &c. &c.
Certainly this gentleman was right. I had studied anatomy eagerly and in a very amusing manner. I had had lessons from Doctor Parrot, who was so good to me. I had continually with me a book of anatomical designs, and when I was at home I stood before the glass and said suddenly to myself, putting my finger on some part of my body, "Now then, what is that?" I had to answer immediately, without hesitation, and when I hesitated I compelled myself to learn by heart the muscles of the head or the arm, and did not sleep till this was done.
A month after the exhibition there was a reading of Parodi's play, Rome Vaincue, at the Comedie Francaise. I refused the role of the young vestal Opimia, which had been allotted to me, and energetically demanded that of Posthumia, an old, blind Roman woman with a superb and noble face.
No doubt there was some connection in my mind between my old Breton weeping over her grandson and the august patrician claiming forgiveness for her grand-daughter.
Perrin was at first astounded. Afterwards he acceded to my request. But his order-loving mind and his taste for symmetry made him anxious about Mounet-Sully, who was also playing in the piece. He was accustomed to seeing Mounet-Sully and me playing the two heroes, the two lovers, the two victims. How was he to arrange matters so that we should still be the two—something or other? Eureka! There was in the play an old idiot named Vestaepor, who was quite unnecessary for the action of the piece, but had been brought in to satisfy Perrin. "Eureka!" cried the director of the Comedie; "Mounet-Sully shall play Vestaepor!" Equilibrium was restored. The god of the bourgeois was content.
The piece, which was really quite mediocre, obtained a great success at the first performance (September 27, 1876), and personally I was very successful in the fourth act. The public was decidedly in my favour, in spite of everything and everybody.
"HERNANI"—A TRIP IN A BALLOON
The performances of Hernani made me a still greater favourite with the public.
I had already rehearsed with Victor Hugo, and it was a real pleasure to me to see the great poet almost each day. I had never discontinued my visits, but I was never able to have any conversation with him in his own house. There were always men in red ties gesticulating, or women in tears reciting. He was very good; he used to listen with half-closed eyes, and I thought he was asleep. Then, roused by the silence, he would say a consoling word, for Victor Hugo could not promise without keeping his word. He was not like me: I promise everything with the firm intention of keeping my promises, and two hours after I have forgotten all about them. If any one reminds me of what I have promised, I tear my hair, and to make up for my forgetfulness I say anything, I buy presents—in fact, I complicate my life with useless worries. It has always been thus, and always will be so.
As was I grumbling one day to Victor Hugo that I never could have a chance of talking with him, he invited me to lunch, saying that after lunch we could talk together alone. I was delighted with this lunch, to which Paul Meurice, the poet Leon Cladel, the Communard Dupuis, a Russian lady whose name I do not remember and Gustave Dore were also invited. In front of Victor Hugo sat Madame Drouet, the friend of his unlucky days.
But what a horrible lunch we had! It was really bad and badly served. My feet were frozen by the draughts from the three doors, which fitted badly, and one could positively hear the wind blowing under the table. Near me was Mr. X., a German socialist, who is to-day a very successful man. This man had such dirty hands and ate in such a way that he made me feel sick. I met him afterwards at Berlin. He is now quite clean and proper, and, I believe, an imperialist. But the uncomfortable feeling this uncongenial neighbour inspired in me, the cold draughts blowing on my feet, mortal boredom—all this reduced me to a state of positive suffering, and I lost consciousness.
When I recovered I found myself on a couch, my hand in that of Madame Drouet, and in front of me, sketching me, Gustave Dore.
"Oh, don't move," he exclaimed; "you are so pretty like that!" These words, though they were so inappropriate, pleased me nevertheless, and I complied with the wish of the great artist, who was one of my friends.
I left the house of Victor Hugo without saying good-bye to him, a trifle ashamed of myself.
The next day he came to see me. I told him some tale to account for my illness, and I saw no more of him except at the rehearsals of Hernani.
The first performance of Hernani took place on November 21, 1877. It was a triumph alike for the author and the actors. Hernani had already been played ten years earlier, but Delaunay, who then took the part of Hernani, was the exact contrary of what this part should have been. He was neither epic, romantic, nor poetic. He had not the style of those grand epic poems. He was charming, graceful, and wore a perpetual smile; of middle height, with studied movements, he was ideal in Musset, perfect in Emile Augier, charming in Moliere, but execrable in Victor Hugo.
Bressant, who took the part of Charles Quint, was shockingly bad. His amiable and flabby style and his weak and wandering eyes effectively prevented all grandeur. His two enormous feet, generally half hidden under his trousers, assumed immense proportions. I could see nothing else. They were very large, flat, and slightly turned in at the toes. They were a nightmare! But think of their possessor repeating the admirable couplet of Charles Quint to the shade of Charlemagne! It was absurd! The public coughed, wriggled, and showed that they found the whole thing painful and ridiculous.
In our performance it was Mounet-Sully, in all the splendour of his talent, who played Hernani. And it was Worms, that admirable artiste, who played Charles Quint—and how well he took the part! How he rolled out the lines! What a splendid diction he had! This performance of November 21, 1877, was a triumph. I came in for a good share in the general success. I played Dona Sol. Victor Hugo sent me the following letter:
"Madame,—You have been great and charming; you have moved me—me, the old combatant—and at one moment, while the public whom you had enchanted cheered you, I wept. This tear which you caused me to shed is yours, and I place myself at your feet.
With this letter came a small box containing a fine chain bracelet, from which hung one diamond drop. I lost this bracelet at the house of the rich nabob, Alfred Sassoon. He wanted to give me another, but I refused. He could not give me back the tear of Victor Hugo.
My success at the Comedie was assured, and the public treated me as a spoiled child. My comrades were a little jealous of me.
Perrin made trouble for me at every turn. He had a sort of friendship for me, but he would not believe that I could get on without him, and as he always refused to do as I wanted, I did not go to him for anything. I used to send a letter to the Ministry, and I always won my cause.
As I had a continual thirst for what was new, I now tried my hand at painting. I knew how to draw a little, and had a well-developed sense of colour. I first did two or three small pictures, then I undertook the portrait of my dear Guerard.
Alfred Stevens thought it was vigorously done, and Georges Clairin encouraged me to continue with painting. Then I launched out courageously, boldly. I began a picture which was nearly two metres in size, The Young Girl and Death.
Then came a cry of indignation against me.
Why did I want to do anything else but act, since that was my career?
Why did I always want to be before the public?
Perrin came to see me one day when I was very ill. He began to preach. "You are killing yourself, my dear child," he said. "Why do you go in for sculpture, painting, &c? Is it to prove that you can do it?"
"Oh, no, no," I answered; "it is merely to create a necessity for staying here."
"I don't understand," said Perrin, listening very attentively.
"This is how it is. I have a wild desire to travel, to see something else, to breathe another air, and to see skies that are higher than ours and trees that are bigger—something different, in short. I have therefore had to create for myself some tasks which will hold me to my chains. If I did not do this, I feel that my desire to see other things in the world would win the day, and I should do something foolish."
This conversation was destined to go against me some years later, when the Comedie brought a law-suit against me.
The Exhibition of 1878 put the finishing stroke to the state of exasperation that Perrin and some of the artistes of the theatre had conceived against me. They blamed me for everything—for my painting, my sculpture, and my health. I had a terrible scene with Perrin, and it was the last one, for from that time forth we did not speak to each other again; a formal bow was the most that we exchanged afterwards.
The climax was reached over my balloon ascension. I adored and I still adore balloons. Every day I went up in M. Giffard's captive balloon. This persistency had struck the savant, and he asked a mutual friend to introduce him.
"Oh, Monsieur Giffard," I said, "how I should like to go up in a balloon that is not captive!"
"Well, Mademoiselle, you shall do so if you like," he replied very kindly.
"When?" I asked.
"Any day you like."
I should have liked to start immediately, but, as he pointed out, he would have to fit the balloon up, and it was a great responsibility for him to undertake. We therefore fixed upon the following Tuesday, just a week from then. I asked M. Giffard to say nothing about it, for if the newspapers should get hold of this piece of news my terrified family would not allow me to go. M. Tissandier, who a little time after was doomed, poor fellow, to be killed in a balloon accident, promised to accompany me. Something happened, however, to prevent his going with me, and it was young Godard who the following week accompanied me in the "Dona Sol," a beautiful orange-coloured balloon specially prepared for my expedition. Prince Jerome Napoleon (Plon-Plon), who was with me when Giffard was introduced, insisted on going with us. But he was heavy and rather clumsy, and I did not care much about his conversation, in spite of his marvellous wit, for he was spiteful, and rather delighted when he could get a chance to attack the Emperor Napoleon III., whom I liked very much.
We started alone, Georges Clairin, Godard, and I. The rumour of our journey had spread, but too late for the Press to get hold of the news. I had been up in the air about five minutes when one of my friends, Comte de M——, met Perrin on the Saints-Peres Bridge.
"I say," he began, "look up in the sky. There is your star shooting away."
Perrin gazed up, and, pointing to the balloon which was rising, he asked, "Who is in that?"
"Sarah Bernhardt," replied my friend. Perrin, it appears, turned purple, and, clenching his teeth, he murmured, "That's another of her freaks, but she will pay for this."
He hurried away without even saying good-bye to my young friend, who stood there stupefied at this unreasonable burst of anger.
And if he had suspected my infinite joy at thus travelling through the air, Perrin would have suffered still more.
Ah! our departure! It was half-past five. I shook hands with a few friends. My family, whom I had kept in the most profound ignorance, was not there. I felt my heart tighten somewhat when, after the words "Let her go!" I found myself in about a second some fifty yards above the earth. I still heard a few cries: "Wait! Come back! Don't let her be killed!" And then nothing more. Nothing. There was the sky above and the earth beneath. Then suddenly I was in the clouds. I had left a misty Paris. I now breathed under a blue sky and saw a radiant sun. Around us were opaque mountains of clouds with irradiated edges. Our balloon plunged into a milky vapour quite warm from the sun. It was splendid! It was stupefying. Not a sound, not a breath! But the balloon was scarcely moving at all. It was only towards six o'clock that the currents of air caught us, and we took our flight towards the east. We were at an altitude of about 1700 metres. The spectacle became fairylike. Large fleecy clouds were spread below us like a carpet. Large orange curtains fringed with violet came down from the sun to lose themselves in our cloudy carpet.
At twenty minutes to seven we were about 2500 metres above the earth, and cold and hunger commenced to make themselves felt.
The dinner was copious—we had foie gras, fresh bread, and oranges. The cork of our champagne bottle flew up into the clouds with a pretty, soft noise. We raised our glasses in honour of M. Giffard.
We had talked a great deal. Night began to put on her heavy dark mantle. It became very cold. We were then at 2600 metres, and I had a singing in my ears. My nose began to bleed. I felt very uncomfortable, and began to get drowsy without being able to prevent it. Georges Clairin got anxious, and young Godard cried out loudly, to wake me up, no doubt: "Come, come! We shall have to go down. Let us throw out the guide-rope!"
This cry woke me up. I wanted to know what a guide-rope was. I got up feeling rather stupefied, and in order to rouse me Godard put the guide-rope into my hands. It was a strong rope of about 120 metres long, to which were attached at certain distances little iron hooks. Clairin and I let out the rope, laughing, while Godard, bending over the side of the car, was looking through a field-glass.
"Stop!" he cried suddenly. "There are a lot of trees!"
We were over the wood of Ferrieres. But just in front of us there was a little open ground suitable for our descent.
"There is no doubt about it," cried Godard; "if we miss this plain we shall come down in the dead of night in the wood of Ferrieres, and that will be very dangerous!" Then, turning to me, "Will you," he said, "open the valve?"
I immediately did so, and the gas came out of its prison whistling a mocking air. The valve was shut by order of the aeronaut, and we descended rapidly. Suddenly the stillness of the night was broken by the sound of a horn. I trembled. It was Louis Godard, who had pulled out of his pocket, which was a veritable storehouse, a sort of horn on which he blew with violence. A loud whistle answered our call, and 500 metres below us we saw a man who was shouting his hardest to make us hear. As we were very close to a little station, we easily guessed that this man was the station-master.
"Where are we?" cried Louis Godard through his horn.
"At—in—in—ille!" answered the station-master. It was impossible to understand.
"Where are we?" thundered Georges Clairin in his most formidable tones.
"At—in—in—ille!" shouted the station-master, with his hand curved round his mouth.
"Where are we?" cried I in my most crystalline accents.
"At—in—in—ille!" answered the station-master and his porters.
It was impossible to get to know anything. We had to lower the balloon. At first we descended rather too quickly, and the wind blew us towards the wood. We had to go up again. But ten minutes later we opened the valve again and made a fresh descent. The balloon was then to the right of the station, and far from the amiable station-master.
"Throw out the anchor!" cried young Godard in a commanding tone. And assisted by Georges Clairin, he threw out into space another rope, to the end of which was fastened a formidable anchor. The rope was 80 metres long.
Down below us a crowd of children of all ages had been running ever since we stopped above the station. When we got to about 300 metres from earth Godard called out to them, "Where are we?"
None of us knew Vachere. But we descended nevertheless.
"Hullo! you fellows down there, take hold of the rope that's dragging," cried the aeronaut, "and mind you don't pull too hard!" Five vigorous men seized hold of the rope. We were 130 metres from the ground, and the sight was becoming interesting. Darkness began to blot out everything. I raised my head to see the sky, but I remained with my mouth open with astonishment. I saw only the lower end of our balloon, which was overhanging its base, all loose and baggy. It was very ugly.
We anchored gently, without the little dragging which I had hoped would happen, and without the little drama which I had half expected.
It began to rain in torrents as we left the balloon.
The young owner of a neighbouring chateau ran up, like the peasants, to see what was going on. He offered me his umbrella.
"Oh, I am so thin I cannot get wet. I pass between the drops."
The saying was repeated and had a great success.
"What time is there a train?" asked Godard.
"Oh, you have plenty of time," answered an oily and heavy voice. "You cannot leave before ten o'clock, as the station is a long way from here, and in such weather it will take Madame two hours to walk there."
I was confounded, and looked for the young gentleman with the umbrella, which I could have used as walking-stick, as neither Clairin nor Godard had one. But just as I was accusing him of going away and leaving us, he jumped lightly out of a vehicle which I had not heard drive up.
"There!" said he. "There is a carriage for you and these gentlemen, and another for the body of the balloon."
"Ma foi! You have saved us," said Clairin, clasping his hand, "for it appears the roads are in a very bad state."
"Oh," said the young man, "it would be impossible for the feet of Parisians to walk even half the distance."
Then he bowed and wished us a pleasant journey.
Rather more than an hour later we arrived at the station of Emerainville. The station-master, learning who we were, received us in a very friendly manner. He made his apologies for not having heard when we called out an hour previously from our floating vehicle. We had a frugal meal of bread, cheese, and cider set before us. I have always detested cheese, and would never eat it: there is nothing poetical about it. But I was dying with hunger.
"Taste it, taste it," said Georges Clairin.
I bit a morsel off, and found it excellent.
We got back very late, in the middle of the night, and I found my household in an extreme state of anxiety. Our friends who had come to hear news of us had stayed. There was quite a crowd. I was somewhat annoyed at this, as I was half dead with fatigue.
I sent everybody away rather sharply, and went up to my room. As my maid was helping me to undress she told me that some one had come for me from the Comedie Francaise several times.
"Oh, mon Dieu!" I cried anxiously. "Could the piece have been changed?"
"No, I don't think so," said the maid. "But it appears that Monsieur Perrin is furious, and that they are all in a rage with you. Here is the note which was left for you."
I opened the letter. I was requested to call on the manager the following day at two o'clock.
On my arrival at Perrin's at the time appointed I was received with exaggerated politeness which had an undercurrent of severity.
Then commenced a series of recriminations about my fits of ill-temper, my caprices, my eccentricities; and he finished his speech by saying that I had incurred a fine of one thousand francs for travelling without the consent of the management.
I burst out laughing. "The case of a balloon has not been foreseen," I said; "and I vow that I will pay no fine. Outside the theatre I do as I please, and that is no business of yours, my dear Monsieur Perrin, so long as I do nothing to interfere with my theatrical work. And besides, you bore me to death—I will resign. Be happy."
I left him ashamed and anxious.
The next day I sent in my written resignation to M. Perrin, and a few hours afterwards I was sent for by M. Turquet, Minister of Fine Arts. I refused to go, and they sent a mutual friend, who stated that M. Perrin had gone a step farther than he had any right to; that the fine was annulled, and that I must cancel my resignation. So I did.
But the situation was strained. My fame had become annoying for my enemies, and a little trying, I confess, for my friends. But at that time all this stir and noise amused me vastly. I did nothing to attract attention. My somewhat fantastic tastes, my paleness and thinness, my peculiar way of dressing, my scorn of fashion, my general freedom in all respects, made me a being quite apart from all others. I did not recognise the fact.
I did not read, I never read, the newspapers. So I did not know what was said about me, either favourable or unfavourable. Surrounded by a court of adorers of both sexes, I lived in a sunny dream.
All the royal personages and the notabilities who were the guests of France during the Exhibition of 1878 came to see me. This was a constant source of pleasure to me.
The Comedie was the first theatre to which all these illustrious visitors went, and Croizette and I played nearly every evening. While I was playing Amphytrion I fell seriously ill, and was sent to the south.
I remained there two months. I lived at Mentone, but I made Cap Martin my headquarters. I had a tent put up here on the spot that the Empress Eugenie afterwards selected for her villa. I did not want to see anybody, and I thought that by living in a tent so far from the town I should not be troubled with visitors. This was a mistake. One day when I was having lunch with my little boy I heard the bells of two horses and a carriage. The road overhung my tent, which was half hidden by the bushes. Suddenly a voice which I knew, but could not recognise, cried in the emphatic tone of a herald, "Does Sarah Bernhardt, Societaire of the Comedie Francaise, reside here?"
We did not move. The question was asked again. Again the answer was silence. But we heard the sound of breaking branches, the bushes were pushed apart, and at two yards from the tent the unwelcome voice recommenced.
We were discovered. Somewhat annoyed, I came out. I saw before me a man with a large tussore cloak on, a field-glass strapped on his shoulders, a grey bowler hat, and a red, happy face, with a little pointed beard. I looked at this commonplace-looking individual with anything but favour. He lifted his hat.
"Madame Sarah Bernhardt is here?"
"What do you want with me, sir?"
"Here is my card, Madame."
I read, "Gambard, Nice, Villa des Palmiers." I looked at him with astonishment, and he was still more astonished to see that his name did not produce any impression on me. He had a foreign accent.
"Well, you see, Madame, I came to ask you to sell me your group, After the Tempest."
I began to laugh.
"Ma foi, Monsieur, I am treating for that with the firm of Susse, and they offer me 6000 francs. If you will give ten you may have it."
"All right," he said. "Here are 10,000 francs. Have you pen and ink?"
"Ah," said he, "allow me!" And he produced a little case in which there were pen and ink.
I made out the receipt, and gave him an order to take the group from my studio in Paris. He went away, and I heard the bells of the horses ringing and then dying away in the distance. After this I was often invited to the house of this original person.
THE COMEDIE FRANCAISE GOES TO LONDON
Shortly after, I came back to Paris. At the theatre they were preparing for a benefit performance for Bressant, who was about to retire from the stage. It was agreed that Mounet-Sully and I should play an act from Othello, by Jean Aicard. The theatre was well filled, and the audience in a good humour. After the song I was in bed as Desdemona, when suddenly I heard the public laugh, softly at first, and then irrepressibly. Othello had just come in, in the darkness, in his shirt or very little more, with a lantern in his hand, and gone to a door hidden in some drapery. The public, that impersonal unity has no hesitation in taking part in these unseemly manifestations, but each member of the audience, taken as a separate individual, would be ashamed to admit that he participated in them. But the ridicule thrown on this act by the exaggerated pantomime of the actor prevented the play being staged again, and it was only twenty years later that Othello as an entire play was produced at the Theatre Francais. I was then no longer there.
After having played Berenice in Mithridate successfully, I reappeared in my role of the Queen in Ruy Blas. The play was as successful at the Theatre Francais as it had been at the Odeon, and the public was, if anything, still more favourable to me. Mounet-Sully played Ruy Blas. He was admirable in the part, and infinitely superior to Lafontaine, who had played it at the Odeon. Frederic Febvre, very well costumed, rendered his part in a most interesting manner, but he was not so good as Geffroy, who was the most distinguished and the most terrifying Don Salluste that could be imagined.
My relations with Perrin were more and more strained.
He was pleased that I was successful, for the sake of the theatre; he was happy at the magnificent receipts of Ruy Blas; but he would have much preferred that it had been another than I who received all the applause. My independence, my horror of submission, even in appearance, annoyed him vastly.
One day my servant came to tell me that an elderly Englishman was asking to see me so insistently that he thought it better to come and tell me, though I had given orders I was not to be disturbed.
"Send him away, and let me work in peace."
I was just commencing a picture which interested me very much. It represented a little girl, on Palm Sunday, carrying branches of palm. The little model who posed for me was a lovely Italian of eight years old. Suddenly she said to me:
"He's quarrelling—that Englishman!"
As a matter of fact, in the ante-room there was a noise of voices rising higher and higher. Irritated, I rushed out, my palette in my hand, resolved to make the intruder flee. But just as I opened the door of my studio a tall man came so close to me that I drew back, and he came into the large room. His eyes were clear and piercing, his hair silvery white, and his beard carefully trimmed. He made his excuses very politely, admired my paintings, my sculpture, my "hall"—and this while I was in complete ignorance of his name. When at the end of ten minutes I begged him to sit down and tell me to what I owed the pleasure of his visit, he replied in a stilted voice with a strong accent:
"I am Mr. Jarrett, the impresario. I can make your fortune. Will you come to America?
"Never!" I exclaimed firmly. "Never!"
"Oh well, don't get angry. Here is my address—don't lose it." Then at the moment he took leave he said:
"Ah! you are going to London with the Comedie Francaise. Would you like to earn a lot of money in London?"
"By playing in drawing-rooms. I can make a small fortune for you."
"Oh, I would be pleased—that is if I go to London, for I have not yet decided."
"Then will you sign a little contract to which we will add an additional clause?"
And I signed a contract with this man, who inspired me with confidence at first sight—a confidence which he never betrayed.
The committee and M. Perrin had made an agreement with John Hollingshead, director of the Gaiety Theatre in London. Nobody had been consulted, and I thought that was a little too free and easy. So when they told me about this agreement, I said nothing.
Perrin rather anxiously took me aside:
"What are you turning over in your mind?"
"I am turning over this: That I will not go to London in a situation inferior to anybody. For the entire term of my contract I intend to be a Societaire with one entire share in the profits."
This intention irritated the committee considerably. And the next day Perrin told me that my proposal was rejected.
"Well, I shall not go to London. That is all! Nothing in my contract compels me to go."
The committee met again, and Got cried out, "Well, let her stay away! She is a regular nuisance!"
It was therefore decided that I should not go to London. But Hollingshead and Mayer, his partner, did not see things in this light, and they declared that the contract would not be binding if either Croizette, Mounet-Sully, or I did not go.
The agents, who had bought two hundred thousand francs' worth of tickets beforehand, also refused to regard the affair as binding on them if we did not go. Mayer came to see me in profound despair, and told me all about it.
"We shall have to break our contract with the Comedie if you don't come," he said, "for the business cannot go through."
Frightened at the consequences of my bad temper, I ran to see Perrin, and told him that after the consultation I had just had with Mayer I understood the involuntary injury I should be causing to the Theatre Francais and to my comrades, and I told him I was ready to go under any conditions.
The committee was holding a meeting. Perrin asked me to wait, and shortly after he came back to me. Croizette and I had been appointed Societaires with one entire share in the profits each, not only for London, but for always.
Everybody had done their duty. Perrin, very much touched, took both my hands and drew me to him.
"Oh, the good and untamable little creature!"
We embraced, and peace was again concluded between us. But it could not last long, for five days after this reconciliation, about nine o'clock in the evening, M. Perrin was announced at my house. I had some friends to dinner, so I went to receive him in the hall. He held out to me a paper.
"Read that," said he.
And I read in an English newspaper, the Times, this paragraph:
DRAWING-ROOM COMEDIES OF MLLE. SARAH BERNHARDT, UNDER THE MANAGEMENT OF SIR JULIUS BENEDICT.—"The repertoire of Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt is composed of comedies, proverbs, one-act plays, and monologues, written specially for her and one or two artistes of the Comedie Francaise. These comedies are played without accessories or scenery, and can be adapted both in London and Paris to the matinees and soirees of the best society. For all details and conditions please communicate with Mr. Jarrett (secretary of Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt) at Her Majesty's Theatre."
As I was reading the last lines it dawned on me that Jarrett, learning that I was certainly coming to London, had begun to advertise me. I explained this frankly to Perrin.
"What objection is there," I said, "to my making use of my evenings to earn money? This business has been proposed to me."
"I am not complaining—it's the committee."
"That is too bad!" I cried, and calling for my secretary, I said, "Give me Delaunay's letter that I gave you yesterday."
He brought it out of one of his numerous pockets and gave it to Perrin to read.
"Would you care to come and play La Nuit d'Octobre at Lady Dudley's on Thursday, June 5? We are offered 5000 francs for us two. Kind regards.—DELAUNAY."
"Let me have this letter," said the manager, visibly annoyed.
"No, I will not. But you may tell Delaunay that I spoke to you about his offer."
For the next two or three days nothing was talked of in Paris but the scandalous notice in the Times. The French were then almost entirely ignorant of the habits and customs of the English. At last all this talk annoyed me, and I begged Perrin to try and stop it, and the next day the following appeared in the National (May 29): "Much Ado about Nothing. —In friendly discussion it has been decided that outside the rehearsals and the performances of the Comedie Francaise each artiste is free to employ his time as he sees fit. There is therefore absolutely no truth at all in the pretended quarrel between the Comedie Francaise and Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt. This artiste has only acted strictly within her rights, which nobody attempts to limit, and all our artistes intend to benefit in the same manner. The manager of the Comedie Francaise asks only that the artistes who form this company do not give performances in a body."
This article came from the Comedie, and the members of the committee had taken advantage of it to advertise themselves a little, announcing that they also were ready to play in drawing-rooms, for the article was sent to Mayer with a request that it should appear in the English papers. It was Mayer himself who told me this.
All disputes being at an end, we commenced our preparations for departure.
I had been but once on the sea when it was decided that the artistes of the Comedie Francaise should go to London. The determined ignorance of the French with regard to all things foreign was much more pronounced in those days than it is at present. Therefore I had a very warm cloak made, as I had been assured that the crossing was icy cold even in the very middle of summer, and I believed this. On every side I was besieged with lozenges for sea-sickness, sedatives for headache, tissue paper to put down my back, little compress plasters to put on my diaphragm, and waterproof cork soles for my shoes, for it appeared that above all things I must not have cold feet. Oh, how droll and amusing it all was! I took everything, paid attention to all the recommendations, and believed everything I was told.
The most inconceivable thing of all, though, was the arrival, five minutes before the boat started, of an enormous wooden case. It was very light, and was held by a tall young man, who to-day is a most remarkable individual, possessing all orders and honours, a colossal fortune, and the most outrageous vanity. At that time he was a timid inventor, young, poor, and sad: he was always buried in books which treated of abstract questions, whilst of life he knew absolutely nothing. He had a great admiration for me, mingled with a trifle of awe. My little court had surnamed him "La Quenelle." He was long, vacillating, colourless, and really did resemble the thin roll of forcemeat in a vol-au-vent.
He came up to see me, his face more wan-looking even than usual. The boat was moving a little. My departure terrified him, and the wind caused him to plunge from right to left. He made a mysterious sign to me, and I followed him, accompanied by mon petit Dame, and leaving my friends, who were inclined to be ironical, behind. When I was seated he opened the case and took out an enormous life-belt invented by himself. I was perfectly astounded, for I was new to sea voyages, and the idea had never even occurred to me that we might be shipwrecked during one hour's crossing. La Quenelle was by no means disconcerted, and he put the belt on himself in order to show me how it was used.
Nothing could have looked more foolish than this man, with his sad, serious face, putting on this apparatus. There were a dozen egg-sized bladders round the belt, eleven of which were filled with air and contained a piece of sugar. In the twelfth, a very small bladder, were ten drops of brandy. In the middle of the belt was a tiny cushion with a few pins on it.
"You understand," he said to me. "You fall in the water—paff!—you stay like this." Hereupon he pretended to sit down, rising and sinking with the movement of the waves, his two hands in front of him laid upon the imaginary sea, and his neck stretched like that of a tortoise in order to keep his head above water.
"You see, you have now been in the water for two hours," he explained, "and you want to get back your strength. You take a pin and prick an egg, like this. You take your lump of sugar and eat it; that is as good as a quarter of a pound of meat." He then threw the broken bladder overboard, and from the packing case brought out another, which he fastened to the life-belt. He had evidently thought of everything. I was petrified with amazement. A few of my friends had gathered round, hoping for one of La Quenelle's mad freaks, but they had never expected anything like this one.
M. Mayer, one of our impresarii, fearing a scandal of too absurd a kind, dispersed the people who were gathering round us. I did not know whether to be angry or to laugh, but the jeering, unjust speech of one of my friends roused my pity for this poor Quenelle. I thought of the hours he had spent in planning, combining, and then manufacturing his ridiculous machine. I was touched by the anxiety and affection which had prompted the invention of this life-saving apparatus, and I held out my hand to my poor Quenelle, saying, "Be off now, quickly; the boat is just going to start."
He kissed the hand held out to him in a friendly way, and hurried off. I then called my steward, Claude, and I said, "As soon as we are out of sight of land, throw that case and all it contains into the sea."
The departure of the boat was accompanied by shouts of "Hurrah! Au revoir! Success! Good luck!" There was a waving of hands, handkerchiefs floating in the air, and kisses thrown haphazard to every one.
But what was really fine, and a sight I shall never forget, was our landing at Folkestone. There were thousands of people there, and it was the first time I had ever heard the cry of "Vive Sarah Bernhardt!"
I turned my head and saw before me a pale young man, the ideal face of Hamlet. He presented me with a gardenia. I was destined to admire him later on as Hamlet played by Forbes Robertson. We passed on through a crowd offering us flowers and shaking hands, and I soon saw that I was more favoured than the others. This slightly embarrassed me, but I was delighted all the same. One of my comrades who was just near, and with whom I was not a favourite, said to me in a spiteful tone:
"They'll make you a carpet of flowers soon."
"Here is one!" exclaimed a young man, throwing an armful of lilies on the ground in front of me.
I stopped short, rather confused, not daring to walk on these white flowers, but the crowd pressing on behind compelled me to advance, and the poor lilies had to be trodden under foot.
"Hip, hip, hurrah! A cheer for Sarah Bernhardt!" shouted the turbulent young man.
His head was above all the other heads; he had luminous eyes and long hair, and looked like a German student. He was an English poet, though, and one of the greatest of the century, a poet who was a genius, but who was, alas! later tortured and finally vanquished by madness. It was Oscar Wilde.
The crowd responded to his appeal, and we reached our train amidst shouts of "Hip, hip, hurrah for Sarah Bernhardt! Hip, hip, hurrah for the French actors!"
When the train arrived at Charing Cross towards nine o'clock we were nearly an hour late. A feeling of sadness came over me. The weather was gloomy, and then, too, I thought we should have been greeted again on our arrival in London with more hurrahs. There were plenty of people, crowds of people, but none appeared to know us.
On reaching the station I had noticed that there was a handsome carpet laid down, and I thought it was for us. Oh, I was prepared for anything, as our reception at Folkestone had turned my head. The carpet, however, had been laid down for their Royal Highnesses the Prince and the Princess of Wales, who had just left for Paris.
This news disappointed me, and even annoyed me personally. I had been told that all London was quivering with excitement at the very idea of the visit of the Comedie Francaise, and I had found London extremely indifferent. The crowd was large and even dense, but cold.
"Why have the Prince and Princess gone away to-day?" I asked M. Mayer.
"Well, because they had decided beforehand about this visit to Paris," he replied.
"Oh, then they won't be here for our first night?" I continued.
"No. The Prince has taken a box for the season, for which he has paid four hundred pounds, but it will be used by the Duke of Connaught."
I was in despair. I don't know why, but I certainly was in despair, as I felt that everything was going wrong.
A footman led the way to my carriage, and I drove through London with a heavy heart. Everything looked dark and dismal, and when I reached the house, 77 Chester Square, I did not want to get out of my carriage.
The door of the house was wide open, though, and in the brilliantly lighted hall I could see what looked like all the flowers on earth arranged in baskets, bouquets, and huge bunches. I got out of the carriage and entered the house in which I was to live for the next six weeks. All the branches seemed to be stretching out their flowers to me.
"Have you the cards that came with all these flowers?" I asked my man-servant.
"Yes," he replied. "I have put them together on a tray. All of them are from Paris, from Madame's friends there. This one is the only bouquet from here." He handed me an enormous one, and on the card with it I read the words, "Welcome!—Henry Irving."
I went all through the house, and it seemed to me very dismal-looking. I visited the garden, but the damp seemed to go through me, and my teeth chattered when I came in again. That night when I went to sleep my heart was heavy with foreboding, as though I were on the eve of some misfortune.
The following day was given up to receiving journalists. I wanted to see them all at the same time, but Mr. Jarrett objected to this. That man was a veritable advertising genius. I had no idea of it at that time. He had made me some very good offers for America, and although I had refused them, I nevertheless held a very high opinion of him, on account of his intelligence, his comic humour, and my need of being piloted in this new country.
"No," he said; "if you receive them all together, they will all be furious, and you will get some wretched articles. You must receive them one after the other."
Thirty-seven journalists came that day, and Jarrett insisted on my seeing every one of them. He stayed in the room and saved the situation when I said anything foolish. I spoke English very badly, and some of the men spoke French very badly. Jarrett translated my answers to them. I remember perfectly well that all of them began with, "Well, Mademoiselle, what do you think of London?"
I had arrived the previous evening at nine o'clock, and the first of these journalists asked me this question at ten in the morning. I had drawn my curtain on getting up, and all I knew of London was Chester Square, a small square of sombre verdure, in the midst of which was a black statue, and the horizon bounded by an ugly church.
I really could not answer the question, but Jarrett was quite prepared for this, and I learnt the following morning that I was most enthusiastic about the beauty of London, that I had already seen a number of the public buildings, &c. &c.
Towards five o'clock Hortense Damain arrived. She was a charming woman, and a favourite in London society. She had come to inform me that the Duchess of —— and Lady —— would call on me at half-past five.
"Oh, stay with me, then," I said to her. "You know how unsociable I am; I feel sure that I shall be stupid."
At the time fixed my visitors were announced. This was the first time I had come into contact with any members of the English aristocracy, and I have always had since a very pleasant memory of it.
Lady R—— was extremely beautiful, and the Duchess was so gracious, so distinguished, and so kind that I was very much touched by her visit.
A few minutes later Lord Dudley called. I knew him very well, as he had been introduced to me by Marshal Canrobert, one of my dearest friends. He asked me if I would care to have a ride the following morning, and he said he had a very nice lady's horse which was entirely at my service. I thanked him, but I wanted first to drive in Rotten Row.
At seven o'clock Hortense Damain came to fetch me to dine with her at the house of the Baroness M——. She had a very nice house in Prince's Gate. There were about twenty guests, among others the painter Millais. I had been told that the cuisine was very bad in England, but I thought this dinner perfect. I had been told that the English were cold and sedate: I found them charming and full of humour. Every one spoke French very well, and I was ashamed of my ignorance of the English language. After dinner there were recitations and music. I was touched by the gracefulness and tact of my hosts in not asking me to recite any poetry.
I was very much interested in observing the society in which I found myself. It did not in any way resemble a French gathering. The young girls seemed to be enjoying themselves on their own account, and enjoying themselves thoroughly. They had not come there to find a husband. What surprised me a little was the decollete of ladies who were getting on in years and to whom time had not been very merciful. I spoke of this to Hortense Damain.
"It's frightful!" I said.
"Yes, but it's chic."
She was very charming, my friend Hortense, but she troubled about nothing that was not chic. She sent me the "Chic commandments" a few days before I left Paris:
Chester Square tu habiteras. In Chester Square thou shalt live Rotten Row tu monteras In Rotten Row thou shalt ride Le Parlement visiteras Parliament thou shalt visit Garden-parties frequenteras Garden parties thou shalt frequent, Chaque visite tu rendras Every visit thou shalt return A chaque lettre tu repondras Every letter thou shalt answer Photographies tu signeras Photographs thou shalt sign Hortense Damain tu ecouteras To Hortense Damain thou shalt listen Et tous ses conseils, les suicras. And all her counsels thou shalt follow.
I laughed at these "commandments," but I soon realised that under this jocular form she considered them as very serious and important. Alas! my poor friend had hit upon the wrong person for her counsels. I detested paying visits, writing letters, signing photographs, or following any one's advice. I adore having people come to see me, and I detest going to see them. I adore receiving letters, reading them, commenting on them, but I detest writing them. I detest riding and driving in frequented parts, and I adore lonely roads and solitary places. I adore giving advice and I detest receiving it, and I never follow at once any wise advice that is given me. It always requires an effort of my will to recognise the justice of any counsel, and then an effort of my intellect to be grateful for it: at first, it simply annoys me.
Consequently, I paid no attention to Hortense Damain's counsels, nor yet to Jarrett's; and in this I made a great mistake, for many people were vexed with me (in any other country I should have made enemies). On that first visit to London what a quantity of letters of invitation I received to which I never replied! How many charming women called upon me and I never returned their calls. Then, too, how many times accepted invitations to dinner and never went after all, nor did I even send a line of excuse. It is perfectly odious, I know; and yet I always accept with pleasure and intend to go, but when the day comes I am tired perhaps, or want to have a quiet time, or to be free from any obligation, and when I am obliged to decide one way or another, the time has gone by and it is too late to send word and too late to go. And so I stay at home, dissatisfied with myself, with every one else and with everything.
LONDON LIFE—MY FIRST PERFORMANCE AT THE GAIETY THEATRE
Hospitality is a quality made up of primitive taste and antique grandeur. The English are, in my opinion, the most hospitable people on earth, and they are hospitable simply and munificently. When an Englishman has opened his door to you he never closes it again. He excuses your faults and accepts your peculiarities. It is thanks to this broadness of ideas that I have been for twenty-five years the beloved and pampered artiste.
I was delighted with my first soiree in London, and I returned home very gay and very much "anglomaniaised." I found some of my friends there—Parisians who had just arrived—and they were furious. My enthusiasm exasperated them, and we sat up arguing until two in the morning.
The next day I went to Rotten Row. It was glorious weather, and all Hyde Park seemed to be strewn with enormous bouquets. There were the flower-beds wonderfully arranged by the gardeners; then there were the clusters of sunshades, blue, pink, red, white, or yellow, which sheltered the light hats covered with flowers under which shone the pretty faces of children and women. Along the riding path there was an exciting gallop of graceful thoroughbreds bearing along some hundreds of horsewomen, slender, supple, and courageous; then there were men and children, the latter mounted on big Irish ponies. There were other children, too, galloping along on Scotch ponies with long, shaggy manes, the children's hair and the manes of the horses streaming in the wind of their own speed.
The carriage road between the riding-track and the foot passengers was filled with dog-carts, open carriages of various kinds, mail-coaches, and very smart cabs. There were powdered footmen, horses decorated with flowers, sportsmen driving, ladies, too, driving admirable horses. All this elegance, this essence of luxury, and this joy of life brought back to my memory the vision of our Bois de Boulogne, so elegant and so animated a few years before, when Napoleon III. used to drive through on his daumont, nonchalant and smiling. Ah, how beautiful it was in those days—our Bois de Boulogne, with the officers caracoling in the Avenue des Acacias, admired by our beautiful society women!
The joy of life was everywhere—the love of love enveloping life with an infinite charm. I closed my eyes, and I felt a pang at my heart as the awful recollections of 1870 crowded to my brain. He was dead, our gentle Emperor, with his shrewd smile. Dead, vanquished by the sword, betrayed by fortune, crushed with grief.
The thread of life in Paris had been taken up again in all its intenseness, but the life of elegance, of charm, and of luxury was still shrouded in crape. Scarcely eight years had passed since the war had struck down our soldiers, ruined our hopes, and tarnished our glory. Three Presidents had already succeeded each other. That wretched little Thiers, with his perverse bourgeois soul, had worn his teeth out with nibbling at every kind of Government—royalty under Louis Philippe, Empire under Napoleon III., and the executive power of the French Republic. He had never even thought of lifting our beloved Paris up again, bowed down as she was under the weight of so many ruins. He had been succeeded by MacMahon, a good, brave man, but a cipher. Grevy had succeeded the Marshal, but he was miserly, and considered all outlay unnecessary for himself, for other people, and for the country. And so Paris remained sad, nursing the leprosy that the Commune had communicated to her by the kiss of its fires. And our delightful Bois de Boulogne still bore the traces of the injuries that the national defence had inflicted on her. The Avenue des Acacias was deserted.
I opened my eyes again. They were filled with tears, and through their mist I caught a glimpse once more of the triumphant vitality which surrounded me.
I wanted to return home at once, for I was acting that night for the first time, and I felt rather wretched and despairing. There were several persons awaiting me at my house in Chester Square, but I did not want to see any one. I took a cup of tea and went to the Gaiety Theatre, where we were to face the English public for the first time. I knew already that I had been elected the favourite, and the idea of this chilled me with terror, for I am what is known as a traqueuse. I am subject to the trac or stage fright, and I have it terribly. When I first appeared on the stage I was timid, but I never had this trac. I used to turn as red as a poppy when I happened to meet the eye of some spectator. I was ashamed of talking so loud before so many silent people. That was the effect of my cloistered life, but I had no feeling of fear. The first time I ever had the real sensation of trac or stage fright was in the month of January 1869, at the seventh or perhaps the eighth performance of Le Passant. The success of this little masterpiece had been enormous, and my interpretation of the part of Zanetto had delighted the public, and particularly the students. When I went on the stage that day I was suddenly applauded by the whole house. I turned towards the Imperial box, thinking that the Emperor had just entered. But no; the box was empty, and I realised then that all the bravos were for me. I was seized with a fit of nervous trembling, and my eyes smarted with tears that I had to keep back. Agar and I had five curtain calls, and on leaving the theatre the students ranged on each side gave me three cheers. On reaching home I flung myself into the arms of my blind grandmother, who was then living with me.