When I was a little calmer I called out in a subdued voice, "Cesar! my dear Cesar, my beautiful Cesar! You know I am the Angel Raphael!" Ah, much Cesar cared for him. He considered my presence, alone, at so late an hour in the garden and on the gymnasium quite incomprehensible. Why was I not in the refectory? Poor Cesar, he went on growling, and I was getting very hungry, and began to think things were most unjust. It was true that I had been to blame for taking the soldier's shako, but after all, he had commenced. Why had he thrown his shako over the wall? My imagination now came to my aid, and in the end I began to look upon myself as a martyr. I had been left to the dog, and he would eat me. I was terrified at the dead people behind me, and every one knew I was very nervous. My chest too was delicate, and there I was, exposed to the biting cold with no protection whatever. I began to think about Mother St. Sophie, who evidently no longer cared for me, as she was deserting me so cruelly. I lay with my face downwards on the plank, and gave myself up to the wildest despair, calling my mother, my father, and Mother St. Sophie, sobbing, wishing I could die there and then—Between my sobs I suddenly heard my name pronounced by a voice. I got up, and, peering through the gloom, caught a glimpse of my beloved Mother St. Sophie. She was there, the dear saint, and had never left her rebellious child. Concealed behind the statue of St. Augustine, she had been praying whilst awaiting the end of this crisis, which in her simplicity she had believed might prove fatal to my reason and perhaps to my salvation. She had sent every one away and remained there alone, and she too had not dined. I came down and threw myself, repentant and wretched, into her motherly arms. She did not say a word to me about the horrible incident, but took me quickly back to the convent. I was all damp with the icy evening dew, my cheeks were feverish, and my hands and feet frozen.
I had an attack of pleurisy after this, and was twenty-three days between life and death. Mother St. Sophie never left me an instant. The sweet Mother blamed herself for my illness, declaring as she beat her breast that she had left me outside too long.
"It's my fault! It's my fault!" she kept exclaiming.
My aunt Faure came to see me nearly every day. My mother was in Scotland, and came back by short stages. My aunt Rosine was at Baden-Baden, ruining the whole family with a new "system." "I am coming. I am coming," she kept saying, when she wrote to ask how I was. Dr. Despagne and Dr. Monod, who had been called in for a consultation, did not think there was any hope. Baron Larrey, who was very fond of me, came often. He had a certain influence over me, and I willingly obeyed him. My mother arrived a short time before my convalescence, and did not leave me again. As soon as I could be moved she took me to Paris, promising to send me back to the convent when I was quite well.
It was for ever, though, that I had left my dear convent, but it was not for ever that I left Mother St. Sophie. I seemed to take something of her away with me. For a long time she was part of my life, and even to-day, when she has been dead for years, she haunts my mind, bringing back to me the simple thoughts of former days and making the simple flowers of yore bloom again.
Life for me then commenced in earnest.
The cloister life is a life for every one. There may be a hundred or a thousand individuals there, but every one lives a life which is the same and the only life for all. The rumour of the outside world dies away at the heavy cloister gate. The sole ambition is to sing more loudly than the others at vespers, to take a little more of the form, to be at the end of the table, to be on the list of honour. When I was told that I was not to go back to the convent, it was to me as though I was to be thrown into the sea when I could not swim.
I besought my godfather to let me go back to the convent. The dowry left to me by my father was ample enough for the dowry of a nun. I wanted to take the veil. "Very well," replied my godfather; "you can take the veil in two years' time, but not before. In the meantime learn all that you do not yet know (and that means everything) from the governess your mother has chosen for you."
That very day an elderly unmarried lady, with soft, grey, gentle eyes, came and took possession of my life, my mind, and my conscience for eight hours every day. Her name was Mlle. de Brabender, and she had educated a grand duchess in Russia. She had a sweet voice, an enormous sandy moustache, a grotesque nose, but a way of walking, of expressing herself, and of bowing which simply commanded deference. She lived at the convent in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, and this was why, in spite of my mother's entreaties, she refused to come and remain with us.
She soon won my affection, and I learnt quite easily with her everything that she wanted me to learn. I worked eagerly, for my dream was to return to the convent, not as a pupil, but as a teaching sister.
THE FAMILY COUNCIL AND MY FIRST VISIT TO A THEATRE
I arose one September morning, my heart leaping with some remote joy. It was eight o'clock. I pressed my forehead against the window-panes and gazed out, looking at I know not what. I had been roused with a start in the midst of some fine dream, and I had rushed towards the light in the hope of finding in the infinite space of the grey sky the luminous point that would explain my anxious and blissful expectation. Expectation of what? I could not have answered that question then, any more than I can now after much reflection. I was on the eve of my fifteenth birthday, and I was in a state of expectation as to the future of my life. That particular morning seemed to me to be the precursor of a new era. I was not mistaken, for on that September day my fate was settled for me.
Hypnotised by what was taking place in my mind, I remained with my forehead pressed against the window-pane, gazing through the halo of vapour formed by my breath at houses, palaces, carriages, jewels, and pearls passing along in front of me—oh, what a number of pearls there were! There were princes and kings, too; yes, I could even see kings! Oh! how fast one's imagination travels, and its enemy, reason, always allows it to roam on alone. In my fancy I proudly rejected the princes, I rejected the kings, refused the pearls and the palaces, and declared that I was going to be a nun, for in the infinite grey sky I had caught a glimpse of the convent of Grand-Champs, of my white bed-room, and of the small lamp that swung to and fro above the little Virgin all decorated with flowers by us. The king offered me a throne, but I preferred the throne of our Mother Superior, and I entertained a vague ambition to occupy it some far-off day in the distant future; the king was heart-broken and dying of despair. Yes, mon Dieu! I preferred to the pearls that were offered me by princes the pearls of the rosary I was telling with my fingers; and no costume could compete in my mind with the black barege veil that fell like a soft shadow over the snowy-white cambric that encircled the beloved faces of the nuns of Grand-Champs. I do not know how long I had been dreaming thus when I heard my mother's voice asking our old servant Marguerite if I were awake. With one bound I was back in bed, and I buried my face under the sheet. Mamma half opened the door very gently, and I pretended to wake up.
"How lazy you are to-day!" she said. I kissed her, and answered in a coaxing tone, "It is Thursday, and I have no music lesson.'"
"And are you glad?" she asked.
"Oh yes," I replied promptly.
My mother frowned; she adored music, and I hated the piano. She was so fond of music that although she was then nearly thirty, she took lessons herself in order to encourage me to practise. What horrible torture it was! I used, very wickedly, to do my utmost to set my mother and my music mistress at variance. They were both of them as short-sighted as possible. When my mother had practised a new piece three or four days, she knew it by heart and played it fairly well, to the astonishment of Mlle. Clarisse, my insufferable old teacher, who held the music in her hand and read every note with her nose nearly touching the page. One day I heard, with joy, a quarrel beginning between mamma and this disagreeable Mlle. Clarisse.
"There, that's a quaver!"
"No, there's no quaver!"
"This is a flat!"
"No, you forget the sharp! How absurd you are, Mademoiselle!" added my mother, perfectly furious.
A few minutes later my mother went to her room, and Mlle. Clarisse departed, muttering as she left.
As for me, I was choking with laughter in my bed-room, for one of my cousins, who was a good musician, had helped me to add sharps, flats, and quavers, and we had done it with such care that even a trained eye would have had difficulty in discerning the fraud immediately. As Mlle. Clarisse had been sent off, I had no lesson that day. Mamma gazed at me a long time with her mysterious eyes, the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen in my life, and then she said, speaking very slowly:
"After luncheon there is to be a family council."
I felt myself turning pale.
"All right," I answered. "What frock am I to put on, Mamma?" I said this merely for the sake of saying something, and to keep myself from crying.
"Put your blue silk on; you look more staid in that."
Just at this moment my sister Jeanne opened the door boisterously, and with a burst of laughter jumped on to my bed and, slipping under the sheets, called out, "I'm there!"
Marguerite had followed her into the room, panting and scolding. The child had escaped from her just as she was about to bathe her, and had announced, "I'm going into my sister's bed."
Jeanne's mirth at this moment, which I felt was a very serious one for me, made me burst out crying and sobbing. My mother, not understanding the reason of this grief, shrugged her shoulders, told Marguerite to fetch Jeanne's slippers, and taking the little bare feet in her hands, kissed them tenderly.
I sobbed more bitterly than ever. It was very evident that mamma loved my sister more than me, and this preference, which did not trouble me in an ordinary way, hurt me sorely now.
Mamma went away quite out of patience with me. I fell asleep in order to forget, and was roused by Marguerite, who helped me to dress, as otherwise I should have been late for luncheon. The guests that day were Aunt Rosine, Mlle. de Brabender, my governess (a charming creature, whom I have always regretted), my godfather, and the Duc de Morny, a great friend of my godfather and of my mother. The luncheon was a mournful meal for me, as I was thinking all the time about the family council. Mlle. de Brabender, in her gentle way and with her affectionate words, insisted on my eating. My sister burst out laughing when she looked at me.
"Your eyes are as little as that," she said, putting her small thumb on the tip of her forefinger; "and it serves you right, because you've been crying, and Mamma doesn't like any one to cry. Do you, Mamma?"
"What have you been crying about?" asked the Duc de Morny. I did not answer, in spite of the friendly nudge Mlle. de Brabender gave me with her sharp elbow. The Duc de Morny always awed me a little. He was gentle and kind, but he was a great quiz. I knew, too, that he occupied a high place at court, and that my family considered his friendship a great honour.
"Because I told her that after luncheon there was to be a family council on her behalf," said my mother, speaking slowly. "At times it seems to me that she is quite idiotic. She quite disheartens me."
"Come, come," exclaimed my godfather, and Aunt Rosine said something in English to the Duc de Morny which made him smile shrewdly under his thin moustache. Mlle. de Brabender scolded me in a low voice, and her scoldings were like words from heaven. When at last luncheon was over, mamma told me, as she passed, to pour out the coffee. Marguerite helped me to arrange the cups, and I went into the drawing-room. Maitre C——, the notary from Havre, whom I detested, was already there. He represented the family of my father, who had died at Pisa in a way which had never been explained, but which seemed mysterious. My childish hatred was instinctive, and I learnt later on that this man had been my father's bitter enemy. He was very, very ugly, this notary; his whole face seemed to have moved up higher. It was as though he had been hanging by his hair for a long time, and his eyes, his mouth, his cheeks, and his nose had got into the habit of trying to reach the back of his head. He ought to have had a joyful expression, as so many of his features turned up, but instead of this his face was smooth and sinister-looking. He had red hair planted in his head like couch grass, and on his nose he wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. Oh, the horrible man! What a torturing nightmare the very memory of him is, for he was the evil genius of my father, and his hatred now pursued me. My poor grandmother, since the death of my father, never went out, but spent her time mourning the loss of her beloved son who had died so young. She had absolute faith in this man, who besides was the executor of my father's will. He had the control of the money that my dear father had left me. I was not to receive it until the day of my marriage, but my mother was to use the interest for my education. My uncle, Felix Faure, was also there. Seated near the fireplace, buried in an arm-chair, M. Meydieu pulled out his watch in a querulous way. He was an old friend of the family, and he always called me ma fil, which annoyed me greatly, as did his familiarity. He considered me stupid, and when I handed him his coffee he said in a jeering tone: "And it is for you, ma fil, that so many honest people have been hindered in their work. We have plenty of other things to attend to, I can assure you, than to discuss the fate of a little brat like you. Ah, if it had been her sister there would have been no difficulty," and with his benumbed fingers he patted Jeanne's head as she remained on the floor plaiting the fringe of the sofa upon which he was seated.
When the coffee had been drunk, the cups carried away and my sister also, there was a short silence.
The Duc de Morny rose to take his leave, but my mother begged him to stay. "You will be able to advise us," she urged, and the Duc took his seat again near my aunt, with whom it seemed to me he was carrying on a slight flirtation.
Mamma had moved nearer to the window, her embroidery frame in front of her, and her beautiful clear-cut profile showing to advantage against the light. She looked as though she had nothing to do with what was about to be discussed.
The hideous notary had risen.
My uncle had drawn me near to him. My godfather Regis seemed to be the exact counterpart of M. Meydieu. They both of them had the same bourgeois mind, and were equally stubborn and obstinate. They were both devoted to whist and good wine, and they both agreed that I was thin enough for a scarecrow. The door opened, and a pale, dark-haired woman entered, a most poetical-looking and charming creature. It was Madame Guerard, "the lady of the upstairs flat," as Marguerite always called her. My mother had made friends with her in rather a patronising way certainly, but Madame Guerard was devoted to me, and endured the little slights to which she was treated very patiently for my sake. She was tall and slender as a lath, very compliant and demure. She lived in the flat above, and had come down without a hat; she was wearing an indoor gown of indienne with a design of little brown leaves.
M. Meydieu muttered something, I did not catch what. The abominable notary made a very curt bow to Madame Guerard. The Duc de Morny was very gracious, for the new-comer was so pretty. My godfather merely bent his head, as Madame Guerard was nothing to him. Aunt Rosine glanced at her from head to foot. Mlle. de Brabender shook hands cordially with her, for Madame Guerard was fond of me.
My uncle, Felix Faure, gave her a chair, and asked her to sit down, and then inquired in a kindly nay about her husband, a savant, with whom my uncle collaborated sometimes for his book, "The Life of St. Louis."
Mamma had merely glanced across the room without raising her head, for Madame Guerard did not prefer my sister to me.
"Well, as we have come here on account of this child," said my godfather, looking at his watch, "we must begin and discuss what is to be done with her."
I began to tremble, and drew closer to mon petit Dame (as I had always called Madame Guerard from my infancy) and to Mlle. de Brabender. They each took my hand by way of encouraging me.
"Yes," continued M. Meydieu, with a laugh; "it appears you want to be a nun."
"Ah, indeed," said the Duc de Morny to Aunt Rosine.
"Sh!" she retorted, with a laugh. Mamma sighed, and held her wools up close to her eyes to match them.
"You have to be rich, though, to enter a convent," grunted the Havre notary, "and you have not a sou." I leaned towards Mlle. de Brabender and whispered, "I have the money that papa left."
The horrid man overheard.
"Your father left some money to get you married," he said.
"Well, then, I'll marry the bon Dieu" I answered, and my voice was quite resolute now. I turned very red, and for the second time in my life I felt a desire and a strong inclination to fight for myself. I had no more fear, as every one had gone too far and provoked me too much. I slipped away from my two kind friends, and advanced towards the other group.
"I will be a nun, I will!" I exclaimed. "I know that papa left me some money so that I should be married, and I know that the nuns marry the Saviour. Mamma says she does not care, it is all the same to her, so that it won't be vexing her at all, and they love me better at the convent than you do here!"
"My dear child," said my uncle, drawing me towards him, "your religious vocation appears to me to be more a wish to love—"
"And to be loved," murmured Madame Guerard in a very low voice.
Every one glanced at mamma, who shrugged her shoulders lightly. It seemed to me as though the glance they all gave her was a reproachful one, and I felt a pang of remorse at once. I went across to her, and, throwing my arms round her neck, said:
"You don't mind my being a nun, do you? It won't make you unhappy, will it?"
Mamma stroked my hair, of which she was very proud.
"Yes, it would make me unhappy. You know very well that, after your sister, I love you better than any one else in the world."
She said this very slowly in a gentle voice. It was like the sound of a little waterfall as it flows down, babbling and clear, from the mountain, dragging with it the gravel, and gradually increasing in volume with the thawed snow until it sweeps along rocks and trees in its course. This was the effect my mother's clear drawling voice had upon me at that moment. I rushed back impulsively to the others, who were all speechless at this unexpected and spontaneous burst of eloquence. I went from one to the other, explaining my decision, and giving reasons which were certainly no reasons at all. I did my utmost to get someone to support me in the matter. Finally the Duc de Morny was bored, and rose to go.
"Do you know what you ought to do with this child?" he said. "You ought to send her to the Conservatoire."
He then patted my cheek, kissed my aunt's hand, and bowed to all the others. As he bent over my mother's hand I heard him say to her,
"You would have made a bad diplomatist; but follow my advice, and send her to the Conservatoire."
He then took his departure, and I gazed at every one in perfect anguish.
The Conservatoire! What was it? What did it mean? I went up to my governess, Mlle. de Brabender. Her lips were firmly pressed together, and she looked shocked, just as she did sometimes when my godfather told some story that she did not approve at table. My uncle, Felix Faure, was gazing at the floor in an absent-minded way; the notary had a spiteful look in his eyes, my aunt was holding forth in a very excited manner, and M. Meydieu kept shaking his head and muttering,
"Perhaps—yes—who knows?—hum—hum!" Madame Guerard was very pale and sad, and she looked at me with infinite tenderness.
What could this Conservatoire be? The word uttered so carelessly seemed to have entirely disturbed the equanimity of all present. Each one of them seemed to me to have a different impression about it, but none looked pleased. Suddenly in the midst of the general embarrassment my godfather exclaimed brutally:
"She is too thin to make an actress."
"I won't be an actress!" I exclaimed.
"You don't know what an actress is," said my aunt.
"Oh yes, I do. Rachel is an actress."
"You know Rachel?" asked mamma, getting up.
"Oh yes; she came to the convent once to see little Adele Sarony. She went all over the convent and into the garden, and she had to sit down because she could not get her breath. They fetched her something to bring her round, and she was so pale, oh, so pale. I was very sorry for her, and Sister St. Appoline told me what she did was killing her, for she was an actress; and so I won't be an actress—I won't!"
I had said all this in a breath, with my cheeks on fire and my voice hard.
I remembered all that Sister St. Appoline had told me, and Mother St. Sophie, too. I remembered also that when Rachel had gone out of the garden, looking very pale, and holding a lady's arm for support, a little girl had put her tongue out at her. I did not want people to put out their tongues at me when I was grown up.
Conservatoire! That word alarmed me. He wanted me to be an actress, and he had now gone away, so that I could not talk things over with him. He went away smiling and tranquil, after caressing me in the usual friendly way. He had gone, caring little about the scraggy child whose future had been discussed.
"Send her to the Conservatoire!"
And that sentence, uttered carelessly, had come like a bomb into my life.
I, the dreamy child, who that morning was ready to repulse princes and kings; I, whose trembling fingers had that morning told over chaplets of dreams, who only a few hours ago had felt my heart beating with emotion hitherto unknown to me; I, who had got up expecting some great event to take place—was to see everything disappear, thanks to that phrase as heavy as lead and as deadly as a bullet.
"Send her to the Conservatoire!"
And I divined that this phrase was to be the sign-post of my life. All those people had gathered together at the turning of the cross roads. "Send her to the Conservatoire!" I wanted to be a nun, and this was considered absurd, idiotic, unreasonable. "Send her to the Conservatoire!" had opened out a field for discussion, the horizon of a future. My uncle Felix Faure and Mlle. Brabender were the only ones against this idea. They tried in vain to make my mother understand that with the 100,000 francs that my father had left me I might marry. But mother replied that I had declared I had a horror of marriage, and that I should wait until I was of age to go into a convent.
"Under these conditions," she said, "Sarah will never have her father's money."
"No, certainly not," put in the notary.
"Then," continued my mother, "she would enter the convent as a servant, and I will not have that! My money is an annuity, so that I cannot leave anything to my children. I therefore want them to have a career of their own."
My mother was now exhausted with so much talking, and lay back in an arm-chair. I got very much excited, and my mother asked me to go away.
Mlle. de Brabender and Madame Guerard were arguing in a low voice, and I thought of the aristocratic man who had just left us. I was very angry with him, for this idea of the Conservatoire was his.
Mlle. de Brabender tried to console me. Madame Guerard said that this career had its advantages. Mlle. de Brabender considered that the convent would have a great fascination for so dreamy a nature as mine. The latter was very religious and a great church-goer, mon petit Dame was a pagan in the purest acceptation of that word, and yet the two women got on very well together, thanks to their affectionate devotion to me.
Madame Guerard adored the proud rebelliousness of my nature, my pretty face, and the slenderness of my figure; Mlle. de Brabender was touched by my delicate health. She endeavoured to comfort me when I was jealous at not being loved as much as my sister, but what she liked best about me was my voice. She always declared that my voice was modulated for prayers, and my delight in the convent appeared to her quite natural. She loved me with a gentle pious affection, and Madame Guerard loved me with bursts of paganism. These two women, whose memory is still dear to me, shared me between them, and made the best of my good qualities and my faults. I certainly owe to both of them this study of myself and the vision I have of myself.
The day was destined to end in the strangest of fashions. Madame Guerard had gone back to her apartment upstairs, and I was lying back on a little cane arm-chair which was the most ornamental piece of furniture in my room. I felt very drowsy, and was holding Mlle. de Brabender's hand in mine, when the door opened and my aunt entered, followed by my mother. I can see them now, my aunt in her dress of puce silk trimmed with fur, her brown velvet hat tied under her chin with long, wide strings, and mamma, who had taken off her dress and put on a white woollen dressing-gown. She always detested keeping on her dress in the house, and I understood by her change of costume that every one had gone and that my aunt was ready to leave. I got up from my arm-chair, but mamma made me sit down again.
"Rest yourself thoroughly," she said, "for we are going to take you to the theatre this evening, to the Francais." I felt sure that this was just a bait, and I would not show any sign of pleasure, although in my heart I was delighted at the idea of going to the Francais. The only theatre I knew anything of was the Robert Houdin, to which I was taken sometimes with my sister, and I fancy that it was for her benefit we went, as I was really too old to care for that kind of performance. "Will you come with us?" mamma said, turning to Mlle. de Brabender.
"Willingly, Madame," replied this dear creature. "I will go home and change my dress."
My aunt laughed at my sullen looks.
"Little fraud," she said, as she went away; "you are hiding your delight. Ah well, you will see some actresses to-night."
"Is Rachel going to act?" I asked.
"Oh no; she is ill."
My aunt kissed me and went away, saying she should see me again later on, and my mother followed her out of the room. Mlle. de Brabender then hurriedly prepared to leave me. She had to go home to dress and to say that she would not be in until quite late, for in her convent special permission had to be obtained when one wished to be out later than ten at night. When I was alone I swung myself backwards and forwards in my arm-chair, which, by the way, was anything but a rocking-chair. I began to think, and for the first time in my life my critical comprehension came to my aid. And so all these serious people had been inconvenienced, the notary fetched from Havre, my uncle dragged away from working at his book, the old bachelor M. Meydieu disturbed in his habits and customs, my godfather kept away from the Stock Exchange, and that aristocratic and sceptical Duc de Morny cramped up for two hours in the midst of our bourgeois surroundings, and all to end in this decision, She shall be taken to the theatre. I do not know what part my uncle had played in this burlesque plan, but I doubt whether it was to his taste. All the same, I was glad to go to the theatre; it made me feel more important. That morning on waking up I was quite a child, and now events had taken place which had transformed me into a young girl. I had been discussed by every one, and I had expressed my wishes, without any result, certainly, but all the same I had expressed them, and now it was deemed necessary to humour and indulge me in order to win me over. They could not force me into agreeing to what they wanted me to do. My consent was necessary, and I felt so joyful and so proud about it that I was quite touched and almost ready to yield. I said to myself that it would be better to hold my own and let them ask me again.
After dinner we all squeezed into a cab, mamma, my godfather, Mlle. de Brabender, and I. My godfather made me a present of some white gloves.
On mounting the steps at the Theatre Francais I trod on a lady's dress. She turned round and called me a "stupid child." I moved back hastily, and came into collision with a very stout old gentleman, who gave me a rough push forward.
When once we were all installed in a box facing the stage, mamma and I in the first row, with Mlle. de Brabender behind me, I felt more reassured. I was close against the partition of the box, and I could feel Mlle. de Brabender's sharp knees through the velvet of my chair. This gave me confidence, and I leaned against the back of the chair purposely to feel the support of those two knees.
When the curtain slowly rose I thought I should have fainted. It was as though the curtain of my future life were being raised. These columns (Britannicus was being played) were to be my palaces, the borders above were to be my skies, and those boards were to bend under my frail weight. I heard nothing of Britannicus, for I was far, far away, at Grand-Champs, in my dormitory there.
"Well, what do you think of it?" asked my godfather when the curtain fell. I did not answer, and he laid his hand on my head and turned my face round towards him. I was crying, and big tears were rolling slowly down my cheeks, those tears that come without any sobs and without any hope of ever ceasing.
My godfather shrugged his shoulders, and getting up, left the box, banging the door after him. Mamma, losing all patience with me, proceeded to review the house through her opera-glasses.
Mlle. de Brabender passed me her handkerchief, for I had dropped mine and dared not pick it up.
* * * * *
The curtain had been raised for the second piece, Amphytrion, and I made an effort to listen, for the sake of pleasing my governess, who was so gentle and conciliating. I can only remember one thing, and that is that Alcmene seemed to be so unhappy that I burst into loud sobs, and that the whole house, very much amused, looked at our box. My mother, greatly annoyed, took me out, and Mlle. de Brabender went with us. My godfather was furious, and muttered, "She ought to be shut up in a convent and left there. Good heavens, what a little idiot the child is!" This was the debut of my artistic career.
MY CAREER—FIRST LESSONS
I was beginning to think, though, of my new career. Books were sent to me from all quarters: Racine, Corneille, Moliere, Casimir Delavigne, &c. I opened them, but, as I did not understand them at all, I quickly closed them again, and read my little Lafontaine, which I loved passionately. I knew all his fables, and one of my delights was to make a bet with my godfather or with M. Meydieu, our learned and tiresome friend. I used to bet that they would not recognise all the fables if I began with the last verse and went backwards to the first one, and I often won the bet.
A line from my aunt arrived one day, telling my mother that M. Auber, who was then director of the Conservatoire, was expecting us the next day at nine in the morning. I was about to put my foot in the stirrup. My mother sent me with Madame Guerard. M. Auber received us very affably, as the Duc de Morny had spoken to him of me. I was very much impressed by him, with his refined face and white hair, his ivory complexion and magnificent black eyes, his fragile and distinguished look, his melodious voice and the celebrity of his name. I scarcely dared answer his questions. He spoke to me very gently, and told me to sit down.
"You are very fond of the stage?" he began.
"Oh, no, Monsieur," I answered.
This unexpected reply amazed him. He looked at Madame Guerard from under his heavy eyelids, and she at once said: "No, she does not care for the stage; but she does not want to marry, and consequently she will have no money, as her father left her a hundred thousand francs which she can only get on her wedding-day. Her mother, therefore, wants her to have some profession, for Madame Bernhardt has only an annuity, a fairly good one, but it is only an annuity, and so she will not be able to leave her daughters anything. On that account she wants Sarah to become independent. She would like to enter a convent."
"But that is not an independent career, my child," said Auber slowly. "How old is she?" he asked.
"Fourteen and a half," replied Madame Guerard.
"No," I exclaimed, "I am nearly fifteen."
The kind old man smiled.
"In twenty years from now," he said, "you will insist less upon the exact figures," and, evidently thinking the visit had lasted long enough, he rose.
"It appears," he said to Madame Guerard, "that this little girl's mother is very beautiful?"
"Oh, very beautiful," she replied.
"You will please express my regret to her that I have not seen her, and my thanks for her having been so charmingly replaced." He thereupon kissed Madame Guerard's hand, and she coloured slightly. This conversation remained engraved on my mind. I remember every word of it, every movement and every gesture of M. Auber's, for this little man, so charming and so gentle, held my future in his transparent-looking hand. He opened the door for us and, touching me on my shoulder, said: "Come, courage, little girl. Believe me, you will thank your mother some day for driving you to it. Don't look so sad. Life is well worth beginning seriously, but gaily."
I stammered out a few words of thanks, and just as I was making my exit a fine-looking woman knocked against me. She was heavy and extremely bustling, though, and M. Auber bent his head towards me and said quietly:
"Above all things, don't let yourself get stout like this singer. Stoutness is the enemy of a woman and of an artist."
The man-servant was now holding the door open for us, and as M. Auber returned to his visitor I heard him say:
"Well, most ideal of women?"
I went away rather astounded, and did not say a word in the carriage. Madame Guerard told my mother about our interview, but she did not even let her finish, and only said, "Good, good; thank you."
As the examination was to take place a month after this visit, it became necessary to prepare for it. My mother did not know any theatrical people. My godfather advised me to learn Phedre, but Mlle. de Brabender objected, as she thought it a little offensive, and refused to help me if I chose that. M. Meydieu, our old friend, wanted me to work at Chimene in Le Cid, but first he declared that I clenched my teeth too much for it. It was quite true that I did not make the o open enough and did not roll the r sufficiently either. He wrote a little note-book for me, which I am copying textually, as my poor dear Guerard religiously kept everything concerning me, and she gave me, later on, a quantity of papers which are useful now.
The following is our odious friend's work:
"Every morning instead of do .. re .. mi ... practise te .. de .. de.., in order to learn to vibrate....
"Before breakfast repeat forty times over, Un-tres-gros-rat-dans-un-tres-gros-trou, in order to vibrate the r.
"Before dinner repeat forty times: Combien ces six saucisses-ci? C'est six sous, ces six saucisses-ci. Six sous ces six saucisses-ci? Six sous ceux-ci! Six sous ceux-la; six sous ces six saucissons-ci! in order to learn not to whizz the s.
"At night, when going to bed, repeat twenty times: Didon dina, dit-on, du dos d'un dodu dindon.
"And twenty times: Le plus petit papa, petit pipi, petit popo, petit pupu. Open the mouth square for the d and pout for the p."
He gave this piece of work quite seriously to Mlle. de Brabender, who quite seriously wanted me to practise it. My governess was charming, and I was very fond of her, but I could not help yelling with laughter when, after making me go through the te de de exercise, which went fairly well, and then the tres gros rat, &c., she started on the saucisson (sausages)! Ah, no. There was a cacophony of hisses in her toothless mouth, enough to make all the dogs in Paris howl. And when she began with the Didon, accompanied by the plus petit papa, I thought my dear governess was losing her reason. She half closed her eyes, her face was red, her moustache bristled up, she put on a sententious, hurried manner; her mouth widened out and looked like the slit in a money-box, or else it was creased up into a little ring, and she purred and hissed and chirped and fooled without ceasing. I flung myself exhausted into my wicker chair, choking with laughter, and great tears poured from my eyes. I stamped on the floor, flung my arms out right and left until they were tired, and rocked myself backwards and forwards, pealing with laughter.
My mother, attracted by the noise I was making, half opened the door. Mlle. de Brabender explained to her very gravely that she was showing me M. Meydieu's method. My mother expostulated with me, but I would not listen to anything, as I was nearly beside myself with laughter. She then took Mlle. de Brabender away and left me alone, for she feared that I should finish with hysterics. When once I was by myself I began to calm down. I closed my eyes and thought of my convent again. The te de de got mixed up in my enervated brain with the "Our Father," which I used to have to repeat some days fifteen or twenty times as a punishment. Finally I came to myself again, got up, and after bathing my face in cold water went to my mother, whom I found playing whist with my governess and godfather. I kissed Mlle. de Brabender, and she returned my kiss with such indulgent kindness that I felt quite embarrassed by it.
Ten days passed by, and I did none of M. Meydieu's exercises, except the te de de at the piano. My mother came and woke me every morning for this, and it drove me wild. My godfather made me learn Aricie, but I understood nothing of what he told me about the verses. He considered, and explained to me, that poetry must be said with an intonation, and that all the value of it resided in the rhyme. His theories were boring to listen to and impossible to execute. Then I could not understand Aricie's character, for it did not seem to me that she loved Hippolyte at all, and she appeared to me to be a scheming flirt. My godfather explained to me that in olden times this was the way people loved each other, and when I remarked that Phedre appeared to love in a better way than that, he took me by the chin and said: "Just look at this naughty child. She is pretending not to understand, and would like us explain to her...."
This was simply idiotic. I did not understand, and had not asked anything, but this man had a bourgeois mind, and was sly and lewd. He did not like me because I was thin, but he was interested in me because I was going to be an actress. That word evoked for him the weak side of our art. He did not see the beauty, the nobleness of it, nor yet its beneficial power.
I could not fathom all this at that time, but I did not feel at ease with this man, whom I had seen from my childhood and who was almost like a father to me. I did not want to continue learning Aricie. In the first place, I could not talk about it with my governess, as she would not discuss the piece at all.
I then learnt L'Ecole des Femmes, and Mlle. de Brabender explained Agnes to me. The dear, good lady did not see much in it, for the whole story appeared to her of childlike simplicity, and when I said the lines, "He has taken from me, he has taken from me the ribbon you gave me," she smiled in all confidence when Meydieu and my godfather laughed heartily.
Finally the examination day arrived. Every one had given me advice, but no one any real helpful counsel. It had not occurred to any one that I ought to have had a professional to prepare me for my examination. I got up in the morning with a heavy heart and an anxious mind. My mother had had a black silk dress made for me. It was slightly low-necked, and was finished with a gathered berthe. The frock was rather short, and showed my drawers. These were trimmed with embroidery, and came down to my brown kid boots. A white guimpe emerged from my black bodice and was fastened round my throat, which was too slender. My hair was parted on my forehead and then fell as it liked, for it was not held by pins or ribbons. I wore a large straw hat, although the season was rather advanced. Every one came to inspect my dress, and I was turned round and round twenty times at least. I had to make my curtsey for every one to see. Finally I seemed to give general satisfaction. Mon petit Dame came downstairs, with her grave husband, and kissed me. She was deeply affected. Our old Marguerite made me sit down, and put before me a cup of cold beef tea, which she had simmered so carefully for a long time that it was then a delicious jelly; I swallowed it in a second. I was in a great hurry to start. On rising from my chair, I moved so brusquely that my dress caught on to an invisible splinter of wood, and was torn. My mother turned to a visitor, who had arrived about five minutes before and had remained in contemplative admiration ever since.
"There," she said to him in a vexed tone, "that is a proof of what I told you. All your silks tear with the slightest movement."
"Oh no," replied our visitor quickly; "I told you that this one was not well dressed, and let you have it at a low price on that account."
He who spoke was a young Jew, not ugly. He was a Dutchman—shy, tenacious, but never violent. I had known him from my childhood. His father, who was a friend of my grandfather's on my mother's side, was a rich tradesman and the father of a tribe of children. He gave each of his sons a small sum of money, and sent them out to make their fortune where they liked. Jacques, the one of whom I am speaking, came to Paris. He had commenced by selling Passover cakes, and as a boy had often brought me some of them to the convent, together with the dainties that my mother sent me. Later on, my surprise was great on seeing him offer my mother rolls of oil-cloth such as is used for tablecloths for early breakfast. I remember one of those cloths the border of which was formed of medallions representing the French kings. It was from that oil-cloth that I learned my history best. For the last month he had owned quite an elegant vehicle, and he sold "silks that were not well dressed." At present he is one of the leading jewellers of Paris.
The slit in my dress was soon mended, and, knowing now that the silk was not well dressed, I treated it with respect. Well, finally we started, Mlle. de Brabender, Madame Guerard, and I, in a carriage that was only intended for two persons; and I was glad that it was so small, for I was close to two people who were fond of me, and my silk frock was spread carefully over their knees.
When I entered the waiting-room that leads into the recital hall of the Conservatoire, there were about fifteen young men and twenty girls there. All these girls were accompanied by their mother, father, aunt, brother, or sister. There was an odour of pomade and vanilla that made me feel sick.
When we were shown into this room I felt that every one was looking at me, and I blushed to the back of my head. Madame Guerard drew me gently along, and I turned to take Mlle. de Brabender's hand. She came shyly forward, blushing more and still more confused than I was. Every one looked at her, and I saw the girls nudge each other and nod in her direction.
One of them got suddenly up and moved across to her mother. "Oh, mercy, look at that old sight!" she said. My poor governess felt most uncomfortable, and I was furious, I thought she was a thousand times nicer than all those fat, dressed-up, common-looking mothers. Certainly she was different from other people in her appearance, for Mlle. de Brabender was wearing a salmon-coloured dress and an Indian shawl, drawn tightly across her shoulders and fastened with a very large cameo brooch. Her bonnet was trimmed with ruches, so close together that it looked like a nun's head-gear. She certainly was not at all like these dreadful people in whose society we found ourselves, and among whom there were not more than ten exceptions. The young men were standing in compact groups near the windows. They were laughing and, I expect, making remarks in doubtful taste.
The door opened and a girl with a red face, and a young man perfectly scarlet, came back after acting their scene. They each went to their respective friends and then chattered away, finding fault with each other. A name was called out: Mlle. Dica Petit, and I saw a tall, fair, distinguished-looking girl move forward without any embarrassment. She stopped on her way to kiss a pretty woman, stout, with a pink and white complexion, and very much dressed up.
"Don't be afraid, mother dear," she said, and then she added a few words in Dutch before disappearing, followed by a young man and a very thin girl who were to perform with her.
This was explained to me by Leautaud, who called over the names of the pupils and took down the names of those who were up to pass their examination and those who were to act with them and give them the cues. I knew nothing of all this, and wondered who was to give me the cues for Agnes. He mentioned several young men, but I interrupted him.
"Oh no," I said; "I will not ask any one. I do not know any of them, and I will not ask."
"Well, then, what will you recite, Mademoiselle?" asked Leautaud, with the most fouchtre accent possible.
"I will recite a fable," I replied.
He burst out laughing as he wrote down my name and the title, Deux Pigeons, which I gave him. I heard him still laughing under his heavy moustache as he continued his round. He then went back into the Conservatoire, and I began to get feverish with excitement, so much so that Madame Guerard was anxious about me, as my health unfortunately was very delicate. She made me sit down, and then she put a few drops of eau-de-Cologne behind my ears.
"There, that will teach you to wink like that!" were the words I suddenly heard, and a girl with the prettiest face imaginable had her ears boxed soundly. Nathalie Mauvoy's mother was correcting her daughter. I sprang up, trembling with fright and indignation; I was as angry as a young turkey-cock. I wanted to go and box the horrible woman's ears in return, and then to kiss the pretty girl who had been insulted in this way, but I was held back firmly by my two guardians.
Dica Petit now returned, and this caused a diversion in the waiting-room. She was radiant and quite satisfied with herself. Oh, very well satisfied indeed! Her father held out a little flask to her in which was some kind of cordial, and I should have liked some of it too, for my mouth was dry and burning. Her mother then put a little woollen square over her chest before fastening her coat for her, and then all three of them went away. Several other girls and young men were called before my turn came.
Finally the call of my name made me jump as a sardine does when pursued by a big fish. I tossed my head to shake my hair back, and mon petit Dame stroked my badly dressed silk. Mlle. de Brabender reminded me about the o and the a, the r, the p, and the t, and I then went alone into the hall.
I had never been alone an hour in my life. As a little child I was always clinging to the skirts of my nurse; at the convent I was always with one of my friends or one of the sisters; at home either with Mlle. de Brabender or Madame Guerard, or if they were not there in the kitchen with Marguerite. And now there I was alone in that strange-looking room, with a platform at the end, a large table in the middle, and, seated round this table, men who either grumbled, growled, or jeered. There was only one woman present, and she had a loud voice. She was holding an eyeglass, and as I entered she dropped it and looked at me through her opera-glass. I felt every one's gaze on my back as I climbed up the few steps on to the platform. Leautaud bent forward and whispered, "Make your bow and commence, and then stop when the chairman rings." I looked at the chairman, and saw that it was M. Auber. I had forgotten that he was director of the Conservatoire, just as I had forgotten everything else. I at once made my bow and began:
Deux pigeons s'aimaient d'amour tendre, L'un d'eux s'ennuyant....
A low, grumbling sound was heard, and then a "ventriloquist" muttered, "It isn't an elocution class here. What an idea to come here reciting fables!"
It was Beauvallet, the deafening tragedian of the Comedie Francaise. I stopped short, my heart beating wildly.
"Go on, my child," said a man with silvery hair. This was Provost.
"Yes, it won't be as long as a scene from a play," exclaimed Augustine Brohan, the one woman present.
I began again:
Deux pigeons s'aimaient d'amour tendre, L'un d'eux s'ennuyant au logis Fut assez....
"Louder, my child, louder," said a little man with curly white hair, in a kindly tone. This was Samson.
I stopped again, confused and frightened, seized suddenly with such a foolish fit of nervousness that I could have shouted or howled. Samson saw this, and said to me, "Come, come; we are not ogres!" He had just been talking in a low voice with Auber.
"Come now, begin again," he said, "and speak up."
"Ah no," put in Augustine Brohan, "if she is to begin again it will be longer than a scene!" This speech made all the table laugh, and that gave me time to recover myself. I thought all these people unkind to laugh like this at the expense of a poor little trembling creature who had been delivered over to them, bound hand and foot.
I felt, without exactly defining it, a slight contempt for these pitiless judges. Since then I have very often thought of that trial of mine, and I have come to the conclusion that individuals who are kind, intelligent, and compassionate become less estimable when they are together. The feeling of personal irresponsibility arouses their evil instincts, and the fear of ridicule chases away their good ones.
When I had recovered my will power I began my fable again, determined not to mind what happened. My voice was more liquid on account of the emotion, and the desire to make myself heard caused it to be more resonant.
There was silence, and before I had finished my fable the little bell rang. I bowed and came down the few steps from the platform, thoroughly exhausted. M. Auber stopped me as I was passing by the table.
"Well, little girl," he said, "that was very good indeed. M. Provost and M. Beauvallet both want you in their class."
I recoiled slightly when he told me which was M. Beauvallet, for he was the "ventriloquist" who had given me such a fright.
"Well, which of these two gentlemen should you prefer?" he asked.
I did not utter a word, but pointed to M. Provost.
"That's all right. Get your handkerchief out, my poor Beauvallet, and I shall entrust this child to you, my dear Provost."
I understood, and, wild with joy, I exclaimed, "Then I have passed?"
"Yes, you have passed; and there is only one thing I regret, and that is that such a pretty voice should not be for music."
I did not hear anything else, for I was beside myself with joy. I did not stay to thank any one, but bounded to the door.
"Mon petit Dame! Mademoiselle, I have passed!" I exclaimed, and when they shook hands and asked me no end of questions I could only reply, "Oh, it's quite true. I have passed, I have passed!"
I was surrounded and questioned.
"How do you know that you have passed? No one knows beforehand."
"Yes, yes; I know, though. Monsieur Auber told me. I am to go into Monsieur Provost's class. Monsieur Beauvallet wanted me, but his voice is too loud for me!"
A disagreeable girl exclaimed, "Can't you stop that? And so they all want you!" A pretty girl, who was too dark, though, for my taste, came nearer and asked me gently what I had recited.
"The fable of the 'Two Pigeons," I replied.
She was surprised, and so was every one; while, as for me, I was wildly delighted to surprise them all. I tossed my hat on my head, shook my frock out, and, dragging my two friends along, ran away dancing. They wanted to take me to the confectioner's to have something, but I refused. We got into a cab, and I should have liked to push that cab along myself. I fancied I saw the words, "I have passed," written up over all the shops.
When, on account of the crowded streets, the cab had to stop, it seemed to me that the people stared at me, and I caught myself tossing my head, as though telling them all that it was quite true I had passed my examination. I never thought any more about the convent, and only experienced a feeling of pride at having succeeded in my first venturesome enterprise. Venturesome, but the success had only depended on me. It seemed to me as though the cabman would never arrive at 265 Rue St. Honore. I kept putting my head out of the window, and saying, "Faster, cabby, faster, please!"
At last we reached the house, and I sprang out of the cab and hurried along to tell the good news to my mother. On the way I was stopped by the daughter of the hall-porter. She was a corset-maker, and worked in a little room on the top floor of the house which was opposite our dining-room, where I used to do my lessons with my governess, so that I could not help seeing her ruddy, wide-awake face constantly. I had never spoken to her, but I knew who she was.
"Well, Mademoiselle Sarah, are you satisfied?" she called out.
"Oh yes, I have passed," I answered, and I could not resist stopping a minute in order to enjoy the astonishment of the hall-porter family. I then hurried on, but on reaching the courtyard came to a dead stand, anger and grief taking possession of me, for there I beheld my petit dame, her two hands forming a trumpet, her head thrown back, shouting to my mother, who was leaning out of the window, "Yes, yes; she has passed!"
I gave her a thump with my clenched hand and began to cry with rage, for I had prepared a little story for my mother, ending up with the joyful surprise. I had intended putting on a very sad look on arriving at the door, and pretending to be broken-hearted and ashamed. I felt sure she would say, "Oh, I am not surprised, my poor child, you are so foolish!" and then I should have thrown my arms round her neck and said, "It isn't true, it isn't true; I have passed!" I had pictured to myself her face brightening up, and then old Marguerite and my godfather laughing heartily and my sisters dancing with joy, and here was Madame Guerard sounding her trumpet and spoiling all the effects that I had prepared so well.
I must say that the kind woman continued as long as she lived, that is the greater part of my life, to spoil all my effects. It was all in vain that I made scenes; she could not help herself. Whenever I related an adventure and wanted it to be very effective, she would invariably burst into fits of laughter before the end of it. If I told a story with a very lamentable ending, which was to be a surprise, she would sigh, roll her eyes, and murmur, "Oh dear, oh dear!" so that I always missed the effect I was counting on. All this used to exasperate me to such a degree that before beginning a story or a game I used to ask her to go out of the room, and she would get up and go, laughing at the idea of the blunder she would make if there.
Abusing Guerard, I went upstairs to my mother, whom I found at the open door. She kissed me affectionately, and on seeing my sulky face asked if I was not satisfied.
"Yes," I replied; "but I am furious with Guerard. Be nice, mamma, and pretend you don't know. Shut the door, and I will ring."
She did this, and I rang the bell. Marguerite opened the door, and my mother came and pretended to be astonished. My sisters, too, arrived, and my godfather and my aunt. When I kissed my mother, exclaiming, "I have passed!" every one shouted with joy, and I was gay again. I had made my effect, anyhow. It was "the career" taking possession of me unawares. My sister Regina, whom the sisters would not have in the convent, and so had sent home, began to dance a jig. She had learnt this in the country when she had been put out to nurse, and upon every occasion she danced it, finishing always with this couplet:
Mon p'tit ventr' ejouis toi Tout ce ze gagn' est pou' toi....
Nothing could be more comic than this chubby child, with her serious air. Regina never laughed, and only a suspicion of a smile ever played over her thin lips and her mouth, which was too small. Nothing could be more comic than to see her, looking grave and rough, dancing the jig.
She was funnier than ever that day, as she was excited by the general joy. She was four years old, and nothing ever embarrassed her. She was both timid and bold. She detested society and people generally, and when she was made to go into the dining-room she embarrassed people by her crude remarks, which were most odd, by her rough answers, and her kicks and blows. She was a terrible child, with silvery hair, dark complexion, blue eyes, too large for her face, and thick lashes which made a shadow on her cheeks when she lowered the lids and joined her eyebrows when her eyes were open. She would be four or five hours sometimes without uttering a word, without answering any question she was asked, and then she would jump up from her little chair, begin to sing as loud as she could, and dance the jig. On this day she was in a good temper, for she kissed me affectionately and opened her thin lips to smile. My sister Jeanne kissed me and made me tell her about my examination. My godfather gave me a hundred francs, and Meydieu, who had just arrived to find out the result, promised to take me the next day to Barbedienne's to choose a clock for my room, as that was one of my dreams.
A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL AND EXAMINATIONS—THE CONSERVATOIRE
An evolution took place in me from that day. For rather a long time my soul remained child-like, but my mind discerned life more distinctly. I felt the need of creating a personality for myself. That was the first awakening of my will. I wanted to be some one. Mlle. de Brabender declared to me that this was pride. It seemed to me that it was not quite that, but I could not then define what the sentiment was which imposed this wish on me. I did not understand until a few months later why I wished to be some one.
A friend of my godfather's made me an offer of marriage. This man was a rich tanner and very kind, but so dark and with such long hair and such a beard that he disgusted me. I refused him, and my godfather then asked to speak to me alone. He made me sit down in my mother's boudoir, and said to me: "My poor child, it is pure folly to refuse Monsieur Bed——. He has sixty thousand francs a year and expectations." It was the first time I had heard this use of the word, and when the meaning was explained to me I wondered if that was the right thing to say on such an occasion.
"Why, yes," replied my godfather; "you are idiotic with your romantic ideas. Marriage is a business affair, and must be considered as such. Your future father- and mother-in-law will have to die, just as we shall, and it is by no means disagreeable to know that they will leave two million francs to their son, and consequently to you, if you marry him."
"I shall not marry him, though."
"Because I do not love him."
"But you never love your husband before——" replied my practical adviser. "You can love him after."
"Ask your mother. But listen to me now, for it is not a question of that. You must marry. Your mother has a small income which your father left her, but this income comes from the profits of the manufactory, which belongs to your grandmother, and she cannot bear your mother, who will therefore lose that income, and then she will have nothing, and three children on her hands. It is that accursed lawyer who is arranging all this. The whys and wherefores would take too long to explain. Your father managed his business affairs very badly. You must marry, therefore, if not for your own sake, for the sake of your mother and sisters. You can then give your mother the hundred thousand francs your father left you, which no one else can touch. Monsieur Bed—— will settle three hundred thousand francs on you. I have arranged everything, so that you can give this to your mother if you like, and with four hundred thousand francs she will be able to live very well."
I cried and sobbed, and asked to have time to think it over. I found my mother in the dining-room.
"Has your godfather told you?" she asked gently, in rather a timid way.
"Yes, mother, yes; he has told me. Let me think it over, will you?" I said, sobbing; as I kissed her neck lingeringly. I then locked myself in my bedroom, and for the first time for many days I regretted my convent. All my childhood rose up before me, and I cried more and more, and felt so unhappy that I wished I could die. Gradually, however, I began to get calm again, and realised what had happened and what my godfather's words meant. Most decidedly I did not want to marry this man. Since I had been at the Conservatoire I had learnt a few things vaguely, very vaguely, for I was never alone, but I understood enough to make me not want to marry without being in love. I was, however, destined to be attacked in a quarter from which I should not have expected it. Madame Guerard asked me to go up to her room to see the embroidery she was doing on a frame for my mother's birthday.
My astonishment was great to find M. Bed—— there. He begged me to change my mind. He made me very wretched, for he pleaded with tears in his eyes.
"Do you want a larger marriage settlement?" he asked. "I would make it five hundred thousand francs."
But it was not that at all, and I said in a very low voice, "I do not love you, Monsieur."
"If you do not marry me, Mademoiselle," he said, "I shall die of grief."
I looked at him, and repeated to myself the words "die of grief." I was embarrassed and desperate, but at the same time delighted, for he loved me just as a man does in a play. Phrases that I had read or heard came to my mind vaguely, and I repeated them without any real conviction, and then left him without the slightest coquetry.
M. Bed—— did not die. He is still living, and has a very important financial position. He is much nicer now than when he was so black, for at present he is quite white.
Well, I had just passed my first examination with remarkable success, particularly in tragedy.
M. Provost, my professor, had not wanted me to compete in Zaire, but I had insisted. I thought that scene with Zaire and her brother Nerestan very fine, and it suited me. But when Zaire, overwhelmed with her brother's reproaches, falls on her knees at his feet, Provost wanted me to say the words, "Strike, I tell you! I love him!" with violence, and I wanted to say them gently, perfectly resigned to a death that was almost certain. I argued about it for a long time with my professor, and finally I appeared to give in to him during the lesson. But on the day of the competition I fell on my knees before Nerestan with a sob so real, my arms outstretched, offering my heart, so full of love, to the deadly blow that I expected, and I murmured with such tenderness, "Strike, I tell you! I love him!" that the whole house burst into applause and repeated the outburst twice over.
The second prize for tragedy was awarded me, to the great dissatisfaction of the public, as it was thought that I ought to have had the first prize. And yet it was only just that I should have the second, on account of my age and the short time I had been studying. I had a first accessit or comedy in La fausse Agnes.
I felt, therefore, that I had the right to refuse. My future lay open before me, and consequently my mother would not be in want if she should lose her present income. A few days later M. Regnier, professor at the Conservatoire and secretary of the Comedie Francaise, came to ask my mother whether she would allow me to play in a piece of his at the Vaudeville. The piece was Germaine, and the managers would give me twenty-five francs for each performance. I was amazed at the sum. Seven hundred and fifty francs a month for my first appearance! I was wild with joy. I besought my mother to accept the offer made by the Vaudeville, and she told me to do as I liked in the matter.
I asked M. Camille Doucet, director of the Fine Arts Department, to be so good as to receive me, and, as my mother always refused to accompany me, Madame Guerard went with me. My little sister Regina begged me to take her, and very unwisely I consented. We had not been in the director's office more than five minutes before my sister, who was only six years old, began to climb on to the furniture. She jumped on to a stool, and finally sat down on the floor, pulling towards her the paper basket, which was under the desk, and proceeded to spread about all the torn papers which it contained. On seeing this Camille Doucet mildly observed that she was not a very good little girl. My sister, with her head in the basket, answered in her husky voice, "If you bother me, Monsieur, I shall tell every one that you are there to give out holy water that is poison. My aunt says so." My face turned purple with shame, and I stammered out, "Please do not believe that, Monsieur Doucet. My little sister is telling an untruth."
Regina sprang to her feet, and clenching her little fists, rushed at me like a little fury. "Aunt Rosine never said that?" she exclaimed. "You are telling an untruth. Why, she said it to Monsieur de Morny, and he answered—"
I had forgotten this, and I have forgotten what the Duc de Morny answered, but, beside myself with anger, I put my hand over my sister's mouth and took her quickly away. She howled like a polecat, and we rushed like a hurricane through the waiting-room, which was full of people.
I then gave way to one of those violent fits of temper to which I had been subject in my childhood. I sprang into the first cab that passed the door, and, when once in the cab, struck my sister with such fury that Madame Guerard was alarmed, and protected her with her own body, receiving all the blows I gave with my head, arms, and feet, for in my anger, grief, and shame I flung myself about to right and left. My grief was all the more profound from the fact that I was very fond of Camille Doucet. He was gentle and charming, affable and kind-hearted. He had refused my aunt something she had asked for, and, unaccustomed to being refused anything, she had a spite against him. This had nothing to do with me, though, and I wondered what Camille Doucet would think. And then, too, I had not asked him about the Vaudeville.
All my fine dreams had come to nothing. And it was this little monster, who looked as fair and as white as a seraph, who had just shattered my first hopes. Huddled up in the cab, an expression of fear on her self-willed looking face and her thin lips compressed, she was gazing at me under her long lashes with half-closed eyes.
On reaching home I told my mother all that had happened, and she declared that my little sister should have no dessert for two days. Regina was greedy, but her pride was greater than her greediness. She turned round on her little heels and, dancing her jig, began to sing, "My little stomach isn't at all pleased," until I wanted to rush at her and shake her.
A few days later, during my lessons, I was told that the Ministry refused to allow me to perform at the Vaudeville.
M. Regnier told me how sorry he was, but he added in a kindly tone:
"Oh, but, my dear child, the Conservatoire thinks a lot of you. Therefore you need not worry too much."
"I am sure that Camille Doucet is at the bottom of it," I said.
"No, he certainly is not," answered M. Regnier. "Camille Doucet was your warmest advocate; but the Minister will not upon any account hear of anything that might be detrimental to your debut next year."
I at once felt most grateful to Camille Doucet for his kindness in bearing no ill-will after my little sister's stupid behaviour. I began to work again with the greatest zeal, and did not miss a single lesson. Every morning I went to the Conservatoire with my governess. We started early, as I preferred walking to taking the omnibus, and I kept the franc which my mother gave me every morning, sixty centimes of which was for the omnibus, and forty for cakes. We were to walk home always, but every other day we took a cab with the two francs I had saved for this purpose. My mother never knew about this little scheme, but it was not without remorse that my kind Brabender consented to be my accomplice.
As I said before, I did not miss a lesson, and I even went to the deportment class, at which poor old M. Elie, duly curled, powdered, and adorned with lace frills, presided. This was the most amusing lesson imaginable. Very few of us attended this class, and M. Elie avenged himself on us for the abstention of the others. At every lesson each one of us was called forward. He addressed us by the familiar term of thou, and considered us as his property. There were only five or six of us, but we all had to go on the stage. He always stood up with his little black stick in his hand. No one knew why he had this stick.
"Now, young ladies," he would say, "the body thrown back, the head up, on tip-toes. That's it. Perfect! One, two, three, march!"
And we marched along on tip-toes with heads up and eyelids drawn over our eyes as we tried to look down in order to see where we were walking. We marched along like this with all the stateliness and solemnity of camels! He then taught us to make our exit with indifference, dignity, or fury, and it was amusing to see us going towards the doors either with a lagging step, or in an animated or hurried way, according to the mood in which we were supposed to be. Then we heard "Enough! Go! Not a word!" For M. Elie would not allow us to murmur a single word. "Everything," he used to say, "is in the look, the gesture, the attitude!" Then there was what he called "l'assiette," which meant the way to sit down in a dignified manner, to let one's self fall into a seat wearily, or the "assiette," which meant "I am listening, Monsieur; say what you wish." Ah, that was distractingly complicated, that way of sitting down. We had to put everything into it: the desire to know what was going to be said to us, the fear of hearing it, the determination to go away, the will to stay. Oh, the tears that this "assiette" cost me. Poor old M. Elie! I do not bear him any ill-will, but I did my utmost later on to forget everything he had taught me, for nothing could have been more useless than those deportment lessons. Every human being moves about according to his or her proportions. Women who are too tall take long strides, those who stoop walk like the Eastern women; stout women walk like ducks, short-legged ones trot; very small women skip along, and the gawky ones walk like cranes. Nothing can be changed, and the deportment class has very wisely been abolished. The gesture must depict the thought, and it is harmonious or stupid according to whether the artist is intelligent or dull. On the stage one needs long arms; it is better to have them too long than too short. An artiste with short arms can never, never make a fine gesture. It was all in vain that poor Elie told us this or that. We were always stupid and awkward, whilst he was always comic, oh, so comic, poor old man!
I also took fencing-lessons. Aunt Rosine put this idea into my mother's head. I had a lesson once a week from the famous Pons. Oh, what a terrible man he was! Brutal, rude, and always teasing; he was an incomparable fencing-master, but he disliked giving lessons to "brats" like us, as he called us. He was not rich, though, and I believe, but am not sure of it, that this class had been organised for him by a distinguished patron of his. He always kept his hat on, and this horrified Mlle. de Brabender. He smoked his cigar, too, all the time, and this made his pupils cough, as they were already out of breath from the fencing exercise. What torture those lessons were! He sometimes brought with him friends of his, who delighted in our awkwardness. This gave rise to a scandal, as one day one of these gay spectators made a most violent remark about one of the male pupils named Chatelain, and the latter turned round quickly and gave him a blow in the face. A skirmish immediately occurred, and Pons, on endeavouring to intervene, received a blow or two himself. This made a great stir, and from that day forth visitors were not allowed to be present at the lesson. I obtained my mother's authorisation to discontinue attending the class, and this was a great relief to me.
I very much preferred Regnier's lessons to any others. He was gentle, had nice manners, and taught us to be natural in what we recited, but I certainly owe all that I know to the variety of instruction which I had, and which I followed up in the most devoted way.
Provost taught a broad style, with diction somewhat pompous but sustained. He specially emphasised freedom of gesture and inflexion. Beauvallet, in my opinion, did not teach anything that was any good. He had a deep, effective voice, but that he could not give to any one. It was an admirable instrument, but it did not give him any talent. He was awkward in his gestures; his arms were too short and his face common. I detested him as a professor.
Samson was just the opposite. His voice was not strong, but piercing. He had a certain acquired distinction, but was very correct. His method was simplicity. Provost emphasised breadth, Samson exactitude, and he was very particular about the finals. He would not allow us to drop the voice at the end of the phrase. Coquelin, who is one of Regnier's pupils, I believe, has a great deal of Samson's style, although he has retained the essentials of his first master's teaching. As for me, I remember my three professors, Regnier, Provost, and Samson, as though I had heard them only yesterday.
The year passed by without any great change in my life, but two months before my second examination I had the misfortune to have to change my professor. Provost was taken ill, and I went into Samson's class. He counted very much on me, but he was authoritative and persistent. He gave me two very bad parts in two very bad pieces: Hortense in L'Ecole des Viellards, by Casimir Delavigne, for comedy, and La Fille du Cid for tragedy. This piece was also by Casimir Delavigne. I did not feel at all in my element in these two roles, both of which were written in hard, emphatic language. The examination day arrived, and I did not look at all nice. My mother had insisted on my having my hair done by her hairdresser, and I had cried and sobbed on seeing this "Figaro" make partings all over my head in order to separate my rebellious mane. Idiot that he was, he had suggested this style to my mother, and my head was in his stupid hands for more than hour and a half, for he never before had to deal with a mane like mine. He kept mopping his forehead every five minutes and muttering, "What hair! Good Heavens, it is horrible; just like tow! It might be the hair of a white negress!" Turning to my mother, he suggested that my head should be entirely shaved and the hair then trained as it grew again. "I will think about it," replied my mother in an absent-minded way. I turned my head so abruptly to look at her when she said this that the curling irons burnt my forehead. The man was using the irons to uncurl my hair. He considered that it curled naturally in such a disordered style that he must get the natural curl out of it and then wave it, as this would be more becoming to the face.
"Mademoiselle's hair is stopped in its growth by this extreme curliness. All the Tangier girls and negresses have hair like this. As Mademoiselle is going on to the stage, she would look better if she had hair like Madame," he said, bowing with respectful admiration to my mother, who certainly had the most beautiful hair imaginable. It was fair, and so long that when standing up she could tread on it and bend her head forward. It is only fair to say, though, that my mother was very short.
Finally I was out of the hands of this wretched man, and was nearly dead with fatigue after an hour and a half's brushing, combing, curling, hair-pinning, with my head turned from left to right and from right to left, &c. &c. I was completely disfigured at the end of it all, and did not recognise myself. My hair was drawn tightly back from my temples, my ears were very visible and stood out, looking positively bold in their bareness, whilst on the top of my head was a parcel of little sausages arranged near each other to imitate the ancient diadem.
I looked perfectly hideous. My forehead, which I always saw more or less covered with a golden fluff of hair, seemed to me immense, implacable.
I did not recognise my eyes, accustomed as I was to see them shadowed by my hair. My head weighed two or three pounds. I was accustomed to fasten my hair as I still do, with two hairpins, and this man had put five or six packets in it, and all this was heavy for my poor head.
I was late, and so I had to dress very quickly. I cried with anger, and my eyes looked smaller, my nose larger, and my veins swelled. The climax was when I had to put my hat on. It would not go on the packet of sausages, and my mother wrapped my head up in a lace scarf and hurried me to the door.
On arriving at the Conservatoire, I hurried with mon petit Dame to the waiting-room, whilst my mother went direct to the theatre. I tore off the lace which covered my hair, and, seated on a bench, after relating the Odyssey of my hair-dressing, I gave my head up to my companions. All of them adored and envied my hair, because it was so soft and light and golden. They were all sorry for me in my misery, and were touched by my ugliness. Their mothers, however, were brimming over with joy in their own fat.
The girls began to take out my hair-pins, and one of them, Marie Lloyd, whom I liked best, took my head in her hands and kissed it affectionately.
"Oh, your beautiful hair, what have they done to it?" she exclaimed, pulling out the last of the hair-pins. This sympathy made me once more burst into tears.
Finally I stood up, triumphant, without any hair-pins and without any sausages. But my poor hair was very heavy with the pomade the wretched man had put on it, and it was full of the partings he had made for the creation of the sausages. It fell now in mournful-looking, greasy flakes round my face.
I shook my head for five minutes in mad rage. I then succeeded in making the hair more loose, and I put it up as well as I could with a couple of hair-pins.
The competition had commenced, and I was the tenth on the list. I could not remember what I had to say. Madame Guerard moistened my temples with cold water, and Mlle. de Brabender, who had only just arrived, did not recognise me, and looked about for me everywhere. She had broken her leg nearly three months before, and had to hobble about on a crutch-stick, but she had resolved to come.
Madame Guerard was just beginning to tell her about the drama of the hair when my name echoed through the room: "Mademoiselle Chara Bernhardt!" It was Leautaud, who later on was prompter at the Comedie Francaise, and who had a strong accent peculiar to the natives of Auvergne. "Mademoiselle Chara Bernhardt!" I heard again, and then I sprang up without an idea in my mind and without uttering a word. I looked round for my partner who was to give me my cues, and together we made our entry.
I was surprised at the sound of my voice, which I did not recognise. I had cried so much that it had affected my voice, and I spoke through my nose.
I heard a woman's voice say, "Poor child; she ought not to have been allowed to compete. She has an atrocious cold, her nose is running and her face is swollen."
I finished my scene, made my bow, and went away in the midst of very feeble and spiritless applause. I walked like a somnambulist, and on reaching Madame Guerard and Mlle. de Brabender fainted away in their arms. Some one went to the hall in search of a doctor, and the rumour that "the little Bernhardt had fainted" reached my mother. She was sitting far back in a box, feeling bored to death. When I came to myself again I opened my eyes and saw my mother's pretty face, with tears hanging on her long lashes. I laid my head against hers and cried quietly, but this time the tears were refreshing, not salt ones that burnt my eyelids.
I stood up, shook out my dress, and looked at myself in the greenish mirror. I was certainly less ugly now, for my face was rested, my hair was once more soft and fluffy, and altogether there was a general improvement in my appearance.
The tragedy competition was over, and the prizes had been awarded. I had nothing at all, but mention was made of my last year's second prize. I felt confused, but it did not cause me any disappointment, as I quite expected things to be like this. Several persons had protested in my favour. Camille Doucet, who was a member of the jury, had pleaded a long time. He wanted me to have a first prize in spite of my bad recitation. He said that my examination results ought to be taken into account, and they were excellent; and then, too, I had the best class reports. Nothing, however, could overcome the bad effect produced that day by my nasal voice, my swollen face, and my heavy flakes of hair. After half an hour's interval, during which I drank a glass of port wine and ate cakes, the signal was given for the comedy competition. I was fourteenth on the list for this, so that I had ample time to recover. My fighting instinct now began to take possession of me, and a sense of injustice made me feel rebellious. I had not deserved my prize that day, but it seemed to me that I ought to have received it nevertheless.
I made up my mind that I would have the first prize for comedy, and with the exaggeration that I have always put into everything I began to get excited, and I said to myself that if I did not get the first prize I must give up the idea of the stage as a career. My mystic love and weakness for the convent came back to me more strongly than ever. I decided that I would enter the convent if I did not get the first prize. And the most foolish illogical strife imaginable was waged in my weak girl's brain. I felt a genuine vocation for the convent when distressed about losing the prize, and a genuine vocation for the theatre when I was hopeful about winning the prize.
With a very natural partiality, I discovered in myself the gift of absolute self-sacrifice, renunciation, and devotion of every kind—qualities which would win for me easily the post of Mother Superior in the Grand-Champs Convent. Then with the most indulgent generosity I attributed to myself all the necessary gifts for the fulfilment of my other dream, namely, to become the first, the most celebrated, and the most envied of actresses. I told off on my fingers all my qualities: grace, charm, distinction, beauty, mystery, piquancy.
Oh yes, I found I had all these, and when my reason and my honesty raised any doubt or suggested a "but" to this fabulous inventory of my qualities, my combative and paradoxical ego at once found a plain, decisive answer which admitted of no further argument.
It was under these special conditions and in this frame of mind that I went on to the stage when my turn came. The choice of my role for this competition was a very stupid one. I had to represent a married woman who was "reasonable" and very much inclined to argue, and I was a mere child, and looked much younger than my years. In spite of this I was very brilliant; I argued well, was very gay, and made an immense success. I was transfigured with joy and wildly excited, so sure I felt of a first prize.
I never doubted for a moment but that it would be awarded to me unanimously. When the competition was over, the committee met to discuss the awards, and in the meantime I asked for something to eat. A cutlet was brought from the pastry-cook's patronised by the Conservatoire, and I devoured it, to the great joy of Madame Guerard and Mlle. de Brabender, for I detested meat, and always refused to eat it.
The members of the committee at last went to their places in the large box, and there was silence in the theatre. The young men were called first on the stage. There was no first prize awarded to them. Parfouru's name was called for the second prize for comedy. Parfouru is known to-day as M. Paul Porel, director of the Vaudeville Theatre and Rejane's husband. After this came the turn of the girls.
I was in the doorway, ready to rush up to the stage. The words "First prize for comedy" were uttered, and I made a step forward, pushing aside a girl who was a head taller than I was. "First prize for comedy awarded unanimously to Mademoiselle Marie Lloyd." The tall girl I had pushed aside now went forward, slender and radiant, towards the stage.
There were a few protestations, but her beauty, her distinction, and her modest charm won the day with every one, and Marie Lloyd was cheered. She passed me on her return, and kissed me affectionately. We were great friends, and I liked her very much, but I considered her a nullity as a pupil. I do not remember whether she had received any prize the previous year, but certainly no one expected her to have one now. I was simply petrified with amazement.
"Second prize for comedy: Mademoiselle Bernhardt." I had not heard, and was pushed forward by my companions. On reaching the stage I bowed, and all the time I could see hundreds of Marie Lloyds dancing before me. Some of them were making grimaces at me, others were throwing me kisses; some were fanning themselves, and others bowing. They were very tall, all these Marie Lloyds, too tall for the ceiling, and they walked over the heads of all the people and came towards me, stifling me, crushing me, so that I could not breathe. My face, it seems, was whiter than my dress.
On leaving the stage I went and sat down on the bench without uttering a word, and looked at Marie Lloyd, who was being made much of, and who was greatly complimented by every one. She was wearing a pale blue tarlatan dress, with a bunch of forget-me-nots in the bodice and another in her black hair. She was very tall, and her delicate white shoulders emerged modestly from her dress, which was cut very low ... but in her case this was without danger. Her refined face, with its somewhat proud expression, was charming and very beautiful.
Although very young, she had more of a woman's fascination than any of us. Her large brown eyes shone with dilating pupils; her small round mouth gave a sly little smile at the corners, and her wonderfully shaped nose had quivering nostrils. The oval of her beautiful face was intercepted by two little pearly, transparent ears of the most exquisite shape. She had a long, flexible white neck, and the pose of her head was charming. It was a beauty prize that the jury had conscientiously awarded to Marie Lloyd.
She had come on to the stage gay and fascinating in her role of Celimene, and in spite of the monotony of her delivery, the carelessness of her elocution, the impersonality of her acting, she had carried off all the votes because she was the very personification of Celimene, that coquette of twenty years of age who was so unconsciously cruel.
She had realised for every one the ideal dreamed of by Moliere. All these thoughts shaped themselves later on in my brain, and this first lesson, which was so painful at the time, was of great service to me in my career. I never forgot Marie Lloyd's prize, and every time that I have had a role to create, the personage always appears before me dressed from head to foot, walking, bowing, sitting down, getting up.
But that is but the vision of a second; my mind has been thinking of the soul that is to govern this personage. When listening to an author reading his work, I try to define the intention of his idea, in my desire to identify myself with that intention. I have never played an author false with regard to his idea. And I have always tried to represent the personage according to history, whenever it is a historical personage, and as the novelist describes it if an invented personage.
I have sometimes tried to compel the public to return to the truth and to destroy the legendary side of certain personages whom history, with all its documents, now represents to us as they were in reality, but the public never followed me. I soon realised that legend remains victorious in spite of history. And this is perhaps an advantage for the mind of the people. Jesus, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, the Virgin Mary, Mahomet, and Napoleon I. have all entered into legend.