Part 2 out of 9
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"Send her to the Conservatoire!"
And that sentence, uttered carelessly, had come like a bomb into my
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
It is impossible now for our brain to picture Jesus and the Virgin Mary
accomplishing humiliating human functions. They lived the life that we
are living. Death chilled their sacred limbs, and it is not without
rebellion and grief that we accept this fact. We start off in pursuit of
them in an ethereal heaven, in the infinite of our dreams. We cast aside
all the failings of humanity in order to leave them, clothed in the
ideal, seated on a throne of love. We do not like Joan of Arc to be the
rustic, bold peasant girl, repulsing violently the hardy soldier who
wants to joke with her, the girl sitting astride her big Percheron horse
like a man, laughing readily at the coarse jokes of the soldiers,
submitting to the lewd promiscuities of the barbarous epoch in which she
lived, and having on that account all the more merit in remaining the
We do not care for such useless truths. In the legend she is a fragile
woman guided by a divine soul. Her girlish arm which holds the heavy
banner is supported by an invisible angel. In her childish eyes there is
something from another world, and it is from this that all the warriors
drew strength and courage. It is thus that we wish it to be, and so the
legend remains triumphant.
MY FIRST ENGAGEMENT AT THE COMEDIE FRANCAISE
But to return to the Conservatoire. Nearly all the pupils had gone away,
and I remained quiet and embarrassed on my bench. Marie Lloyd came and
sat down by me.
"Are you unhappy?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered. "I wanted the first prize, and you have it. It is not
"I do not know whether it is fair or not," answered Marie Lloyd, "but I
assure you that it is not my fault."
I could not help laughing at this.
"Shall I come home with you to luncheon?" she asked, and her beautiful
eyes grew moist and beseeching. She was an orphan and unhappy, and on
this day of triumph she felt the need of a family. My heart began to
melt with pity and affection. I threw my arms round her neck, and we all
four went away together--Marie Lloyd, Madame Guerard, Mlle. de
Brabender, and I. My mother had sent me word that she had gone on home.
In the cab my "don't care" character won the day once more, and we
chattered about every one. "Oh, how ridiculous such and such a person
was!" "Did you see her mother's bonnet?" "And old Estebenet; did you see
his white gloves? He must have stolen them from some policeman!" And
hereupon we laughed like idiots, and then began again. "And that poor
Chatelain had had his hair curled!" said Marie Lloyd. "Did you see his
I did not laugh any more, though, for this reminded me of how my own
hair had been uncurled, and it was thanks to that I had not won the
first prize for tragedy.
On reaching home we found my mother, my aunt, my godfather, our old
friend Meydieu, Madame Guerard's husband, and my sister Jeanne with her
hair all curled. This gave me a pang, for she had straight hair and it
had been curled to make her prettier, although she was charming without
that, and the curl had been taken out of my hair, so that I had looked
My mother spoke to Marie Lloyd with that charming and distinguished
indifference peculiar to her. My godfather made a great fuss of her, for
success was everything to this _bourgeois_. He had seen my young friend
a hundred times before, and had not been struck by her beauty nor yet
touched by her poverty, but on this particular day he assured us that he
had for a long time predicted Marie Lloyd's triumph. He then came to me,
put his two hands on my shoulders, and held me facing him. "Well, you
were a failure," he said. "Why persist now in going on the stage? You
are thin and small, your face is pretty enough when near, but ugly in
the distance, and your voice does not carry!"
"Yes, my dear girl," put in M. Meydieu, "your godfather is right. You
had better marry the miller who proposed, or that imbecile of a Spanish
tanner who lost his brainless head for the sake of your pretty eyes. You
will never do anything on the stage! You'd better marry."
M. Guerard came and shook hands with me. He was a man of nearly sixty
years of age, and Madame Guerard was under thirty. He was melancholy,
gentle, and timid: he had been awarded the red ribbon of the Legion of
Honour, and he wore a long, shabby frock coat, used aristocratic
gestures, and was private secretary to M. de la Tour Desmoulins, a
prominent deputy at the time. M. Guerard was a well of science, and I
owe much to his kindness. My sister Jeanne whispered to me, "Sister's
godfather said when he came in that you looked as ugly as possible."
Jeanne always spoke of my godfather in this way. I pushed her away, and
we sat down to table. All through the meal my one wish was to go back to
the convent. I did not eat much, and directly after luncheon was so
tired that I had to go to bed.
When once I was alone in my room between the sheets, with tired limbs,
my head heavy, and my heart oppressed with keeping back my sighs, I
tried to consider my wretched situation; but sleep, the great restorer,
came to the rescue, and I was very soon slumbering peacefully. When I
woke I could not collect my thoughts at first. I wondered what time it
was, and looked at my watch. It was just ten, and I had been asleep
since three o'clock in the afternoon. I listened for a few minutes, but
everything was silent in the house. On a table near my bed was a small
tray on which were a cup of chocolate and a cake. A sheet of writing
paper was placed upright against the cup. I trembled as I took it up,
for I never received any letters. With great difficulty, by my
night-light, I managed to read the following words, written by Madame
Guerard: "When you had gone to sleep the Duc de Morny sent word to your
mother that Camille Doucet had just assured him that you were to be
engaged at the Comedie Francaise. Do not worry any more, therefore, my
dear child, but have faith in the future.--Your _petit Dame_."
I pinched myself to make sure that I was really awake. I got up and
rushed to the window. I looked out, and the sky was black. Yes, it was
black to every one else, but starry to me. The stars were shining, and I
looked for my own special one, and chose the largest and brightest.
I went back towards my bed and amused myself with jumping on to it,
holding my feet together. Each time I missed I laughed like a lunatic. I
then drank my chocolate, and nearly choked myself devouring my cake.
Standing up on my bolster, I then made a long speech to the Virgin Mary
at the head of my bed. I adored the Virgin Mary, and I explained to her
my reasons for not being able to take the veil, in spite of my vocation.
I tried to charm and persuade her, and I kissed her very gently on her
foot, which was crushing the serpent. Then in the darkness I tried to
find my mother's portrait. I could scarcely see this, but I threw kisses
to it. I then took up again the letter from _mon petit Dame_, and went
to sleep with it clasped in my hand. I do not remember what my dreams
The next day every one was very kind to me. My godfather, who arrived
early, nodded his head in a contented way.
"She must have some fresh air," he said. "I will treat you to a landau."
The drive seemed to me delicious, for I could dream to my heart's
content, as my mother disliked talking when in a carriage.
Two days later our old servant Marguerite, breathless with excitement,
brought me a letter. On the corner of the envelope there was a large
stamp, around which stood the magic words "Comedie Francaise." I glanced
at my mother, and she nodded as a sign that I might open the letter,
after blaming Marguerite for handing it to me before obtaining her
permission to do so.
"It is for to-morrow, to-morrow!" I exclaimed. "I am to go there
to-morrow! Look--read it!"
My sisters came rushing to me and seized my hands. I danced round with
them, singing, "It's for to-morrow! It's for to-morrow!" My younger
sister was eight years old, but I was only six that day. I went upstairs
to the flat above to tell Madame Guerard. She was just soaping her
children's white frocks and pinafores. She took my face in her hands and
kissed me affectionately. Her two hands were covered with a soapy
lather, and left a snowy patch on each side of my head. I rushed
down-stairs again like this, and went noisily into the drawing-room. My
godfather, M. Meydieu, my aunt, and my mother were just beginning a game
of whist. I kissed each of them, leaving a patch of soap-suds on their
faces, at which I laughed heartily. But I was allowed to do anything
that day, for I had become a personage.
The next day, Tuesday, I was to go to the Theatre Francais at one
o'clock to see M. Thierry, who was then director.
What was I to wear? That was the great question. My mother had sent for
the milliner, who arrived with various hats. I chose a white one trimmed
with pale blue, a white _bavolet_ and blue strings. Aunt Rosine had sent
one of her dresses for me, for my mother thought all my frocks were too
childish. Oh, that dress! I shall see it all my life. It was hideous,
cabbage-green, with black velvet put on in a Grecian pattern. I looked
like a monkey in that dress. But I was obliged to wear it. Fortunately,
it was covered by a mantle of black _gros-grain_ stitched all round with
white. It was thought better for me to be dressed like a grown-up
person, and all my clothes were only suitable for a school-girl. Mlle.
de Brabender gave me a handkerchief that she had embroidered, and Madame
Guerard a sunshade. My mother gave me a very pretty turquoise ring.
Dressed up in this way, looking pretty in my white hat, uncomfortable in
my green dress, but comforted by my mantle, I went, the following day,
with Madame Guerard to M. Thierry's. My aunt lent me her carriage for
the occasion, as she thought it would look better to arrive in a private
carriage. Later on I heard that this arrival in my own carriage, with a
footman, made a very bad impression. What all the theatre people thought
I never cared to consider, and it seems to me that my extreme youth must
really have protected me from all suspicion.
M. Thierry received me very kindly, and made a little nonsensical
speech. He then unfolded a paper which he handed to Madame Guerard,
asking her to read it and then to sign it. This paper was my contract,
and _mon petit Dame_ explained that she was not my mother.
"Ah," said M. Thierry, getting up, "then will you take it with you and
have it signed by Mademoiselle's mother?"
He then took my hand. I felt an instinctive horror at his, for it was
flabby, and there was no life or sincerity in its grasp. I quickly took
mine away and looked at him. He was plain, with a red face and eyes that
avoided one's gaze. As I was going away I met Coquelin, who, hearing I
was there, had waited to see me. He had made his _debut_ a year before
with great success.
"Well, it's settled then!" he said gaily.
I showed him the contract and shook hands with him. I went quickly down
the stairs, and just as I was leaving the theatre found myself in the
midst of a group in the doorway.
"Are you satisfied?" asked a gentle voice which I recognised as M.
"Oh yes, Monsieur; thank you so much," I answered.
"But my dear child, I have nothing to do with it," he said.
"Your competition was not at all good, but nevertheless we feel sure of
you," put in M. Regnier, and then turning to Camille Doucet he asked,
"What do you say, Excellency?"
"I think that this child will be a very great artist," he replied.
There was a silence for a moment.
"Well, you have got a fine carriage!" exclaimed Beauvallet rudely. He
was the first tragedian of the Comedie, and the most uncouth man in
France or anywhere else.
"This carriage belongs to Mademoiselle's aunt," remarked Camille Doucet,
shaking hands with me gently.
"Oh--well, I am glad to hear that," answered the tragedian.
I then stepped into the carriage which had caused such a sensation at
the theatre, and drove away. On reaching home I took the contract to my
mother. She signed it without reading it.
I made my mind resolutely to be some one _quand-meme_.
A few days after my engagement at the Comedie Francaise my aunt gave a
dinner-party. Among her guests were the Duc de Morny, Camille Doucet and
the Minister of Fine Arts, M. de Walewski, Rossini, my mother, Mlle. de
Brabender, and I. During the evening a great many other people came. My
mother had dressed me very elegantly, and it was the first time I had
worn a really low dress. Oh, how uncomfortable I was! Every one paid me
great attention. Rossini asked me to recite some poetry, and I consented
willingly, glad and proud to be of some little importance. I chose
Casimir Delavigne's poem, "_L'Ame du Purgatoire_." "That should be
spoken with music as an accompaniment," exclaimed Rossini when I came to
an end. Every one approved this idea, and Walewski said; "Mademoiselle
will begin again, and you could improvise, _cher maitre_."
There was great excitement, and I at once began again. Rossini
improvised the most delightful harmony, which filled me with emotion. My
tears flowed freely without my being conscious of them, and at the end
my mother kissed me, saying: "This is the first time that you have
really moved me."
As a matter of fact, she adored music, and it was Rossini's
improvisation that had moved her.
The Comte de Keratry, an elegant young hussar, was also present. He paid
me great compliments, and invited me to go and recite some poetry at his
My aunt then sang a song which was very much in vogue, and made a great
success. She was coquettish and charming, and just a trifle jealous of
this insignificant niece who had taken up the attention of her adorers
for a few minutes.
When I returned home I was quite another being. I sat down, dressed as I
was, on my bed, and remained for a long time deep in thought. Hitherto
all I had known of life had been through my family and my work. I had
now just had a glimpse of it through society, and I was struck by the
hypocrisy of some of the people and the conceit of others. I began to
wonder uneasily what I should do, shy and frank as I was. I thought of
my mother. She did not do anything, though she was indifferent to
everything. I thought of my aunt Rosine, who, on the contrary, liked to
mix in everything.
I remained there looking down on the ground, my head in a whirl, and
feeling very anxious, and I did not go to bed until I was thoroughly
The next few days passed by without any particular events. I was working
hard at Iphigenie, as M. Thierry had told me that I was to make my
_debut_ in that _role_.
At the end of August I received a notice requesting me to attend the
rehearsal of _Iphigenie_. Oh, that first notice, how it made my heart
beat. I could not sleep at night, and daylight did not come quickly
enough for me. I kept getting up to look at the time. It seemed to me
that the clock had stopped. I had dozed, and I fancied it was the same
time as before. Finally a streak of light coming through my window-panes
was, I thought, the triumphant sun illuminating my room. I got up at
once, pulled back the curtains, and mumbled my _role_ while dressing.
I thought of my rehearsing with Madame Devoyod, the leading
_tragedienne_ of the Comedie Francaise, with Maubant, with--I trembled
as I thought of all this, for Madame Devoyod was said to be anything but
indulgent. I arrived for the rehearsal an hour before the time. The
stage manager, Davenne, smiled and asked me whether I knew my _role_.
"Oh yes," I exclaimed with conviction. "Come and rehearse it. Would you
like to?" and he took me to the stage.
I went with him through the long corridor of busts which leads from the
green-room to the stage. He told me the names of the celebrities
represented by these busts. I stood still a moment before that of
"I love that artiste," I said.
"Do you know her story?" he asked.
"Yes; I have read all that has been written about her." "That's right,
my child," said the worthy man. "You ought to read all that concerns
your art. I will lend you some interesting books."
He took me towards the stage. The mysterious gloom, the scenery reared
up like fortifications, the bareness of the floor, the endless number of
weights, ropes, trees, borders, battens overhead, the yawning house
completely dark, the silence, broken by the creaking of the floor, and
the vault-like chill that one felt--all this together awed me. It did
not seem to me as if I were entering the brilliant ranks of living
artistes who every night won the applause of the house by their
merriment or their sobs. No, I felt as though I were in the tomb of dead
glories, and the stage seemed to me to be getting crowded with the
illustrious shadows of those whom the stage manager had just mentioned.
With my highly strung nerves, my imagination, which was always evoking
something, now saw them advance towards me stretching out their hands.
These spectres wanted to take me away with them. I put my hands over my
eyes and stood still. "Are you not well?" asked M. Davenne.
"Oh yes, thank you; it was just a little giddiness."
His voice had chased away the spectres, and I opened my eyes and paid
attention to the worthy man's advice. Book in hand, he explained to me
where I was to stand, and my changes of place, &c. He was rather pleased
with my way of reciting, and he taught me a few of the traditions. At
_Eurybate a l'autel, conduisez la victime,_
he said, "Mademoiselle Favart was very effective there."
The artistes gradually began to arrive, grumbling more or less. They
glanced at me, and then rehearsed their scenes without taking any notice
of me at all.
I felt inclined to cry, but I was more vexed than anything else. I heard
three coarse words used by one or another of the artistes. I was not
accustomed to this somewhat brutal language. At home every one was
rather timorous. At my aunt's people were a trifle affected, whilst at
the convent, it is unnecessary to say, I had never heard a word that was
out of place. It is true that I had been through the Conservatoire, but
I had not cultivated any of the pupils with the exception of Marie Lloyd
and Rose Baretta, the elder sister of Blanche Baretta, who is now a
Societaire of the Comedie Francaise.
When the rehearsal was over it was decided that there should be another
one at the same hour the following day in the public foyer.
The costume-maker came in search of me, as she wanted to try on my
costume. Mlle. de Brabender, who had arrived during the rehearsal, went
up with me to the costume-room. She wanted my arms to be covered, but
the costume-maker told her gently that this was impossible in tragedy.
A dress of white woollen material was tried on me. It was very ugly, and
the veil was so stiff that I refused it. A wreath of roses was tried on,
but this too was so unsightly that I refused to wear it.
"Well, then, Mademoiselle," said the costume-maker dryly, "you will have
to get these things and pay for them yourself, as this is the costume
supplied by the Comedie."
"Very well," I answered, blushing; "I will get them myself."
On returning home I told my mother my troubles, and, as she was always
very generous, she promptly bought me a veil of white barege that fell
in beautiful, large, soft folds, and a wreath of hedge roses which at
night looked very soft and white. She also ordered me buskins from the
shoemaker employed by the Comedie.
The next thing to think about was the make-up box. For this my mother
had recourse to the mother of Dica Petit, my fellow student at the
Conservatoire. I went with Madame Dica Petit to M. Massin, a
manufacturer of these make-up boxes. He was the father of Leontine
Massin, another Conservatoire pupil.
We went up to the sixth floor of a house in the Rue Reaumur, and on a
plain-looking door read the words _Massin, manufacturer of make-up
boxes_, I knocked, and a little hunchback girl opened the door. I
recognised Leontine's sister, as she had come several times to the
"Oh," she exclaimed, "what a surprise for us! Titine," she then called
out, "here is Mademoiselle Sarah!"
Leontine Massin came running out of the next room. She was a pretty
girl, very gentle and calm in demeanour. She threw her arms round me,
exclaiming, "How glad I am to see you! And so you are going to make your
debut at the Comedie. I saw it in the papers."
I blushed up to my ears at the idea of being mentioned in the papers.
"I am engaged at the Varietes," she said, and then she talked away at
such a rate that I was bewildered. Madame Petit did not enter into all
this, and tried in vain to separate us. She had replied by a nod and an
indifferent "Thanks" to Leontine's inquiries about her daughter's
health. Finally, when the young girl had finished saying all she had to
say, Madame Petit remarked:
"You must order your box. We have come here for that, you know."
"Oh you will find my father in his workshop at the end of the passage,
and if you are not very long I shall still be here. I am going to
rehearsal at the Varietes later on."
Madame Petit was furious, for she did not like Leontine Massin.
"Don't wait, Mademoiselle," she said; "it will be impossible for us to
Leontine was annoyed, and, shrugging her shoulders, turned her back on
my companion. She then put her hat on, kissed me, and bowing gravely to
Madame Petit, said: "I hope, Madame 'Gros-tas,' I shall never see you
again." She then ran off, laughing merrily. I heard Madame Petit mutter
a few disagreeable words in Dutch, but the meaning of them was only
explained to me later on. We then went to the workshop, and found old
Massin at his bench, planing some small planks of white wood. His
hunch-back daughter kept coming in and out, humming gaily all the time.
The father was glum and harsh, and had an anxious look. As soon as we
had ordered the box we took our leave. Madame Petit went out first;
Leontine's sister held me back by the hand and said quietly, "Father is
not very polite, but it is because he is jealous. He wanted my sister to
be at the Theatre Francais."
I was rather disturbed by this confidence, and I had a vague idea of the
painful drama which was acting so differently on the various members of
this humble home.
MY DEBUT AT THE HOUSE OF MOLIERE, AND MY FIRST DEPARTURE THEREFROM
On September 1, 1862, the day I was to make my _debut_, I was in the Rue
Duphot looking at the theatrical posters. They used to be put up then at
the corner of the Rue Duphot and the Rue St. Honore. On the poster of
the Comedie Francaise I read the words "_Debut of Mlle. Sarah
Bernhardt._" I have no idea how long I stood there, fascinated by the
letters of my name, but I remember that it seemed to me as though every
person who stopped to read the poster looked at me afterwards, and I
blushed to the very roots of my hair.
At five o'clock I went to the theatre. I had a dressing-room on the top
floor which I shared with Mlle. Coblentz. This room was on the other
side of the Rue de Richelieu, in a house rented by the Comedie
Francaise. A small covered bridge over the street served as a passage
and means of communication for us to reach the Comedie.
I was a tremendously long time dressing, and did not know whether I
looked nice or not. _Mon petit Dame_ thought I was too pale, and Mlle.
de Brabender considered that I had too much colour. My mother was to go
direct to her seat in the theatre, and Aunt Rosine was away in the
When the call-boy announced that the play was about to begin, I broke
into a cold perspiration from head to foot, and felt ready to faint. I
went downstairs trembling, tottering, and my teeth chattering. When I
arrived on the stage the curtain was rising. That curtain which was
being raised so slowly and solemnly was to me like the veil being torn