Part 3 out of 9
which was to let me have a glimpse of my future. A deep gentle voice
made me turn round. It was Provost, my first professor, who had come to
encourage me. I greeted him warmly, so glad was I to see him again.
Samson was there, too; I believe that he was playing that night in one
of Moliere's comedies. The two men were very different. Provost was
tall, his silvery hair was blown about, and he had a droll face. Samson
was small, precise, dainty; his shiny white hair curled firmly and
closely round his head. Both men had been moved by the same sentiment of
protection for the poor, fragile, nervous girl, who was nevertheless so
full of hope. Both of them knew my zeal for work, my obstinate will,
which was always struggling for victory over my physical weakness. They
knew that my motto _"Quand-meme"_ had not been adopted by me merely by
chance, but that it was the outcome of a deliberate exercise of will
power on my part. My mother had told them how I had chosen this motto at
the age of nine, after a formidable leap over a ditch which no one could
jump and which my young cousin had dared me to attempt. I had hurt my
face, broken my wrist, and was in pain all over. Whilst I was being
carried home I exclaimed furiously, "Yes, I would do it again,
_quand-meme_, if any one dared me again. And I will always do what I
want to do all my life." In the evening of that day my aunt, who was
grieved to see me in such pain, asked me what would give me any
pleasure. My poor little body was all bandaged, but I jumped with joy at
this, and quite consoled, I whispered in a coaxing way, "I should like
to have some writing-paper with a motto of my own."
My mother asked me rather slyly what my motto was. I did not answer for
a minute, and then, as they were all waiting quietly, I uttered such a
furious _"Quand-meme"_ that my Aunt Faure started back exclaiming, "What
a terrible child!"
Samson and Provost reminded me of this story in order to give me
courage, but my ears were buzzing so that I could not listen to them.
Provost heard my "cue" on the stage, and pushed me gently forward. I
made my entry and hurried towards Agamemnon, my father. I did not want
to leave him again, as I felt I must have some one to hold on to. I then
rushed to my mother, Clytemnestra ... I stammered ... and on leaving the
stage I rushed up to my room and began to undress.
Madame Guerard was terrified, and asked me if I was mad. I had only
played one act, and there were four more. I realised then that it would
really be dangerous to give way to my nerves. I had recourse to my own
motto, and, standing in front of the glass gazing into my own eyes, I
ordered myself to be calm and to conquer myself, and my nerves, in a
state of confusion, yielded to my brain. I got through the play, but was
very insignificant in my part.
The next morning my mother sent for me early. She had been looking at
Sarcey's article in _L'Opinion Nationale,_ and she now read me the
following lines: "Mlle. Bernhardt who made her _debut_ yesterday in the
_role_ of Iphigenie, is a tall, pretty girl with a slender figure and a
very pleasing expression; the upper part of her face is remarkably
beautiful. Her carriage is excellent, and her enunciation is perfectly
clear. This is all that can be said for her at present."
"The man is an idiot," said my mother, drawing me to her. "You were
She then prepared a little cup of coffee for me, and made it with cream.
I was happy, but not completely so.
When my godfather arrived in the afternoon he exclaimed, "Good heavens!
My poor child, what thin arms you have!"
As a matter of fact, people had laughed, and I had heard them, when
stretching out my arms towards Eurybate. I had said the famous line in
which Favart had made her "effect" that was now a tradition. I certainly
had made no "effect," unless the smiles caused by my long, thin arms can
be reckoned as such. My second appearance was in _Valerie_, when I did
make some slight success.
My third appearance at the Comedie resulted in the following _boutade_
from the pen of the same Sarcey:
_L'Opinion Nationale_, September 12: "The same evening _Les Femmes
Savantes_ was given. This was Mlle. Bernhardt's third _debut_, and she
assumed the _role_ of Henriette. She was just as pretty and
insignificant in this as in that of Junie [he had made a mistake, as it
was Iphigenie I had played] and of Valerie. both of which _roles_ had
been entrusted to her previously. This performance was a very poor
affair, and gives rise to reflections by no means gay. That Mlle.
Bernhardt should be insignificant does not much matter. She is a
_debutante,_ and among the number presented to us it is only natural
that some should be failures. The pitiful part is, though, that the
comedians playing with her were not much better than she was, and they
are Societaires of the Theatre Francais. All that they had more than
their young comrade was a greater familiarity with the boards. They are
just as Mlle. Bernhardt may be in twenty years' time, if she stays at
the Comedie Francaise."
I did not stay there, though, for one of those nothings which change a
whole life changed mine. I had entered the Comedie expecting to remain
there always. I had heard my godfather explain to my mother all about
the various stages of my career.
"The child will have so much during the first five years," he said, "and
so much afterwards, and then at the end of thirty years she will have
the pension given to Societaires--that is, if she ever becomes a
Societaire." He appeared to have his doubts about that.
My sister Regina was the cause (though quite involuntarily this time) of
the drama which made me leave the Comedie. It was Moliere's anniversary,
and all the artistes of the Francais salute the bust of the great
writer, according to the tradition of the theatre. It was to be my first
appearance at a "ceremony," and my little sister, on hearing me tell
about it at home, besought me to take her to it.
My mother gave me permission to do so, and our old Marguerite was to
accompany us. All the members of the Comedie were assembled in the
_foyer_. The men and women, dressed in different costumes, all wore the
famous doctor's cloak. The signal was given that the ceremony was about
to commence, and every one hurried along the corridor of the busts. I
was holding my little sister's hand, and just in front of us was the
very fat and very solemn Madame Nathalie. She was a Societaire of the
Comedie, old, spiteful, and surly.
Regina, in trying to avoid the train of Marie Roger's cloak, stepped on
to Nathalie's, and the latter turned round and gave the child such a
violent push that she was knocked against a column on which was a bust.
Regina screamed out, and as she turned back to me I saw that her pretty
face was bleeding.
"You miserable creature!" I called out to the fat woman, and as she
turned round to reply I slapped her in the face. She proceeded to faint;
there was a great tumult, and an uproar of indignation, approval,
stifled laughter, satisfied revenge, pity for the poor child from those
artistes who were mothers, &c. &c. Two groups were formed, one around
the wretched Nathalie, who was still in her swoon, and the other around
little Regina. And the different aspect of these two groups was rather
strange. Around Nathalie were cold, solemn-looking men and women,
fanning the fat, helpless lump with their handkerchief's or fans. A
young but severe-looking Societaire was sprinkling her with drops of
water. Nathalie, on feeling this, roused up suddenly, put her hands over
her face, and muttered in a far-away voice, "How stupid! You'll spoil my
The younger men were stooping over Regina, washing her pretty face, and
the child was saying in her broken voice, "I did not do it on purpose,
sister, I am certain I didn't. She's an old cow, and she just kicked for
nothing at all!" Regina was a fair-haired seraph, who might have made
the angels envious, for she had the most ideal and poetical beauty--but
her language was by no means choice, and nothing in the world could
change it. Her coarse speech made the friendly group burst out laughing,
while all the members of the enemy's camp shrugged their shoulders.
Bressant, who was the most charming of the comedians and a general
favourite, came up to me and said:
"We must arrange this little matter, dear Mademoiselle, for Nathalie's
short arms are really very long. Between ourselves, you were a trifle
hasty, but I like that, and then that child is so droll and so pretty,"
he added, pointing to my little sister.
The house was stamping with impatience, for this little scene had caused
twenty minutes' delay, and we were obliged to go on to the stage at
once. Marie Roger kissed me, saying, "You are a plucky little comrade!"
Rose Baretta drew me to her, murmuring, "How dared you do it! She is a
As for me, I was not very conscious as to what I had done, but my
instinct warned me that I should pay dearly for it.
The following day I received a letter from the manager asking me to call
at the Comedie at one o'clock, about a matter concerning me privately. I
had been crying all night long, more through nervous excitement than
from remorse, and I was particularly annoyed at the idea of the attacks
I should have to endure from my own family. I did not let my mother see
the letter, for from the day that I had entered the Comedie I had been
emancipated. I received my letters now direct, without her supervision,
and I went about alone.
At one o'clock precisely I was shown into the manager's office. M.
Thierry, his nose more congested than ever, and his eyes more crafty,
preached me a deadly sermon, blamed my want of discipline, absence of
respect, and scandalous conduct, and finished his pitiful harangue by
advising me to beg Madame Nathalie's pardon.
"I have asked her to come," he added, "and you must apologise to her
before three Societaires, members of the committee. If she consents to
forgive you, the committee will then consider whether to fine you or to
cancel your engagement."
I did not reply for a few minutes. I thought of my mother in distress,
my godfather laughing in his bourgeois way, and my Aunt Faure
triumphant, with her usual phrase, "That child is terrible!" I thought
too of my beloved Brabender, with her hands clasped, her moustache
drooping sadly, her small eyes full of tears, so touching in their mute
supplication. I could hear my gentle, timid Madame Guerard arguing with
every one, so courageous was she always in her confidence in my future.
"Well, Mademoiselle?" said M. Thierry curtly.
I looked at him without speaking, and he began to get impatient.
"I will go and ask Madame Nathalie to come here," he said, "and I beg
you will do your part as quickly as possible, for I have other things to
attend to than to put your blunders right."
"Oh no, do not fetch Madame Nathalie," I said at last. "I shall not
apologise to her. I will leave; I will cancel my engagement at once."
He was stupefied, and his arrogance melted away in pity for the
ungovernable, wilful child, who was about to ruin her whole future for
the sake of a question of self-esteem. He was at once gentler and more
polite. He asked me to sit down, which he had not hitherto done, and he
sat down himself opposite to me, and spoke to me gently about the
advantages of the Comedie, and of the danger that there would be for me
in leaving that illustrious theatre, which had done me the honour of
admitting me. He gave me a hundred other very good, wise reasons which
softened me. When he saw the effect he had made he wanted to send for
Madame Nathalie, but I roused up then like a little wild animal.
"Oh, don't let her come here; I should box her ears again!" I exclaimed.
"Well then, I must ask your mother to come," he said.
"My mother would never come," I said.
"Then I will go and call on her," he remarked.
"It will be quite useless," I persisted. "My mother has emancipated me,
and I am quite free to lead my own life. I alone am responsible for all
that I do."
"Well then, Mademoiselle, I will think it over," he said, rising, to
show me that the interview was at an end. I went back home, determined
to say nothing to my mother; but my little sister when questioned about
her wound had told everything in her own way, exaggerating, if possible,
the brutality of Madame Nathalie and the audacity of what I had done.
Rose Baretta, too, had been to see me, and had burst into tears,
assuring my mother that my engagement would be cancelled. The whole
family was very much excited and distressed when I arrived, and when
they began to argue with me it made me still more nervous. I did not
take calmly the reproaches which one and another of them addressed to
me, and I was not at all willing to follow their advice. I went to my
room and locked myself in.
The following day no one spoke to me, and I went up to Madame Guerarde
comforted and consoled.
Several days passed by, and I had nothing to do at the theatre. Finally
one morning I received a notice requesting me to be present at the
reading of a play,--Dolores, by M. Bouilhet. This was the first time I
had been asked to attend the reading of a new piece. I was evidently to
have a role to "create." All my sorrows were at once dispersed like a
cloud of butterflies. I told my mother of my joy, and she naturally
concluded that as I was asked to attend a reading my engagement was not
to be cancelled, and I was not to be asked again to apologise to Madame
I went to the theatre, and to my utter surprise I received from M.
Davennes the role of Dolores, the chief part in Bouilhet's play. I knew
that Favart, who should have had this role, was not well; but there were
other artistes, and I could not get over my joy and surprise.
Nevertheless, I felt somewhat uneasy. A terrible presentiment has always
warned me of any troubles about to come upon me.
I had been rehearsing for five days, when one morning on going upstairs
I suddenly found myself face to face with Nathalie, seated under
Gerome's portrait of Rachel, known as "the red pimento." I did not know
whether to go downstairs again or to pass by. My hesitation was noticed
by the spiteful woman.
"Oh, you can pass, Mademoiselle," she said. "I have forgiven you, as I
have avenged myself. The _role_ that you like so much is not going to be
for you after all."
I went by without uttering a word. I was thunderstruck by her speech,
which I guessed would prove true.
I did not mention this incident to any one, but continued rehearsing. It
was on Tuesday that Nathalie had spoken to me, and on Friday I was
disappointed to hear that Davennes was not there, and that there was to
be no rehearsal. Just as I was getting into my cab the hall-porter ran
out to give me a letter from Davennes. The poor man had not ventured to
come himself and give me the news, which he was sure would be so painful
He explained to me in his letter that on account of my extreme
youth--the importance of the _role_--such responsibility for my young
shoulders--and finally that as Madame Favart had recovered from her
illness, it was more prudent that, &c. &c. I finished reading the
letter through blinding tears, but very soon anger took the place of
grief. I rushed back again and sent my name in to the manager's office.
He could not see me just then, but I said I would wait. After one hour,
thoroughly impatient, taking no notice of the office-boy and the
secretary, who wanted to prevent my entering, I opened the door of M.
Thierry's office and walked in. All that despair, anger against
injustice, and fury against falseness could inspire me with I let him
have, in a stream of eloquence only interrupted by my sobs. The manager
gazed at me in bewilderment. He could not conceive of such daring and
such violence in a girl so young.
When at last, thoroughly exhausted, I sank down in an arm-chair, he tried
to calm me, but all in vain.
"I will leave at once," I said. "Give me back my contract and I will
send you back mine."
Finally, tired of argument and persuasion, he called his secretary and
gave him the necessary orders, and the latter soon brought in my
"Here is your mother's signature, Mademoiselle. I leave you free to
bring it me back within forty-eight hours. After that time if I do not
receive it I shall consider that you are no longer a member of the
theatre. But believe me, you are acting unwisely. Think it over during
the next forty-eight hours."
I did not answer, but went out of his office. That very evening I sent
back to M. Thierry the contract bearing his signature, and tore up the
one with that of my mother.
I had left Moliere's Theatre, and was not to re-enter it until twelve
AT THE GYMNASE THEATRE--A TRIP TO SPAIN
This proceeding of mine was certainly violently decisive, and it
completely upset my home life. I was not happy from this time forth
amongst my own people, as I was continually being blamed for my
violence. Irritating remarks with a double meaning were constantly being
made by my aunt and my little sister. My godfather, whom I had once for
all requested to mind his own business, no longer dared to attack me
openly; but he influenced my mother against me. There was no longer any
peace for me except at Madame Guerard's so I was constantly with her. I
enjoyed helping her in her domestic affairs. She taught me to make
cakes, chocolate, and scrambled eggs. All this gave me something else to
think about, and I soon recovered my gaiety.
One morning there was something very mysterious about my mother. She
kept looking at the clock, and seemed uneasy because my godfather, who
lunched and dined with us every day, had not arrived.
"It's very strange," my mother said, "for last night after whist he said
he should be with us this morning before luncheon. It's very strange
She was usually calm, but she kept coming in and out of the room, and
when Marguerite put her head in at the door to ask whether she should
serve the luncheon, my mother told her to wait.
Finally the bell rang, startling my mother and Jeanne. My little sister
was evidently in the secret.
"Well, it's settled!" exclaimed my godfather, shaking the snow from his
hat. "Here, read that, you self-willed girl."
He handed me a letter stamped with the words "Theatre du Gymnase." It
was from Montigny, the manager of the theatre, to M. de Gerbois, a
friend of my godfather's whom I knew very well. The letter was very
friendly, as far as M. de Gerbois was concerned, but it finished with
the following words, "I will engage your _protegee_ in order to be
agreeable to you.... but she appears to me to have a vile temper."
I blushed as I read these lines, and I thought my godfather was wanting
in tact, as he might have given me real delight and avoided hurting my
feelings in this way, but he was the clumsiest-minded man that ever
lived. My mother seemed very much pleased, so I kissed her pretty face
and thanked my godfather. Oh, how I loved kissing that pearly face,
which was always so cool and always slightly dewy. When I was a little
child I used to ask her to play at butterfly on my cheeks with her long
lashes, and she would put her face close to mine and open and shut her
eyes, tickling my cheeks whilst I lay back breathless with delight.
The following day I went to the Gymnase. I was kept waiting for some
little time, together with about fifty other girls. M. Monval, a cynical
old man who was stage manager and almost general manager, then
interviewed us. I liked him at first, because he was like M. Guerard I
very soon disliked him. His way of looking at me, of speaking to me, and
of taking stock of me generally roused my ire at once. I answered his
questions curtly, and our conversation, which seemed likely to take an
aggressive turn, was cut short by the arrival of M. Montigny, the
"Which of you is Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt?" he asked. I at once
rose, and he continued, "Will you come into my office, Mademoiselle?"
Montigny had been an actor, and was plump and good-humoured. He appeared
to be somewhat infatuated with his own personality, with his ego, but
that did not matter to me.
After some friendly conversation, he preached a little to me about my
outburst at the Comedie made me a great many promises about the _roles_
I should have to play. He prepared my contract, and gave it me to take
home for my mother's signature and that of my family council.
"I am emancipated," I said to him, "so that my own signature is all that
"Oh, very good," he said; "but what nonsense to have emancipated a
self-willed girl. Your parents did not do you a good turn by that."
I was just on the point of replying that what my parents chose to do did
not concern him, but I held my peace, signed the contract, and hurried
home feeling very joyful.
Montigny kept his word at first. He let me understudy Victoria
Lafontaine, a young artist very much in vogue just then, who had the
most delightful talent. I played in _La maison sans enfants_, and I took
her _role_ at a moment's notice in _Le demon du jeu_, a piece which made
a great success. I was fairly good in both plays, but Montigny, in spite
of my entreaties, never came to see me in them, and the spiteful stage
manager played me no end of tricks. I used to feel a sullen anger
stirring within me, and I struggled with myself as much possible to keep
my nerves calm.
One evening, on leaving the theatre, a notice was handed to me
requesting me to be present at the reading of a play the following day.
Montigny had promised me a good part, and I fell asleep that night
lulled by fairies, who carried me off into the land of glory and
success. On arriving at the theatre I found Blanche Pierson and Celine
Montalant already there--two of the prettiest creatures that God has
been pleased to create, the one as fair as the rising sun, and the other
as dark as a starry night, for she was brilliant-looking in spite of her
black hair. There were other women there, too--very, very pretty ones.
The play to be read was entitled _Un mari qui lance sa femme_, and it
was by Raymond Deslandes. I listened to it without any great pleasure,
and I thought it stupid. I waited anxiously to see what _role_ was to be
given to me, and I discovered this only too soon. It was a certain
Princess Dimchinka, a frivolous, foolish, laughing individual, who was
always eating or dancing. I did not like the part at all. I was very
inexperienced on the stage, and my timidity made me rather awkward.
Besides, I had not worked for three years with such persistency and
conviction in order to create the _role_ of an idiotic woman in an
imbecile play. I was in despair, and the wildest ideas came into my
head. I wanted to give up the stage and go into business. I spoke of
this to our old family friend, Meydieu, who was so unbearable. He
approved of my idea, and wanted me to take a shop--a confectioner's--on
the Boulevard des Italiens. This became a fixed idea with the worthy
man. He loved sweets himself, and he knew lots of recipes for various
sorts of sweets that were not generally known, and which he wanted to
introduce. I remember one kind that he wanted to call _"bonbon negre."_
It was a mixture of chocolate and essence of coffee rolled into grilled
licorice root. It was like black _praline_, and was extremely good. I
was very persistent in this idea at first, and went with Meydieu to look
at a shop, but when he showed me the little flat over it where I should
have to live, it upset me so much that I gave up for ever the idea of
I went every day to the rehearsal of the stupid piece, and was
bad-tempered all the time. Finally the first performance took place, and
my part was neither a success nor a failure. I simply was not noticed,
and at night my mother remarked, "My poor child, you were ridiculous in
your Russian princess _role_, and I was very much grieved!"
I did not answer at all, but I should honestly have liked to kill
myself. I slept very badly that night, and towards six in the morning I
rushed up to Madame Guerard. I asked her to give me some laudanum, but
she refused. When she saw that I really wanted it, the poor dear woman
understood my design. "Well, then," I said, "swear by your children that
you will not tell any one what I am going to do, and then I will not
kill myself." A sudden idea had just come into my mind, and, without
going further into it, I wanted to carry it out at once. She promised,
and I then told her that I was going at once to Spain, as I had longed
to see that country for a long time.
"Go to Spain!" she exclaimed. "With whom and when?"
"With the money I have saved," I answered. "And this very morning. Every
one is asleep at home. I shall go and pack my trunk, and start at once
"No, no, I cannot go," exclaimed Madame Guerard, nearly beside herself.
"There is my husband to think of, and my children."
Her little girl was scarcely two years old at that time.
"Well, then, _mon petit Dame_, find me some one to go with me."
"I do not know any one," she answered, crying in her excitement. "My
dear little Sarah give up such an idea, I beseech you."
But by this time it was a fixed idea with me, and I was very determined
about it. I went downstairs, packed my trunk, and then returned to
Madame Guerard. I had wrapped up a pewter fork in paper, and this I
threw against one of the panes of glass in a skylight window opposite.
The window was opened abruptly, and the sleepy, angry face of a young
woman appeared. I made a trumpet of my two hands and called out:
"Caroline, will you start with me at once for Spain?" The bewildered
expression on the woman's face showed that she had not comprehended, but
she replied at once, "I am coming, Mademoiselle." She then closed her
window, and ten minutes later Caroline was tapping at the door. Madame
Guerard had sunk down aghast in an arm-chair.
M. Guerard had asked several times from his bedroom what was going on.
"Sarah is here," his wife had replied. "I will tell you later on."
Caroline did dressmaking by the day at Madame Guerard's, and she had
offered her services to me as lady's maid. She was agreeable and rather
daring, and she now accepted my offer at once. But as it would not do to
arouse the suspicions of the concierge, it was decided that I should
take her dresses in my trunk, and that she should put her linen into a
bag to be lent by _mon petit Dame_.
Poor dear Madame Guerard had given in. She was quite conquered, and soon
began to help in my preparations, which certainly did not take me long.
But I did not know how to get to Spain.
"You go through Bordeaux," said Madame Guerard.
"Oh no," exclaimed Caroline; "my brother-in-law is a skipper, and he
often goes to Spain by Marseilles."
I had saved nine hundred francs, and Madame Guerard lent me six hundred.
It was perfectly mad, but I felt ready to conquer the universe, and
nothing would have induced me to abandon my plan. Then, too, it seemed
to me as though I had been wishing to see Spain for a long time. I had
got it into my head that my Fate willed it, that I must obey my star,
and a hundred other ideas, each one more foolish than the other,
strengthened me in my plan. I was destined to act in this way, I
I went downstairs again. The door was still ajar. With Caroline's help I
carried the empty trunk up to Madame Guerard's, and Caroline emptied my
wardrobe and drawers, and then packed the trunk. I shall never forget
that delightful moment. It seemed to me as though the world was about to
be mine. I was going to start off with a woman to wait on me. I was
about to travel alone, with no one to criticise what I decided to do. I
should see an unknown country about which I had dreamed, and I should
cross the sea. Oh, how happy I was! Twenty times I must have gone up and
down the staircase which separated our two flats. Every one was asleep
in my mother's flat, and the rooms were so disposed that not a sound of
our going in and out could reach her.
My trunk was at last closed, Caroline's valise fastened, and my little
bag crammed full. I was quite ready to start, but the fingers of the
clock had moved along by this time, and to my horror I discovered that
it was eight o'clock. Marguerite would be coming down from her bedroom
at the top of the house to prepare my mother's coffee, my chocolate, and
bread and milk for my sisters. In a fit of despair and wild
determination I kissed Madame Guerard with such violence as almost to
stifle her, and rushed once more to my room to get my little Virgin
Mary, which went with me everywhere. I threw a hundred kisses to my
mother's room, and then, with wet eyes and a joyful heart, went
downstairs. _Mon petit Dame_ had asked the man who polished the floors
to take the trunk and the valise down, and Caroline had fetched a cab. I
went like a whirlwind past the concierge's door. She had her back turned
towards me and was sweeping the floor. I sprang into the cab, and the
driver whipped up his horse. I was on my way to Spain. I had written an
affectionate letter to my mother begging her to forgive me and not to be
grieved. I had written a stupid letter of explanation to Montigny, the
manager of the Gymnase Theatre. The letter did not explain anything,
though. It was written by a child whose brain was certainly a little
affected, and I finished up with these words: "Have pity on a poor,
Sardou told me later on that he happened to be in Montigny's office when
he received my letter.
"The conversation was very animated, and when the door opened Montigny
exclaimed in a fury, 'I had given orders that I was not to be
disturbed!' He was somewhat appeased, however, on seeing old Monval's
troubled look, and he knew something urgent was the matter. 'Oh, what's
happened now?' he asked, taking the letter that the old stage manager
held out to him. On recognising my paper, with its grey border, he said,
'Oh, it's from that mad child! Is she ill?'
"'No,' said Monval; 'she has gone to Spain.'
"'She can go to the deuce!' exclaimed Montigny. 'Send for Madame
Dieudonnee to take her part. She has a good memory, and half the _role_
must be cut. That will settle it.'
"'Any trouble for to-night?' I asked Montigny.
"'Oh, nothing,' he answered; 'it's that little Sarah Bernhardt who has
cleared off to Spain!'
"'That girl from the Francais who boxed Nathalie's ears?'
"'She's rather amusing.'
"'Yes, but not for her managers,' remarked Montigny, continuing
immediately afterwards the conversation which had been interrupted."
This is exactly as Victorien Sardou related the incident.
* * * * *
On arriving at Marseilles, Caroline went to get information about the
journey. The result was that we embarked on an abominable trading-boat,
a dirty coaster, smelling of oil and stale fish, a perfect horror.
I had never been on the sea, so I fancied that all boats were like this
one, and that it was no good complaining. After six days of rough sea we
landed at Alicante. Oh, that landing, how well I remember it! I had to
jump from boat to boat, from plank to plank, with the risk of falling
into the water a hundred times over, for I am naturally inclined to
dizziness, and the little gangways, without any rails, rope, or
anything, thrown across from one boat to another and bending under my
light weight seemed to me like mere ropes stretched across space.
Exhausted with fatigue and hunger, I went to the first hotel recommended
to us. Oh, what a hotel it was! The house itself was built of stone,
with low arcades. Rooms on the first floor were given to me. Certainly
the owners of these hotel people had never had two ladies in their house
before. The bedroom was large, but with a low ceiling. By way of
decoration there were enormous fish bones arranged in garlands caught up
by the heads of fish. By half shutting one's eyes this decoration might
be taken for delicate sculpture of ancient times. In reality, however,
it was merely composed of fish-bones.
I had a bed put up for Caroline in this sinister-looking room. We pulled
the furniture across against the doors, and I did not undress, for I
could not venture on those sheets. I was accustomed to fine sheets
perfumed with iris, for my pretty little mother, like all Dutch women,
had a mania for linen and cleanliness, and she had inculcated me with
this harmless mania.
It was about five in the morning when I opened my eyes, no doubt
instinctively, as there had been no sound to rouse me. A door, leading I
did not know where, opened, and a man looked in. I gave a shrill cry,
seized my little Virgin Mary, and waved her about, wild with terror.
Caroline roused up with a start, and courageously rushed to the window.
She threw it up, screaming, "Fire! Thieves! Help!"
The man disappeared, and the house was soon invaded by the police. I
leave it to be imagined what the police of Alicante forty years ago were
like. I answered all the questions asked me by a vice-consul, who was an
Hungarian and spoke French. I had seen the man, and he had a silk
handkerchief on his head. He had a beard, and on his shoulder a
_poncho_, but that was all I knew. The Hungarian vice-consul, who, I
believe, represented France, Austria, and Hungary, asked me the colour
of the brigand's beard, silk handkerchief, and _poncho_. It had been too
dark for me to distinguish the colours exactly. The worthy man was very
much annoyed at my answer. After taking down a few notes he remained
thoughtful for a moment and then gave orders for a message to be taken
to his home. It was to ask his wife to send a carriage, and to get a
room ready in order to receive a young foreigner in distress. I prepared
to go with him, and after paying my bill at the hotel we started off in
the worthy Hungarian's carriage, and I was welcomed by his wife with the
most touching cordiality. I drank the coffee with thick cream which she
poured out for me, and during breakfast told her who I was and where I
was going. She then told me in return that her father was an important
manufacturer of cloth, that he was from Bohemia, and a great friend of
my father's. She took me to the room that had been prepared for me, made
me go to bed, and told me that while I was asleep she would write me
some letters of introduction for Madrid.
I slept for ten hours without waking, and when I roused up was
thoroughly rested in mind and body. I wanted to send a telegram to my
mother, but this was impossible, as there was no telegraph at Alicante.
I wrote a letter, therefore, to my poor dear mother, telling her that I
was in the house of friends of my father, etc. etc.
The following day I started for Madrid with a letter for the landlord of
the Hotel de la Puerta del Sol. Nice rooms were given to us, and I sent
messengers with the letters from Madame Rudcowitz. I spent a fortnight
in Madrid, and was made a great deal of and generally feted. I went to
all the bull-fights, and was infatuated with them. I had the honour of
being invited to a great _corrida_ given in honour of Victor Emmanuel,
who was just then the guest of the Queen of Spain--I forgot Paris, my
sorrows, disappointments, ambitions and everything else, and I wanted to
live in Spain. A telegram sent by Madame Guerard made me change all my
plans. My mother was very ill, the telegram informed me. I packed my
trunk and wanted to start off at once, but when my hotel bill was paid I
had not a _sou_ to pay for the railway journey. The landlord of the
hotel took two tickets for me, prepared a basket of provisions, and gave
me two hundred francs at the station, telling me that he had received
orders from Madame Rudcowitz not to let me want for anything. She and
her husband were certainly most delightful people.
My heart beat fast when I reached my mother's house in Paris. _Mon petit
Dame_ was waiting for me downstairs in the concierge's room. She was
very excited to see me looking so well, and kissed me with her eyes full
of tears of joy. The concierge and family poured forth their
compliments. Madame Guerard went upstairs before me to inform my mother
of my arrival, and I waited a moment in the kitchen and was hugged by
our old servant Marguerite.
My sisters both came running in. Jeanne kissed me, then turned me round
and examined me. Regina, with her hands behind her back, leaned against
the stove gazing at me furiously.
"Well, won't you kiss me, Regina?" I asked, stooping down to her.
"No, don't like you," she answered. "You've went off without me. Don't
like you now." She turned away brusquely to avoid my kiss, and knocked
her head against the stove.
Finally Madame Guerard appeared again, and I went with her. Oh, how
repentant I was, and how deeply affected. I knocked gently at the door
of the room, which was hung with pale blue rep. My mother looked very
white, lying in her bed. Her face was thinner, but wonderfully
beautiful. She stretched out her arms like two wings, and I rushed
forward to this white, loving nest. My mother cried silently, as she
always did. Then her hands played with my hair, which she let down and
combed with her long, taper fingers. Then we asked each other a hundred
questions. I wanted to know everything, and she did too, so that we had
the most amusing duet of words, phrases, and kisses. I found that my
mother had had a rather severe attack of pleurisy, that she was now
getting better, but was not yet well. I therefore took up my abode again
with her, and for the time being went back to my old bed-room. Madame
Guerard had told me in a letter that my grandmother on my father's side
had at last agreed to the proposal made by my mother. My father had left
a certain sum of money which I was to have on my wedding-day. My mother,
at my request, had asked my grandmother to let me have half this sum,
and she had at last consented, saying that she should use the interest
of the other half, but that this latter half would always be at my
disposal if I changed my mind and consented to marry.
I was therefore determined to live my life as I wished, to go away from
home and be quite independent. I adored my mother, but our ideas were
altogether different. Besides, my godfather was perfectly odious to me,
and for years and years he had been in the habit of lunching and dining
with us every day, and of playing whist every evening. He was always
hurting my feelings in one way or another. He was a very rich old
bachelor, with no near relatives. He adored my mother, but she had
always refused to marry him. She had put up with him at first, because
he was a friend of my father's. After my father's death she had
continued to put up with him, because she was then accustomed to him,
until finally she quite missed him when he was ill or travelling. But,
placid as she was, my mother was authoritative, and could not endure any
kind of constraint. She therefore rebelled against the idea of another
master. She was very gentle but determined, and this determination of
hers ended sometimes in the most violent anger. She used then to turn
very pale, and violet rings would come round her eyes, her lips would
tremble, her teeth chatter, her beautiful eyes take a fixed gaze, the
words would come at intervals from her throat, all chopped up--hissing
and hoarse. After this she would faint; and the veins of her throat
would swell, and her hands and feet turned icy cold. Sometimes she would
be unconscious for hours, and the doctors told us that she might die in
one of these attacks, so that we did all in our power to avoid these
terrible accidents. My mother knew this, and rather took advantage of
it, and, as I had inherited this tendency to fits of rage from her, I
could not and did not wish to live with her. As for me, I am not placid.
I am active and always ready for fight, and what I want I always want
immediately. I have not the gentle obstinacy peculiar to my mother. The
blood begins to boil under my temples before I have time to control it.
Time has made me wiser in this respect, but not sufficiently so. I am
aware of this, and it causes me to suffer.
I did not say anything about my plans to our dear invalid, but I asked
our old friend Meydieu to find me a flat. The old man, who had tormented
me so much during my childhood, had been most kind to me ever since my
_debut_ at the Theatre Francais, and, in spite of my row with Nathalie,
and my escapade when at the Gymnase, he was now ready to see the best in
me. When he came to see us the day after my return home, I remained
talking with him for a time in the drawing-room, and confided my
intentions to him. He quite approved, and said that my intercourse with
my mother would be all the more agreeable because of this separation.
FROM THE PORTE ST. MARTIN THEATRE TO THE ODEON
I took a flat in the Rue Duphot, quite near to my mother, and Madame
Guerard undertook to have it furnished for me. As soon as my mother was
well again, I talked to her about it, and I was not long in making her
agree with me that it was really better I should live by myself and in
my own way. When once she had accepted the situation everything went
along satisfactorily. My sisters were present when we were talking about
it. Jeanne was close to my mother, and Regina, who had refused to speak
to me or look at me ever since my return three weeks ago, suddenly
jumped on to my lap.
"Take me with you this time!" she exclaimed suddenly. "I will kiss you,
if you will."
I glanced at my mother, rather embarrassed.
"Oh, take her," she said, "for she is unbearable."
Regina jumped down again and began to dance a jig, muttering the rudest,
silliest things at the same time. She then nearly stifled me with
kisses, sprang on to my mother's arm-chair, and kissed her hair, her
eyes, her cheeks, saying:
"You are glad I am going, aren't you? You can give everything to your
My mother coloured slightly, but as her eyes fell on Jeanne her
expression changed and a look of unspeakable affection came over her
face. She pushed Regina gently aside, and the child went on with her
"We two will stay together," said my mother, leaning her head back on
Jeanne's shoulder, and she said this quite unconsciously, just in the
same way as she had gazed at my sister. I was perfectly stupefied, and
closed my eyes so that I should not see. I could only hear my little
sister dancing her jig and emphasising every stamp on the floor with the
words, "And we two as well; we two, we two!"
It was a very painful little drama that was stirring our four hearts in
this little _bourgeois_ home, and the result of it was that I settled
down finally with my little sister in the flat in the Rue Duphot. I kept
Caroline with me, and engaged a cook. _Mon petit Dame_ was with me
nearly all day, and I dined every evening with my mother.
I was still on good terms with an actor of the Porte Saint Martin
Theatre, who had been appointed stage manager there, Marc Fournier being
at that time manager of the theatre. A piece entitled _La biche au bois_
was then being given. It was a spectacular play, and was having a great
success. A delightful actress from the Odeon Theatre, Mlle. Debay, had
been engaged for the principal _role_. She played tragedy princesses
most charmingly. I often had tickets for the Porte Saint Martin, and I
thoroughly enjoyed _La biche au bois_. Madame Ulgade sang admirably in
her _role_ of the young prince, and amazed me. Mariquita charmed me with
her dancing. She was delightful and so animated in her dances, so
characteristic, and always so full of distinction. Thanks to old Josse,
I knew every one.
But to my surprise and terror, one evening towards five o'clock, on
arriving at the theatre to get the tickets for our seats, he exclaimed
on seeing me:
"Why here is our Princess, our little _biche au bois_. Here she is! It
is the Providence that watches over theatres who has sent her."
I struggled like an eel caught in a net, but it was all in vain. M. Marc
Fournier, who could be very charming, gave me to understand that I
should be rendering him a great service and would "save" the receipts.
Josse, who guessed what my scruples were, exclaimed:
"But, my dear child, it will still be your high art, for Mademoiselle
Debay from the Odeon Theatre plays this _role_ of Princess, and
Mademoiselle Debay is the first artiste at the Odeon and the Odeon is an
imperial theatre, so that it cannot be any disgrace after your studies."
Mariquita, who had just arrived, also persuaded me, and Madame Ulgade
was sent for to rehearse the duos, for I was to sing. Yes, and I was to
sing with a veritable artiste, one who was considered to be the first
artiste of the Opera Comique.
There was but little time to spare. Josse made me rehearse my _role_,
which I almost knew, as I had seen the piece often and I had an
extraordinary memory. The minutes flew, soon running into quarters of an
hour, and these quarters of an hour made half-hours, and then entire
hours. I kept looking at the clock, the large clock in the manager's
room, where Madame Ulgade was making me rehearse. She thought my voice
was pretty, but I kept singing out of tune, and she helped me along and
encouraged me all the time.
I was dressed up in Mlle. Debay's clothes, and the curtain was raised.
Poor me! I was more dead than alive, but my courage returned after a
triple burst of applause for the couplet which I sang on waking in very
much the same way as I should have murmured a series of Racine's lines.
When the performance was over Marc Fournier offered me, through Josse, a
three years' engagement, but I asked to be allowed to think it over.
Josse had introduced me to a dramatic author, Lambert Thiboust, a
charming man who was certainly not without talent. He thought I was just
the ideal actress for his heroine in _La bergere d'Ivry_, but M. Faille,
an old actor, who had just become manager of the Ambigu Theatre, was not
the only person to consult, for a certain M. de Chilly had some interest
in the theatre. De Chilly had made his name in the _role_ of Rodin in
_Le Juif errant_, and after marrying a rather wealthy wife, had left the
stage, and was now interested in the business side of theatrical
affairs. He had, I think, just given the Ambigu up to Faille.
De Chilly was then helping on a charming girl named Laurence Gerard. She
was gentle and very _bourgeoise_, rather pretty, but without any real
beauty or grace.
Faille told Lambert Thiboust that he was negotiating with Laurence
Gerard, but that he was ready to do as the author wished in the matter.
The only thing he stipulated was that he should hear me before deciding.
I was willing to humour the poor fellow, who must have been as poor a
manager as he had been an artiste. I gave a short performance for him at
the Ambigu Theatre. The stage was only lighted by the wretched
_servante_, a little transportable lamp. About a yard in front of me I
could see M. Faille balancing himself on his chair, one hand on his
waistcoat and the fingers of the other hand in his enormous nostrils.
This disgusted me horribly. Lambert Thiboust was seated near him, his
handsome face smiling as he looked at me encouragingly.
I had selected _On ne badine pas avec l'amour_; I did not want to recite
verse, because I was to perform in a play in prose. I believe I was
perfectly charming, and Lambert Thiboust thought so too, but when I had
finished poor Faille got up in a clumsy, pretentious way, said something
in a low voice to the author, and took me to his office.
"My child." remarked the worthy but stupid manager, "you are no good on
I resented this, but he continued:
"Oh no, no good," and as the door then opened he added, pointing to the
new-comer, "here is M. de Chilly, who was also listening to you, and he
will say just the same as I say."
M. de Chilly nodded and shrugged his shoulders.
"Lambert Thiboust is mad," he remarked. "No one ever saw such a thin
He then rang the bell and told the boy to show in Mlle. Laurence Gerard.
I understood; and, without taking leave of the two boors, I left the
My heart was heavy, though, as I went back to the _foyer_, where I had
left my hat. There I found Laurence Gerard, but she was fetched away the
next moment. I was standing near her, and as I looked in the glass I was
struck by the contrast between us. She was plump, with a wide face and
magnificent black eyes; her nose was rather _canaille_, her mouth heavy,
and there was a very ordinary look about her generally. I was fair,
slight, and frail-looking, like a reed, with a long, pale face, blue
eyes, a rather sad mouth and a general look of distinction. This hasty
vision consoled me for my failure, and then, too, I felt that this
Faille was a nonentity and that de Chilly was common.
I was destined to meet with them both again later in my life: Chilly
soon after, as manager at the Odeon, and Faille twenty years later, in
such a wretched condition that the tears came to my eyes when he
appeared before me and begged me to play for his benefit.
"Oh, I beseech you," said the poor man. "You will be the only attraction
at this performance, and I have only you to count on for the receipts."
I shook hands with him. I do not know whether he remembered our first
interview and my "_audition_," but I who remembered it well only hope
that he did not.
Five days later Mile. Debay was well again, and took her _role_ as
Before accepting an engagement at the Porte Saint Martin, I wrote to
Camille Doucet. The following day I received a letter asking me to call
at the Ministry. It was not without some emotion that I went to see this
kind man again. He was standing up waiting for me when I was ushered
into the room. He held out his hands to me, and drew me gently towards
"Oh, what a terrible child!" he said, giving me a chair. "Come now, you
must be calmer. It will never do to waste all these admirable gifts in
voyages, escapades, and boxing people's ears."
I was deeply moved by his kindness, and my eyes were full of regret as I
looked at him.
"Now, don't cry, my dear child; don't cry. Let us try and find out how
we are to make up for all this folly."
He was silent for a moment, and then, opening a drawer, he took out a
letter. "Here is something which will perhaps save us," he said.
It was a letter from Duquesnel, who had just been appointed manager of
the Odeon Theatre in conjunction with Chilly.
"They ask me for some young artistes to make up the Odeon company. Well,
we must attend to this." He got up, and, accompanying me to the door,
said as I went away, "We shall succeed."
I went back home and began at once to rehearse all my _roles_ in
Racine's plays. I waited very anxiously for several days, consoled by
Madame Guerard, who succeeded in restoring my confidence. Finally I
received a letter, and went at once to the Ministry. Camille Doucet
received me with a beaming expression on his face.
"It's settled," he said. "Oh, but it has not been easy, though," he
added. "You are very young, but very celebrated already for your
headstrong character. But I have pledged my word that you will be as
gentle as a young lamb."
"Yes, I will be gentle, I promise," I replied, "if only out of
gratitude. But what am I to do?"
"Here is a letter for Felix Duquesnel," he replied; "he is expecting
I thanked Camille Doucet heartily, and he then said, "I shall see you
again, less officially, at your aunt's on Thursday. I have received an
invitation this morning to dine there, so you will be able to tell me
what Duquesnel says."
It was then half-past ten in the morning. I went home to put some pretty
clothes on. I chose a dress the underskirt of which was of canary
yellow, the dress being of black silk with the skirt scalloped round,
and a straw conical-shaped hat trimmed with corn, and black ribbon
velvet under the chin. It must have been delightfully mad looking.
Arrayed in this style, feeling very joyful and full of confidence, I
went to call on Felix Duquesnel. I waited a few moments in a little
room, very artistically furnished. A young man appeared, looking very
elegant. He was smiling and altogether charming. I could not grasp the
fact that this fair-haired, gay young man would be my manager.
After a short conversation we agreed on every point we touched.
"Come to the Odeon at two o'clock," said Duquesnel, by way of
leave-taking, "and I will introduce you to my partner. I ought to say it
the other way round, according to society etiquette," he added,
laughing, "but we are talking _theatre_" (shop).
He came a few steps down the staircase with me, and stayed there leaning
over the balustrade to wish me good-bye.
At two o'clock precisely I was at the Odeon, and had to wait an hour. I
began to grind my teeth, and only the remembrance of my promise to
Camille Doucet prevented me from going away.
Finally Duquesnel appeared and took me across to the manager's office.
"You will now see the other ogre," he said, and I pictured to myself the
other ogre as charming as his partner. I was therefore greatly
disappointed on seeing a very ugly little man, whom I recognised as
He eyed me up and down most impolitely, and pretended not to recognise
me. He signed to me to sit down, and without a word handed me a pen and
showed me where to sign my name on the paper before me. Madame Guerard
interposed, laying her hand on mine.
"Do not sign without reading it," she said.
"Are you Mademoiselle's mother?" he asked, looking up.
"No," she said, "but it is just as though I were."
"Well, yes, you are right. Read it quickly," he continued, "and then
sign or leave it alone, but be quick."
I felt the colour coming into my face, for this man was odious.
Duquesnel whispered to me, "There's no ceremony about him, but he's a
good fellow; don't take offence."
I signed my contract and handed it to his ugly partner.
"You know," he remarked, "He is responsible for you. I should not upon
any account have engaged you."
"And if you had been alone, Monsieur," I answered, "I should not have
signed, so we are quits."
I went away at once, and hurried to my mother's to tell her, for I knew
this would be a great joy for her. Then, that very day, I set off with
_mon petit Dame_ to buy everything necessary for furnishing my
The following day I went to the convent in the Rue Notre Dame-des-Champs
to see my dear governess, Mlle. de Brabender. She had been ill with
acute rheumatism in all her limbs for the last thirteen months. She had
suffered so much that she looked like a different person. She was lying
in her little white bed, a little white cap covering her hair; her big
nose was drawn with pain, her washed-out eyes seemed to have no colour
in them. Her formidable moustache alone bristled up with constant spasms
of pain. Besides all this she was so strangely altered that I wondered
what had caused the change. I went nearer, and, bending down, kissed her
gently. I then gazed at her so inquisitively that she understood
instinctively. With her eyes she signed to me to look on the table near
her, and there in a glass I saw all my dear old friend's teeth. I put
the three roses I had brought her in the glass, and, kissing her again,
I asked her forgiveness for my impertinent curiosity. I left the convent
with a very heavy heart, for the Mother Superior told me in the garden
that my beloved Mlle. de Brabender could not live much longer. I
therefore went every day for a time to see my gentle old governess, but
as soon as the rehearsals commenced at the Odeon my visits had to be
One morning about seven o'clock a message came from the convent to fetch
me in great haste, and I was present at the dear woman's death-agony.
Her face lighted up at the supreme moment with such a holy look that I
suddenly longed to die. I kissed her hands, which were holding the
crucifix, and they had already turned cold. I asked to be allowed to be
there when she was placed in her coffin. On arriving at the convent the
next day, at the hour fixed, I found the sisters in such a state of
consternation that I was alarmed. What could have happened, I wondered?
They pointed to the door of the cell, without uttering a word. The nuns
were standing round the bed, on which was the most extraordinary looking
being imaginable. My poor governess, lying rigid on her deathbed, had a
man's face. Her moustache had grown longer, and she had a beard nearly
half an inch long. Her moustache and beard were sandy, whilst the long
hair framing her face was white. Her mouth, without the support of the
teeth, had sunk in so that her nose fell on the sandy moustache. It was
like a terrible and ridiculous-looking mask, instead of the sweet face
of my friend. It was the mask of a man, whilst the little delicate hands
were those of a woman.
There was an awe-struck expression in the eyes of the nuns, in spite of
the assurance of the nurse who had dressed the poor dead body, and had
declared to them that the body was that of a woman. But the poor little
sisters were trembling and crossing themselves all the time.
The day after this dismal ceremony I made my _debut_ at the Odeon in _Le
jeu de l'amour et du hasard_. I was not suited for Marivaux's plays, as
they require a certain coquettishness and an affectation which were not
then and still are not among my qualities. Then, too, I was rather too
slight, so that I made no success at all. Chilly happened to be passing
along the corridor, just as Duquesnel was talking to me and encouraging
me. Chilly pointed to me and remarked:
_"Une flute pour les gens du monde, il n'y a meme pas de mie."_
I was furious at the man's insolence, and the blood rushed to my face,
but I saw through my half-closed eyes Camille Doucet's face, that face
always so clean shaven and young-looking under his crown of white hair.
I thought it was a vision of my mind, which was always on the alert, on
account of the promise I had made. But no, it was he himself, and he
came up to me.
"What a pretty voice you have!" he said. "Your second appearance will be
such a pleasure for us!"
This man was always courteous, but truthful. This _debut_ of mine had
not given him any pleasure, but he was counting on my next appearance,
and he had spoken the truth. I had a pretty voice, and that was all that
any one could say from my first trial.
I remained at the Odeon, and worked very hard. I was ready to take any
one's place at a moment's notice, for I knew all the _roles_. I made
some success, and the students had a predilection for me. When I came on
to the stage I was always greeted by applause from these young men. A
few old sticklers used to turn towards the pit and try and command
silence, but no one cared a straw for them.
Finally my day of triumph dawned. Duquesnel had the happy idea of
putting _Athalie_ on again, with Mendelssohn's choruses.
Beauvallet, who had been odious as a professor, was charming as a
comrade. By special permission from the Ministry he was to play Joad.
The _role_ of Zacharie was assigned to me. Some of the Conservatoire
pupils were to take the spoken choruses, and the female pupils who
studied singing undertook the musical part. The rehearsals were so bad
that Duquesnel and Chilly were in despair.
Beauvallet, who was more agreeable now, but not choice in his language,
muttered some terrible words. We began over and over again, but it was
all to no purpose. The spoken choruses were simply abominable. When
suddenly Chilly exclaimed:
"Well, let the young one say all the spoken choruses. They will be right
enough with her pretty voice!"
Duquesnel did not utter a word, but he pulled his moustache to hide a
smile. Chilly was coming round to his _protegee_ after all. He nodded
his head in an indifferent way, in answer to his partner's questioning
look, and we began again, I reading all the spoken choruses. Every one
applauded, and the conductor of the orchestra was delighted, for the
poor man had suffered enough. The first performance was a veritable
little triumph for me! Oh, quite a little one, but still full of promise
for my future. The audience, charmed with the sweetness of my voice and
its crystal purity, encored the part of the spoken choruses, and I was
rewarded by three rounds of applause.
At the end of the act Chilly came to me and said, "_Thou_ art adorable!"
His _thou_ rather annoyed me, but I answered mischievously, using the
same form of speech:
"_Thou_ findest me fatter?"
He burst into a fit of laughter, and from that day forth we both used
the familiar _thou_ and became the best friends imaginable.
Oh, that Odeon Theatre! It is the theatre I loved most. I was very sorry
to leave it, for every one liked each other there, and every one was
gay. The theatre is a little like the continuation of school. The young
artistes came there, and Duquesnel was an intelligent manager, and very
polite and young himself. During rehearsal we often went off, several of
us together, to play ball in the Luxembourg, during the acts in which we
were not "on." I used to think of my few months at the Comedie
Francaise. The little world I had known there had been stiff,
scandal-mongering, and jealous. I recalled my few months at the Gymnase.
Hats and dresses were always discussed there, and every one chattered
about a hundred things that had nothing to do with art.
At the Odeon I was happy. We thought of nothing but putting plays on,
and we rehearsed morning, afternoon, and at all hours, and I liked that
For the summer I had taken a little house in the Villa Montmorency at
Auteuil. I went to the theatre in a _petit duc_, which I drove myself. I
had two wonderful ponies that Aunt Rosine had given to me because they
had very nearly broken her neck by taking fright at St. Cloud at a
whirligig of wooden horses. I used to drive at full speed along the
quays, and in spite of the atmosphere brilliant with the July sunshine,
and the gaiety of everything outside, I always ran up the cold cracked
steps of the theatre with veritable joy, and rushed up to my
dressing-room, wishing every one I passed good morning on my way. When I
had taken off my coat and gloves I went on to the stage, delighted to be
once more in that infinite darkness with only a poor light (a _servante_
hanging here and there on a tree, a turret, a wall, or placed on a
bench) thrown on the faces of the artistes for a few seconds.
There was nothing more vivifying for me than that atmosphere, full of
microbes, nothing more gay than that obscurity, and nothing more
brilliant than that darkness.
One day my mother had the curiosity to come behind the scenes. I thought
she would have died with horror and disgust. "Oh, you poor child," she
murmured, "how can you live in that!" When once she was outside again
she began to breathe freely, taking long gasps several times. Oh yes, I
could live in it, and I really only lived well in it. Since then I have
changed a little, but I still have a great liking for that gloomy
workshop in which we joyous lapidaries of art cut the precious stones
supplied to us by the poets.
The days passed by, carrying away with them all our little disappointed
hopes, and fresh days dawned bringing fresh dreams, so that life seemed
to me eternal happiness. I played in turn in _Le Marquis de Villemer_
and _Francois le Champi_. In the former I took the part of the foolish
baroness, an expert woman of thirty-five years of age. I was scarcely
twenty-one myself, and I looked seventeen. In the second piece I played
Mariette, and made a great success.
Those rehearsals of the _Marquis de Villemer_ and _Francois le Champi_
have remained in my memory as so many exquisite hours. Madame George
Sand was a sweet, charming creature, extremely timid. She did not talk
much, but smoked all the time. Her large eyes were always dreamy, and
her mouth, which was rather heavy and common, had the kindest
expression. She had perhaps had a medium-sized figure, but she was no
longer upright. I used to watch her with the most romantic affection,
for had she not been the heroine of a fine love romance!
I used to sit down by her, and when I took her hand in mine I held it as
long as possible. Her voice, too, was gentle and fascinating.
Prince Napoleon, commonly known as "Plon-Plon," often used to come to
George Sand's rehearsals. He was extremely fond of her. The first time I
ever saw that man I turned pale, and felt as though my heart had stopped
beating. He looked so much like Napoleon I. that I disliked him for it.
By resembling him it seemed to me that he made him seem less far away,
and brought him nearer to every one.
Madame Sand introduced me to him, in spite of my wishes. He looked at me
in an impertinent way: he displeased me. I scarcely replied to his
compliments, and went closer to George Sand.
"Why, she is in love with you!" he exclaimed, laughing.
George Sand stroked my cheek gently.
"She is my little Madonna," she answered; "do not torment her."
I stayed with her, casting displeased and furtive glances at the Prince.
Gradually, though, I began to enjoy listening to him, for his
conversation was brilliant, serious, and at the same time witty. He
sprinkled his discourses and his replies with words that were a trifle
crude, but all that he said was interesting and instructive. He was not
very indulgent, though, and I have heard him say base, horrible things
about little Thiers which I believe had little truth in them. He drew
such an amusing portrait one day of that agreeable Louis Bouilhet, that
George Sand, who liked him, could not help laughing, although she called
the Prince a bad man. He was very unceremonious, too, but at the same
time he did not like people to be wanting in respect to him. One day an
artiste, named Paul Deshayes, who was playing in _Francois le Champi_,
came into the green-room. Prince Napoleon, Madame George Sand, the
curator of the library, whose name I have forgotten, and myself were
there. This artiste was common, and something of an anarchist. He bowed
to Madame Sand, and addressing the Prince, said:
"You are sitting on my gloves, sir."
The Prince scarcely moved, pulled the gloves out, and, throwing them on
the floor, remarked, "I thought this seat was clean."
The actor coloured, picked up the gloves, and went away, murmuring some
I played the part of Hortense in _Le testament de Cesar_, by Girodot,
and of Anna Danby in Alexandre Dumas's _Kean_.
On the evening of the first performance of the latter piece [Footnote:
February 18, 1868.] the audience was most aggravating. Dumas _pere_ was
quite out of favour on account of a private matter that had nothing to
do with art. Politics for some time past had been exciting every one,
and the return of Victor Hugo from exile was very much desired. When
Dumas entered his box he was greeted by yells. The students were there
in full force, and they began shouting for _Ruy Blas_. Dumas rose and
asked to be allowed to speak. "My young friends," he began, as soon as
there was silence. "We are quite willing to listen," called out some
one, "but you must be alone in your box."
Dumas protested vehemently. Several persons in the orchestra took his
side, for he had invited a lady into his box, and whoever that lady
might be, no one had any right to insult her in so outrageous a manner.
I had never yet witnessed a scene of this kind. I looked through the
hole in the curtain, and was very much interested and excited. I saw our
great Dumas, pale with anger, clenching his fists, shouting, swearing,
and storming. Then suddenly there was a burst of applause. The woman had
disappeared from the box. She had taken advantage of the moment when
Dumas, leaning well over the front of the box, was answering, "No, no,
this lady shall not leave the box!"
Just at this moment she slipped away, and the whole house, delighted,
shouted, "Bravo!" Dumas was then allowed to continue, but only for a few
seconds. Cries of "_Ruy Blas! Ruy Blas_! Victor Hugo! Hugo!" could then
be heard again in the midst of an infernal uproar. We had been ready to
commence the play for an hour, and I was greatly excited. Chilly and
Duquesnel then came to us on the stage.
"_Courage, mes enfants_, for the house has gone mad," they said. "We
will commence anyhow, let what will happen."
"I'm afraid I shall faint," I said to Duquesnel. My hands were as cold
as ice, and my heart was beating wildly. "What am I to do," I asked him,
"if I get too frightened?"
"There's nothing to be done," he replied. "Be frightened, but go on
playing, and don't faint upon any account!"
The curtain was drawn up in the midst of a veritable tempest, bird
cries, cat-calls, and a heavy rhythmical refrain of "_Ruy Blas! Ruy
Blas!_ Victor Hugo! Victor Hugo!"
My turn came. Berton _pere_, who was playing Kean, had been received
badly. I was wearing the eccentric costume of an Englishwoman in the
year 1820. As soon as I appeared I heard a burst of laughter, and I
stood still, rooted to the spot in the doorway. At the very same instant
the cheers of my dear friends the students drowned the laughter of the
aggravators. This gave me courage, and I even felt a desire to fight.
But it was not necessary, for after the second endlessly long harangue,
in which I give an idea of my love for Kean, the house was delighted,
and gave me an ovation.
"Ignotus" wrote the following paragraph in the _Figaro_:
"Mlle. Sarah Bernhardt appeared wearing an eccentric costume which
increased the tumult, but her rich voice, that astonishing voice of
hers, appealed to the public, and she charmed them like a little
After _Kean_ I played in _La loterie du mariage_. When we were
rehearsing the piece, Agar came up to me one day, in the corner where I
usually sat. I had a little arm-chair there from my dressing-room, and
put my feet up on a straw chair. I liked this place, because there was a
little gas-burner there, and I could work whilst waiting for my turn to
go on the stage. I loved embroidery and tapestry work. I had a quantity
of different kinds of fancy work commenced, and could take up one or the
other as I felt inclined.
Madame Agar was an admirable creature. She had evidently been created
for the joy of the eyes. She was a brunette, tall, pale, with large,
dark, gentle eyes, a very small mouth with full rounded lips, which went
up at the corners with an imperceptible smile. She had exquisite teeth,
and her head was covered with thick, glossy hair. She was the living
incarnation of one of the most beautiful types of ancient Greece. Her
pretty hands were long and rather soft, whilst her slow and rather heavy
walk completed the illusion. She was the great _tragedienne_ of the
Odeon Theatre. She approached me, with her measured tread, followed by a
young man of from twenty-four to twenty-six years of age.
"Well, my dear," she said, kissing me, "there is a chance for you to
make a poet happy!" She then introduced Francois Coppee. I invited the
young man to sit down, and then I looked at him more thoroughly. His
handsome face, emaciated and pale, was that of the immortal Bonaparte. A
thrill of emotion went through me, for I adore Napoleon I.
"Are you a poet, Monsieur?" I asked.
His voice, too, trembled, for he was still more timid than I was.
"I have written a little piece," he continued, "and Mlle. Agar is sure
that you will play it with her."
"Yes, my dear," put in Agar, "you are going to play it for him. It is a
little masterpiece, and I am sure you will make a gigantic success."
"Oh, and you too. You will be so beautiful in it!" said the poet, gazing
rapturously at Agar.
I was called on to the stage just at this moment, and on returning a few
minutes later I found the young poet talking in a low voice to the
beautiful _tragedienne_. I coughed, and Agar, who had taken my
arm-chair, wanted to give it me back. On my refusing it she pulled me
down on to her lap. The young man drew up his chair and we chatted away
together, our three heads almost touching. It was decided that after
reading the piece I should show it to Duquesnel, who alone was capable
of judging poetry, and that we should then get permission from both
managers to play it at a benefit that was to take place after our next
The young man was delighted, and his pale face lighted up with a
grateful smile as he shook hands excitedly. Agar walked away with him as
far as the little landing which projected over the stage. I watched them
as they went, the magnificent statue-like woman and the slender outline
of the young writer. Agar was perhaps thirty-five at that time. She was
certainly very beautiful, but to me there was no charm about her, and I
could not understand why this poetical Bonaparte was in love with this
matronly woman. It was as clear as daylight that he was, and she too
appeared to be in love. This interested me infinitely. I watched them
clasp each other's hands, and then, with an abrupt and almost awkward
movement, the young poet bent over the beautiful hand he was holding and
kissed it fervently.
Agar came back to me with a faint colour in her cheeks. This was rare
with her, for she had a marble-like complexion. "Here is the
manuscript!" she said, giving me a little roll of paper.
The rehearsal was over, and I wished Agar good-bye, and on my way home
read the piece. I was so delighted with it that I drove straight back to
the theatre to give it to Duquesnel at once. I met him coming
"Do come back again, please!" I exclaimed.
"Good heavens, my dear girl, what is the matter?" he asked. "You look as
though you have won a big lottery prize."
"Well, it is something like that," I said, and entering his office, I
produced the manuscript.
"Read this, please," I continued.
"I'll take it with me," he said.
"Oh no, read it here at once!" I insisted. "Shall I read it to you?"
"No, no," he replied; "your voice is treacherous. It makes charming
poetry of the worst lines possible. Well, let me have it," he continued,
sitting down in his arm-chair. He began to read whilst I looked at the
"It's delicious!" he soon exclaimed. "It's a perfect masterpiece."
I sprang to my feet in joy.
"And you will get Chilly to accept it?"
"Oh yes, you can make your mind easy. But when do you want to play it?"
"Well, the author seems to be in a great hurry," I said, "and Agar too."
"And you as well," he put in, laughing, "for this is a _role_ that just
suits your fancy."
"Yes, my dear '_Duq_,'" I acknowledged. "I too want it put on at once.
Do you want to be very nice?" I added. "If so, let us have it for the
benefit of Madame ---- in a fortnight from now. That would not make any
difference to other arrangements, and our poet would be so happy."
"Good!" said Duquesnel, "I will settle it like that. What about the
scenery, though?" he muttered meditatively, biting his nails, which were
then his favourite meal when disturbed in his mind.
I had already thought that out, so I offered to drive him home, and on
the way I put my plan before him.
We might have the scenery of _Jeanne de Ligneris_, a piece that had been
put on and taken off again immediately, after being jeered at by the
public. The scenery consisted of a superb Italian park, with flowers,
statues, and even a flight of steps. As to costumes, if we spoke of them
to Chilly, no matter how little they might cost he would shriek, as he
had done in his _role_ of Rodin. Agar and I would supply our own
When I arrived at Duquesnel's house, he asked me to go in and discuss
the costumes with his wife. I accepted his invitation, and, after
kissing the prettiest face one could possibly dream of, I told its owner
about our plot. She approved of everything, and promised to begin at
once to look out for pretty designs for our costumes. Whilst she was
talking I compared her with Agar. Oh, how much I preferred that charming
head, with its fair hair, those large, limpid eyes, and the face, with
its two little pink dimples. Her hair was soft and light, and formed a
halo round her forehead. I admired, too, her delicate wrists, finishing
with the loveliest hands imaginable, hands that were later on quite
On leaving my two friends I drove straight to Agar's to tell her what
had happened. She kissed me over and over again, and a cousin of hers, a
priest, who happened to be there, appeared to be very delighted with my
story. He seemed to know about everything. Presently there was a timid
ring at the bell, and Francois Coppee was announced.
"I am just going away," I said to him, as I met him in the doorway and
shook hands. "Agar will tell you everything."
LE PASSANT--AT THE TUILERIES--FIRE IN MY FLAT
The rehearsals of _Le Passant_ commenced very soon after this, and were
delightful, for the timid young poet was a most interesting and
The first performance took place as arranged, and _Le Passant_ was a
veritable triumph. The whole house cheered over and over again, and Agar
and myself had eight curtain calls. We tried in vain to bring the author
forward, as the audience wished to see him. Francois Coppee was not to
be found. The young poet, hitherto unknown, had become famous within a
few hours. His name was on all lips. As for Agar and myself, we were
simply overwhelmed with praise, and Chilly wanted to pay for our
costumes. We played this one-act piece more than a hundred times
consecutively to full houses.
We were asked to give it at the Tuileries, and at the house of Princess
Oh, that first performance at the Tuileries! It is stamped on my brain
for ever, and with my eyes shut I can see every detail again even now.
It had been arranged between Duquesnel and the official sent from the
Court that Agar and I should go to the Tuileries to see the room where
we were to play, in order to have it arranged according to the
requirements of the piece. Count de Laferriere was to introduce me to
the Emperor, who would then introduce me to the Empress Eugenie. Agar
was to be introduced by Princess Mathilde, to whom she was then sitting
M. de Laferriere came for me at nine o'clock in a state carriage, and
Madame Guerard accompanied me.
M. de Laferriere was a very agreeable man, with rather stiff manners. As
we were turning round the Rue Royale the carriage had to draw up an
instant, and General Fleury approached us. I knew him, as he had been
introduced to me by Morny. He spoke to us, and Comte de Laferriere
explained where we were going. As he left us he said to me, "Good luck!"
Just at that moment a man who was passing by took up the words and
called out, "Good luck, perhaps, but not for long, you crowd of
On arriving at the Palace we all three got out of the carriage, and were
shown into a small yellow drawing-room on the ground floor.
"I will go and inform his Majesty that you are here," said M. de
Laferriere, leaving us.
When alone with Madame Guerard I thought I would rehearse my three
"_Mon petit Dame_," I said, "tell me whether they are right."
I made the curtseys, murmuring, "Sire... Sire..." I began over again
several times, looking down at my dress as I said "Sire..." when
suddenly I heard a stifled laugh.
I stood up quickly, furious with Madame Guerard, but I saw that she too
was bent over in a half circle. I turned round quickly, and behind
me--was the Emperor. He was clapping his hands silently and laughing
quietly, but still he _was_ laughing. My face flushed, and I was
embarrassed, for I wondered how long he had been there. I had been
curtseying I do not know how many times, trying to get my reverence
right, and saying, "There... that's too low... There; is that right,
"Good Heavens!" I now said to myself. "Has he heard it all?"
In spite of my confusion, I now made my curtsey again, but the Emperor
"Oh! no; it could not be better than it was just now. Save them for the
Empress, who is expecting you."
Oh, that "just now." I wondered when it had been?
I could not question Madame Guerard, as she was following at some
distance with M. de Laferriere. The Emperor was at my side, talking to
me of a hundred things, but I could only answer in an absent-minded way,
on account of that "just now."
I liked him much better thus, quite near, than in his portraits. He had
such fine eyes, which he half closed whilst looking through his long
lashes. His smile was sad and rather mocking. His face was pale and his
voice faint, but seductive.
We found the Empress seated in a large arm-chair. Her body was sheathed
in a grey dress, and seemed to have been moulded into the material. I
thought her very beautiful. She too was more beautiful than her
portraits. I made my three curtseys under the laughing eyes of the
Emperor. The Empress spoke, and the spell was then broken. That rough,
hard voice coming from that brilliant woman gave me a shock.
From that moment I felt ill at ease with her, in spite of her
graciousness and her kindness. As soon as Agar arrived and had been
introduced, the Empress had us conducted to the large drawing-room,
where the performance was to take place. The measurements were taken for
the platform, and there was to be the flight of steps where Agar had to
pose as the unhappy courtesan cursing mercenary love and longing for
This flight of steps was quite a problem. They were supposed to
represent the first three steps of a huge flight leading up to a
Florentine palace, and had to be half hidden in some way. I asked for
some shrubs, flowers and plants, which I arranged along the three steps.
The Prince Imperial, who had come in, was then about thirteen years of
age. He helped me to arrange the plants, and laughed wildly when Agar
mounted the steps to try the effect. He was delicious, with his
magnificent eyes with heavy lids like those of his mother, and with his
father's long eyelashes. He was witty like the Emperor, whom people
surnamed "Louis the Imbecile," and who certainly had the most refined,
subtle, and at the same time the most generous wit.
We arranged everything as well as we could, and it was decided that we
should return two days later for a rehearsal before their Majesties.
How gracefully the Prince Imperial asked permission to be present at the
rehearsal! His request was granted, and the Empress then took leave of
us in the most charming manner, but her voice was very ugly. She told
the two ladies who were with her to give us wine and biscuits, and to
show us over the Palace if we wished to see it. I did not care much
about this, but _mon petit Dame_ and Agar seemed so delighted at the
offer that I gave in to them.
I have regretted ever since that I did so, for nothing could have been
uglier than the private rooms, with the exception of the Emperor's study
and the staircases. This inspection of the Palace bored me terribly. A
few of the pictures consoled me, and I stayed some time gazing at
Winterhalter's portrait representing the Empress Eugenie. She looked
beautiful, and I thanked Heaven that the portrait could not speak, for
it served to explain and justify the wonderful good luck of her Majesty.
The rehearsal took place without any special incident. The young Prince
did his utmost to prove to us his gratitude and delight, for we had made
it a dress rehearsal on his account, as he was not to be present at the
_soiree_. He sketched my costume, and intended to have it copied for a
_bal deguise_ which was to be given for the Imperial child. Our
performance was in honour of the Queen of Holland, accompanied by the
Prince of Orange, commonly known in Paris as "Prince Citron."
A rather amusing incident occurred during the evening. The Empress had
remarkably small feet, and in order to make them look still smaller she
encased them in shoes that were too narrow. She looked wonderfully
beautiful that night, with her pretty sloping shoulders emerging from a
dress of pale blue satin embroidered with silver. On her lovely hair she
was wearing a little diadem of turquoises and diamonds, and her small
feet were on a cushion of silver brocade. All through Coppee's piece my
eyes wandered frequently to this cushion, and I saw the two little feet
moving restlessly about. Finally I saw one of the shoes pushing its
little brother very, very gently, and then I saw the heel of the Empress
come out of its prison. The foot was then only covered at the toe, and I
was very anxious to know how it would get back, for under such
circumstances the foot swells, and cannot go into a shoe that is too
narrow. When the piece was over we were recalled twice, and as it was
the Empress who started the applause, I thought she was putting off the
moment for getting up, and I saw her pretty little sore foot trying in
vain to get back into its shoe. The curtains were drawn, and as I had
told Agar about the cushion drama, we watched through them its various
The Emperor rose, and every one followed his example. He offered his arm
to the Queen of Holland, but she looked at the Empress, who had not yet
risen. The Emperor's face lighted up with that smile which I had already
seen. He said a word to General Fleury, and immediately the generals and
other officers on duty, who were seated behind the sovereigns, formed a
rampart between the crowd and the Empress. The Emperor and the Queen of
Holland then passed on, without appearing to have noticed her Majesty's
distress, and the Prince of Orange, with one knee on the ground, helped
the beautiful sovereign to put on her Cinderella-like slipper. I saw
that the Empress leaned more heavily on the Prince's arm than she would
have liked, for her pretty foot was evidently rather painful.
We were then sent for to be complimented, and we were surrounded and
feted so much that we were delighted with our evening.
After _Le Passant_ and the prodigious success of that adorable piece, a
success in which Agar and I had our share, Chilly thought more of me,
and began to like me. He insisted on paying for our costumes, which was
great extravagance for him. I had become the adored queen of the
students, and I used to receive little bouquets of violets, sonnets, and
long, long poems--too long to read. Sometimes on arriving at the theatre
as I was getting out of my carriage I received a shower of flowers which
simply covered me, and I was delighted, and used to thank my
worshippers. The only thing was that their admiration blinded them, so
that when in some pieces I was not so good, and the house was rather
chary of applause, my little army of students would be indignant and
would cheer wildly, without rhyme or reason. I can understand quite well
that this used to exasperate the regular subscribers of the Odeon, who
were very kindly disposed towards me nevertheless, as they too used to
spoil me, but they would have liked me to be more humble and meek, and
less headstrong. How many times one or another of these old subscribers
would come and give me a word of advice. "Mademoiselle, you were
charming in _Junie_," one of them observed; "but you bite your lips, and
the Roman women never did that!"
"My dear girl," another said, "you were delicious in _Francois le
Champi_, but there is not a single Breton woman in the whole of Brittany
with her hair curled."
A professor from the Sorbonne said to me one day rather curtly, "It is a
want of respect, Mademoiselle, to turn your back on the public!"
"But, Monsieur," I replied, "I was accompanying an old lady to a door
at the back of the stage. I could not walk along with her backwards."
"The artistes we had before you, Mademoiselle, who were quite as
talented as you, if not more so, had a way of going across the stage
without turning their back on the public."
And he turned quickly on his heel and was going away, when I stopped
"Monsieur, will you go to that door, through which you intended to pass,
without turning your back on me?"
He made an attempt, and then, furious, turned his back on me and
disappeared, slamming the door after him.
I lived some time at 16 Rue Auber, in a flat on the first floor, which
was rather a nice one. I had furnished it with old Dutch furniture which
my grandmother had sent me. My godfather advised me to insure against
fire, as this furniture, he told me, constituted a small fortune. I
decided to follow his advice, and asked _mon petit Dame_ to take the
necessary steps for me. A few days later she told me that some one would
call about it on the 12th.
On the day in question, towards two o'clock, a gentleman called, but I
was in an extremely nervous condition, and said: "No, I must be left
alone to-day. I do not wish to see any one."
I had refused to be disturbed, and had shut myself up in my bedroom in a
frightfully depressed state.
That same evening I received a letter from the fire insurance company,
La Fonciere, asking which day their agent might call to have the
agreement signed. I replied that he might come on Saturday.
On Friday I was so utterly wretched that I sent to ask my mother to come
and lunch with me. I was not playing that day, as I never used to
perform on Tuesdays and Fridays, days on which repertoire plays only
were given. As I was playing every other day in new pieces, it was
feared that I should be over-tired.
My mother on arriving thought I looked very pale.
"Yes," I replied. "I do not know what is the matter with me, but I am in
a very nervous state and most depressed."
The governess came to fetch my little boy, to take him out for a walk,
but I would not let him go.
"Oh no!" I exclaimed. "The child must not leave me to-day. I am afraid
of something happening."
What happened was fortunately of a less serious nature than, with my
love for my family, I was dreading.
I had my grandmother living with me at that time, and she was blind. It
was the grandmother who had given me most of my furniture. She was a
spectral-looking woman, and her beauty was of a cold, hard type. She was
very tall indeed, six feet, but she looked like a giantess. She was thin
and very upright, and her long arms were always stretched in front of
her, feeling for all the objects in her way, so that she might not knock
herself, although she was always accompanied by the nurse whom I had
engaged for her. Above this long body was her little face, with two
immense pale blue eyes, which were always open, even when asleep at
night. She was generally dressed from head to foot in grey, and this
neutral colour gave something unreal to her general appearance.
My mother, after trying to comfort me, went away about two o'clock. My
grandmother, seated opposite me in her large Voltaire armchair,
"What are you afraid of?" she asked. "Why are you so mournful? I have
not heard you laugh all day."
I did not answer, but looked at my grandmother. It seemed to me that the
trouble I was dreading would come through her.
"Are you not there?" she insisted.
"Yes, I am here," I answered; "but please do not talk to me."
She did not utter another word, but with her two hands on her lap sat
there for hours. I sketched her strange, fatidical face.
It began to grow dusk, and I thought I would go and dress, after being
present at the meal taken by my grandmother and the child. My friend
Rose Baretta was dining with me that evening, and I had also invited a
most charming and witty man, Charles Haas. Arthur Meyer came too. He was
a young journalist already very much in vogue. I told them about my
forebodings with regard to that day, and begged them not to leave me
"After that," I said, "it will not be to-day, and the wicked spirits who
are watching me will have missed their chance."
They agreed to humour my fancy, and Arthur Meyer, who was to have gone
to some first night at one of the theatres, remained with us. Dinner was
more animated than luncheon had been, and it was nine o'clock when we
left the table. Rose Baretta sang us some delightful old songs. I went
away for a minute to see that all was right in my grandmother's room. I
found my maid with her head wrapped up in cloths soaked in sedative
water. I asked what was the matter, and she said that she had a terrible
headache. I told her to prepare my bath and everything for me for the
night, and then to go to bed. She thanked me, and obeyed.
I went back to the drawing-room, and, sitting down to the piano, played
"Il Bacio," Mendelssohn's "Bells," and Weber's "Last Thought." I had not
come to the end of this last melody when I stopped, suddenly hearing in
the street cries of "Fire! Fire!"
"They are shouting 'Fire!'" exclaimed Arthur Meyer.
"That's all the same to me," I said, shrugging my shoulders. "It is not
midnight yet, and I am expecting my own misfortune."
Charles Haas had opened the drawing-room window to see where the shouts
were coming from. He stepped out on to the balcony, and then came
quickly in again.
"The fire is here!" he exclaimed. "Look!"
I rushed to the window, and saw the flames coming from the two windows
of my bedroom. I ran back through the drawing-room in to the corridor,
and then to the room where my child was sleeping with his governess and
his nurse. They were all fast asleep. Arthur Meyer opened the hall door,
the bell of which was being rung violently. I roused the two women
quickly, wrapped the sleeping child in his blankets, and rushed to the
door with my precious burden. I then ran downstairs, and, crossing the
street, took him to Guadacelli's chocolate shop opposite, just at the
corner of the Rue Caumartin.
The kind man took my little slumberer in and let him lie on a couch,
where the child continued his sleep without any break. I left him in
charge of his governess and his nurse, and went quickly back to the
flaming house. The firemen, who had been sent for, had not yet arrived,
and at all costs I was determined to rescue my poor grandmother. It was
impossible to go back up the principal staircase, as it was filled with
Charles Haas, bareheaded and in evening dress, a flower in his
button-hole, started with me up the narrow back staircase. We were soon
on the first floor, but when once there my knees shook; it seemed as
thought my heart had stopped, and I was seized with despair. The kitchen
door, at the top of the first flight of stairs, was locked with a triple
turn of the key. My amiable companion was tall, slight, and elegant, but
not strong. I besought him to go down and fetch a hammer, a hatchet, or
something, but just at that moment, a newcomer wrenched the door open by
a violent plunge with his shoulder against it. This new arrival was no
other than M. Sohege, a friend of mine. He was a most charming and
excellent man, a broad-shouldered Alsatian, well known in Paris, very
lively and kind, and always ready to do any one a service. I took my
friends to my grandmother's room. She was sitting up in bed, out of
breath with calling Catherine, the servant who waited upon her. This
maid was about twenty-five years of age, a big, strapping girl from
Burgundy, and she was now sleeping peacefully, in spite of the uproar in
the street, the noise of the fire-engines, which had arrived at last,
and the wild shrieks of the occupants of the house. Sohege shook the
maid, whilst I explained to my grandmother the reason of the tumult and
why we were in her room.
"Very good," she said; and then she added calmly, "Will you give me the
box, Sarah, that you will find at the bottom of the wardrobe? The key of
it is here."
"But, grandmother," I exclaimed, "the smoke is beginning to come in
here. We have not any time to lose."
"Well, do as you like. I shall not leave without my box!"
With the help of Charles Haas and of Arthur Meyer we put my grandmother
on Sohege's back in spite of herself. He was of medium height, and she
was extremely tall, so that her long legs touched the ground, and I was
afraid she might get them injured. Sohege therefore took her in his
arms, and Charles Haas carried her legs. We then set off, but the smoke
stifled us, and after descending about ten stairs I fell down in a
When I came to myself I was in my mother's bed. My little boy was asleep
in my sister's room, and my grandmother was installed in a large
armchair. She sat bolt upright, frowning, and with an angry expression
on her lips. She did not trouble about anything but her box, until at
last my mother was angry, and reproached her in Dutch with only caring
for herself. She answered excitedly, and her neck craned forward as
though to help her head to peer through the perpetual darkness which
surrounded her. Her thin body, wrapped in an Indian shawl of many
colours, the hissing of her strident words, which flowed freely, all
contributed to make her resemble a serpent in some terrible nightmare.
My mother did not like this woman, who had married my grandfather when
he had six big children, the eldest of whom was sixteen and the
youngest, my uncle, five years. This second wife had never had any
children of her own, and had been indifferent, even harsh, towards those
of her husband; and consequently she was not liked in the family. I had
taken charge of her because small-pox had broken out in the family with
whom she had been boarding. She had then wished to stay with me, and I
had not had courage enough to oppose her.
On the occasion of the fire, though, I considered she behaved so badly
that a strong dislike to her came over me, and I resolved not to keep
her with me. News of the fire was brought to us. It continued to rage,
and burnt everything in my flat, absolutely everything, even to the very
last book in my library. My greatest sorrow was that I had lost a
magnificent portrait of my mother by Bassompierre Severin, a pastelist
very much _a la mode_ under the Empire; an oil portrait of my father,
and a very pretty pastel of my sister Jeanne. I had not much jewellery,
and all that was found of the bracelet given to me by the Emperor was a
huge shapeless mass, which I still have. I had a very pretty diadem, set
with diamonds and pearls, given to me by Kalil Bey after a performance
at his house. The ashes of this had to be sifted in order to find the
stones. The diamonds were there, but the pearls had melted.
I was absolutely ruined, for the money that my father and his mother had
left me I had spent in furniture, curiosities, and a hundred other
useless things, which were the delight of my life. I had, too, and I own
it was absurd, a tortoise named Chrysagere. Its back was covered with a
shell of gold set with very small blue, pink, and yellow topazes. Oh,
how beautiful it was, and how droll! It used to wander round my flat,
accompanied by a smaller tortoise named Zerbinette, which was its
servant, and I used to amuse myself for hours watching Chrysagere,
flashing with a hundred lights under the rays of the sun or the moon.
Both my tortoises died in this fire.
Duquesnel, who was very kind to me at that time, came to see me a few
weeks later, for he had just received a summons from La Fonciere, the
fire insurance company, whose papers I had refused to sign the day
before the catastrophe. The company claimed a heavy sum of money from me
for damages done to the house itself. The second storey was almost
entirely destroyed, and for many months the whole building had to be
propped up. I did not possess the 40,000 francs claimed. Duquesnel
offered to give a benefit performance for me, which would, he said, free
me from all difficulties. De Chilly was very willing to agree to
anything that would be of service to me. The benefit was a wonderful
success, thanks to the presence of the adorable Adelina Patti. The young
singer, who was then the Marquise de Caux, had never before sung at a
benefit performance, and it was Arthur Meyer who brought me the news
that "La Patti" was going to sing for me. Her husband came during the
afternoon to tell me how glad she was of this opportunity of proving to
me her sympathy. As soon as the "fairy bird" was announced, every seat
in the house was promptly taken at prices which were higher than those
originally fixed. She had no reason to regret her friendly action, for
never was any triumph more complete. The students greeted her with three
cheers as she came on the stage. She was a little surprised at this
noise of bravos in rhythm. I can see her now coming forward, her two
little feet encased in pink satin. She was like a bird hesitating as to
whether it would fly or remain on the ground. She looked so pretty, so
smiling, and when she trilled out the gem-like notes of her wonderful
voice the whole house was delirious with excitement.
Every one sprang up, and the students stood on their seats, waved their
hats and handkerchiefs, nodded their young heads in their feverish
enthusiasm for art, and "encored" with intonations of the most touching
The divine singer then began again, and three times over she had to sing
the Cavatina from _Il Barbiere de Seville, "Una voce poco fa._"
I thanked her affectionately afterwards, and she left the theatre
escorted by the students, who followed her carriage for a long way,
shouting over and over again, "Long live Adelina Patti!" Thanks to that
evening's performance I was able to pay the insurance company. I was
ruined all the same, or very nearly so.
I stayed a few days with my mother, but we were so cramped for room
there that I took a furnished flat in the Rue de l'Arcade. It was a
dismal house, and the flat was dark. I was wondering how I should get
out of my difficulties, when one morning M. C----, my father's notary,
was announced. This was the man I disliked so much, but I gave orders
that he should be shown in. I was surprised that I had not seen him for
so long a time. He told me that he had just returned from Hamburg, that
he had seen in the newspaper an account of my misfortune, and had now
come to put himself at my service. In spite of my distrust, I was
touched by this, and I related to him the whole drama of my fire. I did
not know how it had started, but I vaguely suspected my maid Josephine
of having placed my lighted candle on the little table to the left of
the head of my bed. I had frequently warned her not to do this, but it
was on this little piece of furniture that she always placed my
water-bottle and glass, and a dessert dish with a couple of raw apples,
for I adore eating apples when I wake in the night. On opening the door
there was always a terrible draught, as the windows were left open until
I went to bed. On closing the door after her the lace bed-curtains had
probably caught fire. I could not explain the catastrophe in any other
way. I had several times seen the young servant do this stupid thing,
and I supposed that on the night in question she had been in a hurry to
go to bed on account of her bad headache. As a rule, when I was going to
undress myself she prepared everything, and then came in and told me,
but this time she had not done so. Usually, too, I just went into the
room myself to see that everything was right, and several times I had
been obliged to move the candle. That day, however, was destined to
bring me misfortune of some kind, though it was not a very great one.
"But," said the notary, "you were not insured, then?" "No; I was to sign
my policy the day after the event." "Ah!" exclaimed the man of law,
"and to think that I have been told you set the flat on fire yourself in
order to receive a large sum of money!"
I shrugged my shoulders, for I had seen insinuations to this effect in a
newspaper. I was very young at this time, but I already had a certain
disdain for tittle-tattle.
"Oh well, I must arrange matters for you if things are like this," said
Maitre C----. "You are really better off than you imagine as regards the
money on your father's side," he continued. "As your grandmother leaves
you an annuity, you can get a good amount for this by agreeing to insure
your life for 250,000 francs for forty years, for the benefit of the
I agreed to everything, and was only too delighted at such a windfall.
This man promised to send me two days after his return 120,000 francs,
and he kept his word. My reason for giving the details of this little
episode, which after all belongs to my life, is to show how differently
things turn out from what seems likely according to logic or according
to our own expectations. It is quite certain that the accident which had
just then happened to me scattered to the winds the hopes and plans of
my life. I had arranged for myself a luxurious home with the money that
my father and mother had left me. I had kept by me and invested a
sufficient amount of money so as to be sure to complete my monthly
salary for the next two years: I reckoned that at the end of the two
years I should be in a position to demand a very high salary. And all