THE IDOL OF PARIS
by SARAH BERNHARDT
1921 (English Edition)
PART ONE: PARIS
PART TWO: BRUSSELS
PART THREE: THE COUNTRY
PART FOUR: THE CHATEAU
PART I. PARIS
In the dining-room of a fine house on the Boulevard Raspail all the Darbois family were gathered together about the round table, on which a white oil cloth bordered with gold-medallioned portraits of the line of French kings served as table cover at family meals.
The Darbois family consisted of Francois Darbois, professor of philosophy, a scholar of eminence and distinction; of Madame Darbois, his wife, a charming gentle little creature, without any pretentions; of Philippe Renaud, brother of Madame Darbois, an honest and able business man; of his son, Maurice Renaud, twenty-two and a painter, a fine youth filled with confidence because of the success he had just achieved at the last Salon; of a distant cousin, the family counsellor, a tyrannical landlord and self-centered bachelor, Adhemar Meydieux, and the child of whom he was godfather, and around whom all this particular little world revolved.
Esperance Darbois, the only daughter of the philosopher, was fifteen years old. She was long and slim without being angular. The flower head that crowned this slender stem was exquisitely fair, with the fairness of a little child, soft pale-gold, fair. Her face had, indeed, no strictly sculptural beauty; her long flax-coloured eyes were not large, her nose had no special character; only her sensitive and clear-cut nostrils gave the pretty face its suggestion of ancient lineage. Her mouth was a little large, and her full red lips opened on singularly white teeth as even as almonds; while a low Grecian forehead and a neck graceful in every curve gave Esperance a total effect of aristocratic distinction that was beyond dispute. Her low vibrant voice produced an impression that was almost physical on those who heard it. Quite without intention, she introduced into every word she spoke several inflections which made her manner of pronounciation peculiarly her own.
Esperance was kneeling on a chair, leaning upon her arms on the table. Her blue dress, cut like a blouse, was held in at the waist by a narrow girdle knotted loosely. Although the child was arguing vigorously, with intense animation, there was such grace in her gestures, such charming vibrations in her voice, that it was impossible to resent her combative attitude.
"Papa, my dear papa," she was asserting to Francois Darbois, "You are saying to-day just the opposite of what you were saying the other day to mother at dinner."
Her father raised his head. Her mother, on the contrary, dropped hers a little. "Pray Heaven," she was saying to herself, "that Francois does not get angry with her!"
The godfather moved his chair forward; Philippe Renaud laughed; Maurice looked at his cousin with amazement.
"What are you saying?" asked Francois Darbois.
Esperance gazed at him tenderly. "You remember my godfather was dining with us and there had been a lot of talk; my godfather was against allowing any liberty to women, and he maintained that children have no right to choose their own careers, but must, without reasoning, give way to their parents, who alone are to decide their fates."
Adhemar wished to take the floor and cleared his throat in preparation, but Francois Darbois, evidently a little nonplused, muttered, "And then after that—what are you coming to?"
"To what you answered, papa."
Her father looked at her a little anxiously, but she met his glance calmly and continued: "You said to my godfather, 'My dear Meydieux, you are absolutely mistaken. It is the right and the duty of everyone to select and to construct his future for himself.'"
Darbois attempted to speak....
"You even told mama, who had never known it, that grandfather wanted to place you in business, and that you rebelled."
"Ah! rebelled," murmured Darbois, with a slight shrug.
"Yes, rebelled. And you added, 'My father cut off my allowance for a year, but I stuck to it; I tutored poor students who couldn't get through their examinations, I lived from hand to mouth, but I did live, and I was able to continue my studies in philosophy.'"
Uncle Renaud was openly nodding encouragement. Adhemar Meydieux rose heavily, and straightening up with a succession of jerky movements, caught himself squarely on his heels, and then, with great conviction, said: "See here, child, if I were your father, I should take you by the ear and put you out of the room."
Esperance turned purple.
"I repeat, children should obey without question!"
"I hope to prove to my daughter by reasoning that she is probably wrong," said M. Darbois very quietly.
"Not at all. You must order, not persuade."
"Now, M. Meydieux," exclaimed the young painter, "it seems to me that you are going a little too far. Children should respect their parents' wishes as far as possible; but when it is a question of their own future, they have a right to present their side of the case. If my uncle Darbois's father had had his way, my uncle Darbois would probably now be a mediocre engineer, instead of the brilliant philosopher who is admired and recognized by the entire world."
Gentle little Madame Darbois sat up proudly, and Esperance looked at her father with a world of tenderness in her eyes.
"But, my lad," pursued Adhemar, swelling with conviction, "your uncle might well have made a fortune at machinery, while, as it is, he has just managed to exist."
"We are very happy"—Madame Darbois slipped in her word.
Esperance had bounded out of her chair, and from behind her father encircled his head with her arms. "Oh! yes, very happy," she murmured in a low voice, "and you would not, darling papa, spoil the harmony of our life together?"
"Remember, my dear little Esperance, what I said to your mother concerned only men—now we are considering the future of a young girl, and that is a graver matter!"
"Because men are better armed against the struggle, and life is, alas, one eternal combat."
"The armour of the intellect is the same for a young girl as for a young man."
Adhemar shook his shoulders impatiently. Seeing that he was getting angry and was like to explode, Esperance cried out, "Wait, godfather, you must let me try to convince my parents. Suppose, father, that I had chosen the same career as Maurice. What different armour should I need?"
Francois listened to his daughter affectionately, drawing her closer to him. "Understand me, my dearie. I am not denying your wish as a proof of my parental authority. No, remember this is the second time that you have expressed your will in the matter of the choice of your career. The first time I asked you to consider it for six months: The six months having passed, you now place me under the obligation of—"
"Oh! papa, what a horrid word!"
"But that is it," he went on, playing with her pretty hair, "you have put me under the obligation of answering you definitely; and I have called this family council because I have not the courage, nor, perhaps, the right, to stand in your way—the way you wish to go."
Adhemar made a violent effort to leap to his feet, declaiming in his heavy voice, "Yes, Francois, you must try and prevent her from going this way, the most evil, the most perilous above all, for a woman."
Esperance began to tremble, but she stood resolutely away from her father, holding herself rigid with her arms hanging straight at her sides. The rose tint of her cheeks had disappeared and her blue eyes were dimmed with shadows.
Maurice hastily made a number of sketches of her; never before had he found his cousin so interesting.
Adhemar continued, "Pray allow me to proceed with what I have to say, my dear child. I have come from the country for this purpose, in answer to your father's summons. I wish to offer my experience for your protection. Your parents know nothing of life. Francois breathes the ether of a world peopled only by philosophers—whether dead or living, it makes little difference; your mother lives only for you two. I expressed at once my horror at the career that you have chosen, I expatiated upon all the dangers! You seem to have understood nothing, and your father, thanks to his philosophy, that least trustworthy of guides, continues futilely reasoning, for ever reasoning!"
His harangue was cut short. Esperance's clear voice broke in, "I do not wish to hear you speak in this manner of my father, godfather," she said coldly. "My father lives for my mother and me. He is good and generous. It is you who are the egoist, godfather!"
Francois started as if to check his daughter, but she continued, "When mama was so sick, six years ago, papa sent me with Marguerite, our maid, to take a letter to you. I did so want to read that letter, it must have been so splendid.... You answered...."
Adhemar tried to get in a word. Esperance in exasperation tapped the floor with her foot and rushed on, "You answered, 'Little one, you must tell your papa that I will give him all the advice he wants to help him out of this trouble, but it is a principle of mine never to lend money, above all to my good friends, for that always leads to a quarrel.' Then I left you and went to my Uncle Renaud, who gave me a great deal more even than we needed for mama."
Big Renaud looked hot and uncomfortable. His son pressed his hand so affectionately under the table that the good man's eyes grew wet.
"Ever since then, godfather, I have not cared for you any more."
The atmosphere of the little room seemed suddenly to congeal. The silence was intense. Adhemar himself remained thunderstruck in his chair, his tongue dry, his thoughts chaotic, unable to form a reply to the child's virulent attack. For the sake of breaking up this general paralysis, Maurice Renaud finally suggested that they should vote upon the decision to be given to his brave little cousin.
They gathered together around the table and began to talk in low tones. Esperance had sunk into a chair. Her face was very pale and great blue circles had appeared around her eyes. The discussion seemed to be once more in full swing when Maurice startled everyone by crying, "My God, Esperance is ill!"
The child had fainted, and her head hung limply back. Her golden hair made an aureola of light around the colourless face with its dead white lips.
Maurice raised the child in his arms, and Madame Darbois led him quickly to Esperance's little room where he laid the light form on its little bed. Francois Darbois moistened her temples quickly with Eau de Cologne. Madame Darbois supported Esperance's head, holding a little ether to her nose. As Maurice looked about the little room, as fresh, as white, as the two pots of marguerites on the mantel-shelf, an indefinable sentiment swelled up within him. Was it a kind of adoration for so much purity? Philippe Renaud had remained in the dining-room where he succeeded in keeping Adhemar, in spite of his efforts to follow the Darbois.
Esperance opened her eyes and seeing beside her only her father and mother, those two beings whom she loved so deeply, so tenderly, she reached out her arms and drew close to her their beloved heads. Maurice had slipped out very quietly. "Papa dearie, Mama beloved, forgive me, it is not my fault," she sobbed.
"Don't cry, my child, now, not a tear," cried Darbois, bending over his little girl. "It is settled, you shall be...." and the word was lost in her little ear.
She went suddenly pink, and raising herself towards him, whispered her reply, "Oh! I thank you! How I love you both! Thank you! Thank you!"
Esperance, left alone with her mother, drank the tea this tender parent brought to her, and the look of health began to come back to her face.
"Then to-morrow, mother dearest, we must go and be registered for the examinations that are soon to be held at the Conservatoire."
"You want to go to-morrow?"
"Yes, to-day we must stay with papa, mustn't we? He is so kind!"
The two—mother and daughter—were silent a moment, occupied with the same tender thoughts.
"And now we will persuade him to go out with us, shan't we, mother dear?"
"That will be the very best thing for both of you," agreed Madame Darbois, and she went to make her preparations.
Left alone, Esperance cast aside her blue dress and surveyed herself in the long mirror. Her eyes were asking the questions that perplexed her whole being. She raised herself lightly on her little feet. "Oh! yes, surely I am going to be tall. I am only fifteen, and I am quite tall for my age. Oh! yes, I shall be tall." She came very close to the mirror and examined herself closely, hypnotizing herself little by little. She beheld herself under a million different aspects. Her whole life seemed passing before her, shadowy figures came and went—one of them, the most persistent, seemed to keep stretching towards her long appealing arms. She shivered, recoiled abruptly, and passing her hand across her forehead, dispelled the dizzy visions that were gathering there.
When her mother returned she found her quietly reading Victor Hugo, studying "Dona Sol" in Hernani. She had not heard the opening of the door, and she started at finding her mother close beside her.
"You see, I am not going to lose any time," she said, closing the book. "Ah! mama, how happy I am, how happy!"
"Quick," said her mother, her finger to her lips. "Your father is waiting for us, ready to go out."
Esperance seized her hat and coat quickly and ran to join her father. He was sitting as if thinking, his head resting in his hands. She understood the struggle between love and reason in his soul, and her upright little soul suffered with his. Bending gently beside him she murmured, "Do not be unhappy, papa. You know that I can never suffer as long as I have you two. If I am quite mistaken, if life doesn't bring me any of the things that I expect, I shall find comfort in your love."
Francois Darbois raised his head and looked deep into the lovely eyes, "God keep you, my little daughter!"
Next morning Esperance was ready to go to the Conservatoire long before the appointed hour. M. Darbois was already in his study with one of his pupils, so she ran to her mother's room and found her busy with some papers.
"You have my birth certificate?"
"And papa's written consent?"
"Yes, yes," sighed Madame Darbois.
"He hesitated to give it to you?"
"Oh! no, you know your father! His word is sacred, but it cost him a great deal. My dear little girl, never let him regret it."
Esperance put her finger across her mother's lips. "Mama, you know that I am honest and honourable, how can I help it when I am the child of two darlings as good as you and papa? My longing for the theatre is stronger than I can tell. I believe that if papa had refused his permission, it would have made me unhappy and that I should have fallen ill and pined away. You remember how, about a year ago, I almost died of anaemia and consumption. Really, mother dear, my illness was simply caused by my overstrung nerves. I had often heard papa express his disapproval of the theatre; and you, you remember, said one day, in reference to the suicide of a well-known actress, 'Ah, her poor mother, God keep me from seeing my daughter on the stage!'"
Madame Darbois was silent for a moment; then two tears rolled quietly from beneath her eyelids and a little sob escaped her.
"Ah! mama, mama," cried Esperance, "have pity, don't let me see you suffer so. I feared it; I did not want to be sure of it. I am an ungrateful daughter. You love me so much! You have indulged me so! I ought to give in. I can not, and your grief will kill me. I suffered so yesterday, out driving, feeling papa so far away. I kept feeling as if he were holding himself aloof in an effort to forget, and now you are crying.... Mama, it is terrible! I must make myself give you back your happiness—at least your peace of mind. Alas!—I can not give you back your happiness, for I think that I shall die if I cannot have my way."
Madame Darbois trembled. She was familiar with her daughter's nervous, high-strung temperament. In a tone of more authority than Esperance had ever heard her use, "Come, child, be quick, we are losing time," she said, "I have all the necessary papers, come."
They found at the Conservatoire several women, who had arrived before them, waiting to have their daughters entered for the course. Four youths were standing in a separate group, staring at the young girls beside their mothers. In a corner of the room was a little office, where the official, charged with receiving applications, was ensconced. He was a man of fifty, gruff, jaundiced from liver trouble, looking down superciliously at the girls whose names he had just received. When Madame Darbois entered with Esperance, the distinguished manner of the two ladies caused a little stir. The group of young men drew nearer. Madame Darbois looked about, and seeing an empty bench near a window, went towards it with her daughter. The sun, falling upon Esperance's blonde hair, turned it suddenly into an aureola of gold. A murmur as of admiration broke from the spectators.
"Now there is someone," murmured a big fat woman with her hands stuffed into white cotton gloves, "who may be sure of her future!"
The official raised his head, dazzled by the radiant vision. Forgetting the lack of courtesy he had shown those who had preceded her, he advanced towards Madame Darbois and, raising his black velvet cap, "Do you wish to register for the entrance examinations?" he said to Esperance.
She indicated her mother with an impatient movement of her little head. "Yes," said Madame Darbois, "but I come after these other people. I will wait my turn."
The man shrugged his shoulders with an air of assurance. "Please follow me, ladies."
They rose. A sound of discontent was audible.
"Silence," cried the official in fury. "If I hear any more noise, I will turn you all out."
Silence descended again. Many of these women had come a long way. A little dressmaker had left her workshop to bring her daughter. A big chambermaid had obtained the morning's leave from the bourgeois house where she worked. Her daughter stood beside her, a beautiful child of sixteen with colourless hair, impudent as a magpie. A music teacher with well-worn boots had excused herself from her pupils. Her two daughters flanked her to right and left, Parisian blossoms, pale and anaemic. Both wished to pass the entrance examinations, the one as an ingenue in comedy, the other in tragedy. They were neither comic nor tragic, but modest and charming. There was also a small shop-keeper, covered with jewels. She sat very rigid, far forward on the bench, compressed into a terrible corset which forced her breast and back into the humps of a punchinello; her legs hanging just short of the floor. Her daughter paced up and down the long room like a colt snorting impatiently to be put through its paces. She had the beauty of a classic type, without spot or blemish, but her joints looked too heavy and her neck was thrust without grace between her large shoulders. Anyone who looked into the future would have been able to predict for her, with some certainty, an honourable career as a tragedian in the provinces.
Madame Darbois seated herself on the only chair in the little office. When the official had read Esperance's birth certificate, he exclaimed, "What! Mademoiselle is the daughter of the famous professor of philosophy?'"
The two women looked at each other with amazement.
"Why, ladies," went on the official, radiantly, "my son is taking courses with M. Darbois at the Sorbonne. What a pleasure it is to meet you—but how does it happen that M. Darbois has allowed...?" His sentence died in his throat. Madame Darbois had become very pale and her daughter's nostrils quivered. The official finished with his papers, returned them politely to Madame Darbois, and said in a low tone, "Have no anxiety, Madame, the little lady has a wonderful future before her."
The two ladies thanked the official and made their way toward the door. The group of young men bowed to the young girl, and she inclined her head ever so slightly.
"Oh, la-la," screamed the big chamber-maid.
Esperance stopped on the threshold and looked directly at the woman, who blushed, and said nothing more.
"Ho, ho," jeered one of the youths, "she settled you finely that time, didn't she?"
An argument ensued instantly, but Esperance had gone her way, trembling with happiness. Everything in life seemed opening for her. For the first time she was aware of her own individuality; for the first time she recognized in herself a force: would that force work for creation or destruction? The child pressed her hands against her fluttering heart.
M. Darbois was waiting at the window. At sight of him, Esperance jumped from the carriage before it stopped. "What a little creature of extremes!" mused the professor.
When she threw her arms about him to thank him, he loosed her hands quickly. "Come, come, we haven't time to talk of that. We must sit down at once. Marguerite is scolding because the dinner is going to be spoiled."
To Esperance the dinner was of less than no importance, but she threw aside her hat obediently, pulled forward her father's chair, and sat down between the two beings whom she adored, but whom she was forced to see suffer if she lived in her own joy—and that she could not, and would not, hide.
The weeks before the long-expected day of the examination went by all too slowly to suit Esperance. She had chosen, for the comedy test to study a scene from Les Femmes Savantes (the role of "Henriette"), and in tragedy a scene from Iphygenia. Adhemar Meydieux often came to inquire about his goddaughter's studies. He wished to hear her recite, to give her advice; but Esperance refused energetically, still remembering his former opposition against him. She would let no one hear her recitations, but her mother. Madame Darbois put all her heart into her efforts to help her daughter. Every morning she went through her work with Esperance. To her the role of "Henriette" was inexplicable. She consulted her husband, who replied, "'Henriette' is a little philosopheress with plenty of sense. Esperance is right to have chosen this scene from Les Femmes Savantes. Moliere's genius has never exhibited finer raillery than in this play." And he enlarged upon the psychology of "Henriette's" character until Madame Darbois realized with surprise that her daughter was completely in accord with the ideas laid down by her father as to the interpretation of this role. Esperance was so young it seemed impossible that she could yet understand all the double subtleties....
Esperance had taken her first communion when she was eleven, and after her religious studies ended, she had thought of nothing but poetry, and had even tried to compose some verses. Her father had encouraged her, and procured her a professor of literature. From that time the child had given herself completely to the art of the drama, learning by heart and reciting aloud the most beautiful parts of French literature. Her parents, listening with pleasure to her recitations of Ronsard or Victor Hugo, little guessing that the child was already dreaming of the theatre. Often since then, Madame Darbois had reproached herself for having foreseen so little, but her husband, whose wisdom recognized the uselessness of vain regrets, would calm her, saying with a shake of his head, "You can prevent nothing, my dear wife, destiny is a force against which all is impotent! We can but remove the stumbling-blocks from the path which Esperance must follow. We must be patient!"
At last the day arrived! Never had the young girl been more charming. Francois Darbois had been working arduously on the correction of a book he was about to publish, when he saw her coming into his library. He turned towards her and, regarding her there in the doorway, seemed to see the archangel of victory—such radiance emanated from this frail little body.
"I wanted to kiss you, father, before going ... there. Pardon me for having disturbed you." He pressed her close against his heart without speaking, unwilling to pronounce the words of regret that mounted to his lips.
Esperance was silent for an instant before her father's grief: then with an exaltation of her whole being she flung herself on her father's neck: "Oh, father, dear father, I am so happy that you must not suffer; you love me so much that you must be happy in this happiness I owe to you; to-morrow, perhaps, will bring me tears. Let us live for to-day."
The professor gently stroked his daughter's velvet cheek. "Go, my darling, go and return triumphant."
In the reception-room Esperance and Madame Darbois went to the same bench, where they had sat upon their former visit. Some fifty people were assembled.
The same official came to speak to them, and, consulting the list which he was holding ostentatiously, "There are still five pupils before you, Mademoiselle, two boys and three young ladies. Whom have you chosen to give you your cues?"
Esperance looked at him with amazement. "I don't understand," she said, Madame Darbois was perturbed.
"But," answered the man, "you must have an 'Armande' for Les Femmes Savantes, an 'Agememnon' and a 'Clytemnestra' for Iphygenia."
"But we did not know that," stammered Madame Darbois.
The official smiled and assumed still more importance. "Wait just a moment, ladies." Soon he returned, leading a tall, young girl with a dignified bearing, and a young man of evident refinement. "Here is Mlle. Hardouin, who is willing to give you the cues for 'Armande' and 'Clytemnestra,' and M. Jean Perliez, who will do the 'Agememnon.' Only, I believe," he added, "you will have to rehearse with them. I will take all four of you into my little office where no one can disturb you."
Mlle. Hardouin was a beautiful, modest young girl of eighteen, with charming manners. She was an orphan and lived with a sister ten years older, who had been a mother to her. They adored each other. The older sister had established a good trade for herself as a dressmaker; both sisters were respected and loved.
Jean Perliez was the son of a chemist. His father had been unwilling that he should choose a theatrical career until he should have completed his studies at college. He had obeyed, graduated brilliantly, and was now presenting himself for the entrance examination as a tragedian.
The three young people went over the two scenes Esperance had chosen together.
"What a pretty voice you have, Mademoiselle," said Genevieve Hardouin timidly.
After the rehearsal of Les Femmes Savantes, when they finished the scene of Iphygenia, Jean Perliez turned to Madame Darbois and inquired the name of Esperance's instructor.
"Why, she had none. My daughter has worked alone; I have given her the cues." She smiled that benevolent smile, which always lighted her features with a charm of true goodness and distinction.
"That is indeed remarkable," murmured Jean Perliez, as he looked at the young girl. Then bending towards Madame Darbois, "May I be permitted, Madame, to ask your daughter to give me the cues of 'Junia' in Britannicus? The young lady who was to have played it is ill."
Madame Darbois hesitated to reply and looked towards Esperance.
"Oh! yes, mama, of course you will let me," said that young lady, in great spirits. And without more ado, "We must rehearse, must we not? Let us begin at once."
The young man offered her the lines. "I don't need them," she said laughing, "I know 'Junia' by heart." And, indeed, the rehearsal passed off without a slip, and the little cast separated after exchanging the most enthusiastic expressions of pleasure.
A comrade asked Perliez, "Is she any good, that pretty little blonde?"
"Very good," Perliez replied curtly.
Everything went well for Esperance. Her appearance on the miniature stage where the examinations were held caused a little sensation among the professor-judges.
"What a heavenly child!" exclaimed Victorien Sardou.
"Here is truly the beauty of a noble race," murmured Delaunay, the well-known member of the Comedie-Francaise.
The musical purity of Esperance's voice roused the assembly immediately out of its torpor. The judges, no longer bored and indifferent, followed her words with breathless attention, and when she stopped a low murmur of admiration was wafted to her.
"Scene from Iphygenia," rasped the voice of the man whose duty it was to make announcements. There was a sound of chairs being dragged forward, and the members of the jury settling themselves to the best advantage for listening. Here in itself was a miniature triumph, repressed by the dignity assumed by all the judges, but which Esperance appreciated none the less. She bowed with the sensitive grace characteristic of her. Genevieve Hardouin and Jean Perliez congratulated her with hearty pressures of the hand.
As she was leaving Sardou stopped her in the vestibule. "Tell me, please, Mademoiselle, are you related to the professor of philosophy?"
"He is my father," the girl answered very proudly.
Delaunay had arisen. "You are the daughter of Francois Darbois! We are, indeed, proud to be able to present our compliments to you. You have an extraordinary father. Please tell him that his daughter has won every vote."
Esperance read so much respect and sincerity in his expression that she curtsied as she replied, "My father will be very happy that these words have been spoken by anyone whom he admires as sincerely as M. Delaunay."
Then she went quickly on her way.
As soon as they were back on the Boulevard Raspail and home, Esperance and her mother moved towards the library. Marguerite, the maid, stopped them. "Monsieur has gone out. He was so restless. Is Mademoiselle satisfied?"
"I was; but I am not any more, Marguerite, since papa is not here. Was he feeling badly?"
"Well, he was not very cheerful, Mademoiselle, but I should not say that there was anything really the matter with him."
Mother and daughter started. Someone was coming upstairs. Esperance ran to the door and fell into the arms of that dearly-loved parent. He kissed her tenderly. His eyes were damp.
"Come, come, dear, that I may tell you...."
"Your lunch is ready," announced Marguerite.
"Thank you," replied Esperance; "papa, mama, and I, we are all dying of hunger."
Madame Darbois gently removed her daughter's hat.
"Please, dear papa, I want to tell you everything."
"Too late, dear child, I know everything!"
The two ladies seemed surprised. "But—? How?"
"Through my friend, Victor Perliez, the chemist; who is, like me, a father who feels deeply about his child's choice of a career."
Esperance made a little move.
"No, little girl," went on Francois Darbois, "I do not want to cause you the least regret. Every now and then my innermost thoughts may escape me; but that will pass.... I know that you showed unusual simplicity as 'Henriette,' and emotion as 'Iphygenia.' Perliez's son, whom I used to know when he was no higher than that," he said, stretching out his hand, "was enthusiastic? He is, furthermore, a clever boy, who might have made something uncommon out of himself as a lawyer, perhaps. But—"
"But, father dear, he will make a fine lawyer; he will have an influence in the theatre that will be more direct, more beneficial, more far-reaching, than at the Bar. Oh! but yes! You remember, don't you, mama, how disturbed you were by M. Dubare's plea on behalf of the assassin of Jeanne Verdier? Well, is it not noble to defend the poets, and introduce to the public all the new scientific and political ideas?"
"Often wrong ideas," remarked Darbois.
"That is perhaps true, but what of it? Have you not said a thousand times that discussion is the necessary soil for the development of new ideas?"
The professor of philosophy looked at his daughter, realizing that every word he had spoken in her hearing, all the seed that he had cast to the wind, had taken root in her young mind.
"But," inquired Madame Darbois, "where did you see M. Perliez?"
The professor began to smile. "Outside the Conservatoire. Perliez and I ran into each other, both impelled by the same extreme anxiety towards the scene of our sacrifice. It is not really necessary to consult all the philosophical authorities on this subject of inanition of will," he added, wearily.
"Oh! chocolate custard," cried out Esperance with rapture, "Marguerite is giving us a treat."
"Yes, Mademoiselle, I knew very well...."
A ring at the front door bell cut short her words. They listened silently, and heard the door open, and someone come in. Then the maid entered with a card.
Francois Darbois rose at once. "I will see him in the salon," he said.
He handed the card to his wife and went to meet his visitor. Esperance leaned towards her mother and read with her the celebrated name, "Victorien Sardou." Together they questioned the import of this visit, without being able to find any satisfactory explanation.
When Francois entered the salon, Sardou was standing, his hands clasped behind him, examining through half-closed eyes a delicate pastel, signed Chaplain—a portrait of Madame Darbois at twenty. At the professor's entry, he turned round and exclaimed with the engaging friendliness that was one of his special charms, "What a very pretty thing, and what superb colour!"
Then advancing, "It is to M. Francois Darbois that I have the pleasure of speaking, is it not?"
He had not missed the formality in the surprise evinced by the professor as, without speaking, the professor bowed him towards a chair.
"Let me say to begin with, my dear professor, that I am one of your most fervent followers. Your last book, Philosophy is not Indifference, is, in my opinion, a work of real beauty. Your doctrine does not discourage youth, and after reading your book, I decided to send my sons to your lectures."
Francois Darbois thanked the great author. The ice was broken. They discussed Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Schaupenhauer, etc. Victorien Sardou heard the clock strike; he had lunched hastily and had to be back at the Conservatoire by two o'clock, as the jury still had to hear eleven pupils. He began laughing and talking very fast, in his habitual manner: "I must tell you, however, why I have come; your daughter, who passed her examination this morning, is very excellent. She has the making of a real artist; the voice, the smile, the grace, the distinction, the manner, the rhythm. This child of fifteen has every gift! I am now arranging a play for the Vaudeville. The principal role is that of a very young girl. Just at present there are only well-worn professionals in the theatre."
He rose. "Will you trust your daughter to me? I promise her a good part, an engagement only for my play, and I assure you of her success."
M. Darbois, in his amazement and in spite of the impatience of the academician, withheld his answer. "Pray permit me," he said, touching the bell, "to send for my daughter. It is with great anxiety, I admit to you, that I have given her permission to follow a theatrical career, so now I must consult her, while still trying to advise."
Then to the maid, "Ask Madame and Mademoiselle to come here."
Sardou came up to the professor and pressed his hand gratefully. "You are consistent with your principles. I congratulate you; that is very rare," he said.
The two ladies came in.
"Ah," he continued, glancing toward the pastel, after he had greeted Madame Darbois, "Here is the model of this beautiful portrait."
The gracious lady flushed, a little embarrassed, but flattered. After the introduction, Sardou repeated his proposal to Esperance, who, with visible excitement, looked questioningly at her father.
"It seems to me," said Madame Darbois, timidly, "that this is rather premature. Do you feel able to play so soon in a real theatre, before so many people?"
"I feel ready for anything," said the radiant girl quickly, in a clear voice.
Sardou raised his head and looked at her.
"If you think, M. Sardou, that I can play the character, I shall be only too happy to try; the chance you give me seems to come from destiny. I must endeavour as soon as possible to appease my dear father for his regret for having given me my own way."
Francois would have spoken, but she prevented him, drawing closer to him. "Oh, dear papa, in spite of yourself, I see this depression comes back to you. I want to succeed, and so drive away your heavy thoughts."
"Then," said Sardou quickly, to relieve them all of the emotion they were feeling, "it is quite agreed." Turning to Madame Darbois, who was trembling, "Do not be alarmed, dear Madame; we still have six or eight months before the plan will be ready for realization, which I feel sure will be satisfactory to all of us. I see that you are ready to go out; are you returning to the Conservatoire?"
"Yes," said Esperance, "I promised to give 'Junia's' cues to M. Jean Perliez."
"The son of another learned man! The Conservatoire is favoured to-day," said Sardou. "I shall be pleased to escort you, Madame," he added, bowing politely to Madame Darbois, "and this child shall unfold to me on the way her ideas on the drama: they must be well worth hearing."
It was already late. The two gentlemen shook hands, anticipating that, henceforth, they would meet as friends.
When they had left him, Francois looked at the pastel, which he had not examined for a long time. The young girl smiled at him with that smile that had first charmed him. He saw himself asking M. de Gossec, a rich merchant, for the hand of his daughter Germaine. He brushed his hand across his forehead as if to remove the memory of the refusal he had received on that occasion: then he smiled at the new vision which rose before his imagination. He saw himself in the church of St. Germain des Pres, kneeling beside Germaine de Gossec, trembling with emotion and happiness. A cloud of sadness passed over his face: now he was following the hearse of his father-in-law, who had committed suicide, leaving behind him a load of debt. The philosopher's expression grew proud and fierce. The first thirteen years of his marriage had been devoted to paying off this debt: then came the death of the sister of M. de Gossec, leaving her niece eight hundred thousand francs, five hundred thousand of which had served to pay the debt. For the last four years the family had been living in this comfortable apartment on the Boulevard Raspail, very happy and without material worries: but how cruel those first thirteen years had been for this young woman! He gazed at the pastel for a long time, his eyes filling with tears. "Oh, my dear, dear wife!"
In the carriage on the way to the Conservatoire the conversation was very animated. The dramatic author was listening with great interest while the young girl explained her theories on art and life. "What a strange little being," he thought, and his penetrating glance tried in vain to discover what weakness was most likely to attack this little creature who seemed so perfect.
The carriage stopped at the Conservatoire. Jean Perliez was waiting at the foot of the stairs. At sight of them his face lighted up. "I was afraid that you had forgotten me in the joy of your success."
The girl looked at him in amazement. "How could I forget when I had given my word?"
"You know Victorien Sardou?"
"Only to-day," said Esperance laughing; "yesterday we did not know him."
They were back in the reception-room which was only a little less noisy than it was in the morning. Many candidates believed that they had been accepted; several had even received encouraging applause; others, who had been received in frigid silence, comforted themselves with the reflection that they had at least been allowed to finish.
When Jean Perliez and Esperance entered the auditorium there was a flattering stir, as much in pleasure at seeing the young girl again, as in welcome to the future actor.
"Scene from Britannicus, M. Jean Perliez, 'Nero'; Mlle. Esperance Darbois, 'Junia,'" proclaimed the usher.
The scene was so very well enacted that a "Bravo" broke from the learned group around the table. Which one of the judges had not been able to contain his admiration? The young actors could not decide. Each one believed sincerely the success was due to the other. They congratulated each other with charming expressions of delight, and took each other by the hand.
"We shall be good friends, shall we not, M. Perliez?" said Esperance.
The young man turned quite red, and when Madame Darbois held out her hand to him, he kissed it politely, with the kiss he had not dared to give to Esperance.
Esperance having chosen the stage as her career, the whole household was more or less thrown into confusion. It became necessary to make several new arrangements. As Francois Darbois was not willing that his wife should accompany Esperance every day to the Conservatoire, it became quite a problem to find a suitable person to undertake this duty.
For the first time in her life Madame Darbois had to endure humiliating refusals. The young widow of an officer was directed by a friend of the family to apply. She seemed a promising person.
"You will have to be here every morning by nine," Madame Darbois said to her, "and you will be free every afternoon by four. The course is given in the morning, but twice a week there are classes also in the afternoon; on those days you will lunch with us."
"Your Sundays will be your own. The Conservatoire has no classes on Sunday."
"So I understand that you would employ me only to accompany your daughter to the Conservatoire, Madame!" said the officer's widow, dryly. "I shall be compelled to refuse your offer. I am unfortunately forced to work to support my two children, but I owe some respect to the name I bear. The Conservatoire is a place of perdition, and I am astonished," she added, "that the professor, who is so universally esteemed and respected, could have been able...."
Madame Darbois rose to her feet. She was very pale. "It is not necessary for you to judge the actions of my husband, Madame. That is enough."
When she was left alone Madame Darbois reflected sadly upon the narrow-mindedness of her fellow creatures. Then she reproached herself with her own inexperience that put her at the mercy of the first stupid prude she encountered. She was well aware that the Conservatoire was not supposed to be a centre of culture and education, but she had already observed the modesty and independence of several of the young girls there: the well-informed minds of most of the young men. Nevertheless, she had had her lesson, and was careful not to lay herself open to any new affront. After some consideration, she engaged a charming old lady, named Eleanore Frahender, who had been companion in a Russian family, and was now living in a convent in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where only trustworthy guests could be received. The old lady loved art and poetry, and as soon as she had met Esperance, was full of enthusiasm for her new duties. The young girl and she agreed in many tastes, and very soon they were great friends.
M. Darbois was quite contented with the arrangement, and could now attend to his work with complete tranquillity. Every morning the family gathered in the dining-room at half-past eight to take their coffee together. Esperance would recount all the little events of the day before and her studies for the day to come. Whenever she felt any doubt about an ambiguous phrase, she went at once to get her father's advice upon it. Sometimes Genevieve Hardouin would drop in to talk with her and Mlle. Frahender. Esperance adored Racine and refused to study Corneille, before whom Genevieve bowed in enthusiastic admiration.
"He is superhuman," she exclaimed, fervently.
"That is just what I reproach him for," returned Esperance. "Racine is human, that is why I love him. None of Corneille's heroines move me at all, and I loathe the sorrows of 'Phaedre.'"
"And 'Chimene'?" asked Genevieve Hardouin.
"'Chimene' has no interest for me. She never does as she wishes."
"How feminine!" said the professor, gently.
"Oh! you may be right, father dear, but grief is one and indivisible. Her father, cruelly killed by her lover, must kill her love for the lover, or else she does not love her father: and, that being the case, she doesn't interest me at all. She is a horrid girl." Tenderly she embraced her father, who could easily pardon her revolt against Corneille, because he shared her weakness for Racine.
Several months after Esperance's most encouraging admission to the Conservatoire, Victorien Sardou wrote a note to Francois Darbois, with whom he had come to be warm friends, warning him that he was soon coming to lunch with them, to read his new play to the family. Esperance was wild with excitement. The time of waiting for the event seemed interminable to her. Her father tried in vain to calm her with philosophical reflections. Creature of feeling and impulse that she was, nothing could control her excitement.
Sardou had also asked Francois Darbois to invite Mlle. Frahender, whose generous spirit and whose tact and judgment he much esteemed. The old lady arrived, carrying as usual the little box with the lace cap which she donned as soon as her bonnet was laid aside. On this great day the little cap was embellished by a mauve satin ribbon, contrasting charmingly with the silver of her hair.
All through lunch Esperance was delightful. Her quick responses to Sardou's questions were amazing in their logic. The extreme purity of this young soul seeking self-expression so courageously, struck the two men with particular emphasis.
The reading was a great success. The part intended for Esperance, the young girl's part, the heroine of the piece, had become of primary importance. Sardou had been able to study Esperance's qualifications during the months he had been a frequent visitor at the Darbois's home, and he had made the most of his prescience.
Lack of experience of the theatre, so natural in a child of sixteen, suggested several scenes of pure comedy. Then, as the drama developed, the author had heightened the intensity of the role by several scenes of real pathos, relying completely on Esperance to interpret them for him. Quite overcome by the death of the heroine she was to impersonate, she thanked the author, with tears streaming down her cheeks, her hands icy, her heart beating so furiously that the linen of her white blouse rose and fell.
"It is rather I who shall be thanking you the day of the first production," said Sardou much touched, as he wrapped round his neck the large, white square he always wore. "I believe that to-day has not been wasted."
The rehearsals began. Sardou had asked for and obtained from the Conservatoire six months leave for his young protegee, but Esperance would on no account consent to give up her classes. The only concession she would make was to give up the afternoon classes twice a week.
The press began to notice this infant prodigy, who wished to remain quite unheralded until her debut. Francois Darbois, in spite of his friendship with several journalists, could not make them adhere to their promises of silence, and when he complained bitterly to the head of a great daily, "But, my friend," the editor rejoined, "that daughter of yours is particularly fascinating, and certainly when you launched her into this whirlpool, you should have remembered that the only exits are triumph or despair!"
The philosopher grew pale.
"I believe," went on his friend, "that this child will vanquish every obstacle by the force of her will, will stifle all jealousies by the grace of her purity, and she already belongs to the public, while the fame of your name has simply served for a stepping-stone. You, in your wisdom, have been able to impart true wisdom to your child. But before the public has ever seen her she is famous, and Sardou affirms that the day after her appearance she will be the idol of all Paris. I owe it to the profession of journalism to write her up in my paper, and I am doing it, you must admit, with the utmost reserve."
And so at last the day of the performance came. Esperance, who was so easily shaken by the ordinary events of life, met any danger or great event quite calmly. For this young girl, so delicately fair, so frail of frame, possessed the soul of a warrior.
The sale of tickets had opened eight days in advance. The agents had realized big profits. The first night always creates a sensation in Paris. All the social celebrities were in the audience: and, what is less usual, many "intellectuals." They wished to testify by their presence their friendship for Francois Darbois, and to protest against certain journalists, who had not hesitated to say in print that such a furore about an actress (poor Esperance) was prejudicial to the dignity of philosophy.
In a box was the Minister of Belgium, who had been married lately, and wanted to show his young wife a "first night" in Paris. The First Secretary of the Legation was sitting behind the Minister's wife.
"Look there, that is Count Albert Styvens," said a journalist, pointing out the Secretary to his neighbour, a young beauty in a very decolletee gown.
The neighbour laughed. "Is he as reserved and as serious as he looks?" she inquired.
"So they say."
"Poor fellow," answered the pretty woman, with affected pity, examining him through her opera glasses.
Sardou, behind the scenes, was coming and going, arranging a chair, changing the position of a table, catching his foot in a carpet, swearing, nervous in the extreme. He made a hundred suggestions to the manager, which were received with weariness. He entered into conversation with the firemen. "Watch and listen, won't you, so that you can give me your impression after the first act?" For Sardou always preferred the spontaneous expressions of workmen and common people to the compliments of his own confreres.
The distant skurry in the wings that always precedes the raising of the curtain was audible on the stage. This rattling of properties is very noticeable to actors new to the theatre, though it is quite unsuspected by the general public.
The first act began. The audience was sympathetic, but impatient. However, the author knew his public, knew when to spring his surprises, how to hold the emotion in reserve until a climax of applause at the final triumph.
Esperance made her first entrance, laughing and graceful, as her role demanded. A murmur of admiration mounted from the orchestra to the balcony. Hers was such startling, such radiant fairness! Her musical, fluting voice acted like as a strange enchantment on the astonished audience. From the first moment the public was hers. The critic touched his neighbour's elbow. "Look at Count Albert, he seems stunned!"
As the Count leaned forward to watch more intently: "Great Heavens, do you suppose he will fall in love with her, do you believe he will really care for that little thing?" murmured the woman, mockingly.
The curtain fell amidst a shower of "Bravos." Esperance had to return three times before the public, which continued to applaud her unstintedly, as she smiled and blushed under her make-up. In spite of fifteen minutes' waiting, the intermission did not seem long. The occupants of the boxes were busy exchanging calls.
"She is perfectly adorable, she takes your breath. Just think of it, only sixteen and a half!"
"Do you think it is a wig?"
"Oh! no, that is her own hair—but what a revelation of loveliness! And what a carriage!"
"But her voice above all! I do not think that I have ever heard such declamation!"
"She is still at the Conservatoire?"
"The Theatre-Francaise ought to engage her immediately. They would find it would at once increase their subscription list."
"They say that her father is very much distressed to see her in the theatre. Why there they are, the Darbois. Don't you see them, in that box far back? They are looking very pleased."
A tall, pale man passed by.
"Ah! there goes Count Styvens. Have you read the article he wrote in the Debats this morning?"
"No, he puts me to sleep."
"I read it; it was rather unusual."
"About the fecundity of the pollen of flowers."
The chatter ceased. The count was within hearing.
"What have you to say about Esperance Darbois?" inquired a young lady.
The count blushed vividly, an unaccustomed light gleaming in his clear eyes. "It is too soon to pass judgment yet," he said, losing himself in the throng again.
In the Darbois's box there was a constant coming and going of friends. Jean Perliez joined them, his face betraying a conflict of emotions that were not lost on the father of Esperance.
"Did you see my daughter?"
"Yes. I just went to congratulate her."
"How did you find her?"
"Amazing! She is splendid, but not vain. She seems sure of herself and at the same time shows a little stage fright, a special variety which makes her hands like ice, and tightens her throat, as you must have noticed from the strain in her first speeches."
"Indeed I noticed it, and was a little frightened," said Mlle. Frahender.
"I know," said Jean Perliez, "but we need not be worried. It does not affect her powers and the force of her decision. She is invincible."
He heaved a deep sigh and withdrew into a corner to hide the emotion which was choking him. Francois Darbois had divined the fervent love this youth felt for his daughter, and understood the sufferings of this timid love which dared not declare itself lest it be repulsed. However, the chemist, the father of this young man, occupied a respected position as a well-to-do man, with an unblemished reputation. Why should he not declare himself, or at least try to find some encouragement? Francois Darbois would have been well contented with this marriage. Esperance was still too young, but, once engaged, they could wait awhile. He secretly took cognizance of Jean Perliez's sufferings, and a wave of pity surged up in his heart. "I will have to speak to him myself," he thought.
The curtain went up, disclosing Esperance, a book in her hand, her back to the public. She was not reading. That was evident from the weary droop of her body, from the rigid gaze into space. A coming storm was heralded by her quick motion, when she sprang up, threw aside her book, shook the pretty head to drive away the black butterflies in her brain, and ran to kiss her stage mother, who was playing Bridge with the villainess of the piece. There was such spontaneity in her movements that the sympathetic audience cried out, "Bravo!"
In the course of the act, Esperance secured several salvos of applause. The sustained emotion of the grief that overwhelmed her and the spasm of weeping which closed the act gave the young artist complete assurance of the public's earnest approval.
Sardou had dropped into the box of the Minister Plenipotentiary. He hid himself from the public, but sought the opinion of his great friend.
"Will you," asked the Minister, "present me to your young heroine?"
"Oh! let me come with you," besought his wife.
The Belgian Prince looked questioningly at Sardou, and at his nod of acquiescence they prepared to go and salute the new star just risen in the Parisian firmament.
"Come with us, my dear Count."
Albert Styvens became livid, a cold sweat broke out on his forehead, a polite phrase died in his throat. He rose to his feet and followed the Prince of Bernecourt.
The little reception-room next to Esperance's dressing-room was full of flowers, but no one was there. The manager and author had agreed that no stranger should approach the young artist. Only the family, Jean Perliez and Mlle. Frahender were allowed to enter. This good old soul was with Esperance now, as was Marguerite, who was not willing to leave her young mistress.
Sardou knocked. "Let me know, my dear child, when you are ready."
The door opened almost immediately, and the young girl rushed joyfully out into the little room. She stopped short upon seeing three strangers, and her eyes sought Sardou's, full of startled surprise.
"I have taken the liberty of disturbing you, little friend.... I want to present you to the Princess de Bernecourt."
Esperance curtsied with pretty grace. The Minister-Prince complimented her graciously; he was a dilettante, who could express himself most charmingly, in well chosen, artistic terms.
"Your Excellency overcomes me," said the young actress. "I shall do my best to deserve your kindness."
With a quick movement she re-adjusted her tulle scarf on her shoulders and blushed a little. The Minister turned and saw Albert Styvens standing with nervous interest—gazing like one bewitched at the enchanting maiden.
"Let me present to you Count Albert Styvens."
Esperance inclined her head a little and drew instinctively nearer to Mlle. Frahender.
The Count had not moved. The Prince led him away as soon as he had made his adieux to the young girl and the elder lady.
"Are you ill or insane?" he asked his Secretary.
"Insane, yes; I think I must be going insane," murmured the young man in a choking voice.
The play was in four acts, there were still two to come. The audience seemed to watch in a delirium of delight, and when the last curtain dropped, they called Esperance back eight times, and demanded the author.
In spite of all the talent displayed by Sardou as author, there was much enthusiasm and an unconscious gratitude in him as the discoverer of a new sensation.... No comet acclaimed by astronomers as capable of doubling the harvest would have moved the populace as did the description in all the papers of this new star in Paris.
The family found itself back on the Boulevard Raspail. The Darbois had not cared to leave their box. After every act, Mlle. Frahender carried their comments and tender messages to Esperance. Francois Darbois had great difficulty in constraining himself to remain in the noisy vestibule. He suffered too acutely at seeing his daughter, that pure and delicate child, the focus of every lorgnette, the subject of every conversation. Several phrases he had overheard from a group of men had brought him to his feet in a frenzy; then he fell back in his place like one stunned. Nevertheless there had not been one offensive word. It was all praise.
The philosopher held his daughter in his arms, pressed close against his heart, and tears ran down his cheeks.
"It is the first time, and shall be the last, that I wish to see you on the stage, dear little daughter. It is too painful for me, and what is worst of all I fear it will take you away from me."
Esperance replied trembling, "Pardon me, Oh! pardon me, it is such a force that impels me. I am sorry you suffer so. Oh! don't give way, I beg of you!"
She fell on her knees before her father, sobbing and kissing his hands.
Sardou, who was expected, came in just then, and his exuberance was dashed to the ground when he witnessed the trouble the family were in.
"Come, this is foolishness," he said, helping Esperance to her feet.
Then turning to the old Mademoiselle, "Here, dear lady, take this child away to compose herself, wash the tears off her poor little face, and hurry back, for I am dying of hunger."
Madame Darbois remembered that she was the hostess, and disappeared to see if everything was ready in the dining-room.
As soon as he was left alone with the philosopher, the author exclaimed, "In the name of God, man, is this where philosophy leads you? You are torturing that child whom you adore! Oh! yes, you are distressed, I know. The public has this evening taken possession of your daughter, but you are powerless to prevent it, and now is the time for you to apply to yourself your magnetic maxims. Esperance is one of those creatures who are only born once in a hundred years or so; some come as preservers, like Joan of Arc; others serve as instruments of vengeance of some occult power" (Sardou was an ardent believer in the occult). "Your child is a force of nature, and nothing can prevent her destiny. The fact that you have seen her brilliant development in spite of the grey environment of her first sixteen years, should convince you of the uselessness of your protests or regrets. The career that she has chosen is bristling with dangers, and full of disillusions, and gives free rein to a pitiless horde of calumniators. That cannot be helped. Your task, my friend," he added more calmly, "is to protect your daughter, and above all to assure her of a refuge of tenderness, and love and understanding."
Esperance came back, followed by her mother and the old Mademoiselle. Her father held out his arms to her and whispered, "You were wonderful, darling; I am happy to...."
He could not go on, and put his hot lips against her beautiful pure forehead to avoid the embarrassment that distressed him so powerfully.
Thanks to Sardou's gifts as a raconteur, the supper passed off pleasantly enough. This great man could unfold the varied pages of his mind with disconcerting ease. He knew everything, and could talk and act with inimitable vivacity. His anecdotes were always instructive, drawn from his manifold sources of knowledge in art or science. Mlle. Frahender was stupified by so much eclecticism, the philosopher forgot his grief, Madame Darbois realized for the first time that there might exist a brain worthy of comparison with her husband's. As to Esperance, she was living in a dream of what the future would unfold. One evening had sufficed for her to conquer Paris, to capture the provinces, and arouse the foreigner, frequently so indifferent to great artistic achievements.
The young pupil pursued her courses at the Conservatoire, in spite of Sardou's remonstrances that she would find it fatiguing. The modesty and simplicity of her return to the midst of her comrades restored her to the popularity her triumph had endangered.
"She is, you know, quite a 'sport,'" pronounced a sharp young person, who was destined to take the parts of the aggressive modern female.
A tall young man, with a grave face and settled manner, approaching baldness, in spite of his twenty-three years, pressed Jean Perliez's hand affectionately. "Don't give in, old fellow, keep up hope. You never know!"
Jean smiled sadly, shaking his head. He looked at Esperance, who was lovelier than ever. He had waited for her at the foot of the stairway, for the intimacy of the two families gave him a chance to know when to expect his glorious little friend.
"Why, how pale you are, Jean!" she exclaimed at sight of him. "What is the matter with you?"
"What is the matter with me?" he murmured.
"What is the matter with him?" echoed several of the students.
Esperance alone was not aware what was the matter with him, poor fellow, for, in spite of the encouragement of Francois Darbois, Jean would say nothing. He realized the shock that it would be to Esperance. She liked him so much as a friend! On the long walks they took, with Genevieve Hardouin and Mlle. Frahender, she had very often frankly confided to him that she did not want to think about getting married for years and years!
"I want to live for my art," she would say, "and I will never marry an artist!"
He had then thought very seriously of giving up the theatre and becoming a barrister, as his father had always wished him to do, but that would mean that he would lose the chance of seeing Esperance so often.
Jean Perliez had become great friends with Maurice Renaud, the girl's cousin. They both talked of her and loved her, but Maurice's love was more selfish, less deeply rooted. He was not jealous of Perliez; he was sorry for him and counselled him to speak up, since his uncle, the professor, was in sympathy with him.
"No," said Jean, "she is really too young to understand."
Maurice shrugged his shoulders. "It is true that Esperance is not yet seventeen, but her intelligence has always been ahead of her years. At twelve she could outdo me by the logic of her reasoning on the mysteries of religion. We both adore, my dear Jean, a very extraordinary little person. I will get out of your way gracefully, if you succeed; but I have a presentiment that neither you nor I will be the lucky fellow. I shall console myself, but you, take care!"
Esperance suspected nothing of the different emotions she was causing. Her youth guarded her against any betrayal of the senses. She thought that love was the natural result of marriage. The great passions as the poets sang them exalted her spirit, made her heart beat faster, but for her they remained in the realms of the ideal.
A horrible catastrophe occurred in Belgium, leaving the inhabitants of the lower quarter of Brussels without shelter or clothing. Relief was organized on all sides, and the Theatre-Francaise announced a great representation of Hernani to be given as a benefit for the sufferers in the Royal Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels. The star who had undertaken "Dona Sol" fell ill ten days before the performance was due. The Comedie was much embarrassed, for the usual understudy of the indisposed actress was an amiable echo, with little talent. Mounet-Sully thought immediately of Esperance and obtained permission to make whatever arrangements he could with her. His arrival at the Darbois home occasioned great excitement.
"I claim your indulgence in the name of charity, Monsieur," he said to Francois. "The Comedie-Francaise finds itself in the most awkward quandary. We have prepared a big gala performance at La Monnaie, to raise money for all those poor Belgian sufferers."
"Oh! I have seen the notices," said Esperance, "with artistes of the Comedie, even in the smaller roles. What would I not give to see that production!"
Mounet-Sully smiled. "If your father will give his permission, Mademoiselle, you can certainly see it; for I have come to ask you to take part therein."
"What do you mean?" asked M. Darbois curiously.
"Our 'Dona Sol' is sick, very sick, and her understudy is not equal to such an occasion. The last examination you passed in Hernani delighted us with your manner of interpreting the role. We will give you all the rehearsals you need at the Comedie; you will be assisting at a work of charity, and you will be recompensed for whatever outlay or expense that you may incur."
Esperance drew herself up. "If my father will give his consent for me to make my own reply...."
"Yes," said the professor simply.
"Then I will say ... thank you, father dear," she said, tremulously, "I will say that I am happier than I can possibly tell you, at the great honour you have done me, but that I do not want any recompense."
Mounet-Sully started to speak.
"Oh! no, I beg you, do not spoil my joy."
"Then, we will take care of your travelling expenses, and those of your party."
She contracted her beautiful eyebrows a little. "Oh! M. Mounet-Sully, I am rich just now, think of all the money that I have made these four months that we have been giving Victorien Sardou's play. I don't want anything, I am glad, so glad...."
She kissed her father and her mother impulsively, and also the astonished old Mademoiselle.
"What about me?" asked Mounet-Sully gaily; "do I not get my reward?"
She held up her forehead for a salutation from the artist, who took leave of the family, glowing with delight at the good news he had to carry back to the Comedie.
"To-morrow you will get a schedule of rehearsals," he called from the doorway.
Madame Darbois was worried about the journey, and Mlle. Frahender agreed to accompany Esperance. It was decided that Marguerite should go to look after them. The faithful soul had practically brought up the child; her zeal and devotion were unfailing.
But M. Darbois raised the objection, "You should have a man with you."
The door bell rang, then they heard a voice, "In the salon? Don't bother to announce me, I'll go up!"
Maurice Renaud entered immediately, followed by Jean Perliez.
"Well, my boy," said Francois Darbois to his nephew, "you are quite a stranger; it must be a month since we saw you last. You are most welcome."
He shook hands cordially with both young men. He was struck by Jean's sad expression and hollow cheeks. "You are not looking like yourself, my friend."
Jean did not hear this, he was gazing at Esperance, so pretty in her feather toque.
"We are come, uncle, expressly to ask your permission to accompany my cousin to Brussels. We were told of the project yesterday by Mounet-Sully, and if you approve...."
"On my word, my dear fellow," cried out the professor, delightedly, "you will do me a real service, I was just considering about writing to Esperance's godfather!"
"What a narrow escape! papa darling, and what a horrid surprise you were plotting without giving any sign!"
"Then you prefer this arrangement? You accept Maurice and Jean as your knights-errant? I am delighted with the arrangement, and I hope that Mlle. Frahender will raise no objection."
The gentle old lady smiled at them all. She was very fond of Jean Perliez, and Maurice Renaud's high spirits delighted her.
It was decided that Jean, as most responsible, should be in charge of all the details of the journey. Francois Darbois led him into the library and entrusted him with a goodly sum of money.
"This should cover your expenses. I count upon you, my young friend, and I thank you."
He paused a moment, then asked affectionately, "Have you no hope?"
"None," replied Jean, simply, "but what does it matter, but to-day, at least, I am quite happy!"
Two days after this visit, the notice of the first rehearsals was received. Esperance was at the theatre long before the hour required, and went at once towards the stage. The curtain had just been raised, and the lamp of the servant dusting served only to lighten the gloom. Followed by Mlle. Frahender, the young girl traversed the corridor ornamented with marble busts and pictures of the famous artists who had made the house of Moliere more illustrious by their talent. With beating heart, she descended the four steps that led to the stage.
There she stopped shivering. She seemed to see shadows drawing near her, and her hand clenched that of the old Mademoiselle.
"What is it, Esperance?"
"Was that not Talma, down there, and Mlle. Clairon and Mlle. Mars, and Rachel, that magnificent, expressive masque there ... look?"
Mounet-Sully came in. Esperance still seemed in a dream.
"Your pardon, master, the atmosphere of glory that one breathes here has intoxicated me a little."
During the rehearsal the music of the voice of the new "Dona Sol" blended charmingly with the powerful accents of the great actor, so that all the artists listened with emotion and delight.
In the final act, when "Dona Sol," beside herself, raises her poignard to "Don Ruy Gomez," saying, "I am of the family, uncle," there was an outburst of "Bravos" for Esperance, who, erect and trembling, shoulders thrown back, had just sobbed these words in a vibrant voice between clenched teeth. With her pale face and out-stretched arm, she might have been the statue of despair struggling with destiny.
Madame Darbois was heavy hearted to have her go. It was the first time that she had been parted from her daughter for even a few days. She often looked at her husband, hoping that he would understand her anxiety and urge her not to go, too. Jean and Maurice came to escort Esperance, who had been ready for a long time. Mlle. Frahender was carrying a cardboard box, containing two bonnets and a light cloth, in which to wrap her hat in in the train. All the rest of her belongings were contained in a little attache case of grey duck, so flat that it seemed impossible that it could contain anything.
When Madame Darbois saw them drive away, she was filled with distress, and as there was maternal anxiety in the mother's breast, so was there foreboding of evil in the father's mind.
"I hope nothing bad will happen," thought the good woman, "but railway accidents are so common nowadays."
"Who will she be seeing while she is away? What is destiny providing for her? My child is not armed against adventure," the philosopher was thinking.
The two looked at each other, divining the miserable anxiety to which the other was prey.
The rough, strident notes of Adhemar Meydieux's voice suddenly broke upon this atmosphere of gentle melancholy—"Well! what is this I hear? Esperance has gone; it is madness! I read in my paper this morning that she is going to play 'Dona Sol' at Brussels! So I have come to escort her."
Francois wrung his hand without saying a word.
"What is the matter with you," went on Adhemar, "you seem to have changed into pillars of salt. I know very well that the theatre is Sodom and Gomorrah in one, but wait a little before you give way entirely! Who is going with my goddaughter?"
"Mlle. Frahender, Marguerite, Maurice Renaud and Jean Perliez," the poor mother hastened to say.
"And what an escort," jeered Adhemar. "The old mademoiselle will be open-mouthed before her pupil, she knows nothing of life. Provided that Esperance obeys the commandments of the Church and does not miss Mass on Sunday, she will be satisfied. Her piety and her sudden love of the theatre coincide with her attempt to save a soul; but I tell you that she cannot see farther than the end of her nose, which, though long enough in all conscience, doesn't furnish elevation for much view. And," he continued, pleased with his wit, "Maurice Renaud, that wild rascal, is he apt to inspire respect for Esperance? As to Jean Perliez, the poor little ninny is head over heels in love with her. I don't suppose that you have noticed it?"
"Not only noticed it, but encouraged the young man," said Francois, "and he would be a very honourable and desirable son-in-law."
"My poor friend, my good fellow," and Adhemar collapsed in a chair and rubbed his hands together; "my poor dear friend, and you believe that Esperance...?"
He laughed aloud.
"I will thank you to drop that tone of irony which is offensive both to my wife and to myself," said the professor rising. "If it pleases you to follow your goddaughter to Brussels, do so. I must leave you; I have some proofs to correct. Au revoir, Meydieux!"
The old blunderer began to realize that he had overstepped the limits of decorum.
"But why did she go this morning, instead of by the train with all the other artists this evening?"
"Esperance," explained Madame Darbois, "left early in order to have time to see Brussels, which everyone says is a charming city. I think it is quite natural, my dear Meydieux, that you want to join your goddaughter! I will telegraph to her at once!"
"No, no," replied Meydieux, very hurriedly. "I would much rather surprise her. I beg you not to warn her."
"As you will then. I shall not interfere."
PART II. BRUSSELS
Meantime seated in the Brussels express, Esperance had fixed her attention on the constantly changing horizon, and was giving herself up to myriad impressions as they went fleeting by. The great plains rolling interminably out of sight pleased her; the light mist rising from the earth seemed to her the breath of the shivering tall grasses, offering the sun the drops of dew which glinted at the summit of their slender stems. She too, on this beautiful autumn morning, felt herself expanding towards the sky. Her fresh lips were offering themselves to the kisses of life. She was at that moment a vision of the radiance of youth. Maurice was so struck by her beauty that he drew a little sketch, and resolved to do her portrait, just as she was at that moment. No love entered into this admiration; he saw as a painter, he dreamed as an artist! Jean Perliez looked at the sketch, then at the model, and was left dazzled and dolorous. Finally magnetized by the looks fixed upon her, Esperance turned her head away with a little cry of surprise. Mlle. Frahender, who had been asleep, opened her eyes, and straightened the angle of her bonnet. Esperance shook her pretty head laughing, while Maurice exhibited his sketch and announced to his cousin his desire to paint her portrait.
"How pleased my father will be," she cried. "I thank you in advance for the joy that you will give him."
The conversation became general, animated, merry, just what was to be expected at their happy age. Soon after the train stopped; they had arrived at Brussels.
Jean Perliez jumped lightly on to the platform. Mlle. Frahender adjusted her hat, after having carefully folded up her bonnet, and Maurice helped Marguerite to count the pieces of luggage. Just as Esperance was getting out to help her old companion, she had a feeling of reaction, her face grew pale with fright at an impression she could not define: two long arms were stretched towards her. And she recalled the hallucination or vision she had seen in her own mirror at home, on the day when she had tried to interrogate destiny.
Count Albert Styvens was standing on the platform before her, holding out his arms, his hands open. Totally dazed without understanding herself why it should be so, the young girl closed her eyes. She felt herself lifted, and set down upon the ground. Although the movement had been one of perfect respect, she felt angry with this man for having imposed his will upon her. When she looked at him he was already speaking to Mlle. Frahender, whom he recollected having seen in Esperance's room at the Vaudeville.
"Will you not both take my mother's carriage?" he asked.
His voice, slow, correct, a little distant, fell on the ear of the young actress.
"But," Jean objected quickly, "I have engaged the landau from the Grand Hotel."
"Very well, we three can go in that," said the Count, as he guided the old lady and the young one towards a perfectly appointed coupe, drawn by two magnificent sorrels.
Esperance, who had been brimful of joy, not ten minutes before, at finding herself in Brussels, now felt a cloud upon her spirits. The manner, almost the authority, of this tall, young man of distinction, but of no beauty, of no magnetism, depressed her. She did not wish to have him take it upon himself to conduct her small affairs, and she stepped into the Countess Styvens's beautiful carriage with the feeling that she was leaving her liberty behind.
Albert Styvens got into the hotel landau with the two other young men. They knew the Count very slightly, and regarded him with some curiosity. Although but twenty-seven, he had a reputation for austerity most unusual for one of his age.
As the carriage drew up at the hotel, all three young men jumped lightly out to be ready to help the girl. Mlle. Frahender was received on the Count's arm. At the same instant Esperance had bounded out of the other door, pleased to have escaped the obligation of thanking the Legation Secretary.
When she entered the suite that had been reserved, she stopped a moment in silent astonishment before the flowering vases and ribbon-bedecked baskets that filled the reception-room with their rich colours and delicate perfumes. All that for her! She threw her hat quickly on a chair and ran from vase to basket, from basket to vase. The first card she drew out said Jean Perliez. She looked for him to thank him, but he had slipped away to hide his confusion. For he had taken such pains to order that bouquet through the hotel manager, never foreseeing that others might have had the same idea! A pretty basket of azaleas came from the Director of the Monnaie. In the middle of the room, on a marble table with protruding golden feet, stood a huge basket of orchids of every shade—this orgy of rare flowers was an attention from the Count. The girl grew red as she raised her eyes to thank him. He was looking at her so strangely that she stammered and fled into the next room, where she had seen Mlle. Frahender disappear.
"That man frightens me," she whispered, pressing close to her old friend.
"Who frightens you, dear child?"
"That gentlemanly young man, who is so considerate?"
Esperance did not dare to speak her thought. "That is not the way that others look at me." She was ashamed to entertain such an idea!
The maitre d'hotel knocked discreetly to announce lunch.
"Oh! let us begin at once, so that we shall not lose any time in seeing Brussels!"
They set out in great spirits, following wherever the caprice of Esperance led them. "Already a famous woman, and what a child she is," Maurice observed aside to Jean. They had a long ramble, zigzagging extravagantly about the city. The adorable little artist appreciated the beauty of the lovely capital, and the church of Saint Gudule delighted her. They took a cab to go to the Bois de la Cambre. Esperance was much affected by the horses, who led a hard life up and down the little streets, which were so picturesque in their unevenness.
The little expedition was not over until half-past seven. Visitors' cards attracted Mlle. Frahender's attention. They were from the Minister Prince de Bernecourt and the Count Albert Styvens, Secretary of the Legation. Feeling that she would not see the Count gave the young artist the sensation of relief comparable to that of a prisoner walking straight out of his jail into freedom.
During dinner Esperance was quite exuberant and proposed a hand at trente-et-un as soon as dessert was finished. "After that, we will go to bed very early, to have our best looks ready for to-morrow, will we not, my little lady?" she said, placing her slender hand on the wrinkled fingers of Mlle. Frahender. "My little lady" was the pet name Esperance often gave her.
Maurice was only moderately receptive of the idea of a game of trente-et-un, but after consulting the clock, he was reassured. "By ten o'clock I shall be free."
The next morning Marguerite had some difficulty in waking her young mistress, who was sleeping soundly. Esperance enquired as soon as her own eyes were well opened, what kind of night her chaperone had passed. "Deliciously restful, and you, my dear child, how did you sleep?"
"I never woke once. Oh! what a sun. Have you seen what a glorious day it is?"
"It is the forerunner of good news," Jean cried out from the next room.
"Who knows?" said Esperance.
The telephone at her bedside rung. Marguerite picked up the receiver, and announced dejectedly, "M. Meydieux wishes to speak to Mademoiselle."
"My godfather in Brussels!... You see, Jean, that I was right to doubt your omen."
The young people burst out laughing.
"Really," continued Esperance, "I feel that he is going to spoil my trip here. I don't like him, and his advice never coincides with that of my father, whom I love so much."
Meantime M. Meydieux was getting impatient on the telephone.
"Tell him that I am not up yet, and ask him to lunch with us at twelve-thirty. Then," she explained to Mlle. Frahender, who had just come into her room, all powdered, all pinned and bonneted for the morning, "he will not dare to bother me when everybody else is present."
Marguerite was still answering M. Meydieux's excited questions: "What! at half-past nine not up, that is shameful! I must talk to her ... I will come to lunch, oh yes! but above all I must talk to her."
Esperance was motioning violently to Marguerite to hang up the receiver, but Mlle. Frahender objected to this lack of courtesy, so the young girl giving way to her remonstrance yielded gracefully. She even re-requested Marguerite, who knew her godfather's culinary preferences, to order a lunch that he would like. Then she dressed in haste to allow herself plenty of time to write to her family. They had already exchanged telegrams, but she knew that her father would like to have a long letter, giving him the minutes, so to speak, of herself. A tender gratitude swelled up in her, and her eyes were wet as she evoked the image of these two beloved beings reading her letter, commenting upon it, and entering completely for those moments into the life of their child. As soon as the letter was finished, she asked Mlle. Frahender to go with her to post it, so that she could herself speed it on its way to them. She had a strong desire to get out-doors, even if only for a half-hour.
As they turned into the square, Esperance stopped, clutching her aged friend by the arm. "Look there," she said.
There were two men side by side in deep conversation. Esperance had instantly recognized Count Albert and her godfather. How did Adhemar Meydieux happen to know the Secretary of the Legation?
They had just passed the post-office, so Esperance posted her letter without being seen by either of them, and returned to the hotel. Lunch time brought together all the guests except the godfather, who would not enter until the exact minute, if he had to wait in the corridor.... He thought it witty to behave so. His hateful, stupid mind flattered itself on being original. Therefore as the half-hour began to strike he was pompously ushered in, watch in hand.