BEFORE MY DEPARTURE
In the late spring of 1875 I had settled with my family in one of the three large pavilions on the terrace at Saint-Germain. I loved this wonderful place, and I had taken refuge there with the pardonable hope that I might enjoy a period of repose after a most laborious winter. My door had been closed to all strangers, and particularly to those who had any connection whatsoever with the theatre. Twenty years of work and struggle seemed to me sufficient grounds to make this harsh law justifiable. So I was living in peace in the midst of my very numerous family and intimate friends. It was not absolute solitude, but it was tranquillity.
One morning when I was playing in the garden with one of my children, a visit by Mile Schneider was announced. I did not have the courage to keep her out: I have for the “Grande Duchesse of Gérolstein” a deep friendship, and when I see her going by it seems to me I am watching my successes on parade.
We were talking about everything and nothing, of our great battles before the footlights and (why should I not say it?) of our past victories and perhaps also of battles to come, when I was given a card on which I read a name that was completely unknown to me.
I was about to scold my servant when I saw the owner of the card appear. He was a very correct and very polite gentleman, but I understood immediately that I had to do with a man who went straight to his goal and to whom I would be forced to listen whether I liked it or not: I resigned myself.
“Monsieur,” he said to me, “pardon me for having forced your door, but I have come for an important piece of business which will not detain you long. You can answer me with Yes or No.”
“I am listening, monsieur.”
“I am commissioned, monsieur, to ask if you would like to go to America.”
I was so far from expecting such a formidable question that I couldn’t help bursting into laughter.
“Monsieur,” I said to my visitor, “let me tell you that I wouldn’t even go to Saint-Cloud today, not even for a lot of money.”
“It is not a question of Saint-Cloud nor of today, monsieur, but only of going to the Philadelphia Exposition next spring.”
“To Philadelphia! And what for, if you please?”
“Monsieur, the Americans are very fond of great artists. They receive them magnificently and pay them on the same scale.”
“Certainly, monsieur, I admit that your proposition is serious and honorable and that from every point of view it deserves consideration.”
“Ah, monsieur, I never had hopes that you would decide immediately. Take your time. I have a very simple commission: to find out if you would be willing to come to Philadelphia. If you give me a favorable answer, the interested parties will come and make their arrangements with you. If you do not, I am sorry to have importuned you and I will remember that you did me the honor of listening to me.”
I kept silent for a moment. A thousand thoughts were going through my head. Men who are fathers of a family and conscious of their duty will understand them without my explaining. Other people would not understand even if I explained at length. Finally I answered, “Well, monsieur, I would not go to America gladly because, without reckoning with my fifty years of age, many things detain me here. But, if things should turn out that way as I dimly perceive they will, I would go without repugnance.”
My visitor bowed. “That is all that I wish to hear.”
While we were having lunch, I spoke of the visit that I had just received, but although my story was told as gaily as possible, it was not at all successful. “It’s crazy!” was the general cry. I hastened to prove that the business was not really serious; I even offered to bet I would never hear of it again; but a cloud had passed over the faces of air of us including my own, and it remained the whole season. What small things can obscure a beautiful day you have dreamed of, and what a piece of folly it is to leave your door open.
The very next day I received a visit from Mr. Bacquero who had hastened to write me just as soon as he had learned my answer. Mr. Bacquero is a businessman in the best sense of the word. He made me such a flattering offer that I felt I did not have the right to hesitate, and I immediately signed the contract offered me.
That day I had no need to tell my family what had occurred. They had guessed it, and I understood better than ever, when I saw my loved ones making such useless efforts to hide their tears, with what gentle and holy affection I was surrounded. Such sadness and such gentle reproaches were not calculated to give me the courage which I needed more than one might think. I passed long, sleepless nights and toward morning I did not dare to go to sleep for fear that when I opened my eyes I would not have a smile to reassure those dear creatures when they came to wake me up.
So I conjured up a thousand theories to lull my fears: We had the winter before us, a winter is very long—who knows what might happen in nine months. — The Exposition might not take place or might be put off indefinitely—such things happen every day. — America had just had a long war, the war might begin again, it was almost certain. I was in the position of the poor devil in the fable whose king had ordered him to teach his donkey to read on pain of hanging. The poor man had accepted, demanding ten years to accomplish the miracle, and when people blamed him, he answered, “It will certainly be the devil if in ten years the king, the donkey, or I am not dead.” But the philosopher had ten years before him to accomplish this miracle and I had only six months. Time seemed to pass with strange rapidity.
One single hope sustained me, a very human, very prosaic hope. According to the contract, a considerable sum was to be paid to the banking house of my friend Bischofsheim, and I tried to persuade myself, to convince my family, that this formality would not be fulfilled.
One day I happened to meet one of those men who know everything without your knowing how they know it, and as soon as he saw me in the distance, he cried, “I have news from over there. Your money will not arrive.” It seemed to me that this nice man was awakening me from a frightful dream. Instead of going to the club, I told my coachman to drive home, and this worthy servant burned up the pavement, understanding that I was bringing good news. Indeed, I had no sooner informed my family of this indiscretion than everybody relaxed and a wild gaiety took possession of the house. It was not to endure very long. At the appointed time the funds were sent, and this passing gaiety only accentuated the painful sadness of separation.