Story type: Essay
While I was making a “cure” last year at Lamalou, an obscure Spa in the Cevennes Mountains, Madame Calvé, to whom I had expressed a desire to see her picturesque home, telegraphed an invitation to pass the day with her, naming the train she could meet, which would allow for the long drive to her ch�teau before luncheon. It is needless to say the invitation was accepted. As my train drew up at the little station, Madame Calvé, in her trap, was the first person I saw, and no time was lost in getting en route.
During the hour passed on the poplar-bordered road that leads straight and white across the country I had time to appreciate the transformation in the woman at my side. Was this gray-clad, nunlike figure the passionate, sensuous Carmen of Bizet’s masterpiece? Could that calm, pale face, crossed by innumerable lines of suffering, as a spider’s web lies on a flower, blaze and pant with Sappho’s guilty love?
Something of these thoughts must have appeared on my face, for turning with a smile, she asked, “You find me changed? It’s the air of my village. Here I’m myself. Everywhere else I’m different. On the stage I am any part I may be playing, but am never really happy away from my hill there.” As she spoke, a sun-baked hamlet came in sight, huddled around the base of two tall towers that rose cool and gray in the noonday heat.
“All that wing,” she added, “is arranged for the convalescent girls whom I have sent down to me from the Paris hospitals for a cure of fresh air and simple food. Six years ago, just after I had bought this place, a series of operations became necessary which left me prostrated and anæmic. No tonics were of benefit. I grew weaker day by day, until the doctors began to despair of my life. Finally, at the advice of an old woman here who passes for being something of a curer, I tried the experiment or lying five or six hours a day motionless in the sunlight. It wasn’t long before I felt life creeping back to my poor feeble body. The hot sun of our magic south was a more subtle tonic than any drug. When the cure was complete, I made up my mind that each summer the same chance should be offered to as many of my suffering sisters as this old place could be made to accommodate.”
The bells on the shaggy Tarbes ponies she was driving along the Languedoc road drew, on nearing her residence, a number of peasant children from their play.
As the ruddy urchins ran shouting around our carriage wheels and scrambled in the dust for the sous we threw them, my hostess pointed laughing to a scrubby little girl with tomato-colored cheeks and tousled dark hair, remarking, “I looked like that twenty years ago and performed just those antics on this very road. No punishment would keep me off the highway. Those pennies, if I’m not mistaken, will all be spent at the village pastry cook’s within an hour.”
This was said with such a tender glance at the children that one realized the great artist was at home here, surrounded by the people she loved and understood. True to the “homing” instinct of the French peasant, Madame Calvé, when fortune came to her, bought and partially restored the rambling ch�teau which at sunset casts its shadow across the village of her birth. Since that day every moment of freedom from professional labor and every penny of her large income are spent at Cabrières, building, planning, even farming, when her health permits.
“I think,” she continued, as we approached the ch�teau, “that the happiest day of my life-and I have, as you know, passed some hours worth living, both on and off the stage-was when, that wing completed, a Paris train brought the first occupants for my twenty little bedrooms; no words can tell the delight it gives me now to see the color coming back to my patients’ pale lips and hear them laughing and singing about the place. As I am always short of funds, the idea of abandoning this work is the only fear the future holds for me.”
With the vivacity peculiar to her character, my companion then whipped up her cobs and turned the conversation into gayer channels. Five minutes later we clattered over a drawbridge and drew up in a roomy courtyard, half blinding sunlight and half blue shadow, where a score of girls were occupied with books and sewing.
The luncheon bell was ringing as we ascended the terrace steps. After a hurried five minutes for brushing and washing, we took our places at a long table set in the cool stone hall, guests stopping in the ch�teau occupying one end around the chatelaine, the convalescents filling the other seats.
Those who have only seen the capricious diva on the stage or in Parisian salons can form little idea of the proprietress of Cabrières. No shade of coquetry blurs the clear picture of her home life. The capped and saboted peasant women who waited on us were not more simple in their ways. Several times during the meal she left her seat to inquire after the comfort of some invalid girl or inspect the cooking in the adjacent kitchen. These wanderings were not, however, allowed to disturb the conversation, which flowed on after the mellow French fashion, enlivened by much wit and gay badinage. One of our hostess’s anecdotes at her own expense was especially amusing.
“When in Venice,” she told us, “most prima donnas are carried to and from the opera in sedan chairs to avoid the risk of colds from the draughty gondolas. The last night of my initial season there, I was informed, as the curtain fell, that a number of Venetian nobles were planning to carry me in triumph to the hotel. When I descended from my dressing-room the courtyard of the theatre was filled with men in dress clothes, bearing lanterns, who caught up the chair as soon as I was seated and carried it noisily across the city to the hotel. Much moved by this unusual honor, I mounted to the balcony of my room, from which elevation I bowed my thanks, and threw all the flowers at hand to my escort.
“Next morning the hotel proprietor appeared with my coffee, and after hesitating a moment, remarked: ‘Well, we made a success of it last night. It has been telegraphed to all the capitals of Europe! I hope you will not think a thousand francs too much, considering the advertisement!’ In blank amazement, I asked what he meant. ‘I mean the triumphal progress,’ he answered. ‘I thought you understood! We always organize one for the “stars” who visit Venice. The men who carried your chair last night were the waiters from the hotels. We hire them on account of their dress clothes’! Think of the disillusion,” added Calvé, laughing, “and my disgust, when I thought of myself naïvely throwing kisses and flowers to a group of Swiss gar�ons at fifteen francs a head. There was nothing to do, however, but pay the bill and swallow my chagrin!”
How many pretty women do you suppose would tell such a joke upon themselves? Another story she told us is characteristic of her peasant neighbors.
“When I came back here after my first season in St. Petersburg and London the curé requested me to sing at our local fête. I gladly consented, and, standing by his side on the steps of the Mairie, gave the great aria from the Huguenots in my best manner. To my astonishment the performance was received in complete silence. ‘Poor Calvé,’ I heard an old friend of my mother’s murmur. ‘Her voice used to be so nice, and now it’s all gone!’ Taking in the situation at a glance, I threw my voice well up into my nose and started off on a well-known provincial song, in the shrill falsetto of our peasant women. The effect was instantaneous! Long before the end the performance was drowned in thunders of applause. Which proves that to be popular a singer must adapt herself to her audience.”
Luncheon over, we repaired for cigarettes and coffee to an upper room, where Calvé was giving Dagnan-Bouveret some sittings for a portrait, and lingered there until four o’clock, when our hostess left us for her siesta, and a “break” took those who cared for the excursion across the valley to inspect the ruins of a Roman bath. A late dinner brought us together again in a small dining room, the convalescents having eaten their simple meal and disappeared an hour before. During this time, another transformation had taken place in our mercurial hostess! It was the Calvé of Paris, Calvé the witch, Calvé the capiteuse, who presided at the dainty, flower-decked table and led the laughing conversation.
A few notes struck on a guitar by one of the party, as we sat an hour later on the moonlit terrace, were enough to start off the versatile artist, who was in her gayest humor. She sang us stray bits of opera, alternating her music with scenes burlesqued from recent plays. No one escaped her inimitable mimicry, not even the “divine Sarah,” Calvé giving us an unpayable impersonation of the elderly tragédienne as Lorenzaccio, the boy hero of Alfred de Musset’s drama. Burlesquing led to her dancing some Spanish steps with an abandon never attempted on the stage! Which in turn gave place to an imitation of an American whistling an air from Carmen, and some “coon songs” she had picked up during her stay at New York. They, again, were succeeded by a superb rendering of the imprecation from Racine’s Camille, which made her audience realize that in gaining a soprano the world has lost, perhaps, its greatest tragédienne.
At eleven o’clock the clatter of hoofs in the court warned us that the pleasant evening had come to an end. A journalist en route for Paris was soon installed with me in the little omnibus that was to take us to the station, Calvé herself lighting our cigars and providing the wraps that were to keep out the cool night air.
As we passed under the low archway of the entrance amid a clamor of “adieu” and “au revoir,” the young Frenchman at my side pointed up to a row of closed windows overhead. “Isn’t it a lesson,” he said, “for all of us, to think of the occupants of those little rooms, whom the generosity and care of that gracious artist are leaning by such pleasant paths back to health and courage for their toilsome lives?”