Although the family was barely able to sustain existence, the father and mother were by no means as ignorant as their squalor would imply. The peddler Felix had studied Hebrew theology in the hope of becoming a rabbi. Failing this, he was always much interested in declamation, public reading, and the recitation of poetry. He was, in his way, no mean critic of actors and actresses. Long before she was ten years of age little Rachel—who had changed her name from Elise—could render with much feeling and neatness of eloquence bits from the best-known French plays of the classic stage.
The children’s mother, on her side, was sharp and practical to a high degree. She saved and scrimped all through her period of adversity. Later she was the banker of her family, and would never lend any of her children a sou except on excellent security. However, this was all to happen in after years.
When the child who was destined to be famous had reached her tenth year she and her sisters made their way to Paris. For four years the second-hand clothing-shop was continued; the father still taught German; and the elder sister, Sarah, who had a golden voice, made the rounds of the cafes in the lowest quarters of the capital, while Rachel passed the wooden plate for coppers.
One evening in the year 1834 a gentleman named Morin, having been taken out of his usual course by a matter of business, entered a brasserie for a cup of coffee. There he noted two girls, one of them singing with remarkable sweetness, and the other silently following with the wooden plate. M. Morin called to him the girl who sang and asked her why she did not make her voice more profitable than by haunting the cafes at night, where she was sure to meet with insults of the grossest kind.
“Why,” said Sarah, “I haven’t anybody to advise me what to do.”
M. Morin gave her his address and said that he would arrange to have her meet a friend who would be of great service to her. On the following day he sent the two girls to a M. Choron, who was the head of the Conservatory of Sacred Music. Choron had Sarah sing, and instantly admitted her as a pupil, which meant that she would soon be enrolled among the regular choristers. The beauty of her voice made a deep impression on him.
Then he happened to notice the puny, meager child who was standing near her sister. Turning to her, he said:
“And what can you do, little one?”
“I can recite poetry,” was the reply.
“Oh, can you?” said he. “Please let me hear you.”
Rachel readily consented. She had a peculiarly harsh, grating voice, so that any but a very competent judge would have turned her away. But M. Choron, whose experience was great, noted the correctness of her accent and the feeling which made itself felt in every line. He accepted her as well as her sister, but urged her to study elocution rather than music.