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Leon Gambetta And Leonie Leon

The present French Republic has endured for over forty years. Within

that time it has produced just one man of extraordinary power and parts.

This was Leon Gambetta. Other men as remarkable as he were conspicuous

in French political life during the first few years of the republic;

but they belonged to an earlier generation, while Gambetta leaped

into prominence only when the empire fell, crashing down in ruin and


It is still too early to form an accurate estimate of him as a

statesman. His friends praise him extravagantly. His enemies still

revile him bitterly. The period of his political career lasted for

little more than a decade, yet in that time it may be said that he

lived almost a life of fifty years. Only a short time ago did the French

government cause his body to be placed within the great Pantheon, which

contains memorials of the heroes and heroines of France. But, though

we may not fairly judge of his political motives, we can readily

reconstruct a picture of him as a man, and in doing so recall his

one romance, which many will remember after they have forgotten his

oratorical triumphs and his statecraft.

Leon Gambetta was the true type of the southern Frenchman--what his

countrymen call a meridional. The Frenchman of the south is different

from the Frenchman of the north, for the latter has in his veins a

touch of the viking blood, so that he is very apt to be fair-haired and

blue-eyed, temperate in speech, and self-controlled. He is different,

again, from the Frenchman of central France, who is almost purely

Celtic. The meridional has a marked vein of the Italian in him, derived

from the conquerors of ancient Gaul. He is impulsive, ardent, fiery in

speech, hot-tempered, and vivacious to an extraordinary degree.

Gambetta, who was born at Cahors, was French only on his mother's side,

since his father was of Italian birth. It is said also that somewhere in

his ancestry there was a touch of the Oriental. At any rate, he was one

of the most southern of the sons of southern France, and he showed

the precocious maturity which belongs to a certain type of Italian.

At twenty-one he had already been admitted to the French bar, and

had drifted to Paris, where his audacity, his pushing nature, and his

red-hot un-restraint of speech gave him a certain notoriety from the

very first.

It was toward the end of the reign of Napoleon III. that Gambetta saw

his opportunity. The emperor, weakened by disease and yielding to a sort

of feeble idealism, gave to France a greater freedom of speech than it

had enjoyed while he was more virile. This relaxation of control

merely gave to his opponents more courage to attack him and his empire.

Demagogues harangued the crowds in words which would once have led to

their imprisonment. In the National Assembly the opposition did all

within its power to hamper and defeat the policy of the government.

In short, republicanism began to rise in an ominous and threatening way;

and at the head of republicanism in Paris stood forth Gambetta, with his

impassioned eloquence, his stinging phrases, and his youthful boldness.

He became the idol of that part of Paris known as Belleville, where

artisans and laborers united with the rabble of the streets in hating

the empire and in crying out for a republic.

Gambetta was precisely the man to voice the feelings of these people.

Whatever polish he acquired in after years was then quite lacking; and

the crudity of his manners actually helped him with the men whom he

harangued. A recent book by M. Francis Laur, an ardent admirer of

Gambetta, gives a picture of the man which may be nearly true of him in

his later life, but which is certainly too flattering when applied to

Gambetta in 1868, at the age of thirty.

How do we see Gambetta as he was at thirty? A man of powerful frame and

of intense vitality, with thick, clustering hair, which he shook as

a lion shakes its mane; olive-skinned, with eyes that darted fire, a

resonant, sonorous voice, and a personal magnetism which was instantly

felt by all who met him or who heard him speak. His manners were not

refined. He was fond of oil and garlic. His gestures were often more

frantic than impressive, so that his enemies called him "the furious

fool." He had a trick of spitting while he spoke. He was by no means

the sort of man whose habits had been formed in drawing-rooms or among

people of good breeding. Yet his oratory was, of its kind, superb.

In 1869 Gambetta was elected by the Red Republicans to the Corps

Legislatif. From the very first his vehemence and fire gained him a

ready hearing. The chamber itself was arranged like a great theater, the

members occupying the floor and the public the galleries. Each orator

in addressing the house mounted a sort of rostrum and from it faced the

whole assemblage, not noticing, as with us, the presiding officer

at all. The very nature of this arrangement stimulated parliamentary

speaking into eloquence and flamboyant oratory.

After Gambetta had spoken a few times he noticed in the gallery a tall,

graceful woman, dressed in some neutral color and wearing long black

gloves, which accentuated the beauty of her hands and arms. No one in

the whole assembly paid such close attention to the orator as did this

woman, whom he had never seen before and who appeared to be entirely


When it came to him to speak on another day he saw sitting in the

same place the same stately and yet lithe and sinuous figure. This was

repeated again and again, until at last whenever he came to a peculiarly

fervid burst of oratory he turned to this woman's face and saw it

lighted up by the same enthusiasm which was stirring him.

Finally, in the early part of 1870, there came a day when Gambetta

surpassed himself in eloquence. His theme was the grandeur of republican

government. Never in his life had he spoken so boldly as then, or with

such fervor. The ministers of the emperor shrank back in dismay as this

big-voiced, strong-limbed man hurled forth sentence after sentence like

successive peals of irresistible artillery.

As Gambetta rolled forth his sentences, superb in their rhetoric and all

ablaze with that sort of intense feeling which masters an orator in the

moment of his triumph, the face of the lady in the gallery responded to

him with wonderful appreciation. She was no longer calm, unmoved, and

almost severe. She flushed, and her eyes as they met his seemed to

sparkle with living fire. When he finished and descended from the

rostrum he looked at her, and their eyes cried out as significantly as

if the two had spoken to each other.

Then Gambetta did what a person of finer breeding would not have done.

He hastily scribbled a note, sealed it, and called to his side one of

the official pages. In the presence of the great assemblage, where he

was for the moment the center of attention, he pointed to the lady in

the gallery and ordered the page to take the note to her.

One may excuse this only on the ground that he was completely carried

away by his emotion, so that to him there was no one present save this

enigmatically fascinating woman and himself. But the lady on her side

was wiser; or perhaps a slight delay gave her time to recover her

discretion. When Gambetta's note was brought to her she took it quietly

and tore it into little pieces without reading it; and then, rising, she

glided through the crowd and disappeared.

Gambetta in his excitement had acted as if she were a mere adventuress.

With perfect dignity she had shown him that she was a woman who retained

her self-respect.

Immediately upon the heels of this curious incident came the outbreak of

the war with Germany. In the war the empire was shattered at Sedan. The

republic was proclaimed in Paris. The French capital was besieged by

a vast German army. Gambetta was made minister of the interior, and

remained for a while in Paris even after it had been blockaded. But his

fiery spirit chafed under such conditions. He longed to go forth into

the south of France and arouse his countrymen with a cry to arms against

the invaders.

Escaping in a balloon, he safely reached the city of Tours; and there he

established what was practically a dictatorship. He flung himself with

tremendous energy into the task of organizing armies, of equipping them,

and of directing their movements for the relief of Paris. He did, in

fact, accomplish wonders. He kept the spirit of the nation still

alive. Three new armies were launched against the Germans. Gambetta was

everywhere and took part in everything that was done. His inexperience

in military affairs, coupled with his impatience of advice, led him

to make serious mistakes. Nevertheless, one of his armies practically

defeated the Germans at Orleans; and could he have had his own way, even

the fall of Paris would not have ended the war.

"Never," said Gambetta, "shall I consent to peace so long as France

still has two hundred thousand men under arms and more than a thousand

cannon to direct against the enemy!"

But he was overruled by other and less fiery statesmen. Peace was made,

and Gambetta retired for a moment into private life. If he had not

succeeded in expelling the German hosts he had, at any rate, made

Bismarck hate him, and he had saved the honor of France.

It was while the National Assembly at Versailles was debating the terms

of peace with Germany that Gambetta once more delivered a noble and

patriotic speech. As he concluded he felt a strange magnetic attraction;

and, sweeping the audience with a glance, he saw before him, not very

far away, the same woman with the long black gloves, having about

her still an air of mystery, but again meeting his eyes with her own,

suffused with feeling.

Gambetta hurried to an anteroom and hastily scribbled the following


At last I see you once more. Is it really you?

The scrawl was taken to her by a discreet official, and this time she

received the letter, pressed it to her heart, and then slipped it into

the bodice of her gown. But this time, as before, she left without

making a reply.

It was an encouragement, yet it gave no opening to Gambetta--for she

returned to the National Assembly no more. But now his heart was full of

hope, for he was convinced with a very deep conviction that somewhere,

soon, and in some way he would meet this woman, who had become to him

one of the intense realities of his life. He did not know her name. They

had never exchanged a word. Yet he was sure that time would bring them

close together.

His intuition was unerring. What we call chance often seems to know

what it is doing. Within a year after the occurrence that has just been

narrated an old friend of Gambetta's met with an accident which confined

him to his house. The statesman strolled to his friend's residence. The

accident was a trifling one, and the mistress of the house was holding

a sort of informal reception, answering questions that were asked her by

the numerous acquaintances who called.

As Gambetta was speaking, of a sudden he saw before him, at the

extremity of the room, the lady of his dreams, the sphinx of his waking

hours, the woman who four years earlier had torn up the note which he

addressed to her, but who more recently had kept his written words. Both

of them were deeply agitated, yet both of them carried off the situation

without betraying themselves to others, Gambetta approached, and they

exchanged a few casual commonplaces. But now, close together, eye and

voice spoke of what was in their hearts.

Presently the lady took her leave. Gambetta followed closely. In the

street he turned to her and said in pleading tones:

"Why did you destroy my letter? You knew I loved you, and yet all these

years you have kept away from me in silence."

Then the girl--for she was little more than a girl--hesitated for a

moment. As he looked upon her face he saw that her eyes were full of

tears. At last she spoke with emotion:

"You cannot love me, for I am unworthy of you. Do not urge me. Do not

make promises. Let us say good-by. At least I must first tell you of my

story, for I am one of those women whom no one ever marries."

Gambetta brushed aside her pleadings. He begged that he might see her

soon. Little by little she consented; but she would not see him at her

house. She knew that his enemies were many and that everything he did

would be used against him. In the end she agreed to meet him in the park

at Versailles, near the Petit Trianon, at eight o'clock in the morning.

When she had made this promise he left her. Already a new inspiration

had come to him, and he felt that with this woman by his side he could

accomplish anything.

At the appointed hour, in the silence of the park and amid the sunshine

of the beautiful morning, the two met once again. Gambetta seized her

hands with eagerness and cried out in an exultant tone:

"At last! At last! At last!"

But the woman's eyes were heavy with sorrow, and upon her face there was

a settled melancholy. She trembled at his touch and almost shrank from

him. Here was seen the impetuosity of the meridional. He had first

spoken to this woman only two days before. He knew nothing of her

station, of her surroundings, of her character. He did not even know her

name. Yet one thing he knew absolutely--that she was made for him and

that he must have her for his own. He spoke at once of marriage; but at

this she drew away from him still farther.

"No," she said. "I told you that you must not speak to me until you have

heard my story."

He led her to a great stone bench near by; and, passing his arm about

her waist, he drew her head down to his shoulder as he said:

"Well, tell me. I will listen."

Then this girl of twenty-four, with perfect frankness, because she was

absolutely loyal, told him why she felt that they must never see each

other any more-much less marry and be happy. She was the daughter of a

colonel in the French army. The sudden death of her father had left her

penniless and alone. Coming to Paris at the age of eighteen, she had

given lessons in the household of a high officer of the empire. This man

had been attracted by her beauty, and had seduced her.

Later she had secured the means of living modestly, realizing more

deeply each month how dreadful had been her fate and how she had been

cut off from the lot of other girls. She felt that her life must be a

perpetual penance for what had befallen her through her ignorance and

inexperience. She told Gambetta that her name was Leonie Leon. As is the

custom of Frenchwomen who live alone, she styled herself madame. It is

doubtful whether the name by which she passed was that which had been

given to her at baptism; but, if so, her true name has never been


When she had told the whole of her sad story to Gambetta he made nothing

of it. She said to him again:

"You cannot love me. I should only dim your fame. You can have nothing

in common with a dishonored, ruined girl. That is what I came here to

explain to you. Let us part, and let us for all time forget each other."

But Gambetta took no heed of what she said. Now that he had found

her, he would not consent to lose her. He seized her slender hands and

covered them with kisses. Again he urged that she should marry him.

Her answer was a curious one. She was a devoted Catholic and would not

regard any marriage as valid save a religious marriage. On the other

hand, Gambetta, though not absolutely irreligious, was leading the

opposition to the Catholic party in France. The Church to him was not so

much a religious body as a political one, and to it he was unalterably

opposed. Personally, he would have no objections to being married by a

priest; but as a leader of the anti-clerical party he felt that he must

not recognize the Church's claim in any way. A religious marriage would

destroy his influence with his followers and might even imperil the

future of the republic.

They pleaded long and earnestly both then and afterward. He urged a

civil marriage, but she declared that only a marriage according to the

rites of the Church could ever purify her past and give her back her

self-respect. In this she was absolutely stubborn, yet she did not urge

upon Gambetta that he should destroy his influence by marrying her in


Through all this interplay of argument and pleading and emotion the

two grew every moment more hopelessly in love. Then the woman, with a

woman's curious subtlety and indirectness, reached a somewhat singular

conclusion. She would hear nothing of a civil marriage, because a civil

marriage was no marriage in the eyes of Pope and prelate. On the other

hand, she did not wish Gambetta to mar his political career by going

through a religious ceremony. She had heard from a priest that the

Church recognized two forms of betrothal. The usual one looked to a

marriage in the future and gave no marriage privileges until after the

formal ceremony. But there was another kind of betrothal known to the

theologians as sponsalia de praesente. According to this, if there were

an actual betrothal, the pair might have the privileges and rights of

marriage immediately, if only they sincerely meant to be married in the


The eager mind of Leonie Leon caught at this bit of ecclesiastical law

and used it with great ingenuity.

"Let us," she said, "be formally betrothed by the interchange of a

ring, and let us promise each other to marry in the future. After such

a betrothal as this we shall be the same as married; for we shall be

acting according to the laws of the Church."

Gambetta gladly gave his promise. A betrothal ring was purchased; and

then, her conscience being appeased, she gave herself completely to her

lover. Gambetta was sincere. He said to her:

"If the time should ever come when I shall lose my political station,

when I am beaten in the struggle, when I am deserted and alone, will you

not then marry me when I ask you?"

And Leonie, with her arms about his neck, promised that she would. Yet

neither of them specified what sort of marriage this should be, nor did

it seem at the moment as if the question could arise.

For Gambetta was very powerful. He led his party to success in the

election of 1877. Again and again his triumphant oratory mastered the

National Assembly of France. In 1879 he was chosen to be president

of the Chamber of Deputies. He towered far above the president of the

republic--Jules Grevy, that hard-headed, close-fisted old peasant--and

his star had reached its zenith.

All this time he and Leonie Leon maintained their intimacy, though it

was carefully concealed save from a very few. She lived in a plain but

pretty house on the Avenue Perrichont in the quiet quarter of Auteuil;

but Gambetta never came there. Where and when they met was a secret

guarded very carefully by the few who were his close associates. But

meet they did continually, and their affection grew stronger every year.

Leonie thrilled at the victories of the man she loved; and he found joy

in the hours that he spent with her.

Gambetta's need of rest was very great, for he worked at the highest

tension, like an engine which is using every pound of steam. Bismarck,

whose spies kept him well informed of everything that was happening in

Paris, and who had no liking for Gambetta, since the latter always spoke

of him as "the Ogre," once said to a Frenchman named Cheberry:

"He is the only one among you who thinks of revenge, and who is any sort

of a menace to Germany. But, fortunately, he won't last much longer. I

am not speaking thoughtlessly. I know from secret reports what sort of

a life your great man leads, and I know his habits. Why, his life is

a life of continual overwork. He rests neither night nor day. All

politicians who have led the same life have died young. To be able

to serve one's country for a long time a statesman must marry an ugly

woman, have children like the rest of the world, and a country place

or a house to one's self like any common peasant, where he can go and


The Iron Chancellor chuckled as he said this, and he was right. And yet

Gambetta's end came not so much through overwork as by an accident.

It may be that the ambition of Mme. Leon stimulated him beyond his

powers. However this may be, early in 1882, when he was defeated in

Parliament on a question which he considered vital, he immediately

resigned and turned his back on public life. His fickle friends soon

deserted him. His enemies jeered and hooted the mention of his name.

He had reached the time which with a sort of prophetic instinct he had

foreseen nearly ten years before. So he turned to the woman who had

been faithful and loving to him; and he turned to her with a feeling of

infinite peace.

"You promised me," he said, "that if ever I was defeated and alone you

would marry me. The time is now."

Then this man, who had exercised the powers of a dictator, who had

levied armies and shaken governments, and through whose hands there had

passed thousands of millions of francs, sought for a country home. He

found for sale a small estate which had once belonged to Balzac, and

which is known as Les Jardies. It was in wretched repair; yet the small

sum which it cost Gambetta--twelve thousand francs--was practically all

that he possessed. Worn and weary as he was, it seemed to him a haven of

delightful peace; for here he might live in the quiet country with the

still beautiful woman who was soon to become his wife.

It is not known what form of marriage they at last agreed upon. She may

have consented to a civil ceremony; or he, being now out of public life,

may have felt that he could be married by the Church. The day for their

wedding had been set, and Gambetta was already at Les Jardies. But there

came a rumor that he had been shot. Still further tidings bore the news

that he was dying. Paris, fond as it was of scandals, immediately spread

the tale that he had been shot by a jealous woman.

The truth is quite the contrary. Gambetta, in arranging his effects in

his new home, took it upon himself to clean a pair of dueling-pistols;

for every French politician of importance must fight duels, and Gambetta

had already done so. Unfortunately, one cartridge remained unnoticed in

the pistol which Gambetta cleaned. As he held the pistol-barrel against

the soft part of his hand the cartridge exploded, and the ball passed

through the base of the thumb with a rending, spluttering noise.

The wound was not in itself serious, but now the prophecy of Bismarck

was fulfilled. Gambetta had exhausted his vitality; a fever set in, and

before long he died of internal ulceration.

This was the end of a great career and of a great romance of love.

Leonie Leon was half distraught at the death of the lover who was so

soon to be her husband. She wandered for hours in the forest until she

reached a convent, where she was received. Afterward she came to Paris

and hid herself away in a garret of the slums. All the light of her life

had gone out. She wished that she had died with him whose glory had been

her life. Friends of Gambetta, however, discovered her and cared for her

until her death, long afterward, in 1906.

She lived upon the memories of the past, of the swift love that had come

at first sight, but which had lasted unbrokenly; which had given her the

pride of conquest, and which had brought her lover both happiness and

inspiration and a refining touch which had smoothed away his roughness

and made him fit to stand in palaces with dignity and distinction.

As for him, he left a few lines which have been carefully preserved, and

which sum up his thought of her. They read:

To the light of my soul; to the star, of my life--Leonie Leon. For ever!

For ever!