Famous Affinities of History: The Romance of Devotion


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 disaster.

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 alone.

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 note:

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 disclosed.

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 church.

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 future.

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 rest."

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!

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