But Gambetta refused to be renounced. He pleaded with her long, deaf to her protests, until at last she agreed to seal with him a bond of friendship, and to meet him thus every morning in the gardens of Versailles. And to the man these meetings were the sweetest joys in life. For he found more than a friend : he found a counsellor - a counsellor who, by her shrewd advice of moderation, did more than anybody else to help him drive from France the House of Bourbon, the House of Bonaparte, and finally establish the Republic. Leonie he trusted with all his secrets ; and she advised him well, for she humanised and made him reasonable. She found him a man ; she made him a gentleman. And for this France should be grateful to her. Even a priceless diamond is a crude stone until it has been polished.
And his letters breathe with gratitude. " You are divine," he told her in one of them, " and I am the happiest of mortals ever honoured by a goddess's favours. I owe everything to you, I ascribe everything to you, and I will not allow you for a moment . to belittle yourself."
But a friendship such as this could not continue for ever merely as a friendship. It would have been a happening in violation of every law of Nature. Friendship was not a bond between them, but a barrier, and an artificial barrier. In vain, therefore, the woman struggled to support it; in vain the man tried to help her ; it could not stand.; it could not resist the battery of love.
And so it came about that Leonie arrived one morning at the place of meeting first. Had anything happened ? For a moment she felt anxious; she had never known Gambetta to be late. But then she saw him coming. And suddenly a strange misgiving seized her, for there was a stern, serious expression on his face. But he smiled as he approached her. And she noticed that he carried in his hand a beautifully untidy bunch of flowers, still wet with dew.
" I have just picked these," he said ; " the gardener knows me. Will you take them ? "
Then he was silent. A lark burst into song.
" And will you take me also ?" he added.
" Leonie, you must. I can wait no longer."
And he seized her roughly by the hand. She longed to yield to him ; it was hard to resist - even for the sake of his career.
"Let us go to the magistrate," he implored, " together, now."
But Leonie drew back. This she could not do. Intensely religious, the idea of a marriage not sanctified by a priest repelled her, whilst to Gambetta a civil marriage alone was possible - to Gambetta who at that very moment was striving to sever the Church and State in France, not because he was an atheist, but because he saw in clericalism and ultramontane doctrines the bitterest foes of liberty.
This was a difficult question to solve, this question of marriage. But at length Gambetta spoke. " Then be my wife in secret," he said. " Let us celebrate our betrothal now, according to the rites of bygone days, rites which then were as binding as are marriage ties. Here is a ring; once it belonged to my mother, but its emblem is mine : ' Hors cet annel point n'est d' amour.' Take it. It binds me to you for ever."
A Secret Ceremony
And Leonie took it. Her confessor had told her that the Church admitted of two kinds of betrothal, " sponsalia de praesente" and " sponsalia de future," and that the former, betrothal by present vows, was, under unavoidable circumstances, as binding as the sacrament of matrimony.
And in this case surely the circumstances were unavoidable, for the world must be allowed never to guess the truth. Nor did it guess. For six long years the lovers kept their secret, while Gambetta slowly climbed the ladder of success, and raised France with him. Never, until the very end, did the breath of scandal touch his name, and this although he was always in the public eye, perpetually spied upon and watched.
But then he did not meet Leonie by stealth far from Paris. He was wise enough to know that if one hides one merely attracts attention. Instead, therefore, she came to him openly at his house in the Rue de la Chaussee d'antin. And there, whenever he had no official function to attend, they would dine together.
These were happy years, and in his letters Gambetta poured out his thankfulness. But he had one great sorrow. He was proud of the wife he loved, and he longed to show her to the world so that it might see and envy him his happiness. And to make her mistress of his house as well as of his heart became his great intention. In time surely she would yield to his entreaties.
And as the years rolled by they became daily ever more ardent. He was now a big public man, President of the Chamber, with many social obligations. And he needed a hostess greatly. Such a hostess! Leonie, it is true, did all she could to help him, making arrangements, ordering dinners, arranging tables. But it was not enough. He missed that splendid happiness of jealousy which belongs to the man whose wife is the admiration of his friends.
" I thank thee a thousand times," he wrote to her on one occasion ; " your magnificent flowers astonished and charmed my guests, and all their praises went from my heart to yours, for in my heart I thanked you for them. You know what I need just now - your presence at these fetes and the good which you could do. I shall always return to this subject, because at every moment of my life I remember it; and I hope by strength of will to obtain what I want."
And slowly the woman yielded. But it was not until trouble befel Gambetta, until his enemies got the better of him, that she finally gave way. Then she remembered the promise she had made on the day of her betrothal. " If you are unhappy, misunderstood, persecuted, then I will give you the home you crave for." And she came to him.
This was in the latter part of 1882. They took a little cottage - Les Jardins, they called it - very small, very humble, and set to work to furnish it as their home. They decided to get married in December.
A few days before the wedding, however, while playing with a pistol in his study, Gambetta shot himself accidentally in the hand. The wound did not seem serious, but for some reason it refused to heal. Then complications set in. And in spite of the doctor's care, in spite of Leonie's devoted nursing, the patient rapidly grew weaker, until, on December 31, he passed away.
And Leonie was left alone, destitute of all resources ; Gambetta had given her all he had to give - himself. And now he had gone ! For a while she gazed in silent anguish on his face. Then she kissed it lightly on the brow, and went her way - out into the world.
She did not attend the funeral. Gambetta belonged to France. And she left it to France to honour him. She merely mourned him, and she mourned him truly until in 1906 death set her free to join him. Her sorrow was inconsolable, and remorse made it bitter. Why, why had she been obstinate ? Why had she refused to marry her lover when and as he asked ? Oh, why ? This became her great lament. But it was of him she thought, not of herself. Death had disclosed his secret, and there were those who did not understand that secret, who now saw a stain on the great patriot's honour. And she had caused it. This was her sorrow.
But still she had sweet memories also. " To the light of my life, to the star of my life, to Leonie Leon " were the words inscribed on the photograph found by her bedside. To be the light of a soul such as his - was that nothing ?