“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: