April 7, 1918
Château de Champlain wasn’t a large property for a Château, and the French probably would have referred to it as Petit Château, as it was smaller than a normal castle and had no fortification walls around it. Nonetheless it was still very grand looking with two pinnacle towers and a beautiful main entrance facade featuring several sculptures and insets of slate in the chimneys and stone mullion windows. I judged the entire building to be about twice the size of Hartigan House. Before disembarking from my motorcar I took one final look in my compact mirror.
“I never met you, Félicité De Champlain, but if ever someone needed help from beyond the grave, it’s now.”
I’d dressed in a similar manner to what the young woman in the picture had been dressed—with the pearl-like buttons done all the way to the top of the tall lace collar of my blouse, and a wide-brimmed straw hat—with the hope of disarming the target of my mission.
A secret dispatch had been sent to Hélène De Champlain explaining that a member of British Intelligence would be arriving to meet with her today. The tersely worded response indicated reluctant cooperation, but would be kept short. One could read between the lines that the lady’s intention was to close any outstanding agreements between her now deceased daughter-in-law Baronne Violette De Champlain and the British Intelligence.
A dour looking butler lead me through a large entrance hall with red and yellow floor tiles, and a grand, vaulted ceiling, past a beautifully carpeted music room graced with a grand piano, a small chapel with a wooden cross filling an alcove, and down a wide corridor to Madame De Champlain’s salon.
“They sent a woman?” Baronne Hélène De Champlain stated at first glance. The elderly lady sat at a large cherry wood desk dressed in a brown afternoon dress that had a slender bodice which narrowed at the waist and a full long skirt. Her attention remained fixed on the papers on her desk. Ornately decorated, the salon also contained a leather sofa and two wingback chairs facing a stone fireplace. A fire burned brightly, warming the room. “Have a seat, mademoiselle,” she said, waving to a plush chair. She adjusted her black framed glasses on her thin nose and turned one of the pages over to closely examine the next.
“I am very thankful you are taking the time to meet with me.” I said as I did her bidding.
The baronne moved to one of the armchairs, seated herself then finally took time to regard me. I’ve become good at reading people’s expressions and I watched now as the older lady’s visage changed from cold haughtiness to confusion. Her eyebrows, which were severely plucked and thinly penciled, arched high and her jaw with its loose folds of skin, went slack. Slender fingers reached for her neck. “Mon Dieu.”
“Is something wrong?” I asked softly, even though I already knew what was causing her reaction.
With a shaky hand, the baronne removed her glasses. “You—"
“Madame? You look a little faint.”
The lady seemed at a loss for words, her wide-eyes fixed on my face. “I have come with a message,” I said. “I hope that you can hear it.”
“Oui," the baronne whispered. “I think I must.” Her eyes flickered towards the papers on her desk, then back to me. “Do you believe in God, Mademoiselle?”
“I am utterly amazed. You see, you are the exact image of my dear daughter Félicité.”
I blinked slowly. “Is that so?”
“Oui. It goes beyond mere resemblance.You are her twin! Your voice even sounds like hers. I am guessing you are British, but your French is impeccable.”
“I lost my husband and my son to this war, Félicité to cholera, and now my daughter-in-law Violette. It’s all too much to bear. Only this morning I prayed, drowning in my tears, that God would send some comfort for my broken heart. He knows my pain, and that I am now all alone in this world.” A tear trickled down her soft cheek. Shakily, she waved it away, taking a moment to regain her composure. “I was especially close to Félicité,” she continued, “but she got involved with a British man. They were married just before the war in London and he moved her there; far away from me; something I never forgave him for. I think he’s still alive somewhere, but I don’t keep in touch with him at all.”
I nodded sympathetically. This explained the lady’s distrust of the British.
“It’s like my Félicité is sitting right in front of me.” The baronne shrugged her shoulders weakly as if in a gesture of surrender. “Both Félicité and Violette were in favor of supporting your organization and its efforts against the Bosche. I was not. I would rather support the French networks exclusively.”
“We need each other,” I said. “If we’re going to have victory.”
The baronne lowered her chin. “I lamented before God for half the morning for some kind of sign.” She shook her head again as she regarded me. “And now you are here, as if my own daughter has been sent from the great beyond.” She waved her hand up at the open beamed ceiling. “That is your message, is it not? That we need each other?”
Since she was not speaking to me, I said nothing.
Her gaze returned to mine. “God, it seems, is not in the business of answering prayers quite in the way one would expect.”
I smiled. “That has been my experience.”
She sighed and gestured again to the papers on the desk. “I have the records of Violette’s dealings with your organization. My intention this morning was to declare our business with you to be over. But now, I am going to ensure that everything continues in the way that it has.”
“I believe your daughter and daughter-in-law would approve.”
For the first time, Hélène De Champlain smiled. “Our chef makes an incredible Pain Au Chocolat. It was a favorite of Félicité’s. Wouldn’t it be delightful if we could sit together and have a slice?”
I smiled in return. “It would.”