My secret identity was in real danger of being exposed today. I’m in German occupied France and if my true identity had been revealed, it might’ve meant my imprisonment or perhaps even my death.
One’s past can become one’s enemy.
I had met with members of a resistance group to discuss the smuggling of a certain nine year old boy into the Netherlands and then across the channel to England. After losing his parents and sister to the boche he’d been wandering the countryside for a week, alone and starving. Discovered by an elderly farmer, the kind man cared for the child the best he could, but since the farmer’s health was failing, he decided the boy would be safer with his relatives in England. A nearby hospital acted as an underground relay station for smuggling people out of occupied territory, using a network of resistance members along the way.
My job was to act as the boy’s mother until I could safely hand him over to the right people at the hospital. We were at the hotel bar to discuss when and how I was to meet the boy, and had just sat down and ordered drinks when I noticed a fashionably dressed, dark-haired young lady staring at me from across the room. Sitting with a young Frenchman in a suit—the two were enjoying glasses of wine together—the lady’s gaze often landed on me. I could think of no reason why, as I purposefully dressed simply and make-up free, with only my blasted red hair to bring attention my way.
Before long, the young man left while she stayed at her table. After my meeting was over and my two colleagues got up to leave, she caught my eye and waved. I pretended not to notice.
Before I could get out the door I heard her say in French, “I love Boston in the summer, don’t you?”
This stopped me in my tracks and my blood cooled.
“Join me?” she said with a smile and gestured to the empty seat.
As I tentatively sat down across from her with my heart in my throat, she said, “Quelle chance?”
I lifted a chin in defiance. “I am not sure what you mean?”
“What are the chances that I would meet you here in France!”
“I’m sorry, mademoiselle, but I think you have mistaken me for someone else.”
“Your french is impeccable.Très bon!”
I clutched my handbag and started to get up. This lady, whoever she was, posed an extreme danger to me.
“Don’t leave so soon, Lady Gold.”
My breath escaped me and I felt my face drain of color. I quickly glanced around the room. There were only two other patrons in the room, both french. Thankfully, neither of them were paying any attention to us.
I fell back into my chair, and said firmly. “I am called Mademoiselle Antoinette LaFleur.”
“Your hair is a little different, of course, but I am afraid there is no mistaking the beautiful red color, and I never forget a face! You would make a beautiful model for one of my creations.”
She held out a gloved hand. “Coco Chanel.”
I held in a gasp. “The dress designer?” I had read numerous newspaper articles about the young lady who was rapidly taking the French fashion culture by storm with her store in Deaville and her new couture in Biartiz.
“The one and the same. But you, madame!” She lowered her voice a bit, “Your wedding to Lord Gold was no small thing. It was in all the societal magazines and newspapers. Your dress, I must say, was magnifique!”
I was thunderstruck. What bad fortune!
She continued, undaunted, and if she knew how devastating her words her were to me, she clearly didn’t care. “ I was in Boston in the summer of 1913. Wonderful city. Along with everyone else in the city I read rapturously about your nuptials. Such a lovely photograph of you in your weeding gown in the society pages. I could’ve designed a more beautiful one—“ she waved a bare hand. “But that is water under the bridge I also saw you with your new groom at a theatre performance a short time later. You were hard to miss. Everyone was tittering away about the two of you.
“Her voice lowered all the way to a whisper. “Oh yes, I know who you are.”
She smiled warmly and put her hand on mine, “I can only guess what you are doing here. These are dangerous days are they not?” She looked around the room and then leaned forward, “I myself am involved in some things that… well, it is not safe to say.”
With as much force as I could manage, I whispered, “Please Mademoiselle, you have the advantage. But I must tell you that, not only my life, but the lives of others would be in danger if you were to speak of this to anyone.”
She leaned back in her chair, “I was meeting a… a friend here as you saw. I didn’t say anything to him.”
I held her gaze. “I can’t stress this enough, Mademoiselle Chanel. People could die. French people, men, women, children…You must tell no one!”
She looked at me for a long moment. “Well, whatever it is you are doing here, I assume the Boche would not like it.”
I just nodded slowly.
“Then that is fine with me. I will protect your identity, Mademoiselle LaFleur. No one will hear a word from my lips.” She put a finger on her lipstick covered lips and then smiled. “Now, tell me more about your wedding dress.”
Although I was in no mood to discuss fashion (which would be a rare mood for me, indeed), the conversation stayed on the safe topics of lace, necklines, and floral detailing. Afterwards, I was left thinking about how much weight I was forced to put on the promise of a lady I barely knew.
Who knows what could happen should too much wine loosen lips on some cold winter night?