January 31, 1917
My mission in Rethel was to pose as a waitress at a New Year’s party hosted by Generaloberst Albrecht Balsinger, a handsome man with striking blue eyes and close cropped blond hair, and one of Germany’s most prominent war leaders. I’d been told that because of the Generaloberst’s prominence, the security around the small Château where the party would be held would be unusually tight. It was decided by my superiors that, because I understand German and can speak it fluently, I should present myself to the staff of the Chateau as a serving girl from a nearby town rather than my normal guise as Mademoiselle Antoinette LaFleur. Mademoiselle LaFleur would never be serving drinks at a party and even if she were invited to such an affair, and therefore wouldn’t have as much access to high level conversations as would a humble serving girl. And so for the last week I have been Mademoiselle Clarisse Baton from the town of Amagne.
I never dreamed that after tonight, I would have to abandon both Mademoiselle LaFleur and Mademoiselle Baton for the rest of the war.
The size of the party meant additional staff would be needed, and because of certain covert contacts within the staff of the Chateau, the hiring of Clarisse Baton was certain. And not only I. I was paired with another operative, a Frenchman I knew as Louis, who joined me as a waiter. Louis and I worked opposite sides of the room and only conversed when the job itself required it.
The extravagance of the party was striking, especially during this time when many French people were close to starving due to German seizures of most of the wheat and potato crops as well as eggs and cattle. To see huge plates of roast beef, potatoes, devilled eggs, fresh vegetables and ham being presented on long tables adorned with bottles of fine french wine and champagne was dizzying, even for me. The hors-d’œuvre alone would have fed many households of impoverished French in the town.
My job and Louis’ was to listen in on conversations by anyone who was high up in the military, of which there were quite a few at this New Years celebration. There was a rumor of a huge German offensive being planned for early spring and as the evening wore on (and large amounts of brandy consumed) the officers’ tongues loosened as well. I picked up snatches of conversation about that very subject.
Chef Jean Piaf, a man who had yet to reach the age of thirty, was considered a prodigy in the kitchen. It was clear that he had made a name for himself as a result of his culinary talent and not due to a pleasing character. His demeanour was abrupt and his mouth sharper than the knives he wielded so expertly. None dared to cross him, for fear of getting sacked or at the very least a severe tongue lashing.
I, for one, couldn’t afford to be fired or openly humiliated so I gave the man a wide berth. I was told he worked with his sister, the only one who could calm him when his rage exploded. They had a similar look, with dark hair and high cheekbones, and I kept my distance from them both.
Things were going relatively well until Generaloberst Balsinger caught my eye. I quickly looked away, but he stubbornly did not divert his gaze. I kept my head down and my hands busy cleaning away dirty ashtrays and empty glasses, but I could sense the Generaloberst stares like a burning ray of light. Sweat droplets formed on her upper lip and as I casually brought my hand to my face I risked a look in the Generaloberst’s direction. My mission and my own safety depended on me being as unassuming as possible.
I let my shoulders relax when I saw his attention was captured elsewhere, but my relief only lasted for a moment. The object of his distraction was his wife, an Austrian lady with the Christian name of Gertrude, who seemed none too pleased. Her husband’s wandering eye was well-known, much to her humiliation, and after a few sharp words which I couldn’t hear, her eyes, flashing with anger, landed on me.
Before I could turn away and make my escape from the room, she stormed over to me. “What is your name, Mademoiselle?”
Without making eye contact, I returned in French, “I am Mademoiselle Clarisse Baton, madame.”
“You are a pretty girl, Clarisse. Your red hair is unusual though appealing.”Her use of my first name struck me as very direct; like I was her personal servant or something.
“I… thank you, Madam.”
She cocked her head to look at me like I was a strange insect pinned onto a corkboard for examination. “But I imagine you to be flighty, like most young French women are.” Her mouth formed into a cruel hard line and her eyes showed contempt.
“I, uhm… there are guests needing more to drink,” I said, “and my tray is empty.” My heart pounded, as I glanced at the kitchen area far on the other side of the hall, looking for a way to escape this public scrutiny.
Undaunted Frau Balsinger said stiffly, “My husband has, er, an inclination for younger women.” She lowered her voice and with added menace, continued, “But you probably already knew that, Clarisse.”
Over her shoulder I could see her husband chatting with several other officers with his back towards us. I started to walk away, but she took a step to block me, but Frau Balsinger grabbed my arm and stopped me.
“Dont you dare walk away from me, Frauline,” she said with barely controlled anger. “I must leave for Berlin tomorrow morning, but I will be back in less than a week. My husband likes to have his ridiculous dalliances from time to time, and I make allowances, but not with trollops like you. There are people in the house, in this town, that work for me, do you understand? If you even so much as look at my husband while I’m gone, I will know.”
Dramatically, she pivoted on her heels and glided away, but just when I thought I escaped the snare, a familiar face entered the room through the main doors, and my heart stopped cold.
Hauptmann Gottleib Auerswald, the brother of Frau Balsinger. He looked virtually the same as when I had met him two years ago in Northern France, at a similar party as this one. His uniform was still crisp and pressed and he was still overweight, testament to his carnal indulgences.
At that party, I had posed as his German date. If he spotted me tonight he might recognize me and my cover would be blown.
It was because of Gottleib Auerswald that Captain Smithwick had been reluctant to assign me to this mission, but I’d argued that the man was a lower-ranking officer and, despite his relationship to Frau Balsinger, wouldn’t be invited to a party full of high-ranking officials. Besides, it had been believed that Hauptmann Auersawald had returned to Germany.
Clearly, I was wrong.
Hauptmann Gottleib Auerswald laughed boisterously as he greeted his fellow officers, making his way to his sister and Generaloberst Balsinger. I couldn’t make it past him to the kitchen or to the rear of the building without directly crossing his path. I quickly moved towards a doorway that opened to a corridor that led to a storage area, where I could hide temporarily.
My absence would be noticed very soon in the kitchen, and no one wanted to cross Chef Piaf, especially at such an important event, so I knew I couldn’t wait long. After a while, I poked my head out of the door and scanned the room in search of Hauptman Auerswald. I couldn’t see him anywhere so I walked as nonchalantly as I could through the crowd of people towards the kitchen, and the rear exit near it.
Before I got halfway there, Hauptman Auerswald appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. I swiftly changed directions, but not before he saw me. His expression went from jovial to puzzlement.
Instinctively, I took the only route left to me, up the grand stairway that led to the next floor of the chateau. I tried not to look like I was in a hurry as I started up the stairs.
Hauptman Auerswald came from behind me through the chatter of all the voices in the room. I didn’t look back, but I sensed he was making his way through the guests to follow me.
I quickened my pace and reached the landing, risking a quick look back. Hauptman Auerswald had now started up the stairway. Louis stood at the bottom of the stairs, his brown eyes as wide as saucers. I subtly shook my head. Do not follow. Do not get involved.
My heart beating in near panic, I raced down the corridor. Once I saw that it ended with no way out, I ducked into one of the huge bedrooms and closed the door. I looked around for a sturdy chair and found one in front of an ornately decorated vanity by the arched window. I leaned it back and wedged it under the door handle. There was a good chance Hauptman Auerswald saw me enter the room, but hopefully when he tried to open the door he would think it locked and give up. If not, the chair would only hold for a short time.
I looked wildly around the room, lavishly decorated and very large, and realized that this was surely the bedroom that belonged to Generaloberst Balsinger and his wife.
A knock on the door was followed by the voice of Hauptman Auerswald.“Mademoiselle, La Fleur? Don’t be frightened. I only want to speak with you for a moment.”
I held my breath, and after a moment, his footsteps grew quieter as he went further along the corridor. He knocked on another door and called for me again. It was clear he didn’t know which room I had gone into. There were three or four more rooms on this floor, all with closed doors, but probably not locked. He would no doubt go into each one to search for me. It was only a matter of scant moments before he returned to this room.
A large, arched window had been left partially open to the cool night air. In near desperation I went to it and looked out. A metal trellis covered with seasonally dormant vines ran to the right. I put my hand to the trellis and pulled. It seemed sturdy enough and free of rust. I looked down at the garden below and was glad to see it was relatively free of snow to mark my tracks. Just a few meters away was an opening in a large hedge and beyond that were several unlit avenues and alleyways. A fall would undoubtedly be injurious, and any wound to my ankle or leg would slow me. I would surely be caught only moments after that.
The clocktower could be seen from this window, and in twenty-five minutes it would be 1918. I wanted to be alive and well, and making my way back to my quarters under the cover of darkness when that clock struck midnight. For my sake, and Daniel’s, who had no idea of the peril for which I volunteered.
I had to climb out, but hesitated for a moment. My dress would severely impede my progress. I quickly took off my apron, skirt, and blouse, leaving me only in my under garments, then stuffed them under the bed, unkindly hoping that Frau Balsinger would be the first to find them there. Opening the massive wooden wardrobe, I selected a woman’s overcoat.
“Danke, Frau Balsinger.” I breathed as I rushed to the window and dropped the coat, letting it fall to the ground below.
I had one leg out the window, when I saw the doorknob start to turn.
The trellis turned out to be worthy, and though I received several rude scratches on my arm, a bad cut on my hand and a bruise on my shin, I made it to the ground. Grabbing the coat from the ground, I raced across the short garden, just barely keeping from slipping and falling on the frozen grass, and ducked behind the hedge. The light cast from the bedroom window suddenly darkened, and I knew without looking that Hauptman Auerswald’s portly frame was leaning out as he peered into the night.
I prayed he couldn’t see me from his vantage point as I ran along the length of the hedge and down a narrow alleyway. I encountered no one as I quickly made my way through the town. I carefully making my way through a side street behind a bakery near my flat when I heard a distant church bell ring in the new year.