Updated: Oct 25
The Spy of Chandler
A Short Story about the Battle of the Atlantic
by Patrice Saucier
1942 Chandler, The Gaspé
He was a client who was as sweet and attentive as they come: the kind of client whose politeness was somewhat excessive, with "good morning, ma'am," "please," and "thank you" as thick as generous portions of creton ( a French Canadian spread of shredded pork cooked with onions in pork fat) spread on a slice of homemade bread, served insistently even when your hunger had long been satisfied, while waiting for the obligatory digestif before heading out to face a night as opaque as the stove. The kind of client at the cutting edge of refinement, speaking a polished and precise French, elegant and delicate, an eloquent testimony, of course, to a well-rounded education, steeped in the classics of the great authors who brought honor to immortal France.
At the front desk of Chandler-By-The-Sea inn, renowned throughout the Baie-des-Chaleurs region for its fine dining, comfortable rooms, and cleanliness, 19-year-old Léonie Aspireault didn't mind the polite manners of the young man standing before her. On the contrary! It allowed the young woman to immerse her daily boredom in this cascade of crystalline and learned phrases delivered by an Apollo clad in the latest Parisian fashion.
It also gave her the opportunity to listen to things other than war stories. The damn war...
That's all anyone talked about these days, not only at the inn but throughout the Gaspé Peninsula. People were becoming increasingly aware of this conflict, which, from certain pulpits, concerned only the Europeans. Now it was bringing enemy U-Boats deep into the Gulf of St. Lawrence with a fierce appetite for sinking ships and killing men and women in oil and fire to promote a certain idea of Evil that too many priests didn't condemn as much as they should because it served an ideal of purity...
This handsome man didn't have a first name yet, and through his charm, kind words, and fiery gaze, he had unwittingly just signed a sort of armistice with Léonie, hitherto unknown to the Allies and even to the Führer himself! In the young woman's mind, cheers resounded. "The war in Gaspé is finally over!" Finished was the unbearable rule of Silence with a big S that put too many people on edge, demanding that they keep quiet for the safety of Canadian battalions stationed there. The fate of Gaspé depended on it! In churches, priests and pastors constantly reminded their faithful that a simple indiscretion could become front-page news for the Germans. A lost matchstick with which they could set ablaze an entire region whose conversation had become essential to combat loneliness, especially during the long winter months when the roads were closed, imposing isolation on everyone.
Gone were those patrollers with red armbands who suspected spies everywhere on the territory. Because bringing to order those who still lit lanterns at nightfall was far too monotonous for men tired by the land or the sea. They needed action...
"I'm registering the room under what name?" she asked with some eagerness, guilty despite herself of having daydreamed during her work.
"Léopold! Ah! Like my father!" she exclaimed, with a joyful expression.
Léopold Aspireault. The father. The head of the family like no one else could be. Exceptionally tall and strong, like a dozen Jos Montferrands, he reigned over his business and his home with the Sacred Heart in his chest and order in his keen eye.
He also exuded the scent of hard work in the kitchen, where he excelled, and the sweat that emanated from his forehead when he thought too long, for example, in front of calculations and accounts. A task for which Germaine, his wife, was exceptionally talented. But, calculating when you rested in Sainte-Mathilde-de-Pabos with the family for two years and a few months now... That was in 1939, before the major upheavals, both from the sea and in terms of conflicts.
The other Léopold, the elegant specimen from the old country, well-groomed and dressed as if he were about to propose to a pretty woman, emanated an aroma of exoticism... and a somewhat overpowering fragrance, the only small flaw in his appearance. But well, since that was it!
And there he was, talking about his life in Rouen, Normandy. He unfurled a French life, that of a student on forced stay in the vast Gaspé wilderness to escape the war. His touching story of a child with fragile health, sent to Canada against his will, where this nice boy from a family of six children who brought glory to his hometown could recover his health far from Death, who had her hands full with the corpses of soldiers, struck a chord with Léonie.
"Do you know Normandy, miss?" "I know our ancestors come from there." "Would you like to see it?"
While counting the stack of bills that the handsome man had handed her to settle the room charge, the young woman suddenly wished for somewhere else, which could be summarized as leaving this too predictable world that had placed her without warning and, especially, without her consent in a role she found monotonous. Perhaps to be in Europe with him. Did she even have the right to dream like this? Léonie knew that an angel was watching her and would report all these wicked thoughts to the Creator. She would have to confess them next Sunday before mass... Anyway, let's move on.
"My name is Léonie, by the way." For a few seconds, the two exchanged a somewhat complicit look. Somewhat friendly. Somewhat like "this could be the beginning of some kind of romance."
"I think our client is a bit too tired to talk for hours," interrupted the other Léopold, Father Aspireault, who emerged from the kitchen with a long knife in his hand...
The tone he used was as dry as a forgotten loaf on the counter. Without emotion, without compassion. Only a man who had suddenly become preoccupied with something.
"I'll ask my son Léandre to show you to your room. Léandre?" Where was he hiding?
As soon as he returned from school, Léandre would grab an old newspaper lying around and memorize statistics. Then he would listen to what was said on the radio, long before going to greet his father and the rest of his family.
"Thank you very much. I feel very tired. I'd like not to be disturbed because I plan to take a long nap before dinner."
"Perfect. We'll make sure to wake you up as soon as the dining room is open. If that's alright with you, of course."
"Thank you very much."
"That's it... Léandre?" The young boy finally appeared. His father explained what he had to do and then returned to the kitchen.
"Hi! I'm Léandre! Where are his suitcases?" he asked Léonie.
Léandre, an 11-year-old bundle of energy, was about to pick up Mr. Brabant's suitcases when the latter stopped him in his tracks.
"I'll take care of this one," he said, pointing to the larger one with a firmer tone while giving him a special tip... A $20 bill, to calm things down a bit.
You can take care of the other one without any problem, my boy.
OK, sir. I'm sorry, sir.
And the two went upstairs under Léonie's jealous gaze.
What's your name?" Léandre asked.
What's your last name?
Where were you born? In which city?
In France... In France... What room was it again?" Léopold panicked, a little tired of these repetitive questions that were starting to make him dizzy.
Room 22, sir. 22, like Gerry Hefferman's number for the Montreal Canadiens. That's a hockey team, sir. Do you know hockey? There are two teams on an ice rink, and they try to put the puck in a goal. I have a cousin who plays for a team in Carleton. He's really good, and...
Here we are," Léandre noted.
Room 22, here we are!" Léandre exclaimed. I'll open the door for you.
As he unlocked the door, the young boy bombarded Brabant with a variety of questions about France: what they ate and drank, the sports they practiced, the effects of the war on the country, and so on. He thought he had just made a new friend in Mr. Brabant.
You can leave the suitcase there; I'll take care of the rest."
Brabant gave the young boy another $20 bill and promptly closed the door.
20 bucks??? Wow! Thank you very much, sir!"
Leopold Brabant gazed at his room for a long moment. It was a small, unremarkable space. There was a single black-painted iron bed, a rug on the floor, a wardrobe for clothes, and a desk with a window overlooking Baie-des-Chaleurs.
On the small bed in the room, he placed the largest suitcase, the one he had insisted on carrying himself, and then opened it. He first took out his artist's materials: tubes of paint, pencils, and a folding easel. Then, he carefully placed a radio on the room's desk. Without wasting any time, he connected the telegraph and sent a message:
-O214 to U-514 on station. -Received 0214.
The brief message was in German. Its recipient awaited him somewhere in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Anyone could criticize Mr. Aspireault for his somewhat rustic aspects, starting with his attire that was far from that of a businessman. For example, wearing trousers with large cuffs clearly visible beneath his rolled-up sleeves? He would stand out in the city, but not for the right reasons. Wearing a kitchen apron daily? Again, some of the well-groomed heads in an urban boys' club might find his culinary devotion amusing, but not the people of the Gaspé Peninsula, who were quite adept in the kitchen.
However, he possessed several qualities that many prim and proper urban idlers lacked, starting with unlimited courage to tackle what was called "hard work," especially as a widower for whom remarriage was unthinkable, despite the insistence of the priest, Father De La Plasse—such was his name—and all the advantages it would bring for his six children. He was a great musician, capable of getting even the most reserved people in the region to swing, thanks to his violin bow, which the priest didn't quite like, as if it were possessed by something sulfurous, something abnormally called a demon.
And he had a great flair for seeing through balderdash. That cursed balderdash that constantly concealed vile intentions behind a veneer of politeness, good manners, and amiability. The kind of sugarcoated talk that smooth-talking politicians, businessmen, and men with high collars were skilled in. In the latter case, it depended on many things, of course.
Without this sixth sense, Léopold Aspireault would never have succeeded in business, thanks to his Gascon roots. Where did this sixth sense come from? Who, in heaven, aside from his late wife, offered him countless advice and warnings? Which saints or holy figures had enough time to look after a Gaspesian like him? He didn't know. But this time, a small group of representatives of pure, chaste souls, with the right and virtue where their hearts once beat, smelling strongly of sanctity, urged him to be cautious of Léopold, a French student.
Perhaps it was normal for him to feel this way. After all, a Frenchman... A Frenchman who had likely banished religion from his land in 1905, who had decapitated it en masse during a bloody revolution... A Frenchman with questionable morals beneath a veneer of politeness. Maybe it was just pale prejudices that made him react this way? No time to investigate. It had to stop, but how?
"Leonie, would you come help me in the kitchen? I'm trying to peel potatoes, and it's not going well! Ethel will take care of the hall if there's something."
"Um... I'm coming."
Leonie closed the large leather-bound notebook containing the latest reservations, put away her quill, and donned her apron.
She wasn't very surprised by the situation since it wasn't the first time she had been summoned to help in the kitchen like this. That is, being called promptly. But she was somewhat vexed because she would have liked to accompany Mr. Brabant to his room, just to get to know him better. To do that, her father would ask Leonie or one of her two sisters, Johanne and Ethel, but never Leandre.
Leandre was too young. Leandre was too strange. He asked too many questions. Leandre was also a boy who needed to toughen up by carrying suitcases.
Guy was 14 years old. It wasn't the age to hang around in a kitchen. It was the age to work on a farm, on a boat, in the woods, but not in the kitchen. Their father, it was different, as he suddenly had responsibilities.
"Dad, you should let Leopold... well, Mr. Brabant know that dinner will be served soon!"
"It's Mr. Brabant, Leonie."
"Yes, yes, I know."
"He's a customer, Leonie."
"We treat him as a customer."
Father Aspireault didn't like seeing his eldest daughter daydreaming.
"Are you falling for him?"
"He's from France, you know! You can't possibly fall for a passing Frenchman, and we know nothing about his family. Where are they from? Are they Catholics? Are..."
"I'm not falling for him, Father," Leonie interrupted. "I just find him... interesting. That's all."
Here, the boys didn't dream of much. Survival, primarily. Survival from the sea, which brought fish to the table and saved the necks of those who owed money to the Robins or the Wymans. Survival from the land, which brought food. Survival from the all-powerful church, which brought salvation to the soul. They had a mission to fulfill here.
"We have to close the restaurant early. We have to do our part against the invader."
"Afterward, I have to do my rounds. And, Leonie, I don't want you going up to see the customer, is that clear?"
"We'll have supper together later. In forced twilight, as we've been doing for some time now."
"What's the point of all this?" "Brabant" wondered as he took another look at his gear.
Or rather, Helmut Bruckner, alias O214. Spy. Officer of the Third Reich. But above all, an artist-painter.
An admirer of the Bauhaus before the "greater cause" came and convinced him that decadent art no longer had a place in Germany. He found the Führer a bit too desperate to conquer tiny cargo ships that, in his eyes, were clearly no match for the firepower of his country, his Reich. And all those lives that perished in oil-soaked wreckage, in flames, engulfed in the silence of the night or in broad daylight, with the sun at its zenith. All for the Führer's prestige? For Dönitz, the admiral of the Kriegsmarine?