The Manhattan Secret
"I just had to get the rest of the series." -, 5* fnac.com reviewerJean-Pierre, fnac.com reviewer
"An extraordinary author. I strongly recommend!" - 5*Natalie, Amazon reviewer
A dramatically powerful saga of secrets, love and betrayal for fans of Anna Jacobs, Nadine Dorries and Rita Bradshaw.
***FROM THE 4-MILLION COPY BESTSELLING AUTHOR*** ***RATED 5 STARS BY REAL READERS***
October 1886. Catherine and Guillaume Duquesne set off to New York with their six-year-old daughter Elisabeth. But the young couple's dreams of freedom and independence soon turn into a nightmare when Catherine dies during the journey and Guillaume is assaulted and left for dead soon after their arrival on American soil.
A wealthy family adopts Elisabeth, who grows up spoiled and happy. But when she turns 16, she learns the truth about her origins and decides to return to France to meet her real family. Upon her arrival she realises that her grandfather's house, too, is seething with secrets...
What readers think
"The author is hugely talented." -Julie, 5* Amazon reviewer
" Very attaching characters... I'm impatient to read the next instalment!" -5* Babelio reviewer
"I just had to get the rest of the series." -Jean-Pierre, 5* fnac.com reviewer
"Reads very well - wait until you read the ending!" -Françoise, 5* Amazon reviewer
"An extraordinary author. I strongly recommend!" -Nathalie, 5* A mazon reviewer
"I didn't know the author - the book is excellent. -Mimi, 5* Amazon reviewer
Release date: October 29, 2020
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Print pages: 448
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The Manhattan Secret
A Family Torn Apart
Friday, October 15, 1886
“No, no, and no! I will not accept your leaving! It’s sheer madness!” hollered Hugues Laroche, slamming his clenched fist so violently on the table that the crystal glasses shook.
A clap of thunder responded to his furious outburst.
The storm had hit the county about half an hour ago. It was now in full force, and the windows vibrated with each rumble. The sky was a leaden grey, streaked at times with long white flashes of lightning.
“Let your husband pursue his seafaring adventures, if that’s what he wants, but you, Catherine—you must stay in France, on the land where you were born!” added the master of the castle.
“Father, I would follow Guillaume to the end of the world and back if I had to, so please stop shouting. We are not going to change our minds.”
With one hand placed on her protruding belly, the young woman smiled quietly at her father. She gazed worriedly at the estate’s hundred-year-old oak trees, whose red leaves were swirling madly, at the mercy of the gusting wind.
The child she was carrying was restless, as if troubled by the apocalyptic atmosphere.
“Don’t worry, my princess, we’re safe here,” she told her six-year-old daughter, sitting next to her.
Jerome, the butler, had placed a cushion on the chair, so that she was now the right height to sit at the table to eat. In front of her was her dessert, a meringue tart. But her wide-eyed gaze expressed panic.
Her mother took her in her arms and cuddled her, whispering words of comfort in her ear.
“She’s no longer a baby, Catherine,” protested Adela Laroche. “If you mollycoddle her too much, you’ll make her weak.”
“But Mother, Elizabeth is frightened. I know her better than you do. She’s distressed by the storm, and Father’s shouting.”
“I have good reason to shout!” he intervened sharply.
Catherine’s father was of slim build, with strong features, and rather obsessed with his social status. A wealthy landowner, in charge of some very fine vineyards, he was accustomed to imposing his will.
“Yes, I have every right to be furious,” he exclaimed, “after that announcement! I was so looking forward to having you here for dinner tonight . . . And all the time you were merely waiting to stab me in the back!”
Hugues Laroche pointed an accusing index finger at his son-in-law.
“Guillaume, you have overstepped the mark,” he said. “For my daughter’s happiness, I accepted her marrying beneath herself, but enough is enough. This time you’ve gone too far! You’re taking my only daughter on a dangerous and ridiculous wild goose chase to America—New York! Do you really think they need more crummy carpenters over there?”
Elizabeth, still huddled against her mother, could not take her eyes off her grandfather. He reminded her of the ogre in the fairy tales read to her by her parents, or the devil who, according to an old woman in the village, used to kidnap disobedient children.
The master of the castle had neither horns nor cloven hooves, yet the little girl was sure she could see a greyish mist around his head, as though he were emitting smoke.
“Grandpa is angry, don’t be afraid,” whispered Catherine, squeezing her even tighter against her.
Guillaume Duquesne saw that his daughter was overcome with fright and became indignant. “Please, Sir, let us talk about it later, when Elizabeth is in bed,” the thirty-three-year-old member of the Carpenters’ Guild confronted his father-in-law firmly. “She shouldn’t have to witness our quarrel. Moreover, your fury is in vain. Nothing will stop us from going. In four days’ time, we will be boarding the liner La Champagne, from Le Havre. It would be preferable to part on good terms.”
“Father, I agree with Guillaume,” added Catherine. “I beg you, let’s not leave each other on bad terms.”
The young couple had anticipated the scene that was unfolding in the vast dining room. Hugues Laroche pursed his lips. He gazed coldly at his only daughter. At almost twenty-nine years of age, this young lady was so pretty. Her blonde hair was in perfect harmony with her milky complexion and her regular, delicate features. Her beautiful green eyes shone with courage and determination.
Full of bitterness, he asked himself once more why and how she could have fallen in love with this raven-haired Guillaume, with his sun-tanned complexion and grey eyes.
The third offspring of a miller, he thought to himself. I had hoped for a son-in-law capable of replacing me on the estate, and not a jackass like him.
He was about to continue his attack when a violent and prolonged thunderclap erupted with such force that everyone froze. At that moment, the rain intensified. Adela Laroche made the sign of the cross, while trying to maintain a blank expression.
“What an evening!” she lamented. “It’s enough to make you a nervous wreck! Nevertheless, your father is right. It’s utter folly. Think of your daughter, Catherine, and the discomfort and unpleasantness of the crossing! The roll and sway of the sea, the seasickness, the bad food, the inevitable seasickness and the overcrowded and squalid conditions! I assume you’ll be in third class?”
“The voyage lasts about ten days,” said Catherine. “My pregnancy isn’t giving me any problems; I’m in my seventh month. I’m sorry for causing you so much pain. I admit that we deliberately left it until the last minute to tell you, but only to avoid endless discussions and accusations. We have already sold our furniture and a piece of land that belonged to me, to pay for the tickets.”
“We are expected in New York,” explained Guillaume. “A friend of mine has promised me a job, on a building they’re constructing on 23rd Street. They’re looking for skilled carpenters.”
“That’s a joke, Duquesne! As if they don’t have any there already!” shouted Hugues Laroche at the top of his voice.
He threw his arms up in the air. A new rumble interspersed with ominous crackling sounds resounded, leaving Elizabeth convinced that her grandfather’s rage had caused it. A sense of imminent yet inexplicable danger came over her.
“I’m very scared, Mummy,” she whispered.
“Don’t be, my darling. As I said before, we’re quite safe here,” Catherine whispered back, before kissing her tenderly on the forehead.
Guillaume looked gloomy as he ruminated over Laroche’s harsh words. If he’d been able to, he would have taken his family away there and then. But the infernal lightning display was continuing outside, and the windows were awash with rain.
“It will be worse in the middle of the ocean,” remarked Adela Laroche spitefully, as she dabbed her lips with the tip of her white napkin.
A silhouette appeared from the adjoining corridor. It was the butler, checking that dinner was progressing smoothly.
“You can clear away now, Jerome,” ordered the mistress of the house. “Catherine, an idea has just come to me: leave Elizabeth with us. She will receive a good education, in her ancestral home. Our granddaughter will brighten up the rather stern atmosphere of this old house.”
Elizabeth’s blue eyes darted over to her grandmother. She hardly knew her, and the idea of being entrusted to this blonde-bunned, hook-nosed lady made her grip her mother’s neck tightly.
The decor of the massive dining room, to which the child had paid little attention, now appeared strange and oppressive, as if it were ready to close in and hold her prisoner. Her dismayed gaze went from the heavy green velvet curtains and the paintings depicting sullen-looking characters, to the white plaster ceiling, which was adorned with embossed rosettes representing bunches of grapes, foliage and extravagant flowers and the dark oak panelling, that Elizabeth was certain concealed secret doors leading to damp cellars.
“My sweetheart, you’re clutching me so tightly that I can hardly breathe,” protested Catherine with a chuckle. “Elizabeth, my child, have no fear. You’re coming with us to America.”
“Mummy, I don’t like the castle,” she whispered. “I prefer our home and Grandpa Toine’s.”
Elizabeth had grown up in a charming little dwelling on the banks of the Charente river in the village of Montignac. Her other grandfather, the miller Antoine Duquesne, lived half a mile away, upstream. It was a child’s paradise, where she was doted on and able to roam freely from dawn till dusk in the small garden.
“Don’t worry, my princess,” Catherine replied in her ear. “You’re coming with us, I promise you.”
“And why?!” fumed Hugues Laroche. “Adela is right, we could at least keep Elizabeth. She won’t want for anything. I’ll leave everything to her.”
Guillaume struck the table with the flat of his hand. This time, his fury had no measure.
“Don’t even think about it!” he exclaimed. “Our daughter will grow up on American soil, well away from the tainted values of this old-fashioned continent. I am more than capable of providing for my family. Let’s not talk about it anymore, please.”
As Elizabeth calmed down under her soothing touch, Catherine grabbed the opportunity to say her piece. She was radiant, her soft golden curls cascading over her delicate shoulders.
Guillaume could not help but smile at her. He loved her with all his heart. Initially drawn in by her sheer beauty and delicacy like that of an antique sculpture, he had soon been won over by her warm heart, her intelligence and her vitality.
“Mother, Father, this discussion is exhausting me. We will write to you, I promise. My husband and I are eager to follow our dream. Why would you oppose it?”
The butler busied himself around the table, on which the silverware and crystal glasses did their best to outshine each other. The wind was howling in the chimneys and, despite the fires lit in the dining room and the adjoining large drawing room, it sounded as if a pack of wolves were prowling around the castle.
A torrential downpour was now streaming down the high slate roofs, cascading from the zinc guttering and swamping the lawns.
“Dear Lord, this is no longer a storm, but a tempest! You should really stay here tonight,” proposed Adela. “It will soon be nightfall. Jerome, ask Madeleine to prepare a room, with a lit fire and warmed sheets, and tell her to make up a bed for Miss Elizabeth in the nursery.”
“Yes, Madam,” answered the servant.
“Mother, stop making our decisions for us!” protested Catherine. “The horse-drawn carriage that the doctor lent us has a wax-covered canvas hood which is virtually waterproof. We had intended to return to the Duquesnes’ house. But I am happy to spend the night at the castle. Tomorrow morning, we will have to say our goodbyes, and perhaps we will all be in better spirits then.”
Adela was delighted at the extra time she had gained. A lot could happen in a few hours; it might be enough to change their minds.
A truce was established, over liqueurs to aid digestion of the golden-crusted roast veal and meringue tarts they had just eaten. While sipping a blackcurrant liqueur, Hugues Laroche was silently seeking ways in which to prevent his daughter and granddaughter from leaving. He refused to imagine them at sea, let alone on the streets of New York.
“Guillaume, son-in-law,” he began, having emptied his glass, “I apologize to you. Put yourself in my shoes. As soon as we sat down at the table, you announced to me that you would be sailing from Le Havre in four days’ time. I had every reason to be upset! This is such a serious undertaking that I would have appreciated discussing it with you and Catherine beforehand. The harm is done, and I have made some unpleasant remarks about you. Please forgive me.”
“I forgive you, Sir.”
“Let me be frank. I was upset and most disagreeable at the beginning of your marriage. However, you must grant me one thing: I gave in when I saw that it was a love match. Now, let’s get to the heart of the problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I were to offer you a future on the estate? You would become my partner, and move into the castle, which has some very comfortably furnished rooms. My daughter would return to the lifestyle to which she is accustomed and the baby would be born in the best conditions. We would share both the workload and the profits.”
Catherine was astounded. She understood the magnitude of her father’s proposal. The intransigent winegrower had never made such an offer in the past. He usually made no secret of his contempt for his son-in-law.
Guillaume would be stupid to refuse such an offer, thought Adela to herself, her eyes gleaming with hope. My Lord, they are going to stay, I am certain of it.
“That’s very generous of you, Sir,” replied the carpenter politely. “But I don’t wish to run your vineyards or to avail myself of your generosity. I love my job, and the New World is beckoning me. My wife, our children and I will build a new life there for ourselves, without relying on anyone else. I’m sorry.”
Catherine, feeling relieved, straightened up. She could almost feel the sea breeze on her forehead and cheeks. Her rush of joy didn’t go unnoticed, but her father concealed his irritation with a resigned smile.
“Deep down, you are an arrogant man, Guillaume,” he said, “which is often a key to success. You are proud, too, and I cannot reproach you for that. I had hoped we would find some common ground, but well, we’ll have to leave it at that.”
Guillaume nodded in agreement but gave Catherine an amused look. Nothing could have changed the minds of the young couple, who shared the same desire for freedom and discovery.
Elizabeth returned to her chair. She finished her meringue tart, comforted by the certainty that her parents loved her and would take her with them.
Every evening for the past two weeks, she had listened to them explaining how their grand sea voyage would unfold. Catherine had enchanted her with epic descriptions. She had shown her pictures of the immense blue-and-green ocean, with its waves of white foam. There were images of seagulls too, a species unknown in Charente.
Guillaume had found a photograph of a liner, to explain to his daughter that they would spend ten days on a gigantic boat, akin to a huge floating house.
Elizabeth’s new-found peace of mind vanished when Madeleine, the Laroches’ housekeeper, pulled her chair back. The twenty-eight-year-old robust peasant woman had a piercing gaze. She wore a small white bonnet over her chestnut hair, which was tied at the nape of her neck.
“I must put you to bed, Miss,” she said.
Catherine, used to putting her daughter to bed herself, made a gesture in protest, but Adela intervened:
“Madeleine will take good care of Elizabeth; the two of us need to talk. You were raised that way, have you forgotten? Children this age need to go to bed early to get enough rest.”
“I remember it perfectly,” retorted Catherine. “In the summer, I spent my evenings bored in bed whilst you received guests in the garden, under the lanterns. I could hear the music, and I felt sad about being left out of the festivities. It was even worse in wintertime, when I used to be very afraid, up there alone, with the wind howling in the fireplace, just like it did this evening. In fact, I felt less alone at boarding school.”
“Is it my fault that I couldn’t give you brothers and sisters?” complained her mother. “Please, don’t be so sensitive. Say good night to Elizabeth.”
Disgruntled, Catherine yielded. At dawn, they would be leaving. Never again would anyone impose such silly rules on her.
“Elizabeth, my darling, you follow Madeleine. Do as she tells you, say your prayers and go to sleep. I’ll come and see you when I come up to bed.” Then she cuddled her daughter and kissed her repeatedly, in an effort to comfort her.
“Mummy, you will come, won’t you?” Elizabeth asked worriedly.
“I thought our little doll had lost her tongue,” guffawed Hugues Laroche. “But no, she can talk, all right.”
“Elizabeth is no doll, Sir,” said Guillaume with indignation. “With us, at home, she is very talkative and curious about everything. We are proud to say that she can now read simple phrases without our help.”
The winegrower was about to reply, but a dreadful noise prevented him from doing so. It was as though a section of roof had caved in, or doors and windows had been smashed.
“Good God, what was that?” cried Adela, panic-stricken. “I thought the storm was over!”
“Something has obviously been struck by lightning,” replied her husband.
The butler ran towards them, pale-faced and wide-eyed. He bowed to his employers.
“Sir, Madam, I have just heard from Vincent, as he was coming back from the stable, that the great fir tree has fallen against the turret!”
“Good Lord, that tree was two hundred years old!” lamented Laroche as he jumped up. “Forgive me for being pessimistic, but this doesn’t bode well. I need to examine the damage.”
“I’ll come with you,” offered Guillaume at once.
Adela did not move but reached out towards Catherine and grasped her hand. Madeleine, unfazed by these events, led the little girl out of the dining room and towards the Laroches’ grand entrance hall—a 12th-century Romanesque reception room which provided access to the drawbridge. The Laroches never missed an opportunity to remind their guests of the rich historical legacy of the former fortress, which the locals of Guerville respectfully called “the castle”.
Elizabeth turned to look at her mother one last time. She would have liked to stay on her lap or go upstairs with her. The unwelcoming dining room suddenly seemed like a cosy refuge to her. Oil lamps cast a soft yellow glow on the heavy wooden furniture.
“Come on, Miss, we must hurry,” ordered the housekeeper.
Once they got to the entrance hall, which was decorated with potted plants and mirrors, the little girl slowed right down. The walls, covered in panels of red velvet, featured a collection of hunting trophies. Elizabeth had not noticed them upon her arrival. There, under the flickering candlelight, she gazed at these poor, unfortunate beasts with frozen eyes of coloured glass.
She could see a wild boar, a deer and a few roebucks. Reminded of the graceful creatures that often wandered near the castle to drink from the river there, she grew even sadder.
“It was the master of the castle, your grandfather, who killed them, Miss,” added the housekeeper reverently. “But he stuffs only the finest ones!”
As she climbed the countless steps leading to the bedrooms, Elizabeth was overcome with exhaustion. She couldn’t stop yawning on the way up to the first floor. Eventually they arrived at the nursery, and Madeleine pushed her inside. Now that she was far away from the stern glances of her employers, her sweet manners and docile appearance had vanished.
“Get to bed quickly,” she said harshly. “You’ve been such a nuisance to us tonight.”
The fire, lit only five minutes ago, had not had time to warm up the room, which was illuminated only by a nearly burnt-out candle.
“Of course, you’ll need a nightshirt,” said the housekeeper impatiently.
“I’ve got one on under my dress.”
“Oh, so you’ve found your tongue, have you? Yes, that’ll do, take everything else off. I put two blankets on your cot, so you won’t be cold.”
“Are you angry?”
The frankness of the question surprised Madeleine somewhat. She was wary of the little girl.
“Angry or not, I don’t have the time to take care of you. I have more than enough work to keep me busy from morning to night. Besides, Vincent is waiting for me for our card game.”
“Who is Vincent?”
“The stable hand, who also brings the wood up to the bedrooms. Have you finished interrogating me now, you nasty little girl?”
Elizabeth had to hold back her tears, distressed by the housekeeper’s attitude towards her. Without a word, she let Madeleine undress her. Suddenly she let out a cry, as she glimpsed two people a few steps away—a woman and a child, who were moving around, handling clothes.
“Look over there,” she stuttered. “People!”
“I despair of you, child. How silly you are!” scoffed Madeleine. “It’s only you and I in the mirror, you simpleton. Have you never seen a mirror before? Move forward a bit.”
The child knew what a mirror was, but the one used by her parents was round, and the size of a dinner plate. Catherine showed the girl her reflection in it every Sunday morning, before going to church, which amused her.
This time it was different. She could see herself from head to toe, in her white strappy nightdress. Her eyes looked bigger, her cheeks and chin fuller. She observed her brown curls, the pink ribbon that held them back from her face, and finally recognized herself.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” laughed the housekeeper. “Now, go to bed.”
“But I have to say my prayers!”
“You will say them in your bed—do you hear me? I’m in a hurry.”
Madeleine helped her get in between the icy sheets, which had not been touched by a warming pan. Then she crouched down near the fireplace, and energetically worked the bellows. Bright yellow flames flared up.
“I’ll blow out the candle, but the fire will serve as a night light,” she called out. “You are not to be pitied, child! There are those who are worse off than you. And I’m warning you, if you tell your mother how I’ve spoken to you, then heaven help you! I know some bad spells, to punish children who talk too much. Oh yes, I can pull maggots out of your mouth and earthworms out of your ears. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” whispered the terrified little girl, as she hoisted the blanket up to her nose.
She was struggling to understand Madeleine’s apparent anger towards her but decided to put her stern voice and nervous gestures down to the rumblings and fury of the evening’s storm.
Deep down inside, Elizabeth blamed the sinister castle for all her misfortunes. No good could ever happen here. She had seen enough proof of that, be it her grandfather’s hollering and banging on the table, or her grandmother’s frostiness.
“Mummy,” she called out softly. “Mummy, please come.”
Madeleine heard her from the doorway of the nursery and scowled at her sternly.
“Your mother has better things to do! Now get some sleep.”
She closed the door behind her. The fire sparked and crackled, but this was of little solace to the child. Her wide-eyed gaze took in the huge white curtains that obscured the windows. She thought she could see them shaking slightly, so she stopped looking at them. Her eyes focused on the decorative plasterwork adorning the four corners of the room instead, but amidst the arabesque swirls she imagined she could see spiders crouching.
Finally, she sought comfort from a tall wardrobe with a triangular front pediment. The doors shimmered in the shadows and then slowly opened. Elizabeth was terrified. Her little body heaved with sobbing.
“Mummy! Daddy!” she moaned.
Nobody came to her rescue.
Catherine, who had joined her husband and father in the small drawing room they referred to as the smoking room, was oblivious to her daughter’s torment. Despite the unpleasant stench of the tobacco smoke, she snuggled up to Guillaume, always eager to be at his side. Both men had just returned inside, their hair glistening with rain.
“I am sick to the stomach,” said Hugues Laroche. “That mighty fir tree was the emblem of our estate. To think that it was already in the ground when Louis XIV, the Sun King, visited our castle!”
“It is quite possible—the tree was more than two hundred years old,” confirmed the young carpenter. “But it broke only halfway up, so it won’t die.”
“Regardless, it will have to be cropped right down to the ground, to preserve the beauty of the park,” sighed Laroche. “I’ll plant another one, even if I won’t live to see it grow to that size.”
“Father dear, I’m so sorry. Please don’t be sad,” exclaimed Catherine.
“My only consolation would be to keep all three of you and the unborn child here with me,” he said solemnly. “If you have a son and Guillaume accepted my offer, I could die in peace, knowing the castle and vineyards were in good hands.”
The young woman smiled. She broke out of her husband’s embrace to give her father a hug.
“You’re only fifty-two years old, Father. You’ll be running this estate for a long time to come!”
“How can I be sure, my dear? Remember the words of the Gospel. We know neither the day nor the hour when the Lord will beckon us. But anyway, I’ve given up trying to convince you. The die is cast, and I know perfectly well that nothing will keep you on French soil.”
Adela entered the room at that moment. She flapped her hand in front of her face, to indicate her disgust at the cigar smoke. At once, Hugues Laroche tossed his cigar into the fire.
“Let’s return to the dining room,” he said. “Jerome will bring us some champagne. We might as well toast your departure.”
Catherine and Guillaume exchanged a relieved glance. The evening had ended on a positive note for them.
“I hope Elizabeth isn’t waiting for me,” lamented the young mother. “I’m sure she would have been happier sleeping with us.”
“Good heavens! A child of her age, sleeping in your bed?!” said Adela, outraged.
“Just this once, we wouldn’t have minded,” exclaimed Catherine. “In our home in Montignac, I set up a small room for her, adjoining our room. She’s not been sleeping well for days now.”
“It’s not surprising. The prospect of the voyage has undoubtedly unsettled her,” commented Guillaume.
The conversation dried up after this. Hugues Laroche embraced his daughter, putting an arm around her waist. He had a profound need to touch her, to feel her physical presence and smell her delicate lavender scent.
“And if you need anything,” he whispered in her ear, “write to me, Catherine, and I’ll see you’re looked after. You can come back whenever you want. My offer stands for as long as I have any breath in my body.”
“Father, you have such a kind heart underneath your suit of armour,” she replied softly. “Thank you very much. Don’t worry about a thing. We are so excited about discovering New York together. Yesterday morning, we had a good laugh about this extraordinary honeymoon!”
“Your honeymoon!” repeated Adela bitterly. “Was it our fault that you refused to go to Italy? It was our gift to you, but no! You preferred to spend a week on the banks of the Charente river, renovating that shabby house you were going to live in.”
Catherine refrained from answering her mother, who she suspected was on the verge of tears of anger and frustration. She simply kissed her on the cheek.
Obeying Adela’s mumbled order, the butler rushed to get the champagne. Madeleine ran into him in the hallway. She winked at him before entering the dining room.
“Madam, Miss Elizabeth has recited her prayers and is already asleep,” she announced, staring at Catherine.
“Thank you for taking care of her,” said Catherine politely. “I was afraid she would be scared, all alone upstairs.”
“Oh no, Madam. I sat by her bedside, but she was tired,” lied the housekeeper, doing her utmost to ingratiate herself before leaving the room.
Indeed, nothing could have been further from the truth, for on the first floor of the castle, in the nursery, Elizabeth was experiencing the fright of her life. She was convinced she could see the doors of the wardrobe open and close at a steady pace. At first, she hid under the sheets, calling out to her mother repeatedly. But then, she started watching the piece of furniture in fascination through the lacquered wooden bars of her cot, lying in wait for the mysterious back-and-forth movement of the doors.
She no longer had the strength to scream or shout, convinced that at the slightest noise, a monster would emerge and pounce on her. She couldn’t stop herself crying and sniffing, and tried to stifle the sound of her sobs by covering her mouth with a trembling hand.
To make matters worse, the orange flames of the fire were dying out. The child, faced with the onslaught of darkness, began to pray. She could have tried to get up or run away, but she didn’t dare to leave her refuge.
She panicked as one of the wardrobe’s doors truly did open. The hanging clothes stirred and a hand emerged.
“You’re crying,” said a barely audible voice. “Don’t cry!”
Elizabeth clumsily drew a sign of the cross in the air. The tales her Grandpa Toine used to tell her while sitting around the fire sprang up in her frightened little mind; the Montignac miller had conjured up all sorts of dangerous creatures.
There was the witch with the iron hook, lurking at the bottom of the well, who would catch any curious little children who were leaning over the dark abyss. Despite Guillaume’s objections, he would also tell the girl that some men turned into werewolves at night and devoured anyone they caught in the woods.
And yet, Elizabeth wasn’t sure if a monster would speak in such a soft voice and tell its victim not to cry. She sat up and scrutinized the figure that slipped out of the wardrobe.
“I think I frightened you,” murmured a boy in a long white shirt.
“Yes, you did!” she whispered.
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