Soon, she spotted the spire of a church, and when they rounded the bend she realized they had reached a small town. Gilbert kept walking past shops that were only just opening and toward what appeared to be stables.
He paused at large wooden doors. “Stay here.”
“Where are you going?” Panic cut through her as she realized he might very well be leaving her.
“Are you coming back for me?”
His brow wrinkled. “Yes, of course.”
She did not trust him, but she had no choice but to hope he would help her.
And then, as if sensing her worry, added, “Oscar will stay with you.”
She nestled closer to the dog as Gilbert vanished into the barn and minutes later appeared with a horse and carriage. He lifted the dog into the front seat and then helped her climb up beside the animal before taking his seat along with the reins.
He maneuvered the cart out of town, nodding to some of the residents who watched him and her with blatant curiosity. She nestled closer to Oscar and focused on the gentle back and forth motion of the cart.
The road took them past freshly moonlit harvested fields and then finally toward twin carved pillars. He drove the cart down the driveway lined with tall trees surrounded by fallen apples at their bases.
“Mimi said you grew apples,” she said.
“What do you do with them?”
“I press them into juice and distill it.”
Diane straightened stiff shoulders as a large brick and stone house ringed by a strip of water and a limestone wall came into view. The house was three stories high with over a dozen tall windows. Broad chimneys that stretched up to a high-pitched roof covered in slate tiles stood on both ends of the house. Smoke rose lazily from the chimneys.
“Is that your house?” Diane said.
“Yes.” His answer might have been abrupt, but pride had him sitting a little taller.
“Is this what a castle looks like?” Diane wondered.
He arched a brow. “No.”
“It looks like a castle to me.” In truth, she had never seen a place so lovely.
Gilbert extended a gloved hand to her and she took it, wondering if it were possible to be so tired. He grabbed her small sack and strode toward the front door fashioned of wide planks and darkened iron.
“Are you sure it’s not a castle?” Diane asked.
“How do you know?”
“Castles are too large and drafty.”
Gilbert pounded on the door as the dog ran off into the woods barking. Another light flickered inside and the knob twisted and then slowly opened to a small woman. She had gray hair braided into a thin plate, a pale face etched with deep lines and gnarled hands that held a candle up. Images of Old Mother Hubbard from her mother’s nursery book came to mind.
“Gilbert, I was becoming concerned,” The old woman’s gaze never left Diane. “Who is this?”
“This is a girl,” he said. “Girl, this is Madame Herbert.”
The old woman’s expression soured. “I can see this is a girl. Does she have a name? Is this the child Madame LeBlanc wrote about?”
“I suppose she is.”
The woman pulled Diane inside and closer to the warm fire. Madame Herbert inspected her with a critical eye that grew more concerned when she saw the thin fabric of her coat and the soiled edges of her white dress. “She does look a little like your aunt. Those eyes could be hers. Oh my, I never believed it, but perhaps that terrible woman was right, and this girl is your cousin.”
“She’s not,” Gilbert insisted. “She told me her mother was another woman.”
“Girl, you’re sure your mother is not Louise?” Madame Herbert asked.
“Yes,” Diane said.
“How old are you?” the woman asked.
“Not ten?” the old woman asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure of my age,” Diane said softly.
“You’re so small,” the old woman said.
“I think Madame LeBlanc did not feed her,” Gilbert said. “When I gave her bread, she ate it as if she were half starved.”
The old woman tugged Diane into the kitchen. In the center of the room was a long wooden table, nicked and scarred by what must have been years’ worth of meals. The scent of rising dough, cinnamon and apples enveloped Diane as her stomach grumbled. There was a black metal oven with a tea kettle on top and several skinned chickens hung from a rafter over a worn slate floor.
The woman placed her at a table in front of a large brick hearth with its fire glowing inside. She unwrapped a loaf of bread wrapped in a red and white checkered cloth. Using a large knife with a carved wooden handle, she sliced the bread in a quick sawing motion. She set it on a blue and white porcelain plate along with a thick piece of cheese in front of Diane.
“You saw Max?” she asked Gilbert.
Motioning her to eat, the old woman said, “How is dear Max?”
“He’s well.” Gilbert walked toward an iron stove and reached for the kettle.
The old woman nudged him away, as she made him a hot cup of tea and then handed it to him in a worn earthenware mug. “And where is that hateful Madame LeBlanc?”