The Mistress of Tall Acre

By: Laura Frantz



They withdrew out the front door while he went out the back, which was flung open to the river and leading to Tall Acre’s dependencies. At his appearance, the steamy kitchen at the end of a shaded colonnade came to a standstill.

“Why, General Ogilvy, looks like you mustered up a fine baby.” Ruby, his longtime cook, hastily left the hearth as the other servants looked on. She leaned near, and one ebony finger caressed a petal-soft cheek. “She’s got your blue eyes and black hair, but I see the mistress in her pert nose and mouth.”

The maids and housekeeper gathered round next on the rear veranda, cooing and sighing like the dovecote’s doves. Next he went to the stables, a fatherly pride swelling his chest. By the time he returned to his study, his daughter had slept through a brief meeting with his estate manager and a first look at a prize foal. Completely smitten, he crossed to a wing chair in his study, reluctant to let her go.

“You’re only a few hours old and already you’ve worked your way into my heart.” His voice was a ragged whisper. “But there are some things you need to know. I don’t want to leave you. I’m willing to die for you . . . and if I don’t come back, I want you to forgive me.”

The choked words staunched none of the pain. His daughter opened wide indigo eyes and stared up at him, as if she understood every syllable. He pressed his damp, unshaven cheek to hers, savoring the feathering of her warm breath on his face. Her flawlessness turned him inside out.

“Till we meet again, Lily Cate Ogilvy of Tall Acre. Never forget your loving father’s words.”





2





OCTOBER 1783

Thank you, Lord, for an abundance of chestnuts.

The spiny treasures were strewn over the brittle October ground, thick as autumn leaves and hers for the taking. Light-headed from hunger, Sophie Menzies dropped to her knees, adding to her burgeoning basket. Her stomach growled in anticipation, gnawing from her navel to her backbone where fraying stays cinched tight. The burrs she gathered had just burst open, tickling her palm and begging for roasting.

Her only rival was a chattering, scolding squirrel.

Making a face at him, she succumbed to visions of chestnut pudding and steaming pots of tea. Not the weak, flavorless bohea tea of the Revolution but the forbidden Hyson she favored. Nary a drop had crossed her lips these eight years past. Would it ever? Tea seemed a luxury never to be had again.

When she looked up again, the sun was setting in back of Tall Acre, burnishing the brick a warm honey-gold. Sitting proudly at the end of its alley of Black Heart cherry trees, the old house looked more alive than it had in years, puffing gray smoke into clear autumn skies, its scrolled iron gates open wide.

Had General Ogilvy come home?

The snap of a twig snuffed her wondering. Scrambling to her feet, Sophie spun around. A tiny girl in a linen dress stood looking at her, fingers clutching the edges of a fine cambric apron.

Sophie smiled, trying to place her. “Good day.”

“Good day,” the child echoed. “Is this your woods or mine?”

Smile fading, Sophie surveyed the sagging fence that kept trespassers from Ogilvy land. “I believe the creek over there”—she pointed to a rutted ribbon of dust and rock, bone dry in late fall—“marks the boundary line between Three Chimneys and Tall Acre.”

The girl looked down. Nested in her lovely apron were more nuts. She came forward and added them to Sophie’s basket. Up close, Sophie felt a stirring of recognition.

Could this be the general’s daughter? The one she’d helped her mother deliver years ago? The past reached out and yanked her back to anguished moans and the genteel woman who’d nearly died giving birth. Sophie studied the child’s comely features, longing for a name though none was needed. The girl had her father stamped all over her. “Thank you, Miss . . . ?”

“Lilias Catherine Ogilvy.” The child dropped a curtsey, her eyes huge beneath her ruffled cap. “But everyone calls me Lily Cate. I’m not yet six years old.”

Sophie smiled. How could she have forgotten so bonny a name? “Well, Miss Lily Cate who is not yet six, you’re very kind, but I have so many chestnuts. You’re welcome to as many as you like.”

“Oh, I just like to hunt them. But you—you look like you need them.”

Biting her lip, Sophie hid a rueful smile. If her wants were obvious even to a child . . . “I’m glad you’ve come back to Tall Acre. ’Tis good to have neighbors again.”

Lily Cate stayed solemn. “The general tells me to mind my manners. He’ll want to know who I met in the woods today.”

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