The Mistress of Tall Acre

By: Laura Frantz


We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred honor.


On this day, 8 August, 1778, a child was safely delivered . . .

Nay, not safely. Anything but safely.

. . . to Anne Howard Ogilvy and Seamus Michael Ogilvy of Tall Acre, Roan County, Virginia.

Dropping his quill pen, Seamus ran callused hands through hair bereft of a queue ribbon and watched a stray droplet of ink soak into the scarred desktop. Steadying his breathing, he picked up the pen and pressed on as if time was against him.

The infant’s name is . . .

The heavy scratch of the nib against the family Bible’s fragile page was halted by a knock on his study door. A servant to tell him he could finally see his firstborn? Or that his wife was dead? Or the both of them?

He called out with a shaky voice, but it was Dr. Spurlock who appeared, shutting the door soundly behind him. “A word with you, General Ogilvy, if I may.” At Seamus’s taut expression, Spurlock gave him a slight smile. “At ease, man, at ease. I’m not the undertaker.”

Pulling himself to his feet, Seamus came out from behind the desk. “A word and a glass of Madeira are in order, at least.” He went to a near cabinet and filled two crystal goblets as a newborn’s wail rent the summer stillness, sharp and sweet as birdsong.

“’Tis about Anne,” Spurlock said, a careful note to his tone.

Seamus passed him a glass. The doctor looked haggard after the lengthy ordeal, silver hair standing on end, spectacles askew, to say nothing of his waistcoat. Seamus was sure he looked equally unfit, having spent the night in his study.

“I don’t need to tell you what a trial this birth has been. You’ve nearly worn a trail in the floor with your pacing.” Spurlock regarded him with bleary, apologetic eyes. “Your wife is very weak. The baby, being so large, took a toll. Anne is a very narrow woman and continues to bleed heavily.”

Blood. Wounds. Life and death. Seamus was used to such things. These were the staples of a soldier’s life. Childbirth was, in a very real sense, battle. “I trust she’ll recover in time.”

Spurlock frowned. “Mistress Menzies, the midwife, nearly lost her at one point. If not for her presence of mind and the use of my forceps, we’d be having a very different conversation.” He removed his spectacles and began cleaning them with a handkerchief. “On a brighter note, your wife’s sister is coming from Williamsburg to help care for her, though I do worry about you returning to duty so soon.”

“Orders,” Seamus said through a stitch of guilt. “General Washington wants me at reveille come morning.” As it was, he’d have to ride all night to reach camp by the appointed time.

“I speak not only out of concern for your wife but for you, General. I can tell from looking at you that your own health has been compromised.”

Seamus squared his shoulders. “A malaise of war, little more.”

“Spoken like a true soldier.” Spurlock fixed his gaze on an open window. “Very well, I’ll talk plain and fast. Your wife faces a long recovery. She’s always been a bit fragile, a true gentlewoman. And though it will be hard for you to hear, I’m duty bound to tell you her very life will be in danger if there’s a second birth. Mistress Menzies concurs.”

A second birth—and she’d barely withstood the first. The words spun round Seamus’s head but made no sense. Remembering his Madeira, he took a sip, listening as the doctor explained feminine things he didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. Things that made him itch under his uniform collar with a heat that had nothing to do with the humid Virginia afternoon.

“Of course, husbands have certain needs, certain rights, if you will . . .” The doctor’s words were becoming more labored, nearly lost as the babe’s cries reached a crescendo upstairs.

“Say no more,” Seamus replied. Spurlock’s warning was clear as a midsummer day. All marital intimacy was at an end. “As it stands, I’ll be away for the duration of the war.” His outward calm belied the storm breaking inside him. “I won’t—I mean, there won’t be occasion to—” He stared at his boots. “I understand.”

Spurlock nodded and downed the rest of his Madeira. “I knew you’d take it like the officer and gentleman you are. Now, if you’re ready, your wife would like to present you with your firstborn.”

Firstborn. Final born. And a robust daughter at that.

The bedchamber seemed strange since Seamus had been away so long. Stepping inside the elegant green and gilt room brought about unwanted, ill-timed memories—a crush of passionate encounters beginning on their wedding night. It was the eve of the war when he’d wed the belle of Williamsburg, three years later when their daughter was conceived on a hasty visit. He hardly remembered either. War had driven such sentimental things from his head, replacing them with the stench of smoke and powder instead.

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