The Mistress of Tall Acre

By: Laura Frantz

Like the shunned woman she was.

Three Chimneys had seen better days. But then, so had he. Seamus’s gaze roamed the once-grand room, now shabby and frayed as a militiaman’s coat. The milk paint was peeling in places, the Wilton carpet thin, the damask drapes a tired silver-blue. Sophie Menzies’s beautiful home had been used to quarter British soldiers, their angry spur marks cutting across the heart-pine floor beneath his boots. More than a few rooms had been ransacked, or so he’d heard, while Tall Acre sat untouched to the west, a locked treasure chest amidst sheltering trees.

He tunneled a hand through unruly hair, cocked hat tucked under one arm, and wished for a little warmth. The big house was cold and no fire had been laid, nor had there been in recent days. Swept clean without a speck of ash, the tiled hearth looked neat enough to crawl into and nap. He appreciated a good fire and would have lit one himself had there been some wood. In his tenure in the army, the poverty of continual cold outweighed an empty belly every time. Since his return, every chimney at Tall Acre was belching smoke as he vowed he’d never be cold again.

“General Ogilvy, welcome back.”

The gentle voice spun him around. He gave a slight bow, the gallant gesture a bit stiff after so long unpracticed. Should he kiss her hand? But they were caught behind her back, denying him the privilege.

Sophie Menzies was hardly the lass he remembered.

Tall. Slim as a riding whip. Beneath a creamy cap, her hair was caught back, a few sooty strands escaping, framing a milk-glass complexion and a bone structure far too fragile. She was smiling at him, but that seemed fragile too, as if she expected he had come to wipe any fine feeling from the room with dire news.

He reached into his pocket and extracted a small tin of tea. “In honor of war’s end, Miss Menzies. And a reminder of how the whole miserable mess began.”

She took the offering, delight filling in the lean lines of her face. “Thank you.” Bringing the gift to her chest, she held it as if it were worth its weight in gold—which it nearly was. “I’ve had no real tea since ’76.”

Nay? He wagered she’d had no guests since then either. If memory served, Roan folks reviled her father. But he was gone and gone for good, nearly tarred and feathered upon his exit. Perhaps the ill feeling against the Menzies family would follow.

“Would you like refreshments?” Gesturing to twin wing chairs, she invited him to sit. But she was looking at him as if hospitality was the last thing on her mind—and his.

“Nay,” he said abruptly as if communicating to one of his men. She drew back a bit, the play of hope and dismay in her face tugging at him. “Tea then,” he amended reluctantly. Virginia hospitality guaranteed a lengthy visit.

She pulled on a bell cord, making him glad she still had a servant at least. With a swish of her skirts she settled opposite him, tea tin in hand. Best come to the point posthaste.

“I have little news, I’m afraid.” He spoke slowly, trying to let her down gently. “I don’t know of your brother’s whereabouts, though I wish I did. Captain Menzies was under my command until Richmond. Matters became confusing in the aftermath. Men were unaccounted for . . .”

She looked to her lap, struggling visibly for a response. “I’ve heard many soldiers died of disease and others lay aboard prison ships.”

“Aye, but some are on their way home again. Your brother might be one of them. If I hear anything more, you’ll be the first to know.” He eyed the parlor door and changed course. “Is it just you and your housekeeper here, Miss Menzies?”

“I’ve a hired man, Henry.”

A hired man? The one who looked to be a hundred years old? The housekeeper wasn’t much younger. As Seamus thought it, the door pushed open and she appeared, carrying a tea service with shaking hands, the silver slightly tarnished. Thanking her, Sophie popped open the fragrant tin.

When the older woman left, he resumed the thread of conversation. “I remember your mother, Midwife Menzies, helped deliver my daughter.”

“My mother, yes.” She kept her hands busy making the tea, her words surprisingly candid. “She passed away last year. The end of April.”

Had she? He’d lost touch with all sorts of things since he’d left Tall Acre, including his neighbors. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“The doctor said it was her heart. But she was more broken in spirit than body, I think.”

This he understood. He’d lost more men on the field to heartache and hopelessness than enemy fire and disease. Setting his jaw, he watched as Sophie readied chipped china cups. No sugar was in sight, but he liked his tea plain, even if Anne didn’t. Hadn’t. The bruising thought was cut off by the sight of Sophie’s bony, slightly reddened fingers. Not a lady’s hands by any stretch. What exactly had happened to Lord Menzies’s genteel daughter?

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