Chapter 1

Of Maple Trees and Melancholy Maids

Elizabeth Ackerman successfully reached the top of the maple tree, her dress muddied, torn, and in such a state that it could hardly be referred to as such. Glancing down at her four friends, John, Elton, Charlotte, and Clara, she cast them all a sunny smile that relayed the tiniest hint of a smirk.

"Come down at once, Elizabeth!" demanded Clara fiercely, tugging on her straw-colored hair, which had been tied neatly into a bun, "or I shall go and tell Mama on you."

"Do as you wish, Clara Long," was the answer, "but she could do little to rectify the matter save climb up here herself." Lizzy grinned at Elton and John, tossing back two plaited braids of light-brown hair.

"I hope that you do not hurt yourself," Charlotte said, warningly. "Anne and your father would be heartbroken if something were to happen to you."

"But I am an excellent tree-climber, Charlotte," she soothed, "and I shall come down in a few moments, though if I fall, I suspect it will not be all in one piece."

"Elizabeth!" exclaimed little Clara, placing her hands over her ears, "how awful!"

Elton grinned. "That would be quite a spectacle!"

"You shall fall down and hurt yourself!" exclaimed Clara fretfully, twisting her blue muslin dress in evident distress. "And then what shall my Mama say?"

Elizabeth gave a dry laugh. "Do no worry after me, Clara. If I fall, Elton shall catch me. And if he does not catch me, well, I suppose that I shall be very angry."

"If you're alive," retorted John sarcastically.

"And what makes you think that I'll be able to catch you?"inquired Elton teasingly, "for I shan't know which side you might tumble down upon."

"If I fall," replied Elizabeth, "it shall certainly be in the proper manner."

"Oh! Lizzy! I do not know how you shall be a lady with all that energy in you!" exclaimed Charlotte, perching herself on a lower branch of the tree and using it as a makeshift chair.

"Do not fret, Charlotte, dear. If I cannot be a lady, then I shall be a pirate, as it seems a very respectable, agreeable career."

"A pirate is a dirty, black-hearted scoundrel," seethed Clara, "and if you run off and become one than I shall tell Mama directly."

"And what could your mother do to stop me? If I want to be a pirate, than a pirate I shall be. But I shall be a nice pirate, and not run my sword through anyone unless they are cross and disagreeable," reflected the inquisitive sixteen-year old thoughtfully, her hair billowing out of its neat braid and scattering across her tan face.

"Stop teasing her, Lizzy," commanded Elton, scrambling up the tree after her, "or she will cry and ruin our fun."

"I shall cry if you will not come down!" exclaimed Clara, scrunching her face in preparation. "And Geri, the miller's son, will come running to see what is the matter. And he will tell Mama 'rectly he comes."

"Geri is my friend," replied Elizabeth, using her hand to mask her face from the afternoon sun. "He will not tattle upon me. Rather, he will probably join me in my tree-sitting." She looked down upon the nervous eight year old with some empathy. "But, since you appear so worried, I'll oblige you this once and come down." She disappeared underneath the thick, leafy foliage of the tree and wove through the interlacing branches, past Elton, until she succumbed to the end and leaped from the lowest branch, landing on the tightly compacted earth gracefully.

"You see, Clara Marie? No harm done, save a few scratches on my arms and rips at my frock." Elizabeth glanced down at the rags that could hardly be referred to as clothes and sighed cheerfully. "No sense in crying over spilt milk, as Betsey and Rose so eloquently inform me."

Charlotte laughed. "Your mother will be fit to be tied, Lizzy. What a mess you're in!"

"Oh Mama will not fret about me," replied Elizabeth nonchalantly, "for she is too concerned with the recent purchase of Wythorpe Manor by some noble family from the north to care two straws about anything else. Apparently they're very wealthy, which is the principal reason for her enthusiasm." Elizabeth fingered a maple leaf, tearing a hole through the center and casting it aside. She positioned herself on a convenient rock. "Mama is very concerned for our marriage possibilities, though I couldn't care two pigs put together. Pirates needn't get married."

"Hmm?" asked Charlotte, masking her own interest and attempting to appear not in the least surprised.

Elizabeth laughed. "You heard me, Charlotte Aldridge. I said plainly that a affluent family from the north has gone and purchased Wythorpe. I do not know why Mama makes such a large affair of it, after all, she can't marry him!"

"What an unruly girl you are, Lizzy! So ignorant of the matters of marriage and securing a comfortable establishment. You have nothing to worry about the trials of such!"

"No and nor do I care. I shall become a pirate and pirates prefer to catch treasure, not husbands," replied Elizabeth firmly, "and if Mama forces me to marry someone then it will be either John or Elton, for at least I can stand them."

John and Elton chuckled, swinging from the branches of the trees, and vowing never to marry Elizabeth.

"Your mama will most likely compel you to marry William Edgeford if it suits her fancy."

Elizabeth's face turned grim. "I should not marry that toad for all the treasure in the world! And if she should order me in such a task, I should take my plea straight to Papa, who sees and understands my logic." Her chin protruded stubbornly, causing the older girl to laugh.

"You are quite something, Elizabeth. Quite something indeed."

A rustling in the nearby huckleberry bushes alerted the group, and they turned attentively to see who had the gall to trespass on their secret refuge from propriety. Though the boys exclaimed excitedly that it was the infamous Napoleon in person, it was only Elizabeth's elder sister, Anne, bearing with her a wicker basket and a worried expression.

"Elizabeth," she called, glancing worriedly around until she caught sight of her younger sister, "I must speak with you on business that is the utmost of haste."

Lizzy shrugged discontentedly and beckoned that her sister would come closer, wondering upon what arduous task her mother had sent Anne to relay. "Whatever is the matter, Jane. Has Mama fainted in her delight over Wythorpe?"

"Oh, no, nothing of that tendency," replied Anne, eyes wide and completion parched, "For Mama has sent me in great alacrity to fetch you back home." She cast glances above head at Elton and John, who were using their height in the branches of the maple to the advantage of eavesdropping. "She willed me to travel as rapidly as possible, and I have been so terrified! The Wimund's are to dine with this eve. On Mama's part, it was a clandestine invitation, and she has only yet received their answer."

Lizzy sighed. "Only that? I though at least the pigs had got into the garden or something interesting. Just the Wimund's? What a disappointment."

Anne nodded mutely, her golden locks in disarray from her hasty departure from Edinbury, the Ackerman estate, and her pretty face flushed with the exercise that a swift run lends one. "We must leave now."

Elizabeth turned back to her friends, all having overheard at least bits and pieces of the sisters' exchange. "Good-bye, John, Elton. Farewell, Charlotte! And Clara, send my earnest regards to your mother!" She smiled teasingly, her China blue eyes sparkling with laughter.

"Now we may go, Jane. And 'on wings of the swiftest variety'." She started off cheerfully down the woodland path, her plaited braids waving merrily in the soft summer breeze.

"La!" What a state you're in!" Betsy Henderson, one of the Edinbury maids, scrubbed at Elizabeth's muddied face fiercely, causing the poor girl to wince with pain. They were standing in the fading daylight of Elizabeth's room, but a few minutes to rectify Elizabeth's disheveled appearance and ripped dress.

"Shall you scour my face to pieces, dearest of Betsys?" asked Lizzy between scrubbings.

The maid sighed, though considerably loosening her task. "I am sorry, Little Miss, but it is not like you don't deserve it."

"Oh, but I am sorry for getting into the mud and climbing the maple tree," replied Lizzy earnestly, casting the elderly maid a smile that wrought her heart, "but Elton did dare me, and I would have been the utmost of toads if I had refused."

"Oh, Little Miss! What a ball of energy you are," replied Betsy fondly, laying aside the sponge and replacing it with a brush.

Elizabeth winced even harder as the brush attempted to disentangle her tresses, though she bore it bravely enough. "Is Mama going to be angry at me?"

"Not when I complete your toilette. No one will know the secret of your afternoon excursion. You'll look like the lady you are supposed to become."

"But what if I don't want to be a lady, Betsy? What if I wish to become a pirate?"

"La! Miss. Lizzy what ideas have you in that mind of yours?" Betsy completed the brushing and attempted to pin the hair in a neat chignon.

Elizabeth sighed, handing the devoted maid pins. "I was only teasing."

Betsy stood her mistress up, slipping a light blue dress over her scrawny frame. "So skinny, Little Miss, and tan!" She held up Elizabeth's arm disapprovingly and clucked angrily. "Did you not put on that cream that I instructed?"

"It smelled terrible!" exclaimed Elizabeth, wrinkling her nose, "so I gave it to Lydia, who is fully enjoying the advantages of it as we speak." Elizabeth was referring to the youngest of the Ackerman brood, a very young girl of only five, who was already showing signs of becoming a vain, spoiled child.

Betsy continued clucking, straightening the delicate lace wrap around her charge's thin shoulders and securing it with a pearl brooch. "I do not understand why you will not fatten out like Anne, and you shoot up like a wild flower! All your dresses are woebegone from overuse, and in several of them you are too tall to wear!" She adjusted the lace wrap meticulously.

"But Betsy I can't help growing," replied Lizzy, in a melancholy voice, "and I'll never be as plump and pretty as Anne. Even Mama says so."

Betsy turned her attention to a stray hair that had been bold enough to leave the others. "Do not fret about you not being pretty, Little Miss," she assured her charge, "for you will be a beautiful young woman, if you cease to tan so easily and quit running about like a ruffian."

Elizabeth tapped her foot impatiently, waiting as the maid painstakingly adjusted ever aspect of her garment and toilette. A sigh escaped her lips and she hummed a tune that she had recently learnt upon the piano-forte underneath her breath.

"There!" Betsy stepped back to admire her handiwork, "oh, Little Miss, you look lovely!"

Elizabeth glanced momentarily at her reflection and shrugged. "I hope that these Wimund creatures won't all be toads." She hopped down from her position and gave her favorite servant a big hug. "You've been wonderful, Betsy. As usual." She flashed her maid a grin. "Now I'll just have to behave myself!"

Betsy watched as her young charge cheerfully departed from the room, hoping, rather than believing, that Elizabeth could escape from mischief for even the tiniest sliver of time.