HERE BURNS MY CANDLE
Liz Curtis Higgs
About the Book
Reading Group Guide
Night’s black mantle covers all alike.
GUILLAUME DE SALLUSTE DU BARTAS
Milne Square, Edinburgh
14 September 1745
Lady Marjory Kerr heard a frantic tapping at the bedchamber door, then her name, spoken with marked urgency.
“News from the Royal Bank, mem.”
At this hour? Marjory lifted her head from the pillow, her gaze drawn to the wooden shutters, closed for the night. The coals in the fireplace had faded to a dull glow. She squinted but could not read the clock on the mantelpiece. Had she slept at all?
“What is it, Peg?” Marjory called out.
Her maidservant answered in a breathless rush of words, “They’re moving the bank’s effects to the castle.”
The hair on the back of Marjory’s neck rose. Transporting money and documents from the foot of New Bank Close to Edinburgh Castle involved a long climb up a winding street where brigands and thieves lurked in the shadows. The Royal Bank would never embark on so risky a venture. Not unless the day’s alarming reports had proven true.
“ ’Tis the Hielanders,” Peg whispered through the crack in the door as if the word itself might bring a hoard of savages thundering up the stair, brandishing their swords. “Folk say the rebel army will reach Linlithgow by morn.”
At that, Marjory flung off her bedcovers, any notion of sleep forgotten. Linlithgow Palace was less than twenty miles west. The army was too near her door. And far too near her sons, one of whom stood ready to bear arms at the slightest provocation. Was there nothing she could say to dissuade him?
She hurried across the carpet barefooted, too distraught to hunt for her brocade slippers. All of Edinburgh had followed the ominous approach of the Highland rebels led by their bonny Prince Charlie. Determined to reclaim the British throne for his exiled father, James --- Jacobus in Latin --- the young prince and his loyal Jacobites were marching toward Scotland’s capital, intent on capturing the city.
“May it not be so,” Marjory said under her breath, then swept open the bedchamber door to find her maidservant perched on the threshold, her linen cap askew, her brown eyes filled with fear.
“What are we to do, Leddy Kerr?”
“Bolt the door at once.” Marjory tightened the ribbons on her sleeping jacket, warding off the night air that seeped in, however fast the shutters. Her trembling had nothing to do with the fearsome Highlanders, she told herself. Nae, not for a moment. “Make haste, lass.”
She watched Peg scurry through the darkened drawing room into the entrance hall, holding aloft her candle stub, which cast a pale circle of light on her tattered nightgown. Small for her seventeen years, with hair the color of a dull copper ha’penny, Peg Cargill was hardly a beauty. Her eyes were set unbecomingly close together, and her small nose disappeared amid a sea of freckles.
By the fire’s glow Marjory caught a glimpse of herself in the silvery looking glass by her side. She quickly turned away but not before her thoughts came round to taunt her. Hardly a beauty. She touched her thinning crown of hair and her sagging chin, then sighed, wishing the glass offered better news. Had it not always been thus?
In her youth few gentlemen had taken note of her until they learned she was the daughter of Sir Eldon Nesbitt. Even then their gazes had fallen on her father’s impressive property rather than on her unremarkable face or figure. Time had not improved matters.
Peg reappeared, bobbing a curtsy. “ ’Tis done, milady.”
Marjory gestured toward the adjoining chambers, where her sons and their wives had retired for the night. “Have you told the others the news?”
“Nae.” A faint blush tinted Peg’s cheek. “I heard them…that is…Mr. Kerr…”
“See they’re not disturbed,” Marjory said firmly, wanting no details.
“And keep the stair door bolted.” She dismissed the girl with a nod, then locked the chamber door behind her. Let the Highlanders storm the crumbling walls of Edinburgh. They would not gain entrance to the Kerrs’ apartments. Mr. Baillie, the merchant who owned her residence, would see to that.
Alone once more Marjory lit a candle at the fireplace, then drew a steadying breath and knelt beside the canopied bed, as if preparing to offer her nightly prayers. Instead, she reached down and loosened one of the boards along the edge of the thick, woven carpet. Her servants, even her family members, believed the Kerr fortune rested safely among the Royal Bank’s effects, now bound for the castle. She alone knew the truth. Lord John Kerr had never trusted banks.
The board gave way, revealing a musty repository between the joists. Marjory bent closer, her nose wrinkling at the dank smell, her eyes seeking a cluster of leather purses in the flickering candlelight. There. The mere sight of them put her mind at ease. Nearly two dozen purses lay hidden beneath her chamber floor --- a tribute to God’s provision and her late husband’s prudence.
She chose the nearest one, taking pleasure in its weight before slowly emptying the purse onto her bedding. One hundred gold guineas poured out, each coin stamped with the profile of her sovereign, King George. Marjory counted the lot, then set aside a few guineas for the coming week’s expenses and returned the bulging purse to its nesting place.
Greengrocers and fishmongers expected payment upon purchase. But mantua makers gladly extended credit if the Kerr women might display their gowns at the next public ball. Although a nervous town council might demand its citizens remain withindoors, ending their festive Thursday evenings at Assembly Close…
Nae, surely not!
Marjory sank onto the edge of her bed with a soft groan. What a dreary social season lay ahead with the rebel army afoot! No weekly visits to Lady Woodhall’s drawing room to share cups of tea and savory tidbits of gossip. No rainy afternoons spent with Lady Falconer, listening to country airs sung by a daughter of the gentry. No rounds of whist in the affable company of Lord Dun. Nothing but royalist dragoons patrolling the High Street, bayonets at the ready.
A sharp knock at the adjoining bedchamber door made her jump, nearly spilling the handful of guineas from the bed onto the carpet. “Who is it?” she asked, unhappy with herself for sounding frightened.
“Donald,” came the low reply.
Lightheaded with relief and grateful for his company, Marjory deposited the money on her dressing table and ushered her older son within, then closed the door as quickly as she’d opened it. With no central hallway in their apartments, each room had adjoining doors, one chamber leading to the next. Even among Edinburgh’s wealthiest residents, privacy was rare.
“Forgive the intrusion, Mother.” He looked down at her, candle in hand, his smooth brow gleaming. The cambric loosely tied at his neck could not hide the sharp lines of his collarbones. Ten years of dining on Edinburgh’s finest mutton and beef, and still his frame remained as slender as a youth’s. “ ’Tis late, I know,” he apologized.
“The hour matters not.” Marjory touched his cheek affectionately, struck afresh by the family resemblance. Donald had the same long nose Lord John once had, the same thin-lipped smile. “Look how the father’s face lives in his issue,” she quoted, testing him. It was a favorite pastime between mother and son.
“Ben Jonson,” he answered, naming the playwright without hesitation.
Few gentlemen in Edinburgh were better read than Lord Donald. She’d made certain of it. Heir to the Kerr title and lands, he’d proven himself an attentive son and a faithful husband. If he was not yet a doting father, that was no fault of his.
“Still in your boots,” Marjory observed. “I thought you’d be off to bed by now.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. “I will be shortly.” He scanned the chamber, his gaze finally landing on the pile of coins glimmering in the candlelight. “Do you think it wise to leave your gold where anyone might find it?”
Donald not only looked like his father; he sounded like him. Marjory swept the coins into her silk-fringed reticule and pulled the drawstrings taut. “We have far greater worries this night. The rebel army is nearing Linlithgow.”
“Aye, Gibson told me.” The stoic Neil Gibson, manservant to the household, took pride in keeping Donald and his younger brother well groomed and well informed. “I’ve come to put your mind at ease, Mother.”
“I see.” She chose her next words with care, keeping her tone light. “Does that mean you’ll not be joining the Gentlemen Volunteers?” She watched his blue eyes for a flicker of interest. Hundreds of young men had enlisted in support of the royalist troops, many from Edinburgh’s finest families. Lord willing, her sons would not be numbered among the recruits.
“I’ve no such plans,” Donald confessed, “though I cannot speak for Andrew. You know his penchant for flintlock muskets.”
She did know, much as it grieved her. Lord John had urged their second son to pursue a career in the military, despite her motherly protests. Pistols, swords, and a dozen French muskets decorated Andrew’s bedchamber walls. Even walking past his many weapons unnerved her. Monsieur Picard, their fencing master, had trained the lads well. But he’d
done so for sport, not for battle.
That very afternoon Andrew had observed the Volunteers drilling in the College Yards. Marjory had counted the hours until he returned home for supper, then listened with a heavy heart as he regaled the family with stories of grizzled sergeants marching the lads through their paces. “Have no fear,” Andrew had said soothingly at table. “The Lord Provost took no notice of me, Mother.”
She was unconvinced then and even less so now, with his older brother paying a late-night visit. “I have your word?” she prompted Donald. “You’ll not encourage Andrew to take up arms against the Highland rebels?”
He brushed aside her concerns. “Whatever you say.”
Donald began circling her chamber, with its oil paintings and Chinese porcelain, its silk bed hangings and red lacquer commode. Piece by piece she’d had her favorite plenishings delivered from Tweedsford, their estate in the Borderland, until their rented Edinburgh rooms were filled to bursting.
When Donald paused at one of her windows and unfastened the painted shutter, Marjory’s breath caught. Might a Jacobite spy be abroad at this hour? Pale and fair-haired, Donald would be easily spotted from the High Street below.
“No moon in sight,” he observed, resting his forehead lightly on the glass. “No Highlanders either.”
“They’ll arrive soon enough.” Marjory extinguished the candle by her bed, shrouding the room in darkness. “Sleep while you can, Donald. And keep that bonny wife of yours close at hand.”
“Aye.” The smile in his voice was unmistakable. “So I shall.”
He left by way of the drawing room door rather than the one leading to his bedchamber. Bound for the kitchen, no doubt. He’d eaten very little at supper. Mrs. Edgar, their housekeeper, would not let him retire on an empty stomach.
Marjory closed the shutters, then returned to bed, determined to sleep however dire the news. Her beloved sons were safe beneath her roof. Nothing else mattered.
Excerpted from HERE BURNS MY CANDLE © Copyright 2017 by Liz Curtis Higgs. Reprinted with permission by WaterBrook Press. All rights reserved.
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