If you’re new to The Candle Star, you can start at Chapter One. Each week, I’ll also link to the last week’s post.
The Candle Star
by Michelle Isenhoff
Back in her room, Emily was pleased to find her trunk setting at the foot of her bed. She dropped the mums into the pitcher of water and splayed out the skirt of her traveling suit. It was stained, wrinkled, and smeared with muck from the stable – not at all suitable for dinner. She couldn’t abide the thought of any Yankees looking down their nose at her.
She opened the trunk and pulled out a beautiful, gray taffeta dress with sleeves as wide as bells and dripping with lace. Layer upon layer of ruffles made up the skirt, which flounced wide over a crinoline petticoat and a pair of frilly pantalettes and fell several inches below her knees.
It was the most expensive dress she owned, the one her father had ordered special from Paris, but how was she to get it on by herself? Her maid, Lizzie, always assisted her, draping the gown carefully over her head, fastening buttons, tying bows just right and pinning her curls. But Lizzie was young and willful and had been forbidden to make the trip with her. Emily’s parents were afraid Lizzie would run away in the free north, so old, reliable Zeke had been sent instead. But what good was a doddering old man when dressing for dinner?
She wriggled out of the traveling suit with some trouble and stepped into the undergarments. Getting the elaborate dress over her head proved much more difficult, but with a few grunts and a lot of willpower, it finally settled in place. She did her best to tie a proper bow behind her back, but it looked sadly wilted, like a vase full of daisies too long without water. Nothing like the crisp, perfect knot Lizzie always tied.
She moved on to her hair, glancing into her hand mirror with dismay. Her curls had pulled free of their combs and straggled in wild disarray. She reached for her brush, pulling it through the locks with long, unpracticed strokes, but her hair lay on her shoulders limp and dirty.
At home, she wouldn’t have given any more thought to her appearance than a mule would give to its tail. What did the wind and the woods care how she looked? But here her pride was at stake. And at the moment, that was all she had.
A knock sounded at her door, and a woman called out, “Miss Preston? Isaac sent me to remind you that dinner is in five minutes.”
Emily recognized the rolling voice from the kitchen.
“Miss Preston?” The door opened and a young, red-haired woman peeked inside. She was hardly more than a girl. “So you are up. I thought perhaps you fell asleep after your long trip.” The woman took in Emily’s sloppy appearance. “Oh, dear. I believe you could use some help.”
She crossed the room uninvited and began tugging and adjusting the gray dress. She corrected a button, pulled the back hem free from where it had tucked under the pantalettes and retied the bow. Then she reached for the brush and with a few practiced twists fastened the curls in a simple style.
Emily admired the effect in the mirror.
“I’m Shannon, by the way. I use to wait on Lady Pennington back in Ireland, but now I clean for Isaac and sometimes help with dinner. I’m very pleased to meet you. I hope we’ll be friends.”
Emily frowned at the maid’s informal overture and the disrespectful use of her uncle’s first name, but Shannon didn’t seem to notice. Instead, the maid gave the bow one final tug. “Dinner will be waiting,” she called as she left the room.
Emily took one last, approving glance in the mirror and adjusted her arrogance. Just let any person in this hotel try to find fault with her now!
In the dining room, several guests were already seated and Shannon was busy taking orders. As Emily stood near the stairs wondering where to go, a black woman pushed through the swinging kitchen door and delivered two steaming plates of food.
Isaac waved. “Emily, I saved you a place beside me. Come.” He pulled out a chair for her. “I’ve already ordered.
“Breakfast and lunch are served only to guests, but a few nights a week we open our dinner hour to the public,” he explained as she scanned the busy room. Five other tables were occupied, including one nearby seating Mr. and Mrs. Bronner.
Smiling, Shannon brought them each a plate loaded with mashed potatoes, green peas and a thick pork chop. The whole plate was covered with steaming gravy that tickled her nose as she waited for Isaac to finish saying grace. As the prayer went on, his low tones were overpowered by the familiar sound of a southern voice.
“They just disappeared,” it said. “I don’t understand it.”
Emily’s heart leaped! She peeked with one eye to see who had spoken and discovered a young man seated at the next table, neatly dressed and sporting a full beard. His hair was parted on one side and combed in a wave over his forehead. He sat with two friends who appeared rough and unkempt. As she watched, one of them replied, “We’ll go south tomorrow, down to the river.”
“Amen,” Isaac finished and started in on his plate without another word.
Emily took a few small bites but continued to cast glances at the next table until she caught the eye of the well-dressed man. “Excuse me,” she broke in, “but I overheard you talking, and it is so good to hear someone from home. I declare, I was beginning to feel all alone in this godforsaken state.”
Isaac frowned at her impulsiveness, but the gentleman flashed a gallant smile. “Well I’ll be! A Dixie flower in the middle of Michigan! Isaac, where have you been hiding this delightful child?”
“Good evening, Jarrod,” Isaac said with a polite nod at his guest. “This is my niece, Miss Emily Preston, from Charleston, South Carolina. She arrived today. Emily, Mr. Jarrod Burrows, a regular patron of mine.”
Mr. Burrows bowed politely across the tables. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Preston. And I know exactly what you mean about leaving civilization for these northern climates. One can get to feeling a bit forlorn.”
“Are you from Carolina, Mr. Burrows?” Emily asked.
“No, miss. Virginia born and bred.”
“What are you doing so far from home?”
“I run sort of a detective agency, you might say.”
One of his companions choked, and the other slapped him heartily on the back. Emily could see the Bronners glancing in their direction.
“How intriguing!” she burst out. “I’ve never met anyone in your line of work. What are you investigating?”
“Emily, let’s allow Mr. Burrows to finish his dinner in peace,” her uncle warned.
But his reluctance only made her redouble her efforts. She pretended to pout, her mouth puckered like gathers in a skirt, but her eyes danced. The look worked on her father every time. “But I do so want to know what Mr. Burrows is about. I may ask, mayn’t I?”
Mr. Burrows smiled, charmed by her childish petulance. “Certainly she may, Isaac.” He explained, “A friend of mine back home had a valuable piece of property stolen from him. He has hired me to recover it for him.”
The Bronners now stared openly at them. Emily pretended not to notice their lack of etiquette. “How very noble of you, Mr. Burrows, but couldn’t that get dangerous?”
“A very real possibility. That is why I have brought along my companions, Joseph Sturgis and Edward Satterfield.”
Both mumbled a greeting.
Mr. Bronner set down his napkin and cleared his throat. “Would this property have taken flight of its own accord?” he interrupted.
Mr. Burrows chuckled. “That would be something, wouldn’t it, sir?”
But the elderly man wasn’t put off. Fire snapped in his eyes as they bored into Mr. Burrow’s. “Property indeed!”
Satterfield leaned back in his chair and picked at his teeth with a dirty fingernail. “That’s what the law calls this particular item, and we have every intention of returning it to its rightful owner.”
The tension in the room mounted, and Emily searched the face of each speaker. What were they talking about?
Mr. Bronner shifted his gaze to Satterfield. “How, sir, does thee reconcile the law and your Christian faith? The man thee seeks was made in the very image of God.”
Satterfield leaned forward threateningly. “God ain’t black,” he growled.
Mr. Burrows stood and offered the elderly couple a conciliatory smile. “I really had no intension of disrupting your meal, and I do apologize. It was tactless of me to discuss business at the dinner table.”
“Business!” Mr. Bronner scoffed, also rising. “Son, thee is nothing but a common bounty hunter!”
A sudden gasp escaped Emily’s lips. The men were slave catchers!
Mrs. Bronner spoke quietly, “Our nation is founded on the truth that all men are created equal. Yet thee would condemn a man to a life of bondage?”
“It ain’t so hard to do, ma’am,” Satterfield said, leaning back and exchanging amused grins with Sturgis.
Mr. Bronner seemed gentled by his wife’s example. “Forgive me,” he said to the men. “I am a man of peace. But I am also a man guided by the Word of the Lord, and I will not break bread with those who seek to enslave another.”
Before following her husband from the room, Mrs. Bronner gave them a gentle nod. “I will pray for each of thee tonight.”
Sturgis nodded. “Please do that, ma’am. Maybe we’ll catch that darkie and get back to ‘Ginnie all the sooner.”
Throughout the conflict, the guests at the other tables had fallen silent, eyes downcast, eating with earnest concentration. When the Quaker couple was gone, Mr. Burrows turned to Emily’s uncle. “I apologize, Isaac. I didn’t mean to drive away customers.”
Isaac appeared grave. “Gentlemen, you are always welcome in my establishment, but I must insist that you keep your business to yourselves in the presence of my other guests.”
Mr. Burrows nodded shortly. “Agreed.”
Emily looked her uncle up and down with disgust. How could he chastise Mr. Burrows? The man had done nothing wrong. Had her uncle been so long in the north that he had forgotten his roots?
She, at least, wasn’t bound by her uncle’s wishes. Turning back to Mr. Burrows, she continued, “I imagine runaways keep you pretty busy. We lost one off our place this year, too.”
“Emily,” her uncle warned, but she ignored him.
“These Yankees don’t understand how things really are. They get all the wrong ideas from that book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They don’t realize the Negroes have need of direction and provision.”
As she spoke, Ezekiel stood at the side of the room and never fluttered an eyelid, but the black woman who helped serve the meal glared balefully in Emily’ direction.
Emily was undaunted. “I hope you catch that fellow. Sometimes the slaves get a little rebellious, like a spirited horse, and they need a firm hand.”
Sturgis and Satterfield snorted contemptuously.
“Emily, that will be enough,” her uncle commanded.
A sudden baying erupted in the back yard. A glance out the window showed two rangy bloodhounds loping through the carefully manicured garden. They stopped, nosing about in a patch of purple asters. Dirt and blooms began to fly beneath huge paws.
With a muffled oath, the bounty hunters jumped up, stumbling in their haste. Mr. Burrows rose also. “It’s been a pleasure,” he said with a swift bow. “If you’ll excuse me.”
The smaller dog still ripped into the flower bed, but the larger one had moved on. He snuffled about the tea roses and stopped to water the hedge as the two men charged out the door. Emily barely stifled a giggle as one of them lunged for its collar.
Isaac stood up from the table and cleared his throat. “Emily, would you accompany me to my office, please?” He wasn’t smiling.
“Of course, Uncle,” she beamed.
In the office, Isaac closed the door and crossed his arms in consternation. “It seems you’ve sufficiently recovered your energy from your trip, my dear. You put on quite a presentation out there. So I believe tomorrow will be soon enough to assign you some chores.”
Her smile vanished and her face opened in shock.
“I know your mother has not raised you to be extremely industrious, but I believe a bit of labor is beneficial. So tomorrow you will accompany Shannon.”
“You cannot be serious!”
“I assure you, I’m quite serious.”
Emily balled her fists at her sides and felt warmth creep into her cheeks. “Uncle Isaac, I am not a slave! And my parents did not send me here to be treated like one. I absolutely refuse to spend my whole day laboring!”
“No, no, you misunderstand,” he explained with a lifted eyebrow. “It’s just for a while in the evenings. You’ll be far too busy attending school to help during the day.”
Emily’s mouth popped open and her eyes bulged like a sausage that’s been squeezed too hard in the middle.
The corner of her uncle’s mouth began to twitch again. “Pick your chin up off the floor, dear. You couldn’t possibly have thought I’d hire you a tutor.”
Speechless, she whirled to leave, but he stopped her. “One more thing. Jarrod Burrows could charm the stink off a skunk, but I don’t want you consorting with him. So no more performances like that last one, please.”
She met the command with stony silence, her chin up and her eyes flashing. She would consort with whomever she pleased. When she found her voice it came out strained. “I will be writing home about this,” she seethed. Contemptuously, she looked him up and down. “I cannot even fathom how you can be my uncle, you…you Yankee!”
He gave her a grave stare. “Oh, my dear, we are so much more alike than you would ever care to admit.”