Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 18

🏴 Present day * Roanoke.

Hello Elsie!” said Amanda Hitchings enthusiastically, welcoming her auctioneer to the stately Roanoke residence.

Amanda Hitchings was a tall, proud woman — well dressed in a black suit and pearls, and refined in her general manner. She was married to a man named Paul Johnston, who was away at the moment. Out of intense pride for her family, she’d opted to keep her maiden name. The Hitchings family boasted numerous doctors, lawyers, and C-level executives — all luminaries in their respective areas of expertise.

Arthur Hitchings had been Amanda’s father, she’d explained to Elsie when they’d met weeks ago for a consultation. Amanda had been impressed with Elsie’s success on the Bellanger estate auction. Sealing the box with chains and marketing the event the way she did had been pure genius, in Amanda’s opinion. But, that was relatively small time compared to the level of her father’s collection — even after a few of the remaining family members had partially cannibalized her father’s household after his death.

“If this estate has been ‘picked through,’ as we say in the business, I can’t even imagine how extensive your father’s collection must have been,” Elsie had told her.

She was right. Arthur had acquired untold treasures over the course of his long life. He’d been wealthy for most of his life, and he’d enjoyed an extensive retirement. What’s more, Amanda said, her father died peacefully in his sleep. With the exception of losing his wife many years ago, he’d lived a perfect life.

Though his collections meant the world to him, his heirs ultimately decided, during the “mind-bogglingly complex estate settlement proceedings,” as Amanda put it, that their father’s estate should be liquidated and the proceeds divided according to the specifications outlined in the will. They wanted a speedy, professional job — and Girard Galleries stood out as qualified and capable.

Amanda spent the better part of a week offering Elsie any assistance she could as to the various histories of the articles to be auctioned. It was labor-intensive work, even for Amanda. However, Elsie rose to the occasion like a champion, as Amanda had expected.

“Today’s the day!” Elsie said excitedly.

“How many buyers do you expect?” Amanda asked.

“Based on the advertising we ran and the number of phone inquiries we fielded, I’d estimate 150 to 200.”

Two hours later, Bernice, Nicki, and Jayne struggled to find a parking space within a reasonable walking distance from the Hitchings’ property. In time, they settled on a side street two blocks away.

To surprise her friends — and Elsie — Bernice wore her restored colonial dress. She looked absolutely radiant, which Nicki and Jayne were surprised to see. They’d imagined that a period dress would look more like a costume. However, it looked elegant, even if slightly eccentric perhaps. She’d also brought the pirate jacket along and, without telling her friends, she’d included the diary and parchment in the bag as well. She felt she may need these items if Elsie was able to contribute and anything valuable to their research.

As they walked through the crowd to the Hitchings door, Bernice remarked about how close this residence was to the place at which she’d acquired the dress. “Roanoke must be filled with treasure,” she said.

Once they managed to enter the house, Bernice saw Elsie nearby greeting guests. Among the crowd, the women noticed numerous uniformed waiters strolling about offering hors d’oeuvres and small plastic flutes filled with yellowish champagne. Unseen stereo speakers piped in big band music with crystal clarity. It sounded as though Harry Connick, Jr. were in next room giving a concert.

“Champagne, anyone?” Nicki said to Jayne, indicating she wanted to walk toward one of the servers. “Be right back,” she said.

When Elsie saw her, she lit up like a Christmas tree. “Mrs. Sarris!” Elsie said, approaching Bernice quickly with an outstretched hand. “It’s so nice to see you again. You can’t imagine how exciting it was for us to handle the Bellanger estate.”

“Well, Elsie,” said Bernice, “I don’t think you can’t imagine the excitement we had with the sea chest.”

“Oh my God, you did it, didn’t you?! You opened it! I absolutely must know what was inside, Mrs. Sarris. I…” Elsie stopped dead, as though she’d completely forgotten how to speak. She looked at Bernice in a rather wide-eyed, bewitched way, her eyes full of wonder. She gave a short, strange laugh and said in a calm voice, almost too quiet to discern in the crowded room, “On second thought, you don’t have to tell me at all what was inside, Mrs. Sarris. I already know.”

Bernice didn’t know what to make of that. She started to respond, but Elsie turned and walked away as though still in some sort of a daze.

Nicki and Jayne returned, rushing toward Bernice and, surprisingly, without carrying flutes of champagne. “Come with us,” Nicki said, grabbing her arm and leading her quickly in the direction Elsie had just gone.

In a nearby parlor, quite a number high-end looking collectors had gathered to view what was emerging as one of the prize offerings of this sale. Bernice could not yet see what everyone was looking at, but she could overhear some of their conversations.

To her left, a black-haired woman was discussing a theory about the shoreline’s resemblance to that of the barrier islands.

To her right, a pair of men discussed the symbolism of the piece. “Yes,” the one man was saying in a voice that sounded academic, “but what if the symbolic interpretation is a misreading of the artist’s intent? What if the crows simply represent crows and not some underlying specter of doom?”

“I don’t think I’m reading into it at all, Larry,” the other man responded. “The colonists were extremely superstitious. If Grellier chose to paint crows, it was not simply because they were there. It was because they were there and that their presence represented to him a certain pervading impression.”

A third man was reading the provenance aloud from the program. “Original Bath colonist and self-taught Huguenot minister Hervé Grellier captured the spirit of his subjects with uncommon mastery. His paintings hang throughout the Pamlico Sound and beyond in numerous museums.”

Elsie was doing her best to shush people aside in order to get close to the painting. By now, Bernice, Nicki, and Jayne were directly behind her. The guests finally parted and all four women stood directly before the canvas. Everyone stared at it for a moment as the man finished reading aloud.

“According to family members, a private collector named Bernard Nicholl in Bath acquired and authenticated this painting in 1912 from a local priest identified solely a Father Patrick. In 1978, Arthur Hitchings successfully acquired Nicholl’s collection, which included this masterwork, after many attempts throughout the years.”

Many of the guests in the parlor began staring at Bernice, who slowly approached the painting, drawn to it. There was absolute certainty in many of their minds: Bernice was wearing the dress depicted in the painting. She felt a powerful, unexplainable emotion swelling within. She began slowly reaching out toward the painting, her heart palpitating and her skin becoming hot as though she would almost certainly break into a heavy sweat at any moment. And yet her breath came easy and carried a sweet flavor as though she were a newborn tasting the air for the first time. As her right index finger made gentle contact with the dress in the painting, something else caught her eye even more — the way the small dark girl in the painting clung desperately to her mother and seemed to cast a fierce gleam toward the artist.

The two men next to her stepped back a bit, looking with some confusion as smoke emerged from beneath Bernice’s dress. There was a rumbling felt throughout the house and her dress erupted into a fireball. She let out a piercing cry as the old material flared up quickly and brightly, as though soaked in gasoline. Nicki and Jayne screamed and struggled to get Bernice to the floor as the heavy smoke billowed upward and set off a smoke alarm installed above. The two men assisted and another dialed 9–1–1.

Elsie spotted a heavy old throw resting on the cushion of a built-in widow seat in the parlor. She screamed, “Let me through!” and extinguished the flames in short order. “Mrs. Sarris!” she yelled, attempting to ensure that Bernice would stay alert and not give into shock. Elsie supervised as the two men carried Bernice into an anteroom.

Outside, a state of confusion had settled among the guests. Those who had witnessed the event gathered near the door to the anteroom trying to catch a glimpse of Bernice, partially out of concern, partially out of intense interest and wonder. Amanda Hitchings navigated her way through these people in an uncharacteristic near-panic. “An ambulance has been called,” she assured them, turning to her auctioneer. “Elsie, what else can I do?”

Elsie gestured toward Nicki and Jayne to stay with Bernice until help arrived. She then got up and joined Amanda, walking back toward the parlor through the crowd of guests. Nicki and Jayne watched Elsie encourage the guests to disperse as she explained to Amanda that the auction would need to be postponed.

Bernice was in tears — out of confusion initially, but now that the emotional intensity of the previous events was waning, the physical pain seemed to be increasing. She began to tremble as a feeling of nausea set in. Nicki and Jayne worked to comfort her, but they were finding it more and more difficult to communicate with her. Bernice’s vision blurred as two men she’d never seen before, two men in bright, sky-blue shirts, knelt next to her. The pain had grown almost unbearable in intensity and then she felt a needle enter her arm and everything began to fade away — the pain, the confusion, and her consciousness.

Back in the parlor, Elsie and Amanda Hitchings stood speechless, staring at the now-empty easel that had held Mr. Grellier’s painting only moments earlier.

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☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).