Read The Guests on South Battery Online
Authors: Karen White
The stench of decay and a sense of foreboding permeated the space, brightened only by the extraordinary light flooding in from the front windows. It would be even brighter once they were cleaned, but even now I could see how beautiful this house had once been. “The lawyer told me that Miss Pinckney never left her room on the second floor for the last few years of her life. She had a housekeeper and nurse who took care of her. That might explain the neglect of the rest of the house.”
“It's old,” Jayne said. “And it smells old. AndÂ .Â .Â .” She shivered, clenching her hands even tighter over her arms. “And I definitely don't want to live here.”
She moved toward the door but was called back by Sophie's voice.
“Oh, my goshâI think it's a William Parker glass chandelier. There's only one other one I know of in Charleston and it's at the Miles Brewton House. It's worth a fortune.”
We moved into the drawing room to glance up at the cloudy chandelier that hung crookedly from exposed wires, the plaster medallion that had once encircled the hole now crumbling beneath our feet.
“I don't think I'd pick that up if I drove past it at the curb with the rest of the garbage,” Jayne muttered.
“And this wallpaper,” Sophie continued. “It's hand-painted silk. You see the vertical lines that show where each strip is? That illustrates that the owners were wealthy enough to buy multiple strips instead of just one long one. They wanted the lines to show to display their wealth and status.”
I looked closely but saw only faded wallpaper sagging from the
weight of years, weeping at the corners from age and moisture. Where Sophie saw beauty, all I could see was decay. Signs of neglect were everywhereâfrom the scuffed and unpolished floors, to the mold spots in the wallpaper and the crumbling moldings that were now rapidly turning to dust. I was fairly certain that Jayne felt the same way.
I practically had to drag Jayne with me as we followed Sophie from room to room, listening to Sophie list all the unique, valuable, and historical elements of a house that neither of us could really see or appreciate.
I considered my house on Tradd Street separate from my thoughts on this house and most of the old houses in Charleston, if only because it was now my home and where I was raising my young family. My babies had been born there, and would learn to walk and say their first words there. The wooden floors would be scarred by the wear and tear of small shoes, scooters, and wooden blocks, marking the passage of another generation growing up at 55 Tradd Street. And I had visions of Nola getting married in the outside garden, and Sarah walking down the staircase in a prom dress waiting to greet her date. That particular vision also included Jack holding a rifle and looking menacing, but I shook it off quickly.
The Pinckney house was just brick, wood, and mortar, the longtime residence of a family I'd barely known and had no connection to. I found myself torn on how to advise my client, knowing the mental, physical, and bank-account-draining aspects of restoring a historic home.
I couldn't look at Sophie, who was studying her surroundings as if she'd just found the Holy Grail, King Tut's Tomb, and the Garden of Eden all rolled into one. Telling Jayne to sell it as is would break Sophie's heart. And leave me vulnerable to her unique form of vengeance. The last time I'd advised a client to sell a house outside the protected historic district in dire need of repair and guaranteed to be demolished, Sophie retaliated by distributing flyers with a Photoshopped picture of me in a turban and one of my cell numbers printed on it, advertising free psychic readings. I'd had to change my number.
“Did you hear that?” Jayne asked when we finally made it to the second floor.
It had been a tinny, hollow sound. I would have thought I'd imagined it if Jayne hadn't said anything. “Yes,” I said. “I think it's coming from the room at the end of the hallway.”
“What noise?” Sophie asked from halfway up the stairs. She was busy studying the cypress wainscoting that had been stained to look like mahogany and ran up the wall on the side of the staircase. There were nicks and chips in the wood, little placeholders in time left by people long gone. Or so we'd like to think.
“It sounded mechanical,” Jayne said. “Like one of those old wind-up toys.”
I was already walking toward the end of the hall, feeling the odd sensation of being pursued from behind, and a separate, more gentle presence in front guiding me down the dark hall. I still couldn't see, but I could feel both of them, sense them the way a plant follows the light. Whatever it was behind that door at the end of the hall, I needed to get there before Jayne.
I reached toward the round brass knob, but it was already turning, the door pushed open without any assistance from me. Jayne caught up to me in the doorway, apparently unaware that the door had opened on its own. We stared inside, taking in the large mahogany dresser covered in perfume bottles and tarnished silver frames filled with old photographs. A small end table was covered with an assortment of pill bottles and an empty water glass sitting on a lace doily. An enormous rice-poster bed held court next to it, the silk bedspread and pillows neatly placed on top. I thought of the housekeeper who'd taken care of the deceased owner, thinking she'd made the bed as her last duty to the old woman.
A cold breeze greeted us and I watched as Jayne shivered, wondering if she'd noticed the temperature drop in the already chilly room. I wanted to stamp my foot in frustration at my inability to see whoever it was. It wasn't that I
to see them. But if I knew they were there, I'd rather see them than just feel them. It made it harder for them to sneak up on me and surprise me when I least expected it.
“This must have been Miss Pinckney's room,” Jayne whispered, as if the old woman were still there, sleeping in the giant bed.
“You're probably right,” Sophie said from behind us. “It's the only room where the furniture isn't covered. And there's an air conditioner in one of the windows.” She crossed the room to a rocking chair in the corner near the window unit, an elegant piece of furniture with slender spindles and delicate rockers on the bottom. A small chest sat beside it, a stack of books teetering on its wooden surface. Sophie picked up the book from the top of the pile. “Apparently, either she or her nurse really liked Harlen Coben and Stephen King.”
“Too scary for me,” I said, not overlooking the irony. I began walking around the room and pulling open the heavy curtains to let in light, feeling oddly compelled to do so. Almost as if somebody were telling me to do it. Yet each time I grabbed a drapery panel to open it, I felt an opposing force trying to stop me. Jayne watched me with a furrowed brow as I wrestled with each window covering. “They seem to be stuck on something,” I explained, yanking one across the rod. “Don't feel obligated to keep these.”
Sophie frowned at me. “I disagree. Those are Scalamandre, if I'm not mistaken. An exquisite reproduction of the originals, I would bet. Made to last, unlike so many things these days.”
“Was this Miss Pinckney?” Jayne asked. She stood by the dressing table, a large oval frame in her hands.
Peering over her shoulder, I saw a photograph of a beautiful young woman with a bouffant hairdo and thick black eyeliner, placing her in the late sixties or early seventies. She wore a white gown and gloves, and stood next to a young man only slighter older than she was. He resembled a young Robert Wagnerâone of my mother's old flamesâand looked even more dashing in his white tie and tails.
“Yes, that's her. And I'm thinking this was taken at her debut. She, my mother, and my mother-in-law, Amelia, made their debuts at the same time. She said that Button's brother escorted her, since their father had died when they were little.”
“I'm pretty sure I never met her.” Jayne paused for a moment before
carefully replacing it and picking up another, this one of three girls in Ashley Hall uniforms. Jayne pointed to the tall, thin girl in the middle, her bright blond hair held back by a headband, the edges of her shoulder-length hair flipped up. “I think this is her, too.”
I took the frame from her, noticing how faded the photograph was, the years leaching color from the paper and the images. I smiled. “And that's my mother and mother-in-law on each side.”
“They look so happy,” Jayne said, replacing the frame.
“They were best friends, according to my mother.”
“Who's this, do you think?”
Jayne held up another photograph of a girl about ten years old, more recent than the ones of Button. The colors were sharper and the television in the background looked as though it could have been early to mid-eighties. The girl bore a striking resemblance to Button, the same light hair and large, almond-shaped blue eyes.
“I'm not sure,” I said. “But it could be her niece. Her brother had a child.”
Jayne looked at me with surprise. “Then why didn't she inherit everything?”
I glanced over at Sophie for help, but she was busy studying something in the rocking chair. “She didn't survive childhood. My mother remembers that she wasÂ .Â .Â . sickly.”
The frame fell heavily onto the tabletop, almost as if it had been wrenched out of Jayne's hand and thrown down.
“Sorry,” Jayne said. “I'm so clumsy.”
My phone began to ring in my purse, the ring tone one I didn't recognize. My hand froze on the purse clasp, willing it to stop ringing.
“You can answer that,” Jayne said. “I don't mind.”
“It's not important,” I said, keeping the tremor out of my voice. “I'll just silence it so we can focus.” I reached into my purse and flicked the button on the side of the phone without looking at the screen, knowing it would be the same unidentified number as before.
I picked up the frame, the clips on the back apparently loosened in the fall and allowing the glass and photograph to slip out. I turned the
picture over to see if there was any writing on the back. There, in faded blue ink and in a feminine hand, was written the single name
“Is that a misspelling of Hazel?” Jayne asked.
I shook my head. “It's actually an old Charleston family nameâthere's a street by that name that runs from King Street past East Bay. It's pronounced like Hazel but spelled with an S. My mother told me that Button's brother, Sumter, married a Hasell, which would explain why they used it for their only child.”
As I replaced the photograph and glass back in the frame, I studied it more closely, seeing now the dark circles under the child's eyes, the pale translucence of her skin, the faint blue veins that bracketed her temples. I thought of the robust cheeks and bright eyes of my own children, and I felt a stab of loss for this girl I'd never known. I couldn't take my gaze away from the image, noticing now something familiar in the shape of the chin and the delicate arch of the eyebrows.
I was about to pick up the photo of Button to compare the faces when I heard that odd, metallic sound again that Jayne and I had heard earlier. We both turned toward Sophie, who was holding something up in her hands, a look of surprise and wonder on her face.
“That's hideous and bordering on creepy,” I said, staring at the old china-faced doll in her hands, noticing that Jayne had stepped behind me as if for protection. The doll's straggly brown hair made a cloud over its expressionless face, the two large dark eyes staring unblinkingly back at us. I suppressed a shudder.
“The vibration of our footsteps on the stairs must have shifted it in the chair to make that sound. If this is what I think it is, it could be worth a small fortune.” Sophie smiled widely as if unaware of the terrifying object she was holding.
“What is that?” I asked, staying where I was. Like with clowns and dollhouses, there was something inherently disturbing about antique dolls. Certainly the stuff that childhood nightmares were made of.
Sophie looked protectively at the doll. “I'm pretty sure this is a Thomas Edison dollâthe first talking doll. There are only a handful left, and even fewer are intact, which makes them so valuable. They
have these little tin phonograph cylinders inside their torsosâall recorded more than one hundred years ago. They're all nursery rhymes that are kind of hard to understand, and one in particularââNow I Lay Me Down to Sleep'âis a little scary because it sounds like a woman shouting under duress. For some reason they didn't sell and they halted production after only a month.”
“For some reason?” I repeated. “I can't imagine parents disliking their child enough to gift them with such a thing unless they were being punished for something serious like vandalism. Or murder.”
“Does this mean that it belongs to me now?” Jayne asked. She didn't sound as excited as Sophie probably expected her to.
“Yes,” Sophie said brightly. “I'd have to take it to an antique doll expert who's a friend of mine to verify, but I'm pretty sure that's what this is.” She flipped it around to show an opening through a hole in the back of the doll's white linen dress. “The cylinder is so delicate that if I tried to make the doll talk, it would break. There's new technology that can digitally convert the sound from the cylinder so you can hear the original recording, which might be cool to hear.”
Both Jayne and I were shaking our heads. “That won't be necessary,” Jayne said. “Let's let your expert friend assign a value so that I can sell it as quickly as possible.”
“Let me talk with my friend first to see what our first course of action should be. We'll leave it here for now, where it's safe.” As Sophie was distracted replacing the doll in the rocking chair, I gave a thumbs-up at Jayne to let her know that at least on this subject, I was in full agreement.
“I think I've seen enough,” Jayne said, turning toward the door.