The Low Country Gallery was two blocks off Bay Street. A tidy, graying fifty-something man in a tailored pinstripe suit introduced himself as Jerome Collins, proprietor. He gave me the fifty-cent tour before showing me to his desk, chatting for the requisite two minutes before getting down to business.
“Mr. Foster had a special gift for someone who turned to art as late in life as he did. His paintings seldom stayed on the wall for more than a month. I kept trying to raise the prices, but he was insistent. Said it would be mere greed to overprice a painting simply because the buying public was temporarily infatuated, and besides, he would feel awful if someone bought one on impulse with the rent money and then had buyer’s remorse when he got home. I was very sad when he, um, stopped coming in. I called without getting him for at least a month before I found out that he’d disappeared.”
“How did you meet, and how long had you been selling his artwork?”
Mr. Collins laughed quietly, putting his fingers to his lips—lest he offend by laughing too loudly, I supposed. “Your Mr. Foster was a very direct man. He walked into the gallery one morning with a portfolio and three oils. Said he’d been painting for five years and wanted to see if he were good enough yet for people to buy his art. And his work did have a certain primordial artistic appeal, although clearly not suitable for The Low County Gallery. Mostly beached old wooden boats, sunsets over the marsh islands, sea birds, that sort of thing. I gave him a tour, showed him the type and quality of work that we display, and gently suggested that he might try places on Hilton Head that cater more to tourists.”
“Do you remember when that was?”
“Let’s see.” Mr. Collins looked into the distance as he considered. “Must have been the fall of 2002.”
“And did he take your comments badly?”
“Gracious, no. He was delighted with the time that I’d spent with him. Informed me that he would be back when he’d created something worthy of my gallery.”
“Which at some point he did, I take it.”
He smiled softly, amused although I hadn’t intended to be funny. “Yes, at some point he did exactly that. It was April of 2003, perhaps eighteen months after we’d met the first time. He was carrying a canvas covered with a cloth, asked if I had an easel so he could show me what he’d brought. When he uncovered it, I was too stunned to speak.” I didn’t interrupt with a dumb question as he again stared off into the distance.
Finally he shook his head and returned to the present. “It was nothing like what he’d brought in the first time. Rather, he’d painted a full length portrait of a pregnant woman in a long white dress, standing on a rocky shore. An absolutely haunting piece of work. The woman was not young, as perhaps one might expect, but beautifully mature, ageless even. With a look of both joy and infinite sadness as she gazed out over the sea.”
He pointed to a spot on the wall behind where I was sitting. “I hung that painting where I could look at it, and for three days hardly left my desk. Without consulting Mr. Foster, I put a price of $2500 on the piece. Unheard of for a brand new artist, high enough that I could enjoy it for a while. Or at least I assumed so, although there was a bit of an immediate buzz about it.”
The telephone rang but Collins ignored it, shaking his head minutely when I gestured that it would be OK if he took the call.
“On the morning of the third day, just like the resurrection I suppose, a man informed me that he wished to purchase it. Those words drove a spear into my side, to press the metaphor, and I let out a little sob before I could restrain myself. When he asked if I were okay, I covered my lapse by saying that I had sold it the evening before and had obviously forgotten to place a red dot on the card, apologizing profusely.
“That night I took it home and hung it above my sofa. Even now, almost ten years later, I often find myself standing there lost in that painting.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “You still have it? Is there any way I can see it? There’s a painting of a pregnant woman hanging in George’s bedroom, undoubtedly the same woman.”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?” His eyes twinkled. “Yes, of course. Miss Calhoun?” A woman poked her head out of a room toward the back. “Mr. Whittaker and I are going to step out for a few minutes, if you would be so kind as to hold down the fort.”
As we walked toward his townhome, which was only three blocks away (it seems like everything in Beaufort is only three blocks away, but of course, that’s just the old part), I asked if George had done other paintings of the woman.
“Three dozen, perhaps, although she was only pregnant in one other. They were by far his best sellers. I have one of those as well.” He chuckled in the same proper way that he did everything. “It’s hard to make a living as a gallery owner if you buy up the best merchandise, but I confess I couldn’t help myself. My partner at the time didn’t understand. Ended up leaving over it, as it were. Asked what the big deal was about a woman I didn’t know, and why did we have two pictures of her hanging in our home. But then Johan was not only a Bohemian when it came to art, he loved to play the aggressive, downtrodden gay man.” He looked at me, the glint of challenge in his eyes asking if I wanted to make something of it. Which of course I didn’t. “It turned out not to be a difficult choice between the paintings and Johan.”
Of course, the subject of the paintings was the same woman as the one in George’s cottage. Not surprisingly. How many pregnant models would he have known? I examined the other painting in more detail. The woman was standing in front of a large boulder, hair blown by the wind, hands reaching as if beseeching the sun. A small girl peered out from behind the rock, expression solemn.
“So how long did he continue to paint this woman?”
“The last painting that he brought me, in April of 2007, was of her.”
“And you saw nothing to indicate that anything was amiss in his life?”
“Amiss. Interesting word. No, Mr. Foster was phlegmatic if he were anything. He might have been diagnosed with stage four cancer and told he had but a month to live and I’d have never suspected.” Something in my reaction startled him. “What, did I say something wrong?”
“Sheriff Tate mentioned the possibility that he killed himself because he had an incurable disease, just as offhandedly as you just did. That’s quite a coincidence, although probably nothing more.”
He made me promise to bring the other painting by for him to see. “I could easily sell it, but since the money would just sit idle in his account, the painting is a better investment. And of course, if he hung it in his bedroom, it means something special to him. He’d be most upset to return and find it missing.” He stopped as he thought of something else. “Are there any more paintings laying around that you might be interested in selling?”
I confessed that I hadn’t examined his studio in detail, but I would when I got back.