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A short story by Norman Duncan

The Art Of Terry Lute

Title:     The Art Of Terry Lute
Author: Norman Duncan [More Titles by Duncan]

When the Stand By went down in a northeasterly gale off Dusty Reef of the False Frenchman, the last example of the art of Terry Lute of Out-of-the-Way Tickle perished with her. It was a great picture. This is an amazing thing to say. It doubtless challenges a superior incredulity. Yet the last example of the art of Terry Lute was a very great picture. Incredible? Not at all. It is merely astonishing. Other masters, and of all sorts, have emerged from obscure places. It is not the less likely that Terry Lute was a master because he originated at Out-of-the-Way Tickle of the Newfoundland north coast. Rather more so, perhaps. At any rate, Terry Lute was a master.

James Cobden saw the picture. He, too, was astounded. But--"It is the work of a master," said he, instantly.

Of course the picture is gone; there is no other: Cobden's word for its quality must be taken. But why not? Cobden's judgments are not generally gainsaid; they prove themselves, and stand. And it is not anywhere contended that Cobden is given to the encouragement of anaemic aspiration. Cobden's errors, if any, have been of severity. It is maintained by those who do not love him that he has laughed many a promising youngster into a sour obscurity. And this may be true. A niggard in respect to praise, a skeptic in respect to promise, he is well known. But what he has commended has never failed of a good measure of critical recognition in the end. And he has uncovered no mares'-nests.

All this, however,--the matter of Cobden's authority,--is here a waste discussion. If Cobden's judgments are in the main detestable, the tale has no point for folk of the taste to hold against them; if they are true and agreeable, it must then be believed upon his word that when the Stand By went down off Dusty Reef of the False Frenchman a great picture perished with her--a great picture done in crayon on manila paper in Tom Lute's kitchen at Out-of-the-Way Tickle. Cobden is committed to this. And whether a masterpiece or not, and aside from the eminent critical opinion of it, the tale of Terry Lute's last example will at least prove the once engaging quality of Terry Lute's art.

* * * * *

Cobden first saw the picture in the cabin of the Stand By, being then bound from Twillingate Harbor to Out-of-the-Way, when in the exercise of an amiable hospitality Skipper Tom took him below to stow him away. Cobden had come sketching. He had gone north, having read some moving and tragical tale of those parts, to look upon a grim sea and a harsh coast. He had found both, and had been inspired to convey a consciousness of both to a gentler world, touched with his own philosophy, in Cobden's way. But here already, gravely confronting him, was a masterpiece greater than he had visioned. It was framed broadly in raw pine, covered with window-glass, and nailed to the bulkhead; but it was nevertheless there, declaring its own dignity, a work of sure, clean genius.

Cobden started. He was astounded, fairly dazed, he puts it, by the display of crude power. He went close, stared into the appalling depths of wind, mist, and the sea, backed off, cocked his astonished head, ran a lean hand in bewilderment through his gray curls, and then flashed about on Skipper Tom.

"Who did that?" he demanded.

"That?" the skipper chuckled. "Oh," he drawled, "jus' my young feller." He was apologetic; but he was yet, to be sure, cherishing a bashful pride.

"How young?" Cobden snapped.

"'Long about fourteen when he done that."

"A child!" Cobden gasped.

"Well, no, sir," the skipper declared, somewhat puzzled by Cobden's agitation; "he was fourteen, an' a lusty lad for his years."

Cobden turned again to the picture; he stood in a frowning study of it.

"What's up?" the skipper mildly asked.

"What's up, eh?" says Cobden, grimly. "That's a great picture, by heaven!" he cried. "That's what's up."

Skipper Tom laughed.

"She isn't so bad, is she?" he admitted, with interest. "She sort o' scares me by times. But she were meant t' do that. An' dang if I isn't fond of her, anyhow!"

"Show me another," says Cobden.

Skipper Tom sharply withdrew his interest from the picture.

"Isn't another," said he, curtly. "That was the last he done."

"Dead!" Cobden exclaimed, aghast.

"Dead?" the skipper marveled. "Sure, no. He've gone an' growed up." He was then bewildered by Cobden's relief.

Cobden faced the skipper squarely. He surveyed the genial fellow with curious interest.

"Skipper Tom," said he, then, slowly, "you have a wonderful son." He paused. "A--wonderful--son," he repeated. He smiled; the inscrutable wonder of the thing had all at once gently amused him--the wonder that a genius of rarely exampled quality should have entered the world in the neighborhood of Out-of-the-Way Tickle, there abandoned to chance discovery of the most precarious sort. And there was no doubt about the quality of the genius. The picture proclaimed it; and the picture was not promise, but a finished work, in itself an achievement, most marvelously accomplished, moreover, without the aid of any tradition.

Terry Lute's art was triumphant. Even the skeptical Cobden, who had damned so much in his day, could not question the lad's mastery. It did not occur to him to question it.

Skipper Tom blinked at the painter's wistful gravity. "What's the row?" he stammered.

Cobden laughed heartily.

"It is hard to speak in a measured way of all this," he went on, all at once grave again. "After all, perhaps, one guesses; and even the most cautious guesses go awry. I must not say too much. It is not the time, at any rate, to say much. Afterward, when I have spoken with this--this young master, then, perhaps. But I may surely say that the fame of Terry Lute will soon be very great." His voice rose; he spoke with intense emphasis. "It will continue, it will grow. Terry Lute's name will live"--he hesitated--"for generations." He paused now, still looking into the skipper's inquiring eyes, his own smiling wistfully. Dreams were already forming. "Skipper Tom," he added, turning away, "you have a wonderful son."

"Ay," said the skipper, brows drawn; "an' I knows it well enough." He added absently, with deep feeling, "He've been--jus' fair wonderful."

"He shall learn what I can teach him."

"In the way o' sketchin' off, sir?" There was quick alarm in this.

Cobden struck a little attitude. It seemed to him now to be a moment. He was profoundly moved. "Terry Lute," he replied, "shall be--a master!"

"Mr. Cobden, sir," Skipper Tom protested, his face in an anxious twist, "I'll thank you t' leave un alone."

"I'll make a man of him!" cried Cobden, grieved.

Skipper Tom smiled grimly. It was now his turn to venture a curious survey. He ran his eye over the painter's slight body with twinkling amusement. "Will you, now?" he mused. "Oh, well, now," he drawled, "I'd not trouble t' do it an I was you. You're not knowin', anyhow, that he've not made a man of hisself. 'Tis five year' since he done that there damned sketch." Then uneasily, and with a touch of sullen resentment: "I 'low you'd best leave un alone, sir. He've had trouble enough as it is."

"So?" Cobden flashed. "Already? That's good."

"It haven't done no harm," the skipper deliberated; "but--well, God knows I'd not like t' see another young one cast away in a mess like that."

Cobden was vaguely concerned. He did not, however, at the moment inquire. It crossed his mind, in a mere flash, that Skipper Tom had spoken with a deal of feeling. What could this trouble have been? Cobden forgot, then, that there had been any trouble at all.

"Well, well," Skipper Tom declared more heartily, "trouble's the foe o' folly."

Cobden laughed pleasantly and turned once more to the picture. He was presently absorbed in a critical ecstasy. Skipper Tom, too, was by this time staring out upon the pictured sea, as though it lay in fearsome truth before him. He was frowning heavily.

* * * * *

It was the picture of a breaker, a savage thing. In the foreground, lifted somewhat from the turmoil, was a black rock. It was a precarious foothold, a place to shrink from in terror. The sea reached for it; the greater waves boiled over and sucked it bare. It was wet, slimy, overhanging death. Beyond the brink was a swirl of broken water--a spent breaker, crashing in, streaked with irresistible current and flecked with hissing fragments.

Adjectives which connote noise are unavoidable. Cobden has said that the picture expressed a sounding confusion. It was true. "You could hear that water," says he, tritely. There was the illusion of noise--of the thud and swish of breaking water and of the gallop of the wind. So complete was the illusion, and so did the spirit of the scene transport the beholder, that Cobden once lifted his voice above the pictured tumult. Terry Lute's art was indeed triumphant!

A foreground, then, of slimy rock, an appalling nearness and an inspiration of terror in the swirling breaker below. But not yet the point of dreadful interest. That lay a little beyond. It was a black ledge and a wave. The ledge still dripped the froth of a deluge which had broken and swept on, and there was now poised above it, black, frothy-crested, mightily descending, another wave of the vast and inimical restlessness of the sea beyond.

There was a cliff in the mist above; it was a mere suggestion, a gray patch, but yet a towering wall, implacably there, its presence disclosed by a shadow where the mist had thinned. Fog had broken over the cliff and was streaming down with the wind. Obscurity was imminent; but light yet came from the west, escaping low and clean. And there was a weltering expanse of sea beyond the immediate turmoil; and far off, a streak of white, was the offshore ice.

It was not a picture done in gigantic terms. It was not a climax. Greater winds have blown; greater seas have come tumbling in on the black rocks of Out-of-the-Way. The point is this, Cobden says, that the wind was rising, the sea working up, the ice running in, the fog spreading, thickening, obscuring the way to harbor. The imagination of the beholder was subtly stimulated to conceive the ultimate worst of that which might impend, which is the climax of fear.

Cobden turned to Skipper Tom.

"What does Terry Lute call it?" he asked.


"H-m-m!" Cobden deliberated. "It must bear a name. A great picture done by a great hand. It must bear a name."

"Terry calls it jus' 'My Picture.'"

"Let it be called 'The Fang,'" said Cobden.

"A very good name, ecod!" cried Skipper Tom. "'Tis a picture meant t' scare the beholder."

* * * * *

Terry Lute was not quite shamelessly given to the practice of "wieldin' a pencil" until he discovered that he could make folk laugh. After that he was an abandoned soul, with a naughty strut on the roads. For folk laughed with flattering amazement, and they clapped Terry Lute on his broad little back, and much to his delight they called him a limb o' the devil, and they spread his fame and his sketches from Out-of-the-Way and Twillingate Long Point to Cape Norman and the harbors of the Labrador. Caricatures, of course, engaged him--the parson, the schoolmaster, Bloody Bill Bull, and the crusty old shopkeeper. And had a man an enemy, Terry Lute, at the price of a clap on the back and an admiring wink, would provide him with a sketch which was like an arrow in his hand. The wink of admiration must be above suspicion, however, else Terry's cleverness might take another direction.

By these saucy sketches, Terry Lute was at one period involved in gravest trouble; the schoolmaster, good doctor of the wayward, thrashed him for a rogue; and from a prophetic pulpit the parson, anxious shepherd, came as near to promising him a part in perdition as honest conviction could bring him to speak. Terry Lute was startled. In the weakness of contrition he was moved to promise that he would draw their faces no more, and thereafter he confined his shafts of humor to their backs; but as most men are vulnerable to ridicule from behind, and as the schoolmaster had bandy legs and the parson meek feet and pious shoulders, Terry Lute's pencil was more diligently, and far more successfully, employed than ever. The illicit exercise, the slyer art, and the larger triumph, filled him with chuckles and winks.

"Ecod!" he laughed to his own soul; "you is a sure-enough, clever little marvel, Terry Lute, me b'y!"

What gave Terry Lute's art a profound turn was the sheer indolence of his temperamental breed. He had no liking at all for labor; spreading fish on the flakes, keeping the head of his father's punt up to the sea on the grounds, splitting a turn of birch and drawing a bucket of water from the well by the Needle, discouraged the joy of life. He scolded, he begged, he protested that he was ailing, and so behaved in the cleverest fashion; but nothing availed him until after hours of toil he achieved a woeful picture of a little lad at work on the flake at the close of day. It was Terry Lute himself, no doubt of it at all, but a sad, worn child, with a lame back, eyes of woe, gigantic tears--a tender young spirit oppressed, and, that there might be no mistake about the delicacy of his general health, an angel waiting overhead.

"Thomas," wept Terry Lute's mother, "the wee lad's doomed."

"Hut!" Skipper Tom blurted.

"Shame t' you!" cried Terry's mother, bursting into a new flood of tears.

After that, for a season, Terry Lute ran foot-loose and joyous over the mossy hills of Out-of-the-Way.

"Clever b'y, Terry Lute!" thinks he, without a qualm.

It chanced by and by that Parson Down preached with peculiar power at the winter revival; and upon this preaching old Bill Bull, the atheist of Out-of-the-Way, attended with scoffing regularity, sitting in the seat of the scorner. It was observed presently--no eyes so keen for such weather as the eyes of Out-of-the-Way--that Bill Bull was coming under conviction of his conscience; and when this great news got abroad, Terry Lute, too, attended upon Parson Down's preaching with regularity, due wholly, however, to his interest in watching the tortured countenance of poor Bill Bull. It was his purpose when first he began to draw to caricature the vanquished wretch. In the end he attempted a moving portrayal of "The Atheist's Stricken State," a large conception.

It was a sacred project; it was pursued in religious humility, in a spirit proper to the subject in hand. And there was much opportunity for study. Bill Bull did not easily yield; night after night he continued to shift from heroic resistance to terror and back to heroic resistance again. All this time Terry Lute sat watching. He gave no heed whatsoever to the words of Parson Down, with which, indeed, he had no concern. He heard nothing; he kept watch--close watch to remember. He opened his heart to the terror of poor Bill Bull; he sought to feel, though the effort was not conscious, what the atheist endured in the presence of the wrath to come. He watched; he memorized every phrase of the torture, as it expressed itself in the changing lines of Bill Bull's countenance, that he might himself express it.

Afterward, in the kitchen, he drew pictures. He drew many; he succeeded in none. He worked in a fever, he destroyed in despair, he began anew with his teeth clenched. And then all at once, a windy night, he gave it all up and came wistfully to sit by the kitchen fire.

"Is you quit?" his mother inquired.

"Ay, Mother."

"H-m-m!" says Skipper Tom, puzzled. "I never knowed you t' quit for the night afore I made you."

Terry Lute shot his father a reproachful glance.

"I must take heed t' my soul," said he, darkly, "lest I be damned for my sins."

Next night Terry Lute knelt at the penitent bench with old Bill Bull. It will be recalled now that he had heard never a word of Parson Down's denunciations and appeals, that he had been otherwise and deeply engaged. His response had been altogether a reflection of Bill Bull's feeling, which he had observed, received, and memorized, and so possessed in the end that he had been overmastered by it, though he was ignorant of what had inspired it. And this, Cobden says, is a sufficient indication of that mastery of subject, of understanding and sympathy, which young Terry Lute later developed and commanded as a great master should, at least to the completion of his picture, in the last example of his work, "The Fang."

At any rate, it must be added that after his conversion Terry Lute was a very good boy for a time.

* * * * *

Terry Lute was in his fourteenth year when he worked on "The Fang." Skipper Tom did not observe the damnable disintegration that occurred, nor was Terry Lute himself at all aware of it. But the process went on, and the issue, a sudden disclosure when it came, was inevitable in the case of Terry Lute. When the northeasterly gales came down with fog, Terry Lute sat on the slimy, wave-lapped ledge overhanging the swirl of water, and watched the spent breaker, streaked with current and flecked with fragments; and he watched, too, the cowering ledge beyond, and the great wave from the sea's restlessness as it thundered into froth and swept on, and the cliff in the mist, and the approach of the offshore ice, and the woeful departure of the last light of day. But he took no pencil to the ledge; he memorized in his way. He kept watch; he brooded.

In this way he came to know in deeper truth the menace of the sea; not to perceive and grasp it fleetingly, not to hold it for the uses of the moment, but surely to possess it in his understanding.

His purpose, avowed with a chuckle, was to convey fear to the beholder of his work. It was an impish trick, and it brought him unwittingly into peril of his soul.

"I 'low," says he between his teeth to Skipper Tom, "that she'll scare the wits out o' you, father."

Skipper Tom laughed.

"She'll have trouble," he scoffed, "when the sea herself has failed."

"You jus' wait easy," Terry grimly promised him, "till I gets her off the stocks."

At first Terry Lute tentatively sketched. Bits of the whole were accomplished,--flecks of foam and the lines of a current,--and torn up. This was laborious. Here was toil, indeed, and Terry Lute bitterly complained of it. 'Twas bother; 'twas labor; there wasn't no sense to it. Terry Lute's temper went overboard. He sighed and shifted, pouted and whimpered while he worked; but he kept on, with courage equal to his impulse, toiling every evening of that summer until his impatient mother shooed him off to more laborious toil upon the task in his nightmares. The whole arrangement was not attempted for the first time until midsummer. It proceeded, it halted, it vanished. Seventeen efforts were destroyed, ruthlessly thrust into the kitchen stove with no other comment than a sigh, a sniff of disgust, and a shuddering little whimper.

It was a windy night in the early fall of the year, blowing high and wet, when Terry Lute dropped his crayon with the air of not wanting to take it up again.

He sighed, he yawned.

"I got her done," says he, "confound her!" He yawned again.

"Too much labor, lad," Skipper Tom complained.

"Pshaw!" says Terry, indignantly. "I didn't labor on her."

Skipper Tom stared aghast in the presence of this monstrously futile prevarication.

"Ecod!" he gasped.

"Why, father," says Terry, airily, "I jus'--sketched her. Do she scare you?"

From Terry Lute's picture Skipper Tom's glance ran to Terry Lute's anxious eyes.

"She do," said he, gravely; "but I'm fair unable t' fathom"--pulling his beard in bewilderment--"the use of it all."

Terry Lute grinned.

* * * * *

It did not appear until the fall gales were blowing in earnest that "The Fang" had made a coward of Terry Lute. There was a gray sea that day, and day was on the wing. There was reeling, noisy water roundabout, turning black in the failing light, and a roaring lee shore; and a gale in the making and a saucy wind were already jumping down from the northeast with a trail of disquieting fog. Terry Lute's spirit failed; he besought, he wept, to be taken ashore. "Oh, I'm woeful scared o' the sea!" he complained. Skipper Tom brought him in from the sea, a whimpering coward, cowering degraded and shamefaced in the stern-sheets of the punt. There were no reproaches. Skipper Tom pulled grimly into harbor. His world had been shaken to ruins; he was grave without hope, as many a man before him has fallen upon the disclosure of inadequacy in his own son.

It was late that night when Skipper Tom and the discredited boy were left alone by the kitchen fire. The gale was down then, a wet wind blowing wildly in from the sea. Tom Lute's cottage shook in its passing fingers, which seemed somehow not to linger long enough to clutch it well, but to grasp in driven haste and sweep on. The boy sat snuggled to the fire for its consolation; he was covered with shame, oppressed, sore, and hopeless. He was disgraced: he was outcast, and now forever, from a world of manly endeavor wherein good courage did the work of the day that every man must do. Skipper Tom, in his slow survey of this aching and pitiful degradation, had an overwhelming sense of fatherhood. He must be wise, he thought; he must be wise and very wary that fatherly helpfulness might work a cure.

The boy had failed, and his failure had not been a thing of unfortuitous chance, not an incident of catastrophe, but a significant expression of character. Terry Lute was a coward, deep down, through and through: he had not lapsed in a panic; he had disclosed an abiding fear of the sea. He was not a coward by any act; no mere wanton folly had disgraced him, but the fallen nature of his own heart. He had failed; but he was only a lad, after all, and he must be helped to overcome. And there he sat, snuggled close to the fire, sobbing now, his face in his hands. Terry Lute knew--that which Skipper Tom did not yet know--that he had nurtured fear of the sea for the scandalous delight of imposing it upon others in the exercise of a devilish impulse and facility.

And he was all the more ashamed. He had been overtaken in iniquity; he was foredone.

"Terry, lad," said Skipper Tom, gently, "you've done ill the day."

"Ay, sir."

"I 'low," Skipper Tom apologized, "that you isn't very well."

"I'm not ailin', sir," Terry whimpered.

"An I was you," Skipper Tom admonished, "I'd not spend time in weepin'."

"I'm woebegone, sir."

"You're a coward, God help you!" Skipper Tom groaned.

"Ay, sir."

Skipper Tom put a hand on the boy's knee. His voice was very gentle.

"There's no place in the world for a man that's afeard o' the sea," he said. "There's no work in the world for a coward t' do. What's fetched you to a pass like this, lad?"

"Broodin', sir."

"Broodin', Terry? What's that?"

"Jus' broodin'."

"Not that damned picture, Terry?"

"Ay, sir."

"How can that be, lad?" It was all incomprehensible to Skipper Tom. "'Tis but an unreal thing."

Terry looked up.

"'Tis real!" he blazed.

"'Tis but a thing o' fancy."

"Ay, fancy! A thing o' fancy! 'Tis fancy that makes it real."

"An' you--a coward?"

Terry sighed.

"Ay, sir," said he, ashamed.

"Terry Lute," said Skipper Tom, gravely, now perceiving, "is you been fosterin' any fear o' the sea?"

"Ay, sir."

Skipper Tom's eye flashed in horrified understanding. He rose in contempt and wrath.

"Practicin' fear o' the sea?" he demanded.

"Ay, sir."

"T' sketch a picture?"

Terry began to sob.

"There wasn't no other way," he wailed.

"God forgive you, wicked lad!"

"I'll overcome, sir."

"Ah, Terry, poor lad," cried Skipper Tom, anguished, "you've no place no more in a decent world."

"I'll overcome."

"'Tis past the time."

Terry Lute caught his father about the neck.

"I'll overcome, father," he sobbed. "I'll overcome."

And Tom Lute took the lad in his arms, as though he were just a little fellow.

* * * * *

And, well, in great faith and affection they made an end of it all that night--a chuckling end, accomplished in the kitchen stove, of everything that Terry Lute had done, saving only "The Fang," which must be kept ever-present, said Skipper Tom, to warn the soul of Terry Lute from the reefs of evil practices. And after that, and through the years since then, Terry Lute labored to fashion a man of himself after the standards of his world. Trouble? Ay, trouble--trouble enough at first, day by day, in fear, to confront the fabulous perils of his imagination. Trouble enough thereafter encountering the sea's real assault, to subdue the reasonable terrors of those parts. Trouble enough, too, by and by, to devise perils beyond the common, to find a madcap way, to disclose a chance worth daring for the sheer exercise of courage. But from all these perils, of the real and the fanciful, of the commonplace path and the way of reckless ingenuity, Terry Lute emerged at last with the reputation of having airily outdared every devil of the waters of Out-of-the-Way.

When James Cobden came wandering by, Terry Lute was a great, grave boy, upstanding, sure-eyed, unafraid, lean with the labor he had done upon his own soul.

* * * * *

When the Stand By, in from Twillingate Harbor, dropped anchor at Out-of-the-Way Tickle, James Cobden had for three days lived intimately with "The Fang." He was hardly to be moved from its company. He had sought cause of offense; he had found no reasonable grounds. Wonder had grown within him. Perhaps from this young work he had visioned the highest fruition of the years. The first warm flush of approbation, at any rate, had changed to the beginnings of reverence. That Terry Lute was a master--a master of magnitude, already, and of a promise so large that in generations the world had not known the like of it--James Cobden was gravely persuaded. And this meant much to James Cobden, clear, aspiring soul, a man in pure love with his art. And there was more: grown old now, a little, he dreamed new dreams of fatherly affection, indulged in a studio which had grown lonely of late; and he promised himself, beyond this, the fine delight of cherishing a young genius, himself the prophet of that power, with whose great fame his own name might bear company into the future. And Terry Lute, met in the flesh, turned out to be a man--even such a man, in his sure, wistful strength, as Cobden could respect.

There came presently the close of a day on the cliffs of Out-of-the-Way, a blue wind blowing over the sunlit moss, when Cobden, in fear of the issue, which must be challenged at last, turned from his work to the slope behind, where Terry Lute sat watching.

"Come!" said Cobden, smiling, "have a try."

Terry Lute shrank amused from the extended color-box and brushes.

"Ah, no, sir," said he, blushing. "I used t', though, when I were a child."

Cobden blinked.

"Eh?" he ejaculated.

"I isn't done nothin' at it since."

"'I put away childish things,'" flashed inevitably into Cobden's mind. He was somewhat alarmed. "Why not since then?" he asked.

"'Tis not a man's work, sir."

"Again, why not?"

"'Tis a sort o'--silly thing--t' do."

"Good God!" Cobden thought, appalled. "The lad has strangled his gift!"

Terry Lute laughed then.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said quickly, with a wistful smile, seeking forgiveness; "but I been watchin' you workin' away there like mad with all them little brushes. An' you looked so sort o' funny, sir, that I jus' couldn't help--laughin'." Again he threw back his head, and once more, beyond his will, and innocent of offense and blame, he laughed a great, free laugh.

It almost killed James Cobden.

[The end]
Norman Duncan's short story: Art Of Terry Lute