“You have come at an excellent time, Mr. Geduld, as I am about to complete this painting.” He shook hands with the writer. “Please have a seat and you may observe. I trust that will be useful for your book.”
“Indeed it will, Mr. Truitt, and let me thank you again for this opportunity.”
Truitt smiled. “The opportunity is mine, Mr. Geduld. To be included in a book about the great painters of our day will be quite the honor.”
“I believe the chapter about the life and work of Peter Bascomb Truitt will be of the greatest interest, sir. Are you painting this still life with your particular method of merely glancing at the canvas?”
“I am, as I will now demonstrate.”
Truitt seated himself and took up his brush. He dipped it in a red and poised it over the canvas. Then he turned his head a full ninety degrees from the painting and regarded the bowl of fruit he had arranged atop a small table. Only the strawberry resting between two oranges was left to fill in. Geduld sat transfixed as the artist moved his right hand and the strawberry began to come to life in the painting. Truitt occasionally flicked his eyes to the right to check on his progress and the positioning of his brush; his gaze lasted no longer than a half second. After painting the strawberry’s body, Truitt delineated it from the oranges with a little shading. Then he deftly added the seeds.
The writer was finally prodded to speak again. “It appears that you have perfectly replicated the pattern of the seeds. I am absolutely amazed!”
“Thank you, Mr. Geduld.” Now Truitt gave his painting a long, hard look, comparing his strawberry with the real one, studying every aspect of the actual subject and his painting. “Done.” He plied the brush a final time to sign his work.
“How wonderful that I was here to see this,” Geduld enthused. He took out his notebook and pen. “How did you come to paint in this manner?”
Truitt’s entire body stiffened, as if frozen in some nameless terror. The paralysis lasted only a couple of seconds, but the writer had noticed.
Truitt managed to wave a hand theatrically. “I feel that if I am truly immersed in my art, then I have no need of staring at my canvas. I see my subject before me and my hand applies the pigments appropriately. I am told that pianists look at their music and not at their hands and keyboard as they play; it is the same with me. It has taken a great deal of time and effort, but it has been most rewarding.”
“I am certain that it is.”
“And now, if you would care to accompany me, I shall return you to my sister and her husband, in the house. You may interview them while – ” he froze again, just momentarily – “while I work on another piece. Indeed, if you are fortunate, Jonathan might play his cello for you.”
“Certainly.” There were several impertinent questions the writer wished to ask, but he held his tongue. Perhaps he could find a suitable means of broaching the subject with the artist’s family.
“Mrs. Moore, Mr. Moore, it must surely be the greatest delight to have in your family and under your roof one of the most celebrated painters of this era.”
The three of them were seated in the Moores’ parlor: Edgar Geduld, Elizabeth Truitt Moore, and her husband, Jonathan. Geduld noticed a quick pinched look on Mr. Moore’s face, quickly erased. He had apparently heard his fill of how great his artist brother-in-law was.
“Mrs. Moore, your brother has painted all his life, then?”
“Oh, yes. Mother and Father gave him a child’s set of paints and canvas as a gift on his fifth birthday. That settled his life’s course. Our parents had not intended that result, naturally, but they were both pleased.”
“This is quite the artistic family, then,” Geduld said. “You, Mrs. Moore, play the piano, I am told.”
“Not as well as Peter paints, but I do well enough for myself.”
“And Mr. Truitt suggested that if I were fortunate, you might play your cello for me, Mr. Moore.”
“Peter is kind. I am employed as a cellist by the philharmonic.”
Moore’s face hardened a bit. “Fifth.”
Mrs. Moore intervened. “Jonathan frequently takes his cello out to Peter’s studio and plays while Peter paints.”
Moore relaxed again. “He is partial to the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. I play it for him regularly.”
Geduld nodded politely at the musician. Moore had not managed to make his mark on the world as had his brother-in-law, but there was no animosity between them.
“Now, Mr. Truitt studied abroad with some of the great painters of France; this is well known. Then he came home and his genius was beginning to take purchase when the war interrupted.”
Elizabeth had fully expected this line of questioning and where it would lead.
“Yes, Peter put down the brush and took up the sword. We were concerned for his safety, of course, but we were all so proud of him. He enlisted as a private and quickly became a captain.”
“Did you serve in the war to preserve our Union, Mr. Moore?” Geduld asked courteously.
Moore shifted slightly. “Yes. I was in the quartermaster’s department here in the city. I was mustered out after the war as a corporal.”
Geduld nodded again and told himself to stop asking questions about Moore’s life.
Truitt set the canvas on the easel and sighed uneasily as he sat before it. He turned his head and looked at the blank wall as his hand clarified the details of an ever-present day in the woods.
“I don’t wish to belabor the topic,” Geduld said, “but Mr. Truitt – Captain Truitt – left the service in 1863 after an incident of some sort. I have never read an account of that incident.”
“Nor shall you, Mr. Geduld,” Elizabeth said. “Peter has never told us what happened. We know little more than that it was while he was alone in some woods.”
Truitt took several quick glances. The woods appeared on the canvas much as they had that day when he stood in them.
He set his brush down and drew an unsteady breath. It was time. This was the moment toward which all his efforts had been directed. This was why he had taught himself to paint without looking at the canvas. It was his only hope of finally telling his story.
He turned his palette and dipped a fine brush in the black to make an outline. As he set the tip of the brush to the canvas, he whimpered involuntarily and began to perspire.
“No one serving under Peter knew what had happened,” Elizabeth told the writer. “He had been missed after an hour or two, and men were searching for him. He stumbled back into camp, scarcely able to walk or to speak. He pointed back the way he had come from. Several men backtracked his path for three miles, but they found nothing of interest. He was treated by his unit’s doctor for a couple of days and then was transferred to the hospital in the capital. As there was not a mark on him, the doctors were at a loss. At times, Peter was perfectly fine, but then – apparently when he remembered what happened in the woods – he would … well, there were terrible physical manifestations of his angst.”
Truitt had his outline done and almost had the focal point of his latest work filled in. Its simplicity made the going quick, if not easy. He held a cloth to his nose, to catch the free-flowing blood. He took up another brush and quickly signed his painting even though it was not yet complete. Truitt felt certain he would not be able to sign it later.
Mr. Moore took up the story. “Peter was honorably discharged from the service of his country and sent back here. You are right, Mr. Geduld, to speak to us about this rather than to Peter, and I shall thank you for that continued courtesy. Peter has never shaken what happened in those woods. It is almost twenty years later, and we can always tell when he is thinking about it. Those manifestations become apparent and he is in agony.”
“He says that he saw something that no one should ever see,” Mrs. Moore said.
“That is true of much of what men see in war,” Geduld said.
“My brother-in-law is a decorated hero of several battles, Mr. Geduld,” Moore said sternly. “He has told me, when his sister has not been around, in great detail about some of the more vile aspects of the business of war. Whatever occurred that singular day in the woods, it was well beyond the ordinary horrors a war inflicts on its practitioners.”
Blood trickled from Truitt’s ears and his eyes. Most of his body was paralyzed, and it required a supreme effort to keep his right arm and hand mobile. There was only one thing left to accomplish – the part Truitt could scarcely bring himself to do. He bit his lip savagely and dipped his brush in the black again, working as quickly as he could.
A moment later, he was finished. His arm fell and he dropped the brush on the floor. He wheezed, and his head and torso felt as though they were aflame.
Truitt slowly turned his face to his painting.
“So I doubt very much that we shall ever learn more about it,” Mrs. Moore said. “But what matters is what Peter has achieved since the war.”
“I couldn’t agree more heartily,” Geduld said. “Let us set the interruption in his career aside and focus on –”
A hideous scream cut the writer off. Moore leaped from the couch and raced to the studio in the back yard. Elizabeth and Geduld followed quickly.
“Stay out, Elizabeth!” Moore shouted. She ignored his warning and found her husband crouched next to her brother. The artist lay in a copious pool of his blood, and he breathed no more.
Geduld took in the tragic scene. “Within this very hour I watched him paint,” he whispered. “Now he is lost to us.”
Elizabeth began to weep. “What could have happened to him?” Jonathan shook his head. He stood and stepped over the blood to embrace his wife.
Geduld lifted his eyes from the bloody floor to the easel. He drew in a sharp breath and his skin turned to gooseflesh.
“Mr. Moore,” he said quietly. “Mrs. Moore. I do not know what it means, but I believe we know what the dearly departed Mr. Truitt saw that day in the woods.”
Mrs. Moore put her hand to her mouth to cover a shriek.
“My God…” Jonathan Moore whispered. “What from the depths of hell is that?”
They puzzled over the question for the rest of their lives. It would be more than half a century before others reported seeing what Peter Bascomb Truitt had died painting. Until then, no one knew of the gray aliens with their enormous, pitiless black eyes, and the grotesque experiments they performed on their hapless human subjects.