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A Special Halloween Story–“The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”–Part 1

This is one of my favorite short stories ever. I think it is an absolute masterpiece. I first read it in a collection of short stories, and I had never heard of Marjorie Bowen, and I was amazed by how elegantly ornate and yet haunting and touching it is. It is not a horror story. It is closer to the genre of Fantasy, but it is not that, either. It has the style of a story written in the 19th Century, but it is more unique, I think. There is a vivid, dreamlike quality which only the best writers can effectively create without it seeming pretentious. Marjorie Bowen was a great writer, in my opinion, and this is her short story masterpiece. It is so unusual that the first time I read it, I thought that this must have been the second part of a story which was not in the collection, but I realized that there was not, and that Bowen had imagined a prequel to the events she portrays.

As you may know, I am a great fan of Marjorie Bowen, who I think was so talented, and more. In this story, which I think was written when she was 24, there is a is a sincerity and even innocence in her narrative and descriptions. It is very memorable, and I hope you will read it all the way through. It is somewhat lengthy, so I decided to separate it into four different posts here, so as not to have an individual page run very long It is certainly best read in one sitting, ideally if you are not distracted, as it creates a mood. It took me a long time to transcribe it, so I hope many of you will give it a try. It will not scare you! I have read some others in a somewhat similar style, but this story has intelligence, depth, and a special romantic quality to it.

Happy Halloween!

THE SIGN-PAINTER AND THE CRYSTAL FISHES by Marjorie Bowen

I. THE RIVER AND THE HOUSE

The house was built beside a river. In the evening, the sun would lie reflected in the dark water, a stain of red in between the thick shadows cast by the buildings, and there was the long ripple to dull crimson, shifting as the water rippled between the high houses.

Beneath the house was a long stake, hung at the bottom with stagnant green, white and dry at the top. A rotting boat that floated the tattered remains of crimson cushions was affixed to the stake by a fraying rope.Sometimes the boat was thrown against the post by the strong evil ripples, and there was a dismal creaking noise.

Opposite this house was a garden–a narrow strip of ground closed round by the blank, dark houses, and led up to from the water by a flight of narrow, crumbling steps.

Nothing grew in this garden but small, bright, rank grass, and a tree that bore white flowers.The house it belonged to was empty and shuttered; so was every house along the canal except for this one, at the top window of which Lucius Cranfield sat shivering in his mean red coat. He was biting his finger and looking out across the water at the tree with pale flowers knocking at the closed shutter beside it.

The room was bare and falling to decay. Cobwebs swung from the great beam in the roof, and in every corner a spider’s web was spun across the dirty plaster walls.

There was no glass in the windows, and the shutters swung loose on broken hinges. Now and again they creaked against the flat brick front of the house, and then Lucius Cranfield winced.

He held a round clear mirror in his hand, and sometimes he looked away from the solitary tree to glance into it. When he did so he beheld a pallid face surrounded by straight brown hair, lips that had once been beautiful, and blurred eyes veined with red like some curious stone.

As the red sun began to grow fainter in the water a step sounded on the rotting stairway, the useless door was pushed open, and Lord James Fontaine entered.

Slowly, and with a mincing step, he came across the dusty floor. He wore a dress of bright violet watered silk, his hair was rolled fantastically, and powdered such a pure white that his face looked sallow by contrast. To remedy this, he had painted his cheeks and his lips, and powdered his forehead and chin. But the impression made was not of a pink and fresh complexion, but a yellow countenance rouged. There were long pearls in his ears and under his left eye an enormous patch. His eyes slanted toward his nose, his nostrils curved upward, and his thin lips were smiling.

He carried a cane hung with blood-colored tassels, and his waistcoat was embroidered with green flowers, the hue of an emerald, and green flowers the tint of a pale sea.

“You paint signs, do you not?,” he said, and nodded.

“Yes, I paint signs,” answered the other. He looked away from Lord James, and across the darkening water to the lonely tree opposite. The sky above the deserted houses was turning cold wet grey. A flight of crows went past, hung for a moment round the chimney pots, and then flew on again.

“Will you design me a sign-board?” said Lord Janes, smiling. “Something noble and gay, for I have taken a new house in town.”

“My workshop is downstairs,” said Lucius Cranfield., without looking round. “Why did you come up?” He laid down the mirror and rubbed his cold fingers together.

“I rang and fhere was no answer, I knocked and there was no answer, so I pushed open the door and came up; why not?” Lord James regarded the sign-painter keenly and smiled again, and pressed the knob of his clouded cane against his chin.

“Oh, why not?” echoed Lucius Cranfield. “Only this is a poor place to come for a gay and noble sign.”

He turned his head now, and there was a curious twist on his colorless lips.

“But you have a very splendid painting swinging outside your front door,” said Lord James suavely. “Never did I see a fairer painting and brighter hues. Is it your work?” he questioned.

“Mine, yes,” assented the sign-painter drearily.

“Fashion me a sign-board such as that,” said Lord James.

Lucius Cranfield left off rubbing his hands together.

“The same subjects?” he asked.

The other lowered his lids.

“The subjects are curious,” he replied. “Where did you get them?”

“From life,” said the sign-painter, staring at the tattered veils of cobwebs fluttering from the broken window-frame. “From my life.”

The bright dark eyes of the visitor flickered from right to left. He moved a little nearer the window, where, despite the thickening twilight, his violet silk coat gleamed like the light on a sheet of water.

“You have had a strange life,” he remarked, sneering, “to cull from it such incidents.”

“What did you behold that was so extraordinary?” asked Lucius Cranfield.

“On one side there is a depicted a gallows. a man in a gay habit hanging on it and his face has some semblance to your own; the reverse bears the image of a fish, white, yet shot with all the colors…it is so skillfully executed that it looks as if it moved through the water….”

An expression of faint and troubled interest came over the sign-painter’s face.

“Have you seen such a fish?” he asked

Lord James’ features seemed to contract and sharpen.”Never,” he said hastily.

Lucas Cranfield rose, slowly and stiffly.

“There are two in the world,” he said, half to himself, “and before the end I shall find the other, and then everything will be mended and put straight.”

“Unless you lose your own token first,” remarked Lord James harshly.

“How did you know that I had one,?” asked the sign-painter sharply.

Lord James laughed.

“Oh, you’re gong mad, my fine friend. Do you not feel that you must be living alone in such a fashion in this old house?”

Lucius Cranfield dragged himself to a cupboard in the wall.

“How my limbs ache!” he muttered. “Mad?” A look of cunning spread over his features. “No, I shall not go mad while I have the one crystal fish, nor before I find the owner of the other.”

It was so dark they could barely see each other; but the nobleman’s dress still shone bright and cold in the gloom.

“Yes, it is enough to make a man go mad,” he remarked suavely, “to remember how rich and handsome you were once, with what fine clothes and furniture and friends…and then to remember how your father was hanged, and you were ruined, and all through the lies of your enemy… “

But my enemy died, too,” said Lucius Cranfield. He took a thick candle and a rusty tinder-box out of the cupboard.

“His son is alive,” replied Lord James.

A coarse yellow flame spurted acros the dust.

“I wish I had killed them both,” said the sign-painter, “but I could never find the son…How badly the candle burns!…”

He held the tinder to the cold box,and only a feeble tongue of fire sprang up.

“You are quite mad!” smiled Lord James. “You never killed either…and now that your blood is chilled with misery and weakened with evil days, you never will.”

The candle-flame strengthened and illumined the chamber. It showed Lord James holding his chin in a long white hand, and woke his diamonds into stars.

“Will you go downstairs and choose your design? said Lucius Cranfield, shivering. “Take care of the stairs.They are rather dusty.”

He shuffled to the door, and held aloft the light. It revealed the twisting stairway where the plaster hung cracked and dry on the walls, or bulged damp and green in patches as the damp had come through. The rafters were warped and bending, and in one spot a fan-shaped fungus had spread in a blotch of mottled orange.

Lord James came softly up behind the sign-painter and peered over the stairs.

“This is a mean place,” he said, smiling, “for a great gentleman to live in…and you were a great gentleman once, Mr. Cranfield.”

The other gave him a cunning look over his shoulder.

“When I find he owner of the fish, I shall be a great gentleman again, or kill my enemy–that is in the spell.”

They went downstairs slowly because of the rotting steps and uncertain light. Lord James rested his long fingers on the dusty balustrade.

“Do you not find the days long and dull here?” he asked.

The reply came unsteadily from the bowed red figure of the sign-painter.

‘No…I paint…and then I make umbrellas.”

“Umbrellas!” Lord James laughed unpleasantly.

“And parasols. Would you not like a parasol for your wife, James Fontaine?”

“Ah, you know me, it seems.”

“I know what you call yourself, ” said Lucius Cranfield. “And here is my studio. Will you look at the designs upon the wall?”

Lord James grinned and slipped delicately along the dark passage to the door indicated. It opened into a dark chamber the entire depth of the house. There were windows on either side: one way looking into the river, the other onto the street.

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