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‘The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”–Part 2

Lucius Cranfield set the candle on a green bottle on the table, and pointed round the walls, where all manner of drawings on canvas, wood, or paper hung. They depicted horrible and fantastic things–mandrakes, dragons, curious shells and plants, monsters, and distorted flowers. In one corner were a number of parasols of silk and brocade, ruffled and frilled, having carved handles and ribboned sticks.

Lord James put up his glass and looked about him.

“Do you know who I am?” he said, speaking in an absorbed way. and keeping his back to Lucius Cranfield, who stood huddled together on the other side of the table, staring before him with dead-seeming eyes.

There was no answer, and Lord James laughed softly.

“You paint very well, Mr. Cranfield, but I must have something more cheerful than any of these”–he pointed his elegant cane at the designs. “That fish, now, that you have on your own sign, that is a beautiful thing.”

The sign-painter groaned and thrust his fingers into his untidy brown hair.

“I cannot paint that again,” he said.

“Sell me the sign, then.” Lord James spoke quickly.

“I cannot…it is hanging there that it may be seen…that whosoever holds the other fish may see it…and then…”

“How mad you are! cried Lord James.”What, then, even should one come who has the other fish?” His black eyes blinked sharply, and his lips twitched back from his teeth.

“Then I shall find my enemy. The witch said so…”

“But you may die first.”

“I cannot die till the spell is accomplished.” shivered Lucius Cranfield. “Nor can I lose the fish.”

Lord James put his hand to his waistcoat-pocket.

“Your light is very dim,” he remarked. “I do not see clearly, but I think I observe a violet-colored parasol–“

The other lifted his head.

“They are very interesting to make.”

“Will you show me that one?

Lucius Cranfield turned slowly towards the corner of the room.

“I began to work on that the night my father was hanged…as I sewed on the frills I thought of my enemies and how I hated them; and the night I killed one of them I finished it, carving the handle into the likeness of an ivory rose.”

“You have sinned also,” said Lord James, through his teeth. He took his hand from his pocket and put it behind his back.

“I have been a great sinner,” answered the sign-painter.

He took the purple parasol from the corner and shook out its shimmering silk furbelows.

“I will buy that.” Lord James leant against the table, close to the candle flaring in the green bottle. In its yellow light the brilliant color of his coat shone like a jewel.

“The parasol is not for sale,” said Lucius Cranfield sourly, gazing down on it. “Why do you not choose your design and go??

Now it was quite dark, both outside, beyond the windows, and in the corners of the long room. The waters sounded insistently as they lapped against the house. There was no moon but through a corner of the thick murky sky one stat flickered, and the sign-painter lifted his dimmed eyes from the candle-flame and looked at it.

“What do you see?” asked Lord James curiously. He came softly up behind the other.

“A star,” was the reply. “It is shining above the lonely white tree that is always knocking at the closed shutters…”

Lord James hand came round from behind his back.

“But one can never see them both at the same time, ” continued the sign-painter. “When the star comes out the tree is hidden, and only when the star sets…”

Lord James’s fine hand rose slowly and fell swiftly…

Lucius Cranfield sank on his face silently, and the flaring light of the unsnuffed candle flickered on the wet dagger as it glistened from between his shoulders.

Lord James stepped back and gazed with a long smile at his victim, who writhed an instant and then lay still on the dusty floor.

The sound of the water without seemed to increase his strength. The secret yet turbulent noise of it filled the chamber like a presence as Lord James turned over the body of the sign-painter and opened his red coat.

In an inner pocket he found it, wrapped in a piece of blue satin.

The crystal fish. It was of all colors, yet no color, translucent as water, holding like a bubble, all hues, finely wrought with fins and scales, cold to the hand, shining with a pure light of its own to the eye.

Lord James rose from his knees and put out the candle.

The river sounded so loud that he paused to listen to it. He thought he could distinguish the swish of oars and the clatter of them in the rowlocks.

He went to the window and looked out. By the glimmer of the star and the radiance of the fish in his hand he could discern that there was nobody on the river, only the deserted boat fastened to the rotting stake.

He smiled; the faint light was caught in his ribbons, his diamonds, his dark evil eyes. As he stared at the black row of water, the crystal fish began to writhe in his hand. It pushed and struggled, then leapt through his hand and plunged into the blackness of the river.

Lord James peered savagely at it, his smile changing to a grin of anger. But the fish had sunk like a bolt of iron, and thinking of the depth of the river Lord James was comforted.

He came back to the table. It was quite dark, but his eyes served him equally well day or night. He picked up his clouded cane with the crimson tassels, his black hat laced with gold, his vivid green cloak, he kissed his hand to the prone body of the sign-painter, and left the room. In a leisurely fashion, he walked down the passage, pushed open the crazy front door, and stepped out into the lonely street.

He looked up at the sign on which were painted the crystal fish and the man on the gallows; then he began to put on his gloves.

As he did so the violet parasol came to his mind. He turned back.

Softly he re-entered the long studio.The noise of the water had subsided to a mere murmur. Rats were running about the room and sitting on the body of Lucius Cranfield. He could see them despite the intense darkness,and he stepped delicately, to avoid their tails.

The violet parasol was on the floor near the dead man. He stooped to pick it up, and the rats squealed violently and showed their teeth.

Lord James nodded to them and left the house again with the parasol under his arm.

II. THE RIVER AND THE GARDEN

The garden sloped down along the straight high-road upon the side to which the house faced, and at the back ran the river which divided the pleasaunce and the meadows.

Separating the garden from the road was a prim box hedge, very high, very wide, and very old. Behind this grew the neat garden flowers, and beneath it the tangled weeds which edged the road.

Here sat Lord James on a milestone, playing Faro with a one-eyed gipsy.

The summer sunset sparkled on the red gables of the house and in the clothes of Lord James, which were of crimson and blue sarcenet branched with gold and silver.

The gipsy was young and ugly; he wore a green patch upon his eyeless socket, and now and then listened, keenly. to the sound of the church bells that came up from the valley, for the village ringers were practicing for Lord James’s wedding.

The two played silently. The red and black cards scattered over the close green grass shaded by the large wild-parsley flowers. Beside the milestone lay Lord James’ hat, stick, and cloak. His horse was fastened by a bridle to the stout branch of a laurel tree that bent over from the garden.

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