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“The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”–Part 4

In the great banqueting-room a dinner of two covers was laid. The service was of gold and silver, the glasses twisted with milk- white lines. The table was laid with six tall candles painted with wreaths of pinks and forget-me-nots, and their light ran gleaming and faint over the white cloth.

“I am going to try on my wedding dress,” said Lady Serena. “Will you wait for me?”

‘It is unlucky to wear your wedding-dress before your wedding-day,” said Lord James.

But she left the chamber without a word or a smile.

The room opened by wide windows onto the terrace at the back that sloped down to the river, and the sound of the water throbbing between its banks seemed to grow in volume and to speak threateningly to Lord James as he sat at the table with the glass and silver glittering before him, and the heart-shaped candle-flames casting a flickering glow over his sickly face.

It was the same river, and he knew it. As the last flash of light faded from the heavens he saw the moon, a strong pearl color, rise above the trees, and a great sparkling reflection fell across the river, marking with lines of silver the turbulent eddies that chased one another down the stream.

After a while Lord James rose and walked swiftly to the window, and his eyes became wide and bright as he stroked his chin and gazed at the river.

When he turned round again, Lucius Cranfield stood in the doorway looking at him.

A spasm of fear contracted Lord James’s features, then he spoke evenly.

“Good evening,” he said.

“Good evening,” replied Lucius Cranfield, and he bowed. “I have brought back a parasol I have mended–a lady’s parasol, purple, with an ivory rose on the handle.”

Between them there was an ill-lit space of room and the bright table bearing the candles.They looked at each other, and Lord James’s face grew long and foxy.

“How much do I owe you, Mr. Cranfield?” he asked.

“A great deal,” said the sign-painter, shaking his head. “Oh a great deal.’

Smiling, he set the parasol against a chair. His eyes were no longer bloodshot nor his cheeks pallid. His hair was neatly dressed. He wore the same red suit, and between the shoulder-blades it had been slit and mended with stitchings of gold thread.

“How much?” repeated Lord James.

Lucius Cranfield laughed.

“I do not believe that you are alive at all,” sneered the other. rubbing his hands together. “How did you get away from the rats?”

“Do you not hear the river?” whispered the sign-painter. “It is the same river.”

Lord James came towards the table.

“I will pay you tomorrow for your work,” and he pointed to the mended parasol.

“That is no debt of yours,” answered Lucius Cranfield.” I did it for the lady of the house, Serena Thornton.”

“She is my betrothed,” said Lord James. And I will pay you tomorrow—“

“No…tonight.”

And the sign-painter smiled and stepped nearer.

‘You lost the crystal fish,” murmured Lord James, biting his forefinger, and glancing round the dark, lonely room.

“But someone else has found it.”

The other gave a snarl of rage.

“No! It is at the bottom of the river!”

At that Lucius Cranfield leant forward and seized his enemy by the throat. Lord James shrieked, and they swayed together for a moment. But the sign-painter twisted the other’s head round on his shoulders and dropped him, a heap of gay clothes, on the waxed floor.

Then he began to sing, and turned to the open window.

The river was quiet now, flowing peacefully in between its banks, and Lucius Cranfield stepped out onto the terrace and walked towards its waters shining in the moonlight.

Almost before the last echo of his footsteps had died away in the silent room, Lady Serena Thornton entered, holding her dress up from her shoes

Her gown was white, all wreathed across the hoop with ropes of seed pearls, and laced across the bodice with diamonds. In her high head-dress floated two soft plumes fastened with clusters of pale roses Round her neck hung Lord James’s gift of amethysts.

She stood in the doorway, her painted lips parted, her dark blue eyes fixed on the body of her betrothed husband.

Presently she went up and looked at him. Then she sat down on the chair by the table–sat down, breathing heavily–with her right hand on the smooth satin of her bodice, and slow,strange, changes passing over her face.She glanced at the purple parasol, resting across the chair where Lord James should have sat, and then out at the distant river, that showed white as her bridal-dress where the moonlight caught its ripples. She heard the far-off singing of the sign-painter, and she sighed, closing her eyes.

The six candles burnt steadily, casting a rim of dark shadow round the table and the dead man on the floor, and glittering in the embroidered flowers in his gaudy coat and in the jewels of the woman at the table.

The black clock on the mantelshelf struck ten. The sound was echoed by the chimes from the village church.

Lady Serena Thornton rose and went upstairs, her wide hoops brushing the balustrade either side, her high heels tapping on the polished wood.

She entered her room and lit a little silver lamp on the dressing-table.

The chamber looked out upon the back; the window was open, and she could still see the river and hear Lucius Cranfield singng.

Slowly she took the feathers, ribbons and flowers out of her curls, and laid them on the tulip-wood table. Then she shook down her hair from its wire frame and brushed the powder out of it. She had almost forgotten what color it was–m reality a ruby golden-brown, like the tint of wallflowers.

She unlaced her bodice and flung aside her jewels. She stepped out of her hoop and took off her satin coat, staring at herself in the gilt oval mirror.

Then she washed her face free of paint and powder in her gold basin, and tied up her locks with a red ribbon. She cast off her long earrings, her bracelets, her rings, the necklace Lord James had given her. This slipped, like the glitter of purple water, through her fingers, and shone like a little heap of stars on her gleaming waxed floor.

She arrayed herself in a brown dress, plain and straight, and took the two fishes from her velvet bag to hang them round her neck.

Again she looked at herself. Who would have known her? Not Lord James himself, could he have risen from the floor in the solitary room below, and come up the wide stairs to gaze at her. Her face was utterly changed, he carriage different.

She blew out the lamp. A faint trail of smoke stained the moonlight that filled the room She listened and heard the river and the sign-painter singing. On her bosom the fishes throbbed and glowed, opal-colored and luminous.

Leaving the room lightly, softly, she descended through the dark to the dining room.

The six flower-wreathed candles still burnt steadily among the glass and silver. She glanced at Lord James sorrowfully, and picked up the mended parasol.

As she did so, the bells broke out in a volume of glad sound–the villagers practicing yet again for her wedding on the morrow.

Lady Serena Thornton smiled, and as Lucius Cranfield had done, and almost in his steps, went down the long room and through the open window on to the terrace. Slowly she walked towards the river, which she could see moving restlessly under the moonlight. The bells were very loud, but through them came the words of his song–

“The clouds were tangled in the trees–

They broke the boughs and spoiled the fruit;

The sleeper knows what the sleeper sees–

You play spades, and I follow suit!

The clouds came down, the drops of rain,

And woke the grass to blooms of fire;

The sleeper tore his dream in twain,

And sought for the cards in the bitter mire!”

The bells ceased suddenly. Lady Serena saw the dark figure of the sign-painter, standing at the edge of the water, his back to her.

“If I have won, ’tis little matter;

If I have lost, ’tis naught at all;

The wind will chill and the sun will flatter

And the damp earth fill the mouths of all.”

There was a boat before him, rocking on the urgent water, and as the lady came up the sign-painter stooped over it. Then he turned and saw her.

“Good even,” said Lady Serena. He took her hand and kissed her face. The sound of the river was heavily in their ears.

“I found your fish,” she whispered.

He nodded, and they entered the boat. It was lined with violet silk and scented with spices.

“The villagers will have practiced for nothing,” said Lady Serena.

Lucius Cranfield loosened the rope that held the boat fast. to a willow, and it began to drift down the stream towards the town.

We are going to a house where a tree with white flowers knocks for admittance on the shutters,” he said.

“I know,” she answered, “I know.”

She sat opposite to him, leaning back, and the light night wind blew apart her brown robe here and there on the gleam of the bright green petticoat beneath. Her yellow hair floated behind her, and the crystal fishes rose and fell with her breathing. Across her knees lay the purple parasol.

They looked at each other and smiled with parted lips. The boat sped swiftly under a high bank. treeless and full under the rays of the moon. Here, by a round stone, sat two figures playing cards.

Lucius Cranfield glanced up. The players turned white, grinning faces down towards the boat. They were the one-eyed gipsy and Lord James.

“Good night” nodded the sign-painter. I do not believe you are alive at all. Why, I can almost see through you!…”

“Do you know me?” mocked Lady Serena.

And the boat was swept away along the winding river.

Lord James listened to the sign-painter’s song that floated up from the dark water.

If I win, ’tis little matter;

If I lose, ’tis naught at all;

The wind will chill and the sun will flatter,

And the red earth stop the mouths of all.”

“They will never get there,” grinned Lord James. “I shall go down tomorrow and see the empty boat upside down, tossing outside the shuttered house.”

“There is no tomorrow for such as you,” leered the gipsy. “You had your neck broken an hour ago…presently we will go home…your deal.”

Lord James sighed, and a great cloud suddenly overspread the moon.

The gipsy began to sing in a harsh voice, and his eyes turned red in his head as he shuffled the cards.

“If I win,,’tis little matter;

If I lose, ’tis naught at all;

The wind will chill and the sun will flatter,

And the damp earth stop the mouths of all.”

Far away down the river the boat flashed for the last time in the moonlight, then was lost to sight under the shadow of the over-hanging trees.

6 Responses

  1. Well, the story scared me. I have always been afraid of ghosts.

  2. Oh, I am sorry about that, Beata. To perhaps make you feel better, Lord James’s’ spectre. had no power. And Lucius Cranfield was not a ghost, as once Serena found the fish, and then put them together, it resubstantiated him, as per the spell.

    Thank you for taking the time to read it, though. I thought it would be nice to share it, as it is most likely that not many know of it.

  3. I thought Lucius and Serena were both ghosts, fated to be united only in death. And when Lucius said as they traveled across the water, “We are going to a house where a tree with white flowers knocks for admittance on the shutters”, I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for heaven where they would be together forever. But I see now I was mistaken.

  4. The most haunting short stories I have ever read are Aharon Appelfeld’s “Bertha” and S.Y. Agnon’s “The Face and the Image”.

    The ghosts in them are memories that cannot be forgotten.

    • The ghosts in those, rather than them.

      It was 7:15 am. That is my excuse. Do not grade me harshly.

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