The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes

Marjorie Bowen

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes

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. It was twilight now, and there was the long ripple of dull crimson, shifting as the water rippled sullenly between the high houses.

Beneath this house was an old stake, hung at the bottom with stagnant green, white and dry at the top. A rotting boat that fluttered the tattered remains of faded 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 crumbling steps.

Nothing grew in this garden but tall, bright, rank grass and a small tree that bore white flowers. The house it belonged to was empty and shuttered; so was every house along the canal except 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 window, 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 with straight brown hair, lips that had once been beautiful, and blurred eyes veined with red like some curious stone.

As the red sunlight began to grow fainter in the water a step sounded on the rotting stairway, the useless splitting 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 of a yellow countenance rouged. There were long pearls in his ears and under his left eye an enormous patch. His eyes slanted towards his nose, his nostrils curved upwards, 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 at the lonely tree opposite. The sky above the deserted houses was turning a cold wet grey. A flight of crows went past, clung for a moment round the chimney-pots, and flew on again.

“Will you design me a sign-board?” asked Lord James, 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 there 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 to 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 own door,” said Lord James suavely. “Never did I see fairer drawing nor brighter hues. It is 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 on 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 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 skilfully 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 ever seen such a fish?” he asked.

Lord James’s features seemed to contract and sharpen.

“Never,” he said hastily.

Lucius 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 I had one?” asked the sign-painter sharply. Lord James laughed.

“Oh, you’re going mad, my fine friend! Do you not feel that you must be, living alone in such 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.

“Yet it is enough to make a man go mad,” he remarked suavely, “to reflect 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 across 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 wax, and only a small tongue of feeble 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 sharp chin in a long white hand, and woke his diamonds into stars.

“Will you come 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 the owner of the fish,” he answered, “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 lightly on the dusty balustrade.

“Do you not find the days very 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 stepped delicately along the dark passage to the door indicated. It opened into a low chamber the entire depth of the house. There were windows on either side: one way looking onto the river, the other onto the street.

Lucius Cranfield set the candle in a green bottle on the table, and pointed round the walls where all manner of drawings on canvas, wood, and 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.

“So 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 far 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 rift in the thick, murky sky one star 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 bed 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’s 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 glistened on the wet dagger as it was withdrawn 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 secretive 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 of no color; translucent as water, holding, like a bubble, all hues, finely wrought with fins and scales, light and 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 latter of them in the rowlocks.

He went to the window and looked out. By the glimmer of the star and the radiance cast by 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 up and down the black road of water, the crystal fish began to writhe in his hand. It pushed and struggled, then leapt through his fingers and plunged into the blackness of the river.

Lord James peered savagely after 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 reentered 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 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 to the straight high-road upon the side to which the house faced, and at the back ran the river dividing the pleasaunce from 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 that 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 over 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’s hat, stick, and cloak. His horse was fastened by its bridle to a stout branch of a laurel-tree that bent over from the garden.

“You always win,” said the gipsy.

Lord James smiled, then coughed till he shook the powder off his face on to his cravat.

“Another game,” he said, and shuffled the cards.

At this a lady looked over the box hedge, and gave them both a bitter frown.

Little bright pink and blue ribbons were threaded through her high-piled white curls, round her neck was a diamond necklace, and on the front of her black velvet bodice a long trail of jasmine was pinned. Her painted lips curled scornfully, and her azure eyes darkened as she stared across and over the box hedge at Lord James.

He looked up at her, waved his hand, and rose.

“You are late,” she remarked stiffly.

“I have been playing cards,” he answered. “May I present you to my friend?” He pointed to the gipsy.

“No,” she said, and turned her back.

The gipsy laughed silently. The sound of the bells swelled and receded in the golden evening.

“Take my horse round to the stables.” Lord James grinned at the gipsy, and gathered up his hat and cloak from the grass.

“I hate those bells!” cried the lady pettishly.

“They will ring no more after tomorrow, my dear.”

Lord James came round to the gate as he spoke, and entered the garden.

She gave him a side-glance, and pouted. Her enormous pink silk hoop, draped with festoons of white roses, overspread the narrow garden-path, and crushed the southernwood that edged it. Her hands rested on her black velvet panniers embroidered with garlands of crimson carnations. There was a moon-shaped patch on her bare throat and one like a star on her rouged cheek; beneath her short skirts showed her black buckle shoes and immensely high red heels. Her name was Serena Thornton.

“I have broken my parasol,” she said, looking at the gables of her house where the red-gold sunset rested. “The violet one you brought me.”

“It can be mended,” answered Lord James.

He came up to her, and they kissed.

“Yes,” assented Serena. “I sent it to be mended today,” she added. He laughed.

“There is no one here can mend a parasol like that. You must give it to me, Serena, and I will take it to town.”

They moved slowly along the gravel walk, he in front of her, since her hoop did not allow him to be by her side.

It was a very pleasant garden. There were beds of pinks, of stocks, of roses, bushes of laurel, yew, and box, all intersected with little paths that crossed one another and led towards the house.

“There is a man in the village,” said Lady Serena, “who is a maker of umbrellas. He came here yesterday.”

“Ah?” questioned Lord James. He glanced back over his shoulder. “I heard he was painting a new sign for ‘The Goat and Compasses,’ and that he had made a beautiful blue umbrella for the host, so I sent down my parasol.”

A slight greenish tinge, visible through the paint and powder, overspread Lord James’s handsome face.

“It was careless of you to break it,” he said softly.

Lady Serena lifted her shoulders.

“I could not help it. Shall I tell you how it happened?”

They had reached a square plot of close grass round which ran the box hedge and a low stone coping. In the center stood a prim fountain, and in its clear water swam the golden and ruby carp.

“Yes, tell me how it happened,” said Lord James. He pressed his handkerchief to his thin lips and looked up at the sunset.

“I wish they would stop those bells!” cried Lady Serena.

“They are practicing for our wedding tomorrow, my dear,” he smiled.

They could walk now side by side, she looking in front of her, and he gazing at the sunset that was pale and bright, the color of soft gold, of pink coral, and of a dove’s wings above the gables of her house.

“I was walking by the river two days ago,” said Lady Serena, “and I had in my hand the crystal fish. Do you remember, Lord James, that I showed it to you just before you left for town?”

“Yes; a foolish toy,” he answered.

“How pleasant the box smells!” murmured Lady Serena, in a softer tone. “Well, I walked along the bank, thinking of you, and as I looked into the water I saw another fish — it floated just as if it were swimming — and oh, it was like the one I held in my hand! Just as it neared me it became entangled in the water weeds . . . ”

“This does not explain how you broke your parasol,” remarked Lord James.

“I drew the fish to land with it — my new parasol that your little black boy had just brought me — and broke the handle.”

Lord James turned his pallid face towards her.

“Did you get the fish?”

“Yes. It is just like the one I have.” She pulled out a green ribbon from the white velvet bag that hung on her arm, and at the end of it dangled two crystal fishes, cut and carved finely, holding a clear light, and filled with changing colors.

Lady Serena touched one with her scented forefinger. “That is the one I found. See, it has a bright blood-like stain across the side.”

“So it has,” said Lord James, putting up his glass. “It is curious you should have found it. A witch gave you the other, did you not say?”

“Yes,” she answered half sullenly. “And she told me that the other was owned by my lover, and that he must live in misery till he found me.” She turned the blue light of her eyes on her companion.

You should have had it,” she said, and slipped the fishes back into her bag.

The afterglow was fading from the sky, and they turned towards the house.

“I won three thousand pounds at Faro last night,” said Lord James, “and I have brought you some presents.”

And he thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out a string of amethysts.

“I dislike the color,” said Lady Serena, and put it aside. “It is the color you wear,” he answered.

She took the necklace at this with a sudden laugh, and fastened it round her long, pale throat.

They reached the three shallow steps that led to the open door of the house, and passed side by side out of the sunset glow into the soft-hued gloom of the wide hall.

In the great banqueting-room a dinner of two covers was laid. The service was of agate and silver, the glasses twisted with milk-white lines. The table was lit by 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,” answered 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 flush of light faded from the heavens he could see 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 softly to the window, and his eyes became wide and bright as he stroked his chin and stared 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 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 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 on 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, he: wide hoop 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 singing.

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 — in 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 a glitter of purple water, through her fingers, and shone in a little heap of stars on the gleaming waxed floor.

She arrayed herself in a brown dress, plain and straight, and took the two fishes from their 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, her 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 mouth of all.”

There was a boat before him, rocking on the argent 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 hands 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, ‘tit 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. “T 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 overhanging trees.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005