“The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Sign-Painter and the Crystal Fishes”, Marjorie Bowen, 1909.

This is a strange story with lots of mystery. 

It opens beside a river with many rundown and dilapidated houses on its banks. It’s near sunset, and only one house has a light on. It’s the rundown, sparsely furnished house, complete with many cobwebs, of Lucius Cranfield. The shutters have broken hinges, and the windows have no glass. 

Cranfield, once handsome, is pallid with bloodshot eyes. 

Up the rotting stairway comes Lord James Fontaine. Given his dress, this is probably sometime in the mid-18th century. 

Fontaine asks if Cranfield paints signs. Cranfield asks why he climbed up to the second level of the house. His workshop is downstairs. He rang below and got no answer is Fontaine’s reply. Fontaine wants a sign like the nicely done, brightly hued one hanging downstairs. 

Does he want the same subject? Fontaine says the subjects are curious and asks where Cranfield got them. From his life, responds Cranfield. 

He must have had a strange life, says Fontaine, given the symbols on the sign:

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…   

Cranfield’s expression changes to interest. Has Fontaine ever seen a fish like that? Never, says Fontaine. Cranfield rises stiffly from his chair and says, as if speaking to himself, there are two fish like it in the world. Before “the end”,  he will find both, and his life will be mended and put straight. 

“Unless you lose your own token first”, Fontaine harshly responds. 

Cranfield’s response is quick and sharp. How does Fontaine know he has such a token? Because, says Fontaine, Cranfield’s going mad living all alone in this old house. 

No, says Cranfield, he won’t go mad while he has his “crystal fish” and before he finds the other one. 

As they stand in the dark room, Fontaine mocks Cranfield and shows he knows something of his life. Why wouldn’t Cranfield be mad when he thinks how rich and handsome he once was and that his father was hanged, he ruined, and all because his enemies lied about hm? 

Cranfield asks Fontaine to accompany him downstairs and pick out a design for a sign. At the top of the stairs, Fontaine again mocks Cranfield by saying how terrible it is for a once great gentleman to live in such a house. Cranfield responds that, when he finds the other crystal fish, he will be a great gentleman again or kill his enemy, “that is the spell”. 

Fontaine asks about Cranfield’s long and dull days. He keeps busy, says Cranfield, painting and making parasols. Maybe Fontaine, would like one for his wife. 

Fontaine hasn’t given his name. It seems Cranfield knows a lot abou him.

“I know what you call yourself” is Cranfield’s engimatic reply. 

The workshop is full of drawings of “horrible and fantastic things” and parasols. Fontaine again asks if Cranfield knows about him. There is no reply. 

Fontaine doesn’t like Cranfield’s designs. He wants something cheerful. He wants a sign with a crystal fish. Cranfield says he can’t paint it again. Then I’ll buy the sign, says Fontaine. No, it’s outside that “whoever holds the other fish may see it . . . and then . . . “ 

Fontaine again calls him mad. What is Cranfield going to do if someone who has the other fish does show up? 

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

But he may die first, Fontaine says. No, insists Cranfield, he won’t die before the spell is accomplished, and he won’t lose his fish. 

Fontaine puts a hand in his pocket and, saying the light is too dim, asks to see a violet parasol in the corner. Cranfield says he began to work on that one the night his father was hanged. He thought of his enemies and his hatred for them. The night he killed one of them, he finished the parasol and carved a rose into its ivory handle. 

“You have sinned also”, says Fontaine through gritted teeth and takes his hand out of his pocket and puts it behind his back. 

Fontaine picks up the parasol. It’s not for sale, choose another design and leave, says Cranfield.

Just then, Cranfield looks out a broken shutter and looks at a star that is above a tree always knocking on the shudders. 

Fontaine’s hand comes out from behind his back. Cranfield says something odd: you never see the star or the tree at the same time. 

Fontaine stabs Cranfield in the back. Cranfield falls to the floor. 

Fontaine searches his body and finds a crystal fish. Fontaine goes to the window to look out. Starlight falls on the crystal fish in his hand. It begins to writhe in his hand and leaps from his hand and into the river. Fontaine is angry at this, but he’s satisfied nobody is going to find the fish there. 

Fontaine picks up his walking stick and leaves. But then, thinking of that violet parasol, he goes back inside, gets it, and leaves again. 

In the next section, we’re in a garden, and Fontaine is with a gypsy and playing Faro with him. Fontaine wins as the gypsy says he always does. 

A woman then shows up. It’s evening, and she declines being introduced by Fontaine to the gypsy. She says she hates the ringing church bells.

Here name is Serena Thornto and, tomorrow, she will never hear the bells again because she will be marrying Fontaine. She says she broke the violet parasol he gave her. (This implies that Cranfield was wrong. Fontaine is not married.) Fontaine says it can be mended, but she says she sent it out today to be mended. There’s nobody around here, he says, who can mend it. He’ll get it repaired. She says there’s a man in the village who can mend umbrellas, and he “came here yesterday”.

He heard the man was painting a new sign for “The Goat and Compasses” and had made a lovely blue parasol for the owner, so he sent “my parasol” to him for repair. (It’s somewhat unclear if Serena or Fontaine says this. It makes more sense for Serena.)

 He says it was careless of her to break the parasol. She couldn’t help it, is the reply. Serena was walking by the river two days ago with the fish that she showed Fontaine in her hand, and she saw another fish like it appeared in the river. (Presumably she means the crystal fish.) It tangled up in some weeds by the water. 

That doesn’t explain how she broke her parasol, says Fontaine. She tried to bring the fish closer to her with the parsol and broke its handle, she replies. Did she get it? Yes, and Serena shows it to him. She notes it has a red color like a blood stain which the one Fontaine lost didn’t. 

It’s curious she found it, notes Fontaine. Didn’t a wtich give her the other one. Yes, and

“she told me that the other was owned by my lover, and that he must live in misery till he found me.” 

She goes on to say “You should have had it.” 

Fontaine says he won 3,000 pounds at Faro last night and present her several pieces of jewelry as a present. They have amethyests, and she says she doesn’t like purple. 

At the evening meal, she goes to, strangely, try on her wedding dress which Fontaine says is supposed to be bad luck.

(Spoilers ahead) 

As Fontaine is staring out the window at the river, he turns to see Cranfield in the doorway. He says he’s brought back a purple parasol Fontaine asked to be mended. How much does he owe him, asks Fontaine.  (So how did Cranfield get it again?)

“A great deal.” 

Cranfield is now much better dressed and much healthier looking than what Fontaine last saw him. 

Fontaine asks for the price again and gets no answer. Fontaine says he doesn’t even think Cranfield is alive. How did he escape the rats? Cranfield notes it’s the same river outside. 

Fontaine approaches him and tells him he’ll pay for the parasol tomorrow.

 It’s not his debt, says Cranfield. He mended the parasol for the “lady of the house, Serena Thornton”. 

She’s engaged to him, says Fontaine, and he’ll pay Cranfield tomorrow. (Perhaps, since it’s night, he thinks the ghostly Cranfield won’t appear in daylight.) 

No, says Cranfield, he’ll pay him tonight. 

But, mutters Fontaine, Cranfield lost the crystal fish. 

But someone else found it, Cranfield replies.

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

Then Cranfield lunges at Fontaine, grabs his neck, and breaks it. He looks out the window and starts to sing. 

Serena, in her wedding dress, enters the room. At first she just stares at the dead body of her fiance. Then a change comes over her. She sits in a chair, looks at the purple parasol, and listens to Cranfield singing. Eventually, she goes back to her room, strips off her fine clothes and makeup, and leaves her jewelry in a heap. She then changes into a simple brown dress. Looking at herself, she realizes Fontaine would not recognize her in her new clothes. She even carries herself differently. 

Going back to the room with the dead Fontaine, she finds Cranfield gone. She picks up the parasol and goes outside where Cranfield is singing by the river. The bells are pealing one last time in rehearsal of her planned wedding tomorrow. 

She hears him sing

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. 

She bids him good evening and tells him she found his fish. He tells her they are going to “a house where a tree with white flowers knocks for admittance on the shutters,”. She knows that.

They get into a boat. They smile at each other in the moonlight. 

They see two figures on the bank. It is Fontaine and the gypsy playing cards. Repeating Fontaine’s remark, Cranfield says he doesn’t believe the two (or, maybe, just Fontaine) are alive. He can almost see through them. Serena mockingly asks if they know her. They will never get to the house, says Fontaine. 

Fontaine will go to the house tomorrow and see, as he did at story’s beginning, an empty boat.

’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…’ 

Then the gypsy starts singing the same some Cranfield did earlier. That song brings an element of fatalistic doom to the story. Cranfield got his revenge, but he seems a ghost now. Serena has her love, but he’s a ghost. There’s also a suggestion that Fontaine will now be trapped (which, after all, some ghosts are in tales) to repeat the events of the opening of the story.  (He also seems to, in fact, recognize Serena even though she looks very different.) 

And one witch seems to have tied both men together through a spell of vengeance and love. 

Perhaps I missed something, but I think the story is hurt somewhat by Bowen’s occasional imprecision in important matters. But it’s an odd story about a seeming curse that povides death, vengeance, and love all at once.

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