The Wrong Sign

It was an ancient diary in a faded leather cover. The writing

was fine and delicate, and the ink yellow with age. Sir Henry

Marquis turned the pages slowly and with care for the paper was


We had dined early at the Ritz and come in later to his great

home in St. James's Square.

He wished to show me this old diary that had come to him from a

branch of his mother's famil
in Virginia - a branch that had

gone out with a King's grant when Virginia was a crown colony.

The collateral ancestor, Pendleton, had been a justice of the

peace in Virginia, and a spinster daughter had written down some

of the strange cases with which her father had been concerned.

Sir Henry Marquis believed that these cases in their tragic

details, and their inspirational, deductive handling, equaled any

of our modern time. The great library overlooking St. James's

Square, was curtained off from London. Sir Henry read by the

fire; and I listened, returned, as by some recession of time to

the Virginia of a vanished decade. The narrative of the diary


My father used to say that the Justice of God was sometimes swift

and terrible. He said we thought of it usually as remote and

deliberate, a sort of calm adjustment in some supernatural Court

of Equity. But this idea was far from the truth. He had seen

the justice of God move on the heels of a man with appalling

swiftness; with a crushing force and directness that simply

staggered the human mind. I know the case he thought about.

Two men sat over a table when my father entered. One of them got

up. He was a strange human creature, when you stood and looked

calmly at him. You thought the Artificer had designed him for a

priest of the church. He had the massive features and the fringe

of hair around his bald head like a tonsure. At first, to your

eye, it was the vestments of the church, he lacked; then you saw

that the lack was something fundamental; something organic in the

nature of the man. And as he held and stimulated your attention

you got a fearful idea, that the purpose for which this human

creature was shaped had been somehow artfully reversed!

He was big boned and tall when he stood up.

"Pendleton," he said, "I would have come to you, but for my


And he indicated the elegant young man at the table.

"But I did not send you word to ride a dozen miles through the

hills on any trivial business, or out of courtesy to me. It is a

matter of some import, so I will pay ten eagles."

My father looked steadily at the man.

"I am not for hire," he said.

My father was a justice of the peace in Virginia, under the

English system, by the theory of which the most substantial men

in a county undertook to keep the peace for the welfare of the

State. Like Washington in the service of the Colonial army, he

took no pay.

The big man laughed.

"We are most of us for purchase, and all of us for hire," he

said. "I will make it twenty!"

The young man at the table now interrupted. He was elegant in

the costume of the time, in imported linen and cloth from an

English loom. His hair was thick and black; his eyebrows

straight, his body and his face rich in the blood and the

vitalities of youth. But sensuality was on him like a shadow.

The man was given over to a life of pleasure.

"Mr. Pendleton," he said, with a patronizing pedantic air, "the

commonwealth is interested to see that litigation does not arise;

and to that end, I hope you will not refuse us the benefit of

your experience. We are about to draw up a deed of sale running

into a considerable sum, and we would have it court proof."

He made a graceful gesture with his jeweled hand.

"I would be secure in my purchase, and Zindorf in his eagles, and

you, Sir, in the knowledge that the State will not be vexed by

any suit between us. Every contract, I believe, upon some theory

of the law, is a triangular affair with the State a party. Let

us say then, that you represent Virginia!"

"In the service of the commonwealth," replied my father coldly,

"I am always to be commanded."

The man flicked a bit of dust from his immaculate coat sleeve.

"It will be a conference of high powers. I shall represent Eros;

Mr. Pendleton, Virginia; and Zindorf" and he laughed - "his

Imperial Master!"

And to the eye the three men fitted to their legend. The

Hellenic God of pleasure in his sacred groves might have chosen

for his disciple one from Athens with a face and figure like this

youth. My father bore the severities of the law upon him. And I

have written how strange a creature the third party to this

conference was.

He now answered with an oath.

"You have a very pretty wit, Mr. Lucian Morrow," he said. "I add

to my price a dozen eagles for it."

The young man shrugged his shoulders in his English coat.

"Smart money, eh, Zindorf . . . Well, it does not make me smart.

It only makes me remember that Count Augsburg educated you in

Bavaria for the Church and you fled away from it to be a slave

trader in Virginia."

He got on his feet, and my father saw that the man was in liquor.

He was not drunken, but the effect was on him with its daring and

its indiscretions.

It was an April morning, bright with sun. The world was white

with apple blossoms, the soft air entered through the great open

windows. And my father thought that the liquor in the man had

come with him out of a night of bargaining or revel.

Morrow put his hands on the table and looked at Zindorf ; then,

suddenly, the laughter in his face gave way to the comprehension

of a swift, striking idea.

"Why, man," he cried, "it's the devil's truth! Everything about

you is a negation! You ought to be a priest by all the lines and

features of you; but you're not. . . Scorch me, but you're not!"

His voice went up on the final word as though to convey some

impressive, sinister discovery.

It was true in every aspect of the man. The very clothes he

wore, somber, wool-threaded homespun, crudely patched, reminded

one of the coarse fabrics that monks affect for their abasement.

But one saw, when one remembered the characteristic of the man,

that they represented here only an extremity of avarice.

Zindorf looked coldly at his guest.

"Mr. Lucian Morrow," he said, "you will go on, and my price will

go on!"

But the young blood, on his feet, was not brought up by the

monetary threat. He looked about the room, at the ceiling, the

thick walls. And, like a man who by a sudden recollection

confounds his adversary with an overlooked illustrative fact, he

suddenly cried out:

"By the soul of Satan, you're housed to suit! Send me to the

pit! It's the very place for you! Eh! Zindorf, do you know who

built the house you live in?"

"I do not, Mr. Lucian Morrow," said the man. "Who built it?"

One could see that he wished to divert the discourses of his

guest. He failed.

"God built it!" cried Morrow.

He put out his hands as though to include the hose.

"Pendleton," he said, "you will remember. The people built these

walls for a church. It burned, but the stone walls could not

burn; they remained overgrown with creeper. Then, finally, old

Wellington Monroe built a house into the walls for the young wife

he was about to marry, but he went to the coffin instead of the

bride-bed, and the house stood empty. It fell into the courts

with the whole of Monroe's tangled business and finally Zindorf

gets it at a sheriff's sale."

The big man now confronted the young blood with decision.

"Mr. Lucian Morrow," he said, "if you are finished with your fool

talk, I will bid you good morning. I have decided not to sell

the girl."

The face of Morrow changed. His voice wheedled in an anxious


"Not sell her, Zindorf!" he echoed. "Why man, you have promised

her to me all along. You always said I should have her in spite

of your cursed partner Ordez. You said you'd get her some day

and sell her to me. Now, curse it, Zindorf, I want her . . .

I've got the money: ten thousand dollars. It's a big lot of

money. But I've got it. I've got it in gold."

He went on:

"Besides, Zindorf, you can have the money, it'll mean more to

you. But it's the girl I want."

He stood up and in his anxiety the effect of the liquor faded


"I've waited on your promise, Zindorf. You said that some day,

when Ordez was hard-pressed he would sell her for money, even if

she was his natural daughter. You were right; you knew Ordez.

You have got an assignment of all the slaves in possession, in

the partnership, and Ordez has cleared out of the country. I

know what you paid for his half-interest in this business, it's

set out in the assignment. It was three thousand dollars.

"Think of it, man, three thousand dollars to Ordez for a

wholesale, omnibus assignment of everything. An elastic legal

note of an assignment that you can stretch to include this girl

along with the half-dozen other slaves that you have on hand

here; and I offer you ten thousand dollars for the girl alone!"

One could see how the repetition of the sum in gold affected


He had the love of money in that dominating control that the

Apostle spoke of. But the elegant young man was moved by a lure

no less potent. And his anxiety, for the time, suppressed the

evidences of liquor.

"I'll take the risk on the title, Zindorf. You and Ordez were

partners in this traffic. Ordez gives you a general assignment

of all slaves on hand for three thousand dollars and lights out

of the country. He leaves his daughter here among the others.

And this general assignment can be construed to include her. Her

mother was a slave and that brings her within the law. We know

precisely who her mother was, and all about it. You looked it up

and my lawyer, Mr. Cable, looked it up. Her mother was the

octoroon woman, Suzanne, owned by old Judge Marquette in New


"There may have been some sort of church marriage, but there's no

legal record, Cable says.

"The woman belonged to Marquette, and under the law the girl is a

slave. You got a paper title out of Marquette's executors,

privily, years ago. Now you have this indefinite assignment by

Ordez. He's gone to the Spanish Islands, or the devil, or both.

And if Mr. Pendleton can draw a deed of sale that will stand in

the courts between us, I'll take the risk on the validity of my


He paused.

"The law's sound on slaves, Judge Madison has a dozen himself,

not all black either; not three-eighths black!" and he laughed.

Then he turned to my father.

"Mr. Pendleton," he said, "I persuaded Zindorf to send for you to

draw up this deed of sale. I have no confidence in the little

practicing tricksters at the county seat. They take a fee and,

with premeditation, write a word or phrase into the contract that

leaves it open for a suit at law."

He made a courteous bow, accompanied by a dancing master's


"I do not offend you with the offer of a fee, but I present my

gratitude for the conspicuous courtesy, and I indicate the

service to the commonwealth of legal papers in form and court

proof. May I hope, Sir, that you will not deny us the benefit of

your highly distinguished service."

My father very slowly looked about him in calm reflection.

He had ridden ten miles through the hills on this April morning,

at Zindorf's message sent the night before. The clay of the

roads was still damp and plastic from the recent rain. There

were flecks of mud on him and the splashing of the streams.

He was a big, dominating man, in the hardened strength and

experience of middle life. He had come, as he believed, upon

some service of the state. And here was a thing for the little

dexterities of a lawyer's clerk. Everybody in Virginia, who knew

my father, can realize how he was apt to meet the vague message

of Zindorf that got him in this house, and the patronizing

courtesies of Mr. Lucian Morrow.

He was direct and virile, and while he feared God, like the great

figures in the Pentateuch, as though he were a judge of Israel

enforcing his decrees with the weapon of iron, I cannot write

here, that at any period of his life, or for any concern or

reason, he very greatly regarded man.

He went over to the window and looked out at the hills and the

road that he had traveled.

The mid-morning sun was on the fields and groves like a

benediction. The soft vitalizing air entered and took up the

stench of liquor, the ash of tobacco and the imported perfumes

affected by Mr. Lucian Morrow.

The windows in the room were long, gothic like a church, and

turning on a pivot. They ran into the ceiling that Monroe had

built across the gutted walls. The house stood on the crown of a

hill, in a cluster of oak trees. Below was the abandoned

graveyard, the fence about it rotted down; the stone slabs

overgrown with moss. The four roads running into the hills

joined and crossed below this oak grove that the early people had

selected for a house of God.

My father looked out on these roads and far back on the one that

he had traveled.

There was no sound in the world, except the faint tolling of a

bell in a distant wood on the road. It was far off on the way to

my father's house, and the vague sound was to be heard only when

a breath of wind carried from that way.

My father gathered his big chin, flat like a plowshare, into the

trough of his bronze hand. He stood for some moments in

reflection, then he turned to Mr. Lucian Morrow.

"I think you are right," he said. "I think this is a triangular

affair with the state a party. I am in the service of the state.

Will you kindly put the table by this window."

They thought he wished the air, and would thus escape the

closeness of the room. And while my father stood aside, Zindorf

and his guest carried the flat writing table to the window and

placed a chair.

My father sat down behind the table by the great open window, and

looked at Zindorf.

The man moved and acted like a monk. He had the figure and the

tonsured head. His coarse, patched clothes cut like the homely

garments of the simple people of the day, were not wholly out of

keeping to the part. The idea was visualized about him; the

simplicity and the poverty of the great monastic orders in their

vast, noble humility. All striking and real until one saw his


My father used to say that the great orders of God were correct

in this humility; for in its vast, comprehensive action, the

justice of God moved in a great plain, where every indicatory

event was precisely equal; a straw was a weaver's beam.

God hailed men to ruin in his court, not with spectacular

devices, but by means of some homely, common thing, as though to

abase and overcome our pride.

My father moved the sheets of foolscap, and tested the point of

the quill pen like one who considers with deliberation. He

dipped the point into the inkpot and slowly wrote a dozen formal


Then he stopped and put down the pen.

"The contests of the courts," he said, "are usually on the

question of identity. I ought to see this slave for a correct


The two men seemed for a moment uncertain what to do.

Then Zindorf addressed my father.

"Pendleton," he said, "the fortunes of life change, and the ideas

suited to one status are ridiculous in another. Ordez was a

fool. He made believe to this girl a future that he never

intended, and she is under the glamor of these fancies."

He stood in the posture of a monk, and he spoke each word with a

clear enunciation.

"It is a very delicate affair, to bring this girl out of the

extravagances with which Ordez filled her idle head, and not be

brutal in it. We must conduct the thing with tact, and we will

ask you, Pendleton, to observe the courtesies of our pretension."

When he had finished, he flung a door open and went down a

stairway. For a time my father heard his footsteps, echoing,

like those of a priest in the under chambers of a chapel. Then

he ascended, and my father was astonished.

He came with a young girl on his arm, as in the ceremony of

marriage sometimes the priest emerges with the bride. The girl

was young and of a Spanish beauty. She was all in white with

blossoms in her hair. And she was radiant, my father said, as in

the glory of some happy contemplation. There was no slave like

this on the block in Virginia. Young girls like this, my father

had seen in Havana in the houses of Spanish Grandees.

"This is Mr. Pendleton, our neighbor," Zindorf said. "He comes

to offer you his felicitations."

The girl made a little formal curtsy.

"When my father returns," she said in a queer, liquid accent, "he

will thank you, Meester Pendleton; just now he is on a journey."

And she gave her hand to Lucian Morrow to kiss, like a lady of

the time. Then Zindorf, mincing his big step, led her out.

And my father stood behind the table in the enclosure of the

window, with his arms folded, and his chin lifted above his great

black stock. I know how my father looked, for I have seen him

stand like that before moving factors in great events, when he

intended, at a certain cue, to enter.

He said that it was at this point that Mr. Lucian Morrow's early

comment on Zindorf seemed, all at once, to discover the nature of

this whole affair. He said that suddenly, with a range of vision

like the great figures in the Pentateuch, he saw how things right

and true would work out backward into abominations, if, by any

chance, the virtue of God in events were displaced!

Zindorf returned, and as he stepped through the door, closing it

behind him, the far-off tolling of the bell, faint, eerie,

carried by a stronger breath of April air, entered through the

window. My father extended his arm toward the distant wood.

"Zindorf," he said, "do you mark the sign?" The man listened.

"What sign?" he said.

"The sign of death!" replied my father.

The man made a deprecating gesture with his hands, "I do not

believe in signs," he said.

My father replied like one corrected by a memory.

"Why, yes," he said, "that is true. I should have remembered

that. You do not believe in signs, Zindorf, since you abandoned

the sign of the cross, and set these coarse patches on your knees

to remind you not to bend them in the sign of submission to the

King of Kings."

The intent in the mended clothing was the economy of avarice, but

my father turned it to his use.

The man's face clouded with anger.

"What I believe," he said, "is neither the concern of you nor


He paused with an oath.

"Whatever you may believe, Zindorf," replied my father, "the

sound of that bell is unquestionably a sign of death." He

pointed toward the distant wood. "In the edge of the forest

yonder is the ancient church that the people built to replace the

burned one here. It has been long abandoned, but in its

graveyard lie a few old families. And now and then, when an old

man dies, they bring him back to put him with his fathers. This

morning, as I came along, they were digging the grave for old

Adam Duncan, and the bell tolls for him. So you see," and he

looked Zindorf in the face, "a belief in signs is justified."

Again the big man made his gesture as of one putting something of

no importance out of the way.

"Believe what you like," he said, "I am not concerned with


"Why, yes, Zindorf," replied my father, "of all men you are the

very one most concerned about them. You must be careful not to

use the wrong ones."

It was a moment of peculiar tension.

The room was flooded with sun. The tiny creatures of the air

droned outside. Everywhere was peace and the gentle benevolence

of peace. But within this room, split off from the great chamber

of a church, events covert and sinister seemed preparing to


My father, big and dominant, was behind the table, his great

shoulders blotting out the window;

Mr. Lucian Morrow sat doubled in a chair, and Zindorf stood with

the closed door behind him.

"You see, Zindorf," he said, "each master has his set of signs.

Most of us have learned the signs of one master only. But you

have learned the signs of both. And you must be careful not to

bring the signs of your first master into the service of your

last one."

The big man did not move, he stood with the door closed behind

him, and studied my father's face like one who feels the presence

of a danger that he cannot locate.

"What do you mean?" he said.

"I mean," replied my father, "I mean, Zindorf, that each master

has a certain intent in events, and this intent is indicated by

his set of signs. Now the great purpose of these two masters, we

believe, in all the moving of events, is directly opposed. Thus,

when we use a sign of one of these masters, we express by the

symbol of it the hope that events will take the direction of his

established purpose.

"Don't you see then . . . don't you see, that we dare not use the

signs of one in the service of the other?"

"Pendleton," said the man, "I do not understand you."

He spoke slowly and precisely, like one moving with an excess of


My father went on, his voice strong and level, his eyes on


"The thing is a great mystery," he said. "It is not clear to any

of us in its causes or its relations. But old legends and old

beliefs, running down from the very morning of the world, tell us

- warn us, Zindorf - that the signs of each of these masters are

abhorrent to the other. Neither will tolerate the use of his

adversary's sign. Moreover, Zindorf, there is a double peril in


And his voice rose.

"There is the peril that the new master will abandon the

blunderer for the insult, and there is the peril that the old one

will destroy him for the sacrilege!"

At this moment the door behind Zindorf opened, and the young girl

entered. She was excited and her eyes danced.

"Oh!" she said, "people are coming on every road!"

She looked, my father said, like a painted picture, her dark

Castilian beauty illumined by the pleasure in her interpretation

of events. She thought the countryside assembled after the

manner of my father to express its felicitations.

Zindorf crossed in great strides to the window: Mr. Lucian

Morrow, sober and overwhelmed by the mystery of events about him,

got unsteadily on his feet, holding with both hands to the oak

back of a chair.

My father said that the tragedy of the thing was on him, and he

acted under the pressure of it.

"My child," he said, "you are to go to the house of your

grandfather in Havana. If Mr. Lucian Morrow wishes to renew his

suit for your hand in marriage, he will do it there. Go now and

make your preparations for the journey."

The girl cried out in pleasure at the words.

"My grandfather is a great person in New Spain. I have always

longed to see him . . . father promised . . . and now I am to go

. . . when do we set out, Meester Pendleton?"

"At once," replied my father, "to-day." Then he crossed the room

and opened the door for her to go out. He held the latch until

the girl was down the stairway. Then he closed the door.

The big man, falsely in his aspect, like a monk, looking out at

the far-off figures on the distant roads, now turned about.

"A clever ruse, Pendleton," he said, "We can send her now, on

this pretended journey, to Morrow's house, after the sale."

My father went over and sat down at the table. He took a faded

silk envelope out of his, coat, and laid it down before him.

Then he answered Zindorf.

"There will be no sale," he said.

Mr. Lucian Morrow interrupted.

"And why no sale, Sir?"

"Because there is no slave to sell," replied my father. "This

girl is not the daughter of the octoroon woman, Suzanne."

Zindorf's big jaws tightened.

"How did you know that?" he said.

My father answered with deliberation.

"I would have known it," he said, "from the wording of the paper

you exhibit from Marquette's executors. It is merely a release

of any claim or color of title; the sort of legal paper one

executes when one gives up a right or claim that one has no faith

in. Marquette's executors were the ablest lawyers in New

Orleans. They were not the men to sign away valuable property in

a conveyance like that; that they did sign such a paper is

conclusive evidence to me that they had nothing - and knew they

had nothing - to release by it." He paused.

"I know it also," he said, "because I have before me here the

girl's certificate of birth and Ordez's certificate of marriage."

He opened the silk envelope and took out some faded papers. He

unfolded them and spread them out under his hand.

"I think Ordez feared for his child," he said, "and stored these

papers against the day of danger to her, because they are copies

taken from the records in Havana."

He looked up at the astonished Morrow.

"Ordez married the daughter of Pedro de Hernando. I find, by a

note to these papers, that she is dead. I conclude that this

great Spanish family objected to the adventurer, and he fled with

his infant daughter to New Orleans." he paused.

"The intrigue with the octoroon woman, Suzanne, came after that."

Then he added:

"You must renew your negotiations, Sir, in, a somewhat different

manner before a Spanish Grandee in Havana!"

Mr. Lucian Morrow did not reply. He stood in a sort of wonder.

But Zindorf, his face like iron, addressed my father:

"Where did you get these papers, Pendleton?" he said.

"I got them from Ordez," replied my father.

"When did you see Ordez?"

"I saw him to-day," replied my father.

Zindorf did not move, but his big jaw worked and a faint spray of

moisture came out on his face. Then, finally, with no change or

quaver in his voice, he put his query.

"Where is Ordez?"

"Where?" echoed my father, and he rose. "Why, Zindorf, he is on

his way here." And he extended his arm toward the open window.

The big man lifted his head and looked out at the men and horses

now clearly visible on the distant road.

"Who are these people," he said, "and why do they come?" He

spoke as though he addressed some present but invisible


My father answered him

"They are the people of Virginia," he said, "and they come,

Zindorf, in the purpose of events that you have turned terribly


The man was in some desperate perplexity, but he had steel nerves

and the devil's courage.

He looked my father calmly in the face.

"What does all this mean?" he said.

"It means, Zindorf," cried my father, "it means that the very

things, the very particular things, that you ought to have used

for the glory of God, God has used for your damnation!"

And again, in the clear April air, there entered through the open

window the faint tolling of a bell.

"Listen, Zindorf! I will tell you. In the old abandoned church

yonder, when they came to toll the bell for Duncan, the rope fell

to pieces; I came along then, and Jacob Lance climbed into the

steeple to toll the bell by hand. At the first crash of sound a

wolf ran out of a thicket in the ravine below him, and fled away

toward the mountains. Lance, from his elevated point, could see

the wolf's muzzle was bloody. That would mean, that a lost horse

had been killed or an estray steer. He called down and we went

in to see what thing this scavenger had got hold of."

He paused.

"In the cut of an abandoned road we found the body of Ordez

riddled with buckshot, and his pockets rifled. But sewed up in

his coat was the silk envelope with these papers. I took

possession of them as a Justice of the Peace, ordered the body

sent on here, and the people to assemble."

He extended his arm toward the faint, quivering, distant sound.

"Listen, Zindorf," he cried; "the bell began to toll for Duncan,

but it tolls now for the murderer of Ordez. It tolls to raise

the country against the assassin!"

The false monk had the courage of his master. He stood out and

faced my father.

"But can you find him, Pendleton," he said. And his harsh voice

was firm. "You find Ordez dead; well, some assassin shot him and

carried his body into the cut of the abandoned road. But who was

that assassin? Is Virginia scant of murderers? Do you know the

right one?"

My father answered in his great dominating voice

"God knows him, Zindorf, and I know him! . . . The man who

murdered Ordez made a fatal blunder . . . He used a sign of God

in the service of the devil and he is ruined!"

The big man stepped slowly backward into the room, while my

father's voice, filling the big empty spaces of the house,

followed after him.

"You are lost, Zindorf! Satan is insulted, and God is outraged!

You are lost!"

There was a moment's silence; from outside came the sound of men

and horses. The notes of the girl, light, happy, ascended from

the lower chamber, as she sang about her preparations for the

journey. Zindorf continued to step awfully backward. And

Lucian Morrow, shaken and sober, cried out in the extremity of


"In God's name, Pendleton, what do you mean; Zindorf, using a

sign of God in the service of the devil."

And my father answered him:

"The corpse of Ordez lay in the bare cut of the abandoned road,

and beside it, bedded in the damp clay where he had knelt down to

rifle the pockets of the murdered body, were the patch prints of

Zindorf's knees!"