The Wrong Sign by Melville Davisson Post
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 fragile.
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 family 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' 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 follows:
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 guest."
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 note.
"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 out.
"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 Zindorf.
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 Orleans.
"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 title."
"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 gesture.
"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 face!
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 words.
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 description."
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 another."
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 signs."
"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 assemble.
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 care.
My father went on, his voice strong and level, his eyes on Zindorf.
"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 it."
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 authority.
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 backward!"
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."
"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 fear:
"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!"