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by Nevil G. Henshaw
Author of "The Black Violin," "A Pair of Mules," etc.

I SAW her as she was driving into the little Louisiana village of Landry. She was a tall, rugged old woman of the type—half peasant, half small planter—which abounds in the French parishes; and even at a distance there was that about her which made one forget the squalidness of her battered jumper and small, rabbit-like pony. When she came closer and for an instant turned her strong, resolute face toward mine, I saw that this something was the dignity' of a great sorrow. I shall never forget her look. It was like exchanging glances with Fate.

After she had passed I asked the villagefolk about her.

"That was Madame Gerac—she whom we call Madame Justice," they replied. "It is only on this day that you will see her here. Tomorrow is her anniversary, and she is upon her way to the curé with money for a mass. She is as regular as the calendar—that one. Rain or shine, it is always the day before."

Later, and in the quaint patois of the Cajun, they told me this story:

EVEN in her youth Madame Gerac was possessed of a strong sense of justice. She was a fine, handsome girl, and she had many chances. Vet she did not marry early. Her lovers were all nice, manly fellows, she said, and there was little to choose between them. In fairness she could not make such a choice, and she would not many only for a home.

Later, when Louis Gerac came along, she accepted him at once. She could make her choice now, she declared, and, although it was not considered a good match, she made it without hesitation.

Gerac owned a small farm some twenty miles from Landry. It was in a remote, desolate section, and the buildings were old. The fields, bounded upon three sides by marsh and upon the fourth by a small wood, were always wet and boggy. No matter when you plowed them, the soil would stick to the plowshare like glue. It was the kind of a place upon which one is fortunate to make both ends meet.

For four years Madame Gerac worked the farm with her husband, and in that time two children came into her home. Of these children the first was born to her. It was a son, and it was given the father's name of Louis. Gerac, like most fathers, was proud of the child; Madame Gerac worshiped it. In affection, as in all else, she was not one to do things by halves.

The second child came into the Gerac family two years later. It was an orphan, the son of a sister of Gerac's, and at first its adoption met with much opposition upon the part of his wife. Perhaps, realizing her unfailing sense of justice, she caught some glimpse of what the future must hold for her. Perhaps it was only the natural jealousy of a mother for her only child.

But Gerac was firm. He could not abandon his nephew to charity, he said. Also it was good that the little Louis should have a playmate. Single children always became either dull or spoiled.

In the end Madame Gerac agreed, and the child was adopted. Its name was Paul, and its age was the same as that of the son of the house. Six months later, having exposed himself to the weather, Gerac took ill and died.

Her husband dead, Madame Gerac fell upon hard times. It was difficult enough to attend to the farm alone, but in addition to this she had the care and responsibility of two small children. Most women would have solved at least a part of the problem by turning the adopted child over to charity. When it is a question of mouths to feed, the difference between two and three is very great.

Madame Gerac, however, kept her small family intact. She would arrange, she said. Having accepted the care of the child, no matter how unwillingly, it was only just that she should go on with it.

It was now, with the growing up of the children, that the first great test of Madame Gerac's justice began. On the one hand was Louis, her beloved son, the one bit of her own flesh and blood upon earth. On the other was Paul, the outsider, the unwelcome guest, as it were, of a lifetime. Would not Madame Gerac discriminate between the two? Would it not be quite natural, even proper perhaps, for her to do so? Already she was spoken of as a woman of exceptional fairness. Had she been only fair, she might have made such a discrimination. But Madame Gerac was something more than fair. She was just, and she did not discriminate.

Always, from the time of Gerac's death to the very end, it was the same. In their infancy the children received an equal amount of food, of clothing, of everything. As they grew older and took their places in the life of the farm, their work was apportioned to them with an absolute impartiality. Did Paul plow one day, it was Louis who plowed the next. Did the son of the house make holiday, the outsider might rest assured of an equal amount of time to be spent in his own fashion. And Madame Gerac ever made sure that this time was so spent to the last moment.

"No," she would say. "What is fair for one is fair for the other. We will have no Cinderella business upon this place."

Thus the children grew' up, unlike in every particular. Louis, a slender, handsome lad, developed a lightness, an instability of purpose which was totally at variance with the iron firmness of his mother. He detested his work as much as he deplored its necessity. He shirked, he complained, he lived only for the pleasure or amusement that was to come. With a parent less resolute he would have been the most hopeless of idlers.

Paul was exactly the reverse. Strong and ungainly, with a huge, knotted frame, and features that were redeemed from ugliness only by their absolute honesty, he became from the first a model of industry and sobriety. No task w'as too hard for him, no difficulty too great to overcome. He cultivated the farm as it had never been cultivated before. Through his efforts the little family approached what would be for them a species of prosperity. And in addition to these other virtues, Paul was possessed of a sense of fairness, of justice, that was scarce inferior to that of his foster mother.

It was strange that Louis, the son, should be as wholly unlike his mother as Paul, the outsider, was similar to her in every respect. The neighbors commented upon it. Sometimes they even jokingly inquired of Madame Gerac if, in their infancy, she had not confused the children.

"Are you quite sure that Paul is not Louis?" they would ask. "If he is not, he should be."

But Madame Gerac could never appreciate the humor of these remarks. "Paul is a good boy," she would reply, "but Louis is my son."

Such was her attitude. Unstable, worthless, selfish though he might be, Louis was her son, the recipient of her mother-love.

What she felt for Paul none knew, although it was said that she could never forget the unwelcomeness of his arrival. His industry might have inspired in her a feeling of satisfaction. It could have been nothing more ardent.

AT THE close of the Civil War, Louis and Paul stood upon the threshold of manhood. Thus far they had passed their days in quiet uneventfulness upon the farm. The fighting had been far away. Reports of it seldom penetrated to such a remote district. In Landry itself they could scarce have told you whether the struggle had lasted one or a dozen years.

With the beginning of reconstruction, however, the people of this peaceful country came to know at least of the dreadful aftereffects of war. Heretofore their affairs had been conducted by officials carefully chosen from among their own kind. Now these officials were thrust from office, and their places filled by a relentless horde of carpetbaggers.

It was a time of disaster, of injustice and persecution. What the carpet baggers did not steal they destroyed. They laughed at justice. They flouted mercy. Their cruelty was that of the tyrant who has once been a slave.

The inhabitants were patient, but they were also human. When they could stand no more, they formed a Comité des Vigilantes, with which to purge the offices of their parish. In less than one week the carpet baggers had been driven into the cypress islands of the outlying sea-marsh.

"Bien," said the Vigilantes, and returned to their farms, but their work had only just begun. From fugitives, the carpet baggers developed quite frankly into outlaws. Under the leadership of a brave, resourceful man, who on account of his fierceness was called Le Sauvage, they emerged from their cypress islands to harry the country far and wide. And as these islands, flanked by a barren and treacherous marsh, were well-nigh impregnable, the Vigilantes found it very hard to retaliate.

Now more than ever was it a time of disaster. The inhabitants, immune from the four years' struggle, found themselves suddenly plunged into a mimic war of their own. Backed by their redoubtable leader, the outlaws fought like fiends. Each honest man was expected to take down his gun and join the ranks of the Vigilantes.

Madame Gerac, however, was of a different opinion. She insisted that Louis and Paul should stay upon the farm.

"No," she said, when the young men came to her. "It is all right to be a hero, but what about the plowing? For the present, mes enfants, you must content yourselves with fighting the battle of life."

And despite the troubled times, Madame Gerac's action was not criticized. She had struggled hard, and it seemed only fair that her children should be left for her protection and support.

"Justice to Madame Justice," said the neighbors, as they had already begun to call her.

As for the young men, they accepted this restraint according to their natures. Paul, slow, methodical and obliging, resigned himself quite calmly to the wishes of his foster mother. He would like to fight, he said, if only as a proof of his good intentions. His duty, though, must come before his desire.

Louis showed more impatience. He was young, handsome and dashing. It was his one desire in life to cut a figure. Each fight, each tale of personal bravery but served to increase his discontentment. His mother was mad—selfishly mad, he said. She could not expect to treat him like a child. Very well, he would show her.

And show her he did upon the first opportunity.

IT OCCURRED at the very height of the struggle, at a time when, accompanied by a band of picked horsemen, Le Sauvage was scourging the country as with fire. He struck "and escaped with the swiftness of lightning. None knew where next his hand would fall. His scouts patrolled each road.

One afternoon, as they were returning from work, Louis and Paul discovered one of these scouts. The outlaw sat on his horse in the security of a small dump of brush, and, as was the custom in those days, each of the young men was armed.

At sight of the scout, Louis drew his foster brother down into the cover of the tall grass.

"You saw?" he whispered excitedly. "It is what I Lave been waiting for. Now we will show them whether we are men or not. If we lie flat and crawl, we can approach unseen within easy range."

"But why shoot him?" objected the less excitable Paul. "We are not Vigilantes, and he has as yet done us no harm. Trouble will come of it, you may be sure."

But Louis was not to be deterred from this opportunity of proving himself a man.

"You are afraid, Paul," he sneered. "Very well, then. I will bear the responsibility alone." And, putting his words into effect, he began to crawl away.

Paul thought for a moment and then followed him.

"Bien," said he. "If you are determined, I will go with you. It is only right that we should stand together in the matter."

They shot the outlaw from close range, firing together. The man, instantly killed, toppled from his horse without a sound. The silence, the simplicity of his death, was in some way terrifying to the young men. Had the outlaw screamed, had he struggled, it is probable that they would have rushed forward to finish him. As it was, they fled panic-stricken to their home.

Thus they failed to notice a second outlaw who had been stationed a little way beyond his companion. This second outlaw saw the two in their flight, but he did not pursue them. Instead he galloped off to report to his leader. Le Sauvage had a fondness for attending to such matters in his own way.

That night the young men made no mention of their deed to Madame Gerac. Paul, if troubled, was calm. Louis sought unsuccessfully to hide a nervous fear. After supper, making some excuse, both went out to confer with a distant neighbor. When they returned Madame Gerac noticed that their clothes were stained with fresh earth. Afterward it was discovered that, following the neighbor's advice, they had put the dead outlaw under ground.

It was perhaps half an hour after the young men had departed for their work the following morning, that a body of horsemen rode up to the door of the farmhouse. At their head was the huge, forbidding man whose name was a synonym for terror. Yet, cruel and relentless though he was, Le Sauvage—who had once been a gentleman— was justly renowned for his courtesy to women. Dismounting now, he stepped up to the door, removing his hat as he knocked upon it.

Madame Gerac opened to him at once. She had seen the outlaws from a distance, yet she made no attempt to escape. Indeed, if she felt any fear, it was most successfully hidden. The day was bright and warm, and already the blinds had been drawn against the approaching glare. Madame Gerac only shaded her eyes with one hand, as is the custom of farm women when receiving a visitor.

Le Sauvage bowed low.

"You are Madame Justice?" be inquired.

"I am Madame Gerac," she returned. "If they speak of me as Madame Justice, that is no affair of mine."

"And yet," said Le Sauvage, "if I may do so without offense, I should prefer to call you by the latter name. It will be more appropriate in view of what I have to say."

"As you please, m'sieu," agreed Madame Gerac. "And now for your business."

"To begin with, madame," said Le Sauvage, "I have always admired the reports of your justice. To this admiration you may attribute the security, thus far, of your home and family. Indeed it is probable that, with all things equal, you might have continued immune from my wrath. Yesterday, however, your sons broke our tacit truce. From ambush, and for no apparent reason, they killed one of my men. This man, sitting quietly upon his horse, was harming no earthly thing. Firing together, your sons shot him down like a dog.

"Now this, madame, places me in an unfortunate position. Had your sons been Vigilantes I might, for your sake, have charged their deed to my general account against that organization. As it is, I cannot overlook the affair. My men must be protected. I cannot have them fired upon unfairly by every farm lad who wishes to distinguish himself.

"So there is my case, which I contend is plainly one of deliberate and unwarranted assassination. I now have the honor of asking you, Madame Justice, to pass upon it."

A long minute passed during which Madame Gerac stood, as though frozen, in her doorway. Not for one instant did she doubt the truth of the outlaw's accusation. In the first place, Le Sauvage did not lie. In the second, she had heard the shots the afternoon before, she had noticed the nervousness of her son.

"Come, madame," urged Le Sauvage. "I regret my necessity, but there is little time."

Before she could speak Madame Gerac was forced to moisten her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"I have tried to lie to you, m'sieu, and I find that I can not," said she steadily. "Your case is indeed a strong one."

Le Sauvage waited for something else and, when it did not come, he uttered a growl of admiration.

"Dieu, madame!" he cried. "You more then fulfil the reports of you. I so seldom run across your kind that I am going to mark the event by an unexpected act. I had come here fully determined to kill both of your sons and destroy your home. One falsehood from you, one plea for two guilty men, and I would have done so. But you have kept faith with your reputation, and I, who also am accounted just, will keep faith with mine.

"We have ridden through the night, and our horses are tired. Below us there is a wood. We will rest in that wood for one hour. From your two sons you will choose one to stand before my rifles. I will accept a life for a life, an execution for an assassination. Surely that is fair enough?"

Madame Gerac could not reply. She could only bow her head.

Again Le Sauvage bowed low.

"Adieu then, Madame Justice," said he. "Remember, we will wait but the hour. And let me warn you against any tricks. Our horses, though weary, are swift, and the Vigilantes are twenty miles away. Should I be forced to return, it will be to carry out my original intention."

FOR a little while after the outlaws had gone, Madame Gerac continued to stand in her doorway. Strangely enough, her first feeling was not so much one of grief as of disappointment. She stared out at the dilapidated buildings, the low, unprofitable fields, the few poor head of stock. How she had worked, and planned, and contrived, to keep it all together! It was what she had hoped to leave her son. She had toiled with this one end in view. And now, perhaps— With the thought temptation came knocking at her motherheart.

Her children knew nothing of the visit of Le Sauvage. She had but to call them in, to dispatch Paul upon some pretended errand to the wood, and the matter would be ended. Or, again, she might even conclude the affair without deceit. She could call Paul alone, she could tell him of the dreadful dilemma. That he would go without question or complaint she knew well. He was that kind.

But she was also her kind. She was Madame Justice.

Slowly, resolutely, Madame Gerac recrossed the threshold of her home. Before her a short passage led back to the kitchen. Half way down this passage she Had put temptation behind her. She arrived at her decision with her hand upon the kitchen door.

Once inside the kitchen, Madame Gerac acted quickly. Going straight to the shelf above the open fire, she took from it a pack of cards. It was an old pack, soiled and thumbed from the handling of many games. Placing the pack upon the kitchen table, she took from its nail the battered tin horn with which she was wont to call in her children. She was forced to blow thrice before she could produce a sound.

When the young men arrived, Madame Gerac wasted little time. She called to them when they were still some distance from the kitchen doorway.

"Quick, you two!" she began. "You killed an outlaw from ambush yesterday afternoon?"

Louis stopped instantly. His face grew deathly white, and his knees began to bend under him. Paul plodded doggedly forward. Plis eyes were troubled, but when he spoke his voice was steady enough.

"Yes, mother," he replied, as he had been taught to call her.

"You shot together—at the same time?"

"Yes, mother."

"The man was not harming you—he made no threatening movement?"

"No, mother."

Madame Gerac frowned. Evidently something was puzzling her.

"But why?" she continued. "I can understand such a thing from Louis. He, of course, wished to prove himself a man. But you, Paul—you are not accustomed to play the fool. Come, why did you do it?"

Paul's mouth closed determinedly. Louis crept forward, his eyes appealing. Madame Gerac, however, knew her children only too well.

"I see," said she. "Louis insisted, and you thought it your duty to stand with him in the matter. Nevertheless you were a fool, Paul. Le Sauvage has been here. Also he has been just. Only one of you will have to pay. He has promised to wait an hour in the wood for the one to come to him. After that it will be both. Also the house. He has told me to choose between you, but I can not. You will have to determine the choice yourselves."

Paul nodded quietly.

"Bien," said he. "Then I shall go, mother. It will be better for you that way. It will---"

Madame Gerac did not falter.

"You will do nothing of the sort, Paul," she interrupted firmly. "The guilt is equal between you. The punishment must be left to chance. Inside I have placed the cards in readiness upon the table. You will each cut, and the one who shows the lowest card will go. Come, there is no time to lose."

She turned and re-entered the kitchen, with Paul following close behind her.

Louis followed more slowly. Dazed, stupefied by fear, he had thus far been unable to utter the excuses, the entreaties, that rose to his lips. Had it not been for this stupefaction, it is probable that he would then have tried to make his escape. As it was, his paralyzed limbs seemed to carry him unwillingly forward. Slowly, and with wide, staring eyes, like one in a dream, he made his way into the kitchen and took his place at the table beside Paul.

Madame Gerac did not look at her son at this moment. There were some things that even she could not stand.

"You will cut first, Louis, since it was you who suggested the deed," said she. "Afterward you will wait for Paul. You will then turn up your cards together."

Dazedly, mechanically, Louis reached over and removed a part of the pack. After he had done so his hand fell heavily to his side, the fingers fumbling nervously at the cards. Paul cut quickly but carefully, staying his hand a little way above the pack. As if warned by some hidden sense, Madame Gerac faced about.

Paul, without a tremor, turned up his cut disclosing a ten of clubs. Louis, with shaking hand, displayed a king of hearts. Madame Gerac expelled her breath in a long sigh, half of horror, half of relief.

As was his custom Paul had, upon coming inside, removed his hat. Now, replacing his cards, he reached out for it. With his hand upon the brim he paused.

"What is the use?" he asked himself.

But a moment later he picked up the hat. It was the triumph of habit.

Madame Gerac had never been a demonstrative woman. When Paul came over to her, she only kissed him upon the forehead.

"Farewell, Paul," said she. "You have been a good son to me."

"Farewell, mother," replied Paul, and turned to his foster brother.

Louis stood motionless, although he also had replaced his cards. Paul held out his hand. There seemed nothing that he could say. As the two clasped silently. Madame Gerac again turned away her head.

When Madame Gerac looked around a moment later, Paul was gone. Louis still stood in his same position, although now, with his body bent, he was reaching down toward the floor. At his mother's glance he straightened up quickly, furtively. A sudden rush of color surged into his face, and his eyes exchanged their terror for a look of sullen shame.

There was no deceiving Madame Gerac in the matter of her children. She knew their every mood. Not for one moment had she sought to blind herself to the evident cowardice of her son. Now that he was safe, however, it was hardly natural that he should have the appearance of a whipped dog.

Slowly, mercilessly, Madame Gerac raked her son with her gaze, noting the flushed cheeks, the furtive eyes, the sullen mouth. Then, as she looked below the level of his waist, her lips suddenly tightened. That right leg, why was it held so rigidly? That right foot, why was it planted with so much firmness? And whence came that dull glint of white beneath the tight-pressed heel?

With one, swift movement Madame Gerac was at her son's side. With another she had thrust him away. Then, stooping, she picked up the card. It was a deuce of spades, grimy and tom, and marked now with the crescent-like impression of a heel.

"Dieu!" gasped Madame Gerac, and groped blindly for a chair.

After she had sunk into it she regained control of herself. Her eyes flashed as she held up the card.

"Explain!" she cried in a dreadful voice. Louis knew that tone. It was one that could not be denied. Trembling, sobbing, he fell upon his knees at his mother's side, burying his face in her lap.

"Forgive me, mother, forgive me," he pleaded. "I could not go. I wanted so to live. With Paul it was different. He offered himself at the first. He knew——"

"Explain!" cried Madame Gerac. "Explain before it is too late."

"It was after I had cut," sobbed Louis. "I was holding the cards at my side. I knew the pack well, I had noticed that the deuce was torn. When I felt the tear I dropped the deuce to the floor, and set my heel upon it. I had no idea of what the next card would be. I swear to you that I did not know it was a king. It was only a small advantage, and I took it, well knowing that Paul was willing to go."

For just one moment Madame Gerac permitted her hand to rest upon the bowed head of her son.

"My poor Louis," she murmured, half in pity, half in contempt.

Then she rose quickly to her feet.

"Come!" said she. "You may yet be in time."

Louis shrank back. The color drained from his face, leaving it white again. Small dots of perspiration appeared upon his brow.

"Mother! Mother!" he gasped. "You can not mean it."

"Come!" repeated Madame Gerac. This time it was a command.

Louis crouched behind the table. He was like a rat in a trap. His lips curled threateningly, and an ugly light came into his eyes.

"I will not go, I tell you," he snarled. "My life is my own. You had best take care, even though you are my mother."

Madame Gerac gave him not so much as a glance. Instead she sprang to the comer where, upon coming inside, the young men had leaned their weapons. An instant later she had whirled about, gun in hand.

"Quick, Louis!" she demanded. "Shall it be here or there? You have lost, have you not? Then you will pay me, or you will pay Le Sauvage, or, if you are too late, you will pay Paul."

She advanced upon him suddenly, forcing him toward the door.

"Dieu!" she burst out as she drove him through it. "It is bad enough for you to be a coward, although I can stand that. But to be dishonest—no."

And she added as she hurried him forward:

"Do not try what is in your mind. I shall not allow you to escape. If you take to your heels, you will not get a dozen yards."

IT WAS a strange pair that went y down toward the wood—the son stumbling along before, his eyes wild, his lips babbling forth an unheeded stream of supplication, the mother stalking grimly behind, her gun thrust forward as a goad, her face a mask of silent agony. One glance she gave along the path that separated the farm from the wood, only to find it empty. Although but little time had elapsed since the cutting of the cards, Paul had already disappeared beyond the line of trees.

"Faster!" ordered Madame Gerac, quickening her pace. Louis, looking back into the muzzle of the gun, broke into a long, shuffling stride.

When they were some fifty yards from their goal, a brisk sound of rifle fire rattled out from among the trees. Madame Gerac paused as abruptly as if it were she who had been shot. Lowering her gun she made the sign of the cross.

Louis paused also, but only for an instant. With the first crash of the volley he had made up his mind. Before him lay certain death. Behind, it might not be so sure. After all, she was his mother. Perhaps, for the first time, she might not live up to her word.

As Louis, bending low, ran for his life, Madame Gerac raised her gun. She was a most excellent shot. She did not hesitate.

AND so, gaunt, silent, and tragic, Madame Gerac comes each year to Landry. Always it is upon the day before her anniversary, and always she brings money for a mass. Also, the village-folk inform me, she is impartial to the end. Always the mass is for the two.