“We are carrying one of our wounded comrades,” they said to him. “Can you guide us across the frontier to-night?”
The innkeeper replied that he would do so very willingly, that he would promise to take them safely past the military posts; but that he would not think of going upon the mountain before the moon rose.
By midnight the fugitives were en route; by daybreak they set foot on Piedmont territory.
They had dismissed their guide some time before. They now proceeded to break the litter in pieces; and handful by handful they cast the wool of the mattress to the wind.
“Our task is accomplished,” the officer said to Maurice. “We will now return to France. May God protect you! Farewell!”
It was with tears in his eyes that Maurice saw these brave men, who had just saved his father’s life, depart. Now he was the sole protector of Marie-Anne, who, pale and overcome with fatigue and emotion, trembled on his arm.
But no—Corporal Bavois still lingered by his side.
“And you, my friend,” he asked, sadly, “what are you going to do?”
“Follow you,” replied the old soldier. “I have a right to a home with you; that was agreed between your father and myself! So do not hurry, the young lady does not seem well, and I see the village only a short distance away.”
Essentially a woman in grace and beauty, as well as in devotion and tenderness, Marie-Anne was capable of a virile bravery. Her energy and her coolness during those trying days had been the admiration and the astonishment of all around her.
But human endurance has its limits. Always after excessive efforts comes a moment when the shrinking flesh fails the firmest will.
When Marie-Anne tried to begin her journey anew, she found that her strength was exhausted; her swollen feet would no longer sustain her, her limbs sank under her, her head whirled, and an intense freezing coldness crept over her heart.
Maurice and the old soldier were obliged to support her, almost carry her. Fortunately they were not far from the village, whose church-tower they had discerned through the gray mists of morning.
Soon the fugitives could distinguish the houses on the outskirts of the town. The corporal suddenly stopped short with an oath.
“Mille tonnerres!” he exclaimed; “and my uniform! To enter the village in this rig would excite suspicion at once; before we had a chance to sit down, the Piedmontese gendarmes would arrest us.”
He reflected for a moment, twirling his mustache furiously; then, in a tone that would have made a passerby tremble, he said:
“All things are fair in love and war. The next peasant who passes—”
“But I have money,” interrupted Maurice, unbuckling a belt filled with gold, which he had put on under his clothing on the night of the revolt.