I then asked him if he was going on, and I fancied that he tried to shrug his shoulders, but found the rock in the way. His practical reply, however, was to slowly back out. When he was able to stand up again, he said he believed he had seen the end of the cavern, and would like me to take another look. I now realized that if the secrets of the fantastic realm which my fancy had pictured were to be revealed to me, there must be no more shirking. When I flattened myself out again upon the mud, it was with the determination to go right through the neck of the bottle, for such the passage figuratively was. At one moment I felt tightly wedged, unable to move forward or backward, in a hot steamy atmosphere that was not made any pleasanter by the smoke of the burnt powder; but, the sight of the now rising roof encouraged me to further efforts, and presently I was able to stand upright—in fact, I was in a cavern where a giant of the first magnitude could have walked about with ease, but where he might have been a prisoner for life. I was resolved, however, that Decros should not escape his share of the adventure, so I called to him to come on, and he quickly joined me. To my great disappointment, the cavern soon came to an end. Where, we asked, could the otters be hiding themselves? Examining the place more carefully, we found a passage going under the rock at the farther extremity, but nearly filled with sand which the river had washed up in time of flood. Here, then, was the continuation of the cavern. The passage had been made by water, for a subterranean stream must at one time have found an exit here into the Ouysse, and now water was reversing the process by filling up the ancient conduit. But for the otters that kept it open, we should probably have seen no trace of it; and it was for this that we had wriggled our way into the hideous hole like serpents! I left with the impression that there was much vanity in searching for the wonders of the subterranean world.
Having brought back the boat, we stopped at the cottage by the vineyard and tried the juice of the grapes which three weeks before were basking in the sun. It was now a fragrant wine of a rich purple, with a certain flavour of the soil that made it the more agreeable. The fisherman’s wife also placed upon the table a loaf of home-made bread, of an honest brown colour, some of the little Roc-Amadour cheeses made from goat’s milk, and a plate of walnuts. The window looked out upon the sunny vines, whose leaves were now flaming gold or ruddy brown; the blue river shone in the hollow below, and through the open door there came the tinkling of bells from the rocky wastes where the small long-tailed sheep were moving slowly homeward, nibbling the stunted herbage as they went.