The first thing that I perceived on beginning my search was that men had been here before me.
What was the place? A robbers’ den? A camp of outlaws?
In the first cave that I explored I found a stock of provisions—flour and canned meats and matches—snugly stored away safe from the damp and snow. Near by were picks and shovels and three very reputable blankets, with a miscellany of materials suggestive of the camping party’s outfit.
I might have been more surprised than I was, but my thoughts were centred on Jacqueline, and the waning of the light showed me that the sun must be well down in the sky. I must get on at once if I were to reach the chateau that night.
I might have wandered for an indefinite time among those caves before striking the road. That I was off the track now seemed certain, for it was obvious that no sleigh could pass through those walls. The thin drift of snow that had covered the ground was almost melted, but enough remained to have showed the pad-prints of the dog, if it had passed that way.
There was none; nor were there tracks of sleigh runners, which would, at least, have scored them in the sandy ooze along the bed of the rivulet.
I had evidently then strayed from the right course while wandering through the tunnel, and thus come by mischance into this blind alley.
I had noticed, as I have said, that the path narrowed considerably during the last few hundred feet that I had traversed before I reached this open place. In the darkness I might easily have debouched along one of the numerous paths which, no doubt, existed all through the interior of this limestone formation.
I started back in haste and reentered the tunnel again, striking a match every few seconds, lighting each by its predecessor.
I had been travelling back for about ten minutes when I noticed at my feet the charred stump of a match that I had thrown away some time before. I looked around me and saw that I was again in the main road. There were the faint depressions caused by the sleigh runners in the soft stone, and the roof and side walls of the tunnel again stretched away into the obscurity around me.
Satisfied that I had retraced my steps sufficiently far, I turned about and began to proceed cautiously in the opposite direction, keeping this time as far as possible to the right of the road instead of to the left, as before. The box of matches which I had brought with me was nearly exhausted, but, by shielding each one carefully, I was able to examine my ground with fair assurance of my being in the right course.
A draft was now beginning to blow quite strongly inward, and this convinced me that I was approaching the tunnel’s end.
As I proceeded I kept looking to the left to endeavor to locate the narrow passage into which I had strayed, but it must have been the merest opening in the wall, so small that only a miracle of chance had led me into it, for I saw nothing but the straight passage before me.