CHAPTER VI. BESANCON AND ITS ENVIRONS.
Besides these quieter beauties are some rare natural phenomena, such as the Glaciere de la Grace Dieu, near Baume-les-Dames, and the famous Osselle grottoes, both of which may be reached by railway. We preferred, however, the open carriages the basket and the tea-pot, and accordingly set off for the latter one superb morning in the highest spirits, which nothing occurred to mar. Quitting this splendid environment of Besancon, we drive for three hours amid the lovely valley of the Doubs, delighted at every bend of the road with some new feature in the landscape; then choosing a sheltered slope, unpacked our basket, lunched al fresco, with the merriest spirits, and the heartiest appetite. Never surely did the renowned Besancon pates taste better, never did the wine of its warm hill-sides prove of a pleasanter flavour! The children sported on the turf like little Loves, the air was sweet with the perfume of new-made hay. The birds sang overhead, and beyond our immediate pavilion of greenery, lay the curling blue river and smiling green hills. Leaving the children to sleep under the trees, and the horse to feed at a neighbouring mill - there is no kind of wayside inn here, so we have to beg a little hay from the miller or a farmer - we follow a little lad, provided with matches and candles to the entrance of the famous grottoes. Outside the sugar-loaf hill, so marvellously channelled and cased with stalactite formation, has nothing remarkable - it is a mere green height, and nothing more. Inside, however, as strange a spectacle meets our eyes as it is possible to conceive. To see these caves in detail, you must spend an hour or two in the bowels of the earth, but we were contented with half that time, for this underground promenade is a very chilly one, as in some places we were ankle deep in water. Each provided with a candle, we now follow our youthful guide, who was accompanied by a dog, as familiar as himself with the windings of these sombre subterranean palaces, for palaces they might be called. Sometimes the stalactite roofs are lofty, sometimes we have to bend our heads in order to pass from one vaulted chamber to another; here we have a superb column supporting an arch; here a pillar in course of formation, everywhere the strangest, most fantastic architecture, an architecture moreover that is the work of ages; one petrifying drop after another doing its apportioned work, column, arch, and roof being formed by a process so slow that the life-time of a human being hardly counts in the calculation. There is something sublime in the contemplation of this steady persistence of Nature, this undeviating march to a goal; and as we gaze upon the embryo stages of the petrifaction, stalagmite patiently lifting itself upward, stalactite as patiently bending down to the remote but inevitable union, we might almost fancy them sentient agents in the marvellous transformation. The stamens of a passion-flower do not more eagerly, as it seems, coil upwards to embrace the pistil; the beautiful stamina flower of the Vallisneria spiralis does not more determinately seek its mate than these crystal pendants covet union with their fellows below. Their perpetual bridals are accomplished after countless cycles of time, whilst meantime in the sunlit world outside, the faces of whole continents are being changed, and entire civilizations are formed and overthrown.
The feeble light projected by our four candles in these gloomy yet majestic chambers was not so feeble as to obscure the insignificant names of hundreds of individuals scrawled here and there. The great German philosopher Schopenhauer is at pains philosophically to explain the foolish propensity of travellers to perpetuate their names, or as it so seems to them. The Pyramids or Kentucky Caves do not impress their minds at all, but to see their own illustrious names John Brown and Tom Smith cut upon them, does seem a very interesting and important fact. The bones of the Cave bear and other gigantic animals have been formed here; but the principal tenants of these antique vaults are now the bats, forming huge black clusters in the roof. There is something eerie in their cries, but they are more alarmed than alarming; the lights disturbing them not a little.