Upon the stony plateau above Roc-Amadour is a cavern well known in the district as the Gouffre de Révaillon. It had for me a peculiar attraction on account of the gloomy grandeur of the scene at the entrance. When I saw it for the first time I understood at once the supernatural horror in which the peasant has learnt to hold such places. It responds to impressions left on the mind of the 'Stygian cave forlorn,' the entrance to Dante's 'City of Sorrow,' and that other cave where Aeneas witnessed in cold terror the prophetic fury of the Sibyl.

This effect of gloom, horror and sublimity is the result of geological conditions and the action of water, which together have produced many similar phenomena in the region of the causses, but in no other case, I believe, with such power in composing the picturesque. Imagine an open plain which in the truly Dark Ages whereof man has had no experience, but of whose convulsions he has learnt to read a little from the book whose leaves are the rocks, cracked along a part of its surface as a drying ball of clay might do, the fissure finishing abruptly and where it is deepest in front of a mass of rock that refused to split. This was apparently the beginning of the Gouffre de Révaillon. Then came another submersion which greatly modified the appearance of things. There was evidently a deluge here after the land had dried and cracked, and it must have lasted a very long time for the waves to have hollowed, smoothed and polished the rocks inside the caverns and elsewhere as we now see them. Those who have observed with a little attention a rugged coast will, without being geologists, recognise the distinctly marine character of the greater number of these orifices in the calcareous district of the causses. The washing and smoothing action of the sea along the sides of the gorges which cut up the surface of the country in such an astonishing manner is not so easy to distinguish. But the reason is obvious. This limestone rock is by its nature disintegrating wherever it is exposed to the air and frost, and the foundations of the bastions which support the causses are being continually sapped by water which carries away the lime in solution and deposits a part of it elsewhere in the form of stalactite and stalagmite in the deep galleries where subterranean rivers often run, and which probably descend to the lowest part of the formation. Thus by the dislodgment of huge masses of rock which have rolled down from their original positions, and the breaking away of the surfaces of others, the most convincing traces of the sea's action here have nearly disappeared. In the gorge of the Alzou, however, near Roc-Amadour, about 100 feet above the channel of the stream, there is a considerable reach of hard rock approaching marble, the polished and undulating surface of which tells the story of the ocean, just as the sides of the caverns in much more elevated positions tell it.

In the rock where the fissure ends at Révaillon is an opening like a vast yawning mouth, the roof of which forms an almost perfect dome. Adown this a stream trickles towards the end of summer, but plunges madly and with a frightful roar in winter and spring. The steep sides of the narrow ravine are densely wooded, and the light is very dim at the bottom when the sun is not overhead. I made my first attempt to descend the dark passage in the early summer, but there was too much water, and I was soon obliged to retreat. One afternoon in October I returned with a companion, and we took with us a rope and plenty of candles. We carried the rope in view of possible difficulties in the shape of rocks inside the cavern, for it should be borne in mind that in gouffres of this character the stream frequently descends by a series of cascades. The weather was very sultry, and the sky towards the west was of a slaty blue. A fierce storm was threatening, but we paid no attention to it - a mistake which others bent on exploring caverns where streams still flow should be warned against. There is probably no force in nature more terrible, or which makes a man's helplessness more miserably felt, than water suddenly rushing towards him when he is underground.

The sun was still shining, however, when we reached the Gouffre de Révaillon and descended into the ravine over roots of trees coiling upon the moss like snakes, some arching upward as if about to spring at the throat of those who disturbed the elfish solitude. At our coming there rose from the great rock such a multitude of jackdaws that for some seconds they darkened the air. With harsh screams the birds soared higher and higher above their fortress, which they had possessed for ages in perfect security. We reached the bed of the stream, where scattered threads of water tinkled as they fell over huge blocks into little pools below, and then went whispering on their way towards the darkness. At the botton of a long slant of greenish slimy stone, patched here and there with moss, I stopped a few minutes, feeling that I could not grasp without an effort the deep gloom and grandeur of my surroundings. The jackdaws had all flown away, and there was no sound now but the tinkle and gurgle of the water. Great snails crawled upon the tufts of rank grass wet with the autumnal dews that the sun had failed to dry, and upon the glistening hart's-tongue ferns, and they looked just the kind of snails that witches would collect to make a hell-broth. Dark ivy hung down from the rocks, and under the vaulted entrance of the cavern was a clump of elders, very sinister-looking, and giving forth when touched an evil narcotic odour. Near these forlorn shrubs was a solitary plant of angelica, now woebegone, its fringed leaves drooping, waiting for the rising water to wash it into the darkness. There were willow-herbs still in bloom, but the crane's-bill struggled with the gloom farther than any other flowering plant, and its bright little purple lamps shone in the very mouth of Night. Gnats there were too, spinning in the semi-darkness, now sinking, now rising, keeping together, a merry band of musicians, each with a small flute, piping perhaps to the little goblins that swung on spiders' webs, and slept upon the fronds of the ferns.

Candles were now lighted, and we left the glimmer of day behind us. A little beyond the great dome the roof became so low that we had to creep along almost on hands and knees, but it presently rose again, and to a great height. The first obstacle - the one that sent me back a few months before - was a steep rock down which the water then fell in such a cascade that there was no getting a foothold upon it. Now the water scarcely covered it, and there was no difficulty in reaching the bottom. Here, however, was a pool through which we had to wade knee-deep. The cavern continued, and the stalagmite became interesting by its fantastic shapes. Here was a mass like an immense sponge, even to the colour, and there, descending from the roof down the side of the rock, was the waved hair of an undine that had been changed into white and glistening stone. The stalactites were less remarkable. The sound of dropping water told us that another cascade was near. This we left behind by climbing along the side of the gallery, clinging to the rock, and in the same way four more obstacles of precisely the same character were overcome. All the distance the slope was rapid, but at intervals there was a sudden fall of from ten to fifteen feet, with a black-looking pool at the foot of the rock, hollowed out by the action of the tumbling torrent. The last of these falls was the worst to cross. To this point the cavern had been already explored, but no farther apparently, the local impression being that it ended just beyond. It was an ugly place. The rock over which the water fell was almost perpendicular, and the pool at the bottom was larger and deeper than the others. Seen by the light of day, any schoolboy might have scoffed at the difficulty of getting beyond it, but when you are descending into the bowels of the earth, where the light of two candles can only dissolve the darkness a few yards around you, every form becomes fantastic and awful, and the effect of water of unknown depth upon the imagination is peculiarly disturbing. But we made up our minds to go on if it were possible. The passage was very narrow, and the sides offered few salient points to which one could cling. We moved along a very narrow ledge in a sitting posture, and then, when we had gone as far as we could in this way, and there was nothing beyond to sit upon, we made a spring. My companion, being the more agile, nearly cleared the pool, but I went in with a great splash, as I expected, and thought myself lucky in being only wetted to the waist. The water was not very cold, the temperature of the cavern being much higher than that of the outer air.

We reckoned that we had by this time travelled underground about half a mile, and as we had been descending rapidly all the way, the distance beneath the surface must have been considerable. My theory with regard to this stream was that it was a tributary of the subterranean Ouysse; but the fact that the cavern ran north-west made me change my opinion, and conclude that this water-course took an independent line towards the Dordogne.

A little beyond the last pool the running water suddenly vanished. We looked around to see if it had taken any side passage; but no: it simply disappeared into the earth, although no hole was perceptible in its stony channel. It passed by infiltration into some lower gallery, where the light of a candle had never shone, and is never likely to shine. But we had not reached the end of the cavern, although the passage became so low that we had now really to go down on all-fours in order to proceed. We had not to keep this posture long, for again the roof rose, although to no great height. We walked on about fifty yards or more, and then came to the end. There was no opening anywhere except by the way we entered. We were like flies that had crawled into a bottle, and a very unpleasant bottle it might have proved to us. We noticed - at first with some surprise - that, although there was not a drop of water now in this cul-de-sac, our feet sank into damp sand that had evidently been carried there by water. Sticks were also lying about, and the walls up to the roof were covered with a muddy slime. It was evident that this hole had been filled with water, and not very long ago; probably the last thunderstorm accounted for the signs of recent moisture. While we were talking about this, a strange, muffled, moaning sound reached our ears. We looked at one another over the tops of two candles. 'Thunder,' said my companion. In a few minutes the same dismal moan, long drawn out, came down the cavern, which acted like a speaking-tube between us and the outer world, and conveyed a timely warning. Was it in time? We were not quite sure of this, for as we issued from the cul-de-sac we heard the water coming down the rocks with a very different voice from that which it had not many minutes before. It was clear that the storm was beginning to tell upon the stream, and if the rain had been falling for half an hour, as I had already seen it fall in the Quercy, we might find the work of recrossing those pools and climbing up the cascades anything but cheerful. Already where we had been able to walk on dry stones the water was now up to our ankles. The first cascade to surmount was the worst. We decided to try it on the side opposite to the one by which we descended, for we observed a jutting and highly-polished piece of stalagmite, which promised to help the manoeuvre. One went first, and the other waited, holding the candle. I was in the rear. When my companion had reached the top of the cascade, I threw him the coil of rope - a useless encumbrance, as it happened - and in so doing put out the candle. Before I was sure that I had a dry match upon me, I failed to seize the humour, although I felt the novelty of the situation. During those seconds of uncertainty, the sound of the water - really fast increasing - seemed to become a deafening roar. However, we both had dry matches, and were able to relight our candles; but it might have been otherwise, wet as we were. Without light we should have been as helpless beneath those rocks as mice in a pitcher. The first cascade conquered, we felt much more comfortable, for the picture of being washed into that cul-de-sac had flashed upon the mind of each.

As the next and the next cascade were passed, our spirits rose still more; and when we saw the gray daylight in the distance, our gaiety was quite genuine, and we no longer 'laughed yellow,' as the French phrase it. The stream was rapidly becoming a frantic torrent, but we were not afraid of it now. On reaching the dome, we saw the water pouring over rocks that were dry when we entered, and the clouds seemed to be emptying their rain in frenzy.

An hour later the stream that was lisping so innocently as it threaded its way amongst the stones, and dropped from rock to rock before the storm, sent up a wild roar from the bottom of the valley, and shrieked like a tormented fiend, as it leaped into the black mouth of the Gouffre de Révaillon. Tons of water had probably collected there at the bottom of the gulf. And I, in my shortsightedness, had hoped that the cavern was two or three miles long! I had great reason to be thankful that it ended where it did, for the excitement of adventure would have carried us on, and we might have gone too deep into the earth to hear the thunder.

On emerging from the darkness, we made all the haste we could to reach the nearest inn. The storm was still at its height; the thunder was an almost continuous roar; and the quick lightning-flashes lit up the streaming country. We were quite drenched on reaching a little wayside auberge. Water was soon boiling upon the wood-fire, and having set rheumatism at defiance with steaming glasses of grog, we left for Roc-Amadour, where, on our arrival, we found our friends about to start with lanterns to look for us in the Gouffre de Révaillon.

       * * * * *

Noticing one day a low cavern in the rocks beside the Ouysse, I asked if anyone had ever entered it, and was told that a man had done so; that he had found a long, low gallery, which he followed for two or three hundred yards, and then gave up the attempt to reach the end. It was well known that the hole, being on a level with the water, was much used by otters. The desire to explore this cavern becoming strong, I spoke to Decros about the adventure. He was ready to go with me; and so we started, taking with us enough candles to light a ball-room.

On our way over the hills from Roc-Amadour, we passed two dolmens, one of which was in good preservation. There are several hundred of them in the Quercy; and the peasants, who call them pierros levados (raised stones), also 'tombs of the giants' and caïrous, in which last name the Celtic word cairn has been almost preserved, treat them now with indifference, although it is recorded of one of the early bishops of Cahors that he caused a menhir to be broken to pieces because it was an object of idolatrous worship. Those who have been to the trouble of excavating have almost invariably found in each dolmen a cella containing human bones. In some of them flint implements have been discovered; in others iron implements and turquoise ornaments, showing that the tombs, although all alike, belong to different periods. Tumuli are also numerous, but only a few menhirs and traces of cromlechs are to be seen.

Close to the Gouffre de Cabouy, whose outflow forms a tributary of the Ouysse, is a cottage where a man lives whose destiny I have often envied. When he is tired of fishing or shooting, he works in his thriving little vineyard, which he increases every year. The river is as much his own as if it belonged to him; he gets all he wants by giving himself very little trouble, and has no cares. We needed this man's boat for our expedition, and we found it drawn into a little cove beside the ruined mill, long since abandoned. It was a somewhat porous old punt, with small fish swimming about in the bottom; but it was well enough for our purpose. In the warm sunshine of the October afternoon we glided gently down the quiet stream, which is very deep, but so clear that you can see all the water-plants which revel in it, down to the sand and pebbles. Near the banks we passed over masses of watercress, and what might be likened to floating fields of lilies and pond-weed.

It needed no little reflection and expenditure of art to insert the prow of the boat into the mouth of the cavern. What an ugly and uninteresting hole I then thought it! Having run the punt as far as we could into the opening, there still remained about six feet of water to cross before reaching the sandy mud beyond. A plank, however, that we brought with us served as a bridge. The story of the otters was no fable, for here were the footprints of the beasts all over the mud. We lighted candles and looked into the hole. The ground rose and the roof descended, so that to enter it was necessary to lie perfectly flat, and to crawl along by a movement very like that of swimming; then the passage became so small that there was only room for one to go at a time. Neither of us was ambitious to go first, for there was just a chance of an otter seizing the invader by the nose; but neither liked to show the white feather. Each in turn went in a few yards, planted a lighted candle in the mud, and then found some pretext for returning. The hot air of the cavern was almost suffocating, and one felt so helpless flattened against the earth, with the rock pressing so tight upon the back that even to wriggle along was difficult. 'Decros is a native,' thought I, 'and he ought to be used to this kind of work. I will let him understand that he is expected now to do his duty.' In he went again, and planted another candle about a yard in front of the last one. Then he stopped and fired a shot from the revolver that we carried in turn for the otters, and the sound of the detonation seemed to echo in a muffled fashion from the bowels of the earth.

'How many otters have you killed?' I shouted.

'None,' he replied. 'I just fired to let them know that we are here.'

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.

This sound reminded us that the sun would soon drop behind the hill, and that the Pomoyssin, to which we intended to pay a visit on our way home, was not a spot that gained attractiveness from the shades of night. I had heard the country-people speak of it as a peculiarly horrible and treacherous gouffre, and its name, which means 'unwholesome hole,' corresponds to the local opinion of it. The shepherd children would suffer torture from thirst rather than descend into the gloomy hollow and dip out a drop of the dark water which is said to draw the gazer towards it, and then into its mysterious depths under the rock, by the spell of some wicked power. Some years ago a woman, supposed to have been drawn there by the evil spirit, was found drowned, and since then the spot has been avoided even more than it was before.

It was to this place, then, that we went when the sun was setting. The way led up a deep little valley which was an absolute desert of stones. A dead walnut-tree, struck apparently by lightning, with its old and gnarled branches stretching out on one side like weird arms, was just the object that the imagination would place in a valley blighted by the influence of evil spirits, in proximity to a passage communicating from their world to this one. Presently, as we drew near some high rocks, Decros, pointing to a dark hollow in the shadow of them said, 'There it is.' We went down into the basin to the edge of the water that lay there, black and still, Decros showing evident reluctance and restlessness the while, so strongly was his mind affected by all the stories he had heard about the pool. Moreover, it was rapidly growing dusk. In this half-light the funnel in which we were standing certainly did look a very diabolic and sinister hole. The fancy aiding, everything partook of the supernatural: the dark masses of brambles hanging from the rocks, the wild vines clinging to them with leaves like flakes of deep-glowing crimson fire, and especially the intermittent sound of gurgling water.

I was glad to have seen the Pomoyssin under circumstances so favourable, but it was with relief that I left it and began to climb the side of the gorge from this valley of dreadful shadows towards the pure sky that reddened as the brown dusk deepened below.