It was a beautiful dry tunnel with smooth gray walls covered with native symbols, a curved roof which arched over our heads, and white glistening sand beneath our feet.
We hurried eagerly along it until, with a deep groan of bitter disappointment, we were brought to a halt. A sheer wall of rock had appeared before us, with no chink through which a mouse could have slipped.
There was no escape for us there.
We stood with bitter hearts staring at this unexpected obstacle.
It was not the result of any convulsion, as in the case of the ascending tunnel. The end wall was exactly like the side ones.
It was, and had always been, a cul-de-sac.
"Never mind, my friends," said the indomitable Challenger.
"You have still my firm promise of a balloon."
"Can we be in the wrong cave?" I suggested.
"No use, young fellah," said Lord John, with his finger on the chart.
"Seventeen from the right and second from the left.
This is the cave sure enough."
I looked at the mark to which his finger pointed, and I gave a sudden cry of joy.
"I believe I have it!
I hurried back along the way we had come, my torch in my hand.
"Here," said I, pointing to some matches upon the ground, "is where we lit up."
"Well, it is marked as a forked cave, and in the darkness we passed the fork before the torches were lit.
On the right side as we go out we should find the longer arm."
It was as I had said.
We had not gone thirty yards before a great black opening loomed in the wall.
We turned into it to find that we were in a much larger passage than before.
Along it we hurried in breathless impatience for many hundreds of yards.
Then, suddenly, in the black darkness of the arch in front of us we saw a gleam of dark red light.
We stared in amazement.
A sheet of steady flame seemed to cross the passage and to bar our way.
We hastened towards it.
No sound, no heat, no movement came from it, but still the great luminous curtain glowed before us, silvering all the cave and turning the sand to powdered jewels, until as we drew closer it discovered a circular edge.
"The moon, by George!" cried Lord John.
"We are through, boys!
We are through!"
It was indeed the full moon which shone straight down the aperture which opened upon the cliffs.
It was a small rift, not larger than a window, but it was enough for all our purposes.
As we craned our necks through it we could see that the descent was not a very difficult one, and that the level ground was no very great way below us.
It was no wonder that from below we had not observed the place, as the cliffs curved overhead and an ascent at the spot would have seemed so impossible as to discourage close inspection.
We satisfied ourselves that with the help of our rope we could find our way down, and then returned, rejoicing, to our camp to make our preparations for the next evening.
What we did we had to do quickly and secretly, since even at this last hour the Indians might hold us back.
Our stores we would leave behind us, save only our guns and cartridges.
But Challenger had some unwieldy stuff which he ardently desired to take with him, and one particular package, of which I may not speak, which gave us more labor than any.
Slowly the day passed, but when the darkness fell we were ready for our departure.
With much labor we got our things up the steps, and then, looking back, took one last long survey of that strange land, soon I fear to be vulgarized, the prey of hunter and prospector, but to each of us a dreamland of glamour and romance, a land where we had dared much, suffered much, and learned much—OUR land, as we shall ever fondly call it.
Along upon our left the neighboring caves each threw out its ruddy cheery firelight into the gloom.
From the slope below us rose the voices of the Indians as they laughed and sang.
Beyond was the long sweep of the woods, and in the center, shimmering vaguely through the gloom, was the great lake, the mother of strange monsters.
Even as we looked a high whickering cry, the call of some weird animal, rang clear out of the darkness.
It was the very voice of Maple White Land bidding us good-bye.
We turned and plunged into the cave which led to home.