Waking in The Eifel Uplands

Rachel woke early and saw that the window beside her bed stood halfway open and a pitcher and basin and soap and towels had been put on the marble-topped dresser.   The long woolens she had bought yesterday in Brussels had been washed and dried and were hanging on hooks on the front of the wardrobe. She rose, shut the window and then looked out it at the bright,snow-covered fields and the bare trees on the hills that rose in the distance.   The water in the pitcher was still warm and she washed her face and hands and brushed her hair and dressed and made her bed and folded her nightgown and laid it across the bed.  She opened her bedroom door and caught the aroma of the morning’s coffee and the breakfast rolls just taken from the oven.

The dining room was bright with the sunlight flooding through the row of east-facing windows and the rest of her party was already at the table with two other tall young men, both of them bearded.  She brought her coffee from the stove, seated herself,  and took rolls from a bowl and sausage from a platter and listened without understanding as the two men spoke with John Cavendish in German.  Before breakfast was finished the two girls who had worked the kitchen last evening entered through the back door and knocked the snow from their boots and put on their aprons and cleared away the breakfast dishes and brought in a platter of dark chocolate bars.

In a low voice, Janet, who sat next to her said “These men are our guides.”

The six of them piled into a long, red Range Rover on top ofwhich were racked six sets of cross-country skis and poles.  They drove away at a speed that alarmed Rachel,across the snow and towards the distant hills without the slightest evidence of a roadway beneath them.  John Cavendish sat beside the driver and held the map that Rachel had found in the old mansion and now and then pointed to some feature in the landscape and spoke to thedriver.  

The first evidence Rachel saw of any roadway was a stone,one-lane bridge that crossed a swollen creek flowing from a hollow between wooded hills.  They parked just on the other side of the bridge and the driver’s friend took a case of boots from a frame at the back of the vehicle and set it in the snow beside the car and then, facing the passengers, one by one, he spoke a single word of English:“Size?”

They were soon outfitted and the two bearded men put on heavy rucksacks and handed them each another bar of chocolate and broke a trail along the creek and into thehollow.  The others followed in their tracks.

They pushed on and up through the hollow and past one, two and then a third fork in the narrowing stream until they reached a place at the bottom of another hill where the stream was born in a laughing gush rising from a stone mouth at the tree line.   John Cavendishtook the map from his vest and held it before the leader and the leader pointedup the hillside.

They left their skis by the spring and began their hike up the hillside through the trees.  Near the top of the hill there was a stone outcropping that curved back into the hill.  There was an opening big enough to crawl through and the leader and his friend strapped lights to their heads and dropped down into the snow before the opening and wiggled themselves inside.

They were out of sight for what seemed like a long time but when they reappeared they nodded enthusiastically and spoke loudly to John Cavendish who explained to the group that this was indeed the cave they were seeking.

The two men scraped away ice and snow from around the opening and exposed a joint between two great boulders that lay against the stone face of the outcropping and above the crawl-hole they had just come through.  The seam between the two great stones was even and straight, like it was the work of a mason.  They took handfuls of plastic explosive from their packs and stashed it in yellow gobs here and there along the seams between the boulders and the hillside. The entire group then headed back into the woods and down the hillside until the opening was long out of sight. Then the leader’s friend touched the screen of his phone three times and they heard the explosion and then the rain of shattered stone.

When they returned to the hilltop they saw that the opening was now large enough for them to walk through upright.  The guides gave strap-on headlamps to each of them and they all went inside and followed turns in the cavern until they came to a great room where stood the ruins of eighteen ancient carts, all of them empty.

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