For seven long years Orloff had been thus confined but a small fraction of the life sentence he was serving for the horrible crime he had committed. But at times he had asked himself, Was it not worth it, after all? He could still feel the wet, warm blood trickling between his fingers, and see the whites of his victims eyes. Then, too, there was that great day of the trial, when so many officials, in their splendid uniforms and gold braid, and so many beautiful women, clad in their furs and satins, had gazed at him, horror-struck, unable to avert their eyes from his face, or miss one word that fell from his lips¦At such times Orloff would rub his hands and smile to himself, in memory of that great day.
But tonight Orloff was in a different mood. Black despair and vengeance reigned supreme in his soul; he wished only to escape, in order that he might seek out his destroyers and in turn destroy them. His steps became more feverishly agitated; perspiration gathered on his forehead and he clenched his hands until the nails bit into his flesh and little trickles of blood oozed from between his fingers. A brilliant lightning flash illuminated the far wall of his cell lighting it as it had never been lighted before. Orloffs eyes became riveted upon a huge stone, on the lowest tier¦Were his eyes deceiving him, or had he in truth seen a tiny crack surrounding it, as though the cement had been scraped away or altogether removed? Hardly daring to breathe he tip-toed across the room and fell on his knees before the stone, feeling its edges with his blood-stained fingers.
Yes, there was a deep crevice surrounding it. And, what was more, the stone was loose. Orloff tugged at it, scraping the flesh from his fingers, sweat pouring from his face and matted hair¦It moved¦He pulled the great stone from its place and peered into the blackness beyond. Another lightning flash showed him what he had hardly dared hope for a passage in the rock, leading downward from his place of torment.
On the floor was a piece of paper, folded and yellow with age. With trembling fingers he carried it to the window, through which shone the faint rays of a lamp in the courtyard below, and there unfolded it. On it was a brief message, apparently written with some dark red fluid. For the first time in his life Orloff was glad that he had been made to read, if only a little.
For on the paper was written:
I escaped by this passage. May he who finds this share my good fortune. It was signed S.K.
The tramp of the sentrys feet resounded outside the door of his cell. Orloff threw himself over the stone till the footsteps had died away; then he thrust his head and shoulders into the opening, and began slowly to worm his way along the narrow passage before him.
The walls of the passage were wet with slime and mould, and sharp, jagged rocks protruded, tearing Orloffs clothes and scratching deep into his flesh¦But of all this Orloff knew nothing. His eyes were gleaming, but only one thought was present in his mind escape. He dug his bloody fingers into the mud and pushed himself steadily forward, flat on his stomach, like a serpent.
As he advanced, the floor of the passage became steeper and steeper, sloping at an ever-greater angle. The walls became yet wetter and more slimy and the jagged rocks bit deeper into his writhing limbs. Foot after foot Orloff propelled himself along this narrow, sloping path. His breath came in short gasps, while the darkness seemed to become ever more intense. For one moment he paused, an agonizing fear shooting through him. He realized that it would be impossible for him ever to ascend that sloping passage to regain his cell. A cold shiver ran down his spine. Then, he clenched his teeth and propelled himself forward with the superhuman strength of despair.
A sharp bend in the passage revealed a sight which made him gasp. A faint circular opening in the distance permitted the rays of the moon which had fitfully begun to shine to penetrate the stygian blackness. The end of the passage lay before him. Victory escape! The cold night air fanned his face; he urged himself onward in a last desperate effort.
The passage became ever more sloping as he advanced. His body was inclined at a sickening angle. Strange streaks of blackness seemed to cross his vision, as he half fell, half slid the few feet which yet remained to be traversed. Orloffs head crashed into something hard, which half stunned him. A moment later he opened his eyes, and saw before him a heavily barred iron grating, and a skeleton.