be said, but all three people had reached a momentary pause.
The butler came into the room just then, with a letter. "This has just come by messenger from North London Prison, sir," he said, unable to repress a faint gleam of curiosity in his eyes.
With a gesture of apology, the doctor opened the envelope. "Very well," he said, in a moment or two. "I need not write an answer. But go to the library, Proctor, and ring up the North London Prison. Say Doctor Morton Sims' thanks and he will be there punctually at half past eight."
The servant withdrew and both the ladies looked inquiringly at the doctor.
"It is a dreadful thing," he said, after a moment's hesitation, "but I may as well tell you. It must go no further though. A wretched man is to be executed to-morrow and I have to go and see him."
"How frightful," she said, growing rather pale; "but why, John? How does it concern you? Are you forced to go?"
He nodded. "I must go," he said, "though it is the most painful thing I have ever had to do. It is Hancock, the Hackney murderer."
Two startled faces were turned to him now, and a new atmosphere suddenly seemed to have come into the warm luxurious room, something that was cold, something that had entered from outside.
"You don't know," he went on. "Of course you have been out of England for some months. Well, it is this. Hancock is a youngish man of five and twenty. He was a chemist at Hackney, and of quite exceptional intelligence. He was at one time an assistant at Williamsons' in Oxford Street, where some of my prescriptions are made up and where I buy drugs for experimental purposes. I took rather an interest in him several years ago. He passed all his examinations with credit and became engaged to a really charming young woman, who was employed in a big ladies' shop in Regent Street. He wanted to set up in business for himself, very naturally, and I helped him with a money loan. He married the girl, bought a business at Hackney, and became prosperous enough in a moderate sort of way. He paid me back the hundred pounds I lent him and from time to time I heard that things were going on very well. He was respected in the district, and his wife especially was liked. She was a good and religious woman and did a lot of work for a local church. They appeared to be a most devoted couple."
The doctor stopped in his story and glanced at the set faces turned towards him. He poured some water into a tumbler and drank it.
"Oh, it's a hideous story," he said, with some emotion and marked distaste in his voice. "I won't go into the details. Hancock poisoned his wife with the most calculating and wicked cunning. He had become enamoured of a girl in the neighbourhood and he wanted to get rid of his wife in order to marry her. His wife adored him. She had been a perfect wife to him, but it made no difference. The thing was discovered, as such things nearly always are, he was condemned to death and will be hanged to-morrow morning at breakfast time."
"And you are going to see him to-night, John?"
"Yes. It is my duty. I owe it to my work, and to the wretched man too. I was present at the trial. From the first I realised that there must have been some definite toxic influence at work on the man's mind to change him from an intelligent and well-meaning member of society into a ghastly monster of crime. I was quite right. It was alcohol. He had been secretly drinking for years, though, as strong-minded and cunning inebriates do, he had managed to preserve appearances. As you know, Edith, the Home Secretary is a friend of mine and interested in our work. Hancock has expressed a wish to see me, to give me some definite information about himself which will be of great use in my researches into the psychology of alcoholism. With me, the Home Secretary realises the value of such an opportunity, and as it is the convict's earnest wish, I am given the fullest facilities for to-night. Of course the matter is one of absolute privacy. There would be an outcry among the sentimental section of the public if it were known. But it is my clear duty to go."
There was a dead silence in the room. Mrs. Daly played uneasily with her napkin ring. Suddenly it escaped her nervous fingers and rolled up against a tumbler with a loud ringing sound. She started and seemed to awake from a bitter dream.
"Again!" she said in a low voice that throbbed with pain. "At all hours, in all places, we meet it! The scourge of humanity, the Fiend Alcohol! The curse of the world!—how long, how long?"
"Ma femme est morte, je suis libre!
Je puis donc boire tout mon soûl.
Lorsque je rentrais sans un sou,
Ses cris me déchiraient la fibre."
The rain had ceased but the night was bitter cold, as Dr. Morton Sims' motor went from his house in Russell Square towards the North London Prison.
A pall of fog hung a few hundred feet above London. The brilliant artificial lights of the streets glowed with a hard and rather ghastly radiance. As the car rolled down this and that roaring thoroughfare, the people in it seemed to Morton Sims to be walking like marionettes. The driver in front moved mechanically like a clockwork puppet, the town seemed fantastic and unreal to-night.
A heavy depression weighed upon the doctor's senses. His heart beat slowly. Some other artery within him was throbbing like a funeral drum.
It had come upon him suddenly as he left the house. He had never, in all his life, known anything like it before. Perhaps the mournful words of the American woman had been the cause. Her deep contralto voice tolled in his ears still. Some white cell in the brain was affected, the nerves of his body were in revolt. The depression grew deeper and deeper. A nameless malady of the soul was upon him, he had a sick horror of his task. The hands in his fur gloves grew wet and there was a salt taste in his mouth.
The car left ways that were familiar. Presently it turned into a street of long houses. The street rose steeply before, and was outlined by a long, double row of gas-lamps, stretching away to a point. It was quite silent, and the note of the car's engine sank a full tone as the ascent began.
Through the window in front, and to the left of the chauffeur, the doctor could see the lamps running past him, and suddenly he became aware of a vast blackness, darker than the houses, deeper than the sky, coming to meet him. Incredibly huge and sinister, a precipice, a mountain of stone, a nightmare castle whose grim towers were lost in night, closed the long road and barred all progress onward.
It was the North London Prison, hideous by day, frightful by night, the frontier citadel of a land of Death and gloom and shadows.
The doctor left his car and told the man to return in an hour and wait for him.
He stood before a high arched gateway. In this gateway was a door studded with sexagonal bosses of iron. Above the door was a gas-lamp. Hanging to the side of this door was an iron rod terminating in a handle of brass. This was the bell.
A sombre silence hung over everything. The roar of London seemed like a sound heard in a vision. A thin night wind sighed like a ghost in the doctor's ear as he stood before the ultimate reality of life, a reality surpassing the reality of dreams.
He stretched out his arm and pulled the bell.
The smooth and sudden noise of oiled steel bars sliding in their grooves was heard, and then a gentle "thud" as they came to rest. A small wicket door in the great ones opened. A huge sombre figure filled it and there was a little musical jingle of keys.
The visitor's voice was muffled as he spoke. In his own ears it sounded strange.
"I am Dr. Morton Sims," he said. "I have a special permit from the Home