The Black Cap
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BY WALTER EMANUEL
HUGH LANKESTER stumbled out into the open.
The great doctor had passed sentence. It was a black cap case. Hugh Lankester was to lose his sight.
Sir William had not said it in so many words. But there was no doubt left in Lankester's mind. Lankester had had no idea things had gone so far when he decided to consult Sir William. Suddenly, something that Sir William said startled him, and Lankester had asked him point-blank :
" Shall I go blind ? "
" You follow my treatment carefully," answered the doctor, " and I think we shall get you all right. You've been overworking yourself ; you must give up all thoughts of the exam. for the present. You'll have to use your sight sparingly now. You must take to dark glasses. You must--"
" Yes, but you don't tell me. Shall I go blind ? " Lankester had interrupted, almost rudely.
" Your sight may last you many years."
" It all comes from brain wear. You've been fidgeting about that exam. You must leave town for a while, and go into the country, and forget that there are such things as books as quickly as possible. Amuse yourself. On no account allow yourself to be depressed. Good-bye, and let me see you again in a month. Meanwhile, keep up your pecker."
The great doctor, a stern person to look at, had spoken almost tenderly.
And now Hugh Lankester was outside.
" Curse Elphinstone ! " he muttered.
Elphinstone was the man, a former schoolfellow of Lankester's, now walking the hospitals, who had advised him to go and see the great doctor. Lankester had met him one afternoon it was one of his bad days and had told him of the curious tricks his eyes were playing him.
" They get all misty," he explained
Elphinstone looked grave, and said :
" Take my advice, old man, and go to a specialist."
Lankester said he would take the advice. But when he got home, and looked at his eyes in the glass, he could see that there was nothing at all the matter with them, and he set Elphinstone down as an alarmist. Then, in a few days, he ran across Elphinstone again.
" Well, have you been to an oculist ? " he asked. " No."
Elphinstone then told him plainly that it was criminal to delay the thing like that.
" I'll go after my exam.," said Lankester.
" No, go tomorrow," said Elphinstone.
Finally, Lankester promised he would go within a week.
And now he had been, and he was cursing the man who had sent him. If a fellow had to go blind well, let it come suddenly and unexpectedly. Far better so than to have to sit at home watching for it day by day. Curse Elphinstone !
Curse everyone ! Why the devil did they all get in his way ? He was hurrying down Oxford Street now he did not quite know where to and people kept running into him, and jostling up against him as he passed.
" Curse you ! " he cried savagely to a child who got in his path, and the child ran off howling to its mother.
Then, by a strange irony, he knocked into an old blind man who was standing on the kerb, and upset his tray of matches.
" Shame ! " said a woman. " Look what you've done, you clumsy lout and him blind, too."
" What's that ? Blind, do you say ? Poor devil ! I didn't know that. You can't see at all ? Ah, that's bad. God knows I'm sorry for you. It must be hard not to see cruel hard devilish hard. Here."
And he took a half-sovereign from his pocket and gave it to the man.
" You are generous, my lord," said the woman, who thought it was a farthing.
Lankester continued on his way. At last he got a stretch of pavement to himself, which set him free to think again. Well, one thing, at any rate, was pretty certain, it was all up with his career. The Indian Civil Service would have to try and get along without the aid of Hugh Lankester. He supposed, by-the-by, that the old man would stump up all right. Or would he have to walk the streets, led by a mongrel cur, selling matches ?
" Fusees, a yaypenny a box ; pity the poor blind man ! " he rehearsed between his teeth.
The idea tickled him, and he smiled. Then, suddenly, he thought of Ethel, and got serious again. Ethel ! Ah ! that was the worst. That was where it hit hardest. Of course he could not would not marry her now. He must let her off. And yet he might get better. For what had the doctor said ? " Your sight may last you many years." What a duffer he was to make up his mind for the worst ! That was just like him. Perhaps, after all, the sight would not give out. And yet what was the good of deceiving himself ? That had only been a way of putting it. The doctor knew well enough it would go, and soon. It was not to be doubted. He must give up Ethel. Under the circumstances he could not expect her to marry him. Imagine pleasure-loving little Ethel wedded to a blind man —or, at best, a man with black goggles ! He laughed aloud at the idea. . . . For a moment he felt remarkably like breaking down. . . . Then he began to wonder whether he should have warning of it, or would it come quite suddenly ? Why hadn't he asked the doctor that ? But, of course, the sight would gradually get weaker and weaker until it went out altogether. That is how it would be. Well, he knew what he would do as soon as he felt it coming. He was not going to live in darkness all his life. Hugh Lankester was not quite such a fool as that. Not quite.
He had reached Bond Street. Two ladies bowed to him. It did not strike him till they had passed that he had not raised his hat to them. Hang it all, how abominably rude they must have thought him ! He must wake up. He stretched his eyes. How strong the sun was ! Then he fell to thinking again. He called to mind how once, at an " At Home," about a couple of years ago, a palmistry woman had examined his hand, and had said :
" You won't have a very long life you'll commit suicide."
At the time he had treated it as a good joke.
But suppose, after all, the thing should come suddenly, without warning ? It was just possible. Then it would be too late : he would not be able to see to do anything. . . .
Better, perhaps, to have done with it at once. Yes, yes. No, not quite at once, though. He would enjoy himself well for a week, and then How should he do it ? He must buy a pistol. Or poison ? No, poison was a woman's way. Better get the pistol. Still, poison was cleaner. And yet he did not know. Pistol poison ? Poison pistol ?
Pistol Suddenly he stopped, and put his hand to his eyes.
" Hell ! " he cried, staggering back against a shop window. " Hell !—it's come."
People ran up.
" It's come ! " he cried, " it's come ! . . . But it's too soon. It's not fair, it's not fair."
" What's come ? " asked the crowd.
" It—it. Oh ! turn up the light turn up the light ; won't somebody turn up the light ? "
He tore at his eyes.
The eyes were still open, but the sight was gone. They led him away.
" Five pounds to the man who'll kill me ! Ten pounds ! A hundred pounds ! Oh, for mercy's sake !—is there no Christian here who'll do it ! "
" Billay ! " shouted an urchin, "'ere's a bloke off 'is nut."