“Black Venn”—A Creepy 1896 Tale by Bernard Capes, Part I


“George,” said Plancine.

“Please say it again,” said George.

She dimpled at him and obeyed, with the soft suggestion of accent that was like a tender confidence. Her feet were sunk in Devonshire grass; her name was on the birth register of a little Devonshire sea-town; yet the sun of France was in her veins as surely as his caress was on her lips.

Therefore she said “George” with a sweet dragging sound that greatly fluttered the sensibilities of the person addressed, and not infrequently led them to alight, like Prince Dummling’s queen bee, on the very mouth of that honeyed flower of speech.

Now Plancine put her cheek on her George’s rough sleeve, and said she,—

“I have a confession to make—about something a little silly. Consequently I have postponed it till now, when it is too dark for you to see my face.”

“Never!” he murmured fervently. “A double cataract could not deprive me of that vision. It is printed here, Plancine.”

He smacked his chest hard on the left side.

“Yet it sounds hollow, George?”

“Yes,” he said. “It is a sandwich-box, an empty one. I would not consign your image to such a deplorable casket. My heart was what I meant. How I hate sandwiches—misers shivering between sheets—a vile gastronomic economy!”

“Poor boy! I will make you little dough-cakes when you go apainting.”

“Plancine! Your image here, yes. But your dough-cakes—!”

“Then keep to your sandwiches, sir.”

“I must. But the person who invented them was no gentleman!”

“Papa would like to hear you say that.”

“Say what?”

“Admit the possibility of any social distinction.”

“It is only a question of sandwiches.”

“George, must you be a Chartist and believe in Feargus O’Connor?”

“My soul, I cannot go back on my principles, for all that the violets of your eyes have sprouted under the shadow of a venerable family-tree.”

“That is very prettily said. You may kiss my thumb-nail with the white spot in it for luck. No, sir. That is presuming. Now I am snug, and you may talk.”

“Plancine, I am a son of the people. I hold by my own. No doubt, if I had blue blood to boast of, I should keep a vial of it in doubt, if I had blue blood to boast of, I should keep a vial of it in a prominent place on the drawing-room mantelpiece. As it is, I confess my desire is to carve for myself a name in art that shall be independent of all adventitious support; to answer to my vocation straight, upright, and manly.”

“That is better than nobility—though I have pride in my own. I wish papa thought so. Yet he has both himself.”

“The fine soul! For fifty years he has stood square to adversity with a smile on his face. Could I ever achieve that? Already I cry out on poverty; because I want an unencumbered field for work, and—yes, one other trifle.”

“One other trifle, George?”

He took Plancine’s face between his hands and looked very lovingly into her eyes.

“I think I did the old man too much honour,” he said. “You nestling of eighteen—what credit to scout misfortune with such a bird at one’s side!”

“Ah! but papa is sixty-nine and the bird but eighteen.”

“And eighteen years of heaven are a good education in happiness.”

So they coo’d, these two. The June scents of the little garden were wafted all about them. The moon had come up out of the sea, and, finding a trellis of branches over their heads, hung their young brows with coronals of shadowy leaves, like the old dame she was, rummaging in her trinket box for something for her favourites.

In the dimly-luminous parlour (that smelt of folios and warm coffee) of the little dark house in the background, the figure of papa, poring at the table over geological maps, was visible.

Fifty years ago an émigré, denounced, proscribed, and escaped from the ruin of a shattered society: here, in ’49, a stately, large-boned man, placidly enjoying the consciousness of a serene dignity maintained at the expense of much and prolonged self-effacement—this was papa.

Grey hair, thinning but slightly near the temples; grey moustache and beard pointed de bouc; flowered dressing-gown girdled about a heart as simple as a child’s—this was papa, papa who grubbed over his ordnance surveys while the young folks outside whispered of the stars.

Right beneath them—the latter—a broad gully of the hills went plunging precipitously, all rolled with leaf and flower, to the undercliff of soft blue lias and the very roof ridges of King’s Cobb, whose walls and chimneys, now snowed with light, fretted a scallop of the striding bay that swept the land here like a scythe.

Plancine’s village, a lofty appanage or suburb of this little seaboard town at the hill-foot, seemed rather the parent stock from which the other had emancipated itself. For all down the steep slope that fled from Upper to King’s Cobb was flung a débris of houses that, like the ice-fall of a glacier, would appear to have broken from the main body and gone careering into the valley below.

It was in point of fact, however, but a subordinate hamlet—a hanging garden for the jaded tourist in the dog days, when his soul stifled in the oven of the sea-level cliffs—an eyrie for Plancine, and for George, the earnest painter, a Paradise before the fall.

And now says George, “We have talked all round your confession, and still I wait to give you absolution.”

“I will confess. I read it in one of papa’s books that is called the Talmud.”

“Gracious me! you should be careful. What did you read?”

“That whoever wants to see the souls of the dead—”


“—must take finely sifted ashes, and strew them round his bed; and in the morning he will see their foot-tracks, as a cock’s. I did it.”

“You did?”

“Last night, yes. And what a business I had afterwards sweeping them up!”

“And did you see anything?”

“Something—yes—I think so. But it might have been mice. There are plenty up there.”

“Now you are an odd Plancine! What did you want with the ghosts of the dead?”

“I will tell you, you tall man; and you will not abuse my confidence. George, for all your gay independence, you must allow me a little family pride and a little pathetic interest in the fortunes of the dead and gone De Jussacs.”

“It is Mademoiselle De Jussac that speaks.”

“It is Plancine, who knows so little:—that ‘The Terror’ would have guillotined her father, a boy of fourteen: that he escaped to Prussia, to Belgium, to England; for six years always a wanderer and a fugitive: that he was wrecked on this dear coast and, penniless, started life anew here on his little accomplishments: that he made out a meagre existence, and late in the order of years (he was fifty) married an expatriated countrywoman, who died—George, my mother died when I was seventeen months old—and that is where I stop. My good, big father—so lonely, so poor, and so silent! He tells me little. He speaks scantily of the past. But he was a Vicomte and is the last of his line; and I wanted the ghosts to explain to me so much that I have never learned.”

The moonlight fell upon her sweet, pale, uplifted face. There were tears in her eyes that glittered like frost.

But George, for all his love, showed a little masculine impatience. “Reserve is very good,” he said; “but we can’t all be Lord Burleighs by holding our tongues. There is a sort of silence that is pregnant with nothing.”

“George, you cannot mean to insult my father?”

“No, dear. But why does he make such a mystery of his past? I would have mine as clear as a window, for all to look through. Why does he treat me with such suave and courteous opposition—permitting my suit, yet withholding his consent?”

“If you could be less democratic, dear—”

“It is a religion with me—not a brutal indulgence.” “Perhaps he cannot dissociate the two. Then, he admires your genius and commends your courage; but your poor purse hungers, my lover, and he desires riches for his Plancine.” “And Plancine?”

“She will die a grey-haired maid for thee, ‘O Richard! O my king!'”

“My sweet—my bird—my wife! Oh, that you could be that now and kiss me on to fortune! I should be double-souled and inspired. A few months, and Madame la Vicomtesse should ‘walk in silk attire.’ I flame at the picture. Why will your father not yield you gracefully, instead of plying us with that eternal enigma of Black Venn?”

“Because enthusiasm alone may not command wealth,” said a deep voice near them.

Papa had come upon them unobserved. The young man wheeled and charged while his blood was hot.

“Mr. De Jussac, it is a shame to hold me in this unending suspense.”

“Is it not better than decided rejection?”

“I have served like Jacob. You cannot doubt my single-hearted devotion?”

“I doubt nothing, my George” (about his accent there was no tender compromise)—”I doubt nothing, but that the balance at your bankers’ is excessive.”

“You would not value Plancine at so much bullion?”

“But yes, my friend; for bullion is the algebraic formula that represents comfort. When Black Venn slips his apron—”

George made a gesture of impatience.

“When Black Venn slips his apron,” repeated the father quietly, “I shall be in a position to consider your suit.”

That is tantamount to putting me off altogether. It is ungenerous. It is preposterous. You may or may not be right; but it is simply farcical (Plancine cried, “George!”—but he went on warmly, nevertheless) to make our happiness contingent on the possible tumbling down of a bit of old cliff—an accident that, after all, may never happen.”

“Ah!” the quiet, strong voice went on; and in the old eyes turned moonwards one might have fancied one could read a certain pathos of abnegation, or approaching self-sacrifice; “but it will, and shortly, for I prophesy. It was no idle cruelty of mine that first suggested this condition, but a natural reluctance to sign myself back to utter loneliness.”

Plancine cried, “Papa! papa!” and sprang into his arms.

“A little patience,” said De Jussac, pressing his moustache to the round head, “and you will honour this weary prophet, I think. I was up on the cliff to-day. The great crack is ever widening. A bowling wind, a loud thunderstorm, and that apron of the hill will tear from its bondage and sink sweltering down the slopes.”

In the moment of speaking a tremor seized all his limbs, his eyes glared maniacal, his outstretched arm pointed seawards.

“The guillotine!” he shrieked, “the guillotine!”

In the offing of the bay was a vessel making for the unseen harbour below. It stood up black against the moonlight, its sails and yards presenting some fantastic resemblance to that engine of blood.

George stepped back and hung his head embarrassed. He had more than once been witness of a like seizure. It was the guillotine fright—the fright that had smitten the boy of fourteen,and had pursued the man ever since with periodic attacks of illusion. Anything—a branch, a door-post, a window, would suggest the hateful form during those periods—happily brief—when the poor mind was temporarily unhinged. No doubt, in earlier years, the fits had occurred frequently. Now they were rare, and generally, it seemed, attributable to some strong excitement or emotion.

Plancine knew how to act. She put her hand over the frantic eyes, and led the old man stumbling up the garden path. She was going to sing to him from the little sweet folk-ballads of the old gay France before the trouble came—

The king would wed his daughter

Over the English sea;

But never across the water

Shall a husband come to me.

Love floated on the freshet of her voice straight into the heart of the young man who stood without.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.