|Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 23 (view annotations)
|All went well until Mlle Larivière decided to stay in bed for
|five days: she had sprained her back on a merry-go-round at
|the Vintage Fair, which, besides, she needed as the setting for
|a story she had begun (about a town mayor's strangling a small
|girl called Rockette), and knew by experience that nothing
|kept up the itch of inspiration so well as la chaleur du lit. During
|that period, the second upstairs maid, French, whose moods and
|looks did not match the sweet temper and limpid grace of
|Blanche, was supposed to look after Lucette, and Lucette did
|her best to avoid the lazy servant's surveillance in favor of her
|cousin's and sister's company. The ominous words: "Well, if
|Master Van lets you come," or "Yes, I'm sure Miss Ada won't
|mind your mushroom-picking with her," became something of
|a knell in regard to love's freedom.
|While the comfortably resting lady was describing the bank
|of a brook where little Rockette liked to frolic, Ada sat reading
|on a similar bank, wistfully glancing from time to time at an
|inviting clump of evergreens (that had frequently sheltered
|our lovers) and at brown-torsoed, barefooted Van, in turned-up
|dungarees, who was searching for his wristwatch that he
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|thought he had dropped among the forget-me-nots (but which
|Ada, he forgot, was wearing). Lucette had abandoned her
|skipping rope to squat on the brink of the brook and float a
|fetus-sized rubber doll. Every now and then she squeezed out
|of it a fascinating squirt of water through a little hole that Ada
|had had the bad taste to perforate for her in the slippery
|orange-red toy. With the sudden impatience of inanimate things,
|the doll managed to get swept away by the current. Van shed
|his pants under a willow and retrieved the fugitive. Ada, after
|considering the situation for a moment, shut her book and said
|to Lucette, whom usually it was not hard to enchant, that she,
|Ada, felt she was quickly turning into a dragon, that the
|scales had begun to turn green, that now she was a dragon and
|that Lucette must be tied to a tree with the skipping rope so
|that Van might save her just in time. For some reason,
|Lucette balked at the notion but physical strength prevailed.
|Van and Ada left the angry captive firmly attached to a willow
|trunk, and, "prancing" to feign swift escape and pursuit, dis-
|appeared for a few precious minutes in the dark grove of
|conifers. Writhing Lucette had somehow torn off one of the
|red knobbed grips of the rope and seemed to have almost disen-
|tangled herself when dragon and knight, prancing, returned.
|She complained to her governess who, completely miscon-
|struing the whole matter (which could also be said of her new
|composition), summoned Van and from her screened bed,
|through a reek of embrocation and sweat, told him to refrain
|from turning Lucette's head by making of her a fairy-tale
|damsel in distress.
|On the following day Ada informed her mother that Lucette
|badly needed a bath and that she would give it to her, whether
|her governess liked it or not. "Horosho," said Marina (while
|getting ready to receive a neighbor and his protégé, a young
|actor, in her best Dame Marina style), "but the temperature
|should be kept at exactly twenty-eight (as it had been since the
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|eighteenth century) and don't let her stay in it longer than
|ten or twelve minutes."
|"Beautiful idea," said Van as he helped Ada to heat the tank,
|fill the old battered bath and warm a couple of towels.
|Despite her being only in her ninth year and rather under-
|developed, Lucette had not escaped the delusive pubescence of
|red-haired little girls. Her armpits showed a slight stipple of
|bright floss and her chub was dusted with copper.
|The liquid prison was now ready and an alarm clock given
|a full quarter of an hour to live.
|"Let her soak first, you'll soap her afterwards," said Van
|"Yes, yes, yes," cried Ada.
|"I'm Van," said Lucette, standing in the tub with the
|mulberry soap between her legs and protruding her shiny
|"You'll turn into a boy if you do that," said Ada sternly, "and
|that won't be very amusing."
|Warily, the little girl started to sink her buttocks in the
|"Too hot," she said, "much too horribly hot!"
|"It'll cool," said Ada, "plop down and relax. Here's your
|"Come on, Ada, for goodness' sake, let her soak," repeated
|"And remember," said Ada, "don't you dare get out of this
|nice warm water until the bell rings or you'll die, because that's
|what Krolik said. I'll be back to lather you, but don't call me;
|we have to count the linen and sort out Van's hankies."
|The two elder children, having locked the door of the L-
|shaped bathroom from the inside, now retired to the seclusion
|of its lateral part, in a corner between a chest of drawers and an
|old unused mangle, which the sea-green eye of the bathroom
|looking-glass could not reach; but barely had they finished
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|their violent and uncomfortable exertions in that hidden nook,
|with an empty medicine bottle idiotically beating time on a
|shelf, when Lucette was already calling resonantly from the
|tub and the maid knocking on the door: Mlle Larivière wanted
|some hot water too.
|They tried all sorts of other tricks.
|Once, for example, when Lucette had made of herself a
|particular nuisance, her nose running, her hand clutching at
|Van's all the time, her whimpering attachment to his company
|turning into a veritable obsession, Van mustered all his persua-
|sive skill, charm, eloquence, and said with conspiratory under-
|tones: "Look, my dear. This brown book is one of my most
|treasured possessions. I had a special pocket made for it in my
|school jacket. Numberless fights have been fought over it with
|wicked boys who wanted to steal it. What we have here" (turn-
|ing the pages reverently) "is no less than a collection of the most
|beautiful and famous short poems in the English language. This
|tiny one, for example, was composed in tears forty years ago by
|the Poet Laureate Robert Brown, the old gentleman whom my
|father once pointed out to me up in the air on a cliff under a
|cypress, looking down on the foaming turquoise surf near Nice,
|an unforgettable sight for all concerned. It is called 'Peter and
|Margaret.' Now you have, say" (turning to Ada in solemn
|consultation), "forty minutes" ("Give her a full hour, she can't
|even memorize Mironton, mirontaine")—"all right, a full hour
|to learn these eight lines by heart. You and I" (whispering) "are
|going to prove to your nasty arrogant sister that stupid little
|Lucette can do anything. If" (lightly brushing her bobbed hair
|with his lips), "if, my sweet, you can recite it and confound Ada
|by not making one single slip—you must be careful about the
|'here-there' and the 'this-that', and every other detail—if you
|can do it then I shall give you this valuable book for keeps."
|("Let her try the one about finding a feather and seeing Peacock
|plain" said Ada drily—"it's a bit harder.") "No, no, she and I
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|have already chosen that little ballad. All right. Now go in
|here" (opening a door) "and don't come out until I call you.
|Otherwise, you'll forfeit the reward, and will regret the loss
|all your life."
|"Oh, Van, how lovely of you," said Lucette, slowly entering
|her room, with her bemused eyes scanning the fascinating fly-
|leaf, his name on it, his bold flourish, and his own wonderful
|drawings in ink—a black aster (evolved from a blot), a doric
|column (disguising a more ribald design), a delicate leafless
|tree (as seen from a classroom window), and several profiles of
|boys (Cheshcat, Zogdog, Fancytart, and Ada-like Van himself).
|Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt
|quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic
|shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to
|him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901,
|"just in case," wrote:
|"I kept for years—it must be in my Ardis nursery—the
|anthology you once gave me; and the little poem you wanted
|me to learn by heart is still word-perfect in a safe place of my
|jumbled mind, with the packers trampling on my things, and
|upsetting crates, and voices calling: time to go, time to go. Find
|it in Brown and praise me again for my eight-year-old in-
|telligence as you and happy Ada did that distant day, that day
|somewhere tinkling on its shelf like an empty little bottle. Now
|"Here, said the guide, was the field,
|There, he said, was the wood.
|This is where Peter kneeled,
|That's where the Princess stood.
|No, the visitor said,
|You are the ghost, old guide.
|Oats and oaks may be dead,
|But she is by my side."
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