Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 28 (view annotations)

The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive—somehow, somewhere!)
was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his
long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had
lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted
171.05 upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He
could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin's
"Headless Horseman" poem in less than twenty minutes. With
white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich,
he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying
171.10 major and minor Russian writers—and puzzling out the exag-
gerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his
father's volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov's
diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his
tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the
171.15 peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a
motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat,
the Navajo chieftain, a French general's bastard, shot by Cora
Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been!
Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Tel-
171.20 luride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes

[ 171 ]

detested) the greatest international shows—English blank-verse
plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German
musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white
horse. He passed through various little passions—parlor magic,
172.05 chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding—and of
course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his
lovely young English governess expertly petted him between
milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for
some party with her sister and Demon and Demon's casino-
172.10 touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor
and adviser, Mr. Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper.
Mr. Plunkett had been, in the summer of his adventurous
years, one of the greatest shuler's, politely called "gaming con-
jurers," both in England and America. At forty, in the middle
172.15 of a draw-poker session he had been betrayed by a fainting fit
of cardiac origin (which allowed, alas, a bad loser's dirty hands
to go through his pockets), and spent several years in prison,
had become reconverted to the Roman faith of his forefathers
and, upon completing his term, had dabbled in missionary
172.20 work, written a handbook on conjuring, conducted bridge
columns in various papers and done some sleuthing for the
police (he had two stalwart sons in the force). The outrageous
ravages of time and some surgical tampering with his rugged
features had made his gray face not more attractive but at least
172.25 unrecognizable to all but a few old cronies, who now shunned
his chilling company, anyway. To Van he was even more
fascinating than King Wing. Gruff but kindly Mr. Plunkett
could not resist exploiting that fascination (we all like to be
liked) by introducing Van to the tricks of an art now become
172.30 pure and abstract, and therefore genuine. Mr. Plunkett con-
sidered the use of all mechanical media, mirrors and vulgar
"sleeve rakes" as leading inevitably to exposure, just as jellies,
muslin, rubber hands and so on sully and shorten a professional
medium's career. He taught Van what to look for when sus-

[ 172 ]

pecting the cheater with bright objects around him ("Xmas
tree" or "twinkler," as those amateurs, some of them respectable
clubmen, are called by professionals). Mr. Plunkett believed
only in sleight-of-hand; secret pockets were useful (but could
173.05 be turned inside out and against you). Most essential was the
"feel" of a card, the delicacy of its palming, and digitation, the
false shuffle, deck-sweeping, pack-roofing, prefabrication of
deals, and above all a finger agility that practice could meta-
morphose into veritable vanishing acts or, conversely, into the
173.10 materialization of a joker or the transformation of two pairs into
four kings. One absolute requisite, if using privately an addi-
tional deck, was memorizing discards when hands were not pre-
arranged. For a couple of months Van practiced card tricks,
then turned to other recreations. He was an apprentice who
173.15 learned fast, and kept his labeled phials in a cool place.
In 1885, having completed his prep-school education, he went
up to Chose University in England, where his fathers had gone,
and traveled from time to time to London or Lute (as prosper-
ous but not overrefined British colonials called that lovely pearl-

gray sad city on the other side of the Channel).

Sometime during the winter of 1886-7, at dismally cold
Chose, in the course of a poker game with two Frenchmen and
a fellow student whom we shall call Dick, in the latter's smartly
furnished rooms in Serenity Court, he noticed that the French
173.25 twins were losing not only because they were happily and
hopelessly tight, but also because milord was that "crystal
cretin" of Plunkett's vocabulary, a man of many mirrors—small
reflecting surfaces variously angled and shaped, glinting dis-
creetly on watch or signet ring, dissimulated like female fireflies
173.30 in the undergrowth, on table legs, inside cuff or lapel, and on
the edges of ashtrays, whose position on adjacent supports Dick
kept shifting with a negligent air—all of which, as any card-
sharper might tell you, was as dumb as it was redundant.
Having bided his time, and lost several thousands, Van de-

[ 173 ]

cided to put some old lessons into practice. There was a pause
in the game. Dick got up and went to a speaking-tube in the
corner to order more wine. The unfortunate twins were passing
to each other a fountain pen, thumb-pressing and re-pressing it
174.05 in disastrous transit as they calculated their losses, which ex-
ceeded Van's. Van slipped a pack of cards into his pocket and
stood up rolling the stiffness out of his mighty shoulders.
"I say, Dick, ever met a gambler in the States called Plunkett?
Bald gray chap when I knew him."
174.10 "Plunkett? Plunkett? Must have been before my time. Was
he the one who turned priest or something? Why?"
"One of my father's pals. Great artist."
"Yes, artist. I'm an artist. I suppose you think you're an
174.15 artist. Many people do."
"What on earth is an artist?"
"An underground observatory," replied Van promptly.
"That's out of some modern novel," said Dick, discarding his
cigarette after a few avid inhales.
174.20 "That's out of Van Veen," said Van Veen.
Dick strolled back to the table. His man came in with the
wine. Van retired to the W.C. and started to "doctor the deck,"
as old Plunkett used to call the process. He remembered that
the last time he had made card magic was when showing some
174.25 tricks to Demon—who disapproved of their poker slant. Oh,
yes, and when putting at ease the mad conjurer at the ward
whose pet obsession was that gravity had something to do
with the blood circulation of a Supreme Being.
Van felt pretty sure of his skill—and of milord's stupidity—
174.30 but doubted he could keep it up for any length of time. He was
sorry for Dick, who, apart from being an amateur rogue, was
an amiable indolent fellow, with a pasty face and a flabby body
you could knock him down with a feather, and he frankly
admitted that if his people kept refusing to pay his (huge and

[ 174 ]

trite) debts, he would have to move to Australia to make new
ones there and forge a few checks on the way.
He now constatait avec plaisir, as he told his victims, that only
a few hundred pounds separated him from the shoreline of the
175.05 minimal sum he needed to appease his most ruthless creditor,
whereupon he went on fleecing poor Jean and Jacques with
reckless haste, and then found himself with three honest aces
(dealt to him lovingly by Van) against Van's nimbly mustered
four nines. This was followed by a good bluff against a better
175.10 one; and with Van's generously slipping the desperately flashing
and twinkling young lord good but not good enough hands,
the latter's martyrdom came to a sudden end (London tailors
wringing their hands in the fog, and a moneylender, the famous
St. Priest of Chose, asking for an appointment with Dick's
175.15 father). After the heaviest betting Van had yet seen, Jacques
showed a forlorn couleur (as he called it in a dying man's
whisper) and Dick surrendered with a straight flush to his
tormentor's royal one. Van, who up to then had had no trouble
whatever in concealing his delicate maneuvers from Dick's
175.20 silly lens, now had the pleasure of seeing him glimpse the
second joker palmed in his, Van's, hand as he swept up and
clasped to his bosom the "rainbow ivory"—Plunkett was full
of poetry. The twins put on their ties and coats and said they
had to quit.
175.25 "Same here, Dick," said Van. "Pity you had to rely on your
crystal balls. I have often wondered why the Russian for it
I think we have a Russian ancestor in common—is the same as
the German for 'schoolboy,' minus the umlaut"—and while
prattling thus, Van refunded with a rapidly written check the
175.30 ecstatically astonished Frenchmen. Then he collected a handful
of cards and chips and hurled them into Dick's face. The mis-
siles were still in flight when he regretted that cruel and com-
monplace bewgest, for the wretched fellow could not respond
in any conceivable fashion, and just sat there covering one

[ 175 ]

eye and examining his damaged spectacles with the other—it
was also bleeding a little—while the French twins were pressing
upon him two handkerchiefs which he kept good-naturedly
pushing away. Rosy aurora was shivering in green Serenity
176.05 Court. Laborious old Chose.
(There should be a sign denoting applause. Ada's note.)
Van fumed and fretted the rest of the morning, and after a
long soak in a hot bath (the best adviser, and prompter and
inspirer in the world, except, of course, the W.C. seat) decided
176.10 to pen—pen is the word—a note of apology to the cheated
cheater. As he was dressing, a messenger brought him a note
from Lord C. (he was a cousin of one of Van's Riverlane school-
mates), in which generous Dick proposed to substitute for his
debt an introduction to the Venus Villa Club to which his
176.15 whole clan belonged. Such a bounty no boy of eighteen could
hope to obtain. It was a ticket to paradise. Van tussled with
his slightly overweight conscience (both grinning like old pals
in their old gymnasium)—and accepted Dick's offer.
(I think, Van, you should make it clearer why you, Van,
176.20 the proudest and cleanest of men—I'm not speaking of abject
physicalities, we are all organized that way—but why you,
pure Van, could accept the offer of a rogue who no doubt
continued to "flash and twinkle" after that fiasco. I think you
should explain, primo, that you were dreadfully overworked,
176.25 and secundo, that you could not bear the thought that the
rogue knew, that he being a rogue, you could not call him out,
and were safe, so to speak. Right? Van, do you hear me? I
He did not "twinkle" long after that. Five or six years later,
176.30 in Monte Carlo, Van was passing by an open-air café when a
hand grabbed him by the elbow, and a radiant, ruddy, com-
paratively respectable Dick C. leaned toward him over the
petunias of the latticed balustrade:
"Van," he cried, "I've given up all that looking-glass dung,

[ 176 ]

congratulate me! Listen: the only safe way is to mark 'em!
Wait, that's not all, can you imagine, they've invented a micro-
scopic—and I mean microscopic—point of euphorion, a pre-
cious metal, to insert under your thumbnail, you can't see it
177.05 with the naked eye, but one minuscule section of your monocle
is made to magnify the mark you make with it, like killing a
flea, on one card after another, as they come along in the game,
that's the beauty of it, no preparations, no props, nothing!
Mark 'em! Mark 'em!" good Dick was still shouting, as Van
177.10 walked away.

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