Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 36 (view annotations)

Pedantic Ada once said that the looking up of words in a lexicon
for any other needs than those of expression—be it instruction
or art—lay somewhere between the ornamental assortment of
flowers (which could be, she conceded, mildly romantic in a
222.05 maidenly headcocking way) and making collage-pictures of
disparate butterfly wings (which was always vulgar and often
criminal). Per contra, she suggested to Van that verbal cir-
cuses, "performing words," "poodle-doodles," and so forth,
might be redeemable by the quality of the brain work required
222.10 for the creation of a great logogriph or inspired pun and should
not preclude the help of a dictionary, gruff or complacent.
That was why she admitted "Flavita." The name came from
alfavit, an old Russian game of chance and skill, based on the
scrambling and unscrambling of alphabetic letters. It was fash-
222.15 ionable throughout Estoty and Canady around 1790, was re-
vived by the "Madhatters" (as the inhabitants of New Amster-
dam were once called) in the beginning of the nineteenth cen-
tury, made a great comeback, after a brief slump, around 1860,
and now a century later seems to be again in vogue, so I am

[ 222 ]

told, under the name of "Scrabble," invented by some genius
quite independently from its original form or forms.
Its chief Russian variety, current in Ada's childhood, was
played in great country houses with 125 lettered blocks. The
223.05 object was to make rows and files of words on a board of 225
squares. Of these, 24 were brown, 12 black, 16 orange, 8 red,
and the rest golden-yellow (i.e., flavid, in concession to the
game's original name). Every letter of the Cyrillic alphabet
rated a number of points (the rare Russian F as much as 10,
223.10 the common A as little as 1). Brown doubled the basic value of
a letter, black tripled it. Orange doubled the sum of points for
the whole word, red tripled the sum. Lucette would later recall
how her sister's triumphs in doubling, tripling, and even nonup-
ling (when passing through two red squares) the numerical
223.15 value of words evolved monstrous forms in her delirium during
a severe streptococcal ague in September, 1888, in California.
For each round of the game each player helped himself to
seven blocks from the container where they lay face down,
and arrayed in turn his word on the board. In the case of the
223.20 opening coup, on the still empty field, all he had to do was to
align any two or all of his seven letters in such a way as to
involve the central square, marked with a blazing heptagon.
Subsequently, the catalyst of one of the letters already on the
board had to be used for composing one's word, across or down.
223.25 That player won who collected the greatest number of points,
letter by letter and word by word.
The set our three children received in 1884 from an old friend
of the family (as Marina's former lovers were known), Baron
Klim Avidov, consisted of a large folding board of saffian and
223.30 a boxful of weighty rectangles of ebony inlaid with platinum
letters, only one of which was a Roman one, namely the letter
J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check
signed by Jupiter or Jurojin). It was, incidentally, the same
kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs

[ 223 ]

of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an
unfortunate English tourist into the porter's lodge for his jokingly
remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one's
name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia
224.05 Rossa.
By July the ten A's had dwindled to nine, and the four D's to
three. The missing A eventually turned up under an Aproned
Armchair, but the D was lost—faking the fate of its apostro-
phizable double as imagined by a Walter C. Keyway, Esq., just
224.10 before the latter landed, with a couple of unstamped postcards,
in the arms of a speechless multilinguist in a frock coat with
brass buttons. The wit of the Veens (says Ada in a marginal
note) knows no bounds.
Van, a first-rate chess playerhe was to win in 1887 a match
224.15 at Chose when he beat the Minsk-born Pat Rishin (champion
of Underhill and Wilson, N.C.)—had been puzzled by Ada's
inability to raise the standard of her, so to speak, damsel-
errant game above that of a young lady in an old novel or in
one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful
224.20 model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder
of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a pre-
posterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and un-
recognizably carved Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even
cretins would want to play with—even if royally paid for the
224.25 degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp.
Ada did manage, now and then, to conjure up a combina-
tional sacrifice, offering, say, her queen—with a subtle win after
two or three moves if the piece were taken; but she saw only
one side of the question, preferring to ignore, in the queer
224.30 lassitude of clogged cogitation, the obvious counter combina-
tion that would lead inevitably to her defeat if the grand
sacrifice were not accepted. On the Scrabble board, however,
this same wild and weak Ada was transformed into a sort of
graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phe-

[ 224 ]

nomenal luck, and would greatly surpass baffled Van in acumen,
foresight and exploitation of chance, when shaping appetizing
long words from the most unpromising scraps and collops.
He found the game rather fatiguing, and toward the end
225.05 played hurriedly and carelessly, not deigning to check "rare"
or "obsolete" but quite acceptable possibilities provided by a
loyal dictionary. As to ambitious, incompetent and tempera-
mental Lucette, she had to be, even at twelve, discreetly ad-
vised by Van who did so chiefly because it saved time and
225.10 brought a little closer the blessed moment when she could be
bundled off to the nursery, leaving Ada available for the third
or fourth little flourish of the sweet summer day. Especially
boring were the girls' squabbles over the legitimacy of this or
that word: proper names and place names were taboo, but
225.15 there occurred borderline cases, causing no end of heartbreak,
and it was pitiful to see Lucette cling to her last five letters
(with none left in the box) forming the beautiful ARDIS
which her governess had told her meant "the point of an arrow"
—but only in Greek, alas.
225.20 A particular nuisance was the angry or disdainful looking up
of dubious words in a number of lexicons, sitting, standing and
sprawling around the girls, on the floor, under Lucette's chair
upon which she knelt, on the divan, on the big round table with
the board and the blocks and on an adjacent chest of drawers.
225.25 The rivalry between moronic Ozhegov (a big, blue, badly
bound volume, containing 52,872 words) and a small but chippy
Edmundson in Dr. Gerschizhevsky's reverent version, the
taciturnity of abridged brutes and the unconventional mag-
nanimity of a four-volume Dahl ("My darling dahlia," moaned
225.30 Ada as she obtained an obsolete cant word from the gentle long-
bearded ethnographer)—all this would have been insupportably
boring to Van had he not been stung as a scientist by the curious
affinity between certain aspects of Scrabble and those of the
planchette. He became aware of it one August evening in 1884

[ 225 ]

on the nursery balcony, under a sunset sky the last fire of
which snaked across the corner of the reservoir, stimulated the
last swifts, and intensified the hue of Lucette's copper curls.
The morocco board had been unfolded on a much inkstained,
226.05 monogrammed and notched deal table. Pretty Blanche, also
touched, on earlobe and thumbnail, with the evening's pink—
and redolent with the perfume called Miniver Musk by hand-
maids—had brought a still unneeded lamp. Lots had been cast,
Ada had won the right to begin, and was in the act of collecting
226.10 one by one, mechanically and unthinkingly, her seven "luckies"
from the open case where the blocks lay face down, showing
nothing but their anonymous black backs, each in its own cell
of flavid velvet. She was speaking at the same time, saying
casually: "I would much prefer the Benten lamp here but it is
226.15 out of kerosin. Pet (addressing Lucette), be a good scout, call
her—Good Heavens!"
The seven letters she had taken, S,R,E,N,O,K,I, and was sort-
ing out in her spektrik (the little trough of japanned wood each
player had before him) now formed in quick and, as it were,
226.20 self-impulsed rearrangement the key word of the chance sen-
tence that had attended their random assemblage.
Another time, in the bay of the library, on a thundery eve-
ning (a few hours before the barn burned), a succession of
Lucette's blocks formed the amusing VANIADA, and from this
226.25 she extracted the very piece of furniture she was in the act of
referring to in a peevish little voice: "But I, too, perhaps, would
like to sit on the divan."
Soon after that, as so often occurs with games, and toys, and
vacational friendships, that seem to promise an eternal future of
226.30 fun, Flavita followed the bronze and blood-red trees into the
autumn mists; then the black box was mislaid, was forgotten—
and accidentally rediscovered (among boxes of table silver)
four years later, shortly before Lucette's visit to town where
she spent a few days with her father in mid-July, 1888. It so

[ 226 ]

happened that this was to be the last game of Flavita that the
three young Veens were ever to play together. Either because
it happened to end in a memorable record for Ada, or because
Van took some notes in the hope—not quite unfulfilled—of
227.05 "catching sight of the lining of time" (which, as he was later
to write, is "the best informal definition of portents and prophe-
cies"), the last round of that particular game remained vividly
clear in his mind.
"Je ne peux rien faire," wailed Lucette, "mais rien—with my
227.10 idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM . . ."
"Look," whispered Van, "c'est tout simple, shift those two
syllables and you get a fortress in ancient Muscovy."
"Oh, no," said Ada, wagging her finger at the height of her
temple in a way she had. "Oh, no. That pretty word does not
227.15 exist in Russian. A Frenchman invented it. There is no second
"Ruth for a little child?" interposed Van.
"Ruthless!" cried Ada.
"Well," said Van, "you can always make a little cream,
227.20 KREM or KREME—or even better—there's KREMLI, which
means Yukon prisons. Go through her ORHIDEYa."
"Through her silly orchid," said Lucette.
"And now," said Ada, "Adochka is going to do something
even sillier." And taking advantage of a cheap letter recklessly
227.25 sown sometime before in the seventh compartment of the upper-
most fertile row, Ada, with a deep sigh of pleasure, composed
the adjective TORFYaNUYu which went through a brown
square at F and through two red squares (37 x 9 = 333 points)
and got a bonus of 50 (for placing all seven blocks at one stroke)
227.30 which made 383 in all, the highest score ever obtained for one
word by a Russian Scrabbler. "There!" she said, "Ouf! Pas
facile." And brushing away with the rosy knuckles of her
white hand the black-bronze hair from her temple, she re-
counted her monstrous points in a smug, melodious tone of

[ 227 ]

voice like a princess narrating the poison-cup killing of a
superfluous lover, while Lucette fixed Van with a mute, fuming
appeal against life's injustice—and then looking again at the
board emitted a sudden howl of hope:
228.05 "It's a place name! One can't use it! It's the name of the first
little station after Ladore Bridge!"
"That's right, pet," sang out Ada. "Oh, pet, you are so right!
Yes, Torfyanaya, or as Blanche says, La Tourbière, is, indeed,
the pretty but rather damp village where our cendrillon's family
228.10 lives. But, mon petit, in our mother's tongueque dis-je, in the
tongue of a maternal grandmother we all share—a rich beautiful
tongue which my pet should not neglect for the sake of a
Canadian brand of French—this quite ordinary adjective means
'peaty,' feminine gender, accusative case. Yes, that one coup
228.15 has earned me nearly 400. Too bad—ne dotyanula (didn't
quite make it)."
"Ne dotyanula!" Lucette complained to Van, her nostrils
flaring, her shoulders shaking with indignation.
He tilted her chair to make her slide off and go. The poor
228.20 child's final score for the fifteen rounds or so of the game was
less than half of her sister's last masterstroke, and Van had hardly
fared better, but who cared! The bloom streaking Ada's arm,
the pale blue of the veins in its hollow, the charred-wood odor
of her hair shining brownly next to the lampshade's parchment
228.25 (a translucent lakescape with Japanese dragons), scored in-
finitely more points than those tensed fingers bunched on the
pencil stub could ever add up in the past, present or future.
"The loser will go straight to bed," said Van merrily, "and
stay there, and we shall go down and fetch her—in exactly ten
228.30 minutes—a big cup (the dark-blue cup!) of cocoa (sweet, dark,
skinless Cadbury cocoa!)."
"I'm not going anywhere," said Lucette, folding her arms.
"First, because it is only half-past eight, and, second, because I
know perfectly well why you want to get rid of me."

[ 228 ]

"Van," said Ada, after a slight pause, "will you please sum-
mon Mademoiselle; she's working with Mother over a script
which cannot be more stupid than this nasty child is."
"I would like to know," said Van, "the meaning of her in-
229.05 teresting observation. Ask her, Ada dear."
"She thinks we are going to play Scrabble without her," said
Ada, "or, go through those Oriental gymnastics which, you
remember, Van, you began teaching me, as you remember."
"Oh, I remember! You remember I showed you what my
229.10 teacher of athletics, you remember his name, King Wing,
taught me."
"You remember a lot, ha-ha," said Lucette, standing in front
of them in her green pajamas, sun-tanned chest bare, legs parted,
arms akimbo.
229.15 "Perhaps the simplest—" began Ada.
"The simplest answer," said Lucette, "is that you two can't
tell my why exactly you want to get rid of me."
"Perhaps the simplest answer," continued Ada, "is for you,
Van, to give her a vigorous, resounding spanking."
229.20 "I dare you!" cried Lucette, and veered invitingly.
Very gently Van stroked the silky top of her head and kissed
her behind the ear; and, bursting into a hideous storm of sobs,
Lucette rushed out of the room. Ada locked the door after her.
"She's an utterly mad and depraved gipsy nymphet, of
229.25 course," said Ada, "yet we must be more careful than ever . . .
oh terribly, terribly, terribly . . . oh, careful, my darling."

[ 229 ]

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