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After Alice

Chapter 1

Were there a god in charge of story—I mean one cut to Old Testament specifics, some hybrid of Zeus and Father Christmas—such a creature, such a deity, might be looking down upon a day opening in Oxford, En­gland, a bit past the half-way mark of the nineteenth century.

This part of Oxfordshire being threaded with waterways, such a god might have to make a sweep of His mighty hand to clear off the mists of dawn.

Now, to the human renewing the pact with dailiness, Oxford at matins can seem to congeal through the fogs. A process of accretion through light, the lateral sedimentation of reality. A world emerging, daily, out of nothing, a world that we trust to resemble what we’ve seen previously. We should know better.

To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, how­ever, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, that fantasia about the sub­merged Breton cathedral rising once ever hundred years off the island of Ys. (Yes, Debussy is early twentieth century, but time means nothing to Himself.) Spires and domes like so much barnacled spindrift poke through first. Gradually, as the sun coaxes the damp away, the coving spaces emerge. From above, not only the lanes and high street, but also the hidden places wink into being. Nooks and wells of secret green in college quadrangles scarcely imagined by the farrier on his way to the stable, the fishmonger to his stall. An underworld, all exposed by light.

Even Jehovah, presuming Jehovah, must find the finicky architecture of his Oxford too attractive to notice the hum­bler margins of the district. At least at first. Gods have to wake up, too. But this story starts on the northeast side of town. People are rousing in an old rectory, here, and an even older farmhouse, over there. Night-time is being brushed aside like so much cobweb. The day is wound up and begins even before the last haunted dreams, the last of the fog, those spectral and evanescent residues, have faded away.


Chapter 2

Alice is missing.” A sigh, a clink of porcelain on porcelain. “Again?”


Chapter 3

Depending upon the hour, a governess in a troubled household is either a ministering angel or an am­bulatory munitions device. Behold Miss Armstrong, foraying in the upstairs corridor toward her employer.

“Reverend Boyce? It’s about Ada. The child is underfoot and making of herself a nuisance. Underfoot and under­handed; I believe she pesters the poor creature when our backs are turned. Ada must be got outdoors for some health­ful exercise. I won’t say mischief,I just won’t. But her absence would allow the household some calm. I assume you’ve tried Dalby’s Carminative? Or Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup? Opium has such a tender effect.”

Miss Armstrong hovered in the doorway to the nursery where Ada’s brother was not, just now, sleeping. Not anymore. The governess stood to let the night nurse pass. The infant castoff reeked with a vegetable accent as the nurse hurried by. She swung the tin pail at the end of her extended arm.

The Vicar mumbled something. It was hard to be sure just what he meant. He specialized in tones of such subtlety that one could hear in it whatever one chose. “Ada . . .” He backed against the distempered wall, allowing his voice to drift into a nearly musical ellipsis. Miss Armstrong paused, an ear uplifted, waiting for an epiphany. He might have meant anything by it. He faded without clarifying.

Miss Armstrong took his vatic murmur as agreement that an outing for Ada would do the household good. So the governess cornered Ada on the stair landing, crowding her into the aspidistra. A pot of Mama’s best rough-cut would be dislodged from the larder so the child might deliver it some­where. Perhaps to the benighted family at the Croft? As a mercy. “We shall go together along the river if you take care not to stumble into the brink and drown,” suggested Miss Armstrong. The river was slow here, our old Cherwell, but kitted out with treacherous tree roots and crumbling banks, and just enough depth to scare one toward salvation. “Go say farewell to your mother whilst I collect the marmalade.”

Since members of the household staff argued over com­peting therapies with which to treat the pink smudge of infant, Mama had repaired to the sewing room. Keeping out of the fray. On this bright morning, the room was still dusky, the curtains not yet drawn back. “Stay quite a long time if you like. If they’ll have you,” said Mama. “Your brother sorely needs some quiet.”

“It’s not my fault if Father likes me to practice my hymns,” said Ada.

“You may practice them all you like in the cow pasture.”

Ada, not a deeply imaginative child, believed the cows were resistant to conversion. She didn’t reply.

“If they press you to take tea, accept.”

Ada thought it unlikely that the cows would propose after­noon tea. She blinked, noncommittal. Mama sighed and con­tinued. “Ada. Attend. Make yourself a comfort to the Clowds. Endeavor to help in all matters. Play with Alice, perhaps.”

“Alice is a flaming eejit.” Ada gave the word a spin such as Cook, from County Mayo, was wont to do. Mama might have boxed Ada’s ears for impertinence: cruelty as well as a mock­ing Irishry of tone. But her mother knew Ada’s outburst was misplaced emotion. An infant in peril affected everyone in the house. And during ordinary hours, Ada was known to be fond of Alice, who was Ada’s best friend and her only one. So Mama waggled her fingers in the air, Go, go, and settled her crown of hair, the color of browning roses, upon the bolster of the davenport. A miasma of lavender toilet water couldn’t mask the hint of madeira wafting from the open decanter though it was not yet eleven in the morning. Mrs. Boyce lay squalid in self-forgiveness.

Ada considered refusing to be dismissed. But she was a good girl. On the way out, she slammed the sewing room door only a little.

In the front passage, Miss Armstrong handed the mar­malade to Ada. “Off and away with the fairies once again,” said the governess, “for our sins,” and then she turned to plunge down a few steps toward the kitchen, to hector Cook into warming some milk. His Lordship the Infant Tyrant must be cozened. No alcoholic pap for him.

But off and away with the fairies? Ada was prosaic. She didn’t know to whom the governess referred. The Tiny In­terruption, who preferred screaming rather than observing the newborn’s usual practice of sleeping round the clock? Or perhaps Ada herself, hulked upon the Indian-red Kiddermin­ster by the front door, staring at her face in the looking-glass? The face appearing between ringlets, Ada thought, might be considered innocent and blameless as a fairy. Though ugly. A bad fairy, perhaps. A rotten packet of fairy. She opened the front door without permission, the quicker to get away from the sight of herself standing all clumpedy-clump and iron-spined in the front hall.

“Off and away with the fairies . . .” Without much re­morse, Ada decided to behave as if she’d been sent packing, and left.

Cook, hearing the front door bang, gave Miss Armstrong a piece of her mind. “Sure and ye’ve dispatched that lum­moxing gallootress to foul mischief by tramps and peddlers or to a watery grave, Jaysus mercy are ye out of yer mind like the rest of us?” She threw a marrow at the governess. Miss Armstrong didn’t care to take bosh from someone beneath her. Yet Cook had a point. Miss Armstrong, whose skills as a governess were heightened by a permanent agitation of the nerves, rushed to hunt for her gloves so she could pursue Ada with adequate decorum.

The river seen between full-headed trees caught snips of sunlight and flashed brazen glints. Willows twitched in the wind. Ada noticed and didn’t notice. She had never before ventured outside without a chaperone. All too soon Miss Armstrong would ambush her, so through the gate of the Vicarage of Saint Dunstan’s Ada torqued and bumbled. A rare treat, to snatch a few moments alone. From an upstairs window, her brother’s sedition: serrated syllables, all caw and no coo.

Even here, on the city’s northeast edge, where the river and sky could aspire to eternal bucholia, clouds of stone dust dulled the view. The grit of hammered Oxford under con­struction. Matthew Arnold, today, or soon, might be writing his “Thyrsis” somewhere or other, about Oxford, “sweet city with her dreaming spires.” But in Ada Boyce’s 186_, Oxford was anything but static picturesquerie. Oxford earth was sliced open into canyons, as foundation pits were sunk in the familiar fields. Oxford air was thickened with scaffolds for masons working to rival those spires. Everywhere, Heading-ton limestone folded double upon itself, yeasting away.

Of course, like many children, Ada was oblivious of the world in her immediate view. Cowslips and colleges, willows on the Isis and Cherwell, morning bells rung on the summer wind: What meant these to Ada? She paid no heed to those inflexible cows on the other side of the water, standing in Marston fields; or to that boat on the current, some curate rowing giddy girls about all on a midsummer’s morning. Ada was encased in the husk of Ada, which consisted, largely, of these: parents distracted and obscure; Miss Armstrong, not obscure enough, in fact screechy, bothersome, and all too adjacent; and the new Boy Boyce, with his tiny boyness perched between his legs. Ada wished it might fly away. Or sting itself. Quite hard.

She climbed a stile, huffing and grunting. Grace is not a word that comes to mind when Ada lurches into view. But this morning, Ada sacrificed any hopes for proper comport­ment in order to put a distance between herself and the Bick­erage, as she called the Vicarage of Saint Dunstan’s.

She paused at a spinney of juvenile ashes. She held her breath a moment to be able to hear over her own exertions. Was that a cry from Miss Armstrong, requiring Ada to halt? Ada wouldn’t halt, of course, but it might seem more like fun if she were being chased.

Only the sound of church bells, Christ Church perhaps. Descants of sonorous bronze coin. Falling, falling; where did they pile up? But this is not a question Ada asked herself.

After Alice
by by Gregory Maguire

  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0060859741
  • ISBN-13: 9780060859749