Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 19 (view annotations)

A sort of hoary riddle (Les Sophismes de Sophie by Mlle Stop-
chin in the Bibliothèque Vieux Rose series): did the Burning
Barn come before the Cockloft or the Cockloft come first. Oh,
first! We had long been kissing cousins when the fire started.
114.05 In fact, I was getting some Château Baignet cold cream from
Ladore for my poor chapped lips. And we both were roused in
our separate rooms by her crying au feu! July 28? August 4?
Who cried? Stopchin cried? Larivière cried? Larivière? An-
swer! Crying that the barn flambait?
114.10 No, she was fast ablaze—I mean, asleep. I know, said Van,
it was she, the hand-painted handmaid, who used your water-
colors to touch up her eyes, or so Larivière said, who accused
her and Blanche of fantastic sins.
Oh, of course! But not Marina's poor French—it was our
114.15 little goose Blanche. Yes, she rushed down the corridor and
lost a miniver-trimmed slipper on the grand staircase, like Ash-
ette in the English version.
"And do you remember, Van, how warm the night was?"
"Eshchyo bï! (as if I did not!). That night because of the
114.20 blink—"

[ 114 ]

That night because of the bothersome blink of remote sheet
lightning through the black hearts of his sleeping-arbor, Van
had abandoned his two tulip trees and gone to bed in his room.
The tumult in the house and the maid's shriek interrupted a
115.05 rare, brilliant, dramatic dream, whose subject he was unable to
recollect later, although he still held it in a saved jewel box.
As usual, he slept naked, and wavered now between pulling
on a pair of shorts, or draping himself in his tartan lap robe.
He chose the second course, rattled a matchbox, lit his bedside
115.10 candle, and swept out of his room, ready to save Ada and all
her larvae. The corridor was dark, somewhere the dachshund
was barking ecstatically. Van gleaned from subsiding cries that
the so-called "baronial barn," a huge beloved structure three
miles away, was on fire. Fifty cows would have been without
115.15 hay and Larivière without her midday coffee cream had it
happened later in the season. Van felt slighted. They've all
gone and left me behind, as old Fierce mumbles at the end of
the Cherry Orchard (Marina was an adequate Mme Ranevski).
With the tartan toga around him, he accompanied his black
115.20 double down the accessory spiral stairs leading to the library.
Placing a bare knee on the shaggy divan under the window,
Van drew back the heavy red curtains.
Uncle Dan, a cigar in his teeth, and kerchiefed Marina with
Dack in her clutch deriding the watchdogs, were in the process
115.25 of setting out between raised arms and swinging lanterns in
the runabout—as red as a fire engine!—only to be overtaken
at the crunching curve of the drive by three English footmen
on horseback with three French maids en croupe. The entire
domestic staff seemed to be taking off to enjoy the fire (an in-
115.30 frequent event in our damp windless region), using every
contraption available or imaginable: telegas, teleseats, roadboats,
tandem bicycles and even the clockwork luggage carts with
which the stationmaster supplied the family in memory of
Erasmus Veen, their inventor. Only the governess (as Ada,

[ 115 ]

not Van, had by then discovered) slept on through everything,
snoring with a wheeze and a harkle, in the room adjacent to the
old nursery where little Lucette lay for a minute awake before
running after her dream and jumping into the last furniture
116.05 van.
Van, kneeling at the picture window, watched the inflamed
eye of the cigar recede and vanish. That multiple departure . . .
Take over.
That multiple departure really presented a marvelous sight
116.10 against the pale star-dusted firmament of practically subtropical
Ardis, tinted between the black trees with a distant flamingo
flush at the spot where the Barn was Burning. To reach it one
had to drive round a large reservoir which I could make out
breaking into scaly light here and there every time some ad-
116.15 venturous hostler or pantry boy crossed it on water skis or in
a Rob Roy or by means of a raft—typical raft ripples like fire
snakes in Japan; and one could now follow with an artist's eye
the motorcar's lamps, fore and aft, progressing east along the
AB bank of that rectangular lake, then turning sharply upon
116.20 reaching its B corner, trailing away up the short side and
creeping back west, in a dim and diminished aspect, to a middle
point on the far margin where they swung north and disap-
As two last retainers, the cook and the night watchman, scur-
116.25 ried across the lawn toward a horseless trap or break, that
stood beckoning them with erected thills (or was it a rickshaw?
Uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet), Van was delighted and
shocked to distinguish, right there in the inky shrubbery, Ada
in her long nightgown passing by with a lighted candle in
116.30 one hand and a shoe in the other as if stealing after the belated
ignicolists. It was only her reflection in the glass. She dropped
the found shoe in a wastepaper basket and joined Van on the
"Can one see anything, oh, can one see?" the dark-haired

[ 116 ]

child kept repeating, and a hundred barns blazed in her amber-
black eyes, as she beamed and peered in blissful curiosity. He
relieved her of her candlestick, placing it near his own longer
one on the window ledge. "You are naked, you are dreadfully
117.05 indecent," she observed without looking and without any em-
phasis or reproof, whereupon he cloaked himself tighter, Ramses
the Scotsman, as she knelt beside him. For a moment they both
contemplated the romantic night piece framed in the window.
He had started to stroke her, shivering, staring ahead, following
117.10 with a blind man's hand the dip of her spine through the batiste.
"Look, gipsies," she whispered, pointing at three shadowy
forms—two men, one with a ladder, and a child or dwarf
circumspectly moving across the gray lawn. They saw the
candle-lit window and decamped, the smaller one walking à
117.15 reculons as if taking pictures.
"I stayed home on purpose, because I hoped you would too
—it was a contrived coincidence," she said, or said later she'd
said—while he continued to fondle the flow of her hair, and
to massage and rumple her nightdress, not daring yet to go
117.20 under and up, daring, however, to mold her nates until, with
a little hiss, she sat down on his hand and her heels, as the burn-
ing castle of cards collapsed. She turned to him and next
moment he was kissing her bare shoulder, and pushing against
her like that soldier behind in the queue.
117.25 First time I hear about him. I thought old Mr. Nymphobot-
tomus had been my only predecessor.
Last spring. Trip to town. French theater matinée. Made-
moiselle had mislaid the tickets. The poor fellow probably
thought "Tartuffe" was a tart or a stripteaser.
117.30 Ce qui n'est pas si bête, au fond. Which was not so dumb
after all. Okay. In that scene of the Burning Barn—
Nothing. Go on.
Oh, Van, that night, that moment as we knelt side by side

[ 117 ]

in the candlelight like Praying Children in a very bad picture,
showing two pairs of soft-wrinkled, once arboreal-animal, soles
—not to Grandma who gets the Xmas card but to the surprised
and pleased Serpent, I remember wanting so badly to ask you
118.05 for a bit of purely scientific information, because my sidelong
Not now, it's not a nice sight right now and it will be worse
in a moment (or words to that effect).
Van could not decide whether she really was utterly ignorant
118.10 and as pure as the night sky—now drained of its fire color—or
whether total experience advised her to indulge in a cold game.
It did not really matter.
Wait, not right now, he replied in a half-muffled mutter.
She insisted: I wannask, I wannano—
118.15 He caressed and parted with his fleshy folds, parties très
charnues, in the case of our passionate siblings, her lank loose,
nearly lumbus-length (when she threw back her head as now)
black silks as he tried to get at her bed-warm splenius. (It is
not necessary, here or elsewhere, there was another similar pas-
118.20 sage, to blotch a reasonably pure style with vague anatomical
terms that a psychiatrist remembers from his student days. In
Ada's late hand.)
"I wannask," she repeated as he greedily reached his hot pale
118.25 "I want to ask you," she said quite distinctly, but also quite
beside herself because his ramping palm had now worked its
way through at the armpit, and his thumb on a nipplet made
her palate tingle: ringing for the maid in Georgian novels—
inconceivable without the presence of elettricità—
118.30 (I protest. You cannot. It is banned even in Lithuanian and
Latin. Ada's note.)
"—to ask you . . . "
"Ask," cried Van, "but don't spoil everything" (such as
feeding upon you, writhing against you).

[ 118 ]

"Well, why," she asked (demanded, challenged, one flame
crepitated, one cushion was on the floor), "why do you get so
fat and hard there when you—"
"Get where? When I what?"
119.05 In order to explain, tactfully, tactually, she belly-danced
against him, still more or less kneeling, her long hair getting in
the way, one eye staring into his ear (their reciprocal positions
had become rather muddled by then).
"Repeat!" he cried as if she were far away, a reflection in a
119.10 dark window.
"You will show me at once," said Ada firmly.
He discarded his makeshift kilt, and her tone of voice changed
"Oh, dear," she said as one child to another. "It's all skinned
119.15 and raw. Does it hurt? Does it hurt horribly?"
"Touch it quick," he implored.
"Van, poor Van," she went on in the narrow voice the sweet
girl used when speaking to cats, caterpillars, pupating puppies,
"yes, I'm sure, it smarts, would it help if I'd touch, are you
119.20 sure?"
"You bet," said Van, "on n'est pas bête à ce point" ("there
are limits to stupidity," colloquial and rude).
"Relief map," said the primrose prig, "the rivers of Africa."
Her index traced the blue Nile down into its jungle and traveled
119.25 up again. "Now what's this? The cap of the Red Bolete is not
half as plushy. In fact" (positively chattering), "I'm reminded
of geranium or rather pelargonium bloom."
"God, we all are," said Van.
"Oh, I like this texture, Van, I like it! Really I do!"
119.30 "Squeeze, you goose, can't you see I'm dying."
But our young botanist had not the faintest idea how to
handle the thing properly—and Van, now in extremis, driving
it roughly against the hem of her nightdress, could not help
groaning as he dissolved in a puddle of pleasure.

[ 119 ]

She looked down in dismay.
"Not what you think," remarked Van calmly. "This is not
number one. Actually it's as clean as grass sap. Well, now the
Nile is settled stop Speke."
120.05 (I wonder, Van, why you are doing your best to transform
our poetical and unique past into a dirty farce? Honestly, Van!
Oh, I am honest, that's how it went. I wasn't sure of my
ground, hence the sauciness and the simper. Ah, parlez pour
vous: I, dear, can affirm that those famous fingertrips up your
120.10 Africa and to the edge of the world came considerably later
when I knew the itinerary by heart. Sorry, no—if people re-
membered the same they would not be different people. That's-
how-it-went. But we are not "different"! Think and dream are
the same in French. Think of the douceur, Van! Oh, I am think-
120.15 ing of it, of course, I am—it was all douceur, my child, my
rhyme. That's better, said Ada.)
Please, take over.
Van stretched himself naked in the now motionless candle-
120.20 "Let us sleep here," he said. "They won't be back before
dawn relights Uncle's cigar."
"My nightie is trempée," she whispered.
"Take it off, this plaid sleeps two."
"Don't look, Van."
120.25 "That's not fair," he said and helped her to slip it up and
over her hair-shaking head. She was shaded with a mere touch
of coal at the mystery point of her chalk-white body. A bad
boil had left a pink scar between two ribs. He kissed it, and
lay back on his clasped hands. She was inspecting from above
120.30 his tanned body the ant caravan to the oasis of the navel; he
was decidedly hirsute for so young a boy. Her young round
breasts were just above his face. I denounce the philistine's post-
coital cigarette both as a doctor and an artist. It is, however,

[ 120 ]

true that Van was not unaware of a glass box of Turkish Trau-
matis on a console too far to be reached with an indolent
stretch. The tall clock struck an anonymous quarter, and Ada
was presently watching, cheek on fist, the impressive, though
121.05 oddly morose, stirrings, steady clockwise launch, and ponderous
upswing of virile revival.
But the shag of the couch was as tickly as the star-dusted sky.
Before anything new happened, Ada went on all fours to re-
arrange the lap robe and cushions. Native girl imitating rabbit.
121.10 He groped for and cupped her hot little slew from behind, then
frantically scrambled into a boy's sandcastle-molding position;
but she turned over, naively ready to embrace him the way
Juliet is recommended to receive her Romeo. She was right.
For the first time in their love story, the blessing, the genius of
121.15 lyrical speech descended upon the rough lad, he murmured
and moaned, kissing her face with voluble tenderness, crying
out in three languages—the three greatest in all the world—pet
words upon which a dictionary of secret diminutives was to
be based and go through many revisions till the definitive edi-
121.20 tion of 1967. When he grew too loud, she shushed, shushingly
breathing into his mouth, and now her four limbs were frankly
around him as if she had been love-making for years in all our
dreams—but impatient young passion (brimming like Van's
overflowing bath while he is reworking this, a crotchety gray
121.25 old wordman on the edge of a hotel bed) did not survive the
first few blind thrusts; it burst at the lip of the orchid, and a
bluebird uttered a warning warble, and the lights were now
stealing back under a rugged dawn, the firefly signals were
circumscribing the reservoir, the dots of the carriage lamps be-
121.30 came stars, wheels rasped on the gravel, all the dogs returned
well pleased with the night treat, the cook's niece Blanche
jumped out of a pumpkin-hued police van in her stockinged
feet (long, long after midnight, alas)—and our two naked chil-

[ 121 ]

dren, grabbing lap robe and nightdress, and giving the couch
a parting pat, pattered back with their candlesticks to their
innocent bedrooms.
"And do you remember," said gray-moustached Van as he
122.05 took a Cannabina cigarette from the bedside table and rattled
a yellow-blue matchbox, "how reckless we were, and how
Larivière stopped snoring but a moment later went on shaking
the house, and how cold the iron steps were, and how discon-
certed I was—by your—how shall I put it?—lack of restraint."
122.10 "Idiot," said Ada, from the wall side, without turning her
Summer 1960? Crowded hotel somewhere between Ex and
Ought to begin dating every page of the manuscript: Should
122.15 be kinder to my unknown dreamers.

[ 122 ]

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