|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.
|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?
|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
|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
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|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
|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
|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
|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
|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
|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-
|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,
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|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
|Van, kneeling at the picture window, watched the inflamed
|eye of the cigar recede and vanish. That multiple departure . . .
|That multiple departure really presented a marvelous sight
|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-
|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
|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-
|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
|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
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|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
|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
|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
|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
|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.
|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.
|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
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|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
|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
|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—
|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-
|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
|"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—
|(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).
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|"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?"
|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
|"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
|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
|"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
|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!"
|"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.
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|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."
|(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
|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-
|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-
|"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."
|"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
|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,
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|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
|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.
|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
|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-
|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
|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-
|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-
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|dren, grabbing lap robe and nightdress, and giving the couch
|a parting pat, pattered back with their candlesticks to their
|"And do you remember," said gray-moustached Van as he
|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."
|"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
|be kinder to my unknown dreamers.
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