|Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 24 (view annotations)
|Van regretted that because Lettrocalamity (Vanvitelli's old
|joke!) was banned all over the world, its very name having be-
|come a "dirty word" among upper-upper-class families (in the
|British and Brazilian sense) to which the Veens and Durmanovs
|happened to belong, and had been replaced by elaborate sur-
|rogates only in those very important "utilities"—telephones,
|motors—what else?—well a number of gadgets for which plain
|folks hanker with lolling tongues, breathing faster than gundogs
|(for it's quite a long sentence), such trifles as tape recorders, the
|favorite toys of his and Ada's grandsires (Prince Zemski had
|one for every bed of his harem of schoolgirls) were not manu-
|factured any more, except in Tartary where they had evolved
|"minirechi" ("talking minarets") of a secret make. Had our
|erudite lovers been allowed by common propriety and common
|law to knock into working order the mysterious box they had
|once discovered in their magic attic, they might have recorded
|(so as to replay, eight decades later) Giorgio Vanvitelli's arias
|as well as Van Veen's conversations with his sweetheart. Here,
|for example, is what they might have heard today—with amuse-
|ment, embarrassment, sorrow, wonder.
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|(Narrator: on that summer day soon after they had entered
|the kissing phase of their much too premature and in many ways
|fatal romance, Van and Ada were on their way to the Gun
|Pavilion alias Shooting Gallery, where they had located, on its
|upper stage, a tiny, Oriental-style room with bleary glass cases
|that had once lodged pistols and daggers—judging by the shape
|of dark imprints on the faded velvet—a pretty and melancholy
|recess, rather musty, with a cushioned window seat and a stuffed
|Parluggian Owl on a side shelf, next to an empty beer bottle
|left by some dead old gardener, the year of the obsolete brand
|"Don't jingle them," she said, "we are watched by Lucette,
|whom I'll strangle some day."
|They walked through a grove and past a grotto.
|Ada said: "Officially we are maternal cousins, and cousins
|can marry by special decree, if they promise to sterilize their
|first five children. But, moreover, the father-in-law of my
|mother was the brother of your grandfather. Right?"
|"That's what I'm told," said Van serenely.
|"Not sufficiently distant," she mused, "or is it?"
|"Far enough, fair enough."
|"Funny—I saw that verse in small violet letters before you
|put it into orange ones—just one second before you spoke.
|Spoke, smoke. Like the puff preceding a distant cannon shot."
|"Physically," she continued, "we are more like twins than
|cousins, and twins or even siblings can't marry, of course, or
|will be jailed and 'altered,' if they persevere."
|"Unless," said Van, "they are specially decreed cousins."
|(Van was already unlocking the door—the green door against
|which they were to bang so often with boneless fists in their
|later separate dreams.)
|Another time, on a bicycle ride (with several pauses) along
|wood trails and country roads, soon after the night of the
|Burning Barn, but before they had come across the herbarium
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|in the attic, and found confirmation of something both had
|forefelt in an obscure, amusing, bodily rather than moral way,
|Van casually mentioned he was born in Switzerland and had
|been abroad twice in his boyhood. She had been once, she said.
|Most summers she spent at Ardis; most winters in their Kaluga
|town home—two upper stories in the former Zemski chertog
|In 1880, Van, aged ten, had traveled in silver trains with
|showerbaths, accompanied by his father, his father's beautiful
|secretary, the secretary's eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister
|(with a bit part as Van's English governess and milkmaid), and
|his chaste, angelic Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov
|("AAA"), to gay resorts in Louisiana and Nevada. AAA ex-
|plained, he remembered, to a Negro lad with whom Van had
|scrapped, that Pushkin and Dumas had African blood, upon
|which the lad showed AAA his tongue, a new interesting trick
|which Van emulated at the earliest occasion and was slapped
|by the younger of the Misses Fortune, put it back in your
|face, sir, she said. He also recalled hearing a cummerbunded
|Dutchman in the hotel hall telling another that Van's father,
|who had just passed whistling one of his three tunes, was a
|famous "camler" (camel driver—shamoes having been imported
|recently? No, "gambler").
|Before his boarding-school days started, his father's pretty
|house, in Florentine style, between two vacant lots (5 Park Lane
|in Manhattan), had been Van's winter home (two giant guards
|were soon to rise on both sides of it, ready to frog-march it
|away), unless they journeyed abroad. Summers in Radugalet,
|the "other Ardis," were so much colder and duller than those
|here in this, Ada's, Ardis. Once he even spent both winter and
|summer there; it must have been in 1878.
|Of course, of course, because that was the first time, Ada
|recalled, she had glimpsed him. In his little white sailor suit
|and blue sailor cap. (Un régulier angelochek, commented Van
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|in the Raduga jargon.) He was eight, she was six. Uncle Dan
|had unexpectedly expressed the desire to revisit the old estate.
|At the last moment Marina had said she'd come too, despite
|Dan's protests, and had lifted little Ada, hopla, with her hoop,
|into the calèche. They took, she imagined, the train from
|Ladoga to Raduga, for she remembered the way the station
|man with the whistle around his neck went along the platform,
|past the coaches of the stopped local, banging shut door after
|door, all six doors of every carriage, each of which consisted of
|six one-window carrosses of pumpkin origin, fused together.
|It was, Van suggested, a "tower in the mist" (as she called any
|good recollection), and then a conductor walked on the run-
|ning board of every coach with the train also running and
|opened doors all over again to give, punch, collect tickets, and
|lick his thumb, and change money, a hell of a job, but another
|"mauve tower." Did they hire a motor landaulet to Radugalet?
|Ten miles, she guessed. Ten versts, said Van. She stood cor-
|rected. He was out, he imagined, na progulke (promenading)
|in the gloomy firwood with Aksakov, his tutor, and Bagrov's
|grandson, a neighbor's boy, whom he teased and pinched and
|made horrible fun of, a nice quiet little fellow who quietly
|massacred moles and anything else with fur on, probably
|pathological. However, when they arrived, it became instantly
|clear that Demon had not expected ladies. He was on the ter-
|race drinking goldwine (sweet whisky) with an orphan he had
|adopted, he said, a lovely Irish wild rose in whom Marina at
|once recognized an impudent scullery maid who had briefly
|worked at Ardis Hall, and had been ravished by an unknown
|gentleman—who was now well-known. In those days Uncle
|Dan wore a monocle in gay-dog copy of his cousin, and this
|he screwed in to view Rose, whom perhaps he had also been
|promised (here Van interrupted his interlocutor telling her to
|mind her vocabulary). The party was a disaster. The orphan
|languidly took off her pearl earrings for Marina's appraisal.
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|Grandpa Bagrov hobbled in from a nap in the boudoir and
|mistook Marina for a grande cocotte as the enraged lady con-
|jectured later when she had a chance to get at poor Dan. In-
|stead of staying for the night, Marina stalked off and called
|Ada who, having been told to "play in the garden," was mum-
|bling and numbering in raw-flesh red the white trunks of a row
|of young birches with Rose's purloined lipstick in the preamble
|to a game she now could not remember—what a pity, said Van
|—when her mother swept her back straight to Ardis in the
|same taxi leaving Dan—to his devices and vices, inserted Van—
|and arriving home at sunrise. But, added Ada, just before being
|whisked away and deprived of her crayon (tossed out by Ma-
|rina k chertyam sobach'im, to hell's hounds—and it did remind
|one of Rose's terrier that had kept trying to hug Dan's leg)
|the charming glimpse was granted her of tiny Van, with another
|sweet boy, and blond-bearded, white-bloused Aksakov, walking
|up to the house, and, oh yes, she had forgotten her hoop—no,
|it was still in the taxi. But, personally, Van had not the slightest
|recollection of that visit or indeed of that particular summer,
|because his father's life, anyway, was a rose garden all the time,
|and he had been caressed by ungloved lovely hands more than
|once himself, which did not interest Ada.
|Now what about 1881, when the girls, aged eight-nine and
|five, respectively, had been taken to the Riviera, to Switzer-
|land, to the Italian lakes, with Marina's friend, the theatrical big
|shot, Gran D. du Mont (the "D" also stood for Duke, his
|mother's maiden name, des hobereaux irlandais, quoi), traveling
|discreetly on the next Mediterranean Express or next Simplon
|or next Orient, or whatever other train de luxe carried the
|three Veens, an English governess, a Russian nurse and two
|maids, while a semi-divorced Dan went to some place in equa-
|torial Africa to photograph tigers (which he was surprised not
|to see) and other notorious wild animals, trained to cross the
|motorist's path, as well as some plump black girls in a traveling-
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|agent's gracious home in the wilds of Mozambique. She could
|recollect, of course, when she and her sister played "note-
|comparing," much better than Lucette such things as itineraries,
|spectacular flora, fashions, the covered galleries with all sorts of
|shops, a handsome suntanned man with a black mustache who
|kept staring at her from his corner in the restaurant of Geneva's
|Manhattan Palace; but Lucette, though so much younger, re-
|membered heaps of bagatelles, little "turrets" and little "barrels,"
|biryul'ki proshlago. She was, cette Lucette, like the girl in Ah,
|cette Line (a popular novel), "a macédoine of intuition, stu-
|pidity, naïveté and cunning." By the way, she had confessed,
|Ada had made her confess, that it was, as Van had suspected,
|the other way round—that when they returned to the damsel
|in distress, she was in all haste, not freeing herself, but actually
|trying to tie herself up again after breaking loose and spying
|on them through the larches. "Good Lord," said Van, "that
|explains the angle of the soap!" Oh, what did it matter, who
|cared, Ada only hoped the poor little thing would be as happy
|at Ada's age as Ada was now, my love, my love, my love, my
|love. Van hoped the bicycles parked in the bushes did not show
|their sparkling metal through the leaves to some passenger on
|the forest road.
|After that, they tried to settle whether their ways had merged
|somewhere or run closely parallel for a bit that year in Europe.
|In the spring of 1881, Van, aged eleven, spent a few months
|with his Russian tutor and English valet at his grandmother's
|villa near Nice, while Demon was having a much better time in
|Cuba than Dan was at Mocuba. In June, Van was taken to
|Florence, and Rome, and Capri, where his father turned up for
|a brief spell. They parted again, Demon sailing back to America,
|and Van with his tutor going first to Gardone on Lake Garda,
|where Aksakov reverently pointed out Goethe's and d'Annun-
|zio's marble footprints, and then staying for a while in autumn
|at a hotel on a mountain slope above Leman Lake (where
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|Karamzin and Count Tolstoy had roamed). Did Marina suspect
|that Van was somewhere in the same general area as she through-
|out 1881? Probably no. Both girls had scarlet fever in Cannes,
|while Marina was in Spain with her Grandee. After carefully
|matching memories, Van and Ada concluded that it was not
|impossible that somewhere along a winding Riviera road they
|passed each other in rented victorias that both remembered
|were green, with green-harnessed horses, or perhaps in two
|different trains, going perhaps the same way, the little girl at
|the window of one sleeping car looking at the brown sleeper of
|a parallel train which gradually diverged toward sparkling
|stretches of sea that the little boy could see on the other side
|of the tracks. The contingency was too mild to be romantic,
|nor did the possibility of their having walked or run past each
|other on the quay of a Swiss town afford any concrete thrill.
|But as Van casually directed the searchlight of backthought into
|that maze of the past where the mirror-lined narrow paths not
|only took different turns, but used different levels (as a mule-
|drawn cart passes under the arch of a viaduct along which a
|motor skims by), he found himself tackling, in still vague and
|idle fashion, the science that was to obsess his mature years—
|problems of space and time, space versus time, time-twisted
|space, space as time, time as space—and space breaking away
|from time, in the final tragic triumph of human cogitation: I am
|because I die.
|"But this," exclaimed Ada, "is certain, this is reality, this is
|pure fact—this forest, this moss, your hand, the ladybird on
|my leg, this cannot be taken away, can it? (it will, it was).
|This has all come together here, no matter how the paths
|twisted, and fooled each other, and got fouled up: they inevit-
|ably met here!"
|"We must now find our bicycles," said Van, "we are lost 'in
|another part of the forest.' "
|"Oh, let's not return yet," she cried, "oh, wait."
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|"But I want to make sure of our whereabouts and when-
|abouts," said Van. "It is a philosophical need."
|The day was darkening; a beaming vestige of sunlight lin-
|gered in a western strip of the overcast sky: we have all seen
|the person who after gaily greeting a friend crosses the street
|with that smile still fresh on his face—to be eclipsed by the
|stare of the stranger who might have missed the cause and mis-
|taken the effect for the bright leer of madness. Having worked
|out that metaphor, Van and Ada decided it was really time to
|go home. As they rode through Gamlet, the sight of a Russian
|traktir gave such a prod to their hunger that they dismounted
|and entered the dim little tavern. A coachman drinking tea
|from the saucer, holding it up to his loud lips in his large claw,
|came straight from a pretzel-string of old novels. There was
|nobody else in the steamy hole save a kerchiefed woman plead-
|ing with (ugovarivayushchaya) a leg-dangling lad in a red shirt
|to get on with his fish soup. She proved to be the traktir-keeper
|and rose, "wiping her hands on her apron," to bring Ada (whom
|she recognized at once) and Van (whom she supposed, not in-
|correctly, to be the little chatelaine's "young man") some small
|Russian-type "hamburgers" called bitochki. Each devoured half
|a dozen of them—then they retrieved their bikes from under
|the jasmins to pedal on. They had to light their carbide lamps.
|They made a last pause before reaching the darkness of Ardis
|By a kind of lyrical coincidence they found Marina and Mlle
|Larivière having evening tea in the seldom-used Russian-style
|glassed-in veranda. The novelist, who was now quite restored,
|but still in flowery négligé, had just finished reading her new
|story in its first fair copy (to be typed on the morrow) to
|Tokay-sipping Marina, who had le vin triste and was much
|affected by the suicide of the gentleman "au cou rouge et puis-
|sant de veuf encore plein de sève" who, frightened by his vic-
|tim's fright, so to speak, had compressed too hard the throat
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|of the little girl he had raped in a moment of «gloutonnerie im-
|Van drank a glass of milk and suddenly felt such a wave of
|delicious exhaustion invading his limbs that he thought he'd go
|straight to bed. "Tant pis," said Ada, reaching voraciously for
|the keks (English fruit cake). "Hammock?" she inquired; but
|tottering Van shook his head, and having kissed Marina's melan-
|choly hand, retired.
|"Tant pis," repeated Ada, and with invincible appetite started
|to smear butter allover the yolk-tinted rough surface and rich
|incrustations—raisins, angelica, candied cherry, cedrat—of a
|thick slice of cake.
|Mlle Larivière, who was following Ada's movements with
|awe and disgust, said:
|"Je rêve. Il n'est pas possible qu'on mette du beurre par-dessus
|toute cette pâte britannique, masse indigeste et immonde."
|"Et ce n'est que la première tranche," said Ada.
|"Do you want a sprinkle of cinnamon on your lait caillé?"
|asked Marina. "You know, Belle" (turning to Mlle Larivière),
|"she used to call it 'sanded snow' when she was a baby."
|"She was never a baby," said Belle emphatically. "She could
|break the back of her pony before she could walk."
|"I wonder," asked Marina, "how many miles you rode to
|have our athlete drained so thoroughly."
|"Only seven," replied Ada with a munch smile.
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