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
147.05 happened to belong, and had been replaced by elaborate sur-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
147.10 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
147.15 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 todaywith amuse-
147.20 ment, embarrassment, sorrow, wonder.

[ 147 ]

(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
148.05 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
148.10 left by some dead old gardener, the year of the obsolete brand
being 1842.)
"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.
148.15 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.
148.20 "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."
148.25 "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 doorthe green door against
148.30 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

[ 148 ]

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.
149.05 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
149.10 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
149.15 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
149.20 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 drivershamoes having been imported
recently? No, "gambler").
Before his boarding-school days started, his father's pretty
149.25 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
149.30 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

[ 149 ]

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,
150.05 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
150.10 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
150.15 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
150.20 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-
150.25 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
150.30 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.

[ 150 ]

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
151.05 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 rememberwhat a pity, said Van
—when her mother swept her back straight to Ardis in the
151.10 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)
151.15 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,
151.20 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-
151.25 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
151.30 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-

[ 151 ]

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
152.05 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,
152.10 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
152.15 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
152.20 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.
152.25 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
152.30 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

[ 152 ]

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
153.05 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
153.10 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
153.15 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
153.20 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
153.25 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
153.30 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."

[ 153 ]

"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
154.05 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
154.10 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
154.15 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-
154.20 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
154.25 Park.
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
154.30 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

[ 154 ]

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
155.05 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
155.10 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:
155.15 "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),
155.20 "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."
155.25 "Only seven," replied Ada with a munch smile.

[ 155 ]

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