Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 2, Chapter 1 (view annotations)

At the Goodson Airport, in one of the gilt-framed mirrors of
its old-fashioned waiting room, Van glimpsed the silk hat of his
father who sat awaiting him in an armchair of imitation marble-
wood, behind a newspaper that said in reversed characters:
329.05 "Crimea Capitulates." At the same moment a raincoated man
with a pleasant, somewhat porcine, pink face accosted Van.
He represented a famous international agency, known as the
VPL, which handled Very Private Letters. After a first flash of
surprise, Van reflected that Ada Veen, a recent mistress of his,
329.10 could not have chosen a smarter (in all senses of the word) way
of conveying to him a message whose fantastically priced, and
prized, process of transmission insured an absoluteness of secrecy
which neither torture nor mesmerism had been able to break
down in the evil days of 1859. It was rumored that even Gama-
329.15 liel on his (no longer frequent, alas) trips to Paris, and King
Victor during his still fairly regular visits to Cuba or Hecuba,
and, of course, robust Lord Goal, Viceroy of France, when
enjoying his randonnies all over Canady, preferred the phe-
nomenally discreet, and in fact rather creepy, infallibility of the
329.20 VPL organization to such official facilities as sexually starved
potentates have at their disposal for deceiving their wives. The

[ 329 ]

present messenger called himself James Jones, a formula whose
complete lack of connotation made an ideal pseudonym despite
its happening to be his real name. A flurry and flapping had
started in the mirror but Van declined to act hastily. In order
330.05 to gain time (for, on being shown Ada’s crest on a separate
card, he felt he had to decide whether or not to accept her
letter), he closely examined the badge resembling an ace of
hearts which J.J. displayed with pardonable pride. He requested
Van to open the letter, satisfy himself of its authenticity, and
330.10 sign the card that then went back into some secret pit or pouch
within the young detective’s attire or anatomy. Cries of wel-
come and impatience from Van’s father (wearing for the flight
to France a scarlet-silk-lined black cape) finally caused Van to
interrupt his colloquy with James and pocket the letter (which
330.15 he read a few minutes later in the lavatory before boarding the
"Stocks," said Demon, "are on the zoom. Our territorial tri-
umphs, et cetera. An American governor, my friend Bessbo-
rodko, is to be installed in Bessarabia, and a British one, Arm-
330.20 borough, will rule Armenia. I saw you enlaced with your little
Countess near the parking lot. If you marry her I will disinherit
you. They’re quite a notch below our set."
"In a couple of years," said Van, "I’ll slide into my own little
millions" (meaning the fortune Aqua had left him). "But you
330.25 needn’t worry, sir, we have interrupted our affair for the time
being—till the next time I return to live in her girlinière" (Can-
ady slang).
Demon, flaunting his flair, desired to be told if Van or his
poule had got into trouble with the police (nodding toward Jim
330.30 or John who having some other delivery to make sat glancing
through Crime Copulate Bessarmenia).
"Poule," replied Van with the evasive taciturnity of the
Roman rabbi shielding Barabbas.

[ 330 ]

"Why gray?" asked Demon, alluding to Van’s overcoat.
"Why that military cut? It’s too late to enlist."
"I couldn’t—my draft board would turn me down any-
331.05 "How’s the wound?"
"Komsi-komsa. It now appears that the Kalugano surgeon
messed up his job. The rip seam has grown red and raw, with-
out any reason, and there's a lump in my armpit. I’m in for
another spell of surgery—this time in London, where butchers
331.10 carve so much better. Where's the mestechko here? Oh, I see it.
Cute (a gentian painted on one door, a lady fern on the other:
have to go to the herbarium)."
He did not answer her letter, and a fortnight later John
James, now got up as a German tourist, all pseudo-tweed checks,
331.15 handed Van a second message, in the Louvre right in front of
Bosch's Bâteau Ivre, the one with a jester drinking in the
riggings (poor old Dan thought it had something to do with
Brant's satirical poem!). There would be no answer—though
answers were included, with the return ticket, in the price, as
331.20 the honest messenger pointed out.
It was snowing, yet James in a fit of abstract rakishness stood
fanning himself with a third letter at the front door of Van's
cottage orné on Ranta River, near Chose, and Van asked him
to stop bringing him messages.
331.25 In the course of the next two years two more letters were
handed to him, both in London, and both in the hall of the
Albania Palace Hotel, by another VPL agent, an elderly gent
in a bowler, whose matter-of-fact, undertakerish aspect might
irritate Mr. Van Veen less, thought modest and sensitive Jim,
331.30 than that of a romanesque private detective. A sixth came by
natural means to Park Lane. The lot (minus the last, which dealt
exclusively with Ada’s stage & screen ventures) is given below.
Ada ignored dates, but they can be approximately determined.

[ 331 ]

[Los Angeles, early September, 1888]
You must pardon me for using such a posh (and also poshlïy)
means of having a letter reach you, but I’m unable to find any
safer service.
332.05 When I said I could not speak and would write, I meant I
could not utter the proper words at short notice. I implore you.
I felt that I could not produce them and arrange them orally
in the necessary order. I implore you. I felt that one wrong or
misplaced word would be fatal, you would simply turn away,
332.10 as you did, and walk off again, and again, and again. I implore
you for breath [sic! Ed.] of understanding. But now I think
that I should have taken the risk of speaking, of stammering,
for I see now that it is just as dreadfully hard to put my heart
and honor in script—even more so because in speaking one can
332.15 use a stutter as a shutter, and plead a chance slurring of words,
like a bleeding hare with one side of its mouth shot off, or twist
back, and improve; but against a background of snow, even the
blue snow of this notepaper, the blunders are red and final.
I implore you.
332.20 One thing should be established once for all, indefeasibly. I
loved, love, and shall love only you. I implore you and love you
with everlasting pain and passion, my darling. Tï tut stoyal (you
stayed here), in this karavansaray, you in the middle of every-
thing, always, when I must have been seven or eight, didn’t you?
332.25 [Los Angeles, mid-September, 1888]
This is a second howl iz ada (out of Hades). Strangely, I
learned on the same day, from three different sources, of your
duel in K.; of P’s death; and of your recuperating at his cousin’s
(congs as she and I used to say). I rang her up, but she said that
332.30 you had left for Paris and that R. had also died—not through
your intervention, as I had thought for a moment, but through
that of his wife. Neither he nor P. was technically my lover,
but both are on Terra now, so it does not matter.

[ 332 ]

[Los Angeles, 1889]
We are still at the candy-pink and pisang-green albergo
where you once stayed with your father. He is awfully nice to
me, by the way. I enjoy going places with him. He and I have
333.05 gamed at Nevada, my rhyme-name town, but you are also there,
as well as the legendary river of Old Rus. Da. Oh, write me,
one tiny note, I’m trying so hard to please you! Want some
more (desperate) little topics? Marina’s new director of artistic
conscience defines Infinity as the farthest point from the camera
333.10 which is still in fair focus. She has been cast as the deaf nun
Varvara (who, in some ways, is the most interesting of Chekhov’s
Four Sisters). She sticks to Stan’s principle of having lore and
role overflow into everyday life, insists on keeping it up at the
hotel restaurant, drinks tea v prikusku ("biting sugar between
333.15 sips"), and feigns to misunderstand every question in Varvara’s
quaint way of feigning stupidity—a double imbroglio, which
annoys strangers but which somehow makes me feel I’m her
daughter much more distinctly than in the Ardis era. She’s a
great hit here, on the whole. They gave her (not quite gratis,
333.20 I’m afraid) a special bungalow, labeled Marina Durmanova, in
Universal City. As for me, I’m only an incidental waitress in a
fourth-rate Western, hip-swinging between table-slapping
drunks, but I rather enjoy the Houssaie atmosphere, the dutiful
art, the winding hill roads, the reconstructions of streets, and
333.25 the obligatory square, and a mauve shop sign on an ornate
wooden façade, and around noon all the extras in period togs
queuing before a glass booth, but I have nobody to call.
Speaking of calls, I saw a truly marvelous ornithological film
the other night with Demon. I had never grasped the fact that
333.30 the paleotropical sunbirds (look them up!) are "mimotypes" of
the New World hummingbirds, and all my thoughts, oh, my
darling, are mimotypes of yours. I know, I know! I even
know that you stopped reading at "grasped"—as in the old

[ 333 ]

[California ? 1890]
I love only you, I’m happy only in dreams of you, you are
my joy and my world, this is as certain and real as being aware
of one’s being alive, but . . . oh, I don’t accuse you!—but, Van,
334.05 you are responsible (or Fate through you is responsible, ce qui
revient au même) for having let loose something mad in me
when we were only children, a physical hankering, an in-
satiable itch. The fire you rubbed left its brand on the most
vulnerable, most vicious and tender point of my body. Now I
334.10 have to pay for your rasping the red rash too strongly, too
soon, as charred wood has to pay for burning. When I remain
without your caresses, I lose all control of my nerves, nothing
exists any more than the ecstasy of friction, the abiding effect
of your sting, of your delicious poison. I do not accuse you,
334.15 but this is why I crave and cannot resist the impact of alien
flesh; this is why our joint past radiates ripples of boundless
betrayals. All this you are free to diagnose as a case of advanced
erotomania, but there is more to it, because there exists a simple
cure for all my maux and throes and that is an extract of scarlet
334.20 aril, the flesh of yew, just only yew. Je réalise, as your sweet
Cinderella de Torf (now Madame Trofim Fartukov) used to
say, that I’m being coy and obscene. But it all leads up to an
important, important suggestion! Van, je suis sur la verge
(Blanche again) of a revolting amorous adventure. I could be
334.25 instantly saved by you. Take the fastest flying machine you can
rent straight to El Paso, your Ada will be waiting for you
there, waving like mad, and we’ll continue, by the New World
Express, in a suite I’ll obtain, to the burning tip of Patagonia,
Captain Grant’s Horn, a Villa in Verna, my jewel, my agony.
334.30 Send me an aerogram with one Russian word—the end of my
name and wit
[Arizona, summer, 1890]
Mere pity, a Russian girl’s zhalost’, drew me to R. (whom

[ 334 ]

musical critics have now "discovered"). He knew he would die
young and was always, in fact, mostly corpse, never once, I
swear, rising to the occasion, even when I showed openly my
compassionate non-resistance because I, alas, was brimming with
335.05 Van-less vitality, and had even considered buying the services of
some rude, the ruder the better, young muzhik. As to P., I could
explain my submitting to his kisses (first tender and plain, later
growing fiercely expert, and finally tasting of me when he re-
turned to my mouth—a vicious circle set spinning in early
335.10 Thargelion, 1888) by saying that if I stopped seeing him he
would divulge my affair with my cousin to my mother. He did
say he could produce witnesses, such as the sister of your
Blanche, and a stable boy who, I suspect, was impersonated by
the youngest of the three demoiselles de Tourbe, witches all—
335.15 but enough. Van, I could make much of those threats in ex-
plaining my conduct to you. I would not mention, naturally,
that they were made in a bantering tone, hardly befitting a
genuine blackmailer. Nor would I mention that even if he had
proceeded to recruit anonymous messengers and informers, it
335.20 might have ended in his wrecking his own reputation as soon as
his motives and actions were exposed, as they were bound to
be in the long ruin [sic! "run" in her blue stocking. Ed.]. I
would conceal, in a word, that I knew the coarse banter was
meant only to drill-jar your poor brittle Ada—because, despite
335.25 the coarseness, he had a keen sense of honor, odd though it may
seem to you and me. No. I would concentrate entirely on the
effect of the threat upon one ready to submit to any infamy
rather than face the shadow of disclosure, for (and this, of
course, neither he nor his informers could know), shocking as
335.30 an affair between first cousins might have seemed to a law-
abiding family, I refused to imagine (as you and I have always
done) how Marina and Demon would have reacted in "our"
case. By the jolts and skids of my syntax you will see that I can-
not logically explain my behavior. I do not deny that I experi-

[ 335 ]

enced a strange weakness during the perilous assignations I
granted him, as if his brutal desire kept fascinating not only my
inquisitive senses but also my reluctant intellect. I can swear,
however, solemn Ada can swear that in the course of our
336.05 "sylvan trysts" I successfully evaded if not pollution, at least
possession before and after your return to Ardis—except for
one messy occasion when he half-took me by force—the over-
eager dead man.
I’m writing from Marina Ranch—not very far from the little
336.10 gulch in which Aqua died and into which I myself feel like
creeping some day. For the time being, I’m returning for a while
to the Pisang Hotel.
I salute the good auditor.
When Van retrieved in 1940 this thin batch of five letters,
336.15 each in its VPL pink silk-paper case, from the safe in his Swiss
bank where they had been preserved for exactly one half of a
century, he was baffled by their small number. The expansion
of the past, the luxuriant growth of memory had magnified that
number to at least fifty. He recalled that he had also used as a
336.20 cache the desk in his Park Lane studio, but he knew he had
kept there only the innocent sixth letter (Dreams of Drama) of
1891, which had perished, together with her coded notes (of
1884-88) when the irreplaceable little palazzo burnt down in
1919. Rumor attributed the bright deed to the city fathers (three
336.25 bearded elders and a blue-eyed young Mayor with a fabulous
amount of front teeth), who could no longer endure their crav-
ing for the space that the solid dwarf occupied between two
alabaster colossi; but instead of selling them the blackened area
as expected, Van gleefully erected there his famous Lucinda
336.30 Villa, a miniature museum just two stories high, with a still
growing collection of microphotographed paintings from all
public and private galleries in the world (not excluding Tartary)
on one floor and a honeycomb of projection cells on the other:

[ 336 ]

a most appetizing little memorial of Parian marble, administered
by a considerable staff, guarded by three heavily armed stal-
warts, and open to the public only on Mondays for a token
fee of one gold dollar regardless of age or condition.
337.05 No doubt the singular multiplication of those letters in retro-
spect could be explained by each of them casting an excruciating
shadow, similar to that of a lunar volcano, over several months
of his life, and tapering to a point only when the no less pangful
precognition of the next message began to dawn. But many
337.10 years later, when working on his Texture of Time, Van found
in that phenomenon additional proof of real time’s being con-
nected with the interval between events, not with their "pas-
sage," not with their blending, not with their shading the gap
wherein the pure and impenetrable texture of time transpires.
337.15 He told himself he would be firm and suffer in silence. Self-
esteem was satisfied: the dying duelist dies a happier man than
his live foe ever will be. We must not blame Van, however,
for failing to persevere in his resolution, for it is not hard to
understand why a seventh letter (transmitted to him by Ada’s
337.20 and his half-sister, at Kingston, in 1892) could make him suc-
cumb. Because he knew it was the last in the series. Because it
had come from the blood-red érable arbors of Ardis. Because a
sacramental four-year period equaled that of their first separa-
tion. Because Lucette turned out to be, against all reason and
337.25 will, the impeccable paranymph.

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