|Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 2, Chapter 11 (annotations forthcoming)
|The dragon drug had worn off: its aftereffects are not pleasant,
|combining as they do physical fatigue with a certain starkness
|of thought as if all color were drained from the mind. Now
|clad in a gray dressing gown, Demon lay on a gray couch in
|his third-floor study. His son stood at the window with his
|back to the silence. In a damask-padded room on the second
|floor, immediately below the study, waited Ada, who had ar-
|rived with Van a couple of minutes ago. In the skyscraper
|across the lane a window was open exactly opposite the study
|and an aproned man stood there setting up an easel and cock-
|ing his head in search of the right angle.
|The first thing Demon said was:
|“I insist that you face me when I’m speaking to you.”
|Van realized that the fateful conversation must have already
|started in his father’s brain, for the admonishment had the ring
|of a self-interruption, and with a slight bow he took a seat.
|“However, before I advise you of those two facts, I would
|like to know how long this—how long this has been...”
|(“going on,” one presumes, or something equally banal, but then
|all ends are banal—hangings, the Nuremberg Old Maid’s iron
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|sting, shooting oneself, last words in the brand-new Ladore
|hospital, mistaking a drop of thirty thousand feet for the air-
|plane’s washroom, being poisoned by one’s wife, expecting a
|bit of Crimean hospitality, congratulating Mr. and Mrs. Vine-
|“It will be nine years soon,” replied Van. “I seduced her in
|the summer of eighteen eighty-four. Except for a single occa-
|sion, we did not make love again until the summer of eighteen
|eighty-eight. After a long separation we spent one winter to-
|gether. All in all, I suppose I have had her about a thousand
|times. She is my whole life.”
|A longish pause not unlike a fellow actor’s dry-up, came in
|response to his well-rehearsed speech.
|Finally, Demon: “The second fact may horrify you even
|more than the first. I know it caused me much deeper worry—
|moral of course, not monetary—than Ada’s case—of which
|eventually her mother informed Cousin Dan, so that, in a
|Pause, with an underground trickle.
|“Some other time I’ll tell you about the Black Miller; not
|now; too trivial.”
|Dr. Lapiner’s wife, born Countess Alp, not only left him,
|in 1871, to live with Norbert von Miller, amateur poet, Rus-
|sian translator at the Italian Consulate in Geneva, and profes-
|sional smuggler of neonegrine—found only in the Valais—but
|had imparted to her lover the melodramatic details of the
|subterfuge which the kindhearted physician had considered
|would prove a boon to one lady and a blessing to the other.
|Versatile Norbert spoke English with an extravagant accent,
|hugely admired wealthy people and, when name-dropping,
|always qualified such a person as “enawmously rich” with awed
|amorous gusto, throwing himself back in his chair and spreading
|tensely curved arms to enfold an invisible fortune. He had a
|round head as bare as a knee, a corpse’s button nose, and very
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|white, very limp, very damp hands adorned with rutilant gems.
|His mistress soon left him. Dr. Lapiner died in 1872. About the
|same time, the Baron married an innkeeper’s innocent daughter
|and began to blackmail Demon Veen; this went on for almost
|twenty years, when aging Miller was shot dead by an Italian
|policeman on a little-known border trail, which had seemed to
|get steeper and muddier every year. Out of sheer kindness, or
|habit, Demon bade his lawyer continue to send Miller’s widow
|—who mistook it naively for insurance money—the trimestrial
|sum which had been swelling with each pregnancy of the
|robust Swissess. Demon used to say that he would publish one
|day “Black Miller’s” quatrains which adorned his letters with
|the jingle of verselets on calendarial leaves:
|My spouse is thicker, I am leaner.
|Again it comes, a new bambino.
|You must be good like I am good.
|Her stove is big and wants more wood.
|We may add, to complete this useful parenthesis, that in early
|February, 1893, not long after the poet’s death, two other less
|successful blackmailers were waiting in the wings: Kim who
|would have bothered Ada again had he not been carried out of
|his cottage with one eye hanging on a red thread and the other
|drowned in its blood; and the son of one of the former em-
|ployees of the famous clandestine-message agency after it had
|been closed by the U.S. Government in 1928, when the past
|had ceased to matter, and nothing but the straw of a prison-
|cell could reward the optimism of second-generation rogues.)
|The most protracted of the several pauses having run its dark
|course, Demon’s voice emerged to say, with a vigor that it had
|“Van, you receive the news I impart with incomprehensible
|calmness. I do not recall any instance, in factual or fictional life,
|of a father’s having to tell his son that particular kind of thing
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|in these particular circumstances. But you play with a pencil
|and seem as unruffled as if we were discussing your gaming
|debts or the demands of a wench knocked up in a ditch.”
|Tell him about the herbarium in the attic? About the in-
|discretions of (anonymous) servants? About a forged wedding
|date? About everything that two bright children had so gaily
|gleaned? I will. He did.
|“She was twelve,” Van added, “and I was a male primatal
|of fourteen and a half, and we just did not care. And it’s too
|late to care now.”
|“Too late?” shouted his father, sitting up on his couch.
|“Please, Dad, do not lose your temper,” said Van. “Nature,
|as I informed you once, has been kind to me. We can afford to
|be careless in every sense of the word.”
|“I’m not concerned with semantics—or semination. One
|thing, and only one, matters. It is not too late to stop that
|“No shouting and no philistine epithets,” interrupted Van.
|“All right,” said Demon. “I take back the adjective, and I
|ask you instead: Is it too late to prevent your affair with your
|sister from wrecking her life?”
|Van knew this was coming. He knew, he said, this was com-
|ing. “Ignoble” had been taken care of; would his accuser define
|The conversation now took a neutral turn that was far more
|terrible than its introductory admission of faults for which our
|young lovers had long pardoned their parents. How did Van
|imagine his sister’s pursuing a scenic career? Would he admit it
|would be wrecked if they persisted in their relationship? Did
|he envisage a life of concealment in luxurious exile? Was he
|ready to deprive her of normal interests and a normal marriage?
|Children? Normal amusements?
|“Don’t forget ‘normal adultery,’” remarked Van.
|“How much better that would be!” said grim Demon, sitting
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|on the edge of the couch with both elbows propped on his
|knees, and nursing his head in his hands: “The awfulness of the
|situation is an abyss that grows deeper the more I think of it.
|You force me to bring up the tritest terms such as ‘family,’
|‘honor,’ ‘set,’ ‘law.’...All right, I have bribed many officials
|in my wild life but neither you nor I can bribe a whole culture,
|a whole country. And the emotional impact of learning that for
|almost ten years you and that charming child have been de-
|ceiving their parents—”
|Here Van expected his father to take the “it-would-kill-your-
|mother” line, but Demon was wise enough to keep clear of it.
|Nothing could “kill” Marina. If any rumors of incest did come
|her way, concern with her “inner peace” would help her to
|ignore them—or at least romanticize them out of reality’s reach.
|Both men knew all that. Her image appeared for a moment
|and accomplished a facile fade-out.
|Demon spoke on: “I cannot disinherit you: Aqua left you
|enough ‘ridge’ and real estate to annul the conventional punish-
|ment. And I cannot denounce you to the authorities without
|involving my daughter, whom I mean to protect at all cost.
|But I can do the next proper thing, I can curse you, I can make
|this our last, our last—”
|Van, whose finger had been gliding endlessly to and fro along
|the mute but soothingly smooth edge of the mahogany desk,
|now heard with horror the sob that shook Demon’s entire
|frame, and then saw a deluge of tears flowing down those
|hollow tanned cheeks. In an amateur parody, at Van’s birthday
|party fifteen years ago, his father had made himself up as
|Boris Godunov and shed strange, frightening, jet-black tears be-
|fore rolling down the steps of a burlesque throne in death’s total
|surrender to gravity. Did those dark streaks, in the present show,
|come from his blackening his orbits, eyelashes, eyelids, eye-
|brows? The funest gamester... the pale fatal girl, in another
|well-known melodrama.... In this one. Van gave him a clean
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|handkerchief to replace the soiled rag. His own marble calm
|did not surprise Van. The ridicule of a good cry with Father
|adequately clogged the usual ducts of emotion.
|Demon regained his composure (if not his young looks) and
|“I believe in you and your common sense. You must not
|allow an old debaucher to disown an only son. If you love her,
|you wish her to be happy, and she will not be as happy as she
|could be once you gave her up. You may go. Tell her to come
|here on your way down.”
|Down. My first is a vehicle that twists dead daisies around its
|spokes; my second is Oldmanhattan slang for “money”; and
|my whole makes a hole.
|As he traversed the second-floor landing, he saw, through the
|archway of two rooms, Ada in her black dress standing, with
|her back to him, at the oval window in the boudoir. He told a
|footman to convey her father’s message to her and passed al-
|most at a run through the familiar echoes of the stone-flagged
|My second is also the meeting place of two steep slopes.
|Right-hand lower drawer of my practically unused new desk—
|which is quite as big as Dad’s, with Sig’s compliments.
|He judged it would take him as much time to find a taxi at
|this hour of the day as to walk, with his ordinary swift swing,
|the ten blocks to Alex Avenue. He was coatless, tieless, hatless;
|a strong sharp wind dimmed his sight with salty frost and
|played Medusaean havoc with his black locks. Upon letting
|himself in for the last time into his idiotically cheerful apart-
|ment, he forthwith sat down at that really magnificent desk
|and wrote the following note:
|Do what he tells you. His logic sounds preposterous,
|prepsupposing [sic] a vague kind of “Victorian” era, as
|they have on Terra according to “my mad” [?], but in a
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|paroxysm of [illegible] I suddenly realized he was right.
|Yes, right, here and there, not neither here, nor there,
|as most things are. You see, girl, how it is and must be. In
|the last window we shared we both saw a man painting
|[us?] but your second-floor level of vision probably
|prevented your seeing that he wore what looked like a
|butcher’s apron, badly smeared. Good-bye, girl.
|Van sealed the letter, found his Thunderbolt pistol in the
|place he had visualized, introduced one cartridge into the maga-
|zine and translated it into its chamber. Then, standing before
|a closet mirror, he put the automatic to his head, at the point
|of the pterion, and pressed the comfortably concaved trigger.
|Nothing happened—or perhaps everything happened, and his
|destiny simply forked at that instant, as it probably does some-
|times at night, especially in a strange bed, at stages of great
|happiness or great desolation, when we happen to die in our
|sleep, but continue our normal existence, with no perceptible
|break in the faked serialization, on the following, neatly pre-
|pared morning, with a spurious past discreetly but firmly at-
|tached behind. Anyway, what he held in his right hand was no
|longer a pistol but a pocket comb which he passed through his
|hair at the temples. It was to gray by the time that Ada, then in
|her thirties, said, when they spoke of their voluntary separation:
|“I would have killed myself too, had I found Rose wailing
|over your corpse. ‘Secondes pensées sont les bonnes,’ as your
|other, white, bonne used to say in her pretty patois. As to the
|apron, you are quite right. And what you did not make out was
|that the artist had about finished a large picture of your meek
|little palazzo standing between its two giant guards. Perhaps for
|the cover of a magazine, which rejected that picture. But, you
|know, there’s one thing I regret,” she added: “Your use of an
|alpenstock to release a brute’s fury—not yours, not my Van’s.
|I should never have told you about the Ladore policeman. You
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|should never have taken him into your confidence, never con-
|nived with him to burn those files—and most of Kalugano’s
|pine forest. Eto unizitel’no (it is humiliating).”
|“Amends have been made,” replied fat Van with a fat man’s
|chuckle. “I’m keeping Kim safe and snug in a nice Home for
|Disabled Professional People, where he gets from me loads of
|nicely brailled books on new processes in chromophotography.”
|There are other possible forkings and continuations that occur
|to the dream-mind, but these will do.
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