Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 16 (view annotations)
16

Their first free and frantic caresses had been preceded by a brief
period of strange craftiness, of cringing stealth. The masked
offender was Van, but her passive acceptance of the poor boy's
behavior seemed tacitly to acknowledge its disreputable and even
97.05 monstrous nature. A few weeks later both were to regard that
phase of his courtship with amused condescension; at the time,
however, its implicit cowardice puzzled her and distressed him—
mainly because he was keenly conscious of her being puzzled.
Although Van had never had the occasion to witness any-
97.10 thing close to virginal revolt on the part of Ada—not an easily
frightened or overfastidious little girl ("Je raffole de tout ce qui
rampe"), he could rely on two or three dreadful dreams to
imagine her, in real, or at least responsible, life, recoiling with
a wild look as she left his lust in the lurch to summon her
97.15 governess or mother, or a gigantic footman (not existing in the
house but killable in the dream—punchable with sharp-ringed
knuckles, puncturable like a bladder of blood), after which he
knew he would be expelled from Ardis
(In Ada's hand: I vehemently object to that "not overfastidi-

[ 97 ]

ous." It is unfair in fact, and fuzzy in fancy. Van's marginal
note: Sorry, puss; that must stay.)
—but even if he were to will himself to mock that image so
as to blast it out of all consciousness, he could not feel proud of
98.05 his conduct: in those actual undercover dealings of his with
Ada, by doing what he did and the way he did it, with that un-
published relish, he seemed to himself to be either taking advan-
tage of her innocence or else inducing her to conceal from him,
the concealer, her awareness of what he concealed.
98.10 After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips
and her softer skin had been established—high up in that dap-
pled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping—
nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another.
Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a
98.15 blind spot; we touch in silhouette. Henceforth, at certain mo-
ments of their otherwise indolent days, in certain recurrent
circumstances of controlled madness, a secret sign was erected,
a veil drawn between him and her
(Ada: They are now practically extinct at Ardis. Van: Who?
98.20 Oh, I see.)
—not to be removed until he got rid of what the necessity of
dissimulation kept degrading to the level of a wretched itch.
(Och, Van!)
He could not say afterwards, when discussing with her that
98.25 rather pathetic nastiness, whether he really feared that his
avournine (as Blanche was to refer later, in her bastard French,
to Ada) might react with an outburst of real or well-feigned
resentment to a stark display of desire, or whether a glum, cun-
ning approach was dictated to him by considerations of pity and
98.30 decency toward a chaste child, whose charm was too compelling
not to be tasted in secret and too sacred to be openly violated;
but something went wrong—that much was clear. The vague
commonplaces of vague modesty so dreadfully in vogue eighty
years ago, the unsufferable banalities of shy wooing buried in

[ 98 ]

old romances as arch as Arcady, those moods, those modes,
lurked no doubt behind the hush of his ambuscades, and that of
her toleration. No record has remained of the exact summer day
when his wary and elaborate coddlings began; but simulta-
99.05 neously with her sensing that at certain moments he stood in-
decently close behind her, with his burning breath and gliding
lips, she was aware that those silent, exotic approximations must
have started long ago in some indefinite and infinite past, and
could no longer be stopped by her, without her acknowledging
99.10 a tacit acceptance of their routine repetition in that past.
On those relentlessly hot July afternoons, Ada liked to sit on
a cool piano stool of ivoried wood at a white-oilcloth'd table
in the sunny music room, her favorite botanical atlas open before
her, and copy out in color on creamy paper some singular
99.15 flower. She might choose, for instance, an insect-mimicking
orchid which she would proceed to enlarge with remarkable
skill. Or else she combined one species with another (unrecorded
but possible), introducing odd little changes and twists that
seemed almost morbid in so young a girl so nakedly dressed. The
99.20 long beam slanting in from the french window glowed in the
faceted tumbler, in the tinted water, and on the tin of the paint-
box—and while she delicately painted an eyespot or the lobes of
a lip, rapturous concentration caused the tip of her tongue to
curl at the corner of her mouth, and as the sun looked on, the
99.25 fantastic, black-blue-brown-haired child seemed in her turn to
mimic the mirror-of-Venus blossom. Her flimsy, loose frock
happened to be so deeply cut out behind that whenever she con-
caved her back while moving her prominent scapulae to and
fro and tilting her head—as with air-poised brush she surveyed
99.30 her damp achievement, or with the outside of her left wrist
wiped a strand of hair off her temple—Van, who had drawn up
to her seat as close as he dared, could see down her sleek ensellure
as far as her coccyx and inhale the warmth of her entire body.
His heart thumping, one miserable hand deep in his trouser

[ 99 ]

pocket—where he kept a purse with half a dozen ten-dollar gold
pieces to disguise his state—he bent over her, as she bent over
her work. Very lightly he let his parched lips travel down her
warm hair and hot nape. It was the sweetest, the strongest, the
100.05 most mysterious sensation that the boy had ever experienced;
nothing in his sordid venery of the past winter could duplicate
that downy tenderness, that despair of desire. He would have
lingered forever on the little middle knob of rounded delight on
the back of her neck, had she kept it inclined forever—and had
100.10 the unfortunate fellow been able to endure much longer the
ecstasy of its touch under his wax-still mouth without rubbing
against her with mad abandon. The vivid crimsoning of an ex-
posed ear and the gradual torpor invading her paintbrush were
the only signs—fearful signs—of her feeling the increased pres-
100.15 sure of his caress. Silently he would slink away to his room, lock
the door, grasp a towel, uncover himself, and call forth the
image he had just left behind, an image still as safe and bright
as a hand-cupped flame—carried into the dark, only to be got
rid of there with savage zeal; after which, drained for a while
100.20 with shaky loins and weak calves, Van would return to the
purity of the sun-suffused room where a little girl, now glisten-
ing with sweat, was still painting her flower: the marvelous
flower that simulated a bright moth that in turn simulated a
scarab.
100.25 If the relief, any relief, of a lad's ardor had been Van's sole
concern; if, in other words, no love had been involved, our
young friend might have put up—for one casual summer—with
the nastiness and ambiguity of his behavior. But since Van loved
Ada, that complicated release could not be an end in itself; or,
100.30 rather, it was only a dead end, because unshared; because hor-
ribly hidden; because not liable to melt into any subsequent
phase of incomparably greater rapture which, like a misty sum-
mit beyond the fierce mountain pass, promised to be the true
pinnacle of his perilous relationship with Ada. During that mid-

[ 100 ]

summer week or fortnight, notwithstanding those daily butter-
fly kisses on that hair, on that neck, Van felt even farther re-
moved from her than he had been on the eve of the day when
his mouth had accidentally come into contact with an inch of
101.05 her skin hardly perceived by him sensually in the maze of the
shattal tree.
But nature is motion and growth. One afternoon he came up
behind her in the music room more noiselessly than ever before
because he happened to be barefooted—and, turning her head,
101.10 little Ada shut her eyes and pressed her lips to his in a fresh-
rose kiss that entranced and baffled Van.
"Now run along," she said, "quick, quick, I'm busy," and as
he lagged like an idiot, she anointed his flushed forehead with
her paintbrush in the semblance of an ancient Estotian "sign of
101.15 the cross." "I have to finish this," she added, pointing with her
violet-purple-soaked thin brush at a blend of Ophrys scolopax
and Ophrys veenae, "and in a minute we must dress up be-
cause Marina wants Kim to take our pictureholding hands
and grinning" (grinning, and then turning back to her hideous
101.20 flower).


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