Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 18 (view annotations)

Not only in ear-trumpet age—in what Van called their dot-dot-
dotage—but even more so in their adolescence (summer, 1888),
did they seek a scholarly excitement in establishing the past
evolution (summer, 1884) of their love, the initial stages of its
109.05 revelations, the freak discrepancies in gappy chronographies.
She had kept only a few—mainly botanical and entomological
—pages of her diary, because on rereading it she had found its
tone false and finical; he had destroyed his entirely because of
its clumsy schoolboyish style combined with heedless, and false,
109.10 cynicism. Thus they had to rely on oral tradition, on the mutual
correction of common memories. "And do you remember, a
tï pomnish', et te souviens-tu" (invariably with that implied
codetta of "and," introducing the bead to be threaded in the
torn necklace) became with them, in their intense talks, the
109.15 standard device for beginning every other sentence. Calendar
dates were debated, sequences sifted and shifted, sentimental
notes compared, hesitations and resolutions passionately ana-
lyzed. If their recollections now and then did not tally, this was
often owing to sexual differences rather than to individual
109.20 temperament. Both were diverted by life's young fumblings,
both saddened by the wisdom of time. Ada tended to see those

[ 109 ]

initial stages as an extremely gradual and diffuse growth, pos-
sibly unnatural, probably unique, but wholly delightful in its
smooth unfolding which precluded any brutish impulses or
shocks of shame. Van's memory could not help picking out
110.05 specific episodes branded forever with abrupt and poignant,
and sometimes regrettable, physical thrills. She had the impres-
sion that the insatiable delectations she arrived at, without hav-
ing expected or summoned them, were experienced by Van
only by the time she attained them: that is, after weeks of
110.10 cumulative caresses; her first physiological reactions to them
she demurely dismissed as related to childish practices which
she had indulged in before and which had little to do with the
glory and tang of individual happiness. Van, on the contrary
not only could tabulate every informal spasm he had hidden
110.15 from her before they became lovers, but stressed philosophic
and moral distinctions between the shattering force of self-
abuse and the overwhelming softness of avowed and shared
When we remember our former selves, there is always that
110.20 little figure with its long shadow stopping like an uncertain
belated visitor on a lighted threshold at the far end of an im-
peccably narrowing corridor. Ada saw herself there as a
wonder-eyed waif with a bedraggled nosegay; Van saw him-
self as a nasty young satyr with clumsy hooves and an ambigu-
110.25 ous flue pipe. "But I was only twelve," Ada would cry when
some indelicate detail was brought up. "I was in my fifteenth
year," sadly said Van.
And did the young lady recall, he asked, producing meta-
phorically some notes from his pocket, the very first time she
110.30 guessed that her shy young "cousin" (their official relationship)
was physically excited in her presence, though decently swathed
in layers of linen and wool and not in contact with the young
She said, frankly no, she did not—indeed, could not—because

[ 110 ]

at eleven, despite trying numberless times to unlock with every
key in the house the cabinet in which Walter Daniel Veen kept
"Jap. & Ind. erot. prints" as seen distinctly labeled through the
glazed door (the key to which Van found for her in a twinkle
111.05 —taped to the back of the pediment), she had still been rather
hazy about the way human beings mated. She was very ob-
servant, of course, and had closely examined various insects in
copula, but at the period discussed clear examples of mam-
malian maleness had rarely come to her notice and had remained
111.10 unconnected with any idea or possibility of sexual function
(such as for example the time she had contemplated the soft-
looking beige beak of the Negro janitor's boy who sometimes
urinated in the girls' water closet at her first school in 1883).
Two other phenomena that she had observed even earlier
111.15 proved ridiculously misleading. She must have been about nine
when that elderly gentleman, an eminent painter whom she
could not and would not name, came several times to dinner at
Ardis Hall. Her drawing teacher, Miss Wintergreen, respected
him greatly, though actually her natures mortes were considered
111.20 (in 1888 and again 1958) incomparably superior to the works
of the celebrated old rascal who drew his diminutive nudes in-
variably from behindfig-picking, peach-buttocked nymphets
straining upward, or else rock-climbing girl scouts in bursting
111.25 "I know exactly," interrupted Van angrily, "whom you
mean, and would like to place on record that even if his de-
licious talent is in disfavor today, Paul J. Gigment had every
right to paint schoolgirls and poolgirls from any side he pleased.
111.30 Every time (said unruffled Ada) Pig Pigment came, she
cowered when hearing him trudge and snort and pant upstairs,
ever nearer like the Marmoreal Guest, that immemorial ghost,
seeking her, crying for her in a thin, querulous voice not in
keeping with marble.

[ 111 ]

"Poor old chap," murmured Van.
His method of contact, she said, "puisqu'on aborde ce thème-
, and I'm certainly not making offensive comparisons," was
to insist, with maniacal force, that he help her reach for some-
112.05 thing—anything, a little gift he had brought, bonbons, or simply
some old toy that he'd picked up from the floor of the nursery
and hung up high on the wall, or a pink candle burning blue
that he commanded her to blowout on an arbre de Noël, and
despite her gentle protests he would raise the child by her
112.10 elbows, taking his time, pushing, grunting, saying: ah, how
heavy and pretty she was—this went on and on until the dinner
gong boomed or Nurse entered with a glass of fruit juice and
what a relief it was, for everybody concerned, when in the
course of that fraudulent ascension her poor little bottom made
112.15 it at last to the crackling snow of his shirtfront, and he dropped
her, and buttoned his dinner jacket. And she remembered—
"Stupidly exaggerated," commented Van. "Also, I suppose,
artificially recolored in the lamplight of later events as revealed
still later."
112.20 And she remembered blushing painfully when somebody said
poor Pig had a very sick mind and "a hardening of the artery,"
that is how she heard it, or perhaps "heartery"; but she also
knew, even then, that the artery could become awfully long,
for she had seen Drongo, a black horse, looking, she must con-
112.25 fess, most dejected and embarrassed by what was happening to
it right in the middle of a rough field with all the daisies watch-
ing. She thought, arch Ada said (how truthfully, was another
question), that a foal was dangling, with one black rubber leg
free, out of Drongo's belly because she did not understand that
112.30 Drongo was not a mare at all and had not got a pouch as the
kangaroo had in an illustration she worshipped, but then her
English nurse explained that Drongo was a very sick horse and
everything fell into place.
"Fine," said Van, "that's certainly fascinating; but I was

[ 112 ]

thinking of the first time you might have suspected I was also
a sick pig or horse. I am recalling," he continued, "the round
table in the round rosy glow and you kneeling next to me on
a chair. I was perched on the chair's swelling arm and you were
113.05 building a house of cards, and your every movement was magni-
fied, of course, as in a trance, dream-slow but also tremendously
vigilant, and I positively reveled in the girl odor of your bare
arm and in that of your hair which now is murdered by some
popular perfume. I date the event around June 10—a rainy
113.10 evening less than a week after my first arrival at Ardis."
"I remember the cards," she said, "and the light and the noise
of the rain, and your blue cashmere pullover—but nothing else,
nothing odd or improper, that came later. Besides, only in
French love stories les messieurs hument young ladies."
113.15 "Well, I did while you went on with your delicate work.
Tactile magic. Infinite patience. Fingertips stalking gravity.
Badly bitten nails, my sweet. Forgive these notes, I cannot really
express the discomfort of bulky, sticky desire. You see I was
hoping that when your castle toppled you would make a Rus-
113.20 sian splash gesture of surrender and sit down on my hand."
"It was not a castle. It was a Pompeian Villa with mosaics
and paintings inside, because I used only court cards from
Grandpa's old gambling packs. Did I sit down on your hot
hard hand?"
113.25 "On my open palm, darling. A pucker of paradise. You re-
mained still for a moment, fitting my cup. Then you rearranged
your limbs and reknelt."
"Quick, quick, quick, collecting the flat shining cards again
to build again, again slowly? We were abominably depraved,
113.30 weren't we?"
"All bright kids are depraved. I see you do recollect—"
"Not that particular occasion, but the apple tree, and when
you kissed my neck, et tout le reste. And then—zdravstvuyte:
apofeoz, the Night of the Burning Barn!"

[ 113 ]

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