|Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 27 (view annotations)
|"Marina gives me a glowing account of you and says uzhe
|chuvstvuetsya osen'. Which is very Russian. Your grandmother
|would repeat regularly that 'already-is-to-be-felt-autumn' re-
|mark every year, at the same time, even on the hottest day of
|the season at Villa Armina: Marina never realized it was an
|anagram of the sea, not of her. You look splendid, sïnok moy,
|but I can well imagine how fed up you must be with her two
|little girls, Therefore, I have a suggestion—"
|"Oh, I liked them enormously," purred Van. "Especially
|dear little Lucette."
|"My suggestion is, come with me to a cocktail party today.
|It is given by the excellent widow of an obscure Major de Prey
|—obscurely related to our late neighbor, a fine shot but the
|light was bad on the Common, and a meddlesome garbage col-
|lector hollered at the wrong moment. Well, that excellent and
|influential lady who wishes to help a friend of mine" (clearing
|his throat) "has, I'm told, a daughter of fifteen summers, called
|Cordula, who is sure to recompense you for playing Blindman's
|Buff all summer with the babes of Ardis Wood."
|"We played mostly Scrabble and Snap," said Van. "Is the
|needy friend also in my age group?"
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|"She's a budding Duse," replied Demon austerely, "and the
|party is strictly a 'prof push.' You'll stick to Cordula de Prey,
|I, to Cordelia O'Leary."
|"D'accord," said Van.
|Cordula's mother, an overripe, overdressed, overpraised com-
|edy actress, introduced Van to a Turkish acrobat with tawny
|hairs on his beautiful orang-utan hands and the fiery eyes of a
|charlatan—which he was not, being a great artist in his circular
|field. Van was so taken up by his talk, by the training tips he
|lavished on the eager boy, and by envy, ambition, respect and
|other youthful emotions, that he had little time for Cordula,
|round-faced, small, dumpy, in a turtle-neck sweater of dark-red
|wool, or even for the stunning young lady on whose bare back
|the paternal hand kept resting lightly as Demon steered her
|toward this or that useful guest. But that very same evening
|Van ran into Cordula in a bookshop and she said, "By the way,
|Van—I can call you that, can't I? Your cousin Ada is my school-
|mate. Oh, yes. Now, explain, please, what did you do to our
|difficult Ada? In her very first letter from Ardis, she positively
|gushed—our Ada gushed!—about how sweet, clever, unusual,
|"Silly girl. When was that?"
|"In June, I imagine. She wrote again later, but her reply—
|because I was quite jealous of you—really I was!—and had fired
|back lots of questions—well, her reply was evasive, and prac-
|tically void of Van."
|He looked her over more closely than he had done before.
|He had read somewhere (we might recall the precise title if
|we tried, not Tiltil, that's in Blue Beard . . .) that a man can
|recognize a Lesbian, young and alone (because a tailored old
|pair can fool no one), by a combination of three characteristics:
|slightly trembling hands, a cold-in-the-head voice, and that
|skidding-in-panic of the eyes if you happen to scan with obvi-
|ous appraisal such charms as the occasion might force her to
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|show (lovely shoulders, for instance). Nothing whatever of
|all that (yes—Mytilène, petite isle, by Louis Pierre) seemed to
|apply to Cordula, who wore a "garbotosh" (belted mackintosh)
|over her terribly unsmart turtle and held both hands deep in
|her pockets as she challenged his stare. Her bobbed hair was of
|a neutral shade between dry straw and damp. Her light blue
|iris could be matched by millions of similar eyes in pigment-
|poor families of French Estoty. Her mouth was doll-pretty
|when consciously closed in a mannered pout so as to bring out
|what portraitists call the two "sickle folds" which, at their best,
|are oblong dimples and, at their worst, the creases down the
|well-chilled cheeks of felt-booted apple-cart girls. When her
|lips parted, as they did now, they revealed braced teeth, which,
|however, she quickly remembered to shutter.
|"My cousin Ada," said Van, "is a little girl of eleven or
|twelve, and much too young to fall in love with anybody,
|except people in books. Yes, I too found her sweet. A trifle on
|the blue-stocking side, perhaps, and, at the same time, impudent
|and capricious—but, yes, sweet."
|"I wonder," murmured Cordula, with such a nice nuance of
|pensive tone that Van could not tell whether she meant to
|close the subject, or leave it ajar, or open a new one.
|"How could I get in touch with you?" he asked. "Would
|you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?"
|"I don't date hoodlums," she replied calmly, "but you can
|always 'contact' me through Ada. We are not in the same class,
|in more ways than one" (laughing); "she's a little genius, I'm a
|plain American ambivert, but we are enrolled in the same Ad-
|vanced French group, and the Advanced French group is as-
|signed the same dormitory so that a dozen blondes, three
|brunettes and one redhead, la Rousse, can whisper French in
|their sleep" (laughing alone).
|"What fun. Okay, thanks. The even number means bunks,
|I guess. Well, I'll be seeing you, as the hoods say."
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|In his next coded letter to Ada Van inquired if Cordula
|might not be the lezbianochka mentioned by Ada with such
|unnecessary guilt. I would as soon be jealous of your own little
|hand. Ada replied, "What rot, leave what's-her-name out of it";
|but even though Van did not yet know how fiercely untruthful
|Ada could be when shielding an accomplice, Van remained
|The rules of her school were old-fashioned and strict to the
|point of lunacy, but they reminded Marina nostalgically of the
|Russian Institute for Noble Maidens in Yukonsk (where she
|had kept breaking them with much more ease and success than
|Ada or Cordula or Grace could at Brownhill). Girls were al-
|lowed to see boys at hideous teas with pink cakes in the head-
|mistress's Reception Room three or four times per term, and
|any girl of twelve or thirteen could meet a gentleman's son
|in a certified milk-bar, just a few blocks away, every third
|Sunday, in the company of an older girl of irreproachable
|Van braced himself to see Ada thus, hoping to use his magic
|wand for transforming whatever young spinster came along
|into a spoon or a turnip. Those "dates" had to be approved by
|the victim's mother at least a fortnight in advance. Soft-toned
|Miss Cleft, the headmistress, rang up Marina who told her that
|Ada could not possibly need a chaperone to go out with a
|cousin who had been her sole companion on day-long rambles
|throughout the summer. "That's exactly it," Cleft rejoined,
|"two young ramblers are exceptionally prone to intertwine,
|and a thorn is always close to a bud."
|"But they are practically brother and sister," ejaculated Ma-
|rina, thinking as many stupid people do that "practically" works
|both ways—reducing the truth of a statement and making a
|truism sound like the truth. "Which only increases the peril,"
|said soft Cleft. "Anyway, I'll compromise, and tell dear Cordula
|de Prey to make a third: she admires Ivan and adores Ada—
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|consequently can only add zest to the zipper" (stale slang—
|stale even then).
|"Gracious, what figli-migli" (mimsey-fimsey), said Marina,
|after having hung up.
|In a dark mood, unwarned of what to expect (strategic fore-
|knowledge might have helped to face the ordeal), Van waited
|for Ada in the school lane, a dismal back alley with puddles
|reflecting a sullen sky and the fence of the hockey ground.
|A local high-school boy, "dressed to kill," stood near the gate,
|a little way off, a fellow waiter.
|Van was about to march back to the station when Ada ap-
|peared—with Cordula. La bonne surprise! Van greeted them
|with a show of horrible heartiness ("And how goes it with
|you, sweet cousin? Ah, Cordula! Who's the chaperone, you, or
|Miss Veen?"). The sweet cousin sported a shiny black rain-
|coat and a down-brimmed oilcloth hat as if somebody was to
|be salvaged from the perils of life or sea. A tiny round patch
|did not quite hide a pimple on one side of her chin. Her breath
|smelled of ether. Her mood was even blacker than his. He
|cheerily guessed it would rain. It did—hard. Cordula remarked
|that his trench coat was chic. She did not think it worth while
|to go back for umbrellas—their delicious goal was just round
|the corner. Van said corners were never round, a tolerable quip.
|Cordula laughed. Ada did not: there were no survivors, ap-
|The milk-bar proved to be so crowded that they decided to
|walk under The Arcades toward the railway station café. He
|knew (but could do nothing about it) that all night he would
|regret having deliberately overlooked the fact—the main, ag-
|onizing fact—that he had not seen his Ada for close to three
|months and that in her last note such passion had burned that
|the cryptogram's bubble had burst in her poor little message of
|promise and hope, baring a defiant, divine line of uncoded love.
|They were behaving now as if they had never met before, as
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|if this was but a blind date arranged by their chaperone. Strange,
|malevolent thoughts revolved in his mind. What exactly—not
|that it mattered but one's pride and curiosity were at stake—
|what exactly had they been up to, those two ill-groomed girls,
|last term, this term, last night, every night, in their pajama-tops,
|amid the murmurs and moans of their abnormal dormitory?
|Should he ask? Could he find the right words: not to hurt Ada,
|while making her bed-filly know he despised her for kindling
|a child, so dark-haired and pale, coal and coral, leggy and limp,
|whimpering at the melting peak? A moment ago when he had
|seen them advancing together, plain Ada, seasick but doing her
|duty, and Cordula, apple-cankered but brave, like two shackled
|prisoners being led into the conqueror's presence, Van had
|promised himself to revenge deceit by relating in polite but
|minute detail the latest homosexual or rather pseudo-homosexual
|row at his school (an upper-form boy, Cordula's cousin, had
|been caught with a lass disguised as a lad in the rooms of an
|eclectic prefect). He would watch the girls flinch, he would
|demand some story from them to match his. That urge had
|waned. He still hoped to get rid for a moment of dull Cordula
|and find something cruel to make dull Ada dissolve in bright
|tears. But that was prompted by his amour-propre, not by their
|sale amour. He would die with an old pun on his lips. And why
|"dirty"? Did he feel any Proustian pangs? None. On the con-
|trary: a private picture of their fondling each other kept prick-
|ing him with perverse gratification. Before his inner bloodshot
|eye Ada was duplicated and enriched, twinned by entwinement,
|giving what he gave, taking what he took: Corada, Adula. It
|struck him that the dumpy little Countess resembled his first
|whorelet, and that sharpened the itch.
|They talked about their studies and teachers, and Van said:
|"I would like your opinion, Ada, and yours, Cordula, on the
|following literary problem. Our professor of French literature
|maintains that there is a grave philosophical, and hence artistic,
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|flaw in the entire treatment of the Marcel and Albertine affair.
|It makes sense if the reader knows that the narrator is a pansy,
|and that the good fat cheeks of Albertine are the good fat but-
|tocks of Albert. It makes none if the reader cannot be supposed,
|and should not be required, to know anything about this or any
|other author's sexual habits in order to enjoy to the last drop a
|work of art. My teacher contends that if the reader knows
|nothing about Proust's perversion, the detailed description of a
|heterosexual male jealously watchful of a homosexual female is
|preposterous because a normal man would be only amused,
|tickled pink in fact, by his girl's frolics with a female partner.
|The professor concludes that a novel which can be appreciated
|only by quelque petite blanchisseuse who has examined the
|author's dirty linen is, artistically, a failure."
|"Ada, what on earth is he talking about? Some Italian film
|he has seen?"
|"Van," said Ada in a tired voice, "you do not realize that the
|Advanced French Group at my school has advanced no farther
|than to Racan and Racine."
|"Forget it," said Van.
|"But you've had too much Marcel," muttered Ada.
|The railway station had a semi-private tearoom supervised
|by the stationmaster's wife under the school's idiotic auspices.
|It was empty, save for a slender lady in black velvet, wearing a
|beautiful black velvet picture hat, who sat with her back to
|them at a "tonic bar" and never once turned her head, but the
|thought brushed him that she was a cocotte from Toulouse.
|Our damp trio found a nice corner table and with sighs of
|banal relief undid their raincoats. He hoped Ada would discard
|her heavy-seas hat but she did not, because she had cut her
|hair because of dreadful migraines, because she did not want
|him to see her in the rôle of a moribund Romeo.
|(On fait son grand Joyce after doing one's petit Proust. In
|Ada's lovely hand.)
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|(But read on; it is pure V.V. Note that lady! In Van's bed-
|As Ada reached for the cream, he caught and inspected her
|dead-shamming hand. We remember the Camberwell Beauty
|that lay tightly closed for an instant upon our palm, and sud-
|denly our hand was empty. He saw, with satisfaction, that
|her fingernails were now long and sharp.
|"Not too sharp, are they, my dear," he asked for the benefit
|of dura Cordula, who should have gone to the "powder room"
|—a forlorn hope.
|"Why, no," said Ada.
|"You don't," he went on, unable to stop, "you don't scratch
|little people when you stroke little people? Look at your little
|girl friend's hand" (taking it), "look at those dainty short nails
|(cold innocent, docile little paw!). She could not catch them
|in the fanciest satin, oh, no, could you, Ardula—I mean, Cor-
|Both girls giggled, and Cordula kissed Ada's cheek. Van
|hardly knew what reaction he had expected, but found that
|simple kiss disarming and disappointing. The sound of the rain
|was lost in a growing rumble of wheels. He glanced at his
|watch; glanced up at the clock on the wall. He said he was
|sorry—that was his train.
|"Not at all," wrote Ada (paraphrased here) in reply to his
|abject apologies, "we just thought you were drunk; but I'll
|never invite you to Brownhill again, my love."
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